Mike Penning: I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman, and I declare an interest as a former firefighter. The fire service is exactly as he described—part

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of the community—but its members have been law enforcers since day one. As a fire prevention officer, I used to do that sort of work. We would go to clubs and we would shut them down because we were protecting the public, as the police do in their way. It is wrong to say that members of the fire service are not law enforcers, because they are, they will be and they must be.

Ian Lavery: That is something we must disagree on. I think that the two roles have to be completely different. Firefighters are not law enforcers in the name of the law or in statute—[Hon. Members: “Yes, they are.”] I disagree. Perhaps the Minister can send me the information that shows that each firefighter in each community is, as part of their job, a law enforcer.

Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. We are good friends, so it is right that we debate this matter. As a young fire officer, I used to do FPO inspections in clubs. If that club did not adhere to the recommendations made, in statute that club could be closed and sometimes it was closed. That was the fire authority; it was nothing to do with the police or anybody else.

Ian Lavery: I understand the instances to which the Minister refers. In my constituency, fire authorities have checked alarms and different things in buildings, and I understand that, but what I am describing now is the different in terms of law enforcement. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said, we will not have fire and rescue service officers detecting crime and clipping young people around the head or doing things of that nature. It will be completely different. I understand that there is a duty and obligation on the fire and rescue services in relation to alarms and things of that nature, and they do an absolutely fantastic job; they have built up a great reputation. The Minister was a member of the fire and rescue service many years ago. I am sure that he was up to the task then and that he will support the issues we are raising today. When he was in the service, I am sure he had the utmost respect of his community, because that is what happens with the fire and rescue service.

There are alternatives that will not compromise the trust in and integrity of the fire and rescue service, and they are what we need to look at. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase mentioned joint procurement, which is absolutely on the money. Why should there not be joint procurement? There is no reason not to look at sharing administrative services and, potentially, servicing roles with other public sector bodies where that is appropriate—but not necessarily between the fire and rescue service and the police service. It should be with other public sector services that share the humanitarian remit, rather than the crime remit.

That brings us on to a number of points, such as the difference in the roles and remits. As I have just explained, there is a huge difference between the fire and rescue service and the police, and that needs to be considered. The police and the fire service perform very different roles and consequently have very different command and control structures. If the proposal went ahead, that would limit the opportunities available for any joint working.

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Members have mentioned the police and crime commissioners. I am sure we will have a massive disagreement about this, but there is already a lot of concern about the police and crime commissioners’ role, without giving them extra responsibility for the fire and rescue services. After all, they were elected by, on average, only 15% of the electorate. I am not even sure that the commissioners themselves want any additional responsibilities; in fact, commissioners up and down the country have emphatically said, “We don’t want any additional responsibilities. We are police and crime commissioners. What on earth have we got to do with the fire and rescue service?” Again, we have to listen to the people who are actually delivering services on our behalf.

It is obvious that, unlike many public sector organisations, including the police, the fire service lacks common guidance and a natural procurement channel. That is a wasted opportunity. We must improve the procurement channel for fire-specific products.

The hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) mentioned the ambulance service. I have to be honest: the ambulance service—certainly in my area—is creaking. The North East ambulance service needs 120 recruits—the paramedics we discussed, who cannot suddenly appear because of the training and expertise they require—so I wonder whether the ambulance service should be involved in these proposals.

We have fantastic blue-light services—the four services—and every member of every one of those services deserves lots of credit. They have all suffered massive cuts. They are all working as hard as they can in the most stringent financial circumstances, and that is very difficult for them. It is easy to criticise them, but I am not sure the answer is to bring them all together and plonk them in one place, although I accept that some of the measures I have mentioned should be looked at for the common good.

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase said it was time to move to a mandatory position, rather than a voluntary one. Well, call me a dinosaur—

Jake Berry: Dinosaur.

Ian Lavery: Thanks—

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. That remark was made from a sedentary position. If Members want to intervene, I encourage them to stand up.

Ian Lavery: I have lost my thread, Mr Pritchard. I was in full flow until I asked people to call me a dinosaur.

Sir Oliver Heald: One of the latest and most popular cartoons is called, I think, “The Happy Dinosaur”.

Ian Lavery: I have been called a dinosaur many times, but rarely have I been called a happy dinosaur, so that is a first.

In her very good speech, the hon. Lady suggested that we need to move immediately from a voluntary to a mandatory arrangement. We have a duty as Members of Parliament to listen to the people on the frontline—the

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police who are dealing with crime in our communities, and the fire and rescue services that are dealing with problems every day—rather than just tell them what to do.

Mr Anderson: I concur that my hon. Friend is a dinosaur, because he has a big heart. Is there not a pattern here? The Government just do not want to talk to ordinary people. For example, they insist on places such as the north-east having regional mayors without any consultation with local people. They insist on police and crime commissioners, even though there is no demand for them. They are now suggesting that we combine the roles of police and crime commissioners and fire commissioners, which would do away with another job done by local, elected people. Is this not really about the diminution of democracy?

Ian Lavery: That is a fair comment. There is a lot I could say about the failure of the democratic process nationally, regionally and locally.

Jake Berry: I fundamentally disagree. Actually, combining the police and crime commissioner and fire commissioner roles will give much more democratic accountability. Does the hon. Gentleman think that a fire panel made up by local authority councillors is much more accountable? Could he name everyone on the fire panel in his area? I admit that I cannot do that for my area. If MPs cannot do that, how are constituents meant to?

Ian Lavery: That is a fair point. The Northumberland fire and rescue service is completely different from the services in the rest of the country. I can tell the hon. Gentleman the names of the people elected to run the service on behalf of Northumberland County Council because I have met them on numerous occasions, but I understand his point about whether constituents know who is on the fire panels.

To conclude, this is a serious issue. I understand the points that have been raised by almost everyone here. There are a lot of things that need to be discussed, and I urge the Government not to move forward with any plans without holding proper consultations with the people who deliver these services. It is important that we represent those people and, of course, the people in our communities who rely on these services in the most difficult times.

Several hon. Members rose

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. We have three speakers and 14 minutes left, so can we have a time limit of four to four and a half minutes?

3.16 pm

Royston Smith (Southampton, Itchen) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for securing this important debate. I also pay tribute to our blue-light services for everything they do to keep us all safe every day of the week. I was the chairman of Hampshire fire and rescue service for five or six years; in fact, I was a member of the authority for about 15 years. I was perhaps the only chairman who was interviewed by Sir Ken Knight when he did his review.

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Austerity—this situation in which the country faces significant financial challenges—brings not only challenges but opportunities for our services, if people are prepared to take them. As a result of my leadership, that of the former chief fire officer, John Bonney, and that of his former deputy, Dave Curry, who is the current chief fire officer, Hampshire fire and rescue service has become one of the best, if not the best, fire and rescue services in the country. Of course, I would say that, because I was the chairman, but I think most people would acknowledge that it is right up there in the top 10, if not the best.

The service has tried to innovate its way out of the financial challenge it faces. If other fire and rescue services and police services did the same, we would not be having this debate about mandatory mergers. I think that that is a step too far and is completely unnecessary.

We talked about merging back-office functions; Hampshire has set up a business, as it were, called H3, which merges all the back-office functions of the police, the Hampshire fire and rescue service, and the county council, so when it comes to bringing in another public sector body, we are not necessarily talking about the police and fire; it could be the police and anything, or fire and anything. H3 merges IT, human resources and the back-office functions that the individual organisations involved would otherwise have, and it can bring more in. Other local authorities are looking to bring in their back-office functions. There is a philosophical argument about whether to privatise back-office functions. Some people feel a lot more comfortable about outsourcing those functions to an organisation that is publicly owned and run. Hampshire has already done that, and it was not rocket science.

Kevin Foster: If the arrangement were not mandatory but voluntary, what role does my hon. Friend envisage the Local Government Association, and in particular the national fire services management committee, of which I used to be a member, would play in encouraging such co-operation?

Royston Smith: It can have a role, precisely because that is a forum in which chairmen and others could meet and share best practice. I do not think that has been done, even now. People know what Hampshire is doing, and it is not just about H3 and back office. We have merged 18 or 19 premises with police—and I mean premises, not people; that is fundamental. We try to keep as many people as possible operating on the frontline. We will merge our headquarters into a police and fire headquarters, using the Government’s transformation fund. That will put police and fire in the same building, where they can work collaboratively on, for example, marketing and communications. Just putting them in the same building will save the police the cost of another building and will bring money into Hampshire fire and rescue service. Hampshire is in effect commissioned to run the Isle of Wight fire and rescue service; we are partnered with that service. I pay tribute to its former chief fire officer, Steve Apter, who in effect negotiated himself out of his job so that the saving could be made and so that Hampshire could effectively run the Isle of Wight’s fire services.

There are relatively minor savings in merging such things as governance, and it comes with a risk, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) suggested.

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That is not to say that fire and rescue authorities should not be leaner, and perhaps smaller. Hampshire fire and rescue has 25 members; a county brigade has one member. Of course, there are obvious savings to be made. In all likelihood the police and crime commissioner would spend at least half of what it costs to run a fire and rescue authority in running it himself, and that would mean less of a saving.

Mergers of all three services make no sense. One police and crime commissioner said it was ridiculous to send three vehicles to a road traffic collision, but of course it is ridiculous not to. The fire and rescue service may be needed to cut a casualty from a car; an ambulance may be needed to evacuate the casualty; and the police will be needed to ensure that traffic can continue to run. That could not be done with one vehicle; it would be physically impossible.

I do not think any place in the developed world has a merged police and fire service, but ambulance and fire services have been merged in many places, and that works well. Hampshire now provides a medical co-response to thousands of calls a year. That could be improved and increased. However, there is no operational reason for police and fire to merge. There is synergy in the merging of ambulance and fire, as I have said, and if savings in blue-light services are wanted, I think that is where the resources should be put. What the three services have in common is the fact that they all operate with blue lights; beyond that, much of what they do is entirely different, so we should be cautious before talking about mandatory mergers.

3.23 pm

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on securing a hugely important debate that matters particularly to Lancashire Members; the idea of sharing services to reduce costs will be particularly important there, given changes to the police funding formula. The Minister will not have scope to respond to me on that matter, but I want to thank him for meeting me and a cross-party delegation of Lancashire MPs who expressed concern about potential savings. His Department and officials have supported us every step of the way and have enabled Lancashire MPs to contribute to the continuing consultation to try to protect services.

Blue-light services are under pressure throughout the country because of financial constraints such as those I have mentioned. When MPs talk in the House about blue-light services—police, fire, ambulance, the coastguard and the Mines Rescue Service—they should reflect on the huge contribution that they make. My grandfather patrolled the docks in Bootle in Liverpool during the blitz—a tremendously brave thing to do—while he was in the police service. He put his life at risk every night to try to keep people safe in the city. We had a tragic reminder of the risks yesterday in the same city, at the funeral of PC Phillips at the Anglican Liverpool cathedral, where there were amazing scenes as more than 1,000 police officers lined the streets. I know that the Minister attended, to pass on the condolences of everyone in the House. When we discuss the blue-light services, we must remember

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that they are like no other part of the public sector. We ask and expect the people in those services to put their lives at risk to keep us safe.

Nevertheless, the new funding environment is here to stay. There must be savings and all services must play their part in helping us to pay down a record deficit. There is an opportunity for blue-light services throughout the country, but particularly in Lancashire, to begin saving by sharing more back-office services, to protect the frontline. When our constituents dial 999 or 101, they really care about whether someone will arrive on their doorstep in the worst of emergencies—or perhaps for a more minor incident if they dialled 101. Will someone arrive to help them? They do not particularly mind whether those people share headquarters or training facilities. We heard a fantastic example from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the sharing of training facilities in Northern Ireland. I support services sharing if, and only if, all the savings are used to maintain investment in and support of officers in all front-line services.

I was involved in running a business before I came to the House, and we had 1,500 employees, who were all fantastic and made a huge contribution. They would have thought it bizarre if we had had five HR, payroll or training departments for our five offices. They would have thought it even more bizarre if I had told them that to maintain the five payroll departments, we would sack people doing the work in the five different offices. That does not work in business, and it should not work in blue-light public services. For too long, there has been a silo mentality, and public services have not wanted to co-operate with each other, because they thought of that as a bit of an attack on their independence. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made some fantastic points, with some momentum. We agree on quite a lot and he made some constructive comments about how we can share services but still maintain independence. I agree that if I phone the fire service I expect someone to turn up in the uniform of a firefighter, not a police officer. We have a special relationship with firefighters, which is to do with the fact that they are independent and not linked to crime fighting. That needs to be maintained.

I want to keep my remarks brief; perhaps I have already gone over the time limit. I just want to say that there is an opportunity, through PCCs, to look at increasing democratic accountability. I outed myself as unable to name everyone on the fire panel in my constituency. I doubt whether many hon. Members could do so for theirs. I can name a few whom I have met in my constituency, but there is an opportunity to increase democratic accountability, and that is why I support the Government’s consultation.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): I will, because of Standing Orders, have to call the Front-Bench speakers at 3.30 pm, so I call Chris Davies, who has 70 seconds.

3.28 pm

Chris Davies (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. My speech goes on a lot longer than 70 seconds, so I shall leave it where it is. I agree with most of what has

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been said. It is clear that first and foremost our blue-light services must be not buildings or machinery, but people on the frontline. That is what the general public want and what our voters are after, and the Government must give that priority.

In areas such as mine—I represent the largest rural constituency in England and Wales; it is 85 miles long—the reality is that we must have a mix of services. We have first responders; it may be the fire service that responds, doing a marvellous job and saving lives. The crew may not be putting fires out when they do that, but they save lives doing the work of paramedics. They have trained accordingly and keep people alive until the paramedics arrive. There is a need for this crossover, and thank goodness we have it. I will sit down within the 70 seconds, but I want to pay tribute to the blue-light services and to the Government for having the consultation. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for securing this debate.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): May I also pay tribute to Mr Berry and Mr Smith for keeping their remarks brief? I am sorry, Mr Davies, that you did not have as much time as I anticipated. I remind newer colleagues in particular that if they want to speak, they have to put their names forward. That allows the Chair to introduce a formal time limit, rather than an informal one, as exampled in the past few moments.

3.30 pm

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) was cut short, but I absolutely agree with his remarks about the services and the importance that they play in all our constituencies. I thank the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for securing this debate.

It has been interesting for me as a Scottish National party Member to see how the debate about shared services is developing in England. In Scotland, we have had this debate, and we went in a slightly different direction, with national services for police and for fire. As a former member of the Strathclyde fire board, I am aware of the way in which that developed. There were difficulties in merging different types of services, given the difference between urban and rural areas, and all the things involved. There are lots of challenges. The imperative was to save money. We asked whether we needed eight different services in eight areas and whether we could share back-room functions. We ended up with a national Scottish fire and rescue service and a Scottish police service, rather than locally based services. So we had that debate.

The hon. Lady talked about the pressures on all the services. They are a vital lifeline, and I agree that they need to be protected as much as possible. If we can remove duplication of services, it is definitely worth pursuing. Some Members picked up on shared training between different services. As one of its last acts before it was abolished, Strathclyde fire and rescue established a new training centre in Cambuslang near Glasgow. It is an absolutely fantastic service. If Members have not been there, they absolutely should go, because it is a state-of-the-art facility. Police, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency services go there to do line rescue,

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road safety and accident training. It is very worth while. All the services have gained a great deal from that shared working and training together. They have learned a lot about accident response, including large-scale accident response.

The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) talked about amalgamation and privatisation and the threats that they can bring to services, particularly with the loss of specialist expertise. If we have full amalgamations, will the services be liable for VAT? The Scottish services became liable for VAT. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made interesting points about the remits of different services in the community and the particular importance of the fire service being neutral. That is an interesting and key point. In my experience, in Glasgow, where young people might not trust the police or attend events with them, they would attend events with the fire service. The Fire Reach programme in Glasgow brought in young people who were at risk of offending and who were attacking firefighters, and reduced the level of criminality. The fire service has a very important role in doing such work.

There has been a lot of talk about procurement, but perhaps there are alternatives. In Scotland, we have a procurement portal for public services called Scotland Excel. I am not sure whether there is a parallel body in England, but that might be an interesting way forward. Local authorities and public bodies can buy into the service and get the benefits of procurement without having to go through formal mergers. Councillors sit on the Scotland Excel panel, so there is accountability.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) made interesting points about the experience in Hampshire and the voluntary arrangements to share services. He is absolutely correct to say that we are talking about premises, not people, and that everything that can be done to protect the frontline should be tried. We have certainly not seen any closures of fire stations in Scotland, or reductions in firefighter posts. England has lost 4,700 firefighters since 2010. We have seen nothing like that in Scotland, and police service numbers in Scotland have been protected as well, despite the mergers. Back-room savings have gone towards protecting the frontline.

The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) made interesting points about these jobs being special. We must recall that every day when firefighters, police and ambulance staff go to do their job, they put themselves at risk. I associate myself with his comments, because I am aware of the difficulties and tragedies that can occur every day for the police service and particularly the fire service, and I thank them. The debate has been very interesting, and I again thank the hon. Member for Cannock Chase for securing it.

3.36 pm

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, as I perform my first duty as a shadow Minister. I thank the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for securing this debate, and I think we all agree that it has been interesting. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) that there are areas where we can agree and areas where we will disagree. I was pleased to hear the comments made by

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the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith). Hampshire has been mentioned several times during this debate as a shining example. I think that he said it was innovating its way out of financial problems. It was interesting to hear his view that mandatory mergers are unnecessary and that savings can be made by merging back offices and sharing functions with the council, the police force and the fire service.

I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss): we need to think about premises and not people when we talk about making savings. Also, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck that we need to thank people who work on the frontline. We have all paid tribute to our emergency services and the fantastic work that they do and the dedication that they show in keeping us safe and secure. We absolutely must pay heed to the workers and what they want from the services, not just what we might think is a good idea. We really need to consult those people and listen to them.

I want to keep my remarks brief because I want to give the Minister time to reply. I was quite entertained by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) who used the phrase “mandatory collaboration”. As oxymorons go, that wins this week’s prize. That emphasises how we are talking about a one-size-fits-all model across the whole country, and I do not think we can have such a model for providing emergency services. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is being considered at the moment, which will give responsibility back to local areas, and we also have the localism agenda. To try to bring in mandatory legislation for every police and crime commissioner to have control over every fire service in the country goes against both the Bill and the localism agenda.

Several Members referred to the fire service working with the ambulance service—I think we can explore that route—and many fire services already do that. I am sorry to keep referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck, but he is a fount of wisdom—[Interruption.] In my opinion he is. He discussed the different ways the police, fire and ambulance services are perceived by the public. Firefighters have a real fear that if they come under the jurisdiction of the police, they will be perceived differently by the public. I have spoken to them, and they feel that their role is very much a humanitarian one. They can see themselves working with the ambulance service—in fact, there are many examples from up and down the country of firefighters collaborating with paramedics and ambulance services—but they feel that their role in outreach work, helping in the community, dealing with community issues and going into people’s houses would be changed, and that the trust in them would be eroded, were they to go into partnership with the police, even though it might work in some areas. That is why, with all due respect to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, I do not feel we should be going down the mandatory route. It should be for local areas to decide how best to run their emergency services.

I will move on to a few quick points that I wanted to address, and then I will give the Minister time to answer. I have just touched on the need for firefighters to be seen as neutral to gain access to people’s homes for prevention and rescue work. What assessment have the Government made of the effect on public perception of integrating front-line police and fire services?

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Several Members have discussed the fact that the police and fire services perform very different roles, so have very different command and control structures. I put it to the Minister that that might limit the opportunities for joint working. Significant concerns have been expressed about the role of the chief fire officer, who it appears would be subordinate to the police and crime commissioner under the new proposals. For such a partnership to be successful, it would have to be a partnership of equals, not a subordinate relationship.

An important point was made about fire and rescue services not serving the same geographical areas as police forces. That might make reorganisation in certain areas particularly challenging, with the possibility of further fragmentation to the service. The fire service currently lacks common guidance and a national procurement channel, so that is an opportunity we could explore that might provide some of the financial savings that are required. I am sure the Minister has a view on that and I would be interested to hear it.

I have already discussed how the fire and ambulance services work closely together, and there are several examples of that from England and Wales. The Government proposals seem to reflect a clear preference for collaboration between the police and fire services. Will the Minister consider revising the proposals? Given the common humanitarian remit of the fire and ambulance service, we should explore that option. There is also a general feeling in the Chamber that we could explore the possibility of integrating back-office services.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I welcome the shadow Minister to her post. One reason why collaboration works so well in the county where I am fortunate to represent a seat is that we have done it voluntarily through local partnerships. The PCC in Hampshire, Simon Hayes, is crucial to the work between the police and the fire service. Before the election, the Opposition’s policy was to abolish PCCs. Can the hon. Lady confirm that that has now changed?

Liz McInnes: It was our policy at the general election. It was in our manifesto that we would abolish PCCs and put the money back into front-line policing. I am not aware that Labour party policy on PCCs has changed, but we are where we are. Whether I like it or not, we are in opposition and have to work with PCCs. That is the situation. I obviously have to deal with reality and with the here and now.

As I have already said, I do not believe that the proposed new arrangements should be mandatory. I stress to the Minister that local areas should be able to make local decisions. Where a fire and rescue service identifies that it could benefit from collaboration with another service, such as the ambulance service, or even first responders, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), it should be able to. Fire services should be free to consider other partnerships. They should not be tied to a single arrangement with the police.

3.45 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): As usual, Mr Pritchard, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my

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hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on securing this debate. What perfect timing, with the consultation having just finished and Her Majesty’s Opposition accepting that Vera Baird and Paddy Tipping were absolutely right that police and crime commissioners should be kept. We agree. Thank goodness that the Conservative party won the election, or Vera and Paddy would not have been happy.

I declare an interest: I am an ex-firefighter and an ex-military paramedic, and I have also worked in counter-terrorism, so, perhaps unusually for a Minister in a debate on this subject, I know what I am talking about a fraction. I apologise to the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery): I was in no way saying that firefighters have the same sort of powers as the police. The police are warranted, of course, but it is important to note that fire services have statutory powers as well. At no stage in any part of the debate has it been said from the Government Benches—or anywhere, I think— that front-line operational officers in the police, fire or ambulance services should be amalgamated. I will explain and reiterate what has been said, using anecdotal evidence.

I came out of the military, having done four years as a qualified battlefield medic. I joined the fire service and was told to take a first aid certificate. I attended what used to be called RTAs—road traffic accidents; they are now called road traffic collisions, or RTCs—often with no ambulance in sight, not for minutes but for a considerable length of time. Sometimes, the police were not there. These days, very often the police will not be there, because it will be the Highways Agency traffic officers—they have renamed themselves since I left the Department for Transport—who attend. Having better skills to protect the public is crucial. That is part of what we are trying to do. In my own county, the fantastic chief fire officer, Roy Wilsher, who almost 10 years ago did an amazing job saving half my constituency when the Buncefield oil depot blew to smithereens, is the CEO of the PCC’s office. As well as being the chief fire officer, he actually runs the PCC office. Why? Because it is logical and sensible.

The public often talk about buildings. It is our job to ensure that they talk about not buildings but people. I welcome the shadow Minister to her role. I think we will probably meet fairly often, although I am not the Minister responsible for the fire service—that falls to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Communities and Resilience; I am here because of the connection to PCCs. When she reads Hansard, she will find that she said it is about buildings, not people. I think she meant that the other way around, but I fully respect and understand that. A church is not a building; it is a group of people who come together. Emergency services should not be about buildings, but about how we deliver the best service.

We must learn from the mistakes in the past. The amalgamation of the ambulance service met a fair bit of opposition. I am not a Health Minister, although I was shadowing the public Health Minister responsible for the ambulance service when it happened, and we had real concerns about it, some of which came true. We fundamentally opposed the regionalisation of fire control centres. Thank goodness we stopped that in time, although there are still some very expensive buildings out there, at least one of which is occupied by the coastguard. Actually, this is nothing new. I remember that in the early ’80s—all

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those years ago when I was a fireman in Essex—there was a tri-service control centre in Warwickshire. They were doing it then, so we have come full circle.

The skills of the people who are there to look after us are rightly interoperable. I hear forces saying, “We are going to lose x amount of front-line people”, “We are going to lose this” or “We are going to lose that,” but have they really looked at where those savings can be made so they can deliver the taxpayer-funded service that the public deserve?

We were talking about procurement a moment ago. I am not one to say that one size fits all and that we should procure everything from one place, but I published on the Home Office website how much each police force spends on the average 20 items. We all want our officers to have body armour, but there is a £300 difference between the price that two forces pay for it. Surely, as we approach the police and crime commissioner elections, that is the sort of thing we should be talking about. The fire service and the police both buy white shirts, so why do they not buy white shirts together? If a local provider can match the average national price, I am sure we would all want to support that local business, but if it cannot we have to question seriously whether that would provide value for money. We have changed the way we procure vehicles. There was some criticism from the Opposition, but for the first time the Government are buying huge amounts of very expensive equipment at e-auctions at the best value we can get it for. That is our responsibility as representatives of taxpayers.

There are myriad other things that can be done. Hampshire is very well represented in the debate this afternoon for a reason: it is one of the most forward-thinking authorities in the country. I went to Winchester fire station, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), and met the chief fire officer. The station is shared. I went to the yard, where the fire brigade was carrying out a drill—I am sure they do joint drills with the police in that yard, because that is the sort of thing we need to see—and at the bottom part of the yard is a brand spanking new building for the armed response unit and other police facilities. Nobody would ever know, and, frankly, I do not think the public would care if we explained to them that we want to do this to look after people.

Sir Oliver Heald: One of the advantages of what was suggested by our hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) is that it would mean we have the flexibility of having a company, which other authorities can join and move their back-office functions into. Equally, the sort of contracts that he talked about—outsourcing contracts and others of that type—have a flexibility to them. Do the Government support that sort of thing, or are they going to create new institutions through statute?

Mike Penning: We do not want to make it mandatory. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past. As an illustration of the support that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) alluded to, the Home Office gave £1.8 million to support H3, and we supplied extensive moneys for the relocation from the police innovation fund. That is the sort of innovation we are looking for.

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The only thing I disagreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase about was her point about compulsion. I know exactly where she is coming from, and I have a huge amount of sympathy with it. I was arguing this point long before austerity was even thought of, when we were throwing money at our emergency services—we have sometimes seriously thrown money at our emergency services over the years, not least for kit that is hardly ever used—because it is right that we have a better, joined-up emergency service. We need people who are trained for the 21st century; we cannot look at the fire service, the police service and the ambulance service in a historical way.

Community first responders were never heard of previously. Communities came together for that. People said, “I want to be part of this community. I would like to do this.” We have them in my constituency, and they do really well. My point is that it is always better if the Government can bring people together and say, “This would be better for you,” rather than say, “This would be better for you, now come together and do it.” The consultation specifically looks at some areas where it would be difficult—for example, where forces and fire authorities are not co-located.

Northamptonshire is a good example, because the Northamptonshire PCC is one of the most forward-thinking PCCs in the country. He is already running the fire service management, but he does not interfere in the operational running of the fire service, in exactly the same way as PCCs do not have any effect on the operation of the police force. He is now looking at the ambulance service to see whether, for instance, the clinical commissioning groups would like to commission non-blue- light or blue-light vehicles from him. The vast majority of the ambulance services that are offered in this country, such as patient transport, do not use blue-light vehicles. It is hugely expensive, and it is often very highly qualified people doing those sorts of jobs. Where we are short of paramedics, we have to ensure they are doing front-line jobs, not administrative jobs or ordinary patient transport jobs.

I want to touch on that point in relation to the police forces, too. It is imperative that highly paid, highly skilled, hugely brave people—I was at Liverpool cathedral yesterday with David Phillips’s family and the thousands of people from across these islands and the world who came to pay tribute to him—are in operational positions, not behind a desk. In some forces, 10% of the warranted officers are not available because they are not fit for duty. How can that be right?

The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said policemen have been made redundant, but we have not made anybody redundant. They may have been declared medically unfit for duty, but we do not have the power to make officers redundant. We have got to ensure that as many people are in front-line roles as possible in the fire service, the ambulance service and the police service. They should be doing the jobs they trained for and joined the force to do, and they should be serving the community.

When we go in one direction away from danger, those people go in the opposite direction for us. We should pay tribute to them and ensure that they have the right kit and body armour. When I was in the fire service, we had cork helmets and serge jackets from the second world war. Now, they have the proper equipment. We had

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body armour that it was almost impossible for me to stand up in, and I am pretty hefty—not as big as them, but still pretty heavy. Now, they have lightweight breathing apparatus. We rightly praise their skills, but let us save money in the back offices, the bureaucracy and procurement before we dream of saying that we are not going to provide front-line officers, no matter which of those services it is.

This debate is a massively important part of the consultation. It is brilliant that we agree on most things, which is what this Chamber was designed for.

3.57 pm

Amanda Milling: Thank you, Mr Pritchard, for giving me a couple of minutes to conclude. I thank all hon. Friends and Members for their contributions, and I thank the Minister for sharing some of his experiences. He spoke not simply as a Minister but as someone who was on the ground in various roles in the emergency services. I found it interesting that although we have some differences of opinion—[Interruption.]

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the issue of police and fire shared services.

3.58 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Gay Conversion Therapies

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

4.9 pm

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered gay conversion therapies and the NHS.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bailey.

I am conscious that this subject has been raised before; however, it remains possible for people in the UK to be referred by a national health service professional to a psychotherapist for gay conversion therapy—the so-called gay cure. Being gay is not a disease, it is not an illness and it is not something that I or any other gay man or woman can be cured of. To suggest otherwise is not only demeaning, but morally and medically wrong. Not a single medical body supports the concept of a gay cure. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the British Medical Association have all concluded that such therapy is unethical and potentially harmful.

Various techniques and methods have been used, and I will list a few to give a bit of colour to the level of quackery available. Exorcism is one method—in The Times today is a story about a young man taken to a backstreet exorcist because his parents were concerned that he was gay. Cycling, too, was thought to be a cure for being gay, although as a keen cyclist I can tell colleagues that it does not work. Then there is prayer—pray away the gay, apparently—although that does not appear to work either. An Austrian doctor trialled testicular transplants: he took the testicles of a heterosexual man and transplanted them into a homosexual man to see whether that curbed his homosexual desires. Unfortunately, I could not find the outcome of the trial anywhere on the internet, although I am sure that it was of interest to both recipient and donor of the testicles.

I mention those as examples of how far from the mainstream some so-called cures can be. They are also a far cry from mainstream psychotherapy—I need to put that on the record. However, I want to focus on current techniques and to debunk the thought that so-called cure therapies might simply be gentle counselling, laying on the couch and talking about one’s feelings. They are not gentle therapies.

Such therapies purport to change a person’s sexual orientation or to reduce attraction to people of the same sex. Dr Christian Jessen, for a television programme in only 2014, underwent treatment for homosexuality, including one of the most extreme cures, aversion therapy, which looks to teach patients to associate same-sex attraction with pain or nausea. Patients are given a drug that makes them extremely ill and they are then played pornographic images and sound recordings while they vomit violently. That is not counselling. Usually patients experience a session every two hours, night and day, for three whole days. That is not counselling. Similarly, in electric-shock treatment, people who respond to same-sex stimuli are shocked so that their response is associated with pain. That is not counselling.

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Imagine the outcry if Parliament were to give tacit approval to curing heterosexual men and women of their heterosexuality. There would be uproar. Allowing conversion therapy to try to turn our straight colleagues gay would not last a day, yet we allow therapists to peddle the myth that they can cure people of being gay.

If such views were held only by crackpots on the fringe of society, it would be laughable. It is not. Some psychotherapists and some NHS staff hold the view that a gay cure is possible. YouGov polling in 2014 for Stonewall, the excellent lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organisation, found that one in 10 health and social care staff have heard other staff express a belief in gay cure therapy; in London that figure rose to one in five. Only six years ago the BMC Psychiatry journal surveyed over 1,300 accredited medical professionals and found that more than 200 of them—over 15%—had offered some form of conversion therapy. Those 200-plus professionals said that 35% of their patients had been referred to them by GPs, and 40% of the patients receiving the so-called treatment were treated in an NHS practice. For any health professional to refer someone for such therapy is fundamentally abhorrent and it is time to call a halt to it once and for all.

Where are we today? In spite of numerous calls for an outright ban, the practice continues, although I accept that there has been some progress. In January, the “Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK” was launched. It was developed by the UK Council for Psychotherapy and signed up to by some major organisations, including the NHS. It is welcome as far as it goes, but a number of regulators have not yet signed up to the memorandum—and it is voluntary. The memorandum seems to cover only sexual orientation, not gender identity—and it is voluntary. The memorandum states that practitioners need to be aware of the ethical issues relating to such cure therapies and that the public should be made aware of the risks of such therapies—and it is voluntary. The memorandum seeks to apply standards to a sector of therapy that has no statutory regulation—because it is voluntary. We regulate dentists, but we have no statutory regulation for psychotherapists.

My hon. Friend the Minister has an impeccable record on LGBT issues, especially in health, and I put on the record that on this issue and many others she has a deep commitment to helping to eradicate flaws in the system and to pursuing equality. So I have to ask: why we are allowing this abuse, this so-called cure therapy, to continue? Why are we allowing the practitioners, the psychotherapists, to have merely a voluntary code of practice—a memorandum of understanding?

I acknowledge that psychotherapy has a role to play for adults who need support when dealing with a range of issues connected with their sexuality and sexual identity. Dealing with conflicting feelings is difficult at the best of times and I do accept the role of proper, regulated counselling.

Ben Howlett (Bath) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that availability of such programmes would have a serious effect on the mental health of LGBT individuals?

Mike Freer: My hon. Friend makes a good point, given the evidence. I am about to quote the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which states that such therapies

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are damaging not only to the physical health, but to the mental health of individuals who have such therapies inflicted upon them.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. Is he as disturbed as I am to see figures from the United States on people who have gone through conversion therapy showing that they are 8.9 times more likely to commit suicide, 5.9 times more likely to suffer depression and three times more likely to take illegal substances than their peers as a result of this frankly outdated and cruel method?

Mike Freer: My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point. I am not surprised to hear those figures.

Anyone who is conflicted and in need of support while coming to terms with their sexuality is experiencing some difficult feelings. If they are told that they can be cured—I am yet to find a case of the cure being proved successful—they then have to deal with those feelings as well.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): I speak as a Member of Parliament and as a psychologist. In all my experience and practice in the NHS, this is not something I am familiar with, although the hon. Gentleman says that there are a number of cases. It is important to recognise that such therapy is without any evidential basis—not surprisingly, given that most of the research findings indicate an adverse impact on people’s mental health, rather than a cure per se.

Mike Freer: The hon. Lady makes a good point. I have to say that no one I know has come forward to support such psychotherapy, yet if there is such violent agreement, why are we struggling to get aversion therapy banned? There is this conundrum: we all agree that it is harmful and that it should not be done, yet we do not seem to be able to get it banned.

I accept that my hon. Friend the Minister has difficulty in regulating the sector in terms of setting legal definitions for what would constitute illegal therapies. The legal situation is fraught, but it is not acceptable to leave vulnerable men and women susceptible to aversion therapy. There can be no justification for pursuing therapies that put a person’s mental health and, in some therapies, their physical health at risk. It is time to say that such therapies have no place in our society and no place in our healthcare system. It is time to say simply that aversion therapy has no medical merit and can be harmful and it is time to say that it is going to be illegal. It is also time to ensure that psychotherapy has statutory regulation, so that those who do not comply and continue to perpetuate such cure therapies face stricter and harsher penalties than those currently available under a voluntary code.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists contacted me last week to reiterate that

“the college remains in favour of legislative efforts to ban such conversion therapies.”

In its letter, it said that

“there is no scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.”

It also said that

“so-called treatments of homosexuality can create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination flourish, and there is evidence that they are potentially harmful.”

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Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for all the work he does to champion LGBT equality. I am sure that many of us received the Core Issues Trust’s interesting briefing, which suggested a link between homosexuality and same-sex attraction and mental ill health and other forms of physical illness. Has it not got that the wrong way around? It is discrimination and the suggestion that there could be a gay cure that makes all LGBT people, and young people in particular, feel that they are different and somehow alien. That is what causes them mental ill health, not their homosexuality.

Mike Freer: The hon. Gentleman has a track record in this area even though he is new to the House and I am sure that he will be extremely vocal on these issues. He is absolutely right. It is the suggestion that homosexuality is a disease or illness that can be cured that drives mental health problems, not the other way around. Frankly, I wasted no time on reading the Core Issues briefing.

I will finish with a couple of comments from esteemed colleagues. On 29 April, in an interview with Pink News, the Prime Minister said, on banning such therapies,

“if we need to go further…we will.”

As far as I am concerned, we do need to go further. The Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities said a couple of weeks ago to Pink News:

“Let me be clear: gay cure therapies have no place in our countries and we must stamp them out.”

I ask my very good friend the Minister if she will agree to explore how stipulated aversion therapies can be banned and whether the voluntary memorandum of understanding should and can be reviewed to put it on a statutory footing.

4.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Jane Ellison): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) for initiating this debate on this important issue. Let me start by wholeheartedly agreeing with his opening premise. The Government do not believe that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is an illness to be treated or cured. We are concerned, therefore, about the issue of so-called gay-to-straight conversion therapy and we have consistently spoken out against the need for that practice.

I will outline some of the background to the work my hon. Friend touched on and try to respond to some of his concerns, but I suspect that this is the beginning of an ongoing conversation—I am happy to say that at the outset. The UK Council for Psychotherapy first raised its concerns about the perceived increase in this type of therapy with the Department of Health in late 2013. Department officials met with the council to discuss those concerns and agreed to work with it and others to identify ways to eradicate the practice. At that time, we also welcomed the fact that the key professional counselling and psychotherapeutic bodies had already made public statements on the issue.

As a result of the UK Council for Psychotherapy’s approach, the Department agreed to support the publication of a statement that made clear that the major therapy bodies in the UK were united in speaking out against conversion therapy, because they believe that that particular approach is based on the assumption that homosexuality

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is a mental disorder or that it begins from the preconceived view that the client should change their sexual orientation. As homosexuality is not an illness, as my hon. Friend said, the professional bodies argue that it is both logically and ethically flawed to offer any kind of treatment. The House may be interested to know that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic glossary of mental disorders in 1973 and the international classification of diseases produced by the World Health Organisation eventually followed suit in 1992.

A consensus statement was published in February 2014 as a result of the exercise we convened. It was initially signed by eight organisations and others added their support later on. The statement is clear: those bodies believe there is no good evidence that such therapy works and that, actually, it has great potential to cause harm. It goes on to say that such approaches are often based on religious interpretations of sexuality rather than on a researched and informed understanding of sexual orientation.

As my hon. Friend said, the Department agreed to host a roundtable event on 2 April 2014 to which we invited a range of interested organisations comprising signatories to the consensus statement as well as royal colleges, the Association of Christian Counsellors, regulators and other counselling bodies. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who was then the Minister responsible for equalities, was fully supportive of the work and attended and contributed.

I am pleased to say that the meeting was positive and that out of the discussions came agreement that more could and should be done by those present to prevent this kind of therapy from being offered. The participants agreed to develop the memorandum of understanding, which has been referred to. The UK Council for Psychotherapy agreed to lead on the work, in partnership with other bodies and the Department.

The memorandum was published in January and launched at a second roundtable event at the Department. Once again, my former colleague the right hon. Member for North Norfolk was present and publicly made clear his support for the memorandum and its commitments. Its purpose was to set out an agreed framework for activities for all the parties concerned to help address the issues raised by this practice. One such aim is to ensure that the public are well informed about the lack of evidence and the risks of so-called conversion therapy. There are a range of other important professional objectives.

Professionals from throughout the healthcare and psychological professions committed to work together to promote the public interest. Each of the signatory organisations committed to actions appropriate to their function and purpose. To give one example, those with practitioner members agreed to review their statements of ethical practice and consider whether there was a need to publish a specific ethical statement on conversion therapy. Secondly, those with a responsibility for training committed to work together to ensure that training prepares therapists sufficiently, so that they can work effectively with their lesbian, gay or bisexual clients.

The memorandum is owned by the organisations who signed it. They have continued to meet together and to work on those commitments throughout the year. The Department fully supports that work.

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My hon. Friend drew attention to the NHS’s part in such therapies. Discussions with the sector uncovered the fact that there were no reliable, up-to-date figures on the use of conversion therapy. However, a 2009 survey of 1,300 mental health professionals found that more than 200 had tried to help at least one client to reduce the attraction they felt for someone of the same sex. A third of those clients were said to have been referred for therapy by a GP and 40% were reportedly treated in the NHS.

The Government are clear that moneys from the public purse should not be used to fund such therapy. Ministers in the previous Administration wrote to NHS England in March 2014 seeking confirmation that such treatment was not taking place on the NHS and I am pleased that we received a robust and supportive response from Simon Stevens. Not everyone in the House may be aware of his response, which was that

“so-called gay-to-straight conversion therapy is harmful nonsense and the NHS should never be funding it.”

Wes Streeting: Clearly, the memorandum has been effective since it was introduced, but it concerns me that the briefing from Stonewall suggests the Nursing & Midwifery Council, the Care Quality Commission, the General Medical Council and the Health and Care Professions Council are not yet signatories. Does the Minister agree that they should sign up? It has clearly been helpful for other organisations and is a powerful statement of intent.

Jane Ellison: The hon. Gentleman will see, when I propose some next steps, that I might be able to respond to his point.

Simon Stevens went on to say that he would direct NHS England to make that position—that the NHS should never fund such therapy—clear and explicit in all public statements on the issue in future. I cannot be clearer than that. If Members have examples of the NHS funding such therapy, I would be particularly interested to know about them.

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con) rose

Jane Ellison: I will, of course, give way to my former colleague.

Dr Poulter: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) for securing the debate and to my hon. Friend the Minister for the work she does to raise awareness of the LGBT community’s needs. It is, of course, unacceptable for the NHS to sponsor these therapies. All registered medical professionals can be disciplined by their professional bodies, whether that is the Royal College of Psychiatrists or the GMC taking action against doctors in these cases for discriminating against certain patients. Is the real issue not, however, that the regulation is not there for some therapists? This is the issue that needs to be looked into: do we need to regulate more effectively some of the therapists in this field?

Jane Ellison: My hon. Friend speaks from a position of great knowledge. I am well aware of the challenges to the current position, which I will outline, from hon. Friends and other Members. I will try to respond to those.

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I want to make this point, for the record: we are not saying that lesbians, gay men and bisexual people should not seek counselling or therapy if they are distressed about a particular aspect of their sexuality. It is important we recognise that family arguments over sexuality or hostility from other people might well be a reason for someone to seek support for that aspect of their life. That is obviously a core part of what many therapists do, so I want to be clear that there is a place for that in supporting people appropriately.

Ben Howlett: May I pick the Minister up on a point? She referred to lesbians, gay men and bisexual people, but it is transgender people as well.

Jane Ellison: I am duly chastised, having recently given evidence to the excellent inquiry being led by the Women and Equalities Committee, of which my hon. Friend is a member. The Chair of that Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), has just joined us in the Chamber. I duly correct myself and thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

I fully understand the concerns about so-called gay conversion therapy, but the Government have no current plans to ban or restrict it via legislation, or to introduce statutory regulation for psychotherapists. I say that in the knowledge that that position is challenged, and I will go away and reflect on that after the debate.

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 introduced provisions to enable the accreditation of voluntary registers for unregulated healthcare professionals and healthcare workers across the UK, social care workers in England and certain students. We should not underestimate the fact that these voluntary registers are having an effect and can be effective. They are accredited by the Professional Standards Authority For Health and Social Care where statutory regulation would be neither proportionate nor an effective response to patient safety. These accredited voluntary registers already provide some safeguards for the public. We feel they are working, and we have examples of that.

Both the Government and the PSA recommend that when a patient or service user chooses to visit a health or care practitioner who is unregulated, only those on an accredited register are consulted. That ensures that organisations holding an accredited voluntary register have been thoroughly assessed by the PSA. The PSA also ensures that those organisations handle complaints fairly and thoroughly. If a practitioner is removed from one register, they are not allowed to join another. We have seen some recent examples. In one case, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy removed a practitioner from its register for professional malpractice after they were associated with this sort of therapy. The Department is clear that it encourages employers and commissioners, when recruiting, to choose practitioners who are committed to the highest standards and who are on accredited registers.

Although we have decided at this stage not to take a legislative approach, I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities who my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green quoted at the outset of the debate as saying that these therapies must be eradicated. We want to keep up the momentum to do that. I suggest to the House that as we pass the anniversary of the MOU, we

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should convene another roundtable in the new year, at which we ask the original signatories to report on their progress and challenge them to identify where we can be more ambitious on ending conversion therapy. That would be an opportunity to pick up on some of the specific challenges mentioned by my hon. Friend in his opening speech, as well as one or two of the points made in interventions. I am open to discussing how we bring the concerns raised by Members to the attention of that group and to discussing who comprises it, although I think it originally included some organisations representing LGBT people, as well as professionals in this area. I commit to doing that.

As we work towards that event, I am happy to engage outside the Chamber with hon. Friends on where they think we can do more. I have taken on this brief since the election. Before that, I was a Minister for inequalities; I am now a Minister for inequalities and equalities—I think that makes me even. It is a brief I take extremely seriously and one that I have committed a huge amount of time to.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I sense the Minister might be about to end, but I hope she will accept this point. While a ban might not be appropriate, a stronger statement of guidance from the Government, reflecting the comments of colleagues, to all parts of our national health service would be welcome, because of not only the harm these conversion therapies do to individuals but the signal their availability sends to the wider public that it is somehow abnormal to be gay and that being gay is a condition that can be cured. That is not acceptable in today’s society, and our major public service should not be allowing the promotion of that idea in any part of it.

Jane Ellison: I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s point, which he made extremely well. I am happy to talk to Simon Stevens at our next regular meeting about that, and it is perhaps an issue we can explore further at a roundtable. My right hon. Friend makes an extremely fair point about how we send those signals. I will reflect on what more I can do.

To conclude, I ask hon. and right hon. Members present, perhaps in anticipation of the next broad discussion of this issue, to seek the counsel and insight of their local LGBT communities. I regularly guest-chair my local LGBT forum in Wandsworth, which I find a useful opportunity to engage with the issues and get up-to-date insight. I encourage all colleagues to do that, because it will greatly inform our deliberations in the new year. I will take away all the points made and the continued challenge to the Government to go further on this issue. I know that all Members present look forward to a time when this practice is a thing of the past.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered gay conversion therapies and the NHS.

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Maternity Discrimination

4.40 pm

Mr Adrian Bailey (in the Chair): The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy recommended the use of regular digital public discussion forums to inform debates held in Westminster Hall. A digital debate has taken place on Twitter ahead of today’s debate on maternity discrimination. Mr Speaker has agreed that for this debate, members of the public can use handheld electronic devices in the Public Gallery, provided that the devices are silent. Photos, however, must not be taken.

4.41 pm

Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered maternity discrimination.

I am pleased to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and to have secured a debate on a subject that is vital for women and for everyone who is concerned with justice and equality.

I would like to thank constituents who have contacted me about this issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who suggested its suitability for a debate. I thank Maternity Action for its invaluable help in preparing for today, and Parliament’s digital team, which you mentioned, Mr Bailey, for supporting our Twitter debate on this subject yesterday. Most importantly, I thank everyone who contributed their ideas and experiences; I will return to that later. Finally, I pay tribute to campaigners both inside and outside Parliament who have pursued this issue over many years, and I very much look forward to hearing the contributions of some of them this afternoon. I am pleased to have been able to lend my support by securing this debate.

This is the first time we have had the opportunity to debate properly the first set of findings from the research project being undertaken on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Further research findings are to be published in the near future, and that will further inform our understanding of the scale and nature of the issue and how Government choose to respond. However, we cannot do nothing in the meantime. Waiting is not an option and never was, and there are certain steps that can and should be implemented immediately as we set out to end maternity discrimination. This is an opportunity for Members to make that strength of feeling absolutely clear to Government.

Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern about the scale of the problem and about whether there is a true appreciation of that scale? I refer particularly to the EHRC report, which states that there could be as many as 54,000 mothers a year who are treated so poorly that they feel they have no option but to leave their jobs.

Stuart C. McDonald: I agree absolutely with the right hon. Lady, and I will briefly turn to some of the report’s findings. The issue is not just the scale of the problem, but the fact that the numbers seem to have increased over the last decade.

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It is important to put on record some of the report’s findings. On the basis of interviews with over 3,000 employers and over 3,000 women with young children, investigators were able to conclude, as the right hon. Lady said, that unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever, with an estimated 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers—that is one in nine—forced out of their job each year. They also found that one in five women—as many as 100,000 a year across the UK—reported having experienced harassment or negative comments either because of pregnancy or flexible working. Investigators found that one in 12 women were treated with less respect by their line manager, and one in eight felt that they were treated less favourably in some other way, as a result of their pregnancy. One in 10 women were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments, despite those being absolutely essential for protecting the health and wellbeing of mother and baby, as well as there being a legal right to paid time off for antenatal appointments.

Investigators also found that one in six of the women interviewed reported suffering a negative impact on their health or stress levels because of poor treatment at work. One in 12 women who had attended a job interview while pregnant reported being asked during that interview whether they were pregnant, and finally, two in five women said that they would have liked to work more flexibly upon return from maternity leave, but did not ask to do so as they were concerned that it would not be approved, or that it would result in negative consequences.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing today’s debate. Does he agree that when maternity pay is just £138 a week, there is a disincentive for women to make tribunal claims against the discrimination that they experience, given that they have to pay £250 to submit their application and £950 for a hearing? Having to pay £1,200 is massive disincentive for women to make a claim, but on top of that, it means that employers are more likely to discriminate. Should that area of discrimination claims in the tribunal not be exempt from fees?

Stuart C. McDonald: The hon. Lady makes a very valid point, and I will turn in due course to tribunal fees and access to justice.

It is interesting to note that despite all the discrimination that I laid out from the report, only one in 12 of those women who raised a concern about their treatment at work obtained legal advice from an external advice provider such as Maternity Action, a law centre or a citizens advice bureau, so there is probably an awareness-of-rights issue, even before we get to the equally important consideration of tribunal fees.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the research found that seven in 10 employers felt that mothers should declare up front in interviews if they are pregnant. Almost three in 10 employers felt that pregnancy put unreasonable cost burdens on the workplace, and a horrifying one in four of the employers surveyed wrongly believed that it is lawful to ask women job candidates about their plans to have children.

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The sad fact is that these findings, published in July, probably did not come as a surprise to campaigners. For example, in its 2013 report, “Overdue”, Maternity Action estimated that up to 60,000 women were being forced out of employment because of maternity discrimination. As the research suggests, it is a sad fact that the problem is becoming more, not less, widespread. The number of mothers being forced out of work through maternity discrimination is almost double the figure of 30,000 identified in similar research undertaken back in 2004-05 by the then Equal Opportunities Commission.

The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) touched on the point that causes some of us the most concern: it is beyond reasonable doubt that certain Government policies have made it harder, not easier, to tackle the issue, by making it more difficult for women to challenge such discrimination. The supply of free legal advice has been severely reduced by funding cuts. Maternity Action’s free helpline now receives 42 times more calls than it is able to answer, and as she said, since July 2013, there have been up-front fees of up to £1,200 to pursue an employment tribunal claim for pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination, which has undoubtedly had a devastating impact on women’s access to justice. In the words of Lord Justice Underhill,

“It is quite clear…that the introduction of fees has had the effect of deterring a very large number of potential claimants.”

It is important to say that not only are fewer claims being made, but it is undeniable that meritorious claimants are being stopped from proceeding.

Those statistics are easy to rattle through, but on their own, they do not give us a proper understanding of the nature of what is going on. That comes only from hearing the very individual stories of women across the UK who endure this discrimination, such as the stories that I was told yesterday during our Twitter debate and by various campaign groups. I heard appalling stories of pregnant women being forced to use different toilets at work, finding it impossible to access their employer’s maternity packages, being told that they had taken too many sick days, or being made to take antenatal appointments during their lunch breaks or on annual leave. The treatment of pregnant temporary workers seems particularly awful, according to the messages that I received.

So what are we looking for by way of a response from Government? Maternity Action, members of the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace and members of the public taking part in our debate yesterday all believe that it is clear that Ministers need to respond with a strong, comprehensive and effective plan of action, including a number of detailed measures.

First, Ministers must send a strong message to employers that there is simply no excuse for flouting the law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Perhaps the Government could consider that in their proposals for a new director of labour market enforcement—a post being introduced, rather oddly, under the Immigration Bill. Alongside that, support has to be provided to small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups to assist them with planning for maternity leave, as smaller employers in the private sector were most likely to report difficulties across many areas in managing pregnancy and maternity issues.

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Secondly, the Government must develop a high-profile information campaign aimed at improving women’s awareness of their rights, and employers’ understanding of their legal obligations and the business benefits of compliance. Best practice should be benchmarked, and the benefits of best practice, including flexible working, should be highlighted. Too often, the women most vulnerable to discrimination are those who know least about their workplace rights, and that includes young workers, recent migrants and many of the millions of women working in small, non-unionised workplaces. We can put that right.

Thirdly, that general awareness-raising must go hand in hand with a significant injection of funding to the specialist information and advice services that pregnant women and new mothers clearly need to help protect their rights at work. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination presents a massive challenge to women when they are least able to handle the additional stress and financial costs. Too many are unable to benefit from a trade union’s advice and support services, and cannot afford to pay for legal advice.

Fourthly, when women are aware of their rights and have the specialist advice that they need, they must have genuine access to justice. That means getting rid of the employment tribunal fees introduced in July 2013, which, beyond doubt, represent a substantial barrier to justice. We should also consider extending the time limit for claims from three to six months, or even beyond, because during pregnancy or after birth are hardly the time to pursue stressful legal claims.

Once women have access to the tribunal, we must ensure that those awarded financial compensation for pregnancy or maternity discrimination receive the money due to them. It is unacceptable that Government-commissioned research in 2013 suggested that 50% of all awards go unpaid by employers. I hope that, as a starting point, the Minister will agree to meet Maternity Action and the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace. I have barely scraped the surface of this topic; I look forward to colleagues filling in as many of the gaps as possible.

In conclusion, pregnant women and new mothers deserve strong protection and high levels of support. Too many experience the opposite, and discrimination is far too widespread. It is time the Government stepped up to the plate; they must do so now.

4.51 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Bailey. I commend the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. I firmly support him, and I think it is important that I do that.

It is a sad reflection on our society that in 2015 we are still discussing matters of gender equality, but any opportunity to improve maternity leave for women is most welcome. I hope that we can have a fruitful debate today about how we can best do that and that the shadow Minister and the Minister will add to our discussion. There have been many welcome advances in recent times and the national consensus is now firmly

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in favour of viewing maternity discrimination as wholly unacceptable, as the hon. Gentleman said. However, it is imperative that we do not take our eye off the ball and that is the purpose of this debate.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the recent findings of a survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which clearly underline that. Of those surveyed, 11% reported having been dismissed. That figure multiplied across the United Kingdom means that some 54,000 women have lost their job. The problem is not just women losing their job, but the impact on their children and families. Those figures must be taken into consideration and must not be ignored.

The fact that so many mothers have said they were harassed or heard negative comments from their colleagues, bosses, friends or work mates when they were pregnant or returning from maternity leave underlines the issues. One third thought that their employer did not support them willingly during their pregnancy or when they returned to work. Those issues cannot be ignored, but here we are in 2015 addressing them. I am sure that we have moved on greatly, but we need to move just a bit more to ensure that a final conclusion is reached.

Mrs Miller: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is curious that the Equality and Human Rights Commission report says that many businesses find it

“reasonable and easy to implement”

pregnancy and maternity regulations, yet so many women are dissatisfied with the way that works out in practice?

Jim Shannon: I suppose that that is why we are having this debate today. It seems that not everyone is totally convinced that the changes to the legislation are making a difference. The right hon. Lady is right: the legislation is there and people understand it, but there has been a move away from putting that understanding into practice. That is the issue and perhaps that is also what this debate is about.

It is clear that although we have made great progress and have some fantastic champions of gender equality throughout the House and society, a lot more needs to be done. The right hon. Lady highlighted that. I hope that the statistics mentioned by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East are noted by hon. Members and that we have renewed vigour in tackling maternity discrimination. It is apparent that we have taken our eye off the ball. I hope that we can use today as an opportunity to put on the record the need to come together once again to address the issue. That is the reason for this debate.

Although the study found high rates of discrimination against pregnant women, 84% of employers said they believed that supporting pregnant women and women on maternity leave was in their best interests. It is interesting to hear those figures and the information that the right hon. Lady referred to. There seems to be a clear difference. Either the statistics are wrong or there is an undercurrent that we need to address. In addition, 80% of employers agreed that pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave were just as committed to their work as their colleagues. Again, it seems that four fifths of employers understand that when the lady returns to work, she is as eager, keen and enthusiastic as before her baby was born.

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A member of my staff is on maternity leave at the moment. I certainly did not view her as being of less value than other staff due to her pregnancy. She is hard-working and has worked for me for some 12 years. This is her second baby in just over two years. She gave birth about three weeks ago and has another few months of maternity leave. I want her back, but at the same time I understand that she has a wee child to look after. For the record, the baby’s name is Esther and she was born at Ulster hospital just a few weeks ago, weighing 8 lb 4 oz. She has a wee sister. Their mother has had two girls in the last two years, so it has been a busy two years for her and for everyone else.

There are no problems in my office when it comes to maternity leave. The law says what we must do and we do it, but we must do it right. In this House, MPs can have a substitute to help and we are lucky to have that opportunity.

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): I am sure the hon. Gentleman is a reasonable and understanding employer. We have arrangements in place in the House that, in the main, support people who work for us and who go on maternity leave. Having a child is a life-changing event for the whole family and the need for more flexible working arrangements after childbirth is often one of the greatest challenges that many women in particular face after returning to the workplace. Should there not be a more proactive duty on private sector employers to recognise the need for flexible working?

Jim Shannon: The hon. Gentleman brings a wealth of knowledge to these debates and I thank him for his intervention. He is absolutely right to say that private businesses need to do more to ensure that that happens. The system in the House is there for us and it is good to have that, but we need to address the situation outside.

I am not sure whether the figures and statistics that hon. Members have referred to relate to private businesses and other employers, but there is an issue still to address. Perhaps the Minister will tell us her thoughts on that. Although the incidence of discrimination is still relatively high, it is clear that attitudes are changing. We need to see what we can do to deal with the disparity between changing attitudes and changing actions.

I welcome the opportunity to have spoken on this issue in Westminster Hall today. I hope that comments made have been noted by hon. Members. I thank them for their contributions and interventions and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for setting the scene. I look forward to moving forward positively on this issue and others like it.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Adrian Bailey (in the Chair): Order. To give both Opposition spokespersons five minutes and the Minister 10 minutes to respond, I would be grateful if Back Benchers could confine their remarks to about five minutes. I have the authority to put a five-minute curb on speeches if I so wish. I want to allow a degree of flexibility, but could hon. Members bear that in mind?

5 pm

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): Diolch yn fawr iawn—thank you very much, Mr Bailey. I thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and

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Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing the debate, which is of course relevant to every family. I also applaud the digital debate initiative; the debate has been interesting to follow on Twitter.

As a former manager in a further education college, I appreciate that the task of dealing with female employees during pregnancy and maternity leave is not easy. It is time consuming and, by its very nature, unpredictable. However, the logical conclusion of being complicit in condoning maternity discrimination is to consent to discrimination against every woman of child-bearing age. Proper support and management of employees during pregnancy and maternity is simply another aspect of effective management. It is what good managers do, and it pays rewards in staff loyalty and skills retention. The fact that this debate is necessary gives the lie to the assumption that equality for women is assured. Women are treated as the equal of men in the workplace only as long as their behaviour mimics the traditional behaviour of men in the workplace, in terms of presenteeism and the subordination of family life to work life.

It seems extraordinary that the first findings of research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission would reveal evidence that so many mothers experience discrimination, even though the majority of employers, as has been said, were broadly in agreement—at least in public—with the law and women’s rights regarding maternity leave. The figures extrapolated from the research’s direct evidence indicate that tens of thousands of women are likely to be suffering discrimination in relation to pregnancy and maternity. An earlier report estimated that almost half of pregnant women in the United Kingdom experienced disadvantage at work arising from the fact that they were expecting a child or taking maternity leave.

I would like to take the opportunity to consider the significance of the report to women in Wales, where 29% of women earned less than the official living wage in 2014. That is partly because a greater proportion of women than of men work part time. Of women working part time in Wales, 43% earn less than the official living wage. The BIS report states that women on low incomes are more likely to report experiencing unfavourable treatment or a lack of support during pregnancy.

Given that for more than two years now, women have been required to pay an up-front fee of £1,200 to take a claim for pregnancy, maternity or sex discrimination to an employment tribunal, that legal advice is unaffordable for many and that the situation is worsening, surely Ministers must face up to the fact that employers are breaking the law and families are suffering as a consequence. That is, sadly, just another example of justice being an optional extra, a luxury item for the wealthy, rather than a shield for the powerless against the powerful. I look forward to the post-implementation review of employment tribunal fees in anticipation that that injustice will be addressed.

While awaiting the review of employment tribunal costs and adding my voice to calls for the publication of an action plan arising from the BIS report, I propose that the impact of shared parental leave and pay should also be reviewed, say in April 2016, following a year’s implementation. I understand that that worthy initiative, whereby parents of newborn babies or adopted children may share between them up to 50 weeks off work, is

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intended to challenge the assumption that the mother alone undertakes the nurturing responsibilities. The degree to which fathers take up shared parental leave is evidently the rulestick by which to measure the success of shared parental leave. Sadly, it is likely that raising the status accorded by men to nurturing roles will prove to be a critical step towards demolishing long-established maternity discrimination.

5.4 pm

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing this important debate to the Chamber. It is a delight to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. When I worked as a Unite representative, I was involved in many maternity discrimination cases.

It is approximately 40 years since the first legislation was introduced to protect women from unfair dismissal because of pregnancy. Despite those legal rights, it appears that maternity discrimination is still a significant issue for a number of women. The report recently published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that women returning from maternity leave are even more likely to face discrimination in the workplace than they were a decade ago. The report estimates that about 54,000 UK women may be forced out of their jobs each year simply for falling pregnant. That includes being dismissed outright, being made compulsorily redundant when others in the workplace were not, and being treated so poorly that they had to leave. However, that figure does not account for the women who were self-employed and could not continue, women who were demoted, passed over for promotion, or overlooked for job opportunities that arose while they were on maternity leave, or for training and development opportunities. All those women may have been adversely affected, so the estimate of 54,000 may be just the tip of the iceberg.

For the women who are affected by such discrimination, it can have a devastating impact. I note that some truly shocking personal experiences have been highlighted on online sites. One individual stated that she returned to work only 11 weeks post partum because of pressure put on her by her employer. Another individual stated that she had been placed two hours away from home, and that it was virtually impossible for her to get back to breastfeed her baby. Sometimes discrimination against women who are off with their babies does not fit neatly into legal categories, but it can have the effect of making it impossible for the person to get back to work, and therefore it is discrimination all the same.

In this day and age, any discrimination of this nature is wholly unacceptable. However, statutory maternity rights are worth little if victims are unable to enforce them. As has been described, the two biggest barriers that may prevent women from challenging maternity discrimination are the introduction of employment tribunal fees and the three-month time limit. The statute of limitations on discrimination cases means that individuals have only three months from the point at which they were subjected to any kind of workplace discrimination

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to lodge a claim. In the case of maternity discrimination, those three months usually come at a time when the individuals are exhausted and lacking in confidence, have their hands full and are trying to adjust both to having a new baby and to getting back to work. For many, it just would not cross their mind to go down the route of contacting ACAS or seeking advice regarding their situation.

The Select Committee on Justice is conducting an inquiry on the effects of the introduction and levels of court and tribunal fees and charges. I want to highlight that the Scottish Government have pledged to abolish fees for employment tribunals when their additional powers are received, thereby ensuring that all employees have a fair opportunity to have their case heard. That includes those who may be suffering maternity discrimination. There is also a need to learn lessons from complaints. About half of employers fail to implement changes following a finding of discrimination, so it is important that recommendations be enforceable against the employer.

In conclusion, research suggests that pregnancy and maternity discrimination continues to be both widespread and deeply entrenched, with a significant minority of employers displaying outdated and wholly inappropriate attitudes and behaviours. That is bad for women and their families, bad for gender equality and bad for our economy. There is a clear need for urgent Government action in this area.

5.9 pm

Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)on securing this important debate. You would have thought, Mr Bailey, that by 2015 much discrimination in this country would have been eliminated. We have had the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, race relations legislation and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005—all introduced by Labour—but maternity discrimination, as mums like me know, and as the research that the hon. Gentleman has laid before us shows, is still very much with us. This discrimination can start in pregnancy, and even before conception, when women of a certain age go for a job interview and are sidelined because they are thought of as potential baby machines who are about to drop.

The increase in the number of women in the workforce from the first world war onwards was meant to bring economic independence, and in many ways it did. We all know, however, about glass ceilings and the fact that women often end up in lower-status employment, such as caring, cleaning and—the thing I did before I came here—teaching jobs. There used to be the idea in the ’80s of having it all, and we should not have given up on that. Women’s caring responsibilities and biological functions, if we are blunt about it, should not preclude their earning a wage.

People have talked about flexible working, and I am proud of the fact that the last Labour Government empowered women to do that. I was one of the first generation to benefit. In reality, however, women are made to feel embarrassed to ask, and many feel unable to do so. The EHRC report found that when mothers were allowed to work flexibly, half reported negative consequences, such as receiving fewer opportunities at

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work or feeling that their opinion was less valued than that of colleagues. I remember the incredulity that greeted a colleague of mine at a former workplace who had recently returned to work when she asked a male manager if she could have access to a fridge to store expressed breast milk. He could not get his head around that concept at all.

Some of the ways in which maternity discrimination can manifest itself include being overlooked for promotion and not being allowed to go to antenatal appointments, as well the more obvious bullying and harassment. A survey by the TUC found that six in 10 mothers felt sidelined at work as soon as they announced their pregnancy. The discrimination starts even before maternity: four in 10 managers admitted that they were wary of hiring a woman of childbearing age.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and others have pointed out the punitive effects of tribunal fees. The costs add up: £250 just to take the case, and £1,200 in total. New babies are not cheap, when we take into account childcare, kitting out the nursery and all that stuff.

I am dismayed that things appear to be going backwards under this Government. We all know that the austerity cuts seem to be hitting women disproportionately. Women are employed in the public sector in greater numbers than men. Research has showed that some 70% of the losers under the proposed tax credit changes, which may change again, will be working women. To top it all, in my constituency, the maternity unit at Ealing hospital has closed since the election. I think it is a bit sinister that it happened in June, probably for electoral reasons, when it was going to close before that. That is a personal observation.

I only wanted to speak briefly, but I call on the Minister to increase access to justice and strengthen leave for fathers; I echo almost all that has been said. Our Prime Minister suddenly announced last week at Prime Minister’s questions his conversion to feminism. What is going on is illegal; maternity discrimination is against the law, so he needs to act now, in correspondence with his self-definition as a feminist.

5.13 pm

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) and Maternity Action for the work that they have done to bring us this debate today.

I want to talk briefly about the position of women in pregnancy, who are, I suppose, in a position of weakness in relation to their male colleagues in the workplace. We need to do all we can to redress that. During a woman’s first pregnancy, she is not sure how it will be, how she will feel and how her health will be affected. We need to make employers more aware of their responsibilities in that respect. Lots of things can happen during pregnancy, including basic morning sickness, tiredness or complications that may require attendance at further hospital appointments. Women in the workplace should feel supported to attend those appointments, because they are necessary.

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I also want to mention women who are having in vitro fertilisation treatment, which can have a difficult impact on women’s health, and which can be very invasive and tiring. Not enough is said about the health impact of IVF, or about the need to attend extra hospital appointments to undergo the treatment, and employers need to recognise those things.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned the storage of breast milk. There are problems with awareness of what is required to support women who wish to breastfeed when they return to work. They may require time away to go and see the baby, if it is very small, or time to use a breast pump to express milk in a space where they feel safe, comfortable and relaxed. An appropriate space that is not a toilet would be good. In debates I had about breastfeeding earlier this year, the point was raised that a lot of employers do not recognise that women need a space that is clean and safe, and a toilet is not that space. For that matter, some breast pumps require a plug. That is a practical issue that employers, particularly male employers, might not recognise or understand. The more education that employers can be given about their responsibilities, the better.

A lot of employers may be well-meaning, and I suppose I can give them the benefit of the doubt. I had a colleague who thought that I might not want to go on a particular committee because I had just had a baby. He did not ask me about that at the time—this was a few years ago—but that assumption was made, without my knowledge until I queried it later. We need to open up employers to speak to the women in their employ and ask them what support they need. Employers need to ask what they can do to retain skills and talent in their workforce by ensuring that women return to work and continue to work, if their job is one that they enjoy. They must be supported at every stage during their pregnancy and thereafter, and adjustments must be made to allow them to continue to work.

In the run-up to this debate, I have been looking at some of the issues that have been raised on the website “Pregnant Then Screwed”, where people can anonymously tell their stories. Some of the stories there are absolutely shocking. It is heartbreaking to read about the bullying, stress and discrimination that women are being put through at what should be a very happy time in their life. Those blog posts make me absolutely furious. There is no excuse for making women feel that way during the perfectly natural process of pregnancy, childbirth and starting a family. Women should feel supported at that time; they should not be made to feel as though what they are doing is somehow wrong, because that is absolutely crazy.

We need to do all we can, as MPs in this House, to make sure that women are supported through pregnancy. We must challenge problems with tribunal fees and discrimination to make sure that women and their families are supported.

5.18 pm

Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this important debate, which

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allows us to highlight the issues faced by pregnant women in the workplace. Legislation has been in place for more than 40 years to protect women from unfair dismissal because of pregnancy. Since then, maternity rights legislation has been strengthened, protecting women from any unfavourable treatment in the workplace.

As a woman has the right to 52 weeks’ leave and 39 weeks’ statutory pay, and the right to return to work after that time, she has the choice to start a family without sacrificing her career. Although the law in this country has created an environment that is fair, balanced, sensible and manageable for recent and expectant mothers, that is not always how the law is interpreted, and women often experience maternity and pregnancy discrimination. Despite the protection written into law, in practice the facts are less clear, and the evidence shows that the laws are often flouted. Often, pregnant members of the workforce are coerced into agreeing to waive their rights. Unfair dismissals often go unchallenged in the legal system.

A recent report outlined women’s experiences. One woman was given 24 hours’ notice to resign. The boss of another woman assumed that, as she was pregnant, she was unable to cope. Yet another woman commented that she was unable to wear her engagement ring because she was concerned that it would put her future employer off giving her a promotion, or even giving her the job in the first place. One woman said:

“It’s hard to make a stand when you need a salary”.

Those are the experiences of women in the workplace. Although the laws and protections exist, many women are not able—or feel they are unable—to access and make use of them. With half the workforce likely to fall pregnant at some point in their career between the ages of 16 and 50, it is high time that our society recognised the deeply entrenched and outdated situation that many women face in their employment. Women who choose to balance work and family face huge inequalities.

A report published this year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in conjunction with the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that instances of unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination have slightly worsened over the past decade. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned, the findings are that the scale of the issue is huge: figures indicate that 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers are forced out of their jobs. However, the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace indicates that the figure may be closer to 60,000 women. This equates to one in nine women being forced out of work for choosing to have a child. Of the women surveyed, one in six reported suffering a negative impact on health or stress levels due to poor treatment at work. Of course, existing pressures are only exacerbated by pregnancy and maternity discrimination. How does a woman with fluctuating working hours and an unstable employment contract defend herself against a discriminatory employer?

Hundreds of thousands of women employed in social care, childcare and hairdressing have indicated that they were employed on zero-hours contracts and in unstable forms of employment. As such, they were offered little security in their employment and were therefore unable to challenge the discrimination they faced in the workplace.

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It is our job to flag up the widespread societal issues that have led to this situation. We must ensure that our laws are fit for purpose; that is not the case at present, in the case of legal aid for maternity discrimination cases. The supply of free legal advice has been severely reduced by funding cuts and the abolition of almost all civil legal aid. I mentioned that recently at Women and Equalities questions, and I am pleased to hear that the matter will be reviewed, so I will not take this point any further.

For any women to progress in their careers, it is important for us to smash the gender pay gap, tackle child poverty and deal with some of the real societal issues. It is impossible for any change to come into effect without the support of Ministers. We need to send a strong message to employers that there is simply no excuse for flouting the law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and we must ensure improved access to justice by abolishing employment tribunal fees. As things stand, we are damaging families, diluting gender equality, and doing no favours to the economy. However, this will not be resolved simply through legislation. We need engagement and provision across services and Departments. I urge the Minister to take action, to meet with Maternity Action and others, and to indicate when the report will be published that addresses these concerns.

5.23 pm

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. Five minutes is barely enough time to do justice to a situation in which one in nine mothers feel that they are forced out of work. Maternity discrimination is bad for women and their families, for gender equality and for the economy. The incidence of maternity discrimination is alarmingly high, and there are clear indications that the situation is getting worse.

TUC research in 2014 found that six in 10 mothers felt sidelined at work as soon as they announced their pregnancy, and four in 10 managers admitted that they were wary of hiring women of childbearing age, so it comes as little surprise that advice lines, such as Maternity Action’s helpline, report that they are receiving 20 times more calls than they can take every day. I was privileged to hear the testimony of Aisha, a new mother who contacted the Labour women and equalities team recently to talk about the situation she faced when she revealed to her employer that she was pregnant. I do not have time to go into much detail, but her manager did not do a risk assessment, which led to Aisha being hurt at work, as she suffered from symphysis pubis dysfunction and pulled muscles easily. She turned to her colleagues for assistance in doing her job, because she was scared of losing it. In the end, her employer reduced her hours. She said to me:

“I feel that he discriminated against me because I am a female of childbearing age and he could never understand what I went through while working for him or suffering during my pregnancy.”

Thankfully, she went on to have a successful pregnancy, but no expectant mother should ever have to go through what Aisha experienced. However, the Government are making it harder for people like Aisha to access justice.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made a point about the increase in tribunal fees at a time when women do not have very much disposable income—when they are on statutory maternity

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pay and have the expense of a new baby. I raised that issue during Women and Equalities questions on 15 October, and the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities said that she would look into the matter. Will the Minister guarantee that the findings and recommendations of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the EHRC will be taken into account as part of the review of tribunal fees?

The current situation is completely unacceptable. We must not accept the status quo. In addition to abolishing tribunal fees, as I mentioned, a good starting point would be a commitment from the Minister that the Government are taking the findings of BIS and the EHRC seriously and, following the final report, will publish a comprehensive plan to address the policy recommendations stemming from that report. It is vital that the Government engage with mothers in developing a strategy to end maternity discrimination. It is therefore extremely disappointing that, to date, Maternity Action has not been given a date to meet the Minister; I ask the Minister to meet it.

To address pregnancy discrimination, we must know the scale of the problem. Will the Minister commit to calculating the overall cost to the economy of unlawful and maternity discrimination in the workplace, and require employers to publish return-to-work rates identifying how many of their female employees return to work after having children, and how many are still in post a year later?

The TUC and the Fawcett Society have identified paternity leave as one area that could be improved, as only 55% of new fathers take time off in the baby’s first two weeks. The Government’s impact assessment of the introduction of shared parental leave estimates that only 8% of men will use it. Will the Minister commit to reviewing how paternity leave provisions could be strengthened? It is likely that women will remain discriminated against if they change their working patterns following pregnancy unless flexible working options, such as job shares, part-time working and compressed hours, become more widespread. Will the Government look into giving employees the right to request flexible working from day one of employment? Finally, will the Government work with employers to ensure that they learn lessons from complaints? About half of employers fail to implement any changes following a finding of discrimination.

5.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice (Caroline Dinenage): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this important debate. Let me be absolutely clear from the outset that pregnancy and maternity discrimination, whether at work or when seeking access to services, is unlawful and completely unacceptable. We have all been shocked by some of the experiences highlighted in the joint Government and EHRC interim research report on this problem in the workplace and by the stories we have heard via the blog and, indeed, today such as the story of Aisha, which was raised by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). Those stories reflect badly on the employers concerned.

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When the interim report was published in July, I was horrified that one in eight women reported that they felt that they had to leave work as a result of their pregnancy or maternity leave. It is clear that far too many women feel that they face unacceptable treatment in the workplace, causing additional stress and difficulties at what, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) quite rightly said, should be an exciting and happy time for their family.

The Chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), rightly said that it is not difficult for employers to understand, implement or comply with the legislation. The report shows that most mothers feel supported by their employer—four in five mothers said that their employer supported them during pregnancy, and three in four of those returning to work said that their needs as a new mother were met. It is encouraging that, despite the bad stories, most employers, such as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), embrace their legal and moral duties to their employees. It is good news that most women have a positive experience during and after pregnancy.

It is also important to recognise that the vast majority of employers believe it is important to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave. More than four in five employers feel it is in the interest of their business to do so, and of course it is. Although it is reassuring that the vast majority of employers recognise the important contribution made to their organisation both by pregnant women and by mothers returning from maternity leave, it is still nowhere near the 100% that we want. So many mothers do not have a good experience, and we must do all we can to ensure that all employers see the benefits to their organisation of having a diverse workforce.

To address the problem effectively, we need to understand the causes and extent of pregnancy discrimination in our workplaces, which is why in 2014 the coalition Government commissioned an extensive research project into perceived pregnancy and maternity discrimination. It is the largest research project of its kind undertaken in Great Britain, and it is interviewing more than 3,000 employers and 3,000 employees. The final report, which will come out later this year, will tell us what issues women face, who is most at risk and which types of employers are most likely to receive complaints about discrimination. We will use that information to decide our next steps to ensure that both employers and mothers are aware of, and act on, their legal obligations and rights.

The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East is right to say that access to the correct advice is a key priority. In the meantime, the Government have ensured that support is available both to mothers and employers on their rights and responsibilities. The EHRC has produced guidance in the form of frequently asked questions to help employers to understand their legal obligations and to provide suggestions for good practice in managing pregnancy, maternity leave and return to work. The EHRC has also produced a toolkit for employers, with a stock of pre-prepared letters, checklists and ready-made policy templates to make administration as simple as possible.

More generally, some £49 million has been provided to the EHRC, ACAS and the Equality Advisory and Support Service as part of the Government’s commitment

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to support both employers and employees. The EASS helpline is available for those who may have a discrimination issue, often outside the workplace, such as women who feel that they have faced unlawful restrictions on breastfeeding in public. The helpline provides in-depth free advice and support, helping individuals to solve their problems informally, and covers England, Scotland and Wales. More than 80,000 individuals have been helped to date.

ACAS provides advice both to employers and employees on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, including specific guidance on breastfeeding at work. ACAS is also developing guidance and products in relation to gender pay reporting and the menopause. It has also published new guidance on equality and discrimination, equipping people with the knowledge and ability to take action to avoid discrimination and to respond to it if it occurs. Of course, we must not forget the excellent work of organisations such as Maternity Action and Working Families to support employers and women while pregnant and on maternity leave.

Employment tribunal fees were introduced to cut the burden on taxpayers and encourage parties to seek alternative ways to resolve their dispute. It is not right that hard-working taxpayers should pick up the entire bill of some £71 million for employment disputes and tribunals, but to protect the lowest paid workers, there is a system of fee remissions under which fees may be waived in part or in full for those who qualify.

We have also taken steps to divert people away from potentially acrimonious tribunal hearings where possible, which is important. Under the new early conciliation scheme, people must notify ACAS of their intention to lodge an employment tribunal claim, and they are then offered an opportunity to settle their workplace dispute without going to court. The scheme has already been used by more than 80,000 people in its first year, and 56% of complaints in the “suffered a detriment or unfair dismissal—pregnancy” category were settled through the ACAS early conciliation process. ACAS services are free of charge, making it a cheaper, quicker and less stressful option for all concerned.

On 11 June 2015, the Government announced the start of the post-implementation review of employment tribunal fees. The review is well under way and will be completed in due course. Among other things, the review will consider the impact of fees on particular groups, including women. The EHRC report will be taken into consideration. The review will broadly consider how successful the policy has been in achieving its original objectives, which will include, so far as possible, whether the fees have had any differential impact on people with protected characteristics and the types of cases they bring.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned compliance and tribunal award payments, which are clearly unacceptable and are something that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is currently evaluating. We want everyone in our society to fulfil their potential, and we cannot afford to waste the talents of half our population. Addressing discrimination is only part of what we are doing to ensure that women are able to make the most of the opportunities available to them. Our ambition is to end the gender pay gap within a generation. There are

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now more women-led businesses than ever before, a record number of women in work, and the gender pay gap is at an all-time low. Do not take that as complacency; there is more to be done. That is why we will require large employers to publish information on the difference between men and women’s pay, and last week the Prime Minister announced that we will ensure that large employers regularly report on bonuses as part of that gender pay reporting.

Angela Crawley: I appreciate the Minister’s point about large employers, but the vast majority of people work for smaller companies with fewer than 250 employees. Has she considered that those people will be equally affected?

Caroline Dinenage: Yes, absolutely. I ran a small business for more than 20 years from the age of 19, and I think a culture change is required. We need to secure that change in large companies that can afford to do the gender reporting and can afford the posh websites on which to report it. We hope that will bring about a culture change that filters down, but we will keep it under review. Nothing is off the table.

The measures build on our support for working families. From September 2017, we will double the amount of free childcare to 30 hours a week for working parents of three and four-year-olds, which will be worth around £2,500 a year. Some 1.8 million families could also benefit from the new tax-free childcare scheme from 2017, which will be worth up to £2,000 a child. We will extend shared parental leave and pay to working grandparents. The policy, when implemented in 2018, will support working parents with the cost of childcare and help the 2 million grandparents who have given up work, reduced their hours or taken time off to help with childcare. That is in addition to the families who are already benefiting from shared parental leave, which was introduced earlier this year. We need time to assess the impact of shared parental leave, which will of course be reviewed in due course. We need a cultural change so that the chaps understand that they have an equal responsibility for childcare. We will also introduce a national living wage.

The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age or background, is able to fulfil their potential, which is why we are determined to address pregnancy and maternity discrimination, wherever it may arise. This issue affects us all. It is not only utterly reprehensible that women feel they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, but it represents an unacceptable loss to our country’s productivity. Valuable employees are being misused. I was interested to see the digital debate on Twitter yesterday, using #MothersWork. Many useful points were raised in that debate, as well as in today’s debate, and they will all be taken into consideration. I am more than happy to meet Maternity Action, and I am pleased to see so many colleagues from both sides of the House agree that maternity discrimination is an important issue. I look forward to reading the final report.

5.39 pm

Stuart C. McDonald: I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. Many people who have spoken are far more expert on the issue than I am

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and have been campaigning on it for far longer. We heard from the right hon. Member for Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the discrepancy between the many employers who seem to find planning around maternity leave straightforward and the far too many who still find it a challenge. Perhaps we need to share best practice more widely. We heard from the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) that it is not always easy to manage, but the motivation is there, and that employers can be rewarded with skills retention and employee loyalty.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke eloquently from her own professional experience, which is invaluable in such debates. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) discussed the fact that discrimination starts even before conception, a point worth emphasising. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke poignantly

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from personal experience, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said that we are in the process of improving legislation, but we need practice to match up with implementation.

I am grateful to the shadow Minister and the Minister for their contributions. We are moving towards some degree of recognition that more must be done and of the reasons why we need to tackle the problem. I am grateful that the Minister has recognised the problems that we face. We still have a long way to go, but I am grateful that she is going to meet Maternity Action. I had better finish now, or I will run out of time.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered maternity discrimination.

5.41 pm

Sitting adjourned.