House of Commons
Thursday 8 February 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Education and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
We have invested heavily in further education to ensure that colleges are able to respond to the demand for skills. The further education White Paper sets out a major programme of reforms to transform the FE system. Those reforms renew the economic mission for FE, make plain its central role in equipping young people and adults for productive employment, and put the interests of learners and employers at the heart of the system. Many of the reforms are being taken forward in the Further Education and Training Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. In Burnley, we have double the national average of people employed in manufacturing, yet employers tell me that they find it hard to find the skills they need. I am sure that the bid currently before the Higher Education Funding Council for a new university faculty specialising in engineering will help, if approved, but will my hon. Friend confirm that he will also allow colleges to offer foundation degrees in response to employer demand without a complex and lengthy accreditation procedure?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s commitment in working with her local college. Part of the way in which we face up to the skills challenge that she has outlined is through the train to gain initiative. The capital project involving a new further and higher education centre, which she has strongly supported, is going through the approvals process. I strongly welcome her support for the right of high-quality, high-performing further education colleges to be able to award their own foundation degrees. There will be a very robust quality assurance system. In order to face up to the significant skills challenges that we face, we need as much flexibility and innovation in the system as possible, and this measure will certainly help.
The Government are talking about making it compulsory for 16 to 18-year-olds to stay on in full-time education, but for many of them it will be a cruel and unusual punishment unless they get the relevant tuition that they need. What will the Minister do to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of teachers in places of higher and further education so that those young people can learn the skills that they need, and we need, for the future in areas such as plumbing, bricklaying and electrical work?
I take it that that was partly a speech in support of the ideas that we are considering as regards what happens to young people up to the age of 18. It is important to make it clear that we are not proposing that they should be forced to stay in school until the age of 18 if it is not in their interests. However, there is arguably a strong case for saying that people need to retain a commitment to and involvement in education and training, whether part-time or full-time, through to the age of 18. I agree that we need as many teachers as possible covering a range of disciplines, although I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the fact that we have increased funding in the further education sector by 50 per cent. in real terms in the past 10 years, in stark contrast to what went before, is helping us to do that.
I know that my hon. Friend is familiar with Lowestoft college, which has four centres of vocational excellence, worked with more than 550 employers last year and has 288 apprentices. The college wholeheartedly welcomes the Leitch report and wants to be part of inspiring people as well as providing training, but it questions whether, with train to gain in its infancy, we can get to a fully demand-led system as soon as 2010.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools just whispered to me that it is a good day to hear from Mr. Blizzard, but I could not possibly comment on that.
I strongly agree that some very positive work is being done at Lowestoft college, which I visited last year with my hon. Friend. Getting to a fully demand-led system is a creditable ambition, because this is about ensuring that the qualifications and courses that are provided are genuinely what employers want. We have set out an ambition for the majority of that to be in place by 2015. The Leitch review contains a more ambitious set of proposals. We are considering those and will respond around the time of the comprehensive spending review later this year.
The Minister knows of my personal commitment and that of my party to our further education colleges, which do so much good for so many. He also knows of the Opposition’s constructive approach to foundation degree-awarding powers. However, will he reconsider the need to ensure FE-HE links through statutory articulation agreements; to guarantee rigour with appropriate parliamentary scrutiny; and to pledge that the matter will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis after an agreed period of time? Further education deserves to be treated as grown up and universities deserve to know that degrees will rigorously teach and test genuine competence.
I genuinely welcome the hon. Gentleman’s constructive approach and that of Opposition Front Benchers to the important issue. There is a joint recognition that we need as much flexibility in the system as possible to confront our significant skills challenge. We have already set out in the House of Lords the robust quality assurance mechanism. The articulation agreements, which will ensure that no further education college can go it alone and that there has to be a relationship with a university, are a key part of the proposal. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I shall write to Members in the other place shortly before the Bill is before the House on Report. I hope that he will then realise that we have tackled the concerns that he and others have expressed.
The school funding settlement for 2006 to 2008, announced in December 2005, gives Leicestershire a guaranteed unit of funding per pupil through the dedicated schools grant of £3,429 for 2007-08, which is a real-terms increase of a third since 1997. The England average is £3,888, which is a real-terms increase under the Government of just below 40 per cent.
Yet again, Leicestershire comes bottom for funding in shire education authorities. The education of a child in Leicester city, just a few yards across the Braunstone lane from my constituency, is apparently worth £542 more than that of a child in my constituency in Braunstone town—if my maths is right, and I believe that it is. I took a delegation to see the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) when he was Education Secretary to complain about that. He said that that must never happen again, but it has. When will the Government produce a much more level playing field? What do they have against Leicestershire pupils?
Naturally, we have nothing against Leicestershire, Somerset or even Dorset people. We ensure that funding is allocated on the basis of need, but we give deprivation priority. I note that the hon. Gentleman is interested in taking money away from Leicester to give it to others in Leicestershire. That is the logic of his comments. I presume that he would want similar redistribution in Birmingham and other areas around the country. We are examining the matter carefully. I note his interest and his points, but we need to reflect deprivation in funding settlements to give every child the best possible start.
I declare an interest as a governor of Ibstock community college and of Ashby school. Of course, those schools and others would like a better deal from school funding. However, did not Gareth Williams, the director of children and young people’s services at the Conservative-controlled county council, explode the myth about Leicestershire’s position when he said that it was funded somewhere near the average and that educational achievement and funding at the margin are not especially linked?
Will my hon. Friend the Minister accept an invitation to Ashby school, where I used to chair the governing body, to examine the quality of education that is available in our county from the money that we receive?
Staffordshire does not do as badly as the county that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) represents, but it is still 132nd in funding out of 149 local education authorities. Does the Minister understand the frustration of people in Staffordshire and other counties when there is no clarity about the way in which the scale is calculated? It is especially frustrating because Labour candidates in Staffordshire in 1997 promised equal funding throughout England, apart from Greater London, for all pupils. That promise has clearly been broken.
The hon. Gentleman should know that we promised to increase radically and improve the amount of funding available to our schools. We have fulfilled that promise for the people of Staffordshire. The increase in real terms under the Government for schools in Staffordshire is 39.1 per cent. It is 88th out of 148 in respect of the increase in education funding. I am sure that he welcomes that.
Will my hon. Friend confirm the major real-terms increase in funding for the Liverpool education authority? Is he satisfied that the funding is being used to tackle under-achievement, including among Somali and Yemeni children?
I certainly can confirm that increase. The statistic involved is a 43.6 per cent. real-terms increase for the young people of Liverpool. We are looking closely at the local education authority’s performance in delivering for all the young people, including those from the ethnic groups that my hon. Friend mentioned. Indeed, I had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families, and others, last week, at which we had a detailed discussion on some of the improvements that Liverpool is making. We want to work closely, through the Government office, to support it in dealing with all children in Liverpool.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has raised an important point. There is a huge differential between the allocation of resources to schools in towns and cities and schools in shire counties. Does the Minister agree that, if deprivation is to be recognised, it should be recognised through a different form of funding rather than through education funding? Surely it is only right that every child in this country, whether at primary or secondary level, should receive the same sum. Deprivation can be reflected through other funding. The Cheshire schools funding forum has recently met, and it is deeply concerned about what appears to be the discrimination against the children in the county of Cheshire, which does have areas of high deprivation.
I am well aware of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) has spoken to me at some length on behalf of his constituents about the levels of deprivation in his area. Cheshire has had a 38.7 per cent. real-terms increase in school funding over the past 10 years. As I look at the next funding round, I want to ensure that the money that we rightly allocate in respect of deprivation and disadvantage—which are important determinants of education outcomes—finds its way to the schools that need it within the authorities. In that way, those schools in the more deprived areas of Cheshire that really need the funding will receive it.
Since 2001, almost 2 million people have taken up the opportunity to improve their English language skills through the Skills for Life strategy. Changes set out in the Learning and Skills Council’s annual statement of priorities in October 2006 will build on that success by focusing funding more effectively, through full fee remission, on vulnerable learners most in need of taxpayers’ support. The Government will continue to make a significant contribution to fees for others.
Although I understand the rationale behind that policy, may I make a plea for flexibility? My hon. Friend will be aware that many asylum seekers have to wait much longer than the minimum period to get their status resolved. There are also many immigrants earning the minimum wage in low-skilled jobs who find it extremely difficult to pay for the courses. Will my hon. Friend allow some flexibility in the policy in recognition of those constraints?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. It is clear, however, that the present situation is unsustainable. We have seen a tripling of numbers and a tripling of funding. If we simply go on increasing the budget, it will hit other elements of the Skills for Life programme. On asylum seekers, 80 per cent. of claims are now being dealt with within eight weeks, so it cannot be seen as a public funding priority to continue to fund learning for those who will not have the opportunity to remain in the United Kingdom.
On my hon. Friend’s other point, we have consulted widely as part of the race equality impact assessment, and I have met representatives of the Refugee Council and trade unions. I am trying to determine whether there is another indicator of low income besides the working tax credit that we could use to determine low income, in order to enable people to access free provision. It is also important to make it clear that, when the changes come through, people on low incomes will still get free ESOL provision. I estimate that that will involve at least 50 per cent. of the current cohort.
The Minister will be aware that earlier this week the Secretary of State stressed the importance of Britishness in the national curriculum. This country benefits hugely from an influx of new citizens who contribute immensely to the national health service, other public services and economic growth, but one of the barriers to effective social cohesion is the mastery of the English language. How can we promote social cohesion and build a successful multicultural Britain when there are constraints on the spending that would enable people to speak our shared, common language?
I agree that it is important for us to give people opportunities to learn, study and understand English, for the purpose of community cohesion and for many other reasons. That is why we have tripled the budget and the numbers since 2001. However, the present situation is unsustainable, as the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has pointed out. We need to make a change.
I must say that I find the Opposition’s position inexplicable. They appear to be advocating an uneven playing field—
Is my hon. Friend aware that our ethnic communities already have to achieve a certain level of English to acquire citizenship, and that from April they will have to achieve a certain level of English to secure indefinite leave to remain? I agree that we cannot go on and on increasing the number of places, but we do not want people to be sent away because they do not speak English when there is nowhere for them to learn it.
I take my hon. Friend’s comments seriously, because I know that she has spent a great deal of time working on the issue, but the impact of the current unsustainable position is that in parts of the country people are having to wait for as long as two years to obtain a place on an ESOL programme, and the most vulnerable individuals are losing out most. The changes we are making are intended to ensure that such people gain access to provision. However, as part of the race equality impact assessment and in response to points that have been made to me, I am considering a number of ways of ensuring that the most vulnerable are genuinely protected.
Is it a good thing or a bad thing that one in eight primary school pupils in England does not have English as a first language? If it is a good thing, why is English tuition not being properly funded? If it is a bad thing, why has the situation been allowed to develop?
The argument that English tuition is not being properly funded simply does not bear scrutiny. We have significantly increased provision both in ESOL and in schools.
The position of the Opposition parties lacks credibility. Given that the Conservative party is committed to £21 billion-worth of public spending cuts, I do not see how it would be able—
I am sorry to tell the Minister that I think that the position of the Government lacks credibility. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) are absolutely right. The Government cannot change the rules and say that people need to speak good English to become British citizens and must pay huge fees to the Home Office, and then deny them access to the very funds that will allow them to learn English adequately. Will the Minister please reconsider? Will he meet Members who have constituency interests in the matter—and those who may not, but who understand the principle—and review the Government’s policy?
If my right hon. Friend wants to discuss the issues with me, I am certainly prepared to meet him. I have already been meeting Members on an ongoing basis and discussing the proposals with them in detail. Let me make it clear, however, that every learner will continue to receive Government funding to the tune of 62.5 per cent. of the costs of the course, and that more than 50 per cent. of the current cohort will have continuing access to free provision. At present those in the greatest need—some of whom are probably in my right hon. Friend’s constituency—are having to wait for 18 months for access to the courses, and I do not think that we can allow that to continue.
Having met the milestones for development of the new diploma qualifications that we published in the 14-19 education and skills implementation plan, we are on track for diploma courses to be provided for the first time from September 2008.
My hon. Friend is an engineer and takes a great interest in these issues. We already have more than 300,000 businesses engaged with schools and helping to give some aptitude for working in industry. On the diploma, we will now have for the first time in this country the mixed vocational and academic course—providing a mix of theoretical and practical knowledge—that many other countries in Europe and around the world have had for many years. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of involving businesses. We have had a tremendous amount of interest in developing the diplomas, because they are industry-driven, through the sector skills councils. There can be no complaint about the enthusiasm and involvement of industries throughout the country.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is enormous enthusiasm in the sector—in colleges and schools, as well as among employers—to make the new diplomas a success? However, a visit by the Select Committee on Education and Skills to Lewisham college only this week—and my own personal visit to a Huddersfield further education college—found that there were still worries and concerns about the level of preparedness for getting them up and running at high quality on time. I know that we now have four champions behind them, but there is still a worry. Will my right hon. Friend give me a guarantee that we will provide new resources and put new energy into the Department to make them a success?
My hon. Friend’s Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the matter, and we would be grateful to discover the outcome of it. The qualification is tremendously fragile in that we have to get the first five diplomas up and running by 2008. That is a challenge, but we are putting energy, drive and commitment into meeting it—which is what my hon. Friend suggests we do. We are determined that, through the process we have introduced, we will be ready with those first five diplomas by 2008. No information has so far come before me that suggests that we are anything other than on track to achieve that. However, we always need the gentle persuasion of the Select Committee to ensure that we are on the right track. I welcome the interest of my hon. Friend and others, but I think that we will be okay by 2008.
Lord Leitch’s final report, “Prosperity for all in the Global Economy—World Class Skills”, published in December 2006, gave a clear analysis of the future skills needs of the UK. It presented a substantial challenge to ensure that UK skills levels are world class by 2020. We have welcomed the report’s ambitions and recommendations, and we will publish an implementation plan to take forward the agenda in the context of the comprehensive spending review settlement.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Is he aware that towns such as Banbury and Bicester need a skills centre—a one-stop location where employers and those who want to acquire skills can get information on initiatives such as the post-16 diplomas, train to gain, apprenticeships and adult skills training in general? The vast majority of businesses on the M40 corridor are small or medium-sized employers. They want a highly skilled work force and to compete in the world, but they need to be able to get targeted information on how they can link in to all the various Government initiatives.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but the exciting development has been train to gain; I refer Members to Lord Leitch’s report. We are using descriptions that the public might not understand, but the idea behind train to gain is to assist small businesses, which is where a particular problem lies in that they do not have the time to access lots of volumes of information in order to find out how to solve their skills problems. Under train to gain, we have trained brokers who meet small businesses to discuss their skills needs and then return with a skills package. That means that small businesses do not need to chase all over town to find the necessary information. train to gain is in its early stages, but it has been hugely successful. One of the most important of Lord Leitch’s recommendations is that all level 2 and level 3 provision should go through train to gain.
Does the Secretary of State agree with Lord Leitch, who said in his report that
“Many employers complain that the apprenticeship process is complex and bureaucratic. Government must take action to improve completion rates”?
Is it not shocking that only 41 per cent. of people under 18 and only 38 per cent. of people over 18 successfully complete their apprenticeships? Does that not tell us that many employers and employees do not find apprenticeships valuable? It is no good focusing on start rates if we have such low successful completion rates.
That question is relevant now, but it would have been more relevant a year ago, when the apprenticeship drop-out rate was extremely worrying. One reason for that drop-out rate—there have always been people who drop out of apprenticeships—is that some youngsters give up their apprenticeships to take jobs, sometimes in the same company. However, there has been a huge increase—about 15 per cent.—in the apprenticeship completion rate. Lord Leitch recognises the improvements that have been made and that we have increased the number of apprenticeships from 75,000—the figure when we came into government—to 250,000. He is right to say that we should work to ensure that bureaucracy does not get in the way of apprenticeships, but he also says that we should pledge that any youngster who is qualified and interested in taking on an apprenticeship should have a guaranteed place. He says that we need to reach the figure of 500,000 apprenticeships by 2020, and we agree. In putting that in place, we will examine the bureaucracy issue, but we are already tackling the problem of high drop-out rates and seeing stark and real improvements.
Can the Secretary of State explain the link between Leitch and his own declared preference for compulsion in post-16 training and education, bearing in mind that many young people may well prefer full-time work as the best mechanism for acquiring experience, disciplines and work-based skill?
One clear link is that Leitch himself says that we should look at lifting the education leaving age—it is wrong to call it the school leaving age—once the diplomas that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) referred to, which according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are the most dramatic and revolutionary change in education in the world, are in place by 2013. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is right, and it is why we believe that youngsters aged 16 and 17 can be in the workplace, but at that age they should not receive no education or training whatever. They should not be divorced from the world of education at such a young age. Leitch tells us—this is the other link—that by 2020, the number of jobs that require no qualifications will have shrunk from 3.6 million to just 600,000, which is the current number of vacancies in the economy. So both those factors link the Leitch report to the debate that we will have about lifting the education leaving age.
Academies form part of the local family of schools and are at the heart of their communities. We hope that they will play a full part in offering extended services.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Extended schools are proving their worth in terms of community links and improving attendance and attainment. Nowhere is that more important than in academy schools such as those in my constituency, which serve exceptionally deprived populations. The Westminster academy will be located in a ward in which 83 per cent. of all children live in workless households. Does my hon. Friend not agree with me that it is therefore extraordinary that existing academy schools have to pay VAT on their community activities? That is an additional financial penalty and an obstacle to their providing precisely the extended sports, drama and other facilities that those communities desperately need. Will my hon. Friend please sort out the situation immediately?
I am very much aware of the difference that the extended schools activities in my hon. Friend’s locality are making—I gather that more than 60 local activities are being delivered through extended schools—and she is right to highlight that point. She is also right to make the point about VAT—an issue on which she has previously had an Adjournment debate. It is an anomaly that we need to work through, and our officials are engaged in that process. I have become immersed in the issue in the past 24 hours and have got to know more about VAT and schools than I ever thought I would. This is an incredibly technical and complex subject, concerning paid-for activities in new buildings such as city academies, which have charitable status.
It involves those activities that form more than 10 per cent. of the business usage, of the school day or of the area used of a school. We are taking a close look at the issue and I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work with Treasury officials to get it sorted out as soon as possible.
Is the Minister aware that Park high school in Gaywood in my constituency is considering relocating and reopening as a city academy school on a new development in South Lynn? That is obviously an exciting development, but it will be a long and complex process. Will the Minister agree to meet me, the chairman of governors and someone from the local education authority to discuss the project?
I am delighted to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s support for city academies, which is understandable. Places in city academies are three times oversubscribed—three applicants for every place—and they are seeing a sixfold improvement in GCSE results. City academies are doing some 20 per cent. better than the schools that they replaced, so I can understand why the hon. Gentleman supports the principle. Whether I meet him or whether I know a man who will—probably Lord Adonis, who has responsibility for city academies—I am sure that it will be possible. I expect that they will be able to correspond with each other to help to make that happen.
Does the building schools for the future programme provide that all schools that are rebuilt or refurbished have to make sufficient provision for extended school activities?
I am told that such schools are expected to have 500 sq m for community provision, so the answer is yes. As highlighted already by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), a range of activities and extended services are taking place in city academies, involving not only pupils but their parents. I am sure that we will see more such activity in the future as we roll out the city academies programme. Our target is to have some 400 across the country.
School place planning is the statutory responsibility of the local authority. Competitions will normally be held whenever proposals are required for a new or replacement school. School amalgamations can be effected in different ways and it is up to the local authority to act in accordance with local circumstances.
Derbyshire county council, which was recently audited as excellent again, has held an extensive consultation with the community of Clay Cross, where three schools are to be replaced by one brand new, state of the art primary school. From the consultation it was clear that Clay Cross mums and dads want the new school to be run by Derbyshire county council, but that that decision will now be taken by the schools adjudicator. Can my hon. Friend explain what account is taken of the wishes of the community when the adjudicator makes his or her decision on who is to run the new school?
As ever, my hon. Friend is an excellent advocate for the mums and dads of Clay Cross. She is right to say that Labour Derbyshire is an excellent local authority. It is fulfilling its statutory duty to carry out an extensive public consultation on the proposals for new schools. The decision-maker’s guidance from the Secretary of State, which informs the work of the adjudicator, requires him to take account of the views expressed in the consultation by parents and the local community.
The number of students taking A-levels is not a cause for concern. However, in order to make them even more attractive, we have announced proposals to revise A-levels. However, if we are to increase post-16 participation among young people, it is important that they have a range of qualifications from which they can choose. Therefore, in addition to our proposals to improve A-levels, we are introducing the new 14-19 diplomas and expanding the availability of the international baccalaureate.
A recent reply from the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning about Kennet school in Thatcham in my constituency missed the point about the tortuous process of Learning and Skills Council funding, which means that schools such as Kennet are penalised for growing their sixth forms and the numbers of pupils that stay on beyond the age of 16. Complaints to the LSC bring the response that the Department and Ministers are being inflexible in the funding rules that they set. Will the Secretary of State look into the matter, so that schools that do the Government’s bidding and grow their sixth forms are not penalised?
I will look into that. I cannot think that the Department would ever be inflexible, under any circumstances, so I reject that remark entirely. However, there does seem to a problem in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and we will be happy to try and solve it.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of Luton sixth form college’s stunning success with A-level results, but it also offers the international baccalaureate. That is a better course for many students, and it is possible that in future it will be regarded as a better course for all students in that age group. What success has he had so far in persuading other authorities to offer the IB?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to repeat the announcement made by my Department last September. We believe that the IB should be much more widely available, and the gateway to the diploma that we are setting up will extend by about 100 the number of local authorities where state school pupils can access it—a very important step forward. I agree that the diversity that the IB represents means that it should be widely available to state pupils across the country.
An awful lot of work is going on, not least under the 10-year science and innovation plan, to get the right teachers in place and to establish science learning centres around the country that will ensure that stem subjects receive the attention that they deserve. More students are taking maths and physics, and more teachers are being recruited, but the plan is set to last 10 years precisely because we need a long-term vision. The same problems associated with encouraging youngsters to take those subjects are encountered in practically every developed country around the world. As the report from Adrian Smith a couple of years ago pointed out, mathematicians trained in universities are more likely to go to work in the City and other similar locations. It would be an enormous step forward if we could attract them into teaching, and that is increasingly what we are doing.
Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State look at funding arrangements for post-16 pupils? We need to ensure that all of them have access to choice and quality, but the new diplomas mean that money will follow the pupil. Schools that want to hang on to those resources will be less inclined to encourage pupils to do vocational courses that might be available at colleges. Will he look at funding routes to ensure that schools and colleges that provide choice and quality are rewarded, and that they are not obliged merely to hang on to students?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this matter. Part of the Further Education and Training Bill currently before the other place deals with the funding issue that she mentions. The diplomas resemble IBs, in that students have to undertake an extended project, but no institution on its own can deliver them. The fact that schools, sixth form colleges and FE colleges must collaborate in that provision has implications for the different levels funding that, for various reasons, have been inherited. We are trying to tackle the important point that my hon. Friend raises. When the FE Bill comes to this end of the House, she will see that an important part of the debate will be about funding.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the numbers of maths and physics A-level students have fallen by about 2,000 since 1997. Does he share the concern of the advisory committee on mathematics education, as we do, that students studying A-level maths will need to have passed both parts of the new, double-subject GCSE maths exam that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is piloting, rather than just the new basic GCSE in maths? Will he ensure that the option of studying both maths GCSEs is made an entitlement, so that we do not end up with hundreds of secondary schools in a few years’ time not offering the higher-level maths GCSE?
Again, this problem was highlighted in the Adrian Smith report and we are seeking to tackle it. The hon. Gentleman is right about the drop since 1997, but we are now seeing that situation turn around. I am willing to look at all the deliberations of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, providing that we do not sacrifice quality. That must be the central feature. There is a strand of argument that if we follow this route, it could affect quality, which is why we must be careful in taking this forward.
Extended School Activities
Over 3,800 schools are providing access to the full core offer of extended services in England and 11,500 are working with their local authorities to develop extended services. This is encouraging progress towards our 2008 target of half of all primary and a third of all secondary schools providing access to extended services.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Clearly, extended schools are an opportunity for a significant improvement in the quality of life of many children. I know that the Minister is committed to play being a central part of the time that children spend in extended schools, but that is not happening across the board. Could she consider including children’s play in the prospectus for the core offer?
I am grateful for the great interest that my hon. Friend takes in this subject. I assure her that, certainly for younger children, we expect elements of the core offer of extended services to include play, both in the child care element, wrapped around the start and end of the school day, and in the variety of activities that children do. Having been to many extended schools, I know that for very young children it is sometimes hard to see how a child will distinguish between play and learning, and we have to hold on to that. Certainly I agree that for young children in particular, as well as enriching activities for older children, play is an important part of their development.
Of course play and learning are clearly linked. The Minister will know that there are examples of good practice in extended schools where, through play, imaginative and exciting activities are promoted. Does she agree that we should not just extend classroom activities, but also give children other opportunities?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We all know that better off parents and the best public schools have always provided extensive programmes of extracurricular activities. They understand that those activities help children to develop a range of attributes that are important for their enjoyment, learning and development as rounded people. That is why we have given schools £840 million plus £1.3 billion for personalised learning, so that they can give every child the extended opportunities that will help them develop educationally and in terms of the other skills that, increasingly, employers tell us they need.
I did not make that statement, although it appeared in the press. For many parents, charging is an acceptable part of what they are willing to do for additional activities in school. Certainly for low income families, extended services—many activities of the child care element and the enrichment activities—will be covered by the tax credit system that many parents are receiving. As I go round schools I see that they are considering this issue sensitively. We want to make sure that children from disadvantaged families are not excluded from these important activities because of charging. Local authorities are working with us to see if we can make sure of that. It is important that every child has these opportunities.
Ministerial colleagues and I hold regular meetings with stakeholders to discuss early years issues and we receive a range of correspondence. Both provide an opportunity to celebrate the progress that we are making towards delivering our 10-year child care strategy and to make it clear that the free early education entitlement should continue to be just that—free at the point of delivery.
Is the Minister aware that in certain parts of the country there is a gap between the money that nurseries receive from the Government and the actual cost of nursery provision, which means that a modest top-up fee is absolutely essential? Owing to the new statutory guidelines published by the Secretary of State last year, excellent nurseries such as Flying Start at Pinewood in my constituency, which are very popular, will not be able to continue, as they will no longer be eligible for Government money because they have to charge top-up fees. That is causing great distress to local parents whose children will have nowhere else to go. What does the Minister intend to do about it?
Our view is that free means free. We do not believe in a two-tier system. I would be interested to hear the view of Opposition Front-Bench Members. Do they support the £3 billion a year that we are putting into nursery care? We are proud of the offer of 12 and a half hours’ free provision for all three and four-year-olds for 38 weeks, and we are working with local authorities to make that happen. We believe that the £3 billion a year we are giving local authorities is sufficient to provide that care for free; hence we do not believe in a two-tier system.
Child care provided by child minders is an important service for many working families in my constituency and the Sure Start centres in Little Hulton and Tyldesley have child minder networks that support 163 child minders caring for 568 children. Does my hon. Friend agree about the importance of that branch of child care, and can he tell me what commitment there is to the further development of child minder support?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are doing everything we can to support child minders in local networks. As she is aware, since 1997 we have doubled the number of child care places and there are now about 1.3 million up and down the land, but it is important that we work with children’s centres, too, to enhance that work locally. My hon. Friend will also be aware that we shall be creating 3,500 children’s centres between now and 2010.
Does not the Minister accept that the nursery sector is approaching crisis and will he join me in paying tribute to its excellent work in the provision of nursery care? However, given the question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), does not the Minister appreciate that in reality nursery care is not free at the point of delivery, because nurseries have to charge fees that are higher than the rate allowed under free provision? He should not allow his party’s ideology to stand in the way of free provision, so will he tell the House that the £7.5 million for parents that the Minister for Children and Families will announce later today will actually be used for nursery provision?
I think the hon. Lady has just made it clear to the House that Opposition Front Benchers believe in a two-tier system. There is a real difference, because for us, free means free and I shall highlight what we expect to be delivered for free. The foundation stage curriculum provides communication, language, literacy, numeracy, an understanding of the world, physical, social and emotional development and creativity. That can be delivered from a budget of £3 billion a year, working through local authorities. We are investing a further £3 billion a year in children’s centres and the like, as well as £2 million a day through child tax credit. Perhaps the hon. Lady is saying that the Conservatives would invest more. Is she nodding? Would they invest more? She is not making that clear—
The Solicitor-General was asked—
All the recommendations set out in the report have been accepted. In addition, the Government will extend the number of sexual assault referral centres from 15 to 30 by the end of 2008. We are also funding a pilot of independent sexual violence advisers to help victims through the trial process, with the aim of securing justice for victims.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. My reading of the report tells me that it builds well on the lessons learned from the domestic violence courts. Does he see, as I do, the importance of the valuable lessons that we have learned in that context from looking at how specialists can help both witnesses and victims to feel supported and confident when they are giving their evidence, to make sure that we can get real convictions and success through the courts?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. In the pilots in the domestic violence courts the assistance of advisers to the victims produced substantial increases in convictions, because the victims were reassured about the process and helped through something that can, in many ways, be very difficult. We can probably transfer those lessons into the area of dealing with victims of rape. I hope that the creation of 38 independent sexual violence advisers will help victims of rape by enabling them to access support services, and by providing them with people who can explain how the courts operate and perhaps take them on a visit, give them some emotional support and act as a contact point in the lead-up to a trial. I hope that that will result in more victims being able to come to court and more convictions being secured.
Rape requires an absence of consent, which depends on the particular circumstances in individual cases. If a man rapes a woman knowing that she is being forced to have sex with him, he may well be at risk of being charged with rape. However, if he is unaware that she is being forced or if he believes that there is genuine consent, the circumstances may be different. The use of trafficked women in this way is reprehensible and may well amount to other offences, but whether it is always rape is a much more difficult subject.
I appreciate my hon. and learned Friend’s reply about women who have been raped. Does he agree that there are far too many allegations of rape that never get to the courtroom door? I know what he is saying—the measures will be helpful. But more help might be needed for women to prepare their cases and to prepare them for the trauma of a trial.
My hon. Friend is quite right: we need to do much more to help victims. The Government have provided £7 million towards improving services for the victims of sexual violence, especially by extending the network of sexual assault referral centres, supporting the advisers that I have already mentioned, and funding independent sexual violence voluntary sector assistance and counselling for victims. We have also introduced 65 witness care units so that we can provide help with transport and child care to witnesses. There are now 520 rape specialist prosecutors to ensure that the right charges are brought. We need to ensure that we provide that extra help to victims.
Law Officers’ Advice
Robust advice from a lawyer to a client has to be based on relationship of trust and candour, and therefore advice is normally confidential. Law Officers’ advice to Ministers has similar legal privilege. That is reflected in the ministerial code. In certain cases, it is, however, right for Parliament and the public to be given an explanation of the legal basis for certain decisions that have been reached. Yesterday afternoon, we discussed some of the basis for some decisions in relation to the BAE case and the al-Yamamah contract.
This is very different from the relationship between a private client and his solicitor. Has the Solicitor-General managed to take the time to discuss the matter with his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), whose thinking is exactly the opposite of his? In the current climate, is it not vital that the Government be open about what has been said and about the legal advice that has been given on various issues, not least the war in Iraq?
There are various views about this. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), is entitled to her view, I am entitled to mine, and the Attorney-General has expressed his. If advice were open, everyone would know it, but it would be subject to constant criticism by every lawyer with a different opinion. Such a situation could lead Ministers to be less open with Law Officers, and Law Officers might be more circumspect about their advice if they knew that it was going to be made public. The Government need robust advice, not anodyne circumspection. If Ministers and Law Officers knew that advice was going to be made public, they could take that fact into account. However, we would not want a situation in which Ministers who needed good legal advice did not come and get it.
The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said:
“It is a contradiction in terms to have an accountable office-holder who is not able to publish to those whom he is accountable the advice he has given. It is not enough for government ministers to say we are advised that it is lawful. Backbenchers, let alone the wider public, want to see for themselves what the arguments are.”
Presumably the Minister of State and the Solicitor-General are both bound by the doctrine of collective responsibility. Which one of them speaks for the Government?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has expressed her view. She is entitled to have a view, but the view of the Government is that set out in the ministerial code. The view is clear and one that the Information Commissioner recently set out in an opinion. Let me quote what he said, because it is useful:
“The wider principle that legal advice should attract legal professional privilege is supported by very strong public interest arguments. The principle promotes the administration of justice and the ability of an individual to confide in his legal adviser, receive advice, and take appropriate action to abide by the law. The arguments for maintaining legal professional privilege are strong and therefore the circumstances in which the public interest will favour disclosure of information that is legally privileged are likely to be highly exceptional.”
Let me help my hon. and learned Friend. It is a settled precedent that the advice of the Attorney-General should be confidential. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is a former deputy to the Attorney-General, has said completely the opposite. Is she not bound by collective responsibility on the matter? Bearing in mind that it is Valentine’s day next week, on 14 February, will the Solicitor-General act as Cupid and patch up this problem between the Attorney-General and his former deputy?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s assistance. He showed yesterday that he was able to assist Bollywood stars—he did a high-profile job in doing so. I am not quite sure that we need such publicity for this matter, although he will no doubt ensure that we get a little bit more.
It is the Government’s view that disclosing all the detailed legal advice that Ministers sometimes request from Law Officers might involve the disclosure of arguments. The Government would then have to set out those arguments, after which they would just be challenged in the courts. Such a situation might well create uncertainty about sound legal advice because both sides of an argument could often be referred to. The advice thus might well highlight Government vulnerability. I take a different view from my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, and I must say that the Government do, too.
Everyone understands that there is a tradition of privilege regarding advice given to a client. However, will the Solicitor-General talk to the Attorney-General—the evidence that the Attorney-General gave yesterday showed that he was clearly willing to think about developing the role of Law Officers—and suggest that there is a clear distinction between the advice that the Government are given when they are working out their view, which is perfectly properly confidential, and advice that gives the Government a justification for coming to Parliament to argue a case on the basis of that advice, as was the case when the decision was taken on war in Iraq? There must an argument for knowing the advice if the Government come to Parliament and say that they have been given advice that justifies what they are trying to persuade Parliament to do.
I am with the hon. Gentleman part of the way. There is an argument for setting out the legal basis on which advice has been reached. Arguably, that was done to some extent in relation to the Iraq war, but also on a range of other issues where difficult decisions, such as in the BAE example, were involved. As Law Officers, we have to come before the House to answer questions, set out the arguments and participate in a substantial debate over such decisions, so it is not the case that we are saying nothing should be discussed. What we are saying is that, if it is suggested that all sorts of legal advice on a whole range of issues should be made freely available, I would have to disagree, because it would undermine the basis of trust between Ministers and the Law Officers. There are certain circumstances in which it is appropriate to bring before the House the advice that has been given and to explain at least the basis of it.
One feels rather sorry for the Solicitor-General. If the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, represents the normal category of client within the Government with whom the Solicitor-General has to deal, he clearly has a rather harder time that I would normally have expected. Can he make one point clear? If there were to be any change, would it not have to be directed by the Prime Minister, thus making it something over which the Law Officers have no control at all? Legal professional privilege attaches not for any advantage to the Law Officers, but to those who receive the advice. Therefore the Minister of State’s comments cannot be aimed at the Law Officers; presumably, they are aimed at the Prime Minister.
It is certainly the case that legal privilege attaches to the client rather than the lawyer. That is the case across the board. It is therefore the case that it must be a decision for the client—whether it be a Minister or the Prime Minister—to take a view as to whether the advice should be published or not. It is a matter for the lawyer to give the advice in a robust and straightforward way, which is what we as Law Officers seek to do. It is a matter for the Minister to decide whether it is disclosed, but the ministerial guidance requires that the consent of the Law Officers be obtained before that is done. A better approach is for Ministers to indicate that they are seeking advice and that they are seeking for it to be made public; in those circumstances, the Law Officers would be able to take a view as to how best to put that advice.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 19 February—Motions relating to benefits up-rating, followed by a debate on human rights “Values, rights and responsibilities” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Tuesday 20 February—Remaining stages of the Planning Gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Income Tax Bill.
Wednesday 21 February—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day], there will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 22 February—Motion to approve the Draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in Force of Section 1 to 9) Order 2007 followed by, a debate entitled “Health Challenge England: New Directions for Public Health” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 23 February—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 26 February will include:
Monday 26 February—Opposition Day [7th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Given the interchange that we just heard in questions to the Solicitor-General, may I help the Leader of the House by suggesting that he arrange a debate on collective responsibility, in which Ministers could learn to understand what being part of the same team is supposed to mean?
I note that the Leader of the House has not given us a full two weeks’ business. He will have noticed that there is considerable interest in the debate on the unprecedented preferential voting system that he is introducing on House of Lords reform. The press report that the debate might be held on 27 February. Will the Leader of the House confirm the date of that debate?
Before Christmas, the Leader of the House recognised the strength of feeling in the calls for a debate on Iraq. There is similar feeling for a debate on Afghanistan, particularly given the issues of troop deployment and resources and the Taliban threats reported today. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on Afghanistan?
Following the announcement by the hon. Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen) that he would not contest the next general election, despite earlier assurances to the contrary, we learned this week from the Chancellor’s climate change adviser, Sir Nicholas Stern, that the Chancellor had appointed the hon. Gentleman to work with Sir Nicholas. Will the Leader of the House clarify the terms on which the hon. Gentleman was appointed by the Chancellor and what he will do in his new role and assure us that no other promise has been made of which the House, or perhaps another place, should be aware?
The Select Committee on the Treasury recommended that the date of the Budget be given two months in advance. We are now less than two months from the Easter recess: why the delay, and when will we be given the date?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has previously raised the question of the new arrangements for passports, under which people renewing their passports will have to be interviewed—up to 6 million interviews a year managed by the Home Office. We now know that the new e-passports might have to be reissued every two years, which would lead to a massive increase in the number of interviews required. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on how the Home Office, which is not fit for purpose, will cope?
Finally, may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health? The Government have dropped a pledge to build or refurbish 50 community hospitals. The Department of Health has given the go-ahead for the refurbishment of only one community hospital and three health centres, while five community hospitals have been closed in the past year. At the same time, maternity units are closing, with even the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) campaigning against closure of the maternity unit in his constituency.
The Secretary of State for Health seems to live in a parallel world. She has denied the impact of cuts and deficits and on health care. Last year, she even said that it was the best year ever for the NHS. Today, she has told the Daily Mirror that
“Closing NHS beds is a sign of success”.
There have been 9,000 bed closures in the past 21 months —some success rate. That paper is not known for its opposition to Labour, but it asks:
“Is this the most extraordinary statement ever made by a Labour Health Secretary?”
We need a statement from the Health Secretary, so that she can explain why she measures success in bed closures, so that she can apologise to the patients who are suffering as a result of her policies and so that Members on both sides of the House can tell her exactly what they and the public think of the Government’s cuts in the NHS.
I always listen carefully to the House—I am listening at the moment—but it is for the usual channels to decide the timing of a debate on Lords reform. When a recess is coming up, it is quite usual not to announce the full business for the week after the week when we come back.
The right hon. Lady asks for a debate on Afghanistan. We have just had a debate on defence in the world, which included a great deal of discussion of Afghanistan. Of course I understand the concern that she articulates on behalf of the House, but I cannot promise a debate very shortly, given that we have already had one debate, which I delivered in response to requests from the House, and a second debate in normal time in respect of wider defence issues.
The right hon. Lady asks me about my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen).
The right hon. Gentleman is smiling.
If there is a secret, I do not know it. I am responsible for a great deal, but not for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s appointments, any more than he is responsible for mine, so I suggest that she table questions to him. [Interruption.] To each of us.
On the date of the Budget, it is often the case—it was under the previous Administration, or certainly during the 18 years of it that I witnessed—that the date is not announced anything like two months in advance. Of course, it is for everybody’s convenience that it should be announced as far in advance as possible, and we will make an announcement about it as quickly as we can.
I am glad that the right hon. Lady asked about e-passports, because it enables me to bring to a wider audience an unusual statement from the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who said, in respect of a report on e-passports, that
“It makes a pleasant change to be able to welcome a project from the Home Office which has been delivered on time and budget, as is the case with ePassports.”
The right hon. Lady shakes her head; I know that the hon. Member for Gainsborough is almost in a different party from her, and he recently said in The Daily Telegraph that the Conservative party, under the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), was going
“in the wrong direction.”
The right hon. Lady needs to talk to her researchers—those famed researchers, whose knowledge of parliamentary procedure and pop songs is often so defective—before she comes back to the subject of e-passports.
On the health service, which we are always pleased to debate, there is a serious point to be made about bed closures. Beds in some hospital wards have closed. Why? Because—
No, because patients are spending much less time in hospital, thanks to huge improvements in treatment, and thanks to the fact that many people who, even five years ago, had to receive treatment as in-patients now receive treatment as day patients. Conservatives may mock that, but it happens to be to true, and if they are serious about producing a health service when and if they form an Administration, I do not believe for a second that they would go into an election with a health policy that committed them to not closing a single hospital bed. I hope that they will go in to the election saying that they will increase spending on the health service, instead of cutting taxation. We know that they voted against every single spending plan, although those plans produced 85,000 more nurses and 32,000 more doctors, and meant that 157 new hospitals have either been built or are on the way.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on police manpower statistics? Since the introduction of police community support officers and safer neighbourhoods teams, police visibility in my constituency has improved significantly, as has the ability to respond to community concerns. Given the success of those innovations in West Ham, can we not find time to discuss funding for neighbourhood policing, to ensure that policing levels are maintained, if not increased?
The reason the House is so keen to hold debates on the health service is that that is the only level of democratic accountability for the decisions that are taken. We share the concerns about community hospital closures and maternity units. I note that Dr. Sheila Shribman, the author of a report issued last week, said:
“If you have to travel to get the best care then families are more than willing to do that.”
That shows a fine disregard for the fact that some families cannot do that, particularly in rural areas, where proximity is a key part of health care.
I add to those concerns the issue of dentists. We learned today that the number of calls to NHS Direct from people desperate to find an NHS dentist rose to well over 200,000 in the past six months. Some 2,000 dentists left the NHS last year, and a further 860 are in dispute. These are serious matters for our constituents and we ought to have the opportunity to debate them.
May we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—incidentally, can Government statements, which are pre-arranged, be arranged for days other than Opposition Supply days, which seems to have become a habit recently?—on the report from the National Audit Office, which reveals that of the £13.3 billion of savings trumpeted for the Gershon review, £10 billion are dubious or fictitious? This is a matter of some concern for the planning of Government finances.
May we have a statement on the outcome of the judicial review of the Government’s refusal to accept the ombudsman’s report on pension compensation? The Government have chosen to ignore the ombudsman, the European Court of Justice and the Public Administration Committee of the House. They surely cannot ignore a judicial review. In the interests of pension justice, we should have a statement.
The Leader of the House hinted a couple of weeks ago in response to a question of mine that we would have a debate on Scotland and the Act of Union. That seems to have gone by the bye. I anticipate that we will have a debate on St. David’s day, 1 March, on Wales. May I ask for a debate on whales spelled with an h? Whaling is an important environmental matter, and one on which the Government have an extremely good record. In the past few days the Government produced a document that bears further scrutiny, which argues that the nations around the world that are engaged in the Whaling Commission should resist attempts by whaling nations to re-open commercial whaling. We should give the Government every support on that, because many people support the conservation of these special mammals.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s endorsement on whales. I shall think about his request.
He asked for a debate on the national health service. The Liberal Democrats had two debates yesterday and they wasted both opportunities. They were shredded by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). For someone who is occasionally friendly with the Liberal Democrats, it was embarrassing to read Hansard, and still more to have been in the House. The hon. Gentleman missed an opportunity, and there are plenty of other opportunities to debate the NHS.
The hon. Gentleman complains about the absence of community hospitals. I think he is the Member for Frome.
Exactly. Under our spending plans—not the Liberal Democrats’ or the Conservatives’ plans—a large amount has been spent building a new community hospital for Frome to replace the existing hospital, which is over 100 years old. The Liberal Democrats believe in magic wands and fairies. They want new community hospitals everywhere all at once. We are providing them as we can, but with a much higher level of resource than ever they or the Conservatives could.
The Gershon targets are targets, and the time span for the implementation of Gershon has not yet been fulfilled. On pensions, a judicial review is under way and I shall not anticipate the outcome. If the hon. Gentleman consults the record in respect of a possible debate on Scotland, he will find that I said that I would think about it, and I am still doing so.
Although I recognise that there remains an acute terrorist threat in our country, Britain can hardly be a police state if those who believe that can broadcast their views. Nevertheless, will my right hon. Friend find out how the lurid details of last week’s detentions came to be leaked? If there are such allegations, they should arise in court when charges are made, and the charges should be made by the prosecution. There are some lessons from recent detentions that unfortunately have not been learned.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes very seriously any unattributed briefing about such matters, as have all Home Secretaries. I make two further points to my hon. Friend. One is that it is a simple fact of life and inevitable in any fair criminal justice system that some of those in respect of whom there is a reasonable suspicion sufficient to merit arrest are subsequently released without charge. That has to be the case, but it also happens, as figures from my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General have made clear, that the ratio of arrest to charge not just under the Terrorism Act 2000, but under other, more substantial offences, is higher than in respect of many categories of offence. The final point that I make to my hon. Friend is that we should give no excuse or quarter to those who claim that this country is a police state. That is utter nonsense. We live in a democracy and, sadly, we are engaged in fighting people who seek to destroy the very basis of our democracy. That includes, as part of our democracy, all of my constituents, 30 per cent. of whom are Muslim.
At Prime Minister’s questions before Christmas, I asked the Prime Minister if he would make available resources to the families bereaved as a result of the Iraq war to be represented at coroners inquests. The Prime Minister responded that the families would get all the assistance that was necessary. Following that statement, I wrote to the Lord Chancellor and asked him to give substance to that undertaking. I received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) referring to various matters concerning legal aid, which did not help at all, so I wrote back to the Lord Chancellor and asked if he would give substance to the Prime Minister’s undertaking. To date, that undertaking has not been honoured. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate so that we can discuss the resources given to the state to represent the armed forces through the Ministry of Defence at inquests, and the resources that are not given to the families who require representation?
I take very seriously what the hon. Gentleman says. I personally will look into the matter and write to him. On the subject of a debate, we had a wide debate on defence just last week, and he is fully aware that there are other opportunities to raise the matter on the Adjournment.
Through our many years of friendship, my right hon. Friend and I have rarely, if ever, disagreed on anything before. I welcome the fact that, as he said in reply to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), he is still listening to views on the system of voting that we will employ on House of Lords reform. Is he aware that many of us want not only the opportunity to vote for what we want to happen, but the opportunity to vote against what we do not want to happen?
Following the line of thought opened up by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), there are few general opportunities in the House to debate the current state of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. Is it possible to have a debate in Government time on integration and cohesion, which would provide the opportunity for a broader debate but would include the opportunity to consider that matter?
I will look into that. My hon. Friend knows that there are many opportunities in Westminster Hall and on the Adjournment to debate the matter. I think he is aware of all the efforts that our Government have made over the past 10 years to improve services to veterans, including the appointment of a Minister for Veterans.
This week the Prime Minister got his usual easy ride at the hands of the Liaison Committee, where we find that there is still no representation of the minority parties. The Leader of the House referred yesterday to something called cross-party consensus and consultation on his House of Lords reform. Again, we find that only the three main parties are involved in that. Will this Leader of the House dare to be inclusive and to ensure that all parties and constituencies are represented in all the institutions of the House?
The cross-party talks were not part of the House’s operations but a Government initiative in which the other two parties willingly joined. I will consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but if we are going to enter into cross-party talks we need to know where he is coming from. As far as I can tell, he wants to be on a completely different planet from the rest of us. If he is telling me that he has repented and now recognises the value of the United Kingdom Parliament, we can start on some business.
Given the possibility of a takeover of Sainsbury’s, one of our major supermarkets, by a private equity conglomerate, could we have a debate in the House about the role of private equity organisations? They are mysterious and unaccountable organisations that employ nearly 3 million people in this country, and the House should know more about their workings.
I will pass on my hon. Friend’s views to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. There are many opportunities for the issue to be raised on the Floor of the House and through investigation by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry.
The Northampton Herald and Post is looking to start a campaign to highlight the difficulties of cancer patients who can access life-saving treatments only in the private sector, not through the NHS. Can we have a debate in Government time on how we can address that very serious problem?
Of course one understands the distress caused by particular cases in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, as in mine or anybody else’s. However, he must appreciate that there has been a phenomenal increase in the amount of money invested in the health service in the past 10 years—money that his party not only would not have provided but voted against. The result has been a huge improvement in mortality and morbidity rates; in other words, people are living longer and more healthily. We sought to establish fair assistance, through National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence evaluations and other systems, whereby resources—which at any level will be limited, although they are much more than they were or would have been—can be fairly allocated.
May we have an early debate on the appropriate use of referendums? Given that both major Opposition parties said in their last manifestos that they would introduce a directly elected element into the House of Lords, and lost, while the Labour party did not mention direct elections, and won, surely we cannot take the kind of radical action that my right hon. Friend proposes without a referendum of the people. Let the question be: “Do you want another 270 elected politicians—yes or no?”
We said in our manifesto that we wanted a reformed House of Lords that was more representative. It is arguable, to say the least, whether it can be more representative without there being a democratic elected element. We did not promise a referendum, and there is no suggestion that we should do so. When we have a Bill, my hon. Friend will no doubt wish to table an amendment, and then we shall see.
The Leader of the House mentioned the response that he gave two weeks ago to the request by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for a debate on the Act of Union. He told us just now that he would think about it, but what he said then was:
“That is a good idea. I shall consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I hope to make an announcement in due course.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1558.]
Does what he said just now mean that he consulted his right hon. Friend, who thought that it was a bad idea to have a debate on this important issue, or can we expect such a debate in the near future?
May we have a debate on the Electoral Commission? That body got £26 million last year, yet, having asked a large number of colleagues from all parties what it actually does, I cannot find an answer. I do not want to abolish anything, but £26 million is an awful lot of money, and if some of it was given for political purposes to democratic parties, that might obviate the need for the loans, offshore transactions and so forth which have caused a little difficulty for all of us in the past few months.
My right hon. Friend raises a very serious point. He will be aware that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended significant changes in relation to the Electoral Commission, including a reduction in its scope and budget. It is also a subject of consideration by Sir Hayden Phillips. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs made a recommendation, but I told its Chairman that we will delay our response until we have received Sir Hayden Phillips’ report. I am considering whether to make an oral statement on his report.
May we have a debate in Government time, as soon as possible, on the nasty and abhorrent inheritance tax? This week, I was visited by a constituent who bought his council house under the right to buy but, sadly, worries that current property prices mean that when he dies he will not be able to hand it over to his loved ones because inheritance tax thresholds have not risen with inflation.
There will be an opportunity to debate that when we come to the four-day Budget debate that is due before Easter. I do not know who the hon. Gentleman includes within the category of loved ones, but transfers between spouses on death are subject to special exemptions from inheritance tax.
May we have a debate on the weather? My right hon. Friend will be aware that throughout the country today—although not in Yorkshire, where we are tough—schools have been closed or are closing early. While that offers children welcome opportunities to practise their sledging, snowman-building and snow angel-making skills, there is an economic impact on businesses and public services—and indeed on this place, as earlier in the Committee Corridor I saw a child accompanying her father in her Wellington boots. We need to discuss what is the appropriate local, regional and national response at times when we have extremes of temperature, whether snow or excessive heat, to guarantee public services and people’s health and safety.
Predicting a debate on the weather would be as difficult as predicting the weather itself. My hon. Friend makes a serious and important point. The judgment about whether to close schools is a matter for the local authorities concerned, and I will not second-guess them. However, it is extremely important that we constantly upgrade our efforts to defy the weather, which after all, notwithstanding a day’s snow, is much more moderate in this country than in many other countries that are able to cope with it a bit better.
Returning to the thorny issue of preferential voting on Lords reform, as the Leader of the House has admitted that he is in listening mode, I put it to him that many of us will be signing the early-day motion tabled yesterday by the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). Will he guarantee that before this radical idea is implemented it goes before the Procedure Committee; and can he assure the House that Government Back Benchers will not be put under a three-line Whip and there will be a free vote on this issue, which should be a House of Commons issue?
I am concerned about how we can regulate profit-driven organisations that seek to portray themselves as charities. Last week, I was contacted by a constituent who had received through his door a flyer from an organisation known as Helpmates Ltd asking for donations of clothes which it said that it would forward to third world countries. What it did not say was that it would sell the clothes before they reached those countries. May we have a debate about how we can prevent that disreputable practice and protect our constituents from these fraudsters?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am aware that there are organisations, sometimes retailers offering services, that present themselves as not-for-profit charities but turn out to be nothing like that. I hope that my hon. Friend has specific cases so that we can draw this to the attention of the Charity Commission, which has investigatory powers. I wish him good fortune in raising the matter on the Adjournment either here or in Westminster Hall.
In 1996-97, the NHS spent £2,600 million on administrative staff. I congratulate the Government on increasing NHS expenditure, but is it not unfortunate that the sum spent on administrative staff has now reached £5.7 billion? May we have a statement or a debate on the NHS, especially spiralling increases in spending on administrative staff?
I am delighted to debate the national health service any time, including with the hon. Gentleman. I look forward to the time when he recognises the huge improvements as a result of the increases in spending in his constituency. [Interruption.] He obviously does not know his constituency. Huge improvements have occurred for people living in his constituency as well as throughout the country.
The hon. Gentleman was ever a masochist. I recommend to hon. Members of all parties the excellent website, FibDem. It is brilliant and goes through all the promises that the Liberal Democrats have made about the fight against crime, and all their actions inside and outside the House to undermine and sabotage that fight.
Last Wednesday, the maternity unit in Oswestry closed. As far as I am concerned, the closure is temporary because the service conforms exactly to the ideas of community care that were outlined in the White Paper that the Secretary of State for Health published last autumn. I discussed those ideas with her and agreed with them entirely. I went to the strategic health authority in Birmingham to discuss the funds and arrangements that could possibly relaunch the service, but was dismayed to read in The Times that the White Paper has not been effected and there is doubt about where the allocated £750 million has gone. The White Paper contained some good ideas. The Secretary of State should come to the House and explain what is happening and where the money has gone.
I understand the discomfiture and concern in any constituency where the provision of a service is changed. However, the hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate the reason for the reforms to maternity services. They are happening in order to cater better for mothers’ wishes about where they have their babies—there is greater demand for having babies at home or in small centres. At the same time, as anybody who has had an ill baby understands, what matters is having the very best services, which can only be specialist, concentrated and available in rather fewer centres than they are at the moment. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is wittering from a sedentary position. I repeat the point that she wills the end but not the means. She—and her party—keeps voting against all the increases in spending, which have enabled improvements in maternity services as well as other services.
Unlike some others, I offer the Leader of the House wholehearted support for the process that he is adopting for breaking the logjam in reforming the House of Lords. The current composition of the House of Lords is risible. At the last by-election for an hereditary peer, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein defeated the seventh Earl of Effingham—incidentally, of the second creation—by 11 votes to five on a single transferable vote. That is more like an episode of “Blackadder” than a proper constitutional process.
However, is it possible to include an additional vote in the process on whether bishops should sit in the House of Lords? Before my right hon. Friend says, as I suspect that he might, that that would mean disestablishing the Church of England, I simply point out that the Church of Scotland is also established but has no representation in the House of Lords.
As someone who was once a clerk in holy orders, and may still be so, my hon. Friend should know that the Church of Scotland is Presbyterian and therefore has no bishops. The question of their representation in the Lords does not arise.
I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend for his support, and I am listening to all the voices on the happy issue. However, in the words of the hymn, with which he is familiar, “One step at a time”. There will be plenty of opportunities if and when we introduce a Bill for him to table an amendment to remove the right of Anglican bishops to sit in the Lords. However, that can happen only when we reach the sunlit uplands, compared with where we are today.
May we have a debate on the conditions of service of Commonwealth servicemen in our armed forces? During the summer, I had the privilege of sharing a room with Corporal Charlery in Afghanistan. He had been recruited in Antigua and told that, after five years’ service, he would be eligible for a British passport. However, he has subsequently been told that his service in Afghanistan—and, indeed, in Germany—will not count towards that five-year period. Is it right to discriminate against our servicemen in that way?
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his continuing service in the military and knowledge of it. I know a little about the point that he makes. May I suggest that he takes it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence? We have no wish to discriminate against Commonwealth citizens who serve in the armed forces. They play an invaluable role in our fighting capacity, as I have personally experienced. Meanwhile, I shall write to my right hon. Friend and let him know the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
My right hon. Friend may have seen early-day motion 692 about the environmental liability directive.
[That this House notes the special nature of the potential risks arising from the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and limited knowledge of their long-term environmental impacts; and calls on the Government to change its proposals for the implementation of the Environmental Liability Directive which is intended to protect biodiversity, land and water from environmental harm that may arise from the use of GMOs to ensure that there are no defences from strict liability for harm arising from the use of GMOs.]
The subject is getting an airing in all parties. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) generously said that there is a balanced argument about whether the Government should seek greater protection for some of our most important sites of scientific interest. Is not it right for this place to debate formally whether the Government should introduce greater protection? Would my right hon. Friend support that?
I shall look into the matter. As my hon. Friend knows, there is a well-established process for scrutinising directives and regulations from the European Union. I shall raise the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), who chairs the European Scrutiny Committee.
As I failed to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, during Education questions, may I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on adult education? The Government’s cuts in adult education have left Bradford college with enrolments down from 8,249 to 5,437 and the courses available down from 944 to 579. In Wharfedale in my constituency, enrolments are down from 1,813 to 915 and the courses are down from 200 to 110. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands our concern. May we have a debate to ascertain whether such cuts in adult education in all our communities throughout the country are the will of the House?
I continue to serve as a governor of one of the country’s finest further education colleges—Blackburn college—and I am not aware that our budget has been cut. Indeed, I know that the budget has increased significantly. Of course, there are pressures on, for example, some aspects of non-vocational adult education. There is an issue about choices, which we must all face if we are to improve the overall skill level of the British people. Those choices would confront any Conservative Government—more so, because they would spend less—whom the hon. Gentleman supported.
Let me revert to House of Lords reform. My concerns are not about the voting system that my right hon. Friend proposes for this House but the voting system for any elected Members of a reformed House of Lords. Will he ensure that there will be an opportunity for Members of this House to choose between different voting systems for elected Members of a reformed House of Lords? Otherwise, some of us who may want to vote for an element of election to the House of Lords might find ourselves voting against election altogether if we are not satisfied with the voting systems that will be employed.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point; it is a crucial one. Three alternative systems are outlined in the White Paper, which marks the start of this phase of the debate about the reform programme. There will have to be a huge amount of debate between now and any Bill becoming law, to pin down all the crucial aspects of the process and to ensure the widest possible consensus.
Given that the A-10 tapes showing the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull reveal no technology secrets but only incompetence, does the Leader of the House understand the strength of public concern that the Government are showing crass hypocrisy when dealing with British servicemen and their families? On the one hand, they praise the servicemen at the Dispatch Box, while on the other, they refuse to help their grieving families when they need to get to the truth.
I certainly salute the families concerned. I happened to see the interview with Mrs. Susan Hull last night on the BBC news, and it was one of the most dignified and moving interviews of that kind that I have ever seen. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s second point. We have been profoundly concerned about this matter. He will appreciate, not least from his own military experience, that because the evidence was in the hands of an ally from whom we had to obtain it, there were difficulties in so doing.
Has my right hon. Friend considered the new gender equality duty that will come into force in April this year, and its impact on the operation of the House of Commons—in particular, on the hours that we sit?
I have not looked specifically at that matter, but I would be happy to do so. Only recently, another female new Member told me that she preferred the current balance of hours because she found them family friendly, rather than working nine-to-five every day of the week. I am pleased to have had the opportunity—thanks to spending 18 years in opposition—to participate in the upbringing of my children, and it was the old hours that enabled me to take my children to school and to see them while my wife was working a nine-to-five day. If we had had our current hours at that time, my opportunities to bond with my children would have been far fewer. I do not wish to disagree with my hon. Friend, but there are many different opinions on this matter. It is not a question of people being either reactionary or progressive. We are all in favour of ensuring that the House is as family friendly as possible. One of the things that we have changed completely—thank God—is the practice of sitting without purpose into the small hours of the night. That is a really important change, because that practice was very disruptive. In terms of being able to balance work and family life, particularly if there is a working spouse, I personally think that we do not need to go any further with these so-called new hours.
I suspect that the Leader of the House did not realise how isolated he was on the voting system for the reform of the House of Lords until he received 100 per cent. support from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
May I back the call for a debate on cancer services in the NHS? I am sure that we have all encountered situations in our own constituencies in which, owing to the fact that the NICE has not adjudicated on a particular drug, it is up to the primary care trust to determine whether to provide it. My constituent, Mr. Keith Ditchfield, is having to spend thousands of pounds of his own money to get a drug called Nexaver. The drug has the backing of the National Cancer Research Institute, yet the local primary care trust will not pay for it. May we have an urgent debate to ensure that we stop this postcode lottery and reinvent what was the national health service in this country?
If the hon. Gentleman is talking about reinventing the national health service as it was when it was being run by the Conservatives for 18 years, we do not want to go there. He knows very well that we had to have fairer systems for making judgments about the availability of treatments, and that is what NICE is there for. He will also be aware, as he shares a constituency boundary with me, that, for decades, the whole area was calling for a new general hospital to serve the whole area, and that it took a Labour Government to provide the funds for that. It is under a Labour Government that the new Blackburn royal infirmary—serving his constituents as well as mine—has opened.
May we have an urgent debate on the threatened break-up of the United Kingdom, and the subsequent cost to the taxpayer? My right hon. Friend might be aware that figures released today suggest that the cost of independence in Scotland alone would run to some £8 billion of taxpayers’ money. Does he agree that that £8 billion would be better spent on enhancing our public services and defending our country?
Future of Buses
[Relevant documents: The Eleventh Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2005-06, on Bus Services across the UK, HC 1317, and the Government’s response thereto, (Third Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 298).]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Kevin Brennan.]
To many people, buses are a lifeline. They give people access to health-care, jobs and shops, and allow them to stay in touch with family and friends. To other people, buses are a convenient option—an alternative to using their car, and an alternative that we want more people to choose.
Over the last half century, the number of people using our buses has fallen dramatically in many parts of the country. Deregulation two decades ago was supposed to reverse that, but it did not. Since 1997, the decline has slowed down, but not enough. It need not be like this. In places such as York, Cambridge and Brighton, buses are thriving because they are delivering the kind of service that people want. Passengers want local bus services to be regular, affordable, reliable, comfortable and safe. They want pleasant, well-lit bus stops giving good information, easy-to-use ticketing systems and services that link up smoothly with other transport, such as rail services. At a time when we are trying to tackle congestion and promote more environmentally friendly travel, it is vital that the public have good public transport choices.
My hon. Friend mentioned the environment. We have all sat behind buses that are emitting filthy diesel smoke. Is there anything that the Government can do—through either the grant system, incentives or perhaps a direct mandate—to insist that, within a fairly short period, buses have engine systems installed that do not emit carbon dioxide and that are compatible with the highest environmental standards? Will the Minister take up that challenge?
I will certainly respond to that point in more detail later in my speech. My right hon. Friend rightly says that we need to look at the way in which the present bus service operator grant is working, to see whether it is properly incentivising people to use cleaner engine technologies. We also need to continue to work with the European Union on the directives that cover the improvement in pollution standards for diesel engines. He has put his finger on an important issue, and it is one that the Government and industry are closely interested in and are already looking at.
The headline statistic for passenger use is striking: two out of three public transport journeys in Britain are made by bus—more than 4 billion passenger journeys a year in England alone. In some areas of the country, provision is good, with bus operators and authorities working in partnership. In others, however, it is poor. We want to see bus services work in every community, in every part of the country.
That is why, last year, the Government decided to take a long, hard look at bus services. That work was led by the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who will wind up this debate. We published our conclusions in the document “Putting Passengers First; the Government’s proposals for a modernised national framework for bus services”. Those proposals are designed with one thing in mind—to give passengers a better service.
The measures that we have put forward are aimed at ensuring that the punctuality of services improves; creating better partnership working, including making what are called quality contracts—in which bus operators can bid to be the sole provider of a service in a given area—a more practical option where appropriate; and giving community transport a bigger role in providing services in areas poorly served by other transport. One further issue that we are considering is whether changes to current bus subsidies would help better to deliver the Government’s objectives on congestion, the environment and accessibility, which relates exactly to the point raised by my right hon. Friend a moment ago.
Have the Government looked at the subsidy regime in rural areas? There is a clear misuse of funds in such areas—not corruption, but misuse in the sense that we are not benefiting from the best use of the money. Is it not time for a wholesale look at some of the Spanish practices that exist? I am told, for example, that bus companies receive payment in connection with bus stops that have not been used for donkeys’ years. That needs to be brought into the open and dealt with.
If my hon. Friend has specific examples of what he describes as “Spanish practices” he should report them to his local authority, which is responsible for ensuring that matters are dealt with properly in the community. As for his general point, we said in our document that we wanted to know people’s views on the way in which subsidies operate. For instance, the current bus service operators grant is based on consumption of diesel. Is that the right way in which to subsidise bus transport if we want it to become more environmentally friendly, and is it robust from an accounting point of view?
May I pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) about problems in rural areas? The Minister said that he wanted every community to benefit from bus transport. There are 120 villages in my constituency, a large number of which have no bus service at all. Some, like my own village of Witham Friary, officially have a bus service, but there is only one bus a week, and such a service is not of enormous value. How can we provide a proper public transport system with the flexibility that people need in rural areas? Have the Government a real strategy for that?
We want to provide improved services for every community and every type of community, but doing so cost-effectively is obviously a problem, and in rural communities it is particularly difficult. We are providing substantial subsidy around the country— about £2.5 billion a year in England alone—but it is up to local authorities, which know most about their communities and where the problems are, to create partnerships that can deliver services to those communities. They need not be commercial services: community transport is an option, and we have suggested ways in which that might be made more sustainable and effective. I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his council to respond to the consultation document by suggesting ways of dealing with problems in rural communities.
We in London are particularly proud of the investment and the partnership between the Mayor and the Government, which have helped to increase bus use. Indeed, in recent years London has seen the only major modal shift towards buses in any world city.
Does my hon. Friend share our grave concern about the fact that, in their alternative budget, Conservative members of the Greater London authority propose to end free transport for those under 18, and the fact that councillors in the London borough of Ealing are expressing enthusiasm for the removal of free public transport for older people? Does he agree that the decision to invest in free transport for children and elderly people in London is one of the reasons why we have achieved such phenomenal growth in bus use in the city?
I entirely agree. It is not for me to comment on the specific position in London, but I was very surprised when I heard about the Conservatives’ proposals, which are in complete contrast to comments that they make in public. I thought it extraordinary that they should wish to limit bus services in that way. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend and other London Members will make their views known forcefully, possibly even in this debate.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is being very indulgent.
So far, the Government have not responded to the suggestion that some bus companies are virtually blackmailing local authorities by saying that if they enter into the quality contracts that the Minister has recommended to us today, they will receive no co-operation from them—that is, from the private bus companies involved. In the event of legal action, will the Government undertake to indemnify local authorities against this wholly pernicious attack?
If there is evidence that that is happening, we will react to it very strongly. We will engage with local authorities that feel they are under such pressure to find out how best we can support them and deal with it. If a local authority decides that it is in the best interests of its local public to enter into a quality contract and wins the case, a private operator that does not go along with that decision will find itself unable to provide services and will lose out commercially. It is therefore in operators’ interests at least to co-operate in the planning of such schemes, but if my hon. Friend has specific examples we would like to hear about them, and we will certainly take them up.
I should like to make a little more progress first.
We are also introducing separate, but perhaps related, legislation to help our most vulnerable citizens by improving access to free bus travel. From April 2008, some 11 million older and disabled people will be entitled to free off-peak local bus travel anywhere in the country. That builds on recent improvements in the scheme introduced last April which allows free off-peak bus travel in local authority areas. The improvements will enable concessionary pass holders to use buses free of charge in other local authority areas in order to use important services, and to keep in touch with friends and family who may not live just down the road.
Obviously, it is good news that England has followed the example of the Labour-led Scottish Executive in introducing a national concessionary scheme, but it does not quite cover the entire country. Although it is possible for pensioners to travel from Cornwall to Northumberland—or, under the Scottish scheme, from Berwick to Orkney—there are no cross-border arrangements. I am not suggesting that people should be able to travel from Cornwall to Orkney, but it would be quite convenient for older citizens in Newcastle to be able to travel to Edinburgh, and vice versa.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for eventually giving way to me. May I return him to what he was saying about quality contracts? The Government obviously wish to make them a more realistic option, but the process described in “Putting Passengers First” seems unduly convoluted. Has he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made any assessment of how long it would take from start to finish?
It is true that making quality contracts more practical is a key objective in the document, but I do not agree that the process is convoluted. It seems quite straightforward to me. We propose that if a local authority considers it to be in the public interest and can make a case for its being in the public interest, it should be an option. If the authority opts for the contract and local operators disagree with it, there will be an independent appeal process. If local authorities consider that too convoluted, they can respond to the document and to our consultation on the draft Bill, and we will try to deal with their concerns.
May I return the Minister to the subject of concessionary fares? A national scheme has been operating north of the border, and one is being proposed for Wales. Does the Minister agree that if a national scheme operated in England, it might be possible to reduce fraud and disadvantages such as passenger transport authorities being forced to cut spending in other areas? If a scheme were administered nationally, we would know where the money was going, and some authorities would not lose out.
I thought that the Liberal Democrats were in favour of devolution and taking power away from the centre and giving it to local authorities, but I think that I have just heard a bid for us to take control of bus services away from local authorities and bring it back into Whitehall, which is a bizarre suggestion.
We are proposing—there will be plenty of opportunities for this to be discussed in the House—a scheme under which we will provide additional funding to make it possible to have a system in which older and disabled people can travel anywhere in England for free, and after discussion with the devolved Assemblies we might be able to expand that to anywhere in the United Kingdom. I do not think that the idea that we should backtrack on local authority control of bus services is a goer, but I will be interested to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen).
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way, and I join him in welcoming the free bus passes for the elderly. They have been tremendously welcomed in my North Durham constituency, but many of my elderly constituents are now finding that because Go Northern has removed bus services from isolated villages in my constituency, they have no access to a bus at all. The latest example of that is the community of Pelton Fell having its No. 739 bus removed without any consultation with local people. Therefore, although elderly people have got a free bus pass thanks to a Labour Government, thanks to a heartless bus company some of them have no access to a bus.
That is why it is right that we give control of such issues to local authorities and to local passenger transport authorities. Local people who know what the local issues are, and who know when local services are being withdrawn, can try to build partnerships with the private sector to fill gaps in services. If the private sector is acting in the way that my hon. Friend suggests, it is up to the local council to decide whether it wants to step in and provide a subsidy for a particular scheme, or to provide the service by means of a community transport option, or—if it cannot build a successful partnership—it might need to think about having a quality contract in future in order to be able to put in place the sort of service that will provide buses to such isolated villages.
Given my hon. Friend’s welcome comments on community local governance, does he consider it appropriate that traffic commissioners or transport tribunals should sit in judgment on the merits of a quality contract? Should not local government make such decisions in consultation with local people?
Under our proposals, it will be for local government to make a public interest case for a quality contract. Having made such a case and having moved towards having a quality contract, if commercial operators feel that they have been unfairly disadvantaged and not properly consulted, there must be an appeal process for them to go through. We have suggested that there should be such an independent appeal process, but I hope that it will never be used because I hope that local authorities that decide to go down that route will involve everybody in making their decision.
I wish to make an important point. What the Minister is trying to explain is slightly different from what appears on page 43 of “Putting Passengers First”. It says there not that there can be an appeal when a local authority has reached a decision about going ahead with a quality contract, but that that automatically goes to a senior traffic commissioner, acting together with a panel of experts, who decides whether to approve it. Beyond that, there is an appeal to the transport tribunal. However, at the interim stage involving the traffic commissioner there is no appeal. The commissioner has a right to determine whether the local authority, acting in the public interest, is correct or not. That second guessing of an elected body causes great concern.
I have heard my hon. Friend’s point and it will be taken into consideration. He is right that a senior traffic commissioner and a panel of experts review the decision to go to a quality contract to make sure that it is appropriate and in the public interest, and there then is an independent appeal process that operators can go through. If some hon. Friends feel that that is too convoluted or that it is unfair, they should put their comments to us and we will take them on board. I think that there is an appropriate protection in the light of the evidence that we have so far received, but I encourage hon. Friends to communicate their views.
I welcome the draft Bill, but I remind my hon. Friend that some of us warned Ministers in 2000 that the voluntarist approach would not be successful, and I think that it is fair to say that it has not been successful to date. The intention behind the draft Bill is good, but will the Minister assure me that the powers that local authorities and passenger transport executives will be given will mean that I can be sure that trains stop at my Swinton stations and that the bus routes will be kept going through my constituency of Eccles?