House of Commons
Thursday 26 April 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—
Funding for the national roll-out of “Every Child a Reader” will be made available over three years from 2008-09. We are exploring the most effective ways of helping children who will benefit most from intensive literacy support. We are discussing with “Every Child a Reader” partners how we can reach the greatest number of children. I am pleased to confirm that we have invited Nottingham to take part in the third and final year of the pilot this year.
The reading recovery programme, “Every Child a Reader”, is a welcome development, and I thank my right hon. Friend and his team, along with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for introducing it. In a constituency and city such as mine, one in eight youngsters cannot read their first lesson at secondary school, so there is still a great deal of work to do. What can my right hon. Friend do, first, to train reading recovery co-ordinators effectively, and secondly, to roll out a programme to train teachers so that they can begin to expand the reading recovery programme to ensure that all our young people can read properly?
My hon. Friend has been a champion of the education cause in Nottingham. Matters have improved to a huge degree, but there is still an awful lot that we have to tackle. We have placed Nottingham in this project because it is designed specifically for the kinds of problems that he experiences there, as do I in the city that I represent, Hull. This is a partnership with the KPMG Foundation aimed at getting to children in their first year at school to ensure that they have the best possible foundation and that, later on, they do not need the kind of remedial and catch-up attention that gets more difficult the older the child gets. From this September, my hon. Friend will see the implementation of the “Every Child a Reader” policy, which includes the part-funding of a project leader, followed by its rolling out to 20 specialised teachers in 20 schools in Nottingham. Thereafter, it will be rolled out nationally. I undertake to keep a personal eye on how it is going in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Secondary School Standards
Since 1997, education has been this Government’s top priority. We have doubled spending per pupil, there are now 36,800 more teachers, and figures published today show a growth in the school work force of 17,300 in the past year alone. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating staff and pupils in his constituency on the consequent improvement of 15 per cent. more 14-year-olds achieving the national standard in English and maths. We will continue to raise standards through more choice between schools for parents, more choice of qualifications for pupils, and record investment in personalisation in staff and in buildings.
With reference to the previous question, I can tell the Minister that even in leafy south Bedfordshire, in one of my local upper schools recently a quarter of the children were unable to read properly. Five million adults in this country are functionally illiterate, many of whom are parents of secondary school children who are themselves struggling with reading. Will the Minister redouble his efforts across Government to address adult illiteracy so that we can break that cycle of deprivation?
Although I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not want to join me in congratulating staff and pupils in his constituency on the improvements over the past 10 years, I accept that we need to focus efforts on adult basic skills. That is why we are concentrating our budgetary priorities in that area to do everything that we can to ensure that adults who, perhaps because of inadequacies in the education system prior to the past 10 years, are not reading and writing well, receive all the help that they can get.
In my constituency, there has been an historical legacy of young people leaving school early to go into industry, so education has not been very highly regarded. Over the past few years, however, there has been a dramatic improvement in the number of young people getting GCSEs and A-levels and going to university. If we are to build on that, it is a question of changing aspirations. What are the Government doing to lift people’s aspirations in constituencies such as mine?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question and I join him in congratulating his constituents on the improvements in education in the past 10 years. He is right to raise the issue of aspiration. The way in which the excellent leaders in some of our new schools, such as academies, have raised pupils’ ambitions is a consistent feature that I note on my visits. That is why we are extending some of the thinking behind academies to trust schools, and getting universities and employers involved so that young people in more disadvantaged areas can see themselves going to universities and into well paid employment, thanks to the involvement of such partners.
Standards are not directly related to resources, but they help. Does the Under-Secretary recall receiving a letter from Mr. Glyn Ottery, the chair of the Somerset Association of Secondary Heads, who points out that, because of the underfunding in Somerset compared with other areas—he acknowledges the increase in funding—his school, Stanchester, receives £254,740 less each year than the English national average? How can that extraordinary differential be justified?
I shall have to dig out the letter from Glyn Ottery, but I will ensure that it has my personal attention when we consider the reply. The figure that comes to mind for the improvement in resources in real terms per pupil in Somerset is approximately £1,000. However, I accept that we do not fund equally on a per pupil basis throughout the country. We are currently consulting on school funding—I am examining closely the way in which we balance the need to achieve stability across the system with any need for redistribution to ensure that areas of deprivation, especially within authorities, get the necessary money.
I was pleased on Monday to welcome the Secretary of State to the city academy in my constituency. He was especially impressed to learn that, last year, it managed to send 43 students to university compared with only seven a few years ago. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has also visited the city academy. What lessons does he believe that schools such as the academy can teach other schools in Bristol so that they achieve a similar increase in standards?
My hon. Friend is right. Bristol academy was the first academy school that I visited and it was instrumental in persuading me of the success of the academies programme in raising aspirations—the phrase of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey). The lesson that neighbouring schools can learn—I hope that academies will continue to work more closely with them—is first, to realise that, in difficult areas such as parts of Bristol that are served by the academy, it is possible for children to envisage themselves going to university and getting highly paid jobs; and secondly, it is to ensure that such ambition is embedded throughout the work force and in our approach to all children.
Educational standards cannot be raised unless there is good order in the classroom. That means that the worst behaved children may have to go to pupil referral units so that they do not disrupt the education of others. Surely those units are meant for children who are badly behaved, not for those who have a medical condition, which has led to a statement of special educational needs. Ofsted has warned that pupil referral units are the least successful setting for children with such statements. Does the Under-Secretary agree that it is wrong for children with such statements to be taught alongside violent and disruptive children in pupil referral units?
The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the proportion of pupils with statements of special educational needs in pupil referral units has declined from 22.5 per cent. under the Tories in January 1997 to 15 per cent. in January 2006. It is important that children, regardless of their special educational needs, are clear about the discipline code in a school. If they breach that, heads should be free to exclude, subject to an appeals system in which a small percentage of appeals are upheld. If that means that they need to go to a PRU, so be it, as long as it ensures that it delivers personalised education. Ofsted finds that nine out of 10 PRUs are satisfactory or better.
Primary School Standards
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that primary standards in English and mathematics are at their highest ever. We are improving the quality of teaching and learning, with ongoing training and support for teachers.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating pupils in his constituency on improvements in results at age 11 of 13 per cent. and 11 per cent. more pupils achieving the national standard in English and maths respectively. Following Jim Rose’s independent review of early reading, new teaching guidance called “letters and sounds” will be launched this month further to support the teaching of phonics.
I do indeed congratulate teachers and pupils personally when I visit schools in my constituency, which I do regularly. Last year, 35 per cent. of children at key stage 2 had a reading and writing standard below level 4. What progress is being made in the roll-out of synthetic phonics to train teachers to address the reading and writing problem in primary schools?
The hon. Gentleman is right: Jim Rose’s review was instructive, and we will issue guidance shortly and provide teachers with primary framework packs to help them in teaching, for example, English and maths. That guidance focuses on the use of synthetic phonics, and will ensure that best practice is rolled out across the country to continue to improve reading, alongside the measures to which the Secretary of State referred in response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).
Has my hon. Friend yet had the opportunity to read the letter that I sent him following my visit to Doxey primary school in Stafford, in which I praised the staff and especially the leadership of the school for its fantastic improvement in performance over the past five years? I have noticed in Staffordshire, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has in Somerset, that the success of schools is constrained by the low funding that they currently receive. In the context of the review of funding being carried out by my hon. Friend, does he buy the argument that those of us in areas that have traditionally been low-funded could contribute much more to the Government’s agenda of raising standards if we were better funded?
Clearly, we are into the school funding lobbying round. I congratulate staff, governors, pupils and parents at Doxey primary school on its excellent results and on the excellent value for money that they represent, set against the funding that the school received. Our primary focus in funding is deprivation: we need to ensure that those who suffer disadvantage are funded to tackle that disadvantage, wherever it is found. As I consider the results of the consultation due for completion at the end of May, I will look at whether we are properly targeting deprivation, including in counties such as Staffordshire.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that exclusions of primary school children have increased, but it is a very small number: I think that 0.03 per cent. of primary school pupils are being permanently excluded. We do have some concerns about that, so we have asked our national strategies team to look at where such exclusion is concentrated and consider what interventions might be necessary.
More than 30 Members on both sides of the House, and the Department, have supported the competition being run by the parliamentary information technology committee in partnership with E-Skills UK, the sector skills council for IT. Does my hon. Friend agree that the engagement of Members in such exercises, working with their schools, can help to promote higher standards in this vital area? Will he take this opportunity publicly to support the competition and encourage other Members to sign up for it?
Certainly. I warmly commend to Members on both sides of the House the parliamentary IT committee’s competition for schools, which is a significant initiative. The roll-out of IT, with billions of pounds invested in information and communications technology in schools, is reaping results. Yesterday, I met the supplier of IT—RM—to schools in Newham, where half of primary schools have received the IT and half have not. The effect on the results of those schools in Newham that are using IT well is highly significant. We all need to have due regard to that in our constituencies.
In 1997, the Prime Minister promised to eradicate classes of more than 30 in primary schools to raise standards. Today’s figures show, however, that half a million primary school children are still taught in such large classes, rising to a shocking one in four at key stage 2. After 10 years of the Labour Government, why are they still failing on the basics?
We are not failing in the basics. Today we announced the best-ever adult:pupil ratio—one in 73 classes at key stage 1 consists of more than 30 pupils, as opposed to one in five 10 years ago. Obviously we want to reach a point at which no child aged five, six or seven is in a class of more than 30, but there are constraints in, for instance, rural primary schools with very few teachers. It is difficult to adjust staff:pupil ratios just like that, but I think we are making excellent progress in delivering our promises.
The Government have made a clear commitment to widening participation in higher education. I regularly have discussions with vice-chancellors and others throughout the sector about how we can help more people from under-represented groups, particularly young people from poorer backgrounds, to participate in higher education. The discussions focus on raising aspirations and opportunities to attract more applications. The document “Widening participation in higher education”, published last November, describes the actions that we are taking.
As the Minister will know, whenever universities consider the potential of students from state schools whose grades may be slightly different from those of students from independent schools, they get into trouble with certain sections of the press. Does he not think that the introduction of an A* grade at A-level will make the life of admissions tutors at some Russell Group universities much more difficult, given that in the first few years there will probably be a disproportionate success rate among independent school students?
I think there is a general consensus that there is a strong case for the A* grade. The key judgment will concern the level at which the threshold is set. I am sure that, as well as taking a range of other initiatives, we can continue to promote the widening of participation. I agree that university admissions tutors have always made judgments both about individual students’ attainment to date and about their potential to develop, and some of the initiatives that UCAS has been taking will help to inform those judgments.
The Minister will be pleased to learn that in Tees Valley the number of university applicants from low-income families has increased by more than 48 per cent. That startlingly good result was achieved primarily through the Aimhigher programme, which has inspired youngsters and schools to have self-belief. Will the Minister visit us in Teesside and look at the examples that we can provide? We would love to share them with everyone. Will he also tell us what additional support will be given to the Aimhigher programme?
As my hon. Friend knows, I visited Teesside university with her recently, and I will seek a further opportunity to do so.
The Aimhigher programme has been a real success story in promoting aspiration among under-represented groups, and we should continue to support it. We should also celebrate yesterday’s announcement of a significant increase in the number of university applications for next year. The number of applications for places at English universities has risen by 6 per cent., and—crucially—the proportion of applicants from lower socio-economic groups has not only not fallen but actually increased. That demonstrates emphatically that critics of the new system are wrong.
I agree with the Minister that the A* grade will help universities to assess the merits of applicants, but does he think that students applying to university should be judged on whether or not their parents went to university? A yes or a no would be helpful.
I think that UCAS’s recent decision to include information about parental participation in higher education may prove to be a useful tool in helping university admissions tutors to make judgments. They have always made judgments about both attainment to date and potential to succeed. If there is no previous experience of higher education in a young person’s family, an admissions tutor will be able to provide that person with a taster course, or put him or her in touch with a student ambassador. That can help young people to achieve their full potential.
Will my hon. Friend ask the Department to conduct a review to establish the merits of the system in the state of Texas, where, as he knows, the top 10 per cent. of students who leave colleges have an automatic right to enter any university? That has proved to be a boon for university outcomes in the state.
My hon. Friend and I have discussed that subject. University admissions are, rightly, a matter for university authorities. Nevertheless, we must have available as much data as possible, to ensure that the widening participation initiatives that we undertake are as effective as possible.
Does the Minister agree—I think that he does—that one of the key problems facing the Russell Group universities is the comparative flight in the maintained sector away from the crunchy subjects that those universities value, such as mathematics and sciences and ancient and modern languages? What can the Minister do to avert that flight, and in that context does he not agree that it is tragic that there are plans to get rid of ancient history A-level, as that will intensify the dominance of a small number of schools in the Latin and Greek classics and close down a possible route to university for children in the maintained sector, which is potentially deeply socially regressive?
We must do everything that we can to encourage young people from all backgrounds, and in particular state schools, to apply to university. The evidence shows that there has been a significant improvement in attainment over the past 10 years which is helping to fuel an increase in applications. In respect of the crunchy subjects that the hon. Gentleman mentions, I hope that he welcomes the significant increase in applications for physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering science that there have been for next year, and which are part of a three-year trend. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question about ancient history, I know that he and my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools discussed that last night, and that we are looking at that issue.
Is it not becoming increasingly obvious that the kids who go to Eton school and are educated beyond their intelligence—like some Members who serve on the Opposition Front Bench—are being given additional opportunities to go to the posh universities, while working-class kids do not get the same chance? Will the Minister reverse this process?
I want applicants from all backgrounds and all schools to progress to university and to fulfil their potential. It is crucial that we help those from the poorest backgrounds to achieve that, and the Government are doing everything we can in that respect. The fact that there are increases in the numbers of applicants from state schools and from lower socio-economic groups demonstrates that we are making genuine progress.
We do not require hot meals to be served in schools, but we encourage their provision through funding. Transitional funding for school food—£220 million for 2005-08—is conditional upon local authorities developing plans to begin the reintroduction of hot meals. In addition, schools and local authorities are encouraged to use their capital funding to ensure that adequate kitchens are in place. That will be supported by an additional targeted capital fund for school kitchens from 2009.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer so far as it goes, but I am sure that he is aware that three years ago this month Conservative-controlled Essex county council scrapped the school meal service for primary schools. Many schools have made alternative arrangements, but not all of them have done so, as some do not have sufficient resources or capacity. I ask the Minister to consider in particular three such schools: Montgomery infant, Montgomery county junior and St. Michael’s primary. Those schools draw pupils predominantly from families whose fathers and mothers are in Her Majesty’s armed forces, so while dad is sent off to Iraq or Afghanistan the children do not have hot school—
We are working closely with the School Food Trust wherever there are gaps in provision with regard to hot meals in schools, at both primary and secondary level. However, we should keep this issue in context, as there have been developments in recent years, not least the additional funding worth almost £500 million from 2005 through to 2011. The national picture is that hot meals are not served in 5 per cent. of primary schools and 0.1 per cent. of secondary schools, which equates to three secondary schools. Having said that, I accept that there are issues and pockets of problems that we have to tackle, and we are doing so in a number of ways, not least through our capital programme and the devolved formula capital, which is devolved directly to schools. As I said, we also aim to announce later this year specific targeted capital for school kitchens.
You have done that to me twice now, Mr. Speaker.
Does the Minister share my deep concern at the ongoing decline in the take-up of school meals, and is it not doubly ironic that the imposition of the deep-fried standard has actually contributed significantly to that decline? Will he adopt a more co-ordinated approach with Ministers from other Departments with an interest in this matter and review and reconsider that standard? Will he also prioritise the provision of ovens, so that the switch away from deep-frying facilities in our schools can be speeded up?
On deep fried, we are doing exactly the right thing. The provision of chips, for example, is limited to twice a week, and we would not want to encourage—as some would—chips being passed through the school gates. We are taking exactly the right steps, working with the School Food Trust to ensure high nutritional standards in schools.
On take-up, I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to a BBC survey at the back end of last year. We anticipated take-up issues arising in the early stages—that is not uncommon—but we are working with the School Food Trust to get some more up-to-date information, and I am confident that we will meet the demanding target that we have set of a 4 per cent. increase in the take-up of school meals by March 2008, and a 10 per cent. increase by autumn 2009.
Is the problem not twofold? First, not enough families are having a hot meal at night together at home, where children can learn the basic social skills and table manners that they should learn. Secondly, too many children are snacking on junk food on the journey to and from school. The Government’s own figures, published in the School Food Trust survey in April of last year, show that 51 per cent. of parents of children at secondary school are giving them up to or more than £5 a day so that they can buy these products. Will the Government take measures to encourage families to eat at home at night round the table?
We are certainly taking measures to reduce snacking on poor-quality foods. Later this year, new standards will be put in place, which the hon. Lady will doubtless welcome, on tuck food in schools. We will also introduce as part of our five-point plan the entitlement to cook in schools. That will ensure that children from the age of 11 through to 16 are taught to cook a nutritional meal at school, which they can then do at home. Hopefully, that will have a knock-on effect, so that children can make use at home of their education in nutritional values. I am sure that that will make a big difference not just in school, but at home.
I am delighted to be here—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—and to be telling my hon. Friend that the growth in apprenticeships since 1997 has been a major success story. In England at the end of 1997, 75,000 young people aged under 25 were engaged in apprenticeships; by the end of last year, 254,000 were so engaged. I am also pleased to be able to tell him that the proportion of young people completing their apprenticeships is now a record 59 per cent.
May I say how delighted I am to see the Minister in his place? What he has told us about today is a genuinely significant achievement. Ten years ago, when this Government came to power, we simply were not training our young people in skills for the future. However, does he not accept that for a significant part of the population, at least—young women—we are still not doing enough in the provision of apprenticeships in engineering and construction, for example? If we are to bridge the skills gap that exists and will continue to exist, we must close the gender gap. What can we do about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He is right; although some 47 per cent. of entrants to apprenticeships are young women, there is still an imbalance in the occupations that they take up. We are drawing up an action plan across Government with employers and the Learning and Skills Council to market to particular groups, such as young women, the benefits of taking up an apprenticeship—one of which is higher pay in construction and engineering, which my hon. Friend mentioned. We also want employer champions, especially women who have come through the apprentice system and are now leading figures in those industries, to tell other employers that they are not tapping into 50 per cent. of the work force and to explain how they could improve their productivity and profitability by utilising the talents of young women.
Is the Minister aware of the excellent scheme at Battersea power station, in which many of my constituents are involved? It is about getting women into construction. I recently went round the power station with many women who live in Putney but work in Battersea. Does he think that lessons from that scheme can be applied to other developments elsewhere?
I am aware of that scheme and, indeed, we launched our further education White Paper at that location because we wanted to celebrate the success of such schemes. It might be helpful if the hon. Lady were to have a word with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who unfortunately published an article recently that described apprenticeships disparagingly. He wrote that
“much training dubbed ‘apprenticeship’ is not worthy of the name.”
That is not a helpful contribution to attracting young people to apprenticeships.
I, too, welcome the Minister back. The figures are astounding, from 75,000 to 254,000, as he mentioned. However, we need to go further, because we still have an enormous skills shortage, especially of electricians, plumbers and other such trades. I wonder whether we should have some sort of scheme in which the apprenticeship starts in the last year of the child’s secondary education, so as to start it earlier. Is the Department doing any work on that?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. We have a scheme called the young apprenticeship scheme, with 10,000 young apprentices aged 14 to 16 in different parts of the country. The scheme equips them well for making the choice at the age of 16. We want to go further: the Leitch report on the future of skills recommended an expansion of apprenticeships to some 500,000 a year by 2020. That is a big challenge to all employers and training providers. It is a challenge that we have endorsed and we will bring forward proposals on how to achieve that step change in the delivery of apprenticeships in this country.
It is great to see the Minister back. I know that the whole House shares my warm personal regard for him, but I am sure that he would not expect me to pull my punches. Despite his bluff and blather, the fact is that we are training fewer people in higher level technical skills. The take-up of advanced apprenticeships has crashed by more than a quarter and is now below its 1997 level. The adult learning inspectorate report exposed the fact that one can complete an apprenticeship without setting foot in a workplace. Does not that tell you, Mr. Speaker—a model of the apprenticeship system—and the House that these are virtual apprenticeships, barely worthy of the name? Written answers from Ministers also show that employer engagement is falling. Will the Minister admit that the number of people in apprenticeship training at all levels is declining?
The hon. Gentleman is factually incorrect and has just insulted hundreds of thousands of apprentices, employers and those on whom apprentices rely for their training and support, who are doing a fantastic job. It is not possible to complete an apprenticeship without having to set foot in the workplace: one has to be in work to complete an apprenticeship. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to apologise to those people for his factual inaccuracies and disparaging remarks about apprenticeships and join the Government in celebrating their success. Half of the UK team that we are sending out to Japan to compete in the world skills championship—at the highest level possible—are young apprentices, so we can celebrate huge success in the training investment by this Government.
This month, we have given school staff a new statutory power to discipline pupils for misbehaviour on and off school premises. We have widened the scope for detentions, and established a new legal defence for confiscation. Next month, we will give heads the statutory power to search pupils for weapons without consent.
In respect of representations, in 2006-07 my Department replied to 307 items of public correspondence about discipline in schools. That was a 35 per cent. reduction on the previous year.
I have to say that I have not noticed a reduction. When I go to schools—in Leicestershire, not in the inner city—I get representations from teachers who tell me, for instance, that they are sworn at by pupils under the age of 14 three times before the start of the school day. I understand that one child under the age of six is expelled for bad behaviour each week. Are we not developing an anti-learning culture in our schools, where respect for teachers and authority is diminishing? The Government have offered some good new initiatives, but they also tend to mouth platitudes. They have taken no real action to sort out classrooms disrupted by poor behaviour so that those pupils who wish to learn can get on and do so.
The hon. Gentleman is not a good example of good behaviour in public school education. I can tell him that the idea that we are all going to hell in a handcart in respect of behaviour in schools is not just an insult to teachers, head teachers and today’s youngsters; it is simply not true. There has probably been the equivalent of the hon. Gentleman in every previous Parliament who pointed to a previous generation when behaviour was perfect. For the record, Ofsted measures pupil behaviour and has done so for some years. Most pupils behave well for most of the time, and the overwhelming majority of schools are orderly places. Indeed, the proportion of education in both secondary and primary schools that is satisfactory or better has increased and not declined.
The very important point is that behaviour and discipline in school is one of parents’ major concerns. That is why we have provided the powers that were recommended to the Conservative Government by the 1988 Elton report that came out of a committee of inquiry. Nothing happened then, but the powers that we have made available are relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s question, as they give teachers and head teachers the right to deal with bad behaviour outside the school gates. Those powers enjoyed all-party support and came into effect on 1 April. They will add to the existing powers that teachers have to reduce bad behaviour in our schools.
Reddish Vale technology college in my constituency has made great strides in reducing disruptive behaviour through the use of extra-curricular facilities, such as the on-site farm, to give disengaged pupils wider experience. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the new powers to discipline, the parenting contracts and the other powers that he has just mentioned are intended to complement and not detract from the efforts to tackle disruptive behaviour being made by schools such as Reddish Vale?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the powers are intended to complement schools’ work in that regard. From September, schools will be able to make parenting contracts in respect of behaviour without excluding the pupil involved. The anomaly in the current system is that parenting orders can be introduced only after pupils have behaved so badly that they have reached the stage of exclusion. The basic message is that parents have a responsibility when children behave badly. An important element of that is the fact that parents are included in the process through mechanisms such as parenting orders and an insistence that they go into schools to talk about their children’s bad behaviour. Teachers up and down the country are introducing innovative ways to ensure that their schools maintain an exemplary level of behaviour.
I congratulate the school to which my hon. Friend referred. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools says that he has visited it and that it is an excellent example of the work going on throughout the country.
Of course it is vital to distinguish between the disruptive child and the disabled child. Given that a number of children with disabilities, including those with the hidden disability of speech, language and communication impairment, have often been inappropriately physically restrained by staff who wrongly think that they are simply being naughty, will the Secretary of State heed the pleas of TreeHouse, the National Autistic Society and the Advisory Centre for Education—not to mention parents—who want the guidance on physical restraint to be made statutory, compliance with it to be monitored and training provided to staff so that they may effectively and fairly implement it?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and we need to keep the issue under review—it is constantly raised with me by parents. Getting the balance right and ensuring that we have the right level of competence and skill to distinguish between the child with genuine behavioural problems and the child who is badly behaved is something that educationists have been trying to achieve for a long time. The hon. Gentleman’s proposal for resolving the issue is one view of how we can deal with it and I promise him that I will look into it personally and come back to him.
From September, schools and local authorities will be required to arrange suitable full-time education for all excluded pupils from the sixth day of exclusion, which is a considerable improvement on the current expectation that local authorities do that from the 16th day of exclusion for permanently excluded pupils only. We shall also require schools to hold reintegration interviews with the parents of pupils excluded for fixed periods to discuss how their child’s behaviour can be improved.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the EAR to Listen independent advocacy pilot projects being carried out by Save the Children up and down the country, including in my constituency? The projects have achieved a great deal of success in maintaining vulnerable young people in a school setting rather than their being excluded. Can he look at that experience to see whether it can be adopted as best practice?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the Save the Children advocacy project to my attention. The scheme sounds excellent and I want to find out more about it to see whether there is good practice that we can extend elsewhere, so I have asked an official to attend the next Save the Children advocacy steering group on 1 May and to report back to me about the project.
As I think we all agree, first, that it is right to exclude disruptive children from school and, secondly, that we must reintegrate them as quickly as possible, may I suggest to the Minister that the state does not always know best? There seem to be many good voluntary organisations and I wonder whether they have sufficient support from his Department.
I agree with the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question. As he advises the leader of his party—to whom I listened on the “Today” programme on Monday—perhaps he could advise him that heads can exclude. We are backing heads when pupils’ behaviour warrants exclusion. We have made it clear that heads can permanently exclude pupils who are disruptive or violent, even for a first or one-off offence, and we have greatly limited the powers of appeals panels, to which reference was made, to return excluded pupils to the classroom. The vast majority of the 9,440 pupils permanently excluded each year are not returned to the classroom; in 2004-05 that happened in only 110 cases— 1.2 per cent. of exclusions. On the point about the voluntary sector, we are interested in that sector and want to work well with it across Government. That is something I regularly discuss with the Minister in the Cabinet Office with responsibility for the third sector across Government.
It is for local authorities to decide, in consultation with their schools forums, on the distribution of funding to their schools, taking account of local needs and circumstances. However, we know that local authority budgeted expenditure on the education of children with special educational needs has increased from £2.8 billion in 2001-02, when data were first available, to £4.5 billion in 2006-07, which reflects the 47 per cent. real-terms increase in the total revenue funding per pupil since the Government came to power.
Welcome as that additional funding is, the Minister will be aware through correspondence with her Department—as well as from my argument that Cornwall should get a fairer share of the schools budget—that because of how the formula is cut, schools such as Pendeen in my constituency, where more than half the pupils have either special educational needs or a statement, face severe financial challenges at present. If, as the Government say, “Every Child Matters”, what reassurance can the Minister provide that the formula will be set in such a way that in schools such as Pendeen SEN will be met? Will she agree to meet me and my constituents from Pendeen to discuss the challenges that they face?
The hon. Gentleman will know that elements in the funding from central Government to local authorities represent deprivation, which is an issue at Pendeen, and special educational needs. I know that the situation in Pendeen is as he describes and that a significant proportion of children are not statemented but have SEN. The issue is that the roll of pupils is falling, which explains the current budget problems in the school. The local authority is, however, fully aware of that and has visited Pendeen school very recently to talk to the head teacher about what can be done to meet the current position, which is reflected in other small schools in Cornwall. I would certainly be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman if that is what he would like.
The Solicitor-General was asked—
I regret that the Crown Prosecution Service does not hold information in the precise form requested. Human traffickers are sometimes prosecuted for other offences, ranging from rape to immigration offences. However, CPS records show that the number of charges for trafficking for sexual exploitation in the last three years were: 16 in 2004-05; 65 in 2005-06; and 116 in 2006-07.
That does not quite square with the answer that I was given by the Home Office in October, which stated that
“30 convictions for trafficking for sexual exploitation”—[Official Report, 23 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1682W.]
took place in total in the last three years, and that there were only 16 cases in that time, even though the Home Office admits that 4,000 women a year are being trafficked through our ports of entry. That means 12,000 women coming through, but only 30 convictions. Is that because trafficked women do not feel safe giving evidence against their traffickers and have no safe haven in Britain if they do give it; is it because the police do not give much priority in the overall scheme of things to pursuing traffickers; or is it, finally, because the Crown Prosecution Service is neither motivated nor up to the job of ensuring that traffickers are brought to court, charged, prosecuted and sentenced?
The point that I emphasised was that the figures I provided were charges. I will have a look at the answer that the hon. Gentleman received from the Home Office. The difficulty is that traffickers are often prosecuted under a range of different provisions and it depends precisely on the list of charges to which the answer was related.
On the wider issue, human trafficking clearly harms individuals—and the whole of our society, for that matter—and the CPS will prosecute if there is a public interest in doing so, as there invariably will be, where there is sufficient evidence to secure a prosecution. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the case of Luan Plakici who was sentenced to 10 years in the Crown court for organised trafficking. As a result of the Attorney-General’s reference, that was increased to 23 years, so we have had a number of very considerable successes. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to do more and we are doing more. Indeed, the UK Borders Bill will do more to enable us to carry out prosecutions.
Let me also say that I hope that signing up to the European convention on human trafficking will, when mandatory reflection periods come in, give victims more confidence to come forward and report these issues. Hopefully, that will result in more prosecutions.
It is expected that the victims surcharge will generate up to £16 million to provide better services for the victims of crime, including £3 million for witness care units to encourage and support victims and witnesses in giving evidence, £3 million to provide independent domestic violence advisers, and other funding to help victims organisations. Supporting and helping victims and witnesses within the criminal justice system is an important aspect of getting more successful prosecutions.
It has of course been extremely difficult to secure prosecutions in certain areas of criminality, especially domestic violence and rape. I welcome the implementation of the victims surcharge. Does the Solicitor-General agree that we will be able to expand the network of voluntary organisations that support victims and encourage them to come forward, given that fear and the possibility of stigma sometimes prevent people from bringing cases to trial?
My hon. Friend is right. The proper long-term funding of witness care units will help witnesses and victims to come forward, especially regarding cases of rape. The extra funding for independent domestic violence advisers, who we hope to have in place in 64 sites where we have established specialist domestic violence courts, will help victims of domestic violence. Securing funding for victims organisations is an important step that I hope will enable those who support victims to know that funding will be in place in the longer term. Those who offend will be in a position where they will make a contribution to supporting victims.
I do not accept that there is never a victim in motoring offences. Motoring offences are not victimless crimes. Some 3,201 people were killed on Britain’s roads in 2005, while 28,954 people were seriously injured and the total number of casualties was 271,000. Other so-called victimless crimes cause harm and create a cost to society through bringing the offender to justice and enforcing the sentence imposed. Money from the surcharge is going directly to help victims services—I think that the hon. Gentleman ought to be supporting that.
As was the case under previous Administrations, the Government’s position is that Law Officers should be Members of one of the Houses of Parliament so that they are accountable to this House and the other place for decisions that are reached and may be questioned about them.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Obviously, there are arguments on both sides, but I understand that the Solicitor-General has come to this House on three occasions to answer questions about the controversial decision not to prosecute British Aerospace. Had he not been a Member of this House, who would have been able to answer our questions about that problem?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. As soon as the Serious Fraud Office took its decision to halt the investigation regarding BAE Systems, I came to the House—the Attorney-General went to the House of Lords—to explain the decision in person. There have been three debates in this House and three in the other place on that decision in which we have participated. We have corresponded with a large number of Members of both Houses. That happens only because the Law Officers are Members of Parliament, directly accountable to it for the work of the Serious Fraud Office and the other main prosecuting authorities. That would be lost if the Law Officers were taken out of the picture and out of Parliament.
I agree entirely with the Solicitor-General. In the circumstances, would he care to comment on the views held by the Minister of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has been advocating that the Law Officers should be taken out of Parliament altogether and should cease to be Members of the Lords or the Commons?
I take a different view entirely. I think that all Ministers, not only Law Officers, should not be Members of the House. That is part of the problem. If I am the Minister for paper clips and statues, the only thing that I can talk about is paper clips and statues. If I am a Government Whip, I cannot say anything at all—I tell a lie; I could move that the House adjourns. We want Ministers out of the House, but we want to bring them to account in the House for their stewardship, whether they are Law Officers, Foreign Office Ministers or Home Secretaries.
My view is that Ministers should be accountable in this House. They should be able to answer questions from Members such as my hon. Friend. The Law Officers have to decide on controversial issues and we want to ensure that they have to come to this House and the other place to answer questions on them. It is all about accountability. In a sense, people can pay their money and take their choice, but accountability is important in this place and we can provide it.
I, too, agree that accountability to this House on the part of Law Officers is extremely important. In that context, the Attorney-General has, rightly, made it plain that were the dossier from the Director of Public Prosecutions on the cash-for-peerages investigation to be passed to him for decision, he would take independent counsel’s advice. In light of the accountability of the Attorney-General to the House, will he make that advice available to Members, either immediately if no prosecution takes place, or, if it does, on a Privy Council basis until such time as the trial would not be prejudiced by the contents?
It is premature to speculate on precisely what will happen in this case. The police file has gone to the CPS, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the fact that the Law Officers have not yet seen any of the evidence. The Attorney-General has said that if he is consulted he will take advice from senior independent counsel. He has undertaken to consult Opposition spokesmen for the Law Officers’ role on the choice of counsel. He has said that if the decision is taken not to prosecute, he would wish to publish counsel’s advice in so far as it is in accord with the principles of justice. That will ensure that the whole process is as objective and transparent as possible.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 30 April will be:
Monday 30 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Tuesday 1 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 2 May—A motion to approve a European document relating to the protection of critical infrastructure, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill, followed by a debate on Sri Lanka on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Thursday 3 May—A debate on policing in London on an Adjournment of the House.
Friday 4 May—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 7 May will include:
Monday 7 May—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 8 May—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a Liberal Democrat motion, subject to be announced.
Wednesday 9 May—Remaining stages of the UK Borders Bill.
Thursday 10 May—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill, followed by consideration of a resolution on rating (empty properties)
Friday 11 May—The House will not be sitting.
The website TheyWorkForYou.com has been threatened with legal action for repeating what was printed in Hansard. Will the Leader of the House make a statement about the application of parliamentary privilege to organisations with a licence to reprint Hansard?
This week, it has emerged that lives have been put at risk by leaks about anti-terrorist operations. Peter Clarke of the Metropolitan police said:
“The people who do this…are beneath contempt”
and “put lives at risk.” Yesterday, the Prime Minister refused to guarantee that the leaks did not come from Ministers, civil servants or special advisers, yet he refused to order a full-scale inquiry. Contrary to assurances given by the Home Secretary to my hon. Friend the shadow Attorney-General, it is reported today that the source of the leaks is the Home Secretary’s special adviser. Why are the Government refusing an independent inquiry? On 6 February, Liberty submitted a freedom of information request in relation to media briefings on the raids. An answer has been delayed by the Home Office not once but twice, and is now due on 3 May. Will the Leader of the House guarantee that the Home Office will reply on 3 May, and that the Home Secretary will make a statement to the House at the first opportunity?
On Tuesday, Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, said that the split of the Home Office is
“a very big change for our constitution”,
“There has been no debate. Parliament has not considered this”.
Will the Leader of the House commit to a debate in Government time on the restructuring of the Home Office? May we also have a statement from a Minister from the Department for Constitutional Affairs on judicial independence? The changes must not go ahead without our ensuring that proper safeguards are in place.
When people vote in next week’s local elections, they will do so without knowing the full extent of the Labour tax bombshell that awaits them. That is because the Chancellor’s Lyons review, carried out at a cost of £2.25 million, has been buried, at least until after the local elections, but official Treasury documents show that although the 2007 council tax revaluation in England has been postponed, council tax inspectors are already maintaining and further improving the extensive electronic database of every home in England. That database will include details of home improvements and photographs, and will catalogue the bedrooms, bathrooms and attics of every home. If the Orwellian Chancellor will not make a statement to the House on the future of local government finance, will his campaign manager, the Leader of the House, make one? If voters do not know about Labour’s council tax bombshell, they do know that Conservative councils have cheaper council tax, cleaner streets, less litter, less graffiti and less fly-tipping, so may we have a debate on best practice in local government?
The issues that I have mentioned are typical of the Government’s attitude to scrutiny; there are sham consultations and policies that nobody wants, and there is no chance for scrutiny by Parliament. Perhaps it is little wonder that the Secretary of State for Wales has said:
“We at the top of the party and government have lost touch with…the country.”
If they want to get back in touch with the country, why do they not stop lecturing and start listening?
That is another wonderful pay-off line—absolutely terrific. [Interruption.] Oh, good; one person on the Opposition Benches says that they think that it was good, too. That is better than usual.
To deal with the serious point that the right hon. Lady made at the beginning of her remarks, I gather that there was a report that the website, TheyWorkForYou.com, is being sued for defamation for repeating what was printed in Hansard. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving me notice of the issue. The position is made very clear and is spelled out in “Erskine May”, which says that
“the publication, whether by order of the House or not, of a fair and accurate account of a debate in either House is protected by the same principle as that which protects fair reports of proceedings in courts of justice…This is a matter of common law, rather than of parliamentary privilege.”
The matter is privileged, and we will obviously watch that action with great care, but our democracy could not work if fair and accurate reports of our proceedings were subject to attack from people moving defamation proceedings.
May I deal with the other issues that the right hon. Lady raised? First, she made some wholly unsubstantiated allegations about the leaks of advance counter-terrorism operations, which we all wholly deprecate and deplore. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, contrary to what she said, said that as far as he was aware, he was able to give a guarantee that the leaks did not come from any Minister, civil servant or special adviser. The Leader of the Opposition asked exactly that, and the Prime Minister said:
“The only guarantee that I can give is that as far as I am aware, they did not”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 931.]
That, I should have thought, was pretty categorical. Secondly, those are very serious allegations, and I agree with those who say that if they are that serious, they should be investigated by the police, not by a conventional inquiry. The right hon. Lady’s third point was about the split in the Home Office—
I shall follow up Liberty’s FOI request, but I can say no more about it, as I do not have any particular knowledge of it.
The right hon. Lady asked about the division of the Home Office and the establishment from 9 May of a Ministry of justice. There was indeed a statement about the establishment by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and a parallel statement in the other place by the Lord Chancellor. I cannot give a guarantee, but I shall certainly give consideration to the question of whether a debate is possible. As for judicial independence, the right hon. Lady is tilting at windmills, because she may remember the supreme court Act—if that is not correct, it is an Act that was passed in 2003—which provided for the establishment of the Department for Constitutional Affairs and of a supreme court. The independence of the judiciary, which in practice has always been guaranteed by our constitution, is now clearly and categorically enshrined in statute. The duties of the Lord Chancellor and of the proposed Secretary of State for Justice are enhanced and set out, too.
On the right hon. Lady’s final point, in seeking to curry favour with Conservative candidates, she resorted to fantasy. She said that Lyons was buried: Lyons has been published—it was published on the day of the Budget. I have a copy, and I have already read most of it, so I am sorry that she has not entertained herself as I have done. She invited me to have a debate—it is not my responsibility any more, but I am delighted to have a debate any time at all about local government finance. Many of us were Members of Parliament when the Conservatives rammed through the poll tax, first, in Scotland, before the 1987 general election, and then in England and Wales, leading to mounting panic among Conservative Members of Parliament as well as incredible opposition from Labour Members of Parliament. That brought down the then Margaret Thatcher and led to the collapse of the Conservative party.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I should have said, “Baroness Thatcher”.
On value for money, the figures show year after year after year that council tax costs people less with Labour authorities. The average council tax is much lower under Labour. We provide better value for money, and if I were Leader of the House—[Laughter.] I am the Leader of the House, so I am going to mention it, but if I were shadow Leader of the House, I would be more concerned about the antics of the Leader of the Opposition. The Daily Mail headline on page 28 says: “Another day, another… stunt for Cameron”. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) travelled 100 miles to paint an already white wall in a desperate effort to get some votes for the Conservatives.
Wearside Women in Need, an outstanding project in my constituency, has recently won a substantial grant from the Treasury Invest to Save programme to build a hostel for the perpetrators of domestic violence. I invite the Leader of the House to add his support to that of Northumbria police, the city council and other organisations for the project. It is probably the first of its kind in the world, and certainly the first in the United Kingdom, and will enable perpetrators of domestic violence to be given help so that we can try and deal with the root causes. When we can evaluate its impact, will he provide an opportunity for all Members of the House to benefit from the scheme and its objectives?
The Leader of the House said that he deprecates and deplores the leaks about anti-terrorism operations. Will the Home Secretary come to the House on Monday to confirm that a police investigation has been launched along the lines that the Leader of the House described?
Further on the Home Office, may we have a debate on printing facilities in the Home Office and whether they are fit for purpose? The Home Office is obliged by law to lay before the House at six-monthly intervals a report on the costs of ID cards. That has not been done. The deadline has been missed. In addition, a commitment was made by the Home Secretary on 10 January that 27,500 files on offences committed abroad would be added to the police national computer within three months. That is another deadline that has passed. Will the Home Secretary report on both issues on Monday?
May we have a debate on coroners? That is a subject which causes concern to many people around the country, not just in the context of the inquest into Princess Diana’s death, but the deplorable backlog in military inquests, which still persists and causes enormous distress to many families. May I add to that another instance of malfunction in the coroners system—the after-effects of the awful train crash at Ufton Nervet, which the right hon. Gentleman will recall? Families in Devon who lost family members in that train crash went to the High Court to secure legal aid for representation at the inquiry, and have now been told that the Government intend, disgracefully, to appeal against that grant of legal aid. One family which lost a mother and a daughter in that crash will not be represented, if the Government have their way.
Lastly, may we have a debate on engineering and innovation, this being science and engineering week? Many right hon. and hon. Members had the opportunity last night to visit the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and saw an excellent exhibition, including my constituent, Andy Green, exhibiting a remarkable vehicle that does 5,353 miles per gallon, which ain’t bad. We often fail to recognise the critical role that engineers and scientists play in our society, dealing with problems that face us in the future. May we have a debate on the way that we encourage engineering in this country and encourage people to follow that career path?
I cannot give any undertaking that the Home Secretary will be able to make a statement on Monday. He has always been assiduous in responding to requests from the House, but I can make no promise about that. On printing and the six-monthly report, I will follow that up. Either I or the Home Secretary will write to the hon. Gentleman.
On coroners, the Lord Chancellor is well aware of the backlog of inquests, particularly military inquests dealing with deaths in action. It is partly for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made arrangements to shift the site of the incoming flights carrying the coffins of those who have been killed in action from Brize Norton to Lyneham. We hope that that is working better, but all of us are extremely anxious to ensure that, first, there are prompt inquests and, secondly, that they are thorough and that, when they take place, they show proper respect to the young man or woman who was killed in action and to their families and comrades.
I am afraid that I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the train crash in Devon—[Hon. Members: “In Berkshire.”] I am sorry; that is why I knew nothing about a train crash in Devon. The train crash in Berkshire is a different matter. I will take it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and the Lord Chancellor.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about engineering and innovation. We will have to look to see whether there is an opportunity for a debate, but all of us need to understand and appreciate the extraordinary role that science and engineering have made in the development of our society. I recognised that last Friday when I was privileged to open the new exhibition on Blackburn’s textile heritage. As everyone in the House should know—I think that most do—the industrial revolution and therefore Britain’s greatness began in Blackburn.
May I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that we should have a debate on local authority best practice so that, in particular, I can raise the issue of recycling by local authorities to bring to people’s attention the fact that Ellesmere Port and Neston borough council is the most improved council in England in respect of its recycling targets? That is a good reason why people should consider voting Labour next week.
I agree with both things that my hon. Friend has said. The council has had an extraordinary improvement in its recycling rate. I also point out to him and the House that, 10 years ago, just 7 per cent. of waste was recycled; now it is more than four times that amount.
Last year, I asked the Leader of the House if we could have a debate on leniency in sentencing guidelines. This followed a case in which a gentleman—I call him a “gentleman”—raped a 12-week-old baby and will serve less than four years in prison. On Friday in Plymouth, a mother, a grandmother and two aunts were sentenced to 100 days’ community service and a one-year suspended sentence after they filmed their forcing their children to fight each other. One child was in nappies and in tears throughout the event. May we have a debate on this sort of sentencing?
First, I said last week that I would write to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General about what had been said. I have done exactly that, and either the Attorney-General or I will write to the hon. Gentleman.
Secondly, all of us understand and, to a degree, share the concern about such reports, but we must also bear it in mind that it is fundamental to our constitution that judicial decisions in trial at the point of sentence are made independently. We cannot get into a position of second-guessing those decisions simply on the basis of newspaper reports. Members are right to echo concerns and raise their own concerns about such cases, and I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman for what he has done. However, ensuring that there is a proper separation is vital for everybody. Of course, I will ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is again made aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
I know that my right hon. Friend is doing everything he can to consider a debate on Darfur, so will he consider extending the remit of that debate so that we can discuss genocide education in the United Kingdom? Does he share my astonishment that a motion supported by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party on Sandwell council this week in favour a holocaust memorial day in Sandwell was not supported by the British National party? Does he think that holocaust denial in the UK is a great threat to our democracy and peace and that we should do everything that we can to educate our young people?
Can we have an early statement from the Leader of the House and then a debate on the report by Sir Hayden Phillips on party funding, which was published last month? The Prime Minister has charged the Leader of the House with finding a resolution to that vexed problem and we need to know whether he will discharge that responsibility before he moves on to pastures new.
Whether I do, in fact, discharge those responsibilities remains to be seen. However, we do not need a debate, because I can give the right hon. Gentleman an answer straight away.
I am currently doing my best to discharge those responsibilities. I have already had a preliminary meeting with representatives of the other two main parties and Sir Hayden Phillips has written to the three parties proposing a series of meetings to try to seek all-party agreement. They will take place very rapidly and, I think, without question while I am in this post.
Leaving aside a particular case on which I have written to you, Mr. Speaker, and on which you have given me advice to refer the matter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether we can have a debate on the new communications allowance? It appears that there is a lack of understanding by individuals and political parties about the permitted use of their logo. I have informed the hon. Members for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) that I am raising the matter today with you, Mr. Speaker.
Order. The hon. Lady should not refer to any hon. Member regarding this case. Just in case other Members think that I am giving such advice, I also say to her that I have not advised her to take the matter up with the parliamentary commissioner. I said that the matter that she brought before me was not for me, but for the parliamentary commissioner. However, it is entirely a matter for her or any other hon. Member whether they make a complaint to the commissioner. The Speaker will never invite hon. Members to do that.
I have written to the hon. Lady about this matter, and I know that she is aware of the contents of my letter. She will do best to wait until she receives the letter. I do not wish the Leader of the House to respond to her point.
As the head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorist unit has made it absolutely clear that a leak could have put lives at risk and as The Guardian this morning has alleged that the Home Secretary’s special adviser could have been the person who caused the leak, is it not strange and unfortunate that the director of Liberty’s request under the Freedom of Information Act dated 6 February has not been dealt with by the Home Office? Will the Leader of the House assure us that he will not only look into the matter, as he has promised he will, but make a statement very soon indeed—in the next few days—on what the outcome is? It is unacceptable that this Freedom of Information Act request is being delayed; it is harming good government.
I have already given an answer to that. However, I point out that under the Freedom of Information Act members of the public, including the director of Liberty, have clear rights to seek information, but public authorities—in this case, the Home Secretary—have rights to consider the application and, in appropriate circumstances, to resist it. I do not know anything in particular about this case, but that is the Act that this House and the other place agreed to.
The Leader of the House will no doubt have followed the story of the proposed takeover of Boots by KKR, which would be another private equity financing deal. Although he will know that KKR has made certain guarantees about job security—they are very welcome—does he recognise that there is disquiet about private equity companies because the work force, suppliers and customers have much less certainty about the future strategy of such companies? Is it not time that we had a debate in this place to discuss the impact of these companies on the British economy?
Of course I recognise the anxiety that a work force always feel when there is a change in ownership. However, private equity companies say that their record in terms of job creation is better than that in the economy as a whole, and that needs to be weighed in the balance. I cannot promise a specific debate on the issue, but with ingenuity and the agreement of the Chairman of Ways and Means, my hon. Friend might be able to find an opportunity to raise these concerns during the consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill at the beginning of next week.
May I support the request for a debate on the splitting up of the Home Office? No doubt the Leader of the House will loyally defend that, but is he aware that he is alone among former occupants of the post of Home Secretary in advocating it? The unlikely alliance of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the right hon. Members for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is far from alone in questioning the wisdom of changes that will lead to one Department, the Home Office, being in charge of reducing offending, and another Department, a Ministry of justice, being in charge of reducing reoffending.
I saw that comment too. I do not feel lonely, but I am always grateful for the consideration that the hon. Gentleman shows for my welfare. If we examine experience elsewhere in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, we see that the exact dividing line between interior and justice Ministries varies. In some countries, the prison and probation services and the lead on criminal justice are with the Ministry of the Interior; in most countries, however, it is with the Ministry of Justice. That is what is to happen here. I do not believe that it is an earth-shattering change. Of course, there were bound to be some transitional issues, which are being worked through carefully. This has happened with considerable notice—unlike, if I may say so, many changes to the machinery of Government that happened under the Conservative Administration whom he will recall, which happened just like that.
Although I completely support the creation of a Ministry of justice, I also support the call by the shadow Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) for a debate on the matter, bearing it in mind that this week Lord Woolf said that in his view Britain’s unwritten constitution was being changed without consultation. Clearly, we need to modernise the system and to have a separate ministry of justice, but it is important that the House debates these issues before, in the words of the Home Secretary, they are fully embedded by the end of June and beginning of July—although the change will take place on 9 May. Please may we have that debate as soon as possible?
On a point of clarification, the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made about the Upton Nervet rail crash concerned my constituent, David Main, who received an assurance from the Legal Services Commission that he should receive public funds to cover his time at the inquest. That was opposed by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We need a debate into the increasingly bizarre decisions being taken by that cash-strapped Department. It has taken the matter to judicial review and lost, and is now appealing, which is costing it much more than it would cost to give Mr. Main the money. Meanwhile, the inquest is being held up for all the victims of the rail crash. Will the Leader of the House make that point in his communication to the Lord Chancellor?
I understand, of course, the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises and the distress to his constituents. I promise to raise the matter with my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. Before doing so, it would be convenient for me to have a word with the hon. Gentleman at the end of this session.
Next Thursday, I will visit Larkhill primary school in my constituency, where the children are having a mock election, to talk to them about their manifestos. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an excellent example of the practical application of the citizenship agenda in schools, which encourages children to be engaged in the democratic process at an early age; and will he make time for a debate on citizenship in the House?
Yes, I do agree. The earlier that we are able to provide children with good teaching stimulation about being good citizens, the better it is for this country. I am of a generation—my hon. Friend is not quite of that generation, but approaching it—[Interruption.] I was trying to be helpful, but I withdraw that outrageous slur. I put my foot in it, and then did so again. I shall just speak for myself. My hon. Friend will not remember this, but in the 1950s, following the terrible divisions of the war, there was a very intense view about the importance of citizenship. I remember that it was a subject that was given the highest priority at the primary and secondary schools that I attended. We want to get back to that.
Can we have a debate on open government? Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS trust has set up two working parties, one to look at the future of maternity services and the other to look at the future of children’s services at Horton general hospital in my constituency. It refuses to publish the names or professional qualifications of the members of those working parties, or even to acknowledge a request for that information under the Freedom of Information Act. Can the Leader of the House think of any conceivable justification for my constituents not knowing the names and qualifications of the members of those working parties, who are going to determine the future configuration of health and hospital services in the general hospital in my constituency?
May we have a debate on the potential break-up of the United Kingdom? Does my right hon. Friend share the concerns of 150 Scottish business people, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and serious commentators such as the Financial Times that those promoting the break-up of the UK are embarking on a dangerous journey that would be disastrous for the people of Scotland?
Yes, I hope that we can in time have a debate on exactly that. There is no doubt at all that a break-up of the United Kingdom, the separation of Scotland, or even an Administration in Scotland dominated by a party that is seeking separation would be bad news for Scotland. I note that Mr. Jim Mather, the Scottish National party’s enterprise spokesman, as quoted yesterday in the Financial Times, says that he would use “fiscal fairy dust” to help the economy of an independent Scotland. He says:
“There is no orthodoxy we will not challenge”
and then raises the possibility of increasing indirect taxes to try to fill the black hole in Scotland’s public finances that would occur were there to be an SNP-dominated Administration.
May I press the Leader of the House again on whether the Home Secretary should make a statement next week about an inquiry into the leak at the Home Office? Yesterday, the Prime Minister pressed Conservative Members for evidence on this matter, but surely we have plenty. We know that a leak to the media took place even before the arrests were undertaken. We know that that leak was not authorised by the police. We know that very few people were in a position to know that sensitive information. We know from other areas of Downing street and Whitehall that it is easy to track communications between individuals using electronic devices. Given the importance of this matter and that lives could have been put at stake, as the police said yesterday, will the Leader of the House press his colleagues to come forward with a leak inquiry?
May we have a debate on the exploitation of migrant workers in this country? My right hon. Friend may have seen the recent investigative report by the BBC. Although the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is working hard to eradicate the problems of the exploitation of migrant workers, he will be aware that its remit covers only the agricultural industry. There is now clear evidence that gangmasters are moving into the construction industry, endangering the lives of not only migrant workers but indigenous workers, and are using migrant workers to undermine and undercut the wages and conditions of indigenous workers. It is time that we extended the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 to cover those working in the construction industry.
First, I think that the House will commend my hon. Friend for promoting the Bill that set up the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and for his concern about the issue. Secondly, I have seen the reports and I believe that the House would wish the matter to be debated, albeit perhaps in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment, not necessarily in a full debate here. The issue is important and I know that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry are also concerned about it.
The Leader of the House knows that in December last year the Government began a consultation about giving votes in local and general elections to convicted prisoners. That followed an extraordinary judgment by the European Court of Human Rights that we should overturn the Forfeiture Act 1870, which forbids prisoners the vote. Given that the Liberal Democrats are going around the country campaigning for that—they want murderers, paedophiles and rapists to be able to vote—it is a matter of concern.
I hope that we will be told in a statement how long the consultation will last and given a guarantee that the House will have a chance to debate the matter. I also hope that the Leader of the House will give a personal assurance that he opposes the proposal as fiercely as I am sure most hon. Members do. I certainly do, as do my constituents.
I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I heard from a sedentary position a denial of the Liberal Democrat policy, but it is clear. Kirsty Young asked:
“Lib Dems’ policy as I understand it is that criminals should be allowed a vote. Is that right?”
The former leader of the Liberal Democrats replied: “Yes, that’s correct.” More recently, we heard some wonderful Lib-Demory from the home affairs spokesman:
“Accepting that the bulk of prisoners should retain the right to vote, whilst a minority of serious offenders should not, is a nuanced response to a difficult issue.”
It is the usual story from the Lib Dems. They say one thing and want another when it becomes uncomfortable.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) is right: Liberal Democrat policy is to allow not only those who have been convicted but those who are serving a sentence for paedophilia, robbery, burglary and so on to have a vote while they are in prison. It is not a policy that I support.
May we please have a debate on sex education in schools? Given that a recent online survey of no fewer than 2,200 university students undertaken by the Terrence Higgins Trust in conjunction with the National Union of Students found that 10 per cent. of those students did not know how to put on a condom correctly, 16 per cent. mistakenly thought that wearing two condoms at once was safer than merely wearing one, and almost 25 per cent. wrongly supposed that other forms of contraception would effectively protect them from sexually transmitted diseases, is not it imperative that the House debate the issues and consider the priority given to the subject, the funding provided for it, and whether such education should be made compulsory in all schools?
May we have a debate on young people and social mobility? I am sure that the Leader of the House knows about the research that the Centre for Economic Performance, which is part of the London School of Economics, conducted last year, which showed that social mobility in Britain is declining. Clearly, the issue is complex and requires a cross-departmental response, but may we have a debate to flush out the issues and find some consensus on the action that needs to be taken?
Will the Leader of the House be kind enough to draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport the chaos surrounding the hastily announced closure of the driving test centre in Kettering on 15 June? Anyone who wants to take a driving test will have to go to the Wellingborough test centre, which clearly does not have the capacity to deal with the thousands of my constituents who want to take their test in the near future. The situation is serious and I would be most grateful for appropriate Government action to tackle it.
May we have a debate on Government policy on leak inquiries? In recent years, the Government have undertaken leak inquiries into relatively minor matters such as details of the refurbishment of 10 Downing street, but they will not undertake an inquiry to find out, on the balance of probabilities, what happened in the case of the leaks to which Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke referred. Those leaks have put people’s lives at risk. Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that Government policy on leak inquiries is to hold one if the leak embarrasses the Government but not to hold one if the identity of the leaker would embarrass them?
No, I own up—there is no need for a leak inquiry.
My point is not that the allegations are trivial—they are not—but that it is precisely because they are serious and potentially involve interference with a criminal investigation that, if anyone has prima facie evidence, not simply newspaper reports, it is a matter for a police inquiry.
May we have a debate on midwifery? Not enough student midwives are being trained and a significant number who are trained have no jobs at the end of their training due to a freeze on midwifery jobs. Given that the Secretary of State for Health made another eye-catching headline a priority over Easter, may we have a debate to find how she will fulfil her promises without tackling the shortfall in midwives?
I accept that there is a problem in some parts of the country. Last time I examined the figures, I noted an increase in the number of midwives in training. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is genuinely concerned to ensure continuing improvement in midwifery services. If the hon. Gentleman has specific problems and lets me have details, I will follow them up.
New data out today from all the police forces in the country show that a policeman is being assaulted on Britain’s streets every 20 minutes. Given that the Home Office has introduced 50 Acts of Parliament, many of which were designed to help protect our police, perhaps we can have a debate on the extent to which legislation—as opposed to encouraging social responsibility—can be used as a means of preventing the attacks rather than simply a means of protecting the police when they happen.
I would be delighted to have a debate comparing our record on reducing crime with that of the previous Administration, under whom crime doubled in 18 years. Any attack on a police officer is deplorable, but the last time I examined the figures, I was struck by the fact that improvements in safety, equipment and training for the police and the much tougher sentences included in the 50 or so criminal justice measures, meant that attacks and assaults on police officers had decreased, as had injuries and days off work.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At Education questions earlier today, I raised the issue of apprenticeships and said that some were being completed without a foot being set in the workplace. The Minister who replied denied that, and I fear that he may have inadvertently misled the House, as the adult learning inspectorate warned in 2006—
Order. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Speaker has ruled on more than one occasion that a point of order cannot be used as a means of continuing an argument and that other ways are open to him to correct the record if he believes that that is justified.
Defence in the UK
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Tony Cunningham.]
I welcome this opportunity to debate defence in the United Kingdom. I know that the House will echo the sentiments that the Prime Minister expressed at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, marking the recent loss of service personnel in Iraq. The three personnel were brought home earlier today, and our thoughts are with their families at this difficult time.
The House often—and rightly—discusses military operations abroad. I again pay tribute to the tremendous work that personnel from all three services are doing in the most difficult of environments in Iraq and Afghanistan and to their achievements there and elsewhere serving on our behalf. We should not forget that they could not achieve so much overseas without the right training and support at home. Nor should we overlook the huge contribution our forces make to this country, its success and its prosperity.
First, second and last, defence in the UK is defined by the people of the armed forces and the civilians who support them: almost 390,000 in all, nearly 200,000 of whom are regular military personnel. If we include their families, the community is very substantial indeed—probably about 1 million. When the wider community of veterans and their families is included, defence in its wider sense represents a very significant proportion of our society.
I want to focus on issues related to people: how we look after them, train them and respect them. Above all, defence in the UK is about people and their communities. Military bases the length and breadth of the country, from Lossiemouth to Portsmouth, Brize Norton, Catterick, Harrogate and Winchester—north, south, east and west—make a major contribution to local communities and local economies.
The backdrop to all that is that all three services are in a state of major change, as is the Ministry of Defence itself. Each of the three services is reviewing its structures and basing. The naval base review is currently ongoing to establish the most effective way—in terms of capability and cost—for the Royal Navy to meet its future requirements. It is a complicated and wide-reaching review, and when it is completed later this year the House will be duly informed of our findings and conclusions.
The restructuring of the Army, through the future Army structure and the future infantry structure, will enhance the operational effectiveness of the Army as a whole, ensuring that it is properly configured in this era of joint and expeditionary operations. It will also improve stability for our soldiers and their families in the long term. When the process is completed, Army personnel will no longer be subject to constant relocation. We are planning the establishment of super garrisons, with comprehensive modern facilities. That will help to make life more stable for personnel and their families, improving continuity in schooling and access to dental and medical care, and helping our people to put down roots.
When does the Minister envisage bringing back the British Army on the Rhine, given the extra costs of those personnel serving there rather than here? If he is thinking of super garrisons, will he please consider Bicester in the list? It was a super garrison for the Romans, and it would be an ideal super garrison location for the UK Army in the 21st century. [Interruption.]
As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) says, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, however, and we are considering relocating a sizeable number of personnel back from Germany. We benefit greatly from our presence in Germany, not just because of the quality of our basing there, but because of the extent of the training estate. Clearly, having people close to good training environments is essential. All 22,000 personnel in Germany will not be returning, but we are considering relocating a sizeable component, and the German authorities at both federal and local level have been notified of that. We have employed many people there over the years, and we must also consider the impact on their communities.
As for Bicester, nothing is ever ruled in or out. If a defence estate is available, we always consider whether it is where the best fit can be achieved. Off the top of my head, I cannot say whether anything has been specifically planned for Bicester along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman, but I will always consider any good ideas.
The Minister is right that the super garrisons must be based near the best possible training facilities. I can think of no better place, however, than RAF Lyneham, which he has announced will close in 2012. Has he given any thought to what will happen to Lyneham after the RAF pull out in 2012?
I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that we are considering Lyneham, and a number of options, and one main one, have been examined. All of this is in the early stages, however, and I will deal later with the extent of the process, the way in which assets are released and how best to allocate them. As ever, we will keep all those who have a shopping list on what we should do in defence up to date as best we can. I have initiated a proactive process, because sometimes in the past we have tended to be behind the curve in notifying local communities and in planning. Clearly, that is not desirable, and if there is an early indication of a possibility of relocation, we should talk about that as early as possible, as it may save the closure of a school or something else. We are conscious of that issue, and the response of communities is helpful.
I feel obliged to get involved in this debate about new training facilities, as it is an important one. Recruitment in the north-east is probably the strongest in the country, so should not any new training establishment be in the north-east, and particularly in Stockton, which had an RAF base that was second-to-none during the second world war?
I may not get beyond page three of my speech if I accept every intervention on the quality of existing or past bases. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, however, and, as I said, we consider what assets we have and where the best fit is. We try to consider the quality of life of the families involved, as well as value for money. Sometimes, we might be prepared to make a move at a later stage than when a particular asset is available, and an asset cannot have a planning blight on it. Defence Estates and its broader reach involves a complicated picture, and that is why a committee of senior personnel in the MOD considers all those matters. It is a complex grid, but intense effort is put into trying to get the best solution. But, as ever, the request made by my hon. Friend has been absorbed.
In addition to the Royal Navy and the Army, the Royal Air Force has been conducting a review of its airbases to ensure that service units are combined for maximum efficiency and operability. The aim is to reduce running costs by seeking to rationalise around fewer sites, while continuing to deliver operational outputs and meet future challenges. Twelve airfields have been, or are being, disposed of, two more have been closed, and we are planning to dispose of a further 10 by 2010.
The House will be aware of some of the decisions that have been taken on long-term basing of our RAF aircraft: Lossiemouth will be the base for the joint combat aircraft; Kinloss for the Nimrod fleet; Brize Norton for the air transport fleet; Leuchars and Coningsby will host Typhoon; and Waddington will be the base for our intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets. The underlying drive is to maximise the resources available to the front line, to deliver operational effect rather than administrative overhead. All three services have made great progress in that. The Navy and RAF have combined their operational and personnel commands and the Army is following suit.
In the interim, that has meant significant upheaval for a large number of our personnel, military and civilian. The long-term gain, however, is to achieve the best military fit and the best solutions for our service families. All those decisions and others that will follow will define the long-term lay-down of our defence estate. We generally welcome the good and harmonious relations that we have with the communities neighbouring our bases. In a number of cases, the defence presence is a major part of the local economy, sustaining communities and improving the quality of life in the area.
For the vast majority of our personnel and their families, the United Kingdom is home. I am aware that despite the huge sums that we are investing in accommodation—£700 million in this year alone, and £5 billion over the next decade—there is much more to be done. In the past six years 20,000 new single living bed spaces have been provided, and a further 20,000 will be delivered in the next five years. In the same period, we have upgraded 12,000 family quarters across the United Kingdom. In the past six months we have opened new single living accommodation at Colchester, Honington and Woodbridge, to name just three locations. This is all part of our commitment to deliver better homes to our people and their families.
Getting the whole estate up to the required standard will not be achieved overnight; a long history of underfunding means that it will take years to put things right. However, after a difficult start the new maintenance regimes for service family accommodation in England and Wales have made real progress, and we will continue to refine and improve them.
We also recognise the need to improve the support that we give personnel who wish to buy their properties. We have worked with the Department for Communities and Local Government to gain access to the key worker living programme, which has given service personnel a new way of gaining access to affordable housing in all English regions and, to an even greater extent, in London and the south-east and east of England.
Can we learn from the mistakes of past Governments as well as the present Government? We should think very carefully when we sell off married quarters because bases are closing. The Minister mentioned the new accommodation that we have built at what was RAF Woodbridge, but we have just sold much accommodation—for instance, at RAF Bentwaters, just a few miles down the road. That seems completely illogical.
I will not engage in a debate about the apportioning of blame. The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could learn lessons, and the answer to that is yes. There is an imbalance between the location of some accommodation and the location of our requirements, and we need to think about innovative solutions. I mentioned the key worker living programme, which allows personnel to buy properties with considerably less capital than they would otherwise need. They can buy between 25 and 75 per cent. of a property on which they will pay a mortgage, and pay subsidised rent on the remainder.
As the hon. Gentleman implied, no one has a monopoly on good ideas, and we are still looking for good and better ideas. We must be imaginative and innovative, and think not just about the here and now but about the profile of the next 10, 15 or 25 years. We must find better answers than we have so far, because this is undeniably an important issue.
I accept what the Minister is saying, but may I ask for a degree of flexibility in budgets? I accept that some RAF stations will close over the next 15 or years. There is little point in investing in SLAM—single living accommodation modernisation—for those stations, but if budgets were flexible enough, existing accommodation could be upgraded slightly to meet the purposes of the next 15 or 20 years.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to take a hard look at this, because I do not think we have got it right yet. We know the extent of the problem, as do service personnel. I know the hon. Gentleman served in Afghanistan, although I assume that he does not live in service accommodation.
There is a great deal of catching up to be done, and we do need to be flexible. We cannot deny that money is an issue—some of the improvements involve considerable cost, and if we did spend money and the improvements proved nugatory people would say we had misspent—but I take the view that it is better to look after people now as best we can, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should think of better ways of doing that.
We have a duty to provide our personnel, both at home and on operations, with the very best medical treatment, and I believe that that is exactly what they get. The Royal Centre of Defence Medicine, which is fully integrated with the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, gives our personnel access to a world-class pool of expert consultants. The priority for our wounded personnel is the best possible treatment, and nowhere is better equipped and able to provide it than the centre at Selly Oak. As people begin to recover, a military environment becomes increasingly important. As and when patients’ clinical needs allow, they are brought together in a military-managed ward.
The use of military doctors and more military nurses, and the bringing together of military patients, enables personnel to benefit from a military environment while still having access to the resources and facilities that are available in a leading NHS hospital. There has been much comment, often well-intentioned but ill-informed, on whether that is the right approach. The service medical community believes that it is, and having seen the excellent facilities myself and spoken to staff and patients, I agree. As the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said in March:
“There is nowhere better in the country, nowhere more expert at polytrauma medicine, than that hospital in Selly Oak, that’s why our people are there.”
The Minister is absolutely right to say that a military environment is far the best environment for the recovery of those who have been injured fighting for our country. Does he acknowledge, however, that we are talking about not just a military-managed but an exclusively military unit where all the patients are military, rather than there being a mix of military personnel and civilians?
Yes. We are thinking about how such a facility could best be delivered. It is definitely ruled in, not ruled out. Obviously there are staffing and other issues to be addressed, but any such facility, if it is established, is likely to form part of the Selly Oak centre. The train has left the station; we are simply trying to find the best solution.
The Ministry of Defence’s Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court is the premier facility for the rehabilitation of injured service personnel. There is nothing quite like it in the national health service, and facilities and staff are second to none. Its main purpose is to provide rehabilitation for those with complex injuries, including amputees and brain-injured patients. It also houses a new complex rehabilitation and amputee unit, which provides high-quality appropriate prosthetics and adaptations, manufactured on site and tailored to individual patients, for service personnel who have suffered amputations.
At the heart of our responsibility to the armed forces is ensuring that they are trained to meet every situation that they may face. The training that our forces receive must be tough to prepare them for the demands of operations. We are always looking for opportunities for improvement, and ensuring that training adapts to reflect the increasingly joint nature of military operations.
The defence training review will transform the way in which we undertake specialist training for all three services. Earlier this year we announced the decision to centre the engineering and technical training currently carried out at various locations around the United Kingdom at St. Athan in south Wales. That will reduce the number of sites for specialist training by a third. St. Athan will become a centre of excellence, with modern facilities and modern living accommodation. The process will begin in 2008, and will last five years. Our ambition is that by 2013 the new training academy will be fully operational. The result of the changes will be continued world-class training for our personnel, but in world-class facilities.
I must emphasise the importance of training, tactics and procedures—TTPs—for the protection of our forces on operations. Too often, discussion of force protection becomes a debate about equipment. There is no doubt that that is important, but TTPs are as important, if not more so. The theatre-specific training that our people receive at UK facilities before they deploy—on Salisbury plain, or at Stanford or Hythe—is crucial to minimising the risks they face in Basra or Helmand. An important part of our commitment to our people is making sure that new recruits are properly looked after. They find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, and often they are having their first experience of living away from home. The scale of this issue is significant. Last year, we recruited more than 13,000 to the Army alone, and 19,000 people across all three services. We have had to learn the tragic lessons of Deepcut—but learn them we have. I recognise and accept that there were deficiencies in resources and funding, but now we are doing a huge amount to ensure that those deficiencies are avoided in the future.
The second report of the adult learning inspectorate—an independent body which we asked to look at what we did in training—was published on 6 March 2007. It identified areas of concern where further improvement was required, and I assure the House that we are focusing our efforts on finding answers to those concerns. However, the report also recognised the “extraordinary strides” forward taken in the past two years in the welfare of recruits. Against a backdrop of fiercely competing priorities, not least operations, we have invested some £73 million of additional funds in trainee welfare alone to date, with a further £50 million planned in the coming four years. One important recommendation was that there should be an independent service complaints commissioner. We are now in the process of recruiting for that post.
Like the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that the lessons from Deepcut and in respect of the duty of care have been learned, but one of the issues that was raised time and again was the way in which potential recruits were judged before they joined the forces. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that lessons about the early judgment of the suitability of potential recruits to the armed forces have been learned, and is he also satisfied that we now have in place the right sort of training for the recruiting officers who carry out that task? Do they now have the expertise to make better judgments than they might have done in the past?
The hon. Gentleman raises two important points. He is right in what he says about the pre-selection assessment. Gaining access to medical records is important, although that is not the only concern, and we now have in place the required process to be able to do that. We are much more conscious of how we assess young people who want to join—people who want to join are not always young, but the most vulnerable ones are likely to be young persons.
I have forgotten the hon. Gentleman’s second point. If he reminds me what it was, I had an answer to it which I will then give him.
Yes, the quality of instructors was identified as an issue, and, in response, we put in place a more extensive and better selection process for those taking on the instructor role. We are now in the process of establishing a training school—it will be open soon—specifically to train the trainers. That is crucial. Such steps take time, however: we have to get the infrastructure in place, and then we have to find the trainers to train the trainers. A huge amount of effort has gone into addressing the issue, and I am grateful for the support that I have received from all parts of the House in trying to improve matters.
On recruitment and retention, as of 1 January 2007 the armed forces trained strength stood at 97.1 per cent. of the requirement. I would never deny that we face challenges in recruitment and retention. Competition is tough because we have a strong economy, because more people are going into further education and because our personnel are in high demand in the civilian world, but we are making progress. The number of those in training has risen by almost 2,000 since January 2006. Exit rates, which were increasing, have now steadied: 500 fewer soldiers left the Army this quarter than in the same period last year, and voluntary outflow dropped over the last quarter. On 1 January 2007, there was a deficit in respect of the armed forces full-time trained strength of 5,330; three months earlier the deficit was 6,330. There are therefore signs that retention initiatives are working; they are one of the tools that we are employing, and they appear to be having an effect.
The Minister is referring to the regular Army, but the Territorial Army is also an important part of defence of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) wears the tie of the Honourable Artillery Company, and I am proud to be wearing today the tie of the Sussex Yeomanry. When I enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, the TA would have deployed as complete units to reinforce the British Army of the Rhine. That is no longer the ORBAT, or order of battle—that is no longer the case. Many men in the TA find after doing six months of active service in Iraq or Afghanistan that it is difficult for them to do another tour, for family or work reasons. There is a continuous haemorrhaging of personnel from the TA. What do the Government intend to do about that?
I could ask, “What do we all intend to do about it?” There is an issue: clearly, we have a particular problem in terms of TA recruitment. It is one of the reasons why we have restructured the TA to make it more integrated into the one Army. That is beginning to pay off. Recruitment strength is currently standing at about 79 per cent., which is very low, but in 2006 we had the best recruiting period since 1999. Therefore, we must be doing something that is beginning to have a beneficial impact, but we face an uphill struggle. Interestingly, as Members will be aware, we are increasingly using reserves across all our theatres of operation—and reserves are queuing up to serve. I agree that we must address the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. I am unsure whether there are simple or off-the-shelf solutions. We must have intensive recruiting efforts, and we need to keep on articulating that the reserves are important and emphasising what people can get back from serving the country.
Let me now return to our commitment to our military personnel. We are seeking to support them, which is why we agreed a new tax-free operational allowance last year. That was well received. It is also why we have agreed an above-inflation pay increase for all service personnel—an increase of more than 9 per cent. for most of the junior ranks. That is the biggest military pay rise in four years, and the biggest in the public sector. It is well deserved.
We must consider how we support the families of servicemen and women who die in service because giving proper support to such families is part of our debt to those who have given their lives. We must provide support from the time when the tragic news must be conveyed to the next of kin, through to the potentially difficult experience of a coroner’s inquest and beyond. We have well-established welfare systems in place to support family members, and we keep them under constant review to ensure that they are fit for purpose—and, again, if lessons need to be learned, we will do so. One aspect of our support mechanisms is military visiting officers, who provide a crucial liaison between the families and the services. If necessary, they will guide families through boards of inquiry and inquest procedures. They stay with the family for as long as the family wishes. That is a difficult task, but those who are asked to do it do so willingly and in a professional manner.
Let me now turn to operations in the UK.
I wish to ask a question before the Minister moves on from inquests. As he knows, a large amount of the work of the Oxford coroner will now be transferred to Wiltshire. Can he give the following simple commitment to the House today? Will that increase in work load be matched by an increase in resources?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I recently had a meeting with the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, who has departmental responsibility for the coroners. We are looking at a number of issues that we must address. We have not quite got the best solution, and we will make a statement, probably as a written statement, on the next developments.
In terms of resources, a process was put in place to try to ensure that the inquests were held nearer to where the families lived, so that the burden did not fall on one coroner and his staff. We have put in additional resources and those resources must match the demand, if the demand increases. We have shown that we learned that important lesson across Government. We need now constantly to monitor the situation. It is not just about speeding up the process; it is also about the quality of the support that we provide to families and the quality of the coroners themselves, who have to understand what are very complex issues. We give a lot of specialist help to coroners, so that they understand the environment in trying to comprehend whether an equipment failure, for example, has occurred. We have ramped up our efforts, and I have direct responsibility for much of the effort that is being made to deliver on these issues. As ever, if we find faults, they will be corrected. It is not that we do not understand the importance of these issues; sometimes, we have to learn a new lesson, and we will.
Let me now turn to operations within the United Kingdom—operations that protect us all in one way or another. Our armed forces support the police and security services in combating terrorism. Over recent years their capabilities, ranging from air defence to bomb disposal, have proved invaluable in preparing for, responding to and deterring violence specifically aimed against British citizens. I am extremely pleased that our longest running military operation—Operation Banner, in Northern Ireland—will, on current progress, draw to an end this year. Force levels, which numbered 28,000 at their peak in the 1970s, stand at around 7,000 and will reduce to 5,000 in the summer. We will maintain troops capable of being deployed in the event of large-scale public disorder, although they will not necessarily be based in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the 763 members of the armed forces and the 303 members of the security forces who lost their lives as a result of the violence in Northern Ireland. Without their sacrifice, and the efforts of more than 300,000 military personnel who served in the Province over the years, the current peace would not exist.
Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, our forces provide an emergency search and rescue and mountain rescue service. In 2006, military search and rescue units were called out 1,900 times, assisting 1,500 people, mostly around the UK. Just three weeks ago, the Royal Navy and the RAF contributed to the rescue operation after the Norwegian ship Bourbon Dolphin capsized off the Shetland Islands with tragic loss of life. Royal Navy divers undertook repeated searches of the submerged vessel for signs of life. Our servicemen and women are acting with courage and professionalism daily here in the UK, often putting the lives of others before their own.
The Royal Navy continues to ensure the freedom and security of our territorial waters. The ships of the Portsmouth-based Fishery Protection Squadron enforce fisheries quotas and boundaries on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They make an important contribution to the conservation of our fishery stocks. This financial year, crews have boarded 1,332 vessels, detecting 221 infringements.
On bomb disposal, units from the three services assist the civil authorities by providing emergency explosive ordnance disposal teams. Some 2,700 such tasks were undertaken in the last financial year.
The Royal Air Force continues to defend the skies of the United Kingdom. While the threat of a wholesale assault has diminished, a wide variety of numerous incursions remain that, between them, the Civil Aviation Authority, the police forces and the RAF monitor, investigate and intercept if necessary. This remains a 24-hour task, for which the RAF maintains Tornado—and, soon, Typhoon—fighters at very high readiness.
A different type of operation, but one that contributes significantly to the UK’s economy, is equipment procurement. Defence makes an important contribution to local economies throughout the country, and to our national industrial base. It supports more than 310,000 jobs in UK industry and commerce. We spend some £14.5 billion directly with UK firms each year, on everything from boots to nuclear submarines.
In many towns across the UK, the most visible defence presence is a volunteer reserve unit. Our volunteer reservists serve the community, their employers and the armed forces. The skills that they acquire as part of our forces—in leadership, for example—make them more effective employees and better citizens. Reservists are performing superbly alongside their regular comrades in Cyprus, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Their qualities are of the highest standard, as the recent awards for heroism of a military cross and a Queen’s gallantry medal stand testament to.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He spoke briefly about procurement, and I am a bit concerned that he has already moved on to a more general subject. May I bring him back to procurement and ask him to take this opportunity to update us on what is happening with the F-35 and the elusive aircraft carriers?
I thought that that question, which contained a barb about aircraft carriers, was going to be helpful. We have made it consistently clear that we are committed to those aircraft carriers. A number of factors have to be taken into account, and we will announce the decision when we are ready to do so. The hon. Gentleman will just have to wait, like everyone else, for that announcement. I stated earlier that we have decided where the joint combat aircraft is going to be based, and a very clear commitment has been given in that regard. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks when that aircraft will be ready; on timing, I should point out that this is a complex piece of equipment. I do not have a specific answer on the question of the second engine, but I will write to him giving the best information that we have at the moment. I understand that he is going to Washington. As ever, we encourage people visiting the United States to promote British industry as best we can.
On volunteers, there are of course the 130,000 young volunteers of our cadet forces—the second biggest youth organisation in the country. The cadet forces are based in more than 3,000 towns and cities throughout the UK, and they provide valuable skills and experience for young people from all backgrounds. I would also like to pay tribute to the thousands of volunteers who give up their time to work with these young people.
No, I want to make progress.
I cannot comment on the contribution of defence to this country without talking about our armed forces veterans. As a mark of how seriously we take this issue, the Under-Secretary has the specific role of veterans Minister. This post was first created in 2001, and it has proved its worth year after year. The reason is simple. Our veterans—young and old—are an asset to the country. Many of the young men and women who enter the forces emerge as skilled, responsible and highly qualified members of society. Of course, this year is a special year for many of our veterans, as we remember the Falklands conflict on its 25th anniversary. The sailor, soldier or airman of today is the veteran of tomorrow. We must make sure that we accord our veterans respect and care—at the level of involvement that they desire. In recognition of this, we have designated 27 June as Veterans day, which provides us as a nation with the opportunity to celebrate their contribution, to learn from their experiences and to respect their service. Last year, we held a very successful event in my constituency, and we intend to make it even more successful this year. We will probably be inundated with applications from people who want to participate. There are very good examples of such events, and we have also initiated a national campaign to encourage greater engagement. Members of this House have a major role to play in that regard.
As I said at the outset, defence is above all about people—people from communities throughout the country who join our forces to serve their country. They rightly expect the support of the British public and of this House. I know how important that is to them as they go about their difficult and dangerous duties on our behalf. Their reputation has been built on the sacrifices made and achievements accomplished over many years, but also on the immense contribution that they make to the United Kingdom. This Government recognise that operational success depends on the quality of our people. We acknowledge our responsibility to ensure that they and their families are properly looked after. We must and will meet that responsibility.
I begin by echoing the Minister’s words about the sadness that is felt in all parts of the House concerning the service personnel who have been killed in recent days. All Members will have the families and friends of those personnel in our thoughts and prayers.
This is an opportunity to make a wider point about the dedication and courage of our armed forces. In an era in which fewer and fewer people in our society have direct contact with the armed forces, too few nowadays understand the pressure on personnel—both regulars and reserves—and their families. Too many people believe that security is a right, and that freedom can come without any cost. We therefore need to remind the British public at every opportunity that security is a contract that has to be renewed by every generation, and that in our armed forces we have those with the skill and courage to make the sacrifices necessary to maintain our freedom and security. I am sure that both sides of the House will want that message to go out loud and clear.
I agree with the Minister’s final sentiments about the importance of veterans, the need for respect for veterans and the need to improve the services to them. In the years ahead, our society will have to come to terms with the changing pattern of veterans. Instead of being elderly citizens, such as those represented at the cenotaph, there will be many more younger veterans who will place different demands on the services we offer, and for a much longer time. The veterans of the Falklands, the Balkans and the first and second Gulf wars will put an increasing burden on many of the services that we have a duty to provide. The nature of the disabilities that they experience will also change. Indeed, it has been striking, for those of us who have visited the injured in theatre, Selly Oak or rehabilitation, that the equipment provided, such as body armour, has reduced the number and types of disability. I hope that society will understand that we will need to provide a range of new services and support to those who have made sacrifices on our behalf.
Indeed. I have witnessed that and I commend the professionalism of those involved—some of whom have left the NHS to work full-time in our medical services on the front line. For instance, our field hospital in Basra has the notable distinction of not having had a single case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in the past four years, which is an example for the NHS to follow.
Today’s debate is a useful opportunity to discuss a range of defence issues other than those of Afghanistan and Iraq, which we have debated at length in the House. I shall touch on issues relating to welfare, the overstretch of our forces, procurement and the defence aspects of energy security—all issues that we should spend more time discussing in the House. Welfare issues cannot be separated from those of recruitment and retention—on which the House constantly focuses—because it is common sense that the easiest way to have a problem with retention is to have unhappy service families. In turn, the easiest way to have unhappy service families is to have unhappy service personnel. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to ensure that we consider the continuum of the services that we provide to service families.
It would be churlish not to recognise the considerable amount of work that is being done in terms of service housing improvements. However, it would also be unfair to neglect to mention that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body said in its latest report that
“a significant number of Service personnel and their families are likely to be housed in poor quality accommodation for 20 years or more.”
It also said that more than half of single living accommodation is bottom grade. I accept that much has been done in that area, notwithstanding the limitations on finance that the Minister mentions, but we need to give a higher priority to the quality of housing offered to our service personnel and their families. It will be a central element in our ability to retain numbers in our armed forces at a time when demography is against us in the years ahead.
As I have just said, I welcome the efforts that the Government are making. Indeed, I have visited some excellent new service accommodation, but the programme is still moving too slowly. Although I welcome the Government’s positive efforts, I am sure that the Minister would agree that they should be speeded up to ensure that the problem is dealt with as quickly as possible.
In my previous incarnation as a practising family doctor, I spent part of my time looking after the joint service Royal Army Educational Corps at the Defence School of Languages at Beaconsfield in south Buckinghamshire. In the morning I looked after the armed forces and in the afternoon I saw their families in my civilian practice. It seems to me that even now there is too much of a dislocation between the health care given to the personnel and that given to the families. I shall give just one example. All over the country, service families come to MPs’ surgeries with the same problem. A family member is put on an NHS waiting list for treatment. The family is then moved to another part of the country and they go to the bottom of the waiting list there. They can be perpetually on a waiting list, penalised for being a member of a service family and never getting the health care they need. It cannot be beyond the wit of Government and the civil service to construct a scheme that means that service family members are not disadvantaged in that way. It is preposterous that every week constituents come and tell Members about the same problem, but nothing happens. I want to make a special plea to the Minister to make representations to the Department of Health to come up with some method to ensure that those people do not continue to be disadvantaged in that way.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s general sentiment and we are aware of the problem. Indeed, efforts have been made to find an answer. Given the hon. Gentleman’s experience, perhaps he could suggest how we could overcome the issue of clinical judgment. How can we impose on doctors a decision different from the one that they want to make?
I am not sure that that is what needs to be done. It would be easy, in the system of maximum waiting times that the Government have introduced, to transfer patients from one list to another on the basis of how long they have waited, not even taking into account the medical circumstances and prioritisation that should take place. It should not be beyond the wit of Government to devise such a scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), the shadow Minister for armed forces families’ welfare, is considering that, and the Government might like to talk to him about some of our ideas on that issue. We would be willing to share them with the Government.
My hon. Friend has just made an extremely interesting point that almost exactly parallels the experience that the Defence Committee found in the education service. Children with a statement would need another statement done when they moved to a different authority. The message for Ministers is that they need to make a special effort to talk to other Departments whose work has such a direct impact on the armed forces.
My right hon. Friend is correct and has saved me from making that exact point. The issue cuts across several Departments, which is why the Leader of the Opposition has appointed my hon. Friend to his post. We require proper co-ordination across Government to deal with service families. Educational attainment and issues such as statementing are as important as NHS waiting lists. If we are serious about addressing the welfare issues that affect service families, top of our priority list must be proper co-ordination between Departments to ensure that they are not penalised in education, health or any other sphere because of their relationship to service personnel.
My hon. Friend is right to make the link between support for families and retention. May I draw his attention to the way in which the Royal Air Force is dealing with the issue? The traditional welfare officer, who was probably a senior RSM type and not very approachable, has been done away with. Instead, the RAF is actively recruiting professional civilians to fulfil that role, with a much greater response from families.
It would be a very good thing if relationships on the ground could be improved, but my point is that we need co-ordination at Government level. There has to be better integration between Departments in Whitehall, and they must have a better understanding of the problems that we are discussing today. This is not a party issue: rather, it is a structural problem inside Government that needs to be dealt with as a priority.
The Minister talked about health care for our armed forces, and the question of why we do not have independent military hospitals arises regularly. It is worth pointing out to those who ask that question that a district general hospital treats about 120,000 patients every year, whereas the Army has fewer than 100,000 members in total. We must accept that the reality is that that makes it impossible for defence medicine to be carried out as it used to be.
Having said that, however, I want to return to what the Minister said about military-managed units. The difference between those units and ones that are exclusively military is very important, as General Sir Richard Dannatt made very clear. On 13 March, he said:
“I have every confidence that in three years time we will not just have a military managed ward but effectively a dedicated military ward where our people will be exclusively attended to.”
That is what the Opposition want, but on the very next day—14 March—the Prime Minister told the House that,
“if, for example, there are spare beds within such a ward and the staff are required to look after a civilian patient, it would be wrong to say that such a bed could not be used for a civilian patient.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 281.]
The two assertions are not compatible: the Prime Minister’s concept is fundamentally different from the one put forward by the Chief of the General Staff. The Government must decide whether or not they believe in exclusively military units. The Opposition strongly urge them to understand the importance of having units that are not just military managed but are exclusively military. I hope that the new Prime Minister—whoever that may be—will make that a priority.
Another specific point that I want to make is that our defence medicine runs the risk of falling behind best practice in other parts of the world. In particular, I bring to the Minister’s attention the problem of traumatic brain injury as it affects our armed forces in theatre. He will know that improvements in the quality of body armour mean that more troops are likely to survive blast injuries, but also that they have increased the risk of concussion and other traumatic brain injury.
In the US, protocols have been brought in already to test those who have suffered blast injuries both when they are in theatre and when they leave it. I am advised that the MOD has said that it will wait to see the results of the US programme before introducing similar protocols here, but there is already a large body of medical evidence that the US approach is the clever thing to do. If we wait to get the US results, we risk repeating what happened with post-traumatic stress, when we waited a long time after the end of the Vietnam war before recognising it as a disorder. The quicker we can bring the protocols into play, the better, and the smaller the number of injuries likely to escape detection.
I hope that the Minister will reconsider his approach to this matter, and that he will return to the House and tell us that the US programme can be adopted by the UK in the near future. If we fail to do so, we run the risk that people will suffer long-term psychological or physical damage that could be prevented. It would be a failure of the Government’s duty of care if American troops were able to avoid such damage yet British troops were not.
I turn now to the issue of overstretch.
Before my hon. Friend moves on from post-traumatic stress, does he share my concern that there is not enough support when they return from theatre for service personnel who may be suffering from that disorder? Is it not extraordinary that the Government do not take a more hands-on approach to the problem in respect of personnel who remain in the armed forces, and in respect of those who leave and who have suffered injury?
My hon. Friend makes an extraordinarily important point that gives me an opportunity to praise the fine work of organisations such as Combat Stress. However, the treatment for mental illness available in this country is generally completely substandard, and I have campaigned for a long time for better health services here. They remain the Cinderella of the health care system, and the flaw is often that we ask mentally ill people to get in touch with the facilities that are available, even though, almost by definition, they lack the insight or ability to access those services. It is therefore incumbent on our welfare and medical services, whether in the military or outside, to make sure that they extend a helping hand to the people who may be suffering, instead of waiting for those people to make contact. Given that studies in the US show that up to 12 per cent. of Iraq veterans return with some sort of psychological disturbance, we must make dealing with those who suffer from post-traumatic stress or other psychological illnesses a priority right across our health services.
The problem of overstretch is one that we have discussed many times in this House. The Government produced the strategic defence review at the beginning of their period in office. Many people considered it to be a very good review, and in my view it is one of the two best reviews that have been compiled since the second world war. From the SDR emerged the defence planning assumptions, but the trouble is that the Government have exceeded those assumptions for the past five years and the Opposition maintain that the Government have not increased defence funding in line with that.
In a written answer of 16 April, the Secretary of State for Defence made an interesting statement. He said:
“The level of operational deployments is reducing and we judge that it will return to within the level assumed in our planning assumptions.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 124W.]
When will that happen? The Under-Secretary will respond to the debate, and I hope that he answers that question. If the Government believe that they are returning to levels of deployment that are within planning assumptions, the House has a right to see the evidence, and the time scale within which that might occur. The Opposition believe that the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have never been funded fully by the Treasury and that, as a consequence, there has been salami slicing in the rest of the armed forces.
When the Under-Secretary gets to his feet this evening, I hope that he will tell the House what is the Government’s estimate of the cumulative cost of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to date. Perhaps he would even like to answer that question now, as I am sure that someone is scuttling away to get the answer at this very moment.
A number of practical problems have arisen as a result of overstretch, and we have discussed them many times in this House. For example, there is no excuse for the length of time that it took to get the requisite amount of body armour into theatre. There can be no excuse either for the slow progress that was made towards getting the correct number of armoured vehicles into theatre, or for the continuing lack of helicopters to which those of us who visit—and my colleagues have made many visits—constantly allude.