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Commons Chamber

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 11 January 2007

House of Commons

Thursday 11 January 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Youth Opportunity/Youth Capital Funds

1. How many young people have been involved in the allocation of youth opportunity funds and youth capital funds; and if he will make a statement. (114148)

10. What steps his Department has taken to involve young people in the allocation of youth opportunity funds and youth capital funds. (114158)

More definitive data will be available at the end of this financial year. The data that we have so far show that more than 9,000 young people have been involved in making decisions about how the two funds have been used, and that a further almost 24,000 have been involved in developing and submitting bids for the funding. The guidance published on how the funds should be used makes it clear that young people must make those decisions. I expect the numbers involved to grow significantly as the use of funds develops over the next two years.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Tory-controlled Dudley council has just announced that it will cut all grant aid to voluntary youth projects in my constituency, so I very much welcome the youth opportunities fund and the capital fund, which give money directly to my young constituents to manage. So far, 16 projects in Stourbridge have been funded with those resources, including a Cyberbus and projects involving a climbing wall and basketball coaching, while disability and inclusion projects have also been funded in that way. A total of 318 young people have put forward project ideas, all of which have been considered by young people. A big step forward has been made to empower those young citizens and encourage them to make their own decisions, but will the funds be sustained beyond March 2008?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and for her support locally to ensure that the funds are spent as they are meant to be spent. The funding is designed to put decision making into the hands of young people so as to increase their participation and citizenship, and to increase the number of positive activities available for them. I wrote to all local authorities last February to make it clear that the funding represents additional resources made available for that specific purpose, and that it was not a substitute for local authorities’ mainstream provision. I am watching very closely to make sure that authorities in Dudley and elsewhere understand that that is the case.

My hon. Friend was right, however, to say that some exciting projects in Dudley and in her constituency of Stourbridge have been funded. As she said, 318 young people have been involved in submitting applications and the 16 projects include disability and inclusion projects, girl racers, peer mentoring and a Cyberbus. That shows that young people want to grasp the opportunity to decide what is available for them in their local areas.

Order. I note that this question is grouped with Question 10, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra). Can the Minister assure me that he was notified of that grouping? That is significant, because he may enter the Chamber later. Can she tell me that he was so informed?

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I personally cannot confirm that. I was informed by my parliamentary section that the questions would be grouped.

Thank you. If the hon. Gentleman comes in later, I shall call him, as I have no guarantee at this stage that he has been informed of the grouping.

Adult Learning

2. How many places there were on adult learning courses in 2005-06; how many places there are in the 2006-07 financial year; and if he will make a statement. (114149)

In the 2005-06 academic year, there were about 4 million funded adult learner places. Figures for the 2006-07 academic year are not yet available. As set out last October in the Learning and Skills Council’s annual statement of priorities, funding for adult learners from 2005-06 to 2007-08 will increase by 7 per cent., including an additional £300 million for Train to Gain activity. We are committed to realigning funding to support Government targets, apprenticeships, Train to Gain and free first full level 2, while protecting support for disadvantaged adult learning and securing more resources for those with learning difficulties and disabilities.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but how can we have confidence that only 200,000 places will be lost out of the 3.5 million that were announced last April? Just before Christmas, the Government announced that a change in focus in further education policy meant that as many as 500,000 adult education places might be lost. Will the Minister explain the discrepancy?

I think that the hon. Gentleman refers to a period before the most recent changes were introduced, but it is undoubtedly true that the reprioritisation of funding to support skills for employability has delivered higher-than-expected levels of achievement, both at full level 2 and in adult basic skills. Most of the learners who have been lost were involved in non-priority learning. Up to now there has been a cross-party consensus on this matter, but it is important to bear it in mind that the reduction in adult FE volumes must be seen in the wider context of total adult provision. We expect more than 350,000 adult learners to be involved in Train to Gain by 2007-08. The Foster review, the Leitch review and the Government’s FE White Paper received cross-party support and focused on the importance of skills for employability, which has to be our priority.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be more flexible in the provision of courses as part of our commitment to lifelong learning? Does he agree that individuals and employers need to follow the Government’s example and contribute more to lifelong learning provision?

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. No one can criticise this Government’s FE funding record over the past nine and a half years. In that time, we have increased funding by about 50 per cent., in real terms. That compares very favourably with the 14 per cent. real terms cut that was imposed in the five years before 1997. On the back of that increased state investment, we have to see a greater contribution from both individuals and employers if we are to meet the skills challenges that Sandy Leitch set out for us.

Does the Minister accept that as well as many courses closing, a number of previously well-attended courses are becoming prohibitively expensive for a number of people as a direct result of the Government’s policy of concentrating resources on 16 to 19-year-old education and qualification-based learning?

Interestingly, the evidence shows that the average hourly cost of an adult education class has increased over two years from £1.42 to £2.05—still a relatively modest sum, with significant protection for those on means-tested benefits. But the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he supports, as I believe he does, the substantial increased investment in skills for employability, he cannot say that the individual should not have to make a greater contribution towards non-priority learning. It is interesting and instructive that the public back us in this view. Three separate independent surveys have suggested that the public believe that for non-priority adult leisure and recreation, the individual should pay a little bit more.

My hon. Friend is right to say that skills for employability are essential, but what progress has been made in discussions with LSCs in distinguishing between leisure courses and community courses that encourage people back into education who might otherwise not go on an accredited course? They are different, and often LSCs confuse the two.

I know that my hon. Friend takes a real interest in this issue. It is important to focus on level 2—the equivalent of five GCSEs—but it is also critical that the stepping-stone provision that gets people up to level 2 is preserved and maintained. That is why we have established the foundation learning tier. We want to identify those courses that lead to progression. The commitment that we made in the FE White Paper is that over time, as resources allow, we will seek to make that an entitlement.

The Minister is right to highlight the importance of lifelong learning, not least to match the skills required by industry to the courses put on by colleges. Will he congratulate Macclesfield college on the number of courses that it is organising relevant to the needs of local industry and commerce? I recently attended the opening of the European Centre for Aerospace Training at Macclesfield college by the director of the local learning and skills council. The centre is very relevant to the needs of industry and commerce.

I am more than happy to endorse the record of Macclesfield college. I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks up very strongly on its behalf. The focus on skills for employability is key. Sandy Leitch’s report states that our economy is changing. We are going from 9 million skilled jobs to 14 million, while at the same time the number of unskilled jobs is falling from 3.5 million to 600,000. Unless we equip people within the workplace with the skills to face up to that challenge, we and they will lose out significantly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that cuts in funding for training in English for speakers of other languages, effectively ending free tuition for low-paid migrant workers from next September, is rather at odds with statements from Ministers, including the Chancellor, about the central importance of migrant workers learning English?

It is important that migrant workers learn English. Both the numbers and the funding for ESOL have tripled in recent years, but the current funding framework is unsustainable. In some parts of the country there are waiting lists of 18 months to two years for those in the greatest need. That is why we are saying, as we are across the FE system, that the individual and the employer have to make a contribution. Nevertheless, even with the changes, more than 50 per cent. of those currently receiving free ESOL training will continue to do so.

If I understand the Minister correctly, that means that there will be a 50 per cent. cut in funds for English for speakers of other languages. I am grateful for the question asked by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). I remind him of the words of the Prime Minister, who said that, when people come to this country

“as well as people preserving their own distinctive identity”—

it is vital that—

“they integrate with British society. And that is the reason why it is important in my view that people who come into the country and settle here, learn to speak English.”

[Interruption.] The Secretary of State says, “and settle here”, so perhaps that is the answer, but will the Minister explain the logic to many baffled immigrants who seek to learn English and integrate in this country, and tell them why funding for that vital course has been cut?

From the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I assume that he thinks there should be different treatment for people coming to this country compared to British citizens. I do not take that view; there needs to be a level playing field, and where individuals and employers can make a contribution, they should do so. The current position is unsustainable. As I said, in parts of the country there are waiting lists of 18 months to two years for people in the greatest need. Unless the hon. Gentleman is making a commitment to additional public spending for ESOL, his intervention completely lacks credibility.

Music Teaching

All schools already have to teach music to five to 14-year-old pupils, in accordance with national curriculum requirements. The Government are investing an additional £30 million in 2006-08 to back up their pledge that over time every primary child who wants to will have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. The distribution of that money gives more to areas of high deprivation.

I welcome the reiteration of that policy, but it was laid down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) four Education Secretaries ago. What remains is a postcode lottery for schoolchildren wanting to learn to play a musical instrument—the chances are higher in Esher than in many working-class areas. I look to the Labour Government to remedy that wrong and to ensure that some of the poorest and most disadvantaged of our schoolchildren have the opportunity to enjoy and learn to play quality music, particularly—although rock and technology are important—classical and traditional music. That is what is required from the Labour Government. Can we get on with it?

I am glad to hear my hon. Friend talk about rock—he is known as the Robbie Williams of Thurrock in many parts of the House.

I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. I agree entirely about the importance of music for all children, particularly for those in deprived areas, because on many occasions it is music and sport that get children engaged in education, which leads to other benefits. I want to make two points. The first is that we have provided a pot of money—£2 million, weighted for deprivation—to local authorities to buy and repair musical instruments. For some reason in my hon. Friend’s authority—the socialist republic of Thurrock—

Perhaps that is the explanation. For some reason, Thurrock’s £3,254 share of that money has yet to be picked up. It is available for the 2006-07 financial year.

My hon. Friend talked about disadvantaged children, and my second point is that I announced at the Barnardo’s conference in December that as part of our children in care Green Paper and the proposals arising from it, every child in care should have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. The philosophy behind our Green Paper is that the state should be a better parent, and just as a parent would try to provide the opportunity for a child to learn a musical instrument, so, too, should the state. This month, we are talking to a range of music experts about how we can ensure that every child in care has that advantage.

I welcome what the Minister said about the importance of music in the school curriculum. Is he aware that in my borough of Bexley there is excellent music teaching and provision across the whole borough, irrespective of the social background of the area? Will he urge other local education authorities to look at the provision in my authority to see whether they can replicate it?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Bexley is excellent at music. Although we have made tremendous progress, I want to ensure that the same quality of provision that exists in Bexley and many other local authorities is applied across the country. One of the important developments is the music manifesto, where we put together independent voices in the music industry. There are 500 signatories and they have made a number of recommendations to us over the year to which I will respond in a speech on 16 January. One of the recommendations is about how we use singing in schools and about ensuring that there is singing in all schools as a precursor to greater music education. There are lots of excellent colleges in the state sector and the independent sector that, in partnership, we can use to achieve those objectives.

My local authority of Sandwell, which historically is in a low income area, has an outstanding schools orchestra, which has reflected great credit on the local authority. Central to that has been the funding stream for music standards in schools, which I believe is to be reviewed in 2008. I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that that central funding stream is maintained so that music provision in authorities such as Sandwell can continue to reflect credit on those involved.

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to that pool of money. It amounts to £64.5 million this year and will rise to £83 million in 2007-08. The pot for Thurrock is £400,000. He asked me a question that I cannot answer until the end of the comprehensive spending review, but it is quite evident that the focus that we have put on music learning throughout our time in government is going to continue.


Local authorities are required to inform my Department of their plans for new schools only when they publish statutory notices, so we cannot say how many schools for those aged three to 19 there will be in 2012. There is currently one maintained school for those aged three to 18, one for those aged four to 18, one for those aged three to 16, and one for those aged four to 16. There are two academies for those aged five to 19.

I hope that the Minister will find time to visit Selby Park school in my constituency—it is such a school, in a mining village, and it has been an outstanding success—both to look at its success and think about how that could apply elsewhere in the country, and also to discuss with other schools in mining villages in my constituency whether that model would suit them in improving attainment in future.

I am certainly aware of the successful amalgamation of three schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency to form the new Selby Park school. That is a tribute to the work of teachers, pupils, governors and the Labour-controlled county council. I am also aware that the head teacher, Dave Harris, leads the consortium for all-age schools. I will try to find time to pay a visit to his constituency and have the discussions that my hon. Friend talked about.

We already know that, in the run up to 2012, the Government are going to spend billions of pounds on rebuilding schools or building new schools, which is welcome. However, we also know that by the time we get to 2012 the number of pupils being educated in those schools will have fallen. Do the Government recognise that that challenge of demographic change requires not only that they respond with new buildings, but that they transform the curriculum being delivered within those new buildings so that we drive up attainment and staying on rates at 16?

As we roll out the building schools for the future programme—a £45 billion investment in secondary school buildings and transforming secondary education—we will certainly look to local authorities to make sure that they take proper account of falling rolls and propose imaginative schemes to address that. That will work alongside the most ambitious reform of qualifications, with the introduction of specialised diplomas, for many years. We want to make sure that local authorities, in their vision for building schools for the future, are also accounting for the needs in relation to the 14 to 19 reforms.

There are two systems in the Stafford constituency: some parts have primary and secondary schools, while others have first, middle and secondary schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that whatever the structure, if we give teachers and schools the tools to do the job, they rise magnificently to the challenge? Is that not borne out by the Sir Graham Balfour high school in Stafford, which is strongly improving, as is shown by the latest performance figures? I know from experience that it has become very popular since the two-site school was replaced by a modern private finance initiative building.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments and join him in congratulating Sir Graham Balfour school on its results, which show the benefits of the imaginative work of its head teacher and the commitment of its governors and pupils. They are part of the excellent results that are being announced today, which show that in the past 10 years the proportion of children getting five GCSEs at A* to C has increased from 45 per cent. to 58 per cent. If maths is included, there has been a rise of 9 per cent. over that period. We should all be celebrating that success, and schools and pupils throughout the country should be proud of their results.

In the past 10 years, the number of pupil referral units has increased from 309 to 449. Does the Minister think that that trend will continue?

Pupil referral units perform an important function. I am examining the situation carefully because the performance of PRUs is variable and there is evidence that when local authorities delegate the management of PRUs to partnerships of schools the units become more successful. I am not that interested in the overall number of PRUs; I am more interested in their success.


The framework for teacher training ensures that all qualifying and newly qualified teachers, including those supporting children with autism, can plan effectively to meet special educational needs. Decisions about further training for individual teachers are for schools to take. However, to help to reinforce skills, we have announced that we will be developing, with advice from our autism working group, a teachers’ pack on effective provision for children with autistic spectrum disorders. That will complement and build on our good practice guidance that was issued in 2002, which included a checklist for an autism-friendly school.

I welcome that answer. I have been working with a group of about 50 parents of autistic children in my constituency. Although those children have varying needs and this is coming from a very low base, Suffolk local education authority has made good progress this year on developing specialist services. Parents tell me that there is a need for more training so that more expertise can be developed among classroom teachers in mainstream schools. I hope that the new initiative will bring results, but will the Minister carry out a national audit of provision for autistic children because I think that he would find that the picture is very patchy?

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has been doing in Waveney, where he regularly meets about 50 parents of children with autism. As part of the initial teacher training process, teachers are equipped to address special educational needs and receive training on that, but he is right that we need to go further. We will be working with the Teacher Training Agency on a £1.1 million programme that will, among other things, help to ensure that more teachers spend more concentrated time in placements in special schools during the training process and that online facilities are used to spread best practice.

My hon. Friend says that work needs to be done with local authorities. I assure him that we are working closely with groups, including the National Autistic Society and local authorities, in our autism working group—there is a meeting with officials this morning—to find ways of providing better resourcing packages to improve the situation and to assist teachers and pupils.

Will the Minister recognise the superb work undertaken by specialist teachers at the Royal School for the Deaf and Communication Disorders in Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire, which takes children from throughout the United Kingdom—some for 365 days a year—and teaches and looks after children with the most severe autism and other disabilities? Do the Government recognise that such centres of excellence must continue? Does the Minister realise that when more able children reach the age of 18, they have extreme difficulties bridging the gap between being in education, with all the support that they get, and beginning to live a semi-independent life in the community?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the role of staff in centres such as the one that she mentions. We intend to continue to work with local authorities and to provide further funding for special educational needs in the coming years. She will be aware that in the past five years the amount of money that we have given has increased from some £2.8 billion five years ago to £4.5 billion this year. That is roughly a 60 per cent. increase in funding for that area.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although there are many wonderful teachers working in special educational needs across the country, there are not enough of them? Will the whole Front Bench team take another look at the Select Committee on Education and Skills report on special educational needs, and its report on teaching children to read, and will it then track back to the fact that there is something deeply wrong with the training of our teachers, as so many of them have no experience of teaching children with special educational needs or of teaching children to read? I would like to hear a much greater note of urgency in his tone when he responds.

My hon. Friend and I have had in-depth discussions on the issue, and we had a three-hour discussion with the Select Committee just before Christmas. I take on board what he says about the need for greater training and support for the teaching profession, but I reiterate that such issues are a compulsory part of initial teacher training. We need to go further, and we are working with the TTA on that. The appropriate way forward is to work with groups such as the autism working group; that is what we are doing, and I promise him that we will continue to do that.

Given that children with autistic spectrum disorders often have complex needs that go well beyond those that can reasonably be met in the classroom, and given that those needs tend to persist throughout their lives, may I ask the Minister, pursuant to the pertinent inquiry of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), what particular steps his Department is taking to improve services to support the emotional and social needs of such children, particularly post-16, so that they have the equipment the better to lead independent lives?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my noble Friend Lord Adonis has been working on that matter very closely. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman more information in writing, as I know from his contribution to the Select Committee discussion that we had just before Christmas that he is very concerned about the issue. He is right that the issue is not just about what happens within the school environment, and that those needs do not end at the age of 16. We have to work carefully and closely with local authorities to make sure that there are pathways to support such people for the rest of their lives, whatever they end up doing. We should support them both inside and outside of education, and provide them with the right level of support.

Ensuring an overall framework for special educational needs support is obviously important if we are to tackle the specific area of special needs under discussion. Is my hon. Friend aware that, in Birmingham, a review of SEN provision has caused a great deal of concern among teachers and parents? In fairness to the Tory and Lib Dem-controlled council, it says that it has been misunderstood, that the issue is not about what it is said to be about, and that it will consult properly, but there is still a great deal of concern. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has commented on the matter, but will he and his colleagues on the Front Bench make sure that Birmingham lives up to what it says, and consults and involves the people in that key area who have the most at stake?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about what is happening in Birmingham. I am pleased to note that our debate is not overly cooked or overheated, as in the past there was talk of moratoriums, but that would not assist local authorities. It is worth putting on the record the fact that from 1986 to 1997, 234 special schools closed. The rate decreased in 1997 to 2005, when there were 138 closures, but a great deal of restructuring by local government resulted in smaller facilities closing or merging, often with mainstream facilities.

My hon. Friend made his point about Birmingham very clearly, and concerns have been raised about Wandsworth, too. His contribution echoes those concerns, enabling them to be heard loud and clear in Birmingham.

But does the Minister recognise that many parents with a child at the severe end of the autism spectrum genuinely believe that they would be better off in a special school? Why are the Government still instructing local authorities that

“the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time”?

Has not the time come to withdraw that guidance, putting the views of parents, not politicians, first and, indeed, to introduce a moratorium on the closure of special schools?

I do not think that that is the case. We have made it clear that parents should be able to say what they want as part of the statementing process. If they want their child to go to a special school, they have the right to say so and send them to such a school. Only 0.25 per cent. of families with children with special educational needs make an appeal to the independent SENDIST—special educational needs and disabilities tribunal—because they are unhappy with the choice of school or have not been given what they want. Our position is clear—we support the parents’ choice, whether it is a mainstream or special school or, as is increasingly the case, a special school allied to a mainstream school. With the support of the building schools for the future programme and the £6.5 billion a year building programme, we have been able to improve some of those facilities and achieve greater co-location.

Parents in my constituency have drawn attention to the problem of persuading primary schools to recognise that their children have autism so that help can be provided before those children start to experience feelings of exclusion and behavioural problems. Can the Minister assure me that the matter will receive a high priority, perhaps in the Ofsted inspection, so that primary schools can make sure that all teachers understand and detect the early stages of autism, as that is as important as the provision of specialist autism teachers?

My hon. Friend is right, and that is one reason that we support the National Autistic Society’s make schools make sense campaign—I believe that she attended the launch. We are working with the society to design a pack that will enable teachers to recognise autism and to deal with it, specifically by supporting the teachers that she mentioned in primary schools.

Schools (Northumberland)

7. What estimate he has made of the number of schools in Northumberland likely to be (a) built and (b) refurbished through the capital spending announced in the Chancellor’s public spending statement. (114155)

I have made no estimate of the number of schools in Northumberland likely to be built or refurbished during the spending review period announced in the Chancellor’s public spending statement. This is because, first, detailed allocations to public authorities have not yet been announced for this period and, secondly, because decision making is carried out at local authority level.

The Minister will know from his recent visit to Northumberland of the desperate need for a new high school in Alnwick, the needs of many other schools in the county, the massive reorganisation that the county is trying to undertake and the fact that all its bids under the building schools for the future programme have failed. The Minister and his officials have promised to undertake some work to understand why that has happened, but by what date will we know that some of that money is going to Northumberland so that some of those schools can be rebuilt?

I enjoyed my visit to Northumberland and our constructive discussions about the problems faced by the authority. The right hon. Gentleman will know that it has accepted a repayable advance in 2007-08 of £2.1 million, and I am considering a request for an additional advance of £3.9 million. He should bear in mind the fact that, 10 years ago under the previous Government, the entire capital allocation was only £3.1 million. We have therefore advanced significant sums but, unfortunately for Northumberland, money under the BSF programme is allocated on the basis of deprivation and need. As we discussed, that presents problems for his authority.

One of the problems that Northumberland faces is that on the basis of funding per pupil, it is in the bottom four of all local education authorities in England. As the Minister saw on his visit, the county has to deal with providing education in one of the most sparsely populated counties in England, coupled with dealing with social deprivation in the former coalfield areas of the south-east of the county. When the Minister looks at the funding formulae, will he take into consideration sparsity and the other factors that deprive Northumberland of a great deal of money?

Certainly we take account of sparsity when we consider the funding formula. I would advise the hon. Gentleman to look at the funding figures, including grants. If he does so, he will see that Northumberland is right next to Dorset, the county that I represent, and is somewhere round the 30th worst funded authority, not the fourth worst funded authority out of the 149.

Children's Centres

8. What progress has been made towards the target for a children's centre in every community by 2010. (114156)

We exceeded our interim milestone of 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres by September last year, and there are now 1,051 centres reaching over 850,000 children and their families. The strong engagement of local authorities and other local partners means that we are making good progress towards having 3,500 children’s centres—one for every community—by 2010. The centres are at the heart of our “Every Child Matters” programme. They are a key vehicle for improving the outcomes for young children, reducing inequalities between them and helping to bring an end to child poverty.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and I am pleased with the progress that has been made. I am also grateful for the excellent Sure Start and children’s centre provision in my constituency, Burnley. Due to our high levels of deprivation, we had a number of centres right from the start. I can personally vouch for the excellence of the service provided, as our family has had occasion to use it recently. Given the progress that has been made in rolling out children’s centres, which my right hon. Friend has just announced, what scope is there to work further with primary care trusts to use them to provide additional essential health services in every community throughout the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and for her interest both in the national policy and locally. She is right to highlight that aspect, because as we move from the experimental Sure Start local programmes in very disadvantaged areas to seeing the centres as mainstream provision in every community, it is vital that local health and employment services are provided through the children’s centres, integrated with early education and children’s social care services. I would like to see more health-led children’s centres, not just an integration of health, but run by PCTs, as is the case in one of the children’s centres in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The evaluations tell us that when the centres are health-led, some of the best practice and best outcomes are achieved, precisely because of the high quality of data that many PCTs have. That is being encouraged at local level both by me and by Health Ministers.

Although I welcome the roll-out of more children’s centres, is not the Minister concerned that the evidence so far suggests that the most disadvantaged families and those that are most difficult to reach are not presenting at children’s centres, and therefore cannot be helped in the way that she has just set out? What policies will she pursue to reach the most difficult families, which can benefit most from state provision?

That is central to our objectives. In the Childcare Act 2006 the Government laid two duties on local authorities—not only to achieve an improvement in outcomes for all young children, but to reduce the inequalities between young children. That provision was robustly opposed by all Tory members of the Committee during the passage of the Act. Reaching the most disadvantaged families is crucial to reducing inequalities. The recent National Audit Office report identified the fact that although many local authorities are doing very well in reaching disadvantaged families, more local authorities need to do better. I have recently taken a number of steps to improve the performance of local—

I was very pleased to hear about the development of the first three children’s centres in my constituency over the coming year. Local people are telling me that it is extremely important to involve parents in the development of those centres at the earliest possible stage if they are to fulfil their role in ensuring that every young child gets the best possible start in life. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

All the evidence suggests that over and above any services, the single most important factor in determining outcomes for children at any age is parental involvement, positive attitude and interest. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is important to involve parents at the earliest opportunity, but centres must also keep their eye on the most important ball—outcomes for the children themselves.

How does the Minister’s Department intend to respond to the National Audit Office report, which said, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) pointed out, that children’s centres are not reaching the most deprived families, particularly parents of children with disabilities. It noted that four out of 30 of the children’s centres were forecasting deficits, which raises questions about the roll-out of future centres and the sustainability of the child care market.

On primary care trust co-hosting, which we would like to see, how will that happen in areas such as North Yorkshire where PCTs are heavily in deficit?

The NAO report was helpful because it found that some local authorities need to do better in reaching the most disadvantaged groups. It also identified local authorities that were doing very well and how they were doing so. I have taken three courses of action in response to the report. First, I have issued strong practice guidance to children’s centres about how they should strengthen their outreach and improve their performance management. Secondly, I am funding, with the Cabinet Office and the social exclusion team, a project to determine how health visitors, who are well placed to identify and work with the most disadvantaged families, can be more strongly connected with children’s centres. Thirdly, we have appointed a public voluntary sector consortium called Together for Children, whose job is to support and, particularly, to challenge local authorities and to improve their practice in this regard.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the third new children’s centre in my constituency, which opened just before Christmas. I am sure that it will provide excellent services for people in the Laurel avenue area. Can she confirm what her Department is doing to support outreach work from the centre so that families who are most excluded and hardest to reach can access not only the benefits of Sure Start but those of other services?

Yes, I can. The NAO report found that centres that are successful at reaching disadvantaged groups showed commitment from the centre manager and staff, used outreach and home visiting in co-operation with health and community groups to reach those excluded families, and provided outreach services on the doorsteps of deprived communities. Those are exactly the elements that the practice guidance has identified, and all local authorities must push that through their children’s centres to ensure that it happens.

International Baccalaureate

9. What plans he has to encourage schools to offer international baccalaureate examinations in place of A-levels. (114157)

On 30 November, the Prime Minister announced plans to enable some schools to offer the international baccalaureate in addition to A-levels, thus widening choice in post-16 education. We are asking each local authority to nominate one suitable institution in their area that could deliver the IB, and we will support at least one institution offering it in every local authority outside London by 2010. Any school offering it must be in a consortium that is successful in passing through the diploma gateway.

When the Prime Minister said that he wanted the international baccalaureate to be an extra examination choice, was not he admitting what we all know—that the Government have let down hard-working, intelligent young people by making A-levels that much easier through devaluing the so-called gold standard? Indeed, he was admitting that A-levels are no longer an adequate test of the hard work, education, intelligence and ability of pre-university pupils.

I am afraid to say that that is complete nonsense. We should celebrate the performance and improvement in teaching in this country, pupils’ hard work, and the support that they get from their parents and that schools get from governors, resulting in vastly improved A-levels. We now have 25 per cent. of pupils getting an A grade in every A-level subject and we are therefore introducing the grade of A* to provide some differentiation and more push at the top end of A-levels. However, the A-level remains the gold standard. The IB will not suit most candidates because of its breadth—it includes English, maths, a science and an additional foreign language. Most people post-16 will not be interested in that breadth.

Does the Minister agree that the preparation for a baccalaureate or A-levels depends on achievement at key stage 4? Will he join me in congratulating the schools in Slough, which get results that are 10 per cent. above average in key stage 4? They include Beechwood school, which suffers from a selective intake, but has moved from being judged “the worst school in the country” in 2001 to one in which one in five of its pupils are getting five A to C grades.

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Beechwood school in Slough on some excellent performance and fantastic improvement in the past five years. Everyone involved in that school should be proud of their achievements. We should celebrate success in our schools throughout the country instead of trying to run it down.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the shadow deputy Chief Whip that the increasing popularity of the international baccalaureate is partly due to concerns about existing A-levels and GCSEs. That is why 200 independent schools decided to adopt the international GCSE in some subjects. Does the Minister agree that, since state schools are allowed to offer the international baccalaureate, they should also be allowed to offer the international GCSE, thus putting them on an equal footing with the independent sector?

At the moment, more state schools than independent schools offer the international baccalaureate. I am sure that some independent schools are motivated by the extraordinarily large number of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service points that now have been offered to the international GCSE. The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the IGSE are predictable. I remind him that it is not compatible with the national curriculum. It is a completely written exam and it therefore fails to offer, for example, French oral for the French exam. That is nonsense. If we offered it in maintained schools, significant changes would have to be made to it.

Does the Minister accept that the array of examinations that is now available—general national vocational qualifications, 14 to 19 diplomas, the international baccalaureate, A-levels—is costly and confusing? Does he agree that it avoids tackling the genuine problem, which is that examination boards or the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, aided and abetted by the unwillingness of successive Governments to maintain standards, have not maintained the rigorous standards that should be applied to the A-level? Does he accept that is now time to re-establish rigorous standards for the content of A-levels and—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I reject the notion that A-levels have been dumbed down—it is an insult to pupils who have been doing so well in those exams. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority maintains the standard for us and does a good job. On the range of options post-16, we are setting out a three-pronged choice in our 14 to19 reforms, with English and maths GCSE at its heart, as well as the traditional apprenticeship route, the traditional academic GCSE and A-level or IB route and the new specialised diploma route. That will mix the best of academic and the best of work-related learning.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Adjourned Hearings

20. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of hearings adjourned at the request of Crown Prosecution Service staff. (114140)

Although information on the number of hearings adjourned at the request of the Crown Prosecution Service is not collected, I can say that there has been a decrease in the average number of adjournments in indictable cases in the magistrates court from 2.6 per cent. in 1997 to 2.1 per cent. in 2006.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. I am pleased that the trend is on a downward curve and I would like to congratulate John Holt and the Greater Manchester Crown Prosecution Service on their success in improving performance in this area. However, we should not forget that while the CPS and the police are responsible for the fact that about a fifth of hearings do not go ahead as planned, the defence is responsible for more than half. What further steps can be taken to solve defence-related problems, including defence lawyers not preparing for cases on time and defendants on bail who do not turn up for court hearings, causing distress and inconvenience to victims and witnesses and further delaying justice?

My hon. Friend is right. The recent National Audit Office report recognises that most ineffective trials are caused by defence problems, whether it be the absence of the defendant, defence lawyers not being ready or the defendant being ill. That has quite an impact on the witnesses for the prosecution—and, indeed, the victims—who have attended the court. Through the “Criminal Justice: Simple, Speedy, Summary” review, we are piloting improvements in the operation of procedures, which have proved successful in those four pilot areas. In addition, Lord Carter’s recent review of legal aid procurement, published in July, changes the way in which defence lawyers are paid. Instead of being paid for each hearing, they will be paid for each case, which will incentivise efficiency and, one hopes, result in fewer hearings and fewer adjournments.

Does the Solicitor-General recognise the concern expressed by Crown prosecutors in Enfield magistrates court about the number of adjournments—likely to go down as defence adjournments—resulting from bad implementation of the means-testing process? That has led to a number of adjournments and ineffective hearings in the magistrates court.

I accept that there has been an issue about means testing. I was at Horseferry Road magistrates court just round the corner only last Thursday and had to deal with a case in which that issue arose, when we needed to ensure that legal aid was available and that the necessary procedures were completed. That is why I know that my colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs are looking into those procedures with a view to improving them.

Is the Solicitor-General aware of the seriousness of the problem? In Wellingborough, for instance, a terminally ill constituent turned up at court three times, only to find that the case had been adjourned. We must have procedures in place to stop that sort of thing happening.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. That is why the new “Criminal Justice: Simple, Speedy, Summary” review is piloting improvements to procedures in the courts at Coventry, Cumbria, Camberwell Green and Thames in order to ensure that cases are dealt with and prepared right at the first hearing. All the relevant papers should be there so that the defence is in a position to indicate a plea and the matter can be put to trial—one hopes fairly speedily—in the case of a not guilty plea or otherwise be dealt with on the day or in due course after a probation report has been prepared. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we need to speed up those processes.


21. How he will evaluate the independent advice offered to him on whether prosecutions should be initiated under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 or the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. (114141)

If the Crown Prosecution Service consults him on such a prosecution, the Attorney-General has said that he will appoint an independent senior counsel to review all the relevant material and advise him on any prosecution. That is not unusual, as the Attorney-General often appoints senior counsel to advise on particular cases, and he will evaluate advice in the normal way.

But will he act on that advice and will the Attorney-General retain the right of veto on whether to advance a prosecution? Is it not as plain as a pikestaff that there is a clear and obvious conflict of interest here and that the Attorney-General should remove himself entirely from the process?

It is important to stress that these issues are wholly hypothetical at this stage. There is no file sent to the Crown Prosecution Service; there is no reference by the CPS to the Attorney-General; no independent advice has been sought and no one—including my hon. Friend—knows whether it will happen. A police investigation is still under way: neither I nor the Attorney-General knows whether it will lead to any recommendation for anyone to be prosecuted. The Attorney-General has made his position clear and it would not be right for him to stand aside from any involvement in the case. Indeed, as the Director of Public Prosecutions has said, the Attorney-General is

“entitled to be consulted about a case, and it is normal practice for him to be consulted in serious and complex cases.”

And as Lord Morris of Aberavon, a former Attorney-General, has said of the Attorney-General:

“At the end of the day, he and he alone is answerable to Parliament and there should be no question of this or any other Attorney-General stepping aside.”

On this issue, the Solicitor-General will know that there are three main criteria in the Attorney-General’s guidelines for prosecution. The third, and the most germane to this matter, is public interest. May I suggest that it will never be proper for the Attorney-General to consider the public interest since he is deeply involved in all of this? If ever there were a case of great public interest, this is it.

There are a small number of cases for which any decision to prosecute requires the personal consent of the Attorney-General or me. Parliament has made that an essential legal condition. If the hon. Gentleman has a problem with what Parliament has done, he, as a Member of Parliament, has the ability to do something about it. This is not a power that can be delegated by the Law Officers to a third party; it is not something that can be delegated. Furthermore, even in relation to those prosecutions for which the consent of the Law Officers is not required, the Attorney-General has statutory responsibility for the superintendence of the Crown Prosecution Service and is answerable to Parliament and to the public for its actions. Either the hon. Gentleman wants someone to be answerable to Parliament to deal with these questions or he does not.

In order to get this matter into perspective, may I point out to my hon. and learned Friend that, in all the time that I have been a Member of this House, there have been allegations—justified or otherwise—that those who have donated to political parties have received honours? The issue goes back many years, and for the life of me I cannot see anything unique about the allegations that are now being made.

My hon. Friend has greater experience in the House than I have, and he knows that these kinds of issues have been raised in the past. When the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Law Officers deal with such issues, they have to do so on the basis of the evidence and the law. That is the basis on which such things should be decided, not on the basis of mere allegations.

Given that any future decision by the Attorney-General, a Member of the House of Lords appointed by the Labour party, on peers and honours will be highly controversial, and that it would follow two other highly controversial decisions—namely, his advice on Iraq, which appears to have changed, and his advice and decision on the al-Yamamah contract between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia—is it not time for an honest and open debate about a change in the relationship between the Law Officers and the Government, so as to make them more accountable to Parliament and less accountable to the Prime Minister of the day?

I am not sure quite what the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am doing standing here at the Dispatch Box answering his questions, other than being accountable to Parliament. The fact that the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General are answerable to Parliament for the issues means that we have to ensure that we are able to deal with them in an appropriate way. The Law Officers are answerable to the House. They are able to look at the issues from the point of view of Members of Parliament in relation to answering questions here but also, most importantly, to ensure that we make judgments based on the public interest, on the law and on ensuring that we maintain the integrity of the prosecution service.

I entirely accept that the Attorney-General cannot surrender his constitutional functions or abandon his role to someone else in this matter. Will the Solicitor-General provide us with further reassurance? In the unlikely event that the independent person appointed to advise the Attorney-General were to take a different view from that of the Attorney-General, would the Law Officers ensure that further advice was sought before a final decision was made? Will the Solicitor-General also confirm that, if a decision were to be reached in which there was a variance between the independent adviser’s view and that of the Law Officers, Parliament would be fully seized of the matter?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the Attorney-General cannot abrogate his constitutional functions. Going even further down the route of asking what would happen were a file sent to the CPS, which it referred to the Attorney-General, who took independent counsel’s advice and then had a view, would be getting into hypotheticals to an extreme. The Attorney-General has acknowledged that he could not simply rubber-stamp the views of counsel. Given his ultimate legal and constitutional responsibilities, he must take a view. I stress again that the position is hypothetical.

In answer to the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the Attorney-General has said that if a decision were taken not to prosecute, he would consider at that stage how best to ensure that the basis for that decision was explained, including, so far as compatible with the interests of justice, making known what course counsel had advised him to take.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 15 January—Second Reading of the Planning-gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill.

Tuesday 16 January—Second Reading of the Pensions Bill.

Wednesday 17 January—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Conventions, which relates to the relationship between the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Thursday 18 January—A debate on antisocial behaviour on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 19 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 January will include:

Monday 22 January—Second Reading of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.

Tuesday 23 January—Opposition day [3rd Allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion on a subject to be announced.

Wednesday 24 January—A debate on Iraq and the middle east on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 25 January—Remaining stages of the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill.

Friday 26 January—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the next two weeks, and for announcing that the debate on 24 January will be specifically on Iraq and the middle east, which is in response to the real concern across the House that such a debate should take place. In the past five weeks, the Iraq Study Group report has been published, the Prime Minister has met the President of the United States to discuss policy on Iraq, the Prime Minister has visited the middle east, and the President of the United States has broadcast to the American people on US policy on Iraq. At no time during that period, however, has the Prime Minister come to the House and spoken to the British public about his Government’s policy on Iraq. Will the Leader of the House therefore ensure that there is no passing of the buck, and that the debate on Iraq and the middle east on 24 January is opened by the Prime Minister?

Yesterday, the Home Secretary made a statement about the failure to register details about criminals convicted abroad—some of serious crimes such as murder and rape. The Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) both denied knowing about the issue until Tuesday, but a letter had been sent to the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) by the Association of Chief Police Officers last October, and acknowledged by the Under-Secretary last December. So that hon. Members may be clear about the facts, will the Leader of the House ensure that copies of the relevant letters are placed in the House of Commons Library?

On the wider issue of the general incompetence of the Home Office, the Home Secretary said last May that he had 100 days to bring forward reforms. Getting on for 300 days into his tenure of office, we have seen no sign of effective reform of the Home Office. We have had foreign prisoners walking free because the Home Office has failed to deport them; we have had UK criminals convicted abroad walking free without public protection because of a failure to register them; and we have had murderers walking free from open prisons. Given such recurring incompetence in the Home Office, will the Leader of the House ensure that we have regular statements by the Home Secretary to the House about what is going on—or perhaps we should say what is going wrong—in the Home Office?

May we have a statement on the operation of the 2006 single farm payment scheme? Official figures show that, for the 2005 scheme, only 1,700 farmers are awaiting final payments, but figures reported yesterday show that more than 10 times that number—some 19,000 farmers, or one in six—are still waiting for 2005 payments to be resolved.

On 16 November, the Leader of the House said that the traffic light system for marking parliamentary questions in the Department for Work and Pensions had been implemented

“to ensure that difficult questions requiring a full answer received one in time.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 134.]

However, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), said that the system had been implemented

“to identify questions of which press office should be aware, and for which Ministers wish separate media briefing to be developed.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 184W.]

Does the Leader of the House wish to correct his earlier answer?

On 14 December, the Leader of the House said that the order to implement new constituency boundaries would be laid in February. Yesterday, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), said that the order would now be laid in mid-March. Will the Leader of the House confirm the timetable for laying that order and guarantee that the next general election will be fought on the new constituency boundaries?

Finally, may we have a debate on campaign techniques? That would enable hon. Members to get some tips from the chairman of the Labour party, the Minister without Portfolio, on how to campaign against Government policy.

The right hon. Lady asked me first about the debate on the middle east. I am grateful to her for acknowledging that I have responded to concerns on both sides of the House that there should be a debate on Iraq and the middle east, and there will be. I should also tell the House that today my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary are appearing jointly before a joint meeting of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Select Committees. That is a further opportunity for senior members of this House to question both Secretaries of State on that important issue of foreign and defence policy.

The right hon. Lady asked me about the Prime Minister and said that at no time has he come to this House to talk about Iraq or the middle east. That is not quite correct because, as everyone who was in the House for Prime Minister’s questions yesterday knows, the leader of the Liberal Democrats asked the Prime Minister two questions about Iraq and my right hon. Friend responded in some detail. It is no good referring to the situation in the United States. The simple fact is that British Prime Ministers are more directly accountable to their Parliament than Heads of Government in almost any other state across the world. It is normal for debates on foreign policy to be opened by the Foreign Secretary. That was the arrangement during the 18 years of Conservative government as well. My right hon. Friend has already intimated to the House—I think that he did so yesterday—that at an appropriate time he will make a full statement about Iraq, but that he wishes to do so when what is known as Operation Sinbad has been completed.

The right hon. Lady asked whether I would have the Home Office letters placed in the Library. I will certainly communicate that request to the Home Secretary. She then made some rather wild insinuations from the fact that two prisoners escaped from Sudbury open prison a couple of days ago. I should just tell Conservative Members what they seem to forget with some ease: our record on prison escapes is fantastic compared with that of the previous Conservative Government. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Total escapes from prisons in the seven years up to 1997 were 1,339. In the nine years since then, the number is one tenth of that, at 137. The number of category A escapes has dropped from 18 to zero since 1997 and the number of absconds from closed prisons is the lowest for 10 years.

That allows me to offer this warm advice to the Opposition. Of course the Home Office could always do better—that was true when I was Home Secretary, it is true today and it was true when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was Home Secretary—but I advise the Conservatives against implying that if and when they get into government the Home Office will achieve a state of grace and perfection and there will be no occasion on which a Home Secretary will be required to come here to explain some difficulty. [Hon. Members: “Of course not.”] I am offering the advice on that basis. Our record, in sharp contrast to that of the Conservatives, is one of falling crime, falling victimisation and rising police numbers. The reverse was the case under the Conservatives.

I will pass the request for a debate on the single farm payment scheme to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. What I and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have said about the traffic light scheme is entirely consistent. On constituency boundaries, I regret the fact that there has been a short delay, but I see no reason why the order should not be in force well before the next general election.

Is the Leader of the House aware of the campaign by Age Concern, which is supported by the Leicester Mercury, for an increase in the winter fuel allowance for pensioners? The House is aware of what the Government have done for pensioners over the past 10 years, but 1,000 people have now backed that campaign. May we have a debate on that important issue?

I will make a note of my right hon. Friend’s request. I am glad that he acknowledges what the Government have done. We introduced and then increased the winter fuel payment, and reduced VAT on fuel from 8 per cent to the lowest possible level at 5 per cent. My right hon. Friend will recall that the Conservatives introduced VAT on fuel and then doubled it to 17.5 per cent. Over the past three years an additional £300 million has been provided for the poorest pensioners to have central heating, with a £300 discount on central heating systems for all other pensioners who do not have one.

The Leader of the House seemed prepared for questions on the Prison Service, but when he said that two people charged with and convicted of murder escaped from Sudbury prison yesterday, he was not telling the full story. In fact, five people charged with either murder or manslaughter are on the run from Sudbury prison, and there is growing concern in the local area. There have been more than 665 absconds from Sudbury in the past 10 years. If more people accused of serious offences are put into open prisons, it is no wonder that the Government can have a good record on people not absconding from prison. Prisoners do not have to escape from open prisons; they just walk out. Is not it time for the Home Secretary to come to the House to make a statement on this deplorable situation?

It is a delight to welcome the Opposition Chief Whip to a speaking position on the Back Benches. I do not know whether that tells us something about his future career.

I know that, of course, but I can still be friendly towards him. [Interruption.] Well, we do not know that yet. That might come next.

I understand the public concern about these absconds. The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) will be aware that life prisoners convicted of murder are not transferred to open prison conditions except on the recommendation of the Parole Board and with the approval of the Home Secretary. The number of refusals of such approval has increased to 41 per cent. in recent years.

The right hon. Gentleman will also know that, for the vast majority of murderers who are given a sentence—which is bound to end at some stage, when they will be released into the community—there has to be a transition from closed conditions to open prisons and then to the community. I am afraid that it is a necessary characteristic of open prisons that sometimes prisoners abscond—they do not escape, because it is very easy just to walk out as they are open prisons. However, when they do so, they are taken back into closed conditions, and they have shown that they have failed the first test, which is whether it is safe to release them.

When the hapless Home Secretary and his hopeless Ministers come to the Dispatch Box on Monday for Home Office questions, would it not be a good idea if they simply stayed to answer all the other questions that are bound to arise as a result of the events of the past few days? It is simply not acceptable for the Home Secretary to say that when he finally found out about the fiasco to do with police national computer entries he applied additional resources as a matter of urgency, as we now know that those resources were requested back in October. Dangerous prisoners have absconded, and that is unacceptable, especially if there is the slightest suspicion that they were in open prison because of a failure of assessment or overcrowding in the secure estate—that is not a criticism of the open prison system. This is a matter of proper concern to the House, and we should have a debate on public safety.

I welcome the debate on Iraq, although I regret that it will not be on a substantive motion and that the Prime Minister will not open it. We need an urgent statement from the Prime Minister on the implications of President Bush’s decision announced yesterday, particularly as it appears to be contrary to the advice of his military commanders. Many of us do not accept the apparent belief of the Prime Minister that US action in Baghdad can have no conceivable effect on the security position in southern Iraq, and on that basis we need a statement.

Before further damage is done to the reputation and integrity of the City of London, may we have a debate on corruption, so that we can learn when Britain intends to meet its Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development commitments on bribery and explore the roles and actions of the Attorney-General? For the benefit of businesses, perhaps we ought to list those countries in which United Kingdom companies can, apparently, engage in corrupt practices in the national interest, and those in which they cannot.

Lastly, I thank the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for rehearsing again my lines from previous business questions on the traffic light scheme. May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to a new reply from the Department for Work and Pensions? When asked how many questions fall into each traffic light category, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) said:

“As there is no formal departmental monitoring system in place related to the trialling, the information on numbers is not available.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1997W.]

In a separate answer, it was said that the Department does not keep formal records. That is a trial of which the Home Office would be proud.

On the Home Office issues, there is no point in my offering the Liberal Democrats any fraternal advice about when or if they get into government, as the one certain thing is that under no circumstances will they do so over the next 50 years. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is well aware of the issue now, but it is impossible for a Home Secretary—I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting otherwise—to be fully aware, until they are aware, of everything that is going on in that wonderful Department of State. As an American said in a different context, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and whoever is Home Secretary wakes up every day wondering which unknown unknown will turn into a known unknown and undermine their career. However, I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concern.

I have already dealt with the issue of Iraq. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not say that what would happen in Baghdad would have no conceivable effect on what happens in Basra. He said:

“however: in relation to Basra, the situation is different in some very critical respects”—[Official Report, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 278.]

and he spelt out how it is different. Indeed it is different. One of the ways in which it is different is that while, tragically, the number of civilian casualties has increased in the Baghdad area, it has fallen significantly in Basra, as the Cabinet was informed earlier today. There are many other differences as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about a debate on corruption and then made wild assertions, implying that there was clear evidence of corruption. I assume that he was referring to the BAE Systems Saudi Arabia case. If he bothered to read the statement made by the director general of the Serious Fraud Office, as well as that made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, he would see that the whole point of the decision was a judgment that there would be insufficient evidence to justify a prosecution even if there were another year and a half’s inquiry. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman is unnecessarily and unjustifiably damaging the reputation of this country, and he should be aware of that. The truth is that on any international analysis—for example, that by Transparency International—the United Kingdom scores very highly, and far better than many of our European and other competitors.

On the issue of the traffic light system in the Department for Work and Pensions, I think that I need to have a conversation with my hon. Friends in that Department about the wiring of the system.

Will my right hon. Friend give time for a discussion on a hideous crime and the subsequent sentencing? A nine-year-old boy was raped and the man concerned was sentenced to six years, but that has been reduced to five. I find that the sentence was too lenient in the beginning for such a hideous and sickening crime. That has got to be changed, and the parents are rightly very upset. Why can we not have a system like the American system, so that we do not say what the maximum sentence ought to be, but what the minimum sentence is to be? Therefore, in this case there should have been a minimum sentence of six years, and if the convicted person misbehaves in prison it can go up to eight or 12 years. Surely the time has now come to enable the public to understand the sentencing system and for the victims to be put first, rather than the perpetrators?

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and above all the concern of the parents. There are certain circumstances in which indeterminate sentences can be issued by the courts; that applies specifically in respect of life sentences, which have to be imposed where there is a conviction for murder, but they may be imposed by the court in respect of a range of other serious offences, including rape. Obviously, I do not know why in this case a determinate sentence was issued rather than what would have amounted to an indeterminate sentence. The Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor are looking at the sentencing system to see whether it can be made more comprehensible and understandable to the public.

Is the Leader of the House as appalled as I am at the daily scenes of harassment by the paparazzi of an ordinary citizen of this country? Will he arrange for an early debate so that the House can reflect whether adequate powers are available to deal with this wholly unacceptable behaviour?

I am, indeed, absolutely appalled by the scenes. I commend News International for saying that it will have nothing to do with the photographs, but we need to hear from all other newspaper groups in this country and abroad that they will ban this practice. I will certainly look into whether we can find time to debate this important issue.

On Tuesday, I tabled early-day motion 586 on Chinese human rights activist, Chen Guang Cheng.

[That this House notes the four years and three months' imprisonment of 34 year old Chen Guang Cheng, a blind Chinese human rights activist; notes his crime consisted of acting on behalf of women being forcibly aborted and sterilised; notes that 130,000 women undergo forcible abortions per year as part of the coercive one-child policy; notes that Cheng, a self-taught lawyer, acting for two women, whose babies were forcibly aborted only days before birth, approached the State Family Planning Commission asking them to halt such outrages; notes that in response he was placed under house arrest for three months during which he and his wife were persistently threatened by hired thugs; notes that nonetheless he succeeded in bringing the case before the Beijing courts; notes that this failed and Cheng was subsequently imprisoned for trumped up charges of damaging public property and organising villages to disrupt traffic; notes that his attorneys were detained and prevented from appearing and that neither witnesses nor evidence were presented for the defence; notes with shame that the Chinese policy is supported with British taxpayers' money through government grants made to the UNFPA, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International, all of which finance Chinese family planning yet have failed in 20 years to change the policy of coercive abortion and sterilisation; and calls on the Government to cancel all grants to groups providing money to countries with coercive family planning policies as well as demanding that Mr Cheng be released from prison without delay.]

Chen Guang Cheng’s only crime, for which he has been locked up for more than four years, was to defend the interests of Chinese women who are forced to have abortions and forcibly sterilised as part of the coercive one-child family policy of the Government; 130,000 women in China have that fate each year. As that type of policy is underpinned by Marie Stopes International and the International Planned Parenthood Federation and others, which are partly financed by British Government grants, is it not about time that we had a debate in this place on the way in which British taxpayers’ hard-earned money is on occasions used abroad to underpin human rights abuses of that kind and on such scale?

I understand my hon. Friend’s deep concern about this matter. It is no part of Government policy that money from British taxpayers should be used to “underpin”, as he put it, such unacceptable practices, but I shall certainly raise his question with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

On a point of clarification, will the Leader of the House say whether the debate on Iraq and the middle east will also cover Afghanistan? My substantive question deals with a matter that is very much the right hon. Gentleman’s responsibility. He knows that the Modernisation Committee is beginning an inquiry into enhancing the role of Back-Bench MPs and the use of non-legislative time. Will he arrange for a debate on those matters to take place while the inquiry is going on, so that as many hon. Members as possible can contribute? Speeches could be time limited but perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you might also care to use the short speeches procedure recommended some time ago by the Procedure Committee. That would enable as many hon. Members as possible to participate.

First, the hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be in order to include Afghanistan in the debate about foreign policy on the middle east and Iraq, which will be held on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I fancy that that might be slightly out of order but of course, Mr. Speaker, that will be a matter for you and your colleagues in the Chair, and not for me. However, I can advise the House that we have every intention of holding a debate on the wider issue of defence and that that will almost certainly take place the week after next. There will be every opportunity for hon. Members to speak about Afghanistan in that debate.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is a senior member of the Modernisation Committee, which I chair, and I am glad to have his support on the very important question of how we strengthen the role of Back Benchers. I noticed that the Opposition Chief Whip was cheering when the question was asked, so I assume that he is about to engage in a career move shortly.

Informally, I can tell the House that I am not certain that it would be a good idea to hold such a debate while the Modernisation Committee’s inquiry is taking place. I hope that we can encourage hon. Members of all parties to give evidence to that Committee, and that a debate on the Floor of the House can be held subsequently.

Will my right hon. Friend consider an early debate on the way in which BAA conducts its business? Many of our constituents were greatly inconvenienced by the fog at Heathrow before Christmas. We cannot help the weather, but BAA handled the problem very incompetently. People were put in tents in sub-zero temperatures, and many had their luggage lost for days, if not weeks. The company now has no shareholders and has little accountability to anyone, even though it has a monopoly on many airports and brings discredit on the travel sector.

I note what my hon. Friend says. We are all aware of the terrible conditions faced by travellers at Heathrow and other airports over the Christmas period. However, it is not the case that BAA has no shareholder: it is now owned by the Spanish company Ferrovial, which is not listed in this country. Even so, I shall ensure that his concerns are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 25 October, the Prime Minister told the House from the Dispatch Box that he would be happy to debate Iraq anywhere. However, six days later, on 31 October—Halloween—during a debate initiated by the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, he was nowhere to be seen. Does not the Leader of the House have a right and a duty to urge the Prime Minister to be present for the coming Iraq debate, so that he can explain the debacle and mess that has occurred in that country? The Prime Minister must be here.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says, and I have said repeatedly that debates on foreign affairs are usually taken—not surprisingly—by the Foreign Secretary. That applied when I held that post, and for decades before that. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that he will make a statement at an appropriate time. Moreover—and despite the danger that I might be repeating myself—I remind the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend is available every Wednesday to answer questions, many of which are, and will continue to be, about Iraq.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Bill received Royal Assent late last year, and the Home Office has indicated that the necessary commencement orders are to be brought before the House next month. Will he do everything in his power to expedite the legislation so that it can be operational as soon as possible? The Sunderland Echo has campaigned for the measure, which will protect emergency workers—such as those in the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service and others in the voluntary sector—who often risk their lives to protect the lives of our constituents.

I commend my hon. Friend and the Sunderland Echo on their campaign, and of course I shall do what I can to ensure that the Bill’s commencement orders are brought before the House as soon as possible.

In Westminster Hall yesterday there was a debate on the new boatmaster licence. The consensus among hon. Members of all parties was that the new licence was inadequate to protect safety standards on the tidal Thames. Only the Minister defended it, so may we have a full debate on the Floor of the House? We need to examine the detail of the new licence so that we can ensure that correct standards, adequate for the conditions on the tidal Thames, can be maintained.

I understand what the hon. Lady says, but it is not unusual for a Minister to defend Government policy in Westminster Hall or during Adjournment debates, or for others to put the contrary point of view. However, my hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Department for Transport told hon. Members:

“Let me make something crystal clear: if I thought for one second that the proposals would reduce safety standards on the Thames, I would not introduce them.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 96WH.]

He went on to explain why the proposals were being introduced. I cannot promise further time on the Floor of the House, as the subject is one for Westminster Hall, but I will relate the hon. Lady’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the public concern about the proliferation of quangos that spend huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. The latest example concerns the vision boards set up by the Northwest Regional Development Agency. May we have a debate on the purpose, powers, funding and accountability of those boards?

My hon. Friend is a fellow north-west Member of Parliament, and I think that such a debate would be a good idea. My understanding of the so-called vision boards is obscure—although I do not think that that is my fault—and I agree that we have to be concerned that unelected, non-departmental bodies such as the Northwest Regional Development Agency are much less accountable than elected bodies. Such bodies must be very careful about how they spend money, and they must consult the people who are elected before they do so.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on the Floor of the House on police resourcing, especially in respect of Greater Manchester? The independent chairman of the police authority there is forecasting a shortfall of £26 million in 2008-09, but that does not take account of the need to find resources to pay for police community support officers. Without an urgent review of funding, further cuts in police numbers in Manchester may follow the 200 officers cut this year.

There will be a debate—if not the week after next, then the week after that—on the police grant order, and that will give the hon. Gentleman every opportunity to raise the concerns that he set out in his question. However, he must acknowledge that, over the past 10 years, policing in Greater Manchester and across the whole country has been infinitely better resourced than it was previously. In his constituency, and in Greater Manchester as a whole, there are now many more police officers and community support officers, and much more in the way of resources has been made available.

May I remind the Leader of the House that, since he and I have been Members of the House, the Animal Procedures Committee has approved 90 million experiments on animals? While the Government have found 250 hours to debate hunting with dogs, they have not yet been able to find a moment to debate one of the Committee’s reports. Given that the Government have a genuine concern for the welfare of animals, may I ask that the Leader of the House find an early opportunity for the Government to be the first Government on the Floor of the House to debate a report by the Animal Procedures Committee?

I note my right hon. Friend’s request. I will do my best. Whoever else was to blame for the many hours that we spent on hunting with dogs, it was not me, because I was in a small minority on our side of those who were not terribly enthusiastic about that measure.

As the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) was obliged this morning to discuss on the “Today” programme a leaked memorandum from the Department of Health outlining the Government’s lamentable performance on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is it not appropriate for the Leader of the House to petition his hon. Friend the Member for Leigh to come to the House to explain to Members of Parliament what has been going on and what he will do to put this right? It is a matter of great importance to our constituents.

I welcome the opportunity to talk about this. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) has obtained an Adjournment debate on clostridium difficile on Tuesday. The explanation of the issue is simple. The targets have been set for 2008. It is now 2006, so it is not surprising that they have not been met. [Hon. Members: “2007.”] Sorry, 2007. Well there we are. That was a good point that turned bad, Mr. Speaker. Under a shock horror headline, “Six ways to fudge a target”, which is allegedly in the report, the first way mentioned is to keep to the target and drive as hard as we can to meet it. That is exactly what the Government are doing.

May we have a debate on the accuracy and accountability of the British press? He may be aware of a report in last week’s Sunday Herald that a Scottish Labour MP was about to defect to the Scottish National party. This was printed without a shred of evidence and without seeking clarification from the Labour party. Putting aside the fact that no sensible person would ever do such a thing, does he agree that this kind of irresponsible reporting from a normally quality newspaper in Scotland undermines politics and the profession of journalism?

If we had a debate in the House every time that allegations were made that the accuracy and credibility of the British press had not been to the standard required, we would talk about nothing else, but I know about the story that my hon. Friend has raised. It is a matter of great concern that a newspaper such as the Sunday Herald, which has a good reputation on the whole should have swallowed what I gather was an SNP fabrication. I hope that it will correct the story in due course.

Rail passengers in west Berkshire are having to suffer the indignity of fewer trains, greater overcrowding and massive inconvenience to them—

And east Berkshire, as my right hon. Friend says. May we have a debate in Government time to consider the workings of some of the franchises that are operating in this country? The travelling public are having to put up with appalling conditions in trying to get to and from areas such as my constituency.

I know of the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[Hon. Members: “Maidenhead.”] Sorry, I mean the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I am doing well today. The right hon. Lady has an Adjournment debate, notwithstanding the fact that she is shadow Leader of the House, next Thursday on train services in Maidenhead and Twyford. Perhaps she will give some time to her hon. Friend from elsewhere in Berkshire. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) needs to look at the huge investment that has been made in rail services and the fact that there has been an extraordinary 40 per cent. increase in the number of passengers. At long last we have managed to turn round the utterly incompetent privatisation of the rail services and ensure that there is now a benign path both of improvement and investment.

May I refer back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) about the north-west vision board? Is this not just a good example of these opaque regional bodies? Do we not need some mechanism within the House whereby we can begin to bring some of these regional bodies to account? It could be a committee of the regions or some other structure that would allow us to debate seriously how central Government resources are applied in the regions and whether they are applied efficiently.

My hon. Friend raises an important point, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). I do think that we need to look at ways to strengthen the system of checking and approving appointments to quangos and holding them properly to account. Otherwise, we will have a culture in which people in such organisations—it applies to other public bodies as well—think that, because they are above politics, they are accountable to no one. That is dangerous. As Winston Churchill said, democracy has many flaws, but it is better than the alternative. Other countries understand that and go for elections in many more cases than do we, rather than appointments.

As this week’s revelations have brought into question the reputation and integrity of certain Home Office Ministers, does the Leader of the House accept that it is essential that their correspondence with the Association of Chief Police Officers be published immediately? In response to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman said that he would pass on her request to the Home Secretary. Should he not as Leader of the House advise the Home Secretary that this is the right thing to do immediately?

Any advice I give to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in private is, with great respect, not something that I am going to offer to the House. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had a policy ever since he took over the job on 5 May of being open with the House. The moment that this broke, he came to the House and explained things. I do not accept for a second that Ministers at the Home Office have had their reputation for integrity brought into question. I think that he will find that the explanation is a different one from that.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said yesterday that he had every intention of offering further explanations, probably by way initially of a written ministerial statement in answer to a parliamentary question. Then there will be an opportunity to question him and his colleagues on Monday in Home Office questions.

One of the great success stories of the Government has been the fact that hundreds of millions of pounds have been paid to miners and their families in the form of miners’ compensation for vibration white finger and dust affliction. However, some issues remain to be addressed successfully. I think in particular of the situation of surface workers and widows and the families of deceased individuals who worked for more than one employer. May we have a debate on this issue so that our concerns can be aired satisfactorily?

I understand the problem, not least from the strong briefing that I have received on this matter from my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who is also my parliamentary private secretary and is in his place. He led a debate on this matter in Westminster Hall just a couple of days ago. I understand that the matter of surface workers is currently before the courts.

Order. There are nine hon. Members left standing. Some are regulars of course, but I do not want to disappoint any hon. Member. I will be assisted if they ask one supplementary, as briefly as possible. Then I can get all hon. Members in.

May we have a debate on Government waste? On the Home Office’s own figures, they are spending some £40 million a year housing some 6,000 asylum seekers who the courts say should not be here. One could buy a lot of police officers and police community support officers in Oxfordshire for £40 million. Yet another area of policy that the Government and the Home Office have lost track of is asylum policy.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of asylum. Of course some asylum seekers should not be here, but every time that Ministers try to remove those asylum seekers, we are met with a barrage of protest, including from local Opposition Members of Parliament campaigning for their non-removal. Our removal record has been fantastic compared with the previous Conservative Government’s. In 2005, for example, we removed as many asylum seekers in a single year as were removed in the four years from 1993 to 1996.

I welcome the statement that there will be a debate on the Joint Committee on Conventions next Wednesday. There are honestly held differences of opinion on both sides of the House about the consequences of the report, so will my right hon. Friend explain how the process will develop? We need a fundamental constitutional debate on how to go forward to the next stage—the future reform of the House of Lords.

I commend my hon. Friend’s work as a member of the Joint Committee. The Government welcome the Committee’s reports. Later today, we shall table a motion approving the Joint Committee’s report. My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a Government response to the report, but that is not before the House for approval because we want the widest possible consensus behind the Joint Committee’s report itself. Some of the issues raised in the Government’s response necessarily go wider than the Joint Committee’s terms of reference and there will be an opportunity to debate them fully when we publish the White Paper on future reform of the House of Lords.

I was pleased to hear the Leader of the House confirm my constituents’ concerns about the democratic deficit in respect of quangos and regional assemblies. With that in mind, may we have an urgent debate about how the East of England Development Agency can propose thousands of new homes in my constituency when my council has no right to oppose such development? As we do not have enough water for our existing houses, how can more houses be imposed on us?

I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern about water. Indeed, an interesting report on that issue came out today. I hope that he will have an opportunity to raise those matters on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

More than 100 million land mines are scattered around the globe. Scandalously, Pakistan is adding to that number by mining the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Will my Friend join me in condemning unreservedly Pakistan’s decision, and will he reassure the House that the Foreign Secretary will come to the Chamber and explain the Government’s position, as there seems to be a conspiracy of silence on the matter?

My hon. Friend will excuse me if I do not offer that condemnation, not least because I am not fully briefed on the matter. I will of course pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and there will be Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next Tuesday, 16 January.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) that the Royal Navy plays a fundamental role in defending the country and that it must have the resources it needs. May we, therefore, have a statement on the proposal to reduce the number of Royal Navy frigates and destroyers to only 19, given that the Government’s own strategic defence review posited 32 as necessary and that the former First Sea Lord says that we need at least 30 to carry out the number of commitments that the Royal Navy is responsible for fulfilling at present?

I have already given the House an indication that there will be a full debate on defence in which that issue can be raised. However, we have the biggest warship building programme that this country has seen in decades. We are introducing larger and more capable vessels, which means that we need fewer frigates, destroyers and attack submarines than before, but our commitment to maintaining and, indeed, improving the strength of the Royal Navy remains.

My right hon. Friend may be aware that in 2005 First increased bus fares in Sheffield and south Yorkshire on four occasions during a 12-month period. After a short respite, passengers are now faced with a further 14 per cent. fare increase, which is four times the rate of inflation. Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on putting passengers first, and the Secretary of State’s proposals for extra powers for transport authorities on services and fares? As the poorest people in our communities suffer most from such fare increases, we need those powers in place as soon as possible.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is well aware of the concerns of my hon. Friend and many others in the same situation. As my hon. Friend knows, we plan to introduce those powers so that there can be better and more effective regulation of bus services, not least so that we can see outside London what has happened in London—an increase, rather than a decrease, in bus ridership.

May we please have a debate in Government time about sexual health? Given that the incidence of sexually transmitted infections continues to rise, particularly among young people, and that in some cases they can threaten long-term health, as demonstrated in a recent study of the link between gonorrhoea and an increased risk of bladder cancer among men, does the Leader of the House agree that an early debate would allow us to explore how a combination of public policy and private initiative can together tackle that serious scourge?

It is an important issue and an important proposal. I cannot guarantee that time will be found but I will look into the matter, as the hon. Gentleman asks.

May I add to the earlier calls for a debate on prisons and sentencing? Dangerous murderers inappropriately put in open prisons are walking out, more than 1,500 criminals have Sky television in their cells and there is an early release scheme, despite a recent Home Office report showing that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend. May we have an urgent debate on that matter of public concern, so that we start putting the rights of the decent law-abiding citizens of this country above the human rights of criminals?

It is not the case that murderers are inappropriately transferred to open conditions. They cannot be transferred to open conditions without a recommendation from the Parole Board and the decision of the Home Secretary. As I have already told the House, the rejection rate in such cases has risen from 41 per cent. since May 2006, compared to less than 10 per cent. the year before. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes these matters seriously.

On sentence length, one of the reasons we face an increase in the prison population, which I do not regard as adverse—as long as crime is at the current level we need as many prison places as possible—is that courts are awarding longer sentences than before.

Last year, unemployment in Wellingborough increased by more than 20 per cent. It is now 6.5 per cent. higher than it was nine years ago. Unfortunately, unemployment has increased at an even higher rate in 75 other constituencies. May we have a debate on that worrying trend of increasing unemployment, which blights so many families across the United Kingdom?

It is extraordinary that in trying to defend the previous Administration’s lamentable record on unemployment, the hon. Gentleman should make the kind of point he has just made. The simple fact is that unemployment has dropped dramatically across the country in one constituency after another and the employment situation has improved dramatically, with 2 million extra jobs. If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise the matter on the Adjournment, he has every opportunity to do so.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to attend the House and make a statement on why it is, in effect, Government policy to force doctors, nurses and ancillary staff to pay to park at their place of work? At Kettering general hospital, 3,000 staff are furious that they are being forced to pay to park their cars when they drive to work, to make up for an £11 million deficit due to Government underfunding of our local hospital.

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that decisions about car parking charges are local matters, for the health trust and the local authority. We should be in a ludicrous position if Secretaries of State, of whatever party complexion, were expected to answer for car parking charges. Where people can be persuaded or encouraged to share vehicles, as well as to take public transport, it is generally to the public benefit. In those circumstances, parking charges can play a part in securing that encouragement.

Social Exclusion

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Steve McCabe.]

I am delighted to open this important and timely debate. Social exclusion is a tragedy of wasted potential. It represents the failure of society to engage with people’s aspirations and of individuals to fulfil their potential. For the individuals concerned it can mean a lifetime of poverty and social harm, with the end result that they are unable to create and share the opportunities that most of us take for granted. A real danger is that these patterns of low aspiration and achievement will persist and be passed on from one generation to the next. The implications of persistent social exclusion can be just as catastrophic for the rest of society. The economic costs of dealing with the effects of social exclusion are considerable, and are compounded by the loss to society of individuals who should and could be making a meaningful contribution. In a competitive global economy, we cannot afford to have sections of our society unable to play a part in the nation’s economic and social life.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me get a little further, and then of course I will.

Nor should communities be expected to bear the brunt of problems that result from social exclusion: crime, antisocial behaviour, poverty and the fracture in our communities. Britain was scarred by that type of exclusion on a huge scale when we entered government in 1997. For a generation, more than 3 million people were denied the opportunity to work. As unemployment doubled, income inequality surged in the 1980s and 1990s. In the decade before 1997, incomes for the top 50 per cent. of earners grew by 2 to 3 per cent., but the incomes of the bottom 50 per cent. grew by just 1 per cent. Public services were starved of investment, crime doubled, community and family breakdown reached unprecedented proportions, homelessness and rough sleeping were almost endemic, and the wealth of our country was shared increasingly disproportionately to favour the well-off. This Government faced those most extreme challenges in 1997. To quote John Hills and Kitty Stewart in their book, “A More Equal Society”, published in 2005:

“The Labour Government that took office in 1997 inherited levels of poverty and inequality unprecedented in post-war history.”

Is the Minister not concerned about welfare dependency? For example, there are now 20 times more people claiming incapacity benefit for five years or more than there were in 1997. What representations has she made to the Department for Work and Pensions to tackle welfare dependency?

I almost feel that this is a continuation of business questions. It beggars belief that the hon. Gentleman can talk about that matter today without recognising the enormous strides that we have made in tackling welfare to work and making sure that many more people are back in work. I hope that he will vigorously support the measures to get many more people off incapacity benefit and into work, and that he will begin to try to persuade Members on his Front Bench to support the new deal and some of the matters that we are raising, so that a real opportunity is developed. I thank him for that intervention.

In 1997, we launched a direct attack on poverty. Our priority was to save Britain’s universal public services through investment and reform, and to implement a range of policies to make work pay for the less well-off at last: tax credits for the low paid, welfare to work, and the minimum wage. All that was underpinned by a stable and growing economy that finally brought an end to the years of boom and bust. We all know that it is the poorest who suffer most when the economy moves up and down as it did in the Thatcher and Major years. [Interruption.] I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is nodding at that.

The Minister talks about work paying. The Government have certainly saved substantial sums in benefits and other payments, but she is probably aware that the figures for the working age population show that although there has been a shift into work, the proportion in poverty has remained the same. That suggests that because much of that work is low-paid or part-time, the Government have pushed people into jobs that have not helped those people, although doing so has saved the Government money.

Again, I am bit surprised at the hon. Gentleman. I am delighted that he is here, but I think that he has believed the propaganda from Opposition Front Benchers. I am more than happy to come on to that issue and deal with what he has to say about poverty.

Is my right hon. Friend as astounded as I am by the sheer audacity of the last two interventions? Will she confirm her commitment to policies such as more tax credits, improving the minimum wage, the pension credit and the new deal, which, if I remember correctly, were all opposed by the Opposition parties?

They were indeed. My hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that we have raised many people out of poverty, including children and pensioners who had no hope and no opportunity in the past. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) put out a report in which he acknowledged relative poverty, and we welcome that conversion. The only problem is that many of his colleagues subsequently went on to deny that there was such a thing as relative poverty, but never mind.

I am not going to refer to Polly Toynbee—I will leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). On a more serious level, what would the Minister say about the report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies? It shows that Labour has had little impact on the slight upward trend in inequality that has been experienced over its term in government. In other words, rather than seeing a halt to the rise in inequality of incomes, things have got slightly worse under Labour.

I will deal with that in some detail later, but the hon. Gentleman is being extremely partial about what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said. It calls Labour’s record “a remarkable achievement” and states:

“child poverty has fallen by 700,000 since 1998/99…and it is now at its lowest level since the late 1980s. The trend of rapidly rising child poverty that began in the 1980s has been halted and clearly reversed.”

Clearly, he is not interested in the fact that we have reversed the trends that his Government established. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says:

“This is a remarkable achievement, all the more so since median income has been growing relatively strongly since 1996/97”.

But the right hon. Lady has not answered the point, which is about inequality of incomes. On child poverty, she cannot be that complacent when 1.2 million children in London alone live below the poverty line. On inequality of incomes, will she not accept what the experts say, which is that things have got slightly worse under Labour?

The report that the hon. Gentleman cited states:

“the net effect of eight years of Labour government has been to leave inequality effectively unchanged.”

[Interruption.] It is not worse. The report says that we have reduced child poverty and pensioner poverty. Despite the bogus figures that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells gave, the IFS validates what we said, and I will come on to deal with that matter.

We have been able to lift more than 700,000 children and 2 million pensioners out of relative poverty. There are record numbers of people in work and we have public services fit for the 21st century. It is only having achieved all that that we can turn to, and prioritise, supporting people with extremely complex needs who are hard to reach effectively with traditional universal services. In 1997, we inherited exclusion on a huge scale, with millions of people excluded from the economic activity of the nation. Today, we have narrowed that down to those who will be helped only by intensive, individualised and tailored support. It is precisely because we recognise that—which, in many senses, is due to our success in tackling widespread poverty—that we can focus on the needs of socially excluded groups in our society. It has always been a priority of Labour Members to tackle exclusion. It is central to the Government’s ambitious pursuit of social justice.

I recognise that some progress has been made, but was it not possible to tackle deep exclusion at the same time as addressing the child poverty targets? Why did the two have to be done sequentially?

A lot has been done to tackle deep-seated exclusion, too. I simply point to the shift in the way in which rough sleepers are dealt with and worked with. We have reduced the number of rough sleepers on the streets by more than two thirds—indeed, I think that that proportion is now more than three quarters. So we have been carrying out such work. However, it took time to begin to get the investment and the reform in public services working so that, for example, many more children could have the opportunity of a decent education and a decent start in life. Given the chaos in this country before 1997, and the ravaging of it that took place before then, 10 years is seen by many people as a fairly limited time in which to have made such progress. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we have made more progress in these areas than almost any other comparable country. However, no one is saying that there are not extremely complex and serious problems that trap a group of people and prevent them from fulfilling any ambition, largely because they have ended up with very little ambition.

Parenting courses were mocked by Her Majesty’s official Opposition when they were introduced, but they are an example of a complex measure with long-term benefits, although the rewards are not seen straight away.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I intend to come back to that and to talk about an aspect of parenting on which we will be moving forward in the near future.

Today, we know that we need to narrow our intervention to those who will be helped only by intensive, individualised and tailored support, while at the same time retaining our broad determination to enable opportunities to be available to everyone by continuing to work towards having the best public services in the world. However, in a sense, it is because of our success that some problems have been more widely exposed. We adopt our approach because we do not take the traditional ideological views of poverty and exclusion. Too many people have said that those things are only a matter of income, and too many people on the other side of the House have said that they are a result of fecklessness and the fault of the people who are poor. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells might not have heard that being said from his side of the House in this Parliament, but I assure him that I have heard it said time and again by Conservative Members during my time in the House.

We believe in the potential of everyone, and we are determined to acknowledge that through the way in which we develop policies. Yes, levels of material income matter, which is why we have done so much to address that, but for the minority of families and individuals who have not been able to take advantage of what is available, we must come in with new ideas and new ways of working. The more such people are disengaged from the opportunities that exist, especially those offered by education, the more likely they will be to drift into deeper and deeper problems. We cannot neglect the issue of being able to engage with those people, because it is at the heart of how we can reach out to the socially excluded and work with them to help to turn their lives round.

Many more people have gone into work and have begun to believe that they can improve their prospects and those of their families. As people begin to take advantage of Sure Start, extended school activities and tax credits, and as they raise their aspirations, those who are not doing so are left further behind. We know that—we acknowledge it in the action plan—and I think that that is the issue that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is addressing. There is a small minority of people whom we have not been able to engage in the new deal and other mainstream programmes. Those people have drifted further, and while general prosperity has risen, they have been left behind.

Many of us are very aware of that in our constituencies. These people are the family that will be seen as the problem in the street. The parents will probably be second or third-generation workless. They might have addiction problems. They get angry when confronted with officialdom. The children truant and are experienced by neighbours as running wild. They get involved in low-level crime and antisocial behaviour. The daughter will get pregnant while she is still a young teenager, and perhaps the children will be in and out of the care system. We, the public, spend a fortune trying to deal with the crises and the problems. The problems become deeply intractable and the most socially excluded become the hardest to reach. Their problems are multiple and entrenched and are often passed down through the generations. It was the understanding of the group that led the Prime Minister to look for a new focus on those who are most entrenched and excluded.

I was appointed last May, along with the Parliamentary Secretaries to the Cabinet Office, my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) and for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband). In September we brought out “Reaching Out: An Action Plan on Social Exclusion”. We set out the challenge that faces us: even in the context of an encouraging national prosperity, a hard core of about one in 40 of our fellow citizens still struggle to access the health, education and employment opportunities that benefit the vast majority.

I am sure that the right hon. Lady and the Government are right to highlight that group of people. She will probably be aware that Save the Children and others have highlighted the fact that about a million children are still in what they term severe poverty—with an income less than 40 per cent. of median income. They are very much the kind of people whom she has described. However, the Government have been unwilling to monitor this most excluded and hard-up of groups and to publish numbers. Does she agree that it would be worth monitoring those in the severest poverty and ultimately setting targets?

The issue was considered in some detail by the Department for Work and Pensions. I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that the problem is that the figures for those in the below 40 per cent. group are totally unreliable, because people move in and out of it very quickly, and it changes very quickly. It has proved impossible to find reliable information that gives us any way of dealing with the issue and moving forward.

The Minister has effectively said that the figures are available, but that it would be inconvenient to disclose them to the House, because she thinks that they would be unreliable. I am sure that experts outside the House, such as Save the Children, to whom the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), referred, are keen to see the figures, and would like the Government to publish them. Can we not be the judge of whether they are reliable? Give us the figures.

The hon. Gentleman has made a good attempt, but the reality is that, having wandered around the parties, he has ended up in one that has traditionally rejected the idea of any form of relative poverty. He is trying to encourage his party to move towards accepting it, and I commend him for that, but I do not commend him for the manner in which he used his figures. He used 1994-95 as a baseline, and said that we had not done what we said we were doing in relation to lifting children out of poverty—but the reality is that by using the 1994-95 figures, he is taking into account the last three years of the Major Administration, when poverty among children rose at a rapid rate.

That is right; I do not think that he was. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is trying to make out that the problems of the Major Administration are our fault. I hate to tell him this, but we were not able to influence that Administration in the way that we wanted to. He is exposing the failures of his party, rather than taking a look at what the Labour Government have done.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising that point, because it gives me the opportunity to explain. She may find it difficult to reflect on this, but the point of publishing a 10-year analysis was not to be politically partisan. Indeed, the report makes it clear that it is a look at severe poverty over successive Governments. However, as she is interested in her Government’s record, I can tell her that we have the figures for 1996-97, which is the standard baseline that she uses, and the figures for severe poverty increased by 400,000 during that period. We could be partisan and consider only her Government’s record if that is what she wants, but I chose to be non-partisan, and to be rather more analytical.

That is not quite how I remember the hon. Gentleman’s press release, but there we go; he forgets about that. The Conservatives claimed, incorrectly, that the number of people living on less than 40 per cent. of median income has grown by 750,000 under Labour, but there has been no rise in the number of people living below 40 per cent. of median income since 1997, once housing costs are taken into account. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apologise to the House—

Order. Could it be made clear whether the Minister is accepting an intervention—and, indeed, whether the hon. Gentleman is making an intervention?

The question of whether to use figures that take account of housing costs can be answered very simply: the Government’s official definition of child poverty uses the figures before housing costs are taken into account, and those were the figures that I used.

The problem is that the hon. Gentleman uses only the 40 per cent. median figures. The Government numbers deal with the 60 per cent. figure on relative poverty. He cannot mix everything in, and then say that we are getting it wrong. I am giving him a clear message about what the real position is. He may not be satisfied with that, but it is true that the data based on the 40 per cent. of median income figure are not robust, and for that reason are not published. Indeed, his Government were prepared to say the same.

On housing costs, I thank my right hon. Friend for her letter of 14 December, in response to my point about the Harker report and the impact of the interaction between the working tax credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit in areas of high rent and council tax, such as Slough. The Harker report points out that for only £500 million, some 170,000 more children could be lifted out of poverty. Will she act on the promise that she gave me to talk to colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about child poverty action, and will she try to ensure that we look favourably on that recommendation?