House of Lords

Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Thursday 22 February 2024
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Durham.

Schools: Gender-questioning Children

Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Asked by
Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley
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To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they are planning to issue further guidance to ensure that schools support gender-questioning children.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, following calls from schools, teachers and parents to support schools and colleges in relation to children who are questioning their gender, on 19 December 2023 we published draft guidance for consultation. The consultation will close on 12 March. Relationships, sex and health education statutory guidance is also under review, and we will launch a consultation shortly. As part of this, we are looking to strengthen the guidance to schools on how to teach this sensitive topic.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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I thank the Minister for her reply and the department for the clear guidance on working with gender-questioning children. Parents really were so relieved to hear that they should be fully involved if their own children decide they want to change gender, and it is so useful to have clarity that schools should not automatically socially transition pupils and that teachers and children should not be compelled to use opposite-sex pronouns. However, does the Minister find it troubling that, since publication, a variety of lobby groups and commercial providers are targeting school SLTs, advising them to ignore and even resist the guidance? Can the Minister assure us that the DfE will counter misinformation circulated by the likes of Mermaids, Just Like Us, Stonewall, The Key and even trade unions that wrongfully alleges the guidance is in breach of equality law, discriminatory and transphobic? Will she condemn attempts to scare teaching staff by suggesting that following the guidance puts them at risk of action by regulators and litigators?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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Schools are expected to consider all the guidance from the department, and this is no exception: we would expect them to follow the final published guidance. As the noble Baroness says, the anecdotes we hear are that the guidance is already having an impact on parents, who feel able to ask schools to account for their decisions. Once the guidance is published, if individuals are worried, they should talk to their school about it. I looked at some of the campaigns being run and some of the templates that charities have published. Personally, I share the noble Baroness’s concern that they are quite oppositional in tone and are pitting parents against schools, which the guidance explicitly tries to avoid.

Baroness Burt of Solihull Portrait Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD)
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My Lords, my understanding is that the existing review is still out for consultation, so the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, might be jumping the gun a bit by asking whether the Government plan a further review. All her concerns are, of course, noted. While we are waiting, I ask the Minister: were children and young people consulted in the creation of the guidelines that are out for consultation now?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The department typically works through a range of stakeholder groups, including those that represent the voice of children. There have been direct conversations with children on these issues.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, does the Minister agree that schools must strongly discourage school-age children from taking any steps towards gender transition until their late 20s, by which time the decision-making part of their brain—the prefrontal cortex—will be fully developed?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The guidance is very clear that each case should be taken individually. The safety and well-being of children must always be our primary concern, which is why that is at the heart of the guidance. Some of the medical steps to which the noble Baroness refers are implicit in that safety and well-being focus.

Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross (Lab)
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My Lords, Labour welcomes the consultation on the guidance. It is clear that schools want greater clarity on how to approach what is, as the Minister said, often a sensitive and difficult issue. As someone who has two honorary nieces who are trans, I find that the tone of the debate often ignores the fact that this is about individuals and how we treat them. It is hard to ignore the fact that transphobia was an aggravating factor in the horrific murder of Brianna Ghey. I am confident from her response so far that the Minister agrees, but can she confirm that the guidance will ensure that dignity and respect are at its heart?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The noble Baroness will have seen from the guidance the principles that underpin it. It is absolutely clear that schools and colleges should be respectful and tolerant places where bullying is never tolerated.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan (CB)
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My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the need of parents to safeguard and guide their children, as provided for in instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, will be preserved, and that compliance with the guidance should be made statutory? Finally, can she assure the House that the operation of and compliance with the guidance will be subject to Ofsted inspection?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The noble Baroness raises a number of points. Schools already have very clear statutory duties in relation to safeguarding. Although, going back to the initial Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, this is non-statutory guidance, all our non-statutory guidance seeks to support schools in their statutory obligations, where the safety and well-being of the child are paramount.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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My Lords, will the Minister join me in condemning Mermaids’ practice of going into primary school reception classes and suggesting to four year-olds—including my own granddaughter, in a rural Suffolk primary school—that if they wish to, they can change their gender at any stage? This is inappropriate for four year-olds.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I absolutely agree with my noble friend. Again, the guidance is clear that schools should not agree to support any degree of social transition for a primary school child unless it is explicitly required to safeguard and promote their welfare.

Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab)
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My Lords, I commend the approach of my noble friend on the Front Bench, and I have some sympathy with the Government. In 2000, when we issued the first ever Sex and Relationship Education Guidance, it caused all kinds of division. I hope the Minister agrees—and this applies to politics more broadly— that we must try to come to a consensus and find agreement, rather than following the terrible current trend of looking at what divides us.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I agree entirely with the noble Lord.

Earl of Leicester Portrait The Earl of Leicester (Con)
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My Lords, following on from the observation of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, does my noble friend agree that for 90% of children suffering from gender dysphoria, it passes once they mature, and that maturation comes in their very early 20s?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The honest answer to my noble friend is that there is still insufficient evidence to make such a definitive statement. My right honourable friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, in her letter to the Women and Equalities Select Committee, wrote that

“studies have found a link between gender non-conformity in childhood and someone later coming out as gay”,

and certainly that

“A young person and their family may notice that they are gender non-conforming earlier than they are aware of their developing sexual orientation. If gender non-conformity is misinterpreted as evidence of being transgender … the child may not have had a chance to identify, come to terms with or explore a same-sex orientation”.

Lord Reid of Cardowan Portrait Lord Reid of Cardowan (Lab)
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My Lords, if, as the Minister has accepted and as has been expounded by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, a forceful lobbying campaign by groups is anticipated, why have the Government decided to make this guidance non-statutory? Surely, if the Government anticipate widespread resistance to it, at least from these lobbying groups, the answer would be to make the guidance statutory.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I understand the noble Lord’s point, but our expectation is that schools, as I said in my response to the noble Baroness, will comply with the guidance. The guidance is very clear, so parents and teachers can take confidence. Obviously, the point of the consultation is to give all parties a voice, but we will make sure that our statutory safeguarding guidance is completely aligned with this non-statutory guidance.


Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Asked by
Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in restoring peatlands, and by what date they expect all degraded peatlands to be restored.

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Douglas-Miller) (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interests in farming and land management, as set out in the register, and draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that I have been involved in numerous peatland restoration projects. The Government have made good progress in restoring our peatlands; we have accelerated the rate of peatland restoration in England through the Nature for Climate Fund, launched in 2020. Through this fund, we have so far provided £35 million for peatland restoration projects, financially committing us to restoring approximately 27,000 hectares of peatland. This represents significant progress against our ambitious commitment, made in the net-zero strategy, to restore 280,000 hectares of peatland by 2050.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. We all know that well-managed peatlands can sequester carbon and mitigate flood risks, but about 80% of UK peatlands are in a degraded condition, and we are still selling it for horticultural use. Can the Minister go a little further and tell the House when the threshold of 35,000 hectares, which the Government committed to restore by 2025, will be restored—he already mentioned 27,000—and what the plan is for the remaining 245,000 hectares they committed to restore through the net-zero strategy by 2050?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising the important issue of peatland restoration. We are making good progress to deliver the commitments to restore the 35,000 hectares of peatlands by 2025. She alluded to the fact that we are aiming for about 27,000 at the moment. It is fair to say that we are slightly behind the target, but also that there have been some good reasons for that—namely the pandemic, which slowed everybody up, but also that it is quite difficult to plan and organise these things. They tend to be back-loaded rather than front-loaded in their completion. Since making that commitment, restoration activity has been delivered through our agri-environment schemes, and most significantly through the Nature for Climate Fund, as I said. This fund has already financially committed the Government to restoring the 27,000 hectares of peatland, and 11,000 hectares of that have already been delivered. We are also fully committed to restoring the 240,000 hectares of remaining peatland by 2050.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, given the role that peatlands play in flood defences, as the noble Baroness said, will the Minister pay tribute to all those involved in the Slowing the Flow pilot scheme in Pickering? Will he ensure that more private sector funding, either from water companies or others, can also be factored in to speed up the programme to which he refers?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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My noble friend makes a very good point on the involvement of private companies. It is one of the Government’s aims to involve them more and get a bigger response from them shortly.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom Portrait Lord Hamilton of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I have raised this with my noble friend before. Wildfires are one of the greatest dangers to our peatlands. They get very much worse when heather is allowed to grow out and become hard and woody. Then, during a drought you can have a fire that lasts for six weeks with endless fire engines being deployed and the peat still burning underneath, as happened on Saddleworth Moor. Does he not recognise that this is one of the greatest dangers to our peatlands?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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My noble friend makes another very good point on the use of a range of different measures for protecting our uplands from wildfire. We have in our armoury, if you like, the ability to cut heather, and we still allow people to burn heather in certain areas and, in particular, to use that as a defence against wildfire.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab)
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My Lords, my noble friend Lady Ritchie referred to the use of peat in horticulture. Will the Minister remind the House what the Government have done and what they will do in the future to reduce to zero the use of peat in horticulture, both domestically and commercially?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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My Lords, we need to give the horticultural industry some time to adapt. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government are committed to banning peat in horticulture. The reason we have not got there yet is primarily down to parliamentary time. I hope that we will be able to address that issue very shortly.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)
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My Lords, 95% of respondents to the Government’s 2022 consultation supported a legal ban on retail sales. Retailers, including B&Q, Tesco, the Co-op, the Royal Horticultural Society and Dobbies, have ended the sale of peat in bags of growing media. The horticultural industry requires clarity. When will it get it?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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As I said in answer to the previous question, the Government are committed to this ban, and it will be in place by 2030.

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Portrait Baroness Taylor of Stevenage (Lab)
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My Lords, over the past few years, we have seen a shocking rise in wildfires, many of which destroy peatlands. With the El Niño effect, we are expecting even more this summer. What are the Government doing to prevent wildfires to avoid further destruction of our precious peatlands?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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My Lords, the Government are committed to a range of activities to prevent wildfire. I discussed two of those just now: cutting heather and burning heather. We also have the fire service on standby and are in constant communication with the fire service across the country to address wildfire issues.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, peat has been an important domestic fuel in the Highlands for centuries. Is the Minister aware that bags of peat are still freely available in Scottish shops to burn on open fires? This seems inconsistent with our other policy objectives with regard to the conservation of peat.

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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The noble Lord makes a very good point. I am sure that he is aware that peatland matters in Scotland are a devolved issue. I understand that, for historic reasons, there is an inclination towards peat. I hope, as I am sure he does, that it is on the decline.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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Is the Minister aware that it takes millennia for peat bogs to form? Do the Government have any idea of the ratio between the so-called restored peat bogs and those that are still being disrupted?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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I am entirely aware of the amount of time it takes to create peat. I spent a great deal of time doing peatland restoration work.

Lord Patel Portrait Lord Patel (CB)
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My Lords, the Science and Technology Committee, which I chaired at the time, produced a report on nature-based solutions to climate change. One of the things it recommended, because of confusion related to both woodland and peatland codes, was that the Government should have a strategy for land use. Subsequently, an ad hoc committee of the House of Lords recommended that a land use commission should be set up. The Government were resistant to both these recommendations of two independent House of Lords committees. Can the Minister suggest what the Government intend to do about a land use strategy?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. The Government have every intention of publishing their land use strategy shortly.

Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab)
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My Lords, I did not intend to intervene but in view of the answers I am bound to ask the Minister whether, in a consensual and non-divisive way, he would mind approaching the Duke of Rutland to ask him not to continue burn-off in the south Pennines, which is clearly damaging not just the peat bogs but the general environment, including the atmosphere in my city of Sheffield?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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I am not aware of the specific details that the noble Lord has raised. I commit to finding out about them. Perhaps I can drop him a letter on that subject.

Lord Vaux of Harrowden Portrait Lord Vaux of Harrowden (CB)
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My Lords, planting conifers on deep peat is probably one of the biggest reasons for peat’s degradation; I think about 20% of peat degradation is caused by that. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no more planting of conifers on deep peat and that, where it has happened in the past, when those trees are felled they will not be replaced?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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The noble Lord is absolutely right on his statistics and the danger that conifers pose to peat. I do not have the details available here now, but I commit to write to him on that subject.

Lord Harris of Haringey Portrait Lord Harris of Haringey (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister said that one of mitigations is that the fire service would be on standby. I have always thought that the nature of the fire service is that it is always on standby. What assessment have the Government done in the light of my noble friend’s Question to ensure that the fire service resources are going to be adequate, given the increasing likelihood of wildfires of various sorts, the El Niño effect and, of course, climate change?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for his interesting question. The Government have taken a number of initiatives in preventing wildfire, and that is the start point from which we work. We are in communication with the fire service on a permanent basis relating to this. Obviously, when the risk is elevated, we are in constant communication with it to make sure that it is available for that activity.

NHS: Dementia Commission Report

Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Asked by
Baroness Wheeler Portrait Baroness Wheeler
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what actions they are taking in response to the NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission’s Dementia Commission: 2023 Report.

Lord Markham Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Care (Lord Markham) (Con) (Con)
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We welcome the Dementia Commission: 2023 Report and are taking steps to address each of the recommendations. The Government remain committed to improving dementia diagnosis rates and providing high-quality care and support following a diagnosis. The Government have committed to double funding for dementia research to £160 million per year by the end of 2024-25. We welcome all research that will help us to improve how we diagnose and care for people with living with dementia.

Baroness Wheeler Portrait Baroness Wheeler (Lab)
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My Lords, the commission’s wide-ranging and comprehensive report is very welcome, but it heavily reinforces the urgent need for radical change in the way we diagnose, treat and care for dementia patients and support their families and carers. To ensure timely, speeded-up diagnosis, the training of primary care practitioners in dementia-specific symptoms and diagnostic methods is crucial. What steps are the Government taking to strengthen general practice and community pharmacy in this regard so that individuals with dementia can receive appropriate care and support as early as possible?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham
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I thank the noble Baroness for this Question. As ever, I have found that one of the real strengths of being in this position is that the questioning here makes me explore an area. This has been another area which I have enjoyed and found fascinating. Early detection is absolutely key, and what I have been learning from that is that, yes, we need to arm primary care staff and a potentially vital front line in terms of primary care staff are opticians, because retinal scans are a really good way to early diagnose. Apparently, people more than ever will have a frequent eye check. I have pulled together a panel to understand this more, and I invite the noble Baroness and others so that we can look at the latest research and really understand this more.

Baroness Manzoor Portrait Baroness Manzoor (Con)
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My Lords, I welcome the additional sums of money that the Government are putting into this service, which is very important, but, as the Minister will be aware, and as he indicated in his response to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, around 36% of those with this condition are undiagnosed, and that rises to around 50% in some authorities. The Minister will be aware that some exciting new drugs are coming on to the market that help to delay the onset of this terrible condition. What are the Government doing to raise awareness so that there is early diagnosis and those with the condition can access those services much sooner?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend, who is absolutely right. This is where things such as the Barbara Windsor Dementia Mission have been successful in raising awareness, as she states. The challenge in all this, as I have learned, is that because it is such a slow-moving disease it is difficult to see how it progresses. Apparently, it has one of the lowest failure rates in terms of drugs because it is really hard to monitor the progress behind it. That is why work is being done, such as retina scans, where you can measure data objectively. There is real hope in all this, and it means that we need to make all primary care workers aware of the situation.

Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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My Lords, the commission recommends the creation of dynamic care records for dementia patients and their carers. We know from experience that information projects such as this work best when they have a clear owner who wakes up every morning worrying about delivering them. Who in the NHS owns the delivery of dynamic care records for dementia patients? If that person turns out not to exist when he goes to look for them, would he consider appointing someone?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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Yes, that is a very good point. For me, as I have looked into this, the reason for assembling the panel that we can all interrogate is that we have the value of different noble Lords in this House who can add those points to it. What the noble Lord said sounds sensible. The honest answer is that I do not know whether there is such a person today, but let us use this as an opportunity to find out, because I think there should be.

Lord Patel Portrait Lord Patel (CB)
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My Lords, there are several important points in development that should allow us to better manage people with dementia. The first is early diagnosis, as has been mentioned, but we need greater input into research in developing biomarkers that detect early development of the disease. Having done so, we then need drugs that will be effective in early phases of the disease—so-called disease-modifying treatments. Some of those have recently been given accelerated approval in the United States and Japan, but they are very expensive drugs. As we discussed last week, one of the drugs for small-cell lung cancer failed at the final endpoint, so we have to be guarded. For instance, the drug lecanemab, which has been approved, would use up half the pharmaceutical costs of all the 27 countries of Europe. These two things are important, and I hope that the forum that is developing will address those issues of research.

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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As ever, my colleague the noble Lord is correct. The blood biomarkers are central to this. We have set up the NIHR biomarker challenge to try to understand those, and my understanding is that a Swedish blood test is quite promising. NICE is bound to approve the two early-stage drugs that the noble Lord mentioned over the summer, in July and September, but then we need to look at scale-up issues. Often, we are talking about having to deliver them through drips, which means a whole workforce scale-up. So there are a lot of issues around this that the noble Lord rightly brings up, and I hope the panel can discuss them further.

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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My Lords, I would like to ask the Minister about the role of music therapy in helping dementia patients. It is well known that when someone listens to music, sometimes it takes them back to a place and time immediately. There has been research on the role of music therapy. I quickly skim-read the report but did not see music therapy mentioned in any way or in detail. If I am wrong, perhaps the Minister can correct me, but could he also tell me about the role that music therapy can play?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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My noble friend is correct; I did not see reference in my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy’s report to music therapy either. I am familiar with some of the principles behind it. My personal experience myself with the elderly dementia patient that I cared for was that bringing my five year-old son along took them out of their position and made them care for that child and forget about their own situation. Those sorts of therapies—and music is similar—have a vital role that we will look into further as part of this plan.

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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My Lords, the Alzheimer’s Society has a good report out called Dementia: What Every Commissioner Needs to Know, about Alzheimer’s care. What is the Government’s view on ensuring that ICBs across the country have a minimum standard of commissioning levels for people with dementia?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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We have set out a dementia good care planning guide to exactly those commissioners because, as ever, we need uniformity in these areas. Part of the strength of ICBs is that they have freedom to deliver local services, but we have to make sure that they are always achieving at least the minimum levels that the noble Lord referred to. That is what the guidelines are about, and we are setting monitoring against that to make sure that they are delivering on it.

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait Baroness Watkins of Tavistock (CB)
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My Lords, I have two questions. First, I understand that NICE will review rather than approve the drugs in question. Secondly, it appears that they extend life but that the end of life is still very similar, so what do the Government intend to do to ensure that carers have sufficient respite and that there is a standard ratio of Admiral nurses to support families, certainly for the next decade until science gives us the answer?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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The noble Baroness is correct that the science is unfortunately not there yet. That is why we are investing £160 million a year in research, because more needs to be done. In the meantime, and I suspect for ever, we will need to make sure that support networks are around this space, and the voluntary care sector, for want of a better phrase, is a vital part of that. We are making moves towards it; we are giving respite care and making some payments. I freely admit that there is more we could be doing in this space, but we have done quite a bit as well.

Baroness Seccombe Portrait Baroness Seccombe (Con)
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My Lords, my husband, having had two strokes, was part of a project called OPTIMA, so he left his brain to that project. When the report was sent to me, OPTIMA assured me that my husband had had vascular dementia, not Alzheimer’s.

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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Again, everything that can add to our knowledge has to be a good thing.

Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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My Lords, with an ageing population it is inevitable that this illness is going to increase in prevalence across the population. Do the Government have any intention of building into their strategy for caring for dementia the support, perhaps in the workplace, that might be needed, particularly for older women, who tend to be predominantly carers, maybe via insurance in the workplace for respite and for carer’s leave, in order to ensure that this is not such a strain on both the families and the public purse?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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There is recognition in all these things that the workplace has a role here. I have looked at treatments and outcomes in the G7 countries, and Japan is often a good example of having care in the workplace, as my noble friend is aware. As so often, it is about making people realise that this is everyone’s problem to deal with. I will do more work to understand what we are doing to arm employers for that, and I will come back to my noble friend.

Ministry of Defence: Diversity, Equality and Inclusion

Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Asked by
Lord Bellingham Portrait Lord Bellingham
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the Ministry of Defence’s policies on diversity, equality and inclusion.

Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving Army reservist. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has ordered a review of all equality, diversity and inclusivity policies to ensure that all those who are willing and able to serve our nation can do so freely in an environment that is welcoming to all, with no policy distracting from or hindering defence’s priority of defending our nation and being able to fight our enemies in a more dangerous age.

Lord Bellingham Portrait Lord Bellingham (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Has he seen the Army Race Action Plan and the Army’s policy guidance on inclusive behaviour? Does it make sense, at a time of unprecedented overstretch and undermanning, for the military to have 250 full-time diversity officers? Surely, they should be redeployed out of these non-jobs to the front line. Can he also confirm that demands by the Army’s race plan to dumb down Remembrance Sunday by removing the Christianity element will be firmly rejected?

If the people who author these reports—I hope that they will be called in by the Secretary of State and informed that their naivety is doing great damage—want to learn about diversity, they should go to the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill, which commemorate the tens of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom. They came from every race, creed, colour and religion.

Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for the question. He is absolutely right. From trailblazers such as Walter Tull to the Rajputana Rifles, the Gurkhas, Commonwealth personnel and our British Overseas Territory regiments, the British Army has a long and proud history of diversity and inclusivity.

On my noble friend’s specific question about full-time staff, the figure I have is that it is closer to 40 than 240. They do important work improving the experiences of service personnel by driving changes to uniform, body armour, health policies and, more broadly, by tackling unacceptable behaviour.

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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My Lords, the truth of the matter is that ethnic minorities are woefully underrepresented in our Armed Forces. I find it difficult not to conclude that this recent confected outrage, catalysed by a conveniently leaked document from the MoD seen only by the Sunday Telegraph, created a welcome opportunity for another declaration against wokery—a war against wokery. We should not allow this to distract us in the context of the welcome review of policy relating to diversity, equality and inclusion. We should concentrate on the inclusivity part of this strongly and try to solve the problem of the underrepresentation, and not concentrate on sending out messages to voters.

Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the key element here is inclusivity. We are striving to do better in every aspect of our leadership, which includes reflecting the diverse nation we serve. This is not about wokefulness but about reflecting the ethnic, religious and cognitive diversity of our nation.

Baroness Goldie Portrait Baroness Goldie (Con)
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My Lords, as a former Defence Minister—I have no desire to distress my noble friend Lord Bellingham—part of my tenure involved being responsible for these issues. Does the Minister agree that the crux of the matter is broadening the entire pool of talent, wherever it may come from, across the entire MoD—civilian and military—and that we should celebrate the positive progress achieved that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Browne?

From my experience, the progress in relation to women has been manifest in the impressive Women in Defence network—not a group to tangle with. We have had the emergence of the first female rear admiral, the first female deputy chief of the general staff, and the trailblazing precedent set by the RAF in 2019 in appointing Britain’s first ever female three-star officer, Air Marshal Sue Gray. What is not to like?

Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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First, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s work as the Lords Minister for Defence and the incredible effort she put in to championing women in defence. I agree with everything that she said. Defence is a modern and inclusive employer, with people at its core. It offers supportive policies that enable everyone, irrespective of background, to have a rewarding and varied career.

Lord Craig of Radley Portrait Lord Craig of Radley (CB)
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My Lords, what progress has been made on the 67 recommendations of the Haythornthwaite review of Armed Forces incentivisation, published last June? Has the first stage of establishing momentum been achieved? In particular, has the review contributed in any way to improvements in retention and recruiting?

Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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In response to the noble and gallant Lord’s question, the Government will publish a full formal response to the Haythornthwaite review this year. From addressing key skills challenges, to zig-zag careers where people can leave and join the Armed Forces, to reviews of pay, progression and targeted recruitment engagement with younger generations, the implementation of the review is an absolute priority for defence. I reassure the House that all three services continue to meet their front-line operational commitments.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, does the Minister agree that the purpose of such policies and posts is to ensure that everybody recruited to the services can excel in the job that they are appointed to do? That has often not been the case in past decades, particularly for the LGBT community. When will the forces, specifically the RAF, update the medical basis on which they make decisions about the fitness of people with HIV to serve in different roles in the forces?

Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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The noble Baroness raises a valid question, and it would be right to write to her with an exact reply on the HIV question, which I do not have an answer for.

Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent Portrait Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent (Lab)
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I remind the House of my registered interests. Two weeks ago, the Prospect trade union published a damning survey of its female members who work in defence, in which 60% of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment in the last year. Some 75% said they had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment in the last month. Hansard has reported many warm words from Ministers in both Houses about a zero-tolerance approach. But the reality for women in defence seems completely at odds with these statements, and we need to fix it. It is time for a dedicated sexual harassment policy within the MoD. Can the Minister tell us when we might see one?

Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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My Lords, I reaffirm to the House that unacceptable sexual behaviour is not tolerated in defence. We reinforced that position with the introduction of a number of new policies in July 2022. These make it clear that, where allegations are made, victims will be supported, complaints will be investigated, and offenders will be discharged. Appropriate advice and support are available to any serviceperson who wants to make a complaint or allegation of criminal behaviour. This includes access to welfare services, chaplains and assisting officers. The Defence Serious Crime Unit provides improved victim support through a new victim and witness care unit.

Lord Robathan Portrait Lord Robathan (Con)
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My Lords, I should probably declare an interest as an Army pensioner—I know I look too young. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister and the Secretary of State agree that the purpose of the Armed Forces is to defend this nation, its people and its interests. That is what they are there for. Of course, discrimination and so on should be condemned. However, I am very worried by this Army Race Action Plan, which aims to reduce the security requirements for people we admit into the Armed Forces. This undermines our security, apart from anything else.

I do not know General Nesmith—I am sure she is a very good person—but we must take this and hit it on the head and understand what the Armed Forces are for. Will my noble friend go back to the MoD, talk to civilians and soldiers and say, “We are here to defend the nation properly and well, without discrimination, but we are here to defend the nation”?

Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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I absolutely agree that our priority is protecting the national security of the United Kingdom and ensuring the operational effectiveness of our Armed Forces. I am proud that my battalion—my company—is a reflection of the city in which we serve. I have served alongside people of all ethnicities and backgrounds and that is a compliment to the diverse, inclusive organisation that the Army is. I reassure my noble friend that there has been no lack of fitness training and bayonet training—all that goes with being an infantry soldier—as a result of the Army improving its inclusivity.

Poverty Reduction

Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Motion to Take Note
Moved by
Lord Bird Portrait Lord Bird
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That this House takes note of the case for aligning poverty reduction policy-making across Government.

Lord Bird Portrait Lord Bird (CB)
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My Lords, for me, this is probably one of the most important debates that I could ever be involved in, and I am glad we have managed to get time for it. This is largely because, in my opinion, poverty is the background to everything, from racism all the way through to inequality. Our prisons are full of people who never got a fair crack of the whip at birth—and I am one of them. I come from a London Irish racist, small-minded and self-harming working class in Notting Hill; I have spoken about that on many occasions.

Growing up in poverty, with self-harming, drink, violence, wife-beating and all that, what I found so interesting was that I never met an adult in that world that I came into. All I met was self-defeat and people who were harmed by poverty so abjectly that, in some ways, they could never translate themselves into being fully human. They could never savour the advantages, as I later did when I became a posh boy because every time I got arrested, I learned things in the prison system—so, by the time I was 18, I was the posh guy that noble Lords see before them. Those people never went to the National Gallery. They never knew the difference between the trecento, the quattrocento and the cinquecento—neither do some people here. The point is that they were never allowed to be fully human.

We have to embrace that. When we embrace it, we have to realise that if we seriously want to do something about it, we need to look at the way we handle poverty in government, in local authorities, in charitable work, in our thinking and in how we respond to the needs of others. The traditional way of responding to the needs of others is to feel sorry for them—to pity them, to feel guilty and that what you really need to do is give the poor more. I came into the House of Lords and was immediately overrun by people wanting me to participate in some projects that were about giving the poor more. I said, “I’m sorry. I’m here to dismantle poverty and turn the tap off. I’m not here to deal with the everyday crisis of poverty, because I have to stand above it”. Somebody has to stand above it and try to bring all the efforts together so that poverty does not continue.

Giving the poor more has been going on for thousands of years. You can go back to the Greek philosophers: people established their humanity by giving the poor more. Every religion always wants to give the poor more. When I worked in America, I was astonished at the amount of schoolchildren I knew or met who would put food into a charity dumpster so that they could give the poor more. I did not see people make much effort to say, “Hang on—what are we doing here? Are we decreasing poverty or are we responding only to the everydayness—the precious thing?”.

I am an emergencist. I started the Big Issue 32 years ago to respond to the crisis of poverty, because I was appalled at the way that people saw homeless people on the streets of London, and then on the streets of cities throughout the UK, Europe, Asia, North America and South America, so I got involved then in giving the poor more. After 10 years of that, I was interviewed by the Times, which said, “Johnny Bird, what have you been doing for the last 10 years? You’ve been doing this, but what are you going to do for the next 10 or 20 years?” I said, “Well, for the last 10 years, I’ve been mending broken clocks. For the next 10 or 20 years, I’m going to try and prevent the clocks breaking”.

I created a methodology which I called PECC: prevention, emergency, coping and cure. What it threw up to me was that, in the intervention of state Governments and charities—and personal intervention from the public—80% of all the poverty money was spent on emergency and coping, with very little spent on prevention and cure. Each Government who came through—at the age of 78, I have been through many—always said that they put the fight to defeat poverty right at the top. Yet not one of them stopped and asked, “How do we reconfigure our governance? How do we reconfigure what we’re doing so that we can do a better job and turn the tap off, rather than using a tablespoon to take the water out of the bath?”. Everybody is at it, as was I for the first 10 years of my life as the Big Issue proprietor.

When I came into the House of Lords, I said that I came here to dismantle poverty. To do that is incredibly difficult when every government department that has anything to do with social justice or social opportunity always has a number of initiatives. Whenever a Government say to me that they have an initiative, I think “It’s a cover-up”—I am not speaking against the current Government, because I have been dealing with this for 30 years—because they do a little initiative, learn something from it and then put it aside. In fact, someone should do a history of government initiatives because it would find that they have tried every damn thing. The latest one is levelling up. I do not know why they do not call it “Get rid of poverty” or something like that.

I came in, I am sorry to say, to revolutionise the House of Lords and the Government, but not to pull them apart and get upset about who is here or there. I came in to concentrate on how to get the convergence of efforts so that when we use “emergency” we do so efficiently and deeply, and bring about changes. There are people in this House and the other place who have done enormously rich and deep things for people in need. But how do you take that as part of a social apparatus and put prevention in front of it? How do you put cure at the end of it?

Forty per cent of all money spent by His Majesty’s Government is spent on poverty. I am sorry—I repeat these things often, and people say to me, “You told us that the last time”, but I am going to tell you it the next time as well. Forty per cent of the money spent by government is spent on poverty—yet, if you look at the intervention of this Government, the last Government and presumably the next Government, there will be a bit here, a bit there, and a bit here and a bit there. There is no convergence; there is no joining together the strengths that we need to defeat poverty. According to the BMA, 50% of the people who present themselves with cardiac arrests are people suffering from food poverty. The emergency work that we need to do is to respond to the emergency and, at the same time, make sure that we are not increasing it by allowing people to slip into poverty.

I have a Bill going through the House that will go nowhere—absolutely nowhere. No one is interested in it. Whenever I talk to a politician of whatever party, or to the aspirant ones who stop me in Portcullis House and talk to me kindly about what they are going to do when they get in office—I presume it was not your lot, because you are already there—they say that they are going to do all sorts of wonderful things about poverty. But if they use the same mechanisms and devices that are being used at the moment, they will not be going anywhere.

Before Tony Blair came in, I remember having discussions with him, and I thought he was one of the most impressive personal managers that I had ever met. He made me feel really important, and he told me all the wonderful things he was going to do. I am not slagging him off—this is not a party-political thing. He was going to do big things about getting rid of homelessness. What he did was to open the gates of the Treasury to lots of homeless organisations, which went from this size to that size. People built lots more temporary accommodation—hostels and all sorts of things like that—and they thought it was a wonderful thing. But, unfortunately, it was still about “them” and “us”, meaning “us” who run the system and “them” who receive our beneficence. That is one of the major problems that we need to deal with.

My Bill calls for the creation of a ministry for poverty prevention. Why does it do that? It does so because, if poverty eats into the aspirations and ambitions of virtually every government department, how can the NHS really deliver, and how can schools really deliver, when about 30% of their budget is spent on dealing with the problems of poverty that are vectored into the classroom? What can the Ministry of Justice do, other than tread water and make sure that somebody does not escape, kill themselves or kill a guard? Why do we create these ministries and then deprive them of the opportunity of supplying change, justice and social justice, because poverty eats away at and destroys their work?

In my opinion, we need a Ministry of Justice prevention. I have spoken to lots of people, and they say, “Well, we could all do with a ministry—you could have a ministry for everything”. But the thing about poverty is that it gets into our pores and, in my opinion, it makes us lost and, to some extent, dishonest. We think that, if we can just give a handout to someone, we have changed things and done our bit. Thank you very much—God bless you all.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, follow that! I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for the opportunity not just to debate this important issue but also to say thank you to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for his tireless championing of the interests of children in poverty and also refugees and asylum seekers. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to work with him, and he will be sorely missed.

I shall focus my remarks mainly on child poverty and the need for a cross-government child poverty strategy, not least because children are disproportionately at risk of poverty. As the Association of Directors of Children’s Services reminded us this week:

“Sadly, children’s needs, their rights and outcomes have not been prioritised in recent years”.

No doubt the Minister will trot out the usual cherry-picked statistics on so-called absolute poverty, despite the promise of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, when leader of the Conservative Party, that the party

“recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty”.

I shall spare noble Lords the trading of statistics, but we cannot ignore the growing evidence of the intensification of poverty, serious hardship and indeed, as documented by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, destitution.

Last month, the Prime Minister in a radio interview said that he was sad to hear of families in poverty who reportedly were having to water down baby formula, and that he was committed to sitting down with those involved, if he were written to. Well, he would have to sit down with an awful lot of people, if he were to meet all those who are unable to afford life’s basics today. What is needed is systemic change, not individual sympathy—and that brings me to today’s Motion.

In 2010, the political parties came together to support the introduction of the Child Poverty Act, which required central, devolved and local government to produce child poverty strategies, building on the progress made on reducing child poverty over much of the previous decade. Despite that all-party support, the Act was watered down and then effectively abolished in 2016—though, thanks to the stalwart work of the right reverend Prelate, the duty to continue the measurement and publication of key poverty indicators was retained. But the upshot was that, as the Social Mobility Commission pointed out in 2021, England is now

“the only nation in the UK without a strategy to address child poverty”.

When challenged on the lack of a child poverty strategy, Ministers tend to recite a litany of various inadequate measures, but a list of measures does not constitute a strategy, with clear targets and reporting requirements. In contrast, my party has committed itself in its final National Policy Forum document, agreed by conference, to

“a bold and ambitious strategy to tackle child poverty”,

which will be cross-government and place a

“responsibility of all government departments to tackle the fundamental drivers of poverty”.

I just hope that this commitment will be set out clearly in our manifesto.

Decisions made by almost every government department have implications for children and others in poverty. For example, the Department for Education cannot ignore the impact of poverty, whether it be childcare policies, the costs of education, including school meals, the need to poverty-proof schools and, most fundamentally, the impact of poverty on the ability to learn, and its role in continued inequality of educational opportunities and outcomes.

Home Office rules have a direct impact on poverty among refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and this is the subject of a current joint inquiry by the APPGs on Migration and on Poverty, which I co-chair. Fuel poverty is the responsibility of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero; the transition to net zero has to take account of the needs of those living in poverty as, otherwise, new research suggests that they could face what the authors call “transition poverty”.

Before I turn to the Minister’s own area of responsibility, I ask him what cross-government machinery exists to consider the impact of policies on poverty. What discussions does he have with colleagues in other departments to encourage them to think about the poverty implications of their work? The DWP’s work of course remains central to any poverty reduction strategy. At present, it seems as if its anti-poverty policy begins and ends with getting more people into paid work, regardless of the quality of the jobs on offer. I do not dispute that paid work is important and reduces the risk of poverty, but it is no panacea—witness the fact that the majority of children in poverty have at least one parent in work. Indeed, according to Action for Children, around 300,000 families with children are in poverty despite each parent being in full-time work. Much more needs to be done to break down the barriers faced, in particular by those with caring responsibilities.

Punitive sanctions have been shown to be counterproductive, pushing people into low-quality and insecure work, according to the Work Foundation and others. The evidence suggests that those struggling to get by on inadequate benefits do not make effective jobseekers, as poverty reduces psychological bandwidth and job-seeking itself can cost money.

I will say more about the inadequacy of the social security benefits that we expect our fellow citizens to survive on in next week’s uprating debate, but I make just two points now. First, in a briefing paper for the Financial Fairness Trust, my former colleague Professor Donald Hirsch concludes:

“The level of working age benefits in the UK today is denying claimants access to the most fundamental material resources needed to function day to day and have healthy lives”.

Secondly, a report from CPAG, of which I am honorary president, argues that the first step in tackling child poverty has to be the abolition of policies that are increasing it. This includes scrapping the benefit cap and the two-child limit—here, again, I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate’s indefatigable opposition to the latter; I suspect that the Minister might breathe a sigh of relief not to hear more from him about its iniquities. Underlying both points are the series of cuts made to social security since 2010. Given that many of those affected were already in poverty, we may have seen the impact less in the numbers in poverty and more in its growing depth.

A cross-government strategy must also include local government. Key here is the future of the household support fund. In his Answer to my recent Oral Question, the Minister referred to councils’ continued ability

“to use funding … to provide local welfare assistance”,—[Official Report, 30/1/24; col. 1106.]

which replaced the national Social Fund. But when I followed up with a Written Question about how many English local authorities do not run such a scheme, he responded that the Government do not have “robust data”. Why do they not? According to End Furniture Poverty, 37 authorities have closed their scheme, which means that if the household support fund is abolished as feared, there will be nothing other than charity for people in need to turn to. To their credit, a number of local authorities have developed anti-poverty strategies despite their financial pressures, but it is clear from research by Greater Manchester Poverty Action that they are hampered by the absence of a UK government strategy and by national policies that have compounded poverty.

As made clear so graphically by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, policy-making must aim to prevent poverty rather than simply reduce it after the event. I see that as one of the principles that should inform any anti-poverty strategy. Other principles include: the need to provide genuine financial security; attention to diversity, including the particular needs of racialised minorities, disabled people and women; recognition that poverty is experienced not just as a disadvantaged and insecure economic condition but as a corrosive and shameful social relation, which means that policies and their application must be dignity-promoting rather than, as is too often the case, shame-inducing; and, related to this, the involvement of people with experience of poverty, including children, in the development of anti-poverty policies—here we can learn from Scotland.

There is growing recognition of the value of the expertise of experience thanks to projects such as Changing Realities. Its recent briefing began and ended by quoting Erik, a single disabled parent. He argues:

“It is NOW that changes must be made in order for a fairer society where we can all have a reasonable standard of living, bring up our families to have the best possible start in life that is achievable”,

but, he says:

“I am starting to lose hope that anything will change for low-income families”.

Whatever Benches we sit on, we have a duty to offer people like Erik some cause for hope. He is right that change must happen now. Indeed, as public attitudes towards action against poverty appear to have softened in recent years, what better time to offer a vision of a good society in which a cross-government anti-poverty strategy has to play a central part?

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza (CB)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on securing this debate, although I do not necessarily agree with all his views. I also take this opportunity to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—Bishop Paul, as we know him—for his significant contributions to the work of this House, particularly in the area of children. I also add how much we look forward to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford’s maiden speech in this debate.

Poverty, whether relative or absolute, is difficult to understand fully unless it has been personally experienced. It means, among other things: never going to the movies; shopping only for the cheapest basics; no holidays; not being able to afford a warm winter coat or new shoes; no birthday parties for children as they cannot afford to take a present; not being able to afford bus fares; living in constant fear of the fridge breaking down; and, at the poorest end, hunger, cold and periods of destitution for those households. The consequences of such deprivation are, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, deep and long lasting for children, who continue throughout their lives to underperform in all development measures. Poverty affects life chances from day one.

This is a bleak picture, yet official statistics reveal that 11 million people in the UK—17%—are relatively poor and a shocking 13% live in absolute poverty. This, as we have heard, is the worst level in Europe. It is unacceptable, but is likely to get worse as the cost of living crisis continues. As of July 2023, 6.1 million people were claiming universal credit. Additional support includes energy discounts, extra pension payments and free prescriptions. It is not as if the Government are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge widespread poverty or to act to limit it. To my mind, the somewhat courageous levelling-up programme, with its four admirable missions, is one example—but it is not working. Poverty rates have not changed significantly since 2010-11.

Much is known about the causes of absolute poverty; indeed, a great deal is now known about how best to alleviate it. The following factors, for example, increase vulnerability: the two-child limit on income-related benefit, the cap on benefits, debt reductions from benefits and the five-week wait for the first payment. If you have no money and have exhausted all family and other networks for temporary financial help, five weeks is a very long time both for adults and, most especially, for young children. Overall, basic benefit rates are simply inadequate to temper the effects of the current recession.

Large numbers of households continue to fall into the gaps—gaps created in part by the plurality of government departments mandated to carry out anti-poverty programmes. Today, according to my count, there are at least eight different government departments with a particular responsibility to administer benefit programmes, from child tax credit to income support. Experience suggests that these departments too often fail to communicate and co-ordinate programmes. Most important of all is the failure to design and adhere to a comprehensive child poverty strategy that should run through all social welfare thinking and planning.

Such a programme would build on a basic acceptance that more money is necessary to underpin child benefit and make it universal, to raise the minimum wage, expand free school meals and support quality childcare costs. The key elements of a universal strategy across a broad range of policy areas, with key targets, timelines and regular reporting, need clear leadership and infrastructure. It is also essential that affected families, including children, are involved in policy development in this area and to make it as central to planning as climate change is, or is about to become.

In an average class of 30 children, nine will be living in poverty. It is a political choice whether we can, in all conscience, continue to live with this statistic.

Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho Portrait Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho (CB)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his timely debate and his relentless and indefatigable championing of this issue. I declare my interests, most particularly as president of the British Chambers of Commerce and chancellor of the Open University.

I will make three brief points. The first is about business and its role in helping with this issue. I have been travelling around the country as president of the British Chambers of Commerce. I am not going to share my travel diary, but I have most recently been in Preston, Coventry, Doncaster, Poole and Glasgow, and, with the British Chambers of Commerce, I have launched bits of work that look at how we can rejuvenate our economy over the next decade—a kind of playbook for whatever shade of Government we find ourselves with later in the year. The most recent work we did was about the future of the local economy, and I will emphasise how important it feels to make sure that we do not only join up policy across central government but that we link that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, mentioned, with local government and its fundamental role in helping drive local economies that we know are so essential in providing high-quality work and fuelling the economy to enable any of the choices that we are talking about in this debate.

When the British Chambers has been doing this work, we have been trying to reinforce three key planks: we need high-quality local leadership around these issues to make sure that local economies and communities have got the best possible talent around them; we need better collaboration with business at a local level to ensure that we have got, not just the acceptable jobs or jobs that are paying, but jobs that provide the quality that my noble friend Lady D’Souza was talking about; and we need to make sure that we have enough devolution and power locally to enable these communities to build resilience.

There are examples, and I can think of many British Chambers members that are doing interesting projects to help from different angles to build that local resilience, which will help local poverty and local issues. In Old Trafford, Trafford Council is working with a company called Bruntwood; they are doing a huge redevelopment of 24,000 square feet in the area that is generating green pathways, new transport links and big infrastructure investment. But it has taken a lot of work to get to that point with that triumvirate of different groups working together and I believe deeply that we will not help with working on the prevent part of the PECC framework created by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, if we do not think about how to drive that business-led change at a local level and open up collaboration.

As I said, there are examples. There is the one in Trafford and, last week, Aviva launched a project with the British Chambers that looks at local planners, to help build high-quality jobs at a very specific level; we are really trying to find diverse people to train and become local planners. These will be high-quality jobs offered in communities that did not have those opportunities before; just 100 jobs to start with, but we hope to build and scale that over time. So the first point is that it is really important to emphasise that local co-ordination; as if the challenge of central government was not big enough, we must not forget local council integration as well.

The second point—and this is where I fear I will become a bit like the noble Lord, Lord Bird—is around digitisation. I have stood here many times and sometimes I feel like I am talking into a void. It is unacceptable that we think that 95% connectivity in this country is okay: it is not. We will never be able to connect communities that are completely outside the normal ways that we operate if we do not have the infrastructure, skills and digital ability to connect them. It is not just a question of alleviating poverty: it is a question of social justice.

Last week, I talked in a debate with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and her Communications and Digital Committee, on a very good report about digital exclusion, but I fear the Minister’s responses did not please many on the committee and they certainly did not please me either, unfortunately. I ask with respect how the Government are thinking about the connections between digital disconnection and exclusion, because we know that of the 2.5 million people who do not use the internet, at least 60% to 70% of them fall into the lowest socioeconomic groups. We also know that you are unable to look for work if you are not looking online; 90% of jobs are advertised only online, so you are caught in a horrible nexus. Digitisation is such an important plank of how we will address the P part of the PECC from the noble Lord, Lord Bird. Local issues and digitisation are fundamental to helping us address poverty in this country.

I will offer one moment of hope before I sit down. If I have achieved anything, I think that one of the small things that I have contributed is building GOV.UK and the government digital service. I mention that partly because it is directly related to access to information and how people can find some of the services for them, but, more importantly, because it is sometimes possible to join up government and policy. When I think back to that project from 2010 to 2015, I ask, what made it marginally successful? There were three things. The first is prime ministerial support; I cannot overemphasise how important it is that a priority comes from the top. That speaks to the point from the noble Lord, Lord Bird; we hear language, but I am not clear that it has ever been a key priority for the Prime Minister to put poverty at the heart of an action plan.

The second is political support and leadership in the Civil Service and in the department. That project was being driven by the noble Lord, Lord Maude, and we also had Civil Service leaders driving it; that took a huge amount of work and more entrepreneurial effort than I have ever had to deploy, but it is possible to join it up.

Finally, we had a clear focus and some measurements and actions at the end of it. That project was flawed, and I do not remind people of it to sound successful or blow my own trumpet—quite the opposite. But it is possible to join up policy and it needed those three things. I leave the Minister with those three things, and I would be interested in his reflections on all of them: local government and its leadership and its ability to join up with central government on these issues; digitisation and not accepting that 95% is good enough, because it is not; and, finally, how we can take those lessons from some of the successful projects in government.

Lord Bishop of Durham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Durham (Valedictory Speech)
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this debate on an issue of such importance and for the way that he introduced it. Also, because I have spoken on this issue repeatedly throughout my past 10 years as a Member of this House, it thus seems a fitting debate for my valedictory speech. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for speaking straight after me. We have worked together on poverty in the north-east. I also look forward to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford’s maiden speech.

During my maiden speech, I spoke of the high levels of poverty in my region of the north-east. Sadly, poverty, particularly child poverty, remains as significant an issue today as it was 10 years ago. Only last week, the North East Child Poverty Commission released its blueprint for tackling child poverty, featuring the latest poverty stats from 2021 to 2022, along with those recorded in 2014-15—the very year I entered this House. They reveal that, in 2021-22, there were around 134,000 children living in poverty in the North East Mayoral Combined Authority—an increase of over 7% since 2014-15.

But poverty is not just about numbers. Behind each statistic are the lives of children and the impact on them is all-encompassing. Poverty means going without the basic essentials. It means not being able to concentrate in school due to an empty stomach and not getting adequate nutrition; a packet of apples costs five times the amount of a packet of biscuits. Poverty means missed opportunities. It denies the chance to develop new skills through extra-curricular activities. Poverty means growing up too soon. It means dealing with stresses and anxieties with which no child should ever be burdened. It impacts the present and its effects last a lifetime.

More fundamentally, I care about poverty because God cares about it. God is:

“Father of the fatherless and protector of widows … he leads out the prisoners to prosperity”.

God calls on leaders and Governments to

“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute”;


“Rescue the weak and the needy”,

not leave them there. God gives us a vision of a world where we

“let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.

This sets our poverty in the broader context of world poverty. While tackling our own, we must maintain our commitment to the world’s poorest. We need overseas development aid to be returned to 0.7% now.

During my time in this House, the Government’s approach to poverty reduction has been promoting work as a route out of poverty. Given that the proportion of children from working families living in poverty in the north-east has risen from 56% to 67% over the last seven years, it is clear that work alone is not enough. Low pay and insecure work continue to prevent families being lifted out of poverty. Work is a successful route out of poverty only if it pays a real living wage, as well as providing secure hours and working practices. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for her good examples, but they must be good examples for work to work. What steps will the Government take to further improve the national living wage to be at the real living wage level?

Viewing paid work as the sole route out of poverty fails to recognise the invaluable unpaid work that so many contribute. Raising children is the most important role that any parent ever undertakes. Its importance outweighs that of any paid employment and must be acknowledged by the whole of society as such. Further examples of critical unpaid work include running food banks, caring for those in need and running local sports and creative arts clubs. These are all vital to our society yet receive little recognition for their contribution. We need a different way of thinking, where those contributing critical unpaid work are valued in society and no longer faced with financial hardship as a consequence. Can the Minister say whether there is any major work on re-evaluating the great contribution made by volunteer carers and full-time parents and the wider contribution of unpaid work?

To align poverty reduction policy-making, we also need to remove the policies that continue to push more children into poverty. I highlight the two-child limit, which currently affects 1.5 million children. Its removal would lift 250,000 children out of poverty straightaway. On social security benefit levels, we need the essentials guarantee proposed by the Trussell Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Will His Majesty’s Government support this? There is no single, simple solution to poverty reduction. It is a complex issue and there is not one switch to flick to solve it, but neither will anything change if we optimistically sit back and simply hope that the situation will improve.

As we have heard, England currently has no child poverty strategy and there is no UK-wide one. We have no targets or coherent cross-departmental collaboration. I thank each Minister with whom I have constructively engaged over the years, and those from the opposition Benches. I thank in particular the present Minister, who has been wonderful to work with. My individual meetings with the DfE, DWP, DLUHC, the Home Office, DHSC and the Treasury have shown that knowledge and insight from each department is essential, yet they have also demonstrated the need for a more collaborative approach. There is still far too much silo thinking.

Of equal importance are the clear insights that local government brings from its day-to-day experience of poverty in its communities. There are also those from schools, colleges, charities and faith communities who deal with poverty every day. Small and medium-sized businesses create the essential jobs that help people out of poverty, and chambers of commerce have a very important role. They have insights into the reasons for poverty in specific local settings. Most essential is the voice of those who live with poverty themselves. We need a vision for reducing poverty and a strategy that engages all these actors. Decisions by the Treasury, too often made on short-term rather than long-term economic analysis, regularly fly in the face of the evidence presented by other government departments and those who work on a local level. There must be a fundamental shift in our national thinking. Poverty is complex. It requires not only focusing on income levels but a holistic, preventive approach. Stronger communities, better mental and physical health and improved family relationships all contribute to poverty reduction.

That is the serious bit. As I draw to a close, I thank those who have assisted me throughout my time serving in this House: the wonderful doorkeepers; the staff who serve us in hospitality; the security team; the amazing teams in the clerks’, Black Rod’s and the Lord Speaker’s offices; and all those who serve in Whips’ offices and Bill teams. They are superb. I am also deeply grateful to the Church of England’s very small parliamentary office team, Richard Chapman and Simon Stanley; the public affairs team of the Church of England; and each of my three RAMP assistants and seven parliamentary assistants and researchers from the brilliant Buxton scheme. Without them, I could never have taken part in the life of this House in the way that they have enabled me to do. I shall miss this place and the brilliant work it does in scrutinising, revising and seeking to hold the Government to account. Had there been a different flavour of Government while I was on these Benches, I promise I would have behaved in exactly the same way towards them.

Poverty is a scourge. It needs to be confronted head-on as a national emergency. Jesus warned us not to harm children. He also made it clear that all of us have to enter God’s way of living by placing a child in our midst and learning from their trust and humility. We need a clearer vision for children and for how we confront all poverty, one with determination that requires us all to work together. Only then will we see poverty be reduced. Only then will we ensure that no child in this country grows up without the basic essentials and finally end child poverty.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Portrait Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate, who is leaving not only this House but his job as Bishop of Durham. I value both aspects of his ministry. Today, he has again shown that he does not shy away from speaking truth to power. That is one of the things we really value him for. His work in the north-east has been tireless, tackling all of us on what we are doing about the most vulnerable, particularly children, and his work in the House on the impact of legislation has been outstanding.

The right reverend Prelate has referred to the two-child rule in universal credit. His work, attention to detail and recognition from his ministry of the challenges for families, and his determination not to let go of issues simply because they are not the issue of the day, have been a real lesson to all of us. The role of Bishops in this House is never one that lacks controversy, but he has conducted himself in an important way throughout, drawing from his faith and from his pastoral activity the lessons that we need to listen to and learn from—as he has demonstrated this morning.

I also have particular reasons to be grateful for his pastoral work. He of course lives in the traditional seat of the Bishop of Durham, Bishop Auckland. When his schedule allows, he worships at the Anglican-Methodist Church in Bishop Auckland, on Woodhouse Close Estate. He and his wife have been very active there; of course, there are members of my family who have been active in that almost since it began. The support of Bishop Paul and his wife for my sister-in-law and her family during my brother’s illness, and subsequent death last year, will never be forgotten by us. We all wish you, Bishop Paul—I am not supposed to use that language in here, but I am going to today—the very best in your retirement. You should know that you go having served this House well, but also the people of Durham and the most vulnerable in our society. Thank you.

I now turn to the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, a very important debate about poverty. As Bishop Paul has said, he and I have worked together on the North East Child Poverty Commission, whose report was published last Friday. If the Minister has not seen it, I will happily send him a copy. The commission was established to look at what had happened with our ridiculous rise in child poverty since 2014, which is bigger and deeper than anywhere else in the country.

The person running the commission and several others had thousands of conversations, roundtables and so on to hear what people had to say about poverty in the north-east. The Government’s figures show that 27% of the north-east’s children are living in material deprivation, the highest in the UK. Some 69% of north-east children are living in families with zero or little savings to shield them from economic shocks—again, the highest in the UK. Almost one in five—18%—of children in the north-east are living in families that are food insecure. Again, that is the highest in the UK.

One thing we found in our conversations that is particularly relevant to this debate is that there is a clear evidence base on the links between low income, food insecurity and inequalities for children. The report of the Child of the North All-Party Group says that:

“Research shows that children experience a range of immediate, as well as long-term and life-changing harms from a poor diet and broader experiences of food insecurity, including: lower life-expectancy, weakened immunity, poorer mental health and emotional wellbeing, poorer physical health across a range of health outcomes (including general health ratings, more emergency visits, asthma)”,

diabetes, and so on, and

“poorer educational outcomes (including lower reading and maths scores, more days absent from school)”,

and so on.

In those conversations we also discovered—or had reaffirmed—the vast amount of time, energy, capacity and resources that organisations are having to spend on dealing with the impacts of poverty. It was clear from all of our discussions that there is a vast amount of valuable time, energy, capacity and resource in our region focused every day on dealing with the impacts of poverty and hardship on a growing number of children, young people and families. This includes by organisations specifically set up to do so, like food banks, baby banks, and so on, but also those whose work is being exacerbated and made much more difficult by the impacts of life on a very low income, including social workers, health services, voluntary and community groups and local authorities, as well as some businesses. There are also those whose ability to focus on their core business is being undermined or made more challenging by poverty, such as schools, colleges, youth provision, sports groups and so on.

Beyond the immeasurable costs for individuals, we are therefore talking about a failure for whole rafts of our community and society. It is not just that it affects the individuals—we have heard enough, I hope, to make all of us ashamed about that—but it is those wider issues. It is apparent that the scale of hardship in our region is being masked because much of this work is being undertaken by individual organisations, on their own initiative, using their own increasingly limited budgets, all of which are acutely aware of the resource and capacity they are now allocating to addressing this issue. We talked to schools who are having to wash uniforms at the weekend, because families have no facilities to do so. We talked to schools who are having to give additional support because families do not have heating or food for their children. Schools are doing this from their resource and that is not why they get their money.

If this does not say that poverty affects the economy of a whole region, I do not know what does. That is essentially what today’s debate is about. The economy of our country is diminished and is not growing, largely because—in my view—of the rise of poverty and inequality. Unless we address those, we will not get the growth and development that we need in our private or public sectors. That is the challenge that I am afraid the Minister faces, and that I suspect other Ministers after the election will face. This is the worst crisis that I have known in my political career, and I hope that the Government understand and recognise that they need to take action now.

Lord Loomba Portrait Lord Loomba (CB)
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My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of Barnardo’s. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for bringing this important subject before the House and pay tribute to him for all he has done to bring hope to those in our society who most need it. With the Big Issue, he has shown and continues to show what can be done through charity and philanthropy to turn lives around. Indeed, there is such an important role in our country for charity, philanthropy, volunteerism and what the Foreign Secretary once dubbed the “big society”.

Important and cherished as that is, it does not take away the responsibility of government to address poverty directly, to ensure that government policy minimises unnecessary hardships and to look out for those who are unable to look after themselves. Child poverty is an entrenched problem in the UK, with more than one in four children living in poverty. Barnardo’s recently looked at one aspect of child poverty—bed poverty—and found that there are over 680,000 families in the UK with children who have had to share a bed because their family cannot afford another one. Crisis requests to local authorities for help with children’s beds and bedding have more than quadrupled in the last four years. What more does it take to shake us into realising that we must align and strengthen efforts to tackle poverty?

Let us be clear: when we talk about child poverty, we are talking about family poverty. Families, often with both parents working hard and doing all they can, are unable to provide adequately for their children. The red flag that Barnardo’s has raised is the imminent ending of the household support fund. That fund, provided by central government and renewed from year to year, is administered by local authorities. It has been a lifeline to those facing hardship, providing practical help and access to essentials.

Some 62% of funding for local welfare currently comes from the household support fund; yet, as matters stand, it will come to an end in only 39 days—at the end of March—at a time when the pressures on households who find themselves in poverty are greater, not less. Earlier this month, Barnardo’s and 120 other organisations warned the Chancellor of the devastating consequences for families if the fund is not extended beyond March. More broadly, local crisis support is a vital part of our social security system, providing timely support to those facing acute hardship.

A long-term strategy that connects the dots is desperately needed, with funding to match. Short-term rounds of funding have led councils to close their schemes and let staff go, only to reopen them at short notice. Many local authorities have closed their schemes entirely. Barnardo’s is calling for a three-year funding settlement for crisis support to embed efficiency in local welfare.

In closing, I return to the immediate issue of the household support fund, which must be an urgent priority for the Government. Can the Minister assure the House that this essential support will not be withdrawn at this critical time, and that this lifeline for households will be maintained to allow the most urgent manifestations of child poverty to be addressed?

Lord Bishop of Hereford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Hereford (Maiden Speech)
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My Lords, I begin by recording my grateful thanks for the welcome and encouragement I have received since my introduction to your Lordships’ House. I am especially grateful for the forbearance of the staff as they have helped me navigate the labyrinthine corridors of this place, and to my colleagues for their patience in introducing me to the various procedures and protocols that govern our business.

I became the Bishop of Hereford in early 2020, just before the start of the first lockdown. The diocese of Hereford celebrates the 1,350th anniversary of its foundation in 2026—we are a diocese that predates the foundation of England. Indeed, the earliest timbers in the episcopal residence were acorns in the year 910. I have both worthy and ignoble predecessors in this role. I have already done better than four of them, who never actually came to the diocese at all. I hope not to emulate one of my Saxon predecessors, who, angered by the burning of the cathedral by the Welsh in 1055, took up arms with some of the canons and died in battle as a result. I also hope to avoid the fate of the cousin of the bishop who was murdered in the garden in 1256 on the coat-tails of his cousin’s unpopularity.

Hereford is the smallest and most rural diocese in England. We comprise the counties of Herefordshire and the southern half of Shropshire, one parish in Worcestershire and 14 in Wales. Sustaining a diocesan infrastructure with such a small base presents its challenges. For every 800 people who live here, we have one church building, and three-quarters of them are grade 1 listed.

I am grateful to be the Bishop of Hereford, not least because of my agricultural interests. My first degree was in agriculture and forest sciences, followed by a master’s in soil and water engineering. Prior to ordination, I spent a number of happy years as an agronomist, advising farming clients in the south of England. I also married into a farming family, so the success of the agricultural sector and the health of the rural economy is a particular interest. I am probably the only Bishop on this Bench who can tell you both how to grow an excellent wheat crop and how to build a ventilated improved pit latrine.

It is therefore a privilege that I should make my maiden speech in this debate sponsored by the noble Lord, Lord Bird. It is also an honour to speak in the same debate as my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham, who has been a tireless campaigner for the economically disadvantaged across our country. Rural poverty is often hidden and can be affected by a wide variety of policy areas. It can also be concealed by statistics. Average income figures for the county of Herefordshire are unremarkable; however, they conceal a huge gulf between the wealthiest and the rest. Recent statistics show that 60% of the population were earning £1,000 a month or less. One-third of 18 year-olds leave the county never to return. There are few opportunities for a well-paid career locally.

It is said that Herefordshire is the poor man’s Cotswolds. I hope that is a model of development we will avoid. The depopulation of rural communities, to be replaced by large numbers of second homes, is not the way to create a thriving countryside. A report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, published in November 2023, highlighted what it rightly describes as a

“chronic shortage of genuinely affordable housing”

and noted the impact this has on social housing waiting lists and the ability of people to stay in their own communities—the challenge here of maintaining the social fabric of our rural communities is acute.

The disparity between rural house prices and rural wages means that the pressure on these communities is particularly severe. This is a classic example of the importance of coherence in government policy, and recent government announcements in this area are most welcome. An unregulated housing market leads, especially in attractive rural areas, to a growth in second homes, Airbnbs and holiday lets, and the pricing of local people out of the market. Such rural depopulation impoverishes community life; we cannot think of poverty simply in financial terms.

The agricultural sector in my diocese is innovative and pioneering, and is one of our largest employers, both directly and in its support industries. However, smaller farmers are struggling. The transition from basic farm payment support to environmental land management schemes post Brexit, while welcome in many of its aims, has not been seamless. The gap in funding, particularly that which occurred at the transition last summer, added to the stress. Access to these schemes is more difficult for tenant and upland farms in particular. Suicides in the farming community in my area approach one per month despite the best efforts of local charities such as We are Farming Minds. This regular tragedy reminds us of the importance of personal welfare, which includes the certainty we all need in order to plan for the future. It is essential for farmers, and essential for the rest of us as they seek to run viable and profitable businesses which produce food for all of us. This is a public good.

Competitiveness must be a level playing field. For example, the UK-Australia free trade deal, the first agreed under the UK’s independent trade policy, opens up UK agricultural markets for Australian produce, regardless of whether or not it is produced to the same standards that are required by law of UK farmers. Henry Dimbleby, who led the Government’s national food strategy, said that a failure to adopt a “core standards” approach to animal welfare and the environment in our pursuit of free trade deals risks

“exporting the cruelty and the carbon emissions abroad”.

I urge the Government to be mindful of these risks in future trade deals.

I hope I may have opportunity to speak in debates on these issues in the future. Poverty is an issue that affects all communities, but in rural areas it runs the risk of being neglected in policy because of a smaller, more dispersed population. I look forward to being a voice in your Lordships’ House for the people of the diocese of Hereford and the thriving of our rural communities.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB)
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My Lords it is a very great pleasure to follow the excellent maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, which demonstrates clearly his commitment to rural communities.

In fact, Hereford’s history with royalty goes back centuries. To go back in time, St Ethelbert, King of East Anglia, was murdered there by King Offa of Mercia—but I am glad there is now peace with the Welsh, and we welcome the right reverend Prelate’s input into Wales. He has important roles with our royalty. He took part in the Coronation, escorting Queen Camilla. He is head of the King’s Ecclesiastical Household and organises the royal chaplains in his role as the Clerk of the Closet. He has many interests, which include hedgehog preservation—which I am sure we all welcome—but the one that worries me is that he likes riding motorbikes. I have already spoken to him about that in my role as a doctor.

The right reverend Prelate’s background in technology and science and his long rural career are clearly bringing great insights into the problems affecting our rural communities, and we all look forward to hearing more from him.

I am glad the right reverend Prelate referred to some of his predecessors. In the 13th century, Bishop Thomas Cantilupe was excommunicated but died in Rome. His heart and bones were brought back to England, where the bones started to shed blood, and many miracles followed. The royal connection continued, as in 1349 King Edward III found himself cured on his way to the ceremony in which Thomas Cantilupe was decreed a saint.

The Mappa Mundi is of course well known. That great map of the world shows in one corner a little city sitting on the stumpy River Wye. Hereford is at once on the edge of the world and at the very heart of it, and now there sits our Bishop. As custodian of this treasure, the right reverend Prelate is working to regenerate our rural communities with clear passion. We cannot attribute to him that hurricanes hardly ever happen in Hereford, but we look forward to his further major contributions.

I turn to today’s debate, for which we must all thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his tireless work to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves—all those who try but are not heard. I tried to map which departments should be involved in this issue. After all, we have the Prime Minister’s Office and 24 ministerial departments, and 20 non-ministerial government departments. They work with 423 government agencies and other public bodies, 11 high-profile groups and 19 public corporations, quite apart from the devolved Administrations. Going through that list was a discipline in itself, as for each, one could identify how they could influence poverty reduction.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bird, told us clearly, it is all too easy to think in terms of money, but we must not forget poverty of opportunity, poverty of aspiration and emotional poverty, all of which have profound negative outcomes in terms of life chances and life expectancy. In the missions on levelling up we heard about health and well-being, housing and crime. Crime erodes social capital, discourages investment and job creation, and increases levels of anxiety and fear within a population, who then feel insecure and easily become entrenched in poverty. Crime particularly undermines the prospects for young people. It works against the aspirations that our education system tries to instil.

I had the privilege of being a member of the Times Health Commission, which took evidence widely. We heard that people in the poorest areas are dying earlier but they are also living a greater share of their lives in ill health, often unable to work. The impact of income on health is stark: the poorest women are unhealthy for more than a third of their lives, compared with 18% for the richest, and children born into the poorest fifth of families in the UK are nearly 13 times more likely to experience poor health and educational outcomes by age 17 than the richest quintile.

Sadly, this bears out nationally. Dr Julian Tudor-Hart’s inverse care law is the principle that the availability of good medical or social care tends to vary inversely with the need of the population served. That is a key issue in the debates about health inequality, and particularly in relation to prevention of ill health. Public health measures are particularly important because, to quote Sir John Bell, who instigated UK Biobank, the origins of illness begin decades before the majority of illnesses become evident.

Less than 20% of our health is determined by medical interventions; the vast majority is driven by wider social factors, including diet, smoking, housing, alcohol, air quality, education, poverty overall and working conditions. I remind the House that Bevan had been responsible for housing as well as health when he founded the NHS. As he wrote,

“financial anxiety in time of sickness is a serious hindrance to recovery, apart from its unnecessary cruelty”.

People’s homes, their jobs and communities influence health; hence, you need a whole-system approach for a healthier, more prosperous Britain. Town plans determine housing, open spaces, transport infrastructure—all are important.

The influence of work security was clearly demonstrated by my friend and colleague Dr Norman Beale, a GP in Calne, Wiltshire. He studied the local population around the time of the complete closure of the Harris pork pie factory. As a local GP, with the nearest hospital 17 miles away, his practice was the first port of call for Harris employees and their families. Not surprisingly, he found a significant increase in morbidity in the workers made redundant when the factory closed, and a significant morbidity in their families.

A very important and unforeseen finding was that two years before closure, when it became apparent that the economic futures of the workers and their families were not secure, there was a higher morbidity. It began then. This has implications for the Department for Work and Pensions. The threat of redundancy is a stress equal to, if not greater than, the actual event. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham explained in his outstanding speech, extrapolation of Beale’s findings implies an increase in workload and cost for the National Health Service that is directly attributable to job insecurity and unemployment. That is a situation now facing our population in Port Talbot, south Wales.

Perhaps in line with my noble friend Lord Bird’s philosophy, we recently debated the Online Safety Act. I congratulate the Government on taking this forward, as there is now much to do to make the internet safer, protecting children and adults from online harms that lead to dangerous behaviours, suicide and self-harm, gambling and violence, and into poverty.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s extensive work on poverty has shown the devastating impact of poverty on life expectancy. For example, the gap between Stockton-on-Tees and Kensington and Chelsea exceeds 16 years—but there is hope. This has inspired some cities, such as Coventry, to become “Marmot cities” and actively tackle the multiple factors that lead to deprivation by engaging all departments across the different official and voluntary sector bodies, from local authorities to health service agencies. They are beginning to show improved outcomes. It is slow but it is reversing a trend.

We must not have poverty of ambition to improve the resilience of our population through a better start in life in physical and mental health. Our ambition must be to improve work and living conditions. We need the ambition to level up across all parts of policy and to climb out of the post-pandemic trough in which we now find ourselves.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (CB)
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My Lords, as the last speaker from the Back Benches, I will concentrate very much on my work on poverty. I was born in a poor country and have worked professionally as an economist on poverty for much of my career; I will not go into the details of my writing.

There is obviously a very complicated set of conditions, circumstances and consequences of poverty. Poverty is a global problem. A sociology scholar, Peter Townsend, wrote a very good book, Poverty in the United Kingdom, a fat book published by Penguin in the 1970s. He had an interesting idea. He conducted a survey asking people what sort of foods they ate: “Did you have roast beef for Sunday lunch”, things like that. People asked why he was doing it. He said, “You’re poor if you don’t feel part of the community where you live”. Something about having normal foods and things like that is very important. He conducted a very large survey with more than 2,000 observations and tried to establish that when you think about poverty, you think of people and whether they feel part of the community. It was very interesting.

A famous economist, Amartya Sen, has done a lot of work on poverty. He said, “You’re poor if you cannot develop all the potentialities that you have”. For example, it is not good enough to say that we all need a certain kind of income. If I am disabled or cannot walk, I need extra facilities and extra income to be able to do what you do. We have to think of the variety of circumstances that prevent people doing what they should be able to do.

I am going to say something fairly controversial. There is one answer. People do not like it but I have to say it. It is the only satisfactory answer that I know, and it is to have a basic income or a citizen’s income. I have been advocating that, in one way or another, for 30 or 40 years now. The idea is that just as we all have the right to vote, we should have a right to income. Some areas, such as Alaska, and some countries have implemented a basic income plan. The idea is that every adult who is eligible to vote should have a certain basic weekly or monthly income. Of course, this is a very controversial issue. People say, “Why should you pay people for not working? If they get money for not working, they will never work again and that is terrible”.

As the right reverend Prelate said, a lot of us do unpaid work, especially women. One way to think of poverty is that, at various stages of their lives, women have circumstances that force them into poverty, or at least into low-income jobs. Suppose we implement a policy I proposed in my recent book, The Poverty of Political Economy. We pay every woman who is on the electoral register £100 per weekend. I am being moderate because I do not want to frighten the horses too much. That is £5,000 per year. Let us say that there are 30 million women voters. I am making all this up, but I do not think it is impossible to finance that sort of thing. If we do that, one thing is quite certain regarding things such as child poverty, lack of heating in the house or lack of food. If the woman in the family gets an income supplement, she is going to spend it on the family as well as herself, on things such as household expenditure and heating. This has been shown in some countries that have tried it.

I know people say that income is not enough, but if you want a single policy, let us try it and let us make it universal. Rather than saying, “Let me first identify who is poor and give it only to them”, give it to everybody. Then, if you want to allow the people who are rich not to have it, they can either give it up, use it as part of a tax payment or whatever. Make it completely universal.

If you make it universal, many of the problems that families have from poverty would be tackled. Obviously, there will be problems of what to do for poor single men or elderly people, but we have pensions for the elderly. If we find that there are people who would not be helped because they are not in any of these categories, that is all right.

I am not the only person who advocates this. James Meade, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Cambridge, was another, as was a man whose name I am trying to remember—the FT’s economics correspondent, whose first name was Sam—

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (CB)
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Yes, it was Sam Brittan. Sam Brittan, James Meade and I were the three people advocating a basic income back in the 1960s and 1970s. This is not a new idea; there is a whole volume called the Palgrave International Handbook of Basic Income, in which I have a contribution. The whole idea of a basic income is the most convincing way I have seen to tackle poverty.

There was a social justice commission appointed by John Smith, when he was leader of the Labour Party. I submitted evidence to it, but it came to nothing because he passed away.

I do not have any more time, but the whole idea of a basic income, paid to women on the electoral register, is something that we should explore seriously to see whether it works.

Baroness Burt of Solihull Portrait Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD)
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My Lords, I am quite overwhelmed by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and his very inspirational speech, and I thank him. Poverty is not a subject on which I normally speak, so this has been a real eye-opener for me and I have learned a lot. I also welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. His exposition of rural poverty bodes very well for the contribution that he will make to this House. I also bid farewell to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and thank him for all the work that he has done in this House.

I looked up definitions of poverty to try to make sure that I knew what I would be talking about. We all have an idea of what we think poverty is, and the government measures of poverty fall into several categories, but they seem to be a relative low income and an absolute low income, and they are all linked to the median income of people in our society. It rankles me that anyone can be defined by their poverty. I thought the concept from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, was very interesting, although I know that it is much more complicated than any of us wants to go into today, but it was a useful thing to say that, above this income, you cannot be defined by your poverty.

A wider definition, which I like, is from the European Commission:

“People are said to be living in poverty if their income and resources are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which they live”.

I suspect that the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, would heartily agree with that, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, would also be involved—I cannot refer to her without saying Martha; it is weird. She spoke very coherently and passionately about the importance of communication: if you do not have access to broadband or a mobile phone, that is very significant. How can you then participate in a world that is ruled by these communications? Most people in Britain would consider these to be essentials above the poverty line, and I totally agree.

As well as relatively low and absolutely low income, there is another category that has been discussed today, and that is destitution. It is defined by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as when people have been unable to afford two or more of the following essentials, in the past month: shelter, food, heating, lighting, clothing and footwear, basic toiletries or a net income after housing of less than £95 a week.

We have heard plenty of horror stories about the number of working poor and children in poverty. The only good-news story is that the least likely demographic to be in poverty is now pensioners, who were once the most likely. That just goes to show what government policy can achieve, given the will.

Sadly, the divide between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider, not narrower. We are in a vicious downward spiral. To transform it to a virtuous upward spiral, we need investment in the most important assets for any Government to have—their human resources. We have heard plenty of excellent suggestions in this debate, as well as stark reminders of the consequences of not implementing them.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests five key ways that the UK could tackle poverty. These are: to boost incomes and reduce costs by ending the poverty premium; to reboot universal credit to ensure that work pays and provide a stronger safety net for those people who are just about managing but are tipped over into poverty by events as simple as a broken boiler; to improve educational attainment and double investment in basic skills to ensure that 5 million more adults are literate and have basic maths skills; to overhaul the childcare system, giving children a better start in life and making work pay for their parents; to back employers and, following the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, focus on investment in the long term and not the short term.

There is also the issue of decent and affordable housing, and I would focus on health as well. My noble friend did so with great explanation, as did the noble Lord, Lord Desai. If you are sitting on a 7.5 million-long patient waiting list for treatment, how can you focus on anything else? The downward spiral in our nation will not stop until we do these kinds of things.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has calculated that the total cost of poverty is approximately £78 billion a year—about £1 in every £5 that we spend on social services. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, has a different figure, but it depends on what you add in. It is certainly one of the most important, damaging areas that we need to consider. There is an equation of investment to reward which multiplies the benefits to society exponentially, the longer that it is applied. It is so short-sighted not to invest in our people.

The downward spiral we are in today does not even take account of the social costs, which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says are causing “widespread damage to society” and are a source of

“collective shame, social tension and anxiety”.

I do not know about noble Lords, but I do not want to live in a world like this. Unless we value our people and give them the resources and opportunities they need to be productive and to realise their potential, we are all impoverished, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said.

I feel that shame, in response to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bird—at how little I and so many of us in this House prioritise this issue. If we can put more emphasis on it, we can do it. We have done it with pensioners; they are not poor any more. But there are many different groups that we, and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, have talked about. We need to work together, and I hope that this will kick-start something. We can do so much better in looking after our people, so that we live in a happier society that we can all appreciate and enjoy.

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Portrait Baroness Taylor of Stevenage (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this very important debate, for the truly magnificent work he has done over many years to alleviate poverty and homelessness, and for being a real champion of independence and dignity as that work was carried out. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham on his marvellous valedictory speech, on all the work he has done on child poverty and refugees, and on his passionate advocacy for those on the margins. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. I am a Hertfordshire girl, and the two are always getting mixed up with each other, but I know the difference. We very much look forward to working with him—and, I hope, helping him avoid the fate of some of his more unfortunate predecessors.

Last night, I attended my last full council meeting at Stevenage after 27 years as a councillor, and I will continue to serve the last of my 17 years as a county councillor until May 2025. This is relevant to this debate because, every day on the front line, councillors see the dreadful impact of entrenched poverty. My county council division, Bedwell, contains one of the most deprived wards in the country. The inequalities there get lost because of our being situated in the middle of relatively wealthy Hertfordshire, an issue the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford referred to. But the inequalities are stark. People living in Bedwell will live seven years fewer than those in other parts of my town, and 12 years fewer than those in St Albans, which is 12 miles away. Their educational attainment will be significantly lower, and we are already seeing further dips in key stage 1 and 2 results following the pandemic. Levels of economic activity are hampered by poor physical and mental health. While those lucky enough to be in social housing fare a bit better, poor, inadequate, expensive and insecure housing in the private sector creates a multitude of issues. Almost worse than all of this is the dreadful impact poverty has on the life chances, confidence and aspirations of people who live in such difficult circumstances. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred to this.

J.K. Rowling once said:

“Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships.”

There can be no worse indictment of the record of the last 14 years than that levels of poverty have got worse. More people are suffering those thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Worse still, more children are living in very deep poverty or worse, and 1 million children are living in destitution, as reported in the excellent Joseph Rowntree Trust report on poverty in 2024. There are 3.8 million people, including those 1 million children, living in destitution in the UK in 2024. They cannot afford to meet their most basic physical needs—to stay warm, dry, clean and fed. This figure has doubled since 2017. It is utterly shameful.

There is a disproportionate impact on families with more than three children, lone-parent families, families with younger children and some ethnic minority groups. Shockingly, some 50% of people in Pakistani or Bangladeshi households live in poverty, compared with 19% of people of white ethnicity. The high cost of living with a disability, whether poor physical or mental health, means that the poverty rate for these groups is 12% higher than for those who are not disabled. Those who take on unpaid carer responsibilities, who we should recognise as heroes for the saving they bring to the public purse, instead face increased poverty and an average financial pay penalty of £414 a month.

The petty humiliations and hardships are bad enough: children not able to go on school trips, wear proper school uniform, have shoes that fit them or sleep in their own beds with proper bedding; and managing without adequate sanitary protection. My own one was not being able to take part in cooking lessons at school because I was not allowed to take the ingredients on the list for what we had to make. I will never forget the story of the 10-year-old who was a promising opera singer. She and her mum lived in one room, and she did her homework sitting on her mum’s bed. In 10 years, she had never had a bed to herself. When you live like that, you cannot take friends home. It eats away at your self-confidence. It batters your aspirations for the future.

The key causes of such poverty are well documented, if perhaps not so well understood. The title of the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, points to one of the key reasons why it has seemed much harder than it should be to work across government to resolve some of these generational, underlying issues.

I was astonished to discover when I first came to your Lordships’ House that the broad sweep of work that we do in local government is just not replicated by the work of DLUHC here. As the convenors of coalitions across business and the public and voluntary sectors, leaders of councils draw together many different strands to effect the change they want to see achieve outcomes for their areas. They also have key responsibilities for adult social care and children’s services, tackling climate change, driving economic development, and transport infrastructure, which in government sit in entirely different departments. These differences were referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox.

We know what would make a difference to tackling poverty, and I have no doubt that the levelling-up agenda was intended to address it, but without fundamental reform at government level, it is difficult to see how it will succeed. It was disappointing—not to say incomprehensible—that the Government refused to include tackling child poverty as one of the key levelling-up missions, in spite of the powerful case made by my noble friend Lady Lister and other noble Lords. That is why my party is proposing a mission-led Government which will see the structures determined by the outcomes, not the other way round, and a radical child poverty strategy.

It has been tragic to see the steps taken over the last 14 years that have exacerbated the situation. There is the hollowing out of the fantastically progressive Sure Start programme, the introduction of the two-child rule for benefits, the failure to address the economic activity needs of people with disabilities and poor mental health, the lack of an industrial strategy to deliver the skills we need, and the virtual abandonment of unpaid carers. It is shocking that we now have more food banks in our country than police stations. The imminent removal of the household support fund will make all of this worse.

This failure is particularly highlighted by the situation in housing, where we currently have over a million people on waiting lists, only 8,396 new social homes built last year and newly homeless families outnumbering newly built social homes by six to one. A decent, secure, affordable home is the absolute foundation stone for tackling all the other underlying causes of poverty. I grew up in a council house myself, so I speak from experience here. At a recent event in your Lordships’ House, the story of a family from one of our rural areas—they had been forced away from the area their family had lived in for generations, lived in inadequate accommodation for years and were then given the keys to their new social rented home in their own village—demonstrated yet again that housing matters.

We need to pull together the threads of tackling poverty across government. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, does not like politicians very much, but politics, like marriage, is a triumph of hope over experience. My party has a plan to tackle the causes of economic inactivity: our New Deal for Working People, childcare support through breakfast clubs in every primary school, targeted support for the over-50s and those who have left the labour market, overhauling the skills system so everyone has a chance to carve out a career and breaking down the barriers for disabled people at work, growing the economy so that we put money back into people’s pockets and make work pay, and delivering a bold new cross-government child poverty strategy.

To give people an affordable home, we need to get Britain building homes of all tenures, but particularly social homes. Labour is committed to that. We will make sure there are proper targets for delivery for every area based on housing need and bring forward new “new towns”.

Running our NHS into the ground has seen waiting lists for mental and physical health soar. We need to improve access to those healthcare systems to get people back into work. Carers UK estimates that 1.2 million carers live in poverty, so Labour will reform the NHS and ensure that both paid and unpaid carers are valued and supported. Nearly one in five pensioners—almost 2 million—now lives in poverty. The Government have failed on the uptake of help for poorer pensioners. I will take the opportunity to mention the WASPI generation, who were not adequately informed of the pension-age changes which left their financial and career planning in tatters as seven years were added to their pensionable age when they had planned to retire at 60.

Today’s debate has brought into sharp focus the scale of the challenge. But we must be in no doubt: we should measure our success as a country by the way we deliver for our most vulnerable. Surely, as a minimum, we want to see the levels of poverty and destitution we have heard about today eradicated. For me, that is the minimum we would expect of levelling up.

We should commit to a mission of tackling poverty across government, lifting the stress, anxiety and depression it causes, and removing the thousands of petty humiliations and hardships it causes. Leaving people in poverty and blaming them for their circumstances—something that is sadly endemic in the UK—can deprive the whole country of the talents, skills and potential those people have. We know it needs to be done, so even if it takes a general election to deliver that change, can we please get on with it?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Viscount Younger of Leckie) (Con)
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My Lords, I am very pleased to close this important debate. It has allowed us to discuss many issues and challenges relating to poverty, with a focus on cross-government efforts to find a solution.

I will start by thanking all noble Lords for their valuable contributions today—particularly the noble Lord, Lord Bird, who has tirelessly championed vulnerable and homeless people over many years, for initiating this debate. I will say a little more because noble Lords should be in no doubt that I was very moved by his impassioned speech. He spoke about giving the poor more, mentioning it many times, and how this was not necessarily the way forward. He also spoke with great conviction about PECC—prevention, emergency, coping and cure. I listened carefully to his remarks. I am afraid that I may use the word “initiative” in some of my remarks, and I await the spears that will be thrown at me without, I have to say, any particular shield.

I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for her long service in local government. It is appropriate to acknowledge the time she spent in local government. She now gives us the benefit of her knowledge and skills in this House, and we are all the better for that.

I have listened with great interest to many ideas promulgated today, particularly about a co-ordinated approach to tackling poverty. I would like to reassure noble Lords, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that we indeed have a co-ordinated approach. I will set out our stall in terms of what the Government have been doing. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, is right; we need to work together. That is extremely important.

I also acknowledge the outstanding maiden speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. I am glad, as has been said by others, that he has survived so far, given the past experiences—some rather gruesome—of his predecessors. It is especially helpful and important to have a representative from his Benches for rural issues, which is not to say that there are not other right reverend Prelates who cover rural issues. He has clearly made it his business to become steeped in many local issues in Hereford, and that bodes well, because I can tell that his style is to focus on detail, with cogent argument. The House is all the better for his presence here, and I await his further contributions—with some trepidation, if I happen to be at the Dispatch Box.

I fully recognise that poverty is a hugely complex subject and that many people who experience it often face a range of barriers that can make it difficult for them to move on with their lives. As the noble Lord, Lord Bird, acknowledged, it is incredibly difficult. I also recognise that tackling these complex underlying challenges cannot be done in isolation. This Government have a range of programmes that work across departmental boundaries to help people to address the challenges they face, so that they can take their first steps towards employment and better outcomes for themselves and their families.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, is right that it is also about dignity and promoting and upholding the dignity of those who are suffering in poverty and destitution, without patronisation, if I can put it in that way.

I want at this point to acknowledge the valedictory speech of my friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. We all wish him well for his retirement, and I personally thank him for his commitment and for raising many important issues during his time in the House. I have to say that I have appreciated his frankness in speaking truth to power—as the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, said, not about him but in other respects—and for his friendship. As many Peers have mentioned, the right reverend Prelate has consistently raised important matters relating to poverty, and this debate is certainly no different. I will be addressing many of the points he has raised, including raising the national living wage, reappraising of the value of unpaid work, the two-child limit, which is an old favourite that I shall be covering, the essentials guarantee, too much silo thinking and the need for a shift in national thinking, which was a big comment that he made. We will miss him and, if I may say so, he leaves certain important matters, including questions, ringing in my ears, and I will not forget that.

I shall set out some specific examples in a moment, but I want to start by reminding noble Lords of the significant support provided by my department to those on the lowest incomes. Before I get into detail on that, coming back to some questions that have been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, in terms of a poverty strategy, while there is no written strategy, we have been clear in our approach, which I will outline throughout my speech, and I hope that she will acknowledge this, focusing on both our welfare offer and our efforts to get people into sustainable employment and progress. There is more than that. She will expect these lines to be “trotted out”, as she put it, but I hope she does not think that way too much.

The noble Baroness asked an important question about poverty measurement. She might like to know that my department is developing so-called below average resources—BAR—statistics to provide a new, additional measure of poverty based on the approach proposed by the Social Metrics Commission, led by my noble friend Lady Stroud. The new BAR approach seeks to provide a more expansive view of available resources, both savings and inescapable costs, than the income measurement adopted under the DWP’s households below average income statistics. In developing this additional poverty measure, the DWP is working closely with stakeholders, including the SMC, other government departments and subject matter experts on this important point.

A strong welfare system is at the heart of ensuring support for those who need it, and our commitment to maintaining a strong safety net is reflected in the £276 billion that we expect to spend through the welfare system in Great Britain this financial year. Having uprated in line with inflation this financial year, we have announced a further increase of 6.7% in working age benefits for 2024-25, subject to parliamentary approval. The basic and new state pensions will be uprated by 8.5%, in line with earnings, as part of the ongoing triple lock.

We are also providing cost of living support worth £104 billion over the period 2022-23 to 2024-25. This is a cross-cutting package of support built on what we learned during the Covid-19 pandemic about supporting those most in need during challenging times. In particular, my department has worked closely with HMRC, HM Treasury and the devolved Administrations to deliver cost of living payments of up to £900 to more than 8 million households across the UK on eligible, means-tested benefits this financial year. I am pleased to say that DWP and HMRC delivered the third means-tested cost of living payment of £299 to most eligible households between 6 February and 22 February 2024.

We have not been delivering this support alone. My department has worked closely with local government—to be helpful to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and perhaps also to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox—to deliver the household support fund. One hundred and fifty-three local authorities across England have used this funding to provide a variety of support to households to help with their essential costs. I am aware that there remains considerable interest across both Houses in the future of this fund. As with any issue, the Government continue to keep these matters under review in the usual way. As the House knows only too well, the current scheme continues to run until the end of March.

From April, we are increasing the national living wage for people aged 21 and over by 9.8% to £11.44, representing an increase of more than £1,800 to the gross annual earnings of a full-time worker on the national living wage. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked about low pay, particularly with regard to insecure work. I have already mentioned the national living wage, but this record cash increase of £1.20 per hour means we will hit the target for the national living wage to equal two-thirds of median earnings for those aged 21 and over in 2024. This will bring an end to the low hourly rate for this particular cohort. The new in-work progression offer is now live across all jobcentres in Great Britain and we estimate that 1.2 million low-paid claimants are eligible for work coach support to help them to increase their earnings. Progression leads are working with key partners, including local government employers and skills providers, to identify and develop local progression opportunities.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford raised the importance of housing. As he will know, the Government are supporting people in paying their rent and will invest £1.2 billion on increasing the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile of local market rents. That will ensure that 1.6 million private renters in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit gain on average around £800 per year in additional help towards their rental costs in 2024-25. I believe that is a significant investment, worth about £7 billion over five years.

I said earlier that we do not work in isolation, and many of the complex issues faced by vulnerable people cannot be tackled through the welfare system alone. My department continues to work in partnership with other parts of central and local government to deliver the support that people need. Alongside the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we are committed to working with local authorities to tackle homelessness and end rough sleeping for good—which we must do, to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bird, who is so steeped in this subject. I am proud of the progress that has been made in recent years and the continued work to meet all the commitments outlined in the cross-government rough sleeping strategy but, as I will be told by the noble Lord, there is much more to do, and I can see it myself when walking through the streets.

I turn to the important theme that was raised today of families and children. The Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department for Education are working together to deliver the Supporting Families programme. Between April 2015 and December 2023, the programme funded local authorities to help more than 612,000 families make sustained improvements in relation to the often complex problems that led to them joining the programme in the first place. A network of 300 specialised work coaches, the Supporting Families employment advisers, support the programme by providing employment support for families that are experiencing multiple disadvantages.

The departments also work together to deliver a range of support to help ensure that children thrive, which is another key theme that has come up today. The pupil premium will ensure that targeted funding continues to help schools to support disadvantaged five to 16 year-old pupils and to close attainment caps.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised the importance of child poverty in an important part of her speech. I hope I can reassure her that we are taking this seriously and working across government on a range of matters to reduce child poverty. She shakes her head, so I clearly have more work to do.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham also raised the importance of child poverty and talked about the two-child policy. He asked again why the Government do not do the right thing and abolish it. We believe that families on benefits should face the same financial choices when deciding to grow their family as those supporting themselves solely through work. He will know only too well, and he has heard these lines from me before, that on 9 July the Supreme Court handed down the judicial review judgment on the two-child policy. The court found the policy lawful and not in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, no doubt we will continue to debate this matter.

In addition, there is collaboration between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education to provide support to families through Healthy Start, the nursery milk scheme and the school fruit and vegetables scheme, which together help more than 3 million children. To reassure the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the Government have extended the free school meals eligibility several times, as she will probably know, and to more groups of children than any other Government over the past half a century.

The issue of child poverty was raised also by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, focusing on poverty in the north-east and with particular reference to the North East Child Poverty Commission, and I listened carefully to what she said. There are some figures that I could bring out, but the most recent data shows that the proportion of children in the north-east in absolute poverty after housing costs fell by seven percentage points in the three years to 2021-22, compared with the three years up to 2009-10. Having said all that, we understand that many families are still struggling—I am the first to say that—and this is work in progress. That is why some help has been given through the comprehensive cost of living support.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Armstrong, addressed the pupil premium. I emphasise, in response to the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, that the funding is on top of the £1 billion of recovery premium funding provided in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 academic years, following over £300 million delivered in 2021-22.

On our approach to poverty, while it is absolutely right that we maintain a strong welfare safety net for those in need—I emphasise that—particularly during challenging economic times, we have always believed that, for those who can, the best way to help people to improve their financial circumstances is through work. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and I alluded to this earlier, mentioned prevention and cure. That is an answer, but not the only answer. We believe that prevention and cure are possible through getting people into work and I hope he will agree with that, although, as I say, it may not provide all the answers.

Our approach is based on the clear evidence around the important role that work, especially full-time work, can play in lifting people out of poverty. This is why, with over 900,000 vacancies across the UK, our focus is firmly on helping people take their first steps into work and to progress towards financial independence. We want everyone who can to be able to find a job and to progress and thrive in work, whoever they are and wherever they live. To ensure that support meets the needs of people across the country, my department offers a national programme of welfare and employment support, delivered through the Jobcentre Plus network across Great Britain.

My department also has local teams that specialise in working in partnership with local government and other local stakeholders, including businesses and communities—to be helpful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox—to understand each area’s needs. This place-based approach is crucial in helping to address the disparities that exist between regions and underlines our commitment to spreading opportunity and unleashing potential across the UK.

Of course, we recognise the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on the link between health and work. That includes mental health conditions, which she particularly focused on. The joint DWP/DHSC Work and Health Unit was set up in 2015 in recognition of the significant link between work and health and to reflect the shared agenda of boosting employment opportunities for disabled people and people with health conditions.

I want to cover some of the questions raised; I hope I can cover them in the remaining time. Notably, these questions were from the noble Lords, Lord Bird and Lord Loomba, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. This goes back to strategy. I think the noble Lord, Lord Bird, was probably asking the Government for a ministry of poverty, not a Ministry of Justice. I may be wrong in interpreting what he was trying to say. I hope I have shown in my speech that we saw during the pandemic the Department for Work and Pensions consistently working well across government to support the most vulnerable households.

There is a lot of work going on across government and I believe that there is joined-up thinking. In addition to Ministers meeting counterparts in other departments, officials work regularly with colleagues across government to better understand the multidimensional nature of poverty and to craft effective policy. This includes a cross-government senior officials’ group on poverty, as well as bilateral meetings and meetings with external anti-poverty stakeholders.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, asked about the five-week wait. It is not possible to award a universal credit payment as soon as a claim is made, as the assessment period must run its course before the award of UC can be calculated. This process ensures that claimants are paid their correct entitlement, based on verified information and actual earnings, and prevents significant overpayments from occurring.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, made an important point about digital exclusion particularly affecting lower-income households. I reassure her that we are aware of this. She is right and she is a great champion in this area. The costs of being connected online can be a barrier for low-income households. The DWP has worked with DCMS and Ofcom to influence broadband providers to support extending eligibility for new broadband social tariffs to low-income households. As a result, some broadband providers have made their new social tariffs available to all UC claimants and claimants of other means-tested benefits. The DWP has worked with Ofcom to promote awareness of these social tariffs to DWP stakeholders and work coaches throughout our Jobcentre Plus network, who can then signpost claimants to apply for broadband social tariffs.

The noble Baroness also raised the issue of chambers of commerce, and I listened carefully to what she said. I think my speech set out, as I said earlier, some emphasis on the close cross-government working with local authorities. I agree that it is vital that local authorities also work collectively to build local leadership, and I will certainly take her remarks back.

The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, spoke about funding for local government. I reassure them that the Government have announced additional measures for local authorities in England, worth £600 million—the noble Baroness will know that.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke about mental health. I alluded to that earlier, but we recognise the challenges of those in poverty, which is why we are investing an additional £2.3 billion a year in mental health services.

I should draw my remarks to a close. There are a couple of questions, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who made interesting points about a universal basic income. I will write to the noble Lord on his interesting idea, which is not new to me. I will expand upon it and perhaps give him a full answer.

I reassure the House that Ministers continue to work across and beyond departmental boundaries to ensure that we take a co-ordinated approach to supporting vulnerable and low-income households. We look forward to working with all noble Lords across the House to continue to support those in need. This is a very important subject, and I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for once again raising it. It certainly is important for the Government.

Lord Bird Portrait Lord Bird (CB)
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I thank the Minister very much. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole of that debate, which was wonderful. I shall gather it all together, read it and distribute it to my friends and people who I work with, because it covered everything, including the kitchen sink.

I welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. I am surprised he did not report on the fact that, every year, hundreds and hundreds of people go to Hereford, to a little vipassana silent retreat. I was there for 10 days over the new year break and had a wonderful time in the countryside of Hereford—it is a great pleasure to go there. I have been there four times, and the only reason I can carry on in life is that I can go somewhere and be quiet for that time.

The figures I came up with on the cost of poverty are very much based on what I have been told: that 50% of the time that the NHS spends on health, for instance, is spent on trying to make the poorest among us as healthy as possible. Some 34% of the money that goes into our classrooms is spent on the damage of poverty that is brought there, and that 90% of our Ministry of Justice’s bill, and all bills for crime, are to do with poverty. If you had a ministry of poverty and could co-ordinate and bring everything together, you might be able to close down half of the NHS. You might also be able to close down the Ministry of Justice—or just call it the “Ministry of Middle-Class Justice”, for all the middle-class people who are increasingly doing wrong.

I thank all noble Lords for doing this. I was with a group last night who said to me, “The idea of creating a ministry of poverty prevention sounds very Orwellian”. I reminded these people that in 1948, when we created the National Health Service, it was described even in those early days as Orwellian. I would love everybody to look at the invention that I am hoping will happen in my lifetime: an NHS, but called a “MoP”. Let us mop up poverty and get rid of it. Let us apply everything to get rid of it, and use MoP to do it, because I cannot see it happening unless we converge all the energies that the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Burt, the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and everybody else has talked about today. God bless and thank you.

Motion agreed.

Royal Assent

Royal Assent was notified for the following Act:
Finance Act 2024.

Inter Faith Network

Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Commons Urgent Question
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Baroness Scott of Bybrook) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend Felicity Buchan to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“May I thank the right honourable gentleman for raising the issue of the Inter Faith Network? I am grateful for all his work as chair of the All-party Group on Faith and Society and as a long-standing advocate for dialogue across faiths.

As my honourable friend the Minister for Local Government said during an Adjournment debate on this on 10 January, we know full well the role that faith communities play in our society. We are extremely supportive of efforts by faith groups and others to bring together people of different faiths and beliefs.

The Secretary of State wrote to the co-chairs of the Inter Faith Network on 19 January this year to inform them that he was minded to withdraw the offer of funding for the 2023-24 financial year. This was because of the appointment of a member of the Muslim Council of Britain to the board of trustees of the IFN. As the House will be aware, successive Governments have had a long-standing policy of non-engagement with the MCB. The appointment of an MCB member to the core governance structure of a government-funded organisation therefore poses a reputational risk to the Government.

The Secretary of State invited the IFN to make representations on this matter, which it subsequently did. The Secretary of State carefully considered the points raised by the IFN before concluding that its points were outweighed by the need to maintain the Government’s policy of non-engagement with the MCB, and the risk of compromising the credibility and effectiveness of that policy. Inter-faith work is valuable, but that does not require us to use taxpayers’ money in a way that legitimises the influence of organisations such as the MCB.

The department regularly reminds our partners, including the IFN, of the importance of developing sustainable funding arrangements rather than relying on taxpayers’ money, which can never be guaranteed. The potential closure of the organisation is therefore a matter for the IFN, as an independent charity, and not the Government. The Government are and continue to be fully supportive of developing and maintaining strong relationships across faiths and beliefs”.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. Our country is strengthened by the richness and diversity of the faith traditions here, but the Government have a responsibility to help to facilitate positive relationships between different faith communities—all the more so in these difficult times.

We have now had some explanation of what has gone on here, but there are outstanding questions. First, funding for the current financial year was offered to the IFN last July, so can the Minister explain when the decision was taken to withdraw it and, crucially, whether the charity was told before the work being funded during this year had been undertaken? Secondly, have the Government made plans to make up for this loss of capacity by supporting other work facilitating relationships between faith communities?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I can assure the noble Baroness that we have kept the IFN informed of every move that we have made on its funding issues, and it has had the chance to discuss them with us. As for other funding, I absolutely agree with her that work facilitated and supported by government is really important for inter-faith work. I personally go and see a lot of inter-faith work going on, and we are still supporting more than 800,000 a year in organisations—people such as Near Neighbours and others that are doing this important work in our communities.

Baroness Burt of Solihull Portrait Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD)
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My Lords, whichever way you look at this, the optics are not good. It was news to me that the Government do not engage with the Muslim Council of Britain. Our group met its new, and first female, secretary-general only a few weeks ago. I have two questions for the Minister. First, this has been a long-standing non-relationship, promoted quite a few years ago; is it not time that the Government reviewed this non-relationship with the Muslim Council of Britain, particularly in the light of the current situation and the fact that it works with over 500 organisations to promote knowledge and understanding of the Muslim faith and counter islamophobia? Secondly, will the Government review this decision? It is petty, wrong-headed and counterproductive. It does not put the Government in a good light—but it could if the Government were prepared to review it.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, it is not just this Government; successive Governments of different colours have had a long-standing policy of non-engagement with the MCB. British Muslims are a crucial part of Britain’s history and our way of life in Britain today. Each and every Muslim in every community in every corner of the United Kingdom should know that their religion will never act as a barrier to achieving their ambitions. The Government recognise the discrimination and intolerance faced by British Muslims, particularly at this time. We will not tolerate anti-Muslim hatred in any form and will seek to stamp it our wherever it occurs. This does not mean, however, that the Government have to use public funds to support the influence of organisations such as the MCB. We have no plans to review this decision.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB)
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My Lords, I speak as a founder member of the Inter Faith Network back in the 1980s, when it was very difficult to get people of different religions into the same room to talk to each other. That initiative owed much to Brian Pearce, a former civil servant. The Inter Faith Network has done some remarkably good work, particularly in the celebration of the millennium and getting religion in the census. There has been a difficulty in this country in that there is a sort of rule that people cannot talk about religion—people from different religions would come together and talk about anything but the commonalities and differences in their religions. There has been movement in the direction of actually discussing the importance of commonalities and building on them. It is sad that this closure is happening at this time, especially as the reason given is that the board contains a member of the Muslim Council of Britain. It is not a proscribed organisation, and it is better to have people with different views talking together to move the country forward in respect for one another.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I completely agree with the noble Lord that it is important that we have safe places where people of all faiths can discuss the issues surrounding faith and their relationships and to get together in communities. I thank him for his work, including in the early days of the Inter Faith Network. It was funded by the department from 2007 and we have given it £4 million since then. We have always said to it, however—as we say to any organisation that we fund—that it has to diversify its funding streams in order to become sustainable. No organisation can be reliant for ever on government funding, because we just do not know what is going to happen. I cannot reiterate the views of the Government again.

Lord Bishop of Worcester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Worcester
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My Lords, I too pay tribute to the work of the Inter Faith Network. As has been stated, surely the optics of this are not good. I would like to ask the Minister how far non-engagement extends, because surely, in our society, we want to encourage dialogue, even with those organisations that may express some views with which we disagree. To not be willing to engage at all with an organisation that has not been proscribed goes against all the efforts being made to bring our society together—it seems very strange.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I do not particularly think it is strange. It is a long-standing decision not to engage with the MCB. The Government are doing what successive Governments have done. The person was on the council as a member, but it was when they became a trustee that things became more difficult for the Government.

Baroness Butler-Sloss Portrait Baroness Butler-Sloss (CB)
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Since it has been a long-standing arrangement that the Muslim Council of Britain should not be regarded as an organisation that the Government talk to, would the Government now be prepared to review that?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I cannot say. Reviews like that are carried out by the Home Office. I will certainly take that back and ask the question but, as far as I know, there are no plans to look at it again.

Lord Liddle Portrait Lord Liddle (Lab)
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Does the Minister think that the Government’s action in this case is proportionate, given the huge importance in our society of interfaith dialogue and the fact that one person seems to be spoiling the show? Surely the Secretary of State would have a broader vision than that.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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The Secretary of State carefully considered the implications of this and of ceasing the funding, including the potential impact on the Inter Faith Network itself and interfaith relations in the United Kingdom. The noble Lord is absolutely right: interfaith work is valuable, but there are very many more positive examples of thriving initiatives across the country that bring people together. That does not require us to use taxpayers’ money in a way that legitimises the influence of organisations such as the MCB.

Water and Sewage Companies: Directors’ Remuneration

Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question for Short Debate
Asked by
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have for reforming remuneration of the directors of water and sewage companies operating in England.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to open this debate. Privatisation of water in England has not yielded the promised benefits to the people, but directors of these companies are highly rewarded for inflicting at least five major harms to customers, the environment, taxpayers and society generally. First, in pursuit of private profits, more than 1 trillion litres of water are lost to leaks from crumbling infrastructure each year. Secondly, tons of sewage are dumped in rivers and seas, threatening human health, marine life and biodiversity; only 14% of rivers in England have a good ecological status, and no rivers have a good chemical status. Thirdly, customer bills in England have risen in real terms without commensurate increase in quality of service. Fourthly, investment in infrastructure has been very low. Fifthly, companies are habitual tax avoiders. In the words of a man called Michael Gove, who gave a speech on 1 March 2018:

“Last year Anglian, Southern and Thames paid no corporation tax. Indeed Thames has paid no corporation tax for a decade. Ten years of shareholders getting millions, the chief executive getting hundreds of thousands, and the public purse getting nothing”.

Little has changed since 2018. It is more of the same. England’s nine major water and sewage companies are more than 90% owned by overseas investors scattered across China, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Caymans, Qatar, the UAE and elsewhere. They have little or no physical contact with polluted rivers and crumbling infrastructure and have done absolutely nothing to curb undeserved executive pay. Their main concerns are returns and dividends. Since privatisation, around £75 billion has been paid in dividends, funded by debt and squeezes on investment.

Puny fines have not curbed the lust for bigger profits, pay packets and bonuses. Since 2010, Anglian Water has been sanctioned 74 times and fined £6.2 million. Thames Water has been sanctioned 98 times and fined £175 million. Yorkshire Water has been sanctioned 94 times and fined £109 million. Severn Trent has been sanctioned 82 times and fined £8 million. United Utilities has been sanctioned 215 times and fined £6.6 million. Despite these offences, the directors are rewarded and their pay packets keep getting bigger. According to data published by the Liberal Democrats—I must give credit where it is due—in 2021, 2022 and 2023 executives of water companies in England collected remuneration of £70 million, including nearly £41 million in bonuses. Why are these bonuses paid? Is it not the duty of directors to provide clean water, plug leaks, ensure water security and the proper disposal of wastewater, and renew infrastructure? If it is, there is no case whatever for giving them bonuses.

People are concerned about undeserved rewards at water companies, so the Government periodically soothe public anxieties with promised reforms. For example, on 1 March 2018 the then Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, lamented excessive executive pay at water companies, but absolutely nothing changed. On 3 July 2018, in a paper titled Consultation on Revised Board Leadership, Transparency and Governance Principles, Ofwat promised greater transparency over executive pay, but it remains elusive. In June 2023, Ofwat said that it would review bonus payments, and it repeated that on 8 November, but nothing changed.

On 11 February 2024, the Government announced they are considering banning bonuses for directors

“if a company has committed serious criminal breaches … That could include successful prosecution for a Category 1 or 2 pollution incident—such as causing significant pollution at a bathing site or conservation area—or where a company has been found guilty of serious management failings”.

Those words are quite interesting. Words such as “could” are vague—not “will” or “must”—and the emphasis is on multiple breaches and failings. How many do there need to be before the Government think that something needs to be done? Ripping off customers and taxpayers is simply not considered a failing in the Government’s thinking, although most people absolutely are concerned about it. I am sure the Minister will tell us more about it.

What if pollution is deadly but not criminal as defined by law? After all, the Government have authorised these companies to continue polluting rivers until 2050. I hope the Minister will tell us why, after 14 years of doing nothing, the Government are now making some vague gestures in the year of a general election.

Ofwat, which has presided over degradation, is somehow now expected to enforce curbs on bonuses. Ofwat is a failed and conflicted regulator. Two-thirds of England’s biggest water companies employ key executives who previously worked at Ofwat. In a letter to the Ofwat CEO, dated 21 February 2024, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee expressed strong concerns that Ofwat cannot exercise its full range of powers as they are now, because that might affect the stability of the sector and upset water companies. How do the Government expect it to deal with bonuses and executive pay? I hope the Minister will expand on that.

The Government have done nothing to create pressure points for honest, ethical practices by addressing the shortcomings of the shareholder-centric model of corporate governance, enhancing democracy or empowering long-suffering stakeholders in water companies. I will sketch out what I think needs to be done.

Whether water is owned privately or through a not-for-profit company, we need durable reforms grounded in democracy and public accountability. First, remuneration contracts of water company directors should be publicly available so that everyone has a clear idea of what they are getting. The sanitised snippets in the annual accounts—which I have read—are very economical with information and rarely mention that chauffeur-driven cars and private school and medical fees also form part of executive pay packages. There is complete silence on these things. I have this from an insider, by the way.

Secondly, all customers should be empowered to vote on executive remuneration policy and amounts. A 51% vote should be needed to approve directors’ basic pay. If directors have polluted rivers, did not plug leaks, did not invest adequately or exploited customers, it is extremely unlikely that they will get their pay. Customers will simply not reward them for it. This is a powerful pressure point for securing socially responsible practices.

In addition, if bonuses are to be awarded for what I call extraordinary performance, there needs to be extraordinary approval for those bonuses. That would mean that at least 90% of customers must approve the bonus. This is a fairly common standard for approving bonuses in places such as Sweden. They are not simply handed out willy-nilly because somebody thinks they deserve it.

I am sure the Minister will oppose my suggestions—I am quite prepared for that—but for the last 35 years, Ofwat and Governments have failed to tackle the scandal of excessive pay for the poor performance of water companies. We need to empower and trust the people. If the Minister disagrees with empowering people, I hope he will tell the House why people cannot be trusted but some administrator at Ofwat can be, even though it has failed ever since privatisation.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, I start with my declaration of interests, as on the register. I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Water Group. Last year, I undertook to chair a study organised by CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, into bioresources strategy. For a number of years, I worked with the water regulator for Scotland, the Water Industry Commission.

At the outset, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, on securing this debate, and on his forensic examination of the subject. I, for one, think that privatisation has been a success. We can always improve upon it, and that is the purpose of today’s debate. It has delivered benefits, but there is always cause to look at the regulation.

I applaud the Government for the action they have taken on holding directors to account, particularly the instruction they have given to Ofwat and the work Ofwat has done on executive pay. It has been very clear that companies need to demonstrate that performance-related executive renumeration is linked to performance for customers and the environment. In June last year, Ofwat confirmed that, where companies do not so demonstrate that executive pay is linked to performance, it will stop companies recovering the cost of bonuses from customers. So, one of the points the noble Lord raised has already been addressed by both the Government and Ofwat. I look forward to hearing from my noble friend the Minister about what further action is envisaged.

Water companies have a public role to play in other areas, such as flood defences, particularly by working with farmers and others. I will spend some time outlining how that work could be done. If we are to follow through the thrust of the title of this debate and link renumeration to performance, I hope that my noble friend the Minister and his department will look at the corollary of that: giving water companies the tools to do the job. The Government promised in this place and the other place that Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 will be implemented, as it has been implemented in Wales. Will my noble friend tell us today, or in writing after the debate, what the programme is for that?

It is extremely important that we stop the automatic right to connect, whereby water companies are expected to connect pipes from three, four or five-bedroom homes to antiquated Victorian pipes that simply cannot take the amount of wastewater and sewage coming out of new-build houses. The Government must insist on mandatory SUDS—sustainable drainage systems—for all new builds, and I hope they will also commit to an ambitious programme of retrofitting sustainable drains to existing developments. Obviously, that raises the difficult question of who will maintain the SUDS, and I can well imagine that that might be the cause of the delay we are suffering in implementing Schedule 3. If my noble friend could report back on that, that would be immensely helpful.

The Government also need to attack the vexatious problem of building on inappropriate places such as flood plains. Building on flood plains is increasingly having the undesirable effect of mixing sewage with floodwater in combined sewers, which then pollutes existing developments. That has very negative public health consequences, causing people living there to leave. Will the Government also look carefully at making national highway authorities, not local authorities, responsible for water run-off from the major highways, which mixes with the combined sewers and is an additional source of flooding?

Will the Government also look favourably on rewarding farmers for storing water on flood land? According to the NFU, over half the best, most fertile farmland in Britain is flood plains. The farming community and landowners are performing a public good by preventing communities downstream flooding. However, there is great uncertainty as to how farmers can benefit from public funds. The NFU is seeking urgent clarification from Defra as to who will be eligible to apply for both the flood recovery framework and the farming recovery fund, and what level of damages can be recovered. Equally, there should be a simple recognition of the public good that farmers deliver in that regard.

I am very keen on and excited by the prospect of introducing more private sector funding from both farmers and water companies. Will my noble friend the Minister and his department look at that? That could include a whole-catchment area approach, and more Slowing the Flow schemes such as those successfully implemented in Pickering, protecting downstream communities from flooding.

I welcome the level of investment announced in the five-year business plan that Ofwat has yet to approve. It will factor in £96 billion in the next investment period, 2025-30, of which £11 billion will be allocated to reduce overflow spills. That is very welcome indeed.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Portrait Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Sikka for securing this debate and for his powerful speech, the majority of which I support. Like him, I will make a suggestion, and will add to his contribution—although I suspect that it will not find any great favour with the government spokesperson.

The background to this is that about three weeks ago, our shadow Minister for Defra, Mr Steve Reed MP, came to speak at the Labour Peers group weekly meeting about his Defra brief. As your Lordships might have expected, he talked about the long-standing problems so fully catalogued by my noble friend Lord Sikka: the difficulties faced by not just the Labour Party or other individual parties but the country, due to the water industry’s performance failure. He described issues on which he felt that Labour will have to take firm action. Contrary to the view of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, there is now a feeling within the country that we need to move away from such privatisations, which are not delivering in the way people thought they would.

I suggested to our shadow Minister that if he was looking to get better performance from the water companies—indeed, there has also been a failing on the part of the regulator—we might look to make changes. A novel way might be for the Labour Party to dust down the programme it ran when it first came to power: public/private partnerships. I speak with some experience in this area; I was appointed government director of the public/private partnership that was established for the National Air Traffic Services. As I saw it, the failing there was too much emphasis on the public side, with government representatives, and not enough involvement of the wider interests that constitute the public interest.

I suggested to the shadow Minister that we explore revamping the public/private partnership concept, and that we look in particular at the public side. Yes, the Government would have a part to play, but we should also involve local authorities and charities. Indeed, we might even contemplate floating shares, so that members of the public with a particular interest, especially those in rural areas, could buy into the public element. We would then end up with 51% owned by the public, constituted in the way I have just described, and a minority shareholding remaining with the existing private owners.

If a privatised company is not performing particularly well—there is certainly one such in this area—it should be told that unless it can improve, meet the legal requirements and act in a much more socially responsible way, it will be faced with a public/private partnership takeover. In this way, we would get better performance from that company, push up overall performance and, in turn, have an impact on the other privatised water companies. However, if they do not respond, we should, in turn, extend PPPs throughout the industry. Indeed, the concept could be applied way beyond just the water industry. Other industries have been privatised, and the performance of some of the companies is pretty abysmal and way below what the public would expect.

The Minister’s response will not, I expect, be of great favour. I am not sure what my Front Bench will say, but I have already run it by our shadow Treasury Minister. I hope that when we write our manifestos, there is a very firm view expressed by the prospective Labour Government about what we need to do within the water industry and that some of it is very much along the lines of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka.

Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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My Lords, I am very pleased to make a brief contribution to this debate. I congratulate my noble friend on securing it and on how he introduced it. It is very well timed. This is an election year and this is an issue that is not going away. The problems have not yet been solved and a change of government is likely to bring a welcome and overdue change of policy. To go to the heart of what I want to say, the country has reached the end of its patience with the current situation. Sewage continues to pollute our rivers and coastlines, and those in charge—the directors of water and sewage companies, mentioned in the title of today’s debate—continue to be paid handsomely and, in too many cases, continue to receive bonus payments which seem absurdly large and utterly unjustified in view of the failures over which they preside. Since 2019, about £26 million has been spent in bonuses.

I have two straightforward observations. First, water is essential to life and access to clean and safe water is a basic human right. Therefore, those engaged in companies that provide water and sewage services are engaged in a business unlike any other. I personally do not support a privatised water system, but that is not the subject of today’s debate. Secondly, not a single member of this House on any side wants sewage to be spilt, but it is still happening. We know that sewage discharges mostly occur during heavy rain, when sewer capacity is overwhelmed. Sewage releases are often the result of geography and water company infrastructure, but have the water companies been doing enough about it? In my view, they have not.

I am sure that the Minister will reply referring to the improvements being made, the role of Ofwat being beefed up, that there is consultation going on and so on, which is all very well, but that is not enough, When William Blake wrote his poem about England’s green and pleasant land, even his vivid imagination could not comprehend the capacity of modern water companies to degrade our landscape. What we are talking about here is neither green nor pleasant.

Shortly after I arrived in the House, having been elected, I found myself listening to debates on the Environment Bill. I remember in particular the amendment tabled by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, which sought

“progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage”.

I thought to myself, “What a modest amendment”, but I remember the outcry because of the Government’s opposition to it. As the House will recall, fearful of being defeated, the Government introduced their own amendment, which they claimed would satisfy public opinion and the noble Duke’s original intentions. However, the Government’s version was weaker. First, it was confined to storm overflows and not the sewerage system as a whole. Secondly, there was no specific duty on Ofwat or the Environment Agency to ensure compliance. Thirdly, it referred to adverse impacts rather than reductions in harm, which gives water companies plenty of wiggle room to keep polluting, which is exactly what has happened.

I can give an example too; I hope that the House will not mind. I found this on the website of a Government Back-Bencher whom I have never met. She says that

“a number of constituents have raised the issue of sewage being dumped in our waters. Along with others, I am horrified by the images from across Teignbridge showing this taking place and I believe we are all in agreement that steps need to be taken to resolve this troubling issue”.

Well, your Lordships may have read in the Times on Monday that nearly 39,000 sewage spills have been recorded in marginal constituencies held by the Conservative Party in 2022—more than the marginal constituencies of MPs from any other political party. That will concentrate the mind. The Times concluded that 56% of people would consider raw sewage discharges when they vote in the next election. No wonder this is likely to be an election issue. There are plenty of examples.

In 2020, I believe there were more than 400,000 raw sewage dumps into England’s rivers and seas or more than 3 million hours of spillages. In one incident, in June 2022, raw sewage spilled into Windermere lake for three hours. In 2020, Severn Trent was fined £2 million by Cannock magistrates for illegally spilling more than 260 million litres of raw sewage into the River Trent. Finally—I think I am right about this—in the High Weald of Sussex, Surrey and Kent, almost 27 hours of sewage releases took place in a single year. If we cannot protect the vital ecosystems of our areas of outstanding natural beauty, we are failing badly. I could go on, but I will not. The bad news is that they still continue.

Who is responsible for not having a proper system of planning—who, if not the directors of water companies? People increasingly feel that there is something really wrong in a system that does not apportion any meaningful responsibility for what is happening on those who are legally most responsible. In short, is it not time to get tougher with the role of directors of water and sewage companies? I think the answer is yes, and this debate is well-timed to put the directors of water companies on notice.

The next Labour Government should, and I think will, take decisive action to expand the regulatory powers of Ofwat to ensure that directors of water companies that fail to meet high environmental standards on sewage pollution will not profit from breaking the law. How can anyone seriously argue that they should benefit by doing so?

I am sure that the Minister will tell the House about the action being taken and improvements being made. The House of Lords Library briefing helpfully tells us a bit more about that, but I would like the Minister to confirm that the proposed bonus ban will cover directors and board members. Finally, can he say when the proposed changes will come into effect? I am sure that the Government are as aware as anyone of the political sensitivity of the issue; the Government have been behind public opinion on this, and we will know soon enough whether the electorate decides to place its faith in a future Labour Government to tackle these issues.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I am glad to be able to make a brief contribution in the gap. All the contributions have confirmed the relevance and timeliness of my noble friend’s debate, and I congratulate him. I want to reiterate the urgent need for action. Our sewage crisis has become a scandal: negligence, complacency and paying dividends to shareholders, rather than investing in infrastructure, have allowed our rivers, lakes and the seas around our coastal areas to become open sewers. My party is determined that evidence of continued sewage pollution should lead to a criminal offence.

Tuesday’s Channel 4 documentary on the subject alerted the whole country to the repugnant truth that deliberate discharging of raw sewage has been allowed to continue, and has even been encouraged, while 10 water bosses last year received bonuses totalling £2.5 million. I welcome the recent announcement in the other place that water bosses are set to be banned from receiving bonuses if the company has committed serious criminal breaches. As my party has said, it is high time that we made the polluter, not the public, pay.

Instead of asking customers to pay more for their water during a cost of living crisis, we should compel water bosses to count the cost. Senior executives should face personal criminal liability for extreme and persistent law-breaking. Furthermore, my party wants to introduce automatic fines for illegal discharges of a size that water bosses cannot ignore. I would like to see Ofwat have the power to force all companies to monitor every single water outlet.

After years of appalling spills—although I take issue with the word, as it somehow implies accidental leakages—firmer action is desperately overdue. Ofwat announced measures to ban future bonuses for bosses of companies that were found to have harmed the environment last year. Given that Ofwat is still to consult on whether the plan would actually go ahead, can the Minister assure us that the Government’s recently announced proposals will be enough to clean up our polluted waters? What steps will they be taking to reduce reliance on water companies’ self-monitoring?

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, on his excellent introduction to this extremely important subject. England’s water system is at breaking point. Water companies are responsible for one of the worst environmental crises in the UK: the illegal dumping of sewage into rivers, lakes and coastlines through storm overflows.

The scale of the sewage crisis afflicting our rivers and coastal waters is staggering to comprehend. In 2021, the water companies were responsible for 368,966 spills, during which raw sewage and untreated wastewater were pumped into aquatic environments for a total of 2,650,290 hours. The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, has given some excellent statistics on this.

England is home to 85% of the earth’s chalk streams—rare and precious habitats that the Government and water companies should recognise that they have a particular duty to protect, instead of allowing them to be devastated by raw sewage overflows. If my colleague Lord Chidgey were still with us, he would have something to say about this.

The Conservatives have done nothing to stop water companies polluting our rivers with sewage. They have consistently voted against tougher action to stop illegal sewage overflows, while the water regulator, Ofwat, has said that only six of the 11 sewerage companies met their sewage overflow targets. This is unacceptable.

Of the 827 illegal dumps of sewage in 2021 and 2022, only 16 resulted in prosecution. This means that this Government have effectively decriminalised the dumping of sewage in our rivers, lakes and coastal waterways. It is sadly now true that it is cheaper for water companies to pay the fine for this illegal activity than for them to invest in the infrastructure to future-proof and clean up our waterways. The cost of fines is written into their business plans.

Since privatisation, £65.9 billion has been paid out in water company dividends. There was a 20% increase in executive pay last year, and Britain’s privatised water and sewerage companies paid £1.4 billion in dividends in 2022, up from £540 million the previous year. This was despite rising household bills and a wave of public outcry over sewage leaks.

This has gone on long enough. Water companies must be brought to account for their actions. The Government must ensure that water companies invest their profits now, not by 2050. That is too far away. We need to ensure that the water in our lakes, rivers and seas is not filled with sewage. Discharging raw sewage is a risk to environmental health, public health, animal welfare and our economy. It should not continue.

British people are fed up with their beaches being closed due to sewage while water company executives are making millions and holidaying abroad. The Liberal Democrats continue to call for the Government to instigate a sewage tax. This would be a 16% tax on pre-tax profits, providing a £340 million fund to clear up the rivers that have been damaged and to fix the sewerage system. This would be in addition to the current 19% rate of corporation tax.

With only 14% of English rivers in a good ecological state, reforming water and sewerage companies is essential. We on these Benches support a public benefit company model for water companies, so that particular economic and environmental policy objectives must be considered explicitly in the running of the companies. While sewage is pumped into our waterways and our water infrastructure is leaky and outdated, water firms are handing out large profits to overseas investors and bonuses to their CEOs. The British taxpayer deserves better.

It is time for water company reform. Ofwat and the water companies should set minimum criteria for the value, scope and eligibility criteria for social tariff schemes across the country. Water companies should put a share of their own profits into social tariffs. They should be encouraged to work more collaboratively to raise awareness of priority services, as well as being more proactive in identifying customers in need of temporary support.

This is an emotive subject, but one that has to be tackled. I look forward to the Minister’s positive response.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Sikka for bringing this important debate to your Lordships’ House today.

I wanted first to comment on the figures he gave on the sheer number of times that water companies have been sanctioned, because those figures are simply appalling. They also clearly demonstrate that, to date, fines have not been acting as a deterrent or changing the behaviour of the water companies in the way that sewage has been dumped into our waterways. As my noble friend Lady Warwick said, we need to have fines and penalties that cannot be ignored in the way they have been to date.

As my noble friend Lord Sikka rightly asks, what have the bonuses been paid for? I hope we will hear some clarification from the Minister around recent government announcements on bonus payments and also how the remit of powers that Ofwat has will be able to curb these excesses. I know the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, mentioned the directive that has been given to Ofwat regarding this. While we clearly welcome that, it is also important to understand how this will practically operate within the existing priorities that the regulator has. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, talked about the amounts being paid in dividends; how will this actually work in practice, and are the Government intending to review it after a certain amount of time to make sure it is actually making a difference?

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, also asked some important questions around the environment, flooding and the impacts of our continued planning policies on long-term flooding. This is not just about now; it is also about the future. I would be interested in the Minister’s response to that.

My noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe talked about the meeting that Labour Peers had with a shadow Secretary of State from the other place and why strong action needs to be taken regarding the water industry and its regulations. I listened very carefully to my noble friend—and I am sure that our shadow Minister in the other place listened very carefully when he spoke to him at that meeting—to the suggestions that he has and how we can improve the current situation.

Let us have a look at what we actually proposed, and also at why our proposals are so urgently needed. For a start, as my noble friend Lord Stansgate said, the country has simply run out of patience on this matter. As he also said, a Labour Government will take decisive action on this matter. To briefly look at our proposals, we have carried out some analysis that shows that water company bosses have awarded themselves over £25 million in bonuses and incentives since the last election, despite repeatedly breaking the law with illegal sewage discharges. The analysis also found that nine water chief executives were paid a staggering £10 million in bonuses, £14 million in incentives—we have had a lot of talk about bonuses; we must not forget about incentives—and over £600,000 in further benefits since 2019, at the same time as customer bills were planned to go up by an extra £156 a year to plug the financial gap. As other noble Lords have said, it is not the customer who should be paying for this failure.

We believe that the water regulator should be given new powers to ban the payment of bonuses. Again, we welcome the Government finally deciding to adopt our plan on this. By expanding Ofwat’s regulatory powers, water companies that fail to meet environmental standards on sewage pollution will face tough sanctions to ensure that they cannot profit from this. When I met with the head of Ofwat some time ago, there was some concern about responsibility between Ofwat and the Environment Agency; it is really important that everyone is clear about who has responsibility for enforcing these things.

Other things we want to plan are to end self-monitoring—this has been mentioned—and to force all companies to monitor every single water outlet, so that sewage dumping can longer be covered up. It is important that all those monitoring stations are actually working, because that has also been a problem in the past.

We also feel that water bosses should face personal criminal liability if this persistent law-breaking is extreme and continues time and again, and if the fines and other sanctions are not making any difference. A BBC “Panorama” investigation found evidence of a water company covering up illegal sewage discharges, making sewage pollution disappear from its official figures. This is really not acceptable. It is important that we bring in more sanctions than the Government are currently proposing. It is time for the polluter to pay, not the public. Will the Minister encourage his Government to go further and back Labour’s whole plan to clean up our rivers and ensure that executives responsible for repeated illegal sewage dumping face criminal charges?

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Douglas-Miller) (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, on securing this important debate and sharing his extensive views on the subject, and thank other noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions to today’s discussion. I welcome the opportunity to speak about the progress we have made to improve the water environment and our reforms to the remuneration of company executives.

This Government have been leading the way on delivering clean water for customers and the environment. Our plan for water sets us on a holistic path to deliver more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement of our water system. Through this, we will transform our management of the water system, delivering cleaner water for nature and people and securing a plentiful water supply for the future. We have set out significant funding to support this work. Our plan for water committed £2.2 billion of new, accelerated investment directed into vital infrastructure to improve water quality and secure future supplies, including £1.7 billion funding to tackle storm overflows. In September 2023 we also published our expanded storm overflows plan, which set stringent targets to reduce the use of storm overflows. This plan will lead to the toughest-ever crackdown on sewage spills. In answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, the Government have increased the number of storm overflows monitored to 100% since the end of last year. Furthermore, this plan will also drive the largest infrastructure programme in water company history: £60 billion of capital investment over the next 25 years.

It is important to put this investment into context. Since privatisation, we have unlocked more than £215 billion of investment in the water sector in England alone to deliver services for customers and the environment. Privatisation has delivered a range of benefits, including high-quality drinking water, leakage being reduced by around a third and 90% of our bathing waters in England currently being classed as good or excellent. In addition, since 2010 water bills have fallen by 1% on average per year while companies have been investing around £5 billion annually over the same period. Looking forward to the future, the next water company investment cycle will include the biggest environmental improvement programme since privatisation. Water companies’ business plans show a planned £96 billion of investment between 2025 and 2030.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, raised customers funding investment. The Government have been very clear that customers will not be paying for water companies’ mistakes. However, new infrastructure will need to be paid for, and while water companies can attract private investment, this will also need to come from customers’ bills. Ofwat assesses any increase in customers’ bills to ensure that they are fair and proportionate. We recognise that a balance must be struck here between ensuring that we prioritise spending on infrastructure to reduce environmental harm and securing supplies for the future without unduly hitting customers with bill increases.

I turn now to address the main point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. We are taking clear and decisive action to ensure that no one profits from illegal behaviour and that water company executives take personal responsibility for serious breaches and damaging the environment. On 12 February my right honourable friend the Environment Secretary announced that the independent regulator, Ofwat, will consult on preventing the executives of water companies receiving bonuses if their company has committed a serious criminal breach. That could include, as the noble Lord said, successful prosecution for a category 1 or 2 pollution incident, such as causing significant pollution at a bathing site or conservation area, or where a company has been found guilty of a serious management failing.

Subject to consultation, we expect the ban to apply to all executive board members and chief executives. In answer to the question from the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, it will come into effect later this year. This builds on Ofwat’s announcement last year that it will tighten restrictions on bonuses using new powers given to the regulator through the Environment Act. It is important to make clear that this new announcement sits among a strong and ambitious long-term strategy to tackle pollution, clean up British waters and ensure a plentiful supply for the future. For instance, in March 2023 Ofwat announced new measures enabling it to take enforcement action against water companies.

Baroness Ludford Portrait Baroness Ludford (LD)
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I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I have been slightly provoked by his talk of a long-term ambition and a vision of 25 years. Does he accept that it was 1991—I am sorry to be a nerd about this—when the relevant EU directive was passed, under a Tory Government, and it should have been implemented by 1998? We are already 25 years after that but now he is giving us another 25-year horizon, so it will have been half a century before the discharge of sewage is cleaned up.

Lord Douglas-Miller Portrait Lord Douglas-Miller (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for her question. Perhaps I might write to her on that subject, given that she did not contribute to the debate earlier.

Additionally, on 21 February we announced that inspections of water company assets by the Environment Agency would more than quadruple in order to strengthen our oversight of water companies and better hold them to account. That is not all. We have legislated to introduce unlimited penalties on water companies that breach their environmental permits and to expand the range of offences to which they can be applied. That can include criminal prosecutions, for which there can be unlimited fines.

Following the publication of its performance report in November 2023, Ofwat published the financial penalties and payments for all water companies. This required 13 companies to return £193 million to customers for underperformance in 2022-23, with money rightly being returned to customers through bills in the year 2024-25. We make no apology for setting high standards for the water sector or for our tough expectations of what companies have to deliver. That is why, in addition to returning money to customers, Ofwat and the Environment Agency will not hesitate to use the powers that the Government have given them to enforce the law and hold them to account.

I turn to various questions raised by noble Lords. If I miss any questions or run out of time, I will write to individual noble Lords and send a copy to the Library. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked whether the Government will give customers the opportunity to vote each year on executive pay. Remuneration committees for each water company independently determine the appropriate level of remuneration for their water company executives. Ofwat expects water companies to take into account the legitimate concerns of stakeholders when making decisions on the application of remuneration policies.

The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and others raised the issue of sewage spills and correctly pointed out that no one wants to see this happen. Significant progress has been made. The noble Viscount asked how the Government and regulators will hold water companies to account. The Environment Agency and Ofwat have recently launched the largest ever criminal and civil investigations into water companies’ sewage discharges, and into over 2,200 treatment works, following new data coming to light as a result of increased monitoring.

The Government are working with the Environment Agency to hold the water industry to account. Where water and sewerage companies are found to be breaking the law, we will hold them to account through enforcement. The Environment Agency can now use new powers to impose unlimited penalties for a wider range of offences following the Government’s changes to broaden the scope of the existing civil sanctions regime and remove the previous cap on penalties.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, raised the issue of the automatic right to connect to the sewerage system in Schedule 3 and Schedule 10. In April 2023, the Government published the Plan for Water. This plan included the requirement for standardising sustainable drainage systems in new developments in 2024. Subject to final decisions on the scope, threshold and process, we expect to commence consultation on this by spring 2024 and aim to have finalised the implementation pathway by the end of 2024. Schedule 3 would make the right to connect surplus water run-off to public sewers conditional upon the drainage system being approved as capable of managing it. The noble Baroness also raised issues around building on floodplains, water run-off, Schedule 10 and storing water. Perhaps I might write to her on those issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked whether the Government have confidence in Ofwat. We are confident the industry regulators are using their powers to hold water companies to account, and we will continue to work with them and drive improvements that benefit customers and the environment. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, gave an admirable list of the fines that Ofwat have recently handed out.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of foreign ownership. Ofwat, as the independent regulator, protects the interests of consumers by making sure that water companies carry out their statutory functions and are financially resilient, as well as holding them to account on overall performance and delivery of essential services. These same standards and licence conditions apply across all water companies, regardless of whether they are owned by foreign or domestic investors.

As I come to the end of my remarks, I want to be absolutely clear that profit should never come at the cost of pollution. As I have set out, this Government are going further and faster than any before to protect and enhance the health of our rivers and seas. We are holding water companies to account on a scale never seen before. This new action proposed by Ofwat will help us go even further to ensure that no one profits from illegal behaviour and that water company executives take full responsibility. I therefore assure noble Lords that the Government are fully committed to addressing the issues causing pollution in our waterways and we will continue to strive for a healthy and thriving water environment.

Pupil Mental Health, Well-being and Development

Thursday 22nd February 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Motion to Take Note
Moved by
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle
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That this House takes note of the role of schools in caring for the mental health and well-being of pupils, and assisting in their development as community and family members.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I begin by thanking the Library for the excellent briefing setting out the problem. A standout statistic in that briefing about the truly terrible state of the mental health of school pupils was that in November 2023 NHS Digital estimated that 20% of eight to 16 year-olds had a probable mental health disorder.

I thank the significant number of NGOs and campaign groups that sent briefings for the debate. I pick out particularly Square Peg, an organisation established by and for those with lived experience of school attendance difficulties. It works in partnership with Not Fine in School. Its existence since 2018 demonstrates how the issue we are discussing pre-dates the Covid pandemic, while acknowledging that it has undoubtedly magnified issues for pupils, parents and schools. Absence rates were rising by 15% to 20% per annum pre pandemic, while exclusion and suspension rates, off-rolling and de-registrations were also increasing.

I thank very much the noble Lords who signed up for this last item of business on a Thursday. This is an acknowledgement of the concern about this issue and the desire to examine not just treatment but causes. I look forward to all noble Lords’ contributions.

The origins of this debate lie in alarm following the report, in November 2023, by the Children’s Commissioner for England. The report found that pupil absence had become endemic at key stage 4, with over one-third of pupils either persistently or severely absent for at least one year. But from both the largest parties in our politics, discussion and debate about those figures has, I am afraid, focused on what is wrong with pupils or parents. The Government have launched a national communications campaign called Moments Matter, Attendance Counts, which targets parents and carers, trying to get through to them the importance of attendance for attainment, well-being and development.

That seems to ignore the fact that a survey by the youth mental health charity stem4 found that 28% of 12 to 18 year-olds had not attended school over the last year due to anxiety about the experience of attendance. Experts comment that many of them are unable to cope with the school experience, and the “prosecuting parents” report reflects that threatening legal action against parents, as often happens, is both pointless and damaging. But, all too often, that continues to be the response. What does it do to a parent-child relationship if the parent or carer is being pressured by the Government to force the child to go to school, even when school is making the child ill? The top Labour response was that it would legislate for a compulsory national register of home-schooled children, who are not, of course, the source of the attendance issue.

Rather than focusing on pupils or parents, the Green Party and I want to focus on what is happening in our schools. What are they doing to push away pupils—particularly, but far from only, those from disadvantaged backgrounds and with special educational needs, disabilities and chronic illnesses, including long Covid—and discourage their attendance? Why are they failing to be attracted to school?

There is a whole other issue about the rising levels of poverty and child poverty, which were addressed in the powerful earlier debate today. That is obviously a major contributor. Our society is dysfunctional and is failing many, particularly the young. But I will keep the focus today within schools. There is also a big issue of underfunding, but I will not focus on that today because it descends so easily into a pointless duel of statistics.

I stress that I am not blaming hard-working heads, teachers and other staff, who operate within a system forced on them, one that has been ideologically driven, over the course of Governments of different hues, to focus on discipline, rigid frameworks, teaching to the test, regimented and tightly controlled behaviour, and so-called preparation for work. Of course, I have to mention dealing with the impacts of austerity, which saw the most deprived one-fifth of secondary schools’ spending per pupil fall by 12% in real terms between 2010 and 2021. As a former school governor, I saw the pressure that heads and teachers were under to conform, to test and to push square pegs into round holes.

The spread of multi-academy trust schools, independent of local democratic control—with schools not infrequently forced, rather than choosing, to join—has been associated with models of rigid discipline and heavy penalties for the slightest infraction: not having a pen, speaking in a corridor or having the wrong hairdo. A former teacher described it as “institutional bullying”. These schools are concentrated in more economically deprived, often so-called levelling-up, areas. A mother shared with me on social media her child’s response to the suggestion that school was preparing them for society. The child said, “But the only place in society that is like school is a prison”. Out of the mouths of babes come some terribly clear truths.

One of the things that I want to reflect on goes back in history, and how little schools have changed in the past century. If you set aside the technology of whiteboards and personal tablets then the structure, system and perceived purpose of schools is essentially unchanged. The subjects taught and favoured, the external exams and classes, with dozens of pupils of the same age all proceeding together, the idea that this is to prepare pupils for the workplace and the focus on discipline, uniform and conformity—all this would be entirely familiar to a Victorian student, and to what use is the technology put? In initiating discussions about this debate, I learned that in many schools an app records a pupil’s demerits—how many black marks they have earned that day—which are also conveyed electronically to parents, to show how much time pupils are supposed to spend in detention. What does it do to your mental health to know that when your phone vibrates, you have another black mark, another perceived failure, another punishment?

The Autistic Girls Network shared with me research from 2023, showing that 94% of school attendance cases were underpinned by significant emotional distress. Some 92% of those children were neurodivergent and 83% were autistic. However, as the network pointed out, 80% of autistic girls remain unrecognised at the age of 18, so the numbers will be even higher than that. There is no doubt that children with special educational needs and disabilities are being severely failed by the current system. That issue, I am pleased to say, is often raised in your Lordships’ House, and I am confident when I look at the speakers’ list that others in this debate will focus on it. I shall focus on the fact that many pupils, particularly those who start with advantages in family background, health and well-being, may survive the experience of school—they may not show up in the absence statistics or with mental health states sufficient to appear in the medical figures—but we should want and expect much more from schools than being something to survive and endure.

I focus on the rise in discipline, rules and controls over every aspect of pupils’ bodies within the school gates, but there is also the question of what has disappeared from schools, particularly over recent years. I discussed this debate with Rick Page, ex-head teacher of Wordsworth Primary School in Southampton, a large inner-city school of 630 children. Over a number of years, when he was head, he developed a five-strand creative child programme; a music department that sent an orchestra to play at the Royal Albert Hall with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; a sports coach team with an office on site and an extensive curriculum, plus after-school and holiday clubs; an environmental studies and forest schoolteacher, teaching in a nature zone; a dance teacher for tackling ballet and to lead the Rock Challenge; and an arts focus, which included a talented artists scheme with a neighbouring public school, the King Edward VI School. Mr Page told me that attendance, attitude and behaviour were all improved by fostering a real connection with children’s lives and the local community. Since he retired, continual real-terms budget cuts and the straitjacket of conformity imposed on schools by Ofsted have seen many significant parts of that lost. That is one school example, but the reality of many.

I want to introduce a final theme: the content of education offered in schools, which, as I said earlier, has changed little since Victorian times. This comment was inspired by hearing Nehaal Bajwa, the vice-president for liberation and equality at the National Union of Students, speaking last night and reflecting on how the system provides education throughout in how our economy, society and environment are broken, but fails to provide solutions on how to fix it. We really ought to think about how we provide pupils with the ability to deal with the many challenges that they face in our society—challenges that our generation has bequeathed to them. I would add that we have schools that are preparing pupils to be cogs in the existing economic system, a fate against which many pupils are rebelling. There is an idea that education is for exams and jobs, when it needs to be a complete preparation for life in a fast-changing world, living as citizens, neighbours and family and household members, and as consumers in and contributors to society in multiple ways.

How will we tackle the climate emergency and nature crisis, the poverty and inequality of the world and the geopolitical turmoil? The climate strikers showed us that school pupils are fully engaged with those things, but how are schools helping them to do that? What I heard from being out with and talking to those climate strikers was that they felt that schools were failing them. Indeed, a number said to me that they had teachers ask them to explain the climate emergency, because the teachers themselves did not feel that they had the framework to understand it.

What does the rigid behavioural indoctrination prepare pupils for? Perhaps behaving with the efficiency of a robot in an Amazon warehouse, or following the script in a call centre. WB Yeats said that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. Yet, all too often, what we have in the current system is filling school pupils with anxiety and fear; with test answers and rigid routines, rather than a love of learning and the capacity to discover and innovate; with the problems of the adult world, but not the sense that they can take control and join with others to solve them.

I like to provide solutions, so I will finish with a final stream of thought that may be the most radical part of this speech. How do we fix all this? One part of my answer is that it starts with democracy. We need to restore democratic control over schools and remove the dead centralising hand of Westminster; more than that, we need to make schools more democratic. Psychologists tell us that to be empowered and be in control of your own life and your own body is crucial to well-being. It is a central part of good mental health. That is as true for children as it is for adults.

So, what do we need? We are talking about health and well-being, helping pupils to step out into a difficult world with so many challenges, equipped to live good, healthy, productive lives. We need schools that are more democratic and more compassionate, caring and forgiving. If a child forgot a pen or did not get exactly the right uniform on that morning, how much should that child pay for that? What is the cost of penalising that child heavily? They need to be more accepting of difference, more embedded in and reflective of their communities, not reflective of the will of Westminster. They need to be far richer in art, culture, physical activity and play. That is the sort of schools that we need to care for the mental health and well-being of our future generations, to send them out into the world for a healthy, fulfilling and productive life.

Lord Sterling of Plaistow Portrait Lord Sterling of Plaistow (Con)
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My Lords, all of us today appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, managed to achieve this debate, which we all welcome hugely; I thank her. I do not consider anything that we talk about today to be party politics; it is much more important than that. My friend, the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, has spent years, indeed decades, debating how we can hasten the methods for helping this group of people. I must also say that I have been helped for this debate by Professor Vivian Hill of University College London, who is the past chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology. We worked together for many years because my grandson is autistic, although that is not the only reason; it was much wider than just my grandson.

While schools can, and do, play a significant role in supporting the mental health and well-being of all their pupils, head teachers have a significant role in delivering the culture and ethos of their schools. They face a significant increase in the number of pupils requiring support, and they can face significant challenges when working with pupils with more severe and complex needs, in particular those with special educational needs, including autism and dyslexia. To support these pupils and their families, they would require access to more specialist professional support services, such as educational psychologists and child and adolescent mental health services, although this support is increasingly rare.

I will elaborate on the nature of the challenge. There is a great deal of evidence on increasing mental health needs in children and young people. NHS data from 2021 suggests that the rates of probable mental disorders have increased since 2017, reporting an increase from 11.6% in 2017 to 17.4% in 2021, which reflects a change from one in nine to one in six children aged six to 16, and the data indicates a similar increase in 17 to 19 year-olds. The Children’s Society Good Childhood Report 2022 indicates that, in the past three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by some 50%, suggesting that five children in a classroom of 30 are now likely to have mental health problems. Access to overstretched specialist services such as child and adolescent mental health teams is extremely problematical, with 34% of those pupils referred to NHS services not accepted into treatment or placed on waiting lists of one to three years. We know that in the region of 50% of mental health problems start by age 14, and early proactive and preventive support is critical and may significantly reduce longer-term needs for the individual and longer-term costs for society; it is a problem that cannot be ignored.

The limited access to specialist support or professional guidance for schools and families leaves them struggling to manage complex mental health needs that require the knowledge and skills of specialist support services, and by this, I mean educational psychologists and CAMHS. There are huge variations in access to this type of support in different parts of the country and some areas have little or no access to these services. The money the DfE is investing in the new training contract for educational psychologists is very welcome. However, the numbers who are to be trained are critically short of meeting the current and future demands.

The recent Department for Education report on the EP workforce in 2023 revealed: 88% of local authorities reporting difficulties in recruiting educational psychologists; one-third of local authorities reporting difficulties with the retention of educational psychologists; and 96% of the local authorities reporting recruitment and/or retention issues stated that these difficulties have critically affected young people reaching their full potential. This month, the recent comments from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman have noted with consternation that the foreseeable educational psychology workforce capacity issues have been decades in the making and the impact that has had on young people’s timely access to education, health and care needs assessments, as well as early intervention and preventive work, puts many of these children and young people, their schools and families at risk of avoidable poor outcomes.

In summary, if schools are to care adequately for the mental health and well-being of all their pupils, in particular those with SEN, they will require access to specialist support from educational psychologists and better access to CAMHS. Access to these services will help schools respond to and meet these needs and help prevent pupils’ needs escalating, at great detriment to the child and their family and at huge cost to society. My noble friend the Minister has over many years devoted a great deal of her time to addressing and hastening change. I know that she cares most deeply for these very special people, many of whom contribute so much to the arts, sciences and original thinking.

Baroness Morris of Yardley Portrait Baroness Morris of Yardley (Lab)
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My Lords, I too welcome the opportunity to have a debate on this important area. We are at the start of a very long journey in trying to find the appropriate answers.

I am not as pessimistic as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about the state of schools. I often find them happy places. Not all is well and things could be better, but there are not 24,000 miserable institutions throughout the country. For many of our children, school is the only place where their well-being is protected; they are emotionally stronger, more stable and happier because they go to school every day. However, I absolutely accept that that is not true for everyone, and every child matters. We must do as much as we can to support those children who are falling off the edge.

I wondered why I never discussed issues such as this during my 18 years of teaching. There are probably two reasons why it was not on our agenda way back then. First, we are now more aware that children can have mental health problems and medical science means that we have done more to diagnose them. Secondly, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that the pressure has increased, and we need to look at that. The question is whether the schools are the cause of that deterioration of well-being and whether they are equipped to support children when the pressures come from outside. How much is it the schools’ fault and how much can they do to help when pressure comes from elsewhere?

I believe that children should be encouraged to do well in examinations. I am glad that I got mine. They gave me my life chances and every statistic shows that children who do not do so have worse opportunities. I have never apologised for any teacher or politician whose policies intend to narrow that divide between children who succeed in exams at school and those who do not. However, it is legitimate to ask what the cost of that has been in the way that we structure our schools. That is what I want to concentrate on. There has been a cost and we can do something about it, but we need to be honest and open and think very carefully.

The problem is not the higher expectations for all children to do well in their exams but the levers we use to try to bring that about. We have undoubtedly made these exams so high-pressured and high-risk that they create an environment in schools, from the head to the teachers to the parents and then trickling down to the children, whereby if you do not succeed, you are in trouble and a failure. That is a problem.

I always remember a young child who had not done as well in their exams as they thought they would saying to me, “Estelle, does that mean that I’m not any good and won’t be able to get a job?” It was very difficult in that moment to say, “Of course you can, everyone fails and you learn from it”, because the whole pressure prior to that had been to say, “If you don’t work hard, you won’t get a job, and success is doing A, B or C”. Those messages we give children are really important. You need your exams and should do as well as you can, but it is not the end of the world and you are not a worse person if you do not do as well as you might.

The second issue on which I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is that there is no doubt that two things have happened. Things that can aid well-being—art, creativity, sport, time to think and space to talk, time to build good relationships—have been squeezed out of schools. Even where they have not, teachers do not think they are valued. Both those things are a huge problem. There are teachers who are trying to do those things; I see so much wonderful creativity in the arts in schools. You scratch your head and think, “I thought all of that was gone”. It is not valued, and because people think that government and others do not value it, that becomes a problem. There is more to be done, but I would not want to go back to the glory days when the division between the successes and failures was very much based on sex discrimination and social class discrimination.

Schools themselves can support children who may have mental health issues arising from pressures outside school, such as social media, drugs, fragmented communities, or families who do not have the skills to help them. Schools are absolutely key in this. They are the places where most children go and where trust is greatest—probably after child medical services.

We also need to address whether schools have the workforce to deliver on that task. There is so much more that could be done. If you look at the staffing of any school, you will probably find that almost all—but not all—the staff are employed to bring about academic progress and success. We need a better balance and skillset within schools. I would like to visit schools and find that, in addition to teachers whose job it is to get children through exams, there are also people with the time to talk about spiritual things, for example, to work magic, to take the kids out. We need people with skills and qualifications in mental health—not necessarily highly qualified psychologists, but people whose job it is to do early intervention and give early support for young children.

That is where the problem lies. Years and years ago, schools were part of their communities. All families, especially in village communities, sent their children to their local school, which often neighboured the church. It was a tight community where everyone knew what was going on. Whatever you think about it, parental choice and a move to doing better means that this community built around a school has broken down. However, it does not mean that we cannot use the school as a base and a community for the people it serves. It just means that we need to do it in a very different way.

I finish by acknowledging the work the Government have done on mental health support teams. They have not done anywhere near enough on the curriculum—PSHE and citizenship, for example—but that is for another day. I like the mental health support teams, and I declare an interest, in that I am involved with the Birmingham Education Partnership, which is in charge of managing and promoting some of these. However, I worry that they might be seen as a substitute for people who have slogged for years to gain well-earned qualifications. Progress really is too slow. We are covering only 35% of pupils, six years after the start of the initiative. It needs to be done better and faster. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us when this might be rolled out nationally.

Earl Russell Portrait Earl Russell (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for bringing this important debate before the House, and those who are speaking today.

Improving the mental health and well-being of our children in school is one of the most important issues, and all of us must work on it together. In the early years, a good experience of education and the ability to learn, grow and develop in a safe and secure environment are essential to success in future life. Our children need to be resilient. Good mental health is a prerequisite to learning, as it is to good attendance at school. An ill child is no more capable of learning than a cheese grater is of being a glass of water. Our schools must be warm, welcoming, adaptable and inclusive spaces. Schools are ideal settings for providing our children with mental health support.

In a previous debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, put it very well:

“Thinking about a child’s school environment, we need to develop a culture of nurture as the foundation for learning”.—[Official Report, 23/11/23; col. 837.]

We need proper funding and resources and a whole-school approach. First and foremost, we must deal with the immediate crisis.

I held my own debate in November on the current state of mental health support for children and young people in England. I declared my personal interest as a parent of a child who has gone through long periods of poor mental health, saying that it was one of the most challenging periods of my life and that no parent ever wants to see their child unable to keep themselves safe. My knowledge and experience in these matters is as a parent.

The scale of the mental health problem is huge; it disproportionately affects those in poverty and is made worse by the lack of resources available to resolve it. The most recent key findings from the NHS digital survey show that one in five of our young people aged eight to 25 had a probable mental health disorder. Rates remain at elevated levels following the pandemic, and among 17 to 25 year-olds, rates were twice as high for young women as they were for young men. We are treating double the number than before the pandemic of children and young people with eating disorders who need urgent care. We have huge waits for services, with treatment for even immediate and urgent cases often, in effect, being denied. We face a children’s and young person’s mental health emergency, and we must all work together to end the wait. The House spoke clearly with one urgent voice on the issues, and I think it will do so again today.

I have called on the Government to accelerate the rollout of mental health support hubs to all schools and colleges nationwide. That is the quickest and most effective form of help. I asked the Government to commit to bringing forward their target of 50% access by 2024-25 and making it 100%. Munira Wilson in the other place has introduced a Private Member’s Bill on this issue, and I am delighted that my party has put forward proposals for dedicated mental health professionals in all state-funded schools and to pay for that through a trebling of the digital services tax. Place2Be has calculated that every £1 invested in primary schools-based mental health provision will generate £8 in economic and social benefits.

The response from the Minister at the time of my last debate was positive; however, since then, nothing has happened. I kindly ask her why there has been no movement from the Government on these issues? The urgency and need is clear and the cost is not great, so are there practical problems with accelerating the policy? Is it about not being able to find and train staff in time, or are there other practical matters?

I will briefly say a few words about long-term persistent absence. When my child was ill, she was off school for prolonged periods and had a very poor attendance record during others. I know what it is like, and just how challenging it can be, when your child is not well enough keep themselves safe, let alone attend school. I know the struggle of trying to get them out of bed every morning. I also understand how we got in this position: Covid caused an explosion in mental health issues, and we need to understand better why that was. It shows that our children are lacking the resilience they so desperately need.

As a result of the increase in poor mental health and the lack of available treatment, absence rates invariably rose, and the Government and schools, rightly, wanted to bring those back down. However, my personal perception is that they went too far. Fining parents should be an absolute last resort. The parent of any child who is waiting for treatment for mental health issues or is unable to get a diagnosis for autism or other special needs should not face those fines. There needs to be far more co-operation between schools and parents in trying to get children who are suffering back to school. The Children’s Commissioner has also pointed out this problem, calling it

“the issue of our time”.

Like me, she is calling for the Government to accelerate the rollout of mental health hubs.

Although the causes of persistent absence from school are complex, one key factor is the lack of mental health support and I would like to ask the Minister about the connection with the numbers of children who have been waiting over a month for CAMHS. Do the Government keep statistics, cross-referencing them for children who are waiting for treatment against children who are also long-term persistently absent from school? It is important that the Government cross-reference those two groups so they can better understand whether a denial of treatment for mental ill-health is one of the key drivers of long-term persistent absence from school.

Finally, I call on the Government again to please take more urgent action on these matters. I recognise the progress made and the actions taken, but more needs to be done urgently to protect our children and young people.

Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for focusing her seemingly inexhaustible energies on this important topic. It is a complex topic that invites multiple approaches. I intend to focus narrowly on one area, and, given that intended focus, I must start by declaring my interests as noted in the register. Of particular relevance to this debate is my role as chair of an expert advisory panel convened by government to offer non-binding advice to the DCMS and DfE on the development of their plan for cultural education.

My own education was far from usual in that I entered professional training at the age of 11 as a student at the Royal Ballet School. I will always count myself fortunate to have been educated in a place where there was never any sense that art was an extra, a “nice to have”, or peripheral to the main purpose. Art and arts-based approaches were integrated throughout a broad-based education that would equip us with a set of skills as important in life as they are in dance: curiosity, courage, perseverance, confidence, teamwork, personal responsibility and a creative hinterland on which to draw. Over the years, my increasing awareness of just how effectively that arts-enriched education prepared me for life beyond the stage has inspired an ongoing quest to better understand the role of the arts, culture and creativity in personal and social development, educational attainment, and health and well-being.

It is a field of research that has blossomed over recent decades. In 2016, the AHRC published a landmark report, Understanding the Value of Arts & Culture, which analysed, among other things, how arts engagement contributes to community cohesion, civic engagement and educational attainment. Three years later, the World Health Organization published the largest report to date on the underlying evidence base for the contribution of arts and culture to health and well-being. Of particular relevance to this debate is that the report found strong evidence of a positive correlation between arts engagement and the social determinants of health, child development and healthy behaviours.

Alongside evidence that childhood engagement in arts activities can predict academic performance across the school years, the report’s authors also found that it promotes pro-social classroom and playground behaviour, enhances emotional competence and reduces bullying. The behavioural benefits are shown to extend to groups with diverse needs. Children from less advantaged backgrounds, those with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and those with physical or learning disabilities experienced reductions in anxiety, depression or aggression, with associated improvements in self-esteem, confidence, communication and personal empowerment. The authors also report a sizeable literature on the arts’ role in building social and community capital, fostering co-operation across different cultures, reducing prejudice, enhancing social consciousness and increasing civic behaviours such as voting and volunteering.

Dr Daisy Fancourt, one of the authors of the report, has worked forensically over many years to investigate the ways in which these outcomes occur: how the component elements of arts activities trigger psychological, physiological, social and behavioural responses that are themselves causally linked with positive health and well-being outcomes. In addressing the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has introduced today, it is worth considering each of these in turn.

Fancourt’s work points to how the aesthetic and emotional components of art provide opportunities for understanding and exploring emotions. They allow opportunities for emotional regulation and stress reduction, and all these are key to how we manage mental health. The cognitive stimulation in art supports learning and skills development, which is beneficial in itself but is also interrelated with mental illnesses such as depression. Group interactions through arts activities improve social capital and reduce prejudice and discrimination between different groups. The physicality of arts activities reduces sedentary behaviours, improving fitness, flexibility and bone health and linking to reductions in depression. This is what the research tells us.

Schools taking part in the Artsmark programme show us what this looks like in action. Artsmark offers schools a framework and support to embed creativity across the curriculum, addressing school improvement priorities, and 89% of Artsmark schools report improvements in pupils’ well-being and resilience. They point to positive impacts on mental health, enhanced intercultural understanding and stronger connections forged between staff, pupils, families and local communities. Schools also report improvements in punctuality, student engagement and attendance, underlining the important point noted earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about creating environments that encourage children and their parents to engage with school.

Partnership working is key to success and, in the best-case scenarios, a network of commissioners, providers and agencies across education, culture, voluntary and faith sectors, as well as local authorities, work together to provide children with rich, culturally diverse and locally connected arts opportunities. I urge the Minister to follow the progress of Culture Start, a three-year city-based cross-sector partnership launching this year in Sunderland, which will span social housing and the voluntary, cultural and youth sectors, as well as education, to provide young people with cultural experiences that help to mitigate some of the impacts of growing up in poverty.

Research and lived experience demonstrate how arts activities and experiences can support schools in caring for the mental health and well-being of children and in fostering family and community connections. The evidence is clear, the outcomes evident. There are, of course, other routes for children to access arts activities, at home and in the community, but if we want all children to enjoy the developmental, educational and social benefits associated with arts engagement, school—a universal experience—is surely the best route to ensuring universal access.

I know that, in responding, the Minister will reiterate her commitment to ensuring that all children have access to these opportunities through education. I will finish by welcoming that commitment in advance.

Lord Wei Portrait Lord Wei (Con)
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My Lords, I extend my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for initiating this vital debate, and declare my interests as a parent of home-educated and state-educated children and as a board member of an organisation committed to providing private education.

We are at a critical juncture, where the mental health challenges facing our youth have intensified—notably since the pandemic, as others have pointed out. Just this month, the Royal College of Psychiatrists said that there had been a 53% increase in the number of children in mental health crisis over the last four years. This situation is exacerbated by a schooling environment in which most GCSEs are now tested in exams only. This, coupled with limited resources, has severely hampered schools’ ability to support effectively those with neurodiversity and SEND, as well as other pupils struggling generally with mental health challenges.

It is heartening to see the Government’s introduction of mental health support teams and the provision of funding for training leads. This is a commendable step towards embedding mental health support within our educational framework. However, the reach of these initiatives needs expansion, given that eventually it will still only be available to half of all schools, and all schools are still limited in the degree that they can help children with particularly acute needs. It is essential that this support becomes a staple across all schools, ensuring that no child is left without the necessary mental health resources that they need at whatever intensity of need they have. I of course pay tribute to the many schools and teachers who do such a great job in spite of all this, helping where they can.

I will now focus my remarks on the school pathways for parents and children dealing with mental health episodes which, from those I have spoken to and interacted with, are too often confusing, complex and traumatic. This comes on top of the high levels of stress families feel because of the issues they have to deal with and, sometimes, the bullying that accompanies them. The pathways need clarification and simplification; they need to become more collaborative rather than confrontational, offering support rather than exacerbating stress and anxiety.

Too often, parents find that the imperative schools have to keep children in school and perform in and for exams, and to manage limited resources and attention to get the bulk of their pupils moving forwards, conflicts with the individualised and tailored attention and support needed by pupils facing mental health challenges. In a number of cases, parents decide to remove their children from a school environment which is not sufficiently supportive, which the child refuses to go to or in which they face bullying.

At this point, the parents face a number of hurdles: attempts can often be made to keep the child in school attendance, even if it might not be in the child’s best interests or aid their well-being, so that the school, trust and local authority can maintain their targets, sometimes with the threat of prosecution or fines. The family can often feel mistreated, like criminals.

I find that, in such scenarios, many families currently see home education as their only escape from such a system that does not adequately cater to their needs. It seems to them the only legal way to move forwards without harassment, short of moving house to another locality. This choice, often made in desperation, should prompt us to reflect on how we can make even more of our schools more neuro-inclusive and supportive environments, rather than ones that have to enforce rules that may not apply or be particularly helpful in such circumstances.

I am also saddened that, rather than dealing with the causes of such absences and the growth of home education as a result of this crisis, the Government and other stakeholders are considering implementing registers for out-of-school children. This would add further stress to families who have chosen to go down that route. It would be wiser to sort out the lack of support and empathy when families have to endure mental health and special needs challenges in schools, signpost multiple paths including, but not just, home education to provide temporary respite and formulate a plan, which may or may not involve the former school, and provide advice, support and training if home education is the chosen path, rather than to create a situation where those who have taken their children out of school are automatically assumed to be criminal or are suspected of neglect or any number of crimes. For many, their only desire is ultimately to see their child well, succeed and be restored.

In closing, I will pose a number of critical questions to the Minister. First, will there be an investigation into the reliance on home education as the only legitimate escape route for parents seeking to protect their children from a system that can sometimes feel to them adversarial, and work done to clarify the pathways out of an unsustainable school environment, so that they are more supportive and do not suspect the parents or child as a first resort?

Secondly, in light of the recent trends in school attendance and the unique challenges post Covid—they look like a result of Covid at the moment, given that attendance is now rising again—is there a plan for an emergency support package specifically targeted at the student cohorts most affected from 2020 onwards?

Thirdly, what support is planned for these children and families with mental health challenges and additional needs who are out of formal school contexts, given that they sometimes need help, either when they are being home-educated or are in an in-between situation, at home or in another non-school context? Will funding be released for families to access trained support from either local authorities or trusted charities without being pursued for absences in those situations?

Our commitment to the mental health and well-being of our pupils is a testament to our dedication to their future and the future of our society. Let us ensure that our actions reflect this commitment by fostering an environment where every child facing mental health challenges feels supported, understood and valued, whether formally in school or not.

Lord Touhig Portrait Lord Touhig (Lab)
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My Lords, I join colleagues in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for securing this debate. It is important and helpful to discuss these matters.

Earlier this month, many organisations sought to raise the profile of children’s mental health during Children’s Mental Health Week. The charity Place2Be took the theme “My Voice Matters” and used the opportunity to urge the Government to give children and young people the support, tools and confidence that they need—confidence to be proud of themselves but, more, confidence to believe in themselves. I have always thought that believing in oneself is the beginning of self-confidence. I have known cases where a lack of confidence among young schoolchildren in particular has been put down to shyness. It is thought of simply as something that will pass in time, but it often hides other problems. In quite a few cases, the underlying problem, left unrecognised, can lead to many crises in later life.

This is why mental health support should start early on in a child’s life, at school. For so many children, school is the first time in their lives that they have been apart from the home and family environment, and the first time that they have spent a whole day with other children and adults who they do not know. A quarter of a million children in the UK are believed to have mental health problems. We face a major challenge in ensuring that they receive the support needed to enjoy the quality of life that those of us in this Chamber would take for granted.

Many are denied help by a National Health Service that is struggling to manage surging caseloads against a backdrop of a crisis in child mental health. Some health trusts in our country are failing to offer treatment to up to 60% of those referred by GPs. Health service figures released last November show that one in five children and young people in England have a probable mental health condition. Surely the time to begin supporting these young people is when they begin at school.

Let me take one area of concern: speech and language. I have some experience with families with children whose lack of speech is a cause for concern. The charity Speech and Language UK tells me that a child with speech and language problems is twice as likely as their peers to have mental health problems. Why is this? Well, its research shows that there may be anxiety or frustration caused by not understanding what people are saying or not being understood themselves. That can sometimes be the case with children with autism—as I know as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society, together with my noble friend Lady Browning. They may struggle socially at nursery and consequently have low self-esteem. They may have difficulty with thinking things through and working out what might happen and do not understand the consequences and implications of their actions. They might feel socially isolated because of their poor communication skills. Their difficulties with language and communication might not have been recognised, so they may not be getting the help and support that they need.

The best thing we can do to help is to make sure that these problems are recognised early and that the proper help is in place. That means that teachers and early years practitioners should receive training on how to help a child develop their talking and understanding of words—this is pretty basic. This will also help identify a child who is struggling. They should also know where to refer them for further support and diagnosis. It is no good discovering something and not knowing how to get it treated and supported. Schools need to be able to measure and track children’s talking and understanding of words in the same way that we do with literacy and numeracy. We need a free tool that can be used at the start of key stages 1 and 2 by class teachers so that they can spot a child who is struggling. Currently, schools must pay to do this.

Teachers need to know what is available to help children with speech and language challenges. We need guidance about what evidence-based tools and interventions work best and which might be most appropriate in each school. There also needs to be better recognition by child and adolescent mental health services of the high proportion of children with mental health problems who have speech and language challenges. Staff need to be trained on how to help children struggling with their mental health and find out what works best for them.

My noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke about mental health support teams. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, has called for every school to have a mental health team in place by 2025. Perhaps in responding, the Minister might be able to tell us whether the Government are working towards that and agree with it.

I appreciate that I have covered a fair number of points here, and I will be more than content if the Minister, having had time to reflect, would like to write to me. I end by asking her whether she might also consider meeting Speech and Language UK, the charity that I have spoken about. Together, they might help us find some of the solutions to the problems that we are facing.

Lord Bishop of Chichester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chichester
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My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for sponsoring this debate on a matter of great importance for the future life of our nation, and for the challenging sensitivity to the issues that she laid out for us in her introduction.

Church of England schools now educate just over 1 million children—around 20% of the country’s education provision. The Church’s current Vision for Education, published in 2016, is for an education system that promotes

“life in all its fullness”,

a phrase used by Jesus Christ in St John’s Gospel, and invites a wholistic approach to education, considering the material, cultural, social and spiritual dimensions of human existence and the wisdom with which we use the gifts God has given us.

In the diocese of Chichester, where I serve, our schools serve the many coastal towns of Sussex, with their distinctive blend of tourism and deep deprivation, as well as extensive rural areas, where small village schools play a vital role in the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, identified. We in Chichester will not be alone in forging partnerships in our Church schools with NHS mental health support teams. I pay tribute to their importance. It has enabled us to develop home-school-church networks, building vital work where the life of school and the life of home interact. It also makes it possible to find better ways to support children who suffer with their mental health.

This NHS partnership has also opened up another partnership through a diocesan multi-academy trust that is working with the University of Sussex to assess the impact of the Covid pandemic. Among the things emerging from that are questions about the impact that working from home might be having on children’s attendance at school. It also looks at the impact of social media, which expanded for many children during lockdown, and asks questions about the extent to which cell phone use, for example, now might need to be more carefully restricted in schools.

I will also refer to the independent education sector, which is well represented in Sussex. It faces many of the same challenges among the pupil body but often with greater resources for meeting them. I wish to draw attention to just one aspect of this, since it indicates, as has been stated, a loss from the maintained sector: the need for arts provision, especially music, as a non-word-based medium that makes articulation of their deepest feelings much easier for children who might struggle with words. This can be especially true for pupils who experience the trauma of violence and abuse, as it can be for neurodiverse pupils, those with learning difficulties, or those for whom English is not their first language. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, outlined these important points in greater detail in her comments.

This is something that Brighton College has developed remarkably well. It has used it as a way to welcome Ukrainian refugees into its life and to forge a strong partnership with schools in the East End of London. The model speaks to us about something that has been done and shown to be of enormous value, which surely also belongs to the right of all children as part of their school experience, especially those children with special needs.

Reference to the importance of wider influences that contribute to the educational life of young people is also evident in a recent study undertaken by the University of Leeds, which indicates that when fathers engage in

“multiple types of structured activities several times a week”,


“helps to enrich a child’s cognitive and language development”.

This raises important questions about the role of fathers in parenting, and about their absence—physically, emotionally, economically—and the subconscious impact it might have on their children. From a government perspective, might this suggest that it would be worth giving attention to the gender balance of the teaching profession and encouraging an increase in male teachers, especially in the primary school sector?

These observations indicate the intensity of the context in which education is delivered by a remarkably dedicated profession of teachers and classroom assistants, who face complex human needs that have to be addressed before other aspects of learning can take place. Sustaining that profession, with adequate resources through the recruitment of people of high calibre, remuneration that is commensurate with the skills we expect of them, and public recognition of their important work, is surely one of the best contributions the Government can make to the mental, intellectual and spiritual well-being of our children and young people in their schools.

Lord Hampton Portrait Lord Hampton (CB)
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My Lords, I join the chorus of thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for tabling this debate; I pay tribute to her boundless energy. I would love to have the opportunity to show her around the school where I teach as well, because we have a very high standard of discipline and I did not recognise the institutional bullying that seems to go on. On that point, I must as ever declare my interest as a secondary school teacher in a state school in London. It is always an honour to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester, with his very thoughtful ideas.

There is no point in talking about the role of schools if children are not in schools. Some 1.8 million children are persistently absent, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, said. For a lot, that is the only place where their well-being is protected, and it is so important that we get them in there.

The Royal College of GPs advises that

“mild or moderate anxiety, whilst sometimes difficult emotions, can be a normal part of growing up for many children and young people”.

We need to get them back. Mild anxiety becomes anxiety. Nobody wants to go to school on a Monday morning. That leads to bigger things. I would be very interested to hear what the Government are doing, rather than being fairly punitive with parents and schools, about engaging students and getting them back in.

Anybody is better off in a school. School is where you can triage students; they can be sent towards CAMHS or MHSTs, whether or not they have been previously diagnosed. These all need to be funded properly. I have talked before about the playground; teachers are very good at spotting things, whether that is bullying or changes in behaviour. Again, they can triage and get the professionals in.

Children are social animals. They need school, which is where they build up all these techniques to get them through life. We need them back. SEN needs to be dealt with; again, that is dealt with at school. In a bedroom, it is very difficult to spot a symptom.

There are also external influences we need to look at. The very good charity Tom’s Trust provides mental health, well-being and psychological support for 536 children with brain tumours and their families—about 1,600 people. Children at school might have a very sick sibling; it might be invisible. I declare an interest in that the founder of Tom’s Trust, Debs Mitchell, is a great friend of mine.

We underestimate all this, but schools can obviously do more as well. The curriculum needs to change; how many times have I stood up and said this in my short career here? The House of Lords Education for 11-16 Year Olds Committee published its final report in December 2023, with many excellent recommendations, pretty much all of which the Government have just rejected. The noble Lord, Lord Johnson, the chairman of the committee, said in yesterday’s Times that:

“This government’s attempt to recreate a 1950s curriculum is of little help to many disadvantaged schoolchildren”.

As many people here have said, we need more fun in schools. We need schools to be places where children want to go and teachers want to teach. We blame the Victorians for a lot of things—this beautiful building is not one of them—but we have this Victorian idea that education should be a grind; that medicine should taste horrible; that food is just to sustain you. School should be fun.

I will talk about something that I know the Minister will approve of—sport. Nobody has talked about sport. We need two hours-plus of team games for every student every week. There is nothing like getting muddy, bloody and possibly violent to make you feel better.

I adore swimming. Obviously, it is a difficult one. I defy anybody to get into a pond, swim in cold water and remember the problem they went in with in the first place. We have all talked about singing. What could be better than a load of students in a room singing together? The wonderful charity Young Enterprise has a series of lessons aimed specifically at mental health and money management called “Money on my Mind”, which should be on the curriculum.

The school where I teach has reduced the number of GCSEs so that students can take subjects such as art without having to take an exam at the end or do coursework. They can do it just for fun, which gives them more headspace. However, to do that we need teachers who are confident and rested and feel valued. If their mental health is good, they are confident and happy, and that goes through all their relationships. We all know what happens to relationships if you are tired and stressed.

We need a confidence reset for children. Dame Rachel de Souza was quoted. I quote from her foreword to The Big Answer:

“If adults are to learn one thing from this report, it should be as follows. This is not a ‘snowflake generation.’ It is a heroic generation”.

We need them to know that.

Baroness Tyler of Enfield Portrait Baroness Tyler of Enfield (LD)
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My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on securing this debate. We have had a number of debates on children’s mental health in recent times, and the role of school always features, but today’s debate challenges us to think about the wider role of schools in relation to children’s well-being and confronts the perennial question of the purpose of education. Is it simply about academic attainment and preparation for the world of work? Is it also about preparing young people more widely for adulthood, including how they fulfil their potential in all spheres of life, become full citizens in our society and build healthy relationships? Is it also about providing the skills to build their personal resilience and emotional well-being to help deal with the knocks that life inevitably brings?

The answer, of course, is a combination of those things, but not everyone will agree on the precise mix. It might be trite to say that growing up in the modern world feels more complicated, with a whole new range of pitfalls to navigate, but I think it is true. It is clear that young people face increasing pressures from the academic environment, the growing influence of social media and the online world, and the lasting impact of the pandemic. I was struck by some research conducted for the Mental Health Foundation which found that the advent of technology, while offering unprecedented connectivity, also introduces new stressors, as individuals battle with the constant pressure to meet online standards and portray an idealised version of their lives.

It is worth reminding ourselves that The Good Childhood Report 2023, which has already been referred to, focused on children and young people’s experiences of school. Frankly, it did not make for comfortable reading, with more children and young people unhappy with school than with the other nine aspects of life they were asked about. Primary and secondary schools have an important role to play and have great potential to be a protective factor for mental health, but sadly that is not how too many young people feel about school. In a recent survey by Young Minds of more than 14,000 young people, only 3% said educational settings were a positive influence on their mental health, while 59% said that school or college had affected them negatively in some way. What is going on?

As we have heard already today, many schools have become heavily focused on exam results, and pressure to do well in exams can be overwhelming for some young people. Fundamentally, I believe that a whole-school approach is needed which creates a school culture and environment that has well-being at the core, where mental health and well-being are promoted and protected and which includes all pupils, students, teachers and staff members. In my experience, this happens only when the leadership of the school is actively engaged in and championing this work. It means ensuring that every adult who interacts with a child has the knowledge, understanding and wherewithal to support the child. Of course, parents and carers play a key role in teaching children and young people how to understand and manage their feelings as they grow up, and I would like to see more support in this area.

We know that staff in school are often the first point of contact for a young person struggling with their mental health; hence, they need to be provided with knowledge and understanding around behaviour and mental health and how to identify when a child is struggling. An independent study from NatCen on adolescent mental health and educational attainment observed a strong association between mental health difficulties between the ages of 11 and 14 and later academic attainment at age 16. The study found that children experiencing poor mental health are three times less likely than their peers to pass five GSCEs. I am sure that most schools understand this link, but it seems crucial that mental health issues are not viewed as yet another problem issue that they are forced to deal with. It is about creating the very foundations for learning and academic success.

Furthermore, exclusion from school is strongly related to poor mental health in children and young people, so we should be concerned that the rates of exclusion from school have increased in the last five years. I was interested to read in a recent study that, on average, children who had experienced at least one fixed-period exclusion in the year before attending counselling lost significantly fewer school sessions to exclusion in the year when they had counselling. That was from Place2Be, a charity that operates in many schools, providing drop-in sessions, family work and one-to-one counselling for those with more complex issues. Its analysis of pupils receiving counselling indicates that consistently poor mental health over time was associated with higher levels of persistent absence, which we heard about earlier, whereas improving or consistently good mental health was often associated with lower levels of persistent absence. Its findings also suggest that strengthening children’s engagement with and enjoyment of school over time was associated with reduced persistent absence. The same can be said about bullying but I do not have time to go into that now.

Preventing mental health problems arising in the first place is key. When support is available in schools in a non-stigmatising format, young people benefit. Young people themselves have talked about the need for safe spaces at school and safe conversations. By intervening early, building resilience and nurturing a positive understanding of emotions and well-being, we can ensure that young people learn lifelong skills so that their problems do not grow with them. That can be done through whole-class work, lessons and the curriculum. Critically, it needs to start at primary school age, to which we do not give enough attention.

Finally, I turn to mental health support teams. We have heard quite a bit about them and I have always supported them but, alongside many others, I have argued that the rollout should have proceeded at a much faster pace. As we have heard, on the current plans there is funding to achieve only 50% coverage of schools by 2025, leaving over half of schools, particularly primary schools, uncovered, and pupils without the support they need. To be clear, MHSTs are a welcome and important part of the jigsaw of mental health support, but they go only so far.

I will have a lot more to say on the subject next Friday at the Second Reading of my Private Member’s Bill, particularly my concern about children urgently needing mental health support who meet neither the mental health support teams’ “mild to moderate” criteria nor the criteria of specialist CAMHS support, with its very high access thresholds and extremely long waiting lists. Noble Lords should watch this space.

Earl of Effingham Portrait The Earl of Effingham (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for tabling this important debate.

We have been presented with some alarming statistics. One in five eight to 16 year-olds has a probable mental disorder. There has been a 53% increase in the number of children in mental health crisis over the past four years. We understand that the Government want to establish mental health support teams, which will undoubtedly help, but I suggest that prevention is better than cure. It should be possible to prevent manifold mental health problems among our schoolchildren before they become major issues. The foundation of that well-being is based on the four pillars of the school education system, in this order of priority: food education, physical education, financial education and academic education.

I have intentionally left academic education as the last pillar because being academically capable does not necessarily mean that you will be happy and make a success of your life. However, being well educated on key life decisions involving food choice, physical health and financial matters will incrementally increase your chances of a fulfilling life.

I am sure that many noble Lords are familiar with the phrase “gut instinct”. The gut is our second brain. It uses the same chemicals and cells as our main brain. Food changes our mind and our mental health; there is a direct correlation between a healthy diet and cognitive learning. Food education should therefore be the cornerstone pillar of a decent school programme to promote good mental health.

The beauty of this is that we already have a strategy in place which works. Charities such as Chefs in Schools have a mission to transform school food and food education and are training kitchen teams to serve fine school lunches. The benefits to schools are wide-ranging. The charity states that

“research shows great school food makes obesity fall, while health, wellbeing and attainment increase”.

This is a tried and tested opportunity that is there for the taking by the schools; all they need to do is reach out. For the benefit of the register, I should say that I have no association with this charity, but my beliefs and its aims are aligned.

When it comes to physical education, Sport England’s latest survey estimated that only 47% of children and young people were meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines of taking part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more every day. Sport and physical activity can change children’s lives. It improves cognitive abilities, boosts concentration and improves classroom conduct and behaviour—not to mention physical and mental health, which in turn encourages their development as community and family members. Physical exercise should be the second pillar of their education.

Schools must involve parents and the community in this journey. They need to understand the benefits of physical exercise if they are to enforce home rules on limiting screen time and taking exercise outside, as well as doing more physical exercise at school. Teacher training is key. We have to help the teachers themselves learn how to best promote an active lifestyle, make physical education engaging and how to combine learning with physical activity.

Children can benefit from physical exercise even before their first class of the day. The central target in the Government’s second cycling and walking investment strategy is that half of urban journeys should be walked or cycled by 2030. Cycling to school is a fantastic way for children to exercise and contribute to those required 60 minutes per day. It can be a community event involving both parents and classmates.

The third pillar is financial education. In a recent survey, 47% of children from low-income families said that they worry about their family’s finances, which is adding to their stress levels and in turn presenting itself through challenging behaviours at home and at school. Financial insecurity leads to anxiety, stress and depression but financial education at an early age will help to mitigate these risks.

I believe the recently issued guidance on mobile phones in schools, which backs headteachers in prohibiting the use of mobile phones throughout the school day, can play a key part in caring for the mental health and well-being of schoolchildren. The school environment should be a place for the learning of the four pillars, as I have outlined, and for face-to-face social interaction—not mobile to mobile.

I therefore ask the Minister what the Government are doing to educate both children and schoolteachers on how to cook, how to eat well and how to make healthy food choices. What can the Government do to work with charities such as Chefs in Schools?

On physical education, what are the Government doing to involve parents and the community in journeys? What teacher training is taking place? Will the Government commit to revisiting the decision to cut funding for walking and cycling schemes as part of the cycling and walking investment strategy? With financial education, how will the Government make this a cornerstone of a school education?

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Portrait Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Lab)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for her stimulating and challenging speech introducing this interesting debate. I also thank the House Library and the several organisations that have provided most helpful briefings, all pointing, regrettably, to the increasing mental problems among children and young people. I will not repeat the catalogue of problems that many others have covered.

I was going to say that one issue that had not been covered—although the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, now has—relates to diet and its impact on children’s and young people’s mental well-being. I am sure the Minister is not surprised that I am raising this again. The significant issue, on which action still needs to be taken, is the quality of school meals. My concern, and that of many others, is that one of the factors that greatly influences the conduct of children is sugar and the high incidence of it now. In particular, in the view of many people, there is an overly high incidence of sugar in school meals, which is why some of us have been pressing, for quite some time, for the long-overdue review of the regulations relating to school meals to be undertaken. The last time I raised this, the Minister said she would take it back to her department, and I am sure she has done that. As she returns today from her department, I wonder whether she is bringing some good news for us: that we will get a review—the last one took place in 2014—under way in 2024.

If the Minister is not in a position to do that, I can tell her that the new special Select Committee that has been established in the House to look at diet and obesity met this morning for the fourth time, to hear Henry Dimbleby give evidence. He of course was the former UK government tsar at Defra, brought in by the Government to help them with their problems with diet, farming-related issues, food generally and obesity. He resigned, somewhat disgusted with the Government’s unwillingness to implement a number of the recommendations that he has been pressing. Some of those related to children, school meals and the growth of obesity among children.

It is not only child obesity that is worrying us now. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned—the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, has spoken frequently on this—we now see an increasing number of children with mental health problems relating to eating disorders. There is considerable growth in that area, which is of big concern and needs addressing. What is causing the growth in mental health problems? Do we have more nowadays than previously? That is debatable.

The causes—there are a variety—are debatable too but, without a doubt, many of us would agree that social media had quite a significant impact. This relates back to food, body image, appearance, bullying and how younger people relate to each other on social media, which is leading to mental health problems. I believe that, behind an awful lot of the mental health problems that we encounter with children, there is a fear of what they are encountering in life—and a fear of climate change, which is growing and worrying children. We have to do all we can to try to address that.

There is a poverty of food in many areas in the country, but I believe too that we have a poverty of spirit. This goes back to resilience and self-reliance, but it is an important factor that we have to see whether we are doing enough in schools to develop that self-reliance. I was very heartened to hear of the work that the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, described that she is undertaking, and we look forward to the results of the experimentation that is taking place in the north-east. I hope that it is successful.

To move away from that issue, I quickly recall that the noble Lord, Lord Layard, helped Tony Blair and helped significantly with regard to mental health by persuading the Government to introduce talking therapies. Some 22,000 people are now employed on that for adults. The noble Lord, Lord Layard, has done some recent work on addiction, and maybe he should do some work with children, too. We should look to see whether we can have a greater expansion at school levels. I leave it now to my good friend and colleague to speak with more authority about mental health than I can.

Baroness Hollins Portrait Baroness Hollins (CB)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on an excellent opening speech. I agree that our schools could do much more to prepare pupils for the challenges of today.

I declare my interest as founder and chair of a small mental health charity, Books Beyond Words, which I shall mention briefly later. Before I became a Member of your Lordships’ House, I was a clinical academic psychiatrist, specialising in child and adolescent mental health as well as in learning disabilities. As a community psychiatrist, I regularly went into schools—usually special schools—to consult teachers and think with them about the needs of their children. I agree that prevention is better than waiting for a crisis.

Like other noble Lords, I have had briefings from a number of mental health charities working in schools to improve children’s mental health, including Young Minds and Speech and Language UK. The briefings highlight that more than one-third of children and young people with mental health needs also have special educational needs, including speech and language difficulties.

This week is Emotional Health Week, promoted by the Centre for Emotional Health. Yesterday, its focus was on child development. Research clearly shows the impact that our relationships and emotional health in childhood—particularly in early childhood, but throughout the school years as well—will have on our future life chances. Last week the centre, in partnership with Demos, launched a paper called Strong Foundations: Why Everyone Needs Good Emotional Health - and How to Achieve It. It made several recommendations, including that the Department for Education should develop evidence-based guidance for schools and colleges on how best to implement learning about emotional health—in other words, what I call emotional literacy. This report included a recognition of how picture books can support social and emotional learning for children.

This resonates with me, as the founder and chair of Books Beyond Words. The charity works with artists to create stories in pictures about the everyday challenges that children face. Recently, the charity has been working in a pilot group of schools to see how word-free books can support the emotional well-being of primary school children as well as young people with special educational needs and improve teacher confidence in talking about common mental health challenges. An independent evaluation found a strong causal link between the creative reading of word-free stories, usually in small groups, and pupil progress towards improved emotional well-being, stronger peer relationships and an ability to express a range of feelings. Being able to recognise and express our feelings, such as anxiety, frustration and stress, can reduce the distressed or challenging behaviour that sometimes leads to the school exclusions highlighted by Young Minds. Exclusions are not the answer. Children with poor emotional health find it difficult to learn and are reluctant to go to school.

Using pictures rather than words helps children of all ages and abilities to engage with the topic and to express themselves. They can identify their feelings, discuss coping strategies and be empowered to speak up for themselves. After just one term of using word-free books once a week, 95% of pupils made progress towards being able to express and recognise a range of emotions. Case studies showed that attendance improved, and they had better than expected achievements in tests—all evidence of the importance of good emotional health.

I suggest that schools have a crucial role in fostering a nurturing environment and moving away from a punitive culture. Children need to feel comfortable and safe at school. School targets need to be more holistic. Ignoring well-being does not lead to overall better outcomes. Schools need to adopt a whole-school approach to mental health and well-being, which aims to promote mental well-being and to intervene early when common mental conditions present, such as depression, anxiety and self-harm. A whole-school approach to mental health and well-being is a cohesive and collaborative action in and by a school community, strategically constructed with the school leadership—that is really important; school leadership has to be on board. There also needs to be an ethos that promotes respect and diversity. The curriculum and teaching should help children and young people to develop their resilience and support their social and emotional learning.

We know that childhood is a period of extraordinary potential. Get it right, and we are investing in the whole of society. We know that adverse childhood experiences are key predictors of poor physical and mental health and well-being throughout a person’s life. We know that prevention is better than cure. I consider that a child’s emotional well-being and mental health cannot be considered in isolation from their school environment and the culture within that school.

There is burnout among some school staff, recruitment and retention issues and school staff reporting that they feel unequipped to manage the mental health needs of their pupils. There are high levels of persistent absence, and we know that young people who are absent from school are more likely to have a mental disorder; a punitive approach is therefore rarely the answer to poor school attendance.

Let me tell your Lordships about Sarah. She started to struggle with her mental health when she started secondary school. She was involved in a car accident over the summer holidays and became increasingly anxious about leaving her home. She had already been finding school difficult and started missing days at school. When she did manage to get to school, she was told off by teachers for her poor attendance, which made it more difficult to attend. Nobody asked her why it was so difficult to go to school. Her anxiety got worse, as did her attendance. Then her parents were asked to pay fines because of her poor attendance. She has now been out of school for a year and remains on a waiting list for CAMHS.

What are the solutions? I do not really have time to talk about them, but I agree that schools need to be more fun. They also need to be more real, addressing the things that really matter to children and young people.

Lord Vaizey of Didcot Portrait Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the gap. I had put this debate in my diary but failed to put down my name to speak—a schoolboy error for which I deserve extensive detention. I declare my interest as an adviser to Common Sense Media, a US not-for-profit that focuses on protecting kids from the harms of the internet. I am also a trustee of its UK charity.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on calling this excellent debate. I agreed with a huge amount of what she said. There was a tantalising moment when she said that the classroom remains a Victorian construct; I could not agree with her more—in fact, it is a line that I trot out regularly at the kind of London dinner parties that Liz Truss has taken randomly to be so disparaging about. I find it astonishing—this is not to be rude in any shape or form our educators and teachers—that the classroom structure has not moved on for 150 years. There is a great debate to be had in this Chamber at another time, calling on the huge expertise that exists here, about how we reconstruct education; the purpose of the classroom; the use of technology, paradoxically, to provide personalised curriculums to allow children to proceed at their own pace; and the role of exams. I am prepared to be as radical as possible; I for one would, for example, abolish school uniform. But that is a whole other debate.

I want to focus, in the short time I have, on two brief issues. First, I heard my noble friend Lord Effingham mention the mobile phone at the end of his speech: social media is the great issue that our children now face inside and outside school; it is the biggest impact on children’s well-being and mental health in the last 10 years. A lot of it can be for the good, but we know that children—girls far more than boys—are bombarded with content, some of it inappropriate, and text messages, and this brings the opportunity for bullying. Common Sense Media, for example, provides a digital curriculum; we have constructed a partnership with the NSPCC to promote that in schools. It is about educating parents, but it is also about helping children become savvy digital citizens, and, above all, helping teachers, who are behind the curve, and their own pupils, on the use of technology. This is an absolutely vital issue and should be front and centre of our thinking.

The second issue I want to concentrate on, which was so ably covered in detail by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, who knows so much about this subject, is the role of the arts and creativity in our schools and education. I stand guilty as charged, as the Arts Minister who could not save some of the creative programmes that were set up by the previous Labour Government; they were the most vulnerable when it came to having to reduce our budget. But one scheme I was able to save, by working with the Department for Education on music education, was the astonishing In Harmony scheme, which is one of the most emotional things I have ever been to. It is exactly what noble Lords are talking about; it is not about learning music, it is about learning confidence. It was about kids aged nine and 10 educating their own parents about what they were learning and gaining enormous confidence from performing like that.

I applaud the Government in focusing on the rigour of reading and maths, and I accept that Nick Gibb can be proud that we are moving up the league tables in how well our kids are now reading and doing in maths. Those are the building blocks of education and success in life, but creativity is also a fantastic way of building confidence and academic rigour, and, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, it is a space to think. Above all, it is a route for kids who are not suited necessarily to the academic path to find a way forward. I was always a great sceptic about free school meals, and I have done a complete volte-face on that as well because, if you have kids in school from age five to 18, feeding them well and properly must be a no-brainer. Then there is sport as well. My message is that it is called the soft stuff but it is unbelievably important.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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I too want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for securing this important debate. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, will be pleased to know that Everton ward, one of the most deprived communities in Liverpool, is celebrating 10 years of In Harmony—I have been invited—and it has been life-changing for some of those young people.

I am changing what I was going to say. For starters, the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, ought to have been a primary teacher—no two ways about it. It is only nine or 10 years ago that I was the head of a three form-entry primary school in a place called Knowsley, outside Liverpool, with 500 pupils from one of the most deprived communities in the country. We had 96% attendance, the children wanted to come to school, and they were enthusiastic. We had science trails with parents, technology days, and all the children, from year 3 to year 6, went away to the Isle of Wight for either a weekend or a full week. Parents did all sorts of things for the school, and raised huge amounts of money. I look back and ask: what, sadly, went wrong?

By the way, this school had three Ofsted inspections, and we were a good school for all three of them. The results were above the national average; this is not me boasting—it was due to the teachers and pupils of that school. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, that we did not get an Artsmark—but we did get a gold Artsmark. One of my very average teachers was doing a literacy lesson when the Artsmark inspector came, so I was thinking, “Oh no”, but then she came back and told me it was the best lesson she had ever seen—that the teacher had done the literacy lesson with percussion instruments. I thought, “Wow, I’ve underestimated him”. He was brilliant and rose to the occasion. With all that enthusiasm, the pupils wanted to learn and come into school; 97% of our pupils went to the local secondary school and the links were fantastic. It was not just my school—the five other primary schools and the Church of England primary school all worked together and the local authority gave us support when we were in difficulty. We supported each other. I do not know why we have lost all that.

Several noble Lords have talked about the alarming mental health statistics for our children and young people. Two sets of statistics have not been mentioned. First, terribly sadly, the numbers of young people taking their own lives, the numbers of young people self-harming and the numbers of young people with eating disorders are all increasing every year. Secondly—of all the statistics we have mentioned, this really concerns me—10% of children aged five to 16 are clinically diagnosed as having mental health problems, but 70% of them had not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. Had we intervened as early as we could have done and had the support mechanisms there, we might have prevented some of the problems we face further down the line. It is a bit like the discussions we used to have about special educational needs; if we can diagnose autism or dyslexia at an early stage then we can intervene and do something about it, and the same should be true of mental health.

I am sure the Minister will tell us about the resources the Government are spending on mental health, which are to be welcomed and applauded, but we face a mental health emergency and there is a huge hole in the current provision. Last year, fewer than half—44%—of the 1.5 million children who needed additional support had not received a CAMHS appointment. A report conducted last year by the Children’s Commissioner found that the average waiting time in England between referral and the start of treatment is the highest it has been for two years. Some 35% of those classified as having high psychological distress say that they have not received the support they sought and Barnardo’s points out that children with moderate mental health issues are falling through the gaps, as they are considered too acute for intervention from mental health services but do not meet the threshold for CAMHS, as my noble friend Lady Tyler said.

Schools have been helping children and young people with mental health problems through online tutoring, particularly those with special educational needs, some of those in alternative provision and those who are home-educated. That scheme will come to an end this summer, with its £200 million not going back into education but being returned to the Treasury. That is a lost opportunity. I know that the tutoring programme was brought in during Covid, but it was immensely successful and has helped huge numbers of children, particularly those in deprived communities. Will the Minister look at how we can keep that programme? It is no answer to say that it can be provided from the pupil premium; that is already overstretched and in many schools some of that money is used for mental health support.

What should we do in this mental health emergency? My noble friend Lord Russell told the House what we would do: we would put a statutory duty on every state-funded school to make provision for an education mental health practitioner or a school counsellor. A mental health practitioner means a person with a graduate- or postgraduate-level qualification accredited by Health Education England. For schools with 100 or fewer pupils, the duty may be satisfied by a collaborative provision between schools.

We also need urgent financing, training and provision for CAMHS staff, and indeed for school support, whether it comes from the school psychological service or from speech therapists. Children with speech and language challenges are twice as likely to have difficulties with mental health.

I am sure that many colleagues will have received numerous briefings from charities and professional bodies, and I thank them. I was particularly taken with the Mental Health Foundation, which had a very pupil-focused approach, with clear, school-based actions: school anti-bullying programmes; the whole-school approach that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, mentioned; targeted programmes; implementation of a trauma-informed approach; supporting the most minoritised and marginalised pupils; looking at comparable studies in other countries; and learning from the experiences of young people themselves. There was the remarkable quote from one young person:

“Despite the profound impact on individuals and communities, mental health remains largely undervalued and shrouded in silence”.

I end with a comment the Minister made in response to the Select Committee report on the 11-16 curriculum. As was pointed out, sadly, all those recommendations were rejected by the Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Barran, said:

“Exams are a great leveller, whatever a pupil’s origin or level of disadvantage”.

Exams may or may not be a great leveller, but they are also very stressful. We have more tests and more exams for our children and young people than any other country in the world. Perhaps our target-driven schools need to be more focused on a child-centred approach, which would certainly help with mental health issues.

I end by repeating the quote from that young person:

“Despite the profound impact on individuals and communities, mental health remains largely undervalued and shrouded in silence”.

Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a truly interesting and varied debate. I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on securing it. There can be nothing more important in a child’s development than ensuring that they have good mental and physical health, not least in what many noble Lords have noted is a complex and often confusing world.

Children need a healthy, caring, constructive, lively and varied school environment, of the type to which the noble Baroness referred in her opening remarks. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, good mental health is a prerequisite for learning. My noble friend Lord Touhig powerfully articulated the need for children to have the confidence to succeed.

I also agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lady Morris that academic education and mental health and well-being should not be seen as being in competition with each other. I am very much in the camp which believes that schools should prepare children for life and work, and liked how my noble friend Lady Morris articulated how this might be balanced in relation to exams, and how people view exam success and failure.

I do not, however, think that this excludes fun or creativity. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, on the need for creative arts to be a key part of school life and the lives of students. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester also spoke powerfully to this point, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on the work of the charity, Books Beyond Words.

My noble friend Lady Blake did not speak in this debate, but I understand she did great work as leader of Leeds City Council in ensuring that all children had access to learning a musical instrument. This is the type of thing that can enrich children’s lives and make school life much more rewarding.

I found the contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, on physical activity and food very compelling. Clearly, the quality of food in school is an issue that my noble friend Lord Brooke has campaigned on with vigour, not least on sugar, and will continue to do so.

From what we have heard today, none of us can be in any doubt that we have a huge mental health crisis among children and young people. As the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, also made clear, schools have a very distinct role in identifying and triaging issues. Schools and teachers do incredible work in a difficult environment. Schools sometimes struggle to meet the needs of their students, and teachers do not always have the support they need, or the time or expertise to identify and deal with student mental health issues. CAMHS cannot deal with the scale of the demand, with unacceptable delays for treatment that risk an individual’s mental health issues escalating.

I return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, about the focus on fun. I think that we all now want to visit his school, so he should expect a queue for us to do that.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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He should change to being a primary teacher.

Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross (Lab)
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He does not have to become a primary school teacher; he can carry on as he is.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned the need for a whole-school approach, as did others, but what we really need is an understanding of how we get a better whole-system approach—I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that. Surely, that is what is needed to address the issue. There is a clear need for the Government to drive forward and work much more on a cross-departmental basis. The NHS, individual schools, charities and local authorities cannot solve the child mental health crisis alone. The noble Lord, Lord Wei, discussed the need for school pathways to be made clearer and simpler for parents and children, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s reflection on his point about the correlation with decisions that parents might make on home schooling.

I will give a personal view of an amazing meeting I had this week with a fabulous group of students from the Ark King Solomon Academy near Edgware Road. It was a reminder of how a good school can provide a truly nurturing environment. The students spoke to me about the mental health provision in their school with their vice-principal and the charity Place2Be, whose services the young people had accessed. They told me that Covid had led to isolation, that they needed more clubs and activity to improve their well-being, and that PHSE could do so much more than it does currently to help young people understand their mental health and how to deal with any issues they might face. They also said that their parents often did not know how to help, so the parents also needed additional support to help deal with the issue.

The provision that the students had accessed had given them a sense of belonging and a trusted space. But they said that there was a need for more provision, so that students did not have to wait to access services. The students were hugely articulate in how they spoke about their experience and the need for young people to build resilience. I have no doubt that their school and their parents are incredibly proud of them. After they met me, they went to No. 10 to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister; I would be very grateful if the Minister could ensure that it reaches the right person for a response.

We cannot talk about the role of schools in mental health without discussing the wider context. The scale of the problem was mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Sterling, who noted that the rise means that, on average, five children in a class of 30 are likely to have mental health issues. He also noted the recruitment crisis in specialists.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, asked what was probably the most valid question of the whole debate: what is going on? In 2022, 1.4 million children were referred to CAMHS, with 270,000 children waiting longer than three months to begin treatment. The Local Government Association has found that at least one in six children and young people aged seven to 16 has a probable mental health disorder, which increases to one in four for young people aged 17 to 19. The Children’s Commissioner, who has been quoted several times, has raised particular concerns around older teenage girls; she found in her report last year that nearly two in five of 16 to 17 year-old girls were unhappy with their mental health. Things going wrong— such as when children and young people do not get support in a timely way—can lead to forced hospitalisation. In the worst cases, unresolved mental health issues lead to self-harm and attempted or successful suicide, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, highlighted in his remarks.

Children living in poverty, where parents separate or have a financial crisis, or children whose own parents have poor mental health or poor health, are even more likely to have poor mental health themselves. As my noble friend Lord Touhig said, children with speech and language difficulties are twice as likely to have a mental health issue than their peers—the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, also highlighted this point. This is also the case for children and young people with a wide range of other special needs, physical illness or disabilities.

Can the Minister say what the government view is on how provision is currently tailored towards the needs of different groups of children, and what more can be done to ensure that children and young adults get access in a timely way? To tackle an issue of this scale, you surely need a thorough understanding of what needs to be addressed—and with apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, I do not think that policy should be made routinely at London dinner parties.

Can the Minister clarify whether the Government intend to start to routinely collect statistics on mental health provision in schools, including the type of provision and therapy provided? As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, this should include a cross-referencing of this with other data, including absenteeism. If not, can the Minister tell the House when the Government at the very least intend to carry out a new survey, given that it is almost a decade since the last one found that only 62% of schools offered counselling services? However, I understand that that figure has risen. Can the Minister provide information on how many schools now have counselling services? Are the Government, like Labour, committed to specialist mental health support for children and young people in every school? Furthermore, can the Government provide a demographic breakdown of the number of children accessing mental health services in schools and through CAMHS?

Finally, I acknowledge that I am clear that the Government know that there is a problem. However, I do not feel that they have yet managed to introduce a comprehensive solution—the proposed ban on phones in schools is evidence of this. Many noble Lords referenced social media and phones. However, many schools have introduced this, and head teachers have noted that they cannot control their use out of school. Having heard today’s debate, what more is the Minister able to commit to the Government doing to address this epidemic of mental health issues in children and young people, both in and out of school, to ensure that our young people get the support they need to thrive both socially and academically through their childhoods to successful adult lives?

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on securing this important debate and thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I feel a long letter coming on, so I will do my best to cover the points raised, but I feel pretty confident that I will not get through all of them.

I felt very uncomfortable and was trying not to be defensive while listening to the opening speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the other speeches. What I heard from your Lordships today is what I often hear going around the country, which is that “My school, my children’s school, my grandchildren’s school and the school I teach in are fantastic” but “the system is broken”. “The system” is made up of all those brilliant schools, with brilliant teachers and a heroic generation of children, and I think at our peril do we have such a negative tone about our education system and our schools, which are doing an amazing job all around the country.

There are many reasons why they are doing so well, but I will pick just on a few. The first is that this country has been the first to really be led by the evidence of what works—not what we think or feel might work but what the evidence actually shows works in the country. All of us in this House know that it is a great deal easier to write policy than it is to implement it well, and the focus that has been placed on what actually works in practice is absolutely critical. I encourage your Lordships to look at the difference in what is happening in our schools in England and those in Scotland and in Wales, and I think my case rests.

We used evidence in relation to curriculum and extracurricular activities, and in relation to pedagogy and behaviour. For those noble Lords who question the importance of attainment, that in itself is an incredibly important protective factor for our children’s mental health. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, talked about a sense of music and other cultural activities having been lost in our schools. As your Lordships know—I mention it often at the Dispatch Box, because it is true—every week I visit schools and I see what is happening on the ground.

The noble Baroness talked about schools being forced into trusts. The schools that go into trusts because they are sponsored schools have failed the community of children that they are serving and, for whatever reasons, therefore need support. I am well aware that parents, children and staff are frequently concerned at the time of transfer, but they should visit those schools a year later. I went to a school in Liverpool and a year to the day since they had been sponsored, I said to the children, “Tell me what it was like a year ago. What’s the difference?” A child said to me, “You wouldn’t have felt safe in the corridor, Miss”. Our children need to feel safe, not only in the corridor. She also talked about what mountains she was going to climb, metaphorically, so it was not just about corridors.

I want to pick up on the sense of this very critical and forbidding tone that your Lordships suggest that schools apparently use in communicating with parents and children. Again, I absolutely understand that there are times when enforcement is important, but everything we are doing and everything that I see in schools starts with support and encouragement to work out where a child will thrive and flourish, and what their individual strengths are that can be built on. I sense that the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, had the same sense when she met the children from the Ark school the other day. I will do my very best to ensure that they get a speedy response to their letter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, talked about attendance. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for underlining how attendance is so important for the safety of our children. I urge those noble Lords who are worried about the policy in relation to fines: look at the guidance that we have produced for schools and its emphasis on support. I urge them to talk to schools. Their concern, when I talk to them, is about inconsistency in the implementation of fines for non-attendance rather than the policy itself.

I absolutely agree that mild anxiety becomes much greater anxiety for the majority of children if they miss significant amounts of school, so we are working incredibly hard on attendance. For the most vulnerable children, we have extended our attendance mental programme and we will have 32 attendance hubs, meaning that 2,000 schools will be helped to tackle persistent absence with that peer-to-peer support. We are also doing a great deal of work analysing the data around attendance. As I said in response to a Question earlier this week, we are seeing green shoots in relation to attendance this term, particularly in primary but also in year 7 in secondary.

I always enjoy listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and her reflections on education. We need to focus on what schools can do and not ask them to do things they cannot do. The noble Baroness talked about giving confidence back to children, but we also need to make sure that teachers and school leaders feel confident in their approach.

I turn to some of the wider issues in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, anticipated well that I would acknowledge that there has been a worrying rise in mental health issues that need specialist support. Of course, teachers and school staff are not mental health specialists. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to the rollout of mental health support teams. We are extending those teams to an estimated 44% of pupils and learners by the end of this financial year and to at least 50% by the end of March 2025. To address the noble Earl’s question, our original plans have been accelerated, but these are genuinely new and additional staff, so it takes time to recruit and train them, but we see this as an absolute priority.

This debate shows how crucial it is that we support schools. We also recognise that they have a real role in creating a safe, calm and supportive environment for pupils, where they want to attend and where they are able to learn and flourish. That is particularly important for the most vulnerable children. Here I acknowledge the remarks of the noble Baronesses, Lady Tyler and Lady Hollins, whom I thank for all the work she does, particularly in relation to children with learning difficulties.

Our schools’ role in promoting this environment and offering a rich and varied experience that encourages the creativity that your Lordships talked about, the activity and development, through a broad and balanced curriculum, and a high-quality enrichment offer, is incredibly important. Schools are and should be places where children can experience joy—it does not say “fun” in my speech, but I agree about fun—find good and respectful communities, and have experiences that build their resilience and sense of well-being.

The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, asked how we can flex that to make sure that it always reflects particular needs and individual pupils. That is rooted in having a culture that watches out for every child, every day, and makes sure that the relationships that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about are in place, so that children feel able to come forward and talk and teachers can spot their needs.

Good behaviour is critical to ensuring a safe environment that children will feel happy to go to. That is why the Government have put such emphasis on high expectations of behaviour. Many of your Lordships quoted the Children’s Commissioner and I know from speaking to her that it is particularly children with special educational needs and disabilities or children who are vulnerable who need to feel safe in school. They thrive when they feel safe in school. School leaders with whom I have talked emphasise that it is not just in lessons but, crucially, in unstructured time—when the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, is standing by the edge of the playground, spotting stuff—when children need to feel safe and need to know absolutely what the expectations are of their behaviour.

Also, on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, children need to feel that they have a part in this and a sense of agency. The noble Lord referred to the work of Place2Be, which I know well and admire even more. That sense of pupil leadership councils and so on contributing to the culture of a school, particularly around behaviour, is extremely important. We have set those things out in our behaviour guidance; established behaviour hubs, which are supporting 750 schools; and introduced a behaviour and culture national professional qualification for teachers.

A number of your Lordships, including my noble friends Lord Sterling and Lord Wei, spoke about children with special educational needs. They are right that we absolutely need to emphasise earlier identification. We are working to reduce the adversarial nature of the system and are putting in support for school staff, integrating in the initial teacher training and the early careers framework a much greater focus on special educational needs and disabilities in teacher training. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, spoke about speech and language, which is an important area of focus and obviously one of the priority areas for the practice guidance in the SEND improvement plan. I would be delighted to meet with Speech and Language UK.

My noble friend Lord Sterling and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, among others, spoke about access to CAMHS. The young people’s mental health workforce has increased by 46% since the NHS long-term plan started in 2019, but I absolutely accept your Lordships’ reflections, and the feedback I get when I talk to schools, that that may have increased but schools still feel that it is a very hard service to access.

I turn to enrichment. The department is committed to ensuring that young people have access to great extracurricular opportunities. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, talked about the importance of partnerships. She will know that we are testing ways to increase local co-ordination of enrichment activities across schools through our enrichment partnerships pilot, which is a giant project between the Department for Education and DCMS. That is in addition to our work with DCMS to make sure that children get the most from the national youth guarantee, which supports children to have access to regular out-of-school activities. In particular, we are working together to offer the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to all mainstream secondary schools in England by 2025, which perhaps offers some of the blood, sweat and tears that the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, referred to—hopefully no violence, though.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester spoke about the importance of cultural education, as did my noble friend Lord Vaizey. That is obviously part of a rich school experience, including wider arts, music and creative subjects. That is why we are investing £115 million in cultural education up to 2025.

Turning to sport, I absolutely hear the importance that my noble friend Lord Effingham and the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, place on sport. We are going to publish non-statutory guidance this spring, illustrating how schools will be able to provide two hours of PE and equal access. As someone who swam in very cold water this morning and tries to every morning, I totally agree with the noble Lord about the impact on one’s mood. It is hard to get out of cold water without feeling better—unless you stay in too long, of course, but that is for another debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, raised the importance of school food, as did my noble friend Lord Effingham. I offer the noble Lord a meeting outside the Chamber to update him on some of the work the department is doing on this. We now include cooking and nutrition as part of the national curriculum in design and technology, and it is mandatory in key stages 1 to 3. A new GCSE in food preparation and nutrition was introduced in 2016.

My noble friend Lord Wei asked what we are doing to support home education. We remain committed to introducing statutory local authority registers for children not in school, and a duty for local authorities to provide support for home-educating parents. I absolutely recognise some of the issues he raised relating to children with special educational needs and disabilities.

I will also just mention, in honour of her green genes, that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, knows, we are doing a great deal in schools with our climate change and sustainability strategy, which sets out a number of initiatives from early years, through school and into college that are designed to get children into nature and inspire them by spending time in nature, giving them the tools to plan and develop climate action plans for their school and their community, and then act on them. We really believe that that connection with nature is so important to their mental health.

I think your Lordships will have felt quite how strongly I feel about how much our schools are doing to support our children and their mental health. As your Lordships’ speeches underlined, no single thing will address this problem. There is no silver bullet, but that combination of engaging curricular and extracurricular activities and making sure that we protect avenues for student voice and agency will all contribute, combined with having specialist well-being and mental health support. That needs to be underpinned by a firm and supportive behaviour policy where children feel safe and thrive, and where teachers feel fulfilled.

The bit I really do agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is on Yeats and lighting the fire. We do that through those things and through the relationships that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, alluded to, but unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I think that is exactly what our schools are doing.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister and everyone who has taken part in what has been a rich and deeply informative debate—I might even say your Lordships’ House at its best. I think I have a couple of minutes, so I want to respond and highlight some things that particularly deserve to be highlighted.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on his courage in raising the issue of child suicide. It is very difficult to talk about and very disturbing, but it is important that it was raised in the debate. I thank him for that.

Slightly more lightly, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey: no detention, I do not think. I am delighted to hear from the Benches opposite such a radical idea of how we need to get away from Victorian schooling.

I want particularly to address the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, to accept his invitation—I believe I should be at the front of the queue, given it is clearly a long one—and perhaps to apologise. Maybe my speech did not make it clear enough that I was talking about what is happening in a significant number of schools but by no means all of them, and about the direction of policy and ideology that is being pushed towards schools. I mention, for example, Space Studio West London, which I visited with Learn with the Lords. It struck me, from my two-hour visit, as a very inclusive, welcoming and caring school that has really strong approaches. I have no doubt that they exist, but I feel that they are having to run against the tide, rather than being supported in the way that they should be.

I will now pick up some points from the Minister. She said that the department is operating on the basis of evidence of what works. But today, when we are talking about mental health, the figures cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, about children’s experience of schools and how they feel about them were deeply shocking. That is evidence and it really needs to be taken into account.

On schools being forced into trusts, Ofsted is a whole other debate. Very importantly, after what the Minister said about the tone of dealing with parents, we heard testimony from all around your Lordships’ House, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Wei. He said there needs to be an approach of collaboration rather than confrontation, and that targets for school attendance often mean being pushed to not act in children’s best interests. Those important testimonies from experience really need to be listened to.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, joined the right reverend Prelate and others in talking about the importance of the arts and music. The noble Baroness gave her classic virtuoso performance; I particularly liked the reference to how that is related to civic behaviours —voting and volunteering et cetera, and the relationship of that to cultural education. On food—one of my favourite things—we did not actually get the word microbiome in there, but I thank all noble Lords who brought that up. It is a crucial issue.

I want to finish by referencing two speeches. The first is that of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley. It was an important and obviously very well-informed speech. The word I kept hearing again and again was “pressure”—the pressure coming from exams. I think that feeling has been reflected right around your Lordships’ House; that is how schools are suffering. There is also the way in which schools are not embedded in communities in the same way they used to be, while having to compete against each other. I think the noble Lord, Lord Storey, talked about co-operation and the importance of schools working as a network—not being set against each other in league tables, but working together.

Finally, I go to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, who of course brings no party axe to grind to your Lordships’ House; she brings absolutely expert experience. She summed up a lot of the debate, from all sides of the House, in saying that children need to feel safe in school, that ignoring well-being does not lead to better outcomes and that we need to address the things that really matter. That is the message to finish this debate with; it really needs to be listened to by all sides of your Lordships’ House.

Motion agreed.
House adjourned at 5.43 pm.