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Westminster Hall

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 December 2023

[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

Christmas, Christianity and Communities

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Christmas, Christianity and communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. The motion is on Christmas, Christianity and communities, and I will speak of all three. “Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city”—I remember that song playing so often when I was young. My mum loved Christmas; I think that is why I love it so much now. The city streets look so wonderful with all the lights shining brightly. There are Christingle services with church choirs singing carols old and new—what is your favourite, Dame Maria? Slade and Mariah Carey are playing on every radio station, local and national; there are bustling shops; people are rushing about, trying to get a present for a loved one; and Santa’s sleigh is making appearances up and down the country in our villages and towns. Lions Clubs do so much good work, raising money for numerous charities while spreading festive cheer. Father Christmas is in department stores and garden centres. Advent calendars are excitedly opened by kids—and adults—across the country, counting down to this very special day. There are Christmas get-togethers, the sharing of cards, Christmas movies—it truly is the best time for so many of us.

Christmas is obviously getting very commercialised, and as I mentioned in my Easter debate, there will always be those who want to change the name of these festive periods and who want us to forget the real meaning of Christmas. But with 2 billion-plus people across the globe who all know the reason for Christmas, we can be safe in the knowledge that the reason will never be forgotten. To make sure we do not forget, however, I will play my part now and make sure we all know.

We celebrate Christmas because of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin named Mary, in a barn—the most unlikely place for the king of kings.

It is widely acknowledged that Mary and Joseph were migrants travelling by unconventional means. Had the authorities in Bethlehem decreed that migrants travelling by unconventional means should be deported to Rwanda, how much further would the three wise men have had to travel to celebrate the birth of our Lord?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I expected something exactly like that from someone like him during this debate. I will continue with my speech, and will address his comment any time he wants, out and about.

Jesus was visited by those deemed the lowest in society—the shepherds—and by the highest, the wise men. He was raised as all boys were at that time. Jesus would have gone through many of the challenges we all face but always in the knowledge of His heavenly father. He had siblings. He learnt a trade from His father, Joseph, a carpenter, but then, in His 30s, He started to spread the word about His reason for being here. He carried out miracles and preached as no one had before or ever will again. He told the world that the only way to be right with the Lord and have eternal life was to believe in Him. He knew His time was limited on this earth and that He would have to make the ultimate sacrifice for all of us. He knew he would be crucified, and He was—crucified so that all those who believe in Him will be forgiven. He made the final sacrifice so that we can be right with our maker, not through words or deeds but simply by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

What does that mean to us, 2,000 years later? It means simply this: if we repent and ask Christ to come into our lives, He will. That is it: the greatest gift we can ever be given is simply an ask away. It does not matter what you have done in the past. No matter what your thoughts or deeds have been, what addiction you have, whether you are in prison or not, or whether you are wealthy or broke or healthy or sick, just ask Him to come into your life, and He will. You can ask Him alone or with others, in church or not, on your knees or not, eyes closed or not. You just need to ask, and there is never a better time than now.

Do not think that you are not good enough to ask—that is what I thought. I lived for decades without the Lord because I thought I was not good enough to be a Christian. Trust me, you will never not be good enough and nor will I. Forget all your reservations and just ask, and when you do, you will start watching the negatives in your life fall away. Why? Because you will fill all those voids in your life—the ones you have filled with poor choices—with the truth that our Lord, Jesus Christ, loves you. From that moment forward, you will never be alone and will never be without help or hope, because our Lord is always with us.

I have spent much time this year talking about suicide. Two of the many issues related to that are loneliness and the feeling of having no value. With Christ in your life, you are never alone and you can be happy in the knowledge that the Lord values you. What a wonderful gift that is. We really need to spread this message.

The next thing you need to do is to let people know and to seek out your local church. The Church was always at the heart of the community. Sadly, some churches are closing. I often speak about building a strong local economy. If we all buy online, there will be no shops. Likewise, if we do not go to our local churches, they will inevitably close. At Easter, I spoke about the importance of our Christian heritage and about the wonderful chapels and churches that make our towns and villages the places that they are. They are also home to a Christian community that is leaned on by many in society when a tragedy happens. Unless we go to those chapels and churches, they will no doubt close their doors, just like our shops have. So when you have decided to let Christ into your life, if you were not already in church when that happened, go down to your local church and tell them of your decision—they will be delighted to see you. There is a church community out there that is just waiting to welcome you: a community that is full of forgiveness and care, love and hope—a community that needs you.

This Christmas, make that decision to follow Christ and then become part of that community, which can change our society as a whole. We were never meant to be alone. We were meant to be in families and in a community, with faith at the centre of our lives. I hope that all Members agree with that, and I hope that the Minister will do all that he can to promote our communities and our churches.

This wonderful gift of forgiveness and eternal life was given to us at Christmas, and it is a gift that we must share. But we must also engage in the forgiveness part. If there is one thing that we can and should do as Christians, more than anything else, it is to forgive those who have wronged us. This place is meant to reflect society and, although that is often a good thing, sadly it also reflects the bad in society: anger at each other, gossip and lies, selfishness and attempts to get ahead. We can all be guilty of some, if not all of those. If God can send His only son for Him to eventually die on a cross for our sins, we surely must be able to forgive an act or deed against us. If you are upset with mum this Christmas, give her a call; if you are not speaking with a sibling, send them a card; if a neighbour is not currently on your Christmas card list, go and knock on their door; and if an argument with a friend has turned into six months of silence, send them a text.

Let me be the first to practise what I preach. Let me start by apologising to all those I have let down over this past year—families, friends, colleagues, the good people of this country and the Christians who think I should do better or differently. Trust me, this place can make you look like a villain even when you are not, but if I apologise here and now, hopefully you can all forgive me.

I say now that I have already forgiven those who have wronged me, especially those on social media. They call me the most awful things, Dame Maria, but trust me, I forgive them all. Why? Because God has forgiven me. What would Christmas be without forgiveness, friends, family and Christ in the centre of our communities? Happy Christmas, everyone.

Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on succinctly, but honestly and sincerely putting forward the greatest story ever told, as it truly is. As I look around Westminster Hall, I see many kindred spirits, like the hon. Gentleman who set the scene. I think my contribution will be replicated by others—we will all have the same story and will all be telling the greatest story ever told.

I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. We have been in Westminster Hall together a few times now, and I have fond memories of, and thank him for, his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I also look forward to hearing from the two shadow spokespersons. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who will speak for the Labour party, has belief and faith, as I and others here do. I know that her contribution will reflect that, as will that of the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady).

This issue is truly close to my heart. I so love Christmas because of my faith and the fact that I love Christ, which enables me to love my community. It took me some time fully to grasp the verse that I learned as a child:

“We love because he first loved us.”

At the age of eight—the hon. Member for Don Valley referred to this happening—I accepted the Lord Jesus into my heart, as a wee boy in Ballywalter. I grasped early that He loves us when we are right or wrong, when we are on the mountain top or in the valley, or when we are argumentative or are peacemakers. That encompasses all we are in this House, what we believe and what we try to put forward.

I learned that because I benefit from an all-encompassing love, and I understand that Jesus loves my neighbour, the person who comes into the office and shouts at me, and me with the very same intensity. He loves the drunk person who dented my car coming out of the pub as much as He loves me. That is what the hon. Member said: it is about loving people who sometimes might do things that injure, annoy or distress us. When I understand that, how can I help but love those He loves so passionately?

That feeling is replicated throughout the faith sector, and that is the reason why so many Christians give up their time and money to help in their communities. I want to talk about what Christians do in their communities. That unfailing love that we cherish in Christ has to be replicated, because, as He said very simply, the first commandment was to love God and the second was to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

In this House, I have always tried, in every way that I can, to be ever mindful of those of a different political opinion, who might have different thoughts about policies. It is no secret that my policies and politics are left of centre, and a social conscience drives me in regard to the things that I believe in. In this House, however, “Do unto others as you would they do unto you” is my simple philosophy. I have tried to do that in all my time in this House and in all my life.

A survey showed that church or faith-based organisations were the most common type of organisation that individuals volunteered with—39% of individuals volunteered with those, while 29% volunteered with sports organisations and 17% volunteered with local community, neighbourhood or citizens groups. Women were more likely—the proportion was 43% —to be volunteers in church or faith-based organisations than males. The fact is that in churches, it is the women, the ladies, who keep us all in check and make the contributions, and inspire us. I am fortunate to have a 92-year-old mum who inspires me every day.

It is clear that the Church is taking the responsibility to love seriously—how can we not do likewise? When we look at the love of God, which saw the redemption story beginning at Christmas and ending with the resurrection of Christ, the message was clear: God’s unfailing, unending love always wins. It won victory then and it helps us to win victory now, including victory over loneliness. All of us know of examples of loneliness in our constituencies and communities. A young woman in my local community uses the local church hall to heat Christmas dinners for 110 lonely people on Christmas day.

Love wins when we see families with no money being given food and toys for their children by the Salvation Army and the food bank. We all have food banks, the Salvation Army and churches that contribute greatly. Love wins when we see Christian missionaries carrying out feeding programmes funded by those who are struggling themselves. Love wins, and that is all inspired by the love of God seen at Christmas in the gift of the lovely Lord Jesus, who loved me and gave Himself for me and for you—for everyone here in this Chamber, everyone outside this Chamber and all those listening to this debate.

In a world of darkness and despair, I am so thankful that the light and love of Christ can still lead the way for those who trust in Him—I am one of those people. I celebrate His birth, as we all do in this Chamber, and the changes that were wrought in me when I first trusted Him.

I love Christmas because of Christ—I think we all do. That is the thrust, the core, the story of what we are discussing today. I love my community, as others do equally—I know that. He loves them and that love inspires service and dedication. I love His Church and I am thankful for the branches throughout the world that seek to be His hands and feet across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, I sincerely wish you, Dame Maria, and every right hon. and hon. Member here, a merry Christmas and a happy new year. I remind everyone of the love as they show their love to their community and family this year.

We have a number of people who want to speak. If we keep contributions to about nine minutes each, we should get everybody in.

It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, Dame Maria. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for introducing it so well, and so authentically; I think we all sensed that. I am grateful to him for giving us a reason to come here to remember the reason for the season.

It is worth pausing at the beginning of this debate. As we head back to our constituencies today, and as our constituents gather with their families to celebrate Christmas, we should have a thought for the 360 million Christians around the world who live under fairly serious forms of persecution, and who will not be able to celebrate Christmas as freely and as easily as we can, if at all. People in North Korea probably will not be able to celebrate Christmas at all, for example. Three of the 11 countries where there is extreme persecution of Christians are Commonwealth members: Nigeria, Pakistan and India. We should perhaps say a little more about that.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a call with the spokesman for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and we had the privilege of listening to the parish priest of Bethlehem, where Christians will just have prayer this Christmas, because their hearts are broken over what is happening to their Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters in Gaza. We should think of the people in the Latin Church in the north of Gaza, who are running out of food and being sniped at as they try to go to the toilet. We hope and pray that rescue will come to them shortly. We should never take for granted our freedom to worship freely in this country; it is a precious gift.

In the United Kingdom in 2023, we live in a world beset by anxiety and fear, so when I read Luke 2:10—

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people”—

I see so much of the answer to the problems, issues and anxieties that face our constituents. That message of the angels has never been needed more in our country than today, when a third of people live alone.

People everywhere are desperately searching for love, community and purpose. At Christmas, and quietly week by week, churches provide that relationship of love through Jesus Christ; a sense of community with fellow believers; and purpose, as regards why we are here, and what we were born for. I am told that carol services are packed, particularly with young people. Someone said yesterday that as many as half of Londoners will turn up to a carol service. There is a hunger to learn more about our faith, and for that love, purpose and sense of community.

At its best, church is family. Christianity is, at heart, a relationship of love with the Lord Jesus. The best definition of community I ever heard was from the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

“A place where they know who you are and where they miss you when you are not there.”

If you go to a church where that is not the case, it is possibly not the right church for you—or maybe, if you are in a larger church, you need to join a home group.

I have the privilege of speaking in this House on behalf of the Church of England. There are many churches up and down the country of all denominations doing fantastic work, but it would be remiss of me not to put on record that the Church of England has a presence in every community in England; it has 16,000 churches, 42 cathedrals and 31,000 social action projects, and educates 1 million children every day in church schools. That is an amazing footprint. I am grateful for those parish priests and workers who quietly, week by week, day by day, bring the light of Christ at Christmas and throughout the year.

I end by again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley for bringing us here this morning for an important debate that goes to the heart of so many issues in our country.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance, Dame Maria, and a privilege to follow several hon. Friends, in particular my friend the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for being bold enough to secure this debate, and for delivering a great speech. I hope that I have done nothing that he needs to forgive me for.

Christmas, Christianity and community are all massively important. It is great to have this debate at this time of year. Over the past few days, I have had the joy of visiting Christmas markets at Shap and Orton, and Grange Christmas tree festival, where I gave a little talk. I read a lesson at Kendal parish church carol service, and attended the wonderful nativity at Kendal’s Dean Gibson Roman Catholic Primary School, which included the privilege of giving the award to the winner of my Christmas card competition, Anna Kay. Her design of a Herdwick sheep inside a Christmas wreath—it could not be more Lake district—is being delivered by our wonderful volunteers to 40,000 houses.

I visited several other schools that had taken part in the competition, and joined in their Christmas celebrations. What a joy all of that is. At my church in Kendal, our Christmas celebrations reach many more people than would normally attend our services. I know that is the case for churches the length and breadth of Westmorland and Lonsdale and, indeed, the whole country. I do not need any persuading that Christmas is important to communities, locally and nationally. It brings us together, family by family, street by street, village by village, town by town.

The shared acknowledgement of the importance of this festival as a time of rest and a time for family is significant for the collective life of our country. However, for those working in healthcare, social care, the police, the fire services, hospitality and many other professions, including some in my close family, it is a time of continued, if not enhanced, busyness. We are grateful to all those people; we pay tribute to them and thank them.

Traditions are important, and we have them in our family. We decorate a tree in the midst of the woods near our home in Westmorland. We do the same family walk every year on Christmas eve. We share the annual festive disappointment of an en masse family trip to Blackburn Rovers, and we watch the same films over and over. Without even checking, I know the entire script of “Home Alone” and “Home Alone 2”—not “Home Alone 3” or “Home Alone 4”, because they are abominations.

No, the most wonderful Christmas film is “It’s a Wonderful Life”, with James Stewart. That tells everything about everyone’s story, and how people influence one another. That is what we do in this House, so to me, that is the best Christmas film ever.

I would say it is a tie between “Home Alone 2”—because I think Tim Curry makes it—and “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The other tradition on Christmas eve is watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”; then I sit around with my brothers-in-law and watch the “Father Ted” Christmas special—I know all the words to that, too.

Some decry the loss of the Christian message from Christmas, seeing that as an undermining of British values. I understand that concern, although I do not think it is anything particularly new. Commercialism and escapism have been displacing the Christmas message for decades if not longer, and a nice, feel-good, schmaltzy, vague magic has been allowed to displace the meaning of the nativity for longer than I have been alive, at least. I have had the best parents, but I was not brought up to go to church, although I was raised in an era when the assumption was that we believed in God—probably the Christian version. Nevertheless, the first Christmas story that I remember having read to me as a very small child was “The Night Before Christmas”, which begins:

“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”.

I remember the thrill of being read that by my mum, as I perched on my bed on Christmas eve, ready to be tucked up. I was aged three and a half. There was an empty stocking hanging expectantly, and a tingling sense of excitement. Lovely and traditional though it was, it has no more to do with the Christian message of Christmas than “Home Alone”, “Love Actually”, “Elf”, or any of the other stories that we enjoy at this time of year, so before we get too upset about Christmas being joylessly erased by winter festivals and all that, let us not forget that the Christian message has always been seen as something of an inconvenience—something uncomfortable to be brushed aside, whether it is Christmas or not. In fact, Christmas is one of those rare occasions when you can more easily get away with talking about Christianity. This debate is a case in point.

My contention is that Christianity has always been and always is counter-cultural. It is meant to be. It is deeply disturbing and even offensive. I am reminded of Lucy asking Mr Beaver about Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. She asks nervously, “Is he a tame lion?” “Oh no,” says Mr Beaver, “he’s not tame, but he is good.” He is good. Jesus is not tame; Christianity is not tame; and Christmas is not tame, but He is, and they are, good. I would say to people: if you are prepared to allow yourself to be disturbed and offended, you will discover that He is good—good for you, even.

Christmas is all about stories: there is Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”—best performed, of course, by the Muppets—“It’s a Wonderful Life”, the “Home Alone” films and the many legends of Father Christmas and the trials of his reindeer. The Christmas story, however, is a different kind of tale altogether. It is told in just two of the gospels in the New Testament—Matthew and Luke—and the jarring thing is that the writers expect us to believe that the nativity is history. Just before Luke launches into the account of the nativity, he starts his book with this:

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

Those four short verses tell us something pretty shocking about the story that is to follow, in which the God of the universe writes himself into our story. He comes into the world that he created as a baby, born in poverty in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. He comes into the world for one chief reason: to suffer and die in our place, so that sinful human beings can be forgiven our wretchedness and have eternal life. Luke’s verses tell us that this story cannot be a fairy story. It cannot be a fable or a feel-good, festive yarn. Given Luke’s introduction, this story can only reasonably be one of two things: fact or fabrication. When we look more carefully into the evidence of the eyewitnesses, we see that fabrication soon falls away as a plausible theory, too.

Maybe we get a shiver down our spine when we think of the magic of Christmas. How much more of a shiver might we get if we realised that what we read about in the nativity is true? The fact that millions have accepted that continues to be crucial to our society. The nativity tells the story of a teenage mum who, along with her husband and new child, becomes a refugee from a tyrant, lost in an empire that cares little for them and that values them as nothing more than tax fodder. There is so much there for so many people to identify with. It is a reminder that God never considers us an irrelevance or an insignificant and anonymous number; every hair on our head is numbered, and our names are written on the palm of His hands. Commercialism and escapism will not make Christmas mean anything, really.

Maybe our difficulty is that we feel inclined to miss Christmas, or at least to celebrate less, because, after all, look at the state of the world—what is there to celebrate? God looked at the world and saw the mess it was in. He did not hide under the covers; He entered in at enormous cost, because He loves us. Christians are to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, running the food banks, providing support for those in debt or poverty, housing the homeless, befriending the lonely, and loving our neighbour in practical ways. That is not because we seek to earn God’s favour, but in joyful response to the fact that by His Grace, we already have it, and Christmas proves that we have it.

If the Christmas story is true, yes, it is disturbing, but it means that there is justice. It means that evil does not win; good does. It means that there is love beyond our wildest dreams. It means that there is ultimate truth, and that there is meaning in every life, and in every part of every life. It means that human rights actually exist. They are not just a passing 21st-century fashion; they are the invention of the inventor of everything. Because we have ultimate dignity of bearing the image of God, that means every other human being does, too. No Parliament, President, despot or dictator can change that one jot.

Christmas is also a time of personal sadness for some. It may be the time when we feel the loss of loved ones the most. Christmas is a time of great joy for me, but all the same, this Christmas will be my 20th without my mum. I mentioned earlier that the first story I remember my mum reading to me was “The Night Before Christmas”, and the last thing I read to my mum in her hospital bed was this from the last book in the Bible, the Revelation:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with humans, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”

If Luke is to be believed that the nativity is eyewitness testimony, we can believe those things, too. It means that there is real hope, even for a scumbag like me. Happy Christmas.

It is good to follow the hon. Member for—sorry, I wrote it down but I cannot read my writing—Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). I credit my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), which is easier to pronounce, for securing the debate and being so true to his personal conviction and faith. We have a role in sharing truths this morning.

On Christmas morning, families will gather to open gifts and enjoy traditions that have become special over the years, and we have mentioned some already. I wish them all a great day, and the very best for the year ahead. I also thank everyone who will be working on Christmas day and across the festivities. They may not be at the forefront of our minds as we wake up on the 25th, but firefighters, policemen and women, possibly road gritters, doctors and nurses will be among those giving up their family time to ensure that services are available, if we are so unfortunate as to need them. I thank all those who will be serving up meals on Christmas day. I know a project in west Cornwall that will be serving up breakfast to people who are homeless, and lunch to those who are alone, and to many others; it is offering friendship and company to those who need it. We also remember that around the world British servicemen and women will be working for peace and to protect our interests and security abroad. I pay special tribute to everyone who is working, and thank their families for their personal sacrifice at a time when the rest of us are united.

As we have just heard, we want to remember all those for whom Christmas will be a deeply sad and troubling time, because many have lost loved ones in the past year and in many previous years. Christmas, as we have heard, is a time when that is acutely painful for so many.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men on whom his favour rests.”

That is a well-known part of the biblical account of the Christmas story. They are familiar words to those of us who have attended children’s nativity plays. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale seemed to take pleasure and joy in attending so many Christmas events and nativities. This is not for anyone outside this room, but I confess—I may be the only one here being honest—that children’s nativity plays, even when my seven-year-old daughter is in them, are just not my favourite pastime. Even so, I am hopeful that they are not entirely irrelevant. I have watched lots of nativities, some better than others, and they are important. I do not particularly enjoy them, but I hope that we have not lost their relevance. I am also hopeful that the Christmas story has not just been mixed up with many fairy tales and other romantic accounts. I suspect that for many, it has; it has been mixed together with Father Christmas, elves and all sorts of other things that we love to think of.

We parliamentarians have the opportunity today to speak of the role of Christianity and Christmas in our communities. Christianity is an important part of our history, and gave birth to many of the precious institutions that we hold dear. Early Christians, for example, pioneered care of orphans and the elderly—something in which we take great interest, and take time to do today around the world. Many hospitals and schools in the UK were established by Christian organisations. In my constituency, I have old hospital buildings dedicated to the service of God, and there are ragged schools that still bear that name, set up by Christians who recognised the need for education for the poorest families and their children.

Churches and chapels were central to every community. Unfortunately, many of those are now converted into dwellings and used for other purposes. It may not be the case today that our churches and chapels are central to everything we do, but it is appropriate to recognise that although things change so quickly in modern life, the principles of the Christian faith are still the same. During my time as a Christian, I have had constituents who have questioned whether it is appropriate for a Bible-believing man who attends one of those happy clappy churches to represent them in Parliament. It makes me smile, because my motivation for serving in this place is driven by a commitment to public service that is commonplace among those all sides of the House, including among those in this room today.

Those comments cause me to pause and ask: what kind of Christianity are we presenting to those around us? Time does not permit us to go into the great depth, history and truth of the Christian faith as we see it. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley did a great job of making that clear, and we have heard from others on the subject since. My faith reassures me that we human beings are not the top of the tree. In other words, if we think we have all the answers, it is for us to know how to fix the things that are not right. If we are ultimately responsible for all that occurs, whether just or unjust, that is a burden too great to bear, and certainly not one that I want to hold. Christians believe that humankind is not the top of the tree. Humankind does not have the authority, ability or understanding to claim such a role. Christians believe in a God who is far from our understanding, and who holds the world in His hands. The burden of responsibility sits with Him, and I am grateful for that.

There is, however, a challenge for us Christians; our job is much simpler, but it is important. It is our job to display love, joy and peace, to be long-suffering and to show kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I suspect that few would take issue with any of those attributes, and in a nutshell, that is what Christianity is for me. I confess, once again, that it is a journey that is not over for me yet. I have a lot to do, and my long-suffering family would keenly testify that I have not achieved those nine attributes in full.

Returning to Christmas, I quoted the words:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men on whom his favour rests.”

The Christian principles our fathers treasured are many, and are still relevant today. Among them is a longing for peace on Earth—we have heard about the situation in Gaza and across Israel—and good will towards one another. We seem to live in a world in which it is easier to tear others down than build them up. It may not be social media that made it so, but it has certainly created a platform for sharing comments and opinions about third parties—possibly a public servant or a celebrity—with a much wider audience. Previously, those comments would have been limited to friends talking over a drink, or a discussion in a crib hut on a building site.

My hope for Christmas and 2024 is for something better. I had a discussion with a constituent in St Ives library, and he left me with a lot to think about, including his personal commitment to leaving the people he engaged with more cheerful than they were before the encounter. I have tried to apply that ever since—it has not been successful every time, but I have tried. There is so much to be thankful for, and the Christmas season often highlights that for us. As we move into a new year that has the potential to be even more toxic than the previous one, I hope for peace and for more good will to one another than we have become accustomed to.

Because everybody has been so disciplined, the last two speakers can split the time between them. We will move to the Front-Bench speeches at about 10.50 am.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this very timely debate on the three C’s: Christmas, Christianity and communities, between which there is a clear link. Clearly, without Christianity there would be no Christmas, and it is the celebration of our saviour’s birth that brings communities together.

It is fair to say that not everyone who will be celebrating next week would acknowledge the Christian faith or the real reason we celebrate, but this Christmas festival can still work its magic in bringing communities together. It is also the time of year when the retail trade makes much of its profit, and with the decline of our high streets that is very welcome. Sadly, many gifts are now bought online, but we must also recognise the many people who work in the online community and deliver all those parcels. In recent days, we have heard the news that Royal Mail may give precedence to parcels over cards and letters—I hope not.

My hon. Friend and others recounted various Christmas traditions. I am old enough to remember a time when there were not hundreds of TV channels, and squeezed in after the Queen’s speech was “Top of the Pops” and Billy Smart’s circus, and then the Monopoly board came out before Morecambe and Wise came on.

For our churches, Christmas is an opportunity when the pews are much fuller than usual. There are carol services, Christingle services, nativity plays and Christmas morning services, and midnight mass is part of the seasonal ritual for so many. Those, like me, who are regular worshippers will be there because it is a major Christian festival. For the Church, it is a great opportunity to proclaim the Christmas message and perhaps—just perhaps—touch the hearts of those who doubt, who used to believe or who were dragged along by members of the family. There is magic in the Christmas story.

In a strange sort of way, the Church of England speaks for mainstream middle England. Although it annoys me at regular intervals—I want to say, “Please concentrate on preaching the gospel”—it represents communities up and down our land that do so much to keep our society together. It is the Women’s Institute, the parochial church councils and parish councils. It runs food banks, the scouts, the guides and so much more, and all those things involve the Church and the community.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) referred to “Home Alone”, which gives me an opportunity to say, “Not Home Alone”. Nina Stobart and her team in my constituency provide Not Home Alone events for people who are alone. They can go along to a gathering of about 80 or 90 people for Christmas dinner, donated by a generous local hotel. There are so many opportunities.

The Sunday before last, I attended a service of lessons and carols at St Peter’s church in the beautiful village of Ashby cum Fenby, in the south of my Cleethorpes constituency. It was pleasant and uplifting, and epitomised the three “C”s that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley included in the title for today’s debate: Christmas, Christianity and community.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his wise words. I am mindful of his words about what we will all perhaps be doing this coming Sunday or Monday, in relation to Christmas day. There are many places across the world where the opportunity to worship God will not be available, which we need to be ever mindful of. I brought up the example of Iraq in a business question last week in the Commons Chamber. In Iraq, Christians will not be able to worship God in their churches, because of persecution. That is an example of what happens across the world, when we have the opportunity to worship right here.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Sadly, it is very much the case. He does so much work, along with the Prime Minister’s envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), to highlight persecution of Christians.

I return to the service in Ashby cum Fenby. A local businessman had donated Christmas trees, and various community groups and businesses had decorated the trees. The congregation were asked to vote for their favourite. I opted out of this, on the basis that there will be more losers than winners. It is not wise for the local Member of Parliament to get involved.

The Domesday book lists the manors of Ashby cum Fenby, together with a summary of their assets. In 1086, Ashby cum Fenby was in the hundred of Haverstoe in Lincolnshire. The village had three manors and 29 households, which is considered quite large for that time. St Peter’s church is grade II listed, and has an early English tower, aisle and belfry, a decorated chancel, and a perpendicular font. Beneath the tower are the remaining parts of a 13th-century rood screen. In the north aisle are monuments to Sir William Wray and his wife Frances, both from the 17th century, and to Frances’s sister, Susanna. The fact that they have plaques in the church suggests that they may well have been the elite of their community. Nevertheless, they were part of a village community that came together to worship, then as now. The Christian message had brought them together.

One of my favourite passages from the Bible—perhaps even my favourite—comes from the Christmas gospel: chapter 1 from St John. It begins with those immortal words,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

For me, the most striking passage in that gospel is, as the authorised version says:

“He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew him not.”

That is sadly the case now, just as it was when St John wrote those words. How much better the world would be if we recognised that Emmanuel, God is with us. How the communities that we represent would be so much better if the Christian message reached deeper into them. Dame Maria, I wish you and all my colleagues a happy Christmas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this debate, and opening with such a lovely and humble speech. I am pleased we are having this important debate. As a Christian myself, with a firm belief in loving my neighbour, I believe that the Christian message of love and hope is important for us all to reflect on, particularly at this time of year. Indeed, when we treat others as we would like to be treated, our society is a better place. I am proud that Darlington has a wide and varied Christian community. It serves our town in many ways, from providing food and support to those in need both near and far, to raising funds in its many activities for a wide range of organisations.

I particularly want to highlight the work of Darlington Town Mission, established by Quakers and Anglicans in 1838. To this day, it supports the elderly and vulnerable by tackling loneliness. Only last week, I was pleased to attend one of its carol services, bringing many people together to sing familiar carols. So varied is the Christian community in Darlington that I have not yet managed to visit every place of worship, but I have visited All Saints and Salutation Blackwell parish church; Darlington Baptist church; Elm Ridge Methodist church; Embrace church; Houghton on the Hill Methodist chapel; the Holy Family church; Holy Trinity parish church; King’s church; Northgate United Reformed church; Saint Augustine’s church; St. Cuthbert’s church; the parish church of St James the Great; St Matthew and St Luke; St Andrew’s church; St Columba’s church; Saint Teresa’s Roman Catholic church; St Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic church; St William and St Francis De Sales church; the Salvation Army; and St Anne’s church. Indeed, there are many more left to visit.

On Wednesday night, a Christingle service will take place at Geneva Road Cemetery chapel for the first time in many years. That redundant chapel has been taken over by the community and, over the last few months, they have been working tirelessly to restore, clean and prepare it for that festivity this year. I will be delighted to attend that.

During the pandemic, our communities came together to support one another, and that was clearly evident in our faith communities. Following my election, and seeing how important faith was in our town, I established an inter-faith forum that brings together not just the Christians of Darlington but our Quaker, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities to discuss the issues that our town faces. We continue to meet regularly, rotating our place of meeting. When we respect and embrace each other’s differences, those of different faiths and communities can live together in much greater harmony.

As a gay man, I know how difficult LGBT people of faith can find certain teachings in coming to terms with their religious belief and sexuality. However, in this season of peace and love, it was wonderful to see only last week the first blessings of a same-sex couple in an Anglican setting. Yesterday’s news from the Vatican of potential blessings for same-sex couples will be a joy to gay Catholics around the world. For me, my faith has taught me that we are all made in God’s image and there is value and worth in every one of us. It is for that reason that I have continued to campaign for the much-needed ban on conversion practices. Christianity is about loving our neighbour as they are. I will continue to press the Government to ban the abusive practices of conversion therapy, which simply bring darkness and misery to those subjected to them.

While I appreciate this debate is about Christianity and Christmas, and I have focused on Darlington’s thriving and vibrant Christian community, which I celebrate involving myself in, I want to highlight the other faiths in Darlington. Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists all, in their own way, talk of peace, love, respect and the victory of light over darkness—Christmas messages to which people of faith and non-faith can all relate. I would also like to extend my Christmas wishes to colleagues across the House, all the staff who support us and the entire community of Darlington, regardless of their faith. May we all share in the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the perseverance of the wise men, the obedience of Mary and Joseph, and the peace of Jesus Christ at this time.

Finally, entering into the Christmas spirit, I would like to declare my Christmas list to the Minister. Drawing inspiration from Mariah Carey—don’t worry, I won’t sing—I don’t want a lot for Christmas, there are just a few things I need; I don’t care about the presents, underneath the Christmas tree; I just want some dentists in my town, and conversion therapy to be brought down; more than you can ever know; Minister make my wishes come true; that is all I want for Christmas.

Before I begin, I pay tribute to the late Alistair Darling, whose memorial service will be taking place not long from now in St Mary’s Episcopal cathedral in Edinburgh. He was a remarkable man who contributed much to Scottish politics. I echo the tributes that have been paid across party lines, and I send condolences and sympathies to his family.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this debate. We often say, “Oh, this was a very timely debate”, but this literally could not be more timely—right at the end of term, just before we break for the Christmas recess. It is a pleasure to see so many Conservative Members in Westminster Hall. That is not always the case, for whatever reason. Last week, or two weeks ago, there was a debate on the anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights; regrettably, not a single Government Back Bencher was able to attend. It is important, however. We heard about the Christian roots of the human rights declaration and framework from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), and it is great to see so many colleagues here today.

Of course—I beg forgiveness from the Father of the House, and indeed the chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and chair of the Procedure Committee, who also appeared towards the end of that debate; although, regrettably, there were no speeches. Anyway, in a spirit of consensus, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale spoke about the historical roots of Christianity. It is pretty unlikely that Jesus was born on 25 December in the year zero AD—not least because the Jewish and Roman calendars in operation 2,000 years ago were slightly different from the ones that we use today. Indeed, as I heard the hon. Gentleman say, most historical scholarship suggests that Jesus’s birth was shortly before what we now reckon was year zero and others suggest that the date was arrived at in the early Christian church as a co-option of pre-existing Roman or other pagan festivals associated with the winter solstice. That is not necessarily incorrect, or a diminution of the significance of the celebration in any way. There is a natural human instinct to celebrate the time of year when the dark days of winter begin to grow shorter and light appears earlier. As we heard in many of the contributions today, for Christians the coming of Christ is indeed the coming of the light of the world. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) quoted from the Gospel of St John: the introductory paragraph says that

“the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it”.

The message that has come through in all the contributions today is that if we want to remember the reason for the season, if we want to put Christ back into Christmas, then Christians have to be that light that shines in the darkness. They have to be the example and the leaders in their communities. At this time of year hon. Members are right to draw attention to the role that churches and Christian communities play in supporting some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our societies—and other marginalised groups. I echo much of what the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) said about LBGT Christians and the moves being made in different denominations to be more welcoming and supportive of them.

In Glasgow North, many of the Christian churches and other faith communities run important outreach programmes. St Gregory’s in the Wyndford area runs a food bank. Sadly, it sometimes struggles to cope with the level of demand. The Catholic church at the top of Maryhill road, the Immaculate Conception, and Maryhill parish church across the road, have a formalised co-operation agreement that has led to inspiring collaborations—not just for prayer and praise, but in charity fundraising, litter picking and the provision of warm welcome centres in collaboration with other churches along the Maryhill corridor, so that anyone who feels the need has somewhere warm they can go any day of the week, have something to eat and enjoy friendship and fellowship with others.

We have heard about similar examples and experiences from many other hon. Members, in their own communities. Of course, that is true of many other faith communities and organisations not connected with religious belief that provide similar outreach, especially at this time of year. I echo what the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) said about thanking all those who will be working while the rest of us—and so that the rest of us—can enjoy a holiday or break during Christmas.

Glasgow North is the home of two cathedrals: the Episcopal Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin on Great Western Road, home to one of the finest choirs in Scotland and famed for its open and inclusive approach to ministry; and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St Luke in Dowanhill, which is an important focal point for that community in Glasgow and the country as a whole. The city of Glasgow is also home to the historic Cathedral of St Mungo, which has a Presbyterian congregation that is, unusually, housed in a building called a cathedral; and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Andrew, the seat of the Archbishop of Glasgow and successor of St Mungo, currently Archbishop William Nolan. We welcomed Archbishop Nolan, along with a number of his brother bishops, to Parliament a couple of weeks ago on an historic visit which coincided with the visit of the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, who comes to Westminster every year. That was a reflection of the St Margaret’s declaration which was signed by the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, outlining their shared beliefs,

“rooted in the Apostles, Christ’s first disciples”

and acknowledges a common heritage as Christians in Scotland. It also recognises the divisions of the past, apologises for the hurt and harm caused, seeks to make amends and commits to working toward greater unity. The Scottish Government collectively and the First Minister in particular have endorsed those steps towards greater collaboration and understanding between the Christian Churches and indeed between all faith communities.

In a previous role, I worked for the aid agency of the Catholic Church in Scotland—the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund—and we were very pleased to have the support of Humza Yousaf, who was then the Minister for External Affairs and International Development, and is now the First Minister of Scotland. He has spoken very warmly about the work of all the Christian aid agencies in Scotland.

However, it is difficult to reflect on Christmas, Christianity and communities at this time without considering the situation in the Holy Land. The hon. Member for Don Valley spoke about our favourite Christmas tunes. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has always been one of my favourite Christmas carols. Bethlehem, or the House of Bread, is the place where Jesus was born, but in a stable—indeed most likely in a cave—where he was laid in a manger, because there was no room at the inn. It seems that in those days Bethlehem was full. Now, some argue that towns and cities in this country are full. The very first Christians were told that they were not welcome, and that the authorities and communities would not support them; they had to make do by themselves, somewhere else.

We have also heard from the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). Indeed, he and I were at the same meeting as the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), who is also here today, where we heard from the parish priest of Bethlehem and also from the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem about the particular struggles of the Christian community in the Holy Land at this time of year, in this time of crisis, and the impact on their ability to worship. We also heard about the impact on others who want to come on pilgrimage.

That is why Christian leaders of all denominations, from the Pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury to the patriarchs in Jerusalem itself, have called for an immediate ceasefire on both sides, to allow aid into Gaza, refugees out, the release of hostages and the negotiation of a peaceful settlement. That has been echoed in calls that I have heard from thousands of constituents, many of them motivated and encouraged to make such calls by their faith and their faith communities.

One constituent of mine in particular, Helen Minnis, who is the professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, wrote to me to reflect on the “Coventry Carol”, which will be heard in many carol services up and down the country at this time of year. She said that it was recently listed as one of the top 20 carols, but she also said that she had discovered that it was about the massacre of the innocents. She said that a

“few hundred years ago when it was written, it was one of those small strident voices. I keep thinking of it just now because it tells how every mother of every child being killed must be feeling”.

The “Coventry Carol” goes:

“O sisters too, how may we do

For to preserve this day

This poor youngling for whom we sing,

‘Bye bye, lully, lullay?’

Herod the king, in his raging,

Chargèd he hath this day

His men of might in his own sight

All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee

And ever mourn and may

For thy parting neither say nor sing,

‘Bye bye, lully, lullay.’

Thy tiny child, bye-bye.”

I hope the Minister will reflect on that powerful testimony and will perhaps draw it to the attention of his colleagues in the Foreign Office.

Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said, it was the massacre of the innocents 2,000 years ago that led the holy family to flee Bethlehem and make their way to Egypt—indeed, to what is quite possibly today Gaza—as refugees and asylum seekers. What would have happened if the Egyptian authorities had decided that they were not welcome there either and should be deported somewhere else or handed back to King Herod?

That is why it is right for Members to draw attention to the profound impact that Christianity has had on the whole of humanity and on our world today, but it is also why those of us who profess the Christian faith must try to live up to the enormous challenge that that represents. We must try, and fail, as we often do—certainly, I often do—but we must try and try again. That is why the hon. Member for Don Valley is right to say that we should ask for forgiveness at this time of year and, of course, I do the same.

In all of this discussion, it is vital to recognise the importance of freedom of religion and belief, which includes the right not to hold any religious belief and to disagree with the teachings and principles of organised religion. I recognise the work of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is also here today, and I hope that the Government will look seriously at the Bill that she has brought forward about making her position as a FORB envoy a statutory role.

The Government could also take some quite practical steps to support Christian Churches and other faith communities. Church buildings and other places of worship are a hugely important part of our heritage, but repairing and maintaining them attracts VAT, which is a huge challenge. Maybe that is something that the Minister would like to think about.

Also, the reality of the immigration environment means that it is now very difficult—indeed, it is often impossible—for Churches to bring in supply ministers to cover for their own clergy during the summer or in quieter months of the year. That leads to a reduction in the number of services, or even cancellation of services, and a lack of access to precisely the kinds of support and community cohesion that we have been celebrating throughout this debate. I hope the Minister will be able to respond to that point and some others.

However, in the spirit of this debate, this time of year, and the Christian injunction to love our neighbours—even if they represent different political parties—and to do unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves, let me conclude by wishing you, Dame Maria, all hon. Members here today and across the House, all of our staff and everyone who helps us in our jobs all the peace and joy of the season and a very happy Christmas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this morning, Dame Maria. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing—as other hon. Members have said—this timely and important debate. I thank him for opening his contribution this morning by reminding us about the spirit of Christmas, and that we must not lose sight of why we celebrate Christmas—that is really important.

I also want to thank some other hon. Members for their contributions this morning. It is always a pleasure to serve with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). No Westminster Hall debate would be complete without his presence, so it was good to see him take his rightful place this morning. He reminded us of one of the most important commandments of loving God, but also loving our neighbour. We have to remember how we treat our fellow women and men and the importance of doing unto others as we would want them to do unto us.

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made the really important point that we are free to celebrate regardless of which religion we belong to, but many people across the world do not have that luxury. I think back to the attack on St Theresa Catholic church in Nigeria—my country of origin—a few years ago, where I think 37 people were killed just for coming together to worship. We must continue to ensure that our Government calls for the freedom of religious belief and for people to be able to worship.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about the work of the different communities in his constituency. He spoke of charities and the many people who will be working over Christmas, including helping him to deliver his many Christmas cards. The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke of how we as Christians celebrate our faith. It is really important as parliamentarians that we are proud of our faith. We are here to serve and respect all our constituents of faith or no faith, but we should be proud of our faith and not hide it. That is what God wants us to do, and that is the true meaning of us being Christians.

However, I cannot believe the hon. Member for St Ives does not enjoy nativity plays. This time last week I was at my six-year-old’s nativity play. It was a delight seeing the children dressed up, and there was delight on parents’ faces when they realised that their child was not the donkey. No matter how in tune the children are, they are all little angels, are they not? There is something good about nativity plays, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will reflect on that and get into the spirit for next year.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) highlighted how the commercialisation of Christmas has crept in, and the fact that some of our high streets and online retailers will welcome the additional boost. I think for Christmas I would like the online retailers to pay their fair share of tax, in the same way that our shops on our high streets pay their business rates. That is a really good way that they could celebrate Christmas.

I must be honest, I cannot remember some of the TV programmes the hon. Member for Cleethorpes referenced —it may be that I am a little bit too young—but one of the programmes I always remember is “The Snowman” by Raymond Briggs. It is such a classic, and watching it is a tradition I started with my husband when we started having children. We can all remember the little boy’s face, and then the shock horror when he turned up the next morning and the snowman had melted and saw the carrot for his nose and the coal for his eyes. Every year my husband and I take our children to the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith to watch an adaptation of the original “The Snowman” called “Father Christmas”.

I salute and commend the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for recognising and reiterating the point that so many LGBTQ+ people are of faith, and they are proud to be of faith. It is important we remember that, and that we welcome them and continue to embrace them. I hope the Minister has listened to him, and many others, on making sure we address the issue of conversion therapy.

Lastly, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) highlighted the light. With so much darkness in the world now, it is easy to forget that there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. As we all come together with our families to celebrate, it is easy for us to forget that many people will not be doing that. It is important that we hold on to that light and that we hold on to that truth, spirit and the fact that Christ lives in us in that light.

I want to touch on my own reflections on the meaning of Christmas, community and Christians. I am one of the Eucharistic readers at my own church, Our Lady of the Rosary Brixton, which I have attended all my life, so I know how important Christmas is. I will be reading on Christmas day next Monday at the 10 o’clock mass—if anyone is still in London, come to Brixton. For me, it is an important tradition that we start Christmas by going to mass on Christmas day before we eat, and I know that many Christians will start Christmas day that way.

It is a time when we remember the birth of Jesus and the light he brought to the world. It is a time when we celebrate our faith, but we also know that ours is a multi-faith, multicultural society and that Christmas represents different things to many different people across the country. Many people celebrate Christmas not just for Christian reasons, but for the happiness it brings. For some people, it is a time to relax and recharge over the difficult winter months. For some people, it is a time to come together and see family members and friends. For others, it is about giving and receiving gifts—that is quite high on my agenda because I have an eight year old and a six year old, but my children and I always look to give gifts to less fortunate children. It is important that we think about those young boys and girls who will not be opening Christmas gifts. It is important that we educate our children that it is not always about receiving; it is about giving. Those are the true values of Christmas for me.

I commend the hon. Lady on her sensible and helpful contribution. Reaching out was in the press about four weeks ago, which I think we should try to do in our own constituencies. Many people will be alone this Christmas. A phone call may be one way of contributing, but the suggestion—this probably has more impact—was for people to visit a lonely or elderly person who is on their own. That is a Christmas message and something we should all try to do.

I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford; that is so important. Going back to an issue that many members highlighted, on Sunday last week, my church held the Christmas luncheon for the elderly. It was really good to see so many parishioners coming together, cooking, exchanging gifts and singing carols. It is important that those events are celebrated and that we continue to hold them.

Christmas means so many different things to different people, and that gives us the strength to continue to enjoy it today. It is also important that we look at how traditions have evolved over time. Christmas should not be confined to a certain era or style of celebration. The Christmas we will enjoy in 2023—not just here, but across the world—is a melting pot of centuries of change, reform, and adaptations in society. In the 17th century, Christmas survived laws introduced by English parliamentarians after the Puritan revolution to ban the celebration. Can you imagine banning Christmas? Father Christmas appeared in John Taylor’s pamphlet “The Vindication of Christmas”, which argued in favour of Christmas and celebrating Christmas. Later, the character of Father Christmas would be combined with depictions of Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas give us the modern-day Santa Claus who delivers our presents or, as my eight year old almost broke it to my six year old, “You do know Santa Claus isn’t real?”

I know—shock horror. She said, “But Jesus is real” so I said, “I’ll take that instead.”

Several Members referenced the films and TV shows that have become commonplace in our lives. We have seen these figures adapted on our screens. New films capture the spirit of Christmas and have rapidly become traditional. Christmas today represents a combination of all these traditions in all our different communities.

I am proud to represent Vauxhall, and it has been great to see all our communities and constituents come together over the past few weeks to attend different carol services. I am proud that people across the world can come to celebrate their own Christmas traditions with their community as well as discover new ones. I am proud that the staff at St Thomas’ Hospital and all our emergency and public services will continue to work throughout Christmas to keep us safe. Come Christmas day, they will be saying, “Merry Christmas”, “Feliz Navidad”, “Buon Natale” or “kú dún” as my late mother would have said in Yoruba. It is important that we recognise all the traditions that come together for many people.

I am proud that our churches and communities will throw open their doors for the less fortunate and the lonely this Christmas. The hon. Member for Don Valley highlighted loneliness and suicide, and the sad reality is that many people will be lonely this Christmas. The Campaign to End Loneliness found that around 3.8 million people in Great Britain experience chronic loneliness. Sadly, that can be exacerbated at Christmastime, when society expects people to be with family or friends or at every Christmas social.

I think about the students and young people in Vauxhall who may have moved from around the world to be here. From the evidence of the “Tackling Loneliness” report, we know that loneliness is high at this time among 16 to 24-year-olds, even among those who do not normally feel lonely. Some of those young people may not be able to afford the flight home, to take time off work or to socialise with a wider group of friends or those who are going back home. It could be their first Christmas apart from their family, and chronic loneliness can be quite depressing. It is important to recognise that this Christmas will not be a joyful one for some people.

I also thank the hon. Member for Don Valley for highlighting the work done in our churches when they open their doors. I echo his sentiments about the churches tackling the issue of loneliness. This Christmas, it is important that we remember not only our family and friends, but the people who do not have families and friends. It could be the biggest gift to someone to invite them round for dinner or simply to pop over and make sure that they are not alone. When churches started opening up after covid, regular churchgoers recognised that some faces had not returned. After one mass, our parish priest said that if we recognised that people had not been to church, and if we were passing their door on the way home or to the shops, we should knock on it, check whether they were still okay and find out why they had not come back to church. It is important that we recognise that loneliness still exists for some people.

Finally, Dame Maria, the other reality is that this Christmas will be a hard time for some people. More families will not be able to put food on the table. Nearly 140,000 children will wake up with nowhere to call home. The one wish on my list for the Minister this Christmas is that he thinks about those children in temporary accommodation. I hope that, in 2024, the Government will address that issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for his sincere and faithful speech. It was a moving speech, if I may say so. It was very personal and spoke to the universality of the Christmas story and the route to help and rescue, and it was echoed in the very moving speech by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron).

You may wonder why I am replying to this debate, Dame Maria. I am the Government’s Minister for Faith, and it is a pleasure to take part. One or two colleagues commiserated with me on having to respond to a debate on the last day of term. Initially, I had some sympathy with that proposition, but it has been a privilege to hear the debate and it is an honour to respond to it.

Observant Members will notice that I have neither officials nor a typed speech with me, although one was offered. I wanted to speak from the heart in response to what I presumed would be the heartfelt speeches that we have heard. I particularly echo the words of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) that, as Christians, we cannot sleep easy in our beds knowing that fellow Christians are persecuted around the world merely for exercising their right to worship in the way they see fit. Reference has been made to the dispiriting and terrifying situation unfolding in the middle east, and our thoughts and prayers must surely be for a rapidly peaceful solution to that horrible state of affairs.

Many colleagues have mentioned what many students of scripture refer to as the “golden rule”, which is referenced in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12. That is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Surely that is the central message of our Christian faith, and it is a message for all of us, including those who take part in social media. It is the whole of the Christian message, set out in just a few short words. What better time to demonstrate that and make it manifest than during the Christmas season?

I echo the thanks that others have given to organisations such as the Lions Clubs International Foundation, the Salvation Army and the Rotary Foundation; they are an army of unthanked, unpaid and unnoticed community volunteers, both within church settings and without, who will do—and are doing—so much to support, help and engage with our communities. They engage with those who are feeling lonely, those who are feeling depressed and those who are feeling that they are outside the community boundaries; they do so much good, and they are the very manifestation of what it is to be a Christian.

Would the hon. Lady forgive me?

As we approach the shortest day of the year, our churches throw open their doors to illuminate our communities with that bright Christmas light, illuminating our way in the dark. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned the Darlington Town Mission and a raft of other local places of worship and voluntary groups. From the Front Bench, I thank them all for the work that they do, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing them to my attention.

If I may, my one sharp note is to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is now absent. He made his party political point and fled. Maybe he had also been warned, in a dream, that it was wise to do so, because his scriptural knowledge leaves a little to be desired. One could create an argument that the holy family were refugees fleeing into Egypt, but the hon. Member said that he wondered how the three wise men would have found them. Well, Joseph was, of course, returning to his home town; he had every right to be in Bethlehem and was returning for the census. Maybe a resolution for the hon. Member for Glasgow East would be, first, to learn a little bit more about parliamentary etiquette and stay to listen to the whole debate, and secondly, to have a little flick through the Bible during the Christmas recess so that he can get his facts right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) spoke movingly about his faith and about the church groups in his constituency. He was right to remind us—this is the salient point that stuck out in his speech—of the danger of Members of Parliament judging constituents’ competitions. I well recall the fallout when, in a moment of high prissiness, I excluded a fruit bread from a cake competition. His advice not to judge is wise advice indeed.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley in what I thought was a very moving speech, in which he spoke about how he found the Christian message and about the huge turnaround that it delivered for him. I think that the House should be grateful to him for speaking about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington is to again be warmly congratulated on his inter-faith work; I know that many colleagues do such work in their constituencies. Is there not a tendency for each religious group to claim some moral superiority and something a little bit different that sets them apart? As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) mentioned, anybody who engages in inter-faith discussions can only come away enriched and encouraged by the commonality of view that those other faiths seem to have, at their fundamental hearts—that key message of doing unto others as one would have done unto oneself.

I was also grateful to the hon. Member for Darlington for reminding us of the challenges, and the campaigns to remove the impediments of what it is to be gay and a person of faith. He spoke movingly and with great sincerity. It always strikes me that we should remind ourselves, as many hon. Members have in their speeches this morning, that we are mere mortals in this great global story of ours and should never presume, although of course too many do, that we are able to claim with absolute clarity that we know what is in God’s mind. All that is in God’s mind is love and we would do well to remember that.

Many people have spoken about family traditions that help augment and make the Christian story of Christmas special. I might be abusing my position— I don’t know—but I will take full advantage and discuss two in the Hoare family. First, we have to watch “Elf”. I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford that anything with Jimmy Stewart in is always worth watching, such as “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but there are other films. “Elf” should be recommended. My daughters get very annoyed with me—we have watched it so often that I find myself reading out huge chunks of the script. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is nodding at that.

My daughters tested me. They challenged me to see whether I could read into the record

“You sit on a throne of lies.”

Well, there we are. I have just done so. My quid pro quo is that yet again Daddy will make everyone sit down and listen to him recite in his most proper native Welsh tone that great epistle to Christmas, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas. If Members have not read it, I commend it to them.

I also like to provide one little new fact about Christmas, which the House might find of use to repeat in quiet moments or to dispel temper and angst around the Christmas lunch table. Somebody mentioned the Puritans and the banning of Christmas. The tradition of Christmas stockings can be read in full in the Christmas bumper edition of Country Life; other periodicals are, I am told, available. The tradition derives from a poor father who had three daughters—I know the feeling as the father of three daughters—who could not create the dowry for their weddings and was worried that they would be sold into servitude or whatever. Anyway, St Nicholas threw three bags of golden coins down the chimney. They landed in the toes of the stockings of the three girls, and there is our history: a 17th-century Dutch tradition of Christmas stockings. We still put oranges and tangerines in the feet of stockings in remembrance of that.

The problem with an off-the-cuff speech penned in response to what people have said is that undoubtedly I have missed some of the points made, for which I apologise. It also means I have no grand peroration. All I can do is thank those who have taken part and wish everybody a peaceful and joyful Christmas.

I thank everyone for turning up today. A few people have tried to make this debate a little difficult for me, but in the spirit of Christmas I will rise above it and forgive them for their little digs. One thing that we have heard a few times is:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I would have them tell me the truth. If we do that in this place, we will do well. I read a quote the other day that said:

“When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.”

I will not be a politician who does that. I will be a politician who tells the truth. I hope that we can all take that into the new year and be fantastic representatives for this great nation. I wish everyone a very merry Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Christmas, Christianity and communities.

Sustainable Farming Initiative

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of transitioning to the Sustainable Farming Initiative.

It is an ongoing pleasure to continue serving under your guidance this morning, Dame Maria. I welcome hon. Members to their seats and the Minister to his. I start by wishing everyone merry Christmas, in the spirit of the debate we have just had.

The sustainable farming incentive is a cornerstone of the Government’s environmental land management schemes. The hallmark of SFI in particular, and ELMS in general, is that public money should support our farmers for delivering public goods. The principles underlying that transition are supported by farmers across the country, by environmental groups and, for what it is worth, by me. The point of this debate is to issue a plea to the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that they start listening to farmers and acknowledge the damage they are doing to farmers, food production and our environment by the way they are managing the transition from the old scheme to the new.

The Conservative manifesto promised £2.4 billion to English farming, yet in the past year the Government spent only £2.23 billion on various schemes and, crucially, only £1.956 billion of that went into farming. The Government have, therefore, broken their promise to farmers to the tune of £444 million last year and, with the phasing out of the basic payment scheme stepping up, they are set to break their promise to farmers to an even greater degree next year.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Recent figures show a remarkably low uptake of the sustainable farming incentive. Does my hon. Friend agree that it simply does not have enough incentive for farmers to join?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; I will come to that in a little while, because I think that does explain a lot of why that underspend has happened. It is easy to see how it has happened; it is not a mystery. It is down to two things: first, the Conservative Government have been very good at phasing out the old BPS, and secondly, they have been relentlessly incompetent at bringing in the new schemes, including for the reason that my hon. Friend set out.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs figures show that around £460 million has been removed from farmers’ pockets in the form of the BPS phase-out, which eclipses the increase in environmental payments of around £155 million. Much of that has not even gone to farmers. It has instead found its way into the very deep pockets of large landowners, including new entrant corporate landowners, looking to do a bit of greenwashing at the taxpayer’s expense.

In the spring of 2021, the Government promised to spend £275 million on SFI schemes in the 2022-23 financial year. Yet, in reality, excluding the pilots, they spent literally nothing—zero pounds, zero pence. This year, the Government plan to spend just shy of £290 million on SFIs. One question for the Minister is: how much of that money will actually go to farmers in this current financial year?

I understand clearly what the hon. Gentleman is saying but I would respectfully like to put forward a suggestion. There are examples where the schemes have done good. For instance, there are some wonderful farm shops in my constituency, such as Corries butcher’s, a good scheme set up some years ago, and McKee’s farm shop. For those farmers who can afford additional farm shops, this is a wonderful way to diversify in an effort to boost income and ensure functioning sustainability. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—I think he does—that small financial incentives could be a way to support our local farmers to diversify, and that could be introduced through the sustainable farming incentive? In other words, we can all gain.

I go back to what I said at the beginning. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are clear advantages in the scheme, and we support its principle. The problem is that they are outweighed across the piece by the negatives.

What does the botching of the transition mean for individual farmers? Last week, I met a group of farmers in north Westmorland at Ormside near Appleby. One told me that SFI would replace just 7% or 8% of what he is losing in basic payment. Another explained that if he maximised everything in his mid-tier stewardship scheme and got into all the available SFI options, he would replace only 60% of what he received through BPS. The others in the room looked at him with some envy: he was the least badly affected.

Last month, I met a group of farmers in South Westmorland, in Old Hutton near Kendal. One told me that the loss of farm income meant that he had to increase the size of his flock to make ends meet. He knew that in making that choice he was undoing the good environmental work that he and his family had been doing for years, but he could see no other way to keep afloat. That is a reminder that the Government’s handling of these payments means that they are often delivering precisely the opposite of what they intended.

One issue that farmers in my constituency have raised is that existing schemes to help the environment are not eligible under the sustainable farm incentive, so farmers are incentivised to rip those schemes out, undoing good work that they have done and damaging the environment. Does my hon. Friend agree that a tweak to the payments to recognise good work that has already been done would be welcome?

My hon. Friend makes a really good point, and that also happens in my constituency. Accidentally, the Government are acting in a counterproductive way when it comes to the environment.

Others at that meeting in South Westmorland near Kendal told me that they are putting off investing in capital equipment because the loss of BPS and the lack of replacement income means that they do not have the cash flow to invest in a long-overdue new dairy parlour, a covered slurry tank or other things that would increase productivity and improve environmental outcomes. The Minister will say that many grants are available to farmers to help them in that respect, and in some cases they absolutely can, but not if contractors need to be paid up front as DEFRA expects farmers to demonstrate that they have the money in the bank to do that before releasing those grants.

DEFRA’s own figures show that upland livestock farmers have lost 41% of their income during this Parliament, and that lowland livestock farmers have lost 44%. One famer near Keswick told me, tongue in cheek, that he had calculated that the fines he would receive for committing a string of pretty terrible crimes would not amount to what he lost in farm income thanks to this Government.

My hon. Friend is making a very good point. Does he agree that financially aware farms help make financially secure farms, which build food security for the country?

Absolutely. If we do not give people stability of income and certainty, how can we expect them to provide the food and the environmental gains that we need?

I challenge the Minister to come up with any industry that has been penalised as badly by the Government over the past four years as our farmers. To be fair, I do not think the Government actually intended to do so much harm to farming and farmers. I do not believe they sat down and decided to break their promise to farmers and make a net cut of more than a sixth in farm spending, but those cuts have happened all the same because of flaws built into the system either by accident or by design, which have led to predictable and ever-increasing sums of money being taken out of farming, while smaller and less predictable amounts have been introduced.

Let me set out some of the flaws, in the hope that the Minister will address them. First, the system has built-in perverse incentives, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) said, which mean that farmers at the forefront of environmental work are penalised. Farmers who are in an existing higher level stewardship or uplands entry level stewardship scheme lose their BPS—by the end of this month, they will have lost between 35% and 50%—yet they cannot fully access SFI. In other words, farmers already doing good environmental work can only lose income from this process. That is especially so in the Lake district, the Cartmel peninsula, the dales and the Eden valley—some of our most treasured and picturesque landscapes. In upland areas, basic payments typically make up 60% of financial support. Farmers in those beautiful places, which are so essential to our heritage, our environment and our tourism economy are stuck. They are already in stewardship schemes, but their BPS is being removed and they cannot meaningfully access SFI.

The Lake district is a world heritage site. If the landscape changes dramatically for the worse in the next few years because of the Government’s failure to understand the impact of their error, that world heritage site status is at risk, and its loss would cause huge damage to our vital hospitality and tourism economy in Cumbria, which serves 20 million visitors a year and sustains 60,000 jobs.

The Government’s failure to allow farmers to stack schemes to deliver more for nature is foolish and bureaucratic, and it means that they were always going to be taking more away from farmers than they could ever give back.

I am not sure whether things are just different in North Devon, but my farmers seem to be able to stack their schemes. I was asked to come here today by a lovely lady called Debbs Harding, who is part of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, to fully endorse this programme. Yes, there is more to be done—there is always more to be done. However, I am delighted to hear that the Liberal Democrats welcome the schemes and are not just going back to Brexit, which has been their previous position.

On the point that SFI can add value, the reality is that, with the exception of moorland options, there is no reason for anybody in a stewardship scheme to add to what they currently lose. My colleague from Appleby, who said he can only replace 7% of what he loses from BPS, is typical of many people. There are exceptions, of course, and I could name people who have done well out of it. Yet when we have taken out the best part of half a billion and put in £155 million to replace it, it stands to reason that the average farmer in North Devon and everywhere else is worse off.

I try to give the Government some credit by saying that this is incompetence and not malice. They did not mean to break their promise; they have just botched the transition and broken it by accident. However, if the Minister will not address the flaw that prevents farmers in stewardship schemes from meaningfully accessing SFI, we can only conclude that the betrayal of England’s farmers is not accidental after all, but deliberate. Will he look at the matter urgently, so that we do not lose farmers pushed to the brink due to the Government’s obvious failure?

Another flaw in the Government’s approach to the new scheme is that they keep chopping and changing. The Rural Payments Agency cannot keep up with the constant flux, as the Government reinvent SFI every few months. The platform for delivery is struggling to keep pace. For example, the Government’s latest edict is that everyone who began an SFI application in September must have completed it by 31 December. If they have not completed and submitted it by then, all their details will be wiped and they will have to go back to square one and start again. To add to that, the Government’s insistence on drip-feeding SFI options to farmers means that many have not applied because they are worried that if they do, a better new option may be revealed soon after.

My hon. Friend talks about SFI options. One thing I have picked up from the farmers in mid and east Devon I represent is that they are concerned about how the options are profligate. At the beginning of this year, more than 100 options for both schemes were new or were being reviewed. I am hearing from farmers in my corner of Devon that they want greater simplicity in the SFI.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I hear across Westmorland and beyond. All that puts people off applying for new schemes because under DEFRA’s rules, farmers can only change or upgrade options once a year, on the anniversary of their entry into the scheme. As a result, hundreds of farms in Westmorland are hanging on. They are unwilling to apply for the latest option because they cannot be sure that it will not be superseded a month later, leaving them locked into an inferior scheme.

I mentioned earlier the concerns expressed to me by farmers in Westmorland about capital schemes. That is a typical concern in landscapes with sites of special scientific interest, especially in the lakes and the dales. SFI moorland payments are higher than others, which is welcome, but farmers cannot get into that option without significant capital spending. For instance, farmers —or more likely a group of farmers—who farm on a common might typically need to spend a quarter of a million pounds on peatland restoration, sorting out leaky dams and slowing the flow of rivers and becks before they can qualify. Yet farmers—many of whose incomes in reality amount to less than half the national minimum wage—do not have a quarter of a million pounds sitting in the bank to pay up front for that work.

The Minister will say that those farmers could get the money back through the grant schemes, but if they do not have the money up front to defray the costs, they are effectively barred from entering. What are the answers here? We could start with the Government revising their payment rates. If we value these public goods—biodiversity, access, carbon sequestration, flood prevention, and so on—we should pay for them accordingly. That is why the Liberal Democrats have committed an extra £1 billion in UK agricultural payments to protect our environment and support farmers. Increasing the payment rates for SFI would draw more people in, and increasing payment rates for stewardship schemes would help too. The payment rates for HLS and UELS are £60 per hectare for commons and £50 per hectare for non-commons. Those rates have not been changed since 2010, so will the Minister address that?

The Government could then get rid of the barriers in the application process, such as counterproductive cut-off points that prevent farmers in stewardship schemes from replacing lost BPS income with SFI options. Next, the Government could do a really radical thing and actually decide on a policy and then stick to it. The Government constantly changing their mind is damaging the ability of the RPA and Natural England to deliver these schemes. The Minister might also consider whether three-year SFI agreements are long enough. Should there in addition be 10-year options, to at least give farmers the choice of a longer, more stable scheme? That would give them the security and stability they need.

On capital grants, the Government could ensure that the lack of cash flow—exacerbated by the withdrawal of BPS—does not prevent farmers from securing capital funding. The transition is a stressful and complicated business for farmers, as well as a costly one. Will the Minister invest more in face-to-face, on-farm, trusted advice to support people as they make these significant business changes? Will he ensure that Natural England does not habitually block access to new schemes to those in SSSIs by throwing hurdles in their way—as we saw on Dartmoor—and instead offers a helping hand to lead farmers into those schemes?

I restate that public money for public goods is the right principle to support farming, but the transition to the new scheme is causing hardship across Cumbria and across rural England as a whole. We need to remember that farmers are food producers first and foremost. If we do not understand that, we run the risk of damaging our food security even further. Already, the UK is only 55% self-sufficient in food. The Government’s approach will mean fewer farmers and less food production. Not only does that further undermine our ability to feed ourselves, it also displaces the environmental damage overseas. It racks up food miles and makes us reliant on food sourced from commodity markets, which will impact on and increase food prices for some of the poorest people in the world. There is a clear moral imperative for Britain to back its farmers so that Britain can feed itself.

Farmers are also our best hope in securing environmental gain. Of England’s land, 70% is agricultural. If we push farmers to the brink, who will deliver our environmental policies? Let us be dead clear: pushing farmers into bankruptcy is bad for the environment. The greenest thing the Government can do is to keep farmers farming, yet by botching the transition they are doing the opposite. [Interruption.] I will draw my remarks to a close soon— I apologise.

I can think of farmers who are essentially staring into the abyss. For example, people in their 60s who are tenants or else owners of a family farm. They are the fifth or sixth generation to run that farm. It is a beautiful place, but at times it is bleak, and it is always isolated. Life can be lonely.

I will. I was a bit too generous—I apologise.

That farmer is working 90 hours a week, with no headspace to deal with the flip-flopping and chopping and changing of the new schemes. They see their BPS disappearing, with nothing to fill its place. There they are, on the farm that their great-great-grandparents farmed before them, and all they can see is that they look increasingly like being the one who will lose the family farm. It will all end with them. Can we imagine what that does to someone, to their state of mind, and to their business and personal choices? What a burden we place on the farmers who feed us and care for our landscape and our environment, all because the Government will not face up to the reality that the transition is bleeding a torrent of cash from our farms, while injecting merely a trickle.

My final word is this. A farmer from near Kirkby, Stephen, who works with farmers on common land, said this the other day:

“I spoke with all the graziers over the weekend. Desperate and broken would probably describe the mood. A few years ago, I scanned a customer’s sheep, and six days later he killed himself. His friend and neighbour to this day cannot forgive himself for missing the signs, as did I”.

I am proud of our farmers and of the work they do to feed us, care for our environment, tackle climate change and maintain our breathtaking landscapes. I plead with the Minister to take note and to urgently make changes to SFI and to the whole transition, so that we do not irreparably damage people, businesses and our land, just because we did not listen to our farmers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for calling this important debate. I must confess, I am slightly confused by his request. He spent nearly 20 minutes flip-flopping between telling us not to constantly keep changing, and telling us to change the system to make it more acceptable to farmers. I am not quite sure which he wants us to do.

Let me start by saying that this whole debate around the current transition is thought-provoking. The discussion around the sustainable farming incentive has been interesting. It is a scheme that will pave the way for both the production of food and the preservation of nature—that is what we want to try to achieve.

British farmers are the life and soul of our rural communities. They have continued to put food on our tables despite unprecedented challenges, such as the rising costs of production following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If we couple that with the impact of the covid pandemic and the looming impact of climate change, the industry has shown resilience and adaptability in responding to all those challenges and continuing to keep us fed as a nation.

The Government’s aim with SFI is to make things fairer and better for our farmers, whether that be through our new approach to regulation, finding areas where we can make the system itself work better for our producers, or the policies that we introduce. The SFI scheme does just that. It aims to support the environment and food production, and it rewards farmers for practices that will help to produce food sustainably and protect the environment at the same time, while also providing them a reliable income for doing so. That is because we know that food production and nature preservation go hand in hand. Those practices will help to look after farms in the short and long term by improving soil health or mitigating the impact of extreme weather.

The aim is for the scheme to be flexible for farmers in both the actions that they can take and the land on which they farm. There is no minimum or maximum area of land that farmers can enter into the scheme: anyone who applies and is eligible will get an agreement, with the choice to add more land and actions to the agreement each year. That goes to the core of the argument about the number of available measures. We want to create a menu from which farmers can choose and that they can stack on their farms. Rather than prescribing what they must do, they should have a menu from which to choose what works best for their farm and to their advantage. That is helping those farmers to make their businesses more sustainable.

As we set out in the autumn, after listening to the concerns of farmers, we ensured that farmers who had a live agreement by the end of this year would receive an accelerated payment for the first month. We have already paid out £7.89 million to more than 2,000 farmers in early SFI payments, which will help with their cash flow, making the scheme work for farm businesses. That is what SFI is about. This year the sustainable farming incentive was expanded, and we made it more flexible based on the feedback we received from farmers. We introduced a further 19 actions to SFI. We had previously joined actions into groups, but farmers said that making them into a group when they had to deliver on all the standards was too inflexible. We now have a total of 23 separate actions that farmers can pick and mix from, including actions relating to soil health, hedgerow management, providing food and habitats for wildlife and managing pests and nutrients, giving farmers the flexibility to do what is best for their business.

For upland farmers who are tenants, which I know the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is interested in, we have made SFI much more accessible through shorter agreement lengths, increased flexibility to leave without penalty if they lose management control of the land that they farm and no requirement for landlord consent. Those farming on commons are also eligible for SFI. We have introduced supplementary payments for those farming on commons with others. The flexibility, the broad offer and the importance of steady, regular income that farmers can count on are some of the reasons that SFI has already received record interest from farmers around the country. Before it opened, we received expressions of interest from more than 15,000 farmers, across all types of farm sizes, and all of them have been invited to apply. Nearly 5,000 applications have been submitted so far, and more than 2,000 farmers have already started SFI this year.

Looking to the future, we need to ensure that the agricultural transition works for all farmers, which is why we are supporting them through the change, from commoners to small family farms on our uplands. We are working on additional actions for upland farmers in moorlands, which we will introduce into SFI in 2024. In everything that we do, our aim is to back a profitable and sustainable food and farming sector, now and for future generations. The improved SFI offer is at the heart of that, with record interest from farmers around the country. This is part of our range of schemes for farmers. We are also carrying on with the countryside stewardship scheme, which more than 30,000 are already involved with, and we are making that work better, bringing more flexibility in order for higher level stewardship holders to have CS or SFI agreements in addition to their existing HLS one.

Overall, we have almost doubled the number of farmers in our environmental schemes this year, and we have put our foot to the floor to help more farmers as we move ahead. We will continue to support those farmers. We will continue to demonstrate flexibility. We will continue to listen to their views and support them on this journey. That will be the model on which we operate. I encourage farmers to embrace these new schemes and to get involved. We will listen and we will shape them as we move forward. May I finish, Dame Maria, by wishing everybody a merry Christmas and a sustainable and profitable future in the farming sector?

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Service Accommodation

[Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the adequacy of service accommodation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela, not least because that means that I will not have at least one razor-sharp intervention where I would be blushing as I try to react in this, my maiden Westminster Hall debate. I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to be here and that both the Minister and the shadow Minister are in their places. I reassure everyone that I do not intend to speak at great length because I am aware that colleagues also wish to contribute. I want to ensure that everyone gets an opportunity to speak on the issue of how service accommodation affects their constituents at the moment.

I begin by putting on record my heartfelt thanks to everyone who serves in our armed forces. They work tirelessly to keep our nation safe. I pay tribute to them and their families for the selfless sacrifice that they make on our behalf every day. With friends and families who serve and have served, I know all too well the pride that they take in the opportunity to serve our country and the seriousness with which they take their duties.

I am incredibly grateful to the many people in the services and their family members who have taken the time over the past few weeks and months to speak to me about forces accommodation, and to those who have taken the time to fill out the questionnaire prepared by the House before this debate. I know that this is not always an issue that feels particularly comfortable or easy to speak up on, and that it is not always felt to be the done thing. But it is so important that everyone in this place understands the issues that people in service accommodation face so that those can adequately be tackled. I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to assist in preparing for today’s debate.

I am incredibly proud to stand here representing Mid Bedfordshire, which is home to not one but two forces bases, at Chicksands and Henlow. A great pleasure of my role has been getting out and about to speak to members of the armed forces community across Mid Bedfordshire—to their families, their friends and even existing servicemen. Regardless of whom I speak to, one thing is clear: the resolute pride they all feel in the opportunity to serve and their absolute commitment to doing their utmost to keep us all safe at home and abroad.

I think colleagues will share my sentiment that anyone who makes the decision to put on a uniform and step forward to serve should expect to live in dignity in decent housing, where they and their family can feel truly at home. For the families of loved ones living with our servicemen and women, moving into service accommodation is not simply a case of stepping into a new building. It often means upping sticks, moving to a completely unfamiliar place, sending children to new schools and getting their whole family used to a completely new environment. For service personnel, it can be so much more. Service duty can mean months spent away from home, family and friends, in tough and arduous settings that can test the physical and mental endurance of even the most resolute members of our services. After going through all that, the least we should be able to say to them and their families is that the state of their accommodation should not be a mental endurance test for them. Sadly, that is not currently the case for all of them.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech in his first, and hopefully not his last, Westminster Hall debate. Over the last couple of years, I have been fortunate enough to go to many different bases across the country to speak to servicemen and women. The overall concern that every single one has is the accommodation. I have seen some of that at first hand, and issues include mould and cracks in the walls. Why does he think that that main part of service life has been treated so poorly for so long?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his work over many years to highlight this issue, and to speak to our servicemen to properly understand the challenges that they face in their accommodation. To me, it is clearly unacceptable to allow the situation to continue. We can all have an argument today about where we think the root cause of this issue lies. There is a fair amount of accountability to be had, but this has dragged over the last decade. I hope no one on either side of the House will feel that we can allow the situation to continue any longer. I look forward to discussing what we can all do in this House to ensure that it does not.

Few will forget the challenges we saw last winter. Service accommodation hit crisis point. Images flooded social media of decrepit flats, mould, flooding and people with water dripping through their ceiling in the midst of a freezing winter. Repairs had stagnated, and our armed forces personnel had been forced to take to social media to share their experiences, because they had lost faith that any other means of getting through was having an impact. Sadly, the few channels available to them were simply not working. They were not able to report with confidence that an issue would be tackled, or, once reported, followed up on with the desired urgency. Many had to wait hours on end on the Pinnacle helpline, if they got through at all, to be able to raise an issue. Even then, they could not have confidence that it would be managed with the urgency required.

It was good for all of us across the House to hear an acknowledgement from the Government that standards have fallen below what should be expected for our brave service personnel and their families, and a commitment from the then Defence Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk). He said that it was “unconscionable” that people were moving into properties with mould, and that going forward, there would be a

“clear assurance from DIO that that will not happen again.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2022; Vol. 725, c. 145.]

Sadly, however, from speaking to servicemen and women in my constituency and across the country, we know that, year on year, the problems have remained: broken boilers, water pouring into homes, mould and an endless wait for basic repairs.

Having listened to my hon. Friend on the doorsteps in Mid Bedfordshire, I acknowledge that he is standing up for the issues that were raised now he is in this place. Does he agree that the litany of repairs and problems with housing have had a significant detrimental impact on service personnel’s morale? I am talking about not only those who have to live in that accommodation, but those serving elsewhere whose families remain in houses that are just not fit to live in.

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly powerful point. I know that she has been resolute in standing up not just for our service personnel, but for veterans in her previous job on the shadow Front Bench, and that she will continue to advocate for them passionately in her new roles. It is so important that we take this issue seriously. From speaking to servicemen and women and hearing from them through the survey that was carried out, it is so clear that allowing the issue to persist has a detrimental impact on their morale, their retention, and their sense of worth and value—something that should never be called into question for those who are putting themselves on the line on our behalf.

It is shameful that we have got to this point. Many will have seen the quotes from the survey that was carried out before today’s debate, and they should chill all of us. One mother reporting issues in her home told a story about her two-year-old daughter, who had

“been suffering from repeated chest infections and coughs”.

They had been getting worse month after month, exacerbated by the persistent, untreated mould in their home. Another person reported that the mould had affected their children’s health to the point where one of them had to be hospitalised with breathing difficulties. Those situations should shame us all. Living with a loved one in active service is tough enough. Our service families should not have the added anxiety of having to worry about the health impact that their home could be having on them and their loved ones.

Another key issue raised throughout the survey and throughout my conversations has been the impact of inadequate accommodation on morale, as my hon. Friend pointed out. It has driven personnel to despair and, in some cases, out of the service they had loved to serve. Stephen, who has served for 20 years in the armed forces, reported in the survey a “consistent” and constant

“erosion in the standard of family service accommodation”

over recent years.

I thank my hon. Friend for kindly giving way a second time. The stats speak for themselves. Roughly one in three of our armed forces personnel are living in the poorest rated military accommodation, with a staggering 1,378 living in rental accommodation so poor that they do not have to pay any rent. That is a damning indictment of what is happening for, as my hon. Friend described it, our brave soldiers doing the right thing for our country. Does he not agree that we have been speaking about this for far too long, and that we need to change and address it now?

I know my hon. Friend has been campaigning passionately on that issue, and I wholeheartedly agree. I will touch on the damning statistics shortly. The brutal sadness is that in my Mid Bedfordshire constituency, the figures are even worse. It is clearly time for words to come to an end and for action to follow. I hope that, in response to my questions at the end of my speech, the Minister will clarify when action will be forthcoming.

Stephen and his family have been pushed to the limit and they want to know why they are being penalised. Service personnel are expected to live and nurture their families in substandard accommodation, and to continue serving at a time when they do not feel that they are being valued. Accommodation should be a safe haven for service personnel and their families to rest, recuperate and recharge, but as Stephen and many others have reported, that is simply not the reality at the moment.

I wish to share one further heartbreaking story from a serving soldier who contacted my office. He asked to remain anonymous. On one occasion while staying in single living accommodation, he had to put up with no running water for a number of weeks. Throughout that period, he and his regiment were expected to maintain a level of hygiene as part of the exercises, but that was impossible without running water. Ultimately, they had no choice but to fork out for bottled water out of their own pockets and to heat it up to bathe. We are surely better than that indignity.

The soldier told my office of the broken nights he spent in a sleeping bag due to a broken boiler in the accommodation and a lack of heating in the bedrooms. I am sad to say that he spoke about the persistent experience of human faeces rising up time and again in an officer’s sink. I am sure we would all agree that this is a disgrace. It is time that we collectively renew our efforts to stamp out these problems once and for all.

Sadly, as those anecdotes have illuminated, and as colleagues’ testimony has shown, the issue is widespread. Across the country, more than 25,000 personnel—one in three—are living in grade 4 single living accommodation. Shockingly, the Government’s data shows that in my Mid Bedfordshire constituency, the number rises to 64% across the whole county—about double the national average. That cannot be good enough and it should bring shame on all of us. It certainly brings shame on me, as an MP entrusted to represent those servicemen and women, that too many of them—nearly two thirds—are currently residing in the worst-graded accommodation. We cannot allow that to continue. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined his plans to address it and set out how many service personnel in Bedfordshire he expects to remain in grade 4 accommodation by the end of next year.

Further analysis published last week found that mouldy military homes have increased by nearly 40%. After everything that happened last year, and the pledge to prepare for winter this year, the situation is sadly still getting worse. According to Ministry of Defence estimates, about 700 families promised mitigation work will not benefit from its completion until April 2024 at the earliest. That is far too long to wait, given the issues that we are talking about.

The standard of service accommodation has blatantly been neglected for too long, and it is sadly beginning to decline even further for some of the families I have been speaking to. Not enough has changed over the last 13 years. I would be grateful if the Minister gave us an update on the measures that he and his Department will take to ensure that contractors finally fulfil their duty to my families in Mid Bedfordshire. How many extra staff members have been recruited to ensure that emergency helplines are fully staffed this winter and to guarantee to all service personnel that there will be a response if they need one? How many fines have been handed out to contractors that have missed an emergency appointment to ensure that we are properly holding them to account? Will the Minister commit to ensuring that no serviceman or woman is forced out of their home over Christmas due to maintenance issues? How many service properties in Bedfordshire are still awaiting mitigation work for damp and mould this Christmas? Will the Minister give those families clarity about when the issue will be tackled?

It is paramount that those questions are answered. Colleagues from across the House will urge the Minister to act with the urgency that the situation requires. Those who step forward and serve deserve better. I know Members on both sides of the House would agree with that sentiment, but it is time for all of us, including the Minister, to commit to urgently finding a remedy to these problems.

I am proud that Labour has launched a campaign, “Homes Fit for Heroes”, to highlight some of the challenges and ensure that we remain absolutely, resolutely committed to addressing them if we are lucky enough to be in government. Labour will legislate to establish an armed forces commissioner who can act as a strong, independent voice for service personnel and their families and ensure that service accommodation finally feels like a priority for those who live in it. However, they should not have to wait for a change in Government to bring that about—that is why I am really happy to be having this debate.

I am glad that Members from across the House have joined us here to discuss this issue, which is really important to me, my constituents, my friends, my family and, most importantly, the brave men and women who serve this country. I look forward to discussing it more as the debate goes on.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) not only on his election, but on his first Westminster Hall debate. This is a really important topic and he has outlined the issues in an enormous amount of detail and very eloquently, and we are all grateful to him for that.

I have been campaigning on the issue of military accommodation since this time last year. North Shropshire is proud to be home to RAF Shawbury and the Clive barracks at Tern Hill. It came to light last year that there were two issues, which I will deal with in turn. The first is around the service maintenance contract—the way in which problems reported by families and individuals living in the accommodation are dealt with. The second is about the overall quality of the stock and how that can be addressed, because I think I am right in saying that we are struggling to maintain adequately a poor and deteriorating stock of housing.

I will start with the service maintenance contract. This time last year, it became evident that there was a huge problem with the recently renegotiated and reimplemented service maintenance contract. Initially, when a family had a problem with their accommodation, they contacted a single contractor—I think at the time that was Amey—which was responsible for handling that call and sending out a contractor to fix the problem, whether that was crows falling down the chimney, a broken boiler or whatever the problem might have been.

The renegotiated contract introduced two steps into that process. First, the service family contracted a company called Pinnacle, which then handed off that work to either Amey, in my area, or—I am afraid that, off the top of my head, I do not recall the other company that was involved in other parts of the country. Clearly, when data has to be handed off between two companies, it introduces a level of risk. Although there is no reason why that should not be done, it caused problems in that instance.

I thank the former Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who dealt with all our queries quickly and effectively. However, it was symptomatic of how badly the contract was operating that we had to hand off hundreds of pieces of casework directly to the Minister to get them resolved.

To give hon. Members some examples, we had families without hot water for weeks on end and broken pipes that were not dealt with. I mentioned crows falling down the chimney, because that was one of the instances that we dealt with, as well a number of cases of severe damp and mould and gas certificates not being completed on time. There are a number of issues around the maintenance of the housing.

We have not had a similar cold snap this year, so we have not had the same types of issues that we saw this time last year with frozen pipes, broken boilers and mould, but I am interested to hear from the Minister how the contract is performing and whether the remediation that we were promised over the summer has taken place. The compensation bill to the families involved was huge, and I wonder whether he can enlighten us on how much having an inefficient contract in place cost the taxpayer.

On top of the maintenance issues, there are all the empty properties around and about and the way in which they are not maintained once they are empty. As an add-on to the problem with the service contract, we had empty properties at Shawbury where the pipes froze, and there was a burst pipe. No one there reported that because no one was living there, and the person next door, who reported it, did not have the right authority to get a contractor out. There are issues with collapsed ceilings and a general worsening of the housing stock, which is already in short supply.

It is really important to think about service families, their peripatetic lives, and the fact that they may not have a community around them, unless they are living in a service family community. When housing stock falls into disrepair and their alternative is to rent in the private rented sector, not only might that be inconvenient due to the new accommodation’s distance from their location, but they will no longer be in that community of people who experience the same challenges in lifestyle. Service family accommodation is really important not just in terms of location and its convenience for the base, but for those families to be part of a community that understands what they go through daily.

Well before our time, in 1996, the Government sold military housing stock of 57,400 homes to Annington Homes. That contract did not cover maintenance, so the Government remain responsible for maintaining that housing. I believe that costs the taxpayer about £180 million a year in rent and £140 million a year in maintenance and upgrades. The National Audit Office has concluded that that deal was really poor value. We cannot revisit what happened in 1996, but I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what steps the Government are taking to improve that situation. We have read speculation in the press that they might be considering buying back some of those houses. Will he give us a general update on how that situation might be improved?

I also want to talk about maintenance issues—perhaps not the urgent ones that caused us so many difficulties this time last year, but the ongoing issues of damp, mould and generally poor-quality housing. The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire gave some statistics showing how that has worsened over the course of the year. Earlier this year, the Government committed to deal with 60% of the properties that had damp and mould, but that begs the question: what about the other 40%? This is genuinely serious, because families are reporting health concerns as a result of living in mouldy properties. A constituent contacted me recently from Clive Barracks at Ternhill to say that their health has been worsening, but they do not seem to be able to meet the threshold to get what must be severe mould in their property dealt with. That is not acceptable.

We have talked a little bit about families, but obviously there are servicemen and women who go off on tours of duty and come back to service single accommodation. I raised a question about Ternhill at oral questions a couple of weeks ago. A constituent had reported rat-infested, crowded accommodation that was mouldy, as well as kit becoming mouldy and unfit for use, and the generally despicable situation there, which is being addressed by temporary accommodation pods popped into the car park. They are an improvement, and we should acknowledge that they are an attempt to resolve an urgent problem, but it is not okay for servicemen and women to be living in a temporary pod in a car park with no privacy, no rest and recuperation area, and just a bed and a bathroom. Will the Minister give us an update on that as well?

I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire. Servicemen and women make a huge sacrifice for us. They are prepared to put their lives on the line. They often have to move their families around to an extent that many people would not feel comfortable with. We have enormous respect for them, regardless of our background or political leaning. A warm and safe home to return to at the end of the day is the minimum that they should expect. It is not acceptable for us to stand here asking, “Well, can we fix the mould in the hundreds of affected properties?” We need a plan to resolve the issue not just of the maintenance contract but of the genuinely poor-quality stock that we expect people to live in. I will be grateful if the Minister updates us today on what that plan is and how quickly it will be executed.

It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) for setting the scene so very well in this, his first debate—the first of many, I am sure. And what a good choice for a first debate—well done. The fact that we are all here to contribute shows our concern for service personnel.

I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place. He has come straight from the main Chamber, as indeed have I and others. We look forward to a positive response. I also look forward to the contributions from the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), and especially from the Labour party shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard).

I declare an interest as a former soldier, Dame Angela. I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years in an anti-terrorist role—not that I ever had the chance to pull the trigger of the gun. Maybe that was a good thing, although I did think about a few people who would have been better put in jail. In the Territorial Army, I served with the Royal Artillery for 11 and a half years. That was before the east-west border came down, so it was a long time ago, but it has given me an interest in service matters, and particularly accommodation.

The issue is important not only to me, but to many of my constituents who currently face poor accommodation choices. Through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I had a chance to visit some of the accommodation overseas and on the mainland here in the UK. Cases brought to our attention clearly illustrated that while the accommodation in some cases was wonderful—marvellous—in others it was clearly not up to standard. That had an impact upon me. In 2016, the Public Accounts Committee said service families

“have been badly let down for many years”

and are not getting the accommodation service they

“have a right to expect”.

Why is that right to expect not being upheld? If they are being let down, they have a right to expect better. It is so important that we do all we can to ensure they are rewarded with good-quality accommodation.

The Governments of Wales and Scotland and the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for delivering certain aspects of the armed forces covenant in their areas. The Welsh and Scottish Governments contribute to the armed forces covenant annual reports, but Northern Ireland does not. There is a reason for that. It is fair comment to say that back home in Northern Ireland, veterans do not generally attract priority for housing. To be fair, it is a devolved matter, so it is not the Minister’s responsibility directly, but I will outline a case later that makes my frustration with our system back home clear.

In addition to this, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive operate the housing system purely on a points system, with criteria that housing applicants must meet to be considered for a particular property. I would love it if it were the same for us in Northern Ireland as it is here for those who leave the Army after years of service. I have a case of a gentleman—I shall mention him again shortly—who left the Army after 20 years of service and has not been able to secure accommodation, despite the best efforts of charities and elected representatives to achieve that. There are real issues for us back home to ensure things can be done better.

Single men with no dependants are less likely to be rehoused quickly, even though they may have lengthy service as a veteran, or indeed not as a veteran. I am currently dealing with the case of a constituent in his 40s who was discharged from the Army in July this year after 20 years of honourable service. He is widowed and has no children. My office, along with other organisations, has been assisting him to be rehomed in the local area, via the Housing Executive. All he requires is a one-bed property, but he has only 60 points. I am not sure if that resonates with people here in the mainland, but for someone to get a property—even a one-bed—they need twice that number of points. It could be months—possibly years—before he is rehoused.

While others are talking about the state of accommodation, I am talking about people actually getting accommodation and our frustration with a system that just does not seem to be working. My constituent is currently residing with a charity that I have spoken of many times in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber. Beyond the Battlefield is a wonderful charity which I have been involved with since its inception. With Government and charitable help, the charity has been able to open a centre in Portavogie, in my constituency of Strangford, where it has nine bedrooms to allocate. The charity is vastly oversubscribed and has applied for a central Government grant for an extension. The building has capacity for another nine bedrooms, which would be filled, such is the demand in Northern Ireland.

The charity goes the extra mile to support veterans who are simply discharged, with no thought given to how they will integrate into normal society. My and others’ frustration is that, when they leave, many are in a difficult position, whether because of trauma, post-traumatic stress, what they have seen when serving, or the life that they have led in the service of this country. Beyond the Battlefield helps to provide emergency accommodation, which is currently where my constituent is staying. Its volunteers provide instrumental support to veterans.

That is a classic example of how veterans in Northern Ireland are being let down in terms of their housing status: they have no other choice but to seek assistance from other organisations. On Remembrance Sunday, I saw a man, six foot, broad at the shoulders and tight at the hip; I knew just by looking that he was a soldier. He was doing his bit to remember all those friends and colleagues that he had lost over 20 years of service in Iraq, Afghanistan and some tours of duty in Northern Ireland. In my mind, the least we could do is support him, and many other like him, in his time of need, after decades of service to this nation.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I served, in my case as an infantry officer in the Territorial Army during the cold war. He knows that the House of Commons Defence Committee is in the middle of an inquiry into service accommodation. The Minister is to give evidence to us in the new year, and I will not pre-empt that, but I make one point: for over a year, a number of service families were living in quarters that did not have gas and/or electricity safety certificates. We put those people at risk. Does he agree that that is completely unacceptable?

Yes, and it is also disrespectful that there should be any safety issues. The Minister is listening, of course, and will undoubtedly take that on board. When someone serves their country in uniform, honourably and to the best of their ability, we have to look after them. That is what the hon. Gentleman is saying, that is what I think, and that is what we all think. Their service means something.

We can do much more collectively as a nation to support our ex-service personnel in terms of their housing. We cannot expect them to integrate back into society with no assistance, and the first part of that is ensuring that they have a safe and warm place to call home. That is exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. It is estimated that 4% of the homeless population are ex-service personnel. I think we all have a heart for them. I am convinced that everybody here has a heart for them and believes we must do our best for them. We are asking for a 100% response. To give the House some idea of the numbers, in 2019, the ex-service personnel homeless population was some 12,000. Although in recent years the figures have, I believe, been decreasing, much work is still to be done.

The Minister always tries to respond positively, and I know that he will do so today; I ask him to engage with the devolved nations, particularly Northern Ireland. I have highlighted a discrepancy that greatly annoys me and other elected representatives. We have people from both sides of the divide who serve in uniform; whether they are from a nationalist or a Unionist community, when they are in uniform, they serve King and country. That illustrates very clearly where we are.

What other steps can be taken to tackle this problem nationwide? I ask for the Minister’s direct involvement in relation to Northern Ireland. I know that, as he said in the Chamber today, he was over in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on Armed Forces Day. I think that he has a heart for Northern Ireland. I ask him to let his heartstrings be tugged in relation to Northern Ireland and to ensure that we can participate—indeed, have the same system as service personnel have here for accommodation. Let us get it right for them.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern). He gave an excellent speech and asked some really good questions—some really inquiring, curious questions—of the Minister, and we look forward to hearing the answers.

I shall present two anecdotes and make one comment about some of the effects of what we have talked about today. One anecdote relates to a time during my service, and another relates to some correspondence that I have received much more recently. The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire talked about the experiences of people who are serving in his constituency. I served at Army Training Regiment Bassingbourn in Hertfordshire, just over the county border from Bedfordshire, and I have very fond memories of the good-quality single living accommodation at ATR Bassingbourn.

Five or six years later, living with a family in service family accommodation, my experience again was a good one. On one occasion, we had water dripping through the ceiling of the family home; we rang up to try to get it solved and it was fixed within days. That was an excellent rapid turnaround time for the service family accommodation at Shrivenham when I was there in 2009.

In some ways, that made me slightly sceptical when I heard all of these stories about service family accommodation being in such a poor state, so I decided that I would have some conversations with people who are still serving to find out whether that was really the case. Somebody who I trust a great deal told me me that they had a baby last year, and they had no mould-free room in the house to put the baby in. We have to bear in mind when talking about armed forces personnel in service family accommodation that many are younger people, who are starting their family.

I was frustrated to learn over the summer that the Defence Committee’s Sub-Committee that is looking into service family accommodation will not be hearing evidence directly from service personnel. I do not know whether that has been put right since, but I read over the summer that the Defence Secretary was not permitting service personnel to give testimony directly to that Sub-Committee.

Perhaps I can assist the hon. Member. That was the position of the previous Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), but, in fairness to the new Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), he rescinded that instruction so that defence personnel were able to give evidence—certainly written evidence—directly to the Sub-Committee, without fear or favour for their career, as it were. It is analogous to what happened regarding the inquiry into bullying allegations from female personnel.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for that clarification. As a member of the Defence Committee, he will be much closer to this matter than I am. What he says has not stopped us as constituency MPs from receiving correspondence on the subject. I received a letter in October from a regimental sergeant major—a warrant officer, first class, who has had a very long career in the armed forces. He is frankly at the end of their career—a top-of-the-tree, very senior soldier. He wrote on behalf of his son, who is serving and clearly did not feel able to write directly. The RSM writes:

“Briefly my son, who was on exercise in Germany at the time, had left his wife and two sons (aged 5 and 3 months at the time) at home presuming they would be safe. Unfortunately, one evening my daughter-in-law heard a noise from upstairs and went to investigate. Imagine her shock and horror to find an adult rat in the baby’s cot!”

There is a series of letters about what this former senior soldier regards as having developed over the past 15 or 20 years. He talks about the substantial subcontracting that goes on. While VIVO was perhaps initially responsible, it subcontracted to Pinnacle, and then when the rodent infestation was being dealt with, there was a further subcontracting to Vergo Pest Management. That pest management company sought to deal with the rats in that one house, but failed to notice that the entire street was infested. He says that Nos. 1, 4, 5, 6, 12, 14 and 15 were all suffering from rat infestations.

It is plain to me that some of the companies responsible for this issue these days have noticed that it is clearly something they are under the cosh for. Indeed, many of us will have had an email from a lobbyist from Amey earlier today to say that it

“recognised the challenges that families faced with their accommodation during the mobilisation period of the new contract”.

I resent the defensive language used by some of these companies. When it mentions the “mobilisation” of the new contract, it is hiding behind language that the armed forces tend to use, and it is obfuscation.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. A mobilisation period under a contract is typically six to nine months. To my knowledge, it has been 18 months since that contract was implemented. We should not still be experiencing problems with it. That is why it is so important that we get clarification on whether steps are being taken to improve performance under it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that excuses to do with a contract handover period are hard to bear in any case, but certainly when such a great length of time has elapsed.

To bring all that to a conclusion, we need to step back from the detail and ask what this means. The Army is being shrunk to just 73,000 regular soldiers. That is a substantial drop from 84,000 even a year ago, and certainly a large drop from 120,000 when I was serving. Partly, that is due to a failure to retain excellent people. Clearly, the armed forces continue to retain some truly excellent people, but some great people are being lost to the service because of experiences such as those I have described. In the armed forces continuous attitude survey this year, just 34% of service personnel said they felt valued. If we do not realise that service is not just about the service person, but the experience of their wider family, we will continue to have these sorts of problems.

It is a pleasure to speak on this important issue. I commend the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) for bringing forward this important debate. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), not least because he is an extraordinary advocate for the armed forces and all things defence; it also means that a Conservative MP has turned up to speak in the debate. It would have been better if a few more of them were here to challenge the Minister, perhaps more gently than we will. Here is a word for the Minister: proportion. He can look it up, and can then reflect on the comments he has made from a sedentary position.

I thank the hon. Member for his kind compliment, but I have to point out that I am one more Tory Back Bencher than we have SNP Back Benchers here.

The right hon. Gentleman may not have wanted to add grist to the Minister’s mill, and I do not want to use up all my time debating this, but as you know, Dame Angela, there are a mere 45 SNP MPs in Parliament, and I am here to speak on behalf of all of them. There are a great many more Conservative than SNP MPs in Parliament, so proportionately, I think you will find we are doing rather well, compared with the Conservatives. The right hon. Member might also like to know, since he has got right under my temper, that the Conservative Government, and successive Governments before them—

Very wise counsel, as ever.

Our military personnel have been forced to suffer plummeting living standards in the United Kingdom. If we are serious about creating resilient and robust armed forces, we must be serious about prioritising their basic needs, not least of which is accommodation. The SNP’s core policy is to establish an armed forces representative body. That would be a key step in ensuring that members in uniform could argue for increased adequacy of service accommodation without fear for their career prospects, and without needing to complain to their supervisors and officers, with the attendant concerns that that brings.

Hopefully I will make this point in a not very political way. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) mentioned the historical element to this issue. It did not start in 2010, when this Government came in, or in 1997, when the Labour Government came in. Rather, when it comes to service accommodation, we see a confluence of negative headwinds. Very poor-quality accommodation that was built down to a price has not been properly maintained over the last 50 years, and has had a succession of tenants in it; that is just the nature of it. That accommodation has not been properly maintained over the last 10 years, and it is getting worse and worse; some of it is probably approaching the end of its service life. I would be interested to know what the Minister has done to ensure strategic analysis of the entire stock, to see what should be renovated and what should be knocked down.

It is testament to the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme that everyone in this room has either served on that scheme, or in the armed forces. That will have given us first-hand, primary evidence of what many people have to endure. The hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) is no longer in his place, but I know that he has been on the scheme, and he raised these issues too. I have great confidence that the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford will get some very compelling evidence for the Defence Sub-Committee’s report. I am sure that the Minister will take time to reflect on that report in detail, and I look forward to seeing the evidence of that.

I am not in the habit of getting a response from Ministers in this place, but I politely request that the Minister advise us why the Government are so opposed to an armed forces representative body. It is not unusual. They have one in a great many other parts of the world, including the United States, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and Norway. What is unusual about those NATO allies—we could rather ask: what is unusual about the United Kingdom?—that means that they can give their armed forces personnel an opportunity to discuss their terms and conditions, and their ambitions and hopes, with somebody who is not their senior officer, in a way that promotes honesty and hopefully progress? I think that we would both welcome those two drivers.

In summary, I look forward to the Minister perhaps responding to my one question, and I again reflect on how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire for securing this debate.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) for securing this debate, which is testament to what can happen when an MP who is elected by their constituents turns up to this place. They can raise issues that genuinely concern constituents. The figure that he cited—64% of service accommodation being of the lowest grade—is not just terrible; it is one of the worst in the entire UK. He is absolutely right to bring this matter to the House, and to ask the Minister what he will do about it.

It is important to recognise that poor-quality defence accommodation damages morale, recruitment and retention, and creates an atmosphere in which the families of those who serve fall out of love with military service. It undermines the moral contract between the nation and those who serve and their families. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way that he opened the debate, and for standing up for his constituents.

Our service personnel and their families deserve decent, safe, warm accommodation. That is key to the moral contract between our nation and those who serve in uniform. The armed forces covenant sets out that service accommodation should be of

“good quality, affordable and suitably located”,

but as we have heard today in a series of excellent contributions, the condition of service accommodation and housing is a straight-up scandal; the Conservatives are failing our forces and their families.

Broken boilers, leaky roofs, black mould, vermin and endless waits for basic repairs are all shockingly common. The examples given by the hon. Members for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), and for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), highlight that the issue is not isolated. It affects not some bases some of the time, but defence accommodation across our country. It damages the morale of those who serve, wherever they serve, if they are given accommodation for themselves and their families that is sub-par and below the standard that they should expect. The Minister and everyone in this debate knows that people have very different expections for their living conditions when they are deployed towards the frontline, and for where they and their family should live when at home. Things are not working at the moment.

To sum up the Government’s record, one in three personnel lives in the lowest grade single-living accommodation; complaints about damp and mould are up 40% this year; 800 families were without a valid gas safety certificate as of June; fewer than one in five personnel is satisfied with the repair work; there have been faulty heating complaints in the equivalent of half of service family properties since new maintenance contracts were awarded; and more than 1,300 personnel live in accommodation of such poor quality that the MOD does not even bother charging rent on it. Those conditions are not acceptable in civilian life, and they should not be acceptable for anyone who serves our country.

This debate becomes particularly important as temperatures drop and Christmas approaches. Last year, the Government sleepwalked into a winter crisis in service accommodation; even the Minister admitted that performance was not good enough. I am grateful for that honesty. We need that honesty about what can be achieved this winter as well.

One service family told me that they went without a working boiler for three weeks, and were forced to live in a hotel over Christmas and new year. Another posted on social media that he spent five days without heating, and had to wash his seven-month-old son with boiled kettle water. That is simply not acceptable for those who serve. Insultingly, military families were given as little as £1 in compensation for heating and hot water loss. Can the Minister assure me that this Christmas, no family will have to go without heating and hot water, or be forced out of their home because of maintenance issues? I asked the Minister that same question at Defence questions last month. He did not quite give me the reassurance that I was looking for, so I am giving him another opportunity to do so.

Also, how many service properties have experienced total loss of heating and water so far in December? How many of the 1,500 service homes promised boiler and heating upgrades in the Government’s winter planning statement have so far received that work? What other mitigations is the Minister putting in place? Damp and mould have been mentioned a number of times. Those issues affect housing across our country, but they do not have no solution. What is the Minister doing to tackle damp and mould, particularly in homes that are not covered by the work that he has so far announced? What happens to them? How long will they have to wait?

One service spouse wrote on social media recently that despite being six months pregnant and having a four-year-old child, she was still living in a mouldy home months after reporting it. That gets to the nub of the complaints raised by hon. Members. It is not that people who serve are not raising complaints; frequently, those complaints are not acted on, or if someone visits, it is so that they can tick a box on the response time, not so that they can complete the job and ensure that the complaint is dealt with properly.

After scrutiny from Labour, the Ministry of Defence admitted that about 700 forces families who were promised damp and mould mitigation will not benefit from the completed work until April 2024. Why is that taking so long? The MOD’s winter plan to help families through the coldest months will not even be fully delivered until the spring. That beggars belief. What is the Minister doing to speed that up?

People in my constituency live in Stonehouse barracks, the spiritual home of the Royal Marines. I have had to raise repeatedly the issue of their loss of hot water and lack of heating. The Government intended to close that base, but are now delaying its closure from 2027 until 2029. Everyone who serves there should be given reassurance that they will be able to access hot water and heating, especially in buildings that are hundreds of years old. When we talk about “homes fit for heroes”, we mean homes that people can genuinely rely on to be safe and secure.

The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) raised the issue of gas safety certificates. We would rightly call for rogue landlords in the private sector to be prosecuted, and hauled over the coals. What happened to those people in charge of progress in getting gas safety certificates? Was any action taken against the contractors who clearly failed to do that, or was it just marked up as yet another problem in this area?

The hon. Member for North Shropshire, I think, mentioned empty properties. As a Plymouth MP, I have certainly been contacted about the large defence estate just over the boundary from my patch, in Plympton in south-west Devon, which has an enormous number of empty properties. There is real frustration about empty properties in the middle of a housing crisis. We all accept that the MOD must have a certain amount of properties to rotate, so that it can deploy people as and when required, but will the Minister set out how many empty properties the MOD has, and whether the figure is larger than normal? Locally, the number of empty properties seems larger than expected for the anticipated rotation, even in a military city such as Plymouth.

Poor-quality defence accommodation has a direct impact on morale, recruitment and retention. New MOD figures show that the number of troops in the armed forces has fallen to a record low, and satisfaction with service life has plummeted to the lowest level on record. Less than half of personnel are satisfied with their service accommodation, and fewer than one in five is satisfied with repair work. We will not be able to solve the problems of retention and recruitment without fixing defence housing. That is why Labour has said that when we are in government, we will deliver homes fit for heroes—by acting on the Kerslake review, an independent review of service accommodation; by getting tough on failing contractors; and by legislating to establish an armed forces commissioner, a strong independent voice for personnel with the power to investigate issues affecting them and their families. That should include defence housing.

As the son of a submariner, and as the representative of a military city, this is personal to me. When the Royal Marines are about to ship out on deployment, there is a surge of calls to my office from marines worried about whether the repairs that they have been chasing will be delivered before they deploy, and whether their families will be living in a dry, warm home while they are away. That should not happen in a country that values the armed forces as much as ours.

We need to rebuild our moral contract with those who serve. That is what my party has set out to do, and I believe fundamentally that that is what the Minister hopes he is delivering. I have to say, however, that the record discussed in this debate by Members from right across the House is not one of which the Government should be proud; indeed, they should apologise for it. In these more contested times, if we do not see action, how long will it be until we have a real crisis in retention and recruitment at a time when we need to deploy our military forces?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I am shadowed by your twin and chaired by you: as a father of twins, it is a pleasure to experience.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) on securing his maiden Westminster Hall debate. I recently had an oral question from him about accommodation, so it is a credit to him that he is persisting, and that is true of other colleagues in the Chamber. He raised some very important points, primarily about the two bases in his constituency. On the overall point, which many colleagues made but he did in particular, I absolutely accept that this is a retention issue. Of course it is. It says a lot about the importance we place on the duty of our personnel to serve their country and our efforts to ensure that they have the best. I was quite open during oral questions, in referring to the winter plan, that we did not do well enough last winter. We have been determined to make up for that this year, and I will talk about the detail of that.

Make no mistake, the provision of high-quality subsidised accommodation for service personnel is a key priority for us. Horror stories such as we have heard, with rats, dry rot and so on, are disturbing. I reassure colleagues that, appalling though such instances are, they are unrepresentative of the experience of the vast majority of service people. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire, for example, 96% of service family accommodation meets or exceeds Government decent home standards, which is almost identical to the national figure.

In the time available, I want to set out some of the key measures we have taken to rectify the situation to ensure that we improve our armed forces accommodation. I will start with single living accommodation. The Department provides a total of around 171,000 permanent, temporary and training bed spaces worldwide. As of 16 October, 92,000 service personnel were living in SLA. There have been longstanding concerns, rightly, among frontline commands that SLA is not up to scratch, which is why we are now implementing plans across the Navy, Army and Air Force to eliminate the worst accommodation. A Defence minimum standard has been established, which all SLA is expected to meet. As of 13 November, some 84% of rooms met the standard. That means that 13,347 did not, which falls well short of where we need to be. However, the intent is that, by April 2024, a further 30% of those will be upgraded. In the longer term, the Department will invest around £5.3 billion in SLA over the next 10 years to get homes up to standard. That will see us deliver approximately 40,000 new or refurbished bed spaces.[Official Report, 23 January 2024, Vol. 744, c. 4MC.]

As Minister for Defence Procurement, I am well aware that day-to-day maintenance issues are unavoidable. They are the cause of considerable correspondence that I receive from colleagues from all parties. So it has proved in the past year, with several thousand issues relating to heating and hot water being reported. Any reports of vermin in SLA or service family accommodation —which I will come on to shortly—should be made to the national service centre, which will arrange for appropriate action including pest control if required, although I was interested to hear from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) about his experience with multiple contractors and so on.

Turning to SFA, the Government continue to invest significant sums to improve the quality of UK service family accommodation. Our Defence Infrastructure Organisation received an investment of £400 million over this financial year and the next as part of the defence Command Paper refresh. The £380.2 million forecast for this year is more than double last year’s investment in maintenance and improvements. As we have heard today, hon. Members are well aware of some of the issues, but it is investment that ultimately will lead to the change.

I want to set out some of the mitigations we have undertaken this year. We have established a dedicated hotline to address specific concerns with damp and mould, and we have improved the initial triage process to prioritise cases. That includes an onsite visit to apply initial treatment, to assess the need for follow-up and to decide whether a professional survey is required. We have also been working hard with our contractors to deliver around 4,000 standardised damp mitigation packages—I will come to the point about the remaining homes shortly—which include measures to increase insulation, replace guttering, upgrade extractor fans, replace radiators and reseal windows and doors. To date, more than 1,360 have been completed, and around 700 further packages are planned to be delivered early in the next financial year. The remaining homes with less severe instances of damp and mould are being dealt with through simple maintenance visits, so the vast majority of these tasks have already been completed.

Furthermore, our plan for this winter includes boiler and heating upgrades for about 1,500 homes. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, we are now entering wintertime, and I recognise colleagues’ concerns and how anxious they will be for reassurance that there will be no repeat of the slow response times during last year’s cold snap. The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire rightly spoke about telephone waiting times. We cannot have people left hanging on the phone in freezing homes waiting to speak to an engineer. On that front, it is worth pointing out that Pinnacle’s national service centre continues to maintain a strong performance. The average speed to answer rates in November were, for the ninth consecutive month, well within the 120 second average. The hon. Gentleman asked how many extra call handlers Pinnacle has taken on. The answer is 65, which means that most calls are now answered within 29 seconds—a very significant improvement.

I have another very important point to make to the hon. Gentleman. Before I respond to some of the other contributions, I want to update him on the status of Chicksands military base in his constituency of Mid Bedfordshire. Like me, he will be aware that rumours have been flying around about its future. I can confirm that, from 2030 onwards, it will be disposed of, but that will happen only when everybody has been relocated as part of a significant commitment to defence intelligence. The schedule will be refined as construction gets under way, and we will keep him informed as it progresses. Of course, I will write to him with full details, because I know how important it is for him. That will enable him to engage with his constituents and the service personnel based there.

I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire will be grateful for the information about his local base. Is that a change just for that one base, or is it part of a wider changing of closure times that will affect other bases around the country and that the Minister may wish to update the House about?

I was referring specifically to the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire, and I will write to him with the full details, as I said.

I turn to other colleagues’ contributions. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to a discrepancy. To be completely frank, I was not aware of that so I implore him to write to me with the full details. He illustrated how important this issue is in every part of the Union, so I pay tribute to him for his contribution—and he was not called last, which was a great benefit to today’s debate.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), who has raised this issue with me previously in oral questions and has been a doughty campaigner on it. I know she has had some significant issues in Clive, for example. On the current position, the figures on damp and mould represents 62% of the total outstanding that we believe need treatment, and 1,360 have been completed to date. She also spoke about the impact on health. I understand the importance of that, which is why we were so determined to get extra money in and why I announced the winter plan showing how damp and mould packages will be implemented for individual properties.

On the point about bases that is to be closed, Clive barracks is due to be closed in 2029. Is there is a risk that, because it has a finite lifespan, we are not putting in the investment we need and that we are accepting poor-quality accommodation for what is still a good number of years? What is the Minister’s plan to address that?

That is a fair question. I was talking about the minimum standards that we require, which apply to about 96% of our estate. To reassure the hon. Lady, they apply irrespective of whether the accommodation is not planned for disposal or otherwise.

The hon. Lady also asked about Annington. She will be aware that it has been subject to court action recently and therefore, although she made an excellent point, I am very restricted in what I can say publicly. Certainly, it is an issue to keep an eye on.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton for his service in the Adjutant General’s Corps. He made a very good point about contracts, which of course are important. We should be wary of assuming that another arrangement would be necessarily cheaper or more efficient, but there is no doubt that there were major issues in the initial transition. We have now seen an improvement on some key performance indicators, but where performance has fallen short, we have, where appropriate, withheld profit.

The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) spoke about engagement with armed forces personnel. All I can say is that as Minister for Defence Procurement, I am responsible for the estate, and when I have been out visiting the estate I generally find that there is a way of having regular engagement on the condition of accommodation. I saw that recently when I visited Odiham with my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena). That meant a great deal to the service personnel that we met, so regular engagement does happen in respect of accommodation.

I recognise the dynamic that the Minister is talking about, although not from a ministerial point of view. When we speak to service personnel, they are frank. What he is detailing is an informal, ad hoc discussion. What I was requesting was clarity on why the UK objects to having a formalised defence service recognition body.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman but I think that is an important way to conduct that. We should not get carried away with the idea of formalising all these things. Of course, we want to have a good relationship with our armed forces personnel. The key to that is ensuring they have good quality accommodation.

I will conclude by joining colleagues in saying, as we head towards Christmas, that it is absolutely right that our thoughts are with our armed forces, particularly those deployed overseas. As chair of the Defence Nuclear Board, I particularly remember those who serve to support our continuous at-sea deterrent in our submarines. It is fair to say that I was clear at oral questions and today that last winter we did not do well enough. Too many families waited too long for solutions to the problems they faced.

That is why we have got the extra money in place, which is a significant increase in funding of £400 million. In the winter plan, we show the impact that that will have. We have a plan, we are investing and we are fixing problems, though we know more needs to be done. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire on calling this important debate.

I want to start by thanking everyone who has taken the time to engage in this important debate. I know it matters, not just to our constituents but to so many of those serving and their families across the country. They will be touched by the consideration hon. Members have shown to their challenges, and the sense of urgency to address them that I hope we all feel in this House.

I would like to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for their interventions about the impact on morale, and the urgency to take clear action to address the issue. I would also like to thank the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) for her stories about the impact on her constituents, with the history of the maintenance and stock challenges that created some of the issues we are all having to wrestle with.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for talking about the impact in Northern Ireland, and the particular challenges people are facing in even getting access to crucial accommodation for themselves and their family. I would also like to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for highlighting the challenges, such as presenting the bare minimums, the safety certificates that every service family should have as an absolute necessity, to feel safe in their home.

I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), not just for his service but for eloquent interventions, talking through some of the challenges his constituents have faced and some of his own experiences of service, as a helpful contrast of what is possible when things are done right. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) for his clarifications, and the things to focus on, including the need to assess what part of the stock is maintainable and what might need a complete refresh, finally to give families of service force personnel the accommodation they deserve.

I would like to thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for taking the time to be here to highlight the breadth of the challenges that service personnel face in the quality of their accommodation, and the urgency to ensure we address the issues properly. He also reassured me by spelling out the serious action we will commit to take as a party in Government, to ensure these issues get the attention, bandwidth, focus and urgency that they deserve.

I am grateful to the Minister for being here, and I appreciate some of the assurances he has given, and his openness in accepting the challenges that need to be addressed. He mentioned that some of them are not representative of wider issues. I fear to say that in Bedfordshire, where 64% of single living accommodation is at that lowest possible grade, it may be more representative than his remarks suggested. In the constituency of the hon. Member for North Shropshire, 52% fall into that lowest grade. That may be a more representative issue that needs real urgency to address.

I am glad to hear extra recruits are lined up to help man the phones this winter. I hope the Minister and his Department are ensuring that service personnel are not left waiting when they report urgent issues. I hope he can commit with the urgency that all of us have shown today, to tackle the issue. It is clear the House speaks as one, in recognising that we need to do more to ensure that our service personnel are serving and living in accommodation that is truly fit for them and their work. I hope the Minister can give effect to that will, with the renewed urgency that we all hope to see for our constituents in the new year.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the adequacy of service accommodation.

Sitting suspended.

Mid Devon Council: Financial Settlement

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Mid Devon Council financial settlement.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your leadership, Dame Angela? It is also wonderful to see my near neighbour, the Minister, in his place; I am very grateful that he is here to respond. I am afraid that the subject of local government finances lacks any sort of excitement; it is always necessary, but is also obviously crushingly dull, as we can see from the attendance today.

I am grateful for the chance to bring the financial affairs of Mid Devon District Council to the attention of this Chamber and the House, but I apologise in advance if eyelids are already starting to droop, as night begins to fall on this very last day before the Christmas recess—and aren’t we looking forward to it? I will try to keep my speech as interesting and relevant as possible, and will also inject some seasonal flavour into the mix.

The story that I am about to tell is a modern morality tale in the manner of Charles Dickens, whom we all remember and love. Those familiar with Dickens’s—in my view—most famous novel, “A Christmas Carol”, will hardly need reminding that the narrative centres around the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Anybody familiar with local government in Mid Devon will instantly recognise good old Ebenezer. Every town hall has one: painstaking with the money, ridiculously risk averse, totally resistant to any change and usually in charge of all the finances. Ebenezer Scrooge was, in Charles Dickens’s own words,

“a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”

Gosh, does that not fill a few gaps around here? They are perhaps all the qualities of a typical 151 officer, just rather more interesting, I suspect. In real life, we would not ever expect Scrooge’s character to be capable of falling for a scam—not normally, anyway. We would not believe that this ultra-cautious animal could possibly give in to the dangerous habit of gambling with public money.

But that is just one possible conclusion of my perplexing story, which started life about a dozen years ago, in 2011. I hope you are sitting comfortably, Dame Angela. Those with long memories will recognise the date: it was when the Localism Bill came before Parliament, as we well remember. Localism was meant to cure so many of the complaints that we used to have. It established the principle of elected Mayors and conferred power on local councils to take investment decisions on their own. It arrived with the dawn of austerity, when Whitehall budgets were trimmed back to the bone. The impact at the coalface of local government would take time to be felt. We all remember ’08.

The new right to make commercial investments sounded like a lifeline to many normal, sensible officers in local government. Across the United Kingdom, they reached out and grabbed it with both hands. In fact, the enthusiasm for spending public money was, at times, quite unseemly: chief executives started jumping in with both feet, and their pockets were laden with taxpayers’ money—our money. They bought office blocks, shopping centres, business parks and hotels in the mistaken belief that there was a guarantee written into their financial forecasts for commercial investment. Well, there never is, and I am sorry: as the adverts say, the value of our investments can go down as well as up.

Localism may have answered the cry for freedom, but freedom, as we know, is riddled with hidden dangers. In many local councils it was rather like handing out fireworks and matches to the kindergarten. More often than not, senior officers of councils who should have known better did not have a clue about the cut and thrust of running any business. Why should they? They are seen as civil servants. Most of them, to be frank, had never handled any real money, let alone tackled the balance sheet of a fast moving company, organisation or commercial asset. They did not understand the difference between a board of directors and the cabinet decisions of elected local politicians.

As we know, companies need to react fast; their shareholders do not forgive very readily. Most of the time local governments can only go very slowly, and in the slow lane. They have very little in common with companies, and often do not even speak the same language between commercial rhetoric and Whitehall. They do not even understand who is in charge of business investments. After eager councils jumped on this, it all turned sour. Time and time again we have seen it fail.

Moody’s most recent report into the pitfalls of local investment decision recently highlighted 20 local authorities from across the political divide at a serious risk of going broke. Almost all of them, without exception—the Minister is aware of this—tried investing in business ventures that collapsed. The report blames serious “governance failures” and says that as a backlog of audits for 2022 is cleared,

“more and more failures are likely to be uncovered.”

It says:

“Only 12% of 2022 audits were completed by the statutory deadline; with prolonged delays meaning that major accounting misstatements”

—I am afraid—

“can be undetected for a number of years.”

The Public Accounts Committee, which we all know and love, estimates that local authorities have spent £7.6 billion on commercial investments since 2016. Let us be crude about this: this is a story of town hall greenhorns—totally inexperienced operators in charge of substantial sums of public money who were, if I may put it crudely, trying to make a fast buck. As a result, many councils spent far too much time on projects that were way outside their or anybody else’s comfort zone.

The women and men who allowed that to happen were mollycoddled by their own limited experience and totally out of touch with the way commerce works. I think this saga probably has less to do with criminality or any other naughtiness, and much more to do with the fact that the perpetrators—I say that in the loosest way—were chronically naive, and that is an awful thing to say.

The Localism Act became law in 2011, but in Mid Devon the council managed its affairs and carried on without recourse to any risky investments—they did not make any. The then chief executive felt no need to follow the lemmings of local government; he managed to keep the council on a reasonably even keel until his retirement. Yes, Mid Devon did need more money, but there was no need to take rash decisions and nor did they—good.

Then in 2015, the old chief executive retired honourably. His successor was the younger, brasher and arguably less scrupulous Stephen Walford, who was appointed to the top job in 2016. This is his own self-description:

“Prior to my current role, I worked as a Director of Growth & Strategy in the South East and also spent time in a range of place-based functions across county, unitary and district forms of local government having started my career in transport policy and strategy.”

Mr Walford came to rely on his loyal deputy, Andrew Jarrett, who said:

“I began my local government career back in 1992, spending my first 10 years with East Devon Council,”

—a neighbour to the Minister here, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)—

“rising up through the finance ranks to the position of Finance Manager. In 2008 I joined Mid Devon DC as its Head of Finance, I was then promoted to Director of Finance, Assets & Resources in 2016, before taking on the role of Deputy Chief Executive in 2018.”

Those are their words.

When Walford and Jarrett moved into their jobs as top officers, I think they probably wanted to make their mark. But neither of them, from that description I just gave, had any experience at all in any other trade or profession; I do not think either of them had ever actually even done a paper round. There should have been alarm bells ringing at every level, but Mr Walford and his number-crunching colleague were a convincing double act like Laurel and Hardy—and many others I can think of.

I do not know whether the two men came up with the vision of the company mid Devon was to own. Its name is 3 Rivers, presumably named after the main River Exe that runs through Tiverton itself, ironically right outside the council building. Which two other rivers were chosen we may never know, as mid Devon has no fewer than 11 rivers gurgling through it. The other big rivers are the Culm and the Creedy, which would had given them a name of sorts, would it not? Three Creedys or three Culms would have been an interesting name for a company. Exe, Culm and Creedy sounds more like a firm of undertakers, which we will come on to in a minute.

Messrs Walford and Jarrett stuck to the name of 3 Rivers Developments. They went off to look at similar council investments. They enlisted the support of the Local Government Association, well known to all Members of Parliament. They came back convinced, and sold that conviction to elected councillors. 3 Rivers Developments became a company wholly owned by Mid Devon District Council, with a remit to build better, and

“In order to see enhanced quality of build, more affordable housing and a financial return to the Council to mitigate some of the difficulties of the national public sector austerity programme, as an alternative would have meant significant reductions in services, delivery and standards.”

It all sounds frightfully plausible—and squeaky clean. These words, however, were composed just the other day as senior officers tried to explain away their latest recommendation, which is to keep this company going. Strangely, Mid Devon District Council remains incredibly coy about revealing any pertinent details about anything to do with this company. There are now serious questions.

I have searched in vain—and I really mean, in vain—for any documents that were issued at the very start. They are mysteriously absent. The council archive system draws a blank if someone tries to view the original or any subsequent business plans. It was rather odd that the deputy chief executive was placed on the board of 3 Rivers. Conflicts of interest were bound to crop up—that is the way of the world. We have only just recently received confirmation that the council was prepared to lend 3 Rivers £21.3 million. This is a district council—not a unitary or county authority. That is seriously big money for a council of that size.

The current leader of the council is a Liberal Democrat called Luke somebody or other; I cannot remember his name—a complete non-entity. I know he has the job of pumping perfume into little bottles—that is his day job—which must be quite a talking point at parties and in the pub. His name escapes me; let’s call him Mr Thingamabob, because that is about all he deserves.

Anyway, the Liberal Democrats, who are now refusing to shut down this loss-making white elephant, never objected to its creation in the first place. If they did, they did it so quietly that nobody noticed. Mr Thingamabob may well have been won over by his smooth-talking chief exec; after all, it would be perfectly normal for him to trust his officers. Elected members never get paid enough to justify full-time work on council business. They are dedicated amateurs, no matter the party. They are obliged to listen to their officers—especially the most senior, who is the chief executive.

If elected members smell a rat, however, it is a different story. It is crystal clear to me that the level of trust a number of different political leaders—there have been four—had in senior officers fell to rock bottom during the lifetime of 3 Rivers Developments. The rats may have been smelled, and quite a few councillors became suspicious. The chief executive and his deputy tended to communicate by email and text message, which should tell us something. I am told that some of those exchanges make for very fruity reading indeed—we should have a look at the covid-19 inquiry at the moment to know what that is like.

One reason I am highlighting this sorry tale is that the so-called scrutiny committee—as we know, Dame Angela, the clue is in the word “scrutiny”; it does not always happen out there, especially in Mid Devon, which seems to have a mystery over scrutiny—has decided to make its own limp-wristed effort to get some of the truth, although not very much. It is lip service. The committee did not launch a proper searching inquiry; it never attempted to find the rats or name the guilty; it failed to perform a forensic examination of all the evidence; and it was told not to interview everybody.

In the event, it is a miracle that the committee was able to produce any kind of report, no matter how cack-handed and useless it is now. The committee was ordered by its party-throwing, good-time-girl supremo head of scrutiny to do a lessons learned exercise, and to do it quickly. What a pathetic disgrace! The chairman of scrutiny is meant to scrutinise. The only problem is that she is from the same party, which has done a terrible job.

The lady who heads the not-so-much scrutiny committee seems to prefer a feather-bedded view of the world that does not set the springs of her legendary mattress twanging. From the comfort of her rented house in the village of Bampton, she can daily cast her eye over one of the remaining 3 Rivers projects: a small estate of nine quite fancy executive homes with built-in garages and an absurd price tag.

The homes are on the market for silly prices. One, which is currently advertised for £675,000, has been on the market since January, 11 months ago. That says something about local councils and their lack of knowledge. When we called the estate agent to express a tiny bit of interest—you know what I am like for getting to the bottom of things, Dame Angela—the lady on the phone sounded surprised. She nearly fell off her chair. She confided that any offer would be considered: “Please, yes! I would be happy—delighted—just tell me what you would like to pay.” I am thinking of cheese, since the rats are looking for it. The 3 Rivers development has some flashy executive houses, but it cannot shift them.

The officers at Mid Devon District Council have known all about this situation. It is not new or clever. It is unlikely that this subject was discussed at the party on Sunday that Mrs Not-So-Much Scrutiny had at her house, thanks to the taxpayer. She was probably doing what she does best—polishing the egos of her party colleagues and doling out her famous dainties to be washed down with the very finest of wines. The Mid Devon extra responsibility bonus enables her to keep up this lavish lifestyle, even if she struggles to pay the rent on her accommodation.

I digress, however, from the Scrutiny Committee’s lessons learned inquiry. If hon. Members would like a flavour of the kind of evidence that it deliberately missed, I will ask them to bend their ears back and quote some of the following statements. This is a letter written by the chief exec to the former council leader, inviting him to submit some answers to a few questions:

“Can I highlight that the District Solicitor will be reviewing all information provided in order to ensure it meets the standards of accuracy and integrity that befits the worthiness of the scrutiny committee's consideration.”

It is obvious to me that the chief exec and the former leader lose no love on one another. This is the ex-council leader’s response:

“The fact that the District Solicitor ‘will be reviewing information provided [by me] to ensure it meets the standards of accuracy and integrity that befits the worthiness of the scrutiny committee’s consideration’ is nothing short of a deliberate insult and attack on my integrity. It could also be construed as potential censorship and manipulation of facts. Some may see it as attempted intimidation and as a veiled threat of legal action. I regard your letter as an attempt to restrict and control the activity of the Scrutiny Committee.”

That is the former council leader. In other words, it is “scratch your eyes out” time—and there is a whole lot more where that came from.

At least three former leaders do not trust the officers, and the whole council developed a tendency to disbelieve anything that they were told. Above all, the lessons learned report says:

“The tone of Council debate was not always as respectful as members may have liked. The feedback from almost all members of that time was that the whole thing as a subject became toxic; members complained of the abusive and disrespectful language used in debate, and individual members complained of bullying language and tactics. This resulted in support being brought in from the Local Government Association. There is ample evidence of the poor relationship which developed from 2019 onwards between the company and the Members. The aggressive critique which some members levelled against the company and those who were striving to improve its financial performance, undoubtedly increased the reputational damage suffered by the company leading to difficulty in maintaining contractors, and resulted in a degree of professional trauma. It cannot have favoured open discussion in Cabinet to improve management and performance”.

3 Rivers Developments bled money in ’19. The houses it had completed were not flying off the shelves; the country was about to suffer covid. It was pretty obvious that high-risk investments did not fit. One previous council leader was so convinced that he tried to persuade the two officers to recommend a closure; he tried to convince them in ’19, ’20 and ’21, but they refused. In fact, in ’21 the chief exec’s deputy broke with all council traditions and made a statement:

“3RDL is there to make money and recycle profit back to the council to protect from service cuts that would have had to have been made. Over the last three and a half years the council has benefited to the tune of £1.2 million by its transactions with 3RDL. That’s the annual cost of running our three leisure centres. It is a significant amount of financial reward or profit back into the council to underpin some very important services. If you look at the company’s business plan, it is due to grow over the next few years significantly.”

What is interesting about that intervention is the fact that Mr Jarrett went on the record at all—he has preferred to say as little as possible on the record. However, short months ago there was another pitfall: the Government changed the rules and said that in the future companies such as 3 Rivers Developments must source their work inside council boundaries. Why, then, did Mid Devon Council not go directly to the Treasury and ask to be cut a bit of slack? It does not matter if the work is half a mile outside the boundary—the chances are that it would be given clearance—but it did not even ask.

This is a saga of wasted opportunity, of council officials wielding enormous influence over councillors, letting them down, then falling out with the whole council. It is a disgrace. Those are all distressing situations, but there have been well-sourced stories in the press recently of real anger from members of the public who tried to obtain simple information about 3 Rivers Developments but were rebuffed. People complained that Mid Devon Council thinks that the whole business is far too complicated for ordinary people to understand, so information is deliberately withheld. When complaints are made at full council meetings, the chairman of the council brutally suppresses any debate. The chairman’s name, incidentally, is Councillor Frank Letch—a man with a short fuse. Perhaps it is a struggle—the naming of a person like Letch. Mainly, the posh dwellings designed for some spare land next to the council buildings are being converted for the use of over-60s, even though the location is completely unsuitable. I could, but will not, go on and on. This is a saga of cockups and blunder, and it is very expensive indeed. I would rather risk public money with Ebenezer Scrooge than with those responsible in Mid Devon, and especially the chairman of scrutiny, who is quite ridiculously incompetent.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I am more than grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for bringing this topic before us this afternoon. At the start, I want to strike down the ludicrous assertion made by my hon. Friend that local government finance lacks any sort of excitement—he obviously has incredibly low standards. I find local government finance is the apogee of excitement; we can roll blockbuster films and west end musicals into one and we do not even begin to scrape the surface of the excitement of local government finance. As the Minister with responsibility for local government finance, I am afraid hon. Members just have to take my word for that.

My hon. Friend has raised some very serious allegations. I want to make a few points, but I shall try to do so with care. My door is open to my hon. Friend to come into the Department to meet officials to discuss this still further. Let me just make a few points, if I may. Mid Devon District Council is not on my departmental radar as a council causing concern in terms of its finances. Financial management is a different thing. In terms of its basic finances, it is not on the radar. I hope that gives my hon. Friend some comfort.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that many councils buy properties; I declare that, as the cabinet member for resources on West Oxfordshire District Council back in the day, we did exactly the same. We went and bought, as many councils did, properties of a whole variety in order to help the council meet its expenditure. The key thing is, and he makes the valid point, that our officer corps are of a dedicated calibre. The world of commercial property is a very complex one, and I know my hon. Friend knows that from his own family experience all too well. He was right to say, “What goes up can also go down.” It was always going to be imperative that professional, dispassionate and external advice was sought, and not just sought but taken. Where there is a tension between the adoption of the buccaneering principle and the precautionary principle, when using public moneys, almost by definition the precautionary principle should always come to the fore.

I hear what my hon. Friend says with regards to 3 Rivers Developments. I do not know the gentleman to whom he refers with regard to the senior officers, and I can only speak from experience of my exposure and interaction with local government officers over very many years. My experience is that they are women and men of integrity who, day in and day out, devote themselves to the public service of their communities and always strive to do their best. Sometimes the best is not good enough, and sometimes the wrong decisions are taken. I think that the motivations of people in public service are usually strong and beyond challenge. I say gently to my hon. Friend that he may not like some of the things that the council has done, and he may have done things differently, but I repeat that the council is not currently on our radar.

My hon. Friend is also absolutely right to raise the importance of scrutiny. Scrutiny is a key function of local government. It works very well here with our Select Committees, and we know that. It is particularly important when any party has a very large majority, as the Liberal Democrats do in Mid Devon at the moment. One almost needs to double up and double down on scrutiny in order to prove beyond peradventure that that job is being done. I am about to run out of time. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. As I say, I am happy to continue our conversation in order to ensure that the good folk of Mid Devon receive the service and services to which are they entitled and deserve.

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

Coastal Erosion: Suffolk and Norfolk

I beg to move,

That this House has considered coastal erosion in Suffolk and Norfolk.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela. Although erosion along the Suffolk and Norfolk coast is nothing new, it is accelerating, causing great distress and leaving a trail of devastation. In my constituency, Lowestoft remains the only UK coastal town of its size without formal flood defences. With another tidal surge predicted for later this week, a decision must be made imminently as to whether to put up the temporary demountable barriers that provide some protection.

Immediately to the south at Pakefield, three properties were lost last month and a rock revetment, which was installed last December to help protect an access road, is providing limited protection, with erosion of the cliff taking place at a speed that no one predicted. Further to the south at Kessingland, an innovative scheme has been worked up, which now requires additional funding due to the impact of covid and the ensuing inflation and supply chain pressures.

These challenges are not limited to the relatively short coastline of the current Waveney constituency. As we shall hear from colleagues, they are taking place all along the 140 miles of the Norfolk and Suffolk coast, not least at Hemsby in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Sir Brandon Lewis). Many people and many organisations are working tirelessly to protect these communities that are so cruelly exposed, and some innovative solutions are being worked up.

My hon. Friend mentioned Hemsby and he is quite right: we have lost properties, as many people have seen in the press coverage over recent weeks. Does he agree that one challenge we have seen is that, along our coastline, the impact of extreme weather conditions over the past year or so has gone way beyond the changes that were predicted when we looked at this some years ago with the Environment Agency? It is overdue an update on what pressure there is; the impact that we have seen has gone far beyond what was expected.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree wholeheartedly with him: the schemes at Pakefield and Kessingland were made on assumptions that we would be having pressures in several years’ time; they have in fact taken place in the past months and weeks.

As I said, some innovative schemes are being worked up and people are working tirelessly. However, there is a concern that the scale of the challenge is not fully recognised, and that the necessary financial resources are not being provided. The impact of not responding properly will have far-reaching negative consequences way beyond East Anglia.

That was a careful introduction and I thank the hon. Gentleman for it. He is absolutely right. I understand that the debate is about coastal erosion in Norfolk and Suffolk, but in my constituency of Strangford, especially in the Ards peninsula in the past few years, we have seen erosion in a manifest and significant portion as never before. I am looking forward, as I know the hon. Gentleman is, but if we are to address our environmental obligations, steps need to be taken, and taken on a UK-wide basis—not just for England, but for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England together, because then we can pool our energies and address the problem at a strategic level. That is how it must be done, because this is happening everywhere.

Order. In the spirit of Christmas, I allowed that intervention. The debate is about coastal erosion in Suffolk and Norfolk. The hon. Member is getting close to the edge of scope there, but because it is Christmas, I allowed it this time.

Dame Angela, that is very magnanimous of you. Actually, the hon. Gentleman does have a point in that coastal erosion is included in the responsibilities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—I will come on to this—along with flood prevention and protection. It is an entirely different challenge, and therefore coastal protection, whether in Suffolk and Norfolk or in Strangford in Northern Ireland, needs to be considered separately.

As I mentioned, erosion along the East Anglian coast is nothing new. December appears to be a particularly bleak month, with a tidal surge predicted in the next few days, although we do not know its severity. If we go back 10 years, a storm surge took place on 5 December that caused devastation right along the North sea coast, not least in Lowestoft. If we go as far back as the 1890s, the author H. Rider Haggard, who had a home at Kessingland, observed:

“Never has such a time for high tides been known, and the gale of December last will long be remembered on the east coast for its terrible amount of damage.”

The remnants of the medieval port of Dunwich are in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who would have liked to be here but was unable to join us due to a funeral commitment. Dunwich has been described as England’s Atlantis. The 1953 big flood, which wreaked devastation on both sides of the North sea, resulted in the loss of the beach village—a whole community in Lowestoft.

Our coastline is, in many respects, wonderful and beautiful. It attracts visitors from all around the world but it is also fragile, being low-lying, standing on clay, and porous not impervious. The challenge we now face is that events that were once predicted to take place every 50 or 100 years are now taking place far more regularly, on an almost annual basis, with lives and livelihoods being threatened, and homes, businesses, roads, infrastructure and farmland all at risk.

In recognition of that challenge, the three district councils—East Suffolk Council, Great Yarmouth Borough Council and North Norfolk District Council—that have the responsibility for managing and protecting the coast have pooled their resources and formed Coastal Partnership East. The team has great expertise and knowledge and it is working tirelessly, but I fear that it does not have the resources to do the work that is urgently needed.

That work is pressing, for a whole variety of reasons. I shall briefly outline the ultimate impact, which, as I said, reaches far beyond the East Anglian coast. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia produced a briefing earlier this month for the all-party parliamentary group for the east of England, which I co-chair with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). It highlighted both the region’s vital offer to the UK as we progress towards net zero, and the risks that climate change brings. The briefing pointed out that we are the UK’s “most vulnerable region” to the impacts of climate change, with 20% being below sea level and the coastline eroding rapidly. It assessed that

“11,000 houses on the open coast are threatened by flooding and erosion over this century, if current policies continue.”

We should also highlight that as well as homes, businesses will be lost, including the caravan and holiday parks in Kessingland, Pakefield and all along the coast, which are so important to the region’s economy. Business opportunities could also be forgone. The transition to net zero provides a great prospect for Lowestoft, but if we do not build permanent defences around the port, the town will not realise the great potential offered.

Agriculture has underpinned the East Anglian economy for a very long time. We are rightly known as the breadbasket of England, but much of the UK’s most fertile land is low-lying and, particularly in the fens, relies on an extensive network of ageing drainage infrastructure and sea defences. The current funding methodology underplays the importance of protecting the UK’s most valuable agricultural land, thereby impacting on our food security. The 1953 floods gave rise to the construction of extensive defences to protect the regional coastline. However, many of those defences are now worn out and in urgent need of repair.

The impact of coastal erosion on the environment should not be underestimated. As well as being a vital part of the region’s leisure economy, the Norfolk and Suffolk broads are a haven for wildlife and a place of natural beauty and cultural heritage. However, they are at risk from the threat of coastal erosion, with the coastal frontage between Eccles-on-Sea, which I understand now hardly exists, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), and Winterton-on-Sea, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, having been identified as the stretch of coast along which the broads are most at risk of encroachment. The Broads Authority recognised that threat in its Broadland Futures Initiative, but strategic planning for its management needs to start straightaway. It should be added that coastal erosion brings with it the risk of polluting our oceans still further, with the leaching of waste and plastics into the sea.

I shall briefly outline the areas at risk from coastal erosion in my own constituency. All four of those—at Corton, in Lowestoft, at Pakefield and in Kessingland—warrant a debate of their own, so I apologise in advance to those communities for my brevity, although I shall do my best to highlight the salient points of concern. Corton, to the north of Lowestoft, has been subject to coastal erosion for centuries. There was a village to the east called Newton, which no longer exists, and agricultural land continues to disappear over the cliff. The threat to the village of Corton is at present being managed, but my sense is that in due course more intervention will be required, and it is important that we be prepared for that and not respond in a crisis management way.

As I have mentioned, Lowestoft was hit hard by the floods in 1953 and 2013. Since 2013, work has taken place to protect the area around the port and the town centre, with flood walls being built around the outer harbour, but the barrage that will provide full protection has yet to be constructed. Time is of the essence in getting that built. My hon. Friend the Minister and I have discussed the matter, and I have written in detail to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is vital that that work proceed without delay.

The situation unfolding in Pakefield illustrates the gravity of the threat that coastal erosion is now presenting. It has been known for some years that there is a problem, and some four years ago the local community came together as the Pakefield Coast Protection Steering Group to work with Coastal Partnership East to come up with both temporary and long-term solutions. A rock revetment to provide temporary protection was installed last December, but that did not prevent significant further erosion following a storm last month, and three properties had to be demolished. There is now an urgent need to protect the toe of the cliff and to prevent the cliff access road from being lost. If the latter happens, a large residential community will be very cruelly exposed and at serious risk.

Park Holidays UK, which owns the adjoining caravan park, has recently obtained planning permission to roll back its site, and is in principle prepared to joint-fund a protection scheme, although it emphasises the need for speed in determining any further enabling planning application.

Three issues arise out of the situation at Pakefield. First, since this spring, Coastal Partnership East has not been attending the steering group meetings, as it has no further information or guidance to provide to the community and it is focusing its resources on emergency events such as those at Hemsby. I do not criticise it for doing so, but that illustrates the need for it to be provided with more resources and financial support. Secondly, it is clear that those who have lost their home to the sea are not provided with the appropriate level of compensation and support. Finally, it is concerning that the existing grant funding arrangements for protecting communities from coastal erosion are not working, are not fair and equitable, and need to be reviewed. The current budgeted cost for properly protecting Pakefield is estimated at approximately £11 million, but the flood and coastal erosion risk management grant-in-aid calculator calculates that only £492,000 can be provided towards that.

Kessingland is an example of a highly innovative nature-based scheme, where the parish council, with local landowners and businesses, and the local internal drainage board have worked together successfully. The scheme involves the managed realignment of the coast to create an intertidal habitat in front of new sea walls and a pumping station. The problem that the scheme now faces is that, due to economic pressures beyond the control of the parties, there is now a significant funding shortfall. The scheme has to proceed. If it does not, the A12, which links Lowestoft to Ipswich and beyond, will be flooded on every mean high water spring tide. It should also be pointed out that that road will be used to support the construction of Sizewell C.

I have covered a number of specific local challenges and a wide variety of concerns. I shall now seek to bring matters together with some suggestions as to how the situation can be improved so as to provide coastal communities on the East Anglian coast with the protection and support that they are entitled to expect.

First, I refer to the recommendation in the Tyndall Centre briefing that the specific risks to the region arising from climate change require a scientific, quantitative assessment. I agree with that. We need to know the full extent of the long-term challenge that we face, so that we can pursue a strategic approach rather than a case-by-case crisis management course.

Secondly, much of the work of DEFRA, the Environment Agency and Coastal Partnership East is innovative and forward thinking, but I suggest that the national framework could be improved by giving a specific focus to coastal erosion, as we have touched on. The ministerial responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister include floods, both fluvial and coastal, but coastal flooding and erosion is a very different beast, which requires a bespoke and individual focus. Looking more closely at ministerial responsibilities, he is responsible for floods, but the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), is responsible for climate change and adaptation, and my noble Friend Lord Benyon is responsible for green finance. Those three issues are all inextricably connected and intertwined, and they should not be shared out between three Ministers; they should all be under the same roof. Back home in East Anglia, some have suggested that there should be a Minister for the coast. I can see merit in that, but I am mindful that in other cases, the creation of a so-called tsar does not necessarily lead to the solution of a particular problem. Let us get the policies and who is responsible for their implementation right, before we do anything else.

Thirdly, speed is of the essence. The pace of erosion and ensuing risk is far outstripping the ability of Coastal Partnership East and its supporting councils to put together business cases. The coast in Norfolk and Suffolk is experiencing accelerated coastal change, and an emergency package should be made available to support those most at risk, particularly where rehoming those affected by erosion is the only solution.

Fourthly, the capital funding model needs reviewing. From my perspective, the cases at Lowestoft, Kessingland and Pakefield are compelling, and it is perverse that so much lateral thinking has to be applied to get the necessary funding in place. Such a review should include the need to fully incentivise and maximise private sector investment in nature-based solutions.

H. Rider Haggard’s journal notes:

“For generations the sea has been encroaching on this coast”,

the East Anglian coast. It states that since

“the time of Queen Elizabeth”—

meaning Queen Elizabeth I, not Queen Elizabeth II—

“no concerted effort has been made for the common protection.”

Some 130 years later, I suggest that we should correct that omission.

Apologies, Dame Angela. I think that that is called getting to the end of term.

It is something of an honour to stay for the very last debate of 2023, especially as it is so directly relevant and so phenomenally important to my constituency. I thank the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for doing a fantastic job in securing this debate and shining a light on its subject matter. It is extremely pertinent to my residents and is of growing concern, particularly at the moment.

North Norfolk is an entirely coastal constituency. It encompasses 52 glorious miles of coastline, from Holkham all the way up in the east—sorry, the west; I should know it by now, having been there for four years—all the way down to Horsey in the east. North Norfolk has its own set of pressing and important matters of which the Minister should be aware.

Over the next approximately 85 years, 1,000 homes are said to be at risk in my constituency; of course, that could be inaccurate, but not in a good way. We know that the climate data is getting worse for us all, and that sea levels are rising. The prediction is that 30 cm of sea level rises will occur by the end of the century, and of course the impact of that will almost certainly be that coastal erosion will get far worse. Couple that with materially wetter winters, excess groundwaters, hot, dry summers, particularly like the one we had two years ago, and the ground contracting and expanding, and the impact on our coast is profound.

At the moment we see about 30 cm to 2 metres of erosion each year, but that is not a guide. Even since August, in my constituency, the end of Beach Road in Happisburgh has lost 8 metres alone. A few years ago, sections of my coast vanished at a rate of 13 metres in a month. It is not an exact science, but parts of the coast can be unaffected for years and then suddenly slippages or erosion can happen at alarming rates.

The North Norfolk coast is as varied as it is long. The stretch from Holkham to Weybourne is at flood risk, and that from Weybourne to Happisburgh is affected by erosion at starkly different rates. I live around the Runtons; they are in not too bad a condition in comparison with further east of Cromer, which I understand is rather like something out of a picture postcard for everyone’s holiday—it is the most beautiful area—but the east of Cromer is where constituents are experiencing particular challenges. Villages such as Overstrand, Trimingham, Bacton, Walcott, Mundesley and, of course, Happisburgh are the focus of North Norfolk District Council’s attention at the moment. Extremely careful and sympathetic measures are required to support those communities in the years ahead, and that is where much of the attention in my constituency is focused.

A lot of my residents are probably not aware of how much is being done. I am the first Conservative MP for about 18 and a half years, and we were one of the first places in the entire country, out of only two, to get the snappily titled coastal transition accelerator programme money—CTAP for short. In effect, it was a slug of money—£15 million—from the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), to help plan for the future.

There are, of course, other schemes such as those my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney spoke about in his constituency. There are areas to protect Cromer with rock revetments to the west of the pier, and of course groynes are being refurbished; the same is happening in Mundesley. All in all, we have received about £20 million of funding, which we hope will go some way towards supporting the area for the next 50 years. Importantly, my hon. Friend spoke about how we should go about repairing those things and still investing where appropriate.

Then, of course, there is the multimillion-pound sandscaping scheme around Bacton gas terminal, brought about by Dutch innovation. I have talked about Bacton gas terminal many times in this place because it is an area of critical national infrastructure. The Bacton sandscaping has helped to protect many communities around Walcott and Bacton from the flooding that they experience year after year. As private investment comes in to transition Bacton gas terminal, I hope the sandscaping scheme will continue to be enhanced.

The simple answer is always that we need more money, and factually, from what I understand, the Government have put in record amounts. They have doubled the previous amount to about £5.2 billion look after flooding and other coastal erosion matters; 17% will be spent on areas of the country such as Happisburgh. We also need to have a bit of a grown-up conversation. We need to be able to give people certainty about what they can do, and with better information we can start to paint a picture of how our coast is changing.

Of course, we also need to ensure that any plans we put in place are economically viable, technically feasible and environmentally acceptable. Trying to protect one area along a coastal stretch will have impacts on the neighbouring areas. These things do not exist in isolation, of course; after many years of protecting our coastline we have discovered that they are linked.

It is worth mentioning my hon. Friend’s point about having a Minister for the coast. I do not wish to do him out of a job already, but that was brought up by Norfolk County Council leader Kay Mason Billig, and the environmental portfolio holder, Councillor Eric Vardy, has been fantastic on this. He is an environmentalist who has really spearheaded this issue. I have a lot of sympathy with what they are saying.

The coast of the British Isles is just under 7,000 miles long, and coastal areas share many characteristics. Many suffer rural deprivation and have greater housing challenges. I can talk about the problems that we experience in the particularly idyllic areas around Blakeney till the cows come home, but of course they are mirrored in the south-west and coastal areas of Suffolk. There are greater connectivity problems in every sense—infrastructure, mobile and the like—and a lack of high-skilled employment opportunities. And, of course, there are flooding and coastal erosion matters, so I have a great deal of sympathy with the call for a coastal Minister. Instead of doing nothing about it, on 2 February 2024 at 7 pm, I am holding a major public meeting in Hickling to talk about flooding in and around my constituency.

As I wrap up, which I am keen to do now, I want to say two thank yous. In North Norfolk we have taken this matter very seriously for some years. In no small way that is down to the coastal transition manager at North Norfolk District Council, a gentleman called Rob Goodliffe. It is rare to find people of such ability, knowledge and passion. Mr Goodliffe puts his heart and soul into these matters with the knowledge that he has and, to boot, he is a jolly decent gentleman.

Councillor Angie Fitch-Tillett has for many years been the councillor responsible for Poppyland and looking after the coastal portfolio. She worked alongside Mr Goodliffe and is as passionate as she is knowledgeable. Once again, huge thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney for shining a light on this very important matter.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important debate and setting out so clearly the case for change. My North West Norfolk constituency has a glorious coastline stretching from the bottom of the Wash up to Hunstanton and its famous striped cliffs, across to Burnham Overy Staithe, before joining the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker). However, along that coast we face significant coastal erosion and defence issues that need to be addressed.

This year, we marked 70 years since the terrible 1953 floods, with the tragic loss of many lives in Hunstanton, Snettisham and others parts of the east coast. Earlier this year, I was present at memorial events in Snettisham and other places to mark the anniversary. I came away from all of those with a clear sense that it is our duty as MPs and custodians of our areas to do all that we can to protect our coastline and coastal communities. By taking action we can help to limit and mitigate coastal erosion and its consequences, as set out in the shoreline management plans and the Wash East coastal management strategy.

Today I want to highlight the importance of coastal defences between Snettisham and Heacham, which are made up of a natural sand shingle ridge and stretches of concrete defences. Every year, there is a beach recycling where material is moved to top up the sand and the shingle ridge, which provides a natural flood defence for properties, caravan parks, holiday homes and prime agricultural land. That is an exemplar partnership project and I pay tribute to Mike McDonnell, chairman of the local community interest company that provides nearly 60% of the funding for the annual beach recharge. Only a few weeks ago, he stood on that shingle ridge with me as we met the Environment Agency and other organisations.

We were there to talk about local concern that the periodic beach recharge project, which was expected to take place and involves bringing new material on to the beach, is not happening this year. In part, that is due to an assessment by the Environment Agency of monitoring data that showed that it did not need to happen. However, that was concerning for my constituents and me. I met the Environment Agency because it said that financial and technical constraints meant that the measure was considered undeliverable in any case. The forecast costs had, for example, increased from £3 million to £8 million. However, given that the Environment Agency has £5.2 million for flooding and coastal erosion projects, it is not acceptable that those costs might prevent doing what is necessary and what is set out in the plans to defend against coastal erosion.

The Environment Agency’s assessment means that further work is now under way to consider how to protect the coastline, as well as the approach set out in the Wash East coast management strategy. My constituents, the county councillors, the borough councillors and I are in no doubt that protecting the coastline is vital. However, as King’s Lynn and West Norfolk local councillor group leaders highlighted in a recent letter to the Secretary of State, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has highlighted, the funding threshold for coastal defences does not give due importance to the damage to internationally renowned sites of special scientific interest, which I am lucky to have in my constituency, and to habitats, agricultural land or vital tourism. That approach clearly needs to be revised and reformed.

It should be a common cause that a managed retreat for loss of land is not acceptable in North West Norfolk. We need to hold the line. As I stood on the beach looking at the homes, the Environment Agency representatives assured me and others that they were committed to long-term coastal defence measures. In his letter last week responding to council leaders, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney referred to the Environment Agency providing

“assurances to the community that the management of this coastline is a high priority.”

So it must be. The Government must ensure that funding and support are in place for the shoreline management plan strategy for 2025 and onwards. We need to do everything we can to protect North West Norfolk’s coastal environment.

Before I bring in the Opposition spokesperson, I should let the remaining speakers know that I intend to call Peter Aldous to respond to the debate at 28 minutes past 5. Bear that in mind, please.

It is, as always, a very real pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Angela. I thank the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this debate and, as always, offering a thoughtful and considered contribution. He may not know this, but I always think of him quite fondly, because he was the first person that I ever intervened on in a Westminster Hall debate, so I am pleased to respond to him in a slightly different role.

I also thank the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) for highlighting the number of homes at risk and emphasising the need for certainty when it comes to climate risk. I thank the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) for emphasising the importance of coastal defences and the need to allocate money effectively. I also have to mention the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Sir Brandon Lewis), because I had a wonderful holiday in his constituency in summer 2020, when we were unable to go abroad. I had a wonderful time in Great Yarmouth; it is a place I think of fondly.

I recently watched an ITV piece about the flooding situation in the area, and I want to quote from it to emphasise the human cost of coastal erosion and flooding. I should also mention that the issue is very personal to me: I represent Hull, which is at risk from various types of flooding, and am an east coast MP, so I am unfortunately very familiar with coastal erosion and flooding. I quote the piece:

“When Carol Boyes retired to Hemsby with her late husband 20 years ago, she couldn’t see the sea. There were two rows of bungalows in front of her. Now, it’s approaching her doorstep. The road outside is collapsing, much of it lies smashed on the beach. At 78, Carol will soon be homeless.”

It is worth highlighting that human cost. Flooding and coastal erosion are personal: we are talking about people losing their businesses and their homes, and I want to recognise that. My heart goes out to all those who are devastated by coastal erosion and tidal surges.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is a hugely important human aspect to this issue. Having been to the area and met residents who are losing their properties, I could not help but be moved by the tragedy of what they are facing. Does the hon. Lady also agree that there is an onus and requirement on private landowners? That is one of the complications in Hemsby: the Geoffrey Watling Trust is not doing anything to protect the road that it owns, on its property, to help residents such as those the hon. Lady mentions. The council is doing great work and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) outlined, other organisations are working very hard, but we also need private landowners to step up and do the right thing to help those people.

I agree that this has to be a group effort. Whether they are private landowners, the public sector or the individual people living there, everybody stands to gain from protecting properties, so it has to be a group effort.

Because the issue is so personal and means so much to people, it is disappointing that the Government have not made a priority of it. I recognise that the Minister is fairly new, but part of the reason for the lack of priority is the number of fairly new Ministers that have been looking at this area. That lack of priority means that communities are now paying the price: 203,000 properties that have already had flood protection face an increased risk because of a £34-million shortfall in the Environment Agency’s maintenance funding for 2023. I mention that because maintenance has already come up in the debate. The Environment Agency actually has the funding, and there was an underspend, but the National Audit Office report stated that, because of Treasury rules, that money could not be allocated to maintenance. That seems to be an immediate solution that the Minister could offer. Does the Minister know what has happened to the 4,200 flood defences that have been rated as poor or very poor? Does he know how many defences have been damaged by Storms Babet and Ciarán, and will he update us on what is happening with those? As has been mentioned, we have had a problem in this area for over 100 years, but we still have yet to have a solution offered by the Government.

I have personally heard concerns about the situation in the Pakefield area of Lowestoft from Councillor Peter Byatt and Jess Asato, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Lowestoft. Councillor Byatt told me that although some work has been done, without emergency funding being released to provide the required coastal armour, they face the real prospects of losing around 30 homes, as well as more of the caravan park, which is a vital part of their local economy. Jess told me that the Government have been warned about this for years, so she was incredibly frustrated for residents who feel they are being left to the mercy of the waves.

Coastal communities collectively perform poorly on the Government’s chosen matrix for levelling-up funding. Again, the solution does not involve offering more money; it is about the formula used to allocate money. The investment criteria for round 3 of the levelling-up fund does not include standalone coastal defence schemes that are not part of a wider transport regeneration or culture bid. Will the Minister say whether there are plans to change the formula for the levelling-up bid, so that areas like all those mentioned could bid for that money for coastal defences?

The Environment Agency’s funding formula to protect communities does not consider the cost of flooding to hospitality and tourism industries. That point was raised by one of the Conservative Members. It is allocated on the basis of homes, not businesses. That is something on which many coastal communities rely heavily. Coastal communities are missing out on two different funding matrices. They miss out on being able to access the levelling-up money and the Environment Agency’s funding formula.

To answer the question, “What will Labour do?”, which I am sure is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, Labour will establish a flood resilience taskforce, which will meet every winter ahead of the peak season for extreme weather. This COBRA-style taskforce will co-ordinate flooding and coastal erosion preparation by central Government, local authorities, local communities and the emergency services. It will ensure that vulnerable areas are identified. The need for mapping, to understand climate change and to identify where the risk is, was raised by a number of Conservative Members, and I completely agree. Not only do we need to identify those areas, we need a plan for how we will protect them.

The taskforce will work closely with the Environment Agency to ensure that its formula to protect communities considers potential damages to hospitality and tourist attractions when looking at what it protects, not just homes as is currently the case. It will be chaired by a DEFRA Minister and bring together senior civil servants and Ministers across Government. Although sadly I cannot offer hon. Members a Minister for the coast, I will instead offer a Minister for resilience, who will sit in the Cabinet Office. The taskforce will also bring together regional flood and coastal communities and other frontline agencies, including the Environment Agency and the fire service. That Minister for resilience will look not only at coastal erosion and flooding, but at all the other issues that are the natural result of climate change. Our flood resilience taskforce will play a vital role in identifying and protecting vulnerable areas. Under a Labour Government, places such as Hemsby, with the significant contribution it makes to the local economy through tourism, would have greater eligibility for funding for flood and coastal defences.

As I have mentioned, it is not a matter of getting the cheque book out and committing more money. The Government have committed more than £5 billion for flood and coastal defences by 2027. Labour’s plans are about ensuring that the budget already committed to flood defences is used to maximum effect in places such as Hemsby and Pakefield. We also understand that local authorities, in their role as risk-managing authorities, do not receive maintenance funding to support flood defences in the same way the Environment Agency does. The preferred option in the shoreline management plan for Suffolk in the case of Pakefield cliffs is, as has been mentioned, to hold the line. However, there is no long-term plan effectively to manage or finance that. The Government are dodging their responsibility to the people of Lowestoft and all coastal communities where this pattern is repeated time and again. That is why our flood resilience taskforce would ensure that existing funding is properly targeted to the areas in need, and it would provide accountability on the delivery of projects to ensure that they happen on time. While we must, of course, do everything we can to protect existing properties, we must equally ensure that none are built where they will soon face that threat as sea levels rise. As the Minister knows, a local planning authority can designate areas that are at risk from coastal change—in other words, erosion or induration—as coastal change management areas to ensure that there is control over future development. However, in a reply to a written question in October last year, I was informed:

“Neither Defra or the Environment Agency maintain”


“record of the number of CCMAs”.

That was still the case when I asked again. If they did, they would know—this is quite shocking—that only 15% of coastal planning authorities have a designated coastal change management area. That means that, for the majority of our coast, there is no plan to manage coastal erosion or the changes happening to it.

My understanding—I have just double-checked this, but correct me if I am wrong—is that there is no coastal change management area covering South Suffolk, but that there is one for North Norfolk. That is extremely worrying. A study by the University of Plymouth found that vulnerable coastal areas have been omitted from coastal change management areas and that only a third of areas that have been designated directly as coastal change management areas aid the coastal community to adapt to future sea level rise and coastal change. What that all basically means is that there is no plan to manage coastal erosion and change for most of our coast, and the Government are not even aware of where there is a plan. Their answer to the written questions was that they have no idea what is happening to plan for change all around our coast. What is the Minister doing to ensure that all coastal planning authorities have a coastal change management area plan?

The situation shows, again, that the Government are asleep at the wheel. They are too distracted by their internal family bickering and are failing the coastal communities of the present and the future. The systems that cause sea level rise—specifically, the thermal expansion of the ocean and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets due to global heating—have a centuries-long time lag. Increased coastal erosion and flooding are here to stay. We need a strategy and a long-term plan to deal with their effects and to support our communities. Only Labour has the plan and the will to do that.

On that promise of a brighter future, at this Christmas time, I wish everybody a very happy Christmas and new year. I say thanks to all of the staff and the Doorkeepers. Hopefully, it will be a much brighter and more prosperous 2024.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate. It is good to see so many colleagues joining him in the House to make their very valid cases. I am particularly pleased to hold the role of Minister with responsibility for flooding, having worked as a rural practice surveyor before entering this House and having visited many of the locations that have been mentioned, not only in Norfolk, but in Suffolk, and particularly the Holderness coast; I am very familiar with some of the challenges there. I am very interested in this brief and very keen to take it forward.

I recognise the challenges that many of my hon. Friends’ constituents—households and businesses—face, and, of course, this is deeply concerning to all who experience coastal flooding and erosion events. Events like the storms this autumn put into focus the need for many of us to adapt to the threats that we face from climate change and the resulting impacts, such as coastal erosion. I understand the impact that those experiences have on people, whether that is through damage to or loss of property or through the impact on their businesses and livelihoods and how that can affect their wellbeing.

As climate change leads to sea level rise and more extreme rainfall, the number of people who are at risk from flooding and coastal erosion is, unfortunately, likely to grow. That is why it is absolutely important that we have debates such as this, where specific cases can be raised, in addition to the conversations that my Department and I are involved in.

The impact of the recent storms on coastal communities such as those at Lowestoft, Pakefield and Kessingland on the Suffolk coast, as well as—as has been mentioned—on communities on the Norfolk coast, such as at Hemsby, has brought this issue into sharp focus. That is why the Government are acting to drive down flood risk and to support those who are at risk from coastal erosion from every single angle.

I will come to some of the specific points on which we are focusing. Our long-term policy statement, published in 2020, sets out our ambition to

“create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk.”

It includes five ambitious policies and a number of actions that will accelerate progress to 2027 and beyond to better protect and prepare the country against flooding and coastal erosion in the face of more frequent and extreme weather events, as right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. That is why we continue to invest public money in this important area.

As part of our commitment to ensuring that the country is resilient to climate change, including flooding and coastal erosion, we are now two years into a significant package of investment—£5.2 billion has been specifically allocated to flood and coastal erosion for a six-year investment programme. In that time, we have already invested £1.5 billion to better protect more than 67,000 homes and businesses in England alone. That takes the total number of properties protected to more than 380,000 since 2015, and more than 600,000 since 2010. That £5.2 billion of investment is double the £2.6 billion investment from the previous funding round, which ran from 2015 to 2021.

With double the investment, we will continue to build on past achievements and experiences, and improve resilience, specifically on coastal erosion. We recognise that there are still specific challenges ahead for some of our communities. Coastal erosion is a long-standing process, which is a natural event. From my experience on the Holderness coast, we see coastal erosion happening constantly. As we have heard, that also occurs along the coastal communities of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Coastal erosion is the natural way that coasts evolve over time. That is why it is right to have specific conversations about better protecting particular communities. Local shoreline management plans have a vital role in managing our coastline. Importantly, they are locally developed by coastal protection authorities and coastal groups, which agree on the approach to managing each section of the coastline in their areas. Based on evidence, they decide whether we hold the line or manage realignment of the coastline, where it is appropriate to do so.

The Environment Agency supports those authorities to update and strengthen the plans by early 2024 through technical refresh projects to ensure that they are up to date, use the best evidence in their recommendations and focus attention on priority areas for investment and adaptation. More than £2 million will be used for that project, which includes the development of new digital, online tools to assess access, understanding and use of the plans, which will launch early next year.

The SMPs will be supported by the most up-to-date evidence on coastal erosion, through the Environment Agency-led national coastal erosion risk map, which provides a consistent assessment of coastal erosion risk around England. The Environment Agency is working with coastal authorities on updating that risk mapping, which will be published by mid-2024, to inform coastal erosion management planning and investment decisions.

We are supporting local communities who wish to test and trial new approaches to manage the impact of coastal erosion around the country, through our £200 million flood and coastal innovation programme. Through that programme, DEFRA has provided £8.4 million of funding to East Suffolk Council and Great Yarmouth Borough Council for the resilient coasts project.

My hon. Friend has some specific challenges in his constituency, as he mentioned, which is why the rapid deployment plan for Lowestoft has recently been scoped out, as he will be aware. Not only has he secured this debate, but he has caught me in the House, since I have taken on this role, specifically to talk to me about the projects that are being rolled out in Lowestoft and the other communities he mentioned. The resilient coasts project will offer a complete suite of planning, engagement, technical and financial tools to support coastal transition for communities. The learning will be shared with other coastal authorities and could also be applied to the rest of the UK. DEFRA has allocated £38 million from the £200 million flood and coastal innovation programme to the coastal transition accelerator programme to trial opportunities in a small number of areas significant to coastal erosion.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) specifically picked up on that point because, as the first Conservative Member for a significant period to hold that constituency, he has successfully managed to secure his constituency shoreline as one of the two places where the project is now under way. I commend his efforts in doing that, because as he mentioned, Coastwise offers a unique opportunity to support adaptation and the transition from a reactive, unplanned approach to coastal management challenges. Importantly, these approaches involve trials that will provide new evidence of how coastal adaptation can be achieved, in order to truly inform national coastal management policy.

Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to Mr Goodliffe and Councillor Angie Fitch-Tillett for the work they have been doing on this issue. The aim of the programme is to act as a catalyst for strategic long-term planning and to test out innovative practical actions to support the coastal communities at risk from coastal erosion. I expect coastal authorities to use this opportunity to plan for and enable co-ordinated transition activities that take a proactive approach to meeting their immediate and future needs, in advance of coastal change.

Let me pick up on some of the other points that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney made. I want to reassure him that some parts of the Lowestoft project are already under way, as he will know. Of course, there is further work to do, and further discussions are taking place in the Department about that project. I know that he has written and raised this not only with me, but with the Secretary of State. Further discussions will take place about this issue, and I will be happy to meet with him on it.

My hon. Friend made the point that green finance, flooding and climate change are split between portfolios. However, I want to reassure him that all Ministers in the Department work closely together. There is no silo mentality in DEFRA.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk rightly referred to a letter that I wrote to Councillor Terry Parish recently. If he wishes, I would be happy to pick that up with him. I also want to reassure him that the Environment Agency is working with me and the Department to ensure that these schemes are rolled out in the right way.

Let me be clear: we will continue to improve the resilience of our villages, towns and cities to ensure that future flooding and coastal erosion is addressed, which will be helped by the outputs of our flood and coastal innovation programme. I commend the work of Coastal Partnership East, which hon. Members have mentioned, and also the good work of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney in securing this debate, because this is an incredibly important issue that needs to be raised. I look forward to working with him to address it further, not only in his constituency but across Norfolk and Suffolk.

I will be brief; we have had a comprehensive debate. Coastal Partnership East is adopting the strategic approach that we need, and it is important that Government and DEFRA support it in all that it does. We can predict what is going to happen; it is the speed at which it is happening that is catching us all unawares. From that perspective, Coastal Partnership East needs an emergency package to get it through this really challenging period. We must then get away from crisis management and move to the more strategic, scientific, qualitative approach that the Tyndall centre is proposing.

My final point is that, as we have heard, we in the east are very important for the tourism and leisure industries, for food production and processing, and, increasingly, for providing nationally and strategically important infrastructure, whether that means wind farms, the Bacton gas terminal or Sizewell C. The Government need to have that in mind.

Just before I end the session, I wish everybody a very happy Christmas and a safe journey home.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered coastal erosion in Suffolk and Norfolk.

Sitting adjourned.