Tuesday 19 June 2007
[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
Good morning, Mr. Chope. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise in the Chamber this morning the issue of planning enforcement. Although I shall provide one particular example of an issue that has arisen from planning applications that are under consideration with my local authority, I fully understand that the Minister is not expected to comment on individual applications. Nor, indeed, do I expect the Chamber to have the intimate knowledge of my constituency that one would need in order to assess them. Therefore, I seek to raise a much broader issue.
In summary, I seek to discuss the planning system’s credibility when the public see that what appear to be flagrant breaches of planning rules are neither punished nor dealt with. I am increasingly finding that in different contexts, my constituents are losing faith in the planning process, because their perception is that, to put it colloquially, people get away with it when they breach planning conditions. There is a particular set of circumstances in which it appears to be easy—in the vernacular—to get away with it. When a new planning application is pending, the authority takes the view that because it will have to assess the application, which might in principle be used to regularise the situation, there is no point enforcing in the meantime.
If all planning applications went through in eight weeks, one might say, “That is a reasonable thing to do.” However, the reality is that the period during which a council knows that an application might be made, it is made, the site visits take place, and the planning committee meetings—including delays—take place, can become protracted. During that period, residents feel that planning obligations are not being enforced. The not unreasonable assumption is that, if one is about to sort out the issue through a planning application anyway, one does not want to spend taxpayers’ money on legal action. However, is that not a potential loophole? That is the perception of my constituents.
I shall provide two different examples. The first relates to a quarry in my constituency. My constituency has several quarries. Quarrying is a significant local employer, and when most people buy a house in the area, they know that there is a quarry. This is not an anti-quarrying speech. Many residents recognise that quarrying has to take place somewhere, and there is a relatively limited number of places where it can happen, because one has to dig in the right place. People in my area understand the need for quarries, and recognise that quarrying cannot take place silently, that there are traffic implications and so on.
However, my constituents also need to know that when limits are placed on that activity, particularly on hours worked, the volume and the scale, they will be observed. My example is a quarry, near a village called Wickwar in my constituency, which is operated by a Mexican company called Cemex, which took it over from RMC a couple of years ago. The quarry has permission to extract 400,000 tonnes of limestone a year. It extracts 750,000 tonnes of limestone a year, and it publicly admits that it has done so for more than a decade.
We have the rather strange situation that everybody knows that the quarry is breaking its planning conditions. It extracts almost double what it is allowed to extract, and its operating hours go beyond what is allowed. It is not meant to start until 6.30 am, but it starts at 6 am. That may be considered a marginal difference, but if one is woken up at 6 am, it is not that marginal. Residents understandably feel aggrieved.
The quarry company has put in three planning applications to try to regularise the situation. The first application is to expand the area in which it quarries; the second is to extend the operating hours of the coating plant, which coats the stone that is extracted for use in tarmac on motorways and so on; and the third is to expand the hours during which crushing and screening takes place. Some of those applications would regularise the existing situation. If they went through, the quarry would be allowed to work the hours that it already works, and extract the volume of limestone that it already extracts.
I have been swamped with comments from residents of the neighbouring villages of Wickwar, Churchend, Charfield and Cromhall, who are on the whole concerned about the applications. They are particularly concerned about the fact that the breaches seem to have been going on for a considerable amount of time. The feeling is that nothing is being done, which is the issue that I want to raise today.
I shall tell the story by providing the perspectives of the three different parties—the residents, the quarry company, with which I had a very constructive meeting yesterday, and the local authority. Each party sees the situation differently. The residents know that there is a quarry, and that it implies traffic noise. By and large, they recognise and accept that fact. However, they did not know that the higher levels of noise, traffic, dust and the rest of it were the result of a breach of the planning conditions.
We had a public meeting. I do not often chair public meetings about such issues, but many people were strongly concerned about the situation. At the meeting, somebody—I shall not say who—said, “Nobody has complained,” and there was almost a riot, because everybody had complained. However, they had complained about the noise, dust or traffic, rather than about a breach of planning conditions to the planning enforcement section. As far as the planning enforcement people were concerned, nobody had complained, which raises issues about the local authority’s complaints handling process, which I have subsequently raised with the authority.
The situation is interesting, because the public have said to me, “We assumed that if there are all these lorries and all this volume, it must be okay, because somebody must be checking that they are obeying the rules.” The public do not complain to the planning department about a breach of planning conditions. They assume that there could not have been any breach, because if there had been, something would have been done about it. When they discover that nothing has been done about it for 10 years, they are understandably aggrieved.
I shall provide some excerpts from residents’ letters. One resident wrote:
the quarry company—
“are prepared to breach the current rules, what is to stop them pushing the boundaries even further than the extended planning applications requested?”
In other words, residents are saying, “We had this meeting, and we said, ‘All right, they might get the new application or they might not, but if they do, there will be conditions attached’.” Everyone rolls their eyes, however, and says, ‘Yeah. They paid so much attention to the last conditions, how can we have any confidence that they will pay attention to the next lot?” They are rather sceptical about the process.
In another letter, a different resident wrote:
“The Authority has proved unable or unwilling to enforce existing parameters so the public has grounds to feel vulnerable about the future.”
On the day that the applications are decided, some conditions will be set, but the public do not believe that they will be adhered to, which undermines the credibility of the planning process.
I shall give the Chamber a feel for what I am talking about. One resident wrote:
“The noise from the operating machinery and Lorries cause disturbance to local residents, we do need to sleep! The dust…is constantly on windows… The road outside the quarry is breaking up.”
The concluding sentence mirrored them all:
“I understand the Quarry is already working outside their current permitted planning conditions, why has this been allowed to happen? How are planning conditions monitored?”
I could go on, because I have dozens of letters. I shall not read them all out, but in a fourth letter, a resident writes:
“Can you please advise me as to what action is to be taken against Cemex in respect of these breaches and how their activities are to be monitored in future to ensure compliance with the existing planning constraints?”
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, but does he agree that the problem with planning enforcement is that when they monitor compliance, enforcement departments in district councils—certainly in my constituency, where there are three—appear to be reactive rather than proactive? It requires local people and neighbours to complain in order to be well informed, to double-guess the way in which the system works and to go beyond what they might normally do in order to investigate the issue themselves. That work puts a great deal of pressure on ordinary citizens, and it is surely something that planning departments should do themselves.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That very point was made by residents at the meeting, who asked why it was down to them to complain. Even when they have complained, their complaints have not been handled in a way that has prompted planning enforcement. I shall come to the council’s perspective shortly, however. At the moment I am being anti-the quarry and anti-the council, but hon. Members will soon see that the picture is slightly more complicated than that.
I have described how the residents see the situation. One can imagine the scene. There is WRAG—Wickwar residents action group—as well as various websites and petitions. Interestingly, not everybody wants to stop the expansion altogether. Charfield parish council thinks that a more limited expansion might be appropriate, so the issue is not black and white, even for those who have concerns about the applications. However, the process has raised a lot of concern, and I said at the public meeting that I would raise that concern with Ministers. I wrote to Ministers towards the end of last week, although I do not know whether they have received the letters yet, and I have been fortunate to have this opportunity to raise the issue today.
It is difficult not to have a lot of sympathy with the residents. They pay their council tax and they know that there is a limited amount of activity at the quarry, but they also want a quiet life, clean roads and so forth. However, the quarry has a different perspective, as one might imagine, and it is quite an interesting perspective, which is worth putting on record. I met the quarry company yesterday and was told, “It’s true that we’ve been operating on this scale for a decade or more, but the first thing you have to recognise is that there’s a quarry down the road that’s shut. If you add together us and the neighbouring quarry, the volume of activity now is no different from what it was when the two were running together and we were operating on a smaller scale.” The company’s argument was that the volume of traffic, dust and noise is pretty similar, but distributed slightly differently.
Although that is probably true of the traffic, I suspect that that is a flexible view of planning. The company says, “Well, you know, the broad impact’s kind of the same, so we won’t worry that we’re breaking our planning rules.” That is a defence, as it were, but I do not think that it will reassure residents. If the activity can be regularised, which is what is happening now, that is clearly the right way to proceed. The company’s argument was, first, that the volume of activity is not very different from what it was 10 years ago; it is just distributed differently.
The second thing that the quarry company said was, “We are now effectively the good guys. We have taken over this company. We have observed that we’ve been operating in breach of planning conditions for 10 years and we’re now trying to put it right. We’re trying to do the decent thing, by putting in an application that specifies what we are actually doing, and thereby regularising the situation.” In a sense, to attack the current company for submitting the application is a little harsh, because it is trying to sort the situation out. I am not in the business of apportioning blame, but to be fair to the company, it is at least trying to regularise the situation, so that whatever planning conditions are attached, they will hopefully be observed. Everybody should accept that that must be the outcome that we want.
As for operating outside the opening hours, the company said, “Well, yes it’s true we start a bit early; but actually we finish earlier than we’re allowed to as well, so overall we’re not operating for as many hours as we could.” Again, that is a creative way of looking at things. My view is that if the restrictions are there, they are there for a reason and they should be observed. If companies want to change their operating practices, they should do so formally, rather than just saying that they will decide what is appropriate and what is not. So that sort of variation cannot be justified.
The quarry company’s principal argument is that it has a minerals plan for the area. All the quarries are part of that plan, and the expansion that the company wants to make is broadly within the preferred area that has been identified, although it goes slightly beyond it, which is a source of considerable contention. However, the company’s argument is that if it does not develop in the place that has been identified on the plan, the stone will still be needed and will therefore just have to be quarried somewhere else. The argument is that it is better to quarry the stone in places that have been identified in a plan that has been debated and discussed, rather than saying no to any application to extend within a preferred area. That is the quarry company’s perspective. It points out that some local residents have signed a different petition, in support of the applications—including, obviously, those who work at the quarry—and that it is not simply the case that residents are anti and the company is pro. Again, the situation is more complex.
What is interesting is the council’s perspective. I have raised the issue with the council, as have local residents, and we have received two responses. In a letter dated 16 May, the senior planning officer for minerals and waste says:
“The issue of existing planning restrictions being ignored and no enforcement action being taken is noted. However, whilst these applications are under consideration it is not considered expedient”—
that is obviously the key word—
“for the Council to take formal enforcement action against the matters that are the subject of these submissions.”
One can imagine how thrilled residents were to receive a letter saying that the fact that existing planning restrictions were being ignored and that no enforcement action was being taken had been “noted”. That did not go down terribly well.
However, there is a slightly expanded version of that letter, referring to Government guidance, which is part of the reason for raising the issue today, and from which it is worth reading a couple of excerpts. The same official says:
“The Council has received similar letters raising concern about operations at the quarry taking place outside permitted hours and seeking immediate enforcement action to remedy the breaches before the current application…is considered.”
That is what people want—in other words, to say, “That’s an application, that’s different. Let’s enforce the existing rules now.” The official also says:
“Government guidance in PPG18 advises that where it is possible that planning permission (subject to conditions) may be granted to regularise the situation, that Local Planning Authorities should request the submission of retrospective planning applications.”
That is what has happened—the quarry company has been talking to the council, they have both accepted that the conditions have been breached and it has been agreed that, in effect, a retrospective application should go in, in order to deal with the breach. The officer continues:
“In this instance the Council has pursued this approach and is currently dealing with three planning applications…Whilst these applications are under consideration, it is not considered expedient for the Council to take formal enforcement action against the matters that are the subject of these submissions.”
That does not mean that absolutely nothing is being done—environmental health is looking at a few bits and pieces—but the central planning enforcement action is on hold.
As I mentioned, one of the problems is that there is not just an eight-week wait involved. The council has been in discussions with the quarry for some years about regularising the situation and it has known that the applications were to be submitted. Therefore, no enforcement action was taken over the period when the council knew that they were to be submitted, none has been taken while they are under consideration and until they are considered in July—even that might be deferred; we do not know—none will be taken. One can see the logic that says, “If it’s all going to be sorted out in a few weeks, don’t waste time”, but if the situation has gone on for so long, one can see why the residents are frustrated.
To return to the comment that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) made, the council’s perspective is that it has a relatively small planning department, in a rapidly growing unitary authority, with masses of planning applications and a lot of development on the go. For the council, even simply to process what comes in and then to deal reactively with complaints is a struggle. I have some sympathy for the people involved in planning enforcement, but the council’s view is that it simply does not have the resources to be as proactive as it would like to be. The issue, particularly for growing authorities, is whether enough recognition is given in, for example, the funding formula for local authorities of an area’s growth and the planning burden that it brings. With many planning applications, we are not talking patios; we are talking out-of-town developments, new towns and major road network changes.
Planning departments are therefore in a demanding position, and I have some sympathy with the council’s enforcement officers. However, the bottom line is that the guidance that enforcement officers receive is not to enforce while an application is live, so we are left in a kind of limbo. My question for the Minister is whether he is satisfied that PPG18 is working as it should be in practice. I know that there has been a big review of planning, which reported last November, the conclusion of which was that the current balance is broadly right. However, I still get the impression from my constituents that they do not think that the balance is right, and that there should be more incentives and processes for existing conditions to be enforced. The worry is that putting in applications can be used as a loophole to allow irregular situations to continue.
I am listening to the case that my hon. Friend is describing and, although the council is understandably cogitating, debating and negotiating with the quarry, planning enforcement action can be taken only within 10 years of a condition first being breached, as he is no doubt aware. Given that the quarry has apparently been in breach for about 10 years, the longer cogitation and negotiation continues, the more likely it is that the quarry will be able to ignore any enforcement action.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. He obviously has good eyesight and can see over my shoulder, because the quarry company wrote to me last night and said precisely that:
“We could have sought immunity due to the length of time the exceedances had been apparent; however, we did not believe that this approach would have been in the best interests of the community, the company or the local authority.”
The company’s point is, like my hon. Friend’s, that the issue has gone on for so long that the company could have just carried on. However, to its credit, it has decided to regularise the situation. I should also say that the quarry company has recognised that its liaison with the local community could have been a lot better. It is now starting to meet all the residents who have complained to consider the issues of noise, dust, traffic and so on. I hope that, whatever the outcome, relations between the quarry company and the other parties will be better and that some of the initial concerns will be addressed.
I want to give a second, very different example, which is also big in my constituency. I was not able to forewarn the Minister that I was going to raise it, although I hope that he will be able to give some initial reaction. The same sort of issues arise from it.
Obviously, my constituency is the most attractive in the country—with the obvious exception of yours, Mr. Chope. My constituency has some attractive green belt land and lots of villages, and lots of people want to live in the area. There are good motorway connections to the rest of the country—we are at the junction of the M4 and the M5—so the area is popular for Travellers. Many people want to travel around the country as part of their lifestyle, and I see no reason why they should not. We are a good base for them. The council has a couple of official council Traveller sites. However, a planning issue that relates to Travellers is arising now; such issues are sensitive and controversial, but this one is germane.
Normally, when we talk about Travellers and planning, one thinks about people pitching up on a highway verge or a farmer’s field and needing to be moved on. That is not what I am talking about. My example is of a Traveller who buys a piece of green belt land on the edge of a settlement and moves a caravan and a mobile home or two on to the site. Obviously, doing so breaches planning regulations, so it is reported to the council. The Travellers unit goes to see the families to find out their intentions, whether there are any children on the site and so on. We should remember that the Travellers own the land, so there has been no trespass and there is no question of their being evicted. However, they are in breach of planning regulations.
Someone objects to the fact that the Travellers have put the mobile home or caravan on the site and an enforcement process begins. At that point, a planning application is made for a house, caravan or mobile home on the site. The council then says, “Hang on, a planning application has been made. We will not take enforcement action because it would not be expedient to do so.” Such applications often go on for a long time. Inevitably, social needs assessments of the families are made and there is assessment of the availability of Traveller sites elsewhere in the area and so on.
That is why I mention Travellers. My example is not about anybody pitching up on a greenfield site; there are particular issues about such applications that mean that they are handled differently. The issue is not only about where the pitching takes place; who does the pitching is also germane. What tends to happen is that after the application goes in, there is no enforcement. The process can be slow. One, two, three or six months go by and local residents start to say, “Hang on a minute. This is a lovely village, and we would all like to have a nice house on its edges in one of those fields, but we can’t. We want somewhere for our kids to live in the village, but there is nowhere—an extra house or two around the edge would be lovely, but we know that we cannot have them. How can somebody else do that?”
The planning application goes in and may well be turned down—routinely, such applications are. One imagines that enforcement would then happen. It would, except that an appeal is then made. The appeal can take months and months—such appeals are, in fact, often successful because of the shortage of official sites. However, whether it is successful or not is irrelevant. What happens in practice is that the breach of planning regulations goes on for months and months, if not years and years, and creates real resentment. Effectively, no enforcement takes place because planning applications are live. If, at the end of the entire process, the application and appeal fail, 18 months have gone by. What do the Travellers do? They sell their plot of land, buy the next-door one and start all over again.
The worry is that the planning system falls into disrepute. Every time that somebody complains to me about a breach of planning on the edge of a village and I write to the council to say, “Come on, the rules have to be the same for everybody,” it writes back to say that it will not take enforcement action because a planning action or appeal are pending.
The strategic planning of the area is gradually being undermined by such piecemeal developments, but in any case the public increasingly feel that the rules are not being followed. I have absolutely no problem with diversity and different people having different lifestyles; the issue is not about that, but about people feeling that the rules are not being followed and their frustration at the fact that there seems to be no way to enforce them.
That second example was very different from my first; the quarry company was not too thrilled at my using it in the same context as their case. It says, not unreasonably, that the issues are different. However, the underlying issue is linked. We need a planning system in which the public can have confidence. The public need to know that when a restriction is placed on something, it will be enforced, and that just as they would not be allowed to put a house on a green field next to a village, so others will not be able to. The public need to have confidence that the taxes that they pay for planning enforcement are money well spent and that there is consistency. The worry, which I hope the Minister will address, is that given how the rules and guidelines are interpreted, councils—not just mine; I am sure that we shall hear about others in this debate—are judging that it is not expedient to enforce them, and the public are feeling let down.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my principal point—that we all want consistency. We all want rules, where they exist, to be followed. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said, the public do not want to have to report breaches or to look up planning conditions all the time to make sure that they are being followed. They expect that work to be done, but that is not happening. I know that there has been a big review that concluded that things were kind of okay, but is the Minister satisfied that the system is working as it should? My constituents are clear that it is not. Does the Minister have any views on how we can more effectively ensure that the tabling of a planning application does not become a loophole? That happened in my second example. More generally, how do we ensure that when conditions are imposed, they are effectively and consistently enforced?
I am delighted to follow my near-neighbour, the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), in this important debate; I am glad that he managed to secure it. I do not want to speak for long, but the issues are of concern. I shall raise a couple of cases that are different from but share a number of common features with the ones that he raised.
Planning is a difficult issue, and there are notorious cases in which planning enforcement officers have lost their lives because of the nature of the conflict in which they had to engage. However, if the law is to mean anything, it has to be enforced. I am sure that we all, as constituency representatives, have faced individuals who have said, “Well, if I had sought planning on a bigger scale, I would have got away with it even if I had broken the rules.” I declare an interest as a town councillor; we spend a lot of time seeking retrospective action against people who have built a conservatory, shed or even a small extension without having sought planning permission. However, some developers have blatantly broken the rules but apparently are able to get away with it. There is an issue of scale; enforcement is often used against people who break the rules on a smaller scale, while the way in which bigger-scale issues are sometimes dealt with is almost tantamount to causing the law to be treated with contempt. That is not acceptable.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be sensible to amend PPG18 and the regulations so that if an applicant finds that they have to make a retrospective application because of the commencement of enforcement action, they should lose their right to have costs awarded against the council as the result of any appeal? That might at least concentrate people’s minds so that they follow the proper procedures rather than trying to flout them in the way that many developers, both small and large, do.
I support that. I hope that the Minister will say something about the way in which some people deliberately—there is no other way to say it—contravene planning policy by building something, then putting in a retrospective planning application if action is taken against them. More often than not, those people do not bear the council’s costs for taking action against them. It is galling to know that enforcement is about to be taken but that developers can defend themselves by seeking another planning application, even if the original was turned down. This is a grey area, and unless we get into the legal process the problem is often never resolved satisfactorily, and the next-door neighbour ends up saying, “Why don’t I do the same?” That is the biggest problem, as it leads to planning by neglect.
I have two interesting cases. I do not want to have a go at Stroud district council—the people who carry out enforcement are friends of mine—but it is under-resourced and under-powered. Taking enforcement action is dangerous and difficult, but if the process is to mean anything it has to be done and someone has to do it. One of the biggest problems is section 106 agreements, as councils often try to get jurisdiction over them, as they would like to see some amenity value properly delivered from a bigger development. The problem with section 106 agreements, I have found—I cannot believe that I am alone in this—is that they are signed by one developer but are often delivered by the second or third developer to take on the site. Lo and behold, that developer is often not keen to deliver the section 106 agreement. The council comes along and tries to enforce it, only to be told, “I’m sorry, but we never signed that agreement. We signed a subsequent agreement.” That brings the planning process into disrepute. The council may choose to take enforcement action, but any developer worth their salt will have a skilled lawyer who will make the point that the developer did not think that it was taking on the agreement when they took on the site.
Let me show how ludicrous the problem can become. A development is taking place in Dursley, not a million miles from the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon. Crest Nicholson, one of the country’s biggest developers, has worked to the letter of the law, I presume, but certainly not to the spirit of the law. During the course of development at the site, the developer prevented businesses and the public from gaining access to it. It was abundantly clear what was going on, and a so-called enforcement action was pursued. The problem was that Crest Nicholson batted it away. That was frustrating for those businesses, as they received little or no compensation for all the disruption that they suffered when the site was being developed. Why was effective enforcement action not taken? The reality is that a small district council was taking on a big developer, which was able to play for time and use the legal process to say, “I’m sorry, but what do you expect with a difficult site?”
The situation became even more ludicrous. The scouts had a hut next door to the development, and it provides one of the most graphic demonstrations of how planning can go wrong. The hut is now isolated, 20 ft away from the rest of the site. The developer dug away at the side of the scout hut, leaving it 20 ft up in the air so that the scouts could not get any proper access to it, saying that that was in the original agreement. The council tried to take enforcement action, but once more it was left to the media to highlight how unfair the process was. The argument is that the amenity is being delivered in other ways, but as far as I am concerned an existing amenity, such as a scout hut, is important. We tried to take action against Crest Nicholson, but it merely said, “When the development is finished, we will get proper access restored.” That is not acceptable.
Another case concerns a Gypsy site that was won, effectively, through the back door. The Gypsies had a good reputation in Moreton Valence, where they were before, but they moved on to a site in Brookthorpe, bang up against Gloucester city, so there was much more impact on Gloucester city than on Stroud district. Despite the unease of the local population about the way in which the planning was won, they let it go and in the early months there were few problems. Three years down the line, I went to a protest meeting a month ago in Brookthorpe. The original Gypsy site has now become a transit camp. The planning agreement, under which foul drainage arrangements should have been put in place, has clearly never been adhered to. The planting of trees has not been fulfilled and the site is in such a mess that we have called on the council to take action against the development, which is clearly outwith what was intended by the planning agreement. All the ill feeling in the locality, which was against the original Gypsy settlement, has returned with knobs on. Locals believe that the planning process has been completely overruled and that enforcement action is rather late, if it has taken place at all, and weak.
Those are only two examples of how enforcement, if it is not properly carried out, can lead to all sorts of problems. The difficulty is that it is unclear whether the problem is purely a planning matter. Environmental health services, the police and the Environment Agency are all involved in considering the need for enforcement action, but no single agency can deliver it. If they all turned up mob-handed, I suppose that that would have an impact, but that is not how the planning process should operate. There is a lack of clarity about how planning should be delivered and, where it is not delivered properly, who should take enforcement action.
The examples I have given are typical of what can happen and what can go wrong. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say something about the need to finesse the planning system so that if there is a break in the planning process and enforcement has to be used, councils regard that process as important, and provide sufficient resources to ensure that integrated action follows when needed? I agree with the White Paper that we need to remove some of the unnecessary burdens on councils when they deal with small developments, but if we are to remove those burdens from councils they have to be given real powers to deal with larger cases of clear breaches of the planning rule, or people will take the law into their own hands more frequently in the belief that they can get away with it. There are too many cases in the Strouds and Northavons of this world that show that planning is held in contempt by many local people. If their application is turned down, but if they see that others have got through the back door and that no enforcement action was taken, they get the message that it is one law for some, but a completely different law for others.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), and I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing the debate. It is timely given the White Paper and the concerns of many of our constituents, particularly in the south-east, where planning is becoming one of the big issues that deeply worries people, who write to me about it.
My constituents and I feel that the Government’s plans to deregulate planning are bad for local democracy, communities and our environment, not just for protecting our green belt but for our carbon footprint as well. Their proposals for a national policy statement on major infrastructure projects are at odds with their support for local democracy and their efforts to reduce carbon output. The White Paper will cause a surge in major, carbon-intensive developments such as airport expansions, like the one that is threatened for Stansted in Essex, major road schemes, massive incinerators and major non-renewable energy projects across the UK. The Government must try to square that circle and make their policies make sense.
I know that the Minister is keen on local democracy and bringing control down to the grass-roots level to empower local people to have meaningful control over what happens in their communities. I totally agree and support him on that, and have heard him speak eloquently about it in the House. I wonder whether the Government’s proposals in the White Paper will conflict with that objective. I know that there are difficult questions to answer and that the national interest in infrastructure and energy generation projects must be considered, but a careful balance must be struck. We still need to respect true local democracy and to keep local people empowered.
The planning system, as it is at the moment, is biased against local communities. If a planning application goes in and is knocked back, the developer can appeal at very little cost and trouble to himself. If it is approved, the local community cannot appeal. There are no circumstances in which a community can say, “You’ve got this one wrong. We want it looked at independently, because we think something has gone wrong in the planning system.” My constituents regularly feel that something has gone wrong in the planning system in Castle Point and that bad decisions have been made, but they have no means of challenging those decisions unless the procedure was got wrong. In general, the local council does not get it wrong, and even if it does residents only have a compensation route and cannot change the planning decision.
The planning system needs to be rebalanced. We need to empower local communities to challenge major planning applications. I know that we cannot have a next-door neighbour fighting another next-door neighbour—that would be rather silly—but there needs to be a system of challenging major decisions that affect a community, such as the planning application in my community to enable the building of 320 houses on green belt land. Many of the planning committee did not turn up to vote on it, and people from another community voted and approved it against the expectations of the local community, the local media and myself. We need to rebalance power and to give it back to local communities.
The debate is about enforcement. It seems that the enforcement rules are complicated and muddled. I pulled out the Library debate pack “Enforcement of planning conditions”. It states, quite rightly, that
“domestic building work that has not been challenged during the four years after its substantial completion is safe from enforcement action by the local authority.”
That is clear, and we all understand it. It also states that the limit for a breach of conditions is 10 years, after which enforcement action cannot be taken. The same report says that, with some exclusions, unauthorised change of use is not excluded from enforcement action for 10 years, but that action on a breach of planning control through a change of use has to be taken within four years. I am now confused—is it four years or 10 years for a change of use? In deciding on such a matter, a judge was also confused and there was a lot of controversy about what constituted a change of use rather than a breach of condition. There is room to clarify such matters and have clear, simple principles against which planning decisions can be judged.
Retrospective planning applications, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Northavon and others, are often used to legitimise unauthorised developments. I know that the Minister is considering whether we might have some controls on that, such as a change in the fees for retrospective planning applications so that they are made more difficult and controlled.
I was going to talk about other issues, but I see that other hon. Members want to speak. I hope that the Minister will consider one or two of my points.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing the debate on a matter that affects every right hon. and hon. Member. I am sure that it is regularly raised in every postbag.
I agree with what hon. Members said about the lack of enforcement. There is no doubt that the planning departments of local authorities are overstretched and that the action that they take is reactive rather than proactive. All too often, they rely on local residents or residents’ groups to inform them of when planning conditions are breached. I wish to give one example from my constituency—the old Withington hospital site.
Withington and West Didsbury have the very active West Didsbury residents association, which takes a keen interest in planning matters. When the hospital site was being redeveloped, some of the trees there were protected to retain as many of them as possible. Unfortunately, the conditions that were put on the application to protect the trees during construction were flouted. It was only because of the work of Alison Hunt, the environmental officer for the residents association, that it was ever brought to the attention of the planning department that the developers were putting building materials right up against protected trees, potentially damaging their roots. Without that hard work by local residents, some of those trees could have been damaged and might have ended up dying.
The problem is that it is okay where there are strong, proactive residents’ groups to do that work and keep an eye on developers, but all too often areas do not have such groups to take action and inform local councillors, local MPs and the planning department when regulations are being flouted. Clearly, there are some areas where developers will always get away with ignoring the planning conditions. The areas with strong residents’ groups are the only ones where action is actually taken.
In raising a specific issue that relates to Manchester, I should like some steer from the Minister as to whether it is a national problem. I am not a big fan of the new executive and scrutiny structure in local government, but one of the good things that has come out of it in Manchester is that the physical environment scrutiny committee, which is chaired by one of my colleagues, Councillor Simon Wheale, conducted an inquiry into the enforcement of planning regulations. The inquiry made it clear that there is a lack of enforcement in Manchester, and, as a result, extra resources were found to fund two additional enforcement officers in the planning department.
Unfortunately, 12 months later, those two enforcement officers have still not been recruited. My question is whether this is a problem with the Manchester recruiting process, or whether across the country there is a lack of people who have the necessary enforcement skills. If there is a lack of skills, perhaps it should be addressed.
We must deal with penalties for breaking conditions. The one way to improve compliance with planning conditions is to impose tougher penalties on developers. Currently, they think that they can get away with flouting conditions. If they are caught, the penalties are so insignificant that it is worth their taking the risk. Others assume that if they are caught, all they need to do is put in another planning application and get permission. I shall give two examples from my constituency.
Two or three years ago, a developer built a block of flats in Didsbury several feet higher than it was supposed to be. As soon as local residents and councillors—not planning enforcement officers who had noticed the problem themselves—made the planning department aware of the contravention, the developers were forced to put in another planning application. The planning department did not think that the cost of forcing the developer to chop off the top part of the building was justifiable, so section 106 was introduced instead, and the developer spent thousands of pounds on improving the environment in the street. Of course, the developer thought that that was a price worth paying because building a larger development would result in additional money when the flats were sold. That amount far outweighed what the developer paid to improve the local environment.
A more recent example is from the Chorlton end of my constituency. The council gave permission for a coach house on Edge lane to be demolished and rebuilt in a similar fashion but slightly bigger. That permission was given on the understanding that the existing bricks would be retained during demolition of the old building and reused for the new building, and that bricks that matched the original ones would have to be sourced if additional bricks were required.
The developer sent in the bulldozers and made no attempt to retain any of the bricks. He then used brand-new bricks of a completely different colour. The planning department was informed by local residents and councillors, and what happened? It approved an application to use new bricks, despite the strong condition attached to the earlier application. The only reason why the developer was allowed to demolish the original coach house was that the original bricks would be retained for the new building. It was in the interests of the developer to bulldoze the building and not worry about retaining the bricks because it was much cheaper to use brand-new bricks, and, of course, he then got away with it. Tougher penalties are needed so that financially it will not be in the interests of developers to flout the conditions.
I end by raising a point that has not yet been made. It is to do with the restrictions on opening times. In Manchester—certainly in my constituency—many applications are made to convert shops or buildings into bars, restaurants and take-aways. I am sure that hon. Members would agree that such applications are often fairly controversial with local residents; that is certainly the case in my constituency. Because they are controversial, and because there is an impact on local residents, conditions are usually imposed on such developments to restrict the hours and to ensure that local people do not suffer too much disamenity as a result of late-night drinking or noise.
The problem is that we now have new licensing laws, and owners of bars and restaurants are applying for later licences, which are often approved. They then use their licensing hours as justification for extending the opening times and for requesting a change in how long they can stay open under their planning conditions. Councils—Manchester is certainly one of them—worry about refusing such applications on the basis that if the applicant appeals, they will almost certainly be granted the additional time because they have been granted a licence for later hours.
I want an assurance from the Minister that the Department will consider the impact that the new licensing laws have had on planning conditions to restrict hours of operation, and whether they have resulted in hours of operation being extended when conditions had been imposed to restrict the level of disamenity to local residents.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) has allowed me a little leeway should I spill over my allotted time, but I will do my best not to take advantage of his kindness.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing the debate. He made some strong arguments for reviewing how the Government approach the matter and for finding ways to strengthen the integrity of the planning system, particularly in the area of enforcement. I hope that the Minister will take those points on board.
As many of us know, the planning system is fuelled more by greed than by need. When planning committees grant permission, they in fact write cheques to those who are successful in the process, whether or not they bamboozled the local committee. The fact is that the system itself is often driven by the wrong motivations. One of the results is that some developers will go to extreme degrees to avoid proper process.
The hon. Gentleman says that the planning system is driven by greed, not need, but is he aware of a pamphlet recently published by the Liberal Democrat think-tank CentreForum? It was written by the distinguished economic historian Dr. Tim Leunig, and it was endorsed by Front-Bench Liberal Democrat spokesmen. It argues that the planning system should harness what the hon. Gentleman describes as greed by allowing community land options so that local authorities and developers both gain from the uplift in value when land is auctioned. Does he, like his party’s Front-Bench spokesmen, consider that an enlightened way to harness greed for community benefit, or does he reject it?
As a humble Back Bencher, it is not for me to comment on matters on which my Front Bench has commented.
Clearly, a significant element is driving the planning process that is to do not with talent or the hard slog of work, but with simply converting land from one use to another, which is in fact a privilege granted to the successful applicant by the community. As a society, whether our political parties do this or not—I urge my Front-Benchers to do it—we need to acknowledge that a value goes into private pockets as a result of such decisions. We should ensure that the community shares in any benefit from decisions made.
On the enforcement process, I am arguing not for a nimbyist’s charter, but for finding ways to achieve balance. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke about balancing the process and argued for third-party rights of appeal. I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who speaks for the Conservatives from the Front Bench, will reflect on whether he considers that a wise and constructive contribution. Failure to comply is a criminal offence, yet because it is a crime against the environment, it is considered a low-order crime. In fact, many people consider failure to comply to be an acceptable crime. They do not consider it to be an embarrassment to themselves in society.
The system lacks targets. Yes, there are targets to deal with the speed with which planning applications are dealt, but there are no targets to deal with compliance, monitoring or enforcement. I hope that the Government and the Minister reflect on that. I said that the system is reactive; in fact, it depends on a complaint being made. Very few planning departments proactively engage in the enforcement process; instead, they simply wait for complaints to be made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon argued, even when people complain, complaints are often not taken to the enforcement department, which is frequently regarded as a mediation service for disputes between neighbours. Many neighbours who wish to complain do not want to harm the relationship that they have with their neighbour and are therefore forced to stand back and not to complain. That allows breaches in planning law to continue because people fear that they will harm their relationship with a neighbour for ever. The planning department should be given the powers and have the resources to take enforcement action.
I have two proposals for the Minister, one of which I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Those who consciously and knowingly flagrantly abuse the planning process either by failing to apply for permission or by not applying conditions of planning permission should lose the right to have costs awarded against them if their subsequent application results in an appeal to the Secretary of State and an inspector. If people knew that they would lose that entitlement, it would strengthen the position of the local authority and weaken the position of those who flagrantly abuse the system. The other proposal, which the Minister has heard me mention before and with which I know he has sympathy, is that parish councils should be given an enhanced role in monitoring the planning system and ensuring that matters are brought forward, which would avoid the need for neighbours to complain against each other.
I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that it was time well spent hearing the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing the debate, which has examined an aspect of the planning system that we often hear discussed at a local level, but rarely at a national level. It is particularly important that we discuss the matter because we are considering the Government’s proposals for reform of the planning system announced in the recent White Paper.
If people are big enough and know the rules and the loopholes, they feel that they can get away with abusing the planning system, and my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon concentrated on that. If people are to have any confidence that the planning system is there for them and is seriously doing what it should, it is crucial that we overcome that problem. To enable us to plan for the sustainable future of communities around the country, we must have a watertight, fair and transparent system.
My hon. Friend mentioned enforcements being delayed by further applications, and I am sure that all hon. Members are familiar with that issue, which is echoed in the problems faced by people who want to lodge objections against applications. For example, when an application is submitted and it is objected to, it can be withdrawn and on the same day a second application can be submitted. Local people think that they have objected to the planning application that has been considered in the committee when in fact there is a second application that differs by 1 ft and their objection has not been taken into account. That is another example of the types of problems that my hon. Friend raised.
My hon. Friend also said how relations with the community and the local authority have a crucial role to play in dealing with that problem. That should be borne in mind when we consider how constructive companies and developers are at dealing with planning issues. There are good examples of how those conversations can be had with local employers, as in the case of the quarry in his constituency.
As my hon. Friend said, communication is also important within local authorities. When a department—whether it is environmental health or another department that is liaising with the Environment Agency—is aware of a breach, it should immediately pass the information on to the planning enforcement section in the local authority. Does the Minister have any views on what could be done in local authorities to encourage them to ensure that such information is exchanged more freely? Community involvement is vital, and that is the message that I will take away from my hon. Friend’s speech.
The hon. Member for Stroud raised similar points to my hon. Friend and reminded us how high passions can run on some of the issues. If people are faced with even a very minor planning scheme on a day-to-day basis, it grinds them down and can undermine their quality of life. What may seem a minor problem to the developer or a busy local authority officer who is dealing with a huge caseload could be a huge problem for the person affected and it should be dealt with. The hon. Gentleman echoes what my hon. Friend said about how the piecemeal breakdown of the planning system undermines the whole system.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) suggested looking at the fee structure to discourage retrospective planning applications and I am sure that the Minister will want to consider that. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) made some strong points, particularly about the aesthetic aspects of planning applications, which are usually vital in finally winning the support of a community for a controversial development. As they are often crucial to the successful acceptance of the final development, there should be some enforcement of them. That was a good point to raise. In his intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives talked about the benefits of development being shared by the local community. As all hon. Members are aware, my party thoroughly supports that principle.
As the Minister has studied the planning White Paper at length, I am sure he will correct me if enforcement is mentioned a great deal, but although I am aware that we have PPG18, which I am sure will be replaced by a planning policy statement in due course, I do not think that the White Paper tackles the problem of enforcement in any detail. As we want to consider how local authorities manage their resources and how we encourage them to become more proactive in dealing with planning issues, I hope that the Minister will reassure us that when planning legislation is introduced, perhaps in the next Session, enforcement will be covered more thoroughly than it is in the White Paper.
I have a couple of brief questions for the Minister. What assessment has he made of the resources that are available to local authorities? Obviously, he wrestles with that issue on a daily basis and when he considers bids for unitary government. We heard about the quarry in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon. In two-tier areas, mineral and waste applications are dealt with at a county level and the district deals with other matters. That is a further level of complication that needs to be addressed when considering enforcement. What assessment has the Minister made of the level of resources and of the incentives and disincentives for local authorities to carry out their roles as enforcers, if I may call them that—it might paint a slightly unpleasant picture of local government officers? That comes back, in particular, to what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington said: often developers or businesses make a financial calculation. Is it cheaper to flout the law and break the conditions of a planning application than to fulfil the obligations undertaken when the application was submitted and considered?
I would be grateful if the Minister could address some of those concerns, and I reiterate my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon on securing the debate. I hope that, as we consider the restructuring of the planning system, enforcement will be given its fair share of the discussion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. First, I would like to join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) for securing the debate this morning. He laid out the challenges in front of us in an exemplary fashion with reference to two hard, complex cases. I appreciate the difficulty that the Minister will have in referring in detail to either of them, but the hon. Gentleman used them to illustrate broad, general principles.
In particular, I appreciated the sensitive way in which the hon. Gentleman outlined the range of views on the vexed question of quarrying and quarrying development in his constituency. While it is undoubtedly the case that his constituents suffer disturbance and annoyance—which are very far from trivial—as a result of quarry working, it is also the case, as he was right to acknowledge, that many of those residents were aware when they bought their houses and moved to the area that quarry work was going on there. I would like to raise a broader point about the built environment, however, with which I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees. Many of us believe that housing development should be organic—in sympathy and in tune with the local neighbourhood—so local materials should be used. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) made a very good point in a different context about the appropriateness of maintaining high aesthetic standards in development.
The quality of limestone found in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon, and across the west country, is of the sort to allow sympathetic development elsewhere in the area. If we are to ensure that the necessary additional housing in the south-west is built in harmony with existing housing and in a way that wins the consent of local people, quarrying, such as that which takes place in his constituency, will have to continue. There is another layer of complexity, therefore, that means that the whole planning system has to take into account and balance a variety of conflicting or overlapping objectives.
This debate is taking place because the planning system is dysfunctional. Everyone who has spoken in our debate has addressed the way in which, not just planning enforcement, but the planning system overall, is not seen to serve the interests of our constituents, to underpin faith in local democracy, to reinforce faith in the rule of law or, indeed, to allow prompt and effective commercial development when it is in the interests of the community or the broader economy. The planning system has been tried and found wanting in almost every area.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned an unauthorised development in the green belt in his constituency, which was consequent on the actions of a small group of Travellers. Once again, I congratulate him on the sensitive way in which he dealt with that issue. Everyone who I know—certainly everyone in the Chamber—understands that the country has benefited from the rich diversity of traditions and cultures that make up the tapestry of British life. Some aspects of British life would have been impossible without Travellers and, as it is Ascot week, we should recognise that. Many of the events in the traditional British season, whether major racing events or local village fêtes and fairs, would be impossible without the services provided by Travellers and showmen, so we should pay tribute to their contribution to British society.
Once again, however, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, an appreciation of what Travellers and showmen have brought to our society is undermined by the actions of a small minority using the planning system in the way that he accurately described—they are playing fast and loose with the rules to push through unauthorised developments of a kind that make many local communities exceptionally irritated and lead them to believe that the law does not defend their interests. We heard, too, from the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Manchester, Withington, and for St. Ives (Andrew George), as well as from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) about the way in which local people’s faith in the planning system is tested when unscrupulous individuals or large developers think that it is more economical to ignore the law, take the hit, and profit elsewhere. That brings me back to something that we need to understand about the planning system. It is a legal framework. The rule of law matters in this country, and if people are to have faith in the system they need to see that laws are applied consistently and fairly.
You will appreciate, Mr. Chope, having had the good fortune to serve alongside Nicholas Ridley—a genuinely enlightened figure in that role—in the Department of the Environment, that the planning system is about economics, too. If it is to work, it must work rationally and ensure that incentives for developers and others are aligned with good behaviour. At the moment, that is not the case. We heard interesting suggestions from the hon. Member for St. Ives and from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point about how we might better align the planning system to ensure that penalties and incentives make developers behave appropriately. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to that.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) pointed out that one of many disappointments in the planning White Paper, which was a well-intended but disappointing document, was the lack of detail about how enforcement might be better secured. As he pointed out, there is a serious question about capacity in the planning system. Do we have enough sufficiently trained planning professionals to deliver enforcement? I would be very interested in the Minister’s remarks on that, as well as his response to the initial questions posed by the hon. Member for Northavon about the way in which guidance has been framed to encourage and incentivise local authorities to be proactive.
Of course, those two questions are interrelated. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, if a planning department is run off its feet dealing with a rash of new planning applications, sometimes enforcement takes second place to the processing of those applications. However, I am sure that anyone here with experience of local government, such as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, would say that guidance and resourcing go together. Adequate resourcing and clear, empowering guidance can provide local authorities with the means to do what I suspect every Member in this debate would like them to do—apply the law in such a way as to restore faith in the planning system.
Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on the extremely helpful way in which he approached the debate and described the problem from the point of view of residents, the local authority and the developers. Obviously, the issue has raised emotions in his constituency and I have read the background to the issues that he introduced. As he and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, I am limited in what I can say, but I shall try to be helpful.
Given the short time available, it will be helpful if I set out our policy before trying to answer the questions that have been asked, but I apologise in advance if some go unanswered. I suspect that we are entering a period in which debates on planning policy will rise up the policy agenda following the publication of the White Paper. Therefore, if I do not answer all the questions today, I am sure that they will be dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Castleford and Normanton—I am sorry, I mean my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who is the Minister for Housing and Planning: those constituencies are easy to confuse. I am sure that either she or her successors, or I or my successors, will return to the point.
Will the Minister give way?
The hon. Gentleman is eating up time, but I can never resist his interventions.
The Minister is a real gentleman. As he said that the Minister for Housing and Planning may write to us to answer our questions, will he add this question to the list? If a local authority fails to take enforcement action against breaches or irregularities, in effect ignoring complaints, what sanctions are available to communities or complainants against that local authority?
A wide range of powers are available, and there are even more in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, if a local authority is deemed not to be doing its job. Of course, I recognise the frustration that residents can experience in such circumstances.
Let me set out the policy. Under successive Governments, local authorities have had very wide powers to impose planning conditions, which are an important development control instrument that can be used to overcome a broad range of issues that might otherwise lead to refusal of planning permission. More generally, conditions can be used to improve the overall quality of a completed development. In deciding whether to impose conditions in any particular instance, we expect—and Parliament expects—local planning authorities to follow guidance in “Circular 11/95: the use of conditions in planning permission”, which was issued by the former Department of the Environment, and is the key guidance document to which we all refer. It requires the following policy tests to be applied to the use of conditions. They should be necessary; relevant to planning; relevant to the development to be permitted; enforceable—that is a key criterion; precise; and
“reasonable in all other respects.”
That last test is a definition of which I am especially fond, as it is good guidance in any policy area.
The guidance advises that local planning authorities should give careful consideration to the need for a condition before imposing it. In particular, they should ask themselves whether planning permission would have to be refused if that condition were not imposed. If it would not, the condition needs special and precise justification. If a condition is considered necessary and is imposed, only to be flouted, authorities can enforce compliance by serving a breach of condition notice. If a valid breach of condition notice is contravened, the resulting offence is open to summary prosecution. We would not expect authorities to impose conditions if they had no intention of enforcing them should that prove necessary. There is no evidence, in our opinion, of widespread non-compliance with conditions, or that local planning authorities have any particular difficulties in using the statutory powers available to them properly. Planning conditions remain in force until they are revoked, amended or discharged. That is the basic system.
The issue of evidence is obviously crucial if we are to consider enforcement as we proceed with the planning White Paper. As it is not part of the consultation, because it is not in the current document, what is the best route to stimulate the gathering of evidence so that we can make progress?
The Local Government Association and the Department meet regularly and planning policy is one of the issues raised. It is for local authorities to raise the matter with us if they believe that their powers are inadequate, and obviously it is open to Members of Parliament to do so as well. The debate today is an important cross-party contribution to discussions about people’s concerns. We have heard examples ranging from very significant developments, such as the quarry that was mentioned, through to smaller matters at local and, indeed, household level.
Hon. Members may find it helpful if I complete the point about policy, as it is important both to the debate as it goes forward and to today’s debate. Other provisions can come into play. Section 73 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides for applications for planning permission to develop land without complying with conditions previously imposed by an earlier planning permission. That seems to be the position in the case described by the hon. Member for Northavon. The local planning authority can grant such permission unconditionally, or subject to different conditions, or it can refuse the application if it decides that the original condition or conditions should continue. The original planning permission will continue to exist and apply until the outcome of the application under section 73 is decided, at which point it will supersede the original planning permission.
With regard to the Wickwar quarry, Government guidance does not tell the council—the hon. Gentleman did not make this accusation, but it is part of the debate—that because there is a pending application that could regularise the situation, it should not take enforcement action. Our advice is that, although it is unsatisfactory for anyone to carry out development without first obtaining the required planning permission, an enforcement notice should not normally be issued solely to regularise development that is acceptable on its planning merits but for which permission has not been sought. If, however, it is not clear whether development is acceptable, it is open to the local planning authority to take enforcement action. Although enforcement is discretionary, we would certainly expect local planning authorities to take enforcement action in cases in which the amenity or the environment was threatened.
As I said, planning conditions remain in force until they are revoked, amended or discharged, and the conditions attached to the existing planning permission remain in force until any new planning permission with the same and/or different conditions takes effect. Local planning authorities therefore have a full range of statutory powers available to them, backed up by Government guidance on how to ensure that planning conditions are used properly. Where necessary, planning conditions can be enforced if there is non-compliance, but if planning conditions are breached, it is for the local planning authority to decide whether to take enforcement action. The hon. Member for Northavon asked a general question whether PPG18 is working in practice. Clearly, in publishing a White Paper, we believe that the time is right to develop policy, but to describe the planning system as dysfunctional is over the top.
How can the Minister possibly be happy with the planning system when, as we know, household growth is running at the rate of some 223,000 a year, yet we are delivering new housing only at the level of about 160,000 a year, and housing starts in the three months to March of this year are down 9 per cent. on the previous year? He cannot be either happy with, or willing to commend, that system.
I will not be tempted down that road, because it is outside the remit of the debate, but my contention is that, while the planning system has been described as dysfunctional, it is not so.
Hon. Members have made a number of suggestions as to how we could improve the situation. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) mentioned the role of parishes, which are statutory consultees. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) accused us of deregulating the planning system. Incidentally, I would expect him to welcome deregulation; perhaps he would do so in a different context. The question that the White Paper raises is this: at what level should planning decisions be taken? The hon. Gentleman’s point is obviously important in that regard. He had one other suggestion, which may raise practical problems. Briefly, the answer to his question is that the period is four years for dwelling houses and 10 years for other changes of use.
We have had a useful debate. I have tried, in the time available, to answer the questions that were raised, but I look forward to further debate on planning policy, the White Paper and the important issue of enforcement.
Sugar and Obesity
I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate, in which I wish to explore some aspects of the relationship between sugar and obesity.
I am happy to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health in his place, because this is the first time that he has replied to one of my debates. We have been colleagues for a long time, and I have great respect for him and praise him for the way in which he does his job. If I say anything too controversial, I hope that he will forgive me, because I mean only to highlight some contradictions, not to criticise the Government. I hope that he will take my comments in that spirit and perhaps take a couple of them away to think about, given that I have, without being sycophantic, supported my Government on every occasion.
Sugar is a crucial ingredient in many foods that are enjoyed by millions of people in the UK every day, but consuming large amounts of it can lead to obesity. It is only recently that we have recognised the scale of the obesity problem, and I congratulate the Government on having responded energetically and quickly. The evidence clearly shows that obesity has become a real problem. The number of obese people increases by more than 1,000 a month on average, and the Eurostat yearbook published earlier this year revealed that UK adult obesity levels were the worst in Europe.
A summary provided by the British Medical Association highlights the severity of the problem, stating:
“In the UK there are around 1 million obese children under 16 years of age…estimates indicate that, if current trends continue, at least one fifth of boys and one third of girls will be obese by 2020.”
Every year, the health service spends at least £2 billion on treating ill health caused by poor diet. Soaring rates of obesity have led to an increase in childhood type 2 diabetes and will lead to more cases of heart disease, osteoarthritis and some cancers. The rise in type 2 diabetes among children parallels the steadily rising rate of obesity. Type 2 diabetes was once seen only among adults—the average age for developing it is 52—so the increase among children is worrying. In the five years between 1996 and 2001, the proportion of children aged between 6 and 15 who are obese rose by 3.5 per cent.
Obesity is responsible for 9,000 premature deaths a year in England and reduces life expectancy by an average of nine years. The National Audit Office estimates that 18,000 sick days a year are linked to obesity, costing the economy at least £2.5 billion a year, which includes the cost to the NHS and the cost of sickness absence to industry. According to the Department of Health, the rise in obesity, particularly among children, “threatens disastrous consequences.” If it continues, it could cost the economy £3.5 billion a year by 2010. The threat is therefore considerable, and the momentum behind increasing obesity means that it will be hard to stop, let alone to reverse. There is no doubt that the Government are responding to this great challenge, and I praise the Secretary of State and all the Ministers involved. However, the Under-Secretary will agree when I say that all available levers will have to be used effectively if success is to be achieved.
I want to draw attention to the school drinks regime, which needs to be looked at. Strictly speaking, it is a matter for the Department for Education and Skills, but that Department is taking advice on it from the Department of Health. Two of the most important factors to consider when deciding what drinks should be readily available in schools are calorie content and hydration. The effects of dehydration on learning have been shown in many studies, but they are not widely recognised or acted on. The UK expert group on hydration reported on a study conducted at Leeds university that showed that children’s ability to do arithmetic was impaired even if they were only between 1 and 2 per cent. dehydrated. The group advises that 40 per cent. of 11 to 18-year-olds do not drink the minimum amount of 1.2 litres a day recommended by the Food Standards Agency. It concluded that children should have access to a wide variety of beverages to encourage them to drink frequently.
The Government have recently addressed the issue of the range of drinks available in schools by setting out lists of foods and drinks that are prohibited in schools. Smoothies and fruit juices, which are high in nutrition, are still sold in schools, and rightly so, but they are expensive, fairly high in calories and not particularly good for hydration. However, low-calorie soft drinks, which are good for hydration and which tend to cost less, are prohibited. In effect, the school drinks regime bans all low-calorie cold drinks apart from water. Put simply, that means that one of the only options available to children who are thirsty but who are reluctant to drink water is expensive calorific drinks that will not hydrate them sufficiently. An alternative is for youngsters to bring high-sugar drinks from home or to buy them from off-school premises.
It is not too late to make adjustments to the school drinks regime. It would be absurd to be concerned about overweight and obese children, but to introduce a drinks regime that became part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The genesis of the new school food programme took place before our awareness of obesity increased, so the drinks regime might not take obesity into account to the extent that we surely now require. A recent undated “Dear Stakeholder” letter from the School Food Trust details several difficulties. It says that translating the school meals review panel recommendation on “pure” drinks is difficult given that European legislation sets safety standards for ingredients, and adds that changes might be required to the EU legislative framework. Does that mean that UK regulations covering drinks in schools cannot yet be tabled?
If the review panel had asked parents whether they wanted pure drinks, I am sure that it would have got a lot of positive responses. However, I am equally sure that if it went to parents now and asked whether they wanted to ban all low-calorie cold drinks apart from water from schools, bearing in mind the perils of dehydration and weight gain, the answer would be no. Such confusion is in clear contrast to the formula adopted by Ofcom in restricting television advertising to children of foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt. The definition of such products has not led to arguments with industry or conflicts with the EU legislative framework, and I commend it to the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills as a way ahead, in contrast to their more complex attempt to set menus. Of course, such an approach would lead to a different list of cold drinks that were allowed in schools. That is not to say that juices and smoothies, or other higher-calorie but nutritious drinks, should not be allowed. However, they should be available along with low-calorie options so that they are not used to prevent dehydration.
Recently we have become more aware of sugar in our diet, but I was surprised by the Government’s response when last year in the other place, Earl Howe raised the question of the link between sugar and body weight. Lord Warner replied:
“The available evidence on the relationship between sugar and body weight is not clear. More evidence of whether sugar is associated with body weight and obesity is required before definitive conclusions can be drawn.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 May 2006; Vol. 681, c. WA96.]
That alarmed me a little. It is obvious to everyone that high consumption of high-calorie foods such as sugar has an effect on weight gain. We can surely all agree on that.
In the past two decades UK sugar consumption has increased by 31 per cent., to 1.25 lb per person per week. A comparison of the 1978 and 2002 editions of the industry handbook on the nutritional value of foods, McCance and Widdowson’s “The Composition of Foods” shows that many foods that were previously thought to be healthy and largely sugar-free are anything but. For instance, in 1978 Kellogg’s Special K had 9.6 g of sugar per 100 g; it has since risen to 17 g per 100 g. In crude terms, that means that that breakfast cereal now contains almost as much sugar as vanilla ice cream.
The Food Standards Agency wants food companies to reduce the amount of sugar in their products, and is so worried about the trend that it is considering imposing legal limits. Sainsbury’s says that it is looking at the products that it sells to see whether it can reduce sugar and salt levels, but earlier this month it announced a reformulation of its own brand of regular soft drinks, replacing all low-calorie sweeteners with sugar. The timing is particularly surprising, given that both the European Union and our own FSA are considering how to encourage reformulation to limit sugar content. If progress is to be made in that respect, the Government must have a constructive relationship with food manufacturers. I believe that we can do slightly better.
I shall now focus on the role of low-calorie sweeteners. In previous statements about tackling obesity, the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency advised against fizzy drinks, but that blanket condemnation failed to recognise that sales of diet colas containing virtually no calories outstrip sales of full sugar versions in the UK. To lump all fizzy drinks together when talking about obesity is misleading. Late last year, at a meeting with the FSA, industry representatives were told that future FSA advice would be against sugary drinks, not fizzy drinks. There seems to be a contradiction between that advice and the school drinks regime. If the FSA is advising against sugary drinks, how is it that smoothies and juices are still on the menu? That question highlights the need to focus on the properties of the drinks that are prohibited, rather than the broad categories that they fall into, as currently happens.
One of the arguments that are used against low-calorie sweeteners is that they encourage a sweet tooth. I have not seen any studies or scientific evidence to demonstrate that. I am happy to apologise to the Under-Secretary if he can produce such evidence. Any studies that have been done have rejected such a conclusion. Following through on those studies, the School Food Trust amended its advice on its website, and even the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence was asked to clarify its advice to the public. I assume that if industry were to come up with a salt substitute that passed all the safety tests, the Government would give it a warm welcome. Yet at the moment there are safe sugar substitutes and the Government are hesitant about endorsing or encouraging them.
I have received a briefing from Ajinomoto, the largest food manufacturing company in Japan, which manufactures the low-calorie sweetener aspartame. Aspartame is the most widely studied food additive, with more than 200 published papers about it. Any paper that has raised a serious health concern has failed at basic peer review level. Most recently, in May 2006, the European Food Safety Authority reconfirmed its safety. It is unsurprising that aspartame should be safe, given that it is a simple combination of two amino acids that occur naturally in our bodies.
Professor Jack Winkler, director of the nutrition policy unit at London Metropolitan university has said:
“The choice between sugared and sugarfree drinks represents one of the fundamental choices you face in nutrition policy. Do you try to encourage people to adopt the ideal diet for the human animal (the principled approach) or do you start from where people are at and lead them slowly in the right direction (the pragmatic approach)? Translating that into terms of sugar, do you try to deny people the sweet foods they love but do not need, or do you accept their preference for sweet foods, but try to restrict the adverse consequences for weight and teeth by substituting some of the sugar with sweeteners? I am an unapologetic pragmatist.”
Experience has taught us politicians that we must usually take the pragmatic approach, but there is a good argument for saying that officials have been inclined to take what Professor Winkler describes as the principled approach. Perhaps that has led to some of the lack of agreement with industry on the school drinks regime.
Again, the clarity of Ofcom’s definition,
“high in fat, sugar and salt”
commends itself. The benefits of sugar substitution in the fight against obesity are widely recognised by clinicians, academics, slimming organisations and of course the general public. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), has acknowledged that sugar substitution with low-calorie sweeteners has a role to play in reducing energy intake. I therefore urge the Under-Secretary to reconsider which drinks are allowed in schools.
I praise the Government for being proactive in tackling obesity, which is a huge public health concern in the UK today. I know that this is not in the Under-Secretary’s remit, but in that of the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. However, if he thinks that there is room for further discussion and that we can make progress, I shall be happy to seek a meeting with him and bring with me some of the people who have made me aware of the issue, to explore it further. If, on the other hand, he thinks that it would be a waste of time, I shall be happy for him to tell me, “You go your way and I will go mine on this issue.”
My hon. Friend has always been very helpful, and I want to make it clear to him that my comments are meant to be helpful to the Government. This issue has been raised with me by youngsters in my constituency, and I raise it today to ask the Government to focus a little more sharply on policy and to eliminate contradictions. However, I know that there are different considerations to balance. In conclusion, I reiterate that I am trying to be helpful and to make progress. I will be happy if my hon. Friend goes away and thinks about my comments, because it is not often that I get up and say that the Government have got things slightly wrong. I generally praise them from the rooftops.
We come to the Front-Bench speakers, who have a limit of 23 minutes each.
Thank you, Mr. Chope, but I suspect that I shall not take up all of that generous offer.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate on an important issue, even though other hon. Members have not seen it as such. I do not intend to blame all of the problem on the Government or to be partisan about it, because there are genuine and serious issues involved that need proper, rational discussion. I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments on sugar substitutes, and I learned a lot from listening to him.
I start with the problem of obesity. The hon. Gentleman gave some frightening statistics, especially about the youngest children. Of children aged between two and 10, some 9.9 per cent. were obese in 1995, and 13.4 per cent. were obese in 2004. That is an alarming rise. I shall go on to discuss the public service agreements that three Departments entered into in 2004 to halt that trend by 2010, but the trend is very much in the other direction at the moment and is extremely alarming.
Thirty-one per cent. of English 15-year-olds are overweight. As the parent of two teenage sons, I know that parents see this problem all around them among their children’s friends. There is a balance to be struck between diet and exercise, which are equally important, but I shall return to that point. Too many youngsters are overweight, and one increasingly has the sense that parents do not notice what is happening to their children, which I find alarming. An extraordinary 17 per cent. of 15-year-olds are obese. Not only this country is affected. I understand that British children are among the fattest in the world, but the trends are similar across the developed world—the number of obese children across the whole of the developed world almost doubled between the 1980s and the 1990s.
What are the effects of those alarming trends? The life expectancy of anyone who becomes obese is reduced by an average of nine years, which contradicts all the trends in the other direction as countries develop. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is also an impact on health in the form of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, as well as the mental health problems that are associated with obesity, which should not be forgotten. Another effect is the cost both to the individuals concerned and to society as a whole. It is estimated that up to 7 per cent. of health care costs across the EU is committed to dealing with obesity-related illnesses. That is extraordinary.
Let us consider the role of sugar. I was alarmed by the quote from Lord Warner, which I had not heard before, that no clear link had been established between sugar and body weight. The Government ought to be working on the precautionary principle, and such an apparently complacent attitude on the part of a Minister rather contradicts the whole approach of the Food Standards Agency, which is pushing for action to reduce levels of sugar in food. I would be grateful if the Minister would specifically address Lord Warner’s comments. Does he accept them, or does he think that even if the evidence is not all there yet, we have to work on the basis that there is a link and that we must take action to reduce sugar levels?
Sugar consumption has implications not just for obesity but for tooth decay. I had the pleasure of visiting my dentist yesterday, and he commented on the extent of work that had been done in my mouth. He told me that things had improved an awful lot for children’s dental care in the years since I was born, but there is a danger that things will slip in the other direction because of the significant increase in sugar in our diets.
In an article in the British Medical Journal, an academic likened sugar to a hard drug and said that it was addictive and harmful—potentially as damaging as tobacco. There is a danger of us all becoming food fascists, and my general approach to such issues is that we should take everything in moderation and that sugar can play a proper part in a balanced diet.
I would not for one moment accuse the hon. Gentleman of being a food fascist, but if he were to remove sugar from people’s diets, what would he replace it with, given the relative calorific value of the alternatives?
I was about to discuss the changes in the sugar content of certain familiar products in the past few years. Perhaps I can deal with that first. There is an excessive amount of sugar in our diets. I am no expert—the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) is much more of an expert than me, and I shall welcome his contribution—but there has been a lot of analysis of the sugar content of foods in the past 30 years. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland also raised this issue.
It seems that the sugar content of many foods has doubled. There is a particular problem with foods such as cereals, because there is a widespread assumption that they are a good, healthy food. The hon. Gentleman told us that the sugar content of Special K, which I think everyone assumes is broadly a healthy food, has doubled since 1978. Most consumers would also think of wholemeal bread as a healthy product, but Hovis wholemeal has 3.7 g of sugar per 100 g—three teaspoons of sugar per three slices of bread. That is amazing; I had no idea that its sugar content was so high.
Which? has discussed the sugar content in many ready meals. We live in an ever more frenetic society in which, often, both parents work and so increasingly rely on ready meals. However, the sugar content of ready meals is much higher than that of the food that families would previously have cooked themselves. Many ready meals have a sugar content as high as 23 g per 100 g. I would never have realised when I sat eating my Waitrose tomato soup that it contained 6.4 g of sugar per 100g. So, the trend of the past 30 years has been that many food manufacturers have dramatically increased the sugar content of their foods.
What should we do about it? In a sense, there is a conflict between concerns about the nanny state and the Government seeking to control or heavily influence behaviour, and the imperative to tackle a serious public health issue. The trends are so serious that we must do something, and Government, industry, other public sector bodies, such as local government, and individuals all have a role to play.
The Public Accounts Committee examined the Government’s situation, referring, in December, to the public service agreement of 2004. That was signed up to by the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The particular commitment was to halt
“the year-on-year rise in obesity among children under 11 by 2010 in the context of a broader strategy to tackle obesity in the population as a whole.”
We may be most concerned about obesity in children, but the trend also very much afflicts the rest of the population.
The Public Accounts Committee drew attention to the fact that there were no ring-fenced budgets or specific programmes, and that the approach was to try to influence existing Government programmes and the food industry to change the formulation of products. I fully appreciate that the PAC was commenting on a previous period, that things have moved on since and that some things have improved. However, its conclusion was that “little concrete action” had been taken.
Since then, we have seen the traffic lights initiative on food labelling and the Ofcom rules on advertising in respect of children’s programmes. Both measures have been controversial and there has been pressure on Government and regulators from both sides to push in one or other direction.
Some products show guideline daily amounts—the alternative, industry solution—as opposed to the traffic lights system promoted by the Food Standards Agency. I am conscious that the food industry is spending a fortune on fighting its corner, because it recognises the potential financial impact in relation to some of these products. I understand its concerns that as products are reformulated, they need to maintain their attractiveness so that they can sell them. It is legitimate for the industry not to want massively to damage its business. There must be an objective assessment of the evidence during this, in a sense, trial period involving the two competing approaches. The industry says that it wants eventually to implement whatever is most effective, so there is an onus on it to demonstrate that its scheme is effective. It is important that it works closely with Government and the FSA to ensure that whatever emerges is based on objective evidence and a rational decision about what works best.
Judging by what I have seen so far, we need something that is simple, that consumers understand and that guides behaviour. That pushes me, perhaps rather reluctantly, in the direction of a traffic lights system. There appears to be some evidence that consumers are changing their purchasing habits and identifying the information on the packaging.
There is a duty on the food industry to behave responsibly. Large companies all sign up to the concept of corporate social responsibility. In this regard, their corporate social responsibility is to take a lead, rather than just be pushed, to ensure that their products are as healthy as possible and to reformulate as much as they can in order to address the dangerous trends that we are witnessing.
As for the Ofcom measures, there is a lot of pressure to go further than Ofcom has gone and to adopt the 9 pm watershed prohibition. As policymakers, the Government, the FSA and Ofcom ought to make a rational, objective assessment of how the regime is working before deciding whether more draconian measures are necessary.
In February, one of the Minister’s ministerial colleagues said:
“We now look to the Committee on Advertising Practice to put in place similar rules for…cinema, magazines and the internet.”
I would be most grateful if the Minister could update us on exactly what has happened in that regard. Are those rules in place or likely to be in place soon? That commitment was made back in February, so it would be valuable to know whether action had been taken.
I said that other public bodies had a role to play. In preparing for this debate, I noted that Liverpool city council, a good Liberal Democrat council, is taking the sensible step of removing drinks machines that sell very sugary products from its main sports facilities. The Norfolk and Norwich university hospital has Coca Cola machines throughout its buildings, and in this day and age, that is rather bizarre. My concern is that the hospital is driven by the money that the machines provide rather than what is in patients’ interests.
Some valuable trends are occurring in schools, and the Government have played a part in those. However, I know of schools in my constituency that have rejected the dismal food that comes from the county council’s provider and have opted for their own, in-house cooked meals, which are of a high standard. I enjoyed a meal at Stalham middle school, where the quality of the food was tremendous. This is happening all over the place, and it is a good thing.
I want to end by again making a point about exercise. This debate is about one part of the equation, the importance of exercise being the other. Disturbing trends can also be seen in that regard, because there are lots of pressures on families, particularly given the development of the internet. There is a trend for children to remain sedentary and not go out and get enough exercise. Some children and teenagers have an embarrassment factor that puts them off some of the traditional sports, so we must be open-minded about the whole range of sports and exercises in which they can engage. It is crucial to get the message across, through schools, sports clubs and so on, that exercise is important.
I am practising what I preach, because I am training for the great London run on 1 July. Incidentally, I am accepting sponsorship for Cruse Bereavement Care, which is an excellent charity. Last night, I ran 9 km around the course—I am still here to tell the tale, although my body has somewhat seized up. Exercise is incredibly important for children and adults, and the Government must keep repeating that message.
I shall try not to expand my contribution to fit the time available. I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on raising this important subject and on his having consistently done so over several years by way of parliamentary questions and early-day motions.
It is important to avoid junk science and drawing easy conclusions. We know several things about the subject, without fear of peradventure. We know that obesity is dramatically on the rise, and we have a particular problem in this country according to the Eurostat data that has recently become available. We are on safe ground in asserting that obesity can lead to conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cerebral vascular disease, various forms of arthritis, cancer and probably some forms of mental ill health, but in 2002, the National Academy of Sciences concluded:
“There is no clear and consistent association between increased intake of added sugar and BMI”—
that is, body mass index. The hon. Gentleman alluded to that, and it is central to any debate about obesity and sugar.
Although the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) was kind enough to say that I am an expert, I am not. It is important not to draw easy conclusions. As the hon. Gentleman said, relativity comes into it, but most of us as lay people probably feel that sugar does lead to obesity. Indeed, a core sugar has a calorific value, but so do many other substances. My intervention was aimed at establishing that we should not necessarily assume that sugar will lead automatically to obesity. If sugar is removed from the diet, what is it replaced with?
I hesitate to mention the Sugar Association because it clearly has an interest in a debate about sugar. Nevertheless, it points out legitimately that fats deliver more than twice the number of calories per gram than the carbohydrate sugar. Furthermore, and probably more importantly, fat is laid down while energy from other sources is quickly burned off. It would be beneficial to think a little more laterally about the contribution that sugar and other forms of energy-providing substances make to obesity.
When trying to work out what is fact and what is fiction, it is probably worth while reflecting on energy in and energy out. There has been a recent series of interesting results from academic institutions that have looked at the energy-out side of the equation. We cannot consider energy in—sugar—without considering energy out. The Minister will be aware of Plymouth’s prospective EarlyBird study and the recent cross-sectional study at Bristol university. On first examination, they appear to be contradictory, but when taken together they show that there is a difficulty in the assumption that providing exercise for schoolchildren will alter behaviour in the long term.
I was disappointed to read the results of the prospective study from Plymouth because I would like to believe, as I am sure would the Minister, that providing sports facilities and exercise in schools will lead to a long-term change in people’s behaviour so that they enhance the energy-out side of the equation. Unfortunately, that research suggests that the pattern is more complex. I would like to know where we are with the “Choosing Activity, a physical activity plan” of March 2004, which was relaunched in August last year, particularly in the context of focusing on energy out and taking into account those two important studies, the results of which we had earlier this year.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland mentioned fruit juices and smoothies. Most of us assume that smoothies are a good thing. Certainly the packaging suggests that they are full of good stuff and sometimes that they contain as much as five pieces of fruit compressed into a little bottle. Therefore, they seem to be a good thing and an easy way of satisfying the Government’s insistence that we should consume five pieces of fruit or veg a day. They are, of course, high in good things such as antioxidants, but they may also be high in substances such as sugar, so how do we play one off against the other?
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned dehydration. I have had correspondence from various authorities on the subject, but I am having difficulty in working out what part dehydration plays, particularly as we live in a temperate climate. I am not aware that the Food Standards Agency has looked at the issue, and I would be interested to know what it makes of it and particularly what it thinks about reports that dehydration degrades people’s ability to do maths in schools.
The school fruit and vegetable scheme was launched three years ago at a cost of £77 million, and I understand that the Department of Health is reviewing that. Will the Minister comment on where we have got to with that review and with emerging reports that it has not significantly changed behaviour? I would be interested to know whether the Minister, on the basis of the evidence available to him now, intends to change the school fruit and vegetable scheme and, if so, in what way. While he is about it, perhaps he would comment on other initiatives that have been launched since the White Paper “Choosing Health”—for example, the teen life check and the obesity toolkit.
Initiatives introduced by the Government and their agencies often have unintended consequences, and I am thinking particularly of the FSA’s attack on salt, which I fully support. However, it seems that there is a conflict between salt and sugar. As I said about the competing benefits of various substances in smoothies and fruit drinks, we must compare and contrast, and work out what is for the best. Kellogg’s has been up front and said that it is adding sugar to some of its cereals because salt is being reduced, presumably because of pressure from the Government and their agencies.
We have heard about Special K, which I do not recall having had for a long time, but my parents and grandparents used to have it and it seems that it was a lot less sugary back in 1978 when the data started to be gathered for the Widdowson textbook, which is the trade text. The sugar content has risen dramatically since then.
Various other foodstuffs were discussed by the hon. Members for North Norfolk and for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland, and I shall not repeat what they said, but I am a little alarmed to find that fruit and even vegetables are now being bred to enhance their sugar content. The carrots that I ate in 1978 contained 5.4 g of sugar per 100 g, but that increased alarmingly to 7.4 g of sugar per 100 g in 2002 to match consumers’ palates.
Waitrose soup has been mentioned but, unlike the hon. Member for North Norfolk, I do not eat it as I do not have a Waitrose near my house. I have an Asda, and its sticky chilli chicken contains 19.2 g of sugar per 100 g. Tesco’s crispy beef and sweet chilli sauce contains 23.1 g per 100 g, which is a remarkable amount of added sugar. Neither of those products appeals to me, but clearly they cater for consumers’ tastes. If other palatable ingredients, such as salt, are driven down, inevitably they must be replaced with something if the company is to continue to sell its products. I am slightly concerned that in forcing down one ingredient, we are driving up others without having first assessed which ingredient is more damaging.
It seems that the link between sugar and obesity has not been established, so the FSA might reasonably take the view that salt, which is proven to be harmful, must be its prime focus, rather than sugar.
My impression is that the FSA has moved on to sugar. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is not wise to do so, and that it ought to stick with salt? The FSA gives the impression that it must tackle sugar.
I am not sure that the FSA has moved on, and I hope that it does not move on as the hon. Gentleman suggests, because that would be the wrong way to consider the problem. We cannot leap from one substance to another; we must consider the issues holistically. That is the guts of what I was trying to put across.
There is, however, clear and largely uncontroversial evidence to link high salt content with various forms of ill health, hypertension and the sequelae of that. We hear from various authorities that the link between sugar intake and increased BMI is not so well established, and it would be a pity if in chasing down sugar, we drove up salt, which is uncontrovertibly linked to ill health. That would be a dangerous thing indeed.
The question is about balancing one with the other, and I am not sure that even the FSA—sage organisation that it is—would have either the answers or the ability, given our knowledge about the subject, to strike a reasonable balance between the two. I accept that it is important for the FSA to consider sugar, and that it tries to improve our evidence base, but I am pretty clear that its chief target recently has been and continues to be salt. If that is true, that approach is entirely rational.
I suspect that there is a link between sugar content and cost, and I should be interested to know the Minister’s view on that. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland referred to Professor Jack Winkler of London Metropolitan university, who blames European trade reforms for making sugar cheaper and for contributing to obesity. He has made the link between sugar and obesity; others may be more cautious about doing so. However, I need no encouragement to attack the evils of the European Union and its doings, and I should be interested to hear whether the Minister shares Jack Winkler’s concerns about its impact on the price of sugar, and therefore, according to Professor Winkler, on obesity in this country.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland mentioned sweeteners, and like me he has received a briefing from Ajinomoto about aspartame. Does the Minister believe that low calorie sweeteners of the sort referred to by the hon. Gentleman and approved by the European Food Safety Authority in May 2006 are to be encouraged? If so, how does the Minister think they might be used as a replacement for sugar, sucrose and dextrose in the UK diet?
Advertising is important in the debate. The Minister called on the Committee of Advertising Practice in February to put in place rules governing the advertising of food high in fat, sugar and salt in non-TV media, and the hon. Member for North Norfolk referred to that. I believe that rules concerning magazines and cinema will come into force in a few days’ time, but I am less clear about rules relating to the internet, computer games and mobile phones. I should be interested to hear whether the Minister’s call on the committee a little while ago has resulted in the drafting of any rules for the advertising of products high in fat, sugar and salt to children through those novel media.
In the large amount of time remaining to me, I shall mention briefly the impact of labelling. It is important for people to understand as fully as possible what they are buying and consuming. The Food and Drink Federation wrote to me, essentially supporting the guideline daily amounts method of front-pack labelling. I suspect that it wrote to other hon. Members, too. It provided many obliging statistics, and pointed out that
“50 per cent. of UK retail food and drink packs now carry this”—
The other major means of providing such information is through the traffic light scheme that the FSA has been—up to this point—very keen on, has been trialling, and, we understand, will be reviewing to determine whether it needs to alter its tack or remain on its set course. Whichever scheme ultimately emerges as the victor, it must be the one that is most user-friendly, most likely to alter people’s purchasing preferences, and thereby the products that are available on predominantly supermarket shelves.
However, I sound a cautionary note about nutrient profiling, for all the predictable reasons. We have heard about the red-lighting of dairy products such as milk and cheese, and of other products such as Marmite and tomato ketchup, which is based on the nutrients that they contain in 100 g of product. I do not know about you, Mr. Hood, but the last time I consumed 100 g of ketchup or Marmite at one sitting was a very long time ago. Such information does not seem to be terribly relevant to what people actually consume and how they actually behave. That is one of my chief problems with nutrient profiling.
In 2005, “Commissioning Obesity Services: PCTs’ Services and Strategies” was published. Its methods for tackling obesity do not appear to have been rolled out terribly well, and I should be interested to hear how the Minister feels about the prescription of various forms of weight reduction, such as those that Weight Watchers and Slimming World provide, which appear to be cost-effective when compared with the cost of medication for dealing with obesity.
How is the quality and outcomes framework being used to tackle obesity? GPs get very few points for addressing obesity through the QOF, and given the scale of the problem, which we heard about from the hon. Members for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland and for North Norfolk, it seems strange that a mechanism that was set up to improve health should fail so signally to address one of the biggest public health problems that we face today—obesity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this Adjournment debate and on campaigning on the issue for a long period. As well as being my hon. Friend, he is a very good friend, and he says quite rightly that, usually, he praises fully the Government’s achievements. Today, however, he has raised some extremely important issues that are worthy of serious consideration.
The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who leads on public health issues, would welcome the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend, and anybody else whom he felt useful, to discuss the issues that he has raised. It is always good to offer meetings on behalf of colleagues; whether they thank me for it is an entirely different matter. However, it would be useful if such a face-to-face meeting were to take place.
All hon. Members who have contributed to this debate have defined the scale of the problem. It is serious for the individual affected and a major challenge for families in this country. It also presents new questions for our society and raises significant issues for our economic well-being going forward. Tackling such issues must, however, be a shared responsibility. There is no one partner in society who alone can tackle and resolve these fundamental and profound issues. The Government must of course fulfil their responsibility, but so must parents, in the case of young people. In the case of older people and adults, there is a responsibility on citizens. There is also the question of the role of the regulatory authorities and the behaviour, in respect of both self-regulation and corporate responsibility, of industry and the private sector in those regulatory regimes. Every partner needs to play their full part if we are to have a chance of tackling the issue on a long-term and sustained basis.
To turn to some of the progress made, this country’s strategy is acknowledged internationally as being progressive and positive. Progress has been slow, but it has been significant. There has undoubtedly been a positive change in people’s awareness of the importance of healthy living, and there are signs that children and adults are beginning deliberately to adopt healthier eating and physical activity habits. The fact that we as a society debate the issue, as well as the fact that people reflect on their behaviour and the impact that it has on their health, the quality of their lives and, in the most extreme cases, their life chances, is an important advance. A few years ago, such issues were not at the forefront of people’s minds or anywhere near the public policy agenda, so we have made significant progress.
There are also many statistics that reinforce that belief. For example, there has been a 7.7 per cent. increase in expenditure on fruit and vegetables, which is the biggest increase for more than 20 years, alongside a 6.1 per cent. decrease in expenditure on confectionery. In 2006, 72 per cent. of people were aware that they should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, which was an increase from 51 per cent. in 2002. In 2005-06, 80 per cent. of schoolchildren did at least two hours of school sport a week, which is up from an estimated 25 per cent. in 2002. The figure is also higher than our target for that period, which was only 75 per cent. There is also no doubt that children’s fruit and vegetable consumption is increasing, with 17 per cent. consuming at least five portions a day in 2005, which is up from 10 per cent. in 2001. There is therefore evidence that significant progress is being made.
What would the Minister say to the National Foundation for Education Research and the university of Leeds, which seem to think that the schools fruit and vegetable scheme has not succeeded in its stated intentions?
The hon. Gentleman raised that issue earlier, which I shall deal with head-on in a few moments. It is as though he would be pleased if what he has described was the case, which I find alarming for an hon. Member trying to make a mature contribution to the debate. However, I shall deal with the point directly in due course.
A lot of changes have been made. For instance, the Ofcom changes have restricted TV advertising of food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar to children, while new rules from the Committee of Advertising Practice will come into effect on 1 July. Tougher nutritional standards for school food have been announced and front-of-pack labelling now makes it much easier for consumers to understand the nutritional value of processed foods. NICE published guidance on the prevention, identification, assessment and management of overweight and obesity in adults and children in December last year. There has also been partnership working with the National Heart Forum on revising its toolkit, “Lightening the load: Tackling overweight and obesity”, which aims to support local areas in developing local strategies to tackle overweight and obesity in children and adults.
There has also been the new “Healthy Start” scheme, as well as new care pathways for NHS primary care professionals and self-help guides for patients. The Government launched the national step-o-meter programme, which has trained 4,000 primary care health professionals across 220 PCTs in motivational interviewing and the use of pedometers as a motivational tool. Nearly 20,000 schools have volunteered to be “Healthy Schools” or are working towards becoming one, which is more than 85 per cent. of schools in this country. That is incredibly important, if we think about the potential for long-term and sustained change that it gives us. There is now also a coalition of 150 organisations in the public and private sectors, working together and using social marketing techniques to develop a deep understanding of the drivers of families’ food and physical activity habits. Significant progress has been made, but it is important to acknowledge, as hon. Members have done, that we still have a long way to go in tackling the challenge.
I should like to turn to some of the points that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members made about sugar, drinks and obesity. There is limited scientific evidence regarding intakes of sugar-sweetened drinks and weight gain, and it is unclear whether an association exists. It is hard for me as the Minister to relate to that, but that is what the scientific evidence suggests and we cannot afford to ignore that scientific and expert evidence.
Has my hon. Friend the Minister commissioned studies through his Department or is he relying on external research work? If he is saying that he cannot see the evidence, surely the sensible thing, given the size of the Department’s budget, is to commission its own research work. That would keep the researchers occupied for a long while.
I should like to refer to other research that has been conducted on the issue. For example, the World Health Organisation report on chronic diseases, which was published in 2003, did not directly link sugar with weight gain, but suggested that a high intake of free sugars in soft drinks possibly promotes weight gain, which is an important nuance. The Food Standards Agency considers there to be insufficient evidence to make a judgment on sugar-sweetened drinks and obesity, but continues to monitor the evidence as it emerges, which is important.
The Minister mentioned the Food Standards Agency, but as The Sunday Times reported in May:
“The Food Standards Agency…which launched a crackdown on salt two years ago, wants companies to reduce the amount of added sugar in food products and is even considering imposing legal limits.”
Does he fully support the FSA in pursuing the level of sugar in some products or is he saying that there is insufficient evidence for us to adopt a precautionary approach and seek to reduce levels?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, who made the point about the precautionary principle in his earlier contribution. That is why we as a Department are working with the FSA and the industry to reduce sugar in a range of foods. The Department for Education and Skills and the School Foods Trust are also working to take the issue forward. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point that we should proceed on the precautionary principle. I support what the FSA has said recently; its point is that we need to assess evidence as it emerges and adjust our strategy accordingly. We need to proceed by using the precautionary principle as the basis for moving forward.
The World Health Organisation report did not directly link sugar with weight gain, but did suggest that a high intake of free sugars in soft drinks possibly promotes weight gain; I made that point earlier. The physiological effect of energy intake on satiation and satiety from sugar in fluids was found to be different from that from sugar in solids. Sugar in fluids was found to be less well detected by the body, leading to incomplete compensation of energy at subsequent meals.
A systematic review of sugar-sweetened drinks, weight gain and obesity, published by Malik et al. in 2006, has also been helpful. It assessed 30 studies and concluded that, in general, greater consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is associated with weight gain and obesity. However, several of the epidemiological studies reviewed had inherent problems, including small sample size and short follow-up, and were confounded by other dietary factors.
With the possible exception of some fruit juices, sugar-sweetened drinks provide little nutritional benefit, and their consumption should be discouraged in favour of healthier options such as water and milk. We need to take greater note of the emerging evidence as the strategy and debate continue.
The Minister has just cited advice from experts about milk. What are we to make of the fact that, according to nutrient profiling, milk would get a red light under the traffic light system. What are we to do about that?
We have to consider the evidence that is emerging. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland said, there can be inconsistencies and unintended consequences. We need to try to align policy and strategy and ensure that they are based on evidence. All the time we are collecting more and more evidence that will influence, shape and refocus policy. That is the only answer that I can give the hon. Gentleman at this stage.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) mentioned his concern about teenagers, and that is important. Obviously, we share a responsibility with parents, schools, role models and others for the influences on teenagers. The hon. Gentleman also rightly referred to the importance of exercise. We live in a society of the internet and iPods; many activities in which young people want to participate do not necessarily involve exercise. Young people’s behaviour, attitudes and how they choose to spend their leisure lives are changing. We need to consider the implications and impact of that and make sure that there are other influences.
The issue is often about making a direct link between what teenagers care about and aspire to and their behaviour. If we simply hector and lecture young people about why exercise and healthy eating are good, it is unlikely that we will get through to many of them. If we make the link between young people’s ambitions, aspirations and hopes for their lives and the potential damage that obesity and excess weight can cause them, we are more likely to make progress.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of advertising in cinemas, magazines and the internet. The rules announced—in April, I think—will apply to all food and drink, except fruit and vegetables, and they will come into effect on 1 July; he wanted a specific answer on that. As a Department, we will monitor their impact with reference to Ofcom rules.
Will the Minister clarify whether that will apply to the whole range—cinema, internet, magazines and so on?
Yes, I can confirm that.
I move on to the comments made by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who seems to blame the European Union for obesity. It seems that the lunatics remain in charge of the asylum—the faces may be new and smiling, but the same ideological lunacy remains, with the belief that the European Union is somehow evil and responsible for the obesity problems of our society and our world.
I shall try to take the hon. Gentleman’s other points a little more seriously. He asked about “Choosing Activity”, and I shall update him on that. By January 2007, 57 of the 99 commitments set out in the plan had been achieved. For example, every school in England is now part of a school sports partnership, and 80 per cent. of pupils now take part in at least two hours of high-quality physical education and sport a week. As I said, that exceeds the 75 per cent. target that we originally set. The Government are clear that the root cause of obesity is calories in and calories out; the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned that in his speech. We have a comprehensive strategy on physical activity and diet. There is good evidence that “Choosing Activity” is beginning to make a real difference.
With all due respect, the Minister has made some silly and fatuous statements in this debate; this is his chance to redeem himself. He will, of course, be aware of the Plymouth EarlyBird programme and the Bristol university cross-sectional study on obesity—at least, I hope that he is. How does he reconcile those with the school sport strategy, which, I assume, will be updated or reviewed to incorporate that research? If my assumption is correct, will the Minister outline how that will be taken forward?
Of course we will take account of that research and consider its implications for the school sport strategy. Most people would say that we are making significant progress on changing the culture around school sports. There was a period in our history as a country when competitive sports, certainly in the state system, were downgraded and not encouraged. We had a problem with teachers’ ability and willingness to work outside the school day, but we are seeing a significant step change. Extended schools will make a tremendous difference to the range of opportunities for children and young people to participate in sporting activities and a whole range of extra-curricular activities that have been taken for granted in the private sector through the generations. Of course we will reflect on the implications of those studies, but we are firm on the benefits and progress of the school sport strategy.
The hon. Gentleman referred to dehydration. The FSA has not undertaken a specific research project on the issue, but other evidence supports the notion that hydration is important for good health and concentration. We do not have hard evidence on that, but the anecdotal evidence is there. The hon. Gentleman raised the school fruit and vegetable scheme. He said that it cost £77 million, but it actually cost about £38 million. The first evaluation showed that children on the scheme increased their consumption, but that that dropped off when they left the scheme. Further evaluation is to be published by the end of this month, and at this stage the Government have no plans to change the scheme.
The hon. Gentleman, as well as other hon. Members, raised the question of artificial sweeteners. The Government recognise that low-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame have the potential to help to reduce some people’s energy intake, particularly if the food or drink that contains them replaces products that contain sugar. That is a clear position. Did the hon. Gentleman want any further clarification?
We have evidence that we have a robust national strategy. We also have evidence that the issue is incredibly difficult to tackle effectively. It will require a long-term sustained commitment from all stakeholders. There needs to be an acceptance that, although the Government have major responsibilities, so do the private sector and families, as well as the community through the status that it gives the issue and the importance that it places on it. There is no doubt that obesity undermines individuals’ quality of life, length of life and life chances. There is no doubt that it places massive pressure on our public services. Equally, it undermines our economy in a global era when we need the full talents of all our citizens to be used to maximum potential if we are to compete with the Indias and Chinas of this world. Obesity should not be seen as a stand-alone or marginal issue. It is right at the heart of social and economic policy and of the health and well-being of individuals and our population. We have done a lot, but there is still a long way to go.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to press a little subject about which I have been nagging for some time.
It is my contention that the Government overtax us and, in particular, that they over-regulate our everyday way of life. However, today I am considering rural villages and specifically village halls. The White Paper of April 2000, on which the Licensing Act 2003 is based, sounded quite hopeful. It started with a few interesting points. It stated that the key aims of the proposals were
“to reduce crime and disorder…to encourage tourism…to reduce alcohol misuse…and…to encourage self-sufficient rural communities.”
The White Paper also set out
“proposals for reducing the burden of unnecessary regulation.”
That was too good to be true.
Geographically, I have the largest Surrey constituency. It is predominantly rural, with two market towns and about 32 villages. Under this Government, many of them feel under threat. Although they are not far from major roads, many are reclusive and some even feel remote. All have telephones and electricity except during some storms, when the supply may be disrupted. Not all of them have the internet, and many do not have broadband. Perhaps it is a virtue, but a number are so situated that even mobile phones cannot be used. Most have post offices, village stores, delightful pubs—after the last debate, perhaps we ought to re-emphasise the presence of gastro-pubs—and village halls. Some also have small village sports grounds, such as cricket clubs, bowls clubs and so forth, that have halls attached.
The halls are almost all, if not all, run as charities, and they are used for village functions by the village repertory society and local dancers, and for birthday parties, wedding functions, photographic society showings and so on. Many, if not all, of those events—except perhaps for the children’s parties—provide bars, or at least they used to. Two of the halls are substantial in size, and are sufficiently large to employ caretakers. All of them, including those large halls, are run by a volunteer committee, generally a local residents’ or village association. Most are small and some are tiny. Some are so small that one could fit three on to the floor of this Chamber. Some are close to homes in the village, many are more remote and at least one is up a long narrow lane and in the clearing of a small forest. That is hardly an area where there is going to be a riot.
Not one village hall in my constituency is renowned for crime, disorder or drunkenness. If they are known to the police, it is generally because the policemen and women live in those villages and use the facility as members of the village community. The halls are a functional part of the village communities, which should have welcomed the sweet sound of
“proposals for reducing the burden of unnecessary regulation.”
However, the effect of the wretched 2003 Act on village halls has been a nightmare for the local people who manage them. They volunteer to do so for the sake of the village. They do not expect a bureaucratic nightmare of plans, forms and teachings on legislation. The halls are run on the traditional shoestring, and money is raised for their operation by hiring them out to village groups, which in turn make a tiny profit on nibbles, cakes, wine and so forth sold at their functions. Added to that, on many occasions the Act creates the problem of finding some poor soul who has to agree to be the responsible individual or designated licence holder for the hall. There is the problem, too, of the annual restriction of 12 temporary event notices. As the halls have found, a TEN can be obtained without giving notice to the hall committee, thus depleting that already meagre dozen.
Then there is the cost of notices in the local papers, of licences, of TENs and of plans. Understandably, that cost is substantial for larger halls, but the relative cost for tiny halls is huge. I remind the Minister of a quotation from the website of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport:
“A plan of the premises will have to be submitted with every application for a premises licence. Unless previously agreed with the relevant licensing authority in writing that an alternative scale plan is acceptable to it, the plan should be drawn in standard scale, where 1 millimetre represents 100 millimetres. The plan will need to show:
The boundary of the building, if relevant, and any external and internal walls of the building and, if different, the perimeter of the premises; points of access and exits from the premises, and the location of escape routes if different; where the premises is to be used for more than one licensable activity, the area within the premises used for each activity; fixed structures (including furniture) or similar objects temporarily in a fixed location (but not furniture) which may impact on exits and escape routes; the location and height of any stage or raised area or area relative to the floor; any steps, stairs, elevators or lifts; any room or rooms containing public conveniences; the location of a kitchen, if any, on the premises. The plan may include symbols to illustrate such matters, and a key to explain them.”
That applies even to tiny halls.
I hope that the Minister can picture a small group of perhaps three villagers sitting in a tiny hall, maybe 15 ft by 30 ft, with a loo at one end and a kitchen sink at the other. It has two external doors and even a coat rack. The people running the hall have to follow those regulations, obtaining competent scale drawings at some cost, filling in pages of forms and paying fees, all for a system that is likely to reduce the use of their tiny little village hall. What would happen if they were to change the layout and put the kitchen sink at the end where the loo is and vice versa, or any such tiny thing? Would there be more drawings and more cost?
When the Licensing Act came into force in 2005, I surveyed all my village halls by sending them a questionnaire, and I did so again this year. In 2005, there were vigorous complaints, especially from the smaller halls, about the cost, bureaucracy and time wasted, and the fact that there were not enough TENs. Mostly they asked, “Why?” and “Why us?” Hon. Members, including myself, asked questions in the House, in sessions held by the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and in Westminster Hall. I asked the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), whether he would receive a small deputation to explain the problems. He agreed, and with a considerable amount of to-ing and fro-ing a time was set, then cancelled. I tried again on several other occasions, but it never happened and he moved on.
The present Minister and others, from the Prime Minister right the way down, have agreed to examine the problem in the past few years. They told us that there will soon be a review, but there is no sign of one so far. Interestingly, my recent survey showed that the changes have not been straightforward, thus confirming my suspicions about bureaucracy and cost. A tiny hall, for example, was given a quote of £766 for a registration certificate and £180 for annual renewal, against the £10 that it previously paid every 10 years. There are fewer functions at the hall because it has only 12 TENs, which cost £21 each. Its representatives have told me that they have restricted the number of hirings and either have to find ways to accommodate alcohol or have to refuse to allow even the odd glass of wine.
If the law is used with a light touch, people happily comply with it. If it is heavy-handed, people find ways around it. They are doing so, and have contrived ways around the legislation to try to keep their halls alive. Alcohol is paid for indirectly, and plans are published, not in the paper, which has to be paid for, but in the free parish magazine, which would probably be seen by more people. As one nameless returnee of the form replied:
“We have our ways, but they are not for publication.”
As I have asked the Minister before, will he consider dramatic changes in his review? Perhaps that means freeing small halls from the requirements of the legislation by specifying a reasonable de minimis size, or freeing the charities that run halls. There could be a safety net so that if there is aggravation or problems the police or local council could bring the hall back into the network. The licensing committee could step in. Will the Minister consider dramatically increasing the number of TENs? Allowing 12 is derisory; there should be 30, 40, 50 or more, even for little halls. In addition, will he—I remember being a Minister and doing this myself—collect a copy of all the forms, sit down quietly with a glass of wine as he is not covered by TENs, go through them, see how unnecessarily complex and wordy they are and consider whether he can reduce their size and complexity? Above all, will he, unlike his predecessor, come out of his inner-city surroundings and meet some of the villagers affected and the people who run the halls, perhaps in the tiny halls themselves, and see what damage the Act is doing to village life and the communities that use them?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on securing the debate. He may self-deprecatingly refer to himself as having nagged on about it, and he may be good at nagging, but he does it for an honourable reason. I hope that I can deal with some of the things that he raised, and I wish to put on the record the fact that there are genuine issues that we need to continue to examine and, when appropriate, revise.
The things that can affect rural villages and village halls are serious, as they are important parts of our community. It will be helpful if I say at the outset that the Government’s objective is to make life better for people, not otherwise. I take note of the hon. Gentleman’s points, and I will try to deal with some of them. Some will remain outstanding, and I am sure that at the end of the debate there will still be some disagreement, but I am always happy to enter into dialogue. I represent a constituency that can hardly be described as inner city in the London sense, and St. Helens does have some of the problems that he raised. I have also had the opportunity to examine the matter in my former constituency of Witney, where I happened to be for part of this weekend.
While I understand why the hon. Gentleman makes his points, he did not give an entirely balanced picture. It is none the less the picture that he perceives, which is why I want to deal with some of his points. I would of course be happy to come and join him, whether over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and examine in practice the problems that he has raised. I would also be happy for him to bring to me a delegation of people who have had difficulties with the forms. Without prejudice, I would be happy to sit down and discuss the problems that groups are facing. It is not the wish of the Government to make people’s lives more difficult. The implicit and explicit purpose of the 2003 Act was to modernise and produce a 21st-century system of regulation. I hope that that is what we are doing, but there is more work to be done.
It might help if I remind hon. Members of the objectives for licensing village and community halls. We wanted to introduce a system that encouraged village halls—including the small and tiny ones that the hon. Gentleman referred to—and similar premises to offer a wide range of activities under a single licence, but it had to be balanced with the need to ensure proper protection of the public. Safety, public nuisance, crime and disorder, and the protection of children had to be taken into account.
There was general agreement that the old regime was no longer perfect for village and community halls. They had to apply for separate licences if they wished to allow alcohol sales, music and dancing, or films and plays. Committees had additional form-filling to renew the licences every year or every three years, and separate fees, which could run into many hundreds of pounds, were payable for most of the licences. Furthermore, disproportionate standard conditions that were more suited to a large nightclub than a village hall were often applied. The old system was not perfect.
Sometimes when we have these discussions one could be forgiven for thinking that somehow the Government had departed from a perfect system and produced something completely different that was not workable. The old system did not work, and it was absolutely right that we changed it.
Let me clarify the Government’s current position on temporary event notices, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He will no doubt be aware that the independent fees review panel under Sir Les Elton said that we should consider a modest change—from 12 to 15—in the TEN limit for village halls. The maximum aggregate number of days would be unchanged at 15. We are still considering the recommendation, but I would be concerned if such a change were to undermine the incentive to obtain full premises licences, which may be more appropriate for those who wish to hold more than 12 events, and which would constitute a more sensible approach for those who wish to hold 20 or 30 such events.
The hon. Gentleman will know that there was no clear consensus when we sought views on the TEN limits in 2005. Village and community halls wanted larger numbers, but residents, the police and local authorities—they, too, are affected by such events taking place—generally did not want an increase above the 12 events allowed by the 2003 Act.
Les Elton encouraged village halls to apply for full premises licences and to reduce their reliance on temporary permissions. His panel, which included a representative from the Commission for Rural Communities, believed that there were clear advantages to doing so in terms of cost, bureaucracy and risk. We have recommended that position since the Licensing Bill was first debated.
Perhaps the Minister could remind me whether a hall that applies for a full licence needs to have a designated, named person. For a tiny hall in a tiny village, such people are not forthcoming. The requirement is not realistic.
If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me for a moment or two, I anticipated his wanting to ask me that question and will be happy to come to that and to the proposals that we intend to pursue.
A 2006 survey by Action with Communities in Rural England suggested that 91 per cent. of halls had a premises licence covering entertainment, but most had not applied for a licence to allow the sale of alcohol. As a result, if they wish to host events that include the sale of alcohol, they have to rely on TENs. Those choosing not to get a licence are constrained by the limits of the TEN system, but that, of course, is their choice.
Let us be clear about this. For most halls, the costs of securing a licence that includes alcohol sales are little different in the long term from the £252 annual cost of 12 temporary events. The total cost of securing such a licence might be in the region of £600, which includes the cost of the licence, advertising and training a personal licence holder. However, for most village halls, the costs in subsequent years should fall to £70 or £180, depending on the size of the venue. The hon. Gentleman made that point, which, obviously, is relevant.
Some hon. Members have made comparisons with the old system, whereby the courts would accept applications, in one batch and for a single £10 fee, for numerous occasional permissions to sell alcohol. That illustrates why the fees paid to magistrates were some £25 million a year short of the costs of administering the licensing system. Part of the purpose of the new regime is to ensure that the fees reflect the cost of licensing so that the general taxpayer is not forced to subsidise the sale of alcohol in this way.
Village halls were previously able to rely on hirers or a local publican to obtain occasional permissions and licences to sell alcohol, and to take the responsibility for events. We believe that it is not unreasonable to expect the committee to take some responsibility for activities in their hall. Under the new regime, if a hall wants to allow more than 12 licensable events a year, it can apply for a premises licence that is held by the committee. In addition, if the licence includes alcohol sales, an individual has to obtain a personal licence and be designated as the premises supervisor. The alternative is to allow no more than 12 events under TENs where the hirer takes responsibility.
We know that one of the barriers to getting alcohol licences has been the reluctance of volunteers to obtain personal licences and to act as designated premises supervisors for village halls. We accept that they would prefer the committee to share collective responsibility for allowing alcohol sales. That is one reason why I agreed to consult on proposals to remove the requirement for village halls to have a personal licence holder. That would help to reduce some of the up-front cost of getting an alcohol licence.
However, there is not universal agreement to the proposal. I say this to the hon. Gentleman because I think that it is important. The police and the local authorities in some locations—not in his constituency, I am sure, but in other locations—say that they have genuine concerns about public nuisance from some activities in some village halls, including, critically, problems associated with under-age alcohol sales, and disturbance and antisocial behaviour from certain private events. I am sure that he understands that.
Residents have objected to some village hall licence applications. That is not to suggest that all village halls are running operations in which there is endless under-age drinking, and mayhem and antisocial behaviour afterwards, but it would be unwise of us not to consider carefully the representations that have been made by the police and others. We want to tackle the problem of under-age drinking, and part of the purpose of the 2003 Act was to enable us better to do so. The hon. Gentleman somewhat traduced the Government at the beginning of his remarks, but I believe that, in true spirit, he recognises that we all want to tackle problems related to the abuse of alcohol.
If the police and others are providing evidence to indicate that we should carefully consider what we may be enabling before we move away from the proposal, there is a proper onus not only on the Government but on Her Majesty’s Opposition not to ignore their representations. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, it is sometimes unwise to cherry-pick what one wants and does not want from the police.
I understand where the Minister is coming from, but could I ask him to look at the issue the other way around? Why not have a de minimus level, particularly for rural village halls, whereby application of the change of rules and licensing and so on will apply to village halls if the police or the committee of the local council feel that it is appropriate? In the case of my village halls, I suspect that most of them would never be noticed by either the police or the committee.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point. As he knows, there is a consultation, and I am more than happy to encourage his village halls to make representations as part of it. As I said, I would be more than happy to meet him and a delegation to discuss the matter. I genuinely believe that the spirit that the Government want to prevail is one of reason and balance, and it would clearly not be reasonable or balanced if I were to say anything to him other than that I would be more than happy to meet a group of his constituents to talk about the issue. The consultation process matters considerably and it is important that hon. Members make and encourage their constituents to make representations. We need to achieve a balance in the safeguards for those who might be adversely affected, if there were to be any change. I still intend any changes made to be implemented by spring 2008.
The hon. Gentleman referred to bureaucracy. Under our simplification plan that has been published, we will consider making the application forms simpler, which is why I welcome his delegation. We will also examine ways of reducing the costs of advertising in relation to applications and, indeed, we will continue to press to introduce a lighter-touch system for such variations. We will also—I hope that this will please him—consider whether we can apply a complete or partial exemption from licensing where de minimis activities are self-evidently low risk.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the requirements for plans. They were set following consultation with experts in public safety and they exist for good reason. It may be of benefit to remind him that we have clarified that plans do not have to be put together professionally. We are introducing proposals for a light-touch variation process to allow changes to be made to plans while imposing as little burden or cost as possible.
In the next few weeks, we expect to receive the live music forum’s report, which may raise relevant considerations about the impact of this issue on village halls, and we will want to bring those into the consultation. When the independent fees panel considered village and community halls, it also considered whether charities and not-for-profit organisations should benefit from further exemptions or exceptions to fees. The panel took a view on that, but, again, I am open to representations from the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, if they wish to make them.
I am glad that we have had the opportunity to air some of the issues because they are important. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that our policy is not inflexible, but is one that we wish to improve on, and if we can improve on it, we will. We intend to introduce not a more bureaucratic system, but a less bureaucratic system, and we intend not to introduce a system that encourages alcohol abuse, but to introduce one that discourages alcohol abuse.
We recognise that a balance needs to be struck between those providing entertainment and alcohol and those who live in the communities where that takes place. In the 2003 Act we ensured that the views of local communities, residents and the police play a significant part in determining whether licences are given to village halls or any other licensed premises. That is an important component of the 2003 Act and it has been very successful. Under the legislation, some licences have been withdrawn and suspended, which proves that it is working. I hope that the actions that I have outlined will be recognised as part of a proper, consistent and flexible process of monitoring the 2003 Act and ensuring that it continues to be successful and fit for purpose in 2027 and beyond.
Modern Apprenticeships (Women)
I am grateful to have the chance to raise this important subject, which is vital not only to the lives of women and their children but to the functioning of the wider economy. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope) will be responding—we share a county in common so I am pleased to see him.
The subject of the debate is a YWCA campaign to ensure that young women get more equal opportunities in their working lives. The campaign also aims to ensure that they have the chance to work in a wide range of different jobs, trades, and professions, to better their own position, and to increase their earning potential. I strongly believe that this issue is also about improving the workings of our economy. I do not believe that we can have an efficient economy unless all members of the community are able to play a full role in it. We must tackle disadvantage among the poorest families and children. Many of the young women associated with this issue quickly become parents and their ability to provide for their families will in large part depend on their ability to get a well-paid job. If, either directly or indirectly, half the population are excluded from certain categories of work purely by virtue of their gender, it is unjust and economically inefficient.
The YWCA’s “More than one rung” campaign has brought together some powerful advocates for improving modern apprenticeships, including people from different industrial sectors, the world of training, the educational sector and from inside government. The campaigners want five key changes. They want a duty to be put on local authorities and key local players better to assess and meet the skills, training and apprenticeship needs of disadvantaged young women, and to dramatically increase and sustain their skills and achievements. They also want women to have access to better-paid jobs at the end of the scheme and for businesses to replicate models of good practice that recruit and employ more disadvantaged young women. Seven out of 10 employers agree that recruiting more young people of the non-traditional sex would help to solve skills shortages.
The campaigners also want governments and employers to improve disadvantaged young women’s access to skills and apprenticeship training, which means improving planning to increase the number of disadvantaged young women who take part in better-paid apprenticeships and skills training with better-paid jobs at the end. As part of that, the campaigners want the ministerial apprenticeships steering group to conduct an inquiry into the gender pay gap in apprenticeships—I will provide some quite dramatic figures on that later—the impact of low pay on disadvantaged young women’s entry and retention in apprenticeships, and sector segregation by class and gender. I add ethnic origin to that, as there is clear evidence of differential access to apprenticeships by ethnicity.
The YWCA wants children’s trusts to ensure that all disadvantaged young women have support from an inspirational adult to increase their confidence and broaden their horizons. YWCA research has shown that self-esteem and confidence are as critical as qualifications when making choices about work. The point is not to undervalue women’s work or say that this area of work is less important than another or that it should be less well rewarded. We should also ensure that work and skills in, for example, social care are properly valued and paid. At this point, the focus is on ensuring that young women have a wider range of skills and more choices, so that they can get into areas of work that, so far, have been largely closed to them.
The reasons for the campaign are clear when we consider access to different skills and the differential access of young men and young women to diverse levels of training in various sectors of the economy. Before outlining some of that in detail, it is important to recognise the enormous success of the modern apprenticeship scheme overall and the potential of the scheme for dramatically improving our economic performance. For a long time, people bemoaned the loss of apprenticeships and said how important it was for young people who did not want to pursue an academic path to a career to have access to high-quality training that could lead to a well-paid job and perhaps later to other routes of learning. The modern apprenticeship scheme has provided a lot of those opportunities. At present, there are a quarter of a million apprenticeships in England and Wales and the target is to double that by 2020.
The old apprenticeships were private and often opaque arrangements between the individual and the employer, and sometimes included very poor training and excessively poor pay and working conditions. The modern apprenticeships, however, are Government-sponsored and regulated, and cover a much wider range of skills—over 90 sectors, including some emerging sectors of the modern economy. They constitute one of the unsung success stories of this Government and the economy, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have a lot to say about them later on.
There are some very dramatic differences in access, however, for people from black and other ethnic minority communities who are from a half to a third as likely as their white counterparts to gain an apprenticeship. If we look at the demographic and ethnic and age breakdown of people, the disparities become much more evident. There are clear and dramatic differences in access for young people. I want to concentrate on the latter.
The figures show that, although young women are almost as likely as young men to access apprenticeships overall, they are confined largely to certain sectors of the economy. I shall run through that list. In 2007, the electrical industry had 1,749 standard-level apprenticeships, but no women apprentices, which is surprising, given that women can often be found doing detailed wiring work in factories producing electrical items such as televisions. It is very surprising that the industry does not seem to have been able to attract women on to apprenticeship schemes. The most dramatic differential is in construction, which had 22,755 apprentices, only 1 per cent. of whom were women. Out of 1,988 apprenticeships in the automotive industry, only 1 per cent. were filled by women, and in engineering, 3 per cent. of just over 8,000 apprenticeships were filled by women.
The segregation was equally marked at the other end of the scale. In hairdressing, 92 per cent. of apprentices were women, and out of 8,261 apprenticeships in the early years and education sector, which is an emerging and very important area of work, 97 per cent. were filled by women. In health and social care, 89 per cent. of apprentices were women. The one area with a roughly equal gender balance was hospitality, in which, out of 10,679 apprenticeships, about 49 per cent. were filled by women, which is a bit more even. The pattern was much the same at the more advanced level of apprenticeships: engineering had 2 per cent. women, construction 1 per cent., the automotive industry 1 per cent., the electro-technical industry 1 per cent., health and social care 90 per cent., early-years care and education 98 per cent. and hairdressing 95 per cent.
Those figures feed directly into the pay differentials, which are very marked in apprenticeships. A 2005 survey of 5,500 apprenticeships—monitoring is done locally so the figures had to be collated by local surveys—showed that there was a 26 per cent. weekly gender pay gap, with young women apprentices receiving, on average, £40 a week less than their male counterparts. In hairdressing, which is the lowest-paid and most female-dominated of the industries, the average take-home pay was £90 a week compared with the electrical industry, which of course is 100 per cent. male, and in which take-home pay was £183 a week. Of the one in five apprentices receiving less than £80 a week, over 70 per cent. were young women.
The different access that women have to bonus schemes and overtime is another factor. Young women apprentices were less likely to be paid for overtime and more likely to be in programme-based schemes, which meant that they were less likely to have an employment contract with an employer and, therefore, less likely to have a secure job at the end of their apprenticeship. Will my hon. Friend say a bit more about that as well because it comes down to the different types of apprenticeship scheme? In addition, women were in apprenticeships that were less likely to lead to a higher-level NVQ, which is necessary for access to higher education and professional programmes. I would argue, therefore, that those differentials will have a profound impact on their economic position at the start of their adult lives and on their opportunities to improve their pay and position at work later on.
A key part of the YWCA campaign is focused on the fact that about 1 million women between the ages of 16 and 30 are living in poverty in the UK; the campaign is aimed at ensuring that those women can find a way out. As I said, many of those young women will get into parenthood very quickly and so be less likely to have the kind of skills needed to find work with decent pay and support their children. We know that the Government have done a great deal to lift families with children out of poverty, and I would argue that one of the key ways to continue to do that is to ensure that parents with young children have the skills to find well-paid work when their children are older and they feel ready to go out to work.
At a recent seminar organised by the YWCA, which I chaired, and which was attended by the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, a number of experts in apprenticeships explored some of the reasons for the differentials and ways in which to overcome them. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take up and respond to those points. It was an extremely interesting, well-informed and important discussion, but in some ways it was also depressing because some of the reasons given for the disadvantages faced by young women related to issues that I thought had been resolved years ago—in particular, the lack of confidence of many young women to take on tasks seen as traditionally male.
In the 1980s, which one likes to think of as the heyday of the women’s movement in the Labour party, many of us supported programmes to give women access to non-traditional skills, with local government women’s committees funding manual skills training courses for women and other similar programmes, in order to break down some of the barriers. Some very pioneering women joined those courses and went on to set up their own businesses. It is depressing that those battles have to be refought. I am not sure whether they were never fully won or whether some of us took our eyes off the ball.
Rob Kenyon, from British Gas, who attended the YWCA seminar, said that in order to attract women into apprenticeships his company had had to do some very detailed work, including basic things such as advertising in women’s magazines and actively recruiting in schools. He also said that the key problem was changing young women’s aspirations. Another speaker said that although the gender imbalance was being overcome in school and further and higher education, it remained a problem in apprenticeships.
It seems that there are still very strong stereotypes in the world of work, so women get access to university places and, increasingly, to professional areas of work but, as we know, they do not get so much access to company directorships or some types of skilled, highly-paid work that have traditionally been seen as male.
Although research showed that 80 per cent. of young people were interested in doing work experience in non-traditional areas, only 15 per cent. managed to achieve that. I am sure that many of us have had people on work experience in our offices and know about the issue. At the formative time when young people are thinking about what they want to do, they need to have experience in all areas of work, not just in office work and more traditional skilled work. The aspirations might be there, but current programmes do not deliver on them.
I shall go through some of the barriers identified at the seminar to which I referred. There was a strong emphasis on structural issues and systems, including very important issues such as child care. I have seen a constituent of mine drop out of a women into plumbing course because of inconsistent funding regimes from the European Union, combined with a lack of support for child care. As I have said, many young women looking for apprenticeships are or become mothers. Even if they manage to overcome the stereotypes and get into a non-traditional area, trying to negotiate a break can be very difficult. One can imagine that if someone who works for a construction company wants a break to breastfeed her child, that might be one barrier too far for a young woman to overcome.
Another barrier that was identified related to career training and the need to improve advice provided in schools. Concerns were expressed about careers advice being pushed back into the education system and about the quality of information and training there.
Very basic gender issues were identified. Some employers said that issues such as clothes could be a major barrier for young women who perhaps had not done very well in school and were at the age at which they were very self-conscious about their appearance.
A major barrier that was identified related to confidence, especially to challenge gender stereotyping. People said that challenging gender stereotyping needed to start at a very early age. It should happen not just in secondary school or even primary school, but at the foundation stage of education, when children need to be playing at being Roberta the builder, not just Bob the Builder.
I touched on the lack of access for women into non-traditional skill areas in relation to the efficiency of our economy in a globalised world. As we know, there are acute labour shortages in some sectors of the economy. The most striking example is building, with building costs escalating at above-inflation levels because of high wage inflation due to labour shortages. Building employers in the north of the country complain about higher wage rates there, as they have to compete with labour that is more mobile and can travel down to get the higher wages that have been around for longer in the south-east. We all know about the impact of eastern European labour on the building industry, but we are starting to see in some sectors the impact of that migrant labour leaving the UK.
In many ways, the construction industry has dramatically failed to attract into its ranks either women or people from black and ethnic minority communities. Indeed, the Government have had a programme running to try to encourage the industry to recruit more widely to overcome labour shortages—and to address the challenges of meeting the demand for more housing. The Minister and I both know from our area what is happening to house building and the massive pressures that that is producing for local labour markets and local building costs.
It is perhaps surprising that an industry that faces such labour shortages has not organised itself to recruit properly from more than half the population. If we look at the apprenticeship figures, the failure is very clear. As I said, of 22,755 apprenticeships in the construction industry, only 1 per cent. were filled by women, and of the 5,204 advanced apprenticeships, again only 1 per cent were filled by women.
I point out that, in addition to the general demand for more labour in the construction industry, there is often a particular demand for a woman builder. That applies to building work in all areas. People might want to have a woman builder, plumber, decorator or electrician working in their home for various reasons. That might be their preference because of the skills that the women can bring with them.
What applies to the construction industry will apply to many more industries as we have to compete with emerging economies in the east and elsewhere, which have much larger reserves of labour and are producing very highly skilled work forces. We have to compete, which means ensuring that our women get access to the same skills as do men.
I hope that the Minister will respond positively, in particular to the five requests that the YWCA has made, which I believe are extremely important to ensuring that the modern apprenticeships scheme is effective, that women get access to all skills—it is a social justice issue—and that we have the skilled labour force that we need to meet the challenges ahead. In particular, it is important that we provide opportunities to enable women as mothers and as lone parents to get access to skilled work and provide for their children’s future. That would also deal with the Government’s aim of raising children out of poverty. What the YWCA wants, and has made a very powerful case for, is ensuring that young women do not get trapped on the bottom rung of the employment ladder.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing a very important, albeit short, debate on modern apprenticeships for women. I congratulate her on the work that she has done on the matter in recent years and, in particular, on her work with the YWCA and its “More than one rung” campaign. I know—she referred to this in her speech—that she chaired a roundtable discussion that my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning attended on 6 June. I very much welcome the campaign that the YWCA is running on advice and guidance, low pay, support for women in the labour market and the need to address the inequalities to which my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North referred.
Before dealing with some of my hon. Friend’s specific points, I should like to take a step back and talk about apprenticeships in general, because of the changes that have recently taken place. There are 250,000 apprentices in learning, which is treble the number in 1997, and will increase still further. Lord Leitch’s report on apprenticeships sets out an ambition to offer 400,000 apprenticeships in England every year. We would like, by 2013, to introduce an entitlement so that wherever they are, young people who are suitably qualified can take up an apprenticeship as one of their choices at the age of 16.
I am pleased to say that as well as the growth in apprenticeships generally, there has been an improvement in completion rates, which have risen from about 24 per cent. only five years ago to nearly 60 per cent. today, which says a lot both about the quality of the training provision on offer and about the motivation and commitment of the young people taking up the apprenticeships. We are creating greater flexibility of apprenticeship opportunities and more diversity in the apprenticeships that young people can study than ever before. We are trying, too, to improve the information that young people receive when they make their choices, so that they have more choices and are more informed. That applies not least to the issue of pay, which my hon. Friend mentioned.
Let me take the opportunity to put on the record the fact that it is not possible to complete an apprenticeship without setting foot in the workplace. Someone who starts one of the programme-led pathways or apprenticeships that my hon. Friend mentioned cannot complete it unless they have had an opportunity to go into the workplace. My hon. Friend asked whether a disproportionate number of young women were starting programme-led pathways—that is, making a college start, rather than an employment-based start to their apprenticeships. Such apprenticeships represent only 10 per cent. of the total number of apprenticeships, but there is a bit of a Catch-22. We do not have a gender breakdown of the figures to show whether what my hon. Friend says is correct, but the college route might ensure that more women take up opportunities in what are perhaps non-stereotyped traditions and overcome some of her concerns about employers taking on young people along traditional lines to fill male and female roles. That is a bit of a Catch-22. On the one hand, my hon. Friend says that she is anxious that women are over-represented in programme-led apprenticeships, but on the other hand, such apprenticeships might be a way of starting many young women on apprenticeships that they might not otherwise have undertaken. In addition, those young women have all the support that a college can offer them, including child care and other opportunities. There is therefore a balance to be struck.
In general, there is something of a renaissance in the world of apprenticeships, and the critical question is whether we can ensure that young women benefit in the way that the YWCA wants them to. I am delighted to say that I will hand out the awards at the annual apprenticeship awards evening at the Hilton tomorrow night. That will be a great evening not only for me and all the apprentices but for those who take on apprentices. That includes young women who start apprenticeships in engineering, manufacturing, construction and the motor industry. My hon. Friend is right that this is not just about a young person having the self-confidence to take on an apprenticeship in a traditionally male industry—if I can put it that way—but about the employer. Some excellent people take on apprentices and generously impart their skills to them. My hon. Friend mentioned adults in the work force offering mentoring and support, and she said that having an “inspirational” adult was a critical success factor. We need many more such role models for young women who go into apprenticeships.
Let me turn specifically to some of the questions that my hon. Friend raised about equality and diversity. The figures for apprenticeships are about 50:50. Our figures show that 47 per cent. of apprentices are female and 53 per cent. are male, and that has not changed much. The number of apprenticeships is growing, so the number of young women taking on apprenticeships has grown too, and more apprenticeships are being offered in non-traditional sectors. I am also pleased to say that there is also equality in completion rates, which I mentioned earlier. In other words, young women and men in all sectors are completing their apprenticeships successfully in equal numbers, which is good news.
My hon. Friend spelled out in detail the male-female imbalances in different industries, and we need not only to get young women into some of the traditionally male occupations, but to get young men into some of the traditionally female occupations. Some young women, however, may choose a traditionally female occupation, such as beauty therapy, and that is a skill for which there is a market out there. We want young women to take up opportunities and apprenticeships in such fields, and I want those young women to succeed and to be the best. In other words, although the occupations that young women may take up are stereotypically female, they are none the less a pathway to a career.
I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the WorldSkills championships—the equivalent of the Olympics in the world of skills—are held every two years, as she will know. In 2003, our apprentice beauty therapist competed against young women apprentices from 50 countries and achieved a gold medal to become the very best in the world. I was in Helsinki for the 2005 championships, as was my predecessor as Skills Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who has just walked into the room. As he and I know—I am sorry to drag him into the debate, and I had not intended to do so, but he has just walked into the Chamber—we won a second medal—a silver—at those championships. We are both keen to deal with the issues before us, to celebrate such successes and to counter some of the stereotypes that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North mentioned.
Let me now address some of the specific issues. We have had two reports—one from the Equal Opportunities Commission and one from the women and work commission—which make strong recommendations about what we need to do to make progress and tackle the issue. Those reports suggest using equality-proofing and marketing activity to attract apprentices from a wide range of backgrounds, and to tackle not only gender stereotyping, but race and disability issues. We want to work with the sector’s representative bodies—employment bodies and the sector skills councils—to ensure that there is flexible delivery, to support under-represented trainees who want to go into industry and to consider under-represented learners’ needs, including child care, which my hon. Friend mentioned. I must say, however, that we have a long way to go, as the statistics that she set out suggest. In response, therefore, we have established an apprenticeship, equality and diversity action group, which includes representatives from equality bodies, employer representatives—my hon. Friend mentioned one whom she had met recently—and officials from the Department.
The key strands of activity that will have to be undertaken to overcome the barriers that my hon. Friend described include the use of communications and marketing to increase employment places and to tackle stereotypes. They also include the publication of a 14-to-19 prospectus, so that young people can see the variety of activity that is on offer. If we are to motivate young people to choose alternatives, it is important that we get information about pay across to them in the way that my hon. Friend described so that they can see that choosing one sector over another means that they are more likely to earn higher wages. My understanding is that although there may be pay differentials between sectors, there are no gender pay differentials within sectors, so we must increasingly tell young people, particularly young women, that they will make more money if they go into construction and engineering rather than other sectors, and that information needs to be available when they are 14, 15 and 16.
We have asked the sector skills councils to set targets to increase diversity. We have recruited champions to act as role models and to tell businesses that we can do things differently. We want to share good practice between employers and business associations to show them what they can do to overcome some of the barriers. We are working, too, with groups below the age of 16. Indeed, my hon. Friend said that we should go right back to two and three-year-olds, and she is absolutely right. An investigation that we commissioned from the Institute for Employment Studies came up with a number of recommendations regarding 14-to-16 apprenticeships—the young apprenticeships. Giving male and female learners opportunities to undertake non-stereotypical tasters from the age of 14 is an important way of overcoming some of the attitudes that exist among young people and in the institutions that they attend. In that way, they can gain better information and advice and make better choices, and we can emphasise the need to avoid gender stereotyping in the information and advice that young people are given. I am pleased to say that Jaguar cars, for example, has just taken 11 women aged between 14 and 16 on its programme to give them a first-hand taste of what it means to work in the motor industry, and we want such initiatives to be replicated around the country.
I am running out of time and I regret that I cannot cover everything that I wanted to. However, on pay, my hon. Friend is right. We carried out a pay survey in 2005 and we are doing another this year. It will be published later in the year, and I hope that it will provide the information to spur on the ministerial group that my hon. Friend mentioned, and which I chair, to carry on looking hard at how pay patterns reflect wider labour market conditions, and to get that information out to young people, so that they can make better informed choices. I have not, in the time available, been able to cover all the issues that I wanted to; there are many more, and we could continue the debate outside the Chamber.
Health Service (West Dorset)
I note that the Chamber is not amazingly full. Nevertheless I am grateful to the Minister for turning up for a debate on a very specific set of issues. I could, of course, have sought a debate on the widest possible group of questions affecting the health service in West Dorset. Like any hon. Member, I get many letters from constituents and many people visiting my surgery about problems such as not being able to get an operation, having operations delayed, or difficulties over treatment that has been received. I also inevitably receive a good many complaints and queries from members of the general public and health service professionals who are worried about one thing or another. For example, GPs in West Dorset are at the moment concerned about the extent to which they feel unable to co-operate with the structures of authority, finding themselves instead too much imposed on by them.
However, I want to raise none of those concerns today. My topic is specific and narrow, but very important. The Dorset county hospital is in Dorchester in my constituency. Unlike many of the smaller outposts of the national health service in my constituency, it may be known to the Minister. He will have a pretty good idea of what it is like. It is a new set of buildings—a county hospital like many others. It has a high reputation, certainly locally. It manages to attract very highly qualified and competent professionals to work in it. Although there are complaints from time to time, it would be fair to say that if one were to conduct a survey among my constituents, which I admit I have not done, a high degree of confidence in Dorset county hospital would be found.
As the hospital is in Dorchester it is also convenient for many of my constituents. I am sure that the Minister has some idea of the characteristics of places such as West Dorset. It is a highly rural area, where people live at considerable distances from facilities, and where many people—particularly those most likely to need treatment of various kinds, because of their age, for example—do not find it easy to travel far outside the district. The result is that the availability of treatment at Dorchester is an immensely prized asset locally. There is, of course, a hospital just over the border, in Yeovil, Somerset. For many of my constituents that is not a suitable alternative. They are far nearer to Dorchester than they are to Yeovil, and for many of them it is a considerable distance away.
The prospect, therefore, that Dorset county hospital might at any time in the future not be available to my constituents on much the same basis as it is at present would cause considerable discomfort. I am glad to say that, in general, over the past 20 or 30 years, things have been on an upward trajectory for Dorset county hospital. It is no part of my case that it is coming apart. On the contrary, the hospital has been doing well—flourishing—and serving the community. Our concern is to ensure that it continues to do that.
From talking to those who are responsible for managing Dorset county hospital, it is clear that one of their greatest concerns is to ensure that they can continue to attract professional staff and clinicians of the same quality as those they currently attract. West Dorset has many advantages in that respect. It is, as I imagine the Minister may understand, a very pleasant place to live. The quality of life is high, the schools are good, and crime and unemployment are low.
As a matter of fact, those things have been true for many years, under many Administrations. No Administration have yet managed to make West Dorset an unpleasant place to live, and I hope that no Administration ever will. However, it also has a huge natural advantage, which is recognised globally, in that it is on the edge of the world heritage coastline. I share with my near neighbour and the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Schools, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), and with my other neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), what must be one of the most beautiful coastlines in Britain.
To set the scene, there is a flourishing hospital in a beautiful place with a high quality of life. Unsurprisingly, it attracts high-quality clinicians who are willing to forsake the bright lights of the medical metropolises for what is undeniably, from many points of view, a higher quality of life. However, those clinicians are also professionals with a vocation. From talking to the clinicians at DCH, one receives the strong impression, as I am sure one would—and as indeed I have—in talking to similar clinicians around the country, that despite all the real pulls of the area and a nice life, the overriding pull for them is the job, professional satisfaction and the feeling that they do good things in a good place, surrounded and supported by other people of equivalent calibre. That in the end is what gives Dorset county hospital, as one goes around it, the feel of a place with high morale. That is what keeps the clinicians coming.
It is pretty easy to imagine how, if a certain pattern of events were to set in, that very favourable circle—in which people want to come to Dorset county hospital because it is a good one with other good people and a high quality of life—could begin to give way to a less favourable circle, in which people might not feel that they could get the professional satisfaction that they required. If those people could not do in Dorset county hospital what their vocation led them to want to do, they would go elsewhere. If that were to start to happen, the future of Dorset county hospital could easily be put at risk. Just as magistrates courts and post offices have been disappearing from many parts of West Dorset, and just as many other local facilities can easily disappear as soon as someone starts to ask whether it would be more rational, effective, efficient or cost-effective to do things on a grander scale in fewer locations—typically centred in conurbations such as Bournemouth and Poole—it is perfectly possible to imagine that if we entered into the wrong, vicious, circle, Dorset county hospital’s future could eventually be under threat.
I am not trying to be alarmist or saying that someone has a plan to close Dorset county hospital tomorrow. Manifestly, no one does. However, it is important to exercise vigilance at the beginning of such processes, and not to wait until there is a real problem. It is in that context that I raise the issue of prostate cancer surgery, which, unless the Minister and the Secretary of State take action in the next very few days, is scheduled to be moved from Dorset county hospital to the conurbation, just as I mentioned.
In itself, the move of prostate cancer surgery to another centre will not trigger a disaster. I fully accept that. However, it has become clear from discussions with clinicians and managers—we have had discussions and public meetings about this matter in West Dorset—that the renal unit in Dorset county hospital, which is highly regarded among professionals, will be increasingly difficult to sustain if it cannot offer prostate cancer surgery. That is a problem because if the unit comes under any threat, an important element of the hospital’s expertise and specialisation will also be under threat. One can easily see how that might begin a sequence of events leading to a result that none of us wants: the hospital’s future being in question. I am extremely anxious to stop that process from beginning and so are many people in Dorset, not only in the rural parts, but in the conurbations too.
When the move was first suggested, various people in the cancer network who are responsible for cancer services got together and proposed a two-site solution, which was rejected by the Department of Health. They were sent back to do their homework again, and we now face the immediate prospect of services at the hospital being closed and removed to the conurbation. The basis on which that judgment is being made is an interesting reflection on the lack of serious outcome data in our health service. I know that the Minister is aware of that problem, and my party is greatly concerned by it, as the recent report from our policy review highlighted.
As far as I am aware, from the information that people have been able to provide to me, there is no solidly based, long-term analysis of prostate cancer surgery outcomes in Dorset county hospital, the conurbation or other comparable centres nearby. In the absence of a long time series, we have just two things, one of which is the short time series of outcome data that suggest that the hospital is doing rather well. In all the discussions so far, it has been pointed out that there is no suggestion that prostate surgery at Dorset county hospital has been inferior to that in the conurbation or in other places in Britain in the past few years. On the contrary, it seems to rank quite high in the short time series.
The second piece of information that we have is not a set of statistical outcomes, but the theory that unless surgeons do that kind of treatment a lot, they will not do it as well as they could. That theory is backed by a significant array of reputable evidence from the rest of the world. I do not have the technical competence to judge the research, but I have read it and that seems to be the general pattern. Of course, there is no way of telling whether the general pattern would apply in this particular case. If someone does something well, they might do it better if they did it more, but they might not. If large centres that perform a particular task a lot generally do it well, it does not follow that that will be true in every case. It is probably true that very large garages are better at mending some cars than smaller garages, but some small garages might be better at mending one’s car than other large garages.
The move is being made not because there is compelling evidence about the particular instance, but because there is a theory, the application of which to the particular instance is entirely unproven. That is the basis on which the Department of Health is overriding the settled view of all the people involved in cancer surgery in Dorset. I hope that the Minister will now, at the very 11th hour, pause, reconsider and ask that the move is not made. There is no solid evidential base for it, and there is the beginning of something that in time might threaten the renal unit and thereafter the fate of the whole hospital. All of us in West Dorset want to prevent that, and it is within the Minister’s gift at least to cause a pause in which to reflect on this issue. I hope that he will do just that.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing the debate and on presenting his case in a balanced, responsible and reasonable way. From the way that he talks about his constituency, it sounds like a cross between utopia and paradise, largely, no doubt, as a consequence of the economic and social policies that this Government have pursued.
The right hon. Gentleman has every reason to be proud of the NHS in his area. Coming new to the debate, I am struck by the thought that most health services in the country would be incredibly proud of performing as well as the health service in West Dorset. The trust recently achieved foundation status and became the Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in June. There has been major investment in its services, so any suggestion that the hospital is at risk is nonsense. I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows that and, to his credit, was not attempting to imply it.
There has been a remarkable level of investment, with investments of £8.1 million in renal services, £3.9 million in a new critical care unit and £1.4 million in county-wide spinal surgical services. There have also been investments of £1.694 million in specialist cardiology services and a supporting catheter laboratory, £300,000 in a new stroke unit and £10 million in reducing waiting times. A new dedicated laparoscopic theatre has been installed at the hospital, and the trust has recently introduced the electronic ordering and reporting of pathology and diagnostic imaging, which will cut down on duplicated tests and allow clinicians to make earlier diagnoses.
The trust’s performance is extraordinarily impressive. The number of people who wait more than 26 weeks for in-patient treatment has fallen from 2,428 to zero, and no patient waits more than 13 weeks for their first out-patient appointment. The next statistic is relevant to this debate—99.4 per cent. of cancer patients are seen within 62 days. In March 2007, 98.1 per cent. of patients in accident and emergency were seen within four hours, compared with 93.6 per cent in June 2003. There has also been a 100 per cent. achievement of the rapid access chest pain target. That is a very impressive track record.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the contributions of clinicians in making all that possible and to their commitment to their vocation. I am sure that he will agree that the whole range of professionals working on the front line of the NHS make a difference, including nurses, doctors, support staff and, dare I say it, managers. Good management and leadership are absolutely essential to successful performance in any public service, but especially the health service.
I turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions about cancer care. One achievement of the Government’s NHS strategy and policy is the national cancer plan. Very few people would dispute that there have been significant advances, given the additional resources that have gone in and, more importantly, the outcome. To give some statistics, cancer mortality in people aged under 75 fell by nearly 16 per cent. between 1996 and 2004, and 50,000 lives were saved in that period. We are on course to meet our target of reducing cancer deaths by at least 20 per cent. by 2010. In 2005, a National Audit Office report acknowledged significant improvements in the management and provision of cancer services.
The right hon. Gentleman referred specifically to national guidance affecting decisions being made within his local health community. The specific guidance sets out detailed recommendations on how services for urological cancers should be organised, and contains five key recommendations, which are based on the views of top professionals in the field.
The right hon. Gentleman conceded, as I do, that we are not practitioners or experts in this area, so we are, to some extent, dependent on the advice of the brightest and best in this specialty. They recommend the following: that all patients with urological cancers should be managed by multidisciplinary urological cancer teams; that members of urological cancer teams should have specialised skills appropriate for their roles at each level of the service; that radical surgery for prostate and bladder cancer should be provided by teams typically serving populations of 1 million or more, and carrying out a cumulative total of at least 50 such operations per annum, and that while the teams are being established, surgeons carrying out smaller numbers of either operation should make arrangements within their network to pass this work on to more specialised colleagues; that major improvements are required in information and support services for patients and carers, and nurse specialist members of urological cancer teams will have key roles in these services; and that high-quality research studies about the optimum form of treatment for patients with urological cancers should be supported, with encouragement of greater rates of participation in clinical trials.
That is the overall framework, and those are the principles that should underpin every local health economy when looking at the treatment offered to patients in this area. I understand that before any decision was made, significant debate and consultation took place about the implications of the guidance and the configuration of services in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and neighbouring areas. It is important that I state that the question is about where patients are to have their operations; it is not about where patients are to receive their ongoing medical support and attention.
On 24 May, the relevant cancer network made its final decision to centralise radical surgery at a single centre at the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals Trust with effect from 1 August—a matter of days, as the right hon. Gentleman said. That means that this specific surgical procedure will no longer be carried out by the Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.
The right hon. Gentleman might wish to correct me on this—I would be happy to hear from him—but the estimate that I have been given is that about 35 patients a year will be affected by this decision. I am trying to contextualise our discussion. I want to make it clear that in terms of the provision of renal services or cancer services, the rest of the services at Dorset county hospital will not, in any circumstances, be affected by this decision.
Let us consider what tends to happen in sensitive reconfiguration decisions. The views of clinicians and the definition of best interest that the primary care trust comes up with sometimes do not coincide with strong community feeling. Groups of clinicians based in a particular health setting sometimes do not like the idea of change, sometimes for good reason, sometimes because change can be quite difficult. I understand that much discussion and consultation has taken place locally and that the process allows for the local authority’s overview and scrutiny committee to refer the matter to the Secretary of State for consideration if it believes that the decision is wrong or the consultation is flawed. The Secretary of State would then have the option to refer the issue to the independent review configuration panel.
I understand that the overview and scrutiny committee, which must have been under significant pressure to reach a different conclusion, has examined this matter objectively. It has heard from the cancer network and, doubtless, from clinicians and the right hon. Gentleman, and has formed a judgment that this decision probably is in the best interest of patients in terms of their having access to highly specialist care. Because the role of the committee in the process is clear, it would be entirely inappropriate for Ministers in the Department of Health to second-guess the views of those who are democratically elected locally and have the option to say that this decision is not right in terms of patient care in their locality.
I should stress the services that will be untouched and will continue to be provided at this excellent hospital, because I believe that this answers the question about job satisfaction and the future recruitment and retention of top cancer specialists and consultants in the right hon. Gentleman’s community. I am talking about services in the following areas: urology; haematology; skin; upper gastro-intestinal; palliative care; head and neck; gynaecology; chemotherapy; breast; colorectal; and lungs. All that care will continue to be provided to a very high standard at Dorset county hospital.
The hospital’s future is bright, as is the future for cancer care in this particular trust in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I have reviewed all the evidence, considered the consultation and examined the determination made by the overview and scrutiny committee, and believe that, on balance, the decision to relocate the highly specialist surgery is in the best interests of patients in his constituency.
It is right that right hon. and hon. Members come to this place to advocate and champion the views and interests of their constituents. There will be strong feeling on this issue in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, because there are few more emotive issues than accessible services or the impact that cancer has on individuals and families. I hope that his constituents will accept, having studied the evidence, examined why the decision has been made and reviewed this debate, that, on balance, change is sometimes not only necessary but desirable for patient care and that it will do nothing to undermine the excellence of the clinical practice that is so evident in this particular trust.
Once again, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue to the attention of the House. I am sorry that I am unable to give him the answer that he desires, but I believe that the decision is probably right and, more importantly, that the people best placed locally to make that determination—those in the local health service and the democratically elected members of the local authority—have concluded that this is the best way forward.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.