Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Tuesday 21 November 2023
[Philip Davies in the Chair]

International Men's Day

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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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

09:30
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered International Men’s Day.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, especially after all the work that you, Mr Davies, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) have already done on this subject. We are here to celebrate International Men’s Day, which took place on Sunday 19 November. It is a day to celebrate all the good that men have done, but also a day to shine a light on the things that adversely affect men so much.

The theme this year was suicide. Thirteen men a day take their life. Thirteen men who woke up yesterday morning are no longer with us—and today, another 13, and tomorrow, again, another 13. Every day, every week, every year. Just let that sink in. Thirteen men, every day, think the only out is to take their life. In 2023, that cannot be right, can it?

What is the answer? Sadly, there is no silver bullet, but there are steps we can take—steps we must take—and suicide is not the only issue affecting men, so I am going to take us through a few of them but then through some solutions too.

Let me start by taking us through a boy’s life. Let us call him Tommy. Tommy never asked to be born—none of us did—but Tommy is here. Tommy needs care and attention from day one, not just from mum at home, but also from dad. Human interaction is crucial to a child’s development. Playing peekaboo is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) said, so much more important than we would think.

Sadly, Tommy’s mum and dad argue a little too much. Money, housing, health, work—there are so many things that make relationships hard. We know that life is not easy; that is why marriage vows have, for centuries, included the words, which we all know, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Tommy’s parents separate. Sadly, too many times, it turns into a battle. In come the solicitors. To win their case, too many use blame as a tool, a child as a weapon. The legal system makes it so hard for children. Lawyers want to win at all costs, parents say things that should not be said, and the truth is often embellished on all sides. An acrimonious split is achieved. Tommy now does not see dad, and Tommy’s mum now has it all to do. Not work, rest and play; just work, then work at home, and then little sleep for Tommy’s mum.

What of Tommy’s dad? Dad is ousted from the home, unable to see his son. Many fathers are prevented unfairly. There is child maintenance to be paid; the Child Maintenance Service presents another challenge. Tommy’s dad often turns inwards and often to the fridge, looking for relief. It could be beer, the wrong food, both—or worse.

Little Tommy gets a PlayStation and a smartphone. The world wide web influencers now come into play in Tommy’s life. They want to sell a brand and themselves; they have no care for what little Tommy sees. Tommy’s schoolwork suffers. There are no male teachers at his school—there are very few male teachers now—no role models to follow other than the wrong ones. There is a decreasing number of positive male role models on TV. Tommy plays up at school. Nobody expects anything of him—written off at such an early age. Knowing this, Tommy plays up even more. One day, he finds himself excluded from school. Tommy becomes easy prey. A local gang shows him respect for now, shows interest for now. Antisocial behaviour follows: disrespect for police, drugs, a knife, a spell inside. Mum is in despair. Where did it go wrong?

Tommy’s father is now probably overweight. He is drinking too much, has anxiety, no sense of value and feels that he has nothing to live for. Sadly, Tommy’s dad becomes another statistic; one of the 13 a day who die by suicide. Tommy finds a girl amid this car crash of a life. They want to make a go of it together. They have a beautiful little boy—Tommy junior—and, sadly, the cycle begins again. That is quite depressing, but we all know that it is true.

It really does not need to be like that. As I said, there is no silver bullet, but there might be something close. Let me go through this and show how it cuts across all Departments of the Government. Tommy’s first 1,001 days are so important. We need to push the family hubs out across the country as soon as possible—Department: Work and Pensions.

Keeping families together saves so much pain and heartache, and saves the state so much money. Some 66% of mums want to stop at home and look after their child. We need to offer them the same support that we offer mums who want to return to work. Mums have a genuine choice; we need dads to have the same choice. We need to build many more homes where people need them. That way, we will have more choice, which will automatically raise the standard. We also need a fairer tax system for families—Departments: DWP, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Treasury.

To stop the hate and separation, we need a new model when it comes to family law: fairness for fathers, as well as for mothers, and a system that treats fathers as equally in practice as it does in theory. What works in civil litigation does not work here. Little Tommy needs mum and dad, so that has to be the starting point of any separation—Department: Justice.

Influencers need to understand their audience, and the damage that they can do. We have to get them to quit being a problem. The Online Safety Act 2023 will help, but we cannot legislate for people being decent, just as we cannot legislate to force people to be kind. We need to name and shame the culprits.

We need leisure centres and youth clubs. Tommy missed out again yesterday in Edlington; there is no leisure centre for Tommy, so he spends 14,000 hours on his games console, like the average boy does up to the age of 21—Departments: Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and DLUHC.

There are four million children living with only one parent. In 88% of those families, the parent with care of the children is mum. If we assume an even distribution in family size, we can estimate that around 3.52 million children live with their mothers; that is 1.76 million boys without a dad at home. We need to introduce and maintain a flagging system in schools that flags fatherless boys as they start secondary school. All boys need mentorship and to be met with a positive attitude. Fatherless boys need that especially—Department: Education.

When it comes to stopping gangs, the police’s Operation Duxford is working, but we need to do more. We need a zero-tolerance attitude and a broken-window strategy, so that our young people know how to behave. The gangs must be dealt with from the bottom up. Capturing the ring leader is not the answer; he is often replaced within an hour, once caught, so we need to stop his workers on the street—Department: Home Office.

On a quick side note, tags are a deterrent to others, as well as to the one who is tagged. One young man told me that, when he had to wear one, all of the individuals who might have dragged him back into crime actually kept away. They did not want to be with him, because they could be traced. Through being tagged, that young man has been able to leave criminality behind and is now back on the straight and narrow.

I will get back to the Departments. Separated dads are often unable to spend time with their children. They are in despair, and we need to do more to help them. Men may often turn to the wrong lifestyle choices when things are not right. We have an NHS system that does not fit around the patterns that men often work. We need men to discuss their issues, become part of a community, feel valued and have access to their kids—Department: Health and Social Care.

I have listed many Departments, but there are issues for men who work that are covered by so many more. I have heard of loneliness in occupations. With regards to suicide, lonely farmers are a concern. Spending long days in tractors on their own is no good. Isolation is hard to cope with—Department: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The soldier who leaves the forces and cannot find his way in civilian life on civvy street is another concern—Department: Defence.

The list goes on, and many Departments are doing much to help. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Ministers both past and present, have been amazing. They have been listening. Just this weekend, they announced help with issues that so many men face: prostate cancer screening, access to health services online and a taskforce to understand how men access physical services. All of that is good to hear. These steps will undoubtedly save many lives, and it goes further.

The announcement of a men’s health ambassador is great news too—a huge stride forward. We have a Minister for women, and she is doing great work, but if we want to help all the men and boys such as Tommy with their poor life prospects, we must do more. If we want to stop men such as Tommy’s dad taking their own life, and to give Tommy’s mum a life that is not just sheer hard work for seemingly very little return, we need a Minister for men and boys—a Minister who will connect all the dots and join all the Departments together, who will take men’s health and wellbeing seriously, and who will ask the following questions whenever any policy is announced: how does it affect men? How does it affect their families? How does it help society as a whole? As Warren Farrell states:

“When one sex loses, both sexes lose.”

That is very true.

Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney (Lincoln) (Con)
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I commend my hon. Friend for presenting a very well-researched speech and for telling us the story of Tommy. Does my hon. Friend believe that it would be a major step forward to have a Minister for men?

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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Yes, I do. That is what we are building up to, and we desperately need it.

I thank the Minister for everything she has done, but she should use her influence to inform our Prime Minister about the debate and give him this message: no matter how many men there are around his Cabinet table, or how many men there are in the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies, men still need help. She should tell him not to forget little Tommy. Trust me, he is desperate. Whether he is five, 15 or 25, he is desperate.

Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)
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My hon. Friend has made a passionate case for why young boys need very strong male role models. I would argue that young girls and women need those strong role models too. I entirely support his call for a Minister for men, but would he take this opportunity to congratulate A Band of Brothers, a group in my constituency that provides male mentorship? It has seen incredible, inspiring, transformational success in the lives of the young men it has come alongside. That essential ingredient, role modelling, by a more experienced and mature man, has truly made the difference.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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I could not agree more. Girls need role models too, which is so important. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys, and as a Member of Parliament who takes this issue so seriously, I ask my hon. Friend to pass on my thanks to the charity for all the work it is doing.

I am the biggest believer in personal responsibility. Not everything can or should be down to the Government, so I ask the nation to talk up men. I ask the nation to look for the good in them. I ask the nation to ask them if they are okay. When they say they are fine, ask them again. Many men are not fine; they need our help and support. Look out for the little Tommy in your community. See if you can be of help to him through his mum or his school. Trust me, if we do not do so, the 13 suicides a day will not stop at 13. The figure will rise, the prisons will only get more full, and too many more women and girls may be hurt along the way.

In conclusion, when the subject of a Minister for boys and men is mentioned, stop sniggering and start supporting. We need to quit being part of the problem and start being part of the solution, because when one sex wins, both sexes win.

09:45
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is not often I get called first; I appreciate the opportunity. It threw me, but I have read my notes and know what I am going to say. I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on setting the scene so well. He touched on some of the things I wish to speak about: suicide rates, prostate cancer and loneliness. I live on a farm on the Ards peninsula, so appreciate and understand how isolation and loneliness can play a big part in farming communities, simply because of what the job entails. Very often there is the farmer and his dog or his animals; interaction with other people does not happen.

In setting the scene, the hon. Gentleman used the illustration of young Tommy. I know that young Tommy does not exist, but there are young Tommies out there across the community who do. He illustrated that very well with that example and I commend him. It is great to be able to speak in this debate. November is an important month because we can raise awareness of men’s health and wellbeing, particularly mental health and testicular and prostate cancer.

The occasion also gives an opportunity to lead by example, as World Children’s Day is celebrated on 20 November. Having the two sit so close together is a fantastic way to encourage good moral values and responsibility. It is good to talk about these issues in a constructive and positive way. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, as she understands the subject well, and I hope she will give a positive reply to our questions. I also look forward to hearing from the two shadow Ministers. I know their contributions will enhance and enliven the debate, as will others. I am conscious not to leave anybody out.

I want to comment on important statistics related to men’s health. Figures from AWARE NI state that suicide is the leading killer of men under 50 in Northern Ireland. That is a sad reality that nobody wants to think about. Not long ago we had a spate of suicides in my immediate town of Newtownards. They tended to be young men in their early twenties, which is discouraging and worrying. I remember when one young fellow committed suicide, a number of his circle of friends did likewise.

There is the key issue, which is not the Minister’s responsibility, but adds to the debate. I am sure the examples and evidence I give from Northern Ireland will be replicated across the United Kingdom. One in three men in the UK have had suicidal thoughts due to stress. It is no secret that many men view depression as a sign of weakness, choosing to ignore the symptoms. I hope that would not be the case, but recognise that it is. Perhaps the Minister could give us some thoughts on how we can better reach out to those men, to ensure that the stigma they worry about does not drag them down.

Many see the stigma attached to opening up and asking for help. The phrase “man up” is not meant in a derogatory fashion, but as a prompt to strengthen oneself. The fact is that it talks people down, and I think it is wrong to say that when it is taken too literally. Men then suppress their anxieties and try to deal with them inwardly, even when they are not able to. I see no shame in asking for help and I encourage men everywhere to do that. International Men’s Day is the time to reinforce that point.

I referred to life in the rural communities, simply because we are a country of small farms. Some of them are run as one-person businesses, and at others the wife looks after the house and also helps on the farm. Lots of the interaction is very isolated. Funnily enough, yesterday morning someone came to my office—I will not mention her by name—to talk about the problems she is experiencing as a result of rural isolation. The issue applies to both men and women, but I wanted to dwell on it in this debate about International Men’s Day.

I have known a few people over the years who, if we met them today in any company, we would think that they were the life and soul of the party. But the thing is that, when they leave that party and that group of social friends, when they get home and close the door, they are a different person. We should not always think that the person who is jovial, funny, talkative and laughing all the time has no problems, because it is possible that they do.

Samaritans has found that men who live in rural areas are less likely to seek mental health support, and due to the nature of their community they are more likely to feel isolated. At half-past 11 there will be a Samaritans event on suicide prevention in, I think, Speaker’s House. If Members are available, I suggest that they try to get along to that. As someone who represents a partly rural community and who lives in a rural area, I know that this is an incredibly important issue, and I encourage anyone who is feeling confined or isolated not to be ashamed of seeking help.

The same point can be made for veterans too. I wish to underline the issue for veterans separately, because I deal with veterans in my offices every day. The veterans charity Beyond the Battlefield is based in my constituency and its incredible work reminds me of what has been done for former service personnel suffering from PTSD and poor mental health due to the nature of their service. I work with many charities, but I want to mention two in particular in my constituency. I have been involved with Beyond the Battlefield since its inception. It provides accommodation and has applied for another grant through the Ministry of Defence’s veterans scheme. If successful, it will be able to provide more beds to people.

The second charity is SSAFA—the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association. Every one of us of a certain generation, and perhaps more, will know about SSAFA. I hold a coffee morning for it every year, and this year I think we left with £5,800. That is for coffee, tea and sticky buns, so it really is quite an achievement. People are very generous, and it is quite clear that they give more than what they would usually give for a bun and a cup of coffee.

Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney
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One of the reasons I am standing here is that the hon. Member for Northern Ireland, as many of us think of him, has made some very valid points, including about Samaritans, which has a direct link to my constituency of Lincoln. I do hope to see some Members at Mr Speaker’s event later this morning. We are commending International Men’s Day, and the hon. Gentleman has made some very good points regarding suicide and other issues, but I wanted to stand up so that he did not feel alone. We all know that he intervenes on many of us when we make speeches, and I wanted to return the favour.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Yes, we all share many things in common, and we are here to contribute to the debate in a positive fashion. This House can shine and reach out in a way that is necessary in the society we live in.

I am very conscious of time and that others also want to speak, so I will not go on much longer. Queen’s University Belfast has a prostate cancer centre of excellence, and I mention that because it recognises that prostate cancer is a killer. The hon. Member for Don Valley referred to that in his introduction, because he recognises, like I do, that there is not a full understanding of what it means to men. If someone has a wee problem, they might not do anything about it and say, “Well, sure, I’ll get better by the end of the week,” or, “I’ll get better in a fortnight’s time.” But they do not. I commend Queen’s University, and I look forward to visiting that centre of excellence shortly.

On International Men’s Day, the Government have joined Prostate Cancer UK to unveil a £42 million screening trial to find ways of detecting earlier the UK’s most common cancer in men. When we see that somebody does something good, I commend saying something good about it. There are many times when certain things will happen that we are perhaps concerned about, and we will not register them. The Government have made £42 million available for that purpose—well done. They have recognised the issue. The Minister might comment on that when she speaks later.

That will allow hundreds of thousands of men across the country to participate and remind other men that they are not alone. It is really good that the Government have put their hand in their pocket—on behalf of us all—and made this happen. Thousands of lives could be saved. May I seek clarity from the Minister and ask whether the money will be extended to the devolved nations as well, and whether this issue is devolved? We cannot leave the men of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales behind.

To conclude, let us use this day to duly celebrate the men in our community and the contributions they make. Hon. Members here will know that when it comes to men’s issues, I am here in this House to speak for them, and I do it every time. Today the debate is about International Men’s Day, so I want to make a plea for them. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley for raising this issue today, and for reminding us that we should always encourage and support emotional stability for everyone out there who is suffering.

09:56
Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, in this debate on International Men’s Day. It is a particular pleasure to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this debate, and for making such an important contribution.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the way in which gender stereotypes are harmful to men and boys. Issues include family breakdown, excluded boys being drawn into antisocial behaviour, drugs and crime, and men’s attitudes towards seeking help not just for mental health but health per se, as well as a legal system that too many men feel militates against them, particularly when it comes to family law. I would argue that gender stereotypes, in all their forms, are harmful to human beings, and my hon. Friend made a very cogent case for the way in which they are harmful to men and boys.

I listened very carefully to my hon. Friend’s policy suggestions. I would suggest that if men and women had equal voices at the policymaking tables, we could ensure that the lives of both men and women could be seen in all the polices that come forward in this Parliament. If we encourage male Ministers to do as much as they can, and particularly to look at their female counterparts and the work they do on how gender affects policy, that could go some way towards addressing some of the issues that he is talking about.

It is not good for men if the health system is designed for men, because men have daughters, partners and mothers. We want all our public services to work for men and for women. If we currently have a system where that is not the case, we need to encourage all Ministers—whatever the Prime Minister might decide on a Minister for men—to think about the gender differences that are at play. It is not only the Minister for Women who thinks about Government policies and how they affect women. Many of my female colleagues who are Ministers do a huge amount to think about how their policies will affect women. Perhaps their male counterparts need to be doing similarly.

In Parliament, we make polices and law for people—few are gender specific. But we know—as my hon. Friend has just said—that men and women experience the world very differently. That is why I really welcome this debate on International Men’s Day. As right hon. and hon. Members might know, I often lead the debate on International Women’s Day. That is an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of women, but also to raise a lot of the issues. This debate is just as important, because it reminds us that we live in a gendered world, and we have to deal with that as politicians. We do not make the best policies unless we recognise that there is a difference.

I am sure you will not be surprised to know, Mr Davies, that I would love a world where gender is no longer an issue that drives the sort of differences that my hon. Friend just talked about, but we deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. He is absolutely right that we need to consider gender when we develop policies. Chromosomal difference, although significant, is not really what he was talking about when he set out the parameters of this debate; those differences are added to by societal norms. We could have an enormous debate about nature versus nurture; I would say that nurture plays a huge part in many of the issues that my hon. Friend clearly articulated.

International Men’s Day is not only about the issues that I will come to in a moment; it is about celebrating the men in our lives and the amazing contribution men make. Men shape our lives, whether we are women or men. My father told me to go to the best university I could, and that my imagination was the only limit to my achievements—crumbs, that is a fantastic role model to have. It is about my brothers, my husband and my sons being there; such are the people who shape our lives. There are far more men in my life than women, although I give a special call-out to my daughter and mother, because they are very special too. Men are there to shape our lives, and I do not think there is anybody in this Chamber who would argue differently.

All the evidence shows—my hon. Friend made this point—that men’s and women’s lives are different. We should be concerned about the pressures that men face, including the pressure to conform to notions of masculinity, which I would argue are very out of date. I hope my sons do not feel that pressure, but I am sure they do. I do not want their childhood to be filled with phrases such as, “Don’t start acting like a girl.” I hope that is in the past, but perhaps it is not. To be branded as the breadwinner in adult life puts huge pressure on men. In reality, one in three women earn more than their partners or husbands, yet society still sees men as the breadwinner. We treat each other differently because of our gender, and the evidence shows that, as a result, we live different lives.

In the UK, we find gender a difficult concept. That came out in the trans debate recently. It also came out in 2013, when many people found it quite difficult that the Government said it was wrong for the state not to allow people of the same gender to marry. I was the Minister at the time, and we changed the law to enable that to happen and for it to be a happy occasion.

That we continue to have a gender pay gap clearly shows that society treats men and women differently, and too many boys are still being told to “man up” during their childhood. We treat men and women differently. I do not think that is right, and the world would be a better place if we outlawed those sorts of gender stereotypes.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend is making a very good speech. She mentioned the gender pay gap, and I keep hearing this all the time. Will she confirm—she has an awful lot of experience of that issue—that it is illegal for anybody to pay a man more than a woman to do the same job?

Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller
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I think my hon. Friend is probably thinking about something different. The gender pay gap is about looking at groups of people who earn differently for doing the same thing in their workplace. It is not about pay levels—pay rates for the individual. If my hon. Friend looks at the data available now, he will see that the gender pay gap has actually disappeared for groups of men and women in their 20s and 30s, and quite remarkably it reappears vigorously over the age of 40. When companies look at what they pay groups of people who are over the age of 40, they will see that women are paid less. I wonder why that is. The average age of giving birth is now around 30—it is a lot older than when I had my first child. It is women who are finding it very difficult to come back into the jobs market and get jobs that are actually comparable with their qualifications. There is also an issue around productivity there.

This debate, however, is not about women. It is about men and we should focus on International Men’s Day. In this day and age, I think that most men want to see fairness at work and, if they have a female spouse, for them to paid fairly. I do not think that this is necessarily about men wanting to gang up on women. It is societal structures and norms that are causing the problems. We, as politicians, have a great deal to do to reset those societal norms and to ensure that the structures do not create a perpetuation of gender stereotypes, which, as my hon. Friend set out, are so harmful, particularly to men and boys.

I think that Brits are far less comfortable than our continental friends in agreeing that inequality between the genders is serious. There has been some research done to suggest that, in continental Europe, one in three sees gender inequality as a serious concern, whereas in the UK that figure is one in four. Perhaps, as a society, we need to challenge ourselves a bit more on these things.

As both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have said, the way in which our public services are structured, in terms of perpetuating some of these gender stereotypes and inequalities for men, is best seen in our health service when it comes to men’s health. It is quite concerning that men are expected to live almost three years less than women, which is extraordinary. It is even more extraordinary that I do not really see a policy to directly address that. There are some policies there and, of course, the Minister has huge expertise as a Health Minister, so she will turn to matters such as the prostate cancer work being done.

Cancer rates are 20% higher among men, and men are more likely to go to hospital with heart disease, more likely to smoke, more likely to die from alcohol conditions, more likely to use illegal drugs, and more likely to die in a workplace accident. The Government do have policies, but are they really focused on the disproportionate way in which those issues affect men? I think they probably do on heart disease, and obviously they do on prostate cancer—although, again, there are issues for trans people, particularly trans women, in accessing those healthcare systems.

In terms of men’s mental health, there is an increasing gap between men and women. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, suicide rates among men are a concern. In fact, they are not just a concern; we have seen that women’s suicide rates have halved and men’s suicide rates have fallen just a fraction. Again, I challenge the Minister to ensure that we have a gendered approach to healthcare in our country.

Let us not pretend that there are no differences between men and women—there are. I would like to see a world where men and women are recognised for their separate needs and one where we celebrate our differences, but our aim should be to remove that difference when it is destructive, to enable us all to live in peace and prosperity together. That is the way in which we are going to have the best world possible.

10:09
Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on how he approached this topic and for his powerful speech. Men do face critical challenges because they are men—and young boys too—whether it is about mental health, violence or family breakdown. Too often this debate is seen as if there has to be an equal ledger of suffering before we will acknowledge those challenges. We do everybody a disservice if we ignore those concerns in favour of culture war arguments about whether James Bond could be a woman or whether Andrew Tate is what every man would be if they could get away with it, or if we simply snigger. I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in so many ways, and I am so pleased to see him here today and able to contribute.

I want to take up the hon. Member for Don Valley’s challenge and talk up a particular group of men for which the term is too often loaded with negative connotations: dads. It is such an important role, but so often the butt of a joke: deadbeat dads; absentee fathers; daddy daycare; dad bods; dad jokes; sugar daddies; baby daddies; “Who is your daddy?” Our images of fatherhood are rarely ones we would wish people to replicate. Think of those famous fathers: Darth Vader; Homer Simpson; Phil Dunphy in “Modern Family”; Kevin in “Motherland”; Don Draper; Uncle Phil in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air; Jim Royle; “Citizen Khan”; Logan Roy; Tony Soprano; Frank Gallagher—thank God for Bandit in “Bluey”. If they are not trying to take their kids over to the dark side or bullying them into a life of crime, the message is overwhelmingly that the mental load of parenting is something mothers deal with, while dads are hapless, indifferent, sidelined or, at best, cash machines.

However, a wealth of evidence tells us that dads spending time with their children leads to better outcomes. If children spend more time with their fathers at the age of nine months, by the age of three they show more positive emotions. Increasing a father’s role in a kid’s life leads to higher educational attainment and lower behavioural difficulties for both boys and girls in primary school. Indeed, the educational effect is even more profound when it comes to maths—something I know the Prime Minister is concerned about—regardless of gender, ethnicity, age in the school year, or household income. But a recent study in Scotland showed the challenge: a quarter of working dads said that they were “almost never” satisfied with the amount of quality time they got to spend with their kids—a pressure that is particularly profound for fathers of very young children.

We spend so much time in this place telling women how to be good mums. On International Men’s Day, it is time we redress the balance. The secret is that it is the same for both parents: it is about being present for kids, day in, day out, every day and all day. That is really hard in a country that does not talk about it—especially when it comes to dads—let alone value it enough to make it financially possible and socially acceptable for all.

I want to thank all those leading the change and leading the charge for fathers: Elliott Rae and the amazing MusicFootballFatherhood; Street Fathers, led by Colin James, which is helping young men make the transition from boyhood to manhood in my constituency; the Men’s Sheds project, which helps dads and men to connect and talk; the Fatherhood Institute, MANUP? and CALM for the work they are doing to tackle male mental health challenges and the dad stereotypes that the hon. Member for Don Valley set out.

Our men and boys and what they need from their dads are at the heart of so much in our society. They need dads of the involved kind—not the controlling kind, the violent kind, or the absent at work kind. The kind who does not turn around 20 years later to say, “I was away so much when my kids were growing up. I don’t know them at all.” Not the ones who say, “Ask your mum,” rather than asking themselves how they could do something and role-modelling it for their kids.

For that to become the norm, we need a Government and a country that does not think that is woke, but wise. But the last time Parliament debated how to support fathers was in 2019. The word “patriarchy” is on the record more times than “paternity”; it is a word we do not refer to unless we are talking about the Father of the House. Yes, we have a women’s mental health strategy, and that is very welcome, but as the hon. Member for Don Valley pointed out, we do not have a men’s mental health strategy. The Government’s own childcare strategy only talks about how it would benefit mums. The hon. Member for Don Valley is right: we should be asking how it benefits both parents. This year, the Government published a written ministerial statement pledging to make it easier for fathers to take flexible leave and parental leave, but that did not make it into the King’s Speech—unlike pedicabs.

Today is chance for us to collectively to reclaim “dad”; to challenge the idea that men are too stupid, too weak, too absent, too deadbeat; to help the dads working three jobs on poverty pay, never getting to see their kids grow up; and to help them be the dads that our kids, our country, and their mental health need them to be.

I have a very simple start for the Minister: how can we actually make parental leave work for dads? We know that one in 10 women experiences post-partum disorders and depression, but actually one in 10 dads experiences post-partum anxiety, which starts when the baby is born and does not stop. A 2008 study found that lower levels of cognitive development in children were associated with having a depressed dad. We should want to tackle men’s mental health problems in their own right, but also recognise that by doing so and being explicit about it, we will also help many more people around them.

So many dads are not spending the time they want with their kids because they just cannot afford to do so. More than three times more women than men claim parental leave pay. On average, new fathers take just two weeks—the statutory minimum entitlement—which is a pitiful amount of time to be able to bond with their child. That amount of leave increases only among the very wealthy. Only men with a household income of £200k or more take an average of 10 weeks.

Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller
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It is interesting that the hon. Lady has brought up the amount of time that men take off for parental leave. There is also data that would suggest that even when more paid parental leave is available, it is not taken up because of a fear that both men and women feel: if we take time off around pregnancy, we are in some way letting people down. The hon. Lady, as somebody who has had children, may recognise that. Men feel the same way. It is more than simply having that offer of money; we also need an attitudinal change towards people taking the time off in the first place.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady, whose remarks prefigure mine. Money does matter. When 43% of men say that financial hardship prevents them from taking additional leave, it matters what they get paid, in the same way that when women do not get proper statutory maternity cover, it affects our decisions. However, we also know that 17% of men cite pressure from their employer. Women’s careers get written off; men’s relationships with their children get written off. Nobody is winning in our current environment.

We need to increase the amount of time men are entitled to, but we also need to change the way we do this. We need to stop it being about men versus women and share the cost. I hope the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) will agree that it is about time we stopped making this issue something that just the mum’s employer has to deal with. If we want shared parental leave, we should share the cost of providing parental leave between both the mum’s employer and the dad’s employer so that everybody has a vested interest in helping to support that family, ensuring that the employers who benefit from it also contribute to it. Let us be honest: the dad’s employer benefits when the mum takes on the load.

Let us end the mum penalty that means women feel their careers pay the price. Let us challenge the idea that men taking care of their children and stepping up to share that responsibility is something shameful that they should do in such a way that nobody notices they are gone.

The hon. Member for Don Valley is also right to say that it is not just about financial cost. Elliott Rae has a fantastic campaign about “parenting out loud”. Women know that when they do that, they get judged; men need to do it to show a different way forward. What does he mean by parenting out loud? Rather than hiding parental responsibilities, men in leadership positions should talk about those responsibilities and role model how to combine them with the work they do, whether that is leaving work to go to a school parents evening or working from home to help to cover doctors’ appointments.

That is why when Ministers attack working from home or flexible working, it is not just mums whose opportunities they are closing down, but dads—as well as the next generation—who miss out on the impact of the extra hours they could spend with their children without having to commute. The good news is that we have empirical research on that. During the pandemic, men doubled the amount of childcare they were doing. The Fatherhood Institute recognised that it would take double that time—an extra eight hours—to get the same benefit of the father-child relationship. Parents can either spend two hours on a train getting to and from work or two hours helping our child to learn to read. I know which I think would be better for economy, better for their mental health and better for our society.

Whenever we take our vision of fatherhood from those value it least, men miss out. We would not frame our debate about financial exclusion based on the antics of Bernie Madoff, so why do we let those men who boast that they have never changed a nappy or that they were in the pub when their kid was born decide how dads rear their children? We should stop lauding men who do anything as if it is a surprise and they should be congratulated. They are the men who want a medal for taking their child to swimming. Instead, we should start asking how men can be the dads they want to be—present and equal in looking after their children, 24 hours a day, day in and day out—because that is what it takes to raise a child who will thrive. When we do that, the evidence is that it is good for men’s families, men’s relationships and our economy. On this International Men’s Day, we should finally let dads be dads.

10:20
Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this incredibly vital debate and for the way that he set out little Tommy’s life, all the issues that can spiral out of control, and the cycle that can go on and on if we do not do something about it.

I will take the time to thank the two men who are closest to me in my life at the moment. First, I could not stand here today were it not for the help that my husband gives to raise our daughter while I am 300 miles away for half of every week. If he was not being the kind of dad that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) just described, I would not be able to do this job; indeed, if other men did not behave similarly, other women would not be able to come forward and enter this place.

Also, I thank my dad. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer less than a month after I came to this place, so I want to put out this message to all men—please, please, please take advantage of the screening programme that is coming, because the only symptom that my dad had was a bad back. He had tests and went to chiropractors for a couple of months, before finally going for an MRI scan. It turned out that the cancer had spread and he was in really bad shape. There but for the grace of God go we. He has now gone into complete remission and is doing very well, thank you very much, but that is more through luck than anything else. I pay tribute to the fabulous care that he received from the Royal Cornwall Hospital, but on another day he may not have been so lucky. Please will all the men who are listening to or watching this debate take advantage of all the tests that they are offered.

As many people know, I chair both the all-party parliamentary group on women’s health and the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, so a lot of my work in this place is about ensuring that women are listened to, certainly during maternity care and when they experience the other health issues that women face. I absolutely welcome all the work that the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), has done in this space.

Through representing the beautiful constituency of Truro and Falmouth and living among all the men and women there, I see men from all kinds of industries and family structures working absolutely tooth and nail for their loved ones. It is vital that we work to level the playing field, and highlight that work, with the same vigour for men as we do for women.

Going back to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about loneliness in rural communities, loneliness is absolutely front and centre in Cornwall. We sadly hear all too often that somebody has ended their life because of it—not only farmers, but fishermen as well. Fishermen often spend days at sea by themselves. Even if it is just for a couple of days, they are pressurised because their career, their job and their livelihood are so weather-dependent. There is nothing they can do if the weather is not on their side—they literally cannot bring in a wage—and that pressure often means that fishermen turn to alcohol.

One of the things that I wrote to the Chancellor about ahead of the autumn statement was the importance of the village pub. This is going to sound quite strange, but if a man is going to turn to alcohol because of the pressure he is facing, I would much rather that he was in his village pub, with a crowd of people that he knows well and that know him well, than going to the supermarket night after night, picking up a bottle of something and sitting alone at home to drink.

There are lots of reasons why I want to support village pubs, but that one is so important, even if it is something that we just do not talk about. I hope that if anybody is listening to this debate today, they will consider why, for many reasons, it is important to keep village pubs open and look kindly on that campaign. They can be an actual lifesaver.

Through chairing the APPG on baby loss, I know that the focus is often on our talented healthcare professionals, and the Government home in on the mother giving birth. It is easy to forget the broader picture and the role of the entire family unit, especially when we lose a baby and the whole family grieves. It will not come as a surprise to colleagues to be told that the tragic loss of a baby for parents anywhere in our country has a long-lasting and horrific impact on fathers. When it comes to baby loss, our partners are our rock; they are the only person who know exactly what we are going through.

Sadly, a couple who suffer such a loss are 50% more likely to end their relationship within six months than other couples are. Keeping partnerships strong, open and resilient requires, in my opinion and—sadly—experience, a support network outside the relationship, which must come from friends and family. And it often has to provide long-term support to both parents, to preserve the mental health of dad as well as mum. People often forget to ask about how dad is doing after he has lost a baby. People are concerned because mum has given birth and her body is recovering. She is obviously in pieces and does not know where to go. People often look to dad to support her, but he is grieving for his child as well, and we must never forget to ask how dad is doing.

I have championed that principle in my constituency. I am proud to say that our new women and children’s hospital at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro will have facilities on site that will benefit fathers. Examples include simple things such as ensuring spaces are available for parents to say goodbye to their lost babies away from wards where successful births are taking place around them. We need to ensure adequate space for dads on our maternity wards, and Cornwall will be at the cutting edge of that. Support will be provided to parents at the start of the pregnancy. When babies are ready, we will have the best caring facilities to reduce baby loss. Aftercare will be there for young families having children, and support will be available to parents if it all goes wrong.

I take this opportunity to signpost some of the support that is already out there for dads suffering after baby loss. I have worked closely with the charity Tommy’s. For the past few years, it has had an absolutely brilliant—in my opinion, the best—website. It outlines groups and methods that can help men through this particularly tragic form of grief. It has a direct nine-to-five hotline to a midwife. They will talk through concerns and disruptive thought patterns with any dad wanting clarity or answers to their trauma and can recommend that parents reach out to their GP for support through this stage of their life.

The risk of developing PTSD, depression or anxiety increases hugely following the loss of a child, and it is vital that we as Members ensure that both parents get the support they need to fully recover. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, if a man is a veteran or has had a tough upbringing, such a loss can compound all their experiences; it could be the thing that tips them over the edge.

We also need a proper understanding of workplace rights, as men may need to take time out of work to fully come to terms with such a traumatic loss. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has details of counsellors trained in supporting men through baby loss. Maternity Action has information about miscarriages, stillbirths and neonatal deaths, and explains how to take time off to deal with experiences of them.

In our experience, it is often that a man sees a pregnancy as a pregnancy until the baby is a baby. I do not think that is a failing; pregnancy is just something that happens to women’s bodies, so we often have a different way of looking at it. It is important that all the questions that men have when something goes wrong, or even when there is a potential that something could go wrong, are answered by someone without putting extra pressure on the relationship.

The Baby Mailing Preference Service is brilliant. It can reduce the number of baby-related mail that a man or woman encounters. There is plenty of support out there, but we have a long way to go before these sources fully enter the mainstream and people do not have to go looking for them when the worst happens. I would like mothers, fathers and other birth parents offered bereavement counselling at all NHS trusts as part of the national bereavement care pathway. Under my predecessors, the APPG on baby loss was vital in getting the national bereavement care pathway up and running. We know that it still is not working as it should in all trusts, but we can improve it. Counselling is the thing that we absolutely need to provide.

When it happened to us, my husband got on his boat, turned his key and went straight back to work, and I do not think that was the healthiest way for him to process what had happened. Everyone acts completely differently. We must ensure that the counselling that a man or woman needs is there, and that includes relationship counselling. If there is a sibling, it is even more important that mum and dad can process their grief—whether together or separately—and that they stay together for the long term.

It is important that we find examples of good practice and ensure that they are replicated all over the country. If there are fathers out there who have had good experiences or have suggestions about mental health in this space or the support they received after losing their baby, I would love them to come forward to the APPG so that we can work with them and our partners—Sands, Tommy’s and the Lullaby Trust—to ensure that, on this International Men’s Day, dads are not forgotten, and that we raise the issue and stimulate further action to improve support for fathers.

10:29
Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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I am delighted to participate in this debate to mark International Men’s Day 2023. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) not just for securing the debate, but for the sensitive way that he drew out some very important issues that too often get buried under other matters that we discuss in this place. It is important that we continue to talk about gender equality, equal pay and the pension gender gap, but that does not mean that we cannot be cognisant of and exercised about the very important public health and social challenges that face men and boys. There is no doubt that those challenges and issues exist.

The theme of International Men’s Day 2023 is “Zero Male Suicide”, and that is where I want to focus my attention. The need to help men and boys cope with and understand mental health issues is beyond urgent. As we have heard, the overall suicide rate is 13.9 per 100,000 people—a similar figure to previous years—but male suicide rates are still three times as high as female rates, and in Scotland, 556 men died by suicide last year. Behind every statistic lies a family torn apart and a life that ought not to have been lost.

Suicide is the No. 1 killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. It kills more men under 45 than car accidents, cancer, drug or alcohol addiction, or any other issue that can end lives. The fact that men take their lives by their own hands in such numbers is truly heartbreaking. We can wring our hands, but there must be something more we can do to reduce those awful statistics. Key to that is seeking to understand why so many men resort to suicide, which is a terrible last act of despair.

One explanation that many point to is the fact that males have traditionally not been expected to admit when they are finding life difficult. A number of Members have talked about the awful expressions that are often used, including “toughing it out” and “manning up”, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) first mentioned. As a result, men and boys often find it hard to admit when they are struggling and need support, and that can only undermine their mental health and increase their sense of isolation. Problems mount up, but they feel it is weak if they admit it, ask for help or simply need a chat to share their concerns and process their feelings. Instead, they are much more likely to internalise their feelings, which often detrimentally impacts their relationships with their family members and friends—their children, their wives and their extended social relationships.

How we as a society adjust our expectations of men is important. It is okay for someone to admit that they are struggling; it is not a sign of weakness. As boys grow up and develop in their homes, families, schools, workplaces and universities, we need them to learn that they will sometimes need support and that there is no stigma attached to talking to someone if they are suffering. In fact, it is perfectly normal, and actually it could be seen as a sign of strength. If we cannot get men and boys to open up and share their worries, concerns and problems with those closest to them, or a support organisation if that is easier for them, we are unlikely to make a meaningful dent in those awful statistics. Each number is a family torn apart—a life lost that could have been saved.

Although we know that suicide is the biggest cause of death in males under the age of 45, we also know that when it happens, the loved ones left behind are often bewildered. They often did not see it coming. For the rest of their lives, they are left with questions—“What did I miss?”, “Could I have done something to prevent this?”, “Why did they not talk to me?” That is why suicide does not just take lives but tears families apart and leaves wounds that truly never heal.

I pay tribute to the wonderful UK Men’s Sheds Association. In my constituency, I have seen at first hand the fantastic work undertaken by the Three Towns Men’s Shed, which serves Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston, and the Garnock Valley Men’s Shed, which serves the towns of Kilbirnie, Beith and Dalry. In these sheds, men get together to offer each other friendship, camaraderie and a sympathetic ear. They share practical skills, experiences and problems, and provide a shoulder for each other when times are tough. Men helping each other in their communities is what a men’s shed does at its best, and it is not overstating the case to say that men’s sheds have the potential to transform and save the lives of the men who join them.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The hon. Lady is right to underline the issue of men’s sheds. I can think of four men’s sheds in my constituency: in Saintfield—I see them on the third Saturday of every month—Portaferry, Newtownards and Ballybeen. Those four men’s sheds have saved lives, which is what she is referring to.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am delighted with the men’s sheds in my constituency, because the three towns in the Garnock valley are post-industrial areas with great socioeconomic challenges. Sadly, we know that people who are socially and economically disadvantaged are also those at higher risk of suicide and at higher risk of developing mental illness. Middle-aged men living in the most deprived areas face an even higher risk of suicide, with rates of up to 36.6 per 100,000, compared with 13.5 per 100,000 in the least deprived areas.

The changing nature of the labour market over the last 60 years has particularly affected working-class men. With the decline of traditional male industries, they have lost not only their jobs, but a source of masculine pride and identity. We also know that men in midlife tend to remain overwhelmingly dependent on a female partner for emotional support, but today, men are less likely to have one lifelong partner and more likely to live alone, without the social or emotional skills to fall back on. Undoubtedly, loneliness is a significant factor in many male suicides; it puts men’s suicide risk at a higher level. Men’s sheds can truly mitigate that and help men to strengthen their social relationships.

I will briefly mention the impact of allotments. In my constituency, we have the Elm Park allotment in Ardrossan and the Kilbirnie allotment on Sersley Drive, which allow men to get out into the open air and forge friendships. Otherwise, they may be sitting at home, watching the telly and becoming catatonic with loneliness. At the allotments, they develop relationships with other volunteers in a very healthy outdoor environment. In my view, things that build the social fabric of our community, and which help men get together, save lives.

Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory
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I think the hon. Lady answered my point. Does she feel, as I do, that the way in which society is driving more and more people to be isolated at home with screens, rather than to be out in a community and speaking to other humans, is not healthy? It may end up exacerbating the problem.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
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Indeed it does, and men are particularly prone to isolation. Women are much more likely to make friendships and chat to people—men not so much.

The value of men’s sheds and allotments cannot be underestimated. On their own, they are not a silver bullet—nothing is—but we are looking to use every tool in our armoury to tackle the terrible phenomenon of male suicide. The Scottish Government provide a lot of support for men’s sheds but, as always, I would like to see more. There is never enough, especially given the transformational power that men’s sheds and allotments have.

The idea of a Minister for men has been mooted today. Given what we know about the suicide statistics and men’s health, I do not think that the idea should be dismissed. It should be actively explored.

It is very important that we have acknowledged and marked International Men’s Day. I know some people do not think that such a day matters, which is part of the problem. We need to acknowledge that our fathers, brothers, sons and husbands can struggle and feel unable to admit it. I agree with the hon. Member for Don Valley that it is in all our interests—it is in the interests of girls, mums, wives and sisters—that men and boys feel supported and fulfilled, so that they can have a true stake in the future and, in turn, become better role models for their sons. International Men’s Day gives us the chance to set time aside specifically to show that the male suicide and public health problems that we see need not happen. A much-needed light must be shone on the importance of men and boys asking for support. As we know to our cost, too often the lives of men and boys depend on it.

10:39
Abena Oppong-Asare Portrait Abena Oppong-Asare (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I know that you have done a lot of work in this area, having secured the first International Men’s Day debate in 2015.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing the debate, and I thank him for championing this important issue and for his work with the APPG on issues affecting men and boys. He spoke powerfully about how suicide impacts on men and took us on the journey of Tommy’s life to talk about how he had been affected.

I am pleased to close this important debate for the Opposition and to have the opportunity to speak on International Men’s Day and mark the occasion in Parliament. I begin by thanking several hon. Members who have spoken. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about Northern Ireland and highlighted the slow diagnosis of prostate cancer. He also talked about loneliness in rural areas.

I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), who said that she wants all services to work for women and men. Both the hon. Member for Strangford and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke talked about how the use of language and perceptions sometimes have an impact on how men and women are treated, giving the example of the words “man up”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) talked about images of fatherhood that are used in ways that we would not like to replicate, about how the mental load of parenting is often something that mothers do, and about equal parental leave.

The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) has done a lot of work as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss. I thank her for sharing her personal story again; she has been a trailblazer in this area. She talked about how the tragedy of baby loss has a long-standing impact on fathers as well as mothers, which is not always talked about. She also talked about making sure that there is adequate space for fathers at maternity wards.



As the name indicates, International Men’s Day is a worldwide celebration of the positive contribution that men bring to their families and communities. It is only fitting for me to thank all the incredible men who inspire and uplift others and promote a fair and inclusive society for all. I know that I have a number of male allies and that I would not be in this place today if they had not played a key role in supporting me. However, this annual event is also a crucial moment when the public come together to say that our men and boys face extreme challenges. These include the high rate of male suicide, shorter male life expectancy, falling educational standards among boys compared with that of girls, and so much more. We must also not neglect to mention the shocking inequalities that often leave minorities and the least privileged men in our society most vulnerable. Those are big challenges, but ones where progress can and must be made.

Figures on men’s mental health in the UK continue to show that suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under the age of 50. The Minister may remember that, in my first Health questions in my current Front-Bench role, I raised the issue of men aged 45 to 49, who are at most risk of suicide. However, we know that suicide affects the young as well.

Although it does not always come down to one factor, men can face specific life events that may increase their risk of suicide, including the breakdown of relationships, loneliness, unemployment, alcoholism and financial difficulties. Some of these contribute to the sad fact that the poorest in our society are more than twice as likely to die from suicide compared with the wealthiest. It is also important to mention that young black men are around three times more likely to present with suicidal risk. Research has found that gay, bisexual and trans men are even more prone to poor mental health, substance misuse and self-harm. I hope we can all agree that much needs to be done to support men who are struggling in crisis, because around three quarters of the deaths from suicide each year are men. As has been mentioned, men are less likely to seek help. If they do not seek help, they are less likely to get the help they need.

I want to commend a few charities doing fantastic work in this space by providing community support, especially for middle-aged men. They include James’ Place, the Men’s Sheds Association, Andy’s Man Club and Second Step’s Hope Project. I also want to mention Tommy’s, raised by the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth.

Although suicide is extremely complex, it is preventable. The Opposition believe that we must shift towards a system that focuses on prevention. The high rate of suicide is a haunting indictment of a lack of early intervention and support. For example, it is shocking that patients across England waited a total of 5.4 million hours in A&E while experiencing mental health crises last year. It is further shocking that 1.8 million people are on the NHS waiting list for specialist mental health treatment, and those numbers are growing only higher.

A Labour Government will treat mental health as seriously as physical health. Our mission will be to get the rate of suicide down. If we are privileged to get into Government, we will do that within our first term. Our plan will also include recruiting more than 8,500 more mental health professionals to cut waiting times for treatment. We will provide access to specialist support in every school and every community. We will open mental health hubs for young people. Labour has a plan and mission to build an NHS that is fit for the future and there for when people need it.

I turn to the many concerning disparities in men’s physical health. It is important to note that men have a shorter life expectancy, as has been mentioned, with one in five dying before the age of 65. We know that those deaths could be prevented by diet and lifestyle changes. Men are disproportionately affected by heart disease, and more men than women are overweight or obese.

As with mental health inequalities, when comparing life expectancy, there is a stark inequality between the most and least deprived areas of the country. In England’s most deprived postcodes, life expectancy for men is 73.5 years compared with 83.2 years in the least deprived areas. Despite that, men are still less inclined to seek help or advice from medical professionals, and therefore do not get the help they need. Without regular health check-ups, serious issues can go untreated for longer, and sometimes it is too late.

When instances of cancer are 21% higher for men than for women, we know how important early intervention can be. We also know about the well-recognised high rate of prostate cancer among black men. When the cancer is detected, patients must get the treatment they need, yet year after year, the Government have failed to meet the cancer waiting-time targets. Missing target times means missing lifesaving cancer treatment.

We need a strategy that is focused on early intervention and ensures that people receive the care and support they need. Instead, the Government have chosen to cut public health budgets substantially across the country. A Labour Government will invest in a bigger than ever expansion of the NHS and look to improve the cancer survival rates within five years by hitting all NHS cancer waiting times and early diagnosis targets, so that no patient waits longer than they should.

We will also tackle the stark health inequalities faced by disadvantaged groups. We have committed to a fit for the future fund to arm the NHS with state-of-the-art equipment and new technology to cut waiting times. That means doubling the number of CT and MRI scanners and getting people diagnosed earlier.

Of course, we cannot discuss men’s health without looking at boys’ performance in education. In basic terms, boys perform worse than girls by the end of primary school, with 70% of girls reaching the expected standard in maths. The disparity is even more acute among those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with disadvantaged white boys being the least likely group to go to university. Children only have one chance at education, and reducing those disparities with early intervention will make outcomes better.

I will conclude by repeating what I said at the start of my remarks. While we have spent most of today’s debate on the areas of most important concern, this occasion should also be a moment of celebration. It may be obvious to say this, but we all know that men—including you, Mr Davies—provide an invaluable contribution to our families, communities and society. This occasion should be one of appreciation as well as awareness, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

10:51
Maria Caulfield Portrait The Minister for Women (Maria Caulfield)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. May I start by saying how pleased I am to participate in today’s debate? The theme of this year’s International Men’s Day is “zero male suicide”, which was touched on in many contributions today and is something that I am passionate about in my role as mental health Minister. I will touch on the groundbreaking work that we are introducing in that space, which is absolutely a priority area for this Government.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing the debate and for his tireless campaigning. He has held my feet to the fire to get men’s health recognised in a way that has not happened before, and pushed the Government to make this a priority area.

We are clear that more needs to be done to improve outcomes across the board for men, particularly in relation to health. That includes men and boys, whose place in society, as we have heard today, is integral to equality for all, because when men thrive, we all thrive. We all have fathers, brothers, friends, husbands, partners and colleagues. When we improve care for women, that impacts society, but that is equally true when we improve care for men. That is why, as part of International Men’s Day, we have made some significant announcements, which I will touch on.

My hon. Friend highlighted really well that improving outcomes for men is everybody’s business, and I absolutely agree. Whether in relation to economic prosperity for society, delivering education to the next generation, or even politics—or, of course, our own families—it is really important that we support men in every way, and International Men’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the issues that they face.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) spoke about the impact of supporting men, particularly around the loss of a child; my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley gave the example of “Tommy” and talked about how many Tommies there are across the country facing those very issues today; my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) touched on life expectancy differences for men; and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) touched on the issues facing veterans. Alongside the NHS, we are rolling out Op Courage for veterans, service leavers and reservists across England, and there is different support in different regions, but I will absolutely take up with the veterans Minister what we can do to help support a similar scheme in Northern Ireland.

The theme of this year’s International Men’s Day is zero male suicide. The latest data we have from the Office for National Statistics tells us that men account for around three quarters of all deaths by suicide. As many Members have said, that is the biggest cause of premature death in men under 35, but middle-aged men are also a significant risk group, and that is why they are a priority group in our recently published suicide prevention strategy. Over 4,500 men die by suicide in England alone every year. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley noted that is 13 deaths a day. Every suicide is a tragedy, and we know about the ripple effect that it has for family and friends. We have heard from campaigners what a devastating loss it can be.

Achieving zero male suicide is an ambitious target. In our suicide prevention strategy, we have addressed men as a priority group and addressed the many issues that they face, including alcohol addiction, financial pressures and relationship breakdown. Those are all key drivers of male suicide, so we want to tackle them and put better support systems in place.

Male suicide is everyone’s business. About two thirds of men who take their own lives are in contact with a frontline service, such as primary care, in the three months leading up to their suicide. That is why every Department—whether it is the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Justice—has a role to play in our suicide prevention strategy. We are bringing those Departments together to make suicide everyone’s business, and we want to see a difference—a reduction—in two and a half years.

I do not have a huge amount of time, because my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley has to respond to the debate, but I want to touch on the announcement we made on International Men’s Day of £16 million funding for a new prostate cancer screening trial. On my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke’s point about life expectancy, we know that cancer is a significant driver of that. That is why we have rolled out our “man’s van” for lung cancer checks, to target men who have previously smoked and perhaps are not as good as they should be in coming forward to get checks done. That is enabling us to detect around 80% of lung cancers at stage 1, rather than at stage 3 and 4 as was the case previously. The prostate research will dramatically change outcomes for men. On the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford, we can look at that on a UK-wide basis, and we will have discussions with the devolved Administrations before that is rolled out in the spring.

We are appointing a men’s health ambassador—work will start on that soon—and we are launching a men’s health taskforce to join up all the dots. In a similar way to what we have done on the menopause taskforce, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, as chair of the APPG, will be invited to that meeting. We will also improve the information on the NHS UK website, to make it easier for men to access help and support. Men often find it difficult to ask for help, but if it is available on the website, they can do that in the privacy of their own home and know that the information is reliable.

We are also now rolling out the HPV vaccine to boys. While we hope that vaccine will help us eradicate cervical cancer, we know that some male cancers—particularly oral cancers—are related to HPV, so rolling out the vaccine to boys will also have an impact on future cancers in men. We also have our major conditions strategy, which will look at things such as heart disease. There is a huge amount of work going on in this space.

I hope that in my whistle-stop tour—

Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not, because my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley needs time to respond.

I hope that, in showcasing some of the work we are doing, I have demonstrated how seriously we take this issue. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for his work in this space.

10:58
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank everybody who has contributed to this excellent debate, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place, and I thank you, Mr Davies, for all the work you have done on this issue in the past. I thank the Men and Boys Coalition for organising International Men’s Day; the Men’s Health Forum for the leading work it does; the APPG team, Mark Brooks and Mike Bell; the wonderful charities that are doing great work, such as Andy’s Man Club, Men’s Sheds, Lads Need Dads, Prostate Cancer UK, and so many more.

Finally, seeing as though the debate was purposefully about suicide, I want to thank all the good men out there. It is sometimes tough being a boy or a man, but when you are feeling low and you think nobody cares, please, please, please reach out. Trust me: people do care. I care, we all in this room care, and most importantly, I know God cares too.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered International Men’s Day.

Energy Costs and Charges

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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11:00
Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian) (Alba)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the cost of energy and energy charges.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the Minister for her courtesy and consideration in our discussion yesterday.

Scots were told in 2014 that the benefit of being in the UK was the pooling and sharing that it afforded: assets and resources were pooled and then shared out across the nations, with the broad shoulders of the Union supposedly providing fairly for all. But how is that working out?

The King’s Speech had at its heart Scottish oil and gas, the extent of which was hidden from the Scottish people when it was discovered, as the McCrone report detailed. Ever since then its demise has been predicted and foretold. By 2014, it was apparently all gone, and Scotland left with only a burden. Now, Scottish oil is to save the UK economy. Scots can only look with envy at Norway, with its society and economy transformed by a resource the benefit of which has been denied us. Some nations discovered oil and saw the desert bloom; Scotland discovered oil and saw huge parts of her land turned into an industrial desert. Pooling and sharing? I don’t think so.

Now another natural bounty has blessed our land. Renewable energy is clean, infinite and what our world, not just our land, needs as part of a just transition from fossil fuels. Let us consider the scale of the bounty. Scotland produces one quarter of the UK’s renewable energy and has the potential to produce much, much more—offshore wind, as well as other forms of energy, including tidal, wave and onshore wind, ensures that. Scotland’s share of Europe’s offshore wind capacity has reduced because of improved technologies and opportunities in other countries, but Scotland is still the envy of other nations.

Naysayers who talk that bounty down are the same ones who predicted the demise of our oil. In 2009, only 27% of Scotland’s electricity came from renewables; by 2020, the equivalent of 97.4% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption came from them. Three years on, the figure will be even greater, and that is before offshore wind, which is still minimal, comes on stream at scale.

The scale of what is coming from offshore wind is massive. That was confirmed by the then Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which estimated that in 2021 Scotland exported south 35 TWh hours of electricity. That is to increase to 124 TWh by 2030. I struggled to understand what a terawatt was. For those similarly afflicted, let me clarify that 1 TW is 1 billion kW. Let us put that in context: the average Scottish household uses just over 3,200 kWh per annum. And let us remind ourselves that it is anticipated that by 2030 Scotland will be sending south 124 TWh, or 124 billion kWh. That is enough to power 37.6 million homes—the equivalent of powering Scotland’s 2.5 million homes almost 15 times over. That is year on year, and the figure is growing. That is the scale of Scotland’s resource.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. He is making a compelling case for Scotland. May I suggest to the Minister that there is also a compelling case for Northern Ireland? We have not had the opportunity to advance to the same level as Scotland, but we wish to do so. Does the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) agree that if we are to move forward, there has to be a joint strategy for all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because we can and must all play our part? I envy what Scotland has done. We in Northern Ireland want to do the same.

Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Well, I prefer an independent strategy, similar to what Norway and Denmark are doing, but I concede that Northern Ireland is frequently ignored because so much of the gas grid is pan-Great Britain, rather than across the Irish sea.

Let us look at how Scotland’s resource is pooled and shared. I have detailed the 35 TWh rising to 124 TWh, but I have not explained that no payment is received for that resource. The energy is sent south, but there is no financial return to Scotland. Besides nothing being paid for it, there are now efforts to take it directly south with neither a bawbee nor a pretty please being given for it. Off south it is to go, and for no payment.

The Eastern HVDC—high voltage direct current sub-sea—transmission cables, also referred to as the Eastern Green Link projects, are the longest HVDC cables to be laid in the UK and will run from Peterhead to Redcar and from Torness to Drax. It is estimated that those links will take 5 TWh, or 5 billion kWh, of Scotland’s renewable energy source south, again with no payment. Additionally, the proposed Berwick Bank offshore wind farm in the firth of Forth will alone produce sufficient energy to supply more households than Scotland possesses, but a cable is proposed to be laid to take 40% of its energy directly south, again with no payment.

What about the sharing? Where is the benefit from the supposed broad shoulders of the Union? Where is the return for what we contribute? A recent question to the now Department for Energy Security and Net Zero asked whether consideration would be given to crediting domestic energy users in the localities where energy is produced and landed. After all, it is being produced onshore or offshore in Scotland, so we might have thought that some credit or benefit would accrue to Scotland, and it might even be cheaper there. But no—the answer was simply that it is a matter for Ofgem, which we know is a creature of statute and can act only within its set powers or as directed by Ministers. No such rules exist and no direction has been given. The energy is not only to go south for no payment, but no benefit is to accrue to Scotland from it.

There is talk of payments to those facing having pylons placed near them, but what about those who live in the land where the energy is being produced? Winter will soon be upon us. The weather is changing and the temperature is falling. The cold is being felt and the need to heat homes is increasing, but it is not simply heat but power that is required. Energy, and especially electricity, is needed not just to keep the cold at bay. It is required by the mother to wash her children’s clothes, keep them clean and uphold the standards she seeks to maintain. It is required by the parent seeking to power up an iPad or laptop to help their child’s education and advance their life chances. It is required by the worker charging their phone to allow them to find employment or do the additional hours that the Government want, or simply to keep body and soul together. More shamefully, it is also required by the sick, including those on dialysis and those recovering from cancer, whose immune systems are weakened and for whom warmth and power are a necessity for life, not a luxury for living.

Despite the fact that Scotland is energy rich, our people are fuel poor. Already more than a third of Scots have been assessed as being in fuel poverty. Even more shamefully, almost a quarter are in extreme fuel poverty.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for securing the debate. Households in rural areas have the highest fuel poverty rate—15.9% in 2022—and I am concerned that that will continue into 2024 if the Government do not act. Somerton and Frome has an estimated 13,060 homes off the gas grid that rely on alternative sources of fuel. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should accelerate the deployment of renewable power, provide more funding and remove the Government restrictions on solar and wind?

Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I certainly agree that there is a prejudice against those off the gas grid. It is not simply about those in rural areas, whether that means the hon. Lady’s constituents or my own in the lee of the Lammermuirs, but about those in urban areas—often urban deprived areas, in multi-storey flats, where gas is not available and the heating system is expensive.

The numbers I was given are historical, and they will only rise—if they have not already risen. After all, the statistics from the Scottish Ambulance Service for last winter’s hypothermic call-outs were shameful, but that is likely to be the baseline, and worse could follow. Energy prices may have fallen along with the energy price cap, but according to National Energy Action the average household is still paying £800 more for heat and power than before the energy crisis started, at a time when the cost of living crisis has subsumed the energy price crisis. Costs will be higher this year than last, when support was given to reduce bills. It is not just the big energy companies making money out of others’ misery; the Treasury made money though VAT on increased bills, which amounted to £1.1 billion in the UK and £96 million in Scotland. The cash is there. It is who has got it, or not got it, that is the issue.

Scotland is geographically further north and our climate is colder and damper than that in other parts of the UK, which makes access to heat and power even more essential. Winters can be cruel and the hardship in northern parts extreme. Let us examine the sharing—after all, we are told pooling and sharing is a benefit of the Union. When there is so much renewable energy being produced in Scotland, why are costs so high? Where is the social tariff alluded to by Government that even many suppliers support? It could be paid for out of general taxation—shared, that is. But no, the vulnerable are again left to struggle this winter.

Where is the credit, or reduced costs more generally, as I have mentioned? In my constituency, people can see the turbines turning or the towers rising from their doors, but they are unable to heat their homes. Moreover, why are costs greater in Scotland, the nation providing more energy than it has households? I wrote to Ofgem, asking them to detail the standing charges for electricity imposed on consumers in Scotland and in England. They have provided the answer for the costs imposed up until this December, but there is no sign of any variation coming. This will run and run, and so will the injustice—with the consultation not closing until January when winter has passed.

Scotland is divided into two zones: northern and southern, SSE and ScottishPower Energy Networks—that is, roughly the highlands and the lowlands. England is divided into north-west, southern and London. Ofgem’s answer disclosed that both Scottish zones were charged more, and often substantially more, than regions south of the border. That differential runs across all forms of charging, whether that is whether standard credit, direct debit or prepayment meter.

Let me detail the situation for those on prepayment meters. After all, they should be benefiting most from Scotland’s energy, which is being pooled. Their needs are invariably greatest and this bounty should be prioritised towards them, although similar benefits should apply equally across Scotland irrespective of payment method and could also be applied across the UK. Many are now counting their ability to access heat and power in pounds, if not pence. It is not 50p or £1 for the meter, but what they calculate that they can afford to use. It is why we have the weasel phrase of “self-disconnection”. That is not personal choice but imposed cruelty.

Let us look at standing charges for electricity. Including VAT, it is 69p a day in southern Scotland and 66p in northern Scotland, yet it is lower in England and only 46p in London. Per annum, it means that the standing charges for those on prepayment meters are, on average, £251.75 in southern Scotland, £241.92 in northern Scotland, yet only £166.10 in London. Those are not my figures—they are Ofgem’s.

We have seen the pooling and now we are seeing the sharing. We are giving, but not receiving. We produce the energy and our people, especially the poorest Scots, are charged more for it. The broad shoulders of the Union is the claim, but sleight of hand is the reality—as the bounty is taken, yet higher costs are imposed. As I begin to conclude on the costs of energy and energy charges—with the perversity of energy-rich Scotland and fuel-poor Scots—I make my first remarks to the Scottish Government. They have sold off ScotWind cheap and failed to stand up for Scotland. I am reminded of the words from the Proclaimers song “Cap in Hand”,

“We fight, when they ask us

We boast, then we cower

We beg

For a piece of

What’s already ours”.

As the song says,

“I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our land, Cap in Hand”.

It is time they stood up for our land on energy and electricity prices.

Meanwhile, I ask the Minister: if energy policy is reserved to the UK, where is the pooling and sharing? There is talk of payments to those having pylons nearby, but what about those where the energy is produced? Will there be a social tariff for the vulnerable this year? Ofgem is appointed by this Government and accountable to them. It is carrying out a welcome, if long overdue, review on standing charges. As I said, submissions do not close until late January—too late for this winter. Will the Minister direct Ofgem that standing charges should be abolished, as many suppliers argue? As National Energy Action states:

“How can it be right that someone who can’t afford any energy pays”

the same as

“someone in a mansion?”

It is an energy poll tax and equally unjust. Failing that, will the Minister ensure that standing charges are at least equalised across the UK, rather than seeing Scotland pool its energy, yet share higher charges? In summary, will she end the perversity of the land that produces the energy seeing its people and its poorest paying the most for that energy?

11:15
Amanda Solloway Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero (Amanda Solloway)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for his passionate and informative speech. I will say at the start that renewable energy clearly does not fit into my portfolio, but if I cannot answer on any points I will try to find the answers and follow up subsequently in writing.

First, the Government have been clear on the importance of protecting energy consumers, and I take my role as Minister for Energy Consumers and Affordability incredibly seriously. That is why I frequently meet energy suppliers and the regulator to remind them of their obligations and my expectations that they will do all they can to support customers, especially the most vulnerable, this winter and beyond. In response to the wholesale energy price challenge caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the Government acted swiftly to provide support to UK households and businesses, delivering almost £40 billion of energy bills support through different schemes from October 2022. The Government also continue to stand firmly behind energy consumers.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Although I think our constituents are very grateful for the £40 billion of subsidy that was given across the cold winter last year, does the Minister agree that it would not have been necessary to spend that £40 billion of taxpayers’ money if we had carried on insulating homes at the rate that we had been up until the Liberal Democrats left government in 2015?

Amanda Solloway Portrait Amanda Solloway
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course, the fact is that we had a cost of living crisis mainly, as I have pointed out, because of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. That was the situation we found ourselves in.

For households in fuel poverty, we have targeted support such as £150 directly off energy bills through the warm home discount, which last year we increased in value and extended to around 3 million households. We are also tackling the root problem through our energy efficiency schemes. We are looking at ways to make the warm home discount more flexible, and also to help respond to future increased pressures on consumers’ bills, and we continue to monitor energy bills and keep options under review.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Figures released by the utility regulator in Northern Ireland show that small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland are paying almost 10p per kW more than a typical EU price or that in the rest of the UK. Does the Minister agree that this places Northern Ireland businesses at a competitive disadvantage, particularly given the land border with the Republic of Ireland? Does she agree that further support measures need to be put in place, particularly for small to medium-sized businesses?

Amanda Solloway Portrait Amanda Solloway
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I point out to the hon. Lady that I had a meeting yesterday with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and we were discussing these very particular issues. She has my assurance that those discussions are always mindful and at the top of my thoughts.

I also encourage hon. Members to make their constituents aware of the Government’s “It All Adds Up” campaign, which shows simple measures to save people money on their energy bills this winter. I know that the hon. Member for East Lothian has a particular interest in standing charges, as he discussed them with me yesterday. Standing charges are a matter for Ofgem.

I am pleased to share that last week Ofgem published a call for input on standing charges to look at how they are applied to energy bills and what alternatives could be considered. The standing charge is used to recover the costs required to provide vital energy company services, including providing and maintaining the wires, pipes and cables that deliver power to a customer’s door. If the standing charge were scrapped, as the hon. Member for East Lothian suggests, suppliers would still have to recover reasonable costs in other ways, which would mean charging a higher price for every unit of power used. That could have significant consequences for some categories of vulnerable customers: for example, those with high energy use due to medical equipment. That is one of the reasons we are working through the matter very carefully.

The standing charge can also vary from region to region, as has been pointed out, because of the differing costs associated with the transmission and distribution of supplying energy to a particular area. Geographical factors mean it costs more to run the local electricity distribution network in the north of Scotland than elsewhere. To help protect consumers in the north of Scotland from those costs, a Government cross-subsidy scheme provides an annual cross-subsidy of some £112 million to that area. The scheme is funded by electricity suppliers from across Great Britain and reduces the electricity distribution charge for a typical household in the north of Scotland by more than £60 a year. The cost-reflective approach means that Scottish consumers actually pay lower charges for the high-voltage transmission network than most consumers in England and Wales.

I am also aware that the hon. Member for East Lothian is interested in the benefits available for communities located near transmission network infrastructure, especially those in Scotland near offshore wind facilities. Offshore wind farm developers already provide a range of community benefit packages developed in consultation with local communities. For projects based in Scotland, developers follow the Scottish Government’s offshore energy good practice principles when creating a community benefit package. However, we want to ensure communities hosting transmission network infrastructure can benefit from supporting the delivery of cheaper, secure and low carbon energy for all of Great Britain. We have therefore consulted on proposals for community benefits. The consultation proposed to introduce voluntary guidance on the appropriate levels and forms of benefits to give communities the knowledge, power and flexibility to decide what benefits they want in consultation with the project developer. The consultation has now closed and we intend to publish a response as soon as we can.

I now want to come on to prepayment meters. Historically, customers on prepayment meters have paid higher standing charges than direct debit customers, reflecting the higher cost of serving those customers. The Government subsidises prepayment meter customers through the energy price guarantee to ensure they pay no more for their energy than direct debit customers. That seems to be the fair thing to do. The support is due to end at the end of March 2024 when the energy price guarantee ends, but Ofgem is due to announce shortly how it will create an enduring replacement for that scheme so that prepayment meter customers will have that unfair premium they were paying removed from their bills once and for all. Furthermore, the Government have worked with Ofgem and the industry to see that the rules extending protections with regard to prepayment meter installations for the most vulnerable consumers have come into effect.

I wish to close by reminding all hon. Members that they should encourage their constituents to contact their energy suppliers if they are concerned about their energy bills or their ability to pay. Energy suppliers have an obligation to their customers and Ofgem has also introduced further rules on customer services for this winter. Once again, I sincerely thank the hon. Member for East Lothian for securing this incredibly important debate.

Question put and agreed to.

11:24
Sitting suspended.

Debt in Africa

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Martin Vickers in the Chair]
11:18
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of debt in Africa.

I am extremely grateful to the House authorities for allowing me to secure this crucial debate on debt in Africa. I intend to cover the essential points that demand our urgent action. Today, I stand before this Chamber to confront a crisis of global magnitude—the escalating debt crisis in African countries. This is not merely an economic issue; it is a humanitarian challenge that demands our immediate and decisive response. The way in which we address this crisis does not just reflect on our policies but on the core values of Great Britain on the world stage. This moment is more than a test of financial acumen. It is a testament to our commitment to human dignity and global justice.

The decisions that we make in Parliament have far-reaching implications, shaping the futures of millions. In our interconnected world, the fortunes of African nations are intrinsically linked to our own. The Labour party has a proud history of leading international efforts on debt cancellation and relief for the world’s poorest. We remain committed to international development. I feel our response to this crisis will define our legacy in international solidarity and moral leadership.

The situation in Africa is increasingly alarming. Currently, more than half of the continent’s low-income developing countries are either in debt distress or on the brink of it. Debt distress refers to a situation in which a country is struggling to meet its debt obligations. That figure has worryingly doubled since 2015, and looking ahead to 2024 and 2025, those countries will face debt repayments six times higher than their total debt servicing in 2021. This drastic increase is a result of several factors, including the covid-19 pandemic and global tensions—such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Having liaised with the shadow Foreign Office Minister —my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) —I am cognisant of the fact that the Labour party has long advocated for debt relief as a cornerstone of its foreign policy. It steadfastly believes that the resources of low-income nations must be directed towards enhancing the lives of their citizens rather than being drained by unsustainable debt repayments. Our perspective must be rooted in the principle that investment in infrastructure and public services is crucial—not just for Britain’s societal stability, but equally for countries across Africa.

We need to see a model where an increase in GDP in those nations translates into significant investment in their own societies and infrastructure. That approach counters a current trend where a substantial portion of their national income is funnelled into servicing external debts, often with stringent conditions attached. We should envisage a world where economic growth in African countries is harnessed for their own development, fostering stronger, more resilient economies and societies. It is a vision where international co-operation and fair debt practices replace the cycle of debt and dependency, allowing those countries to realise their full potential on the global stage.

If I now come on to the middle east and north Africa region, the contrast between the accumulating wealth of the few and the deepening debt of the many is stark. The richest 0.05% in the region, with wealth above $5 million, saw their wealth surge by 75% from $1.6 trillion in 2019 to $3 trillion by the end of 2022. That boom in ultra wealth comes on the back of every country in the middle east and north Africa region sinking deeper into debt. For instance, in Tunisia, public debt increased from 43% of GDP in 2010 to 80% in 2021. In Egypt, it increased from 70% to 90%.

In the light of the escalating crisis, I ask the Minister: what steps are the Government taking to work with international partners to address the debt crisis that some African countries are facing, including debt held bilaterally, multilaterally and by private creditors? A World Bank report has highlighted a 35% increase in debt interest bills for the world’s poorest countries, further strained by the pandemic and increased food import prices. I ask the Minister to elucidate the UK Government’s response to that alarming development.

The G20 common framework for debt treatments was designed to deliver a sustainable solution to lower-income countries’ debt vulnerabilities, but it has failed. Only four countries have so far applied for debt treatment. Of those, only Chad has reached an agreement with both its private and bilateral creditors. That agreement appears inadequate, and has been criticised for its failure to reduce Chad’s debt burden and make it sustainable. Another example is Zambia. It defaulted in 2020, but has not yet reached a comprehensive restructuring agreement. The failure of the framework to deliver necessary relief is largely due to private creditors’ reluctance to participate in debt restructuring.

As a significant funder of debt relief initiatives and a supporter of international financial institutions, the UK has a role in ensuring that private creditors participate in restructurings. Some organisations, such as Debt Justice, argue that without firm action, English courts may end up enforcing repayment on behalf of private creditors who are exploiting official debt relief initiatives. Those organisations argue that the reluctance of private creditors to agree to restructuring creates a domino effect where other large creditors also refuse to accept a loss. It leads to a slow, uncertain process that consistently fails to deliver effective debt relief.

Given those challenges, I ask the Minister: what proactive steps are the UK Government taking to engage with, and ensure the participation of, private creditors in the debt relief process? How are the Government planning to address the issues raised by organisations such as Debt Justice to prevent debt relief initiatives from being used to pay off other debts rather than investing in the country? The United Kingdom, as a key player in global finance, has a crucial role in shaping frameworks that govern sovereign debt contracts. My challenge to the Government is: what initiatives are being pursued to reform the frameworks and facilitate effective debt restructuring?

I will turn to the impact on women and girls, who are being disproportionately affected by the debt crisis in Africa. I am aware that many hon. Members will elaborate further on this topic. The crisis leads to a reduced governmental investment in vital public services such as healthcare, education and social services. It also has an impact on supply-side factors, affecting those who work in health and social care. Globally, women account for 67% of the health and social care workforce. As we strive for a society where women are empowered globally, it is important that we look at the consequences of the debt crisis and its impact on egalitarianism and progressive values. Clearly, if Governments do not have the funds to support the basic needs of their populations, women and girls in particular will suffer. I call on our Government to outline how our international aid policies are addressing the unique impact of this crisis on women and girls in Africa.

Beyond that, there would be no good or relevant debate without mention of our effort to combat climate change. The debt burden significantly impedes African countries’ abilities to adapt to a changing climate and mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. As we know, reaching net zero is of critical importance for us all, here and around the world, and I know that the Labour party is doing all it can to acknowledge the impact that the climate crisis is having on African nations.

Sustainable development and climate resilience are urgent needs, yet the debt crisis presents a formidable barrier. I implore the Government to detail collaborative efforts, aligning debt relief with climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies in the countries that I am discussing.

I will now address the long-term consequences of the African debt crisis and the serious threat that they pose to development, poverty alleviation and progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals. The SDGs are fundamental pillars of the international organisations that the UK works so diligently to support.

Low-income countries trapped in a debt doom loop cannot access the transformational finance that would allow them to escape from extreme poverty, fight climate change and meet their global goals. So, I urge the Government to share comprehensive strategies for confronting those profound challenges.

This critical moment demands international solidarity and decisive action. The UK, along with other leading economies, must spearhead the search for fair and sustainable solutions. Therefore, I ask the Minister the question: how are the Government working with international partners to develop strategies for long-term economic stability and social wellbeing in African countries?

I understand from my hon. Friend the shadow Minister that a Labour Government will restore Britain as a trusted and long-term partner to tackle the great challenges of our time, to promote the rules-based order and to deliver transformational change with communities around the globe. In seeking to address the challenge of debt burdens and to foster sustainable and resilient economies in Africa, I say to hon. Members here in Westminster Hall and indeed the whole House that now is the time not to cling to existing strategies but to leave no stone unturned.

In conclusion, the gravity of the African debt crisis necessitates collective action. We must look beyond temporary fixes and address the systemic issues that are at play. I am sure that a future Labour Government will embrace a new approach towards development that is based on respect and a genuine partnership with the global south, which involves supporting its plans to eliminate poverty, tackle climate change and reach the global goals. However, we cannot wait for that future Labour Government; we must act now. So, I implore the current UK Government to act now to address the debt crisis facing African nations.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (in the Chair)
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I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen from 3.25 pm onwards. I have four other Members indicating that they wish to speak, so I would be grateful if they could bear that instruction in mind.

14:43
Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Vickers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this very important debate and on such a well-informed and impassioned speech, which outlined the absolute reason for urgent action on debt cancellation.

I start my contribution by declaring an interest. Before being elected to this place, I was a Jubilee 2000 campaigner back in the 1990s, along with others, and I was then a trustee for the Jubilee Debt Campaign, which is now Debt Justice. As a campaigner for Christian Aid, then for Methodist aid and then for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development or CAFOD, I led ordinary people in protests up and down the country. Those people all absolutely understood the stranglehold that debt repayments have over so many Governments that would otherwise use that money to educate girls, invest in clean water and sanitation, tackle climate change, and invest in infrastructure such as roads to increase trade and boost the economy.

Together, across the country, we wrote to MPs. Yes, I used to be one of those people who wrote to MPs, sending in postcards. We held protests in our towns and villages, and made endless amounts of red chains to symbolise the need to be free of unjust chains of debt. In 1998, 100,000 people circled Birmingham to make a human red chain to influence the G8 that was meeting there. In 2001, we went to Genoa. I remember coachload after coachload of all ages, sometimes very elderly. There were parishioners, people from faith groups across the country, going to Genoa for the G8, because they were so determined to make the change. In 2005, we marched through Edinburgh, and celebrated when the previous Labour Government made huge inroads, taking the lead in brokering a deal that cancelled £4 billion of debt of the world’s poorest countries.

Jubilee 2000 was a huge joint global campaign that led ultimately to the cancellation of more than £100 billion of debt owed by 35 of the world’s poorest countries. I saw the difference it made on the ground. Having campaigned for the reduction under the IMF’s heavily indebted poor countries initiative, I was delighted to see a teachers’ house in a village in Zambia bearing the huge letters HIPC. Enabled by debt-reduction payments, that house provided teachers for a whole generation, boosting opportunities and the economy, all from debt reduction.

But where are we now? There simply has not been the same UK leadership on this since 2010. That has been a glaring missed opportunity, which undermines any warm words the Minister might be about to say on leading on sustainable development goals. I welcome the Select Committee on International Development report on debt relief in low-income countries, published in March this year, but I do not welcome as much the lukewarm response from the Government.

I also welcome the inclusion of debt in many places in the international White Paper, published yesterday, and agree with its assessment that high and rising debt vulnerability poses a significant development challenge. There needs to be more focus on debt reduction for the world’s most fragile and conflict-risk states. That is vitally linked to climate finance but, again, will there really be the significant action we need to see following that White Paper?

Lower-income countries have been facing increasingly high debt over recent years, with external debt payments increasing by 150% between 2011 and 2023. They have now reached their highest levels in 25 years. There are currently 54 countries in debt crisis, including many in Africa, such as Zambia, Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya. As the thousands of people from across the country who took action in the Jubilee 2000 campaign on debt know, those current unsustainable debt levels have a serious impact on the lives of millions of people across the continent, and on any chance of achieving the sustainable development goals.

A reported 72% of the sustainable development goals to achieve poverty eradication are off track. According to the UN, they are “woefully off track”, dangerously so. The increasing amount of unsustainable debt is one of the major reasons for that. Many countries were forced to reduce public spending during the pandemic, to keep up with debt payments. That is spending on education, health, water and sanitation. Lower-income countries spend five times more on debt repayment than on addressing the climate crisis.

Countries have had no choice but to turn to fossil fuels to generate the funds needed to meet their colossal debt repayments. I will be at COP28 in a few weeks’ time with a delegation of MPs, and I will make this case to those attending from across the globe. I look to the Government to make the same case and the links. I hope the Minister will say something about the link between debt cancellation and climate finance, which is essential.

The Government could show global leadership and rectify flaws, especially in the common framework agreed by the G20. Four countries have now applied to the common framework, but none has received any debt cancellation so far. Zambia applied in February, but there is a gap of a mechanism to induce private creditors to accept the same terms as other creditors, which leads to disastrous impasses; it is a frozen system. Zambia has £6.3 billion of debt and, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, is in that debt doom loop. Yet the UK is in a unique position to strengthen the legal framework to ensure the participation of private creditors, as 90% of the bonds issued by countries eligible for the common framework are governed by English law. The UK could pass legislation to incentivise private creditors to take part in debt relief. Two possible legislative options are to replicate the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Act 2010 and to extend UK corporate law on debt restructuring so Governments can restructure their debts in a similar way to companies. There are ways to fix the issue, but as it is currently set up, it just will not be the answer to debt cancellation that it should be.

I end by asking the Government and the Minister to take the action needed to end the debt crisis. Specifically, will the Minister commit to consulting on new legislation to compel private creditors to participate in debt relief to tackle the debt crisis in lower-income countries?

14:50
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and to speak in today’s debate. I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for leading the debate. We are all here because we have a passion for foreign affairs, and it is great to support him today and I congratulate him on how he has set the scene. It is also a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for the second time in recent days, as she spoke before me in the COP28 debate last Thursday. I recognise that she has a deep interest and passion, shown through her work with Christian Aid, CAFOD and WaterAid and some of her other projects. I am pleased to follow her in particular because with all that depth of knowledge comes a contribution that makes the debate even more salient and interesting for us. I thank her for that as well.

There is no doubt that the covid pandemic had a profoundly negative impact on Africa’s sovereign debt situation. It has been stated that some 22 countries are either in debt distress or at high risk. That has meant that African Governments are struggling more to pay the debt incurred. Countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe were already in debt—and indeed, Malawi. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who will shortly speak for the SNP, has over the years that I have known him always spoken about Malawi and the strong relationships that he and his constituency have with that country. Those things are important when we discuss the matters under consideration today.

Research has shown that as of August 2022, countries in Africa owed the UK a total of £2,758 million, which accounts for 56% of all debts owed to the UK, with Sudan’s the highest. It is important to note that debt is not necessarily a bad thing in itself and can help with economic development. I say that because the increase in debt in the early 2000s was accompanied by a higher level of economic development in Africa. There is a history and I say that because I want to have it on record that it is not all doom and gloom. If we look back through history, we will see that countries were able to address the debt issue and grow accordingly. Sometimes, we have a duty to try and encourage those countries and work with them to get them out of a bad patch.

I was talking to the hon. Member for Glasgow North, and as I sat listening to the hon. Member for Slough’s contribution, I was reminded of the story in Matthew 25 where the master travels into a far-off country. Mr Vickers, you will know the story and probably everybody in the Chamber will know it. The master gives his three servants five talents, two talents and one talent. He comes back and the guy who had the five talents has made them into 10, the guy who had two has made them into four and we know the story of the one who did not invest his money and work hard.

The reason why I tell the story is because that is the Africa of the 2000s. Today, I believe that we in the western world have a duty to try to get them out of these bad times, to give them the advice and assistance they need, and to give them experience. We cannot just —I say this genuinely—pursue somebody and say, “We must get your debt” because that will lead to more debt for them and even higher levels of poverty, so I use the biblical story of Matthew 25 to illustrate in a small way, and hopefully in a strong way, what it means to help others.

According to the World Bank’s debt sustainability analysis, nine African countries were in debt distress and unable to fulfil their repayment requirements as of the end of September 2023. A further 15 African countries were at high risk of debt distress, with another 14 at moderate risk. If it were up to me—I am not the person to do it, so I look to the Minister and the Government to take on this task—I would speak to each of those countries individually. There has to be a two-way dialogue, whereby we can discuss how we manage debt repayments and help countries to grow at the same time.

None of us is a stranger to the impact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had on our ability to afford things and get our debt under control. I have constituents —indeed, I expect all Members do—who are still coping with the effects and struggling to regain control of their finances, especially when it comes to paying for gas, oil and electricity. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is causing a rise in the price of commodities, particularly food and gas, and the war is also disrupting food supply chains, which especially affects people in Africa.

Between 2010 and 2021, external debt servicing payments in Africa more than quadrupled, growing at over 60 times the pace of average fiscal revenues. In discussing how much debt, and by what rate, it should be paid back, we must show compassion for a country’s social and financial situation. There has to be realism about how much money can be paid back and the rate of repayment. Regardless of whether that means restructuring loans or helping them to balance or grow their economy, we should be trying to do it. For example, there must be repayment options for countries with negative human rights and social considerations.

Strengthening debt management policies to deal with repayment issues through Governments is one of the best ways to enable the stable payback of debts. If paying back will ultimately plunge a state into further demise and poverty, I do not believe that is the right way to do it. We have to find a better solution. I am not just saying that for the sake of it; if we want to recoup debts, we have to work with countries to make that happen.

The economic consequences of the covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have undermined the ability of many African nations to service their sovereign debt. Consideration must be given to that, to human rights abuses and to a nation’s ability to pay back its debt. I look forward to the Minister’s comments, and we as a nation should continue to be supportive to all those struggling, especially through aid. I know the Minister is compassionate and understands what we are asking for, but when it comes to dealing with the debt of African nations and others, there has to be a sense of realism and real compassion in order to try to get them out the other side. By doing so, we will help them contribute to their future. At the end of the day, it is surely about their future. Let us get it right.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (in the Chair)
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Sorry, I call Claudia Webbe.

14:59
Claudia Webbe Portrait Claudia Webbe (Leicester East) (Ind)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this important debate. It could not have come at a more timely moment.

The debt that Africa owes is equivalent to something like 24% of its gross domestic product. As of 2022, Africa’s debt burden was around $1.8 trillion. As an absolute number, that does not appear as high as some—Germany’s debt is larger—but compared with the living standards and available wealth of the people and their Governments, it is crippling. That debt has been placed on the backs of African nations as a legacy of centuries of colonialism and exploitation—exploitation that continues today, as western corporations make billions every year from the natural resources of the continent, particularly in the form of mineral extraction.

To demonstrate the extent to which western mineral exploitation damages Africa, out of all African nations, only Botswana’s Government retain ownership and control of their own country’s considerable mineral wealth. As a result, it has by far the lowest national debt as a percentage of its gross domestic product—barely a quarter of neighbouring South Africa’s, and even its closest rivals have double its debt. Botswana has stated that its aim in retaining control of its mineral resources is to maximise the economic benefit for its people—and it works.

For centuries, Africa was pillaged of its wealth: timber, oil, diamonds, and, above all, its people. Western nations grew rich on the backs of the slaves that they took and the exploitation of those who remained in Africa, and then from their colonisation of those same nations. Rich countries and their corporations continue to steal by deceit, by intimidation, and by fomenting unrest and division, particularly to obtain the rare earth minerals that drive our technological society and bloat the bank accounts of the companies that make and use that technology.

Africa is not poor; the west has stolen its wealth and is still doing so today. Aid and loans to Africa, along with personal remittances from Africans working abroad, are worth far less than what is taken out of Africa. That difference is at least $40 billion annually, making aid and loans little more than camouflage for neo-colonial exploitation. That piles debt on to the people of Africa, which drains away their ability to build themselves better economies and a better standard of living. And, as usual, the money going out of Africa is going into corporate profits, while the cost of loans and aid is borne by taxpayers.

The reparations that the UK and other nations owe to the people of Africa—and the other countries exploited for so long—is a huge debt, both moral and financial. Cancelling Africa’s debt would be one small step towards repaying what was stolen and making restitutions for centuries of damage done. Yet Governments will not acknowledge the debt that they owe to Africa, let alone put measures in place to do something about it or to claw back some of the obscene corporate and personal fortunes dug out of Africa and its people. It is high time that that situation changed.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (in the Chair)
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I call Sir Tony Lloyd.

15:04
Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd (Rochdale) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Vickers. I was so excited at the prospect of speaking in front of you that—

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (in the Chair)
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We were excited to listen to you, Tony.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
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Thank you. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on introducing this debate. It is timely. I think we all know that the crisis in Africa is real. We—as a world, not simply as a country—need now to address that. I would like to start quite a long time ago, rather like my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). When we look back over the history of the debate around indebtedness—to “break the chains” and all those phrases that used to trip off our tongues about the need for change—I believed that the world would be very different.

I want to relate something from around 30 years ago. I went to the funeral of a very young child in Mozambique. The baby died because the mother simply could not feed that baby. It was shocking at the time to see a baby denied the nutrition that I would expect for my own grandchildren, for my constituents and for our world. At the time, I would have said, “It will change.” I would have said that we would move down the path of debt relief. Had we had this debate 30 years ago—we probably did have it—we would have been told, “Don’t worry: with a combination of looking carefully and kindly at debt management, at the transmission of technical aid and assistance and at the growth of trade, the world will be very different.”

Well, the world is very different: it is worse for those in Africa. In practical terms, the little baby from all those years back, whom I talked about, is now replicated by many others. Debt is an enslavement of the generation to come, and that is, of itself, something that we ought to rail against. How can a child be born into the enslavement that debt causes? My hon Friends have given different accounts of debt, and we can probably argue about the figures. The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) used a particular figure, but the figure I have about the GDP-to-debt ratio is that debt will now be something of the order of 60% of GDP across sub-Saharan Africa. Whether that is exactly right or wrong almost does not matter. It matters in general terms—we can talk trillions or billions of dollars or pounds—but debt impinges on the quality, the reality and the possibility of life of millions of people across the African continent. It is at the human level that debt matters.

If we look at the battle against poverty, the battle against poor health, the battle for education, the battle to create the health services and the battle around climate change, we are losing those battles. We are losing them in this generation—at the moment—and we have to change. We have to change in a particular way, because, at some point, we have to make our minds up and say whether we are prepared to create a very different relationship: the indebted no longer as clients of those who hold the debt but, instead, as partners. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough made some very profound points about this.

If we are not a partner to African nations and the people of Africa, we lose battles such as climate change, which is our common battle together. It would be remarkable for Africans to know that we are losing it together, because they make so little contribution to the problems that we have all caused around climate change. African nations as a whole are insignificant at the moment, although an Africa of the future, if not helped through transition to those climate change-consistent policies, will potentially be a major producer of greenhouse gases. We should therefore be partners, but if we are going to be partners, we have to be meaningful about what debt really means.

Those who were in the Chamber earlier heard the international development Minister, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) make a very good series of statements on the White Paper. I welcome that White Paper, but there is a challenge that the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) has to take back to the Prime Minister and others. It is not enough to print the words in the White Paper; we need the political will to translate that into national action in the UK and international action. On national action in the UK, when I looked into our history of debt relief, the only figures I could come up with showed that the UK’s spending on debt over the last 10 years or so has been £44 million. That is absolutely insignificant against the scale of the problem. We have to do more by way of debt forgiveness, but not simply on our own. We have to be a part of that global coalition that challenges debt and looks at debt restructuring in a real and rational way.

We have to look, for example, at Zambia and the number of people who have evidenced the situation there. Zambia could not come to an agreement, partly because it was the private debtholders who caused the crisis there. Zambia then offered to pay them some 73 cents on the dollar, compared with 55 cents on the dollar for intergovernmental loans. That was a massively bigger rate of return for the private investors, even though they charged massively higher interest rates on their debt. Bear in the mind that the reason for charging higher interest rates is relevant to risk. They put the risk premium in, but having put the risk premium in, they then wanted to be paid a superabundant return on their investment. The reason that failed is that it was inconsistent with the G20 common framework, which said that there had to be a rough equivalence between Government and private debtholders. That is right; there should be that kind of equivalence. We have to be in this together.

A challenge for the Minister is this: are this Government prepared? As a lot of that debt is operated through UK law, it is in our capacity to ensure that that debt, which is factored through the City of London and so on, is managed in a way that says to private debtholders that they have to pay their fair share of debt forgiveness and debt relief, if we are genuinely going to restructure on these issues.

We can make a change. I may not have been able to give hope to the mother of the child I talked about before, as I do not think I would have been so bold as even to say to her that something could be better at that stage of her life. Perhaps I would have said to other people that the world can change, and it can change for the better. Let us ensure that we can do it in this generation. Let us ensure that now is the time.

This has to be a political priority, and I believe my party will take this on board. I hope that in a year’s time or thereabouts we will be sat around having this debate again, and we will be sat on different sides of this little horseshoe. It will be about political will. As I have said to the Minister, the challenge is whether the political will is there from the Prime Minister. Is there the political will to say that the decision to cut the development assistance in the way this nation did took us in the wrong direction? Is the political will there to raise those very powerful points, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East did, about the history of post-colonial Africa?

Even now, we subsidise, for example, Rwanda and Uganda in terms of their education and health service. That is the right thing to do. In turn, however, the armies of those two countries have been part of the exploitation of the mineral wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which of course is then shipped over to the west, where it is paid not at a value-added rate, but at the market rate. Who controls the market? It is not the producers of those rare earth minerals that we take from African soil.

We need to think not simply about debt relief, but about the bigger picture and how we alter the terms and conditions of trade and exploitation, which our system is part of. I do not say that in any sense of whipping myself; I say it rationally, because if we are going to make that change, we have to think about that.

I say to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that I have always been puzzled by the parable of the stewards. I always felt it was little unkind on the perhaps slightly less competent steward with his one talent. I never quite understood why he should be treated so badly, because clearly there was a steward who thought he was doing the best—he buried the talent in the ground, and that talent did not lose any value in that process.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
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I ask the hon. Gentleman to just let me finish. He thought he was being a good steward. What he lacked was the technical awareness that would have allowed him to invest in whatever—perhaps rare earths or, in those days, fine wine for weddings. In that sense, if we are going to face the challenges together, we have to take that stewardship process. Technical assistance matters enormously.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I am not smarter than anyone else, biblically, physically or emotionally. I think the story of the parable is about those who use their talents wisely, and the steward who received five talents used them wisely. The comparison I made was with the economic decisions made by African countries back in 2000. When they did it wisely, their economies grew. Use talents wisely—the five and the two—and the economy will grow. Those who do not use their talents and hide them are not being fair to themselves, their families, or indeed their countries. The point I am trying to make, very gently, is that they could do better.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd
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I agree. Perhaps I should not have picked up on the parable. It is just that I do rail a little bit against the prosperity gospel. It is not my style of Christianity. Compassion is part of what we should be about, and it has to be a part of what we are talking about here today.

I will finish with this. Part of that compassion is that we need to restructure debt and increase trade, but we also need to recognise the capacity to ensure that the steward with the single talent really did need assistance to do the things that the hon. Member for Strangford is talking about, to invest wisely. We need to invest in education and in the technologies that can allow us to challenge climate change in Africa as well as here in the UK, in Europe, in China, and even possibly in the post-Trumpian United States of America—who knows? We have to work together, because in the end this is not about simply asking us all to be kind to each other. It is about a common interest of what kind of world we want to live in. Yes, this is a tremendously important debate we are having today. I hope the Minister will begin to respond in a positive way to the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough and others have raised.

15:17
Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing what I think has been a very thoughtful and surprisingly theological debate, at a very timely moment in the context of the UK Government publishing their new White Paper. That White Paper presents a very welcome change of tone and perspective on issues of global development. I hope that the language of aid being a giant cash machine in the sky is consigned to the past, and that we can focus on moving forward in a much more constructive and consensual tone. I think that that has been reflected in the debate today.

The same is true of the memories of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, which of course had very deep theological roots of its own, given the biblical concept of a jubilee. I might say again at the end that this is a concept that we perhaps need to come back to. Like the hon. Members for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), I worked with very committed campaigners, some of whom are now constituents, who wrote to whoever their MP was back in the day and who continue to write to me all these years later, because they are so passionate and so motivated. It was such an effective campaign in so many different ways. It went from being Jubilee 2000 to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, and it is now known, as we have heard, as Debt Justice. That is part of a wider movement for a fair economy, for corporate justice, and for climate justice.

It is interesting that whenever the word “justice” is used in the White Paper, it is in the technical, juridical sense relating to a country’s justice systems, rather than in the sense of striving for just, equitable and more peaceful solutions to the challenges that face the modern world. As everybody has said, debt is now one of those biggest challenges. Africa’s debt is at its highest level in over a decade. That is frustrating and disappointing, given all the work and effort that went into setting up the mechanisms for Jubilee 2000 and the Make Poverty History campaign. Progress and huge strides were made for a variety of reasons. Some of those were beyond individual control—such as the likes of the pandemic—but some were very much within our control, such as the way in which multilateral organisations have continued to work, avoidable conflict and, of course, the impact of climate change and the need to respond so quickly, leverage finance and look around to wherever that finance can come from.

That has led to a change in the structure and composition of the debt. Previously, the debt was owed to official creditors, high-income countries and multilateral lenders like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but now we see China holding a huge proportion of that debt and private creditors making up an increasingly large proportion, as well. At the moment, the debt is not subject to the kinds of structures that were put in place around the millennium, and the effect of that is that the cost of servicing the debt has also increased, and so developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa paid about $84 billion simply in debt servicing in 2021, with countries in the middle east and north Africa paying a further $45 billion. We have heard the expression “doom loop” on a number of occasions, from a number of Members, because that just builds and compounds and then has all the effects that a number of Members spoke of so powerfully, affecting the infrastructures of the countries.

The hon. Member for Slough and I were both in Malawi this year—I refer to our entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—with the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases. Malawi is one of those 21 African countries we heard about that are in, or at high risk of, debt distress. Its external debt effectively tripled between 2009 and 2021, and we can see the impact of that simply in the country’s inability to get moving; there is a need for infrastructure, and it is simply unable to leverage the resources.

As the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) so powerfully said, we absolutely want countries to be able to realise the true potential of their riches. Africa is not a poor continent, and African countries are not poor; they are rich in resources and human potential, and yet that potential is not properly realised because they are not in a position to properly and fairly leverage that and they are tied to debt, especially unfair debt. As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, there is this idea of super-abundant extraction of resources through punitive interest rates and unfair deals, which simply compounds that cycle. The DRC should be the richest country in the world. Almost every single person in this Chamber walks around with a little piece of the DRC in our pocket, and yet it is one of the poorest countries in the world and, like so many other countries, it is saddled with debt.

We need fair trade, fair taxation, and a just and sustainable use of the continent’s resources. The responses that have been put forward so far clearly are proving to be inadequate. The analysis has shown that different mechanisms, such as the debt service suspension initiative that was set up in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, have not been fully utilised. The countries that applied to that scheme had an average of just 23% of their debts suspended. The remaining mechanism beyond the DSSI announced in 2020—the common framework for debt treatments—is also incredibly slow; only four countries have so far applied, and none of them has effectively seen any of its debt being cancelled.

Crucial to all of this, as we have heard from some of the contributions, is the lack of co-operation from private sector creditors, both blocking the progress of the countries that are applying and discouraging other countries from applying for those relief processes in the first place. Responsibility has to fall to the UK Government for a large part of this. There has to be multilateral initiative, and there have to be easier and fairer ways of accessing, financing and writing off or restructuring debt; but getting to the heart of this issue of how private companies are able to extract and apply debt is absolutely crucial. Even though the UK Government are not a massive creditor these days, some 90% of the bonds issued by countries eligible for these debt reliefs are governed by English law. The Government say in the White Paper that they want to pioneer new approaches to debt, so they should listen carefully to the proposals being put forward.

I was saying to a colleague earlier today that it is unlikely that legislation will come out of the White Paper, as it is really a statement of Government policy, but here we are in Westminster Hall a couple of hours later talking about firm proposals for legislation on the back of it, put forward by the Debt Justice campaign—the hon. Member for Putney spoke about those. They would have a number of practical effects, including easing the debt restructuring process by undermining the ability of minority creditors to hold out on agreements, easing financial settlements for debtor Governments in distress, increasing the speed of restructuring processes, reducing uncertainty for debtor countries and creditors, enabling borrowing Governments to access capital markets more quickly, and addressing the power imbalance between the single debtor country and often a large number of creditors.

It would be interesting and useful to hear the Minister commit at the very least to consult on what such legislation might look like and speak about how it could be taken forward practically. Of course, it would have to be taken forward in parallel, because there would not be much point in the UK legislating if all the debts transfer to another jurisdiction—New York is the other very popular area for binding these kinds of contracts. It would have to be an international initiative.

I wonder whether we need to think in the even longer term. The White Paper is supposed to take us to the sustainable development goals in 2030. The year 2000 was a jubilee year, which is a biblical concept—debts were written off and everybody had a fresh start—and Pope Francis has designated 2025 as a holy year of jubilee for the Catholic Church, but perhaps we need to think in the longer term about where we will be in the middle of the century. Will we continue in this doom loop, or will we seize the opportunity now to make progress towards the sustainable development goals and go beyond them to create a fairer, more just and more equitable system? Tackling pervasive debt absolutely has to be a part of that. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others said—this is in the Debt Justice campaign material—people struggle with huge amounts of debt in the United Kingdom and other western countries. As the hon. Member for Leicester East said, we effectively end up in hock to incredibly powerful companies, and that affects the dignity of countries as a whole and the dignity and power of individuals.

If we do not rise to the challenge, the other goals—everything else in the White Paper and the sustainable development goals—will remain exactly that: goals and targets. They will never actually be realised because the money will continue to spiral and line the pockets of people who already have more than enough at the expense of people who do not even have enough to get by.

That is the challenge before us. This has been an incredibly thoughtful and useful debate, and I hope, in the new spirit of consensus that the Government have set today with the publication of the White Paper, that the Minister and the Labour spokesperson will respond appropriately, and that we can find just and sustainable solutions to the challenge of debt in Africa.

15:28
Lyn Brown Portrait Ms Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab)
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It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Vickers. I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing the debate. His record of standing up for people affected by crises in Africa and around the world speaks for itself—it is absolutely exemplary. He and I agree that working with African countries to address their concerns, challenges and opportunities is very important. As we know, Africa’s potential is massive. It has young, dynamic, talented, fast-growing populations, but African economies are being held back by climate heating, disasters, conflict and debt.

Debt sustainability is a terribly complex issue once we get into the details, but on one level it is very simple: Governments hamstrung by debt burdens cannot meet their people’s needs or aspirations. Currently, uncertainty around debt is driving away investment and undermining many African countries’ economic growth and climate progress. The average debt ratio in sub-Saharan Africa has nearly doubled over the past decade, going from 30% of GDP in 2013 to almost 60% last year. The cost of debt has become far more expensive, and even before recent crises, it was far higher than for higher-income countries.

Many countries are recovering from the economic damage wreaked by covid, climate shocks and conflicts, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so it is not surprising that 20 African countries are either in debt distress or at high risk of it. We have already seen the attempts of four African states to manage huge debts thwarted by the slow and cumbersome common framework process.

Ghana, for example—one of our key partners in Africa—is cut off from international markets while debt negotiations go on and on. Ghana cannot reap the full rewards of its resources and enormous human potential, and we in the UK cannot access the mutual benefits that would flow from its growth. The Bridgetown initiative, the Nairobi declaration and key figures at the International Monetary Fund are calling on us to speed up debt relief talks and make the global debt system fairer and more efficient.

I am pleased to see the Government’s international development White Paper recognise the need to improve global debt processes, but there are obviously huge questions about the Government’s commitment to take the necessary steps if we are actually going to do that. As we know, one of the problems with the common framework is that a small number of private creditors can hold up the entire process by refusing to take part in restructuring, in the hope of securing a higher return than others. We know that many of those private creditors operate under English law, because of the strength of the City of London in global finance. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether her Government have changed their position since May.

Will the Minister review the benefits and risks of legislating to stop creditors from acting in bad faith and holding up negotiations? Does she agree that the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Act 2010 did not have the negative unintended consequences that some feared it would? When the international development White Paper was being developed, why did the Government not see the cross-party consensus behind that Act as a starting point to build on over the coming years? Surely recognising the UK’s history of action and outsized role in private sovereign debt could strengthen our influence and credibility at the G20 and other international fora. It could enable us to work better with the United States, opening up opportunities for co-ordinated reform. It could supplement our efforts to improve multilateral systems and debt transparency.

In her response, I can guess the Minister might talk about the good work being done to roll out climate resilient debt clauses, but does she recognise that those clauses will not be enough on their own? It is not only countries in the grip of an extreme weather event, or a health disaster, that will need fiscal space. In many African countries, the huge swings in global interest rates and commodity prices are equally relevant.

The international development White Paper states that the Government will support suspensions of debt payments while negotiations are ongoing, and, “where relevant”. I would be grateful if the Minister said more about what the Government mean by “where relevant”, and what they are doing about bringing back consensus on debt service repayment suspensions at the G20. Does she agree that suspensions can speed up negotiations, which is surely in all our interests?

The Minister knows that calls have been made for the UK to use our influence at the IMF to produce a definition of unsustainable debt for the common framework. In May, her Government rejected those calls when the International Development Committee recommended action. Perhaps she could say a little about what she is doing to make the definition of unsustainable debt clearer and how she is helping to make progress more predictable.

I know that the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), understands the need for action, from his very welcome comments about vulture funds over the past months. The international development White Paper mentions support for voluntary collective action clauses and majority voting provisions. Does the Minister here today agree that those have not fully solved the problems caused by vulture funds?

When I speak to African ambassadors, Ministers, business leaders and civil society groups, they are clear about what they want from the UK: partnership, not patronage. I heard the same message last week in Kenya. When we talk about our collaboration with African countries, it is not just about development assistance or private investment—as the Minister knows, we would love to see more of both. It is equally about structural reform and smart collaboration with our partners. For example, I know that the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, has recently been working hard on the global food security summit. I gently say that if we did more to unblock the common framework process, that would free up funds for African countries to spend on their food security agendas.

We all recognise the role of humanitarian aid. It saves lives in massive numbers and is absolutely essential, but we know that supporting resilient food systems that prevent hunger and malnutrition would be a far better way to proceed. At very little cost to ourselves, we could take steps to make sure that the processes we influence, such as the global sovereign debt system, really do provide fair benefits to us and to the countries that use them. We recognise that these issues are complex and sometimes genuinely difficult, but none of us wants to undermine the basis for future private bilateral and multilateral investment in African countries. The mutual benefits and the need for such investments are huge. However, we need to seriously consider the argument that greater confidence in comparability of treatment between private and official creditors will not undermine investment; instead, it could enable investment by creating more transparency and certainty.

These debates are technical, but they are also really important for hundreds of millions of people. It took three very long years after Zambia’s default for a debt restructuring even to be agreed in principle. Even worse, the process is far from over. The issue of comparability of treatment between official creditors and bondholders is a core barrier holding Zambia back.

Doing our bit to solve the debt crisis is essential to being a good partner to our friends. It affects the UK’s long-term interests. Let me stick with Zambia for a moment: we are talking about a country that is likely to play a massive role in the global green energy transition through its wealth in copper and other critical minerals. By being a positive partner to Zambia, we can demonstrate the serious offer we have to growing countries across Africa and support progress on security, democracy and human rights in the wider southern and central Africa regions.

We have already seen Zambian leadership on these issues, through their role in election monitoring in Zimbabwe, for example. That is the positive side—opportunities can be seized. However, there is a negative side, too, because the debt crisis is one of the background factors that enables insecurity to grow in many African countries. Where Governments cannot provide services to their populations, people are left alienated and hopeless. We know that insurgencies, coups and armed groups thrive where trust and hope has vanished. By speeding up restructuring processes, we could do something to address the root causes of insecurity in Africa, at little cost to the Treasury.

When it comes to the threats that face us, the biggest is climate heating. Whether Africa makes its green transition in a fair and timely way matters to the UK, as we all live on the same planet, and there is enormous potential to mitigate and adapt to climate change across the continent. However, the funding is not there, and the international development White Paper acknowledges that it cannot all come from international assistance or private sector investment. We have to free up African public funds if climate change is to be tackled in a joined-up, strategic way—the same way we plan to tackle it here in the UK.

The Government’s White Paper acknowledges some of the harms done by our failing global debt system. That is truly welcome, but I hope the Minister agrees that what we need to do now is go beyond acknowledgement and act, because there is no more time for us to lose.

15:40
Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Anne-Marie Trevelyan)
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I apologise for my slightly tardy arrival earlier, Mr Vickers; it is a real pleasure to be here. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing this timely debate, and I pay tribute to his work as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on extreme poverty. This is such an important area, and I am also grateful for the thoughtful contributions from all hon. Members. I will try my best to respond to all the points raised, but I will ensure that officials write if I miss any or do not have the full information at my fingertips.

The Minister for Development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), wanted to be here, but his responsibilities meant that he had to make a statement in the main Chamber on the White Paper today, as colleagues have mentioned, so it is a pleasure for me to respond on his behalf.

I want to pull out a couple of points that the Minister made in that statement. When speaking about the important role that development has played in transforming the lives of billions of people, he said:

“The UK can be immensely proud of our distinct contribution to this incredible success story. Two centuries ago, three quarters of the world lived in extreme poverty. When I was born, around half still did. By 2015, when the world met the millennium development goals, the proportion of a much larger global population had fallen to just 12%.”

Development does work, but as we all see, and as thoughtful contributions from hon. Members today have highlighted, after decades of hard-won, persistent progress, we are now living in a world facing a daunting set of new challenges. We are seeing rising poverty, and the UN sustainable development goals are nearly all off track for 2030. We are all cognisant of the challenges, and this timely debate, which focuses on a potential enabler of successful development if the world can make more progress on these debt issues, is an important one.

As colleagues have set out, debt is a major concern for many developing countries, not least those in Africa. I spend most of my time speaking as the Minister for the Indo-Pacific, and some of the big challenges are also clearly seen there. Recent trends paint a sobering picture. Debt levels in Africa are at their highest since the early 2000s, with debt repayments due in 2024 estimated to be six times greater than they were in 2021. Twenty-one of the continent’s 38 low-income countries are now either in debt distress or at high risk of entering debt distress in the next few years. Low-income countries are also increasingly exposed to a wider range of creditors. For example, Chinese debt accounted for 18% of their external debt in 2020, up from only 2% in 2006.

The debt burden of African countries rose over the decade leading up to the pandemic, and it was stoked significantly by the challenges of covid and the impact of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, disrupting prices for oil, grain and fertiliser. That has led to greater demands for borrowing, rising interest rates and huge pressures on spending and services. According to the UN, between 2019 and 2021, 25 African countries—nearly half the continent—spent more on interest payments than on health.

As colleagues have set out, successive UK Governments, regardless of political colour, have played an important leadership role on international debt over recent decades, from the work done to establish the heavily indebted poor countries initiative in the 1990s to the Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005, for instance. To date, the UK has cancelled £2 billion of debt under these initiatives, and the international community collectively has agreed cancellations worth more than $100 billion. The Government have continued to adapt our approach in recent years in response to the evolving debt pressures on lower-income countries.

When the pandemic hit, we worked rapidly with G20 partners to establish the debt service suspension initiative, which deferred around $13 billion of debt repayments to the G20 and Paris Club. In November 2020, the G20 and Paris Club agreed to a new common framework, as colleagues have noted, to provide debt restructuring and relief to countries that require it. Although two countries—Chad and Zambia, as mentioned by colleagues —have reached restructuring agreements with official bilateral creditors through the new common framework, I think we would all agree that progress has been far too slow.

I will update colleagues on the specifics of UK debt relief; the figures are greater than some quoted by Members. We have provided £1.4 billion through the multilateral debt relief initiative, £150 million through the IMF’s catastrophe containment and relief trust, and roughly £600 million bilaterally as part of the HIPC initiative. So we are leading the way, and we have set out, in a number of areas, our new approach to debt and development in our international development White Paper.

First, we have committed to work with our partners to reshape and reform the debt architecture so that it is fit to address today’s challenges. We will push for the common framework to be more co-ordinated, predictable, transparent—which is important—and timely. We will use the UK’s position on official creditor committees, both within and outside the framework, to help return countries to debt sustainability. We will push more forcefully for the timely conclusion of debt treatments, including debt standstills, where relevant. Importantly, of course, this is a G20 initiative, built on consensus, and delays by some members, such as China, make the pace all the more challenging to achieve.

Secondly, we will ensure that key debt management tools are fit for purpose. That includes, for example, updating the IMF’s debt sustainability frameworks to take account of the impact of climate change—obviously, that is a critical element and many colleagues have highlighted it today—and the investments needed to address it and drive the adaptation and resilience programmes that are needed to support countries.

Thirdly, we will push forward best practice with the private sector, which now accounts for 19% of the foreign debt owed by low-income countries. We will encourage them to introduce contractual innovations, including climate resilient debt clauses, which pause repayments when a shock hits, such as a flood or cyclone. We have pioneered the use of such clauses in our lending agreements, enhancing the ability of developing countries to respond to external shocks. We want to see such clauses rolled out across private and official sector lending. We will encourage the private sector to embrace majority voting provisions in debt contracts to facilitate better outcomes in debt restructurings.

Fourthly, we will support debtor countries. We will continue to champion their voice in fora such as the global sovereign debt roundtable and we will work to find other ways to strengthen their voice. We will also help them to strengthen their debt management capacity with support from our new centre of expertise on public finance and tax.

Finally, we will champion greater debt transparency to build creditor confidence and keep borrowing costs down. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), highlighted that one of the really difficult and continuing challenges is that the risk profile adds yet another layer.

We in the UK are very proud of our record of transparency as a lender. In 2021, we became the first G7 country to publish details of all new Government lending on a quarterly basis, and we have secured a commitment from other G7 countries to do the same. We will continue to work to push transparency further, reporting on our adherence to the G20 guidelines for sustainable financing, and encouraging the private sector and lending and borrowing countries to disclose their debt agreements properly.

Alongside those five steps to address unsustainable debt levels directly, we are working to help countries to avoid debt distress. The UK Government have a strong track record in helping developing countries to collect more tax and manage their public finances. We will encourage Governments, through the responsible infrastructure investment campaign, to demonstrate that all major infrastructure projects are economically viable and have been competitively tendered.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If I have heard her correctly, the Minister has outlined a number of ways forward. Time is of the essence. Many of these countries are in extreme debt. I, along with others, am keen to get a timescale for when those debt decisions could be made and when those countries could move away from where they are. Is that possible? Can the Minister please do that?

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member challenges me on something that I cannot give him an answer to. I will ensure that the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, comes back to him and that that conversation can continue in more detail. I hope that is helpful. I am not the expert in the detail of this so I will ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that the issue is highlighted. To the hon. Member for Strangford’s point, I should say that none of this is immediately resolvable; it is very much around a consensus effort through international partners. However, I will ensure my right hon. Friend gets back to hon. Members accordingly.

As part of our work, we continue to support the debt sustainability challenge by encouraging international financial institutions to scale up their support for the poorest and most vulnerable countries, which are particularly in Africa. We are a leading donor to the multilateral development banks that provide countries with more affordable concessional finance and have announced UK guarantees over the last two years that will unlock more than $2.6 billion in additional finance for African countries.

We have delivered on our commitment to channel a further $5.6 billion of our share of the IMF’s historic issuance of $650 billion of special drawing rights to the IMF’s concessional lending facilities to support vulnerable countries. Perhaps the biggest prize of all is stretching the balance sheets of our MDBs to get more from their existing resources. They could potentially deliver an extra $300 billion to $400 billion over the next decade by implementing the G20 capital adequacy review recommendations. We will continue to push them to do so.

The hon. Member for Slough highlighted the critical challenge that we all face in supporting women and girls, who are so often at the end of the line on funding, education, healthcare and, indeed, tools and investments to help them make the climate adaptation they need in their communities. That is why the international women and girls strategy, which we published earlier in the year, sets out clear commitments with more than £2.5 billion of live official development aid programmes at the moment for women and girls in Africa. The strategy also commits at least 30% of the FCDO’s bilateral aid programmes to focus on gender and equality through to 2030, which is absolutely at the heart of our commitment to the way we want to deliver those development aims.

To conclude, we absolutely recognise the serious challenges that debt poses for countries in Africa. That is why the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, set out in the international development White Paper a wide-ranging and comprehensive approach to address them. I thank colleagues for their thoughtful comments and their cross-party support for the work that my right hon. Friend has set out. By building on progress in the common framework, innovating alongside private creditors and working to encourage debt transparency and sustainable lending, the Government will work to ensure that unmanageable debt is swiftly restructured so that countries can develop sustainably.

15:53
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
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It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, for what has been a thoughtful and emotive debate. I thank all hon. Members for their commendable contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) drew on her enormous experience as a long-standing campaigner who has worked in the field, asking the Government for effective legislation to address the issues. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about how we need to help African countries out of their difficult patch. He spoke about having compassion and realism when restructuring debts, because the United Kingdom must be a supportive nation. The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) spoke at length about the legacy of colonialism and the exploitation of mineral extraction. She said that wealth is not benefiting local people and asked for debt cancellation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who has substantial knowledge and experience in this area, said that the debt crisis is real. In his eloquent way, he said that debt is an enslavement of future generations. He said that the battles against global poverty and other ills are being lost, that we must be a true partner to our African friends and that we must work together.

The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), mentioned our recent visit to Africa, where we looked into the effects of malaria and neglected tropical diseases, and at how the growth of African nations is being hampered. We spoke at length to other stakeholders about that. He spoke about the need for co-operation from private sector creditors that are charging higher interest rates, which the Government need to address.

The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), said that Africa has a young, dynamic population. She said that although the international development White Paper is a welcome sign, our collective plea is that the Government must show commitment and compassion to deliver.

We need to break the downward doom loop of debt in Africa. There is so much potential in Africa, but we must help our friends there—yes, our friends and fellow human beings—to achieve that aim.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of debt in Africa.

15:57
Sitting suspended.

RAAC: St Leonard’s, Durham

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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16:00
Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete at St Leonard’s Catholic School, City of Durham.

I welcome the Minister to his place; I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a great deal of experience at the Department for Education and I look forward to working with him to resolve the situation at St Leonard’s. I note that only a week into his role he has already offered to meet me, and I thank him for that. That is far more than his predecessor offered.

There are four purposes to this debate. The first is to bring the Minister up to speed with the situation; the second is to ensure that there are no delays to building the temporary structures; the third is to deliver justice to the parents and pupils at the school; and the last is to accelerate the promised and much deserved rebuild of St Leonard’s.

First, I will supply a bit of history. In 2010, the then Education Secretary scrapped the Building Schools for the Future programme—something that he later regretted. Although that contrition from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is welcome, let’s face it: he is not the one suffering the consequences of a crumbling school—unlike the parents, pupils and teachers in my constituency, who were shocked when St Leonard’s was ordered to close just days before the autumn term began, due to the presence of RAAC.

Parts of St Leonard’s remain shut, 11 weeks on. That has had a serious impact on the lives of my constituents and the children at the school. I will shortly share some of the comments I have received from parents. This is an extremely important year for pupils in year 11 and the sixth-form students in year 13—a crucial year for GCSEs and A-levels. So far, the Government have offered no dispensation for those pupils, who have had more than 11 weeks of their education disrupted.

Let us not forget that, for those studying design and technology, music, sciences and specialist subjects, the disruptions are ongoing: there are no labs, no music rooms and no workshops available. Instead, pupils are being taught in a noisy sports hall and in classes of up to 60. In addition, Ofqual has told me that it is

“not in a position to agree adaptations”

even though items such as coursework and school books were not retrieved from the old building until 27 October. Full face-to-face learning did not commence until 30 October, with parts of the school remaining shut now. It is clearly nonsense that, on the one hand, pupils would be allowed mitigating circumstances if a fire alarm went off in the school during an exam, but, on the other, they are denied exemptions if their schooling has been disrupted for more than 11 weeks.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
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As my hon. Friend knows, many pupils at St Leonard’s travel from North Durham. I have had representations similar to the ones she has received from parents about the effect on exams. Does she agree that, in spite of that, some of the teachers are doing great work in trying to overcome the difficulties? They are seriously concerned about the effects of the disruption on those children’s exam results next year.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. The staff have been working under such difficult circumstances. They have seen first hand the effect the situation is having on their pupils, who have worked so hard. We should remember that they are pupils who also suffered through the pandemic. We are urging the Minister to do all he can. I implore him to change Ofqual’s refusal to make any mitigations. He could perhaps amend the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, or give a one-off dispensation to the pupils in years 11 and 13—anything to help these pupils and their families.

I must mention a pupil at St Leonard’s, Henry Hague, who bravely questioned the Department for Education officials when they visited the school. Henry asked, “Will our difficulties be recognised for A-level and GCSE results?” The DFE said no. What message is that sending to Henry’s generation? It is that the Government are not prepared to help them and that their departmental officials gloss over this injustice. The King’s Speech stated:

“Steps will be taken to ensure young people have the knowledge and skills to succeed”.

Does that include the nearly 1,500 pupils at St Leonard’s? It does not seem that way.

Eleven weeks on, parents, pupils and teachers are fed up—fed up with the additional costs and the additional stresses that this situation has put them in. I do not blame them; I would feel exactly the same in their position. To add insult to injury, the school has been asking the DFE to intervene for years. It even lobbied the then Schools Minister, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), in 2017, but nothing came of it.

I have read that if the Tory-led Government—and let us not forget the Liberal Democrats, who supported this as well—had kept the Building Schools for the Future programme, every single school with RAAC, including St Leonard’s, would have been rebuilt by this year. I urge the Minister to lobby the Treasury and No. 10 to reintroduce that programme; perhaps the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities can join him.

I now turn to the comments that I have received from parents. Time does not permit me to share everything, but I want to challenge the new Schools Minister. I know that he has only been in the role for a week, but I ask him to please come to Durham and speak to the parents himself, not just to selected groups, and demonstrate to my constituents that he is on their side and will get this mess cleared up as soon as possible. What my constituents and their children are going through is an injustice. There are no other words to describe it. Parents at St Leonard’s appreciated that Baroness Barran visited and told us that money would be no object, but now they feel like they have been abandoned.

Parents are extremely concerned about the mental wellbeing of their children—not only that, but some have said that their child’s mental health is in decline. Let us not forget that there are additional pressures on children with special educational needs and disabilities, and for children who receive free school meals. I am really concerned because they receive only packed lunches at the moment, rather than hot meals.

This has taken a toll on the mental health of the parents, too. Both parents and pupils are worried about catching up due to lost time in the classroom. They are worried about exams and about the future, especially when so many of these pupils already had their educations disrupted by the pandemic. Parents have also told me that they are having to fork out for private tuition for their kids, and, to compound this stress, they are having to organise childcare and rearrange their own work schedules. Other issues, such as transport, are also eating into teaching time as pupils now have to travel to new locations. That is not at all helped by the greedy bosses at Go North East. Perhaps the Minister could have a word with his colleagues at the Department for Transport and encourage them to give bus drivers the pay rise that they deserve.

I must say that the parents, pupils, and teachers—and all the school staff—have amazed me with their resilience. It is privilege to represent them here. If only previous Ministers demonstrated the same fortitude as my constituents. On that note, I turn to ministerial accountability—or the lack of it. We had a statement from the Secretary of State for Education at the beginning of September, but that was the last proactive statement made by the DFE on the subject in this House.

Ministers had to be summoned via urgent questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson). Although we can use named day questions to hold Ministers to account, those are useful only if Departments actually answer them. On issues such as free school meals, I received copy-and-paste replies. On other issues, I never even received a response prior to Prorogation. Responses to my named day questions in the last Session were late, and in this Session one was over a week late. However, I note that the Minister provided a response a few hours ago.

In addition, there was a written statement on school funding in the final week before Prorogation, and again the then Minister had to be summoned to the House via an urgent question. I hope you will agree, Mr Vickers, that this is not a dry procedural issue; it matters to my constituents and their children. In this Session, the DFE and other Departments must up their game and show my constituents the respect they deserve.

I want to finish with some asks. On costs, can we please speed up the process of remunerating the trust? Although I am aware at the Government have paid some of the costs up front, including for Ushaw College, the trust has spent more than £500,000 for critical services, and only £50,000 has been reimbursed so far.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

St Benet’s in Ouston in my constituency of North Durham is affected by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. It is a feeder school for St Leonard’s, and no commitment has yet been given about whether it will be rebuilt. Pupils are already leaving the school, and its budget next year and, ultimately, the feed into St Leonard’s will be affected by that. Does my hon. Friend agree that early decisions need to be made about whether St Benet’s will be rebuilt, and that it should be compensated next year for the fall in pupils?

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I could not agree more. The school and the trust are very concerned that pupil numbers will be low next year for obvious reasons. That is partly due to some pupils wanting to move to other schools and partly because the feeder schools are understandably choosing to go elsewhere. We need some assurance about a timeline for getting things somewhere near back to normal, and about what will happen with the St Benet’s rebuild.

Will the Minister please offer a dispensation for pupils in years 11 and 13? Amend the 2009 Act, make a one-off exemption—anything. I would also appreciate it if he would address support for children on free school meals and the lack of hot food.

Finally, I reiterate my challenge to the new Schools Minister: come to Durham, speak to the parents and pupils of St Leonard’s, and let us sort this mess out together.

16:12
Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Vickers, I think for the first time as I respond to a debate in Westminster Hall—

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The second. I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and congratulate her on securing a debate on this important subject.

The Government are committed to ensuring that every child in the country gets a first-class education and every opportunity to make the very best of their abilities. I understand that parents, schools and this House are concerned about reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, and we are moving decisively to address it while minimising the disruption to education. Before I come to St Leonard’s Catholic School, I want to set out why we are taking this cautious approach to RAAC and how the Government are supporting schools and colleges across England.

Professional advice from technical experts on RAAC has evolved over time, and the managing its risks across all sectors has spanned successive Governments since 1994. Although local authorities, academy trusts and other bodies are directly responsible for school buildings, and we fund them as such, we have taken a direct and proactive approach to RAAC.

We have been talking to schools about the potential risks of RAAC since 2018, when we first published a warning note with the Local Government Association, which asked all responsible bodies to identify any properties constructed using RAAC and to ensure that RAAC properties are regularly inspected by a structural engineer. In February 2021, we issued a guide on identifying it. Concerned that not all responsible bodies were acting quickly enough, in 2022 we decided to take a more direct approach. Last year, we issued a questionnaire to responsible bodies to ask them to identify whether they had or suspected that they had RAAC, and started a significant programme of technical surveys. We have been sending professional surveyors to schools and colleges in England to assess whether RAAC is present. We have eight survey firms contracted to deliver technical surveys to all schools and colleges that have advised us that they suspect they might have RAAC, so that we can rapidly confirm whether it is indeed present.

Although building maintenance is the duty of councils, academy trusts and voluntary-aided school bodies, RAAC cases over the summer reduced the Department for Education’s confidence that school and college buildings with confirmed RAAC should remain in use without mitigations being put in place. Following careful analysis of those cases, we made a precautionary and proactive change. On 31 August, we updated our guidance to schools and colleges so that areas previously deemed to contain non-critical RAAC are now taken out of use until mitigations are put in place. Professional guidance makes it clear that wherever RAAC is found, it needs to be monitored closely. The technical guidance does not say that mitigations need to be put in place in all buildings that contain RAAC.

As of 16 October, responsible bodies had submitted responses to our questionnaire for 99.9% of schools and colleges with blocks built in the target era, and DFE has since resolved the remaining 17. Any required surveys of potential RAAC cases are carried out by one of eight professional survey firms, and the vast majority of schools surveyed to date have been found to have no RAAC. As of 16 October, 214 education settings had confirmed RAAC in some of their buildings. Thanks to the hard work of school and college leaders, 202 settings—94%—are providing full-time face-to-face education for all pupils, while 12 have hybrid arrangements that may involve some remote learning on some days. We are supporting these education settings to put in place mitigation plans, and the majority have now returned to full-time face-to-face education or will do so very shortly.

We will do everything in our power to support schools and colleges in responding to RAAC in their buildings. Every school or college with confirmed RAAC is assigned dedicated support from one of 80 caseworkers. Project delivery teams are onsite to support schools and colleges to implement mitigation plans. They will work with them to put in place a bespoke plan that supports face-to-face education for all pupils as soon as possible, based on their circumstances. There is not a one-size-fits-all mitigation plan, and what is right for a school or college will depend on a number of individual local factors. Mitigation plans include using other spaces on the school site, in nearby schools or elsewhere in the local area until structural works are carried out or temporary buildings are installed.

The Government are funding the emergency work needed to mitigate the presence of RAAC, including installing alternative classroom space where necessary. All reasonable requests for additional help with revenue costs, such as transport to other locations or temporarily renting local premises, are being approved. The Government are funding longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects to address the presence of RAAC in schools. Schools and colleges will be offered either capital grants to fund refurbishment work to permanently remove RAAC, or rebuilding projects where these are needed, including through the school rebuilding programme. The requirements for each school or college will vary depending on the extent of RAAC and the nature and design of the buildings, and we are working closely with responsible bodies to assess what the right solution is in each case.

I recognise the challenges being faced by the staff and pupils at schools that have had to vacate space due to the presence of RAAC, including St Leonard’s Catholic School in the hon. Lady’s constituency. As she will know, a particular challenge for St Leonard’s is the prevalence of RAAC in the school’s buildings, which has resulted in a significant proportion of them being taken out of use while mitigations are put in place. I thank the headteacher and all the staff at St Leonard’s for their hard work in supporting their pupils through this time. I recognise the pressure staff have been under, and I am committed to continuing to work with the school on how we can support it to respond to RAAC and minimise any disruption to education. The Department has been working closely with the school to implement mitigation plans in order to ensure that face-to-face education can continue for all pupils. This has involved structural works to some of the buildings in addition to arranging alternative, offsite accommodation. We have supported the trust in bringing pupils back into face-to-face learning as quickly as possible to lessen the impact on education. All pupils at St Leonard’s, as the hon. Lady said, have been in full-time face-to-face education since October.

Temporary classrooms are being installed on the school’s playing fields. RAAC has impacted on many of the specialist facilities, as she rightly said, including science labs, IT rooms and D&T areas. We continue to explore options for the delivery of those specialist places as soon as possible.

Pupils due to sit exams next year are currently using specialist facilities at other providers in the local area, with transport provided for pupils. We are working closely with the school to identify how all pupils can have access to specialist facilities. We have provided assistance and facilitated sector support to ensure that children at St Leonard’s have not been disadvantaged, prioritising pupils in examination years. Crucially, we are working with the school on extra education support for pupils. That includes sourcing extra teaching capacity at St Leonard’s with an educational support programme that may include tutoring available for pupils this term.

Qualification-awarding organisations have been working and continue to work with schools including St Leonard’s, although they may have specific difficulties in delivering assessments due to specialist classrooms being unavailable for a time. Awarding organisations have discretion to grant extensions to deadlines for non-examination assessment or coursework, based on a school’s specific circumstances, and will offer as much flexibility as they can when considering such steps. I know that St Leonard’s is meeting one of the awarding organisations with which it works tomorrow, and another is hoping to meet St Leonard’s later this week.

As I set out earlier, the Government are funding the emergency work needed to mitigate the presence of RAAC, and all reasonable requests for additional help with revenue costs are being approved. I note what the hon. Lady said about the timeliness of so doing. I will follow up on that, and we will have a chance to discuss it when we meet.

We are supporting St Leonard’s specifically on the funding of temporary classrooms on the school site, we are funding the use of specialist facilities at other providers in the local area, and we will continue to work with St Leonard’s on what further support may be needed.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he not also realise that the trust has a problem because, at the feeder school that I mentioned in my constituency, St Benet’s, pupils are already leaving and next year’s roll is going to go down, so St Leonard’s will have difficulty recruiting students next year? Will any compensation be given to the trust and the individual schools because their rolls have gone down through no fault of their own?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will follow up separately with the right hon. Gentleman about St Benet’s specifically, and we can discuss it further. On overall funding, he will know that there is an established system whereby funding follows the pupil. In the case of St Leonard’s—I was going to come on to this exact point—there is also the prospect of the rebuilding to come, which is a great positive for the school. St Leonard’s is set to be rebuilt as part of our 10-year school rebuilding programme, which, overall, will transform hundreds of schools across England. In the meantime, we will continue to support the school in mitigating the impact of confirmed RAAC.

I am grateful for all the extensive time that the hon. Member for City of Durham has given to this matter, including to this debate. I look forward to meeting her—I believe we will do so next week—to discuss the support for St Leonard’s in more detail. I reassure pupils, parents and staff that the Government are doing whatever it takes to support our schools and colleges in responding to RAAC and minimising the disruption to education. I specifically want to thank the team and staff at St Leonard’s for their hard work in responding to RAAC. The Government have been working and will continue to work closely with affected schools and colleges, including St Leonard’s, to support them, to mitigate affected spaces and to minimise disruption to children’s learning.

Question put and agreed to.

16:25
Sitting suspended.

Autism and Learning Disability Training

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Relevant documents: e-petition 639050, Require education staff to be trained on learning disabilities and autism; e-petition 638530, Mandatory training for teachers to understand ADHD & autism; e-petition 634354, Require Universities to Train Staff on Neurodiversity.]
16:29
Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered autism and learning disability training for education staff.

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I am grateful to have been allocated parliamentary time to discuss the very important issue of autism and learning disability training for education staff. The debate arises in response to three e-petitions: petition 639050, which calls for education staff to be required to have trained in learning disability and autism and which has received over 69,000 signatories; petition 638530, which calls for mandatory training for teachers in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism and which has 1,500 signatories; and petition 634354, which calls for training on neurodiversity for university staff and which has over 16,000 signatories.

I thank everyone who took time to sign the petitions, which clearly relate to issues that are of huge concern to people across the country. I also thank the nearly 3,000 people who contributed to the Commons engagement team survey and gave their views on more education staff training. Some of the stories which they have shared with us have been exceptionally troubling. I am grateful for the time and effort that has gone into communicating those stories, which in some cases involved sharing very painful experiences.

There are around 200,000 autistic pupils in England and nearly 75% of them are in mainstream schools. According to research by the National Autistic Society, only a tiny proportion—just 26%—of autistic pupils feel happy at school. Three in four parents or carers—74%—said that their child’s school place did not fully meet their needs, and more than one in four parents, or 26%, waited over three years to receive support for their child.

Autistic children often speak of feeling misunderstood and of school being a place where there is bullying and loneliness. Such experiences lead to issues with mental wellbeing, sometimes to self-harm, and to a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. The responses to the engagement survey starkly support the claim that autistic children do not always have a positive experience at school. In fact, in cases in which things go badly wrong, autistic children not only miss out on their education, but have experiences that can haunt them throughout their lives—stealing their future prospects, leaving them struggling to get into or stay in the workplace, and driving very distressing health impacts. Those detrimental effects can continue well into adulthood.

Deborah, the mother of one autistic child, said:

“After nine years of experiencing the school system…she removed her son completely and started home education so that they could mend his mental health and school-caused trauma.”

One mother told us of the

“Huge emotional impact”

that had

“led to serious mental health issues and withdrawal from education and society as a whole.”

She stated that her child’s experience had

“led to isolation, complete withdrawal from any form of education and reluctance to interact across all levels of society.”

The National Autistic Society’s education rights helpline has seen a huge spike in calls related to college and university education.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward the debate. All of us have an interest in autism, and I know that others have a personal interest in it, but we are here to support the hon. Lady. Back in 2020, the former Education Minister in Northern Ireland—now Lord Weir in the other place—published an enhanced autism training programme. The hon. Lady referred to universities, and it is important to note that it is not only children who are affected by autism. Does she agree that the same considerations from that report must apply to colleges and universities across the UK, so that older students who suffer from autism have the same support as those in schools? I think the hon. Lady’s answer will be yes, but I am curious about her response.

Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman anticipates correctly and, as ever, makes an important contribution to the debate. That is why we are discussing a petition, which over 16,000 people signed and which calls for university students to be included and for the education to go up as far as university lecturers and other university staff.

Before I go any further, I want to say that this is not a problem with teachers per se. This debate is not about attacking the teaching profession nor is it meant in any way to undermine or criticise teachers and other education professionals. We know that teachers up and down the country do a remarkable and very important job, in many cases in increasingly challenging circumstances. Teachers are passionate about supporting their pupils. They want to give them the very best possible educational experience and the best life chances, but they need the right support to do that. This debate is about ensuring that teachers are given the best tools and advice they need to give autistic and neurodivergent children, children with a learning disability and, in fact, all the students they care for the best possible support and the best possible chance to have a happy, healthy and safe learning environment.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall and bringing together these petitions. Does she agree that we already have a precedent in the Health and Care Act 2022, which finally mandated training for health and social care professionals using the Oliver McGowan training programme? With the Autism Education Trust, we have a potential model that could be strategically rolled out to replicate the approach we are taking in health and social care in all fields of education.

Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is almost as if my right hon. and learned Friend read my mind. I will come on in a bit to talk about the Oliver McGowan training, which I am glad he endorses. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, he speaks with enormous experience and passion on this subject, and I am grateful for his endorsement.

As we have heard, there is already training in this area, which I am sure the Minister will reiterate. However, a report by the National Autistic Society showed that just one in seven—14%—of schoolteachers have received any form of autism training. Rachel, a SEND learning support assistant, said, in her words, that she had

“not really received much training”,

and that when she started, she

“was thrown into the deep end.”

Everything Rachel knows is mainly based on her experience of working with SEN children, not her training, yet the survey responses show that where teaching and support are right, they can have a game-changing and enduring impact on the education and life chances of neurodivergent pupils, in some cases supporting them all the way through university and building them up for their adult lives and careers ahead.

What concerns me deeply, however, is the fact that further research from the National Autistic Society showed that while 87% of teachers surveyed said that they felt confident or very confident supporting autistic pupils in the classroom, findings from a 2021 report showed that seven in 10 autistic children and young people said that school would be better if more teachers understood autism, while 54% of autistic students said that having teachers who did not understand them was the worst thing about school. That is a problem. There is a clear and sizeable gap between how teachers think it is going and how autistic children and children with a learning disability actually feel. It is vital that we bridge that gap. It is simply not fair on either party if we do not. All children deserve to have the very best possible experience in the classroom and the best opportunities to learn and fulfil their potential.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady is making excellent points to which I give my very strong support. Does she recognise the experience of many of my constituents, with young people waiting perhaps two years for an education, health and care plan and a diagnosis? Something that has become obvious to me only recently is that 50% of the young people on the books of child and adolescent mental health services in my part of Cumbria have autism and ADHD. It turns out that through the NHS, via the local integrated care board, there is literally zero funding for that service to support any of those young people, which delays their getting the care and support that they need in the classroom, but also affects all young people—some with neurological issues and some without—who need support for eating disorders, anxiety and so on. Is it not time that the NHS funded CAMHS sufficiently so that young people with neurological issues can get the treatment and diagnosis that they need?

Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. There will not be a single Member of Parliament who has not had some issues with local CAMHS, sadly. Of course, early intervention and recognition is key to this and can stave off many problems that come further down the line. I would not be doing teachers or pupils justice if I did not refer to wider issues surrounding SEND provision and support for autistic children more broadly. We know that there are simply not enough specialist SEND school places or trained professionals to cope with the increased need.

Schools are required under the Equality Act 2010 to make adjustments, but there is only so much they can do with current provision. As we have heard, it takes an inordinate amount of time to secure an EHCP and then for the associated funding to filter through to the educational establishment concerned. Meanwhile, schools are left to pick up the tab and in many cases to pick up the pieces involved in offering incredibly intensive support to children with very complex needs.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which is very fitting and certainly much needed in relation to our schools. Does she agree that this issue is not only important in primary and post-primary education but in nursery and playgroup settings, where it is absolutely vital, because ultimately children affected by these issues need support measures in place as soon as they reach primary school? Nursery and pre-school provision is where the core of this work needs to sit.

Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady must be Mystic Meg. I say that because that issue is exactly what I will come on to next.

Early years settings are a crucial place to start this work; the hon. Lady has hit the nail on the head. Early diagnosis and putting in place the building blocks of support from the outset can have a lifelong impact on a child’s attitude to education settings, and on their interaction and support from those settings; in fact, it can have a lifelong impact on their wellbeing.

If all education and care staff, particularly in early years settings, successfully underwent the right training, children who require extra support and assistance would be identified sooner, which would prevent some of the issues that we have heard about from developing. We heard from a teacher called Helen, who said that during her time in teacher training, which took four years, half a day was spent covering special educational needs. Such training leaves teachers ill-equipped to support a growing percentage of pupils in their classes.

I am sure that the Minister will tell me about the training that is provided. I expect that he will also tell me that the Government have published their strategy on special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision improvement—not that I am trying to interpret his speech for him—and about all the increased investment in SEND, which is over £10.5 billion by 2024-25, and the universal services programme, which will receive £12 million in funding, and that £1.4 million is available for the strategic priorities grant to support students at risk of discontinuing higher education studies. Those numbers have very little meaning to those caught in the cyclone of the system if they do not filter through to create meaningful improvements on the ground. I will therefore set out what I would like to know from the brilliant Minister.

What assessment has the Minister’s Department made of the full picture of both learning disability training and autism training for education professionals? What level of understanding does he have about training—not only the quantity of training, but the quality of training? What conversations has he had with some of the excellent charities in this space and with the teachers, parents and children who actually live these things and therefore are experts by experience? To what level can he confidently tell me that all education professionals have the confidence to teach neurodivergent children and children with learning disabilities, so that their needs are met and their potential is realised? To what extent is the experience of students and their carers taken into consideration?

Mr Vickers, you have already heard about what I am about to say next. During my time as Minister of State for care, in the Department of Health and Social Care, I started work on introducing the Oliver McGowan mandatory training for all health and social care staff. That became law in the Health and Care Act 2022, and it is now the Government’s preferred and recommended training for health and social care staff.

The training is named after Oliver McGowan. Oliver was a remarkable young man whose tragic and completely avoidable death, at the age of just 17, shone a light on the need for health and social care staff to have better skills, better knowledge and better understanding of the needs of autistic people. It came about because of a meeting I had with Paula McGowan, Oliver’s incredible mum, who courageously shared her family’s unimaginable experiences with me and who has been a relentless advocate for the change that needed to happen. It is an honour to have Paula here today after she travelled all the way from Australia just to attend this debate.

Since November 2022, when the initial roll-out of the Oliver McGowan training began, over 1 million people have completed the first part. The training has received significant international interest in Canada, Australia and the Republic of Ireland, and as a result it has been made available on an e-learning platform. The initial feedback is incredibly exciting and shows a significant increase in participants’ knowledge, confidence and skill, with 88% of participants saying that they felt confident they could communicate with people with a learning disability and with autistic people, and with 84% of participants saying they felt more confident in their work.

The most significant thing about the training is that it is co-delivered with trainers who are autistic or learning disabled, and they are paid for their time. They are experts by experience and are able to give health and care professionals first-hand insight into how to listen, how to act and how to get this right.

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I thank her for highlighting the wonderful training that is being rolled out. I wanted to bring to the attention of the House, through my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, some work that we were doing with Caudwell Children and its national children’s centre, and to highlight their hope that they can augment some of the work that is being undertaken in the UK to provide timely diagnosis and holistic assessment for children with autistic spectrum disorder. I put on record our thanks to Trudi Beswick for leading that wonderful centre and taking that work forward.

Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

First of all, I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend on this side of the House. She does a brilliant job as the chair of the APPG for disability, and I am very grateful to her for taking the time to make that commendation.

I will conclude very quickly. Following the success of the Oliver McGowan mandatory training, Paula has started a petition for all staff in educational settings to have similar mandatory training on learning disabilities and autism. As I said, that training needs to start with professionals in early years settings and go all the way through to colleges and universities: teachers, lecturers and education staff must know how to adapt to their environment, how to listen to what young people are saying, how to understand, how to manage a sensory overload and crisis and how to adapt communication to meet individual needs. George, a teacher, said:

“Training is often focused on the symptoms rather than the sensory issues and the understanding behind it. Whilst dealing with symptomatic behaviour is important it can be difficult to understand some causes.”

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the point about sensory overload, demands and anxiety, does my hon. Friend agree that, with the discrepancy between what kids see and what teachers feel they are doing, part of the challenge is in fully understanding what an autistic child or adult actually sees and has to deal with? Does she agree that that is quite difficult and that it requires significant time to fully understand the major challenges that lots of these kids go through and often succeed in pushing through, despite the challenges they face?

Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is an excellent point. It is worth pointing out that sometimes the behaviours that autistic children in particular can demonstrate can be very different. Autistic boys in the classroom behave very differently from autistic girls who might just sit at the back very quietly, mirroring others’ behaviour, while struggling inside and not having the support that they need. That point is really important.

Finally, has the Minister’s Department considered the brilliant Oliver McGowan model of mandatory training? What assessments has the Minister made for how that would benefit education professionals? By making the training mandatory, as it is for health and care staff, no teacher will miss out, which means that every child has an equal opportunity to gain support.

I ask the Minister to reflect on the stories that I have shared today and on those that we heard from other Members. While his Department is no doubt bolstering financial support, I ask him to consider the positive impact that mandatory training will have on the education of professionals and students. The success in health and care has been immediate and game changing, and I know that it has similar potential for children and young people’s education.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
- Hansard -

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I received prior notice that two Members wanted to speak in this debate. I will call the Front Benchers from 5.7 pm, if Members would bear that in mind.

16:48
Barbara Keeley Portrait Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very pleased to speak in this important debate with you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on securing the debate and on the way in which she opened it.

I would like to pay tribute to Paula McGowan for her persistence in campaigning for this debate, for all her work to get the original debate that we held on this issue in 2018 and for all the campaigning work she has done since then. Paula has campaigned to secure around 70,000 signatures on the petition, so it is very good that we can discuss the Oliver McGowan mandatory training programme again. Her work has been instrumental in raising awareness of how we treat autistic people and people with learning disabilities in our health and care services. I pay tribute to her for that work.

In the debate which Paula helped to secure five years ago, I called for the Government to treat the introduction of mandatory training as an urgent priority. The Oliver McGowan mandatory training on learning disability and autism programme has now been delivered to around 750,000 healthcare staff—I think the hon. Lady said it was more than that, but that is the figure I have—and 200 people with a learning disability or autism have been trained to deliver parts of the programme. As we have heard, that is a very important part of it. Those are significant steps forward, but there is much more still to do.

Oliver’s case illustrates the degree to which people with learning disabilities or autism do not get the healthcare treatment they should expect from a civilised, compassionate society. Oliver was a young man with a full life expectancy who had overcome many challenges to excel as a footballer, as an athlete and in his exams. He was let down repeatedly because clinicians simply did not understand the nature of his autism. With better awareness and care adjustments, his death could have been avoided.

The petition on mandatory training that we are discussing recognises the role of teachers and schools in offering support to children and young people with a learning disability or autism. The rolling out of training on learning disabilities and autism is likely to significantly benefit the raising of awareness of learning disabilities and autism in the education sector.

The Government’s response to the petition states that headteachers should

“use their professional judgement to identify any further training”

for teachers. But the roll out of further training for education staff is clearly needed. Research by the National Autistic Society showed that 86% of secondary school teachers had received just half a day’s training on autism, and that three in four parents or carers of autistic children feel that their child’s school does not meet their needs.

One of my constituents—the parent of a boy aged nearly five who is showing traits of autism—told me about the struggle to get him support. She was told that he is “too naughty”, and he is limited to two hours of school a day. She said that her child

“is treated so differently, and he is more aware of it now. This makes him want to act out, as he thinks it’s what is expected of him. He cries every day when he has to leave so many hours earlier than the other children. I think this is another reason he acts out, because every day he knows he will only get a couple of hours of play with everything. He is overstimulated, and his behaviour is a lot worse during that time. If he had time to settle down, and a proper routine at school, he would be calmer and his behaviour would be a lot better, as it is at home. I worry that if he doesn’t receive the support he needs now, school may be a lot more difficult for him in the long run.”

Mandatory training on learning disabilities and autism for education staff could help to improve the situation for children and young people, as it undoubtably has been doing for health and care staff since it was rolled out.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

One of the challenges for autistic kids seems to be that many people they interact with in the school system have not received the training that the hon. Lady has been talking about, and they are being treated in a behavioural context. Does she agree that we should persuade teachers, or people who interact with kids, that the reason why these children act in the way they do is nothing to do with behaviour?

Barbara Keeley Portrait Barbara Keeley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is very much like the case I have just given: the parent of that five-year-old boy is told that he is “too naughty” to have more than two hours of school a day, and that is absolutely disgraceful. It is not a behavioural problem if it is autism.

Education, health and care plans are another important source of support. As we have heard, there are 200,000 school-age autistic pupils in England, but just 55% have an education, health and care plan. The Government’s investment plan for children with special educational needs and disabilities claims that this is a priority area, but the National Autistic Society said there is “little substance” in the Government’s plan for reducing waits for a child’s education, health and care plan.

Concerningly, there have also been reports that the Government have signed a deal with a consultancy aiming to reduce targets for education, health and care plans by 20% for 55 local authorities, as part of a delivering better value in SEND programme. The consultancy firm was tasked with reducing cost pressures on local authorities by targeting a 20% reduction in the number of new education, health and care plans issued. It is painfully ironic that the design of this so-called value-for-money programme seems to have to cost the Government nearly £20 million in consultancy fees to Newton Europe. It is also painful to understand that the Government see education, health and care plans as cost pressures to be managed down, and not as vital documents that set out the education provision that children with significant needs must receive by law.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Lady for making such a valid point and for being so generous in giving way. It seems to me that even if we did not put an extra penny of funding into supporting young people with autism spectrum disorders—although we should—if we spent the money more intelligently and more fairly, we would do more good. We have a situation in which schools that do the right thing and accept young people with autism, and indeed other learning difficulties, are funded only once they get past the £7,000 threshold. Schools that do the right thing are having to spend out of their own coffers to support children, whereas schools that somehow dodge the bullet, so to speak, end up being financially rewarded. Is it not wiser that we spend money to support the schools that actually support the children?

Barbara Keeley Portrait Barbara Keeley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Indeed. Local authorities must be supported to fulfil their statutory duties to children and young people, just as schools and colleges, as a continuation, must access the training necessary to become genuinely inclusive. That is what we want to see.

As an MP, I raise many cases of parents and carers of children who have or are seeking a diagnosis of autism and are being failed by the schools they attend, yet it is such a fight to get an education, health and care plan for them. One of my constituents is the parent of a girl with complex special educational needs and disabilities who had to battle with the local authority to get an education, health and care plan for her daughter. My constituent told me about the battle she has had, saying that her daughter

“only has access to large mainstream secondary schools which is unacceptable for a child with such complex needs. I have provided all evidence, co-operated fully and repeated and repeated medical evidence and wrote lengthy information. They have all the information and now I am going to mediation and appeal. This process has taken over a year. I am exhausted. This is not good for anyone. I am not being heard and I am fighting to safeguard my daughter. I have a child with complex additional needs. My time, care and attention should be only focused on her but again I have to prepare now for mediation.”

I supported my constituent to get the plan for her daughter, but it took a long time and she ended up missing the first six months of secondary school.

It is crucial that we have better support for autistic pupils and pupils with learning disabilities. The Oliver McGowan mandatory training programme and education, health and care plans are both important elements in that respect. The Government must do more to ensure that autistic people and people with learning disabilities can receive the education they need, and that they are able to live long and independent lives in the community. Sadly, for far too many people that is a distant dream.

16:07
Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on leading this petitions debate. I put on the record my congratulations to the Minister, this being is my first opportunity to do so.

I thank the 171 members of the public from Darlington who signed the petition that led to today’s debate. Every single week in my surgery, it is almost guaranteed that at least one family will come to see me with concerns related to neurodiverse conditions. It could be that they are awaiting an assessment or there are difficulties with the relationship with the school, or it could be that there are challenges with accessing medications. Each and every one of those families is trying to do the best for their children, and seemingly having to battle for the best for their children.

The day after I was elected, I was stopped in the street by three mothers in Darlington town centre. One of them asked me what I was going to do to help their families with autistic children. I must confess to having known very little about autism at that time, so I resolved to find out more and do all I could to support them. That learning continues, and only last week I was pleased to attend the understanding autism training for parliamentarians organised by the National Autistic Society.

I established the Darlington autism forum for parents of autistic children, and have organised multiple roundtable meetings with our local mental health trust and parents. I have visited Daisy Chain, a local charity that provides help and support to families who face these challenges, as well as places such as the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre in Redcar, which is operated by the North East Autism Society, to see the amazing work that they do with children.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing with families in his constituency. Does he agree that standing up for families who have autistic or neurodiverse kids—amazing kids they are supporting—can be really challenging? The parents are often judged by others on how they are handling very difficult situations, and they themselves need significant support.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We in this place are sent here to stand up for our constituents. In my view, there could be nobody more important than those families facing the battles of looking after an autistic child.

As a constituency MP, I have visited almost every school in Darlington; I have two left to go. My visits almost always involve a discussion about children with special educational needs and autism. It is clear that there are growing numbers in every single one of our schools, putting pressure on the staff, some of whom are not necessarily specialists in the conditions. I must single out Red Hall School in Darlington, which secured funding to expand and provide a social, emotional and mental health specialist centre called Strive. Red Hall and others are doing fantastic work in Darlington.

I was disappointed to learn through written parliamentary questions that the Department for Education holds no national records of the training that teachers undertake on the relevant conditions. I welcome the Government’s recent announcement of additional funding, particularly for the new 40-place school in Darlington, which will deliver special educational needs places. However, my primary concern is for the pupils who are already in our mainstream schools and the support that they need.

The assessment backlog is frankly a scandal, with families sometimes having to wait up to three years to be seen. I acknowledge that there is a range of help and support available while they are awaiting assessment, but getting children into the right school place, with the necessary specialists, is part of the solution. Staff need to be properly trained. The key has to be clearing the backlog of assessments. Today’s important debate provides an opportunity to put on the record my support for improved and expanded training on neurodiverse conditions for our hard-working teachers. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

17:01
Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on securing this important debate.

I have a personal interest in this subject. Many years ago, as a reasonably experienced further education lecturer, I was faced with a young man who was severely autistic, and I did not know what to do. Things have changed a bit since those days. Like the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), I have undertaken autism training. It is important that we get an awareness of autism into the general public as well as schools. It was difficult to listen to some of the stories told by the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), because we all know that it happens, although none of us want it to happen anywhere.

In their recent programme for government, the Scottish Government have outlined their commitment to work with teachers to provide additional professional learning opportunities while seeking to build on the additional support for learning plan. I was a member of the Education Committee when I first came here, and I often think that it is easier to make big changes in a small country such as Scotland, with one main type of school—local authority schools—than it is to make them in England, which has many varieties of schools and a number of local authorities involved.

The Scottish Government are proud—as am I—of their investment in education. It is important that every pupil gets the best education possible for them. That is why in Scotland there is a national neurodevelopment specification for children and young people. It is based on the Scottish Government’s “Getting it right for every child”—GIRFEC—approach, which I have talked about in this place before. It is important that the same kind of education is given across the piece. The neurodevelopment specification makes it clear that support should be in place to meet the child or young person’s requirements when they need it, rather than depending on a formal diagnosis. That is particularly important. Parents often know what is best for their child, no matter which part of the United Kingdom they live in.

The Scottish Government’s additional support for learning legislation clearly places education authorities under duties to identify, provide for and review the support needs of their pupils. In 2021, the Scottish Government published the Autism in Schools action plan, and the majority of its actions are complete. Several of the actions, such as the funding of professional learning resources like the autism toolbox, are intended to be ongoing, to reflect best practice and current research in the area. The Scottish Government have outlined their commitment to work with teachers to provide additional professional learning opportunities while seeking to build on the additional support plan for learning.

It is really important that autistic pupils and those with other learning difficulties are treated equitably with others in their class. It is also important that not just teachers are involved in training when it comes to autism. In Scotland, a pupil support staff working group listens to pupil support workers in schools, who are often the staff who deal the most with autistic children. It is important that they have the training as well.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is about not just teaching support but dinner and food providers, janitors and other staff? Everybody who interacts with a child at a school should be able to deal with whatever part of the spectrum the child is on.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Raising autism awareness is so important across the spectrum, but especially in a school, where there should be a nurturing and welcoming environment for all pupils. The teaching standards in Scotland are set by the General Teaching Council, which requires teachers to be able to identify and respond appropriately to pupils with difficulties in or barriers to learning. In 2021, professional standards included a specific recognition of additional support needs, which is really important. Teachers cannot now be registered without that.

I referred earlier to my experience, which was really difficult, because I was presented with a young autistic man who was accompanied by a care worker, and I had no idea what to do. Things have changed in the intervening years. One thing worth mentioning is that the other students in my class really benefited after a year of this young man being with them. They became much more aware and supportive of him. It is important that all autistic children are allowed in the mainstream, where appropriate. Mainstream pupils and students learn as much as the autistic person.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the point of different children in mainstream education and how to deal with autistic children, along with the challenges that many autistic children face, they also have a huge opportunity, through the many aspects of neurodiversity that provide them with the ability to excel. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is critical to stress the positives as well as the challenges they face?

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes. I find it strange to be so much in agreement with a Member from the Government side, but in this instance I am absolutely in agreement. I was in a school on Friday talking to fifth and sixth-year pupils. At the very end, a young lady came up and said, “I am autistic and want to know what you are going to do about this. Do you know about this particular society?” I had never heard of it, but I took that on board. I felt real pride and pleasure in the fact that she was able to use her autism as a way to approach her MP and was very proud of the fact that she was autistic. She knew more about the subject than I did—[Interruption.] Mr Vickers, I acknowledge your hand signal; I am going to wind up my speech.

It is really important that money is spent in schools to good effect, which is why I am proud that Scotland spends more per pupil than anywhere else in the UK. The Government need to look at training for teachers in England—that is what this debate is about—and support workers. Perhaps they should look at what they can learn from the Scottish example.

17:10
Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on securing this important debate, and I thank everybody who has signed petitions to push this issue forward.

I welcome Paula McGowan to Parliament today, and I thank her for all the work she has done in the name of her son, Oliver, to campaign for better training for staff in the NHS and social care who work with autistic people and people with learning disabilities. Oliver’s Campaign has made so much progress, and the way Paula has turned her unimaginable pain into action on behalf of other families is inspirational.

I thank all Members who have spoken in this very consensual debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) drew on her great experience and her long commitment to improving the lives of autistic people and people with learning disabilities. She highlighted clearly some of the concerns about current Government policy, expressed in the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan—in particular, the explicit objective of reducing the number of EHCPs.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) spoke about the important work he is doing to support his constituents. He also spoke about the backlog of assessments, which is an issue in many parts of the country, and the lack of support for such children in mainstream schools.

The need for better training for education staff working with children and young people who are autistic or have a learning disability is clear. The presentation of children with autism doubled between 2015-16 and 2022-23, and the number of children with an education, health and care plan more than doubled for autistic children and was up by more than a third for other SEND diagnoses in the same period.

When my oldest daughter was in primary school, she had a friend I will call Paul. Paul was autistic and high functioning: he could do really well at school if his social and emotional needs were properly met. What I witnessed over the seven years of Paul’s primary school journey was the extremely high extent to which his whole experience at school was determined by his teacher’s understanding of his social and emotional needs. In a school year when the teacher understood that Paul would become extremely anxious if there was a change in routine or if things had not been properly explained to him and took steps to avoid that happening, Paul flourished at school. But in a school year when the teacher did not understand Paul’s needs as an autistic person and treated him simply as a badly behaved child, his mum could be called to the school multiple times in the same week to collect him early. He became more and more anxious about going to school, and the whole year became a disaster.

Many schools and colleges work really hard to ensure their staff are well equipped to work with children and young people who are autistic or have a learning disability, and there is a lot of really good practice. I pay tribute to the incredibly dedicated workforce that provides specialist support to children and young people with autism and learning disabilities, and helps to make school a place where they feel safe and understood. In the absence of leadership and resources from the Government, parents all too often face a postcode lottery.

Paul’s story is being repeated in education settings across the country, and that is borne out in the persistent absence figures. Persistent absence from school is shockingly high across the board at present—22.5% of children missed 10% or more days of school in 2021-22—but it is significantly higher for autistic children, at 32%, and even higher for children with a SEND statement or EHCP, at 36.9%. That is a shocking and completely unacceptable situation. Day to day, it means that thousands of pupils are not having their needs met by mainstream schools, but that is little wonder given that the teacher training and continuous professional development curriculum has not developed to keep pace with the rising presentation of autism and SEND needs. We are simply not equipping teachers to meet the needs of every child in their classrooms. Although some teacher training courses offer the opportunity for students to develop further skills for working with pupils with SEND and autism, this is not consistent, and it is entirely possible to qualify as a teacher and start work in a school with only the most cursory knowledge, which is not supplemented or reinforced by further training or CPD.

Schools across the country are struggling to recruit special educational needs co-ordinators and SEND teachers, and there is a national shortage of educational psychologists working in the state sector. We cannot debate the need for autism and learning disability training for education staff without mentioning the wider context of the system of SEND support, which is almost completely broken. Parents across the country have to battle for the support their children need, and the resourcing pressures on local authorities are causing councils to refuse to fund EHCPs and forcing parents to go to tribunal, where 96% of them win.

The neglect of the SEND system over the past 13 years has been a shocking failure of successive Conservative-led Governments. A Labour Government would act to address the problems. Equipping education staff to understand and meet the needs of autistic children and children with learning disabilities is an essential step towards building an inclusive mainstream.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am interested in hearing what the Labour party would do were it in government. Could the hon. Lady outline what it would do differently to tackle the challenges of recruitment that the sector faces?

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am just about to move on to exactly that. We would ensure that more children can have their needs met and be part of a school community close to where they live. Labour would use the funding from ending the tax breaks currently enjoyed by private schools to recruit 6,500 new teachers, including SEND specialists, thereby alleviating the current pressures on teaching staff and ensuring that teachers have time for the pupils in their classrooms. We would introduce a teacher training entitlement—an annual entitlement to CPD that could be used to increase expertise in autism and SEND. We would ensure that there is mental health support in every school across the country, and we would change the wider context in which schools are setting their priorities by reforming the Ofsted inspection framework to make inclusion part of our vision for what it means to be a good school. Inclusion would be part of the report card for schools, which, under Labour, would replace the single-word Ofsted judgment.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not. I need to finish so that the Minister can come in and there is time for the hon. Member for Gosport to wind up afterwards.

We want to see an increased focus on SEND within initial teacher training and the early career framework, and we will work with leading academic institutions, Teach First and others to ensure that all trainee teachers are routinely equipped to work with children with autism and special educational needs and disabilities. Establishing an inclusive mainstream where as many children as possible can thrive is the first step in reforming the system of SEND support, which has become broken and adversarial on the Government’s watch. A Labour Government will deliver the support that is so urgently needed.

The hon. Member for Darlington mentioned the recruitment and retention crisis. We recruit and retain staff in any part of the public sector when we work from the centre of Government to make their working environment tolerable and to relieve the day-to-day pressures they are under. The measures I have outlined today—there is more to talk about—will start the work of repairing this part of our public services, which is so important and so vital for some of the most vulnerable children, but also for some of the most special and talented children across our country.

17:18
David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for securing a debate on such an important subject. She has played an instrumental role in mandating learning disability and autism training across the health and care sector, and in rolling out the Oliver McGowan mandatory training. I know that my colleague the Secretary of State for Education, who championed that as a Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care, is an equally strong advocate for the training.

I thank Oliver’s family for their tireless dedication to this issue. They went through what no family should have to go through, and I share their passion for ensuring that dedicated and hardworking professionals have the knowledge, skills and expertise to provide the right support and try to ensure that no family experiences the same. I hope I might get the opportunity to meet Paula in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport predicted some—not all—of my answers to her questions on the picture of learning disability and autism training for education professionals. Teachers in schools focus on SEND at each stage of their training. To be recommended by an accredited provider for qualified teacher status, trainees must demonstrate that they meet the teacher standards at the appropriate level. Both the initial teacher training core content framework and the early career framework outline what trainee and new teachers should learn, including content on adaptive teaching for students with special educational needs.

The universal services programme, which my hon. Friend touched on, provides SEND-specific training for the school and college workforce. So far, 6,600 school and college staff have accessed free online training modules, and 81 schools and 135 colleges have identified and led their own SEND-focused school improvement projects. Since the programme was launched in 2022, over 100,000 education professionals have undertaken autism awareness training through the Autism Education Trust’s “train the trainer” model. My hon. Friend may not know this, but the largest take-up of the programme’s range of online units has been within her own local authority of Hampshire. I assume that is in part due to her advocacy on this issue.

Our SEND and alternative provision practitioner standards, which will focus on supporting frontline practitioners in mainstream settings, will include a practitioner standard on autism. We will publish the first three practitioner standards by the end of 2025. Regarding the Department’s understanding of not only the quantity of training, but the quality, in the summer Ofsted carried out full inspections on all six lead providers of the early career framework that I referred to. All got a positive Ofsted judgment, with four of the six being awarded an “outstanding” judgment. Surveys from the universal services programme have consistently highlighted the positive impact of it, with 2,300 participants surveyed three to six months later finding that 98% had an improved confidence in identifying and meeting needs. Perhaps even more importantly, 93% had reported making changes to their practice as a result of accessing the activities.

I was asked about conversations I have personally had with teachers, parents and some of the excellent charities in this area. I have had a wide range of conversations as a constituency MP, because I visit a school in my own area pretty much every week. The issue of parents in Oxfordshire not getting the support they should for their children with special educational needs has been one of the top two issues I have been written to about in the last 18 months, so I had lots of conversations with parents, teachers and charities before I got to this role. In this role, I have made a number of visits around the country and had lots of meetings with different charities on this issue. The voice of parents has been incredibly important in elevating the status of this issue, more so even than the voice of schools or Government or local authorities. It is parents who very articulately describe what feels like a war of attrition to try to get the support they need for their children. It is a war that any parent would wage but no parent should have to.

On the confidence of professionals to teach neurodivergent children and children with learning disabilities so that their needs are met, our school and college panel survey indicated that just over half of schools agreed that they were able to effectively support pupils with special educational needs. The February 2023 parent, pupil and learner survey found that about 60% of all parents were confident in the school being able to meet their child’s needs.

My hon. Friend touched on the fact that the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism reported that 87% of teachers surveyed felt confident supporting autistic children in the classroom. That is a very high figure, but I accept that, as she said, teachers’ confidence may not always reflect the experiences of children and their families. We are exploring opportunities to build teacher expertise by reviewing the initial teacher training framework and the early career framework, which we will conclude by the end of this year. In early 2024, we intend to publish what more we will do to support trainees and early career teachers to be more confident and have the most up-to-date evidence that should inform their practice.

SENCOs play a vital role in setting the direction of their schools and co-ordinating the support required by children with special educational needs. We want to invest in their training. That is why we have developed the new national professional qualification for SENCOs, which will come into force in autumn next year. We hope that will play a key role in improving outcomes for children with special educational needs in schools. We have also committed to funding 7,000 early years staff to gain an accredited level 3 SENCO qualification because, as we all know, the earlier we can identify need the better. That programme for the early years workforce has been hugely popular with the sector.

Turning to the point made by the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), we are not targeting a 20% reduction in EHCPs or the growth of EHCPs. We have no target of that nature whatever. We want children to get the support they need at an early enough stage and without them needing an EHCP to get that support. I refer the hon. Lady to my letter to the Education Committee for further clarification.

Barbara Keeley Portrait Barbara Keeley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not sure I have time because I need to stop at 5.28 pm, but I am happy to write to her.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on all his work, which includes setting up a forum for the families of those with autism. That is typical of his work as a local champion. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), he brought the voice of families to this debate, which is the most important voice when we are discussing these issues.

More broadly, the Department for Education has worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a refreshed cross-Government autism strategy, which was published in 2021 and backed by more than £74 million. This year the Department of Health and Social Care has allocated £4.2 million to improve services for autistic children and young people, including assessment services through the autism in schools programme.

There is a lot happening as part of the £2.6 billion special educational needs and AP reform programme. Of course there is more to do. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport for bringing us this debate and all of those professionals and parents who are working so hard to support children with these conditions. I look forward to working with Members present on how we can ensure that these children get the support they need at an early enough stage.

17:28
Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is very kind of you to call me to say a few words at the end, Mr Vickers. I am grateful to the Minister for his response. It is clear that he cares passionately about this. He set out a few details that will go some way to offering an element of reassurance.

This debate was not about knocking the Government or scoring any cheap party political points, and it certainly was not about undermining our education professionals. I know the Minister cares deeply about this and that education staff up and down the country care passionately about getting this right, but they need the right support, tools and knowledge to do that.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel to provide that. The Oliver McGowan training is already there and making a difference. It trains all health and care staff. We heard earlier of the importance of ensuring that it is not just those who are high up the academic food chain who receive the training. In health and care, it is based on how likely someone is to interact with patients, not their seniority. That is the same with children and young people. I draw the Minister’s attention to that disparity between how teachers think it is going and how children and their parents think it is going.

There is so much at stake for our young people: their education, wellbeing and futures. The Oliver McGowan training was one of the most important things I was involved in when I was a Minister. I encourage the Minister to meet Paula to talk about this further because it is an outstanding model.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered autism and learning disability training for education staff.

17:30
Sitting adjourned.