Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered pupils with allergies in schools.
I sincerely thank hon. Members for making time for this afternoon’s debate. I am ever mindful that the reason why people are here is that they want to be here. The House has risen—even the Adjournment debate is over—and those of us here today are here with a purpose, which is to put forward our request.
We are very pleased to see family members of allergy sufferers in the Public Gallery, and we are here to fight for them. I thank them for the books they have made available to us. I read Helen’s story about her wee boy in today’s paper. I know that she sent the story of her child to all MPs and explained why this debate is so important.
May I say what a pleasure it is to see the Minister in his place? I do not believe I have had the opportunity to address him in his current capacity, even though I am a regular in Westminster Hall. I am really pleased, as always, to see my good friends the shadow Ministers from Labour and the SNP in their places, and other colleagues who have made an effort to be here.
What are we doing today? We are raising the important issue of allergies in our local schools. I am the Member for Strangford in Northern Ireland, where education and health are devolved, but I will make a case for Helen, her family and her wee boy Benedict. The debate is important not just for those of us present, but for people across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Food allergy affects around 7% to 8% of children worldwide, or about two children in an average-sized classroom of 25, which gives a perspective on what the impact can be. It highlights the sheer volume of young people and parents on whom allergies impact. It is so important that we address this issue in the right way. I understand that the Minister has a copy of my contribution and the four requests at the end of it—the four requests that Helen and others in the Public Gallery have also made.
I am the DUP’s health spokesperson, and I am grateful to be able to make the case on behalf of all representatives and those who could not attend but wish to be here. Our schools are safe places for our children—somewhere to grow and learn—which is the way we want it and the way it should be. If we want that to be the case in our schools, we need to make sure that it is safe for that to happen. Children spend at least 20% of their waking hours in school, and further data shows that 18% of food allergy reactions, and approximately 25% of first-time anaphylactic reactions, occur at school. Collectively, we are asking for action on behalf of parents who have lost loved ones and those who are concerned for the future, because the figures highlight the need for better strategies to tackle allergies in schools. Anaphylaxis due to food allergy occurs more in schools than in any other setting. The very nature of schools is that they are places where kids socialise, chat and eat food. Schools are our focus for this debate, and it is important that we get things right.
Around 30% of allergic reactions in schools occur in children previously not known to have a food allergy. With that being the case, we really need this debate to highlight the issue. There is no doubt that we all have some experience of allergies and intolerances—there is probably not a family that does not—and maybe some Members in this Chamber have an intolerance. One of my sons had some allergies when he was smaller. The lady I was speaking to before the start of this debate was talking about airborne allergies and how this triggers asthma. My second son had asthma; he was born with it. We were told that although he had psoriasis when he was first born, when the psoriasis left him the asthma would come—there was a combination. I am not medically qualified to say that; it is what the nurses and doctors told me. We were always very cautious about the things he ate, and ensured that anti-allergen tablets were taken.
One of my staff members has a son who has a severe allergy to egg whites. That is another example. He has spent numerous nights in hospital over the last 20 years of his life, and his mother has had to be especially vigilant when he has been offered certain vaccines because the vaccines themselves can complicate the issue. We are able, over the years, to build an understanding of how to cope with these allergies, but for younger children, who are being exposed to new foods and new surroundings, it is not always that easy, especially in schools.
Every debate I do, I learn something; I have clearly learned today that there are probably airborne allergens in this room at this moment and, if we have an allergy, we could react to one of those. However, what is responsible for my being here today and for making this debate happen is the story of Benedict Blythe and engaging with his mother, Helen. I understand that she sent an email to every MP. I got it, and the issue caught my attention, as it did for other hon. Members here today and those who unfortunately cannot be here but wish that they could be. Helen is utterly fantastic and a devoted voice for this cause. It was her energy, commitment and dedication that ensured that we all found out about this issue.
Benedict, Helen’s son, was allergic to milk, eggs, nuts, sesame, soya, chickpeas and kiwi. He also had asthma. In 2021, he collapsed at school and died in hospital. I am ever mindful that Helen has fought this campaign through the Benedict Blythe Foundation. She wants every school to have an allergies policy and tailored healthcare plans for all pupils with allergies, so if I could ask for just one thing at the end of this debate, on behalf of Helen and others, that would be the request. The Minister already knows what my requests are, and I am very confident that he will be interested and dedicated and committed to making those changes.
The relevant petition garnered some 13,000 signatures, so it is not a small petition by any means. It galvanised the opinion of many across this great United Kingdom, and that is also part of the story. If people have not heard the story, or read the story in the paper today, I encourage them to do so, please.
I know that Helen has raised the case of her son, Benedict, with many Members across this House, and not just that—there are thousands of people across the United Kingdom, including me and my constituents in Strangford in Northern Ireland, who support her wholeheartedly in doing this. I will just give some background to Benedict’s story, if I may.
This debate is taking place on the eve of the second anniversary of Benedict Blythe’s death. Benedict was only five years old at the time. He was a lovely young boy with so much to live for. The Benedict Blythe Learning Foundation was established in 2021 in memory of five-year-old Benedict following his collapse at school and subsequent death from anaphylaxis. He was an enthusiastic learner—as children are at that age. Children are almost like a sponge because they want to learn it all and they want to learn it right now. And that was what Benedict did. He loved to “play numbers” and learn about the natural world. Inspired by his passion for knowledge, exploration and play, the Benedict Blythe Foundation seeks to support other children to have the same positive relationship with learning and education, regardless of their ability, and to remove barriers to education. If young Benedict had survived, he could well have gone on to become an MP in this House, such was his interest in making things change and making things happen.
Benedict was allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, sesame and chickpeas. Helen and her husband, Pete, are still waiting for the inquest to shed light on how and why their son died, but they say the horrifying speed with which he became ill—I understand that there is an inquest to be heard—demonstrates the need for pupils with allergies to be better protected at school. That is one of the requests of this debate.
Helen and her husband, all of us here and all those in the Gallery today are calling for new legislation to make that happen, including mandatory allergy and anaphylaxis training, statutory allergy policies, individual healthcare plans for all children with allergies and spare adrenalin pens in every school. We have many requests, but that is our core request. That would allow children with allergies to have a fantastic experience of school and enjoy all the fun of learning and social interaction with their friends, despite their allergies. It is about having a normal life and yet, at the same time, having an agreement to deal with the problems of allergies.
There is a need for schools to be better prepared to manage the increasing number of children with allergies entering a classroom. In September 2017, the UK Department for Education published guidance on the use of adrenalin auto-injectors in schools. It states that from 1 October 2017 schools may purchase AAI devices without a prescription for emergency use in children who are at risk of anaphylaxis. Schools may administer their spare AAIs to children in emergencies but only to a pupil at risk of anaphylaxis, where both medical authorisation and written parental consent for use of the spare AAI has been approved.
To parallel the UK’s guidance, Northern Ireland’s version issued by the local Department of Education back home, updated in October 2018, essentially reflects the DFE document. In Northern Ireland, while schools are expected to develop policies to support pupils with medical needs, including allergies, and review them regularly, there is no statutory requirement for them to do so. It is a guideline that schools will follow. Today, we are trying to underline the need for legislation that can make that compulsory. While everyone says, “Yes, we will do that,” we need to make sure there is enforcement to do that. That is not about being critical of anybody and it is not about pointing the finger; we are just saying, “Let’s get it right.”
I can speak for the schools in my constituency that go above and beyond to cater for pupils with medical needs. The extent of the allergies that children have can vary, but ensuring that teachers are aware of the correct protocol, no matter how severe the allergy, is the core of the solution. Support for children with allergies can vary significantly across the country. Examples of best practice exist and include some in my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland where schools find ways to be inclusive and keep children safe.
Whenever a mum or dad leaves a child in school, they are fairly confident that their child is safe. We need to make sure that the child is safe. That often depends on teachers going above and beyond that guidance. For every instance of good practice, there are many cases of severe allergic reactions and, unfortunately, sometimes death. The lack of universal standardisation of school allergy policies is a concern given that around a quarter of allergic reactions to food in children occur at school, some of which result in fatalities from anaphylaxis.
I am conscious of time so I will briefly make some comparisons. There are international jurisdictions that have schemes in place that could provide us as a collective with inspiration. I mention some, such as Canada and Sabrina’s law, the first of its kind ever, which requires Canadian public schools to create and execute anaphylaxis plans to reduce allergen exposure and communicate with parents, students and staff about allergies. It is about getting the communication thing right. That has to be done so that everyone understands, and people know what to look out for and what to stop the children from taking. It also requires allergy and AAI training for educators and for individual plans to be created for high-risk students. US states such as Colorado, Michigan and Ohio have laws to ensure students have access to AAIs and that schools keep adequate stocks. Again, that is precautionary but it is important that it is done. Schools must also have individual health plans in place to keep students safe.
The Benedict Blythe Foundation has already achieved some important milestones. Just last week, on 23 November 2023, the foundation launched a schools allergy code, co-created by parents, educators, clinicians, the Benedict Blythe Foundation, the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association and The Allergy Team. The foundation is to the fore in leading on that, and we congratulate it. The code is a guide to best practice in achieving a whole-school approach to allergy safety and inclusion. If you wanted a guide or legislative framework, hang it on this, because it will make the difference. It has been made available as a free resource to all schools to ensure good allergy management in their settings, and it is based around four key principles.
First, take a whole-school approach. Every member of the school community should understand allergy and their responsibility for reducing risk, from pupils and parents to staff members. Allergy management is not just the responsibility of the catering and medical teams; it is everybody’s responsibility. I know the Minister understands that and will respond to that point when he speaks. Secondly, information about the school’s approach to allergy must be communicated and given to people clearly and frequently. Thirdly, there must be clear governance and risk management—create an awareness of allergy risk across all activities and processes. Fourthly, be ready to respond. Have systems, processes and medication in place for emergencies.
Earlier this year, the foundation launched a petition, which as I said has garnered some 13,000 signatures. It called for the current voluntary guidance to be replaced by a funded, mandatory requirement for all schools. The petition has four asks—the Minister has access to them, and I am hoping that others have as well. They are that we need to have an allergy policy in place; to co-create an individual healthcare plan for all pupils with allergy and anaphylaxis; to hold spare adrenaline auto-injector pens in schools; and to train school staff and teachers in allergy awareness and allergy first aid.
The wonderful thing about the request I am making today is that it will not cost the earth. The Minister knows the figure, because I have mentioned it already. To be fair, he already knew it; he did not need me to tell him. As a gentle reminder, the steps would cost less than £5 million per year to implement in England. That is a modest sum to save a life. It would ensure that current best practice is implemented nationally, making a significant difference to keeping children safe while providing peace of mind for parents, who send their children off to school and have every intention and hope of seeing them at the end of the day. What we have here is value for money in these trying financial times.
As Members may be aware, I have worked very closely with the Oliver King Foundation to campaign for public access to defibrillators, especially in schools. I always put it on the record if somebody does something right, so I am grateful that the Government took forward my recommendations. I am no better than anybody else—far from it—but the Bill that I presented on this issue was taken up by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris). Along with Ministers with responsibility for health and education at that time, she encouraged me to take this on board. The Minister here today and the Minister who preceded him made sure that defibrillators were available in schools and took steps to fund that.
Once again I make a plea to the Government, and it is about a cause similar to the one they endorsed before, which undoubtedly saved lives. We can stop severe illness and death from allergies among young people in schools if we have the correct provisions in place. I do not care who does it, as long as somebody does it. I am not worried about whether it is a ten-minute rule Bill that I introduce or somebody else introduces. Just do the job—that is the most important thing—and take the credit.
As I always state, there is an understanding that education is devolved and that it is not the sole responsibility of the Education Secretary to introduce law in Northern Ireland, but I believe we can—indeed, we must—initiate a joint approach to ensuring that the whole of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a strategy in place to protect young people with allergies.
Dr Adam Fox, professor of paediatric allergy at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital—not too far from here—has stated:
“There is a clear need for a change in culture around how food allergies are managed in schools. The UK”—
“lags behind other countries and children are suffering and even dying as a result. By really educating the whole school community about food allergy we can turn things around.”
That is my request to the Minister in this debate. It is a request that all of us, including those in the Gallery, will make collectively, and we look forward to a positive response from the Minister.