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Westminster Hall

Volume 408: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2003

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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 1 July 2003



Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Vernon Coaker.]

9.30 am

Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to see you at any time, but it is a particular pleasure to see you so early in the morning. I also welcome the Minister, who is the sixth Minister with responsibility for prisons since 1997. I hope that he will remain in his post for two or possibly three years, because the Government's approach to prisons must be consistent, and that involves having consistent personnel as well as consistent policy.

The prison population has risen from 36,000 in 1991 to 77,379 in the current year, which is the largest number of people ever to be imprisoned in this country. Prison Reform Trust figures suggest that that is largely due to longer sentences rather than to more crime. I will not get into that argument, but it is not inappropriate that those who perpetrate burglary, rape and crimes of violence against their fellow citizens should be incarcerated.

The solutions include greater resources, greater efficiency in obtaining better returns for the money invested, shorter sentences, more effective community sentences, and tackling at root the propensity to offending behaviour. Although it is not the Minister's responsibility—so far, very little is his responsibility—to take those steps with regard to the population as a whole, it is his responsibility to tackle the propensity to offending behaviour through the Prison Service. He is severely handicapped by problems, caused by both the Prison Service and the Home Office, relating to the way in which the Prison Service is run, and the Home Office has failed to acknowledge some widely understood problems.

I shall refer in detail to the difficulties at Parkhurst prison in my constituency. The Minister will know that there are more criminals in my constituency than in any other, but I am pleased to say that most of them are not on the electoral roll. There are 1,800 prisoners in my constituency, and the Prison Officers Association at Parkhurst pointed out in April 2002 that:
"We have been two health care Senior Officers short since October 2000 … We have 10 Officer vacancies, four Officers acting up and two further Senior Officer vacancies. Two staff have recently resigned to join the Police … Nine staff applied for transfer to HMP Albany. We currently have 22 unified grades off sick … Every day the Residential Units are below their MSL, until staff are redeployed … workshops are closed and Officer instructors are deployed to the wings. In conclusion Parkhurst is experiencing serious problems with no solutions in sight."
That was the verdict of the branch chairman, Mr. Holmes, in April 2002.

At the same time, the chairman of the board of visitors, Janice Palin, wrote to me about her annual report for 2000–01:
"I have to repeat from the third paragraph of my letter last year that severe cutbacks continue to be made in the way of 'efficiency savings'. We appreciate that resources are tight in all areas and that prisons are not 'vote winners', but as we understand it 'rehabilitation' is the aim. How can this be obtained when more and more resources are being withdrawn? This is a very short-sighted approach to a long-term problem."
The board of visitors was not limited to that generalisation; it gave some examples:
"Serious impoverishment has led to the levels of disruption experienced during the year, and the Prison Service policy on appropriate resettlement programmes is either not delivering or is very ineffective."
It also made the point that services for mentally ill prisoners were inadequate. The board of visitors was particularly concerned about health care:
"Dentistry has always been a problem within the prison, which has been exacerbated by having to use unsatisfactory mobile facilities".
Dentistry is a problem in the whole of my constituency, where there is a desperate shortage of dentists. The board of visitors pointed out:
"Due to lack of staff, prisoners' out-patients appointments are being cancelled at short notice which means that they are not receiving the necessary treatment and the knock-on effect is that an appointment is lost to a member of the local community."

My hon. Friend has touched on health care in prisons. Does he agree that it is a crying scandal? Furthermore, does he agree that Ministers have been indifferent to the plight of those who need health care most? The Minister was unable to tell me the proportion of prisoners who receive thrombolysis within 30 minutes of having a heart attack, which is something that the rest of us would take for granted. Also, the last survey of mental health in prisons was carried out in 1997, according to a recent response that I have had from the Minister. Does my hon. Friend not agree that Ministers appear to want to ignore the health care of our prison population? Whatever they have done wrong—

Order. This almost sounds to me like a speech. It should be a brief intervention. There have been enough questions already.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I certainly agree that if Ministers are not ignoring the problems of health care, as he suggests, they are not dealing with them adequately. It is not good enough to give generalisations about objectives for health care—as Ministers frequently do, and as the Minister's predecessor did in a letter dated 23 April 2002—without delivering the resources. In the case of Parkhurst prison, those resources mean more qualified mental health care staff.

Those were some of the issues raised by the board of visitors in March 2002. Many were repeats of points that had been raised earlier. The Minister's predecessor, now the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), wrote on 23 April 2002 a letter of the most outstanding generalised guff—making the broad, sweeping statements that we now expect in ministerial replies—about the importance of resettlement work, which she said was
"making a significant impact on the lives of prisoners."
The letter pointed out how many literacy and numeracy qualifications had been achieved at level 2 in 2000–01.

None of those generalised statements responded, in my view, to the particular needs of Parkhurst prison. The Minister's predecessor claimed that Parkhurst had received sufficient funding to allow it to deliver an appropriate regime for prisoners, saying:
"Previous and longstanding failures to make required efficiency savings have resulted in a cumulative overspend that is now being addressed by the Governor."
Most of us now understand that a "cumulative overspend … now being addressed" means that money is not being spent where it needs to be in the current year, because it is busy repaying the debts of previous years.

The Minister's predecessor went on to recognise that
"more work is required to ensure that resettlement policy is translated into practice … All people with severe mental illness will be in receipt of treatment and no prisoner with serious mental illness will leave prison without a care plan and a care co-ordinator."
I have to tell the Minister that prisoners at Parkhurst are not receiving adequate treatment. In some cases, they have to be sectioned during their final weeks at Parkhurst to enable them to be moved to Broadmoor. They cannot be sectioned before they are out of prison, so they have to be sectioned in preparation for their departure, otherwise they would be free to roam the streets. However, because there is not an adequate number of places in Broadmoor, prisoners are left in inadequate health care facilities in prisons such as Parkhurst.

The Minister's predecessor went on to make some points about dentistry, to which I have referred, and stated:
"Regrettably, during the reporting year, there have been a couple of occasions when, because of operational pressures, the Health Care Centre has had to be locked resulting in prisoners spending longer in their cells than would have otherwise been the case. These operational pressures have also resulted in the cancellation of some outside hospital appointments."
The words "operational pressures" are a smokescreen for a lack of staff.

On remand prisoners, the Minister's predecessor stated:
"It is important that the Prison Service provides remand accommodation on the Isle of Wight to serve the island courts, ensuring that prisoners are produced on time, and to allow prisoners access to their solicitors."
That may be so, but it is not appropriate that prisoners on remand should be kept in the segregation unit of a category B prison, as was reported in paragraphs 1.05 and 1.06 of the report on Parkhurst by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, which followed visits in November and December last year.

I do not accept that the quality of the response from the Home Office is adequate. Ministers do not recognise the problems that are widely appreciated by my constituents, and certainly by the board of visitors and by those who work so well and effectively for the Prison Service, whether in a uniformed capacity or otherwise.

On 17 June, the board of visitors responded to the letter from the Minister's predecessor. I will refer to several points. The letter from the Minister's predecessor stated:
"Prisoners are not received late at Parkhurst."
One of the great problems is getting prisoners into the prison and dealing with their arrival sufficiently quickly. That cannot be done late into the night and certainly not after the prison reception closes. The Minister's predecessor thought that the prison reception closed at 7.30 in the evening. The prison thinks that the prison reception closes at 5.30 in the evening.

Prisoners are being brought to the Isle of Wight when they have been convicted at Winchester Crown court. They should be transferred to Winchester prison, but the contract for the transport of prisoners does not appear to require them to be transported to the right prison, with the result that they return, late, to the Isle of Wight. Other prisoners arrive at the Isle of Wight from other prisons. The consequence is that such prisoners are not dealt with properly. Far too many prisoners arrive without adequate paperwork and without sufficient information being given about their background, needs and, in particular, training needs. The education and rehabilitation of prisoners cannot take place if they are shifted, apparently at random, across the prison estate and arrive without adequate information on their needs.

In the response on 17 June, the board of visitors stated:
"We dispute the comment that prisoners are not received late at Parkhurst. The time quoted is 1930 hours. Why is it that 1730 has always been quoted in the past?"
Indeed, 17.30 is quoted in the report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons. The response continues:
"Reception is closed by 1730; there would be very few staff in the Health Care Centre after 1730."
That response was sent in June of last year. In November and December, there was an inspection of Parkhurst prison. There are a huge number of quotations from which to choose. There is criticism of the segregation unit because it includes prisoners who require protection, prisoners who are there for reasons relating to good order and discipline, lodgers—people who have just arrived at Parkhurst, but have not been found a cell because they have arrived so late at night—and local lads, some of them on remand, who almost certainly would not end up in a category B prison. I understand why it is necessary for there to be remand facilities on the island for people accused of crimes, but there are two other prisons on the island, and I would not describe Parkhurst as the ideal one for remanding prisoners.

An example of someone arriving in segregation is given as
"a black prisoner with mental health problems, transferred from Swaleside without any prior notice to reception staff of the seriousness of his condition. He had been on an open F2052SH ('Self-harm at risk' form) at Swaleside"—
they must have an awful lot of forms in the Prison Service—
"but this had been closed before his transfer in apparent disregard for his safety."
The example continues:
"To their credit staff at Parkhurst were now considering the appropriateness of securing his detention under Mental Health Act powers."
Another example concerns late arrivals:
"Often these involve young prisoners held on remand who were attending court on the mainland … some were coming to prison for the first time; a number were withdrawing from drugs. Spending their first night in prison on the segregation unit of Parkhurst could do nothing but exacerbate their anxieties."
Prisoners arrive with no sentence plan:
"The majority of prisoners entering Parkhurst came from other establishments. Some arrived with expectations of what they could achieve in a new stage of their sentence."
That was demotivating because it is so much harder to receive visits at Parkhurst. Paragraph 1.31 states:
"The establishment continued to house a significant number (37 per cent.) of black and minority ethnic prisoners who spoke of feeling powerless in addressing their concerns."
I thought that 37 per cent. was an extraordinary proportion, but I was advised that that is broadly par for the course in the prison estate, and the Minister needs to address and explain that.

The establishment has a lack of sufficient purposeful activity. All the criticisms show that there is a serious failure to address even the limited area of offending behaviour in prisons, to judge from Parkhurst. More than one area was praised, but I must repeat the praise for the physical education department, which the report said
"continued to deliver a good service in difficult circumstances. It was well-led by a very positive manager, and was one of the few areas where prisoners could gain qualifications."
The report contains some important messages for the director-general of the Prison Service and the area manager. I shall cite a few of those. The report for 2000 stated that
"The allocation criteria for Parkhurst should be consistent with its throughcare strategy, and the prison should aim to attract prisoners with the offending profile which the programmes at Parkhurst are designed to address."
The report said that that had not been achieved:
"Population pressures and the reduction in the number of offending behaviour programme places has not caused this to be a priority."
That is a direct criticism of the director-general of the Prison Service. It was also reported in 2000 that:
"Other Prison Service establishments and Population Management Unit at headquarters should be reminded about Parkhurst's change in role and therefore which prisoners should be allocated."
At Parkhurst 20 per cent. of the prisoners are foreign nationals, and of that number, 24 are from Jamaica. A minor recommendation was made that:
"Foreign national prisoners should be assisted to make affordable telephone calls to friends and families abroad."
That was not achieved. It was also recommended that:
"The number of foreign national prisoners should be analysed across the Prison Service and a strategy developed to manage them."
That was not achieved either. The report stated:
"We were aware of no change in national policy. We repeat the recommendation."
The report is a catalogue of failure, not on the part of Parkhurst prison—I commend the governor, Steve Metcalf, his predecessor, David Kennedy, and the staff for their excellent work—but of the Prison Service nationally. It does not follow the recommendations of Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons. The governor and uniformed and non-uniformed staff at Parkhurst work extremely hard at jobs for which most of us would not even consider applying.

The prison has 520 prisoners, 150 of whom are guilty of murder or crimes of violence. It is not adequate to respond, as the Minister did on the day the report was published, that there are many people in prison who should not be there. I invite him to walk around Parkhurst with me and indicate which prisoners should not be there but should, perhaps, be out in the community, living next door to his or my constituents.

When I told Steve Metcalf that this debate was coming up, he wrote:
"The good news is the amount of progress made, since the inspection, on addressing the issues.
We have re-organised in several areas, been successful in reducing our overcrowding, with the help of our Area Manager and PS HQ are optimistic that we will be successful with bids for additional trade training courses by next April."
Next April, it will be 15 months since the report was published. That is one third or one quarter of some people's sentences. Their offending behaviour will not effectively be addressed if they have to wait that long for training.

I wish to raise several other issues that do not relate to Parkhurst alone. One is the power of governors effectively to discipline prisoners. A European Court ruling prevents governors from reducing remission for disciplinary reasons. That causes cost and delay in the prison discipline system, and lack of discipline affects inmates and staff alike. The ruling diverts money from services to lawyers and perpetuates the absurd myth that people are entitled to serve only half the period for which they are sentenced.

The Prison Officers Association at Camp Hill has raised with me its concern that
"the Prison Rule that made it an offence against prison discipline for a prisoner to make a false or malicious allegation against prison staff"
has not been reintroduced. It says that in recent years there have been many cases of false and malicious accusations by prisoners against staff. Such accusations are deeply stressful to the staff, cost a huge amount to investigate and do nothing to maintain discipline in the prison.

In case hon. Members are convinced that I am extrapolating from the particular to the general, let me refer to the information that has recently been provided by the Prison Reform Trust. It shows that 85 per cent. of prisoners have had major illnesses and that there is a shortage of mental health professionals working in prisons. It shows the dire background of prisoners in terms of qualifications and numeracy and literacy, which are far below the national average, and of drug use and hazardous drinking. Unless resources are provided to address such problems, those prisoners will offend again.

In many respects, Albany, which deals with a large number of sex offenders, is a very successful prison. However, it suffers from a particular problem, in that sex offenders tend to be older men, many of whom are in prison for a long time, and it costs more to look after older prisoners. For example, in many cases, if they have to be transferred to hospital—St. Mary's hospital is just across the road from Albany prison—they have to be attended all the time. That is an added burden, just as it is an added burden to take those requiring dental treatment from Parkhurst. That needs to be addressed in the resources that are made available to Albany.

The Prison Reform Trust reports that many prisoners have never received help with their drug problems and that the Prison Service does not keep records of the percentage of prisoners with drug problems who do receive treatment. It also reports that transfers between prisons because of overcrowding often disrupt drug treatment and other training.

I have gone on long enough to paint a picture not only of Parkhurst, but of too many of our prisons. I am gravely concerned that we are spending about £36 million a year in Parkhurst alone on imprisoning foreign nationals. I wonder whether we could find a more effective way. We have bilateral agreements with some countries. Will the Minister consider extending those agreements, if necessary by purchasing places in prisons in Jamaica for Jamaicans? They would be nearer to their homes and families, and I doubt that that would be more expensive than providing prison places in the United Kingdom. That would get 24 people out of Parkhurst, and doubtless there are many Jamaicans in other prisons up and down the country.

I urge the Minister to review the background to the report on Parkhurst, which I suggest goes back some years. I urge him to check statements made by his predecessors, doubtless on the advice of their officials, to see whether they are true, because I fear that many in those letters appear to be untrue. I urge Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons to examine all such correspondence in future inspections of any prison.

I should also like the Minister to explore why so many black and ethnic minority citizens and foreigners end up in prison, and to do that not by demonising judges, the police or whoever for finding those who are committing crimes, but by identifying why there is apparently such a high propensity to serious crime among those citizens and foreigners. I should like the Minister to stay in his job, and governors to stay in their jobs, for longer. It is not satisfactory for a new governor to come in every time that there is an adverse report and then disappear after the next adverse report. I doubt that any Minister could do his job effectively in those circumstances, and I hope that the Labour Government terminate their term of office with no more than six Prison Ministers under their belt. I wish this Minister well in his two or three years in the job and I look forward to hearing his responses.

Order. May I help the House? It is the custom in Westminster Hall that the winding-up speeches begin at 10.30 am. At least four colleagues are seeking to catch my eye, so I appeal for an element of self-discipline. A number of hon. Members have prisons in their constituencies, so this is an important debate for them.

9.58 am

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on obtaining the debate, and I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister, who will reply to it.

Wandsworth prison in my constituency is one of the largest prisons in England and Wales and one of the oldest—it was built 150 years ago. Wandsworth, like many other prisons, faces overcrowding and all the resulting problems. The certified accommodation for the prison is 1,163 people, but the prison population is hardly ever at that figure. Today, like most days, there are about 1,400 inmates. As a result of that overcrowding, several hundred men are two to a cell, which creates problems and tensions. One has only to speak to a prison governor, the board of visitors and members of the Prison Officers Association to learn of the problems and dangers that overcrowding causes.

I am deeply concerned that there has been overcrowding in prisons for a number of years. Home Office Ministers and officials say that the prison population will continue to increase, and that is completely unacceptable to me, and to many hon. Members, irrespective of their party. As the current prison population is well over 70,000, it is time for the Home Office to look at its policy of overcrowding in prisons.

I have been in the House for many years. I have taken part in many debates and asked many questions on prison issues, but I can see no improvement in the prison population in the foreseeable future. I am deeply concerned that the House rarely debates the prison system. Had the hon. Member for Isle of Wight not been successful in the ballot, there would not have been a debate before the summer recess on this ever important issue.

I have no idea of the total cost of running the prison system, but I know that it is enormous, and it is growing year by year. Those of us who represent constituencies where there are prisons know what the issues are; we see them when we visit prisons and read about them in the letters we receive from members of the boards of prison visitors and the Prison Officers Association, who tell us the facts about prisons. The hon. Gentleman referred to the board of visitors' annual reports, which will soon be dropping on to the Minister's desk. Does he read them? What notice does he take of the issues and what action does he take? What does he do about the problems that are raised in those reports?

I pay the warmest tribute to Wandsworth prison's board of visitors; its annual reports outline the good things that happen in prison—I am the first to say that good things do happen—but they are overshadowed by the ongoing problems in the prison system. There was recently a thorough condemnation of the prison system by the new chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers. She has been in the job for only a short time and already she is highly critical of what is happening.

For many people who are sent to prison, it is the start of their problems. They have anxieties such as how they will adjust to prison and how they will keep in contact with their family. How a prison is run is the key to day-to-day life for a prison inmate, who will want to know such things as what association there is, what is offered and when it takes place. A prisoner will have questions such as whether there are enough officers on duty to hold associations, whether he can telephone his family when he needs to and what is the visiting system for family and friends. As any prison governor or officer will say, such conditions affect a prisoner's behaviour.

Those of us who represent London prisons know that the number of prison officers in a prison is crucial. In Wandsworth, the recruitment of officers and, more importantly, their retention, is a very real problem—it may apply to other parts of the country, too. Does the Minister have any idea of the cost of housing in my constituency? The weekly rent for a very small flat in the area is about £250. There are few, if any, officers' quarters in prisons; they were sold off long ago.

In previous prison debates I have called for an increased allowance to be paid to officers who work in London prisons. Officers at Wandsworth ask me why their London allowance is so much lower than that paid to a London police officer.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight touched on much of what one can say in debates about prisons. I am deeply concerned about continuing assaults on prison officers, but we rarely hear anything about them. Officers' morale is crucial in the day-to-day running of a prison.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that some of us really do want to work with him. I take to heart the comment made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight about the number of prison Ministers that we have had. He made a point about consistency in relation to governors; the same is true of prison Ministers. Wandsworth prison had a superb governor, Stephen Rimmer, who turned it around. He was then moved off. In a long chat that I had with him about that, he said, "Tom, my problem is that if I don't take this promotion, I don't know when another offer will come my way." There is an urgent need for consistency.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will listen to Members who have prisons in their constituencies and that he will meet members of the board of visitors and the Prison Officers Association, because they can tell him what life is really like in a prison. I understand that he must have officials, but prison officers in prisons throughout the country and those loyal people who serve on boards of visitors run the day-to-day system in our prisons, not officials.

I wish the Minister well. Some of us will raise the issue of prisons with him time and again. We are willing to work with him, and I hope that we will do so and that he will work with us.

10.6 am

I am inspired by your call to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and have converted what was to be a brief intervention into a speech.

I was a prison visitor before entering this place. It was a salutary experience. I want to talk a little about the work of prison visitors, who need to be differentiated from boards of visitors, which fulfil a completely different role. During the past two years, I have asked the Minister questions about prison visitors, because they have a great impact on the welfare and rehabilitation of those in our total institutions.

I am afraid that the Minister has a lamentable grip on how many prison visitors there are. When I asked the question last July, I was distressed that he appeared not to have met the National Association of Prison Visitors. The Government have no idea how many prison visitors there are and have not gone to the trouble of meeting the body that represents them. There is an obvious need to improve the welfare and rehabilitation of our prison population and the important part that prison visitors play in normalising and moderating life in prisons, so the Government's shortcoming is very serious. I hope that, a year later, the Minister will tell us that he has now met the National Association of Prison Visitors and can indeed tell us how many prison visitors there are.

I want to talk briefly about the prison health service—another subject about which I have bearded Ministers during the past two years. It is in a parlous state. There are moves towards bringing it more into the national health service, which are long overdue and are to be welcomed. We need to recognise that prisoners' health falls well short of the health that most of us in this country can expect. If we are serious about improving the overall health of the population of this country, we must focus on those areas where our efforts can have the most impact. One of those areas is the prison population, where health indicators, such as they are, suggest that the inmates suffer from extremely poor health in comparison with the general public.

The health care purveyed to our prison population is often of dubious quality, and the informatics that support moves that we might make towards improving that health are abysmal. I have asked a number of basic questions, the answers to which most primary care trusts in this country would have at their finger tips, but it seems that that information is not collected about the prison population. For example, the Minister cannot tell me the average time taken to institute thrombolysis following heart attacks, but I have no doubt that his counterpart in the Department of Health would have that information on the tip of his tongue. We do not know what proportion of our prison population are prescribed atypical anti-psychotics, which is recognised as the treatment of choice for psychosis, although we know that that population is a repository of a large amount of mental ill health.

The problem is not just the lack of health informatics about inmates. I recently asked the Minister about sickness absence among prison officers, but he was unable to tell me, although he was able to trot off statistics for the police service.

That all suggests that, probably for a long time, Ministers have failed to get to grips with what is going on in the health care of our prison population. Given the obvious need to improve the health of and the health service in that population, that is a serious omission.

10.11 am

Woodhill prison is a modern prison in my constituency. It is constantly being expanded, and is about to have yet another facility added for young prisoners. It had some unwelcome publicity recently about an incident involving a particular remand prisoner, which occasioned a ministerial statement on 19 June.

Many prisoners should not be in prison and would be better served if they were given community sentences. The public would also be better served if those prisoners were given community sentences, because they are more likely to lead to their rehabilitation. The public want people to be punished when they have committed crimes, but they also want them not to reoffend. I urge the Minister and his colleagues in the Home Office to make a real effort to inform the public about the reality of community sentencing.

I attended my local magistrates court, and it was clear that community sentences are a real and viable alternative to prison. They are not a soft option, and allow much greater control in ensuring that offenders undertake proper drug treatment courses or anger management courses. They enable positive measures to be taken to help them to stop their offending behaviour.

As regards the Minister's statement on 19 June about the incident at Woodhill prison, I want to refer to the report by the inspector of prisons following an inspection of Woodhill in February 2002. The report was published a year later. The distressing fact is that many of the issues highlighted in that report by the inspector of prisons in early 2003 mirrored the failures that the Minister outlined in his statement on the recent incident concerning the remand prisoner in Woodhill. Most of the issues come down to two factors. One concerns recruitment and retention problems. Not only are there problems of understaffing, but the staff tend to be relatively inexperienced and poorly trained. The ministerial statement on the incident concerning the remand prisoner pointed out that staff were being asked to do a complex task with inadequate supervision and training. That was also highlighted in the report of the inspector of prisons in February 2003.

The second factor is the quality of health services in the Prison Service. Woodhill is a modern prison, with modern health facilities. The report criticised those health facilities, so I dread to think what criticisms would be made of the health facilities in other prisons. The report is particularly critical of the methods used in the prison for the supply of medicines, and makes a number of recommendations. It noted that the
"written prescribing formulary … had last been revised in February 2000."—
that is two years before the inspection took place—and recommended that
"the prescribing formulary should regularly be reviewed."
The Minister's statement on the recent incident pointed to failures in prescribing practice in relation to the drug that was given to the prisoner concerned, which was perhaps not the most appropriate, and to the lack of supervision by staff of the handing out of medicines, which allowed the prisoner to accumulate sufficient to attempt suicide. I am concerned that the issues highlighted in that hard-hitting report by the inspector of prisons seem not to have been acted on, and that they will not be acted on now, even though a very high-profile incident has occurred which necessitated a statement by the Minister.

I am also concerned about the health system. The report by the inspector of prisons recommended that
"all staff whether doctors, nurses or non-nurse trained health care officers should have a training plan aimed at enhancing their skills to meet the needs of patients. These plans should be reviewed yearly. The Health Care manager should complete a training needs assessment."
> It also recommended that the health care manager should keep records on individual staff to ensure that they were all up to date
"in all aspects of current health care needs in prison."
Clearly, that has not occurred, and is again highlighted by the incident concerning that particular prisoner. However, I assume that the lack of training and record keeping occurs across the piece.

I do not criticise the prison staff at Woodhill or my local primary care trust, which has been very forward thinking in working with the local prison, and has made strenuous efforts to try to integrate the prison health care system into the local NHS and to bring it up to standard. However, I am concerned about the level of funding available through the Home Office and the Prison Service for bringing the prison health service up to scratch, in accordance with the action plan drawn up jointly by the primary care trust and the local prison. I know that responsibility for the prison health service will eventually be handed over to the NHS, and that the primary care trust will have to fund it. I ask the Home Office to ensure that the health service in the prison is up to standard before it is handed over, so that it does not have to be brought up to scratch by NHS funding, which is already tightly stretched in my constituency.

I have drawn concerns about staff recruitment and retention to the Minister's attention on several occasions, because it has been drawn to my attention by the local Prison Officers Association and by the prison governor. I am pleased that, partly as a result of pressure from me and from the prison governor, the extra housing allowance of four prison officers in Woodhill was increased from low to medium. However, in the light of continuing recruitment and retention problems, I asked the Minister to consider whether that allowance should be further upgraded.

I also ask the Minister to look into the issue of key worker housing for prison officers. There are significant key worker housing schemes being built in my constituency but, as elsewhere in the country, the definition of key worker applies only to police officers, teachers and certain NHS staff. It does not include prison officers although, to some extent, prison officers and police officers are in the same market, and prison officers often leave the Prison Service to go into the police service, because the pay and conditions in the police service are more attractive.

The responsibility for key worker housing is to be transferred to the Housing Corporation in the near future, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is currently undertaking a review of the categories of workers that should be included in the definition of key worker. Sponsoring Departments have the opportunity to present the case for other categories of public sector workers to be included. I ask the Minister to consider urgently the evidence available, especially from places such as Milton Keynes but also from London and across the south-east, that will enable the Home Secretary to argue for prison officers to be included in the definition and therefore benefit from affordable housing.

The hon. Lady is making a good point. I do not know what the position is at Woodhill, but on my visits to prisons in south-east England and from talking to prison officers, I have always been struck by the fact that many of them are routinely travelling 60 to 70 miles to work. They are living far away from the prisons in which they work.

That is often the case. There are reasons why prison officers prefer not to live immediately adjacent to a prison, particularly when, as with Woodhill, 60 per cent. of prisoners are on remand. There are parts of Milton Keynes in which prison officers do not live because they contain a high representation of the pre-prison and post-prison population—if I can describe them in that way—and the officers prefer not to bump into them when they are off duty.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman supports my case, as it should not be a party political point. We should all agree that prisons need to be effective in containing prisoners within a safe environment, particularly for remand prisoners. The Prison Service has an added responsibility for them, as they have not yet been proved guilty of any crime. Indeed, some of them will never be convicted.

It is also important that prisons provide an environment in which offending behaviour can be addressed and prisoners can be provided with a real opportunity to reform and rehabilitate, so that they do not return to prison. That is not possible in prisons at the moment, because of staffing difficulties, among other factors. I urge the Minister to ensure that that is addressed.

No, because I know that others want to speak.

I have already apologised to the Minister for the fact that I must leave at quarter to 11 because I have an appointment with another Minister that I could not shift. I apologise to the Chamber as well.

10.22 am

I should declare an interest at the outset. In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made several references to the Prison Reform Trust. I am a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust.

This is the second time that I have made a speech in Westminster Hall about prison overcrowding. The last occasion was two and a half years ago when I marked the 10th anniversary of the publication of Lord Justice Woolf's report on the Strangeways riot. On that occasion, my lament was that 10 years after that report, and 11 years after the riot, the lessons of Strangeways had not been learned. Prisons that were grotesquely overcrowded in 1990 remained grotesquely overcrowded in 2001. Sadly, I return today to tell the Minister that things have not got better; indeed, they have got worse.

When the Labour Government came to power in May 1997, the prison population was just over 60,000. When I spoke in February 2001, it was 64,000. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) became Home Secretary on 8 June 2001, the prison population was just over 66,000. Eleven days ago, on 20 June, the figure stood at 73,478—the highest ever recorded.

The United Kingdom has the highest imprisonment rate in the European Union. Inevitably, the result is that 12 years after the Strangeways report pointed out the problems caused by overcrowding, the prisons of this nation remain overcrowded. Today, prison overcrowding is at its highest recorded level. At the end of May this year, 90 of the 138 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. Preston was overcrowded by 86 per cent., holding 661 prisoners in a prison intended to accommodate just 356. Shrewsbury was overcrowded by 75 per cent., and Leicester by 73 per cent. Those figures are worse than for Strangeways in 1990.

More than 17,000 prisoners are held in overcrowded accommodation, so it is little wonder that doubling up still occurs, with prisoners held two to a cell meant for one and three to a cell meant for two. In the past 10 years, 13 new prisons have been opened, but nine are already overcrowded. The current overcrowding means that, all these years after Lord Woolf published his blueprint towards a more just and humane, fairer and securer prison system, we have still not progressed.

Lord Woolf called for an end to slopping out, which has indeed ended. Cells have integrated sanitation, but with prisoners doubling up, they have to defecate in front of each other. There is little wonder that three quarters of the independent monitoring boards are concerned that overcrowding is leading to prisoners being held in inhuman, degrading and unsafe conditions. Lord Woolf also recommended that prisoners should be held in community prisons, as near as possible to their homes. However, after all these years 27,000 prisoners are still held more than 50 miles from their committal court town, and 12,500 prisoners more than 100 miles away.

Lord Woolf also recommended that there should be a separate statement of purpose, separate conditions and a lower security categorisation for remand prisoners. However, on 13 June this year, almost 13,000 prisoners were those being held on remand. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said, those prisoners have not been convicted. More than half will not subsequently receive a prison sentence, and one fifth will be acquitted or have the proceedings against them terminated early. Despite that, they are being kept in conditions that Mr. Narey, the former director general of the Prison Service, described as primitive.

We have to ask ourselves why. Why do we have these legion problems? Why are prisons so overcrowded? Why are prisoners still held hundreds of miles from home? Why are remand prisoners held in primitive conditions when they have not been convicted of a crime and may never be so? It is not because crime is soaring. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, the adult prison population in England and Wales has grown by 71 per cent. in the past 12 years, but all the evidence shows that both overall crime rates and the number of offenders appearing before the courts have fallen in those 12 years.

If crime is not soaring, why is imprisonment? It is because of changes in sentencing policy. The evidence shows that courts are now more likely to imprison offenders who 10 years ago would have received a community sentence or a fine. People convicted of petty offences such as theft and the handling of stolen goods are now three times more likely to go to prison than they were in 1991. The courts are imposing longer sentences. The number of offenders being sent to jail for more than four years has increased by 62 per cent. since 1991, and the number of lifers has increased by 45 per cent. since 1992. England and Wales have a higher proportion of life sentence prisoners than the rest of western Europe.

In short, we are locking up more and more people, and we are locking them up for longer. It does not work. Indeed, it is doing harm to both the prisoners and the rest of us. We are locking prisoners up in conditions that put them unnecessarily at risk. Overcrowding has been one of the reasons underlying the dramatic increase in suicides and suicide attempts in custody—a record 94 last year. Worse even than that, we are locking people up in conditions that make them more likely to reoffend in the future.

I mentioned earlier the figures for prisoners held miles from home. The reason why Lord Woolf advised against that was simple. Maintaining good family ties can reduce a prisoner's risk of reoffending by a factor of six. It is the greatest single factor determining whether a prisoner is likely to reoffend on release, so if we want to be tough on crime and the causes of crime, restoring and sustaining those family relationships is a good place to start. Keeping people in prisons close to their families is the best way of doing that. However, today, with so many still held miles away from their home town, 59 per cent. of all prisoners, and nearly three quarters of young male prisoners, are reconvicted within two years of discharge from prison.

Prison is not working, so what should the Home Office's response be? It should be twofold. First, the Home Office must acknowledge that overcrowding is the core problem facing prisons. It is a scourge, cancer and obscenity. Those are not my words, but those of Mr. Narey, Lord Woolf and Christopher Scott, the former president of the Prison Governors Association, respectively.

The Home Office must address the problem of overcrowding not by building more and more prisons, but by sending fewer people to prison. I say that despite sharing everyone's abhorrence of crime. I have asked to serve on every Standing Committee on every major criminal justice Bill since I became a Member of Parliament. Crime blights my constituency just as it blights others. It ruins lives. It shreds the most fundamental human right of all—the right not just to live, but to live free from fear. I bow my head to no one in my desire to fight crime, but sometimes a more liberal touch works more effectively.

Rather than locking people up in overcrowded prisons, we should first focus on the need to cut crime. That is not a trite thing to say: it should be an imperative in criminal justice policy. Preventive crime reduction policies should be part and parcel of every properly integrated criminal justice and penal system. It can be done. In my constituency, the council evicted a drug dealer from a sink estate and offered the council house to the police to use as a temporary police office while it was being recycled into housing accommodation. Burglaries in that area fell by 81 per cent. in the following month.

Secondly, we should develop, and then sell, more effective and more flexible sentences, some of which do not involve prison. We should examine the alternatives to prison. Top of the list must be drug testing and treatment orders. In particular, we should expand the use of naltrexone implants, which block the effect of opiates so that there is no point in mugging an old lady for a 10-quid fix because the fix will do nothing. We should massively expand the use of naltrexone.

Thirdly, we must ensure that those who should not be in prison are not sent there. No one would argue against long-term imprisonment for serious or serial offenders, but we are imprisoning addicts and the mentally ill. Nine out of 10 young people in custody have mental health or substance abuse problems, or a combination of the two. We imprisoned David Blagden, a former constituent of mine, for 24 years for setting fire to some curtains on the week that his parents died. What fools we are. Prison should be for serious offenders and violent offenders, but we are sending people to prison who should not be there.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
"It will take a sustained and decisive change of political will to halt this relentless increase in our prison population, and the shocking levels of re-offending and strain on the public purse which accompany it."
If we are serious about avoiding the next victim, now is the time to find that will and bring a sense of proportion and fairness hack into sentencing.

10.32 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this timely and important debate, although I hesitate to congratulate him on the large number of prisoners in his constituency.

We have heard many examples from particular prisons, and a great deal about the deficiencies in health care for prisoners. I should like to underline the particular deficiencies in mental health care, which can lead to so many other problems. Members' comments have complemented the comprehensive study that the Prison Reform Trust has recently published, and I should like to associate myself with all the comments made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), who has drawn on many of the study's findings.

We all want our communities to be safer, and we all want there to be fewer victims of crime. To those ends, some excellent work is being carried out, and I do not want to undermine the contributions being made by professionals and volunteers. However, we must recognise that an outcome of the Government's trying to achieve those objectives is the massive escalation in the size of the prison population that other Members have described. The size of the prison population is certainly rising at an exponential rate.

Since November last year, I have served on three Standing Committees with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), all of which have dealt with the early release of offenders with electronic tagging. We have questioned whether those measures are part of the Government's overall strategic policy, or quick fixes to attempt to address the problem of rising prison numbers. We cannot be proud of the fact that we now have the highest imprisonment rate in the European Union, and we can be even less proud of—and should be greatly concerned about—the projections for the end of this decade, by which time the Home Office is suggesting that there could be a prison population of 91,000, and perhaps as much as 110,000. What are we going to do? Are we going to build more prisons, or are we going to examine carefully what is happening to give us more and more prisoners?

I want to comment on women prisoners, as there has been a particularly rapid rise in their numbers. Although those numbers are relatively small, an increase of 191 per cent. in 10 years must be highlighted. I shall also touch later on the number of prisoners under 18. I am relieved to see that that is now below 3,000, but there is still an awfully long way to go. I think that it is true to say that the spiralling prison population is unplanned. It is difficult to see how it fits into an overall strategy to reduce crime, and the unintended consequences have been graphically described by many other hon. Members this morning. We have built 13 new prisons in the past 10 years, but overcrowding is now at its highest recorded level in 90 out of 138 prisons. That overcrowding, as we have heard, threatens prison safety and has led to unacceptable conditions for prisoners. Linked to that is the massive rise in suicides, particularly in the past year, tragically including nine women. Those suicides must be linked to overcrowding.

Another result of the vast numbers coming into custody is that people have to be moved up and down the country—I understand that that is known as the churn factor. Prisoners are being moved around the system to accommodate demands from local courts and to avoid overcrowding in certain prisons. That has caused disruption to important education and drugs programmes, fewer opportunities for teachers to become fully involved, offending behaviour programmes to be suspended and family ties and resettlement work to be affected. We have just heard how important it is for prisoners to have good, strong links with the family and home community. The number of cases of prisoners absconding increases as more move around the country, and the work of prison officers is made much more difficult, as they find it hard to build up relationships and trust with inmates.

Further problems, as we have heard, involve the numbers of prison officers, staff shortages, the high level of staff vacancies in one third of all prisons, and record sickness levels among prison officers. In the reply to a parliamentary question that I submitted recently, I learned that 17 prisons are understaffed by more than 10 per cent. There are some staggering figures involved, and the problem is clearly causing a morale vacuum. The more members of staff who leave, or who are absent because of stress and illness, the greater the stress and work load for those who remain. It is a vicious cycle.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the whole picture painted by this morning's debate is of a system under incredible pressure, and that we therefore cannot rehabilitate offenders because the resources are barely there to keep them confined at all?

Absolutely. We really have a crisis. Our prisoners are locked up for longer, and not engaging in activities, which makes it impossible to make progress.

Among women prisoners, there is a high reconviction rate, and the majority are serving short sentences. There must be alternatives to custodial sentences for some of them. Mothers are separated from their children, and the knock-on effects for our social system are enormous. We have only 68 places in mother and baby units. A further 22 more places are planned, but how many are needed? There has been no recent survey, but a survey from 1994 suggests, if we project its figures, that we need about 178 such places.

Some women have to make a terrible choice to keep their baby with them for perhaps 18 months at a particular prison, when that takes them further away from their other children. That is scandalous if we are to move forward and describe ourselves as living in a civilised society. There is also the issue of children in prison, and it is questionable whether we are meeting children's rights in this country. How long will it take to provide all the placements for children? Will the Home Secretary meet his commitment to having no young girls in prison by the end of this year? There have been promises since 1999, but when will action be taken?

We have said a great deal, but perhaps the issue is in the sentencing. The Criminal Justice Bill refers to a new custodial scale including custody plus and custody minus, but is there not a case for a royal commission to look at the whole issue of punishment? The media say that sentences must be tough and there seems to have been a reaction to that, but, more recently, the media have been concerned about conditions in prison. We have had a series of articles about incidents in prison, including an article headed:
"Inside Holloway—one woman inmate's harrowing story of life on the dark side".
We must marry the two issues, and we must give leadership.

We must move forward and think about what prison is trying to achieve. I believe that it is achieving punishment, but not rehabilitation and health care. We want a prison system that works and which the community supports with a full review of sentencing. As the Magistrates Association has suggested, we could even have an interim community penalty between a fine and the current community sentences. We must be imaginative and try to make fines work more effectively. We must use prison when serious, violent crimes have been committed, but for some of the shorter sentences we should use our money more effectively by treating people, preventing re-offending and making our society better.

10.41 am

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has done the House a good service by raising the issues concerning Parkhurst and Albany prisons. He has done something that is quite unusual. During my time as prison spokesman for my party, I have been horrified at the number of Members of Parliament who have never visited their local prison. It would be useful if we were all better informed about what was going on in the prison system.

The hon. Gentleman has been supported by the expertise of the hon. Members for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), and of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who brought his medical experience to bear, which was extremely useful. There is no doubt that the situation is bad, but I shall not repeat the litany of how bad it is or make a party political point on the issue, because I have a funny feeling that, irrespective of when a Conservative Government next come to office, it will be equally bad then and equally intractable to deal with. There is no doubt that the situation is extremely serious.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give us the exact figures on certified normal accommodation—the last figure that I saw was 65,850—and on the operational capacity, whose absolute ceiling limit is around 76,000. I hope that he will also tell us how close we are to that operational capacity. Are we a few hundred away, as I think we might be? At the end of my contribution I shall ask the Minister to tell us what he will do when that capacity is reached. This is an immediate crisis that needs to be addressed.

There is no doubt about the consequences of overcrowding; they have already been listed. In some prisons—including Liverpool, Pentonville and, I believe, Wandsworth—inmates are locked up for 23 hours a day. Assaults in prison have risen 9.9 per cent. during the past 12 months to more than 6,500, and there have been riots and disturbances, most notably at Lincoln, but also at Guys Marsh, Ranby and other prisons.

Many prisons are not meeting the Government's and Prison Service's target of 24 hours a week of purposeful activity. Belmarsh, which is a state-of-the-art remand and local prison, and regarded in some ways as a model—I have visited it—is providing between 11 and 15 hours a week only. We have heard about the suicide rate going up, and it is astonishing that in a prison such as Woodhill, with a dedicated unit for remand prisoners known to have mental health problems, the situation was so bad that a suicide attempt could be made by a prisoner under 24-hour supervision by staff through an open cell grille. That is an astonishing state of affairs, and a reflection of the collapse of staff morale and lack of training highlighted by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West. We have heard also about the churn effect, which is a disaster.

The one thing that I have become convinced of during my time as prisons spokesman is that it is possible, in the right conditions, for prisons to deliver purposeful regimes that help rehabilitation. Prison can work, not just in detaining those who are psychopathic or a serious danger, but—if part of a structured programme, both pre-release and post-release—as a very important tool in rehabilitation.

Prisons are not hell holes; they can be constructive, pleasant places, and a secure environment can be a real help to rehabilitation in the right conditions. I know that the Minister will agree that that cannot happen if there is overcrowding. The churn is the classic example of that. Prisoners are taken off programmes and sent to another prison 150 miles away when they are about to take their GCSEs or national vocational qualifications the next day. That is a crazy state of affairs.

During an earlier debate, I agreed with the previous prisons Minister, who said that it was possible to visit a prison that had had a terrible report 12 months previously, and to be impressed that it had completely picked itself up, only to find that, six months later, under pressure from overcrowding, the situation had collapsed again. It is impossible to ensure sustained improvement.

We have heard about travel distances, and the problem of prisoners not being local. It is worth highlighting that there are 700 children in the prison system who are more than 100 miles away from their homes. We have heard a great deal about measures that are being taken, and we have been given local statistics, but I think that I am right in saying that during 2001–02, 363 officers were recruited, while 1,342 officers left the service. That is a measure of the extent of the crisis. The numbers of prison officers are static or going down, and prisoner numbers are going up.

The Government have tried a number of devices to establish community-based punishments. We have been broadly supportive of those, including what we thought were emergency measures on tagging to get some people out of the prison system. However, those provisions will not solve the problem. My impression is that prison numbers are going to continue to rise because people are coming before the courts having committed offences when Ministers have made various public pronouncements about the antisocial nature of those activities. That leads to those people being imprisoned because the courts do not consider that there is any adequate alternative that commands public confidence. What are we going to do about that?

I would like to hear from the Minister about the wider issues, and about the immediate crisis. At what point are we going to have to put prisoners into police cells? Are we a week or two away from that, or a few months, or are we going to be able to avoid it completely? What other contingencies have been made for the operational capacity ceiling being reached?

It has been suggested that introducing weekend and evening jails might solve the problem. I do not quite see that. If we built a jail for weekends only, the fact that it was filled at weekends would not mean that it could be filled by alternative prisoners during the week, so I am not sure how that would help to reduce prison numbers. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us a little about that proposal, as that particular kite has been flown. It would surely require more prison places.

How is the prison building programme progressing? I fully respect the views of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), and I sympathise with many of the points that he made. We should be trying to reduce the prison population, but the reality is that under the Criminal Justice Bill and according to the Halliday report, prison numbers will increase by 8,000 or 9,000. That is according to Halliday; the Government think that that number will be a little lower. We have been stacking more and more people into the system, which might have been all right if we had had a system that could take them.

I have grave concerns, especially as custody plus and custody minus are not going to come into operation for some time—it would be interesting if the Minister could say when they will do so. When the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law, there will be a restriction on passing sentences of less than 12 months imprisonment, with the consequence that during the initial term agreed by the Government, more people will be sentenced for longer terms.

I apologise for the brevity of my remarks; I would have liked to expand them further, but I want to give the Minister a chance to reply. He has my sympathy; I wish him well in his job, and he will always have our constructive support. This issue should not be party political, and I do not intend to make it so, but the Minister has a serious problem on his hands. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight for highlighting that.

10.50 am

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on obtaining this important debate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox): these issues are debated far too infrequently, and it is important that we should discuss the conditions in prison and the pressures that we face. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for what he said about his hopes for my future. I should point out to him that I have survived at least one reshuffle, even though I have been in the job for only a few weeks.

It was clear from the hon. Gentleman's speech that he takes a strong interest in the prisons in his constituency and elsewhere. He spoke powerfully about his concerns for the welfare of prisoners, as did all Members who contributed to the debate. I will try to respond to some of the issues that he raised and to the points made by other hon. Members, although inevitably it will be impossible for me to answer all the questions in the time available. I emphasise that I am keen to engage constructively in debates on these issues, and I will attempt, at least in writing after the debate, to cover every point that has been made and to try to answer every question.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the public are protected from crime and the criminals who commit crimes. Various references have been made to the Criminal Justice Bill. The Government are making it clear that those who commit the most heinous crimes such as murder will face longer prison sentences. It is a popular view that those who commit the most horrendous crimes should face longer prison terms. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight rightly stressed that part of my responsibility relates to rehabilitation and reducing offending, as well as to overseeing those in our prisons.

I want to emphasise the tremendous work that is being done in prisons, albeit in the face of various pressures. That work includes offending behaviour programmes, drug treatment, and education and training. I can tell hon. Members that people in prison obtained 32,398 level 1 and 2 basic skills qualifications last year. That represents one in 10 of all qualifications obtained in the country, which is a great tribute to the work done by people in the Prison Service. Increasingly, we need to prepare prisoners for their release by making them ready for work. Jobcentre Plus is doing a great deal in that regard.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) mentioned some of our recent debates on the home detention curfew, which is proving to be a great success in reintegrating and rehabilitating prisoners. The maximum period is now four and a half months, which will reduce the number of people in prison. At the moment, about 3,000 people are on home detention curfews at any one time who would otherwise be in prison. That number will increase. The home detention curfew will ensure that their re-entry into society is more successful.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the current prison population. We heard various estimates of that figure, but I regret to tell the House that each of them was an undercount, rather than an overcount. As of this morning, the prison population stands at 73,807. The hon. Gentleman asked what the total uncrowded capacity was. That currently stands at 66,144. The total useable operational capacity in the Prison Service is 74,436. Not all those places can be used, of course, because they might be in the wrong part of the estate or in the wrong part of the country.

There is no hiding from the fact that we are under great pressure in regard to numbers. Last year, police cells had to be used to accommodate additional prisoners, and we may not be very far away from having to do that again. Operation Safeguard may soon be necessary, but I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a definite date. Obviously, none of us wants prisoners to be held in police cells. They are not the appropriate place, and precious police resources are diverted away from safeguarding our communities and into safeguarding prisoners, which none of us wants.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred to the three prisons on the island. Although he highlighted some of the difficulties at Parkhurst, I think that he would agree that, on the whole, the performance and quality of those prisons is good. Albany is a four-star prison, Camp Hill will soon be a four-star prison and Parkhurst, although it has been criticised, is also making progress. He also raised a number of issues about staffing, and mentioned a time, some months ago, when there was a need to recruit additional staff. I am happy to tell him that there has been a big local recruitment campaign—I am sure that he is aware of that—and that all officer vacancies were filled as of last week. Some senior positions remain unfilled, but most of the officer positions are filled.

The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members also raised the issue of health care. It might interest hon. Members to know that, when I leave this debate, I am going to a Prison Health Development Network conference. The network facilitates the transfer of health provision in our prisons from the Prison Service to the national health service. The process began in April and will be completed in 2006. Responsibility and funding will be transferred to primary care trusts. The transfer will mean a third more money going into health. Already, additional staff are being recruited to help to deal with the considerable mental health problems that exist in our prisons.

I am pleased to say that there is a good relationship between the prisons and the primary care trusts on the Isle of Wight. Recently, they jointly commissioned research into the mental health needs of prisoners, and the results are imminent. I am also pleased to confirm that £5 million of capital investment has been set aside to provide a new health care centre at Parkhurst. I am sure that that will be of interest the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned escort contracts. Obviously, the difficulties that he outlined about prisoners arriving late are symptomatic of the overcrowding that he mentioned. I can confirm that, when prisoners are received in the evening, they will routinely be seen by health care staff. He also made a number of points about the recent inspection report. I will write more fully to him about that. Clearly, there was a need to make improvements in the segregation unit and there were important indications of the need for improvement in the reception facilities.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned race relations and the over-representation of black and ethnic minority people in prisons. That is a profound issue, not just for the prisons in his constituency but throughout the prison system, and it should concern us all. I am pleased to confirm that a new race relations liaison officer has been appointed and is in the post. All complaints are investigated. I am pleased to say, as well, that there are liaison officers on each wing of the prison. I would be happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the improvement plan. I should warn him that it keeps changing with the additional improvements, but I am sure that he will find things of interest in it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting talked about the importance of the independent monitoring board. When I visited Wandsworth recently, I was able to meet the chair of the board. I strongly agree with what was said about the role that volunteers play. That is a real example of civil society engaging with the criminal justice system. I promise that I will read the reports and that the independent monitoring boards will get a more timely response from Ministers than perhaps has been the case in the past. The boards' role is extremely important.

I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) is a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust. Its report makes an important contribution to the debate, and I hope that it will aid growing consensus on the issues. Clearly, prisons are under pressure, and there must be growing consensus between politicians and the public on sentences and on how we should move forward.

I have only seconds left.

The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) raised a number of issues. I still cannot answer the questions about the response time to heart attacks and the number of prison visitors. I shall write to him when I have that information. I can tell him, however, that the number of days lost per person because of sickness has fallen from 16.4 to 13.7. That is one question that I can answer, and I hope that he will be encouraged by that.

Clearly, our prison system faces major pressures. Several hon. Members mentioned the need to develop alternatives to prison, and I am concerned about the large number of people who are in prison for six months or less—

Order. Time is up and we must now move to the next debate, which offers a very rare experience. I am not sure how often the leader of a major political party applies for, and succeeds in getting, an Adjournment debate, but that has been achieved. The next debate, which has been initiated by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), perhaps highlights the importance of constituency duties for all Members of Parliament.

Special Needs (Waltham Forest)

11 am

This is indeed a unique experience. It is unique for me, because I believe that I have made only one small intervention in this Chamber since its initiation. Essentially, I am a new boy, so I seek your tolerance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, during my prolonged intervention this morning.

I thank the Minister for Children for being here today. The subject of the debate, while not directly a party political issue, brings into question the Government's attitude to special needs. I hope that she will be able to respond to some very serious questions that the consultation process in Waltham Forest has raised.

I begin by declaring an interest. I am a trustee of a superb special needs school in my constituency called Whitefield, which, while originally part of the consultation process, is not directly involved. It is through that that I have come to take a very special interest in such schools.

The schools that are directly affected by Waltham Forest council's drive on special needs schools are Belmont Park, Brookfield House, Hawkswood, Joseph Clarke, William Morris and Whitefield, which I mentioned earlier. The timelines are very simple. I shall not go into details, as I am sure that the Minister has them already to hand. The first report from the council was, I believe, on 17 December 2002, at which time the consultation process was, essentially, mooted. A consultation process was set out, and I understand that it is finally due to conclude some time in the middle of September this year.

I have questions about whether the consultation process is really as open and fair as it should be or whether the council and the education action forum have already reached a conclusion and are simply going through the motions. Three reasons were given for considering whether special needs education should be reordered, with the strong possibility of closure of one or more schools that deliver such education in the borough. The first reason was the Government's position on the national standards established in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. The second had to do with meeting the inclusion standards of the Department for Education and Skills, Ofsted and the Audit Commission, and the third was the borough's own policy on social inclusion.

Let me discuss my concerns about the consultation process by dealing with the Government's position on the matter and what the borough is essentially saying about its needs. The consultation has not been as fair and as open as the council would have us believe. It received only a small number of returns on the original consultation that was sent out. I believe that more than 15,000 were sent out but not more than 1,000 were returned.

In the meantime, there was a phenomenal reaction not only from people who have children in the schools, but most remarkably, from people who live in the borough but do not have children attending the schools and from people who live way beyond Waltham Forest but have a direct interest in the issue. A number of MPs fit into that category. Indeed, I think that the Minister's own constituency is affected. I believe that a petition of just under 30,000 signatures was presented to the council and that more are arriving every day. I do not recall such an overwhelming passion being declared quite so clearly and openly to the council in such a short time. Sadly, the council does not necessarily seem to have paid much attention. I shall return to that matter in a moment.

One problem with the consultation process is the fact that the costs of the integration have not been fully explained. We always hear about the savings to be made from closing a special needs school, but we do not see in detail how much it will cost to integrate children with serious physical or learning disabilities into mainstream schools. That is critical. Nowhere in the document have I seen a statement of such clarity that it would allow us to make a judgment.

I should like to refer to a letter from Marcia Gibbs, a special educational needs adviser at the Department for Education and Skills, in response to Joseph Clarke school. She makes interesting points. First, she states:
"Waltham Forest local authority would have to provide details of plans to support children currently attending Joseph Clarke School, including those pupils from other authorities, should it decide to make proposals for change."
However, none of those is included in the consultation, so how are we to make a decision about how effective the process will be? That is missing. Marcia Gibbs goes on to say:
"The right of parents to make a positive choice and express a preference for a special school place will be fully maintained."
At the same time, however, she restates the Government's determined advocacy of inclusion.

My concern is that there seem to be conflicting interests even within that letter. It suggests that although the Government are determined about inclusion, there is not a clear statement to local authorities and education authorities on exactly what they need to do if they are to go down the route of the consultation process. There is only a general statement of what is required. I want to return to that issue, because I believe that it will cause the greatest problem.

I understand that in the early part of June, the council announced, almost out of nowhere, that it was taking Brookfield school out of the process and that it was no longer under threat of closure. It said that that was because the costs of integrating those children with serious physical disabilities would be too great, but at no stage have we seen those costs. What are the costs and what calculations has the council made for schools such as Joseph Clarke or Hawkswood? Hawkswood has children with severe hearing disabilities and Joseph Clarke has children with visual impairment. My point is that at no stage has the local authority indicated anywhere what those costs are and how it has calculated them, but suddenly, out of the blue, it declares that one school is no longer relevant to the process. There is no regard to the costs. That makes us concerned about how the authority managed to arrive at those figures. Why not publish all the figures? Surely there should be guidelines stating that.

There are questions concerning other aspects relating to the local authority. At no stage in the document or in the discussions has it entertained the idea that perhaps Waltham Forest simply does not transfer the real cost of education to other boroughs and does not reflect the true cost. It does not state what the real cost is and at no stage has it set about trying to calculate it or to say to other boroughs, "Let's meet and discuss whether we can do a little more burden sharing." The authority has talked generally about that, but has not said, "This is the real cost of educating a child at a special needs school in Waltham Forest. You're paying only this much. Is there any chance that we could come to an agreement to share the burden?" At no stage has the authority attempted to do that.

With regard to the consultation process, the document made some stark statements that I do not believe are true. I shall highlight one, although there are others. The consultation document states:
"Although the borough has statemented a similar proportion of young people to other London LEAs, a rather greater proportion is educated in special schools than elsewhere."
The document did not give figures to back up that statement and it is not true. It is not borne out by any evidence that we can find. The percentage of statemented pupils in special schools in Waltham Forest is 42 per cent., the inner London average is 44 per cent. and the outer London average is 42 per cent. Comparing like with like in councils and boroughs that have similar problems, the figure for Hounslow is 41 per cent., Brent 43 per cent., Enfield 47 per cent., Ealing 55 per cent. and Lewisham 56 per cent.

The document is full of statements, without any supporting evidence. No one can understand its rationale. It is almost as though the verdict is given first, followed by the evidence. It seems that minds were made up before entering the consultation process, and I shall come to the reasons why in a moment.

I quote from a letter sent by the head of pupil and student support services in Waltham Forest to a neighbouring borough, the London borough of Newham, which explains what the education authority—with EduAction—is trying to do. It states:
"The transitional arrangements which would form part of the statutory notices have not yet been set out and cannot 'emerge' until after June",
although it indicates that they have already been settled. It becomes clear what is going on from the penultimate paragraph of the letter, which states:
"I would however want to take this opportunity of asking you not to put forward new admissions for the School from this point."
That is before decisions are supposed to have been taken. The borough is leaning on a neighbouring borough by indicating that there will not be a school or schools that can take further children, therefore it would be pointless to send them.

The letter says of the Ofsted report,
"we are driven by a poor LEA OFSTED inspection",
which is not true. In general it is the case, yes, but most of the specific schools have reasonable, if not good, Ofsted inspections; only one is subject to special measures. It continues, stating,
"re-organisation would be treated as a test of corporate governance."
The authority's concern is that failure to meet the test by the Department for Education and Skills or by the Ofsted inspectors would lead to further pressure on the borough. It blames the Government and Ofsted for driving it into this position, thus indicating to Newham that the conclusion will be that it intends to shut certain schools.

That explains my concerns about the consultation process. It is clear that the council has already arrived at its conclusions and the consultation process is, in essence, a way of covering that decision. Money is at the heart of it. The council declares itself in difficulties. It has had problems running its education policy. Ofsted was deeply critical of the education authority, and as a result the company called EduAction now runs education in the borough. Throughout, the council is concerned about the money it believes it needs to run education generally, and I want to explain why I have misgivings about it.

The process should be very carefully undertaken if changes are to be made, as those involved are such special children and we cannot risk getting it wrong. There will be a dual effect on education in this and other boroughs, which will affect those pupils who are already being educated in mainstream schools. There has to be a serious rethink about how the process takes place, as once children with real special needs—learning disabilities, visual impairment and hearing impairment—are put into those schools things change dramatically. For example, about 47 per cent. to 50 per cent. of children at Joseph Clarke, a school for the visually impaired, go there because they are scarred by the difficulties they had in mainstream schooling. They are now in that school because they failed to make progress in mainstream schooling and have been hurt and damaged by that; no reference is made to that in the consultation process.

The strength of parental support for such schools is awe-inspiring. The Joseph Clarke school asked parents for their views on the school, whether positive or negative, and 100 per cent. gave a positive response. I know of no other situation in which 100 per cent. of parents would respond to a notice from a school. Everyone knows how difficult it is to get parents to respond to requests from schools, but that is not the case at Joseph Clarke, or at the other special needs schools.

It is important to note that special needs schools provide peripatetic services for the other schools. It is ironic that the lower number of statements in the borough is partly due to the fact that the outreach from those schools allows children to settle in mainstream schools without statements. If that service is removed, they will have to be statemented, and that will place much greater pressure on the mainstream schools. Mainstream schooling would need to be reorganised to meet those children's needs—for example, there would need to be considerable debate on how mainstream schools could meet the Braille requirements of the visually impaired.

I was talking recently to someone from Hawkswood school, who pointed out that teachers will often walk to the whiteboard—or blackboard, whatever they are using—and talk to the class while writing on the board. If a hearing impaired child is a lip reader, which is not always the case, once they break sight from the teacher, they have no idea what is going on in the class. How many times does a teacher go to the back of a class and explain over the heads of the children what they are looking at on the board at the front? Those are two very simple realities that most mainstream teachers would take for granted, but which they would not be able to do if their classes included hearing impaired children, because teachers must never break sight from a hearing impaired child. Such simple issues have been forgotten in this process. A huge amount of retraining of teachers would be required.

Such examples show that there is a need to rethink this process, both nationally and locally. Dyslexia is arguably the most well known learning disability in schools. However, I have visited many mainstream schools—I am sure the Minister has also done so—that still struggle with the teaching of dyslexic children. Some of those schools are hopeless and others are good—the coverage is patchy. That problem has been known about for years, but we still struggle with it. How will we take children with much greater disabilities into those schools without a serious change in the way that mainstream schools are funded and supported?

I believe that Waltham Forest council should stop and rethink the process. It should reconsider the options and hold an open consultation process, putting all the facts and figures on display, so that a reasoned and rational decision can be made. The way in which the council has behaved—in some cases quite rudely to parents who are concerned about what will happen to their children—has led parents and others living in the borough to lose faith in its ability to deal with the matter sensibly and rationally.

I hope that the Minister will be able to explain some aspects of the matter to me. I do not want to make the issue a party political one, nor do I want special needs to be seen as party political. However, I believe that we need to have a proper, serious national debate about how we deal with children with special needs, and what we do about mainstream schooling. The Government, when they came to power, said that they wanted to move towards inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools. Superficially, that is a great idea—we would all want as many of those children as possible to be included in mainstream education. However, the devil lies in the detail of how that is done. How do we do that for children with real difficulties, and how do mainstream schools get funded? Who runs and controls that? The problem if we just have a general push for inclusion, is that cash-strapped local authorities see that as a way of putting up a shield behind which they find money that would otherwise not be there.

Loose statements by the Secretary of State worry me. A few weeks ago he talked about the general funding of local education authorities and his concern that some of the money was not being passed down, although I gather that there has been disagreement with that. One matter on which he discussed a re-think is the way in which local authorities may be retaining that money to spend on capital, special needs or educating pupils in outside schools. He went on to say that those decisions had a major impact on the budget of individual schools. I am sure that he was not driving down and trying to say that special needs schools should therefore be closed, but my concern is that cash-strapped local authorities may see that as an opportunity to make savings and to transfer money into mainstream education, without serious consideration of the huge extra costs involved.

How we treat children with special needs speaks volumes about us as a society and as Members of Parliament, and about the Government. It is important to think very carefully before making a major mistake. To see how disabilities are overcome and how those schools operate is not only moving but awe-inspiring and humbling. We owe it to those children, and to their parents and teachers, to think again. Waltham Forest should think again. I hope that the Government will initiate a real debate, and try to prevent councils, as an excuse for saving money, from closing special needs schools because inclusion is the order of the day. [Interruption.]

Order. We do not have applause. I call the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who has my permission, and that of the Minister and the initiator of the debate, to intervene very briefly.

11.22 am

I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in everything that he has said, first because children from my constituency also attend some of the schools about which he has spoken this morning, and I know how concerned their parents are. Secondly, I have visited many special schools throughout the country in the past year and spoken to hundreds of teachers and parents who share the concerns about the schools in Waltham Forest described by my right hon. Friend. I hope that the Minister will note that the situation that my right hon. Friend so eloquently described there is not an isolated case, but pertains throughout the country. Many special schools are under threat of closure and the parents of pupils and their teachers are most concerned about the Government's policy.

11.23 am

I shall have to curtail my response' and I hope that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) will accept my apologies for that. This is the first time that I can remember a Leader of the Opposition securing a debate on a matter of local interest, and I think that that is really great. We all get our strength and our understanding from our constituencies and the work that we do there. We all have to reflect the interests of our constituents in the House, and that adds value. I genuinely congratulate him on securing the debate and on the role that he plays in education in his constituency, especially as a trustee for Whitefield.

On special needs generally, I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the way we cater for children with special educational needs is the hallmark of whether our education system is appropriate and really provides an inclusive education in which every child can develop their full potential. It is a key part of the educational process. I was engaged in discussions running up to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, which put a greater emphasis on inclusion in mainstream education. I talked extensively with many groups about the interests of children. We have tried to provide the balance, which is difficult, and ensure individual choice for parents and children to find the environment that will enable the children to develop their full potential while providing a real choice of mainstream inclusion for those parents who want it.

As this is a non-party political point, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that such a choice has often been denied to young children. That choice informs our policy, with an emphasis that where a family and child want mainstream education, it should be available.

I should tell the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) that although it may feel as if we are in the business of closing more and more special schools, the statistics tell another story. From 1992 to 1997, the last period in office of the previous Government, 103 special schools were closed. In 1997 to 2002, 73 were closed. There has been no change in policy direction, although I accept that the 2001 Act included an emphasis on the right of children to have mainstream education if they want.

Such decisions are important and emotive to the parents and children involved, and I always commend complete openness of information, so that people can participate effectively. Within my powers, which are limited as the right hon. Gentleman knows, I will urge the council to consult. However, I have just pulled out figures from a briefing document, and they give detailed financial information on the schools that he mentioned and that are being considered.

I want also to make another point about Waltham Forest, on which both the right hon. Gentleman and we should reflect. When children can be properly educated in a mainstream setting to the satisfaction of the parents and the child, that is probably good for their ability to be included properly in society as adults. It is striking that the statistics show that there is a greater propensity for children to be in special schools in Waltham Forest than elsewhere. My statistics show that 1.8 per cent. of the pupil roll in Waltham Forest attends special schools compared with 1 per cent. elsewhere, and the right hon. Gentleman needs to reflect on that as, nationally, it stands out as a difference.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the most recent Ofsted report on special educational needs in the borough said that the authority should secure a radical improvement in communication with schools and parents as soon as possible. It sounds to me as if more work has to be done on that point. Ofsted also said that there should he an improvement in the quality of management of SEN in the borough, and I gather that some steps have been taken. A new unit has been set up and is open today, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that that is good news. Ofsted also said that there should be an improvement in the quality of strategic management of special educational needs in the borough and that better value for money should be achieved.

My understanding is that no decision has been taken and that a range of options is being considered by the various bodies that have the authority in the borough. A letter that was sent to the chair of governors of Joseph Clarke school set out seven different options and all are being taken seriously in the borough. I urge all the parents who have an interest to get engaged in the discussion of those options, which will help us to meet the needs of the children and parents and the broader needs of the borough. We have to provide more opportunities for children with special needs to be educated and secure better value for the money that is invested in the borough so that a disproportionate amount is not invested in educating, for example, children who come from out-of-borough placements. One answer may be simply to increase the money charged for out-of-borough placements and I believe that that is one of the options.

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Department has no authority in this matter. If it cannot be settled locally to the satisfaction of all bodies, it goes to the independent adjudicator. I hope that he applauds that system. We must continue to engage in the debate on how to respond to the individual needs of every child in every family through the special educational needs system. We are producing a further action programme in the autumn, and I hope that it will give us the basis for continuing engagement. I am delighted that we can have such debates outside the party political arena, because we all share the common interest of the best start for all children, particularly those with special needs.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

Airport Services (Midlands)

2 pm

I make a plea from the Chair, as it appears that a large number of Members want to participate in the debate. If each and every Member is disciplined in their comments and as succinct as possible, I hope to get all of them in to speak in this debate, which is clearly very important to the constituencies in the area.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this afternoon the important issue of airport development in the midlands. First, I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) to his new position as Under-Secretary of State for Transport. One has to crawl to the boss. I am sure that, given the importance that Members of Parliament attach to transport, he will be a familiar sight in this Chamber during the coming weeks and months. I note that my debate is one of four during the next few days to which he and his ministerial colleagues will respond. I wish him all the very best.

I pay tribute to Warwickshire county council, other organisations and my constituents for working with me to promote the interests of Rugby, Warwickshire and the midlands as a whole. I thank my parliamentary colleagues across the whole of the midlands for their welcome support. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) has had to attend an important meeting in his constituency today. He wishes us all the best and gives us his full support this afternoon. I see that representatives of Warwickshire county council are present, too. The fact that the council has sent a cross-party delegation to London this afternoon on the day of its full council meeting is a clear indication of the importance that it attaches to airport development, which is felt across the whole of Warwickshire.

As many hon. Members know, yesterday was the closing date for comments on the Government's consultation exercise on the future of air transport, so this debate is timely and relevant. The Government first launched the consultation in July last year and published a series of detailed consultation documents containing a wealth of information, the accuracy of which has generated considerable debate in the communities affected. I am sure that those concerns have been brought to the Minister's attention throughout the exercise.

I shall not dwell on the fact that the consultation arrangements have been the subject of more than a little controversy. Furthermore, the extension of the closing date for comments has served to prolong the distressing effect of the proposals on the midlands. Suffice it to say that the consultation has prompted a huge amount of interest, and I speak from the experience of having a postbag that has been overflowing throughout the past 11 months. I understand that the Minister, even in the very short time for which he has been in his current post, has felt the effect of the volume of correspondence that the consultation has generated against the option of the airport in the midlands. I have also followed with interest the inquiry carried out by the Select Committee on Transport under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). However, I hope that we can today concentrate on issues that affect the midlands.

I read the Government's consultation document relating to the midlands with great care and interest. It rightly acknowledges the contributions made by the aviation sector to the economy and general prosperity of the United Kingdom.
"Birmingham International Airport is the very cornerstone of development of air services for the West Midlands".
Those are not my words, but those of the Birmingham chamber of commerce and industry in its response to the consultation exercise. I am convinced that with sensible and sensitive expansion, Birmingham airport would be fully able to cope with the projected demand—and, importantly, in a way that is consistent with other economic and planning objectives.

East Midlands airport's existing and continuing role as a freight airport is important.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the sensitive way in which he has handled the potential impact of Birmingham airport on my constituents. May I say to him in a spirit of reciprocal good will that the people whom I am representing do not want an airport in his constituency in Warwickshire either? We support him and his constituents; in the vernacular, we are not dumping on them.

I fully appreciate that support, which has been apparent throughout this painful time.

These two important airports form the basis of a sensible and sustainable strategy for aviation in the midlands and for the United Kingdom economy as a whole.

East Midlands airport is in the constituency next door to mine, and the planes continually fly over my house. Is my hon. Friend aware of the specific problem with night flights? There are currently no restrictions on the number of night flights, and although we accept that there has been growth at East Midlands airport, that point must be borne in mind when the Minister develops the plans.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. The issue is, of course, also of great concern to my constituents, who are close to a freight airport in Coventry. There is the potential threat of ever-increasing night flights. The threat is real and we fully understand it. I hope that the Minister bears it in mind and will work with the industry and Parliament to resolve these concerns for all the communities across the United Kingdom affected by freight.

You are no stranger to matters Warwickshire, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you served on Warwickshire county council for a number of years. I congratulate my hon. Friend on not only securing today's debate but on speaking to many people in the Rugby area about the proposed airport, which would affect my constituency. I say to the Minister that the proposed airport would affect every midlands MP because it would drastically affect East Midlands and Birmingham international airports. Not only those airports—I hope that my hon. Friend touches on this later in his speech—but the surrounding infrastructure would be affected.

I fully appreciate the comments made by my hon. Friend, with whom I have relentlessly discussed these matters. I will touch on the issues that he raised later in my speech.

It makes much more sense from a sustainable development point of view to meet the demand for air travel in the regions, where it arises, instead of exporting it elsewhere. Currently, around 50 per cent. of passengers who live in the midlands travel outside the region to catch a flight. The midlands must have sufficient capacity in its own right. It was therefore with some astonishment that I realised the full impact of what the Government are saying in the consultation document, which is that if a new airport was built at Rugby, Birmingham international airport would close.

I appreciate that the consultation has just ended and that the many thousands of representations must be analysed and assessed, but I should be interested to know how many representations the Minister and his Department have received about Rugby, and how many of those supported building an international airport there.

It would not have taken him very long to count those letters and consultation forms.

I am conscious that the consultation has only just closed, but I wonder whether the Minister could clarify some important issues in his closing remarks. Would he tell us how the closure of an existing, successful international airport could be a solution to aviation requirements for the future of the midlands? It strikes me as somewhat bizarre to go to all the trouble of a lengthy planning exercise, followed by the disruption and cost of building a new airport just a few miles down the road from an established, successful international airport.

Once the new airport is built, there will be further uncertainty. There will be disruption and blight as the existing airport is demolished, terminals and hangars dismantled and runways dug up. That will leave a vast tract of land that will take many years to redevelop, leading to further uncertainty and blight during the lengthy planning process. Does that make any sense for the economy of the midlands, or for the local people?

Another aspect that puzzles me is that the Government seem to suggest seriously the closure of one airport in favour of a brand new one. The only other new airport proposed in the consultation is at Cliffe, but there is no suggestion that the development there would mean the closure of London City airport, for example.

Perhaps of more immediate concern is the effect that the consultation and the uncertainty have had on the area close to the proposed development sites. That is an all-too-common theme in a large proportion of the very well-informed representations of my constituents, and those in the surrounding area. Representations have been made to the Secretary of State from the Strategic Airport Co-ordinating Group, the Church Lawford and King's Newnham Action Group and, of course, Warwickshire county council, which have all played a major role in engaging the community in this important debate.

It goes without saying that no one wants any development in his or her back yard. We can all recognise the anguish felt when changes are proposed that might adversely affect our quality of life. The people of Rugby and Warwickshire have the greatest sympathy for those living near Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick who are very concerned indeed that any additional runways or further development could have a detrimental effect on their local environment. I know that the Minister—and indeed the Secretary of State—is acutely aware of the need to ensure that such impacts are treated with care and sensitivity, and that decisions are taken to minimise the disruption in people's daily lives.

It is important to stress that none of my constituents chose to live near an international airport, and until last summer no one was aware that there was any prospect of there ever being one. The threat of other infrastructure developments—those that come to mind immediately are the M25, the channel tunnel and some trunk road developments in London was on the cards for decades before they came to fruition, and the effects of the uncertainty on the local areas were manifested in low property prices, run-down neighbourhoods, poor residential facilities and a lack of investment in the area. I would contend that there is not a single town in this country that has not been the subject of decades of blight, in one form or another, and where there is a proposed development, the effect of that blight is all too apparent.

We must not overlook the effect of the economic blight that would be caused by the closure of Birmingham international airport. I am sure that that point is not lost on the Minister, bearing in mind his planning responsibilities during his time at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. To develop an airport at Rugby would fundamentally shift the centre of economic gravity in the west midlands. The continuing uncertainty around the future of Birmingham international airport could put businesses off locating or investing in the area, thereby hindering much-needed regeneration for deprived areas.

Despite some of its social difficulties, Birmingham has come a long way forward in recent years, but that hard work would be in vain if business goes elsewhere. There is also the question of the regional planning guidance, which would need to be ripped up and started again if the development at Rugby were to go ahead.

I would also gently suggest to the Minister that the international reputation and image of Birmingham—Britain's second city—stands to be irrevocably damaged by the prospect of its international airport being closed down. I believe that it would be the cause of great embarrassment were this Government to embark on such a bizarre enterprise. I do not know of any other second city in the developed world that does not have its own international airport, or has had that airport closed. I understand that today, as we speak, Mr. Michael Cashman, a West Midlands Member of the European Parliament, is raising that very issue there.

One vital aspect of the equation, which I have not yet mentioned, is cost. The Government have said that any future airport development would have to be undertaken by the private sector. According to the consultation document for the midlands, the cost of building a new airport at Rugby would be around £7 billion. I repeat: £7 billion. The expansion of Birmingham international, on the other hand, would cost approximately £1.8 billion. Given the difficulty that the Government have in delivering major transport infrastructure projects on time and to budget, is the private sector really likely to want to stump up £7 billion—and no doubt several billion more on top of that—for a brand new airport that no one wants?

The whole of the midlands, from the regional development agency and the regional assembly all the way down to the smallest parish council, has made clear its view.

To that long list of objectors to the proposal for Rugby airport, I think that my hon. Friend could add the west midlands group of Labour MPs, 42 in number, which took an unprecedented step in voting unanimously to recommend to the Minister that the idea of a new airport at Rugby be dropped from any consideration and from further Government thinking.

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me of that important debate that the group had.

The midlands has made clear its view that the long-term economic and environmental well-being of the midlands and the United Kingdom as a whole is best served by the retention of Birmingham and East Midlands airports. Wiser and better use of existing airports, together with the development of regional airports, is the only sensible way forward. The proposal for a new Rugby airport and the associated closure of Birmingham international airport is an option that shows signs of having been designed to provide an escape route for a projected growth in demand in the south-east. I hope that I am wrong, and that the Government will not use the midlands as a solution to the problems of the south-east. Decisions in the south-east will be hard, there is no getting away from that, but for the sake of the UK's standing in the global economy, it is imperative that those decisions are taken, and quickly.

I look forward to the forthcoming White Paper, which I hope the Minister can confirm is to be published before the end of this year. Before then, I hope that the Government will be able to bring some closure to the concerns of the midlands, rule out an airport at Rugby and retain Birmingham international airport. Making an early decision to rule out Rugby at this stage would not be unprecedented.

The Minister might not admit it, but I think that it is clear that the Government have all but ruled out an airport at Cliffe on safety grounds, because of the potential seriousness of bird strike. We in the midlands, too, have a significant problem with bird strike. At the end of the site of the proposed runways for Rugby airport is a large reservoir where, each winter, 40,000 black-headed gulls roost. The situation is equally dangerous as that at Cliffe, so why has bird strike at Rugby not had an equally full, detailed examination? I do not expect the Minister to be in a position to give me this assurance this afternoon, but the development of a major new international airport, which the Government's consultation shows has no support whatever, must be a dead duck.

Having got that off my chest, I will give other hon. Members a chance to speak. I very much appreciate the tremendous attendance in this debate. The Minister and his officials have a considerable amount of work to do before the White Paper is produced, and I do not envy them the task of wading through the responses to the consultation. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify some of the points that have been raised this afternoon.

Order. I hope that this is the last time that I will need to get to my feet this afternoon. I usually encourage, or welcome, interventions in a debate, but I hope that those who wish to intervene are doing so because they do not wish to catch my eye and make a speech. If hon. Members keep their remarks to five minutes, everyone will be able to speak, and it will give Front-Bench spokesmen adequate time to reply.

2.20 pm

In view of your request that hon. Members speak for five minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not propose to take interventions. I hope that hon. Members will not take that badly.

When the Government issued their initial airport strategy consultation document in July last year, it was based on a presumption that they could suppress or contain civil aviation demand in the south-east of England—broadly, that meant at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. Whether it is grown-up economics in a free market to try to suppress demand in one place and predict its consequences elsewhere is open to doubt, but that is what they did.

In the midlands regional consultation document, two consequential considerations were offered that were clearly barmy: a new international airport amid Warwickshire villages near Rugby, and the suggestion that Birmingham airport should close. An immense amount of money has recently been spent by the Highways Agency on the cloverleaf roadway connections between the A45 Birmingham-Coventry roadway and the Birmingham airport campus, and even greater sums have been spent on the overhead railway interconnector between Birmingham International railway station and Birmingham airport. Any consideration that that airport should close ought to result in someone going to prison or to a madhouse. I recall from my legal training that it was said that if a material witness, in this case the Government, can be so wrong or perverse about one thing, how can they be trusted with the rest?

I am unashamedly here to speak for the people of my constituency, especially those in the eastern part of it, in villages such as Catherine de Barnes. Visitors from outside the UK want to go to the south-east, to London, and that is the truth of the matter. My American friends who visit Britain want to arrive in London, although I realise that that is disobliging of them.

Since the Gatwick decision, the presumption of suppressed demand in the south-east is out of the window, and the Government's latest consultation on the south-east even admits the possibility of one more runway at Heathrow and two more at Gatwick.

The original premise on which the midlands consultation was based-namely, that demand in the south-east would have been suppressed—has gone. It will not have been suppressed. A second runway at Birmingham is wholly unnecessary; it will be ruinous to people in the east of my constituency, damaging to the environment and economically unnecessary.

Birmingham airport is a success story; it does not need to take overflow from the south-east, as it can make the most of its substantial facilities. It has been argued that the runway could be extended, and I would not stand in the way of that proposal, but I am an opponent of a second runway.

Last autumn, I flew from Birmingham to Chicago and back. Chicago is not on the eastern seaboard of America, but in the midwest. I flew there in a fully-laden plane, which used about half the length of the runway at Birmingham airport. Birmingham can make the most of what it has, within its existing perimeter, particularly now that there is no longer the presumption of suppressed demand in the south-east.

Meanwhile, there is a serious blight on people who are waiting to find out what will happen. The people in the east of Solihull have now waited a year, not knowing whether they can sell their properties. I urge the Minister to give us an answer as soon as he reasonably can, once the matter has been properly thought out. The property blight is something that people did not expect or want, and it is profoundly uncomfortable for them.

I am mistrustful of statistical linear extrapolation—taking a set of figures, such as that on the graph, and continuing the dotted line. In one of my public meetings, one of my constituents walked the length of the graph, extended the line up to the ceiling, and said, "If it goes on like this, there will be nobody left on the ground." That is the sort of bogus thinking behind the airport consultation.

2.25 pm

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) for securing the debate. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) will support me in some of what I am about to say.

Although we fully support, through the west midlands group, the opposition to the new airport at Rugby, one of the great fears of people in Coventry is that if the Rugby proposal fails, the fall-back position could be Coventry airport. If that were to happen, it would have the same effect on the area as that outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth: environmental impact, blight, traffic problems and noise pollution.

About eight or nine years ago, there was a serious air crash in the Willenhall area of my constituency. I remember the well-attended public meetings, and was struck by the impact that that event had on the community at the time and ever since. The flight path into Coventry airport is not very high above the houses, when observed from the main road. The noise is tremendous, and consequently there is noise pollution. Some years ago, I tabled a Bill in the House of Commons that would have dealt with the noise pollution and safety aspects in the area, but it was defeated.

There is a proposal for Coventry airport to process 1 million passengers a year. The owners say that they do not need to extend the runway, but they require a new terminal. I find it difficult to believe that the passenger numbers can be increased to 1 million a year without a runway extension, because that would be needed for the additional aircraft. To be fair to the owners, they conducted a number of public meetings in my constituency to present their proposals, which my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West and I attended.

There have been massive objections in Coventry to any further extension of Coventry airport, and great support for my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth in his objection to the proposal for Rugby airport. However, the owners of Coventry airport now say that if they do not get their way about the extension, they want to extend night flights. I hope that the Minister will take account of the threats that have been bandied about when the public in Coventry expressed their view on the development of Coventry airport.

I know that we are short of time, but I would like to reiterate my support for my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth. I hope that the Minister will take account of hon. Members' comments, because the issue is serious. In addition to the tremendous costs and social disruption that would occur if the Rugby proposals went ahead or Coventry were further developed, one of the nicest parts of Britain would be destroyed. If the proposals were to go ahead, it would be an act of vandalism. Frankly, it would be a disgrace to allow that. I hope that the Minister will take seriously what we have to say, and will reject any proposal affecting the midlands.

2.29 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) on initiating the debate, and associate myself entirely with what he said. He has my total support, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who spoke movingly on behalf of his constituents.

I want to talk about another proposal, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth for making this a debate not just on Rugby, but on the west midlands and airport needs. I have been in the House for just over 33 years, and I have never had so much mail as I have had about the proposal to develop a major airport from the old Halfpenny Green second world war airfield. I have received more than 11,000 letters in the past nine weeks, and many more letters before we started counting. I have addressed meetings attended by hundreds of people. Indeed, the hon. Members for Ludlow (Matthew Green) and for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley)—for these purposes, I may call them my hon. Friends—and I addressed a meeting attended by some 800 people in one village in my constituency a few weeks ago.

There is an enormous upsurge of opposition to the proposal that the Halfpenny Green airfield, known and loved from the second world war, should be developed into a major international airport so that people can take cheap flights to the sun. It would destroy a glorious part of England. I will not enter into any competition with the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) about the glories of his part of the country, but if he comes to South Staffordshire and the Shropshire border, he will find another part of England at least as lovely. He will find a part of England served by country lanes, where there is nothing of the infrastructure that a great international airport needs. The acres of tarmac for car parks, the roads that would have to be widened and all the other facilities that would have to be created would do one thing: devastate and destroy for ever the lovely part of England that we have the honour to represent and that many people from throughout the west midlands come to enjoy at weekends.

That is why I already have the support not only of the two hon. Members whom I mentioned, but of my hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Lull), and the hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Sylvia Heal), for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) and for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson). That is to name only some who asked to be put on the list of supporters.

Ours is a great country, and it is right that any great country should have proper airport facilities. Those facilities should exist so that people can discharge their business duties and, yes, go on holiday, but not at the expense of the finite land that makes up our beautiful countryside. Although I understand what has been said about what my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull rightly called this barmy idea, I urge the Minister not necessarily to read each of the 11,000 letters that I have been sent and the other 11,000 letters sent to my hon. Friends and others, but at least to recognise the overwhelming strength of local feeling and opinion. I have received only six letters in favour of the proposal, compared with the 11,000-plus against.

I ask the Minister to come to see what the area is like—I would be delighted to provide him with a meal and, if necessary, a bed for the night. He should be able to understand what is making local people so agitated and annoyed, and whatever he does, he should not make a judgment without coming to visit. I suggest that if he looks at Halfpenny Green airfield, he will recognise immediately that no site in the United Kingdom is less suited to providing extra airport facilities for the new and remarkable city of Wolverhampton. I am delighted that two Wolverhampton Members are present, and that their town now has city status, but the airfield in question is not particularly near Wolverhampton and would not provide what is required.

Whatever else is needed in the west midlands, an airport on Halfpenny Green is not it.

I concur with what the hon. Gentleman said about letters of protest, because I have received many letters telling me that people in my constituency do not want that development.

If there is a case for any expansion or development on the west side of Wolverhampton, and accepting that Halfpenny Green is not the choice, is Cosford a possibility that we could jointly put to the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence to see whether that could be developed?

I am sorry to respond churlishly to such a seductive proposal, but my answer is no, I do not think so. Although Cosford might be preferable, neither site is suitable for a major international airport. When it achieved 1 million passengers, the process would continue inexorably. There was once a lovely little village called Elmdon, but there is now a great international airport there. Let it stay there and serve people as it does—

For the record, I would like my hon. Friend to include the residents of Hagley and Belbroughton, who share his strong opinions about the development of Halfpenny Green airport.

I am delighted to do so. On that note, conscious of your admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and being within the five minutes allowed, I conclude my comments.

2.36 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) on initiating this debate, and the Minister on his new appointment. I am pleased to see the councillors from Warwickshire and take this opportunity of assuring them that the desecration of that lovely central area of England with Church Lawford and other beautiful villages is as utterly unacceptable to us as to them. I say the same to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). There is no case for it.

I can say categorically that in all my years in the House I have never come across a barmier proposal than that which would turn the whole area around Rugby into an airport. At the same time as doing that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth said, at a cost of £7.8 billion, Birmingham airport would be pulled down. Have those people lost their minds? Are they so careless of money that they do not know what they are doing? We have had report after report from enormously expensive consultants, but we are prepared to consider something to which no one in their right mind would give a moment's thought.

My hon. Friend the Minister may not have the figures to hand, but I would like to know—the information should be a matter of public record, but if it is I have missed it—exactly how many millions of pounds were spent on those stupid reports. They are serious and professionally compiled reports and show the enormous scale of the work that would be involved. The £7.8 billion plus another billion or so for the losses associated with pulling down Birmingham airport takes us to £10 billion. Wherever anyone thinks those resources will come from, I can assure them that they will not come from my good friend in No. 11 Downing street.

It was a good idea to have a planning exercise—I believe that it was called the regional air services coordination study, or RASCO—but it has now finished and I hope that we are about to look at the sensible alternatives. Two—Rugby and South Staffordshire—are likely to disappear. I would have thought that as a country we should consider providing for the medium-term growth strategy that the consultation outlined. It referred to no growth, medium growth and high growth. We do not want to turn this country into a permanent airfield where there is never a moment's rest because of aircraft and fuel spill-outs, but there will be growth, and we must plan sensibly to meet that growth. We can do that, and I hope that the policy that evolves from the consultation will be for growth in the medium range and will provide for that on a balanced incremental basis, regionally and at existing airports.

We could do that without the desecration of countryside and the destruction of villages. The programme is entirely feasible—the more so now that the constraints in relation to Gatwick have been removed.

2.39 pm

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) on securing the debate and on the campaign that he has been so active in. Like everybody present, I support him in that. He has reflected great local feeling in the area. I know that from personal experience. My mother-in-law and father-in-law live in his constituency, so they keep an eye on him. He has been accurately reflecting local feeling.

My hon. Friend is also right to object to what has been described as the barmy idea to develop a new airport at Rugby. I go along with that objection entirely. The scheme would cause great environmental damage and, as he rightly pointed out, severe economic damage.

More than 6,000 jobs are directly dependent on Birmingham airport. About another 900 people are directly employed off site. There have been some estimates that approximately 41,000 jobs in the west midlands are supported by the airport. The airport brings approximately £192 million of income into the region. At least, that was the position according to the figures for 2001. If Rugby airport went ahead and Birmingham airport closed, there would be real and severe economic damage to the region, which is not acceptable.

If Rugby airport is not to go ahead, we must answer the question, what then? Are we saying that we should do nothing? We must take seriously the real concerns outlined by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). People who live anywhere near an airport suffer environmental damage and reductions in their quality of life. There is no doubt about that. Those concerns lead me to the conclusion that a second full-length runway at Birmingham would not be the right option.

Should we, however, conclude that no expansion at Birmingham is the right way to go? I have some difficulty with that as well, because there would be an environmental cost. It has been estimated that there may be 5 million unnecessary journeys to airports in other parts of the country as a result of people not going to Birmingham. Even though I think that the hon. Member for Solihull is right in his concerns for his constituents, I have to say that I have not come across a great wish in the midlands to make a scenic journey down to Gatwick or Heathrow.

There is an extra demand at Birmingham and it can be met. We need, at least, to give serious consideration to the proposal for a shorter, but wider-spaced runway at Birmingham. That should not be without conditions. There should be no blank cheques for Birmingham airport. The West Midlands Local Government Association had it about right when it said that a second runway should be supported only
"when fully justified and designed sustainably to minimise the environmental impacts on people, property and the natural environment."
If a second runway satisfies those tests, we should not rule it out.

I think that everyone is unanimous in their opposition to Rugby, but we may have different views on how far Birmingham should be expanded. One thing that we will all be united on is the need to minimise uncertainly, because that is the worst thing of all for causing blight. I was worried by the comments made by the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, Sir Roy McNulty, who, as far as I know, is no relation to my hon. Friend the Minister—the mind boggles as to where that could take us. Sir Roy McNulty has indicated that the White Paper should identify where additional runways should be built only when they are in the south-east, and not necessarily do the same for the regions. That seems a recipe for disaster. We need to be clear about where we are going.

That point has been put to Sir Roy by Brian Summers, who is the retiring managing director of Birmingham airport. It is right that Parliament should mark the retirement of Brian Summers. Not only has he been an excellent managing director of Birmingham airport and really put it on the map, but during what are always difficult discussions about the development of airports, he has always been courteous. He has seen his role as involving a partnership with the local community and the region. He has made a great contribution to putting the west midlands on the map, and is a great participant in the regional assembly and elsewhere. We are losing him from the airport. I wish his successor, Richard Heard, well, but it is important that we pay tribute to Brian for the work that he has done at Birmingham. I look forward to his continued participation in the regional assembly and the west midlands as a whole.

2.44 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) on securing the debate, and the Minister on his new post. He probably thought that he had got away from me in Westminster Hall debates. I am sorry to turn up in a Back-Bench role.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and I are here to talk about Halfpenny Green, about which I have received just over 4,500 letters, as of today. It is just on the edge of my constituency. We should consider where the proposals came from. In the 202 pages of the Government's west midlands consultation document, Halfpenny Green is given two paragraphs and a photograph, and that is it. It was not included in the Government's ideas. The consortium that owns it seized on the consultation as an opportunity to submit a proposal for an airport that is twice the size of the current Birmingham airport and that ultimately will deal with up to 8 million passengers a year.

The word "barmy" was mentioned earlier. It is equally apt in this instance. We need studies to show whether an airport is needed west of the conurbation. So far, insufficient work has been done on that. The only study that has been carried out—a brief one by Advantage West Midlands—recently concluded that neither Halfpenny Green nor Cosford were viable airport sites.

If a study were to show that we need a regional airport west of the conurbation, we might then start to talk about sites. We should consider sites on the basis of their suitability. In order of suitability, Halfpenny Green would almost certainly come bottom of the list. It has very poor transport links: it can be reached only by country lane. It is smack in the middle of the green belt, and is completely surrounded by rural areas. Indeed, it is not particularly accessible from any of the major business centres, be it Telford, Wolverhampton, Dudley or Birmingham. It is not an easy place to get to at the moment. One would probably have to spend billions on a transport infrastructure to make it accessible.

I do not want to detain the Chamber any longer. The Government were not considering Halfpenny Green in the first place, and I hope that the Minister will rapidly conclude that the 22,000 letters of objection are a very good reason why the Government should not take seriously the developers' application.

2.47 pm

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) on securing the debate, and on the leadership that he has shown in the campaign against the proposals for an airport development in Warwickshire.

I am glad that the Government have embarked on the consultation. Too often, we have avoided discussions on crucial issues such as this. Over the years, forward planning in transport has not been a notable British success, so at the least the Government are trying to recognise that there is a problem and tackle it. Expanding passenger numbers mean that, ultimately, we will need increased airport capacity.

Some people will say that all expansion is bad. I suppose that they are the people who never fly, never take low-cost flights, and never travel by car to other regional airports hundreds of miles away. I am happy to take lessons from them. Weak-willed individuals such as myself behave differently, and if we want to travel, we will have to realise that some facilities will have to be expanded. That will mean making some hard choices and taking some hard decisions.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), I recognise that that could involve the loss of some green space. There could be some increased noise for those living in the immediate vicinity of an expanded airport. However, we must think of those things as trade-offs. For example, what reductions would there be in CO2 emissions if we cut the number of inter-regional journeys made by people who travel in excess of 100 miles simply to get to an airport?

We also have to think about the consequences for those who already live near an airport. We have some sense of the difficulties that airports cause. In my experience, such people are relatively adept in negotiating with the local airport about how to make the best of the situation, and as far as I can tell, Birmingham airport is always anxious to work with its neighbours and to live up to its environmental and social responsibilities. It is worth observing that the likely growth in travel will mostly be taken up by the new generation of chapter 3 aircraft, which are significantly quieter than their predecessors.

It is very important to recognise that airports create jobs and contribute to the wealth of a region. Birmingham airport is expanding some 10 per cent. a year more than any other regional airport in the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, it directly employs some 6,500 people on site, and probably supports another 8,700 jobs in the immediate area and more than 40,000 in the region. It derives 10 per cent. of its business from foreign business travel and has been voted the best business airport in the country five times in the past nine years. In fact, it serves 11 of the top 12 European business destinations.

I say with all due respect to my neighbour, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who is trying to defend the immediate interests of his constituents, that if we have to have expansion, having it at Birmingham airport would be good for the airport and for jobs in the region. The airport itself is well placed to work with Advantage West Midlands to help to regenerate not only east Birmingham but the north of Solihull. He knows as well as I do that the airport has been so successful in such work in recent years that last year a jobcentre was opened there to attract more staff for the expanding number of jobs.

My point is simply that we have a successful airport in Birmingham. It has the capacity to expand, within limits, if necessary, and it would be tantamount to madness to demolish it and build a new airport in Warwickshire.

2.52 pm

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak in this debate, although strictly speaking I am not from the midlands. I entirely support my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) and congratulate him on securing the debate. He spoke extremely well, and I agree with every word that he said.

We appreciate that there are demands for additional airport capacity, but we ought to question how much. In the past, there have been overblown forecasts of passenger demand, particularly for the channel tunnel. Those forecasts were way over the top and proved not to be true in the fulness of time. It is possible that the forecasts of growth of airport usage may be overblown. Indeed, if one takes into account the possibility of changes in economic growth, changes in the costs of oil and fuel, a different tax regime, environmental resistance and so on, one can see that there may well not be the kind of growth in airport passenger traffic that we have seen in the past.

I wish to bring to the debate an offer of assistance, to which I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth will listen carefully. There is an airport in Luton—I hope that I speak as well for my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), in whose constituency it is situated. Luton is not technically part of the midlands, but some might describe it as part of the southeast midlands. It is certainly very close to the midlands, and it can offer a solution to the problems of additional airport capacity, at least for the south-eastern part of the region.

Luton airport is less than an hour from the midlands by train. Indeed, it has a dedicated railway station. A motorway passes very close to the airport, and direct bus services run from Milton Keynes. It can provide extra capacity for the midlands, particularly the south-east midlands not far from Rugby. It can make a contribution, and unlike most other areas, people in Luton are keen to see our airport expanded. It has tremendous possibilities that are not fully recognised by the Government. They are being lobbied by very powerful groups in the aviation industry, and we have a small voice, but I want to ensure that the Government fully recognise that Luton can make a tremendous contribution.

Luton caters for about 7 million passengers with very little investment. I am glad to see that the Liberal Democrat council has now done a U-turn and come out in favour of a re-angled runway, which if slightly lengthened would enable the airport to expand its capacity to between 28 million and 30 million passengers a year. There is scope to go beyond that and have a much larger capacity. Luton can make a major contribution to passenger traffic, not very far from the midlands, and close to the south-east midlands.

Luton has a great deal to offer, and unlike in other regions in the country, there is no resistance to such development. There will be voices raised—someone is bound to be affected by increased air travel and flights—but the numbers would be small, and the environmental impact would be much less than elsewhere. I urge the Minister to think seriously about giving Luton the go-ahead to expand in order to provide greater passenger scope for the future.

Before I call the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I congratulate all those who have participated on their self-discipline, and thank them. It has been an excellent debate, and everyone who wanted to say something had that opportunity. That is what Westminster Hall is all about.

2.56 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) on securing the debate. He did a good job of putting across the concerns of his constituents about the impact that a new airport in Rugby would have. I also congratulate the Minister on his new role, and I hope that he will suffer no more than light bruising from the friendly but collective mugging that he has received from his hon. Friends today. I am certain that they have made the point that Rugby airport is not desired in the midlands.

We have had an interesting debate. I have attended many debates in Westminster Hall, and this was probably the best attended. It certainly had the largest number of speakers. That conveys the importance of the issue. One thing noticeable in this debate, and the wider aviation debate, is the fact that groups are sticking together. Individual campaign groups are not being picked off and coming out in favour of someone else getting the development. That is a significant point, because it might suggest that we are reaching the sort of critical mass in the expansion of aviation that exists in relation to road-building programmes. There is now a recognition that the expansion has to be handled very carefully.

One issue that most hon. Members did not touch on—I appreciate that they were short of time and wanted to put across their constituents' concerns—was the framework in which a decision will be made about whether there will be a new airport in Rugby, or expansion at Birmingham, Coventry or elsewhere. We need to look at that framework, and I am sure that the Minister will touch on that in his response. We cannot look at aviation separately from other forms of transport in the UK, such as rail. Equally, we cannot look at Rugby in isolation from Luton, because there are clear links between them. We need an integrated approach to the issue.

The Government must confirm that their policy will not be one of predict and provide. I have heard several Ministers say that they were not going to predict and provide. They were not going simply to provide as many runways and airports as the figures suggest will be needed. I hope that that is true, but the Government have not given so far any demonstration of the measures that they will use to ensure that those figures are adjusted downwards. There are many tools and levers that they can use to adjust the figures so that the midrange prediction of 500 million passengers by 2030 is not reached.

The hon. Gentleman may have been in Westminster Hall when I suggested that linear extrapolation had never been proved, and could never be proved, to be correct. Would he care to comment on that?

That is a good point. Interesting studies have considered whether, if we adjust slightly the figures relating to, say, the predictions about what will happen to ticket prices, there will be a huge difference in the number of passengers flying by 2030. We need a steer from the Minister as to what measures the Government will introduce so that their policy is not simply predicting and providing.

Notwithstanding that point, we must concede that in all probability, whatever measures are introduced by the Government, at EU level or at international level—that is less likely—there will be a growth in demand, so measures will have to be taken sooner or later. I ask the Government to do everything that they can to try to secure international agreements on emissions from aircraft, so that that can play a role in reducing the demand for aviation. It is illogical that aviation fuel is the one fuel that is not taxed. I am not necessarily suggesting that it should be taxed at the same level as the fuel used in a private motor car, but even if it were taxed only at the same level as the fuel used for other forms of public transport, that would make a difference. I appreciate that such a measure requires international agreement and that that will be very difficult for the Government to achieve, but I hope that, in international forums, they will press for it.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, not least because he has given way twice. He has largely answered the point that I wanted to make, which is that the Government can raise fuel duties only within our jurisdiction. A great deal of international co-operation will be needed, will it not?

I have already answered that point, but I am happy to repeat that securing an international agreement, whether on aviation fuel tax or on emissions trading for the industry, will be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, I hope that the Government will give that some priority.

To try to redress the balance with regard to the concentration in the south-east, the Government must consider the dual till arrangement. That allows BAA, for instance, to subsidise its landing charges and drop them to unrealistic levels because it makes lots of money in its shops, thereby making those airports, which are already heavily congested, even more attractive to other operators.

The Government must also consider landing slots, which are probably the most problematic issue internationally and nationally. If we can identify who owns the slots, there is the possibility, particularly for any new slots that become available, of allowing an auction process in order to maximise the revenue. That could be invested in public transport or rail schemes surrounding airports. Again, I accept that the issue is hugely complex. I am a member of the Transport Committee, and so far no one has been willing to go on the record as to who owns those slots, but one hopes that a legal agreement on ownership will be reached. Significant revenue could then be generated from the sale of slots and usefully deployed in other ways. I enter one small caveat: certain reserved slots would need to be available for lifeline flights. It would be important to maintain that.

I have outlined a framework, or at least given an idea of the levers that the Government have or could have at their disposal to influence the final outcome. I shall make a couple of comments on Rugby. We have heard the strength of opposition to the proposals from all those who have spoken today. Although it is true that most requests for consultation documents came from the south-east, the most e-mails and letters were received from the midlands. Given the concentration of airports in the south-east, it is significant that as at 31 May the greatest number of responses had been received from the midlands.

I understand that not one democratically elected local body has been willing to speak in favour of the Rugby proposal in public. In a recent BBC Midlands poll, 96 per cent. of respondents voted against the new airport option. I have visited the site, and it is clear that there are concerns, which are acknowledged in the site appraisal, about flooding in the area and how it might affect a new airport. Hon. Members have also referred to the risk of bird strike.

The issue of cost, whether for Rugby or Cliffe, will determine, we hope, that those proposals will never be implemented, because no private airport operator will invest the money to build a new airport when there is no guarantee that airlines will want to fly from it. That will put the kibosh on the proposals.

A sustainable approach must give extra credits to any proposal that builds on existing infrastructure, whether it be airport or associated transport infrastructure. It should not give credits to proposals for major developments on new greenfield sites where there are poor transport links, sites of special scientific interest or no infrastructure on which to build. The sustainable approach suggests that tough measures will be needed to control noise and emissions at any airport that undergoes expansion. Compensation will also be needed for those affected. We cannot bury our heads in the sand, because expansion will certainly go ahead in certain parts of the country. We must ensure that effective mitigation is implemented, and that, for instance, the airlines are required to use the most modern and up-to-date aircraft to minimise the impact on local residents.

3.7 pm

It is a great pleasure to contribute to such a fruitful debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) on his work and the excellent representation that he has given to his concerned constituents. I also congratulate those Members who have participated in this excellent debate. I wish the Minister a warm welcome on what I am sure will be the first of many exchanges. I am delighted to see that he has got broad shoulders because a great weight is about to bear down upon him given the volume of replies to the consultation.

I shall declare my interests in air transport: my husband has worked for 34 years in the airline business. I also have personal interests in BA, BAA and BAE. I should also like to know whether the Minister is related to Sir Roy McNulty of the Civil Aviation Authority, whom we know and love.

As a number of hon. Members have said, the consultation exercise has been flawed. What is the Government's timetable? As the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, who eloquently opened the debate, said, the debate is both timely and relevant because the consultation exercise finished yesterday. Is the White Paper still expected at the end of the year? What will happen after that? Can we expect a Bill or a draft Bill by the spring? Will there be the usual pre-legislative scrutiny to which one is becoming accustomed in the House?

This was not widely referred to in the debate, but we must accept that the major challenge that we face is balancing the social and economic benefits with the significant environmental impact. It is that impact that has been particularly discussed this afternoon, especially for those living at or near airports. We talked about Luton airport, but not much mention has been made of the rapid rise in low-cost carriers. We must accept—I hope that the Minister will recognise this—that they make little contribution to the local economy, but one reason why they have expanded so rapidly is the inadequacy of the railways. I shall return to that.

I dispute the hon. Lady's point about job creation. In Luton, we estimate that for every 1 million extra passengers there are 1,000 extra jobs. Of course, a lot of engineering work is also going on at Luton, supporting the airlines that operate from there.

In my humble experience of representing Stansted airport in the European Parliament for 10 years, every time that I went to knock on the airport's door to ask whether the people who worked at the airport would vote for me, none could afford the housing nearby. Perhaps Luton is different, but that was my humble experience. I then retired, and could not call on those people to vote for me on a regional list.

The environmentalists have highlighted the main points in the debate. Are the Government trying to fly a kite? [Laughter.] I am pleased that hon. Members are following me so closely this afternoon. Are the Government proposing a new airport at Rugby purely to secure the acceptance of a second runway at Birmingham international airport?

I am short of time, so I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who spoke at some length, said that the airlines, airports and air passengers are not paying the environmental costs. Although I carry no brief for the airlines and airports, I know that it is a source of some concern to them that they pay a hefty whack of airport passenger tax that, so far, the Government have refused to hypothecate. Perhaps the Minister would like to respond to those points this afternoon and confirm that the Government will hypothecate that tax in the future.

What is missing from this debate is the development of direct links, region to region, particularly regional airport access to Europe—something for which we have argued for a considerable time. This Government pride themselves on having joined-up thinking for an integrated transport policy. One major flaw in the whole airport consultation process was the lack of regard to developing the railway network as an alternative transport infrastructure to the airport network. What has emerged from most Members who have contributed today is the improvements that need to be made to surface access.

I am sure that hon. Members will have read with interest the note prepared by the Library in preparation for this afternoon's debate. Page 37 includes an executive summary of a report produced by Arup Transport Planning for the Department of Transport, entitled "Midlands New Site: Option Appraisal Report." Paragraph 5 talks at some length about the lack of surface access that would connect to any new proposed site at Rugby, Coventry, or anywhere in the east midlands. The Government have lost sight of that in today's debate.

The 10-year transport plan sets targets for road and rail, yet we have a 30-year period of consultation in the airports policy. That smacks of rather less than joined-up thinking.

Many of the issues raised in today's debate have a lot to do with the environment and surface access by road and rail to airports. Surely it is better for rail targets to be considered as part of an holistic, integrated transport policy, rather than piecemeal as an investment in access to new airports, especially when many of us want proper rail access to airports, particularly northern ones such as Newcastle, Leeds-Bradford and Teesside. All that is set against a background of investment in existing rail improvements being jeopardised by the profligate spending by Network Rail.

Rail and air transport should be considered together and rail should be seen as an alternative to air transport in cost, comfort, safety and convenience in terms of punctuality and reliability. The challenge that we leave the Minister with this afternoon is what will happen after the White Paper. When can we expect a Bill, and when will there be a degree of certainty for the constituents who have been so well represented this afternoon?

3.15 pm

Save for the last two more partisan contributions, to which I will return later, this has been a good and timely debate, not least given that the consultation finished yesterday, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) said.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend, not only on the timeliness of the debate, but on the manner in which he opened it. He put it firmly in a regional context, starting from the premise that it is right to acknowledge the contribution made by the aviation sector to the economy both locally and regionally and to the general prosperity of the United Kingdom. Unless I heard him incorrectly, he offered a regional solution, as he feels clearly that some greater development—we can return to the question of its magnitude—for Birmingham is preferable to doing anything at Rugby. That is a proper approach, for which I commend him.

All the other contributions, save the later partisan ones that marred the debate somewhat, were sincere. All hon. Members represented the thrust of opinion in their constituencies, and they are to be congratulated. As some have suggested, I fear that this will not be the last time that I am on my feet to discuss the consultation document. When I walked through Westminster Hall itself and saw the many chairs lined up, I thought that you knew more about who was turning up for the debate than I did, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that there would be a video screen link for the overflow, or we would have the debate outside.

That is right and proper, because as some hon. Members have said, this has been one of the most substantial and far-reaching debates on the future of a mode of transport that we have ever had. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth for his kind words and congratulations, and I will take his points seriously.

I make no apologies for the length, breadth or depth of the consultation because, as hon. Members have said, these are serious matters. Even in his rather vacuous and partisan contribution, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) managed to say that these were serious matters that need addressing. He did not offer a solution, but he at least suggested that matters needed addressing, before going on about a bunch of things that, as he well knows, we are already doing on the international dimension.

Before I forget, I should tell the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that Sir Roy McNulty is a lovely fellow, but he is no relation of mine. It is pure coincidence that we share the same name.

I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth that we intend to publish the White Paper by the end of the year. This has been a huge consultation process, and we have received about 140,000 to 150,000 contributions, and counting, from various groups and members of the public. The closing date was only yesterday, and given that I sign most of the letters that are sent out, I would love to think that because there was nothing on my desk this morning, there are no more contributions to come, but I fear that there are. Plenty of hon. Members, not least those present, will be getting more letters from me in the near future.

As things unfold, we may go into greater detail, but I cannot tell the hon. Lady what will happen immediately post-White Paper as that would prejudge and pre-empt what it will contain. The point of a consultation process is partly to determine, or to colour, our view of what should go in the White Paper. It may say, "Lovely exercise, but we're doing nothing", although I doubt it, given what hon. Members have said. I cannot imagine any legislation that would follow from such an analysis, but I ask hon. Members to bear with us. Having conducted such an extensive consultation, it would be churlish, if not downright inefficient, if we did not take the submissions seriously and carry out a proper analysis of them, and we intend to do so.

I hope that the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) was not implying that I should go to prison or to a madhouse or both, but he is entitled to his view—rhetorical or otherwise—of the suggestions in the consultation paper. I should be disappointed if at least some options in the range of consultation papers were greeted not in that fashion but at least with a shudder or jolt.

The consultation process is supposed to be extensive and expansive. If it contained only one solution to the country's aviation expansion difficulties it would not be very useful. I will not comment on the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, as that is not my job the day after the consultation process, but I accept that he has the right to be concerned about the matter and to express his views. It is right and proper to move to a sustained, sustainable and comprehensive decision on the White Paper after the consultation process.

People are concerned; they take the matter seriously. We can debate the extent and manner of things such as blight and uncertainty, which my hon. Friend mentioned, but we need an expansive, analytical and comprehensive appraisal of the consultation exercise.

I understand the point about statistical linear extrapolation, albeit it was expressed in unnecessarily simplistic terms and was a little unkind. The last time I spoke in this Chamber, in another capacity, I accused a colleague of the hon. Member for Solihull of the casual empiricism of aggregates, a charge that can also be made about statistical terms. Taken to extremes, statistical linear extrapolation is not terribly helpful, but I hope that he will understand that it is done in the context of making informed judgments about the future, not just for the sake of it.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) that I am here to take note and to listen to what hon. Members say, not least the west midlands group of Labour MPs. I fully understand, knowing most of the comrades in that group, that unanimity is a rarity; when it is achieved, it should be cherished, and certainly fully noted by the Department.

I said that only because my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South alluded to the west midlands group of Labour MPs. If there were an equivalent group in the Conservative party, I would say nice things about it, too—although it would meet in a smaller room.

As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said, it is right and proper for constituency Members to express in stark terms the strong feelings of their constituents. In parliamentary terms, the unfolding of this and similar debates in Westminster Hall and on the Floor of the House are part and parcel of the ongoing process of wider consultation.

I also accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), that the nature of the expansion, if that is appropriate for Birmingham, is important. The question is whether to extend the use of existing runways, including extensions, new taxiways and additional aprons and terminal capacity, or to build another runway. I certainly take those points on board, as well as the points made by my other hon. Friends.

Yes, because I have forgotten what I was going to say about my hon. Friend's comments.

I am very willing to await the Minister's remarks, but if I anticipate or provoke them, there will be no harm.

Everyone agrees that this consultation process is absolutely vital and proper—and that it is costly. Democracy of this kind does not come cheap. My specific point is that I have never seen such a technically detailed case. A feasibility study is one thing, but this study has been worked out in such detail that my immediate reaction was, "Gosh, this is the one that they will go for, because it has been examined in such detail." If the Minister does not know the costs of the exercise—consultants do not come cheap, either—will he undertake to ascertain them for us?

I will certainly look into that matter for my hon. Friend. I have no difficulty at all in doing that.

The consultation has been comprehensive. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) welcomed it and highlighted the difficulties. To be perfectly honest, the exercise was long overdue. It probably should have happened on a cyclical basis since the expansion of aviation not long after the war. That was a failure of past Governments of both parties. I would characterise the past as being not even predict and provide but a sort of splodge: there is an airport there and another one there—we will see what happens as they expand.

We need to grasp the nettle and deal with the matter properly. It is about balance, as has been suggested by all hon. Members, and jobs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green said, but it is also about the environment. I am grateful that someone mentioned the fact that newer generations of aircraft are far more environmentally friendly. They are not as noisy and have been improved in various ways.

I shall keep in mind the comments of the lone voice from Luton, which were greeted with equanimity by everyone. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) said that Luton would have the expansion if no one else wanted it. That suggestion certainly should go into the pot, along with the others. It is important that we have had the exercise.

Does the Minister recollect the saying that a willing hand is worth 20 pressed men?

With the best will in the world, I shall pass on that, because my comments may be seen as an exhortation for or against a particular expansion plan. I note the point but shall pass over it gently, if I may.

Many of the comments that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made in his little partisan bit at the end concerned matters that the Government are already dealing with through various international forums.

The Minister said something about environmental impacts. Would he discuss night flights, particularly to and from East Midlands airport, and their impact on my constituency? Will that issue be included in the consultation?

I certainly accept that night flights are an important dimension in the balance between economics and the environment in the east midlands, and indeed elsewhere.

As I said, we seek to produce a White Paper by the end of the year. It will not be about predict and provide. I have been in the role for only two weeks and the Liberal Democrats are already throwing clichés at me. If the exercise were about predict and provide, we would not have undertaken the consultation process. We would not have changed the planning agenda in this country so that it is underpinned entirely by a sustainability framework. I remind hon. Members that every application subsequent to the White Paper will have to go through that process. Happily, the planning Bill will be in place by then, if not sooner.

Yes, the concerns and points have been well made. Yes, elements have been mentioned that we shall include in the consultation exercise. Yes—I say this very strongly—I shall be here again or in other forums having the same debate with the same or other colleagues. It is a serious debate, which is why we have had a serious consultation process.

Dvla Tow-Away Teams

3.30 pm

I am pleased to have secured the debate as it gives me the opportunity to tackle an issue that causes annoyance to my constituents and, I am sure, to others throughout the United Kingdom. Given that London accounts for more than one in 10 untaxed cars in the UK, the quality of life of Londoners is disproportionately affected by them. I will therefore speak today about the troubling problem of untaxed cars, which is a major aggravation for my constituents in Mitcham and Morden.

I begin by applauding the action that the Government took, initially under the direction of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), in tackling the vexed issue of abandoned cars. The alteration in the law overseen by my right hon. Friend dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to remove cars from where they have been dumped and to dispose of them. It has done much to reduce the problem of end-of-life vehicles being dumped on the roads of my constituency.

However, the problem has not yet gone away. I think I am right in saying that in one year recently, the London borough of Merton had to deal with more dumped cars than the entire city of Manchester. Local people were outraged at the fact that people from other boroughs were bringing their clapped-out cars to dump on Merton's streets. For Merton, that legislation came not a minute too soon.

We may not be preventing the problem—its solution lies in the hands of the antisocial people who cannot be bothered to ring the council for help with the disposal of their redundant vehicles—but at least we are reducing its unacceptable effects, which are the cause of significant irritation and are an eyesore for many council-taxpaying constituents. They want and deserve to live in a clean, tidy community of which they are proud, rather than somewhere that sometimes appears like a war zone.

Untaxed and abandoned cars can be magnets for other low-level antisocial behaviour, such as graffiti, vandalism, fly tipping and noise nuisance. All such activities drag down communities and magnify the fear of crime. We in the House have a responsibility to do more to stem the tide of antisocial behaviour. Having lobbied for so long for action, I am pleased and proud that the Government have introduced the first ever Anti-social Behaviour Bill, through which they hope to tackle some of those activities. However, we can always do more.

A large number of my constituents have written to me, or come to see me, about untaxed cars, asking me what the Government are doing or will do about the issue. I can tell them only about the arrangements that already exist—we should be glad that they do—but given the scale of the problem, those arrangements often seem inadequate to my constituents. They feel that it is rather like using a nut to crack a sledgehammer, to reverse the usual saying.

According to the DVLA annual accounts of 2001–02, enforcement and wheel clamping cost £39.9 million, but it was estimated that £110 million was recovered through enforcement activities in fines, penalties and re- licensing revenue from bringing 800,000 offenders to book. That was the basis for the estimate that the Minister gave me in his written answer in December 2002 of a return of 3:1 on clamping activity. Clearly, given the return on the outlay, funding is not the issue, so perhaps it is a matter of capacity.

The DVLA has 18 clamping teams operating from 14 pounds around the UK, and I have no doubt that they do a good job with the limited resources available to them. I understand that four of the clamping teams operate in the London area, covering the north, south, east and west. In addition, there are two national mobile clamping units, which rove around the UK when particular hot spots are identified.

I also understand that DVLA clamping teams spend the equivalent of a fortnight twice a year in each of London's 33 boroughs. Given that the Minister has estimated that there were 171,000 unlicensed vehicles in the London area in 2001–02, the number of teams and the amount of time the teams spend on the ground in each borough, perhaps he would tell me if he considers that to be sufficient coverage. It would appear that in London, capacity and coverage are the problems.

Another issue is that of car pounds. I understand that the DVLA operates only one permanent car pound for the whole of London and only 13 in the rest of the UK. I would be interested to know what plans, if any, the Government have to encourage, or perhaps incentivise, local authorities to earmark land for their own car pounds, either on their own or in partnership with neighbouring authorities, to allow for an increase in their clamping and crushing efforts.

As I hope the Minister will agree, local authorities represent a real hope for getting on top of the untaxed car problem. Local authorities could act as contractors or agents of the DVLA, since they have the local presence, the local contact and the local interest to be able to deal quickly and efficiently with reported cases. They can be more responsive than the DVLA teams.

Why should local authorities not become fully fledged agents of the DVLA? If all local authorities had their own pounds, they might have a greater incentive to remove abandoned cars before they become dangerous or are set alight. Similarly, if there were more pounds willing to take dilapidated cars at no cost, some offenders might actually be willing to take their cars there instead of leaving them on the streets to be towed away at the expense, of council tax payers.

My understanding is that the provisions of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, applying to the removal of unlicensed vehicles, give the Secretary of State powers to appoint contractors to undertake this removal work. Initially, this function has been exercised through a contractor acting for DVLA. However, pilot schemes in both Lewisham and Newham have been carried out in which the local authority acts as the DVLA's contractors, removing and impounding unlicensed vehicles. That can be a major tool in dealing with the blight of abandoned vehicles.

In Newham, the DVLA pilot scheme has worked well and has encouraged residents to register their vehicles. During the 12 months of the pilot scheme, I gather that 2,000 vehicles were wheel-clamped. Half of those vehicles were released upon payment and, as the Department for Transport notes, surveys undertaken by Newham council before and at the end of the pilot scheme showed that the level of evasion had reduced by 15 per cent. as a result of additional and visible enforcement in the borough.

I understand that five other local authorities—Croydon, Lewisham, Wandsworth, Hastings and Southend—have taken on devolved powers to clamp and impound unlicensed vehicles in partnership with the DVLA. Each authority has its own car pound for the purpose. I was intrigued to learn that the DVLA is in discussion with 11 other local authorities to agree similar devolved powers. That all seems very promising, but as always there is a problem, money.

Newham officers estimate that the pilot has made £2.1 million for the Treasury in new registrations but the scheme has operated at a net loss to the borough of approximately £300. Therefore, for any scheme to be a success in other boroughs, such as my own, Merton, there would need to be some element of ring-fencing of revenue raised for covering costs. Will the Minister say whether the Government would be willing to entertain the notion that local authorities would be not only the agents of the DVLA, but would be allowed to keep the revenue they generate from clamping operations, or just the part that would cover their costs?

I would like to talk briefly about the success of the Operation Cubit scheme in the Medway towns, which I believe contains many useful lessons for local authorities dealing with untaxed and dumped cars. The first pilot Cubit operation took place in Medway, from 22 January 2001 to 16 March 2001 and the second in Swanley, from 11 June 2001 to 6 July 2001. Operation Cubit brought together the key agencies that have powers in relation to abandoned and untaxed vehicles: namely, the police, the local authorities, and the DVLA. The main aim of Operation Cubit was to use these agencies' powers in combination to remove vehicles quickly and efficiently from the streets and other areas. The results of Operation Cubit were that a total of 642 vehicles were removed during the eight-week Medway operation, and the operational team inspected an additional 102 vehicles. In the four weeks of the Swanley pilot, 184 vehicles were removed, 26 were clamped and subsequently de-clamped prior to removal, and the DVLA took action against a further 60 untaxed vehicles.

I understand that officers involved in both operations believed that the operations had a beneficial effect, at least in the short term, on community safety and the local environment—a perception shared by many of the local residents surveyed. According to DVLA estimates, the operations encouraged 3,919 motorists in Kent to re-license their vehicles between February and July 2001. Induced re-licensing improves official tracking of vehicles, encouraging motorists to take greater responsibility for their vehicles. In turn that leads to a greater number of insured and MOT -ed vehicles on the road. Operation Cubit improved the accuracy of vehicle registration, which assists the police in enforcing criminal and road traffic law. It also created more than £600,000 in additional revenue for the Treasury. Operational costs were approximately £136,000, showing its clear cost-effectiveness.

Operation Cubit was originally seen as having the potential to reduce the problem of vehicle arson by removing the vehicles most likely to be magnets for such vandalism. Local police intelligence suggests that a number of vehicles associated with local crime or offenders were removed by the Medway and Swanley operations, indicating that some crime prevention impacts may be associated with that type of operation. Operation Cubit and similar schemes may provide police with another method of targeting persistent offenders.

I understand that there is now a counterpart to Operation Cubit in London, which is called Operation Scrapit, that uses powers shared by various agencies, including the DVLA, the police, the fire service and seven London boroughs, to pick up and remove untaxed and abandoned vehicles in short, sharp, shock-style operations. Those operations have proved to be successful in removing and destroying vehicles quickly and have been very popular with local residents. In some circumstances, they have cleared up one third of all street crime, but they require funding and access to a vehicle-storage pound.

There are proven, cost-effective ways in which the problem of untaxed cars can be dealt with while providing local authorities with income—if the Treasury allows local authorities to use them. I realise that the Minister is not in a position to dictate Treasury policy, but I would be grateful for his comments on that and on the other matters that I have raised. I can only conclude by reiterating that this is an issue of great frustration to a significant number of my constituents in Mitcham and Morden, and their frustration should not be underestimated. I am sure that they hope not for comforting words, but for a firm assurance that the Government intend to enable local authorities such as Merton to crack down on untaxed cars.

3.43 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue. There cannot be many Members who have not encountered the problems that arise from untaxed cars, which are often abandoned, in their constituencies.

Vehicle excise duty evasion is a serious problem in this country. The national roadside survey undertaken in 2002 showed that the VED evasion rate is 4.5 per cent. The compliance rate is high, but the number of untaxed vehicles involved and the sums of money lost to the Exchequer are huge. We estimate that as many as 1.75 million vehicles are untaxed, which costs more than £190 million every year in lost revenue.

The police and other enforcement agencies report untaxed vehicles as part of their day-to-day work, but the task of enforcing VED falls to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. It has about 780 staff, who are dedicated to enforcing vehicle excise and registration offences. Their efforts last year resulted in record success, bringing nearly 820,000 offenders to book and collecting more than £110 million in fines, penalties and induced revenue. The agency is on course to do even better this year but despite that success, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there is still a hard core of evaders who seem determined to do all that they can to avoid paying their road tax. It is not just the tax that those people are evading. We know that many will also be uninsured, unregistered and driving unroadworthy vehicles.

Northamptonshire police have pioneered the use of automatic number plate recognition to target criminals using the roads. Their study showed that many of the vehicles that they stopped for having no tax were also involved in some other form of criminality, including drugs offences, burglary, theft, disqualified driving, outstanding warrants and various vehicle-related offences. All right-minded people worry that this is a very big problem. The Home Office recently extended the pilot on the use of ANPR systems to another 23 police force areas, which I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome. That means that we will be targeting criminals using the roads in many more parts of the country.

The DVLA also operates ANPR camera vans to catch road tax dodgers—the Stingray systems that have been deployed across the UK. They are type approved to the highest standards by the Home Office and work by linking digital cameras to an on-board computer that stores the images of untaxed cars. They catch tax dodgers on the move and can operate night and day at speeds in excess of 100 mph. I assume that it is the tax dodgers that are doing 100 mph, not the vans containing the systems.

ANPR systems operated by the police and the DVLA, together with safety cameras, red light cameras, parking and bus lane enforcement, and the enforcement of VED, all rely on an accurate record of vehicle keepers to be fully effective. The accuracy of the vehicle records held by the DVLA is therefore vital.

3.47 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.58 pm

On resuming

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced proposals on 22 May this year to modernise the vehicle registration and licensing system in Great Britain to ensure that records are as accurate as possible. Continuous registration will be introduced from 1 January 2004. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden is most concerned that that should happen, and it will. That is designed to close the loophole of vehicle keepers failing to re-license their vehicles or declare statutory off-road notification—SORN. We will be able to enforce this measure directly from the DVLA's computer system. We will not have to rely on the police or others making a formal sighting of the vehicle being used or kept on a public road to prove a continuous registration offence. That is a very important step forward.

The move to continuous registration will not do away with the need for on-road enforcement. Experience shows that some motorists will continue to defy the rules. The vast majority pay their tax on time and rightly become very annoyed with those who continue to dodge their responsibilities. The postbags of many right hon. and hon. Members are full of complaints about untaxed and abandoned cars in their constituencies. We need a robust enforcement regime to catch those offenders.

The proliferation of abandoned cars is a plague that affects whole communities. It certainly affects mine. They lower the tone of neighbourhoods, and act as a magnet for the criminal element. They also attract the worst kind of antisocial behaviour. They are regularly trashed and torched, which is a danger to children. They cost the police, the fire service and local authorities time and money to investigate and to clear up the mess. It can cost the fire service up to £5,000 to deal with a vehicle fire. More importantly, however, it diverts the service from dealing with other, potentially life-threatening, situations. It is not always recognised that today's untaxed car is tomorrow's abandoned car. The vigorous pursuit of tax dodgers will therefore reduce the abandoned vehicle problem.

My hon. Friend made an important point about the cost element and why some local authorities have been put off taking part in the scheme or contacting the DVLA to become a partner in such schemes. There are costs to councils in taking on DVLA powers. The scheme is unlikely to be self-financing, but there are considerable benefits in dealing with vehicles before they are abandoned. As I said, costs could be saved in the long run. The earlier that the vehicle is dealt with, the lower the cost.

During its pilot, Newham found that VED evasion was reduced from 20 per cent. to 5 per cent. locally, and that the number of abandoned cars in the borough was reduced by 10 per cent. at a time when the trend was firmly upwards elsewhere. Many councils that are already involved consider the costs to be a price worth paying to deal with nuisance vehicles. Unlicensed vehicles are often involved in crime and antisocial behaviour, and local residents are usually only too pleased to see unlicensed vehicles removed from the streets.

Direct hypothecation of tax revenue is not on the cards, but we are keen to examine ways in which the considerable benefits to the public sector as a whole are more accurately reflected in funding mechanisms. Such benefits include reducing arson and other forms of antisocial behaviour, regeneration and improving the quality of our public space.

The DVLA incurs costs by employing its current contractor to run the tow-away teams. Surely, therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the money that the DVLA already pays to its tow-away contractors might also be given to local authorities if they take on these powers? I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the cost involved of £300,000, especially to a borough such as Newham—one of the most deprived boroughs in the whole country—is an awfully large decision to take.

I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned the £300,000, because initially she said £300. I just wanted to make sure that that was on the record, as I am sure that Newham would not thank her for saying that the scheme had cost it only £300. I very much accept what she says. As I said, we will try hard to gauge the effectiveness of the funding mechanisms to ensure that the benefits that I mentioned are fully reflected in the way in which we ensure that the job is carried out.

The police and the DVLA ANPR systems will be invaluable in that. The DVLA's wheel-clamping powers are another key weapon in tackling these outlaws. Those powers make it possible to remove the vehicles from the street. In most cases, they are removed permanently as they end up being crushed.

The wheel-clamping scheme starred in August 1997. Since then, we have clamped 135,000 vehicles throughout the United Kingdom, 67,000 of which have been crushed. Those are 67,000 vehicles that will never be abandoned. Perhaps the biggest success has been the publicity that accompanies the scheme. It has persuaded no fewer than 651,000 would-be evaders to re-license their vehicles rather than risk being clamped, which has brought in another £85 million in induced revenue. Wheel clamping and the surrounding publicity have proved to be a powerful deterrent to VED evasion. Those who are caught cannot ignore the clamp, and the costs of having it removed are high.

The fees were increased in April 2001. You might be interested in this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The cost of having a clamp removed is £80 plus a surety of £120 in lieu of a current tax disc. The surety is refunded only if a valid disc is produced within 14 days. If the vehicle is not reclaimed within 24 hours, it is removed to a secure compound, and the fee for its release is increased to £160 plus the £120 surety. I will certainly consider the number of car pounds, to which my hon. Friend referred, because that issue is important, too. There is a storage charge of £15 for every day that the vehicle is in the compound. If it is not reclaimed within seven days, it can be crushed. As well as those charges, the offender will be brought to book for the VED offence, which carries a maximum fine of £1,000 for a car. It is much more for a lorry.

We have 14 permanent wheel-clamping sites throughout the UK. They are located in Belfast, Barnsley, Blackpool, Birmingham, Bridgend, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool. Loughborough, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Newcastle and London. The London site has four dedicated clamping teams, which operate across the capital. As my hon. Friend made clear, however, that is not enough; we could do with more. We are interested in partnership arrangements with local authorities, because they have local knowledge and the incentive to use clamping as a means of ridding the streets of these vehicles. The four London teams account for more than 20 per cent. of the total number of vehicles clamped and 16 per cent. of those crushed. In addition to the permanent compounds, the DVLA operates two mobile clamping teams, which operate in other parts of the country where there are no permanent compounds.

Following a successful trial in the London borough of Newham, we have made the DVLA's powers to clamp and impound untaxed vehicles available to any local authority that wants to tackle the problem of untaxed cars in their area. That complements the DVLA's clamping operations and brings wheel clamping to parts of the country that are not served by a permanent compound. So far, the wheel-clamping powers have been devolved to 11 councils: Southend-on-Sea, Hastings, Doncaster, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees and the London boroughs of Newham, Lewisham, Enfield, Croydon and Wandsworth. Four more councils have been trained in readiness for the start of operations, and the DVLA is in discussions with a further 17 councils that have expressed an interest in taking devolved powers. As my hon. Friend well knows, unfortunately, the London borough of Merton is not one of them at the moment, but I am sure that she is urging it to take a serious look at the matter. We will certainly be ready to work in partnership with that borough if it decides so to do.

The police have recognised the importance of wheel clamping and increasingly arrange joint operations with their ANPR vehicles. The cameras identify a vehicle for action. The police use their powers to stop the vehicle and, if it is untaxed, it is clamped at the roadside. Such high-profile enforcement shows the law-abiding majority and any would-be evaders what can happen to those who continue to dodge their responsibilities. The additional use of the wheel-clamping scheme has put it under pressure, as my hon. Friend made clear. We recognise that we need additional clamping capacity and I am glad that she brought it to our attention. An extension of the wheel-clamping scheme is being addressed as part of our proposals to modernise the vehicle registration and licensing system because the Government treat the problem of vehicle excise duty evasion very seriously. The DVLA's wheel-clamping scheme is arguably the most high profile of all the weapons that we deploy to tackle tax dodgers and enforce vehicle excise duty.

Finally, I assure my hon. Friend that if she feels it would be useful to discuss the matter with officials, we will be only too pleased to make the necessary arrangements.

Education (South Gloucestershire)

4.10 pm

Since South Gloucestershire became a new unitary council in 1995, it has been one of the worst funded authorities in the country. Since it was created, local children have received less money per head for education and local elderly people have received less money per head for social services than virtually anywhere else in the country. That is a matter of public record. Since then, I and many others have joined forces to campaign for a change in the way in which local authorities are funded. Change finally came this year and was welcome in some respects. Recognition of the high cost of employing people in low unemployment areas such as ours was a welcome change that benefited South Gloucestershire.

Some of the other changes were less advantageous, but local people thought that, at long last, we would move from being the worst funded authority to not one of the best funded, but perhaps bottom but one or two—a small step in the right direction. We thought that at long last there would be a bit of an improvement. Then came the killer blow. Although it was agreed under the new system that we needed substantially more money, the Government capped that increase and spent some of the money that they thought we needed on ensuring that other authorities did not receive very small rises.

The irony is that if we had not had such a bad deal under the old system, we would not have had such a big rise, so we would not have been capped. We have been capped by £4.7 million only because we had such an appalling deal for the entire life of South Gloucestershire unitary council. It is a special South Gloucestershire tax. Of that money, more than £2 million would have gone to our schools.

The purpose of my debate is to bring the matter to the Minister's attention. With respect to the Minister who is here, it is regrettable that a schools Minister is not present to hear what I have to say. I have contacted the heads of primary schools in my constituency and asked them to tell me how the budget settlement has affected them. I shall say a few words about the fact and figures, but most of what I say will be the words of local head teachers, governors and parents who want to tell a schools Minister or the Secretary of State what it means for them on the ground. They may never come to a lobby at Westminster or sit in the office of a Secretary of State, but they want the Government to know how it is. I hope that the Minister will take back what he hears today to those with responsibility for these matters. Our schools could have had £2 million, but it was taken away from us because of the operation of the ceiling. As a result, our schools have suffered this year.

When the fiasco blew up earlier this year, the Department for Education and Skills was wont to blame councils and said that they were holding on to the money. Let us look at the role of South Gloucestershire unitary council. It has played the game by the rules. Let us look at the council tax. The Government built in to the funding settlement an assumption that local authority council tax revenue would rise by 6.1 per cent. So what did the council do? It increased council tax by 6.1 per cent. It could have been more. It could have increased it by 9 or 12 per cent., or four times the rate of inflation, and made pensioners just above benefit levels pay for trying to maintain schools—to some extent that is a local decision. I hope that the Minister will not say that the only way to have decent schools in South Gloucestershire is to force pensioners to pay council tax rises of four times the rate of inflation. If that were Government policy, I would be concerned.

South Gloucestershire bit the bullet and went for 6.1 per cent.—the Government guideline figure and double the rate of inflation. What about the money for education? The Department for Education and Skills has published a list of what councils did with their money. Allowing for the cap that was applied to South Gloucestershire, which we have to do because that is a measure of the money that it actually got, South Gloucestershire passported—to use the jargon—102 per cent. That is the Department's figure. The authority passed on more than all of the increased education funding—so it is rot that the sticky hands of South Gloucestershire prevented the money from getting through to schools.

Allowing for the cap, South Gloucestershire is still spending more than the education funding formula spending share that has been allocated to it. In other words, the council is spending more on education than the Government say it needs to do—so it is not that the council is short-changing schools.

If I had been given the Minister's brief to read out, I am sure that I would have found that it said, "This is a good settlement. This is a lot of money. This is a record amount. South Gloucestershire got a big amount of cash, so why is it complaining?" However, the 9.9 per cent. rise in the total FSS soon disappears when one considers what it has to go on. Pupil numbers across South Gloucestershire as a whole are rising, so some of the money is needed just to stand still. As with everywhere else, teachers' pay, pensions and national insurance costs eat up another huge slice.

Part of the increase in formula spending that the Minister will no doubt want to highlight is to offset cuts in the standards fund—another part of the money that goes to local authorities. The cruel irony for South Gloucestershire is that, whereas standards fund money is allocated on one basis—for example to reduce infant class sizes, an area in which South Gloucestershire was quite near the top of the league—money is allocated on a different basis through the formula, in relation to which the authority is still bottom but one, or bottom but two, so even if the same total amount is spent, South Gloucestershire gets less. A switch from the standards fund to formula application just takes hundreds of thousands of pounds away from South Gloucestershire. That has been a big factor in the pain that South Gloucestershire has faced.

There are many other one-off factors. The Minister may mention that direct payments to schools have gone up, but that money is a tiny fraction of the total amount that schools get. The overall pattern is that the rise in money was not enough to stand still.

What has been the impact on schools? Overall, redundancy or premature retirement procedures have accounted for 6.1 members of staff in primary schools and four in secondary schools. That is the overall picture in the authority as a whole. Some schools have taken on teachers because they are growing.

There have been many other effects as well. I want to concentrate on the human side. The Minister and I could trade figures all afternoon. I have had a letter from a chairman of governors who said that he has read the correspondence between the Department and the local authority and is no wiser as to what on earth has gone on. I hope that, if the Minister says what a good settlement we have had, he will also explain why what I am about to describe has happened in our local schools. I will not name any of the schools, because in general that was the basis on which I was given answers by the heads—although some were willing to be named.

The first school to which I wish to draw the Minister's attention is one that I visited last year, when it lost one general non-teaching post and had no training for any staff and governors, and when there was an overall reduction in spending on heating and books. To make ends meet, the school turned the heating down. When I visited, there were boxes of crisps in the doorway and the hallway. When I asked why they were there, I was told that a local store let the school have the boxes of crisps when they were near to the sell-by date because it could not sell them any more. The school sold them to raise a few pennies. When schools get to the stage of having to sell nearly stale crisps to try to avoid having to sack teachers, something is wrong. That was last year, before the settlement.

When an authority has been underfunded year after year, a tight year cannot simply be absorbed. The effect is compounded. Much of the feedback that I got from teachers and head teachers was to the effect that they had just about cobbled something together for this year, but dreaded next year. I hope that the Minister's notes will give us some feel for whether the ceiling will be lifted for next year, because that is critical.

I asked the school what happened in this year's settlement and was told:
"long and hard-saved-for money for projects such as the roof has had to go by the board".
When the Secretary of State announced that schools could prop up their revenue budget by raiding their capital budget, the head of that school was furious, as it needed to repair the roof. It was fine that she could use the money intended for the roof to try to keep teaching assistants, but what could she do about the roof? The situation is just not good enough.

The chairman of governors from a second school wrote:
"The most worrying impact is that we have had to reduce teaching assistant hours and teacher non contact time. If not corrected"—
this is the key phrase—
"such a reduction will seriously impact the level of education we are able to offer the children".
It may be obvious to say, but children are at the heart of the matter. The subject of the debate is teacher redundancies and the many, many other cutbacks, but it is the impact on the children that is the issue.

I spoke to the head teacher of another school. He stressed the problems of cuts in the standards fund, saying that the school liked to employ newly qualified teachers but that it now had to provide and pay for half a day's training a week. That cost the school £3,000 a year, so it will employ fewer newly qualified teachers. Another head teacher said:
"There is no money this year under the 'School Improvement' category so there is no money for courses and supply cover so professional development has to be cut drastically".
That was a recurring theme—teachers will not be trained in large parts of South Gloucestershire this year. She went on:
"We have cut everything to the bone … I just hope there will be improvement next year, otherwise we will have to cut support staff. Therefore we will be unable to help raise standards and implement reduction in teacher workload. The children suffer in the end."
The Government have great plans for changes to teacher work load and for teaching assistants to do more, but teaching assistants throughout South Gloucestershire are having their hours cut or being laid off because the schools cannot afford to keep them. How can the new agreement that has been reached with most of the teaching unions be delivered if teaching assistants are being cut back?

Another school said:
"We lost valued staff with a wealth of experience whose prime task was to support children's learning. We have just been awarded a school achievement award for 2001–02: evidence … that the investment in our teaching team was worthwhile."
I am absolutely convinced that each of those head teachers would gladly swap any number of awards, recognitions and pats on the head from the Government for a decent funding settlement. It is almost insulting to offer them an award and then not give them the money to hold on to the teachers that delivered that education.

Another head teacher said:
"We are a Beacon school with rising numbers but have had to cut all staff inset training and are not replacing a part time teacher who is leaving in September."
That school is interested in Government initiatives, does not have falling numbers and is regularly in the top two or three in the league tables of primary schools in the area, but it is having to cut teaching numbers. What is going on?

Another head teacher said:
"We have just had an Ofsted inspection and the result was excellent! We are very proud."
However, she continues:
"Even by reducing our teachers by 0.5 in September we still will have no money in our supply budget and not enough Teaching Assistants to run the Government strategies, e.g. Early Literacy Support, Additional Literacy Support, Further Literacy Support."
The Government want schools to do all those things but are not ensuring that they have the teachers to deliver them. She continues:
"If a teacher goes off sick it will be disastrous. It feels like our school is paring down and, as Head, I cannot run the school as I know I should."
This is such a painful sentence:
"Our school should be thriving after a brilliant Ofsted but we feel disillusioned and depressed. I have two members of staff waiting to hear if they have jobs in September or not."
I believe that the school has asked the authority whether it can spend capital to keep the teachers, and the authority is currently deciding. The school does not know yet and may have to sack them.

Another school said:
"Setting our budget this year has been a nightmare, unsure of whether we would be able to afford teachers or not. At one stage decided one teacher would have to go—a stressful time for teachers, a stressful time for Head and Governors. We are keeping all our teachers—but we have had to cut back on so much there is only enough money left to buy bare essentials to keep the school running."
The Government have said that "excellence and enjoyment" is their plan for education; where will the enjoyment be if schools have to turn down the heating and cannot afford new books?

Another school said:
"We are deeply distressed by the current funding issue, we feel we will find it next to impossible to run our school on the money allocated … We have worked hard over the years to provide a high quality education for all our pupils and we now feel that we cannot maintain standards".
We should be talking about improving standards, not struggling to maintain them.

Another example gives a feel of where we are. There is a whole list of cuts, one of which was:
"Reduction of subject leaders budgets and relying more on the Parents' Association to raise funds."
Parents' associations certainly do a fantastic job, but I bet they do not think that they are raising bread-and-butter money to keep teachers at the school.

I have one last one, and I do not apologise for citing all these examples, because they show that it is not a case of one school in special circumstances, or falling rolls. I am quoting from the experience of a dozen schools across the authority. One school said:
"We have made a cut of .2 of a teacher but have funded retaining other staff by using a carry forward of £45,000. This includes £20,000 generated income from consultancy fees for head"—
—that is quite a thing in South Gloucestershire. The head goes to work for someone else for a day a week, to earn more than it costs the school to employ them, so that they can put the balance back into the school funds to prop up the school. That is obviously what we want our heads to do, I do not think. That school also mentions:
"taking students, donations from Friends of School etc."
Staff retention is funded by donations from friends of schools. It should not be like that. Voluntary effort by parents and friends should be for the extras, not employing teachers. The school adds:
"We had been saving this money to use for essential alterations to very small teaching spaces as identified by OFSTED. We cannot now do this work. If the situation does not improve next year we will certainly have to make teachers and teaching assistants redundant."
Where does that leave us? We are not going to change this year's funding. My authority is not a high-profile one, or one about which the Government got upset and threw in a few extra million. We are not going to get any more money this year. A lot of those schools have made do and mended, and used sticking-plaster solutions to get through this year; they cannot do it again.

My plea to the Minister is to tell us that he will scrap the ceiling on our grant. Our modest request is that the Government give us the money that their formula says that we need. Is that greedy or outrageous? No, it is asking for the money that the Government's new and fairer way of assessing local need should give us. I have asked for more outrageous things in my time, but the money that we need will do.

I am going to pass the Hansard report of our debate to all the heads who have responded and the parents who have written in. I am sure that the Minister will understand that they will want to see what the Government say. I hope that he will not insult those head teachers by telling us what record sums have gone in, how good the settlement was, and that it ain't like that, because that is exactly how it is in our schools.

Before I call the Minister, I inform him that the debate will finish at 4.42 pm.

4.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on securing the debate. He clearly is passionate about education in his constituency. I do not dismiss the concerns that he has articulated from some of the schools in his area. He says that he does not ask too much by requesting that I announce today that we will scrap the ceiling. I think that expecting a junior Minister to make an announcement on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister might be a little too much for such a debate. I empathise with the history of his local authority's situation because it is the same situation that my local authority found itself in for a number of years. It is one of the worst funded local authorities in the country, but, as in South Gloucestershire, it provides a high standard of education.

We always fought for a fairer, better system, and I think that the hon. Gentleman would share that view. That system had to be one that could be justified objectively and was more transparent, under which there was no disparity between one group of authorities and another. However, in that context we were also realistic. If there were to be radical changes that made the system fairer—the system is much fairer than it was—there would have to be a transitional phase. That is the only difference that I have with him.

The hon. Gentleman was playing to the gallery in relation to his constituents in pretending that one can move from one system to another without needing to put in place a floor-and-ceiling approach. I suggest, although I do not have the information in front of me, that if the hon. Gentleman's authority was historically one of the great losers, it may have benefited from the fact that there was a floor under the previous system. I know that my authority benefited from that. It is therefore slightly disingenuous to pretend that such radical change can be created in the system without having a ceiling-and-floor approach as a consequence, however frustrating that is—and I recognise, from my local authority area, that there is frustration. People wanted a new system, and we should remember that it is this Government who have delivered a fairer deal for authorities such as South Gloucestershire and mine in Bury. There is an understandable desire for rapid change, but there must also be honesty and reality about the need to phase in the changes.

I absolutely accept the Minister's point about phasing in the changes where authorities have to cope with less money, or very small rises, but the question is, who pays for that? The Government's answer is that authorities such as South Gloucestershire, which have had a raw deal since they were created, should pay for the transitional arrangements for the authorities that do not do very well. My argument is that yes, we need a floor, but we do not need a ceiling because a ceiling is a measure of how badly off such authorities were before. The floor could be funded by general taxation rather than by the authorities that, by definition, have had a bad deal in the past.

Again, that is one of the differences between us. In debate after debate in this House, if we tallied up the spending commitments that the Liberal Democrats make across a whole range of policy areas, the income generation part of their economic policy would, frankly, be voodoo in terms of the tax consequences for the people of this country. There has to be a measured, balanced approach. I believe that the phasing in of a new system was necessary and justified.

The hon. Gentleman said that he did not want me to quote figures at him, but in debates such as this, the facts surrounding the way in which the financial situation in our schools has changed should be in the public domain. This year, there has been a record £2.7 billion increase in funding for schools. That will go up by another £1.4 billion in 2004–05 and there will be a further increase of £2.1 billion in 2005–06. The total cash increase over those three years will be more than £6 billion.

Looking at South Gloucestershire, the people that the hon. Gentleman eloquently and rightly quoted, such as the heads, parents, governors and others who work in schools, know the truth. They know that between 1997–98 and 2002–03, South Gloucestershire's education spending assessment increased by more than £31 million. Over five years, that is an increase of 39 per cent. The people working in, running and benefiting from those schools know the tangible difference that there has been in their funding as a consequence of having a Labour Government since 1997.

In debates such as this it has become fashionable not to mention capital, or to dismiss it as an irrelevance. The focus is on revenue, so the amount of money to repair buildings and build extra classrooms is dismissed. However, if we look at what has happened there, we can see that in 1998–99 capital funding in South Gloucestershire was £8.1 million. This year, it is up to nearly £15 million. There have been significant, year-on-year improvements in the level of resources made available to South Gloucestershire. The local authority has a record of passporting such money and I would not criticise it in such circumstances, so I assume that the individual schools have benefited directly in a significant way. Of course, the schools are impatient for the improvements to be even better, but the hon. Gentleman will agree that the fact that we have a new funding regime is the light at the end of the tunnel. I, perhaps unconventionally, in my capacity as a constituency MP and the hon. Gentleman in his capacity as a local representative have been engaging in a dialogue about the light at the end of that tunnel for many years—probably since the days when we were parliamentary candidates. The Government have delivered those changes and a new system. That will begin to lead daily to significant and tangible benefits to the investment available for the front-line services that matter to people in our communities.

The aims of the new system are clear: similar pupils in different parts of the country should receive a similar amount of money from central Government. We also believe that it is important that the distinct responsibilities of schools and local education authorities are recognised in funding. That is why there is a separation of the two in the new system. There are also three basic funding entitlements for all pupils: first, £2,005 for pupils in primary schools and £2,657 for secondary schools; secondly, a top-up for deprivation and additional educational needs; and thirdly, for pupils in areas with high costs for salaries, recruitment and retention. So there is logic and fairness in the new system, which were not evident in the previous system.

We also acknowledge that there must be a shared responsibility between central and local government when dealing with these issues. We also honestly recognise that the challenge for us all this year has been to manage a complex interaction of changes in the transfer of funding to reflect the teachers' pensions increase and the working through of the teachers' pay settlement. We recognised that by making additional resources available to areas where those changes have had a seriously unreasonable effect.

The hon. Gentleman implied that arbitrary decisions had been taken about how local authorities received additional money. We believed that no area should receive less than 3.2 per cent. per pupil, which is how we allocated that additional resource. Despite his comments, South Gloucestershire's increase was 4.3 per cent. per pupil. The local authority did not meet the threshold required not to qualify for that additional resource.

The full cost of the teachers' threshold will continue to be paid by additional grant from my Department. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Secretary of State made it clear that, for one year only, we were prepared to relax the regulations so that devolved capital could be used for revenue purposes. He also made it clear that we would allow schools to borrow from consolidated balances and that LEAs could license schools to set reasonable deficit budgets.

In our debates, there are certain legitimate questions that we never ask. One such question is about the level of reserves that schools have, although by asking that question I am not implying that all the schools to which the hon. Gentleman referred have large reserves. I do not know, but I do know that many schools with problems have significant reserves, and there are issues about that. It is also true that governing bodies and head teachers make individual choices about the use of existing and available resources and prioritise in a way that varies widely.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the implementation of the Government's strategies, as if the Government are somehow separate from the challenge to raise educational standards. Improving literacy and numeracy, the key stage 3 strategy, and the emphasis on attendance, behaviour and discipline should not be seen simply as Government strategy. They are about every school in every part of the country wanting to focus on raising educational standards.

We have teacher redundancies every year, and we always will because of falling rolls in some institutions. Again, I do not pretend that all the potential redundancies in the hon. Gentleman's constituency are due to falling off. I do not know. The hon. Gentleman was honest enough to say that other schools are taking on more teachers, therefore the net effect in the local education authority area might be that more teachers and more classroom assistants will be employed. Hon. Members should remember that there are 25,000 more teachers than there were six years ago, and 80,000 more support staff. We are determined to sustain that improvement.

The new system is a substantial improvement. It reflects the separate responsibilities of LEAs and schools; it uses up-to-date data that is relevant to children's needs—

The Minister has a couple of minutes left. Will he reflect on what he has said and how it will be read by the head teachers I quoted earlier? How will they feel when he tells them that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but he cannot tell them how long the tunnel is in terms of years, or when he says that it is okay that they have had to sack teachers because some schools have taken teachers on?

Most head teachers and educationists would recognise that a significant extra investment has gone into education since 1997 because I believe them to be honourable. They would also recognise that they have been waiting for a long time for the local government finance system to change, welcome the fact that it has now done so and want that change to be accelerated. Most of them would say, "What are we going to do next year and the year after in terms of our financial situation?"

We want to maintain the momentum of record levels of investment in education and we are committed to a number of things: sufficient education funding increases for every local education authority; getting the balance right between support through general grant and ring-fenced and targeted grant; schools and pupils having the confidence that they will receive the money intended for them; the right balance between in-school and out-of-school provision; fair and appropriate variations in the budget increases received by different schools within each local education authority; and that work force reform in line with the national agreement can be sustained.

We are working through that agenda with our national and local Partners to ensure that the changes are in place and are understood in good time to enable schools and LEAs to plan effectively for 2004–05 and 2005–06.

It being eighteen minutes to Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.