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Westminster Hall

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2022

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 December 2022

[David Mundell in the Chair]

Business Rates and Levelling Up

I beg to move,

That this House has considered business rates and levelling up.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. It is extremely apt that the debate is taking place on the same day that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill returns to the House of Commons. If we can successfully reform business rates so that they are fair to businesses right across the country, that really will help to deliver meaningful levelling up.

At present, with businesses having to contend with a level of inflation not seen for a generation, soaring utility bills and stubbornly high rents, business rates are a fixed cost from which occupiers cannot escape. They are an impediment to regional growth, and their impact needs to be significantly reduced, with the system being put on a long-term, easily understood footing. In that way, businesses will know where they stand and can then make long-term investment decisions.

To be fair, all political parties have recognised the unfair and unjust nature of the current system and commitments have been made to both replacement and reform. From my perspective, I sense that the former—replacement—is the holy grail that is unachievable in the real world. To address the immediate threat that business rates pose to many businesses in different sectors and in different parts of the country, a wide variety of reliefs and exemptions have been introduced. Although welcome, they have made the system more complicated and difficult to comprehend.

Currently, the Labour party is committed to abolishing business rates and replacing them with a system fit for the 21st century. As I have said, I sense that it will be impossible for it to keep that promise, because, despite the drawbacks that business rates possess, they have inherent advantages for the Treasury: they yield approximately £25 billion per annum, are relatively easy to collect and are difficult to avoid. It is impossible to find an alternative system of taxation that has those advantages, and I believe that it is important to get on with reforming the current system.

Let me turn to the Government’s record. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made significant and largely welcome announcements in his autumn statement, which I shall detail later. However, I am mindful that we made commitments in the 2019 Conservative manifesto that we are yet to properly and fully implement. Those include carrying out a fundamental review of the system and reducing business rates in the long term for retail businesses, as well as extending the discounts to grassroots music venues, small cinemas, and pubs. Yes, we have provided a wide variety of short-term reliefs, but we have not yet provided the permanent fix that is so urgently needed.

It is appropriate to briefly describe business rates. They are a tax charged to most non-domestic properties, although there are some exceptions, such as small businesses with a rateable value of less than £12,000. They are calculated by multiplying the rateable value of the property by the uniform business rate multiplier. The rateable value is an assessment of the annual rent that the property would achieve if it were available to let on the open market at a specific, fixed valuation date. The UBR multiplier for 2022-23 is 51.2p in the pound, or 49.9p for small businesses.

Before I came to this place I was a chartered surveyor. Although I did not specialise in business rates, I did from time to time carry out business rates appeals. Invariably, that happened in situations with a lack of rental evidence on which to base an assessment of a property’s rateable value. As a result, it was difficult to agree a value, and there was the risk of a rateable value being imposed, which was abstract from reality and took no account of the ability of the business to pay and thus continue to exist and operate profitably. The Valuation Office Agency—the VOA—needs to be more transparent, open and collegiate in its dealings with businesses. I shall touch on that later.

As I have mentioned, the Chancellor made some significant announcements in his autumn statement, which included confirmation of a revaluation that will come into effect from April; the freezing of the uniform business rate multiplier; the reform of the transitional relief scheme; a supporting small business scheme; and a 75% retail, hospitality and leisure relief worth up to £110,000 per business. The revaluation is generally to be welcomed, although there are some notable exceptions, as it will on the whole bring down rates in economically depressed areas while raising rates in areas where rental values have risen.

The announcement that the downwards phasing of the transitional relief scheme for England is to abolished is good news, with upwards phasing being funded by the Treasury. The problem with transitional relief was that meaningful and full reductions in business rates, which businesses particularly in the retail sector desperately needed, took far too long to filter through. The measures will provide much needed support to help businesses get through the next few months, and they provide the foundation stone on which to now carry out the promised fundamental review.

Despite those measures, which in many respects can be likened to the application of yet more sticking plasters and, indeed, bandages, fundamental flaws remain to be addressed. Although the Government froze the UBR at 51p in the last two Budgets, it remains unsustainably high. In no other country in Europe do businesses pay half the rental value of premises in property taxes. Set at such a high level, business rates deter investment in retail, leisure and hospitality. It should be noted that the UBR was just 34p in the pound when it was first introduced in 1990.

The extension of business rates relief for retail premises from 50% to 75% in 2023-24 is welcome, even though it will help only smaller retailers because it applies to the first £110,000 of business rates paid. The Office for Budget Responsibility envisages that that relief will be removed from 1 April 2024, which would leave retailers with a massive tax hike at that point—in effect, a cliff edge. A tapering scheme will therefore need to be applied to overcome that particular problem.

In the recently published valuation list, which comes into effect next April, the valuation of retail premises fell by only 10% across the country in the six years from the last valuation date of April 2015. Without the Chancellor’s measures on downwards phasing to freeze the UBR, business rates would have had a massive levelling down impact on all retail, and on depressed regions in particular. That underlines the need for fundamental reform.

I shall move on to briefly highlight some of the inequities of the current system that need to be addressed. Business rates are a tax paid by businesses before a sale or a transaction has even been made. It is in effect a tax on existence rather than a tax based on success or failure. It therefore follows that it needs to be kept low so that it can be paid by all businesses. A high UBR discourages not only occupation, but investment in new accommodation and the physical expansion of existing premises. Ratepayers who have invested in improving their premises are penalised, as they then face higher bills. The system adversely affects physical retailers whose properties on high streets have significantly higher rateable values than the warehouses that serve online retailers. Similar challenges were faced by the hospitality sector.

While in theory, with the current UBR, business rates should represent 51% of the rental value of a property and hence one third of the cost of occupancy, retail has been struggling, and some landlords have agreed much lower rents to enable their tenants to stay in business. Rents are increasingly being linked to turnover, and are thus disconnected from the rental values that are used by the VOA to determine business rates bills. Therefore, many retail outlets will be paying business rates bills in excess of their actual rent, even after the revaluation takes effect. In the new list, rateable values for retail have gone down by 10% on average. That is surprisingly little, given that many shops were closed and paying no rent at all at the valuation date of 1 April 2021, when we were in the midst of a covid lockdown.

The valuation process that allocates properties their rateable value is not transparent, with the VOA not sharing the evidence that it uses to substantiate the basis of valuations. The only way for occupiers to assess that evidence is by challenging the valuation through the “check, challenge, appeal” process, which is lengthy and costly. There is therefore much concern that many challenges to the valuation process will be submitted over the coming months. The worry is that the VOA uses flimsy evidence when conducting property valuations. Those businesses that engage with the VOA through the appeals process, or by providing evidence leading up to the valuation, have more accurate valuations, while those that have not seen any reductions have not engaged with the VOA.

The VOA has outlawed 400,000 applications made by businesses in mitigation of rates bills on the basis of covid-19. Its view is that covid did not constitute what is known as a “material change in circumstances”, which can lead to a reassessment of a rateable value. That decision has been justified by the VOA on the basis of the allocation of the £1.5 billion covid relief fund, the distribution of which was devolved to local government. While some local authorities have been quick to distribute that relief, others have been slow. The lack of a uniform distribution mechanism has meant that receiving the relief payments is dependent on where the occupant is based, and a postcode lottery has, in effect, been created.

In the autumn statement, the Chancellor froze the UBR at 51p for one year only—that is, for 2023-24. As mentioned previously, the OBR’s figures indicate that the UBR will be index-linked thereafter. That means that as matters stand at present, business rates for retail premises will rise from April 2024. The Government have extended their 75% rate discount for shops paying up to £110,000 in rates until 2024. Likewise, unless the Government extend the relief, occupiers will again face a cliff edge when the scheme expires.

The Government will soon be bringing forward a non-domestic rating Bill. It is important that the contents of that Bill are fully debated, and that the opportunity is taken to ensure that it is a vehicle for delivering the fundamental reform of business rates that was promised in 2019. The Bill will include provisions such as the duty to notify of any change to a property; changes to the frequency of revaluation; and the removal of the need for transitional relief to be fiscally neutral. Alongside the duty to notify, there should also come a corresponding duty on the part of the VOA to share with occupiers the evidence it uses to assess rateable values.

Due to the complexity of the business rates system and the burden on ratepayers, occupiers quite understandably often seek advice from rating experts on how best to approach the whole process. Unlike with other professions, rating advisers do not need a licence to practice, resulting in some operators giving bad advice and cheating people out of their money. We need to find a way to outlaw such conduct.

Currently, property owners do not have to pay business rates on empty buildings for three months. After that period ends, most businesses have to pay business rates in full, although there are some exceptions. The outcome of the 2020-21 review was that the Government committed to an empty property relief consultation in 2022, but that has yet to take place. It is important that the relief is extended—it is probably best to extend it to 12 months—because rates will then be paid exclusively by revenue-generating businesses.

It is appropriate to highlight the particular challenges faced by the hospitality sector, which is a vital component part of many local economies all around the UK, including in the Waveney constituency that I represent. With a fair business rates system, the sector can play a key role in levelling up.

Looking at the revaluation list in the Waveney area, businesses that have invested and that are vital engines of local economic growth are being heavily penalised for their ambition and success. By way of example, the rateable value for the Kessingland Beach holiday park is due to rise from £291,450 to £388,500; for the Harbour Inn in Lowestoft, it will rise from £23,500 to £45,000; and for the Commodore in Oulton Broad, it will rise from £67,500 to £79,000.

The current system sees the hospitality sector overpay nationally by £2.4 billion a year relative to its turnover; in other words, it overpays by 300%. In the short term, the differential rates between large and small businesses should be removed and the eligibility rules for reliefs based on rateable value should be abolished. In the longer term, a significantly reduced UBR multiplier should be introduced.

To address the variety of problems that I have outlined, root-and-branch reform is urgently required. Business rates would be fairer and better if the system was simplified, the tax base broadened by removing the myriad complicated reliefs, annual valuations proposed, a one-year antecedent valuation date set, and fast appeals and greater evidence-sharing between occupiers and the VOA introduced.

Such reform could be achieved by making the following changes. First, the UBR could be reduced by 30%. By way of example, reducing the UBR from 51p to 34p, which was the rate in 1990, would reduce unsustainably high levels of business rates on retail and hospitality premises, and level the playing field for so many businesses. A lower UBR would also reduce the barriers to entry, expansion and innovation, thereby encouraging growth and broadening the tax base. In effect, this would plug the gaps in revenue that the Treasury might fear would result from a lower UBR.

Secondly, the Government have correctly moved from five-yearly to three-yearly valuations. That represents a step in the right direction, but yearly valuations would be far more equitable. By implementing yearly valuations, business rates would accurately reflect the dynamic movements of the market and allow occupiers to benefit immediately from changes to rateable values. The increased incidence of events such as the covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine further emphasise the need for a system that is able quickly to react to rapidly changing economic conditions.

Thirdly, we need to look at the abolition of the system of complicated reliefs. Instead of the fundamental review that was promised, the Government have continued to apply sticking plasters to the system to ensure its continued functioning. That has culminated in a system of complicated reliefs that can be difficult to navigate. The business rates system comprises 12 reliefs. Those would be rendered unnecessary with the lowering of the UBR, which would mean a business benefiting from paying lower rates immediately instead of negotiating and navigating the VOA system of reliefs.

Fourthly, many of the problems I have detailed could be fixed by making the VOA more efficient. Its systems, which are predominantly paper based, are not fit for the 21st century. Digitisation would enable the VOA to make its collection systems more efficient and it could take a big step towards systems efficiencies such as annual valuations. The Government recently published a consultation to that effect, entitled the digitalising business consultation. However, unfortunately, it largely missed a point because instead of consulting on the measures that would reduce the administrative burdens on businesses and ratepayers, the Government are trying to increase those burdens by requiring more information so as more effectively to target reliefs.

I sense that I have spoken for far too long, and you will be pleased to hear, Mr Mundell, that I am nearing my conclusion. High business rates hold back economic growth, are a barrier to levelling up and are an added burden that many businesses simply cannot afford at present. To be fair, the Government have listened, and they are aware of the problem. The response has been the introduction of short-term reliefs, which are welcome, but they complicate the system further in the longer term.

We need to stop searching for that elusive holy grail and stop kicking the can down the road. Instead, we need to introduce pragmatic measures that can be delivered quickly, and we need to honour the commitment to a fundamental review. I therefore urge the Treasury to introduce those initiatives—in the spring Budget, I would suggest—and in the first instance I look forward to hearing the response from my hon. Friend the Minister.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. At the outset, I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate and giving us all a chance to reflect on the impact of business rates and levelling up.

Like my hon. Friend I represent a coastal constituency, although with a shoreline that faces east rather than west, and I do not want the levelling-up agenda to be based on a crude caricature of north versus south—often, the communities facing the greatest challenges lie on the southern coast. My hon. Friend did not speak for a moment too long; I found his points very interesting, and I was in great agreement with many of them with respect to how we need to change this form of taxation.

Communities such as Torbay can see wealth alongside areas with challenges, and we need to see levelling up in not only the national context, but the local, with the clear aim of turning back the tide on poverty, which is affecting some of the communities that I am proud to represent.

For Torbay, levelling up means looking to attract investment, which generates long-term jobs and ensures a genuinely vibrant local economy. That is where business rates can have such an impact. They effectively penalise businesses for investing in bricks and mortar, putting physical retail—not just, nowadays, high street retail—at a disadvantage to online outlets and potentially putting off development more widely across sectors such as tourism and hospitality, where a business rates liability will pretty much inevitably be created as part of a new investment.

Business rates might have been an irritant in the past, but they can often be the make-or-break factor now, especially in light of the other pressures that businesses face. Business rates are the bill that is not flexible. That bill is enforced by the magistrates, and it is often the final blow, as it takes little or no account of the actual income that a business receives, as my hon. Friend mentioned. It is literally a tax on existence. Businesses must pay the tax simply to be in their premises, before they open the door to do any trade or business.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, I found the figures around rental revaluation extraordinary. It does not strike me that rental values for shops have fallen by only 10%, as on most high streets agents are offering businesses “Will you pay the business rates?” style deals on properties for certain periods of time. The figures do not reflect where rentals would have been five, six or seven years ago, or even a couple of years ago, before the impact of the pandemic.

I will give a quick example of the impact of the cost of business rates, when combined with other costs. A company that runs four hotels in my constituency has, unsurprisingly, seen utility costs increase dramatically, meaning that the business needs an additional net income of £8 per room—a 12% increase—for all 125,000 room nights, just to pay the increased costs. That is simply not achievable in the current economic circumstances. The company pays £6.5 million in payroll to 470 employees in Torbay and spends £7 million a year through the supply chain, mostly in the west country. The moves we are seeing to increase wages are welcome, but they will mean the company will have a 9% payroll increase in April 2023. The retail, hospitality and leisure business rates relief scheme, which has been confirmed to be 75% for 2023-24, is welcome and it will offset around £300,000 of the additional costs for business, but it will not reach the wider amounts needed, as those bills still need to be paid.

Similarly, another example is an innovative holiday park, with caravans that are the equivalent of staying in a hotel suite; the era of putting 50p in a meter is long gone—think caravans with widescreen TV and central heating. That business will potentially see its bill double, courtesy of its investment.

While we often focus on the impact of business rates on our high streets and town centres, the impact is much wider, especially in situations where it is not an option for staff to work from home or from remote locations, such as in the manufacturing or hospitality sectors. A holiday by Zoom or a pub night on Microsoft Teams will not be the same experience; a physical premises is needed to deliver those experiences.

What can be done? We need to look at providing further relief in the current system, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses. We need to realise that the days of retail and hospitality being a handy way to raise revenue for local services are now over. The high street corner is no longer the prime place to do business. There are department stores standing empty across many of our town centres, such as the former Debenhams on Torquay harbourside. We need not walk far from this Chamber to see what was once a large department store lying empty in what was a prime shopping area of London—a sight unimaginable back in 1990, when the uniform business rates were introduced.

It is increasingly the presence of business rates liability that can directly and adversely affect the chances of levelling up a community by discouraging investment in commercial properties. That was one reason why I supported the previous investment zone suggestion that allowed business rate reductions in key areas that needed regeneration.

Ultimately, a derelict and boarded-up building creates costs, not revenue, for the public purse. I urge the Government to look at what can be done further about business rates to ensure they do not become a barrier to the regeneration of our town centres, not least in the context of large national charities receiving a mandatory 80% relief, often increased to 100% relief by billing authorities. At the very least, parity for smaller businesses trading in retail, leisure and hospitality within our key areas for levelling up would be a welcome incentive, before finally getting on with what needs to be delivered: a major review of this form of taxation.

It is oft talked about, but there needs to be a better option for the future in a system that is fundamentally rooted in the pre-digital era of economic activity, when physical premises were an integral part of doing business. I appreciate that that is easily said and harder done, not least when we consider the £25 billion of revenue that has been referenced. However, we should not shy away from doing it simply because it would be hard. Taxes have changed in the past to reflect economic, scientific and technological changes. The same is needed now.

I cannot cover in a short speech every aspect of the links between business rates and levelling-up policy, alongside their impact. However, I hope the Minister in her response will reflect on how we need to consider the real disincentives of the tax for businesses such as hospitality, which must innately operate from a physical space, and the deterrent to operating retail from the high street, town centre or even the out-of-town shopping centre, which is facing huge competition. If we are to truly level up many coastal communities, those issues must be addressed and a revaluation on its own will simply not do that. If they are not, there is a danger that our taxation system, designed for an era when people went to a public payphone and had to go to a physical premises to buy something, will hit our town centres and not deliver the levelling up and regeneration that so much of Government spending is trying to achieve.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mr Mundell; I thank the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for setting the scene so very well. He and I, and others in the debate today, often join forces to support our communities. His and my communities are similar in their culture and geographical stance, and we share an interest in fishing issues. It is always a pleasure to come along and support the hon. Gentleman. It is also a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), good friend that he is. He is back on the Back Benches now, but when we were on the Back Benches before, I used to follow him and he me. To be honest, normally, I follow everybody else—but it was a real pleasure to hear his contribution. I am also pleased to see the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in her place; I know she always generously tries to respond to our requests and I look forward to her contribution.

I think we are all on the same page on this one. I very much support the two hon. Gentlemen who have just spoken and what they are trying to achieve. I hope to be able to achieve that as well. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), in his place. We are a bit sparse in numbers on this side of the Chamber, but I know that the hon. Gentleman’s contribution will make up for that.

Like many others, I am and was excited about the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I looked at the money for Northern Ireland and imagined how many improvements could be made with that funding. Like the hon. Members who have spoken and who will speak afterwards, I have been concerned that the levelling-up programme seems to gloss over the needs of coastal communities. The hon. Members for Waveney and for Torbay outlined their requests on behalf of their communities. I have not read the speech of the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who will follow, but he will probably endorse what we are saying as well. The hon. Member for Waveney gave his presentation of the subject at the start of the debate. It has been incredible to hear all of them.

As a quick aside, I should say that as I travelled up the beautiful peninsular roads in my Strangford constituency to the airport on Monday, in cool, crisp air, my thoughts were not only on the condition of the roads and their iciness, but on the knowledge that the road verges were getting smaller and smaller each year, giving less space for slippage and increasing the danger of those winding coastal roads. That is part of the reason why I have advocated for levelling-up funds to address coastal erosion concerns. We can have all the wonderful attractions we like, but if villages and roads slide into Strangford Lough, those attractions will mean nothing for those places.

Moving on, I want to highlight the concerns of small businesses. I always give a Northern Ireland perspective in these debates. I believe that it adds to the value of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that we can all come together from four regions to debate these issues and thereby engender support for all businesses in the regions, just as I support my colleagues here in the mainland.

In March 2022, most of the businesses in Northern Ireland—some 89%, or 70,510—were microbusinesses with fewer than 10 employees. Just over 2%, or 1,640 businesses, had 50 or more employees. Almost half of businesses in Northern Ireland—45% or 35,415 businesses—had a turnover of less than £100,000, while 10%, or 8,220, had a turnover in excess of £1 million. When the Government talk about percentages, I presume they are thinking in terms of thousands of pounds, yet the cost for many of these businesses is hundreds of pounds, which could cover the cost of, for example, pens, biros and pencils for their office. Yet, for a small business, these perpetual small increases can be the death knell. When the debate came forward, I was pleased to support it and add a Northern Ireland perspective.

In Northern Ireland, our small businesses pay 30% more for the delivery of products. That is, in part, to do with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, but also the movement of goods. They seek to absorb some of the cost, and this finds their profit margin down to 15% to cover all overheads. With respect, the pressure on businesses in Northern Ireland is more acute than it is for those on the mainland. When rates are put up by a few per cent, it can mean business owners working for less than the minimum wage. There is probably more pressure today than there has been for a long time, so again this debate is relevant to my constituents and businesses in Strangford.

Another struggling demographic is pubs. I support what both the hon. Members for Waveney and for Torbay said and will give my own perspective. Pubs pay more in business rates per pound of turnover than any other business. Both hon. Members referred to the hospitality sector, and that is a sector we are concerned about. I know we always come asking for things, but it is the nature of life that we seek to illustrate in these debates where our constituents are coming from. What help can the hospitality trade be given? I know the Government have helped in many cases, so this is not a criticism—I am not in the job of criticising; I am in the job of trying to find solutions, as others are.

The business rates bill for the sector accounts for 2.5% of total business rates paid, despite only representing 0.5% of total rateable turnover—an overpayment of £570 million. When the hon. Member for Waveney introduced the debate, he clearly suggested that the rates for the hospitality sector, including pubs and restaurants, need to be substantially reviewed, because the overpayment does not reflect a fairness in the system. It is time to look at that.

The draft ratings list for 2023 to 2026 shows pubs’ rateable values falling on average by 17%, which will start to address the overpayment, but there is still a long way to go, and we should look to the immediate concern. The extension of, and increase in, the hospitality business rates relief for 2022-23 was therefore extremely welcome. I always think we should give credit where credit is due. The Government have made some substantial moves, and it is important that we recognise that. The freezing of the multiplier and the abolition of the downward transition on relief were also welcome.

However, the decision not to bring forward—this is one of my requests for the Minister—the online sales tax to offset the cost of pub rates and provide for a fundamentally fairer business tax regime for the digital age was disappointing. I ask the Minister to see whether that request could be looked at. It is important because it is one of the solutions. In these debates, the hon. Member for Waveney always sets out how we can do things better, and that is incredibly helpful. The current business rates system remains unbalanced. I join the British Beer and Pub Association in urging the Government to bring forward meaningful reforms that level the playing field.

I will use a pun, which I think the hon. Members for Waveney and for Torbay, who spoke before, and the hon. Member for St Ives, who will follow, will perhaps appreciate, as they all come from coastal constituencies. Levelling up only works if the rising tide raises all ships and does not leave the essential but smaller craft marooned behind the yachts that are already away. It is about bringing the other ones on board—the smaller businesses, who are under incredible pressure. I ask again for greater consideration on those issues. I know the Minister will do all she can to try to address that.

It is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for bringing this subject—a pet subject of mine—to the House once more. I am glad that the debate is called “Business Rates and Levelling Up”, because I want to pick up on both of those, and include the VAT threshold within the levelling-up issue, because it is absolutely relevant to my constituency.

Much of what has been said today does not come as a surprise, but every opportunity to argue for a reform of property-based taxes is one that we should seize. As I said, I will touch on business rates and levelling up in relation to the VAT threshold. I do not think I am alone in the view that business rates are arbitrary, taxing the existence of a business within a building, irrespective of its economic activity. It is unfair and discriminates against large independent businesses, especially in town centres, and favours—in my view—out-of-town and online businesses.

I believe that business rates should be scrapped altogether and replaced, although I know that I differ from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney on that. We should have the courage to replace business rates with a system that taxes in-town, out-of-town and online equally and fairly.

I have a great news story from my constituency. In Penzance, we have the oldest working dry dock. It is a fantastic business, and Members are welcome to come and see it. It is an amazing bit of infrastructure—donkey’s years old, and quite leaky, which does not really work for a dry dock. However, it would not be there—there is still a real risk of closure, partly because of businesses rates—if not for a local individual, a young man, who decided that it needed to be saved and wanted to have a go at it.

The dock was threatened with closure, but he has secured that business and all the jobs and skills there—and increased them—and is spending a huge amount of money on the infrastructure, trying to plug the holes and level the floor of the massive engineering workhouse. It is a fantastic piece of marine engineering, which is vital, and strategically important for the British coastline, particularly Cornwall.

That young man has invested significantly in that old facility, although much more is needed. New jobs and apprenticeships have been created and significant services have been secured and enhanced for marine engineering, and shipping more generally. However, it operates in a highly competitive market and he must find £4,000 a month just for business rates. That is undermining, as we speak, its ability to be competitive, as he needs to pour money into bringing the facility up to where it should be.

It is actually more tax-efficient—if that is the right phrase to use—to close that strategically important dry-dock facility in favour of housing or hospitality. I have done a lot of work with Cornwall Council, which says that there is nothing that it can do, but we are working to find a way to give that dry dock a level playing field with others in the area, which benefit from an enterprise zone arrangement.

I will move on to levelling up, particularly to the obstacle of the VAT threshold. In a rural coastal area where so much of the economic activity, and jobs supporting it, are compressed into the tourist season—many MPs share that problem—effort has been made for years to extend that activity. In west Cornwall, we have worked hard to extend the tourist season into the shoulder months—much earlier and later in the year. I am sure that is true in other coastal areas. That would increase economic gain, jobs wages and skills; it would provide job security, if nothing else.

However, we have faced challenges as we try to do that. There is an acute issue on the Isles of Scilly where, as we try to increase the shoulder months, we come up against the understandable need that small hotels, guest houses and restaurants have for curtailing their business. As they get closer to the VAT threshold, which I think is about £85,000, they will either close or slow down their business to avoid that threshold. The simple reason is that the minute they go over the £85,000 threshold, even by £1, they are clobbered for £9,000 of VAT. They would have to earn another £45,000 in order just to stand still. The problem with a small hotel is that it just does not have the beds, particularly in the shoulder months or the winter, to grow business to that extent.

Unfortunately, the inevitable and sensible decision for many businesses in Penzance and in my coastal community on St Mary’s on the Isles of Scilly is to close. That immediately puts other businesses in the area at risk, contributes to job insecurity and the challenges we face around that every year, hollows out communities, and threatens transport links. We tried to increase the transport running to and from Scilly in the shoulder months, but it was just not viable because people were booking the ferry, but were then unable to find accommodation or places to eat. It is a real challenge, which I have raised many times since I was elected. The last answer I received was that it was going to be looked at in 2024, but I think that might have been pushed further into the future.

Those businesses cannot grow and they would need to earn another £45,000 just to stand still—that is not an incentive for someone to work in the winter, supporting our local economy but with no gain for their business. As a result, we have a real problem in coastal areas. It is harming our ability to level up and to provide good, skilled jobs. We have seen during and following covid that jobs in hospitality and tourism are beginning to be reasonably well paid and more skilled, but they are not secure, partly because of this problem. There is thus a direct impact on job security, other businesses, transport and so on. I am not sure if this is the right place to raise it, but the simple fix is that when a business reaches the £85,000 threshold, VAT should be applied to all money earned above that. It is so simple and obvious that I am not sure why the Government do not do it.

In conclusion, I differ from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney; tweaking business rates has actually increased unfairness and depressed growth and aspiration —that is the experience in my constituency. Business rates should be scrapped in favour of a tax that reflects the economic activity, not the building the business occupies. To support levelling up, serious consideration must be given to the chilling impact of an arbitrary VAT threshold.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important debate on business rates. I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Opposition.

We know that there are around 5.6 million small businesses in the UK, creating millions of jobs and opportunities. They provide essential services to local people, and make a significant contribution to the Exchequer. Businesses on high streets across our country are not just places to buy things we need. They are also an important part of where we live, work and share our daily lives.

While business rates affect businesses of all sizes, smaller businesses often struggle the most to meet those costs. They face the burden of an outdated system of business rates, while struggling with rising energy costs, rents or mortgages, and inflation, as well as the ongoing impacts of the pandemic and the September mini-Budget. Data released by the Office for National Statistics shows that the number of business closures in the UK in the first quarter of 2022 was a shocking 137,210which is 23% higher than the equivalent figure in the first quarter of 2021.

As the shopkeepers campaign has highlighted, the existing business rates system in England has become disconnected from the realities of modern retail and retail real estate. As the campaign explains, business rates in England were 87% higher in March 2020 than they were in 2001, whereas retail rents rose by only 17% over the same period. As it also points out, business rates have not responded effectively to evolving consumer and economic trends, not least the rapid growth of online retailing, and equitable business rates liabilities are the result of infrequent and delayed revaluations under a system that acts as a barrier to investment. Such views are echoed by the 2018 Confederation of British Industry report, “A Tax System that Enables Businesses to Invest and Grow”, which states:

“In an increasingly digitalised word, it has never been a more crucial time for the Government to act and set out a path for reform to the broken business rates system.”

I am sure the Minister will recall the 2019 Conservative manifesto, on which the party stood for election. Specifically, page 32 promised:

“We will cut the burden of tax on business by reducing business rates. This will be done via a fundamental review of the system.”

We recognise that any help for businesses that are struggling is welcome, and we recognise that the UBR has been frozen, relief extended into 2023-24, and downward phasing abolished. However, it seems that the promise of fundamental reform has now been abandoned. It seems that the Government have abandoned their promise fundamentally to address the imbalance that affects bricks-and-mortar businesses, which find themselves at a significant disadvantage compared with their online counterparts, whose warehouses typically attract considerably lower business rates.

My colleagues and I believe that the current system of business rates should be replaced to meet the needs of a modern economy. Last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) announced that a future Labour Government would replace the current system of rates with a new system of business taxation that is fit for the 21st century. We will set out our plans before the next general election, and such a system will involve more frequent revaluations—a move that many people have been urging for years. It will be a fairer system that asks online giants to pay a fairer share, so that small, local and high-street businesses in all parts of the country can thrive. Ahead of fundamental reform, we also believe that the same principle of rebalancing the burden of tax in the system should apply, which is why we have set out our plans for an increase in the threshold for small business rates relief, funded by an increase in the rate of the digital services tax.

We know that partnership between the Government and businesses is critical to economic growth, but it has been lacking in our economy for so long. We also know that small businesses have been held back, particularly by an outdated system of business rates, for many years. To increase growth in all parts of the UK, the Government should support small businesses to invest, grow and create jobs.

As the shadow Chancellor has set out, Labour will carry out the biggest overhaul of business taxation in a generation so that our businesses can thrive. Our replacement system will shift the burden of business taxation so that online firms take a fairer share, while freeing those that rely on bricks-and-mortar premises. Our new system will incentivise investment and include more frequent revaluations and instant reductions in bills where property values fall. It will reward businesses that move into empty premises and encourage, rather than penalise, green improvements to businesses. It will also make sure that no public services or local authorities will lose out from the changes.

Labour’s approach will be based on working together, with businesses, workers and public bodies all pulling together to rebuild Britain and to seize the opportunities of the future. A Labour Government will help to breathe new life into our high streets by calling time on the outdated model of business rates, so that British businesses in all parts of the country can play their part in creating economic growth and the jobs of the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important debate. I am delighted that on our side of the House we have so much of the English coastline represented—I include myself in that, proud as I am to represent the Lincolnshire coastline.

I am also delighted to be joined by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I had many a happy time sailing in the famous Strangford lough in my childhood, and I know how important tourism and hospitality is to his constituency. I thank him for sharing his Northern Irish perspective, as he always does.

I hope colleagues are aware that the Government announced a significant support package for business rates in the autumn statement, and I welcome the opportunity to set that out. I also welcome the opportunity to discuss the substantial reforms to which we have already committed, which will make the business rates system fairer and more responsive to changes in the market. We have heard the concerns expressed about the status quo not just by hon. Members today, but by businesses in previous years. I will address some of those concerns and emphasise our keenness to make changes where appropriate.

Forgive me if first I go back to basics. The importance of business rates to public finances is perhaps lost in the understandable concerns raised about the impact on constituency businesses. Taxes on commercial property remain an important part of a fair and balanced business taxation system. Most advanced economies, including most OECD members, have a business property tax. Business rates raise over £20 billion a year in England alone. That money goes to fund vital public services—a priority that the Chancellor emphasised again and again in the autumn statement. Put simply, we do not believe that there is an alternative with widespread support that would raise sufficient revenue to replace business rates. For those reasons, we do not consider there is merit in a radical overhaul or abolition of business rates, but we have delivered meaningful change to improve the system and have continued to conduct several reviews on the issue. Those reviews reaffirmed the importance of business rates and concluded that they have several key advantages over other taxes. They are relatively easy to collect and hard to avoid, with a collection rate of around 98%, making them a vital and stable source of funding for local services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney suggested that the current tax rate discourages investment in new spaces and expansion of existing spaces, but there is little evidence of structural issues in property investment in the UK. As he would expect, we keep a close eye on that. We have the highest share of investment going to non-residential buildings of any member of the G7. We recognise the valuable role that businesses play in our economy and we have taken action to support them through the business rates system.

I find the Minister’s response interesting. She talks about the investment in commercial property—for example, we are seeing £140 million of investment in Torbay hotels. The issue is not so much the overall level of investment in commercial property, but the specific locations. We might have 34 million seafront hotels in Paignton, but in the town centre, which was once the main focus for the collection of business rates, we are struggling to get anywhere. Does she think there might be a link?

Goodness me, I would not pretend to have an intimate knowledge of the economics of Torbay. My hon. Friend knows his constituency extremely well, but the realistic fact is that businesses in his high street have to pay taxes of some sort. That is why we have tried to mould the business rate support package to help the businesses that need it the most, which we recognise are those in the retail, hospitality and leisure industry. I will come on to that particular support, which is a very generous package that I hope will be of great benefit to businesses in his constituency.

We have a duty to ensure that the business rates system is fair and responsive, while raising sufficient revenue to support the public services that I have already talked about. Since 2017, when the Government doubled the 100% small business rate relief rateable value threshold from £6,000 to £12,000, a third of properties in England have paid no business rates whatever. In my own constituency, I know of many properties in my market towns that pay no business rates precisely because of that protection and they are, I hope, thriving as best they can as a result.

The Government provided £16 billion in business rates relief for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors during the pandemic because it was such a difficult time for them when the economy was essentially closed down. That was an unprecedented level of support for the high street, on which so many communities depend. From my own constituency, I know how vital that support was in keeping businesses’ heads above water during the lockdowns. The Government also provided a £1.5 billion covid additional relief fund for businesses that were affected by the pandemic but which were not eligible for other reliefs. Local authorities, due to their knowledge of their local areas, were responsible for designing and establishing those schemes. Progress has been in line with our expectations, and final distribution data will be published on shortly.

As the Chancellor stated in the autumn statement last month, it is an important principle that revaluations should reflect market values. Hon. Members have emphasised that point during the debate. The 2023 revaluation will therefore go ahead. From April 2023, all rateable values will be updated for all non-domestic properties, with evidence from April 2021. This will mean initial bills will reflect changes in market conditions since 2015, and will ensure a fairer distribution of the tax burden between online and physical retail.

The hon. Member for Strangford asked me why the Government have not introduced an online sales tax. He will know that we launched a consultation on the issue earlier this year. We received many responses, which will shortly be published, but it is fair to say that there was not unanimity. Indeed, there was not even agreement—I would not put it as highly as that—as to what such a tax should look like, because many of even the smallest businesses on the high streets of our constituencies now have some form of online presence. It may not be the main part of their business—that may be the shop—but, understandably and laudably in the 21st century, they are trying to diversify by having an online business.

Nobody could quite see how we could differentiate between the enormous multinationals that we are all keen to ensure pay taxes and those microbusinesses that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney described so well. That is why in the autumn statement the Chancellor decided against an online sales tax, with the important caveat that the changes we are making to business rates, including with the revaluations, will mean that the distribution warehouses, which supply the multinationals that we are all keen to ensure pay their proper taxes, will see significant rises in their bills while we also protect the shops and microbusinesses to which he referred.

That is a very helpful response, as always; I expected nothing less. I will take the Minister’s point of view out of Hansard and give it to some microbusinesses in my constituency that have asked me these questions. I understand there is a wish for this revaluation to happen, and I understand the difficulties and complexities the Government face to get it over the line. If I could come back to the Minister directly with some thoughts, maybe we could see if we could review it in a positive way.

Of course. I am always delighted to hear from the hon. Gentleman. He will appreciate that there are many other factors; for example, click and collect was a stumbling block for many in the consultation. I look forward to his future correspondence.

The support package that we have introduced means that the revaluation will go some way to addressing the imbalance between online and offline retailers. On average, large distribution warehouses will see an increase in bills of about 27%, and bricks and mortar retailers will see decreases of about 20%. We recognise that business rates payers may feel uncertain about the upcoming revaluation, given other pressures the country is facing that are driven by global challenges.

Rising prices around the world, made worse by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, have hit businesses hard. In the autumn statement we announced the steps that we will take next year to provide support through these difficult times. We will deliver a business rates support package worth £13.6 billion over the next five years. That will protect businesses from facing large bill increases because of high inflation and rateable value increases following the revaluation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney urged the Treasury to cut the UBR to the 1990 level of 35p, showing the trade-offs that the Government must make. Doing so would cost £9 billion a year, which would be a significant potential loss to the public revenue. We have thus taken the steps we have through the support package to protect ratepayers from high inflation, and we are instead freezing the tax rate for three consecutive years at a cost of £14.5 billion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) described the vibrant hospitality sector in his constituency. We are extending and increasing the retail, hospitality and leisure relief scheme from 50% to 75%, up to a cash cap of £110,000 per business. Pubs and the holiday parks he referenced are included.

I am conscious that I will have the opportunity to respond at the end of the debate, but I want to pick up now on one specific point that the Minister has mentioned. She said that the Treasury had carried out an assessment and if we were to go back to the UBR of just over 30p from when this system was introduced in 1990, that would cost an extra £9 billion. Did that assessment take into account a situation in which we had annual revaluations as well? If we had annual revaluations, that sort of margin would be much lower and we would fairly redistribute the burden of business rates across the UK.

I will come back to that point, and particularly the detail on annual revaluations, because I think there is some sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point of view.

The retail, hospitality and leisure relief scheme is the largest business rates one-year relief we have provided in 30 years, so I encourage colleagues to ensure that their local businesses know that the Conservative Government are delivering for those businesses. It will support about 230,000 properties—not just on high streets, but beyond high streets, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay emphasised. Therefore, although I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney regarding the temporary nature of these interventions, permanent changes have been announced and will provide support for affected businesses.

We will deliver on a key ask by trade bodies such as the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Retail Consortium by permanently removing downward caps from transitional relief, which previously restricted falls in bills. Removing those caps permanently means ratepayers seeing decreases in their rateable value will experience a full drop in their bills next year.

Taken together, the revaluation and the support package have updated bills to reflect market conditions. Those facing bill increases will see them phased in through transitional relief, and the small businesses that make up our high streets will be protected through targeted support. The multiplier freeze will protect all ratepayers against double-digit inflation.

Colleagues were keen to emphasise the important role that pubs play in our communities. As a proud Member of Parliament for many excellent pubs in my constituency, I understand their concerns. It might help colleagues if I lay out the forms of help that pubs will receive through the support package. As a result of the package of support, pubs’ bills have fallen by about 30%. All pubs will benefit from the multiplier freeze, and pubs with falling rateable values will benefit from the removal of the downward cap that I just described. They will also be eligible for the 75% retail, hospitality and leisure discount. Of course, small pubs that have a rateable value of below £12,000 pay no rates at all.

Would my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) be kind enough to write to me about his dry dock example? That business will receive some form of help through the overall package.

Let me turn to business rates reforms. We understand and listen to the concerns of those running businesses, and keep the operation of all tax policy under review. In the 2021 autumn Budget, we announced the outcome of the business rates review, and will shortly bring forward legislation to deliver those reforms. A core element of that package is more frequent revaluations, moving to revaluations every three years instead of every five; my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney is smiling at me. That represents significant reform, and will ensure that the system is more responsive to changing market conditions.

To enable those reforms, we are also introducing some administrative measures, including a new information duty on ratepayers to ensure the VOA has sufficient data to accurately update rateable values every three years, and to help reduce the number of appeals and the time taken to resolve them. The changes will also unlock opportunities for further improvements to the system in future, such as even more frequent revaluations. We understand the merits of annual revaluations, but we need the change to three years to settle in a little bit, because even moving to three years represents significant operational complexity, but we very much understand the wish for annual revaluations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned the wish for increased transparency by the VOA, which I understand. I sympathise with the issues that ratepayers are facing through the “check, challenge, appeal” process. The Government are keen to address those issues by delivering on the commitments made in the business rates review. Accordingly, there is already a plan in place that is providing ratepayers with better access to improved information about how valuations are carried out. I urge my hon. Friend to pass to me any information he or others may have about the unscrupulous agents he described; I am most concerned about that, and will be very interested in that information, because I am looking at the role of agents across all aspects of tax policy. A lot of agents provide a very good service to their customers, but we must weed out those who are unscrupulous or even worse.

In the longer term, we expect ratepayers to be able to access fuller analysis of the evidence used to set the rateable value of a property, which I hope will in turn restore confidence in that system. We keep all business rates reliefs under review, as the system of reliefs plays a vital role in ensuring the overall sustainability and fairness of tax. The Government ensure that reliefs are as easy as possible for ratepayers to navigate, with several being automatically applied by local authorities, such as transitional relief, supporting small business relief, and empty property relief. Comprehensive guidance on reliefs is available on

Through the review—which I encourage the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) to read; perhaps he has not realised that we have done it—we have committed to several measures to modernise and digitalise the business rates system, including further investment in the Valuation Office Agency to enable it to upgrade its IT infrastructure and digital capabilities. The review recommitted to the digitalising business rates reform programme, which will match business rates data with central HMRC tax data to provide a better oversight of the rates system, more precise targeting of reliefs, and more effective compliance.

At the very beginning of the autumn statement, the Chancellor told the House that he had three key priorities:

“stability, growth and public services.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 844.]

We understand that the issue of business rates cuts across all three of those priorities because of the impact it has on our high streets and the money it raises for our vital public services.

As ever, this is about balance. We acted at the autumn statement to support business and we will deliver on the reforms announced at the 2021 business rates review through upcoming legislation. We will continue to listen to the arguments, but we will also continue to make the decisions we think are in the interests of the country as a whole. I thank hon. Members for their contributions and look forward to engaging with them all to ensure that this continues to be a system that serves us all.

This debate has been short on quantity of colleagues but long on quality; once we get through a lot of the rhetoric, perhaps there is not much between us all. There is, though, a need for urgency to move forward and carry out that fundamental reform, and the Chancellor set the foundation stone for that last month.

The hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) is the odd one out here because, luckily for him, global warming and climate change mean that he is the only one of us who does not—yet—represent a coastal community. When it comes to levelling up, the dramatic impact of high business rates on coastal communities is quite noticeable. Our town centres—whether in Lowestoft, Torbay, St Ives or Strangford—are an important component part of attracting people and visitors, whether for a week’s holiday or just a day out. If they are hollowed out, there ain’t much to see.

In Lowestoft, there are exciting plans for regenerating the town centre. We are just about beginning to see that happening, but there is a danger that that reincarnation could be strangled at birth by high business rates. That is why we need the reform. Hotels, caravan parks, pubs and restaurants are vital to coastal economies. There is evidence that people who come in and invest in those businesses are being penalised for their investment under the current system. This debate has shown that we need to focus on the impact of high business rates on levelling up, particularly in coastal communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) disagreed about the need to replace business rates. He outlined the need for a digital tax and to look at the VAT thresholds. I largely agree with my hon. Friend the Minister; it would probably be impossible to get rid of business rates. Reading between the lines of what the Opposition say—although it is probably not for me to do that—I sense that if they form the next Government, they will reach the same conclusion. We can probably get the sort of reforms that I want now in place much quicker, without having to wait until 2024 or beyond.

I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives that we should trial digital taxes and looking at the thresholds, but I do not think that is the holy grail to the full replacement of business rates. We need the fundamental reform that I have outlined, with a lower UBR multiplier coupled with annual valuations, which would produce the more dynamic and fairer system that we require.

The reliefs that we have talked about are welcome, but they make the system incredibly complicated. If a form of business taxation is simplified, the businesses and entrepreneurs that are investing can see a way towards making long-term investments, rather than saying, “Hang on! That particular relief is only around for a couple of years for certain. Do I need to be going ahead with this?” Providing that certainty is very important.

An ex-surveying colleague has texted me, using words to the effect of, “Don’t you realise the valuation coming up in April will be a bloodbath?” Those were his particular words. I suspect many people and businesses will get pleasant surprises; it might be a case of Christmas coming early for them. Others will fall off their chairs in shock and think, “What on earth are we going to do to address this?” The Government need to reach out and support those parties, and do all they can to assist them.

We touched on unscrupulous so-called surveyors. There are some very good and highly professional people out there who are involved in business rates, but, as I have said, this issue is an incredibly complicated part of the property surveying world, so there is a small number of national and regional experts. That leaves a vacuum for the unscrupulous to fill, and fliers tend to appear from businesses from all over the place—not local ones—saying, “Come on. I can help you with this. Hand over a thousand quid and I will sort it.” When I was in practice, one very often got called in when a business had responded to such circulars and the person had taken the money up front and disappeared. We need to work together closely to sort that out.

In conclusion, I sense that we could be at the beginning of a journey to reforming business rates sensibly. On 17 November the Chancellor took a major step, but it is a journey that we can complete in a much shorter timescale than has been envisaged. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will set out the stepping stones on that journey sooner rather than later, both in the upcoming Bill and the spring Budget.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered business rates and levelling up.

Sitting suspended.

Motor Neurone Disease Research: Government Funding

I will call Karl Turner to move the motion, and then call the Minister to respond to what is a timely debate following the sad death of Doddie Weir, who through his My Name’5 Doddie foundation was such a great campaigner on the issue. There will be no opportunity for the Member in charge to make a winding-up speech, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government funding for research into motor neurone disease.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell. MND is a devastating, debilitating and untimely life-limiting disease. We saw that just two weeks ago with the tragic loss of Doddie Weir, to which you have referred. Doddie was a giant of a man, both on and off the field, but the MND Association estimates that in the UK six people a day die of MND. A third of them die within 12 months of diagnosis, but it is now more than a year since the Government pledged—in response to the tireless efforts of campaigners and following meetings between me and the then Business Secretary, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng)—to invest £50 million. We met the Secretary of State that day with campaigners, and he gave an assurance to us all that immediate action, meaning immediate money, would be forthcoming. It was not.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this important issue. I have a close working relationship with MND campaigners back home, and ahead of the debate they got in touch to point out the lack of adequate care and provision in Northern Ireland. The Department of Health back home needs help to improve the standard for accessing clinical trials, and the same applies for people across the UK. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is imperative that people in all parts of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are able to gain from research and be involved in clinical trials? We all stand to gain from that.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is an incredibly impressive campaigner on the issue. I pay tribute to him. He is knowledgeable on the subject, and he raises it both publicly in debate and privately with Ministers when given the opportunity. I commend him for that.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care commenting at the weekend that the money will be fast-tracked into the hands of researchers, but I am sorry to say that it feels as though the Government have dragged their feet. They have been dragged kicking and screaming to this point by the impressive dedication of MND campaigners—not least Rob Burrow, who is a rugby league legend—and it is disappointing that we have had to wait 12 months for anything. This debate was secured, then there was talk in the media that there would be funding available, but campaigners are entitled to be a little concerned and a little nervous about where and when that money will be forthcoming.

I pay tribute to the campaigners. I have briefly mentioned Rob Burrow; for all his brilliance on the pitch, the whole rugby league community has been blown away by his determination to raise awareness of MND. It is his tenacity that has brought us to where we are today. I have to be honest that I knew very little about MND. I am a rugby league fanatic; I support both of the rugby league teams in Hull. I am bound to say, being the Member for east Hull, that I support the red and whites a bit more than the black and whites on occasion. Rob is the person who brought this to my attention. Special mention should also be given to Rob’s former teammate and best pal, Kevin Sinfield, who has completed seven ultra-marathons in seven days to raise about £1.5 million for MND charities. That is an incredible effort from an incredible campaigner and man.

This debate was secured before the Secretary of State announced the money at the weekend. I want to mention that I have spoken with the MND Association at length, and my office has spoken with it in preparation for this debate. It has one single ask. It desperately needs a meeting with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Secretary of State for BEIS, so that it can get a timeline and some understanding of when the money will be made physically available. It is no good promising money and then not delivering it. The promise was made more than 12 months ago—nothing has been forthcoming.

I am quite annoyed at the fact that the debate was secured, and all of a sudden there is discussion in the media that the money is coming. People are asking me whether it means 50 million quid last year and 50 million again this year. The reality is that it is 50 million quid, which is much needed—the association and campaigners are grateful for it—but they need to know when and how the money is going to be made available.

I am going to rest there; I do not think I have anything further to add. It is a simple ask: will the Minister agree to speak to the Secretaries of State concerned and put the meeting together as quickly as possible, so that we can move forward?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) for securing this debate. I too pay tribute to Doddie Weir, an incredible man who sadly passed away at the end of November. My thoughts are with his wife Kathy, and their sons, Hamish, Angus and Ben.

I had the good fortune to meet Doddie during an online roundtable—online because it was during the pandemic—and I was inspired by his campaign for a brighter future for people living with MND. His charity, the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, works tirelessly to raise funds for research and provide grants to people living with this cruel condition.

During the pandemic, and again since, I also met with my Mid-Kent MNDA branch as a constituency MP. Those meetings are vivid in my mind. The first call I had with them had literally everybody on the call in tears, as we talked about the experiences of those suffering with MND and their carers—usually family members—and how they were seeing their loved ones losing a bit of themselves day by day to MND. It is such a cruel disease, as the hon. Gentleman said. I am thankful to him and to several other Members of Parliament who have campaigned for research funding and actively lobbied me and other Ministers on that point.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I am a biographer of Don Revie. This is an important debate, because Don, who played for Hull City during his playing career, passed away from motor neurone disease in 1989. Like Doddie Weir and Rob Burrow, he played sport at a high level. If the Government are going to invest in research, will they look at the fact that sportsmen seem to be more likely than the rest of the population to develop motor neurone disease?

Secondly, I urge the Minister to tell GPs to ensure that people are tested for motor neurone disease early in their journey, because the problem is that it is one of the last things people test for. In the case of Don, he believed that the pain in his back was caused by slipped discs—tragically, it was motor neurone disease. I ask the Minister to look into those two asks.

The hon. Member makes two really important points. As he says, several prominent sportsmen who have been effective campaigners have sadly been affected by the disease, and there is a potential relationship with head injuries. He also made a point about the challenge of diagnosis, which I will take away.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East rightly talked about the tenacity of campaigners such as Rob Burrow and how effective their visible campaigning has been at raising awareness of MND. The disease affects a significant number of people, with around 5,000 suffering from it right now. Sadly, we know that people do not live very long with MND, so a really significant number of people across the country are being affected over time. It is incredibly cruel for the individuals who suffer.

I heard the request of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East for a meeting, and I will come to some of the plans to address his calls in a moment. As I said, MND has a huge impact on those who have been diagnosed, and it is devastating for them and their families. We have made real progress in research, but we are yet to learn why motor neurones die off. There is still no cure for the disease and only one drug is licensed in the UK to treat MND, which is why the Government committed back in November 2021 to make at least £50 million available for MND research over the next five years.

Before I go into more about research, I want to say something about how we are supporting people living with MND, which is a degenerative condition—often rapidly so—that requires complex and anticipatory care. For that reason, the majority of services for people with MND are specialised and commissioned nationally in the 25 neurological treatment centres across England. In the absence of a cure, we want to make sure that people with MND have access to the best health and care support available to meet their complex needs. It is really important for people suffering from MND and their carers to have specialised and targeted support, including devices to help people with MND to be able to continue to communicate effectively for as long as possible, as well as other types of care.

Since November 2021, we have invested £790 million in the National Institute for Health and Care Research biomedical research centres, which bring together experts to translate scientific breakthroughs into treatments for patients. At the Sheffield centre, researchers have already pioneered evidence-based interventions to manage the symptoms of MND. In September, the Sheffield researchers published promising clinical trial results for the drug tofersen. Professor Dame Pamela Shaw, the director of the NIHR Sheffield BRC, said:

“I have conducted more than 25 MND clinical trials and the tofersen trial is the first trial in which patients have reported an improvement in their motor function.”

I want to emphasise that because, until now, it has been very hard to be optimistic about developing a cure for MND or even effective treatment. The trial is, in fact, grounds for optimism against this cruel disease.

In June, the Government and charity partners invested in a £4.25 million collaborative partnership on MND, which includes LifeArc, the MND Association, the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation and MND Scotland. The Government are supporting groundbreaking research undertaken by the UK Dementia Research Institute. Seven of its 50 research programmes are dedicated specifically to MND, with world experts undertaking discovery science, translational and clinical research to drive medical progress.

There has already been work going on to invest in MND research, but I heard the impatience of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East and have heard from other hon. Members. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), who is here today, has also lobbied me and other Ministers on the desire for greater pace and so that money goes towards research quicker and then translates more quickly into treatments.

To that point, yesterday, we announced at the Department of Health and Social Care, together with the Secretary of State for BEIS, how we will deliver the full £50 million research commitment, which will build on our existing investments and successes to more rapidly fund MND research. In that regard, £30 million of Government funding will be invested immediately through specialist research centres and partnerships with leading researchers. That will include £12.5 million to the UK Dementia Research Institute to support groundbreaking research specifically into MND, a further £8 million investment into early-phase clinical research for MND via the NIHR biomedical research centres and £6 million for a translational accelerator that connects the DRI capabilities with those of the Francis Crick Institute, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the new MND collaborative partnership. We are investing a further £2 million in the MND collaborative partnership, which will specifically focus on data for MND research.

I am triggered by the reference to Francis Crick, who was also from Northampton, so there is quite a connection here, also given my great privilege to be the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on motor neurone disease. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) for having this debate, but particularly grateful to the Government for listening, making some really important announcements and pushing this forward. It has been received with great pleasure by the research community and MND sufferers. I hope the Minister will accept my thanks for that. I look forward to working further with her in taking this forward, now that we have the new announcements.

It is good to hear from my hon. Friend. Credit goes to him for his campaigning, both personally and as chair of the APPG on motor neurone disease, together with that of other Members of Parliament, to push for investment to get out to the frontline on research. I look forward to working with him further so we can ensure this investment in research makes a difference for people suffering from MND and their carers, and for those in the future.

I have just mentioned the MND collaborative partnership, which is a mechanism by which the many initiatives that I just described will come together. The first meeting of this virtual institute took place at the end of November, and I am looking forward to hearing about further progress now that the funding is in place. The remainder of the committed £50 million of MND funding is available for researchers to access via the NIHR and the Medical Research Council. Government will support researchers in coming forward with ideas for new research via a joint highlight notice between NIHR and the Medical Research Council on MND. That will allow our funding to be responsive to progress in science and ensure breakthroughs reach patients in the quickest possible time. Further to that, the Secretary of State will shortly host leading researchers and patient groups at a roundtable to discuss MND research and help researchers make the best bids as quickly as possible. That addresses the call for a meeting from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East.

I am grateful to the Minister and I welcome everything that she has helpfully just announced. However, my researcher spoke yesterday to the association and it still requests that meeting. It is the only ask. I accept what she says about roundtables and all sorts of other things going on behind the scenes, but the association wants a meeting with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Perhaps it is difficult to get them together, so there could be separate meetings. That is the only thing the association has asked me to ask for today, so it would be remiss of me if I did not push her to request that meeting after she leaves here.

The hon. Member’s request is very clear. As I said to him a moment ago, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will meet researchers and patient groups at a roundtable about this issue. If that is not the same meeting as the one he wants, I am very happy to take that point away and find out exactly what meeting he wants and how we can make sure that it takes place as well as the planned meeting.

I have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South over the past few weeks about red tape getting in the way of research, which we clearly do not want to be the case. To help cut red tape, research funders from NIHR and the Medical Research Council are working together so that MND proposals will go to the right scheme at the early idea stage and so that applications can be considered before they even have full sign-off from their universities and institutions.

We are also building on our recent announcement of £790 million for the NIHR biomedical research centres by putting in MND funding, so that it gets quickly to the most promising researchers already working on MND.

To sum up and return to where we started, there is no doubt that MND is a cruel disease that takes people before their time and, as it does so, takes them bit by bit from their loved ones. As yet, there is no cure. However, I say “as yet” because I have hope, and we have real grounds for optimism with the clinical trials. We also have £50 million going into MND research. I have outlined today how we are accelerating that funding to go to the frontline of research and to develop the treatments that will make a difference to MND sufferers, whether here and now or in the future.

In no small part, that is thanks to the late Doddie Weir and his family, Rob Burrows, Ed Slater, Kevin Sinfield, and all the other MND campaigners and carers who have worked so hard to raise awareness of MND and push for more action on MND research. I can assure them that their efforts are not in vain. I personally take inspiration from all their tireless work, which reinforces the Government’s commitment to fund and support research into MND. We owe it to people with MND, future sufferers, and all the campaigners and researchers to push ahead with the groundbreaking research that will help to develop effective treatments and, indeed, cures for this cruel disease.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Benefit Sanctions

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered DWP’s policy on benefit sanctions.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, particularly my position as chair of the PCS parliamentary group as I will be mentioning some issues that appertain to staff who work in the Department for Work and Pensions. There are three components to what I want to raise this afternoon: the latest figures on sanctions, the policy itself and some of the challenges, and the pressures facing DWP staff.

The latest figures on sanctions are shocking. In my written question 88916, I asked,

“how many benefit claims were subject to sanctions in the last three months for which data is available by constituency; and how much was the (a) total and (b) average sum of benefit income lost by claimants due to sanctions in each constituency.”

Members can refer to that particular written question and answer. In June 2022, just over £34 million was clawed back by the DWP in Great Britain. In July, it was £34.9 million and, in August, it was over £36 million, so the figures are increasing month on month. In Scotland, the August figure was £2.3 million, and in Glasgow South West the figure was £57,000. The average deduction in August was £262 a month, which is a considerable sum of money to deduct from someone’s social security. The figures suggest that the aggressive attitude we saw between 2013 and 2015 is back among us. The raising of the administrative earnings threshold means that 600,000 more claimants could be subject to a sanction, and that will include raising the number of people responsible for delivering the benefits being sanctioned, as I will come on to.

We know the history of benefit sanctions. The coalition Government said their Welfare Reform Act 2012 would

“lay the foundation for a clearer and stronger sanctions system that will act as a more effective deterrent to non-compliance.”

They made changes in three main areas. First, they extended the scope of conditionality and sanctions within the same claimant groups. Secondly, they increased the length of sanctions for certain groups. Thirdly, they introduced the concept of escalating sanctions, with longer sanction periods for second and third sanctionable failures within a 12-month period.

However, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, had concluded that three-year sanctions were rarely used and were counterproductive, and ultimately undermined the goal of supporting people into work. The Work and Pensions Committee report in 2018 found that some claimant groups, such as single parents, care leavers and people with health conditions or disabilities, were disproportionately vulnerable to and affected by sanctions.

A few months ago, a vulnerable constituent contacted me after she had been sanctioned for missing an appointment, despite being assured that she did not need to attend it for very good and sensitive reasons. She was an older woman who had been through extreme trauma and who had no access to the internet and no mobile phone credit. Does my hon. Friend agree that a more humanised approach must be taken by the DWP?

I thank my good and hon. Friend for that intervention. I will mention similar specific case studies, and there are clear questions for the Department to answer on this matter.

Going back to the Work and Pensions Committee 2018 report, it criticised the fact that a sanction incurred under one conditionality regime continues to apply even if the claimant’s circumstances change and they are no longer able or required to look for work. The report said that the sanction serves no purpose in such circumstances, and the Work and Pensions Committee recommended that it be cancelled. It further criticised the fact that the decision to impose a sanction is made by an independent decision maker

“who has never met the claimant and who cannot be expected to understand fully the circumstances that led to them to fail to comply.”

It therefore recommended that work coaches should be able to recommend

“whether a sanction should be imposed”.

The Government responded to the report and each of the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendations in January 2019. They agreed to evaluate the effectiveness of reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions, and said that it would be focused on whether sanctions within the universal credit regime are effective at supporting claimants to search for work. The Government said they would look to publish the results in spring 2019, but that did not happen, and DWP Ministers were still saying in July 2020 that the Department was committed to conducting an evaluation and that it would look to so by the end of 2020. In January 2022, however, The Guardian reported that the Department for Work and Pensions had refused a freedom of information request from Dr David Webster to release a copy of the evaluation.

In February, it was reported to the Lords that the Department had not published its evaluation of the effectiveness of universal credit sanctions because it lacked robust legacy data. The former Secretary of State told the Work and Pensions Committee—in fact, it was in answer to the Chair, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), who is present—that she had noted that the evaluation had been commissioned by a previous Administration, and she explained that the notion of a sanction acts not only through its imposition on a claimant but, importantly, through its effect as a deterrent. That raises a couple of questions.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his points about the Select Committee’s report, and I pay tribute to him for his work on this subject. I understand that his membership on the Committee will shortly come to an end, but I thank him very much for all his work.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard the new Secretary of State say that he will want to have a fresh look at whether some of the things that the Department has refused to publish in the past should have been published. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this particular report should be high on that list of priorities?

It should be among the highest. I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his very kind words, which I appreciate. I have enjoyed working with him, and he chairs the Committee very effectively indeed. He is absolutely correct to say there is a real question about reports that are currently unpublished but should be published, and I will come to some of them in my remarks.

I would argue that the dugs in the street—or the dogs in the street, for those not from Scotland—could give us a comprehensive picture of sanctions and their effects on people. When I secured the debate, Feeding Britain and the Independent Food Aid Network asked for case studies and examples. I raised one with the Secretary of State at the Select Committee hearing about a Glasgow South West constituent who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and severe anxiety, and who has extreme difficulty communicating with others. The local jobcentre applied a sanction after she failed to attend in-person appointments, despite the fact that, as part of a claim for employment and support allowance, it was agreed three years ago that reasonable adjustments would have to be made and that telephone meetings would be arranged for her. It raises the issue of the financial losses that occur, but the Department for Work and Pensions argued that there was no change of circumstances and that no sick notes were handed in.

We also have the example of an individual in Motherwell. A young mother who had escaped domestic violence was sanctioned for failing to attend an appointment, despite the fact that she had advised the Department for Work and Pensions that she needed to care for her autistic child on that particular day.

In the city of Liverpool, clients have commented that DWP job coach appointments have come through to their phone journals at times when they had no credit for data or access to wi-fi. By the time that each was able to afford to that phone data, they had missed the appointment and been sanctioned. Digital exclusion will increasingly affect clients who are unable to afford a basic smartphone and/or a contract for data access. They then face longer journeys to their jobcentre as a result of one of the busiest jobcentres in that city, Toxteth, being due to relocate, making access harder for local people.

In Coventry, we are advised that the vast majority of sanctions are due to people not attending an appointment, but many are now told of their appointments through an online journal so, again, people with no access to internet are being told that they are going to be sanctioned.

In Somerset, we hear of the case of someone with severe mental health issues and anxiety, whose job coach assured her that any correspondence would go to the principal carer. Ordinarily, she was informed of her appointments via a journal entry. The job coach cancelled a planned appointment and arranged a new one, but put it on that job coach’s to-do list, not through the online journal. This is an area that has to be looked at, because that person was subject to a sanction.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate, and on all his work on the Select Committee. Is he as worried as I am that this is just a further iteration of the DWP sanctions issues going back to 2012? I particularly remember David Clapson, who was the first case that I came across—a former soldier who was sanctioned. He could not afford to keep his refrigerator on, his insulin went off, and he died as a consequence. Is the hon. Member as concerned as I am about sanctions potentially resulting in deaths?

I thank the hon. Lady, who is a good friend, for her intervention. She has done fantastic work in this area, which I very much support. I am concerned about the effects that sanctions have, and that the whole deductions policy has. The effect that taking money away from people has on cost of living payments is another real issue, which I will come on to.

I would also add that, based on exchanges I have had with Ministers past and present, people can be sanctioned if they refuse a zero-hours contract job. Someone could be in a position where they have secure work, but less hours. The Department is encouraging people to increase their earnings, so if that person refuses a zero-hours contract and insecure work, they will be subject to a sanction.

Then, we have the position of the DWP staff themselves. Some have received letters saying that they need to increase their earnings. It is no wonder that they are going on strike, is it? There is an anomaly here: many thousands of DWP staff are paid so poorly that they are claiming the same benefits they deliver, while sharing an office with someone who could then sanction them because they have not increased their earnings or their hours. I find that completely and utterly bizarre, and I hope that Ministers will look at PCS’s concerns and maybe treat the situation of DWP staff separately. It seems to me that the Department that is delivering social security should not be taking social security away from the people who are delivering it.

Food banks across the Independent Food Aid Network see a newly hungry person referred as the result of a sanction every three days on average, so I have a number of questions for the Minister. Does he agree that the current sanctions policy is forcing people to use food banks if they are not to go hungry? To that end, will the Minister undertake to publish the Department’s evidence review on the drivers of the need for food aid, which was promised two years ago, yet remains under wraps? As the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, has outlined, that is one of the reports that remains unpublished, and it is something that we want to see.

The Department’s own serious case panel agreed at its October meeting that

“there should be further collaborative work undertaken through the appropriate governance routes to explore strengthening the mechanisms which protect our most vulnerable customers in respect of sanctions.”

Will the Minister explain to us what that collaborative work will look like, and when it will take place? Will he also undertake to commission a study into any correlation that exists between the distance someone lives from their nearest Jobcentre Plus and the likelihood of them being sanctioned; the prevalence of poor mental health and vulnerability within households on universal credit and the likelihood of them being sanctioned; and the prevalence of digital exclusion within households on universal credit and the likelihood of them being sanctioned? We know that the Department has closed jobcentres; we also know that has made it more difficult for people to attend jobcentres and that they may be sanctioned for not attending a jobcentre.

Will the Minister also provide an update on the Department’s most recent trials of the yellow card early warning system in two areas, including any plans to roll out that system further afield? I do not accept that there should be conditionality in the system, but if we are going to have conditionality it seems sensible to me that there should be a yellow card system, or some sort of warning system, in place before the decision is made to issue a sanction. Given that the present system seems to rely heavily on individual discretion, which is resulting in people becoming destitute, does he agree that a fully national roll-out of a yellow card system is needed sooner rather than later?

As I have indicated, people being subject to a sanction could mean—indeed, has meant—that they do not receive their cost of living payment, but that decision could be reversed if they appeal and win their appeal. However, it seems to me that if there are 6,600 universal credit claimants who have missed out on that first cost of living payment because of sanctions, the Department for Work and Pensions should look at that situation. It seems to be a double punishment. The cost of living payment is in place so that people can meet their basic living needs and if they are sanctioned, it appears that there is something very wrong.

I agree with my hon. Friend that sanctioning people on the lowest of incomes at any time is grossly unfair, but at this time, when even many people in well-paid work are struggling to pay their bills, it is obscene. I had not been aware, so I thank him for highlighting it, that some people are not getting the cost of living payment that the Government say we need to survive.

I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing this debate, but on asking the questions that led me to discover that this summer £153,000 was taken from my constituents by DWP sanctions. Will he join me in saying to his constituents, as I am now saying to my constituents in Glasgow North East, “If you have your benefits sanctioned, do not take it lying down. Contact me and I will fight this for you, because this is wrong and nobody should have to live on less than the minimum income”?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and she is absolutely right. We are in a cost of living crisis. During the pandemic, the Department rightly took the view not to sanction people. We are now in a cost of living crisis, and if we did not sanction people during the pandemic, we should not sanction them during a cost of living crisis either. That seems to me to be a sensible approach.

My hon. Friend is also correct in highlighting the great work that constituency office staff do in helping the most vulnerable to see off these attacks. We have all dealt with cases of people being sanctioned; I think that every single constituency office across these islands has had to deal with that.

In closing, I will mention some of the staff concerns. There are concerns that jobcentres have been told by senior managers and Ministers to “up their game” when it comes to sanctions. There are very real concerns about the culture and certainly there is a view that there needs to be a mind-shift towards supporting people in what is important and that punishment has not achieved anything. There is very limited and patchy evidence that sanctions actually work.

There is inter-office competition, whereby different offices’ statistics are compared, pushing for higher sanction and deferral rates, and labour market decision makers are using box-ticking exercises. Pressure is put on the work coaches themselves, through tighter timescales and pushing people to physically attend the jobcentre, with the harms that causes the long-term employed. There are also real effects on disabled claimants who are thrown into a group of those most likely to get a sanction, and the relative rate of sanctions for claimants with disabilities—all of that really needs to be explored further.

Sanctions appear to be back with a vengeance, and that shift of approach requires parliamentary scrutiny. As someone who believes that conditionality has not worked, I think we need a change in approach to put the claimant and their needs at the heart of the social security system. The Department must accept the Select Committee’s recommendations to introduce either a yellow card system or another warning system, because failure to do so would mean the Department going back on its word in how it responded to previous Select Committee reports. I look forward to hearing whether colleagues have to say, including whether they accept—as I do—the need for change and reform.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. I concur with all that has been said about his past work, both on the Work and Pensions Committee and more generally on this issue.

I have a simple question to ask the Minister. What is his understanding of the increase in this recent period? It is true that conditionality has always been an element of our social security system since the second world war, but there has been nothing on this scale. What worries me is the dramatic increase—comparing the figures now with the figures before the pandemic—and therefore the significant increase in the past year after the worst parts of the pandemic. Like others, my experience of conditionality and the use of sanctions has largely centred on the impact on constituents who live the most chaotic of lives. They have difficulty complying with the various requirements that are made of them and, in some instances, actually even understanding the conditions that are attached to them. Living those chaotic lives means that they become intensely vulnerable.

I will go through the figures again, so that I have this clear. The monthly universal credit sanctions reached a peak of 58,548 in March. They have now fallen back to an average of 45,100 in the last quarter—that is two and a half times the average in the three months before the pandemic, so there has been a 250% increase in that period. Sanctions as a percentage of UC claimants subject to conditionality are currently at 2.5% per month; in the three months before the pandemic it was 1.4% per month. The monthly sanction rate on unemployed UC claimants in July 2022 was higher, at approximately 2.8%—or one in 36 claimants—for those in the planning for work category. The number of UC claimants who were serving a sanction in August was 115,274, after a peak of 117,999 in July. That is more than three times the pre-pandemic peak of 36,771 in October 2019.

It just goes on like that. The figures on the scale of the sanctions being imposed at the moment are quite staggering. According to the report by Dr David Webster, which I believe was produced for the Work and Pensions Committee, the average sanction is about 11 weeks. For most of my constituents, surviving beyond 11 weeks becomes almost impossible—even just getting by.

In response to a written question, the Minister said that data on the average length of sanctions

“is not readily available and to provide it would incur disproportionate cost.”

The length of a sanction is directly associated with the level of hardship faced by claimants. Does the right hon. Member share my concern that the Department is seemingly not tracking essential data that should inform policy making?

I fully concur and agree. That is the main question that I will come on to. I will add that, although there was an increase in sanctions in the recent period, a lot of this concerns people being sanctioned for not seeking or being unable to increase their hours. We are now going into a recession—well, we are in a recession at the moment. Based on the Government’s figures, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that the number of unemployed people will increase by half a million, and the Bank of England suggests that it will most probably go above 2 million. It becomes much more difficult to find or secure work overall or to increase hours. That will increase the pressure on those who are already on the edge of being sanctioned.

My fear, which has consistently been identified as a problem, is that the system is not working; it is not dealing effectively with people who have chaotic lives. There are some conditions attached and criteria that work coaches take into account, but in no way do they embrace fully the nature of the individuals they are dealing with. The decision maker never actually gets to see the individual either to do a proper assessment. When the individual comes to me in my constituency surgery and I get a fuller understanding of their life, I can understand why they have slipped up at some stage and why the system is not working to give them the support they need to get back into work and earn a decent income.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point. I will just pick up on what he said at the start of his speech about conditionality. There is currently no evidence that supports the efficacy—let alone the humanity—of sanctions at all. A University of York study, which was published in 2018, showed absolutely that they had no effect on out-of-work conditionality or on in-work conditionality. What is the purpose of this programme?

I was going to come on to that. My question to the Minister is: what is his understanding of how this increase has taken place? What are the factors behind it, because it does then lead on to questions about the efficacy of the whole process? Looking at the excellent House of Commons Library briefing, we can see that there was a Work and Pensions Committee report in 2015, a National Audit Office report in 2016, a Public Accounts Committee report in 2017, the welfare conditionality project in 2018 and another Work and Pensions Committee report in 2018. All of them reached the same conclusion as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams): there is no connection between this programme and effectiveness in supporting people getting into work. There is a bizarre situation: the raison d’être of this whole process has been challenged consistently—almost annually—by independent and objective reports, yet the Government have not moved. What does the Minister believe are the reasons for this increase?

I would also like to ask another question. If the Minister cannot answer it today, I would like him to write to us with an answer. I am really worried about the impact that the sanctions and the whole process of conditionality has on the mental health of the constituents I deal with. I am anxious that the Government should at least assure us that they have in process a mechanism for monitoring that, learning lessons from that monitoring, then coming back to the House to explain what improvements will be made. I am worried about the mental health consequences because, as we go into recession and we have a cost of living crisis, people have a fear of sanctions being levelled against them, which pushes some over the edge. To be frank, we have seen too many people lose their lives, unfortunately sometimes as a result of suicide because of the pressures that they have been under as a result of these types of measures that have been introduced over this period. I would welcome the Government’s reassurance that there is monitoring of the mental health consequences and that there will be a report to the House about how that is being addressed and any lessons that can be learned.

Before I call Grahame Morris, I note that there are a few speakers left. I do not want to set a time limit. If we could have an informal time limit of around seven minutes, that will allow everyone to get in. We will see how we get on.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I will endeavour to heed your advice about the timings. I thank my good and honourable friend and comrade, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for securing this important debate. I also congratulate him on his assiduous work in questioning Ministers, both in the Chamber and with the use of written questions. I also thank him for sharing the figures that he has discovered—the constituency-based figures—with other Members.

In my remarks, I will first go over the purpose of universal credit and look at the level of sanctions. I also want to stress the human cost of sanctions. Universal credit is the last line of the social security safety net. It is set at a level no one should fall below. By any standard, it is set at a very low level. Let us just remind ourselves that for a single person under 25 the standard allowance—this is a monthly allowance not a weekly allowance—is £265.31. There are additional premiums for disability and so on, but the standard allowance is intended to cover council tax, utilities, food, clothing and other bills. Sometimes the housing element does not meet the full rent, so there is a top-up element for rent as well.

For a couple over 25, the standard allowance is £525.27. In a functioning economy, housing, heat and food should not be scarce commodities. They should be readily available, whether an individual is retired, employed —many people are in low-paid, insecure employment—or in receipt of social security. Universal credit should alleviate poverty. Instead, sanctions are entrenching hardship and destitution. It is a terrible shame that the Government do not put the same effort into hunting down tax evasion and apply sanctions against the very wealthy individuals who evade payment of many millions of pounds in the tax that they owe.

The level of sanctions is excessive. I thank again the hon. Member for Glasgow South West for highlighting the figures and sharing them. He mentioned that throughout the whole country the figures are as follows: in June 2020, there was over £34 million in sanctions; in July 2022, a little under £35 million; and in August 2022, £36,397,000—£36.5 million basically. If we total those together, sanctions at that level is almost half a billion pounds a year.

Where is the one-nation, caring and compassionate Conservative party, if the Government force people into poverty and destitution, particularly those who are vulnerable? My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) quoted the figures for his constituency, but the figures are worse for my constituency of Easington. Deductions amount to roughly £75,000 a month from people who are in the direst hardship before the deductions for advance payments, for bedroom tax, or overpayments caused by administrative error or neglect.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West made a great point about digital exclusion and the number of people who simply cannot access the system because they do not have even a basic smartphone or the wi-fi connectivity to be able to do that. The consequence is rising poverty, growing queues at food banks, and now the need for the voluntary and community sector to create warm spaces to accommodate people and at least give them a hot drink and some shelter, particularly in this terrible cold weather that we are experiencing. Sanctions harm society and can have tragic consequences.

I want to quote a BBC article dated 10 May 2021. It is a moving piece entitled “Deaths of people on benefits prompt inquiry call”. The article states:

“Cases where people claiming benefits died or came to serious harm have led to more than 150 government reviews since 2012”.

It highlights cases, including this one:

“Ms Day, 27, who had been diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder, had previously said her benefit claim left her feeling ‘inhuman’, her sister told the BBC.”

After Ms Day’s death, the inquest concluded that the authorities made 28 errors in managing her case.

In another case:

“Errol Graham starved to death in 2018 while seriously mentally ill. His benefits were stopped when he failed to attend a work capability assessment and did not respond to calls, letters or home visits from the DWP. When his body was found, Mr Graham weighed four-and-a-half stone (30kg) and his family said he had used pliers to pull out his teeth.”

We need to end the sanctions culture. It harms society, leaves the poorest in destitution and places the sick, the ill and the disabled in extreme circumstances in which they can often see no way out. The Minister can act by introducing a moratorium on sanctions. Sanctions should not be used routinely; they should instead be reserved as a last resort for the most extreme circumstances and cases. This is a matter of life and death. The Minister has an immense responsibility to safeguard those in need and the vulnerable. I urge him not to fail them as his predecessors have failed them, and to end the sanctions culture we have today.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this important debate and on all the amazing work he does on this issue. As we know, inflation is at a 40-year high, energy bills are rising, real wages have fallen for the last 13 months, the number of people living in deep poverty is increasing and we are living through a cost of living emergency. It is in that context that sanctions are being applied to people in receipt of social security benefits.

I have to start by reiterating the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). Sanctions are by their nature punitive, but continuing to operate them in such an aggressive manner in the worst cost of living crisis for a generation is actively harmful to the individuals who suffer, as my hon. Friend illustrated with horrific examples of people who have lost their lives as a result, but also to the wider economy and society. The scale of sanctions is totally unacceptable. They simply drive people into far greater debt and greater poverty, and punish people for things that are no fault of their own. People are in these situations because they may have lost their job or fallen on difficult times, and they are being punished for that. We should be supporting people in those circumstances.

It is little wonder that the Public Law Project has said that sanctions “do not work” and has referred to them as “a presumption of guilt”, or that the Welfare Conditionality project has found:

“Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek, or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes”.

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that sanctions do not work, the DWP is using them more and more. Statistics from November show that more than 320,000 adverse sanctions decisions were made across the UK this year alone, up to July. The number of people subject to sanctions continues to grow. In August 2022, 115,000 people—6.5% of all recipients—were subject to them in one month. We can compare that with August 2021, when the figure was only 18,000. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), I would be particularly interested to hear the Minister explain why there has been such an astronomical increase in the use of sanctions. Why that has happened is just beyond me.

The latest sanctions were worth, on average, £262 a month. That is nearly a third of the average UC payment. This is a full-frontal attack on universal credit recipients that must end.

In my opinion, the Government should end completely the sanctions regime, especially during this inflation and cost of living crisis, just as they did during the covid pandemic. They need to conduct a review of the impact on poverty, ill health and employment. They can also look to improve the application of easements and allow decision makers to cancel sanctions—the list goes on of measures that the Government could and should introduce.

I want to take this opportunity to say something about the deductions that are taken from almost 2.1 million claimants to repay debts. I recently submitted a written question on the issue to the DWP, which responded that 3,300 universal credit recipients in my constituency of Cynon Valley are subject to deductions for debts and overpayments. That is 52% of all recipients. A majority of those who use universal credit as a lifeline are having some taken away. People cannot afford those deductions. I back campaigners’ calls to convert them into grants or to write off the debts completely, which would be a much better solution. The Government must seriously consider those proposals, and at least adopt the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendation that debt repayments be paused.

From the contributions today and the overwhelming evidence, it is clear that the sanctions system is ineffectual and extremely cruel to the most vulnerable people in our society, whom we should be supporting and helping. Prior to entering this place, I worked for many years as an advice worker, and I worked with lots of people who were suffering from homelessness. I also volunteered in a food bank. The number of people who had to access the service because their benefits had been stopped was unbelievable. They were people who were in work or who were suffering mental health problems. There were families. A gentleman who came in with his three children had been unable to attend his benefits appointment because one of his children was ill; he was sanctioned for two weeks. In the 21st century, that is absolutely appalling. It beggars belief.

The use of decision makers who are not known to the individuals being sanctioned is completely inhumane. I worked with a lot of older people who are digitally excluded and unable to navigate the system. People are penalised because they are excluded from a system that is, quite frankly, designed to prevent people from accessing an entitlement. That is what benefits are: they are an entitlement that people should be allowed to access.

The sanctions system completely fails to achieve its stated objective, which is to encourage compliance and people’s return to employment. It has the opposite effect, and I talk from experience: it alienates, unfairly punishes and stigmatises people. All of that has a serious detrimental impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Instead of punishing people, the Government should overhaul the social security system, so that it provides people with an adequate payment that prevents poverty—rather than pushing people into poverty, as the current system does—encourages and enables people to find employment, and treats people with dignity. The current system does not treat people with dignity.

Other measures might include the reinstatement of the £20 UC uplift and its extension to those on legacy benefits, the ending of the five-week waiting period and the removal of the two-child limit. Lots of changes could and should be made to the social security benefit system. With 40% of UC claimants in work, it is clear that wages in this country are insufficient, which is why I and many others here support the campaign for a £15 minimum wage.

The crisis that the Government’s approach is causing is the reason for the increasing calls in Wales, for instance from the Bevan Foundation, for a Welsh benefits system. The Welsh Affairs Committee has said that the Government should assess the merits of devolving the administration of benefits to Wales, as happened in Scotland. In yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on pensions, I said that £1.7 billion of pension credit is unclaimed. The figure for unclaimed means-tested benefits is £15 billion. Some 7 million people in this country are not claiming what they are entitled to. I really wish the Government would spend more time ensuring that those people who are not claiming get what they are entitled to than punishing people in dire straits.

There are many problems with the Government’s approach, but very little interest in a solution. I would be interested to hear from the Minister why there has been such a significant increase in sanctions and what evidence the Government have that they work. All the evidence that I have seen is to the contrary. Can the Minister respond on the suspension of punitive sanctions, debt and overpayment deductions, the role of the decision maker and the question of devolution in Wales? Let me finish by congratulating again the hon. Member for Glasgow South West on securing this debate. I fear that we will revisit this issue if things do not change.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on introducing this important issue that it is very appropriate to debate at this time. I will start by saying what this debate is not about. It is not about benefit fraud, in case the Daily Mail or others thought it was. That is rare—far rarer than tax avoidance—but it is dealt with by criminal prosecution, and rightly so because it is about public funds.

Equally, I do not believe that anyone is suggesting that there should be no sanctions. What is required is an appropriate form of sanctions in every walk of life, whether in a social club or a political party. If someone transgresses, there have to be repercussions. If we breach the rules here, we can rightly face sanctions. I am a former chair of the judicial panel of the Scottish Football Association; even in sport, if someone breaks the laws through misconduct on or off the park, they will rightly face some challenge. The issue is that the extent of it is far too great, certainly at a time of huge austerity.

More importantly, it is about the reasonableness and proportionality of sanctions. Players do not get banned sine die for two minor yellow cards in a football match, yet people are facing something that would almost bring them to the end of their life. Equally, it is about the circumstances in which these sanctions are being imposed. There has to be some understanding of the individual we are dealing with and the circumstances in which they are living, as opposed to having draconian measures.

It is well over 40 years since I graduated in law. I did welfare law as part of my law degree. At that stage, it was national insurance and supplementary benefit. Even then, when supplementary benefit was brought in in the Beveridge plan, it was set at a level that was the very minimum upon which someone could live. But our circumstances have changed since then. Not simply have we gone through mass unemployment; we have moved towards a gig economy and people in vulnerable occupations. We have moved away from the national insurance supplementary benefit scheme to universal credit. That has caused challenges and difficulties, but it seems that the moral compass has been lost. We have lost any element of compassion. Looking back, sanctions did apply to national insurance and supplementary benefit, but they were proportional, reasonable and certainly not to the extent that we have today.

Three issues follow from that. As has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West and others, punishment is being exacted upon those who work in the Department for Work and Pensions. They are threatened with punishment, and potentially with dismissal, if they do not get their number of sanctions up. That is simply unacceptable. This should be not a target-driven system, but a welfare state and a welfare system. It should be about the individual and the circumstances, not any spurious targets.

We know from PCS and other whistleblowers that many people worry that if they do not enforce a sanction against an individual, they will face consequences. That is simply unacceptable. That is not simply from the PCS; we know it from welfare rights officers. Any welfare rights officer in any constituency will tell a similar tale. It even goes beyond that. We see it in fiction on television and cinema screens. It is a few years now since “I, Daniel Blake” came out—an award-winning movie that highlighted the difficulties and, indeed, tragedy of the sanctions scheme. It is a few years past now, but the circumstances remain. I am fortunate to have been a friend of that film’s writer for over 40 years, and I know that although the movie was fictional, it was based on fact. As we would meet and discuss, he would tell me about the meetings he had had with people at food banks, trade union representatives and welfare representatives. He told me stories, such as that of the woman who had a miscarriage, who was unable to get to her appointment with the DWP and who was sanctioned, or the young father who rushed to the hospital to be at the birth of his child, whose sister phoned the DWP to say, “He cannot come; he’s gone to see the birth of his child. Surely that will be okay.” No, it wasn’t, because when he next turned up, he found himself sanctioned.

Those stories are not fiction: they are fact, and that is simply unacceptable. That is why it was not Paul Laverty but Ken Loach, who filmed the movie, who described our benefits system as “institutionalised cruelty”. The sanctions system is institutionalised cruelty, because we are taking the most vulnerable people—those who have the least income at a time of inclement weather, rising costs and enforced austerity, when work can be hard to find as unemployment figures are going up—and treating them harshly.

It is not even as if it works. As other Members have mentioned, many of these people, if not most of them, have significant challenges, whether with mental health, educational difficulties, or—as shown in “I, Daniel Blake”—simply being able to access IT. In some instances, it can be the inability to access the equipment; in other instances, it can be a generational gap. I am challenged by IT systems, and people of my age who do not have access to those systems will be even more challenged. Sanctions do not help those people; what they require is more of a mentoring scheme.

In summary, what we have to do and what the Minister must try to move towards is a system that by all means contains sanctions for those who fundamentally breach it, because that is unacceptable to those who pay their taxes and abide by the law, but where an individual is challenged, they have to be supported. Where an individual has reasonable, proportionate circumstances and an explanation, they most certainly should not be punished, and we most certainly should not see people being treated harshly as a result of a tick-box system to get the figures up. That is fundamentally wrong. It would not apply in most private businesses, and it certainly should not apply in a welfare state.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this valuable and important debate.

The Government claim that evidence clearly shows that their sanctions regime is clear, fair and effective in getting people into work, so why are they hiding data from experts who want to study that effectiveness? Benefits sanctions are an utterly inhumane blunt instrument that have not been shown to be effective in their supposed aim. Instead, almost every study that has looked at the benefit sanctions regime seems to include the word “cruel”—indeed, it is “pointlessly cruel” according to a Select Committee report, and “cruel”, “inhumane” and “degrading” according to academics. That is what the experts conducting those studies have found.

The sanctions regime is enormously disproportionate and punitive: a complete withdrawal of support for missing a single jobcentre appointment. Examples of people sanctioned because of illness, a lack of wi-fi connectivity or other reasons outside their control are easy to find. That cruelty can be imposed with little effective scrutiny for up to three years. The organisation Feeding Britain reported that in Leicester, one woman with two children was sanctioned after she missed appointments as a result of going to Iraq to look after her sick father. It left her in a terrible state, with bills and rent arrears. Another referral over the summer had his appointment with his work coach rearranged because the work coach was not in. He was then sanctioned because whoever was standing in for the work coach rearranged the appointment to be earlier, and he missed it.

The UK is an international outlier in this cruelty. Indeed, the UK is unique among OECD nations in using sanctions to punish claimants. A Bristol University Press publication on the impact of sanctions shows that they are largely ineffective and often make people more likely to remain out of work. This consciously cruel regime is operating at record levels—more than double its pre-pandemic numbers—in the middle of a cost of living crisis, and a huge number of working people in my constituency of Leicester East are being sanctioned for not accepting zero-hours contracts to top up their incomes.

Of course, the more vulnerable a claimant, the greater the impact of this conscious cruelty. The Government cannot claim to be unaware of this, as they have been repeatedly warned by MPs, academics and advocate groups about the huge damage being done. Rethink Mental Illness recently called for an immediate halt to sanctions, with the group’s chief executive officer describing them as

“incredibly damaging to people’s mental health”

because of

“the massive financial and psychological impact”

of sanctions and of the fear that they might be imposed.

Speaking of the more than doubling of the number of sanctions, David Webster of the University of Glasgow said:

“A Universal Credit claimant is now more likely”—

in the midst of the worst cost of living crisis in living memory—

“to be under a sanction than to have Covid”,

which is a truly horrifying illustration. Dr Webster also accused the Government of withholding information about the scale of the crisis they have created. That is not a new phenomenon. As we have heard, in February the Government blocked access to data for academics who simply wanted simply to study whether benefit sanctions were driving up suicide rates, bringing a vital study that was already under way to an immediate halt. Even for the Conservative party, this is an astonishing level of disregard for people’s mental health and, indeed, for their lives. It is institutional cruelty.

It is time to end the culture of secrecy about the impacts and effectiveness of the Government’s benefit sanctions policy. Will the Minister commit the Government to releasing this data? It is an open secret that information already in the public domain showed that a staggering 43% of unemployed disability benefit claimants had attempted to take their own lives because of the horrors inflicted on them, and that was in 2018—long before the sanctions reached their current appalling high level.

Sanctions are indeed pointlessly cruel, inhumane and degrading. If the Government think that the facts show otherwise, why are they hiding them?

We now come to the Front Benchers, who have 10 minutes each. If the Minister is so minded, he might leave a minute for Chris Stephens to wind up.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to him for all the work he does in fighting poverty and in his role as a trustee of Feeding Britain. I am very much looking forward to joining the Work and Pensions Committee in the new year, and I sincerely thank him for the work that he has done on the Committee. I wish him well as he takes on his new Front-Bench responsibilities.

This has been a good, albeit one sided, debate. I often find myself questioning the point of having such debates, because while Opposition Members have showed up to talk about what happens in our constituency surgeries, the only reason the two Conservative Members are present is that they are compelled to be here. The Conservative party has some new red wall MPs. Surely people visit their surgeries to discuss the punitive sanctions regime. It ill behoves any of those Members intending to stand for re-election that they do not bother their backside to turn up and talk about the very thing that we know has an impact on many of our constituents.

This debate is certainly timely, not least because recent data produced by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre shows that benefit sanctions for young Scots have nearly doubled since 2019, which is the last comparable year for such statistics. The British Government certainly like to talk ad nauseum about their rather underwhelming kickstart programme. However, those statistics show that the DWP is only seeking to kick young people when they are down. I shall return to that slightly later when I discuss the wider context of the debate.

My hon. Friend has already referred to the figures that he has uncovered via parliamentary questions. In my constituency of Glasgow East, £55,000 was deducted from universal credit payments in August alone, simply as a result of benefit sanctions. At a time when businesses are struggling and we have all just celebrated small business Saturday over the last week or two, I remind the House that that cash could have been spent at small businesses in the likes of Parkhead, Barrowfield and Lilybank. If the Conservative party does not get that from a compassionate point of view, it should consider it purely from the point of view of economics. Instead, the DWP has pressed ahead with a regime of conditionality that pushes people into destitution. To be frank, that is something for which the state ultimately bears the cost anyway, so it is also short sighted in that respect.

The Scotland-wide figure for deductions from UC deductions by way of sanctions is even more eye-watering, at £2.3 million in August this year. Destitution is not cost-free for the state, and there is already a rich body of evidence out there from the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that shows the true cost of, for example, homelessness as people are pushed into destitution by a failing social security system. While 85% of welfare spending in Scotland is reserved to this institution, the Scottish Government are doing their level best to mitigate the very worst effects of Westminster’s assault on benefits.

Whether hon. Members are Unionists or nationalists, surely we can all agree that devolution, be it in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland, cannot simply be a sticking plaster for inadequate social security policies designed in Whitehall. For example, the Government in Edinburgh spend £80 million a year of their devolved budget on discretionary housing payments, purely to nullify Westminster’s bedroom tax. To be blunt, that is £80 million that could be spent on health and education, but the Scottish Government are having to spend it trying to clean up the mess that has been caused by Westminster. Indeed, using our limited social security powers, next year the Scottish Government will spend an extra £311 million on the game-changing Scottish child payment of £25 a week. That is in stark contrast to the British Government’s outrageous two-child policy and associated rape clause.

We can begin to see a pattern emerging. In essence, DWP policy means that devolved Peter is being robbed to pay the price of reserved Paul. The same is true with the sanctions regime that my hon. Friend has highlighted today. Sanctions combined with deductions from universal credit mean that almost £2 billion per annum is snatched away from the very poorest people on these islands. As they face going hungry, that is when the third sector, which is already close to breaking point, needs to step in and pick up the pieces. To illustrate that, I will provide an example from my constituency.

The Halliday Foundation helps people in poverty with free meals and furniture as they seek to rebuild their lives. It is funded by local government, which, in turn, is funded by central Government. So all that happens is that central Government sanction a constituent and then the Halliday Foundation has to step in to support them with the financial resources that have been provided by local government. Put simply, that is a total mess and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money, and it shows that moving people into destitution is something that the Government bears the cost of anyway.

There is also an additional negative dimension to sanctions, which is very relevant just now and which I want to highlight to the Minister, backing up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West. Data shows that almost 700 Scottish households were denied the first £326 cost of living payment in September, simply as a result of sanctions. Let me make clear to the Minister that the freezing temperatures we are experiencing do not bypass houses and say, “Oh well, we’ll not go to minus 7° because that house has been sanctioned.” The decision to exempt sanctioned individuals from the cost of living payment is wrong and should be put right without delay.

In my five years as a Member of this House, it has become clear that Whitehall does not know best when it comes to designing a strong, robust and compassionate social security net. Indeed, Ministers and senior officials who preside over this disastrous sanctions regime clearly do not understand what it is like to sit in a cold library in Glasgow’s east end on a Friday morning speaking to constituents who literally have nothing to live on. On Friday, I met a constituent from Greenfield who is a kinship carer for his grandson. We have had debates in this Chamber about the importance of kinship carers and the vast amounts of money they save the Government. However, our failing social security means that state support is so low that my constituent told me that he has rationed his primary school-age grandson to just two baths a week because he cannot afford the energy bills.

The very fact that my constituent told me it costs 70p to run a hot bath shows just how close to the breadline that man is living and how much our social security system is failing the people who need it most. Indeed, he told me that he cannot afford to turn on the Christmas tree lights for fear of running up an energy bill that he simply cannot afford, not least because he is on a prepayment meter. These are the sorts of people who are impacted by the actions of a Department for Work and Pensions that day after day plunges the most vulnerable people in our constituencies into abject poverty—something that should shame the fifth richest economy in the world. This Government have the absolute temerity to prance around the world in their Brit-branded ministerial plane preaching about global Britain, when all the while my constituent cannot afford to run a hot bath the night before sending his grandson to school. It is utterly shameful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West outlined a better way of doing things, perhaps via the yellow card warning system, and Ministers would do well to engage with us on ameliorating a system that is currently doing so much harm. Indeed, it is no wonder that the Glasgow Centre for Population Health has attributed over 330,000 excess deaths in the UK to austerity since 2010. It has long been the case that Governments of both colours in this House have talked a tough game on welfare—I certainly prefer to call it social security—but the cat is now well and truly out of the bag. For too many people who had no understanding or experience of benefits, the pandemic lifted a veil on a social security system that has been found to be utterly inadequate. We know from polling that the public will no longer buy into the lazy picture painted by politicians in London of this being a fight of strivers versus skivers; this is now firmly the fight of abject poverty versus fairness and decency.

The only way to ensure that fairness and decency win is to end the punitive benefit sanctions regime and build a proper, robust social security system, underpinned by dignity, human rights and respect. In Scotland, we have already started that journey, but in truth most Scots know that it can only be completed with the full powers of independence. Nothing I have heard in this debate or, indeed, in my time in this House has convinced me that, with Westminster, the sanctions regime would end. That is why Scotland can, should and must make its own decisions on all social security, as with other policies, because Westminster is not working for us, and we all know that that is why Labour and the Conservatives are petrified of Scottish democracy prevailing.

It is a pleasure to respond for the Opposition to this short and important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on introducing the debate and making a powerful speech. We have heard powerful contributions, and many who spoke drew on their own experiences of cases as well as cases brought to them by advice agencies in their constituencies.

Before the debate, I asked my local citizens advice bureau about the changes it had experienced in terms of clients with concerns about sanctions. It told me that there has been an increase in calls for help, including appeals from clients who were bedbound when the sanction was imposed because they had covid and were quarantining. I was told about someone who was sanctioned for attending a funeral and about a young woman who was forced to leave her home because she became pregnant outside marriage and feared for her safety. She was sanctioned for not wishing to return to a jobcentre near her family home in order to attend an appointment.

What has come through all of the speeches is the strong theme—it is a theme that has come up time and again whenever we have debated social security issues over recent months and years—of the impact on mental health. So many of the clients who come to us asking for help with sanctions and other aspects of social security problems are highly vulnerable and sometimes chaotic in their vulnerability, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) stated. Sometimes they have significant mental health concerns that should have been a red flag.

As we have heard, this debate is well timed because over the last few months it has become increasingly clear that the DWP’s approach to sanctions has changed in ways that Ministers have so far been unwilling to explain or justify. The evidence lies in the sheer volume of sanctions that the Department has been handing out. Let us not be distracted by the suspension of most forms of conditionality during the pandemic. That was, of course, the right thing to do, and obviously that meant there was bound to be some degree of a resurgence in sanctions once things opened up again. But that does not explain—and this point has been made several times this afternoon—why sanction levels and rates are so much higher now than they were before the pandemic.

Several Members have referred to the work of Dr David Webster, whose regular briefings on sanctions for the Child Poverty Action Group have served to bring the issue to the fore. He finds that the number of sanctions handed out per month in May to July of this year was on average 45,000, equivalent to 2.5% of people on universal credit subject to conditionality, compared with 1.4% in the three months before the pandemic. That increase in the number of adverse sanction decisions is reflected in the cumulative number of people on universal credit serving a sanction at any point in time. Dr Webster writes:

“The number of universal credit claimants who were serving a sanction in August was 115,274…more than three times the pre-pandemic peak of 36,771 in October 2019.”

Of course, there were more people on universal credit in August 2022 than in October 2019, but as Dr Webster shows, the percentage of universal credit claimants subject to conditionality serving a sanction was 6.4% in August, more than double the pre-pandemic peak of 3.1% in October 2019. And for unemployed people—those in the searching for work group—Dr Webster estimates that nearly 8% were under sanction in August 2022. My first question to the Minister is: how have we arrived at a situation where one in 13 unemployed universal credit claimants are currently under sanction?

We should be under no illusion that sanctions are just a slap on the wrist for claimants. Typically, sanctions involve the withdrawal of 100% of the universal credit standard allowance, and even the reduced rate for the lowest level of sanction is 40% of the standard allowance. And except for the lowest level sanctions, the penalties continue after the person sanctioned has complied with the rules—for seven days rising to 28 days for low level sanctions, while higher level sanctions apply for 28 days and 91 days rising to 182 days, depending on whether there have been previous failures to comply in the same year.

An increase in the sanction rate is not just a technical matter. People on universal credit do not have a margin of income that they can fall back on to weather an interruption to benefit payments—all the less as the four-year benefit freeze has permanently eroded the real-term value of benefits.

There is an urgent need to understand what lies behind the increase. Has there been a revolution in people’s behaviour or attitudes since 2019? If so, what is the evidence for that? Has the level of non-compliance with conditionality really doubled since the pandemic? Have there been operational changes leading to more sanctions being issued without any change in the level of compliance? Has there been a change in the Department’s policy on sanctions? Or is the increase an unintended consequence of other factors? in other words, is the sanctions regime out of control?

The purpose of sanctions has been well described by Professor Paul Gregg as a backstop to the system of benefit conditionality. The point is that while sanctions set at a reasonable level serve an important function, they are not an end in themselves. A sudden increase in the number of sanctions such as we have seen should be seen by any responsible Government as a cause for concern rather than for self-congratulation. It raises the fear that the sanctions tail is wagging the conditionality dog, that the Government are more concerned with signalling toughness than with improving employment outcomes, and that the purpose of conditionality has been twisted towards catching people out rather than maintaining contact with the labour market. Or, no less worryingly, it raises the fear that the number of sanctions has shot up because the Government have lost control of the sanctions regime and no longer know what they are doing.

The fact that the Government have suppressed their own research into the effectiveness of the universal credit sanctions regime is hardly reassuring. In 2018, in response to a Work and Pensions Committee report, the Department agreed to

“evaluate the effectiveness of reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions,”

and said that this would focus

“on whether the sanctions regime within Universal Credit (UC) is effective at supporting claimants to search for work.”

It said that it would publish the results in spring 2019, but we know what happened. The research was undertaken, but earlier this year the last Secretary of State but one—the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)— reneged on the commitment to publish the results. That is the behaviour of a Government who are uninterested in learning lessons, and evasive of public scrutiny.

I thank the shadow Minister for making that important point. The same applies to the drivers of food bank use, which include sanctions.

Sanctions are indeed an important driver of the increase in food banks, which is another symptom of widespread structural failure in the system.

It would be refreshing if the new Secretary of State took a different view of the matter. A doubling in the rate of sanctions in the context of a cost of living crisis and permanent reductions in the value of benefits is a serious matter. I hope that the Minister can give a suitably serious response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. In the limited time that I have, I will endeavour to answer the various points raised. I start by briefly addressing the point made by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck)—that there is a reduction in the value of benefits. She will be acutely aware that UK Government welfare spending has increased from £151 billion in 2010 to £245 billion in 2022-23, and that there have been significant increases in Scotland, which I will come to. I wholeheartedly reject the suggestion that there has been a reduction in the value of benefits, not least given the fact that this Government increased welfare support for the most vulnerable by 10.1% at the autumn statement.

Let me address the original points raised by my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). I hesitate to call him an hon. Friend, because I realise that he will receive an SNP pile-on as a result. I was not aware that he is standing down from the Work and Pensions Committee after many years of distinguished service, and I congratulate him on that. As always with promotions, one never knows whether to congratulate or commiserate. I also welcome back the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) to his Front-Bench position. I believe I have held my position for 47 days, after my personal sacking over the summer and the sabbatical that I enjoyed on the Back Benches courtesy of the previous Prime Minister.

Plus one. The long and short of it is that, in that time, I have engaged at length with multiple employers, Jobcentre Plus and individual work coaches at the Department for Work and Pensions.

I will endeavour particularly to address the points raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, given that this is very much his debate. He has engaged with the Department on a number of individual cases, and I will endeavour to write to him on the specifics of the particular case that he raised most recently. I am advised that we have responded to the case that he raised today, but I undertake to write to him with more detail before Christmas. Given the circumstances that we face, the letter will obviously have to be communicated by email as well as post.

I turn to the second point. With no disrespect to the hon. Member and other colleagues who have raised this issue, I do not recognise the comments against individual DWP members of staff. Where there are particular examples of named individuals who people genuinely feel have transgressed and behaved in an inappropriate way, clearly there is a process that must be entered into.

It is certainly not the case, in any way whatsoever, that there has been a change of policy by individual Ministers—either by myself in the 47 days that I have held this post, or by previous Ministers. I cannot speak for colleagues who have held these positions.

I am sure the Minister gives that assurance in good faith, but how does he explain the rapid increase in the level of sanctions in recent months? Can he rebut the allegation that there is a sanctions regime that incentivises DWP staff to apply sanctions?

On the second point, I am not aware of any such policy or any such incentivisation in any way whatsoever. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence of such incentivisation, he should publish it and name it individually, because there is no such evidence as far as I am aware.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the rise in the numbers. It is right to have a legitimate discussion about what is a fair and effective welfare system that supports people into work and provides value for money for taxpayers. Our work coaches support claimants by setting out the activities to move them into work or to progress in work and work more. Activities are set out in the claimant commitment, which is surely the start or base of all the discussions. They are tailored to reflect individual circumstances and take into account health conditions, caring responsibilities, current work and opportunities for training.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the rise in the number of sanctions. Some 98.2% of sanctions are for missing a meeting with a work coach. Such sanctions can be quickly and simply resolved by attending another appointment. The evidence is that approximately 50% of mandatory reconsiderations resolve the sanction.

I wish to address in particular the issue in relation to the most vulnerable. It is right that the most vulnerable in society receive extra support. The Government have clearly shown a commitment to that by adding a further £26 billion in the cost of living support in the autumn statement, on top of the £37 billion for 2022-23 that we announced earlier this year, in May.

Where benefit claimants have vulnerabilities, safeguards exist to ensure that they are not sanctioned inappropriately. Those with severe health and mental health conditions, those with full-time caring responsibilities and those with children under the age of one are not required to look for work and cannot be sanctioned. Many of the most vulnerable receive other elements of universal credit in payment, such as housing, child or disability support. Those payments are not affected by a sanction.

Finally, when people experience particular challenges, such as childcare difficulties, accommodation issues or bereavement, work coaches have the discretion to switch off work-related activities for a period of time. Such measures enable us to support vulnerable claimants and provide tailored support. To answer the follow-on question, we have a well-established system of hardship payments, which are available as a safeguard if a claimant demonstrates that they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs—including for accommodation, heating, food and hygiene—as a result of sanctions. I am advised that the relevant percentage is 1.987%.

Various colleagues made specific points. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) and the hon. Member for Slough made the point that work is hard to find. I will address that point in two particular ways. First, the evidence from the labour market statistics shows that the employment rate is up 0.2 percentage points on the quarter; the number of payroll employees is up on pre-covid levels by 932,000 to a record high; and the inactivity rate has fallen. On the vacancies rate, which surely relates to the point that work is hard to find, there were 1.2 million vacancies. Although obviously it remains high, the rate has fallen for the fifth consecutive month, to 1.187 million. Inactivity, which is a long-term issue, has fallen by 0.2 percentage points on the quarter, to 21.5%.

Scotland was raised specifically, so let me give the Scottish figures. The number of people employed is at 2.725 million, up 22,000 on the quarter and up 61,000 on the year. The employment rate is at 75.9%, up 0.7 percentage points on the quarter and 1.4 percentage points on the year. Unemployment is at 93,000, down 21,000 on the year and 12,000 against February to December 2020. The number of people in workless households has fallen by 113,000 since April to June 2010.

I do not want to stop the Minister’s flow, other than to correct him: there is no Member here from Slough. I may have missed his answer to this question, but why has there been an increase in the number of sanctions on such a scale, even compared with pre-pandemic levels? Could he answer the question that we have all asked?

The answer has already been given to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). The figure in respect of persons failing to attend an individual appointment is at approximately 98%. That 98% is for failing to attend a specific appointment.

No. I have one minute left to address this debate. In November 2018 the Work and Pensions Committee specifically said that the Committee agreed with the Government that the principles of conditionality and sanctions were an important part of the welfare system.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West on securing the debate. The Government have been utterly clear that we are fully supportive of all people who are on benefits.

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is very experienced in this place and should know better. If the Minister is not giving way, he should not be speaking.

Order. We are running out of time. Minister, I think the hon. Member for Glasgow South West would like to hear replies to his questions at least.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s debate and set out how the Government are helping to get people into work. We have intensified our support for jobseekers. We have made great efforts on in-work progression. Employment figures are up. There is more to do, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman with specifics.

I thank everybody who participated in the debate. A number of outstanding questions remain; I look forward to the Minister’s response with the specifics.

We are in a recession. There are far too many people being sanctioned. There is an impact on people’s mental health. There is a social and financial impact, and I do think we need an answer to the question of why cost of living payments have been taken off people who have been sanctioned. It is bad economics. I am offering the Minister a meeting with me and reps from the Public and Commercial Services Union. They will explain the concerns that staff have about the sanctions regime.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered DWP’s policy on benefit sanctions.

Marine Management Organisation

I will call Giles Watling to move the motion and will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as he will know is the convention for these shorter, 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effectiveness of the Marine Management Organisation.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am thrilled to have this opportunity to stand up for coastal communities, particularly my own in Clacton—a place that I have been a part of and lived in for over 55 years and have represented both locally and nationally since 2007. I have seen at first hand what works in our environment and what does not. Our extraordinary coastline has existed for hundreds of thousands of years. It is home to a Ramsar site and is a site of special scientific interest; it is a salt marsh, with superb beaches, cliffs and backwaters.

Recently, I tabled a private Member’s Bill that seeks to put in place a pilot to devolve many functions of the Marine Management Organisation to local authorities. The MMO is a group that I have increasingly come to see as not fit for purpose. It lacks experience and is flippant in respect of the needs of local communities. Indeed, I have been told that we once had turn up to look at a marine development in the backwaters two officials from the MMO who seemed to be surprised about tidal range and direction.

More recently, the Naze Protection Society waited 13 weeks for a licence from the MMO to undertake vital coastal works that involved protecting a sewage farm from incursion by the sea. Every tide that came and went and every storm that happened made those works more difficult and more expensive. The Naze Protection Society contacted me in desperation, as it had the money, the materials and the contractors standing by but was held up for want of a simple licence from the MMO. I made a couple of calls to the Minister and the Secretary of State, and the licence was issued almost immediately. It should not take a call to an MP to get this simple stuff done.

In my opinion, the MMO is failing. For that reason, I have worked with my excellent local authority, Tendring District Council, which has offered to put in place a pilot that it will run, absorbing and discharging the licensing and management duties. I want to see that happen for three core reasons, which also illustrate why I felt this debate was needed. First, it seems rather odd to me that we allow the MMO so much centralised power. We have seen planning and licensing become core parts of local authorities’ action plans. Councils are accountable and, by their very nature, have a deep understanding of local issues and the local scene. We need to look to a slimmer MMO, more devolution and a non-executive directors board of experts with real-life experience, holding the MMO to account.

Secondly, we should really be moving past all these organisations with people who just seem to collect non-executive directorships. We have spoken a lot in this place about how expensive distant and unaccountable quangos can be.

I share the same Marine Management Organisation group as my hon. Friend and have not found them as problematic as he has, but his assertion that we should move closer to local government is quite compelling. I was surprised that some relatively small works on a café on Southend pier had to go via the MMO, which is very centralised. It would be much more appropriate for Southend-on-Sea City Council to look at those issues, and I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend’s local authority could look into Southend also being involved in the pilot to bring those functions closer to the public and democratic accountability.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; he is wise to mention that we should devolve those powers. In the end, that is exactly what this is all about. I am suggesting certain pilots, and my own local authority is happy to pilot them. I gently suggest to my hon. Friend that he should go to see his local authority and get it to agree to do a similar project. I think he might get some success.

The MMO is an example of the fact that His Majesty’s Government are sometimes happier going after lower-hanging fruit. For example, we scrapped the dreaded development corporations in 2010, because everybody saw them as bodies that did not care about local feelings towards development while still not achieving the revolution in house building the nation needed. It was a bloated public body that was ripe for the plucking, but just because the Marine Management Organisation’s offences are against fewer people and therefore less easily seen, they do not seem any less egregious. If local government can take on such duties, why should such an accountable body as Tendring District Council not do it? That is the correct argument that the Government executed in respect of development corporations.

Finally, and most pertinently, the MMO has displayed a flippant and unaccountable culture. When Members do things in this House, it should matter. If we criticise a public body for how it treats our constituents, that body should reach out and seek to offer reassurance on what it is doing in our communities. After all, nobody has a God-given right to spend taxpayer cash or to public power and authority. Sadly, since I tabled and spoke to my private Member’s Bill, I have not heard from the chief executive officer or chairman of the MMO—not a dicky bird.

I want to make two points before my hon. Friend concludes. First, I hope he recognises that although local authorities are good at making local decisions, some decisions on the management of seas and oceans can have an impact on other local authorities down the coastline, particularly in respect of coastal erosion. Does he agree that there needs to be an authority to oversee the multitude of decisions that are made?

On his second point, I will organise a meeting with the chief executive officer directly with my hon. Friend and myself, so that he can speak to him directly.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should of course be a central overseeing body to oversee all this. I am seeking to devolve some of the powers to the local authorities because it makes sense: they understand exactly what is happening on the local scene.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the benefits of the whole of East Anglia, working right down the coast from Great Yarmouth to his constituency, is that our local authorities —the county councils and the district authorities—work together closely on the issue of the East Anglian coastline? They face challenges in dealing with the MMO. For example, Great Yarmouth Borough Council has been frustrated in developing the operations and maintenance hub, a new area for renewable energy. It has seen delays of six months and eight and a half months to its progress because of the MMO’s slow decision making. Speeding that up—or, indeed, allowing the local authority to have more authority to get on with the works, given their knowledge from working with enabling authorities—would give us a faster and better way to deliver more jobs and a better coastal community.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to ensure that we get decisions much more quickly, before more damage happens to our coastline. I have heard nothing from the MMO and have not had any comment from it about how it proposes to devolve its functions to local government. This debate is publicly on the Order Paper, yet the MMO has not reached out to discuss it. That suggests that it either thinks that a House debate on its performance is irrelevant or does not even check to see what is happening in this place and whether it needs to keep abreast of debate. Either way, it shows an arrogance that is not becoming in a public body.

What I find so sinister is that there is a private Member’s Bill to possibly radically alter how the MMO functions, and it feels that warrants no action. It is so seemingly content that it has the unrestricted right to gobble up taxpayer cash and play judge and jury in our communities that it has not bothered to articulate publicly why it should not be broken up. It clearly thinks that it is above reproach; well, no public body, including the MMO, is above this House. We often speak of the bonfire of quangos, and I think I have found another log for that fire.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I welcome the debate and am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) for securing it. I sense his frustrations and I am sympathetic to them; I will try to assist and alleviate some of them. My hon. Friend said that he has not heard from the MMO and that it has not engaged in the debate; it has sent a rather brilliant Minister to respond on its behalf. [Interruption.] Yes, unfortunately he could not be here so I have taken his place.

This is a timely debate: the MMO is due to publish its annual report next week. It comes ahead of the Second Reading of my hon. Friend’s ten-minute rule Bill, which is due in February. Alongside its marine licensing duties, the MMO covers a broad range of activities, including fisheries management and the management and regulation of marine protected sites. Many of these also interact with the MMO’s responsibilities as the marine planning authority for English waters, which my hon. Friend referenced. It has teams based in 15 locations around the English coast. It is responsible for engaging with the full range of local stakeholders, signposting to relevant MMO guidance and, where relevant, making introductions to other parts of the MMO in relation to specific activities.

When it comes to marine licensing and the process, the MMO is the appropriate marine licensing authority for English waters. The scope of responsibility and function held by the MMO ensures not only that marine licensing applications are assessed on an individual basis, but that marine planning activities are placed in a wider context so that conservation work on protected sites and species and compliance, monitoring and inspections are taken into consideration.

The MMO aims to determine 90% of marine licence applications within 13 weeks. Some cases are more complex and take longer because of the detailed technical and complex environmental assessments that may be required. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton referred to an individual case that he was working on and the fact that when he engaged with Ministers, he got a response very quickly. It is my understanding that that was purely coincidence—that a lot of work was going on in the background to gain access to that information, and the intervention of the Minister at the time coincided with the MMO pulling the information together and it being ready within a matter of hours.

I am aware of the circumstances around the licence application made for the sea defences at Naze. My understanding is that this licence has not been straightforward to determine. Supplementary information and assessments had to be sought from the applicant after the initial application was received in July 2021. This included a required water framework assessment and further information from the applicant to update the methodology of the works. The MMO also had some difficulty ascertaining whether Tendring District Council’s planning department was dealing with the planning application for the works as an environmental impact assessment application, and whether there was scope for working through the coastal concordat on the case. The potential for coastal concordat working was raised with the council on 2 August 2021, but it took seven weeks for the council’s planning department to reply, confirming its position. There was also a 28-day consultation period for interested parties and stakeholders to express their views on the licence application. I hope that my hon. Friend has some sympathy with the fact that there is a process to go through. Whether it was with the MMO or the local authority, there would be hoops and challenges to get through to ensure that we get to the right decisions.

Following the consultation period, the MMO identified that a habitats regulations assessment would also be required. Agreement was reached with the applicant on the fees only on 22 March, ahead of the MMO progressing the final determination and issuing that on 14 April. I am aware that an application for a licence variation was then received in July this year and I understand that it has been held up while the MMO has awaited the submission of an environmental impact assessment screening request from the applicant. That was received by the MMO on 3 November, and the MMO will move to consider the licence variation as soon as possible.

I understand that the time taken to determine some marine licence applications is sometimes frustrating. This case is an example of the complexity of some marine licences and of how careful consideration is paramount.

We are talking here about potential flooding—flood risk. The area around Jaywick in my constituency flooded in 1953, with the loss of some 90 lives, so when we see floods no one hangs around; people have to be fleet of foot. That is what I am asking for: fleetness of foot. The case that I identified earlier was one where, with every succeeding tide, the damage worsened, threatening to flood a sewage farm and poison the backwaters

I wholly acknowledge the necessity of speed to save his constituents and to ensure that no environmental damage is caused around Clacton. What we must not do, though, is introduce a scheme that might cause damage in another community six or seven miles down the coast. It is important to determine whether an action is required—it clearly was required—to protect an area or piece of infrastructure and that it does not impact on another piece of infrastructure that could cause even more damage. To do so, there needs to be an overarching authority that looks at all the facts in the light of day and, after all due consideration, says whether something is the right or wrong thing to do—whether the impacts of the decision made will be felt further down the coastline. My hon. Friend would be distressed if an application in—to pick a constituency at random—Southend were to have a huge impact on Clacton. He would be distressed if Southend-on-Sea City Council made that decision unilaterally without considering the impact on the community of Clacton.

As the debate has highlighted, the MMO has responsibilities in the marine space, all of which are crucial. We must not forget the adaptability of the MMO in its delivery of the important objectives that support the growth of our local communities, the trade in fish, and the marine environment. The MMO is the primary responder to marine emergency situations and is key to supporting evidence-based decisions that touch a range of Government Departments. I think that is the right outcome and an outcome that we can all agree on. We may disagree on whether the MMO performs to a level that we appreciate, but there has to be a regulator. We need to continue to support the MMO’s performance.

Ultimately, I think that falls under the umbrella of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have regular meetings with the MMO—in fact, I met its chief executive this week. I asked him to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, and he confirmed to me that he would be willing to meet; I will make sure that meeting happens. Let me say again that if other colleagues want to engage directly with the MMO, I am more than happy to facilitate meetings and to ensure that MMO is delivering for their constituents. We have had an interesting debate. I sense the frustration of some colleagues around the Chamber, but, as the Minister, I am more than happy to try to facilitate those discussions and to work with the MMO to deliver outcomes that hon. Members and their constituents want.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Aortic Dissection: Patient Pathways and Research Funding

I beg to move,

That this House has considered patient pathways and research funding for aortic dissection.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. After many applications, I am delighted to have secured an opportunity to have this very important debate. Hon. Members may be aware that this is an extremely difficult and personal topic for me, but I hope that sharing my experiences will prompt action that could save lives in the future.

I will begin with a case study, which happens to be my personal story, then move on to what we do in this place to improve patient pathways and research funding for aortic dissection. Before I do so, I must draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am an unpaid trustee of the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust, a charity that I helped to set up.

In the early hours of 11 December 2018, I received a phone call that no mother would ever want. I was told that our son Ben had died. Four years later, we all still feel numb. It seems implausible that Ben, a gregarious 44-year-old with two children and a loving wife, will not simply walk back into our lives. Ben died after suffering an aortic dissection. He had been feeling unwell the previous day, but was sent home after spending four hours in A&E and told to return the next day if he did not feel better. Tragically, the emergency doctors had not understood his symptoms and had not come up with a diagnosis.

Aortic dissection is a tear in the aorta, the body’s largest artery, which carries blood from the heart to the brain, limbs and vital organs. It is a condition that affects approximately 4,000 people a year in the UK and, like Ben, almost all of them are unaware that they have it. Half of them—almost 2,000 people—die soon after the dissection occurs, which is more than die from road traffic accidents in this country. Five hundred of those who die reach hospital, but sadly, as in Ben’s case, their condition is not diagnosed quickly enough, or at all. The other 1,500 die almost immediately after the acute event.

Many of these deaths are preventable. With proactive genetic screening for family members of those who have suffered an aortic dissection and with better treatment of high blood pressure, many of these deaths could be avoided. I am delighted to learn today that the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), has announced a fund of £175 million for cutting-edge genomics. As a charity, we would be happy to work with the Department on this issue.

I have to admit that, like most people, I knew nothing about aortic dissection before Ben died, but knowing what a gap his death has left in our family I have immersed myself in efforts to prevent other tragedies. In late 2020, with the eminent cardiac surgeon Graham Cooper and the long-time aortic dissection campaigner, patient and public voice co-ordinator of the NHS cardiac clinical reference group, Catherine Fowler, whose father died in Ireland from this condition, I helped to set up the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust. I am delighted that Graham and Catherine are in the Gallery and listening to the debate. The trust is now a leading UK-registered charity that aims to unite patients, families and the medical community. Our mission is to improve diagnosis, increase survival rates and reduce disability caused by aortic dissection.

Our work encompasses the whole patient pathway, from prevention to diagnosis, treatment, follow-up and support for all those living with aortic dissection. So far, the charity has designed and delivered accredited education events reaching over 3,000 medical professionals, and produced a fantastic set of patient resource videos to support those living with aortic dissection and their families. Instrumental in creating the videos was “Whispering” Bob Harris, who has suffered an aortic dissection and given up a huge amount of time to be an ambassador for the charity. I am delighted that Bob is also in the Gallery today.

The charity has created an online learning portal for the medical community, with learning modules that cover all the multidisciplinary aspects, in order to improve education on aortic dissection in the medical community, and ultimately to improve patient experiences and outcomes. The free and accessible learning portal, produced with experts in the field of aortic dissection, will be launched this week. We have also attended a number of medical conferences and presented to cardiac specialists and emergency medicine doctors, most recently in October at the European Emergency Medicine Congress 2022 in Berlin. We have designed and delivered national all-day education symposiums to establish learning communities and to increase knowledge and education for paramedics, emergency medics and surgeons in Scotland, Ireland and England, with many more such events planned. I have to say that the “we” are mainly the other trustees, because I am very much the junior and more silent trustee of the partnership.

The charity has also worked with NHS England and a group of clinical experts on the design of the aortic dissection toolkit. Seven key principles have now been established, setting out best practice for the patient pathways from the point of treatment through to diagnosis. We are delighted that the toolkit has reached the implementation phase, and the charity is actively supporting this critical phase by working with the regions that have reached out to the charity for support.

The charity has also launched research grants to fund research into how we can better diagnose and treat aortic dissection. For my part, I have sought to raise the issue in the House of Commons, including at Prime Minister’s questions in March and since then in meetings with Ministers. I thank the Minister responding to the debate for her commitment to aortic dissection and for having taken the time to meet the charity trustees last month.

In almost two years, the charity has had a big impact, but there is much more that we can do to save 2,000 lives a year in this country. I would like to set out some of the important changes we would like to see. So far, I have spoken about 2,000 deaths a year and 4,000 cases of aortic dissection, but a worrying statistic is that as our population ages, we expect to see about 7,000 cases of aortic dissection every year by 2050. It is crucial that we take steps now to improve the patient pathway, to ensure that as few of these cases as possible are fatal.

It is surprising but true that there is a lack of detailed and accurate data regarding the incidence, treatment and patient outcomes for acute aortic dissection in England. That is particularly true for patients like Ben, who do not reach a specialist treatment centre alive. Such data would assist in understanding the true scale of the problem and where any interventions might be directed. Of course our family understands that, even if he had been diagnosed, Ben might not have survived the catastrophic event, which happened in the middle of the night, but our passion to learn more about why he died seems to have highlighted gaps in the system, which, if filled, will help others. The least we can do is to press for that to be so. No child deserves to have their mother or father taken away, no wife should be bereft at the sudden loss of a husband, and no parents should have to bury their son.

The hon. Lady is making an incredibly passionate and personal contribution to the House. We all recognise that this is a subject very close to her heart, and we recognise her passion and commitment.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is important that all parties work together to make this better.

First, I encourage the Minister to see what more can be done to increase and improve data collection around aortic dissection, to make as much of the data as possible publicly available to assist with clinical research. Secondly, I would like to focus on improvements that we can make to the patient pathway. The single most important improvement is in diagnosis. For those accurately diagnosed, more than 80% survive.

I will come back to how we can focus research funding. For now, I would like to emphasise that increased research funding for diagnosis is required. The other improvement on diagnosis that the Government can make is to ensure that doctors in emergency departments receive adequate training and advice on the symptoms of aortic dissection and how to spot a potential case. A freedom of information request recently showed that only half of NHS trusts  had a policy or procedure concerning the diagnosis of aortic dissection in the emergency department and that only a small proportion used the guidelines from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine or from the Royal College of Radiologists. The charity is doing a huge amount to educate medical professionals. Can the Minister comment on what central guidance has been made available from the NHS for emergency departments?

The launch of the NHS aortic dissection toolkit, which I mentioned, is incredibly important, but it only covers the patient pathway from the point of diagnosis to treatment and does not cover diagnosis itself. Can the Minister commit to considering extending that toolkit or working with experts and the charity to design and develop a new toolkit for diagnosis of aortic dissection, which can be rolled out in all emergency medicine settings around the country?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s bravery in bringing this debate to the Chamber. I know that she has been through a lot personally. As she says, no parent would want to experience the death of a child as a result of aortic dissection and her subsequent and recent work to bring this debate here and her work with the charity is commendable. I am sure that it will lead to many lives being saved in future.

On the point about diagnosis, I remember from my days in the emergency department that fast scanning, which is a simple technique that uses an ultrasound scan to check for free fluid in the abdomen, was a very important tool that we could use to detect aortic dissection. It is a simple thing to train ED doctors to do, but that training is not available in the way that it should be. Will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Minister to ensure that the focus is not always on service delivery in ED? If we are going to have good clinicians, we need to have the right training for them and this is an area that would save lives. Can the Minister put some funding aside specifically for that purpose?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, knowing as he does what it is like to work in an emergency department. A lot of people come through the department, but the study he refers to about the abdominal aortic aneurysm was only for men of a certain age. This affects people from 17, or even younger, to 90. Although that sounds like a good idea, I am not sure that it would work in practice. We need more CT scanners used more frequently in emergency departments, and that is what is missing in part from emergency medicine settings.

The next phase in the patient pathway for those who have been correctly and speedily diagnosed is treatment. As I mentioned, 80% of those diagnosed survive. That is not enough and research is ongoing into better methods of treatment. However, one area where we can certainly improve is long-term treatments that do not require further medical interventions. There is currently a call for research proposals into that from the National Institute for Health and Care Research. That is excellent news and I encourage the Minister to make as much money as possible available for this area of research.

After treatment, it is imperative that the follow-up treatment for aortic dissection patients and their families is of the highest quality. Two thirds of survivors of aortic dissections have some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. They need specialist treatment by somebody who understands their conditions. Furthermore, aortic dissection survivors have a long-term condition that places them at risk of future complications. They need to be monitored by specialist teams and currently, that provision is highly variable. Teams exist in some specialist hospitals, but not all patients are reliably followed up, and too often that is a failure to take a holistic approach to follow up. The employment of specialist nurses in every aortic centre, similar to those in cancer and palliative care, would greatly strengthen follow-up.

The massive improvement in the patient pathway would not be expensive. Although I understand that every penny is being counted in the current situation, to provide a specialist nurse in each of the 29 NHS centres in the country that deal with aortic dissection, for two days a week, would cost less than £400,000 in total per year. The charity has explored the replication of the Macmillan nursing model for aortic nurses and, with funding, would be well positioned to support the design and roll-out of that initiative. Given the enormity of the NHS budget, I hope that is something that the Minister will confirm that she will look into.

The final stage of the patient pathway is genetic screening. About a third of patients who suffer an aortic dissection have some sort of genetic predisposition to the condition. That is why I welcome funding. Screening relatives of sufferers can detect those at risk and proactive treatment can significantly reduce their risk. However, that requires specialised clinical genetics input, access to which is, again, very variable. The technology exists to do that, and it would certainly save lives every single year.

There are two steps the Minister could take to improve this stage of the patient pathway. First, the employment of the specialist nurses I mentioned would be of great assistance. They would lead on the patient’s follow-up plan, part of which would include screening for their relatives. The second step would be for the Minister to facilitate a series of meetings between the relevant professional societies and appropriate NHS staff, to agree and implement a set of NHS guidelines for genetic screening for those suffering aortic dissection and for their relatives.

As I have set out, there are improvements to be made all along the patient pathway, which would go a long way towards saving many of the 2,000 patients every year who would otherwise die from aortic dissections. If nothing is done, that number will only increase in the coming years, so it is crucial that we act now.

Turning to the opportunities for investment in research, which would make a huge difference to the diagnosis and treatment of aortic dissection.

On the point about genetics and screening, the Health and Social Care Committee, which I chair, will be doing a big inquiry next year on prevention, and one of the things we will be looking at is upstream prevention for cancers and some of the other big killers. I extend the offer to my hon. Friend and the charity to get in touch with us when we launch that inquiry to give evidence on the screening that they are proposing. We would be interested in looking at that and to take evidence in written or oral form. That inquiry is all about saving lives. What she has said makes a lot of sense to me—it could do just that.

I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure the charity would be delighted to come and give evidence. This is a condition that nobody has ever heard of; it is not just about raising awareness, but changing outcomes, and I hope that the Committee’s inquiry into saving lives can help to save some of those 2,000 people. Obviously, they will not all be saved, but 2,000 is a huge number—it is not a very rare condition, but nobody knows about it until it devastates their family. I am delighted to accept that offer on behalf the charity.

Two studies that the charity is supporting known as DAShED—diagnosis of aortic syndrome in the emergency department—and ASES, the aortic syndrome evidence synthesis, are looking at the development of decision tools for use in emergency medicine to ensure that aortic dissections are diagnosed as quickly as possible and can then be effectively treated. These studies are designed to look at the available evidence to improve diagnosis of aortic dissection. Once concluded, there will need to be a second round of funding to measure the impact of implementing those recommendations. Studies that focus on improved diagnosis, while important, are just the first step. The critical breakthrough will be made by the identification of biomarkers and artificial intelligence to detect unusual patterns of presentation of aortic dissection. This research has the potential to save 10 lives a week according to the charity, and I hope that the Minister will comment on what her Department is doing to increase the funding available for research into better diagnosis for aortic dissection.

As I mentioned, this is not just about diagnosis but about treatment. The NIHR has issued a call for research proposals into methods of treatment that would reduce the need for further medical intervention down the line. I know that budgets are likely to remain tight for some time, given the current economic conditions, but I repeat my plea for the Minister to find some money and recommit to the importance of research funding. We must improve how we diagnose and treat these conditions. Of course, the better we diagnose and treat aortic dissection, the less money we will spend in future on treating so many cases. Some 45% of people who have an aortic dissection are under the age of 60, so being diagnosed and treated early allows them to live a life with their family and continue to contribute economically to society.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the improvements I set out both in the patient pathway and on research funding have the potential to save hundreds of lives a year. As I have explained, the number of aortic dissections will only increase with our ageing population, so it would be wise to act now. The charity is partnering in the implementation roll-out of the NHS aortic dissection toolkit across the country, and it has already received a positive and enthusiastic response, but there is more to be done. As I mentioned, there is an opportunity for the Minister to endorse the design and implementation of further toolkits to address the current challenges with diagnosis, elective surgery follow-up and aftercare, covering those aspects of the patient pathway that are not included in the existing toolkit. Improvements in the patient pathway and research funding, such as those that I have set out, are greatly needed, and I hope that the Minister can carefully consider all the recommendations.

Too often in government and in this place, we speak about tragedies in terms of scale—of the numbers of lives lost or numbers of people affected by a catastrophe—but it is all too easy to forget that behind every single statistic there is a family whose lives have been upended by these terrible events. While 4,000 aortic dissection patients a year is a huge number, we must remember that it is much more than that: it is 4,000 people with a family—parents, children, husbands, wives, siblings, relatives and friends. None of them are likely to be aware of aortic dissection before it happens. In Ben Latham’s case, the family was mine, and every single one of us is still feeling the effects of this awful condition that we did not know existed. It has been important for me, as for the other trustees and ambassadors of the charity, to do everything we can to improve the survival rates and treatment of future sufferers, so that other families do not have to go through what we have been through.

First, I commend the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). It is never easy coming to Westminster Hall to lead a debate; it is even harder to come and tell a personal story—one that is so heartbreaking for the hon. Lady. She has made us more aware of the condition. We sympathise greatly with her on the loss of her son Ben. We support her and what she asks for.

No parent should have to go through the horror of losing a child. I have the greatest respect for the hon. Lady for coming here today and talking about it, which is often the hardest thing to do. As my party’s spokesperson on health, it is great to be here to support wholeheartedly her call for better patient pathways and more funding for aortic dissections. She set out a really good case and has asked for a number of things. I endorse what she has asked for and will give some factual background to the debate.

Aortic dissection kills over 2,000 people a year. The UK statistics are clear: three to four people per 100,000 are diagnosed with aortic dissection each year. It typically presents with abrupt onset chest, back or abdominal pain that is severe in its intensity, or is described as ripping or tearing, particularly in the patient with a high-risk condition such as Marfan syndrome or a family history of aortic disease.

The hon. Lady was right to refer to diagnosis. We often refer to diagnosis in these debates, and she has asked for work on that. The Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), has taken her thoughts on board, and I know that next year, or whenever the inquiry is done, when the hon. Lady makes her contribution, we can expect a fairly good response from him. He will never be found wanting in that regard. It is good to have him here to hear the story.

By improving diagnosis of aortic dissection in terms of familial connection, we can improve patient pathways to get better treatment and easier maintenance of the disease. Aortic Dissection Awareness UK & Ireland is the national patient charity for aortic dissection in the UK. It was founded by a small group of people who were diagnosed with aortic dissection in 2016. The charity provides vital information and support for patients and families affected by the condition, which the hon. Lady outlined so well, including the families who are left to deal with what happens. The charity works with healthcare providers to improve diagnosis and treatment and reduce healthcare inequalities. It partners with researchers to bring forward new insights that will improve future care for aortic dissection patients. In addition, the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust research advisory group has been actively promoting research in the field of aortic dissection, aiming to save lives and improve the quality of life for those suffering from the condition now and in the future.

The hon. Lady asked very clearly for more to be done. The Minister and all of us were listening intently to her contribution. It would be very hard for anyone in this House not to respond in a positive fashion to her requests. More needs to be done across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, especially in co-operation with the devolved nations. This is something we should all work together on. We can always exchange ideas in these debates. The hon. Lady and I have both participated in debates in the past 24 hours. There was an Adjournment debate last night and a debate this morning at 11 am—the Minister has been kept extremely busy. We always have a helpful response from her and I look forward to something similar this afternoon. We owe a duty of care to the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire, and I am sure the Minister will respond in a positive fashion.

We also need to produce a research strategy that is developed and implemented as a support network for all. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has made the diagnosis of acute aortic syndrome and dissection one of its top 10 priorities, and we must do the same across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I encourage the Minister to engage with her counterparts in Northern Ireland and other devolved Administrations to ensure that we approach this in collaboration, with all of us asking for the same thing and all working together to achieve the same goal and ensure the correct patient pathways and sustainable funding for aortic dissections.

Again, I commend the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire; I think we were all particularly moved by her contribution. This debate would be suitably concluded with the support that the Minister can give us. I very much look forward to hearing from the two shadow Ministers: the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) and the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark).

We now come to the Front Benchers, who will have five minutes each, and then the Minister will have 10 minutes.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Pritchard.

I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), not only for securing this debate, but for the strength and courage she has shown in leading it. My thoughts and those of all in my party are with her and her family after the tragic loss of her son, Ben. May he rest in eternal peace.

No parent should witness the loss of their child, and I welcome the positive and heartfelt contributions from across the House today about taking more effective action in preventing this disease. As we have heard, 2,000 people a year in the United Kingdom lose their lives from aortic dissection. It is a treatable condition; indeed, it has a better than 80% survival rate when it is diagnosed and treated in time. Yet today, in the year 2022, 50% of people who are struck by this condition ultimately lose their life.

The British Heart Foundation has done a tremendous amount of work in this particular area, and I thank it for its dedication. In Scotland, the BHF has worked alongside the Scottish Government, Members of the Scottish Parliament and local NHS boards to champion all those who are working to beat heart and circulatory disease. Through their record-high health funding, the Scottish Government have supported and will continue to support health research and innovation, as a vital part of pandemic recovery and their wider aims to improve the health of our populations.

In 2020, the Scottish Government announced a one-off £75 million increase in funding for Scottish universities to ensure that they can protect their world-leading research programmes against the financial impact of covid-19 and the other crises that we are having to live through, whether it be the food crisis, the energy crisis or everything else. That significant intervention helped to secure the jobs and training needed to support ongoing and future research work.

Dr Alex Fletcher is leading a study on behalf of the University of Edinburgh that is monitoring around 60 patients at risk of dissection, which aims to develop a more effective screening tool. That study could not have been conducted without the SNP Scottish Government recognising the important work and impact of medical research charities, and I urge the UK Government to uplift support for medical research to ensure that vital studies can continue and more positive breakthroughs can be made.

However, research is not enough. The strategic direction of the UK Government must change if they are truly committed to supporting those with aortic dissection. This is particularly the case when the covid-19 pandemic has brought an even greater need for action into sharp focus. The pandemic had a significant impact on people with heart disease and on the services that support them.

In recognising that material societal change, the Scottish Government have published their heart disease action plan, supported with an investment of £2.2 million. The four priorities of that plan are prevention, timely diagnosis, treatment and care, and workforce.

The Scottish Government have outlined the importance of providing appropriate support to enable people with heart disease to live well with their condition. That means identifying ways to support people experiencing the emotional and psychological impacts of heart disease, and giving as many of them as possible access to specialist support, including vital rehabilitation services and, wherever necessary, supporting access to palliative care.

These measures may seem simple, but they are fundamental to helping minimise the presence of heart disease within our communities. I encourage the Minister to follow the Scottish Government’s footsteps, and to learn and share best practice methods to ensure that aortic dissection cannot continue to blight people’s lives, and have a difficult and lasting impact on their families.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard.

I want to take a moment to sincerely thank the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this debate and for sharing her very personal story. I offer my profound condolences to her for the loss of her son, Ben, and I recognise her extraordinarily brave work in campaigning to improve the patient pathway for aortic dissection, and to increase research and screening.

As we have heard, aortic dissection occurs because of a partial tear in the wall of the aorta. The tear then spreads, and can rupture or interrupt the blood supply to vital organs. There are two distinct types of aortic dissection: type A, which occurs in the front of the chest, and type B, which occurs in the back of the chest. Type A is far more dangerous; if untreated, it is sadly almost always fatal. We have also heard today that over 2,000 people per year lose their lives from aortic dissection. Some 11% of maternal deaths from cardiovascular causes are due to aortic dissections. Worryingly, the Oxford Vascular Study projects that those figures will almost double by 2050. It is crucial, then, that we engage with experts and give this life-threatening condition the attention that it deserves.

As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, there have been some positive advances in aortic dissection care over the last year—notably, the launch of the acute aortic dissection toolkit—but we cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal. Deaths from aortic dissection are avoidable, and with timely treatment the survival rate is good, as we have heard. It is therefore crucial that we do everything we can to drive up diagnosis rates. The Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust estimates that one in three of those who have aortic dissection are misdiagnosed. I would be grateful, then, if the Minister will update colleagues on the steps her Department is taking to improve diagnosis rates for aortic dissection.

The ADCT has made the case for a review of A&E triage processes, imaging, diagnosis and transfer for surgery. Notably, it also advocates diagnosis being made pre-hospital, which bypasses emergency departments and saves vital time. That work already happens with acute coronary syndrome and acute heart attacks. The ADCT states:

“The current pathways are ineffective… There are problems transferring images… Medical management, blood pressure control, imaging protocols, investigation of genetics…and long-term follow-ups are all sporadic and often not addressed well.”

The AAD toolkit has made a positive difference to some of those problems, but there is still much work to do. Has the Minister met with ADCT recently to review pathway processes? In addition, what work is taking place to eliminate regional variations in aortic dissection care, and to streamline aortic care so that patients can be seen before it is too late?

I also wish to highlight preventive interventions and why it is important that the Government support diagnostics to enable clinicians to save lives. Genetic screening, functional imaging and biomarker analysis are now possible, and if used efficiently, they enable clinicians to provide treatment before an aortic dissection occurs. As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire highlighted, once a patient is identified as having a family history of the disease, there is scope for potentially life-saving genetic screening. The ADCT estimates that 20% to 30% of families with dissections have an identified gene. Work is ongoing to identify the remaining 70% to 80% of genetic causes, but if we can screen that 20% to 30%, potentially thousands of lives could be saved over the next few years. I am sure that both sides of the House will agree that that is a worthy endeavour. Will the Minister therefore clarify what steps she is taking to support those exciting and potentially life-saving diagnostic tools?

Finally, let me touch on the workforce. We know that the NHS has the facilities to treat those suffering from aortic dissection. The problem lies in diagnostics. The reality, however, is that system-wide pressure on the NHS exacerbates misdiagnosis and compounds issues in patient pathways. It is therefore essential that targeted aortic dissection strategies come alongside whole-system workforce overhaul.

The next Labour Government will oversee the biggest expansion of the NHS workforce in history, doubling the number of medical school places, training 15,000 new doctors, creating 10,000 new nursing placements, and recruiting 5,000 new health visitors. That will be paid for by abolishing the immoral non-dom tax status. I encourage the Minister to nick Labour’s idea and commit to implementing that workforce strategy as soon as possible. Unless we solve the systemic workforce shortages, we will not be able to robustly tackle conditions such as aortic dissection.

In conclusion, I want to see a future where aortic dissection is diagnosed quickly, treated rapidly, and receives appropriate long-term care and management.

What we heard from the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) was a shame, but I will focus on what we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), which was one of the most powerful speeches I have ever heard in Parliament. It was also one of the most painful to hear, but I know that is not a patch on what she will have experienced in losing her son, Ben, so tragically, aged just 44. As she told us, he went to A&E to get help and was sent home, and then he died. How awful that was for her as his mother and for his whole family, including the loving wife he leaves behind and his two children. I am so sorry that she and all his family have had to go through that.

I cannot commend my hon. Friend enough on coming to the House and talking about her experience; on doing so in the Chamber, as she has done; on coming to meet me and other Health Ministers; and on drawing on her experience, her son’s experience and her whole family’s experience to try to make things better for other people who are at risk of aortic dissection—to prevent others from going through what she has gone through, and to try to save the lives of others so that some good can come out of what she has been through. I have a huge amount of respect for my hon. Friend for doing that, and I know that many people across the country, including those who will not necessarily even know what she has done, will be grateful to her for it. I thank her myself for that.

My hon. Friend helped to set up the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust. She has been working with that trust very effectively to raise awareness of aortic dissection, improve diagnosis, and prevent aortic dissection in the first place, saving lives in doing so. She made several specific requests and asked several questions during her speech, which I will come to in a moment. We also heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is always so thoughtful in what he says and how he says it. He makes such valuable contributions to debates in this place, and it is so good to see him again—I think it is the third time in less than 24 hours that we have talked about healthcare.

The third welcome I want to give is to Bob Harris, who is here today. He himself has suffered aortic dissection, and is working as an ambassador on this issue. It is very good to have him here with us.

We have heard during this debate about the sudden and heartbreaking impact that aortic dissection can have on families. That is why it is absolutely right that we should be talking about this issue today: we should be talking about how to raise awareness of the condition among medical professionals, about how to improve diagnosis so that aortic dissection is detected as quickly as possible, and about the research we need to make sure that more people survive. Sadly, around 4,000 people suffer from an aortic dissection in the UK each year, yet still many people have never heard of the condition. It is crucial that it is diagnosed and treated urgently, otherwise very sadly, it can be fatal. It need not be.

As we have heard today, diagnosing aortic dissection promptly is, unfortunately, not straightforward. The condition is relatively rare, which means medical professionals may be less familiar with its presentation. The symptoms of aortic dissection, such as chest pain, can be similar to other more common conditions, making it harder to accurately diagnose. Care pathways for aortic dissection vary across the country, meaning different patients often get different treatments.

I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire and other hon. Members here today that I am determined to improve the way the condition is diagnosed and treated. Earlier this year, NHS England launched its aortic dissection toolkit, which sets out the steps that commissioners, providers and clinicians should take to improve the care of patients with acute aortic dissection. The toolkit covers the pathway for aortic dissection, from recognition and diagnosis to treatment.

NHS England’s regional teams are currently implementing the toolkit within their local services, and we expect those improvements to significantly reduce delays to diagnosis and improve patient outcomes following treatment. NHS Digital has also made changes to NHS Pathways, which is a triage system used by NHS 111 and 999, to improve the recognition of chest pain likely to be associated with aortic dissection. However, I heard my hon. Friend say that the toolkit does not cover all the challenges that she is aware of in the pathway, so I will take that away and see how we can go further to make sure the toolkit is comprehensive or supplement it as necessary.

We have also heard today about the importance of raising awareness of aortic dissection among medical professionals. The Royal Colleges of Radiologists and Emergency Medicine published a best-practice guideline last year on the diagnosis of aortic dissection in the emergency department, in response to a report published by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch in 2021. I expect that to have a major impact on the prompt diagnosis of aortic dissection. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which sets standards of care in all emergency departments in the UK, has also developed guidance to support the timely diagnosis of aortic dissection. However, my hon. Friend told us that a freedom of information request showed that only some EDs are using the guidelines. Again, I will look into that, as guidance should be followed consistently across emergency departments.

Research is the piece of the puzzle that will drive forward progress and find the treatments of tomorrow. We need to understand better who is at risk of aortic dissection and how we should monitor them, we need to know how to most effectively detect and diagnose aortic dissection in emergency settings and how to improve treatment to make sure patients recover successfully. That is why the Department of Health and Social Care brought together a multidisciplinary group of experts and patient representatives in 2020 to consider research priorities for aortic dissection. That significant event identified research questions in diagnosis, treatment, care, awareness and education and, crucially, what matters most to people with aortic dissection and their families. In response to that event, the Department of Health and Social Care-funded National Institute for Health and Care Research launched a call for research on surgical treatment for aortic dissection. We await the outcome of the commissioning pool early in the new year.

The NIHR invests around £50 million a year on research into cardiovascular disease, including aortic dissection and other heart conditions. For example, the NIHR funded a major programme of work at Barts Health NHS Trust to develop and test a novel surgical treatment for aortic dissection, which is less invasive than routine care, allowing quicker procedure times and shorter hospital stays. It is also vital that we harness our understanding of risk to help prevent aortic dissection. UK Research and Innovation, which is funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is supporting a study on how we can use genetic and other factors to predict aortic dissection and identify people at greater risk. That will pave the way for more preventive measures, such as blood pressure control, to be prescribed.

We know that there is interest in the academic community for a pipeline of research to improve outcomes for people at risk of and who have survived aortic dissection. I encourage researchers working in the field to harness the momentum building around aortic dissection research and to please come forward and make applications for funding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire also asked about data and called for more data on aortic dissection to be collected and made public. I will take that request away and raise it with NHS England, because she makes a really important point: the more data we collect, the more we know. Again, making it available more widely is one of the best things that we can do to improve understanding and support research into prevention, diagnosis and treatment. My hon. Friend also requested that we meet to discuss guidelines for genetic screening, which is another thing that I will take away and look into. I will get back to her on that.

This debate has made us all stop and reflect, and I will pause for a moment as well, because I think the hon. Member for Strangford is waiting to intervene on me.

I thank the Minister for her very helpful response. I always ask these questions, because it is important that we share the issues. In my contribution, I asked whether we could share information with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, because we can all learn from it. We need to collaborate on research, because we can all benefit from it, wherever it may be—in Northern Ireland in my case, and in Scotland in the case of the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar). That might be helpful for us all.

I completely agree with the hon. Member, and we can only do better if we share information across the whole United Kingdom and internationally, as work on this condition will be going on across the world.

This has been a really powerful debate, but it is not a patch on the pain that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has been through. As she said so powerfully, each life lost to aortic dissection is not just one life affected. The condition affects the lives of all those around the person who is lost, be they mothers like her, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, grandchildren or friends—everyone who is affected when somebody is sadly lost too soon. I thank her again for her tireless work in raising awareness and campaigning, and I assure her that I will, in turn, do what I can in Government to support her efforts and to improve outcomes for all those affected by aortic dissection across the country.

First, I thank everyone who has contributed. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is obviously a prolific contributor to all kinds of debates, but he always has an interesting perspective and works very hard.

I particularly thank the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), for his intervention, because he can take evidence and work with the charity to find out more about prevention and saving lives. I also thank the Minister for taking on board all the requests that I made during my speech, which will make so much difference to so many people and so many families. I thank her for embracing the whole issue of aortic dissection.

I guess that many of the people in this room had never heard of the condition until they took part in this debate, so it is important to ensure that people know about it and that doctors—from GPs right the way through the patient pathway—understand it, understand how to treat it and understand how best to save as many lives as we possibly can. To lose 2,000 people a year—more than the number who die on the roads—is criminal, and the condition is preventable. We have reduced the number of deaths on the roads over many years, not least by putting on seatbelts, and we need to do a similar thing with aortic dissection. I thank the Minister very much for taking it all on board.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered patient pathways and research funding for aortic dissection.

Sitting adjourned.