In a Westminster Hall debate on the sustainability of rural postal services this week, I was able to pay a short tribute to Llanmadoc Community Shop and it's Post Office.
My speech at the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women with disabilities
On the 5th September I spoke in a Parliamentary debate on the Energy Bill.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
We all want to cut emissions and tackle climate change, but people continue to suffer from the cost of living crisis. It is important that the cost of transitioning to lower carbon alternatives is not left to individuals to shoulder on their own.
The Government propose phasing out the use of high-carbon fossil fuel heating from the gas grid by banning the installation of new gas-fuelled boilers from 2026, and they advocate the alternative of heat pumps. While heat pumps have an important role to play in the decarbonisation of home heating, a heat pump only approach risks unfairly burdening off-grid rural homeowners with expensive installation costs. My constituents are rightly concerned at the prospect of being made to install very costly alternative heating systems that are not fit for purpose.
Some 11 million people live in rural areas across the UK, with 15% in off-grid homes. The cost of installing a low-carbon heat pump is around four times more expensive than a replacement boiler. What is more, while a heat pump can technically be installed in all homes across the UK, and it should be in new build housing, in certain property types, such as those in rural and coastal communities like Gower, they will not run efficiently and risk increasing energy bills to unnecessarily high levels for homeowners, above those they currently pay. In some cases, that could increase the overall cost of installation to £25,000, according to the Government’s own calculator.
I welcome the fact that the Government are consulting on increasing the grants available for heat pumps in certain homes, as announced last week. However, for some, those increased grants will not go far enough in making the cost of heat pump installation workable. My constituents in Gower, many of whom are off-grid homeowners, want to play their part in reducing emissions. In fact, the majority of people who came to my summer surgeries, while concerned about the cost, wanted to do their bit to reduce carbon emissions.
As has been said in the Chamber today, renewable liquid fuels, such as renewable diesel made from hydrotreated vegetable oil, offer a cheaper alternative. They can reduce net carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions from source to end user by up to 90%. At a small cost, existing off-grid boilers can be modified to run renewable liquid fuels, such as HVO, saving the homeowner the extortionate cost of a heat pump replacement.
However, renewable liquid fuels are more expensive than their high-carbon competitor, kerosene. In order to aid swift uptake, the Energy Bill must enable the use of renewable liquid fuels, as well as introducing measures to explore reducing their cost and making them more accessible, such as a renewable liquid heating fuel obligation, mirroring what already exists in transport and aviation. That would help my constituents transition to lower-carbon alternatives and incentivise faster and wider transition, more broadly, among off-grid households. There is some consensus across the House on those measures. An effective transition to cleaner energy must ensure that rural off-grid communities, such as mine in Gower, are not left with an expensive cost burden as we transition to net zero.
To conclude, in light of the consultation on renewable liquid fuels, the Government must review their oil boiler ban. The Minister must ensure that the consultation is expedited so that all our off-grid constituents can benefit before he leaves Government.
On the 4th September I spoke in my role as Shadow Northern Ireland Minister to close a debate on the Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Dame Rosie, in this Committee. I will keep my remarks brief to allow us to hear from the Northern Ireland parties on Third Reading.
Once again we come together to debate legislation that should be dealt with in Stormont. We still have civil servants running Departments with restricted powers, trying to plug a gap of £800 million and unable to consult with Cabinet Ministers. Stormont is the right and proper place for scrutiny to take place. In this place, we cannot simply provide the level of consideration and scrutiny that this budget deserves.
To quote today’s report from Pivotal,
“managing this situation has been extremely challenging, if not impossible, thanks to two interlocked problems: no political leadership for decision-making and impossibly tight budgets.”
On the first problem, sadly I have seen no sign over the recess that indicates the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive is any nearer. I would welcome hearing from the Secretary of State what discussions he has had over the summer with parties in Northern Ireland, as the situation is now beyond breaking point.
On the second problem—the budget—we do not oppose the Bill, as services are in desperate need of funding, but the fact is that this budget is not enough to address the problems facing public services in Northern Ireland. A real-terms funding fall of 3.3% means that existing services simply cannot continue to function as normal. The people of Northern Ireland have been left facing cuts to support and increases in charges for everyday necessities during the cost of living crisis. While we appreciate the need to explore avenues to raise revenue, the measures put forward so far may cause more societal damage than the monetary gain is worth. As I have mentioned, we are missing a vital level of scrutiny and accountability for these measures.
We, the Labour party, agree with the principle that local decisions should be made by local politicians, but the situation is now extreme. While there continues to be no functioning Executive, I ask the Secretary of State to consider what he can do within his power to help the people of Northern Ireland. This is a critical state of affairs, and the full impact may not yet be realised, as any overspends will inevitably lead to further cuts the next year. The only viable way forward for Northern Ireland is the restoration of the Executive, and I implore the Secretary of State, the Minister and the main parties in Northern Ireland to ensure that happens sooner rather than later.
On the 17th July I opened a Westminster Hall Petitions Committee debate on Teaching Assistant's Pay
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 620264, relating to pay for teaching assistants.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark. Some 88,410 people signed this petition, including 178 in my constituency. The Petitions Committee received 22,506 responses to its survey, of which 84% were teaching assistants and 3% were former teaching assistants. Some 5% were teachers or headteachers, while 4% were other staff who work in a school. Some 2% were close friends or family members of a teaching assistant, and 1% were parents or guardians of a school-age child.
This issue is particularly close to my heart, because before I was elected as the Member of Parliament for Gower, I was a secondary school teacher, and I have worked with dozens of teaching assistants over my career, which also included eight years working in the north-west of England in four different schools. I know at first hand how invaluable the support that they provide is in not just running a classroom, but supporting pupils to achieve their full potential. I have also seen how their roles over the years have been dismissed and devalued—the last in the list when it comes to progression and development, but the first roles to be cut when budgets are. There is an expectation of unpaid after-hours work just to fill the gaps left by schools when they are cutting budgets and when public services are being cut more broadly, and they provide key pastoral care and wellbeing support. In far too many cases, they must provide physical support when they are neither trained nor remunerated for that work.
The petition calls for the work that teaching assistants do to be reflected in their pay. Before I discuss the issue specifically, I will tell hon. Members more about the work that teaching assistants do, as it is clear that the role they play in our schools is not fully understood. In fact, the Government’s own “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child” White Paper published in March 2022 used the phrase “teaching assistant” only twice, and it failed to mention their pay or progression. Teaching assistants take on a variety of roles, from ensuring that students have nutritious meals in school to delivering structured interventions to help pupils to progress, working and planning closely with classroom teachers and senior leaders. They play a key role in tackling inequalities and improving attainment, especially for those pupils who are falling behind, or who have additional special learning or mental health needs or behavioural issues.
Research by the Education Endowment Foundation found that teaching assistants who provide one-to-one or small, group-targeted interventions can result in pupils achieving between four and six additional months’ progress on average. A 2019 research project for the Department for Education found that senior leaders placed a high value on the capacity of teaching assistants to improve classroom management and other staff workload pressures. Those same senior managers reported that budget restraints saw teaching assistants being forced to do more and more without corresponding increases in pay.
Teaching assistants are doing that work in an increasingly challenging environment. The impact of the pandemic is still being felt strongly in schools and across communities, with the crisis in children’s mental health and wellbeing being one of the starkest reminders to us all. There has been a 77% rise in the number of children needing specialist treatment for a severe mental health crisis from April to October 2021, compared with April to October 2019; in that context, the care and attention provided by teaching assistants is more vital than ever before.
Research by the University of Portsmouth, commissioned by Unison, found that the covid period “remade” the teaching assistant role, and that the changes are likely to be long lasting. The role has become even more varied, intense and emotionally demanding, with more support being given to parents and carers, and more backfilling for specialist staff; add to that the fact that there is a desperate lack of places in specialist schools, and the role of a teaching assistant has become more and more complex. There are also many parents who wish for their child to have mainstream education and not be put in a specialist educational environment. Therefore, the role of a teaching assistant, as I have seen at first hand, is key for inclusivity in all classrooms and schools across the United Kingdom.
A Unison survey found that many teaching assistants were expected to provide medical as well as educational support. Twenty seven per cent reported providing physical therapy, 65% reported supporting pupils with toileting and soiling incidents—and that was not just in primary schools—and 7% were providing assistance with both catheters and colostomy bags. While they provide that essential support, the survey found that 48% of teaching assistants do not feel valued as a member of staff by their school. There is a real concern about the experiences of teaching assistants that we cannot ignore.
A study by the University of Roehampton found that teaching assistants were kicked, punched and spat at by pupils, with one interviewee experiencing a spinal injury and forced to take early retirement; that is not the first such case that I have heard of throughout my career. Some teaching assistants reported that violent students were given lesser sanctions for attacking them than they would receive for attacking teachers or senior managers. The prevalence of physical violence against teaching assistants, many of whom are women, risks normalising violence against women to children who are present, as well as being entirely unacceptable to classroom staff. One teaching assistant responding to the Committee’s survey said:
“The amount of children coming into mainstream schools with behavioural problems is increasing and some are very violent which is hard to cope with physically and mentally. It also has an impact on the rest of the children in the class as it disrupts their learning, and they also get very distressed. It falls on TAs to work with these children without any training. It’s unfair on staff and children as there is no support for us.”
Working in such conditions, it cannot be surprising that nearly 50% of those surveyed by Unison are actively looking for better paid work. I know from my own experience that many of the women I worked with who were teaching assistants moved on to other work or had numerous jobs. Teaching assistants are some of the lowest paid public sector workers, sitting at the bottom of local government pay scales. The majority of local authorities use the National Joint Council pay spine, and although academy trusts are not obligated to use that scale, some do. The bottom end of the NJC pay spine is lower than the living wage. The mean salary of full-time and part-time teaching assistants in state-funded schools in England from 2020 to 2021 was only £19,000. One respondent to the Committee’s survey highlighted the reality of the pay for teaching assistants:
“Poor pay is now a real concern. Due to my hours being term time only and this is pro rata over the year. I actually only bring home around £14k which is a very poor salary in today’s situation.”
The average take-home salary for a teaching assistant is £14,211.
It is an issue that depends on the person’s sex. Many women who are mothers find that working as a teaching assistant will fit in with their children and be convenient. But we do not want it to be a job of convenience; it has to be a job with pay progression that also offers the right work environment. As I said, 92% of teaching assistants are women, and the chronic undervaluing of what is perceived as women’s work has created a situation where key workers find themselves below the poverty line. Is it any wonder that, along with nearly half of teaching assistants looking for new roles with better pay, 28% are having to take on second or third jobs to make ends meet, and 43% have had to borrow money from family?
The impact of low pay is amplified by the cost of living crisis, particularly where we find ourselves today. In response to a 2022 survey by the GMB, one teaching assistant said:
“It is very stressful trying to manage bills and food costs. We now wear extra layers and use hot water bottles as we are extremely worried about finding the money to pay the bills and not get into debt.”
Members of the GMB report that they regularly pay for essential items such as food and toilet paper for their schools and pupils out of their own pockets. I saw that happening in all my teaching jobs—before covid and before I was in this place.
Only 4% of respondents to the survey agreed with the statement “my pay is keeping up with the cost of living,” because it is not. Sixty-six per cent said that they could not afford necessities for themselves each month, and 73% said they could not afford necessities for their families. This response from one teaching assistant really sums up the issue:
“We work at home unpaid to prepare resources, do research and training. We often stay late and arrive early also unpaid. I would like our pay to reflect the role we do. I am a mother of three. Myself and my husband work full time... I eat less to feed my children, I go without clothes, haircuts and non-essentials to make sure my children have all they need.”
Low wages do not only impact current teaching assistants. The disparity between these wages and other comparable work means that schools are struggling to attract and retain new teaching assistants. The Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit has warned that there is a “new emergency over TA recruitment and retention”, which the Minister will be aware of. In 2020, it was reported that vacancy rates were higher for teaching assistants than for any other occupation, and 90% of teaching assistants who responded to the Committee’s survey said that they had considered leaving the role. One respondent, who is a headteacher, said:
“Teaching assistants are one of the most important resources in my school. I am losing highly skilled, trained, experienced TAs who are leaving to take up posts in supermarkets and other work which is paid better.”
That is not to undermine the value of retail work, but it does highlight the impact of low wages on retaining—as another respondent said—“amazing teaching assistants”.
Recent research by SchoolDash found that support staff vacancies are up by 85% compared with before the pandemic. Numerous other employers, from supermarkets to warehouses, are now offering variations on term-time only contracts in a direct attempt to recruit school support staff on more competitive terms than schools can offer. It should not be a competition. In addition to low pay, school support staff are cut off from career development opportunities as they are ineligible for careers programmes, scholarships and the new national professional qualifications, which currently apply only to teachers, school leaders and special educational needs co-ordinators.
The decisions we make about our education system should be driven by what is best for pupils, and teaching assistants have an enormous positive impact on their attainment and experience. Teaching assistants are proven to improve classroom behaviour, which is especially true for children who are all too often let down by mainstream education. Teaching assistants are reported to be effective at lowering exclusion rates for particular groups where they are often deployed to provide personal learning support, including pupils identified with special educational needs and disabilities, those with poor mental health, and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. Despite that, teaching assistants are not eligible for the SEN allowance afforded to teachers. According to the Department for Education’s own review of academic evidence, 91% of primary school teachers and 75% of secondary school teachers were very or fairly confident about the positive impact of support staff on pupils’ learning, and other studies have found that teaching assistants can have a positive effect on children in their care.
Our schooling system is severely underfunded, with real-terms pay cuts, the closing of services and crumbling buildings; this is what we have to show for a decade of under-investment in the future of our children. In the long term, our education system needs a radical new approach to funding, but as a first step towards that much-needed reform I can think of no better place to start than improving the salary and recognition of teaching assistants.
I close my remarks with a quote from a teacher in response to the Committee’s survey:
“[Teaching assistants] are all too often the only reason a student will stay in school. Their nurturing nature and patience is priceless, their ability to break down work so a student can understand is phenomenal. Pay them what they deserve!”
Tonia Antoniazzi MP leads Westminster Hall debate on the definition of "sex" in the Equality Act 2010.
On Monday 12th June I opened a Westminster Hall debate relating to the definition of "sex" in the Equality Act 2010.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 623243 and 627984, relating to the definition of sex in the Equality Act 2010.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I am pleased to open the debate on the petitions on behalf of the Petitions Committee. One petition calls on the Government to update the Equality Act 2010 to make the characteristic of sex refer to biological sex, and the other petition calls on the Government to commit to not amending the Act’s definition of sex.
Opinions about the relationship between biological sex, gender identity and the law divide organisations, political parties, and even family and friends. Many people have told me that this is something that they are afraid to speak of, and some say it should not be discussed at all. Others have told me of how they are relieved and happy that we are finally discussing it in Parliament.
INTERVENTION FROM LAYLA MORAN MP
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way so early on. On her point about people being scared to talk about the subject, is she also aware of people like my constituents, who have written to me to say that they are scared that it is going to be talked about? Whenever such things are spoken about in Parliament, there is then a rise in hatred and violence. I thank you, Mrs Cummins, for your words about being courteous, but does the hon. Member understand the worry there is in some communities that the debate is happening, and would she urge other Members to stay compassionate and open minded?
TONIA ANTONIAZZI MP RESUMES
When the hon. Member listens to my speech, I think she will understand the compassion with which I speak. She will also understand that we are in a difficult position: we are legislators, and where there is something that needs to be addressed, as there is in these two petitions, it is down to us to stand up and make that change and have the conversation. It goes with the job, I am afraid.
Members from all parts of the House can model the respectful, adult conversations that are needed across society. We can demonstrate, here at Westminster, that we can freely express and listen to different opinions. This is a set of issues on which views are held profoundly and with good intentions. The nature of this debate means that those views differ across the House, and even within our own respective parties.
I was in education for 20 years before coming to this place. My priority has always been the wellbeing of those in my care, be they adults or children. I am afraid that asking probing and difficult questions to get through issues and problems is in my nature. I will not be cowed when looking out for my constituents, be they lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. The conversations that I get the most out of are the ones where I explore, learn and am able to disagree agreeably.
It is a mark of adult politics not to pretend that we are in perfect agreement on every issue, and Westminster Hall debates like this offer the opportunity for us to explore issues, free from the usual pressures of votes and the instructions of the Whips. This is a debate that will explore the difficult interrelationships that exist between rights, and it will mark the difficult lines between which individuals’ and collective rights are drawn. However, it is for the House to decide the way those rights are formed and how they are interpreted. We are holding this debate on behalf of individual people facing discrimination, and in support of service providers and public servants who have a deep commitment to reducing discrimination and to providing safe and welcoming environments. Our task is to make decisions on the boundary of rights and to take responsibility, rather than passing it on. We may draw different conclusions from historic debates on the legislation, but our responsibility is to make our decisions on what would be the right law to have now.
In order to prepare for the debate, the Committee Clerks arranged for me to meet the petitioners and organisations supporting these two petitions. I thank them all for their time and input. The House of Commons Library has also produced a debate pack that covers the complexity of the legal issues behind the two petitions. I am most grateful to everyone who has spoken to me, because there are two broad positions. Those who support the petition to update the Equality Act say that the law should be clear about the two sexes, and that it was never the intention of the Act to make it difficult or impossible to have sports that are for biological females only; to protect services that are for women, such as domestic violence refuges; to assure an elderly woman or a woman getting a smear test that, when she asks for a female carer or nurse, she has the right to be treated by a biological woman; to provide single-sex spaces where women are undressing and washing; for same-sex-attracted people to have opportunities to associate with each other; and for the public sector equality duty to consider the needs of women separately from those of trans women.
Kate Barker from the LGB Alliance and Julie Bindel and Tamara Burrows from the Lesbian Project, who support the clarification of the Equality Act, explained to me that the protected characteristic of sexual orientation is contingent on the definition of sex as biological, and that the Act did not intend to remove the rights of association for same-sex-attracted lesbians. I heard how, for the lesbians I met, biological sex is fundamental to understanding their rights as same-sex-attracted people, so the grey area that we have is creating ongoing problems for lesbians. If we do not say that “sex” in the Equality Act means biological sex, we may as well scrap the protection of sexual orientation. They said that the protected characteristic of gender reassignment exists. Trans people are able to hold their own separate groups under the protected characteristic and can also associate with lesbian groups already open to them; so the question posed was: why cannot lesbians organise lesbian-only spaces?
The Lesbian Project is an organisation that wants to research and study lesbian lives and survey lesbians. If trans women are included, it renders the research meaningless and pointless. This is not, I was told, about being anti-trans; it was about the bedrock of being a lesbian, and a lesbian is a female attracted to females. It was highlighted that there must be protections for trans people, but not at the expense of women’s rights. It is becoming a barrier to lesbians in coming out, which is a huge problem for them. The question for many is: should women be allowed female-only associations? Should it be easy and straightforward for women to be able to undress, shower and use a toilet in female-only spaces?
Those who want the Equality Act to stay as it is say that trans people are already using services for the opposite sex without concerns, regardless of whether they have a gender recognition certificate or not, and that not allowing them to do so would be harmful and detrimental to their human rights. It is therefore the responsibility of society and lawmakers to ensure that people are able to access opposite-sex facilities, services and sports. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Finn McKay, Robin Moira White, Dr Paul Martin and Nancy Kelley for taking the time to speak to me and to explain the situation for that petition. Where this causes a problem is likely to be very rare, and a transgender person may be excluded on an individualised, case-by-case basis. Some of those arguing for no change to the Equality Act believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, and that therefore--
Some of those arguing that there should be no change to the Equality Act 2010 believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, and therefore that the protected characteristic of sex includes those who identify as the opposite sex. Some also feel that it is an attack on trans people to think or express disagreement with this belief.
In support of this petition, Nancy Kelley from Stonewall said that she is proud of the Equality Act 2010, that it works really well as “legal sex”, and that it works well to operate trans-inclusive or not spaces, and emphasised how inclusion should be the norm. Defining legal sex as observed at birth would see exclusion rather than inclusion.
I have also had the opportunity to talk to barrister Robin Moira White, who explained to me how this amendment was a blunt instrument; in fact, it was called a sledgehammer that was being presented as a simple solution. Robin told me that, to move forward, there was no need to change the law, but that there was a need for less toxicity and also that this amendment did not consider the anomalous position of a pregnant trans man.
I also spoke to Dr Finn Mackay, who told me about the impact that this change in the law would have on gender non-conforming people. Finn said that she would like to see more case studies from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on single-sex spaces, and she agreed with the Government position and said that the current rhetoric is dangerous. We also need to have better public amenities that work for all people, with inclusion as the default.
Both petitions received over 100,000 signatures, and we will all have constituents who are passionately engaged on either side, as well as service providers that say they badly need clarity about the law, and others who say the current situation is okay for them. It is important that we are having this debate today.
As well as supporters of both petitions, I spoke to the EHRC, whose job it is to protect everyone’s rights and to explain the Equality Act. The EHRC said that the law can be hard to implement—and don’t we know it? Its letter to the Minister for Women and Equalities states:
“A change to the Equality Act 2010 so that the protected characteristic of ‘sex’ means biological sex could bring clarity in a number of areas but potential ambiguity in others.”
Both the Government and the Opposition welcomed the EHRC statement that the current situation merits further consideration and exploration of possible solutions. The EHRC said that
“there is a clear need to move the public debate on issues of sex and gender to a more informed and constructive basis.”
I was told—and I know—that this issue had been bubbling away for many years and was not anything new. In 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee asked the EHRC to create statutory guidance on single-sex spaces, which it published much later, in 2022. However, the guidance placed a large onus on service providers to exclude people who are legal women. It was when this escalated in 2018 that the UK Government and the Scottish Government started talking about proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which started the debate about self ID. They said that the landscape since the Equality Act had changed significantly. There are more gender identities--
INTERVENTION FROM LLOYD RUSSEL-MOYLE
My hon. Friend is making a good and balanced speech so far. Does she recognise that when the Equality Act was being passed, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman at that time asked our Minister from the Labour party if it was the first step to understanding self-ID and moving towards that? That was in Hansard. This issue was thought about when the Equality Act was being created, and the affirmative response was given to that question at that time.
TONIA ANTONIAZZI MP RESUMES
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution.
At the moment, there are more gender identities and more trans people who have no intention of getting gender recognition certificates. The Government also said that the situation for people who identify as non-binary is very unclear, and that a change to the legislation would provide clarity and a framework for moving forward. They said, however, that the Government would need to scrutinise how trans people would feel about the change. They also identified the following key areas of concern for the public: NHS and medical treatment, toilets, sport, sport in schools, children’s rights and women’s domestic abuse shelters.
I am talking about a way forward. It has been said that the debate needs to be more informed and constructive. Akua Reindorf said that we need some shared facts in the debate. Baroness Kishwer said that the Government should publish their proposals, and then set up a Joint Committee to look at them first and ask all the questions. She said that would be a sensible approach. She also said that she hoped people would not shoot the messenger. The EHRC provided analysis for the Government, and it is up to parliamentarians to make decisions.
I will move on to the petitioners. One of them, who wished to remain nameless, said to me:
“We want legal protections. We want the conversative government to stop using us a distraction to pull hate away from their failures. But our hopes are not confined to the Equality Act. The main struggle most trans people face is not what legal protections we are afforded post-transition, but access to the means to transition in the first place.”
Maya Forstater, who was also a petition creator, said that the reason she is now trying to clarify the law is so that the law is made clear that sex discrimination and discrimination against transgender people are two different strands of equality protection. That way, employers and service providers will be able to protect individuals against both kinds of discrimination and treat everyone with respect.
In that spirit, I am proud to open this debate. I urge my colleagues to speak openly, fearlessly, and with respect for each other and for the different experiences of people in this country who are looking to us as legislators to take responsibility. I hope that we will have a constructive debate about how the needs and interests of everyone impacted by the Equality Act should be reconciled in legislation.
On the 8th June I spoke in the Backbench Business debate on the work of the Council of Europe.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this important debate. I am a proud member of the delegation to the Council of Europe—it is a real honour—and thank him for all the work that he does. The delegation is cross-party and comes from both Houses, so we are working collaboratively—work that people outside the House do not see. When we work together, we achieve better goals and better outcomes for all of us.
The Council of Europe was established following the end of world war two to promote democracy and protect human rights and adherence to the rule of law in Europe. The UK was one of the 10 founding signatories to the Council of Europe statute, and the UK continues to play an active role in all parts of the organisation. The role of promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law is so important because that is what we are here to do.
Since the Council of Europe’s creation, it has adopted more than 200 treaties and conventions, with the best known being the European convention on human rights. The ECHR is an international treaty between states of the Council of Europe. The United Kingdom was one of the states that drafted it and was one of the first states to ratify it in 1951. That is really important. Some MPs have raised concerns about the ECHR’s impact since the rights set out in the convention were incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Some interpretations of that by British courts and the European Court of Human Rights have led some MPs to call for the UK to leave the ECHR altogether. That would be completely the wrong thing to do. The most notable and recent of those cases was when the European Court of Human Rights blocked a deportation flight to Rwanda in 2022.
I am a proud Welsh Italian. I have had the opportunity to travel across Europe and across the world, and I am a languages graduate. The opportunity to be a part of the UK Parliament delegation and to speak Italian and French with our counterparts is a great honour. The work we do is reflected in committees, as it is in this House. I sit on the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media. Only last week, we held a session here in the UK Parliament on protecting human rights in sport, moderated by Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock, who is a great person and politician to have on that committee. It was heartbreaking to listen to Olivia Jasriel, the founder of the Olivia Jasriel Foundation for athletes, and Patrice Evra, the former Manchester United captain and French international, who, like Olivia, is an abuse survivor. They both campaign against abuse in sport and beyond.
These are domestic and worldwide issues around sport that impact directly on our lives, and the lives of our constituents, in particular young people. How governing bodies are held to account is very important to me. I have spoken in this House about misogyny and sexual abuse in sport. In the wake of what has happened in UK gymnastics, Yorkshire cricket and—I have spoken on this before—Welsh rugby union, the work of such committees is relevant to everybody and needs to be spoken about.
I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Henley for his work on the Istanbul convention, which is very important to all of us across the House. The UK delegation has done some great work on that and I thank him for it, because tackling violence against women and girls is at the heart of everything I do. I am also pleased that the UK delegation supports Kosovo’s application for membership of the Council of Europe, so I thank him for his work on that, too.
I also thank some really key players: Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who I have already mentioned; my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who leads the Labour delegation; and Lord Griffiths of Burry Port. I think the hon. Member for Henley would agree that they are the glue that holds the delegation together, with their expertise and knowledge. I thank Nick Wright and his staff who support us; they are absolutely wonderful.
The whole delegation, including those here today speaking in this debate, are very proud to be part of the Council of Europe. I am very proud to be a part of it and we should talk about it more in this House. We may have left Europe, but the UK Parliament delegation is still extremely relevant and a big player in the Council of Europe.
On the 10th May I spoke in my role as Shadow Northern Ireland Minister to close a debate on the Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I feel an enormous sense of déjà vu as I stand here once again to speak about Northern Ireland. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), the shadow Secretary of State, we will not be opposing this Bill today. It is vital that, in the absence of an Executive, public services continue to function to support the people of Northern Ireland.
Like other Members across the House, I want to pay tribute to the civil servants who have spent more than a year working in these testing circumstances; it is not ideal, but it has been necessary. The removal of the six-month limit of this legislation will at least allow for continuity of governance as we hopefully move closer to the restoration of power sharing. The fact is, however, that these civil servants are confined to “business as usual” and are unable to take any new or bold decisions. Such decisions would be at the feet of Ministers and subject to scrutiny by politicians elected by the people of Northern Ireland to represent their interests. Without a functioning Executive, key levels of scrutiny from Committees are missing from those big decisions.
Public services in Northern Ireland are under severe pressure, with the impact of that felt throughout all of Northern Irish society. Just last week, for example, it was reported that since 2015 about 10,000 children have not been fully inoculated, with workforce shortages and delivery capacity in GP practices being given as the reasons for that. Deep-rooted issues such as that require proactive solutions, which should rightly be made by elected officials.
Furthermore, as was highlighted in Northern Ireland questions earlier today, the significant cuts included in the Northern Ireland budget are of great concern. I am grateful that the Secretary of State has included measures in this Bill that will allow for departmental accounts to be laid before Parliament for some scrutiny, but ultimately such scrutiny would be best applied by those on the ground in Stormont, who are answerable to the people of Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 allowed the Secretary of State more time before calling an election in Northern Ireland. I would welcome hearing what steps he plans to take during this time to ensure that by the time of the next election, a functioning Executive will stay in place.
Despite the introduction of the Windsor framework, this deadlock has yet to shift and the people of Northern Ireland are suffering the most negative impacts of that. It is clear that there is a gap between the Government and the Unionists, which must be bridged in order for progress to be made. Dialogue between the Government, the European Union and the Unionist parties must continue. Of course, any way forward must take into account the nationalist communities, such is the nature of power sharing.
The recent celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement should highlight how important it is that we prioritise the restoration of power sharing and of a functioning Executive. I encourage the Secretary of State and the Minister to do all they can to try to push matters forward. I also ask that they work with the Prime Minister to ensure that he shows that he is fully committed to the restoration of power sharing. We cannot afford to spend another year debating issues that the devolved Administration would usually cover, while public services decline further and the cost of living crisis deepens. This Bill ensures that there is enough governance for now, but I sincerely hope it will not be needed for much longer.
This week I spoke in Westminster Hall to open a debate on Prescription Charges for people Aged 60 or Over.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 594390, relating to prescription charges for people aged 60 or over.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. The petition I am presenting touches on a number of incredibly important issues in healthcare from access to treatment to public health and preventative care, all within the context of how the NHS adapts to an ageing population. Although the petition focuses on prescription charges, it must be considered in the broader economic context of the cost of living crisis, with months of rising prices and inflation where even the most basic necessities are becoming luxury items for many.
The steady rise of pensioner poverty since 2015 shows no sign of stopping, continuing a trajectory that will see millions of us face a retirement dominated by debt and hardship. That context means we are duty-bound to look beyond figures on spreadsheets and examine what the proposed scrapping of free prescriptions for that age group would mean for those who would be impacted by it. It is those impacts that the petition creator Peter had in mind when he set it up.
When I spoke to Peter about why he started the petition, he shared his concern about the impact these changes would have not on him, but on his local community—the men and women who are already struggling with costs and are making difficult choices about what to prioritise. It is people like him who have spent a lifetime working in industry and those who, because of that work, now suffer from a variety of medical conditions, each needing different medications. It is those women, including his wife, who had their lives upended by the callous way the Government implemented the equalising of the state pension age. WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women, who were born in the 1950s and live in England, have further issues to deal with compared with those in devolved countries.
INTERVENTION FROM MARGARET FERRIER MP
Uprating the age when prescriptions become free in England to be in line with the state pension age, as the Government consulted on, would be harmful given the cost of living crisis, as the hon. Lady said, and the growing economic activity in those over 50 for various reasons, including their health. Does she share my concern about what this could mean for ease of access to medical treatment for the older generation?
TONIA ANTONIAZZI MP RESUMES
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. It is, indeed, a huge concern that people with multiple health problems are facing extra difficulties in accessing prescriptions and are having to make those difficult choices about how they spend their money.
For Peter, it seems that something has gone incredibly wrong to get us to this point—something broader than this planned introduction of charges, but something encapsulated by it. It is the breaking of a promise—the promise between citizen and state and the promise that a lifetime of contribution, whether financial through tax and national insurance or through the unpaid labour of care that enables our economy to function, means support in retirement. Peter kept his part of the bargain. It was great to have a conversation with him. He could not believe that his petition was being debated in this place, and it is so important that his voice and the voices of others are heard in this place. He kept his part of the bargain, first in the shipyards on the Tyne and then working on aircraft. He paid in and did what was expected, as did hundreds of thousands of others, but the Government have not held up their end of the bargain. They have changed the rules, and it looks like they will do so again. That unfairness is the reason why we are discussing the matter today.
The plan to introduce charges seems particularly unfair when Peter does not even have to look that far from home to see a better way. England is the only nation in the United Kingdom without free prescriptions and, as colleagues may have guessed from my accent, I am Welsh. I have the great pleasure of representing Gower, one of the three Swansea constituencies, which is beautiful. If anyone ever wants to visit, please do.
Swansea and Newcastle have a lot in common: both are port cities with a proud industrial heritage; both are famous for an excellent night out. It seems the height of unfairness to many in Newcastle and across England that they alone in the United Kingdom pay for prescriptions. I am sure that the Government will tell us that several conditions are exempt and that pre-payment certificates cut costs, but, as I said earlier, we must look beyond the briefings to the reality of the system actually. The exemptions list is not only woefully out of date but, apart from the addition of cancer in 2009, it has not been reviewed since 1968. It also does not cover several life-changing conditions, such as Parkinson’s, arthritis, asthma, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, lupus or motor neurone disease.
That is the tip of the iceberg. People with those conditions, and other complex, lifelong conditions, still pay for their prescriptions. For those with multiple, co-existing conditions, the cost is even higher. Evidence from the Prescription Charges Coalition, a group of 50 organisations calling on the Government to scrap prescription charges for people with long-term conditions in England, shows that people with long-term conditions struggle to pay for their medication. A third of respondents in England with long-term conditions reported that they had not collected a prescription item due to the cost. Nearly a third admitted that they are skipping or reducing medication doses, with cost concerns a key factor for more than four out of 10. As a direct result of reducing or skipping medications, nearly three in five—59%—became more ill, and 34% needed to visit their GP or hospital. In fact, the Government’s own impact assessment on the introduction of charges highlighted that issue and noted the potential effect on people’s health.
In 2018, thousands of over-the-counter medicines were taken off the list of those that GPs are able to prescribe, leaving those with long-term conditions facing additional costs for their conditions and to stay well. Those worrying health outcomes come with a cost to the NHS. Several member organisations of the PCC conducted research last year. They found that, of those surveyed, one in six of those with asthma and lung disease had cut back on using their potentially life-saving inhalers, as they were worried about the cost; 29% of respondents with cystic fibrosis reported that they had skipped their medication due to prescription charges; and one in five people with multiple sclerosis say that they do not have enough money to pay for the medication or treatment they need.
One lady who lives with kidney disease was hospitalised twice because she had to wait until payday to collect a prescription. In hospital, she had to have a lumbar puncture and an MRI scan, which cost the NHS thousands of pounds more than the prescription would have. As colleagues can see, the impact is vast and, when meeting campaigners prior to this debate, I heard far too many stories like that one. The lived reality of those impacted by this proposed change and the issues caused by the current dysfunctional exemptions system are best understood through that lens.
I work closely with Parkinson’s UK, which is one of the many organisations deeply concerned by this proposal. Medication is the only way to control the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease; most have to take a cocktail of medications to stay well. Research shows that Parkinson’s cost households over £19,000 a year in 2021, due to loss of work; and additional health and social care costs. As Parkinson’s progresses, it becomes more complex. Among people eligible to pay for prescriptions who are aged 60, in any year 5.5% will die within five years and 23.8% will need support to live independently—that is within only five years of being diagnosed. However, they would still have to pay for their essential medications for Parkinson’s.
I want to tell the Chamber a little about Denise. She is 59 and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in April 2019. She has had to reduce her working hours from 37.5 to only 12 per week, due to her symptoms. She uses a prepayment certificate for her prescriptions, because it is cheaper than purchasing them individually. If the exemption age rises to 66, however, she will have to continue paying for them.
Denise told Parkinson’s UK about the impact that that would have on her:
“I always thought I would work until I was 67, because I would be able to. However, as my Parkinson’s advances I worry about whether I physically will be able to. My employer is really understanding, allowing flexibility to start later in the mornings until my medication has kicked in, but I have already had to reduce my hours by 60% and I’m already noticing the impact of this reduced earning capacity on our household.
I have to pay for my prescriptions, and this is eating into the diminishing amount I can contribute towards the household bills. If they were to increase the age at which I become exempt, it would be really tough because we haven’t allowed for more years of these additional charges.
It feels like the Government is once again penalising those living with a long-term condition like Parkinson’s that anyone could get and for which currently there is no cure.”
Denise’s story is not an isolated one. Parkinson’s is not the only condition whose sufferers will be further disadvantaged by the change, but this is not a problem that will be solved by changing the exemption list. An exemption list has winners and losers baked into its design, and the complexities of managing chronic conditions mean that any approach that is not universal is not fit for purpose.
Furthermore, the Government need to answer why the change is being prioritised now. What evidence is there that it will have any kind of positive impact? We cannot see one. Even if the Government make savings in the short term, the long-term impacts could be catastrophic, leading to greater illness and to more GP and hospital visits.
A poll published in Pulse found that 40% of GPs linked prescription charges to adverse patient outcomes, also indicating that those could lead to far greater costs and more adverse outcomes down the line. Initial results of the 2023 survey by the Prescription Charges Coalition showed that nearly 10% of respondents had not collected medicine due to cost. Of that group—I have more data —30.74% said that they now have other physical health problems, in addition to their original health condition; 30.33% said that they had to go to their GP; 17.32% said that they had to go into hospital for treatment; and 8.32% said that they had to go to A&E.
Research published in 2018 by York Health Economics Consortium highlighted how ending prescription charges for long-term conditions could save money and reduce pressure on the NHS. That comes from preventing avoidable health complications that occur when people do not take their medication. The research identified net savings of more than £20 million per year if the NHS scrapped prescription charges for people with Parkinson’s and inflammatory bowel disease alone. Instead, the Government are discussing introducing additional charges. That flies in the face of common sense.
We know that the NHS is under pressure, but that is the case across the United Kingdom, and the devolved nations are not even discussing removing universal free prescriptions. I urge the Government to follow that lead, to look to the future and not to engage in short-termist, quick fixes that will not be a fix for all, and not for the petition creator.
This week I spoke in Parliament to voice my support for a change in the law which would require sex offenders to inform the police and local authorities if they were to change their name by deed poll.
The law as it currently stands puts the onus for keeping details on the sex offenders register up to date with the offender, rather than with the police and other authorities. This means a sex offender can now change their name and with little difficulty receive a passport or a driving licence with their new name. At no point are the offenders asked if they have a criminal background before being issued with a legal new identity. This practise must end.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
My huge thanks go to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for bringing this important subject to the Chamber and to national prominence—her role in this has been extraordinary. I also thank women such as Della who have waived their anonymity to expose the serious failures in the DBS system, and to ensure that the law is changed to keep people safe.
As colleagues will no doubt have seen in their constituencies, most people’s reaction to hearing about this loophole is one of utter disbelief—disbelief that simple changes, such as the deed poll asking if the applicant has a criminal record, have not been made; disbelief that a system that so many of them have encountered—anywhere from their children’s school to local sports clubs—features such a fundamental flaw; and disbelief that, despite years of warning from campaigners, the name change loophole still exists and is treated as an administrative headache, not a serious risk.
I take this opportunity to highlight a concern that the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) have already mentioned. Good intentions have not been balanced with the risk of leaving another avenue to be exploited and that is so dangerous. The DBS grants enhanced privacy rights to individuals who change their gender when changing their identity. Those are exceptional rights that are granted only to individuals from that group. The result is that identity verification is compromised, meaning that there is no guarantee that the information returned during the check and displayed on the certificate will be accurate or complete.
Those exceptional privacy rights also allow an applicant who has changed gender to request that all their previous names are withheld from the DBS certificate that is issued. That right to conceal previous identities is not given to anyone else: disclosing previous identities is a key component of safeguarding, and DBS certificates issued to all other individuals display all other names that the applicant has used.
Applicants who change their gender are also permitted to conceal their sex, and the DBS certificate issued will display their acquired gender instead. That right is not granted to any other individual: the importance of sex to safeguarding means that the sex of all other applicants is always displayed. There cannot be any exceptions in safeguarding. For the system to work, it must apply the same standards to everyone. Sadly, it is simply naive to think that loopholes in the system will not be exploited.
The system relies on the honesty of sex offenders to ensure that it functions as it should, but as the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) said, they are not to be trusted; they are not honest. Data obtained by the BBC from police forces highlights just how flawed this approach is. Between 2019 and 2021, more than 5,500 offences were committed by sex offenders of failing to comply with notification requirements: offences such as not telling the police they were living in a household with a child. The Disclosure and Barring Service found that 2,190 applicants for checks had criminal records and had supplied incorrect or missed out personal details such as past names or aliases. A total of 6,740 prosecutions began over the past three financial years for offences by sex offenders of breaches of a sexual harm prevention order or interim order. The system is broken and we must fix it. We have plenty of damning evidence as to why we should.
After being released from prison only three years into his six-year sentence for indecent assault, following a string of sexual assault convictions against children, Timothy Cuffy changed his name to Timothy Barnett. His new name allowed him to hide his criminal past, including from his new partner and three children. As Timothy Barnett, he answered the door to 13-year-old Sandy Hadfield, who knocked looking for her friend. After giving her vodka, he lured her to a quiet area of the woods, where he attempted to have sex with her before slitting her throat. Owing to his name change, his background went undetected, even after two encounters with Lincolnshire police and one encounter with social services. A system that means a convicted child sex offender is not identified, despite encounters with the police and social services, is one that is fundamentally broken and that led to the most tragic of outcomes in that case.
Sex offenders are not just changing their name post trial to hide their convictions; they are also changing their name at trial, or just before, to protect their name on their birth certificate. That has been highlighted in the high-profile case of Department for International Development worker Peter Davis, who became James Robert Harris before trial, allowing him to keep all records of his birth name clean should he decide to use it again.
This loophole gives sex offenders and abusers, many of whom rely on their ability to manipulate in order to carry out their crimes, an opportunity to hide their criminal history and pass the very checks that are meant to keep the most vulnerable safe. This loophole renders not only the DBS redundant but the domestic violence disclosure scheme, the sex offenders register and the child sex offender disclosure scheme. It seems absurd that we are discussing this 20 years on from the Bichard inquiry, which identified that the ability of serial predator Ian Huntley to change his name by deed poll to Ian Nixon, successfully severing the link with his existing police records, meant that no alarms were raised, and he was employed as a school caretaker. That this loophole still exists, allowing—indeed, enabling—serial predators to create new identities, is a scandal.
We are in this place to be legislators. We are in this place to make decisions and to ask the questions, “What if?” and “How?” We have to safeguard the most vulnerable people in society from these bad actors in all legislation. I pay tribute to everybody in the Gallery today and my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham for her outstanding work on this issue.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.