House of Commons
Tuesday 22 May 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
National Trust (Northern Ireland) Bill
Considered; read the Third time.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
At quarter 3 of 2006-07, Brent teaching PCT reported a forecast deficit of £17.6 million. The NHS as a whole reported a small surplus, and we expect the final position to show further improvement. We will publish quarter 4 of NHS finance report in June.
At the Department’s instructions, Brent primary care trust is embarking on a devastating series of cuts, including to health visitors, drug, alcohol and sexual health services, mental health, and services for children with special needs. Will the Minister apologise for the long-term impact those cuts will have on the lives of my constituents; and will he go back and reconsider?
May I point out to the hon. Lady that it is a statutory duty of all NHS organisations to break even? I accept that we are dealing with issues that concern services for vulnerable people, which I accept are matters of huge importance to the hon. Lady’s constituents, but may I point out that the PCT and the council both serve her constituents and that it cannot be in their best interest to stoke up a row between the PCT and the council. The only solution is to support a sensible agreement to ensure the continuation of services to her constituents. I hope that she will drop her political posturing and work to that end.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there has to be dialogue between the local authorities and the PCT to ensure seamless health care? In the past 12 months, the Lib-Dem/Tory-run council has failed to have any positive meetings with the PCT, failed to provide any social care services to the people of Brent, and failed to respond to any of my letters. Does my hon. Friend agree that all the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) has proved successful at doing is producing leaflets saying “Save our NHS”, which does nothing for anybody? Does he agree that they should stop—
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and her positive approach to this situation. It has to be in the interests of vulnerable people everywhere that councils and PCTs put aside their differences and work together for the benefit of those people. A blinkered approach or one where people are casting blame will not get us anywhere. It is important to get agreement on these important issues and I understand that the Minister for Local Government and the Minister of State, the noble Lord Hunt, will soon meet to discuss how progress can be made on securing such agreement, which will be in the interests of constituents.
Independent Sector Treatment Centres
The first wave of independent sector treatment centres was designed to provide extra capacity to help cut waiting times for NHS patients. Six of these are now providing training as well. All phase 2 schemes will require training to be made available as part of the contract.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but it does not detract from the fact that these private health centres are privatisation of the national health service by stealth. Will she not agree that every patient who is forced to go to one of these independent centres will help to undermine the financial stability of local hospital trusts—[Interruption]—and laughing is not the answer?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong on every count. Independent sector treatment centres are not privatisation by stealth or any other means. Patients are not forced to go to ISTCs and, indeed, we are extending patient choice. From 1 July, patients needing orthopaedic treatment will have a free choice of more than 200 hospital and treatment centres all around the country. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support that and also support the fact that more than nine out of 10 patients said that their NHS hospital treatment was either good, very good or excellent. We should be proud of that, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that independent treatment centres, alongside fantastic NHS staff, have contributed enormously to the reduction in waiting lists? Our staff are fantastic as a result of the quality of their education and training. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in future contracts for the independent sector, we will try to ensure that we train the staff we need so much for our wonderful NHS?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I can give her the assurance that in the second wave contract, training opportunities will be required from all the independent sector treatment providers. Indeed, the ISTCs will be expected to appoint directors of clinical and medical training, who will work with the post-graduate deaneries and other parts of the NHS family in order to ensure that the best possible training opportunities are available to doctors and other health care professionals.
Working on the same principle, would the Secretary of State care to estimate how much it would cost the British taxpayer if we were to refund all the foreign countries that had invested in training their own staff who are now working in the British national health service?
I certainly cannot make that estimate, but the hon. Lady raises an extremely important point. As she probably knows, we were the first country in the world to adopt an ethical recruitment policy in our national health service. That means, for instance, that we do not take nurses from South Africa or other parts of Africa. We try to ensure that, just as medical professionals come to Britain for training from some other countries, we support the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, that desperately need to train and keep their own health care professionals.
Will the Secretary of State promise that she is still very much in favour of this experiment? I would like to see these centres in the Reading area, where they would expand capacity and help people in my area who cannot get the treatment that they need at the moment. Will she promise not to rig the system against them in the way that many Labour Members seem to wish to do?
The right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong on that point. It is clearly right that independent sector treatment centres should make training opportunities available; that is one of the lessons that we learned from wave 1. I completely agree with him, however, that the centres have helped to cut waiting times for NHS patients in many parts of the country, and all the treatment that they provide is on the NHS and free at the point of need. That is what matters to patients.
How does the Secretary of State square what she has just said about having an ethical policy on recruiting from Africa with the fact that the Government have issued work permits for 50,000 nurses and doctors from Africa since 2000? Is it not clear that they are coming to agencies in order to get round the ban on direct recruitment to the NHS?
As I have just said, we have stopped the process of direct recruitment—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] No, we have stopped the process of direct recruitment into the NHS of nurses from developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. There is, however, a real problem with some agencies that recruit people from those countries. I am not sure what level of regulation the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting, but that practice is difficult to control. We try to ensure, however, that they sign up to exactly the same principles as we have agreed for the NHS, and that people who come in through that route are not subsequently re-employed in the NHS.
Since its establishment in 1999, NICE has consolidated its position as the leading source of evidence-based guidance on specific health interventions and on broader care pathways. It has deservedly earned international recognition for its work.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I have always supported NICE and I still do. It is perfectly obvious that we need a central assessment point for new medications and treatments. Is he satisfied, however, that there is a sufficient flow of information and discussion between NICE and the companies and patient groups involved in the assessment process? Does he think that that process could be made more transparent?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that, in the context of modern science and health care, if NICE did not exist, we would have to create it. We are currently conducting an overall review of the way in which NICE reaches its conclusions; it began in April, and is due to report to the NICE board in November. In 2005, we introduced what is known as a single technology appraisal process, which enables NICE to speed up some of its decision-making processes. In addition, best practice guidance was issued to the NHS in December 2006, stating that if a clinical decision is made that a patient requires a particular form of medication, there is no requirement for the primary care trust to wait for the conclusion of the NICE appraisal to ensure that the patient has access to that treatment. Overall, NICE has been a tremendous success, but we are also in the process of reviewing its function, as is appropriate at this stage.
Is the Minister aware of the use of miniature telescopic eye implants as a cure for age-related macular degeneration? This operation is available in many parts of Europe and in the United States, and one operation has been successfully completed by Brendan Moriarty, an eye surgeon in my constituency. Will the Minister urge NICE to look into this new operation as urgently as possible, as it will help people to retain their sight?
I have a good deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point. Macular degeneration is a real issue for an increasing number of our constituents. I was not aware of that specific intervention, but I think it right for us to reflect on what the hon. Gentleman has said, and then to decide whether the evidence that we have is sufficient for us to refer it to NICE as one of its priority considerations. Now that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, we will certainly have a look at it.
Why is it that although the chief medical officer’s recommendations on the prevention of hospital-acquired thrombosis were almost universally welcomed, shortly afterwards the NICE guidelines on the same topic seemed to contradict the original, leaving many health professionals aghast? Will my hon. Friend undertake to look into the matter, and ensure that no confused messages are being received by hospitals about a policy that could prevent 25,000 deaths?
I will certainly look into the matter. It is important that, where possible, there is no ambiguity in the message that we send clinicians and primary care trusts on the front line. I cannot comment at this stage on whether there was a difference of opinion between the chief medical officer and NICE, but I will commit myself to investigating that, and to ensuring that whatever message is appropriate is clearly conveyed.
I agree with the Minister that NICE is one of the successes of the Government’s health policy over the past 10 years, but is it not time, as part of the review to which he referred, to look again at the principles according to which Ministers retain control of the agenda of issues that NICE examines? Should not NICE have an opportunity to set aspects of its own agenda?
I think that if we are to conduct a fundamental review now that NICE has existed for some time, one of the issues that ought to be reviewed is the relationship between Ministers and the organisation, as well as the relationship with Department of Health officials. We need to ensure that we get the responsibilities of the respective decision-makers absolutely right. It is important for clinicians and primary care trusts to be clear about the position, but transparency is also important, so that patients know what to expect at a time of technological advances and increasingly complex conditions often associated with people living longer.
May I refer my hon. Friend to the NICE review of the drug Alimpta, which is used to treat mesothelioma? Specialists fear that the original decision to refuse NICE approval was based on a failure to understand the clinical evidence, and in particular the fact that the drug is efficacious in prolonging both life and quality of life. Those are important considerations for people who will certainly die of mesothelioma.
NICE is actively considering the issue. I understand that, according to the guidance, those who are already receiving the treatment are entitled to continue to receive it, but no final decision has been made. I suggest that my hon. Friend and others make representations to ensure that NICE reaches an appropriate conclusion.
NICE does a good job for the Government in rationing health care in a rational way, but is not one of the key requirements of rationing that it should be explicit and transparent? As everyone else now recognises that a treatment that costs more than £30,000 per quality-adjusted life year will not be approved by NICE, will the Minister confirm that that is also his understanding? Such transparency would help politicians to accept that that is what is happening.
No, I will not confirm that. It seems to me that the appropriate context for such a judgment and such a debate is the review, which seeks to be clear about NICE’s function. It also seems to me that we either believe in the need for an organisation such as NICE, in the context of a modern NHS and massive advances in technology and science, or we do not. The use of words like “rationing” by the Liberal Democrats does not accord well with this debate.
NICE was established to deal with the problem of postcode lotteries, but a key problem is that many new drugs awaiting appraisal are subject to terrible regional variations and lack of funding. A recent freedom of information survey by the Conservatives showed that people in England are going blind because cash-strapped primary care trusts are not funding Macugen, which has been approved in Scotland. Some PCTs have been turning down all requests for Macugen although they come from clinicians, with the average PCT funding only two patients, despite an estimate by AMD Alliance that 100 patients a year in every PCT could benefit. Will the Minister now investigate, as a matter of urgency, why his own guidance to PCTs that funding should not be withheld simply because NICE has not issued guidance is being so readily flouted, before new drugs such as Lucentus suffer the same fate?
We have moved to respond to the concerns that have been expressed as NICE’s function has been developed. For example, we introduced the new single technology appraisal process in an attempt to speed up the process. We have also issued best practice guidance to primary care trusts, which makes it clear that where a clinician believes that a licensed drug is an appropriate way of treating a condition, there is no requirement to wait until NICE has concluded its appraisal process. The right way forward is a combination of speeding up the process and being absolutely clear about what we expect from primary care trusts. Members cannot have it both ways. We either devolve responsibility, power and decision making to the local level or we command and control from offices in Westminster and Whitehall. We cannot have a contradictory approach.
National Treatment Agency
One GP sits on the board. His full-time job is director of public health for the south-west but he brings his knowledge and experience to the board. A GP in the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse clinical team liaises with the Royal College of General Practitioners and others to support effective delivery of policy and promotion of good practice within the primary care setting.
The evidence from Sweden and France, as examined by my primary care trust, is unequivocal. Drug treatment is far more effective if primary care and GPs are put at the centre of it. Is it not time that we move towards having a bigger GP presence on the NTA so that primary care is in the mainstream of drug treatment in this country?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he has done in his area to achieve direct access to drug treatment services through GPs in the primary care setting. The “Bassetlaw Direct Access” drugs service has had tremendous results, with an 83 per cent. retention rate. I agree with my hon. Friend that GPs’ experiences should be represented. However, we are also trying to make sure that we embed substance misuse as an issue in the medical colleges; on 30 April we published curriculum guidelines on substance misuse. We are also improving the opportunities for GP practices to provide access to drug treatment, particularly in rural and semi-rural areas. However, we will endeavour to do more.
I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on that specific point, but the most recent figures—those for 2004-05—show that the number of GPs participating in shared care schemes for providing treatment to drug users has increased in the last 10 years from 20 per cent. to 32 per cent. Clearly we need to do more, but that is a good sign. We must embed the culture of understanding drug treatment in the earliest days of training. That is why providing the guidance to the medical colleges on 30 April was an investment in the future. I hope that more GPs will see this as one of the health roles that they should play in their communities.
Restoring financial balance in the NHS was our top priority in 2006-07. There is now a stronger system for assessing the financial position of all NHS organisations and we are confident that these measures will help the NHS further to improve its financial position. At quarter 3, the NHS overall reported a small surplus, and we expect the final position to show further improvements.
I thank the Minister for that reply. The Government changes to the resources, accounting and budgeting rules have removed £6.3 million of projected debt from my hospital trust in Morecambe Bay, leaving it in the surprise position of having a break-even budget for the forthcoming year. So far so good, but the Westmorland general hospital stands to lose its excellent heart and stroke unit as a result of an acute service review that took place last summer, which was in part driven by the short-term financial pressures. Now that those pressures have been—
I think that I can guess where the hon. Gentleman’s question was going. I also detected some hint of gratitude in his words for the extra £6 million for his trust this year, which will help to ease the financial position, and of course bring benefits to patients in his area. As he knows, a Cumbria-wide review of health services is being undertaken, which is expected to go out to public consultation in September. I hope that he will understand that I cannot make any concrete statements today about the precise proposals that will be made in that review, but I am sure that local health service planners will hear his words.
When the Conservatives were in power, there was a consistency to NHS funding: all the health boards and authorities were in financial difficulties. Today, only a small minority have financial problems. Does my hon. Friend share my puzzlement as to why that is the case?
It is not something that the Conservatives like to talk about, but when they left power the deficit, as a percentage of overall NHS expenditure, was far higher than anything seen in the last financial year. My hon. Friend is correct to say that the problems of overspending are now concentrated in a small number of organisations. It is the transparency of the financial regime that this Government have introduced that has enabled us to focus on that overspending and put in place measures to tackle it. As a whole, the NHS is benefiting. Last week, the Healthcare Commission reported that nine out of 10 patients say that the care they receive is good, very good or excellent, and that was in a year in which we have tackled the financial difficulties in parts of the NHS.
Given that health trusts such as mine in mid-Essex are having to take some difficult decisions to improve their financial position, could the Minister give an assurance that he and his colleagues will be sensitive when determining future independent treatment sectors—which may benefit patient care in some parts of the country—so that they do not cause a setback to those trusts that can fulfil their commitments and targets but would be adversely affected if the decisions were not taken sensitively?
The hon. Gentleman’s trust has benefited from the reversal of the resources accounting and budgeting rules as they affect NHS trusts. As predicted at quarter 3, his trust will post a surplus this year. Any changes to local health care will have to be carefully considered, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we will make changes when they are in the direct interests of patients. There is evidence to show that where independent sector treatment centres have been introduced, they have had the effect of challenging local NHS trusts, and waiting lists have fallen dramatically as a result. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman would support any solution that produces the best results in terms of access to the system for his constituents.
Is the Minister aware that the Royal College of Nursing has estimated that it would cost £60 million to pay the full award proposed for nurses by the pay review body? Does he accept that that is a price worth paying, and if not, does he have a strategy for dealing with the industrial dispute that may occur?
I know that my hon. Friend works hard on these issues and I hope that he agrees with me that the position of nursing staff under this Government is considerably better than what we inherited in 1997. I also hope that he accepts that the decision taken in respect of public sector pay was a decision taken across the public sector, with the exception of the armed forces, with regard to maintaining the strong economy that this Government have also produced. While those are difficult decisions, I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that they are taken for the best of reasons.
Over the past two years, my local primary care trust has received above average increases in spending, which are tremendously welcome and have helped to close the gap between the Government’s own target funding formula and the actual amount of money that the trust receives. Would the Minister agree that it would be folly to allow that process to go into reverse and that it is therefore important that the North Somerset primary care trust continues to get above average funding settlements in future?
That is an excellent question. It was missing the “Vote Labour!” bit at the end, but I think that it would have come if the hon. Gentleman had carried on. Yes, we are extremely proud of the money that we have put into PCTs like his around the country, and I am absolutely confident that the huge improvements in health care in recent years will be sustained. An extra £8 billion is going into the NHS this year, and that will produce substantial improvements for patients. I hope that he will continue to support the Government in working towards a well funded and improving NHS.
My hon. Friend will be aware that proper financial management has ensured that no PCT in the north-west will be top sliced this year to subsidise poor management in other areas. He will know too that many north-west PCTs receive less than the formula funding says they should. How is it that they can stay within budget, while others receiving more than their formula funding overspend?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the persistent way in which he has raised matters relating to PCT finance. He is absolutely right: for reasons of basic fairness, we need the maximum health resources in areas where health inequalities are greatest and where ill health is entrenched—such as the borough that he and I represent. Also, I thank him for congratulating the north-west strategic health authority on ensuring that PCTs in the area are not being top sliced. That will enable PCTs such as his and mine to get on with the job of improving public health in our borough. The next funding allocation round will deal with the question of whether we can make further progress towards bringing all PCTs nearer their target allocations, but I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend says.
This year, the Oxford Radcliffe NHS Hospital Trust must save £23 million, so will the Minister give some guidance about PFI repayments? Next year, the trust will have to make PFI repayments worth between £30 million and £36 million. Will the Department take PFI repayments into account when it sets the total sum for trust budgets, or will trusts have to make cuts to meet those repayments in future years?
When trusts plan new hospital developments, it is crucial that the decisions taken be sustainable and affordable in the long term. The Government have been reviewing all PFI schemes to ensure that they are precisely that—affordable, and the right size for future requirements. When spending is allocated to local health economies, we must take account of the population’s relative age, health need and deprivation. We will continue to do that when we make allocations to PCTs.
Medical Training Application Service
The Department has received over 1,300 letters on the topic of Modernising Medical Careers and MTAS this year. Department officials have also had meetings with, and representations from, many organisations, including the royal colleges, the British Medical Association and Remedy UK.
Most of the House will welcome the service that James Johnson has given over recent years, to the BMA and in other ways. My question to the Secretary of State has to do with MTAS. Does the Department recognise that examination candidates who want to check whether their marks have been added together correctly— or whether their papers have been marked at all—should get an appropriate response before the end of round 2?
I am aware that the Secretary of State has apologised for the way in which MTAS was carried out. In my meetings with junior doctors, who are extremely concerned about the situation, it became clear that they have a strong commitment to, and belief in, the national health service, so will my right hon. Friend indicate how we can reassure those doctors that they are indeed valued?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the enormous commitment of junior doctors, and other health care professionals, to the NHS. In relation to recruitment to medical training, I stress that the interviews in round 1, which include an interview for every applicant, are nearly complete and, subject of course to the outcome of the judicial review, job offers will start to be made as soon as the result of the judicial review is known. By sorting out the very real problems and distress that have arisen this year, we will indeed be able to reassure junior doctors in particular about how much we value them and to ensure that they have a good future in the NHS.
Ministerial mismanagement led to the computer chaos that is the medical training application service, which has failed to deliver a fair, open, transparent and efficient selection process for junior doctors, and even threw in for good measure a massive breach of personal security. Can the Secretary of State tell us today how many available training posts there are now for junior doctors and how many applicants there are? If we have those two facts, we can calculate how many thousands of junior doctors will not get a training place this August.
As I have said before, across the United Kingdom there are about 32,700 eligible applicants in the MTAS system, of whom more than 30,000 are already employed in the NHS. There are 23,500 training posts in total, including the GP training posts for which recruitment is separate from MTAS. Let me stress again that thousands of the applicants are currently employed by the NHS in non-training posts and all those jobs—in total, more than 30,000—will continue to be needed to ensure that patients continue to receive the excellent care the NHS provides.
What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the article in The Independent today that argues that we should not get excited about the MTAS situation, because due to the expansion in the number of doctors in our medical schools under the Labour Government there will be greater competition for some of the best training jobs?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I thought that the editorial in The Independent this morning was a breath of fresh air and rationality when the media have not really been characterised by accurate or rational reporting on this subject. The reality is that there are more junior doctors, and indeed other healthcare professionals, in training for the NHS than ever before. There has always been intense competition for the specialty training posts that lead to a consultancy for successful applicants. That competition is intense this year, but more doctors and even better trained doctors, with the best of them becoming consultants, is all good news for patients.
Junior doctor rotation has always been a difficult time, and over all the time when I was involved in the health service many a junior doctor did not get the specialist job he or she wanted. We have heard about the intense competition due to the massive increase in doctors in training, so to go on from what has been said already, will my right hon. Friend indicate what support is available for junior doctors who are trying to get through the process at present?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that at this point we should focus on the solutions, rather than simply restating the problem. As I have indicated, job offers for round 1 will be made, subject to the outcome of the judicial review and as soon as we know that court judgment. Detailed information on that process is going out to applicants very shortly. Once we have the court judgment from the judicial review, we will be able to give applicants further details of how round 2 —the next round of recruitment—will be organised and the support that will be available to applicants throughout that process and beyond, as we look to the end of that further round of recruitment.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the statement of Nicholas Greenfield to the judicial review proceedings last week disclosed that on 25 April there was a report to the review group that disclosed that there were serious flaws with the software within MTAS. Was she informed of those serious problems at that time? If so, why did she not tell the House of those problems in her statement on 1 May? Is it not outrageous that in her statement last week she made no reference to the fact that she had no option but to abandon MTAS, because the system was not working?
The hon. Gentleman, I am afraid not for the first time, has simply misrepresented the position. First, MTAS has not been abandoned. It has been reopened to the postgraduate deaneries, which can continue to use it for the recruitment process. On the issue of the software, as I told the House last week, because of the continuing concerns of junior doctors—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) should listen to the point that I am making, because it is important. Despite the security improvements that have been made to MTAS, because of the continuing concerns of junior doctors, we decided not to use it for the process of matching applicants to job offers. One of the concerns expressed by the junior doctor representatives on the review group related to the fact that the new software that would be needed to match the applicants to the jobs had not been completed and, because of the other problems, there would not be time to test it properly. That was part of the background to what I told the House last week about the continuing concerns that led us to decide not to use MTAS for the job offer process. That was a perfectly sensible decision. There is no question of misleading the House and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not repeat that allegation.
Will the Secretary of State now tell the House how many additional training posts the review group has asked the Department of Health to provide for? This is the fifth time in over two months that I have asked the Secretary of State to make a commitment to provide for additional training posts and she still has not done so.
As I have said in the House before, Modernising Medical Careers has been a joint effort by the Department of Health, Ministers, the royal colleges, the British Medical Association, the work force deaneries and many others, all of whom have been involved in addressing the problems that were highlighted many years ago by the BMA itself when it rightly called for a new system of training to replace the thoroughly unsatisfactory old system whereby senior house officers became known as the lost tribe because they simply did not have the support that was needed. We know perfectly well that the implementation of the application and recruitment system for this year has not worked properly. We have had a lot of problems with it—we hardly need to say that in this Chamber. We are sorting that out and I take responsibility for doing so.
The Government have a number of programmes in place to improve the diet and awareness of healthy eating among children and young people. These include the new school meals standards, the healthy schools programme, healthy start, 5 a day, and the school fruit and vegetable scheme.
I thank the Minister for her response. Does she agree that much could be done to tackle child obesity and health inequalities if she was to work with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills to build on the excellent initiative of providing free fruit and veg to schools and deliver free, compulsory, nutritious school meals for all children?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about tackling inequalities. I was pleased that the 2005 health survey for England showed that the number of children eating fruit and vegetables was increasing, with the number eating at least five a day going up to 17 per cent. from 10 per cent. in 2001. I am also pleased that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs household expenditure survey, which was published in January, shows that there has been the biggest increase in expenditure on fruit and vegetables for 20 years—it is up by 7.7 per cent. However, we can do more. This Government have given local authorities the power to decide whether they want to provide free school meals, and that matter is best dealt with locally. I am proud of our joint work with the Department for Education and Skills which has meant that more than 89 per cent. of schools are now taking part in a voluntary programme called healthy schools.
Since every woman I have ever known, from my grandmother onwards, has tirelessly tried to persuade their offspring—and indeed their husbands—to eat more vegetables, what makes the hon. Lady think that her increasingly Orwellian Department will be more successful?
I will leave others to comment on that. However, we must get the balance right when the Government are trying to intervene in areas that are their responsibility. We expect children to attend school; that is part of the law—[Interruption.] Even grammar schools. Given that we require children to go to school, it is part of our endeavour that when food and drink are provided at school, they should be the healthiest available. We must achieve a step change through which parents are enabled to make the right choices for their children. More and more parents are doing so with our support, rather than any lecturing.
On Friday, I am visiting Ellenbrook primary school in my constituency to open its healthy schools vegetable garden. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the school on not only promoting healthy eating, but teaching children how to grow the herbs, fruit and vegetables that will be used in their school meals every day? Does she think that other schools should follow that example?
My hon. Friend cites a really good example of a project that is seeking to achieve on several fronts. It is encouraging an understanding of the need to eat healthily and getting children out there to grow food, thus increasing their understanding of where it comes from. Alongside that, it increases physical activity at school. I am pleased to inform the House that from September, we will start a joint project with DFES and DEFRA: the year of food and farming. We will make links with local producers to find out what we can do to encourage more schools to purchase more locally the fruit and vegetables that can make a difference. Learning about how food is grown and its production to the point at which it ends up on the plate can make a difference to an understanding of a healthy diet.
Why does the Minister think that the recent evaluation of the school fruit and vegetable programme by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that it had no lasting impact on what children were eating, that only 27 per cent. of children achieved the five-a-day target, and that only a third of children were aware of what that target was—no doubt some thought that it referred to cigarettes? In any case, two thirds of the fruit and veg in the programme comes from overseas and half contains more than one type of possibly harmful pesticide. Some £77 million later, is this another costly, headline-grabbing, ill-thought-out Government initiative that has gone pear shaped?
The hon. Gentleman raises several questions. I understand that the article that appeared in The Sunday Telegraph a few weeks ago was based on a report that examined figures from about three years ago. We are evaluating the scheme at present and we will publish the figures shortly. However, the indicators show that both the consumption and purchase of fruit and vegetables are going up. The school fruit and vegetable scheme serves 2 million four to six-year-olds. Next time I get letters from Conservative Members asking me to extend the scheme, I will refer them to the hon. Gentleman.
Next month we shall be launching a new online information service, NHS Choices, that will give patients easy access to information about conditions, treatments and hospitals. It will help the public to make informed choices about their own health, including when and where they receive treatment.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, but I hope that we have made improvements and alleviated some of the teething problems that were experienced last year. A constituent came to see me over choose and book. She was referred to a dermatology department, and when she rang to make the appointment she was asked which hospital she wanted. When she asked for her local hospital, she was told that the waiting list was too long and was referred to one 20 miles away. When she said that she would prefer to wait a bit longer, she was told that that was not possible. The matter was eventually sorted through the patient advice and liaison service, but surely choice means that patients, if they wish, should be able to choose to wait a little bit longer to go to their local hospital.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I hope that we have now made that crystal clear to NHS hospitals. A local hospital is obliged to treat all patients who choose to be treated there if that is clinically appropriate, and if a patient wants to wait longer than, for instance, the current six-month maximum target for in-patient treatment, of course they are free to choose to do so—provided they are told that when they make their booking. The way that we are extending choice for patients is in accordance with what patients themselves have said they want, and we know from experience over several years that it is a way of ensuring that hospitals respond by giving patients faster and better care.
Patient choice means being treated with dignity, so what confidence can we have in a Government who may parrot choice, but whose claim to have delivered it to patients wishing to avoid mixed-sex wards is strongly contradicted by experience and by data published by the Healthcare Commission?
As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, the commitment that we made to ensure that everyone had single-sex sleeping accommodation, bathrooms and toilets did not extend—because it could not—to accident and emergency, and to medical admission units. That is one reason why there is a real difference between the reports that we have had from the hospital trusts and the reports of patient experience. Nevertheless—the chief nursing officer recently published press guidance on this—we have identified those hospital trusts that are really struggling to meet the commitment that patients are entitled to expect, that in, as it were, normal wards, they should have single-sex sleeping accommodation, bathrooms and toilets, and we are giving the NHS extra support, and indeed holding it accountable for delivering that. But I regret that the hon. Gentleman did not mention that the same Healthcare Commission survey found that even more hospital patients are satisfied or very satisfied with the care that they have had from the NHS in the last year.
Local Involvement Networks
Great. From our public consultation, we know that many people want to have a greater say over their health and social care services. The establishment of local involvement networks—LINKs—will give people far more opportunities to have a stronger voice over their local services.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and the enthusiasm with which she gave it, but she will have been told, as I have, that one of the tools that members of patient and public involvement forums value most is the ability to inspect hospitals or other health care facilities, including, where they think it necessary, without notice. Given that those powers and that ability will be circumscribed for local involvement networks, and in the case of inspections without notice, removed altogether, does she not think that it is inevitable that the public will have less confidence in LINKs to protect their interests than they did in PPI forums?
No, I do not think that they will, because I think that LINKs will actually be very powerful bodies in terms of their ability to get responses from primary care trusts when they raise particular issues, and their ability to look at social care institutions. We wanted to avoid confusion between the inspection roles of the statutory regulators and the powers of LINKs to go into trusts to view the services. That is why we have made a change, to enable them to do that. However, it is important to recognise that when LINKs go into, for example, day care centres under social services, notice needs to be given to people who go to such centres for, in a sense, respite care. We want to make sure that that work does not disturb either staff or patients. However, LINKs will be able to make reports after they have entered premises and to demand replies from PCTs and others.
In my area we have a group of very dedicated people who were involved in community health councils, who then became involved in the various patient and public involvement organisations and who want to be involved in the LINKs. However, they are conscious that we are not reaching out to a wider electorate of people who want to get involved in such work. How can we spread the word and get new people involved in these organisations?
That is the challenge. We know from consultation that people want to have a greater say. Through some of the draft guidance that we have issued we have looked at how to involve more people. We also have some early adopter sites, which are considering in particular how to widen the range of people who are involved to include voluntary sector and other patient groups.
The Department collects data on occupied bed days, not on the number of individuals that that represents. In 2006-07, there were 19,988 hospital occupied bed days on adult psychiatric wards of patients aged 16 or 17, and a further 201 hospital occupied bed days on adult psychiatric wards of patients aged under 16.
I thank the Minister for that answer. What plans do the Government have to protect centres of excellence for the treatment of adolescents with severe mental health conditions, such as the one that is being closed at Cassel hospital, Richmond. I understand that it is being closed because PCTs across the country are not prepared to pay for out-of-area placements.
In providing that more specialised care, we want PCTs to consider the requirements in perhaps a wider area than the PCT area, because sometimes quite small numbers of children require that type of intensive specialist care. However, I feel that often children are sent too far away from home. Some out-of-area provision is necessary, but we want to make sure that such provision is commissioned more effectively and can deal better with the situation that affects small numbers of children. We want to make sure that they can have treatment closer to home than is sometimes the case now.
I thank the Minister for the reassurances on that very issue that she gave during Committee stage of the Mental Health Bill. What discussions will she have with the new coalition on mental health services, which supports the modernisation agenda, so that we can make the positive changes that she wants?
My hon. Friend refers, I believe, to the fact that approximately 85 per cent. of those who work in mental health services have now withdrawn from the Mental Health Alliance and are realigning themselves to make sure that some of the steps that we want to take to modernise mental health legislation can go forward. I thank him for his contributions in Committee, where we had a lot of discussions about what we want to do to improve those services and, in particular, about age-appropriate accommodation.
NHS Data Disclosures
The strongest safeguard is the professionalism of NHS staff themselves, but the modernisation of NHS IT also provides the opportunity to deploy state-of-the-art security safeguards, particularly for confidential patient information. In the rare cases where NHS staff do breach patient confidentiality, they are subject both to disciplinary measures and to the legal penalties provided under the Data Protection Act 1998; professional staff also risk losing their licence to practise.
Three weeks ago the Department of Health made an unauthorised disclosure of the personal details of junior doctors, which was a disgrace. More recently, the Public Accounts Committee severely criticised the main health IT system, which is already running two years late. Apart from the usual bland assurances that we get from the Secretary of State, what guarantees can she give us that patients’ personal medical records will not be disclosed, and as her Department is clearly incapable of running or commissioning anything properly, will she take independent advice on the matter?
The electronic patient records and other aspects of connecting for health have nothing whatever to do with MTAS; they have all been organised with the highest level of security safeguards, and that has been independently verified. The right hon. Gentleman is simply scaremongering, and instead of doing so—[Interruption.] The Conservative party already opposes identity cards. Is the right hon. Gentleman telling us that he will now oppose electronic patient records?
It is for individual national health service hospitals and trusts in England to determine the practicalities of promoting the use of reusable and disposable nappies in their maternity units. For the rest of the United Kingdom, that would be a matter for the devolved Administrations.
I thank the Under-Secretary for his response. Having just become a new mum, I am keenly aware of the special access that manufacturers of disposable nappies have to new mums when they are in hospital. Given nappies’ contribution to landfill, will he look at ways to level the playing field, and will he at least encourage samples of biodegradable and reusable nappies to be made available in hospitals? Once people start using a product, they are more likely to continue using it.
We have to be careful not to encourage too much of a nappy state. We give first-time mothers a pregnancy book and a birth to five book, both of which discuss in some detail the case for and against each kind of nappy. It has to be said that a report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that, in the end, in terms of overall environmental consequences, there was very little difference between disposable and reusable nappies. I understand that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), is happy to host a meeting with the Nappy Alliance to discuss the matter further.
Home Information Packs
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Government’s proposals for the implementation of home information packs. It was the Government’s intention to implement home information packs, including energy performance certificates, on 1 June. In debate last week, reference was made to the judicial review requested by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. That judicial review focused on energy performance certificates, not home information packs. On Wednesday, the judge issued an interim order, which was received by my Department on Thursday. That order would have effectively prevented the introduction of energy performance certificates on 1 June, while the case was being considered.
The Government believe that introducing home information packs without energy performance certificates would be neither practical nor acceptable. It is important to introduce energy performance certificates and home information packs at the same time, because cutting carbon emissions should go hand in hand with market transformation. We have been in detailed discussion with the RICS to prevent lengthy legal delays. Both the Government and the RICS are committed to the swift and smooth introduction of home information packs and energy performance certificates. I am pleased that we have reached a pragmatic way forward—[Interruption]—that gives certainty and allows us to get on with implementation.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
As a result, we propose to withdraw the home information pack regulations to clear the way for successful implementation of revised arrangements.
Although the issue of the judicial review is now resolved, long-running uncertainty has already had an impact on the numbers of energy assessors. For implementation on 1 June, we would need at least 2,000 assessors to be accredited, with over 2,500 by the end of the month. Today I am updating the House with the latest figures. There are over 2,500 people currently in training. A further 3,200 have already passed their home inspector or domestic energy assessor exams. Of those, 1,500 have been accredited or have applied for accreditation, but only 520 have been fully accredited. These figures show that the number of assessors is unlikely to meet our needs for 1 June implementation. Equally, they show that in the long term there will clearly be enough assessors to meet demand.
The Government remain convinced of the importance of home information packs and energy performance certificates. Home information packs will cut costs and delays in buying homes. Energy performance certificates will help to reduce energy bills and cut carbon emissions from our homes, which, as they make up 27 per cent. of our national carbon emissions, could make a big difference in our effort to tackle climate change. The measures in the energy performance certificates will cut carbon emissions by nearly 1 million tonnes every year.
I have always said that the right test of the legislation should be how it brings benefits for consumers and how it protects the environment. Today, therefore, I am setting out a practical way forward. I propose to change the start date for home information packs to 1 August, and intend to phase their introduction. From 1 August home information packs, including energy performance certificates, will be required for the sale of four-bedroom properties and larger—the properties where there is the greatest potential to make energy efficiency savings. This will ensure work for energy assessors who have already been trained and accredited. We will extend to smaller properties as rapidly as possible, as sufficient energy assessors become ready to work. As we see the number of accredited assessors rise, so more properties will be included in the system.
We are also introducing a number of transitional measures. First, until the end of the year, we propose to allow people to market their properties as soon as they have commissioned a pack, rather than make them wait until they have received it, in order to avoid unnecessary delays when the systems come in. Secondly, to allow energy performance certificates to be implemented at the earliest opportunity, we will make amendments to allow energy performance certificates to be up to 12 months old when the property is put up for sale, extending the current three-month age limit.
Thirdly, we are inviting councils and registered social landlords to work with us to introduce energy performance certificates on a voluntary basis in social housing—for example, at the time of stock transfers. This will also provide work for energy assessors at an early opportunity. I will shortly introduce revised regulations to implement the changes that I have outlined.
Towards the end of the year we will assess the implementation of home information packs and consider what further steps might be needed to maximise the reduction in carbon emissions and drive forward the reform of home buying and selling. This assessment will be informed by the operation of the market from 1 August, by the results of the area trials, and by a further consultation on the next steps in implementing home information packs and energy performance certificates, which we will begin in the summer.
The approach that I have set out gives clarity to everyone about the next steps. It delivers home information packs and energy performance certificates, removes uncertainty for energy assessors and others, and ensures a smooth transition for the people buying and selling their property. Most importantly, it provides an opportunity to make real progress towards cutting carbon emissions from our homes.
I thank the Secretary of State for her grace and courage in coming to the House to make the statement today. It cannot have been easy announcing a retreat on a policy that she had no part in implementing originally. It is big of her to take the flak.
I also thank the Secretary of State for allowing me sight of her announcement, which I received just 25 minutes ago—clearly this is a day for doing everything at the last minute.
May I ask why, after being warned more than a year ago that they were comprehensively mishandling this issue, Ministers have seen fit to retreat only now with eight days to go before home information packs were due to be implemented? Why did Ministers not take the opportunity that we offered last week to think again? Was it stubborn vanity or sheer incompetence? The Secretary of State may argue that this humiliating climbdown was precipitated by the judgment issued in the High Court today, but that prompts the question that goes to the heart of the matter: why did Ministers find themselves in court in the first place? Why did they press ahead with a scheme that everyone who knows anything about the housing market told them was flawed at the heart?
Those warnings, unlike this climbdown, did not come at the eleventh hour. In this House at this Dispatch Box a year ago, we told the Government that their scheme was flawed. The Government told us that we were scaremongering, but 11 months ago they were compelled to execute the first in a truly embarrassing series of U-turns by dropping the mandatory home condition report, which was the keystone of the original home information pack, just hours after the Minister for Housing and Planning had defended it in this House. However, they were still determined to press ahead after that U-turn. Why did they not take the opportunity to work with us and others to put the stability of the housing market first? Why did Ministers decide to ignore the growing chorus of concern, shut out expert advice and carry on regardless?
On 21 February, all the key stakeholders who were originally invited to help the Government set up the scheme issued a warning letter to the Minister for Housing and Planning asking for an emergency meeting to address fundamental concerns with the scheme. They were not granted the meeting for which they asked: why? In desperation, the same group wrote to the Secretary of State on 2 March asking for a collective emergency meeting. Again, they were snubbed and no collective meeting was granted: why? What explains that refusal to listen to the experts, who were once charged with setting up the policy and whose involvement would be key to implementing it? Was it because this Government could not bear to be told that they were in the wrong, or did they not realise what a mess they were presiding over? Was it deadly arrogance or fatal ignorance? After today’s announcement, we know that this lady is for turning.
There are still many unanswered questions. The Government were warned that there were not enough qualified, accredited and certificated home inspectors in place. Over a year ago, I warned that getting those people in place was crucial. Only last week, the Minister for Housing and Planning told us that we had enough people to ensure the smooth operation of the scheme—she told us that everything would be all right on the night. Why did she offer that cavalier assurance, when the Secretary of State has told us that there will not be enough people in place after all? We know that relations between these Ministers are bad, but did the Secretary of State find out only in the past few days how few qualified people are in place? When did she know the real numbers? And why was not the House informed about the truth last week?
How can Ministers ever again ask to be taken seriously on the environment, when they have comprehensively mismanaged a measure that they argued throughout was vital to fighting climate change? Will the Secretary of State also confirm that today’s judgment in the High Court underlines what we have argued all along and what best practice in the European Union shows—you do not need home information packs for energy performance certificates? Will she agree to meet me, my colleagues, the Liberal Democrats and everyone with an interest in getting the housing market right to ensure that there is at last some expertise in this process?
Is this not a desperate, last-minute retreat designed to ensure that the Minister for Housing and Planning is airlifted out of this Department by her friends in the Treasury in a future reshuffle, so she does not have to cope with the chaos that she has created? And is it not truly tragic that confidence in the industry, the stability of the housing market and the battle against climate change have all been damaged by this Government’s arrogance and incompetence?
I am absolutely delighted to see the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) enjoying himself and in his place. Indeed, only this morning the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) asked the Conservative party whether it wants to be a serious force for governmental change, or whether it wants to be a right-wing debating society. Today, we have had our answer, and there he is, the honorary president.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to meet him. I would look forward to, and enjoy, meeting him on any occasion to discuss our policy on energy performance certificates or HIPs.
Before I deal with the specific points raised by the thrusting, young, ambitious hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I cannot help but observe that he has clearly thrust aside the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who is sitting beside him. Is that because he enjoys debating so much, or is it because the hon. Lady has been barred from addressing the House today because she dared to speak the truth about her party’s position on energy performance certificates on television only last week? She said that
“the new feature is having energy performance assessors come round and actually look at how your house is put together…so it’s a very intrusive measure.”
I fail to see how she can claim to support energy rating of homes if she opposes the idea of people going round to other people’s houses to check what their energy ratings are. What does she have in mind—drive-by energy assessors? That does not sound very green to me.
Let me deal with the points made by the hon. Gentleman. He said that we have refused to meet stakeholder groups such as estate agents or the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I can tell him, and the House, that those groups have had meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning. Indeed, I offered to meet the RICS before the introduction of the regulations, but somehow it could not find the time.
The hon. Gentleman asked when I knew about the interim order and the judicial review. Our Department was informed on Thursday, and I was informed later than that, at the weekend. In the past half an hour, we have reached a resolution with the RICS and set out a practical way forward that recognises that 5,000 energy assessors are in training or have already passed their exams. It is clear that lots of people want to be energy assessors, but—perhaps unsurprisingly given the campaign of misinformation from the hon. Gentleman and the threat of judicial review—several of them have adopted a wait-and-see approach instead of paying their final £300 to become accredited. That means that we have certain practical considerations to address. We need to provide certainty for energy assessors. That is why we are delaying the implementation of the proposals but also bringing forward some of our social housing stock, on which EPC assessments can be performed.
Our approach must be based on the two tests that I set out earlier: first, how do we maximise consumer benefit; and, secondly, how do we meet our climate change goals? The package that I have put before the House is a sensible way forward that does both. I should have thought that Members on both sides of the House would agree with WWF and Friends of the Earth that EPCs are
“one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation to affect households in recent years.”
I do not think that anyone could say that the package of measures before us today is anything other than a sensible and pragmatic response to the current situation. That is why I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support, look forward to meeting him, and hope that we can now establish a consensus in favour of the proposals.
I, for one, welcomed HIPs and energy performance certificates, understanding the valuable role that they would play in our efforts to curb climate change. I recognise what my right hon. Friend has done to get a viable solution for this country. She confirmed that the RICS’ objections centred on EPCs. We have established that sufficient people are in training to undertake EPC assessments when they are in place. Does she agree that the Opposition’s continuous opposition to this measure is very destructive, jeopardises people’s employment, and jeopardises the environment?
My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in such matters. She is absolutely right—we have now proposed a sensible way forward. I ask hon. Members of all parties to welcome the steps that we have taken to come together and ensure the smooth implementation of home information packs and especially energy performance certificates.
Smooth implementation is fine but the Secretary of State might acknowledge that it is a bit of shambles at the moment. Last week, I referred to the scheme as a train crash. Today, the first aid workers are on the scene but many hon. Members do not have much confidence in the doctors and nurses who are ministering to the injured.
Matters first went wrong last July and we were assured that everything would be fixed and ready for this June. It has all gone wrong again. Will the Secretary of State publish the risk assessment for her decision to move the scheme to 1 August? Is she satisfied that the risks inherent in it will be resolved and settled positively before we reach that August date?
Will she confirm that 3,500 transactions will be completed by 1 August? Mr. McDonald from the Department told the House of Lords Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments that that number was needed before the pilot study could be validated. Is the Secretary of State’s choice of 1 August as the new date in any way connected to the fact that it is well beyond the reach of parliamentary scrutiny?
The statement refers to four-bedroom homes. Does the right hon. Lady have a legal definition of a four-bedroom home? How many offices, studies, boxrooms and loft conversions will suddenly crop up? What regulations will she propose? Will she confirm that, according to most people’s estimates, the number of homes that she is considering will represent around 10 per cent. of the housing stock? How does the two-month delay and the reduction by 90 per cent. of the number of transactions fit with the capacity of 1,500—it may be 5,000—assessors who will be in the market looking for work at that time?
The Secretary of State referred to stock transfer of local authority housing. I welcome the inclusion of social housing in the scheme. However, to do it at the point of stock transfer, when there may suddenly be 1,000 or 10,000 homes all at once, makes little sense. Will she take a second look at the way in which social housing should be integrated into the scheme?
Is the Secretary of State persuaded that her Department’s third attempt under her leadership to deliver the scheme will be any more successful than the other two, or does she take comfort from the thought that, if it is not, a different Minister will have to be held to account?
We chose 1 August because it maximises certainty for energy assessors, delivers on our climate change goals at the earliest opportunity and maximises the benefit for consumers. That is also the reason for our choice of four-bedroom properties—I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman on a definition, if he wishes; I am sure that a common-sense approach will be adopted. However, I understand that four-bedroom properties represent about 18 per cent. of the market. The assessment is cautious and based on the number of assessors who have already been trained.
To provide assessors with sufficient work or give them greater opportunities for work in the interim period, we will work with social housing providers—both local authority and registered social landlords—to try to bring on stream, through stock transfers or perhaps other measures, enough work to continue to generate additional demand for energy assessors so that they can become available in due course to meet the demands that are placed on them in the home-buying and selling process. That is a sensible way forward, which guarantees that there is work for them to do.
The hon. Gentleman asked for information to be published. I said that we will publish a consultation paper, to which a full regulatory impact assessment will be attached. I am sure that he will take the opportunity to comment on that. However, I hope that he agrees that that is a sensible and pragmatic way forward.
National Energy Services, based in my constituency, is one of the major trainers for energy assessors and I have seen the training and work that is done on site. It is quite clear that many assessors have not paid for the final accreditation precisely because of the misinformation and the opportunistic opposition of the Conservative party and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. What is necessary now so that people who have committed themselves to training as assessors have some certainty of employment is to ensure that there is no further delay beyond what I understand has had to be a pragmatic accommodation between the Secretary of State and the RICS. Has my right hon. Friend received an assurance from the RICS that it will stick to that agreement and not cause further insecurity by backtracking or derailing this measure, which is so important for home owners and for improving the energy efficiency of homes?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. As I said, in the last three quarters of an hour we reached a resolution of the judicial case with the RICS. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need some certainty in the market to encourage energy assessors to pay their final fees in order to become accredited. I think that everyone can take comfort from the fact that, within less than a week, more than 1,000 extra energy assessors have passed their exams. People are going through training, becoming qualified and passing their exams at a quite dramatic rate. The challenge now is to ensure that they have the time to become properly accredited and that there is then work for them to do. That is why we are taking this sensible and measured approach.
In recognising this as the Government’s second great triumph over the previous week, may I ask whether the Secretary of State will give the House an assurance that she will not seek to recruit assessors from the ranks of junior doctors?
I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s wit. He makes his point in his own way, but the fact is that we have to provide as much certainty as possible for energy assessors while ensuring that we meet our climate change goals and maximise benefits for consumers. I believe that I have set out a sensible way forward on that.
May I express the disappointment of, I am sure, the whole House that lawyers have interfered with the democratic will of the people? In areas such as Wakefield, where many houses were traditionally reliant on coal-fired fuel, estate agents have welcomed HIPs and have advertised their services in the Wakefield Express. People will feel very cheated by this latest delay. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in areas such as mine, where people are heating water with very inefficient back boilers or heating their homes through often dodgy flues, energy performance certificates have the potential to reduce the number of accidents and the number of people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning or from scalds?
I know that my hon. Friend has championed the cause of safety in the home ever since she became a Member of this House. I give her credit for doing so. She is right that many estate agents up and down the country have been implementing systems to bring in HIPs and energy performance certificates at the beginning of June. No doubt they will be disappointed by today’s news. The fact is that we have to minimise the risks and ensure that we sensibly introduce measures that provide some work for energy assessors, continue to build the market and inject a greater degree of confidence in the system.
Sorry, I mean a three-bedroom house where a planning application has been granted for a fourth bedroom. When a home information pack has been commissioned for a four-bedroom house, but it is not received by the time of exchange, will the purchasers be allowed to go ahead?
The hon. Lady clearly wants to become involved and help us with the definition of a four-bedroom property. Trading standards, which will enforce the regulations, will take a common-sense approach. I have outlined an approach whereby a potential seller who has commissioned an energy performance certificate and has it in place at the point of exchange will be able to proceed with the sale of the property.
Last week, I was in favour of the principle of energy performance certificates and of the principle of changing the way we buy and sell houses in this country. I am still in favour of those principles. I recognise that my right hon. Friend has found it necessary to make some changes and postponements today, but I greatly welcome the idea of rolling out energy performance certificates for social housing, which could help some of the poorest families in our community. Does she agree that, however regrettable the resistance of the RICS to energy performance certificates on this occasion, it is nothing compared to the double standards of Conservative Members who want to vote blue and talk green only if no effective action follows?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. I am absolutely clear that energy performance certificates and home information packs have an important role to play, and everyone should take the opportunity today to back those principles. Faced with tough decisions on tackling climate change, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and his party duck the challenge at every opportunity. Today is yet another example of their failure to live up to their slogans.
The Secretary of State has told us that there are only 520 fully accredited inspectors, and that that number is inadequate to implement the regulations on 1 June. That was also true last week. Why were we not told that in last week’s debate on this matter? Why were we told last week that, on the contrary, there were sufficient inspectors? That was not true. I would have thought that this was a resigning issue.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is not right. The House was told the appropriate number of energy assessors—the number who had passed their qualifications and who intended to start work. Since those figures were given to the House, the number of energy assessors who have completed their training and passed their exams has risen by a further 1,000. We only need 2,000 in place at the beginning of the process. There is clearly sufficient demand, but there is also uncertainty about whether to pay the accreditation fees. The package that I have put before the House today is designed to give that extra certainty.
I understand why my right hon. Friend has had to make this statement today, but I have to say that I am deeply disappointed. In my constituency—where there is not 18 per cent. of four-bedroomed houses—270 people are working for a specialist company providing HIPs. As a result of the action of the RICS and the support of the Conservative party, there is a risk that they will be put out of work. When laying the necessary orders, will my right hon. Friend take into account the needs of the people working for those specialist companies so that they do not suffer unemployment as a result of the Tories’ actions?
I certainly will. I have been very concerned about the impact on individual energy assessors, who have parted with good money—their own money—to be trained and who intend to work to provide valuable energy certificates for my hon. Friend’s constituents and others. That is why we intend to introduce the full scheme at the earliest opportunity and why we are bringing forward work in the social housing sector. That will not only help us to meet our climate change goals, but provide additional work for energy assessors.
The right hon. Lady has come here to make a statement about problems that she has now resolved. She has been asked a simple question about the definition of four-bedroom and three-bedroom houses. Let me remind her that only one group is lower in public opinion than we are: the estate agents who will now be responsible for this provision. She knows very well that people will be able, quite happily, to take one of their four bedrooms and turn it into a boxroom, creating a three-bedroom house. There is no way that she can define that in any legal sense. This is a thoroughgoing disaster. Why does she not drop it and start again?
It is pretty clear to me that if a house owner has applied for planning permission for a fourth bedroom, it must be a three-bedroom house. It is pretty hard to carry out an energy performance assessment on an extension that has not yet been built. This just serves to prove that a common-sense approach will be adopted by the trading standards officers who will have to enforce our policy.
I hesitate to use words such as “capitalism” in this place, but is it not a prime example of the wasteful nature of market forces to insist on a situation in which the same survey is carried out time after time on the same property by different purchasers? This process is designed to end that practice, which the Conservatives and their lawyer friends are trying to keep going. It is essential that we get the process back on the road and ensure that the careers of people such as my constituents who have committed themselves to becoming inspectors are protected, preserved and enhanced. They will not be impressed by the hilarity on the Conservative Benches this afternoon.
My hon. Friend has made an extremely good point. Home information packs are incredibly important to the transformation of the home buying and selling process, which has not changed for a great many years. It is right for us to provide information up front, in as successful a form as possible, for purchasers before they enter into protracted legal negotiations.
Last week, the Minister for Housing and Planning told the House that there were more than enough energy assessors and that she had every confidence that the scheme could go ahead on 1 June. More important, she told the House that the RICS judicial review was “completely groundless”, as can be seen in column 643 of Hansard. Why is the Secretary of State having to cover for the incompetence and arrogance of a Minister who is not doing her job sufficiently well?
In six days. The figures are changing rapidly as more and more energy assessors pass their exams, gain their qualifications and pay their dues to become fully accredited. However, they clearly need enough certainty in the system to part with the final £300, and we are not providing that certainty.
The Secretary of State must know that the vast majority of the public want to make their homes more energy efficient, but does she really believe that this bureaucratic and expensive measure is the best way of achieving that? Given all the problems and all the retreats, is it not time to get everyone around the table to think about what is in the best interests not just of energy efficiency and climate change, but of the public?
No doubt my hon. Friend will contribute her views to the consultation that we are organising. The results of the area trials, which are continuing, and wider consultation with the public show a clear need to provide clarity and transparency in the home buying and selling process. The purpose of home information packs is to deliver more transparency and information at the beginning of the process of purchasing a house, rather than waiting until the end of the process to provide that vital information. I consider that to be a common-sense change.
Does the Secretary of State not understand that vendors do not want to incur what is effectively a tax on their transaction before they have gained any money from the sale that they are trying to carry out? Does she not understand that when in a hole one should stop digging, and that it is not a good idea to go against the wishes of the many people who would like to sell their houses or flats in the normal way without Government interference and an effective tax?
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? This delay is clearly hugely to his advantage, because it will give him the opportunity to knock home information packs on the head when he becomes Prime Minister and, hopefully—for him—not to lose quite so many votes at the next general election.
I understand that the RICS has not agreed to much of what the Secretary of State has said and that the court decision has been stayed, not withdrawn.
As the Secretary of State will know, for many weeks I have been asking a named-day question about the number of accredited domestic energy assessors. Week after week, the Minister for Housing and Planning has replied, “I will answer shortly.” The Department chose to answer the question in that way for one of two reasons. Either it knew that it did not have sufficient accredited domestic energy assessors, which would be negligent, or it did not know how many it had, which would be incompetent. Which was it, negligence or incompetence?
As a result of my comments today, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the figures are changing rapidly. I will put a full set of figures before the House today—I will place a copy in the Library—and I will also make sure that his parliamentary questions are fully answered.
I have come to this House to be as open and transparent as possible. It is clear from the figures that I have presented today that a huge number of people want to become trained energy assessors. However, it is also clear that many of them feel worried about paying their accreditation fees because of the uncertainty that has been hanging over the process. The way ahead that I have set out today is designed to resolve that uncertainty.
I listened to the statement with great interest and it seemed to me to be bizarre and surreal. Among those blamed were solicitors, the market and the Opposition. Do the Secretary of State and her Ministers accept any responsibility for the situation in which they find themselves? If they do not, I suspect from the tone of the debate that the House will soon be roofless.
Our policy is the right one: there should be up-front information for the consumer and we should introduce energy performance certificates to try to meet our climate change goal. However, the uncertainty created by the campaign of misinformation led by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, combined with the threat of judicial review, has led in the final weeks to not enough energy assessors paying their dues. I have come to the House to put that right.
I wish to make a statement on the modernisation proposals announced by Remploy earlier today. Remploy was established after the second world war to support injured servicemen and women to progress into mainstream employment. Today, Remploy factories employ about 5,000 disabled people across a range of sectors, from office furniture to electronics. Despite profound shifts in our economy over the past 60 years, there has been relatively little change in the nature of Remploy factories. However, the combination of new technology and the most far-reaching programme of disability rights legislation in Europe is creating new opportunities for disabled people in mainstream employment.
In 2005, a National Audit Office report argued that
“most of the businesses—particularly those in more traditional manufacturing and factory settings—are not currently sustainable in economic terms and are unlikely to become so in the future.”
The NAO also found that Remploy Interwork, which places people primarily in outside employment, appears to offer a more cost-effective service and accounts for three-quarters of all progressions to unsupported employment. The report stated that
“there remains substantial advantage in expanding this area of provision further, both in terms of reduced costs and the number of individuals who can be helped.”
Following the publication of the NAO report, in March 2006 I commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers and Stephen Duckworth to conduct a strategic review of future business options for the company. The report set out a range of scenarios for the business, from no change to complete closure of the factory network. I explicitly ruled out both of those options. In responding to the report last July, I said that I was willing to invest more in Remploy, but on the basis of reform, to help more disabled people and to provide better value for the taxpayer.
The average subsidy for a Remploy factory worker is about £20,000 per year, which is substantially more than the subsidy available under my Department’s Workstep programme, and also far greater than the £5,300 average one-off cost of getting someone into a mainstream job through Remploy’s work placement arm. Last year, Remploy placed 5,200 people into mainstream employment, thereby outstripping for the first time the number employed in its factory network. Last July, I set out a five-year funding envelope for the company, maintaining baseline funding of £111 million per year to give it stability, and asked its board to bring forward a restructuring plan to modernise the business to support substantially larger numbers of disabled people into work. I also made it clear that any such proposals must fully and fairly protect Remploy’s disabled employees from compulsory redundancy.
After extensive consultation with the representatives of the work force, Remploy has today produced its proposals. There are five core components. First, and most importantly, the company aims to quadruple mainstream job entries to 20,000 a year over the next five years, helping more disabled people gain sustainable employment. Secondly, it is planning significantly to decrease management overheads by £49 million over the next five years. Thirdly, it proposes the closure of 32 of the existing 83 factories, with a further 11 factories to transfer employees to neighbouring sites. Fourthly, the company has again confirmed that there will be no compulsory redundancies for disabled employees. And fifthly, a comprehensive support package will help employees through the transition. That latter step will ensure that all disabled employees continue to enjoy their current terms and conditions, including their membership of Remploy’s final salary pension scheme, should they decide to take employment outside of Remploy. The company is now beginning a formal consultation with its trade unions and employees, as well as preparing a disability impact assessment as part of its disability equality duty obligations.
I understand the concerns that the proposals will raise for some of Remploy’s employees. It is important that employees, and the trade unions representing them, are now given the time and space to respond to the consultation. Support and guidance is being made available for all Remploy staff through the factory network today and throughout the consultation period. That will include the option of counselling and advice from an independent organisation. I recognise that many hon. Members in the House today will have Remploy factories in their constituencies. I want Members to be fully involved in the consultation process and I will make sure that that happens. I understand that the Remploy chairman has already briefed Members earlier today.
I expect to receive the company’s final proposals later this year. No decision on the future of the company will take place until then. Once final proposals have been submitted, I will consider whether we are able to offer the company additional funding to facilitate modernisation beyond the £555 million already pledged.
Reform of Remploy is about extending opportunity to disabled people. It is about the fundamental principle that disabled people should have the opportunity to work in mainstream employment, but that a sheltered environment should also be provided where that is the best option. As six of the biggest organisations representing disabled people made clear last week in a letter to The Guardian:
“The minute you assume someone cannot work in the outside world you will certainly ensure they don’t. Disabled people want to work in ordinary places doing ordinary jobs. It is a matter of human rights.”
Increasing employment opportunities for disabled people and ensuring Remploy’s duty of care to its staff are the two fundamental tests against which Ministers will ultimately assess Remploy’s proposals.
I thank the Secretary of State for an important statement on the closure of 43 factories employing some of the most vulnerable workers in the country. As he reminded us, Remploy was set up at the end of the second world war, primarily to provide meaningful and productive work for people who suffered tragic disabilities as a result of the war. It provided great service during the post-war period and continues to do so today.
Remploy also has a proud history of adjusting to and moving with the times. Initially set up as a factory network, Remploy has been able to adjust to the decline in UK manufacturing and expand into the service sector, setting up businesses where there was demand at the time. As the nature of the disabilities people face has changed, and the expectations of disabled people and the society around them have also changed—with more focus on creating opportunities for disabled people and a wider acceptance of disability and the contribution that disabled people can make across society—Remploy has once again moved with the times, expanding its operations to help individuals find work in businesses outside its own factories and workshops. As the Secretary of State said, it is now placing as many people each year in work outside the organisation as it employs itself.
In the face of the rising costs of maintaining the Remploy network and the increasing challenges of the global economy, coupled with the changing needs of disabled people, the time is now right for another evolution of Remploy. My party supports the principle of reform that the proposals that the Secretary of State spoke about embrace, and we support the goal of greater levels of inclusion of disabled people in mainstream employment. We shall take a close interest in the consultation process that now follows but, as the Secretary of State would expect, we have a number of specific concerns. They relate not to the objective but to the transitional process and to the impact on individuals, many of whom will have worked for Remploy all their adult lives.
The Secretary of State’s statement did not say so explicitly, but the one made earlier by Remploy makes it clear that the proposal will entail 2,270 disabled employees being transferred out of the company’s employment. How many of them are over 50, and thus within 15 years of normal retirement age? How many are people whose primary disability is a mental health problem or a learning disability, and what special provision is envisaged for the more challenging retraining requirements that that group is likely to have? What will be the total retraining and job placement budget for dealing with those 2,270 people? Does he have any plans to make special provision for proposed closures in areas with significantly above average unemployment, such as Leicester, where it might be expected that the challenge of retraining Remploy employees and placing them in mainstream employment will be greater?
We recognise the need for Remploy to shift its focus as the world about it changes. Work in a sheltered factory is no longer a financially viable option, nor is it the most socially desirable outcome for many disabled people entering the work force. However, moving on, retraining and facing a new and unfamiliar environment is a challenging prospect for anyone, and it will be especially so for some of the employees of Remploy. We fervently hope that the process will be successful, but what is the Secretary of State’s plan B if it proves impossible to place some existing Remploy employees in mainstream employment? Does he have one? Has Remploy had discussions with the voluntary and social enterprise sectors to examine the possibility of alternative work placements for the—hopefully—very small number who cannot be placed successfully in mainstream employment?
Work works, as the Secretary of State frequently reminds us, and over the years the 2,270 Remploy workers have benefited from the dignity of being engaged in productive employment. The worst possible outcome of the changes that we are discussing today would be for some of them to be left high and dry without work. I accept that they will still have their salaries and other support mechanisms, but it would be very unsatisfactory if they were left without work and the self-respect that it brings.
Finally, is today’s announcement the full agenda, or is it the first step in a longer-term programme? How secure are the jobs in the remaining 40 Remploy factories? Does the Secretary of State envisage that they will continue indefinitely as they are now, or is the outplacement of those employees also the ultimate objective?
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support in principle for what Remploy is trying to do. That will be very welcome to the company.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. I shall try to answer most of them now, and I will correspond with him about the rest. I think that he asked me about the number of employees over 60—
In that case, I must have misheard the hon. Gentleman. However, I have the figures for the number of Remploy employees over 60, and can tell him that there are 650 in that category. I will get the figure for the numbers aged over 50.
It is true that many of those who will be caught up in the changes will be learning disabled. I think that the majority of disabled people now supported by Remploy are in that category. I have no doubt that the company’s experience in the field and willingness and ability to work with others mean that it will do all it can to help those people to find alternative work.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about factories in areas of high unemployment such as Leicester. The Remploy board has made it clear today that its final proposals—and I remind the House that there are no final proposals before Ministers yet—will have to take local labour market conditions fully into account. That was one of the factors the company took into account when drawing up the proposed sites that may be affected by the closure programme, but it will certainly reflect on the matter.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of work. It is important that Members appreciate that no disabled person will lose the prospect of employment through these plans. As he said, about 2,300 disabled people will be affected by the proposals and the company has guaranteed that every person who wants to continue employment will be found alternative work, whether within the Remploy family, in sheltered employment environments or in mainstream employment. Again, I make it clear that there will be no compulsory redundancies.
The hon. Gentleman, like me, referred to the support package on offer from the company. The support package is unprecedented; it is not TUPE—and, indeed, goes significantly beyond TUPE, especially in relation to continued membership of the final salary pension scheme, which will be important if the changes are to be made in an appropriate and sensitive way, as they must be.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the remaining factories in the Remploy network. As yet, there are no final proposals before Ministers, but the view of the company and the board is that the plans, subject to the outcome of the consultation, offer the company the best prospect of securing sustainable, long-term employment for the Remploy factory network. It is true, as I am afraid I have to say clearly today, that there can be no 100 per cent. guarantee for the indefinite future—that is no longer the world in which we live—but I strongly believe that, subject to the outcome of consultation on the final proposals, the generally accepted view is that the right way forward will consist of those types of change. That is the best way to offer the prospect of secure long-term employment for the remaining employees of Remploy.
My constituents in the Remploy factory at Spennymoor will be disappointed by the Secretary of State’s announcement. He put great emphasis on the National Audit Office report, but is he aware of the comments of the Public Accounts Committee, which usually toughens up NAO reports? The PAC noted:
“A highly supportive environment is the only appropriate option for some people and Remploy has provided unique opportunities for thousands over many years. The current review of Remploy should safeguard this achievement.”
The closure of factories in Hartlepool, Stockton and Spennymoor will remove those possibilities in a significant area of the north-east.
I fully understand that my hon. Friend’s constituents will be disappointed by the announcement today. What we and the company are trying to do is to strike the right balance between making sure that the business has a sustainable, long-term future and providing a range of choices to disabled people so that they can find secure, meaningful employment. I believe strongly that part of the range of options that should be available to disabled people will include sheltered employment. We are not removing that option. Remploy has an established network of sheltered employment environments, which will continue to operate, and the company will continue to work with a range of local partners, including local authorities, to find alternative sheltered employment where that is appropriate. I repeat that Remploy staff who choose to move to those new working environments will continue to draw down their existing Remploy terms and conditions package, including membership of the final salary pension scheme. We are trying hard to be fair in the circumstances. We are not saying that there is no role for sheltered employment; we are saying that we have to find a different balance between mainstream and sheltered employment.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance notice of it.
In principle, promoting mainstream employment must be the right approach to deliver independent living, and Remploy is to be congratulated on the success of its programmes to get people into mainstream employment. Expanding such schemes is both necessary and appropriate and I particularly welcome the consultation that will take place.
Nevertheless, today’s statement will have a deeply unsettling effect on the Remploy work force, some of whom I met in Halifax yesterday. Can the Minister confirm that half of all Remploy factories will be affected in some way by the initial proposals announced today? Can he explain why there was such a long period of uncertainty before the announcement was made, which added to the stress on many of the employees waiting for the announcement?
The Government owe a duty of care to the individuals involved, and their interests must be at the forefront of our minds today. Over what period does the Secretary of State expect the closure programme to be phased in? How long will the affected individuals have to find alternative employment? Perhaps he could also say a little more about the assistance that will be offered to those people. Is he satisfied that the programme announced today and the plans for the workers from now on are consistent with Remploy’s disability equality duty?
Today’s announcement cannot be isolated from the Government’s wider policies for helping disabled people into work. If Remploy is to redirect its resources, the Government need to do the same. Is the Secretary of State willing to provide additional support for Remploy, if necessary, to meet its target of getting 20,000 additional disabled people into work every year through its mainstream employment programmes? In the same vein, has the Minister been able to find the additional resources needed to roll out the pathways to work programme appropriately, and has he been able to persuade the Treasury to accept the new funding mechanism, proposed by David Freud, which would allow additional resources to be invested in the area?
What steps are the Government taking to increase employer engagement in order to help disabled people into work, and what steps are they taking to tackle prejudice and promote the benefits of employing disabled people and those with mental health conditions? The Government have a responsibility to expand dramatically the efforts to help all disabled people into work. They need to do so to ensure that all disabled people, including Remploy employees, have the fair opportunities to work that they deserve and that they have every right to expect.
Again, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s general support. It is true that half the factory network will be affected by the proposals. He asked why it took so long for the proposals to come through, following the publication of the reports last summer. The company has been working on the schemes, and of course a new chairman was appointed at the beginning of the year. It was quite right and proper for Ian Russell to take time to cast his eyes over the plans to make sure that they are appropriate and take the company in the right direction.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the time scale for the programme. I remind him, and the House, that there are no final proposals yet. We will not know the time scale until we see the final proposals from the company and Ministers have made a decision. Clearly, the consultation period will last for the appropriate time—90 days. The company will then need to reflect on that and bring forward its final proposals, which will be done before the end of the year.
I accept that Remploy is bound by the disability equality duty. That is clearly a statutory obligation on the company and it will discharge that—it has no alternative. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Remploy has a clear and specific duty of care towards its employees and that it must discharge that duty. I will make sure—as I am sure will hon. Members—that that duty of care is properly discharged.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be additional support on top of the £555 million that we have committed to Remploy. I have made it clear that I am prepared to consider putting additional resources in on top of the more than £500 million currently available to Remploy, if that is necessary to support the transition programme.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Freud report. A response to that will be made later this year. Finally, in response to his point about pathways, my view is that pathways is being properly funded and that the Government are making significant additional resources available to help people who have a disability to find employment. That is right and proper.
Many of us will want to suspend judgment until we have had an opportunity to look at the proposals in more detail. I would just say to my right hon. Friend that when I spoke to workers at the plant this afternoon they said that they were devastated and gutted by the news that the factory in Aberdare was to close. Only last week—this underlines the sensitivity with which these matters are handled—they were given a report that said that all their targets had been met. As a result, they had expectations that their factory was going to remain open. It is a great disappointment to them that it is not. They also raised the question of outsourcing. If Remploy claims that some factories are unprofitable, why does it outsource some of its work to India and China? I know that my right hon. Friend has dealt with this matter by fully consulting Members of Parliament. Nevertheless, when such a decision is made, it is a considerable body blow to the areas concerned.
I fully accept the points that my right hon. Friend powerfully makes. If a factory is in danger of closing, clearly we can all understand the concern that employees will feel, especially in an organisation such as Remploy. However, we simply cannot ignore the fact that the world is changing. We expect Remploy to discharge a very simple and clear responsibility as the transition is managed. As I have said, it is my duty first and foremost to ensure that Remploy handles this in the appropriate way—and I have no doubt at all that it will do so. We must think ahead and consider how we can help more disabled people to get into mainstream employment than at present. The prospect of quadrupling the number of disabled people who get jobs in mainstream employment is a prize well worth reaching for. I repeat that we, and the company, will behave properly and fairly when dealing with the challenge. If the work force at Aberdare feel that they have been misled by the company in any way, I very much regret that.
Can I be assured that the board will consider wider strategic solutions to help it to achieve all its aims? For example, in Poole, Dorset, there is a real opportunity to manage the transition of the factory while setting up a centre of excellence for the training of people with disabilities, which would obviously serve the whole of Dorset, bearing in mind the distance from the Poole site to any other Remploy factory in this country.
Yes, I think that the consultation will be full and open. Members can put forward views and I am sure that the work force at Poole will put forward views about the future of their place of work. The company made it clear today that every serious proposal will be studied and examined carefully.
I understand the cause of the concerns that have been expressed, but I welcome the principles behind my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does he agree that Remploy’s objectives must be to offer the widest choice of employment opportunities for disabled people, to ensure that it can secure the maximum number of jobs for disabled people, and that the largest possible number of disabled people should be employed in mainstream employment, when that is what they wish? Will he assure me that during the consultation process, everything will be done to ensure that the views of disabled people and their organisations are clearly sought and acted on?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. I can certainly give him the assurance that he seeks.
A number of my constituents were deeply anxious about the threats to the factory in Dundee, which I understand has been saved. That is welcome. The factory lies in the Dundee, West constituency, so I will leave the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) to say more about it.
In general terms, I welcome what the Secretary of State said in his statement, especially regarding the fact that there will be no compulsory redundancies for employees with disabilities, and that they will keep their final salary pension scheme. What guarantees can he offer to the non-disabled employees, especially with regard to their final salary pension scheme? Will he guarantee that if the factories that might close are sold, any receipts will go back into the business, or will be used to help people with disabilities into mainstream or sheltered work, rather than being grabbed by his Department or the Treasury?
We have no plans to grab any money in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. This exercise is not designed to reduce spending; quite the opposite. As I said earlier, I am prepared to invest more in the business to give disabled people the prospects and choices to which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) referred.
I welcome the general support of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) for the package that has been made available to disabled employees. Of course the accrued entitlements of Remploy’s able-bodied employees under the final salary pension scheme will be fully observed by the company. However, the same offer could not be made to able-bodied employees as has been made by the company to its disabled employees. The company has made the choice—the right one, I think—that the proper and effective way to discharge its responsibilities and duty of care is the one that it has outlined today. That is the right way forward.
I too welcome in principle the move, which has to be right, of those with disabilities into mainstream employment—but the Central Cutting unit at Birkenhead, which is to be merged, where I have constituents working, is devastated by the news today. Can my right hon. Friend confirm on the record once more what we were told in a briefing earlier by the chairman of the company: that all the existing work force will be guaranteed their terms and conditions, and access to the pension fund, and that level of support in any employment that they undertake in the future, for the whole of their employment life? “For life” was what the chair said to us when we met him earlier today. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that is indeed the case?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I want to emphasise two things. She referred to the Remploy factory in her constituency merging. That is the proposal; a final set of decisions has not yet been made by the company’s board, and that will not happen until later this year. There is therefore the opportunity for her constituents and herself to be involved in helping to shape the final proposals that the board bring forward to Ministers. I am very happy to make it absolutely clear again that what the chairman of Remploy, Ian Russell, said today is the company’s position—that there is an absolute guarantee along the lines that he indicated to my hon. Friend earlier in the day, and that that undertaking will be honoured.
The Secretary of State has used the words “sensitive” and “sensitivity” several times, and the company has been careful to try to get that message across. Will he continue that theme, bearing in mind that there are quite a number of these closures in the old pit areas, where unemployment is still a problem? There is one in my constituency, there is also one five miles away in Mansfield, and there was a closure a few years ago nearby. So will the Secretary of State look sensitively at that, as the operation has not been completed? And will he not keep referring to that £20,000 cost for each Remploy employee, because there are a lot of people in Britain that cost £20,000 to employ? In fact, there are some down in the sheltered accommodation at Buckingham palace who would all be put out to grass.
In relation to my hon. Friend’s most important point, I reassure him that the company has already looked at those issues very carefully, and it will have to take them into account in making its final proposals. There is one overwhelming obligation now; that is clear from what the chairman of Remploy said today. The company must honour the guarantee of no compulsory redundancies. If that cannot be done for the list of factories currently scheduled for closure, the company will have to come forward with alternative proposals. I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind if I do not get drawn on the last point that he made.
I think that we will all agree that what my right hon. Friend proposes is sensible in theory, but we will all take a close interest in how it works in practice. I was glad to hear him say repeatedly that he would take account of local economic conditions—although when we hear that factories in, for example, Aberdare are to close, we do wonder how far they have been taken into account.
Is not the danger that when we help people into mainstream employment, they will remain in it for as long as the subsidy to the employer continues, and as soon as that subsidy ceases they will not be in it any more? Does my right hon. Friend have any long-term research on how long people who have already been helped into jobs have remained in them?
I shall certainly make available all the research information that the Department currently has. The guarantee from the company is to support employment for the rest of a person’s working life. It is inevitable, I suspect, that there will be occasions when a period of mainstream employment may come to an end, but the company’s job and obligation there is to help the person find alternative work, and throughout that time that person will be employed by Remploy, on Remploy terms and conditions. I genuinely think that that is a very extensive offer of help and support.
I agree with my hon. Friend in one very important respect: I think we should all reserve our judgment until the final proposals have come through. I am willing and available, as is the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who is the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, to meet any hon. Member to discuss their concerns and how we can best take forward this sensitive matter, which is important to all of us.
I was at the Halifax factory yesterday morning, and I am disappointed and angry at the news today, especially for the dedicated and hard-working staff there. Will the Secretary of State outline to the House why the Halifax factory has merited the proposed closure? What will be done to find suitable alternative employment for the staff, particularly considering the area we are in, and the proposed closure of the two Remploy factories nearest to Halifax—those in Barnsley and Bradford?
Again, I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but I want to make something clear to her. She has, I think, assumed—wrongly—that the Halifax factory is going to close, but whether that is so will be clear only when the final proposals have come through. If she and her constituents believe that there are strong arguments against the closure of the Halifax factory, I know that the board of Remploy will fully consider them.
May I stress to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the consultation must be genuine? I cannot imagine how the workers at my local factory must be feeling, having heard the recommendation that their workplace should close. My concern is that the recommendations are being made before Remploy has had the opportunity to prove that it can find places in mainstream workplaces for current Remploy employees. I think that that will be an extremely difficult task.
May I suggest that there is a way forward that has not been put forward by Remploy or been considered in enough detail? It is that Remploy factories could provide a training base—a stepping stone—for people with disabilities who are trying to go back into mainstream work. Although it is important that people have dignity in the workplace and should be supported in mainstream employment, there is undoubtedly an element of the Remploy work force that cannot be employed in any other setting. Getting rid of these unique workplaces, where people can have dignity and be safely employed, will be a retrograde step. We will not be able to recreate them. We need to consider innovative ways to use Remploy factories in a new form, to meet all the needs of the work force for whom we are trying to provide a service.
My hon. Friend’s last point has not been discounted by the company. I think it remains very much one of the options. I am sure that he and others will put that case to the Remploy board in the next three months or so, and I am prepared to act as interlocutor on his behalf if he feels that that would be helpful.
On my hon. Friend’s first question—about whether we should be confident of our ability to find alternative employment—it is worth reminding ourselves that Remploy currently has 1,500 vacancies on its books to help disabled people to get employment in mainstream employment situations. We are therefore entitled to be reasonably confident that we will be able to provide alternative employment. However, I accept absolutely—it is baked into the Remploy proposals—the need for sheltered employment in future. No one is proposing that disabled people should have no choice. The express purpose of the reforms is to give disabled people more choice.
My right hon. Friend will know that the trade unions have been calling for diversification and change in Remploy, because they could see what was coming. It seems to me that they have shown a lot more perspicacity than, historically, the management of Remploy have shown. If this is solely in the hands of Remploy, I have no great confidence that a plan will be brought forward in the consultation that will lead to security of employment in future. I think that a fund for change and modernisation is available. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to use that fund during the consultation period to explore the possibilities of establishing new employers with new products and new marketing schemes that could provide better long-term stable employment for those people, still secured under the terms and conditions that are broadly available at Remploy?
I did indicate in my statement that we were prepared to put additional resources into the business if that would help to sustain the factory network, or in fact the company, in future. As for my hon. Friend’s point about the board, there is a new chairman who has handled himself exceptionally well in the last few months, and who has begun to build good relationships with the work force and the trade unions. Notwithstanding the disappointment that many will feel, now that there is a plan, it is important that we take advantage of it to help to shape and mould the company, so that it can help to meet the priorities that he and I share. Those priorities are the need to provide choice, opportunities, and the dignity of proper, effective, meaningful employment for more disabled people. We will not be able to do that without reform. I do not believe that we can do all the things that he and I want to do if we simply carry on as we are. That would let down many disabled people in the long term, and it would not give disabled people and their families some of the things that he and I want for them.
May I first express my serious concern about the proposed closure of the Ashington factory in my constituency, which is at the heart of one of the areas of greatest unemployment in Northumberland? Indeed, the Remploy factory is the only factory in Northumberland. The work force were informed of the closure; they were told that the factory would close by the end of the year, and that is contrary to the spirit in which my right hon. Friend made his statement. Will he comment on that, and on the statement made today by Ian Russell, the chairman of Remploy, who said that no factory would close until suitable alternative employment was found for all those affected?
I cannot explain how it came about that my hon. Friend’s constituents were told what they were told. Clearly, it is flatly contradicted by what the chairman of Remploy said. I simply urge my hon. Friend’s constituents to listen to the chairman of the board, and not to what they have been told by others.
Seventy-seven people are employed at the Remploy factory in Stockport, which is based in Heaton Chapel in my constituency, and 74 of them are disabled. They will be offered opportunities for employment at the Oldham Remploy factory, but will my right hon. Friend explain how they will be offered support in accessing those job opportunities, as that is obviously crucial to them?
That will ultimately be a matter for the company to decide, assuming that the proposals are implemented as they are currently formulated. If that were to happen, clearly it would be incumbent on the company to find a way of making sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents were able to work at Oldham. If that means providing help with transport and other costs involved in the move, the company will do that.
Like the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie), I am delighted to hear that the Dundee Remploy factory will remain open. However, I have some concerns about Dundee, and other places. Will the Secretary of State confirm that factories for which closure is not proposed will remain unaffected by the plan? He says that the terms of transfer will go beyond the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981; will he confirm that, at the very least, TUPE will apply, so that if, five years down the line, the Remploy factories that remain open offer a beneficial 50 per cent. wage increase, it will apply to all former Remploy employees, regardless of how long ago they left and where they are employed at the time?
Yes, I can confirm that the offer from the company is to maintain people’s existing Remploy terms and conditions, and it is under those terms and conditions, whatever they are, that people will be employed in future. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks; I am glad that a way forward has been found, and that the company does not propose to close Remploy in his constituency. Clearly, some of the factories that are to stay open will be affected by the closures, because employees will be transferred to them, but I can only repeat what I said earlier: we are talking about the company’s initial set of proposals, and we have to find a way to secure the long-term future of Remploy as a business. By that I mean its future as a provider of sheltered employment and as a provider of mainstream employment opportunities for disabled people. That is very much what the board wants, and what my hon. Friends and I want.
Houses in Multiple Occupation
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require planning approval for the change of use of housing to multiple occupation; and for connected purposes.
Right hon. and hon. Members will be familiar with the housing landscape in many of our towns and cities, where parts of those towns have become areas where the house in multiple occupation is the predominant form of housing. In many instances those houses are not what one might call traditional HMOs—an original large house subdivided into flats—but are a single house remaining as such, occupied by perhaps half a dozen people paying rent for their individual occupation of an otherwise unconverted house.
This is particularly the case in towns and cities where there are substantial numbers of students. With the expansion of higher education over the past two decades, there are many such towns. The city that I represent, Southampton, is one of those, with an estimated population of 28,000 students in a city of about 220,000 people. It is a city that I represent along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), the former president of the students union. Although university authorities have built increasing numbers of halls of residence and student flats, the majority of students live in such HMOs, under one roof, sharing facilities and, according to a court ruling of 1995 in the Barnes v. Sheffield case, living as a single household.
It is right that a range of types of accommodation should be available to people. HMOs of various types provide important accommodation for young people, single people and people who are seeking shorter-term accommodation. The difficulty that local authorities face in considering how the different types of housing stock are to be deployed is that most types of stock—flats and small or larger houses—and changes of use of building from commercial to residential are all subject to the local planning regime, whereas the conversion of houses from family occupation to multiple occupation is not.
Under present planning legislation, a landlord can simply purchase a family house, possibly with a buy-to-let mortgage, and place five or six tenants in the house immediately. Cumulatively, such HMOs have a substantial impact on the character and amenity of neighbourhoods and, over and above the self-sustaining market that they create, on the inability of families to purchase houses where “studentification” has taken hold, because of the power of purchase that such landlords hold. HMOs raise all the issues of transient tenancies, of large numbers of extra cars parked, and possibly of noise. In short, the area becomes quite different in character.
Despite the fact that HMOs are a specific kind of housing, they are the only kind that is effectively beyond the reach of local planning arrangements. That is because under present planning law, dwelling-houses are regarded as one kind of use, and are so defined in the use class orders that derive from planning legislation. According to the use class orders, with minor but important exceptions a dwelling-house is a dwelling-house is a dwelling-house, regardless of who occupies it. That is understandable in planning terms, as planning law is blind to occupants, and is concerned with land use and its effects.
To an extent, planning law acknowledges that multiple occupancy of a house has land use consequences, but the use class order effectively exempts a change of use within the class for a house with up to seven occupants. A very large HMO, therefore, can come under local planning scrutiny, but the vast bulk of HMOs do not have seven occupants, so the distinction is pretty redundant.
Housing law has moved to recognise the reality of houses in multiple occupation. As right hon. and hon. Members know, the Housing Act 2004 established extensive procedures whereby local authorities can register HMOs and license landlords to run them. The qualifying point for general registration under the Housing Act is five occupants living in a three-storey house, although more widespread registration schemes may be introduced with the agreement of the Secretary of State.
That is a welcome change. As it is implemented, it delivers the prospect of HMOs that are better managed, and the revocation of licences for landlords where such management consistently falls below a level acceptable to local communities. However, it does nothing about HMOs becoming HMOs in the first place. Furthermore, it introduces two different regimes for the definition of HMOs. The Housing Act, for example, specifically includes student houses in its definition of HMOs, because it defines an HMO as a dwelling in which a number of people not related to each other live under one roof. That, in turn, entails a definition of a family and what it means, in housing terms, to be related. Nevertheless, the Act encompasses the reality of HMOs in a way that planning law does not.
What is to be done? The title of my Bill indicates what should be done: the process of effectively changing the use of a family house to that of an HMO, whether that happens through the purchase of a previously occupied house or, as is becoming increasingly common, through the purchase of a new property for buy-to-let purposes, should be regulated through the local development and planning process.
It has been suggested that the way to achieve that aim is to change the use class definition of a dwelling-house and to place use as an HMO outside the definition—the placing of an HMO into the category of use changes that always need planning permission. That is, essentially, what has been done in Northern Ireland. That route is attractive, but the numbers entailed in the revised order in Northern Ireland—more than two unrelated people in a house—suggest that there might be difficulties in defining what relationships trigger what definition, and whether a small HMO can in reality be said to lead to a real effect on land use as a result of the change in the nature of occupation.
In my view, it would be far simpler to bring the definitions in the Housing Act 2004 of numbers licensable, and what constitutes a family, into planning law—in this instance into the use class and schedules in the use class order derived from the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. My Bill would redefine an HMO as requiring planning permission for change of use if more than four people were to occupy the house, and to bring the Housing Act 2004 definition of a family into planning law. In that way, local authorities would have the ability, subject to all the proper safeguards and requirements of the planning process, to determine whether all but the smallest HMOs should receive the go-ahead. That might be backed up by guidance statements about density in local planning framework documents. Local authorities would also be able to cross-reference the houses coming before them for licensing purposes to check whether those houses should go through the planning process, and whether enforcement action should be taken. In truth, this Bill would be a modest amendment to existing planning law; indeed, it would amend existing orders following primary legislation.
The Bill is modest, but it could have a large effect on the weave of the local variety of housing provision in localities in towns and cities, so that the unplanned and often unanticipated swing of entire streets or neighbourhoods towards HMOs would become, over time, a thing of the past. I therefore commend the Bill to the House—but in the uneasy knowledge that it is just possible that it may not complete its passage through the House, even if its progress is agreed today.
I therefore also commend the provisions in the Bill to Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government, who by felicitous coincidence are sitting on the Treasury Bench this afternoon in anticipation of future business. I say to them that spending an afternoon Upstairs in Committee would make a real and substantial difference to the future mix and balance of communities, as I have described today.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Alan Whitehead, Mr. John Denham, Mr. Andy Reid, Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods, Alan Simpson, Dr. Phyllis Starkey, Martin Salter, Sandra Gidley and Fiona Mactaggart.
Houses in Multiple Occupation
Dr. Alan Whitehead accordingly presented a Bill to require planning approval for the change of use of housing to multiple occupation; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 109].
Orders of the Day
Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill
[2nd Allotted Day]
As amended in the Public Bill Committee, further considered.
New Clause 1
Orders under Part 1 of Local Government Act 2000: Wales
‘(1) Part 1 of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (promotion of economic, social or environmental well-being etc) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 3(7) (limits on power to promote well-being) and section 4(5) (strategies for promoting well-being), for “the National Assembly for Wales” substitute “the Welsh Ministers”.
(3) In section 5 (power to amend or repeal enactments relating to power to promote well-being), for subsection (4) substitute—
“(4) In exercising the power under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must not make any provision which has effect in relation to Wales unless he has consulted the Welsh Ministers.
(4A) In exercising the power under subsection (1), the Secretary of State—
(a) must not make any provision amending, repealing or disapplying any Measure or Act of the National Assembly for Wales without the consent of the National Assembly for Wales, and
(b) must not make any provision amending, revoking or disapplying subordinate legislation made by the Welsh Ministers (or the National Assembly for Wales established under the Government of Wales Act 1998) without the consent of the Welsh Ministers.
(4B) Subsection (4A) does not apply to the extent that the Secretary of State is making incidental or consequential provision.”
(4) In subsection (5) of that section, for “The National Assembly for Wales” substitute “The Welsh Ministers”.
(5) In section 6 (power to modify enactments concerning plans etc)—
(a) in subsection (1), at the end insert “so far as that enactment has effect in relation to a local authority in England”; and
(b) omit subsections (5) and (6).
(6) In section 7 (power to modify enactments concerning plans etc: Wales)—
(a) in subsection (1)—
(i) for “the National Assembly for Wales” substitute “the Welsh Ministers”; and
(ii) for “to which subsection (2) applies” substitute “(whenever passed or made) which requires a local authority to prepare, produce or publish any plan or strategy relating to any particular matter”;
(b) omit subsection (2);
(c) in subsection (4), for “the National Assembly for Wales considers” substitute “the Welsh Ministers consider”; and
(d) omit subsection (6).
(7) At the end of that section insert—
“(8) An order under this section may not make a provision which, if it were a provision of a Measure of the National Assembly for Wales, would be outside the Assembly’s legislative competence.
(9) For the purposes of subsection (8), section 94(4) of the Government of Wales Act 2006 has effect as if paragraph (a) (matters within legislative competence) were omitted.
(10) Subject to subsection (11), a statutory instrument which contains an order under this section is not to be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.
(11) A statutory instrument containing an order under this section which is made only for the purpose of amending an earlier such order—
(a) so as to extend the earlier order, or any provision of the earlier order, to a particular authority or to authorities of a particular description, or
(b) so that the earlier order, or any provision of the earlier order, ceases to apply to a particular authority or to authorities of a particular description,
is to be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.”.
(8) In section 9 (procedure for orders under section 5 or 6)—
(a) in subsection (2), for “the National Assembly for Wales” substitute “the Welsh Ministers”; and
(b) in subsection (3)(d), for “the National Assembly for Wales” substitute “the Welsh Ministers”.’.—[Angela E. Smith.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
New clause 1 amends part 1 of the Local Government Act 2000, which concerns the promotion of social, economic or environmental well-being. The amendments are needed as a consequence of power being given to the National Assembly for Wales in schedule 14 to the Bill, which will enable the Assembly to make an Assembly Measure in relation to community strategies prepared under the 2000 Act. The amendment to section 5 of the 2000 Act will prevent the Secretary of State from using, without consent, an order-making power to amend, repeal, revoke or disapply certain enactments that relate to Wales if she believes they will obstruct the well-being powers in the 2000 Act.
The Secretary of State will be able to amend an Assembly Measure only with the consent of the National Assembly, and Welsh subordinate legislation only with the consent of Welsh Ministers. Furthermore, the Secretary of State must not use the power under section 5(1) to make provision which has effect in Wales without first consulting Welsh Ministers. That reflects the formal separation of the National Assembly’s legislative and executive functions under the Government of Wales Act 2006.
The amendment to section 6 of the 2000 Act will confine to England the Secretary of State’s power to amend, repeal, revoke or disapply any enactment that requires a local authority to prepare, produce or publish any plan or strategy. In doing so, the equivalent power in respect of Wales will be conferred on Welsh Ministers. The amendment will ensure consistency with the wider devolved responsibility for local government in Wales and with the powers that the Bill will confer on the National Assembly. It will also remove any inadvertent need for the Assembly to seek the consent of the Secretary of State when making legislation that substantively affects only devolved matters.
As a result of the new clause, amendments Nos. 56 and 58 are needed to repeal sections 6(5), 6(6), 7(2) and 7(6) of the 2000 Act and to commence the amendments two months after the Bill is enacted. I commend the new clause and the amendments to the House.
I welcome the Minister and thank her for that brief explanation of the amendments. When we asked her Department last week whether explanatory notes on the new clauses were available, we were told that they would not be available until the Bill reaches the House of Lords. I was therefore a little in the dark, but her clear explanation has helped me to some degree.
The amendments represent a perfectly proper devolutionary measure, which we welcome. That is a slight contrast with other elements of the Bill. As Ministers know—we will discuss this when we reach some of the other clauses—our main hesitation is that we are not sure that it is truly a devolutionary measure, despite the Government’s protestations otherwise. In some areas—we will probably divide on some of them—we wish that there had been greater devolution than is proposed. However, in this instance, as in other parts of the Bill, the Minister is definitely doing the job, which is welcome.
It will be a matter of interest to see how the new relationship between the Government and the National Assembly for Wales works after the little stir of the mix in the Celtic firmament. The cosy relationships between Labour Administrations north of the border and west of Offa’s dyke will create an interesting but necessary tension as localism and devolution are properly explored between the Assembly and Parliament. Another necessary tension to be explored between localism and devolution is that of local authorities and Westminster, particularly as the mix has been well and truly stirred by the results of the last set of local elections. As I read them out last Thursday, I do not intend to do so again, but we all know the score in that respect.
In a desire to move on, without further ado I welcome the amendments and appreciate the Minister’s explanation.