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Westminster Hall

Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2007

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 20 June 2007

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Migrant Workers (Regularisation)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Kevin Brennan.]

Just to clarify any confusion about the title of the debate, initially it was put down as the Registration of Migrant Workers, but it has been clarified to focus on the regularisation of unregularised migrants. The two titles mean very different things, so I just wanted to make clear my focus in this debate from the outset.

By one of those coincidences, I was made aware that our request for a debate about regularisation had been successful just after I had accepted an invitation to participate at 10 o’clock this morning in my constituency in a refugee week event with John Armitage, from the diocese of Brentwood, who has been a leading advocate of the regularisation campaign throughout. Unfortunately, I cannot make the event today, but the campaign’s work in our constituency to support refugees or unregularised migrants is humbling to witness as a local MP.

Given that we are in the middle of refugee week, it is timely that we hear some of the debates about the status of at least 500,000 people in this country, not including their dependants, who have no legal status in the country. From my local casework, I have found those people are often the most abused by employers, landlords and criminal gangs. Given the nature of the debate about refugee week, which is taking place throughout the length and breadth of the country, it is also timely that we discuss the possible remedies to bring them out of the shadows and regularise their status in this country.

I know that the issue is very difficult politically, but it is incumbent on us all as local politicians and public policy makers to speak up for some of those people who have no voice and no traction in the political process. The debate today is about providing possible remedies—sometimes called an “amnesty”, but I prefer the term “an earned regularisation”—to the status of up to or possibly more than 500,000 people in this country.

It is agreed that those 500,000 people are a combination of refused asylum seekers who have been made to wait years for their applications to be processed, and are now rooted in British society; and visa over-stayers, who work, pay taxes and are part of our communities. What both have in common is that they are in legal limbo; that they are often, as a result, very poor; and that they are trapped between the countries that they have come from and the society that they wish to make their new home.

The Home Office accepts that most of those people will remain in the UK. Deportations are expensive and difficult, and they number no more than 20,000 a year. At the current rate of deportation, it would take 25 years to remove hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants, and it would cost billions of pounds. Even if it were possible, it would not make any sense to do so, as economists, including those at the CBI and the TUC, agree that continued migration is vital if we are to meet skills shortages, and that it is responsible for our current low-inflation growth.

A report by the National Criminal Intelligence Service summarised the total loss to the Exchequer from unpaid tax and national insurance contributions to be as much as £3.3 billion. The extra fiscal revenue from a regularisation process would result in a net gain to the Exchequer of between £500 million and £1 billion, according to estimates supplied by the Institute for Public Policy Research. At the same time, the National Audit Office says that each deportation costs almost £11,000. The IPPR says that it would cost £4.7 billion to deport the 500,000 people whom the Government think are in the country.

Many other countries, including the United States, Spain, Greece and Germany, have issued so-called “amnesties” in recognition of the fact that at some point, people who have lived in the country for an extended period, starting families and putting down roots, can no longer be reasonably be regarded as outsiders. Maintaining the current policy is causing chaos, distress, bureaucratic logjams and misery on a large scale. De facto, those people are part of society, and our obligations to them mirror those that we owe our fellow citizens. Hard-working families are being criminalised, and honest people turned into liars. The underground economy is growing, creating an area outside the law which gives succour to criminals.

One solution, which we outlined in early-day motion 1371, standing in my name, and which I think has the support so far of 81 MPs from all political parties, many faith groups, business leaders, community leaders, the Mayor of London and the Strangers into Citizens campaign, is that irregular migrants who have been in the UK for four years or more, up to a determined date, should be allowed to work legally for two years without access to benefits. At the end of that period, subject to employer and other references, criminal checks and the like, they should be given leave to remain. That six-year earned pathway would also maintain a strong deterrent to future illegal immigration. That is only one option in hand. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has also put forward a solution based on a two-year threshold and then a five-year work permit, leading to an earned regularisation. There are different models around.

I shall not use the word “amnesty” today, because it suggests to more melodramatic elements of the press, a blanket pardon for criminals, and it gives the impression that anyone without status in the UK should be given leave to remain. I am arguing for a pathway into citizenship for long-term migrants, which is a significantly different concept.

My proposal would consist of a carefully managed programme, which would allow those people who had made new lives in the UK to acquire the rights and legal status that everyone who lives and works in the UK permanently should enjoy. Regularisation is what I wish to argue for today—a one-off as opposed to a rolling regularisation measure to coincide with the Government’s border-enforcing policies that are set to take effect over the next two years. Next year a points-based system will be introduced, and we also have the introduction of ID cards, and the general overhaul of the Home Office’s work. Arguably, they create the opportunity for a one-off regularisation process to deal with the legacy of public policy failures that have been mapped out over perhaps 20 years.

I do not oppose—indeed, I support—the notion that a nation state must regulate its borders, and any measure with provisions that are too generous could weaken that policy. In 2005, Spain regularised some 700,000 people as part of a wider border-enforcement measure to extend the state’s control over the black economy and curb illegal immigration. Since 2005, the number of illegal immigrants has gone down not up—proof that well designed regularisation helps to deter illegal immigration.

There is no longer a deterrent effect in criminalising people who are hard-working, honest and conscientious, who pay taxes and contribute to society, and who have put down roots in the UK. Forcing them to live beyond the law does not make our borders stronger, but brings the law itself into disrepute. It also encourages people traffickers, drug traffickers, international criminals and terrorists, who are far harder to track down, because of the size of the shadow economy in which they operate. Regularisation would help to expose those undesirables, enabling authorities to concentrate resources on removing them, not the honest, hard-working people who are building Britain.

Regularisation would also greatly benefit our asylum process, clearing at a stroke the huge backlog of cases dating back to the late 1990s. The measure would also bring relief and hope to thousands left destitute or in limbo, freeing up their energies and gifts to the benefit of the economy.

Overall, the benefits of regularisation might be: to reduce the size of the undocumented population; to reduce the size of the underground economy; to increase tax and social security contributions, given that as a result of Spain’s 2005 measures, the country has paid off its social security deficit; to improve the human rights and dignity of migrants; to enforce minimum wage and other labour legislation, levelling the playing field for all workers; to gain control over the undocumented population, allowing Governments and local councils to meet real needs; to improve the rule of law and national security, reducing criminality and enabling states to concentrate on deporting undesirable or criminal elements; to fill local labour market needs; to assist in community cohesion and integration; and to reduce employer exploitation.

Regularisation enables migrants to break free of exploitive employers, to challenge exploitation through the law and to compete for better jobs. Many irregular migrants face a glass ceiling that their status imposes, and most work well below their skill levels.

I want to cover a couple of the responses that we are likely to hear today. The first is that a regularisation programme of the type envisaged would encourage greater illegal migration. It is true that regularisations in the EU have not succeeded in drying up illegal immigration, but they have offered a just, humane and sensible way of responding to it. The only factors that can definitively reduce illegal immigration are tight border controls and a sluggish economy with high unemployment. As long as our economies are growing and our birth rate remains low, we can expect immigration. However, because the economy is ahead of any attempt by the state to manage the migration, there will be some degree of illegality.

The question is whether a regularisation programme will make the situation worse. It is true that although the US, Spain and Belgium have introduced regularisation measures, all have continued to experience illegal immigration. However, it is also true that those countries that have not introduced substantial regularisation measures, such as the UK, have also experienced a rise in illegal immigration. Although we can be certain that, on their own, regularisations do not prevent illegal immigration, it would be foolhardy to suggest that they caused or encouraged it.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I have been following his argument closely and with genuine interest. The evidence from other countries that have brought forward such regularisation measures would suggest that each time they have been introduced, a larger number of illegal immigrants have been introduced into the programme. For example, Italy has had five such programmes. In 1987-88, 119,000 illegal immigrants were regularised, and that figure has increased in stages, to 235,000 in 1990, 259,000 in 1996, 308,000 in 1998 and 700,000 in 2002. Does that not suggest that such regularisation programmes actually encourage illegal immigration?

The picture is much more mixed than that. Most migration experts assert that economic factors—not the chance of citizenship—are the primary pull factors in the migration process. Rather than seeing the regularisation process as the key driver behind patterns of migration, if we compare and contrast the situation in Spain with the experience of other countries, the picture appears much more mixed and suggests a more nuanced analysis of the pull factors. The jury is out—the subject is up for debate and that is why we are having this debate today. However, simply seeing the regularisation process in Italy as the trigger for successive waves of illegal immigration belies the broader economic dynamics at work, which suggest a more balanced analysis of what contributes to such extraordinary demographic flows.

To continue from that, the dynamics at work in patterns of migration in Europe over the past few years suggest that the push factors are poverty at home, lack of opportunity, political instability, violent conflict and the desire to reunite with family members abroad. The pull factors in Europe are a declining population and a continuing demand for labour, especially in the low-wage, low-skill parts of the economy. Anecdotal evidence in the UK suggests that irregular migrants are usually escaping a situation or seeking a better life. They are not after a new passport. Often they go back or move on to a third country, but sometimes they end up staying, albeit for a host of reasons that they would not have foreseen when they left their initial countries.

Migrants have come to the UK in search of new lives and opportunities, not citizenship. A one-off regularisation measure of the sort that I propose would not act as a further incentive, because our criteria are strict—the Strangers into Citizens campaign proposes four plus two years—because the measure would be a one-off and because both the main political parties in the UK are committed to border enforcement measures, which would make it harder to enter the country illegally. On its own, regularisation will not deter illegal immigration, either. However, combined with border enforcement measures, such as those that the Government are now implementing and the type of measures that I advocate, it would be stated with certainty that regularisation would not encourage further illegal immigration.

Most irregular migrants who also pay taxes receive nothing in return by way of benefits. It is only right that those work and contribute to British society should be given the basic protections of the welfare state.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on one of the toughest subjects facing us in Britain today. I start from the position that he does, which is that I do not want anyone to be exploited, but would he attack me for a lack of faith, in being vaguely sceptical about the TUC report this week? It said that migrant workers do not have an impact on unskilled and semi-skilled workers. I take the view that we have an incomes policy in this country that affects unskilled and semi-skilled workers, but not the big City earners in the square mile down the river. How are we going to address that problem, so that we can ensure that our key belief that nobody at all should be exploited is delivered to us all?

That is a big debate, but I agree with my hon. Friend and have some suspicions about the TUC report. It argued that, apart from a number of anecdotal examples, there was no negative effect, in terms of employers abusing migrant workers, of deregulating labour markets. In my constituency recently, for example, a Lithuanian gang was employed on £15 a day—barely half the minimum wage—on a public contract. Similarly, I am sure that we all have anecdotal evidence of forms of exploitation and abuse that I have not witnessed in 20 to 25 years occurring in regular patterns in cities such as London. That means that we have to deal with the problem. Part of that should be a regularisation process. Often, those who receive the most compound abuse, from employers, landlords, criminal gangs and so on, are those who have no status.

To put a floor under the labour market, we have to address the tough stuff—those groups of people who are disproportionately used as pawns to deregulate labour markets. In my experience, those who have no status are the most susceptible to those bad employers. That is why regularisation is part of a series of policy initiatives that would allow a more mature debate about race and migration, as well as choking off some of the material forces that play into the hands of those employers who want to abuse those groups in society with the least protections. Regularisation is linked to the TUC report, but the TUC report does not go anywhere near far enough in acknowledging the labour market pressures that are causing the race to the bottom that we are currently experiencing.

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Would he agree that one good step forward would be to encourage and allow much tougher contract compliance by all public bodies in all public spending, particularly on construction and maintenance contracts? Too often, local authorities and others turn a blind eye to what they know is going on, in their name, effectively, through public spending on building contracts.

That is absolutely right. The state has a key role in that, as well as in the health economy, for example. Some of the most widespread abuses of migrant workers that I have witnessed have been through the supply chain in cleaning or security contracts and the like. The state has a key role. This is a different policy agenda again, but if we introduce a system of contract compliance, so that those who bid for public money should have a system of employment contracts over and above the statutory minimum, that could also help to create a floor. That way, the most vulnerable would not be the most exploited, through their labour market situation, by employers using those with no recourse to the law to overcome their exploitation at work. I therefore acknowledge the pioneering work done by some of the unions in cities such as London on living wage campaigns among those who arguably have the least status in this city, but who make some of the most significant contributions.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and strongly support the campaign. The cruelty with which some failed or waiting asylum seekers are treated is abominable. The strong anti-immigration feeling in the country is partly caused by the chaos of the system and by lots of people being unable to work. That makes people resent those living at public expense who are not working.

To stop an uncontrolled flow and to stop criminal people smugglers from running the international asylum system, we need to renegotiate the Geneva convention, give automatic funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ensure that anyone who is fleeing anywhere in the world is cared for—we are not, for example, providing funding for Iraqi refugees—and have committed numbers, so that we can bring in people in a managed way, with their families and able to work and settle. The answer to the point that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) raised is a renegotiation of the convention, to bring it up to date for the conditions of the modern world.

I totally agree. The debate about regularisation is not a panacea for anything, but an attempt to stimulate a series of consequential debates about the international treaty and how to manage extraordinary global demographic movements. There is the refugee issue; my right hon. Friend alluded to Iraqi refugees, and there are 2.2 million of them.

Domestic policy initiatives over and above regularisation could allow the construction of a different architecture around the politics of race, migration, asylum and demography in this country. Arguably, the combination of our current policies is systematically poisoning the well around the whole debate. Unless we retrieve the situation by having a mature, grown-up debate based on real people, such as the 500,000 in this country, we shall not be able to retrieve some of the terms of debate. That is worrying for the broader issues of community cohesion.

I witness that in my own community; the far right has secured 12 council seats in our borough, and that is not unrelated to some of these questions. Unless we step back, try to establish a different discussion and bring different policy initiatives—even if they are uncomfortable—into play, I will worry about where the whole debate will head.

I shall make a couple of concluding points, as I know that a number of colleagues want to contribute. Like many who call for one-off regularisation, I welcome the Government’s commitment to tighten UK borders and introduce a new monitoring and assessment system into the immigration process. Keith Best of the Immigration Advisory Service stated that regularisation:

“should happen at the same time as the introduction of the Government’s e-borders programme between 2007 and 2008, because it would help to clear the decks. If we held an amnesty at this time, it would allow us to know, once and for all, the identity of those who have over-stayed, while encouraging people to come forward.”

There is a precedent. In 2003, there was a mini-amnesty in the UK, when the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), ordered it as a means of “clearing the backlog” of asylum cases. What was presented as an administrative matter was in effect a mini-regularisation programme. There were no recorded complaints that the 50,000 people who benefited had in any way abused the system. Equally, when the A8 countries joined the EU in 2004, the UK Government did not tell the Poles and Lithuanians who had been working here illegally that they should go to prison or back to their countries. They were asked to register.

A one-off regularisation of the sort that I support and that has been proposed by the Strangers into Citizens campaign or the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, recognises the dignity of human beings who have made new lives in this country. It would extend and reinforce the rule of law; level the playing field for low-paid workers; enable business to employ legally the labour that it needs; recognise the role that migrants already play in society; ensure that tens of thousands of British workers receive the protection of the law; shrink the underground economy; free up billions of pounds in extra taxes for the Exchequer; enable local authorities to plan better according to real population figures, not the increasingly out-of-date ones supplied by the census; solve the expensive, inhumane delay in processing old asylum claims; build a more cohesive British society; and turn outlaws into neighbours—“strangers into citizens”—in the best British tradition of pragmatism and justice. Furthermore, it might well be popular.

Before I call the next speaker, I advise Members that I intend to call Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.30 am.

It is good that we are having a debate about what we should do about a problem that everyone knows exists. There is the context of the Government agenda, which says that migrant workers bring economic benefits and considers managed migration. However, it also says that it will crack down on illegal working. Some of the proposals in the UK Borders Bill, which is still progressing through the House, are related to that.

We know that very significant numbers of people are working here illegally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) said, we should consider what that means. Out there, the common concept of those who work illegally is that such people work in the moonlight economy. However, a lot of people are illegal in the sense that they do not have permission to work, but work in the mainstream economy. Over the years in constituency advice surgeries, I have seen lots of people who have come here through a variety of means. Some came originally as asylum seekers and were given permission to work, which had never been revoked; they still had a piece of paper stating that they had that permission. Others came with valid visas, got national insurance numbers and started to work. Others came as students. Others came from countries that are now on visa lists, but were not when they came, so they did not have to have a visa to come. All those people have national insurance numbers, pay tax and have been doing so in some cases for years and years. As my hon. Friend said, they get no benefit from that, but they have absolutely no security.

People who were recruited on a bursary by the national health service to train as nurses, and who have qualified, have then been told that they are not entitled to work in Britain. Has my hon. Friend come across that? We expensively train someone whom we need and then tell them that they should leave the country.

Yes, I have certainly seen examples of that.

A lot of those people are effectively settled: they have houses and families, and they pay rent or have mortgages. However, they have no security. Employers, particularly large ones, are starting to carry out more systematic checks on people’s right to work, so the people whom I have mentioned may lose their right to work at any time. The Home Office knows that lots of people are in that situation; that is precisely why it has included data-sharing proposals in the latest UK Borders Bill—to allow checks between records from the Inland Revenue and those from the Home Office and throw up those examples.

There are also people in a completely different situation. They are in the moonlight economy, have no national insurance number and work for employers who know very well what they are doing. Such people are most open to the worst forms of exploitation; I shall not repeat what has been said about that. They cannot enforce any employment rights whatever—not the minimum wage, not working conditions; all that goes by the board. That has an impact on other people working in the same industry or similar areas of work; I do not accept the argument that it does not.

If, as the Home Office says, we are to have a crackdown on illegal working—if we are to try systematically to discover employers that knowingly employ people illegally and if we are to cross-check Inland Revenue records with the Home Office’s and throw up all those people—what will then be done? I have never heard a single word from the Home Office, which knows the numbers involved, about how it intends to deal with the issue. I have heard arguments against our proposed regularisation scheme, but have never heard a single positive word about what will actually be done.

If there are, as we suspect, up to 500,000 people, plus dependants, in the situation that I have described, the absolute reality is that they are not all going to be removed. That is a simple fact; it would be absolutely impossible. At the current rate of removals, doing so would take 25 years. Even if that rate were stepped up, lots and lots of people would be thrown up but would end up not being removed.

What would happen to them? Would they just be left destitute? Some will be if we carry on doing nothing. They would lose their jobs, they could not claim benefits and they could not get another job. They have families, and rent to pay and so on. Are we going to leave them destitute? Is that the policy? Frankly, that would be a non-starter and would not work.

If the Home Office is going to argue that it will not go for a systematic regularisation scheme, it has to produce some other systematic way to deal with those people. It is no good simply saying that we will deal with them individually, because we know what will happen. We know the size of the backlog in the Home Office, and how long it takes. People come to see us who have put in applications 18 months or two years ago that are still sitting in the Home Office and not being dealt with. Saying that we will deal with the problem by dealing with these people individually is unreal.

The only way in which we can deal fairly with the problem is through a regularisation scheme, whether it is one of the proposed schemes or something else—we can argue about the details of what it should be. I do not believe that the proposed approach would necessarily be a magnet if it was properly dealt with and a one-off. Italy was mentioned, but it has notoriously lax border controls and so it is not comparable. If the Home Office make the border controls work, and make some things work better—such as when people are able to get a national insurance number when they do not have the right to one—and if a regularisation scheme is combined with the introduction of the sort of controls proposed by the Home Office, I do not see any reason why such a process should become a magnet.

Let me conclude by returning to an earlier point. If we are going to go for the rogue employers and throw up all those individual cases, what does the Home Office propose to do? I ask the Minister, please, not to tell me that it will consider each individual case as it arises, because that will be a recipe for chaos. There is only one sensible way in which to deal with the situation, which is through a clear, one-off regularisation scheme that allows people to know where they stand. People can then behave as citizens rather than living all the time without knowing whether they will be out of a job and with no money next week.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing it. I have been closely following his campaign on the issue, not least because in the two years since I was appointed to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe I have been an active member of the committee on migration, refugees and population. I am its rapporteur for a major inquiry into, and report on, regularisation programmes for irregular migrants. In Strasbourg next week, I anticipate that my report will be approved by the committee for debate in the plenary session in early October and that that report will be supported by Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members of this House as well as Members of Parliament from all political parties in 46 European countries.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) made the point that this is probably the most serious and intractable problem to face our society. I have no doubt from what I have seen and learned over the past two years that that is undoubtedly the case. Time does not permit us to go into all the detail of what will be in my report, but I am more than happy to make a copy of it available to any Member. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is our Front-Bench spokesman, and I have exchanged comments on the matter and I have kept him informed of some of the work that we have done.

What we have to do, above all else, is to face the facts. At a conservative estimate, there are probably between 5.5 million and 6.5 million irregular migrants in the European Union alone, and considerably more in other European countries outside the EU, with between 8 million and 10 million irregular migrants living in Russia. It has become ever more clear that a large proportion of those persons will remain in Europe, sometimes moving from country to country, and that it will not be possible to return them forcibly or voluntarily to their countries of origin. The question arises of how to deal with those irregular migrants who live in Europe and are tolerated, for the large part, but who do not have a legal status or a right to remain. The speeches made by the hon. Members for Dagenham and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), as well as some of the interventions, colourfully illustrated the problems that we all know exist.

Several member states of the Council of Europe have in the past undertaken so-called regularisation programmes. My research shows that in the past 25 years, more than 20 regularisation programmes have been carried out within the European Union alone, providing 4 million irregular migrants with either temporary or permanent residence and work permits. A substantial regularisation programme is under way in Russia, where 1.5 million people have been regularised—600,000 are in jobs, and the other 900,000 are spouses and dependants. A range of different programmes have been tried, including exceptional humanitarian programmes, family reunification programmes, permanent or continuous programmes, one-off or one-shot programmes like the proposal of the hon. Member for Dagenham, and earned regularisation programmes. The trend is towards earned regularisation for people who have been in the country and in work for some time.

The matter is highly controversial, as the hon. Gentleman said. The arguments go both ways. Some say that regularisation in effect encourages more irregular migration. I have not found that to be the case. Spain was mentioned, and I was in Madrid in February to talk to politicians of all parties, trade unions and employers. They believe that the one-shot regularisation programme introduced two years ago, which is now coming to an end and has regularised nearly 600,000 people, has not had any impact on encouraging more irregular migration. On the contrary, the issue in Spain, which came as a surprise to me, is that although we have all seen the tragedy of the boat people arriving on Spain’s southern shore and the islands, that is a tiny fraction of the migration problem in Spain. Most of the people who come to Spain have a right to do so because they are of Spanish extraction. They come from south America on work permits or student permits, get jobs, overstay, and are therefore irregular migrants. Regularising the people who are there is completely irrelevant to that situation, in my judgment.

I am following my hon. Friend’s comments on Spain with interest. Spain has had, I think, six regularisation programmes since 1985. As in the case of Italy, year after year the number of people on those programmes has increased, from 44,000 in 1985 to 700,000 in 2005.

The reason for that is that Italy’s immigration policy is completely different to ours. In Italy, 1.4 million people have been regularised in the past 15 or 20 years, but that is the way in which it provides a route to migration and everyone knows that. We have a different policy. One has to study the facts and take the evidence, as I have done, but the idea that such an approach might be a pull factor is an argument, and one that cannot be denied. However, the push factor is the real reason for migratory flows in most of south-east Europe. One has only to look at the crisis in the Balkans to understand that. There are still some 500,000 internally displaced persons in the Balkan countries despite all that we have done with our European partners to improve the situation. One could debate the issue ad nauseam, but there is not the time to do so and I want to put the other point of view.

Some say that regularisation rewards illegality, and I understand that argument. I equally understand the concern that the longer we discuss whether or not there will be a regularisation programme, the more some people might think they should try to get into Britain so that they can become part of the amnesty. That leads me to my next point: we need to distinguish between a regularisation programme and an amnesty. None of the recent regularisation programmes has been an amnesty, which is when all irregular migrants are legalised. That is not what has happened. In Greece the regularisation programme introduced by the Conservative Government elected 18 months ago is a combination of regularising people who have earned their right to be there and have employment, many of whom came from Albania and the Balkans, and forcibly returning people who should not be there. There is a strong return policy in place. The arguments need to be balanced.

The critical issue that we must face is that, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, on the Government’s own analysis there are several hundred thousand people in this country whom there is no prospect of returning. What on earth are we going to do with and about them?

I have a lot of asylum seekers in my constituency whose applications have been refused and who will not leave the country. They are destitute, homeless and increasingly mentally ill. We cannot live with the increased number of people in that desperate condition. We must do something to sort it out.

The right hon. Lady makes her point extremely well, and in many ways I have a great deal of sympathy with what she says, but I want us to face the reality that something has to be done with these people. My report addresses the situation across the whole of Europe, and we can lessons from what I have discovered. The report recommends a process whereby we clarify the issue, particularly in European Union countries. We need more research and a proper debate about what to do, and we need to learn the lessons and ensure that whatever a member states does, it keeps other countries informed. One reason why the Spanish regularisation was so unpopular was that it did not do that. The matter can be resolved only in the form of partnership.

As the right hon. Lady said, we also need to evaluate the humanitarian issue. I cannot for the life of me see how we can balance an argument that says, “All these people shouldn’t be here. They should all be sent back. It’s all terrible,” with the fact that we cannot do that because we do not know where some of them have come from. Apart from anything else, under Council of Europe conventions we cannot forcibly return people en masse; we must deal with each person individually. In my judgment, removal is not an option other than for people who have recently arrived. The need to strengthen our borders is without doubt, and the front door to migration also needs to be examined. We must see how the points system works and whether it provides business with a sufficient number of workers. That is ongoing.

The issue is sensitive, difficult and controversial, and we know that public opinion is not generally in favour of regularisation. What do we do about that? It has to change or we cannot defeat those people who stand for the British National party, not just in the constituencies of other hon. Members here, but in mine, too, because there are BNP candidates in rural villages in Ryedale. How are we going to deal with that? The only way is to tell the truth and establish the facts, which means that we need to debate the subject and make a quick decision about what we are going to do. The longer it drags on, the worse it will get.

Above all else, we have to put humanitarian considerations at the top of our agenda. I take great comfort from what my former colleague Keith Best of the Immigration Advisory Service has said and is doing, which proves that we can deal with the problem in a humanitarian and compassionate way across the political divide. The people affected have lives and want futures, and we must do something about it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham on furthering the debate, and I am sure that there will be many opportunities to discuss the issue in greater detail in the months ahead.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on getting the debate. Following the point made by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), nobody should underestimate the large number of people who feel very strongly about the fundamental injustice that is being done to twilight communities throughout the UK. We should not necessarily measure public opinion by the screaming headlines of the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail or the Daily Express. There are an awful lot of decent people out there who take a different point of view. We should not approach the threat of the BNP like a rabbit in the headlights of car; we should tackle it head-on and say that it is leading us into a disgusting, nasty, divisive society. We must stand up for an inclusive society that recognises the rights and needs of everybody in our community, and be prepared to invest properly in it.

On Monday morning, like other colleagues, I took part in a refugee week awareness event in Islington. The council and the refugee forum produced an excellent booklet describing not the disasters or failures but the successes of migrant communities in coming into the area, promoting cultural diversity, producing new businesses, work and educational achievements and developing the strength of inner-city London an awful lot. I congratulate everyone involved in that. We should examine the positive aspects of how migrant communities have contributed and achieved so much in our society.

Without the level of migration to this country that we have had over the past 30 years, when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham said, we have had a falling birth rate, what kind of education service, science base and transport service would we now have? An awful lot of the successes of the British economy in the past 30 years have been built on people coming here and contributing massively to our economic well-being and development.

The other side of the matter is the sadness of people having to flee from oppressive regimes, some of which we supply arms to, and the tragedy of people dying in boats while trying to cross the Atlantic to get to the Canary islands, Italy or Spain. We should develop a foreign policy based much more on human rights and an ethical dimension to deal with the problems that people are trying to flee from in the first place.

I am following with interest what the hon. Gentleman says. Under the proposals for regularisation, what would he do with asylum seekers whose claims were refused?

That is a simplistic way of looking at it, but I will come to it in a second. I want to finish my point about the role that foreign policy can play and the need to have a better human rights records around the world.

The proposal deals with the exploitation of people in our inner-city communities. I used to be a union organiser before I came into Parliament, and I noticed that when people had no regularisation of their position in the UK, they hid. They did not join a union; they were frightened of getting a parking ticket if they had a car; and they were frightened of any authority or of going to the doctor. They were frightened in total. They were therefore grossly exploited. I recall going to a union recruitment meeting for clothing workers in Hackney in the early ’80s. It was a large meeting and the union officials gave good speeches about why those people, who all worked in local clothing factories, should join the union. Not one person said a word throughout the meeting. There was absolute silence—no questions, no contributions, no debate or discussion. Why? Because there were employers at the back saying pretty loudly, so that the people around them could hear, that anyone who joined the union or said anything would be reported to the Home Office. That was the ultimate in exploitation and that is the reality of life for people who have no regularisation.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said about a one-off system of regularising people who have been here for, say, four years. We can work out the details of that. Like many others in the Chamber, I have constituents who are asylum seekers. Half of my advice surgery cases involve asylum seekers who come to me, not necessarily to discuss the merits or justice of their case, but simply to get an answer from the Home Office to letters that have been unanswered—in some cases, for years. The Home Office is in an appalling mess. It cannot respond to simple correspondence and give people a degree of security. That has to be looked at.

When someone applies for asylum, they have to pass tests. Are they in legitimate and genuine fear of persecution because of political, social, religious or racial circumstances? All those issues are considered. Most asylum applicants are turned down at first, many win on appeal and many subsequently get the right to remain even though they have not necessarily been granted asylum status. The prospect of removing large numbers of people from this country simply is not on, particularly if they have been here for some years. Somebody who has been here for five years will have children and relationships, and will be contributing to the community. What will we do with them? Will we really uproot and deport them? No. We must recognise that they are here and deal with the situation accordingly.

I support the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham, and I recognise the boldness of the Churches, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Transport and General Workers Union—now Unite—and other unions and individuals who have been prepared to take up the issue. If we want to live in a decent and cohesive society, our wealth and prosperity cannot rely on people who lead a feral and twilight existence, and who are grossly exploited and subject to criminal activities, drug dealers and prostitution. All those things happen because we allow the situation to continue.

The hon. Member for Ryedale pointed out what is happening across Europe. The United States is having this debate in an atmosphere that is very different from the one here. Its politicians—not universally, but generally—are lining up to say that the USA can no longer consider itself a decent, cohesive society if it relies on the twilight existence of a large number of mainly Mexicans and central Americans to do all its dirty jobs. It is time that all the western nations woke up to the problem and recognised that if we believe in human rights, decency and citizenship, we should grant them to everybody in our society.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on obtaining this debate on what is, undoubtedly, a matter of great concern to many Members of the House. That is clear from the contributions that have been made. The debate deals with the significant suffering and exploitation that are either unnoticed by the country at large or, perhaps worse, grossly misrepresented by the media.

May I take the opportunity to join my hon. Friend and others in welcoming the Strangers into Citizens campaign? As he pointed out, the debate is not, as often portrayed, about offering an amnesty but about offering positive ways forward. It is about offering pathways to citizenship for long-term migrants, many of whom are in situations of absolute and abject hopelessness. For the most part, they have the potential to contribute in an enormously valuable way to our society, to our economy and to every aspect of our life, but, for far too many of them, the hopelessness and despair that they face is very real, and their situation must seem to them to be a tremendous waste of their lives and skills.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I see many people in such circumstances at my surgery. They despair not just over the waste and uncertainty but of any answer as to what the future might hold for them. They are unable to see any clear path for the future. I pay tribute to the many individuals and groups throughout the country who work so tirelessly and so well with those who face uncertain or hopeless situations, particularly in my constituency and in my city of Leicester. Tomorrow evening, I shall attend at Leicester cathedral a presentation on the third survey of destitute and homeless asylum seekers. The work has been undertaken by various groups in the city—faith groups in particular but many individuals as well—that are committed to working with those disadvantaged individuals and to bringing their plight and the reality of their situation to local attention. Those individuals and faith groups fill a gap that desperately needs filling, and often do so in a committed and selfless way.

We have had a well informed and thoughtful debate, and Members from all parties recognise the need to end the waste that is so much a symptom of the present situation. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond sympathetically, and that she will recognise that a positive response is required from the Government to the considerable momentum that is developing behind the Strangers into Citizens campaign. The Government must respond to the needs of those who find themselves in hopeless situations. Those people need a pathway to a positive future that will enable them to make a positive contribution to the society of which they wish to be part.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) on his contribution. This has been an interesting debate, but I have to say to him that it is not reflective of the mood of the country as a whole. I shall probably be a lone voice in this debate. I have a genuine interest in the proposals, and I hope that there will be many other opportunities to go into them in more detail.

We all agree that there is a huge problem in this country with illegal immigration, but I am afraid that it is largely of the Government’s making. The Home Office and Foreign Office procedures for visas are in complete and utter chaos, and all of us, week in and week out, receive letters, e-mails and phone calls from constituents who have not received the replies that they deserve to their applications. The problem has become far worse in the past 10 years. Regardless of someone’s political persuasion, if they look at the matter objectively, they would have to admit that the way in which applications are processed is completely incompetent, and it seems to be getting worse and worse.

The public are angry about the level of immigration in this country. We now have an unprecedented wave of both legal and illegal immigration, and, as far as most people are concerned, they have not been asked for their view on it at all. I quote from an opinion poll carried out in January by YouGov. To the statement,

“There must be an annual limit to the number of immigrants allowed to come to Britain”,

83 per cent. agreed or strongly agreed. To the statement, “Britain is already overcrowded”, 76 per cent. agreed. To the statement,

“Anyone admitted to Britain for settlement should first have to pass an English language test”,

78 per cent. agreed. On the statement,

“Immigrants are of economic benefit to Britain”,

the jury was split: 31 per cent. agreed or strongly agreed, and 32 per cent. disagreed or strongly disagreed. As a political class, we have a very real problem with the issue. There are not many of us here for this debate, yet this is one of the big issues in the country. We need to have a major debate on the Floor of the House to flesh out the question in far more detail.

I start as is customary and with genuine sentiment, by congratulating the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate and on taking a sustained interest in this important topic, despite the distraction of his potential elevation on Sunday and his other duties. It has been an interesting debate and I welcome all the contributions that have been made, including the brief contribution of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). It is important that we should not allow the debate to become lop-sided, as it should reflect the variety of opinions that I hear in my constituency and across the country. It would not serve us well if all opinions were not given an airing and considered when discussing such important topics.

I say this with genuine sentiment: it is a difficult area for the Home Office and I have some sympathy with the Minister. In a written answer on 23 January, the Minister for Immigration and Asylum said

“An estimate of irregular migrants working in the UK is not available. No Government of the UK have been able to say with accuracy how many irregular migrants are present in the country, and this is the case for any Government in the world.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1698W.]

We are dealing with an amorphous issue and its precise scope is hard to define. The breadth of views should be borne in mind, as it is not the case that the arguments point emphatically one way or the other. I will spend the next five or 10 minutes discussing what considerations the Home Office needs to bear in mind when examining the issue in greater detail.

A plus side of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Dagenham is that, in this country, some people have double standards. Many people who are illegal migrants, particularly in big cities such as London, do jobs that many people who have lived in this country for much longer are not willing to do. We take their contribution for granted. They are often employed, for example, as office cleaners. I have no absolute proof that people who clean offices in London are illegal migrants, but I would be surprised if a large number of people who clean offices did not fall into that category. They turn up early in the morning before most people go to work and make the offices look smart and presentable. Employers in those offices, who no doubt earn considerably more money than those cleaners, take that service for granted. It would not be practical to do so, but for the purposes of illustrating my point, if those illegal migrants were pulled out tomorrow en masse and in one go, many people who had taken the work of illegal migrants for granted would suddenly notice that their lives became more difficult in practical terms. We would also have severe labour shortages.

The two factors that drive people to migrate and create an economic global dynamic were mentioned at the outset of the debate. In western Europe, we have had more than 15 years of continuous economic growth, and there is a low birth rate among the long-standing indigenous population. Both those factors create labour shortages and put pressures on the economy, particularly in low-skilled, low-paid jobs at the bottom of the labour market. The Government’s administration of the migration system is far from perfect, but they are working against a bigger backdrop of global economic factors that go beyond the immediate scope of any particular Government. That feeds into the wider debate: for example, many people who work in my constituency and are not United Kingdom citizens come from eastern Europe, particularly the new accession countries such as Poland. They fall into a different category from the people whom we are discussing but, none the less, they fill labour shortages in agriculture, fruit-picking, slaughter houses and other such jobs. They do not directly take work from people who have lived in the community for a long time but fill labour shortages that employers would otherwise be unable to fill.

The second point to be entered on that side of the ledger concerns practicalities. Last year, the think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, estimated that the cost of forced deportation, if we wished to go down that path, would be £4.7 billion. It is fair to say that that is an extremely unlikely, if not impossible, course of action for the Government, given the practicalities and the cost. We are therefore in a strange situation: an unsatisfactory state of affairs that has left a large number of people in a state of limbo is official Government policy by default because no alternative proposals are practical or financially viable. In its report, the IPPR states that regularising the work status of people who are illegal immigrants could annually

“net the Treasury £1 billion.”

We could have a debate about that and dispute the accuracy of the IPPR figures, but there is an economic consideration to be borne in mind.

As mentioned by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), while we should bear in mind the fact that many illegal immigrants have chosen to be here, regardless of their immigration status, we should feel uncomfortable about the way in which they are routinely exploited. I have mentioned some of the reasons why the current situation is hard to sustain and some of the perfectly sensible factors, economic and otherwise, that are driving the phenomenon. It is worth looking at the other side of the ledger in my remaining few minutes. The economy and the declining birth rate are significant factors that have helped to drive illegal immigration. However, if one accepts that that is the case, one cannot argue that if the status of all illegal immigrants was legalised it would solve the problem. Economic factors and pressures on the birth rate would presumably drive another generation or successive numbers of illegal immigrants to fill labour shortages created by ongoing periods of economic growth, greater transport mobility and other factors that are hard for a single Government to control.

We must consider the need for proper border forces, proper entry and exit checks, proper surveillance at ports and other factors. People shy away from the word amnesty, but if the current status of illegal immigrants was legalised, the Government might say that it was a one-off decision that would not be repeated in future. However, people who have come here as illegal immigrants might reach the entirely rational conclusion that although that was what was previously said, the Government could change their mind and there is no reason why they would not do so in the future. Of course any Government would say that such a decision was a one-off. They would not say, “Well, we’re doing this now and we will probably do it again in future”. People who came here would be making not only a rational economic decision, but a rational citizenship decision, as they might think that when the Government said they were going to do it only once, they did not mean it as they had no choice but to give that impression.

People may be concerned, too, that legalising the status of illegal immigrants would be an award for illegal behaviour. Some individuals might have wished to come to the United Kingdom to live and work and become a citizen, but were deterred from doing so because they did not wish to undertake an illegal activity. It might be considered unfair that those who sought to avoid doing anything illegal should be penalised while people who made a different decision would not be penalised. People who have lived in this country for a long time might be unhappy about the pressure on services as a result of giving legal status to people whose immigration status is currently illegal. In conclusion, we all agree about the malign effects of the British National party. I feel as strongly about that as anybody, but the debate is nuanced. There are reasons why the Home Office could go down the path advocated by the hon. Member for Dagenham, but I can see that there are serious considerations that the Minister and others must bear in mind. However, today’s debate is a good starting point for reaching those conclusions.

Like everyone else, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate. I imagine that we are far enough through the process of his other endeavours for the last votes to be in the post by now, and I hope that I can wish him well without causing him undue damage.

The hon. Gentleman made a powerful case and, indeed, I have been lobbied, as, I am sure, the Minister has, by the Strangers into Citizens campaign. It makes a plausible case, articulately put. As we have heard, it has attracted support from both sides of the House and from a number of people outside.

It is particularly useful that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and his committee in the Council of Europe will produce its report shortly, because clearly it is important to put the debate in a global context. We all know that the economic forces of globalisation and the increasing ease of travel between many parts of the world are leading to a worldwide increase in migration, both legal and illegal, and it is clear that any sensible Government policy will have to be put in that context. Equally, however, the case advanced by the hon. Gentleman has its opponents in all parties. I was struck when first I heard him advocate his case publicly on a “Newsnight” debate between the deputy leadership candidates. They were split themselves, and some of his colleagues spoke against his idea.

We have all had hard cases arrive at our constituency surgeries. I shall provide a vivid example of how this issue—not the point about regularisation or an amnesty in particular, but immigration generally—is rising up the agenda. In my constituency, which is a semi-urban, semi-rural one in east Kent, I recently held a surgery at which every case was about immigration. It was the first time that one issue had dominated an entire surgery completely. One might think that that could happen in some of our inner cities, but I was surprised that it happened in a constituency such as mine.

On the issues that have arisen, hon. Members said that we need to have the debate on a factual and honest basis. In that regard, I am slightly dubious about the number of them who simply said, “This is not an amnesty. We must not call this an amnesty.” Actually, it is an amnesty. Let us be honest! That is the proposal. The debate would be held at a higher level if we based it not only on the numbers involved, but on what we are calling for.

We need also to look at the context, which has been referred to several times. That context is the very large number of people in this country who have no right to be here. Inevitably, it is impossible to guess the exact number. Ministers have put a figure on it of something like 500,000—a slightly dubious figure based on an American technique of sampling from some years ago. I suspect that the figure is much higher than that. We must also ask ourselves, “Who are these people and why are they here?” Some of them have come here perfectly legitimately, but have simply overstayed, which will have been a rational and conscious decision. They will have decided to put themselves outside the legal process by doing that. My guess is that they will constitute the largest number.

Some will have been smuggled here illegally, but others—this group has been referred to already—will have come here, claimed asylum, often in the late 1990s and early years of this century, but still not have had their cases registered. It is impossible not to have a huge amount of sympathy for the latter group. We all know that that is appalling, not just because of the inadequacy of the Home Office response, but because of the human effects. There will be children in this country getting on for eight, nine, 10 or 11 who have never known another country, but who have no legal status in this one. Surely that is unacceptable.

Many of the adults will be exploited. I was struck by some of the evidence given by trade unions to the Public Bill Committee on the UK Borders Bill about the fact that groups of Portuguese workers in this country are claiming to be Brazilian so that they can take jobs illegally, and the only jobs available to them will be at wages below the minimum wage. They know that no unscrupulous employer will employ them if they are Portuguese because they will then have rights. Therefore, they pretend to be here illegally when actually they are here legally. Clearly that is unsatisfactory. I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that the Opposition supported the Government through the passage of the UK Borders Bill to tighten up regulations against unscrupulous employers.

We have heard many of the arguments for the amnesty and the financial argument put by the IPPR, which are plausible, but perhaps not overwhelmingly so. We heard about the need to stop people being exploited, with which of course we all agree. We heard also the argument that we must try to stop the rise of the extreme right. Again, everyone here approves of that. The question is whether this particular measure would help in any or all of those endeavours. In parenthesis, when discussing such issues, we must mind our language. I say gently to the Minister that she could have a word with some of her fellow Ministers, particularly the Minister for Industry and the Regions, who in recent weeks has not shown great care in her language and might have contributed to the inflammatory nature of some of the debate.

I shall get to the nub of the counter-arguments. The claim is that the proposal would be a one-off amnesty. I agree with the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) that that is, of course, what any Government would say, and it has been said by other Governments. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) rightly mentioned the cases of Spain and Italy. Spain has had five amnesties and Italy has had six. France and Belgium have had two each. It would be entirely rational for anyone to think that if an amnesty comes once, that country has crossed a line and will grant amnesties in the future.

Although that would have a beneficial effect on those already here, of whom there are many, we must consider the effect on those not yet here, but who might be considering coming. We are not talking only about those who might be oppressed or wish to better themselves economically by moving to western Europe. We must think also about people traffickers, who are some of the nastiest and most evil criminals in the world. They wish to “help” those who desire to come here. We have all seen pictures of those small boats either coming across the Mediterranean or going across the Atlantic to the Canary islands. What we do not see are the tragedies of those boats that do not get there and the many hundreds, possibly thousands, killed in such endeavours.

If this country took a public policy step that made it easier for people traffickers to persuade some of the most wretched and poorest people in the world that it is worth their while taking a boat across the Mediterranean or Atlantic, we would be doing something immoral and foolish. That is one of the factors that we need to consider. I have heard the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale about the Spanish case and how it does not act as a pull factor, but I shall wait to see the report in full before deciding whether that is the case.

It is clear that we need much better control of our borders. That is why Conservative Members advocate a specialist border police force. Clearly, if we have open borders, the argument that we are having in this debate is irrelevant, because many more people will come here illegally. A final point of detail is the point made by Keith Best that we can consider an amnesty more sensibly when the e-borders system is in operation. Unfortunately, it will not be fully operational until 2014—a long way in the future.

I agree that this is a difficult argument, because everyone wants to do the morally right thing, but acting morally does not mean that we should necessarily suspend our intellectual faculties. If the second-order effects of the proposal would be to encourage more illegal migration across the world, we could do more harm than good, so I am not convinced by the argument but, like everyone else, I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Dagenham for raising this important issue.

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate. It is on an important subject and one that is very important to our constituents. Whether we can reach consensus on the way forward or not, it is crucial that we debate these issues.

I associate myself with the remarks made by many hon. Members in entirely rejecting the extremism of the British National party and any who align themselves with its views. That is linked to why I think that it is so important that we debate the issues. If we do not address people’s concerns and we leave a vacuum, and if we are not honest about debating the subject, that will open the door to people feeling that perhaps the only groups that are addressing their concerns are those such as the BNP, so it is our responsibility to discuss these things. Even if we do not reach consensus, I accept that everybody who has taken part in the debate has shown genuine care and concern about the problems and finding a way forward.

That said, I reject what the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said about my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions. I do not see her remarks as inflammatory. They were in the context of being honest and open in the debate and reflecting the concerns of her constituents in an open and honest way. She has the right to do just that. If we categorise those remarks, which were about something that concern her constituents—housing—as inflammatory, we are doing the BNP’s work for it by closing down our ability to address our constituents’ concerns honestly. Whether or not people agree with her conclusions, she has the right, and was right, to make those remarks.

My own view is that a fundamental British value—a value that really characterises British people—is fairness and the belief in fairness. Immigration and asylum issues go to the heart of our society. Our approach to those issues must reflect our values and therefore must be a fair approach, and our constituents must believe that we are dealing with the issues fairly. In addition, I see no point in having asylum and immigration legislation if we do not implement it.

For the Government, an effective and managed immigration system is fundamental to the interests of the United Kingdom. Migration has provided an economic gain for this society, as well as bringing diversity to us. I make no bones about the fact that controlled legal migration is critical for our security and our social and economic well-being.

I shall set out clearly the Government’s position on the proposal by the Strangers into Citizens campaign for a new pathway from illegal status through a work permit stage to settlement, as that was the crux of the argument advanced by my hon. Friend. I accept that there are other similar models. I need to be very straight with him. He would expect nothing less, and I do appreciate the way in which he put his arguments. However, for the following reasons, the Government do not accept that the proposed pathway to regularisation is either necessary or appropriate. Incidentally, I have some sympathy with the question asked by the hon. Gentleman: when is regularisation regularisation and when is it an amnesty? Even if it is partial and it depends on people having been here for a certain number of years illegally or whatever, it is still a partial amnesty, so I do not draw a particular distinction between those two terms.

The first reason for not accepting the proposal is that there is no legitimate argument that our labour market needs to be supplemented by regularising people from the illegal population. Our existing immigration rules provide clear and fair routes for people to come to the UK for employment and settlement, and they fully meet our needs. We are committed to a system of managed migration to ensure that economic migration routes are available to admit people selectively to maximise the economic benefit to the UK and are responsive to labour markets, skill needs and the interests of the UK.

In addition to the work force available as a result of freedom of movement within the EU, the introduction of the new points-based system will open up legal migration routes. Those who want to apply to come to work in the UK can do so on the basis of informed choice and with access to the rights and freedoms available to other workers. The points-based system will be further supported by increasing resources to increase enforcement capacity. To create a new route to regularisation for people here illegally would disrupt the transition arrangements for EU accession nationals.

Secondly, I simply do not accept the contention that the proposal would have a neutral impact on uncontrolled economic migration to the UK. Many hon. Members addressed that. It would send a message across the world that the UK legitimises illegal migrants. In effect, we would be throwing aside our immigration controls and ignoring our rules and managed systems. I do not think that that would strike anybody as fair. If we do it once, that will create a very real expectation that we will do it again—the rubicon will have been crossed.

I am aware that we have had amnesties in the past under previous Administrations. There is no evidence that that has resolved the problem, and hon. Members are again asking for regularisation. If one-off regularisations or amnesties worked, Spain would not have had five, Italy would not have had six and Belgium and France would not have had two. We have had the same situation and there is still a call for regularisation.

The figure of 500,000 was mentioned. We have been very honest about the fact that there is a backlog. The 500,000 relates to the number of cases. It could be lower than that, because people die, return home, or go through the system in another way and get the right to remain through a different route. The 500,000 figure refers to cases as opposed to individuals, and we have already started dealing with that backlog, which is a very good thing. It is important that it is being dealt with.

Hon. Members will know that we are now dealing with initial claims for asylum within two months and we are seeking to complete claims within six. They will also know that we have the lowest level of asylum applications since 1993. We have hugely speeded up the system, which is important, and made it much more efficient. We have tightened up our borders. We have sent the right messages and we have therefore reduced the pull factor. The other side of the argument is that by increasing enforcement and bearing down on those who knowingly and deliberately employ illegal migrants, we cause harm to those migrants and put them at risk. I accept the arguments—

Lending to Developing Nations

There has been much talk over the past few weeks about the Prime Minister’s legacy from the past 10 years. With great justification, it can be claimed that the triumphs of the Prime Minister’s premiership, which benefit millions of people, include championing debt relief to the world’s poorest nations, winning what was at times a difficult battle to persuade the international community of the merits of debt relief and securing the multilateral debt relief initiative at Gleneagles, which, along with the existing heavily indebted poor countries initiative, has now cancelled the multilateral debts of 24 nations. As chair of the all-party group on debt, aid and trade, I, like many other colleagues in the House, welcome the Government’s strong commitment to debt cancellation, which builds on the considerable public and parliamentary pressure for progress that we have seen over the past 10 years.

Debt cancellation has been a successful element in the fight against global poverty and economic injustice. For example, an independent study in 2001 found that 10 African countries that had received debt relief through the HIPC initiative had increased spending on health care by 70 per cent. and spending on education by 40 per cent. in just four years. Meanwhile, military spending had remained static. An IMF working paper from 2006 found that reducing debt service for low-income countries had a significant impact on social spending. However, a number of concerns have been raised over recent months about progress on debt relief and particularly about prior debts and new lending. I therefore want to take this opportunity to raise those issues with my hon. Friend the Minister and to seek his assurances on a number of points.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the court judgment that was handed down in London in February in respect of a claim against Zambia by the US company Donegal International, which is owned by Michael Sheehan. The claim related to debts that that impoverished southern African nation incurred more than a decade ago, mainly as a result of buying agricultural machinery from Romania during the cold war. In 1999, Donegal bought the Zambian debt, which had a face value of about $40 million, from Romania for less than $4 million. Appropriately, companies such as Donegal are known as vulture funds because they seek to make a profit by buying up bad debt cheaply and then trying to recover the full amount, often by suing through the courts.

In this case, the courts were critical of the evidence provided by Donegal, but nevertheless found that there was a valid contract and awarded the company a reduced amount of about $15 million. This year, Zambia expects to save $40 million in debt relief through HIPC and other initiatives, but paying Donegal International $15 million will severely limit the impact of that relief. The people who will suffer will be the very poorest, who will be denied basic health and education services in a country where the average life expectancy is a shockingly low 34 years—less than the age of myself and my hon. Friend.

It is hard to know the full extent of such lawsuits because companies do not publicise their actions. As a recent report about the case on the BBC’s “Newsnight” showed, these people work in the shadows and do not welcome the light of publicity. However, the Jubilee debt campaign in the UK has identified at least 40 lawsuits, many of which are still outstanding, that commercial creditors have brought against heavily indebted poor countries which had reached decision point by September 2006. The debts known to be subject to litigation in those cases amount to a staggering $1.9 billion—more than the approximately $1.5 billion in commercial debt that those countries expect to be cancelled.

As I am sure my hon. Friend accepts, public and creditor confidence in debt cancellation rests on the understanding that the resources that are released will be used for poverty reduction, not to pay large sums to commercial creditors who seek to make substantial profits from some of the poorest countries in the world. The Chancellor has been openly critical of the operations of vulture funds—with reason—but it is essential that such criticism is matched by distinct action to combat the problem so that we can assure the thousands of people, including constituents, who have called for debt relief that it will continue to reach those most in need.

The Government are already providing legal advice to debtor countries to allow them properly to defend any court action, and that is welcome, but it is vital that such advice is available at the earliest opportunity. In the Zambian case, the negotiations with Donegal International took place over three years, and the Zambian Government probably made some mistakes in the early part of the negotiations in acknowledging the debt. Perhaps my hon. Friend can advise me, therefore, whether any thought has been given to setting up a rapid-response legal-technical facility that is independent of the Bretton Woods institutions and which can help low-income countries to pre-empt and avoid such lawsuits.

I urge the Government and other donor Governments to consider introducing legislation that requires the creditors of sovereign debtors to participate in collective action, whereby all creditors must provide comparable terms in respect of any rescheduling or relief that has been agreed by a majority of the creditors. That would be similar to the regulatory principles that already apply to individual debtors in the UK, which require all creditors, for example, to abide by any debt relief plan that is agreed by creditors representing 75 per cent. of the value of the debts. In addition, many potential law suits will be based on UK contract law, and I urge the Government to introduce legislation similar to that in the USA prohibiting the purchase of debts solely for purpose of litigation.

I would also be grateful if my hon. Friend indicated whether creditors have given consideration to refinancing the debt reduction facility—a fund based at the World Bank that allows International Development Association-only countries to repurchase commercial debt at a substantial discount. That would allow us to extend the facility to HIPC-eligible nations that have not yet reached decision point and ensure that it covers other categories of debt, such as debts owed to other low-income country creditors.

In the longer term, we all need to recognise that there are still unresolved issues from the current debt crisis, and if we do not tackle them properly, they could re-emerge to create a new crisis as new lending increases. In addition, many of the poorest nations possess considerable natural resources, which are increasingly attracting interest from a wide range of foreign investors. However, worries are building up that much of that investment will fail to benefit the poorest citizens unless it is properly regulated and the benefits are targeted at development.

Some have argued that vulture funds simply do what markets do best and that they are just another financial instrument providing a service to those who want to sell off unpaid bonds or securities and minimise their risk. That may be so, but an unregulated market will not protect the weakest, and such practices will certainly not benefit those who struggle to live on less than $1 a day.

One way to tackle such problems is to support and press for the development of, a just, independent, transparent and comprehensive system for working out international debt, perhaps through an international law on sovereign debt. Such a system would take account of the origins of debts, as well as of their current impact and sustainability, while placing the same moral and legal obligations on companies as it did on Governments. Anne Krueger, the former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has called for reforms based on principles common to corporate bankruptcy laws so that countries can be given legal protection from creditors and allowed time to negotiate proper restructuring.

Central to such issues is instilling the concept of responsible creditor and lender behaviour. Consideration of creditors’ shared responsibility for the creation of debts will help to indicate the principles that should govern new lending and the behaviour of existing creditors, as well as the proper extent to which outstanding debts should be cancelled. Responsible lending to sovereign borrowers, which should also take into account the granting of export credit guarantees, requires respect for the principles of public accountability, transparency and co-responsibility. To achieve that, lenders should reassure themselves that the borrowing Government are legitimate and accountable to their people in respect of the contracting and use of the loan, and clearly defined checks and balances, such as compulsory parliamentary scrutiny, should be in place. Both lender and borrower should be encouraged to report fully and transparently, ensuring public access to the amounts, terms, purposes, use and repayment of loans.

The lenders should assure themselves that the loan or credit is not for a clearly illegitimate purpose, such as for the purchase of arms to be used against civilian populations. Any loans to finance projects should require conformity to the relevant international labour, environmental and other standards, and be conditional on satisfactory impact assessments on social needs and environmental aspects.

It is welcome news that the G8 Finance Ministers have recently announced their intention to support the development of a charter of responsible lending. However, as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, it will require further work to ensure that any high-level voluntary charter is given substance and force through the adoption of detailed guidelines by multilateral, bilateral and commercial lenders. I believe that the UK and other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Governments can take a lead and show their intention that they expect the charter to be the industry standard, by making ratification of such a charter a condition of eligibility for an export credit guarantee. I hope that my hon. Friend can give me some reassurance about the Treasury’s intentions for progressing with such a charter.

Finally, there needs to be acceptance by creditors of their shared responsibility for some of the old debts that are still being serviced by low and lower-middle income countries, at the expense of spending on essential services. Many of those debts arose from the self-interested or irresponsible decisions of the creditors in relation to oppressive former regimes; for purposes that would not benefit the people of the recipient country; on extortionate terms; or for projects that failed because of bad lender advice.

The HIPC initiative could be interpreted as an acceptance, to some extent, of the unsustainability of some debts, but there has still been no systematic attempt to investigate how those problems arose and what steps should be taken to prevent similar problems in the future. I encourage the Treasury, following the recent example of the Norwegian Government, to initiate a system of debt audits, particularly for loans that are still being repaid to this country by Kenya and Indonesia, and to consider whether cancellation is warranted where the UK has been responsible in the past for poor or harmful lending—so-called odious debts.

I am the first to acknowledge that the issue is very complex and that changes will never be easy; but then neither were the debt cancellation deals that the Government have fought so hard for over the past decade. Our constituents rightly demand that our aid commitments reach the world’s poorest, and the Government need to tackle the problems with action as well as words. I hope that my hon. Friend can today provide us with some reassurance on those points.

It is an honour to serve—for the first time, I think—under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) both on securing today’s debate, on such an important and topical subject, and on her commitment to the cause of social justice around the world and her work in driving forward progress by Governments on the millennium development goals. It is because of the campaigning work of my hon. Friend and other parliamentary colleagues, and campaigners in her constituency and throughout the country, that we can make progress on many of these issues in international discussions. I commend her for all of the effort that she has made.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the progress that we have made on debt relief and on securing not only the millennium development goals but a substantial increase in the global resources devoted to tackling the issues in question is one of the great achievements of the past 10 years. Together, the work that we have done on multilateral debt relief and for heavily indebted poor countries will, over time, reduce the debt burden of the world’s poorest countries by some $110 billion, allowing the savings from debt relief to fund country-owned strategies for poverty reduction. That has been a very important part of the wider leadership shown by the UK—through both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—in taking such matters forward in international discussions, so I agree with my hon. Friend’s starting point.

My hon. Friend is also right that it is important to ensure that debt relief should help recipient countries to increase poverty-reducing spending in such areas as health, education and rural agriculture. As a group, the HIPCs have made great improvements in sanitation, child mortality rates, gender equality, the encouragement of primary education and environmental sustainability. Those are the positive benefits that flow, in pursuit of the millennium development goals, from the debt relief that my hon. Friend rightly highlights.

We need to remain vigilant, because of both the progress that we have made and the dangers identified by my hon. Friend. If we are to continue to tackle poverty and to ensure that the full benefits of debt relief will be realised, we need to continue with several actions. We need to ensure full implementation and financing of the HIPC and multilateral debt relief initiatives, with all countries delivering on their commitments; we need to see to it that HIPCs and other countries that receive debt relief ensure that the savings from debt relief are spent well, for poverty reduction; and we need, together, to ensure that new borrowing is appropriately concessional, well targeted and used for productive purposes, so that countries can achieve their development goals without running into new debt problems in the future. The UK is, in particular, committed to tackling the threat, described by my hon. Friend, posed by so-called vulture funds. They threaten to divert the benefit of debt relief away from those for whom it was intended and who need it most.

Recent events have highlighted the problem of so-called vulture funds, companies that buy debt from heavily indebted poor countries at a discount and seek to enforce the debt in full after debt relief has increased the countries’ ability to pay. Those companies seek to profit from the world’s most vulnerable countries, diverting much needed resources away from the fight against poverty. In doing so, they threaten to undermine the efforts that the international community has made to ensure that those countries receive debt relief under the relevant initiatives.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is important to emphasise the scale of the problem. A study published in August 2006 by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund noted that a growing number of commercial creditors and distressed debt funds are engaging in litigation against HIPCs. The last survey of participation in the HIPC initiative found that 11 of the 24 post-decision point respondent countries had been targeted with law suits by 44 litigating creditors. The total reported claims under litigation amount to about £2 billion, including principal, arrears, interest and penalties. The total claims were about 22 per cent. higher than total HIPC debt relief to be provided by commercial creditors, and for some countries they are very large relative to gross domestic product, so my hon. Friend is right to emphasise the scale of the potential threat.

My hon. Friend set out the case of Zambia, against whose Government a vulture fund brought a case in the UK High Court in 2007. We congratulate the Government of Zambia on the strong defence that they mounted in their recent legal case. It was the first defence in a case of the kind that has ever been even partially successful. The claim by the vulture fund, Donegal, was for $55 million in respect of Zambian debt that it had purchased from the Government of Romania. The judge ruled that Zambia should pay only $15.5 million, plus £600,000 of defence legal costs. That was a partial but important success, and its impact will be felt across the world. Vulture funds cannot continue to expect to profit from the world’s poorest countries. We are determined to limit the damage that vulture funds cause.

We are working to tackle the problem in two ways: first, by preventing vulture funds from being able to buy and aggressively pursue debts in the first place, and secondly by limiting the damage done by cases that are already under way. To prevent the problem, we are working with the World Bank to help poor countries to buy off their commercial debts at the earliest possible opportunity. Under those deals, for which the UK and others provide funding, countries buy off their debts at a huge discount. The debts are then gone forever and the matter cannot be taken to court. More than $8 billion worth of debts have already been cancelled in that way, and we are working to make the system more effective. As I have highlighted, however, in some cases, debts are already in the hands of vulture funds, so we are working with the African Development Bank and others to ensure that countries have access to the best possible legal support to fight those cases. For example, the strong defence that Zambia recently put up reduced its costs by $40 million.

We are also working with countries to improve their debt management and to develop a charter on responsible lending to reduce the risk of debts being sold to vulture funds. The details of those measures were set out in a written statement to the House on 10 May. I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that that statement makes it clear that we support proposals at the African Development Bank to develop a legal assistance facility to help countries that are facing legal action to gain access to technical and legal support.

We continue to raise this issue in international forums. When the Chancellor raised the problem at the meeting of G8 Finance Ministers on 18 May, G8 Ministers expressed concerns about the actions of some litigating creditors against heavily indebted poor countries, and agreed to work together to identify measures to tackle the problem, based on the work of the Paris Club. We continue to work with our international partners on that, and I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that that is very much a priority for us.

My hon. Friend raised several other issues on which we must keep moving forward. We must ensure that future lending is more responsible. The experience of the past 20 years has shown how damaging excessive debt burdens can be. A number of studies have concluded that developing countries with high debt ratios have suffered lower growth rates—possibly as much as a percentage point of gross domestic product per year, which might sound like a small amount, but is huge. That problem is a result of the debt overhang problem, whereby private investors are deterred from making growth-enhancing investments because of concerns that future profits will be taxed away to pay for debt service.

Our debt relief efforts are freeing money to support poverty reduction strategies, and have introduced significant headroom for new borrowing. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is essential that we work together to ensure that new borrowing works to support development. Appropriate concessional lending can fill a market gap and help to establish a track record of good debt management, which is essential to creditworthiness. Excess or inappropriate borrowing puts that process into reverse, and can take former HIPCs back into the problems from which we have helped them to escape. That is why we must be responsible about future lending. It is right that the international community should consider carefully the issues that my hon. Friend has raised.

Partnership lies at the heart of our work on debt sustainability and responsible lending. Both creditors and borrowing countries must share the responsibility of ensuring than any new lending is appropriately concessional and is used for productive purposes.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the banking community in the UK about the charter and whether it is prepared to adopt it as part of its future lending criteria?

May I provide a little more context before coming to that point? We believe that Governments should work together to improve co-ordination and transparency, take account of debt sustainability when making decisions on lending, and ensure that their lending supports economic development and good governance. We also believe that all new lending to low-income countries should take account of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund debt sustainability framework, should be appropriately concessional and targeted, should be used for productive purposes, and should be in line with the economic and development priorities set out in IMF-World Bank programmes. When G7 Finance Ministers met in February, they highlighted the importance of developing a charter on responsible lending. Our intention is that that charter should highlight the role that all Governments must play to ensure that their lending to low-income countries is sustainable, and we are keen to ensure that a wide range of countries sign up to those principles.

We hope to build on all that by working with leading commercial creditors on having their own voluntary charter for lending to low-income countries. I have raised that issue informally in my discussions with the London banking community, and I shall continue to do so in the coming months, as well as starting formal discussions of those issues. It is important that we focus not only on Government responsibility and lending, but commercial creditor responsibility, so we are keen that a voluntary charter should be drawn up. I am happy to keep my hon. Friend informed about those discussions as we formalise them and take them forward.

As part of our commitment to debt sustainability, the UK has supported the development of the debt sustainability framework by the World Bank and the IMF, which is an important tool that debtors and creditors can use to inform their lending decisions. The framework has a key role to play in preserving and supporting debt sustainability. The commitment to ensure that all lending is guided by and fully consistent with the framework should underpin work on the charter for responsible lending and the voluntary charter for commercial creditors, which I have mentioned.

My hon. Friend also asked about export credit agencies. I am pleased to report that the UK has led a successful international initiative to regulate lending to developing countries. By way of background, it is important to note that Government-sponsored export credit agencies have played a significant and important role in lending to developing nations. Those agencies help domestic companies to export goods and services, including to developing countries, by providing insurance and guarantees to protect exporters from non-payment and political risks. However, loans from export credit agencies have added to the external debt problems of developing countries in the past. Before the recent debt relief programmes, 30 to 40 per cent. of developing countries’ debt was owed to ECAs, but most of that debt has been forgiven, thanks to the large-scale debt relief provided under our debt relief initiatives.

New borrowing can play an important role in meeting the millennium development goals, but it needs to be properly managed, especially on commercial terms. To avoid a repeat of the “lend and forgive” cycle, the UK has been leading international efforts on responsible lending by ECAs. The Treasury has been working in an effective partnership with the Department for International Development and our Export Credits Guarantee Department, as well as working through the EU and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to establish a framework for ECA-supported lending to the countries that are most at risk of debt distress. Those countries include HIPCs and countries for which the International Development Association will give only grants, not loans—the so-called IDA-only countries.

The UK’s Export Credits Guarantee Department has always operated to higher standards than those in many other countries when assessing the suitability of supporting exports to poor countries. For example, any requests for ECGD support for projects in HIPC and IDA-only countries have to be approved by both DFID and the Treasury. DFID assesses those requests against several criteria to check whether the lending is affordable and whether the project will add to the social and economic well-being of the country.

One reason why the UK sought certain changes to the OECD statement of principles was to bring the world up to our high standards. There is an OECD statement of principles on unproductive expenditure, which governs ECA-supported lending to poor countries. We are working closely with the IMF, the World Bank, and Finance Ministries of the Netherlands, Sweden and Italy to promote an extension of the OECD statement to all low-income countries, as well as taking various other steps to make lending more responsible.

Positive steps were taken at the OECD export credit group meeting in April 2007. The meeting agreed two key developments, the first of which was to extend the scope of the OECD statement of principles beyond HIPCs to cover all IDA-only countries, in line with the policy of the UK’s ECGD. As a result, at least 26 more countries will be covered by the agreement, including Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Kenya, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Vietnam.

The second key development was a move to improve information sharing with the IMF-World Bank on the volume and terms of ECAs’ new financial commitments. That will allow the IMF-World Bank to cross-check data that they receive from borrowing countries and thereby ensure that there is debt sustainability. The agreement will help the OECD’s efforts to encourage new, emerging lenders to improve data sharing and reporting. The IMF and World Bank have also announced that they will set up dedicated electronic mailboxes to respond to questions from ECAs on certain issues.

We have made good progress, but we will not stop there. We are working with international institutions and other countries to develop the initiative by making proposals at the next OECD export credit group meeting in November. We will propose further enhancements to the OECD statement of principles to give clearer guidance. Those important steps show that we are taking forward the agenda, which my hon. Friend rightly says is important.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Gypsies and Travellers (Hertfordshire)

In debates earlier this year, I drew the Minister’s attention to our concern about regional housing allocation in Hertfordshire. I can honestly say that I am against unsustainable, inappropriate or unjustifiable development, whatever its purpose. As she knows, I have major concerns about the proposed additional Gypsy and Traveller pitch allocation for my constituency and for Hertfordshire as a whole. I have sent her the figures for Hertfordshire so that she can give us a detailed response.

This Government have attempted to tackle Gypsy and Traveller site provision through the circular on planning for Gypsy and Traveller caravan sites, which tries to address health and education outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers by proposing a large increase in site provision. It asserts:

“Gypsies and Travellers are believed to experience the worst health and education status of any disadvantaged group in England. Research has…confirmed the link between the lack of good quality sites for Gypsies and Travellers and poor health and education.”

That situation has resulted in the East of England regional assembly—EERA—conducting a skewed consultation in an effort to deliver the Government’s objectives. I shall not become distracted, but it is worth noting that only the Conservative party has pledged to scrap these undemocratic regional assemblies. They are the instrument of the Government and are fully endorsed by the Liberal Democrats.

The new planning policy issued by the Government in 2006 said that one of the main intentions was

“to create and support sustainable, respectful, and inclusive communities where gypsies and travellers have fair access to suitable accommodation…where there is mutual respect and consideration between all communities for the rights and responsibilities of each community and individual.”

Another aim was

“to increase significantly the number of gypsy and traveller sites in appropriate locations”

I want to set out for the Minister why we in St. Albans believe that the whole community, both settled and travelling, is disadvantaged by that consultation, which was undertaken to achieve, via our regional assembly, the Government’s aims. Rather than having a key role in the consultation process, we in St. Albans, are being dictated to. That will do little to improve community relationships and could have a destabilising effect on relationships with our Traveller communities. In the EERA consultation, our current pitch provision was not acknowledged in the calculation process. Does the Minister agree that that is not acceptable? We would argue that the flawed consultation in which we have been asked to participate would require us to over-provide pitches via EERA. It has determined an unfair allocation of new and additional pitches in the St. Albans district. I wish to make it clear that no one wants to discriminate against a minority group. However, it is only fair that all those who live in a community should abide by its laws and regulations, otherwise it is the majority who are discriminated against. We need to have recognised, well-supported, authorised sites and we need to clamp down hard on costly and often unsightly incursions into fields and public open spaces.

My basic contention is that the Government’s need hypothesis, which is crucial to the allocation process, has not been accurately proven and that EERA must rethink its rather enthusiastic embracing of the Government’s desire to provide a large number of additional pitches in Hertfordshire. EERA based its assumptions on the fact that even more pitches should go to localities where sites are located, because that is obviously where Gypsies and Travellers want to live and join their friends and family. In a high house-price area such as St. Albans, many local young people from the settled sector would also like to have that facility. Indeed, London Colney, where two sites for Travellers have been identified as potentially suitable, has a settled community. It has several areas with recognised poverty indices and there is significant overcrowding within some of the private and social housing units in the village, but the group affected has not been singled out for special consideration. The Minister ought to be aware that this single-issue revision of the regional spatial strategy will at best raise eyebrows, and at worst cause concern. It could even lead to tensions in the settled community, which is unhappy about the proposals.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in making provision, it is important that the traditional routes used by Travellers for their purposes on a seasonal basis are part of the picture, because Travellers stop in some places but not in others?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Crucial to today’s debate, and to my argument, is the fact that there is a lack of information behind the consultation. The Minister ought to be aware that the approach taken would raise a few eyebrows, because one cannot extrapolate from our existing pitch provision figures the conclusion that there is a huge unmet need for extra sites in my, or any other, constituency. I am sure that other hon. Members will make their own case.

According to the Government’s own figures, St. Albans has only 11 unauthorised pitches, yet we have been asked to accept a further 34 pitches. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain why. The formula, however it was arrived at, appears to create an oversupply of pitches in St. Albans that will encourage even more settlement in the area and thus, by the Government’s own odd calculations, create an even greater spiral of need as our numbers swell and extended Traveller families seek to join their relatives. Historically, St. Albans district council has endeavoured to tackle the difficult issue of providing sufficient suitable sites for the travelling community, but it appears that, perversely, we will not be rewarded for our actions. Instead, we face an open-ended commitment to meet a continuously increasing identified need.

Under the previous caravan legislation, St. Albans accepted more site and pitch provision than any other neighbouring authority, giving rise to a total of 59 authorised pitches and 11 pitches on unauthorised sites. That is more than six times the provision of neighbouring Watford. This is not about arguing for other parts of Hertfordshire to take more pitches. We are unhappy about the flawed consultation and its muddled thinking—my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) drew attention to one aspect of that.

EERA has admitted that it is the first region to examine this issue and that other regions are far behind. We would argue that other areas are proceeding more cautiously and that EERA has made a big mistake in its approach, which could have a detrimental effect on the whole community. If we are to work within a regional strategy, EERA needs to look at the bigger picture and take a far more reasoned approach. It has made no consideration of cross-border migration and the pressures that it brings. Indeed the Milton Keynes, Luton and Dunstable core strategy has a housing designated area near Caddington, right on the border with Hertfordshire. There is a Gypsy and Traveller site, too, in the vicinity, which, if expanded, could have a devastating effect on the rural community. None of those things have been brought into the picture.

Let me make it clear that the Government’s alterations to planning guidance have compelled local authorities to address the issue. The Government are using the undemocratic regional assemblies to deliver their bidding. Providing additional pitches to meet identified needs is now a firm requirement for local authorities, but I seriously question both the way in which that need has been identified by the Government and the evidential basis for the projections. It is generally accepted that well managed, appropriately located sites can be of benefit to the Gypsy and travelling community, which is seen as vulnerable, and that the appropriate location of a reasonable number of well run sites can lead to improved relationships with the settled community. Such an approach allows for rigorous defences at planning level against illegal incursions and protects local authorities from large and possibly costly remedial works associated with illegal incursions.

The key to making that work in any area is meaningful engagement and an acceptance by the established local community of demands for additional sites that are appropriate and reasonable. Many residents in my constituency share my view that current demands are not reasonable or appropriate, and that engagement in this process has been far from reasonable. St. Albans district council has always taken its responsibilities seriously, which is why we were amazed by the EERA consultation document, which failed to recognise our generous level of provision and allocated us a further 34 pitches—double that of any other area. The consultation drew heavily on jointly commissioned research that sought to deliver on the Government’s assertion that more sites must be found.

Research published by the Department for Communities and Local Government and EERA in March suggested that the east of England needed 1,220 more caravan pitches for Gypsies and Travellers by 2011. Consequently, local people were asked for their views on the matter, and two possible options were advanced to help try to resolve the supposed gap in provision. Option one would distribute pitches in local council areas

“where research has identified need.”

That would involve 1,216 additional caravan pitches in the east of England. I hope that hon. Members note the telling phrase,

“where research has identified need.”

My constituents are entitled to a reasonable explanation from the Minister of what formula was used to calculate the travelling community’s need, distribution and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, movement patterns. Whatever it is, the report suggested in option one that an additional 34 pitches should be allocated to St. Albans, which was double any other pitch allocation in that option. My constituents were then asked to consider option two, which was based on option one, but with a minimum of 15 pitches in every local council area throughout the region, apparently to provide wider distribution and a choice of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers, leading to 1,220 additional pitches in the east of England.

That might appear to my constituents to be a more balanced distribution, with each authority shouldering its fair share of additional pitches. However, on close examination of the figures, St. Albans would still have an extra 34 pitches, more than double the suggested 15-pitch minimum allocation for other areas and twice the allocation for any other authority. Why? Whatever the results of the consultation choices, options one and two for St. Albans would both allow 34 additional pitches, which is twice the allocation for everywhere else.

St. Albans is the only authority affected in that unfathomable way, so the Minister will understand why local people are angry. They believe that it is a done deal, so it was pointless to engage in the consultation exercise. My local papers, the St. Albans Observer and the St. Albans and Harpenden Review, ran a story on the consultation, and the editorial comment said that

“taking part in the public consultation on the number of new Gypsy pitches in Hertfordshire would appear to be an utterly redundant exercise for St Albans residents.”

I wholeheartedly agree with that perceptive analysis, and would welcome the Minister’s view if her analysis is different. My other local paper, the Herts Advertiser, assured residents their

“views are important and will be listened to”

by local councillors. Given the figures in the rather weasel document, there is no point in people being listened to if the council’s hands are tied and it is obliged to deliver the same number of pitches, whatever choice it makes.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. I agree with her point about consultation, and I am sure that she agrees that there is bound to be a problem with regional government if local people believe that they are not consulted about regional bodies. Should it not be clear where regional responsibility rests in the first instance in this flawed system? The Government devised it and put in place the system of consultation, so they must bear responsibility if local people feel cheated.

Absolutely, and I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that in my district council area, Labour councillors are leading the protest against the supposed attack on St. Albans, which is perverse, given that it was their Government who asked us to consider the proposals.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the strong and provocative language that those Labour councillors used in their criticism? She is eminently reasonable, but does she agree that those in authority have a responsibility to be measured in their criticism, and not to seek to stoke up racism, as the local Labour councillors have done?

My hon. Friend is right, and I thank him for making that point. Councillors are often directed to make difficult decisions on behalf of the wider community. On the night before a local election, those councillors said that only a Labour council could fight off the attack of having more Travellers in our community, and they are now running a campaign suggesting that the chosen sites in London Colney are near housing, a paddling pool and a children’s play area. The Government, however, have urged us to look for sites that provide a better quality of life, so I suggest that they have a word with their Labour councillors. Frustration is no doubt fuelled by the fact that we believe that we have no voice in the consultation.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to a phrase in the EERA consultation that refers to

“wider distribution and choice for Gypsies and Travellers”?

Given the itinerant nature of that community, will she explain to my constituents why one section of society has been singled out for choice and diversity of accommodation, while the settled community, which has pressing housing needs, has received no special consideration?

The consultation finished at the end of May and is now closed, and the contentious options are being considered. I hope that the Minister has read the consultation, will listen to the issues that are raised today, and will intervene before any new decisions are made on the spatial strategy revision. I wish to draw her attention to questions in the consultation that were irrelevant or puzzling to residents. The first was:

“Do you think 1,220 net additional pitches is a reasonable estimate of the level of unmet need for residential pitch provision taking into account how this may change over the period until 2011?”

I suggest that local people would find it impossible to answer that question in an informed way because they were given no information or data on which to draw. The second question, which was equally taxing, was:

“If you think 1,220 net additional residential pitches is not a reasonable estimate of need what alternative level do you think is a more reasonable estimate of need at 2011? And please make clear why.”

The document, however, points out:

“Establishing facts about Gypsies and Travellers in the East of England is not always easy...For instance there is no reliable figure currently available for numbers of Gypsies or Travellers resident in the region.”

Will the Minister tell my constituents how on earth they were supposed to answer those detailed and technical questions that will inform Traveller provision in my constituency and other constituencies? I doubt whether a simple reply such as, “No more pitches for St. Albans, thank you; we believe that we have provided enough for our area”, would be taken as an informed, evidence-based view in the consultation. I think that that would be discounted as nimbyism.

Question six was equally loaded and asked:

“Is it reasonable to accept the principle that each local council area should seek to provide at least one additional site?”

The terminology has moved on from pitches to sites, which can have vastly different consequences, although I am not sure whether the public would pick up on that. A pitch can vary in size and hold up to three vehicles, but sites have no specific size criteria. What exactly have my constituents, and other constituents who have taken part in the consultation, been asked to agree to?

There were other equally impossible-to-answer questions, which I shall not go into, but I hope that the Minister has gained the flavour of the wholly unsatisfactory nature of the consultation, which EERA undertook at the Government’s behest, and which will have important and far-reaching consequences for my constituents. There is a vacuum of information, which prevents balanced planning decisions from being made. Without that information, the planning system is being used to bulldoze through a huge social project of the Government’s making and which I believe is ill informed. By their own admission, the Government have little informed or accurate data on the Gypsy and travelling community and, as with any other proposed development, I suggest that they scrap the findings of the consultation, whatever they are—I hope that I have demonstrated that they are not informed—ignore totally useless and speculative responses to unanswerable questions, and do considerably more work on, and rigorous study of, the issue before asking my constituents to help to put their plans into practice. My constituents are understandably concerned about the proposals, and the impact on their local area and their quality of life. They simply want to be treated fairly and reasonably.

Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that I intend to start calling the Front Bench spokespeople at 3.30 pm.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. She has done a service to her constituents, as well as to those in Hertfordshire as a whole. I also congratulate her on the thorough and sensitive way in which she explored the subject. It needs sensitive handling for the sake of everyone, including Gypsies and Travellers, as well as local residents and communities.

Local residents and communities need to be heard, and their views must shape decisions. They must feel that they are part of the process. Hertsmere borough council, for example, is seeking early consultation with Hertsmere residents and is holding a series of meetings in July in each of the principal communities to seek people’s views on sites. It is committed to consultation, listening to local residents and reflecting their wishes, in so far as it can.

I have three points to make. The first adopts the concerns that my hon. Friend so ably raised about the nature of the process. It strikes me as bureaucratic and remote from ordinary people. However, as I said, that must be the case when regional governments are involved. District councils, such as Hertsmere, are closest to local people. Local people can get in touch with their local councillors, and meetings can be held locally so that people’s views can be taken into account. District councils are very much on the receiving end of the process, and local people may be left feeling that many decisions have already been shaped before the issues reach their district council—the level at which it is easy for them to have their say.

We must be clear that the Government have initiated the process and that they require local authorities to undertake it and to meet in full the need for sites that are identified by housing assessments—something that the Government do not require in respect of the need for affordable housing, which is identified by the same housing needs assessments.

The Government require regional planning bodies to produce figures for Gypsy and Traveller sites right down to the level of individual district authorities. One is bound to ask whether it is appropriate for regional planning bodies to go into that level of prescription and detail when regions are so remote from local communities. Have local people’s views shaped that process? At the end of the day, the regional government is required to produce something described as a “single-issue revision”, which is what I was given when I got my homework wrong, and I say that as somebody who is no fan or enthusiast of regional government. In the east of England, we have never been asked whether we want a regional government; we simply have one. When people in other regions were asked whether they wanted one, they said no.

Having seen the way in which the process has been placed in the hands of regional authorities—I am not necessarily criticising the authorities themselves—having looked at what the Government have required them to do, and having seen the way in which the Government have put such a premium on them, it is easy to understand why people were not instantly attracted to the idea of regional government. The process seems to bear out all the concerns that people expressed about regional government.

My second point is on a separate matter. What account has been taken of the green belt when making those requirements of local authorities? The Government’s planning circular on Gypsy and Traveller caravan sites skates over the problem. Paragraph 49 states:

“National planning policy on Green Belts applies equally to applications for planning permission from gypsies and travellers, and the settled population. Alternatives should be explored before Green Belt locations are considered. Pressure for development of sites of Green Belt land can usually be avoided if the local planning authority allocate sufficient sites elsewhere in its area in its LDF”—

local development framework—

“to meet identified need.”

I shall break away from that Government statement, because it is somewhat disingenuous. It would be difficult, to say the least, for an authority such as Hertsmere to provide sites that were not on the green belt, because almost, if not all, the sites identified in Hertsmere and in south-west Hertfordshire are on the green belt. Are the Government saying that local authorities can apply normal green belt principles and refuse to permit such development? Or are they saying that the authorities cannot take such a course and must provide the sites, but that the Government are not prepared to take any responsibility for that? I wonder which is true. The regional planning body, to give it credit, is more realistic than the Government about the green belt. I wait to hear from the Minister the Government’s approach towards the green belt in that regard.

My third and final point is how confident we can be that the process that the Government are instituting will address the problems. The objective is to meet the local need for sites for Gypsies and Travellers, but the sites that could be established as meeting that need might be in private hands. There is no way in which site owners can be required to meet the needs of local Gypsies and Travellers. A requirement cannot be placed on site owners to meet local needs, and there is nothing that local authorities can do to ensure that pitches on those sites are occupied by local families.

Annexe C of the Government’s planning guidance specifically deems as unacceptable local authority criteria that allow applications from Gypsies and Travellers to be refused. Presumably, a site owner from outside the area could decide to buy a site inside Hertsmere, St. Albans or elsewhere in Hertfordshire and fill it with people from a long way away. The Government could ostensibly say that the objective of local need had been met, even though it had not, because people had come from some distance away to occupy the site. That would be a worrying scenario and I hope that the Minister will throw some light on it.

People in Hertfordshire know that we are under the same pressures from Gypsies and Travellers as we are from other people. Many people from outside the area want to come and live in Hertfordshire.

Surely the approach is topsy-turvy. The Government will never know whether their targets have been met; rather, they will know that a process has been gone through.

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The whole process might be fulfilled, and the sites might be filled with people from outside the area, but the people whose need was originally identified locally might still be in the same conditions locally as before. The need would not have been met. No doubt the Government would trumpet the idea that they had met local needs, but the people would remain in the same position. Even if the site were owned and managed by a registered social landlord, it would not be clear whether there was any guarantee that it would be occupied exclusively by local people.

There is a flaw in the system. A large number of the sites are privately owned and managed, according to the various surveys that have been carried out. Registered social landlords might come in as well, and these questions must be asked to determine whether we will meet the Government’s objectives.

Another Government objective draws the connection between providing sites and reducing or avoiding the problem of unauthorised encampments. Given the pattern of unauthorised encampments in Hertsmere, whereby people often come at irregular intervals and from a considerable distance to strike up an unauthorised encampment before leaving when the processes of the law finally require them to do so, I am not as confident as I should like to be about the provisions’ ability to meet the objective of preventing unauthorised encampments. Does the Minister believe, and is she prepared to say, that the problems associated with unauthorised encampments will be avoided as a result of the Government’s proposals?

Although I support the way in which Hertsmere borough council has responded to the process, and its conscientiousness in seeking to listen to the views of local people and to play its part, I have yet to be convinced that the whole process, which the Government initiated, will meet either with the consent and support of my constituents, or with the objectives that the Government have set themselves.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this useful debate and apologise for missing her opening remarks.

All of us in Hertfordshire have a fair amount in common. It is an attractive county, in which there is enormous demand for housing. A lot of people want to live there, although I shall not deliver a travelogue in the style of a maiden speech and dwell at length on my constituency. I do not know whether the Minister knows my constituency, although I do know that she has a cousin who lives in Berkhamsted—at least, she used to live in my constituency. Hertfordshire is an attractive place to live, with small market towns of a manageable size, where people are very comfortable, surrounded by attractive countryside.

One of the problems that we face in South-West Hertfordshire is that we are a victim of our success, in that people desperately want to live in the area. There is not the scope for an enormous amount of development, given that we are in the green belt, and the people living in South-West Hertfordshire do not desire it, for understandable reasons. However, that creates tensions for those on a low or even a medium income who want to buy their own property. Politicians will always have to strike a balance between those conflicting desires. What is seen as fundamentally unfair, however, is if a particular section of society receives what appears to be special treatment because a development is designed specifically for them, while the adult children of home owners in South-West Hertfordshire do not have the opportunity to acquire their own property. That drives at why so many of our constituents feel as strongly about the issue as they do.

That point also relates to the green belt, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) rightly touched upon. Most, if not all, of the area available for development in my constituency, whether in Dacorum borough council or Three Rivers district council, is in the green belt. There appears to be a conflict between the desire to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites and Government policy on the green belt. In circular 01/2006, from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Government state that they recognise the importance of the green belt, that new Gypsy and Traveller sites are normally inappropriate within them and that they require alternatives to be explored before green belt locations are considered.

However, there are no alternatives to green belt development. Perhaps the Minister could dwell on how Government policies on the green belt and on Gypsy and Traveller sites relate to each other. The solution that I suspect we shall see is that areas of land will cease to be designated as green belt and the green belt will change to accommodate particular sites. Again, that relates to the sense of unfairness that residents feel about the problem. There is clearly tension between what the East of England regional assembly has proposed and green belt policy.

Let me anticipate the argument that the Minister will use, which is one that I believe the Liberal Democrats essentially support. It is that we need more authorised sites, because otherwise there will be more unauthorised developments and that is undesirable.

My hon. Friend may find that Liberal Democrat support alters to meet whatever the electorate want to hear, depending on where they are. The Liberal Democrats have come out with a resounding no in my constituency, where the portfolio holder in charge of the Gypsy and Traveller sites says that we do not need any more in St. Albans.

My hon. Friend’s description of the position of the Liberal Democrats does not surprise me in the slightest. However, unless I receive a clear and categorical correction, I understand that their policy is strongly to support the need for more authorised sites.

If I may, I shall explore the point a little further.

I appreciate that because of court judgments and the Human Rights Act 1998, it is difficult to take enforcement action against unauthorised sites unless there is an alternative, authorised site. However, one of my concerns about increasing the number of authorised sites is that it will not necessarily end unauthorised developments, but increase the Traveller and Gypsy population as a whole.

The Government’s figures seem to show that in July 1979 there were 1,000 caravans on unauthorised sites and 2,500 on socially rented authorised sites. However, in July 2005 there were 5,000 caravans on unauthorised sites and 6,500 on socially rented sites, as well as an additional 2,000 on Travellers’ own land and a further 2,000 authorised private sites. Does that not show that increasing the number of authorised sites does not stop the numbers on unauthorised sites from increasing?

My hon. Friend makes an eloquent and important point, which underlines my point. Increasing authorised sites does not necessarily reduce the numbers. Indeed, the evidence that he presented suggests that there was an increase in the number of unauthorised developments. One has to ask why.

On the issue of demand, according to the latest figures from the East of England regional assembly, there were no unauthorised sites in my constituency, which covers two district councils—Dacorum borough council and Three Rivers district council—in January 2006. There certainly had been an unauthorised development in my constituency a few months before, at Cow Roast, but if the argument is, “Well, we need more authorised sites to deal with the unauthorised developments that we currently have,” the answer is that we do not currently have any in the area.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but we are making an assumption that all Travellers travelling around this country wish to be on an organised site. Those of us who understand the travelling community or have lived with Travellers—I grew up around a travelling community—know that many of them do not want to be on organised sites. At certain times of the year, they are happy to pull off the road, but at other times even organised sites are half empty. At certain times of the year, many Travellers are not actually in this country, because they come from southern Ireland.

My hon. Friend makes the point that the provision of authorised sites does not necessarily mean that Travellers will use them. By their very nature, Travellers travel.

It appears to be anticipated that the number of Gypsies and Travellers will expand, on the basis of the figures that have been presented for Hertfordshire. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify whether that is the case. Will she also say whether that is being driven in part by the fact that the Government in the Republic of Ireland have been taking stronger measures to deal with Gypsy and Traveller sites, the consequence of which has been migration into the UK, and whether there is any evidence of something similar happening in accession states in the EU?

We will not deal with that supply by increasing the number of sites that we provide; instead, we will be increasing the demand. Does the Minister think that that is happening and does she think that it is in some way desirable? That outcome might be the very objective that the Government seek—to preserve the Gypsy and Traveller way of life—rather than an unintended consequence. If that is the Government’s position, I should be grateful for some clarification.

My final point takes us back to the essentially undemocratic manner in which the process has been undertaken, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for St. Albans. The East of England regional assembly is implementing the policy, but this is very much a Government policy—it is the Government who are determining things. They can hide behind the regional assembly and use regional bodies to implement unpopular policies for which they do not want to take the rap. That enables Labour councillors in places such as St. Albans and Hemel Hempstead—the few there are—to say that any decisions are nothing to do with them and that they are the fault of the wicked Conservatives at the regional level.

Similarly, Conservative district councils are forced to implement the policy—they have little or no choice over whether to do so and are forced to identify sites. However, although there is little that individual councillors can do, no one will be more vigorous in supporting the views of local residents affected by proposed developments outside Berkhamsted—the Scott Wilson report mention Swingate lane—than Councillors Julie Laws and Steve Bateman. Similarly, in Tring, Councillor Derek Townsend will provide vigorous support for his local residents. None the less, democratically elected politicians—whether Members of Parliament, district councillors or county councillors—have little say in the process, and that feeds into local people’s enormous frustration. People ask, “What can we do about this? Who can we complain to?” but the answer is that there is little that elected politicians can do. That is a failure of the system, and it needs to be addressed.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main),who is a fellow Member for the St. Albans district, on securing the debate and on introducing it in such a thorough but sensitive way.

There is great concern throughout the St. Albans district, not least in the part that I represent, about the current proposals, which, strangely, only became public on any scale after the local elections. People in Redbourn are concerned because there is already an authorised site, as well as unauthorised sites. People in Kinsbourne Green and Harpenden Rural are concerned because they are quite near Redbourn, and several new sites are proposed near them. Likewise, people in Wheathampstead are concerned because potential sites have been identified right next to residential areas. There is concern throughout the rural part of my constituency about what such developments could mean.

I have met several delegations and visited potential sites, and although my constituents are concerned, they are extremely reasonable: they accept that Travellers must live somewhere and want good relationships between the travelling and the settled communities. However, they also want a fair, transparent and balanced approach to be taken when deciding how many sites should be allocated and where they should be, but they do not see the current proposals as fair in substance or procedure.

St. Albans district council already has a quarter of all the authorised sites and more than half the unauthorised sites in Hertfordshire, but it is now being told that it must accept 30 per cent. of the additional sites. However, St. Albans district council is only one of the 10 councils, covers only 10 per cent. of the area of Hertfordshire and has only 13 per cent. of the population, so why are things being done in this way? The answer is that the formula that is being used says that the number of new pitches required in any area will be equal to 40 per cent. of the number of authorised pitches plus the number of unauthorised pitches that the area already has. My area already has a large number of authorised and unauthorised pitches, so it is expected to have a lot more pitches in future. The more pitches an area has agreed to have in the past, therefore, the more it is expected to have in the future; the more it has had to put up in the past—even though they may have been illegal and unauthorised—the more it will have to put up with in the future. People do not think that that is fair.

My right hon. Friend makes a really powerful point, and I draw his attention again to why the public are so annoyed by what has happened. The EERA consultation says:

“This public consultation is a real chance for everyone in the settled and travelling communities…to learn more about the options on the table and to have their say on the number and distribution of these additional pitches”,

but that has not been the case at all.

My hon. Friend is right. People are concerned because they are expected to have new authorised sites, where the number of pitches will reflect the present number of unauthorised pitches, but there is no guarantee that the unauthorised ones will be removed; indeed, given human rights considerations, it is quite possible that there will be no possibility of removing them, and that is a concern. As my hon. Friend spelled out, we have been given a choice between two options, both of which are identical, and that, it may astonish the Minister to know, does not seem fair to people.

The process is not transparent either. The consultation documents give no explanation of how the assessment of the additional numbers was reached, and one really has to dig deep to find out; one has to read an extremely opaque report from the Department for Communities and Local Government called “Preparing Regional Spatial Strategy reviews on Gypsies and Travellers by regional planning bodies”. Indeed, the report consists largely of serial acronyms—it was not until I read a lot about the subject, for example, that I realised that G and T stood for Gypsies and Travellers—but there is no glossary to tell us what those acronyms mean.

If one works one’s way through the report, however, one will be astonished to find that there are no figures for the Gypsy population and that there are figures only for the number of caravans and sites. There are also no figures for occupancy rates at existing sites, which one might think would provide some measure of demand or need. One wonders why things are so opaque and obscure and why such a strange solution has been reached, and one finds that the Department does not really have the information on which to make the relevant decisions. Page 18 says:

“our understanding about Gypsies and Travellers—about their requirements and the factors influencing these—is not yet sufficiently developed or adequate to inform the development of site provision which we can be certain will meet the extent of need in a way which is appropriate to the requirements and preferences of all sections of this population.

However, action must be taken.”

The Department does not, therefore, have the information on which to take any reasonable action, but it proposes to go ahead anyway, which is why it goes ahead with unreasonable action.

The Department has decided to develop what it calls a “tool”—it keeps using that word—based on GTAAs, or Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments. Local authorities are obliged to carry out regular assessments, which are then examined. Although they form the basis of all subsequent work, the report observes:

“Assessments—which are usually based on interviews with Gypsies and Travellers in the study area—find it hard to estimate the need to be in the study area of those currently living outside it, perhaps because of lack of accommodation. There is also a tendency to conflate need, demand and aspiration.”

The Department’s basic tool therefore measures three different things and conflates them all. That is done on the basis of interviews that provide no real measure of the demand, need or aspirations for sites in an area.

The report concludes, somewhat arbitrarily, that some of the assessments are robust, while others are not. On average, the robust ones show that demand, need or aspiration is 40 per cent. greater than the current supply, so the Department has decided arbitrarily to use that 40 per cent. factor everywhere as part of a one-size-fits-all approach, with no recognition of local differences.

Nor is there any clarity in the document as to why the Gypsy and Traveller population seems to be expanding so fast. It says that the number of caravans rose by 90 per cent. between 1979 and 2006 over the country as a whole and that the population is growing by 3 per cent. per annum in the UK and 4 per cent. per annum in Ireland, but it does not tell us how much of the UK population growth is due to people coming from Ireland or elsewhere. However, 3 to 4 per cent. annual population growth is very rapid—it is more rapid than the population growth in Africa, which is the fastest growing continent in the world. Yet the assessments will be made only for five years ahead. At the relevant rate of growth, that is about 18 per cent., so one might think the call for 40 per cent. more accommodation does not naturally follow. As I have said, in addition to that 40 per cent., extra sites are proposed to match the number of unauthorised sites, but with no guarantee—or, at least, the document is so non-transparent that we cannot see whether there is any guarantee—that unauthorised sites will be replaced by authorised ones, if those are forthcoming.

Finally, my constituents do not think that the approach seems very balanced. Because of the enormous housing pressures that we face, which we have discussed previously, the settled population of this country is being pressed to live in flats rather than houses, in terraced houses rather than detached houses, north rather than south, on brownfield sites rather than in the green belt. Yet no similar pressures seem to be exerted, or nothing analogous seems to be expected, of the G and Ts. The settled population find that housing is rationed by price. In my constituency young people now stay at home five or 10 years longer than they used to when I was first elected, because they cannot afford a home. Alternatively, they must move north. Everything is rationed by price, and I reiterate that no analogous pressures are exerted on the better-off Gypsies and Travellers.

Constituents have told me that they feel particularly aggrieved that when they look up this subject on the web, as everyone does when the subject suddenly comes on to their radar screen, they find hundreds of sites detailing Gypsies’ and Travellers’ concerns—which they acknowledge are perfectly legitimate—about the pressures and discrimination that they potentially face, and their grievances. There is nothing equivalent to enable my constituents to express or register their concerns or their experience of some parts of the Gypsy and Traveller population. They feel that they need to register those concerns if the Government’s objective of achieving social cohesion and a sensible relationship between the Gypsy and Traveller and settled communities is to be reached.

My constituents hope that the Government will listen to them, but they are pretty sure that they will not. They would like fairness, but they cannot see any. They want some transparency and they are presented with something absolutely opaque. They want balance and they feel that things are loaded heavily against them. They know that the Government are to blame, and they want the Government to answer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate on an important subject and I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). People in North-East Hertfordshire want to be fair about this matter, but they also want to be satisfied that the Government have done their homework and that what is proposed is about meeting need, rather than creating demand. That was something of a theme of my right hon. Friend’s speech, too.

It seems remarkable that in the document published by the Minister’s Department, “Gypsies and Travellers: Facts and Figures”, a table of official figures shows that in 1979 there were 3,500 caravans, either socially rented or in unauthorised encampments, whereas by July 2005 that had risen, with all categories considered, to 15,500. I understand that the latest count from the Department is 16,611. Clearly, that is a very substantial increase. I have asked representatives of the local authority why that should be. The only explanation that they came up with was that there are now some traditional Travellers from eastern Europe coming to this country. Even so, I should be grateful if the Minister could explain that four to five-fold increase in travelling.

My second point is about whether, from a policy point of view, the Government intend to encourage travelling. Clearly, there are difficulties associated with it, such as social exclusion. If the Government do not intend to encourage travelling as a way of life, can the Minister explain how the increase has occurred? Surely Government policy must have played a part in it, given its substantial nature.

I am puzzled that the hon. Gentleman says the Government must have played a substantial part in the increase. We are talking about a few thousand, whereas for the settled community the formation of new homes is much greater. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we aim to produce 200,000 new homes a year. Let us get things in proportion.

That is a worrying intervention from the Minister. There is not a five-fold increase in household formation in the United Kingdom. If she thinks that there is, that is deeply worrying. A five-fold increase in household formation in the sector that we are considering is a different scale of change. Perhaps the Minister thinks that it is amusing, but people in North-East Hertfordshire do not.

North-East Hertfordshire has not had much traditional interplay with the Traveller community. There are a small number of sites, but it is not on one of the traditional routes. Yet it seems that in the second option that is being put forward by the regional assembly a very large increase in the number of sites is proposed. The effect of that will be to create opportunities for Travellers to move into North-East Hertfordshire, which traditionally they have never chosen to do. Are the Government encouraging numbers of Travellers to move there for a particular reason? I should have thought that the Government would want a sustainable approach—that they would want to meet the needs of Travellers, as established over time, to follow particular routes and live their lives as they choose, and not to interfere in that and say, “Rather than do what you want, do what we want as the nanny state, and move to North-East Hertfordshire.”

When the Labour group on the North Hertfordshire district council suggested, some years ago, that there should be extra sites in North Hertfordshire, the Conservatives did some survey work, as one does. The idea was not very popular. If the Minister feels that there is some reason for the change to happen, perhaps she will explain it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs. Dean.

To describe my reaction to the comments of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) and her Conservative colleagues this afternoon as surprise is putting it extremely mildly. I am amazed that the hon. Lady complains about the provision of Traveller sites when it was her party that said that 67 per cent. of Traveller sites should be closed between 1986 and 1993; it was the Conservative Government who caused the problem.

I draw the hon. Lady’s attention, before she goes any further, to something issued today by the notionally Liberal Democrat-controlled St. Albans district council, and the portfolio holder, Liberal Democrat councillor Chris Brazier:

“We have already over-provided for gipsy and traveller pitches within the district so we are saying that we don’t see why we have to take an extra 34. We want a more equitable share across the country. Our response to EERA is no”.

I am making a general point. The tone of the argument from the Hertfordshire Members has been quite technical on the way the allocation is created. If the hon. Lady will allow me, I shall continue to develop my argument. She should be reassured that the Liberal Democrats want a fair allocation of sites as much as any party does.

The Conservatives closed 67 per cent. of Traveller sites between 1986 and 1993. In 1994 the Conservative Government released local authorities from their obligations to provide sites and introduced new laws penalising families for stopping without permission. At a stroke they destroyed the Traveller way of life in this country. It is estimated that in this country there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Gypsies—Romany, Irish, Scottish and so on. Most live in houses.

I do not know what country the hon. Lady has been living in. I have been a Member of this place for a long time, and Gypsies have been an issue throughout. However, no Gypsy site in my area or known to me has been closed down during that time, either by this Government or previous ones.

I am grateful for that intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, who has clearly been around a little longer than I—[Interruption.] In this place, I mean. I am alluding not to what has happened in specific areas, but to the general figures that apply to this country as a whole.

I am happy to lend the hon. Lady the Government’s own document, “Gypsies and Travellers: Facts and Figures”. It contains a graph that shows the constant increase in the numbers of caravans on official and unofficial sites. Would she like to read it? It certainly deals with the points that she has made.

My source is the Government figures, which were given to me a few weeks ago by the Minister.

I shall make progress. Approximately 4,000 Gypsies and Travellers—27 per cent. of the moving population, or the population who live on sites—live on unauthorised sites. We have talked about the scale of the problem. Indeed, the Minister intervened on that issue, and the proportions involved have to be considered as we talk about it. All new provision for Gypsy and Traveller sites could be provided within 1 square mile of land. Please—let us get the proportion right.

The hon. Lady asks me to discuss Hertfordshire. I am attempting to draw some conclusions, which she may find useful. I hope so.

The problems arise because local authorities do not provide sufficient sites. That is why the Government intervened with the Housing Act 2004. When local authorities provide sites, they are usually well run and there is no problem or conflict with the local authority. On receiving a briefing, I learned that there is an approved site in my own borough of Solihull, although not in my constituency. I did not even know that it was there. The provision of sites does not have to be the end of the world for a local authority. When sites are well run, and Solihull borough is run by the Conservatives, it is clear that the need is met and the problems can be evaded. However, I am not talking about illegal encampments, which result from a group of Travellers moving on to an illegal site. That is an entirely different matter.

I should like to give some idea of how some local authorities have reacted to Traveller encampments. One devotes 5 per cent. of its entire budget to evictions, but spends nothing on the provision of authorised sites. That shows how the emphasis causes the problem. The 2004 Act places a requirement to assess housing need and provide adequate housing for all members of the local community; indeed, the regional spatial strategy cannot be cleared unless that is done. Planning permission for new sites is more likely to be issued if the local authority is not providing authorised sites. Greater decision-making power is given to the local authority if there is an adequate supply of sites in the area.

I turn to the situation in respect of regions. Various speakers have said that the region is some sort of pariah that seeks to dominate and suppress the freedom of different local authorities. Might I suggest to Conservative Members that it is sometimes helpful to have a regional body, which can take into account need within a specific region and not just within a local authority? Subsidiarity is a fundamental part of Liberal Democrat philosophy. It means that decisions should be made as close as possible to the individuals affected by them. We want a regional authority so that we do not get the situation to which Conservative Members have alluded: the Government trying to impose from the centre on local decision making.

If the hon. Lady believes in localism, as many of us do, she should surely believe in decisions being made as close to the people as possible; she said that she did. Surely that should be at a district—or at most, county—level. In my constituency, I find that one of the problems with regional government is that it completely ignores what happens over the border in Buckinghamshire, because the region does not consider that. However, a district or borough council is far more likely to take all such local factors into account.

Thank you, Mrs. Dean.

My worry is about the continuing demonisation of Gypsies and Travellers; it makes conflict by not producing appropriate authorised sites. One third of adults admit to being personally prejudiced against the group. Lack of provision causes conflict, reinforces prejudices and takes its toll on a group that has 18 times more child deaths, far worse examination results, and life expectancies 10 to 12 years shorter than those of the settled population. As Trevor Phillips said, prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers is the last acceptable form of racism. We want an open and transparent system, in which each local authority does its fair share. The hon. Member for St. Albans is clear that hers does. We do not want a honey pot situation that attracts people from local authorities that are not taking their share and providing appropriate approved sites.

If we could restore a proper balance to the adequate provision of sites, things would be calmer for local residents and there would be a huge boost to the security and quality of life of the most disadvantaged minority in our country. It would also be a lot cheaper for local authorities and better value for money for local residents.

Good afternoon, Mrs. Dean. I have never had the privilege of serving under your chairmanship. It has been great; I have had a wonderful time this afternoon, because my mind has been changed on this subject on so many levels—not least by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), whose speech I shall long remember. I shall especially remember her most vicious attack on local Liberal Democrats in Hertfordshire and castigation of Cuncillor Chris Brazier in particular. I suppose that he at least has an advantage over the hon. Lady in knowing where Hertfordshire and St. Albans are.

I will in a second; I have not yet finished with the hon. Lady. Despite the fact that Councillor Brazier lives in the area and has come to a decision, the hon. Lady apparently knows better than him—so much for subsidiarity.

I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a second. We were also quite astounded to see the way in which she dealt with the statistics, which were clearly wrong. I assumed that some spotty researcher had given her that bucket of rubbish, but it turned out to be the Minister. Perhaps she should be a little more careful about people from other parties who give her information, and about relying on those figures. We are grateful for her admission that Solihull under the Conservatives is a well run authority. I thank her for telling me why we need a regional body—apparently, we need a regional body to take regional decisions.

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman seeks to demonise any individual who cannot stand in this place and defend themselves. He is talking about a specific instance. I am not from Hertfordshire, as he points out, but I have been trying to the best of my ability to draw out principles that Liberal Democrats adhere to, wherever they are in the country.

But apparently not in St. Albans. I was not demonising Councillor Brazier; I think that I was trying to demonise the hon. Lady.

Another reason that I enjoyed the debate, and that it substantially changed my mind, was that I had always felt that the Government were carrying out some great Stalinist plot, whereby they merely looked at the figures, sent down to their people and said, “Give us more pitches; give us more figures,” in the way in which the great dictator used to say, “I want more tractors; I want more tanks; I want more executions.” Apparently, there is no logic at all. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) put it rather well. At times, I felt that he was describing a combination of King Lear and the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland”. The Government are essentially saying, “Supply us with pitches. We know not where, and we know not in what number, but they will truly be the wonder of the world.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) made a magnificent point. It apparently does not matter whether there is a local connection or whether local Travellers have sites, just so long as there are sites. Local provision does not matter at all. It is possible under the system to provide as many sites as one likes. Travellers could come in from entirely different parts of the country, leaving Travellers in Hertfordshire without pitches, and still the Government’s criteria would be met.

I have been remiss in not congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. I thought that she put her point across civilly and reasonably, and she showed a marked understanding that these decisions are not easy. It is immensely difficult to decide where pitches are going to go, and the conflict between the settled community and Travellers can be injurious to good community relations. Where those decisions work and there is an established understanding, things are excellent and we can be proud. However—I agree completely with Trevor Phillips on this point—in truth, in a lot of parts of the country that conflict is exactly what is happening. The regulations and the decisions from the regional bodies do not accept that, because the formula is difficult and incomprehensible. As my hon. Friend said, there is a feeling that such decisions are being bulldozed through by a remote authority and that they are a done deal.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) raised the difficulty of green belts and other areas, and of finding brownfield sites. He made the reasonable point that not that many sites are available on the green belt. A sensible community might eventually have to come to that decision, but we must clearly demonstrate beyond peradventure that the authority and the council have gone through the correct process before that decision is taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere rightly said that the Government must accept some responsibility. He clearly demonstrated that the whole process is about ticking the box, and showed that his local community feels extremely badly done by. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said that it was important for a sustainable approach to be taken and he is absolutely correct.

The Minister has clearly not enjoyed the debate. Her body language and attitude have shown that she has not been entirely happy, and nor has she had much support from her own side. She could, no doubt, have done without such support as came from the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps I could give her some solace. We are not entirely critical of the Government. We recognise that they have moved some way since we presented our seven point action plan some time ago. They have moved towards us, particularly in making some moves to tackle some of the more flagrant abuses, such as those typified by the encampment at Crays Hill. We also recognise that the Government understand the importance of private authorised sites and the role that they can play.

However, waiting for the regional spatial strategy to be ticked off before sorting out the authorised sites is a mistake, as it is leading to a drift. In particular, circular 01/2006 from the Department for Communities and Local Government has led to a number of decisions on planning whereby sites that would be singularly inappropriate have been allowed to go through while people are waiting for the spatial strategy to arrive. Essentially, Travellers’ sites are being developed based on drift rather than authority.

I shall conclude as I started. Such decisions are difficult. Tensions tend to rise. Above everything, people want a feeling of equality before the law. The settled community and the travelling community want to be in roughly the same position so that planning permission should not, must not and cannot be given to the travelling community in circumstances in which it would undoubtedly be turned down for the settled community. Until that is firmly established in the public’s mind, there will be resistance, as we have seen this afternoon. Until the Government can demonstrate clearly that they want to treat all their citizens in equal measure, a significant part of the population will not believe that the Government come out of this with clean hands—forgive the use of the word—and a degree of integrity.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. The Government believe that everyone in the community should have the opportunity to have a decent place to live. The shortage of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers means that there is currently no such opportunity for households in one in four Gypsy and Traveller caravans. That is an unacceptable situation, and we are committed to significantly increasing site provision to address it.

Local authorities are required to undertake a strategic housing market needs assessment for the whole community. No one is being singled out—those assessments should be undertaken for the whole community. Unfortunately, Gypsies and Travellers were rarely included, hence the need for a specific requirement for the assessment of need. It has already been said that the Conservative Government ended the requirement for local authorities to provide sites in 1994, and that is what has created the significant difficulties that we experience today.

Many grown-up children of those in the Gypsy and Traveller community have their own young children but cannot access a home of their own and are on overcrowded sites. The situations affecting people in the settled community and the Gypsy and Traveller community therefore have some similarities, but the difference is that unauthorised sites can cause genuine problems. The settled community can experience those problems through, for example, unauthorised encampments that prevent the use of important local amenities. The problems can also be experienced by Gypsies and Travellers who find themselves in places that lack even basic facilities and are sometimes even downright dangerous.

The shortage of authorised sites, however, is not a big problem and not the huge social problem that the hon. Member for St. Albans would have us believe. As the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said, just one square mile of land is needed to accommodate the caravans for which there is currently no pitch on an authorised site.

The problem can be particularly challenging to solve. Many people do not want sites to be built near them as they have fears about them based on rumour and misinformation. There is groundless prejudice and I should like to take this opportunity to dispel some common myths. Data collected in Northamptonshire showed that an encampment does not result in a spike in crime levels. Gypsies and Travellers are required to, and do, pay council tax, whether or not their sites have planning permission, and they are active in their local communities. They are local councillors, and young Gypsies and Travellers are represented on the UK Youth Parliament. Everyone—Gypsies and Travellers, the settled community and local authorities—stands to gain from site provision.

If the Minister so roundly believes that my area is being unfair in not wanting to accept any more sites, will she instruct the local Labour councillors to drop their campaign against them and the hypocrisy in their literature, which implies that only they are on the side of local residents?

If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I shall get to the situation in Hertfordshire.

Providing more authorised sites will reduce unauthorised camping and the tensions that it can create. Having good-quality accommodation will also help to tackle the serious social exclusion experienced by Gypsies and Travellers and improve health and education outcomes. The life expectancy of a Gypsy or Traveller is 10 to 12 years less than that of a member of the settled community, and Gypsy and Traveller mothers are almost 20 times more likely to experience the death of a child. Gypsy and Traveller children do not do anywhere near as well in their GCSEs as settled children.

Site provision will also reduce the resources that authorities spend on costly enforcement action, estimated by the Commission for Racial Equality at £18 million a year and described by the Audit Commission as a “wasteful use of resources.” The enforcement costs of one council have dropped from £200,000 a year to £5,000 a year since it built a new site. Site provision also makes it easier for authorities and the police to take enforcement action when unauthorised camping takes place.

To achieve the significant increase that we are seeking we have established a new framework for site provision. Local authorities are now required by the Housing Act 2004 to undertake accommodation needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers in the same way as for the rest of the community. I understand that assessments are now under way or have been completed in 90 per cent. of local authorities. We want all of them to be completed by the end of the year.

I understand that St. Albans was covered by the south and west Hertfordshire Gypsy and Traveller needs assessment, which has gone to the regional assembly. I am informed that the regional assembly has scaled down the assessment of need arrived at in that document—it has not gone up since the assessment that St. Albans was involved in, but has been scaled down. It was felt that waiting lists for sites may have been overestimated.

The assessments will inform revisions to the regional spatial strategy, and the regional assembly will take a strategic view of need across the region and set out the number of pitches that each local authority will be expected to deliver. Guidance commissioned jointly by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the East of England regional assembly will support that process, and local authorities will then need to identify in their development plan documents sites to deliver pitches. I understand that the research used by the East of England regional assembly was conducted by Pat Niner, who is a renowned academic and has worked on Gypsy and Traveller issues for many years. That is how the needs assessment is being drawn up.

Hon. Members made a number of criticisms of that process, but for a long time site provision has not been made and there are no data on it, so it is an early stage in the understanding of the range of needs. That is why there is a process of consultation with not only local residents but local councils to ask whether they believe that the assessments set out by the regional assembly are correct. Backing up that new framework, we have increased the resources available to provide and refurbish sites through the Gypsy and Traveller site grant.

The hon. Lady set out the two options in her area, and the decision on which is more appropriate to meet needs is for the regional assembly to take, taking into account the views expressed during the consultation. That decision will feed into the draft revision of the east of England plan, which will be submitted to the Secretary of State later this year and subject to further consultation before the final plan is published in 2009.

Compared with the amount of conventional housing that needs to be supplied, the number of pitches needed is tiny. On the basis of what the regional assembly set out, Hertfordshire will be required to deliver either 115 or 173 pitches depending on the option chosen for distributing them.

I have done the maths and there are 444,000 households in Hertfordshire. The number of pitches that the Minister gives is 0.00047 per cent., or similar, of that number, which goes to show the infinitesimal size of the problem.

I have some further maths: it is less than 1 per cent. of the number of new houses that Hertfordshire would be required to deliver by proposed revisions to the plan.

Hertfordshire needs to consider the need for pitches. The general principle is that they should be provided when need arises, and it is surely much better for that need to be met through good quality, well-managed sites than through unauthorised sites, which can create problems for the settled community and Gypsies and Travellers alike. When sites are allocated in development plan documents they will be subject to a sustainability appraisal, which will include an assessment of their environmental, economic and social impact. In fact, as we know, the number of pitches to be provided in south and west Hertfordshire has gone down because of what the regional assembly has done.

It is unacceptable for anyone to suggest that their area has its fair share of an ethnic group. That applies to Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, which are identified as ethnic groups under race relations legislation, as much as to any other group.

Hon. Members mentioned the green belt. There is a general presumption against inappropriate development of any kind in the green belt, but we recognise that some local authority areas contain a high proportion of green belt and that no other suitable sites might exist. In those exceptional circumstances alterations to the green belt boundary may be made to meet a specific, identified need, whether for a new Gypsy and Traveller site or any other type of development.

I am conscious that the Minister has only two minutes, but I wish to say that local Labour councillors are campaigning, quite correctly, for not having more sites, on the grounds that we already have 50 per cent. of the sites in Hertfordshire. The Minister has just denounced that position. Will she either rein in her Labour councillors and ask them to get on message or denounce them?

I do have only two minutes left and I want to finish answering hon. Members’ other questions.

Local authorities are required to identify sites in their development plans and documents and to deliver the number of pitches allocated to them in the regional spatial strategy. The Scott Wilson report, which ranked a number of potential sites in south and west Hertfordshire, is intended to assist local authorities in preparing those documents. Not all the sites identified will be necessary to deliver the number of pitches allocated. The report considered sites against several criteria including whether the scale of a site would complement its surroundings; whether it was within reasonable distance of amenities, public transport and key services such as doctors and schools; whether it had access to essential services such as water, sewerage and drainage, and whether it avoided contaminated areas. The framework that we have established and the process that the East of England and other regional assemblies are going through are crucial to making progress on site provision. Only by significantly increasing the number of authorised sites will we ensure that all parts of the community have a decent place to live, thereby reducing the tensions that unauthorised sites can cause—

Revenue and Customs Offices (Cornwall)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I am grateful to have an opportunity to raise this issue, which is a matter of growing concern to people across Cornwall, particularly in the town of Launceston in my constituency.

I shall start by sketching out the situation in which my constituents who are employed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Launceston find themselves. The office is one of several across Cornwall. There is a network of offices in the towns of St. Austell, Truro, Redruth, Penzance and Launceston, and it is important to recognise that each one provides slightly different functions.

The work in Cornwall involves compliance—that is, the examination of tax returns and the tax affairs of individuals and companies to ensure that the Exchequer receives exactly what it should, and that tax law is complied with. There is also an element of risk assessment—employees consider which files ought to be examined further by compliance teams—and an inquiry element that allows people to have face-to-face meetings with the experts employed by HMRC to discuss their affairs and raise particular problems. That is a valuable service, and I shall return to it later. Some staff are employed in processing and have particularly busy periods of the year, but processing work carries on throughout the year. Finally, there is a historical Customs presence in Falmouth.

The surrounding area of Cornwall—the region that I am discussing—is one of the poorest in the country in terms of incomes and some of the problems that people face on a day-to-day basis. That has been recognised by the European Union through the provision of objective 1 funding, and in the move to convergence. It is one of only two areas in the country that will benefit from convergence. Those are indications of the sort of area that it is. It is not an affluent part of the country, and it does not have many alternative jobs for people who are currently employed in Revenue and Customs work to take up.

House prices, particularly in north Cornwall, have been pushed up because of second-home ownership and related problems. As measured by the ratio of incomes to house prices, the area is the second most unaffordable place in the country to live after Kensington and Chelsea. The serious effects of any decision to close HMRC offices must be borne in mind. There would be negative effects on, first, the local economy. I have already given some reasons for that, but I will go on to explore it further later. Secondly, the customers—those people who interact with HMRC in the local area—will be affected, and, thirdly, there would be an effect on what I hope are the ultimate aims of the Treasury to maximise the amount of revenue that is collected through the tax system so that the Government can deliver all the projects that MPs up and down the country demand for their areas. We want to maintain the stream of revenue and maximise it.

A national axe, however, could fall on some of those vital jobs. I shall focus on the office in Launceston, which is a small market town with a fantastic history. However, as one might imagine, agriculture in the surrounding area is under pressure. There is an industrial base at the Pennygillam industrial estate in the town, but, as there is a shortage across Cornwall of high-quality jobs, the public sector has an important part to play in providing employment. In this instance, about 60 highly skilled people are employed in the HMRC office in Launceston. There is low staff turnover. The employees have put down roots in the community. They have a high quality of life and are committed to remaining in the Launceston area. They are very much part of the community.

The uncertainty over the future of the office, as well as the introduction of regulations about taking on new people, mean that temporary staff are used to carry out some of the work, particularly processing work. Some people are there for only a short time. They are trained to do the work and then, because of regulations that apply if they are in the job longer than 11 months, they have to go to other jobs, and a new set of temporary staff is brought in. Of course, that can undermine the work that the office does. I am seeking to show that there could be a damaging effect on the local economy if the jobs were withdrawn.

Redruth in my constituency is another area that is likely to be affected by job losses. There is concern not only about the loss of high-quality jobs, which my hon. Friend has just mentioned, but about the loss of footfall to the town, which Redruth has been struggling to build up. There are many vulnerable independent shops. The town council has done everything that it can to attract additional footfall, and it is concerned that job losses will have an impact on the town’s wider economy.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She illustrates the effect that any closures could have on towns in Cornwall.

In discussing job losses, it is fair, too, to discuss the effect on customers who can speak to someone at the inquiry centres in offices around Cornwall. We have highly skilled people, as I said, and customers can go to them with their concerns. Cornwall is largely a small-business economy. Many people in the area have accountants, but others might be new to business or lack the resources to investigate tax matters without some form of support. Surely it is more efficient to provide local resources so that people can have face-to-face contact?

There is pressure to move to a call-centre approach. Indeed, that is under way. However, I have received feedback from people who often find that the person whom they get through to on the phone—the calls are answered quite quickly—does not necessarily have the information at hand to be able to offer advice. Even worse, they could be given incorrect advice, which could lead to further work and greater inefficiency. There are therefore problems with the call-centre approach. We must consider, too, issues of accessibility and distance if people need to see someone at an inquiry centre and are successful in getting an appointment. If the closure programme left us with one office, for example, people would have to travel large distances. From Launceston, it is 35 miles to St. Austell—a journey of about 50 minutes—and about 26 miles or so to one of the offices in Plymouth, which is in Devon, on the other side of the Tamar river. It is 47 miles to Truro; 52 or 53 miles to Redruth; and nearly 70 miles to Penzance. We are talking about significant distances and inconvenience for people who require face-to-face meetings.

I have spoken about the impact on local businesses and customers of HMRC in Cornwall, but we should explore the impact on the objectives of the Minister and her colleagues. I certainly accept in principle that it is absolutely right for any responsible Government to examine the number of civil servants employed in central and local government, to analyse just what they are doing and to determine whether efficiency savings could be made, thereby bringing down the wage bill and freeing up more resources for front-line services. I am sure that we would all support that approach where it is taken effectively.

People working in HMRC, however, are the very people who raise money for all the services that we want. Those who work in compliance, in particular, return 10 or 12 times their salary through the work that they do, the fraud that they uncover and the anomalies with which they deal. It is important to make the point that those people do not cost money but generate it. If jobs are concentrated in larger urban areas, that will have an effect on the Cornish economy. Moving those jobs is also a bad use of resources, because it is cheaper to accommodate offices in market towns where there is less competition for office space.

If, for example, we ask people who are employed in Cornwall to drive in and out of Plymouth every day when they are offered alternative employment, that would add to the traffic pressure on such cities, and would not offer the sustainable approach that would be provided if people worked in the other population centres around Cornwall. I will draw my remarks to a close soon because my hon. Friends may wish to contribute, and I want to leave the Minister enough time to respond. I understand that pressure has been put on rural west Wales, which is a similar area where closures would have an impact on the economy. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales met the Minister to discuss the effect of proposals in that area and I hope that, whatever measures she is contemplating, when she considers the effects of a closure programme on west Wales, she will consider, too, the effects on Cornwall.

Closing offices in areas such as Launceston would damage the local economy, as jobs and money would be taken out and it would undermine the best efforts of objective 1 and convergence programmes to support and strengthen the Cornish economy. The closures would reduce and worsen the service provided to customers and those people who interact with HMRC daily, and could cost money as a result of the loss both of skilled jobs and of people who uncover problems in tax returns and anomalies. Closures would be damaging for all those reasons and, when the Minister considers what proposals to adopt when the reconfiguration of HMRC takes place, I urge her to examine the Cornish case closely and to do whatever she can to ensure that the effects that I have described do not come to pass.

I am pleased to follow the excellent contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson). He made an excellent case, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. The issue has led to concerns not just among staff, but among customers of the service in Cornwall and elsewhere.

At the last Treasury questions, I asked the Financial Secretary about this subject and he reassured me that the full review of Cornwall offices would not commence until next year and therefore we must wait and see what happens to reviews in other places. The Government are therefore at least claiming to be listening to the responses that they have received and are adjusting their proposals accordingly. Before that review takes place, it would be helpful if the Department and the Paymaster General reflected on the concerns that have been expressed by my hon. Friends across Cornwall. The staff and trade unions are very anxious about the socio-economic impact of the proposals on the poorest region of the UK—Cornwall—so it would be reassuring if the Paymaster General acknowledged that that factor will weigh heavily in the assessment of the proposals.

There would also be a wider impact on the Treasury itself, and I hope that the Paymaster General will reflect on that. The problem is not unique to Cornwall, although there are unique reasons why it would have a significant effect on Cornwall, where staff reductions and office closures would have an impact on recoverable tax. When considering the nature and structure of businesses and tax paying in Cornwall, we must recognise that there are large numbers—in fact the highest proportion in the country—of self-employed people, and of small and micro-businesses. In such an economic environment, the existence of local tax offices is an issue of particular sensitivity and importance. Given the climate, I hope that the Department will reflect on the impact of closures on the Treasury itself and on its ability to recover tax from the local community.

I have met staff at the Penzance office in my constituency, and they expressed anxiety because the office has been subject to almost perpetual review in the past 10 years. It would be helpful if the burden could be lifted from tax offices after the full review commences next year and if they could be given reassurance about their future. Those members of staff perform excellent work at a very high level and are often recruited to assist in other parts of the country, which may not be reflected in the review that is about to commence. However, consideration should be given to that fact, and those officers should be given not just a clean bill of health, but the support to continue in the future with the proper backing that they richly deserve.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) on initiating the debate, although, if I may delicately say so, he is a little premature. He may stand up in this Chamber and make statements that local offices collect local tax and give the ratio, but that does not necessarily make those statements accurate. On the whole, there is no correlation between what local offices do and their location, although it is sometimes the case.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) has also pursued this matter, as has the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). They have rightly been assiduous in raising the issue with me, but they need go no further in seeking reassurance that the Government listen when they consult than speak to their hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). They will then find out what happened in the reviews undertaken in his area. All hon. Members should be interested, regardless of the location of their constituency, in the proposals and the future formation of the merged Revenue and Customs. May I tell the hon. Members for North Cornwall and for St. Ives that the notion that officers in Cornwall have somehow lived under a cloud of insecurity for the past 10 years simply does not stand up to scrutiny, and I shall give two examples to show why. The hon. Member for North Cornwall referred to contact centres, and he will be well aware that one has recently relocated to St Austell and that that guarantees more than 200 jobs. I do not recollect that he was unhappy about that type of job and I do not accept his description of the expertise of our staff in contact centres. I say gently to him that taxpayers increasingly want to contact the Department outside normal working hours, when it is convenient for them to do so, by phone or via the internet. If we are to continue to be a responsive Department that uses its resources efficiently, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, it is vital that such a service is provided in an efficient and effective way. The continued collection of tax at the correct level is, of course, part of that process.

The figures on HMRC’s presence in Cornwall show that there has been an increase since 1998 from 417 staff to a headcount now of 781. By any stretch of the imagination, that cannot have led to staff living in insecurity and fearing for their jobs. In fact, jobs have been transferred to the area. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out Cornwall’s importance as an objective 1 area. Let me explain to him how I intend to proceed and how the reviews are progressing, because, to be honest, that will answer many of his questions. I shall address the key commitments in the review programme and the issues facing the Department. Although there are slight variations across the country owing to mergers and changes within the Department, its accommodation is some 40 per cent. over capacity, which means that we are paying for accommodation that we are not using, which does not make sense.

The Department has key commitments on the way in which it works with and supports taxpayers. I shall outline the basics, because they are the ones that the hon. Gentleman touched on, but there are many more. Of course, the economic impact and the likely effect on the local labour market are part of that. There is an absolute commitment to ensure that inquiry contact centres, which are the only part of tax offices providing the type of support and advice that he rightly identified, will be maintained. Staff will not be moved compulsorily from an office before a review has taken place, so there is no need for anybody to feel insecure. No review is going on. We have not started one yet.

I thank the Paymaster General for the comments that she has put on the record. However, it is difficult for me to take on board her comment that there is no need for people to feel insecure. Clearly, one of the major factors that led to my involvement in this matter and to my visit to the Launceston office, with her permission, for which I thank her, was the fact that some people are highly insecure about the future of that office and of their jobs. That is what led to my involvement and to this debate.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, but is it not one of his responsibilities as the local MP to ensure that people do not fear what has not happened? Should he not reassure them, rather than take up and elevate rumours about something that does not exist?

I should like to point out to the hon. Gentleman and to his hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne and for St. Ives that there have been no announcements or decisions to close any office in Cornwall. It seems to me that in serving his constituents well, the hon. Gentleman needs to ensure that he gets that message across very strongly. No decisions have been taken, but there will be a review of office space in the county later this year and in 2008, after which there will be a consultation. As a result of that consultation, staff, stakeholders, local authorities, Members of Parliament, taxpayers and their representatives will be asked for their views. The simple fact is that if we are over capacity, we need to know what to do with the office space.

We have a good track record of consulting on our proposals and listening to the public, and I have every intention of ensuring that consultation on the proposals, which will not begin until the autumn, is transparent and reflects the views of the local community, staff and the unions. Their points will be taken on board during the consultation.

I would like to follow up the issue of excess office space, as other Departments and local government are looking at it, too. Will the Paymaster General reassure me that there will be cross-departmental conversations to ensure that services are protected and that the Government as a whole use their space efficiently?

I understand that the Cabinet Office has responsibility for ensuring that that is the case. The hon. Lady is quite right, and her party supports, for instance, the relocation of staff from London and the south-east wherever possible, as well as the efficient use of departmental expertise and of available office space.

There is always the possibility, of course, which has been raised in consultation, of sharing office space, if not between Departments, between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and local authorities, for instance. We all want to ensure that we maintain the best possible service at the most efficient rate and that, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall quite rightly pointed out, more money is spent on front-line services and perhaps on other Departments—I know that people in Cornwall would have a view on which Departments. That is important.

I have asked departmental managers to look at our offices, cluster by cluster, and they have made reasonable proposals. We will put those proposals out to consultation and ask people for their views, rather than act on them immediately. That is not because I do not trust the departmental managers, but because people have their own views on the economic impact of the proposals and about what is happening in particular markets. Of course, the point that the hon. Gentleman made about transport is much more pertinent to some areas than to others. I cannot make a rule that would cover all offices, because clearly it is easier to travel between some offices than between others. However, his point about the difficulties that might arise was well put.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned objective 1 status. In case he thinks that I have forgotten about that, Cornwall is not the only area, but all those things need to be considered. When the results of the consultation are in, I shall publish the response rate and the comments made, as I have done with reviews undertaken thus far, and they will be open to everyone and be circulated to all staff and stakeholders. If the hon. Members submit written submissions, they will be given that information. There will be briefings for the local MPs as well. On that basis, I shall decide with managers whether to vary the proposals.

The Paymaster General is being very helpful, but would she kindly advise me on the criteria that will be used to assess the responses and whether, as I asked earlier, the impact of staff reductions on recoverable tax and socio-economic impacts will be factored into the assessment?

Yes, socio-economic points will be factored in. However, I should point out gently to the hon. Gentleman—and I will not say of which reviews this been a feature—office staff do not always speak with one voice about their preferred options for the future. There is a belief that there is a united view; there is no such view. Some staff said, “Yes, we would quite like to go and work in that office instead of this one.” Such information will be available in the report on the consultation, although we will not identify the individuals concerned.

The Department will consider its future structure, where particular services are needed and how best to deliver those services efficiently. Hon. Members might find that surprising, but I thought that it was fairer and more transparent to take each cluster, tell them what suggestions have been made, if any, then ask people what they thought of them. In addition, in each office, local managers will conduct meetings and consultations. The staff will have many ways in which to contribute.

Fryer Report

I am very pleased to have this short debate on Professor Fryer’s report “Learning for a Change in Healthcare”, because it is an extremely important report that points the way towards investing further in our NHS staff and continuing the improvements that the Government have made in the health service.

There is no doubt that the health service has improved greatly under this Government. More money is being spent than ever before, people are being treated more quickly, and we have invested huge amounts in building new hospitals and improving existing ones. In my area, for instance, we have, to name just a few things, a new accident and emergency department, a new endoscopy suite and a new cardiac catheter suite, which I visited recently. Investing in plant is very important, especially as some of our hospitals were built before the NHS was founded. Such investment is important for staff and for patients but, as everyone knows, the key to revitalising the NHS is really its staff. How the staff are trained, their opportunities for in-service training and how they can acquire new skills as services change are vital issues as we go forward. If we are serious about that, it must include all staff—those on the lowest pay grades as well as those on the highest.

If I have one criticism of Governments, and it has been true under many Ministers, it is this: when we talk about health service staff, we often talk about doctors and nurses, but we do not talk enough about all the other staff. As I know my hon. Friend the Minister accepts, the health service works on a web of interdependence. Surgeons cannot work in an operating theatre without porters, cleaners and the technicians who deliver the oxygen. A sister cannot run a ward properly without good support staff and good cleaners. I could go on and on making those connections.

Professor Fryer’s report flags up clearly the fact that staff on the lower pay grades have far fewer opportunities for learning than they should do and that attempts to address that have been bedevilled by short-termism and a lack of consistent funding. That is a cause for concern. In fact, much of the report tells us what we already knew or at least suspected: staff on the lower pay grades often need help to improve their literacy, numeracy and information and communications technology skills. The Government’s own labour force survey showed that 40 per cent. of the staff in the NHS are qualified at level 2 or below. In fact, 25 per cent. of them have qualifications below level 2 or no qualifications at all. The same pattern appears in social care: 40 per cent. of staff are qualified at level 2 or below. That has major implications for us as we try to reconfigure services and move services out into the community.

Many people would say, “Well, what does it matter?” It matters for a number of reasons. Many of the staff are the people who come into direct contact with patients every day—they are the face of the health service for many people. At a time of change, it is important that everyone understands the changes, can contribute to them and can benefit from them. Only in that way can we benefit patients, and we cannot afford not to make the best use of the experience and dedication of many of the staff in the NHS.

As Professor Fryer makes clear in his report, however, there is a big learning divide. When he compiled his report, he discovered that 57 per cent. of managers and professionals had had some work-related learning in the previous 13 weeks, but when he went to those in semi-routine jobs, he found that it was down to 32 per cent.—I think that I have got that figure right—and when he went to those in routine jobs, he found that it was only 12 per cent. Clearly, that situation is unsatisfactory. To remedy it will require a great deal of planning and consideration of how we can ensure consistent funding.

Education and learning in the NHS often suffers from not being a priority for managers. The Minister and I were in this Chamber earlier in the year talking about the NHS and higher education, but there is the same problem throughout in respect of learning. When budgets are under pressure, it is often the first thing to be squeezed, but we cannot build a 21st-century health service in that way.

I suspect that we are wasting a great deal of talent, because one of the things that the Select Committee on Education and Skills discovered when we examined further education and adult learning, and talked to such people as trade union representatives and learning providers, was the huge amount that many people can achieve when they are given the opportunity to do so. However, we must put in place the process that will allow that to happen.

I give the Government full credit for having tried to do that, because in the three years from 2002-03, they allocated £180 million to fund learning for staff on the lower pay grades. It was pump-priming money. The problem is that there is very little evidence that that pump-priming has led to real change in the system, because once strategic health authorities take over, learning goes down the priority list again.

Professor Fryer discovered that many health organisations did not even collect data on learning. He said:

“Without such data, it is difficult to see how healthcare organisations and their senior managers can evaluate their own performance and that of their staff”.

I agree. Decisions cannot be taken without information, yet when I asked the Department of Health what it was doing to improve data collection, I received what I am sorry to say to the Minister was a standard Department answer:

“This is a matter for local employers and strategic health authorities.”

I also asked what the Department was doing to improve access to learning among lower-paid staff and I received a similar answer:

“Access to training courses or learning opportunities in the workplace is a local decision.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 866W.]

I understand the reluctance to impose more bureaucracy on the NHS, but all the evidence is that the current system is simply not delivering, and unless we make this issue a national priority, it will not become a priority for those managing the system. Changes have been introduced nationally. For example, all staff on “Agenda for Change” conditions are now entitled to an annual review to assess their personal development and learning needs and to identify gaps in their knowledge, but there is not much point in identifying the gaps unless we have a system in place that can fill them.

That is why the report suggests that there should be learning entitlements for health care staff and that everyone should have a personal development review and be helped to access the learning identified in their personal development plan. Unless we put such a system in place, health care managers will not analyse their training needs, collect consistent data and work out how to meet those needs. In addition, as Professor Fryer points out, if we are to have changes in the system, the necessary learning has to be built into the plans for change.

None of this is easy or straightforward. I give the Government full credit for recognising that in the first place, for ensuring that we have a national director for widening participation in learning, for publishing the report and for being willing to face the changes that are needed. We now have to consider how we make the aspirations in the report a reality. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is going to be done to ensure that health care managers have the support that they need to put in place proper plans for learning. How will we integrate those plans for change with plans about the learning that staff need to promote that change?

It is important that all health care organisations introduce plans for their staff’s learning and development, particularly for staff who do not have level 2 qualifications. After all, the Government are urging companies in the private sector to sign up to delivering on the target that all their staff should have level 2 qualifications. We cannot expect them to do that unless we are willing to do the same for staff in the public service.

The report suggests that learning entitlements should be introduced and that staff should receive 10 hours a year and 25 hours after two years’ service. That would be a step in the right direction, but it will work only if we start negotiations now with the Department for Education and Skills and the learning and skills councils to ensure that we have in place the right programmes for the staff who need them. The report suggests ambitious targets for bringing the literacy and numeracy skills of all staff up to level 2 over five years by reducing the number of people without level 2 skills by 15 per cent. year on year. That is a difficult target to deliver, and we must start considering how we will deliver it.

Professor Fryer also made the important suggestion that there should be a common core of learning for all health care staff. That would have great advantages and ensure that we deliver common minimum standards to patients, because support staff can make a real difference to people’s experiences. When my mother was in hospital last year, dying, I was eternally grateful for the care that she got not only from doctors and nurses, but from support staff and cleaners. They looked after her and me as well when I was sitting on the ward. I remember that the lady in the bay opposite my mother, who was being looked after by a support care worker, said, “Isn’t it wonderful? It’s just like being in a hotel,” and I thought, “That is what we want to achieve.” The staff there were well-trained, dedicated people. We have lots of staff like that in the NHS who are willing to go the extra mile and to do things that are above and beyond their job descriptions. We must ensure that they have the training to deliver.

Professor Fryer suggests that there should be a common core, taking into account the aims and values of the NHS, such as the need to secure respect and dignity for patients and the need to improve the patient experience. That would go a long way towards dealing with many of the more common complaints about hospitals. I do not know what my hon. Friend’s experience is in his constituency, but mine is that complaints often are not about medical or nursing care, but about many other things. Those things might seem trivial, but they assume a great deal of importance when one is in hospital.

The targets and aims will be difficult to deliver, but they could be delivered if all relevant Departments, employers and trade unions worked together to deliver them. There is work to be done to develop the role of trade union learning reps in the health service. They have been very successful elsewhere, and I am sure that we could do more to develop their role in the NHS. We have to deliver for the reasons that are set out in the report. We cannot deliver transformational change in the health service without delivering the learning that goes with it. We cannot expect staff to cope with change and to take on new skills and new ways of working unless they have the requisite learning to do that.

I have touched on only some of the relevant issues in the comprehensive and challenging report, which has received widespread support from strategic health authorities, training managers and trade unions in various parts of the country. We must now start to deliver what the report asks of us. That will ensure the future progress of the NHS and will show that we are serious about developing our NHS staff. It is clear that we cannot go on with a system under which 40 per cent. of the staff are not getting the learning that they need to progress. That is a waste of talent and resources, and it damages the service. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government intend to take the report’s recommendations forward.

This is, indeed, the second time in recent months that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) and I have exchanged views on training in the national health service. I mention that because I want to pay tribute to her dedication and clear commitment to these important NHS issues. She began by saying that in our discussions on the health service we focus a lot on investment in equipment, new facilities and buildings, but that we do not talk anywhere near enough about investing in the people who make up the NHS. She is 100 per cent. correct to say that they make the NHS what it is and make it special, because their work is what people take away from their experience of NHS treatment.

My hon. Friend spoke with authority, knowledge and passion, and I hope to show her that I share some of that passion. She has done the House a considerable service by bringing to its attention the report, “Learning for a Change in Healthcare: First report to the Department of Health and the NHS from Professor R H Fryer, CBE”, who is the Department’s national director for widening participation in learning. Given that the NHS work force is so large and that every constituency has a considerable number of people who work in the NHS, the report is incredibly important for every Member of the House. We all depend on those staff, their commitment to their work and their motivation.

I also pay tribute to Professor Bob Fryer. He has produced an excellent piece of work that deserves prominence, attention and a wider audience. He points out in his recommendations that there is an onus on NHS leaders to promote and sustain

“wider participation in learning for all healthcare staff, especially those in bands 1 – 4”.

I, too, take on that challenge, because it goes all the way up to Health Ministers. We have a responsibility to prioritise this issue and to be honest enough to say when we have not performed well enough.

My hon. Friend was right to say that the Government have not focused enough attention on the NHS staff in the lower grades. I accept that criticism and believe that we need to do much more. The figures that she quoted are not impressive: we need to make much better inroads into how we train and equip our staff. Indeed, I will go further and say that now is the time to prioritise this issue and have a new drive on “Agenda for Change”. Under that incredibly groundbreaking deal, we agreed with the main health trade unions that we would introduce a structure, in all parts of the country, under which staff would not only be adequately rewarded for their work, which is obviously vital, but be able to progress and to develop their careers through the knowledge and skills framework that underpins the agenda. It is time to reconsider that structure and ask whether we are getting the full benefit from it, and whether it is bringing everything that we intended from “Agenda for Change”. We can probably say, “No. We could do more.”

It is important to place on record our thanks to Bob Fryer, who has produced an excellent report, which deserves a wide audience in the Department and throughout the NHS. He has had a distinguished career in lifelong learning and improving access to basic skills, not just in health but in a broader context. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has put before us, and I hope that the Department can make it a reality in the months to come.

My hon. Friend cited figures from the report, and it is worth putting them on the record again. It stated that almost a third

“of NHS staff, or well over 400,000, reported being offered no opportunities for taught learning…in the last year and 70 per cent., or over 900,000, said they had received no supervised on-the-job training in the past twelve months”.

The report also said that

“a quarter of all NHS employees are qualified below NVQ level two, or have no formal qualifications at all…over half a million NHS staff are currently qualified below NVQ level three”.

Just to broaden the sphere slightly, I should say that 40 per cent. of social care staff are qualified only to NVQ level 2 or below. Professor Fryer rightly concludes:

“The NHS will not reach its aspiration of becoming a world class employer and employer of choice whilst the least qualified and least well paid members of the current health and social care workforce are the least likely to be offered training and staff development opportunities.”

I agree with all those things, and my hon. Friend is right to focus the House’s attention on them. She would expect me to draw attention to the work that the Government have done in this area—I believe that she mentioned it herself. Under the terms of the Government’s 10-year NHS plan, earmarked funds were identified to enable staff with few or no formal qualifications to gain NVQs and to make use of the specially created individual NHS learning accounts to undertake other programmes of education and development.

The scheme was successful. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it was originally planned to last for only three years, but the Government extended it twice by a further 12 months. Over the four years since 2002, an investment of about £240 million has been made to develop the skills and competences of more than a third of a million support staff through the initiatives. There are signs of progress, but we have so much more to do to realise the full potential of all our staff.

My hon. Friend talked about the recent experience of her mother being in hospital. She mentioned the support staff, who, in many ways, are the public face of the NHS, and who often do far more than their job says. As she may know, I undertook a process of work shadowing in the NHS. I shadowed a porter, a cleaner and other NHS staff, and I could not agree more with her view that patients derive huge reassurance from cleaning staff and porters. That is not sufficiently recognised by the NHS at times. They help patients through what is often an incredibly stressful experience and provide direct human contact, basic care and communication. That is hugely valued by patients.

My hon. Friend talked generally about how the NHS handles complaints. On that broader perspective, I hope that in creating the kind of learning culture in the NHS that we all want, we change perspectives sometimes. We should invest and equip staff at the front door to the NHS—that direct point—so that they can show the best face of the NHS to the public. I hope that, in many ways, the development and increasing use of patient choice in the NHS will stop organisations looking up to Departments and Whitehall and thinking about what they want; organisations should think more about what affects their reputation. They would then consider cleaning, portering and administrative support staff, who have that direct contact with the public. The clever and enlightened organisation makes a big investment in the people that affect its reputation in the local community. I hope that such a culture is developed in the months to come.

It was precisely because of those issues and the need to widen participation in learning across the whole of health care, that we asked Professor Fryer to become national director for widening participation in learning and created a strategy unit to support him. The culmination of this work to date is Professor Fryer’s report. My hon. Friend is right that it has been extremely well received in the service and the Department.

The Government are looking forward to agreeing priorities and a practical, fully costed and phased implementation plan with Professor Fryer and with representatives of the NHS, key partners and stakeholders. The Government see the way forward as a matter of successful partnership. We need to build on and strengthen the good relationships that exist between health care providers, educational institutions, trades unions, professional bodies and, especially, the public bodies charged with investing in national skills and educational priorities.

To that end, I am pleased to hear of the excellent progress being made in discussions about agreeing new joint funding arrangements for support staff between Skills for Health, the Learning and Skills Council, work force directors in the strategic health authorities and the widening participation in learning strategy unit. I look forward to hearing of the positive outcome of the discussions. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the Government are seeking further to strengthen our commitment to continuing staff development and achievement through learning by consolidating the work of the widening participation strategy unit within Skills for Health. We want to take the agenda forward.

My hon. Friend asked a direct question about what the Government are doing to improve access to training for lower paid staff. Some of that will come through the action plan that we agree with Professor Fryer. I agree that it is not enough to say, “It is just a local matter.” If that were the gist of the answers given, that would not be good enough, because this is not just a local matter; it is much bigger than that, given the size of the NHS work force.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be pleased that, now that we have been able to restore financial stability across the NHS, and as part of the most recent financial settlement for multi-professional education and training—MPET—the Government are requiring strategic health authorities to publish coherent strategies on the learning plan for staff in pay bands 1 to 4 by September. As part of the process in which we are engaged with SHAs, whereby we are passing that responsibility to regional level, we will get a better response to the issues that she raises.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance. Will he also comment on the point about ensuring that embedded in any plan for change in the service is a plan for dealing with the learning requirements of that change?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that question, because that is often an afterthought and is not sufficiently thought through. I shall ensure that however we develop the action plan, we shall take that point on board. I stress to her that these issues are very much in my mind as we move forward on the Government’s 10-year plan in the NHS. We need to ensure that we get the most from our human resource in the NHS—

What a way to say it—human resource. We must get the most from people who make up our wonderful NHS. Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and I are examining how we can refresh and relaunch the knowledge and skills framework later this year. It concern me that the most recent figures show that only 61 per cent. of NHS staff have had an appraisal in the past 12 months and of that group 81 per cent. reported having agreed a personal development plan. We need to get more focus back on to ensuring that appraisals are part of the annual entitlement of every member of staff and that training flows from them. That would give us the platform to take forward the incredibly positive agenda that Professor Fryer has set out in his report.

I probably have not covered all the points. I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate and I hope that over the course of this year she will see that the Department really does mean what I have been saying.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.