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Westminster Hall

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21 February 2023

[Martin Vickers in the Chair]

Freeports: Wales

I beg to move,

That this House has considered freeport proposals for Wales.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. The debate comes at a crucial moment not just for my constituency of Ynys Môn but for north Wales and the whole country. In the coming weeks, we expect a decision on the site of the first freeport in Wales. That will be a monumental moment for Wales, whichever bid is successful, and the potential for boosting the economy of north Wales via a freeport on the Isle of Anglesey is enormous.

It is the privilege of my life to represent the people of Ynys Môn. It is a proud island with a wonderful history, and our ports have long been critical to our success, providing communication and trade links throughout history, from the Roman fort in Holyhead, which was positioned to overlook the port, to Amlwch, whose port and copper trade once made it the second largest town in Wales.

Ynys Môn’s relationship with the sea is well documented. Since the 1800s, the port of Holyhead has been a key link in the chain between the UK, Ireland and Europe. It developed as part of the fastest route between London and Dublin, and is still the second busiest roll-on roll-off port in the UK, but time moves on, and Ynys Môn needs to progress to the next step in its journey. The obvious way forward is the freeport programme.

For several years, I have been leading the campaign to secure freeport status for the island, and over the past six months I have been working alongside a consortium of partners led by Stena Line and Isle of Anglesey County Council to deliver a bid that we can be proud of. Colleagues will also be aware of the work I have done with my north Wales Conservative colleagues—particularly my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar)—to raise the prospect of the freeport. Indeed, I have spoken of little else in this place for the past few years, and that is because of the bid’s potential to transform Anglesey. That transformation would truly be life changing for so many people and communities across north Wales. Behind the scenes, I have also been corralling others to join the cause, and I am pleased that more than 40 businesses, local councils and education institutions now support the bid, as well as more than 1,500 residents from across north Wales.

Since the UK Government announced in 2020 that they would use our post-Brexit freedoms to establish 10 freeports, I have been unequivocal about the importance of giving freeport status to Ynys Môn. That is because my constituency faces a range of challenges that are holding people back, the root cause of which boils down to a lack of long-term, sustainable investment. In the 21 years since the Senedd was established, and with a Labour Welsh Government in Cardiff, the island has systematically lost major employers, including Anglesey Aluminium, the Wylfa nuclear power station, Octel and Rehau, which led to huge job losses on the island. That continues to this day with the deeply disappointing anticipated loss of the 2 Sisters poultry plant, and with it around 730 jobs, which was announced in January.

We have seen next to nothing from the Welsh Government to address those issues, and at times it can feel as though there is a reluctance in Cardiff to recognise the urgency of the situation. The damage to the island caused by employers closing their operations does not stop at the tragedy of people losing their jobs; those people have to move away from the island, which in turn means taking their children out of school. The limited availability of jobs means that, for those young people who go through school on the island, there is limited choice, and that choice is often to move away to Cardiff or England. Meanwhile, the island becomes even more dependent on seasonal tourism. No wonder Ynys Môn has one of the lowest gross value added rates in the UK.

Most recently, the announcement that the Welsh Government will not pursue their plans for a third bridge to the island has made our maritime infrastructure even more important. There are two bridges to the island: the Menai suspension bridge is 200 years old and access to it is restricted for safety reasons, and the Britannia bridge is a single carriageway that regularly congests and closes in high winds. Those road infrastructure challenges are a real concern for businesses looking at the island for future operations. They significantly restrict the opportunities for Ynys Môn to achieve its economic potential.

In the light of the decision by the Welsh Government, we have no alternative but to maximise the opportunities offered by our sea routes and maritime infrastructure. I cannot bear to see such wasted potential, and we must do everything we can to ensure there are good-quality, well-paid jobs on Anglesey. That is how we stop our young people leaving, maintain the proud heritage of the Welsh language and preserve our local heritage. The catalyst for bringing those jobs is a freeport. It would give businesses the green light they need: the confirmation that the UK and Welsh Governments are serious about attracting investment to the island.

There is an incredibly strong case for the Governments to make Anglesey the first Welsh freeport, not least because the solution to making serious progress towards meeting the UK’s net zero objectives or addressing reduced post-Brexit trade flows is right there on Ynys Môn. Anglesey stands on the brink of becoming a centre of excellence for energy production, and freeport status would only boost its progress towards making that a reality. The waters around Ynys Môn have been identified as some of the best for tidal power projects. Like the Cromarty Firth freeport in Scotland, the island would be a prime location for building, assembling and deploying offshore wind turbines. BP has been given preferred bidder status for its Mona and Morgan offshore wind farms in the Irish sea. It is actively looking for the right location from which to build its base and support operations, and a freeport on Anglesey would be the obvious place.

Companies such as Menter Môn and Minesto are homing in on tidal energy and wave production. Menter Môn owns the lease on the largest consented tidal stream site in the world, which it envisages would generate just under £100 million of inward investment by 2027. Freeport status would enable 60% of that to be retained in the local economy, which would deliver the long-term, high-paid jobs that the people of Anglesey so desperately need.

Then, of course, there is new nuclear at Wylfa, which has been my other main topic over the past few years. Wylfa offers the best new nuclear power site in the UK—possibly the world. It has the potential to power 2 million homes, and it offers to be Wales’s biggest single contribution to tackling climate change. Beyond that, the site has the support of local people and would offer 9,000 construction jobs, 900 long-term, permanent, skilled, well-paid careers, and thousands of supply chain roles across north Wales. Companies such as Rolls-Royce SMR, Bechtel, Westinghouse and Last Energy stand ready to turbocharge the nuclear offering on the site.

Home-grown energy will be essential if we are truly to tackle climate change, achieve our 2050 net zero target and protect our energy sovereignty. Anglesey has the ability to upskill the workers of north Wales. Bangor University and Grŵp Llandrillo Menai are working with the bid team to make the most of the opportunities the freeport would bring. Part of that is M-SParc, the first science park in Wales, which focuses on supporting growing local businesses and investing in green energy research and development.

Freeport status would boost our proud trading history. Holyhead port is the second busiest roll-on roll-off port in the UK, which makes it a vital hub for international trade. The freeport would help to increase the activity at the port by revitalising the GB land bridge, whereby goods can move from the island of Ireland to mainland Europe without having to sail around the south coast of Great Britain. In the last few years, the GB land bridge has seen a 20% decline in trade, and a revival of the GB land bridge, ushered in by boosted trade through the freeport, could bring up to £6 billion in trade uplift to the UK economy by 2040. We are working with the likes of Fujitsu on digital trade corridors to ensure the utmost safety and transparency of goods flowing through the port. Analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research has shown that the Anglesey freeport could bring up to 13,000 jobs to north Wales over a 15-year period and increase UK GDP by £1 billion by 2030. This Government could provide no clearer signal of their support for the people of north Wales than granting freeport status to Anglesey.

Finally, let me focus on environmental protection and nature restoration.

I commend the hon. Lady. In the short time she has been in the House, she has been a very assiduous Member for Ynys Môn and for Wales as a whole. I support her ambition for a freeport in her constituency, and I wish to see similar opportunities for us in Northern Ireland. I know that the debate is about Wales and that the Minister is answering for the Wales Office, and I support the hon. Lady’s request for a freeport, but I also request that something similar happens for us in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in the levelling-up process, the Government should cast their net wide and ensure that Northern Ireland is part of the freeport strategy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and his support for a freeport. He makes a good point about how important freeports are for levelling up not only Anglesey and Wales but the whole UK. This freeport is significant for what it will do for the GB land bridge and what that will mean for the whole UK.

Finally, I want to focus on environmental protection and nature restoration. The Welsh freeport prospectus includes the condition that any freeports need to meet environmental sustainability objectives. Ynys Môn has a wealth of experience in balancing environmental concerns and economic development. The extensive studies of wildlife in the waters around our island being undertaken by Morlais could be used to establish a detailed baseline for our understanding of the current marine environment so that we can ensure there is no impact on it.

A freeport on Anglesey can be an example of Conservative environmentalism in action: a low-tax, business-focused approach that attracts investment, spurs innovation and promotes growth. It would take full advantage of the benefits Brexit has given us—the Brexit that more than half of my constituents voted for; indeed, more people on Ynys Môn voted for Brexit than for Welsh devolution.

I want to draw my remarks to a close by mentioning the hopeful way in which I have seen political differences put aside to get us where we are today. The Welsh Government have matched the constructive spirit with which the UK Government have brought forward this exciting freeport opportunity for Wales. Members of this House and the Senedd from both sides of the political aisle have come together to show their support for the Anglesey freeport. I am incredibly grateful for that unity, because it shows that what is most important here are the communities of Anglesey and north Wales. In the light of the failure to invest in a third bridge, the future of our communities and children can be secured only through the prosperity that a freeport will bring. Diolch yn fawr.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Vickers, and to follow the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), who has been making this case very strongly throughout her time in this place.

The decision that the two Governments are set to make on the location of the Welsh freeport is right at the heart of the debate about what a future British economy will look like and of the ambition that the Government have for Britain in the world. It is clear that by backing the Celtic Freeport bid, both Governments would be sending a clear signal that they are not looking backwards or simply managing decline by seeking to make up a bit of missing post-Brexit trade here or restoring a bit of pre-covid demand there; rather, it would show that Britain is truly ready to become a world leader in the green industries of the future.

The Celtic freeport, situated in the ports of Port Talbot and Milford Haven, would bring with it initial business rates exemptions, capital investment exemptions and seed funding that would drive £5.5 billion of inward investment into the local economy. Perhaps even more importantly, it has the potential to bring £54 billion into the supply chain of the vital new renewable technology of floating offshore wind.

The Celtic freeport would sit at the heart of the emerging green ecosystem in south Wales, which is set to play a central part in providing the green, competitive and secure energy supply our country is crying out for. South Wales was the cradle of the first industrial revolution, and we can now be the cradle of the green industrial revolution. The Celtic freeport can drive forward the green technology that will power our domestic, sovereign and sustainable energy supply, drive down household energy bills, support green steel making and, of course, create up to 16,000 new local jobs. The new technology at the heart of this green manufacturing revolution will be floating offshore wind.

The UK has led the world on the mass deployment of offshore wind power generation. Across nearly 50 sites, offshore wind contributes about 13% to the UK electricity mix. No one country—even giants such as China—can touch our footprint, so we have a lot to be proud of. Britain can ill afford to let this new technology of floating offshore turbines pass by, because if we do, we risk falling behind.

Floating offshore wind is a technology whereby wind turbines are attached to floating platforms that are secured by mooring lines and anchored to the seabed to keep them in place. This modern science uses the same technology as wind turbines that are fixed to the seabed to generate electricity, but the floating platforms can be installed in deeper areas of the sea, which frequently have higher wind harvesting potential.

This modern manufacturing renaissance, which will bring a £54 billion supply chain  to the heart of Wales’s new economy, could drive forward a green ecosystem of sustainable growth and good jobs across Aberavon, Wales and the entire United Kingdom for future generations. Whether people are looking to become welders, electricians, data specialists or marine surveyors, floating offshore wind will create thousands of high-quality, high-skilled jobs right on our doorstep.

The Celtic freeport bid is about prosperity, but it is also about pride. It is, of course, about prosperity for our economy and people, but it is also about pride in our country and community. We can once again lead the world in tackling the major global challenge of the 21st century, namely climate change. For our local communities, it is about taking pride in the fact that their work will contribute to that national and global mission.

The new green ecosystem can also play a critical role in strengthening the backbone of our national economy. The covid pandemic and Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine have turbocharged the need to build resilience into our supply chains. Floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea will be able to generate 24 GW of clean, green, renewable energy by 2045, which is a quarter—an enormous amount—of the UK’s total target.

To generate that amount of energy, we will need to build and deploy over 60 turbines a year. Tata Steel estimates that that would require 6 million tonnes of steel between now and 2045. The energy produced through floating offshore wind could then help to produce the green steel that Tata Steel plans to make in its future electric arc furnaces—which will replace the current blast furnace technology—at a lower cost per unit than is possible with the sky-high electricity prices that are currently holding our steel industry back.

The driving purpose of the Celtic freeport bid is to be a force multiplier, catalysing our green economy through floating offshore wind, building our energy security and strengthening our ability to stand on our own two feet by making, buying and selling more in Britain. The Celtic freeport offers one of the biggest opportunities of its type for Wales, which is why I and many hon. Members are backing the bid.

The cross-party support from Members in this place runs broad and deep, from the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb)—my fellow lead on the campaign, to whom I pay tribute—to hon. Members from Plaid Cymru. We also have support from a large number of businesses, ranging from Tata Steel to South Hook, from LanzaTech to SSE Renewables. They can see that the potential for the Celtic freeport bid will be as a platform for floating offshore wind, thus putting Wales at the forefront of the green industrial revolution. They understand that the Celtic freeport is a multi-port solution that builds on the strengths of two of the UK’s leading ports—Port Talbot and Milford Haven—to create a green investment corridor.

Combined with the supporting infrastructure, heavy engineering, industrial clusters and skills base along the M4 corridor, as well as the immense connectivity we have along the M4 corridor, our bid has what it takes to be a genuine game changer for our economy and security and in the battle against climate change. The prize is clear: the creation of a new long-term industry, where high-value manufacturing has “Made in Wales” firmly embossed on the tin.

Our ports are playing their part too. Associated British Ports and the Port of Milford Haven have committed to invest £710 million in their green energy-focused ports, while the first phase of construction at Pembroke Dock is already under way, as I am sure the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire will illustrate in his remarks. That port infrastructure will act as a launch pad to help leverage a further £700 million of investment in factories to build the massive renewable sub-structures and turbines.

The decision about the selection of the Celtic freeport is the next vital step to secure this industry for Wales. It will provide the signal to global markets that will be needed if we want to lever in the high-impact private sector investment we need to take us forward. I will continue to make the case, and I hope that local businesses and residents across the Celtic freeport area and beyond will join me in making it. At the stroke of a pen, British and Welsh Ministers can unlock this new industry and repurpose our strengths for a green future. I hope that the UK and Welsh Governments will seize this opportunity. Wales was at the forefront of the first industrial revolution. With the right investment, commitment and decisions, we can put ourselves at the forefront of the net zero revolution.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and to follow the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). I agreed with pretty much everything he said; thankfully, there is no rule against repetition in this place, so I will proceed with my remarks.

First, I would like to put on record my respect and appreciation for my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) for securing this important and timely debate, and for the articulate and energetic way she has championed her constituency and a freeport for Wales. In all seriousness, I do not think Ynys Môn has had a stronger voice in the House of Commons in its history as a constituency. I encourage my hon. Friend in the work she does.

Welsh ports have a long history in helping to shape the economic, social and cultural fabric of Wales, as one would expect from a nation with a coastline in the north, west and south. It is three years since the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs examined the proposal for a freeport in Wales. In our report, we noted the positive response from ports around Wales in the written evidence they gave, often citing the potential role of a freeport in regeneration. However, we argued that to make a lasting contribution to the regeneration of the poorest regions and nations of the UK, including in Wales, freeports should be assessed on the economic and social gains they are forecast to bring to local communities. In our view, freeports could help to revitalise the Welsh economy only when they fit with other policies that help Welsh ports and their local communities to thrive.

We noted that many areas of port policy and supporting infrastructure are either devolved to the Welsh Government or are shared responsibilities between the Welsh and UK Governments. We urge the two Governments to work together constructively, especially if a freeport bid is successful in Wales. Crucially, in our report we urged the UK Government not to cap artificially the number of potential freeport sites in Wales, nor to create a Welsh freeport purely for optical or political purposes.

I am pleased we have got to this hopeful and expectant point to hear the outcome of the bidding process for a freeport in Wales. I congratulate the Wales Office on its role in working with the Welsh Government and Ministers across Whitehall to bring us to the point where there could be agreement. There were moments, certainly three years ago, when some of us on the Welsh Affairs Committee were concerned that we might not get to this point, and that the differences in opinion between Welsh and UK Governments would be so great that the freeport policy would not happen in Wales. I am pleased we are at this point; the role the Wales Office played in that was extremely important.

I obviously have a constituency interest. Pembrokeshire is home to the port of Milford Haven, which is one of the UK’s leading energy hubs, hosting a wide range of conventional energy companies such as the Valero oil refinery, the Dragon liquefied natural gas import terminal, South Hook LNG import terminal, the RWE gas-fired power station and the Puma fuel storage site, among others. Those are all located on the Haven waterway. The port of Milford Haven is strategically one of the most important energy hubs in the UK, and the infrastructure it hosts plays a critical role in our national life. Undoubtedly, that port has played an integral role in shaping Pembrokeshire’s local economy through the high-quality job opportunities that those energy companies have provided to local people for many generations.

Those industries are changing, and need to change. The hon. Member for Aberavon made the point that recent events have highlighted the need for our energy mix to diversify, and our demand for home-grown renewable energy has never been greater. Right now we have a unique opportunity to build on that heritage and the excellent skillset in Pembrokeshire to use vacant brownfield sites for the new and exciting energy revolution that is just in front of us.

The port of Milford Haven is in prime position to shift from being one of the UK’s leading conventional energy hubs to being one of the UK’s leading renewable energy hubs. The decarbonisation of Wales’s primary industrial cluster, which stretches from Milford Haven all the way to Port Talbot and further east across the south Wales coast, is the prize in front of us. That decarbonisation has already begun, as we have already heard this morning, and will make a significant contribution to helping the UK meet its net zero targets.

In 2019 the Conservative party stood on a manifesto to deliver at least one freeport in Wales. Fast-forward four years and the necessary steps have been taken to ensure that that ambition becomes a reality. The Welsh and the UK Governments will jointly evaluate bids and select a freeport for Wales in early spring. As we know, for politicians “early spring” can mean anything, but I hope that it means in the days and weeks ahead. We have a prime opportunity, if the Government want to take it with St David’s Day just around the corner, for a really significant announcement that would make a difference for people and communities across Wales. We therefore expect to receive confirmation of the winning bid imminently.

I want to briefly put on the record why I think the Celtic freeport bid should be the frontrunner in this race—it is a competitive process. The Celtic freeport bid is a private-public sector partnership led by Associated British Ports, Neath Port Talbot Council, Pembrokeshire County Council, and the port of Milford Haven. The bid has been backed by prominent businesses across Wales as well as numerous MPs from all parties and Members of the Senedd as well, demonstrating the evolution of a collective consensus that is necessary to drive forward the Celtic freeport vision. The bid goes far beyond party political lines, with a broad recognition of the wide-ranging benefits that the Celtic freeport will bring to Pembrokeshire, Port Talbot and the whole of south Wales. That is why I have been working so closely with the hon. Member for Aberavon to help build momentum behind that important bid.

It was encouraging to see so many MP colleagues from across different parties attend our recent drop-in event to hear more about the exciting potential of the bid. I was delighted that so many of my colleagues put pen to paper that day to confirm their backing for it. If we are awarded freeport status, more than £5 billion of new investment will be unlocked, potentially creating more than 16,000 new high-quality green jobs across the south and west Wales economy. Furthermore, securing freeport status across the key sites of Milford Haven and Port Talbot will enable them to begin their journey towards energy diversification through, as we have already heard, the emergence of the new floating offshore wind technology.

As I explained in my debate on floating offshore wind in this Chamber last October, offshore floating wind represents a major, exciting new opportunity for the UK to tackle pressing issues: jobs and skills regeneration, wholesale energy prices, energy security, levelling up and, as I have said, net zero targets. The UK Government have set ambitious targets to deliver floating offshore wind in the years ahead, and both Milford Haven and Port Talbot have already been identified by leading developers as key locations for the early development of this new industry for Wales. Hopefully Milford Haven will be a hub for operations and maintenance, with Port Talbot at the forefront of assembly and manufacture.

The potential to unlock a UK market in the construction, maintenance and operations of floating offshore wind projects could be worth more than £54 billion in the decades ahead. That is the prize in front of us. It is clear that the establishment of a freeport across the sites at Milford Haven and Port Talbot will enable this exciting renewable vision to flourish. The war in Ukraine, coupled with rising energy prices, has underlined the urgent need for the UK to become less energy dependent. The need to diversify our energy mix has never been more apparent as the dial shifts to the development of green, sustainable energy. Floating offshore wind represents the next big renewable opportunity for Wales. With the expertise and heritage in the Milford Haven waterway, and the skillset and industry in Port Talbot, these two locations at the heart of the Celtic freeport bid are ideally suited to supporting the industrial-scale deployment of floating offshore wind.

Freeport status would be hugely advantageous in that process as it would allow this new green vision to flourish, with the tax breaks, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning processes helping to ease the transition from conventional to renewable energy. In turn, there is a potentially enormous investment to be unlocked in the supply chain, and that is the prize here. The UK has made enormous progress in the fixed-bottom offshore wind industry and has taken strides in expanding that deployment, but the one thing that did not happen in was we did not create strong domestic content for the UK. We did not capture a bigger share of the full economic value of offshore wind as we should have done. We now have the opportunity with floating offshore wind to get it right and to deploy these structures to give us clean energy in a way that creates long-term jobs and training opportunities in our communities.

The right hon. Member is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that it is vital that the Crown Estate sets up a licensing process that guarantees localised supply chains and that there should be penalty clauses in the process, so that developers will be held to account?

The hon. Gentleman makes a crucial point. He is absolutely right that the Crown Estate must ensure those contracts have teeth. That will be crucial to ensuring that developers deliver on their commitments because, as he knows, it is one thing for them to speak to us politicians and tell us about all the good things they will do in our communities, but actually making sure they do them when push comes to shove is another.

The other part of the equation is ensuring that we get the contracts for difference right and ensuring that the financial architecture around floating offshore wind is the right one to enable that investment in the UK and Welsh economies. Of course, there is a potential first-mover advantage waiting for the nation that makes the biggest and earliest strides to deploy floating offshore wind at an industrial scale. The Welsh Affairs Committee was recently in the US and met with a floating offshore wind developer there who was also looking to develop in the Celtic sea. They have secured seabed leases off the coast of New York and in California. There is a global race to be the first nation to see serious industrial-scale deployment of offshore wind, and I believe it should be Wales and the UK that does that.

Wales, indeed. Does the right hon. Gentleman join me in wondering whether Wales would be able to put better procurement requirements in place and ensure that the benefits are accrued more effectively to Wales if the Crown Estate, as in Scotland, was devolved to Wales?

It pains me to disagree with the right hon. Lady, but the debate about devolving the Crown Estate is a red herring. It is a question that I have explored with potential developers and something I have discussed with the Crown Estate and other potential players in this field. That will not be the critical intervention to ensuring this vision is realised in the way that we all hope. I appreciate some of the arguments she is making about the devolution of the Crown Estate, and she has made them articulately before in this Chamber, but, as I say, it is something of a red herring.

The freeport intervention would be a critical intervention in helping to unleash and launch this new, exciting industry for Wales. I hope that when the UK Government and the Welsh Government sit down together to assess the bids, they will look at the strength of the industrial proposition behind the Celtic freeport bid. I grew up in Wales and have been a politician in Wales long enough to have seen a lot of failures of economic development around Wales. So much public money has been thrown at different schemes and interventions over the years—so often they seem to have the word “park” in them: food park, science park, tech park and so on—that never really achieve the vision and potential that politicians hoped for when they were spending taxpayers’ money because very often there is no real substance behind them.

I hope that in making this freeport intervention, the Government recognise that they need to work with the grain of the private sector and industry and recognise where real, substantial projects are already starting to happen—in Port Talbot, the port of Pembroke and Milford Haven—and capture that and work with it. That is what will deliver real economic and social benefits for our communities in the way that freeports are intended to do. If the UK Government want to improve our energy security, help us to take a big step towards meeting our net zero ambitions and invest in creating good-quality jobs and training opportunities in our constituencies—that is the essence of levelling up and rebalancing the economy, as it would mean that young people do not have to leave their communities in Wales to work elsewhere, allowing them to stay and be part of those communities, to build and to raise their children there—they will recognise the strength of the Celtic freeport bid and what it proposes. I really hope that the Government take this opportunity and give us the freeport status that we are looking for to help to create this new industrial revolution.

It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. It is also an honour to follow my friends, the hon. Members for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb). It will probably be noticed that I am the only Member present not representing a constituency that would be directly affected by these freeports, although I have a professional interest in Holyhead, where I used to be a news reporter, and a family interest in Milford Haven, where my daughter works for the tug companies.

I was very interested in what the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said about the significance of freeports for the economic, social and cultural fabric of Wales. As I have the opportunity now to respond, I must take issue with what he said about the Crown Estates. What we have seen much in Wales is a history of extraction from our resources and infrastructure. If the Crown Estates were devolved to Wales, we in Wales would have far more control over the nature of supply lines and procurement and what we choose to emphasise, in the way that Scotland does in Scotland. The way that something has always been done in the past may not actually reflect the best that we can do in the future. Historically, we have seen that loss. The first places that lose out on economic development in Wales have historically been the furthest west, as well.

Alongside the co-working happening here, there is a different sort of co-working happening already in Wales with the Welsh Government aspect of the freeport programme. I would like to put a couple of things on the record to show how different what is happening in Wales is, because it is important for us to be aware of that. The prospectus that initiated the 12-week bidding process—published back in September—included a commitment that a freeport or freeports in Wales would operate in a manner that aligns with the Welsh Government’s policies on fair work and social partnership, where

“workers are fairly rewarded, heard and represented, and can progress in a secure, healthy, and inclusive working environment, where their rights as workers are respected.”

TUC Cymru also welcomes the involvement of trade union representation in the governance of freeports in Wales. Can the Minister say what estimate there is of the impact of national insurance variations within freeport development zones and how that might play out against the Welsh Government’s views and stated intentions on how freeports should operate?

The freeport development proposed for Holyhead is also the result of a long-term partnership between Stena, the ferry company, and Cyngor Ynys Môn. Stena, of course, is the harbour authority for Holyhead. The Senedd Member for Ynys Môn, Rhun ap Iorwerth, raised the discrepancy between the initial offer of £8 million in seed funding for the Welsh freeports and the £26 million for freeports in England, which ensured that the funding level was on the Welsh Government’s agenda. We now have a commitment that freeports in Wales will be funded to the tune of £26 million.

The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned that he was concerned that there might be “optical or political purposes” in proposing two freeports for Wales. I think that it is essential to have viable ongoing projects for two freeports in Wales.

Just to clarify, that remark about “optical or political purposes” was a quote from the Welsh Affairs Committee report. It was not just a personal opinion.

I stand corrected and welcome that, but I think there is a really important question here for the Minister, and I press him for a response. My understanding is that for Wales to have two freeports, two exceptional cases have to be made. Now that we appear to be approaching the time when announcements are going to be made, it is important to know what constitutes an exceptional case, because we have two communities—three if we include Port Talbot—that have great expectations. Can the Minister clarify whether the bids are being assessed by both the Welsh and UK Governments? Will the Welsh Government have a meaningful say on whether the two bids meet the requirements? I would appreciate a response on that. Given the initial revelation that a lower level of funding was being allocated for a freeport in Wales, if both freeport applications are successful, will they both receive £26 million in initial funding?

The right hon. Member is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that it is going to be £25 million, plus the £1 million—not only in Wales, but in Scotland? In addition, there has been a one-year delay while the deliberations have gone on. This means that we have lost out on potential investment and skills that could have been transformational not only to Wales, but to the wider economy.

I agree; this is a critical part of levelling up. One of my personal interests in this is support for communities in the far west. Next, I will look at some of the concerns that have been expressed in relation to displacement and freeports per se. The fact that these applications are in the far west is possibly beneficial—as long as we know the details—to other areas around those freeports, so it is important.

There are concerns for north Wales, given that the Liverpool city region has been granted a freeport. I would be interested to know whether the UK Government have made an assessment of the likely impact on the north Wales economy of the possibility of displacement to the east, and the significance of that for decisions on the two freeport bids. Bearing in mind that we have had the terrible news that the 2 Sisters meat processing factory in Llangefni is due to close, with the loss of 700 jobs—I understand that many of those jobs are located in Gwynedd, so they are within my own home county—what assessment has been made of displacement, in favour of or as a risk to other counties that could be affected by development? There are concerns here, and it is due diligence for us to know what assessment has been made of them, particularly in relation to Liverpool but also locally in relation to Anglesey. What pros and cons have been put forward?

Much has been made of the freeport bids in Wales and how they could play a critical role in accelerating the renewables revolution, but we must remember that freeports are not the only aspect. The UK Government should make it clear that energy security is a priority. Can the Minister guarantee that they will work alongside the Welsh Government with areas whose bids have not been successful, to make sure that they receive strategic investment, too? The very fact that a bid has been made shows that a need has been recognised.

My next question is about governance and monitoring. We have heard that the parameters for bids are different in England and Wales, with the emphasis in Wales being on meeting the goals of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 on social partnership and on safeguards for the environment and workers’ rights. How will the UK Government work with the Welsh Government to realise that? Those are very worthy goals, and they make it easier for me and for my party to stand here and support the bids, but I want to know how they are going to move ahead.

I have a question on the national grid. In its report on the grid in Wales, the Welsh Affairs Committee warned that we in Wales would be unable to realise our full renewables potential without expanding grid capacity. The Government refused in their response to commit to undertaking an assessment of current grid capacity in Wales. In recognition of the fact that the lack of a fully functioning grid will undermine any freeports in Wales, will the Minister look again at delivering the Welsh Affairs Committee’s recommendations on the national grid? It is critical to future developments in both projects.

To close, I will emphasise the bid in Holyhead and Ynys Môn, which is the closest one to my constituency. Great Britain’s land bridge has lost 20% of its trade, and that is down to Brexit, which has had a direct effect on the economy of Ynys Môn. It is recognised that that link is important to Holyhead, Ynys Môn, north Wales and the whole United Kingdom. The degree of partnership between the hon. Member for Ynys Môn; the local authority, Cyngor Sir Ynys Môn; the port authority, Stena; and the north Wales Senedd Members—there was cross-party representation in a letter that they wrote yesterday to Vaughan Gething, the Minister for the Economy in Wales—shows that there is co-ordination and a real desire for co-working in these projects. Fundamentally, the Welsh economy, our communities and our young people deserve and need the two projects to move ahead to see the best benefit for Wales.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Vickers, and to speak on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. She started the debate with characteristic vigour and passion, which set the tone for a series of excellent contributions from colleagues.

On the hon. Lady’s point about Holyhead, we are all aware of its totemic role in north Wales, Wales more generally and the whole of the UK, and we all have concerns about the challenges it faces in relation to trade. She made the case for its exciting future, and that is where we need to move the conversation. She and her colleagues have clearly built a strong coalition at home. Whether through this process or others, they ought to have the power and resources to shape Holyhead’s future so it can continue to be a crucial part of the UK.

The hon Lady’s point about this being a levelling-up issue was pertinent. Perhaps I would say that as shadow levelling-up Minister; I see levelling up everywhere. However, the test will be whether young people in her community and her part of Wales feel they do not have to move to Cardiff, London or the rest of England. That will show us whether we have delivered for them through this process and through levelling-up more generally.

The debate became a de facto freeport hustings, and Port Talbot and Milford Haven were also well represented. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) that this is not about single project interventions here and there to add a bit of lost GDP or gross value added in different parts of our nations and regions. It has to be much more fundamental. We need to re-gear our nation’s economy around the things that we do well and where we can compete globally, and it is clear that he and his colleagues are using the Celtic freeport bid to do that. I agree with his point that the green industrial revolution is where we need to focus. His community is clearly a long way down the road when it comes to floating offshore wind, and there is real potential in that.

Renewables, including floating offshore wind, are a way to tackle our three domestic crises: the cost of living, regional inequalities and reaching net zero. They will help us to add skilled jobs to our economy so that people have long, viable careers; to spread opportunities more fairly around our nations and regions; and to protect our planet. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon and his colleagues have clearly put a lot of thought into doing that with the Celtic freeport bid. As the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) mentioned, the plans change will that community, which we may associate with energy generation methods from the past, into a place of energy generation for the future.

The exchange between the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on the Crown Estate was important. Having had similar conversations with the right hon. Gentleman, I know that it has levelling up at the forefront of its mind. It is important that we write that into the way in which future transactions are done. Perhaps that is a debate for another day; but I know they will have listened to our debate with interest. That test really must be passed.

The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire alluded to a point raised in the Welsh Affairs Committee about not doing things for “optical or political purposes”. That is important, too; it is a challenge to us all. One of the most dangerous arguments in politics is that something must be done. Doing anything is something, but what our constituents want and need is for us to do meaningful things, based on a sober look at the reality and the evidence. In relation to the levelling-up fund, we have had plenty of conversations in the last two weeks about bids and single interventions, where we almost compete with each other. In such situations, some will go away happy because they have won, in the broadest sense, but others will go home disappointed because they have not got anything. I want to move away from that, because levelling up, and our nation’s economic future more generally, is for me about the devolution of power and resources to local communities to shape their own places. It is not about feast-or-famine, cup-final individual interventions, which can become a bit optical or a bit political. We need to move beyond that.

I want to make a few points of my own. It is important to state that freeports and the freeports programme are not, in and of themselves, a panacea for tackling the challenging picture of economic growth across all our nations and regions. Sometimes I wince when I hear freeports mentioned as an example of how communities have been levelled up, as if the mere existence of a freeport has done that. Freeports do not automatically lead to more jobs, better skills and wider prosperity unless—this is what we have heard in both the cases that we have discussed today—they are seen as part of a broader national, regional or sub-regional economic strategy for the area in question. Otherwise, they are just more single interventions.

It will be important and constructive for all of us in this place to have a tight eye on the evidence of the impact of freeports. We know that the risk is that they do not bring additionality but instead result in displacement, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has said. We need to have an honest conversation about that. Nevertheless, such decisions are fundamentally for local communities to make. As has been set out in “Prosperity for All” and by colleagues today, Wales has outstanding economic potential, whether that is in foundation sectors such as food and tourism, or in harnessing our location for import and export, and, in particular, in clean energy. That is a promising economic outlook.

The Welsh Government need to work in concert with local authorities and communities, which are clearly ready, able and waiting to deliver. The question for us in this place is how we get the right powers and resources out of here to them, to allow them to do so. I do not want to dwell too much on the history, but the initial knockings of this debate between the UK and the Welsh Governments did not offer a particularly solid demonstration of the devolution settlement. I think we would all have struggled with the idea that the UK Government could impose a freeport without putting the backing in; that would not have been a good thing. Happily, cooler heads have prevailed, and the two Governments have negotiated two important things: the non-repayable starter funding for the freeports established in Wales on a similar footing to deals in England; and the agreement that both Governments will act as a partnership of equals, and, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said, in a manner that works with the Welsh Government’s policies on fair work and environmental sustainability, including the commitment to net zero. That provides a bedrock of certainty for the people of Wales and their business leaders to allow them to plan for the future.

The Minister has an unenviable job of arbitrating between the multiple bids on offer, or perhaps choosing them all. I suspect that today might not be the day to make that decision. However, I hope to hear from him a commitment that, fundamentally, yes, this is about the UK Government taking a view, but it is also about giving the people of Wales—whether it is north Wales, south Wales or anywhere else—the tools and the resources to decide their economic future, take a hard look at what they are good at and where they are going to be good in the future, and build out from that. We see our role here as enablers of that, rather than deciders. That is hugely important, and I look forward to the Minister’s contribution.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and to make the winding-up speech in a Westminster Hall debate for the first time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) on securing the debate—I know how hard she works for the island—and thank other Members for articulating their views. Happily, we have heard a range of opinion, from north Wales and from south Wales, in support of the Anglesey bid and the Celtic freeport bid. For balance, there is a third bid in Wales, centred around Newport.

We have had an excellent debate, and I am pleased to have the chance to set out the opportunities being created by the freeports programme in Wales, as well as how it, along with other UK Government support and investments, will help to level up communities the length and breadth of the UK. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said last month, the Government are committed to ensuring that the benefits of economic development are felt everywhere—not just in London and the south-east, but across the UK. The Government intend to do that by spreading opportunities more equally across the country, empowering local leaders and bringing left-behind communities up to the level of more prosperous areas.

In that regard, freeports are already playing a key role in creating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the UK and helping to drive economic growth by attracting investment to their local areas and regions. Our new freeports programme in Wales, which is being delivered with the Welsh Government and backed by £26 million, of which £25 million is seed capital and £1 million Government support, will help us to make the vision a reality.

The freeports programme is one of the core parts of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, and it will look to incentivise private businesses to invest in new opportunities in Wales. We have worked constructively with the Welsh Government to design a bespoke freeports model that will deliver for Wales. It will make the most of the unique opportunities in Wales, which will ultimately benefit businesses, ports and communities across Wales.

The Wales freeports model is based on three main objectives: promoting regeneration and high-quality job creation, establishing at least one freeport as a hub for global trade and investment across the economy, and fostering an innovative environment. Freeports are magnets for investment, and businesses located in freeports will benefit from a generous package of measures comprising tax reliefs, customs advantages, business rate relief, innovation, and trade and investment support. Those tools, paired with the ambitious £26 million of public investment in seed funding, will unlock much-needed investment and high-quality jobs not just for businesses located in the freeport, but for the surrounding areas and regions.

The freeports programme will drive forward our ambitions for Wales to compete at a global level while creating new high-skill, high-wage and local jobs, putting Welsh communities on the path to long-term growth and prosperity. The freeport programme in Wales will, once the competitive process concludes, join the freeports in England and the green freeports in Scotland to help to deliver the UK Government’s levelling-up ambitions.

The operational freeports in England are already delivering jobs and investment across local areas such as Plymouth, Solent and Teesside. The newest operational freeports—the Liverpool city region freeport and freeport east, announced at the end of last year—will also drive investment and industrial growth to deliver thousands of skilled jobs for local communities and regions.

The process in Wales is well under way and I, like many others, look forward to the benefits the programme can bring to communities in Wales. We and the Welsh Government have committed to delivering at least one freeport in Wales, and we both remain open to considering the designation of an additional freeport if there are sufficient exceptional bids. Unfortunately, as we are still in a competitive process for Wales, I am unable to comment on individual applications. However, I look forward to seeing the outcome of the competition process and thank all those who developed the bids submitted in Wales.

I very much welcome the contributions to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn powerfully articulated her arguments for the Anglesey freeport. She focused on net zero, the need to boost trade flows, energy and, of course, jobs.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked about Northern Ireland. He is no longer in his place, but I should say that discussions about extending the freeport programme to Northern Ireland are ongoing.

The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) spoke about green energy—in particular, his desire to see the success of the floating offshore wind agenda—and energy security. My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) echoed those comments. He particularly wanted to highlight the importance of job opportunities, energy companies in his patch, and the decarbonisation of the industrial cluster in his part of the world. He, too, spoke about floating offshore wind and the importance of the supply chain.

The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) kindly presented me with a lengthy list of questions, which I will do my best to answer. First, she asked about national insurance. Freeports will introduce secondary class 1 NI contributions relief for eligible employers on the earnings of eligible employees working at a freeport tax site. I am happy to find out further detail for her in due course if she writes or speaks to me.

I welcomed the right hon. Lady’s general support for the concept of freeports and having as many as possible in Wales. She highlighted her long-standing view that the Crown Estate should be devolved. Particularly in the Celtic sea, the opportunities for floating offshore wind relate also to south-west England, not just Wales, so my personal view is that breaking up the Crown Estate would not assist in that endeavour.

The right hon. Lady asked what constitutes an exceptional case. Essentially, the process is being judged equally by officials in the Welsh Government and the UK Government, and Ministers in both Governments will have equal decision-making powers. It is for them to judge the exceptionality of the cases based on what is submitted to them, but all will become clear in due course.

The right hon. Lady asked whether, were there to be more than one freeport, there would be two or more allocations of the £26 million. I can tell her that yes, that is the intention. She asked about the freeport in Liverpool. As she knows, Growth Track 360 held a reception here yesterday. Liverpool is of course an important element of the north-east Wales economy, and success in Liverpool’s economy benefits north-east Wales, so I urge her to bear that in mind.

I am grateful for the Minister’s explanations and responses to my questions. It is worth putting on the record that Liverpool will have an effect on the whole of north Wales, along the A55 and into Ynys Môn. That is another argument for a counterbalance in the north-west for Caergybi, because that will, I hope, see developments across the north-west of Wales and into other counties, such as Gwynedd and Conwy.

In many respects, the right hon. Member is making the case for investment across north Wales and into Anglesey. The agenda to upgrade infrastructure to link in with the north-west of England is also important to benefit north Wales. I hope that I covered most of her questions; should she have others, I am happy to answer them.

There was one other question about reconsidering grid capacity in Wales. I would be grateful for a response to that.

The right hon. Member makes a good point. Clearly, the Welsh Affairs Committee has considered these issues in detail. They are important to me, and the role of the Wales Office is to liaise with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, as it is now called, to ensure that grid capacity meets aspirations. I assure her that I hope to have that influence.

I reiterate the point that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) made about grid capacity. If we read in detail the evidence received by the Welsh Affairs Committee, we see that it is very clear that when it comes to investment in the grid, business as usual is simply not going to cut it. I appreciate that the Government are making efforts to secure more timely investment, but if we are to meet the targets and aspirations we have been talking about, we need to see a sea change.

I take that point on very much board and thank my right hon. Friend for all his efforts in that regard.

Let me take the opportunity to outline other core elements of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Wales is front and centre of our plans to level up the whole of the UK, and areas across Wales are already benefiting from more than £1.7 billion of local growth funding. From large-scale transport improvements to regenerating town centres and refurbishing cultural assets, the levelling-up fund will deliver lasting improvements in local communities across Wales, giving people renewed pride in their local areas. Ynys Môn alone is receiving £17 million from the levelling-up fund for the cultural regeneration of Holyhead town centre. I was pleased to visit a few weeks ago and see the efforts being made to ensure that people who use the port see all that Holyhead has to offer.

In total, the Government are investing more than £208 million in 11 projects across Wales through the second round of the LUF. That is almost 10% of the total UK allocation and builds on the £120 million that the Government invested in Wales in the first round of the fund. It is far more than Wales would have received through a Barnettised formula and is testament to the dedicated work of local authorities across Wales, which developed high-quality applications. The Government are also investing more than £790 million in Wales’s four city and regional growth deals. The deals are starting to deliver real change on the ground, from the Swansea Arena to investment in the digital signalling processing centre at Bangor University.

Furthermore, £2.6 billion has been allocated to places across the UK through the UK shared prosperity fund. Of that, £585 million has been allocated to Wales, including more than £126 million for north Wales. This trailblazing new approach to investment and the empowerment of local communities to level up and build pride in place will see direct investment in three local priorities: communities and place; support for local businesses; and people and skills. The funding is now in the hands of Wales’s four regional partnerships, through which local leaders are empowered to decide how best to invest the funding to better promote local growth, help to regenerate local economies and build a better future.

We are in danger of going down an SPF rabbit hole rather than discussing freeports, but as the Minister raised the SPF, I cannot resist. May I ring an alarm bell? As we head towards March 2025, when the long tail of European funding will tail off, there is going to be a cliff edge. Organisations that are delivering what is currently a sort of hybrid of EU and SPF funding are terrified that their projects will collapse, and have not had enough lead time to plan. Can I mark the Minister’s card in respect of the ticking time bomb with regard to the SPF? If he could look at a more flexible way of conducting the comprehensive spending review that does not have the arbitrary March 2025 deadline, that would salvage the programme. If he does not do that, we are in danger of seeing some difficult decisions having to be made in the very near future.

I thank the hon. Member for raising his concerns about the shared prosperity fund. He will know that very large sums of money are being allocated through local authorities, and I hope he is having some input into that process in his own area, as I am in mine, and articulating his concerns, to ensure that projects that he feels are in need of support and protection in that respect get the hearing that they need.

I will move on from the SPF to conclude this excellent debate by again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn for securing it. She is a champion for Ynys Môn on issues from the freeport bid to nuclear and green energy and transport connectivity. I know how important it is to her to see well-paid jobs on the island and to provide good reasons for young people to stay on Anglesey. I would welcome the opportunity to have further conversations with my hon. Friend about freeports in Wales once the competitive process concludes. Of course, that invitation extends to all right hon. and hon. Members.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me to hold this debate and all those who have spoken. I think we would all agree that we have had some excellent speeches, as well as the Minister’s full response.

There are three freeport bids in Wales: two in the south and one in the north. We have heard about two of them this morning—the Celtic freeport and the Anglesey freeport. There are eight freeports in England and two in Scotland, and there is to be at least one in Wales, so it is a really exciting time. A decision is expected early in the spring.

In conclusion, I sincerely hope that we will all be back here in Westminster Hall this time next year speaking in a debate with the title, “Welsh freeports: delivering levelling up, delivering net zero and delivering the green revolution”.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered freeport proposals for Wales.

Sitting suspended.

Missing Person Case: Cathryn Holdsworth

I will call Holly Lynch to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the missing person case of Cathryn Holdsworth.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. Cathryn was a 72-year-old woman who went missing in September 2017 from the Illingworth area of Halifax. As the investigation into her disappearance is now into its sixth year, I have secured this debate in order to once again raise the profile of her case in the hope that someone somewhere knows something and comes forward to share information. It is difficult to talk today about the case of a missing woman without sending our heartfelt condolences to the family of Nicola Bulley. I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through. I am sure all Members will want to join me in letting her loved ones know that they are very much in our thoughts.

Cathryn Holdsworth lived alone and almost always left the house with the assistance of a walking frame. She had numerous ailments that required her to take regular medication. She is 5 feet 2 inches, of medium build, with what has been described as very short, speckled grey hair. The last confirmed sighting of Cathryn was captured on closed circuit television on Saturday 9 September 2017 as she entered the Tesco store in Halifax town centre. Police know that she used a bus pass to head towards home. CCTV from the bus was unavailable, so could not confirm exactly where Cathryn got off the bus. However, it is assumed that she reached home because her coat, ear muffs and walking frame that she was using in the CCTV footage were found inside her property.

In the following days Cathryn’s neighbours were asked to take delivery of a parcel for Cathryn when a delivery driver could not get an answer at her address. The neighbours grew increasingly concerned when they could not reach Cathryn over a number of days. They officially reported her missing to the police on 19 September 2017. That leaves a window of 10 days in which Cathryn could have gone missing. I spoke to Cathryn’s neighbours ahead of this debate today and they gave me a strong sense of a woman who was vulnerable. She had had falls in the house previously and often wore an alarm around her neck to alert help if she needed it. They felt it was highly unlikely that she would have left the house without the aid of her walking frame, which was still inside the house.

Police have undertaken extensive work to search her home address and the surrounding area for any signs of Cathryn, but it has not provided any answers. There have been public appeals for information, including social media campaigns, as well as bank, phone and CCTV inquiries, which have generated some lines of inquiry but ultimately no conclusions. Cathryn is understood to have had links to Blackpool and Cornwall, and appeals for information have been shared in those areas. She also has links to Brighouse in the neighbouring constituency to Halifax, where she lived for a number of years and owns a property.

In May 2020 the appeal to find Cathryn was relaunched. Detective Inspector Clare Turner said:

“Whilst considerable time has passed since Cathryn’s disappearance, we are still continuing our efforts to find her. We know Cathryn had previous links to Blackpool in Lancashire and Cornwall. However…I would ask for this appeal to be shared far and wide in order to reach as many people as possible. Our number one priority is Cathryn’s welfare; we believe her to be vulnerable and we are continuing to appeal”

for anyone with information to get in contact.

I want to thank those who have worked on the investigation, with special thanks to Detective Chief Inspector Samantha Lindsay, Detective Inspector Jarrod McSharry and Inspector Jim Graham for their assistance in preparing for this speech. I also thank two of Cathryn’s neighbours, Muriel and Martina, who spoke to me ahead of today to help me build up a better understanding of Cathryn and the timeline leading up to her disappearance.

The Minister will appreciate that, unlike on other occasions, I am not looking to him for answers in this debate. However, I hope that in advance of today’s debate his officials have had the opportunity to speak to West Yorkshire police about the investigation and that he will join me in urging the public to share information about Cathryn and to think back to 2017, and for anyone who might know anything about her disappearance or who is able to offer information that might assist the investigation to come forward so that we might finally be able to find Cathryn.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing a debate on this case. I am aware of it, having done some research before I came down. I commend her determination on behalf this lady. Does she agree that the case of this vulnerable missing lady is not only heartbreaking, but reveals a clear failure in procedures and systems across the board that need to be challenged and, ultimately, changed? Will the hon. Lady urge the Minister to use this opportunity and example to prevent further cases such as this? This case is horrendous and terrible, but it should lead to a change that makes it easier for others in future.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. He is always so diligent in his participation in these debates. He makes an incredibly important point. I have had the opportunity to speak to police officers and those investigating this case, and have put pressing questions to them. I am satisfied that all lines of inquiry have been and are being investigated.

When researching for this debate, I was struck by how many missing people are still out there. There are still so many investigations without conclusions as to the whereabouts of lots of vulnerable people. It is absolutely right that we continue to ensure that the specialist training and resources are there to support those investigations, so that we can bring closure and place a spotlight on those really difficult cases where we still need to do so much for finances. The hon. Member is right to make that point.

It falls to me to say that, if people have further information they would like to share with the police, I urge them to call 101 and ask to speak to Calderdale criminal investigation department, or to email I urge everybody to take part in sharing information about this campaign, in the hope that we can finally shed some light on what has happened to Cathryn.

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I start by thanking and congratulating the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate on what is, as she said, a particularly poignant topic, given the tragic death of Nicola Bulley. I wish to repeat the hon. Lady’s sentiments in sending our sympathies, condolences and thoughts to Nicola’s family at what must be an extremely difficult and distressing time.

I also fully echo and endorse the hon. Lady’s sentiments in encouraging members of the public who may have information about Cathryn’s disappearance to come forward, dial 101 and contact Calderdale CID. If people do not want to contact the police directly, they can contact Crimestoppers and provide information anonymously. I fully echo her plea and appeal to the public to come forward with any information they might have.

In response to the hon. Lady’s question, I can confirm that Home Office officials have been in contact with West Yorkshire police about this case relatively recently. As she said, West Yorkshire police have been energetically trying to identify where Cathryn may be, but have so far been unable to locate her, in what is clearly a very distressing case.

Beyond repeating the hon. Lady’s plea for the public to come forward with information, it is worth saying, partly in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), that we are concerned to ensure that missing persons in general are found. The police have an important role to play in that, but identifying missing persons, particularly those with vulnerabilities—as they do in many cases, including Cathryn—has to be a multi-agency response. The hon. Lady may have had discussions about this with Catherine Hankinson, the deputy chief constable for West Yorkshire, who happens to be the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead for missing persons. Deputy Chief Constable Hankinson is clear that close collaboration is critical. Investigating officers will often need input from other agencies, such as health and social care, to build a picture around the missing individual. As part of the work in this area, the National Police Chiefs’ Council has published a missing adults framework, which sets out a blueprint for how such multi-agency work should take place.

In her response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford, the hon. Lady rightly talked about the need for proper training for police officers in this specialist area. The Home Office is funding the College of Policing’s training for senior officers and staff who work on public protection and safeguarding issues, which include missing persons cases, as well as the vulnerability knowledge and practice programme, which identifies and shares best practice across all forces. Those programmes are designed to help leaders and frontline professionals understand the complexity, sensitivity and risk involved in this area of work.

There has been some recent legislation in this area: the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017, which gives families and friends the ability to manage and protect a missing person’s property, and the Presumption of Death Act 2013, which enables families to have closure in cases of very long-term missing loved ones. There is training and best practice work through the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council to ensure that best practice is being followed.

It remains only for me to repeat the plea that the hon. Member for Halifax made in her excellent speech: if anyone in West Yorkshire, Halifax or anywhere more widely has information about Cathryn or any missing people—the vast majority are found within 28 days, but there are people who are not found and are still missing—they should contact the police or, if they want to do it anonymously, Crimestoppers. The public also have a role to play in helping the authorities to identify missing people, who can then be looked after in the appropriate way. I am grateful for the opportunity to make that point, and I thank the hon. Lady again for raising this extremely distressing and important case.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Childcare: Affordability and Availability

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: First Report of the Petitions Committee of Session 2021-22, Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on, HC 479, and the Government response, HC 1132; First Report of the Petitions Committee of Session 2019-21, The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, HC 526, and the Government response, HC 770; e-petition 580137, Offer 15hrs free childcare for multiples under 3 years; e-petition 586700, Commission an independent review of childcare funding and affordability; e-petition 615623, Do not reduce staff-child ratios in early years childcare; e-petition 624461, Fund 30 hours free childcare from age 1 for families where both parents work; and e-petition 628412, Increase funding for early years settings.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the affordability and availability of childcare.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and we hope that Sir Christopher, who was due to chair this debate, is okay. I sought this debate because we face a crisis in childcare. I have heard from nursery providers, parents, national experts and my local council about the scale of the crisis, which I doubt even Government Members will try to deny.

The universal availability of good-quality, affordable childcare really matters: it matters in the early years, it matters at the start and end of the school day, and it matters at half-term and in holidays. Why? It matters to children and to their development, because it helps them to learn social skills and how to interact with those around them. Yet, according to the Sutton Trust, too many children are now starting school without these basic skills, and more of those children are at schools with the most deprived intakes.

Adequate and affordable childcare enables parents—mothers, in particular—to return to work and to work full time, yet many mothers, regardless of what they earn, are deciding to delay going back to work, or have to work part time, because of the affordability crisis or the lack of availability locally.

This crisis must surely also add to the gender pay gap. Groups such as Pregnant Then Screwed have been tireless campaigners on the issue, and over the past week I have heard from many women about it. Sadly, I am not able to quote them all, but I will share some of their experiences. Katerina, a teacher, said:

“As an educator, it’s mind-boggling that my monthly take-home earnings barely meet our childcare costs. We are forgoing many other purchases and necessities, and have no plans for the future.”

Steph said:

“The cost of nursery would be two thirds of my take-home salary. This is not financially sustainable, especially with the increase in bills.”

She also said:

“The possibility of equality is dangled in front of us, only to be systematically taken away.”

Ellie messaged me to say that the cost of childcare is preventing her from working more than three days a week and from having further children.

The unaffordability of childcare is driving a bulldozer through the last 100 years of progress on women playing an equal part in the workplace and in our economy. I want today’s debate to be a chance for the voices of those women to be heard.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward this debate, and I apologise that I cannot be here for the whole of it. In Northern Ireland, a full-time childcare place is £170 a week, which equates to £680 a month or £8,000 a year. For a working family with two children, we are talking about an extortionate amount of money. These families are often forced to rely on grandparents or to cut their hours accordingly. Does the hon. Lady agree it is time for the Government and the Minister to look at the cost of childcare not just in England but across the UK and to take the steps necessary to ensure that working parents can afford childcare without being plunged into poverty?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that excellent point. This is a universal issue across the UK and affects people at all income levels and in all areas.

I recently spoke to a friend who has a young baby and who is planning her return to work, having struggled to find a nursery place. She told me that Sweden, where her brother lives, pays £100 per month per child for a nursery place. However, across England, childminders are packing up and nurseries are closing or cutting places.

I thank the hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, for giving way, and I congratulate her on securing this extremely important debate. On the supply of childcare, does she share my concern that Ofsted figures show that 10,000 childcare providers closed last year alone and that there was a net reduction of 4,000 overall? Analysis by the London Early Years Foundation shows that many of those providers are in disproportionately poorer areas, where people cannot afford to pay for childcare.

By highlighting those shocking Ofsted figures my neighbour from Twickenham has powerfully expanded on the point I was making.

The Minister will no doubt describe the various Government support mechanisms for childcare, but they are not working. Government per-place funding for funded places is falling further and further behind the cost to providers. Providers in less well-off areas are struggling because they cannot rely on fees to top up their income. That means that places are hit even harder—yet another example of the Government levelling down.

Then there are the estimated 15% to 20% of children with special educational needs, who face further inequality due to the lack of specialist childcare. As documented by Coram, there is inadequate funding for SEN childcare. A survey by the Early Years Alliance found that 92% of childcare providers have to fund additional support for children with special educational needs and disabilities out of their own pockets.

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

On the challenges that childcare providers face, I met local early years leaders in my constituency in November. They told me that, although the pandemic had affected their viability, the cost of living and the funding crisis are having an even bigger impact and are doing even more damage. Their food costs are up 40%, their energy costs have more than doubled, even after Government support, and their business rates are up—a triple whammy. Those cost increases have not been met by an increase in the funding rate for so-called free places. Providers cannot afford to keep passing on the increasing cost of delivering high-quality childcare and education to parents. The Government need to see the huge cost to parents and the huge cost to providers as two sides of the same coin. It is creating a perfect storm, which is causing a crisis.

This crisis is not the fault of the childcare providers, who are working tirelessly up and down the country. It has been fuelled by 13 long years of a Conservative Government who have failed to act.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall. I want to pick up her point about covid. Last year, research on the impact of the covid pandemic on early childhood education and care revealed that considerably more children from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds have missed out on formal early learning. It will surprise no one that, as a result, the inequality gap has widened, and the attainment gap is also likely to widen. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we want this trend to be reversed—and I think everyone across the House does—the Government need to focus on ensuring that disadvantaged children have equity of access to quality early years education?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the inequality in the provision that does exist means there are stark differences within different communities and between families in different situations. The poorest and most disadvantaged children are the ones who need good-quality childcare from day one, as soon as they leave their parents. They need it more than anyone.

In low-income areas, providers are even less able to cross-subsidise free hours with fees, so there is a disproportionate loss of places in those areas. The poorest families are ineligible for the free 30 hours, and those families who are eligible face barriers to participation.

This is a hugely important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member on securing it. In Scotland, we have the same issue in deprived areas. Recent figures uncovered by the Liberal Democrats show that only 43% of families who are entitled to the free childcare for two-year-olds are taking it up, specifically because of the problems she mentions. Should we be doing more to make families aware of the support available to them and of how they can get it, as well as improving that support?

The hon. Member makes an excellent point and anticipates what I was going to say. The provision for two-year-olds, which is specifically there for the most disadvantaged, is complex and difficult to apply for, so it is underused. The families who need it most are not getting it, so I thank the hon. Member for that point.

There is a simple problem here. For some families, having childcare is the difference between being able to work or not. What should those families do with a child that is perhaps between the ages of six months and two years when there is no support at all? A six-month-old baby could be left in a cupboard at work, I guess, if that is the logic behind this. By the time they are one year old and they are crawling and walking around, that is not feasible, yet the subsidies kick in only at two years old. It makes no sense at all.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I could not take my babies around to meetings and so on after about four months. At that point, I needed either not to attend and not to go to work or to make sure that they had childcare.

Research in this week’s Guardian shows that there are fewer places in less affluent parts of the country. The settings are also more likely to be lower quality.

If I might add to my hon. Friend’s point, one woman wrote to me saying that she is a high earner and that when she got pregnant she worked out she could just about afford to go back to work—until she discovered she was expecting twins. Because of the cost between six months and the two or three years when funded provision comes in, which would help her a bit, she was in a desperate state.

The cost to parents and providers is rising, the funding for the free entitlement does not cover providers’ costs, and the current system of Government support is complex and leaves many gaps. There is also a quality gap affecting less well-off areas and poorer families. This crisis has been fuelled by 13 long years of this Government not acting. Before I finish, I want to ask the Minister a few questions.

The hon. Lady is making a good speech and some fair points, particularly about the difficulty people from poorer backgrounds have in accessing childcare. If we look at costs internationally, the cost of childcare in the UK is among the highest—if not, the highest—in Europe and by many international comparators. The Government often talk about wanting to get people economically active and back into work, but unless we sort this issue out and people are properly supported to have access to childcare, many people will not be able to afford to work and may have to forgo their careers to take the most economically viable option: looking after their children at home.

Yes. The hon. Member makes an excellent point. Depending on how it is measured, the UK has the third highest or the highest childcare costs to parents in the OECD countries. I ask the Department and the Treasury to look at how and why different Governments do things differently. In particular, the Canadian Government have recognised the economic benefit of properly organised and funded childcare.

Here are my questions to the Minister. Do the Government understand the importance of good-quality, affordable childcare? Do they know the difference it makes to education outcomes, women remaining in the workforce, inequality, the cost of living and the economy? We are not sure whether the Government are considering extending the free childcare option to one and two-year-olds, so we look forward to hearing what the Minister says on that. If they do, will that scheme and the current ones be adequately funded to cover the cost of provision? Will any extension include funding the reopening of settings that have closed and reskilling the workforce, as the current staff and managers will have moved on to other jobs, as they are already doing?

In conclusion, it is clear that the childcare system is broken. For many parents, the current provision is neither affordable nor available. The Government do not always like international comparisons, but they have to be made. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who I know will set out in further detail the difference a Labour Government will make. We desperately need a change, because the current system is broken, and parents, providers and children are having to live with the consequences. Back in November, more than 15,000 people took part in the “March of the Mummies”. Surely they should not have to march again this November. Surely we can see some action, rather than yet more dither and delay.

It is a pleasure to speak in the latest debate on this subject. This is almost a weekly occurrence, which makes speech writing quite easy—we can just dust off our previous versions.

First, I want to put on record my tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister who, within days of being in post, was willing to visit the fantastic Imagination Childcare nursery to meet Becky Cruise—the owner—and her team, as well as my daughter, who loves every minute she spends there. She also attended a roundtable with a number of nursery providers—experts in the field—who were able to have a frank, candid and wide-ranging discussion. They were extremely grateful for how engaged the Minister was, and Councillor Jo Morris, who runs Playsteps and does a lot of national campaigning, has certainly felt empowered to feed in the challenges. And it is the challenges that I will focus on.

To provide balance to what I thought was a very good opening speech, let me offer a proviso about the 13 years of Conservative Government. During those 13 years we have doubled the money spent on childcare. We brought in and extended the provision of free childcare, which my eldest daughter now benefits from. There is more to do, but we have been transformational in supporting people. What a contrast to the nonsense and bureaucracy of the tax credit system, which was a true blocker to working parents, particularly working mothers, being able to fulfil their potential.

The big step forward on childcare provision was in part thanks to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition Government. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, setting core schools funding aside, the Department for Education’s day-to-day spending, which includes early years, is set to be cut by £500 million under last November’s autumn statement? Does he not agree that, if early years funding sees that day-to-day spending cut, it will be very short-sighted and very damaging for families?

We are all passionate about early years funding; we would not be here supporting this debate if we were not. I pay tribute to a predecessor in the hon. Lady’s party, David Laws, who was Minister for schools and early years. He also made a productive visit to my constituency. He was meant to be there for about 30 minutes and he stayed for more than three hours; he had to send his officials home. He learned some really good lessons, particularly about the significant difference that childcare can make to development in those early years—a point that was made powerfully in the opening speech. If we are to prioritise an area, those early years make a genuine difference.

As I said, I need to raise the challenges. It is important to keep the Minister absolutely focused, as I know she is. We have lost 500 childcare settings since 2019, with 300 in the last year. The main challenge impacting capacity fundamentally comes down to the fact that the increase in the national living wage, which is above inflation year in, year out, outstrips the set funding given for the 15 and 30 hours, and that makes viability an increasing challenge for nurseries. While we all support the increase in the national living wage, we all want the Minister to be empowered by Treasury to increase the funding provided for the 15 and 30 hours to match the national living wage increase. Then nurseries can worry about whether or not they make a profit on the non-free provision. We have to make it sustainable, because if we continue to lose capacity within the system, that will be an obstacle to people either returning to work or extending their hours.

I know that the Government are looking at different ways to try to provide financial support for nurseries. I know they are looking at ratios. I do not support lowering or changing the ratios because of the impact on quality, and I do not think there is support from parents. From our roundtable, I know that aside from balancing the increases in the national living wage, the other issue is staff retention. If we increase the workload, we will speed up the process of people leaving, which in itself is counterproductive. However, I think we could look at the qualified staff ratios that are needed to be legally compliant with Ofsted. In some cases, people who are in training could be counted for that ratio as well as those who have completed their training, but with Ofsted still keeping an overall view of the quality within the setting. That could be used in either good or outstanding nurseries, which would help.

I know that the Minister is particularly interested in the anomaly around business rates, which we have discussed in previous debates. A nursery within a school setting does not pay business rates, but a stand-alone nursery—like the one the Minister visited, which was about 50 metres away from a school—is subject to business rates, which equate to around £100 a child. If that £100 went back into the childcare provision, it would make a huge difference.

I speak to my final point as a former disability Minister. Society’s awareness of additional needs for young people has increased significantly, which is good and welcome. This was also brought up in the roundtable. Nurseries are about not just putting on fun arts and crafts and play sessions, but providing social care and support for special educational needs and disabilities, parents, communication and language and mental health. We want them to do well with all those extra responsibilities. It is no easy thing for a Minister—every Minister feels that their area should be looked after by Treasury, but Treasury simply cannot say yes to everything. One thing the Minister could do is to make the case for ringfencing additional premiums for those areas; in some cases, that will mean cash. We also heard at the roundtable about the ability to get quick advice. We had one example where a nursery had to wait six months to get advice—a relatively basic piece of training that ultimately was potentially life-saving—which meant that a child had to miss out for six months, because the nursery could not risk taking that child on until the training had been given. The support is partly around the money, and partly around being able to quickly get the staff.

I would not swap this Minister for any other to lead this fight. I know that she is working extremely hard, and she will have our full support if she can unlock any of those challenges.

I remind right hon. and hon. Members that a number of people wish to speak. If they could keep within six minutes, that would be very helpful. I call Tim Farron.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on introducing a really important debate; it is one that I, like all Members present, am passionate about. The hon. Lady made an excellent speech. I just want to say a few words—I will hopefully take less than six minutes—to contribute to the debate.

The Government’s position on childcare is clearly that the best way to tackle poverty is to have people in work, and therefore providing childcare is about making sure that people can work. It is also about the vital importance of early years, and how we develop young people from their earliest point so they can have the advantages that many would like in later life. I do not need to go into it now, but all the evidence suggests that the first two years of education are more important than any other part. Although it is about allowing people to go to work, it is not just that; it is about ensuring that every young person has the same chance in life, whether they are from a difficult background or a privileged one.

Looking at the stated objective of tackling poverty by getting people into work, and therefore allowing parents to work, the extremely high cost and limited availability of childcare is making work unaffordable for many people. I have a few examples from my constituency in the last week. A constituent who contacted me has a five-year-old and an 18-month-old. She is a teaching assistant and wants to return to work, but childcare for the 18-month-old is so expensive that there is simply no point. The childcare cost would be more than her wage. That speaks for many other people and their experiences, too.

Another mum got in touch with me, telling me that she spends more on childcare than she does on her mortgage. She calculated that she will spend about £63,000 on childcare for her two children before they go to school. That includes the 30 free hours and a couple of days a week covered by family. She works for the NHS, but she is considering leaving her job. Another constituent was a nurse at Westmorland General Hospital. She wanted to return to work after having her daughter, but her pay would not be enough to cover the childcare bill. She would earn less money if she returned to work. If we want people to be in work, childcare must be accessible and affordable.

The Government’s approach is hugely damaging for the families concerned and for the children who miss out, but their failure to keep up with the necessary funding is also massively damaging the providers. Good people who provide good childcare places are determined to meet all the requirements, ratios and everything else, and yet they are being hit. In a March 2022 survey of early years providers, 88% said that the funding they receive from the Government for free childcare provision does not cover the cost of delivering childcare places.

Thanks to the hard work of the Early Years Alliance, a freedom of information request in 2021 found out that the Department for Education had confessed that a funded place for three and four-year-olds would cost an average of £7.49 per hour. That was two years ago. The actual rate paid to providers was only £4.89. Even the Government know they are massively short-changing our providers, and therefore our children and their parents.

We have seen closures in my constituency and throughout the rest of Cumbria. In the last seven years, six childcare providers have closed down in Kendal alone, and we have a childcare provider suspended in Appleby. The consequences for people who are trying to work and for their children are enormous. The maximum monthly cap for the childcare element of welfare benefits has not risen since April 2016. If it had risen in line with consumer prices index inflation, which is the usual mechanism, the maximum childcare cost cap would be 22% higher than it is currently. That equates to £145 more per month for one child, and £249 more for two children.

I will make a few recommendations for the Government before I shut up and sit down. First, we could increase the child element of universal credit by at least £15 a week and abolish the benefit cap. We could offer free, high-quality childcare for every child aged two to four, and for children aged between nine and 24 months whose parents or guardians are in work 35 hours a week, 48 weeks a year. That will be in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto. We could overhaul the annual uprating of benefit levels so that rates always keep pace with prices and living standards. Childcare support through universal credit needs to be paid up front, because that is what excludes so many people from making use of it.

We have heard that there is a cost incurred in funding childcare provision. Yes, there is, but by not doing so we incur a bigger cost. In my constituency, we have a limited workforce with a high average age, and yet we have huge demand for work, and lots of people are not able to be in the workforce simply because of this issue. For a variety of reasons, including this one, 63% of all employers in hospitality and tourism—the biggest employer in my constituency—were working below capacity last year because they could not find enough staff. There are other factors behind that, but one factor is that people desperately want to work and cannot afford to. Can we afford to cover the cost of decent childcare? I argue that we cannot afford not to.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I have been talking about childcare and coming up with proposals for some time now, but I will try to find new things to talk about because the Minister is probably sick of hearing from me.

The childcare juggle is extremely stressful. It is not just about the day-to-day management of children and organising what is going to happen, but about costs, as we have heard today. We are in second mortgage territory for many families and it is not sustainable. I have not just been gabbing on about this; I have put some effort into trying to provide evidence for the Government to look at and have worked with the fantastic super-brains at Onward to come up with recommendations in a report. The top recommendations are: supporting parents through a new system of childcare credits and providing more flexibility and choice; considering early years, and especially thinking about what the Princess of Wales is so fantastically doing and bringing a focus to; front-loading child benefit payments; expanding family hubs; and introducing some provider-side reforms, including boosting childminder agencies.

It is difficult to try to work through all the complex reasons why we have some of the highest childcare costs in the world—if not the highest, behind only Japan. We have looked into various reasons. First, the level of public subsidy is fairly low. As a share of GDP, the UK spends 0.56% compared with 0.7% across the OECD. Secondly, we have an extremely complex system comprising eight separate schemes. It is confusing for parents, costly to administer and leads to irregular outcomes. Thirdly, the principal offer of 15 to 30 free hours is underfunded, as we have heard, which means either that providers are cross-subsidised by charging parents higher fees for extra hours or that they simply close the doors altogether.

The Government must be given credit for coming up with the scheme for free hours, and it is a tribute to them that people want to extend it into other areas. We can all agree that childcare support should kick in earlier. It is barking mad that parents have to wait until a child is three. The support should be there earlier if that is what the family chooses. I am cautious about expanding free hours schemes without fixing the existing scheme and making sure that the hours are funded properly. Unless the Government do both, I worry about that being sustainable for the childcare sector—we have heard about that from my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson)—or for parents. We need something that they can rely on, and we need to make sure that it is fair for the taxpayer as well.

Together with Onward, I have proposed clear provider-side reforms to stimulate the childcare sector and make sure the early years experts have our full support and can motor ahead. If, as we expect, the UK finances are not exactly as we would want them to be at the spring Budget, I want to make sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not feel that childcare can be put in the “too expensive to tackle at all” box. There are options for him.

I am keen, as the Minister knows, to think about lots of different options for parents. It is fair that there is a lot of flexibility in the market, and we need to build in more flexibility and bring down costs. I have not previously raised in a debate the option of home child carers. I have made a strong case for stimulating the childminder market, because we have lost 50% of childminders in the last decade—the Minister knows my arguments on that—but home child carers are an interesting class. We take our children to a childminder’s house, but home child carers can come into our homes. They can work on a part-time basis, and they can do wraparound care. For people such as nurses, who work in shifts, it becomes a really good option.

I want to thank Rachel from Koru Kids, who is the most fantastic entrepreneur and a really great brain. She has recognised that there are Ofsted regulations and barriers to bringing more home child carers into the market, but when she goes out to the market and says, “Would you like to be one of these?” she is flooded with applicants. I believe that, working with Ofsted, we can make changes to the regulations that do not undermine children’s safety and security but that bring more home child carers into the market. I want the Minister to look closely at that, alongside my other proposals, and I am happy to provide her with a note on it.

Thank you for coming in at short notice to chair this debate, Ms Fovargue. It is hugely appreciated, I suspect, by the thousands, if not millions, of mums who are just fed up. Because we are: we are fed up. For generations, we have debated this issue in Parliament as though people are talking Klingon—as though it is something that is beyond our reach or our capacity to resolve. I think the dads are pretty fed up, too, because they are not getting to be with their kids. Outside this place, that is the norm: parents want to spend time with their children and find ways of working that allow them to do so. Our childcare system, unlike those in many other countries, militates against that.

There is no other area of public policy where we accept—nay, celebrate—the idea that there will be a struggle and a juggle. Nowhere else do we think that if people are not struggling and having a miserable time—unless they are incredibly wealthy and have multiple nannies and people to stay at home with them—they are doing it wrong. Let us change that; let us have a different debate in this place. Let us come together across political parties to say that is it not enough to keep talking about this and worrying about extra hours here and there. I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) opposite that tinkering around the edges will not do. It is time for a fundamental rethink of how we do childcare in this country, not least because of the impact on children themselves. That was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who secured this debate, for which I thank her.

The very simple question we all need to ask ourselves is: at what age do we think children start learning? When I look at my 18 month-old son and what he can do with an iPad, I know that it is very early on. We invest in children because they are our future, and yet our system does not reflect that thinking. We cannot solve the cost of living crisis unless we solve the cost of childcare. As we know, multiple families are now spending more on childcare than on their rent or mortgages. The number of women in this country who are economically inactive because of caring responsibilities is increasing; it has risen by 53,000 in the last year alone. Those women cannot get the decent childcare they need to be able to make it work for their families, and the economic impact of having them out of work is felt by us all.

That is the argument we need to take to the Treasury. With the greatest respect to the Minister, who I have no doubt is doing that, I want to see Treasury Ministers here, explaining why we are not investing in economic infrastructure—because that is what childcare is. Just as good roads get people to work, so too does good childcare. Yet, too often, we act in this country as if the opposite is true; as though we are doing mums a favour by providing childcare, giving them a couple of hours to go to baby yoga, rather than recognising that it is about how families balance their different commitments.

That is why I encourage the Minister to support the amendment that is being supported by Conservative colleagues of hers in the Lords right now, to make sure that we treat childcare as infrastructure and that local authorities are able to invest in it. Over the last five years, only 0.06% of developer contributions have been spent on childcare—that is just £1 in every £1,167 spent —yet we all know that when we build new flats, we are going to bring in new families. What are we supposed to do with them?

I encourage the Minister to take up the point made by the hon. Member for Stroud about the eight separate schemes. Of course, there is money there that could be better spent. I think of the 1.4 million children who are eligible for 20% off their childcare via the tax system but for whom it is not claimed. I do not think that is just because the system itself is completely bonkers; it is because so many families who want the help the most cannot afford to stay in childcare to the point where it is subsidised.

Of course childcare should kick in when a child is born, so we need to reform our maternity provision, but we also need to look at provision for children from six months on. We need the system to be universal, because that is when it pays for itself. The evidence from other countries makes it incredibly clear that it can help more families to stay in work, and it can help more women to keep their career and keep their caring commitments.

Some 85% of providers of childcare in this country are operating at a loss. This is not an industry that needs us to tinker around the edges. It needs investment to get us to a point at which there is a return. There is no area of economic policy in which investing leads to saving so clearly as in childcare, yet in this country we still act as if it were an optional add-on to an economy that is already struggling with productivity issues.

The fact that there are 5,500 fewer providers than a couple of years ago attests to how the system is not working for anybody. It does not work for the industry: these wonderful people caring for our children are professionals, so we should value their professionalism rather than playing it down. It does not work for the mums and dads who are looking at astronomical costs. It does not work for our economy. It certainly does not work when we tinker around with ratios or when the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions sends a letter to women who are out of work, telling them they really ought to think about going back.

What works is investing early. The £2.8 billion that is sitting unused and unclaimed in the Treasury’s coffers, just for the tax-free childcare system, could be spent right now on childcare. It could be invested in getting early years right so that in the next five to 10 years we will have a universal system that matches those of our economic competitors.

I say thank you to Pregnant Then Screwed and Mother Pukka—to the people who have refused to let politicians take the issue off the agenda. During the pandemic, when we were patting parents on the back but investing in potholes, the message from those mums was, “Up with this we will no longer put.”

In my final 15 seconds, I want to let Ministers know that “This Mum Votes” is not just the name of a campaign; it is a statement of intent. If we do not get this right, mums and dads around this country will not forgive the political party that has yet again put childcare in the box marked “Too difficult to deal with”. Children who deserve the best future need us now to stop messing around and start investing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. As my parliamentary neighbour in the borough of Wigan, you will be very familiar with some of the issues I will speak about. Some 514 members of the public in my constituency have signed the petition to extend the 30 hours of free childcare to one and two-year-olds. That does not surprise me, but it links to the contributions that a number of colleagues have made.

As some hon. Members may know, Leigh is one of the poorest seats in the country. The average wage is 20% lower than the national average, so for many people in my constituency—and I suspect in yours, Ms Fovargue—the exorbitant childcare costs simply make it sub-economic to go back to work. That leads not just to harm to families, but to economic harm. It should never be sub-economic to go back to work.

I do not have children myself, but I understand how important childcare is. I wish to speak very briefly and personally about my experience. My parents were both working farmers. Animals do not feed themselves, so farmers cannot just not go to work. I was lucky enough to go to a nursery in the village where I grew up; when I was not able to go to the nursery, I stayed with family members, including my grandmother and grandfather and my great-aunt and great-uncle. Those options are obviously not available to everyone.

Having grown up on a farm, I know that my parents often worked incredibly long hours and, at times of economic difficulty, for incredibly low wages. That is important to how we approach provision. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) made a salient point about considering childcare as part of infrastructure spending. I have made a broader point to my council about development in the borough: when we put in a large number of houses, we should make sure that provision is there. We do it for schools, so we should do it for nurseries and other childcare providers. Land is in great demand and property is expensive, so we cannot expect these things to just spring from the ether. We have to make provision, and it would be sensible to do it as we do for schools.

In terms of how we address this issue, there is a strong case for extending provision for low-income households. I am not necessarily convinced of the case for universality—it would be wrong to give a childcare subsidy to people on wages like ours—but we have a number of problems in respect of low-income households, because the current state of affairs means that it is, as I have said before, sub-economic to return to work. I hope the Minister will take a look at this issue and see whether we can find a way forward.

I thank the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) for securing this debate. It has been an informative and timely debate that really ticks the boxes of many of our constituents, who want to see real change on this issue. As an active constituency MP, probably one of the issues on which working families lobby me the most is the cost of childcare and how prohibitive it makes it to get back into work, particularly for mums who have just had their baby.

I suppose my mantra for this debate would be that work must always pay. It is important that the Government make it pay for those who want to get back into or continue in the world of work following the birth of a child, yet across the UK people are opting out of work because it does not pay to work. Their monthly childcare bill cancels out their net pay or leaves them with an amount that makes it not really worth the effort to work.

I want to mention a couple of Northern Ireland specifics. In 2021, the average cost of a full-time childcare place was £170 per week, while it was £186 per week for a day nursery and £166 per week for a childminder. Day nursery costs as high as £245 per week were recorded, with a range of childminders costing up to £300 per week. However, the median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £575. The Minister will be able to do the maths: for an average family with two kids, what is left is not enough to provide even a basic standard of living for a family.

We all know that the situation has got worse and been made more difficult in the past 18 months because of inflation. Indeed, providers themselves are feeling the pressure because of the increased costs that are in some instances leaving their businesses unviable. The situation is not helped by the bureaucracy and red tape they face on a daily basis.

The figures I have cited come from a local charity that operates in Northern Ireland called Employers For Childcare, which does an immense amount of work lobbying on childcare and supporting us politicians with data to prove that dealing with this issue will help the long-term economics of the country.

The most recent Employers For Childcare report, from 2021, cited some personal examples that speak even more powerfully than the figures. Let me read a couple of short quotes:

“Both my husband and I work full time. My husband is on minimum wage and so his entire wage goes on childcare. It is unaffordable when you have no alternative support. I have sleepless nights worrying about the cost of childcare. It is soul destroying.”

Another respondent said:

“Childcare needs to be more affordable. I’m in a reasonably paid part-time job but I couldn’t afford to go full-time as 90% of my wage would go on child-care costs which is pointless. One parent (usually the mother) of most families has to work part-time as they can’t afford full-time childcare.”

Those testimonies raise serious questions, including about alternative support. Throughout the debate, hon. Members have mentioned the importance of grandparents taking up the mantle in the home and having to step in, as my own grandparents did on many occasions, yet they do not receive a benefit for that. My ask of the Government is to support grandparents in that role, so that they can provide that wraparound service for working parents. Grandparents Plus has some superb ideas about helping grandparents in that way.

In many cases, it is the female in the family unit who sacrifices her career progression to stay at home in order to reduce childcare costs. Is that fair? No, it is not, and it comes back to the key point that work must pay. As we search for equality of opportunity in the workplace, that issue must be addressed.

The Government say they are on the side of working families. The forthcoming Budget offers the Chancellor an opportunity to demonstrate that, and I call on him to increase the tax-free childcare allowance. That would not only make a significant difference to the household finances of families across the United Kingdom, but encourage more people back into the workforce. That would be particularly beneficial to our public services, such as schools and hospitals, where it is simply not affordable for a parent to work. It would be making work pay—and we know that the money is there to do it.

I will finish by saying that our childcare providers are superb. As I stand here today, my son is being looked after by his childminder—she is an absolute star. I am so thankful for the support childcare providers give us as working parents. It is time to make childcare work for working families, and actually make work pay.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue.

It is worth mentioning that many of the MPs here—perhaps all of us—have children. In fact, many of us have quite young children. The hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) has had a baby since she became an MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has had at least two children while being an MP—[Interruption.] Of course, I could not forget my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy)—I was just coming to her. I have seen a number of us, at different times, going through the Division Lobby holding small children. I believe that many MPs care about this issue, beyond any slogans or stories they have heard from their constituents; balancing being a good parent and giving your child the best start in life with representing up to 100,000 constituents, who often have far greater problems, is a real concern.

I think everyone in the House would agree that early years education is essential in supporting children’s development and ensuring that every child is given the best start in life. For many children, nursery is the most important source for learning vital social skills and understanding the world around them for the first time. The benefits for children starting their education of an early introduction to reading practice and letter recognition cannot be overstated. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, including many in Ilford South, start falling behind their peers before they can even start school.

A decade of Government austerity and under-investment has allowed early years education and provision to fall by the wayside. Parents and carers of all descriptions have had to pick up the bill. The OECD says the UK now has the second highest childcare costs among leading economies. That is no good. We are also one of the most faltering G7 economies in terms of growth and the state of our economy.

Since 2010, over 1,300 Sure Start centres have been closed. In some areas, those centres have been slashed by 85%. All the while, the Government’s so-called free childcare offer is, in my view, desperately underfunded and excludes many of the most disadvantaged children from receiving the support they need. As a result, recent studies have found that parents are putting off having more children due to excessive childcare costs. Put simply, families have been priced out of having children.

Since the Conservatives took office, average nursery costs have increased by 44%. According to Pregnant Then Screwed, the financial burden of childcare has meant that 17% of parents have had to leave their job, and 62% say they work fewer hours because of childcare costs. As many hon. Members have said, it is primarily women who bear the brunt of those costs, which further increases the motherhood penalty and the gender pay gap.

Many parents with pre-school-aged children are now locked into what the TUC refers to as a Catch-22: as a result of the UK’s miserable statutory maternity pay, mothers face immense financial pressure to return to work early, leaving them to cope with those sky-high childcare fees. The current basic statutory maternity and parental pay rate equates to 47% of the national living wage. Statutory maternity pay was £151.97 in 2021-22—a £5-a-week real-terms fall since 2010-11. Parents are now forced to choose between staying at home to look after their children or working just to cover the exorbitant childcare costs, and that hits women, in particular, incredibly hard.

The impact on children of this failing system is also immense. Young children with complex needs require one-to-one support when they join settings, but they are often forced to wait months even to meet an occupational therapist, let alone to receive the dedicated support they require. Too often the nurseries I have spoken to have to fund that out of their already stretched budgets so they can put in place childcare for children with special educational needs and disadvantaged children. That poor access to good childcare is clearly a significant driver of inequality throughout a person’s life.

I recently spoke to Leah from Barney Bear’s Nursery in Ilford. She has three nurseries in my vicinity, and at least one in my constituency, which I have visited on a number of occasions. It is a brilliant childcare provider in my constituency. I talked to her about the current state of play in the sector, and she told me that she knows of three local nurseries that have been pushed to the brink of closure by the lack of sufficient increases in the hourly funding rate. Those Ilford nurseries cannot come close to covering their overheads or providing the quality of childcare that future generations deserve. She said:

“More and more nurseries are closing; it is a worrying time for nursery owners and staff…Our children are our future, and Early Years development is crucial…This Government need to do more! Help our nurseries thrive, provide free training, increase the funding rates, remove business rates, and bring back sure start centres.”

I hope the Minister will consider those things as we work together to tackle this problem.

The expected announcement on extending free childcare in the upcoming Budget is welcome, but without significant investment it will fail. Joeli Brearley, the CEO of Pregnant Then Screwed, said:

“The 30 hours ‘free’ scheme does not currently work for providers as it is knowingly underfunded by the Government. Providers must make up this shortfall by charging more for younger children.”

The massive staffing vacancies have to be addressed at a national level, and a national pay scale for childcare workers should be introduced. That is not an optional extra, as some in Government would have us believe. It has to be part of our national economic infrastructure.

Under the circumstances, it is a relief as well as pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech. The availability and affordability of childcare is a pressing issue for families right across our country.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. There has been a great deal of consensus. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) highlighted the challenges facing families with children with special educational needs and disabilities in accessing childcare that is suitable for their needs. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) highlighted the challenges in rural areas. The hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) pointed to the lack of subsidy for childcare for children under the age of two—a critical challenge for many families. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) spoke passionately about the need for fundamental reform of our childcare system.

The hon. Member for Leigh (James Grundy) highlighted the economic harm in his constituency caused by a lack of available affordable childcare. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) highlighted the extortionate costs in her constituency. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) highlighted the importance of high-quality early years education in closing the disadvantage gap for the poorest children.

Childcare is vital social and economic infrastructure. It helps parents to work, it delivers early education to the youngest children and it underpins the growth of our economy. However, under this Government we have seen the cost of childcare rise, increasing numbers of providers closing their doors and an increasingly complex funding system for parents to navigate, resulting in low take-up of both subsidised places for two-year-olds and tax-free childcare.

The UK has the most expensive childcare in the OECD. The latest release from Coram reports that the average cost of 25 hours a week in a nursery in England for a child under two is over £140. The average cost for the same amount of time with a childminder is over £124. The average cost for a child aged two and above is more than £135 at a nursery and £122 with a childminder. I emphasise that these costs are averages, so actual costs can be significantly higher, particularly in London.

Analysis by the TUC estimates that the cost of childcare for a child under the age of two has increased by £2,000 a year on average since 2010. A survey of 27,000 parents by Pregnant Then Screwed found that three in five reported that their childcare costs are now the same as, or more than, their domestic costs, rising to three in four for lone parents.

A recent survey by Mumsnet illustrates the extraordinary challenges faced by many parents, with almost 20% of respondents saying that they have given up work or are considering giving up work due to the costs of childcare. Also, 38% of respondents said they were working at home or considering working at home without childcare, and 43% said they could not afford the monthly costs of childcare without help from family, taking on debt or dipping into their savings. Finally, one in four resorted to informal arrangements, such as childcare swaps, to save money.

The Women’s Budget Group estimates that 1.7 million women are being held back from taking on more hours at work by the cost of childcare, and recent data from the Office for National Statistics has shown that for the first time in decades the number of women leaving the workforce to look after family members is increasing; it was up by 12.6% last year over the previous year. The unaffordability of childcare is also placing strain on grandparents, many more of whom are now giving up work or reducing their hours not simply to enjoy spending time with their grandchildren but effectively to step in to provide formalised childcare. The CBI agrees, stating that childcare in the UK is in crisis, which contributes to labour market shortages, exacerbates the cost of living crisis, dampens economic output, slows down social mobility and increases gender inequality.

The Government’s funding model is undoubtedly part of the problem. Parents can access help with childcare costs from a wide range of sources. The subsidy for two-year-olds is means-tested, but some of the subsidy for three and four-year-olds is applicable only to working households. Some funding is provided through the benefit system and some through the tax system. There is significant unclaimed funding for childcare because the system is so complicated and confusing for parents to navigate. The recent report on the issue by the Work and Pensions Committee highlights serious flaws with the universal credit childcare costs element, which in February 2022 was only claimed by 13% of potentially eligible families. The amount of funding claimed through tax-free childcare is far lower than the amount that was previously spent through childcare vouchers.

The system does not work for childcare providers either. The Government have admitted that they do not pay providers what it costs them to provide the so-called “free” two-year-old places and the places for three and four-year-olds. They have effectively created a cross-subsidy model for childcare, which is driving up the cost for parents of under-twos and leaves childcare providers struggling in areas of deprivation, where parents of very young children simply cannot afford to pay higher rates.

Providers are facing rising energy costs, wage bills and food costs, and many find it hard to recruit the staff they need. That led to a tsunami of nursery closures last year. During the summer term of 2022, from April to July, 65% more nurseries closed than in the same period in 2021. The situation is set to get far worse following the withdrawal of support for energy costs at the end of next month.

I pay tribute to everyone who works in childcare and early years education. They are highly skilled professionals to whom we entrust the most precious people in our lives, yet they are under-recognised for the work they do. Working with very young children should be a rewarding vocation and a lifelong career. It should offer staff the opportunity to develop expertise and specialisms, and to progress accordingly. Yet all too often, there is no opportunity for development or progression, and nurseries report that they end up competing with better-paid roles in retail or distribution.

The lack of workforce development contributes to a situation that is particularly challenging for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities. A recent survey of parents with disabled children found that 87% of mothers could not work as much as they would like to because of a lack of suitable childcare. After nearly 13 years of Conservative Government, our childcare system is failing families, failing children, failing providers and failing our economy. It is holding back parents from succeeding and progressing at work.

What is the Government’s response to this situation, which is of such central importance to our economy and family life? Silence. There was not a singular mention in the Chancellor’s Budget statement in November of the affordability and availability of childcare. When parents, providers, the TUC and the CBI all agree, yet the Government continue to do nothing, it is the Government who are completely out of touch.

Labour recognises the fundamental importance of childcare to parents, children and our economy. We also recognise that childcare costs do not stop when a child starts school. That is why we have announced our plan to introduce fully funded breakfast clubs for every primary school in the country, supporting parents to work and helping to address food poverty. We will make sure that every child, wherever they are in the country, starts school ready to learn. We will address disadvantage and prevent it from becoming embedded for a lifetime.

Breakfast clubs are just the first step on the road. We are committed to building a childcare system that supports children and families from the end of parental leave until the end of primary school, as part of the vital infrastructure that underpins our economy. The Government must step up and act to deliver childcare that works for children—

This is a point of genuine interest, not a political point. Has Labour costed those policies? I am having lots of conversations with Ministers about this issue. I am really interested in the points that the hon. Member is putting forward, but I have not seen any costings, such as for full universal childcare from nine months. Have they put any numbers behind that?

I am grateful for that intervention in the last sentence of my speech. As I just said clearly, Labour’s announcement so far is our fully costed pledge to deliver free breakfast clubs to every primary school child in the country. At the moment, we are working through the substantial, comprehensive reforms that we will bring forward for the childcare system in due course. We are absolutely committed to not making pledges until we have done that work, and that work is ongoing.

As one contributor said this afternoon, this is work that we cannot afford not to do as a nation. Hon. Members can rest assured that Labour will deliver the comprehensive reform that is lacking from this Government.

It is pleasure to serve under your very welcome chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing a debate on this important subject. It is genuinely a pleasure to come to these debates. I see the faces who come here regularly, who bring interesting information, and I genuinely like taking part in these debates.

I know how important the early years are. I have worked on families policy for a long time. Not only are the early years crucial for children’s development, we also want families to benefit from the childcare support they are entitled to, both from a cost of living perspective and in enabling parents to work. I spend a lot of my time visiting the sector, and I recognise that it is a challenging time. It has been a privilege to spend so much time there. I am always impressed by the dedication of staff, who work absolutely tirelessly to give our children the best start in life. It is a credit to them and this country that 96% of providers are rated as good or outstanding. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) mentioned Becky at Imagination Nursery. It was just wonderful to see the dedication of Becky and her wider staff, and the brilliant environment that I know his daughter is enjoying.

I will start by talking about funding, which has been mentioned multiple times. It is fair to say that it was a Conservative Government who increased funding. Not only did we expand the offer for three to four-year-olds, we also introduced a specific offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds. We have also looked at other things to give wider support, such as family hubs or holiday activity schemes, which I will talk more about later.

We have invested more than £3.5 billion in each of the last three years on our early education entitlement. We know that the sector, like many sectors in the country, is facing economic challenges. We announced additional funding of £160 million in 2022-23, £180 million in 2023-24 and £170 million in 2024-25, compared with the ’21 settlement, for local authorities to increase the hourly rates paid to childcare providers. I want to assure everyone that we continue to look at the matter. How we can improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare is important to me and to the Government. 

As well as supporting families, it is also important that we help early years providers continue to do what they do best, which is educating and developing young children. From 2023-24, we are investing an additional £20 million in early years, on top of the £180 million announced at the spending review, to help with national living wage costs. These funding increases will take place across England, so I am pleased to say that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, the funding rate for two-year-olds will increase by 10% to £6.92, up by 63p per hour. We have also announced an additional £10 million for maintained nursery schools’ supplementary funding from 2023-24 and are introducing a minimum and maximum hourly rate that local authorities can receive for their maintained nursery schools to create a fairer distribution of the funding.

I want to talk about families. We know that childcare is a key concern, as ably raised by many hon. Members today. We recognise that cost of living pressures are affecting families across the country and we have been looking at a range of measures to directly support households. One of our key areas of support has been the 30 hours’ free childcare entitlement. It was introduced in 2017 and has helped countless working parents. Nearly 350,000 children were registered for a place in January 2022, which saved those families up to £6,000 per child per year. That is making a real difference. Our 2021 childcare and early years survey of parents found that 73% of parents reported having more money to spend since they started using the 30 hours and 38% thought that without those 30 hours, they would be working fewer hours. We also remain committed to that universal 15 hours of free early education, which is helping more than 1 million children this year.

Government support for childcare is not just for three to four-year-olds. In 2013, the coalition Government introduced 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds and in January 2022, 72% of eligible two-year-olds were registered for a free early education place and more than 1.2 million children have benefited since its introduction. I think I heard the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) say earlier that the take-up in Scotland was about 46%. Clearly, we want to do more and I urge all hon. Members to encourage all their constituents to take up places where possible. In September 2022, we also extended eligibility for the entitlement to children in households where no recourse to public funds applies.

On the low-income household point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (James Grundy), we have introduced two things. The first is the holiday activity fund schemes, and the data that shows children using the scheme for the first time and saying that that is the first time they have accessed some kind of activity scheme in the holidays has been buoying. The second is family hubs, about which I am passionate and on which I worked before becoming a Member of Parliament. We are rolling them out to 75 local authorities in the most disadvantaged parts of the country. I have visited several of them and they are doing very good things.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth mentioned another matter that is, again, dear to my heart: SEN. I see more of that when I go to nurseries, and when I talk to providers, they are worried about both the aftermath of the pandemic and having the right skillset to make sure they deliver for those children. We are training 5,000 early years staff to be special educational needs co-ordinators and I will also bring forward SEN reforms in the near future that will help with setting out what people can do. Recently, I was talking to Julian Grenier at Sheringham Nursery School and looking at some of its schemes, such as talking time, which will help with some of the speech and language challenges that have come out in the aftermath of the pandemic. It is an area that is very important to me.

It is crucial that as well as being affordable, childcare is easily accessible. We constantly monitor the sufficiency of childcare places and at the moment, local authorities report that they are fulfilling their duty to ensure sufficient childcare. However, we continue to monitor that carefully. I acknowledge that one of the things I hear a lot when I talk to providers is the challenge around recruitment and retention, and I am keen to focus on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) also mentioned childminders. The majority of people that have come out of the system are childminders. I have been very privileged to shadow childminders and see the work that they do. Often, people do not realise that their outcomes are just as good as those of nurseries. They do a tremendous job and it is important to me to look at the reasons that they are leaving.

The majority of early years childcare places in England are provided by private, voluntary and independent group-based providers. I pay huge tribute to their work. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) gave a very moving tribute to her children’s own childcare providers. I can see her smiling now at the work that they do. I reiterate my thanks to those in the sector. They work so hard day in, day out in challenging circumstances to ensure that they provide children with the best start in life.

I thank the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth for securing the debate. The early years sector is an integral part of our economy and education system, so my Department treats any changes to the system carefully. Our childcare offer is co-ordinated with other Departments to give parents a range of options, depending on whether they want to receive childcare in a formal, nursery-style setting or from a childminder in a home.

On that point, I think the Minister is starting to talk about one of the challenges: where money has been set aside for childcare, but has not been spent. She spoke earlier about the not-100% take up from those who are entitled. Since the scheme began to give parents 20% off their childcare costs, an average of £2 billion to £3 billion a year has gone unclaimed. Given that it started in 2017, we are talking about a possible £17 billion that could go into tackling these challenges with the cost of childcare. Before she sits down, what conversations has the Minister had with the Treasury about getting our £17 billion of tax that parents have paid into the system back, so we can put it into paying those who care for our children properly?

The hon. Lady will know that underspends in government do not sit there and pile up; there is not £17 billion in a pot somewhere that has not been used. It has gone into lots of things, whether that is increasing hourly rates or the massive overall increase to the education budget of £2 billion over the next two years alone.

I talk to the Treasury regularly about tax-free childcare. I agree that it is not used enough. Many parents could be benefiting and we want them to benefit. We started the childcare choices campaign last year. The uptake of tax-free childcare has actually been quite good. I think it is about 30% from memory, but I will go away and double-check the figures. Of course, we need to do more and, of course, I would love to see more parents use that.

Finally, I reassure all Members present that my Department continues to evaluate what more can be done to help parents access a childcare place that not only suits their working arrangements and family circumstances, but gives their children the best possible start in education. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth in the future to hear her further thoughts about making our childcare system the best it can be.

I thank you again, Ms Fovargue, and I appreciate that you and Mr Davies have stepped into the Chair at short notice. We wish all the best to Sir Christopher and hope he is okay. I would like to finish by thanking the many people and organisations that have helped me and others in this debate with facts, research and the views of their members and others, which have contributed to our speeches: the Early Years Alliance, Coram, Women’s Budget Group, Pregnant Then Screwed, Marie Curie and Mumsnet. I also appreciate Angela Doidge-Nelson at Hounslow Council and the group of nursery managers in my constituency who have been so supportive of me and who have opened my eyes to the challenges in the sector ever since I was first elected. We have had a great number of excellent, thoughtful, insightful and factual speeches from many Members, many of whom were speaking of their own experiences. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) reminded us, many Members—mothers and fathers—have had children while Members of Parliament. I was a councillor and took my babies to council meetings.

I also want to acknowledge and appreciate childminders, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) did. My childminder is sadly no longer with us, as she died a few years ago. She was a rock to our family—the grandma around the corner, because my son’s grandparents were not local. We cannot forget childminders, and it is very worrying to hear that childminders are walking away from the profession at an even greater rate than nurseries are closing.

I still look forward to hearing from the Minister, in more detail, the answers to some of the questions raised today—particularly an acknowledgment that full funding, for any free places, must be there, because, otherwise, the system is imbalanced. We want to hear about what the Department and the Government are doing about the underspend that appears to be there. That is actually there because too many disadvantaged and low-income families are not applying. Why is that? We need to understand why that is, and we need the Government to address the complexity in the system, because otherwise too many children and parents will not benefit from it.

Question put and agreed to. 


That this House has considered the affordability and availability of childcare.

Sitting suspended. 

A14: Kettering

I will call Mr Philip Hollobone to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered junction 10A on the A14 at Kettering.

I thank you, Ms Fovargue, for chairing this debate, and Mr Speaker for granting permission for it. I welcome my good friend the roads Minister to his place and thank him for his successful visit to Kettering bus station in December to launch the Department for Transport’s £2 bus fare scheme, which is already seeing a 7% increase in local bus travel across the country.

Junction 10A on the A14 at Kettering does not yet exist. At the moment, it is just a blob on a DFT map, but it is a junction that local residents very much need if Kettering, Barton Seagrave, Burton Latimer and Cranford are not to grind to a halt because of all the traffic generated by the new house building taking place locally.

Junction 10A is critical infrastructure. It is likely to cost £40 million, with financial contributions split between the Department for Transport and the developer, and is required to deliver phase 2 of the Hanwood Park development, which in Government planning terms is designated as a garden community development of an eventual 5,500 dwellings and employment land covering 328 hectares to the east of Kettering. Local land values will not allow the development of the junction to be funded without Government intervention, so public funding is required.

In line with planning conditions, junction 10A must be in place by the time 2,700 dwellings are occupied. Just over 1,000 dwellings are already occupied, and the developer’s current housing trajectory shows that the 2,700 occupied dwellings trigger for junction 10A will be reached in 2026. There is therefore a significant risk that the development will grind to a halt in three years’ time without the new junction. Thousands of future local jobs could be at risk, and there will be a further 2,800 new local homes, including 560 affordable homes, that simply cannot be built.

My ask of His Majesty’s Government and of the roads Minister today is for a firm commitment to include junction 10A in the DFT’s road investment strategy 3, which is the programme for major road programmes in the period from 2025 to 2030. Junction 10A is already in the pipeline for potential inclusion in RIS3, but what we need now is a definite commitment to include it.

If 2026 is to remain the target date for the delivery of junction 10A, it requires detailed planning approval to be achieved in 2023 and it requires the requisite procurement to commence concurrently. That can happen with confidence only if there is a definite Government commitment to junction 10A and a tangible Government commitment to RIS3 funding. What we are talking about is the need for joined-up Government. If His Majesty’s Government are to get anywhere near their objective of seeing 300,000 new dwellings built each year in England, they need to ensure that the requisite roads infrastructure is in place. Funding junction 10A and enabling Hanwood Park to continue being developed beyond 2026 will be a key test of a dovetailed Government housing and roads strategy.

I know that the Department for Transport already recognises the importance of the junction, because funding for the new junction 10A was originally included in RIS1 for the period 2015 to 2020. The slow housing development roll-out amid the national economic conditions at the time meant that the programme was not activated, but housing development on site is now proceeding apace and the funding is now required.

The Hanwood Park development is the fourth largest sustainable urban extension in the country. It is one of the nation’s flagship housing extensions and sits within the strategic Oxford-to-Cambridge planning arc. For local people, the Hanwood Park development is the equivalent of bolting on to the town of Kettering itself another town the size of Desborough. We have to ensure that the homes built on the development form a vital, liveable community and do not simply become one big, soulless housing estate. To make that happen, we must ensure not only that the infrastructure is in place to serve those new dwellings, but that there is no adverse impact on the quality of life of existing residents of other parts of Kettering, Barton Seagrave, Burton Latimer and Cranford.

Fortunately, the local planning design code is set at a high standard, and there is set to be good internal and town centre connectivity with access to trunk roads, including the A6, A43 and most importantly the A14. Hanwood Park forms a key component of housing to be delivered in North Northamptonshire and Kettering, in the adopted North Northamptonshire joint core strategy for 2011 to 2031, and in the site-specific part 2 local plan, which was adopted in December 2021.

Housing growth is being planned in parallel to the delivery of employment land and other uses. Including estimated construction jobs, the development could provide more than 8,000 new jobs, with 4,300 jobs directly within the development itself. Outline planning permission for Hanwood Park was originally granted in the last days of the last Labour Government in April 2010—13 years ago—for 5,500 houses, 20% of which were to be affordable. It included a range of employment uses; a mixed-use district centre, including shops, local services and a health clinic; three local centres; a secondary school; four primary schools; a hotel and leisure development; and extensive formal and informal open spaces.

Work is well under way to deliver development in the first phase of Hanwood Park, with 1,921 new homes having received consent and a further 193 currently going through the planning process, together with internal roads, green spaces, a sustainable urban drainage system and utilities infrastructure. Hayfield Cross Church of England primary school, the first school on the site, is already fully operational. A free school bid has been successful for the delivery of the secondary school, and an ongoing public consultation is currently being conducted by Orbis Education Trust regarding whether the school should be boys-only or mixed entry.

Despite the challenges of the covid pandemic and the associated economic downturn, high quality housing delivery continues across the scheme, with David Wilson Homes, Barratt, Bellway, Orbit, Persimmon, Avant and Taylor Wimpey all progressing. Grace Homes, a local small and medium-sized house builder, is looking to commence this year, subject to planning approval. A new outline planning application has been submitted for the remaining 3,386 dwellings, as well as the remaining schools, formal and informal open spaces, district and local centres, a hotel and employment. The application is currently pending and has reached an advanced stage.

There has been clear Government support for the Hanwood Park development to date, including Homes England granting £60 million of loan funding to the developer and delivery partners. That funding partnership with Homes England has resulted in the development now having a primary school, surface water attenuation, adopted foul sewers, three principal access roads, and junction improvements on town roads in Kettering itself. Funding has also been secured by North Northamptonshire Council from the new garden communities initiative and the Homes England large sites capacity fund, to help support the project and others across North Northamptonshire.

The developer of Hanwood Park has signed a memorandum of understanding with National Highways, setting out the project control framework approach for junction 10A. To maintain the programme, the developer is carrying out, at its own risk, a range of technical and environmental surveys, including a utilities survey, a wintering bird survey and topographical and archaeological investigations, in anticipation of submitting a detailed application for junction 10A.

Confirmation of Department for Transport funding for junction 10A is now imperative to ensuring continued housing delivery at Hanwood Park beyond 2026, including badly needed affordable housing, along with significant employment opportunities and local economic growth, and to giving the market the confidence it needs that housing delivery will not be stifled beyond that date. In addition to continued housing delivery, the new junction 10A will unlock employment land, which is key for local sustainable economic growth. Junction 10A is essential to the delivery of some 10 hectares of employment land at Hanwood Park in the south-eastern quadrant of the development adjacent to the A14. Without the new junction 10A, the market delivery of these employment areas would be extremely challenging and might not even be possible.

For local people, the tragedy is that we could have had as many as 2,700 new homes already built by 2026 without the necessary road infrastructure to take us beyond that level. That presents the real risk of gridlock in the town of Kettering, with initial houses already provided but with the Government not coming up with their share of the funding for the new junction 10A. My plea to the roads Minister today, on behalf of local people in Kettering, is that he recognise the fundamental importance of the new junction to people in the local area and that the Government make the commitment to fund it that we badly need.

I am delighted to respond to the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who is a diligent Member and a great representative of the people and businesses of Kettering. I had the pleasure of visiting Kettering back in December to launch the £2 bus fare cap, which has now been extended all the way to 30 June. It is clear that where Kettering leads, the rest of the country follows. He has consistently championed the proposed improvements on the A14 on behalf of his constituents, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate.

The A14 is one of the country’s most important east-west arteries on the strategic road network, stretching for 127 miles and connecting Felixstowe in the east to Rugby and the logistics hub at the heart of the midlands at the other end, where it meets the M1 and the M6. The importance of this corridor in connecting the country and providing access to some of the nation’s key international gateways cannot be overstated. That is why we have invested heavily in the route since 2015.

In 2017, we completed the £190 million remodelling and capacity improvements to the Catthorpe interchange, where the A14 intersects with the M1. In 2020, the 12-mile, £1.5 billion Cambridge-to-Huntingdon improvement scheme was completed, providing much-needed added capacity for commuters and long-distance traffic. We are considering further improvements to the A14 where it meets the A12 west of Ipswich, as part of the pipeline of schemes being addressed in the road investment strategy.

I am grateful for the Minister’s confirmation that the Copdock interchange is being looked at. Further to the important point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), every Member who has a constituency that crosses the A14 would agree that investment in all aspects of the road, including junction 10A, is vital. It is a key gateway from the midlands to Felixstowe. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are looking not just at the projects that he has outlined, but at additional future projects? This is about supporting British manufacturing, house building growth and the British economy. Many of us who represent A14 constituencies do not feel that the road has had the focus that it deserves.

My hon. Friend makes some excellent points. I am trying to highlight the strategic national importance of the route. I know that my hon. Friend and MPs from across the region have been campaigning on this issue. There are definitely further schemes in the pipeline that are currently being looked at, and I would be delighted to discuss them with him further at a later date.

Although the strategic national case for this vital road transport corridor between the north, the midlands and the east of England is clear, its role in the places and communities it passes through along its length is also vital, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering recognises. Kettering, Barton Seagrave, Cranford and Burton Latimer are all important towns along the route that all deserve to be properly served. That is exactly what the proposed A14 junction 10A would help to achieve, making lives in the communities served by the A14 better.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, it would also support the development of approximately 5,500 much-needed homes and associated infrastructure to the east of Kettering, with new schools, shops, community buildings and, importantly, jobs, unlocking investment into this stretch of the important strategic road network. I am pleased to hear that this is a sustainable, mixed-used development, with new schools, shops and leisure facilities that are easily accessible for new residents, and that it is tied into the historic town of Kettering.

Successful development depends on a network that makes connections to destinations, places and communities that are further afield. Alongside rail and the local road network, the strategic road network provides critical links between our cities and other urban areas, connecting our communities and families, providing job opportunities, and binding and strengthening our Union, as well as driving productivity and prosperity by unlocking growth, encouraging trade, attracting investment and playing a vital role in levelling up across the country. That is why the A14 is so important.

We all agree that a reliable and resilient transport network is a catalyst for growth. However, making transformative investments in the fabric of our transport network requires long-term thinking and planning, as has certainly been the case with this piece of development. That rationale underpins RIS2, which we are currently in and which has delivered record levels of investment in the motorways and trunk networks of England. In the first RIS strategy, £17.6 billion was committed; since then, we have gone even further and are now investing £24 billion between 2024 and 2025 as part of RIS2. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering to use his good offices to lobby the Treasury to ensure we can increase the level of investment into RIS3 for his scheme, and many others across the country.

Our first priority is the safe operation, maintenance and renewal of the existing network, including by beginning multi-road period programmes of structural renewals where the network is reaching the end of its design life. Even so, in the current period more than £10 billion is being spent on significant improvements to the performance and safety of the network, through enhancements that support the Government’s levelling-up agenda and underpin national and regional growth. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering that there is clearly a strong economic case for junction 10A of the A14 and, from what I have seen, it presents a good cost-benefit ratio and value for money for the taxpayer.

As my hon. Friend is well aware, preparations for the third road investment strategy—RIS3—are well under way, with the A14 junction 10A scheme forming part of the pipeline of more than 30 major projects that are currently being considered for possible construction beyond 2025. The decisions on which pipeline schemes to progress will need to be taken in the round as part of the wider development of RIS3 funding, in the light of the funding headroom available.

In respect of my hon. Friend’s local project, it is important that, unlike many other projects throughout the country, half the cost is due to be met by local developers. That further strengthens the case for the junction. The case for the project is clear, and Hanwood Park and National Highways have been working closely to build a robust business case for the proposals. The key objectives of the project are to support the sustainable development of much-needed homes in the area and to facilitate economic growth in the region. In achieving that, the safety and performance of the existing network needs to be maintained, mindful of the route’s key national strategic role, and negative impacts on users, communities and the environment must be kept to a minimum during construction.

Considerable effort and work is required to develop major projects from the ground up and, as I have said previously, when dealing with the significant sums involved, investment decisions cannot be taken in isolation. Ultimately, decisions on the balance of RIS3, and possible enhancement schemes to be included in it, will sadly not be finalised until the strategy is published in 2024. We are hoping to open that up to bids in the coming months. The core principle of our strategy is to create a safe, accessible and reliable road network that meets the needs of all road users and drives important economic growth across the country.

I am listening to the Minister’s remarks with great interest and appreciate the attention to detail he is applying to junction 10A. Is he aware of perhaps the most important point of all? On its present trajectory, Hanwood Park will reach its ceiling of 2,700 houses in 2026. Not one further home will be built after that date, unless funding for junction 10A comes from the Government. Unless the Government come up with the cash, no more than 2,700 homes will be built on that estate in Kettering. That will make it far more difficult for the Government to achieve their housing objectives.

My hon. Friend made that point clearly in his speech and I will take it away. There is a timescale for the RIS3 projects. Given the level of development that has already gone into the scheme, as part of the investment strategy through the five-year period, the requirements will put it clearly towards the front if funding is made available.

I thank my hon. Friend again for securing this debate and for his exemplary efforts to support the proposals on behalf of his constituents. I also take the opportunity to be clear that I recognise the strong case for the proposals and the many benefits they will unlock for Kettering and the surrounding area. I will ensure that my officials and National Highways work closely with Hanwood Park as the case for the scheme is developed further, and that my hon. Friend is fully engaged in that process. I also encourage him to meet further with the project teams for the scheme at National Highways for a more detailed briefing in future months. I will happily facilitate that.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to press the case for the scheme on behalf of his constituents and the businesses that he serves in his constituency. Although I cannot give him the firm commitment that he is naturally after today, given the unique funding nature of the project, the strong local and national economic significance of the A14 and the good benefit-to-cost ratio, the people of Kettering can be assured that it will be looked at very favourably in the funding rounds to come. The people of Kettering could not have a better champion, and I look forward to working closely with my hon. Friend as the investment plan for RIS3 is developed over the coming months.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Performance-enhancing Drugs and Body Image

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of steroid and image and performance enhancing drug use.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue.

We need to talk about steroids in the UK. I am talking about not just any steroids but anabolic steroids and image and performance-enhancing drugs—or IPEDs. There are an estimated 500,000 to 1 million users in the UK, but no one is talking about it. The closest we get is the “natty or not?” discussions on social media about naturally built men and women versus people who are enhanced. There is particular discussion about Hollywood actors.

[David Mundell in the Chair]

I will not cast any aspersions about who does or does not use steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, but it is fair to say that the debate is becoming bigger and louder, not only in this country but in America and throughout the western world. The Priory Group did some research about 10 years ago and estimated that around 50,000 people were using steroids; its estimate now is that 500,000 people are using them. It says that

“we are sleepwalking into a health crisis”.

I know from my time as a GP that when it comes to—[Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

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

Until we were rudely interrupted by that vote, I was saying that we need to talk about steroids in the UK because, as the Priory Group has said:

“we are sleepwalking into a…crisis.”

As a GP, I know that the obesity epidemic has been a real problem, but part of the nation is actually getting fitter while part of it is getting fatter. I will concentrate on the part that is getting fitter, because of those who go the gym—mainly men—we know that one in 10 suffer from bigorexia. What am I talking about? Bigorexia is body dysmorphia—the idea that someone’s muscles are not big enough, no matter how much they eat or train. It is important to understand that this is a growing epidemic in our country; even more importantly, it is quite prolific in the gay community. I will break the issue down into three sections. I will talk a little bit about how I came to this topic, the drivers behind it, and, most importantly, what needs to be done.

Growing up, I was a fairly normal kid. At the age of 14 or 15, I was playing sport and was reasonably academic, but I was an outlier, because for my 15th birthday I had saved up £500 to buy a multigym. In my head, I wanted to improve my rugby, get girls, fight off bullies and improve my body image. Surprisingly, I was the under-16s first-team captain, but the other three aims fell to one side. Looking back, I think, “How many other young men feel like this?” That was 25 years ago. I think the points I mentioned are the driving forces behind why men want to go to the gym and improve their body image. Society says to them, “We need to be perfect”, but what is that perfect image?

Social media and reality TV have played a huge part in promoting unrealistic body ideals, which we often do not think about when it comes to men’s self-esteem. Does the hon. Member agree that there should be some greater controls around edited, unrealistic imagery?

The hon. Member is spot on. The advent of social media over the last 20 years has really brought home that idea of body image. With the likes of Instagram, if a man is interested in using a gym, they are sent hundreds of images in 30, 40 or 50 seconds. Each individual image in itself is not the issue, but the cumulative effect of repeatedly being sent such images is a problem.

I would argue that the way to solve the problem is through the social media companies’ algorithms, to ensure that there is transparency about what people are being sent. Facebook talked about diet pills aimed at young girls being a real problem. If we do not deal with male body image and body dysmorphia, this will be the next iteration of that problem.

As a doctor, over the last 10 to 15 years I have started to see more and more young men coming into my clinics and asking to be prescribed protein powders or creatine, and asking, “How do I bulk up?” I also started to see more and more men in their 20s, 30s and 40s who were using steroids and having side effects, including bad acne, scarring acne, mood problems and depression. I have even seen some men who have had strokes, heart attacks, liver problems, kidney problems and erectile dysfunction, none of which are really talked about when it comes to steroids.

The problem with steroids is that they work, so people use them and see a drastic improvement. People who want to build muscle will see that improvement, take the cycle of whatever substance it happens to be and then plateau, which is very hard for them to deal with because they no longer see the gains they were initially getting under their regime. They say, “Oh, I’ll only use it once”, but once becomes twice, twice becomes thrice, and so on.

My hon. Friend listed symptoms, but I do not think that he mentioned swelling of the brain. Matt Dear, a 17-year-old from Essex, tried to build himself up by taking bodybuilding pills, because he was committed to a career serving in the armed forces. He took pills that he had bought for £30, his brain swelled up and, tragically, he died. The memory of Matt has helped to educate children in the community. Is my hon. Friend concerned that even taking these things once can be terminal?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point—these are dangerous prescription drugs, if they are not used properly. There is a plethora of side effects that are not talked about, from the short-term acute stuff that could mean someone has swelling of the brain or a clot, or is having a heart attack, or the long-term effects, such as depression, scarring acne or erectile dysfunction, which, particularly for young men, can have a huge psychological effect when they are trying to find partners. My hon. Friend is spot on. My heart goes out to Matt’s family; I am pleased there is a memorial for him.

Our role as responsible elected Members is to think about what we can do. The obvious area I get directed to is sport. It is actually quite hard to dope in sport, especially for an elite athlete. It does happen, but the culture is quite strong not to do so. Many athletes who want to be elite have come to me, as their GP, and have refused to take prescriptions because they are not sure whether it will be an exemption or clean, or whether it might get them in trouble with UK Anti-Doping.

Sport is an interesting area. I have met UN Anti-Doping a couple of times, and it is seeing people using these drugs to improve their image, but then finding out that they are quite good at sport and then getting into trouble with the authorities. The classic example is the young Welsh rugby player, who wants to look big on the streets when he is out and about, and wants to look good in Ibiza—and he finds out that having that size and strength is good on the rugby field. He starts playing semi-professionally and then gets picked up by UK Anti-Doping.

At the other end of the spectrum, we see cyclists, particularly affluent middle-aged men, who have the money and wherewithal to train, dedicate their time, buy the equipment they need, and start to see progression through the ranks of cycling. Then they meet the edge and ask, “What’s next? Let’s lose weight. Let’s have a fat burner. Let’s think about steroids or something else, like EPO.” That sees people caught out.

Those are the people going into elite or semi-elite athlete status; we have not even touched on society and the health aspects. We have heard a lot over the past 10 years about women’s health and body image, but less so about men’s. “Love Island” is back on TV at the moment, and we often hear a debate about how the females look: “Is there diversity? What about their shapes?” Very rarely do we hear that about the men. Nine out of 10 of them will have a six-pack, large shoulders and big biceps, and we seem to think that is okay.

Spencer Matthews from “Made in Chelsea” talked about the pressure and the need to use steroids he felt, because of his concern about what he looked like. We only have to look at what is currently in cinemas—the Marvel comic films—to see the aspiration set for young men.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that boys and men are in a unique position in the 21st century? There are all kinds of pressures on boys and men that are often not seen, and which they often do not talk about. Does he agree that one way the Government could help is by putting in place a men’s health strategy? We could look at subjects such as this, and other issues that men are facing, as a whole to help men today.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I commend his work on the men’s health strategy, and on securing the men’s world health debate. He is right that these tend to be pertinent male issues. There is a difference: from my clinical approach, I see men’s health-seeking behaviours. It is apt to say that we should target some of these issues in these ways, particularly steroid abuse and performance-enhancing drugs used for imaging, because men tend to be most affected—not exclusively but mainly. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

That leads to the fitness industry itself, which purports to put out images of the six-pack and shoulders bigger than a fridge. The problem is that those are stationary images of a point in time. Aspiring to live in that point in time is very difficult. Young people may not understand that many people in bodybuilding go through cycles of bulking up and then dropping weight to fit a certain image for their competitions. That is fine for a bodybuilder, but it is not good for a 19 or 20-year-old university student to aspire to that, because they are at a time of meeting other people and creating relationships.

There is a ratchet effect. We see images of very large, muscular men, which people aspire to, and there is a cheap and effective way to get there; that is a real concern. That leads to a wider issue currently faced by societies across the western world: what is masculinity?

We have heard a lot about toxic masculinity, which allows space for the likes of Andrew Tate to step in. Lots of people listen to what he has to say, in part because he is saying, “Be strong, stand up, look after yourself.” On the other hand, he has been found to be completely wanting and is now under investigation. Is that the kind of role model we want in front of our young men? Young men who do not understand what masculinity is because they are not told within society will look for other options—be they the Marvel comics or the likes of Andrew Tate—to tell them what is acceptable to be masculine. That is a dangerous place to settle in.

But we are waking up to the issue; the online culture is starting to move towards calling it out. The likes of James Smith and Ben Carpenter talk openly about the pros and cons of the fitness industry, and how it has been marketed. The Women and Equalities Committee did a report on body image, as did the Health and Social Care Committee. The Advertising Standards Authority produced an interim report that identified the key issue of depictions of muscularity in advertising, and it hopes to have further information about that in quarter four of 2023. Awareness is there and the culture is starting to think about it, but we are still at least 10 years off in comparison to the female idea of body image.

We are not doing enough, which comes out when we speak to the likes of UKAD. I thank Trevor Pearce and Jane Rumble from UKAD for providing me with information when I met them. In 2019, a UKAD survey found that 34% of gym goers are aware of IPEDs being used in their gym. That is certainly my experience as a gym goer. Wherever I have been in the country, I have been aware of such drugs being taken, because I have found syringes and packets in the changing rooms. That is quite a scary thought, from my own anecdotal experience—yet one in three men who use gyms is finding the same.

The Medichecks survey of people who go to the gym found that 61% of men want to be bigger, and that 80% of men are aware of some of the side effects of steroids, yet three out of four of those men would consider using steroids or IPEDs. As I mentioned, one in 10 gym goers has bigorexia—a number that is thought to be increasing. Thinking back to being that young boy with my multigym at the age of 15, if I had had the online ability to get hold of such substances, and an ever-growing social media pressure to conform and have muscles, maybe I would have been tempted? That is a scary thought for the generations coming through.

In 2020, The Times reported that users could easily buy steroids through Instagram, even though they are class C drugs. The law says that class C drugs are lawful for personal use with a prescription, but it is illegal to distribute or supply them. In 2021, Border Force seized 1.225 million doses of anabolic steroids, which was down on the number seized a few years before—that does not cover other drugs that are available, such as the fat-stripping drug Clenbuterol—yet there were only 37 convictions for possession or supply last year. The trend has been for between 30 and 40 people to be convicted each year, over the last five years.

The Government have produced an updated drug strategy, called “From harm to hope: A 10-year drugs plan to cut crime and save lives”. The House of Commons Library confirmed to me that there is no mention of the words “steroid” or “IPED” in that report. The start of the report says:

“Over 300,000 people are addicted to heroin and crack cocaine in England. This is the biggest section of the illegal drugs market”.

Is it? Given that we expect 500,000 to 1 million people to have taken steroids, we simply do not know. That is the point I am driving at. The report talks about the principle of

“putting evidence at the heart of this approach”.

When it comes to IPEDs and steroids, we need data and evidence.

That leads me to my asks of the Government. Given that a Health Minister is responding, I think it is fair to concentrate on simply the health aspect of the issue. I ask for three things. First, will he commission the research into steroids and IPEDs suggested in the Health and Social Care Committee report on body image? Secondly, will he pull together the different Departments that the issue crosses over? The issue is not a single departmental issue. It is not covered simply by the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office or the Government Equalities Office; it is all of them—there is a crossover. We need to pull together in roundtables and a taskforce to think about how we deal with this.

My third ask is for education and awareness. We need to think about schools, outside agencies and the NHS—a bit like the Government have done with eating disorders. The number of people suffering eating disorders has skyrocketed, and the Government have responded well by getting the information and support out, and looking at ways to strategise. We are a long way off dealing with eating disorders, but this is the next big, similar crisis. I urge the Government to take that kind of strategy forward.

It would be remiss of me to come to the debate without offering wider solutions and there are some ideas that need to be talked about. They have pros and cons; I raise them because we need to have the conversation. We could look at compulsory mandatory education for personal trainers, who are the most likely people to come into contact with gym goers. We could change the IPED laws, and make sentencing more severe; or do the opposite, and take them out, and say, “No, this is a health issue that we need to deal with.” The debate needs to happen.

We can look at examples from across the world. Norway has licensing of gyms. If new drugs were being found in a nightclub—with new drugs being found and one in three people being aware of the situation—the authorities would be knocking on the door saying, “Should we be licensing? Should we revoke that licence? What should we do about it?” We are a long way off putting such a scheme in place, but it is not beyond our remit to have a discussion about whether that is something we should do to increase the responsibility of the gym owners. There are pros and cons. Fundamentally, we do not have the data and none of the details has been explored enough. That leads us full circle; we really need to start a conversation—we need to talk about steroids in the UK.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) for securing the debate and for his excellent introduction. He spoke passionately and eloquently, from both his personal and professional experience. It would be difficult for me to add very much insight to what he has already provided, and there was very little I could quibble with in what he had to say. I am grateful to him for highlighting the issue’s significance as a public health issue, and as a growing public health problem at that, not just here but internationally. I fully confess that it is an issue of which I was not properly aware.

As the hon. Member pointed out, growing numbers of people are using IPEDs, including anabolic steroids. For various reasons, it is not clear precisely how many people are doing so, but it is clearly a very significant number. The hon. Member said that it is around 500,000, while others say it is more. A variety of sports have been implicated historically, including rugby union, rugby league, athletics and cycling, as we have heard. Other users are now engaging in this practice simply for reasons of image enhancement, including a growing number of gym users.

Studies suggest that young men in their early 20s are the most likely to start down this path, and increased use appears to be assisted by comparatively easy access, particularly through online sales and postal delivery from abroad. Border Force has previously reported annual seizures of millions of steroid doses.

As we have heard, this usage has significant consequences for people’s health. We have heard about problems with kidneys, liver problems, heart attacks and strokes. As the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge) pointed out, there have been tragic cases where people have died from comparatively low amounts of steroid use. There are behavioural and mental health issues, including mood swings, aggression and eating disorders.

The hon. Member mentions aggression. A common side effect of steroids is roid rage, which means that it is not just those who choose to use steroids who are impacted, but everyone around them, too, and that can lead to serious life-ruining consequences all around. Does the hon. Member agree that greater understanding of side effects is an imperative part of tackling the abuse of these drugs?

The hon. Member makes a valid point. One report I read suggested that when engaging with people who are already using steroids, sometimes the most persuasive factor in getting them to reconsider and move away from this conduct comes from speaking to them about the consequences for their mental health rather than the physical consequences. That appears to have more influence when it comes to behaviour. The hon. Member makes an interesting point.

Alone, most steroids are taken in pill form. If needle sharing is involved, there are other risks in terms of HIV and hep C. Use of counterfeits also further complicates risk. Of course, another consequence if they are used in sport is that unfairness is created and sporting integrity is undermined. As has been set out, the drugs are regulated under the Medicines Act 1968 and classified as class C under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The question rightly posed to us today is: what more can we do? I speak from a position of weakness, but I agree that first and foremost, we all need to improve our knowledge of the issue. Evidence has to be at the heart of the approach, as the hon. Member for Bosworth has said, so how better can we understand the scale, incidence and causation of the problems that have been highlighted and thereby better craft a response?

As the hon. Member highlighted, last August the Health and Social Care Committee reported on the impact of body image on mental and physical health and recommended a national review of the growing use of anabolic steroids as it relates to body image. That seems to me to be an essential first step. That research will then shape our response, which will have to use a public health approach and education to tackle demand and to try to close off access as best we can. That, of course, will involve a cross-departmental approach, which was another important point made by the hon. Member.

On education and campaigning, there are two sides to the coin. First, we need to look at the material and propaganda influencing and driving people to a place where they feel it is necessary or desirable to access IPEDs. That includes media and social media, as hon. Members have said, with the all-prevalent perfect body images in the press, on TV and increasingly on social media and in online advertising. If anyone shows a remote interest in trying to keep fit or even just losing a few pounds, they suddenly find themselves bombarded on Instagram or Facebook or whatever else with relentless images of what has been referred to in the past as the “Love Island” look, which to me seems pretty much unachievable for anyone who cannot spend every waking hour in the gym or unless they use IPEDs.

The Health and Social Care Committee dealt with that point in its report, calling on the Government to work with advertisers to feature a wider variety of body aesthetics and with industry and the Advertising Standards Authority to encourage advertisers and influencers not to doctor their images. The Committee said that

“the Government should introduce legislation that ensures commercial images are labelled with a logo where any part of the body, including its proportions and skin tone, are digitally altered.”

Those seem to be valuable suggestions that are certainly worth considering. The hon. Member for Bosworth pointed out that there has been some progress, but there is further to go.

As well as tackling the images and messages that promote the use of IPEDs, Government also need to raise awareness of the risks and how to minimise harm. Again, various Committee recommendations seem sensible, advocating for a campaign co-ordinated

“through existing steroid user support groups and targeted at areas of highest risk, such as gyms with a high proportion of body builders.”

We need to tackle head on the idea that these things are some sort of equivalent to supplements. They are in a different category altogether. The Committee also heard evidence stressing the importance of education about body image for young people, in terms of both critical thinking and appraising images, as well as self-worth. Again, the Government should strengthen those areas in education settings.

A report by the Scottish Drugs Forum noted the significance of close friends as a source of IPEDs. It suggested that peer education programmes could be an important way of overcoming that, with community members cascading positive health messages. And this is not just about education; mental health strategies need to be revisited as well, and we need to think about how we can support people struggling with self-esteem amid a bombardment of images.

Finally, we also need to consider appropriately targeted harm reduction advice and drugs services. There are many examples of good work out there. Yorkshire and the Humber has a regional steroid and IPED reference group and a workers forum of more than 30 people and with every district represented. In Glasgow, an image and performance enhancing drugs clinic provides testing, needle exchange services, consultation and advice on harm reduction and alternatives. Edinburgh, too, has a steroid clinic based in the harm reduction team of NHS Lothian. It provides advice services, equipment and testing, psychological services, and support to stop with mental and physical assistance. There is good work happening in the different parts of the United Kingdom. We should learn from that, and seek to ensure that more people around the various countries can benefit from it. Those are just a few ideas.

I will close by thanking the hon. Member for Bosworth again for bringing forward this debate. None of us have all the answers; I certainly do not—far from it. He had lots of ideas. He highlighted that there are pros and cons to some of them. Some of them are quite bold or controversial, but they are definitely worth discussing. His central point was that we need to have evidence to make the discussion as fully informed as possible. We should revisit this topic, and ensure that we continue to drive forward as we seek to address what is a growing public health issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on securing this debate. It is an important topic and he is doing some excellent campaigning. His description of bigorexia, the impact of social media and all the pressures on young men to get the perfect body image was powerful. It is true that we have been talking about these issues when it comes to women for a long time, but we have not been talking about men. I have twin boys who are 12 years old, and they tell me repeatedly that they want a six pack. They do not have one and they will not have one any time soon, but they are already thinking in that way.

The hon. Member for Bosworth mentioned Andrew Tate as a particularly powerful online influencer; they are putting great pressure on our young boys. I took a group of scouts around Parliament last week, and they were all telling me how poor Andrew Tate had been badly done by and locked up in prison for no reason. The hon. Member made the point that sometimes some of these men talk sense and sound like they are all about empowering men, but on the other hand they are being incredibly misogynistic and spreading awful mistruths. That is very true; I see it time and again.

This is an important conversation to have, and there is a wider conversation about the role that we can all play in developing what it means to be a man. I have done lots of debates about knife crime, and we talk endlessly about boys who feel they have to carry knives and be macho in order to be a man. There are boys now who go to the gym and are tempted to take steroids because they feel that is what it is to be a man. There is the growth of the horrific incel movement, with men who define themselves as not being attractive and not able to attract women. The Government need to think about all those important things in the round. It is a wider issue than this debate today.

We have covered a lot of the issues that the Government need to think about. The first thing is the law. As has been said, steroids are a class C drug, so they are illegal to own and sell. Possession is punishable by up to two years in prison or a fine, and people can get 14 years in prison for supply. Other drugs are illegal to ship or sell, but not to buy or possess. An example is the tanning drug melanotan, which I had not heard of until this debate, but it sounds like a strange thing to want to do. As with all classified substances, the Government are responsible for clamping down on the sale and use of those drugs. Although the Opposition said that the 10-year drugs plan did not go far enough, it did contain a lot of good policies. However, the fact that it did not include any of those steroids is amiss, and perhaps the Government should look at that again.

We have already talked about the physical side effects, which go way beyond what people read about when they decide that they want to get steroids. There are the potentially lethal impacts of strokes or heart attacks, as well as erectile dysfunction, sterility and loss of hair. We clearly need more information on all those things to tell people what they are likely to face if they take steroids. The other aspect is mental health. We know that use of these drugs is very high. It seems there is a debate online about the number being between 500,000 and 1 million. Perhaps 1 million is not quite right, but a large number of people in the UK use steroids; the hon. Member for Bosworth referred to the figures from UK Anti-Doping.

In a 2016 survey, 56% of steroid users said they were motivated by improving their body image, so getting stronger and fitter is not the driver here—it is body image. We all know the pressures to look good and conform to shockingly rigid beauty standards that are presented by the media. “Love Island” is back on television, as the hon. Member for Bosworth said, and there is really powerful pressure that very few of us are able to ignore. I certainly worry about my weight all the time, and why would men not do the same? We do not talk about that as much as we should.

Fads come and go, and new things will come on the market as soon as we tackle some of the older things. Recently I saw reports of a new procedure called buccal fat removal, which takes the fat out of one’s cheek. It is quite extraordinary, but apparently suddenly very popular. Surgeries and techniques and fitness tips change almost daily, but their impact on our mental health, especially that of young people, is relenting.

A study in 2021 found that 54% of men displayed signs of body dysmorphia and said that low body confidence had negative effects on aspects of their lives, while 49% of women admitted to often thinking about being lean and maintaining an extreme exercise programme and feeling anxiety at missing a workout. Over 80% of those aged 18 to 24 showed at least one sign of body dysmorphia. We have heard many more stats. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) talked about lots of the recommendations. The Women and Equalities Committee has heard that over 60% of women feel negatively about their bodies, but the equivalent figure for men does not come to the fore in the way that it should.

It is important to say that there is help out there for people who need it. The eating disorder charity Beat and the Campaign Against Living Miserably offer support to those affected by eating disorders, body dysmorphia and drugs. Help is out there for everyone, including men. Whatever toxic male influencers may say, there is no shame in seeking help for performance-enhancing drug use and body image issues. It is a sign of bravery and strength, not weakness. We should be clear that alongside proper enforcement of the law to tackle the crime, we should also tackle the causes of the crime. The next Labour Government will guarantee mental health treatment within a month for all who need it. That is a wider issue that the Government need to address.

The hon. Member for Bosworth very eloquently asked questions to the Minister. I know he is a Health Minister, so it is hard for him to talk about Home Office issues, but hopefully he can pass on the comments from this debate to his Home Office colleagues. There is a question about what is being done to stop the sale of these steroids. I was able to find a vast number of websites just by looking on Google. The websites and will sell someone steroids. There is also There were absolutely loads of them.

Although selling steroids is illegal and the Government say they are acting to stop such websites, there is little evidence that anything much is being done, so I ask the Minister: what will the Home Office do to tackle the sale of controlled IPEDs online? Will he look again at the 10-year drug strategy and perhaps expand it into this space? Will the Government commission a national review on steroid use, as has been mentioned, which the Health and Social Care Committee recommended?

The reasons that people use steroids and other image and performance-enhancing drugs are complex, but the drugs are illegal and cause serious harm to physical and mental health. This is an issue of public health as much as one of crime. It is clear from today that the Government must go further. We all need to catch up on the changing nature of the drugs that are available for people to buy. We need to move at the same speed as social media and do what we can to ease the pressure on young men in particular to build their body image by using these kinds of drugs. I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

I remind the Minister that he can go to 5.38 pm, while obviously leaving some time for Dr Evans to wind up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans). I knew as soon as he secured the debate that he would bring us something special, and he did not disappoint—it was a fascinating speech. Without wishing to spoil the impact of my response, there were so many good questions and important ideas in it that I will not be able to bottom all of them out this afternoon, but we should see this as the start of a conversation that I am keen to pursue with him. Likewise, there were many important and interesting observations from other hon. Members, including about the issue of roid rage, which was raised by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), and about the position of young men in society, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). I was sorry to hear about the tragic case of Matt, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge), and I am sure our hearts go out to his parents and family.

I will touch on the positive steps we took last week in the substance misuse and recovery strategy—the 10-year drugs strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth mentioned that the strategy has a heavy focus on alcohol, heroin and crack, and the reasons for that are obvious. Indeed, as part of the launch, I met my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who will appreciate that there is a big focus on those drugs because they drive about half of all acquisitive crime. Alcohol is one of the big killers and addictions that causes so many problems. As part of that 10-year drugs strategy, we have created a ministerial working group across Departments of exactly the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth talked about creating. There is every reason to look, through that group, at what we can collectively do, particularly on the illegal sale of some of these drugs.

To mention a bit about the strategy, this is a £421 million investment over the next two years to improve the number of recovery and treatment places. Perhaps I can cheekily use this opportunity to thank everyone working in the drug and alcohol treatment sector for all the fantastic work they are already doing, and there are many other things we want to extend out to, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth has raised today.

I draw Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I am a practising addiction psychiatrist. I thank the Minister for the focus he is bringing to bear on this area and for the fact that the Government have put in place a comprehensive strategy for the next 10 years that focuses on alcohol, crack cocaine and opiate use, which is absolutely the right focus. I also thank him for the fact that the strategy is backed up with substantial investment, which is very much needed and which I am sure will make a big difference over time.

However, we do not have good data collection for steroid misuse. A good way of collecting data about drug use in the general population is through the crime survey for England and Wales. I wonder whether the Minister might be able to take that away from the debate and collect some more robust data to ensure that steroid use is properly captured in that crime survey. Perhaps he might have conversations with colleagues in other Departments because that will give us a much stronger basis to work from, and an evidence base is important in drug and alcohol treatment.

My hon. Friend brings huge expertise to the debate. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth are right that we need better data. Perhaps one route is through the CSEW, as he says. It may be that there are other routes for getting better data on prevalence. There are limits to how much people will report some of these crimes when it is something they are taking, rather than a case of stealing to fund that, but there may be different ways we can get the right data.

In terms of what we know, a small cohort of people—only 0.2% of people aged between 16 and 59—use steroids. However, these individuals, as my hon. Friend and other Members have pointed out, may not be fully aware of the health risks associated with the drug or the impact it can have on their mental or physical health. As Members present certainly know, anabolic steroids are prescription-only medicines that help patients gain weight and rebuild tissues that have become weak because of serious injury or illness—that is their clinical use. These drugs are sometimes taken without medical advice to try to improve muscle mass or athletic performance. Anabolic steroids are a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Although it is not illegal to possess them for personal use, possession, importation and exportation are illegal if deemed to be with the intent to supply others. So people who are involved in these issues need to be extremely careful.

Lots of work is under way across multiple Departments on this important issue, and I want to talk about just some of the actions the Government are taking, notwithstanding the need to do more on a range of fronts. The Government are committed to stopping the illegal trade in human medicines. The majority of IPEDs are sold online through illegal trading websites based overseas. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency works with private sector partners to try to reduce the presence of such websites and, with the Home Office Border Force, to intercept and seize medicines entering the UK.

We are also taking action in the Online Safety Bill to prevent criminal activity, including the illegal sale of steroids. The intention is that companies that fail to comply with the Bill when it has been enacted will face stiff financial penalties or, in the most serious cases, have their sites blocked by the independent regulator, Ofcom. I hope that that addresses some of the concerns about the frightening-sounding websites that the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) mentioned.

Of course, we know that preventing the trade in steroids is not enough to tackle the problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth rightly said, the wider issue lies with the increased prevalence of body dysmorphia and the societal preference for young men to look a particular way. The rise of social media has undoubtedly increased this pressure in recent years, as young people have greater access to platforms promoting often unrealistic and digitally altered body images.

Schools play a really important role in helping young people to make positive choices about their wellbeing through their compulsory relationships, sex and health education curriculum. The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities has worked with the Department for Education to create quality teaching resources for teachers in order to help prevent substance abuse and to address some of the issues with young people feeling that they should look a certain, completely unrealistic. To pick up on some of the horrifying stories that the hon. Member for Croydon Central shared about the young Scouts she met who were all fans of Andrew Tate, that is also something that we need to address in education in schools.

As well as informing students about the risks associated with harmful substances—this goes to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth made about harm reduction as well as prevalence reduction—schools have an important duty to protect pupils from harm and to provide mental and physical health support. Through statutory health education, secondary school pupils are taught about the similarities and differences between the online world and the physical world, including how people may curate a particular image of their life online, how information is targeted at them, and how to be a discerning consumer of information online. I am always interested in how we can improve what is taught in schools, because the world facing young people is so different from the world that the generation of people represented here experienced when they were young.

I am proud to highlight that the Government have committed to offer all state schools and colleges a grant to train a senior mental health lead by 2025. That will enable schools to introduce effective, whole-school approaches to mental health and wellbeing. Backed by £10 million in 2022-23, over 8,000 schools and colleges have taken up the offer so far.

We are also taking significant steps to tackle body image issues. On 2 February, the Government responded to the Health and Social Care Committee’s important report on the impact of body image on mental and physical health. We welcomed the Committee’s report and recommendations, and we agree with the Committee that image and performance-enhancing drugs are a significant public health issue. However, we know that prevention is better than cure, and when it comes to harmful substances, it is crucial that we ensure the public have access to sufficient information to inform them of the harms associated with substances such as steroids. The Government-commissioned website Talk to FRANK provides detailed information on the mental and physical health risks of taking steroids, and it is updated on a regular basis.

Additionally, UK Anti-Doping already has an outreach and communication programme that is run in partnership with ukactive, which has been live since 2018. The partnership aims to improve education and awareness around image and performance-enhancing drugs in gyms and leisure centres because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth rightly pointed out, such places are a focus for these issues. They are the right places to target, and we need to work with sporting bodies, gyms and the like to try to tackle the problems where they are most concentrated.

I draw Members’ attention to the investment that we are making in mental health services. The Government will have invested £2.3 billion a year by 2024 in expanding the services available in England, including for people with body dysmorphic disorder. An additional £54 million is being invested in children and young people’s community eating disorder services in 2022-23. That investment is alongside the development of a major conditions strategy, which will address prevention and treatment for mental ill health, with an aim of producing an interim report in the summer.

I once again thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on an important issue, and for his many, many ideas. He set out a whole suite of things that we need to be doing. It was a fascinating speech. I commend his work in this area, including his image campaign last year, which achieved national media coverage and will no doubt have had a beneficial impact.

The Government are taking significant steps to protect the mental health of the nation, and particularly young people, and we are ensuring that the right support is in place for those suffering or at risk of body dysmorphic issues. Although a review is not currently planned, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will continue to work closely on tackling the use of anabolic steroids, educating the public on the risks associated with them and ensuring that mental health support is available for all those who need it.

Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. Indeed, I thank both the Chairs we have had during this debate, as well as the Clerks for staying late and the officials for being here.

I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for talking about algorithms and body image. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge), who is no longer in his place, raised the sad case of Matt. The constant campaigning of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for men’s health has been fantastic. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) hit the nail on the head: this issue is about how we record data.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for his point about bold ideas. The whole point of this discussion is that no stone should be left unturned. The bold ideas might not be right, but they need to be explored, because that is the key thing to do when trying to deal with this issue.

I am glad to hear about the twins of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). These are exactly the conversations that people should be having up and down the country. Mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers should be asking questions about what young people are aware of and what they are seeing.

It is lovely to come into a debate after three years and hear that there is unanimous support across the House on this issue and a desire to fill the void, because there is a worry that the likes of Andrew Tate will step into it. I would love to take the Minister up on his “keen pursuit”—to quote him—of this issue. We are at the start of a road, and this is all about having a conversation about steroids in the UK.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of steroid and image and performance enhancing drug use.

Sitting adjourned.