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Westminster Hall

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2022

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 26 January 2022

[Peter Dowd in the Chair]

Automatic Pension Enrolment

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with the 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 lateral flow test before coming on to the parliamentary estate. Please 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 matter of automatic pension enrolment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. We are considering the matter of automatic pension enrolment, but let us not speak too loudly about it. For the past decade, this has been one of the most remarkable success stories, yet also somehow one of our best-kept secrets. It all began in 2005 with the pensions commission looking out on a bleak private pension market. It knew that we had to act to boost the number of savers and savings in the UK to give people greater security in their retirement. The commission formally proposed, as part of its work, that those over a certain age and income be automatically enrolled in a pension. The Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats all agreed, and after the Pensions Act 2008 was passed the coalition Government carried this through.

The results have been remarkable, transforming the UK pension landscape. For example, whereas the rate of workplace pension participation fell to 55% between 2009 and 2012, that rate is now a remarkable 88%. Today, more than 19 million eligible employees participate in a workplace pension and, together, save more than £100 billion in a single year. More than 10 million people are now saving or saving more, increasing pension savings by an incredible £17 billion. Two million fewer people are under-saving for their retirement than would otherwise have been the case. There has been a 50% increase in participation among the young, between the ages of 20 and 29. The greatest increases in pension participation by earnings have come from low to moderate earners. Let me put it simply. Savers are up. Savings are up. Men and women are participating equally. And the lowest earners have benefited the most.

That is perhaps a sign of what we can do when we work together but other, indirect benefits have been seen. For example, studies have shown that auto-enrolment has eliminated the mental health participation gap. Our fight against climate change has been bolstered: with savings volumes increased, UK pension funds now have more assets to invest in high-growth technology that is green or in renewable energy.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the opportunity to invest that money exists and could be pushed further, into local communities—particularly ones such as Sedgefield?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of Sedgefield. I am grateful for that intervention, and he is absolutely right. I have spoken before about the many ways in which we can use and mobilise private capital to pay for green technology and renewable energy, but decisions about where those infrastructure sites are have to be taken by local authorities wherever possible.

Today, though, the top point that I want to make in terms of all these benefits is that auto-enrolment has helped to bring about a cultural change in our society. When our economy does well, our savers do well. Automatic enrolment helps to democratise capital. It creates millions of new investors, millions of new capitalists. It is part of what, over many decades, people have called the property-owning democracy, ensuring that most of those who can vote have a stake in our economy. When they put an x in a box on a ballot paper, they have that in mind—they have skin in the game.

However, when a policy has such an impact and is so successful, it is right that we debate and discuss how we can build on that success. Many in this place have put forward suggestions—I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) for his excellent private Member’s Bill—the Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) Bill—and to the work that Onward, in particular, has done—so let me add my name to those calls. Of all the options the Minister has in front of him, expanding automatic enrolment to those aged 18 to 21 will have the most material impact for our country. Automatic enrolment should be extended as a priority to young workers, because for them the potential compound interest is greatest, the pressures of demographic change are most acute, the challenges of mental health and climate change are especially relevant and the need for greater financial inclusion is most pressing.

The challenge for this age group is stark. Only 18% of eligible 18 to 21-year-olds are currently enrolled in a workplace pension.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to ensure access to pensions for not just young people but those in multiple jobs who do not reach the £10,000 threshold in a particular occupation? In Sedgefield and the surrounding villages, there are many people in low-paid work who do multiple jobs to try to reach a certain earnings level.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. For the purposes of my remarks I want to focus on young people because, as I said, that will have the most material impact, but I know that others will speak about the points he raises.

Today, over four out of five 18 to 21-year-olds are missing out on the benefit of compound interest, despite belonging to the very group for whom the potential for exponentially increasing savings is the greatest.

I agree with the principle of extending automatic enrolment to young people, and I realise that the 2017 review of automatic enrolment recommended extending it to 18-year-olds. What does the hon. Gentleman think about the merits of extending it further, to 16-year-olds, who might well have left school and be in full-time work? If we are talking about the benefits of compound interest, an extra two years could make a huge difference.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point: the earlier one starts saving, the greater the impact of compound interest. However, for me, balancing all the factors—particularly the impact on businesses—I think we should start where we can, with 18 to 21-year-olds. But it is not the case that we should not discuss his point at a later stage.

Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in this situation, given the general lack of savings culture in this United Kingdom? We have a culture, developed over decades, of relying on quick cash, quick results and tangible output. Although many talk about the aspiration to own a home, few talk about securing their retirement through a pension. Auto-enrolment will help with this, but we must also look at other ways to ensure that the option of saving for the future is more apparent.

Preparing for today, I was shocked to find a study by the National Association of Pension Funds that found that just 12% of job adverts mention the employment pension scheme that is offered. That compares to 71% of ads that mention the salary—even though the pension contributions can amount to about a third of total take-home pay. We need to look at this more broadly.

There is so much potential for our pension system to effect change, whether addressing the need for long-term savings, as I have discussed today, the need to tackle the fact that 10 million people have less than £100 in short-term savings or the fact that so many young people today never even get close to building a deposit for their first home. I believe that our pension fund market could provide the answers to those challenges. As such, given that it is now nearly 17 years since the Turner commission, I would like us all to agree cross-party that whoever is in government in 2024, we will look to launch a new pension commission, looking specifically at the long-term challenges I have discussed and the opportunities the UK pension fund market can provide to citizens across this country.

It is always a pleasure to speak on these matters, and it was especially a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) set the scene so well. We are here to endorse his words, and we look to the Minister for a response on the issues that still concern us and on which we wish to see action taken. It is also a special pleasure to say that I am one of those who bought into a pension at an early age, and I want to emphasise the importance of pensions to young people who do not fully understand the necessity or the benefits of having one.

I am pleased to see the Scottish National party shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and the Labour shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), but I am especially pleased to see the Minister in his place. I had the opportunity to have him visit my constituency some two and a half years ago, before covid. That visit was to the local credit union. George Proctor was the manager, and the staff were there. We are very pleased to have them there. We were also very pleased to welcome the Minister, and we invite him to come back and get an update, if at all possible—if he has space in his diary.

It is an honour and a privilege to be able to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, who is a legend in this House for the fact that he intervenes every single night in the Adjournment debate. I well remember the trip in July 2018, I think it was, to Newtownards Credit Union. It is particularly memorable—colleagues will understand about ministerial visits—because when I arrived I was presented with a ginormous slice of home-made lemon drizzle cake, made by one of the team there. In my view, that is how all Ministers should be greeted.

I think I can say on behalf of Newtownards Credit Union that when the Minister does return, the slice of lemon drizzle cake will be even bigger than the last one he had. I will send today’s copy of Hansard to the staff and let them know what his expectations are. Joking aside, the Minister understands these issues and is always keen to address the concerns we have. Before we have any debates, he will always come and say to me personally, “Is there anything at all you want to bring forward today?” and then he tries to address those issues, which is something I especially appreciate. I wish all Ministers were the same, but I congratulate this Minister on doing that.

Provisions in the Pensions Act 2008 placed a responsibility on employers to automatically enrol job holders into, and contribute to, either a qualifying pension scheme or a new personal account scheme. Those duties apply to all businesses, regardless of size, which I for one welcome because it is the right thing to do. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford encapsulated the thoughts of us all about the growth of pension enrolment and how it benefits people. It is crucial that those eligible to put small amounts of money aside into a pension pot, whether they work in a small local café or in a large mechanical chain company, do their bit.

That legislation has reversed the decline in workplace saving. There has been a drastic increase in the total membership of defined contribution occupational schemes, from 2.1 million in 2011 to an outstanding 21 million in 2019—if that does not take Members’ breath away, I do not know what else would. I am of pension age, but at approximately the age of 20, I remember my mother saying to me, “Jim”— or James, as I am on my birth certificate—“we need to go and start a wee pension for you.” I said, “Oh, Mum, I’m too young to deal with that. I am not going to bother.” Mum insisted, and whenever your mother insists, you do not have any choice. We trotted down to the local place and I enrolled in a pension, some 45 years ago. At the time, I may not have understood that pension, but I understand the benefits of it today as it comes to its culmination.

So often, people find that they have been paying into a couple of pensions. Only a couple of years ago, I found out that I had being paying into four different pensions along the way. It is great way of saving. I may not have seen that at the time, but I see it now.

I am an accountant by trade. I contributed to a pension for a long time. My wife also contributed to a pension for a short number of years before we had our daughter. When I came to retire aged 56, just before I came to this place, we looked at the balance of the pensions and found she had made a disproportionate contribution in relation to the time that she had spent working, because it was right at the start. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that communicating with people about the importance of early and continuous contributions is vital? It is not just a triviality, as it is so important to the outcome at the end. Personally, I am benefiting massively from what happened at that early stage. I do not think we get the message out about how important this is for people. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that communications are important?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is right that it is best to make contributions from an early age. I can speak to that and the benefits of it. Even though I may not have understood that at that time, my mother was insistent, so I enrolled. Today, we see the benefits of all the things we did in the past.

To be eligible for a compulsory pension scheme in Northern Ireland, a worker must be at least 22, under state pension age and earning more than the minimum earnings threshold. I know some young people who have been paying into pension pots from as young as 18, but that is down the employer and employee discretion. I do not see a reason why young people who are in consistent work should not be contributing to their future, as referred to by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell).

As this subject is not taught in schools, young people feel unaware of the importance of taxes and pensions. I urge the respective Ministers to think about that in relation to schools. There may be a way of suggesting to young people at an earlier stage that they need to be making contributions, perhaps through an introduction provided while they are at school.

I find it difficult to believe that the hon. Gentleman started his pension contributions 45 years ago, as he cannot possibly be of that advanced age. He reminisced about how his parents drilled into him the importance of starting early. In his opinion, what has happened since those years? How did we go from the point of saying that it was a personal responsibility? How did we go from the point of our parents drilling into us the importance of saving for deposits for a house, as we heard earlier, and for retirement? Is the situation we have now on automatic enrolment satisfactory in terms of getting us back to where we were before?

I think the figure gain tells it as it is. We went from 2.1 million people to 21 million people; the increase was massive. People from my generation were very responsive to what our parents told us and we did what they suggested because they knew best. Today the companies are trying hard and encouraging people but, as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said in his introduction, education might be another way of helping us get even beyond where we need to be.

In February 2021, a report from the National Employment Savings Trust looked at the impact of the covid-19 outbreak on its 9.5 million members. It found no significant changes in average contribution levels; the majority had continued to save, with around one fifth contributing more than the minimum contribution rate. That tells us that the scheme is successful for some—potentially, everyone—and helps people to save. I find those figures reassuring and proof that this legislation is beneficial, which may answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts).

There is absolutely no doubt that this legislation has brought many benefits. Pensions help people maintain their standard of living in retirement, and savings provide important supplemental income for unforeseen expenses. Pensions are an economically efficient way to fund retirement, which means they are a prudent use of taxpayer money.

Others have expressed a few concerns about the lack of pension provision for the self-employed, and I have a question for the Minister. How and when should pension contribution rates increase above the 8% minimum? It is important that there is provision for the self-employed. There are 134,000 self-employed people in Northern Ireland. In Strangford, and perhaps in other constituencies as well, we have a tradition of many people being self-employed. I had a period of self-employment but continued to pay the pension contributions. That was probably when I increased the number of pension schemes I was in. Perhaps the Minister could indicate how we might encourage the self-employed to be involved. That is my question for the Minister, and I know I will get the response I wish for.

I want to conclude because I am conscious that others wish to speak. Automatic pension enrolment for workers makes sense and is a good deal. Pensions not only help the local economy but are a win-win situation for employers, employees and local business owners. The figures are astonishing: since 2012, more than 10.2 million workers have been automatically enrolled in pension schemes and that is on the increase.

The scheme is a success, and we thank the Government for their encouragement and promotion of it. I only suggest that it could be approached educationally at an earlier stage. I urge the Department for Work and Pensions to look at the issues others will raise on pension enrolment and to step in to solve them. None the less, I thank the Minister and Government for all they have done.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and to be called to speak in today’s debate, which has been so ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies). The debate raises an important issue and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing it. It follows on from the excellent ten-minute rule Bill recently introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden).

When auto-enrolment was introduced, I recall being fearful of the impact it might have on my business at the time, and of the costs that it would pass on to me as an employer, but auto-enrolment has proved to be a huge success, reversing the decline in workplace pension saving and ensuring that millions more people are now saving for their future. I saw at first hand the benefits that the scheme has had on the lives and futures of my employees. Employees who would never have considered being part of a pension scheme were put in a position where it became a simple and easy process. For the first time, they were ensuring that they did not fall into the trap of under-saving for retirement, encouraging self-reliance and responsibility.

There are still huge numbers of hard-working people who are not auto-enrolled in pension schemes, with many excluded on the basis of youth or purely because they are not working enough hours or earning enough. For those under the age of 22, the numbers are woefully low. Among those in part-time employment, although some will earn more than the £10,000 threshold, the numbers auto-enrolled are still significantly lower than among those who are in full-time employment.

The minimum age of 22 simply does not work for those who choose not to go to university. Why should someone who chooses to start working at 18 not pay into a pension from that age, in the same way as someone who is 22 does? They would have so much to gain from auto-enrolment being extended to them; we have already heard about the magic of compound interest.

The current system also disproportionately affects women and the poorest in our society, who are more likely to be in part-time work and have multiple part-time jobs, like many in my constituency of Darlington. Although Darlington has 1,820 employers, with 26,000 employees auto-enrolled, I am encouraged that the proposed extension advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford would add almost 900,000 extra savers across the country. Those workers are often employed in industries, such as hospitality or retail, that have faced huge difficulties during the pandemic, but are in many cases the backbone of our workforce. It is only right that we do all we can to ensure that they do not miss out on future financial security; that is levelling up.

Extending auto-enrolment could add trillions to the nation’s pension pot. It is a chance to ensure that people start to save for their future while they are young. It also allows us to ensure that the poorest in society have a more secure future and takes steps towards closing the gap between men’s and women’s pension savings.

In 2019, I stood on a manifesto to level up communities across the United Kingdom and the extension of auto-enrolment is a policy that has the potential to have a really positive impact on people’s futures. It would be a commitment to level up for the long term.

As we contemplate how auto-enrolment can help us deliver on our levelling-up agenda, we must not forget the role of pension companies and the positive impact that these changes could have on their work. Auto-enrolment increases the resources available to them and provides a steady, long-term stream of capital for investment across the UK—investment that can be directed to the communities that are home to those who currently miss out on auto-enrolment, letting them see the benefits of their own savings.

I know that the extension of auto-enrolment would have huge benefits for many people in Darlington and across the country, so I hope that the Government will give this policy real consideration, as we continue to build back better from the pandemic and level up our country.

For the benefit of Members, if you do wish to speak—notwithstanding that you have asked to speak—would you rise? Thank you.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) for getting us all up so early—9.30 am on a Wednesday—to talk about our favourite subject, which is clearly auto-enrolment.

I will start by being very rude and saying that we often see private Members’ Bills introduced that are nothing more than political graffiti. However, the one recently introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on this issue is far from that, and we should give a great deal of consideration to how it fits with this debate. People might expect me to say that, because I am an old bean-counter. Before I came into this place I was a former finance director, and I remember with utter dread the systems and processes that we had to implement to deal with auto-enrolment.

Although most people tend to glaze over when we talk about pensions—present company excepted, obviously—this idea is really sound. That is because, let us face it, we are living in an ageing population all of the time, and in any person’s view the need to save for our retirement is extremely important; and the crux of the matter is that the sooner someone does it and has the opportunity to do it—two important parts of what we are discussing today—the better for society. After all, many people will have in their pension savings the highest asset that they will ever hold.

The other reason that this debate is so important to me is because I am going to do something that not many MPs do in this place—admit how wrong I have been about things. Yes, I will now say that I made a mistake. That is because I remember the days when auto-enrolment first came in—my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford makes me feel very old, because 2005 feels like a very long time ago—and I remember that at the time I thought, “What a waste of time auto-enrolment is.” I bemoaned how much it would cost us as a company, and the meaningful contributions that people would make were so small when auto-enrolment first started that it was a total nuisance to administer and I wondered whether it would really make much of a difference, precisely because people’s contributions were so low. In addition, I expected that people would simply opt out—that there would be a knock on the door three months later and someone would ask, “Duncan, can you please take us out of this scheme?” But people did not, and that is because the Government got it right. They made those initial contributions so low that people got used to it.

So, on those two counts, I got it completely wrong. That is why I back what my hon. Friends the Members for Grantham and Stamford and for North West Durham are proposing, because with nearly 90% of people now participating in a workplace pension, old cynics like me have been proved totally wrong. The fact that we now have 10 million workers in an auto-enrolment scheme in this country is a testament to how extremely good auto-enrolment has been. It has created momentum—momentum for people to take responsibility and save for their retirement.

My constituency of North Norfolk is very beautiful, but we have a disproportionate number of lower earners. It is a coastal community; hospitality and retail are very important, and therefore form a chunk of lower earners. Why are we not making it easier for everybody to contribute, to allow younger people—that rump of my workforce—to have that chance earlier? All the statistics show that they will reap the benefits of getting started on that ladder earlier. It is a very simple proposal, but it has far-reaching consequences. If it opens up more people to take that responsibility, to be able to earn for their retirement, I think it is extremely worth considering and I am very happy to back it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) for bringing this very important debate to Westminster Hall this morning. I am not declaring an interest but, like other hon. Members present, I was involved in the financial world in a previous life, having worked for 25 years in the financial services industry. I have also been a trustee of several charitable investment portfolios, and served as a member of the pensions and investment committee on Powys County Council during my time in local government.

I fully support the point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Grantham and Stamford and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) that the issue of auto-enrolment is not only about benefiting employers and employees, but about the huge amount of capital that builds up in those funds and the constructive way that it can be invested for social and environmental good, and for the general improvement of the economy.

Much mention has been made of the statistics showing the remarkable transformation of the pensions industry since the introduction of auto-enrolment, so I will not go on at length about them. However, I would like to pull out one or two contrasting statistics. We have heard that nearly 90% of employees are now workplace pension members, compared with only 50% in 2012 before auto-enrolment was introduced. Auto-enrolment has resulted in a significant increase in pension membership, particularly of defined contribution schemes—another very important aspect. The statistics carry on; they are extremely impressive. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has alluded to that, so I will leave it there.

The introduction of auto-enrolment has been what I would consider to be a quiet revolution. It has helped to normalise pension saving in my constituency of Clwyd South and elsewhere in the UK, increasing the proportion of people who see pension saving as a good thing and who say they know where to go if they want more information.

That is another vital aspect of auto-enrolment: it is about not only the amount of money and the level of take-up, but a cultural change that has huge benefits for the country in the long term. A recent British social attitudes survey found that 79%—a majority—of individuals interviewed viewed automatic enrolment as a good thing for them, 77% agreed that saving into a workplace pension was normal for them, and 75% knew where to go to find out more about workplace pensions. That reinforces my point about the cultural change that is so vital in this process.

Another point that is vital to draw out in this debate is that the latest data suggests that auto-enrolment has reduced some of the regional disparities in workplace pension participation. Figures from 2020 show that rates of employee workplace pension participation are fairly consistent across the UK, with little geographic variation. Regional data prior to auto-enrolment is not available, but the continued roll-out of auto-enrolment over the last five years has been accompanied by increased rates of participation by private sector employees in regions other than London and the south-east, which is hugely important to many hon. Members who represent seats far away from the south-east of England.

Another important point emerged from the 2020 study by Karen Arulsamy and Liam Delaney, “The Impact of Automatic Enrolment on the Mental Health Gap in Pension Participation: Evidence from the UK”. It showed that, particularly for people who are not particularly experienced in financial matters, auto-enrolment has completely removed the mental health gap in pension participation.

Finally, the private Member’s Bill introduced my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) is absolutely vital, particularly for my constituency of Clwyd South, where auto-enrolment figures are good but could be higher. There are 1,040 employers involved in auto-enrolment and 3,000 job holders. That is, in a sense, connected to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), because my constituency has a real mix of different employment patterns. Like his constituency, tourism and hospitality are important parts of the employment make-up of Clwyd South. There are many young workers and people working part time who fit their jobs around their families and other considerations.

I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham will be speaking later, but I want to quote one thing that he said:

“three quarters of those aged 22-plus are auto-enrolled into pension schemes, but under the age of 22 it is only 20%...of people in work, not students. That is a big difference, and the difference that auto-enrolment has made since 2012. For part-time workers, while some will earn more than the £10,000 threshold, auto-enrolment is 57.8% compared with almost 90%”

—as has been established earlier—

“of workers in full-time jobs. If we assume a similar take-up, the Bill could see an extra 30% of the part-time workforce auto-enrolled”.

The other point he makes, which again goes back to a point I made earlier, is that an

“extra £2.77 trillion…would be invested in our pensions for the lower-paid and younger workers”.—[Official Report, 5 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 81.]

It benefits not only them and their families, but the general economy.

In conclusion, I am delighted that we are discussing this important issue. As I said, it is a quiet revolution that brings hope and comfort to many families, particularly among those who are not particularly experienced in financial matters, and adds greatly to the prosperity and health of the economy of the United Kingdom.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I give credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) for securing the debate and, indeed, to the Minister; it is always a pleasure to see him responding to a debate. He must get tired of hearing from everyone, every time we have a pensions debate, “Auto-enrolment has been wonderful and the things the Government are doing are outstanding, but we could always do more.” We are always asking for more. That is the way of things, and I think he has come to appreciate that over time.

As everybody else has done, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) and his private Member’s Bill. When I read back through the Bill last night, I saw that it contained many of the things I wanted to cover, so I shall be very brief, which will please everybody no end. I will just mention three points that I hope the Minister can cover later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) mentioned excluded people. Someone earning £9,000 in each of two different jobs would not be enrolled despite having £18,000-worth of income, which would otherwise clearly qualify. Like those of my hon. Friends the Members for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), my constituency is very rural, and we have lots of people in those circumstances. Something as simple as taking away the £10,000 qualifying point would be a real benefit to those people.

On the under-22s, I was a financial and pensions adviser for a decade and a half, and one of the key things that we always said—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned it earlier—was, “Start as early as you can.” An extra five years will add in the region of 26% to 30% to the end value of a pension pot. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) used the golden words “compound interest”. Those extra years at the start make such a huge difference at the end.

That is particularly relevant in my own situation. My daughter is 17 years old. She has decided that university is not for her and has gone into full-time work, but she is not being auto-enrolled. Of course, she can opt to be enrolled when she gets to 18, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk mentioned, it is easier when it is done for us; it is harder to opt out than to opt in to something. I completely appreciate that.

My second point is on qualifying earnings. People may well be under the illusion that if they are earning £30,000 a year, they are contributing 8% of £30,000. Sadly, that is not the case. The lower earnings limit, which is £6,240, is taken off before that 8% is calculated, so someone earning £30,000 grand is only paying 8% of £23,760. Getting rid of the lower earnings limit and making pension contributions start from zero would add another 26% to the final value of someone’s pension pot by the time they come to retirement. Just those two changes—making auto-enrolment available to under-22s and making it count for all earnings—would add 29% and 26% to the final value of a pot. That is a huge amount and would make a huge difference.

My final point, which is very simple, is about complacency risk. We hear that auto-enrolment has been transformative—my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford used that word, and we have all heard the statistics—but has it? Eight per cent. is not enough. Even if it was 8% of all earnings, it would not be enough. My cousin is a financial adviser over in America. I talked to him over many years about how I did my processes and worked out how much people should save, with the calculations and the risk levels and all the interesting bits that go into forming a conclusion. He said, “I don’t do any of that. I just tell people, ‘Just do 20% and you’ll be fine.’” He advises people of relatively high net worth, and 20% is a relative amount to different people, but 8% just will not do it.

We have this complacency: because the Government have mandated 8%, people think, “Well, that must be okay, then; that must be what I need to do to get a good standard of living in retirement.” Somebody earning £30,000 per year, leaving out the earnings that do not qualify, will be contributing £1,900 per year over 35 years. Assuming 4% growth, they will have amassed a pot of about £140,000 after 35 years. That does not sound a terrible amount, but when we adjust it for inflation, in today’s prices, that is a pot of about £86,000. That will not buy a lot in retirement.

This is where the two things that I mentioned earlier will come in. If we added 29% and 26% to that pot, while it would still not be a massive amount, or enough to get people to where they need to be, it would certainly be something. As was mentioned earlier—I spoke about personal responsibility—people need to go and see a financial adviser and take the guidance that is available from the Money and Pensions Service.

What we are doing is not enough. People must wake up and open their eyes; what we are doing is great, but we could absolutely be doing more. There are a couple of ways we could do more. Back when we had defined-benefit pensions, the employer would pay about £3 for every £1 that the employee paid. That was unaffordable, and it was the main reason that most defined-benefit pensions were closed down. Under the defined-contribution schemes that existed before auto-enrolment, employers paid about £2 for every £1 that employees paid. Now, that figure is 60p or 70p. Although I talk about personal responsibility, there is a lot more scope for employers to do more, as they used to.

Another potential option would be to roll the principle of auto-enrolment forward into other savings options. Why can we not have an auto-enrolment individual savings account? Why can we not do what my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford said about saving for a house deposit? Why can we not use the same principle in other arenas? Why can we not make pensions a bit more flexible, as they are in the United States, where the 401(k) product can be utilised in a lot more ways a lot sooner? That could provide the deposit for a house or be used at other crucial times in life. There are lots of things we could do.

I have offered a bit of a sandwich, with a nice opening and a nice ending, and bit of a demand in the middle. We are doing wonderful things and they have been successful—everybody says so. We can do more and we probably should, and I think the Minister knows that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) for securing this debate. I have been trying to secure one for a couple of months, but he seems to have managed to pip me to the post.

I thank so many hon. Members for mentioning my ten-minute rule Bill to look at extending auto-enrolment. Everyone who has spoken has pointed to the success of auto-enrolment. It has been a cross-party success, as my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) said. It is slightly sad that there are not more Scottish National party or Labour Back Benchers here to welcome that success and talk about the future, but this is something we can proceed with on the basis of those on all sides of the House coming to an agreement.

The main point, which has been made by many Members, is that an extra 10 million people are now looking to save. The reason they are saving is that for every 50p they put in, they get £1 in their pension pot, because they get the tax relief plus the employer’s contribution. That is seen as a simple and straightforward thing. For every £4 an employee puts in, their employer puts in £3 and they get £1 in tax relief. That is a simple, straightforward way of explaining it to people. It is important for us to have this debate and to look at the success and the future of auto-enrolment.

Many hon. Members made the broader point that we want people saving for themselves, their families and their futures. This is a small “c” conservative principle that cuts across working class communities across the country, including mine in North West Durham. It provides a really important stake in society when people save into a pension over time and see that money invested in UK companies, as well as in companies across the world—although my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington made the important point that if we are looking to expand auto-enrolment, we need to enable people to see the benefits of those savings in their communities.

I therefore hope that the Government will look at ways to ensure that that patient capital can be invested more in things such as social housing projects and transport infrastructure schemes. I do think it is time to expand. I could understand why, in the past, employers were concerned about auto-enrolment, but it is great to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington, who ran his own business, that he has seen those concerns alleviated by the impact that it has had on his employees.

Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) may know, Luke 15:7 states that

“there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine…persons who need no repentance.”

I am glad to see my hon. Friend on board and helping to drive the agenda; as he mentioned, it is so important for those lower-paid part-time workers in his constituency and mine. I will come to that in a moment.

There are two groups that future changes could really affect. One, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford said, is that younger age group. It is unbelievable to me that someone of my age—any person in this room, in fact—will benefit from the employer contribution and tax relief, but someone aged 18, 19 or 20 will not. That seems demonstrably unfair, and it is something that we really need to get a grip on. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, compound interest created by saving early makes a real difference in retirement.

Reflecting on what my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) said, the statistics from before and after auto-enrolment kicks in are stark. Before it kicks in, a fifth of people are enrolled; after it kicks in, 17 out of 20 are enrolled. That is a massive change. We need to bring those figures into line, particularly for people who do not go on to university but choose a different path. As my hon. Friend also mentioned, that is a very important factor in the regional disparity of where people pursue their careers. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) also made a very good point: how can it be right that those earning £50,000 or £80,000 per year get the tax relief and employer contribution, but others—particularly part-time workers—do not?

I mentioned some examples when I introduced my private Member’s Bill in the House. Women are particularly disadvantaged. Part-time workers often juggle multiple jobs around childcare or other caring responsibilities; it seems to me totally unfair that someone doing two part-time jobs that are above the threshold just does not get the tax relief and employer contribution. If we could reduce the age of auto-enrolment to 18, we would be looking £25,000 in younger workers’ pension pots. That is not going to be transformative in and of itself, but taken together, the changes will be transformative. Getting young people auto-enrolled early is crucial to allowing them to see their savings start to build early, and that is what we need to see.

In addition to what hon. Members have already said, I say to the Minister that we need to see an age reduction, we need the qualifying earnings amount to be reduced, and we need the threshold for earnings to be lowered too.

I thank my hon. Friend for his speech. I was ill when he introduced his ten-minute rule Bill, but I read his speech in Hansard. He will understand that Ministers are not able to respond to a ten-minute rule Bill in the normal course of events. Cleary, he is in the process of drafting his grave and weighty Bill, but am I led to believe that the intention is not to introduce the extension until the mid-2020s, which was the original intention of the December 2017 automatic enrolment review?

Yes, it is. I think that it needs to be introduced in a phased way, exactly for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk and others have mentioned. We need to phase it in over time so that employers can be ready for the increased cost, but also so that we do not burden young employees very quickly with an enormous extra cost.

Phasing in the extension is exactly the right thing to do; that is how auto-enrolment has been such a success so far. If we had hit people by taking a large chunk of their income at one point, people would have withdrawn and auto-enrolment would not have been the success that it is. Instead, we are seeing take-up rates for full-time workers of nearly 90% now. The phased approach is so crucial. I would like to see it on that sort of timetable—phased in throughout the mid-2020s. That is where we need to be to ensure that as many people as possible take it up and can save for the long term.

We have come such a long way over the last few years. We saw the proportion of people saving for their pensions drop to around 45% before auto-enrolment was introduced. It had been between 55% and 45% for the previous 20 years or so. We have seen the proportion rise rapidly due to auto-enrolment; it is now well above 70%. If we can include part-time workers as well, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk alluded to, we could see the proportion reach 80% or 90%, which is exactly what we want. Some 6,000 employees in North West Durham are already auto-enrolled, with 1,500 employers. We need to see more people auto-enrolled to save for their retirement.

Overall, extending auto-enrolment is probably the strongest levelling-up measure that we could deliver. I want people across the country who work and play their part in our society to see the same response from the Government, with support to pay into their pensions, and support in their old age and retirement.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. Like everybody else, I congratulate the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) on securing the debate. There have been a number of Tory Back-Bench contributions; I was worried that I would end up agreeing with all of them, but I have managed to find a couple of aspects to disagree with—I am pleased about that.

I agree completely that auto-enrolment has been a success. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford set out well its history and success. I agree, too, with the principle of creating larger pots for investment in infrastructure. That is an age-old argument, but we never seem to get there; I agree that that needs to change. I am slightly concerned about the talk about pension savings funding housing deposits. I know that people want access to the housing market. However, I worry that, depending on how deposits are funded, that will not take the heat out of the housing market, but will actually increase it, because more people will be chasing a smaller pot of houses. We need more affordable houses as much as new ways to get people deposits.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford made the interesting point that only 12% of job adverts advertise pension contributions. If we are talking about advice and people understanding the benefits of pension contributions, we need to look at that. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who would have been surprised to have been called so early, further set out the success of the scheme, and talked about his personal experience and, importantly, education—that is clearly important for everybody. It was brave of the Minister, in the current climate, to intervene on the hon. Member for Strangford to talk about cake—fair play.

We heard from the hon. Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker). It was very good to hear the employer’s and the director’s points of view. Both Members admitted that they had concerns, but they were pleased to see how successful automatic enrolment is. It is good to have that buy-in.

The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) spoke about access to advice; I will come back to that, because I agree with him on that point. The hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) made a good point about complacency. We need to make sure that people understand that they might need to increase their contributions and pay more. That is very important, and it links to the point about getting proper advice.

Finally, we heard from the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden). I, too, congratulate him on his efforts in bringing forward his private Member’s Bill. He set out his stall really well on that day, as he did, briefly, today. His key point—that for every 50p somebody contributes, they get £1 in their pension pot—sums it up perfectly; it is a great illustration.

As we have heard, auto-enrolment has clearly been a good thing, and a success in getting way more people to save for their retirement. In fact, it has been so successful that we have to ask why it took so long to bring in such a scheme. The Association of British Insurers states that automatic enrolment has brought a further 10 million people into pension saving. As we have heard, 88% of eligible employees participated in their workplace pension in 2020, which is up from 55% in 2012. That is a fantastic step forward.

However, there are concerns that an estimated 12 million people are still under-saving for retirement, and that needs to be addressed. Given what we have heard today about the success of auto-enrolment, and given that the Government think it is important that people save for retirement and believe that auto-enrolment is a success, the Government should logically ensure that as many people as possible are eligible. That means implementing the recommendations of the 2017 review as soon as possible. During the passage of the Pension Schemes Bill, Labour and the SNP worked together to introduce amendments that would do that, so it was disappointing that the Government voted those down. The Minister did commit to implementing the recommendations of the 2017 review by the mid-2020s, but rejecting the amendments does not give confidence.

We know how unstable UK Governments have been in recent years, and now the Leader of the House is threatening us with another general election, so it seems to me—without being too flippant—that there is a risk, if action is not taken sooner rather than later to get legislation through the House, that matters could slip further. As I said, the hon. Member for North West Durham has his private Member’s Bill, which we would support. I am still concerned, though, that we are looking at the mid-2020s. If we agree that this change is so good, we need to look at bringing it forward and getting things moving much quicker.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about bringing forward measures, but if we make these changes, is it not really important to give businesses enough lead-in time to plan properly and budget for them, rather than springing a significant change on businesses?

There is a point there, but we have heard from an employer and a finance director that their concerns were allayed once the scheme came in, so I think that there will be fewer concerns as we go forward. Speaking of giving employers notice, we need only think about national insurance contributions. That rise was introduced in a short space of time, so we should not be too concerned about how we phase this in. If we do not do it, more people will lose out, which defeats the purpose.

Everybody here agrees that we should lower the age threshold for auto-enrolment to below the age of 22. I have said that I would rather have 16 than 18 as the threshold. I would be content with a two-stage process on that; we could review the situation with regard to 18 to 21-year-olds, just to see how successful it was, and to check that they were not opting out, but in the long term we definitely need to move to 16-year-olds, who could be in full-time employment. We also need to look at removing the lower limit of the qualifying earnings band, so that contributions are payable from the first pound earned. As we have heard, its removal would benefit the low-income workers who otherwise would have little prospect of a decent private pension.

To repeat what other hon. Members have said, the issue is particularly acute for women, who are more likely to be lower paid, in part-time work and doing multiple jobs. We have a massive gender pensions gap. In a recent report, the Pensions Policy Institute found the following:

“Men have substantially more private pension wealth than women, with disparities increasing across age groups. For those aged 65-69, median pension wealth for men is just over £212,000 compared to just £35,000 for women…Divorced women’s pensions are much lower than divorced men’s.”

The Association of British Insurers states that the average pension pot for a woman aged 65 is one fifth of that of a 65-year-old man. Women receive £29,000 less in state pension than men over 20 years. The deficit is set to continue unless further action is taken. We also need to look at expanding the contribution rates beyond the 8% statutory minimum, to allow people to maximise their pot. That builds on what the hon. Member for Delyn was saying.

As I have said, further delays are unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will say that the UK Government will set a clear timetable for their plans for expanding automatic enrolment. Morally, they should do that, given that they have made other decisions that are affecting pensioners both in the here and now and in the long term. We have a cost-of-living crisis, and I note that Tory Back Benchers are now using it as a defence for keeping the Prime Minister in his place, even though the cost-of-living crisis happened on his watch. They are arguing that there is a cost-of-living crisis that warrants our attention, but they still voted through the removal of the triple lock in the November Budget, costing pensioners more than £500 this year alone and a cumulative £2,600 over the next five years. That cut comes despite the fact that UK pensions are already the least generous in north-west Europe in comparison with the average wage.

We have just had the report on the shocking state pension underpayments, and there are comments that the system for state pensions is not fit for purpose. We have seen 118,000 people underpaid as regards benefits. We still have the injustice faced by the WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—and there are very low take-up rates for pension credit, which the UK Government acknowledge is an issue, but have not remedied.

The SNP continues to demand that the UK Government introduce a proper take-up strategy for pension credit, as the Scottish Government have done for devolved benefits. We continue to call on the UK Government to establish an independent savings and pension commission to ensure that pension policies are fit for purpose and reflect the demographic needs of different parts of the UK.

Another aspect of auto-enrolment that needs to be addressed relates to the self-employed. We have heard about the massive increase in employees in defined contribution schemes, but the trajectory for the self-employed has been the polar opposite—for them, the numbers have gone down: 48% of the self-employed contributed to a private pension in 1998, but the figure went down to only 16% in 2018.

Another key point is about professional advice. It makes no sense for people to save for retirement, or for support for when they are older, but to remain at risk when accessing their pension pots. That important matter was covered by the Work and Pensions Committee in its report “Protecting pension savers”, published last week. I support the calls for the Government to set a goal of ensuring that at least 60% of people use the Government’s Pension Wise guidance service or receive paid-for advice. That is a key consideration.

Pension Wise has proven to be a success. We need to make sure that more people access it. There should be a trial of automatic Pension Wise appointments, in order to encourage more people to access advice that will benefit them. The UK Government should initiate two trials: one in which people automatically get an appointment when they access their pension for the first time, and another in which they get an appointment at age 50, before they access their pensions—a mid-life MOT, as it has been called.

Auto-enrolment has been a good measure, but it needs further action to make it even better, so that it can benefit millions more people. Action to implement the 2017 recommendations should be a priority. I hope the Minister will agree, and will say that they will bring legislation forward at the soonest opportunity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank all colleagues for taking part in today’s debate. We have had a rounded discussion of this important issue, and it has been heartening to see so much engagement from Members across the House.

As I know colleagues appreciate, pensions are a very long-term policy area. The decisions we make today have profound effects over many years. Encouraging sustainable and sensible saving now makes for much better retirement in the future. It is therefore right that we actively explore ways to help those who could benefit from further opportunities to auto-enrol in pensions. We must work with businesses to understand their needs, and to build a system that is fair and sustainable for all. We should be ambitious and responsible at the same time, particularly in the years following the covid crisis.

Auto-enrolment has proven to be one of the most positive developments in recent memory for savers, and for securing people’s long-term prosperity. It has been transformative in encouraging millions of people to save earlier in their careers. That will dramatically improve outcomes later in life, as hon. Members have mentioned.

I remind the House that it was the Labour Government in 2008 who first introduced legislation on auto-enrolment—a contribution of which my party should be very proud. However, the measures have cross-party support, and I pay tribute to colleagues from across the House who mentioned that. It is important that we work together, and that we remember the contribution made by those in the other place, who also recognised the policy’s potential and helped develop it before it came into practice. More than a decade since its inception, it is natural that we look again at auto-enrolment.

In conversations with the pensions industry, I have heard experts call for us to consider lowering the qualifying earnings threshold and the minimum age requirement. The People’s Pension, for example, endorsed those proposals. It argues that millions of new savers would be created, many of whom would be women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds. The Association of British Insurers found that employees would be able to save an additional £2.6 billion a year if the earnings trigger was scrapped.

There is justification, as well as a desire in the sector, for policy makers to look at all available options. That is especially true in the light of the Government’s commitments in 2017 to reviewing the situation, and to getting workers to save early by considering removing the lower earnings limit and reducing the age threshold for automatic enrolment to 18 by the mid-2020s, as we have heard reiterated today. The deadline is approaching fast, so I ask the Minister to clarify what stage the Government have reached in their consideration.

I also ask the Minister to set out the work his Department has done to understand the wider implications of last year’s decision to freeze the earnings trigger and only modestly increase the upper limit of the qualifying earnings band. Understanding those consequences is important for tackling inequality and helping more workers to get into the habit of saving, as has been mentioned. Studies have shown that only 37% of female workers and 28% of black and ethnic minority workers are eligible for the scheme. Finally, I reiterate the importance of this debate, and thank colleagues from across the House for taking part. I hope the Minister will respond to the points made.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. It is genuinely hard for me to disagree with anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), who is an esteemed member of the Treasury Committee, put forward in his outstanding speech. I thank him for bringing this matter forward for debate. Contrary to popular opinion, I am always keen to debate all matters pension. I have done this job for about 1,680 days and continue to make the case for the change that we are driving forward.

I will address in more detail the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), my constituency neighbour, who is a vast improvement on his predecessor. He helpfully enlightened us with the fact that St Luke is the patron saint of pensions, which I did not know. I will return to his ten-minute rule Bill and private Member’s Bill in due course.

I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). It is a bit like taking an SNP horse to water and trying to make it drink; his speech started so well, with the statement that, by and large, he could not disagree with anything that had been said, but that sentiment disappeared in general criticism of the Government. He will know that the state pension is up by more than 5% in 2021-22. He will know that pension credit take-up is increasing. He will know that winter fuel payments and cold weather payments are well in excess of £2 billion. He will know that there are free eye tests worth £900 million and free bus passes of £1 billion. I could go on to address various other points he raised, but I want to focus primarily on the automatic enrolment issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford.

I am slightly concerned that the story of today’s debate may be, “Minister admits that in 2018 he, too, was ambushed by a cake—a lemon drizzle cake—while on a ministerial trip to Newtownards, Northern Ireland”. There are many points that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made that I want to address. It was an honour and privilege to visit his local credit union. I would love to take him up on his kind offer and return to Northern Ireland. Because of covid, so much has happened as regards ministerial visits and progress on so many things. Our country has acquired approximately £400 billion on the nation’s credit card, and there are difficult fiscal choices to make, which have clearly impacted the roll-out of many economic and fiscal policies. Certainly, in 2022, provided I continue to hold this job that I enjoy, I hope to make the case across Northern Ireland. I have not visited Derry/Londonderry; the credit union there is one of the most successful in the UK and it would be a great pleasure to visit it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned consolidation and said that he had four pensions. It is right to celebrate and laud the fact that probably the second biggest project that the Department for Work and Pensions is rolling out is the pensions dashboard. Auto-enrolment is the first, and I will come to that in more detail. The pensions dashboard will be transformational: he will be able to see his four pensions on his mobile phone, laptop or iPad. Just as people have a savings app or banking app, we will be able to take the tens of thousands of pensions out there, access that information and understand what an individual has. Crucially, so many colleagues raised the issue of awareness, and the dashboard is the key to understanding that.

There are other things that we are doing, and I could talk in detail about our plans—which will come forward this October—for what are called simpler statements, which basically amend the traditional, very complex pension statements that very few people understand, save for independent financial advisers, which some colleagues present have worked as in the past. The man or woman in the street simply does not understand those statements in sufficient detail, so we are putting them into a two-page form that tells people what they have and gives them proper information; it will do what it says on the tin. We in the DWP and, to be fair, people across industry believe strongly that that is the right way forward, in order to enlighten members, so that they have a better understanding of what they have.

The dashboard will come forward in 2023 and simpler statements will come forward in October 2022. There is much that we could say on the issue of financial education. It is a credit to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities that he introduced financial education in secondary schools, but we need to do more to enhance awareness about all matters of finance—that does not need to be pensions: it is about all matters relating to money and the usage of money—in primary schools, and to encourage wider understanding of that among our children through their education. I would certainly support that.

The hon. Member for Strangford raised the issue of the self-employed, as did other Members. I will make a couple of points on that issue. The first is that there are already plenty of self-employed people who can perfectly properly sign up to a private pension. I am an example. I was a self-employed jockey—I was not very good at all and did not make much money—and then I was a self-employed barrister and helped to run a charity before coming to this place. However, it is much more complicated for those people, because they do not have any of the benefits of automatic enrolment.

There is a way forward, and we are working on a trial with HMRC to explore the opportunities presented through Making Tax Digital. There is a clear solution for how to change the tax system, on which we are working with HMRC and the Money and Pensions Service. It will almost certainly be a drop-down box with an automatic deduction, which will allow people to do what they can presently do on their manual tax return, and it will make self-employed automatic enrolment much easier. It is a work in progress. Today is Australia Day; it is appropriate that we laud the fact that Australia has showed us the way on so much of automatic enrolment. Certainly, the Australians have addressed the question of how to enhance self-employed take-up of automatic enrolment in a variety of ways, and I am looking at that closely through the HMRC trial. I hope to update the House and parliamentary colleagues on that point in the very near future.

Several colleagues raised the point about 8% plus, which I will come to in a second. Let me first deal with the issue of the 2017 automatic enrolment review, which is also largely the subject matter of the work in progress that is my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham’s ten-minute rule Bill. The simple truth is that when I acquired this job, back in the dim mists of time in June 2017, I was given two primary responsibilities by the late, lamented David Gauke, who was the Secretary of State. The first was, “Get us to 8%”—bear in mind that automatic enrolment was not even at 5% at that stage. It is a massive triumph for this country, the employers, the employees—who quite clearly have not opted out—and government on a cross-party basis that we have got to 8%. The world has not come to an end and drop-out rates are really low, so without a shadow of a doubt, that is a massive success story. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) is totally right that more needs to be done, and I am going to address that point in a second.

The second thing that happened, pretty much as I arrived in the DWP as Minister, was that I received a copy of the 2017 review in the autumn of that year. We took the decision that we would support it without a shadow of a doubt. It was an independent review; we did not have to support it, and Governments often do not support them. However, we then made the decision that the measures should be introduced on a phased basis.

Clearly, events have got in the way—the past four or five years have been somewhat complicated—but the practical truth is that the Government have an unquestioned commitment to bring forward the 2017 review measures: the lower earnings limit and the 22 to 18 threshold. The way in which we do that and the phasing of it is still a matter of ongoing debate within Government.

People above my pay grade have to make decisions on that—it is dependent on other pieces of legislation and other considerations. Clearly, a consultation would have to take place, but in broad terms the timetable would involve primary legislation to introduce the primary measures and enabling powers, secondary legislation and a consultation to follow, and timings thereafter. Certainly, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham was seeking confirmation that the measures would be introduced in a phased approach after the next election, in the mid-2020s, and I hope that is helpful for his understanding.

It is not for me to decide what is in Her Majesty the Queen’s speech, either this year or next, but clearly there are a variety of ways in which we can progress such legislation. First, there is a private Member’s Bill. That is not impossible, but it is be complicated for Government business for primary legislation on a large matter, particularly given the timings of this Session. I welcome my hon. Friend’s ten-minute rule Bill, but it comes very late in this Session. Obviously, there will be future private Members’ Bills.

Secondly, we are clearly looking to bid for a third or fourth Session pensions Bill that can take these matters forward as normal Government business. My intention is to bring forward the legislation, subject to all the usual provisos about being a Minister with larger collective responsibility.

In addition to this debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), and my ten-minute rule Bill, what more could we do to support the Minister in his bids to drive forward this very sensible agenda in Government?

The fact that there is cross-party support is relevant because, quite rightly—but sometimes wrongly—Oppositions oppose many pieces of legislation. Clearly, this legislation has the support of all political parties. I cannot speak for the one Member of the Green party, but I know that the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties support the legislation. That is very relevant and needs to be shouted from the rooftops.

This matter has an impact, particularly on low earners, in every single constituency in the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham said in his eloquent speech, such measures would be a really good example of levelling up in low-earning communities. Clearly, people above my pay grade—whether the Chancellor, Prime Minister or others—will decide what goes into the Queen’s Speech this coming May, and I wish them all good fortune with that. Some of the clarifications that my hon. Friend made will help, as will the way in which he is trying to bring legislation forward. Airing the matter in the House helps, confirming to all parties that such measures have cross-party support. So much pension policy is so long-term that the impact of pulling a lever is not felt until three to five years later, so it makes a massive difference to have cross-party support.

I will touch briefly on a couple of other points. With regard to longer-term plans to go higher than 8%, I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn that 8% is not enough. Again, subject to the ability to travel in future, I hope to engage with American colleagues to look at their 401(k) and the way they deal with it. Subject to the ability to take those things forward, the next goal after the 2017 review is clearly a discussion and a debate on how much above 8% is enough.

I am wearing my Australia Day tie, which was given to me when I and my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) triumphantly crushed the Australians in the parliamentary cricket match a few years back. The Australians have got to 12% and are doing so much, particularly in utilising the defined contribution and automatic enrolment to do the things that my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) mentioned —namely, safely investing those savings in local communities so that individual savers can say, “That is what is happening in my area.”

I can give examples. I have set up two banks, as colleagues will be aware: Atom bank, which I was a founder member of, and the Northumberland Community Bank. Another good example is the Cambridge and Counties Bank, which utilises the pension reserve to loan on asset-backed lending to assist with investment in the Cambridge local area. There are other examples—the Sparkassen in Germany do this all the time—of only lending to local communities in that way. Such examples will proliferate, which is a good thing, because this comes to awareness. Members are then aware of what their savings are invested in and are so much more engaged, and that can apply across the country.

I accept that we need to do more on awareness. The Money and Pensions Service is clearly doing great work, and I support totally what Pension Geeks is doing with Pension Awareness Day, and what Scottish Widows is doing with its pension awareness road trip. The reason I am a supporter of the statements season is that I do not think that pensions awareness or engagement is good enough, quite frankly. We have to have a product or process whereby people are engaged, much as we do in tax or educational results, so that they understand better what they have got at a time when they can really get engaged. Obviously there is a working group on statements season, and it is a matter of discussion with the industry, but we have to do more to create greater engagement.

In my last minute or so I want to try to address some of the final points. Clearly, consolidation is a matter that we are working on, and I can happily give colleagues more on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford raised two final points about the nature of savings and what we are saving for. The traditional product has clearly been a pension, but our parents and grandparents would all have had much greater awareness of rainy day savings. We should unquestionably laud and support all the companies that are already running a 1% savings club or working with credit unions and other organisations to ensure that our employers and constituents have the capacity for rainy day money. If that was a problem pre covid, it is a particular problem post covid. There is also a wider policy issue about how we enable products to be developed to ensure that people are saving for deposits, although that is about the wider culture of saving in the longer term.

To finish, I thank the 10 colleagues who came along this morning to make the case for pensions savings and the many who support this policy and are driving it forward. Certainly, we can find very little in my hon. Friend’s speech to disagree with. I thank all colleagues for coming along and making the case and for supporting our reforms. I accept that there is more to be done, but this Government are utterly committed to ensuring that that happens.

I pay tribute to the Minister, who is one of the longest-serving Pensions Ministers we have had in this country. As somebody who came from the fund management industry to this place, he is respected not just in this House but in the industry, too. I also thank all hon. Friends and hon. Members for their contributions. We heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the importance of getting in early and financial literacy. We heard informed speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), giving the perspective from business. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) about the benefits of increasing the size of the pensions pot for social and environmental investment.

Of course, let me congratulate once again my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on his excellent private Member’s Bill. He is enjoying a tremendous amount of support today. I maintain that we should focus on 18 to 21-year-olds. If nothing else, we should take away from today the fact that our pensions system has a great deal of power in what it can bring to our communities. Let it be said that this should not be a hidden secret any more. The power of compounding and savings benefits everybody, and people should start as early as possible.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of automatic pension enrolment.

Vehicle Ownership: Fatal Accidents and Rural Crime

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current guidance from the Government and the House of Commons Commission. I remind hon. Members that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. 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 fatal accidents, rural crime and the adequacy of vehicle ownership restrictions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I pay tribute to the family of Andrew Rowlands, one of my constituents who died in 2020. His parents, Karen and John, are here today. I have met them before, as well as their daughter, Becca. Andrew was killed in a car crash in June 2020. The car he was travelling in was bought not long before for £100. It had no valid MOT and was described by the judge at the time as a wreck. The driver of that vehicle had no driving licence—they had not even had a driving lesson—yet they had still been able to buy the vehicle. They were jailed in June 2021. Later that year, I met John in my constituency surgery.

My request of the Minister today is to look at one simple change to the law. If a person wants to buy a car, they should have to have a driving licence. That means a simple change to the V5 form. At the moment, filling in the date of birth and the details of the driving licence of the person purchasing the car is voluntary. All we want is for that to be made mandatory. That would prevent people without driving licences being able to buy cars.

To buy a shotgun or rifle, the buyer must provide a licence and be over the age of 18. To buy an alcoholic drink, lottery scratchcard or lottery ticket, the buyer must provide ID. To scrap a car, a person must provide ID and have a UK bank account, yet to buy a car—even a totally unroadworthy one, such as the one driven on the day Andrew was killed—a buyer does not have to do those things. It is taken on trust, on the V5 form, that the buyer is a suitable person and able to own a vehicle.

In the modern day, it is totally unacceptable for somebody without a driving licence—without even having had a driving lesson—to own a car, and there are three reasons for that. The first, obviously, is the death of one of my constituents. We do not want to see more young people being killed because other people can buy totally unroadworthy vehicles and use them on a public highway.

Secondly, it has broader implications. Since I met John in my constituency office, I have been talking more broadly to Durham police and the rural community to find out what other impacts such a change could have. For example, Durham police are very concerned about so-called community vehicles. Basically, what happens is that I buy a car off anybody, but I do not provide my address or details, because I can sort of fill it in. There is no requirement to check a driving licence and no requirement to put down a date of birth—it is just an option. Those vehicles are then used in county lines drug trafficking; they are used to move people around the country. They are often parked up somewhere slightly out of sight, and they are easy to use. There is a real crime angle there for towns and cities.

Thirdly, I have spoken to local farmers, and there is a real rural crime angle as well. Since I was elected, I have lost count of the number of farmers who have got in touch about people trespassing on their land. This is not trespassing in the form of a poacher with a couple of pheasants under their jacket, like something from the 1940s. This is people driving through farm gates, smashing up land, destroying crops, worrying livestock and allowing animals out on to the roads.

I applaud my hon. Friend for bringing forward this debate on this important issue and for highlighting the tragic case in his constituency. Does he agree that the rural crime he talks about is part of a bigger picture that people in rural communities face? It could be vehicle crime, property damage, fly-tipping, poaching, farm machinery theft or animal theft—they are all part of a bigger picture that our rural communities have to suffer. It is great that Cumbria police and Durham police are working hard to support communities, but these crimes have a major impact on the mental health of people in rural communities.

They do have a big impact on people in rural communities, particularly on their mental health, because of the isolation element of living in a rural area. My hon. Friend makes a broader point about the use of such vehicles for other crimes. The police have told me in conversations that if people are involved in what some might consider low-level crimes, such as lamping or poaching, they are usually involved in other crimes as well. It is a major issue that they are able to move around almost at will by using vehicles that nobody can trace. That is exactly the issue that I am trying to point to.

Some of the farmers I recently met over in Satley in my constituency face these issues on a regular basis—so regular that they have set up their own local WhatsApp group. Fences have been driven through, causing thousands of pounds of damage for the farmers, but even if they spot the vehicle and get the number plate, it is impossible to trace the ownership because the vehicles have basically disappeared into the system.

In Stanhope and all the way up in rural Weardale, farmers have faced similar issues. It was at one of my first constituency surgeries after being elected, in Stanhope town hall, that this issue of rural crime and untraceable vehicles was brought to me. More recently, down in Muggleswick, during the pandemic, when people were meant to be staying at home, there were people driving such vehicles—totally untraceable—to do drug deals in rural areas. People phone the police to say, “We have the number plates”—people have done the right thing on their farms and rural homes and put up CCTV—but that is totally useless if the ownership of the vehicle cannot be traced.

This proposed change would mean the traceability of vehicle ownership, and it would therefore prevent people being able to use such vehicles to commit rural crime. Thirdly, it would stop people without driving licences from using such vehicles.

We have seen the impact of changes to the scrappage scheme. We used to hear all the time about people nicking bits of railway and trains having to be stopped. We used to hear about people dying in substations when they were trying to nick expensive metals. We used to hear regularly about lead being stripped from church roofs. All of that ended with a simple change in the law that meant someone had to provide ID and bank account details if they were selling scrap metal—a really simple change. All I seek is a similar change for people when they are selling cars.

I am not asking the Minister today for an immediate yes or no to a piece of legislation; I am asking to meet her in order to talk in more detail and find a suitable legislative vehicle for addressing this issue. I cannot see why the Government would not want to push forward with this, because it would tackle rural crime and the criminal exploitation of young people in our towns and cities, and it has the ability to stop more tragic deaths, like that of Andrew, from happening in the future. It is a sensible change that I cannot see the Opposition opposing. Will the Minister today commit to meeting me to talk about this further, to see what we can do to make this very sensible change, which will save lives?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) for opening the debate and for his continued championing of rural issues. I also thank my neighbour in Cumbria, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson). As the Member of Parliament for Copeland, in Cumbria, I truly live, breathe and understand the challenges of rurality, rural crime and, particularly, rural roads. I commend the work that has been done by Andrew’s parents, John and Karen Rowlands, who are here today.

As the mother of four daughters aged 18, 19, 21 and 23, who are all on the road, I worry every time they go out on our rural roads, as every parent does. We recognise that in rural areas a driving licence is all too often a passport to adulthood. It is a necessity in order to be able to access college, training, apprenticeships, work and social life, but rural roads have disproportionately more collisions. It is a priority for the Department for Transport to reduce that as far as possible, and we continue to work towards that every day, across the Department.

Today’s debate is primarily about vehicle ownership and fatal collisions, but my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham also raised a number of questions about rural crime, which I will pick up with colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and at the Home Office. His overwhelming request was for a meeting with me to discuss the issue in more detail, which I am very able and willing to have, in short order.

I start by expressing my sincere condolences to Andrew’s family, to John and Karen and to his sister, Becca. I reassure right hon. and hon. Members that the Government take road safety and deaths occurring on the road incredibly seriously.

It is true that a driving licence is not needed to purchase a vehicle. To make it a requirement of a purchaser to show a valid driving licence would, in our view, be impracticable in many vehicle purchasing transactions. However, I say that with the caveat that I am very willing to meet my hon. Friend to discuss ways in which this could assist or may be possible. Examples of such transactions include fleets purchased by companies to be sold on or leased, companies that acquire vehicles for the use of employees and those for whom a licence is not required, as their vehicles are only driven on private land, not to mention the many private vehicle sales that occur every day, in which it would be difficult, if not near impossible, to verify the authenticity of a driving licence.

Instead, the responsibility lies with the buyer of a vehicle to ensure that they behave within the law and only drive it if they are legally able to do so, as well as ensuring that the vehicle is roadworthy and has a valid MOT certificate. It is of course unfortunate that some individuals choose not to obey these laws, endangering themselves and others on the road or in the vehicle. In some cases, that has very tragic consequences, as we have heard this morning.

I heard what the Minister said about the practical difficulties of authenticating a driver’s licence at the point of sale. When she meets the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), I wonder whether she might consider another way of doing things. If it is too difficult to authenticate a driver’s licence at the point of sale, perhaps a driving licence would have to be presented when a vehicle goes for an MOT, for example. That is another way of ensuring that whoever is using a vehicle and is responsible for it has, as the hon. Gentleman so eloquently said, the skills and the responsibilities to do so safely.

The hon. Member makes a valid point. Although I am not the Minister with responsibility for roads—that is Baroness Vere of Norbiton—I will discuss exactly that point with her. I know that there have been significant improvements in the way that police and the Motor Insurers’ Bureau are able to check, for example, on motorists’ insurance, using technology, software and interoperable connectivity to improve safety and check the eligibility of people to be behind the wheel on UK roads. I thank the hon. Member for his intervention.

Any death or serious injury on our roads is, of course, unacceptable. My deepest condolences go to the victims of road collisions and their families, and I pay particular tribute to John and Karen for their work to raise awareness of the importance of young drivers in particular, and all they do to support our THINK! campaign, as well as generally improving awareness of the dangers of driving and the responsibility involved in being behind a wheel.

The Government take uninsured driving very seriously. Driving without insurance is, of course, a criminal offence. Since 2005, the police have had the power to seize vehicles driven by someone without insurance. By 2020, 2 million vehicles had been seized in Great Britain and the level of uninsured driving has dropped by 50% over the last 10 years.

I appreciate that the Government are considering ways to try to tackle issues such as driving without insurance. However, should there not be a change to ensure that we know who owns a vehicle, which would make it even easier to prosecute people for crimes such as driving without insurance? If we do not know who owns a vehicle, it is very difficult to bring a prosecution against somebody for driving without insurance.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is all part of the conversation that he and I will have when we meet. Over the next week, I will look at arranging that meeting, which will happen certainly by the end of this month. I am very happy to involve officials in that meeting as well, so that we get the full breadth of the Department for Transport’s understanding of all the issues pertaining to his request.

Under continuous insurance enforcement, or CIE, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency works with the MIB to identify those who are driving without insurance, enabling enforcement action to be taken.

I turn to driving on private land. I know that is a burden to so many farmers and landowners across Cumbria, and indeed in all rural areas. For some landowners, it is a real problem that they face all too often, so I will continue to engage with colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to find solutions to it, and I understand that concerns have been raised about it today.

Vehicles that are driven illegally on private land may be seized, of course, by a police officer. However, any change in the law to cover driving offences occurring on private land would be significant and require legislation that had potentially wide-ranging impacts. We have a regime of licensing, which ensures that only people who have demonstrated a competence to drive a vehicle on the highway are permitted to do so.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham for his championing of these rural issues in my Department and all other Departments. Driving on private land is not subject to the same licensing regime. To change this would have consequences for many people who only drive on their own land, most notably the farming community.

I am not proposing that we change the requirements for driving on private land. I am just proposing that, to own a vehicle, someone has to have a driving licence. That would mean that they could give the vehicle to another, perhaps younger, person to drive on private land or for stock car racing or something like that. I am not proposing that we require a driving licence for driving on private land.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. I know that more can be done; I absolutely acknowledge that. Our calls for evidence will be published before this summer, so now is a good time to discuss the issue, and we would welcome any evidence given to support that. We all recognise that more can be done.

We are delivering on our commitment to change the law on a number of matters at the moment, including causing death by dangerous driving or careless driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill introduces changes to increase the maximum term of imprisonment to life. The Department is introducing an increase to the minimum disqualification periods for those two offences in the Bill to reinforce the seriousness with which the Government view them. Instead of two years, they will be increased to five years.

We are working on a call for evidence on parts of the Road Traffic Act 1988. We expect to be in a position to publish that in the first half of this year. While details are still being worked up on the scope of that particular issue, I know that officials are paying close attention to the points raised in this debate. We would welcome thoughts on where issues could be tackled by the call for evidence, and that is why I think that that meeting will be particularly helpful at this time. The evidence is expected to include drink and drug driving offences and the offence of failing to stop and report. My hon. Friend has not referred to that in this debate, but I wanted to set that out, and when we meet, we can discuss validation ahead of purchasing a vehicle.

Rural roads account for nearly 66% of all fatalities, while carrying only 33% of the traffic, with casualties mostly being vulnerable road users, such as young drivers and motorcyclists. My Department is developing a new road safety strategic framework, which will outline our ambitions to improve road safety in the UK. We are considering how we can best incorporate rural road safety into it.

We have also just concluded a consultation on the potential for creating a road collision investigation branch. That independent safety body would work to better understand the root causes of road collisions, learning lessons and making recommendations for interventions and policy changes that could help reduce collisions and their severity and improve rural safety for all road users. We hope to be able to set out the next steps over the coming months. It is my aim that these developments make a real difference to road safety in the UK, including reducing road traffic collisions and the tragic deaths and injuries that they cause.

I thank John and Karen Rowlands for their presence today and for the courageous way in which they are trying to prevent collisions, serious injuries and fatalities, particularly among young road users. I also thank them for their work in supporting the Department’s THINK! campaign.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, who so eloquently champions rural issues. Today, he has drawn attention to rural crime and demonstrated the importance of identity in preventing further incidents. I welcome his interventions and the conversation we will have with officials shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Health Inequalities: Office for Health Improvement and Disparities

[Derek Twigg in the Chair]

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with the 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 before coming on to the parliamentary estate. 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 Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and health inequalities.

It is a real pleasure to be here under your stewardship this afternoon, Mr Twigg. I thank all those who have come along—all on the Labour side of the House—to debate this important issue, which affects so many of our constituents. I thank the organisations that have provided me with information to help me articulate my points, including the Royal College of Physicians, the Inequalities in Health Alliance, the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Maternity Action, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the NHS Federation, the UK Vaping Industry Association, Kidney Research UK, the Health Foundation, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Global Blood Therapeutics, the Local Government Association, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the Children’s Alliance and, as ever, the House of Commons Library, which brings much of this together. I do not believe I have missed any organisation out. If I have, I apologise.

Each organisation made helpful and constructive comments about the matter we are debating today. The extent of health inequalities is remarkably wide—in fact, I felt I understood the extent of such inequalities, but the information from those organisations has widened my knowledge significantly. Each of the organisations had the decency to send me information, so I will read out comments from each of them, if I may.

Alongside its key ask for a cross-governmental strategy to reduce health inequalities, the Inequalities in Health Alliance also asks the Government to

“commence the socio-economic duty, section 1 of the Equality Act 2010”

and to

“adopt a ‘child health in all policies’ approach.”

The Health Foundation notes:

“Public health funding grants to councils have been reduced by £700 million in real terms from 2015/16 to 2019/20. In the Spending Review published in October 2021, the Government said it would maintain the public health grant ‘in real terms’ until 2024/25, but has yet to confirm the amount for 2022/23.”

We are only a couple of months away from the beginning of that financial year. The Terrence Higgins Trust asked me to ask whether the Minister can confirm when local authorities will have their public health grant allocations published. Other organisations also asked that question.

The Institute of Alcohol Studies said:

“People from the most deprived groups in England are 60% more likely to die or be admitted to hospital due to alcohol than those from the least deprived… We believe that for any levelling up agenda to be comprehensively successful, it must address alcohol harm as a top priority.”

The LGA said:

“Councils have seen a significant reduction to their public health budgets in the period between 2015/16 and 2019/20. The recent announcement of a real-terms protection of the public health grant is welcome, but is unlikely to address the impact of the past reductions to funding.”

Cancer Research said that its modelling estimates suggest that

“30,000 extra cases of cancer in the UK each year are attributable to socio-economic deprivation. The two biggest preventable causes of cancer—smoking and overweight and obesity—are more prevalent in deprived groups.”

Kidney Research said:

“Around 3 million people in the UK have kidney disease and every day, 20 people develop kidney failure…. There is also a gender bias associated with kidney disease—women are more likely to be diagnosed with kidney disease and are at higher risk of developing end stage renal failure than men.”

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. On that point, I want to ask him about gender inequality in terms of health. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on osteoporosis and bone health, he will know that fracture liaison services are key to prompt and timely diagnosis of osteoporosis, but only 51% of NHS trusts in England have an FLS and only 41% of all NHS trusts have permanent and sustainable funding in place for their FLS. That means that every year an estimated 900,000 people miss out on the medication they need to prevent avoidable fractures. Does he agree that this health inequality, or postcode lottery, needs to end?

My hon. Friend is completely right and she has been a real champion of osteoporosis services, pushing them in her own area and as chair of the APPG. One figure shows that half of women over the age of 50 suffer a broken bone due to osteoporosis. That is the kind of stark figure that we have to face. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

The NHS Confederation has made comments similar to those I have mentioned:

“The number of people waiting for planned NHS care in England has grown to record levels, with more than 5.6 million people currently on the waiting list and over 7 million ‘missing patients’ anticipated to come forward... Inequalities are now becoming evident in the backlog, with evidence suggesting that waiting lists have grown more rapidly in more deprived areas during the pandemic.”

Maternity Action says:

“Vulnerable migrant women face charges of £7,000 or more for… maternity care. Charges are levied on women with insecure immigration status, including destitute asylum seekers whose claim has been refused and who are not in receipt of Home Office support, women whose relationship has broken down and who were dependent on their partner for their immigration status, women on fiancee visas and women who have been unable to afford to renew their visas. This policy disproportionately impacts on minority ethnic women, who make up 85% of women using Maternity Action's Maternity Care Access Advice Service, which advises women”

on such matters.

The British Heart Foundation said:

“The prevalence of heart failure, stroke, and mini stroke in adults with learning disabilities in England is higher than the general population, and circulatory diseases are one of the main causes of death in people with learning disabilities. For the most part, this can be attributed to differences in the social determinants of health.”

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said:

“Child health outcomes in England are some of the worst in Europe… Our State of Child Health 2020 report reveals a widening gap between health outcomes across nearly 30 indicators. It shows that children living in more deprived areas have worse health outcomes than their peers living in less deprived areas… The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted and accelerated the devastating impact of health inequalities.”

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that, given that the largest number of covid-related deaths have been experienced by ethnic minority communities, it is imperative that the Minister provides clarity on whether the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and the Health Promotion Taskforce will be given a remit outside the Department for Health and Social Care?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend asked that question, because it is one that has been asked many times, and I am sure the Minister will cover it—it is one of the questions I have as well.

The UK vaping industry said:

“It is absolutely critical that the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities continues the pragmatic approach of Public Health England in recognising the role of vaping in tackling inequalities. It is essential that the institutional knowledge of PHE is not lost in the establishment of the OHID”

It is important that that is factored into these debates.

The House of Commons Library referred to the debate on health inequalities versus disparities. Jabeer Butt of the Race Equalities Foundation has welcomed the institution of the OHID and the possibility of working alongside it, but he said:

“With the establishment of OHID, we can’t help but wonder why the language used by the Health and Social Care Secretary talks about ‘health disparities’, compared to Professor Chris Whitty, who describes ‘health inequalities in the Government announcement.”

This is not just about semantics. It is important that we recognise that it is about not just disparities but health inequalities as well.

I commend my hon. Friend on his speech. He touched on a really important point: that the Government talk about disparities when they should talk about inequalities. To truly tackle health inequalities, we need to look at social factors, such as housing, racism and air pollution, and socioeconomic factors. Does he agree that, to tackle all of those inequalities, the OHID will need to look in the round at all those issues and seek a cross-governmental role to deliver on the Department of Health and Social Care’s aims?

My hon. Friend is spot on. That is a key point that we want to tease out today: cross-departmental working.

As with many other health issues, the devil is in the detail. Only by looking into the granularity of the issues can a real understanding of the levels of inequality and disparity be established. I do not have time for more significant references to the organisations concerned, but it really was important for me to get down to the detail of the information that they provided. I will give the documents to the Minister for her perusal in due course.

Before the pandemic, growth in life expectancy had stalled for the most deprived in England. Between 2014 and 2019, people in the least deprived areas saw their life expectancy grow significantly, but there were no significant changes for people in the most deprived areas. For women in the most deprived areas of England, life expectancy fell between 2010 and 2019—a stark fact. The pandemic unambiguously exposed and exacerbated inequalities that have existed in our society for far too long, as many hon. Members will have seen first hand in their constituencies. The pandemic has widened gaps that were already too big to begin with, and once again it is the most vulnerable who have borne the brunt.

We know from the Sir Michael Marmot’s “Build Back Fairer” report that mortality rates for covid in the first wave mirrored mortality rates for other causes. In order words, the causes of health inequalities more widely were similar to the underlying drivers of covid-19 deaths among certain groups. It has been estimated that working-age adults in England’s poorest areas were almost four times more likely to die from covid than those in the wealthiest areas—another stark figure. Now, with the backlog, analysis of waiting list data shows that people living in the most deprived areas are nearly twice as likely to wait more than a year for treatment compared to those living in the least deprived areas. That cannot be right.

Before the pandemic, through the pandemic and now as we emerge, we hope, from the worst of the omicron variant—it is clear that there is a deep-rooted inequality in our society that causes huge inequality in health. The gap in life expectancy is startling. People in my constituency live on average 12 years less than people in Southport—just at the other end of the borough. Those are stark differences in healthy life expectancy—how many years a person spends in good health. Before covid, it was estimated that people in the richest communities in England could expect to live in good health for up to two decades more than the poorest. In Bootle, according to Nomis at the Office for National Statistics, 42% of people who are economically inactive are long-term sick, compared to the national average of 24%.

However, statistics get us only so far. A recent paper from the Royal College of Physicians brings to life the reality of health inequalities. One hospital clinician saw a patient who was extremely malnourished and dehydrated. The patient had been regularly missing meals so she could feed her teenage son. When she first became unwell, she did not call the GP, because she was unable to afford to pay someone to look after her son, and was frightened that he would be taken into care if she had to go to hospital for a long time. She was eventually admitted to hospital with sepsis. There are other stories in the paper of people who missed hospital appointments because they could not afford public transport, people who do not have the kitchen facilities to cook food and someone who was hospitalised because their asthma was aggravated by mould in their flat that the landlord refused to fix.

As we all know, 40 years ago, Sir Douglas Black, a former president of the Royal College of Physicians, was asked by the Department of Health and Social Security to lead an expert committee looking into health and inequality. That now famous Black report was unequivocal and said that while overall health had improved since the introduction of the welfare state, there were widespread health inequalities, the main cause of which were economic inequalities.

In his foreword to the report, the then Secretary of State said:

“the influences at work in explaining the relative health experience of different parts of our society are many and interrelated.”

That is as true today as it was then. It might seem that health inequality is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS but, as other hon. Members have said, health and social care services can only try to cure the ailments created by the environments people live in.

Research by the University of York linked austerity measures with the deaths of almost 60,000 more people than would be expected in the four years following their introduction. The money a person has will change the decisions they make about their health. It is the difference between having a healthy meal and having a meal at all, or between choosing to pay for the journey to the GP for an ongoing cough or choosing not to.

Housing affects health too. Last year, Shelter found that poor housing was harming the health of a fifth of renters. Our society benefits some people and deprives others, and those structural inequalities drive many of the health inequalities in black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups. We have to address that if we want to tackle this issue.

If we are to prevent ill health in the first place, we need to take action on issues such as how much money people have, poor housing, food quality, communities, place, employment, racism and discrimination, transport, and air pollution. That is why many organisations and coalitions, including the 200 members of the Inequalities in Health Alliance, which is convened by the Royal College of Physicians, have made calls for a cross-Government strategy to reduce health inequalities.

Tackling health inequality requires a considered and co-ordinated approach across myriad factors. Last year, the Government signalled that they recognise the need to look beyond the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS and to take action on the issues that cause ill health. When the Secretary of State announced the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities in October last year, we were promised a new cross-Government agenda that would look to track the wider determinants of health and reduce disparities. The Health Promotion Taskforce was established.

These are potentially encouraging signs, but I am concerned that we are yet to hear the detail of what the OHID will do to reduce health inequalities. Will the Health Promotion Taskforce have a remit to take action outside the Department of Health and Social Care? When will we see a strategy on reducing health inequalities, so that we know what the Government’s ambition is in this area and we can track progress? Will the Government commit to developing a cross-Government strategy to reduce health inequalities?

Will the Minister set out how the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will reduce health inequalities? Will he tell us about the work of the Health Promotion Taskforce and how often it meets? What engagement has the OHID had with Government Departments to date, since it was formally established on 1 October 2021? Importantly, will the Minister set out how the OHID will work with integrated care systems and support them to address health inequalities in their areas? I hope he can answer some of those questions.

When the Labour Government first asked Professor Marmot to review health inequalities in 2008, Gordon Brown said:

“The health inequalities we are talking about are not only unjust, condemning millions of men, women and children to avoidable ill-health. They also limit the development and the prosperity of communities, whole nations and even continents.”

He was absolutely right.

This Government were elected on a platform of levelling up, but while covid-19 caused a decrease in life expectancies for most countries between 2019 and 2020, the UK’s life expectancy has fallen below where it was in 2010. The UK was one of only two countries where that happened, the other being the United States.

In 1980, the Government responded to the Black report by saying:

“you might be right about the solution, but it’s going to cost too much.”

After two years of living with the pandemic, which, of course, has hit the most deprived the hardest, it is clear that the real cost lies in not supporting those who need that support most. Only Government can create the conditions for better health by improving the factors that lead to ill health in the first place. I hope the Minister can set out what the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities can do to achieve the aim of reducing inequality, and can confirm that the Government intend to tackle the wider determinants of health, which drive so much of the health inequality that we see.

A good number of Members want to speak today. I do not intend to impose a time limit, but it would helpful if you could keep your speeches to around six minutes. That will ensure that everybody gets in. I intend to call the Front Benchers at no later than 3.40 pm.

I will keep my mask on because I have a wound, unfortunately, which I need to keep covered. It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I remember that we served on the 2012 Health and Social Care Bill Committee together, so this is bringing back memories.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on his excellent speech, and particularly on his focus on the wider health determinants and the need for an intergovernmental strategy and co-ordination. He is absolutely right.

I sought to become an MP because of my work on health inequalities. I was at the University of Liverpool for 10 years. Prior to that, I was a jobbing public health consultant. My hon. Friend mentioned the Black report. We must not forget that Margaret Whitehead at Liverpool was the first person to identify the health divide between the north and south. I am grateful to her. I learned so much under her and my other colleagues at Liverpool.

In the time that you have made available to me, Mr Twigg, I want to make three points. First, health inequalities are not inevitable. We hear “Oh, it’s always been there; it’s never going to change”. They are not inevitable but a consequence of political choices. As my hon. Friend said, those choices relate to whether or not we want socioeconomic inequalities to continue. It is also about—and this is rarely talked about—inequalities in power. We must ensure that that is addressed and brought into the debate.

Secondly, the structural inequalities across our country have been exposed and exacerbated by covid, resulting in, as Professor Sir Michael Marmot has said,

“the high and unequal death toll from COVID-19”,

which was one of the highest in the world. Thirdly, tackling health inequalities involves every single Government Department, not just the Department of Health and Social Care.

The term “health inequalities” refers to the increasing mortality and morbidity that occurs with declining socioeconomic conditions. In my Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency, the health inequality gap is more than 12 years. Those health inequalities are systematic and socially produced, and are a result of the differential distribution of income, wealth, knowledge, social status and connections. There is overwhelming evidence that those factors are the key determinants of health inequalities, influenced by written and unwritten rules and laws across our society, rather than biological and behavioural differences. I have always been disappointed by the focus always being on the individual: “It’s your fault if you get ill; it’s your fault if you get a disease. It’s your lifestyle choices.” It is not. There is overwhelming evidence on that.

There is no law of nature that decrees that the risk of a baby dying is 94% higher for children born into poor families than for those born into rich families, but that is the reality. We know that infant mortality, which had been declining for nearly a century, has started to rise again. As my hon. Friend has said, there are consequences to inequality and the austerity that has been imposed on so many families.

To my first point, given that health inequalities are socially produced, there is hope because that means that they are not fixed or inevitable—we can do something about them. If the Government are committed to levelling up, will the Minister comment on why the Gini coefficient has increased over the past few years? As my dear friend Frank Dobson famously said, nothing could be more unjust than someone knowing that they are going to die sooner because they are poor. Will the Minister comment on the socioeconomic factors that are driving health inequalities? Why they have they got worse over the past two years?

On my second point, Sir Michael Marmot was very clear in his analysis of the covid death rate that there have been four drivers of the high and unequal death toll in the UK: the governance and political culture detrimentally affecting social cohesion and inclusivity; the widening inequalities in power, money and resources; the regressive austerity policies over the past decade; and the declining healthy life expectancy of the poorest, particularly women, which is among the worst of all comparable economies. Deprived communities have also been hit particularly hard in that regard.

On my third point, as important our NHS is in treating and caring for us when we get ill, reducing inequalities must involve all Government Departments, as my hon. Friend has said. That was reflected in Sir Michael’s recommendations to address those inequalities. He said that we must build back fairer from the pandemic, with multi-sector action from all levels of Government, and increase investment in public health. Since 2015, there has been a 24% cut in public health budgets.

One thing we know about the NHS and its impact on inequalities relates to the privatisation and marketisation of health services. We know that that helps to reduce access to health services for those on lower socioeconomic groups. On top of that, there is the inequality in health outcomes. I fear that the 2021 Health and Care Bill will make a bad situation even worse, adding to the issues resulting from the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

Not only do countries in which there is a narrow gap between rich and poor have high life expectancy; they also have better educational attainment, social mobility and trust, lower crime and a fairer society as a whole. I appreciate that I have gone over time and apologise for that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Twigg. I will keep my remarks as brief as possible. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for securing this important debate, at a time when the NHS is under enormous strain and facing a clear and present threat of relentless cuts and privatisation under this Conservative Government.

As well as leaving our beloved health service on its knees and struggling to cope after two years of a crippling pandemic, this Government have presided over a period of austerity that has seen health inequality become even more prevalent and extreme.

Last week, the other place started its Committee stage of the Health and Care Bill and began discussing proposed amendments about health inequality. Speaking at that Committee sitting, peers from across the House made clear that the Bill is a huge opportunity to eliminate health inequality and for the Government to demonstrate their commitment to tackling the “disease of disparity”, to quote the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who pledged to address the issue when he took office last year. However, in the months since, there has been little evidence that the Government are taking the bold steps required to address the crisis.

The Government cannot say that they are not aware of the issue, because research published in 2019 by the Department for Work and Pensions revealed that the highest reported rates of poor health in those under the age of 55 was overwhelmingly in the poorest percentiles, with the bottom 20% of the population having worse health outcomes by a staggering 1,100%.

Three years and a pandemic later, the situation is even bleaker. In 2020, life expectancy in England fell more dramatically than at any other point since world war two, as a result of the covid pandemic. In the poorest areas, life expectancy declined nearly twice as much as it did in the wealthy ones, while ethnic minority people died from covid at much higher rates. Sadly, those with disabilities faced a significantly higher death rate.

In my constituency, the gap in mortality and reported serious illness is stark. In the most affluent areas such as Heaton Mersey, life expectancy for women is 84 years, while for men it is almost 83. However, just a short distance away in central Stockport, the average life expectancy for a man is a staggering 12 years shorter, while in Brinnington a woman’s life will, on average, end a decade sooner. For life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, it is a similar picture. On average, the limited life chances of my constituents are particularly acute. Research by the King’s Fund reveals that the north-west experienced a far higher proportion of deaths from covid-19 than the south-west, to give just one example.

Significant investment in our NHS is needed to halt the rise in health inequality. That includes hospitals, which unsurprisingly play a significant role in health outcomes for many people. That investment could be put towards the facility’s funding or its catchment area, or it could improve accessibility for the vulnerable. With the NHS already at breaking point following 12 years of Conservative Government austerity and a crippling pandemic, we cannot afford to be wasteful—a point I have made consistently since my maiden speech, when I criticised this Government’s underfunding of Stockport NHS trust by £170 million in recent years.

Ultimately, I welcome any decision that improves public health outcomes and ensures the best quality healthcare for the people of Stockport. To build a healthier, happier and more equal society we must do more than simply increase NHS funding. I therefore urge the Minister to give a genuine commitment to truly universal healthcare that is fit for purpose for everyone, enabling the NHS to continue to be the envy of the world.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on an excellent, well-researched speech and on securing this important debate.

Before turning to the exact subject of the debate, as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for vaping, I want to reflect on the role of the predecessor body of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities. Public Health England sought to be a practical institution, with evidence and pragmatism at the heart of its approach to public life. I want to pay particular attention to its work on tobacco harm reduction, which I have witnessed not only as a member of the APPG but personally. Since 2015, across seven evidence reviews, PHE reports on the role that e-cigarettes can play in a healthier society have captured the ethos of the organisation in its entirety.

The first report was a landmark publication for the vaping industry. It concluded—I hope that everyone in this House heeds this fact when reflecting on reducing inequalities born from smoking cigarettes—that vaping is “95% less harmful” than tobacco. In its report, PHE went on to look favourably on e-cigarettes, while others have sought only to fuel misinformation, risking lives by claiming vaping and smoking to be one and the same. They are not. It is because of that evidence-based endorsement of vaping that millions of smokers across England and—dare I say it?—across the world, who have exhausted all other routes trying to quit smoking, have a fighting chance with an incredibly successful product that is helping smokers to quit.

Smoking is perhaps one of the biggest contributors to inequality in our society, causing considerable damage to private and public health, and it has a high impact on physical and mental health. It is an expensive and addictive habit, particularly for those most disadvantaged in our society, where smoking prevalence is highest. Vaping is less expensive and is an effective way to stop smoking. It is therefore critical that the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities recognises the role of vaping, picks up the torch left by Public Health England and continues to be a stalwart champion of tobacco harm reduction.

This could not be more important as we continue to wait for the Department of Health and Social Care to publish, first, its review of the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016—that review is now eight months late—and secondly, its new tobacco control plan, which is also late and nowhere to be seen. The APPG for vaping’s door is always open to the Minister, and I know that leading bodies such as the UK Vaping Industry Association would welcome the chance to work with Government to secure a future in which the health benefits of switching from smoking to vaping are fully realised. The UKVIA has industry-led solutions to many of the remaining concerns that prevent people from finally making the switch to vaping. Those solutions include the guidance it produced on introducing restrictions on packaging and branding. I support that paper, and can share it with the Minister if she wishes.

The UK is seen by many across the world as a world leader in tobacco harm reduction, with countries, smokers and vapers looking to the UK for guidance in this space. That reputation should not be compromised by the loss of institutional knowledge during the transfer of resource from Public Health England to OHID, and it should not come at the cost of a Government Department delaying publications once again. If the Government are serious about levelling up and wish to support endeavours to improve people’s lives, they must ensure that OHID adopts the same evidence-based approach as its predecessor to finding solutions for life-debilitating problems.

I once again express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle for having secured this debate. I hope that in responding, the Minister can provide clarity about the timeline for responding to the TRPR review and for the publication of the new tobacco control plan. I also hope that she agrees that the OHID must remain independent, with its institutional knowledge protected.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for having secured this important debate, and for his eloquent and detailed speech. Salford is currently the 18th most deprived local authority area out of 317 in England, yet it is a tale of two cities: more than 30% of the city’s population reside in a highly deprived area, yet we are also home to some of the wealthiest suburbs in Greater Manchester. That disparity is shown starkly by our life expectancy. It has been improving over the past few decades, but there remains a gap between Salford and the rest of England of three years for males and two years for females.

Male residents living in the most affluent areas of Salford can expect to live more than 11 years longer than those in the most deprived areas, while females in the most affluent areas can expect to live seven years longer. I think we can all agree that that is morally wrong. Sadly, we have known for decades—from the Beveridge report to the Marmot report—that poor health, discrimination, housing, employment and income are inextricably linked, yet we have seen very little action in recent years. Of course, there was a burst of radical policy development in the late 1940s, with the creation of the welfare state and the NHS, for example, and we saw policy approaches in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but since then we have lacked a comprehensive health inequality strategy. What is worse is that austerity has resulted in the unravelling of many of the positive policies put in place and the undermining of the remaining ones.

The creation in October 2021 of the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and the announcement of a new cross-Government agenda to track the wider determinants of health and to reduce disparities were met with cautious optimism. However, since the creation of the OHID, there has been little information on what it will actually do or what it has done so far. Will the Minister clearly set out how the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will reduce health inequalities? Indeed, what is the new cross-Government agenda? Can she confirm that the Health Promotion Taskforce will be given a remit to act outside of the Department of Health and Social Care, to address the true socioeconomic causes of poor health? Finally, can she set out how OHID will work with the new integrated care systems, and how it will support them to address health inequalities in their area?

As the Inequalities in Health Alliance states:

“If we are to prevent ill health in the first place, we need to take action on issues such as poor housing, food quality, communities and place, employment, racism and discrimination, transport and air pollution. All parts of government and public services need to adopt reducing health inequality as a priority.”

Of course, I fear that the Government will not do that. It would show that an active state that supports communities, industry and workers to increase living standards for all within a new, democratic economy is the only way to do this properly, and that goes against everything the Government believe in. None the less, I hope that the Minister will at least address some of the questions I have asked today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing this particularly important debate.

The Minister will be aware of the Tudor Hart law: the areas with the best health are more likely to receive better health services. As my late mum—a lifelong nurse—would have said, “Much gets more.” There can be few greater examples of that than in south-west London, where an imminent planning application proposes to open a new hospital in healthy, wealthy Belmont, but at a cost: the downgrading, in the heart of a pandemic, of both Epsom and St Helier Hospitals. In the wild west of south London’s NHS, it is almost as if coronavirus never happened. Under those reckless plans, St Helier will lose its A&E, intensive care, children’s unit, maternity services, renal services and 62% of its beds to a wealthier area of considerably better health—so much for levelling up.

We have seen this plan on repeat. Funding is allocated and everyone pretends that three possible sites are being considered for development: Epsom, St Helier or Belmont. Evidence of widening health inequalities is presented by the bucketload, but a reason is always found to choose Belmont as the winning site. The reality is that, at the time of the latest decision, there were more than twice as many people with bad or very bad health within a mile of St Helier than within a mile of Belmont. The local population is significantly larger, with considerably more dependent children and elderly people. It is a plan that flies in the face of any supposed commitment to tackling health inequalities.

The programme points to its deprivation analysis—a document that considered deprivation by borough, rather than by proximity to each of the possible sites. Why does that matter? It matters because it disguises huge inequalities within boroughs, such as the 10-year difference in life expectancy between parts of Merton.

The true analysis of deprivation could not be clearer. Some 42 of the 51 most deprived areas in the catchment are nearest St Helier. Given that, hon. Members can surely see how ridiculous it is that the Belmont site received a higher score for supposedly tackling deprivation. Is it any wonder that health inequalities keep widening? While the programme considered old age as a decisive factor in the location of acute services, the depressing reality is that old age in Mitcham looks very different from old age in Belmont.

Health inequalities in south London are stark, and not just by geography. Black, Asian and minority ethnic residents are more likely to have underlying conditions such as diabetes, lupus and kidney failure and are at a higher risk of developing heart disease and hypertension. Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and are more likely to require neonatal or specialist care baby units. Such facts are of paramount importance for this hospital reconfiguration, as 64 of the 66 areas across the catchment with the highest proportion of BAME residents are nearest St Helier. Just one is nearest Belmont. Under those plans, many women will see maternity services moved further away. The programme’s solution is to encourage more women to have a home birth, which is obviously dependent on the risk to mum and baby and is currently chosen by just 3% of women in the catchment area.

The reality is that my constituents will not travel to Belmont. It is quicker from every corner of Mitcham and Morden to reach St George’s Hospital or Croydon. That is a completely terrifying prospect, because St George’s is already coping with too many women having children there, its A&E is in the bottom quartile for space standards, and the Care Quality Commission has demanded that fewer patients attend the site.

Where does this leave us? The planning application for the Belmont site is imminent, and the cost of the proposals is soaring—the latest estimate is almost £600 million. Improving St Helier would not only keep services where they are needed most, but save £161 million. I ask the Minister to take the unequivocal evidence that I have presented and, if she genuinely wants to close health inequalities under her watch, insist that these proposals are reconsidered. Stop wasting taxpayer’s money and leave these vital services at St Helier’s current site.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on his excellent speech and on securing this important debate. As we know, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities was officially launched in October as part of a wider Government restructuring of public health bodies in England. Back in September, the Health Secretary announced his vision for what the OHID would prioritise. He listed three goals: preventing poor mental and physical health; addressing health inequalities and improving access to health services; and working with partners within and outside of Government to respond to wider health determinates.

It is welcome that the Government have set out to alleviate health inequality. However, in order to truly tackle the disparities in health outcomes, the Government must change course and more closely consider the health outcomes for illnesses associated with stigma, misunderstanding or insufficient public awareness. I am speaking specifically about those living with HIV in this country. Despite accounting for less than 2% of the British population, people of black African heritage accounted for 13% of new HIV diagnoses among heterosexuals in 2020, and 64% of these diagnoses were of women. People of black African heritage are also significantly impacted by late HIV diagnosis, which is particularly frustrating, considering that those who are diagnosed late are much more likely to die from the disease.

I am increasingly concerned by the state of HIV testing in this country, given that the proportion of people who are eligible for a test but are not offered one more than doubled in 2020. That is completely unacceptable, and it is a systemic problem that falls under the remit of the OHID. I want to use this debate to urge the OHID to monitor the provision of commissioned services for people who are disproportionately likely to be diagnosed with HIV, and to consider how they could be improved. In particular, I want it to look closely at the availability of testing, both at home and in A&E departments, especially in areas of high HIV prevalence, and to consider the extent to which that might be acting as a barrier to achieving its aim of ending HIV transmission by 2030.

If the Government truly want the OHID to tackle health inequalities, then its work needs to have a laser-like focus on improving health outcomes for those living with stigmatised illnesses, such as HIV. It goes without saying that the Government cannot fulfil their pledge to end HIV transmission by 2030 without taking the measures that I have outlined today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for setting the scene. He is a man known for setting the scene well, and we appreciate his contribution—I think every one of us will have been heartened by what he has said today. I wish to make a contribution as my party’s health spokesperson. I am pleased to be here to discuss the evident disparities and inequalities in our health system, both on the mainland and back home in Northern Ireland. I know the Minister is not responsible for health in Northern Ireland, but I will give examples that will hopefully spur those who speak in this debate.

We must ensure that everyone has access to efficient healthcare. I will speak about three groups of people: those with mental health issues, those who are homeless and those with addictions. The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities officially launched in October 2021, as part of a restructuring of health bodies in England and throughout the UK. I am pleased that the OHID will co-ordinate local and central Government to initiate improvements in public health. The purpose of the OHID is clear. If it delivers on that purpose, everyone present will be more than pleased because many of the issues would be addressed.

I thank the Government for listening and learning from the lessons of the pandemic, and that information has now been taken ultimately to improve our health service. The Minister has said that our Government have three priorities to work on. The first priority is preventing poor mental and physical health. One in four people in the UK—25% of the population—and 19% of adults in Northern Ireland suffer from poor mental health, so that should be prioritised. The second priority is addressing health inequalities. Health is devolved, but this must be a priority for the Department across the whole of the United Kingdom. The third priority is working with partners within and outside Government to respond to the wider health determinants. These partners also have a responsibility for public health outside England.

I will talk about addiction issues and why it is so important that we address them within this campaign and policy, which the Minister will reply to shortly. In Northern Ireland, and in my constituency in particular, alcohol and drug-related indicators continue to show some of the largest health inequalities monitored in Northern Ireland, with rates in the most deprived areas five times those of the least deprived areas for drug-related mortality, and four times those for alcohol-related mortality. I suspect that other hon. Members will also state those mortality figures for people with drug or alcohol addiction issues. The inequality seems to be, unfortunately, in the areas where people have a poor quality of surroundings and less money, and therefore they are the ones we need to focus on because of the high risk of mortality that is prominent.

The King’s Fund has ascertained that health inequalities are avoidable and depend on people’s access to care; the quality and experience of care; behavioural risks to health, such as smoking and drinking; and wider determinants of health, such as housing circumstances and social factors and decisions. All these things combine to put pressure on people. Crisis, an organisation that campaigns to end homelessness, has contacted me in relation to tackling the disease of disparity. That is quite a term: the disease of disparity. Yes, it is a disease and it needs to be addressed. People who are homeless face some of the poorest health outcomes in society.

Some of the statistics are as follows. People experiencing homelessness are three times more likely to be diagnosed with a severe respiratory health issue. I did not know that until I got that information from Crisis, but it is a fact. The average age of death among homeless people is 46 for men and 42 for women, as the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) referred to. In this day and age that is totally unacceptable. We must address that issue. At the same time, I read in the papers—I do not know whether it is true—that people are living longer. Will someone who is homeless live longer? They will not, and therefore that must be addressed. I hope the Minister can respond to that.

Finally, a recent study found that people facing homelessness in major cities, such as Belfast or London, have levels of frailty like that of a 90-year-old. Again, that is another combination of issues. The barriers blocking greater equality for our health service are just astonishing, and these have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. It is about time that we started prioritising, and that starts with everyone being given the same allowances to access our truly admirable NHS.

Lastly, it is time for the OHID to monitor the provision of commissioned services for those who are socially disadvantaged and cannot access sustainable healthcare. I urge the Minister to commit to producing guidance and support on what actually works in the provision of health and social care services. I believe our duty in this House is to speak up for those who need speaking up for. Today, I am doing just that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing this important debate. When the Government launched the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, renamed from the Office for Health Promotion, the Secretary of State said that it was not just a name change but

“a statement of intent—a driving mission to ‘level up’ health and ensure everyone has the chance to live happy and healthy lives.”

That is a mission that I sincerely hope all his Cabinet colleagues will commit to truly delivering on. The issue goes to the heart of the inequalities in communities such as mine. Sadly, it is an issue that has only got worse over the last decade. In the Government’s most recent national deprivation data, Barnsley ranked in the bottom 15% of the country for levels of income. Of the 318 local authority areas in the entire country, Barnsley ranked as the 19th worst for health deprivation and disability.

The Secretary of State has said that the top two priorities for the new office are preventing poor mental and physical health and improving access to health services, as has been discussed in today’s debate. As things stand, Barnsley is well above the national average for diagnoses of depression, arterial disease, learning disabilities, high blood pressure, heart failure, epilepsy, diabetes, dementia, obesity and heart disease. Barnsley East residents are almost twice as likely as residents anywhere else in the country to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, much as a result of the thousands of men who worked down the pit. Around 8,000 miners have sadly lost their lives over the last two years.

I have raised the issue of covid death certificates with the Government on several occasions. I directly ask the Minister, again, whether she can give us an update on what the Government are doing to change guidance—it is a very simple ask—to ensure that industrial diseases are recorded on death certificates if someone, sadly, dies of covid. That is important to make sure that families receive the compensation to which they are entitled.

We cannot look at health inequalities in isolation, because income and health inequality are fundamentally linked. The ONS reports that the difference in life expectancy between the least and most deprived areas in England is 9.4 years for men and 7.6 years for women. The difference in the number of years lived in good health between the most and least deprived areas can be as much as 20. While areas such as Kensington and Westminster thrive, northern working-class towns such as Barnsley continue to be left behind.

There can be no justification for the levels of inequality that we face. Whether someone lives in Westminster or Barnsley, they deserve to live well. We have a long way to go if we are to tackle these health inequalities. They are not only an enormous challenge that the Government need to address today; they mean reversing more than a decade of decline.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing the debate and making an excellent opening speech. I also endorse what has been said by hon. Members on all sides—predominantly those from urban areas, because poverty is a major driver of health inequalities and discrepancies. I hope that my colleagues will understand if I now focus on some rural discrepancies, which are also significant and in some ways overlap with those on which hon. Members have focused so far.

The first area I will look at is social care. Social care is, obviously a huge issue and under massive pressure everywhere in the United Kingdom. There is an extra problem in rural communities like Cumbria. In my constituency, the average house price is 11 times the average household income; there are twice as many second homes in my patch as there are council houses. At this moment, 150 people who should be in social care are stranded in hospital beds, and one of the reasons for that is that the Government underfund social care. Not a penny of the national insurance rise that is coming will go into the pockets of hard-working care workers, so it is hard to retain and recruit them from a relatively small working-age workforce.

That has led to a number of issues. Just the other day, I was speaking to a person who needs a rota of six carers in order to function, but that person has not been able to find more than three for the last six to nine months. That is caused by a number of things, including silly visa rules, which the Government need to look at again, and the massive discrepancy between house prices and income—the availability of anywhere affordable to live for folks in the area.

Secondly, there is the issue of mental health—particularly young people’s mental health. Similar issues are present there when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff. There are wonderful staff—too few of them. When I did a survey of families in my constituency last year, we discovered that more than 50% of young people who presented with mental health conditions that needed attention waited more than three months, and 28% waited more than six months. Some 52% said their experience of that care was poor as a consequence.

If a 15-year-old broke their leg on a football field on a Sunday afternoon, they would be seen immediately, but if something invisible breaks within one of our young people, they wait six months or more. That is intolerable anywhere, but it is fuelled by the fact that we are in a rural area that is underfunded for mental health provision.

When it comes to GPs, a few years ago the Government got rid of the minimum practice income guarantee, which subsidised small surgeries. Small surgeries in rural areas are not small because they are bad, but because they cover the size of a small country but a relatively small population. Coniston, which mourns its doctor, Dr Simon Fisher, who sadly passed away just a few weeks ago, has a roll of just 900 patients, not because its practice is poor quality but because it covers a vast area. The Government took away that money.

The sticking-plaster money, called atypical practice funding, that went to some surgeries just to keep them going will fold when the clinical commissioning groups go and the new integrated care boards come in, in just a few months’ time. I ask the Minister to look carefully at that, as otherwise we may lose dozens, if not hundreds, of rural GP surgeries around the country.

On cancer provision, the National Radiotherapy Advisory Group states that it is bad practice for any patient needing radiotherapy to have to travel for more than 45 minutes for treatment. I can tell the Minister that not a single person in my constituency lives within 45 minutes of radiotherapy, and many of them must make four-hour round trips, day after day, in order to get treatment at an excellent but distant centre in Preston. If the Minister is committed to tackling discrepancies, she will finally do what Government after Government, including the one of which I was part, have failed to do—deliver the satellite radiotherapy unit at Kendal that we have long been campaigning for. That will shorten those journeys and save lives.

My final point is about accident and emergency. The nearest accident and emergency centre to most of my constituency is at Lancaster. There is a lot wrong with the hospital at Lancaster. It is an old site, at the wrong end of the one-way system, and could do with renewing. Talk of hospital improvement money going into it is welcome, but what is not welcome is the Minister’s Government’s continued insistence on looking at the option to close the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, merge it with the hospital at Preston and have a new hospital somewhere in the middle. If the answer is to make A&E for south Cumbria another 10 or 15 miles further away, that is the wrong answer. I ask the Minister to talk to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and others to take that option off the table, so that people from my communities do not have to travel dangerous distances to get the treatment they deserve.

I endorse what my colleagues from more urban areas said earlier in the debate, but I want the Minister to focus on the fact that many people in rural communities think they are overlooked by this Government, that their votes are taken for granted, and that as a result we get the situation that I have just outlined.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing this debate and on the passionate way that he opened it.

Health inequalities are one of the defining issues of our time and are innately linked not only to how long we live, but to how well we live. Every person across this great country deserves to thrive and live a long, fulfilling and healthy life. That principle informed the creation of our national health service and it continues to drive the work that Opposition Members do.

As colleagues have done, I reinforce to the Minister the perilous position that we find ourselves in with regard to health inequalities. The pandemic has exacerbated the health inequalities that were already widening prior to the first lockdown. Indeed, in February 2020 the King’s Fund reported:

“Males living in the least deprived areas can, at birth, expect to live 9.4 years longer than males in the most deprived areas.”

For females, as we have heard, this gap is 7.4 years. That is not good enough.

Worse, the gap is increasing. Life expectancy has had a steady ascent for 100 years. That ascent began to plateau in 2011. Can the Minister advise what she thinks happened in 2010 that led to that abrupt stalling of life expectancy? It is very real. [Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

Before I was interrupted by the Division bell, I was about to say that I have seen at first hand the injustice of health inequality. Denton, the main town in my constituency, where I grew up and have lived, is not a very large town. It has a population of 38,000 people spread over three council wards, and its area is 2.5 miles by 1.5 miles. I grew up in Denton West, which is one of the more prosperous wards in my constituency and in the borough of Tameside.

My best friend at secondary school lived in Denton South, which, conversely, is one of the poorest. We both went to the same school. We were two kids growing up in the same community, at the same school, doing the same things, hanging around together. Yet according to the average life expectancies, he will live 10 years less than I will. That cannot be acceptable, it is not acceptable, and it is one of the reasons I joined the Labour party and became politically active. Tackling those inequalities, not just in a small community such as Denton but across the country, is absolutely what we should be about, in order to improve outcomes for all.

The last decade has been a disaster in terms of inequality, and I say to the Minister that that is the direct consequence of political choices that her party has made. It is a consequence of a decline in real-terms local authority spending, a consequence of a reduction in per-person education spending—a consequence of 12 years of Conservative government. The fact is that it is impossible to corral health inequality into one box. As we have heard in this debate, it is closely tied to social determinants: where people grow up, their environment, their education and their disposable income all contribute to health inequalities. If we are to tackle the crisis, the Government must recognise that they cannot make policy decisions in a vacuum.

That leads me to the issue of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities. I note that one of OHID’s key priorities is to

“develop strong partnerships across government, communities, industry and employers, to act on the wider factors that contribute to people’s health, such as work, housing and education”.

That is music to my ears. It is clearly a positive and welcome aspiration, but three months on from OHID’s launch, we have yet to see any clear indication that cross-Department work has actually been prioritised by the Government. This point has been made by the Inequalities in Health Alliance, an organisation with more than 200 members, including the Royal College of Physicians. The IHA has asked the Government to underpin and strengthen OHID’s work with an explicit cross-Government strategy to reduce health inequalities, involving all Departments, and led by and accountable to the Prime Minister. So far, the Government have been resistant to committing to that.

I would be grateful if the Minister, in her response, could advise us what assessment she has made of the request from the IHA and whether her Department will commit to developing a specific cross-Government strategy. In addition, can she set out how OHID will assess its own effectiveness, and what influence it will have on other Departments? Will she also outline what engagement OHID has had with other Departments since it was established back in October? We need to know that OHID is not just more warm words with very little in the way of positive action. The Government cannot point to OHID with one hand and then, with the other, undermine the work that it purports to do.

For example, last October, the very month in which OHID was formed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer ended the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit. That plunged 300,000 children into poverty pretty much overnight. That political decision obviously has a negative public health impact for people across the country, yet apparently that was not something the Chancellor either considered or seemed particularly concerned about at the time. Can the Minister advise us how OHID will prevent further such disastrous policies from being implemented? If she cannot, I simply do not see how it will solve the crisis of health inequality in this country. I would be grateful, too, if she could outline what role OHID will play with regard to the new integrated care systems. Some clarity on that would be very much appreciated, particularly in advance of the Health and Care Bill’s anticipated return to the Commons in the next few weeks.

Finally, I want to touch on the subject of levelling up and its relationship to health inequalities. It has become somewhat of a go-to phrase for the Government. It should perhaps be a cause of concern to the Minister that, more than two years into this Administration, the levelling-up White Paper still has not been published. On that note, I want to press her on what exactly the Government’s priorities are.

In 2020, Professor Sir Michael Marmot published “Build Back Fairer” in Greater Manchester, which called for several policy interventions from the Government. Professor Marmot proposed investment in jobs, housing, education and services, and made particular reference to tackling the social conditions that cause inequalities at local and community level. We saw local authority public health funding cut by 24% per capita in real terms between 2015-16 and 2020-21. That is the equivalent of a reduction of £1 billion, which cannot be right. We need to restore public health funding to local authorities, so that local teams are able to provide vital services that communities need to stay healthy.

In conclusion, we went into the pandemic with health inequalities already growing, which left Britain’s poorest areas, as well as those in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, acutely vulnerable to covid-19. That is totally unacceptable. We are now in 2022; we should not be living in a society with such extreme levels of health inequality. It is not right, and it needs fixing. The Government must do more and can do more, and they must do better.

The debate will finish no later than 4.25 pm. I know that the Minister is aware of the need to allow two or three minutes at the end for the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) to wind up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on bringing forward this extremely important debate. It has been really interesting and, with many people contributing, it has been quite rounded. The hon. Gentleman spoke passionately and knowledgeably about the issue, as did other Members. We have probably done the issue a disservice by having only an hour and a half to debate it. I look forward to further debates.

It is time to shift the centre of gravity of the health system from treating disease to building good health. To do that, we have to focus on the people and places who face the worst health outcomes. That is why on 1 October 2021, we launched the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities. The mission of OHID is to improve the health of our country so that everyone can expect to live longer in good health, and to break the link between people’s background and their prospects for a healthy life.

OHID is doing that by working with the rest of Government, the healthcare system, local government and industry, to bring together expert advice, analysis and evidence in policy development and implementation. As a number of hon. Members mentioned, covid has shone a light on the poor underlying health of certain groups in the population, the depth of health disparities and the implications for our health, economy and society.

Health disparities across the UK are stark. As the hon. Member for Bootle highlighted, in the borough of Sefton, where his constituency is located, the life expectancy deprivation gap is 11.8 years for women and 12.5 years for men. Health disparities can be driven by a range of factors, including education, income, employment and early years experiences. Therefore, OHID aims to systematically tackle the top preventable risk factors for poor health by looking actively at the evidence on health disparities and the ways in which we can go further to address them.

The new Health Promotion Taskforce, which was set up by the Prime Minister, will drive and support the whole of Government to go further in improving health and reducing disparities, because many of the factors most critical to good physical and mental health are the responsibility of partners beyond the health service. This new Cabinet Committee, now chaired by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, brings Departments together around the objective of reducing ill health and health disparities. It also provides a new opportunity to work together actively on the most important health issues and agree new ways to address them collectively. I hope that helps reassure colleagues that the new taskforce is at the top of Government, and is determined to bring all Departments together to tackle this agenda.

In my contribution, I referred to the contact that I have had with Crisis on homelessness. Will the contact that the Minister has referred to include those groups? They have the facts. She will have heard what I said about the disparities between those who, like us, live in a well-off area, and those who do not and have not got a home. Homelessness is deadly.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that tackling homelessness is a high priority for this Government.

As hon. Members have mentioned, the Government will shortly publish a landmark levelling-up White Paper that will set out bold new policy interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunities in all parts of the UK, and to reduce the disparities between different parts of the UK. Poor health is stopping people accessing quality education and jobs with good career prospects, limiting their career progress, and undermining local prosperity and the general wellbeing of communities across the UK. Of course, it would be wrong of me to pre-announce the contents of that important White Paper.

Tackling health disparities promotes economic prosperity by increasing productivity and reducing strain on public services, including the economic cost of preventable ill health to the NHS and the welfare system. To address those issues, we are investing in tackling the key contributors, such as obesity and smoking. We are also investing £500 million to transform Start4Life and family health services.

I refer back to my point about not victim blaming, but in relation to the NHS resource allocation formula, can I ask the Minister whether the Government will be reinstating the health inequalities weighting that the previous Administration scrapped?

If I may, I will write to the hon. Lady on that so I can make sure that my facts are completely clear, rather than giving her an answer that may not be quite accurate.

In recognition of the strong relationship between work and health, the joint work and health unit was established in 2015. It has invested in a programme of trials and tests to identify effective models of health and employment support, and it is now using that learning to develop and/or roll out services to support disabled people and people with long-term health conditions to enter and stay in employment. The 2021 spending review confirmed that the public health grant will be maintained in real terms for the spending review period, so local councils can continue to invest in prevention and essential public health services. The distribution of that grant is heavily weighted towards the areas that face the greatest population health challenges, with per capita funding almost 2.5 times greater for the most deprived authorities than for the least deprived. The allocation at local authority level will be announced shortly.

The role that local authorities play in improving public health is far broader than simply the important services and interventions funded through the public health grant. That grant is part of a wider package of targeted investment in improving the public’s health over the spending review period, including £300 million to tackle obesity; £170 million to improve the “best start in life” offer available to families, including breastfeeding advice and parent-infant mental health support; and an additional £560 million to support improvements in the quality and capacity of drug and alcohol treatment, which was announced as part of the drugs strategy. In addition, we have made over £12 billion available to local councils since the start of the pandemic to address the costs and impacts of covid-19. Of this money, £6 billion was non-ringfenced, because we recognise that local authorities are best placed to decide how to manage the major covid-19 pressures in their local areas.

I made a point in my speech about an issue that affects my area, regarding covid death certificates and industrial disease. Would the Minister either respond to it now or write to me about it?

I was going to answer the hon. Lady’s point shortly, but I will answer it now. I will write to her on the important issue she raised about industrial disease. We need to ensure we have everything in place to enable families to access the different forms of support available to them.

I will come back to OHID for a moment. OHID has regional teams, which will have a vital role in working with integrated care systems at regional level. OHID will produce important data and information resources, which will be vital to ICS work in improving population health. Through ICSs, we will improve local working on population health and reduce health disparities.

One of the key objectives of these reforms is to give integrated care boards the responsibility and the ability to tackle health inequalities, as made clear in NHS England guidance. This will also reinforce the role of local authorities as champions of health in local communities and empower the NHS to improve poor health.

I will answer a few of the questions that have been asked. The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) raised e-cigarettes. I commend her for the work that she does through the all-party parliamentary group for vaping, and I reassure her that OHID will continue to monitor and publish evidence and reviews on e-cigarettes. Our tobacco control plan will be published later this year, outlining our smokefree 2030 plans.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) highlighted disparities affecting rural communities. He raised a number of issues specific to his constituency, and I am sure that the relevant Health Minister will be happy to meet him to discuss them in more detail.

The hon. Members for Bootle and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) asked why we use the terms “disparities” and “inequalities”. I reassure them that the terms are used interchangeably, and it is important to understand that a term itself does not impact on our understanding of a problem or our response to it.

I thank the hon. Member for Bootle again for securing a debate on such an important issue. The pandemic has highlighted the impact of health disparities on people’s life outcomes and the pressures on the wider health and care system. The establishment of OHID, the creation of the new Health Promotion Taskforce Cabinet Committee and targeted investment in public health demonstrate that the Government are fully committed to tackling health disparities. I genuinely believe that by working together across Government, and with local authorities and the NHS, we can make a huge difference in improving health, life expectancy and life outcomes, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society.

I appreciate the fact that so many colleagues have come here to discuss this matter today, because it really goes to the heart of the needs of our communities.

We need a seismic shift—a paradigm shift—to tackle health inequalities and inequalities more generally. If we can guarantee £1.3 trillion to support a few institutions because of the banking crisis and £400 billion in relation to the pandemic, surely we can afford in the longer term to tackle health inequalities that affect the lives of millions of our constituents—many of whose lives are, to quote Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan”, “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and health inequalities.

DWP Risk Review Team

Before I call Kate Osamor to move the motion, I inform Members that this debate will conclude no later than 4.55 pm.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Department for Work and Pensions’ Risk Review Team.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. Today, I will talk about the Department for Work and Pensions risk review team, which was set up in May 2020. The DWP states that the team’s role is to

“review and take action on cases identified”

by the integrated risk and intelligence service as being “a high fraud risk.”

I was first alerted to the team’s existence in October 2021, when my constituency office began to receive contact from what would become a total of 29 constituents who had had their universal credit payments suspended indefinitely under almost identical circumstances. Those constituents are all Bulgarian nationals and tend to have either settled status or pre-settled status. Time and again, my office was told that the cases were under the management of the risk review team, with little to no further explanation of the reason, apart from some claims of suspicion of fraud. Constituents told me that their claims were suspended for months on end—as long as 11 months, in the worst case. Although that particular constituent’s claim has now been restored, they have received no compensation for the hardship caused.

The DWP provides no timeframe for the completion of the reviews, nor a right of appeal. A significant number of those constituents are single mothers who work part time. This situation has left them in a completely crippling financial position and pushed many into serious destitution—relying on food banks, facing eviction from their homes and racking up serious amounts of debt. One constituent, whom I will call Maria, is a constituent of mine only after she lost her home in Liverpool as a result of having her benefits suspended, and subsequently moved to Edmonton.

From the cases my office has been handling, a number of constituents have since had their universal credit payments restored and backdated, as there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I have constituents coming regularly into my office—you probably do as well, Mr Twigg—asking for help on this matter, although they may not be Bulgarian. Those constituents say that the DWP has asked them for information. I always ask, “Well, have you got that information?” to which they reply, “We are not quite sure.” Does the hon. Lady think that when an application is refused, whatever the reasons may be, the Department should make officers and staff available to help that person to get the right information and respond? The people she mentioned had their benefits restored, but they would not have had to wait had it been done right the first time around.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point, which I will come to later. I back everything that he has said, because the claimants need much more support. For many claimants, English is their second language, so the more support the Department can give them, the better.

We have seen few claims disallowed for reasons of constituents failing a habitual residency test, and none that we have seen have had their claims closed for fraud. All that raises a series of questions for the Minister. How many fraudulent claims have been discovered by the risk review team? What justification is being used for the original investigation and suspension of claims? Has the Department undertaken an equality impact assessment to ensure that the process is not resulting in direct or indirect discrimination? I ask those questions because, sadly, there did not appear to be much information publicly available about the risk review team, and the Department appears reluctant to enlighten me further. I wrote to the Minister about these issues on 26 November 2021, and I received a response only yesterday evening. I am very grateful for that response, despite having to chase the Department nearly four times.

I have also asked a series of written questions. In response to one of them, the Minister for welfare delivery stated that as of 24 December last year, 149,000 cases—approximately 3.74% of universal credit claims—had been suspended under the risk review process. We have found out that 3% of claimants in those cases had their benefits reinstated. However, using the argument that to do so would mean incurring disproportionate costs, the Department has so far declined to confirm what has happened to the other 97% of cases.

Let me ask the Minister some more questions. How many claims have been deemed to be fraudulent and subsequently closed? How many claims remain suspended? How many people who we have not yet heard about are suffering in silence, not just in Edmonton but across the country? This issue is especially concerning because the cases I have seen predominantly concern claimants for whom English is a second language. Many face real difficulties accessing services, and that can create barriers to communicating with the Department directly and to accessing outside advice and assistance.

Some appear to have had their claims referred to the risk review team after being unable to answer security questions over the phone. I am unsure how much assistance they are given in the process if there are language barriers. In response to written questions, the Department has stated that there is a “high risk of fraud” in these cases, and that all claims are “suspended pending contact” with the claimant and them providing the requested information. It has also insinuated that the cases are related to organised crime, and yet in our experience the majority of those who are impacted appear to be vulnerable single mums who have done nothing wrong.

I can speak only for my constituency, but the brunt of the policy appears to have fallen overwhelming on Bulgarian nationals. Charities working in the local area, such as Citizens Advice Enfield and the Edmonton Community Partnership, concur with that assessment. From the many organisations I have spoken to that have similar cases, I have heard of Romanian and Polish nationals being affected, but no British citizens or those of other nationalities. Tellingly, those affected are all EU citizens.

Thus far, the Department has said that it does not keep demographic data on nationality, making it impossible to produce conclusive proof, but I understand that the Department does hold data on claimants’ nationality at the point of national insurance number registration. While we remain in the dark about how this opaque team conducts its business, and with the cases that I know about being so overwhelmingly concentrated among Bulgarian nationals and other EU nationals, it is impossible not to suspect that potentially discriminatory practices are being carried out.

Considering the issues that I have raised, I have a series of recommendations for the Minister. First, I urge the Department to change its “guilty until proven innocent” approach. The Department clearly does not have the resources to process the cases in a timely manner. I understand that there are roughly 165 full-time equivalent staff on the team. It seems likely that thousands of people are left languishing for many months, effectively under no recourse to public funds conditions, even if they are entitled to claim benefits and have committed no wrongdoing. Claims should be suspended only if evidence of fraud is found, with the review and an initial decision made prior to that course of action.

Secondly, the team must provide proper assistance to those whose cases are being investigated. It must appreciate the barriers that may exist to providing evidence. The whole process has appeared opaque and complex to my caseworkers and me, let alone someone for whom English is not their first language.

The DWP must also appreciate the barriers to providing documents—learning lessons, for example, from the Windrush scandal—as there may be deeper reasons why claimants are unable to provide certain pieces of evidence. The Independent reported on a Bulgarian national who was subject to the risk review process and was asked to provide every page of their old passport. However, that was impossible, as the Bulgarian embassy in London reportedly takes expired passports when citizens apply for a new one. That should be urgently be looked into, and an equalities impact assessment should be carried out.

Thirdly, the DWP should provide adequate compensation to those who have had their claims wrongly suspended. I know of constituents who have had their lives turned completely upside down, in some cases losing homes and acquiring significant debt, not to mention the stress and anxiety caused by the months of waiting.

Backdating payments does not make up for the impact of the process. Of all the cases my office has dealt with, only one constituent has received any compensation. They were granted a consolatory special payment of £200 because of delays in a mandatory reconsideration decision and the outcome of the risk review action. That sum is nowhere near enough to make amends for the seven months in which they waited for more than £10,000, which they were entitled to receive during that time. We need a proper compensation scheme for those who have been seriously affected by the way that the risk review team has conducted its business.

Lastly, and crucially, the DWP must be more transparent. More than 140,000 claimants have been affected by the risk review team. There must be greater awareness of the way in which it operates. Currently, it appears to be operating with impunity. Guidance should be published on how the team works in identifying and investigating cases. The DWP should also make public how many cases remain suspended, and what percentage of those have been closed after the Department came to the decision that it believed the claim was indeed fraudulent.

Transparency and scrutiny are essential for good governance. Any new policy that may cause negative consequences must be identified and then, ideally, addressed quickly. The hardship being caused to my constituents, which I have spoken about today, may not be an intentional effect of this policy but, for one reason or another, they are getting trapped in this net. It is imperative that we understand why. I urge the Minister to take on board the stories that I have relayed today and to urgently review the operations of the risk review team, with the seriousness that the situation deserves, before many more lives are torn apart.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I have had an opportunity to work with you in the House, but also on various hills—with mixed results, but it is always a pleasure to be in your company.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this important debate. My Department faces a huge responsibility, day in and day out, to pay benefits to millions of households, ensuring they have the help and support they need and wherever possible helping them into sustainable employment. We do everything we can to make sure that happens in a timely way. That was proven when covid-19 hit. We paid out to over 3 million more households at a time of global crisis. Universal credit in particular is a very resilient system, because it has been stress-tested in such an environment. Our latest public statistics show that around 90% of new universal credit claims are paid in full and on time.

Alongside that, we have another responsibility: to ensure that we are using taxpayer money properly and that funding is going to those who need it. Unfortunately, there are those who think it is acceptable to commit fraud against the welfare system. Those people cost the taxpayer—in fact, stole from them—an estimated £6.3 billion last year. That is £6.3 billion of taxpayer’s money—an absolutely staggering sum. I can just imagine what any Member in this House would want to do with that money to help not only their constituents but thousands of others. It is money that could be going to fund other vital Government services. Those who fraudulently claim that money clearly have no right to it.

I believe it is right that my Department makes every effort to find and crack down on fraud, and to ensure that we have the fullest range of tools at our disposal to achieve that. Those committing fraud are clever, committed and constantly thinking of new ways to get around the systems that we have in place, and to turn new technological advances to their advantage. The job of the DWP is not just to keep up with that, but to try and get ahead of it. It is our job to keep innovating and finding new ways to identify fraud where it happens and to put a stop to it. It is our job to keep fraudsters guessing at how we might find them, so that they do not find new ways to evade us. The risk review team is one of those innovations, established as a direct response to new threats. Its role is to provide an operational response to threats that have been identified. It does this by suspending suspect cases, where specific intelligence provides evidence of fraud.

I would like to stress that we are talking about a relatively small number of claims. Of the 3.7 million claims made to universal credit since May 2020, less than 4%, approximately 149,000, have been suspended under the risk review process. Those are not run-of-the-mill cases, but ones where, based on our analysis, we believe there is a high level of risk. It is because of that level of risk that claims have been legitimately suspended. It is an approach that provides much needed capability to disrupt and respond to new and emerging threats at pace.

To give an example of one of the challenges that the DWP has faced, in May 2020 the cyber-resilience centre, working as part of the integrated risk and intelligence service—we are pretty good at coming up with snappy titles for teams—prevented an attack by organised criminals. That led to the suspension of thousands of universal credit claims and prevented £1.9 billion in benefits from being paid to people trying to scam the system in 2020 and 2021. That is just one example; those attacks continued and more cases had to be suspended to safeguard public funds.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this debate. I agree with the points that the Minister is making about the importance of tackling fraud, particularly as universal credit has the highest level of fraud of any DWP benefit in history. Does he agree that it is not acceptable to take somebody’s benefits away for 11 months, as in one of the cases that my hon. Friend mentioned, with no support available? That potentially completely ruins someone’s life.

I understand the point that the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee makes, but the key thing is that claimants need to prove eligibility. We want to help them to prove eligibility for a benefit. The challenge, and the reason these cases take time, is often that claimants are not able or willing to provide that evidence. I will come on to that later.

I think the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) hinted at this, and I did in my intervention: there are occasions when people do not understand the process, and need a wee bit of help. I think the hon. Lady asked about that. Is there an opportunity to make extra officials available to pursue those necessary evidential bases when claimants may themselves not understand what has been asked for?

The hon. Member makes a good point. We stand ready to help and assist. One of the points made by the hon. Member for Edmonton was that, in some of the cases that she highlighted, there are challenges around the ability to speak English. Of course, interpreters are made available. In the Chamber today, we have three of the most well-recognised campaigners in the House, along with others who have not spoken yet. Hon. Members should bring cases about which they have concerns to my attention directly, with the usual information that they think is appropriate and that needs to be processed. If there are any outstanding concerns, I will take a personal interest in them and move cases forward. The issue is that often—I will talk about the statistics in due course—the information is not provided, and of course we cannot provide benefits without that evidence, because of all of the fraudulent cases we have spoken about. I will carry on with my speech, which I hope will answer more questions. We will take a close look at each and every one of those 29 cases if that information can be provided—I give hon. Members that undertaking.

First, I need to emphasise that the overwhelming majority of claims for universal credit are legitimate. We know that most people are not trying to defraud the Department. The hon. Member for Edmonton raised—I would not say “a couple”—a lot of pertinent issues via parliamentary questions. That was one of the reasons why we were delayed in providing full answers to all her questions: we wanted to make sure that they matched up with the parliamentary questions. In the letter that I sent her, I apologised for that. As I say, it was mainly because we wanted to ensure that we had all the right information in response to all the questions. I hope that underlines the approach that we want to take, which is all based on due process.

However, I take this opportunity to stress, as I already have, that we are trying to get the balance right between getting money to those who need it and tackling those who are actively seeking to commit fraud. I will follow up on those individual cases in due course once the information is provided. Benefit claims should be verified and paid as quickly as possible, which is why we always make it clear to claimants exactly what information they need to provide. We do that via the claimant’s universal credit journal, and the messages also let the claimant know exactly how they can contact the Department and speak to the staff members responsible for their case. That is an important dimension; in our casework, we can do better at highlighting that to constituents. I also take the feedback that maybe we can do a better job at communicating that to MPs and their offices—a point well made.

Where there is a problem in providing information, we always encourage the individual to get in touch, so that we can discuss and resolve the matter as quickly as possible. As the hon. Member for Edmonton would expect, when we suspend a claim, we do not do it lightly. Suspension is always a last resort, for the reasons that the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), has highlighted. Suspension is based on an initial assessment that a person would not be entitled to the benefit that they have claimed—an assessment that is based on intelligence and not on the specific characteristics of claimants, such as nationality. I know that that was a concern of the hon. Member for Edmonton, but I can confirm that a person’s nationality is not a factor in determining whether a claim is referred to the risk review team.

In fact, because nationality is not a factor in that assessment process, an equality impact assessment is not needed. However, as part of the initial universal credit claim process—not the risk element, but the claims process itself—we do request information regarding a person’s nationality. That is necessary to assess the eligibility and entitlement of a claimant at the start of their claim, but it is not used as part of the risk review process.

We take good care to ensure that we understand a person’s personal circumstances, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted, and any potential vulnerability before we suspend. That means that we can engage with individuals in the right way. We have processes in place such that any contact from a claimant will be dealt with by a dedicated team. That type of one-to-one conversation with a member of staff allows the claimant to discuss the claim in detail and means that the member of staff can provide the necessary support to help to ensure that individuals can give us the documentation we need.

Once the risk review team has its information and the decision has been made that there is an entitlement to benefit, we will of course lift the suspension immediately and pay any arrears due. However, we receive no contact from the majority of suspected fraud cases—approximately 65% of those that we suspend. That is a remarkable figure: 65% of people do not get in touch with us after a suspension notice.

If a claim is suspended, we are unable to make alternative payments. However, claimants are still able to get help from work coaches to find them work. We have a record more than 1.2 million job vacancies and our work coaches are supporting thousands of people into work. There is also continued support for the most vulnerable children, regardless of a parent’s universal credit suspension. Children in receipt of free school meals will continue to receive that support. There is also the free childcare provision for three and four-year-olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds, where eligible. An individual may also be entitled to claim child benefit, assuming they meet the qualification conditions.

More broadly, local authorities have responsibility for local welfare provision. Recognising that some households will require additional help this winter, we have provided £500 million to provide support with essential household costs such as heating and food bills. That is delivered through the household support fund in England. Other help may be available via healthy start payments and the holiday activities fund. Staff in local jobcentres will be able to help to direct those in need. I should also make it clear that, while in law there is no right of appeal against the decision to suspend payment of a benefit, a claimant does have the right to appeal any outcome decision where the Department has determined that there is no entitlement.

Hon. Members will appreciate that I cannot say too much about how the risk review team works in this area of activity. As I said, it is a constant challenge to stay ahead of fraudsters and we cannot provide any clues to those looking to evade our systems. However, while a focus on disruption is a primary tactic of the team, their activity does not stop at that point. The risk review team will also gather intelligence that can be used as the basis for a formal criminal investigation, should it be warranted. It is worth noting that although the number of suspicious claims processed by the risk review team is significant, it is believed that the numbers of people responsible for those claims are actually relatively small. Our focus is on pursuing those behind the attacks in intelligence-led investigations, which is the most effective use of our resources.

Last month I went on a raid with fraud colleagues as part of a joint crackdown on fraud with West Midlands police. The raid was part of Operation Goliath, a joint national operation with police nationwide that aims to combat fraud. Numerous arrests were made and we believe that we stopped an organised crime gang alleged to be stealing from the benefits purse. Thousands of false claims, based on thousands of hijacked identities, had netted the gang approximately £4 million already—a huge amount of money, and a figure that would have likely been far higher had we not been able to intervene at the pace that we did and had the approach taken by the risk review team not been in place.

As I have said, fraudsters are constantly thinking of new ways to attack us and to evade and circumvent our systems and safeguards. Some of the frauds are so engrained and deep-set that, remarkably, even after the arrest of major criminals, we are still being contacted by individuals pursuing claims linked to those investigations. It is extraordinary.

We are continuing to build and grow our capabilities, including investing to save. At the end of last year, we had announced a total investment of £613 million, which is a huge amount of money, over the next three years, to support the Department in this challenge and enable us to drive down fraud and recover debt. The money also enables further recruitment into our counter-fraud, compliance and debt so that we can continue to respond quickly and effectively to threats. It includes the funding of around 2,000 trained specialists to stop and identify scammers. I wish that we did not have to recruit those people, but we have a challenge, which is why we have to take those steps.

I hope that hon. Members agree that we must have a co-ordinated response to the attacks on the benefits system, and take action on as many fronts as possible to drive criminals out of it. These criminals will not let up and neither will we, on which note I commend the work of the risk review team, which is clearly playing a major part in helping to stop fraud getting a foothold.

At the same time, I reiterate the point that I made earlier: I know that it can be difficult, and that there are challenges for the people involved, but we always want to work with genuine claimants. In getting the balance right, I again extend the offer to hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Edmonton, who has been a doughty champion for her constituents, that if they write to us on those cases we will take them up and follow them through. I hope that she will do so, and that I have given her some satisfaction on the questions that she asked. Clearly, we will follow up on the outstanding parliamentary questions that she highlighted in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Women’s Football

I remind Members that they are expected to wear a face covering when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. 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 experience of women playing football in England.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank all Members in attendance. I can see that there is some incredible expertise on the subject in the Chamber, and I look forward to hearing others’ contributions. I am glad to have secured the debate, which has come at an important time for women’s football, not least because of the situation that Coventry United women players faced just before Christmas. The players and staff found out two days before Christmas that the club was in financial trouble and their contracts were to be terminated, only to be saved at the eleventh hour on 4 January by a new buyer for the club.

Women’s football has seen incredible growth in the last few years. That is down to increased opportunity and, importantly, visibility. The Football Association, under the leadership of Baroness Sue Campbell and Kelly Simmons, has done a great job in getting young girls and women playing football, as shown in the FA’s latest “Gameplan for Growth” report, published in 2020. Between 2017 and 2020, the FA doubled participation in grassroots football among women and girls, and doubled fans attending international and women’s super league matches. I thoroughly enjoyed, in spite of the cold, going to see the Lionesses as they played at the Stadium of Light last year in the World cup qualifiers. It is great to see them going around the country and playing to different audiences. The Lionesses will always be very welcome in Sunderland and I hope they return soon. That highlights the importance of visibility in the growth of the sport.

The BBC, for example, has done a great job in helping build the sport’s profile. It will provide live network TV and radio coverage of the women’s Euros, which take place in England this summer. It was the first to cover a whole Lionesses campaign, when it showed every game of their 2015 World cup run, and attracted 28 million people to watch the 2019 World cup campaign. Those are truly incredible numbers, showing the value of the BBC as a public service broadcaster, which I am sure the Minister recognises, while also showing that, when women’s football and women’s sport is on TV, it brings in viewers.

Do not let those stuck in the dark ages say that people are not interested in women’s sport. A report released by academics at Durham University last week exposed the levels of misogyny still present among male football supporters, with some respondents remarking how women should not participate in sport at all, or at least stick to perceived feminine sports, such as athletics, and that the media reporting of women’s sport is PC nonsense or positive discrimination.

Let me say on the record that they are wrong, and the numbers back that up. Visibility matters, and seeing women play sport on TV makes a difference. The importance of visibility cannot be overstated. Work by the Women’s Sport Trust shows that it is having an effect. Sky Sport’s new deal has already brought in almost 8 million new viewers in the early stages of the new women’s super league season. Around nine in 10 of those viewers had not watched women’s super league in the previous four seasons. The commitment that organisations, such as the BBC and now Sky, have shown to women’s football and women’s sport in general has given young girls across the country the opportunity to see good sporting role models. It is truly invaluable to see people who look like them do amazing things. It does wonders for the confidence of those just starting out on their playing journeys, no matter how far they decide to go.

I would like to ask the Minister where the Government are up to in considering adding the women’s equivalent of the men’s sports to the listed events regime. I understand that the Government are open to consultation on that. The Minister for Media wrote to me in November, saying that it takes time, but could the Minister today give me a more definitive timescale for when the consultation is likely to conclude? The case for equality is overwhelming. With the visibility of women’s sport and women’s football rocketing, there is even more reason to get the future of the sport right.

The situation at Coventry United women’s football club was so concerning, which it is why it is important to debate the issue. Coventry plays in the second tier of women’s football, turning professional only last summer, becoming the fourth fully professional team in the women’s championship. Many of the Coventry women had left good careers to achieve their dream of playing professional football. Many of them had supported the team for many years. Yet, on 23 December, two days before Christmas, the women were told that training was cancelled, and the players, who had not been paid in four weeks, were invited to a Zoom meeting at 10 am, in which they were told that their contracts were being terminated. That is a dreadful way to inform someone of that news.

One of the Coventry players, Anna Wilcox, told Radio Plus Coventry:

“It was just a feeling of emptiness, thinking that now I’ve lost the club that I played for for a long, long time…It hit a lot of players and a lot of staff so hard. I really don’t think we will be the last, unless something changes.”

There are many issues that emerge here. The first is governance. Women’s football has a range of different governance structures. Some teams are connected to men’s teams, such as in my own city of Sunderland, with some of those being rich premier league teams such as Manchester City and Arsenal. Other teams are independent of any men’s teams and operate on their own, such as Coventry United. Then there are fan-owned teams such as Lewes, who are doing extraordinary things under the leadership of Maggie Murphy. The range of governance structures means that there is an array of different financial arrangements, but the situation that arose at Coventry is one that could happen to any team at the will of their owner, especially as it is reported that Coventry were given FA money earlier than was planned, to help them through what they knew to be a difficult period. It is unclear where that money went.

The difference in the nature of ownership means that it is incredibly unhelpful to compare the situation in the women’s game with that in the men’s game. Therefore, I agree with the recommendation in the fan-led review led by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is present, that the women’s game needs its own review to look into the issues and challenges that the game faces.

The second issue I wish to highlight is the working conditions of women players. The average wage in the men’s championship is around £35,000 a week. The average wage of the Coventry women’s team when they went into liquidation in December was just £16,000 a year, which equates to £308 a week. Although there are a multitude of reasons why the pay is different—not least the 50-year ban on women playing the sport—it is obvious that women’s experience of playing football is totally different from that of men. Although I am not saying that the women’s game is at the same stage as the men’s game, it is clear that the women’s game does not receive the respect it deserves. In women’s football, contracts are often shorter and the pay is low. Therefore, it is extremely hard for players and staff alike to plan for their future.

One of the most prominent examples of the working conditions of women footballers and their experience of playing is that of Birmingham City Women. When they were in ninth place in the top tier of the football pyramid in 2021, they came together to send a formal letter to their own club to bring to light their working conditions, because their previous request to meet the board about the issue was denied. This team are connected to a men’s team, but at the point of sending the letter, only three players were understood to be under contract for the following season. In reaction to the reports, the spokesperson for the club said:

“Both men and women’s first teams are yet to secure survival in their respective leagues. This makes it hard to start contract negotiations.”

I am afraid that I disagree with the spokesperson. Not being under contract also makes it hard for women to plan their futures.

The issue of maternity rights for players impacts on their lives hugely. In research conducted by Dr Alex Culvin last year, players were quoted as saying they

“need longer contracts so we feel more secure. I shouldn’t have to think I need to sign a four-year contract because I want to have a baby, so I know they’ll pay me.”

However, I understand that a new player contract has been agreed between the FA and the Professional Footballers Association that includes maternity cover and long-term sickness cover. I understand that this is a standardised contract that would cover players playing in both the women’s super league and the championship. If that is accurate and is to be implemented, it will be a massive step forward for the status of women footballers and, more importantly, for the terms and conditions and employment rights that they experience. I pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard in the game to get to this point.

That does not mean that we stop here, though. Although it is great news, there is still work to do. At the moment, only women who have played in the top tier of women’s football—the women’s super league—are eligible for PFA support. This needs to change, and the PFA needs to widen its remit to support all professional women players. Although the PFA runs workshops for male players on post-career options and life worries, it should offer the same services to women players. That issue is one of a package of issues in the women’s game that need to be looked at.

The investment put into the game by organisations such as Barclays has done so much to further the opportunities that are available, but we undoubtedly need a new formula that provides ample funding for the women’s game at the grassroots level and beyond, because the existing funding can only go so far. That is why it is so important that the Government listen to the fan-led review and bring forward an equivalent review into the women’s game.

I know that the Minister has said that we should expect a reply to the fan-led review in the spring, but a whole season—spring—is not a deadline and the women’s game is in need of review now.

While I talk about women’s football, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the incredible work done by Khalida Popal in bringing the Afghan girls team over to the United Kingdom. This debate is focused on the experience of women playing football in England and I am extremely proud that these Afghan girls are now able to come and experience exactly that. There are tremendous opportunities in this country for young girls to advance in the sport and I am so happy that these Afghan girls were able to come here and continue to play the game they love, in safety and with support. Khalida’s work has been inspirational and I am sure that all Members here today will join me in thanking her.

In conclusion, I return to the fan-led review. The Government have said, in an answer to a written parliamentary question that I submitted earlier this year, that they

“welcome the Independent Fan Led Review of Football Governance and…endorsed in principle the primary recommendation of the review, that football requires a strong, independent regulator to secure the future of our national game.”

Can the Minister endorse in principle recommendation 45 of the report, which is that a wholesale review of women’s football should be conducted? Also, can he provide a more specific timeframe for when the Government will publish their full response to the fan-led review?

I look forward to hearing what other Members have to say in this debate and to hearing the Minister’s answers to the questions put by myself and others.

This debate will finish no later than 5.55 pm. If hon. and right hon. Members can all keep their speeches to around five minutes, everyone should get in before we call the Front Benchers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate on women’s football. I hope that she will not consider this patronising, but I have to say that I thought her speech was one of the best speeches that I have heard in this Chamber. It was truly excellent. She is right to say that there has been enormous progress in women’s football but there is so much more to be done and I am sure that many of those who wish to speak today will do so on a very similar theme. I am also sure that the Minister will heed the points that are made, because I know that he is as passionate about women’s sport as I am and as many of us in this Chamber are.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of my speech, I will just note that there are now many more colleagues across the House who are interested in women’s sport and women’s football than before. When I was first elected in 2010, I often felt like quite a lone voice in talking about women’s football. The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and I are on the parliamentary football team, as is the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater). Just by participating ourselves, we get to talk and think about women’s football much more than ever before. It feels like there has been a shift in attitude, not just outside this House but inside it, too.

The hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) referred in her contribution to people who inspire others. May I commend the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on that very basis? Back in 2014, I had occasion to invite her to come and speak at my association dinner and I also then asked her if she would like to come round and visit some of the football teams in my area, and of course she said she would. On that occasion, she visited Comber women’s football club. As I say, that was back in 2014. Today, seven years after her visit, they still remember it. So I commend her. She is looking for role models. I tell you what: she is herself a role model.

I do not often blush, but the hon. Gentleman is making me do so. It is very kind of him to say that. It is legendary that I ended up in his constituency because I did not understand what he was asking me. I just said, “Yes,” and then the email came through saying, “Thank you for accepting the invitation to come to my constituency.”

I do not want to hog the Chamber, Mr Twigg, as I have had enough airtime on football recently, but there are a few points I want to make that will build on what the hon. Member for Sunderland Central said. First, we should celebrate the remarkable growth in women and girls participating in football at grassroots level. In the five years since the FA published “Gameplan for Growth,” participation has doubled. That is fantastic and we should congratulate those involved, but we must ensure that no one is resting on any laurels. To be fair, the hon. Member for Wirral South and I met the FA last week and I do not believe they are.

There are still too many vulnerabilities in the system for anyone to take their foot off the gas. For example, there are real difficulties getting girls to transition from playing football in PE to playing it for a club outside school. That is a challenge that has existed for a long time. It requires joined-up thinking with the Department for Education and partners. It is not insurmountable but it is difficult and there is no easy answer, otherwise it would have been done by now.

Secondly, we should celebrate the incredible journey and success of the professional game. Its earliest origins date back to the 1890s. It saw record-breaking crowds during the first world war and was banned from the 1920s until 1971, before coming under the auspices of the FA in the early 1990s. With the emergence of the women’s super league in 2011 and the subsequent establishment of the women’s championship, we can now boast the leading league in women’s football, attracting players from across the world. However, the points the hon. Member for Sunderland Central made about contracts at Coventry—and I will throw Charlton into the mix as well—are valid. I hope they have been noted by Ministers and others outside this place, because we need to take the welfare and working conditions of professional female footballers very seriously.

Furthermore, during the fan-led review we heard evidence that women’s football continues to face many interconnected challenges. There were lengthy debates about the difficult questions of whether women’s football teams should be affiliated to men’s teams or be entirely independent. There were concerns about the long-standing disparity in the financing of women’s teams versus men’s teams.

There were also concerns about the overall infrastructure of the professional game and whether the gap between the top and the next level down is too big. That led us to recommend an independent review into the women’s game. While I respect that the Minister and his officials are still going through other recommendations in the report, I repeat the call that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central made: can the Minister can tell the House today whether he accepts the recommendation about a completely separate review into the women’s game?

Turning to broadcasting, we can celebrate greater visibility of the women’s game than ever before, as the hon. Member for Sunderland Central said. We have seen a 257% increase in domestic games broadcasts since 2016. Broadcasters have come a long way since the current Mayor of Manchester, then the Member for Leigh, and I ganged up on the BBC and persuaded it to show England in the 2011 women’s World cup quarter- final on BBC2. I am sure that at the time the BBC just thought, “We’ll show it to shush these pesky MPs,” but it was pleasantly surprised that it was well watched and well received. The director of sport at the BBC, Barbara Slater, deserves a lot of credit for persisting with an agenda to ensure that women’s sport is shown on domestic TV.

People should also thank Sky Sports for its continued commitment to women’s football. The current deal is definitely a landmark and an exceptionally welcome addition to its wider sports agenda. However, it would be game changing if the women’s football World cup and the women’s Euros were added to the A list of listed events. That would provide parity and equality with the men’s games. These events are themselves pre-eminent international events that command a large TV audience. Given that we are expecting FIFA to tender the rights to the 2023 World cup shortly, if these events are not listed there is a likelihood that at some point in the future they could end up behind a paywall, which would be a shame for all the budding girl footballers out there, who want to see their heroines in action. If the Minister could give an update on where the Government are at with the consultation on listed events, that would be extremely helpful.

There is more I could say, but I will not. However, I will briefly mention that the all-party parliamentary group on women’s football is still waiting for a response from the Minister to a letter sent before Christmas regarding the disparity in legislation that protects players from pitch invaders. I could also build on points made by the hon. Lady on the prevalence of misogyny towards women who play sport, but time is short, so I will end by thanking all those who are helping to grow the game and supporting women’s and girl’s football through broadcasting and sponsorship, and of course by wishing the Lionesses every success in their forthcoming Euros campaign.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate on the experiences of women in football. It is a real honour to follow the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). I start by declaring an interest as a proud new member of the cross-party parliamentary women’s football team.

Many of us in the team are not experienced footballers and, as someone who has played hockey for 30 years, I still spend most of my time trying to put my feet in the way rather than getting them out the way. The team brings together female MPs, peers, staff and journalists from across the parliamentary family and political spectrum. We are an excellent example of the power of sport, and specifically football, in bringing people together and bridging any differences we may have.

I have a background as a lecturer in sport and physical activity and as a group exercise instructor. Alongside my own adventures on the hockey pitch, I have worked with many female clients and students over the past 20 years to create and facilitate positive experiences of sport and physical activity for women, to enhance physical and mental health and wellbeing, to provide positive social interactions and to develop friendships and support networks for busy women who far too often put themselves at the bottom of their list of priorities and responsibilities.

However, I know that this positive experience is sadly not shared by many women across the country, who face a number of barriers to getting into sport, a lack of support once there or, worse still, totally unacceptable discrimination, sexism and abuse. I am keen to use my role in Parliament to be an advocate for all women who face such challenges, which is why I was keen to take part in the debate. I recently with Sport England to discuss women in sport, and just this week I spoke to Sam Keighley, strategic director of the Yorkshire Sport Foundation, who gave me a comprehensive overview of the issues faced by women when playing, spectating, refereeing and coaching football. Sadly, there are too many to mention, but I will share some of the highlights, or should I say lowlights, with hon. Members.

On playing, there is a lack of access to facilities for women’s teams. Poor pitches are often used for boys’ or men’s games prior to the female game taking place and they are left in a terrible state. Female footballers feel that sometimes they are treated as second-class citizens. Female football is always second to male football in funding, access to training, pitches and media coverage. Girls’ and women’s teams often get given second-hand equipment after the boys’ have finished with it.

There are fewer opportunities, with fewer teams, and there are fewer opportunities to progress. Often teams have to travel further distances, which is difficult for those girls without parental support or access to transport. There is still far too much, “Girls don’t play football,” with people not talking to girls about what they actually want to do. There is little use of female role models in football, and any prizes or match tickets given out tend to relate to the men’s teams, with no effort to link to the local women’s teams.

With regards to coaching, coaching courses are male dominated, and there are still only a handful of female coaches and managers. Sadly, research shows that few junior boys’ teams would welcome a female coach. There is abuse of coaches from parents and spectators during competitive matches, and there is a lack of opportunities for female coaches to develop. In terms of female referees, they sadly experience significant abuse. They experience sexist attitudes at clubs, such as, “Why have we got you refereeing?”, “Are you even qualified?”, and, “What do you know about football?”—some of the cleaner versions of comments made. The situation is improving, but it is a real issue and will continue to put females off officiating.

In terms of spectating, female spectators feel uncomfortable and are on constant edge when watching games with a female referee, waiting for the abuse to start once someone disagrees with a decision. Opinions and comments of female fans are often dismissed, to then be repeated by someone—a man—a minute later. This has happened to me on numerous occasions. There are even reports of a female physio in the professional game getting wolf-whistled every time she comes on to the pitch.

To conclude, I am sure we can all agree that football, and sport generally, play a crucial part in bringing people together, keeping us fit and healthy, both physically and mentally, and providing fun and entertainment for millions and sports clubs that are often at the heart of our communities. As has been said, women’s football is growing at an incredible speed, with the women’s World cup, the women’s super league and the women’s FA cup, and that should be celebrated. While there has been progress over the last 30 years, it is too slow. Before we can secure football as a sport that girls can play and get involved with as easily and comfortably as boys can, and before the women’s game is treated with the same level of respect, funding and resources as the men’s game, there is work to be done. We must get the grassroots and lower league stages firmly established. We must have a fully informed strategy to stamp out the abuse and sexism that are all too common.

I could talk about the broader issues around the importance of physical education in the curriculum and about many other subjects associated with women and girls in sport and physical activity, but I will conclude by saying what a pleasure it has been to take part in today’s debate with some well-respected colleagues.

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for her excellent and detailed speech and for securing this important debate. I also thank all those who continue to make women’s and girls’ football the fastest growing sport in the United Kingdom. Over the past decade, we have seen more and more clubs take on a women’s squad on a full-time basis, and grassroots football has made huge progress in ensuring that more women’s teams are able to thrive.

I grew up playing football, and as a teenager I absolutely loved the game. Many of my fellow female MPs are keen followers of the game, as we have heard today, and I am sure they will agree that it offers so much more than purely health-related benefits. Football taught me about communication, teamwork and competition. Had I not been given the opportunity to train at an academy, I doubt I would have had equal access to football and its many benefits. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to speak today on behalf of all the women and girls who simply do not have the same access to our national game as their male counterparts.

Progress in increasing participation has been made largely by the unsung heroes of the sport: the volunteer coaches, referees, administrators and community groups, without whose efforts women would not even have access to the game. Too many girls who love playing football constantly find themselves facing unnecessary barriers. For example, girls often cannot access teams because there are so few teams playing in organised leagues that it is not possible to get a proper fixture list together. That is why it is really important that we are here today looking at how we can best support new and existing women’s clubs so that women can have equal access to playing football, and that goes for all programmes, both amateur and professional.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central outlined, the professional women’s team in my own city of Coventry, Coventry United Ladies FC, was recently narrowly saved from liquidation. The club experienced significant financial pressures as a result of the pandemic, meaning it was forced to enter voluntary liquidation days before Christmas. Players and staff faced losing their job at the worst possible time. The club would have gone bankrupt, were it not for the 280 private donations from community members and an eleventh-hour takeover by a local midlands-based energy company that helped provide the necessary funds to keep the club afloat.

Even though the team has now survived this ordeal, the episode serves to highlight the systemic challenges still facing women’s football. The players were left in a precarious position after they were told that their contracts had been terminated. In a sport where women already have to contend with short contracts and low pay, these players also had to deal with the near collapse of their team with no safety net.

The barriers that women in professional football face are not only financial but cultural. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central about Durham University’s recently published report examining UK men’s football fans’ attitudes to women’s football. This study was, sadly but unsurprisingly, the first of its kind. Ridiculously, 68% of those polled thought women should not participate in sport at all, or if they did, that they would be better suited to more feminine pursuits than football. This attitude is appalling and is reflected in how unequally women’s football clubs are treated in this country.

The change in tone and in the perception of women’s football needs to be set from the top. If the Government truly want to create equality between men and women in football, they must do more to support women’s football clubs. As a proud sponsor of Coundon Court Ladies FC in my constituency, a former amateur player and a lover of the game, I urge the Government, mayors and local governments to do everything they can to support women’s football.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am the author of “Don Revie: The Biography”, about the Leeds manager. I mention that because I want to mention him today. Don Revie was a victim of cancel culture. He resigned from a job he did not like, and the FA banned him for 10 years. I have asked the FA to apologise, but it has not. What is extremely important, and why it is so pertinent to mention him in the debate, is that women were the victims of cancel culture 100 years ago.

During world war one, women’s football was incredibly popular. Like in the men’s game, many teams grew from the factory workforce, with factories setting up their own teams. Games attracted thousands of spectators, with one Boxing day match watched by more than 53,000 people. Celebrity players came to exist, such as Lily Parr. Women’s football was thriving, with female players given offers to play all around the world. On 5 December 1921, that ended. The Football Association passed a resolution banning women from playing in its stadiums. Bolstered by sexist and selective medical opinions on the unsuitability of women for the sport, the FA delivered a death blow to women’s football. In all likelihood, the reasoning behind the ban was due not to the health concerns of female players but more to the popularity of women’s football, which was drawing spectators away from the men’s game.

Although that was not an outright ban on women playing football, it took away the big stadiums and the media attention. Women could no longer play in front of big crowds, and without media coverage and the ticket sales from larger stadiums, most clubs were forced to disband. It was not until 1971 that the FA lifted the ban on women’s football, and it was not until 1993 that the FA brought all women’s football under its direct control. Let me put that in context. When England won the World cup in 1966 and, it is said, modern football began, with football fever sweeping the country, women were still banned from playing football by the Football Association.

The season before women’s football was banned in 1921, there were only two professional men’s leagues in England. Since then, men’s football has grown to the point where it attracts the eye-watering salaries for the top footballers and can support four professional divisions. Women’s football was not given the same opportunity. The women’s game was cut off at the knees by the FA in 1921, just as it had become popular and mainstream.

I believe it is the duty of the Football Association to correct that. Given that a deliberate intervention by the Football Association caused the demise of women’s football in 1921, the FA ought to deliberately intervene to build up that sport and make up for the last 100 years. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) will smile when I say this, but I have to mention Don Revie again. When I have written to the FA in the past to ask for apologies on behalf of the Revie family, it has dismissed that out of hand. That is an absolute disgrace. And I have no doubt that the FA will do the same if we try to do the same for women’s football.

Without the FA’s intervention by banning women’s football, who knows where it would be now? The FA has a debt to repay. Investing in women’s football clubs and academies, increasing media coverage of matches and encouraging spectators is not “positive discrimination”; it is something that is needed in the game now. It is necessary and should be brought about.

John Williams from the University of Leicester has said:

“The increase in media coverage of women’s sport…was openly supported by some men. But it also clearly represents, for others, a visible threat”.

That perception that the popularity of women’s football could be a threat to the men’s game is not new. It was the reason why women’s football was originally banned, 100 years ago. There are those who criticise women’s football as being less in some way—less skilful, less popular or less commercially viable. However, that is not intrinsic to the sport. In fact, women’s football in the UK was once more popular than the men’s. It was the actions of the FA that changed that.

Unfortunately, we have long heard male football fans—I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) on bringing this issue up—criticising and belittling the women’s game. In fact, an academic study by Durham University reported that openly misogynistic views of women in sport were far too common among male football fans, irrespective of age. Lead author Dr Stacey Pope said of the study:

“Our research showed that attitudes towards women in sport are, to some extent, changing, with more progressive attitudes. However, the findings are also reflective of a patriarchal society in which misogyny is rife. There were numerous examples of men from across all generations exhibiting highly sexist and misogynistic attitudes.”

Participants described media coverage of women’s sports as “positive discrimination” or “PC nonsense”. That needs to change.

The number of women and girls playing football in England hit 3.4 million in 2020. The desire to play and the desire of fans to see more women’s football are evident. We saw that in the 2015 World cup: the Lionesses’ games were extremely popular. When women’s football is given the coverage that it deserves, people will watch. We simply need to give them the choice by showing more games on mainstream channels. That will only bring more young girls into the sport and strengthen the game’s future—something that we would all welcome.

I will be brief, Mr Twigg. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for obtaining this debate. She is an incredible champion for women’s sport in general and football in particular; and, Mr Twigg, nobody could be more perfect to chair the debate than your good self, a supporter of women’s sport, including women’s football, and the finest football team on the planet—that is the women and the men, I should say.

This issue obviously has a long history. I was going to begin by saying that often we talk up women’s football and the position that it has got to because growth has been significant in recent years, but that often people do not talk about the cause of the demise of women’s football previously. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) has just done me a favour there. There is a tendency not to talk about the fact that women’s playing football professionally in this country was banned for 50 years. Many of the problems that we are trying to tackle today, and which have been covered already in this debate, stem from that ban. We have to accept the truth of that. It is not good enough to cheerlead for women from the sidelines; we have to accept the consequences of the ban, which affect every single part of the women’s game today, whether it is the professional game or the grassroots game.

In relation to the professional game, people who love women’s football and want to see it succeed are often told, “We can’t pay the players more, because of market forces being what they are. People want to watch the men’s game on the telly, and unless more people watch the women’s game, the pay for women is going to be lower.” Well, we have just heard that actually there is a root cause as to why more people watch the men’s game than the women’s game. That is why we need extra effort, to restore the women’s game to the place where it should be.

The situation is the same for the grassroots game. I do not just play for the women’s parliamentary football team; I occasionally manage to make it to Wirral Valkyries FC, in the Wirral, and you would not believe, Mr Twigg, how hard it is to get a pitch for a women’s grassroots team. That is because we really have only enough pitches for half the people who want to play football in this country. We are going to double the number of people playing football at grassroots level, so we need some more space for them to play in. That inequality causes tension the whole time. Map the level of abuse that we all receive from a patriarchal society—as rightly said by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn; I would not get away with such naked feminism!—and we can see we have a problem.

Rather than going over all that, I would simply ask colleagues one question. There are two professional football players in this country who play for the same team and who are brother and sister. Lauren James, who is 20 and has incredible talent, will probably never be a millionaire; her brother, Reece James, who is 22 and plays for Chelsea—the same team—almost certainly will. That is a level of wage inequality that we would consider absolutely unjust and intolerable in any other sphere of British life. How long are we, in this room, going to look the other way while women in this country face that kind of unjust pay gap? Women who play football professionally do so with a determination that is almost irrational, given the lack of fortune that might reward their talent. It is as simple and as stark as that.

Very briefly, I pay tribute to the fantastic Sue Campbell at the Football Association, who is an incredible woman, as well as Kelly Simmons, the director of the women’s professional game. They do not get enough credit and we should all thank them. I also thank Suzy Wrack at The Guardian, who has covered women’s football absolutely brilliantly, and younger journalists such as Katie Wyatt and Caoimhe O’Neill, who write for The Athletic and are just brilliant. They are changing the fortunes of women’s football.

I will finish with three very direct questions to the Minister—I could talk about this subject for about seven hours uninterrupted, but I will not. First, the Government could do a really helpful job that would not cost them any money, which is to benchmark the interventions that they are already making. Could they check that all the money they already spend on the grassroots game of football is being spent equally on men and women? That would make a big difference.

Secondly, could they ask the FA to look at the FA cup prize money? Nearly 2 million quid for the men’s FA cup prize money does not really make a difference to the winners, but the women only get about £25,000 in prize money. There is absolutely no objective justification for that incredible disparity in prize money. It is our flagship competition. Could the Government ask the FA to look at that?

We have heard my final question from everybody; the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who has done an absolutely brilliant job for football in this country, recommended it in her review. We need a women’s review—please may we have one? Let us crack on and deal with these issues.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second day in a row, Mr Twigg. It is good to see you here. It is a pleasure to respond for the Opposition in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing it and on her excellent opening speech, as well as all hon. Members who have spoken.

It was especially good to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) speak about the power of sport to bring people together and her experience as a new member of the parliamentary football team, noting the issues around girls’ participation. It was eye-opening to hear about the experience of women fans and the anticipation of abuse or sexism relating to female officials, which is an angle that I had not really thought of before. It was very interesting.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who spoke about how women’s football taught her about communication and teamwork, which has stood her in good stead for her role in the Opposition Whips Office. I join her in thanking the unsung heroes who keep women’s football going—the volunteers. Importantly, she outlined the ordeal of Coventry United, which I will return to briefly.

As always in any debate on sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) gave us a lesson. The history of women’s football is a fascinating background to the issues in women’s football today.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), my predecessor, for everything she did when she held this role before me. I agree with almost everything she said, although I am not sure about her team being the finest team on the planet—they are trailing in second place in the premier league at the moment. I agree with just about everything she said, including on the extra effort that we need to put in to support women’s football in this country.

In many ways, these are good times for women’s football in England. The successes of the Lionesses in recent years—notably, taking third place in the 2015 World cup and then again making the semi-finals in 2019—have helped to boost the game’s profile, and growth in interest, spectators and participation have followed. The Women’s Super League has attracted record crowds, and we had 40,000 people watching the FA cup final at Wembley in December. Driven by the FA’s efforts, the participation of women and girls in grassroots football doubled between 2017 and 2020.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) referred to the increasing interest in Parliament on this issue. I would put that down partly to the general increase in interest in women’s football, but also to her work as an absolutely fantastic champion not just of women’s football, but of football in this country. I thank her for her work on the review and for her wider work on football.

As the country looks forward to hosting the Women’s Euros this summer, enthusiasm for the women’s game will grow, attracting more fans and inspiring budding footballers. I would agree that coverage on the BBC and on Sky has raised the profile of the game, with more and more people watching women’s football on TV, driving participation. I would echo the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central to the Minister about listed events, and I hope that he will respond.

In general, the future looks bright for women’s football, but as we have heard today, there are challenges. To build a future that is fair and works for players, staff and fans at all levels, some issues need to be addressed. That is a job for the FA and for leaders in football, but also for the Government.

Today’s debate was partly brought about as a response to the recent situation at Coventry United women’s team. The team narrowly avoided disaster thanks to a last-minute buyer, and I am pleased that Coventry’s players are going to be able to continue to earn a living playing the sport they love, but it should not have come to that. This was a full-time, fully professional championship club, but to the shock—complete shock—of the players and staff, they found themselves hours away from ceasing to exist.

Coventry is not the only example of the precarious nature of the existence of some women’s clubs. Just as the Women’s Super League was due to start in 2017, Notts County folded. In 2019, Yeovil Town dropped two divisions from the WSL as a result of financial problems. Leyton Orient cast aside its women’s teams last year, forcing the creation of London Seaward to ensure that the players could continue to play. Fylde women’s team was disbanded in 2020, only for the decision to be reversed some time later, and Holwell Sports Women FC in the fourth tier of the football pyramid announced that it would have to fold just at the beginning of this month. So there are challenges, and it is not just problematic governance and job insecurity that need to be fixed. There is great growth in participation, as we have heard, but there needs to be more work on encouraging people to participate and on breaking down the barriers.

In the professional game, when things go wrong women’s players are only eligible for support from the Professional Footballers Association if they have played in the top league of women’s football, leaving most women players with nowhere to turn. As we have heard, levels of pay across women’s football are generally low, with players often needing to work on other jobs alongside football to make ends meet. Many players, as we have heard, have poor access not just to pitches, but to the medical and fitness facilities needed to play safely. Employment contracts are often poor, short term and ill-suited to the specific needs of women. Generally there has been poor maternity support for women who wish to have children, although we have had encouraging news from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central about the potential change to that—so, fingers crossed.

Our women footballers deserve better. There is, of course, the issue of the abuse and harassment faced by women in the sport. Women in Football reports that almost a third of their members have experienced gender-based social media abuse, and that is one aspect of what many players have to endure. So there is progress, but more needs to be done.

We have had the excellent fan-led review of football governance, led by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, which the Government are still dragging their heels on responding to in full or implementing. That review called for a separate dedicated review of the women’s game, and that is really the key ask I have of the Minister today. We have had a number of asks, but I think the encompassing action for the Minister—I note that you want me to finish, Mr Twigg, so I will be brief—would be on that key ask. Given the complexities of women’s sport and the crises that have cropped up, a full review of the future of women’s football is urgently needed. The Government have said they would respond in full to the review in spring, but why the delay? Will the Minister clarify whether there is any truth in the rumour that the Treasury are the block on progress? The issues raised in the debate mean that a separate women’s review is needed, so why not get on with it? The Government have accepted in principle the fan-led review’s recommendation for an independent regulator. I repeat the request of other Members that the Minister should now endorse its call for a review of women’s football. That is what we need. Let us get on with it.

I call the Minister, but I remind him that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) will want a couple of minutes at the end to wind up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, for the second time this week. I thank the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for securing this debate, and everyone who has participated so eloquently and knowledgably. I wish a happy birthday to my opposite number, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith).

The debate is particularly timely, given that we are counting down to 6 July, when England will kick off their first match in the women’s Euros against Austria at Old Trafford. As many hon. Members mentioned, women’s football has made significant progress recently. I was fortunate to be at Wembley last December for the Vitality women’s FA cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal. It was a brilliant match, and it marked the 50th anniversary of the first women’s FA cup final—interestingly, it was only the 50th, for the reasons the hon. Member for Sunderland Central outlined. It achieved, my notes say, a record crowd of 40,000 people, but that is corrected by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who mentioned there being a 53,000-person crowd in the past, so we still have a way to go. In addition, a record audience of 28.1 million viewers watched the BBC coverage of the 2019 FIFA women’s world cup on television and online. I praise the work done by the BBC and many of the public service broadcasters in their broadcasting.

We have seen other kinds of progress. There have been bespoke women’s sports deals, such as the Barclays’ sponsorship of the FA women’s super league, which the hon. Member for Sunderland Central mentioned. We need that sponsorship; it is really important that this money flows into the game. England’s men and women senior players are now being the paid the same match fee for representing their country, but there is still huge progress to be made in equality of players’ pay, as many hon. Members pointed out. I praise teams such as Lewes for the progress and leadership they have shown.

Despite the positive signs and progress, we cannot be complacent. Since becoming the Minister for sport, I have made it a personal priority to champion women’s sport, including women’s football, at every opportunity. That is why last year I established a working group to explore the challenges and opportunities in women’s sport. The group included Women in Football and the FA, and it discusses challenges, opportunities and how best to overcome obstacles. The work of that group has already shaped thinking in the Department considerably.

I think I can make a few people happy today by announcing that I have written to sports’ governing bodies and broadcasters outlining that the Secretary of State and I are minded to add the women’s World cup and the women’s Euros to the listed events regime. We will have a short re-consultation, which will end on 16 February. This is a huge opportunity for women’s football; it can bring those tournaments to an even larger audience. We are working on several other areas, including the refresh of sport.

Many hon. Members mentioned misogyny and the hatred spread online. I am looking closely at how the online harms Bill might tackle the persistent and utterly unacceptable misogyny that continues to blight women’s sport.

As many hon. Members have mentioned, there has been considerable growth of the sport at grassroots level. The FA published its “Gameplan for Growth” and highlighted that women’s and girls’ participation has doubled over the last few years. There are 12,000 registered teams, and there are 2.4 million women and 1 million girls under the age of 16 playing football.

Many hon. Members mentioned the importance of access to facilities, and I completely agree with them on that. That is precisely why we are investing hundreds of millions of pounds in pitches and multi-sport pitches, and why I am working with the Department for Education on how we can make further progress on schools’ access to sports.

Despite the momentum in recent years, women’s sport, including football, has been heavily impacted by the pandemic; there is the slow return of spectators, a lack of media coverage in some cases, and a loss of sponsorship deals—deals that women’s sport has historically found it difficult to attract. As several hon. Members mentioned, we saw that most recently in the near liquidation of Coventry United ladies football club.

I turn to the fan-led review. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch)—like the hon. Member for Sunderland Central, and indeed everybody here—is a passionate advocate of women’s and girls’ football. The review, which published its final recommendations in November, not only considered the issues affecting the men’s game in this country, but examined the complex future of women’s football, which has a growing number of participants and fans. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford set out, fans and advocates of women’s and girls’ football gave evidence to the review, and starkly set out the fact that the women’s game is at a crucial point. Many who gave evidence spoke passionately about the need for women’s football to be properly financed; that should include a consideration of sponsorship and many other areas.

As many hon. Members have acknowledged, the review concluded:

“Women’s football should be treated with parity and given its own dedicated review.”

I am afraid that I cannot promise to give the Government’s response today, but I can tell hon. Members that we are working on it every day; many people are working on it. I will ensure that I give a full response in the spring. There is no dragging of feet here. I thank the many people who have done work on this, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. It is because that work was so comprehensive that we want to do it justice and give it a comprehensive response. My hon. Friend mentioned the letter that she and others wrote to me. I will reply to her letter regarding the designation of women’s football matches under the Football (Offences) (Designation of Football Matches) Order 2004.

It is worth pointing out that football banning orders are a Home Office policy, although we at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport do work very closely with the Home Office on that. I can confirm, however, that the football banning order legislation covers both women’s and men’s designated matches where there is a high risk of disorder. However, there may well need to be consideration of whether the scope of the order needs to be widened. I will happily raise that with my Home Office colleagues. Members mentioned several other requests.

The Minister will be aware that the Home Office has tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is in the House of Lords, to extend the scope of football banning orders in order to tackle online racist abuse. Is this not an opportunity to ensure that football-related matters are covered?

I will happily raise that with the Home Office, though I cannot make promises about legislation on behalf of another Department.

I hope I leave hon. Members in no doubt that I am personally committed to continuing to help women’s sport, including football, to come out of the pandemic stronger than ever. I will continue to work with the sector, and with all stakeholders across the House, to make that happen.

I thank all colleagues for their contributions. There is general consensus on the broad issues that women’s football faces. I thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), for his contribution and the Minister for his response. I am pleased about what he said about listed events. I am disappointed that he has not gone further on the fan-led review, and that he has not committed in principle to starting the women’s review, which was recommendation 45 of that review. We do not need to wait for the entire Government response to the incredibly thorough fan-led review before agreeing to that in principle. I ask him to look at that again, and to see whether the Government can respond sooner. They need only say, “Yes, in principle we agree.” That does not merit our waiting for the response to the whole review. I thank everyone for attending; it has been a very worthwhile debate.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).