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Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

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Monday 24 January 2022
[Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]

Throwline Stations

Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

16:30
Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and exiting the room.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 575967, relating to throwline stations around open bodies of water.

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

In May 2018, Mark Allen was out with his friends on a hot summer’s day. He was a bright and funny young man, who wanted to be an actor. The water where he and his friends had congregated was welcoming. Like many young men, and some girls, they did not register the danger. Feeling hot and sticky, the clothes came off and in they went. I am pretty sure that if I had been there, aged 18, I would have done the same. I have swum in the sea a thousand times, so what it is the difference?

In they all went. No doubt, they screamed with laughter and pain when the cold hit them. They probably splashed each other in the water, like we all do. Apparently, these boys got out, but they decided to go back in. Unfortunately, Mark never swam again. Last week I met Mark’s mum Leeanne—a brave woman who told me her story. There can really be nothing like the pain of losing a child. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of Mark’s extended family and friends for their loss.

When someone dies so young, we have to ask why. It is a very tough question. When a family can take something positive out of such a tragic event, it does not remove the pain, but preventing others from going through the same experience may help to bring at least some sense to it. Mark’s mum made a promise to him that she would do all she could to stop this happening to other people, so that families like hers do not have to suffer a similarly tragic event. The petition started by Leeanne has reached 103,000 signatures, and 57 of my own constituents have signed it. It has huge support, and I am pleased to bring this debate here today. There has been similar campaign work on throwline stations and water safety education over the years, and I would like to recognise the work of those campaigners.

Hundreds of people die each year in water, and the statistics prove that it is mainly young boys and men. Figures have shown that over the last eight years between 80% and 90% of those who suffer fatalities in natural water have been male. What is happening? It appears that boys and men are less risk-averse than girls, so that is the first point that needs addressing. The second point, which I believe to be the most important, is that many of the deaths are not down to poor swimming capabilities. Just because someone can swim, it does not make them safe; it is the shock of the cold water that kills so many. It is not like jumping into a swimming pool, which is often heated. It is not like someone running into the sea and then running back out again until they get used to it. It is the jumping in that does it. The third point to raise is that there are no lifeguards to help anyone in trouble.

So what is the answer? This debate is about throwlines. Some people believe that having throwlines at all open water spaces could be the answer and would help an awful lot, but it is not completely the answer. The problem is that if I saw safety equipment around a stretch of water, it might suggest to me that this is a safe place where I can go in. David Walker of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents—a professional in the field—said to me that when he sees this equipment, he is pretty sure that there has been an incident. In other words, what shouts “safety” to me and many members of the public actually shouts “danger” to a professional.

Having spoken to David, I am convinced that there needs to be a three-pronged approach. Education must be the first part. A 20-minute session with every child once a year would be a wonderful start, and we must ensure that boys engage with the lessons. Secondly, mandatory risks assessments of all waters—natural or manmade—must be carried out. The RoSPA will help with those, and although many of the larger water companies and councils already perform them, it appears that too many are just a paper exercise; they do not really carry out a thorough assessment or act fully on their findings, and that should be addressed. Finally, equipment such as throwlines must be put in place only with sufficient warnings stating, “This equipment is not a signal that the water is safe—far from it—and no matter how many times you have swum before, it could be your last.”

We will never stop young people doing risky things, since it is part of growing up. It is fun and makes us who we are. We learn from those actions: “That was a good thing to do”; “That was not so good.” I am a believer in taking risks, but those risks must be calculated. If our young people are not fully aware of the dangers, it is our job to correct that.

I ask the Minister for Levelling Up Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), to address three points. First, I believe that the previous Education Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), was looking into the education element, so will she ask current Education Ministers to do the same? Secondly, will the Government make risk assessments of all bodies of water mandatory? Lastly, if and when any equipment is installed, will warning signs be placed everywhere that say, “This water is not safe. Do not enter”? We will never bring Mark back, but we can help Leeanne to fulfil her promise to her son, and at least reduce the number of families who have to go through similar fatalities.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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I must say that my experience of the Minister means that she will be able to cover all issues. She is normally competent across many issues and Departments.

16:36
Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for introducing it on behalf of the petitioners and for making some good suggestions about how to improve the situation. I also thank Leeanne Bartley for being present, and for her tireless work campaigning to improve water safety. I spoke to Leeanne ahead of the debate, and I know that she made a promise to her son, Mark, after he died, to change things for the better. Today’s debate is a testament to her hard work in keeping the promise that she made to her beloved son.

Mark was well known and well liked in Gorton, where he lived with his dad. He had taken his GCSEs at Wright Robinson College in my constituency, and was studying drama at Shena Simon College. He had big dreams of becoming a professional actor. When we spoke, Leeanne shared stories of the joy and laughter that Mark brought to a family holiday in Paris, his love of watching wrestling, and his generosity to those less fortunate than himself. In June 2018, Mark was enjoying the hot weather with his friends on the edge of Gorton lower reservoir. Wanting to cool off, and unaware of the incredible dangers of open water, Mark jumped in. The freezing water took his breath away. His friends were unable to save him, and he tragically died.

If a throwline had been available on the shore of the reservoir that day, Mark may have survived. Throwlines are basic equipment. They are essentially a bag containing a rope that can be thrown to a swimmer in distress, allowing the rescuer to pull them safely to shore. Since Mark’s death, thanks to campaigning by Leeanne, and Mark’s family and friends, with the support of the local community in Gorton, I am pleased that Manchester City Council, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and the reservoir’s owner, United Utilities, have installed three throwline stations at Gorton reservoirs. They are dedicated to Mark’s memory.

There is no reason why throwlines cannot be installed wherever there is a risk of drowning. They are not expensive and they save lives—they should be as common as defibrillators. The petition is absolutely right to call for Mark’s law. I hope that the Minister will update us on progress in making open water safer.

16:40
David Jones Portrait Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con)
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May I say how pleased I am to see you in the Chair, Ms Ghani? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on his opening speech, and thank the Petitions Committee for securing the debate.

The petition was initiated by a constituent of mine, Mrs Leeanne Bartley of Ruthin, who is present in the Chamber, and it was prompted by the tragic death of her son, Mark Allen. As we have heard, on 5 June 2018, Mark, who was then aged 18 and living with his father in Gorton, Manchester, was with a group of friends in Debdale Park, one of the largest public open spaces in that city. It was a hot day, and Mark decided to cool off by swimming in the nearby Debdale reservoir—a large body of water managed by United Utilities. It would appear that he scaled a fence to climb up to a platform and dive into the reservoir. The water was bitterly cold, and, sadly, he immediately got into difficulties. His friends attempted to rescue him but were sadly unable to do so, and he disappeared under the water. Mark was a young man and talented drama student with his life ahead of him. He is severely missed by his family and friends.

United Utilities told the inquest into Mark’s death that there were a number of signs around the edge of the reservoir warning of the danger of the water, and pointing out that it was extremely cold and very deep in places. Since the incident, however, the company has installed a number of throwlines around the reservoir. I am afraid that it is frequently the case that throwlines appear after such an incident has occurred. Mrs Bartley’s view is that the authorities responsible for the management of large bodies of water should be proactive in the installation of throwlines, rather than reactive, as they are at the moment, sadly.

About 260 deaths from accidental drowning occur in the United Kingdom each year, and that is without taking into account the number of British citizens who die in drowning accidents overseas. Mrs Bartley believes very firmly that that number could be significantly reduced if there were a requirement to provide throwlines at every large body of water in the country. Clearly, everybody would agree that it is highly desirable that the number of deaths by drowning should be reduced. The provision of throwlines would be a move in the right direction.

Most reservoirs are owned by the major water companies. The Environment Agency is responsible for the management of rivers, and the Canal and River Trust is responsible for managing the canals around the country. Those entities have a responsibility for the safety of the bodies of water that they manage.

The Royal Life Saving Society UK is one of the leading charities in this field. It helps people to enjoy being on, in and around water safely. I commend its website, which is a tremendously valuable resource, which provides a huge amount of information about water safety and a catalogue of the risks associated with open water. As we have heard, those risks include: the shock of cold water, which can make swimming difficult even for the strongest swimmer, and can increase the difficulty of getting out of the water; the lack of safety equipment and the increased difficulty for rescue; the depth of the water, which changes frequently and is unpredictable; and strong currents that can sweep swimmers away.

Evidence given at the inquest indicated that the water in the reservoir was extremely cold. In fact, one of the witnesses said it was freezing. No doubt, the low temperature was at least a contributing factor leading to the difficulties that Mark got into. The coroner at the inquest remarked that Mark’s death was caused, as he put it, by “the impetuosity of youth”. He said:

“We think we are bulletproof. We do what comes naturally to us and never think about the risks.”

It is possible that, had throwlines been provided at the reservoir, more could have been done by Mark’s friends to avoid this dreadful tragedy. It is also probably true that if throwlines were more widely available on bodies of water across the country, there would be far fewer fatalities of this sort. In their response to the petition, the Government have pointed out that landowners have a

“responsibility to assess and act on the risks posed by open bodies of water on their land.”

That is certainly true. I ask the Minister, when she replies to the debate, to explain what actions landowners should take in response to those risks, and whether she agrees that throwlines, which cost about £250, should be more widely available. Perhaps she could indicate if the Government are prepared to legislate, as urged by Mrs Bartley.

James Davies Portrait Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con)
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My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is making some excellent points. I have had 566 constituents sign the petition—a significant number. Does he agree that any guidance or legislation that comes forward following the debate needs to apply to Wales as well as to the rest of the United Kingdom?

David Jones Portrait Mr Jones
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I believe so. There has, in fact, been a debate on the issue already in the Welsh Senedd in Cardiff. When one considers that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 is a national piece of legislation, I would very much hope that the Minister will indicate what national legislation she has in mind, or at least what the Government are prepared to do to provide stronger guidance to those who manage large bodies of water.

Finally, I commend the work of the Royal Life Saving Society UK. I have spoken to Mr Lee Heard of that organisation, who told me that the RLSS is always happy to assist landowners by advising what sensible precautions they can take to minimise the risks associated with bodies of open water on their land. It is a hugely valuable resource and I encourage all landowners to make use of it.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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No doubt the Royal Life Saving Society UK will be in Hansard twice because of your contribution.

16:48
Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, as always, Ms Ghani. I thank the Petitions Committee for selecting the topic and my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), for leading the debate.

It is truly heartbreaking to hear about Mark, who lost his life at just 18. I give my thanks and condolences to his family and friends. I also thank Leeanne for setting the petition up, so that others have a chance to speak and hopefully not go through the horror that she went through. It is deeply upsetting, and it makes me angry that, had basic safety equipment been available, his life may have been saved. What makes it even worse for me is that Mark’s story is not an isolated incident.

According to the National Water Safety Forum, 242 accidental deaths took place in water in 2020. The debate provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on all of those tragedies and what more might have been done to prevent them. In May 2021, my constituent, Sam Haycock, tragically drowned in a local reservoir. Sam was just 16 years old. He was a talented judo competitor, who competed at a European level, and he really had a promising future ahead of him. Throwlines were available at the reservoir, and Sam’s friends tried desperately to save his life, but with the throwlines having been padlocked to prevent vandalism, his friends were unable to access them in time. Procedures should not hamper access to protective life-saving equipment, given that the difference between life and death is a matter of seconds, but unfortunately they do.

I want to paint you a picture. Just try to imagine that your friend is drowning and you are panicking. First, you have to locate the throwline. Then you have to call the emergency services to get an access code. Then you have to give them the access code. You have to remember the reference number that they give back to you, memorise the code and enter it—all the while, you can hear your friend crying for help. It is clear that this is about not just providing the equipment, but ensuring that it is easily locatable and accessible.

We must also confront the real reason why the throwline that might have saved Sam’s life was behind a padlock. Mindless vandals who damage or steal life-saving equipment are placing lives at risk, and we must ensure that the law acts as a sufficient deterrent. Since Sam’s death, his parents, Simon and Gaynor, have been campaigning for Sam’s law, which would do just that.

I worked with colleagues in the other place to table an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would create a specific offence of destroying or damaging life-saving equipment, including lifebelts, lifejackets and defibrillators. The amendment was debated in Committee and on Report but, regrettably, was not pushed to a vote. Speaking for the Government on Report, Lord Wolfson argued that the amendment was not needed because endangering a life through intentional or reckless damage to property is already an offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. That may be the case, but it is clearly not enough, and more needs to be done to prevent this sort of vandalism.

Several examples show clearly that existing legislation is failing to provide sufficient protection for life-saving equipment. After life-saving equipment was damaged at Salford Quays just days after being installed, Salford City Council was forced to resort to a public spaces protection order to deter vandalism. In Uckfield in Sussex, a defibrillator was rendered useless by vandals. Each act of vandalism on life-saving equipment could ultimately lead to a death, and the law needs to reflect that. Lord Wolfson acknowledged that

“if the law is not enough of a deterrent, we must focus on those responsible for water safety, health and safety, and law enforcement to come together to find out what is not working and identify workable solutions that might include sign-posting more clearly on the equipment the consequences of damaging that equipment.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 January 2022; Vol. 817, c. 1123-1124.]

That is a welcome commitment—but with lives at stake, it must have real urgency. I urge the Minister to bring forward a strategy that will ensure easy access to life-saving equipment, strengthen public information about water safety, and ensure that punishments for damaging or destroying that equipment recognise the devastating consequences to which that can lead.

If we are to save lives, we need to take action now. We need provisions that require local authorities, private landowners or whoever is responsible for a body of water not just to provide and signpost lifebelts and throwlines, but to ensure that they are properly maintained. There must be more education for all about the dangers of open water swimming, particularly in schools. Sadly, many of those who die in open water are children, who must be taught about water safety from the earliest age. We can prevent other families from suffering as Mark Allen and Sam Haycock’s families have, but it will take urgent and consistent action from the Government to ensure that our legal framework, infrastructure and education are up to the task.

16:53
Natalie Elphicke Portrait Mrs Natalie Elphicke (Dover) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on his opening remarks and the Petitions Committee on securing the debate. I thank all those who petitioned to bring this important matter to us.

The tragic death of Mark Allen highlights the dangers associated with open water. I send my prayers and best wishes to Leeanne and Mark’s family and friends, and to Sam’s. His death was so sadly and effectively described by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), whom I thank.

In this context, I would like to talk about the terribly sad death of my constituent, Lucas Dobson, from Deal. Lucas was only six years old when he fell into the River Stour in Sandwich and drowned. Lucas was excitedly enjoying a barbecue and a day out with his dad at a privately owned jetty. While his father was checking an engine nearby, Lucas tried to jump on the boat by himself. He missed his footing and plunged into the water. He was instantly swept away by the strong tidal currents. He disappeared for four days. During that time, thousands of community volunteers and police searched high and low on the river for Lucas. Tragically, he was found dead on Wednesday 21 August 2019, some four days later.

The inquest heard that on that day neither Lucas nor his friends were wearing lifejackets while they played amid the boats on the jetty. That is why I support Lucas’s family—his mother, Kirsty Furze, grandmother Donna Kentfield and cousin Zoe Alldis—in their calls for a new law, Lucas’s law, which echoes and builds on Mark’s law, which is being discussed today.

Lucas’s law has three parts. It would make it compulsory for young children to wear lifejackets on and around boats. It would require more life-saving buoyancy rings and lifelines to be installed near rivers, lakes and seas, and would start a new safety awareness campaign for parents of young children, including encouraging them to use float suits and swim vests when the children are playing near water, particularly on hot days. It can take only a moment for an accident to happen that can take a young life.

Children’s float suits and swim vests can be inexpensive and cost as little as £10. Like cycle helmets and seatbelts, it just makes sense to be water safe. Yet more people die from drowning each year than from cycling, so we really need to start doing something about it.

I have been working alongside Lucas’s family to raise awareness of this incredibly important issue. I have called on the Royal Yachting Association, as well as other water safety organisations, to back these life-saving plans. In the year that Lucas died, the RNLI helped about 40,000 people in the water to safety. I thank the RNLI and Her Majesty’s Coastguard for all the work that they do to help keep people safe in my constituency, which is a coastal one.

However, I am disappointed that organisations such as the Royal Yachting Association and others, who should have water safety in their DNA, are not backing calls for new safety laws around water and compulsory lifejackets for young children. It is essential that such provisions extend to private boat owners and private jetty owners, and that they take legal responsibility and appropriate action for ensuring the safety of young people.

There have been changes in other areas of privately owned transport such as the car, and it is time for action on privately owned boats and jetties. Many other countries, including America, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand already have mandatory lifejacket laws. It is about time the UK put in place basic life-saving laws to protect young children near water.

Like Mark Allen, who also lost his life by drowning, Lucas Dobson might have been saved if the right safety processes had been in place and been followed. The tragedy in both those cases, and that of Sam, is that they were accidents that might have been avoided with better water safety support. We must now do what is right to stop accidents from resulting in drowning and death.

In my coastal constituency, water safety is an extremely important issue for me and my constituents. I look forward with hope that in the next year we can see Lucas’s law, Sam’s law and Mark’s law move forward together. There is a need for a comprehensive strategy in this place.

I want to end by paying tribute to Lucas’s mother, aunt and grandmother. Since the death of their child, the years have been tough for them. I commend them for pulling together and campaigning for better water safety to ensure that no other families go through what they had to go through, and to ensure that no further lives are lost in water unnecessarily.

At a time when enhancing all aspects of public safety is seen as an important function of Government, safety, especially of the young, around bodies of water must not be a poor relation in the safety debate. That such tragedies happen rarely is not a justification for inaction. There is a responsibility to tackle water safety with a rigour that befits an island and water nation. The challenge must be to stop avoidable deaths by drowning happening at all: to educate, to legislate and to save lives.

17:00
Damien Moore Portrait Damien Moore (Southport) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and the Petitions Committee for bringing forward this important debate.

This petition was signed by 606 of my constituents in Southport. I am all too aware of the tragic case of Mark Allen; I send my condolences to his family and friends and join my colleagues in calling for throwlines to be installed to prevent such needless loss of life in the future.

Landowners have a duty of care to those on their land. By speaking in this debate, I want to suggest that that duty should be strengthened, with further legal requirements for landowners to assess and act on the risks posed by open bodies of water. I welcome the fact that, since the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Government have enforced legal requirements to prevent employees and other people from coming to harm during work activities. However, the 1974 Act has well-known limitations; under the legislation it is not possible to enforce simple solutions such as a duty to provide throwlines near all bodies of water, for example.

In a modern, 21st-century country such as the United Kingdom, it is unacceptable that drowning continues to be one of the leading causes of accidental death. It is estimated that a shocking 44% of drowning fatalities happen to people who had no intention of even entering the water. Drowning in the United Kingdom is reported to account for more accidental fatalities annually than fire deaths in the home or cycling deaths on the road. Men are the most at-risk group in every age group, accounting for eight in 10 of all deaths.

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
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I apologise for coming in late—there was traffic, I am afraid.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people, particularly very small children, can drown in very shallow water? There are areas—in caravan parks or places like that—that people think are safe, but which are not safe for very small children. There have been terrible occurrences and deaths of children drowning in only a foot or so of water.

Damien Moore Portrait Damien Moore
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That is why it is incredibly important for landowners to carry out risk assessments around open bodies of water, particularly where children are concerned, so that protections such as throwlines can be put in place.

In Southport, the sea rarely comes in, but when it does it is rapid and all too often deadly. Our local rescue services go above and beyond in their duty to warn and protect; I welcome the opening, last week, of Southport’s new £1.4 million lifeboat station. The Southport Offshore Rescue Trust, which is independent from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, was founded by Kath Wilson after her son passed away in 1987 while fishing off the Southport coast. Southport Lifeboat is crewed entirely by volunteers and has helped to safely return more than 5,000 people since it was founded. I am sure that we all want to congratulate Kath and her excellent team of volunteers on their amazing work.

I also want to highlight that the RNLI has some excellent videos and explainers about what someone can do if they are in trouble in the water, including dealing with cold water shock, and I encourage all hon. Members to share them with their constituents. If those watching take anything away from this debate, it should be the three extremely important words provided by the RNLI: “Float to Live”.

I am sure that many of my colleagues are aware of the tragic incident involving Ben Smith-Crallan, who fell into a lake in Southport’s Botanic Gardens and sadly died following complications from an infection. Following the “Make a change for Ben” campaign, led by my constituent David Rawsthorne, tens of thousands of pounds have been raised for improvement works to the gardens, including the installation of an aeration fountain at the end of the lake to ensure that water is oxygenised, and potential measures to stop people falling in. I would add throwlines to the list of safety measures that need to be included.

The UK drowning prevention strategy acknowledges the difficulty caused by the fact that responsibility for managing water risks is dispersed among a number of organisations. While many, such as the Southport Offshore Rescue Trust and the RNLI, do excellent work, further efforts should be made to unite their various responsibilities to ensure that resources are effectively used, responsibility is clearly defined and individuals are best protected.

Let us start with the simple solutions. We should heed the calls of this petition to implement throw bags and throwlines around open bodies of water and go further by expanding opportunities to learn how to swim and spreading awareness around water safety. When the UK drowning prevention strategy was published in 2015, it called for accidental drowning fatalities in the United Kingdom to be halved by 2026. The latest data shows that we are halfway there, with a 25% decrease since the strategy was published. We should maintain that progress—even speed it up if we can—and ensure that we all do everything we can to prevent senseless tragedies, such as that of Mark Allen, from ever happening again. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do everything she can to help prevent those tragedies from occurring in the future.

17:05
Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and the Petitions Committee on this afternoon’s debate. I have come along as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on water safety and drowning prevention. We are ably served by the Royal Life Saving Society UK. It is a great pleasure to be able to speak to some of the issues of concern that I have. However, I would first like to start, as many others have, by giving my condolences to Mark’s family, and indeed to those of all the people who have died as a result of drowning.

As has already been said, drowning occurs in this country on about 400 occasions each year. To put that into context, that is about one drowning every 20 hours. Within the time we have been awake, one person will have drowned. That is something that we simply must stop. It has also been mentioned, by the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), that that figure is in excess of the number of people who die from fires in the home or in cycle accidents. Those 400 people’s deaths are preventable.

We also know that many people who do not die as a result of drowning still end up in a persistent vegetative state. We do not have the numbers for those people who then go on to need care for the rest of their lives. Drowning is about not only the number of people who die, but the accident as a whole and the impact on both the NHS and the emotional—and, on occasions, economic —welfare of our constituents’ families.

The second reason why I came along today is that I have been interested in water safety for many years. I am—I suppose—still a qualified lifeguard. I was a lifeguard for many years, in two pools that I can remember and on five beaches in Cornwall, where I grew up. I not only have my bronze medallion, but can go into the water with a reel and line, or with a paddle board and my torpedo tube. Some of us remember our former colleague Charlotte Leslie, who I worked with on the beach at Bude.

The whole issue of water is very important but, in addition to that, I am an active sailor in this country. I also like to scuba dive and surf. I sea-kayak and canoe, and have a paddle board. I think you get the point, Ms Ghani: I am either, on, in, or under the water on many occasions.

However, it is not at those times that we see people drowning—or even having problems in the water. As has been said, most people who actually drown end up in the water without expecting to. They could be running along a canal path, for example, could simply trip after a night out, or could be pushed in as a simple prank. That has happened on many occasions. Also, the popularity of activities such as wild swimming—something else that I do—and paddle boarding is leading to more and more people having problems in the water.

With paddle boarding, the problem has been people being pushed out to sea and we see problems around that in parts of the United Kingdom. A throwline initiative would not help with that, but it certainly would with wild swimming and we must identify places where people regularly swim. The issue of wild swimming, and indeed water quality, is very much on the mind of the Government following the Environmental Audit Select Committee—I will give it a small plug—report on the quality of our rivers, which is very important.

I mentioned people actually going into the water. Two weeks ago, I went to Waterstones in Covent Garden—other bookshops are available, of course. I was saddened to see a poster about a missing person called Harvey Parker. Two days later, I was watching the London news and it said that Harvey’s body had been found in the Thames. Harvey, who was not a constituent of mine, had been to the Heaven nightclub. I presume that he had been drinking and he found that he was simply in the water, not realising that he would end up there.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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Order. That may be an open case. We must not reflect too much on that situation.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Offord
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I certainly will not; I take your advice, Ms Ghani.

There is also the case of James Clark, to whom the same thing happened. He was at a nightclub in Kingston upon Thames, but he was not among his friends when they all left. When they got home, they realised that he was not there—in fact, it was the next day when they realised that James had gone missing. A few days later, his body, too, was found in the Thames. On both occasions, these guys did nothing wrong. They had been drinking, but that is not a crime. In the end, they found themselves in the water and, sadly, expired.

That is why I welcome the RNLI’s initiative. The RNLI station here at Westminster, on the embankment, is the busiest station in the United Kingdom. We may find it hard to believe that an inland water body is actually the busiest. The RNLI has worked with organisations including Nicholson’s, the pub partnership, and throwlines are now being supplied to other pubs, including the Horniman at Hays, just down by HMS Belfast. Some of the bouncers on the door there say that they feel more empowered. When people leave, they have often been drinking and they will be quite likely to hang around or stay near the railings; sometimes they even decide to stand over the railings if it is a warm evening. On those occasions, people have been known to fall in, so the bouncers feel that it is a great initiative to have a piece of equipment that they are able to use to help and save some of these people.

There has been mention of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It is true that that legislation is necessary for companies and employers that are responsible for waterways, but most of the waterways in the United Kingdom are actually used by recreational users, so they are not covered by the Act. Therefore I would particularly like throwlines to be installed in a greater number of places in the United Kingdom—across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as England.

The National Water Safety Forum, in its drowning prevention strategy, has come up with a target to halve—reduce by 50%—the number of drownings by 2026. I would certainly like that target to be more ambitious, but most of all, I think it could make a valuable contribution to preventing untimely deaths. When anyone goes into the water, it comes as quite a shock, but that shock is nothing compared with that of the friends and relatives of the person who no longer comes home at night.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Dr Offord, for that very serious contribution, although you did also give us a kaleidoscope of all your water activities and all the time you have for that as well.

17:12
Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Ms Ghani, for chairing this sitting this afternoon. I also thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and the Petitions Committee for ensuring that this issue has been brought to the House for debate. It is incredibly important that we debate it, and the debate is very timely. My thoughts are with the family of Mark Allen—I applaud their bravery and tenacity in taking this issue forward and bringing it here today. Hopefully some change can be brought about to ensure that other families do not go through what they have gone through.

In Scotland, we have a pretty specific situation in relation to open bodies of water: we have lots of open bodies of water, and our open bodies of water are very cold. We have seen in the course of the pandemic, as was mentioned, an increase in the number of people wild swimming, paddle boarding and canoeing. I cannot claim to do any of those. I have tried sea kayaking and I am never going again—I was so seasick it was ridiculous. I did not expect to get seasick while sea kayaking, and it is not a thing that I will carry on with.

The increase in the number of people going out and enjoying the water and having a good time in the water in Scotland is brilliant, but we need to ensure that we increase the education as well. We need to ensure that, when people are going into the water, they are doing so while understanding the risks and what they need to do should they get into difficulty. The RNLI’s incredibly important “Float to Live” campaign was mentioned. It does not matter how strong a swimmer someone is and how many times they have been in that water before, hitting the water and getting the shock of the cold can mean that they freeze up, are unable to rescue themselves and get into real difficulty. It is really important that we ensure that as many people as possible are aware of that campaign.

In Scotland, we had our own response to the drowning prevention strategy in 2018. It included a number of things, but one of the key measures was to develop and promote water safety education and initiatives in primary and secondary schools. Given that in Scotland we have a different education system and a different police and fire system, as well as having a massive number of bodies of water, there needs to be a unique strategy, and we are taking that forward in Scotland in an attempt to make a difference.

In July last year we saw a doubling in the number of fatalities in Scotland’s waters, which is a big issue. As a result of that, particularly around Loch Lomond, the amount of safety equipment has massively increased. Several organisations, including the council, have worked together to increase the number of throwlines and safety signs and to increase the presence of the lifeguard boat at that side of the Loch to ensure that people can be saved, should they get into difficulty. That should not happen only after the fact. It should not take those fatalities for us to realise the issue.

We should increase the amount of education and safety equipment. We should ensure that people know how to use that safety equipment and that it is kept up to date and looked after. All of those are incredibly important. By 2026, we will hopefully see the number of people drowning in open water reduced. We all want to get there, and we are all pushing in that direction, but I think we particularly need to see education in schools.

I have young children aged eight and 10. As we quite often do in Aberdeenshire, whenever I go to a harbour, I am terrified that either my or somebody else’s children are going to fall into the water. My children probably do not realise, but I am hyperaware of it. When they hit 14 or 15 and go out by themselves, they will not have the same level of terror about the water as I have when they are near it. As a parent, I think schools need to ensure that young people are educated and have a reasonable awareness. It is okay to go into the water, but they need to have awareness of the danger it can pose, so that we see fewer fatalities and so that people can enjoy the outdoors safely in Scotland, England or Wales.

17:17
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a particular pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Ms Ghani. I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), on behalf of the Petitions Committee, on bringing forward this debate. I was a member of the Committee in the past, and I know how important these debates are.

The hon. Gentleman introduced the subject with a gravity and comprehensiveness that did justice to a serious set of issues. He particularly dealt with the pain that has been represented in all today’s speeches. Most of all, I express my admiration for the campaigning that Mark Allen’s mother, Leeanne, has done. When I was researching this issue, I was struck by the impact that the campaign has had in garnering support. A magnificent number have signed the petition, not just here but in Wales. I hope that all of that will lead to change, and that is the purpose for which we are here today.

We have heard powerful speeches from around the Chamber. What struck me was that every single one reflected a tragedy for families and constituents. The roll-call of names is very sad indeed. I was struck by the comments of the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), who represented his constituent very effectively. I thought his point from the coroner’s report was quite striking. We all think we are bulletproof, do we not? I suspect we can all look back on occasions in our own lives when we have done things that, on reflection, were probably not wise. Mostly, we get away with it, but occasionally we do not. That is the key to trying to find a way to make our fellow citizens’ lives safer.

I was struck by the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). It seems almost indescribable that people could be vandalising safety equipment, but that is the world we live in, unfortunately, and I thought she made strong points about the need for action on that. The hon. Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) mentioned the sad situation of Lucas, and a strong series of points were made, to which I hope the Minister will listen closely. The hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) spoke of Ben. On it goes, it seems. Important points about the RNLI were also made. The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) can at least come to our rescue as a lifeguard. He made a very positive contribution as well.

I was also struck by the fact that this is not the first time that the issue has been debated in this place. There was a debate last July that was slightly more education focused, but in which more sad cases were recounted and the same points were well made that it is not just about swimming; it is much more about an awareness of the dangers, and the need for that message to be put forward effectively in schools.

I ask the Minister what impact that discussion—I think it was raised by one Member in the debate—has had on the Department for Education? I know that the curriculum is crowded, but what has the Department been doing to ensure that these important issues are raised, because the number of deaths is striking? A number of us have been involved in transport over the years. Of course, we work hard to improve cycle safety and road safety, but to have so many people dying from drowning each year rather makes the point that we need to do more about it.

I contacted the water company in my area, Anglian Water, and was grateful for its guidance on quite a complicated subject in terms of the advice from the National Water Safety Forum and the Visitor Safety Group on when and how to use public rescue equipment. Although I am grateful, I also could not help noticing over the weekend the amount that the water company has paid out in dividends to shareholders over the past few years. Resources could be made available by a number of water companies to help us with this exercise in public education. I think the right hon. Member for Clwyd West asked what advice the Government expect landowners to be taking and what they expect them to be doing. What assessment have the Government made of the effectiveness of the panoply of measures that supposedly ensure safety, and what conclusions have been drawn from it? I also ask the Minister to outline what actions have been taken following last year’s petition and debate.

I noticed that there appeared to be a slight delay in responding to the Petitions Committee. I remember that during my time on the Committee we had many complaints about Government replies, but not always delays. I wonder why that was. The response seemed to me to be an account of the current layout, but I am unsure that that quite amounts to a response. I would be grateful if the Minister could produce a response, rather than just an account of the current landscape. Given the roll-call of Mark, Sam, Lucas, Ben and so many others, we need to make some progress, and I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance.

17:23
Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Levelling Up Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing today’s important debate. I offer my condolences, and those of the whole Government, to Leeanne Bartley, who is with us today. There is nothing more horrific than losing a child. It is something that we all pray that we never see. I pay tribute to her for her tireless campaigning since her son’s tragic death in 2018. It is impossible not to be moved by this tragedy. It is heartbreaking to hear that Mark Allen drowned after jumping into a freezing reservoir on a hot day and that there were no throwlines in sight, and to hear similar stories of Sam, Lucas and so many of our young constituents.

It is also heartbreaking to learn that a similar tragedy apparently also took place the same year at another reservoir not a mile away. Dwayne Thompson, I am told, drowned aged just 20 after encountering similar freezing temperatures at Audenshaw reservoir, so there is clearly a problem that needs looking at. Leeanne Bartley, Amanda and Stephen Thompson, and Kirsty Furze have all shown tremendous courage, channelling their grief and using a platform that no parent should ever wish to have to press for change. The fact that Mrs Bartley’s petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures and is being debated in the House is testament to her efforts not being in vain. United Utilities, which owns both reservoirs, has installed new throwlines at both sites, as has been discussed, and these throwlines may one day be the difference between life and death for somebody else.

However, I acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and others that these things seem to occur only after the tragedy. I was struck by his point that it is not just about having the equipment, because what screams safe to us may scream unsafe to safety professionals. The company is now running hard-hitting campaigns targeted at teenagers, using TV, print and online media, to warn about the dangers of swimming in reservoirs and highlight the risks, as well as collaborating with the fire service.

I will answer a few of the questions raised in the debate, and then talk about what we are doing to protect people and ensure they are able to enjoy the waterways safely.

Many Members asked what the Government are doing on this issue, and I assure them that we are committed to protecting people in the weeks and months ahead. It was interesting to me that this issue does not sit within one Department. I am responding from a local government perspective but, as others have mentioned, the Department for Education is involved, as is the Cabinet Office, in terms of convening. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a role for some waterways, and even the Department for Work and Pensions is involved, because it runs the Health and Safety Executive. When many Departments are looking at something, it is often not that straightforward to get a co-ordinated response, which is why we tend to answer questions specifically on the particular issues afforded in our remit.

The Cabinet Office is currently reviewing coastal water safety. We will explore with all our partners across central and local government what more can be done to raise awareness of water safety, and to increase the provision of throwlines and other vital lifesaving equipment near open bodies of water.

Members asked what landowners can do. Providing them with information is clearly required, and that means ensuring that businesses, landowners and councils are conducting up-to-date and thorough risk assessments. The Local Government Association’s water safety toolkit is an invaluable resource for councils in those cases where the local authority has a role. I am committed to working more closely with the LGA on ensuring that that is being properly publicised and used by local authorities across the country. People need to know about water safety, and we need to do more to publicise that.

Many Members asked about mandatory legislation. That is not where we would start. It may or may not be the answer, but we need to look at the various issues first.

The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) raised an important point about throwlines being present but not usable, and a lot of work needs to be done to discover the right way to resolve those issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Natalie Elphicke) raised issues about compulsory lifejackets and better education. That does not fall within the remit of my Department, but I know that officials will have taken that point away.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) and from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman). Despite my Department covering only England, we need to ensure we have whole country coverage and work together with the devolved Administrations to provide a comprehensive view. I look forward to working with colleagues from across the House on this issue.

There are 40,000 lakes in this country and no matter where anyone is in the UK, they are no further than 70 miles from the coast. Between 2019 and 2020, searches for “wild swimming” increased by 94%. The pandemic has increased the number of people wild swimming. We do not want to discourage people from wild swimming as full-water immersion boosts the immune system, reduces inflammation and has many other health benefits, but we need to ensure people understand the risks involved, especially as more people carry out the activity.

In the past few years we have enjoyed very hot weather, but our waterways remain cold. They remain northern European, even if the weather is becoming Mediterranean. That is one reason why we must ensure people know the risks of wild swimming are just as real as the benefits.

The tragic deaths of Mark, Dwayne and other young people we have mentioned should have been unique accidents, but they were not. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) stated, in 2020 alone there were 254 accidental drownings and 631 water-related fatalities in the UK. Combined with the surge in interest in wild swimming, this tragic loss of life highlights and reinforces the responsibility of landowners, whether they are local or not, to properly assess the safety requirements of bodies of water on their land. The Government’s No. 1 priority is to keep people safe, and we expect landowners to act in the same way.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

First, I thank the Minister because she was clearly listening intently to my speech and to the whole debate. One thing that contributed to the death of Sam was that the equipment was overgrown—most of the places where we put throwlines are in areas of dense vegetation. I have a two-part question, thinking about how local authorities assess, and ensure the maintenance of, life-saving equipment for dangerous situations. We have identified that open bodies of water are dangerous, so could the Government say that there have to be so many throwlines for however many metres of waterfront, but also ensure that local authorities go in and make sure regular checks are being done? In the case I mentioned, that meant vegetation being cut down; in others, it may be that the equipment deteriorates in bright sunlight. Doing those things would ensure that, if the equipment is needed, people can access it and it is fit for purpose.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is a really good point. It is exactly the kind of thing that I would expect the Local Government Association’s water safety toolkit to contain. If it does not, it is probably worth us mentioning it to the LGA when we next meet. I will ask officials to take that point away.

I was going to talk about the 30 different navigation authorities that manage regulated inland waterways, but I will mention just two: the Environment Agency and the Canal & River Trust, which some Members might have heard of. The Canal & River Trust is a charity that owns about 2,000 miles of inland waterway, and the Environment Agency is an arm’s length body of DEFRA that manages 630 miles of waterway. Both bodies are responsible for ensuring that waters are safe, and they have to undertake public safety assessments to work out where public rescue equipment such as throwlines should be on the waterways, so some work is done on that. Those bodies know waterways back to front and know the best places to install throwlines—the busiest locations, particularly where there have been previous safety incidents, or places of high risk, such as waterside parks. Those organisations run proactive public safety campaigns to raise awareness of the risks.

It is clear that we need to keep redoubling efforts to make as safe as possible the unregulated inland waterways and bodies of water that are not covered by charities and arm’s length bodies. The responsibility for providing water safety equipment rests with those organisations but in larger urban areas it rests with local authorities. Local authorities tend to work with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the Royal Life Saving Society UK and the National Water Safety Forum, which have been mentioned. Those groups do a great job of warning people, through campaigns, of the dangers of getting into cold water, which can lead to panic, water inhalation and, in serious cases, cardiac arrest.

We all know that the best rules and guidance are redundant if people do not know how to swim to begin with. My hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley and for Southport (Damien Moore) and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) were right to draw attention to the critical role of education in all this, and I will speak a bit about what people are being educated on. It goes without saying that swimming is a truly vital life skill, and that is why swimming and water safety form compulsory parts of the physical education curriculum at key stages 1 and 2. As part of the curriculum, pupils are taught to swim at least 25 metres competently and confidently using a range of strokes, and to perform safe self-rescue.

As part of our efforts to help children to catch up on learning and activity lost as a consequence of the pandemic, DFE organised for sports facilities at 101 schools to reopen their pools or extend their swimming offer in the last academic year. DFE has also been working closely with Swim England, the Royal Life Saving Society UK and Oak National Academy to support pupils in returning safely to swimming and to promote water safety education. DFE Ministers were very keen that I mention those points so that people would know what they are doing.

Although education has an important role to play, and the bodies I have mentioned continue to undertake proper risk assessments and put safety mitigations in place, there are other practical steps that each of us should keep in mind when we want to enjoy our waterways, and I will state them for the record as a reminder.

As part of her campaign, Mrs Bartley has really pressed home the importance of talking to children about cold water shock and the dangers of open water. She is absolutely right to stress that it takes a whole different set of skills to swim in open water than in a swimming pool, so what we are doing in schools is critical, but it is not all that needs to be done. The National Water Safety Forum advises swimmers to wear wetsuits and allow their bodies to acclimatise to the change in temperature, instead of jumping straight in. Another essential factor that people should consider before they go swimming in open water is the location, because the safest places to swim will always be supervised beaches with lifeguards and outdoor pools. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution also recommends that people check the weather forecast and sea conditions before a swim on the coast so that they can avoid the potential danger of getting caught in a strong comment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) spoke very eloquently and with much expertise—far more than me—about these issues. Safety in the water is about not just safety equipment but understanding and being aware of the danger. United Utilities, which owns the reservoir where the tragic death of Mark Allen occurred, has now made sure that its signs make clear the risk to life. On its website, it has set out guides for parents, highlighting how a cold shock can affect even proficient swimmers. The advice of the RNLI is:

“If in doubt, don’t go out.”

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wonder whether the Minister is able to comment on something or pass it to her colleagues in Education. When I was at school, we had swimming lessons. I hated them and they worked, because I have never been near water again, so they have kept me safe. I went to a local authority school, and many local authority pools have now been shut down and many schools are now academies. Is it compulsory or recommended in education that children, particularly primary school children, still have swimming lessons? If not, is it something that the Minister could raise with her colleagues?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, it is part of the key stage curriculum, but I will get DFE Ministers to write more comprehensively to the hon. Lady on this issue. I would not want to say something that is inaccurate, because it is not in my portfolio.

David Jones Portrait Mr David Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way before she concludes. As I understand it from her remarks, the Government are yet persuaded that legislation is the appropriate answer to the problem that we are debating, and she wishes to carry out further assessments. When does she anticipate that those assessments will be complete? Although I appreciate the point she makes about education and understanding the risks of the water, which are obviously correct, may I remind her what the coroner said? It was the impetuosity of youth—we all think that we are bullet-proof. Frankly, had there been a throwline there that day, it might well be the case that Mark Allen would be alive today. Will the Minister give serious consideration to legislation?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. We will give serious consideration to all the options. We need to make sure that this is absolutely the right pathway to go down. I understand the points that everyone has made. I do not want to be standing here for another debate when another child or young person has lost their life, so I want my right hon. Friend to know we take this issue very seriously. He has been in government and he knows that it is never a matter of making a statement in Westminster Hall. All sorts of people need to be consulted, and we need to work out which Department would start looking at this issue, but I have committed that we will come back with a response. We should be able to do that in a reasonable amount of time.

I reiterate that we all share the same ambition of making our waterways as safe as possible. There is more that can be done to educate people on the risks, but I know that the bodies charged with keeping people safe take that responsibility seriously and will be upping the ante in the months ahead to prevent deaths such as Mark’s in the future. I take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to urge every landowner, council, agency and charity involved in our waterways to find new and engaging ways in the months ahead to teach people about how to enjoy the water safely. We are here to support them in whatever way we can.

Finally, I want to thank again Mark’s mother, Leeanne Bartley, for bringing the petition forward and inviting us to debate this important issue. We are very grateful.

00:02
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ghani. I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank Mark’s mum, Leeanne, for being here today and for bringing the petition forward. I hope she is pleased that it has been a thorough debate, and I thank all Members who have taken part. This is obviously a really big issue. Every death is a death that should not have happened, and we should do all we can as parliamentarians to try to stop such deaths.

We have spoken about the need to educate people, whether they are young people or landowners, through risk assessments and local authorities. We should also take the time to listen to the advice of professionals. Sometimes we like a quick fix, when really we should take on board what the professionals say. If they say, “The equipment should be put there,” then it should be put there, but if they say, “No, it may cause a further problem,” we should look at that. On what the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said about maintenance, the risk assessment should state the frequency of inspection.

An awful lot of these accidents happen in the summer months, so one thing that we can all do as parliamentarians is use our social media to get good, positive messages out there prior to the summer and prior to bank holidays, to let parents know, and perhaps to remind teachers who are dealing with children around water, that if they are teaching children to swim, “Yes, this is a fantastic safe place, it’s warm and you’ve got lifeguards, but out there it’s a different world.” I really think that there is a massive education piece, and we should all do what we can to try to keep all young people safe.

The last statistics I looked at—the figures I have from the Library include both “natural water” and “other water”, so we need to be careful which figures we quote— showed that 82% of accidents last year involved men. Everyone needs educating the same, but when I was a young man, sometimes I did not listen. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) said, we think we are bullet-proof—I know I did. We really need to get this message over, because no one should have to go through such tragedy. Once again, I thank everybody for coming to the debate today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 575967, relating to throwline stations around open bodies of water.

17:42
Sitting suspended.

Covid-19: Requirements for Employees to be Vaccinated

Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
18:00
Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before we begin, I remind Members that they should wear a face covering when not speaking in the debate. That is what the House of Commons Commission would like Members to comply with. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House authorities to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate, and to give Members and staff space when they are seated and entering and leaving the Chamber. I call Martyn Day to move the motion.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 599841, relating to requirements for employees to be vaccinated against covid-19.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. This might be one of the more interesting debates to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. It has implications for health and business, and there are serious ethical questions.

The concept of mandatory vaccination is not new. Historically, children were required to be vaccinated against smallpox in the mid-19th century by the Vaccination Act 1853, which made it compulsory. Now, following on from mandatory vaccination for care home staff in England by 11 November, frontline health and social care workers in England will need to be fully vaccinated by 1 April, which means that they will need to have their first jag by 3 February.

Several countries have taken harsh stances on requiring vaccinations, such as Italy, which is requiring all over-50s in the workforce to be vaccinated. Given these recent developments, this is not some theoretical or abstract debate; it has considerable real-world implications for us here and now.

The petition was started by Ryan Karter. It has already gathered more than 175,000 signatures, and it still has several months to run until it closes on 1 May. The Government responded on 25 November, and I will comment on the response in due course. I am grateful to the creator and all those who have signed it, as the scale and speed with which it is being signed is a clear measure of the public interest in the issue.

The petition states:

“Make it illegal for any employer to mandate vaccination for its employees.”

At its heart is support for the principle of informed consent. In speaking to Ryan prior to this debate, he made me aware of several reasons he had for starting it, not least of which was the concern that mandatory vaccination for frontline health and social care workers will lead to a loss of workers, increase the pressures of staff shortages, and be unfair and disrespectful to essential workers. That is a theme I will expand on later.

Ryan also has concerns over vaccine safety, the evidence of their efficacy, and the failure of current policy to account for natural immunity to covid. The petition goes on:

“All British people should have the right to bodily autonomy and must never be coerced into receiving a medical intervention they may not want.”

That does not seem a particularly radical position to advocate, especially as the principle of consent is an important part of medical ethics and international human rights law. It is highlighted on the NHS website, which states:

“Consent to treatment means a person must give permission before they receive any type of medical treatment, test or examination.”

It adds,

“This must be done on the basis of an explanation by a clinician”,

and,

“Consent from a patient is needed regardless of the procedure”.

That is a position I find comforting and reassuring.

What do the UK Government say? In responding to the petition, the Government make a number of points. On the efficacy of vaccination, the response states:

“The vaccines are the best defence against Covid-19 and uptake of the Covid-19 vaccination has been very high across the UK. Vaccination reduces the likelihood of infection and therefore helps break chains of transmission.”

I assure the Minister that in that aspect he has my full support and agreement, and the weekly publishing of the covid-19 vaccine surveillance report evidences that fact. However, it should be noted that the reports state:

“Vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease with the Omicron variant is substantially lower than against the Delta variant, with rapid waning. However, protection against hospitalisation remains high, particularly after 3 doses.”

The Government’s response to the petition states:

“Government has identified limited high risk settings where there is strong public health rationale for making vaccination a condition of deployment. The Government has recently announced that health and social care services will need to ensure that workers who have direct face to face contact with service users have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, following consultation.”

It should be mentioned that within the NHS there is an existing, long-standing precedent requiring vaccination against hepatitis B for those undertaking exposure-prone procedures due to the potential health risk involved. Having said that, the expansion of this position to cover covid-19 is on a very different scale.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member. Does he recognise that the requirement to have a hepatitis vaccination is only in the public heath green book? It is not mandatory in statute.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for making that very good point. As I say, it is on a very different scale. It also takes no account of the fact that vaccines do not prevent viral transmission or infection.

The Government’s response puts the position in England out of step with the other UK nations. It is probably the most contentious part of today’s debate, and it is where I find myself very strongly in agreement with the petitioners. By contrast, the Scottish Government have pursued an “educate and encourage” strategy in their vaccine roll-out—a strategy that has resulted in a higher vaccine uptake to date. In Scotland, the covid vaccine is entirely voluntary, and the Scottish Government have no plans to change this position for healthcare staff or anyone else. The Scottish approach advises companies to bring staff along with them and to encourage vaccination rather than require it.

I mentioned earlier the deadline of 3 February for NHS workers in England to have their first vaccination in England in order to become fully vaccinated by 1 April. This is imminent, and I believe there is an impending staffing crisis.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey (Tatton) (Con)
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The biggest issue facing the NHS has to be the backlog of operations and appointments. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that sacking 100,000 NHS workers can only make that worse—certainly not better?

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day
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The hon. Member has read my mind. She makes a well-put point, which I was just about to come on to. I have a slightly different figure, but the principle is the same: it cannot help the situation.

In November, a Department of Health and Social Care impact assessment found that as many as 73,000 NHS staff in England could lose their job as a result. I do not think we will split hairs over a few thousand; we will not know the exact number until we find out how many people have had their first dose by 3 February. These Government policy job losses would come on top of the long-standing staff shortages experienced by the health service. Some estimates put the figure at 99,000 current vacancies in NHS England. If we do the maths using the figures I have just quoted, we could be looking at 172,000 vacancies in England come April. That position is not going to help the NHS provide care at this time of great pressure. It presents a very real threat—one which may put patients at risk and place further pressure on a significantly depleted workforce.

There are growing calls for this policy to be, at the very least, delayed. Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, has said:

“We are calling on the Government to recognise this risk and delay a move which by its own calculations looks to backfire… To dismiss valued nursing staff during this crisis would be an act of self-sabotage.”

His reference to self-sabotage is very well put. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, has said:

“We are in the middle of an NHS staffing crisis, borne not only from covid absences, but also long-term problems that need long-term solutions. Now is not the right time to introduce more bureaucracy.”

The BMJ has highlighted that recruitment agencies are concerned about the effect of the policy on their ability to place staff, as well as the additional bureaucratic burdens of processing documentation, which is likely to take around 45 minutes per locum. I hope that the UK Government will listen to those concerns and the petitioners, look at the example of the devolved nations and think again, before they do serious damage to workforce levels and capacity in the NHS.

On requirements by other employers for staff to be vaccinated, the Government’s response states that

“an employer who proposes to introduce a requirement for staff to be vaccinated will need to consider the existing legal framework, including the law on employment, equalities and data protection. Whether or not it is justifiable to make COVID-19 vaccination a condition of deployment will depend on the particular context and circumstances.”

Some UK businesses have declared that all employees must be vaccinated or face a review of their contracts. The legality of that has been disputed by employment lawyers and trade unions, although, of course, it may be legal if it is written into contracts. For most of the UK, power over employment law is reserved to Westminster; only in Northern Ireland is it devolved. Decisions over companies’ requirements rest with those businesses.

On legal protections for workers, the Government response states:

“In addition to contractual and common law protections, there are relevant statutory frameworks, such as the Equality Act 2010, which provides protection against unlawful discrimination. The Employment Rights Act 1996 provides various general protections, including against unfair dismissal and unlawful deductions from wages. In addition, collecting, storing and using information about workers’ vaccination status will engage the law on data protection. Employers will need to ensure that they have acted in accordance with their legal obligations when making decisions on requiring a COVID-19 vaccination.”

That sounds like a potential minefield of complexity if ever there was one.

Last April, the Equality and Human Rights Commission said:

“Employers are right to want to protect their staff and their customers, particularly in contexts where people are at risk, such as care homes. However, requirements must be proportionate, non-discriminatory and make provision for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.”

From an employment law and non-discrimination perspective, the safest route is to encourage vaccination, not to mandate it.

As I draw my remarks to a close, I note that there are so many points that could be made in this debate but limited time to make them. I have only scratched the surface while setting the scene, and I look forward to hearing what other right hon. and hon. Members have to say. I reiterate my main point that an “educate and encourage” strategy would be a better approach and that there is still time for the Government to change tack on mandatory covid vaccination for England’s NHS workers.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
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I am not going to set a time limit. If Members stick to no more than six minutes, they will have ample time to get everything in and it will allow everyone to have a free-flowing debate.

18:13
Margaret Greenwood Portrait Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this evening, Mr Paisley. The petition calls for it to be made illegal for any employer to mandate vaccination for its employees. It states:

“This should apply to all public sector (including the NHS, armed forces, care workers), third sector and all private sector.”

At the time of this debate, more than 218,000 people have signed the petition; of those, more than 44,000 have done so in the last four days, which shows what a live issue this is and how strongly people feel about it.

As we know, it is the Government’s intention to make covid-19 vaccination a requirement for all health and care workers in England from 1 April 2022. I would like to state at the outset that I believe it is incredibly important for people to get vaccinated against covid-19 to protect themselves and those around them. However, if people are hesitant or frightened, they should not be pressured into receiving the vaccine. The Government should be doing far more to tackle misinformation and promote the benefits of taking up the vaccine to NHS and care staff who are concerned about it. The Government should focus on driving up vaccination rates through persuasion, education and support.

Forcing the vaccine on people is coercive and will do nothing to build the trust that is needed. It is an issue of employment rights and—more than that—of human rights. It is about freedom of choice—a basic fundamental principle.

There is already a staffing crisis in the NHS. The latest figures show that there are more than 90,000 full-time equivalent vacancies in England’s NHS. The Government’s impact statement on making vaccination a condition of deployment in the health and wider social care sectors estimates that 88,000 NHS and independent health sector workers, and 35,000 workers in domiciliary care and other care services, will not have fulfilled the condition of deployment by the end of the grace period.

The warnings from the sector have been clear. The Royal College of General Practitioners has described compulsory vaccination for health professionals in England as

“not the right way forward,”

and it said over the weekend that there will be “massive consequences” for the NHS if unvaccinated staff are taken out of frontline roles by 1 April. I hope the Government are listening. The NHS Confederation has said that mandatory vaccination will reduce frontline NHS staff numbers even further and lead to more gaps in capacity, at a time of intense pressure and patient demand. I know what a serious issue that is, having spoken to members of the Royal College of Nursing about the pressure that they are under due to the lack of staffing.

The Government are making a major crisis even worse by making it mandatory for NHS staff to be vaccinated. A number of constituents who have written to me are dedicated NHS staff with many years of experience. One wrote of how she had worked throughout the pandemic, at times with inadequate personal protective equipment. Sometimes she worked 60 or 70-hour weeks, and she feels greatly aggrieved about how the Government are now treating her.

Nurses facing a choice between losing their job or having a vaccine that they are worried about taking have written to me about their sleepless nights and the huge stress that the situation is putting on them and their families. Some say that they are supportive of the vaccine but, for medical reasons, are fearful of having it; however, they find that they do not meet the exemption criteria. One constituent expressed her concern that the Government website states:

“The clinical decision on your medical exemption is final. You can’t appeal the decision.”

I would be grateful if the Minister could let me know whether the Government will revisit that on behalf of my constituent and others in her situation.

Ministers really should listen to the voices of the hundreds of thousands of people, including hundreds in my constituency of Wirral West, who have signed the petition that we are discussing. The Government should not be pursuing policies that could potentially put more than 120,000 health and care staff out of work, exacerbating the already desperate situation in which the NHS and the care sector find themselves. Nurses, care workers and doctors are highly dedicated professionals who are trained in infection control. Their sense of vocation and selflessness during the pandemic has been, and continues to be, inspirational. Will the Government change course, protect these professions and respect the human rights of working people?

18:17
Ben Bradley Portrait Ben Bradley (Mansfield) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I put it on the record that I am massively pro-vaccine. It is the right thing to do, and it is the right way for us to move on from this pandemic and to protect ourselves. However, I agree with what the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) said in opening the debate about the importance of bodily autonomy and education, as opposed to forcing people to take the vaccine. I certainly do not think that businesses should be forcing existing staff, and I cannot imagine how seeking to do so would benefit their attractiveness as an employer or their viability as a business.

I want to focus my remarks on public services. As a county council leader, I am directly affected by this issue as someone who has to deliver social care services. Although staff made an incredible effort over Christmas to try to mitigate the massive staffing pressures that exist in the sector—my thanks go out to them all, because it was an incredible effort to do that and to protect those services and vulnerable people as far as possible—the impact has been huge.

As a county council, we have already gone, in just a few months, from having no waiting list for social care provision to having 400 on the waiting list. It is hugely important that we are not further hit by additional staffing issues. Care plans are regularly handed back to my director of adult social care at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon for the council to pick up, because care services cannot deliver them over the weekend. We are just about managing so far, but further issues, including mandatory vaccination, will continue to hit us.

We have lost some staff already, and we are set to lose more. Overnight, hospitals and NHS trusts put out figures on how many staff they are set to lose. My local hospital is set to lose around 200 staff from 3 February. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) said earlier, that can only be detrimental given the continuing backlogs and the challenges of existing of NHS pressures.

I did not vote for mandatory NHS vaccines. In hindsight, I would not have voted for care sector vaccines, either, but unfortunately I cannot go back in time. The Government still have time to rethink, and that is my plea to the Minister. The wider debate about the importance of bodily autonomy and our rights and freedoms is hugely important, but it is also the case that, in this instance, the health argument does not stack up.

As we move out of the pandemic—touch wood—and beyond the period of most intense risk, I cannot see how it can be okay for these staff to have worked throughout the riskiest time of the pandemic, when transmission was at its highest, only for us to sack them now, as it falls away and the risk recedes. We know—the evidence suggests it—that omicron is less impacted by the vaccine. We have argued, when it comes to vaccine certification, which I also did not vote for, that it is okay to have a daily test and that that mitigates the risk of not being vaccinated, but we are not making that case for NHS or care staff. I do not see how we can argue both positions at the same time.

As we have touched on, there are 73,000 or 80,000 staff to go across the NHS and big numbers across the care sector. That can only make things worse when we have backlogs and waiting lists in both sectors. I do not know how getting rid of 80,000 staff across the NHS chimes with our commitment as a Government to 50,000 more nurses or doctors, or whatever it was. It is nonsensical.

I totally understand people’s wish to choose a vaccinated carer over an unvaccinated carer, but truth be told, that is not the choice; it is an unvaccinated carer or no carer. If it were my elderly relative being looked after, I would certainly prefer them to have somebody rather than nobody. Listening to Radio 5 this morning, I heard a GP making the same argument about a colleague in his practice who had been there for many years and had managed to work throughout the pandemic quite successfully, as far as access to GPs goes—that is another matter that we could debate for hours—but who now faces no longer being able to see patients over the next few weeks. How is that better than having an unvaccinated GP?

There is still time for the Government to reconsider. I really think we need to delay the 3 February deadline, hopefully with a view to reconsidering this measure altogether in due course. I recognise that there are probably significant legal implications of reconsidering the decision for the care sector, with people already having lost their jobs in that sector, but still, this is not a good plan and it will not help us to deliver these services. I call on the Government to reconsider. The evidence does not make a strong enough case, from a health point of view, to override those freedoms, to override bodily autonomy or to exacerbate the staffing issues that already exist, so I call on the Government to think very hard over the next week or two about whether this is something they really want to do. I certainly do not think it is.

18:22
Mick Whitley Portrait Mick Whitley (Birkenhead) (Lab)
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It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing this debate and for making his case with such eloquence. I also draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I begin by acknowledging the immense debt of gratitude that I and all my constituents owe to Dr Mantgani and his Birkenhead vaccination team. Throughout the pandemic, they have consistently outperformed all other teams in the north-west, and even today, from their base in the Birkenhead medical centre, they continue to work tirelessly to encourage the vaccine hesitant to come forward and have their first jab. The vaccine remains the most powerful weapon that we have in the long fight against covid, and I implore any of my constituents who have not yet had their first jab to get it as soon as possible, without fear of judgment or ridicule.

However, as the Government start speaking of a future beyond covid restrictions, we must confront the uncomfortable fact that many people in the country still refuse to get vaccinated. For those of us who have proudly had our boosters, their reasons may sometimes seem unfathomable. Some have fallen prey to the online conspiracy theories and scare stories that the tech giants have failed miserably to stamp out, some have legitimate health concerns or suffer from deep-seated phobias, and others distrust established authority, with varying levels of justification. All of them deserve to be treated with compassion—and so, as we ask ourselves whether employers should be allowed to make vaccination a condition of employment, my answer is a loud and resounding no.

The recent vote to introduce a vaccination mandate in the NHS highlights some of the issues that we face. To defy the party Whip is never an easy decision, but I voted against that motion, and resigned from the Front Bench in the process, because I could not in good conscience condemn so many of our healthcare heroes to the dole queue. Now, 80,000 healthcare heroes face the grim prospect of unemployment in the midst of a once-in-a-generation cost-of-living crisis.

Experts were quick to make their objections known. The Trades Union Congress warns that without a delay to its implementation, the vaccine mandate could compound an already acute staffing shortage and lead to a “staffing nightmare”. The Department of Health and Social Care’s own equality impact assessment makes it clear that black, Asian and minority ethnic workers, young workers and women are likely to be disproportionately affected. Meanwhile, the Government seem to have run roughshod over the concerns of the trade unions in their haste to drive through the policy.

NHS staff need only look to the care sector to see the consequences of enforcing such a mandate. Following the introduction of a “no jab, no job” policy in care homes last summer, many dedicated workers have been forced out of the profession they loved. Unison is warning of a “catastrophic” staffing crisis in a sector that was already in desperate need of no fewer than 100,000 additional staff.

Of course, service users have every right to feel safe in their hospitals and care homes. Every effort must be made to protect them and to convince those who care for them of the need to get a jab. But we must never forget that it was only two years ago that these very same health and care workers were asked to enter clinical settings that the Government had so utterly failed to make safe. Nor should we ignore the far more fundamental role that shortages of PPE, tests and staff continue to play in jeopardising patient safety. We should never stop holding the Government to account for their monumental failure to engage with the alternative and effective safety measures that have been set out by the trade unions.

It is not just clinical settings that have been affected. In the last few weeks alone, a score of major retailers, including IKEA, Next and Ocado, have announced that unvaccinated workers will be forced to survive on the pittance that is statutory sick pay should they be forced to self-isolate. What a shame. It is not safety that has motivated this decision; it is profit, pure and simple.

I urge the Minister to consider the implications of the Government’s actions. I fear that this draconian and punitive strategy will do nothing but harden the minds and strengthen the convictions of the vaccine hesitant. The only way to win minds and get jabs in arms is through compassion, engagement and understanding. That will do far more than vaccine mandates ever will in bringing us closer to winning the long war on covid.

18:27
Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who opened the debate, and to all the petitioners.

Like others who have spoken, I am hugely supportive of the vaccine—it works. Office for National Statistics data from November shows that, throughout 2021, the death rate was 28 times higher among the unvaccinated than among those who had been double-jabbed. It is utterly clear that the vaccine is our way out of this, and we should stand behind the evidence and encourage people to take it. But to compel people is utterly illiberal, utterly wrong and a challenge to our freedoms.

The petitioners rightly challenge us to consider how we treat our fellow citizens who are not yet vaccinated. Some are not vaccinated for good clinical reasons, and we know that they are covered, but others are hesitant—not resolutely opposed, but hesitant. Some are resolutely opposed, and a smaller number will be those who spread information that we would perhaps term “fake news”, which has a huge impact because it can lead to and feed the hesitancy of a much larger number. But for liberal, compassionate and practical reasons, we must agree with the petitioners and oppose compulsion.

Treating the unvaccinated members of our society as second-class citizens is utterly wrong. It is an attack on freedom and, as has just been mentioned, it is hardly going to win over hearts and minds. My challenge and ask of the Minister is: what are the Government going to do to step up their efforts to educate and inform, to tackle the common objections, and to answer them rigorously and regularly through challenge? Changing hearts and minds will take skill, patience and persuasion. I am certain that compulsion will do the opposite of what the Government think it will achieve.

Forcing people to be vaccinated who have chosen so far not to be will, understandably, turn hesitant people into hostile people. It will solidify resistance to the vaccine. It will give the small minority who wilfully spread misinformation the status of martyrs, making the whole exercise utterly counterproductive.

As has been mentioned, compulsion will have a particular and appalling impact on our health service at every level. We reckon that in my local hospital trust, which has three hospitals in the Morecombe bay area and more further north in the rest of Cumbria, at least 94% of NHS staff are already vaccinated, and that figure is growing by the day. To explode that by introducing compulsion is wrong on so many levels.

This might be a high estimate, but staff in the trust estimate that up to 800 staff across those three hospitals and in other parts of the NHS in our community could lose their jobs. If they are not vaccinated in a week and a half’s time, they will be on a trajectory to be out of a job by 1 April. That is an insult to those people, who have served us, kept us well, saved people’s lives and put themselves and their families in harm’s way over these two appalling years. Ministers clapped them, and now they will sack them. That is utterly wrong and ungrateful, above all else. As we have said, 3 February is just a few days away, so a U-turn now is urgent. This will cause colossal damage in our health service in a matter of days and weeks.

In our communities in south Cumbria and north Lancashire, at times, more than 50% of people diagnosed with cancer are waiting more than two months to get their first treatment. We know that for every four weeks that someone waits for cancer treatment, there is, on average, a 10% decrease in their likelihood of surviving that cancer. Thanks to figures provided by Macmillan, we know that through the pandemic, 740,000 cancer screenings were missed, and 60,000 diagnoses were missed. There are 60,000 people out there with cancer who do not know it, or who were not diagnosed until probably far too late.

That is a snapshot of the kind of pressure that our health service is under just when it comes to cancer, yet we are just weeks away from the Government potentially cutting the workforce by at least 5% in one go. That is unconscionable and wrong. Of course people must get vaccinated—I will plead with people to get vaccinated—but to compel them is an insult, an assault on liberty and counterproductive to the effort to increase vaccination. It will hugely undermine our national health service just at the moment when we need it the most.

18:32
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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I thank all the petitioners, including 354 from my constituency of York Central, for enabling us to have this important and timely debate just days before legislation will mean that hundreds of thousands of NHS workers will lose their jobs. Before I begin, I must declare my interest as a former head of health at Unite and a senior clinician for 20 years, working in acute medicine.

The Government know that they have to withdraw the mandatory vaccination regulations. They have no choice. We are heading for such a serious NHS and social care crisis that no one will ever forget that the Tories broke the NHS and spun it into this unnecessary crisis, delaying operations and sacking vital NHS staff after all they have done to serve us, even at a time when they were very much forgotten. We are already around 100,000 staff down in the NHS. According to Government figures, another 88,000 people could be sacked if they are not vaccinated by 3 February. That is just days away. People are already having to hand in their notice. Many already have, which is putting pressure on our service.

If a Health Minister were present—I have to say that I am perplexed that one is not—they would know that the exodus of staff will not only seriously exacerbate the covid crisis but place incredible stress on the staff who have to remain, and therefore break them too. We already know about the very fragile mental health of the staff, who have been so traumatised by covid. As for social care, which is already unable to meet demand, the most vulnerable will be left without vital care. Delayed discharges will fill our hospitals, blocking the back door as well as the front door.

Just think: 115,000 staff who are in work today will be sacked—gone, no longer serving, in the dole queue. It is negligent and illiterate to not remove the regulations. I trust that Labour has also seen the light and understood the risk, and that it too will call for the immediate withdrawal of the regulations. Labour cannot be complicit in the sacking of hard-working health and care workers, or in bringing our NHS to its knees.

I want to make it clear that I want everyone to participate in the vaccine programme. Covid remains a killer disease. To date, 1.3 million have been left with debilitating symptoms of long covid. The public inquiry has never been more needed, with devastating mortality and infection rates—and excess deaths on top—in our country. We must get on top of that. More than 1,000 people are continuing to die each week. The Government’s inconsistency in their application of the public health measures is at the root of many of those deaths. It is a complete scandal.

However, it is also a complete scandal to sack our NHS and care staff. The foresight of scientists to embark on the development of the vaccine, with taxpayers’ money, and that being rolled out through the NHS, has saved so many lives. As the professional bodies in the NHS—such as the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Nursing—say, the regulations must be withdrawn. As all of the NHS and social care trade unions say, the regulations must be withdrawn. I have talked to NHS and social care staff, and they are resolute that they will not be bullied into a vaccine. They have very real concerns, and they are resolute.

The NHS constitution, and the whole health system, is dependent on informed consent. The vaccine does not remove the risk of transmission or sickness. Government statistics sent to me by the Health Minister, the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), state that vaccine efficacy depletion against omicron is reduced to between 40% to 50% in 10 weeks. It helps for now, but there is no long-term plan. By April, efficacy will be below 50%, which means that the risk of transmission remains unless other measures are taken. The Health Minister knows that we cannot keep vaccinating every eight to 10 weeks, but she has not produced a plan for what we will do next. Higher-grade PPE will help, and regular testing will of course make us safer, but what is the plan?

The Government recklessly removing all restrictions, as covid continues to rip through our communities, is placing lives at risk. At the same time, they will put more pressure on the NHS because people will be sacked. That is illiterate, inconsistent and dangerous.

Staff are intelligent; they have analysed the data and come to their own decisions. It is through support that they will make their final decisions. That is why that supportive conversation—with a health professional with the right competencies, rather than a manager—is essential. I trust that the Minister will move on that point too.

There have been 431,482 reports of vaccine side effects on the yellow card system, up to 5 January, so of course health professionals are analysing that data—that is what health professionals do. There is no longitudinal study about the impact on long-term fertility—why not? That is the reason why many women are not getting vaccinated. Many staff have had covid and have antibodies. Why did they get covid? It is because the Government failed to provide PPE in those early days. Remember that? The Government were not sacked, yet today they will sack NHS staff. Well, I say no.

It is time to climb down, withdraw the regulations and respect our exhausted, stressed and traumatised NHS and care staff. It is time to work with them, not against them. It is time to say sorry for putting them under such pressure through these regulations. It is time to withdraw.

18:39
Paula Barker Portrait Paula Barker (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this incredibly important debate and on his superb contribution.

We are sleepwalking into a crisis. The motives for making vaccination mandatory for NHS staff may have come from an honest and sincere place, but one issue is not properly resolved if that inadvertently creates a bigger problem elsewhere. So polarising is this debate that we often find ourselves qualifying our support for the vaccination programme. I am double-jabbed and boosted, and I encourage my constituents who are staff in the NHS to get vaccinated if they have not done so. However, this can be done through encouragement and consent; it does not have to be mandatory.

I laid out my concerns to the Health Secretary when the statutory instrument was considered in the Chamber. I said then that it would cause a workforce crisis; I said then that such a practice should not be applied to the law, as it was in the case of hepatitis B, as hon. Members have already mentioned. Increasing vaccine uptake should be built on consent and negotiation with those who have not yet been jabbed. I also said in December that forcing people to get vaccinated when they have already given blood, sweat and tears during the most dangerous periods of the pandemic is not only immoral but illogical.

The founding principles of the NHS were built on consent. This legislation flies in the face of that. We clapped for the workers on a Thursday evening at the start of the pandemic. Those brave souls put their lives at risk because most of them did not have the appropriate PPE—the Government failed them on that, yet again. A variation of either delaying, pausing or scrapping this move entirely is the position of the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association, Unison, Unite the union and other organisations that represent most NHS staff. Like them, I know that creating a workforce crisis when our NHS can least afford it, in its 74-year history, is reckless. It will be on this House if such a crisis comes to pass.

What is really interesting is that the Health Secretary believes that these people are such a danger to the public that, in December, he did not want them to immediately be moved from the workplace. No, he wanted them to get us through the Christmas crisis in the NHS and then he would thank them by sacking them on 1 April. It is morally reprehensible.

We do not know what the impact of losing up to 8% of its workforce will be on the NHS, because the final number is yet to be revealed. The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee raised credible and critical concerns that have had no impact whatsoever. There has been no thorough impact assessment from the Department and there is a lack of clarity on whether the benefits of this measure are proportionate to the NHS losing up to 126,000 staff members and then spending over a quarter of a billion pounds on recruitment to fill the resulting vacancies.

I did not come into politics to sack thousands of health workers on the back of an unprecedented public health disaster, but that is what this Government are going to do—this Government who disregarded their own rule book throughout the pandemic; who had “bring your own bottle” parties; who are led by a Prime Minister who claims he did not know whether it was a party or not, and who has come to this House and circumvented answering the most precise questions, while the rest of us obeyed the rules and while care and NHS workers worked tirelessly to save people’s lives. Those health workers are now going to be sacked. It is absolutely disgraceful.

Opposition parties should play no part in taking this sledgehammer to our national health service—and that is exactly what this will be. It is morally reprehensible and I implore the Government to change course on this, because it is not too late.

18:55
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I am very pleased to be here, Mr Paisley. I think this is my second consecutive Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship—you will soon be here as much as I am, at this rate.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I jest. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on setting the scene so comprehensively. In the light of the contributions from hon. Members, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a clear case to make on behalf of workers, and I will speak about that as well.

On 7 December 2020, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan—a grandmother originally from County Fermanagh—rolled up her sleeve at University Hospital Coventry and took her place in history. Each of us remembers that day exceptionally well. I know that we do, Mr Paisley, because she was from Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, but I believe that she was an inspiration to every one of us who took our jabs and boosters.

Mrs Keenan became the first person in the world to be vaccinated against covid-19. Since then, almost 10 billion doses of the three main vaccines have been administered around the world. We thank our Government, and the Minister, for that incredible initiative. I have absolutely no doubt that many people are alive today because of the vaccine roll-out. It is just unfortunate that others did not get that chance. There is no doubt that all those who quickly followed in Mrs Keenan’s path helped to create the turning point in the first pandemic in living memory. In countries that quickly rolled out the vaccine programme, it has had a major impact on cutting hospitalisation and death rates.

I do not think anyone can ignore the fact that more than 200,000 people have signed the petition. Although that shows how many people felt moved to sign it, my interpretation of petitions is that they reflect only a small proportion of overall support, because many people who would have agreed with a petition’s intent and wording did not get to sign it.

I heard in the news today that Israel is considering a fourth dose of covid vaccine for the over-60s. The evidential base indicates that a fourth dose seems to make the over-60s resistant to many other diseases as well. Maybe that is something that our Government should be looking at to ensure that our people are safe in the long term.

To date, 9.87 billion doses of the vaccine have been delivered worldwide, and 4.09 billion people—52.5% of the world’s population—are fully vaccinated. We should recognise that as a remarkable undertaking and an achievement of human effort and medical science since that very first dose just over a year ago in December 2020. It has been achieved purely through voluntary effort and by successfully persuading people that getting vaccinated was the right thing to do not only for themselves, but for the people around them. I use the word “persuading” because that is what the Government should be doing rather than coercing or strong-arming people into doing things that they feel strongly about.

We must recognise, however, that vaccination has not eradicated covid-19. We have not vaccinated our way out of the pandemic, however much that might have been intended. New variants have emerged, and people are talking about the B.1s and C.1s, so people have become re-infected and have continued to transmit the virus—that was mentioned on the radio today. I am a supporter of the vaccine programme. I am triple-vaccinated because I chose to be vaccinated, as has just over half the world’s population, but I strongly believe that being vaccinated against this virus should remain a personal choice.

How life changes. I bet that a year ago every one of us in this room was out clapping for our NHS staff on Thursday nights—I know that my family and I were, because we recognised what those in the NHS were doing. Yet a year later we have a different policy, as if none of that mattered any more. It mattered a year ago, and we were prepared to say so; it should matter now, too. I am not sure whether the Minister is deputising for someone else, or maybe I have got that wrong, but in any case, I am concerned that Government policy seems to be to coerce and strong-arm people into getting a vaccine. I have to stand by those who come to see me about this matter.

Mr Paisley, you and I have discussed the nurses, NHS care staff and other staff who routinely work on wards making things happen. They have chosen their vocation and made a commitment. Many of them have shed tears about the Government following through with a policy that will take their jobs away from them. In her invention, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) rightly mentioned the figures. Where will we be with cancer and cataract operations, or treatment for heart disease and strokes? We all know the conditions for which there are now long waiting lists, and those lists will just get longer if we pay off 80,000 staff, 115,000 staff, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said in his opening speech, or 175,000 staff, as others have said.

It is a foundation principle of medical ethics that consent must be given for any medical procedure. Making vaccination against covid-19 a requirement for employment is opening the door to imposing penalties on those who, for their own reasons, do not comply with the law. As I have said, I have been contacted by many constituents who work in healthcare and have expressed very real concerns that mandatory vaccination for covid-19 will lead to a two-tier workplace—yes, it will—that will see vaccinated employees rewarded by financial incentives over those who choose not to be vaccinated. That is happening across the world.

Every one of those staff has dedicated themselves to their excellent work. We all know that our healthcare workers are driven by their duty of care and commitment to their chosen field while being in the most underpaid, under-resourced and overworked profession. If we lose that number of staff from the healthcare sector in February because they have made a personal choice, waiting lists will get longer and diagnostic investigations will not take place in the timescale that we hope to see.

I commend the healthcare workers who choose to come forward to be vaccinated. We need to make the distinction between vaccine refusal and vaccine hesitancy. Hesitancy is based on trust, and is something we can work on. Rather than directing health system resources and political muscle towards imposing penalties for non-compliance, we would do better to invest further in education and more efforts to facilitate meaningful conversations between concerned people and healthcare professionals.

We cannot and should not become a society or Government that penalises or sanctions people for making a personal health choice. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made an excellent point about libertarianism. It is a policy of his party that I share—by the way, I do not share all Liberal Democrat policies; just this one. This is about liberty, freedom and choice, and about people following the vocation they love without being penalised for that choice.

When we make legislation for the workplace, as for anywhere else, we must always balance public objectives against individual rights to freedom of choice and freedom from discrimination. We must recognise that trust is a major factor for people from some ethnic and religious groups, some of whom will have a problem with vaccination from a religious point of view. Should they be penalised because they work in the NHS? The Government would do better to build confidence in the vaccine programme and see vaccination rates increase, instead of creating a legal requirement for the workplace.

Let us use this Westminster Hall debate to build trust in the vaccine programme and respect choice, because choice is not only part of the informed consent process, which we should all adhere to, but a valued and inherent sign of respect for the person. To pursue compulsory vaccination flies in the face of all that is key and core for our NHS workers, including doctors, nurses, care staff and others. I believe that we must stand by them.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
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Before I call the SNP spokesperson, I thank all Back Benchers for self-regulating their time during the debate, which has landed perfectly for everyone. Thank you for doing that without me having to set a time limit.

18:53
Steven Bonnar Portrait Steven Bonnar (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Paisley. I thank all the petitioners who signed the petition. I believe this shows our democracy in action, which is why I always like to come along to petition debates.

E-petition 599841 calls upon the UK Government to prohibit employers from asking their employees to be vaccinated before starting employment, a hugely impactful decision with consequences that stretch across many sectors and industries. Enforcing the vaccination of employees, according to the petition and the petitioners, violates the concept of informed consent. I find that hard to disagree with. We do not live in a totalitarian society, and we should not expect individuals to be punished or persecuted for refusing vaccinations.

Mandatory vaccination in the workplace is, in my opinion, fundamentally and morally wrong. Instead of using—for want of a better word—force, the Scottish Government believe that we should educate and encourage individuals to receive vaccines through persuasion rather than coercion. With the idea of mandated vaccinations being mooted, I believe that more employers will act to reduce statutory sick pay for unvaccinated employees who are forced to, for example, self-isolate.

Companies such as Morrisons, IKEA and Next have already moved to implement such policies, and it is only a matter of time before more follow. Perhaps instead of introducing mandatory vaccinations, the Government should consider enacting legislation to prevent employers from altering their sick pay policies in relation to unvaccinated workers. A pandemic should not be an opportunity to lessen employment rates. As a morally just legislature and legislators, we should simply not allow that to happen.

Given the Government’s requirements for healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated by April, it is important to understand that healthcare professionals feel a duty of care towards their patients, but mandatory vaccination is not the answer. If there was overwhelming evidence that the vaccine prevented someone from passing the virus to others, it might be justified or compelling. Unfortunately, we know that vaccines, amazing as they are and have been, do not work in that manner, and I do not see how we can justify such moves. The health unions agree, and have criticised the policy, pointing out that it might result in the loss of up to 10% of staff at some hospitals in England when it comes into effect. With an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 NHS workers in England who have not yet been vaccinated, the consequences could be irreversibly damaging.

At the weekend, we witnessed frontline health workers join in the many anti-vax protests in the streets. The conflating of both groups is of real concern. With a workforce that is already depleted across the NHS and other sectors, I am concerned about and resist in the strongest terms any “no jab, no job” policy. The NHS cannot afford for employees to be absent from work. It would be a form of self-sabotage to terminate the contracts of valuable, hard-working healthcare workers now.

Unlike the UK Government, the Scottish Government have not mandated vaccination of care home or NHS staff in Scotland, instead relying on an educate and inform strategy that has resulted in a higher vaccine uptake to date. A constituent who works in University Hospital Monklands spoke to me recently about how his day-to-day experience over the duration of the pandemic—seeing at first hand the effects of covid-l9 on the unvaccinated and on treatment options—was the greatest first-hand insight that he and his colleagues could gain in convincing them to take the vaccine. There was no need for any forced-hand approach; seeing and learning about the effects of the virus was all the education required.

The covid vaccine is entirely voluntary in Scotland, and the Scottish Government have no plans to change that for healthcare workers or anyone else. The Scottish Government have put public health and welfare at the forefront of their coronavirus response, and will do so for the duration of the pandemic. Scotland’s first and second vaccine uptake rates are the highest in the UK, and Scotland’s booster campaign is second in the world, behind only Chile. All five of the UK’s most vaccinated regions are in Scotland, with Argyll and Bute topping the list with a vaccination rate of 99.8%.

There are several reasonable and fully acceptable reasons why people prefer not to get vaccinated. Some persons are unable to receive vaccinations due to underlying or pre-existing medical problems. Trypanophobia, a severe and overpowering fear of needles, accounts for up to 10% of vaccine phobia in the United Kingdom. Many people are hesitant to obtain the vaccine because they believe in simple vaccine myths that conflict with their religious convictions, such as the belief that vaccines perhaps contain aborted foetal cells.

Explaining why vaccines do not violate religious or moral precepts, as well as answering honest and sincere questions about assisting individuals with needle phobias, is a considerably more successful means of increasing vaccination uptake. Educate, educate, educate—we have heard that many times within these walls over the years. Forcing vaccination will not help people to overcome their fears, which are frequently the result of trauma. In fact, doing so may well exacerbate such fears. Support and encouragement is the best way to get people who have fears vaccinated. Mandates would cause more harm than good to any individual, but also to us all in society. Why would we allow for such legislation, when the outcome is significantly negative?

When it comes to employment, the law is ultimately decided here in Westminster, which has the final say on which laws companies must follow. As a result, any questions about the legality of companies requiring vaccination are left to Westminster and, latterly, to the courts. Legal experts have already noted that making vaccination mandatory could result in civil cases under the Equality Act 2010, given its potentially discriminatory nature. For example, employers who belong to a religious group that opposes all medical treatments or vaccines, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, may be able to claim indirect discrimination. The law is not clear on vaccination mandates and must be addressed by the Government. From the standpoint of employment law and non-discrimination, it is safer to encourage immunisation than to mandate it. I urge the UK Government to reconsider their position and adopt the Scottish Government’s approach of allowing individuals to have freedom over what they put into their own bodies.

To conclude, I urge the UK Government to reconsider their position and adopt a strategy that we have seen work for the Scottish Government by educating communities, educating religious leaders and allowing individuals to choose what they put into their own bodies. Lastly, I urge everybody, if they can, to get vaccinated.

19:01
Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on his introduction to the debate. As he set out, the petition calls on the Government to make it illegal for any employer to mandate vaccination for its employers, including those in the public sector, the third sector and indeed the private sector.

This is a timely debate, coming at the start of the week when the current coronavirus restrictions will be reduced and many people who have been working from home will be planning to return to the office. Employers will also be contemplating how some of the changes, including the removal of the requirement to wear masks, will affect their employees. It will be a period of uncertainty and anxiety for people who are vulnerable. Although we see the number of daily infections falling from its peak earlier in the month, it is still at a higher level than we have seen throughout most of the pandemic. Sadly, the number of daily deaths also remains extremely high. This reminds us that the pandemic is not over yet, and it is likely that there will continue to be pressure on the NHS, as well as some level of disruption, due to high levels of staff absences across both the NHS and the wider economy.

As we know from the Confederation of British Industry, companies have been struggling with staffing issues for several months, even before the rise in covid cases and the increased levels of absence that that has produced as a result of labour shortages across the economy. As has been reported over the weekend, businesses of all sizes are debating the vaccine question, and whether to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated members of their workforce. As has been mentioned, some well-known high street names, such as Morrisons, Next, IKEA and Ocado, have already changed their company’s sickness policies, and will be treating vaccinated and unvaccinated workers differently. That may well be because the rules surrounding isolation for vaccinated and unvaccinated people are different, but there is no general law requiring employees to be vaccinated, nor any law requiring employers to mandate vaccination of their staff.

Regardless of whether staff are vaccinated, supporting them to self-isolate is entirely the right approach. It is consistent with the prioritisation of public health, as has been the case throughout the pandemic. I therefore agree with the approach that John Lewis has taken, which is to treat all its staff the same, regardless of vaccination status. However, the issues play into wider concerns about the totally unacceptable level of support for many of those who have had to self-isolate. From the shockingly low levels of statutory sick pay to the fact that millions of people do not even qualify for it, this is an area where much more could have been done from an early stage of the pandemic.

On vaccines, let us be clear that, as many Members have said, having the vaccine is the right thing to do—not just for oneself, but for other people. We thank the NHS staff and the many volunteers who have rolled out the vaccine and the booster jabs. It has been clear in recent weeks that the booster uptake has slowed. Areas such as Birmingham, Manchester and Northampton have had relatively low booster uptake in recent weeks. I know that the Minister is not the Health Minister, but if he can set out anything about how the Government intend to improve uptake levels, that would be appreciated.

The real substance of this debate is about the impact on the NHS workforce. Every Member has talked about their concerns in that regard. In particular, there was strong representation from hon. Members from my part of the world, who showed their commitment to and concern for the NHS. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) said, we entered the pandemic with a staffing crisis in the NHS already. She highlighted the contribution that NHS staff have made over the last two years, and brought home very well the anxiety that many of them feel about the position that they are in.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) rightly paid tribute to his local vaccination team, who have done an excellent job. He raised the fact that people have different reasons for declining to have the jab; it may be a lack of trust, a conspiracy theory they have read on the internet, or health concerns. Those are all legitimate concerns in the minds of those individuals, and the best way to deal with them is through engagement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead showed commitment to his principles by resigning from the Front Bench because of this issue, as did my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who has huge experience in the NHS and has a long-standing commitment to the workforce. She laid out in startling detail the impact on services that the removal of so many staff will have, and described how the royal colleges and trade unions are resolute in their position on this. She also raised the important point that there is no long-term plan on vaccinations from the Government. If we are required to have another vaccine or a booster every three to six months, and the mandatory proposal continues, that will leave a lot of NHS staff on a knife edge. We certainly need greater clarity from the Government on what their strategy on vaccinations more generally is going to be.

The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) spoke about the impact from a local authority perspective. He raised an interesting question about how the Government are going to meet their pledge to have 50,000 more nurses in post. It is important to mention that, because over half of that pledge is generated through greater retention levels. Clearly, as Members have expressed, the ability to retain staff is going to be severely compromised by this proposal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) gave a passionate speech about the issue, saying that we are sleepwalking into a crisis, and rightly describing the debate as polarising. Sadly, many issues today are polarising. She also described how so many health workers were failed by the Government, with their failure to provide PPE in the first place, and was right to point out that the timing of this proposal sets out a confusing and conflicting message about the importance of getting vaccinated.

As Members have said, in recent days more bodies have joined the call for there to be a delay to the compulsory vaccination of NHS staff, with the Royal College of General Practitioners being the latest to add its voice. I accept that the Department of Health and Social Care is not the Minister’s Department, but it has said that its view is that the policy continues. The Prime Minister said last week that it is the right thing to do to protect patients and that there is a professional responsibility to get vaccinated. That seems clear enough, but he also said:

“We will reflect on the way ahead.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 340.]

That led to various reports that a U-turn is in the pipeline. I know the Prime Minister is rather preoccupied with his own job at the moment, but it is no understatement to say that thousands of people’s jobs are dependent on his reflections. Those comments should not be ignored, because they have been seized upon by many who do not wish to be vaccinated as a reason not to go ahead with a vaccination.

Those who are resistant to a compulsory vaccination have noted that the restrictions that were voted on by this House last month have been dropped, with the exception of the compulsory vaccination. They are questioning why this requirement is still in place if the worst is now over. I accept that the Minister here today is not the correct Minister to address this point to, but there needs to be clarity and a definitive statement one way or the other; that statement needs to be made this week. There are 10 days to go until the first deadline for vaccination. We do not want another inquiry, or a kicking of the can down the road. We need a clear common position, agreed with as many of the stakeholders, the royal colleges and the trade unions as possible, so that they can all have certainty.

If the decision is to press ahead, that needs to be accompanied by a credible plan for engagement with staff that also sets out how the inevitable staffing shortfall that we have heard about tonight will be dealt with. If the decision is to halt or pause, that needs to be accompanied by clear assurances that patients and service users will not be at any greater risk from unvaccinated staff. In either scenario, the scientific advice and professional opinions must be released simultaneously, so that there is no room for doubt that the decision has been taken for the right reasons, based on the most up-to-date advice available, and not for short-term political considerations. I accept that the Minister may not be able to answer all those points, but that is a very clear message that we would send to those who will make the decisions. We need clarity and we need it now.

I have spoken to a number of constituents who are currently unvaccinated and are required to receive a vaccination as part of their job. Regretfully, I have been unable to persuade them so far that it is the right thing for them to do. They are often young and may already have had a mild covid infection. They are well versed in the need for PPE when dealing with vulnerable people, but see little benefit for themselves individually, or collectively, in taking the vaccine. They are also well versed in the principles of informed consent, which we have touched on. Most are not covid deniers and do not dispute the importance of vaccines more generally, but they simply do not believe that there will be a reduction in risk for anyone by vaccination, and see this as an issue to take a stand on to the extent that they are prepared to lose their jobs over it.

Frankly, I find those conversations troubling. Those people have had 12-plus months of information fed to them that has been allowed to go unchallenged. To expect stretched employers to turn that around in a week or two in a meeting with the human resources manager, who may not have the same level of knowledge that these people have, will be a tall order, particularly when there is evidence, as we have heard, that persuasion is usually a much more effective tool than coercion. More support should be given to employers to deal with the very tricky situation in which they find themselves.

Many in the care home sector, when provided with information of this nature, chose to be vaccinated. That was certainly a reason for some support on this matter, but, as has been alluded to, the mood music is different now. Restrictions are coming off. The worst of the predictions for omicron did not come to pass, so the task to persuade people is that little bit harder. I urge the Government to put on a united front with employers, the unions and the royal colleges, to persuade people that this is the right thing to do.

19:12
Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the Petitions Committee on securing the debate, and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on the way that he presented it on the Committee’s behalf. Clearly, this is an issue that can divide opinion, with people on both sides holding very strong views. I am grateful to everyone who contributed. As many Members will know, I sat on the Petitions Committee for a number of years. Now, as a Minister, I am sitting on the other side of the fence, accounting for the Government’s position, so I understand how invaluable the work of the Committee is.

As we all know, today’s debate was prompted by an online petition to prohibit employers from requiring staff to be vaccinated against covid-19. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked why I was present, and whether I was substituting. Although the petition referenced the public sector and the NHS, I am afraid that it is because of the wide-ranging wording of the petition that he has got me. However, I will clearly touch on many of the issues that have been raised, because the debate has been focused on the NHS, and understandably so. The petition has been signed by more than 190,000 people, which goes to show the strength of the issue.

There is concern among those who have signed the e-petition, and all MPs who have spoken, about the steps that the Government have taken to make vaccination a condition of deployment in certain settings. There is also concern more generally that some employers outside those sectors are seeking to mandate the covid-19 vaccines for their workforce. I will come to that, but the Government’s starting point, as I think all Members have said today, is that vaccines are our best defence against covid-19.

The overwhelming majority of us have taken the positive step of accepting the offer of vaccination. Some 79% of eligible adults in England have now had a booster, including over 91% of over-50s, who are more vulnerable to the virus. We are the most boosted large country in the world. Recent data from the UK Health Security Agency shows that around three months after those aged 65 and over receive their booster, their protection against hospitalisation remains around 90%. The vaccines work.

However, those vaccines do not just protect us and our loved ones against covid-19. It is because of the vaccines that we have one of the most open economies in the world, so if we are to maintain the collective protection that we have built up, we need everybody to choose responsibly and get vaccinated. That will ensure greater freedom for us all.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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In my contribution, I referred to the fact that a year ago, we were clapping NHS workers across the whole of the United Kingdom. Everybody, including the Prime Minister and everyone in this room, did that. Does the Minister not understand—I say this very respectfully—the deep feeling of hurt that those people have? We clapped them, and now we are telling them that we no longer need them unless they do what they are told.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I will come to the issue of NHS workers in a second, and show what we are doing regarding non-patient-facing NHS workers and the moves we are taking to help people get vaccinated.

Paula Barker Portrait Paula Barker
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I am interested in what the Minister is saying, but he has just referred to an economic argument. Does he not agree that sacking up to 126,000 NHS staff would have a severely detrimental effect on our economy?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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My economic argument was not specifically about the NHS. It was about the fact that vaccines are the way out of this, to get back to a sense of normality—a new normal, whatever that normal is—and allow people to protect businesses, livelihoods and jobs around the country as best we can. Clearly, the best way to work with the NHS is to make sure we can work with those who are unvaccinated to get them vaccinated and, eventually, boosted.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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I want to come back to the response I had from the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Erewash, to a parliamentary question I tabled. It said that after 10 weeks the efficacy of the vaccine against omicron is depleted to between 40% and 50%. That clearly means that, first of all, the vaccine does not give us the protection that we would hope it would give; secondly, it does not give us protection against transmissibility. How can the Minister make the statement that the vaccine is the best way out of the virus when, in 10 weeks’ time, it clearly will not be?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Preliminary evidence about the effectiveness of the vaccination against the omicron variant is still emerging, with data suggesting that vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic infection and hospitalisation both rise after a booster and, in the case of the latter, goes up to 88%.

For most people, whether to get vaccinated is a matter of personal choice, but there are some high-risk settings in which we believe it is proportionate to take further steps to protect the most vulnerable. Throughout the pandemic, the overriding concern for the Government, the NHS and the care sector has been to protect the workforce and patients. People working in health and care look after some of the most vulnerable in our society, and therefore carry a unique responsibility. Everybody working in health and social care with vulnerable people would accept a first responsibility to avoid preventable harm to the people they are caring for. That is why, following consultation, regulations were approved last year in the House that meant that from 11 November 2021, all people entering a care home needed to prove their covid-19 vaccination status, subject to certain exemptions. Following further consultations, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced that anyone working in health or wider social care activities regulated by the Care Quality Commission would need to be vaccinated against covid-19. That includes NHS hospitals, independent hospitals, and GP and dental practices, regardless of whether a provider is public or private.

That policy has two key exemptions: for those who do not have face-to-face contact with patients, and for those who—as we have heard—have not had a vaccination because they are medically exempt. Uptake of the vaccine among staff working in those settings over the past few months has been promising. Since the Government consulted on the policy in September, the proportion of NHS trust healthcare workers vaccinated with a first dose has increased from 92% to 95%—an increase of nearly 100,000 people.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey
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I have heard it said that the mandation policy is some sort of nudging exercise, a way to get as many NHS workers vaccinated as possible, but it will not be implemented. If that is true—well, even if it is not true—as distasteful a method as that is, it does provide the Government with a get-out, so please will the Minister take back to the Government all the powerful points that he has heard today and get this policy reversed, because it is not too late?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Clearly, the Department of Health and Social Care will be listening to everything my right hon. Friend says here and in the main Chamber, and indeed all the contributions that we have heard today. But in terms of the policy, the NHS will continue—I will go through this in a second—to encourage and support staff who have not been vaccinated to take up the offer of the first and second doses.

The science is really clear about the benefits of the vaccination. It protects those at most risk from the virus and it has saved thousands of lives so far. Every unvaccinated healthcare worker increases the risk to themselves, their colleagues and the vulnerable people in their care. It is our responsibility to ensure that we give NHS patients and staff the best possible protection.

We recognise the concern about impacts on workforce capacity and the ability to deliver health and care services, particularly over the challenging winter period. I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government, in collaboration with the NHS and the adult social care sector, are taking steps to mitigate that risk and to continue to encourage workers to take up the vaccine. For example, we put in place a 12-week grace period, allowing time for workforce planning and for colleagues who are not vaccinated to make the positive choice to protect the people whom they care for and themselves. The enforcement of vaccination as a condition of deployment in health settings will not commence until 1 April, to assist providers over the winter period and to help to minimise workforce pressures. And we have increased the number and diversity of opportunities to receive the vaccine to make getting it as easy as possible.

Ben Bradley Portrait Ben Bradley
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I feel for the Minister to some extent, because obviously he is not a Health Minister; I am sure that he will forgive me for raising this point none the less. He talks about the work that is going on—loads of work is going on—to try to encourage people to be vaccinated. Many still will not be.

In the course of the debate, I have had the figures sent over to me from my county council. We lost 500 care home staff in November. We are currently set to lose 3,000 staff in the wider home care sector on 1 April. That is a huge proportion, 10%, of our workforce within the county. It will have a huge impact on our ability to deliver services: there could be up to 300 people whom we can no longer care for. We will do as much as we can to mitigate that, but will my hon. Friend take back to the Health Minister just how much of an impact it will have on our ability to deliver care services?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I thank my hon. Friend. He talks about the impact, and we understand the concerns about that. That is why, apart from the measures that I outlined a second ago about making it as easy as possible to have the vaccine and giving the grace period and the ability to flex within that, the NHS is planning further increases in engagement with targeted communities, where the uptake is lowest. That includes extensive work with ethnic minority communities and faith networks to encourage healthcare workers to receive the vaccine.

We have obviously had an analysis of the equalities implications. That was published in the equalities impact assessment, alongside the consultation response. We are obviously engaging with colleagues such as my hon. Friend to hear about real-world results and impacts and respond accordingly. But as the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, has rightly said,

“people who are looking after other people who are very vulnerable do have a professional responsibility to get vaccinated”,

so we remain committed to bringing these measures in on 1 April.

Outside these specific settings—health and care—it is fair to say that there could be some other circumstances in which it may be lawful for an employer to require staff to be vaccinated. There is no general “Yes, it is lawful” or “No, it’s not lawful” answer to that question. It will depend on the facts and details of each case. There is a lot for an employer to consider.

For example, what is the current evidence on the consequences of covid-19 both for the individuals and for the organisation? What are the employer’s reasons for imposing a requirement to be vaccinated? Given the particular work being undertaken, are those reasonable? And what are the circumstances of the individual employee? Are there Equality Act 2010 considerations in play? An employer would need to weigh the answers to all those questions and more before being confident that it was lawful to require employees to be vaccinated.

I should be clear that there is a difference between how an employer might treat those who are already employed and those who are not. When it comes to those who are not already employed, there is more scope for an employer to establish a requirement to be vaccinated, subject to the employer satisfying themselves that they can pass relevant legal tests, such as on discrimination. The employer might make such a requirement a condition in the contract; it then becomes more a matter of whether to accept the contract. It would then be a matter of personal choice, just as a prospective employee might consider a requirement to work a number of late or early shifts, or weekends.

For those already in employment, the issue is really about what might happen if they refuse to be vaccinated. After all, an employer cannot physically force someone to have a vaccination. There is the issue of the consequences of refusing to be vaccinated. Could an employee be suspended without pay, refused access to certain shifts, roles or tasks, or disadvantaged in some other way? Could they fairly be dismissed? Those are the key concerns that people will have. I do not believe that it is appropriate to make vaccination a special case. Such cases should be treated in the same way as other instances where an employee feels that they have been treated unfairly at work.

Employment law provides an extensive framework to protect employees from unfair treatment, including unfair dismissal. That framework applies to refusing to be vaccinated just as much as it does to other circumstances. This framework, rather than imposing a blanket set of prescriptive terms and conditions about when a dismissal is fair, allows the facts of each case to be weighed and considered, so that what is fair and what is not can be properly established in the light of any evidence, the employer’s situation and the business circumstances. I strongly believe that the legal framework for employers around the country allows for the interrogation of all relevant facts, provides the right checks and balances, and ensures that employers can take action as a result of someone’s refusal to be vaccinated, where that is appropriate.

I conclude by acknowledging that there is a fine balance to be struck. On the one hand, we obviously want people to recognise the benefits of the vaccine, and as a matter of choice, we want to ensure that they have all the injections and boosters needed to minimise the impact of the pandemic on them, their friends and neighbours, the health service and the economy. On the other hand, we want to ensure that vulnerable people are properly protected and do not face unnecessary risks. The employment law framework and the steps that we are taking to make vaccination a condition of employment in certain settings strike the right balance.

Once again, I thank those who contributed to the debate. It has been a valuable discussion. I also thank all the workers in the NHS, who have kept us safe throughout this period, and who continue to do so, despite the winter pressures. We will always make sure that we work with those valued workers, who serve our public so well.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
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Mr Day, would you like a minute or two to wind up? I would like to put the Question, though; I think that is important.

19:27
Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day
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Thank you very much, Mr Paisley. It has been a great pleasure to take part in today’s debate. On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I thank everyone who came along to take part. We had a well informed, educated debate. The Minister said something in his summing up that I fully agree with: we need everyone to get vaccinated, but I hope that we can make that a choice for them, and can comply with the principle of informed consent.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) pointed out, if Argyll and Bute can reach the figure of 99.8% of people being vaccinated through a policy of education and engagement, that can be done without mandating. If we mandate, we risk what has been described as a serious act of self-sabotage. There are few policy decisions where we can look over the dyke and can see what is coming, but if we lose anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 staff from NHS England, it will create a workforce crisis that could have been avoided. I hope that the Minister takes that message back to the Government.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
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Thank you, Mr Day, and I thank the Minister for taking five interventions, making the debate go so well, and giving everyone the opportunity to raise valuable points.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 599841, relating to requirements for employees to be vaccinated against covid-19.

19:28
Sitting adjourned.