3.9 pm

Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

I am here today—I am sure it is the same for many other hon. Members—because access to decent broadband is extremely important to individuals and to businesses in my constituency. More and more business transactions are now taking place online. In rural areas such as my constituency in Cumbria, banks are closing branches, making broadband more important as a way for people to be able access banking. Children and students are also encouraged to use online learning resources, which can be difficult. There is talk about getting access to doctors through Skype in Cumbria, but of course we cannot do that without decent broadband. I could go on.

Connecting Cumbria is managing the roll-out of superfast broadband in Cumbria. It has delivered phase 1 successfully, but we are moving on to phase 2 and, I hope, phase 3. The difficult geography of Cumbria makes that extremely challenging. I hope that the Government will continue to treat roll-out in rural areas as a priority for funding. The mere fact that outlying areas are considered hard to reach should not mean that they are left behind.

I declare a personal interest, as I live in a rural part of Cumbria with a diabolical broadband speed. I often struggle to open emails, and give up. The problem is not just speed but consistency. It is hugely frustrating when a broadband connection keeps dropping in and out. I avoid doing my banking online at home, because I worry about the security issues if the connection drops out when I am logged in at my bank. Most days I have to jog up and down the stairs a few times, because the router is upstairs and I have to switch it on and off to try to get connected. It drives me mad.

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I fully understand the frustrations of constituents with similar problems who have got in touch with me about broadband—very many of them, despite the fact that I have not been an MP very long. A particular bugbear is the fact that many services and companies are switching to online access only. Will the Minister consider whether rural communities’ access to reliable broadband can be assessed before the decision is made to switch a service to online access only?

I have some recent relevant personal experience with the Rural Payments Agency. Last year we completed our forms on paper, but this year my husband and I were told we had to do it online. We had the most ridiculous Saturday afternoon trying to do that. Not only did that mean battling with the poor internet speed but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) mentioned, our mobile signal is not good, and we were told to input a text code to the system. I was running around the garden with the phone trying to get the code, so I could shout it to my husband before the five minutes were up and he could input it. That is absurd. It is a ridiculous way to carry on.

I welcome the roll-out of superfast broadband, which is incredibly important to my constituency. Rural areas, as well as the more urban ones that have been described today, must not be disadvantaged. The Government must not assume that there is decent access when they make services online only. As the roll-out continues, will they please take connectivity into account?

3.13 pm

Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate. It is pretty clear from the large attendance that the issue features strongly in our mailbags and inboxes—when people can email us at all.

It would be incredibly easy to knock BT as effectively a monopoly supplier, but that would be too easy a goal. I represent a rural seat, and I am very grateful for the way senior BT executives have made themselves available to come here for meetings to discuss the future and the service. Only 43% of North Dorset is covered by superfast broadband. That might seem to be the Elysian fields to some hon. Members, but in my judgment 43% is not particularly good. I would like the Minister to consider three key points. One is the huge amount of irritation caused by descoping, which is totally bogus in my opinion. I do not think that the contractor—in this case BT—should be allowed to descope areas that it has previously included in its submissions. I am thinking of Durweston and Stourpaine, which are the Blandford 8 cabinet box number in my constituency, and Motcombe and Bourton, which are served by Shaftesbury 15 and 16. Those have suddenly been dropped out, because they appeared either too difficult or too expensive. The rules should not have allowed the possibility for such areas, and indeed many others, to be dropped out of the scope of the contract.

Third parties are also, as I understand it, holding up delivery. I understand that some problems have arisen with regard to wayleaves from the Forestry Commission and in particular, in my constituency, the Crown Estate. If the Minister used his good offices to bring pressure on to those and other executive agencies of the Crown that would be enormously helpful.

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We also know, I think, that BT was incredibly heavy-handed in the bidding process. I know from my previous experience as a councillor in Oxfordshire that there was quite a lot of arm twisting by BT at the county council to go totally with BT—otherwise it would not play ball—even though others were trying to come in and fill the gaps. I am sad to say that was also the experience in North Dorset where a community-led initiative, Trailway, wanted to fill the gap, but BT told Dorset County Council clearly that if it supported the group or gave it any cause for hope, BT would walk away from delivery for the whole county. In what, to use the old term, we might call the big society, such community and rural groups, which are well known for their self-sufficiency, resource and ingenuity, are exactly the people we should champion.

That is done and we are where we are, but I ask the Minister to consider putting on pressure in any further discussions and negotiations with BT, so that where it has decided not to fill in the gap, black hole or whatever we care to call it, it must be able to provide all the relevant data and information to community groups and other providers, such as Wessex Internet in my constituency, who want to fill the gap.

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): Does my hon. Friend and neighbour agree that the issue is one of the most important for Dorset infrastructure, along with road and rail? It relates to the whole of Dorset—east Dorset, Purbeck and Poole, and we are making the argument for businesses, tourists and residents alike.

Simon Hoare: Prescience about what we might say in our speeches is not restricted to the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), because my hon. Friend takes me neatly on to my next point. It is worth while reminding a large company such as BT— I have little or no doubt that it will be listening to the debate with keen interest—that such macrobusinesses have the future of microbusinesses in their hands.

However, it is not just a question of business. Other hon. Members have talked about the importance of broadband connection to schools and colleges. There is a primary school in my constituency, Spetisbury, that has no access to broadband at all, and none in sight. Other hon. Members have spoken about the problems for agriculture. Farmers are increasingly asked to make submissions online, but there are swathes of the Blackmore vale where people might as well try to write on vellum with a quill, for the speed they can manage on the internet. In North Dorset we often call it the superfast bridle path.

Businesses such as Goldhill Organics, an online business in my constituency, and an award-winning maze designer in Durweston, are all significantly held back from growth and the creation of jobs—from bringing people back to paying tax and getting them off the dole queue. That is all fundamentally constrained by an inability to get access in a rapid and reliable way to what I think we would all now agree is effectively a basic utility.

Tourism and events in a rural area are absolutely key. I am thinking of pubs with letting rooms, such as the Talbot in my own village of Iwerne Minster. Again,

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they are held back from growing their business and seeing a return on their investment. BT has done much and is to be congratulated. We are leading the European league table, but please let us not sacrifice the 5%; please let us not forget the rural areas. In closing, I press again the three key points that I made to the Minister in opening.

3.20 pm

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on initiating this very important debate. You will be relieved to hear, Mr Pritchard, that my carefully crafted, 10-minute speech will be jettisoned and my comments compacted into two or three minutes, I hope.

First, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the great progress that has been made. An additional 2.5 million homes and businesses were linked up to superfast broadband as of May. However, there has been much talk of the last 5% and peripheral areas, and I want to talk about the peripheral area that I represent. My comments will be very much in the spirit of those from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who talked about his experiences there.

Ceredigion ranks 646th out of the 650 constituencies for internet speed. Superfast broadband is available to 12% of my constituency, ranking it 639th out of the 650. When we reflect on phase 3 of the roll-out, I would like to know from the Minister what timetable we are now operating, because, like other hon. Members, I have many impatient businesses and householders in my constituency. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I have to say after the great speech earlier is now in the incredibly safe hands of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—I say that as a former coalition Member, but I genuinely mean it—said in February that it wanted a timescale for the final roll-out of phase 3, and we anticipate a response from the Minister on that. I would also be interested to find out the outcome of the research and trials that have been taking place as part of phase 3. This is about the necessity of those new technologies to get to the scattered communities that make up the bulk of my constituency.

The critical issue for me is businesses and the development of a rural economy. Reliable internet access has been identified by 94% of small businesses as essential. Ofcom recently called for lower prices for high-speed business lines, which will be welcome news to many of my constituents —at least, the few who can access high speed—but of course the technology needs to be available in the first place. Many of my local businesses genuinely struggle. Two weeks ago, the Gomer Press, a historic printing firm and a growing business in Llandysul in the south of Ceredigion, approached me with its genuine concerns that the speeds that it is receiving with BT are harming its business, as it struggles to receive the files that are necessary to undertake the printing work required of it.

The hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) talked about tourism. That is a growing sector in west Wales. I commend to the Minister the Conrah hotel in my constituency, which is a good, four-star hotel. If he

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comes to west Wales, he should come to that hotel. Its owner, Mr Hughes, tells me that although his broadband is provided by BT, the service is so shockingly bad that most of his clientele are reluctant to come back because of the inadequate broadband. We are letting down key businesses in rural, peripheral areas—key businesses that have a huge impact.

Let me reflect on some other issues. Our constituents are increasingly required to undertake business online. A constituent wrote to me last week about the new Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency regulations for a digital counterpart driving licence. How can that be possible in an area where people will not be able to access the digital component? Other hon. Members have mentioned the members of the farming community who come to us with genuine concerns that they cannot undertake what is required of them, such as the reporting of cattle movements to the British Cattle Movement Service, online completion of single farm payment forms and the checking of market prices. Those are just some of the problems that farmers face. In addition, small businesses have to undertake electronic verification of VAT returns. One constituent was required to register his tax returns and he was fined because he was unable to do so. We managed to get the money back for him. He was told that he could register a paper submission, but when the note came back, the farmer was also told that next time he should go down to the local library, where there would be a broadband connection, to register his tax returns. I would challenge any Member of the House to go to one of the marts in my constituency and tell a farmer to go and register his tax returns online—they would get a spirited response.

This is a matter of necessity and of urgency. I am following your stipulation about time, Mr Pritchard, but we need some immediate action on the matter.

3.25 pm

Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): Before making my remarks, I must declare an interest. My husband is director of policy at the broadband provider Sky.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate so soon after becoming a Member. Broadband is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. For my local small businesses, for my farming community and for local families at home, access to the internet and all that it has to offer is a core requirement of day-to-day life. However, in many places—particularly in rural areas, such as my constituency of Wealden—people have to contend with a limited choice of service providers, slow speeds, regular service blackouts and general unreliability. My Wealden constituents should not have to put up with that in 2015.

I have received a number of complaints from constituents about their broadband services, and they demonstrate how lives can be blighted by broadband difficulties. I will share just two examples. A local mum who runs her own business contacted me about a service blackout that left her without an internet connection for 19 days. Can you imagine, Mr Pritchard, trying to run a business without the internet for 19 days?

However, the problem will not be solved by a roll-out of superfast broadband in the short term, because the problem is with the access network—something that is taken for granted by those pining for an upgrade to the

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superfast network, but that some of my constituents can only dream of. Any superfast roll-out cannot be at the expense of investment in the access network.

Another constituent, whose house is connected to the Ripe exchange, which is not enabled for fibre service, is in the dark over any possible upgrade. BT’s website shows that his area is in line for one within six months, but that notice has been on the website for 12 months already. My constituent has not been given a provisional timetable by BT, BDUK or the local council detailing when the negotiations will be brought to a conclusion, never mind when any upgrade might finally happen. BT and BDUK must become much more transparent.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I commend to my hon. Friend North Lincolnshire Council, which has done an amazing job of ensuring that at every step of the way residents know what happens. As a result, take-up is way in excess of what was expected. That is in stark contrast to my other local council, East Riding of Yorkshire, where communication with the public has been woeful at times. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This can be done, if local authorities and BT have the desire to do it—and it should be done, so that residents know when they will get their upgrade.

Nusrat Ghani: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that example.

Beyond the impact on businesses, there is an impact on older people. I am pleased to be the new co-chair of the all-party group for ageing and older people. Addressing ageing and loneliness is a priority of mine. The speed at which technology is changing is frightening for the best of us, but for older people it can be truly isolating. Ensuring that they have access to the internet is not just an economic or technological issue, but a social care issue. We cannot let anyone be left behind or left out.

This and the previous Government have taken encouraging steps with respect to broadband provision. The £1.7 billion being invested is welcome, as is the fact that, according to the Countryside Alliance, 90% of premises will be connected by early 2016. My concern is that the other 10% should not be left behind and that during the roll-out of superfast broadband, the responsibility to deliver basic broadband to those who fall beyond the limits of the BDUK project should not be overlooked.

Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): My hon. Friend and I are constituency neighbours, sharing a border as we do. Given that 15% of our local residents are self-employed and more than half of them work for small firms, does she agree that this is even more of an issue for us in East Sussex and that it is important that the Government get it right?

Nusrat Ghani: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Most—90%—of my local businesses employ fewer than 10 people, and they tend to be run out of people’s own homes, so having rural broadband, whether the speed is slow or fast, is absolutely imperative. I thank my hon. Friend.

The Government predict that, by 2017, 95% of premises will benefit from speeds of more than 24 megabits; some of my constituents are asking for just 2 megabits,

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and they are not even getting that. The broadband connection voucher scheme, which allows businesses a grant of up to £3,000 for better and faster broadband, is also welcome, but it does not help my constituents one little bit; it is, for the moment, limited to businesses located within a certain distance of the 50 cities benefiting from the scheme. I hope the Government will consider expanding the scheme’s horizons and work to support other businesses.

Several hon. Members rose

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. I now have to call the Front-Bench spokespeople.

3.30 pm

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing this fascinating debate on an issue that affects everyone in this Chamber—we must ensure that we have effective broadband. I am particularly drawn to the comments of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) about the difficulties he faces in his rural constituency, which I share in Ross, Skye and Lochaber.

Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) spoke about 4G and 5G filling the gaps where we cannot get fibre broadband, which is one of the big problems in rural areas. We do not even get a 2G signal in large parts of my Eddisbury constituency. That option is simply not available because of the failure of the mobile companies to act in concert.

Ian Blackford: I agree with the hon. Lady. When we talk about the kinds of solution that we need to deliver in rural areas, we cannot consider broadband in isolation. We also need to consider the opportunities that mobile telephony would provide. She is right that it is not only the failure of broadband; it is also the failure of mobile connectivity. I met members of my business community in Lochaber and Fort William last week, and they add weight to that. There are four significant employers. Marine Harvest, for example, is a fish farming business that has great difficulty in connecting at any level with its fish farms around the constituency, which adds costs to the business. The same is true of Ferguson, a transport company, which has the additional cost of having to buy satellite phones so that it can connect with its drivers. That is the kind of cost of being in more disadvantaged parts of the country that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn was talking about. We need cross-party work. There will be opportunities when 5G is introduced in 2016, and we need to ensure that there is a competitive advantage for rural areas by ensuring that rural communities are at the front of the queue, not at the back.

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is talking about other methods and technologies, and many villages have asked me whether BT will consider fibre to the remote node options, which can join small groups of, say, 30 properties to a smaller cabinet.

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That method is being trialled, but BT will not put it into practice. I ask the Minister whether we can try some other methods.

Ian Blackford: I was going to come on to that, because there is clearly an issue, particularly in rural areas, with the distances from cabinets, which result in the degradation of broadband speeds. We talk about the delivery of superfast broadband, but the reality is that it is not superfast, so nodes, satellites and other such things must be considered in rural areas if we are determined to get it right.

Time is marching on, so I will omit many of the remarks that I was going to make. John Swinney, a colleague of mine in the Scottish Parliament, wrote to the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy in March 2015 calling for the introduction of a universal service obligation for broadband that would ensure that everyone in Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK, could access affordable high-speed broadband. The UK has a telecoms universal service obligation, which entitles every property in the UK to a telephone line, but it contains no meaningful provision for broadband, which it should. A broadband universal service obligation, working alongside significant Scottish Government investment, would help to address the digital divide and ensure that everyone in Scotland could access broadband services, regardless of where they lived.

All, regardless of location, deserve to benefit from the opportunities of connectivity. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group stated that internet-related activity in the UK accounted for 8.3% of GDP in 2010, and it forecasts that that will increase to 12.4% by 2016. Data traffic is exploding worldwide, growing at a compound rate of 23%. To be able to compete, it is clear that our connectivity infrastructure has to be fit for purpose. Many UK cities such as Peterborough, York and Coventry, and Aberdeen and Edinburgh in Scotland, are seeing the development of fibre rings that will deliver speeds of up to 1 gigabit. The leader of Peterborough City Council stated that the development is the most important event in Peterborough since the arrival of the railway. I tend to agree, and I welcome the opportunity of superfast broadband from which businesses and consumers will benefit in those cities, but it raises the challenge of ensuring that we deliver appropriate connectivity in rural areas.

My SNP colleagues from rural constituencies and I are looking forward to working with hon. Members from other parties who face the same challenges as we do. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on rural broadband and digital-only services, which was published in January 2015, graphically pointed to the challenges and opportunities to be met. The last sentence of the summary states:

“It is vital that the last premises in the UK to have access to basic and superfast broadband are treated just as well as the first premises and are not left behind or forgotten.”

There are particular challenges with the incumbent technology of fibre to the cabinet, in which the ultimate connection is by copper wire, and consequently we have the degradation of broadband speeds. As the report states:

“The fact that Fibre to the Cabinet is not a suitable solution in every circumstance or every community means that alternative solutions, such as wider satellite coverage or Fibre to the Remote

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Node, are necessary. Alternative solutions are required not only to ensure that the current commitments of basic and superfast broadband are met but also to ensure that the infrastructure being deployed is future proof and able to meet demands for increasing broadband speeds.”

It is in that context that the plans for next-generation capabilities, particularly 5G, are critical. We need to debate how effective mobile coverage in rural areas, and technologies such as 5G, could allow us to deliver efficient and effective broadband capabilities. The opportunities that the connected cities will have mean that the Government have to consider how we create competitive opportunities in rural areas. My party and I welcome many of the improvements.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that inviting in other technology providers is an option, albeit one that could prejudice access to Government money by showing that there is no market failure? That would leave a legacy of high costs for individuals in the provision of broadband.

Ian Blackford: That is a reasonable point. In the context of what we did in highland, rural and urban areas of Scotland, we suffered from the fact that there was no potential provider other than BT. We need to ensure that there are people who can provide such services at the right cost, whether in Scotland or in the rest of the UK.

My party and I welcome many of the improvements that are being delivered today in both urban and rural areas of the UK. However, more has to be done so that everyone can share in the opportunities that superfast broadband can deliver.

3.37 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): As you know, Mr Pritchard, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. I have never quite worked out which it is with you. [Interruption.] I missed that, I am glad to say.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. I think the shadow Minister has said enough. I call the Minister—[Laughter.] No, I’m kidding.

Chris Bryant: Fortunately, Mr Pritchard, you cannot call a Division in this Chamber, so we cannot put that to the test.

It is a great delight to take part in this debate, and it is also a great delight to see the Chamber so full, which is unusual. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) has chosen the right subject, on which I congratulate him. I look forward to hearing a great deal more from him. I hope he will be a little less opaque about BT and Openreach in future. He is no longer a journalist, and he is allowed to say what he thinks, even if Whips are listening in. An awful lot of Members now have significant concerns and will be carefully watching Ofcom’s inquiry into the roll-out and the relationship between BT and Openreach. We want to ensure fair and open competition, but we do not want to dismantle a company for the sake of some kind of prejudice.

The hon. Gentleman referred to this being the most important infrastructure roll-out in his lifetime. I hope he will have a long and fruitful life, and who knows

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what the future may bring? In my constituency, the roll-out of mobile has been complicated and difficult. I know that because when I wrote a letter demanding that Tony Blair stand down as Prime Minister, fortunately I had no mobile coverage in my house, so no journalists were able to get me for at least four days.

The point has been well made by many hon. Members that peripheral economies come in many different shapes and sizes. All too often, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has said, the infrastructure problems with broadband also relate to physical access, roads, buses, transport and everything else. [Interruption.] I cannot hear what the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) is saying.

Hon. Members: Devolved.

Chris Bryant: I am not sure what devolution has to do with this particular issue. [Interruption.] If the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy wants to make a contribution, I am sure he might catch your eye later, Mr Pritchard, if I sit down. [Laughter.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn made several points and said that the market is not working— many hon. Members have rightly expressed concern about how we have assessed state aid and market failure—and I am not sure that it has really delivered the significant outcomes that we would all like to have been achieved for the significant amount of money that the Government have put in.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) gave what I can only describe as a Julius Caesar speech, as its basic tenor was, “I come to bury Vaizey, not to praise him.” He made his points better than I can, so I will not make them again.

Throughout the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) consistently made points about how his constituents are affected, and he was absolutely right to do so. It is good that he can now get emails on the matter, even if many in his constituency still find it difficult to get superfast broadband.

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field)—I note that most constituencies have two names in them; few are as concise as Rhondda, unlike the Member for Rhondda—made the important point that the issue is not only about rural constituencies. Some of the most intractable problems relate to cities. For instance, all the cabling on the south bank of the Thames runs in and out of the side of the river, which makes for very difficult contention ratios along long copper wires. That has still not been resolved in many cases, so he is absolutely right.

Edward Argar (Charnwood) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Bryant: We want to hear from the Minister fairly soon, so I am tempted to try to stop sooner—oh, all right, the hon. Gentleman is very beguiling.

Edward Argar: The hon. Gentleman is characteristically generous and courteous in giving way. Some hon. Members have rightly ensured that urban broadband has not been neglected in this debate. Nevertheless, does he agree that it is vital to retain a focus and determination

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to prioritise coverage in villages such as Seagrave and Thrussington in my constituency and in rural “not spots”?

Chris Bryant: Since the Rhondda is often described as semi-rural or semi-urban, I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman and—sitting next to him—the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, which is having one’s cake and eating it. However, the points are well made. In the end, universality is what we are trying to achieve, which is what we are not achieving as yet.

The hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) made a worrying point about BT’s aggressive bidding process. I hope that BT will have heard it. I am sure it will: there is probably someone from BT sitting in the Public Gallery, or watching on TV or via broadband. Who knows—perhaps they have superfast. But the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to talk about filling in the gap.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) has one of the worst sets of problems of all 646 constituencies. His points are well made and I hope the Minister will be able to answer them. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) is a new colleague who, like many others, is already raising matters of significant concern to her constituents. I am sure she will continue to do so, and we hope to hear from the Minister on them. The hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) made important points about the access network. Since we politicians are not necessarily experts in every aspect of technology, we sometimes get focused on broadband speeds to the detriment of other aspects of competition that also affect the subject.

I was slightly nervous about an SNP Member sitting behind me—at my back, as it were: the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). I kept thinking of Andrew Marvell and “always at my back I hear the SNP horribly near”. However, the hon. Gentleman made some important points. If he can act as my PPS, that will be very helpful in these debates.

We all agree on the centrality of superfast broadband. That is absolutely clear. For home entertainment, many people now watch television via broadband, including—ironically enough, since much of this is being funded out of the licence fee—the BBC iPlayer. Also, children might be upstairs watching television programmes, playing audio-visual games on tablets, using Spotify and so on. The NHS relies on broadband not only for the booking of appointments, but for passing notes from doctors to hospitals and for the examination of X-rays, often in other parts of the world. Schools and children being able to do their homework have already been referred to. Of course, increasingly, the Department for Work and Pensions wants to move to a model where everything is done on the internet, which will require superfast broadband and reliable connections.

The creative industries now represent one in 12 jobs in this country. We can add value and guarantee our economic future by supporting our creative industries. Superfast broadband with speeds of at least 24 megabits per second, and I suspect considerably more in future, is going to be important to our economic future. It is in a sense a utility as important and as essential as electricity.

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We all agree that some significant progress has been made, but the symbolic fact that so many Members from all political parties are here on behalf of our constituents is an indication to the Minister that not enough progress has been made. Phase one and phase two of the project aim to get to 95% of all premises by 2017. I originally thought that it would be the beginning of 2017. Since the Government had originally said it would be by May 2015, that was a legitimate expectation, but the Government are now talking about the end of 2017 for that target to be met.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury referred to the fact that some people still cannot even get the 2 megabits per second. That is a dramatic problem for people running the most basic of businesses that have to relate to the wider world, because everybody has at least a website and some means of getting in touch with a business online.

Our original target of 2012 has not been met, and the Government bear a measure of responsibility for that. I notice that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness referred to Prime Minister’s questions. I have heard the Prime Minister referring to the mobile infrastructure project many times. Some £150 million is devoted to it. It is meant to get to 60,000 properties, but, so far, it has got to just 1% of those in three years. so I think that the hands-off approach has not been suitable.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. The Standing Orders for Westminster Hall debates have changed. If Members have not seen them, I encourage them to read them. Matt Warman is entitled to wind up the debate, subject to the Minister allowing time.

3.48 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I say that to all the Chairmen, but in your case I really mean it. You have your own experience of the broadband roll-out programme, because your Labour council refused to take part in the phase 1 programme; having seen how successful phase 1 has been, it has now, I gather, set up to take part in phase 2. That is down explicitly to the actions of the brilliant Conservative MPs in the area, who persuaded the Labour council to come on board the programme and connect 8,000 premises that otherwise would not have been connected.

I do not know whether to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate, but I should thank him for bringing so many hon. Friends and colleagues here to support me this afternoon on a complex and difficult programme. I certainly thank him for the email he circulated earlier today:

“You may be interested to know that in my own county of Lincolnshire, BT’s rollout is ahead of schedule and well under budget.”

I think that that is true in many areas.

I shall give a brief history of time on behalf of my hon. Friends. Everyone knows that when we came into government, we found that the previous Labour Government did not have a plan to help get broadband out. They talked about a 2 megabit commitment for the end of 2012, but they had not put anything in place for

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that. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), when he was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, rightly decided that we had to push further and go for superfast broadband from the get-go. He knew full well that, if we had rolled out 2 megabits, I might have been able to stand up in this Chamber and say that we had achieved that, but all hon. Members would be screaming for superfast broadband. He made the right decision.

We set it out that phase 1 would cover 90% of UK premises and on many occasions I had to appear in front of the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the then Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, following various National Audit Office reports, and hear that we would not make that target. Indeed, I recall that some journalists in the sector thought that the target was too stretching and could not be achieved. However, lo and behold, by the end of 2015—or early-2016 at the latest—we will have reached it. In fact, we will shortly announce that we have exceeded 3 million premises, as the figures are increasing by 40,000 premises a week.

This is a complex engineering job that does not involve simply turning up at a doorstep and flicking a switch. An expensive cabinet, which needs power, needs to be put in and then it needs fibre run from it back to the exchange. All that requires highways, planning and power.

Meg Hillier: The Minister will also be aware that the Public Accounts Committee called for local government and BT to make further information available—including, critically, information about the speed of service. Is he content that his Government have done that?

Mr Vaizey: If someone goes to gosuperfast, a website provided by the Government, they can type in their postcode and find out whether they have access to BT Openreach, which gives access to Sky, TalkTalk and other over-the-top providers—or, indeed, access to Virgin Media. It is important to remember that this is an engineering project and some of the tasks achieved, such as getting fibre to the Scilly Isles, rank among the most complex engineering phases.

I will not go through every single speech—they were all brilliant, but there were a lot of them. Let me take two quick examples. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) talked about the need for rural areas to come first, but his area is a classic example for why the scheme matters. Precisely no premises in his constituency were due to get commercial superfast broadband from BT or any of the rivals that often say that they could do the job better because such investment is not economic. However, 93% of his constituents will get superfast broadband under the scheme, including those—[Interruption.] That is what is being delivered under the scheme. This is what we are up against: when superfast broadband is delivered to Opposition Members, they do not want to give us any credit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke with great passion and asked what I was doing to help him. This morning, I had another meeting with BDUK to discuss getting the contract signed for connecting Devon and Somerset and I have such meetings all the time to get local authorities together with BT. We have already provided £110 million for Devon and Somerset. We have passed 143,000 premises and we are due to pass 300,000.

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Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I recognise the huge improvements that have been made and the manifesto commitment to roll out ultrafast broadband to premises as soon as possible. However, are we being ambitious enough? Australia will be delivering 100 megabit broadband to 93% of premises by 2021, Finland will deliver that by 2015 and South Korea will deliver 1 gigabit by 2017. According to a London School of Economics report, the Government’s investment—

Mr Vaizey: I have got my hon. Friend’s point; I am running out of time. We are being ambitious enough for him because we support him. That is why 100% of Torbay will get superfast broadband under our scheme—[Interruption.] Sorry, I got the wrong name—I heard the Chairman give the wrong name!

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Before the Minister completes his comments, I should say that there has been a lot of talk about roll-out but not so much about take-up. Will he refer to the fact that, in parts of Wales, take-up of this fantastic scheme is still in the low-20s? Everyone seems to think that that is someone else’s problem, so will he clear that up?

Mr Vaizey: I will. Take-up is extremely important and the good thing is that take-up brings money back into the scheme. For example, the money set aside to get superfast broadband to Cornwall was due to get coverage to 80%, but because of high take-up we have reached 95%.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake)—I got his constituency spectacularly wrong; I hope he will forgive me—mentioned other jurisdictions. He will be pleased to know that the previous Australian Government lost the election because their broadband plan was so poor. If he believes that those Australian plans will happen, he will have to think again. They are busily trying to revise their programme because it was far too expensive and due to deliver far too late.

All my hon. Friends will have the note from the Library that puts us first in almost every category in the big five in the EU. Analysis published today by Enders Analysis again puts us top on access to speeds of 30 megabits. We are beating the Germans, the French, the Italians and the Spanish on that as well as on average internet connection speed. Because that scheme has been so successful, we have gone on to phase 2, which is 95% coverage. That is also why we have signed almost every single contract apart from Devon and Somerset, which I hope we will sign on Friday. We can then get on to start planning how we will get to 95%.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): The Minister said that the cabinets are expensive. The European Commission’s report by Oxera, which evaluates the UK scheme, has a chart on page 4.5 that should say how expensive the cabinets are, but unfortunately that page is blank—it has been edited out. I happen to have got hold of that chart and it looks like cabinets are a lot cheaper than BT said. In particular, when Olivia Garfield, the former head of BT Openreach, said in “Strike Up Broadband” on 13 December 2013 that cabinets cost £100,000, she was, to use a technical term, talking crap, was she not?

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Mr Vaizey: I do not know whether that is a technical term. I do know, however, that in my hon. Friend’s constituency some 33,000 premises will be delivered superfast broadband thanks to the plan. He will also know that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have validated the scheme for value for money. No contractor pays BT until the work is done and BT presents invoices, and the scheme is audited regularly.

Phase 2 is going ahead. Phase 3 is about no one being left behind, which is the theme of the debate. The key point about that last 5% is that we do not know how much it will cost. Back of an envelope costings can run into billions, but we need a proper figure. That is why we have launched the pilots, some of which are already delivering broadband connections to people all over the country. Better still, they give us an idea of the kinds of technology we can use to get to that 5%. That will include suppliers other than BT and other technologies that BT and others are using, such as wireless and satellite.

Hon. Members have talked about businesses. We do not want to leave businesses behind. That is why we have launched our successful business voucher superfast broadband scheme. This morning, we announced that that scheme has delivered vouchers to 25,000 small businesses in cities up and down the country. Better still, there is now more competition in the market. Virgin Media announced £3 billion of investment because of the success of our scheme. TalkTalk announced a 1 gigabit offer in York and it will roll that out to other cities. BT has invested £3 billion of its own money and let us not forget that we have the fastest 4G roll-out and take-up anywhere in the world.

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con): Will the Minister clarify the timing of phase 3 for the final 5%?

Mr Vaizey: We hope to set out our proposals on phase 3 later this year. We are working on a series of proposals that we will look at in some detail and hopefully we will present those and take them forward. However, this is obviously a complex issue. Let us not forget that we are talking about the most difficult and expensive-to-reach premises. However, we do want to reach them; that is why we will carry out the scheme.

This is an unequivocal success story. I look forward to coming together again with all my hon. Friends and other hon. Members when we announce that we have reached the 3 million milestone. That may be in the summer recess, so I will invite them all to join me at a suitable seaside resort to make that announcement and release some balloons. Otherwise, they may want to put out press releases in their constituencies that tell their constituents how hugely successful the scheme is.

However, I do not want to be flippant or facetious. We have not forgotten those who need broadband. The tone of the debate was absolutely right. We are at a critical point where the engineering scheme we are rolling out is meeting the almost universal demand from our constituents for broadband. As a constituency MP, I know that those who get broadband under the scheme do not always say “thank you”—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

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Free Childcare and Nursery Providers

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

4 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered free childcare provision and nursery providers.

It is a privilege—[Interruption.]

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt. Would Members leave the Chamber quietly, please?

Julian Sturdy: It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Bone, and to have secured this debate.

As was made clear in the Queen’s Speech, the Government are introducing measures to help working people by increasing the provision of free childcare. The announcement was welcomed by many people up and down the country and in my constituency, and it provides us with a great opportunity to launch a full review of childcare funding.

I secured a debate in this Chamber on nursery funding back in 2013, in which I explained that one of the main reasons for the continuing rise in childcare costs is the fact that nursery providers have to cross-subsidise the free entitlement funding provided by the Government. I stated that although the Government are the biggest procurer of nursery places, they are the worst culprits when it comes to paying for the places they procure. I am sorry to say that little has changed since then. For years, free provision has been subsidised by providers and parents due to a lack of adequate funding.

Doubling provision should benefit parents in my constituency and across the country. However, there is a danger that not implementing the change properly will lead to a more expensive system and more expensive childcare from the outset. The free hours could ultimately harm the very people the policy is supposed to help.

The Government have promised to include in the Childcare Bill a proposal to double free provision for three and four-year-olds in England. The current allowance is 570 hours of free early education or childcare a year, which works out at 15 hours a week for 38 weeks. It is thought that up to 600,000 families could benefit from the doubling of the provision and save as much as £5,000 a year. The change is due to come into force in September 2017, although there will be pilots in September 2016.

I have two children of my own, so I am fully aware of how expensive childcare can be. The cost of childcare is one of the biggest barriers that the UK’s 2 million single parents face to finding and staying in work. I therefore want to make it clear that I welcome and support the policy. At the same time, however, I want to offer a word of caution about the policy’s implementation and the impact it could have on nursery providers.

Since the announcement in the Queen’s Speech, I have been approached by several owners of nurseries in my constituency, who have all been keen to get clarity about exactly what the policy will mean for their businesses. Among them were the owners of Station House children’s day nursery in Dunnington and of Polly Anna’s nursery in Haxby. Both providers see the benefits of such a

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policy, but they agree that providers will be able to offer the increased number of hours only if the funding covers the cost of provision. In many areas, it does not.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of visiting a number of nurseries in my constituency—Little Green Rascals near Elvington, Sunshine day nursery in Huntington, Tiddlywinks in Osbaldwick, Quackers in Copmanthorpe and Polly Anna’s nursery in Haxby, to name but a few. Having met the owners of those nurseries and kept in contact with them over various funding issues, it is clear to me that they do a tremendous job. Nurseries carry out an essential service for parents and families, not just in my constituency but across the country. However, that essential service is increasingly under threat as a direct result of the funding issues.

As we all know, parents in the UK receive help with their childcare through free early education. In England, central Government allocate money to local authorities through the early years block of the dedicated school grant, with an estimated total spend of £2.2 million a year. However, there is a great disparity across the country in how much is spent on childcare by individual local authorities. Therein lies the problem. The National Audit Office found that free entitlement varied from £2.78 to £5.18 an hour, and that the national average was £3.95. My constituency receives only £3.38 an hour from City of York Council. The sad truth is that funding for the 15 hours a week of free provision falls well short of the cost. To be precise, the shortfall is about £800 a child, which results in nurseries running at a loss for those 15 hours. They therefore have to subsidise that loss through the price of childcare outside the free entitlement hours.

Following my previous debate, which centred on those issues, I secured a meeting with the former Minister to raise my concerns face to face, alongside a group of local nursery providers from York. The Government have been aware of the problem for some time. The Minister has been proactive in his discussions with nursery providers, and has met providers from my constituency. Some positive news is starting to come out, including the announcement that the Minister will oversee a funding review of the entitlement, which is due to start in the next few weeks.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s commitment to raising the hourly funding rates paid to providers for places. However, the review is being undertaken at a time when costs to nursery providers are set to increase further, with pension auto-enrolment responsibilities coming in for many small and medium-sized nurseries. The pressure increases when the payment for funded hours is delayed. More than 40% of local authorities are paying more than a month after the start of term, although, as we all know, the law requires them to pay within 30 days.

I am acutely aware that the burden of business rates and VAT is continuing to push up the cost of childcare, which constrains the ability of nurseries to offer more places. The average annual business rate paid by nurseries is almost £16,000, which is why I welcomed the intervention of the Department for Communities and Local Government. In January, it wrote to all English local authorities to ask them to consider granting business rate relief to childcare providers. Local authorities have had that power since the Localism Act 2011 came into force, and the Government will fund 50% of any discretionary relief schemes that councils introduce.

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Following the DCLG’s announcement, I wrote to my local authority, City of York Council, to ask it to consider granting business rate relief to childcare providers in the area. Sadly, it refused. Interestingly, when the chief executive addressed the National Day Nurseries Association conference earlier this month, she reported that she had written to every local authority in England on the issue, but had been told that none would be implementing business rate relief for nurseries, which I find extremely disappointing.

Although there are political differences over childcare policy, there is broad support for the current approach of both supply-side and demand-side subsidies. However, compared with many other developed countries, the public funding of childcare in the UK is complicated to say the least. It is complex and expensive to administer for Governments and complex for providers and parents. I therefore believe that the policy to double free provision for three and four-year-olds provides a perfect opportunity to launch a full review of childcare funding and set in place the changes that will ensure simplicity, progressive levels of support, quality—that is absolutely key in this field—and accessibility.

Take-up of the current 15 hours of free provision for three to four-year-olds is at 96%, but it is much lower for two-year-olds. That is because some providers have opted out because they believe that the hourly funding rate is not financially sustainable. Many nurseries operate complex cross-subsidy mechanisms, and they rely on working parents of three and four-year-old children to purchase extra hours on top of their existing 15 hours of free provision. As I have made clear throughout the debate, I have sympathy with providers regarding underfunding. I hope that the upcoming funding review led by the Minister will bring meaningful reform.

Only quality provision helps narrow the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. The owner of Polly Anna’s nursery in Haxby in my constituency told me that when he opened his nursery in the early 1990s, only doctors and accountants could use it; it was unusual for women to go back to work. Now we have flexible working, and free childcare has opened up day care to a range of families. Doubling free provision will only add to that trend, but it can be successful only if it goes hand in hand with a full review of childcare funding.

Money is allocated to local authorities through the dedicated schools grant. For three and four-year-olds, the rate per pupil is largely determined by historical precedent; it is not based on the characteristics and needs of the children. Early years funding should be brought more closely in line with schools funding, whereby money is allocated on the basis of a larger number of criteria, which include pupil numbers, deprivation and attainment to name a few. That would ensure that funding matched children’s needs and the cost to providers of providing early education. In addition, we could consider a national formula with two rates—one for London and one for the rest of England—similar to the funding formula for two-year-olds, which is fairer and more transparent. Local authorities receive a flat hourly rate per child of £4.85, supplemented by an area cost adjustment in places where wages are higher. That would be a much clearer funding system and would help to streamline the number of complex formulas in place.

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Overall, although childcare represents a significant outlay to parents, it is important to remember that by its very nature it will always be expensive. It is not fair to suggest that high childcare costs are simply the result of providers charging high fees to hard-pressed parents. The reality is more complex. Childcare should never be provided on the cheap, and we must ensure that measures to make it more affordable do not compromise its quality. For me, that is crucial. Although successive Governments have increased help with childcare costs, parents in Britain still spend a higher proportion of their income on childcare than parents in most other developed countries. On top of that, some childcare providers struggle to break even. All that is indicative of a childcare system that is not working.

I view the proposals to double free childcare provision as an opportunity to fix these long-standing problems once and for all. We have a chance to make a real change to help not only nursery providers but parents who use such facilities, and I hope the Government will grasp it with both hands. I am encouraged by what I have heard from the Minister in our previous conversations on the issue.

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Sam Gyimah): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for the opportunity to have this debate. It is timely in the light of the Government’s commitment to double the free childcare available for working families. Like him, I am a father; I have a 14-month-old who goes to nursery, so I experience the childcare market from the point of view of a parent, not just a politician sitting in Westminster making decisions about the sector.

My hon. Friend dwelt on the challenges that the nursery sector faces, but I would like to counter that: the childcare market is much broader than the nursery sector. The vast majority of places are provided by private, voluntary and independent providers. We also have childminders and school nurseries, but the bulk of the formal childcare that the Department is concerned with is provided by those three sectors. When we talk about the market and the challenges it faces, it is important to recognise how broad the market is and the different types of service offered. For example, childminders offer childcare in a domestic setting, whereas nurseries are more of an organisation and children are taken to them. Each provides slightly different challenges to and opportunities for parents.

For many families with young children, childcare is not an issue, but the issue. Many parents want to go back to work or work more hours, but find that the cost of childcare makes doing so unaffordable. The Government want to reward hard-working families by reducing their childcare bill. That said, policies are not just about the parents; we also recognise that childcare is about the child. A lot of development happens in the early years, so the quality of childcare provision is as important as making childcare available. That brings me to the key challenge we face in the sector: how do we make childcare affordable, ensure sufficient quality and ensure that it is available in the form that parents want? Every parent knows that the childcare needs of parents are not consistently the same across the board.

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In responding to my hon. Friend, I will take the opportunity to make general points about our childcare policy. I am proud of our record to date. We are the first to fund 15 hours of free childcare for all three and four-year-olds as well as 40% of two-year-olds. We legislated to introduce tax-free childcare; the 1.8 million families who want to buy additional hours can get up to £2,000 off per child per year. It is important that the policy applies to children from age nought to 17, in the case of children with disabilities. Tax-free childcare can help parents not only with childcare in the early years, but with wrap-around care, whether that is breakfast or after-school clubs. We have also increased the child element of tax credits and introduced shared parental leave.

We need to do more to ensure that we are enabling families to make the choices that are best for their circumstances. In doing so, it is worth recognising, as my hon. Friend implied throughout his speech, that in many cases it is businesses that are delivering these services for parents, so we need to ensure that the funding is sustainable. That is why we have talked about implementing the funding rate for the new 15 hours in a way that is not only fair but sustainable, to ensure—crucially—that children have the best start in life, with affordable, safe and high-quality childcare.

More broadly, our businesses and economy depend on working parents, who themselves depend on access to high-quality childcare. However, what the childcare and early years survey tells us is that 22% of working parents have found it difficult or very difficult to pay for childcare; for lone working parents, the figure rises to 38%, so there is a lot more that can be done.

The conundrum is that the Government already invest £5 billion per annum to support parents with childcare. How can we be in a situation where we are spending that money yet some parents still say that they find the cost of childcare to be too high? The Childcare Bill will take further the support that parents can get, delivering on our manifesto commitment to support children at every stage of their life.

We will extend the entitlement of 570 hours for all three and four-year-olds, and I am happy to report that take-up of the existing entitlement in York is already higher than the average. With the new entitlement, working families will receive more childcare support than ever. It will guarantee them about 1,140 hours of free childcare, worth more than £5,000 a year per child.

I will make a comment about the funding rate, which was a key part of my hon. Friend’s speech. Yes, we need to look at the funding rate for the first 15 hours as well as for the second 15 hours, and I hear the complaints that nursery providers have made. However, it is worth making it very clear that the impact of the funding rate on a business is as a result of a number of factors and not just the rate itself, although it is important. For example, whether or not the local authority top-slices the funding that goes from central Government to providers determines whether providers receive more or less than the rate that central Government determine. Also, the flexibility that local authorities allow providers to deliver their 15 hours is important, because if local authorities are quite inflexible in the scope for providers to allocate the 15 hours in a way that works best for their business, that will invariably impact on the profitability

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of providers. Thirdly, the business model decisions that operators make impact on how far that money can go. When we consider the sustainability of this model, we need to look at all those things in the round, as well as obviously focusing on the funding rate available.

To support the market beyond the funding rate, I worked with the Department for Communities and Local Government in the last Parliament, urging local authorities to work with childcare providers and to ensure that charitable and non-profit providers benefit from the business rate relief that they are entitled to. Any nurseries that are registered charities will already benefit from rate relief. The smallest providers, including childminders, benefit from small business rate relief, although any further relief would require local authority discretionary relief.

I heard what my hon. Friend said about local authorities granting or not granting that relief. I intend to continue to work with the National Day Nurseries Association to find ways to ensure that the necessary action is taken to help reduce the cost of provision for childcare providers. I understand where he is coming from and I will take action, as he suggests.

Having said that, I counter the idea that somehow the childcare day market is not thriving; in fact, I would say that the opposite is true. The childcare day market for children aged from zero to five is vibrant and thriving. In 2013-14, it was estimated at £4.9 billion, which means it is about a third larger than it was a decade ago. The number of places in the sector has gone up by 12%, and roughly 230,000 places were created between 2009 and 2015. We recognise the challenges, but those are signs of a sector that is rising to those challenges.

To help the sector meet those challenges we are listening to its input. I have announced a review on the cost of providing childcare and it is now under way, with more than 300 responses in the first 24 hours or so. Clearly, the sector is aware of and engaging with the call for evidence. The review will report in the autumn and I encourage providers in York and throughout the country to respond.

As my hon. Friend pointed out and as I touched on earlier, the issue is not only about the funding rate, but about payment practices. I have heard that from all sorts of providers, including some of the largest ones in the sector, so we will be looking at that. The average paid to local authorities by central Government is about £4.51 per hour for three and four-year-olds; that is in excess of what he said providers in his York constituency are receiving. In fact, that rate is higher than the one in the Family and Childcare Trust survey, which showed that an average nursery is charged £4.47 per hour for children aged two and over. That is an indication of why we need to look at what is happening between the rate

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set by central Government and the rate received by providers. Why does it differ so much between local authorities and between types of provider? That is not to say that we do not accept the need to look at the overall rate, but we need to look at the other aspects as well.

My hon. Friend touched on the funding formula, but the funding system for three and four-year-olds includes historical inconsistencies that result in large variations in funding distribution between local authorities. There are also variations in the funding passed on by local authorities to providers. In the previous Parliament, we started to look seriously at such problems to create greater transparency for parents and providers. We now publish an annual benchmarking tool that lists every council’s funding and how much it passes on to different providers. That should help parents and providers to have informed conversations with councils, but should also hold them to account. I am confident that if we look at all such things seriously, the extended entitlement will provide an opportunity for existing providers to expand and for new providers to enter the market, giving parents choice and helping to build our economy.

The market is healthy and growing. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to know that in York 4Children has developed a fantastic childcare hub with a blended childcare offer, where schools and private, voluntary and independent providers are working together to provide high-quality childcare. That is one example of innovation in the sector that can be used to boost capacity, higher quality and flexibility for parents. Generally, to be able to deliver for parents in a cost-effective way we need more of such innovation, rather than having a sector that operates in silos.

My hon. Friend talked about nursery provision. Many maintained nursery schools deliver the highest quality early education, often in disadvantaged areas where it can make the greatest difference. I fully support such schools, because they are delivering high quality. We will ensure that they, as well as private and voluntary providers, can continue to thrive.

I am also proud to say that the quality of providers continues to improve. In York, 91% of early years settings are rated as good or outstanding, compared with 80% nationally. That is an encouraging statistic. Additionally, 64% of children in York achieved a good level of development in the early years foundation stage profile, compared with 60% nationally in 2014. The Government’s childcare policy will have a direct and significant impact on the lives of children and families throughout the country. It is right that it should be subject to the most thorough scrutiny, such as that from my hon. Friend this afternoon.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

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National Breastfeeding Week

4.30 pm

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered National Breastfeeding Week.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to be lucky enough to have secured this debate during National Breastfeeding Week. I welcome Members in the Chamber and those who are breastfeeding as they watch our proceedings online.

Members well versed in social media might have noted that some great breastfeeding stories are circulating on Twitter under #celebratebreastfeeding—

4.30 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.44 pm

On resuming

Alison Thewliss: As I was saying before the Division, celebrating breastfeeding is the theme of this National Breastfeeding Week, and there is much to celebrate about that remarkable human act. Although completely natural, breastfeeding is also a skill that mothers and babies must learn together, and is not without its difficulties. I acknowledge that some women cannot breastfeed and others choose not to, and in holding this debate I do not seek in any way to judge them—those bottle feeding also require assistance and advice.

I will talk briefly about my experience of breastfeeding and why I am so committed to promoting it, before touching on its health and societal benefits. The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, and lags far behind comparable nations in the OECD. There is a lot we can do to improve the experience of families in our constituencies.

I have breastfed both of my children, and despite being in this place from Monday to Thursday have managed to persevere in feeding my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Kirsty. She is not here today as a visual aid but in fact is in nursery in Glasgow, so my determination has been at some personal discomfort. When I had my son I was a local councillor in Glasgow and took the view that I could not take the time off work for maternity leave, so I combined my role with being a mum. During the past five years I have fed my children while fully participating in meetings of Glasgow City Council, and have been made very welcome in doing so by my colleagues. That the right to feed is enshrined in law in Scotland has been a real reassurance to me, and whether I have been feeding in a café, waiting for a bus, or in the stand at Hampden—I have been lucky in securing the backing of the tartan army for giving the wee man his tea at the game—I have been made welcome.

My colleague and good friend Aileen Campbell MSP, Scotland’s Minister for Children and Young People, has taken her own children, Angus and Crawford, into the Scottish Parliament Chamber; her youngest was with her during a stage 3 debate just the other week. Aileen and I are lucky, as not many mothers can do that at their work. I understand from speaking to colleagues that doing something similar in this place would be frowned upon. I seek to gently challenge that. We should take a lead and seek to be creative in how we support women to continue breastfeeding in all workplaces once they return from maternity leave.

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It is 10 years since the historic Breastfeeding etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 put on the statute book the right to breastfeed in public places in Scotland. It is:

“An Act of the Scottish Parliament to make it an offence to prevent or stop a person in charge of a child who is otherwise permitted to be in a public place or licensed premises from feeding milk to that child in that place or on those premises; to make provision in relation to the promotion of breastfeeding; and for connected purposes.”

That important piece of legislation was a Member’s Bill proposed by the Labour MSP Elaine Smith. I pay tribute to her today for the work she did to make it possible for so many women in Scotland to breastfeed secure in the knowledge that no one has the right to stop them.

There are now greater rights in England and Wales, afforded by the Equality Act 2010, under which discriminating against a woman because she was feeding a child became unlawful. That is significant, and I commend all who made it happen. We far too often see tabloid tales of mothers being shamed for the simple act of feeding a hungry child. That is completely unacceptable, and every such story destroys women’s confidence; they need to hear from their elected representatives that breastfeeding is welcomed and that they are supported.

Getting the right support is absolutely crucial. Without that and without information, establishing breastfeeding can be incredibly difficult. As I said, breastfeeding is natural, but it is not easy. Without the assistance of the breastfeeding counsellors at the Princess Royal maternity hospital in Glasgow, who sat with me through the tears and the pain, I may have given up myself. Not all women will have experience of breastfeeding within their families or peer groups. Good public health information must be there to counter the ever-present adverts for bottles and formula milk, as well as perceptions and prejudices.

I recall that, at an event in Glasgow, Councillor Jim Coleman told me how women in some parts of the city were made to feel that breastfeeding was evidence that someone could not afford to buy formula. We know that runs absolutely counter to all wisdom on the benefits of breastfeeding, but those kinds of old wives’ tales persist and must be challenged by people in those communities.

Since this debate was announced, I have been contacted by various individuals and by organisations including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Midwives, the Breastfeeding Network, the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative, the UNICEF “Baby Friendly” initiative and the National Infant Feeding Network. I am grateful for the extensive briefings they have provided.

The organisations all reinforced the need for support. Their evidence demonstrates that women start breastfeeding, and initiation rates have risen from 62% in 1990 to 81% in 2010. But the drop-off rates are staggering: only 17% are still exclusively breastfeeding at three months, 12% at four months and 1% at six months. There are also huge variations across social class; other factors include deprivation, maternal education, age and ethnicity.

Scotland is lagging behind, and the Scottish Government are putting strategies in place to tackle that; they also held a summit on breastfeeding in February. Recent figures from the “Growing Up in Scotland” cohort survey found that breastfeeding was strongly associated with multiple socioeconomic factors. For example, 60% of degree-educated mothers exclusively breastfed to six weeks or more, compared with 18% of those with standard grades;

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53% of mothers living in the least deprived areas breastfed exclusively to six weeks, compared with only 21% in the most deprived areas; and 45% of mothers in their 30s and 41% of those aged 40 or older at their child’s birth exclusively breastfed to six weeks or more, compared with 35% of mothers in their 20s and only 12% of teenage mothers.

Members will be aware that breastfeeding is good for maternal and infant health. Benefits to children from breastfeeding include reduced gastrointestinal, respiratory, urinary tract and ear infections, lower incidence of allergies and a reduced likelihood of developing obesity. For women who choose to breastfeed there are lower risks associated with breast and ovarian cancer, less chance of hip fractures and osteoporosis in later life, and the added benefit that it helps with getting back to their pre-baby weight.

UNICEF has done excellent work in documenting the savings that could be made to public health services through breastfeeding and its benefits, and I commend its document “Preventing disease and saving resources” to the House. “The 1001 Critical Days” is a manifesto that is also well worth a read.

Increasing breastfeeding rates in areas of multiple deprivation has a clear multiplier effect. James P. Grant, who was executive director of UNICEF from 1980 to 1995, said:

“Breastfeeding is a natural safety net against the worst effects of poverty…exclusive breastfeeding goes a long way towards cancelling out the health difference between being born into poverty or being born into affluence. It is almost as if breastfeeding takes the infant out of poverty for those few vital months in order to give the child a fairer start in life and compensate for the injustices of the world into which it was born.”

Those are striking words, and it is to areas of multiple deprivation that I believe resources should be targeted, but most certainly not in a heavy-handed way. Instead, local networks, existing organisations and women themselves need to be given the skills and knowledge to spread the word among their peers and to challenge the old wives’ tales I spoke about. They must work across the whole experience of pregnancy and parenthood. Public Health England found in March 2015 that the most effective strategies for promoting breastfeeding were among smaller local peer support groups. There is a lot of excellent information online, from KellyMom to Mumsnet, but there remains a digital divide, and at times of crisis having a local network to fall back on is hugely valuable.

That kind of work is often facilitated by the voluntary sector, and we need to ensure that that is maintained even in these straitened financial times. I understand that the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) will refer to a local case, and I have I have been contacted by mothers in Lambeth and Southwark who discovered that funding for their work would be cut. They have been hugely successful in increasing breastfeeding rates in their area. Such projects should be treated as exemplars, and their good practice should be taken on board.

In my contact with several organisations, there have been a couple of broader asks that it would be neglectful of me not to mention. The first is that there should be financial support for the National Infant Feeding Network, which I understand had its funding cut in 2014. The funding

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that was cut was a meagre £30,000, which went a very long way to organising and supporting a network of 600 infant feeding specialists. They are responsible in turn for the education and support of some 70,000 health professionals across England who reach 650,000 mothers and babies every year. That is crucial, for the reasons I mentioned. Breastfeeding mothers really need support, especially in the early days.

Secondly, the Department of Health should continue to strive for the implementation of UNICEF Baby Friendly standards in maternity, community and neonatal services. In the UK the percentage of services with full Baby Friendly accreditation are 49% of maternity services; 51% of health visiting services; 37% of university midwifery courses; and 9% of health visiting courses. It is important that those professionals should all have the skills to enable them to pass on information to the women they help.

The percentage of births taking place in fully Baby Friendly-accredited hospitals stands at 44% in England, a wonderful 84% in Scotland, an even better 92% in Northern Ireland, and 60% in Wales. The impact of services being Baby Friendly-accredited is that mothers get consistent advice and support throughout their pregnancy and in the early months after the birth. It is not just about hospitals, but about embedding good practice across the range of provision. That means that there should not be any kind of postcode lottery, so that women and families can feel confident about breastfeeding.

Thirdly, I implore the UK Government to reinstate the national infant feeding survey across the UK. The main basis for the statistics I have given to demonstrate the need for more support today is that five-yearly study, which I understand has been on the go since 1970. It fits into the World Health Organisation’s global strategy for infant and young child feeding, which recommends that Governments carry out a survey to track rates and target support effectively. Without the data, we lose touch of where we stand in the world and what work we need to do. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments have all committed to keep it going, and I urge the Minister also to commit to it, to complete the statistics for the whole UK.

Fourthly, I seek the Minister’s advice on where the UK currently sits with regard to full implementation of the international code of marketing of breast milk substitutes, which was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. I support calls by groups such as Baby Milk Action for the UK Government to play their part in protecting the public from aggressive and damaging marketing by the formula industry.

My final plea is a personal one. I have come into this place as a breastfeeding mother, which has been hard for me, even in this position of relative privilege. I ask for the consideration of all parents in this place—Members, staff and visitors—and of how we can make it easier for them. I ask colleagues to consider what they can do in their own constituencies to celebrate and support breastfeeding in this and every week of the year. Could our local cafés be more welcoming? Are our own offices a safe space for nursing mothers? Could we encourage investment in support services in our areas, and do we know where they are so that we can send them recommendations? We all have a role to play in encouraging the uptake of this most basic human need.

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Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): It might help the hon. Lady to know that I will come back to her for a few minutes once the winding-up speeches are finished.

4.56 pm

Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important debate.

I breastfed my two children, who are now aged nine and six. I was fortunate because that experience was relatively straightforward, but it was not without issues or a need for support. A few days after having my first baby, I remember experiencing toothache and wondering, in my slightly dazed state as a new mother, how toothache could possibly be a post-natal complication. I then realised that I had given myself toothache from clamping my teeth so hard because of the pain every time my baby fed. Those first few days were difficult and painful, and there were tears, but once I had mastered it, it was a hugely rewarding experience. My second baby could not tolerate cow’s milk, which made the transition to any type of formula very difficult, but I was glad to continue breastfeeding her for much longer because it benefited her health enormously. The health benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and babies are well established and proven, as rehearsed by the hon. Lady.

I want to highlight a pressing issue in my constituency: the potential loss of the breastfeeding cafés that operate in Sure Start centres in my constituency, in Streatham and in Camberwell and Peckham. Those cafés, which are resourced by experienced midwives from King’s College hospital, are a vital resource for new nursing mothers. They are under threat because the support from King’s College hospital is going to be withdrawn, due to the midwives who staff the cafés being needed on the labour wards. The hospital is otherwise unable to recruit to a series of vacancies in its midwifery department.

This is a grave situation. The breastfeeding cafés operate in Sure Start centre locations where many mothers are deprived, successfully extending the reach to those areas and increasing breastfeeding rates there. The benefits of addressing nutritional disadvantages, helping those babies to be healthier and getting them off to a good start in life are vital. I am concerned that a shortage of midwives elsewhere in the health service is putting those breastfeeding cafés at risk. I will certainly raise the issue with King’s College hospital when I meet staff there on Friday, and I will talk to the local authorities in Lambeth and Southwark about whether there is any way that those vital services could be continued.

I call on the Minister to help us in that endeavour and to help make additional resources available, so that experienced midwives can continue to staff breastfeeding cafés in my constituency and beyond. Extending breast- feeding to deprived communities in particular will save the health service money in the long term, so resourcing this service is money spent positively and spent well.

4.59 pm

Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP): I want to speak particularly about the asks that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss)—I want to say Councillor Thewliss—mentioned.

My situation is similar to my hon. Friend’s. My children are not that different in age to hers and I was also a councillor when I had both my children. I was

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lucky to be able to go back to work so quickly and to take my children with me. That worked well for us in terms of breastfeeding.

My second child was an absolute dream to feed. She was wonderful and knew what she was doing from day one. She was just a dream come true. However, it was still painful at times. Even in the most ideal circumstances, breastfeeding is not plain sailing all the way. My first child was a nightmare to feed. We had a horrendous time. Nearly all the things that can go wrong with breastfeeding went wrong. My son was re-admitted to hospital at five days because he was not gaining weight, so for a while we had to pump exclusively and then he was weaned back on to breastfeeding.

The support networks and breastfeeding cafés, which hon. Members have mentioned, are so important. There are proven statistical outcomes from breastfeeding cafés and people having physical support. I am not sure whether hon. Members are clear about how the outcomes are achieved. My hon. Friend mentioned the huge online support network, including Mumsnet and Facebook groups. Those places are good and people can get a huge amount of information from others there, but that does not compare with having somebody physically present who knows what they are talking about. In those early days, when people do not know what they are doing, and when their baby does not know what they are doing, they need somebody there to help and show them what they are doing wrong, or what they are doing right, and to explain it. It is not something that can be learned from a video on the internet, because every mum and every baby is a different shape and every baby reacts differently. Somebody must be physically there, and they must have huge experience and know what they are talking about.

A three-day training session on breastfeeding does not, in many cases, equip a midwife or health visitor with adequate means to provide mums with all the support they need. Those people also need experience behind them: they need to see many babies breastfeeding and speak to lots of people before advising in all cases.

In terms of the support available, the Government in Scotland and the Government here—Governments all over the place—need to think about the voluntary organisations providing support. People who have been through breastfeeding and experienced the problems—and those seeking support—are getting involved in the La Leche League and with NCT breastfeeding support, for example, to help people. When I was being shown what I was doing wrong, those were the people I found most helpful, because they knew what they were talking about. Training systems are a great idea, but we need to make sure that voluntary groups and breastfeeding cafés, which have experienced staff, are kept going. If we lose that experience, we cannot get it back. We need to keep these groups going to keep up the breastfeeding rates.

There is a postcode lottery in terms of support. People without a local support group near them have either to travel a long way to get to a group or rely on the internet. That is not ideal.

The World Health Organisation guidelines suggest breastfeeding exclusively up to six months and that breastfeeding onwards to two years or beyond is desirable, advised and good for children and mothers. This is not widely known in the UK: people even get funny looks

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when breastfeeding a child over six months. People do not understand that that is actually good and has health benefits.

I breastfed my children for a total of three years—adding them both together—so I had that experience of breastfeeding a child who is running around. That is totally shocking for so many people and it should not be, because World Health Organisation guidelines and statistics suggest that there are health benefits from breastfeeding. There is a job of work for all of us to normalise breastfeeding and to explain it to people. If people say, “What are you doing?”, we should explain to them, “This is right. This is not in any way unnatural. This is totally the right thing to do and has benefits for everybody.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central mentioned formula milk and the way it is advertised and classified. I spoke to some of my online friends who have been involved in supporting people with breastfeeding, and one of their biggest concerns, and one of the things that makes them most angry, is the advertising of follow-on milk. Follow-on milk is allowed to be advertised because it is not aimed at mothers with babies, and the adverts for follow-on milk have very small babies who are obviously just six months old. That is the way that the companies can get round the rules, because they are not advertising to mothers with a baby who is under six months; they are advertising to mothers with babies who are older than six months. Before the ban on advertising baby milk was introduced, there was no such thing as follow-on milk; the companies have just invented it so that they can still advertise. That is a concern.

We should have formula, and women who choose to formula-feed—or women who end up formula-feeding not by choice—need to have options in terms of formula. But formula should not be pushed at every opportunity by the companies, and we should not allow them to do so. We should try to avoid that situation.

The last thing I wanted to mention was the pressure to breastfeed. It is very positive that we are promoting and encouraging breastfeeding, but there is a fine line; some women feel that they cannot give up breastfeeding in the very early days without experiencing a huge amount of negativity. Breastfeeding is hard for some women at the moment, particularly when the support is not there nationally.

I have heard of women who have said that not being able to breastfeed caused them to have post-natal depression. The issue was the expectation—that they felt they had to breastfeed, but nobody was there to support them. What they wanted was somebody to show them what to do and to help them, and not having that help is costing the Government and the devolved Administrations through the outcomes for those babies, as they are more likely to cost the NHS more in later life; through the outcomes for the mothers; and through the outcomes for some mothers who really struggle with having to give up breastfeeding, and end up in the mental health system as a result. That really concerns some of my friends and some of the other people I have spoken to about the issue.

5.8 pm

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr Bone, for chairing this debate this afternoon. I also thank the hon. Member

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for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important debate, and other Members for their excellent contributions.

We need to keep our focus on this issue, and I am very pleased that all the Members who have spoken so far share my passion for extolling the virtues of breastfeeding. I am also pleased to note that the Minister present today is the Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences, who I respect hugely. Although at first I thought it was rather strange that breastfeeding came under his brief, I am now sure that it is simply the case that the issue is so important to the Government, and crosses so many departmental boundaries, that they settled on him, and it was not just a case of Ministers perhaps playing “pass the parcel” with this important debate. As I say, I am very pleased to see that he is here to respond to it.

I will start my remarks by putting my cards firmly on the table—for me, wherever possible breast is best. I breastfed both my children, as all the Members who have spoken so far breastfed their children, and I am evangelical about the merits of breastfeeding.

As other Members have said, and shared, breastfeeding sometimes hurts at first—although not for everyone—and that is why the right support is vital, to help women and encourage them to carry on breastfeeding. Having someone physically there really makes the difference, especially when a woman has a baby like my son, who did not like to open his mouth very wide when latching on. If he could get away with it, he would just suck on the nipple until it was red raw, and obviously he then got no milk. If nobody had told me that that is not how it is supposed to happen, I would have given up immediately. Support is vital. As with my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), my second child—my daughter—could not tolerate cows’ milk. Fortunately, I was able to carry on feeding her to about 16 months, but feeding a toddler in public draws lots of frowns, and eventually I succumbed. We went on to soya milk, and even now she does not really like milk.

We have a fabulous support network in the north-east called Bosom Buddies, which helps, supports and encourages new mums as they get to grips with breastfeeding during the early days. The network provides much-needed guidance and advice for mothers who may otherwise be unsure about even starting to breastfeed. Those services are replicated in various parts of the country, and many are in Sure Start centres. I have had the great pleasure of visiting many breastfeeding support groups in those centres, and I have seen their great work. I would love every new mother across the UK to have access to such services, because that support makes a huge difference, as we have all attested today. Sadly, as we have seen across the country in recent years, Sure Start centres are closing. More than 700 have closed since 2010, which limits the amount of support that mothers can get. What assessment have the Government made of the number of support services that have been lost as a result of the closure of more than 700 Sure Start centres?

National Breastfeeding Week is a brilliant idea, and over the years it has successfully highlighted, across the world, the importance of breastfeeding. I fully endorse and support the campaign, and I hope this debate will go some way towards making even more people aware of the virtues of breastfeeding. As we have heard, numerous studies have shown breastfeeding to be the healthiest way to feed a baby. Not only does breastfeeding

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provide essential nutrients and sustenance, it also greatly reduces the risk of a baby developing health problems such as gastroenteritis, asthma, diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, breastfeeding helps to protect women from breast and ovarian cancer. The World Health Organisation is unequivocal that, if possible, babies should be totally breastfed until they are at least six months old. On top of all that, there is the additional bonus that breast milk from source is always at the right temperature for babies, with no bottles needing to be sterilised. Best of all, it is 100% free. Breastfeeding is cheap; it is good for babies; it comes highly recommended; and, by preventing illnesses, it keeps babies safe while saving millions of pounds from stretched NHS budgets. Put simply, what is not to like?

Unfortunately, despite all of the positives that other Members and I have outlined today, certain obstacles remain for mothers who are looking to breastfeed their children. One such obstacle comes when mothers return to work after maternity leave. Breastfeeding mothers face a heightened sense of anxiety when they return to work from maternity leave, as they have the additional worry of how their baby will be fed in their absence. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central and other hon. Members spoke of their personal experience. Women may have to raise with their employer the issues of expressing and storing breast milk and fitting in feeds around their work and lunch hour. If they harbour fears that their employer lacks an understanding of, or concern about, such accommodations, it may delay their return to work, or stop their return altogether. Alternatively, such fears may make women give up breastfeeding sooner than they had planned.

Maternity discrimination, such as prohibiting mothers from breastfeeding in cafés or restaurants, is now against the law under the Equality Act 2010, but the Act does not apply in the workplace. Mothers can be told not to express milk or be denied breastfeeding breaks. Employers do not have to provide facilities for breast milk to be expressed or stored. Good employers provide such facilities, but they do not have to do so. I can tell hon. Members, as the Health and Safety Executive already has, that toilets are no place for expressing milk or breastfeeding. We all want parents to get back to work if they wish to do so. I hope the Government understand that breastfeeding responsibilities are holding mothers back from returning to work, and I hope the Minister will assure us that he is looking into ways to address that issue.

Over the past few years, we have seen that women in general are finding it harder at work. There were more unemployed women over the past five years than at any time under the previous Labour Government, and real wages for women have fallen year on year since 2010. There has also been a dramatic fall in sexual discrimination and pregnancy discrimination cases made against employers since women were priced out of justice when expensive tribunal fees were introduced. Figures comparing the years before and after the introduction of those fees show a truly staggering 91% fall in sex discrimination cases and a 46% fall in pregnancy discrimination cases. Such dramatic falls are utterly unacceptable in a country that wants to treat women with respect in the workplace. A Labour Government would have scrapped those unfair barriers to justice. I would love to hear the Minister say that his Government will reverse that unfair policy.

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Alongside the structural issues affecting breastfeeding, there is a growing cultural obstacle that prevents new mums from breastfeeding their children. It is particularly striking, as we have heard, in working-class communities. The Department for Health figures show that in Brighton almost 70% of new mothers were partially or totally breastfeeding at six to eight weeks—that is relatively early to be taking a measure, given that the recommendation is that children should be breastfed for up to six months, but we can use it as a comparison—while in Hartlepool and south Tyneside the figure falls to 19.3% and 22.6% respectively.

In some communities today, there seems to be an anti-breastfeeding culture among young mothers, which we need to challenge and reverse. National Breastfeeding Week and this debate are great ways of starting to do that. Breastfeeding must be seen as normal and natural, and new mothers should feel utterly comfortable doing it. We need to focus on the areas and communities in which new mums do not even consider starting to breastfeed because it seems so strange or even repulsive to them. Government support is required. Role models must come forward to extol the virtues of breastfeeding and we need more mums on TV—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh. We need mums in our soaps and even on “The Only Way is Essex”, breastfeeding naturally and happily. We rarely see breastfeeding, and if we do it is usually by mums such as us—middle class, professional, older mums—which reinforces the image in some young mums’ minds that breastfeeding is something for a certain type of people, not for them and their friends.

We need to work to reverse that image and let new mums and young mums know that breastfeeding is not only good for their health and that of their babies, but it has immediate benefits, such as helping them lose their pregnancy weight much faster, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said. I was never as slim as when I was breastfeeding my children. If I could have carried on breastfeeding, I would, because the weight really drops off. It also means not having to get cold in the middle of the night making up bottles, and it helps mums to bond in such a special way with their babies, which cannot be imagined until it has been experienced.

Come on, TV producers, soap writers, celebrities and “TOWIE” stars watching this debate—get to it. Get breastfeeding on TV and get mums seeing it. I want mums to feel comfortable in public—even in Claridge’s, for goodness’ sake. We need to show that it is totally normal, natural and acceptable, and that those who have a problem with it simply need to get over it.

I once again thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central for securing this important debate and for all she has said and done on this issue in the short time she has been in this House. I thank the other hon. Members for coming along and making their expert contributions. I have rarely heard such strong and powerful arguments for the benefits of breastfeeding and I thank every hon. Member who came to speak here today. I am sure that with such powerful advocacy from hon. Members and from groups and organisations throughout the country, National Breastfeeding Week will be a huge success in raising even greater awareness among parents.

I hope that the Government will listen to the concerns about women getting back into work after having a baby and will address the specific issues that affect them to ensure that that transition is best for both the mother

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and her baby. We all want to see the best outcomes for all parties, but only by taking action to help can we see progress. Simply hoping for the best will not be enough, so for the sake of babies, their mums and our society in general, let us hope for a successful awareness campaign and an equally successful response from the Government.

5.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (George Freeman): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for initiating the debate and for her leadership of it. I particularly commend her for tweeting a picture of herself breastfeeding to help launch and publicise the Breastfeeding Network and the campaign this week.

I commend the hon. Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for raising in a short time a number of very important issues. They include issues about the importance of breastfeeding and about women in the workplace; issues, which we had all hoped would become legacy issues, about prejudice and discrimination; and important issues about geographic variation and inequality, including the importance of cultural leadership in changing attitudes.

There were specific questions on policy, which I will try to come to in a moment. I just want to take this opportunity to celebrate and promote National Breastfeeding Week, which runs from 20 to 28 June. It is an excellent initiative and it is particularly good to see it so active on Twitter, which may be to the credit of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, and to see the plethora of activities going on around the country and the sharing of good practice and experiences by women and health professionals in place-based and virtual networks. That is genuinely inspirational, and the Department and I look forward to seeing other activities organised by local groups around the country this week.

It will not have escaped your beady eye, Mr Bone, that I am, on a gender basis, the least qualified person in the room to be responding to the debate, but I am pleased that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, highlighted the fact that I am the Minister responsible for life and health sciences. This issue goes to the heart of our thinking more broadly about how we unleash the power of the NHS and our health system more generally to support and drive public health.

Before coming to the House, I worked in biomedical research. I had the great privilege of working at the Institute of Child Health, which is doing extraordinary work on the importance of pre and post-natal nutrition for long-term health outcomes. Extraordinary data are beginning to appear on the importance of early nutrition in determining our long-term health. As the Minister responsible for the National Institute for Health Research, as well as the whizzy high science of tomorrow’s technologies, I can say that we also have at the heart of the NHS a commitment to ensure, through the institute, that we are constantly using the power of our health system to drive public health and to promote best practice.

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The Department of Health is working closely with our partners at UNICEF, the Royal College of Midwives, the Institute of Health Visiting, NHS England and Public Health England to co-ordinate our awareness messaging this week. This debate provides an invaluable opportunity for Members of Parliament to discuss these important issues.

It may help if I begin by setting out the Department’s view on breastfeeding in England, which is the only place for which I can speak. It is widely agreed that breastfeeding delivers significant health benefits for both the mother and her baby and is more cost-effective for mothers than other methods of infant feeding. A mother’s milk provides a perfect balance of nutrients and vitamins for the first six months of a child’s life. That is why the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.

The Department is aware, however, that infant feeding choices are complex and personal, based as they are on individual and family circumstances. That is right. Not all mothers choose to or are able to breastfeed. In line with UNICEF’s Baby Friendly guidelines, all mothers should be supported to make informed decisions and to develop a close relationship with their babies soon after birth.

The evidence shows that, in addition to providing all the nutrients and vitamins that a baby needs, breast milk also protects him or her from infections and diseases. Breastfed babies are less likely to develop diarrhoea, vomiting and chest infections, leading to fewer hospital visits; and they are less likely to become obese both as children and in later life. Breastfeeding can also reduce the chances for some women of getting diseases such as breast or ovarian cancer later in life. The evidence and data also show that breastfeeding as soon as possible following birth helps to start the bonding process between a mother and her baby. We know that secure parent-child attachment results in better social and emotional wellbeing among children. Furthermore, evidence shows that that, in turn, has important implications in terms of life prospects for the infant.

I am pleased that the breastfeeding initiation rate in England has increased from about 62% in 2005-06 to 73.9% in the third quarter of 2014-15. The Office for National Statistics will publish the full-year figures in a couple of weeks. However, breastfeeding initiation rates vary widely across clinical commissioning group areas, from 43.9% in NHS South Sefton to 93.4% in NHS Lambeth.

While we understand that cultural differences exist in different areas, it is important that all new mothers receive the best quality of care no matter who they are or where they live. We encourage local commissioners and services to use their resources, and opportunities such as National Breastfeeding Week, to reduce such variations and increase overall breastfeeding rates.

Increased awareness of the health risks associated with not breastfeeding has brought about a drive in recent years to improve breastfeeding support and increase breastfeeding prevalence rates. Support and information is currently available to health professionals and parents through a range of channels such as the NHS Choices website under the Start4Life banner; the national breastfeeding helpline; the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly initiative; and local peer support programmes.

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Parents-to-be and new mothers and fathers can also sign up to the Start4life information service for parents. Subscribers receive regular free emails, videos and text messages that offer high quality advice and information based on the stage of pregnancy and the age of the child. That service includes breastfeeding and signposts parents to other quality-assured information about parenting, relationship support and benefits advice.

In the past five years, I am delighted to say that we have recruited more than 2,100 more midwives into the NHS. We are training a further 6,400, who will provide women with the information, advice and support they need to breastfeed. In addition, appropriately trained and supervised maternity support workers play an important role in supporting women with breastfeeding and helping midwives to run parentcraft classes. In the past five years, 2,000 new health visitors have been recruited and we are on track to reach our target of 4,200 by the end of the year.

I will try to answer the important questions raised in the few minutes available; if I am beaten by the clock, perhaps I can write to hon. Members. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned the National Infant Feeding Network. In 2014, the Department of Health provided £30,000 to UNICEF UK to support the establishment of the network, which shares and promotes evidence-based practice on infant feeding and early childhood development to deliver optimum outcomes. It comprises 600 infant feeding specialists and supports 30,000 health professionals who, in turn, are responsible for caring for more than 650,000 mothers.

The network approached the Department for funding support in 2015. Unfortunately, its request could not be accommodated because it came in too late for the 2015-16 budget. However, we continue to work closely with the network co-ordinators on future funding.

The hon. Lady also raised the breastfeeding rights of women in the workplace. Specific health and safety requirements relating to new and expectant mothers at work are contained in regulations 16 to 18 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. A woman can ask her employer to provide a private, safe and healthy space to allow her to express milk and a fridge to store it in.

On the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly initiative, I repeat that we want to encourage more women to breastfeed. That is why we welcome the revised Baby Friendly standards that support feeding and relationship building. It is great to see that, across the UK, 91% of maternity services and 88% of health visiting services are working towards Baby Friendly accreditation. In the UK, 49% of maternity services, 51% of health visiting services, 37% of university midwifery courses and 9% of health visiting courses currently have full Baby Friendly accreditation.

On the infant feeding survey, I am happy to confirm that the Government’s policy is to improve outcomes for women and their babies. To do that, we need current information to inform policy and service delivery. The statistics that NHS England regularly gathers capture data from all women using NHS services, rather than from the periodic survey samples. From 2016, the maternity and children’s dataset will, for the first time, link a mother’s health and behaviours during pregnancy and

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post-natally to outcomes for herself. I will happily write with more details on that and on the issue of breast milk substitutes, since I am defeated by the clock.

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): The Minister is certainly not defeated by the clock; it is at 5.44 pm that the debate will now finish.

George Freeman: Thank you, Mr Bone. I apologise; I was merely stretching my legs as I saw the clock hit the 5.30 button. I was not expecting the vote. I am delighted that I have more time to finish dealing with the two questions. There was an important question on breast milk substitutes.

For mothers who choose to use formula milk, it is important that measures are in place to protect babies’ health and that all the parents have the information they need to make the right choice. The Government provide advice for parents on maternal and infant nutrition via NHS Choices and the NHS Start4life information service.

The international code of marketing of breast milk substitutes is an international health policy framework to regulate the marketing of breast milk substitutes. In view of the vulnerability of babies in the early months of life and the risks involved in inappropriate feeding, the marketing of breast milk substitutes requires special treatment. Baby Friendly accreditation requires services to implement the requirements of the code, which goes further than UK law in regulating marketing activity. To meet the Baby Friendly standards, services must ensure that there is no promotion of breast milk substitutes, bottles, teats or dummies in any part of the facility or by any of the staff.

The Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula (England) Regulations 2007 are designed to ensure that all types of infant formulae meet the nutritional needs of babies, while ensuring that breastfeeding is not undermined by the advertising, marketing and promotion of such products. The regulations include strict controls on the promotion, labelling and composition of infant and follow-on formula and set out clear guidance for infant formula manufacturers on how the regulations should be implemented.

Finally, there was a question about the National Infant Feeding Network, which I think I have dealt with. If there are any other issues, I will happily respond by letter. I shall leave enough time for the hon. Member for Glasgow Central to close the debate.

5.32 pm

Alison Thewliss: I thank the Minister and all the Members who have spoken today; the fact that they came along and participated is very much appreciated. I can see from Twitter that the debate has been getting a good and interesting response. I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for her contribution and for her support for the organisations in her area that clearly need it at this time. Where we have instances of good practice in breastfeeding in this country, we must absolutely support services in every way we can. It is absolutely true that if we lose the expertise and the service, that will set breastfeeding back hugely and it will be difficult to re-establish.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) spoke passionately about the support required, about the importance of the consistency of a

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network and about the importance of having experienced midwife support. Experienced professional advice must be given, and it can be given only, whatever the circumstances, by seeing somebody physically. The answer cannot always be to do things online.

The Minister made the point about follow-on milk, commercialisation and the implementation of the code. I still think that we have issues. We can go further to implement the code; it is clear that the implication of some of the adverts for follow-on milk is that if women breastfeed for a year or two, their milk might not contain enough nutrients for their child. The opposite is true—it contains all the nutrients that are needed. That is exactly and specifically how nature has designed it for the healthy development of children.

I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for her contribution. She is hugely experienced and clearly very passionate about the subject, which is great. There are lots of obstacles in the way, not least women returning to work, and we need to be mindful of that and how best we can offer support. We need to make breastfeeding a normal process so that women do not feel embarrassed about asking to nip out to express milk or going to visit the nursery to feed their child.

I had a strange experience last summer as a volunteer at the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. It was the longest time I had been away from my baby at that point. I found it very difficult to explain to a room of strangers that I was nipping out for a couple of minutes to express milk and to ask whether I could hide it in the fridge somewhere. The situation is difficult and awkward; we need to be aware of that. Employers need to be aware of their obligations and how to make it easy for people, so that there is a private space where they will not be interrupted. People should not be offered a corner of a busy lunchroom and certainly never a toilet, because that is disgusting, frankly. We would not eat our lunch in the toilet, so we should not expect anyone else to.

The point about images and showing the world what breastfeeding looks like was interesting. The Minister commented that I had tweeted a picture at the weekend; someone came up to me yesterday and said, “That’s very daring of you!” and “That’s very brave of you!” To be honest, I did not think about it. I was holding a baby; there was nothing particularly to see in the picture other than me feeding my daughter. I thought, “What a strange reaction.” To me, it is completely natural; I do it almost without thinking.

I put the picture up to publicise the importance of the debate and National Breastfeeding Week. If we look at

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the hashtag, we will see women doing similar across the internet just now. It is a process of normalising the activity—perhaps making a breastfeeding selfie something that people do, rather than draw back from. The issue is about making breastfeeding part of everyday life that people see all the time. If people do not see women breastfeeding, do not know anyone who breastfeeds and all they see are women feeding children with bottles, they will think that breastfeeding is odd and may not feel brave enough—because it will feel brave—to attempt it themselves.

We need to think carefully about how we normalise breastfeeding and how families, extended families and friends can best support women when they are doing it. My neighbours in Glasgow were keen to help their daughters and daughters-in-law by taking their babies overnight when they were tiny to give the mother a break. Although that is a wonderful thing to do to help, it will not help breastfeeding at all and will make it all the more difficult. We all need to think about our roles as part of families, the things we say and the way in which we say them—not say, “You must be exhausted”, but rather, “Can I make you a wee cup of tea?” It is about finding ways to support people rather than passing comment or using phrases that almost feel undermining at every turn. We need to think about that as much as we can.

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. We are all finding our way with the new system that we have only just implemented in Westminster Hall. The wind-up speech should really be very brief—probably about two minutes. I think the hon. Lady has been going for more than five minutes, so she might want to bring her contribution to an end.

Alison Thewliss: Thank you, Mr Bone. I have found it difficult because the time is not what I expected it to be, so I was unsure about whether I was running out of time and how long I had. I thank the Minister for his contribution. I still think that there are lots of issues that we, as individual Members, ought to take up in this Parliament to support mothers in any way we can. I thank hon. Members again for attending.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered National Breastfeeding Week.

5.38 pm

Sitting adjourned.