Tuesday 22 March 2022
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Midas Financial Solutions Collapse
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the people affected by the Midas Financial Solutions collapse.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Stringer, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time to bring the matter before the House. I do so for a number of reasons, some to do with the people directly affected by the collapse of Midas Financial Solutions, but also because the case brings to us bigger issues that require attention and, potentially at some point, reform.
Another reason for bringing the matter to the House is that I know from my constituency casework that, bad though the situation around Midas Financial Solutions is, it is far from the only case. I have another such constituency case, although I will not refer to it as criminal proceedings are still live and it would therefore be improper to do so. However, the position of those investors in Midas Financial Solutions Ltd who took the legal action against Sense, the principal of Midas Financial Solutions, remains highly unsatisfactory.
Related to that position, it appears to me that the workings of the Financial Conduct Authority, and before it the Financial Services Authority, require close parliamentary scrutiny, particularly the inability to focus on the needs of the consumer, rather than the various other professional parties that come within its ambit. It is worth reflecting that, in this case—which forced the FSA to act in 2014, although it had been aware of much of it beforehand—it took until 2020 and court action by 95 of the investors for the FCA to apologise in writing. That illustrates the obstruction that seems to lie at the heart of much of the complaint handling by the FCA.
Finally, there are issues around the future pattern and shape of regulation. The law as it stands leaves us, effectively, with two tiers of protection, and I suggest that that requires to be addressed.
Today’s debate is the latest junction in a road that has represented six years of casework for me. I have been consulted with, worked with constituents who have lost tens of thousands of pounds—some have lost hundreds of thousands of pounds—and engaged with people throughout the north-east of Scotland, as well as Orkney and Shetland, as Midas Financial Services Ltd was based in Aberdeen. The managing director was Alistair Greig, who was convicted of fraud involving £13,281,671.25. For his role in the fraud, he was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment, which was reduced on appeal to 10 years. The fraud ran from August 2001 to October 2014.
The pretence at the heart of the fraud—that money was being placed in short-term deposit schemes with Royal Bank of Scotland for fixed periods—was essentially fairly simple, but this turned out to be, bluntly, a Ponzi scheme. We are not focusing on RBS today, but I will mention in passing that one of my constituents rather dryly observed that throughout the scheme RBS had demonstrated a quite remarkable lack of curiosity. The prosecutor at the trial said that Greig had used the funds from Midas Financial Solutions (Scotland) Ltd
“as his own personal slush fund.”
My constituents would prefer not to be named, as Shetland is a small community and it is not difficult to work out who has lost sums of this sort. I have worked closely with the group that organised and corralled the 95 investors to raise legal proceedings, and I pay tribute not just to my constituents, who have been dogged in their pursuit of the action, but also Colin Stewart, who was one of the main actors in bringing the group together.
We have to bear in mind that the sums involved are massive—tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds—and represent life savings or perhaps an inheritance. These are not investment bankers in the City of London who are just taking a bit of punt with last year’s bonus. These are massive amounts of money to the people involved, and it is money that none of the people to whom I have spoken could afford to lose. One of my constituents remains £80,000 out of pocket to this day.
I pay handsome tribute to some of the legal practitioners involved. Robert Morfee was the solicitor when I first became involved, and more recently it has been Philippa Hann, who has prosecuted the case for her clients in a way that reflects very well on the best traditions of the legal profession. My constituents have been very fortunate to have her on their side.
Alistair Greig operated as an appointed representative, which is a term of art, of Sense Network Ltd, a network of financial advisers. As I said earlier, this was actually a Ponzi scheme operated by Alistair Greig. The true nature of the scheme was eventually exposed by a whistleblowing notice in August 2014, leading to enforcement action against Midas and Mr Greig by the Financial Conduct Authority in September 2014. That investigation revealed that 279 members of the public had contributed £12.8 million to the scheme, but that only £379,000 remained at that point.
Proceedings were taken by 95 claimants against Sense as the principal and supervisor of Midas. They were unsuccessful both at first instance and on appeal, on the basis that it was held that the obligations of Sense for its appointed representative were strictly limited to the exact terms set out in the appointed representative agreement between them, which included which product providers Midas could use. Where Midas used a different product provider, that was held to fall outside the responsibility of Sense, despite the fact that the claimants were not made aware of that nor could they have discovered it from any publicly available source.
I want to labour this point for a second, because it is material. The FCA, and before it the FSA, made it clear in everything it ever said to members of the public that they should check the status of the people with whom they were doing business—there are online registers available for ready inspection. However, the truth of the matter is that whether or not the actions of the appointed representative are covered, as they should be by having a principal such as Sense Ltd, is something that someone coming in off the street to invest their money cannot know. Indeed, that ran to the very heart of the difficulties faced by those who invested with Midas Financial Services.
It was also disclosed in the course of the court proceedings that there were good reasons for Sense, the Financial Services Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority to know that Alistair Greig was dishonest and was not fit and proper to be registered and authorised by them. In fact, it was revealed that the Yorkshire Building Society had found him to be selling mortgages under false pretences. The management of Sense Network was aware of that but allowed Mr Greig and his firm to continue as an appointed representative of Sense Network.
The effect of the court’s decision was to create a two-tier system of protection for UK investors. The court upheld that the private contract between the principal and the appointed representative, not the publicly available information on the FCA register, defines the business for which the principal is responsible. Even though the customer would not know what the arrangement is between the principal and the AR, that arrangement will govern the acts for which the principal is responsible. As a result, the customer will be in the dark and potentially at risk—more so than if they had done business with the principal directly. Where the advisor is not an appointed representative but is directly authorised by the FCA, the consumer will be protected in relation to the business that it is permitted to undertake and which is listed in the publicly available register. If Midas had been directly authorised, the claimants would have been protected.
The judgment is relevant to any appointed representative acting outside its private agreement with its principal. The fact that the investment in this case was a Ponzi scheme is irrelevant to the decision that the judge made and the consequences for the general public. Any client of an appointed representative advised in relation to anything that falls outwith the agreement with the principal will leave the client without protection entirely, without their knowledge. In the Midas case, obviously the staff at Midas did not inform the claimants that the advice fell outside the agreement with their principal. One wonders whether they would have even understood the significance of it had they done so. The judgment now leaves consumers at the mercy of unscrupulous ARs acting in breach of their private agreement with their principal, for which the principal avoids liability despite the law providing for it to seek damages from the AR for breach of that contract. The principal can take action against the appointed representative, but the customer—the consumer—cannot.
As well as taking the court action, the claimants took a complaint to the FCA about the failure of its predecessor, the Financial Services Authority, to take steps to prevent Mr Greig from operating in the financial services sector. The process for authorisation requires a test to ensure that those accessing the public are fit and proper individuals. The test requires honesty, competence and capability, together with financial soundness. The regulator had three opportunities to identify Mr Greig as dishonest and to remove him from the industry before he was able to defraud it. The regulator did not uphold the complaints in respect of the first two opportunities, but it did expect that it should have taken further steps.
The judgment of the complaints commissioner overseeing the work of the FCA, which was published on 27 May 2020, is significant, and I want to draw the House’s attention to two parts of it. The first relates to section 348 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which details the policy on sharing information. The commissioner states:
“I have queried the FCA’s position on this, and it has explained that, while the general criteria by which decisions were and are made are not covered by s348, explaining how they were applied to a particular case is likely to involve breaching s348 because it may disclose confidential information received by the FCA.”
The protection in section 348 is all about protection for the FCA and those who are authorised, not protection for consumers. That is what I suggest requires some attention. The commissioner concluded:
“The view of section 348 is problematic, because it makes it hard to understand why the regulator has made decisions, and can lead to an erosion in public confidence. In your”—
that is, the claimants’—
“response to my preliminary report, you argued that you ought to be able to see any unpublished policies applying at the time in order to be able to respond. I have considerable sympathy with your point of view, but the fact is that for regulatory reasons the FCA considers that detailed policies of this kind should not be published. I invite the FCA to consider whether it might be more open about the historic policies of the FSA, but that is as far as I can go.”
As far as I am aware, it has never made any such explanation.
In relation to the information provided by the Yorkshire Building Society, the commissioner is blunt:
“I recognise that you—and many others—might be surprised to learn that the FSA considered that reports suggesting mortgage fraud should not necessarily be followed up. I was surprised when I learned this. The fact that a major building society felt it necessary to remove advisers from its panels because of concerns about their integrity might be seen as a good reason for the regulator to make significant further inquiries.”
That was information that went to the FSA in 2008. It did not act then, and did not act when further information was given to it in 2012. As a consequence, the activities of Alistair Greig were allowed to continue unchecked for at least six years. When Greig’s activities were eventually exposed, legal action was taken. Although the complainants were unsuccessful, it was held that there was eligibility as—I have lost the term of art; as a collective investment scheme, which would open the door to compensation under the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.
Most of those who suffered loss as a consequence of the activities of Alistair Greig were able to avail themselves of that, and many have been compensated in full. The fact is, however, that that route only came to light as a consequence of the legal proceedings that were taken by Colin Stewart and the 94 other investors. They would never have been able to make that claim to the FSCS, but for the fact that they took the court case, even though that was ultimately unsuccessful. The 95 are still out of pocket to a collective tune of £2 million in legal fees. My constituent has been left with an £80,000 shortfall for the money he invested. It seems wrong to me that, even where the FCA is entitled to make ex gratia payments, for fairly opaque reasons in this case, it has refused to do so. I call on the FCA, and hope the Minister will also use his office to impress on it the unsatisfactory nature of that.
Quite apart from the legalities, if the FCA acted so badly and inadequately that it had to issue a letter of apology in June 2020 to the people who had invested, but will not do anything to make good the losses sustained by my constituents and others in exposing conduct, which the FCA should have exposed, something has gone badly wrong. It is in that sense that the House should now have an interest.
It is clear to me from my dealings with Midas and other cases that the regulation of the financial services sector is enormously complex—far too complex for people entering the sector in good faith, with no experience or understanding of how it works—and it is not consumer-friendly. It is focused on protecting those charged with its regulation and the bodies that are regulated, rather than the consumers, who will ultimately be left out of pocket when it all goes wrong. That is what has happened with Midas Financial Solutions, and that is something that the Government now need to consider with some urgency.
We have spoken elsewhere in the House about the attitude that fraud is somehow a victimless crime—it is not as direct as housebreaking or crimes of violence. My constituents who are tens of thousands of pounds of their savings and hard-earned cash out of pocket would not agree with the assessment that fraud is a victimless crime. We pay the Financial Conduct Authority a lot to regulate, and we deserve better.
I was given the figure by my constituents—of course, it was a collective action. Even if it was £1.5 million, it is still chunky money in terms of being left out of pocket and it still hits particularly hard. There is the financial and also the emotional cost to those who had to take the action to make the FCA do its job.
I have struggled this morning to resist the temptation to be drawn down into the weeds. I have had six years of dealing with this matter. The complexities, technicalities and minutiae are incredibly involved. I have learned more about the regulation of financial services than I would have believed possible or desirable, but the message for the House is fairly clear: the system is not working. It has left my constituents and others significantly out of pocket. But for the fact that they were prepared to take legal action, every one of the 279 investors would have been out of pocket. For that reason, the system requires further scrutiny by the Department.
Mr Stringer, I have taken rather longer than I intended. I await the Minister’s reply with interest.
Thank you, Mr Stringer, for allowing me to speak on this issue. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on bringing it forward. As always, he set the scene very well for his constituents, who have lost out, and he was passionate in asking for answers to the questions he put forward. It is pleasing to see the Minister in his place. He always comes with a positive attitude to these issues. He understands them well and we look forward to his response. Hopefully, he can address some of the issues we have.
It is also a pleasure to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), in her place. Like others, I want to put on record my thanks to her for her hard work and endeavours to bring home her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and others. That campaign has been marvellous. We all admire the hon. Lady very much, and we see her perseverance. If she is adding her weight to this debate, I am sure that will be enough to push it over the line— no pressure on the Minister. Again, I thank her so much.
The case of Midas Financial Solutions is disturbing to the extreme. My heart goes out to all those hard-working people who trusted a financial adviser and have lost their money. That was very well illustrated by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. From a 22-year-old to two people who have died, there appear to be almost 200 victims. Some of them lost a few thousand, but that was all they had. Those people invested thinking that it would make their money last for their old age. Unfortunately, it did not. Others lost almost £500,000. I have a number of questions for the Minister, but one is whether the families of those who died get compensation?
The sheer scale of the Ponzi scheme is mind-boggling, yet the shortcomings and the evidential base are well documented. People are out of pocket. In debates on other issues, the Minister has tried hard to respond, but we need to ensure that the investors who are most out of pocket—I think 95 is the final figure—can be reimbursed. What can be done to ensure that lessons are learned from what we are bringing to the attention of the Minister and the Government?
When I read the background to the case, one thing became glaringly obvious: the FCA managed to wash its hands of the entire scheme until a judge in the civil case underlined the fact that this was truly an investment scheme and therefore should be accepted into the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. Why did it take a civil case to bring this within the FCA scheme remit? What steps do we need to take to ensure that this does not happen to anyone else and that people can access the scheme, which is designed to help, without having to fund a civil case? It is not always possible for ordinary folk who have already lost the bulk or all of their moneys to pursue a legal case. They must feel frustration; they look to the Government and the system to protect them and to ensure that their investments are okay, ever mindful that there are some in this world who would take advantage of people trying to build something for their future.
My next point runs on from that. It is grossly unfair that those 95 people must pay from their limited recoup to cover legal fees of £1.5 million—or perhaps £2 million, as the right hon. Gentleman said.
There we have it. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn and I now know that the figure is £1.9-odd million in legal fees. They will pay that out of the same amount as those who did not pay into the court case will receive. We can understand the frustration of those who paid for these things to be chased up, given that others have the advantage of not having paid. There is an anomaly. Some lost out, but the legal fees then follow. Surely, the public purse should have paid, rather than people who have already lost every penny of their savings.
The head of a regulated company unscrupulously and fraudulently stole millions of pounds to furnish his lavish lifestyle. His own wife has been instrumental in helping the victims, and that is one of the good things that has come out of this, but her husband stole from his customers. Why has the body set up specifically to look into these things been so behind the door in fulfilling its role? How can we ensure that this loophole is removed so that people have full help and assistance in future? There are lessons to be learned that we can use for the future. We need to ensure that people who invest in these pension schemes do not find themselves out of pocket when the time comes.
The background article I read in The Courier highlighted the fact that the warning signals regarding this man were ignored or overlooked by the FCA. If they had not been, that may have prevented more people from being duped. What is being done to prevent these things from ever being overlooked again? People want the assurance and the confidence when they invest that the company they are dealing with is safe and secure. What has been learned by the Government and the Minister? What legal measures will be put in place to ensure this does not happen again?
I conclude by thanking the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for bringing the debate forward. It is important that these issues are debated in Westminster Hall or the main Chamber. The right hon. Gentleman has been involved in these issues on behalf of others in the past, and we have spoken in many debates together. Our job is always to illustrate examples where, unfortunately, things have gone wrong, but I respectfully say to the Minister that his job and that of the Government is to ensure that these things do not happen again.
Through the debate, we are seeking not only to get justice for the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents and hundreds of others who have lost out, but to ensure the Government close the gaps in support for victims and in the regulation of the system. What has been done legislatively to ensure this does not happen again? This failing has ruined the lives of hundreds of people, when it could have been prevented. It is turning some people’s comfortable retirement into purgatory, and we must address that now.
It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I wondered at points if he was looking over my shoulder at some of the things I was planning to say, so I will just have to find a different way of expressing them. I commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for his determination in pursuing justice, truth and better outcomes and to prevent such things from occurring again, which he has demonstrated throughout his pursuit of this issue.
The main villain of the piece is obviously Alistair Greig, the managing director of Midas Financial Solutions. After the scale of his dishonesty was revealed in court, he was dubbed by the Aberdeen Press and Journal as the “king of the swindlers”. He defrauded over 180 victims, or 297 according to the Financial Conduct Authority, of close to £13 million. Most, but not all, were from the north-east of Scotland, and it was one of Scotland’s largest ever fraud cases, taking over two years to investigate.
Many investors—business people, retirees and young people starting out in life—were told their investments had grown, which encouraged them to invest even more, all the time believing that their money was safely tucked away and gathering interest. The only problem, as we now know, is that it was not. Their investments were not growing in the sense that we might understand; rather, they were unwittingly part of a Ponzi scheme, using the deposits of later clients to repay earlier deposits with interest and therefore burnishing the outward reputation of the scheme.
Self-evidently, all fraud is dishonest, but what really takes the breath away is the sleekit nature—don’t worry, Hansard, I will send a note later about “sleekit”—of how this particular fraud was perpetrated. In setting himself up as a gatekeeper, Greig pretended that he had access to a special deposit account at the Royal Bank of Scotland. That was pitched as being beyond the means of ordinary investors to access, except through him. He said that he could make that opportunity available to his more valued customers, taking people in with that confidence trick.
Greig exploited his existing, justified reputation and long-established relationships, including with those he worked beside and those he knew socially and professionally. One person close to the investigation said Greig
“pitched the interest rate at somewhere between plausible and too good to be true.”
He exploited those relationships to draw in further unwitting investors.
In the north-east of Scotland and, I am sure, in other parts of these islands the personal relationship still counts for a great deal, as does personal trust, a personal referral and word of mouth. It is that that makes this scheme so particularly invidious, given the way that it managed to spread through so many investors. I have no doubt that this case has directly and indirectly resulted in illness and great distress, contributed to people’s early deaths and caused divisions between families where recommendations to invest were made from one family to the other.
What did Greig get out of it himself? He spent the money on classic cars, exotic holidays and VIP days at Wimbledon and the British grand prix, living a lifestyle few of us could ever dream of, all off the back of other people’s hard-earned money. It is quite something to reflect that it took 95 victims to bring a civil case against Mr Greig before they were able to secure a single penny of compensation.
May 21 2020 is an auspicious date in these events, because that was when the criminal case came to a conclusion at the High Court in Edinburgh and Lord Tyre sentenced Greig to 14 years’ imprisonment. In his sentencing remarks, Lord Tyre observed that Greig was
“guilty of committing a fraud on an enormous scale.”
The thing about committing a fraud on an enormous scale is that the overwhelming evidence that persuaded the jury to convict him unanimously did not just appear instantly but accumulated over time, in full sight of those who should have been offering protection to the consumers involved. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that those investors were very poorly treated by the public bodies that should have been looking out for them. In particular, the financial regulators had three big chances to halt this.
The first opportunity was when Greig was removed from a panel of building society mortgage advisers after concerns were raised over his personal integrity. Accord Mortgages, which was part of the Yorkshire Building Society, threw him off their panels after accusing him of mortgage fraud in 2008. That was the first opportunity to investigate Greig’s fitness to practise. Had that concern been acted on then, he could have been removed quite legitimately from being involved in any kind of controlled function, looking after investors’ money. According to the FSA, that information was shared with the relevant internal stakeholders, but the matter was not further investigated and the FSA closed its record on 10 April 2008, giving the reason that the risk was mitigated.
In investigating the complaint, the FCA declared in its decision letter of 26 April 2019 that, reflecting on this, it was
“satisfied that the way in which the Authority dealt with the email was reasonable, proportionate and in line with the risk appetite at that time.”
The buzzwords radiate off the page, but it is quite clear that something went badly amiss in failing to appreciate the significance of why Greig was removed from the panel. Fundamentally, either Greig was a fit and proper person or he was not. Sadly, and now far too late, we know the answer to that question. In fact, only two of Greig’s documented victims had money invested in his scheme before the FSA missed this first opportunity and we can all see what would have been avoided had more stringent and proportionate action been taken to effectively mitigate that risk.
The second opportunity came after Mr Greig lied—there is no other word for it—to the Financial Services Authority in an email. As part of an application for a CF30 designation, which is an authorisation from the authority to give advice and to deal with and arrange investments on behalf of a customer, he claimed:
“I can confirm I have never been removed from a mortgage panel.”
That was when Greig was reapplying for a status that he had voluntarily withdrawn just a few months earlier, in December 2011. To give some credit, the application was referred to what was called a non-routine team within the regulator because of the intelligence already held on Greig dating back to 2008. Before that application was determined by the case officer, Sense, the appointed representatives, withdrew it, citing an internal movement of staff as the reason. Prior to closing the case, the intelligence officer concerned compiled a detailed intelligence report. It stated that no determination had been made of Mr Greig’s honesty, integrity and reputation to hold the designation to deal with clients’ money, and that a full assessment should take place in the event of future applications being received. Again, even at this juncture, either Mr Greig was a fit or proper person or he was not. Sadly, and again far too late, we now know the answer to that.
The third and most serious opportunity to halt the scheme was in October 2012. An email was received by the Financial Conduct Authority from a whistleblower about what appeared to be deposit taking by one of Midas’s employees. A case was opened and referred to the unauthorised business department, which analysed the case and came to the conclusion that the activity in question was carried out by Midas rather than the individual. Given that Midas was an appointed rep of Sense, an authorised entity, the unauthorised business department took the view that this was a case to be taken forward by the supervision department. In February 2013, a referral email was sent to the firm contact centre, whatever that is, copying in the supervision team—there are plenty of emails flying about—explaining the unauthorised business department’s decision and stating that no further action would be taken by them. While the standard procedure at that point would have been for the contact centre to open a case and then allocate it to the supervision department, no case was ever opened: it fell between the cracks.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the regulator seriously dropped the ball there. In doing so, its negligence allowed the scheme to continue until 2014; it missed a huge opportunity to prevent significant harm being perpetrated by someone it had already had two opportunities to halt, knowing that he was unfit to steward the finances of others.
As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, some measure of compensation was paid out six years on. However, not all investors have got their money back. In some cases, that is because compensation is capped at £85,000, under the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. Sadly, some people lost a great deal more than the £85,000 threshold. While the primary guilt here lies with Mr Greig, and Greig alone, that does not absolve the regulators of their manifest failings in this case. Nor does his lengthy custodial sentence restore the finances or heal the hurt of those victims affected.
It is understandable that, having been let down by the regulator and short-changed by what the safety net compensation scheme was likely to yield, investors would seek redress where they could. Although their pursuit of the Sense Network was unsuccessful, it is obvious that the judges who sat on the case had sympathy with the action. Lord Justice David Richards, alongside Lord Justice Hamblen and Mr Justice Snowden, said in July 2019:
“It is accepted, at least for the purposes of this case, that the appellants have been the victims of a callous fraud. On any footing they have suffered severe losses.”
I agree with what the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Member for Strangford have said: it is manifestly unfair that the 95 of Greig’s victims who brought the civil case in order to unlock some measure of compensation are receiving the same compensation as those who did not—given that they have taken on the burden of legal costs for every victim. That is not to begrudge anyone who got compensation who was not involved in the legal action; simply, it has created two classes of victim. In anyone’s eyes, that is surely wrong. It raises the question of why on earth it was necessary to pursue the civil case in order to enable access to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.
I have drawn some conclusions from this case. In my view, the regulators are not there to protect people from their own greed or recklessness, but I defy anyone to say that those who were the victims in this case could be guilty of either of those vices. Bluntly, they were ordinary folk, looking for the best home for their savings in a turbulent financial environment, who had the great misfortune to be directed towards someone who had become thoroughly unworthy of their trust. There is an issue to be examined here: the individual investors, who could see the outward respectability of Midas and saw it as an appointed representative of a presumably respected financial services group, which was regulated with the industry, where everyone presumably had the appropriate professional indemnity insurance in place, were entitled to feel, even by association, that their money was in safe hands.
However you choose to slice and dice this, Mr Stringer, it is clear that the regulation has failed. Whether you view that as a systemic failure or, more charitably, as a series of individual and isolated failures, the system should surely, at all stages, have been much more resilient—even to somebody as determinedly dishonest as Mr Greig proved himself to be. It exposes our financial services regulation as being prescriptive, box-ticking and silo-orientated—big on paperwork and self-assurance. Despite, no doubt, the best efforts of some within the organisation, it was also, sadly, desperately short on effectiveness.
Economic crime accounts for 40% of all crime in this country, yet only 1% of our crime-fighting resources are devoted to tackling it. Research from Spotlight on Corruption shows that the Government spend just 0.042% of GDP to tackle economic crime, despite its costing the UK at least the equivalent of 14.5% of its annual GDP. The National Crime Agency budget has declined, in real terms, by 4.5% over the past five years. Bluntly, if we are to create a regulatory environment within which investors can operate with assurance—no matter how big or small they happen to be—the Government must be absolutely committed to making it work and funding it appropriately.
Those affected have, sadly, now received all that they are ever likely to. While Greig is the guilty party, I am bound to say that others also carry some culpability. The regulation of institutions—big and small—has fallen sharply over recent years. However, without more effective regulation, Midas investors are unlikely to be the last to be taken advantage of by the deeply unscrupulous. I look to the Minister to answer on how we can make that regulatory environment safer for all of us who invest.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate, and for the work he has done to highlight how his constituents, and others in north-east Scotland, were affected by the Midas Financial Solutions Ponzi scheme, and the overall awful impact that fraud has on communities across the country. It was a powerful and inciteful speech, and I learned a lot about the background of the case. Even though I had done some reading on it, I learned a lot more of the details, and the more I learn about them, the more alarming the case seems.
Fraud is an incredibly serious crime. It can destroy lives and tear communities apart. The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) rightly pointed out that the tragic thing about the Midas case was that many of the victims knew each other, and even convinced others to invest. That is known as affinity fraud, which results in whole communities not only losing money but feeling guilty over having brought friends and loved ones into the scams. For the people affected who are watching today, I want to say that they have no reason to feel guilty. The only person responsible for this horrendous crime is Alistair Greig, and I hope the people affected know that.
It was heartbreaking to read about the victims of Greig’s fraud. Every Member who spoke on this, and so powerfully, has said that. I came across one story of an individual who invested their life savings in Midas to pay for their sister’s long-term dementia care and lost everything. To make matters worse, despite Midas being closed down at the end of 2014, the victims had to wait until July 2019, and the judgment of the Court of Appeal, before they were able to access the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.
Victims have been put further out of pocket after being forced to pay the legal costs for the various court cases, which we have already had a bit of a discussion on today. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I have both mentioned the huge amount of legal costs. That is something that no one should have to go through. That is why I was taken aback by the comments made by the Business Secretary last month when he suggested that fraud is a lesser crime, not experienced by people in their day-to-day lives. The Business Secretary should say that to Norman Masson, a self-employed builder who told the High Court in Edinburgh during Greig’s trial that he fell victim to fraud that caused him severe anxiety, losing over £30,000 that he was going to use to help his daughter with a mortgage deposit; or to 69-year-old Mark Ansell of Durris who is no longer able to retire, having been conned out of his savings by Grieg.
I am also worried about the fact that reports of fraud are up by 33% in 2021. Despite that, the Crown Prosecution Service has cut the number of specialist fraud prosecutors by more than a quarter over the past six years, from 224 at the end of 2015 to 167 by the end of 2021. Does the Minister wish to comment on that? Indeed, the Government’s former Minister for Counter Fraud, Lord Agnew, stated in his resignation letter that the Government’s record in tackling fraud is “lamentable” and that they have little interest in the consequences of fraud to our society. It was a shocking admission from the former ally of the Prime Minister.
There are many questions that the Government must answer about the specific warnings leading up to the collapse of Midas. Why were so many warning signs ignored? The hon. Member for Gordon said that in July 2012, Greig lied to the then FSA in an email, in which he wrote:
“I can confirm I have never been removed from a mortgage panel.”
That outright falsehood could have been easily disproven by some very basic investigative work.
Another missed opportunity came when a whistleblower, Richard Evans of Banff-based Structured Financial Planning, contacted the FSA to raise concerns in October 2012. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, the FSA still failed to intervene at that point, despite being told directly that something was wrong. If regulators and law enforcement agencies had acted when they first saw evidence of foul play, much of Greig’s fraudulent activity could have been prevented and a lot of the people affected could have been spared.
Greig was taking cheques from people, putting them into a private bank account and then spending it like it was his own money. It is frankly shocking that at no point did enforcement agencies question why £13 million had been paid into his account by hundreds of different people; that should have been a red flag. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, Greig’s victims deserve to hear how the Government have learned from these failures. What reassurance can the Minster provide to the public that his Government are taking concrete steps, working with regulators and enforcement agencies, to prevent a crime on the scale of the Midas fraud ever happening again?
Finally, I shall pick up on the point raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland on the lack of clarity about the nature of the contractual relationship between regulated advisers and appointed representatives. As the right hon. Member pointed out, Midas was an appointed representative of another firm, Sense Network Ltd. That meant that Sense was able to avoid liability for the losses that Midas had incurred, which seems grossly unfair, and I wonder whether the Minister wants to comment on that as well. As seen both in the Midas case and the Greensill scandal last year, the complexity of those contractual relationships is putting the public and taxpayer’s money at risk.
In July 2021, the Treasury Committee reported on lessons from Greensill Capital. It recommended that,
“The FCA and HM Treasury should consider reforms to the appointed representatives regime, with a view to limiting its scope and reducing opportunities for abuse of the system.”
Could the Minister please explain why, despite the fact that Midas’s abuse of the appointed representatives regime first came to light almost seven years ago, the Treasury has still not brought forward proposals for reforming the system? Does he have plans to reform the system?
The Midas scandal demonstrates that fraud is an incredibly serious crime, which can have devastating consequences for victims and their communities. I want to finish by asking the Minister a few questions. I am sure he will answer them properly because he is diligent when it comes to detail.
Does the Minister recognise that fraud is indeed a serious crime, and does he recognise how much it affects our constituents? Does he recognise that fraud and error under the Chancellor have cost taxpayers an estimated £11.8 billion? Will he tell us what we all want to know: what are his Government doing to protect the public from fraudsters? We are all constituency MPs, even if we have a Front Bench role, and we want to protect our constituents from fraud. Will the Minister help us by outlining plans to do that?
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I join others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing today’s debate.
Before I get into the matter at hand, I want to acknowledge the role that my opposite number, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), has played over the past six years in championing the case of her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We all have constituents in need, but the hon. Lady’s consistent advocacy has been very effective, and I want to pay tribute to her publicly.
In acknowledging that this is an extremely challenging case, which has caused great misery to many investors who were misled, I recognise, too, the broader context of a financial services sector that is a great success in this country. However, the debate and the points made in it have raised a number of issues that I want to respond to specifically. If hon. Members are patient, I will get into the mechanics of the appointed representative regime, how it is working and what lessons we learn from this.
Fraud is a crime that damages trust between individuals and across society—I would say it casts a shadow across the economy—and tackling it is a priority for the Government. Our efforts are focused on reducing vulnerabilities, catching the criminals responsible and supporting the victims of these despicable crimes. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said in his welcome remarks, those crimes cause considerable distress to individuals and have a catastrophic effect on families and communities.
We are working closely with industry regulators and consumer groups to consider additional legislative and non-legislative solutions. I will say more about that in a moment, but first I will set out the Government’s position on this specific case. As hon. Members no doubt appreciate, there are limits to what I can say, but Mr Alistair Greig perpetrated a large-scale fraud over several years, much of it accurately depicted by Members this morning. He lied to those who trusted him with their pensions and life savings, and caused enormous suffering.
Midas was founded by Mr Greig in 2006 and it carried on a financial advisory business based in Aberdeen. In 2007, it became an appointed representative of a firm called Sense Network Ltd, and the Treasury understands that much of its business was mortgage advice. Mr Greig used his senior position in the firm and its relationship with Sense to convince his clients that he was investing their hard-earned money in high street accounts with RBS.
I want to pick up the point made in passing by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland on the culpability of RBS. In all these tragic cases, it is incumbent on all parties to examine their processes. I think the right hon. Gentleman mentioned that RBS had—
A lack of curiosity. I cannot know whether that is the case, but I say as a Minister that it is important that every business reflects on its responsibilities in cases of this sort.
Clearly, what Mr Greig said about where he was putting that money proved not to be the case. Instead, he was operating what we can all acknowledge was a Ponzi scheme. It went well beyond the scope of Midas’s appointed representative arrangement with Sense, the principal firm, and accepted deposits without proper authorisation. Instead of investing on behalf of clients who had trusted him with their savings, he transferred the money to his personal account and used it to fund the lavish lifestyle that has been spoken about this morning. His fraudulent activities were halted only when the Financial Conduct Authority intervened in 2014, following contact with a concerned investor. When the FCA became involved, the scheme included 279 members of the public, whose investments have not been repaid. They had paid £12.8 million and were owed a total of £13.6 million. Following the conclusion of a legal case involving some of the investors and Sense, the Financial Services Compensation Scheme declared Midas to be in default, following which the scheme was able to start accepting claims from investors and begin paying compensation to eligible claimants.
Although I am pleased that the scheme was uncovered and stopped by the FCA and that the FSCS has been able to compensate for a significant proportion of what was lost, I recognise that the scheme will have caused great pain to those involved, and I condemn unreservedly the actions of the man responsible. In seeking to understand the case, it is worth while for me to unpack the appointed representatives regime, which has been mentioned by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and others. It is the key policy area that is thrown into focus by this case.
As Members will know, under the UK’s regulatory approach to financial services, a firm must be authorised by either the FCA or the Prudential Regulation Authority in order to carry out a regulated activity. Authorised firms can also appoint other firms to act as appointed representatives for certain regulated activities, but it is worth noting that deposit taking, which Mr Greig was carrying out, is not an activity allowed under the regime, and I will say more about that in a while. In such relationships, the authorised principal firm must ensure that its appointed representatives are complying with all relevant regulatory requirements set out by the FCA. Mr Greig was a director of Midas Financial Solutions, which was a firm that was permitted to carry out the regulated activity of providing investment advice because it was an appointed representative of Sense Network, a financial advice firm that is authorised directly by the FCA.
The FCA’s investigation found that Mr Greig deliberately concealed his fraudulent operation from Sense Network, the firm that had regulatory responsibility for Midas. Unfortunately, all firms—whether directly authorised or appointed representatives—can be susceptible to individuals deliberately acting in a fraudulent manner, which is what happened. It was a shocking case of fraud. Greig was operating a scheme for which his firm was not authorised, and he hid the scheme from Sense Network.
I have a question that I hope the Minister will answer in the next sentence or two. How would any individual investor know the extent of the authorisation and the relationship between the principal and the AR? This does not conform to any other aspect of the law of agency.
I hope I am coming to that point. The right hon. Gentleman addresses the core point, which is about the comfort that the appointed representative regime provides to the consumer, and the Treasury and FCA are taking steps to ensure that use of the appointed representative regime is not open to abuse.
The relationship between a principal firm and the appointed representatives, including what regulated activities it covers, should be available to the public. That will now be a regulatory requirement, and the FCA is taking steps to improve the information that is available to the public by clarifying what the appointed representative firm is authorised by the principal—in this case, Sense—to undertake and what it is therefore not authorised to undertake. That will give consumers clarity on what activities they can legitimately discuss with the appointed representative firm and ensure that they know there is regulatory oversight.
As we know, Sense was not found to be at fault in its role as a principal, as Mr Greig was acting outside the Sense-Midas agreement. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has spoken about the role of the principal, and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn asked what the Treasury is doing about this issue, following the Select Committee report last summer. We are undertaking a review of the appointed representative regime and examining how consumers are protected when dealing with an appointed representative and not directly with the authorised firm.
On 3 December, we published a call for evidence on the regime as a whole. At the same time, the FCA published a consultation paper on proposals that will strengthen the oversight that principals have over their appointed representatives, or ARs, and the information available to consumers on the FCA register when dealing with these firms. That call for evidence is essentially gathering information from interested parties and it closed a few weeks ago on 3 March. The Treasury and the FCA are working together to consider the responses, and to set out the next steps in due course and as urgently as we can.
I will also speak a little bit about the role of the FCA, which, as the House will be aware, is an independent regulator, and of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. The FCA took steps to investigate Midas and Alistair Greig in relation to the activity of accepting deposits without the necessary authorisation and subsequently referred the matter to the police, who launched a successful criminal investigation. The FCA took civil action to stop the activity and obtain compensation for victims, securing agreements to repay over £1.3 million in October 2015. As a result of the proceedings, the FCA recovered approximately £380,000, which has been distributed to victims. Mr Greig was charged by Police Scotland and sentenced to 14 years in jail in April 2020 for fraud.
Although the FCA took action and the subsequent police action led to Mr Greig being prosecuted and sent to prison, I acknowledge the point made in the complaints commissioner’s report that the Financial Services Authority, which was the predecessor to the FCA, should have taken more action, more swiftly and more effectively. It is right, therefore, that the FCA, the successor organisation to the FSA, apologised for that.
Let me just say something about the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, which is the UK’s compensation scheme of last resort. It pays compensation to consumers when authorised financial firms fail and a relevant regulated activity has been undertaken. The FSCS carries out its compensation function within the rules set by the FCA and the PRA. The FSCS first became aware of claims against Midas in December 2019, when lawyers representing claimants approached the FSCS, and it declared the default in March 2020. By August 2020—so, just a few months later—it had processed 197 claims and paid out £9.6 million in compensation.
In order to aid investors claiming compensation, the FSCS, using data collected by the FCA, was able to pay compensation to 175 investors without those investors actually needing to make a claim. It also ran a media campaign targeting the Aberdeen area to ensure that all investors were aware that they could claim compensation from the FSCS, recognising the sensitivity with respect to named constituents that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned.
On that note, I will take this opportunity to say that the FSCS is still accepting claims against Midas, so I encourage anyone who thinks that they may be eligible to get in touch with the FSCS. Some Midas investors brought a claim against Sense as Midas’s principal, which is the point the right hon. Member made, and I understand that some of those investors are disappointed that the compensation they received from the FSCS did not cover their legal costs.
As set out in the FCA’s rules, the FSCS covers losses suffered by a customer caused by the firm in connection with its regulated activities. It does not, however, extend to covering legal costs in pursuing a regulated firm, especially where the firm is not even a party to those legal proceedings.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I see that he is on the last sheet of his speech and I think that we are coming to the very heart of the matter here.
Access to the FSCS was only an option because of the action taken by the 95 against Sense. Quite apart from that, the FCA has a power to pay ex gratia payments. It has not done so, even though it has apologised for the shortcomings in the actions of the FSA. This point was considered by the Commissioner, who declined to order an ex gratia payment, drawing a parallel with damages and saying it would
“clearly undermine Parliament’s intention to provide the regulator with some protection”.
What is more important to the Government here? Is it providing the regulator with protection or the consumers with protection?
The Government work closely with the FCA. As I have said, we are taking very seriously the implications of this case and the relationship between the principal and the appointed representative, as well as the apparent lack of clarity over what consumers know to be covered by that delegated authority of the principal to the appointed representative. The right hon. Gentleman is referring to the relationship between two entities: the FSA and the FCA. The FCA acknowledges the FSA’s prior failings to do the job as it should have. The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to comment on the eligibility of the victims to access the FCA compensation scheme, which is clearly something that is governed by its protocols. I hope we can learn from this very sad case that, going forward, we will bring more clarity to the appointed representative regime and more clarity to consumers. Of course, consumer care is important.
However, we also have to recognise that the FCA is responsible for around 51,000 authorised firms. Of course, the role of some of those authorised firms in acting as principals for appointed representatives needs examination: as I have set out, the Treasury and the FCA are undertaking that. It would be pretty impossible for every appointed representative to undergo the same sort of supervision as an authorised firm—that would expand the scale of the FCA’s responsibilities. We have to make sure that authorised firms’ responsibilities to their appointed representatives are more effective.
I think that I have expressed with clarity that this has been an extremely challenging case for everyone involved. I acknowledge unequivocally that Mr Greig’s fraudulent scheme will have caused great misery to the investors he misled, and it is absolutely right that he was brought to justice. I am pleased that so many of those who made losses have been compensated by the FSCS, and I hope they can now put it behind them.
The Government are not complacent about this. I have gone into some detail about the lessons that we need to learn. We will work alongside other financial authorities to counter fraud and ensure that cases such as these are prevented wherever possible and that, where they do occur, they are dealt with appropriately.
It will always be the case that the Government will need to work with regulators to create an environment that protects consumers while allowing firms to operate. What we have to do—and, since the new chief executive came in about 17 months ago, work has been going on urgently at the FCA to do this—is to undertake a transformation programme to allow the FCA to examine risks across the authorised firms and act more effectively than its predecessor organisation, the FSA, did in this particular case. I hope that is helpful to the House this morning.
It is more than 20 years since I left legal practice, no doubt to the relief of many. The further I get from it, the clearer it becomes that we should never confuse law with justice. It seems that we have exposed some fairly fundamental points here today. The system of regulation has been inadequate, which is why the Government now speak about changing it. The actions of the Financial Conduct Authority—the body set up by Parliament to protect consumer interests—have been woefully inadequate; that is why it has apologised. The people who have paid the cost of the inadequacy in regulation and the conduct of the body set up by Parliament are not Parliament, the Financial Conduct Authority or the taxpayer, but the constituents who were defrauded in this way.
The intention of Parliament was clearly that people should be protected from this sort of behaviour and, if they were not protected, for there to be some compensation. The Financial Compensation Authority has wriggled like worms on the end of a hook for years over this, continuing to deny any responsibility or liability. I think that is wrong, and our constituents deserve better. The limited compensation that people have received was only given because of the actions taken by the 95 claimants. It strikes me that there are very strong parallels here with the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who took legal action to expose the scandal around Horizon.
At the end of the day, it is a question of not only law or justice, but the culture and the relationship between the citizen and the state. I am afraid that, as things stand, the citizens are being short-changed by the state, and that is not something with which we as parliamentarians should be satisfied.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the people affected by the Midas Financial Solutions collapse.
Men’s Health Strategy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of a men’s health strategy.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Although this is only a 30-minute debate, I would still like to extend my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time to discuss this extremely important issue. I am pleased that the Minister for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), will respond, given her very positive contribution to the Westminster Hall debate on prostate cancer earlier this month. I am confident that she will give a positive response today.
Over the past year, the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys, which I chair, has continually heard from a range of national and international experts that there is a need for an improved focus on and a far more co-ordinated and strategic approach to men’s health in England. This approach has been adopted elsewhere, in countries, such as Australia and Ireland, which have their own men’s health strategies, as does the World Health Organisation in Europe. We all agreed that there are serious challenges in men’s health.
It is important to place on the official record that nearly one in five men do not live until they are 65, with an increasing gender age gap; that 13 men take their own lives every day; that men in some parts of Kensington and Chelsea live 27 years longer on average than those in some parts of the north; that one man dies of prostate cancer every 45 minutes; that nearly 6,000 men die an alcohol-related death every year; and that two thirds of men are overweight or obese.
The troubling matter for me is that the situation is not improving but seems to be getting worse. The time has come for the Government to take a fresh and strategic approach that is in keeping with their positive levelling-up agenda and their What Works approach to policy making. The Government approach to men’s health is based on individual conditions and is disease-based. However, as well as not having the impact that we would hope for, such an approach looks only at the outcomes of poor men’s health, not at the causes. To me, that is key.
We need to address and prevent the underlying causes and barriers that have a negative effect on men’s health, while also making the health system more responsive. For instance, if we continue to address suicide, alcoholism and obesity as separate issues, we will fail to see that they are often a result of similar circumstances. Why are men who live in economically disadvantaged areas dying from a whole range of illnesses far earlier than men who live in wealthy areas? There is no innate biological reason for that. We need to strategically join the dots on the causes, not place the outcomes in separate buckets labelled condition A, B or C, as is currently the case.
A men’s health strategy would ask more questions of the health sector. What of the gender age gap? It is a well-known fact that women live longer than men. Why is that? It was not always so. This is not something that we should just shrug our shoulders at and accept as normal. I want all men to have a long life and for those lives to be lived in a state of wellbeing. I am sure that nobody in the country would disagree with that ambition.
Another issue is that despite making up 75% of all suicides, men make up only 34% of those referred for specialist therapy. Why is that? Is it because they are not being referred or because suicidal men are not accessing the health system in the first place? It could be a combination of the two, of course, but why are men not getting the support they need, and what is being done to address that? We need to look at this at a systemic level. Of course, men need to adapt and help themselves, but the final responsibility has to be on society and the health system to change to help men.
During the APPG’s evidence sessions, the experts raised a number of points that struck home. When I visit my GP, which is thankfully rarely, I always notice how few other men of working age are there. We have to work out why and address that. Is it hard to get time off work? Are GP opening hours flexible enough? Do men fear that their bosses or workmates will raise questions about whether they are healthy and fit enough to do their job? Do they just get on with it? It could be all or none of those reasons.
Campaigns to encourage men to access the health system are necessary and welcome, but deeper issues need to be addressed. We also need to ensure that we do not look at men’s health from a negative perspective. Our approach should be based on the needs of men and boys, rather than on men and boys having to accept what they are given. That is the positive What Works approach taken by a number of men’s health strategies around the world. I hope that the Government can draw comfort from the fact that they do not need to start from scratch in devising a strategy, because strategic work is already being done in Ireland, Australia and elsewhere.
In addition, a host of leading men’s health experts and charities in the UK are ready and able and want to help the Government. The Government should look at the great work that is being done on men’s health in Leeds—everything good in life starts in Yorkshire. The Government could also harness the knowledge, expertise and help provided by a number of great, growing and pioneering organisations that support men’s health, including, to name a few, Andy’s Man Club, UK Men’s Sheds, Prostate Cancer UK, Lions Barber Collective, Men Walking and Talking, MANvFAT, Mates in Mind, Football Fans in Training, and Black Men’s Health UK.
In addition to their great work, all of those organisations know that men do talk and take action on their health when the right environment is created. Many of those initiatives also prove the importance of taking support to where men are, not to where it is thought that they should go—many experts have made that point. I am sure that those organisations are all on stand-by to help the Government, as are a number of health bodies, such as the Men’s Health Forum and the Patients Association, which support the proposal to create a strategy, with the former leading a national campaign.
Since becoming a Member of Parliament in 2019, I have been struck by how the Government are taking a fresh, constructive and positive look at all policy areas. Old ways of thinking are no longer taken as read. We can see that in the field of women’s health, where the Government are introducing a strategy for the first time, which I am sure all of us in the House support. To be clear, that is not a reason in itself for a men’s health strategy, but it does signal the need to have a consistent, cross-Government approach that takes into account specific, gender-based aspects affecting the health of women and men. Without a change in policy, it would be incumbent on the Government in the coming months to explain, with hard evidence, why and how their current approach is improving men’s health.
My concluding point is that a men’s health strategy would benefit not just men and boys but the women and girls with whom they share their lives and society. They all have fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins. This is a strategy for the nation as a whole. It would also be cost-effective, saving the health service millions of pounds in treating illnesses, and helping employers in reducing sickness levels. It is a win-win situation and would lead to a healthier, happier and more productive society for all. The Government have an ideal opportunity, with the coming White Paper on disparities, to start the ball rolling, and I am confident that they will take it. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on this incredibly important issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this important debate, which provides us with an opportunity to discuss the health issues that affect men across the country. Although I am passionate about tackling the health inequalities that women face, there is no doubt that men also face specific issues.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work as chair of the APPG on issues affecting men and boys. It does a huge amount of work in this area and its report, “The Case for a Men’s Health Strategy”, is compelling reading. I thank him and all the members of the APPG for their work on that. He has discussed with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care the potential merits of a men’s health strategy, and further meetings are planned as part of an ongoing discussion.
I do not want to generalise and put people in different categories, but there is a difference in the way in which women and men access the healthcare system. More than 100,000 women replied to our call for evidence. They told us that they often access healthcare but feel that they are not listened to and that it is a challenge to get the services they want. Men, on the other hand, often do not access healthcare services at all, and that is a significant barrier. They do not come forward for a variety of reasons, and my hon. Friend touched on some of them, including ease of access to services and sometimes the attitudes of employers or colleagues on seeking help. There are different barriers that certainly make a difference. It is true that the average male life expectancy in the United Kingdom is below that of women, although women spend a greater proportion of their lives in ill health and disability.
We also know that male and female life expectancy differs depending on where they live. We are absolutely passionate about ending that. It should not matter where someone lives or where they come from. Everyone should have the same health outcomes. A man in Blackpool can expect to live over 10 years less than a man in Westminster. We will publish our health disparities White Paper later this year to seek to address the gaps in life expectancy for men and women. I am particularly keen that the issues my hon. Friend has raised today are looked at as part of the health disparities White Paper, because he has provided some stark statistics that absolutely need to be tackled if we are to improve outcomes for men in particular.
The Department is already taking action to address conditions that affect men in particular, including suicide, heart disease and cancer, and other risk factors such as smoking. Although I do not want to generalise, we know that some men are less likely than women to seek help or to talk about suicidal feelings, and they can be reluctant to engage with health and other support services. Men are around three times more likely to die from suicide than women, and suicide prevention requires co-ordinated action and a national focus on men’s low uptake of services to help with suicide prevention more broadly.
Over the coming year we will review the suicide prevention strategy for England and focus on high-risk groups, including middle-aged men. I encourage the APPG to take part and scrutinise that to make sure that it addresses the very important issues that my hon. Friend has raised. We are making funding available. Almost £5.5 million is available this financial year through a suicide prevention grant to support the voluntary sector in particular.
I was interested to hear about the work in Yorkshire. My hon. Friend is right that part of the failure of NHS services to reach out to men is that we often expect men to come to those services. Organisations such as Men’s Sheds, where services can be brought to men, are often more effective, so I very much take his point and it is something that we need to look at.
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in men. The long-term plan is committed to several key ambitions to improve outcomes for individuals with cardiovascular disease, including enhanced diagnostic support in the community. I hope that our community diagnostic centres will bring healthcare into communities so that men are able to go for tests, screening and appointments slightly more easily than at present. Our ambition is to prevent 150,000 heart attacks, strokes and dementia by 2029, and we hope that our initiatives will improve outcomes for men.
Although smoking rates have fallen consistently across the population, the rates for men remain consistently higher than those for women. Men, however, generally report more success when they attempt to stop smoking, but it is still the case that smoking rates are higher for men than for women. We are undertaking an independent review of our tobacco control policies, led by Javed Khan. The review will make a set of policy recommendations that will give us the best chance to reduce smoking and achieve the Government’s smoke-free 2030 ambition. Again, I encourage the APPG to look at that work and to feed into it.
Finally, I will touch on cancer, because we know that lung cancer outcomes in particular are poorer for men than for women. We are trying to target our diagnostic services towards high-risk groups. One of our most successful areas has been our targeted lung health checks, which took place in 23 locations last year, with a further 20 being rolled out this year. We are using low-dose CT scans and are targeting, in particular, individuals who have smoked for a long time, those in high-risk groups and those in high-risk areas of the country. We are seeing remarkable success rates, with lung cancer being identified at stages 1 and 2 when it would otherwise have taken months for those individuals to show symptoms. Those checks will seek to improve the lung cancer outcomes for men.
I believe that a lot of smoking, obesity and alcohol problems stem from men being lonely. Many years ago, there was an advert that said that “You’re never alone” with a certain brand of cigarette I think that many men use those things as comforts and to pass the time. When men are feeling low, they might drink or go to the fridge. The men’s health strategy should look at that, and take an overarching view of all the issues, bringing them together. Clubs such as Andy’s Man Club are a fantastic place for men to talk and to feel valued and part of society, so that they do not feel lonely. When men do not feel lonely, perhaps they do not need to reach for those items that otherwise help them get through the day. I take on board what the Minister said about getting GP and health services to those clubs—that would be a fantastic thing to do. We should then automatically see a reduction in the issues that we are testing for now, such as cancer. However, I do also welcome the centres that the Minister has spoken about.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although we are focusing on trying to diagnose lung and prostate cancer as early as possible, encouraging men to come forward and making them aware of the signs and symptoms, he is right that prevention—reducing smoking, alcohol and obesity—will help keep men healthier for longer. He is right that if men are lonely or do not feel like they have other avenues to meet people and get involved in society, they will reach out to smoking or drinking. Often, gambling is a way to meet people down the betting shop; a racecourse near me is very popular indeed. Men do have a different way of dealing with their emotional problems. They will not often talk about them, but meeting other people is a way of coping with some of the issues they face.
I have touched on several separate issues, which is exactly what my hon. Friend said we should not be doing. However, there is a golden thread running through all of them. The health inequalities for some groups of me, whether in life expectancy, life outcomes or accessing healthcare, are different from the issues and challenges that women face. We should not be dismissive of that, because those challenges are equally important.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend that the health issues facing men are being taken seriously. He has met the Secretary of State already and will be having further meetings. I think that today’s debate, in addition to our previous debate on prostate cancer, is the start of the conversation about how we improve outcomes for men. There are specific issues that they face, but there are also common threads that run through those issues. If we do not tackle those, we will not improve the overall health and life expectancy of men. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend further and to taking up some of the challenges that he has raised.
Question put and agreed to.
School Rebuilding Programme
[Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rollout of the School Rebuilding Programme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. I am grateful that this debate has been granted as it is of great importance to my constituency and, I imagine, that of every Member here today.
Shortly after I was elected to represent City of Durham in 2019, one of the first items that came across my desk was a letter from Andy Byers, headteacher at Framwellgate School, inviting me to visit the school to see for myself the condition that it was in—and I was appalled.
Framwellgate School was built in the 1960s and, sadly, it shows. The school is too small, and cannot grow to meet the needs of an expanding pupil population and changing curriculum. It is spread across multiple blocks and has no social space for pupils. An increasing number of pupils need more specialist provision and more space. The upper floors have no disabled access and are not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I have not even mentioned that the site is extremely prone to flooding.
However, as frustrating as it was to see the learning environment for pupils in my constituency, it was even more frustrating that Framwellgate School had already been approved for a rebuild in 2009 under the previous Labour Government, who recognised the poor condition of the school and its potential impact on the education of young people in Durham. Sadly, in the year after the coalition Government came to power, plans for a rebuild were promptly scrapped by the then Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). Now, 12 years after it was first allocated for a rebuild, the school has been overlooked for two rounds of funding under the current scheme, despite many of the issues that first made it eligible for a rebuild getting worse. Framwellgate School’s case is truly a desperate one.
I applied for this debate because the problems are not limited to a single school. I have had almost identical discussions as those with Mr Byers with the headteachers across the constituency. I have spoken extensively with Mr Hammill at St Leonard’s, which is similarly overdue a rebuild. The roof is in a shocking condition. Like Fram, it has extremely limited disabled access, and the very fabric of the building is completely inefficient. On top of that, one primary school head wrote to me with a shocking analysis of her school:
“Our school is in a dreadful state—the classrooms are poorly ventilated and are freezing in winter and boiling in summer. Our junior yard is not stable, tree root damage is prolific, our drains block regularly, we have ever increasing cracks in the walls and the floors, leaks under the floor and from the roof in some places, rising damp, a lifting hall floor.... I could go on!”
I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be for educators, pupils and parents who share the same goal of wanting every child to have the best possible start in life, only for their efforts to be limited by the poor condition of many of our schools. Whenever I have visited a school in Durham, I have been struck by the dedication and passion of the staff, and the inquisitive and talented pupils.
I have witnessed at first hand the role that our schools play in the community and the effort that they put into the wellbeing of children in Durham. Yet, when the Minister hears stories of flooded classrooms, overcrowded schools, rising damp and poor ventilation, can they honestly say that the pupils at those schools are learning in the best possible environment? Ministers are always happy to talk about levelling up in the vaguest possible terms, but they cannot claim to have come close to levelling up the north-east until the children in our region have the same life chances as those in the wealthiest regions. That can be done only by transforming the infrastructure and resources across our region, and much of that has to start in our schools.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Of course, the Levelling Up Secretary of State is the same person as the Education Secretary who vandalised our schools up and down the country, and cancelled the Building Schools for the Future programme. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that was vandalism and levelling down at its worst?
I had not realised it was the same Secretary of State. Given his agenda to level up, I would have thought that if he understood what was going on in schools, he would start to rebuild them. That would be an excellent start, especially in the north-east, which is very much in need of levelling up, whatever that might be.
The state of Framwellgate School and St Leonard’s in Durham is the perfect yardstick for the Government’s pledge to level up the north-east. Given that Framwellgate was first selected for a rebuild under the previous Labour Government more than a decade ago, can the Minister honestly say that education has improved in the City of Durham? The Government cannot even commit to rebuilding a school that the Labour Government pledged to rebuild in 2009.
We have had 12 years of Conservative Government, and the condition of many of our schools continues to deteriorate. The school is not asking for a lot—only for what it was promised. In comparison, let us consider the case of Belmont Church of England Primary School and Belmont Community School, which were allocated funding for a new, state-of-the-art joint campus under the then Labour-run Durham County Council. That goes to show the difference that Labour makes when we are in power.
Before I go on, I extend an invitation to the Minister present or to the Minister for School Standards, when he watches the debate later: come to Durham, please. Let me show them the condition of some of the schools in Durham, such as Framwellgate School, so that they can see for themselves the conditions that many of our children have to learn in and many of our staff have to work in. If it rains the night before, though, they might want to bring their wellies.
I will speak about the roll-out of the school rebuilding programme more broadly. I have a number of concerns, many of which have been expressed to me by headteachers in Durham. The first is the lack of transparency in the first stages of the programme regarding how and in what order funding is awarded, and the difficulties that that has caused to schools. After consulting headteachers in Durham last year, I called for a list ranking the conditions of all applicant schools to be published, so that each school could see where they were in the queue for a rebuild and their need compared with that of other schools.
That would combat the growing concern among headteachers that schools in electorally advantageous constituencies are being targeted for building projects. Such concerns are driven by the lack of transparency in the process, with unclear criteria and unpublished condition data collection reports. That is not helped by the superficial nature of CDC surveys, which are simply not fit for purpose. I know for a fact that Framwellgate School felt it necessary to invest in its own intrusive surveys to demonstrate the issues of electrics, drainage and so on, and to show its extreme need.
In addition, many heads are frustrated at having to apply to the condition improvement fund to carry out refurbishments, repairs and maintenance when they are held to account by the Department for Education for not maintaining their buildings or the site, while also trying to avoid limiting funding opportunities for a new build. I have been told explicitly by one headteacher that the two schemes conflict and the process is not joined up.
Heads point out that they could apply for and receive funding to repair the roofs of their school, only to find a year later that they had been successful in their school rebuilding programme bid. That has meant, potentially, a massive waste of public money, especially if the amount of CIF investment will turn a school that is in need of a rebuild into one that is fit for purpose. Schools continue to age and decline, reducing the impact of maintenance funding. Countless schools have exceeded the life of their buildings, resulting in the Government throwing good money after lost causes when it could go towards a new build.
The final issue that has been raised with me in my discussions with headteachers is that, even when headteachers are successful with a bid, they will receive an off-the-shelf school with little scope for a joined-up approach that meets the specific needs of the school or the community. With that in mind, I have some questions for the Minister about the design of schools under the programme.
First, how much scope is there for schools and communities to input into the design of a school and can other funding from local authorities, such as that resulting from the sale of land, be incorporated? Secondly, what have the Government learned from the pandemic about ensuring adequate ventilation and air-cleaning in buildings, and will that learning be incorporated into the design of new builds? Similarly, what have they learned from the pandemic about supporting teachers with the technology that they need, and how will such technology be incorporated into new buildings? Finally, how does the Government’s school rebuilding work tie in with their work on achieving net zero and their manifesto commitment on retrofitting public buildings?
The Government will no doubt point to the size of the rebuild programme and will argue that it is simply not possible immediately to fund a rebuild for every school in need. However, there must be recognition that the decision to scrap the Building Schools for the Future scheme has meant that schools that were already in need of rebuild are still in desperate need, while schools that previously could have waited for work are now in similar states of disrepair, creating an even greater need across the country. It will therefore be of little consolation to my constituents in Durham to hear that a school on the other side of England will receive a rebuild while their local school fails and falls further into disrepair, damaging the life chances of the children who attend it.
I truly hope that the Government listen to the concerns of Members present here today, and ensure that every child in Durham—indeed, every child across the country—has access to a school building that is fit to learn in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Miller, and to be called to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), my fellow County Durham colleague, on securing the debate.
The Government are determined to help people to receive the best possible start in life, creating a level playing field by transforming the education system to ensure that people gain the skills they need to fully unleash their potential. A key part of achieving that is delivering great school buildings that ensure that tens of thousands of pupils and their teachers have a sustainable learning environment, and that deliver value for money for the taxpayer.
It is an incontrovertible fact that the last Labour Government built a huge number of schools, including many that I attended as a child. In the general election of 2017, when I stood as a candidate in Redcar, I visited my primary school, my junior school, my secondary school and my two colleges in the hope of having photographs taken outside of them, and every single one has been demolished and rebuilt in the space of the last 20 years. However, many of these new schools are now suffering, having been locked in private finance initiatives that leave them hamstrung.
Under these schemes, a contractor takes responsibility for constructing new school premises and/or refurbishing existing ones. The relationships that these deals have fostered between contractors and schools is akin to a zero-sum game, with the more investment that schools receive translating into less profit for the contractors. PFI firms would rather do nothing and continue to profit than fulfil their repair duties.
With the first schools built under PFI contracts due to be handed over to local authorities soon, we are already seeing problems arising, with schools potentially being handed over in a run-down state and contractors failing to finish vital improvement works before their contracts expire. The Department for Education is rightly supporting those schools, but it is important that we recognise that this is the legacy of a Labour Government that did not consider the future impact of their actions. It is welcome that this Conservative Government took the decision to ditch all new PFI projects all together in 2018.
The Government have a well thought-out plan for the future of school buildings. I welcome the Prime Minister’s 10-year school rebuilding programme, our commitment to rebuild 500 schools in England and the transformation that that will bring to the education of thousands of pupils. It is welcome that the details of the first 100 projects have now been announced and that the first commenced in autumn 2021. Those initial rebuilds will create modern education environments, providing new facilities, from classrooms and science labs to sports halls and dining rooms.
We are also demonstrating our commitment to levelling up all regions of the UK, with 32 of the latest projects announced being based in the midlands and the north-east. Our investment of £2 billion in the school rebuilding programme comes on top of the Government’s £1.8 billion in 2021 for school repair and upgrade projects. That funding brings the total amount allocated for improving school conditions since 2015 to £11.3 billion.
In Darlington, we have seen investment of more than £4 million in schools, including The Rydal Academy, Heathfield Primary School, Haughton Academy, Marchbank Free School, Longfield Academy, Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Mowden Infant School, Corporation Road Community Primary School, Mowden Junior School, Hummersknott Academy, Abbey Infants’ School and Abbey Junior School.
More than £10 million is also being invested to support school sports and swimming facilities in England, and will be distributed through Sport England. That targeted investment for selected schools will build on existing funding to help schools open their facilities outside school hours and encourage pupils to be more physically active. Alongside that, the Government have plans for a £1.5 billion pot of investment over five years to transform the further education college estate. I am also glad that £2.8 billion of capital investment is being provided across the 2021 spending review period to help establish institutes of technology across the country. I wholeheartedly welcome that funding, which will make a real difference to school conditions.
While we have an Education Minister here, I want to press her on one point relevant to my constituency. Our amazing special education facility of Beaumont Hill Academy in Darlington has sought for many years to take over the empty, abandoned former Sure Start centre to expand its teaching facilities for a growing cohort of children. I have pressed multiple Education Ministers on the issue, but do not seem to be able to break the deadlock. Will the Minister advise what more I can do to help ensure that Beaumont Hill can gain access to this presently abandoned property, which is serving no useful purpose to the taxpayer?
The Conservative Government continue to create a level playing field for students: increasing funding for education, establishing education investment areas in places such as mine in Darlington and now ensuring that students have the environment they need to thrive. I look forward to supporting my ministerial colleagues as we continue this work, which I know will give pupils in Darlington a better start in life.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair today, Mrs Miller. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) for bringing forward today’s important debate. I could not help but notice that the majority of MPs in the room are also MPs in the north of the country who desperately need investment in our education system.
The estates of many schools in York are in need of capital investment. Tang Hall Primary Academy, which was at the very top of the list in 2010 for Building Schools for the Future funding, is still yet to be rebuilt. The school had to introduce a new uniform that included hoodies and mittens for the children to be warm enough in their classes, but also recognise that in the summer the classrooms rapidly turn into greenhouses that are too hot to work in. It is schools like this that need to be rebuilt to ensure that our children get the best possible education.
We have Carr Junior School, where I have been shown the leaky pipes and the need for investment that has yet to come forward, or Millthorpe School, where they are constantly dodging pieces of masonry falling from the buildings. Many of our schools need that capital investment, but today I want to highlight the plight of All Saints Roman Catholic School, a split-site secondary school. The school provides an outstanding environment for children to learn, due to its special ethos and the dedication of the teaching staff. However, the school itself is another story altogether. Parts of the school date back over 300 years, as Mary Ward determined that girls should be able to access education. The Bar Convent museum adjacent to the school maps its journey from 1686, and part of that school is still in use today. It is well worth a visit to the museum, but clearly a school should not be a museum, it should not be a building site and it should not be unsafe.
When it comes to funding, the school is under the Catholic diocese of Middlesbrough but is the only school in York outside of the academies system. It therefore has segregated funding, which, due to its being the only school, is based within the diocese of Leeds. However, as it is the only school there is no flexibility around that funding, meaning that it cannot be joined with other funding to bring about capital rebuilding projects. Indeed, most of it is being absorbed by patching work, bringing in repairs. Patching in and of itself, however, is no solution at all.
There must be a whole new build for the school. The school has applied for the school rebuilding programme and has a new site where it could be developed. Further, it will recover much of the funding with the capital receipts from the sale of its current site. Therefore, on an economic basis, it really needs investment. The disrepair of the sites is really astounding. I have had the tour with the estates team at the school; it is taking ever more of their time just to try to keep the site safe, which is a major challenge.
Both sites have public access, one to a public cemetery in the middle of the school site. There is no segregated outdoor space, and in fact you have to pass through the school car park, which is the only play area for the children as well, among the teachers’ cars. That is completely inappropriate. The other site is on a public right of way towards the racecourse. Needless to say, the behaviour of inebriated racegoers poses a risk, as they urinate on their way back to the city through the school premises, so the safeguarding risks need to be taken into account in the programme for rebuilding schools. Teachers also constantly have to move between the school’s two sites down a snickelway at the back of the schools. Of course, in the winter dark, they often do not feel safe as they pass through those streets between lessons.
The school is old. Its masonry is falling off, and any repair needed is highly expensive. That is partly because the school is in a conservation area, in the sight of the York Walls; it has to reach an aesthetic standard to be considered appropriate, so a walkway repair that would normally cost about £5,000 would be £11,000 at the cheapest. The portico, which needs to be replaced, adds nothing to education or the school environment but costs the school £20,000. That is just patching work. We could also talk about the guttering system, which has to meet a particular standard, and other aesthetic features of the school because it is a heritage site.
I witnessed holes in the floor of the school gym—in fact, when I went around, there was a new hole where the feet of children playing sport had gone through. Where there are ceiling tiles, they have been falling as well. The cost of the floor repair alone is £60,000—even more for the whole gym. Clearly, this is just sending good money after bad, or bad money after good, to try to address the serious repairs that are needed.
The school needs new boiler systems. The fire alarm needs replacing as it cannot be heard throughout the site. The school is cramped; the corridors are so narrow that a wheelchair cannot pass through. There is currently a wheelchair user at the school, and they are really worried about how they will be able to access their education. The stairways are winding staircases where it is difficult to pass people—they were designed for servants. It is totally inaccessible and there is no facility for lifts in such a place.
There is much ingress of water in the school. As we will probably hear repeatedly this afternoon, flooding is common and there are a lot of residual plumbing issues. I have to say, the stench in some of those corridors turns one’s stomach, and unfortunately, that is the environment in which the children have to work. The dining facility is so small that each child can spend only six and half minutes at lunch, so they are not even getting the social space they so desperately need. The labs date back to the middle of the last century and are unsuitable for science today. The domestic science kitchens date back half a century and need replacing. Some of the teaching areas are in former aircraft hangars, which are too cold in winter and too hot in summer. Lessons take place in stables, no longer fit for horses, yet children learn there, including using steep stairs to the hayloft. Is that what the Government envisage as a suitable learning environment?
The sixth-form block will cost £40,000 just to be reclad. Again, because it is in a heritage area, it has to be either reclad or taken down. If it is taken down, there will be no sixth form at the school. Even to enter the sixth-form block, students have to descend a very steep path, which is dangerous when icy and pretty inaccessible. No one knows what the next challenge will be, but each morning the estates team worries about what the next cost will be for the school. None of that adds to the children’s education and none of them can realise the ambition that the school has for them.
It is not an environment conducive to learning. I cannot believe that there is a more urgent case on the Minister’s desk. The new build proposed would end those challenges and enable All Saints to focus on excellence, and the very special environment that teachers bring to pupils, many of whom struggle, to help them flourish. Just imagine what they could achieve if they had a school that was designed for the modern age. My plea is that the Minister takes back the story of All Saints and enriches the school rebuilding programme to replace the school with a new school facility that those pupils and teachers deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and to take part in a debate that has been brought by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), who is a fantastic campaigner for her area. I am at risk of plagiarising the speeches so far—not the political bits, but the talk of the schools and the underlying reasons that this is such an important debate.
As constituency MPs we have the opportunity to talk about not only national policies but the amazing work happening in schools in our areas. I am here to talk about a school whose motto is “Inspire to make a difference”, and that is Derby High School in my constituency, which I visited last week. When we talk of inspiration, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said, it is provided not only by the teachers and committed staff, but by the facilities—or lack of them—in a school.
The school was built in the late 1950s and, apart from two relatively small capital investments, there has been no investment in the structure of the building since 1959. Children are having lessons in classrooms with buckets next to them—for when rain comes through the roof, which has crumbled and fallen in again. It is not unusual for masonry to fall into the classroom, so that children have to go elsewhere. Their learning is taken away from them because they cannot sit in a classroom.
Some of the science labs go back to the 1950s. Compared with other schools in my area, which have been lucky enough to have new building investment, the difference is plain. The school is too small for the number of pupils. Thanks to its great reputation and where it sits, it is oversubscribed and has to deal with all sorts of issues. The corridors are small, as the hon. Member for York Central mentioned. It is not a safe and secure environment.
I was lucky enough to speak last week with the senior leadership team, the staff and the kids, who were absolutely wonderful. They had produced a video to convince me and others of the work that was needed. They appreciated everything that was done, but would at least like the opportunity to have facilities to inspire them and those that follow them at the school, to ensure that they can achieve their potential.
The best bit of my job—I think we would all agree with this—is meeting people in my constituency who inspire me on a daily basis and reinforce to me the reasons why I became a Member of Parliament. It has nothing to do with a political badge. I am motivated by what motivates them.
Lynn Provoost, who is part of the senior management team at Derby, took my breath away by articulating with members of staff what could be achieved in that school. She said that they
“work with young people to believe they can achieve, so they are capable of making a difference to this world”,
and that what they do in the school is for the good of the town, not just for Derby.
We do not talk enough about the central role of schools within the community. They are the providers of education; that is their primary role. But Derby High School is at the centre of a community. It is a wide, varied, happy and brilliant community. In that school, 26 different languages are spoken. There are all sorts of ideas about how things could be improved. I have worked on and, thankfully, been part of a successful bid for “Institute of Technology” status, which the Minister knows all about, involving Bury College and the University of Salford. It is about creating the conditions for training opportunities to be put in place to ensure that young people from my area achieve their potential, and it is for pupils aged 16 and onwards.
The school has gone out of its way to ask the University of Salford and other educational providers whether they can develop an academy or facility to offer post-16 pupils the skills training that we are seeing being put at the forefront of Government policy. The school is innovative in finding different ways to maximise its potential. It is looking at how it can improve its offer in terms of special educational needs and development.
There is brilliant teaching and support there, but there is no room for the extra facility that could get to the heart of the levelling up we have been talking about. Forgive me for repeating it again, but this is a brilliant school. It has all the potential in the world—all the drive, all the passion. It has everything that a successful education provider and community asset has, but it is housed in a building that is too small, is falling apart and has no investment for all sorts of reasons. We need to change that.
I would like to talk about the partnership potential in some of the issues we are talking about. The English Cricket Board is running an urban cricket programme. Members of Parliament can go to the ECB and at least try to work in partnership. I have had talks with the ECB regarding investing £350,000 in an urban cricket facility in my constituency. I was hoping that it would be at Gigg Lane, but for various reasons it may not be there. In my area, kids love playing cricket but there are no facilities. Not only is there potential in what the Government are doing by investing billions into schools rebuilding, but by working with partners we can increase and improve those facilities.
I think others in this room were at the same event when the Lawn Tennis Association talked about looking to invest huge sums of money into grassroots tennis facilities. Certainly, for a school like the Derby school, that will be most welcome. We have heard that the Football Foundation is looking to invest in 3G and 4G pitches and is identifying school playing fields throughout the country that could benefit. I have had the opportunity to speak to the foundation about that, and I am sure other Members have.
I had a political speech written out. I was going to make some political points, but I will not make them. I shall repeat what I said at the start of this debate. “Inspire to make a difference” is not exactly a catchy line, nor what many people believe us politicians do. We can create the circumstances and opportunities for those people in our constituencies, such as Lynn Provoost and all the brilliant teachers at all the brilliant schools in my area, to change young people’s lives, but they must have the correct facilities.
Derby High School has been nominated as part of the current round of the rebuilding schools programme. I hope that the excellent Minister will take away the message that an investment in Derby is an investment in young people and my town and has the potential to change the world.
I beg your indulgence, Mrs Miller, as I was on Westminster Bridge, so I was late to the debate. I know that everybody in this room would like to put on the record their thoughts for the survivors who were on the bridge this afternoon. Many of us who were MPs at the time will remember the terrible events, and the experience of being in the Chamber that day five years ago.
I also thank the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly), whom I follow, because I could not agree with him more about the cricket. That is the theme of my short remarks about the sports hall for Highgate Wood School. It is a very mixed local authority school, with some proud alumni, including the journalist Robert Peston, who some people might know from the ITV show, “Peston”. It has the worst sports hall I have ever seen.
The Minister’s colleague from the other place, Baroness Barran, was very indulgent and gave me 20 minutes by Zoom in January. I want to use this further opportunity to make the case for the school that we all have in our constituencies that takes every child. When a child falls out of another school, this is the school that picks them up. This school has a big heart and is very community-minded. It takes children with a range of special educational needs, who are just hanging in there in mainstream education. It also teaches GCSE at year 11.
There are more girls than boys in this school. As a great champion for young women, Mrs Miller, you will agree that it is important that girls at particular times of the month have a decent place to change. The current facilities in the sports hall at Highgate Wood School are completely unacceptable. “Dickensian” is the only word I could use to describe the prison-like toilets and changing room facilities and the serious problem with water ingress and subsidence. The appalling changing and toilet areas can be very off-putting for girls in particular.
The school currently has a number of bulge classes, once again being a school with a very big heart. When we had the bulge that happened in London schools around 2006 or 2007, it immediately said, “We can do this: we can have more classes.” It was able at the drop of a hat to provide more classes. There are 270 students in each year, which is way above the 240 students that the school is built and designed for, yet that was the school that said, “Don’t worry—we will become a several-form entry school.” That is why I am here today—because the 1,600 pupils at Highgate Wood School deserve better.
The local authority has a lot of dilapidated Victorian primary schools, which it is currently rightly prioritising, but in terms of secondary schools, I have never seen a worse set of facilities for the basic provision of sport. We know the importance of sport post-covid. The hon. Member for Derby talked about the Lawn Tennis Association and the importance of inner-city cricket. Why cannot inner-city kids learn cricket the same way—
It would be an honour to be the hon. Member for Derby, but I am the Member for Bury North talking about Derby School. One of the important things about Derby is that we have seen, with the potential threat to Derby County football club, how sport in every possible way has the ability to inspire people of every age group, including at school, and that the opportunity to participate is so important. Does the hon. Lady agree?
Of course I agree with that. I thank the hon. Member for the clarification on the Derby and Bury boundary. While I am talking about boundaries, I will conclude with the comment that many Members will know my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). My local government area shares Tottenham, Hornsey and Wood Green. Sometimes Hornsey and Wood Green slightly miss out, because the Tottenham side of the constituency tends to have on paper certain indices of deprivation. As many Members who have different borough boundaries and different arrangements for which children go to which schools will be aware, Highgate Wood School takes a number of children from the Tottenham area. It is a very mixed school and the best in education. It is rated a “good” school by Ofsted, despite the dilapidated facilities for sports provision.
I hope the Minister will make the case for that school, because it is being a good citizen. We all know that during covid, our schools had to pull together. They had to do more than they would normally do. I hope that we can reward the schools that make the effort, take in the difficult children to educate and try somehow to be as ambitious as possible. That includes ambitious on a really high level of sports teaching, and also in providing the teaching of PE teachers, which is what this school does. It provides teaching for PE teachers, but has the worst facilities that I have ever seen.
I hope that the Minister will give due regard to these remarks and work with the local authority to provide the necessary funding for up-to-date and correct facilities for Highgate Wood School.
It is a pleasure to serve, probably for the first time, under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) on securing this important debate, one that speaks to the value placed on education and the environment that surrounds pupils. I had the privilege of being educated at an amazing state school, but it had ivy growing in the windows and across the ceiling—that always felt like a juxtaposition. While it has been the launchpad for the things that I have achieved in life, and hope to still achieve, there was a sense of being slightly unloved in a portacabin at the back of the grounds, heated only by a gas heater. The only thing that it achieved for me was creating an early entrepreneurial spirit; I used to take bread and butter in and make toast on the gas heater at the back of maths class—perhaps the Health and Safety Executive would not enjoy that.
I have attended this important debate to highlight a couple of points. First, I thank the Minister and the Government; Tarleton Academy in west Lancashire is an early recipient of the £50 million condition improvement fund. It has received funds to rebuild the school. I have gone around the school and the stories that we have heard today are absolutely spot on; there is water running down the walls of a 1950s construction at Tarleton. The school is fighting a constant battle. To say that Lesley Gwinnett, the executive head—who is wonderful—and her team were ecstatic to get the money is to underplay it.
I visited Tarleton Academy, and I hope the Minister will take into account a couple of points. Interestingly, in contrast to the stories told by the hon. Member for City of Durham, Tarleton Academy found the expectation of leadership engagement in the school-build programme to be very high—considering they are focused on their educational duties. They were not complaining, but they raised the point that it was a lot to expect them to make sure that they got the school that they needed and wanted for the community. In genuine gratefulness, they fed back whether that could be a consideration in future roll-outs. They sorted themselves out in the local community, through their own skill and hard work, but it was a point that they wanted to make. There is a fine balance between getting an identikit box and having something that people can engage with.
The other point I will make is similar to those that other hon. Members have made about sports facilities. Tarleton Academy is in a series of different vintage buildings, some of which are 1940s Nissen huts. However, because it is in such a community-minded village as Tarleton, the swimming pool, which is in a separate bit, is used by the community and the 1940s hut, used for educational purposes, is also used by the air cadets. There is a sports hall that is used by the community and there is a big piece of grass at the back that is primed for a 3G astroturf pitch.
Lancashire is a desert for sports provision. The nearest astroturf pitch to Tarleton is at Bamber Bridge, and that is a 35-minute drive away. I have been working with Football Foundation and speaking to Sport England because the community want that sports pitch. There is a real drive from Betty at Tarleton Corinthians to either get a 3G pitch that they can share with the school at their site, or a 3G pitch at the school that Tarleton Corinthians can share. I appreciate that may be something that the Minister does not have at her fingertips, but can she consider that?
Finally, I have one question on a theme that was addressed by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). Penwortham Girls’ High School is the only non fee paying girls’ school for seniors in the whole of Lancashire’s educational system. Although I am slightly biased having attended a state girls’ grammar school, that really did give me a boost, and it is part of the overall provision that is possible. The gym in that school is very decrepit, and while the school is not in need of either a rebuild or a CIF despite its age, its sports facilities are in a very difficult state and its staff are finding it very challenging to find a process through which they can target that kind of sub-school rebuild activity. I promised them wholeheartedly that I would raise this matter with the Government.
In summary, as many Members have said, having the right building is absolutely vital to how pupils see themselves and how they can engage in the maximum amount of learning. It is wonderful that the Government are looking beyond some of the issues that PFI has caused to celebrate the educationalists in west Lancashire at Tarleton Academy, and I hope that in her response, the Minister will be able to say how we can help future cricketers. As a final aside, Lancashire county cricket club has decided that Farington is where it wants to put its training centre. While Derby to Bury is probably an hour’s drive, Bury to Penwortham is only about 35 or 40 minutes, so if the budding cricketers my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) mentioned want to come to South Ribble, they will find a very warm welcome there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) for securing this important debate. I know she has been robustly interrogating Ministers on this issue, as well as that of school transport. She is a credit to her city and her constituents, but sadly, the decay of our school estate is a national challenge. The chorus of cross-party voices raising individual cases today and at Education questions last week demonstrates the gravity of the problem we now face up and down the country.
Today, we have heard from a number of speakers on a range of issues affecting our nation’s schools. All spoke with passion about the contribution that schools make to communities and constituencies across the country. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham is a tireless champion and a strong voice for her constituency schools—schools that are not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, with issues with roofs, ventilation, heating, and rising damp. This is important, because we want the very best for our children and our communities. My hon. Friend then went on to helpfully describe the broader points about the Government’s school building processes, specifically the CDC surveys, and the off-the-shelf nature of builds.
From my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), we heard the story of All Saints—falling masonry, heating and ventilation problems—and the complexity of funding programmes and the barriers that creates, especially in a historic city and heritage area such as York. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) covered a range of issues facing her constituency, and the importance of investment in school sports. I hope she will be in her place for tomorrow’s debate on the importance of physical education in the curriculum, in which a number of those issues will also be raised.
The fact is that our school estate is crumbling. According to the Department for Education’s own conditions survey, one in six schools in England requires urgent repair, and more than 1,000 had elements that were at risk of urgent failure. The 1960s is a more representative era of our school estate than either of the past two decades. Millions of children are now passing through a school estate that is not fit for purpose, which has been a political choice of successive Conservative Governments. As we have heard, within weeks of taking office in 2010, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition cancelled the Building Schools for the Future programme. Of the 715 school rebuilding projects planned when that programme was scrapped, just 389 were rebuilt by its successor, the priority school building programme.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The Labour Government of the past should be proud of its achievements in improving schools across our country. I know that Conservative Members also mentioned the significant investment that took place under the last Labour Government; long may that continue when we elect the next Labour Government.
Once all the schools are complete, we will still be 178 schools short of the programme’s original 715. Even schools that are lucky enough to get contractors on site face significant issues, as we have heard. A school in my constituency found that the work was of shockingly low quality, creating a number of serious defects that pose a risk to students and teachers. I know that colleagues have similar stories.
I am certain that the Minister will tell us proudly about the extra funding announced last year, but I suspect even she knows that that rings hollow compared with the scale of the task before us. She will know that capital spending has decreased by 25% in cash terms, and by 40% after adjusting for inflation, which continues to rise, in addition to a decline in basic needs spending. Two years of late decisions in awarding funding under the condition improvement fund have left schools in limbo and delayed up to 1,000 improvement projects.
Although the existence of the school rebuilding programme demonstrates that Ministers are at least dimly aware of the challenge presented by our crumbling school estate, even a cursory glance shows that the programme is grotesquely inadequate. Ministers said that the programme will partially or fully rebuild 500 schools over the next 10 years. Yet the Department’s own 2019 conditions survey found that almost 4,000 schools—17% of the entire school estate—are in need of immediate repair, so the number of schools covered by the programme is woefully inadequate and completely arbitrary. That is why I believe that Ministers created a postcode lottery on school repairs, which they know will not clear the backlog.
In the meantime, dedicated teachers and parents are left to make do with leaking facilities, dangerous wiring or allegedly temporary cabins that were built a decade ago. Well-meaning right hon. and hon. Members come to this place, caps in hand, to plead with Ministers on the merits of individual schools. Colleagues across the House are understandably desperate to support schools in their patches, as we have heard so powerfully in the debate, but that is no way to build a school estate that supports the next generation.
Our aspiration for the quality of the school estate should be to match and to enable the ambition of young people in this country, but the disrepair of the school estate is now approaching national crisis status. The total cost of repairs is now eye-watering, and a decade of inaction from the Conservative Government means that it is rising every day. The real cost is to our children’s education; a generation has now passed through schools that are not fit for purpose. Sadly, children are once again an afterthought for this Government.
Is the Minister satisfied that the Government’s school rebuilding programme matches schools’ need? Will she publish a full regional breakdown of the data on grade and priority of repair that was collected as part of condition data collection 1? How many applications have been received for the latest round of the school rebuilding programme? Of those applications, how many fell into the C, D and X grades identified in the condition data collection 1 programme? How will the Government prioritise urgent repairs for schools that bid unsuccessfully for the next round of the school rebuilding programme? How many representations have Members made to the Minister, and how has she taken account of them in the programme’s bidding process?
Schools are worrying more about their energy bills this year, so can the Minister explain how the condition data collection 2 process will support the transition to net zero? Will it pay particular attention to the inadequacies of ventilation demonstrated during the pandemic? Finally, ahead of tomorrow’s fiscal event, has the Department made any formal representations to the Chancellor for new funding for repairs to the school estate?
I echo those who have said what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) on securing the debate. I am also a constituency MP, and I recognise many of the challenges that hon. Members have raised.
Good-quality buildings are absolutely essential to support high-quality education so that pupils gain invaluable knowledge and skills, as well as the qualifications that they will need to unlock their futures. All pupils deserve to learn in an effective and safe environment, which is why the school rebuilding programme is a priority for the Government. I will talk about the details of the hon. Member’s specific schools later on, and I am sure I can arrange a meeting with her and the Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). On the hon. Member’s question of when we will publish the details, we will publish nominations of schools after the selection process this year. We cannot comment on individual schools at this stage while the process is live, but I assure her that we will publish that.
The Prime Minister announced the new school rebuilding programme in June 2020 as part of the plans to build back better. We have confirmed the first 100 schools in the programme as part of the commitment to 500 projects over the next decade, tackling the school buildings most in need of replacement or significant refurbishment. The programme will transform the education of hundreds of thousands of pupils around the country, including many pupils who attend the schools that have been referenced. Children and teachers will continue to benefit in the decades to come. The programme will replace poor condition and ageing school buildings with modern facilities.
All new buildings delivered through the programme will be net zero carbon compliant and more resilient to the impact of climate change such as flooding and overheating, contributing to the Government’s ambitious carbon reduction targets. We achieved a significant milestone in September, with a number of these first projects having already started on site. An example of that is West Coventry Academy. The expansive school site consists of 17 blocks with significant condition needs across it, including integrated buildings. All existing blocks were demolished and replaced by a new teaching block, including a new sports hall and swimming pool.
The programme represents a substantial investment in our schools in both the midlands and the north, with 70 of the first 100 projects included in those regions. I know the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned that the majority of Members present in the debate are from northern constituencies.
I said the majority. Working closely with the construction sector, the programme will also invest in skills—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), supporting construction jobs, investing in efficient technologies and enhancing productivity and skills, all of which will help drive up growth and build back better from the covid-19 pandemic. The school rebuilding programme is the successor to the priority school building programme. PSBP1 was announced in 2012, and PSBP2 was announced in 2014. The PSBP has rebuilt and refurbished those buildings in the very worst condition across the country, covering over 500 schools. Two schools in the city of Durham have benefited from the priority school building programme, alongside five additional schools across the county of Durham. At one of those schools, West Cornforth Primary School, the school community has been delighted to say
“goodbye to the old and hello to the new!”
They have settled into their new school building, which is a fantastic success story in the hon. Member for City of Durham’s region. Bishop Barrington Academy said:
“There is a very positive feel about the direction we are moving in. We have a wonderful, new, multi-million pound building that we have exciting plans for…We believe strongly that our students deserve the very best and the facilities that we provide at Bishop Barrington are certainly world class.”
We are working hard to improve how we deliver and how we innovate where possible. We are at the forefront, using modern methods of construction to deliver school buildings and investing in the industry to support innovation, and we are increasing our adaptation of standardised designs, moving towards a platform approach of construction and off-site manufacturing.
I am unashamedly going to make a plea for another northern school—County High School in Leftwich, which the Minister might be familiar with. It is desperate, like a lot of schools, for community sports facilities, working in partnership with us. Beyond today, I would like to meet the Minister about that project, to help move things forward.
As the hon. Member knows, I attended the school in question, although I have not been back for many years. I will pass on the meeting request, and I am sure that either the Minister for School Standards or the Minister for the School System would be delighted to meet him to discuss the specifics of that school.
As I have said, we are committed to delivering net carbon in operations solutions for the new buildings covered by the Department for Education—a point raised by various Members, including the hon. Member for City of Durham. Every new school built will have a low energy use, better performance and environments with natural ventilation. They will be resilient to longer-term climate change and will improve the landscape and outdoor facilities. Key components of our strategy include increasing insulation, better air tightness, green roofs and energy-generating solar panels, flood-resistant drainage systems and low carbon emissions, all of which will help tackle the numerous problems referenced today.
We moved at pace to prioritise the first projects—the first 100 in the last year—so that we could begin to tackle some of the poorest conditions on the school estate in this country. The first 100 selected for the school rebuilding programme were prioritised either because they have buildings of specific construction types that require replacement or because they have buildings with the highest condition needs. We will, of course, subsequently publish the full nomination at the end of the process, as well as the methodology for prioritisation, which was a point raised by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan).
Two schools in County Durham have been selected for the new programme: Sugar Hill Primary School and Woodham Academy. Work is ongoing to complete the feasibility study on both projects, with construction expected to start early next year. The Department is committed to running a fair and transparent process—a point made by a few hon. Members—for prioritising projects for the school rebuilding programme. As I have said, we will publish the prioritisation of the two rounds in due course.
The school estate in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington has received substantial investment. As he said, that is levelling up in action and is helping the next generation. I listened to and understood his points about Beaumont Hill Academy taking on an individual building. He is an assiduous campaigner and has raised the issue with previous Ministers responsible for the school estate. I am confident that the Ministers for the School System and for School Standards will be happy to meet him to discuss that in detail.
The constituency of the hon. Member for York Central has received substantial investment—more than £1.5 million—for condition allocations. We will announce shortly the schools that have passed the bar in the nomination process, so I ask her to be patient in waiting to see whether her schools are on the list. I am sure that other Ministers in the Department will be happy to speak to her, although at this stage they will be limited in what they can say.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) is another keen campaigner for the schools that he represents, particularly his high school, which sounds extremely impressive. I am sure that he will have a visit from a Minister shortly, if he has not already had one. I heard the concerns he raised and will pass on his excellent representations to my ministerial colleagues.
As I have said, the first 100 schools were prioritised using the data available to the Department. That was to ensure that the programme commenced swiftly and that the work could begin as soon as possible on the first projects, ensuring safe buildings for our children. That minimised the burden on the sector.
I know that education is a devolved issue, but will the Minister join me in commending and congratulating the DUP Education Minister in Northern Ireland, Michelle McIlveen, on her announcement yesterday of £749 million of capital investment for more than 20 schools? Portadown College and Killicomaine Junior High School in my constituency are on that list.
The Minister will know the importance of schools being very much in the heart of their communities. A school in my constituency faces imminent closure, much to the despair of the community. I oppose the closure. If there is any learning here in GB on schools being right in the heart of their community, will she share it with me, and will she also ensure that the Lurgan campus of the senior high school does not close?
Obviously, I cannot comment on specific schools and, as the hon. Member points out, education is, of course, devolved. Nevertheless, I absolutely praise any educational investment and specifically investment in schools. I agree with her about the power of education and a good school, and I am sure that the Minister for School Standards would be only too happy to meet her to discuss exactly what we are doing here in England, to see whether there are any learnings that will help her.
Last year, we consulted on the approach to prioritise the remaining places in the programme, so that we could take account of the views of the sector in developing a longer-term approach to prioritisation. We wanted that approach to be fair, robust and capable of being consistent with comparisons between schools, while as far as possible minimising the burden on the school sector.
The public consultation started in July 2021 and ended in October 2021, and it took place alongside a number of consultative events. The consultation sought views on the objectives of the programme, the factors that should inform prioritisation, and the process and evidence of the data to be used. As part of that, we were keen to test how additional evidence of need could be gathered and assessed, and we recognised that data collected by the condition data collection does not provide a complete view of the condition needed within a school. For example, as it is a visual survey, it cannot be used to identify any structural weaknesses.
We received 205 responses in total from a wide range of stakeholders, including large representative bodies, as well as feedback from our online engagement events. I thank all Members and their constituents for contributing to the consultation. The primary goal of the consultation was, of course, to seek views on how we can effectively prioritise the funding available and, obviously, please all hon. Members in this House. We asked questions about the objectives of the programme, the school characteristics that we would consider to inform prioritisation, the delivery of the programme and the impact on individuals with protected characteristics.
The Department held a number of sessions with different stakeholders, and the consultation put forward three broad approaches to prioritising schools for the future programme. The majority of respondents—60%—put the lead approach as their first choice for prioritising school funding. This involved a light-touch nomination process, whereby responsible bodies can request that we consider a school’s condition data collection, alongside the ability to submit supplementary professional evidence of severe need that was not captured in that data. We have now implemented that approach.
We also consulted on how we would compare different schools that need to be rebuilt. This includes asking whether respondents agreed that we should prioritise schools based on severity of need, rather than simply on volume of need across the site. This is the approach that we took in the first two rounds of the programme, and it has the benefit of ensuring that the programme would not simply favour larger schools. We also plan to continue to prioritise schools with the higher intensity of need.
We have made our plans for future selection rounds based on experience of the first two rounds of the programme and the feedback from the consultation. Guidance for responsible bodies has been published on gov.uk, to support them to nominate schools for the programme and to provide additional evidence of severe condition, which is needed for the current round of specialist resource provision.
Of course, safeguarding is always fundamental when we consider school estate and schools in general. I am sure that the Minister for School Standards will meet the hon. Member as soon as possible within the next few weeks to discuss the particular issue of safeguarding. It is concerning that it has been raised in this House and it needs to be treated with sensitivity and urgency, so I will ensure that that happens.
Did the consultation give any weighting to schools that have been particularly generous in taking children in response to unexpected demand? There have, for example, been bulge classes. Therefore, given the sheer number of students, the impact of not having, for instance, good sports provision affects more children. Has any weighting been given to the fact that some schools are more generous than others? Some school governing boards say, “Yes, we’ll meet the challenge”, but others are a little more selfish and say, “No, we won’t,” with their school buildings experiencing less wear and tear as a result. The school fabric can end up looking very tired if there are an extra 30 children in every single year in a school of 1,600 children.
We are trying to prioritise the state, standard and condition of the school, so that this is done purely on need. As the hon. Member pointed out, taking additional pupils will produce further wear and tear, deteriorating the school estate. That would show in the evidence of how that school is performing against the standard. I am confident that that would have been picked up, and it can be looked at in detail once the nomination process has been published.
We also set out the expectation that the programme is looking to select schools in very poor condition that need refurbishing, and we are ensuring the best investment for the limited number of places in the programme. Our plan is to allocate places in the programme based—we have laboured this point today—on the condition of the buildings. We will continue to monitor the cases brought to our attention throughout the prioritisation process. Where necessary, we will of course modify our approach to selecting schools, to ensure that the most urgent building needs are prioritised. We have also reserved the right to add schools to the programme in exceptional circumstances. I urge hon. Members to continue to communicate concerns to Ministers in the Department.
On 3 February, we published our response to the consultation, alongside opening the process for nomination to the programme. Later this year, we intend to select schools provisionally for up to 300 of the remaining places in the programme, reserving some places for the future. Local authorities, academy trusts and voluntary aided school bodies have been able to nominate schools that they consider appropriate for the programme, using the online portal. The nomination process is now closed, but professional evidence of severe need may be submitted until the end of the month.
Framwellgate School Durham, a secondary academy with the Excel Academy Partnership and referenced by the hon. Member for City of Durham, has continued to highlight the need for rebuilding. We will consider carefully the nominations made to the programme. Many schools will likely receive a visit from our technical teams over the coming months. I hope that the hon. Member appreciates that the process for selecting schools is ongoing, so, as I said, I cannot comment on the success of individual cases, but I hope that that reassures her that her school is certainly in the mix.
Schools selected will be informed that they have been provisionally allocated a place on the programme. Projects will enter the delivery stages over the coming years. We plan to publish the long list of nominations in due course.
Improving the condition of the school estate is a priority for the Government. As I have said, in addition to the rebuilding programme the Department provides annual capital funding to schools and to those responsible for school buildings to maintain and improve the condition of their schools, particularly given wear and tear. We have allocated £11.3 billion for that purpose since 2015.
We expect to allocate condition funding for the 2022-23 financial year this spring, to answer the hon. Member for Portsmouth South. The responsibility for identifying and addressing conditions concerns in schools lies with the relevant local authority, the academy trust or the voluntary aided school body. They may prioritise available resources and funding to keep schools open and safe, ensuring that day-to-day maintenance checks and minor repairs happen.
Local authorities, large multi-academy trusts and large voluntary aided bodies such as dioceses receive an annual school condition allocation to invest in their schools. In the 2021-22 financial year, Durham County Council was allocated more than £7 million in SCA funding—a substantial sum—and the council is responsible for prioritising the funding across all its maintained schools, to ensure that they remain safe and operational. Small academy trusts, small voluntary aided school bodies, and sixth forms and colleges are instead able to bid into the condition improvement fund. The outcome of that latest round should be published later in the spring.
Investing in our school building project is vital to delivering world-class education and training, so that pupils gain the invaluable knowledge, skills and qualifications that they need to succeed. That is exactly why the Government have committed to 500 places over 10 years in the school rebuilding programme, alongside significant annual investment in improving the condition of schools across England. The programme will support levelling up by addressing significant poor conditions across the estate, underpin high-quality education, grow jobs and drive greater efficiency in delivery.
I thank all hon. Members present today, including the hon. Member for City of Durham, who raised this important issue and secured the debate. As we all know, education can be transformative and is vital to our levelling-up agenda. The Government are committed to ensuring that the very bricks and mortar are there to help deliver and facilitate that education.
I will be brief. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part today and I am glad that we have had a constructive debate. It is great to hear about the new schools being built in County Durham. Unfortunately, none of those are in my constituency, but I am sure that the staff and children of Bishop Auckland and Sedgefield will be delighted. I welcome the fact that the criteria and the weightings will be published, because that is what heads have been asking for and they would like to know why those schools were chosen over theirs. I would be delighted to meet the Minister to discuss Framwellgate School Durham, and I hope that that invitation will also be extended to those interested headteachers. Finally, I hope that future bids by City of Durham schools are successful so that the children and educators in my constituency can have the best possible learning environment.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered rollout of the School Rebuilding Programme.
Sibling Sexual Abuse
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of tackling sibling sexual abuse.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. This is a hugely difficult and harrowing subject. I begin by thanking all those who have worked on the sibling sexual abuse project: Rape Crisis England and Wales; the University of Birmingham; the University of the West of England, Bristol; West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre, and Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support. I also recognise the fantastic work of Fleur Strong, Dr Peter Yates and Tanith McCulloch, two of whom are here today.
The relationship between siblings is one of the most important we will ever form in our lives. There are many different forms of sibling relationship: biological, step, half, adoptive and social. In all those contexts, siblings share an enduring bond. When that relationship goes wrong and one sibling sexually abuses another, it can have devastating, lifelong consequences.
There is no universally accepted definition of sibling sexual abuse. That lack of consistency and clarity contributes to the challenges in identifying this form of abuse. A 2020 definition states:
“Sibling sexual abuse consists of sexual acts initiated by one sibling towards another without the other’s consent, by use of force or coercion, or where there is a power differential between the siblings.”
It occurs when both children are under 18; it can be between brother and sister, sister and brother, brother and brother, or sister and sister. We must distinguish sibling sexual abuse from other forms of child sexual abuse. We are not talking about adult abusers, nor should we conflate sibling sexual abuse with peer-on-peer abuse or child sexual exploitation, which occur outside the home.
It is also critical that we do not view sibling sexual abuse through an adult gender violence lens. The reasons that children sexually harm siblings are complex and different from those associated with adult violence. In many cases, the child who harms is a victim and has experienced neglect, witnessed domestic abuse or experienced some form of childhood trauma. We cannot judge children’s harmful sexualised behaviour without first understanding the context of the family situation they are living in, and we cannot assume that someone will become an adult sex offender because of their behaviour as a child.
I will refer to sibling sexual abuse, siblings who have harmed, and siblings who have been harmed, which are the terms recommended by experts. This is a type of abuse that affects thousands of children, adults and families. Its impact on the entire family is not only devastating but lifelong. As one survivor said:
“It is not just the abuse. It’s the family ramifications, too, that can last for years and tear survivors away from the family.”
Sibling sexual abuse has been described as a hand grenade going off in the family. One adult who was harmed as a child said:
“I have been fumbling around in the dark for so many years trying to understand myself, my reactions, relationship difficulties. Feeling the way I do about myself—totally inferior with nothing to offer anyone. Worthless, in other words.”
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of childhood trauma, I am well aware of the lifelong consequences facing these children. Childhood trauma is at the root of many mental illnesses and other lifelong impacts on achievement, employment and quality of relationships. If it is unrecognised, children will take their trauma into adulthood and, through their traumatised behaviour, pass it on to their children. Those who experience childhood trauma are twice as likely to develop depression and three times as likely to develop anxiety disorders. The child who has harmed often has to deal with the dichotomy of their actions as a child and who they are now as an adult.
In cases of sibling sexual abuse, multiple layers of educational, societal, economic and health impacts affect the whole family. Sibling sexual abuse is unlike other forms of child sexual abuse. The child who has been harmed and the child who has harmed are not only both children, but children of the same family. One affected parent said:
“We are the parents of a much-loved adult who was sexually abused by his older brother as a child. The abuser, also our much-loved child, committed suicide last year, following investigations by Social Services as to whether he constituted a risk to his own young son. No evidence was found. The revelation of the abuse has caused our family to fall apart.”
Parents are often faced with the “double dilemma” of trying to support both of the children involved, dealing with school, social services, children’s services and police investigations, as well as unaffected siblings, friends and extended family. Some parents never accept that abuse has or is still taking place. Many families instinctively close ranks, never sharing what has happened with anyone outside the family.
Research by Rape Crisis England and Wales suggests that parents would be more likely to come forward if they knew that their harming child would not be criminalised. Domestic abuse in the home is a significant factor in families where sibling sexual abuse takes place, suggesting that children are reflecting behaviour that they have witnessed. The situation is complex and requires a family response. One child has been harmed by another; that in itself is difficult to come to terms with, but both children need support.
We have known about the risk to children from sibling sexual abuse for years. In fact, it has been confirmed by Home Office-funded research. From 2020 to 2022, Rape Crisis England and Wales has worked in partnership with two universities and rape crisis centres on a groundbreaking project to support victims and survivors of recent and historical sibling sexual abuse. The project is the largest Government-funded project on sibling sexual abuse in the UK to date. It is funded by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, and it is the first England and Wales-wide project on the subject.
Research shows that sibling sexual abuse is the most common form of child sexual abuse in our homes. Estimates suggest that a child is three to five times more likely to be abused by their sibling under the age of 18 than by a parent or adult living in their home environment. The Minister will appreciate the difference between prevalence and reported incidence. However, the sibling sexual abuse project has, for the first time, put together a national picture of reported incidence in England and Wales. Using freedom of information data provided by 20 police forces, the project identified over 10,000 recorded incidents of intrafamilial sexual offences and assaults where the victim was under 18 between 2017 and 2020. Of those, nearly 2,500—24%—were recorded as a sibling relationship. Nearly a quarter of incidents of intrafamilial sexual offences reported to the police are sibling sexual abuse, yet there is systemic silence.
Local and national safeguarding policies and strategies do not name, measure or prioritise sibling sexual abuse. No targets are set; no data is gathered. The Home Office’s 2021 tackling child sexual abuse strategy, which it describes as its
“whole-system response to all forms of child sexual abuse,”
does not even acknowledge the existence of sibling sexual abuse. This is the thing that we really need to talk about today—the need for an acknowledgement of the existence of sibling sexual abuse in our strategies.
It is almost unbelievable that an entire strategy on child sexual abuse not only fails to recognise the primary type of child sexual abuse in our homes, but fails even to acknowledge its existence. Worse still, the Home Office’s systemic blind spot is cascading down and compromising other national and local safeguarding policies and strategies. Of the more than 80 child safeguarding boards that published annual reports in 2021, zero mentioned sibling sexual abuse. According to a survey of 700 frontline professionals conducted by the national project on sibling sexual abuse, sibling sexual abuse is significantly less recognised within general society than child abuse where the perpetrator is an adult.
There is ongoing stigma around sibling sexual abuse. That is not surprising: it goes against our very concept of childhood. It completely challenges societal and professional thinking on child sexual abuse. In some cases, sibling sexual abuse survivors have stated that they do not recognise themselves as survivors of child sexual abuse, because of the way that society, the Government and sexual violence organisations communicate what child sexual abuse is. Even worse, they do not seek help. Rape Crisis England and Wales has heard of professionals minimising the abuse because they do not know how to respond, exaggerating the abuse in order to gain access to children and young people’s statutory services, or catastrophising the abuse. All three reactions are detrimental to children, young people and their families.
How can we make things better? How can we help to safeguard thousands of young children and properly support survivors to seek help? I hope that the Minister will agree that the first step is to acknowledge sibling sexual abuse. She might respond by saying that the Government’s child sexual abuse approach already includes sibling sexual abuse, because it is a form of child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, that is not the case. That is not what survivors think, it is not what rape crisis centres think, and it is not what 700 professionals think.
The Home Office’s own documents focus only on adult abusers in the home, despite the Home Office’s own evidence stating that something is wrong. Things must change. The only thing that will make things better for thousands of families is acknowledgement that sibling sexual abuse exists. This is about language. It is about five simple words that must be included in every document aimed at tackling child sexual abuse: “brother”, “sister” and “sibling sexual abuse”. Will the Minister commit to updating the Home Office’s 2021 tackling child sexual abuse strategy to name and appropriately respond to sibling sexual abuse as the most common form of child sexual abuse in our homes? That is in line with research funded by the Home Office itself, so I hope that she will offer me her reassurances.
Criminal justice is not the answer to tackling sibling sexual abuse; we need health and education to work together and take a trauma-informed approach. We must reassure families that they are not dealing with this alone and properly equip professionals so that they can offer the support that is needed. That will mean proper, age-appropriate sex and relationship education in schools, something for which we Liberal Democrats have been asking for a long time. It is important for children to understand that sometimes harm can come from children, so that they come forward when it happens and they understand that it is wrong.
Will the Minister also speak to her colleagues in the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care to ask them to update their safeguarding and commissioning approaches to children, in order to respond properly to intrafamilial abuse and, specifically, sibling sexual abuse? Until now, this issue simply has not been addressed properly. Children are being let down by the status quo. If the Home Office will not believe its own paid-for evidence, who and what will it believe?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for tackling this extremely difficult subject and for doing so in such a sensitive and constructive way. I, too, pay tribute to the victims and their families who have suffered from this horrific experience. It is an unimaginable trauma. We are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to deal with it and to tackle it.
I appreciate that the hon. Lady gave me some challenges and pre-empted some of what I was going to say, but let me set out what we are doing from the Home Office side. I hope that will assure her that we are taking this issue seriously, but I am always happy to work with her on the specific points she has raised.
In that spirit, let me start by saying that the hon. Lady rightly referenced the tackling child sexual abuse strategy, which we published just over a year ago. That strategy sets out our commitments to drive action across every part of Government and all agencies—education, health, social care, industry and civil society, some of which she mentioned. The strategy specifically recognises the issue of sibling sexual abuse. It is important that we recognise that it is an atrocious form of sex abuse and has its own individual characteristics, as she set out. It is right that we understand it, which is why we have funded the research that she referenced.
Is the Minister aware of the survey of New England colleges and universities that found that 15% of females and 10% of males have reported some type of sexual experience involving a sibling? It also established that one in seven under-age children who have watched porn are more likely to engage in sexual experimentation with their sibling. Does the Minister believe that we must work harder to protect children from the dangers of online porn in order to tackle sibling sexual abuse, and will she confirm that, through the Online Safety Bill, this kind of sexual activity will be stopped?
I strongly agree that we must do more to protect children when they are viewing pornographic content online. That is precisely what the Online Safety Bill will do. There are many advocates in this place—including, if I may say so, you, Mrs Miller—who have done extensive work to ensure that we toughen up enforcement powers so that young children, and women and girls, are not exposed to this disgusting content before that is appropriate.
We know that sibling sexual abuse and child sex abuse are horrific, and that these crimes destroy lives. That is why we are determined to leave no stone unturned in our effort to protect children and bring perpetrators to justice. The hon. Member for Bath is absolutely right to say that sibling sex abuse is likely to be one of the most common forms of intrafamilial sex abuse, but it remains under-reported right across the country. During a three-month snapshot survey in 2020, the Internet Watch Foundation logged 511 self-generated child sex abuse images and videos that involved siblings, with 65% of cases involving direct sexual contact between the siblings in just that one period. That is equivalent to approximately five to six images or videos per day.
We know that it can take a long time for children to feel comfortable and confident to tell anyone about the sexual abuse that they have been subjected to. It is particularly difficult, as the hon. Lady highlighted, where the sexual abuse takes place in that family environment. It is crucial to ensure that children and young people have a strong understanding of healthy relationships, boundaries and privacy, and that they are able to recognise and report abuse or concerns about their safety. That is why we completely agree with the hon. Lady and her colleagues that relationships, sex and health education across the curriculum is a statutory requirement across the country. We have been rolling that out across primary and secondary settings. It is crucial that frontline professionals working with children and young people have the skills and confidence to identify all forms of sexual abuse and are able to respond effectively.
The hon. Lady referred to the first ever national conference on sibling sexual abuse, which took place recently and was facilitated by Rape Crisis England and Wales, funded partly by the Home Office. The conference brought together frontline professionals and practitioners to learn from national and international best practice on responding to sibling sexual abuse. That is precisely why the conference was funded and set up by the Home Office—because we wish to know more and to learn from the findings. We are continuing to fund the centre of expertise on child sexual abuse, to drive a co-ordinated response to child sexual abuse across the country.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I will pick up where I left off, by highlighting the work we are doing through the centre of expertise on child sexual abuse to drive a co-ordinated response across the country. That centre of expertise has produced invaluable research and resources to support frontline professionals working in education and children’s social care, including a knowledge and practice overview on sibling sexual abuse, which is designed to help professionals think through the issues and challenges raised by sibling sexual abuse.
That work is further supported by the child sexual abuse response pathway tool, which aims to ensure that professionals are clear about their roles and responsibilities and have access to high-quality, evidence-based resources to support them in their practice and decision making. Guides and templates recently published by the centre aim to empower professionals so they can confidently spot the signs and indicators of child sex abuse, talk to children in a safe and supported space, and provide wider support to parents and carers. The centre has also specifically provided training to supervising social workers and designated safeguarding leads in 11 pilot sites to improve the identification of, and response to, sexual abuse within schools.
I am sure the hon. Member for Bath will welcome the news that in January we launched the harmful sexual behaviour support service for education and safeguarding professionals. That work is helping to build confidence and support professionals in addressing all forms of sexual abuse, including sibling sex abuse. That service is delivered by the South West Grid for Learning in partnership with the Marie Collins Foundation, and I put on record my thanks to that group.
We all need to work on this together, and I am very pleased to hear about the work the Home Office is doing, but may I challenge the Minister again on what she has said about the Home Office’s 2021 report on tackling child sexual abuse? Sibling sexual abuse is only referenced in that report once, at the end, and is only referenced in relation to research, not as abuse that must be actioned as the most common form of child sexual abuse in the home. Can I ask again whether the Minister will commit to ensuring that, when the report is updated, sibling sexual abuse will be highlighted as the most common form of child sexual abuse and something that should be prioritised immediately?
Thank you for your guidance, Mrs Miller. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and her remarks, and I am keen to work constructively with her in the spirit in which she has approached this subject. We both agree that this is a vitally important topic, so I am very happy to have a further meeting with her at which we can discuss these vital issues and try to identify where we need to do more. We start from the premise that there is more the Home Office and all our partners need to do on this issue.
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the prevalence of sibling sexual abuse. The reason I am responding as I am is that, although she is right to say that sibling sexual abuse has distinct features, there are also themes in common. It is important that we consider safeguarding of children, but we recognise that there are multiple presentations of these horrifying and disgusting crimes. I will work with the hon. Lady to arrange a meeting at which we can have a deep dive into this work. I thank her for everything she is doing, because I recognise that she is championing victims in a very important way.
I will briefly reference the Online Safety Bill, in responding to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The Bill was published last week and will, for the first time, place a duty on tech companies to proactively do more to keep children safe online. That is why we continue to fund the Internet Watch Foundation to deliver public awareness and education campaigns around self-generated indecent imagery.
Let me turn to the issue of support for children and victims and survivors of sibling sexual abuse. The hon. Lady has recognised the many barriers that make it extremely difficult for children to talk about what is happening to them in that family situation. Some may not be aware that what is happening is abuse. Sometimes it starts very young, and if that is all the victim knows, it is incredibly hard for them to tell their story. We must be clear that children and young people will always be supported in telling their story. We have heard from victims and survivors who have come forward with horrific experiences—no one can listen to those stories without feeling affected and wanting to help—so it is crucial that specialist support is provided to help victims and survivors to process the devastating impacts of the abuse they have suffered and to move forward with their lives. That is why we are increasing investment in specialised victim and survivor support services throughout the country, including specialist support for victims of sibling sexual abuse.
I have already referred to it, but it is worth reminding the House that we have provided significant funding for Rape Crisis England and Wales to run a new and groundbreaking project to support victims and survivors of recent and historic sibling sexual abuse. This two-year project is the largest Government-funded project on sibling sexual abuse to date across England and Wales, and it is generating some extremely interesting findings that we will continue to review, from the Home Office side and with the hon. Lady. That funding has supported the delivery of a national toolkit developed to support victims and survivors of sibling sexual abuse, a national training framework to support non-recent victims of sibling sexual abuse, and academic research to strengthen our understanding of this form of abuse.
We will not shy away from this often stigmatised and sensitive issue. We are determined to work across Government with victims and survivors to ensure that they get the support they need to rebuild their lives. I again thank all Members of the House who have contributed to this important debate. I also thank the families, the victims and survivors, and their loved ones, who have come forward to attend this debate and also helped us in our work in Government to formulate the right policy response to them. I assure colleagues that we are firmly focused on protecting children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, including sibling sexual abuse. The Government’s message is clear: we will confront these crimes wherever and whenever they occur, and we will use every lever available to us to keep children safe.
Question put and agreed to.
Parental Leave and Pay
I beg to move,
That this House has considered parental leave and pay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. Among OECD countries, the UK has the second lowest payment rates for maternity leave, which is something the TUC has regularly highlighted. Less than a third of gross average earnings are replaced by maternity pay, and despite lengthy maternity leave entitlements, full-time equivalent paid maternity leave lasts for only 12 weeks.
In 2020, the Petitions Committee recommended that the treatment of maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay in universal credit should be equalised. At present, recipients of universal credit awarded maternity allowance end up no better off, because of a pound-for-pound clawback. Under the tax credit regime that universal credit replaced, maternity allowance was disregarded in full in calculating awards, as statutory maternity pay is now.
Not surprisingly, figures obtained by Maternity Action under freedom of information provisions show a drop of 45% between 2016 and 2021 in the number of employed parents who claim maternity allowance. In fact, up to 85,000 parents have been denied maternity support as a result of Conservative Government policy, and the Department for Work and Pensions has been asked today, in a letter signed by Maternity Action, the Fawcett Society, the National Childbirth Trust and the Women’s Budget Group, to assess the reasons for this 45% fall.
In 2020, the New Economics Foundation found that self-employed people take just six weeks of parental leave and that one in six take no days of parental leave at all. That same year, the Petitions Committee recommended that parental benefits available to self-employed birth parents should be extended to self-employed adoptive parents, and that parental leave and pay should be offered to special guardians. In 2021, the Women and Equalities Committee urged the UK Government to extend redundancy protection to pregnant women and new mothers in this parliamentary Session. However, we are still waiting.
If the UK Government were serious about supporting parents and tackling child poverty, they would address this issue. They would address the exclusion of so many families from the protection and support that they need to give their children the best start in life. Instead, not only do we have seafarers who appear to enjoy none of the protections of UK employment laws but we have delivery drivers, taxi drivers, catering and retail workers, and so many other people whose employment rights are being rolled back to the 19th century.
I pay particular tribute to the work of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which has highlighted the position of taxi drivers, whose contracts are often deactivated by web-based employers without due process. The union very reasonably asks how drivers can enforce rights to parental leave and pay, or tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination, if the laws on which their contracts rest are so grossly unfair. That is where a Parliament should step in but, unlike other countries, the UK has continued to dither and delay. The Prime Minister promised an employment Bill to address fears that workers’ rights would be watered down post Brexit, so I have to ask the Minister, where is the employment Bill? When will we see it?
I commend the work of Maternity Action in this field. It presented an action plan to end pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work to the UK Government. That was endorsed by a wide range of organisations and trade unions. I am keen to hear from the Minister why Maternity Action has been removed from the pregnancy and maternity discrimination advisory board—for what looks to me simply like revealing that it continues to support the aims of its action plan.
One of the questions facing us today is whether P&O’s sacking of 800 workers and the hustling of many of them out of their workplace has been a wake-up call on employment matters for the UK Government. Will the Minister restate his commitment to an employment Bill, or will we see expectant and new parents become just the latest group of workers to be thrown under the Brexit bus? In contrast to that, the SNP Scottish Government are committed to delivering fair work where they have the opportunity to do so. They are doing everything they can to support parents through that challenging time and beyond.
The reality is, however, that employment law and most of social security remain reserved to Westminster, so we must see action in this place. We must see extended legal protection against redundancy for pregnant parents, for those on shared parental and adoption leave, and for new parents for up to six months after their return to work. In particular, I want to hear from the Minister about increasing maternity leave to one year, and setting maternity pay at average weekly earnings for the first 12 weeks, and at 90% for 40 weeks or £150, whichever is lower. As I am sure the Minister will be aware, for parents who are looking at this, the detail is incredibly important.
I want to hear from the Minister about increasing shared parental leave from 52 to 64 weeks, with the additional 12 weeks to be the minimum taken by the father. I want to hear his view on introducing a principle of “use it or lose it” to encourage fathers to take paternity leave, while protecting maternity leave if it is not taken, and on increasing the statutory weeks allowed and the weekly rate of paternity pay to 100% of average weekly earnings for one week, and 100% for two weeks or £150, whichever is lower.
In all of this, where there is a will to make progress, it can and has been made. The Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018 had cross-party support to create statutory bereavement leave for parents following the death of a child up to age 18. The successful amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) permitted an additional two weeks’ statutory paid leave for parents who experienced a stillbirth. We can build on that kind of progress. My hon. Friend has now published a Bill proposing paid bereavement leave for all employees who lose a close family member. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) proposes a Bill seeking at least three days of paid leave for anyone who suffers a miscarriage and to extend leave to those experiencing a miscarriage before 24 weeks. I urge the Minister to signal his support for both Bills.
I am pleased that some employers lead the way on parental leave issues. I give credit to them, including the John Lewis Partnership, which is the first UK high street retailer to introduce 26 weeks’ equal parenthood paid maternity and paternity leave. It offers 14 weeks’ full pay and 12 weeks’ half pay to all mums, dads and adoptive parents who have been with the company for a year. As a result, it found a significant increase in the take-up of what was paternity leave, but is now called co-parent leave.
I also give credit to the Chartered Management Institute, which surveyed its members’ attitudes towards and awareness of parental leave and shared parental leave, and on the confidence in dealing with those issues by their direct reports. It found that 71% of managers would be confident providing advice and about paternity leave, but that dropped to just 48% for shared parental leave. It concludes that better guidance is needed to help organisations to train managers to deliver those policies more effectively. Obviously, what we do here underpins an awful lot of that. I certainly agree with the Chartered Management Institute on the need for better guidance and training.
Fundamentally, it is up to the UK Government, who control those levers, to take action to strengthen the protections against pregnancy and maternity discrimination, including for the self-employed or those in precarious work, and to fix the flaws in parental support to better support both parents and children. I am keen to hear from the Minister what the UK Government’s plans are in that regard and, in particular, where the missing employment Bill is and when we can expect to see it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on introducing this debate so well, as she always does. I chose to speak in this debate because it is something I have a particular interest in. I support the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) in their quest on this issue and on maternity leave, which the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East brought to the main Chamber last Thursday. It is a worthy topic.
Parental leave is something that many employers do not seem to want to speak about. The hassle of finding someone else to do the job can be off-putting, yet when a parent is distracted due to issues with their children, their full attention is not on their work. We hope that this debate will raise awareness of this issue—we said it in the Chamber the other day and we will say it again today. The Minister understands the issues very well; it is great when we have issues to bring to his attention where we do not have to persuade too hard. I do not mean to be condescending; I just mean that he understands the issues, so it is easier to seek his assistance.
I have learned over many years that an engaged person working achieves much more than a distracted person. While many of us may be loth to tell others of problems at home, it is essential in a team that we know what is happening. Let me give an example from my office. I like to think I am a caring employer—I think my staff would confirm that, not because I say it, but because they would say it. One of my staff was not working to their usual standard. I noticed that something was wrong. After years of engaging with others, we get a feeling for what things are, and it was obvious to me that something was not right.
This staff member is a lady, and I am always conscious that for some things I may not be the person to speak to. The office manager is a lady, so I asked her to ascertain if all was okay. It turned out that she was in the process of splitting from her fiancé. She had been going with him for some time and had been engaged for a certain period of time, and she simply needed space and understanding. The office manager was able to handle that. We bond together well as a team—we understand things, we see things and we look out for one another, and that is the way it should be. I was able to give that staff member the space. The lesson my staff and I learned in the office is that information and sharing is key to a good working environment, but it has taken many years to grasp that concept—the very thing that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire referred to.
A happy worker is a good worker. I understand that not all employers can offer flexibility to ensure a parent can collect their child a few days a week and work from home to build up the child’s security. However, it is imperative that the Minister and the Government step up and begin to put in place parameters, not simply to relieve workers’ stress but to offer support to employers to make parental leave accessible in every profession. It is the employees who are looking for that, but the employers need to be helped along the way. What we are looking for from the Minister is a system whereby the employers can help.
Currently, shared parental leave is at the lowest rate for 10 years—that is quite worrying, and I found the figures hard to understand. That does not mean that parents need it less. The fact is that the mental health of our children has never been worse, and that is due to covid. I am aware from my constituency, as every other Member here will be from their own constituencies, of the rising number of children in secondary and primary school who experience mental health issues that have arisen through covid. With no contact with their peers, the stress and anxiety build up and that becomes an absolute problem. That is all the more reason to make sure that parental leave and pay are in place.
The Government have carried out a piece of work on parental leave and pay entitlement, and we must now see how we can factor that into working life. A poll carried out by The Mirror a number of years ago cited the fact that many parents were refused parental leave and instead had to take a sick day when an issue arose with their child, which goes on their record. That is quite harsh, and I hope that it can be addressed. That is not the way things should be, and we must undertake to ensure that employers’ obligations are known and that there is a system in place to allow our small business employers the financial support to enable them to do right by their staff.
I conclude with one more comment, as I am conscious that there will soon be Divisions in the main Chamber. Being a parent is an absolutely wonderful calling. Those who have children will know that, even though our children may at times make us pull our hair out—looking at my head, I have pulled out more hair than most, but that is by the way. However, I want to quote one mother who spoke to me, because her comments were really important:
“I am expected to work like I have no children and parent like I have no job”—
it is about those two things, being a parent and doing the job, and trying to do the two together—
“and I just fail at both.”
I do not think she does fail—I know she does not. She is a very good mother to her children, and she is also very good at the job she does. She does not fail; we are failing her. For that reason, things need to change, and that is why I support what the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire has put forward.
It is truly a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. I speak in this debate as someone who took parental leave only a matter of weeks ago, on the birth of my son, Hudson. I also speak as an employer, and I want to extend my best wishes to my caseworker Craig and his wife Jen on the birth of their son, Ben, this week—he is also taking parental leave.
I stand here as an employer and a parliamentarian. Parental leave covers maternity, paternity and adoption leave, as well as shared parental leave. That seems like a lot of things, but what are we actually discussing? Welcoming a new baby home is a time filled with joy, but also a time filled with hard work and sleepless nights, as I can attest. Parental leave is necessary to adjust to the realities of parenting, and it allows time for practical issues, such as recovery after giving birth, health visits and vital bonding and development.
Too often, parents are forced to go back to work more quickly than they would like because of financial constraints. That is a balance that many parents have to make, but too often the assumption is that women will take the leave and the father will return to work. In the modern economy, we also find that mothers are often earning more than their partners, and although they would like to stay at home for longer, financial constraints mean they are forced back to work.
As we know, there is a gap when a mother takes more than a year off work. As you will know only too well, Mrs Miller, from your extensive work on this issue with the Women and Equalities Committee over many years, there is already a gender pay gap, and it is exacerbated by the fact the parental leave policies that exist, not just here in the UK but in other countries, prevent parents from making these choices, because fundamentally it comes down to the economics of who can afford to take that time off.
Parental leave is good for parents, children and business, but the UK Government are not going far enough to ensure that the entitlements are guaranteed for workers. We have heard that the full rate of maternity pay often applies for only 12 weeks and that many self-employed people take as little six weeks, with some taking no leave at all. There is also a failure to offer adequate parental, paternity and shared parental leave, which further compounds the maternity and pregnancy discrimination that so many women face in the workplace, and adds to the gender pay gap, pay inequalities and, eventually, pension inequalities.
We need to consider the rounded impact on women, their families and their household incomes. But this is not just about women; it is also about fathers and other partners, and about people being able to spend time with their families, while knowing that their work is valued and respected, and that their job will be there to go back to—too often, that is not the case. We have already heard about job insecurity and non-permanent contracts and that, sadly, only the privileged few can afford to take extensive periods of leave.
As the Minister knows only too well, I have—like a broken record—made an extensive case for miscarriage leave, shared parental leave and neonatal leave, and for a fundamentally radical overhaul of workplace policies, statute and protections to allow workers to take the leave that they should be due during this life event, alongside the many other life events that people encounter. We need to adapt workplace policies and protections so that workers can adapt their lives and continue to be valued members of their workforces.
As we have heard, many industries are failing to protect or even provide the most basic leave, and many parents are falling through the net. The sad reality is that only legislation can fix that. I would love to be able to say that all workplaces would adopt comprehensive policies to address such issues, but the Minister and I know that that is not case, even though it makes good economic sense to address the systemic problems in workplace culture that contribute to discrimination and pay disparity.
Much of that work could be done through the employment Bill. As I have said repeatedly—I am sure the Minister is tired of my voice over the last fortnight—we must address the need to reform UK employment protections and law. However, there is a danger that much of the detail would be lost in an overwhelming employment Bill, so I am keen to hear when the Bill will be introduced and how the Government intend it to tackle these workplace protections. The Government appear to have shelved the Bill, and there is no clear timetable for its introduction—I hope the Minister will feel free to correct me if it is forthcoming. I ask once again that parliamentary time be made available for the Bill. Will the Minister confirm that it will include improvements to parental leave and pay, measures on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and—I have to get this in again—paid miscarriage leave?
It is clear that reform is well overdue. The current system allows too many parents to fall through the net. The Minister has listened attentively, but we need action, so I urge him to do all he can to introduce the employment Bill urgently, ensuring that it is robust in its protection of workers’ rights.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this important debate and on her comprehensive introduction. It is clear that she is a passionate advocate for the many people who want to see great improvements in parental leave and pay.
As the hon. Lady and other Members outlined, there are a number of different types of parental leave, but I will focus on shared parental leave. It was originally designed to encourage more fathers to take leave after the birth of their child by allowing new parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of maternity pay in the first year after the child is born. As we have heard in the debate, from our constituents and from leading employment and equality groups, however, shared parental leave just does not do what it says on the tin. The scheme is not working for parents, and take-up rates remain woeful. In February last year, data provided by the Minister in a written answer to a parliamentary question indicated that take-up in 2019-20—the scheme’s fifth year—was just 3.6%, which is far short of the Government’s 25% target. That is simply not good enough.
We now know that things got worse during the pandemic: the use of shared parental leave fell for the first time since the scheme was launched. A study by EMW Law found that just 11,200 couples applied to use the scheme in 2020-21, which was a 17% fall on the previous year, when a record 13,100 couples applied. EMW’s analysis found that 598,000 women took maternity leave in the last year, indicating that just 2% of women who took some form of parental leave actually used shared leave. That is right—just 2%. That is a damning statistic. It is not surprising, therefore, that the UK is ranked only 34th out of 41 OECD countries for its family-friendly policies by UNICEF. It is also not surprising that leading groups such as Maternity Action, the Fawcett Society, the National Childbirth Trust, the Royal College of Midwives, the TUC and the Women’s Budget Group have all called on the Government to urgently rethink the scheme.
The Women’s Budget Group, an independent organisation that monitors the effect of Government policies on men and women, has called the scheme complicated and said that, because leave was shared, the onus on taking parental leave still fell more on women than men, because men tend to earn more and their salary would be harder to sacrifice at a time when families have great costs. Earlier this month, a Royal College of Midwives motion at the TUC women’s conference called for a shake-up in parental leave so that it works better for both parents.
Ros Bragg, the director of Maternity Action, a maternity rights charity, said:
“Shared parental leave was brought in six years ago now and it’s clear that it’s not working—take up is woeful. Our advice lines are full of parents who want to share parental leave, but confusion around the rules means that they are completely baffled. Add that to the low level of pay on offer and the system seems almost designed to put parents off sharing leave, rather than encourage it.”
The organisation is saying the scheme is not working because the shift to more equal parenting that it was supposed to promote is not happening. That does appear to be the case. We just have not seen the transformation in the take-up of parental leave by fathers that we would have hoped for. The scheme certainly needs reconsideration.
I will give the Minister and the Government a compliment—something that is rare for me—because they have spent millions of pounds on promoting the scheme. However, I am afraid that what we have heard is that it is too complicated and it is poorly understood by both employers and parents. The low rates of pay are a disincentive and workers do not qualify—for example those in agency work, on zero-hours contracts and, of course, the self-employed. We should be very clear that all those groups of workers deserve the same parental rights as everybody else.
When faced with all this evidence, it is hard to conclude that the Government are serious about employment rights and protections. They are not doing enough to address the real barriers in the way of shared parental leave. There was a Government consultation on high-level options for reforming family-related leave and pay, including a right to neonatal leave, pay for parents of premature or sick babies, and proposals to encourage transparency around flexible working and parental leave policies. That was launched back in July 2019, nearly three years ago, and we still have not seen the Government’s full response to it. They have only published a response to the proposals on neonatal leave and pay. The rest—we are told—will be reported on in due course.
As we have heard, the greatly heralded employment Bill is still to materialise. I am sure the Minister will tell us once again that it will appear when parliamentary time allows, which is a frustration to many. It is clear that the policies we need to support families are not good enough. They are not available to all workers, and they are not working sufficiently for those who are able to access the schemes. Parents and families deserve better, frankly. If the Government are keen to see the societal shift to equal parenting that we want to see, and if they want to tackle the gender pay gap, I urge them and the Minister to look at Labour’s Green Paper on a new deal for working people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this debate. I will indeed give her many more minutes than that, should she wish to fill the time.
We are committed to ensuring that employed parents have the right support available to them, so that they can balance family commitments with staying in employment. That is why our parental leave and pay entitlements are so important. I thank those who have taken part in today’s debate for their thoughtful and insightful comments, as well as their repeated engagement with this important issue.
I am pleased to say that this Government have support in place for both employers and employees on parental leave, to guide employers to do the right thing by their staff and to protect employees when they need to take time off. We have a range of leave entitlements that employed parents or parents to be may be eligible for, depending on their circumstances, which I will briefly set out. As a Government, we are committed to delivering a number of changes for new entitlements in this space, including making it easier for partners to take paternity leave, introducing neonatal leave and pay, and extending pregnancy and maternity discrimination protections.
This Government are committed to supporting the participation and progression of parents in the labour market, ensuring that it is fair and works for them. We are delivering this commitment through our framework of parental leave and pay entitlements, which are generous and flexible. Those entitlements support families whatever their circumstances or whichever stage of life they are in—from bonding with their child at birth, to grieving the loss of a child.
Parents have access to a range of leave and pay entitlements in their child’s first year, giving working families more choice and flexibility about who cares for their child and when. Our maternity leave entitlement is generous. To qualifying employed women, we offer 52 weeks of maternity leave, of which 39 are paid, which is more than three times the EU minimum requirement. For self-employed women and those who are not eligible for statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance is available. Both of those maternity payments are designed to provide a measure of financial security to help women to stop working towards the end of their pregnancy and in the months after childbirth, in the interests of their own and their baby’s health and wellbeing.
We recognise that fathers and partners play a crucial role in the first year of their child’s life, through supporting the mother and developing a relationship with the child. Paternity leave arrangements enable employed fathers and partners who meet the qualifying conditions to take up to two weeks of paid leave within the first eight weeks following the birth of their child or placement for adoption. We recognise, however, that paternity leave could be improved, so we made a manifesto commitment to make it easier for fathers and partners to take it. We will announce how we will be doing that in due course.
Shared parental leave and pay, which has been mentioned, provides parents with flexibility over their child’s care in the first year. It challenges the assumption that the mother will always be the primary carer and enables working parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay in the first year of their child’s life. That enables mothers who want to return to work early to do so, and it enables fathers and partners to be their child’s primary carer if that is the parents’ wish. When we introduced the scheme in 2015, we forecast take-up of between 2% and 8% of eligible couples. We now know that the take-up is broadly in line with those initial estimates and has increased each year. To help make shared parental leave more accessible, we launched a new online tool last year, which allows parents to check their eligibility and plan their leave.
We are currently evaluating shared parental leave, as has been said, and we will publish our findings in due course. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into that evaluation, including commissioning and interrogating information collected through large-scale representative surveys of employers and parents, and a consultation on high-level options for reforming parental leave and pay. We also commissioned a qualitative study of parents who have used the scheme, and those various data sources will help us to better understand the barriers and enable parents to take shared parental leave.
Admittedly, the analysis of the data has taken longer than originally expected, as we pivoted necessarily to prioritise work on supporting parents through the covid-19 pandemic, including ensuring that parents and individuals returning from parental leave could access the coronavirus job retention scheme. However, the evaluation remains important for the Government, and we will publish our findings in due course.
Turning to adopters, the Government are full of admiration for adopters who provide stable, loving homes to children who are unable to live with their birth parents. We recognise that it is crucial to the success of an adoption placement that an adopter takes time off work to care for and bond with their child. That is why employed adoptive parents have broadly the same rights and protections as birth parents. Adoption leave is a day one right, in line with maternity leave, which enables employed parents to take up to 52 weeks off work when they adopt a child.
We are also aware that that more needs to be done to support parents whose children are in neonatal care. In March 2020, following a Government consultation on the issue, we committed to introducing a new entitlement to neonatal leave and pay. Neonatal leave and pay will apply to parents of babies who are admitted into hospital up to the age of 28 days and who have a continuous stay in hospital of seven full days or more. Eligible parents will be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave on top of their other parental entitlements, such as maternity and paternity leave. Neonatal leave will be a day one right, meaning that it will be available to an employee from their first day in a new job.
As well as ensuring that parents have the leave and flexibility they need during this period, it is just as important to ensure that they are protected against discrimination and do not suffer detriment for taking that leave. That is why we are extending pregnancy and maternity discrimination protection for those returning from periods of eligible parental leave. We will ensure that the redundancy protection period applies from the point the employee informs the employer that she is pregnant and for six months after a mother has returned to work. We will also apply that protection to those taking adoption leave and shared parental leave.
Of course, our support for employed parents goes beyond the first year of a child’s life. We recognise that for a whole range of reasons, parents of school-age children need support in caring for their children throughout the various stages of their childhood and teenage years. To enable parents to offer that support, all employed parents are entitled to 18 weeks of unpaid leave for each child up to the child’s 18th birthday once they have completed 12 months of service with their employer. Employees also have access to time off for dependants, which provides a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to deal with an unexpected or sudden emergency involving a child or dependant. In recognition of the particularly tragic circumstance of losing a young life before they have even had the opportunity to reach adulthood, we also introduced a new statutory entitlement to parental bereavement leave and pay. That entitlement gives all employed parents who meet the eligibility requirements a right to take up to two weeks off work in the 56 weeks following the death of their child.
Obviously, I appreciate the work done by the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on extending that entitlement further. It is not something at which we are looking at this moment in time, but I will always enjoy continuing to discuss this issue and looking at what we can do for parents, because it is a tragedy to suffer a loss at any time. At the moment, we have drawn the line following the clinical measure of 24 weeks, but we also have other work in train that enables greater flexibility for all employees, including those who are employed parents. Although not a replacement for leave, having access to flexible working arrangements can be a really important tool to enable employees to balance work and family responsibilities or to support those in employment who experience a really difficult life event.
We have taken forward our manifesto commitment to consult on making flexible working the default unless employers have a really good reason not to do so. That consultation contained measures that would increase the availability and support the uptake of flexible working arrangements, including whether to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees from their first day of employment. That consultation closed on 1 December; we are now reviewing the 1,600-odd responses received, and will issue our response in due course. The consultation also introduced plans for a future call for evidence on the subject of ad hoc flexible working, through which we want to explore how non-contractual flexibility works in practice.
As we have heard, when it comes to helping employers understand how to be sympathetic and supportive to their employees, one of the most important tools is guidance. As an example of that, we recently commissioned a significant update of the guidance on managing a bereavement in the workplace, which includes a new section on supporting employees after a miscarriage before 24 weeks of pregnancy and offers examples of best practice. That guidance can be found right now on the ACAS website.
Another example is the flexible working taskforce, which is a partnership across business groups, trade unions, charities and Government Departments that shares knowledge and best practice on all forms of flexible working and takes on discrete pieces of work. Over the past 18 months, that taskforce has produced advice and guidance to support employers who may be interested in introducing hybrid working arrangements for the first time. Advice published by ACAS in July set out the key legal and practical issues associated with this way of working, and a practical guide offering top tips to businesses on how to effectively implement hybrid working was published independently by taskforce members in December, as part of our approach to support employers and employees to have conversations about what is happening in their lives and what support they need.
Employers are best placed to understand their own people and to develop a solution that works for the individual, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) when he talked about happy employees being more productive employees. Clearly, there are great examples of companies treating their employees with compassion and going beyond the statutory minimum. That approach is valuable to the employer as well as to the employee, through the increased loyalty of employees.
I would like to reassure the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire. She asked about employment measures, but I am afraid that not much has changed since we last spoke about this, because Her Majesty has not yet told us the legislation for the next Session, since we have not finished this one. Nevertheless, the Government are committed to building a high-skilled, high-productivity and high-waged economy that delivers on our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to work and to grow a business. We will continue to do that by championing a flexible and dynamic labour market. As we build back better, we will bring forward employment measures to make it easier for people to enter and remain in work as soon as parliamentary time allows. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) can tick away on his employment Bill bingo when we do so.
I reiterate the Government’s commitment to support parents in the workplace and to enable them to be where their families need them while staying in employment. I have highlighted some of the broad range of support that the Government have in place to support parents through different life events, but employers also have an important part to play, because they know their employees. A supportive workplace brings benefits to both the employee and the employer, including on productivity and wellbeing. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire and everyone else for their contributions to this important debate, working hard to support parents in the workplace.
I, too, am grateful to everyone who has spoken in the debate. It is an important issue, and thinking about all the people across these islands who are affected by it probably brings that home.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, we could probably speak about this a good bit more, but it is pressing to speak about it now. People face a cost of living crisis that makes the need for action all the more urgent, and we cannot get away from where I started today: among OECD countries, the UK has the second lowest payment rates for maternity leave. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) set that out well, including the poor levels of take-up at present.
We are simply not where we should be with parental leave and pay. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) explained clearly the impacts of that shortfall on individuals and households.
I am grateful for the tone with which the Minister always approaches such matters, but I do not think that there is any getting away from the fact that we are not where we need to be on action to deliver fairness and proper support. In conclusion, if the UK Government will not deal properly with this and deliver the employment Bill that we have long been promised to achieve fair work across all these issues, including parental leave and pay, they should devolve employment matters so that we can deliver fair work for ourselves.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered parental leave and pay.