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Westminster Hall

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2024

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 20 February 2024

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Register of Children not in School

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the potential merits of a register of not-in-school children.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. The Prime Minister describes a good education as

“the closest thing we have to a silver bullet”,

and he is right. Education unlocks the door of opportunity, raises aspiration and sets children up for future success. The Conservatives have delivered on education. After successive Conservative Governments, we have more schools rated good or outstanding, we have improved our standing in the international league tables, and the progress made on phonics has been monumental.

However, as the legacy of the pandemic continues to blight our children’s lives, the education system is grappling with huge challenges that could leave untold damage done to the future of our children, society and economy, if left unresolved. Absence rates are at crisis point, suspensions are at record levels and some children are falling off the school roll altogether. The Government have shown leadership in tackling many of those challenges. Last year we outlined an ambitious vision in the “Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Alternative Provision (AP) Improvement Plan”. We are piloting attendance mentors, rolling out attendance hubs, and increasing the number of mental health support teams working across schools and colleges. But what is of huge concern to me and many colleagues in this House, and what this debate seeks to address, is that no one—not Government, local authorities or schools—can honestly answer the question: how many children are missing from school?

A good education is pivotal to a child’s future success, yet we do not know how many children are not in school, where they are and what quality of education they are receiving, if any. We do not even know if they are safe. That is not acceptable.

From the limited data available, we know that children who are moved out of school are disproportionately likely to be from a low-income household, need SEN support and have a history of school absence and exclusions. Those children and families desperately need our support, but we are unable to offer it because we simply do not know who they are or where they are. While we do not have the data to fully understand where those children are and how many there are, it is thought that many not on a school roll are in home education.

In England, parents rightfully have a choice over where to educate their child, which school to send them to, or even to not send their child to a school but to home educate them instead. The fundamental right to home educate is enshrined in law and always should be, with many home educating parents providing a high-quality home education for their child. However, owing to a lack of oversight, we have no way of knowing whether that is the case for every child in home education. Nine in 10 local authorities believe that they have not been able to identify every child in home education. With vulnerable children disproportionately likely not to be in school, it raises serious questions about whether every child in home education is there because it is in their best interests.

Research by the Centre for Social Justice has uncovered a growing number of parents opting for home education because they feel that they have no other option because of their child’s needs not being met in school. That could be the result of unmet SEND needs, a lack of support for mental health or bullying. Of particular concern is the number of parents who have felt coerced into home education through the scourge of off-rolling. Those parents can be left deliberately uninformed about the consequences of moving off roll and ill-prepared to deliver a suitable home education. That cannot be allowed to continue.

As Conservatives we must make sure that all parents can freely and informedly choose how to best educate their child and that every child thrives in their education, whether in school or the home. A register of children not in school is the first step to achieving that.

Educating children at home is no small task for anyone. I thank the many parents who are doing an admirable job providing their children with a high quality home education. I want to reassure those parents that a register would not seek to disrupt their right to home educate or add extra burden. Quite the contrary, it would allow us to offer assistance and resources to those who are home educating at great personal cost, time and effort, should they want such support. But not every child is your child. Not every child is in home education because it is in their best interest. Not every parent feels equipped to provide the quality of education they feel their child needs. Not every child is safe at home.

For a parent who felt coerced into removing their child into home education against their better wishes, the prospect of home educating their child, without any support or advice, can feel overwhelming. A number of organisations, including Ofsted, the Children’s Commissioner and the Centre for Social Justice, have uncovered worrying reports of home-educated pupils being left without access to an appropriate quality of education, and of parents left struggling to cope with the demands of home education.

A register would allow us to find and support those families who have been left on the fringes of the education system. Most importantly, it would help us uncover those children whose safety is at risk. In 2020, the child safeguarding practice review panel uncovered 15 incidents of harm involving children reported to be in home education. Those included severe harm, such as serious neglect, emotional abuse and intrafamilial harm. In three of those cases, the children had died. The panel concluded that those children were often invisible. They were not in school and did not receive home visits.

Such safeguarding concerns have been echoed by local authorities, which have spoken about a range of concerns, including county lines involvement, gangs and exploitation, as well as child employment. We cannot continue as we are, unable to guarantee the safety, welfare and basic educational progress of every child. Across Europe, oversight of educational progress is commonplace. England is an international outlier in that respect, and this change is well overdue.

The limited data available suggest that home education is on the rise. As the number of home-educated children increases, so should our drive to ensure that parents are able to exercise their right to choose how best to educate their child, that every child is supported to achieve the best educational outcome, and that all children are protected equally, whether at home or at school.

That is not to infringe on a parent’s right to home education or to add any extra burden to those who are doing it well. A register of children not in school would not change much for those families who are already doing an excellent job, but it would make a big difference to the small number of children on the fringes of our education system, who may be at risk of harm. It is time to bring those children who are out of sight and out of mind back into view.

This is not just an educational issue but one of social justice and national economic importance. Education is a major route out of poverty, opening doors to greater employment and lifelong learning. If children do not receive a suitable education that allows them to develop the skills to gain meaningful employment, that will cast a long shadow over their lives and over the economic wellbeing of the country. Education is key to the country’s continued prosperity and must remain the focus of any Government. I hope, therefore, that all colleagues will back my private Member’s Bill to introduce a register for children not in school, due for Second Reading on 15 March.

I am grateful that education Ministers have repeatedly voiced their support for such a register. It is time to turn those words into action. I call on the Minister to confirm that the Government will fully back my Bill, which would allow us to legislate for a register of children not in school, without any further delay. By implementing that register, which is so important for ensuring the welfare and education of every child, we will continue to build on the success of driving up standards, and unlock that all-important door of opportunity and aspiration for all children.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) for bringing forward this debate. We had a wee chat beforehand to discuss our thoughts, and she and I are very much on the same page in what we are trying to achieve.

As you know, Sir Christopher, I always give a Northern Ireland perspective; I think that it adds value to the debate. I know the Minister does not have responsibility for that, but the idea is to support the hon. Member for Meon Valley and give some examples and stats about what happens in Northern Ireland. This issue is really important. I have many constituents—I suppose when we add on the education numbers it is perhaps not that many, but I will speak about the figures later—who come to me who want to self-school. There are issues that occur through that, so I am pleased to be here.

Education is an essential component of every childhood. Some of my fondest childhood memories are those in the schoolyard in Ballywalter. Some Members may ask whether I can remember that far back. It was a long time ago, but I remember with fondness Ballywalter Primary School in the early ’60s, so I can give my perspective. I would refer to it as a rite of passage. My parents were determined to send me away to boarding school, as they did, when I was 11 years old. I remember it quite well. That was a big decision for my parents, because ultimately it meant that they could not have a holiday, and had to keep their old banger of a car forever and use their money to educate me. I am eternally grateful to my parents for making that happen when they were on a financial budget that made it increasingly difficult.

Boarding school, by its very nature, can make you or break you. My brother also went there, but unfortunately he did not like it. He left after about a year and a half. I did my five years. It was almost like a penance, but I loved it. I would never send my children to boarding school, by the way, just for the record, because it can build you or bring you down.

I have watched my children go through school, enjoying their formals and school trips, and now my grand- children—six of them, of course—are waiting to see what schools they get into after their transfer test. It is all very exciting, but incredibly worrying as well. We want the best for our children and grandchildren; that is what parents and grandparents do. However, I am also aware that that is not the journey that all families follow. The hon. Member for Meon Valley has set that scene, and I am going to give some examples of what they have to go through.

I know of several families personally who have made the decision to home school—I say these things very gently, but I think that they have to be said—due to the increasingly secular manner of teaching. One parent said to me that if they want their children to go to school, they have to accept that they do relaxation yoga, mimicking sun god poses, and that they are taught in a manner that they do not agree with. That family considered sending their child to a small private Christian school due to concerns about the push of ideologies in schools, yet the cost was prohibitive and it could never happen, so they are now in home schooling.

I was able to put that family in contact with a group of home schoolers. One idea that I want to put forward to the hon. Lady and the Minister is that some home schoolers can collectively work together. They may be on their own when they are at home at school, but collectively they can come together to do things. To give an example, in my area of Strangford, home schoolers collectively are able to undertake trips to places of interest, such as the council chambers and local museums. When I asked parents what they had to do to register their children, they told me, “We are asked for nothing.” I think it is important that there is a register, and it does not seem to be the case in Northern Ireland as far as I am aware. Many people are registered, but not everybody is, and I will give some stats later that illustrate that only too well.

Parents said to me that they told the GP that their children were not going to school, and they get their injections and dental checks at home, through the GP surgeries or through the dental practices rather than school. They are not neglected for any health issues, so it is important that home schooling does not deprive children of any opportunities and safeguards. However, they have no support and no help, and there is no register. That is where we are.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that wider society understands the distinction drawn by the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), and by my hon. Friend himself, between the very small number of children who have been, and may well be, at risk because of neglect shown by parents, and the very effective home schooling that is the choice of parents whose only concern is the future wellbeing of their children?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; he is absolutely right and has highlighted one of the issues that I wish to refer to as well.

In past years, home schooling was important to some people due to their health issues. In my capacity as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and latterly as an MP, I was able to make that happen—I helped people go through the process to have the self-schooling that they wanted. All those young boys and girls from those days now have very active adult lives because they got the opportunity of home schooling through their disabilities and medical issues.

Regarding the register, it is all well and good for the family who purchase their curriculum online and steadfastly teach their children in a structured way that suits the needs of the family. On the other side—and I mention this to the hon. Member for Meon Valley as an example— I was once approached by a local church asking for help to ascertain how it could ensure that a child who was attending its youth groups was being taught at home. That 10-year-old child could neither read nor write, and she told her leader in the youth group that her mummy did not believe she needed to do that. Therefore, there is unfortunately a need to have a register for the purposes of ensuring that things are progressing in the way that they should.

I wholeheartedly support the mechanism for children retaining the right to be home schooled, because I see the benefits of that. But I also believe that there should be help and support to ensure that children are getting the education that they need and deserve. I believe the first step is to create an online register so that someone is able to know that a child is being home schooled, and to monitor their progress. It is not about intrusion or about Big Brother keeping an eye; it is about ensuring that a child’s progress is happening in the way that it should.

The daughter of one of my staff members is a trained teacher who runs a forest school. This is another great example of collective home schooling that I often tell. She was recently vetted by Ofsted and received the level of outstanding, such is her talent and ability. She teaches children their early years development through nature, come rain or shine, and does a phenomenal job. She is registered and vetted; and the process works, and works well. Collectively, the school brings together all the children from families who home school them individually, and it teaches them well.

For that reason, I believe that children who are home schooled should have help and support to ensure they receive an education that will help them in the future. It is so important—and when we say that, we mean it. All the Members who are here, and many others who unfortunately could not make it, are convinced that the early years of a child’s schooling are vital.

While home schooling used to be obscure in Northern Ireland, the number of home-schooled children has steadily been increasing—indeed, it has trebled in the last five years. The stats are as follows: there were 287 children recorded by the Education Authority as home educated in 2017-18. That number had risen to 796 children in the 2021-22 school year—an increase of 175%. I do not know whether it was due to covid—it probably was partially—that home schooling became an objective for many parents. However, we think that the true figure is much higher, as parents are not legally required to register with the Education Authority if they want to home educate their child.

In 2021, a total of 710 children were recorded by the Education Authority as being taught at home. Three hundred and thirty nine were of primary age, and 371 were of post-primary age. In the most recent school year of 2021-22, that number rose to 796, with 329 children being of primary age, and 467 being of post-primary age. Clearly, therefore, parents have a deep interest in, and commitment to, home schooling.

To conclude, I just want to say how important this debate is. It is clear that we must begin to look at this matter to ensure that a register system is in place, although not for monitoring alone. It is not about breathing down somebody’s neck and ensuring that education is happening. It is about support, help and guidance and how we can make the situation better. Every parent has the right to provide education, but every child has the right to be educated, and we must ensure that that takes place.

Well done to all the home schoolers in my constituency, in that of the hon. Member for Meon Valley and across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is not something that I could manage; unfortunately, I probably do not have the patience, but well done to all those co-ordinated groups that meet to share information and experiences and work collectively. That engagement and interaction is a vital school in, and a vital part of, the home-schooling journey.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Christoper. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) on securing this debate.

Parents are responsible for ensuring that their child receives an appropriate full-time education, and when a child is registered at a school, parents are responsible for securing their child’s attendance. Children can be taught at home full or part time, but no legislation deals with home education as a specific approach.

A not-in-school register is needed specifically to target children who are not enrolled in formal educational institutions. This will address the gaps in our education system and ensure that every child receives the opportunity that they deserve. Legislation matters, as it provides accountability and oversight. A not-in-school register would provide a systematic way to track children who are not attending school and it would ensure that parents, guardians and local authorities were aware of their educational choices. By having a centralised record, we could identify patterns, intervene early and prevent children from slipping through the cracks.

Legislation would also safeguard children’s rights. Education is a fundamental right. A register would ensure that no child was left behind because of circumstances beyond their control. A register would allow us to monitor vulnerable populations, such as those with disabilities, refugees or those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Legislation would improve data and data-driven decision making, because accurate data would enable policymakers to allocate resources effectively. By understanding the scale of the issue, we could tailor interventions.

Elective home education is one of the fastest growing forms of schooling in the UK. In East Sussex, the number of children being home educated rose by 50% in the five years to 2022. Most parents do an incredible job in this endeavour, and I take my hat off to them for doing it in the best interests of their children. Many children perform much better if home schooled, and are happier. Figures show that more than 1,500 East Sussex children were educated at home in the last academic year. Data suggest that the number of home schooled children has increased across England since the coronavirus pandemic, although the figures are incomplete—that is the issue. However, it appears that covid is not behind the rise. Philosophical reasons accounted for the largest number of children being withdrawn from school. That was the main motivation for home schooling in East Sussex, with about 460 children involved. Concerningly, the reasons for home schooling were not known in 39% of cases. I know from my inbox that far too many parents cannot get the right SEND provision for their children and therefore home educate them. Data also show that older children are more likely to be taught at home across England. In East Sussex, 68% were of secondary-school age, compared with 32% at primary level.

Hastings and Rye is a unique blend of coastal beauty and historical significance. However, it still faces huge educational challenges. Despite its rich heritage, some children still struggle to access quality education. In one school in Hastings, 47% of children were persistently absent before the current head came in and took a grip of the situation; but at least there is a register for that. We do not really know whether home educated children are receiving an education at all, or whether they are safe. Sadly, it is all too common for some parents to put no value on education because they cannot see what benefits it would bring their children. It is our job—my job—to change that in Hastings and Rye.

There are other reasons, too: economic hardship, physical and mental health issues, and so on. Hastings and Rye has a diverse demographic, including families with varying needs. Legislation would allow us to tailor support services, ensuring that every child has equal access to education. Requiring parents or guardians to register their child with the local authority if they are not enrolled in state-funded schools would ensure transparency and accountability, as well as safeguarding children. The register would enable outreach programmes that could provide support and address barriers, and schools, social services and community organisations could collaborate to identify and assist children who fall through the gaps. We can learn from successful models in other areas or countries and adapt them to our local context.

A school register for children not in school is not just a bureaucratic formality, it is a lifeline for our future generations. Let us champion the legislation, which ensures every child’s right to education regardless of their circumstances, and together we can build a stronger, more inclusive society where no child is left behind. The great man, Churchill, said:

“Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.”

I would add that educated, healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.

I had not intended to speak in this debate, but I was inspired to do so by the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). I congratulate her not just on securing today’s debate, but on her Children Not in School (Registers, Support and Orders) Bill, which I will certainly support and which I hope the Government will pick up.

I should declare an interest: I chair the safeguarding board of the National Fostering Group, which is relevant because of the access of children in care to education. One of the things we do is monitor the attendance in school of children in foster care. We have consistently had well above the national average, which shows that even more challenging children in the care system, when properly monitored, can get a full education, and it is perhaps even more important that they do.

This subject is really important, so it is somewhat surprising that there is not a single Labour Back Bencher or Liberal Democrat MP here, such is their constant criticism of the Government’s education policy, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley set out at the beginning of the debate, has been a largely unsung success story for literacy and numeracy rates and the improvements that we have seen over the last 14 years. That was helped substantially by the drive for phonics and making sure that children in schools have a grasp of the basic skills that are needed for every job and for success in life.

I am glad to report that in my constituency, every single primary and secondary school bar one is rated “good” or “outstanding”. Across the UK, and certainly across England, the figures are now something like 86% or 88% against 66% back in 2010, so there is good progress there—but it is not progress for everybody. We must be particularly concerned for children whose progress is much more difficult to monitor because they are not within the conventional, mainstream school sector. That is the purpose of this debate.

That problem has absolutely been exacerbated during and since covid. The Children’s Commissioner has done work on identifying more than 100,000 so-called ghost children who are at school less often than they are absent from school, and in some cases are not at school at all. That is a really worrying phenomenon. We have only just started to see the consequences of lockdown and the closure of our schools. That was such an error, which the Government were forced into. I have to say, there was triumphalism—I remember it well, receiving the press releases from the National Education Union, which forced its members not to turn up at school. I think something like 8,000 schools had to close simply because the NEU staff did not turn up. That was the beginning of a slippery slope, supported by the Labour Opposition, of keeping our schools closed.

There was no evidential base on which children were more vulnerable than anybody else; indeed, they were far less vulnerable. The consequences for their education, socialising and mental health of not being in a regular school setting are only now coming out of the woodwork. The impact of that will be with those children for many years to come. It is deeply worrying that, quite aside from the academic catch-up, there are many other consequences. It has led to a lot of children not going back into mainstream school since covid. They are supposedly being home educated in most cases, but we are not sure how well they are being home educated, and if they are getting any reasonable education at all.

The problem of children not in school and, hopefully, being educated outside a school setting is not new, although it has been exacerbated since covid. When I was the Children’s Minister some while ago, we looked at regulating out-of-school provision and keeping tabs on children who were not attending school, particularly from a safeguarding point of view. I absolutely echo the points made earlier by my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) and for Meon Valley about the generally high quality of care, and hopefully education standards that go with it, provided by parents who choose actively to home educate their children for whatever reason. There are some, however, who cannot and do not sufficiently, adequately and appropriately provide that education to their children.

There are also establishments setting themselves up as unregulated schools, often with a religious bent. Some years ago, there was a big scandal about madrassahs exposed, I think, by “Panorama”. There was some really worrying treatment of children attending those schools, either in place of regular school or as religious schools available at weekends and evenings, in completely unregulated settings. It applies to other unofficial faith schools as well. I was keen to bring in some form of regulation of those establishments at the time, but alas I was thwarted. The issue has returned, but I am pleased to note that the Government are at last taking action on it.

There is also the issue of what we more formally know as alternative provision. Again, there are some really good examples of this—I can cite some in my own constituency—but they are not regulated. Many of them actually want to be regulated, but there is not the facility to do that. It would give them a degree of respectability and status, from which many of them would benefit. It is a bit of a wild west out there, and it absolutely needs to be addressed.

The reasons parents choose to home educate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley has said, are varied. In some cases, they do not want to send their children to faith schools, and there are no alternatives available. Increasingly, it is because of problems with special educational needs. Despite the good reforms that the Government have brought in, with the use of education, health and care plans, there is still a serious problem with the number of children identified with special educational needs who are waiting to be assessed for an EHCP. If it goes to appeal, the vast majority of appeals by parents are upheld. There has been something like a 24% increase in appeals between 2022 and 2023, and parents usually win them. Even when they get that status, the support that is supposed to come with it is not always forthcoming, and certainly not to the level that certain children need. It is no wonder that some parents choose to take their children out of school because their special educational needs are not being provided for in those schools.

I recently held a summit with the heads of SEN provision for every primary school in the Adur district in my constituency. Most of the heads turned up as well, such was the seriousness of the subject. I arranged a follow-up meeting with the cabinet member for schools and the director of children’s services in West Sussex because this is a real problem, and it is driving more children out of the mainstream system.

There are other reasons why parents keep their children out of school—for example, because their child is suffering from mental health problems. We know how bad that has gotten—again, exacerbated by covid. Something like one in six school-age children now demonstrate some form of mental illness. Again, the Government have done good work on mental health support in schools, but they are not keeping up with the demand. The threshold for identifying children with mental health requirements is quite high. Even when a child does reach it, they need to access the support in a timely manner, and it is not always as forthcoming, and certainly not as urgent, as it needs to be.

There are also problems with bullying and the impact of social media, which is why I very much welcomed the announced yesterday by the Secretary of State for Education about limitations on mobile phones, which have an awful lot to answer for in our schools. Good schools, such as Worthing High School, which the Secretary of State visited yesterday in launching the new programme, have been practising that for some time, and it is clear for all to see how it has benefited the children. Another reason is eating disorders—a fast-growing phenomenon. Again, that was exacerbated by the pandemic for those children who now feel they cannot attend school because of it. There is a whole raft of reasons why children are being home educated and effectively going under the radar.

There is also the question of parents not being able to get their children into their school of choice. I have a particular problem, which I have raised in this Chamber before—and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has agreed to meet me shortly to discuss it—as children in Adur, in Shoreham, in particular, have to go out of district because the county council has effectively messed up its calculation of secondary school place need in the area. A lot of parents—from one school, about 50 children are faced with this—have chosen to home educate their children rather than sending them to a school they know little about and which is a long way from home. It is important that we can monitor how many and which children are being home educated, what sort of home education they are getting and who is providing it.

Part of the Bill that I propose to introduce will give support to parents who are home educating and put the burden on local authorities to provide that support and funding. I assume that that would help my hon. Friend’s constituents.

I hope so. I hope those parents will be helped because the local authority will get its figures right and provide the number of places needed, because by and large they want their children to go to one of our excellent local secondary schools; it is just that the places are not there. They have almost been forced to make the decision to home educate their children.

It is important that we get a handle on this matter. We closely regulate our schools—some would say over-regulate, and some of the recent problems regarding Ofsted have raised the question of whether we are regulating the right things—and impose stiff penalties on parents who fail to send their children to school on a regular basis without good reason. Once a child is deemed to be home educated, all that regulation and all those checks fall away, and it is down to trust with the parents.

As I say, it is important that we identify what is going on outside of the school setting because there is a safeguarding issue. That was highlighted during lockdown, when social workers with children on their radar were in many cases unable to make home visits, and the amount of abuse against children behind closed doors went up substantially—the number of calls to Childline and other services absolutely skyrocketed. I am in no way trying to say that all home educated children are subject to safeguarding concerns, but there is a high propensity for children who are out of the sight of teachers, who can spot signs that something is not quite right at home, to suffer safeguarding issues under the radar, so we need to be absolutely assured that they are safe.

The point of having a register and greater sight of those children is to ensure their parents receive appropriate support. Statutorily, they are entitled to just five hours of supported education at home, if it is available and they choose to take it. That does not go far, and its quality is rather patchy. There are also serious question marks about children accessing public exams. A lot of parents of home educated children have complained to me that they cannot access schools to take public exams—GCSEs, A-levels or whatever—and if they can, they have to pay a substantial premium.

There is also an issue with access to the very successful Government school holiday programme. The additional support available for school meals, and the activities, exercise and everything else that goes with it, are again not automatically available to home educated children. Children are not just missing out on the academic advantages of being at school; being at school is also about socialising, integrating, engaging with other children, learning to work as a team, regulating one’s mental health, and getting involved in sport and all sorts of other physical activities. Team games do not appear to be readily available to home educated children, so there is much more to this issue than just academic achievement. As I say, it is also about ensuring children are safe and on the radar.

When we provide that support to parents, it is important that we ensure that flexible arrangements are available too. Some children may not be able to go into mainstream school full time because of mental health challenges, bullying or whatever, but they may be able to have a blend whereby they combine home or alternative-provision learning with going to regular school for one or two days or sessions a week to gradually get them back to a full-time school schedule. That flexibility is just not there, but a full register that tells us what the child’s standard is, what their problems are and what support is and is not being provided would enable us to provide a much better wraparound solution.

Last year, the fantastic Red Balloon school charity, which I dealt with a lot when I was a Minister, set up a new school in Worthing. That was largely down to the munificence of one of my constituents, Nick Munday, whose daughter benefited from an alternative provision school. The charity has a small number of schools throughout the country and offers places to kids who cannot go into mainstream school for all sorts of reasons. It gives them a really good education and, in many cases, enables them to go back into school part time and, hopefully, ultimately full time. We need more places like that.

Like other alternative provision establishments, Red Balloon would love to be regulated. Part of this debate is about ensuring that we have eyes on the support that every child is getting, on what alternative provision establishments and others are able to offer and on whether they are up to the task. There are something like 40,900 children in alternative provision across the United Kingdom. Ultimately, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, this is not about intruding or meddling: it is about supporting, monitoring and tracking. Even if children are not on the school register, and are not presenting at school on a daily basis and getting all the advantages school offers, because they are unable for the sorts of reasons I have set out, we must ensure that they are being properly looked after and that the appropriate support is provided to them and their parents. They should not be prevented from getting the very best start in life simply because they are not in a physical school establishment; they deserve that just as anybody else does.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) on securing this important debate and on her campaigning work on the issue of persistent school absence. She rightly highlighted the lack of transparency about the numbers of children not in school and some of the wider drivers of that in our education system, such as the damaging use of off-rolling by some schools. She was right to point out that a register would have little impact on the families of children receiving a high quality of home education.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) took us down memory lane to his own childhood, and spoke about the importance of having a register so that help and support can be provided to families whose children who are not in school, where that is needed.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) highlighted the situation in her constituency, where there is a school in which 47% of the children were persistently absent. That highlights the shocking scale of this issue and the urgency of addressing it.

We heard from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for whom I have a huge respect due to his long experience and his work in this field. However, I have to say that he gave a disappointingly partisan speech on an issue on which there is a broad cross-party consensus. It was his Government who chose to reopen pubs before schools during the covid-19 pandemic, so the Opposition will take no lectures from him on schools policy during the pandemic. Nevertheless, he rightly highlighted that significant problems with the SEND system and with poor mental health are factors that contribute to persistent absence. On that, we can agree.

Everyone who has spoken agrees on the importance of children and young people accessing a high-quality education. Education is vital in giving them the best start in life and opening up future opportunities, whether through employment or discovering new interests and passions, yet increasing numbers of children and young people are out of school. The rate of persistent absence has doubled in just six years, with more than one in five children missing at least 10% of the school year in 2022-2023.

The situation could not be more urgent. On the current trajectory, developed using Department for Education data, more than 2 million children will be persistently absent from school by 2025-26—a generation tragically lost from England’s schools. More than 130,000 children are already missing more than half their time in school, and recent research by the Children’s Commissioner found that pupils who are persistently absent in years 10 and 11 are half as likely to pass five GCSEs as their peers with good attendance records. That is embedding lifelong disadvantage and limiting the opportunities that young people can pursue later in life.

Although many parents throughout the country lawfully and properly deliver an effective and high standard of education at home, far too many children are now falling through the cracks and not getting the education they need. We need action to ensure that if a child is not in school, the local authority is clear about where they are and what education they are receiving. Members have raised their support for a register of children not in school; the Opposition are clear that we support this objective. As this debate has evidenced, there is broad cross-party support for legislating for a register.

Earlier this month, a motion tabled by the shadow Secretary of State for Education—my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson)—and the Leader of the Opposition sought to make parliamentary time available to legislate for a Bill as soon as possible. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised the question of the attendance of Opposition Members at this debate. I gently say to him that all Opposition MPs voted for our motion earlier this month; that is the indication he needs of the strength of commitment and support for this matter on this side of the House. It is extremely disappointing that, despite voicing their support this morning, when they were faced with that motion in that debate, Government Members voted it down.

One of the reasons why I did not vote for the Labour party’s motion was that it conflated persistent absence with the not-in-school register. Children with persistent absence are on the school register already, and the local authority knows exactly where they are. A register of children not in school is for those children who are not on any other register. That is why I was unable to support the Labour motion: because it was not correct.

I am grateful for that intervention. On persistent absence, it is not enough to say that schools know who those children are; a more comprehensive strategy is needed, and that is what I will move on to talk about.

We will of course study carefully the wording of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Meon Valley when it is published, but it should not be the responsibility of Back Benchers to force the Government to act. There have been plenty of opportunities for Ministers to act. The only thing missing is the sense of urgency and ambition for our country’s children.

We must also be honest that the crisis of persistent absence requires much wider action. We need a comprehensive strategy to address the challenges to children attending school. The Opposition has set out our fully funded plans to break down the barriers. We will introduce free breakfast clubs for every primary school pupil in England, providing every child with a nutritious meal at the start of the day. We know that breakfast clubs can improve children’s learning and development, boost their concentration and help to improve behaviour. They take the pressure off parents in the morning and give children a chance to play and socialise.

I will not; the hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time this morning.

Good mental health and wellbeing are vital for school attendance. We will ensure that there is mental health support available in every school and that children and young people can visit an open-access mental health hub in every community, no matter where they live.

Absence rates are highest for children with special educational needs and disabilities and we recognise that that is often because the needs of children with SEND are not being properly met. Labour will work with parents and schools to make mainstream schools inclusive, and to make inclusivity part of the Ofsted inspection framework. We will ensure that teachers have the skills and training they need to support children with complex needs and we will introduce a new annual continuing professional development entitlement for teachers, to boost their expertise.

We will reform the school curriculum and, as part of our reforms to Ofsted, we will move away from the outdated and unhelpful one-word judgment. We will empower Ofsted to look at absence as part of the annual safeguarding spot checks.

Labour is committed to ensuring that every child receives a first-class education, but children need to be in school to access that education. We will break down the barriers to opportunity that are keeping so many children and young people out of education and, as the previous Labour Government did, we will put children first, prioritising their education and their wellbeing.

It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher— I think for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), my constituency neighbour, on securing this debate on a topic that is a Government priority. I thank her for all her work in this policy area and her continued interest in introducing legislation for registers of children not in school. As she knows, we share that ambition. Both I and the Secretary of State for Education look forward to working with my hon. Friend as she takes her Children Not in School (Registers, Support and Orders) Bill through Parliament. It is vital that we ensure that the rights of all children are upheld. In the case of children not in school, that is the fundamental right to a suitable education, which is in children’s best interests.

In the majority of cases, children not in school will likely be those who are home educated. It is important that we recognise that, in most cases, parents will be doing home education well and for all the right reasons. Home education is not easy and parents will often put in extensive time and resource to provide suitable education for their children, sometimes in challenging circumstances. I pay tribute again to all those parents who have made the difficult decision to home educate when the education of their child is at the centre of that decision. Home education is a parental right that the Government will continue to defend. Any form of registration of children not in school will not infringe that right. Registration will, however, better ensure that we defend children’s rights to a suitable education.

Over recent years, as various colleagues have alluded to, the number of home educating families has continued to increase. In summer 2023, the Department for Education estimated that 97,600 children were home educated in England—about 1% of all school-age children. Although such an increase is not necessarily an issue, we know from local authorities and the data on children missing education that not all children are in receipt of a suitable education when they are at home. I cannot stress enough that registration is not intended to impact parents who are home educating with good intentions and, as I said, often making numerous sacrifices to do it well. By knowing where the families are, we can better ensure that we target support to those who need it most and are not receiving a suitable education.

Without a statutory register of children not in school and the accompanying duties on parents and certain out-of-school education providers to supply information to it, we cannot know for certain the scale of how many children are missing education. We cannot know for sure how many children are in home education and what subset are in home education but not receiving a suitable education, or how many are receiving no education at all. Although we have taken steps, through our termly data collection from local authorities on electively home educated children and children missing education, to increase our understanding of that cohort and improve the accuracy of local authority data, that alone will not suffice. That is why the Department continues to remain committed to legislating for statutory registers.

The Department for Education’s commitment to establishing a local authority-administered registration system was first set out in our “Children not in school” consultation response, published in February 2022. That policy intention led to the children not in school measures that were part of the 2022 Schools Bill. The measures proposed the creation of duties on local authorities to maintain registers of eligible children and a duty on local authorities to provide support to home educating families when that was requested.

The measures did not include any proposals to extend local authorities’ powers to monitor the quality of the education being received, and that continues to be the case. The Government do not see the need for greater monitoring powers. We believe that local authorities’ existing powers, when they are used in the way set out in our elective home education guidance—which is currently being reviewed—are already sufficient to enable a local authority to determine whether the education is suitable.

I do not yet know the full detail of the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley. As colleagues know, the Government cannot support a private Member’s Bill prior to Second Reading, but I can say that the Government remain committed to introducing statutory local authority registers as well as a duty for local authorities to provide support to home educating families. Clearly, that which my hon. Friend seeks to do and what the Government wish to do coincide.

There are three main benefits to measures for children not in school. First, local authorities having registers of children not in school would help local authorities to better identify eligible children and help those missing education. New duties on parents to proactively provide to the local authority their name, their child’s name, their address and the means of education—such as where and who provides their child’s education—as well as new duties on certain providers of out-of-school education to reactively provide information on eligible children, such as their name and address, will help to identify more eligible children than is currently possible. The new information in the registers would help authorities to undertake their existing responsibilities for the purpose of ensuring that education is suitable and that children are safe.

Secondly, as I have already mentioned, that will ensure that both local authorities and the Department for Education have the necessary data to understand the scale and needs of this cohort of children, including the reasons why parents may choose to home educate. I will come back to that in a moment, in response to comments made by a number of colleagues.

Thirdly, those children and parents who want it will be able to benefit from additional support from the local authority. Our measures contained a duty on local authorities to provide or secure such support where requested to registered home-educating families to promote the education of a child. We felt that the support element of the measures was a vital component in encouraging positive engagement between local authorities and home educators and helping to ensure good-quality education. The support could have included advice about education; information about sources of assistance; provision of facilities, services or assistance; or access to non-educational services or benefits, such as to support home-educating parents to access exams or online teaching resources, for example through the Oak National Academy.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I suggested to him some of the things that my constituents did in Strangford. Although they were individually home schooling, they came together collectively for visits—every child loves a visit—to the council, the museum, the leisure centre or wherever, and that was something that was encouraged. Is there any possibility that the Minister, who is putting forward very positive thoughts, could consider that suggestion?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as ever. I was coming to that point, but as he has brought it forward I will say now that the guidance already encourages collaboration between home educators. As he says, in coming together often we can achieve more, and it is possible in principle that that could be enhanced further through the provisions on additional support. He makes a good point.

The measures would have ensured consistency of approach across local authorities through regulations and new statutory guidance, and it remains our intention to work closely with home educators, local authorities and other key stakeholders prior to the introduction of any new statutory system to ensure that it is implemented in a way that works both for home-educating parents and for local authorities. In the meantime, the Government continue to work with local authorities to improve their existing non-statutory registers and to support local authorities to ensure that all children in their area receive a suitable education.

The Department’s consultation on revised guidance on elective home education for local authorities and parents closed on 18 January. We received more than 4,000 responses, which are being analysed. We will of course publish our consultation response along with the revised guidance in the coming months. The Department has worked closely with stakeholders, including home educators, to develop that guidance, which aims to help parents and local authorities better understand what they are required to do and what should be done to ensure that all children receive a suitable education. That includes improving aspects of the guidance to make clearer the processes for when preliminary notices and school attendance orders should be issued, encouraging a more collaborative approach between local authorities and home-educating parents, and focusing more on available support for home-educating families.

Through our termly local authority data collection on elective home education and on children missing education, we are also increasing the accuracy of all local authority non-statutory registers and improving local authority and departmental understanding of children not in school. However, as I have already set out, true data accuracy will be gained only with mandatory registers, which would specify the data to be recorded. The accompanying duty on parents to inform local authorities when they are home educating and the duty on out-of-school education providers to provide information on request are necessary to ensure that we identify all eligible children. We have recently conducted a call for evidence on improving support for children not receiving any education—some of the most vulnerable children in our society—and held webinars for local authorities on meeting their duties to identify those children, and we continue to collect data on children missing education to increase transparency and identify where further support is needed.

I thank all colleagues who have taken part in the debate for bringing to the House their expertise, constituency reflections and experiences. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, who led the way. Since she came to Parliament, she has devoted her sharp mind and strong advocacy to a number of causes, but education has always been extremely high on her list. She explained clearly what motivated her to support this cause and introduce her private Member’s Bill. She paid warm tribute to parents who make great sacrifices and go to great lengths to home educate their children, and she put it pithily when she said “not every child is your child”—other children are in completely different circumstances. That in no way undermines what any parent is doing, and it does not conflate any two sets of circumstances. That point came up in a number of Members’ contributions. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made that case, as did his colleague, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). The hon. Member for Strangford also spoke about the importance of support; in responding to his intervention, I covered some of his points.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) spoke about a number of issues, including looked-after children and children in care. Since his time as Children’s Minister, he has maintained a close interest in that issue and has been very active on it. He also spoke about our largely or partly unsung success—the great strides we have made in education in this country since 2010. I pay tribute to his contribution to that through the great work he did at the Department for Education.

Our guiding philosophy since 2010 has been that we must drive up standards while closing the attainment gap. Great strides have been made in both areas, as can be seen in the international comparisons. Between 1997 and 2010, although results were ostensibly going up domestically, in fact England was coming down the international comparison tables. Since 2010, that has reversed, and crucially—as I say, this has been at the heart of our philosophy—that has been accompanied by other things we have been doing, such as the pupil premium. Great progress was made in narrowing the gap, but of course covid put a dent in education overall—that is true right across the world—and produced new challenges with the attainment gap. The attainment gap is also in part related to differential rates of attendance among different groups in the school community. That is just one of the reasons why we have a laser-like focus on attendance as we ensure we continue to raise standards in school.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised some of the wider factors and spoke about the different settings in the system and the challenges and issues. Although those are not the subject of today’s debate—I will not try your patience by going there, Sir Christopher—those are very important points.

As always, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye brought to bear her experience in East Sussex and Hastings and Rye, and the hard work she does for her community. She spoke about the partial link between what we are talking about today and what happened during the pandemic. She also talked about SEND provision and, like my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, some of the wider factors. The crucial point my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye made was that having a register would enable us to understand those things better, and enable local authorities to tailor support and ensure they are responding well to the circumstances of different families. I thank her for that contribution.

The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who spoke for the Opposition, talked about persistent absence, which, as I just said, is a significant issue that we are grappling with. She did not mention the international nature of the increase in absence from school since the pandemic. She also did not mention the progress made since 2010, before the pandemic, including the tightening of the definition of persistent absence in order to raise the bar, which possibly happened shortly before my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was in the Department for Education.

It is true that since covid there has been a renewed challenge in multiple countries. I am pleased to say that progress is being made. Absence overall for the 2023-24 autumn term was 6.8%, compared with 7.5% the previous year. The trend is moving in the right direction, but we need it to go further. I ask the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood not to conflate entirely different subjects. By definition, home-educated children cannot be persistently absent from school, because they are not on the school roll. We went through that at the Opposition day debate, which put completely different things together in one composite motion. That does not help provide the clarity we need on the subject, and how such debates play out with the public.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. “Conflate” is the wrong word, because these issues are linked. For many parents, the causes of persistent absence, which we have talked about—poor mental health, poor SEND support, off-rolling and pressures on families—result in their decision to home educate. Theirs could be the home-educated children about which local authorities know nothing. The issues are linked and we need a comprehensive strategy, including a register of children not in school. That is our position.

I suppose I am grateful to the hon. Lady for saying that. If she believes that having a register of children not in school will do something about persistent absence, I am afraid she may have higher expectations than will be delivered.

The register would enable intervention on the quality of the education being received by children at home. Knowing who those children are enables local authorities to understand how they are being educated and to make a determination about the quality of that education. That can help local authorities to support some families to return their children to school, where the choice to home educate was not a positive choice to do that and do it well, but was made due to the unacceptable pressure that those families have been under.

These are both very important subjects, and there is some linkage at some level, but I do not think that what the hon. Lady just said is a sequitur. We are bearing down on persistent absence, with a support-first approach, to ensure that children get the benefit of being in school as many days as possible. No child can be in school every day throughout their school years—every child will be ill at some point—but there is a huge benefit to being at school. We recognise, of course, that some children are in more difficult circumstances than others. The question of the register of children not in school is a separate matter, though both are important.

I want to return to a couple of things that the hon. Lady mentioned on the Opposition’s proposed, or supposed, strategy on dealing with attendance. While in principle I do not disagree with a number of those things, that is largely because they sound very like Government policy. I do, however, disagree with some of the detail and supposed changes. For example, if we are trying to improve attendance at school, I think it is wrong to focus a breakfast club policy specifically on primary school, because we know that absence is more acute in secondary school. If we target a breakfast club programme to areas where it is needed most, we can have most impact on absence.

On mental health, I believe we might have heard a new spending commitment from the hon. Lady this morning. Previously, when the Opposition have talked about mental health counsellors, it has generally been in respect of secondary schools. I was not sure if she was saying that this was to be in every one of 22,000 schools.

I am very happy to clarify our position, which is well publicised. A mental health professional will be based in every secondary school in the country, with mental health support available to every primary school in the country. Perhaps the Minister might say what he is doing in the same area to improve the mental health of our children and young people.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for enlightening me on that subject. She should know that we are investing in creating a network of mental health support teams throughout the country. It is a gradual deployment, as these things always must be, but importantly it includes primary schools as well as secondary schools. Finally, on what the hon. Lady said about Ofsted, I will just say that Ofsted already quite rightly looks at absence.

I want to reiterate that any form of registration of children not in school would not fundamentally alter the status quo when it comes to the parental right to choose home education. Home education is a right, and we are not seeking to change that right. It forms a core part of the English education system, which allows parents choice in how to educate their child. I pay tribute once again to all those parents who make significant sacrifices to provide a suitable education for their child.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley for bringing this topic to the House today. My colleagues in the Department for Education and I warmly welcome her Bill on the same subject. We look forward to its Second Reading on Friday 15 March, and to working closely with her as she takes it through the House.

I thank everybody for their contributions today, and again pay tribute to all home educators, including my niece, Emma Loder-Symonds, who runs a farm school to bring home-educated children together. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned that that happens in his constituency too.

The Bill is backed by local authorities, which currently do not have the statutory power to meet face to face with children who are out of school to identify whether they are receiving an effective education, or where families may benefit from additional support. I mentioned those children who are invisible and may be at risk of harm, Sara Sharif being a recent example. A young man who had had to educate himself wrote to me to say that the Bill will help people like him get the necessary support. I look forward to bringing this important Bill through Parliament, and particularly to working with the Department for Education and Ministers to ensure that we get it absolutely correct.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the potential merits of a register of not-in-school children.

Sitting suspended.

Balochistan: Human Rights

I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights in Balochistan, Pakistan.

This debate is about the human rights abuses in Balochistan. We have had a discussion already, before the debate started, about the pronunciation, and I am sure that those constituents attending the debate will advise us. I apologise if we have, collectively, got the pronunciation wrong today.

I will briefly give some background for those who are listening or want to read the record of the debate later and are not familiar with the area. Balochistan is situated at the eastern extremity of the Iranian plateau and is currently divided nearly equally between Pakistan’s Balochistan province and Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. Additionally, certain parts of Afghanistan’s Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces historically belong to the Balochistan region.

The strategic significance of Balochistan, both geopolitically and geostrategically, has often placed it at the forefront of major global events, and its location offers the potential to provide access to the energy-rich regions of central Asia, making it vital to the whole south Asian area. I will briefly give its history. The name “Balochistan” is drawn from the Baloch people, who have been its inhabitants for centuries and who predominantly speak the Balochi and Brahui languages. In antiquity, the region found itself part of the Persian empire. The foundations of the modern Baloch state can be traced back to the 17th century when Mir Ahmed Khan established the khanate.

The Kalat state, characterised as a princely state, persisted until the British invaded in 1839. Kalat became an associated state of the British, and by 1877 the establishment of the Balochistan Agency signalled direct British rule over the northern half of Balochistan, including Quetta, the capital. With the British departure from the subcontinent, Balochistan was briefly declared an independent nation on 11 August 1947. Although Pakistan’s founding leader, Jinnah, had supported an independent Balochistan, he underwent a change of view and perspective, and the Pakistan army invaded and forced the accession of Balochistan into Pakistan.

Since then—we have debated this over a number of years—there has been a saga of struggles for independence, marked by persistent resistance and repeated insurgencies. The trigger for the renewed phase was the murder of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a prominent Baloch leader, in 2006. That event sparked widespread unrest, leading to growing momentum for the Baloch independence movement.

The campaign for self-determination has been fuelled, I have to say, by the suppression by the Pakistani state of Baloch culture and language. Balochistan’s rich cultural heritage is woven into the fabric of its society and reflects its history, traditions and way of life. The Baloch people, with their distinct cultural identity, have maintained their unique traditions and customs over centuries. However, the vitality of their culture faces significant challenges, due particularly to the suppression of their language. The Baloch people speak the Balochi and Brahui languages, both of which are integral to their cultural identity. Despite the importance of those languages in preserving Baloch culture, they have faced marginalisation and neglect by official institutions. In Pakistan-occupied Balochistan, the Balochi and Brahui languages are not recognised as official languages, despite being the mother tongues of the local population. Education in those languages is limited, and their use in the media and official communication is minimal. That undermines the Baloch people’s ability to express themselves and, yes, maintain their cultural identity.

There are also concerns about the hard facts of what is described as dispossession. Balochistan’s vast natural resources—natural gas and minerals—have made it a region of strategic importance, yet its inhabitants face significant economic challenges, including extensive poverty. The exploitation of the province’s resources has not translated into prosperity for the local population. Despite the abundance of those resources, Balochistan remains one of the poorest areas in the region, which feeds discontent and uncertainty about the future for many people.

In addition, in recent years, the imposition of major development projects without the consultation or consent of the Baloch people has led to widespread discontent and feelings of dispossession. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or the CPEC, is a flagship project that has raised concerns about the potential displacement of local communities and about the lack of transparency on the distribution of the benefits of these projects.

I thank the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for bringing us this debate; I congratulate him for always bringing us important issues. I would go a stage further than the right hon. Gentleman. We have all heard of the historic march of the Baloch women to demand an end to the practice of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial murders, military operations and state brutality against the Balochs in Balochistan by the Pakistan army. These shocking atrocities must immediately be stopped. Does the right hon. Member agree that we need to use every possible diplomatic tactic to highlight the fact that respect for women must be a priority right and that it should not dismissed as a western ideal?

I absolutely concur with the sentiment of that intervention and am grateful for it. Let me move on to that issue of human rights now that it has been raised. We must recognise that the situation in Balochistan is marked by severe human rights violations that demand the attention of this Parliament and the international community. Evidence of systematic abuses and disregard for human rights is mounting. A number of human rights organisations that all of us have worked with over the years, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented and condemned the widespread abuses taking place in the region. They have also highlighted the impunity enjoyed by the security forces responsible for these violations, and they have called for accountability.

The hon. Gentleman made reference to this: one of the most alarming aspects of the situation is the frequency of abductions and enforced disappearances. Activists, intellectuals, students, lawyers, journalists and other individuals have been subjected to what can only be described as horrific practices, which are often carried out by the Pakistani security forces. These individuals are often taken without any due process, held incommunicado and subjected to torture. Tragically, many of the victims that have been forcibly disappeared are later found dead, their bodies bearing signs of torture. This brutality—what is described as the “kill and dump” policy—has left families shattered and communities traumatised. It has created an atmosphere of fear and silence in many areas.

The other aspect of human rights is freedom of expression and assembly, and they have also been severely curtailed. Journalists face violence, censorship and threats, which inhibits their ability to report on issues affecting the province. People are denied the space to peacefully assemble and express their grievances. Recently, a historic and powerful long march was led from the capital of Quetta to Islamabad by Baloch women, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. That purpose of that march was to demand an end to the practice of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial murders and the state brutality of the Pakistan army. The marchers faced violence by the state authorities and were abused and arrested after reaching Islamabad. During a 32-day sit-in to demand that those who had been forcibly abducted were produced in courts, the marchers, mainly women and children, faced threats, intimidation and harassment on a daily basis. They were forced to return to Quetta after this level of intimidation and harassment from state agencies, and now the families who participated in the march are receiving threats and cases are being registered against them. Dr Mahrang Baloch, who led the march, is receiving serious death threats and her life is in danger. There has been a recent increase in enforced disappearances—in fact, the tragedy is that enforced disappearances of Baloch political activists, students and teachers has almost become the norm now. Dead bodies of the forcibly abducted are constantly being found as a result of these extrajudicial murders.

I would like to echo my right hon. Friend’s admiration for the courage of the women leading the long march to Islamabad from across Balochistan, raising awareness of human rights abuses in the region. Does he also share my grave concerns about Pakistan’s treatment of Afghan refugees who have fled to the country? There are reports that Pakistani authorities have subjected them to arbitrary arrest, detention, harassment and ill-treatment. Will he join in calling on our Government to not just end the cruel treatment of refugees who come to Britain, but urge Pakistani authorities to end their inhumane treatment of Afghan refugees?

A pattern of impunity seems to have developed with regard to the Pakistan security and state forces, which is reflected in what is happening in Balochistan and what is happening to Afghan refugees in particular. Many of us have constituents whose families are still facing severe intimidation in Pakistan, although they have fled from Afghanistan, and are now being forced back across the border, putting their lives at risk. There is a real issue here. I know the Government have taken up these issues, and we need to ensure that we maintain those representations on the Pakistan authority. The political instability within Pakistan over the recent elections does not help. The point made by my hon. Friend is extremely valid.

As I said, it is now a regular occurrence for the dead bodies of those forcibly abducted to be dumped as part of the “kill and dump” policy. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary to raise my concerns about the wave of recent human rights abuses, and I am grateful to Lord Ahmad, the Minister of State, for his positive response expressing the Government’s concerns and the serious representations the Government have made to the Pakistan authorities. His letter was extremely helpful and deserves wider publicity. He has made it absolutely clear that he has discussed the need to uphold human rights in meetings with the caretaker Foreign Minister in Pakistan, and he has raised the issue of the enforced disappearances directly as well. We hope that the Pakistan authorities are listening, but unfortunately, to date, despite the strength of our representations, the pattern of behaviour goes on.

The Baloch diaspora, human rights organisations and activists across the globe in many countries have called for independent investigations into the human rights abuses and the holding to account of those found responsible. Despite the challenges and risks, Baloch activists have taken to various platforms to raise awareness of their cause. They have used social media, international conferences, and dialogue with human rights organisations, and worked assiduously to shed light on the situation as it now is. The goal is to garner international attention, support and solidarity to press for their demands. That is what this debate is about.

The demands are straightforward: an end to the military operations, emphasising the need for a peaceful resolution of disputes as they now are; human rights protection and an end to human rights abuses, particularly enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings; resource rights for the Baloch people to gain the benefits from their natural resources of natural gas, minerals and their strategic location; and cultural preservation and the protection of culture, language and heritage, which are integral to the Baloch identity. The demand for freedom has also risen again—the movement that seeks complete independence of Balochistan from all occupying powers. The Baloch people aspire to participate in governance and policymaking and determination of their own destiny. The vision for Balochistan’s future that many hold to is one of a community that is empowered, prosperous and resilient, but founded on the principles of justice, human rights and the realisation of the Baloch people’s long-awaited aspirations for self-determination.

However, those are the objectives. The immediate issue is the deterioration of the situation in Balochistan, which demands immediate attention from our Government and other Governments across the globe. The plight of the Baloch people cannot be overlooked any longer. We therefore need concerted efforts to address their grievances.

I am pleased with the Government’s actions so far, and I would like to briefly raise a number of other issues with the Minister. On bilateral aid and development projects, how is the UK’s foreign aid to Pakistan being utilised, especially in the promotion of human rights and democracy? Can we make sure that safeguards are in place to ensure that aid does not indirectly support or enable human rights abuses? Given the recent marches and protests against the disappearances in Balochistan, what further steps can the UK Government and Parliament take to ensure the safety and rights of the protesters and march participants? Could the Government exert further pressure on the Pakistani authorities to respect the rights to peacefully assemble and to expression, and to respond to the demands of the marchers with dialogue rather than crackdowns?

On international collaboration for human rights monitoring, will the UK Government work with international partners and organisations to monitor human rights in Pakistan more effectively? Maybe the UK Government could take a role in co-ordinating the application of international pressure to ensure accountability for human rights violations. What measures can the UK Government take to support civil society organisations and human rights defenders in Pakistan, and how can their safety and freedom of operation be ensured?

How do UK-Pakistan trade policies consider human rights issues? Should trade agreements include clauses that promote human rights and require regular assessments of the human rights situation, particularly when we have seen perpetrators like Pakistan ignore many of the basic foundations of international law? How can we support international human rights bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Council, to investigate and address human rights abuses in Balochistan? Could the UK advocate for a special session or resolution focusing on Balochistan?

Finally, on the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, could we look at how asylum policies are being applied to those coming from Balochistan, who are in fear of their lives? On that basis, can we also look at the ways in which we can co-operate with others on security matters with regard to the protection of human rights, particularly of those people fleeing to come here?

I hope the debate will be the start of an ongoing dialogue to secure the human rights of the people of Balochistan. I thank the Government for their work so far. I think the concerns I have raised are shared by the Government and by all political parties across the House. The issue for us now is how we move forward to have effective influence on the Pakistani Government to ensure that the freedoms of the Balochi people are protected.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for this important debate and his focus on raising awareness of the challenges faced by the people of Balochistan. As he said, the Minister of State for South Asia, Lord Ahmad, is unable to take part in the debate, so I am happy to respond on behalf of the Government, noting the right hon. Member’s questions. There are some to which I may not be able to provide a detailed answer today, but I will ensure that Lord Ahmad does so.

Specifically on the question of aid, we have a rolling programme—the AAWAZ II programme—that brings together influential community and faith leaders and minority representatives to work on resolving local issues and to change behaviours. The programme works with the Government to try to improve protection and justice services for victims of gender-based violence. In particular, the focus on women and girls’ rights and gender equality in Pakistan is at the centre of that ongoing programme, which has so far reached over 24 million people.

I will start with a few words on Pakistan. Of course, the UK and Pakistan enjoy a close and long-standing relationship, underpinned by strong links between our people. Less than two weeks ago, the people of Pakistan voted in long-awaited elections for both their national and provincial assemblies. The following day, on 9 February, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement in which he highlighted serious concerns about the fairness and the lack of inclusivity of those elections. He urged the authorities in Pakistan to uphold fundamental human rights, including free access to information and the rule of law. That includes the right to a fair trial, and to an independent and transparent judicial system.

Members will be aware that Pakistan is one of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s human rights priority countries due to our concerns over the challenges facing many of its citizens. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington highlighted, disturbing practices, such as enforced disappearances, torture while in custody and extrajudicial killings, are reported across Pakistan. Many of those credible reports of human rights abuses come from Balochistan, which is the subject of this debate.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest and most sparsely populated province. While it is rich in natural resources, it also has the highest levels of illiteracy, malnutrition and infant mortality in Pakistan. The security situation is particularly challenging, and the FCDO advises against all travel to the province except for its southern coast, where we advise against all but essential travel. There are significant levels of instability and violence, including from separatist militia groups conducting terrorist acts, some in the name of Baloch independence from the Pakistani state.

The heightened terrorist threat was demonstrated recently when dozens of people were killed in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, in attacks the day before the elections that I mentioned. On election day itself, more than 20 explosions and rocket attacks were reported outside polling stations in the province, killing four and injuring over a dozen people. Many members of Pakistan’s armed forces and police have also lost their lives in Balochistan; my thoughts are with all those affected by those acts of violence. The reality is that that fragile security situation has hampered the UK’s diplomatic and development work in the region. I will try to address that in a little more detail.

The Pakistani military maintains a strong presence in Balochistan. The Government claim that they are taking necessary action against those using violence, but local and international human rights organisations, as set out by the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, allege that the Pakistani authorities are responsible for abuses, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. As colleagues have mentioned, the long march by an extraordinary group of Baloch women in December to Islamabad, where they participated in a sit-in protest seeking to draw attention to the situation in Balochistan, demanding justice and calling for the UN to deploy a fact-finding investigation into the region, was an extraordinary demonstration of the power of peaceful protest at its finest.

Of course, the issue is long standing. The delegation of the UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances visited Pakistan back in 2012. The report from that delegation of UN experts welcomed the Government’s will to tackle the issue, but noted that serious challenges remained. The UN working group at the time received over 1,000 allegations of enforced disappearances from within Pakistan between 1980 and 2019, with more than 700 people still missing. Pakistan has made some efforts to deal with enforced disappearances. In 2010, Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior set up a committee to investigate the reports, and the following year its supreme court launched a commission of inquiry into those cases so that law enforcement agencies could listen to the concerns of the families involved. Those were of course welcome steps, but we recognise that more than a decade has passed since the introduction of those initiatives and considerable issues still remain unresolved.

Let me be clear: the UK absolutely and strongly condemns any instances of extrajudicial killings or enforced disappearances, which have such a damaging and destructive impact on families, communities and the rule of law. We cannot allow those practices to continue unchecked, and we urge Pakistan to investigate fully allegations, prosecute those responsible and provide justice to victims. The UK regularly raises our human rights concerns with the Government of Pakistan, including in support of freedom of expression, the rights of minorities and women, and the importance of an independent and transparent judicial system.

Our high commissioner is in regular touch with the caretaker Minister for Human Rights, and our political counsellor recently met senior officials in the Ministry of Human Rights to discuss the issue of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Balochistan. The British high commission in Pakistan engages routinely with Baloch politicians based in Karachi and Islamabad to gain insights on the politics of the region and to help us to assess the security situation, and hopes to visit Quetta when the security situation allows.

Lord Ahmad raised the issue of enforced disappearances with the then Minister for Human Rights in June 2023, and he looks forward to meeting Pakistan’s new Minister in that role once the new Government are fully formed. In the meantime, we are continuing to work with our international partners, civil society and human rights defenders to raise those human rights issues with the Government of Pakistan. The security challenges and safety situation in Balochistan make supporting developing programmes there more difficult than in other parts of Pakistan, but of course some of our most important international development programmes in Pakistan support positive outcomes in Balochistan and elsewhere across the country.

Our educational initiatives in particular are helping to provide more robust data on education to improve the quality of schooling across Pakistan, including in Balochistan. In 2022, the UK Government provided humanitarian assistance in the form of emergency shelter, hygiene items and nutritional support in the province during the devastating floods.

I am grateful to the Minister for what she has said so far. Can I raise two points with her? One is the issue regarding the current safety of those who have protested, particularly Dr Mahrang Baloch, whose life, I believe, is under severe threat. What representations can we make to the Pakistan authorities to ensure her safety? It is too easy for the Pakistan authorities to accuse civil society organisations of being linked with, or of supporting, terrorists. The Pakistan Government do not seem to recognise civil society organisations as being able to peacefully express their views, and therefore, unfortunately, at times they react in the way they do—by branding every organisation with the same tag.

Secondly, Lord Ahmad has done good work, and I would very grateful if a number of us could meet him to talk through some of these issues, so that we can have an ongoing dialogue—particularly on monitoring what is happening at the moment, and the threat to individuals and organisations. That is ongoing, particularly because of instability within Pakistan itself.

I absolutely take the right hon. Gentleman’s important point on the question of Dr Mahrang Baloch’s current safety; I will pick that up with the team at the high commission and make sure he is updated. Sadly, it is not only with the Pakistani authorities that we see the inability to understand and respect the voices of civil society, their peaceful protests, and their willingness to share its concerns through peaceful means—and the constraining of those voices. I think we are all agreed that those countries that sit under the areas of concern that we highlight are often the ones that are simply not willing to understand or separate the two.

I have no doubt that I can commit Lord Ahmad to a meeting with the right hon. Gentleman and others in due course. Together they can discuss what we all agree is a continuing deep concern about the human rights abuses in Balochistan that have been highlighted today— in particular, the extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. I know that if Lord Ahmad were here, he would say the same. He is looking forward, as are the team in the high commission, to working with the new Government, as they take up their posts, across a range of shared interests, and to continuing to focus and engage on those human rights issues specifically.

To finish, I echo the Foreign Secretary’s recent statement where he set out his hope that the next Government of Pakistan will understand that they must be accountable to all the people that they serve, and indeed

“work to represent the interests of all Pakistan’s citizens and communities with equity and justice.”

Question put and agreed to.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

Off-road Biking

[Mrs Pauline Latham in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of tackling off-road biking.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. A core part of our role as Members of Parliament is to advocate for the safety and protection of our constituents; indeed, the principal role of Government is to ensure the safety and security of all citizens. One threat to citizens feeling safe and secure is antisocial behaviour, in particular the misuse of off-road bikes and quad bikes.

I make no apologies for raising this issue again, which has previously been raised here in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers); in fact, it has been raised by many other Members, too, in recent years. The fact that there have been debates, parliamentary questions and now a private Member’s Bill on this subject should tell the Government that it is an issue in our communities and that although there are measures to help address the problem, it has not gone away.

Off-road bikes and quad bikes are great pieces of equipment. They are great for going scrambling on or for getting around rural farmland; essentially, those are their legal and intended purposes. They were not designed to be used on our streets by people intent on causing terror and fear; they were not designed to be used by criminals wearing balaclavas or masks to evade police detection; and they were not designed to create a noise nuisance and safety fear in our community. Yet in Darlington, those things are precisely what we see happening. Indeed, we continue to see them happening and I know, having spoken to colleagues from across the House, that they see the same issues in their constituencies.

Reckless bikers have no care for others, nor do they seem to care about themselves when they opt not to wear a helmet and instead don balaclavas, for no other reason than to conceal their identity. They sail through red lights and ride on pavements, all without lights. It is a miracle that we have not yet seen the tragic death of a pedestrian, a rider or both, such is the danger this issue poses. I will not wait around until such an event happens, which is why I continue to raise this issue.

I pay tribute to Durham constabulary and to Darlington’s civic enforcement team for their work on Operation Endurance, which focuses on this issue. Operation Endurance sees the team gather data and monitor intelligence on these people, so that we can take action to disrupt them and stop their offending. There has been a big campaign to encourage residents to report any nuisance bikers, who will then face punishment. However, poor performance of the 101 service has meant that many members of the public are losing faith with this service and are not reporting as much as they could and should, meaning that the police have less intelligence than otherwise to tackle the problem.

Op Endurance has seen more bikes seized by police and if the perpetrators are Darlington council tenants, they could potentially lose their home. Section 59 orders under the Police Reform Act 2002 enable officers to seize vehicles that are being used illegally. However, that process must be made as quick and easy to use as possible by officers.

It is absolutely right that those who disrupt civilised society pay a price, and I welcome the efficiency with which the forces in Darlington deal with such criminals. I would value hearing the Minister’s thoughts on how we can ensure that the process of dealing with these people, when they are reported, gets sorted as soon as possible, and does he agree that they should automatically have their vehicle removed and should be prevented from buying another one in the future?

We also must reflect on what to do with the seized vehicles. Currently, the police recoup the recovery and storage charges for seized vehicles by auctioning them off. However, that leads to a merry-go-round of offenders buying back vehicles. Our forces need a ring-fenced pot of money to enable them to crush these vehicles and meet the costs of recovery.

To ensure that the police can act, we must make sure that the mechanisms to report are fit for purpose. In a previous debate, I have spoken about speeding up the response times of the 101 service, because these are fast-moving incidents that require intelligence to be passed quickly to the police.

There has long been a discussion about registration schemes for off-road bikes. I understand that the Government do not believe that the introduction of a mandatory registration scheme would be the most effective way to tackle dangerous and antisocial use, but it would certainly help. As we see more e-bikes, e-scooters and various other motorised transport, the problem is only going to continue to escalate. The current view is that registration would place a burden and a cost on law-abiding citizens. I understand that view, but law-abiding insurance payers meet the cost of damage caused by those who steal and cause damage every day. It is clear to me that when vehicles are registered, the possibility of people misusing them is lower. I therefore urge the Minister to look at ways of registering these bikes, which could deter the people who misuse them and make those people easier to track, trace and ban from offending further.

I remain an advocate of compulsory insurance for off-road and quad bikes, which would dissuade the casual user from illegal use of bikes on the road. Compulsory registration of off-road bikes would make the identification of those vehicles much easier for law enforcement. Mandating manufacturers to install immobilisers on those vehicles would also help to reduce theft and misuse by unauthorised riders. We really do need to see the Home Office, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Justice work more closely on a package of measures to tackle the antisocial behaviour associated with off-road bikes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important subject. From what he said earlier, it sounded to me like a lot of the antisocial behaviour was taking place in inner cities, and not necessarily off road—albeit, on the pavement is off road, but not in terms of an urban or rural environment. Does he welcome the Government’s £160 million for tackling antisocial behaviour, and can he assure me that legitimate, sensible and responsible users are not dragged down by the sort of people he is referring to, who bring us all into disrepute?

Of course, I welcome any additional funding from the Government to tackle antisocial behaviour. There is a very clear distinction between lawful, legitimate users of these vehicles, who go about their business lawfully, and those who are terrorising a street by misusing them, so I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

Our constituents will thank us for tackling this problem and making our streets safer. The registering, insuring and tracking of vehicles would also help to protect farmers, who have thousands of quad bikes stolen every year. The National Farmers Union’s figures for 2022 estimate that this comes at a cost of some £3 million to our farmers, who are the backbones of our rural communities.

As well as deterrents and justice being served, an ongoing issue that we see in Darlington and across the country is actually catching offenders. Police are often unable to chase them as they tear through communities, making them difficult to track and trace. That is why we need to see greater investment in technology to track them. I have spent time with my local force, which is using high-powered drones that can see over considerable distances to help to track perpetrators, enabling the police to safely arrest offenders without the need to engage in dangerous chases on the street. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on what more can be done with drones and the funding that the Government will provide for them.

In addition to the antisocial behaviour being a danger to communities like mine impacted by this issue, it is also clear that organised crime gangs are making use of cycle paths, quad bikes and off-road bikes to distribute drugs. Therefore, there is not only the crime of the behaviour of the bikers; they are often also involved in the dark trade of transporting illegal substances. That is yet another reason why we must end this abuse of the system. As well as causing a danger to other vehicles, pedestrians and livestock, by supplying drugs, these people are adding yet another layer of crime and danger to our communities.

Finally, I want to thank the Minister for the progress that has already been made on this issue and for the investment in drones and the efficiency of tracking the criminals. Equally, I urge the Minister to consider my suggestions. We must see better response times from the 101 service and the introduction of insurance, registration and tracking devices on the vehicles. We must end the merry-go-round of offenders being able to pick up another bike and take every step possible to make our communities safer.

I did not expect to be called so early, Mrs Latham, so thank you for doing so. I congratulate the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on securing this debate on a subject that I have some knowledge of, primarily because of my role as an MP. It is clear to me that there are people who use quads legitimately. The hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin), who intervened earlier, is probably in the same category as me. There are those who use them for a purpose, but there are others who abuse the system. I will refer to both categories.

As a landowner, I have quads on the land to help with farming and basic upkeep. They are an essential tool. We had one for the boys when they were small, probably for fun, but now we use it for a purpose. It is used on the farm almost every day of the week. I know a number of farmers who use a motorbike to help them move their livestock across their fields, and they also use a motorbike or a quad in areas that their jeeps or tractors have difficulty crossing. It is probably niftier and quicker on a quad than it is on a tractor or a four-wheel drive.

I taught my boys early to use a quad safely and to enjoy doing so. I am all for the appropriate use of scramblers and quads as needed. However, I also made it clear to my boys at an early stage, and now to my grandchildren, that those were for use on our own land, with an awareness of the impact on other people’s land. In other words, they do not use them anywhere else unless it is legitimate or permission has been granted.

Such consideration used to be universally accepted, but increasingly I come across farmers who are upset at the high level of damage to their crop land by those who come with their quads or scramblers and set up a cross-country course. This has also been a problem on council land, with actual tracks set up without permission or, indeed, insurance in place, so there is an issue if something goes wrong. Many landowners find themselves in a difficult position if they have not taken steps to stop it happening. If somebody has an accident on the land, they could find themselves culpable for any injuries.

I have been at the home of people whose peace and quiet has been destroyed by scramblers on wasteland behind them and whose fence and property have also been damaged. It is clear that councils need to have greater fines and enforcement powers to help deal with the antisocial behaviour problems that off-road bikes cause.

I also wish to put on record that Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick in the House of Lords and I pushed for legislation to have a safety roll bar over the tops of quads because a friend of ours was killed in an accident on a quad. We feel that safety is important and pertinent. That is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I want to highlight that issue and ensure that quads are safe for those who use them.

On the usage of land, I wish to differentiate between organised groups and individuals who have no care or thought for others. I offer my support to those who wish to find areas to carry out and enjoy their sport sensibly and responsibly with insurance in place. I worked with a motorbike group involved in scrambling. When I was on the council before coming to this place in 2010, I worked alongside them and other representatives to ensure that they got some land to use at the Whitespots between Newtownards and Bangor. They wanted to do it correctly and provide insurance cover. There are organisations that wish to do that, and we should work alongside them, to ensure that their sport can be delivered. That was done in partnership with Ards Borough Council, which is now known as Ards and North Down Borough Council. The council plans for Conlig and Whitespots include setting aside that portion of land for that group, which seeks safety and does not want to annoy people, in a way that is controlled, regulated and monitored. There are ways to do that.

My local council has sought to provide land to host scheduled organised events, such as the Ulster MTB XC championships, held at Whitespots, but it has neither the finances or manpower to provide good circuits and venues to help facilitate this sensible sport, without help and support from central Government. I add my voice to calls for councils to receive additional funding. That portion of land that we got from the council some time ago was land exclusively for the club’s use, so it does not match the requirements and regulations of an organised event. That is why that was unable to be taken forward.

In closing, my three boys were blessed with space to enjoy their quads. My grandchildren—the two eldest girls of eight and 14—are also blessed to have the same opportunity to use the quad on our land. I believe that the Government can step up to help provide facilities to give a standard of safety, as well as prevent farmland and livestock from being harmed by those who see a field and just want a wee jaunt.

Let us recognise that there is a valid sport, with a need to be helped, but those who have no care must be held accountable. Those are the people the hon. Member for Darlington referred to—those who have total disrespect. We have to draw a differential between the two: those who do it legitimately and try to work within the law, and those who disregard the law. Today’s debate is important to highlight the issue, as the hon. Member for Darlington has done, and others will do shortly. Although not responsible for Northern Ireland, the Minister is always very responsible and comes back with answers to our questions.

I always try to add a Northern Ireland perspective to a debate; colleagues would never expect anything else from an MP from Northern Ireland. I think it adds to the debate and gives an idea of what we have done in my constituency of Strangford, working alongside clubs to make it happen, while highlighting the issue of those who have no regard for landowners. We need to ensure that the law of the land is in place so that it can regulate and punish, if necessary, those who damage land or property.

I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for securing this important debate. I have spoken on this subject previously in the House, alongside colleagues, including my hon. Friend, because we are desperate to fight this blight, which causes so much damage to our communities.

Off-road bikes plague Hartlepool and are prevalent across Teesside. Although the name suggests they are normally found on farmland, they can often be seen driving around our marina, streets and even main roads. They storm through parks and playgrounds, along our headland, and even destroy constituents’ front lawns. If the appearance of a young person wearing a balaclava, riding a heavy off-road bike, heading towards a young family is not intimidating, their lack of regard for the laws of our roads will be. The bikes do not have licensing or insurance, and those riding them show no understanding of the highway code.

My main concerns, of course, lie with the safety and quality of life of Hartlepool’s residents. I am worried about the distractions posed by these young people showboating along central reservations, the constant noise pollution, and how they are completely camouflaged in the darkness, with no reflective wear or helmets. I fear for the victims of the accidents they will cause; it is only a matter of time before innocent people are seriously hurt or worse, because of the riders’ complete disregard for others’ safety.

I speak on behalf of many frustrated constituents who have shared their experiences with me, although I only need to drive from Throston to West View to experience it, or stand on the cliffs near Steetley pier to see the bikes haring up and down where people are walking with prams, pushchairs, dogs and children.

I will share an anecdote from my inbox this morning, to fill in the colour of how common an occurrence this is. I was unsurprised to receive emails from a constituent overnight, sharing photographs showing how owners of illegal off-road bikes had been spinning their back wheels on the driveway so that dirt was spread right across the road, the footpath and up the wall of their house. Another contacted me to share how they were unable to get a full night’s sleep because of roaring engines outside their bedroom window. That is just this morning’s inbox.

This is no fault of Cleveland police, who continue to provide a country-leading effort to tackle the issue, but my concern is rising, as year on year the issue only appears to get worse, despite the 267 extra police in Cleveland and funding secured towards hotspot policing. Cleveland police are leading the UK in techniques to tackle off-road bikes, but are still reliant on anonymous tips from residents coming forward to report neighbours. Operation Endurance has been ongoing since 2017, and includes techniques such as seizing vehicles and patrolling, but for a force that is already under strain, I cannot help but felt that other enforcement techniques should be put into play. Today, anyone seen riding an off-road bike in Hartlepool will have their vehicle seized on the spot by the police. I do think that those young people fear the consequences, should they be caught—but they just do not believe that they will be.

Introducing compulsory insurance would be a first step to removing off-road bikes from our roads and for those driving them to take full responsibility. The second step is to regulate the sale of the bikes, including off-road bikes, quads, electric bikes and scooters. That would make identifying illegal off-road bikes and their users much simpler for law enforcement, freeing up crucial police time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington said, off-road bikes go hand-in-hand with antisocial behaviour, and are often used to transport drugs or to act as a quick getaway from other crime scenes. The young people riding the bikes make little effort to deny that, shielding their identities through wearing balaclavas or masks. If our police were able to quickly scan a number plate to pull up the owner’s details, that anonymity would be removed. More importantly, the bikes would be less likely to find themselves in the wrong hands from the outset.

One thing is clear: we need to do more to stop the scourge of off-road bikes. I ask the Minister to consider the steps we have suggested—insurance and a register. People who are using these bikes innocently, on farmland, as I have myself, are already insured and will not object to having bikes registered. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, it would also be a good idea to provide facilities for riding the bikes properly. That would put some clear water between those who use them recreationally and those who use them for criminal activity. I ask the Minister to consider what more can be done and thank him for the steps already taken.

Thank you, Mrs Latham, for calling me to speak in this debate. I did not intend to speak, but some issues have been raised that I feel strongly about. I declare that I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on motorcycling, so I take a very specific interest in the issue as a licence holder and bike rider for recreational and commuting purposes.

There are a couple of issues that the Government could grasp here. We wrestle with the issue of wayward youth, verging on criminality—and I think there are a couple of things that can be done. Young people want the exhilaration of speed and the enjoyment of a bike or a quad, and unfortunately they do not always get to do that with good parental control or wise adult supervision, so they can go wayward. It is important to try to stop it at that point.

In Northern Ireland, we developed a scheme where the Department of Justice and the police, recognising that there was a problem in parts of Belfast and County Antrim, brought together a motorcycle club and a very active individual within the motorcycle fraternity who was able to bring the young people together, speak to them on the street and encourage them to come to a track set aside for them. They were encouraged and shown how to develop their motorcycling skills, which means they have become competent riders, both off and on-road. They were then taught how to maintain and manage their motorcycle, as a lot of them are used illegally and do not have proper braking equipment or proper lighting, and are not properly regulated, licensed or looked after. They were shown how to maintain the bike and have pride in the machinery they were using, and therefore to see it not as a reckless, youthful toy but as what it should be seen as: a helpful and productive piece of machinery that can be used sensibly and help them in their daily lives.

That process has taken young people who were right on the verge of doing stupid things with their lives and lifted them into an area where they have pride in and recognise the importance of motorcycling, but also recognise the danger of both motorcycling and using quads illegally. They have become advocates and ambassadors to other young people in their areas, reaching a very hard-to-reach section of the community. That was a brilliant, one-off programme that achieved some fantastic results. I have tried to encourage the police across Northern Ireland to roll that programme out, not just in other parts of Northern Ireland but across the UK, and to learn from it. We are at the cutting edge; we are doing something important for that wayward youth element.

Unfortunately, we also have another section of people who are involved in criminality with regard to quads. They are reckless, dangerous and do not care, and they put people’s lives at risk; unfortunately, people have lost their lives. A few years ago, a lovely young woman in west Belfast lost her life when an off-road motorcycle hit her and killed her outright. Two of my constituents—two young kids—lost their lives riding motorcycles in an unlawful way, and the tragedy had such a massive and heavy impact on the housing estate where those kids were from and the local community.

We have to encourage people to stay away. The consequences of getting this wrong—one wrong turn, one broken brake lever, one gear missed and someone is hit—for the rider, the pedestrian or both are significant and life-changing. We have to make sure that that is understood. I know those quad deaths and off-road motorcycle deaths are awful for people, so we need to tackle the issue. I encourage the police here to address the issue in the way that we have tried to with the pilot programme in Northern Ireland—to lift that into the national picture.

We should look at the quantities: there are 1.5 million daily motorcycle riders in the UK and a further 3.5 million motorcycle licence holders in the UK. That is a massive section of the community—most people will know someone who rides a bike—and the subject therefore generates significant interest across society. I encourage the Minister to look at some of the programme work that has been done, and even to visit, and then to say, “Yes, this pilot could be lifted and applied elsewhere.” That way, we could start to address some of the problems identified in the very able speeches made across the Chamber and see progress.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Latham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on securing the debate, and all those who have contributed. The hon. Member was right to make a robust case in favour of the reforms he mentioned. This is a real and significant issue. All our constituencies are of a slightly different nature, as we have heard, but the issue is having an impact in all our communities in some way, and in many of our communities in a really serious way. The recklessness that the hon. Member talked about is having everyday consequences, which I will unpack in a little bit.

I was particularly struck by the point made by the hon. Member for Darlington about the merry-go-round of auctioned-off products then being re-entered and chased again. We have clearly not reached where we need to be in deciding what the final sanction ought to be for those who misuse this technology in the ways that they do. For me, the final destination is crushing: that is the ultimate sanction, which should provide some awareness of the consequences of misusing this technology.

This issue will be hugely important over the next few years. If, even as recently as the last general election, when we were returned to this place, we had said that by the end of the Parliament we would be talking about what are now seeing—millions of illegal journeys on our roads across the whole year, and that is before we get to what the hon. Gentleman says has happened off-road—I think we would have been surprised, but that is essentially what we have now. We have new technologies that mean that people are using roads and riding off-road in ways that we were not expecting, and in ways that they are not personally covered for and that those who fall victim to them might not be either.

In my community, I think in particular of a woman from just outside my constituency, Linda Davis, who was 71 years old when she was killed by a 14-year-old riding a privately owned e-scooter on the pavements. That is a shocking story, and it is obviously terrible for her family, but as the hon. Gentleman said, we are seeing those sorts of journeys on pavements throughout the country. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) said, “off road” is perhaps not the most useful distinction, because it literally means anything that is not the road itself, yet we are seeing this across all aspects of our community, whether on the pavements, as in that case, or on the headland, as she mentioned. This place needs to catch up with that, because behaviour change and technology change are currently outpacing us.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some important points about the legitimate uses for these technologies. Indeed, they are essential in rural communities and for those operating rural businesses, and we should recognise that those people have a long, established record of using the technology properly. He gave the example from his own family of passing it down across generations, and of responsible ownership and usage, and said that actually it can be good sport as well—he talked about an example from outside Newtownards. It should not be beyond us to promote a regime in which that is possible.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this is not just an urban-versus-rural issue. He talked about the damage that can be done to fields, crops or livestock, which would also frustrate those rural business owners who are doing the right thing. As I say, these two things do not have to be in competition; however, he also talked about disrespect, which is what I think sits at the root of this issue. I will come to this when I make some points of my own, but that brings us to what we do about antisocial behaviour in this country—how we measure it and match up against it.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) talked about how we could turn this into something positive and use it as a diversionary activity. I have to say that speeding around on a motorbike is not for me, but for millions of people it is, as he says, and we know that it can be attractive for young people. We can make that work for us. I think of the wonderful Crisp Vocational Provision in my constituency, which offers alternative provision to young people for whom mainstream education is not working by using this sort of industry, and particularly motor cars, as a way to connect with them, develop their interests and channel that energy into a positive place. We can do that too, so there could already be some positives from this debate.

Just to make a few points of my own, people who are going about their business, whatever it may be, should not have to contend with people riding off-road bikes, often without helmets and with face coverings, as we have heard, or perhaps without tax and insurance, churning up public and private land and creating other sorts of damage. We know that dangerous riding can put road users and pedestrians at risk of injury if they lose control of their vehicles, which, when we think of how they are sometimes ridden—wheelies down the middle of the road—is not unforeseeable.

Again, I think of an example from my own community —which happily we have been able to resolve to a significant degree—where residents of a care home for older people said that they did not want to leave and go into town, which was just down the road. Because the road has humps, bikes would come down the pavement instead, so as not to be restricted by the humps, and in many cases they had physically knocked people over. That was having a real quality-of-life impact on those residents, and of course the same thing can play out in a countryside setting or when people are walking their dogs.

I think this myself when I am walking the dog: when he is off the lead running around and I hear that buzz, which can be hard to place, it is a moment of panic. I would like to say that I have full control of the dog and he always listens to me, but he is still a dog, and we know that the riders often do not have full control, or may not see the dog. That is a moment of real risk when I think the dog is going to get hit, so I instantly charge around, get the dog on the lead and leave, and I see various other people do that, with parents and children scattering as well. There are real consequences to this behaviour, and it is really sad.

I am not going to do too much political analysis, but I know the Minister will; we have to do a little bit each. The sense of powerlessness in communities—that these things just happen to them now and that is the reality in their towns—is a sad thing. This is an issue of antisocial behaviour, but we are still learning from the impact and experience of having 10,000 fewer police officers on the beat. They are being added back, but we have seen 20,000 overall losses, which means there are now 10,000 fewer police officers and police community support officers on the frontline.

Police officers have a huge impact on creating a deterrent but—I know the Government are moving on this, and I am sure the Minister will say something about this—our police are not crime counters. Our police should be problem solvers, and this is one of those local problems that needs to be solved. Some of the solutions may involve the physical environment and how we can configure it to make sure that people are not recklessly travelling around, but other solutions will be more positive. As the hon. Members for North Antrim and for Strangford said, those solutions should involve channelling that energy elsewhere—that is what we want to see from proper neighbourhood and community policing.

At the moment we have a situation in which 50% of the population say that they no longer see police on their streets, and we know that 90% of crimes currently go unsolved. Our police are making the best of what is available to them, but they are stretched too thinly. We need the restoration of problem solving and hotspot policing so that communities are not defenceless and powerless, and so that they can start to take that power back.

I wonder whether the Minister will make some interesting points, because we have had the conversation about registration. The case for registration is strong, but my anxiety with it is that I fear it might fall on those who do the right thing, and that those who choose not to follow law—as they are not doing in this case—will try to work round it. That loop could be closed with detection. The Minister and I had significant conversations about that during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill—indeed, with you in the Chair, Mrs Latham.

On the use of technology, this problem is fundamentally a new and novel challenge driven by technology, and the solutions may well be there too. I know that the Minister has a short, medium and very long version of his facial recognition speech, and I am not trying to bait that longer version out of him again. Facial recognition software would not always be useful because of mask wearing, but it could be useful in many cases. Has he considered it with regard to off-road biking?

I want to take this opportunity to talk about what I think is a limiting factor in how we can tackle this problem: our data collection on antisocial behaviour. There is significant variety across the country in how antisocial behaviour is reported and dealt with, so it would be very difficult to compare even Derbyshire with Nottinghamshire—never mind the rest of our communities—when considering prioritisation. What are the Minister’s thoughts on better data collection in respect of off-road biking? We all clearly face the same problem, but I do not think we are able to understand it, in either an aggregate or comparative sense. Getting a grip of it and adequate resourcing are likely to be challenges as well, as will be building public confidence. I hope we will come back to that in due course.

I shall finish by saying that we are legislators, so there is a temptation to fall on legislation as a solution to all our problems, but I am not sure that that would work in this case. This is a behaviour problem and a respect problem. The issue is the fact that we have not competed on our streets on the side of the vast majority who do the right thing. Better and more active community policing that solves problems and is based around hotspots is a better model than the one we have had over the past 14 years. I suspect we might hear something similar from the Minister—I hope so—but there remains a resourcing issue, because we are short by 10,000 important pairs of boots. I hope we hear more from the Minister on the Government’s commitment in that respect.

This is an issue that is not going away. We will keep coming back to it because every day as we open social media or our emails, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool did, there will be more evidence of this happening, time and again. People are rightly looking to us for action, and we need to ensure that we meet that expectation.

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on securing this important debate. As has been said, this is a question that comes up quite often, and a number of hon. Members, some of whom are here and some of whom are not, have raised this issue over recent months.

I will start by making some remarks about antisocial behaviour more widely. I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington and for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer), the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) that antisocial behaviour is something we should take extremely seriously. It causes people to feel a sense of menace in their own communities. It can create a sense of disorder and unease, and a sense that people’s local neighbourhoods, parks, high streets or other public places are not places of safety. That is why we should be taking all forms of antisocial behaviour, including the abuse of off-road bikes, extremely seriously.

In Gwent, we have a regional roundtable that considers illegal off-road bikers. MPs, MSs, council officials, farmers and passionate bike riders come together to try to deal with this ongoing scourge. It is worth reporting that in recent months Gwent police has, with local councillors, launched a team, with shared prosperity funding, to look at this important, ongoing and growing issue. Does the Minister agree that sustained, strong enforcement is at the root of dealing with this difficulty? Illegal off-road bikers who badly damage our environment, endanger animal stock, intimidate hikers and dog walkers, and sometimes threaten farmers need to be dealt with properly. What police powers does he think can be brought to bear to beat this blight? Lots of my constituents are concerned about this issue. Will the Minister clarify why he has until now believed that registration is not necessary to help with this growing problem?

I agree that strong enforcement is critical. We should have a zero-tolerance approach to off-road biking, as we should to all forms of antisocial behaviour. As I said, it is a menace. It makes people feel uneasy and unsafe, and there should be strong enforcement not sometimes but always, and I hope that is what Gwent police force is doing locally.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the police’s powers; I was going to come to this, but since he has asked about it, I will address it now. The most relevant power is the power the police have under section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002 to seize vehicles, including off-road bikes, that are used antisocially. That can be the result of using a vehicle in a careless or inconsiderate manner or in a manner that causes alarm, distress or annoyance. A vehicle can also be seized under different provisions if it is being driven without insurance. There are, then, a number of powers, but particularly that section 59 power. I would expect all forces to use those powers to the fullest possible extent, and I know that Durham constabulary, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington referred, is doing that as part of its Operation Endurance.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about registration and, I suppose, the associated question of insurance. If an off-road bike is ridden or used on a public road, it needs to be insured and licensed. However, the Government are not convinced that it would be reasonable to introduce a requirement for insurance or licensing—the requirement to have a number plate—for off-road bikes driven only on private property such as farmland. Although there are significant problems, the vast majority of people who use off-road bikes privately on farmland or their own land do so reasonably and lawfully, and we do not want to impose on those lawful and reasonable owners the extra costs, which could be quite significant, of either having to register and get a number plate or having to insure. We would prefer to focus on those off-road bikes and all-terrain vehicles that are used illegally on the roads because they are uninsured or unlicensed or because they are being driven in an antisocial manner.

Before I come on to the specifics of tackling off-road bikes, which is the topic of the debate, let me say that we are taking antisocial behaviour more widely very seriously.

The issue of registration is important and does need working through. On the mountain tops of our valleys in south Wales, we have thousands of acres of common land, and that is where the illegal off-road bikers spend the majority of their time. They create a proper mess, and it is really awful—it destroys our environment. What is the best way of dealing with off-road bikers on common land, which is found across large parts of the UK?

I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent for posing that question. I think that the requirement to have insurance under section 165 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 includes public places, and I will go away and find out whether common land counts as a public place, because that is potentially a relevant question. I will also look into whether the requirement to carry a licence plate applies just to those driving on public roads or whether it also applies on common land, which might be—I am not saying it is, but it might be—categorised as a public place. So I will look into the insurance and licence plate requirements for common land, which might be considered by the law as a public place, and write back to the hon. Gentleman with an answer. In relation to purely private land, I think that the comments I made earlier do stand.

The Minister referred to the disproportionate impact that may be felt by farmers who use off-road quad bikes in the management of their farm. Has any assessment of that been made by his Department or any other Department? Perhaps the National Farmers Union might be able to assist us with that. It is not uncommon for a farmer who uses his tractor primarily on his fields to have to go on a road. It is not uncommon for him to register his quad bike, because he may need to travel on roads. The impact a farmer would feel is perhaps relatively modest, and some further assessment could establish whether it is indeed a problem and a real barrier to the Government looking at registration. I appreciate that the Minister does not have the figures and statistics in front of him, but it would be great if he could come back to me on that point.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. Some tractors, off-road bikes and ATVs are used on farms and private land and also on the road, so they do need to be insured and licensed, but quite a few vehicles—off-road bikes and ATVs, in particular—are used exclusively on private land. My hon. Friend suggested that we could consult the National Farmers Union to ascertain its opinion. If through his good offices, he could facilitate the NFU making contact with me to offer its opinion, I would listen to it carefully. If the NFU said that the proposal would have minimal impact on its members, I would give that some consideration. If the NFU does want to make such a representation, I would be happy to look at it.

During that intervention, I obtained some clarification on the question asked by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent. Common land counts as a public place for legal purposes. In a public place, which includes common land, a driver needs to carry registration plates and be insured. If someone is driving an ATV, such as a 4x4 quad bike or an off-road bike, on common land on top of a mountain or a large hill in the hon. Member’s constituency, or around the valleys, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, they should be licensed and insured. If they are not, that in itself is a breach of the law.

I want to add to the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) about bikes. Having been a farmer myself, I know that most farmers have a farm policy: bikes, quads and things used around the farm are covered on their vehicle policy, so those vehicles are insured anyway. It is very rare to find a farm so large that a farmer would never have to go across a lane to move things from field to field, so most things are already licensed and insured. I think that the impact would be minimal.

I would be interested to hear representations from the NFU or any others on that specific question, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for sharing her experience as a former farmer.

As I was saying, we want to have zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour more widely because it blights communities. In the spring of last year, we launched an action plan with a number of measures, which are now being rolled out. One of those is providing extra funding in England and Wales—there may be a Barnett consequential for Northern Ireland as well—over and above the regular police funding settlement to enable hotspot patrols in every police force area. There is £66 million of extra money in total, and the amounts vary between a minimum of £1 million per force up to about £8 million or £9 million for the largest, which is the Met. We expect that to deliver over 1 million hours of hotspot patrolling in the next financial year—it will start in April. Where the scheme has been piloted, it has been shown to be very effective, reducing antisocial behaviour and violent crime by up to 30%.

I strongly urge any Members present and any colleagues watching to ask their local chief constable or police and crime commissioner to select any areas where they are worried about antisocial behaviour for hotspot patrolling, which will then happen regularly throughout the next financial year. It will be visible to the public, but also catch and deter antisocial behaviour. Where it has been piloted—in places such as Lancashire, Staffordshire and Essex—it has been very effective.

The Minister is being incredibly generous with his time, and I thank him for highlighting hotspot policing. Darlington has had hotspot policing allocated to seven of our key wards. We can see that increased policing, but it does not solve our ongoing issues with off-road bikes. We have two police officers out on patrol providing visible policing, but they cannot chase these bikes and they have no means of identifying them. Although I fully welcome the additional funding, resources and visible policing that hotspot patrolling brings, it will not solve the underlying problems with this particular offence.

I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes hotspot policing, which will provide an opportunity for officers patrolling on foot to report to their colleagues if they see off-road bikes being used.

Let me turn to the question of catching off-road bikers behaving antisocially, which has been raised by a number of Members. First, as I said, hotspot patrolling will help to identify those people so that help can be called in. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington made a point about 101 response times, which vary greatly by police force. Some are very good, and some are frankly terrible. From March this year—next month—we will be publishing tables of 101 response times, as we do already for 999 response times, to shine a light on which forces are doing well and which are not. I hope that that will include not just the answer time but the abandon rate—what percentage of incoming calls get abandoned. I hope that that will shine a light on the 101 issue and provide an opportunity for those forces that are doing badly to improve their performance dramatically.

We then come to the question of how we catch people after the incident has been reported or noticed. I know there are different policies in different police forces around pursuit and what is sometimes called tactical contact. That is an operational matter for police chiefs, but I would urge chief constables, within the law and the realms of a proper approach to safety, to pursue people on ATVs and off-road bikes. If we do not pursue them, the problem just escalates.

I am a London MP, and we do not really have this problem so much here, but we did have a slightly different version of it a few years ago. People were using mopeds to commit crimes such as stealing mobile phones and expensive handbags or stealing from a shop. They would flee on a moped because Metropolitan police policy at the time—this was about four or five years ago—was not to pursue if the person on the moped was not wearing a helmet. Word soon got around that this was the case, and so-called moped-enabled crime went through the roof because criminals knew that if they were on a moped with no helmet, they would not get chased—they would just get away.

I remember having meetings with the then commissioner of the Met and other London MPs about this, urging the then commissioner to change the policy and consider pursuing and on occasion even using tactical contact, which means physical contact to stop the person. Eventually, the problem got so bad that they did adopt a pursue policy and a carefully calibrated tactical contact policy, and the problem rapidly and dramatically reduced. I would ask all chief constables around the country to keep that example in mind. I understand that they do not want to cause an injury, but equally, if we do nothing and do not pursue, the problem snowballs and gets worse and worse.

There is more we can do on technology, which a number of Members, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North, mentioned. Using drones to pursue and track off-road bikes and ATVs is really important. We need to work with the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that we can fly these drones beyond the line of sight. There are currently some restrictions, so I will meet the Civil Aviation Authority soon to try to get those relaxed for the purpose of law enforcement. I have met a company from America with a very interesting solution that is used by many American police departments, including the New York police department. They have autonomous drones that can fly to a specified location automatically, with a system that avoids crashing into buildings, electricity pylons, people and so on. I think they can even lock on to a target and pursue it automatically. They can provide video feedback to the control room. That technology solution will help us a lot.

It is excellent; the hon. Gentleman should definitely look at it. Once we have got the Civil Aviation Authority regulations modified, this autonomous drone technology has enormous potential.

I am delighted that the shadow Minister mentioned facial recognition. If we can get a picture of the miscreants mounted on the ATV or the off-road bike, we can run that through the retrospective facial recognition database and hopefully get a match. Even if they flee the scene, at least we will know who they are. As I have explained previously, the quality of the AI algorithm is now much better than it was, so the chances of getting a match are really quite high. [Interruption.] By the way, I apologise for my hoarse voice, Mrs Latham. I have a slight cough, as you can probably tell, so I am sorry if I am a little bit croaky.

Some Members have mentioned the problems with balaclavas. We are about to make an amendment on Report to the Criminal Justice Bill to change and expand the existing police power under section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which concerns face coverings, including balaclavas. At the moment, the police can only ask someone to take off a balaclava or a face covering. They can make the request, but they must do that proactively, and then the person can drive off and put it back on. We will amend that so that it will be possible to require face coverings to not be used at all in particular areas, unless for medical or religious purposes. If there was a particular physical area, whether it was the top of a Welsh mountain or anywhere else, where face coverings were a problem, the police could potentially use the updated section 60AA power to say to people that they could not wear balaclavas or face coverings in that area. If a police officer then saw someone driving along, even if they were initially driving lawfully and safely and were registered, licensed and insured, and they had a face covering, perhaps because they intended to behave antisocially later on, the officer would have a basis on which to stop them. I hope that that is a change that colleagues will welcome at Report stage of the Criminal Justice Bill on the Floor of the House in a few weeks’ time.

I think I have covered a number of the points that have arisen during the debate. However, I will add one point around preventing these bikes from being stolen and then misused. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) for his private Member’s Bill, which became the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Act 2023 after receiving Royal Assent last July. Once we fully commence that Act, which we will do shortly, it will require all-terrain vehicles, among other things, to be forensically marked upon sale, with the forensic marking to be recorded in a register. It will also require an immobiliser to be fitted to such vehicles, which will make it much harder—I would not say impossible, but a lot harder—for these ATVs to be stolen and then misused for the purposes of antisocial behaviour. That would address this carousel issue, whereby ATVs or off-road bikes get stolen and then used antisocially, which the hon. Members for Strangford and for North Antrim, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool and for Darlington, all referred to.

Reference was also made to vehicle recovery charges, which are applied when a vehicle is taken off the road and seized by the police. Following a review, the Government made changes last year to increase those vehicle recovery fees by 28%, which will hopefully assist police forces in recovering the cost of taking such vehicles off the streets.

We now have record police officer numbers across England and Wales—more than we have ever had at any time in history. The numbers of officers allocated to particular local areas are also at a record level. The subset of that, which the shadow Minister likes to quote, is not 10,000 any more; it is a much, much lower figure, so he should update his figures. The number of officers allocated to local policing duties is at a record level, and we expect those officers not to be behind desks, because we are investing in technology to do a lot of the administration; we expect them to be on the street, visibly patrolling and catching criminals.

We consider all forms of crime to be serious, whether it is antisocial behaviour, criminal damage, reckless driving, as we have been discussing, or theft from shops. All of that needs to be taken seriously. The police need to patrol and make arrests for all those criminal offences. We have now given them the resources, combined with the over £900 million a year extra in the next financial year that will go to police and crime commissioners. The police have the resources and the officer numbers, and we are making sure that the law keeps up with these issues, so we expect robust action by the police on behalf of constituents.

I would like to conclude by thanking Members again for participating in the debate. There are some points to look at a little further, and I am very happy to do that. However, I conclude by again commending my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington for bringing this important issue to the attention of the House.

Thank you, Mrs Latham, and I will be brief.

I thank everyone who has attended this debate and made a contribution. We have heard some interesting contributions from across the House, largely focused on safety. I was particularly interested in the concerns the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised about roll cages for quad bikes. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) talked about the safety of her community, as did the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. However, the one thing I will really take away from this debate was raised in the contribution by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). I would love to go and see the work—the collaboration—going on in his constituency, and I hope the Minister can find the time to go again.

I am really pleased to hear that the Minister is willing and able to look at the NFU and the registration issue; I undertake to write to the NFU and to engage in that piece of collaboration with him. I look forward to continuing to tackle this issue on behalf of my constituents and to improving the safety of the streets of Darlington.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of tackling off-road biking.

Order. The sitting is suspended. We will probably have three votes, so it will be suspended until 4 o’clock, unless we continue to vote after that.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

Robbery and Theft: Carshalton and Wallington

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

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of robbery and theft in Carshalton and Wallington constituency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. This issue pressures local people and weighs heavily on my constituents’ minds. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss it.

I begin by examining some statistics. According to the latest Home Office data for the year ending September 2023, the Metropolitan police recorded 32,000 robberies and 430,000 thefts. When adjusted for population, London exhibited one of the highest rates of reported robbery and theft offences, with 3.6 robberies and 48.6 thefts per 1,000 people, which far surpasses the national average. Moreover, those figures represent alarming increases on the previous year, as reported by the Met.

In the past few months alone, there have been 11 incidents of people contacting me directly about their cars being broken into. That is a lot, considering that the police would obviously be the ones to take that up; for that many people to bring it forward to me clearly demonstrates that there is an issue. The most recent figures published by the Metropolitan police, in December 2023, showed that there were 50 incidents of vehicle crime, 16 cases of theft, 27 shoplifting offences, 17 burglaries and 10 robberies across Carshalton and Wallington.

My constituents are often left asking whether anything is being done about those crimes, and whether they are being taken seriously by the police. Like many colleagues, I am sure, I see on social media all the time CCTV and Ring doorbell footage of attempted incidents that the police have not seen or will not take as part of their investigations. One constituent shared details with me of two cars being stolen in the space of two weeks.

As I represent quite a diverse constituency, there is also the matter of the targeting of my Indian and Tamil constituents for Asian gold theft. Those communities are worried that they are being subjected to increased targeting due to recent surges of targeted burglaries, which have left them shaken and afraid of further strikes against their communities.

One of the things I come across most often is the issue of shoplifting. Whether on our local high streets or some of the small shopping parades around Carshalton and Wallington, it is increasingly common to see a large group of younger people go in and out of shops to steal confectionery, drinks, goods—whatever it might be. Many of the shop owners, for whatever reason, tell me they do not feel that it is worth reporting. Reports are therefore often not made to the police, so we are likely seeing slightly skewed statistics. That is a point I would like the Minister to address: the danger of reporting fatigue.

I know the police and all Government officials would want to reiterate the importance of ensuring that an official report is put in whenever someone sees a crime happening, is a victim of a crime or has anything to tell. So many times we hear of things getting shared on social media, via email or in conversation when an official report was not put in. That does not give us a full picture of what is going on. I would like to hear from the Minister what efforts the Home Office is taking, in conjunction with the Metropolitan police, to ensure that people do not get that reporting fatigue and that they file an official report, not just share it on social media.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about reporting fatigue, but many criminals perpetrating the burglaries and robberies that I have heard about on Wallington high street in his constituency are acting with impunity because they know that there are not the police officers to get there. As he will be aware, due to cuts in policing over a number of years under the Conservative Government, and with abstraction rates in Sutton in particular being at an all-time high at 25% in the last quarter of last year, there are just not the police officers there. What is he doing to put pressure on his own Front Benchers to ensure that we boost the numbers of police officers on our streets—not just in Carshalton and Wallington, but in my constituency of Twickenham? It is a problem across London.

It might be helpful for me to remind the hon. Lady that the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Conservative Government for five years, which oversaw the reduction in police officer numbers. We now have 3,666 more police officers on London streets—the highest number ever recorded. That could have been 1,000 more if the Mayor of London had actually done his job and gotten to grips with the reporting.

I find it a bit odd that the Lib Dems are complaining about the lack of police officers when they were in the coalition that oversaw the reduction in police officer numbers. In City Hall, at the London Assembly, the Lib Dems have consistently voted against increasing police numbers, so I do find that a bit odd. I realise it is politically advantageous for them, but this is quite typical of the Lib Dems—say one thing and do the other. I certainly will not take any lectures from the Lib Dems on police officer numbers, considering that they consistently vote against them.

I commend the Home Office for some of the actions it has taken, particularly its work with police officers and forces to ensure that every single burglary and theft is attended by police. That has had some great successes in London in particular, which has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of new arrests being made. I very much welcome that. I welcome the development of the retail crime action plan, which seeks to address the rising tide of theft and sets out guidelines and reporting mechanisms for retailers.

I thank the Government for the safer streets fund, initiated in January 2020, that provides grants to local bodies for projects aimed at reducing neighbourhood crime. While not specifically targeting robbery or theft, those initiatives are vital for enhancing community safety. Moreover, Operation Calibre was a national week of action co-ordinated by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which aimed to tackle personal robbery, with 30 police forces taking part last November.

It is important to stress that when it comes to policing in London, the police and crime commissioner for London is the Mayor of London. The Mayor has made a number of promises over his eight years, and he has overseen incredibly poor performance when it comes to dealing with crime in the capital. He is more concerned with jetting off round the world to promote his book or slapping ultra low emission zones on the backs of hard-working Londoners. He has not got to grips with one of the most important parts of his brief: being in charge of the Metropolitan police from a commissioner level. It is not fair on Londoners to have to deal with a Mayor who simply does not care about crime—indeed, he cares more about his own image than about crime.

I commend the Met for the steps it is taking—almost unilaterally, without any input from the Mayor—to deal with burglaries. I have mentioned that the commitment there is now that every single burglary will be attended by an officer, which is very welcome. To reiterate a point I made earlier, I also welcome the 3,600-plus new officers now working in the Metropolitan police. However, I want to draw the House’s attention to the fact that there could have been as many as 1,000 new officers on top of that if the Mayor had actually got to grips with the recruitment funding and done his job to recruit more police officers.

It was reported on 14 February that the Mayor has written to car manufacturers to say that he has become increasingly concerned about vehicle theft due to

“the security vulnerabilities in modern vehicles”.

He also said that he was seeking car manufacturers’ assurances about what they had done to address this issue. It is, of course, a very important issue, but the Mayor is several years late to it. Over the last few years, we have seen a massive rise in thefts of and from vehicles, particularly the theft of catalytic converters in outer London, so I find it very bizarre that the Mayor has only just woken up to this issue now. Also, I am not really sure what he is suggesting Londoners or car manufacturers should do, given that he is the one in charge of local policing.

We have had campaigns locally in our area to try to stop these crimes. I have had the pleasure of meeting many students and their parents, who are worried about young people being particularly targeted by criminals. I welcome the efforts of the police in just the last few weeks. Those have included the high-visibility and the plain clothes robbery patrols in Wallington High Street and Roundshaw, which the local safer neighbourhood teams are carrying out as proactive measures to target the increase in robberies in Wallington. This operation is a mix of visible policing, to deter criminals and act as a reassurance mechanism, and plain clothes officers acting as spotters.

We are waiting to hear the results of that operation, which has been conducted in the last few weeks, but the initial feedback from our local borough commander is that the results have been very positive indeed. The officers do a fantastic job locally in engaging with schoolchildren and members of the public, providing them with reassurance and advice about staying safe and reporting crimes. Officers are also undertaking a piece of work locally with premises on our local high streets, to tell businesses what they should be doing to make sure that they are kept safe and how the police can work with them to bring down shoplifting.

Nevertheless, the issue remains a pressing concern, which is why I am glad to have had the chance to have this debate here in Westminster Hall today. By implementing robust legislative measures, enhancing collaboration between law enforcement and local communities, and addressing specific vulnerabilities where we identify them, we can absolutely ensure the security and stability of people locally when it comes to burglary and theft.

I would like the Minister to reassure me and give me more information about various issues. Can he reconfirm that every single report of a theft or burglary should be attended by police and that people should be encouraged to make a report if they are a victim of crime? What work is the Home Office doing in conjunction with the Metropolitan police, so that where the Mayor is not taking his responsibilities seriously, Londoners are not at the behest of criminals and instead police are given all the tools they need to bring those criminals to justice and to ensure that further such crimes can be prevented in the future?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time in an afternoon, Mrs Latham.

Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this debate on such an important topic. These issues affect both our constituencies, and indeed many others. I join him in referencing and thanking our local south London basic command unit specifically for its work on robberies around the border between his constituency and mine—the problem extended to Purley and south Croydon, as well as the areas in his constituency that he mentioned.

Let set the national scene for where crime trends are heading. The only reliable source of long-term crime trend data, according to the Office for National Statistics, is not police-recorded crime, because that goes up and down depending on the public’s propensity to report crime, and on how good a job the police do at recording crime—they have got better at that in recent years and have therefore recorded more crime. Rather, it is the crime survey for England and Wales.

The crime survey for England and Wales, which according to the ONS is the most reliable source of crime data, shows that since March 2010—just to pick an arbitrary date—overall crime, like for like, is down by 55%, while violence is down by 51%, criminal damage is down by 72%, theft offences are down by 46%, theft from the person is down by 40%, and vehicle-related theft is down by 39%. Crime is declining in the long term, which is very welcome indeed. Crime is still happening, and we want to go further to push down those crime figures even more. That is why we have delivered record police numbers. I was a bit mystified by the intervention that called upon my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington to lobby the Front Bench to deliver more police. We have done that. We have delivered record numbers of police—about 3,500 more than we had in 2010.

London also has record police officer numbers, but as my hon. Friend quite rightly said, London could have had an extra thousand officers, all of which would have been funded by the Government—in fact, slightly over a thousand; 1,066, to be precise—had the Mayor of London bothered to recruit them. It is a shocking indictment of Sadiq Khan’s ineptitude that he failed to recruit those thousand extra officers that would have been funded by the Government. I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington said about Sadiq Khan. As Minister for Police, I see the performance of all 43 police forces across England and Wales, and there is no question but that under Mayor Sadiq Khan’s tenure as London’s police and crime commissioner, the Met’s performance is the worst of all those 43 forces. Not only is it the only police force in the country to have missed its recruitment target; it has the worst clear-up rate of any police force in the country. Sadiq Khan should hang his head in shame, and the electors in London will no doubt have this in mind when they elect a Mayor in a few months’ time.

We are pursuing a number of initiatives to bear down on robbery and theft. The first is an agreement that we reached with the police, including the Met, to always follow all lines of inquiry for all crimes where they exist. I can answer the question my hon. Friend asked me: that applies to all crimes, including theft from shops and criminal damage—everything. There is no such thing as a minor crime in our view. Previously, some police forces had wrongly been screening out certain crimes and not investigating them, even where there was evidence, because they were perceived as minor. We have now agreed with policing nationally, and put it in writing, that that is not appropriate, and the police will always follow reasonable lines of inquiry where they exist. That includes any crime, including shop theft, for which there is video evidence showing a suspect’s face.

That also involves always running such evidence through the retrospective facial recognition database. The algorithm is driven by artificial intelligence and is now very good. Often a match can be obtained even where the suspect’s face is caught on CCTV, a Ring doorbell or a mobile phone and their face is partially obscured or the image is fuzzy or blurred. Police forces should always run those images captured at a crime scene through the police national database to see if they can get a match—and they very often do. That applies particularly to shoplifting, but to many other crimes as well. We have an action plan for shoplifting—we really ought to call it shop theft; it is theft. As I have said, the police have committed to always investigating all lines of inquiry where they exist, including for shop theft. They will attend in person where a suspect has been detained by the store security staff. They will attend in person if there has been an assault on a shop worker and they will attend in person if that is necessary to secure evidence. If there is CCTV evidence that can be emailed, that is quicker for everybody, but they will attend always in the circumstances I have set out.

The police have also agreed to identify and target prolific offenders in particular. We have done work on this: taking out a relatively small number of offenders leads to a dramatic reduction in shop theft. For example, in Sussex, the excellent police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne and her police force identified and arrested 20 or 30—I think it was—prolific shoplifters. That dramatically reduced shop theft in the towns where those arrests were made. Targeting prolific shoplifters is important. There is also a project to identify criminal gangs who are stealing from shops on an organised basis, through intelligence. That is part of the retail crime action plan as well. I hope those measures show what the police are doing to combat shop theft in particular, and all crime more widely.

The approach that I described earlier—following all reasonable lines of inquiry—was first pursed on a large scale in Greater Manchester; the relatively new chief constable, Stephen Watson, introduced that about two years. It led to a 44% increase in arrests. Some magistrates courts that had previously been closed down had to be reopened to deal with the extra volume of criminals who were being apprehended.

I would like to say a word about live facial recognition, which is an opportunity to catch wanted criminals. That is where there is a watchlist of criminals who are wanted because they are suspected of committing a criminal offence. Maybe the police have a picture from the crime scene, but they have not been able to find the individual because they have left their home address or something. Maybe they know their name, but cannot find them, and they have the photograph. They can be people who should have turned up to court, but failed to show up to the magistrates court or the Crown court on the day of their trial or hearing.

This watchlist could be thousands of people who are wanted by the police, for the reasons I just set out. The camera is set up in a place with high traffic and lots of passers-by—it has been trialled recently in Croydon town centre—and as the public walk past, they are scanned and we see if there is a match. If there is not a match, which obviously happens in the vast majority of cases, the person’s image is immediately and automatically deleted, which addresses privacy concerns. But if there is a match, the system alerts the officer operating it and they can stop the person and establish their identity.

That system has been trialled about eight times on Thursday and Friday afternoons in Croydon town centre in the last two months and has led to more than 50 arrests, including, last Friday or the Friday before last, somebody wanted for multiple rapes who had been at large—wanted—for the last seven years. It also included people who were wanted for theft and robbery offences, drug supply or violent offences including grievous bodily harm, and many people who had failed to attend court. There were more than 50 arrests—50 people who would not have been arrested were it not for that simple deployment of live facial recognition in Croydon town centre. When I explain that to my constituents—that it led to these arrests and that if someone is not on the list, their image is deleted—people understand that it is a reasonable thing to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington might want to talk to the BCU commander for south London, Chief Superintendent Andy Brittain, or his borough superintendent, and ask for the experimental deployment that we had in Croydon to be replicated in Carshalton or Wallington town centres, to see if as many wanted criminals are in circulation in Carshalton and Wallington town centres as were in Croydon town centre. The system has certainly been effective at arresting people who would otherwise have gone free.

I suggest to any Member that if they are interested in catching criminals in their constituency, they should talk to their chief constable and their PCC about this kit. Currently, the Metropolitan police and South Wales have it, but they are willing to share it with other forces. For example, Essex has borrowed it from either the Met or South Wales police—they are willing to share the equipment with other police forces around the country.

I see that colleagues are gathering for the subsequent debate; let me just conclude by thanking my constituency neighbour for calling this debate and for the work he is doing in this area standing up for his constituents. I look forward to continuing to work with him in this extremely important area. My voice is probably about to stop working, so now would be a good time to sit down.

Question put and agreed to.

Young Drivers: Government Support

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for young drivers.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. It is encouraging to see Members here to participate in this debate, which is of significance to many young people across the United Kingdom. It is good that young people can look to this House and see and hear that their voices are being heard. I thank the Minister in anticipation of his response, as well as his officials, who have been very helpful in this regard.

I am raising this issue following a significant number of messages on social media and WhatsApp, and conversations generally with young people and their parents across Upper Bann. We can all remember the excitement we felt at the prospect of turning 17 and finally getting on to the road to drive. Maybe, like me, other Members flicked through Auto Trader from about the age of 15, dreaming of their first car, probably unaware of the unaffordability of that choice. But we are all allowed to dream.

Those were the days of buying a Vauxhall Corsa, Ford Ka, Peugeot 106 or Citroën Saxo—the list goes on—when 17-year-olds could avail themselves of free insurance as part of a deal, or be a named driver, which helped with the premium. That incentive was a game changer for many. I am probably showing my age with my vehicle choice, but what a distant memory that feels, given that young drivers are now facing insurance premiums that are not helping them to get on the road, but are actually driving them off it.

Although I will labour the insurance element today, I am also acutely aware of the difficulties that young people face in even reaching the stage of getting out on the road, particularly with our broken test facilities, the lack of resources and manpower, the lack of appointments and the volume of young people who have to wait literally months before they even get to sit their tests.

We have seen rural driving test centres close, such as the one in Whitchurch in my constituency. That causes a huge problem for young people, because they have to drive much further to access a test centre, to practise for and take their tests. They have to book double lessons, adding to the cost of learning to drive. They need to get in a car; there is no public transport. Does the hon. Lady agree that keeping rural test centres open is important to helping young people access jobs and opportunities around the countryside?

Absolutely. We experience the same difficulties in Northern Ireland with the availability of testing. We find that people are ready for their test but no tests are available, and they then have to continue with lessons, or stop lessons and go back to them later. It is a dreadful situation. This is about ensuring manpower and resources are available in rural areas, as the hon. Member outlined.

What has prompted so many people to get in touch with me is specifically the exorbitant cost of insurance, particularly in the context of the cost of living crisis, where household budgets are already strained. Where once the bank of mum and dad stepped in, many parents just cannot do that to help to meet the cost of insurance. That leaves young people unable to benefit from the freedom that driving brings, which many of us enjoyed. That barrier to the road impedes access to employment, socialising, broadening their life experience and even travelling to study. The effect is particularly acute in rural areas, such as my constituency and, indeed, vast swathes of Northern Ireland, where public transport linkages are lacking in choice and frequency. Evening and weekend services are often reduced or withdrawn altogether, making the ability to travel via public transport non-existent.

The importance of driving and access to a vehicle is acute in these areas for the whole community, including our young people. I have no doubt that Members present from similar constituencies across the United Kingdom will reflect the same challenges faced by their constituents. In that context, we must look to the Government to support young drivers—to support them to get on to the road and to be safe on the road—which, in turn, will impact insurance premiums in the future.

These issues are interlinked. If we look at insurance costs,—the price comparison firm—said that, on average, 17 to 20-year-olds had seen insurance rise by more than £1,000 compared with the same time last year.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On insurance premiums, does she agree that it is important that not only we, but insurance companies make a significant distinction between young drivers who are careful—who take their time and learn to drive safely on the road—and those whom they punish? They punish not just those careless drivers with the higher premiums, but all young drivers, and that needs changing.

My hon. Friend is pre-empting my speech, and I agree with everything he said. For 17-year-olds, premiums surged by an average £1,423, to £2,877. For 18-year-old drivers, the average policy price reached £3,162. Constituents have contacted me after having had quotes of between £5,000 and £7,000 for a vehicle worth half the price.

Since securing this debate, I have had positive discussions with the Association of British Insurers and local insurance brokers across Upper Bann, who are at the mercy of insurance companies across the United Kingdom. I thank Alastair Ross from ABI for his constructive engagement on this matter. The insurance industry cites a range of factors for the increase in premium costs, and it is worth highlighting those to enable us to explore how Government might help on this matter.

By way of background, insurance is based on pricing the risk of claims being made and the cost of those claims. ABI data shows that, for drivers aged 18 to 20 and 86 to 90, the frequency of claims and average cost of claims is higher, which can impact premiums for those age groups.

One of the largest elements that the pool of motor insurance premiums pays for is bodily injury to other drivers, passengers, pedestrians or the driver themselves. That is because serious collisions can mean life-changing injuries, with compensation sometimes running into millions of pounds.

The insurance industry states that young drivers are also more likely to be involved in crashes with multiple injuries and which involve a greater number of people. Insurers’ costs of dealing with associated claims can be very high. The industry view appears to be supported by data, so we are not coming to this debate without data, because we know that according to the statistics, young people, and particularly older people, are much more likely to be involved in an accident.

This is supported by statistics from the Department for Infrastructure and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, which show that young drivers are over-represented in Northern Ireland’s collision statistics. In 2021, 17 to 23-year-old drivers were responsible for 23% of all fatal or serious collisions, yet they accounted for just 7% of car-driving licence holders. They also show that young drivers were responsible for 73% of the casualties in collisions involving drivers aged between 17 and 23. The over-representation in fatal or serious collision statistics is also represented in the Department for Transport’s road safety accident statistics and Great Britain driving licence data, which was used in a House inquiry on this issue that reported in March 2021.

We must also factor in the inflationary pressures on motor repairs and claims. While like-for-like quarter 4 figures for claim costs are yet to be finalised, previous quarterly and annual claims data have shown a clear picture of spiking costs for insurers. Payouts for vehicle thefts rose 35% in quarter 3 2023 versus 2022, longer repair times drove up the costs of providing replacement vehicles by 47% in the same period, and the cost to replace written-off vehicles has increased as the average cost of new cars has risen 43% over a five-year period. However, the largest single factor is repair costs, which jumped 32% in quarter 3 to £1.6 billion of the total £2.54 billion. That reflects a mixture of labour costs, rising energy costs, which we are all too aware of, and the fact that vehicles are becoming more sophisticated, with the likes of electric vehicles requiring even more specialist expertise to repair.

I have written to the Treasury suggesting that the Government, in their engagement with the Financial Conduct Authority, press for closer scrutiny of the industry to determine whether the basis for price increases cited by the ABI and facing drivers is a fair reflection of the pressures on the insurance industry. Many insurance companies known to us have merged and have left the market as a result, exiting from even insuring in the United Kingdom because of the high claims culture and the issues that I have raised. We therefore need to create an environment for these people to come back. They must know that the Government are implementing safety measures that help to drive insurance premiums down.

I note the Government’s response to a petition on this matter, which emphatically ruled out a Government commission. The Government have ruled out any investigation or interference in the market. Although I am realistic about the prospect of a Government U-turn, I believe that other steps can and should be taken to get young drivers on to the road, and importantly, to do so safely for themselves and other road users.

Faced with an industry that provides this basis for the increase in premiums, how can the Government help young drivers towards the rite of passage that is driving? The direction taken by Government must be to support better, safer driving. Let me be clear: most young people drive responsibly and safely, but, as with so many aspects of life, the majority suffer because of the actions of the minority, and that is undoubtedly the case here.

The Government could bring forward a number of measures to help reduce the number of accidents involving young people and thereby reduce the premiums for young drivers. Many of them may not be what young drivers want to see explored, as they all bring some form of restriction on the freedom that they desire. However, given the situation with insurance costs, we must look at all ways for young drivers to force the hand of insurers to reduce those premiums.

A graduated driving licence scheme is one such initiative. A graduated driving licence is the most effective intervention in reducing incidents and fatalities for young drivers. Based on extensive analysis, the scheme could include a minimum 12-month learning period before the driving test can be taken, a ban on intensive driving courses, lowering the age at which young people can learn to drive to 16 and a half, a restriction on the number of young passengers a young driver can carry, a restriction on their driving during nighttime hours, or a lowering of the blood alcohol concentration for drivers aged 17 to 24. All those measures seem fair and compatible with getting young people on the road soon after they turn 17, but more safely. GDL has significant public support. Research shows that the savings, both in terms of lives in road accidents and financial cost, would be significant.

The Government’s 2019 road safety statement indicated a commitment to reviewing GDL in the UK, but that has not been progressed yet. It is my hope that a restored Northern Ireland Executive can progress the agreed policy of GDL in Northern Ireland soon. Indeed, as envisaged by the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), that could be a testing ground for the policy’s effectiveness. Can the Minister outline progress towards that becoming a reality in England, so that help can be given to young drivers in relation to both safety and insurance?

The Government could also support young drivers through financial assistance for installing telematics in vehicles. Those devices can monitor driving and driving behaviour, thus helping to encourage safer driving. However, they can be expensive and, in the context of this debate, which covers cost as an inhibitor to driving, it would be good if the Government explored means of supporting the provision of those devices to young drivers.

I am conscious that other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate and I look forward to hearing other ideas about how we can assist young drivers in our constituencies. In conclusion, I stress the importance of allowing young people the freedom to drive and the necessity for that to be affordable to all. I urge the insurance industry to heed the plight of young drivers and, through transparency and fair pricing, to avoid any accusation of profiteering or unfair practices. I also urge the Government to explore the viability of providing some direct support and to look at how our licensing system can be modernised to help cut both the casualties and the cost of driving for young people.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on securing this excellent debate. I agree with everything she said.

This is a critically important subject because the price of insurance for some young drivers has now reached £3,000. The high costs mean that the parents pay, not the children, and so the wrong people are being penalised. In 2022, it was found that parents spent £780 on average on teaching their children to drive in the preceding 12 months. I am not going to argue with the algorithms that the insurance industry uses to calculate the price of insurance. We should just assume that they are right and that companies are underwriting an extremely expensive risk. We should therefore be somewhat sympathetic to the challenges they face, particularly as 24% of fatal collisions involve people aged between 17 and 24.

Seventy-five per cent. of the young drivers who are killed are male and a male car driver aged between 17 and 24 is four times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than a car driver aged 25 or over. That is because it is not until someone is 25—this is particularly true for men—that the frontal cortex of the brain is fully developed. That is the part of the brain that deals with hazard perception and the consequences, and we have developed that over aeons. That is why young soldiers go to war: they are not as frightened of the consequences as older soldiers. That is one of the problems that we have with hazard perception, and it is just one of those things.

We therefore need solutions that will keep our young people alive and on the road. That is why last week I held a roundtable on insuring young drivers with industry representatives, helped by Aviva, the ABI, superbly represented by Robert Rams—I do not believe he is there anymore for some reason and that is a great shame—and other agencies such as the RAC and, most importantly, IAM RoadSmart.

We discussed all the possible options. One of the most important steps forward is an industry-supported training solution so that, once someone has passed their driving text, if they go on to further training, they will get cheaper insurance because the insurance industry recognises that they are likely to be a more responsible and careful driver. The argument that came back was, “Well, that’s a self-selecting group of people.” Yes, it is, and those are the guys we want out on the road—the ones who want to be extra careful and extra well-trained. That is something we should really pay attention to.

In Australia, learner drivers are 20% less likely to be killed or seriously injured. That is because Australia does several things differently. First, people can apply for a provisional driving licence at 16 and a half, but they have to drive for 120 hours before they take their test—so they start earlier, but test later. The average in the UK is only 40 hours. Australia has seen that 20% reduction because of that rule. One of the other really simple things Australia does is not allow more than one passenger. Young people can cope with one voice gassing in the back of the car, but if there are loads of them—I think we all remember packing people into the car and popping down to the pub, or whatever, from our younger days—all that noise is bad for the decision-making process that young men’s brains go through when they perceive a hazard.

Having one passenger makes another difference to the insurance industry: on a rather dark note, it means that if there is an accident, fewer people are involved, and therefore the cost of the life-changing injuries mentioned by the hon. Member for Upper Bann is reduced. We can all do something about that right now. As our children grow up and ask if they can take people with them in cars, the advice should be, “Not until you’re a bit older—not until you’ve got more experience on the road. Please don’t fill your car with passengers. Just take one.” That is something we could do today that would not cost anything and would save lives.

Between 2012 and 2021, there was a 260% increase in the number of casualties related to driving under the influence of drugs. Some 32% of young drivers responding to an IAM RoadSmart survey said that they thought illegal drug driving was more common than driving under the influence of alcohol. So we are also dealing with changes in young people’s perception, the risks they are taking, and the risks they are tackling in their everyday lives. The solution is training courses. Training courses can teach them about driving under the influence and other topics relevant to them.

Safer roads are not just about young drivers—we need increased training for all ages. One effective measure we could take today is changing the rules on speed awareness courses. I do not know if any Members present have transgressed sufficiently to do a speed awareness course—I confess that I have, and they are brilliant. They remind us of our responsibilities and the value of education. Why are we not doing that for people who speed every year? Why restrict it to every three years? If it works, which it does, we should do more of it. It may not be as beneficial, but it is a really good way of improving the standard of all of us on the roads, which in turn makes it harder for young drivers to have accidents.

The Australians also introduced a graduate driver’s licence. People do not just pass their test and go straight on to the road; they have a graduated procedure. I am not sure that is as valuable. One of the things they insist on is a curfew so that young drivers do not drive between 11 o’clock at night and 6 o’clock in the morning. However, most young drivers in the countryside need to drive at that time of day because that is when there is absolutely no public transport, so I am not sure how well that would work; but again, they are much more likely to have an accident at night. In 2019, 37% of young driver fatalities and serious injuries occurred between 9 pm and 6 am, so they are more risk at night.

The one thing that would be easy for the Government to do is lift insurance tax for drivers that display the green P, so that if someone displays the green P on their car, they do not have to pay it. That would not cost the Government a great deal because they would make huge savings from the amount the NHS currently spends on patching people up, and the figures for people killed or seriously injured on the roads would be much lower.

Just lifting that tax burden on those young drivers, as long as they display their green P, would deliver a huge improvement in the cost of insurance and would save the Government a lot of money. Furthermore, it would make the rest of us who are driving more aware of the people most likely to cause an accident—perhaps in front us—in a car. That measure would turn the green P from a badge of shame to a badge of honour, and it would help with the cost to the parents of young drivers.

Data is vital to this issue, and I urge the Government to stop using catch-all data, such as “17 to 25-year-olds.” We need to collect data on 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds and so on. If insurance companies want to avoid claims, and young people want to be able to afford to drive, we need to do everything we can to make the model work better. Although we are all happy with what is going on, we are not happy with the net result—young people being prevented from driving legally and safely because their insurance is not just double the price of the car; it can be four times the price of the car. I hope that the debate will prompt the Government to act, and lead to solutions for all of us, but training certainly helps.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mrs Latham. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) for securing it. The issue is incredibly prevalent now, especially in Northern Ireland, as my hon. Friend said.

When we emerged from covid there were large numbers of young people wanting to get on to the roads. It was logical that people just wanted to get away from their homes, and to do that safely. They wanted to learn how to drive, and believe it or not, there are still incredible backlogs in testing. I asked the Transport Minister a question on this issue last year—my hon. Friend mentioned it, too. Another issue my hon. Friend raised was insurance, which is causing many problems for young people in Strangford, so it is good to be in this debate to support my hon. Friend.

I can go back further than most in this room and I remember my first Mini car only too well—it cost me about £60, and the insurance cost about the same. I got third party fire and theft because that was the cheapest option, and it covered the other person if you had an accident. I remember the straight-through exhaust system —I am not quite sure what it did, but it made plenty of noise, and that was one of the things that I liked—and the wide, sporty wheels that I had on it as well.

Of course, you were never really a driver until you got the leather gloves. I am not quite sure what the leather gloves did, but we all figured that if we drove a car, especially a Mini, we really had to have those leather gloves. Thank goodness they are out of fashion now and I do not have to wear them any more. That was an era when insurance was almost the price of the car for third party fire and theft. It was a long time ago, but it does give perspective.

So many young people look forward to being able to learn how to drive, and there is such an element of freedom for them. I remember when my sons were younger and the excitement they felt about for learning how to drive. We just got them a wee cheap car because we figured it would have a few bangs along the way, and it probably did. They got a better car when they got older, but the cheaper car did the job for them when they were learning.

I have two younger staff members who are learning how to drive just now, and that was where the prices of the day caught us up. First, there is the sheer cost of driving lessons, which is £40 on average for an hour once or twice a week; then the theory test is £23; and finally the price of the actual test itself is now up to £200 depending on whose car is used, because it can vary according to the car.

Not only are there those costs of learning—as my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, when someone passes their test they then have to pay the extortionate price of insurance. I have a constituent who is a nurse. She has been driving for a couple of years and was told by her insurance company that if she was to put a black box in her car, the price would go down, despite the fact that she had never been in an accident or had any road convictions.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) mentioned that many young drivers now face paying £3,000 to get their insurance. That nurse told me that she bought a new car last week that cost her a similar amount to the insurance, which is unbelievable. How is it that we can compare the price of a new car to the insurance premiums that young people face? One of my good friends, a member of my political party, came to me at a meeting a month ago and said, “Jim, I’m being quoted just over £2,500 for insurance. My wee vehicle is worth about £300 or £400.” He could not understand where that came from.

Unfortunately, it is a fact that Northern Ireland has a higher level of deaths and serious injury from road accidents than the rest of the UK, and it is understood that insurers must take that into consideration when insuring younger people. However, we should not tar them all with the same brush. There must be an element of trust; the question is how we achieve that. The hon. Member for North Herefordshire referred to doing tests and driver training, and looking at each category as people move through it. If people do put a black box in, that should reduce their insurance premiums significantly.

The Government can do more to support young drivers. For example, the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 includes provisions for a graduated driver licensing regime to improve road safety for newly qualified drivers. So there are schemes in place, but they only work if they reduce the cost of insurance, which is what this debate is all about. The UK Department for Transport has said it will consider the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure scheme as a pilot for the rest of the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) raised that very issue with the Transport Secretary in November 2023.

I urge the Minister, who is always responsive and tries hard to give us the answers that we desire, to intervene in relation to investigating the price hikes for our young people. The prices that some face are simply unjust, unfair and unaffordable. We must do more to support them and ensure that they are able to obtain decent prices to properly insure themselves to drive on the roads just like the rest of us. Our young people need a hand. Others have mentioned the bank of mum and dad; I know that is where my sons went. I do all my insurance through the Ulster Farmers Union. I find that, because I am a loyal member, its insurance premiums are a wee bit less than anybody else’s. That helped when it came to insurance for my sons when they got cars. The Ulster Farmers Union has done a whole lot for us, and the same goes for the National Farmers Union here. So there are some companies that try hard, perhaps for loyal customers who have all their insurance policies with them, but there are some that must try harder.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Latham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on securing the debate and on speaking so well. We have not heard from the Minister yet, but none of us so far has disagreed with anything that the hon. Lady said. She spoke of the excitement of turning 17. In fact, she mentioned looking at cars when she was 15 —that is even more excited than I was. I remember well looking forward to being able to drive and the freedom that that would give me. My issue was that my driving was delayed by the fact that I failed my first two tests, but then I did not pay for any lessons, so at least I was saving money.

My 17-year-old daughter is just about to start her learner driver journey in the next couple of weeks. Like the hon. Lady, she does not fully appreciate the cost of the cars that she is looking at. The cost of living was mentioned; the cost of lessons ain’t what it used to be, either. The hon. Lady mentioned how difficult it is to learn to drive and pass the test, not least because of limited test appointments, facilities and resources, which were a particular issue during the pandemic. Things have improved, but there is still a way to go, and I have an issue in my constituency that exacerbates that. The Paisley test centre is based in the St James Business Centre, all the occupants of which were summarily and without any notice whatever given two months’ notice to leave the building, as it is about to be demolished for future plans. I wait to see what the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is going to say about that.

The main issue, as the hon. Lady highlighted, is exorbitant insurance costs for young drivers. Nobody is suggesting that young drivers—and older drivers, to be fair—are not more likely to be involved in accidents, and the hon. Lady cited a number of statistics, but she also made the fair point, which we have to remember in this debate, that most young drivers drive responsibly. The majority are being impacted by the minority.

The hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) said that the cost of insurance is now up to around £3,000 for some young drivers. I confess that I have not yet looked at the potential insurance costs for my daughter, not least because I do not want my blood pressure to shoot up. One way that some of those costs could be reduced is reducing insurance premium tax for young drivers, which is currently 12% or 20%, depending on the total policy cost. At the moment, that can amount to anything between £244 and £408 per year, which for some of us in this room is more than our annual car insurance premium in full. That would be a welcome move to alleviate some of the pain for young drivers.

The hon. Gentleman also said that male drivers aged 17 to 24 are four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash. Shocking though that is, it probably is not a surprise to many of us here, having seen and been young drivers ourselves and then grown up. We tend to be a little more macho behind the wheel when we are younger. He also mentioned that Australian young drivers are 20% less likely to have an accident due to the differences in their graduated licensing scheme and the learning processes in place there.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I call him the Member for Strangford and Westminster Hall West; it would not be the same without him in this place—spoke of his upbringing and having a £60 car, which is quite something. I do not know about you, Mrs Latham, but I am struggling to see a young hon. Member for Strangford—I was going to use his name—in his souped-up car with loud exhausts. I cannot quite get that image into my mind. If he has any pictures of that, it would be good if he was willing to share. He mentioned a constituent who had been driving for a couple of years who was told that if they put a black box in their car, their premium would be slashed, despite the fact that they had two years of clean driving.

All the points have been made for me thus far, but I would like to put on the record that, although the DVLA and DFT have no plans for graduated driving licences, there is enough evidence from around the world that, at the very least, we in this place should be looking at bringing them in to increase safety for younger drivers—all drivers, in fact—but also to reduce costs and make it easier for young drivers to get into driving after a slightly prolonged learning period, as the hon. Member for North Herefordshire said. We would love to see this Government looking at a graduated driving licence scheme and perhaps putting one into operation.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Latham. On Thursday, it will be 40 years since I passed my driving test at the age of 17—this debate has been something of a trip down memory lane for a number of us. Passing my driving test certainly opened up a wealth of opportunities for me, as it has for so many other people.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) gave an excellent analysis of the many challenges faced by young drivers. She highlighted how being able to drive makes all the difference for young people in work and for those who are not easily connected by public transport. My constituency has a number of similarities with hers, with rural areas and a lack of public transport in places. We have the highest level of car usage in the country, in part because of those gaps in public transport.

Young drivers now have to wait 18 weeks for a driving test date. Those delays have very real consequences for young people who need to drive for work or to study. The Government promised action to reduce the wait, but they have failed to deliver. In October, the Transport Secretary told the House that the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency had a plan to get within a target of nine weeks in the next few months, so perhaps the Minister can tell us why there are still long delays.

Alongside that backlog, young drivers face particular challenges with the cost of driving. That is especially true of the cost of insurance, which has increased by 98% for 17-year-olds, while average insurance prices have increased by 58% over the last year. The price increases in the UK have far outstripped those in the EU, where prices increased around 10% between the beginning of 2021 and the end of 2023; over the same period, the price almost doubled in the UK. Analysis from EY suggests that insurance premiums are expected to rise a further 10% in 2024.

Labour is committed to addressing these increases in insurance premiums if we are fortunate enough to form the Government in the coming months. We will consult industry and consumer groups on ways to crack down on unfair practices by insurers, such as lack of transparency over auto-renewals, the rise of hidden fees and the poor value of insurance products. We will also task the Competition and Markets Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority with investigating the high costs of insurance. When the CMA carried out a similar review in 2015, it found evidence of hidden fees. It is time for a further review. I hope the Minister will agree with me to that extent. By taking steps to tackle unfair practices and hidden fees, Labour’s plan could save young drivers hundreds of pounds per year by allowing them to choose the insurance policy that is right for them.

Turning to the link between claims and premiums for young drivers, Transport Minister Lord Davies told the House of Lords last month:

“Young male car drivers aged 17 to 24 are four times as likely to be killed or seriously injured compared with all car drivers aged 25 or over.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 January 2024; Vol. 835, c. 221.]

The ABI tells us that claims are highest among young drivers, pointing out that in 2019 they made up 7% of all licence holders but were involved in 16% of fatal and serious crashes. These stark numbers explain why insurance premiums are higher for younger drivers and why improving safety is key to reducing insurance costs for young drivers. The ABI has previously recommended—[Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Thank you, Mrs Latham, for calling me again. I think that I had just said that the stark numbers explain why insurance premiums are higher for younger drivers—

This could be the third time that I say this bit. The stark numbers explain why insurance premiums are higher for younger drivers and why improving safety is key to reducing insurance costs for young drivers.

As the hon. Member for Upper Bann mentioned, the ABI has previously recommended the introduction of a graduated driver’s licence and I am sure that Members would be grateful if the Minister provided an update on whether his Department is still considering such a policy. If not, what alternative measures are he and his colleagues taking to ensure the safety of young drivers?

Will the Minister also provide a timeline for the Government’s plan to publish the findings of their Driver2020 study, which aimed to test the effectiveness of a telematics approach using a mobile phone application rather than having to fit a black box? Again, I am sure that young drivers and the insurance industry would benefit from clarity on this point. The Minister will need no reminding that the last strategic framework for road safety was published in 2011 and that, although road fatalities fell by 50% when Labour was last in office, since then they have fallen by only 8%.

As a number of Members have mentioned, road safety is a particularly important issue for young drivers, who are more likely to be injured or killed on our roads. Road safety should be a top priority for Government, so it has been disappointing to see a lack of progress on this issue. Will the Minister tell us whether he plans to publish the long-promised update to the strategic framework for road safety?

The hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) mentioned the speed awareness course. In a previous Westminster Hall debate, the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), told us that the Department of Transport’s own figures suggested that attendance of a speed awareness course reduces the likelihood of a driver being involved in a serious road traffic incident. Are the Minister and his colleagues considering the benefits of speed awareness courses? Are they considering making them part of the driving test to help to boost safety, not least among young drivers?

Finally, I thank the hon. Member for Upper Bann for securing the debate and for her excellent presentation. Supporting the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to reduce its backlog will help young people to get on to the roads, while cheaper insurance and promoting safer driving will help those who have passed. I agree that we should be supporting younger drivers and doing more to ensure their safety on our roads. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s analysis of the potential solutions that have been raised today.

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mrs Latham. I want to thank the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) for bringing this important debate to the House. Hon. Members may have noticed that I am not the roads Minister, but I am here because the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has to appear in the Adjournment debate. I was only asked to do this a couple of hours ago, so I am a last-minute stand-in for an area that is not in my brief. I ask hon. Members to forgive me if I do not answer every question here, but I will make sure that the questions are answered afterwards.

The debate focuses on an important issue. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and I must be the same age, as I too passed my driving test aged 17, 40 years ago. I was very keen to drive as quickly as possible, for all the freedom it gave me growing up in Cambridgeshire. I have two teenage children who I am currently encouraging to learn to drive, so I am aware of all the things that various hon. Members mentioned as regards the difficulties of young people driving.

Obviously, as a parent, I am incredibly concerned about safety and very aware of the costs of insurance. I and the Government are big supporters of helping young people to be able to drive and to do so in as safe a way as possible. It really should not need saying that every single death on the road is an absolute tragedy, and even more so for somebody who is at the start of their life. We need to do everything we can to prevent that.

The Government will continuously strive to improve road safety, but overall we have a good record in the UK. I used to do quite a lot of work on road safety in the 1980s; there were around 5,000 or 6,000 deaths a year back then. Now, it is around 1,500 deaths a year. Each one is a tragedy, but that is a dramatic fall. We now have the third safest roads in Europe, with only Norway and Sweden having safer roads, but clearly we still need to do more because every death is a tragedy.

As various colleagues have mentioned, young drivers are a particular risk. Young drivers between the ages of 17 and 24 account for 6% of driving licence holders but were involved in 28% of fatal and serious collisions in 2022. However, like the headline figures, the number of car fatalities involving 17 to 24-year-olds on Britain’s roads is also falling. We have seen a drop in the number of 17 to 24-year-olds killed—from 448 in 1990, to 158 in 2010, to 101 in 2022. That is a 77% total decrease since 1990: a very significant drop.

I will try to address all the issues raised here as far as I can, but many are not for my Department, but for others. Indeed, many are also devolved issues and not for the UK Government but rather for the devolved Administrations. I will, however, endeavour to cover all the points raised.

Pretty much everyone who spoke raised the issue of car insurance. I pay car insurance and have noticed the dramatic increase. I was really quite shocked and, indeed, annoyed by it, so I am well aware of the dramatic rises. Various hon. Members have rehearsed the different arguments for it, but it is really quite shocking. As the Minister responsible for the decarbonisation of transport, I speak a lot to car companies, particularly about electric vehicles. The insurance there is also very high, so I have summoned a roundtable of insurers to talk about that in the coming weeks.

I have also heard from car manufacturers about insurance. Some hon. Members mentioned that insurance is £3,000, but we can multiply that by 10 for some cars, and I know that that is affecting car sales. In other words, the insurance is so high that people are not buying cars. The issue, therefore, not only affects young drivers, where it is clearly significant, but is across the piece.

Insurance operates in a free market that is not run by the Government. We have a strong regulatory regime in place and it needs to work to ensure markets work fairly and in the interests of consumers. The Government do not prescribe the terms, conditions or prices that insurance companies set when offering motor insurance—it is not a state-controlled market—and we do not intervene in the decisions of insurance companies when determining whether to provide cover. Indeed, direct Government interventions in a market of that nature could damage competition overall. It is therefore for insurance companies to decide the level of risk in issuing any policy to a given applicant.

As hon. Members know, insurers use a range of criteria to assess the potential risk a driver poses, including their age, the type of vehicle being insured, the postal area where they live, and their driving experience and record. They set their own premiums, and it is a commercial decision for them based on their underwriting experience. The Government do not intervene or seek to control that market, and nor should they. That said, my officials regularly engage with representatives of the motor insurance industry on a number of matters, including the rise in premiums—we have addressed that with the insurance industry.

The Financial Conduct Authority is the independent regulator responsible for regulating and supervising the financial services industry, including insurers. I have spent a lot of my career working with the Financial Conduct Authority, and I can say that it has a wide range of strong powers to intervene in markets that are not working well, and it has a statutory duty to ensure that markets work well in the interests of consumers. It has a broad range of supervision, enforcement and competition powers, including the power to undertake market studies where it thinks markets are not working well and to see whether they can work better.

If there are particular interventions that should be made, the FCA can refer markets to the Competition and Markets Authority, and that is the proper way of doing things. It is not my role as a Government Minister to try to instruct an independent regulator on how to appear, but I am sure that it is listening, and I know many people in various aspects of the industry are writing to the FCA to urge it to look at the insurance market. It is an independent regulator, and it is not my job as a Minister to tell it how to use its powers to meet those objectives.

The FCA has recently taken several measures to improve the fair value of insurance products for consumers, including reforms across the motor and home insurance markets. As hon. Members have said, on 1 January 2022 the FCA introduced new rules that require firms to offer a renewal price that is no greater than the equivalent new business price that the firm would offer a new customer. That is to stop the loyalty penalty, where loyal customers end up paying more than new customers, which was deeply frustrating and has now been banned. The FCA estimates that those new rules will improve competition and save consumers £3.7 billion over 10 years. Under FCA rules, firms are required to ensure that their products offer fair value—that is, the price the consumer pays for a product or service must be reasonable compared to the overall benefits they can expect to receive. The FCA has been clear that it will monitor firms to ensure that they provide products that are fair value and that, when necessary, it will take action.

It is important to highlight, as some hon. Members have, that young drivers are generally less experienced and, sadly, more likely to be involved in collisions. They subsequently carry a higher risk with insurers when they seek motor insurance and, as a result, often pay higher premiums. To counter that, some insurers have introduced the use of telematics or in-car black boxes to allow better risk-based pricing of insurance, especially for new drivers. As hon. Members have said, many new drivers are safe drivers but are being punished with higher premiums because of those new drivers who are not quite so safe. If an individual has a real-time data feed, it allows the insurer to assess their driving behaviour, and that has not been possible in the past. The use of this new technology can help reduce insurance premiums if drivers show good driving behaviour with a black box installed in their cars.

That is a lovely idea that the insurance industry has put out there. However, if it is for someone’s children, it makes absolutely no difference because until the insurers have gathered the data on the driver, they do not reduce the premium. It is an after-the-horse-has-bolted solution and does not really fit the problem.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Clearly, it takes time for the insurer to gather the data and to give the benefit, but this can be useful in reducing premiums for certain young drivers.

Different insurers obviously take different views of their relevant factors in determining the price for insurance, and the motor insurance market is very competitive. As we all know, if we look online we will get many hundreds of different quotes. The message from the Government is that consumers should shop around to find the best products. Certainly, when I have renewed insurance and shopped around, I have found dramatically different quotes. It is quite surprising for a competitive market to see how different the quotes are—it is really worth doing. The British Insurance Brokers’ Association runs a not-for-profit “find a broker” service if someone wants a broker rather than going directly online. It specialises in finding cover for those who have difficulties obtaining the cover they need at a reasonable cost.

Several hon. Members mentioned broader support for young drivers. As I said at the beginning, the Government are supportive of young drivers. For new and novice drivers, the Department’s broad aim is to improve road safety through new technology and research, and, particularly for young drivers, through developing better learning opportunities and targeted educational messaging, while reinforcing vital behaviour change road safety messages through our THINK! campaign.

The THINK! campaign aims to reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured on the roads in England and Wales by changing attitudes and behaviours among those at most risk. It has an annual media spend of over £3 million, with recent campaigns on drink-driving, speeding and mobile-phone use. The primary audience for the campaigns is male drivers aged 17 to 24, who are at a higher risk and are four times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than drivers over the age of 25.

Several Members—including the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), who is no longer in her place, and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sefton Central—mentioned driving test waiting times. Indeed, the hon. Member for Upper Bann also mentioned that. I should say that Northern Ireland driving testing is a devolved issue, so that is up to the Northern Ireland Government—and now that there is one in Northern Ireland, I suggest that the hon. Lady raises that matter with the Northern Irish Government.

For England, Wales and Scotland, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency priority has been to reduce car practical-test waiting times while upholding road safety standards. The DVSA has deployed all eligible managers and administrative staff back on to the frontline for driving tests until the end of March. That will create around 150,000 new test slots. The measures put in place to reduce waiting times for customers, together with the ongoing recruitment of driving examiners, are creating, on average, more than 48,000 extra car test slots each month. As of 12 February 2024, there were 523,353 car practical driving tests booked—that is a very precise number—and 128,360 available within the 24-week booking window.

Several Members, including the hon. Member for Upper Bann, mentioned graduated driving licences. Indeed, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) sang their praises as well. Again, I should say that driving licensing is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, as has been recognised, so, again, Members with particular issues or concerns about that in Northern Ireland should speak to the Northern Ireland Government.

In Great Britain, the Department for Transport keeps driving licensing requirements under review, but there are not any plans, at the moment, to introduce any further restrictions on younger drivers. We acknowledge that, in terms of population and the number of miles driven, 17 to 24-year-olds remain one of the highest fatality risk groups, especially males.

We do have a form of restricting novice drivers though the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995. On acquiring their first full licence, a new driver is on probation for two years. During that time, they are subject to a limit of six penalty points received for any driving offences, which includes any that they received during their learning stage. If six or more points are received, a driver’s licence is revoked and they must apply again for a provisional licence, re-entering the learning stage and going back to square one.

In the road safety statement 2019, action 8 was to

“Commission research to explore the potential of a Graduated Learner Scheme”.

That research was delayed due to the pandemic, but we look forward to receiving the findings of that in due course. Action 9 was to

“Commission research to explore the social and economic consequences of introducing Graduated Driving Licence”,

which is different from the graduated learner schemes. That research was not taken forward, but we are aware of the TRL report for the RAC Foundation and the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund, “Supporting New Drivers in Great Britain”, which was published in October 2022. In that report, eight areas of concern were considered, including potential impacts on access to employment and education, and on those in rural areas.

My Department has commissioned the £2 million Driver2020 research project to examine interventions designed to help learner and newly qualified drivers improve their skills and safety. The project includes looking at the effectiveness of telematics, the use of a logbook, extra hazard perception, classroom-based education, and mentoring agreements. We look forward to receiving the findings from that project, which will feed into considerations of further measures that we could take to improve road safety for young drivers.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Upper Bann for securing this debate on such an important matter. I hope that hon. Members are all reassured that Government are committed to supporting all road users and to improving the safety of our roads. That includes young drivers, who, as I mentioned, are involved in far too many crashes.

I thank the Minister for his response and for committing to take on board issues such as the roundtable. He mentioned the THINK! campaign, which I think needs to be promoted further, and the graduated driving licence and what will come out of the initiative that was introduced in 2019. I thank him for his response, and I encourage him to continue to push this issue.

I thank all those who have contributed, including the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin), who spoke very eloquently and mentioned learning in Australia. That is really important. He also mentioned the idea of parents being first educators and awareness of safety issues.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He is ever the encourager and always brings issues from Strangford to the table. I am still thinking of him with black gloves on. As he said, it is unjust, unfair and unaffordable—those three are key words. We need to learn from that.

I thank the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for bringing us the lived experience of his daughter and mentioning the need to support young people. He also mentioned learning in Australia.

I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for his contribution. He mentioned research by the FCA and the CMA into hidden fees. We really should start to delve and dig into that issue. The key thing is pushing the Financial Conduct Authority to do a market study into this to try to identify ways and means of driving the price of insurance down for young people. We need to ensure that our young people can get on to the roads safely with premiums that are affordable. I thank all who contributed and I thank you, Mrs Latham, for your assistance from the Chair.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Government support for young drivers.

Sitting adjourned.