Thursday 22 April 2021
The Grand Committee met in a hybrid proceeding.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee.
Body Mass Index
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, this is a subject of which I have spoken in the past, but what inspired this debate in my name was the report and subsequent publicity from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, chaired by Caroline Nokes MP. The report points out that on an arbitrary line with an ideal point in the middle, when it applies to people, most are not at that middle point. When that is used to identify health, you are effectively saying that a lot of people are not healthy. That idea is suggested as a good guide to what one should be—I have spoken about it in the past. However, not everyone is in the middle. The guide says that one should be X height and X weight.
The report spoke about the damaging effect of body image, predominantly among the female population, particularly the young. It is yet another thing that says, “This is what you should weigh, look like and be.” But it should not be just like that. It is worth remembering that in the current environment this applies also to males. It is increasingly applied to all young people and, indeed, the whole population. There is an accepted norm. The internet has exacerbated a situation that has always been there.
Most of us in this debate will have spoken about retouching photographs and making sure that they are idealised versions of people. That is now taken to a new level. Some of the work that we have been doing was referred to in a debate on a Private Member’s Bill last week regarding restricting plastic surgery. These issues are adding to the problems, but if this approach is taken as a medical guideline, you are getting the wrong information on which medical procedure might be taken. Given the information that is put out, along with the press coverage, we should be worried.
I wish that I could have given some of my time to other noble Lords taking part in this debate. With conditions such as anorexia, someone can be told, “You are not light enough to receive help for that eating disorder, because you don’t hit a certain point on the graph.” Regardless of what that person’s frame or exercise patterns have been, by taking that decision, one is actually making someone’s medical condition more difficult to treat because somebody is looking at the guideline and saying, “This is where you should be.” This is a difficult situation for everybody. Certain medics will be better at this than others.
Here, I should probably say why I took an interest in this issue in the first place. According to this measure, I, like everybody I played rugby with, was dead a while ago. As somebody who once had somebody put a hand on his shoulder and say, “You were born to play prop forward,” I possibly have a bit of an axe to grind. To use myself as an example, I once had a neck injury and a chap—he became best man at my wedding and I was best man at his—looked at me and said, “You’ve got a neck injury? What neck?” We have to carry a bit of this.
This approach does not work for people like me. We are constantly told to lose weight. I remember being told by a doctor when I was having a check-up for some insurance, “Well, according to this, you are too heavy,” and in the same week being shouted at by a coach, “You’re not eating enough for my exercise programme.” Of the two, I know which one I listened to. But if you take this type of information that pays absolutely no attention to physique or exercise pattern, you will get bad answers, which do not help with any form of general public health pattern. You cannot say, “This is what you should be.”
I know that we are trying to move slightly away from this approach. I have heard people say, “Take certain measurements and get the relationship across.” If you do a calculation like that, you are still going to get it wrong, even if it is slightly more accurate slightly more often. Medical professionals should be looking at somebody individually. If they cannot do that, they should withhold an opinion. I know that it is more convenient to look at a chart and say, “You are X height, you should be X weight,” but it does not work. It never has.
I have done some work on this in the past. This approach was invented in the late 1950s, I think, although the noble Lord may have better information. It was thought that it would do as a general guideline. We have got bigger since, with higher protein diets, and are slightly taller and bigger-framed. It is out of date even for an active person who is not carrying any muscle mass. If you are any form of athlete or taking any form of physical activity, you will acquire some muscle mass and muscle is much heavier than fat. Get a person healthy and fit and make sure that they do not hit your medical targets: why do we still have this? It does not seem to work at any conceivable level. It is telling people to attain to something and repeating the messages, “Nobody is perfect” and “Do something else”. It encourages damaging behaviour. It gives wrong information to medical professionals, who often look at somebody and say, “Ignore it.” Why are we still using it? Can we not just take it out and ask for assessments? An assessment is looking at somebody and assessing their activity patterns. Otherwise, we are going to continue to have these problems.
This is either wasting printing paper or slowing certain people down from getting the help and treatment that they need. Adhering to it makes it more difficult to get early treatment for eating disorders. Everybody knows that you must get in early, establish the patterns of behaviour and convince that person to change those patterns of behaviour. Anything working against that should be removed.
I could go on at length, but the danger of being totally self-indulgent is looming towards me, so I will conclude my remarks by asking the Government just a couple of questions. First, if this was proposed to the Government now, would they use it? Would they take and use an arbitrary level that does not correctly assess anything other than for a small percentage of the population? Secondly, if the Government would not take on something like that now, what would they recommend to doctors to assess health and well-being in the general population? Would it be easier to administer or not? The answer is probably not, but a bit of effort might help us to get a better public health outcome.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for tabling the Question. We may be debating some of these broadly related issues in even greater depth in the future, because the facts of life are that we have one of the unhealthiest populations in the whole of Europe. We now have some opportunities to review what we have been doing and what we might need to do in the future to improve our health. I have been given a good briefing by Diabetes UK, and I express my gratitude to it because I am one of those on the cusp of developing type 2 diabetes. That has been identified by two factors: a blood test and a BMI measurement with my doctor.
Without any doubt there are problems for those with eating disorders, and we need to address them, but we must be careful to ensure the right balance in dealing with the country’s health problems. The reality is that we have a greater problem—the numbers are much bigger—with people with excess weight than with those with too little weight.
While we acknowledge that there can be challenges in using and interpreting BMI as a measurement, as the noble Lord pointed out, the call for it to be scrapped could negatively impact on the care of those such as myself who are at risk of diabetes. Used appropriately, BMI can provide valuable information for care focused on individuals that does not discriminate against anyone. It is important that healthcare professionals take a person-centred approach to discussing weight and health, use appropriate language and consider the use of BMI based on individual circumstances. There are instances where the use of BMI may not be appropriate, so healthcare professionals should take a person-centred approach to weight and health. We hope that the integration of care outlined in the White Paper will boost the role of personalised care.
BMI is also an important tool for monitoring the population’s overall health and informing policy decisions. If we do not have that, we have to know what the alternative is to be able to make such assessments about the state of the nation’s health. Most recently, BMI data has been fundamental in the rollout of the QCovid population risk assessment, which identified 1.7 million people at increased risk of hospitalisation and death from coronavirus and enabled them to be added to the shielding list in March 2021. Without the use of BMI, that kind of population-based intervention would not have been possible and many lives would have been put at risk. I argue that we must retain what we have at the moment until something better is found.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for introducing the debate. BMI is used globally as a tool to assess a person’s size. It is a quick and cheap way to make estimations about an individual’s potential risk of disease or poor health. However imperfect a measure of health it is, I doubt that our discussion here, or the Select Committee’s report, will change the way doctors measure their patients and the risks to their health. The overall message of the report, however, drawing attention to the damaging nature of weight stigma and the consequences it can bring, is of course important.
Whatever measure used, what is also important is for healthcare professionals to feel able, without embarrassment, to discuss patients’ health and weight with them and, by using appropriate language, explain the long-term consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle. People need knowledge, support and encouragement, as well as a healthier environment, to make the changes necessary to improve their own lifestyles and thus take pressure off the health system.
Excess weight is one of the few modifiable factors for Covid, and our high obesity figures are one of the reasons why this country has been so badly hit. But even before the virus, it was clear that the unhealthy lifestyles so many in this country now lead were resulting in preventable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, some cancers, arthritis, the wearing out of hip and knee joints, and the discomfort of general ill health. Many of these conditions can be reversed by changing to a healthy diet. People need—and polling of up to 80% approval shows that they want—informed choices. The Government’s population-wide Better Health agenda is crucial to providing this. I commend them for the bold approach in the obesity strategy and urge them to stick to it.
Advertising works. If it did not then the food industry, particularly the ultra-processed and fast-food industry, would not do it. A KFC “Mighty bucket for one”, apparently the perfect meal for one person, contains 1,155 calories—over half the suggested intake. It is currently advertised everywhere. Young people are bombarded by paid influencers via social media. This needs to stop for their health’s sake.
Calorie labelling is crucial to success. Most people are unaware and polling shows that they want to know. Surveys show that 80% of adults do not know the calorie content of common drinks, which is substantial. A large glass of wine, for example, has around 200 calories, about the same as a doughnut. Unless people are supported and encouraged to move to a healthier lifestyle—and BMI is an important tool in the journey—with a better diet, a healthy weight and regular exercise, it will not just be Covid which affects them because the NHS, already under strain, will be unable to cope with the tsunami of obesity-related health issues coming down the track.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for introducing this debate and delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington. She takes food extremely seriously. I remember going to dinners with her when she took her own meagre dinner with her, because she was raising funds for charity by living on a very small amount to demonstrate not only that it is possible but the miserable lives that so many lead.
When we think of that sort of poverty and lack of food, to think of people in this country deliberately starving themselves is particularly difficult. Nevertheless, BMI is only part of identifying eating disorders. It is, however, a very important public health measure, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, that we should not throw out a measure which works helpfully as a public health guide. For instance, the shielding during Covid that was brought into play for those who had a particularly high BMI has proved effective.
Nevertheless, when GPs or other specialists use BMI it should be only part of an armoury of tools at their disposal. It is certainly not the only way in which eating disorders could or should be discovered. What is painfully clear is that people with anorexia are obvious just on sight; no GP needs to look at a BMI reading to spot anorexia. All too often, though, I fear that GPs are reluctant to diagnose eating disorders, in part because of the lack of services to deal with those conditions quickly when they need to be dealt with immediately. Anorexia is one of the most, if not the most, pernicious forms of mental illness and extremely hard to treat, but it is better caught early, as with so many diseases. Doctors use judgment and have to be relied upon to use it when wielding BMI as part of their armoury of tools.
Most important, though, is coping with the outbreak of obesity that has now hit this country, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, pointed out. Excess weight is a huge problem and really needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency for this country. It was highlighted by Covid but it will become much worse, as many have put on weight during the lockdowns. BMI will be part of the measures for dealing with that.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will not be surprised if I turn to sport to assess the effectiveness of BMI as a medical guideline. Ashling O’Connor, one of the finest sports journalists of her day, wrote at the turn of the century about the need for the Ministry of Defence to take note of modern sports science after its long-held physical standards for new recruits were excluding exceptional candidates, including top rugby players. The Army’s weight limit, based on the BMI classification, was based on a calculation that divided height in metres squared by weight in kilograms. That would have discounted many Olympic gold medal winners.
Much was made at the time of the case of the two finest Olympians this country has produced. Sir Matthew Pinsent would not have been admitted to the ranks, as he weighed more than 17 stone, because, standing 6 foot 4 inches, his BMI would have been above the limit of 28. Sir Steve Redgrave—five times rowing gold medallist in an exceptionally tough endurance sport and in my opinion the finest athlete this country has ever produced—would only have sneaked in under the bar, with a BMI of 27.6. Ray Stevens, winner of a silver medal in judo in Barcelona in 1992, would definitely not have qualified at 6 foot and 15 stone, despite being able to bench press for 25 reps and run competitive half marathons. It is therefore not surprising that the English Institute of Sport discounts the outdated BMI test in favour of a more sophisticated method, such as skinfold callipers which squeeze subcutaneous tissue, and dual energy absorptiometry and body scanners measuring bone density.
Of course, we should place BMI in context, which, with slight variations over time, is your weight in pounds times 703 divided by your height in inches squared. Being based simply on height and weight, it takes no account of body fat percentage, muscle mass, bone thickness or genetic disposition to a certain frame. It assumes that everyone has the same percentage of lean tissue and fat tissue and it takes no account of those athletes who clearly have much more lean muscle mass than the average person. These facts seriously challenge the base assumptions behind the BMI formula. It exaggerates thinness in short individuals and fatness in tall and muscular individuals. The higher muscle content—in other words, lean mass—in athletes skews BMI, as lean mass is approximately 22% denser than fat tissue.
Although BMI has been adopted by the WHO as an international measure of obesity, it lacks a theoretical basis, and empirical evidence suggests that it is not valid for all populations. What can be said in its favour is that it is simple: it is a rough and ready calculation to an indirect health indicator of obesity or being overweight. I would expect the use of BMI to decline as a useful test and new measures such as the Bod Pod and hydrostatic weighing to take prominence, not least by the World Health Organization.
Having heard my noble friend Lord Addington’s speech, I have no doubt that all his points, and those made by other speakers, will be taken into consideration by the Government. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
My Lords, when I entered this House, 25 years ago, it was my noble friend Lord Addington’s body mass that aided the House of Lords in becoming unbeatable in the annual tug of war with the House of Commons. I am very pleased about that.
Yesterday’s Question Time in the Lords gave us a dry run for some of the issues being raised in today’s debate when the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, drew attention to a report by the World Obesity Federation linking obesity and deaths from Covid. The full range of the debate about obesity was on show, from those advocating making obesity not socially acceptable to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, making it clear that it was not the Government’s intention to shame those who are overweight.
If obesity is the health challenge that I believe it is then we need to get the science right. We have heard from my noble friend Lord Addington and the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, reasons why we should give credence to the advice of Caroline Nokes and the Women and Equalities Committee on not using the body mass index for weight shaming and recommending that it should be scrapped. But as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, indicated, we have also had advice from Diabetes UK, which says,
“while we acknowledge that there can be challenges in interpreting and using BMI as a measurement, the call for it to be scrapped could negatively impact on the care of those living with or at risk of diabetes.”
So the Committee will be interested to hear the Minister’s assessment of the validity of BMI in assessing weight and health risks.
I would also be interested in the Minister’s response to the challenges raised yesterday and today regarding poverty and obesity in both parents and children as well as the problems caused by the promotion, particularly to young women, of unrealistic ideals of body image, which all too often can lead to anorexia and other health harms. We must not lose sight of the fact that obesity brings with it ill health and threats to life, but countering it requires sensitivity and understanding as well as practical help based on sound science. It is a difficult path to tread. I look forward to hearing about that in the Minister’s reply.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for introducing this short debate on the effectiveness of the body mass index. I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute.
My focus will be to highlight the effect of childhood obesity, which we know is significantly increasing. This is where the Government urgently require further action in tackling significant inequalities in physical and mental health outcomes. It also represents a major challenge for the Government’s levelling-up agenda with regard to opportunities and outcomes for our young people.
The effects of weight bias and obesity stigma can be particularly severe for children. They can experience a greater chance of being bullied, leading to low self-esteem and poorer academic performance, which can severely affect their life chances. It is tragic, too, that many children growing up will also have associated health risks, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
When used appropriately, body mass index can provide valuable information for care focused on individuals that does not discriminate against anyone. It is important that healthcare professionals take a person-centred approach to discussing weight and health, use appropriate language and consider the use of BMI based on individual circumstances.
There are also clear opportunities for highlighting the contents of food. Retail outlets also must step up and support a move towards much clearer food labelling, particularly with additional nutritional and calorific labelling on the front of packaging in our supermarkets, cafés, restaurants and takeaways. Let us not forget all those highly calorific soft drinks, which must be addressed. We need stricter guidelines regarding rules on advertising. Evidence shows that children who are already classed as obese or overweight eat more in response to advertising.
Weight loss has been shown to bring undeniable health benefits, so does the Minister agree that, in any new plans, front-line services should provide obesity support in all the right cases?
Finally, I support BMI measurements in the context of them being used for informed, holistic and person-centred care where appropriate and where they can provide valuable information for care.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for his passionate introduction to this debate.
I applaud the Women and Equalities Committee’s work highlighting the impacts of the use of BMI on eating disorders and people’s mental health by disrupting their body image. Eating disorders are not niche. The 2019 NHS health survey found that
“16% of adults … screened positive for a possible eating disorder”.
Covid has increased the pressure on eating disorder services hugely, with referrals across the country increasing by 75% on average.
There is still an overreliance on BMI by GPs when diagnosing eating disorders to determine who is unwell enough to access treatment. Hope Virgo’s “Dump the Scales” campaign has literally hundreds of people, mainly young women, sharing how damaging it was to be told that they were not thin enough for treatment. It drives them deeper into this pernicious illness, which I know about from our family’s experience. Indeed, the evidence shows that early intervention is far better and offers the best hope of recovery.
The Government and the NICE guidelines are clear: BMI should not be used on its own as an arbiter of whether to offer treatment, yet GPs are still doing this. Why? First, there is inadequate training for GPs and other health professionals about eating disorders. The issue was identified by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman in his report on eating disorder services in 2017, in the follow-up report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2019, and in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough coroner’s prevention of future deaths report last month, to which the Secretary of State has to respond formally by next Wednesday. Will the Government now lead a strategy to improve eating disorder education in the medical profession, including embedding it in the curriculum? For GPs already in surgeries, a screening tool should be produced to ensure that, instead of relying on BMI, they ask the right questions of patients, with clear guidance on the language to use.
Secondly, GPs are using BMI to ration access to services as demand hugely outstrips supply. I welcome the Government’s recent investments in mental health funding, but it is mainly for children and young people, and only one in six eating disorder patients is under 18. Given the rise in demand, significantly exacerbated by Covid, without ring-fenced funding BMI will continue to be used to limit access to eating-disorder services, resulting in further unnecessary deaths.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, who spoke cogently on this subject, as she always does. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on securing this important debate.
The past year has highlighted the importance of health and, specifically, of weight as a determinant of health. Just yesterday, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us, the Minister stressed the importance of combating obesity and the historic challenge we have in our country in tackling obesity. Apart from age, it is the single most important factor in tackling Covid-19, for example.
I also welcome the broader message that the Minister has given out on more than one occasion about the importance of preventive healthcare and the accent we should all place on a healthy diet, an exercise regime, such as walking and cycling, and maintaining a healthy weight in so far as one can. I welcome any rebalancing of our approach to health in this way for the future. I think that is important and welcome.
I appreciate, as others do, that BMI is not a perfect guide to a healthy weight—far from it. For example, as we know, muscle is denser than fat, so somebody who has a muscular build will be heavier than somebody who does not, and different people may be susceptible to some diseases and so on. BMI clearly needs to be used alongside other factors—that is crucial.
However, from the perspective of getting the basic message across, there is no doubt in my mind that in tackling obesity the use of BMI is the right call to arms, although I accept we need to be very much alive to the mental challenge of the eating disorders that confront many people. It is undoubtedly the case, as the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, has just said, that pressure from Covid-19 has increased problems in relation to finding treatment for eating disorders. I would welcome the Minister saying something on this when he sums up.
I also look forward to hearing from the Minister about what specific actions Her Majesty’s Government are looking at around whether to nudge people with incentives, or at least opportunities, to exercise across the country; whether to take action to influence diet, for example, through school meals, hospital meals and meals in other institutions; how we are going to control excess sugar and salt in our diets, possibly through restrictions; and how we are going to control the advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks. These are important issues that we need to confront for the future and one of the lessons that we can clearly learn from the Covid pandemic.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on securing this debate. I also support calls from the Obesity Health Alliance to extend calorie counting information to cafes, restaurants and takeaways, both to inform the public and to encourage providers to offer both healthier options and perhaps—one element that is little talked about—reduced portion sizes.
Curtailing the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar and salt is essential. A recent survey cited by Diabetes UK in its helpful briefing reports that 74% of the public support not showing advertisements for junk food before 9 pm, on TV or online. Why only 9 pm? Why should such foods be promoted for adults? Type 2 diabetes is one of the fastest-growing health problems. It accounts for 10% of NHS spending already, and obesity accounts for 80% to 85% of the risk of getting diabetes, with 12.3 million people estimated already to be at risk.
As others have said, Covid carried particular risks for people who were obese. There are significant other health risks as well, including heart conditions, some cancers and respiratory problems. BMI may be a handy starting point, a quick and cheap way for estimating the number of those at risk of health problems. It is crude—the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and my noble friend Lord Moynihan are correct that sports people will have particular muscle mass and bone density advantages which turn into disadvantages when measured on a BMI basis—but this issue needs to be built on. As we know, BMI is just one basic measure. It does not account for individual differences.
Of course, body image issues contribute significantly to mental health and well-being. They can bring on or reinforce a sense of inadequacy. Fat shaming, anorexia and bulimia tend to be indicative of mental health problems. BMI therefore needs to be supplemented by blood pressure, ECG, cholesterol and muscle mass assessments, as well as, crucially, mental health assessments that can spot problems that may otherwise soon lead to health issues.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Addington on securing this debate. Having played rugby with him—and you cannot get closer to the noble Lord than being in the second row pushing against his noble backside— I suppose that, according to his opening remarks, I should be dead.
I share my noble friend’s concern about the misuse of and over-reliance on the BMI. To create a lifestyle that is dependent on staying within its limits is a mistake. It depends where your fat is stored. If your weight is around your waist disproportionately, you may well be within the BMI range but nevertheless at risk of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions. Studies instituted by Mark Hamer at Loughborough University some three or four years ago demonstrated that waist-to-hip ratio was a far better body indicator of health and longevity than the BMI.
I thoroughly agree with the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the expert research to which he referred. It shows, in short, that if you need braces as well as a belt to keep your trousers from slipping below your knees, you are in trouble—which I know, because that was my condition before I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma a couple of years ago. I have just now returned from my daily 7,000 paces with four inches off my waist and no braces. I cannot wait to get back on the water in a rowing eight—I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, will share my desire.
Life expectancy is increasing, but that does not necessarily mean an increase in healthy life years; it may be extra years of chronic ill health. The Scottish health survey published in the British Medical Bulletin in 2011 showed that, in the 10 years between 1998 and 2008, waist circumference increased by 5 to 10 centimetres in both sexes at ages between 50 and 70 years without a corresponding increase in BMI. It was thought to indicate an unfortunate circumstance of gain in visceral fat mass and loss of lean tissue. Both are major determining factors of ill health in the elderly.
The Women and Equalities Committee in the other place was right to find that BMI has turned into a justification for weight shaming and body image anxiety among the young. But, as I have said, it can be equally misleading as a guide to a healthy old age and, for this reason as well, the use of BMI as a measure of healthy weight should stop.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on this debate, which has already raised many interesting issues. Indeed, the report of the Women and Equalities Committee into body image is not new. Over 40 years ago, Susie Orbach wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue; she challenged body mass index as a measure of—as she said—“nothing useful” and pointed out how it affected women’s self-image. On the 40th anniversary of FIFI, as many of us know it, she said:
“When you grow up absorbing the idea that food is quasi-dangerous, it is hard to know how to handle it. There are no end of experts selling their wares whose books and products end up generating enormous profits … So, too, with other food and diet fads. The desperation that exists to be at peace and dwell in our bodies clashes with the knowledge that such schemas promote or reinforce confusion about appetite and desire.”
The fact is that, 40 years on, it is still pretty grim:
“It’s a story of … destabilising the eating of many western women and exporting body hatred all over the world as a sign of modernity”,
as a way of medicalising and pathologising
“people’s relationship to food and bodies so successfully that vast industries would grow up to treat problems that these industries had themselves instigated.”
What is clear from this short debate is that it should come as no surprise that BMI as a single measure would not be expected to identify cardiovascular health or illness; the same is true for cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. As a single measure, BMI is clearly not a perfect measure of health, but it is probably a useful starting point for important conditions when a person is overweight or obese.
The Select Committee said that it was
“not satisfied with the use of BMI as a measurement to evaluate individual health.”
On the other hand, as other noble Lords have said, Diabetes UK says that it provides
“valuable information for care focused on individuals that doesn’t discriminate against anyone.”
I dispute that, but it also goes on to say that it has been an important tool for monitoring the population’s health and informing policy decisions and has been fundamental in the rollout of the Covid population risk assessment, which identified 1.7 million people at increased risk of hospitalisation and death from coronavirus. Without that use of BMI, a population-based intervention would not have been possible.
The challenge for the Minister is how to reconcile these issues. I look forward to hearing his answer.
My Lords, I too am enormously grateful for the successful efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, in securing this important and insightful debate. Any debate on our weight, health and fitness is extremely personal and bound to arouse emotions. It certainly does in my household, and so it does in this Room. I very much welcome, though, a national conversation about these issues. It is the right time to be having it.
As noble Lords have pointed out, we face two major challenges. The first is that too many people are overweight or living with obesity. I have already spoken this week about this grave challenge faced by this country, which was clearly outlined by the World Obesity Federation report on Covid death. That is a real wake-up call. The Government have already swung into action to a degree. More is planned. We are trying our hardest to address the knotty problem that few countries have ever completed successfully.
The second issue that the country faces is that too many people have eating disorders that make their lives a misery and threaten their health. I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken movingly on this subject. Although she did not speak this afternoon, I reference the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, who recently arranged a stakeholder session with me that gave me first-hand testimony from those seeking to address these important issues.
I fear that poor old BMI, the much-maligned metric and subject of this debate, has in some ways become a surrogate and a scapegoat in a battle between two groups that see these two big issues—obesity and eating disorders—as somehow in conflict with each other. I do not want to take sides in any such battle. While I always welcome policy dialectic and the battle of ideas to hammer out the most sensible policy on complex issues, I do not think this should be a zero-sum game with winners and losers on opposing sides. Instead, I would like to work towards finding a way through, because it is imperative that, as policymakers, government Ministers understand the impact of our policies in one area on our policies in another area and somehow find a way of tackling them both in a complementary fashion.
Before I try to do that, let me say a few words in defence of the poor old maligned metric, BMI. It is, as noble Lords have pointed out, a very simple calculation—body weight divided by the square of height. It has been used by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the World Health Organization and countless health organisations around the world for decades as just this: a simple first step to establish if individuals might be carrying too much or too little body fat for their long-term good health. To answer the noble Lord, Lord McNally: as risk assessments go, BMI has proven value year after year, study after study, in countries around the world, for predicting premature death and many chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, some cancers and some heart disease. As my noble friend Lady Jenkin rightly pointed out, it is simple to measure and highly reproduceable. It does not require specialist equipment or clinical training, unlike many methods of assessment noble Lords mentioned.
None the less I recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, pointed out, that it is not perfect for all people. Muscly athletes are considered too fat, and it is problematic for the very old. It is not unique, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, pointed out, a measuring tape around the waist is also very insightful. But it works for most people very well. The reality is that most people who have a high BMI are also at risk of ill health and premature death. When establishing an individual’s health risk, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is right: health professionals must use follow-up measures and assessments as well, such as waist circumference. NICE is crystal clear about this and, as my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft pointed out, BMI is just the recommended first step in the assessment pathway.
I hear the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, loud and clear. I have read the stories to which she referred. I am extremely disappointed by them. It is not right and it is not recommended in the eating disorder commissioning guide. I agree that we need to listen to patients much better. I agree completely with my noble friend Lady Altmann that, in such cases, mental health assessments are absolutely essential. Similar safeguards apply to assessing whether someone is underweight, and of course it is absolutely true that conditions such as anorexia and other eating disorders require specialist assessment. NICE is looking at ways to improve the metric for ethnicity and other factors. None the less, given the large international evidence base underpinning BMI, its simplicity and its wide international use, I do not see it as likely that there will be wholesale change.
BMI is an essential tool in our battle against obesity. We have a huge problem in this area: six out of 10 adults and more than one in three children aged between 10 and 11 are overweight or living with obesity. In my briefing, I have page after page on the impact of obesity on the lives and futures of British families. It has a huge impact on the NHS, the causes of cancer and the causes of diabetes. It has an impact on women: obese women are 12.7 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and three and a half times more likely to have a heart attack than women who are a healthy weight. I could go on and on.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, rightly explained, it is children who are overweight or living with obesity who are sometimes affected the most. In particular, many experience bullying, low self-esteem and a lower quality of life. They are more likely to continue to be overweight or living with obesity into adulthood, which in turn increases their risk of type 2 diabetes, cardio- vascular disease and other chronic illnesses. We must do something to address this issue.
As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and my noble friend Lady Jenkin rightly said, during the pandemic we have seen a stark illustration of the impact of living with obesity. That is why we are acting. To answer my noble friend Lord Bourne, we are tackling the nation’s obesity with a new strategy. Published in July last year, it set out measures to get the nation fit and healthy, protect against Covid-19 and protect the NHS.
As my noble friend Lady Jenkin pointed out, there are many nudges in shops, on TV, on computers and on phones that encourage us to buy less healthy food. The Government are committed to restricting further the advertising of less healthy food on TV, and we are considering online restrictions on the promotion of less healthy food in shops. We are also committed to calorie labelling in restaurants and improving front-of-pack labelling on pre-packed foods. These actions are about helping people to make healthy choices.
At the same time, there is another issues that we must face: the national crisis around body identity and self-confidence, which, in some, manifests itself as extreme eating disorders or as mental health challenges. The Women and Equalities Committee report put it extremely well. Acute anorexia is a particularly distressing mental health condition that can ruin lives and cause horrible worries for the families of those concerned. That is why our mental health recovery plan is putting £500 million into work to ensure that we have the right support for people with mental illness, and I am encouraging further policy on positive body imagery.
I want to make my point clearly: I am concerned that there is a perception that these two agendas are somehow at odds with each other—that if we put calorie counts on menus, we will somehow trigger mental health episodes for those with eating disorders or reinforce a damaging body image culture, or that if we push our message on healthy lifestyles too much, we will stigmatise those with sensitivities about their body image. I simply do not accept that this needs to be the case. While I do not discount people’s lived experiences, it is important that we know what we are buying. The calorie count of everyday food available in fast-food chains is often absolutely shocking. The food we grab on the go or have delivered to our homes is now a big part of our diet, yet there is huge ignorance about what that food contains.
Collectively, we need to somehow work a way through this. The maths of it are really simple: there are 725,000 people with eating disorders in the UK. That number may be higher, as I recognise that some struggle to seek support and are not included in the figures. We must do everything we can to bring them the clinical support they need to address their significant mental health issues, so that they can live resilient lives and deal with the stresses of everyday living. At the same time, there are millions of schoolchildren and young people living with poor mental health. My DCMS colleagues are doing everything they can to address the challenges of social media in their lives.
In addition, there are 28.9 million adults in England who are either overweight or living with obesity. Somehow, we need to inspire those people to take on board a healthy lifestyle, which means changing their diets and taking more exercise. These are tough decisions that people can only make for themselves. It is not our business to deal in shame; we are dealing in honesty. That is where the BMI comes in, because it is a simple, unequivocal and, for most people, accurate predictor of risky lifestyles.
It is not beyond our intellectual capabilities to find a way through this conundrum. I am hugely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for bringing us the opportunity to debate these sensitive subjects, and I hope very much that we can work together to find an answer to this challenge.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 3.30 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes.
Alcohol Harm Commission: Report 2020
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I had the privilege of leading a group of 16 experts to investigate one of the most pressing issues of the day: the harm caused by alcohol. I extend my sincere thanks to each of those 16, who gave their time and expertise so generously in their dedication to reducing alcohol harm. The findings of the Commission on Alcohol Harm were stark. One cannot overstate the sheer scale of the harm caused by alcohol every day to individuals, those around them and society. Alcohol is linked to 80 deaths every day across the UK and, most worryingly, it kills people when they are young. Alcohol is responsible for more years of working life lost than the 10 most frequent cancers combined.
However, the commission found that alcohol harm extends beyond health. We heard a great deal about the impact on families: 200,000 children are estimated to live with an alcohol-dependent parent, making them five times more likely to develop eating disorders and three times as likely to consider suicide. Some children are harmed even before they are born. Exposure to alcohol in the womb can cause foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a lifelong developmental condition found in up to 17% of UK children.
The links between alcohol, violent crime and anti-social behaviour are strong. Alcohol fuels almost 40% of violent crimes and half of domestic violence. Drunk-driving causes almost 9,000 casualties and 260 deaths a year. Police Sergeant Mick Urwin told us that
“delivering a death message to a parent, brother, sister, son or daughter to inform them that someone has been killed by a drink driver is not something I ever got used to”.
The burden falls on all society, particularly public services. There are 1.26 million alcohol-related hospital admissions annually and alcohol costs the NHS £3.5 billion. The cost of alcohol-related crime is even higher, at £11.4 billion per annum. That is why sentencing to alcohol abstinence and monitoring is so important, with its high compliance rate allowing people to face and tackle their harmful drinking, and it has been shown to decrease repeat offending.
The extent of these harms is truly shocking but is no surprise, as alcohol is ubiquitous. That is why we titled the commission’s report It’s Everywhere—a quote from a witness. We heard how alcohol is all around us: at social gatherings, on TV, in supermarkets, card shops and the workplace, and at all times of day or night. People told us they could not escape from alcohol; “relentless” was a word we heard repeatedly. Although national consumption has fallen from 2004’s historical high, especially as more young people abstain, the increases in measures of harm and deaths persist.
Alcohol’s harm is often hidden in plain sight, leaving people to deal with it alone, unsupported. The stigma of harmful drinking makes people conceal their problem. Children instinctively understand that they are expected to keep quiet about their parents’ drinking. To quote another witness:
“Families and children like us didn’t and won’t discuss it for fear of being separated, being taken away from parents, being singled out ... feeling embarrassed, scared of repercussions and fear of retribution”.
The alcohol industry’s “personal responsibility” framing blames individuals for their drinking. Stigmatisation makes it harder to seek help. Blame lies within the product itself: alcohol is addictive. It can turn people’s lives upside down, as anyone listening to “The Archers” at the moment will know. It warrants careful regulation, hence the commission’s recommendations.
First, we call for an alcohol strategy. The last was almost 10 years ago. Revision is urgently needed—last year, alcohol deaths reached their highest level since records began. The updated strategy needs to include evidence-based policies to reduce the affordability, availability and marketing of alcohol. These tools, recommended by the World Health Organization, proved effective at tackling tobacco use. Let us look at each in turn.
Alcohol harm and price are directly linked. The alcohol duty system is inconsistent and perverse—white cider at 19p a unit feeds addiction. Affordability has grown significantly in the last four decades, driven by low prices in off-trade settings. Cuts to alcohol duty at the annual Budget have not helped—beer duty is now 21% lower than in 2012-13 according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies. We urgently need minimum unit pricing in England, as already introduced in Scotland and more recently in Wales. Tax should be proportionate to the harm caused.
The commission heard from witnesses how the constant availability of alcohol affects those who drink. One individual told us:
“My dad can’t help drinking. Every day we need bread, milk etc from the shop next to our house. When he goes in, the temptation is too much for him. It’s not his fault when it’s staring him in the face. Maybe if we didn’t live near a shop he wouldn’t be able to get drink as easily.”
Local authorities told us that they struggle to reduce availability under the current licensing regime. The UK Government could follow Scotland to allow local authorities to consider public health as a distinct licensing objective when assessing licensing applications.
Advertising and marketing set the tone for our relationship with alcohol. The alcohol industry spends hundreds of millions of pounds on advertising, much of which can be seen by children and vulnerable individuals, such as those with addiction. Children’s exposure to alcohol marketing makes them more likely to consume alcohol and to start consuming it at an earlier age. Opinion polling carried out for the Alcohol Health Alliance showed that 75% of the public support reducing children’s exposure to alcohol advertising. Many countries, such as France, restrict such marketing to better protect their populations. We should follow suit.
Consumers have a right to know what they are drinking. It is bizarre that currently there are fewer legal requirements for information on a bottle of wine than on a carton of orange juice. Unlike soft drinks, alcoholic drinks do not have to list their calories or sugar content or ingredients. Consumer information is grossly inadequate, as there is no statutory requirement for drinks to carry a health warning, warnings about alcohol in pregnancy, or the weekly guideline for low-risk consumption. Without label information, consumers are unaware of the risks and cannot make informed decisions.
Time does not allow me to cover the toll on the NHS and social care, where the burden of alcohol harm ultimately falls. Suffice it to remind your Lordships that alcohol is the leading risk factor for death, ill health and disability in 15 to 49 year-olds in England. It was causal in almost 12,000 cancers in 2015—that is 33 people a day—particularly cancers of the mouth, pharynx, oesophagus, larynx, breast, bowel and liver. It is also a factor in over 200 other diseases and injuries, including hypertension, heart disease, stroke, gastrointestinal disorders, brain damage and mental illness. Deaths from alcohol liver disease have increased 400% since 1970.
The Government have tackled tobacco harms and shown in their recent obesity strategy a willingness to take bold action to protect the public’s health. With an estimated 1.6 million adults in England having some degree of alcohol dependency, I hope that the Government will show the same boldness and heed our report’s recommendations.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Finlay for her powerful introduction. I declare an interest as one of the members of her commission, which she so admirably steered to producing such a wonderful report.
In the limited time that we have, I want to focus on calories. I have been banging on about calories since the Labour Government were in power and about the need for calories to be shown on labels for alcohol. Why is the drinks industry exempt from telling people what they are consuming and what it might do to them?
I am pleased that we are starting to make some progress. There is a firm recommendation in this report and I hope that the Minister will be positive. One of the old excuses for why we could not do anything was that we were in the European Union and legislation and regulations there prevented us from acting unilaterally. We have now come out of Europe and we now have the freedom to do as we choose. I look to see whether the Minister will take sides on this issue, now that he has the freedom to do so, if required.
I had a useful conversation this morning with Sir Keith Mills, who has been appointed by the Prime Minister to review the way in which incentives might be used to encourage people to reduce their weight and exercise more. He is looking at new technologies; there are some developments taking place that are of some significance. I see that the Minister is nodding in agreement, so perhaps when he comes to respond he might say a little more about that. A change would allow an app, on our mobile or on our wrist, to tell us, for all items that have calories marked on them, just what we are purchasing. We would know what is in our shopping basket while still in the supermarket. That would be a big change. We should not permit the drinks industry to be exempt from that change.
I hope that the Minister will assure us that the consultation will be concluded soon and the Government will come out with a strong indication that, for the first time ever, we will have formal labelling on alcoholic drinks.
My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Liver Health, for which this is a very relevant debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for all her work in this field.
What do we need to make inroads on this problem? Obviously, first, we need better access to treatment. Secondly, Scotland’s minimum unit pricing saw a net reduction in off-trade sales by 4% to 5% in its first year. That is worth while, but it is not enough in itself.
Recent research by Cardiff University—I declare an interest as chancellor of that university—has demonstrated the link between food purchases and alcohol purchases. Buying the food for our meal literally prompts us to pick up the bottle of wine or beer from the next aisle of the supermarket. This research suggests that food and alcohol sales need to be separated and not part of the same trip to the till. Many other countries do this. I recall that in Australia the same supermarket sold both sets of items, but you went to a totally separate section and paid a separate bill for the alcohol. Finland, Sweden, Canada and some parts of the US apply similar rules. The Government should explore this.
We need further controls on the advertising of alcohol. Finally, we need more information on labels and when we buy alcohol in the pub. If we buy a lemonade or crisps or a bar of chocolate, we know the calories and contents. When we drink a glass of wine, we deserve to have access to the same information on calories and the number of units.
My Lords, as another of the commissioners, albeit a rather absentee one, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for instigating this debate and to all those who participated in the report either as witnesses or by taking evidence. Its findings were powerful and worrying.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and I worked together in 2011 to persuade the Government to legislate for compulsory sobriety tagging for alcohol-related crimes. The alcohol abstinence and monitoring requirement, which checks offenders’ intake every 30 minutes, was piloted successfully and is now rolled out across the country. There is a clear connection between problematic alcohol consumption and crime, particularly heavy drinking or binge-drinking and violent crime. The most recent findings, from the Crime Survey for England and Wales in 2018, estimate that the proportion of violent incidents where the victim believed the offender to be under the influence of alcohol was 39%. The estimated total social and economic cost of alcohol-related harm in 2018 was £21.5 billion.
Reducing alcohol-related crime will mean fewer victims, save taxpayers’ money and have a positive impact in communities and on individuals. The legislation to introduce this solution to alcohol-related crimes took more than 10 years from conception, when Boris Johnson as Mayor of London first asked for it, to final implementation. It is a common-sense, effective, value-for-money solution. Why did it take so long?
In the time I have left, I, like others, commend the Government for their commitment to calorie labelling of alcoholic drinks as part of the obesity strategy. Polling shows that the UK public are overwhelmingly supportive of health and nutritional information on alcohol labels. It is clearly absurd that alcohol-free beer, for example, shows nutritional information but ordinary beer does not. This has to change. It is another common-sense, effective policy and I urge the Government to stick to their plans.
My Lords, I chaired a committee for the Home Office in 1987 on young people, alcohol and crime. Many of the recommendations in this report, ‘It’s Everywhere’ - Alcohol’s Public Face and Private Harm, are similar to those in the 1987 report.
After the report in 1987, I learned that advertising for the alcohol industry is powerful, vigorous and effective. To balance that, it is vital that there should be a forceful, effective education policy to alert everyone, especially the young, to the dangers of unwise drinking. I had two goddaughters who died of alcohol harm, and my mother-in-law, who was an alcoholic, also died early. I spent many years working with young offenders and alcohol was one of the problems involved their lives. Alcohol causes so much violence and family stress.
Recently, university students have died after rugby initiation drinking games. It appeared that they did not know of the dangers associated with drinking large amounts of alcohol over a short period of time. There should be far more forceful warnings about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption across the country if we want to save lives. I thank my noble friend Lady Finlay of Llandaff for this report and I hope that the Government respond positively.
My Lords, I too congratulate the commission on its work in highlighting the harm caused by the abuse of alcohol. I wish to focus my brief remarks on the relationship between alcohol and domestic violence.
The statistics make this clear. Home Office figures indicate that alcohol is involved in up to 50% of cases of domestic abuse, as we were informed earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. Though not necessarily a direct cause, it is frequently a significant contributary factor. What is more, when alcohol is involved, the abuse affecting children, as well as adults, is more likely to be serious, increasing the risk of physical, emotional and psychological harm. This has, of course, been a particular problem during the last year with the various restrictions that have been imposed to counter the coronavirus pandemic. The commission’s findings on this, as well as several other types of harm, must surely cause Her Majesty’s Government to rethink the statement made in January 2020 that they
“are not planning a stand-alone strategy”—[Official Report, 21/1/20; col. 1043.]
for alcohol. It would complement, rather than cut across, proposals made in the NHS Long Term Plan.
The commission strongly recommends a strategic approach that would not only address the link between alcohol abuse and domestic violence but take into account some of the factors that frequently accompany harmful alcohol consumption. These factors include educational exclusion, social deprivation, financial distress, employment worries and psychological pressures. I wholeheartedly commend the commission’s proposal that the domestic abuse commissioner role, which is being created as part of the Domestic Abuse Bill, must have a duty to have regard to the link between alcohol and domestic abuse in its work.
My Lords, introducing minimum unit pricing for England was a key recommendation of the commission. A strong evidence base for this was provided by a wide range of organisations, including the Children’s Society, the Association of Directors of Public Health, Cancer Research UK, the British Medical Association and several local authorities. A 50p minimum unit price in England has been estimated to lead to almost 22,000 fewer hospital admissions and 525 fewer deaths per year when in full effect. This would save the NHS £1.3 billion annually. As hospitals deal with the consequences of Covid-19, freeing up capacity is essential. People who live in poverty are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol abuse. It is estimated that nine in 10 lives saved by minimum unit pricing would be from low-income groups. Yet the spokespeople for some business groups and right-wing organisations oppose minimum unit pricing, citing their previously rarely expressed concerns about poverty, when their real concerns are simply about profits. We need to remember that alcohol has a major impact on the public’s health.
Alcohol can cause over 200 conditions including cancer, heart disease, liver disease, stroke and mental health problems. When I asked a Question about this issue three years ago, the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, then the Health Minister, cited evidence that
“in 10 years, minimum unit pricing could on an annual basis reduce alcohol-related deaths by 356, alcohol-related hospital admissions by 28,515, and crime by 34,931 crimes.”—[Official Report, 28/2/18; col. 654.]
But we were told to wait for more evidence from Scotland and elsewhere. We now have that evidence. The policy is working in Scotland; it is being introduced in Wales. We should not have to wait any longer in England.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those offered to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for initiating this debate. I refer the Committee to my interests as set out in the register.
I want to make just one quick point today: my belief that we need to be more careful about how we talk about the negatives of consuming alcohol and the need to be balanced in the advice given. Throughout this pandemic, we have seen the effects which lower socialisation has had on people’s health and mental health. I have always believed that a society which socialises together is stronger and healthier. Although alcohol does not have to be integral to a healthy social life, moderate alcohol consumption undoubtedly plays a large part in British culture and the social lives of many millions of people who enjoy pubs, clubs, bars, restaurants or indeed entertaining at home.
It is widely acknowledged that the comments made by the previous Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, when she said that women should think about the risk of breast cancer every time they reach for a glass of wine, were misjudged. They were ultimately rebutted and reworded, but the horse had already bolted. Another, more recent example is from Drinkaware, which advised people getting their Covid-19 jabs not to drink in the two days before the jab and for up to two weeks afterwards. That advice then had to be dismissed by Ministers and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, not least because not one study has tested any correlation between alcohol and the efficiency of either of the vaccines on offer in the UK today, a fact that even Drinkaware acknowledged.
Questions should be raised with Drinkaware about how this irresponsible advice could ever have been given, not least by the drinks industry, which for some reason continues to fund it. The problem caused by this type of nonsense advice is that it helps create a sense that all advice on alcohol consumption is nonsense. It undermines sound and sensible advice given by Governments and related health industries. Yes, of course overconsumption of alcohol is unhealthy, but our modern-day temperance movement needs to temper creating fear and to start acknowledging that most people have common sense and just enjoy a modest drink.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, has withdrawn, I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley.
My Lords, there is always a danger when addressing lifestyle choices that policymakers indulge in overreach. The relentless war on alcohol emanating from public health over recent years is no exemption. This can mean the state trampling on individual agency, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, in yesterday’s Question on obesity. There is another danger when reports are commissioned to look at harms: that they see only harms and see harms everywhere. This can mean a disproportionate focus on risk and a loss of balance.
My concern about the direction of this report is that it moves away from the sometimes exaggerated health harms of individual alcohol use into the broader social and economic realms. In doing so, it may deploy guilt by association by linking alcohol and drinkers with reprehensible behaviours such as domestic abuse, family neglect, crime and child suicide and with a financial burden on public services. There is also the danger of conflating causation with correlation. This can mean that harms associated with a small minority are projected population-wide. Indeed, the proposed illiberal solutions, such as minimum pricing, treat everyone as a potential problem drinker and alcohol per se as a harmful substance.
Surely we need balance. Alcohol is a legal and enjoyable part of human engagement and relaxed sociability for millions of people. The direction of this report could disproportionately penalise and unfairly demonise the vast majority of those who drink responsibly.
Finally, can we remember the hospitality industry? With lockdown, some 10,000 pubs, clubs and restaurants were forced out of business in 2020. That awful loss of jobs and livelihoods looks set to continue. We have seen curfews and pubs open but with alcohol banned in Scotland and Wales. This smacks of a joyless puritanism. I appreciate that I am almost a lone voice here, but there is no democratic mandate for “Temperance UK”. Policy interventions should be targeted, discreet, and aware that alcohol can be harmful but usually is not, and that grown-ups should be free to choose how they use alcohol regardless of risks.
My Lords, alcohol harm requires a cross-departmental response because of the range of harms that alcohol can cause. That is why I support the call of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for a coherent, cross-government strategy.
The commission says, “It’s everywhere”, and it is. Drama can often explore complex issues in real life. The writers of Radio 4’s “The Archers” know that, hence their recent storyline about Alice’s struggles with alcoholism.
There are parallels with the obesity crisis, and there the Government have at last recognised that regulation has a part to play. The same goes for alcohol. We live in an obesogenic and alcogenic environment, and regulation can help. For example, people often do not know how much they are drinking or how strong a drink is. I have been asking for two decades for all alcohol to have its calories and alcohol units clearly labelled, but that still does not happen. I hope that will change now.
Services are thin on the ground. When police are called to an event of domestic violence, they should be able to link the perpetrator to therapeutic services and the children to social services. But this does not happen because the services are not there. This is crazy because, putting aside the human cost, money could be saved if they were. Are GPs and antenatal clinics confident to ask questions and refer people to alcohol services, where appropriate? Probably not.
Finally, the report says that, in Scotland, deprived groups are six times more likely to be admitted to acute hospitals and 13 times more likely to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals for alcohol problems than the least deprived groups. So the matter is often related to poverty. However, poor people can afford alcohol—because it seems to make things better; it is an escape from the misery of people’s lives. If we banish poverty, introduce minimum pricing and provide services, we can go a very long way to solving alcohol harms.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a fellow commissioner on the Commission on Alcohol Harm.
We are all too aware of the impact of alcohol on adults and the increase in liver disease and premature deaths as a result. But it is important to recognise that the genesis of this addiction to alcohol may start with the very young. Our focus should therefore be on the negative effects of alcohol advertising on children.
Professor Yvonne Kelly of the department of epidemiology and public health at UCL looked at social media and its impact on alcohol consumption in 6,700 British youngsters. Among 10 to 15 year-olds it was found that those who log on for one to three hours daily were 44% more likely to drink alcohol, while those who log on for more than four hours per day were 89% more likely to drink often. But those with no social media profile were 59% less likely to consume alcohol than those using social media, even those using it for less than one hour per day. Professor Kelly noted that
“the pattern…among 10 to15 year-olds in our study is particularly striking, given that the purchase of alcohol for this group is illegal, coupled with the potential problems associated with the introduction of alcohol from an earlier age.”
More must be done to protect children from alcohol promotion, including online and via sport sponsorship, as has been done successfully with tobacco advertising—a campaign that focused on the impact of smoking on children. We must now apply those lessons learned to alcohol. Will the Government take note of the WHO recommendation for the enforcement of comprehensive restrictions on alcohol marketing and apply them in the UK?
My Lords, for such an excellent report, two minutes will not do it justice. The commission report that we are debating does not pull its punches and I would have been disappointed if it did. “It’s everywhere”—walk through any town or city centre in the UK from midday onward and it is difficult to miss those sitting on benches, amiable but often addicted to alcohol, drinking their cheap booze, which is often cider. At just over £1 for a litre of a supermarket’s own brand, that is a cheap way to get drunk. For the most part, they make no trouble early on; later, they can become rowdy and, after closing, violent. Local authorities license outlets—pubs, corner shops and supermarkets. Is it really necessary to have five outlets within a three-minute walk for a town with a population of just over 9,000?
This all comes at a cost, but, for many, after time, there will be an impact on their friends and families. Addicts are not easy to live with and relationships suffer. Health suffers too. Service providers need to be aware that primary services for those dependent on alcohol need to be fairly close to places of work or home for those who need them. Funding for services for addicts is from local authorities. Can the Minister guarantee that local authority public health services will still be funded through the future health and social care Bill? To move addiction services to the NHS would be a retrograde step.
There is also a woeful lack of psychiatrists training in addiction psychiatry in England. Can the Minister confirm that there is a nationwide drive to attract trainees?
I realise that there is no instant fix, but how successful are the Government in encouraging young health professionals to train in these areas?
My Lords, I thought I would read out all the recommendations very quickly. They are:
“1. A new comprehensive strategy… 2. Alcohol harm should be a specific part of the remit of the new Domestic Abuse Commissioner … 3. All professionals who have regular contact with children and families must have a core competency to intervene and provide support in cases where alcohol harm is evident … 4. Action to prevent, identify and support Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder … 5. Reduced price promotion of cheap alcohol through increased alcohol duty and minimum prices with regular reviews of prices in relation to inflation and income … 6. Restrictions on availability of retail alcohol through reduced hours of sale and reduced density of retail outlets … 7. Comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising across multiple media, including restrictions on sponsorships and activities targeting young people … 8. Alcohol labelling to provide consumers with information about alcohol harm … 9. Treatment and care for alcohol use disorders and co-occurring conditions … 10. Brief psychosocial interventions for people with hazardous and harmful alcohol use, with appropriate training for providers at all levels of healthcare … 11. Action to reduce drink driving”.
Almost every one of those has been mentioned in some way or other during this brief debate, so I hand them all over to the Minister, asking whether the Government agree with them. Will they enact them, and in what timeframe?
That is a tremendous challenge by the noble Baroness. I will do my best, but before I do, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on securing this important debate. I commend her on her commitment to reducing alcohol-related harm and I pay tribute to her and her team for spearheading the excellent report of the Commission on Alcohol Harm. I welcome the report’s recommendations and the opportunity to debate them. Before I make progress, I shall make a disclosure that my wife is a director of the company Diageo.
I acknowledge the report’s emphasis on wanting to change the conversation within society about alcohol and challenge alcohol’s position in our culture. Alcohol is not something which affects only the “weak” or “irresponsible”. It affects many people. We know that most people drink responsibly. I take on board the warnings of the noble Lord, Lord Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that we must be careful about overstating the specific dangers of alcohol or demonising those who drink responsibly. There is some good news in this area: we are seeing an overall decrease in the amount of people drinking, especially young people, which is highly encouraging. But we cannot avoid the fact that there are still those who drink at very harmful levels and where alcohol misuse leads to significant harms for the people involved and their families. I speak as one whose mother died of her alcoholism when I was of a young age, and I know from personal experience the huge impact that alcoholism has on those concerned and their families.
We recognise that there is still much work to be done. I completely agree with the rapporteurs that alcohol has large impacts on society that include costs to health, lost productivity and poor quality of life. Excessive alcohol consumption is the biggest risk factor attributable to early mortality, ill health and disability among 15 to 49-year olds in the UK—full stop. It is considered to be the third-largest lifestyle risk factor for preventable diseases in the UK, after smoking and obesity.
The Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable at risk from alcohol misuse. We have an existing agenda on tackling health harms from alcohol, and I would like to touch on some of that today.
I completely hear the call of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for a new government alcohol strategy. The Government have committed to publishing a new UK-wide, cross-government addiction strategy. This will consider a range of issues, including drugs, alcohol and problem gambling and will involve many departments at the same time. While each comes with its own set of issues, there are large amounts of common ground and significant benefits in tackling addiction in a comprehensive and joined-up way. The scope of this addiction strategy is still being developed, so this debate is most timely as we consider what more can be done to protect people from alcohol-related harms.
On alcohol labelling, the Government completely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that people have a right to accurate information and clear advice about alcohol and its health risks to help them to make informed choices. We have worked with the alcohol industry to ensure that alcohol labels reflect the UK Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk drinking guidelines. The industry has committed to complying with this requirement, and we are closely monitoring progress. As part of the Government’s latest obesity strategy, we committed to consulting on the introduction of mandatory calorie labelling on pre-packed alcohol and alcohol sold in the on-trade sector. This consultation will be launched this summer.
My noble friend Lady Jenkin raised the shocking statistic on alcohol-related violence, and I completely agree with her analysis. It is shocking to me that between 2016 and 2018 alcohol was a factor in 66% of violent incidents that took place in the street, pub or club and on public transport; this compares with 30% of violent incidents in the home. Between 2017 and 2019, one in five homicide suspects is recorded as being under the influence of alcohol at the time of the homicide, as is a similar proportion of victims. I have a deep wad of statistics that make extremely grim reading on this matter.
On the specific issue of domestic abuse, we are making progress. We know there is frequent co-existence of domestic abuse, mental health problems and the misuse of drugs and alcohol. Research indicates that in 34% of incidents of domestic violence, the victim perceived the offender to be under the influence of alcohol. The Domestic Abuse Bill will see better protections for victims and more effective measures to go after the perpetrators. We will reflect the importance of joining up domestic abuse, mental health and substance misuse services in the supporting statutory guidance. One action of this important Bill is to establish in law the office of the domestic abuse commissioner, with strong powers to tackle domestic abuse. The description of the commissioner’s role states that they must adopt a specific focus on the needs of victims from groups with particular needs, which could include mental health or substance misuse.
My noble friend Lord Ribeiro asked about restrictions on alcohol advertising. I remind him that there are already substantial restrictions on the advertising of alcohol, but we are working to review and improve them. The Government are working with industry to address concerns over irresponsible promotions, advertising and marketing relating to alcohol. Material in the Committee of Advertising Practice and Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice codes relating to the advertising and marketing of alcohol products is extremely robust already, recognising the social imperative of ensuring that alcohol advertising is responsible and, in particular, that children and young people are protected. None the less, the Government are reviewing how online advertising is regulated in the UK, taking into account the many serious points made by my noble friend Lord Ribeiro and looking at how well the current regime is equipped to tackle the challenges posed by the development of online advertising.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, spoke so movingly about children and family life. The evidence is absolutely clear that growing up in a family affected by parental alcohol dependency can cause significant harm to children’s well-being and their long-term outcomes. Thanks to the personal testimony and campaigning of many noble Lords in the Grand Committee today, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Work and Pensions have together invested £6.5 million on a package of measures, over three years, to improve outcomes and support for children whose parents are alcohol-dependent.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked pressingly on minimum unit pricing. There are no current plans to implement MUP in England. MUP has been in place in Scotland for less than three years and the Scottish Parliament will not consider its extension until April 2024, when much more will be known about the overall impact on consumption. We will continue to monitor the evidence as it emerges from Scotland and Wales. In the meantime, we are committed to reducing alcohol-related harm and so have already banned alcohol sales below the level of duty plus VAT. This means it will no longer be legal to sell a can of ordinary lager for less than 40p.
I close by reiterating the Government’s commitment to supporting the most vulnerable at risk from alcohol misuse. We already have a strong programme of work under way to address alcohol-related harms, and the new UK addiction strategy will provide an important opportunity to consider what more can be done. This activity will be informed by the best available evidence, including the report from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I thank her very much for pushing so hard on this important issue and securing such a thoughtful, interesting and passionate debate today, and I thank all noble Lords who have taken part.
My Lords, the Grand Committee now stands adjourned until 4.30 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit for this debate is one hour.
Covid-19: Poverty and Mass Evictions
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful for this chance to talk about something which has caused me a lot of sleepless nights. Thirty years ago, I started the Big Issue. In the past 30 years, including through the Covid period, we have been working with in the region of 7,000 to 9,000 homeless people a year. With some notable exceptions, they are people who were socially prepared, almost from birth, to fall into some kind of crisis. The most common thing among them—apart from the fact that a lot of them have depression, drug and drink problems, social problems such as the breakdown of relationships or come from the working poor, the long-term unemployed or broken homes—is that they did very badly at school. We have 7,000 to 9,000 people. It used to be a bit more in the days of Mr Cameron, but it seems to have gone down a bit, which is a good sign because I do not want one vendor of the Big Issue, to be quite honest. Those people have been socially prepared, and I mean that in the nicest sense of the word; I am not blaming anybody. I am just saying that if you meet them you know that their circumstances are often wretched but they come from wretchedness. Often their family are working poor and their grandparents were working poor and all that, so you could say they have been socially engineered to become the army of people who are homeless.
Last year, when in the region of 35,000 people were taken in from the streets it was wonderful—absolutely marvellous. It was enough to make you cry, and I say that with full sincerity. The way that the Government put their arms around homeless people was incredible. I have never known anybody do that in such a large and manifest way. The figures were that something like 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 people were expected but it turned out to be nearer 35,000 people. If you look at the profile of where they come from, you can expect the result that could lead to the streets. As an ex-street person, I was socially prepared from a very early age. This does not mean that everybody born into poverty has to end up as a John Bird sleeping rough and in the prison system and all sorts of things like that, but a majority of people come from that profile.
Covid-19 has introduced us to a much more frightening reality. We have those people—quite a small number in the region of 50,000 to 60,000—who are rough sleepers throughout the United Kingdom but there are in the region of about 250,000 to 300,000 people who fall into what is called homelessness, whether they are sofa surfers, in hostels or temporary accommodation, with a small cohort to be found on the streets. So you could say that there is in the region of about 300,000. I am not one of those persons who is going to stick with any figures because I have heard contradictory figures from all sorts of people and organisations. If you believe some of the figures, you get up to nearly 300,000; if you believe another lot, you would think that it was 500,000. Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that you have socially prepared people who have failed at school and failed in many ways. They have all sorts of problems around drink and drugs—a cocktail of problems.
Covid-19 has thrown up a completely new group of people. If 2 million people are expected to lose their jobs—we know that the Government are trying to do wonderful things there—and a large amount of people fall into homelessness because of Covid-inspired evictions, you have a completely different group of people. In many senses, it will include middle-class and professional people—people who have had all sorts of support in their lives and should never have become homeless but for the problem of Covid-19. Now, not the socially prepared people—the people I come from; you could say that we kind of half expected it—but people who are not prepared, and whose families and children have fallen into depression, are in this group.
The Government’s response, especially in moving the goalposts, so to speak—that is, moving the eviction ban back to the end of May—has been a series of stopgap actions. We all know that we are in the middle of an emergency; we are not out of it yet. When working in an emergency and trying to move on, saying “We’re going to do this for a bit longer, we’re going to do that for a bit longer” actually undermines the well-being of the people who as yet have not manifested as homeless and presented themselves as such.
We will potentially have hundreds of thousands of homeless people. If we take the 400,000 people living in rented accommodation, not to mention the people who are behind with their mortgages and have had a number of mortgage holidays, and the nearly 400,000 people who are at least nine months behind in their rent—if they pay £1,000 a month, they are £9,000 behind —we could have hundreds of thousands people presenting themselves as Big Issue vendors. I certainly could not handle an enormous amount of people like that.
We have to move beyond the emergency. We have to have a road plan from the Government because it is unnerving people who are caught in this position. We also have to take account of the fact that 60% of people who live in rented accommodation are renting from people who have only one or two flats or houses, and letting is their pension or income. All the big landlords cover the other 40% but it is mainly backbone people in the community and all that.
Today, we have launched a campaign. We are making a film for the 30th anniversary of the Big Issue and it will be about this crisis. We hope the crisis does not happen, but we have to find a way of convincing the Treasury that, for all the money it has spent, if it does not spend money now on preventing people falling into homelessness, the cost could be anywhere between £20,000 and £100,000 per person who does. The cost to the National Health Service if we let hundreds of thousands of people slip into homelessness is untold. So, now is the time for the Government.
I and all the other people working in homelessness prevention will do whatever is necessary to help the Government through this sticky situation. I know, and everybody knows, this is not easy. We have to keep people in their homes, we have to pay their rent or mortgage and we have to support them through the emergency. The emergency might be over in three weeks, it might be over in three months, it might be over in three years, but we have no alternative. Otherwise, the cost will double and treble because it is sometimes four times more expensive to keep people in homelessness than to prevent it. That is what I am asking the Government to do.
I realise that a lot of people will say that we cannot dump this cost on the future generation. I was born in 1946, and I, with many of my contemporaries, finished paying for the Second World War in 2007. Let me tell noble Lords: this is very similar to the Second World War.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on securing the debate and on the uniquely powerful way he has introduced it. The Government will have a lot of help on hand to answer the first question the debate raises: the assessment of the risk of mass evictions. In all the statistics we have from the many agencies in the field, the Government point to the cliff edge, which has been postponed yet another month to the end of May. Much of what I say will build on what the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said.
The National Residential Landlords Association estimates there will be 800,000 people in arrears, the people the noble Lord described, who have never contemplated or imagined homelessness. They now face a real possibility of eviction for failure to pay rent. Fifty-eight percent of them have never had rent debt before, and almost one-fifth have debts of more than £1,000. Most at risk are the 11% of private renters who are now unemployed. As we know, Covid has hit the youngest hardest, taking their jobs and job prospects away. They will feel the full force of homelessness. The lucky ones will be able to retreat to the safety of the family home or squash in with friends, but there will be many who will not be able to do that.
It is significant that the NRLA has made common cause with housing charities. They have urged the Government to prepare a long-term strategy, rather than fight fires month to month. The NRLA estimates that about one-third of landlords will leave the market anyway or reduce their holdings. The Minister for Justice said on Monday in this House that it was nothing to do with him and that it is a housing problem. Of course, it is, but it sits urgently within a long-term structural problem of a failing housing market that can be solved only by making a priority of affordable and social housing. I am sure the Minister will tell us how much money has gone into supporting tenants and mortgages. Very well done, but it is absolutely the right thing for the Government to spend their money on.
The second exam question today is: what next? What is the long-term plan? What will it consist of? How will it address housing needs and costs and welfare benefits? When will it be announced? These are the answers the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee has asked for. It has asked for a strategic, resilient exit plan for the sector to transition out of the pandemic into stability and, specifically, for a modest financial package of discretionary housing payments of between £200 million and £300 million.
I therefore have a few questions for the Minister. When do the Government plan to respond to the Select Committee report and this proposition? When will the Government make a decision on the future of the £20 weekly uplift to child benefit? When will the Government bring forward their long-anticipated renters reform Bill? If the Government still do not know what to do, will they make a start by following the example of Wales and creating longer term security for tenants?
My Lords, I should remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. This is the second time this week that we are debating this matter. On this occasion, it is an opportunity to discuss government policy approaches, or rather the absence of them, because just extending the temporary ban on evictions once again, as was agreed on Monday, is not sufficient, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for enabling us to keep pointing out the need for workable solutions from the Government.
The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has drawn attention to the report of the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, and I want to quote a little more from it. On 31 March, the Select Committee said that:
“The Government will eventually have to come up with a policy response, because it cannot keep extending the evictions ban forever more.”
It went on to say:
“We call on the Government to deliver a specific financial package —we prefer discretionary housing payments—to support tenants to repay rent arrears caused by covid-19, in consultation with the Local Government Association and appropriate bodies representing renters and landlords. We received an estimate that this package will likely cost between £200 and £300 million. Given the number of potential evictions this would prevent, it would likely save the Exchequer a substantial amount in homelessness assistance.”
What is the Government’s response?
The Resolution Foundation has estimated that the rates of rent arrears across all tenures were
“at least twice the level of arrears observed going into the crisis.”
It further estimated in January that more than 750,000 families were behind with their rent.
The Secretary of State committed a year ago that no one would be forced out of their home because they had lost income as a result of coronavirus. He also said that no landlord would face unmanageable debts. Landlords’ organisations and renters’ organisations have come up with a plan for a government-led rent relief scheme. The Select Committee has come up with a plan too. Many thousands of tenants and landlords are now extremely worried, so when will the Government decide what action to take?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for initiating this short debate. He mentioned that it was 30 years ago that he launched the Big Issue. I was the Housing Minister at that time, which was the first time that I met the noble Lord, and it is a pleasure to join forces with him again this afternoon in the campaign to prevent homelessness.
This debate follows on closely from Monday’s debate on the prevention of eviction order, answered by my noble friend Lord Wolfson. When he replied to that debate, he very modestly said that he was a humble Justice Minister and that many issues raised were for MHCLG, hence the welcome opportunity to follow up those issues this afternoon.
I welcome the Government’s decision to extend the ban on most evictions in effect until mid-June, which aims to strike a balance between the needs of tenants and those of landlords. I also welcome the generous support that the Government have extended to renters: the LHA increase, the UC uplift, the one-off payment of £500 and the increase in discretionary housing payments. These will enable the majority of tenants to cope, with some forbearance from their landlords.
However, as noble Lords have said, when the temporary arrangements come to an end, there will be a problem. Of course, each time the Government for understandable reasons extend the eviction ban, the greater the amount of arrears that are likely to build up. This is a particular problem for the 56% of families with arrears who are not in receipt of benefits and therefore are precluded from discretionary housing payments.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, had some estimates. Roughly one-quarter of a million social tenants and the same number of private renters were estimated by the Resolution Foundation to be behind with their rent in February. This poses a particular problem for the courts, which are already under pressure due to the pandemic backlog, but much more important is the problem for families facing eviction.
I know that Scotland and Wales are different, but the problems that confront private tenants with Covid-related arrears are basically the same wherever they live. The Welsh scheme was launched last autumn. The tenancy saver loan scheme is repayable over five years with interest at 1% and is operated by credit unions. It is paid direct to the landlord, and is available only if the credit union believes it is affordable. Once tenants have applied for the loan, they can access support and advice services to help them manage their financial situation. It was welcomed by housing charities and landlord representatives alike. In Scotland, they have a very similar scheme, launched last September. Its tenant hardship loan fund offers interest-free loans to those unable to access other forms of support for their housing costs.
I know there is an argument for grants rather than loans. They are simpler to administer and avoid adding to debt, but they are more expensive for the taxpayer and unfair to those tenants who made sacrifices to pay their rent while their neighbour next door, who made no such sacrifice, may get a grant to wipe out the debt. Loans avoid that moral hazard. I do not expect the Minister to change government policy when he winds up, but will his department carry out a quick review of the Welsh and Scottish schemes to see whether there are any lessons which we might learn in England?
My Lords, this is an important debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing it. The lockdowns and the shutdown of economic activities caused a loss of income for many workers and were especially difficult for those whose livelihoods depend upon daily wages. At the start of the March 2020 lockdown, the Government put in place a package of emergency housing measures to keep people safe in their homes during the pandemic. The Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, pledged
“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”.
Figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government indicate that rent arrears have tripled to affect almost 700,000 over the course of the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of renters have fallen into rent arrears. Sadly, many of these people are widows and partners who have lost the breadwinner in the family as a result of Covid-19. They have no income and cannot afford to pay rent for their accommodation. Under the current regulations, evictions are paused but will resume from June onwards. Therefore, will the Government provide financial support to these women, who have lost their spouse or partner as a result of Covid-19 and have no source of income, to save them from being evicted from their homes? Furthermore, will the Government clear their debts built up during the pandemic? I am afraid that these vulnerable women will otherwise become not only homeless but the victims of many heinous crimes.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, the trade body for housing associations in England. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on securing a most timely debate.
The Government took speedy and decisive action to bring in the ban on evictions, introduce the universal credit uplift and deliver the “Everyone In” initiative. That was well done. This package undoubtedly saved lives and prevented people losing their homes and being plunged into poverty at this most difficult of times. The Minister knows that the worst impact of the pandemic has not been evenly distributed across our society. People on lower incomes have had higher contraction and mortality rates. Many of them have lost jobs or are stuck in precarious employment. Things for them have got worse in the past 12 months, and the future is not looking bright.
Research from the National Housing Federation shows that since the start of the crisis the number of social rented households in England claiming the housing element of universal credit has increased by 39%. In addition, around 60% of households that claim universal credit are in rent arrears. This picture is just for the housing association sector, which has put in place robust measures to support residents. For people in the private rented sector, the situation must be a lot bleaker.
Housing associations pledged from the start that no one would be evicted because of financial hardship caused by the pandemic. They set up schemes across the country to help residents get access to the vital financial support they needed through the welfare system. For example, Sovereign Housing, which operates in the south-east, has retrained 75 members of staff to help residents who are facing a drop in income. It has partnered with local businesses to help these residents find employment. Unfortunately, such initiatives alone will not be enough. Many families now stand on a cliff edge. What will prevent them falling off?
As the country’s economic and social recovery starts, we must not leave people who are already struggling even further behind. The eviction ban is, of course, not sustainable in perpetuity but I hope the Minister will acknowledge that we face a real and present danger of unravelling the complex support system that is keeping people’s heads above water. We must learn the lessons from this crisis—that a safe, affordable and decent home, with effective government support where needed, is the bedrock of a compassionate society.
With strong government action and leadership, we can prevent hundreds of thousands of people facing long-term financial hardship. Can the Minister commit to preventing those families falling off that cliff edge by keeping the support packages currently in place, including the £20 increase in universal credit? Can he also tell us what assessments his department and the Government have made of the implications of withdrawing this package for the housing situation of individuals and families?
My Lords, I was shocked to read that Citizens Advice had published a report which said that 58% of those who have now fallen behind on their rents were not in arrears before the Covid pandemic. Total arrears in January 2021 were estimated at £360 million. This has a knock-on effect on landlords, with 60% of them saying that they have lost income. Many are reliant on that rent as their only income. I declare my interests as set out in the register.
I have repeatedly welcomed the ban on evictions as introduced by this Government because it is of critical importance during such uncharted times that people retain their homes, as that gives them stability and confidence when they face such uncertainty. In the latest renewal of the protection from eviction regulations, I queried with the Minister whether 31 May 2021 was too early. I appreciate that there needs to be a balance for the landlords who are carrying the burden of non-payment of rent because they are not bankers and, in many cases, are suffering hardship themselves through non-payment of rent. However, I doubt that mass evictions will help either tenants or landlords.
Logic tells me that there needs to be further help or the courts will be bombarded with eviction hearings, while local authorities will find that they are forced to help rehome people who have lost their homes. In effect, the problem is merely being shifted to local councils, which will often be forced to used unsuitable temporary accommodation. Can the Minister outline what range of measures the Government are looking to introduce that will help meet the arrears, even if only in part, avoid the rush to the courts for evictions and help local authorities not to be swamped with homelessness cases? Without those measures, it is a bleak picture ahead for those in arrears.
There is emotional turmoil for tenants in losing their homes. The stresses and strains from being in rent arrears pale into insignificance when compared to the emotional breakdown of being evicted. To be able to seek local authority help, a tenant has to go through all the heart-wrenching court proceedings of being evicted in order to produce a court order to prove that they have been made homeless.
I know that myriad suggestions have been made—from loans to help meet arrears, to hardship grants by local authorities. While not ideal, perhaps there should be some form of wiping the slate clean arrangement, whereby landlords are provided with some compensation for rent arrears while keeping the tenant in place, thus avoiding mass evictions, with housing benefit to cover. I should add that the local housing allowance needs to be retained at the 30th percentile or increased.
I commend the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for bringing this debate to the Committee as I know that he has done much to help the long-term homeless and speaks from the heart in seeking to avoid yet more homelessness. His contribution to this House and on the street, particularly with the Big Issue magazine, has been enormous.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this short but important—and, indeed, urgent—debate secured by the noble Lord, Lord Bird. I am grateful to Generation Rent and Shelter for their excellent briefings, on which I will draw in my remarks.
The package of support put in the place by the Government in March 2020 was of course welcome, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said. It clearly helped to keep people safe. However, over the course of the pandemic, many have fallen through the net. Thousands of renters are now in arrears, private renters have been evicted illegally, and those with no recourse to public funds who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own have no safety net at all.
I believe there are five things that the Government could, and should, do. The first relates to benefits, which have been mentioned. The Government should remove the benefit cap, make the uplift in universal credit payments permanent and unfreeze the local housing allowance.
The second measure would be to put in place a funding package to help to clear rent arrears that have built up over the pandemic—the “wiping the slate clean” idea mentioned by the speaker immediately before me, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. Then, of course, the Government should urgently bring forward a renters’ reform Bill to end Section 21 no-fault evictions.
The third measure would be to suspend the no recourse to public funds condition, which has pushed many into homelessness and destitution. This condition should be suspended for at least the remaining period of the pandemic.
Fourthly, local councils must be funded to resource tenancy relations services. This would help to prevent unlawful evictions, which have continued to occur and remain at a high level.
Lastly, the Government should invest in a new generation of social housing to lift thousands out of homelessness and poverty into affordable, permanent homes.
In conclusion, it should go without saying that any premises offered for private rent should be, at the very least, fit for human habitation. It is a matter of utter shame that any private renter lives in premises that fall below that standard.
My Lords, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the eviction ban was an important measure that the Government were right to take as part of the national response to this public health emergency. We know that, without it, many thousands of people would have been evicted from their rental properties with nowhere to go. The ban was always a temporary measure that would inevitably come to an end, but this should not mean that, when it ends on 31 May, things should return to how they were before the pandemic.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his introduction to this debate. He is a tireless campaigner on these issues. Evictions from rental properties are an issue of intergenerational fairness—a policy area in which he has been very active. I declare my interest in the register as chair of the Intergenerational Fairness Forum.
According to 2020 figures from the ONS, adults aged between 35 and 45 are three times more likely to rent and not own a home than they were 20 years ago. According to Generation Rent, the number of people in rent arrears has tripled since the start of the pandemic, with one in 10 renters now behind on their rental payments. With more than 700,000 eviction notices issued since March this year, we risk a real crisis once the eviction ban is lifted at the end of next month.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government took steps to find accommodation for all homeless people, but homelessness is something that we have grown to accept in recent years. The crisis of the past year has proved that we can house the homeless when there is political will. With the increase in remote working during the pandemic, we know that many office blocks will sit empty for the foreseeable future. Given both these points, it would be unacceptable for the number of homeless people to increase after the ban is lifted.
We also know that homelessness is not the only risk once the current eviction ban is lifted. Overcrowded and substandard living situations are a concern, especially as we continue to live through a public health emergency. We know that housing is a public health issue, and any increase in homelessness or in the number of people living in crowded and substandard accommodation will put at risk our actions to stop the spread of Covid-19. The evictions ban must inevitably come to an end, but it should not mean a return to how things were prior to the pandemic. We have an opportunity to rethink our housing policies and, specifically, our policies regarding rental accommodation. Let us do so as a matter of urgency.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bird, in his unique way of introducing this debate, has drawn to our attention the fact that many of the invisible victims of the pandemic are private sector renters. They have been hit badly. They are twice as likely to have lost their jobs; they are twice as likely to have reduced income, and most of them have never been in serious arrears before. He was right that this could become a new phenomenon if we do not prevent some of these evictions.
The Government of course recognised the plight of these people and introduced a block on evictions, but they did not block the deeply anxiety-inducing process of notice that can eventually lead to eviction. Generation Rent estimates that nearly 700,000 Section 21 processes have been started over this last terrible year. That means that, when the protection ends, a potentially huge number of people will for the first time in their lives face homelessness.
Of course many of the solutions mentioned today are necessary. We will need to extend the ban on evictions beyond the end of next month and to provide legislation which changes the ease with which people can be evicted. We also need to address the problem of their short-term and long-term security through our social security system.
However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, hinted, there is also a longer-term problem here, and that reflects the colossal strategic failure of housing policy in general over the past few decades. We have reverted to a situation which existed at the beginning of the last century, when a large proportion of the lowest-paid, lowest-income families lived in private rented accommodation. With the lack of access to owner-occupation and the loss of so much council housing, this is likely to increase. Unfortunately, though there are very good landlords and very good institutional landlords, there are also serious problems in respect of small landlords who do not really have the resources to provide decent homes and decent accommodation for those several hundred thousand people. The landlords face a problem themselves, in that they are operating at the economic edge brought about by this pandemic.
Unless we see this issue as part of a longer-term problem, the short-term fixes will not help. We need to restore the security of tenure that proper social housing used to provide, yet we have cut the net number of council homes and the net amount of social housing and reduced access to it. We need to address the immediate problems, but also to reverse the direction of much of the development of the wider housing market—and to do so now.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on his moving opening speech, on securing this all-important debate and on his work during this pandemic, in particular the Ride Out Recession Alliance. As he rightly said, the greatest danger of homelessness is among people leaving the rented sector, particularly the private rented sector, but I align myself totally with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, about the all-important safety net of housing for social rent.
On Monday, in this very Room, we debated the latest piecemeal approach to evictions—or “stopgap actions”, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, described them. While there is a stay on bailiffs enforcing evictions at present, it is the mere tip of the iceberg. According to Generation Rent, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, just said, around 700,000 people have received an eviction notice since March 2020. Can the Minister tell us what information he is using to ensure that only the most egregious cases are currently ending in eviction? When Tim Farron MP asked for a process, such as a register of evictions from landlords, he was told that that was not an option. Why not?
Gemma Marshall, who lives in the West Country, has recently been served with her second Section 21 in two years. She has an autistic son aged nine who struggles with change. She and hundreds of thousands like her have been forced to move during this pandemic. What advice does the Minister have for those tenants, and when will we see an end to this arbitrary eviction process?
Finally, arrears are now one of the most significant challenges for both tenants and landlords, as we heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick and Lady Gardner of Parkes, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Citizens Advice tells us that it would take an average of seven years for the people who come to it to pay off their debts. They desperately need a financial package; I support the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, in asking for an investigation into the viability of the kind of packages that we have seen in Wales and Scotland. As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said in reference to the Commons Select Committee, this modest financial package of between £200 million and £300 million pales into insignificance in comparison with the subsidy for home owners during this period. As the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, the majority of tenants now in arrears do not qualify for the current system of DHP support. By the way, on DHP, the £180 million has not been increased since the pandemic began.
We will hear some arguments about balance between landlords and tenants where the Government are somehow acting as the honest broker. I dispute that because, as the National Residential Landlords Association says, this Government are clearly breaking their promise that
“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home.”
It is time to fulfil that promise and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said, deliver a long-term plan.
My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register. I add my thanks to those of other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this important debate. I also thank Generation Rent and the LGA for their excellent briefings.
Evictions are paused but will resume from June onwards. To prevent a spike in evictions from June, the Government must provide financial support for tenants who have lost income due to coronavirus and permanently end Section 21 no-fault evictions; the protections end on 31 May. Tenants with more than six months of rent arrears are not covered by the ban. This is despite Robert Jenrick’s pledge in March 2020 that
“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home.”
Since the pandemic hit, rent arrears have tripled, which risks driving evictions. There is no doubt that the effect on household finances will exacerbate this further unless we see urgent action.
We came into this crisis with a staggering 253,000 people in England homeless and living in temporary accommodation. This includes almost 130,000 homeless children—almost double what it was in 2010. The truth is that, after a decade of this Government weakening the very foundations of our economy and eroding home security, at the start of the pandemic, way too many families were already on that precipice. The Government have not been nearly quick enough to confront the issue or respond to how the pandemic has exacerbated the threat of homelessness. The current ban on evictions is not working; loopholes mean that hundreds of people have already been evicted during lockdown.
I reiterate what some of my noble friends have already said in this debate. We need a Government who will end Section 21 no-fault evictions and update reporting mechanisms to provide a better picture of homelessness and rough sleeping across the country. They must end the debt crisis and bring forward the renters’ reform Bill to prevent a rise in evictions, together with raising the local housing allowance to cover median local rents; this would prevent shortfalls occurring and prevent debts building up. They should scrap the household benefit cap, ensure that families are able to access the higher LHA rates and create a Covid rent debt fund to clear tenants’ debts built up in the first wave of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, renters spent around a third of their income on rent; these arrears will take seven years to pay off.
The Government must introduce the renters’ reform Bill and permanently end no- fault evictions, as pledged in April 2019, to ensure that all renters have access to a stable and secure home. Without these measures, the Government’s promise that nobody will lose their home because of coronavirus is utterly meaningless. If we can do it in Wales, why can you not do it in England?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this important debate. I express my gratitude for his continued dedication in seeking to prevent homelessness, as well as for highlighting the risk of Covid-19-related poverty faced by our communities. The noble Lord was poignant in outlining the drivers of what causes people to sleep rough on our streets. I also thank noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions. I am glad to have the opportunity to update your Lordships on the Government’s assessment of the risk of mass evictions and our action to support renters.
The Government have taken unprecedented action to protect renters from eviction and homelessness during Covid-19. In March 2020, we introduced longer notice periods and worked with the judiciary to implement a six-month stay on possession proceedings. Legislation remains in place until 31 May to ensure that bailiffs do not serve eviction notices or enforce evictions, except in the most serious circumstances. Landlords are still required to provide six months’ notice, except in the most serious cases. This means that tenants served notice now will not have to leave their homes until October 2021.
To ensure that our measures are working, the Government have commissioned robust assessments on the risk of evictions resulting from the pandemic. For example, the English Housing Survey’s household resilience study was set up specifically to investigate household resilience in the light of Covid-19, with the wave 2 data published only yesterday. We do not consider that there will be mass evictions. The data continues to support this: the vast majority of private renters—91%–were up to date on their rent when surveyed in November and December last year. These figures are similar to the NRLA’s. The key is that these data also show that, of those in arrears, the vast majority have arrears of less than two months’ rent. In fact, the NRLA data also showed that, on average, the arrears were in the order of magnitude of £251 to £500, and that only 18% had rent arrears of more than £1,000.
We continue to encourage landlords and tenants to manage rent payment obligations sensibly so that they do not become an avoidable burden or cause avoidable disputes. We are grateful to landlords for their forbearance in supporting tenants during this time, and our interventions are preventing evictions. I know that some data has been presented by Generation Rent; we do not have official data, however. Ministry of Justice statistics show that reported applications to the courts for possession by private and social landlords between October and December 2020 were down 67% compared with the same quarter in 2019; and that only 548 repossessions were recorded between April and the end of December 2020, compared with 22,444 over the same period in 2019.
The Government are collecting, publishing and assessing robust statistics on homelessness, which include prevention and relief duties carried out under the Housing Act 1996. Statistics published today show that there has been a 40% decrease in households owed a homelessness duty due to the end of a privately rented tenancy, compared with the same quarter last year. The number of families in temporary accommodation is now at the lowest level it has been since 2016.
Overall, there has been a reduction in the number of people needing support from statutory homelessness services. This is driven by a reduction in the number of families threatened with homelessness as a result of the action that we have taken to protect renters. Our protections are working, and they strike the right balance between supporting tenants and landlords. They provide assurance to tenants but also support landlords to progress the most egregious cases, such as anti-social behaviour, more quickly.
The noble Lords, Lord Bird and Lord Shipley, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and my noble friend Lord Young all want to know: what next? As we move along our road map to recovery, we are considering the best way to transition out of these emergency measures, taking into account public health advice, and we will provide more detail shortly. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, has rightly raised the financial pressures faced by tenants during the pandemic, highlighted by the Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance campaign. I am heartened by the shared commitment that we all have to preventing such hardships wherever possible.
To this end, the Government have supported workers so that they remain in employment, with the job retention scheme extended until the end of September. The Government have also provided billions of pounds in welfare support to help people pay their housing costs. This included £1 billion to increase local housing allowance rates last year, so that they cover the lowest 30% of market rents, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Young. These rates are being maintained in cash terms throughout the current financial year until 2022, meaning that claimants renting in the private rented sector will continue to benefit from the increase.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, I say that the Government have also extended the £20 a week uplift in universal credit until the end of September and provided a one-off payment of £500 to eligible working tax credit claimants. For those who require additional support, the discretionary housing payments are available. We have made £140 million of funding for discretionary housing payments available to local authorities this financial year to support renters with housing costs in the private and social rented sectors. This builds on the £180 million available in the last financial year.
For those who become homeless or find themselves at risk of homelessness, we are providing local authorities with £310 million through the homelessness prevention grant. This funding represents a £47 million increase on the previous year’s funding and can be used to offer financial support for people to find a new home, to work with landlords to prevent evictions, or to provide temporary accommodation to ensure families have a roof over their head.
Looking to the future, and when the urgencies of the pandemic have passed, the Government are committed to introducing reforms to deliver a fairer and more effective rental market. This will be achieved by legislating to remove Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988—as we have pledged as a Government and as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, mentioned—to provide tenants with more security, but also to strengthen the grounds for eviction to ensure that landlords have confidence that they can gain possession when it is fair to do so. This will represent a generational change to tenancy law in England, so it is only right that such legislation is balanced and properly considered to achieve the right outcomes for the rented sector.
May I refer to some of the specific points that have been raised this evening by noble Lords? The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, mentioned the HCLG Select Committee report. All I can say is that we will respond in due course to the committee’s report on Protecting the Homeless and the Private Rented Sector: MHCLG’s Response to Covid-19; I am afraid I have no news on that.
I thank my noble friend Lord Young for raising what we can learn from Wales and Scotland, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. I will encourage my officials to look at what we can learn from the devolved Administrations, though I would say that there is a choice around whether it is right to offer loans, which in effect provide additional debt for an individual, as opposed to what we have tended to prefer, which is to widen our financial support. There is a choice and you cannot necessarily do both, but we will look at that in some detail.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, all raised various forms of direct financial support measures to pay rent arrears, which is not currently government policy. I do not propose to introduce government policy in this debate, but I have to say that everybody who they mentioned is eligible for the support that I have outlined—it is open to them.
With regard to no recourse to public funds, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, the rules have not changed. Eligibility is determined by local authorities, which have to use their judgment in assessing what support they may lawfully give to each person on an individual basis. We do not propose to change that at this point.
I assure noble Lords that the Government will continue to support renters affected by the pandemic. The measures that I have highlighted are in addition to existing commitments to deliver a fairer and more effective rental market for all. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for raising this important matter on the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Big Issue, which he can rightly be proud of, and I extend my thanks to the considerable number of noble Lords who have participated in this debate.
My Lords, the Grand Committee now stands adjourned until 5.30 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit for this debate is one hour.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership. One thing that I cannot take any credit for is the fact that this debate has landed up on Earth Day, which is incredibly useful and quite appropriate because it is about is one of the crises of our planet. The Question is straightforward: what are the Government doing about declaring an emergency on biodiversity? I am going to give the reasons why they should do just that.
First, obviously, it is because there is an emergency. We often think about this as a global issue. One may be away from the shores of the United Kingdom, particularly if regarding the rainforests of South America, large mammals such as tigers, or coral reefs and coastal mangroves. There is a crisis throughout the globe but it is equally so here in the United Kingdom. If we look at the various reports there have been around the state of nature, we will have seen that some 40% of species are in decline, 15% are under threat of extinction and, the one that struck me most, there has been a 13% fall in the abundance of nature since 1970. I can remember that year and since then our volume of nature has declined by over 10%—by 6 % in the past six years.
What also struck me in a report that came out earlier this week from the Woodland Trust was the great news that forest cover in the UK had doubled since the beginning of the last century. That is taken away from by the fact that only 7% of that forest and woodland is in good order and, even there, biodiversity has greatly declined. Of the 20 Aichi targets adopted back in 2010 at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Japan, the UK missed 14 of them. NGOs would suggest that we met only one. Globally, none of those targets were met, sadly, but that decline in nature is continuing. That is why we have an emergency on this planet and in this country.
The second reason why we need an emergency to be declared is because biodiversity is vital. Those many services provided by nature, often called ecosystem services—I was trying to avoid saying that during this debate because the world outside would look blankly at me—include genetic pool, pollination, soil fertility, clean air and water, the food chain, protection against disease and protection against pests. Indeed, we have found over the past year, so important during the Covid-19 emergency, that there is a help to the mental health and well-being of human beings. Without those ecosystem services, mankind will not survive.
My third reason for an ecological and biodiversity emergency is that the world outside this building has to notice it. At the moment, there is little recognition or understanding of it outside. If we compare it to climate change, it has taken perhaps two decades for the world, and the wider population of its citizens, to understand that challenge. Part of that has meant that it has overshadowed biodiversity. My opinion is that it is an emergency and we have to declare it, because we have to say that it is important and the rest of the world has to notice.
My fourth reason for declaring an emergency is that it needs to drive government policy. We have seen how this is working well, and I give credit to the Government today on climate change, our various objectives and targets and the way they are supposed to guide the action of all ministries and departments. We need that similar drive for biodiversity. At the moment, it seems to be only Defra that takes an interest. I give the Treasury all credit for the Dasgupta report, but it does not seem to have been particularly excited by it. I hope to be proven wrong when we finally get a response to it from the Treasury.
My fifth reason for an emergency is that this is much more complex than climate change. I could put my tongue in my cheek and say that climate change is dead simple because all we have to do is reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We can measure them, and we know all the solutions. The only problem is doing the road map to get there. Climate change is straightforward but biodiversity is much more difficult. We do not know all the answers, we certainly find it difficult to find suitable measures and metrics to follow and, even if we know them, to measure them is also difficult. It is complex and we need to concentrate far more on it.
My sixth reason is that it is the twin of climate change. They are both emergencies; one cannot be solved without the other. We cannot solve biodiversity challenges without climate change action—and without climate change action, biodiversity will continue to decline. We have that common agenda on, in particular, nature-based solutions and carbon sequestration. They work together and we cannot have one without the other.
What is my seventh reason? I have only three more to go. My seventh is that it needs a global champion, to be frank, and the UK could and should take on that role. We have the biodiversity conference—COP 15—at Kunming in China, now happening in October. This is the big opportunity for the United Kingdom to take a lead globally, give real profile and exercise the other powers that are coming to that conference so much more. At the moment, all the targets of the big conference back in 2010 have not been met.
Eighthly, it is the right time. Covid-19 and the crisis showed us so well how when people need to get out and enjoy the outside when it is so restricted nature and biodiversity are important to them. That is recognised much more now than it has been in the past. We need to build back better, and part of that needs to be through the biodiversity emergency. I believe we would have far more public backing than ever before. The time is ripe now.
Lastly, now is the right time for an emergency. It should be declared because we have the opportunity to do so in the Environment Bill. We have waited a long time for that Bill to come to this House. That Bill could become even more credible when it becomes an Act if a biodiversity emergency was declared as part of it.
Those are my reasons. This is a true emergency and something that Britain could lead on if it wishes to, and it should. Will the Minister say who will represent the British Government at the Kunming conference? More importantly, will he ensure that now or, as the Environment Bill becomes an Act, we as the United Kingdom will declare a biodiversity emergency?
My Lords, I declare my interests as chairman of the Woodland Trust and president or vice-president of a number of environmental charities.
As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, the biodiversity emergency is a real threat to our economy, our ability to meet climate change targets and our very survival globally. The Woodland Trust’s recent report, State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021, is a startling indictment of the perilous state of our native woodlands and their biodiversity. As the noble Lord said, despite increasing tree cover over the past 100 years, only 7% of our native woodlands are in good ecological condition and woodland wildlife species are in steep decline.
Defra’s 2020 biodiversity indicators report for England shows a chilling wider picture of decline: farmland and wetland birds are declining and the percentage of water bodies in good ecological condition is declining, to name but a few. The only things that are increasing are invasive non-native species and the rate of importation of plants and trees from abroad—both of which are bad—so it is official: there is a biodiversity emergency here in the UK.
If the UK is to show that strong international leadership that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, talked about, it has to be exemplary here at home. It must start in the Environment Bill with those legally binding biodiversity targets. The soon-to-be-published English tree action plan must be bold and ambitious in tackling the challenges outlined in the State of the UK’s Woods and Trees report, including by creating incentives for effective woodland management. Investment in the UK and Ireland saw the UK and Ireland sourced and grown assurance scheme, the expansion of UK tree nurseries for safe trees and legislation, at long last, for statutory protection for ancient woodland. This is an emergency.
My Lords, for biodiversity to be diverse and flourish in the UK, it needs habitat, species protection where appropriate, the provision of winter food for birds and animals and sensible predator control. Given all the protection and proscription that we have enacted over many years for habitats and species, one must ask why biodiversity is still in decline. Clearly our policy has failed. We are not good at providing winter food due to farming methods and efficient modern farm machinery. Hopefully ELMS will help with that. More importantly, we are increasingly bad at management, including sensible and humane predator control.
Mankind has changed the environment in which all species live. There has been the removal of apex predators, the introduction of alien species, the loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitats and pollution. Nature will always find a balance but, often, it is not the balance that we want and leads to a reduction in biodiversity, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said.
Take, for example, Auchnerran farm in Aberdeenshire, owned by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and managed for biodiversity. This year alone, two-thirds of the lapwing nests have already been destroyed by badgers. This is a property that is farmed for biodiversity. Similarly, at the trust’s property in Allerton, Leicestershire, there have been no hedgehogs for seven years and no waders for 10 years because of predators.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, mentioned trees. Of course, trees are suffering hugely from a deer problem. Deer are notorious browsers and are bad for coppicing. They reduce the understory, which is bad for nightingales, primroses, primulas, nesting birds, butterflies and other species. Of course, it suffers from grey squirrels too.
We have a severe problem, not an emergency, but we can solve that problem if we and the Government get our policies right.
My Lords, happy Earth Day. Many thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for securing this important debate.
As a land manager responsible for biodiversity in a small part of Devon, I am interested to know what the declaration of a biodiversity emergency entails. What is the geographical extent of this emergency? Should we declare a global emergency or a UK emergency or, as environmental policy is devolved, should we consider only England? Given that we have competence over only England and our overseas territories, should that not be the limit of our ambition? To pronounce wider and beyond our jurisdiction smacks of imperial overreach.
Secondly, what are the implications of such a declaration? What impact would it have on policy? Given the huge upheavals under way in agriculture and environmental land management, yet further changes could be confusing and mix up the message.
Thirdly, by what metrics is this emergency to be assessed? Is there a common standard that the Government would apply? Speaking from personal experience only, I am not convinced that 2021 constitutes such a biodiversity emergency in England.
To some embarrassment, I grew up with middle name Peregrine. I remember being given a painting of a peregrine as a child and being told that it was the only likelihood of me ever seeing the bird as they did not exist in southern England. Now we see them regularly off the red cliffs of Dawlish. Similarly, we now see ravens, goshawks and egrets, which were never present in my youth. I vividly recall camping out at night to see a rare badger in the woods. Now, dead badgers litter the roadside and the hedgehogs have gone. We have a hedgerow at home that was about the only place in England to see the Jersey tiger moth in the 1980s. Now, they are common across the south-west. Finally, as we have heard, on a macro scale, we have seen considerable reforestation of our country since the nadir of the First World War, albeit that much of it is admittedly coniferous monoculture.
The point I seek to make is that, on many metrics, through responsible land management, biodiversity has increased in recent decades while continuing to provide cheaper food to an ever-expanding population. The declaration of a biodiversity emergency now might ignore that important work.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, the only one caused solely by mankind. Since 1970, the worldwide human population has doubled, yet at the same time species have been wiped out faster than ever. What is this Government’s policy on population?
Up to one million species, plant and animal, are at risk of extinction due to human activities. David Attenborough is right when he says that we are the invaders affecting plants, animals, insects, oceans and ecosystems all over the planet. Half of our pollinators are in decline, and that is a real threat to food supply. If apple tree blossom is not visited by bees or other pollinators, there will be no apples. That is why it is vital to make biodiversity a priority of our lifetimes.
We know that well-planned and generously funded conservation and restoration projects work. I ask the Government to work with other countries where endangered animals and plants exist. Pangolins—beautiful, gentle creatures—are under threat because some idiots think their scales contain health-giving properties. These same people think the same about rhino horn, which is made of the same substance as human toenails. Let them set up a toenail industry and leave our rhinos alone. More than half of people in some Far Eastern countries think that ivory is a mineral rather than the teeth of living, sentient, intelligent animals, now poached in such numbers that elephant deaths exceed births. It is our duty to make amends for the generations of mankind who, often through ignorance, have exploited and persecuted wildlife and ravaged landscapes to destruction.
Extinction is permanent. Once a species is lost, it is lost for ever. Let us not lose any more.
My Lords, if we are to make a difference to the trend in biodiversity, we need to make a difference to all our children. We need interest in biodiversity, familiarity with biodiversity and the value of biodiversity to be things that our children grow up with. At the moment, they are leading much more restricted lives than we did—certainly, very much more restricted lives than our parents did—in their ability to interact with nature and to get a real understanding and appreciation of what nature is and what humans can get from a relationship with it.
At the moment, there is a proposal from OCR for a natural history GCSE that has been in the DfE’s inbox for about six months. I know that the DfE is busy, but everybody in this climate and biodiversity emergency has to make their contribution. I hope my noble friend will be able, at some quiet moment, to emphasise to his colleagues in the Department for Education that it matters that they do their bit too, that they let this GCSE through and let us start the process of getting children back in touch with nature. That is where, over the long term, we can make a difference to this. If we all live in cities with our backs turned to nature, we are never going to want to spend the money and time that will make the difference.
My Lords, happy Earth Day. Well done to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for getting this debate. We have passed legislation in the past year at the most incredible rate; a year ago, we would have said that it was impossible, unconstitutional or just plain ridiculous. Parliament and the Government have shown that they can act fast in an emergency. Covid has been an interesting case study, because it shows how fast we can move. We have declared a climate emergency, and it is self-evident that an ecological and biodiversity emergency is ravaging the world. We have to act on that as well.
This Queen’s Speech, I believe, is the fourth time that the Queen will read out that we are going to have an Environment Bill. That shows the lack of urgency in the Government’s response, which is a real problem. When we compare it with the speed, volume and sheer intrusiveness of the dozens of pieces of Covid legislation that have passed in the last year, it reaches a point of embarrassment. However, I know that the Minister understands the problem as well as I do and possibly better. I would like to know how much longer the Government will let the emergency roll on before they finally respond.
Targets are great, and I welcome better and higher targets, but they are not met without a plan. It is not enough to talk. We must act. The Dasgupta Review and the Climate Change Committee’s sixth carbon budget have given us a pathway to doing exactly that—to declaring a biodiversity and climate emergency, acting on it and reducing our impact on the natural world. Plus, of course, there is the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, which was introduced by Caroline Lucas MP in the other place last year. That offers the UK an unparalleled opportunity to provide much-needed global leadership. I very much hope that the Government will take those options and make life better for all of us.
My Lords, the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill annual risk report for 2020 ranks biodiversity loss as the third most impactful risk facing the global economy and the fourth most likely to actually occur. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimates that between $235 billion and $577 billion in annual global crop output is at risk as a result of pollinator loss. Bee populations are declining because of pesticide use, habitat degradation and reduction, global warming, agricultural practices and a lack of floral diversity. A recent red list showed that out of a total of 1,101 species of bee in the EU, about 15% are threatened with extinction or near-extinction.
The Government need a joined-up approach to dealing with the impact of biodiversity loss. Section 172 of the Companies Act 2006 requires directors to promote biodiversity. Business performance measurement models are distorted by a focus on shareholder wealth maximisation and environmental degradation and neglect of biodiversity by companies. This neglect is further perpetuated by the Government’s current consultation paper on corporate governance reforms, which clings to a shareholder-centric model of corporate governance.
A first step for dealing with the challenges is for the Government to promote a stakeholder model of corporate governance so that diverse voices are empowered. Hopefully, the Minister will give us that commitment in his response.
My Lords, I declare interests as a retired farmer, a landowner and chair of the UKCEH.
We do have a crisis. We have made a total Horlicks of this issue over recent years. It will take decades to put it right. It will not be easy. However, we have to step back. These days, good land managers provide many outputs and services: food to keep us healthy and our nation secure; landscape and access for tourism and healthy exercise; renewable energy; buildings for rural businesses; timber for carbon capture and storage, and for buildings; and, yes, habitats and wildlife management for the biodiversity that we desperately need. In doing all this, we have to minimise our carbon footprint.
It is a tough call to maximise the services from your piece of land and still stay in business, but we must never again prioritise one output at the expense of all the others, which is what we have been doing. We must get everything in perspective and take a balanced view of what the land can produce. Every piece of land will have its own solutions. We will need to carry out research as well as prod, train and incentivise all land managers, both urban and rural.
On our Somerset farm, we have a 50-acre solar park. Some 10 years in, our FWAG officer visited the site and said that he had rarely seen 50 acres with more biodiversity, with every kind of insect and butterfly, voles, field mice, hares, barn owls, kestrels, partridge, plovers and even hen harriers. My point is that land can be multi-purpose. However, we need the research, training and incentives to maximise the possible outputs on all our land.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Teverson on securing this debate on Earth Day. I want to talk about earth, but the sort of earth that is under our feet: the soil.
A healthy soil is full of living things, including microbes, bacteria, amoebas, mycelium and invertebrates. I remember the late Lord Peter Melchett, a great champion of the soil, talking about the soil food chain and saying that moles are to the soil what lions are to the Serengeti. Given that soil is so much the base for a healthy ecosystem, has the situation improved with regard to the number of academics working on soil? If we are to have environmental land management, we will need people to analyse, measure and make sure that the targets and remedies are correct. In 2017, when I asked the Government about the number of soil scientists, there were just five professors in the whole of the UK working on soil science and 25 academic staff in total. Can the Minister tell me what the situation is now? We will need to assess the biology of the soil. If there are so few experts, who is to do so?
Those advising farmers and selling products to them—agronomists and agricultural product retailers—are good on chemical analysis and telling whether the soil is compacted, but they are not so good on soil biology. If we are to transform our terrestrial biodiversity, we must be able to recognise that good soil, in all its richness, is a food source to those higher up the food chain as well as a means of producing food for ourselves.
My Lords, regardless of whether there is a biodiversity emergency, there is a crisis of nature. We are seeing species disappearing, even in our own land. We need to keep species under constant review and achieve a balance in the ecosystem. Badgers, bats and grey squirrels need to be kept under control, and other species that are dwindling need to be promoted.
In responding to the debate today, will my noble friend the Minister give a guarantee that farmers will be given a role to play in nurturing wildlife, flora and fauna, in particular through the environmental land management scheme that other noble Lords have spoken about, but with a proviso that tenant farmers will be enabled to benefit? Farmers, and tenants in particular, understand that they are close to nature and best placed to promote and nurture it.
Turning to marine life, will my noble friend give a further assurance that the biodiversity of our marine environment, in particular of the North Sea, will not be substantially damaged by the building of offshore wind farms? We are effectively seeking an urbanisation of the sea through offshore renewables, raising issues of energy generation at sea. We need to take every opportunity to ensure that our sea and marine life—including mammals such as dolphins, porpoises and others—are protected. I hope he will agree that it is for the industry which benefits from this form of energy generation to contribute to the research on how to protect our marine life going forward.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on submitting this Question on the biodiversity emergency for debate today. Like him, I believe that the climate emergency is the twin of biodiversity and that there is a symbiotic relationship between them, because one has an impact on the other. They cannot be addressed in isolation and require urgent and immediate attention.
Every Government, every business, every organisation and every individual must play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions; assisting in the adaptation to climate change; halting biodiversity loss; and restoring habitats and species through changes in laws and regulations, policies, behaviours and lifestyles at local and national levels. In my own local area, there is one company doing that through one individual at True Harvest Seeds, which is looking to ensure that the local, indigenous seeds of the island of Ireland are protected and allowed to germinate. It is trying to deal with a lot of the invasive species that are destroying our local biodiversity.
This is an extensive subject and I hope that the Environment Bill will give the Government the opportunity to deal with biodiversity loss and the biodiversity emergency. I would very much like to see the Minister give us answers today about the future content of the Environment Bill. Can he also indicate what actions will be taken to ensure that the national infrastructure bank is pivotal in facilitating the financing of nature restoration and nature-based solutions to climate change?
I call the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. Lord Bradshaw? No. I regret that we will have to go on then. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for tabling this timely and important debate. As has been said, it fittingly coincides with Earth Day, when global citizens are taking a stand right across our world on the climate and biodiversity emergency.
Today, noble Lords have provided a depressing indictment of the Government’s record on biodiversity. We are now more aware than ever of the fragility of our own ecosystems. By their own admission, the Government are failing to meet two-thirds of the biodiversity targets agreed at the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010, while 41% of our species are in decline and 10% face extinction. But here in the Lords, we have a real opportunity not just to talk about biodiversity but to act upon it.
Amendments to the forthcoming Environment Bill could allow us to introduce legally binding targets to halt and reverse declines in nature by 2030. The Bill could allow us to set meaningful baselines against which progress could be measured but also enforced. It could enable us to determine that biodiversity net gain should be a fundamental principle running through all future government investment, without exception. It would enable us also to put the biodiversity crisis on an equal footing to the climate crisis, recognising that action and resources on both are necessary to deliver a sustainable planet.
If we take these actions now, and provide the resources to make them happen, we can go to the CBD in China later this year with credibility to ask others to follow our lead and deliver a radical global programme for action. I hope that the Minister can confirm that he is indeed ready to deliver a more radical version of the Environment Bill which can reverse the decline in nature and produce bold new targets and deliverables by 2030. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Teverson for securing this debate and for his passionate introduction. I am currently reading James Rebanks’s book, English Pastoral: An Inheritance. The Rebanks family have farmed in Cumbria for over 600 years. His latest book details the massive change in farming practices and the devasting effect that such change has had on biodiversity. The removal of stone walls, destruction of ancient hedgerows and accelerated use of chemical fertilisers and weedkillers have all taken their toll on plants, insects and birds.
The Government have produced numerous plans to remedy the loss of biodiversity. In 2011, Defra produced a strategic plan for England, Biodiversity 2020. An evaluation in 2019 showed insufficient progress against its targets. In January 2018, the 25-year environment plan appeared. December 2020 saw the development of a new strategy for nature to replace Biodiversity 2020. The Environment Bill’s First Reading in the Commons was in January 2020; it will eventually arrive here. In March 2021, the Prime Minister said that tackling climate change and biodiversity would be his number one international priority. For all this rhetoric, there has been no actual progress.
The Woodland Trust has produced a report on the state of our woods and trees which finds that only 7% are in a good ecological condition. However, some local authorities have risen to the challenge. Bristol City Council has declared an ecological emergency and has a plan to redress the decline by 2030. We hope that others will follow suit.
It is estimated that 75% of the world’s land surface and 66% of the ocean has been significantly altered and degraded by human activity. One million species are threatened with extinction. Are we going to wait until we, as humans, are also threatened with extinction before we take this matter seriously? Will the Minister press the Government to declare a biodiversity emergency now and take stringent action?
My Lords, we have been able to reconnect with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, whom I therefore call.
Thank you, Lord Chairman. I wanted to say that all of us, I think, are members of the National Trust, wildlife trusts, national trails, the CPRE or the RHS. I implore of the Minister that, whatever new arrangements are brought into being in the Environment Bill, the huge army of volunteers in all those organisations can be empowered. This needs some money and some professional leadership, but if that is provided, a lot more work will be done, much of it to restore biodiversity.
The other subject that I wanted to raise, of which I gave notice, is the horticultural use of peat, about which I am still extremely worried. I have raised this with the Minister before. I am anxious for there to be a goal of stopping the use of peat for horticultural purposes. It is not good practice, but it is very expensive at the moment to use anything else.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions to this hugely important debate.
It should not need to be said, but we cannot reasonably expect to be able to destroy the natural world in the manner that we are without paying a terrible price. There is no doubt that that is what we are doing. I will not rehearse all the facts and figures of destruction, as noble Lords will be depressingly familiar with many of them, but it is worth reminding ourselves that we are currently losing around 30 football pitches-worth of forest every single minute; that a million species face extinction, including two in every five of the world’s plants; that the grim illegal wildlife trade is now the fourth biggest criminal sector; and that, just as we are stripping the ocean of life at a terrifying rate, we are filling it with trash just as quickly. And all this against the backdrop of an increasingly destabilised climate.
There is an abundance of science telling us that we are heading for disaster. But you do not need to be a scientist to understand that these trends cannot continue without appalling consequences. When ecosystems fail, so too do the multitude of free but hopelessly undervalued services that nature provides—services that each and every one of us depends on. Turning this trajectory around is, without a doubt, the most important challenge that we face by far.
To some extent, that is already happening in relation to the low-carbon revolution. The cost of renewables has tumbled, and zero-emission vehicles are on the cusp of going mainstream. Who would have predicted that the cost of solar would fall by 90% in the 12 years since the banking crisis? To be clear, I am not suggesting complacency: we are asking every country in the world to ramp things up as we head towards COP 26. When it comes to attaching a value to nature and a cost to its destruction, we have barely left the starting blocks, and that has to change because technology alone will not save us.
To put it simply: there is no pathway to tackling climate change that does not involve protecting and conserving nature on a massive scale. Nature-based solutions, like trees and mangroves, could provide a third of the most cost-effective solutions we need to mitigate climate change, as well as helping species recover and helping communities to adapt to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change. But despite that huge contribution, nature-based solutions currently receive less than 3% of total global climate finance. That makes no sense.
It is right that we in this country have put nature at the heart of our response to climate change, domestically and internationally, through our presidencies of both the G7 and COP 26. We are leading by example. Very soon after entering Downing Street, the Prime Minister committed to doubling our international climate finance to £11.6 billion. More recently, just a few weeks ago, he committed to spending nearly a third of that—around £3 billion—on nature-based solutions to climate change. We are encouraging other donor countries to do similarly. On the back of that commitment, we are rolling out a pipeline of ambitious new programmes. There is a new £500 million blue planet fund, for example, which will help to protect fragile marine ecosystems, and we are growing our magnificent “blue belt” of marine-protected areas around our overseas territories, which now cover a protected area the size of India. There is a new £100 million landscapes fund to link threatened ecosystems, providing safe passage for wildlife and green jobs for people. We are trebling funding for our extraordinary Darwin Initiative to £90 million. With other donor countries, we are developing right now an offer for forest protection that exceeds anything that we have seen so far.
We are also investing £30 million to protect species from the grim illegal wildlife trade, which I hope reassures the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, who made this point very clearly. I share his concern about pangolins and was delighted—as I am sure he was—when the Chinese decreed recently that pangolins can no longer be used in traditional medicine. He may also be pleased to know that, in addition to funding via the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, the UK played a defining role in getting proposals past CITES in 2016 that ensured that all eight species of pangolin received the highest possible level of protection from international trade.
We know that change is possible and that nature protection works. It works for people and it works for the planet. Look at Costa Rica: it has doubled its rainforest in one generation, putting more than half the country under canopy and growing its economy alongside its nature. We are leading global alliances to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, and we are pursuing an ambitious new UN treaty to establish mechanisms to protect ocean beyond national jurisdiction.
In answer to a question put to me by the author of this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, we are working as closely as possible with the Chinese as hosts of the next biodiversity conference in Kunming. Although our representation will be confirmed closer to the meeting, we are doing more heavy lifting than perhaps any other country. We are pressing hard for the highest possible ambition and, crucially, we are pushing for inclusion of mechanisms to hold Governments to the promises they make, which currently is lacking.
We know that public money alone is not going to be enough, so Governments need to identify and use the powerful levers that they uniquely hold to remove the perverse incentives that drive environmental destruction. Consider, for example that the top 50 food-producing countries spend $700 billion a year supporting often destructive land use. That is four times the world’s aid budgets combined. Imagine the impact if that public support could be redirected to help farmers transition to climate-friendly, nature-positive land management. In a world first, that is what we are doing in the UK, and we are building alliances of countries committed to doing the same.
Commodity production is responsible for the vast majority of deforestation, so we are building a global coalition of countries committed to cleaning up commodity supply chains. We are also calling on the large multilateral development banks to nature-proof their entire portfolios. There is no point in having bits of investments here and there in nature if the rest of the portfolio is taking us in the opposite direction. That point was made well by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, in relation to the private sector, where the point stands just as strongly. We are pulling every lever we have to get private finance flowing, including by accelerating progress towards high-integrity carbon markets.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are driving the agenda internationally, and that is recognised by other countries around the world. However, as a number of noble Lords have said, we need to get our own house in order. We have seen shocking biodiversity loss in recent decades. Last year’s State of Nature review found that 41% of UK species are declining. We have seen an increasing intensity of flood damage caused at least in part by poor land use. We know that meeting our net-zero emissions obligation will require heavy lifting on a scale that we have never seen before.
I know that the noble Earl, Lord Devon, questions the need for us to declare an emergency but I hope that my opening remarks, as well as this bleak picture of declining biodiversity in the UK, persuades him otherwise. I could add that our indicator of pollinator distribution has fallen by 30% since 1980. Our indicator of farmland bird abundance has fallen by more than 50% since 1970. That case was made extremely well by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said, no matter what we do now, improvements will take time to materialise. In answer to the noble Earl’s question, biodiversity is devolved; however, all the regions are in broad agreement on the need to act. That is a good thing.
We have a packed agenda. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, asked for precise targets and a clear plan, a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. The recently published Dasgupta review provides an extraordinarily important backdrop, and we will be responding to it properly and thoroughly soon. Our plans to boost biodiversity and improve the environment within a generation are set out in the 25-year environment plan. We set the world’s most ambitious climate change target into law to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels, an announcement made just a couple of days ago.
We are setting out plans for a bold net-zero strategy to demonstrate how we will cut emissions and create new jobs across the whole country. Our upcoming Environment Bill will deliver improvements in waste, air quality, water, nature, biodiversity and more. It lays the foundation for the nature recovery network and creates duties and incentives, such as biodiversity net gain for all new developments, which is also a world first. The Bill establishes spatial mapping and planning tools to deliver nature recovery, creates new nature covenants for the long-term protection of land—another world first—and creates a new body to hold government to account.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked about biodiversity targets in the Bill. It creates a power to set long-term, legally binding environmental targets, and we will want to ensure that for biodiversity these targets at least align with international targets to be set through the CBD. We are continuing work on that suite of targets, including in the priority areas of biodiversity and improving the state of nature.
We are switching our land-use subsidy system so that the payments are conditional on good environmental outcomes, just as we are asking the world to do. That, too, is a world first. Incidentally, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, raised the underappreciated but hugely important issue of soil health. I can tell her that soil health has been identified as a priority for our environmental land management scheme. My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering asked if the scheme would support farmers to play their role in reversing nature decline. Absolutely. That is the entire purpose of the environment land management system.
In another world first, we are legislating to require big companies to remove deforestation from their commodity supply chains to help shrink our international footprint. Again, we are asking other countries to do the same. We know that to meet net zero we need to establish record numbers of trees, so we have committed to planting 30,000 hectares a year across the UK by 2025, using the new £640 million Nature for Climate Fund. We want to unleash the extraordinary power of natural regeneration as well. Anyone who has seen the wonders of NEP will know why that matters.
In answer to my noble friend Lord Caithness—the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, also raised this—we will be investing in methods to control deer and grey squirrel numbers as part of our efforts to protect new and existing native woodlands. To further protect them, and in answer to my noble friend Lord Lucas, we will be emphasising the huge and critical importance of not only species diversity but genetic diversity. Incidentally, he raised the importance of educating children, and I could not agree more.
Alongside our tree commitment, we have committed to restoring 35,000 hectares of peatland. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, asked about the use of peat in horticulture. I can tell him that we are committed to phasing it out in England. We told industry that if we had not seen enough movement by 2020, we would look at further measures that could be taken. We are now considering those future measures. We also have ambitious plans to protect our threatened pollinators, a point made well by the noble Lords, Lord Jones of Cheltenham and Lord Sikka. All this goes alongside plans to greatly improve the health and protection of our precious marine environment.
It is often said that we need to weave the environment into our economics but, as Professor Dasgupta’s seminal study explained, that is the wrong way round. Ultimately all economic activity is derived from nature. Without nature, we have nothing and we are nothing. Reconciling our lives and economies with the natural world on which we all depend is really the defining challenge of our age. I am absolutely convinced that this can be the year that change begins in earnest.
My Lords, that completes the business before the Grand Committee this afternoon. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 6.22 pm.