House of Commons
Tuesday 30 January 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Broads Authority Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second Time on Tuesday 6 February.
National Trust (Northern Ireland) Bill
Read a Second time, and committed.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Rail Franchise Agreements
Before I answer the question, on behalf of the Government I express the sympathy of this side of the House to the family of Paul Channon, the former Member for Southend, West. He served as Secretary of State for Transport between 1987 and 1989, during which time he had to deal with both the Clapham Junction rail crash and the Lockerbie disaster. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.
The Government recognise the pressures faced by many passengers at the busiest times on the busiest routes into work. That is why, in all franchises that we let, we set a target that standing should not exceed 20 minutes and that peak capacity should meet demand. The recently let First Capital Connect and South Western Trains franchises contain commitments to increase capacity. We recognise that demand for rail has increased markedly in the past decade and this summer, for the first time, the Government will publish a fully funded strategy to buy extra capacity where it is most needed.
May I associate myself with the Minister’s opening comments?
Given that the cost of a season ticket from Milton Keynes and Wolverton is £3,440, surely commuters can expect to get a seat—something that cannot be guaranteed at the moment. With the rapid expansion of Milton Keynes, they are even less likely to get a seat in future. However, there is one thing that the Minister can do for me. Virgin trains stop to drop off passengers at Milton Keynes during rush hour, but not to pick them up. That is frustrating for commuters, when there are empty seats and it is the last stop before Euston. Please will the Minister look into that matter?
One of the challenges in Milton Keynes is ensuring that there is a sufficient length of platform to accommodate longer trains. I hope that, in the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman associated himself with my earlier comments, he will associate himself with the hard work and campaigning efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who for many years has campaigned for that extra investment. There is a fundamental connection between the length of the platforms at Milton Keynes and the length of trains that are able to run, with a consequence for capacity.
Another form of access to seats that I have had complaints about from some of my constituents and my city council relates to the lack of properly functioning toilets on many commuter trains and other trains along the south coast. Is it true that the train companies have no requirement to provide toilets on trains? If so, will the Minister take steps to rectify the matter?
On the subject of standing on trains, our local rail service, One Railway, suffers from extreme overcrowding. We are desperate for more capacity on the service, but one of the problems in providing that capacity is the franchise fee that One Railway pays each year to the Department for Transport, which is £50 million. Will the Secretary of State take a look at that franchise fee to see whether the money would be better invested on new rail infrastructure and longer platforms?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension. The premium payments by the franchisees do not go back to the Treasury, but are ring-fenced within the Department for Transport rail budget. It is exactly the kind of premium that he speaks of, as well as the sustained public investment, that accounts for the fact that 4,800 new trains and carriages have been purchased over the past 10 years.
Could my right hon. Friend use some of those returns to deal with the situation in relation to First Great Western? It is not just that people cannot get access to a seat; the space that they are expected to stand in is insufficient for a human being. As one of my constituents pointed out to me, under regulation 1/2005 and directive 91/628/EEC, there is a minimum amount of space specified for a pig, a cow or a sheep, but at no point is there a minimum amount of space specified for a person on a train.
I welcome the opportunity to state clearly to the House that the performance of First Great Western over recent weeks has been simply unacceptable. I have made that point not solely to the House, but directly to the management at First Great Western. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), the Minister with responsibility for rail, has done so too. We have raised concerns on behalf of passengers not simply in Slough, but further west in Bristol. I am glad to say that First Great Western has recently apologised publicly to its passengers. Its challenge is to take the remedial steps necessary to ensure that the new rolling stock, which should already have been available to passengers, is made available. That will have an impact on capacity.
Of course, Ministers today have more direct operational involvement in the running of the railways than they did even in the days of British Rail. In the past few weeks, overcrowding has led to passengers fainting on trains; we have seen commuter rebellions and newspaper campaigns about the raw deal that passengers are getting; and last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), and my office received a letter from a lady in Scotland whose daughter had to stand from Kirkcaldy, the Secretary of State’s spiritual home, all the way to London—a five-hour journey. The Secretary of State has promised us another White Paper. When will the Government actually start doing something to fulfil some of their promises in their 10-year plan on tackling overcrowding?
The hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge that there is genuine public concern about capacity. There has been a significant uplift in the number of people using our railways in recent years. He challenges me to name some of the improvements that have already been brought about as a result of investment. Southern Railways’ new trains programme represents the biggest single procurement of commuter trains in 40 years, and some 1,700 old slam-door trains have been replaced by 225 new rail vehicles. The west coast main line delivers 12-car suburban services on the southern end of the route and there is scope for growth in future years. For Chiltern, the delivery of the Evergreen 2 allows more trains to operate into Marylebone. Although there is genuine public concern, it is difficult for the Conservative party to be a credible articulator of that concern when it seems to be saying simultaneously that it wants lower fares and taxes and higher investment. That simply does not add up.
The Secretary of State is always ready to boast about the amount that he is spending on the railways, as are the Government in other areas of their activities. However, if I were in his position, I would be asking myself why, although I was spending so much money, the situation for many passengers was still so bad. How will he cope with the official forecasts of more than 30 per cent. growth in passenger numbers in the next seven years? If we already have an overcrowding crisis on our railways, where are those passengers going to travel?
As I have made clear, we will announce the additional capacity that we will be able to buy in the summer, which will be in addition to the ongoing programme of investment. It ill-behoves the hon. Gentleman to assert that something must be done while simultaneously asserting that fares and taxes must be cut. It simply does not add up for a principal party of opposition that is trying credibly to associate itself with genuine public concern to be willing to talk about the ends, but be unwilling to commit the means.
Although frequency and punctuality on the north Wales coast have improved considerably, there is still pressure on seat capacity. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposal of Virgin Trains to introduce five-car trains to replace larger nine-car trains in 2008 will compound that problem? There is already sufficient capacity to fill the nine cars. Will he assure me that the franchise will provide a full service west of Chester—from Holyhead to London—and that that service will use the prime trains?
There is a misapprehension that franchising agreements prohibit franchisees from adding capacity to services, or putting in place additional services. There are choices for the franchisee to make. In many cases, franchisees want to put in place additional capacity because that generates further revenue for the railways. I know that there is concern in north-west Wales. I have held discussions with colleagues from Wrexham on the matter, and I will certainly consider the points that my hon. Friend makes.
First Great Western’s advice to passengers who feel unsafe on crowded trains is that they should get off. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has advised us that there is no legal limit on the number of people who can travel on a train. When Labour came to power, one of its first actions was to legislate about the overcrowding of animals on trains, including chickens. Is it not time that the rights of commuters were dealt with in the same way as those of chickens?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman has evidenced the risk involved in writing down a question prior to discussions in the Chamber. I reiterate that we recognise that there is a genuine challenge facing not only the Government, but the whole country, as a consequence of the sustained economic growth that we have experienced over the past decade and the chronic under-investment that was witnessed on the railways over many decades. There are two sources of funding available to address the capacity challenges that we face. In terms of public resources, there is the contribution from the fare payer and the contribution from the taxpayer. It is necessary to find the appropriate balance. In recent years, the net contribution from the taxpayer increased significantly, but we will continue to address the matter and we will bring forward further proposals this summer.
The previous Secretary of State for Transport announced in December 2004 and March 2006 plans to trial high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the M1, junctions 7 to 10, and at the junction between the M606 and the M62 respectively. We will be monitoring the success of the trials carefully. HOV lanes introduced by local authorities in the UK and highways authorities in other countries have been shown to work well.
May I thank the Minister for that answer? When I was on holiday in California in the summer, I saw for myself how effective car-pool lanes on freeways were in encouraging people to share cars at peak times, instead of sitting in a queue, one to a car. Will he seriously consider the idea of local authorities in urban areas introducing bus lanes that could double up as lanes for car-pool cars? That might be an effective way of reducing congestion at peak commuting times.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support of high-occupancy vehicle lanes. She is absolutely right to say that they work well in the United States, as they do in other countries, too. We have already done some experiments; local authorities in Leeds and South Gloucestershire have introduced HOV lanes on local roads, in conjunction with a package of other measures, and the lanes have been shown to reduce journey times for commuters significantly. Her idea about the possibility of bus and high-occupancy vehicle lanes is a positive one, and I will make sure that local authorities consider it.
Are there any plans to give local authorities greater powers to support car-pool schemes, as that would go a long way towards giving people the chance to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes?
Local authorities already have such powers. In fact, we have just published a traffic advisory leaflet, which explains to them their powers and what they can do, and which sets out evidence gained from schemes in other areas, showing how successful they have been. If my hon. Friend has any concerns about her local authority and wants to discuss those concerns with me, I would be happy to have a meeting with her.
Five million pounds has been earmarked in 2006-07, as part of a package of more than £14.5 million, to support initial scheme development by local transport authorities for the transport innovation fund. The support available for TIF schemes to tackle congestion will increase to £200 million per annum from 2008-09.
I welcome that information from my hon. Friend. When congestion charging was introduced in London, there were many arguments about the economic and environmental impacts of tackling congestion. Will my hon. Friend assure me that long-term environmental impacts will be a key part of the Department for Transport’s assessment of any forthcoming schemes? It is easy to pay lip service to environmental issues, but backing schemes that are not universally popular is another matter.
Of course the environment must be an important part of the issues that a local authority takes into consideration. The primary function of demand management schemes, including the congestion charge, is to control congestion, but within those schemes there are many opportunities to improve the environment for local communities. In London, the Mayor is taking those considerations forward, and other local authorities considering demand management schemes will doubtless also take them into account.
Does the Minister accept that much congestion is created at junctions that have inadequate capacity, and at points where roads cross railway lines? Will he target the money on improving junctions, so that traffic can flow better, as that will bring green benefits, and benefits for business and people trying to get to work and school?
It is for the local authorities that apply for the money to consider how best they can improve congestion on their local roads. The type of work that the right hon. Gentleman mentions will, no doubt, be one of the options that they will consider, but they have to take into account not only options for building, but demand management, because frankly we cannot continue to build our way out of the problems caused by congestion. They will have to bring an open-minded attitude to those serious issues, which is far more than can be said about the taskforce that the right hon. Gentleman leads on behalf of his party. Its big idea for dealing with the problem is to introduce double-decker motorways that would cost £35 billion—
Manchester airport has estimated that the increase in air passenger duty announced at the end of last year will raise £90 million from that airport alone. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that the money should be put into public transport and environmental schemes, but would it not make more sense to use it to extend the tram system in Greater Manchester, rather than forcing on the people of Manchester a regressive and unwanted road pricing scheme?
We have just announced support for the extension of the transport system in Manchester, so my hon. Friend knows that we are indeed investing in the city’s public transport system. The fact of the matter is that we must get realistic about congestion. Thanks to the Government and 10 years of economic growth, the number of vehicles on our roads has increased from 26 million to 33 million. In a small island, we cannot continue to build our way out of the problem. Yes, investment in public transport is part of the answer, but I am afraid that in Manchester, just as in every other city in the country, we have to get realistic about demand management, too.
That is one of the key problems that we must identify if we are to move forward. Demand management solutions will indeed help us to identify vehicles that are not taxed, so one of the added benefits of road pricing is the fact that there will be no more people driving around without tax or insurance.
I reassure my hon. Friend that Southeastern has not removed zone 3 from its ticket prices on north Kent services. However, may I commend him on identifying that omission and bringing it to my attention? I am informed that the company made an error in implementing London zonal fares, which affected zone 3, and I can confirm that that error has now been corrected.
I am sorry that I have had to approach my hon. Friend to receive anything close to an apology for the error. When my constituents wrote to Southeastern, the company chose to ignore the complaint in its reply, blaming the Government for a 66 per cent. increase in fares. It is several weeks since I pointed out the error, so will my hon. Friend ensure that Southeastern publicise it and give people who can prove that they were overcharged and who paid an excessive fare the opportunity to obtain a refund?
Is the Minister aware of the anger among commuters in my constituency, both at the large fare increase on north Kent services, and at the unreliable service that they receive? Surely, increased ticket prices far above inflation and train delays are not the way to encourage more people to use the service.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that regulated fares have increased more on Southeastern than on most other franchises, at RPI plus 3 per cent. compared with RPI plus 1 per cent. for other train operating companies. Those rises can be justified by the significant investment that has taken place on Southeastern in recent years, and that investment will continue. It should be noted that over the past three years, Southeastern’s performance has increased by 9.3 per cent., as it has achieved a public performance measure of 88.8 per cent.
The Government introduced the free off-peak local bus travel concession for some 11 million older and disabled people in England on 1 April 2006. Since then, bus patronage has increased nationally by about 3 per cent. Further information will be published in the autumn.
I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. My constituents in Great Yarmouth are certainly pleased with the Government’s response, and look forward to the national travel concession next year. However, there are two problems. First, the scheme has been so successful that many fare-paying passengers cannot get on the buses and, secondly, in rural areas, there is a lack of public services, so pensioners cannot take advantage of the benefits offered by the Government. Can the Minister give us any news that will provide a boost both for pensioners in those areas and for fare-paying passengers?
I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend has done to secure the benefits of concessionary travel arrangements for his constituency, and I am delighted to hear of the success of Government policy in Great Yarmouth, as has been the case across the country. I am aware that there have been concerns about the level of service provided by First Group in the area, and I urge the local authority and First Group to get together to address the issues. More broadly, we recently announced proposals to improve bus services across the country, which include improved partnerships between local authorities and bus operators to deal with the kind of matters that my hon. Friend—
Given that the settlement for free local bus travel forced many councils to increase council tax, causing significant hardship to many older and disabled people, what reassurances can the Minister give regarding the settlement for free national bus travel so that the Government are not accused of giving with one hand and taking away with the other?
That is not a situation that I recognise. After the introduction of the new national bus concession in 2008, the Government will be spending about £1 billion a year on concessionary travel for older and disabled people. Our commitment is to keep that going and extend it nationally, and I hope the hon. Gentleman’s party will support us in that.
May I suggest to my hon. Friend that she encourage other authorities to follow the example of Derbyshire county council, which extended its Gold Card discount and transport scheme to cover a number of community transport schemes, so that people with mobility problems—elderly people and disabled people—can go on the dial-a-bus schemes to the local shops or travel to other towns free?
Pensioners in Rushden who want to go to Wellingborough do not get free travel. The Minister speaks of free national travel. When will that be brought in, and will it be subsidised by council tax payers or out of general taxation?
The Minister will be aware that one area with the highest take-up of concessionary fares is Tyne and Wear. She will also know that it cost the passenger transport executive £5.4 million to introduce the scheme last year, and it will cost a further £2.6 million to continue the scheme over the next financial year. Are there any measures that can be brought in to compensate Tyne and Wear PTE for that £8 million loss, so that when the national scheme is rolled out we will start from a level playing field?
The Department for Communities and Local Government and my Department continue to work on the matter. We are considering a number of options for distributing the existing funding. I have spoken to my hon. Friend and others about the matter. It is in the interest of us all to ensure that local authorities are adequately funded for providing the statutory concession. As I said, the Government will spend about £1 billion a year on concessionary travel from April 2008.
Although many pensioners in my constituency welcome access to free travel, will my hon. Friend join me in condemning Go North East, which is cynically stripping out bus routes from many of the outlying villages in my constituency and the neighbouring constituency of City of Durham, which is leaving pensioners isolated? Although they have a free pass, they cannot use it because there is no bus service.
Local provision is a matter for bus operators and local authorities, and I hope my hon. Friend will contribute to the process. Our document, “Putting Passengers First”, will enable local areas to have a far greater say to ensure that his constituents are much better served by bus services.
As has been said, the concessionary travel scheme has been a great success in Tyne and Wear, with an increase in travel through it of about 20 per cent. Will the Minister re-examine the funding formula, which has been alluded to and which can only be described as absolutely barmy? It is based on the number of over-60-year-olds in the population, which means that the Scilly Isles, with no buses at all, gets cash, while places such as Tyne and Wear are obliged to withdraw services and scrap the concessionary scheme for young people to make sure that the scheme works?
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s considered view of the funding scheme. I should say that funding is provided by the formula grant, which is in line with the wishes of central and local government. As I said, we are considering several options for distributing the existing funding. I am looking forward to my own visit to the north-east to see bus services there.
More than 1 billion rail journeys were made during 2005-06—the most since 1961. That represents a total distance travelled of more than 43 million km during the same period.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I can tell him that the number of rail passengers travelling from Chester to Euston has increased by more than 30 per cent. in the past year. Contrary to what Opposition Members may think, that is surely a sign of success as a result of local economic prosperity and improvements to the west coast main line. Is it not time to turn to considering improvements to the facilities at stations to take account of that increased rail usage? For instance, at my local station—
My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge that, having addressed many of the safety concerns as regards rail services that were uppermost in many people’s minds a few years ago, as we continue to address the challenge of performance and reliability, capacity is undoubtedly one of the dominating challenges that we face now and in the years ahead. The straightforward answer to that is to ensure that there is sustained investment. Many people forget that back in the days of British Rail there was annual budgeting, whereas we are now looking at year-on-year budgeting, which can make a significant contribution. Part of the reason for the improvement in passenger numbers on the west coast main line is the record levels of investment going into that service, with the consequence that there have also been improvements in performance and reliability.
Given that the Government accepted a bid from First Capital Connect that meant fewer passengers and increased fares, our only hope is to get increased capacity through the Thameslink project. Will we have an early funding decision on that to help my constituents who want to travel?
Capacity will be increased on the First Capital Connect route between Bedford and Brighton to ensure all eight-car running in the course of the franchise. The decision that the hon. Lady asks about, along with several others, will be considered in the context of the high level output specification next summer.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that in recent years there have been new trains and an increased frequency of service on the Cross Country franchise. However, the problem is that the trains are shorter than they used to be, and there is a serious problem of lack of capacity and overcrowding, particularly on the central part of the route between Birmingham and Leeds. Now that that service is out for refranchising, will he give an assurance that he will consider that particular problem when deciding who the new service operator should be?
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that in all our franchise negotiations capacity is one of the considerations uppermost in our minds. He speaks of Leeds. That is a timely reminder that this is not merely a challenge for the south-east of England. As the Eddington report indicated, we are now dealing with circumstances whereby we have economic growth in several cities, and we therefore need to address the challenge not only in the south-east but in cities throughout the country.
Does the Secretary of State agree that more use of the services could be achieved if the timetable were more conducive? In particular, I draw his attention to the fact that there are two services an hour in each direction from Euston to Stockport, but only one on the line from Chester to Stockport, which passes through Altrincham and which is not timetabled in a way that matches with any of the mainline services on the west coast main line. Will he encourage a more sensible use of timetables to ensure that connecting services match up?
Appropriate timetabling changes can certainly make significant contributions to performance and service reliability, but it might help the hon. Gentleman if he consulted his Front-Bench spokesman on these matters. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) recently stated:
“I do not think it is the role of Ministers to decide detailed service configurations.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 1290.]
We welcome the European Union’s recent announcement on aviation’s inclusion in the EU emission trading scheme in 2011 and 2012. We have led the debate in Europe on the issue and will continue to work on the detail of the proposal, including an earlier introduction.
It would be wrong to assume that people who derive their income from and contribute to the general economic well-being of an area such as Crawley are not concerned about aviation pollution. What more can we do collectively to alert people to the continuing problems with aviation? Although they are currently small, they are increasing. What more can communities do to assist in the battle to reduce global warming?
My hon. Friend is an effective representative of her constituents, who have a wide range of interests in Gatwick airport. The Government are fully committed to ensuring that aviation meets its environmental costs. In addition to the EU emissions trading scheme, seeking reform of the Chicago convention to recognise global environmental considerations, doubling air passenger duty and pursuing other measures such as improving aviation working practices, research and development and promoting voluntary action by individuals will all contribute.
Does the Under-Secretary agree that one of the ways in which she can limit carbon emissions from aviation is to encourage civil servants to fly less? If so, will she speak to her colleagues at the Treasury? Thanks to the merger and subsequent centralisation of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs functions, it has managed in the space of only a year to double the number of civil servants who take domestic flights so that, on any given day, more than 50 HMRC managers travel through regional airports in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Department is already taking steps to increase the capacity of the railways through the franchising process, the high level output specification and the longer-term strategy framework for the network to be published in the summer.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the latest national passenger survey, which shows that nearly 40 per cent.—6 per cent. more than previously—of travellers on First Great Western are dissatisfied with the amount of room available for passengers to sit or stand. Does not that make the case for increasing capacity on the railway rather than having expensive new refits of first class compartments?
I fully accept that the performance of First Great Western in the past few weeks has unfortunately overshadowed the good news in the rest of the rail network, especially in the light of the passenger survey to which my hon. Friend referred. It showed that customer satisfaction is 81 per cent. nationally. I expect First Great Western to meet its franchise commitments and provide a significantly improved service to passengers in the next few weeks.
The removal of First Great Western’s 5.18 service to Swansea has had a knock-on effect on other commuter services in south Wales. Recently, 340 people in Cardiff boarded a Cardiff to Swansea train which had only 186 seats. Since the last time the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) asked the same question, things have got worse. When will they get better?
The removal of the 17.18 service from Cardiff to Swansea was a commercial decision that First Great Western took and the Department has no authority to reverse it. Of course, we will keep the position under review with Arriva Trains Wales and First Great Western.
I congratulate the Government on the improvements on the west coast main line between Lancaster and London. They have made journeys much better. We must now consider capacity, especially, in my area, on trains between Lancaster and Morecambe, and improve the frequency of the trains by improving the track. What funding is available for such improvements?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Let me repeat that the high level output specification, which the Government will publish in the summer, will specify the capacity that we wish to buy from the rail industry in 2009 to 2014. We will also state the funds available for that.
The three PPP agreements were signed by April 2003. Since then, the Department has agreed £9.5 billion grant for London Underground up to 2009-10.
Sadly, my constituency does not lie on the London Underground system. Perhaps my hon. Friend could do something about that. The Piccadilly line runs close by, however, and there have been real problems on that line because of a lack of investment over many years that has led to delays and difficulties for passengers. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give to the House that the PPP will lead to the investment needed to improve the service for my constituents?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns for his constituents, including the fact that there is no underground station in his constituency. However, the Piccadilly line is now performing at a level above the contract specifications and, importantly for my hon. Friend’s constituents, it is due for a major upgrade in 2014, when new signals and trains will reduce average journey times by a fifth and increase passenger capacity by 25 per cent.
I shall be happy to write to the hon. Lady about that. I can tell her, however, that refurbished trains are now being provided for the District line, that new trains will be delivered between 2013 and 2015, and that a new signalling system will be in place by March 2018. I hope that she will welcome those improvements.
Will my hon. Friend cast a leery eye over the value for money of these private finance initiatives? The underground is a very old system and it needs a lot of cash. The Government are providing the cash, but are we quite sure that the passengers are getting the benefit?
I look to London Underground and its PPP partners to work together to address any areas of poor performance. We know that there have been a number of successes, but we are also aware that performance needs to be improved, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I am extremely mindful of that.
The Minister of State was asked—
My Department does not collect data on the age and gender composition of juries for monitoring purposes. Random selection from the electoral register should mean that the composition of juries is broadly representative of the general population.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does she, however, share my concern that many younger people might be being disadvantaged in this respect, perhaps by virtue of the fact that they move more frequently or are not on the electoral register? What is her Department doing in general terms to increase the awareness and involvement of young people in the jury system, perhaps in relation to citizenship awareness in schools and other projects of that nature?
My hon. Friend makes an important point in marrying the random selection of juries and registration on the electoral register—a subject that is close to my heart. He will know that my Department has done a great deal of work to encourage electoral registration, as has the Electoral Commission. However, young people are more likely to move more frequently than others. When the Department publishes its report on diversity in the jury system in England and Wales shortly, I hope that we can examine that aspect of the report in more detail.
May I reassure the Minister that, in the almost 15 years that I have been a Member of Parliament representing a Lancashire constituency, I have not received one letter of complaint from anyone who felt that they were being denied the opportunity to serve on a jury? Will she give the House an assurance that the random nature of jury selection will remain, and that it will not be artificially skewed one way or another?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, whose policy area covers magistrates, is aware of the diversity needed in the magistrates court, as is the Magistrates Association, of which I have been a member for some time.
The hon. Gentleman asks about responses to the Carter review published in July 2006. We had 1,595 responses from solicitors and 469 from barristers, as well as much input from the various meetings that I had around the country, which were mostly attended by practitioners.
Quite a few legal aid practitioners in my constituency have written to me saying that they are worried about the Government’s proposals, which they have called “cost-cutting and damaging”. Those are experienced people who have been doing such work for a long time. Is the Minister saying that their assessment of the likely effect of the proposals is wrong, or is she suggesting that they are merely protecting their fee income?
Clearly, the legal aid fund is not underfunded; it is the best funded in the world by a significant margin. When we move, as we will in October 2007, to fixed fees for crime—which perhaps the hon. Gentleman is talking about—we would expect efficiencies to be driven so that, ultimately, solicitors will be more profitably able than now to do their business and to serve more people. There will be challenges between then and now, and I understand that those will be seriously problematic for some solicitors. I hope that we can support them to overcome those, as there is a good future for those who can do so.
As we are discussing fee income, I should perhaps mention that I am a solicitor. If at all possible, will my hon. and learned Friend consider the question of experts’ fees? I have tabled some questions on the issue, and legal aid expenditure on experts’ fees has increased far more quickly than expenditure on solicitors’ and barristers’ fees over the past five years. Will she get a detailed breakdown of that expenditure, and take steps to restrict such expenditure?
Will the Minister consider the evidence that the Constitutional Affairs Committee is hearing week by week, from not just barristers and solicitors but judges and others, including representations from the president of the family division, about the likely impact on the availability of family law practitioners? Is she ready to make alterations to the timing and content of the proposals in the light of some of that evidence?
I am, of course, taking note of the evidence, and looking forward to an opportunity to deal with it, either personally or through the Lord Chancellor, in due course. We do, of course, listen carefully to what the president of the family division says. He is talking about deferring, but there is urgency none the less to introduce such fees. It was notable that Lord Justice Thomas was strongly in favour of our proposals, so perhaps a balanced approach was taken.
Has my hon. and learned Friend specifically considered whether advice deserts might emerge following the introduction of scale fees and contracts in relation to family law? Is she reviewing that possibility as a result of the change in practice this autumn?
No, I would not expect the emergence of any advice desert; I would prefer to call them historically bare-ish patches, which are now being pretty well watered with Legal Services Commission money and are basking in the mild sunshine of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, with green shoots coming through, if not bushes and trees. But enough of that metaphor. We are re-consulting on the levels of family fees, and I hope and expect that we will publish that re-consultation soon. I hope that that will ensure that family practitioners benefit from the efficiencies that all the Carter reforms will drive, and that the service given to the public will be improved.
The expression “parallel universes” comes to mind. Is the Minister aware that in a recent survey 99 per cent. of civil legal aid solicitors said that fixed fees would make their work unviable, while a staggering 82 per cent. of family lawyers said that they might withdraw completely from legal aid work? Surely that is why dozens of charities ranging from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Mind to Shelter and the Refugee Council have warned that the plans will leave vulnerable people unrepresented. When it comes to protecting such people and standing up for them, who should we listen to, Ministers who appear ever more complacent or world-class charities which spend all their lives helping the vulnerable?
There are Ministers here who spend their lifetimes helping the vulnerable in cases of all kinds.
The opportunities that the proposals offer the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors are extremely significant. I entirely accept that the transition is not easy for all people to see their way through, but I am sure that when it comes it will be advantageous and more vulnerable people will be better advised than they are now.
The effect of the Carter proposals is that there will be fewer suppliers. Whether there are patches or deserts, the fact remains that there will be less access to justice. The Law Society and the Bar Council have made representations, and hundreds of Members of Parliament have signed an early-day motion opposing this measure. Will the Minister listen to what is being said by all concerned, and delay implementation of these ridiculous reforms?
I am not sure what ridiculous reforms are being referred to, but if there are any ridiculous reforms to be deferred I will defer ridiculous reforms. What I do not accept is that fewer firms will mean less supply. On the contrary, if that is the outcome in some areas it will be because the volume of fixed-fees cases means that more people are being better represented. Fewer supplies do not necessarily mean poorer supply, although the effects will vary from area to area. As I have said repeatedly, we will consult locally in order to reach the right conclusion for the local market and—this is overwhelmingly important—for local people.
The Minister will know that since the Government announced their response to the Carter reforms and since the two debates in Westminster Hall in which the Minister spoke—after which her words were scrutinised very carefully—there has been no less concern among both the voluntary sector and the professionals that the new reforms will reduce access to justice in rural and urban Britain alike. Given the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the fact that a Select Committee is examining the evidence now, will the Minister at least do the public and their representatives the courtesy of saying that she will not implement anything until the Select Committee has reported and the House has had a chance to debate its report?
It is not the case that there is “no less concern” than there was. Universally—and that includes the early-day motion that the hon. Gentleman signed—the changes that we have made since Carter have been welcomed. The early-day motion welcomes the changes, and they are good in pace-of-change terms. We have waited to make cuts, and we are not making cuts that were expected to be made very soon under the Carter proposals. I do not know when the Constitutional Affairs Committee will report, but the first fixed fees come into force in October 2007 and I imagine that it will report before that.
I have received nine letters about the issue in the last six months. The matter has been raised with me by students and young people on an informal basis during engagements and visits that I have undertaken during that time.
In the Scottish parliamentary elections in May, 130,000 people in Scotland will be old enough to marry, to join the Army and even to become company directors, but will be deemed too young to be given a vote on who should govern them. When will the Minister recommend action to correct that injustice and give Scotland’s young people a voice at the ballot box?
This issue divides us in a cross-party sense. I have a good deal of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s argument for voting rights at 16, but I know that many Members feel very differently about it.
This morning I was at Greenford high school in Ealing discussing this very topic with students on their citizens’ jury. They were divided 50:50 on it. I think that before we could implement such a measure we would need more than a 50 per cent. enthusiasm rate from the people to whom we would be extending the franchise.
My hon. Friend says that she is sympathetic, but what has happened to the old-fashioned virtue of leadership? Why does she not put forward a radical idea for once and say, “We will legislate”—as the Isle of Man did in advance of its general election, at which people voted at 16 years of age? The last time I flew over the Isle of Man it was still there; it had not sunk, and it has a better democracy than we have. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
I am interested to hear my hon. Friend, who I always think of as one of the fathers of democracy in this House, suggest that the Isle of Man’s democracy is better than ours. I am disappointed that he takes that view. However, we have to listen to all views, and I have conducted surveys in my constituency—I spoke about the young people I met this morning—and I have to say to my hon. Friend that young people are not as enthusiastic as he or I might be about this subject. We must have further discussions with them before we move forward. My hon. Friend talks about leadership, and in that context we should also talk about the fragility of democracy and the importance of democracy in this country. One way to ensure that we continue to have a proper debate is by ensuring that the democracy of the country is upheld.
There is not much point in lowering the voting age unless we can convince young people who have already reached the age of 18 to vote. Why does the Minister think that there is massive apathy among young people? Is it because young people believe that the main political parties are driven by focus groups and spin, rather than principle?
I speak to young people throughout the country—and to others about the views of young people—and the idea that young people are apathetic about politics is nonsense. They take a keen interest in many of the important political issues of the day. They might not, however, like some of what they see on television with regard to how the political process works, and I have sympathy with them on that. Members of this House must work very hard in engaging with young people on the issues that are important to them and in finding ways in which they can express their opinions and get them heard. In my constituency, the London borough of Lewisham has an elected young mayor who has a budget from the council which is used to involve young people between the ages of 11 and 17 in the electoral process. We might want to extend that example to elsewhere in the country.
Some 15 months ago, my local radio station carried out an opinion poll on this issue, and more than 90 per cent. of those who responded were in favour of reducing the voting age. Would doing that not make a major contribution not only to citizenship, but to Britishness?
It is important that we have a debate on this matter. Having talked to young people around the country, I can say that they are particularly keen on the citizenship classes that now take place in schools thanks to this Government, and they feel that that is one of the ways in which they can develop their own political ideas. There are a variety of ways in which we can continue to involve young people in the political process both locally and nationally, but I am sure that the debate on whether we reduce the voting age to 16 will continue for some time to come.
Does the Minister not agree that there is a wider dimension to this issue, particularly at a time when the Government are suggesting raising the school leaving age to 18, which is to do with what adulthood really means? As she knows, some of those who suggest that the voting age should be 16 also suggest that buying tobacco and alcohol, and even starring in a porn film, should be possible at the age of 16. Does she not agree that all the evidence—and we should look at the evidence—from the Isle of Man shows that only half the young people there bothered to register to vote, and that the Electoral Commission seems to suggest in its report that overall turnout at elections would fall if we made this change?
The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points about the issues associated with reducing the voting age to 16, such as whether young people would participate, but I do not accept that reducing the voting age to 16 would automatically mean that a much smaller number of people would take part in elections; in fact, it might be a way to get young people further engaged. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 reduced the candidacy age from 21 to 18, and we can look to that example to see whether we can properly involve more young people in the democratic process by electing them at local—and, indeed, parliamentary —level.
The Oxfordshire coroner briefly resumed the inquest into the death of Dr. David Kelly on 14 August 2003 to admit post mortem evidence. He then adjourned the inquest, in accordance with the provisions of section 17(a) of the Coroners Act 1988, having been informed by the Lord Chancellor that Dr. Kelly’s death was likely to be adequately investigated by the Hutton inquiry.
I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know my view that the coroner acted in a most peculiar way and contrary to the 1988 Act in resuming the inquiry after Lord Hutton had been appointed. In a letter that I received from Lord Hutton last week, he tells me that he had “no knowledge” of the inquest being reconvened, and no knowledge of the meeting with her officials, which she was aware of, that took place at the Oxfordshire coroner’s request, in August 2003. Is this not an extraordinary situation, and does the Minister not agree that it would be helpful if the Oxfordshire coroner agreed to a meeting with the Minister and me, at which we could discuss these matters in more detail? It is clear that there are a great many loose ends.
I do not agree that the coroner acted in a most peculiar way. I have looked into this issue with great care and in great detail, and I do not think it necessarily odd that Lord Hutton had no knowledge of, or information about, the meeting that the coroner held with officials from the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I know that the hon. Gentleman remains suspicious and thinks that something underhand has gone on regarding the meeting between the Oxfordshire coroner and officials from the Lord Chancellor’s Department, but I do not think that that is the case. I have so far been unable to reassure the hon. Gentleman through very detailed letters and parliamentary answers, but perhaps he should meet the officials who were involved in that meeting, who I am sure can reassure him of its propriety. Obviously, I cannot offer a meeting with the Oxfordshire coroner, who is an independent judicial official.
Casino Advisory Panel
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the recommendations of the independent casino advisory panel. The panel has today published its report, and I would like to thank Professor Crow and his colleagues for their work. Before I turn to the recommendations, I would like to remind the House of the context in which we are allowing these new types of casinos.
Gambling is on the increase. People want to gamble, and technology allows many new forms of gambling. Existing regulation is inadequate and leaves people exposed to risk, so, through the Gambling Act 2005, we have placed the protection of children and other vulnerable people at the heart of gambling regulation for the first time. Yet if I believed everything that I read in the newspapers about that Act, I would never have introduced it. So let me be very clear: Las Vegas is not coming to Great Britain. British casinos will be subject to new controls, which will be the strictest in the world. For example, Las Vegas-style tricks of the trade will not be allowed. There will be no free alcohol to induce more gambling, and no pumped oxygen to keep players awake—[Interruption.] I do not know whether you are considering providing it for Conservative Members, Mr. Speaker.
It will be a criminal offence to permit a child to enter a casino or the gambling area of a regional casino. All casinos will be required to have staff who are trained to spot the signs of problem gambling and intervene where necessary—if they do not, they risk losing their licence. It was safe in the knowledge of those protections that we took the decision, in response to demand from local authorities, to allow a limited number of new casinos. Some 68 local authorities, representing all the main political parties, subsequently made applications to the panel.
The Act allows 17 casinos in total: one regional, eight large and eight small. Because the new casinos will be different from those we have seen before, we have listened carefully to the concerns of Members of Parliament and their constituents. We thought that it was right to be cautious. I could probably say this in 50 different languages, but the message would be the same: we cannot and will not even consider allowing further casinos until a proper evaluation over time has been made of the social and economic effects of the 17 casinos—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Such a decision would require a debate and vote in both Houses of Parliament in any case. We have commissioned a group of academics led by Lancaster university to advise on the methodology for that assessment. The baseline study will be undertaken later this year, once Parliament has approved the new areas, so that proper assessment of changes in the pattern of gambling can be made. The assessment process will be in place in good time for the opening of the first new casino.
The assessment will not be complete until at least three years after the award of the first licence, and it will be in addition to the prevalence studies of patterns of gambling, which we are undertaking every three years from 2007. The benchmark prevalence study is currently under way to establish how many people gamble and what proportion of them have problems with their gambling. The findings will be published this autumn, when the Gambling Act 2005 takes effect. The findings of the next prevalence study will not be published until autumn 2010. I therefore wish to make it crystal clear to the House that those safeguards preclude any consideration of further casinos for the lifetime of this Parliament.
I am required by the Act to make an order identifying the local authorities where the 17 new casinos should go. So, in October last year I established the casino advisory panel, under Professor Stephen Crow. The primary consideration for the panel throughout has been to ensure that the areas facilitate the best possible test of social impact. Subject to that consideration, I also asked the panel to include areas in need of regeneration, which would benefit—in terms of new jobs—from a new casino, and to ensure that those areas selected are willing to license a new casino.
The panel has been operating entirely independently of the Government, and I would like to place on the record my appreciation for the rigour and professionalism that Professor Crow and his colleagues have brought to the process. It has been an open and transparent process throughout, and the views of local people have been taken into account at every stage, as the panel has visited different local authorities around the country.
The panel asked local authorities to include their evidence of local consultation. Local people were invited to participate in the examinations in public that were held in the seven short-listed areas for the regional casino. During the process, a number of areas, including Brent, Canterbury, Dartford, Thurrock and Woking, withdrew their applications to the panel in response to local opinion, which is evidence of the Act working as it should. A number of local authorities, such as Hackney, St. Albans and Slough, have also taken advantage of new powers we put in the Act and resolved not to license any casinos in their area.
After 16 months of consultation, and having considered all the evidence available, the panel has recommended today that the following authorities should be entitled to issue a small casino premises licence: Bath and North East Somerset, Dumfries and Galloway, East Lindsey, Luton, Scarborough, Swansea, Torbay and Wolverhampton.
The panel also recommends that the following local authorities should be entitled to issue a large casino premises licence: Great Yarmouth, Kingston-upon-Hull, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Newham, Solihull and Southampton. In addition, it recommends that Manchester should be entitled to issue the one regional casino premises licence permitted by the 2005 Act. I congratulate Manchester and the other recommended towns and cities on their success, and I acknowledge the disappointment of those towns and cities that have not been recommended.
I received a copy of the panel’s report just this morning. Because I am conscious of the need to maintain the integrity of the independent process that we have established, it is only fair to all the applicants that I should take the time to consider the report’s contents carefully. Moreover, I am also required by the Gambling Act 2005 to consult both Scottish and Welsh Ministers. I am therefore announcing today that, following the consultation with the devolved Administrations, I am minded to return to this House at the earliest opportunity with an order that will enable Parliament to consider the panel’s recommendations and to vote on them. The order will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and the debate will be held on the Floor of the House, as agreed with my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip. That means that Parliament, rightly, will determine the outcome of the process.
In conclusion, I recognise that gambling will always be a sensitive issue, and I understand the reservations that some hon. Members and others have about it, and about casinos. However, I have always sought to ensure that the Government proceed cautiously on this matter, with the strongest possible safeguards in place and on the basis of the best evidence of public protection in the face of what is, undeniably, rising public demand. That is what is we have done.
Once again, I thank Professor Crow and his panel for the thoroughness of their work, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving me advance sight of her statement, and I add my congratulations to Manchester on its success in securing the proposed regional casino. I and my party hope that that will bring the promised regeneration to that great city in the north-west. We also congratulate all the other successful bidding authorities.
Today’s announcement is the latest chapter in the sorry story of this Government’s seeming addiction to gambling. No doubt the Chancellor is licking his lips at the prospect of tax revenues on the scale now evident in Australia. The Government’s handling of the liberalisation of gambling has been undermined by charges of privileged access and influence for overseas casino operators. As a result, despite today’s verdict from the casino advisory panel, many questions remain.
It has been noted already that Kerzner International, the prominent bidder that met Ministers and wishes to run the casino in the dome, is also the preferred bidder in the successful Manchester bid. Is it the Secretary of State’s understanding that Manchester will now be required to undertake a new open competition for the licence? If other operators are not allowed to tender in a fair and open way, questions will remain.
The Secretary of State’s recommendation must come before Parliament and will be subject to a vote in both Houses. When does she intend to come to the House with the final proposals? Can she also guarantee, categorically, that any increase in the number of super-casinos will be subject to a debate and vote in both Chambers?
Now that the recommendations of the casino advisory panel have been published, the top priority must be to ensure that the pilot scheme is rigorous and independently monitored. The will of Parliament was clear: because of the untested nature of super-casinos in this country, one regional casino should be piloted so that there can be a proper assessment of its social—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your protection.
Only today, before the panel’s decision was even announced, we read reports that Ministers are already planning to increase the number of super-casinos. Once more, will the Secretary of State categorically deny any plans to increase the numbers?
Does the right hon. Lady agree with her Ministers that the legislation could lead to an increase in problem gambling? In her statement, she said that the decision to allow a limited number of new casinos was made by the Government in response to demand from local authorities. She is rewriting history, because she knows that it was the Conservative Opposition who argued strongly for a limited pilot after the Government initially envisaged about 40 super-casinos.
We need to be sure that the pilot is used to assess the impacts on crime, gambling addiction and the surrounding community, as well as to assess the economic benefits. That is what Parliament agreed to—a true pilot scheme, not a sly way of avoiding the issues that need to be investigated—and that is what we must have. Will the Secretary of State commit to a long and open consultation process for laying down those criteria, and will she confirm that the three years to which she alludes will start only once the doors in Manchester are open to the public?
The Minister with responsibility for gambling, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), said in the House that the numbers will not change unless the Opposition support an increase. I can say categorically that we support a pilot scheme of one regional casino and there should be no change until a proper assessment has been made. So, will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no back-door increase?
Finally, the right hon. Lady makes much play of her determination to regulate gambling, yet the evidence proves that, thanks to her decision to leave the door ajar for applications under the Gaming Act 1968, in the past two years alone 90 casinos have been given initial approval, with a further 57 applications outstanding, which means a potential doubling of the number of casinos since the Government have been in power. Was that her intention? Did she anticipate such a rush for licences? Can she assure us that on no account will those casinos be allowed to trade up their licences and, as a result, bring £1 million jackpot machines to towns throughout the country?
In the 10 years of the Labour Government there has been a rapid rise in the number of people gambling and in the public’s access to gambling online, in pubs and, increasingly, in casinos. That is an unprecedented change and the Government will rightly be judged on its consequences on society. The Secretary of State may make statements about Las Vegas not coming to Britain or about oxygen and free drinks, but there will be alcohol and we will see unprecedented gambling in the UK. She claims that no children will be allowed into casinos, yet as she knows, she rejected the call for ID checks on entry.
As I said, we join in celebrating with Manchester and all the other towns in their success today, but we shall hold the Government to account on the many promises they have given to protect the most vulnerable and those most at risk from their legislation.
I am inclined to believe that the hon. Gentleman must have gone to sleep during my statement, as I could not have dealt more clearly with four of his questions; nor could I have been clearer about the Government’s determination to ensure that proper protection is put in place and that tackling problem gambling, which arises from the many increased opportunities for gambling, is one of the central objectives of the new legislation. That will make us the most toughly regulated gambling regime in the world, apart from countries that ban gambling altogether.
I take two thirds of what the hon. Gentleman said in the vein that he was desperately scrabbling around to find something to say. Of course Manchester will carry out a fair and open competition for the licence. The hon. Gentleman, with the protection of the House, should stop using this situation as an opportunity for smear and innuendo, which is not what we expect of him. Yes, there will be a vote in both Houses on the affirmative resolution, and yes, I have been absolutely clear throughout that any decision in a subsequent Parliament to increase the number of regional or any other casinos would be a vote of both Houses. This is a decision for Parliament and will remain so.
On the claim that there is no interest in casinos, I recall from memory that 131 local authorities expressed an interest and we had 68 applications, with 27 local authorities submitting applications for the single large regional casino. It is ridiculous to suggest that the Government are somehow foisting the proposal on unwilling local authorities, which are considerably more imaginative and in tune with their local populations than the hon. Gentleman.
Let me finish by saying that although the hon. Gentleman talks about the consents awarded before the 1968 Gaming Board licences were terminated in April last year, 13 of those applications have already been turned down by the licensing magistrates. At this stage of his Opposition career, the hon. Gentleman should know that licences—some have not even been considered yet—do not inevitably translate into casinos, as it is a long process. Consents depend on the support of the local authority and local people. This has been a period of great change and the people of this country would be at risk without the new Gambling Act 2005, not because of it.
My right hon. Friend will realise that the people of Manchester will be very pleased with the panel’s decision and its recognition of the regeneration impact that it will have on jobs in an area—the city of Manchester—that still has massively high unemployment. My constituents will also be grateful for her words today when she made it clear that there will be tight controls in respect of criminality and problem gambling. Can she guarantee that mechanisms will be available to crawl all over the Manchester casino over the next few years so that the public can see that they are getting value for money with jobs and regeneration and we ensure that the social consequences that some people fear simply do not materialise?
I can give my hon. Friend the absolute reassurance that he rightly seeks on behalf of his constituents. Indeed, from a brief reading of Professor Crow’s report, it is abundantly clear that the proposal that Manchester submitted very much puts social responsibility, protection of young people and keeping gambling crime-free at the centre of the proposal. I suspect that that is one of the reasons why it was recommended for the licence.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement and I join her in congratulating Professor Crow and his team on the work that they have done. We should also place on the record the fact that our UK casino industry has an enviable international record for probity—a reputation that we must maintain as the numbers grow. After the increases in gambling opportunities and greater risks of problem gambling through fixed-odds betting terminals, online gambling, TV advertising of gaming, pub poker and now more casinos, does the Secretary of State at least understand why people are beginning to think that her Government are addicted to gambling? In the light of those concerns, will the right hon. Lady at least thank both Opposition parties for watering down her original plans for an unfettered increase in the number of casinos? The House will surely have been surprised by her statement just now that the Government “thought it right to be cautious”.
I am delighted to hear that the Secretary of State has categorically accepted that the new casinos announced today will be thoroughly tested for their ability to aid regeneration while not increasing problem gambling before any further casinos are allowed. However, given that the assessment methodology has not yet been determined, will she agree to provide the House with an opportunity to debate it once she has received recommendations from Lancaster university? The 17 new casinos are meant to be the basis for such assessments, so is she surprised that of the 17 announced today, 11 are in areas that already have casinos—including Greater Manchester with 11?
On problem gambling, given that we spend £270 million on tackling the problems of alcohol addiction, is not the Secretary of State disappointed that the gambling industry is currently contributing only about £2.5 million to the main body responsible for dealing with the problem? Will she ensure that the new casinos make a fair contribution?
As the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) has said, the 17 new casinos announced today do not include the extra casinos that may well arise under existing legislation. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that the Gambling Commission approved 68 new licences in the past two years, and that although some have had premises licences refused, that could lead to an extra 40 or 50 casinos on top of today’s 17? Are there not even more applications in the pipeline? How does that square with her statement—even if made in 50 different languages—that she will not even consider allowing further casinos until a proper evaluation has been made on the 17 announced today? Why did a ministerial colleague say two years ago:
“we can say with certainty that there will be no more than 150 casinos”?—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 11 January 2005; c. 718.]
I wonder how many the right hon. Lady thinks there will be.
No one in the Chamber—I include the Secretary of State in that—wants much needed regeneration in our towns and cities to be based on the creation of huge increases in problem gambling. So, above all, will she give an absolute assurance to the House that she will stand by the answer that she gave only two weeks ago on “Any Questions”, when she said:
“every single bit of change in legislation, if it proves to give rise to harm will be rescinded”?
Will she give an absolute commitment that there will be no further growth in gambling opportunities until we test out what we already have and are likely to have following today’s announcement?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I gave assurances about being able to rescind any change in the gambling legislation that is proven, on the basis of the social and economic impact study or the prevalence study, to give rise to problem gambling. Any such change will be revoked. That is fundamental to the development of the legislation, as he knows; it is not a new concession. I do not want to be harsh on the two Opposition spokesmen, but the person who has really contributed light, balance and intelligence to the debate is the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who chaired the original Joint Committee and now chairs the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, which raises money from the industry to deal with problem gambling.
We have made it absolutely clear—this is in the legislation—that if the industry does not pay the levy that we have determined, we will make that requirement statutory on the industry. My concern is the way in which the intention of the policy is wilfully misrepresented. That causes—quite rightly—alarm in the country. This is legislation that is designed to protect, that recognises the scale of technological change, and that is in the control of local authorities to implement in the interests of their communities. As a matter of honour, hon. Members ought to reflect that in the terms that they use in partaking in the debate in Parliament.
While I acknowledge the hard work of the casino advisory panel on this matter, I have concerns about the analysis of Blackpool’s case in the document that was produced. Therefore, I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement that an order will be brought before us so that we can have a debate in the Chamber. Will she clarify the length and extent of that debate? Orders are usually debated for only an hour and a half, but the report needs a full and detailed debate, with as many Members as possible taking part. Can she reassure me that, through the usual channels, she will ensure that we have all the time that we need?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. As I said in my statement, I recognise that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) will be disappointed that Blackpool was not recommended, despite their powerful campaigning on behalf of their constituents over recent months. I am aware of the importance of allowing ample time for the debate, which will be unusual, so I am quite confident that that will be facilitated through the usual channels.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the view expressed by Professor Peter Collins—
“convenience is the single greatest spur to increase problem gambling”—
that led the Joint Scrutiny Committee to conclude that a regional casino should not be located
“in close proximity to residential properties”?
Is there therefore not a danger that choosing Manchester, rather than a resort destination, is likely to lead to an increase in problem gambling? Does the Secretary of State share my surprise that the report of the advisory panel states:
“problem gambling is more a town planning consideration rather than one for us”?
I should make it clear that the decision to allocate the regional casino to Manchester is made to the local authority. It will be for the local authority to decide precisely where the location should be. As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), considerations about risks, problem gambling and keeping gambling crime-free—let us remember what a good reputation this country’s gambling industry has, as the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said—will be taken into account when Manchester decides, following a fair and open competition, how to award the licence for the casino. I am aware of the work of Professor Collins, but I also know that the panel will have considered such matters very carefully when making its recommendation.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the disappointment and surprise of many of us that Blackpool has not been included at all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) indicated. I understand that one of the panel’s conclusions was that Blackpool needed more than one casino for regeneration purposes. Does the Secretary of State thus share my astonishment that Blackpool has not been recommended for any licence at all?
I realise that Blackpool is disappointed that it has not been recommended. However, I made it clear throughout the process—before we knew the recommendation—including during a recent sitting of the Select Committee, when I dealt with the matter fully, that we would accept the panel’s recommendations and put them to Parliament. As I have outlined, Parliament will have the opportunity to debate my hon. Friend’s point.
Those of us who thought that the process of implementing the Gambling Act could not get any worse—I include members of the Scrutiny and Standing Committees in that group—are frankly astonished by today’s announcement about the location of the super-casino. The decision of the casino advisory panel flies in the face of not only the main recommendation of the Scrutiny Committee—that such casinos should be resort or destination casinos, such as that proposed by Blackpool—but the Government’s main objective for the Act: to protect children and the vulnerable. How can one defend choosing the most deprived and vulnerable area of Manchester to test whether a super-casino that is open 24 hours a day, with free admission, will generate an increase in problem gambling? If, as I expect, the order is rejected by the House, where will the Government go from there?
My right hon. Friend said in her statement that we will have the strictest regime for casinos to be found anywhere. Will she add to that by telling the House who will monitor the performance and activities of the casinos? What sanctions will be available if casinos are found to be breaching any of the codes of conduct?
The Gambling Commission will oversee compliance with the very specific licence conditions, which will reflect the three principles of the gambling legislation. Those principles are protecting children and the vulnerable, keeping gambling crime-free, and ensuring that gambling is kept fair. Breach of any of those conditions can lead to a range of sanctions, some of them criminal sanctions, and can also lead to the operator losing their licence.
Given the residential location of the Manchester casino, does the Secretary of State agree that delivery of the social responsibility programme, which so impressed the casino advisory panel, will be critical if the scheme is to be a success? May I inform her and the House that Manchester city council has already held discussions with the Responsibility in Gambling Trust and GamCare, which we fund? Does she agree that significant contributions to the trust must be made, not just by Manchester, but by all 17 operators of the casinos that she today announced are to be created, subject to the approval of the House, so that we can further our work on public awareness, the education of young people, and research, and so that we can provide a safety net for people who gamble beyond their means?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right to be reassured by the Manchester submission, and I agree entirely that there is a role for hon. Members in ensuring that the local authorities that have a casinos in their area do their bit to make sure that the contribution to the trust is made.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the great disappointment and anger felt in Blackpool, now that the town that pushed the longest, had the strongest support, and made the most preparation, in terms both of regeneration possibilities and social responsibilities, has been set aside in the panel’s recommendation. Does she understand that concerns are already being expressed about inconsistencies in the report, particularly on the different criteria for destination and doorstep gaming and in respect of ignoring the regional context of the recommendations? Will she give an undertaking that the debate on the affirmative orders will include a thorough examination by Parliament of the criteria, and whether they were applied properly, and an assessment of how the effects of the recommendations are to be taken forward, and in what time scale?
I thank my hon. Friend, and again pay tribute to him for the way in which he represented the interests of Blackpool and his constituents throughout the process. I recognise the disappointment felt about the fact that Blackpool was not recommended by the panel. He will, no doubt, want to return in the debate to the questions and issues that he mentions, which arose from an initial study of the report.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the precise number of new jobs that will be created in each of the areas that is to be allowed a licence, and what percentage of those jobs are likely to be low-value employment, and to attract only eastern European migrant workers? In the areas concerned, what support will be made available to voluntary organisations and local councils to enable them to deal with the increase in gambling addiction, and what extra resources will go to constabularies to deal with the increase in crime?
The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question will obviously depend on the way in which individual local authorities take forward and develop the proposals. There certainly are estimates for the increase in the number of jobs. Experience from around the world shows that gambling operators range from some of the best employers in the world to among the worst. One of the reasons why the policy enjoyed strong trade union support is that, based on the evidence of some of the best employers in the American gambling industry, there is a clear understanding that the jobs are good and well-paid. I hope that local authorities will take seriously judgments about the quality of the employment, training and so forth extended to staff in the intended casinos.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s questions about addiction and crime, those issues are fundamental to the oversight of the casinos and the judgment about whether they should be allowed to continue to operate. Without the protective benefits of the new legislation, people are at risk from the vast new range of gambling opportunities that have developed in the past four to five years. Those opportunities are regulated by legislation that was placed on the statute book 40 years ago, which is why we must introduce new legislation.
My right hon. Friend will accept that there are marked differences in the characteristics of a northern city such as Manchester, a resort such as Blackpool and a destination for leisure activities such as the dome in Greenwich. While I entirely accept the importance of proper monitoring and detailed evaluation of the impact of the sites that have been chosen, does she not agree that it will be hard to draw any lessons about the suitability of future casino developments in locations such as my constituency and Blackpool on the basis of evidence from Manchester? That evidence may help to dispel much of the unwelcome scaremongering that has unfortunately characterised many of the contributions to the debate by the Opposition and their media allies, but it will not serve the purpose of the test that she announced, which is to assess whether the proposal can be extended more widely.
My right hon. Friend is right to reflect on the challenge of ensuring that we can use conclusions from one part of the country to draw similar conclusions about another town or city. The prevalent study of the number of people throughout Great Britain who gamble and the number for whom gambling is a problem will be supplemented by the social and economic study to which I referred. They have been commissioned to address precisely the questions raised by my right hon. Friend so that the regime in individual casinos is sufficiently attuned and vigilant to protect people who use them from harm. That regime will apply not just to the casino in Manchester but, subject to the Gambling Commission’s judgment, to the 16 local authorities that have been announced as areas that can have a new casino.
I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that the announcement is a body blow to the Fylde coast and Blackpool’s attempts to regenerate. In her statement, she said that she would “take…time to consider” the panel’s findings. Will she therefore confirm that she has not finally made her mind up about Manchester? Under what terms will that consideration be conducted, and will it be open to further representations from Blackpool and other areas if there are parts of the report with which they fundamentally disagree?
I know that that is a question that many hon. Members want to raise, and I wish to make the position clear. I have always made it clear—as I said earlier, I remember dealing with this when I appeared before the Select Committee—that the Government would accept the advisory panel’s recommendations and make them the subject of a debate and a vote in the House. That remains the position. Of course, I will listen to the debate and so forth, but those who wish to advocate an alternative to Manchester or any other recommended local authority should not assume that the recommendations will be varied by the Government. We have always made it clear that we would not do so.
First, congratulations to Manchester. Obviously, we in Sheffield are disappointed, but it is interesting to note that one of the main reasons why our bid was turned down was the recognised success of Sheffield’s regeneration which, it is assumed, will continue with or without the casino. Will my right hon. Friend give an indication of the earliest date by which lessons from the Manchester casino can be learned sufficiently to allow bids to be made by other cities that may have a long-term interest in a regional casino at a future date?
I thank the Minister for her statement and advance notice of it. I particularly welcome her comments regarding regulation in relation to new technology. She will know that the traditional casino industry in the UK is the best regulated in the world, making it the safest in the world. I note her comments about new controls, but can she explain the third paragraph of the statement, which says:
“It will be a criminal offence to permit a child to enter a casino or the gambling area of a regional casino”?
Does that mean that children will be able to enter regional casinos, and will merely be restricted from entering the gaming floor or other gambling areas?
What I said was straightforward. Although the planning is some way off, we expect that the regional casino will be part of a much bigger complex and development. It will not be possible for children to use the same entrance to go to a swimming pool or library as people use to go into the casino. Such separation is part of the way that we give effect to the regime to separate children and gambling.
Like the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), I followed the progress of the Gambling Bill closely, having been a member of the Standing Committee. I welcome the announcement today of 17 new casinos, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we are back where we started? We had permitted areas, which limited casinos. Under the proposals we now have 17 permitted areas, and legislation that many people supported because it was to have a liberalising effect on the gaming industry has become extremely restrictive, and would certainly have the former hon. Member for West Ham spinning in his grave.
Yes, bless him. My hon. Friend makes a good point, but a balance must be struck. Either we allow the market to drive the number of new casinos on the basis of demand, or as these are new forms of gambling, we proceed cautiously, because our overriding objective is public protection linked to securing the benefits of regeneration. They are not as restrictive as the old permitted areas, but my hon. Friend is right to say that casino development beyond these areas will not be allowed.
The Secretary of State’s announcement today will be deeply disappointing to many people across the country. The choice of Manchester heralds the arrival of doorstep gambling across the UK’s towns and cities tomorrow, with many people encouraged to gamble more than they can afford or their families can afford. Does the right hon. Lady not recognise, even at this late stage, the superior claim of places such as Blackpool as a resort destination casino, which would be an added boost to tourism? If she cannot do that, can she recognise the deep social change that her plans are unveiling today, and offer Labour Members a free vote when the measure comes before the House?
On the last point, the answer is no. On the point about deep social change, that social change is going on anyway. Every single television and mobile phone, as well as the internet, offers opportunities for gambling which were not available even five years ago. The Government are committed to public protection through legislation that protects the vulnerable, but we recognise that millions of people want to gamble as a legitimate leisure pursuit and should be allowed to do so. That is why we have presented the proposals. It is slightly disingenuous of the hon. Lady to talk about the result being deeply disappointing and then to condemn the Government for exposing the public to risk. We are certainly not doing that.
The advisory panel suggests that the gold standard for achievement as regards the award of the casino is regeneration. I agree with that. This part of east Manchester suffered as much as, if not more than any other part of the country during the recessions of the early ’70s and ’80s. The city council, working in partnership with this Government and previous Governments and using the Commonwealth games as a launch pad, has regenerated much of the area. I hope that the Government will not consider that the award of the casino means that the job is done. There is still much to be done in east Manchester, and I hope that the Government will continue to support investment there.
My hon. Friend will know how much hosting the Commonwealth games contributed to the regeneration of Manchester—a point that the advisory panel makes clearly. This is a stage in the regeneration of his city, and I know that he and those of our right hon. and hon. Friends who represent Manchester constituencies will continue their successful campaign.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will concede that there is support for and opposition to super-casinos. In that light, will she give her support to a local referendum in Manchester so that local people get the final say on whether we have a super-casino in one of the most deprived parts of the city?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the report and studies the way in which Manchester consulted local people, as did other bidding cities. If he also took the trouble to read the legislation, he would realise that local authorities have an obligation to ensure that the proposals, in their various forms, are supported by local communities.
In assessing the successful bid from Milton Keynes, the advisory panel pointed out that it is not a city that can be described as suffering from social deprivation overall, although there are some pockets of deprivation. In its bid, the city council did not specify a precise site for the casino. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the site that is chosen maximises the benefits to the most deprived part of Milton Keynes in Bletchley in my constituency?
I welcome the recommendation of Manchester because it will bring benefit to the city. However, I impress on the Secretary of State that this must be a proper pilot for the possible granting of casino licences in future. Will she assure the House that the progress of the casino in Manchester will be monitored very closely from the point of view of its effect on the local community?
Many people in Scotland, not only in Dumfries and Galloway, will be disappointed by the report. That applies particularly to the city of Glasgow. Will the cities that have failed be given a full explanation as to why that was; and will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is no right of appeal?
There is no right of appeal, since the panel is not a statutory panel in the formal sense of the word. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the recommendation in relation to Dumfries and Galloway and that he and his constituents will want to study the report carefully, particularly what it says about Glasgow.
Scarborough already has one brand new casino. A local family—the Shaw family—has shown tremendous confidence in the town by investing £7 million in the Opera House casino, which opened last year. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that it will be eligible to apply for the new licence?
As we all know, gambling addiction is on the increase and gambling attacks those who can least afford to pay. There is nothing romantic about casinos—they are not like “Casino Royale”. They are simply factories that suck in vulnerable people to lose their money. Will the Secretary of State explain how her announcement will add to the sum of human happiness?
Regardless of the hon. Gentleman’s depressed view of human nature, people with optimistic and positive views of their lives gamble in their millions in this country. That is up to them. They can utilise all the new opportunities that are available. The Government intervene to ensure that crime does not infiltrate gambling, that especially those who are very poor do not suffer through addiction and that the industry continues to be conducted fairly. We also want to ensure that the development of casinos allows opportunities for social and economic regeneration.
Many of my constituents who live and work in Blackpool will be bitterly disappointed that Blackpool has not received the super-casino. The decision sends the wrong message that regeneration in the north starts and stops in Manchester.
Given that the Secretary of State gave an assurance before she had read the report that she would follow the advisory panel’s recommendation, and in the light of some of the contradictory points in it—hon. Members of all parties have brought those out—will she agree to meet me and other hon. Members who represent the Fylde coast to discuss Blackpool and whether anything can be done to ensure that it has a second chance of a super-casino before she brings the order back to the House?
I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to discuss a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,
the shutting down of the Ayrshire plants of Simclar in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) and, as important, the decimation of the electronics industry in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to raise the issue today. Closing the two plants in north Ayrshire has been a body blow to the local area’s employment. We can be sure that it will immediately cost some 500 jobs, and some commentators have estimated that the real effect will raise that figure to 1,000 or even more. That is the equivalent of the loss of 4,000 jobs in Glasgow.
The subject is far from being a local issue. I feel duty bound to point out that it is simply the latest in a line of crushing announcements about the Scottish electronics and manufacturing industry. In recent weeks, the closure of a company in Dundee was announced. Closures have also been announced in places as diverse as Edinburgh, South and Inverclyde. It is a tragedy for such events to happen in silicon glen. The unemployment that that will create is surely important nationally. However, the paramount issue is that common causes are at work.
Scotland’s—and, indeed, the United Kingdom’s—ability to remain competitive in the global market is surely a salient issue that needs to be addressed. The jobs that are to be axed immediately by the company will reputedly be transferred to a location in south America. This latest catastrophe should be the signal not only for action in Ayrshire but for a full debate on the prospects for similar businesses across the whole of the United Kingdom. It is our duty to review the environment that we provide for this crucial sector of business, and to act accordingly or face similar repetitions until there is little left.
As a result of this closure in my constituency, some 420 skilled men and women will be looking for work, with limited options at their disposal and little hope of finding employment in a similar or even related field anywhere in the United Kingdom. Many questions surrounding the closure of Simclar need to be answered, and I believe that the House should have the opportunity to question Ministers on this subject at the earliest possible time.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider the matter that he has raised appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24. I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Today, under Standing Order No. 151, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments drew the special attention of the House to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006. It took the unusual step of reporting the instrument for defective drafting in no fewer than five areas. A convention of the House is that debates on statutory instruments that are prayed against are not held until after the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has considered the regulation. However, the Government held a debate on this instrument prior to that consideration, thereby denying hon. Members full information before deciding on this important legislation. I know that you strongly protect the rights of hon. Members from unfair practices by the Executive. Are you satisfied with the Government’s action in this matter?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is apparent that the House has been treated with something approaching contempt by the Executive in this matter. At the moment, there are no regulations on this issue, either published or before the House. Decisions are being issued in the media, and indications are being given that no exceptions could possibly be made, despite the fact that, under section 81 of the Equality Act 2006, there is no limit to the amount of exceptions that could be made in the circumstances. Furthermore, there was no mention of adoption agencies in the Bill, and nor were there any Divisions on amendments. Nor has the matter been thoroughly discussed in the way that is required. I suggest that the way in which this matter is being conducted is bringing the House into disrepute, and I would be grateful for your opinion.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I served on the Committee that considered the Northern Ireland orders that have just been referred to. I wonder whether you could give some guidance to Opposition Members about raising points of order as though they had a particular interest in the matter in question. In that Standing Committee, apart from the Front-Bench spokesmen, not one single Conservative Member turned up—
Climate Change (Effects)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make requirements about the monitoring of measures to address the effects of climate change; and for connected purposes.
I have been waging a campaign on this issue in the House for about a year, in order to get our society and our Government to address much more effectively, efficiently and comprehensively the effects of climate change. Those effects include coastal erosion, higher sea levels and waves, coastal flooding from the sea, flash floods, inland flooding from heavy winter rain, increasing numbers of homes at risk of flooding, more rats, diseases such as malaria, skin cancer and heatstroke, disruption to wildlife, new predators, crop failures and drought.
Adapting to the effects of climate change should include measures such as: improving sea defences; raising riverbanks; building bigger storm sewers, especially in urban areas; pest control of, for example, rats; NHS training to diagnose and treat tropical diseases with which this country has not hitherto been familiar; public education to avoid heatstroke and over-exposure to the sun; green corridors for wildlife, which will often move north; lessening markedly the leaks from water pipes; new reservoirs; and new rules on planning.
We have known about greenhouse gases and their consequent climate change effects for several decades. Even nowadays, almost all the debate about climate change, both within Parliament and outside, is about addressing the causes—emissions. The Government have done well domestically and shown real leadership internationally in relation to the causes of climate change, but limiting global emissions is not within the control of any UK Government. Conversely, limiting the effects of climate change in the UK is wholly within the control of the UK Government. Public debate and action, however, has centred on one half of the problem, the causes, which is not within our national control, while it has almost wholly neglected the other half of the problem, the effects, which is within our national control.
The Government have belatedly started to address the effects of climate change, and I salute the work of the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment. However, much more needs to be done, much more quickly. The effects of climate change are already upon us and will only get worse: we need only look outside. Dealing with the effects of climate change will require significant resources. As the Stern report showed us, however, a stitch in time will save nine.
Dealing with the effects of climate change will also require cross-departmental co-operation and efforts in many Departments. The Bill, if passed, would simply require annual monitoring and reports to Parliament, so that we can all see what steps have been taken across government, and what steps have not been taken, to address the almost unspoken half of the climate change equation—effects.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Rob Marris.
Climate Change (Effects)
Rob Marris accordingly presented a Bill to make requirements about the monitoring of measures to address the effects of climate change; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time, and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 March; and to be printed [Bill 54].
[4th Allotted Day]
Special Educational Needs
I beg to move,
That this House notes the conclusions reached by Baroness Warnock in 2005 that inclusion has failed many children; further notes the recommendation of the Education and Skills Committee that a major review be undertaken of Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision; further notes the decline in the number of special schools since 1997; further notes that there are currently no plans for a review of the closure of special schools before 2009; further notes that SEN pupils who are not in special schools who do not have statements account for almost half of all permanent exclusions; further notes the non-statutory nature of the new measures to encourage those local authorities planning to close a special school to demonstrate that alternate provision would be better; believes that the inclusion policy of the Government’s Removing Barriers to Achievement document encourages local authorities to shut special schools; shares Baroness Warnock’s opinion that inclusion is failing many children; further believes that resources in many mainstream schools are not adequate to deal with the SEN children in their care; considers that the initial and in-service training of teachers of SEN pupils should be strengthened; and therefore calls on the Government to follow the recommendation of the Education and Skills Committee to conduct a fundamental review of SEN provision, including the statutory provisions for statementing and meeting need, and to put a moratorium on the closure of special schools until that review has taken place.
What an extraordinarily statesmanlike procedure the debate will follow!
The motion reflects the extraordinary frustration and distress felt by many parents of children with special educational needs, and by those children themselves, about what is happening to special needs provision. Those emotions poured out again the other week following the decision by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to send her child to a private special school. We fully understand her right to do that, we support the decision that she made, and it is not for us to inquire into such a personal decision; but her decision did reveal—and this is a matter of legitimate public debate—the gap between the Government’s official claims about the state of special educational provision in our mainstream schools and the reality of the tough decisions that parents across the country must face.
There are, in reality, two very different worlds that clash in any debate about special educational needs. There is the SEN world according to Whitehall, and there is a completely different world—the world as experienced by parents. In the Whitehall world, we are told, everything is calm and everything is orderly, but the real world—the world of which we hear from parents who come to see us in our surgeries—is a world full of the anguish, exhaustion and desperation of those who are entangled in a system described by the Education and Skills Committee, in its excellent report, as “not fit for purpose”.
Does my hon. Friend not think it bizarre that the Government dismiss the Select Committee’s report so cavalierly and contemptuously in their amendment to the motion? The Committee said that a “fundamental review” of special educational needs was required. We can only assume that Labour Members do not have constituency surgeries. Perhaps they could come to our constituency surgeries, and share some of the frustration of our constituents with special educational needs.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the main purposes of the debate is to bridge the gap between the experience that we have, which is reflected accurately in the report of the cross-party Select Committee, and the extraordinarily complacent assertions that we hear from Ministers whenever they are confronted with the evidence on this subject.
The doom and gloom in the hon. Gentleman’s introductory remarks would make the flesh of Private Fraser of “Dad’s Army” creep. Does he not accept that there is a patchwork picture? In Leicestershire, for instance, centrally provided money has enabled new area special schools to be built at Birch Wood in Melton Mowbray, near Hinckley and in Coalville in my constituency, and more are to follow. Surely that sort of initiative and investment should be welcomed.
I do welcome individual initiatives that improve special educational needs, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that in parts of the country the position is getting better, but today we are focusing on national policy and national statistics. We are holding the Government to account for national policies that are leading to the closure of special schools when that is not what parents want, and we are entitled to do so.
There is indeed divergence between different local authorities. In parts of the country parents can be lucky and find excellent provision, and very persistent parents who are willing to go to tribunals and fight court cases can obtain excellent provision as well, but that is not good enough. We want a national policy that clearly supports special schools and the particular problems of children with special educational needs, and that is what is sadly lacking at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there needs to be a sensible debate about special educational needs provision, but he must get the figures right. As the Select Committee pointed out, in the 1980s and 1990s there was a decline in the number of children in special schools and a rise in the number of children with special educational needs. Since 1999 to 2000, the proportion of children in special schools, the proportion with special educational needs and the proportion with statements have reached a plateau. I think that if we are to have a debate, we ought to have a debate on the basis of the right figures rather than the wrong ones.
It is a pity that the hon. Lady talked about right figures and wrong figures and then referred to those ratios since 2000, because she should be aware that in respect of the figures for the number of children with special educational needs there is a significant discontinuity in 2002-03. Therefore, it is not accurate to quote those ratios because the ratios do not provide a consistent series. The Secretary of State made that mistake—perhaps he is staying away from the Chamber today because he does not want to be held to account for it—and I am afraid it has just been made by the hon. Lady as well.
I will take further interventions after I have made a little progress by setting out my argument.
We understand that inclusion in education is important and desirable, but we should be clear about what we mean by “inclusion” and “exclusion”. One parent said to me of her son that although he is physically included in a mainstream classroom, he is so bullied and finding it so hard to follow what is happening in the lessons that in reality, deep down, he is excluded. That very point about inclusion in mainstream provision not necessarily equating with real inclusion was powerfully brought out in an excellent report by John MacBeath for the National Union of Teachers. He said:
“There was also frequent testimony to exclusion within the mainstream classroom. ‘Just being in a mainstream class doesn’t mean inclusion’, argued one primary headteacher.”
Although we believe in inclusion, all too often the children who are nominally included in a mainstream class are not achieving inclusion. It can be the case that provision in a special school targeted on children with special educational needs is the best foundation for enabling such children to participate and be included in mainstream society as they grow up. Of course we wish to achieve inclusion, but the key question is: what constitutes inclusion?
Will the hon. Gentleman repeat those words to Tory Wandsworth council, which will close two special schools later this year, against parents’ wishes?
I will turn to the evidence of what is happening in local authorities across the country in due course, but what we are focusing on today is national policy—it is the guidelines from the Government for which we are holding the Government to account. We believe that there must be a fair balance between mainstream schooling, which might be best for some children with special needs, and special provision in special schools. Wherever possible, in reaching decisions on that choice we should trust the parent and the child.
After the original Warnock report, we achieved a fair balance and the right framework in the Education Act 1981 and the Education Act 1996; there were, of course, imperfections, but that legislation got the balance broadly right. However, things have gone seriously wrong since then. That is why parents increasingly find that they have to fight desperate battles to get their child into a special school if they believe that its provisions are in the best interests of their child.
Can I give my hon. Friend a little help on that? I have just been through a tribunal to try to get one of my children statemented. I got information from the Library on how many successful tribunals there had been, and it is a pitifully low figure. The reason for that is clear to anyone who has appeared in one: it is a daunting and difficult uphill task for any parent. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Often such parents are in any case wrestling with the trauma and stress involved in having a child who might have serious special problems; to impose on them the additional trauma of having to wrestle with complicated cases in tribunals is to pile distress on distress. The evidence shows that more parents are going through the processes that my hon. Friend describes: the number of appeals has increased by about 55 per cent. since 1997 to approximately 3,500 a year. However, it is not just that the number of appeals is going up.
Let me complete this point. It is not just the number of appeals that is going up; there is also clear evidence of the closure of special schools. There are now 146 fewer maintained special schools than there were in 1997, so there is a clear pattern of their closure. I shall be interested to hear if the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) welcomes that statistic, or if, like me, he is deeply concerned by it.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is very generous in these debates. Does he not accept that one downside of localism is that constituents experience bad local authorities, as well as good ones? My excellent local newspaper, the Wandsworth Guardian, ran a story this week about parents suffering at the hands of a bad local authority. One parent said:
“We have been left to our own devices. It’s as if the Council don’t give a damn about disabled children.”
That council is Tory Wandsworth.
What we are talking about today is a national policy framework, and it would be truly ironic if Labour Members started criticising Tory councils for complying with Labour Government national policy. It is the policy nationally that is leading to the closure of special schools, and that is the issue that we are raising.