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Westminster Hall

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 28 November 2023

[Martin Vickers in the Chair]

Nuclear Test Veterans: Medical Records

I beg to move,

That this House has considered nuclear test veterans and medical records.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Vickers.

British nuclear test veterans have now rightly received medallic recognition for their service, and for that I am very grateful to the Government, but the Minister must know that behind their proud smiles, those veterans are really struggling. They—and sometimes their wives, widows and descendants—have reported making repeated requests to gain access to the results of their blood or urine testing samples which they recall being taken during the nuclear testing programme. Sadly, many confirm that their service medical records do not include the test results, and they just do not understand why. The issue is relevant to the current health concerns of many veterans and their descendants and the treatment they need for anaemia, leukaemia and rare genetic conditions. That is why it is so important for them to access the information urgently.

As the Minister will know, nuclear testing veterans first raised the issue of health problems in 1983. In 1985, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, ordered a health study by the National Radiological Protection Board, which in 1988 reported that there was a “slight risk” of veterans getting leukaemia. The report was only seven pages long, and it was criticised by veterans as a whitewash. It was repeated, with similar results, in 1993 and 2003. Further, it has been reported in recent days that the 1988 scientific report was altered on the instruction of officials.

The link between radiation and illness is now well established. In 2007, genetic research found that nuclear victims had the same rate of DNA damage as clean-up workers at Chernobyl. In 2011, a Ministry of Defence health study found that 83% of survivors had between one and nine chronic health conditions, and further surveys of nuclear veterans report that miscarriage rates are three times higher among their wives and that their children have 10 times the usual number of birth defects. However, despite the clear health risks and the apparent causal links to the conditions experienced by many nuclear testing veterans, very few war pensions are approved unless veterans can clearly show information proving risk and the impact on health. Such information would include, for example, blood and urine samples demonstrating high levels of radiation exposure, but information from successive Defence Ministers or potential record holders has been inconsistent and unclear on whether there were tests, whether records were kept, where they were kept and whether records are now accessible for searching.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate and on all her successful campaigning work on this issue. I have a constituent whose late husband was one of the test veterans who served in Kiritimati, or Christmas Island. She wrote to me a couple of months ago and said:

“On landing back home after an arduous journey at the young age of 20 or 21 years old, he started to regress into bed-wetting…None of the politicians that are now in the House could possibly know what it was like to be ordered to be guinea pigs for the so-called good of the country.”

Given what my constituent writes, does the hon. Member agree that some of the illnesses and symptoms were mental as well as physical?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with his comments. It is not just physical conditions that impacted on these veterans; there were indeed profound mental health concerns reported afterwards as a result of what they experienced.

My constituent’s grandad, John Morris, is just one nuclear testing veteran who has suffered and who has been trying to locate the relevant information so that he can apply for a war pension. He was a Royal Engineer and served on Operation Grapple on Christmas Island, and he witnessed four nuclear explosions. He told me that one day he and his colleagues were told to sit in the open air with their backs to the explosion. Shorts and shirts were the norm, but on this day they were told to wear Army-issued sunglasses and find a cloth to put over their eyes. They were then hit with a flash 1,000 times brighter than the sun. His hands became an X-ray, as he could see every bone and every joint, and he was then hit with the heat blast. It was so intense that the palm trees scorched, as did the men’s backs.

On his return from service, John’s first-born son tragically died suddenly at four months old due to birth defects that John believes were linked to radiation. John himself has since been diagnosed with cancer, and at age 26 he developed pernicious anaemia, a blood disorder linked to radiation. John gave multiple blood samples during his service, but they cannot be found on his main medical records. When he asked for details of the blood test, he was told:

“Everything you have received was all that was held in your Army personnel and medical file.”

John’s story is matched by countless similar battles for test and medical information by other nuclear veterans.

My first simple question to the Minister is this: were blood and urine samples taken from nuclear testing veterans, and was a record kept of those samples? To help in his analysis, I will share with him the information that I am aware has been archived on this basis so far. First, there are publicly available documents—limited documents, notes, forms, official instructions and guidance—that are accessible in the National Archives. They highlight a range of pertinent references that suggest blood and urine test data was collected from servicemen and that this information was stored and analysed.

For example, documents show that the MOD had a director of hygiene and research who organised blood tests of personnel and kept a “master record” of results. They note orders from the Air Ministry and War Office telling unit medical officers to arrange repeated

“blood testing of personnel working regularly with radioactive sources”.

They detail the medical forms used and the instructions on how to duplicate and store them. They point to Army blood tests being copied from Atomic Weapons Research Establishment records to be put in soldiers’ main medical files. They show that pathologists attached to the weapons trials were told to create a “special health register” to log the data. There are countless other documents ordering the testing of servicemen at various nuclear trials.

It seems clear that blood and urine tests were routine, that they existed as formal documentation and, indeed, that a register and master record were kept; yet to my knowledge the register and master record have not been released, nor has specific documentation relating to each individual, bar one or two exceptions. It should also be noted that thousands of the released documents relating to this period reference the AB and ES series of files, which I understand were withdrawn from the National Archives for a security review in 2018, with no expected date of return.

Secondly, the Minister will be aware of a freedom of information request made to the Atomic Weapons Establishment in September that uncovered a list of 150 documents currently held by the AWE. Three are in the public domain, but the remainder are not. These documents include titles such as “Blood Examinations Personnel Proceeding to Christmas Island”; “Message from AWRE Christmas Island To AWRE Aldermaston reference Blood Count Irregularities from”, and the rest is redacted; “Blood Counts at Maralinga”; and “Dose Record Grapple Z—record of 4 urine samples”. There are many more documents referred to in a similar vein. Again, these documents seem to clearly point to the existence of blood and urine test results.

The Minister might be as perplexed as I am as to the location of such sample results and why they have not been released to veterans. Indeed, the Government’s responses to such questions over the last few years have certainly sown a great deal of confusion. For example, in 2018 it was stated that:

“The Ministry of Defence is unable to locate any information that suggests that Atomic Weapons Research Establishment staff took blood samples for radiological monitoring at the tests.”

Then in November last year, it was stated that:

“The Atomic Weapons Establishment holds copies of the results of urine radioactivity measurements and blood tests for a small number of individuals where these were included in scientific documentation on the nuclear weapons trials.”

In December last year, the opposite was again indicated:

“We would also like to take this opportunity to confirm that AWE does not hold the medical records or the results of blood and urine tests for current or ex-servicemen.”

That merry-go-round of confusion goes round and round, month after month, with every question asked and response received.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which is of particular interest to my constituent Steve Purse, whose late father served at Maralinga. Steve and his young son have rare genetic conditions and Steve has described the distress that he experiences over the uncertainty as to his late father’s medical records and whether those can be disclosed. Does the hon. Lady agree that the primary outcome of this debate needs to be greater certainty for people such as Steve about what the answer to that question is?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I know his constituent very well: he is a very lovely man and has fought long and hard to achieve recognition for veterans and their families and descendants. Unfortunately, veterans themselves have not undergone an extensive health study into the effects of the radiation to which they were exposed, let alone their descendants in relation to the impact on future family members. The Government certainly need to address that to give people such as Steve the certainty that he will receive the support that he requires if it is needed in the future. At the moment, he is not receiving such support, sadly.

The Minister himself has stated that it is likely that the blood tests are simply categorised in scientific data at the AWE. That may of course be the case, but for that data even to exist in the first place, the sample results had to come first, so what happened to them? I truly intend to be helpful to the Minister in getting to the bottom of this puzzle. I have no doubt that he wants to help veterans and their families to receive the information that they need. To that end, I have a number of questions that I would like him to answer.

First, can the Minister review the security classification for the 150 FOI documents that I have mentioned, so that they can be released for public view? Will he release the AB and ES series of files and, if not, explain to the House why they are to be withheld? In response to a recent question to the Defence Secretary, I was informed that all classified documents retained by the Ministry of Defence under a Lord Chancellor’s instruction or a national security exemption are still available to be searched on request. If they are indeed searchable, despite being withheld documents, can the Minister confirm that the person making the relevant search request will be notified that that information is being withheld and will be given the reasons why?

Is the Minister specifically aware of any blood test and urine sample information that is being withheld under a Lord Chancellor’s instruction or a national security exemption? He will be aware that many blood and urine test samples were taken under old Air Ministry orders and that the AWRE was not legally required in 1959 to share or disclose documents on request, as would be the case under current legislation. Can he confirm that those historical records are being searched when a subject access, FOI or similar search request is received?

The fact remains that blood and urine test samples were taken from many servicemen at nuclear test sites and the archive documentation suggests that they were formally documented, so what happened to the documents? Where are they now, and why in so many cases are nuclear veterans and their families unable to access their personal medical data? That data is vital for their war pension applications and for an understanding of the conditions that they suffer. If I have one request for the Minister today, it is to give those men and their families the medical information that they need, while they are still alive. They simply need to know where their test sample data is. I say to the Minister this. If it is not available, be open: explain what happened to it, when it happened, why it happened and on whose instruction.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech, setting out all the issues. I would just like to add weight to that point about simple transparency. If the information is there, can the veterans and their families see it? If there is a reason why they are not able to see it, can that be explained? I really hope that the Minister will accept either of those routes and give an explanation to my hon. Friend today.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and for all the work that she has done over the years to support nuclear test veterans. They are very appreciative of her efforts. On her point about transparency, that is the key to today’s debate. All that these men are asking for is the truth. They want to know where their test results are and if they cannot access them, they want to know why. They deserve nothing less than the truth for the service they have provided to this country. I hope the Minister will do all he can to honour their requests.

It is indeed a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on setting the scene so incredibly well with detail, passion and understanding. We are indebted to her for that. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. He has been a dear friend during all my time in this Chamber, since I came here in 2010. I look forward to his response because I believe he understands the issue of the veterans well. I think we are all keen to have the response to the questions that have been asked and the commitment that we seek.

I recognise the critical contributions of veterans and civilian staff to the UK’s nuclear deterrent testing programme in the late 1950s and 1960s. It is great to hear that so many veterans have now received their medals for that service. This debate is not about those medals, but that is one of the recognitions we have sought over the years and at least that has been agreed. The right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is not here, but he has been active and instrumental in that over the years; we thank him for his contribution. I also look forward to the shadow Minister’s contribution as well. He understands the issues of veterans well and has been assiduous in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber in relation to the issues under focus.

There are 20,000 British servicemen, many from Northern Ireland and some of whom are my constituents, who took part in numerous nuclear tests. To this day, none has received any compensation for illnesses they believe were caused by radiation and other side effects from the impact of the testing. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles set the scene at the beginning, where they were told to put their sunglasses on and sit down, shirtless, never knowing what was coming. That horror of what they endured, unknowingly until it was over, illustrates very well their issues.

Many have stated that those health issues passed down genetically to their children. In some cases, many lost their children at a very young age. I am a fan of “Call the Midwife”—we probably all are—and one of the stories last year or at the end of this year was that of a veteran who had been subjected to that and the effect it had on him, his family and, of course, his baby yet to be born. Sometimes, TV programmes illustrate very well pertinent stories out there in real life. They portrayed that extremely well and gave me a personal feeling and an insight into what was happening as well.

While numerous veterans have since obtained copies of their medical records, what the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles referred to, and what we all seek, is an open-doors release of all those medical records; that important data so people can ascertain where the problems started and where they came from. Many recall having certain tests done, which were not recorded on the records they received. I find that hard to comprehend. I am not saying there is, but we are all asking: is there a cover-up? Is there a determined commitment to not releasing that?

I know the Veterans Minister well. I trust him and find him an honest and sincere person, so I do not for one second believe that there has been any deliberation to make that happen. The Minister is always diligent in his work, and he has stated that there has been no cover-up of medical records, so I take it at face value that there has not. I therefore suggest that we should release all those medical records—all that information—to each and every one of those veterans and their families, without their requesting it. We have an obligation to look after them.

We are here as elected representatives on behalf of our constituents—I am representing those of Strangford and across Northern Ireland. Although we should have every faith that what the Minister says is the truth, there is clearly still a question to be answered about where the missing information is and who has access to it. I say to the Minister: make it clear, release all the records and let the people see what is going on; then there will be no mystery, stories or thoughts about what is happening.

Many medical records that remain incomplete hold vital information needed to claim war pensions. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles made it clear that the records have implications not just for veterans’ health today but for their pensions. If somebody has served their country well, we have a real obligation to look after them fully. I know that is the Minister’s intention, and I have absolutely no doubt that he will say that in his response, but we need action, not just words.

Although the Government remain committed to do all they can to locate the records when they are applied for, there is unfortunately a disparity in the records that our veterans receive. I again urge the Government and the Minister to ensure that all efforts are made to locate missing records that hold vital information about the health conditions that veterans may be suffering because of nuclear war testing. That is what the hon. Lady wants, what I want and what everybody else here wants. That is our request as elected representatives on behalf of our constituents. Let us get the answers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) not only for her sterling work in securing and opening this debate, but for her continued campaigning for justice for all our nuclear veterans.

For decades, our nuclear veterans, their families, campaign groups, journalists and MPs have relentlessly pursued truth and justice for those brave servicemen who bore close witness to the most devastating weapon this country ever produced. Those men were part of an experiment that secured our safety but devastated them and their families. The Minister is well aware of the countless testimonies from those willing to speak about the harm that radiation exposure has caused to them.

Cancer, heart, skeletal, dental and skin problems, difficulties conceiving, depression, personality changes, chronic headaches, mental ill health, rare genetic conditions and birth defects passed down through generations were all prevalent after taking part in those tests. That is the enduring, painful legacy of the tests those men were subjected to. Many of them still feel responsible for that pain, but they are not responsible; the Ministry of Defence is. It is the MOD that sent them to the blasts without any understanding of the protection they needed. Men stood in their shorts and vests, and were simply asked to turn their back on nuclear blasts that contaminated the land around them and instantly killed all wildlife there.

Litigation, petitions, information requests and pleas have all been sidelined by Governments who have stated that they cannot prove that those men were irradiated, and that the scientific evidence needed to prove the link between their and their families’ unexplained ill health simply does not exist. Who on earth would seriously keep up the denial that nuclear blasts do not have a negative impact on the human body? The veterans rightly suspect some kind of cover-up. Susie Boniface at the Daily Mirror, in her long campaign for the truth, has repeatedly uncovered evidence that would indicate such a cover-up—most recently, evidence that the National Radiological Protection Board report had been tampered with by officials, and past UK-Government commissioned research that contradicted the conclusions of international scientific research.

My constituent and dear friend Jack Taylor was involved in Operation Antler near Maralinga. He has files full of documents and pictures from his time there and also, sadly, mountains of dismissive letters from various Secretaries of State and Ministers. For him, like many of the nuclear veterans, it is not just about compensation; it is about recognition, truth and justice. It breaks my heart that my dear friend and others who did their duty to our country—as Jack says, a duty that has kept the world safe for decades—should be treated in such a despicable way. There is nothing worse than knowing you are telling the truth and those in authority keep telling you that you are wrong. It remains a stain on this country.

The common theme through the decades that veterans and their families have been fighting for justice is inconsistency from Government on whether the servicemen had blood and urine tests prior to and after the nuclear tests. If they did, where were the records kept and how can they be accessed?

A recent freedom of information request has shown that such records do exist, but, as usual, full details will not be released because the AWE says that it is too expensive. That is why the veterans, exhausted but not defeated, are exploring fresh legal action, but they should not have to. The veterans and their families know that full access to their medical records will show they were exposed to radiation that caused them ill health. They are therefore owed compensation.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that the question is one of openness and transparency from the Ministry of Defence. Those brave servicemen, including my constituent Dennis Brooks, served this country and contributed to the safety of this nation over many decades, and they deserve answers. Many of the families and brave servicemen are now advanced in years. It would be lovely if, before they pass away, they received the answers that they and their families and children have waited so long for. The Government surely have an obligation to deliver that for the families.

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention—I could not agree more. Given the anger and frustration that the families and the veterans who are still with us today feel, the Government’s answer that it will cost too much is an insult to the veterans and their families and everything that they have been through.

The UK remains the only nuclear power to deny compensation to its bomb test veterans. Does the Minister seriously think that the US, Canada, France, Fiji and Australia are all wrong to give their nuclear veterans compensation? Why must our nuclear veterans here have to continually fight every single step of the way? We often hear that the Government’s ambition is for us to be the best place in the world to be a veteran, but it is clear that that ambition does not extend to our nuclear veterans.

I want to start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for securing this debate. This place is often at its best when we put aside partisanship and resist the temptation to parrot party political lines, and instead help to shape Government and Opposition thinking through both understanding and shared experience. The work that she has done on this issue—I have been pleased to work with her, as she knows—has been illustrative of exactly that spirit.

In that spirit, the Minister knows that on the basis of a cross-party campaign, which I began long ago when Labour were in government—that shows how long ago it was—we secured, as a result of the intervention by the then Prime Minister, the former Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a medal for nuclear test veterans. Many were able to receive them before Remembrance Sunday, and this very day a reception is being held for veterans to recognise their contribution. But much, much more needs to be done.

It might be said that any age, including ours, will be gauged by how it perceives its inheritance—what it gained from those who came before us—and what it gives to the future—what we bequeath to those who will be born later. When we think of what the veterans did and the effect that it had on all who came later, including all of us, we can truly value their contribution. We have made progress, as I have said, and today the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is holding a reception to recognise the 22,000 nuclear test veterans who risked life and limb long ago in the course of their duties, facing a radioactive smog and searing nuclear heat that altered their lives forever and changed their DNA.

Many have now passed, of course; this was a long time ago, before most of the people in this Chamber and I were born. We are dealing with a declining number of people, but of course their families were affected too because of the profound character of the effect that it had on them—it has been passed from generation to generation. That is why this issue of records is so salient. It is not just about the overdue recognition that I have described. It is about understanding our responsibility to those who this policy affected in the most dramatic of ways and dealing with—I hesitate to use the word—what looks to me like a cover-up.

By the way, no party in this House has not been involved in that because Governments have come and gone since the nuclear tests. One of the few things that has united them wholly is their unwillingness to play straight by nuclear test veterans. Indeed, I mentioned a moment ago that I first went to a Labour Defence Minister to raise the issue of the plight of nuclear test veterans when I was a Back Bencher in the late ’90s. After that—as you know, Mr Vickers—I served in government and was able to persuade the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, to grant an ex gratia payment to the test veterans, which I know was warmly received. He is now Lord Cameron of course, and so has gone from being the Prime Minister to David to Lord Cameron during the period of our campaign. I would be interested in the Minister’s view on whether it is time to refresh that payment by the way. It was £30 million and that was quite a while ago, so perhaps we could have the Minister’s view on how he intends to maintain that fund, given the effect on the veterans’ descendants.

The publication of records from 70 years ago is being withheld on what are, in my judgment, highly questionable grounds. I say that and I use the term “cover-up”, which is not one that I would deploy lightly, because the MOD, as the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles said, initially denied that there were records at all. For years, we were told that these tests were not done, or at least if they were done, the records were missing. Then it was revealed that there were records but they were not to be released. It has been only through freedom of information requests that we have discovered that blood records do indeed exist held at the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

FOI requests determined that those blood and urine samples were taken after the first bomb test and that the samples were analysed. We know too that these tests were flagged as missing as early as 1959. In more recent years, replies from the MOD have varied from stating that there was no information held about blood tests, to revealing the existence of hundreds of bloods tests, to claiming that no one who had a blood test was individually identifiable.

There are many questions for this very diligent, experienced and honourable Minister to answer. If there are tests, how many are there? Where are they held? Was the analysis done, and if so, does it still exist in a way that can be scrutinised? Were the records generic or particular—were they maintained and named to individuals? Those are all matters that I know the Minister will want to make this Chamber aware of without delay. If he cannot provide chapter and verse then, knowing him, I know that he will write to Members and answer those specific questions.

Repeated requests have revealed that many of the files have been closed using the Lord Chancellor’s instruction, citing national security exemptions. I would welcome a clarification on this from the Minister, including at what point, if any, Ministers have ever been made aware that blood tests exist for veterans, which may prove or disprove their claims of having been harmed by radiation.

My constituent Douglas Hern died recently. He was the person who first inspired me to take up the cause of nuclear test veterans 20 years ago. He was one such individual sent—in boyhood really, barely a man—out to the south Pacific, to journey close to nuclear explosions. He was told to turn his head and wear a hat and sunglasses. Can you imagine such a thing, Mr Vickers? Can you imagine the horror of that? It lasted with him forever, and it is why he campaigned so vigorously. I speak today not only as patron of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, but for Douglas, and for his family, whom I was happy to meet after his passing, despite the sad occasion. He had lost his wife, Sandie, about a year before; they were dear friends of mine. It was through Douglas that I learned of this injustice. It is why I took up the cause more than 20 years ago, and why I maintain faith that this Government and this Minister will finally make these records available, so that we can do right by those that did so much for us.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on securing this vital debate. I also congratulate her on her ongoing campaign for the rights of nuclear test veterans. Many people all over the country are very grateful for her work. When I was on the Labour Defence team, she introduced me to a group of veterans, their families and campaigners. Their stories were both compelling and moving, and I thank her for that.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), who until recently was our shadow Minister for Veterans. I know I speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who also served with her, when I say that she was an excellent shadow Minister for Veterans. Throughout my time on her team, I knew that her main focus was on our veterans, and I should like to thank her personally for her service.

In Islwyn, we have a strong history of supporting nuclear test veterans. I am proud of the fact that up until 2011, the Welsh branch of the Nuclear Test Veterans Association marched through Risca every year from 1993. The standard now proudly stands in St Mary’s church in Risca. As a much younger MP, I was always honoured to attend the event. I am pleased to report that when I visited the church last summer, the standard was still there in all its glory. It is hung from the ceiling—a constant reminder of what our nuclear test veterans went through. I am proud of the fact that Britain has a long, cherished and celebrated history honouring the valiant efforts of its military personnel, recognising their unwavering commitment and readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and security of the nation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles mentioned in her passionate speech, nuclear test veterans have been recognised for their service, with a medal run off the production lines in August ready for Remembrance Sunday. There is still, however, a feeling of unfinished business, as many Members here have already mentioned. The heart of this matter lies in the historical quest for answers by those who, in service to our nation, participated in or witnessed nuclear testing. That testing took place between 1952 and 1973 in Australia and around the Pacific. Around 40,000 individuals left their families and homes to play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of civilians and military personnel. Without their contribution to the development of a nuclear arsenal, Britain would never have been able to carry out Operation Hurricane—the detonation of a plutonium bomb in the Montebello Islands. That allowed us to become the third nuclear power.

The weapons that resulted from that test are still protecting us today, yet amidst our fight to maintain and hold that arsenal, we have often overlooked those whose lives have been affected by their participation in those tests. Access to medical records is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of veterans. These records contain critical information that can aid in diagnosing, treating and managing health conditions arising from exposure to radiation through nuclear tests. It is important to note that many veterans and their families believe that their exposure to these weapons and the radiation has affected the health of not only the veterans themselves, but their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. To shed light on their own health and that of their loved ones, the veterans are asking that blood and urine tests taken while they were serving their country are released. This is not just an issue for our veterans; it will play a critical role by helping us to understand the effects of radiation poisoning.

Some claim that when they have had their medical records back, crucial information has been missing or redacted. When queried, the Ministry of Defence has implied that the tests never took place. One veteran was able to narrow down the dates he gave blood to an extremely specific period due to being in medical isolation at that time. If these medical records cannot be found or veterans receive incomplete medical records with key information redacted, we must ask whether there were failures by the MOD to properly log and store the veterans’ information. That is certainly not an isolated case. Another veteran says the veterans group has

“uncovered over 200 archive documents which clearly show that the veterans were required to be tested for both blood and urine samples…before they went out to the South Pacific to engage in the nuclear testing, whilst they were there and when they came back”.

In the words of one veteran:

“If those tests were done where are they now?

American veterans involved in nuclear tests have been able to access their medical records and have received rightful compensation for the essential work they completed. These measures include, but are not limited to, a national day of recognition for their service and priority healthcare. Our veterans are not even asking for a day of recognition, but simply for their own medical files. Is it right that British veterans who carried out the same work as their American counter- parts have been deprived of the same recognition and support?

The lack of medical records has placed our veterans in an impossible situation. They find themselves denied access to their own medical records—crucial documents that hold the key to understanding and addressing potential health issues arising from exposure to radiation during nuclear tests. That denial leaves them stranded, unable to make informed decisions about the health of their families and to access appropriate, fully informed medical care.

The recent awarding of medals by the Government is no less than what the veterans deserve. However, I cannot help but feel that without granting these veterans the right to view their own medical records, it is a superficial act. A military medal is respected around the world, but we must not allow that medal to become hollow by treating those in receipt without the respect they deserve. Access to those medical records is not just a matter of principle; it is their right. It is essential for their wellbeing and testimony to our respect for their sacrifices.

Access to any medical record is a moral issue. The nuclear test veterans have fought a long, hard and—yes—painful campaign. As many now reach their twilight years or have already left us, let us give them the justice they deserve by granting their simple request.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and an honour to be part of such an important and powerful debate, standing with many colleagues from across the House who are concerned that they see an injustice. I join in the tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), who has been a tremendous advocate for the nuclear test veterans—and persistent. I fear that often persistence is what is required in this place, no matter how strong and compelling the case being made. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for his support and work on this issue, too. He is right that this House is at its best when we join together.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested that “Call the Midwife” was the relevant cultural reference for the debate. I feel it is more of a horror story and a horror film, because when we actually listen to the stories of what happened to our constituents and what is happening to their families, it feels like something out of the Hollywood playbook. It simply feels like it could not be true, and yet we know it did happen. It happened to citizens of this country, and the effects are still being felt generations later.

I will share the experience of my former constituent Albert Swain, known as George, who is 91. He lived in Walthamstow on his return from the Pacific for almost 50 years. He has now left, but his daughter is still my constituent. In 1957, he was serving on the aircraft carrier HMS Warrior during Operation Grapple X. This was a test of the hydrogen bomb, which was more than 140 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Albert worked in the galley, but during the test he was told to come up to the deck to witness the explosion—told to put himself in harm’s way. He was not given any special protective equipment, and despite turning his back on the explosion, he says that he still remembers seeing his bones through his flesh when the weapon was detonated. His colleagues on the ship said the same thing.

Since his involvement, he has now received his medal, and it is right that we thank these people for their service. But our debate today is about whether we have truly honoured them for the sacrifice they have made of their health, which is what we are now seeing. Albert’s family are concerned about the medical implications of that day for him. He has had skin cancer on his face, he has been blind in one eye for about five years, and he has always had anxiety—the psychological problems, the mental health issues that were mentioned earlier.

More worrying, Albert’s children have had medical issues that they are desperately concerned are related. One daughter had two miscarriages; another lost a baby two days postpartum. All his granddaughters have gynaecological problems of some sort, and one grandson has scoliosis. We know that exposure to ionising radiation can lead to heritable mutations, meaning that the family will never be sure, unless somebody investigates, whether what is happening to them is because of what happened to George.

Let us think for a moment of 40,000 families in this country thinking the same thing, and then ask ourselves whether what we are having to ask today is really enough. I know the Minister has heard the calls for the evidence from the blood and urine tests to be released. It says something about us, does it not, that we are now dealing with quite an elderly generation—as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings has said, some have now passed away—and yet, rather than tearing down the barriers of the challenges that they may face, these still exist.

Surely in this day and age, knowing what we know now about what has happened to these people, we should not be waiting for people to make requests for their own medical information. There should not be a question about whether data can be released, or a freedom of information request is sufficient; we should be humbled and horrified enough to get that information to them and proactively investigate the healthcare concerns that they and their families may have.

Surely the very least we can do is to recognise the problems that are happening—the stories being told across the country of the people affected by what happened to their grandparents, but who still today are struggling to get information. It is surely a mark of shame on us—I know the Minister will share their concern—that veterans are having to consider legal action to get their medical records, and the compensation and answers they deserve. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is right: Governments of all colours have played their part in this tragedy. Surely now is the time to stand up and be what these people were—the best of our country, the best of our people—and do the best of service for them.

I hope the Minister will do more today than just ask whether the data is available, or even if people are making compensation requests. We have to offer those families the help and support they need if they are facing these experiences. We have to offer the proactive approach that I think everybody here agrees needs to happen. I know the Minister will want to do this, so my question to him is, what does he need from us to make that happen? He will have heard the stories. He will think of somebody like George standing on that deck on a bright day, seeing his bones through his skin, and not even realising that generations later it could affect his grandson in the way we fear it might have. He will want to do right by George, and all the others. What does the Minister need from us to make sure not just that those records are released and compensation is given, but that we have the inquiry we need to get to the bottom of what happened to those people, and determine what we can do to put it right?

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on the way she introduced the debate. I congratulate her on being persistent, calm and very clear about what justice looks like, what the veterans of those British nuclear tests deserve, and what can be done about it. This is not the only debate where she has done so; she has done that over many years. She speaks for many hon. Members, from Government and Opposition parties, when she makes the very simple case for justice, for transparency, and for an understanding that those people involved in the tests are currently being denied. I thank her for that effort.

I echo the thanks to the “Fleet Street Fox”, Susie Boniface of The Daily Mirror, for her persistent and dogged campaigning. If it were not for her arguing for the column inches, articles and time to investigate over many years, this issue would not be as loud or as prominent as it is today. Many people owe to her journalism the justice that I hope they will get in future.

I entirely endorse that. I described my constituent Douglas Hern as having inspired me. Had that Mirror journalist not cajoled and informed me over such a long period, I do not think I would have maintained this campaign with quite so much vigour. He is entirely right to pay tribute to her.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I also echo the thanks to my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for her time in the shadow Defence team, and welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who is shortly taking over that role. I am merely a stand-in today, but I should like to add my thoughts and experience in Plymouth to those shared today.

Our nuclear test veterans served our country with pride and distinction. They made a vital contribution to the creation of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, which continues to keep us and our NATO allies safe today. It is a contribution that our nation should be proud of, and for which our nation owes a huge debt of gratitude and honour. That is not an abstract honour. When those words are used it is like a fog that descends, but I do not think it is. I think that debt of honour is a promise for action. Just as our Armed Forces Covenant says that no one who served should suffer disadvantage because of their service, it is clear that these veterans are suffering disadvantage because of their service.

Those of us who argued for the armed forces covenant and a sense of decency and respect for those who have served and serve today, should honour that with action. Defence Ministers should work to ensure that, as much as possible, transparency and respect are shown to those nuclear test veterans and the lasting consequences their families have suffered. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) put it clearly when she talked not only of the test veterans but their children and grandchildren. This is not a cohort that deserves justice before they die, although they do. This is a cohort whose experiences in the Pacific will last generations to come, if we do not provide that clarity and understanding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) described it as unfinished business, and he is right. It is business that this Minister and this House can do something about. As has already been referenced, there are reports that nuclear test veterans are considering suing the Government to access their medical records if they are not forthcoming. It should not take legal action to access the truth. Indeed, the words that some Ministers have used around this legal action suggest that that is the only way to get the truth, because there is nothing that Ministers can do in the meantime—or nothing that they want to do.

That does not sit well with me or Members of the House—that this group of veterans must be prepared to pay for lawyers to get at the truth. What does it say about our democracy that that is the only way for them to access the justice that they deserve? Reasonable questions have been asked of the Minister in this debate. I want to echo a few that have been put so far. What discussions have he and his colleagues had with the nuclear test veterans and affiliated veterans’ groups about access to the requested medical records? This is not just about parliamentarians on both sides of the House asking those questions. There are groups of determined individuals out there, making that case consistently, calmy and coolly.

When was the last time the Minister met that group, and when is he planning to meet them next? If those medical records are being withheld, is there a good reason for doing so? It was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) that it is around cost. If it is around cost, it is about money. All of us understand that money is about where we put our political priorities. It is clear that there is a political priority and an interest from Members on both sides of the House to resolve this. If it is about cost, can the Minister help to unblock that?

What support is in place for the war pension applications from nuclear test veterans who have not received their full service medical records so far? And how does the awarding of a medal—that medallic recognition—tie in with their campaign? Does the Minister regard the medal as a full stop at the end of the campaign, or does he regard it as a platform that shows how we, as a nation, recognise that service and must now do more to resolve the final issues with that group?

Labour is proud to give its full support to nuclear test veterans’ campaign for their medallic recognition. It is important, and has support from both sides of the House. As a party, we are proud that the Leader of the Opposition was the first political leader to meet the nuclear test veterans, back in 2021, as part of that campaign. However, it should not have taken decades for a medal to be awarded to the 22,000 veterans who served during Britain’s nuclear tests.

Everyone who served—those alive and those who have passed—deserves recognition for their service during the tests, but it is not just about receiving the medal; it is also about how those medals are received. At present, many nuclear test veterans receive their medal through their door in plain packaging in second-class post. They deserve better than second-class post. They deserve better than a medal arriving in the post. They deserve a proper ceremony.

I helped Mr Tony Carpanini, an 88-year-old constituent of mine, to receive his medal after he struggled to get it from the Ministry of Defence. He said, “If I had received the medal 60 years ago, it would have meant a lot more, but it is much better late than never.” Mr Carpanini is right about his medal, but so many people he served alongside will not be able to get that medal because they are no longer with us.

We must learn from the experience with medals and offer the experience of justice that many people are seeking in this debate. The strong sense of injustice with which Mr Carpanini left me is something that we have heard in interventions from both sides of Westminster Hall—from people standing up for their constituents. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) spoke about his constituents; the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), who is no longer in his place, spoke about his constituents; and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) spoke about a person in his constituency. This affects all our constituencies. If we divide 22,000 veterans by 650 Members of Parliament, there are enough in every constituency to make every single MP do something about this. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) put it very well when he asked for the doors to be opened and for that relationship with data to be published. “Make it clear; release all the records,” is how he put it. That is a strong ask, and I encourage the Minister to look at it.

Returning briefly to the medal ceremonies that have been so missing, I would like the Minister to join me in congratulating Councillor Alan Dowson in Peterborough —whom I met on a visit to Peterborough with Andrew Pakes—Fred Thomas in Plymouth and Catherine Atkinson in Derby, who have been organising medal ceremonies in their communities because the Government did not provide a medal ceremony for nuclear test veterans, notwithstanding a knees-up in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs today. There should be a ceremony for every veteran to receive their medal after so long being denied it. What Fred, Catherine and Alan are organising is a ceremony in their own communities, asking the mayor or lord mayor of their local council to present the medal to those veterans, to say thank you for their service on behalf not just of a grateful nation but of a grateful community.

The Minister could do something really quite special with that, even if he says no to many of the requests we have heard today. He could encourage every local authority to hold a medals ceremony to award those medals to nuclear test veterans in their community. Councils do not know how many nuclear test veterans there are in their community. I do not know how many there are in mine in Plymouth, but I know that they are everywhere. The census showed us that there are veterans in every one of our communities. The best thing about that, which will not get me in trouble with the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), with the Minister or with the Chancellor himself, is that it will not cost the Ministry of Defence a penny. We can encourage our friends in local authorities to do this; they want to do it to recognise the service of those people in their communities.

Of course, the descendants too, because I hope that the medals can be awarded posthumously to descendants such as those of my constituent Douglas Hern. I will get that medal for his descendants—so the Minister had better agree it now, or we will have to have a disagreement.

The right hon. Gentleman is right: it should be about those people who are descendants of nuclear test veterans. I believe that the terms and conditions of the applications make provision for those people who are no longer with us to have that medal awarded posthumously. That in itself, though, provides a set of principles that we should apply equally to their service elsewhere. In this debate we have heard from Members across the House, just asking questions. We have heard fair questions asked today on behalf of constituents who just want to understand the truth about what happened to their blood and urine tests and why the “truth” in the statements from the Ministry of Defence has changed so often over time. If the Minister cannot give us answers to those questions today, will he set out a journey that he and his Department can go on which will provide comfort and confidence to the families and to Members from both Government and Opposition parties that the Ministry of Defence takes this seriously, and give a general sense that direction, clarity and understanding can be achieved even if all answers cannot be offered?

I conclude by going back to the start of what I said. I am proud that my party stands with our nuclear test veterans, but proud also that hon. Members from both sides of the House stand with those veterans. They served our country with pride and distinction, and we owe it to them to be transparent about the risks they faced and the lasting consequences that their families have suffered. The Minister could do more, and I hope that he will be able to give peace of mind and a sense of justice to those who are affected by our nuclear testing programme.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for bringing this debate and for her tireless championing of the cause of nuclear test veterans. We all have nuclear test veterans in our constituencies. Many of us served with them during the initial parts of our service life; and some of us have nuclear test veterans in our own families.

We will certainly never forget the tens of thousands of service personnel scientists and civilians from the UK and her allies who participated in the British nuclear testing programme between 1952 and 1967. The test programme over 15 years represented the largest tri-service event since the D-Day landings. By equipping the UK with an appropriate nuclear capacity they helped to keep the Cold War in the fridge, preventing a third, potentially devasting, conventional war. With the threat from nuclear armed states escalating, their contribution continues to keep us safe today.

We have had some powerful contributions from Back Bench Members today. In addition to the contribution from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who speaks for the Opposition, we have heard from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) and the hon. Members for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). I will try to respond to the points they have made in the time available, but if I am unable to do so I will certainly write to them.

When it comes to health effects, we should remember at all times that the UK atmospheric nuclear test programme experimented on weapons; it did not experiment on service personnel. Tests were carried out to contemporary radiological standards, as shown by the documented safety measures and monitoring that took place at the time.

Over the past six decades there have been four big independently conducted and analysed longitudinal cohort studies of the population at risk. The results have consistently demonstrated that cancer and mortality rates for the nuclear test veterans are similar to those serving contemporaneously in the armed forces who did not participate in the testing programmes. It is important to emphasise that those are big epidemiological studies. The results show that the cancer and mortality rates are in fact lower than for the general population. I am not going to pray that in aid, as we would expect that to be the case, given what is called the healthy worker effect, but it should give some reassurance to those who served. In corroboration, a study of mortality among US military participants in eight above-ground nuclear test series events between 1945 and 1962 was published last year. The study population was 114,270 individuals over 65 years. No health effect from participation in the tests was evidenced. In July last year, Brunel University published the results of its study into the number of chromosomal abnormalities in nuclear test veterans and their children compared with a control veteran group. It found no significant differences.

Those studies are important because, perfectly understandably, veterans may ascribe illness or abnormality to dramatic past experiences, such as witnessing a nuclear mushroom cloud, but the highly compelling evidence we have from both this country and abroad strongly suggests that they should be reassured in respect of their participation in nuclear tests between 1952 and 1967. Based on the peer-reviewed evidence, furthermore I think that we should all be responsible and measured in the language we use, even as we rightly advocate for our constituents and call for transparency, on which more anon.

On the point the Minister made about the United States tests, President Biden said in July this year:

“I have signed laws that support veterans who developed cancer and other medical conditions stemming from our World War II nuclear program.”

What science is he relying on that we are not relying on?

I am relying on the evidence that was published last year—the study of 114,000-plus veterans who have been followed up over 65 years. I cannot account for the remarks of the President of the United States. What I can do is rely rigorously on the scientific peer-reviewed evidence. Today we have heard a number of harrowing accounts from constituents, and I have my own, but at the end of the day the hon. Lady will appreciate that policy has to be based on a rigorous examination of the evidence. I believe that is what has been done in this country and, I suspect, by predecessor Governments of all political persuasions. That is the only basis on which we can proceed. May I tell the hon. Lady, who spoke powerfully, that we need to be careful about unduly alarming people who have served the country in the way we have been describing. That is not in any way to say that their concerns should be downplayed or, indeed, that we should not be transparent in the evidence we produce. I will come on to cover some of that.

I have to say that the narrative that someone is hiding files, presumably under consecutive Governments, is curious. To answer the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, I am not aware that medical records or test results have been withheld for national security reasons. I have asked again, and it has been confirmed, that the Atomic Weapons Establishment does not hold medical records for any former service personnel. It does, however, hold historical technical and scientific documentation about the UK’s nuclear testing programme in its archives. This was published as recently as September through a freedom of information request, as has been mentioned in today’s debate.

In response to the request for any documents containing the words “blood” or “urine”, the AWE returned a report containing the subject headings of 150 items. Those were reviewed and it was found that three particular documents referencing blood and urine tests were of interest. One referred to an anonymous blood test, another contained four anonymous urine tests and the last identified one individual’s blood tests. Following a request, that information was provided to the individual’s next of kin. I have looked at the subject headings and asked officials to look again at the 150 files with a view to placing those not already available to the public in the public domain. I have also asked to see them myself.

I hope that helps the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I share the House’s desire to make transparent that which can be made transparent. I hope this will put the matter beyond any possible doubt. To answer the hon. Member for Strangford directly, recently my right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs said categorically:

“There is no cover up”.—[Official Report, 21 November 2023; Vol. 741, c. 220.]

Indeed, I cannot see why there would be.

No personal health records are withheld from living veterans. Any medical records taken either before, during or after participation in the UK nuclear weapon tests that are held in the individual military medical records in the Government archives can be accessed on request by submitting a data subject access request. I must say, however, that any records that were made would be up to 71 years old. They would be paper, poorer-quality and perishable—not at all the auditable, searchable medical and technical records that we are used to today. Absent or incomplete records should not be taken as evidence of some sort of conspiracy.

We know that when a group of nuclear test veterans initiated a claim against the then Government in the early 2000s, the then Government denied that exposure took place and said that there were no health consequences as a result of being present at nuclear test sites. I cannot answer for the then Government but evidence since strongly supports the claim that there have been no health consequences.

I thank the Minister for drawing our attention to the Brunel study. Having read it, he will understand that an element of that report says there is concern about the DNA building block SBS16 and that there was a mutation, particularly in nuclear veteran families. I appreciate that the bulk of the report said that there was no evidence of a substantial difference in genetic material between the test and control groups, but there is evidence that there is something. It also highlighted a disproportionate number of birth defects in the families of nuclear test veterans which could not be explained by genetic testing.

That rather suggests that before we completely close the door to the idea that there has been a health impact, as the Minister perhaps suggests we should, we might need to explore those angles. After all, the researchers themselves said that they cannot rule out with any confidence that that is a random variation.

It is difficult to prove a negative, but the overall conclusions of the researchers from Brunel University are clear. In the interests of transparency, it is worth pointing out that it was a fairly small study and also the first part of a series of reports that we anticipate from Brunel University. We will have to see what transpires, but the headline response published in July last year should be reassuring for those who believe that their exposure between 1952 and 1967 caused generational problems to their families.

I turn to the subject of compensation raised today, albeit fairly briefly. With respect to that matter, the Department published its policy on ionising radiation back in 2017. The statement was validated by the independent medical expert group, which provides evidence-based medical and scientific advice to the Ministry of Defence, ensuring that our decisions reflect both contemporary medical understanding on causation and the progress of disorders. In its sixth report, published in September 2022, IMEG again reviewed the evidence, including the findings of the fourth report of the longitudinal study. It concluded that no changes to the Department’s policy statement were required on the basis of the evidence available. 

However, nuclear test veterans who believe that they have suffered ill health due to service still have the right to apply for no-fault compensation under the war pensions scheme, which applies to anyone who served before 6 April 2005. War pensions are payable in respect of illness or injury as a result of military service, with a benefit of reasonable doubt always given to the claimant. Decisions are medically certified and take account of available service and medical evidence, and they also carry full rights of appeal to an independent tribunal. Additionally, there is a range of supplementary pensions and allowances payable, including for dependants. Each case will be considered on its own merits.

Some specific concerns were raised about the handling of individual medical data. I can confirm that there is a formal complaints procedure under the Data Protection Act 2018. On requests made for medical data under the freedom of information legislation by relatives of deceased veterans, I hope hon. Members will appreciate that I am unable to comment due to ongoing legislation.

We now know that tests were done, presumably because there was a view that there might be an effect of the exposure to radiation, otherwise there would not have been blood and urine tests. Veterans’ inquiries about that were, as the Minister put it, “curiously” not answered on earlier occasions. So the question remains: why, who and when? Which Ministers—they may still be in this House or possibly the upper House—refused to provide that information, on what basis and when? The Government can presumably provide that information now with a degree of notice.

There is a list of 150 files of data that the Atomic Weapons Establishment said in September that it holds, and they contain reference to blood and urine. I have a list here; it is in the public domain and I am perfectly happy to give it to my right hon. Friend. What I am not clear about is what the bulk of those files actually say and what is in them. All I have are the subject headings. Some of them are pretty anodyne, to be honest—they are proceedings of various symposia, which presumably are available elsewhere—but some are tantalising and refer to test results. I would like to see what those documents look like. I have not seen them so far, and I certainly intend to examine them myself. More than that, I think it is reasonable for officials to trawl through them again to be absolutely clear why that which is not currently in the public domain—which I suspect is quite a lot of this—is not, and why it should not be.

There has to be a very good reason why this data is not in the public domain. Clearly, these tests happened overseas, and there may be very good reason why this material was not placed in the public domain, but it is now up to 71 years old, so given the level of public interest, it seems reasonable at least to ask why these documents, so tantalisingly put before us through the Freedom of Information Act in September this year, are not in the public domain in their entirety. I undertake to find out why that is. Wherever I can possibly do so, I will ensure that that material is placed in the public domain, with the usual caveats. For example, if there is personal information in them, which I do not expect from what I have been told, there are clearly some restrictions on the publication of that, but if it is simply sheets and sheets of dosimetry and urine and blood test results, I cannot see why that should not be available. I will certainly make it my business to examine that in the days ahead if that is of any help to my right hon. Friend.

The Government are committed to doing everything we reasonably can to support our nuclear veterans, as indeed we are for all our veterans. That includes acknowledging the profound contribution they have made through medallic recognition. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for majoring on that. He knows very well that last November the Prime Minister announced that all nuclear test veterans will be eligible for a commemorative medal. To date, some 1,600 veterans have received the medal, whose design features an atom surrounded by olive branches. I am delighted that, as he said, there will be a reception today at Admiralty House, which I will attend, co-hosted by the Secretary of State and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. We will witness a further 15 nuclear test veterans receiving their honour.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport asked why the medals are not presented formally. I understand where he is coming from and note that lords lieutenant sometimes undertake medal presentation ceremonies, but I think that, in this case, there was an imperative to get medals out of the door so that veterans could have them by Remembrance Sunday, and we have achieved quite a lot of that. As far as we could make out, that was the wish for the bulk of the veteran community. In general, however, I would support the hon. Member’s contention that it adds to the expression of gratitude represented by a commemorative medal if it can be presented personally. That will not be the wish of every veteran—of course it will not—but it will be for many, and, in general, I support point made by the hon. Member.

Our appreciation of the contribution of nuclear test veterans does not stop there and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman rightly said so. We are also investing in projects to further our understanding of the experiences of all who were deployed between 1952 and 1967, which will include funding for academics to record the life stories of veterans across the UK. I hope that colleagues will join me in encouraging all members of that unique community who reside in their constituencies to come forward and share their front-row experience of one of the defining operations of our time.

I thank everybody for their contribution to today’s debate, which has been very good and collegiate. I extend special thanks to the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). It is very rare to make good friends with someone on the opposite Benches, but he and I have been very friendly and active on the issue of nuclear testing veterans; he has done long-running work over the years as a champion of those veterans. He said that although we may have been united in our campaigning activities, the Governments over the decades have not been united, or have been united only in their failure to recognise what testing veterans suffered.

Various colleagues made references to the compensation and support provided to other countries’ nuclear testing veterans; for example, in America, nuclear testing veterans have received a day of recognition, medical care, compensation and access to their full medical and testing records. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) talked about the need for an inquiry, not only for testing veterans, but for their descendants. In the UK, we have never had a detailed health study or research project into the effect of radiation on nuclear testing veterans and their descendants. The Minister made reference to a number of papers that were produced, but the veterans were not provided with the full suite of information required to determine what outcome was needed. Indeed, international studies have come to different conclusions. However, they found excessive radiation in nuclear testing veterans, and that it had overall implications for their health over time.

I have no doubt that the Minister’s intentions in this debate are very honourable, but he made some confusing comments. For example, he stated that the Atomic Weapons Establishment does not hold any medical records—that is his firm belief—but he went on to say, in response to the question about the 150 documents that were referenced in the freedom of information request, that test information was in there, and was provided to the next of kin. That suggests to me that the AWE did hold test information on individuals, and that as a result of the FOI request, it had to issue those results to a veteran’s next of kin. Would the Minister like to respond on that point?

The hon. Lady is right. I understand that one out of the 150 documents references an individual by name. I do not know why that is; it could have been a mistake. That is why I have asked to see those 150 files myself and, in particular, the three that were pulled out of the 150 as being particularly germane to this debate. I shall be interested to see what the reason is. I apologise to the hon. Lady, but in the time available to me, the AWE has not been able to tell me why, in all the data that they hold, one person in one case is personally identifiable.

I appreciate the honesty of the Minister’s response, but I am sure he can understand the frustration in this debate, and of course in the wider country. Every response that we receive is different. One suggests that there are medical records; the other suggests that there are not. We just want to know the truth. I understand that he has undertaken to review the 150 FOI-request documents, which is very much appreciated. Perhaps he will report his findings to the House, but there are numerous other documents that we know exist—for example, the AB and ES files that have been withdrawn from the National Archives. If he could commit to putting those in the public domain again, we would be grateful.

As for other documents that may or may not be available, the Minister referenced the fact that the documents are very old. Veterans have been campaigning for access to their records for over 70 years. He said that many of the documents will be in paper form, and that there might not be an auditable trail. I find it very hard to believe that in one of the greatest militaries in the world, there would not be a system for accessing particular documents. Will he look into that as a matter of urgency, and perhaps conduct an inquiry on the location of those historical documents and report back to the House? As I said in my opening remarks, if the documents do not exist and he knows that they do not exist, it is up to the Government to be open and honest, and to explain what happened to the documents, on whose instruction they were destroyed, and why.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered nuclear test veterans and medical records.

Sitting suspended.

Grey Squirrels

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

I beg to move,

That this House has considered control of the grey squirrel population.

Thank you, Mr Vickers, for the opportunity to hold this important debate on control of the squirrel population. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison)—a fellow atomic kitten. It was while we were visiting nuclear reactors in Finland recently that we discussed this important debate.

In the 1909 poem “An Appointment” by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, he described the red squirrel as “proud” and “wayward”, bounding and springing around the trees with a

“fierce tooth and cleanly limb”.

He finished by saying:

“No government appointed him.”

Just two years after he wrote those words, American grey squirrels were introduced to Ireland and, as has been the case across much of the UK, this hardier and more aggressive species took over, pushing the red squirrel out and threatening its very existence. Although no Government appointed the red squirrel in Yeats’s poem, it is clearly up to our Government to reappoint red squirrels, a much-loved native species, to their natural homes. Grey squirrels are a menace to British biodiversity. They have proven perilous for our native red squirrel population.

The Ards Red Squirrel Group is full of fantastic volunteers who work tirelessly to protect the future of the red squirrel in my constituency of Strangford, particularly at Mount Stewart. The organisation is led by the National Trust Mount Stewart ranger team, and they are in constant contact with local landowners to monitor red squirrels and eradicate any greys that venture in. Indeed, the issue is the very presence of grey squirrels; grey squirrels are the Hamas of the squirrel world. Does the hon. Member agree that there should be greater integration between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and local red squirrel groups in the devolved institutions to ensure that they have the means necessary to preserve and expand the red squirrel species throughout Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He is a keen advocate not only for his constituents, but for the red squirrel population. I particularly thank him for drawing attention to those who work so hard on this issue. He mentions co-operation with DEFRA on red squirrels. It is absolutely key to all aspects of biodiversity that we see such co-operation.

In the UK, there are now an estimated 280,000 red squirrels. That is just 10% of the grey squirrel population. I am fortunate that many of those red squirrels reside on my island constituency of Ynys Môn in north Wales, which has been grey squirrel free since 2016. An estimated 60% of the Welsh red squirrel population thrive in woodlands such as the Dingle in Llangefni, Penrhos on Ynys Gybi, Newborough forest and the National Trust’s Plas Newydd. I was thrilled to be invited by Dr Rajkumari Jones to become an honorary member of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales, and to be shown around Pentraeth forest by red squirrel champions Rob Macaulay and Dr Craig Shuttleworth.

In 2018, a review of the population and conservation status of British mammals noted a significant decline in UK red squirrel populations over the preceding two decades everywhere except Scotland. The report identified that the decline was due to diseases such as squirrel pox and adenovirus; competition with grey squirrels for resources; deterioration in habitat quality; and a failure to implement effective measures to control grey squirrel populations. Grey squirrels cause millions of pounds-worth of damage to our woodlands by gnawing the bark off trees. That can lead to the loss of particularly vulnerable tree species, such as beech. That in turn creates a decline in the fungi and invertebrates reliant on those trees. In some cases, the damage caused by grey squirrels reduces the value of timber to the extent of disincentivising investment in the creation of new woodlands. The estimated annual cost of grey squirrel damage to trees is £37 million, and the estimated cost to the whole economy of grey squirrels is £1.8 billion.

This Government have taken steps to control the grey squirrel population and protect red squirrels. As we have seen, the Environment Act 2021 includes a legally binding target to halt species decline by 2030. The England trees action plan, published in May 2021, states that we will act now to build resilience in our woodlands by improving the management of grey squirrels, including by updating the grey squirrel action plan. We are now two years on from the Environment Act and 30 months on from the England trees action plan, but the updated grey squirrel action plan has yet to hit our bookshelves. The current plan provides advice to landowners on controlling grey squirrel populations on their land. Provision is also made for countryside stewardship grants to help landowners control the squirrel population.

I was pleased to see that the promised species survival fund was launched earlier this year, and look forward to red squirrel projects receiving support when the results are announced. The Government recognise that this issue is bigger than just giving grants to landowners. To achieve our 2030 target and our 2042 ambition to grow native species populations by 10%, we need focused, sustainable and joined-up action, and we need it soon.

Let us consider the various ways that the targets can be met. The first is through the traditional methods of grants to landowners, to support trapping and shooting of grey squirrels. Although that is effective, it is not always expedient. The Forestry Commission squirrel control plan reminds us that

“the time required to cull high-level populations must not be underestimated, nor should the total period over which a high culling effort will be required”


“even after populations are reduced, the time to sustain lower population levels can remain as high as it was previously, despite fewer animals being culled.”

Put simply, squirrel migration may simply displace the problem, and smaller populations are harder to hit. Trapping and shooting are also unpalatable to many people, and there are other more effective methods that need to be considered. I recommend the excellent report “Saving the Red Squirrel: Landscape Scale Recovery,” edited by Bangor University’s Craig Shuttleworth, along with Nikki Robinson of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales and Peter Lurz from Edinburgh University. Its production was supported by my local authority, Anglesey County Council.

That publication looks at alternatives in depth, and I would like to highlight some of the proposals reviewed. One is the reintroduction of pine martens as a method of biocontrol. Those native creatures have been largely extinct in England and Wales since the early 20th century. They prey on squirrels and, because grey squirrels are slower, larger, more populous and spend more time on the ground than their red cousins, they are easier prey for the pine marten. As non-native species, grey squirrels also lack the instinctive anti-predator response to pine marten scent that makes our red squirrels run for cover at one sniff.

There are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 pine martens in Scotland. That may be in part why red squirrel populations are healthier north of the border. Pine martens have been reintroduced in various areas of Northern Ireland. In recent years, controlled studies have reintroduced them to parts of Wales and the Forest of Dean.

The hon. Member is elucidating comprehensively the various options open to us. Does she agree that we need Government and wider society to accept that either we allow the grey squirrel population to proceed as it has in recent decades, which will eventually lead to the annihilation of the red, or we significantly control the greys to preserve the native red squirrel species?

I thank the hon. Member. He makes the point effectively that this is teamwork, and urgent. We need to use all the resources at our fingertips and beyond to control this terrible situation.

The study suggests that reintroducing pine martens has a positive impact on reducing grey squirrel populations and enhancing red squirrel populations. However, that approach will not work in isolation. Pine martens live in forested areas and dislike the urban environments that grey squirrels thrive in. Increasing the extent and quality of woodland areas will help, but it is unlikely that we will see pine martens set up home in city parks any time soon. Also, although pine martens may reduce grey squirrel populations in one location, that may not be the case in another ecosystem, where there are alternative sources of prey.

Another option is immunocontraception—in other words, the use of fertility control methods to reduce grey squirrel numbers. A similar approach has been used to control goat populations on the Great Orme in north Wales. DEFRA has invested £300,000 in supporting research and development on fertility control methods for the squirrel population. It has supported proposals led by the UK Squirrel Accord, which is a coalition of more than 40 forestry and conservation organisations.

A recent project in the Elwy valley in Wales modelled the likely impact of putting contraceptive-laced food in hoppers, accessible only to grey squirrels, using a placebo in place of a contraceptive. There are a number of possible issues with that, including the cost of developing the infrastructure and the risk of hoppers being accessible to other species or of contraceptive-laced food getting into the paws of other species, but it is certainly part of our potential armoury. When comparing contraception and pine martens, one could argue that although the public might prefer pine martens as a more natural solution, the grey squirrel might well prefer taking the pill to facing off against a hungry pine marten.

Finally, there is a new piece of technology: the gene drive. It works on the principle of selective inheritance, whereby pregnant females would produce only male offspring. Although it has many potential benefits, there are also potential downsides that would need careful consideration. Gene drive technology is really in its infancy and has not yet been researched on squirrels. There may be the risk of the technology jumping between squirrel species or of males becoming frustrated at the shortage of female squirrels, resulting in an increased level of tree stripping. It will also require heavy investment. It is unlikely that gene drives will offer a practical answer to the problem within the next decade, but I would support the Government looking into the technology as part of the longer-term solution.

There are a couple of other things that would really give red squirrels a helping hand. The first is a squirrel pox vaccine. Grey squirrels are carriers of this debilitating virus, but they rarely contract it, and squirrel pox outbreaks among red squirrels are generally linked to grey squirrel encroachment on their territory. Squirrel pox kills red squirrels 17 to 25 times faster than it kills greys, and a single outbreak can wipe out an entire local red squirrel population. It is a horrible disease, similar to myxomatosis in rabbits, with deaths often resulting from starvation as squirrels become unable to feed themselves. Had a recent outbreak of squirrel pox on the mainland reached Ynys Môn, it would undoubtedly have devastated the red squirrel communities on our island. A vaccine developed in 2009 resulted in severe side effects in red squirrels, and no further vaccine research has been carried out since 2013. The Wildlife Ark Trust is now leading on fundraising to develop a vaccine, and several countries are listed as supporters on its website, including Germany, Spain and Ireland. It would be fantastic to see the UK listed alongside them.

The second thing that would help red squirrels would be to develop and enhance the natural habitats available for them through programmes such as the landscape recovery scheme. This issue needs large, landscape-scale proposals to significantly reduce or eradicate grey squirrels in a way that trapping and shooting cannot do.

I am asking the UK Government to show support for our native red squirrel and back the different measures that can be used to help them thrive. They should support programmes to reintroduce pine martens to our woodlands, continue to work with the Squirrel Accord on the development of contraceptive schemes, invest in gene drive research for long-term and large-scale results, provide funding for research into a squirrel pox vaccine, and facilitate programmes that will increase and improve red squirrel habitats through further rounds of the landscape recovery scheme. Diolch yn fawr.

It really is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and to follow my fellow atomic kitten, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie). She and I usually engage in debates on the subject of nuclear, because without it there can be no net zero or the exceptionally well-paid apprenticeships and jobs that the industry brings, but today I have discovered that our constituencies have something else in common: we both have red squirrels.

Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned about how we are dealing with grey squirrels. As I have said before here in Westminster Hall, when Beatrix Potter wrote her best-selling and globally celebrated book in 1903, she based her famous character Squirrel Nutkin on a red squirrel from St Herbert’s island on Derwentwater in Keswick, which is in my constituency. However, I really worry that such a book could not be written today, because sadly, the sight of red squirrels has become so rare. It is doubtful whether an author such as Miss Potter could become so inspired by the trials and tribulations of Squirrel Nutkin, Twinkleberry and their many cousins.

There are multiple reasons for the demise of the red squirrel—perhaps our most iconic native animal—not least the impact of humans and the loss of the red squirrel’s habitat. But, to give credit where it is due, I commend the Government, and specifically the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for the Environment Act 2021 and the environmental improvement plan, which details, across 10 goals, how we will halt nature’s decline and, most importantly, create more habitat, which is the single biggest action we can take to help nature recover.

Red squirrels need more trees. We all need more trees, because trees alleviate flooding and filter pollution. Trees provide fuel for our homes and power for our communities. Trees shade the ecosystem beneath them and, in a warming world, that has never been so important. Trees are home, shelter, breeding site and larder to so much of our wildlife. Trees sequester and store carbon, and they support a timber sector that employs 32,000 people, providing us with sustainable construction materials, posts and beams, panels and boards, furniture and fittings, and card and paper. As the former Minister for trees, I know just how tree-mendous the largest of our plant species is, and I want to put on the record my appreciation for all those people who research, plant, protect, care for and harvest trees and work with timber.

During National Tree Week, I hope we can all take a moment to celebrate the diverse and varied forestry workforce and everyone who cares for and appreciates trees. Most importantly, we should all plant a tree—the right tree in the right place for the right purpose. For anyone planting many trees, there is a variety of different funding opportunities from DEFRA and, thanks to Anna Brown at the Forestry Commission, we have a much speedier process, too. Despite the brilliant England trees action plan, the vast amount of public and private policy and funding support, and the overwhelming benefits that I have set out, unless we tackle the impacts of deer and grey squirrels in particular, we will fail to meet our 16.5% tree canopy cover target by 2050. That means we will fail to provide the habitat that nature needs to recover.

Grey squirrel damage accounts for the loss of thousands of trees all over the country and millions of pounds of damage, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn set out. More tragically, grey squirrels carry the incredibly infectious squirrel pox disease but remain unaffected. Yet, it is fatal for red squirrels. Put simply, where there are live greys, there will be dead reds. Unlike red squirrels, grey squirrels are not native. They are invasive and will outcompete the native red in size, breeding rate and general hardiness for habitat and food.

In Cumbria, and no doubt wherever red squirrels remain across the UK, the existence of red squirrels is testament to the volunteer efforts of conservation groups, which work tirelessly to control grey squirrel populations. The volunteers undergo training and follow strict risk assessment procedures. They secure the appropriate insurance and land access agreements. They will be up at the crack of dawn using their own vehicles and equipment. I would like to recognise the passion and determination of these volunteers across the UK and encourage more appreciation for their dedication to conservation. I am fortunate to have many such volunteers and organisations in and around Copeland, including the West Lakes Squirrel Initiative, Copeland Red Squirrel Group, Ennerdale Community Red Squirrel Group and Keswick Red Squirrel Group. They are all part of the Northern Red Squirrels community, and there are many other groups across Cumbria.

I am pleased that DEFRA has committed to a robust and effective grey squirrel action plan, which will seek to control numbers, but I would like some assurance from the Minister, who is a most competent and capable Minister and is most familiar with the countryside, about when we will have a published plan. Does she agree that, in red squirrel strongholds and, I would argue, all Forestry Commission sites, there must be a zero-tolerance approach if we are to provide the red squirrel with a chance of survival and prevent the vast and visible damage to woodlands and the flora and fauna that are so dependent on increased tree coverage?

I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and look forward to hearing an update from the Minister on the progress being made on the oral contraceptive and the world-leading research in the development of gene editing. Could she also touch on any plans to reintroduce red squirrels in areas where we feel their survival could be more favourable in future?

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. First, I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) for securing the debate and for giving all five Members in the room who are passionate about red squirrels the chance to talk about the subject and everything the Government are doing to ensure that the precious red squirrels survive and thrive. I must thank my hon. Friend for the great deal of work she does in her constituency to champion those creatures. I also thank the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who has done an awful lot of the bones of the work on the framework for the grey squirrel action plan. I must note how much she has done and how passionate she is. Her work has genuinely helped along the whole programme a great deal.

I do not know whether you have seen red squirrels, Mr Vickers, but I have seen them up close and personal at a place called Snaizeholme in the Yorkshire dales. Once seen, they are never forgotten. I am a massive Beatrix Potter fan as well, so Squirrel Nutkin had a big impact on my childhood. Once one has engaged with red squirrels, one becomes passionate about saving them, as I think is the case with the Members in this room.

This debate is about grey squirrels in Great Britain and their huge impact on the red squirrel. We must remember that grey squirrels are often people’s only interaction with nature and wildlife, particularly in urban areas, so we need to tread with care over the subject of controlling them. It is clear that they are an invasive, non-native species to our islands, introduced into this country only in the late 19th century and becoming quickly established across Great Britain. We are only too aware now of the creature’s negative impacts on wildlife and habitats.

Expanding grey squirrel populations represents a huge threat to the reds. We have an estimated 2.7 million grey squirrels in Great Britain and they are outcompeting the poor little red squirrels for food. They transmit the awful squirrel pox, which has been touched on, which is fatal to our native species. As a result, grey squirrels have displaced red squirrels throughout much of Great Britain, leading to fragmentation of their populations. We believe there are currently fewer than 39,000 red squirrels in England and 287,000 in Great Britain.

The issue is about more than that, however. Grey squirrels are not only having an impact on the populations of red squirrels, as has been clearly outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland; they are also having a huge impact on trees, the timber industry and the deciduous, ornamental forests. That is because they strip the bark, and managing woodlands and trying to deal with that is a real challenge.

A recent report by the Royal Forestry Society suggested that the cost of the damage is about £37 million a year in lost timber value in England and Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland is right in saying that the timber industry is an important industry that we want to expand. Trees are also important for carbon capture and climate mitigation, but there is also the cost of replacing the trees that squirrels have killed. The World Bank has forecast that the global demand for timber will quadruple by 2050 and that includes in the UK. That is why it is even more important that we can, first, produce as much as we can at home, and secondly, that the crop we plant is sustainable. We have made commitments to that in the environmental improvement plan.

Damage from grey squirrels can also act as a disincentive to planting trees because of the costs of coping with the animals, and that is currently blocking the growth of the domestic timber supply chain. That really needs to be tackled. If we want to have a much more sustainable domestic timber trade, we need to reduce pressure from this invasive, non-native species.

Grey squirrels have an impact on our coniferous forests, which largely supply our timber, but they also have an impact on deciduous forests as well. Once a tree—beech, for example—is destroyed, fungal diseases can take hold, which is another threat to the trees. Clearly, we have to do something about that.

In the light of the significant environmental damage inflicted by grey squirrels, they have been listed as a species of special concern under the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019—there is similar legislation in Scotland—which is an important tool in managing the impact of that invasive species. A refreshed GB invasive non-native species strategy was published this year, which sets out the challenges and what we need to do. It supports other national strategies and provides an integrated approach across Great Britain. Obviously, we need to know what is happening in Northern Ireland as well, and I am pleased to say that it is very much part of the Squirrel Accord.

To get to the nuts and bolts of today’s debate, we have a grey squirrel action plan, championed by DEFRA, which sets out our actions to manage the squirrels in England. I can assure Members that that will be published shortly. It is a refreshed five-year plan that will concentrate on advice and incentives for land managers, more collaboration and partnerships, and funding and research as appropriate.

I want to thank the volunteers whose role is critical, as has been highlighted by many in this room today. We will also encourage our land managers to take action. If they are part of the countryside stewardship under the woodland element, they can access the squirrel management supplement. There is funding to help, which many landowners have taken advantage of, and I encourage others to do so.

I have already mentioned the Squirrel Accord, which is chaired by Lord Kinnoull. I recognise his valuable work. Northern Ireland is involved in that, too. We are co-ordinating across all the nations and exploring different methods of management.

Both of my hon. Friends mentioned immunocontraception and the idea of encouraging squirrels to take contraceptives through bait that is taken orally. It is put in the food, and research work is well under way. There is still a way to go, but that valuable work is going on. We have to carry on doing that work and we are committed to that.

My hon. Friends also mentioned pine martens, a natural predator of the grey squirrel. They have been released in the Forest of Dean, where they are being monitored for a programme, quite near where I am in Somerset. That is a useful and interesting study and there will be opportunities there as the population of pine martens grow. Work is still under way on gene drive technology, which can alter genes and eventually help us control the grey squirrel.

Work has been done on developing a vaccine against the horrible squirrel pox, but it is not looking overly promising, to be honest. Work has been stalled for some years, so we prefer to concentrate research efforts on the contraception, which looks more promising in the long term. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn asked about that, so I hope she is happy with that response.

We have 22 large-scale landscape recovery schemes. The second round is opening and there are opportunities there, as well as through the nature recovery projects, to create the right kinds of habitats for our wonderful red squirrels.

I hope I have demonstrated that there is a lot going on across Government. A lot of it has been escalated since my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland was involved in DEFRA. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn for the extremely valuable work that she has been doing. The action plan will be published very soon. We are committed to controlling those pernicious grey squirrels.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Housing in Tourist Destinations

[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered housing provision in tourist destinations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Returning to the Back Benches after two and a half years, I am very grateful that the very first time I apply for a Westminster Hall debate, I get one. I do not know what I have done to deserve it, but I am grateful for the opportunity. I could have chosen to speak about a number of issues affecting my constituents on my first occasion back in Westminster Hall, but housing has to be at the very top of that list.

Housing has long been an issue of concern in Cornwall, but it has without doubt become a crisis in recent years. It is the biggest challenge facing us today, especially in our coastal towns and villages. I am aware that Cornwall is not the only area to face this challenge, and many tourist areas across the UK face similar situations. I am pleased to see so many hon. colleagues present for the debate.

Without question, Cornwall is by far the best part of the United Kingdom. That is why so many visitors descend on us every year, to sample the delights of our duchy. I have always counted myself incredibly fortunate, not only to have been born there but to have lived there my whole life and to get to live for 52 weeks of the year somewhere that many people pay several thousand pounds to spend a couple of weeks each year. Visitors of course provide many economic benefits to Cornwall, but also bring many unintended consequences, with essential parts of our infrastructure being overstretched. The biggest impact that we see from tourism, however, is on our housing.

Let me make it clear at the beginning that this speech is not anti-tourist or anti-tourism. Tourism is vital to the Cornish economy. It is estimated that one in three households in Cornwall gain at least part of their income from tourism, and many thousands of businesses throughout the supply chain rely on visitors. But there has to be a balance, and there is little doubt that in recent years that balance has tipped too far. In providing accommodation for tourism, the impact of the number of second homes and holiday lets is proving damaging to many local communities.

We have seen many instances of local businesses and public services—ranging from hotels to our schools and hospitals—being unable to recruit key staff, with the lack of available housing given as the main reason why they cannot recruit or why people cannot move to start work. The impact is also felt in the cost of housing for local people, whether to rent or buy. With prices pushed up due to the inflated demand caused by tourism, the average price of a house in Cornwall is now £340,000, which is almost 20% higher than the UK average, and yet the typical wage in Cornwall is almost 30% lower than the UK average. The result is that too many local people are simply priced out of the market.

The situation in the rental market is only slightly better, with rents typically being 10% above the UK average outside London. It was therefore good news that the local housing allowance will be unfrozen and increased, as announced by the Chancellor in last week’s autumn statement, and that will be welcome news in Cornwall. The impact of all that is that too many people, especially our young people, have found it impossible to remain in the town or village that they were born and grew up in. Too few properties are available, and they will almost always be unaffordable.

Wider impacts might not be immediately obvious. For example, parish councils are increasingly responsible for more local services. One that contacted me only last week, Mevagissey Parish Council, is an excellent example of one such local council that is trying to do more for its community but is increasingly having to do so with less.

Local councils that do not have the general power of competence are restricted in what they can spend local taxpayers’ money on. If there is no specific statutory authority, the council can use what is called free resource. The free resource is calculated by multiplying a sum per elector by the number of electors, with the sum being set every year by Government. With an increasing number of residential properties being repurposed for holiday homes or second homes, there is a consequential reduction in the number of electors and, hence, a reduction in the free resource limit, meaning that parish councils and communities like Mevagissey are increasingly limited in what they can spend their funds on, leading to cuts in services that are often vital for those communities.

To put that in context, I have some statistics, provided by the Office for National Statistics, on the number of second homes or empty properties in communities in my constituency. In Newquay, the surfing capital of the UK and a very large town for Cornwall, 12% of properties are second homes; in St Goran parish, which is renowned for its Cornish gig club, the figure is 19%; in Mevagissey, the second most productive fishing port in Cornwall, the figure is 24%; and in the river port of Fowey, the figure is 28%. Twenty-eight per cent of properties are second homes in Fowey.

It is difficult for local authorities to calculate the numbers of holiday lets, but the numbers will be significant additions to these figures. As a flavour of the scale of the issue, CPRE estimated last year that short-term holiday listings in Cornwall grew by 661% in the five years to September 2021.

I have met Airbnb, our largest short-term letting accommodation provider, on several occasions to discuss how it, as an industry leader, can operate in a more responsible way, because there is a worrying trend, particularly since the pandemic, of landlords finding it far more profitable to put their properties on the holiday rental market over the summer season, leading to a significant rise in the number of no-fault evictions in March and April each year in our coastal communities. That results in many local people needing to find somewhere to live and often having to move out of the community in which they have been living, with all the upheaval that that brings to family life.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way and for securing this debate. He has been very vocal about short-term lets. He wrote to the Minister recently to ask about the introduction of a use class for short-term lets and associated permitted development rights. We had a consultation, which was open until 7 June this year, on that subject. It is now nearly six months later. Does he agree that six months is more than enough time to consider the results of that consultation?

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. I will be coming to that point towards the end of my speech, but I thank him for raising it at this point.

I am confident that the Government’s landmark Renters (Reform) Bill will go some way to addressing this, but we need to look closely at the detail of the Bill to ensure that its measures will have no unintended consequences.

To put all of this in perspective, there are currently 18,989 live listings in Cornwall on Airbnb and other platforms. The vast majority of those properties were built to be someone’s home and are now no longer available for local people to live in. By comparison, in October 2023, there were just 895 available residential listings in Cornwall on Rightmove. Those holiday rentals are overwhelmingly in the coastal communities and tourist hotspots we are discussing. As I said earlier, we are not against holiday lets. Tourism is vital, but there needs to be a balance. We need more housing that is genuinely affordable to local people, particularly for our key workers.

The situation in Cornwall is serious. It is difficult to understate how bad it is. The perfect storm of increased demand, rocketing prices that outstrip average wages and a growing population has led to record numbers of people being on Cornwall’s housing register. Last week, there were 26,136 people waiting to be housed in Cornwall. Then there are those households that are currently without a home: sadly, 857 households in Cornwall are in temporary accommodation, and 438 of them are families with children.

The answer is not just to build more houses. Cornwall Council, under portfolio holder Councillor Olly Monk, has done an excellent job since the Conservatives took the lead in 2021 in accelerating house building: it has built 5,442 houses during that time, 1,322 of which are affordable and earmarked for people with a local connection. But over the past 20 years, Cornwall has had above-national average levels of house building, so our experience shows that we cannot simply build to meet the ever-growing demand. When a market is broken, we need the Government to intervene, and there can be little doubt that the housing market in Cornwall is currently broken.

I applaud the fact that the Government have taken more steps to address the situation than any other Government, often with some enthusiastic support from me and my Cornish MP colleagues. They have taken steps to close the business rate loophole, which allowed second home owners to claim that their properties were holiday lets and therefore qualified for small business rate relief. They thereby paid neither council tax nor business rates and contributed nothing to local services.

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, which received Royal Assent at the end of the previous Session of Parliament, makes provision for local authorities to charge double council tax on second homes. People who own second homes and do not rent them out to local people should rightly pay more to make up for the fact that those properties have been removed from primary occupancy. That was the right thing to do, and the Government did it. Cornwall Council is keen to apply the provision as soon as possible because it will bring in an anticipated extra £20 million a year. The register of holiday lets is also welcome, as it will for the first time give local authorities a full and accurate picture of exactly how many properties in the communities they serve are being used as holiday lets. Knowing how many holiday lets there are is the first step towards being able to better manage their number in a community.

The Government have consulted on giving powers to local councils to require a change of planning permission when homes are taken out of residential use and converted to holiday lets. I know that measure is controversial for some of my colleagues, but for me it is simple: if planning permission was granted to build a house to be somebody’s home and the new owner wishes to change its use to a holiday let, which is essentially a business use, a change of use should be required. We insist on that for all sorts of other businesses, and I believe the same should apply to holiday lets.

Those are all good steps, and I want to put on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State and other Ministers who have listened and taken on board what we have said. The measures, which go towards addressing the issue, have been welcomed in Cornwall, but we need them to be implemented. We cannot allow the situation we have experienced in Cornwall in recent years to be repeated.

Although the measures are not a silver bullet, they provide some answers and enable us to improve the situation significantly. I ask the Minister to provide an update on when we can expect the register of holiday lets and the planning change of use requirements to be implemented, because we need them as soon as possible. I would also be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts on the impact that the situation is having on parish councils. What can be done to assist parish councils, which are losing their ability to support their local communities?

As I have laid out, the situation we face in Cornwall is complex and serious. I welcome the steps the Government are taking, but we need to see them implemented as soon as possible, because we need to be able to intervene. The situation we have seen in Cornwall in recent years can never be repeated. We need to work together to ensure that it improves as soon as possible.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this very important debate.

The housing crisis we face is affecting the lives of our constituents every single day. Families are unable to afford to buy, and people’s mortgages are sky-high. For many young people, home ownership has become a distant dream. We simply do not have enough houses for people to live in. Sadly, over the last 13 years too few homes have been built, including social and affordable housing. In fact, only 162,000 social rented homes have been delivered, while the same period has seen the sale or demolition of 332,000 of them.

Developers are too often able to wriggle out of their commitments on social and affordable housing in new developments, reducing numbers even further. This is leaving millions in insecure housing, unable to get on the housing ladder or secure tenures. If we want to address the housing crisis, we have to build more, protect people in long-term rentals and ensure that housing is affordable for everyone. Building more social and affordable housing will be vital to kick-starting the economic growth this country needs. I am pleased that my own party truly understands the urgency of the crisis we are in and has a clear plan to make housing a priority.

When looking at the housing crisis, especially in tourist destinations, we cannot ignore the rapid growth of short-term lets. In the City of Chester, we are proud of our tourism status, and we welcome millions of visitors each year who are vital to our local economy. Chester is a charming city, rich with history and culture. From the historic buildings, Roman walls, and the River Dee to one of the biggest tourist attractions on our doorstep, Chester Zoo, there is so much to offer. I would highly recommend a visit to anyone who has not experienced Chester, but good luck with the trains—but I will not get into that issue.

I am not ashamed to plug our wonderful city, as it really has it all. As we approach Christmas, an especially important time for all local and independent businesses, Chester is filled with visitors experiencing the city’s Christmas charm. In fact, this year Chester has been recognised in multiple “best Christmas shopping destination” and “best Christmas market” lists. It even took the top spot as The Times’ prettiest city for Christmas shopping.

It is important to recognise that short-term lets are a part of the infrastructure of the UK’s visitor economy. Holiday cottages, holiday homestays and self-catering apartments have long catered for the needs of tourists, people travelling for work or those in need of overnight accommodation. However, the guest accommodation sector has changed significantly over the last 15 years in England and across the world. In particular, there has been a major expansion in the number and range of accommodation suppliers operating in the market. At the heart of this change has been the emergence of the sharing economy and the growth of digital platforms. It is important to strike the right balance and address the long and short-term impacts of this expansion.

In Chester and many other communities across the country, short-term lets are eroding the supply of housing in the private rented sector, which in turn is driving up rent prices for hard-pressed families. As someone who knocks on doors in my city, it grieves me to see former social housing, sold under right to buy into the private rented sector, now being used as short-term lets and to know that this supply of accommodation has essentially vanished.

Around a quarter of renters in the UK spend more than 40% of their income on rent, compared with just 5% of renters in Germany. This situation needs to be addressed urgently. Although I have been a Member of Parliament for just short of a year, I followed this issue closely while I was a councillor for the city centre in Chester. I was proud that while I served as council leader we started to build council houses for the first time in 40 years.

In all this time, not enough has been done to prevent the inevitable and address the specific issue of short-term lets. The message is clear: local authorities are struggling to cope with high concentrations of short-term holiday lets. They need to be given the powers to protect the sustainability and cohesion of their communities. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay is right: it is hard for local authorities to estimate how many properties have been given over to this use currently.

Will the Minister say what plans the Government have to address the wider housing crisis that my constituents face? What plans do the Government have to address the complex and unique challenges that arise with the rapid expansion of short-term lets in tourism cities such as Chester with a thriving visitor economy?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for securing this debate on housing provision in tourist destinations.

Today’s debate is timely. We must ask ourselves: do we have the right balance? I think most people in this room would understand the answer. Do we have the right balance between local people, who want to get on the housing ladder, and property owners who are looking to buy a second or even third home? Do we have the right balance between having enough visitor accommodation options in popular areas and ensuring that local workers have somewhere to live? Finally, do we have the right balance on regulation? Are the Government’s proposals going to make a real difference and make more homes available in tourist destinations? Or will we still be debating this issue in one, two, three or 10 years’ time? We cannot afford to be doing that.

To be clear, I absolutely want to see a thriving tourism industry in my corner of Devon. I am proud to represent East Devon; my home county is a desirable place to live. Many people visit and immediately fall in love with the place. They may choose to come back year after year, staying in a variety of accommodation options, such as bed and breakfasts, seaside hotels and town centre short-term lets. Others visit and choose to lay down their roots there, not least for retirement.

One thing is for sure: visitors can always be sure of a warm Devon welcome. I head up the all-party parliamentary group for hospitality and tourism, and I know from first-hand experience that the industry has put on a brave face this year to continue to provide outstanding service and a warm welcome to visitors. That is why it was very welcome to hear that the Chancellor’s autumn statement announced an extension of 75% business rates relief until 2025.

Devon and Cornwall are dependent on the summer months for tourism income, and the business rates relief extension is very good news after a summer in which visitor numbers were down by a fifth. The seasonality of our tourism has knock-on effects on the local housing market. We are all too familiar with parts of Devon and Cornwall resembling ghost towns in the middle of winter. It is a really sad sight to see, when strolling down the seafront, second homes and summer holiday lets lying empty.

In 2019, 14% of annual visitor spend was in August, with 5% of spending occurring in January. Data from Cornwall Council shows that in some parts of that county 40% of properties are used as second homes. Without question, seasonality and second-home ownership combine into a noticeable problem in the region. Although I fully respect someone’s right to purchase a second home, including those used for short-term holiday lets, it is having a seismic impact on our local housing stock. Homes for local people to long-term rent and buy have simply become unaffordable in some areas. An easy way to assess the problem is to compare the average house price with the average salary of residents. In my constituency, East Devon, that ratio is 12.7; in Tiverton and Honiton, it is 10.6; in North Devon, it is 12.2; and in Totnes, it is 14.3. Bear in mind that the average ratio in England and Wales is 8.9.

What can the Government do to get the balance right on policy and regulation so that people can get on the housing ladder in tourist destinations? First, I welcome the Government closing tax loopholes for short-term holiday lets. It was a hard-fought campaign by Conservative MPs in the south-west to close the loophole that allowed second-home owners to avoid paying council tax by registering as a holiday rental, signing up for business rates, and then receiving business rates relief. To be business rated, properties will need to be available to let commercially for 140 days a year and actually let commercially for 70 days a year. That levels the playing field.

Secondly, the Government’s proposals for greater regulation include a registration scheme, which would help local authorities to monitor compliance with key health and safety regulations and give them much-needed data on activity in their area. The scheme will not just be another burdensome form-filling exercise for property-owners: the data will be critical in helping local authorities as they look to use new planning powers to restrict the way in which homes can be flipped into short-term lets. The Government consulted on the proposals over the summer but have yet to respond to the consultation. I urge the Minister to press on.

Thirdly, I believe that the Government can go further. When we build new homes, there is a risk that they get snapped up by property investors to rent out as short-term letting accommodation, which is why the Government must not only build new homes in the right places but make sure that they get into the right hands. Councils that can demonstrate a high number of holiday lets and second homes in their area should be able to reserve a percentage of new builds for people with a local, family or economic connection to that area.

At the moment, local planning authorities can impose on new developments a planning condition called a local connection test, but I am not aware of councils readily using that power to make sure that local people get first dibs on new homes specifically in tourist destinations. That is why I would like to see councils being able to reserve a percentage of new builds for people with a local, family or economic connection to the area. Under my proposal, the purchaser would have to meet conditions, such as living or working within 25 miles of the property, being born within 25 miles of the property, or having a care network within 25 miles of the property.

Ultimately, we need to strike a better balance, to help local people to rent or buy a home while also supporting tourism.

As ever, my hon. Friend is making an incredibly eloquent speech, with some important points about balance. One of the things that I hope the Minister will talk about is the need for constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s and mine—especially as mine is an island—to use exceptional circumstances to enable us more easily to design a housing policy that protects our landscape, which we need for quality of life and our visitor economy, while at the same time allowing us to relentlessly prioritise our local housing need. The one thing that we all share, apart from living in very beautiful parts of the UK, is that our tourism economy often means that our GDP per head is lower than it is in other parts of the UK, so it is sometimes more difficult for people to buy.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. He represents a beautiful constituency which, as an island, has its own unique issues, and I really respect that.

We need to strike a fairer balance so that local people can work in vital local industries such as tourism and hospitality without having to travel miles to get to work. Without workers behind the bar, in the kitchen or at the high street till, the hospitality and tourism industries simply would not exist in constituencies such as mine. Today’s debate goes to the heart of the sustainability of our communities and the south-west. That is why it is so important that we get the balance right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this debate. Also, I welcome the new Minister, who is the 16th Housing Minister of this Government; the fact that there is such churn in the Department may well be part of the reason why we are struggling so much.

There is a danger that this debate could descend into the sketch about the four Yorkshiremen, as we all talk about the challenges we face. Nevertheless, I will speak as a York woman—at the centre of that—and say a little about York. We have a thriving tourism industry in our city and we really value it. Last year, 8.9 million visitors came to York. Tourism creates 17,000 jobs in the city and is a vital part of our economy, generating £1.7 billion. The city centre generates £1.2 billion. We know how important tourism is to our post-industrial city; in the last 40 years or so, it has really played an important role in our economy.

As everyone has said, though, tourism has its serious consequences. For York, the situation is descending, as many colleagues have said of other areas, into a dire housing crisis. There are consequences from having significant levels of tourism. We can look, first, at house prices in York, where demand outstrips supply. We know that has a real impact on affordability, the ratio for which is 10.9 in York. Last year, the cost of housing in the city went up 23%, pricing people out of local housing. York has the fourth highest rent in the country behind Oxford, Brighton and London.

Some people cannot get into social housing because we simply do not have the supply. If they have to go into the private rented sector, in the BRMA—the broad rental market area—people get just £650 when they are having to pay £1,045 for a two-bedroom property. Will the Minister ensure that there is a deep dive into what is happening with the BMRA? The price is set around such a broad region, and the lower prices in North Yorkshire mean that York is more of an outlier than the other high-priced areas because of the differential in prices. As a result, people cannot go into the private rented sector, so sadly have to go into hostel accommodation or on to the streets. That has to change.

With such high demand, rent is rising faster than the national average. The average increase was 4.9% in England last year and 6.3% in York. It is becoming more inaccessible to rent or to buy and, as so many colleagues have said, that is partly because of the rise in short-term holiday lets. According to AirDNA, we have more than 2,000 such lets in the city, with a 29% increase between August 2021 and August 2023. As a result, we are struggling. We need to bring in regulation.

It is 891 days since I first raised this issue in the House and we are no further forward. It has been 355 days since I introduced a private Member’s Bill in the previous Session. As we heard, the consultation closed on 7 June but we are still waiting for the outcome. Will the Minister say when the Government will bring forward the response to the consultation and legislate to help constituents like mine?

We have heard about using local revenue to address this issue, but there is also national revenue. We have to make sure that whatever system is introduced is compatible with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, because many people do not pay tax on their property to the Treasury. Some estimate that as much as £6 billion is missing. There is a lot we can do with £6 billion, so we need to address that deficit.

There is a particular issue with the impact of our visitor economy on housing. Will the Minister—and, indeed, the shadow Minister—consider setting up a taskforce to look at the specific issues that press down on the urban, rural and coastal communities with a prevalent visitor economy to ensure that we can address the issues in such areas? The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay mentioned the impact on the local economy—people are clearly needed in the jobs but unable to live in the area—and our vital public services are not able to provide the staffing required to serve the local community. We also know about the impact on our communities.

Finally, I want to raise the issue of York’s local plan. We are still waiting for its approval. Next year we will mark 70 years as a city, without a local plan. Developers are taking advantage of the lack of a plan and, as many colleagues have said, building high-value accommodation when we have a real need for social and affordable housing in the city. I ask for that plan be expedited so that we can get on and start developing the housing that the city needs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for securing this important debate. As always, I agree entirely with him; our constituencies share so many characteristics—although I do dispute where the best tourist destination is.

North Devon has wonderful beaches, the UK’s only surf reserve, remote moorlands and beautiful countryside. It is unsurprising that there is high demand to live in what the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities called a “very attractive” part of the country. The trend accelerated during and after the pandemic, particularly with the stamp duty incentives that enabled many to purchase additional homes by the coast. We are incredibly proud of our tourism sector, which contributes significantly to our local economy. The hospitality sector contributes £229 million and helps to employ more than 8,000 residents in North Devon.

That is all positive news for our economy, but it takes a toll on our housing market. When I talk to business owners in North Devon, they tell me that one of their biggest challenges is staffing, and that the main reason why is the lack of affordable housing that is available for local people to live in all year round. That sentiment is relayed to me across all sectors. Teachers cannot afford to live in the same areas as the schools they teach in, and with property prices more than 10 times higher than average incomes, health and social care workers in particular have little hope of being able to buy or rent a place to live. Even high-earning professions such as dentistry are affected, as demonstrated by the company mydentist being unable to recruit despite offering a £20,000 golden handshake to entice dentists to move into the area.

Housing is the root cause of so many problems in North Devon. I will not say it is a magic wand, but if we freed up and delivered new housing supply, it would allow people to live, work and, most importantly, play a part in the community that they grew up in.

I have spoken before about how the planning system does not account for or factor in the challenges that face rural communities, but I want to focus on a particular problem that is acute in tourist destinations: short-term holiday lets and Airbnbs. In North Devon we have seen a 67% drop in the availability of long-term rentals since the end of the pandemic. Swathes of landlords have evicted their tenants from long-term homes to flip them into short-term lets, and they continue to do so. This week it was reported that the rate of section 21 evictions in Devon was higher than last year.

I know that short-term lets and Airbnbs bring a range of benefits to our tourism economy, but they really have affected the availability and affordability of local rental housing and have inevitably inflated house prices. We must rebalance our housing market so that local people can live and work in the area. I know that the issue of short-term lets will involve cross-Department collaboration; to rebalance the long and short-term rental market, we urgently need to look at the taxation inequalities between those two sectors that were introduced by George Osborne and came fully into effect during the pandemic.

I place so much emphasis on short-term lets because they are properties that would otherwise be let to local people for them to live in all year round. At this time of year, so many of them are empty, creating ghost communities. We have started to make strides with the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, and I welcome the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s consultation on a registration scheme for short-term lets, which is a crucial first step for communities to have their say on the availability of housing to rent or buy in their local area. However, I join colleagues by asking, as with so many consultations, what is happening now? I know the consultation has been completed, and my understanding is that there was much support for a scheme, which is now long overdue despite being supported by the industry.

Fundamentally, there needs to be an increase in housing overall, but not just any housing. Indeed, I oppose housing targets because North Devon had built to target, but there is still nowhere affordable for anyone to live. The current preferred design for local housing seems to be massive executive homes, which push property prices ever higher. Communities cannot function without carers, teachers, doctors and nurses, yet they are being forced out because there is simply nowhere for them to live. It is not right that families are about to spend their second Christmas in a holiday park because of the lack of homes.

When the Devon housing commission visited, it observed that we have net migration of retired people into North Devon, and the housing that is built also reflects that trend. Indeed, why would people not want to retire somewhere so stunning? But that puts further pressure on public services, which struggle to fill vacancies due to the housing situation. Yes, we need to build more houses, but the crisis is urgent and we need quick solutions.

There are existing derelict buildings that could be converted into housing. There are liveable areas above shops that could be converted into flats, but that has been stopped because of an 84-year flood risk. People need housing now and every option should be looked into, as the situation will only get worse without intervention. Given this opportunity, I commend to the Minister my council’s Ilfracombe proposal. In North Devon, we are at risk of creating a cross between a care home and a holiday park, and we do not have the staff for either. Tourism is essential to our economy, but it cannot be at the expense of local people finding a home. We can and must find a balance.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance this afternoon, Sir Charles. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for bringing a really important debate to this place.

The value of tourism is enormous. I am proud to represent the Lake district, the Yorkshire and Westmorland dales and many other beautiful places that do not happen, for the time being, to be in a national park. We are proud of the fact that there are 18 million visitors to our area every year, that 60,000 jobs in Cumbria are created and sustained by tourism and that there is a £3.5 billion economy. There is much to be proud of, and we also take seriously our role as curators and stewards of this beautiful landscape that millions of people come to visit—it is a privilege for us to take on that role.

However, as right hon. Members and hon. Members have pointed out, we cannot ignore the damaging impact that the lack of regulation has on our housing sector. A consequence is the simple fact that, in our communities, the average house prices are 12 times the average incomes, which is the highest rate in the north of England. During the pandemic, 80% of house sales were to the second home market. Over 50% of the homes in the town of Coniston are not lived in full time and, in the villages in the Langdales—Chapel Stile and Elterwater—over 80% of homes are not lived in.

We have seen the number of short-term lets grow significantly, particularly over the last three years, as well as the eating up of homes that were lived in by the workforce. The Government rightly brought in the moratorium on evictions during the pandemic. They then ended it a year later, and within a matter of weeks, we saw an explosion of people being expelled and evicted from their homes under section 21, with those homes becoming Airbnbs. In the first year following the ending of the eviction ban, there was a 32% increase in the number of holiday lets in South Lakeland alone. A massive number became even more massive, and those were homes that people had been living in.

We have seen section 21 being used by landlords to move from long-term let to short-term let. I am very encouraged that Sykes Cottages has agreed that it will take no properties on to its books that have been made available because somebody was evicted in that way. Airbnb and other platforms have not said that, and I challenge them to follow that example.

The human impact has been massive, with families being uprooted and divided. I am thinking of a couple in Ambleside: he was a chef and she was a teaching assistant, and they had two kids—one was in school and one in nursery. They were evicted from their home; their home became an Airbnb; they had to leave the whole area; their kids were taken out of school; and they have to give up their work and find something else in an entirely different place.

As for the impact on hospitality and tourism, 63% of hospitality and tourism businesses in Cumbria cannot meet the capacity of the demand they have, because they simply do not have the staff to do so.

In the care sector, more than around a third of the beds in our hospitals are full of people we cannot get out of hospitals and into care because there are not the carers. Why is that? Because there is nowhere for the carers to live. The knock-on effect on our hospitals, A&Es, ambulance response times and every part of our health service is huge and tangible.

People who have been offered decent jobs in health and education in our communities have to give back their word once they have checked out the local housing market. I was at the wonderful St Martin and St Mary Primary School in Windemere, headed by the fantastic Mr Towe and his great team. They have lost two to three classes because of a reduction in the number of people who live in those communities full time, and they are not the only school that has faced that impact.

The new builds that we see are not really affordable, so what are the answers? We talk about affordable housing, but “affordable housing” often means 80% of the market value. Well, that is great: a £400,000 home rather than a £500,000 home—a fat lot of good that is to my communities. What must we do? We must have the new planning categories, including the one that the Government have promised in order to make short-term lets a separate category of planning use, giving councils and national parks the power to maintain homes for local people. Like other Members on both sides, I want them to crack on and do what they promised by bringing in the new category of planning use.

I also want the Government to do what they have so far failed to agree to do, which is to make second homes a separate category of planning use. I urge the Government to give national parks and local authorities the enforcement power to make sure that they can retain homes for local communities and local families. When we build new homes, let us give our national parks and councils the powers to enforce and to ensure that every single home that is built is affordable for local people and people who will live locally.

We have to remember that these beautiful places exist in a broken housing market, and that we will see ourselves with broken communities as a consequence of that broken market. We lose our young people, and the most tragic thing is that only the very few wealthiest can return. I urge the Minister to act now to save communities like mine.

I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for securing this important debate. It is brilliant to see him back on the Back Benches adding his voice on this important issue, as he always does behind the scenes. I welcome the Housing Minister to his place. I feel sorry for any Housing Minister because when they go into their post, they know that a swarm of Conservative MPs from Devon and Cornwall is about to descend on them to discuss this issue. I thank him for being there and taking this on.

I probably could have given the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay word for word. This issue is not new for us, but it has been growing over the past 20 years, and it became instantly acute after covid, for many reasons. We were in this room in May when my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) had a similar debate on short-term holiday lets and the planning system. I looked back at my speech from that day and I could probably repeat it again.

This issue became most acute to me after covid when I had a village constituency surgery in St Agnes on the north coast of my constituency. Within two hours, I had had 15 constituents and families through the doors, and every single one was either being evicted or their rent was going up so much that they could not stay. Pretty much all those properties were going to be flipped into Airbnbs. Since then, as a cohort of south-west Conservative MPs, we have been lobbying the Government to make changes in this area to ensure that we do not let this continue to happen.

I am so grateful that we have closed the business rates loophole, which has been referred to, and that the Government have consulted on a register for holiday lets and change of use for planning. Incidentally, we talked to the industry about potentially licensing holiday lets. That would not be practical or supported, so the register is absolutely what everybody wants to see happen. That makes it easy for Government to go down that road.

Earlier this year, I was invited to a parish meeting—not a parish council meeting— in Veryan on the south coast of my constituency, where a development had recently been put in place and another was proposed. The area was not particularly ideal for the village, but it was the only one on offer at the time. The room was absolutely packed with residents. They were not nimbys asking for this not to happen, but residents saying, “Will this development really be for local people? Will we really see local families being able to raise their children in this village?” Incidentally, almost 80% of the neighbouring village of Portloe is made up of second homes. There are 90 properties, and only one child lives in the whole village.

If we do not do something about this situation soon, our communities will be stripped back. Thankfully, in Veryan, they are twisting and turning and doing everything they can to ensure that those properties will be for local families, but it should not be that difficult for them. Parishes are having to put in all sorts of covenants and measures in perpetuity to ensure that a few years down the line, the homes will not get picked up and moved on to Airbnb.

We can do something about this. We are talking about bricks and mortar. In Cornwall, we have loads of bricks and mortar. We are building houses for the future. We have loads of empty properties above shops in our town centres. Let us look at all the properties we have; either something is going to be a home or it is not, and we can start to differentiate. We know how many homes we need, and we know what everyone else wants to use for an investment. We do not have to demonise investment, but we need to differentiate between the two, so that we always have enough family homes for the people who live there.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for setting the scene so well and for leading the debate. I know his constituency has roots in tourism—he said that very clearly—so it is great to be here to support him in his plea to the Government for these changes.

Although the rules on planning and local housing authorities differ between the devolved Administrations, and the Minister will not have a key role to play for us in Northern Ireland, I sympathise with the situation facing the constituents of the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay in relation to housing provision. It is always good to be here to give the Northern Ireland perspective, as I do in all the debates I come to.

In my Strangford constituency, Ards and North Down Borough Council has a key economic goal, which is that tourism provides jobs and creates wage packets for people. The theme for the council is “work, live and play”, because that is what we want—we want people to work in the constituency, live in the constituency and play in the constituency, so that is what we try to achieve.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and with that in mind, Strangford is undoubtedly, without any fear of question, the most beautiful constituency in the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is because of Strangford lough. It is because it is an area of outstanding natural beauty and has a site of special scientific interest. It is a gorgeous place to be. Some of the Minister’s colleagues have already made the journey over to my constituency to enjoy it, and they tell me they will be back, so I look forward to that.

Back home, local councils are advised to reflect the local need resulting from the demand for second homes across Northern Ireland. Our main priority is, of course, providing local homes for local people, but there is no doubting the contribution that short-term lettings make to the economy. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay said, companies such as Airbnb have become so popular in providing short stays in many constituencies across the UK, including mine.

In my constituency, we have seen a definite increase in the number of Airbnb-type stays, and the stats prove that. It is mainly in the town of Newtownards, where the transport links to Belfast city centre are fantastic. Down the local peninsula where I live, we have seen the installation of small home lets in villages such as Ballyhalbert, which overlooks Burr Point, the most easterly part of Northern Ireland and, I think, of all of Ireland. In addition, there is a wonderful B&B in the village of Ballywalter, where I was brought up, right beside the beach, near lots of local family-run shops. These are things that attract. That is why people want to buy their houses there, stay there and play there.

It is worth noting that all tourist accommodation in Northern Ireland must be certified by Tourism NI, which is an independent non-departmental public body of the Department for the Economy. Even though he is not the Minister responsible for it, it would be great to know for the benefit of residents back home whether he has had any discussions with the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland on ensuring that there is proper regulation of the impact that short lets are having on local constituents’ ability to get private housing. It is important when we have these debates that we share what we know with other regions of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland differs from the rest of the United Kingdom in our social housing allocation. In England, most local authorities include residency requirements in their housing allocation schemes. The housing selection scheme in Northern Ireland does not refer to local connection, enabling residents needing urgent rehoming a slightly better chance, as they can be considered anywhere across the Province.

The hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) talked about the need to find a happy medium, and how true that is. We must ensure that local people have better access to affordable housing in their communities and can live there but also that local economies can thrive within the tourist industry. Local councils must be given the necessary powers to monitor these situations, and the proposed planning provisions would support sustainable communities, supporting local people, local businesses and local services.

It is clear that the Government have taken steps to address these issues in England, but it would be great to know that communication is under way to assess the situation further afield in the devolved nations and to share ideas, strategies and planning laws, so that we take a united approach in ensuring local housing provision for people in all constituencies of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are always better together.

I appreciate the warning, Sir Charles; I would never want to interrupt the flow of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I commend my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for securing the debate. It is great to have him back on the Back Benches, continuing his battles for West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Devon and the rest of the south-west.

There is a reason why the areas that we live in and represent become tourist destinations: they are beautiful. Most—I think over 80%—of my constituency is designated in some way or another. People flock down to it. I know that it is the most beautiful part of the country, because I get messages from colleagues all year round telling me that they are down in my patch or have just been there.

It is inevitable, because of the places we represent, that tourists will turn up, and they are welcome. Jobs are created because of the services they need and tourists support rural businesses. Many of our rural shops would probably struggle if tourists did not support them when they visit. Tourists’ contribution to the economy is important, and there is the effect on construction. We have also seen, particularly since covid, that tourists become residents. They purchase property because they enjoy what they see and discover that they can work from home, so they come and live in our beautiful part of the world. Again, that brings jobs and investment and supports rural businesses and construction.

This is not a new thing. I did my apprenticeship 35 years ago as a Cornish mason. I am probably the only one in this place who is a Cornish mason—I am not a freemason; I used to charge. We used to work with slate, stone and obviously the wet trades. Most of my winters were spent working to support the tourist industry or working for people who had purchased properties and were planning to move down. This issue is not new, but it does carry consequences, which we all know of and have heard about this afternoon. It is true that successive Governments have largely allowed free market principles to determine the destiny of these communities. I am glad that this Government are recognising that the situation cannot carry on and intervention is needed.

As we heard, our communities have been hollowed out. Pubs, schools, post offices and shops have closed. The lights are turned off in the winter; that is common in some villages in the area I represent. More importantly and more concerningly, older, vulnerable people become even more isolated and alone—that is really tragic, and if Members are interested in that, I have a debate on the subject next week. The Government have introduced various ways to deals with this issue, including Help to Buy, stamp duty premiums and levelling up and regeneration, which we have heard about a lot today.

The truth is that a secure home is one of the most important things we can deliver for our constituents. The stress levels of families, as well as their health, their children’s education and family wellbeing are all impacted by whether they have a secure and affordable home. That is the only reason why we are all here this afternoon. Ensuring the right balance of local homes and holiday accommodation brings with it many benefits, as we work to strengthen local communities and create places to live, work and raise a family.

Those of us representing tourist areas face a challenge, but that challenge offers huge opportunities to restore communities who feel left behind. Ramping up house building in the right places to meet local need is a really important way of addressing skills shortages and supporting pubs, schools, post offices and so on. Perhaps the Minister would like to have a word with planning departments, which seem to stand in the way of our seeing houses built in parts of the land that are ideal for supporting rural communities. Maybe he could encourage them to help rather than hinder the building of the right homes in the right places to support those communities.

Building homes ramps up skills and enables young people to stay in the local area and be part of their community, having a secure, well-paid job. Historic England has just released an important study about where the skills shortages are across every constituency, focusing particularly on existing homes and how we resolve those shortages. We must also fix rural service funding. If we fix the funding of rural areas, recognising that tourism demands certain services that other places perhaps do not need, putting pressure on the NHS, policing and so on, we can begin to build good, strong communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this important debate. I understand that this issue particularly impacts his constituency, a hub of tourism. I quite enjoyed hearing the Cornwall MPs arguing about which part of Cornwall is the best. I have to admit that I have never visited Cornwall, but I do have a brother who lives in Plymouth, so I am sure I will be in that part of the world soon.

Short-term lets and rentals are a devolved matter for Holyrood to legislate on, and the UK Government would benefit greatly from replicating the Scottish Government’s strides in establishing a licence system for short-term lets, which I will outline in greater detail later. The hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for St Ives (Derek Thomas) were correct in raising not only the essential role of short-term lets in the tourist economy—both in their individual constituencies and across the four nations—but the need to balance that against the impact on local people.

Scotland’s growing tourism sector is a success story. For a variety of different reasons, many of those who visit my beautiful country choose short-term lets over traditional hotels as their preferred accommodation. Sir Charles, if you will indulge me, as a proud Scot—and the only Scot in the room, as far as I am aware—I will outline how popular Scotland is as a tourist destination. I will also raise the differences in people’s attitudes post pandemic, because we also have to consider the impact post pandemic when we talk about this issue.

In 2022, Scotland saw a strong rebound in international travel. A total of 3.2 million visits were made to Scotland by international visitors, who stayed for 29.7 million nights and spent £3,151 million. Scotland is not only attracting people from across the globe; it is fair to say that, since the pandemic, people’s attitudes towards holidays, including short breaks, have changed significantly. Whereas European cities were seen as the go-to for holiday destinations before, people across the rest of the UK now see Scotland as a destination. In 2022, they took 13.5 million overnight trips in Scotland, with 40.9 million nights and £3.4 billion spent overall.

I take this opportunity to place on the record my thanks to the VisitScotland team for all they do to advocate Scotland and to promote it as a tourist destination. The team has found five segments of tourists who are most likely to visit Scotland and the type of accommodation they would stay in. The five are adventure-seekers, who are folk who would be looking to climb our stunning Munros; curious travellers, who are folk who want to take in the deep history of Scotland; engaged sightseers, who are folk who like to wander around our many beautiful wee villages; food-loving culturalists, who are folk who want to try our uniquely Scottish foods—from potato scones, to Cullen skink, to my personal favourite, Irn-Bru; and natural advocates, who are folk who enjoy being outdoors and exploring, for example, the numerous parks Scotland has to offer. VisitScotland has found that the people in the first four groups are most likely to stay in hotels, whereas most natural advocates are likely to stay in self-catering accommodation and short-term lets. For various reasons, hotels are not always an option for some types of tourists, and it is important that legislation reflects that, so that people are not priced out of their local communities.

Like the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay, I am not anti-tourist—the SNP is not anti-tourist—but it is important that protections are in place. I was taken aback when he said that 12% of homes in the UK lie empty as second homes. I was particularly interested to hear the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) raise concerns about seasonality and homes lying empty during the winter months. The hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) also raised that concern and spoke about there being ghost communities at this time of year.

I am delighted that so many people want to visit Scotland, even if they do sometimes struggle to understand our accent. But with so many people visiting, the demand for accommodation has also increased. Although, that demand has traditionally been met by hotels, we are seeing a huge rise in the number of short-term lets. Although that has, of course, brought economic benefit to communities, it has also placed immense pressures on local housing provision, and the issues have been raised by the hon. Members for North Devon, for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) talked about a parish meeting and raised concerns about a village with only one child and with folk being priced out.

For both rural and urban communities, the rapid rise of platforms such as Airbnb has meant that families are often priced out of areas they call home. In Scotland, this was particularly prevalent in our highlands and islands communities, but also for those seeking to get on to the property ladder in cities such as Edinburgh. Following three public consultations, the Scottish Parliament passed legislation in January 2022 introducing a licensing scheme for short-term lets. From October this year, it has become mandatory for all short-term lets to be registered with the local authority. The legislation gave local authorities the power to designate control areas to manage high concentrations of short-term lets. Within such areas, a host needs to seek planning permission to change the use of a home.

Separately, the Scottish Government will continue to look at the tax treatment of short-term lets. Alongside implementing greater control over which properties become short-term lets, they have introduced licensing safeguards for electrical standards and gas certificate compliance to provide assurances for guests. Those measures, which bring short-term lets in line with other accommodation, such as hotels and caravan parks, ensure that such businesses are well managed.

Scottish Government Ministers also met short-term let businesses from across Scotland to ensure that the views of the sector were heard and integrated in planning policy. The progress made by the Scottish Government in this area sees increased devolution to local councils, allowing them to better react to the needs of local people. The powers have been successfully implemented in Edinburgh, which introduced the first control area designed to manage the high number of short-term lets. Devolving these powers to the local level puts power in the hands of local authorities so that they can strike a balance between meeting the needs of communities and promoting tourism. The licensing scheme also brings in additional revenue for councils, allowing them to fund the management of the scheme.

Striking that balance is so important. The domino effect is that tourism is a significant sector in Scotland and a major employer, representing 7% of all workers. However, despite successful growth, the industry still faces many challenges. Scotland continues to struggle with the disastrous impacts of Brexit, with the industry facing worker shortages. We will continue to push for immigration powers to be devolved to Scotland, and we echo the calls made by UKHospitality Scotland and the Scottish Tourism Alliance to set up a special Scottish visa for hospitality staff to help meet that demand.

The licensing scheme brought forward in Scotland offers a model that maintains the benefits that short-term lets bring, while protecting the needs of local communities that would otherwise be displaced by the increased prevalence of short-term lets. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I highly encourage the UK Government to follow the Scottish Government’s lead in this regard.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing the debate. I also welcome the Housing Minister to his role. Reference has been made to the rapidity of changes in the identity of the Housing Minister. One wonders whether, with such a rapid turnover in the occupants of the Housing Department, it should be sponsored by Airbnb.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay set out very well the challenges facing his constituency: the pressure on the housing market, the issues with recruitment, and the stark disparity between the average house price and the average wage in Cornwall. He was right to welcome the increase in local housing allowance and to mention the pressure placed on parish councils—all local authorities will recognise that.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) showed what an excellent Member of Parliament she is and what an excellent council leader she was in bringing back council housing. She now has a third role as an excellent advocate for the Chester tourist board, because she spoke glowingly about the wonderful attractions in Chester. However, she really identified the nub of the issue, which is how right to buy has turned into private rented sector lets, which have turned into short-term lets. That is really at the root of the problems we are discussing. As an MP with a neighbouring constituency, I can see that the pressures Chester is experiencing are having an impact on the wider housing market.

The hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) spoke about the balance that needs to be struck between the competing demands in his area. That is absolutely the right way to look at this issue.

It was a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). She spoke in stark terms about the pressures in York, with a 23% increase in house prices and the fourth highest rents in the country. However, she also talked about a £6 billion tax deficit—money that is not reaching the Exchequer—and I am sure my colleagues in the shadow Treasury team will be looking at that with interest. She also made the important point that this is a cross-departmental issue and that a taskforce approach should be considered. I will certainly take that point back to others in the team.

Cross-departmental approaches were also raised by the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), so it is absolutely clear that there is more than one tool in the arsenal that we can use. She also mentioned the pressures this issue puts on education and dentistry, and I think we all recognise the pressures that those parts of the public sector face.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about average house prices in his constituency being 12 times average incomes. I think we can all see why it is absolutely impossible for young people, in particular, to get on the housing ladder when they face these issues. The hon. Member was also right to raise the impact these issues have on recruitment in the hospitality and care sectors.

The hon. Members for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for St Ives (Derek Thomas) also all spoke with great passion and sincerity about the issues this subject brings up. To summarise the crux of those issues, it is clear that the housing problems in tourist hotspots have spiralled over the last decade and that the Government have not got a handle on the situation. As a result, local people are facing deep problems in accessing affordable housing.

Those who live year round in some of the most beautiful parts of the country are being squeezed out by the owners of second homes and the proliferation of short-term lets. People who have grown up in an area, who work there and who are the bedrock of the community now feel secondary to those who spend just a portion of their time there. I think we can all see how that direction of travel has hollowed out communities, and the consequences that can flow from that.

Having said that, as other Members have said, there is clearly a balance to be struck—one I think we all appreciate. Tourism is crucial to local economies, and indeed to regional and national economies, and many local communities rely on an influx of visitors to keep their economies going. In some places, tourism is the No.1 income generator, and we cannot ignore that. The availability of accommodation is also an important element in attracting people to visit a particular destination.

However, I reiterate that a balance has to be struck. For these destinations to thrive, there needs to be a community that underpins the hospitality at attractions; otherwise, who will be there to run the services that both visitors and locals rely on? Unfortunately, I think that that balance has got out of kilter in recent years, and the consequences that flow from that have been set out today.

Demand for housing has spiralled in many tourist destinations across the country. It was reported that, in the south-west alone, 3,000 new holiday and second homes were listed during the pandemic, while the number of homes listed for normal letting halved and rents increased significantly. In Wales during that period, there was a 5% increase in the number of holiday lets, with average rents rising from £155 to £181 a week. As a consequence, house prices in those areas have spiked.

The ONS reported in September 2021 that house prices were rising at three times the national rate in some of these areas—places such as Conwy, north Devon and Richmondshire have experienced increases of more than 20%, continuing trends that had begun in the pandemic. A report published today by the CPRE shows that demand for short-term lettings grew by 661% in Cornwall in the five years to September 2021, and by 1,231% in South Lakeland between 2016 and 2020. Nationally, the number of short-term lets has increased by more than 1,000% since 2015. This is not just one part of the country; it is north, south, east and west—every place that has significant tourism activity is seeing the same. For many people in many parts of the country, the cost of purchasing a home is already out of reach; in these tourist areas, that dream is even more unobtainable for too many people.

This issue stretches far beyond the challenge of actual home ownership. In Cornwall, for example, 15,000 families are on waiting lists for social housing, which, coincidentally, is the number of properties being marketed as holiday lets. In South Lakeland, roughly half the families in need of social housing could be accommodated in the properties that are made exclusively available for holiday lets. In Cumbria more widely, the 4% decline in privately rented properties has coincided with a 14% increase in social housing waiting lists since 2016. In Devon, it is clear that short-term lets are making problems worse, with 4,000 homes taken out of the private rented sector, but 11,000 added to the short-term lets sector since 2016. Those damning statistics lay bare the impact of what happens when the balance is out of kilter. Does the Minister accept that there is a clear link between the number of private rented properties and short-term lets?

It is beyond doubt that the deregulated nature of the short-term letting sector is deeply problematic. There needs to be an overhaul of the regulatory framework. We would also argue that there is now a watertight case for giving local authorities that are struggling to cope with this issue the necessary powers to protect the sustainability and cohesion of their communities.

Reforms have been attempted on a small scale, but nothing substantial has been done to get to grips with the problem. For example, Members have talked about the consultation conducted and completed in June, and I am sure all Members will want to hear from the Minister about when it will be published. But this piecemeal, foot-dragging approach is patently not enough to tackle the deep problems faced in our communities. The Government are still opposed to, for example, the introduction of a discretionary licensing scheme of the kind the Opposition have proposed on numerous occasions. We believe that such a scheme would be part of the solution to tackling this issue.

We welcome the consultation on the new planning use class, just as we welcome the commitment to introduce a new discretionary registration scheme. However, there is a sting in the tail—giving with one hand but taking away with the other—because the new consultation also invites views on introducing new permitted development rights that would in fact make it easier to convert dwelling houses into short-term lets. Perhaps the Minister can explain the rationale for including that in the consultation and how it will help with the problems we have been discussing. I encourage hon. Members to see what investors are saying about that part of the consultation. They are happy with the consultation overall because it is light-touch and it will make it incredibly attractive and easy for them to continue to convert properties into short-term lets.

The time has gone to recognise that this is an issue; the time has gone for sticking-plaster solutions. Communities urgently require a response that is up to the scale of the problem they face. We urge the Government to accelerate the introduction of the discretionary registration scheme and to legislate for the introduction of a new planning use class for short-term lets without delay. Nothing less than a full array of planning and non-planning tools is needed to appropriately regulate the number of short-term holiday lets. If this Government will not get on with it, they should step aside and leave it to a Government that will.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this important debate. I know that colleagues in Cornwall and Devon have returned to this issue time and time again and that there are very strong views about it. As clear advocates of their constituencies, they have highlighted the issues they see in their individual areas. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay for all the work he has done with colleagues, both today and more broadly, to highlight this issue.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked about the role of Housing Minister being sponsored by a certain company, and I liked the role so much that I came back a second time. I recall some of the discussions I had when I was first in this position, and the issue before us was one of the bigger ones raised by colleagues who are in the room today. In my first debate back in this role, it is a pleasure to be able to talk about it and to understand the continuing challenges faced in not just the south-west but other parts of the country. Colleagues have seen first hand, and have heard from constituents about, the benefits of tourism but also the challenges that come with it. I pay tribute to all the work they do.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) rightly highlighted, there is a balance to strike. First, in responding on behalf of the Government, I acknowledge, as all hon. Members have done, the benefits of tourism. It is an economic, social and cultural asset, and it is hugely valuable for parts of the country such as not only Cornwall and Devon, but mine in North East Derbyshire. It employs 1.7 million people and contributed nearly £74 billion, pre-pandemic. Up to one in five jobs in Cornwall is supported by it, and that is one of the reasons why we need to get this right—so that people who work in the sector can live. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) highlighted the staffing challenges.

To enjoy the tourism offer, people need somewhere to stay and to rest. This is not a new issue, but it has come into sharper relief in the past 10 or 15 years, particularly with the rise in digital platforms and the sharing economy. That change has accentuated the offer in many parts of the country, but it has also created significant challenges, which were outlined.

Tourism has brought benefits, but we know and have heard about the challenges and the impact on communities, including the growing number of lets, which limits the availability of housing for people permanently resident in the community, and the reduction in the permanent population. That translates into problems for families and neighbourhoods, and issues with public services. Those are problems of popularity, of desire, and of people wanting to experience and enjoy the benefits of such areas, but as colleagues have indicated, they are still problems, on which it is reasonable and proportionate to take action.

As I am sure hon. Members will appreciate, the same issues do not apply in all parts of the country. We have to be cautious in how we approach this issue, to ensure that we deal appropriately with the different challenges and opportunities found in the south-west and in the city of Chester, which the hon. Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) highlighted. Areas such as mine might not face the same kind of tourist issues as other areas, despite it being even prettier than Cornwall, Devon, and Strangford—a point that I will take up separately with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

Hon. Friends and colleagues have asked me to talk about our work in Government, but it has been described already, so I will not go through it in extraordinary detail. As has been outlined, my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have consulted on a registration scheme that we intend to introduce under the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, which received Royal Assent a short time ago. That is a tool to provide local authorities with stronger evidence. It was consulted on earlier this year, with more than 2,500 responses received. We are part of the way through analysing those receipts, and the Government will respond as soon as we can. I assure the House that I have heard what Members say about the importance of moving quickly, and I will pass that back to colleagues in my Department, and in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

I am usually delighted to give way, but given the limited time, I will demur in this instance. On the consultation on use-class changes and short-term lets, I have heard clearly that there is a desire for clarity and speed. We are moving as quickly as we can. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) highlighted the Scottish example, which I will refrain from commenting on, apart from to emphasise that it took four years and a delay to get to that point. I do not anticipate ours being a four-year journey, but we need to ensure that we do this correctly, and work through the issue in the depth that it deserves. I assure hon. Members that we will try to do that in the time we have available. Given that I have made up a little time, I am happy to hear the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron).

The Minister is a good man. During my enjoyable time on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill Committee, his predecessor guaranteed to me that the change in planning use class for short-term lets would come in this April. Can he deliver on that promise?

I am happy to talk about that separately. I will try to move that as quickly as I can, recognising that we have had a large number of consultation responses, which we are working through as quickly as we can.

In the few minutes I have left, I turn to some of the points made. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, who secured the debate, raised a concern about the implications for parish councils. I am grateful to him for doing so, both in the debate and a short time before. I spoke with officials in advance of the debate, and we are unsure about some of the challenges that are experienced. I am very happy to receive direct information on that from the parish council in Mevagissey—I tried to pronounce that; I hope that gives me some credit. If the parish council gets a power of competence, as it can, it should be able to spend the money that it talks about in a more flexible way. I am happy to speak to my hon. Friend about that, if that is helpful.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon rightly talked about balance, and the importance of the broader tourist ecosystem, as did my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about a taskforce, but I think we have clarity about the challenges, at least as far as I can see from this initial debate with colleagues who are impacted by tourism. The need now is to move at the greatest pace to hopefully bring in measures that we have said we are looking at.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) highlighted some of the more extreme instances of these issues; in particular, she mentioned the single child in Portloe, who is now in school. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford for the Northern Ireland perspective, as ever. This is day 11 in this job, and I have not yet spoken specifically to colleagues in Northern Ireland, but I look forward to doing so through our inter-ministerial groups.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) talked about the importance of building housing, and the opportunities to build it in the right place. That is absolutely at the core of what we are trying to do in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities: to build more housing, but in the right place. Where there are opportunities in rural areas as well as urban ones, we should take them.

Finally, given the comments from the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston, and for City of Chester, let me gently ensure some balance in this debate, in the short time that I have left. I understand that we have challenges around housing, but taking a broader perspective, home ownership has started to rise again in this country for the first time in many years. It is important for that to be recognised and anticipated. Three of the years with the greatest house building in this country have been in the last five years. We also have the largest number of first-time buyers in many years. There is always more to do—I would not want to suggest otherwise, particularly in this debate, when there are specific, localised issues that need to be dealt with—but that needs to be placed in the wider context of the progress that is being made.

I conclude by saying again how grateful I am for the opportunity to debate this important issue, and I recognise the challenge in individual areas. We have to get the balance right, and recognise that there are many different circumstances, as well as areas that are impacted and those that are not. The impact may be felt in differently in different parts of the country. I acknowledge and recognise the points made, the challenge that has been set for us to move as quickly as possible, and the opportunity to make progress on this issue, for the benefit of all the areas represented in the debate.

I thank all colleagues here, from right across the country, for contributing to this debate. It is clear that the challenges we all face in tourist areas are very similar. There is a very clear message for the Minister and the Government about the situation we face and the need for action.

I welcome the Minister’s response. On the consultation on planning for change of use, I absolutely understand the need to get the proposals right, but I am pleased that he has clearly got the message not to take too long getting it right. He is absolutely right: a when it comes to planning regulations, a one-size-fits-all approach across the country is probably not right. We need something flexible enough to address the needs of specific areas, rather than a blanket approach.

To conclude, all I ask is that the people I represent, who were born and grew up in some of the most beautiful and popular parts of the country, have the right to continue to live in their community—to buy or rent a house in the place that has been their home, as they deserve. That is what we seek to achieve. At the moment, too many are not able to do that; we simply want the Government to continue to act, so that future generations can do that.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Havering Council: Funding

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

I beg to move,

That this House has considered funding for Havering Council.

This afternoon, I want to: highlight the financial situation facing the London Borough of Havering; ask for help and support from the Government; request a joint approach to remedying the situation; and offset the dangers of a section 114 report by the council’s chief financial officer, which would effectively freeze all non-statutory spending.

There is obviously also a wider national story here. Councils continue to face increasing demands for statutory services, especially adult and children’s social care, the provision of temporary accommodation, and homelessness support. Demographic forces are driving up demand for those services, and that affects some councils more than others. Meanwhile, central Government grant funding for councils dropped by some 40% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20; it has gone from £46.5 billion down to £28 billion. Consequently, councils are more and more reliant on local funding through council tax and business rates. That has not been enough to compensate for the drop in central Government funding.

Since 2021, five local authorities have declared themselves effectively bankrupt because their costs are larger than their resources. Slough, Croydon, our neighbours in Thurrock, as well as Woking and Birmingham City Council, have all issued section 114 notices. Until recently, section 114 notices were generally seen as the result of financial mismanagement or equal pay backlogs. That is changing, however. Section 114 notices are increasingly likely to be issued by a significantly larger pool of councils, due to a one-two punch of demographic changes and dramatic shifts in funding. Combined, these changes mean that a whole series of councils look likely to become trapped in a position in which the cost of social care and homelessness exceeds their resources.

Many local authorities are already issuing warnings about section 114 notices. These include city councils, such as Sheffield, Coventry, Southampton and Nottingham; district councils, such as Mole Valley, Chelmsford, St Albans and South Cambridgeshire; borough councils, such as Windsor and Maidenhead, Surrey Heath and Wokingham; and county councils, such as Hampshire, Kent, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire, alongside councils such as Medway, Bradford, Barnsley, Rotherham and Manchester.

These councils do not fall on one side of a strict party political divide. They include councils from across the country, and from north and south; councils urban and rural; and councils led from both the left and the right. For instance, one in 10 of the so-called SIGOMA group —the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities, which represents 47 urban local authorities—has reported considering issuing a section 114 notice this year, and 20% say it might be possible in the next year. Similarly, one in 10 members of the County Councils Network reports facing effective bankruptcy. If we look at politics, the list includes Surrey Heath Council—the local council of the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—and various Labour-led authorities across the country.

Despite local authorities’ dire financial situation, the autumn statement had no new money for social care services, or any general local government funding beyond what was announced last year. However, I note that the Government increased local housing allowance rates last week, which is to be welcomed.

Although the language of local government often appears technically complex and incredibly dull and boring, we might conclude that much of British local government—a significant portion of the British state—is in danger of literally going bankrupt. This reality stretches way beyond those authorities that have already effectively declared themselves bust, and it has huge implications for public life across a range of services, from refuse collection, housing and homelessness, to education, social care, tackling antisocial behaviour, estate management, libraries and youth services—the list goes on. It is estimated that some 90% of councils have been using their reserves to meet their statutory duties, although some are more fortunate than others in that regard. I will come to that in a minute.

Take the general situation in London. According to London Councils, the capital’s boroughs’ overall resources are about 18% lower than in 2010-11 in real terms, but the population of the capital has grown by almost 800,000 since then. London boroughs need to make some £500 million of savings for 2024-25, to meet an estimated £2 billion funding gap over the next four years.

The next few weeks are critical. Councils will shortly receive their settlement figures, probably just as Parliament goes into recess. Following consultation, the figures will be confirmed in the middle of January, and council tax will be set in early March. It is against that general backdrop that I want to consider the situation facing Havering.

I should make three initial points regarding Havering. First, Havering has been very open about its predicament. In September 2023, the leader of the council, Ray Morgon, warned that the authority could be six months away from triggering a section 114 notice because of the escalating costs of social care and housing. Although other boroughs have tried to obscure their financial position and in effect hide from the communities that put them in the town hall, Havering has levelled with residents from the outset about what is going on. I very much welcome that as a mature form of civic leadership.

Secondly, Havering is generally regarded as a well-run and efficient council. It has low borrowing, unlike Croydon or Slough, and it has no historical pay claims, unlike Birmingham. It has the lowest unit costs in London, according to the well-regarded LG Futures consultancy, and is the third most productive council in the country, according to the consultancy IMPOWER. The situation it faces is very different from that of its immediate neighbours. Thurrock, for example, provided £655 million to companies via bonds, including for the purchase of some 53 solar farms. It shares a border with Barking and Dagenham, which I partly represent, and which has an accumulated debt of £1.2 billion. Havering is in a very different situation, and has not embarked on ill advised speculative activity to try to offset funding challenges.

Thirdly—this is not a party political issue—until May last year, the borough was a Conservative-led authority. Today it is run by 22 representatives of Havering Residents Association, supported by Labour’s nine councillors on the authority. On the scale of the financial challenge facing Havering, we have to bear in mind that local government funding continues to use a distribution model dating from 2013, based on data from the 2011 census. The model is ill equipped to deal with the kind of population flows that we have experienced in outer east London over the last decade.

Attempts at establishing a revised fair funding formula based on demographic change and modern need have effectively been parked by the Government, with pretty disastrous consequences for boroughs such as Havering. Moreover, the authority has limited resources to help take the strain. Havering’s reserves are the second lowest in London, standing at some £47.8 million. Meanwhile, the borough receives the third lowest settlement funding assessment in London, yet it remains in the top quartile for income collection.

The scale of the problem becomes apparent when we consider the demographic pressures facing adult and children’s social care. Havering has the second oldest population in London on the one hand, yet it has the fourth fastest growing children’s population in the entire country among those aged 0 to 14. On the growth of the child population, the Department for Education uses more recent data to allocate children’s school place capital funding. For 2025-26, it has allocated Havering a staggering 57% of all of London’s schools basic needs capital funding. That demonstrates the extraordinary expansion in the borough’s child population. That statistic shocked me, and it shows how important it is to use the latest data in distributing our resources. The other 43% of that funding is divided up between London’s other 33 boroughs. That is just one vivid statistical example of the changing demographics in the capital, of Havering’s growth and growing numbers of young people, and the escalating demands that that places on statutory expenditure.

As for the financial situation, Havering is currently forecast an overspend of some £23 million. In terms of its recent track record of budget setting, since 2010 it has delivered a mix of £163 million in savings and income generation, most of which has been reinvested in other services. It has also sold off £160 million of assets over the last 10 years.

To illustrate the scale of reduced support from central Government, Havering received nearly £100 million in central grant in 2010-11. That was reduced, in just over a decade, to just £37 million in 2023-24. Its budget gap is currently estimated to be some £31.2 million for next year, and £77 million over the next four years, against a net budget of £182 million. Currently, it has the fifth highest council tax in London. I accept that, for 2023-24, the authority’s core spending power was increased by some £18 million, including the council tax social precept, yet the pressures from social care were already £20 million in 2022-23, so the increased funding did not address additional demand and inflationary pressures for 2023-24.

On children and adult social care costs, it is estimated that the rates paid to providers for adult social care has increased by 33% since 2019-20, and children’s placement costs have risen by 49% over the same period. Those rises are partly accounted for by care home costs charged by hedge fund owners. In Scotland, in contrast, those running care homes have to be not-for-profit organisations. Basically, for-profit care is crippling our councils. Placements for our children can cost tens of thousands of pounds a week.

To add to that, Havering is seeing a large increase in those presenting as homeless, especially families. That is partly the effect of out-of-borough placements by other London local authorities, partly the effect of the housing benefit cap, and partly due to general migration to outer east London. It is now costing the authority some £3.5 million in cumulative accommodation costs.

Despite those extraordinary demand pressures, over 80% of Havering’s core income now comes from council tax. To repeat: it received the third lowest settlement funding assessment in London.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. Many of Havering’s challenges that he has outlined are similar to those we experience across the water in Bexley. As a former deputy leader of the council, I have great sympathy for the arguments he is making. Given some of those challenges and the growth that, as we know, is coming out eastward on both sides of the river, does he agree that one way for the Government to quickly get more money out to the likes of Havering and Bexley would be to allocate more of the funding that currently goes to City Hall directly to those boroughs?

I am not playing pass the parcel here; it seems to me that, objectively—all parties can agree—there is a structural problem that is escalating across the length and breadth of this country. Havering is where the rubber hits the wall, in terms of the escalating demographic changes, especially with young people set against the long-term legacy of an older community, and this one-two punch of funding pressures on our basic statutory reserves. Therefore, I am not going to get into this game; I want to create some sort of cross-party dialogue towards greater partnership to resolve these pressures, rather than playing this little tit-for-tat political game.

Meanwhile, our health challenges mean additional budget pressures for people coming out of hospitals who need social care. In fact, it would be better for them not to go into hospital at all, but Havering has the lowest number of GPs per head of population in London.

Therefore, overall, given that Havering had the second lowest level of reserves, and given the level of its overspend and the forecast budget gap for next year, it is warning that, without additional support, it is six to 12 months away from issuing a section 114 notice.

To help Havering—and to return to the point that the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) made about how we resolve the situation—fundamentally, a fair-funding review must be implemented: one that better allocates resources based on modern realities of demographic change and need. I accept that that will not happen this side of an election, but may I suggest that any new money that the Government might allocate should not rest simply on the current funding formula, which is increasingly outdated and further compounds the inequalities in funding?

However, the only solution being offered seems to be capitalisation orders, which Havering will have to take if there is no new money. That penalises well-run councils with an additional 1% added to the Public Works Loan Board rate—a rate that is then fixed for 20 years—yet that blunt instrument will penalise an ever larger number of residents under well-run councils. Perversely, it will also increase those councils’ debts further each year and mean that we will go back to them year after year. Surely, as more councils are forced to use such orders, we need a more agile system—one that does not use a form of payday loan to pay for our public services. There should be different rules for good councils such as Havering. It is clear that the funding system is broken and must be fixed.

Overall, a crisis is unfolding across local government, and that is captured in well-run local authorities such as Havering. I request urgent discussions to look at these solutions between national Government and our civil leadership to help to address the looming funding crisis. I also suggest a more agile capitalisation system. The current system further penalises the residents of an increasing number of boroughs that are having to deal with the heightened level of statutory expenditure.

Havering is very much in the eye of the storm, yet it is commendably honest about the scale of the challenge it faces. I hope the Government are listening and will respond, because the clock is ticking. Otherwise, more councils will follow and our local communities will suffer. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I first of all thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) not only for raising this issue, but raising it in the tone that he did. I am grateful to him for that. I am also grateful for the work that his council leader, Ray Morgon, is doing on behalf of his residents. The hon. Gentleman raised that, which I thought was very important.

I will spend a moment or two setting the scene. It is not my intention to name and shame local authorities. I think the hon. Gentleman made an apposite point: we must all focus on the funding of the services that many of the most vulnerable citizens across the country rely on. As tempting as it is to try to play politics, I am not going to do so. Likewise, my door is open to those councils that are anxious that they are approaching the issuing of a section 114, because prevention is better than cure.

I join the hon. Gentleman in commending his council, without providing a running commentary on discussions between individual councils and my Department. I commend the openness with which the leadership of Havering and others in the borough have engaged the community and my Department. They are right to do so, and they will continue to have as much support from my officials and me as they possibly can.

The hon. Gentleman is also right, on section 114, that there is a mixed mosaic of reasons. It would be far easier if there was one geography, one political control and one reason for the trigger, but he set out a number of councils in different parts of the country that find themselves in challenging circumstances for a multitude of reasons. Irrespective of the reason, as with Havering, my Department stands ready to work alongside those councils, with the Local Government Association and others.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned SIGOMA. I was with the leader of SIGOMA, Sir Stephen Houghton, this morning, discussing the issues that his member councils are facing. That meeting was very useful. We will work alongside those councils to ensure that they can stay standing up to deliver their services.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to meet him; I am more than happy to do so, with any council officers or elected members that he deems appropriate, because we have to get this right. I recognise entirely the demographic challenges to which he alluded and how a council will need to change its mindset and policy-setting priorities to respond to those changes in pretty quick time.

The hon. Gentleman welcomed the changes that the Chancellor announced to the local housing allowance, and I welcome that. We listened to a whole variety of stakeholders, and there was general agreement that that is the right thing to do.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the timing of the settlement, which was not helped this year by the lateness of the autumn statement. I can share with him and the House that the instruction I gave to officials, who are more than prepared to meet the challenge, is to get the figures and as much information as we possibly can out of the door, on the proviso that those figures are correct and robust. I spent 11 years serving in local government as a parish councillor, a district councillor and a county councillor. I spent several years as a cabinet member on West Oxfordshire District Council putting together the budget, and I remember sitting for too many hours with the finance director when we all wanted to go home for family things, trying to crunch numbers, make savings and work out different things. There must be a better way of doing it. I am yet to identify what that is; when I do, I will share it, among the first people, with the hon. Gentleman. That is important, given these uncertain times.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the increasing complexity, range and quantum of demand from both ends of the age spectrum, from the needs of the very young to those of the vulnerable elderly. We must ensure that we are focused, as I know he and his council are, and remind ourselves that we can get tied up in the minutiae of the formula for this, the process for that and the probity of making announcements. We have people sitting at home wondering how, if or when their legitimate applications for support will be processed and delivered to make their lives more comfortable and better.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the social care grant. Through the 2023-24 settlement, Havering is receiving £14.2 million. That is a £5.8 million increase compared with the previous year’s settlement. The funding can be used for both adult’s and children’s social care. Additionally, we are providing £2.4 million through the market sustainability and improvement fund, £1 million through the discharge fund, and £6.8 million through the improved better care fund, which I am told is already improving local health outcomes and supporting the crucial social care sector.

Those figures are important, but—there is always a “but”, isn’t there?—I acknowledge the challenging position in which local government in England finds itself. We all know the issues that have afflicted the national economy in recent years. I do not offer them up to the hon. Gentleman as excuses, but we would be negligent if we did not put them into our mix of thinking. Just when the reverberations of the ’08 banking collapse started to be less severe, along came the pandemic and then Ukraine. They led to inflation, interest and all those pressures that people have felt in their back pocket and that council officers have felt in their budget settlements. Despite all those challenges, central Government have sought to provide big increases in funding to local government in recent years to try to address some of the reasons that the hon. Gentleman set before us. The local government finance settlement for 2023-24 made available up to £59.7 billion of funding for local government in England. That was an increase in core spending power of up to £5.1 billion on 2022-23—or, to put it another way, 9.4% in cash terms. Havering’s core spending power as a council rose to £218.7 million—a 9.2% increase on the funding for 2022-23.

Numbers and percentages are fine; we know that. But—again, there is another “but”—we are all aware, and it would be foolhardy of any Minister to pretend otherwise, that there are huge increases in demand for service. Costs are going up. It is great news that we have increases to the living wage—I suggest that nobody would challenge that as a matter of principle. However, it clearly has an effect on the pay requirements, particularly for local councils, when they are already under pressure. I know that Councillor Morgon is addressing the council’s funding pressure, and he himself has noted the unprecedented demand for both adult and children’s social care. As the hon. Gentleman said, Havering has one of the oldest populations in London, together with the second fastest growing young population in the country. There is pressure from both ends of the public sector service demand telescope, so it is understandable that the council is feeling the pressure from a growing need for social care.

I want the hon. Gentleman to understand that I get that, and to convey to anybody who is interested that we have empathy for his points. We are determined to continue working alongside Havering London Borough Council to ensure that it can deliver not just the services demanded of it, but the services that the councillors and officers themselves want to deliver, because they are true and honest public servants. It is not going to be easy. I am afraid I am not the owner of the ministerial goose that is laying a multitude of golden eggs for the local government sector, but we will continue to work with the hon. Gentleman and his council.

I will close by repeating my warm invitation for him to come in and have a conversation. We can go over the figures and think about these issues. I am almost preaching to the choir on this point. I know that the hon. Gentleman will keep at the forefront of his mind—as will I—that, whether we are Opposition MPs, Government Ministers or councillors, our primary duty is to do our very best to serve the public who put us here, and to discharge the duties that they give us in order to try to make their lives a little safer, a little more comfortable and a little easier. He and I share that endeavour, and I look forward to welcoming him and his colleagues to do the very best we can for his residents.

Question put and agreed to.

Rural Communities: Government Support

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for rural communities.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. This is the first debate that I have held. I feel it is important to highlight the challenges facing many of our rural communities. The Government must recognise the financial support needed, especially for local authorities to deliver essential frontline services.

To begin, I will explain the challenges that affect rural communities, and how their rurality provides specific complications that are often missed or ignored by central Government. People who live in rural areas face added living costs known as the rural premium. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that they typically need to spend around 10% to 20% more on everyday essentials than their urban counterparts. The rural economy is 19% less productive per worker than the national average, which is reported to cost the UK economy £43 billion per year. Employers face difficulties recruiting staff as rural areas generally have poorer public transport connections, resulting in employees relying on private vehicles and facing higher fuel expenditure.

The Government recognised the need to assist rural areas with the cost of travel and introduced the rural fuel duty relief in 2001, and it was extended again in 2015. However, it extends only to the most remote parts of the UK. I urge the Government to listen to Liberal Democrat calls for the scheme to be extended to cover most rural areas in the UK, including Somerset.

Fifty-three thousand people live within 10 km of Langport and Somerton, yet they are without access to a train station. Travellers have to drive 24 km to Taunton or 25km to Castle Cary. For those without access to private transport, the travel time by bus between Langport and Taunton is 51 minutes, and for Somerton it is 62 minutes. There is no direct connection to the rail by bus between Langport and Somerton and Castle Cary, with public transport requiring an interchange. The shortest journey time is therefore around one hour and 17 minutes. Bus routes in my constituency are also under threat, with four routes currently without guaranteed long-term funding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing her first Westminster Hall debate. She is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that bus services are important not only for getting people to train stations but for preventing social isolation and getting people to school and to the doctors and so on?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that rural isolation is a very important matter.

I received a phone call today from a constituent who cannot get to their medical appointments. The 58 bus service is currently under threat, and if that closes they will not be able to move around the constituency and access the vital services they need. It is clear that sparse public transport is a constant constraint to regeneration of the local economy.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. She is doing a wonderful job raising many of the issues that I also see in Bosworth, which is an 85% rural community. She has hit on the issue of sparsity and its impact on the delivery of services that need to be able to reach people, such as care workers. Does she agree that the Government should consider changing the local authority funding formula such that it takes sparsity into account? That would make a real difference, because it is a real problem when it comes to hidden rural poverty.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is very important for very rural areas such as Somerset, so I thank him for that.

Moving on to broadband, poor levels of rural connectivity and broadband impact rural economies, limiting growth and inhibiting people’s lives. New research by Vodafone UK revealed the extent of the rural digital divide across the UK. Somerton and Frome is in the bottom 6% of constituencies for mobile coverage, and nearly a quarter of the constituency is in a total 5G notspot. This has a significant impact on attracting businesses to the area, with rural businesses already struggling with online sales, services and accepting credit card payments.

For these reasons, many rural businesses rely on cash, meaning that access to cash is even more important in rural areas. Three banks have closed in Somerton and Frome in the last year alone, and the sharp drop in Government services through post offices has exacerbated the problem of post offices closing. Since 2010, Government services through post offices have declined by over 75%, as provision has been withdrawn. That affects the profitability of post offices and withdraws a valuable front-facing public asset from rural communities.

While the Government may brag about bringing inflation down to 4.6%, food inflation remains very high, at around 10%. The impact of food inflation can hit rural communities harder than their urban counterparts. Research by Which? found that people who rely on small local supermarket stores will almost never be able to buy essential budget-line items. Those types of stores are more prevalent in rural communities, with access to larger supermarkets more likely to be close to the urban centres.

Data from the Association of Convenience Stores shows that rural consumer visits to local convenience stores dropped from 3.4 times a week in 2018 to 2.5 times in 2022, suggesting that people are feeling the effects of food inflation acutely, which will hurt these convenience stores. When local convenience stores fail, they leave behind an empty space, which is often unfilled, depriving the community of vital provisions and forcing people to travel further for goods. Over the last two years, food prices have risen by more than a quarter. Examples of food prices now compared with 12 months ago reveal the extent to which people are struggling. In Tesco 12 months ago, 10 large eggs were sold at £2.70; now, they cost £3.85. The cost is 42% higher in just one year.

To tackle food prices and ensure food security, the Government need to provide support to those who grow our food. We need sustainable food production here at home. The common agricultural policy reform was welcomed, but the Government have botched that, leaving many farmers on the brink. The farming budget for England has not increased in line with inflation, despite the cost of farmers’ inputs and energy costs increasing significantly. Also, the latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that the average farm in England is £5,000 down this year because of departmental underspend.

Before the autumn statement, the National Farmers Union president was clear that British farming needs more investment. That is something that I, as someone from a farming family, fully agree with. It is also something that my party fully agrees with. The Liberal Democrats want to boost the farming budget by £1 billion to provide farmers with the relief that they so desperately need, alongside giving food producers more energy support.

Our rural communities have an intrinsic relationship with farming; 91% of land in Somerton and Frome is agricultural. Farming and its supply chain are major employers throughout rural communities, but they are struggling to get the workers that they need, which points to the major workforce problems in the sector. A report last year by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that covid and Brexit had had a huge impact on the sector. A lack of workers severely affects the productivity of our farms, resulting in higher food prices. The Liberal Democrats want to act on that by ensuring that we provide visas for agricultural workers and allow our farms to produce the food that they so desperately want to produce.

Farms have also been heavily affected by increases in energy costs. The Government reduced energy support for farms drastically—by 85%—in replacing the energy bill relief scheme with the energy bills discount scheme, and with farms not being classified as an energy and trade-intensive industry, farmers have been denied extra support, despite the industry being highly energy intensive.

The high costs of energy have also massively impacted domestic consumers. The higher likelihood of rural communities not having a direct relationship with their energy supplier has posed different difficulties for rural consumers from those faced by their urban counterparts. A quarter of homes in Somerton and Frome are off the gas grid and rely on alternative sources of fuel. Between 2021 and 2023, heating oil prices rose by 77% and the price of liquid gas doubled. The energy price guarantee introduced by the Government to cap people’s energy costs did not cover off-grid homes. They were forced to wait for the Government’s alternative fuels payment. It was initially £100, but after extensive lobbying, including by some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, the Government increased that to £200. However, it was not rolled out for those completely off grid until March 2023. Those who are off grid are still suffering high fuel costs, with liquified petroleum gas twice the price it was two years ago. I believe that the Government need to introduce a cap on domestic heating oil to support rural areas.

The rural premium applied in rural areas needs to be recognised by the Government, and support needs to be in place to alleviate the current high cost of living. The Liberal Democrats have a plan to help rural people. This Government have shown that they do not.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) on securing this debate.

The United Kingdom boasts a rich tapestry of rural communities, each with its unique charm, heritage and challenges. Over the years the UK Government have strongly recognised the significance of these communities and have implemented various measures to support their growth, sustainability and resilience.

Earlier this year, when I was the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I wrote the foreword for, and indeed owned the whole document called “Unleashing rural opportunity”, in which we set out really important ways to ensure that our rural communities thrive. Whether it was about investing in the rural economy, removing barriers to enterprise or improving connections, we have already seen significant improvements in digital connection, and under Project Gigabit we will go even further.

There have also been connections on transport. I recognise what the hon. Lady said in that regard. Particularly in some rural areas, the sparsity of communities is challenging when it comes to providing a consistent public transport service. However, I hope that she welcomed the £2 bus fare cap, which I know has significantly improved the use of bus services in Suffolk. There has also been other support, which can often go towards things such as community volunteer transport or transport on demand, which, to be candid, I think is still going to be the most likely way to have an on-demand service for most of our very rural communities.

I also believe that there is more that we need to do on aspects of affordable housing and on aspects of energy. A decade ago, I was strongly involved in the fuel poverty challenge for properties off the gas grid. In fact, the Government changed the law under the Digital Economy Act 2017, a change that I helped to secure. That was to allow the opportunity to get information that the Government had but which was collected with certain powers that restricted its use, in order to open up that information to energy companies, so that they were able to go and identify the communities, or people in the community, who were off the gas grid, to try to help with the energy company obligation support. However, it was not unique to people who were off the gas grid.

I believe that it is that sort of thing where we probably need to put some more momentum behind what the energy companies are actually doing to be able to distribute that sort of support. It is there, but too often quite a lot of the money still goes, as I think the National Energy Association has said, into trying to identify people who might be eligible for support rather than going into delivering the solutions. I think the willingness is there. Now that I am back on the Back Benches, I perhaps have the opportunity to say that we should get that sort of connectivity going again and challenge things in that regard.

Regarding connectivity more broadly, enhanced connectivity lies at the heart of empowering rural areas, and I think that the UK Government have been dedicated to bridging the digital divide, ensuring that even the remotest villages have access to high-speed internet. The rural gigabit connectivity programme aims to deliver lightning-fast broadband to over 1 million homes and businesses in rural areas. That will bring economic opportunities and facilitate remote working, online education and, I hope, online healthcare, so that instead of having to travel long distances to get specialist care, people in rural areas might be able to receive such care online.

Before the right hon. Member gives way, may I just say something to her? I am sorry, but I forgot to ask her if she could sit down at 4.48 pm, so that I can get the other speakers in.

And I will just repeat that the motion is:

“That this House has considered Government support for rural communities”,

because I am failing miserably in the Chair. Sorry. [Laughter.]

Sir Charles, your failure is met by enthusiasm and has been offset as a result.

I thank my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for the point she is making. On digital connectivity, the percentage of my constituency of Bosworth with 1 gigabit has increased from 0.1% to 67%. This kind of thing gives huge opportunity to businesses and folk in my community. Is that not exactly the kind of thing that the Government want to do, in order to unlock opportunities for businesses, so that they can create new reasons for people to be in a rural constituency, apart from the beautiful countryside?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. About a decade ago our ambition was to get to 10 megabits as the universal service obligation. We have much greater ambition that that now. Of course it is about delivery, and quite a lot of legislation in the past few years has been about unblocking some of the barriers to making delivery happen, but it is good that the process is under way.

However, I share the concerns about mobile phones. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) has undertaken an assessment, and will be working with DEFRA and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Ofcom needs to look again when it says an area is covered for mobile phones. All of us have examples from our constituencies of that not being the case. It is particularly distressing when I think about the removal of copper-line communications that is due to happen this decade and the impact that could have if Ofcom is working off not totally reliable communication points.

The shared rural network is obviously designed to address that issue, but in many cases the equipment that providers have is not shared by other providers. Does the right hon. Member agree that either the equipment needs to be shared by all the main mobile providers or there needs to be rural roaming?

That is a good point. I do not know enough about the detail of what the hon. Lady suggests, but I know there are two sets of providers because they already share connection masts, but I appreciate that is not totally comprehensive.

I want to say a bit more about the importance of farming to our countryside and in our rural communities. Over the past year, I have made a lot of effort to try to ensure that that is recognised and that farmers are seen as the custodians of the countryside. Perhaps that speech will have to wait for another time, given the variety of issues that rural affairs covers, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome set out extensively.

One of the things that will continue to be of interest to me is school transport. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) has a debate tomorrow on funding for rural councils. There is no doubt that young people miss some opportunities because they cannot necessarily get to their college, which is a long distance away. More broadly, hon. Members who represent urban constituencies may not understand that children leave home very early in the morning, have quite long days--although those days seem to get shorter—and often may miss out on the regular opportunities that others have for sports, debate and similar.

I am afraid that I just do not have the time, but I am sure the hon. Member will be making a speech soon.

The right hon. Lady is extremely kind for giving way, and I apologise for missing the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke). I want to build on the point about transport, because there are massive issues in my constituency for transport for children with special educational needs. Children have to go from Selby up to Harrogate or Scarborough to receive the education they need. Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need more funding and investment to transport those children who need that extra help in a way that better respects the fact that they are getting up very early in the morning and not enjoying school in the way that other young people are able to?

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. The situation varies around the country, but I know it is a challenge that councils have. We could actually have an all-day debate in the Chamber or in here to discuss the plethora of issues covered by the brief held by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), whom I welcome to his well-deserved ministerial role. Being from a rural Yorkshire constituency, he will know a lot of the challenges that are faced, but he will also know of the opportunities and what a special place it is.

In terms of Government support, we need to keep that funding going for post offices, and we need ongoing investment in rural access programmes, whether that is for health or the internet. I commend the Government for the progress they have made. Of course, I would say that because a couple of weeks ago I was in charge of the Department doing it, but I assure the House that there is a genuine passion there. We need to ensure that the rural proofing that operates right across Government is still done and gets the scrutiny it deserves.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) on securing the debate. It is such an important debate for many of us here because, while we recognise that urban areas have issues specific to their communities, everyone in this room understands the specific challenges that exist for our constituents living in rural areas.

Often these challenges are not adequately considered by the Government when the finer details of policy delivery are decided, and it is to the detriment of our constituents. Special educational needs, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Keir Mather) referred, is a perfect example. With smaller and more disparate populations in villages and towns in my constituency, children with special educational needs and disabilities are at risk of slipping through the net. Being students in smaller rural cohorts should not prevent them from accessing the same services as their peers in urban areas. I had hoped that the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan published in March would address some of the unique challenges in rural SEND provision, but it failed to do so. None of the proposals related specifically to SEND in rural communities but spoke simply in generalisations, assuming that all geographies have the same concerns.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. One of the issues mentioned beforehand, to which the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Keir Mather) also referred, is that children with disabilities, whether emotional or physical, are up at half-past 4 in the morning to catch a bus at half-past 7. Their parents are up; their families are up; the whole house is disrupted. Those are special circumstances: a bus arrives at half-past 7 and there is no other choice, even though school does not start until 9 am or half-past 9. Those are real problems.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Member. The big question is how the Government can possibly expect to address those issues when we see no sign of their recognising them.

The challenges in rural educational provision differ from the provision of SEND in urban areas. In spread-out communities, often with non-existent public transport, it is far more difficult for SEND children to access those services. Thirty children in an urban area with a small geographical footprint and a bus every 20 minutes find it much easier than do 30 children spread over a vast geographical footprint with no public transport.

Flooding also brings challenges particular to rural areas. Of course, such challenges can occur in any part of the country—they are not unique to rural areas—but some of the issues are wide-ranging. The farmers of West Lancashire are proud to be the growers and feeders of our nation, but when their fields are flooded and their produce is written off, it does not just impact farmers and their incomes; it reduces the availability of food in our shops and it drives up prices, hitting consumers in the pocket all over the country. How can the Government support the growers and food providers of West Lancashire when they do not even have a recognised definition of flooding, and no one is recording how many floods take place each year?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that although this is an important issue, a lot of the debate on flood risk in this country centres on the number of chimney pots—houses—that will be affected rather than on the high-quality arable land that our farmers use to feed the nation in the way that she suggests?

I agree with that. Talking to farmers in my community is fascinating: they cannot understand why the Environment Agency attaches a value of zero to farmland when it measures the impact of flood defences. We really need to talk about that, because without protecting that agricultural land, we are damaging not only the economics of our food providers but access to food and food sustainability across the whole country.

It is not just farmland that is affected. Flooding on roads is a major inconvenience for people in urban communities, but it brings communities like mine to a standstill. In Skelmersdale, we have been without a train station for 65 years, despite the Government supposedly freeing up £36 billion for transport projects through the cancellation of the northern leg of High Speed 2. The Rail Minister has told me in writing that it is not possible to connect Skem to the rail network, because money has already been committed to other projects, a number of which are either recycled announcements or already operational. Projects such as a station for Skem do not only support our rural communities; they unlock the potential within them. It is difficult for me to go back to my constituency and tell residents on their doorstep that the Government are supporting rural communities, when time and time again, people in West Lancashire tell me that they do not feel they are being heard.

The theme running through all these issues is that the Government simply do not understand the needs of rural communities. It is time that the people of West Lancashire had a Government who are on their side and support them by meeting the ambition out there with a bold and ambitious strategy in this place that recognises the specific needs of rural areas, but for now I fear that such a strategy is sadly lacking.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. As an MP representing rural Devon, every day I see at first hand the impact on my constituents of decisions made in Westminster. The Conservative party was pretty canny in 2019 to include in its manifesto the term “levelling up”, because what people in my constituency heard was that the historical imbalance between the west country and other parts of the country—the south-east, in particular—would be addressed. What I have been hearing in the past 18 months is that that illusion has been utterly shattered. Rural communities feel more left out and ignored than ever, and that applies to public services, local businesses and individuals.

I will talk about some of the challenges relating to rural health, rural housing and rural education. Healthcare services in areas such as my part of east Devon are patchy at best. The distances from people’s homes to the nearest acute hospital are huge, and the network of small community hospitals that used to play a vital role has been diminished. Rehabilitation used to go on in community hospitals, but that is no longer the case. In 2017, acute beds were taken out of hospitals in places such as Ottery St Mary and Seaton. Such facilities used to be part of the character of the village or small market town, but people no longer feel they are there to support them.

It would be a huge blow for us to lose a wing from Seaton community hospital, which is severely under threat. I am working with community campaigners to turn that wing into a new care hub so that we can continue to support the ageing population in that part of Devon.

The housing stock in rural areas tends to be draughty and poorly insulated, and frankly there is a lack of it. Who would not want to move from this part of the country to Devon? But that is creating a shortage of housing in towns such as Honiton. Just before I joined this debate, I took a look online and there are just six properties in the whole of Honiton available for private rent. They have three or four large bedrooms, which means that they cost way in excess of £1,000 per month, which, given Devon salaries, is out of range for a lot of key workers in the area. I appreciate that there is pressure on housing across the country, including in urban areas, but we need to take into account the fact that people in Devon travel much longer distances to go to school or work, so they have to extend their search for housing much further. Constituents sometimes come to my surgeries in tears because they simply cannot afford to live in the patch where they grew up.

Providing education in rural areas is particularly difficult, and there is a huge catchment for many schools. Mrs Ethelston’s Church of England Primary Academy in Uplyme has such a large catchment, and so many people want to send their children to it, that the space pressure is acute. The teachers and children desperately look forward to the warmer months, when they will be able to open the doors and have some of the classes taught outside, such is the pressure on space. I think of Tiverton High School, for which I fought a campaign during the by-election last summer. We have heard nothing on when we might see spades in the ground and action taken to replace that crumbling high school with something the people of Tiverton deserve.

To conclude, the idea of levelling up for a lot of people in rural areas—certainly in the west country and my part of Devon—is a great concept. But people think this is now a tool being used to win over marginal constituencies in urban areas in the midlands and the north. They have not seen it. Frankly, if I go and talk with people in my patch about levelling up, they say “Levelling up? The Government can’t even level up the pothole outside my house.” This Government say they want level up. Instead, they need to start by ensuring rural areas get a fair deal and a fair shot at success.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance once again, Sir Charles. It is a real privilege to follow everybody in this debate, but especially my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), who succeeded in securing this debate and made an outstanding speech at the beginning.

I want to cover many issues we have already talked about, and I will start with farming. Farming is crucial to feeding our country, protecting and restoring our environment, tackling climate change, promoting biodiversity and underpinning the landscape that our tourism economy depends on, but it has been badly let down. Farmers across my community feel angry with this Government for many reasons—including the trade deals with New Zealand and Australia that threw them under the bus—but specifically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned, the botched transition from the old scheme to the new scheme.

We believe in environmental land management schemes, and we think the project is one worth supporting. However, the Government promised £2.4 billion in their manifesto for farming in England, and the latest figures for 2022-23 show £1.97 billion for agriculture in England. Environmental schemes have increased in their expenditure to farmers by £145 million a year—great—but basic payments have fallen by £490 million. We see upland livestock farm incomes down by 44% and lowland livestock farm incomes down by 41%.

I remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. If the Government find it so difficult to put money into farming in the way my hon. Friend describes, could they not perhaps give a bit more attention to ensuring that farmers get a fair price for their product at the farm gate? The Groceries Code Adjudicator has not achieved what we wanted it to, but surely somebody, at some point, has got to address the fact that that market is failing, and it fails to the disadvantage of our farmers and rural communities.

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that point; he is absolutely right. The Groceries Code Adjudicator has the capacity to potentially make a big difference for farmers and growers—producers of all kinds. But the reality is that it does not have the sanctions and remit. It is not allowed to take third-party referrals from the likes of us or the NFU on behalf of farmers who are being stitched up by processors or retailers. It is absolutely right that the Government support farming, but the market should be fixed so it does not exploit our farmers either.

We already have a situation where we are only 58% self-sufficient in farming in this country. We are never going to deliver the environmental goods we need if we do not have those expert hands on the land delivering those environmental policies. Our landscapes are at risk of changing radically, dramatically and negatively to undermine—for example—the £3.5 billion-a-year tourism economy of the English Lake district.

Moving on to broadband, Project Gigabit is a good idea, but there will be many people who miss out. Thousands of homes in my part of Cumbria are outside the scope, or in deferred scope, of Project Gigabit. B4RN—the Minister may be aware of it—or Broadband for the Rural North is an excellent local community interest company. It could absolutely connect all of those homes in—I am going to mention them now—parts of Sedbergh, Kaber, Murton, Long Marton, Winton, Warcop, Ormside, Hilton, Hartley and Bleatarn.

I mention those places because, if the broadband voucher system were still available, they could be connected now through B4RN, if it was not for the fact that Project Gigabit is trying to only ride one horse, and is not prepared to accept that not every issue has to be dealt with in the same way—one size does not fit all. I ask the Minister to look specifically at those communities and consider restoring the vouchers to them so that they can be connected well and connected now.

I want to briefly move on to buses. The right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) rightly points out the importance and value of the £2 bus fare, which I think has increased footfall or “busfall” by about 10%—it certainly has in my community. The £2 bus fare does a fat load of good if there is no bus. I want this Government to give local authorities like mine the power to run their own bus companies and the funding to ensure that they work. Buses often do not make a profit, but they are the oil that ensures that the economy works in communities to keep people connected and to ensure that people can get to work and school, or make use of leisure facilities. Back our buses.

In which case, I really apologise—I will not give way. I apologise, Sir Charles. I do not want to be ungenerous to the mover especially.

I will finish on health, and I want to talk about cancer in particular. The reality in a community like mine is that, throughout south Cumbria, there are around 700 people having to travel each year for radiotherapy treatment to their nearest radiotherapy centre—the Rosemere Cancer Centre in Preston in Lancashire, which is excellent. That is a two, three or four hour round trip for those 700 people. Swindon has recently been allocated a satellite unit on the basis of 600 patients who would use that centre. My call is for a satellite radiotherapy centre to be placed at the Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal to serve south Cumbria and to ensure that those people receive the treatment they need.

The latest figures tell us that 38% of people in south Cumbria diagnosed with cancer wait more than two months for their first intervention, and 54% of those in places in north Cumbria, such as Appleby, Kirkby Stephen and Shap, have to wait more than two months for their first intervention. We know that, for every four weeks of delay in cancer treatment, one has 10% less chance of surviving. I believe that people in rural communities have as much right to have a life ahead of them than those who live elsewhere, yet we have a funding situation that does not treat them as such. I will finish there, Sir Charles, and thank you for overseeing this debate. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I commend the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) on securing this debate today—the first of many excellent contributions in this Chamber, I am sure. The Scottish Government are committed to supporting farmers and agricultural communities all across Scotland. Unlike the Government here in Westminster, the Scottish Government understand the needs of the rural communities, and the unique and important roles they play in the make-up of not only our economy but our country and its health.

Brexit has been bad for all of these of course—-the economy, our country and its health—and EU withdrawal has damaged the UK’s farming industry. It has made trade with the EU more difficult, it has led to labour shortages and a reduction in standards, and it has resulted in a loss of funding to UK farmers. The Scottish Government are committed to maintaining direct payments to support the act of farming and food production in these communities. The Cabinet Secretary in Holyrood has offered assurances that the envelopes for tiers 1 and 2 —based and enhanced—will take up by far the majority of available funding. We are of course working closely with communities to ensure that there will also be no cliff edge between the current system and moving on to the newer systems, but people of course have to do a lot more in return for their payment.

Scottish farmers and rural communities require clarity and certainty from the UK Government about future funding after 2025, and they need that right now. As things stand, we have no idea what either a Labour or a Conservative Government might do in the future. We will be listening intently to what the Minister and the shadow Minister—the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy)—have to say on the future of funding, or perhaps on which U-turns might be undertaken next. Of course, if we were still in the European Union, we would have that funding certainty through the multi-year common agricultural policy framework, which is something else that we have lost thanks to Brexit, which is of course was supported by the two major parties here in Westminster.

As those in the Chamber will be aware, agricultural policy is devolved to Scotland, and it is crucial that the Scottish Government’s policies are unhindered by this place and the threats imposed upon it by the UK Internal Market Act 2020, subsidy control regimes and a lack of a long-term replacement for that structured EU funding. Those of us who sit on the EFRA Committee heard evidence from devolution experts last week, which is worth reinforcing here today: it is high time that the Westminster Government learned how to listen to devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales because it is not only farmers and rural communities that have been affected; the damage of decisions taken in this place goes far and it goes deep.

The Scottish Government have introduced an Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill to Parliament to establish a new payment framework, which will begin to reform our agricultural and our wider rural support systems. One area that I want to focus on is how the Scottish Government are acting to deliver improved infrastructure and connectivity for rural communities and islands. We have heard a lot about that already today. Work is ongoing to open a new railway station next to Inverness airport, offering better connectivity and initiatives made possible by the £40 million of Scottish Government investment as part of our commitment to a fairer, greener Scotland.

We are also pushing for connections to be established between the famous Caledonian sleeper service and the Eurostar at St Pancras International. That will help join the two key services linking the highlands of Scotland with major European cities. It will further support our strategic aims going forward. The Scottish Government have invested over £9 billion on rail infrastructure in Scotland.

Finally, I want to touch on how important good quality, affordable housing is to help attract and retain people in Scotland’s communities. Between 2016-17 and 2022-23 the Scottish Government have supported the delivery of more than 10,000 affordable homes in the rural and island areas, and we have much bigger ambitions yet. On 13 October we committed to deliver at least 10% of our 110,000 targets in rural and island communities, to meet housing needs and to retain and attract people to those communities.

The Scottish Government are fully committed to supporting farmers and our agricultural communities by delivering the funding, improved connectivity and infrastructure programmes and by building the homes that we so desperately need now in those locations.

It is always a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. As you may have noticed, I am not my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins). He is currently unavailable, so I am here in his place. I am sure he will catch up on the debate very quickly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) on her first debate held here in Westminster Hall. She did well and made an excellent speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Ashley Dalton) for her passionate championing of children with special educational needs and how their particular needs need to be met in a very specific way in rural communities. That would have been felt and heard by everybody in this room.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Keir Mather) for mentioning the particular needs of children with special educational needs and how we need to make sure that they do not miss out on anything because of the area in which they live. I quickly want to thank the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for their contributions to this debate. We have had a really interesting discussion.

I want to comment on the issues around broadband. As I am sure the Minister is aware, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Latvia and Bulgaria already have at least 85% ultrafast full-fibre broadband coverage, so it is an embarrassment to us in this country that we are so far behind. In fact, we could say that if we were in the slow lane compared with the EU when it comes to our rural communities, we are in a traffic jam because the super-slow roll-out of ultrafast broadband in rural areas is genuinely putting communities at a disadvantage. We have more people working from home, which is something to be pleased and positive about, and more are choosing a rural life, but unfortunately I found out in this debate that only six homes are available in Tiverton, in case anyone wants to move there.

The broadband failure is a major loss. It impacts households and also businesses and productivity. When Project Gigabit was first announced, we were promised it would focus on harder-to-reach areas, but it is clear from Ofcom and DCMS data that the funding is being spent more on easier and cheaper-to-reach areas, many of which already have decent broadband connectivity. That is just because the Government want to be able to hit that figure of 85%. It feels as though the policy is driving what is good in terms of politics but not what is good in rural communities. Can the Minister tell me what proportion of areas not covered by gigabit-capable broadband are in rural areas and what action is being taken to address that?

We have heard from many people commenting on concerns around the availability of bus services. Someone used the phrase “rural isolation”. It is not just about getting to work: it is also about having a life, being able to connect with family and friends, and social activities. The lack of funding for local authorities has forced many communities to make tough decisions when it comes to road maintenance and the lack of availability of rural bus services. Roads are in a disgraceful state. Figures from the RAC say that there could be over 1.5 million potholes in England. I would gently say that election leaflets pointing at potholes, despite the impression they give, do not fix them. What will the Government do to deliver a solution to the potholes we have? Joking aside, 8,100 car breakdowns happen because of potholes.

Labour will act to support our rural communities where the Conservatives have failed. We will not sit back while more shops and local services disappear, while numbers dwindle in village schools so that they risk closure, and while farmers struggle to make ends meet and local people struggle with higher food and energy bills. The Government have failed to recognise that business and growth are not in competition with the environment, and that we can use the green agenda to promote business, increase skills and growth, and rebuild and protect our rural and farming communities. That is what the next Labour Government will do. We will embed rural proofing at the heart of Government and Labour policy and ensure that these areas thrive.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) for securing today’s debate and congratulate her on securing her first debate in the House. We have a number of firsts: it is my first debate responding as a Minister, and I am very pleased to be in the position to do so. I would also like to thank other hon. Members for their contributions today.

It gives me great pleasure to speak as the Minister for Rural Affairs, because Rural Affairs is one of those portfolios that cuts across multiple Government Departments. Representing the rural economy and the rural sector, I very much see it as my role to bring together some of the challenges that have been identified and that we are well aware of from other Government Departments, so that we can focus on driving forward the very best agenda for our rural communities.

The countryside makes up 90% of the UK’s land mass, is home to millions of people and is central to our economy, contributing £270 billion each year in England. This Government are absolutely committed to improving the quality of life for all businesses, farming communities and individuals living within the rural sector. We are ensuring that the needs of people and businesses in rural areas are at the heart of policymaking, and that absolutely sits right with me. Rural proofing policy and our levelling-up agenda are the very basis of what this Government are about when it comes to the rural community.

That is why, earlier this year, my Department published the “Unleashing rural opportunity” report under my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). I thank her for her time and her service to the rural community while she was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That report was vital because it outlined how the Government are addressing the needs of people and businesses in rural areas. It included new commitments from across the Government to support rural communities to thrive and be more resilient.

I would like to canter through some of the topics that have been raised by many contributors to the debate. I will start with some of the points on farming. Our farming community is at the very heart of our rural community. The Government continue to support and invest in farming and have stood by our manifesto commitment to invest £2.4 billion a year for the rest of this Parliament. We are phasing out the EU’s bureaucratic land-based subsidies and introducing new schemes that work for farmers, food producers and the environment. We have accelerated the roll-out of the sustainable farming incentive and there are now a further 19 actions that can be accessed to grow food more sustainably. They include actions relating to soil health, hedgerow management, providing food and habitats for wildlife, and managing pests and nutrients. We have rolled out the farming investment fund, which has been very much welcomed by many in our farming community because it focuses on improving productivity and efficiency within farming business, animal health and welfare, and bringing forward more environmental benefits.

Another topic that has been raised is the levelling-up agenda, which of course is one of the Government’s core missions, particularly when it comes to rural areas. Rural areas face specific challenges: productivity is generally lower, access to services is sometimes more difficult, and connectivity can be more challenging than it is in urban environments. That is why the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, which enshrines the levelling-up missions in law, includes a duty for this Government and future Governments to have regard to rural areas. Delivery of the Government’s levelling-up agenda is underpinned by significant investment—notably, £4.8 billion through the UK shared prosperity fund. To address the challenges faced by rural areas, we have supplemented that funding with an additional £110 million through the rural England prosperity fund, which supports capital projects for small businesses and community infrastructure and helps to improve productivity and strengthen the rural economy across the country.

Many Members, including the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal, mentioned digital connectivity. Rural areas offer significant potential for growth, and the Government are committed to creating the right conditions to unleash that potential. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), who is no longer in his place, highlighted the extent to which the Government will improve rural digital connectivity, which will do more to support growth in rural areas than almost anything else. It is not only an economic necessity, but a matter of social justice. More services, both public and private, are being delivered electronically, so those living in rural areas must be able to get online. The Government recognise that and are doing something about it. Through Project Gigabit, we are investing £5 billion in hard-to-reach areas to achieve access to lightning-fast broadband. Our target is to reach 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, with nationwide coverage by 2030. Through the £1 billion shared rural network, in collaboration with industry, we will deliver 4G coverage to 95% of the UK’s land mass by 2025, which will help many people living in remote rural areas.

Many Members mentioned housing. I want to pick up the points raised by the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). We all know that a thriving, working countryside depends on having sufficient housing stock. People want to be able to earn a livelihood in their communities, near their family and friends, and employers want to recruit a locally based workforce. Small site developments can be an effective means of delivering the housing that is needed in rural areas. Developments of up to six units of well-located, affordable housing in villages can be transformational. We recognise that, and I have seen it elsewhere—particularly in remote areas of Northumberland. That is why we are taking action through our rural exception sites policy to allow the development of small affordable housing sites in rural areas where they would not normally be permitted.

Earlier this year, we announced £2.5 million of funding to support the national network of rural housing enablers across England to boost the supply of new affordable housing. They will help by identifying development opportunities, supporting site owners and community representatives to navigate the planning system, and securing the support of local communities for developments.

Reference was made to the challenges associated with getting homes better insulated. I assure the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that through the housing upgrade grant scheme, which supports low-income households, one-off grants can be made available to better insulate homes; £218 million has been made available, of which 67% is being ringfenced for rural areas. That will help to address some of the challenges that have been identified.

Of course, we all want thriving rural communities, so I want to mention some of the wider work the Government are doing to support rural communities to thrive through better access to transport, healthcare and community infrastructure. People living in rural areas often have further to travel to get to work or school, or to access personal and professional services such as healthcare and banking, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned. Ensuring that rural communities have access to effective transport options is vital. That is why I welcome, as I hope many Members do, the £300 million Government investment in protecting and capping bus fares. That was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal. The £2 bus fare cap has been extended to £2.50 until October 2024. That is helping my constituents across Keighley and Ilkley to get out and about at a much more affordable rate.

We are also trialling novel demand-responsive minibus services in 15 local authority areas, supported by the £20 million rural mobility fund. In October 2023, the Department for Transport published “Future of Transport”, which shows how emerging technologies could address some of the major challenges in rural communities. As part of this, the Department is making up to £3 million of funding available for rural innovation. That will help explore new solutions to long-term issues, such as loneliness and isolation, poor access to services and the financial challenges facing rural transport services.

We are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to good-quality health and social care wherever they live. That is why we are working better and faster to deliver more accessible care in rural areas. That includes rolling out 160 community diagnostic centres. Many are located in market town centres, which can reduce the distances that people need to travel. I am pleased that those diagnostic centres are being rolled out across England as I speak.

I also want to pick up on a point on satellite services made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. I have seen them work very well in certain parts of England. I recognise some of the specific challenges that he referenced in his speech. They are something I could take away to look at with the Department of Health and Social Care. My role as Minister for Rural Affairs is to try to bring together objectives that other Departments want to achieve and ensure that they can be rolled out in rural areas.

I also want to highlight the work that the Government are doing to support vital community infrastructure in community hubs, such as village halls, public libraries and places of play. Those places play a key role in sustaining rural community networks and services. DEFRA is investing £3 million to support improvements to village hall facilities across the country and the £150 million community ownership fund supports community ownership of pubs, shops, community centres and the like.

I reassure everyone that I want our rural areas to prosper and be a central part of the levelling-up ambitions. I want them to be places where people not only want to live and work, but where they have better access to the essential services that they need to go about their everyday lives.

I thank the Minister, and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy); and I thank all hon. Members for their passionate and valuable contributions. I close by reiterating the need for tailored support for our rural communities. They are so often forgotten, but we need to recognise their importance to our society. We need the Government to understand the specific issues that such communities face and heed the calls from hon. Members present regarding the ways that the Government can better assist.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Government support for rural communities.

Sitting adjourned.