House of Commons
Thursday 5 July 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government have set a challenging commitment for the UK to reduce our carbon emissions by 60 per cent. compared with 1990 levels by 2050. That affects us all, of course, and the Government have a full part to play. Indeed, the aim is to make the Government office estate carbon-neutral by 2012. Microgeneration technologies certainly must play their part in reaching that goal.
May I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and take this opportunity to welcome him to the Dispatch Box in his new role? Naturally, I welcome plans to use microgeneration in Government buildings. However, does he agree that all public buildings should be subject to strict targets on microgeneration and that proper monitoring procedures and greater transparency should be put in place to make that possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for that welcome—it is like I have never been away.
The Government have allocated £86 million over the next three years for our low-carbon building programme. Phase 2 will enable such places as public buildings, community centres and buildings in the voluntary sector to have microgeneration. That is important. I am especially keen on ensuring that we have microgeneration in our schools, not only so that they are energy efficient, but so that we can teach our children about their relationship with energy, and energy’s relationship with the future of our planet.
Regional Development Agencies
The performance of the regional development agencies against their targets is laid before Parliament every six months. In 2005-06, the last year for which we have full-year figures, they helped to create or attract almost 19,000 new businesses, supported 800,000 businesses through Business Link, and assisted more than 166,000 businesses to improve their performance. Half-year figures for 2006-07 have been laid before Parliament and full-year figures will follow shortly.
The figures that the Minister quoted were largely self-assessed by the bodies themselves. The truth is that those bureaucratic bodies show very little enterprise. Does he agree that a great deal of good would be done for businesses, and a great deal of public money would be saved, if he were to abolish them? He could then return the money to businesses through a cut in business rates, especially for small businesses, which would benefit the many, rather than the few businesses that are favoured by regional development agencies.
The performance of the regional development agencies is not judged only through self-assessment. For example, the National Audit Office assessed all regional development agencies as performing either well or strongly. Let me quote a random comment from its verdict on the East Midlands Development Agency:
“emda has a strong vision for the region which has been developed and strengthened in successive productions of the…economic Strategy…emda’s partnership working is a real strength, with an emphasis on building strategic delivery and in getting stalled projects to work again… The evidence base…is detailed and comprehensive and is well regarded by partners and stakeholders”.
Will my hon. Friend investigate the different approaches of the RDAs to rural enterprise? For instance, the East Midlands Development Agency has supported an excellent farmers’ co-operative initiative called Peak Choice, which was launched in my constituency last week. However, it appears that Advantage West Midlands—my constituency sits in the west midlands—is less willing to engage with rural developments and enterprise, even though Staffordshire, Moorlands falls within a rural action zone.
Regional development agencies should be supporting business activity in both rural and urban areas. The output results for 2005-06 have been disaggregated on a rural and urban basis and can be found on the departmental website. I will be happy to take up my hon. Friend’s specific question about Advantage West Midlands with the RDA on her behalf.
On behalf of the yet-to-be-renamed Trade and Industry Committee and all its members, may I say how much I welcome the Minister and all his new and old friends, especially one old friend, to the Dispatch Box? Is the Minister aware of the Committee’s recent report on UK Trade and Investment and its critical words about the failure properly to co-ordinate regional development agencies’ work in overseas markets? What will be the role of another new friend, Sir Digby Jones? Will he be using all his traditional powers of tact and diplomacy to ensure that the regional development agencies are better co-ordinated in overseas markets?
I add my welcome to the new ministerial team. Does my hon. Friend welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier this week that there will be regional committees of Members of this House, and does he agree with me that that will strengthen the relationship between the House and the regional assemblies, particularly with regard to enterprise and the economy of our regions? Will he encourage Opposition Members to join in with those regional committees with full enthusiasm, despite their aversion to regionalism?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. Such committees can play an important role. I shall just mention the kind of work that they could consider doing, in the context of current problems. For example, the RDA in Yorkshire moved very quickly in response to the recent floods; it has made £1 million available in business support. That is moving quickly, locally, in response to a local emergency. That is the kind of issue that could be examined productively by the committees that she mentions.
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the Chairman of the Select Committee, will the Minister tell us what his new Department will do about the duplication that takes place in the RDAs’ overseas activities? The simple fact is that to the Indian market, to take just one example, the United Kingdom is a very small place, and the differences between the west midlands and the east midlands, or the north-east and the south-west, are irrelevant to that market. We want business to come back to UK plc, and once it gets back here, we will decide where it goes. What will the Minister do about that particular problem, and that waste of money?
As figures published this week show, the UK is performing extremely well in attracting inward investment from abroad. Of course we have a duty to make sure that our efforts are properly co-ordinated, but we would not accept a situation in which it was suggested that something was seriously hampering our efforts to attract inward investment; the record shows that we are an extremely attractive location. The hon. Lady mentioned India. She will know that the UK is home to about 60 per cent. of Indian inward investment in Europe. I think that we are performing well in the Indian market. I am sure that we could do better in that market and in others, and I assure her that my colleagues and I will do everything that we can to make sure that that is the case.
As a newly elected Labour and Co-operative MP in 1998, I was happy to serve on the Regional Development Agencies Bill Committee, in which we considered what later became the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. At the time, I received reassurances from Ministers that the RDAs would have a specific brief to encourage co-operative and community enterprises. There have not been too many signs of that, particularly in the east midlands, where an investigation is taking place, in which I played a part last week. Will the Minister look again at how best we can tap the potential of a principle whose time has come, in many ways?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the co-operative sector is an important part of the economy, and it can be a very successful part of it—indeed, it is, in many ways. The RDAs should take that into account in their work, but I am happy to have further dialogue with him. The RDAs should be responding in a comprehensive way that supports all kinds of businesses, including co-operatives.
We are committed to securing the long-term future of both Royal Mail and the Post Office. We have made substantial investments available to Royal Mail on commercial terms and, subject to European Community state aid clearance, we will provide substantial further support for the Post Office, in order to provide a comprehensive and accessible national network.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the proposed post office closure programme is likely to hit rural areas disproportionately hard? For many people living in villages such as Llansannan, Llanfair Talhaiarn and Llangernyw in my constituency, the post office is frequently the only convenient means of access to financial services. Will the Secretary of State say how he reconciles his Government’s aim to combat social and financial exclusion with a proposal that, if fully implemented, may well put financial services out of reach of people in such areas?
What the hon. Gentleman says is right. We all recognise the importance of sub-post offices to the social infrastructure of our country, particularly in rural areas. I, too, represent a constituency that includes a substantial rural area. However, we cannot hide from the reality of what is happening in the post office network. Customer behaviour is changing. People are not using the post offices in the same way that they did, and we cannot hide from that fact. What we are proposing, with the compensated closure plan and the new outreach locations, is a sensible strategy to deal with the change. I understand that Opposition Front-Bench Members have recognised that the current network is not sustainable, as has the National Federation of SubPostmasters. I urge the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to work with us. I hear what he says about concerns about rural areas. I think we have addressed them, but I am rather surprised that he chose not to take part in the recent consultation exercise about the future of the post office network affecting his constituency. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman did not take part.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role. We are all aware that the deal between Post Office Ltd and WH Smith in relation to some Crown post offices is a done deal, but will he use his good offices to ensure that before those transfers take place, the Post Office and WH Smith have full regard to disability access to the relocated branches? I give the example of the WH Smith branch in Churchill square, Brighton, where the relocated post office will be in the basement, where the lift has been out of order for the past three weeks and where, although there is a down escalator, there is no up escalator. I suspect the same is true of many other branches.
I am very sorry about the problem with the escalators in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Let me make it clear to him and to other hon. Members who have perfectly reasonable concerns about the issue that there is very clear legislation about the need to ensure that premises such as post offices and Crown post offices are accessible to disabled people. It will clearly be the responsibility of the franchisee—WH Smith, in this case—to make sure that all its premises are fully accessible to disabled people.
There is unfair competition between private mail operators and Royal Mail, because the private operators are able to cherry-pick the most profitable areas. In order to even up the market, would the Government consider imposing a levy on private mail operators who do not fulfil the universal service obligation, and use the money to help fund Royal Mail for delivering in remote rural areas and islands?
No, we will not impose additional levies as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is the responsibility of the regulator to make sure that all these issues are properly addressed and the universal service obligation is properly implemented. There are significant benefits for all of us in a more liberalised, competitive postal market, and we will do all we can to ensure that those benefits reach businesses, customers and eventually taxpayers.
We will keep all these matters fully under review. We are strongly behind the liberalisation of the postal sector. In the long term it will be in the best interests of British business, consumers and taxpayers. If my hon. Friend wishes to come and discuss any aspects of these matters with me, he is more than welcome to do so.
The number of post offices in my constituency has been exactly halved, from 22 to 11, in the past seven years. Now the Post Office in another WH Smith deal proposes, in this case, to put the Crown post office upstairs rather than in a basement, but again with a one-way escalator and a lift at the back of the building, which may suit WH Smith but does not suit my constituents, yet two further post offices are ear-marked for possible closure in the latest round of consultations. What faith can my constituents have in the consultation process or in the words of the Minister’s earlier reply, given that in his previous incarnation he was significantly responsible for taking away a great deal of the work that kept small post offices going—
I understand some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I am slightly surprised that a Conservative Member is making those accusations, particularly about the failure of the Post Office to win business in a competitive marketplace. He seems to be urging Ministers to give the Post Office business on terms that are not advantageous to consumers and to business. That would be a completely unacceptable state of affairs. There will be a full and open consultation in the hon. Gentleman’s area, and I urge him to take part in it. Let me remind him of some of the facts that he overlooked. During the period of the previous Administration, nearly 3,500 post offices were closed without any type of agreement on consultation or on ensuring proper and appropriate access to the remaining branches of the network. There are difficult decisions that we have to take. My view is that we should not hide from them or duck them; his view seems to be that we should do both.
My right hon. Friend was absolutely right when he said that the Welsh Tories, and indeed the Welsh nationalists, did not take part in the Department of Trade and Industry review of post offices, although they use it as a political football. By contrast, Welsh Labour MPs have convened four meetings, including with credit unions, high street banks and, next Tuesday, the Welsh Local Government Association. In our meetings, we have come to the conclusion that there needs to be greater co-ordination between all those organisations. What measures will he take to improve that co-ordination between the various Departments and agencies that have an influence on the Post Office?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He clearly makes the point that it is incumbent on all of us on both sides of the House, whatever party we represent, to address the reality of the situation, including the commercial reality of the difficulties that the post office network is facing—it is currently losing £4 million a week. We have a choice: we can either engage seriously in the consultation process, as are my colleagues, I am glad to say, or we can run away from the issues. In Government, I will do all that I can to co-ordinate across a variety of interested Departments a proper response to the challenge that the Post Office faces. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to support that sensible process.
The Minister will be aware of Royal Mail’s proposals on zonal pricing, which are being considered by Postcomm. He will also be aware that there is already a problem with parcels in remoter and island areas of Scotland, and many fear that zonal pricing will lead ultimately to an attack on the universal service obligation. It is only for business mail at the moment, but it could be extended later to all mail. Will the Government stand by the universal service obligation and not allow that zonal pricing scheme?
We do stand by the obligation—in fact, it was put into primary legislation as recently as 2004. Postcomm is responsible for dealing with all these issues; that is the settlement that Parliament legislated for. We should let the regulator make these decisions. If the hon. Gentleman wants to come and discuss any particular concerns with me or my ministerial team, he is welcome to do so.
While liberalisation might be good for Royal Mail in the long run, is my right hon. Friend aware of the difficulties that many of the cost-cutting measures that are taking place at the moment are creating for local businesses? For example, Jackson Coachworks in my constituency requires its post by 9 o’clock in the morning in order to do its business but is not getting it until at least midday, and sometimes in the early afternoon. Will he use his good offices to be in contact with Postcomm to ensure that the service that businesses require to carry on day by day is delivered on the ground?
Yes, we will certainly do that. We keep a careful watch on all these matters. However, Royal Mail now operates in a highly competitive marketplace, and if it is not delivering the service that its business customers want, there are probably other companies that will. It therefore has a simple set of choices ahead of it—to be responsive to the needs of its customers or lose business.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. We always found his predecessor to be helpful, engaging and courteous—although, sadly, utterly misguided in the policies that he proposed for the Post Office, which threatened to close a third of the network.
Is the Secretary of State aware that it costs Royal Mail 25 per cent. more to operate its services than it costs its competitors, that it is 40 per cent. less efficient, and that any attempts by the trade unions to prevent the modernisation of the service will result only in Royal Mail becoming less efficient and ultimately cost more jobs in the long run? Does he agree with his new friend, Comrade Digby, who is no doubt learning the words to “The Red Flag” as we speak, that the current mail strike is about “last century issues”, and why does he think that that statement has made many Labour peers think that he should not be a Minister and may be a loose cannon pointing in their direction?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words—that is probably as good as it gets. In fact, I heard Comrade Digby singing the words of “The Red Flag” this morning as I passed his office; he had perfect pitch, too.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned about a genuine problem, and we must all want the current wave of industrial action that is affecting Royal Mail to end quickly. We all hope that that will happen. It is not in the interests of the company or the business for the industrial action to continue. Talking, not strikes, resolves disputes. I hope that that is clearly understood.
On the wider point in the question, the hon. Gentleman said that at least 1,000 sub-post offices needed to close. Perhaps it would be helpful in the course of our exchanges if he could assist us to identify them.
Nuclear power stations provide about 18 per cent. of the UK’s electricity, but most of them are set to close over the next two decades. The only way in which to meet the dual challenge of climate change and security of supply is by ensuring as wide a choice of low carbon options as possible, which, in the Government’s preliminary view, should include nuclear. We are currently consulting on that proposition.
May I, too, add my words of welcome to the Secretary of State to his post and for the positive nature of his answer? However, welcome the consultation exercise is to those who produce most of the nation’s nuclear fuel at Toshiba Westinghouse in my constituency, there is concern about what happens from 2008, when the results are made public. The Government said that, in 2008, they will announce a call for applications to justify new nuclear power stations. To give certainty to those companies that are now expressing genuine interest in investing in new nuclear facilities, will he undertake, as part of the response to the consultation exercise, to set out a clear set of milestones that map out the decision-making process from now on?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and I know exactly where he is coming from on the issue. We have conducted a preliminary review of the role of nuclear. It is important in the current circumstances for a full and proper consultation to take place on the right way forward. I agree that it will be important for the industry—and all of us—to have a clear sense of the timetable. I hope to set it out later this year.
I echo the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) because planning is crucial. I want to encourage my right hon. Friend to examine the educational provision for nuclear training because, as he and I know, there is currently little capacity for technical or academic competence in nuclear matters. To get it right, the institutions with competence in the subject need early advice and support to develop the courses that we need.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments and I agree with her about the importance of skills to the energy sector. Clearly, that is now a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, but I assure her and the House that we shall work closely with him on finding the right way forward.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role and look forward to helping him and the Government do a better job in the new Department than they would do without the sage counsel of the Liberal Democrats.
My father was a nuclear physicist but he never convinced me of the case for nuclear power. What is the cost per kilowatt of nuclear power when decommissioning operations and the management of nuclear waste are taken into account?
We have set out a range of information and details about all those matters in the recent consultation document and other publications. The document made it clear that, if there is to be new nuclear, the industry must meet the costs of decommissioning and waste management. There is no question of the taxpayer being involved.
I generally welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We now have a star gazer as spokesman for the Liberal Democrats and that is a huge improvement on the usual navel gazing that we get from them.
There remains considerable public concern about the storage of nuclear waste. What progress is my right hon. Friend making in establishing the scientific case that such storage is safe and secure? What further consultation is he carrying out with the public to reassure them that this can be done at a cost that is reasonable for the country?
I agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. He will be aware that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently published a consultation document on precisely these issues. I have no doubt that they will also surface as we take forward the consultation on the nuclear document for which my Department has responsibility. All these issues have to be fully aired and addressed in the consultation exercise, and we should proceed only in the light of the information and the best evidence about what is in the best interests of our country for the long term.
What importance does the Secretary of State attach to energy security, which he mentioned in his initial comments? In particular, will his Government firmly make the case that we need to be less reliant on oil and gas from Russia and Ukraine and on oil from the middle east?
This is an enormously important issue to which we attach great significance. We need not only to take into account the threat of climate change but to make absolutely sure that future generations of people in this country have confidence in the security of our energy supply. There is an increasing role for renewables, and we will aggressively pursue that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned fossil fuels; let us take gas as an example. Some people think that we can significantly increase the use of gas as a source of energy, but that would clearly expose us to energy security risks in the future, because it would have to be imported. These are important issues, but, for the moment, it is best to leave them to the consultation exercise that is now under way. I will ensure that all right hon. and hon. Members are kept fully informed of what is happening and of the events that are going to take place during the consultation.
Replacement nuclear power will require considerable investment over a long period of time. Does the Secretary of State recognise that that investment will not be forthcoming if nuclear power is seen as a last resort? Should not we encourage investment by having a high carbon price that is sustainable through a new, revised and robust European emissions trading scheme?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Carbon pricing is an important ingredient in the mix, and we must take it into account. I also agree that it is a mistake—and, dare I say it, an abnegation of responsibility—for us to see nuclear power only as a last resort. That would be to pre-empt and pre-judge the issues and, in particular, would take no account of the important question of energy security that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has just referred to.
May I welcome the Secretary of State and his entire ministerial team to their new positions? I particular welcome the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks) to his post. The departmental photo gallery will show him to be the seventh Energy Minister of this Government, and also the ninth. May I ask the Secretary of State how many qualified staff at the nuclear installations inspectorate are specifically employed to oversee the licensing of reactor designs?
I do not know the answer to that question, but I will find out.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, because this is a crucial question. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that
“we have made the decision to continue with nuclear power”.—[Official Report, 4 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 955.]
How can the Secretary of State justify that bold assertion when potential investors are dismayed that very few people in the NII are allocated to the licensing process? We can see now that there will be delays in building new power stations because, right from the start, there will be a licensing bottleneck. Is it not true that the Government have not yet given the NII permission to start recruiting the extra staff that it needs even now?
I will look into those matters. We are making sensible contingency plans, particularly in the area of pre-licensing that the hon. Gentleman has just referred to. It is necessary to keep those wheels turning while the consultation on nuclear power is under way, but in no way, shape or form should that be seen as pre-empting the outcome of the consultation document. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government and the NII are taking sensible steps forward. The NII is ultimately the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive and the Department for Work and Pensions, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are keeping in close contact with it.
Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) said, has the Secretary of State seen the recent report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, “Educating Engineers for the 21st century: the Industry View”? It reached one alarming conclusion:
“Over the next ten years the UK is facing an increasing shortage of high calibre engineering graduates entering industry”.
Given that we are heading towards nuclear power as the one option that we are going to follow, what measures is he taking to ensure that we have nuclear engineers for the future? They need to commission, build and run those power plants. What effort is he making to ensure that we have that sort of engineer in 10 years’ time?
I welcome what my hon. Friend says and will repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. We have to address the skills base of the energy sector. That is primarily a responsibility for my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. I will work closely with him and his new Department in ensuring that Britain has the engineers and technical experts we need if we decide to go down the nuclear route. I want to make one other point clear; it is the Government’s preliminary view that companies should have the opportunity to invest in new nuclear, but that will be alongside a range of diverse energy supplies, including renewables and gas.
Resources allocated to UK Trade and Investment this year totalled some £250 million, of which some 70 per cent. is devoted to overseas trade development. In addition, the devolved Administrations and the regional development agencies allocate resources to trade development too.
I am grateful for that response. UK Trade and Investment does a very good job with the resources that it has available in a competitive global world. It employs 2,300 people, many of them in embassies, high commissions and consulates throughout the world. Is it not true, however, that some have been asked to extend their duties to cover global warming and the environment generally? That is an important subject and we need to keep its profile high in the rest of the world, but will the Minister review the responsibilities of our staff working abroad to ensure that they are properly focused on assisting British companies?
We always keep under very close review what we are asking UKTI staff to do. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the recent review of the focal sectors on which it should concentrate. We want to ensure in particular that we help small and medium-sized enterprises to get innovative new products to the market. In addition, we also want to ensure that UKTI staff are doing all that they can to help British businesses sell products into new emerging markets, such as India, China, Brazil and so on.
Does my hon. Friend understand that although the important nuances to which he has referred will remain at the heart of the policy, it is simply a question of putting a darn sight more money into our exporting services? If he compares what we are doing with what the French and Germans are doing, to take just two international comparators, he will see that we are well down in investing in our exporters. I urge him to cherish our exporters in a nation that has to export in order to import those other goods and services that are so important to our well-being.
I will always cherish the work of UKTI staff. They do an excellent job, as the recent record investment figures show. It is also why the Opposition’s suggestions to abolish the regional development agencies are completely and utterly inappropriate. The RDAs’ contribution, alongside the contribution of UKTI staff, is helping British business to sell into new markets. Obviously, there is more that we need to do, and we will keep that under close review.
I welcome the Minister to his new role. I am sure he would agree that Digby Jones has many admirable qualities to bring to export promotion policy, but he has said that he wants a more competitive corporation tax rate. He has also called trade unions “irrelevant”. Indeed, he has said that he will not join a political party. Is the Minister certain, therefore, that we are not going to end up with two trade policies: one announced by his more comradely colleague in the other place and the other announced by his more gentlemanly Ministers in this House?
I think brother Digby has a huge contribution to make. That is the reason why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked him to join the Government. We recognise that he has played an important role as head of the CBI. As always, there has been a robust debate between the CBI, the Government and a range of business organisations as to how to move forward. We welcome his experience. I am sure that he will make an important contribution in his new role in the Department. Having seen some of the press reports since his appointment, he appears, if the rumours are true, to have already secured the premier invitation available to Ministers: to appear before the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. I feel a little envy towards him in that regard already.
Does my hon. Friend the Minister recognise that, as a country that exports more per head than the United States or Japan, we depend on exports, particularly to countries such as India, for our future prosperity? What will he do to involve resident communities whose origins are in India to help to push British exports? I am certain that their contribution is a significant reason why we are such a substantial exporter to India.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the contribution that people from the Indian diaspora are already making to improve trade relationships between our country and India. We continue to work on that through UKTI. As I indicated in answer to a previous question, we have shifted the focus of UKTI and asked it to do more to build trade relationships with countries such as India, China and Brazil. We will continue to work with diaspora communities in that regard, too.
The introduction of the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive in the UK from 1 July is a positive step for the environment, given that Britain produces and disposes of some 2 million tonnes of such electrical waste every year. The new arrangements will reduce toxicity and the volume of waste going to landfill, as well as encouraging both resource productivity and sustainable development. All retailers of electrical and electronic equipment are obliged to offer in-store take-back, unless they are members of the distributor take-back scheme. So far, over 2,500 retailers have joined the scheme. That accounts for more than 75 per cent. of such sales.
The local economy in Upminster depends heavily on the success of its many small businesses. I am concerned about the disproportionate effect of the regulations on small electronic producers and retailers. What assessment have the Government made of that impact and of the likely barrier to new entrants to the market?
We obviously have looked at the impact on small businesses. It is a producer responsibility, but I am encouraged that such a large number of distributors—over 2,500—have already joined the take-back scheme. The costs are relatively small, but the environmental impact will be vast and in the right direction. I am encouraged by the fact that most small companies recognise the importance of that scheme. Their customers want to move away from the throwaway society. People who are recycling their newspapers, bottles and plastics want to recycle electrical goods. The directive puts that into place in Great Britain.
As a fellow Croydon Member, may I welcome the Minister to his new brief? He has done well in the past and I am sure that he will do well in the future.
I turn to the WEEE directive. Does he agree that it is essential that those regulations do not threaten our international competitiveness? To what extent has he done a comparison with the regulations in other European countries, and to what extent do our regulations differ from the European regulations?
We took a little while to introduce the scheme because we wanted to get it right. Offering producers and retailers who are producers the opportunity to join a take-back scheme, rather than their having to handle electrical waste in their own stores, is a move in the right direction. It is encouraging that new companies are springing up that see a commercial opportunity in recycling such waste, and that local authorities such as Croydon are turning what used to be known as the local dump into recycling centres, as evidenced by the excellent Purley Oaks recycling centre in my neighbourhood and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Voluntary organisations and local charities are making efforts in that regard. I have seen for myself in the great borough of Croydon how a voluntary organisation can perform minor repairs and maintenance on a washing machine that has been flung out and thereby make it ready for use by people who are being re-housed or low income families. There is also a substantial market in materials such as scrap metal. Environmentally and commercially, the measures are a major step in the right direction.
If your parliamentary kettle were to break down, Mr. Speaker, it might well be sent abroad—to Poland, for example—to be repaired. That is an unintended consequence of the WEEE regulations, as they impose a levy on damaged goods which makes them more expensive to repair in this country. Will the Minister consider modifying the regulations so that British companies can repair and resell such goods in this country?
We will, of course, keep that under close review. The measures have been in operation for only a few days, and I have no doubt that we will need to revisit certain aspects of them. Their overall direction is absolutely right, however. There is a statistic that is worth highlighting: each of us during our lifetime throws away 1 or perhaps 2 tonnes of goods such as kettles, toasters and white goods. We must stop that; we must move away from being a throwaway society to being an environmentally conscious society, and we are doing so.
We continue to support the approach set out in planning policy statement—PPS—22 on renewable energy, which is for local planning authorities to
“ensure that renewable energy developments have been located and designed in such a way to minimise increases in ambient noise levels”,
using the 1997 report by the energy technology support unit to assess and rate noise from wind energy developments. I do not consider that a review of that guidance is justified at present.
Is the Minister aware of the growing evidence that people who live in close proximity to wind turbines suffer significant risks of adverse health effects? Will he give urgent consideration to increasing the minimum separation distance from large turbines to at least 2 km, and is he aware that this is another reason why my constituents in Bradwell and Tillingham are utterly opposed to the proposal to build 10 400 ft wind turbines within a mile of their homes?
No, I am not aware of such evidence, and I do not believe that it exists. A Government-commissioned Hayes McKenzie study published in 2006 concluded that there was no evidence of adverse health effects from wind turbines. We are aware that there are myths and concerns, and we have established a noise working group, which I have asked to meet quietly along the corridor. [Interruption.] I cannot do Digby jokes, but I can do that one. Among the members of that group are the authors of the report to which I have referred and other acoustic experts. Its remit is to advise Government on the specific issue of aerodynamic modulation, not to review the existing guidance. It is up to local planning authorities to make their own judgments on smaller wind turbine developments.
Some people find them beautiful and others find them irksome. One study showed that 81 per cent. of the general public were in favour of wind power and that 62 per cent. would be happy to live within 3 miles of wind power development. Obviously, it is for local planning authorities to make their own judgments, but I am bound to say that it would be sad if we had a Parliament that says no to nuclear, no to gas storage and no to wind turbines. The people of Britain want the lights to turn on and their kettles to boil.
Sub-postmasters are private business people who operate 97 per cent. of the 14,000 post offices in the network. They are free to develop their associated retail businesses and to pursue commercial arrangements with who ever they want, so long as the products provided are not in direct competition with the key Post Office products that provide income to support the network.
May I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment? It is interesting to learn that brother Digby is now taking holy orders. I wonder whether he might take ministerial orders; it will be interesting to see. The Minister will know that sub-postmasters are concerned about the terms of their contract, which are vague. They are uncertain as to their freedoms in this respect and they have a real need for greater help and support to allow them to develop new areas of business. What plans does the Post Office have to answer those concerns?
We are in dialogue with the Post Office about all that it can do to support sub-postmasters in their efforts to diversify and to grow and expand their businesses. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, this is a competitive environment. A number of sub-post offices are under pressure, as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) said, but the Post Office will take this action with a mind to the products offered in sub-post offices that provide them with their own revenue.
Minister for Women
The Minister for Women was asked—
Since the UK action plan on human trafficking was published in March, we have done further work with the countries of origin to protect against human trafficking, to support the victims of human trafficking in this country, and to prosecute and punish the perpetrators—the human traffickers.
When she has the next ministerial interdepartmental meeting, will the right hon. and learned Lady raise the recent discovery that trafficked women are being forced to have contraceptive implants in their arms and legs without their consent? Will she also see that health workers and doctors are advised of this, so that the police can pursue the gangs that are doing it?
One important point about the interdepartmental ministerial group working on human trafficking is that it includes representation from the Department of Health. I will make sure that it discusses the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I shall perhaps report back to him in writing.
I most warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend and her colleagues to the Front Bench; it is a great pleasure to see her there. On my recent visit to Ukraine, where the trafficking of women is a serious problem, one concern that emerged was the lack of resources in this country—aside from the POPPY project—and the lack of rape crisis centres, which means that many women are being sent back to Ukraine, only to be re-victimised and to then end up back in this country. Will she look into that issue and ensure that there are proper resources, so that these women can be safeguarded when they arrive—finally and safely—in this country?
I thank my hon. Friend for her warm welcome for me to my new post. I have regarded as very important the work that I have been able to do with her over the years as she has worked consistently on the issue of violence against women. She raises the important point of re-victimisation of women who go back to their own country but are then re-trafficked. That shows the importance of joining up the work of the voluntary sector—she mentioned the POPPY project—the immigration authorities, the police and the Foreign Office, which works in the countries of origin. It is a major problem of organised crime, involving hundreds of millions of pounds, and we need to work together on it.
I, too, welcome the right hon. and learned Lady to this, the fourth of her new jobs, albeit one that is usually shared with other roles. I join her in paying tribute to the work that has been done on this issue by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). We should all be concerned about the modern-day slavery that is human trafficking. It is a sickening and appalling trade in human beings. All hon. Members welcomed the Government’s signing of the convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but they still have not ratified it. When do the Government intend to ratify it and will she update the House on what specific policy changes have been made as a result of signing the convention?
Signing the convention reflects the work that has been done with countries of origin to tackle the demand side of human trafficking in this country to protect victims and prosecute offenders. I was Solicitor-General for four years and I know that compared to many other European countries, this country has done a great deal to tackle the problem of human trafficking.
I welcome the right hon. Lady to her position as shadow Minister for Women. Like me, she will combine the important work of that role with Leader of the House work.
I cannot give my right hon. Friend the figures—[Hon. Members: “Thirty”.] I am assisted by Opposition Members who say “Thirty”. My hon. Friend raises an important point. Sex without consent is illegal: it is the crime of rape. Too often, the practice has been that the victims are supported and the traffickers prosecuted—rightly so—but the punters, the clients paying for sex with the women who have been abducted and brought to this country, are told to go on their way. We should recognise that if we tackle the demand side of this evil trade, we will go a long way. I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that issue, and we will keep a firm focus and work with the prosecutors on it.
I thank the House for that welcome. Since its merger in 2005, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Service has been reviewing its extensive estate in the light of future business requirements. However, before a final decision is taken to close any office, including the one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, the impact on customers, staff and the wider community has to be assessed. That includes the examination of equality issues such as gender.
I believe that the intended closure of the tax office in Kettering will be discriminatory against the largely female work force. Of 78 staff, 58 are women and 32 work part-time. They simply will not be able to relocate to the alternatives being put forward in Northampton or Leicester and I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary liaised with her colleagues in the Treasury to stop that closure.
I shall be most happy to do what the hon. Gentleman asks. I commend him on the work that he has done, in this House and outside, to represent his constituents. They must be very pleased, especially those in Cytringan house and Montagu court. HMRC is committed to ensuring that women and other groups do not suffer when tax offices are closed. I stress that no decision to close the Kettering office has yet been taken, and that consultations in the London area produced quite a large change in the closure programme. Therefore, he should persist.
May I welcome my hon. Friend to her new role, which is both well deserved and long overdue, especially given her commitment to equalities in this country and in South Africa? The possible closure of HMRC offices may affect my constituents as well. Will any change mean extra travel for the women involved, and will they be able to do the same sort of work in offices elsewhere?
One aspect of the impact assessment that is made is the effect on travel, which is quite considerable in the case of the Kettering office. All staff will have individual meetings with their managers to assess their travel requirements and to make sure that they do not affect their work-life balance. Finally, I thank my hon. Friend for her kind comments.
The Government are committed to promoting equality for people with gender dysphoria. Since April 2007, the duty on public authorities to eliminate sex discrimination has underpinned the specific legal protections for transsexual people in the workplace that we introduced in 1999. We are now consulting on ways to extend those protections.
May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on her promotion, and welcome her to the Dispatch Box? Is she aware of the huge disparity in the ability of transgender people in the UK to access treatment and surgery? In her new role, will she liaise with colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure equality for all transgender people nationwide across the UK?
I am aware of the disparity to which my hon. Friend refers, and she will know all too well that responsibility for this matter rests currently with individual primary care trusts. However, I am already working across Government, and with the Department of Health in particular, to improve access to treatment and surgery for the trans community. The Department of Health has a programme of work that is aimed specifically at better meeting their needs.
This is the last time that I will be speaking to the House in the role of my party’s spokesperson for women and equality. [Hon. Members: “Shame!”] May I add my congratulations to the Minister, and wish her very well in her new role? Also, I want to place on record my thanks to her predecessor, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who is now Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. She worked in an extremely positive way with me and with Conservative spokespeople on these matters.
I congratulate the Government on their proposals in respect of transsexuals. They are defined as people who have had, or seek, gender reassignment surgery, but that definition does not cover the vast majority of trans people, who do not want surgery. Why is no protection in place or planned to cover the majority of trans people who are not seeking surgery?
First, I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words, and I commend her for the work that she has done in this House on women and equality issues. I shall also convey what she said to my predecessor.
I agree that a great deal of work remains to be done in respect of the trans community. The Government and the Department of Health are trying to secure basic rights for the people in that community. After that, consultations will be held with them on the other issues that need to be addressed, one of which is the matter to which the hon. Lady referred.
Business of the House
With permission, before I give the business of the House, may I say that, having been a Member of the House for 25 years, it is an enormous privilege to be its leader—a member of the Government, of course, but leader of the whole House. I will always want to see, of course, that the Government are able to get through the laws that we have promised, but I and my ministerial team will do everything that we can to protect the rights of Back Benchers, to hold the Government to account, to ensure proper and timely scrutiny of legislation, and to enable the House to hold the most open, effective and best informed democratic debates in the world.
The business for next week will be:
Monday 9 July—Estimates [3rd allotted day]. There will be a debate on scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making, followed by a debate on the Rural Payments Agency, the implementation of the single payment scheme and the UK Government’s “Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy”.
Details will be given in the Official Report.
At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Tuesday 10 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No.2) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2007, followed by a motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisation) (Amendment) Order 2007, followed by Second Reading of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill [Lords].
It is also expected that there will be a statement on children, schools and families.
Wednesday 11 July—Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Stroke Services” and a debate entitled “Mending the Broken Society”. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion, followed by if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 12 July—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Further Education and Training Bill [Lords].
Friday 13 July—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the provisional business for the following week will include:
Monday 16 July—Opposition day [17th allotted day]. There will be a debate on a Liberal Democrat motion, subject to be announced.
Tuesday 17 July—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 18 July—Consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 19 July—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a debate on Zimbabwe on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 20 July—The House will not be sitting.
It is the Government’s intention to make an oral statement on the content of the draft legislative programme to the House before it rises.
Following are the relevant documents:
The Seventh Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 900, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence-Based Policy Making, and the Government Response thereto, First Special Report, Session 2005-06, HC 307.
Third Report, from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 107, on the Rural Payments Agency and the implementation of the Single Payment Scheme; and
Fourth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 546, on the UK Government’s “Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy”.
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the business. I was able to welcome her to her new role on Monday in questions to the Leader of the House, but I take this opportunity of welcoming the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), to her new role.
I thank the Leader of the House for the commitment that she has given for the Government to make an oral statement on the draft legislative programme before the House rises for the recess. Will she also give a commitment that the House will have an opportunity for a full debate on that programme before we rise?
Last week, just four weeks before the summer recess, the Ministry of Justice published the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The right hon. and learned Lady’s predecessor said last week:
“It is also a carry-over Bill.”—[Official Report, 28 June 2007; Vol. 462, c. 479.]
I believe that at no point did the Government consult the Opposition parties about whether the Bill should be carried over. So will the part-time Leader of the House make a statement on that issue?
Order. I must say that there are courtesies that we are entitled to in the House. The right hon. and learned Lady is the Leader of the House, and if the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) uses the term “part-time Leader of the House” during the business question, I will stop her.
On 25 September the right hon. and learned Lady said that we need to
“Stop these excessive, ridiculous city bonuses”
but the Treasury, then run by the current Prime Minister, replied:
“If the City is doing well, the country is doing well. When it prospers, we all prosper.”
May we have a statement from the right hon. and learned Lady on city bonuses?
In May, the right hon. and learned Lady, who is now also chairman of the Labour party, said that the Government
“should do more to fund the development of trade unions”,
but the Prime Minister claims that he wants to curb the power of the trade unions within the Labour party. May we have a debate on party funding?
On 24 May, the right hon. and learned Lady said that we would have to keep Trident under review; but the Government’s policy, rightly, is that we should maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. The new Prime Minister says that we must remain
“strong in defence…retaining our independent nuclear deterrent”.
May we have a debate on Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent?
May we also have a debate on social responsibility? On 28 May, the right hon. and learned Lady said that Labour should learn from previous campaigns when it told people, “You don’t need that money, we’ve got much better ideas about what to do with that money”, so may we have a debate on who knows best—the people themselves or the woman in Whitehall?
May we have a debate on honesty in government? On 29 May, on “Newsnight”, the right hon. and learned Lady agreed that the Government should apologise for the Iraq war. Subsequently, she said:
“I’ve never said the Government should apologise”
over the Iraq war. When I raised that point in the House on Monday, she was careful not to repeat her denial on the Floor of the House, so will she now make a statement clarifying her position? Does she stand by what she originally said, or does she rebut it?
Finally, the Prime Minister pleaded yesterday that he had been in the job only for five days. Given that the last Prime Minister resigned seven days previously, may we have a statement on who was Prime Minister for the other two days?
Ms Harman: I join the right hon. Lady in her welcome to the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman).
The right hon. Lady asked about an opportunity for the House to debate our draft legislative programme, which is part of the changes announced by the Prime Minister on Tuesday. Not only will there be a statement to the House setting out the draft content of the legislative programme, but there will be an opportunity to debate it. When I open the summer recess Adjournment debate there will be an opportunity for Back Benchers to discuss the contents of the draft legislative programme as well as raising important constituency matters. There will be a statement and then the summer recess debate.
The right hon. Lady asked whether there was consultation about the carry-over of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. I am afraid I cannot answer her question, but I will discuss it with my colleague the Chief Whip and Ministers at the Ministry of Justice and get back to her in writing.
I thank the right hon. Lady for welcoming me to my new position. After 25 years in the House, I know that if she wants a debate on City bonuses, an additional debate on Trident, a debate about trade unions or a debate about honesty in government, she can use Opposition days to bring those issues to the House.
On party funding, we await further outcomes from the cross-party work of Sir Hayden Phillips, but perhaps I could offer the right hon. Lady a non-aggression pact. It is not in the interests of the House for her to try to give me a hand-bagging every Thursday, so I hope we can get over this and actually hear from Back Benchers on both sides of the House about the important issues they want to raise.
I warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her role; I look forward to the coming months under her leadership of the House.
Can my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on youth crime? As she is aware, in the last few months alone, two teenagers in my constituency have died of stab wounds, so it is absolutely essential that in addition to debating deterrent sentencing and effective policing we discuss how we can prevent the crisis that is gripping some of our young people, particularly in London and our cities, so that we can build on the success of Sure Start. Will she find time for us to discuss how we can provide effective support services for teenagers and young people, and may we have that debate in time for the comprehensive spending review?
My hon. Friend is one of the foremost Members of the House in putting forward the questions of how we tackle and prevent youth crime. I know that she has raised the issue, and it is a matter of concern with my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Home Office and in education. We need a cross-government approach, and there are Home Office questions on Monday. I am sure that the issue will be raised again then.
I very much welcome the right hon. and learned Lady to her new responsibilities—and her friend with her.
I welcome the announcements that the right hon. and learned Lady has made about the Government’s intention to follow up on what the Prime Minister said on Tuesday in taking forward constitutional reform as it affects this place. She will understand that it is important that not only MPs but the public have a participatory role in what the legislation should be. So could she tell us whether there will be a role for the public to have a say, as well as politicians? Is she willing to accept, and to put on the record her view, that much more power should be transferred to the House? In particular, is she willing now to say that responsibility for the business of this place should be driven by this place in co-operation with the Government, not by the Government alone, and that it should be this place that chooses the Select Committee Chairs to scrutinise the Executive? It would be very helpful if she could indicate that that is in her plan too.
On national matters of importance, will she make sure before we break for the summer recess that there is an opportunity for a full debate on the implications of the flooding in the north, the midlands and other parts of the country? Many places—Hull, Sheffield and Worcestershire—have been severely affected, and I am sure that colleagues and those whom they represent would hugely appreciate the chance to learn that they have not been forgotten and that they will be much more supported in the days and weeks ahead than they have felt on some days in recent weeks.
If possible, will the right hon. and learned Lady make sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House? Whatever happens to interest rates in the next few minutes, they have gone up four times in the last year. Debt is £1.3 trillion, mortgages are sky high and house prices are sky high. To continue the analogy from last week, many people still feel that they are in very hard times, and in places such as her constituency and mine, many people sense that it is a tale of two cities.
Last week, the Corruption Bill was objected by those on the Treasury Bench. When are we going to have either permission for an Opposition Member to introduce a corruption Bill, supported by the Government, or a corruption Bill introduced by the Government to deal with the fact that we still have a very lax regime in this country?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post as shadow Leader of the House. We are well used to working together as he is my next-door neighbour in the London borough of Southwark. He too has been in the House for something like 25 years.
Yes, I can answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about whether the public will be able to engage with the question of what the Government’s legislative priorities should be. As well as having a statement to the House and a debate in the House, we intend to issue a document to the public that sets out what the Government’s priorities are for new laws, so that the public can see it. All these things previously would have happened behind closed doors and engaged the machinery of government, but would have been hidden to the outside world.
In response to the hon. Gentleman’s point on decisions about business, the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that he sees having a strong Parliament as part of strengthening government. The Government do better when they have a strong Parliament holding them to account. However, I am not able to make any announcement about making changes as to how we do business at this point.
On the hon. Gentleman’s points about interest rates, the new Chancellor will be answering Treasury questions next Thursday. I have no doubt that he will want to continue the work of the previous Chancellor, in having a strong and stable economy, low inflation and high employment. For all the problems that remain in our two constituencies in inner city London, the hon. Gentleman will know that people are much better off than they were under the Tories because of the economic management of the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor.
On the question of flooding, I too would like to add my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives and my sympathy to those who still have problems, particularly those in Hull. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend for Wentworth (John Healey), is in Hull today and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will be there tomorrow. The work on the floods must go on—both preventing them and supporting those who have already been affected by them.
My right hon. and learned Friend, and all hon. Members, will be aware of the need to improve services for people with mental health needs and their families, who are often their carers. An ongoing review in the Goole part of my constituency is trying to achieve that, but it would be boosted enormously if the local primary care trust provided funding at the level that the Department of Health says that it should. Will she find time for a debate on mental health services so that all hon. Members can make a contribution to stopping those services being the Cinderella of the NHS?
My hon. Friend represents a concern that is felt across the House. He will know that although there has been a great increase in spending on mental health, and increases in the number of consultants and the number of hours that people from local authorities work with people with dementia and mental health problems, there is still a great deal of unmet need. I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to the points that my hon. Friend has made, and of course there will be Health questions on 24 July.
In congratulating the right hon. and learned Lady, wishing her well in her post and welcoming her opening words, may I ask her to consider that the change that she has proposed to the summer Adjournment debate could totally alter its character? Members on both sides of the House—I speak as one who has replied to many of these debates—welcome the opportunity to bring up individual and constituency matters. If the debate is subsumed in a debate on the Government’s proposed legislative programme, its present form will be distorted and destroyed. Will she please reconsider that particular point in her statement?
I will take any issue that the hon. Gentleman raises with me very seriously. He is one of the most experienced Members of the House. I say to him, and to all Members, that my office is just down the corridor and the door is open. If hon. Members want to raise issues, they do not have to wait for business questions, they can just come in and see me. It is not my intention to interfere with what is an important opportunity for debate before the House rises in the summer. It is a time when Members of Parliament can raise wide-ranging issues of particular concern to their constituencies. I hoped that we might be able to offer Members an opportunity to raise not only their constituents’ concerns, but if they want to, the question of the draft contents of the Queen’s Speech. The debate could be divided into two slots of three hours, or we could weave both themes through the six hours. Perhaps I will talk to the hon. Gentleman afterwards and take soundings on the best way of dealing with the matter.
May I also welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her new post and wish her well? Will she hold urgent talks with the House authorities on smoking in the Palace of Westminster, and in particular, on the way in which the system is already being abused? I would be happy to show her the locations.
The smoking ban in public places is important for public health and we all want to play our part in ensuring that the ban is effective. On my way here this morning, I saw somebody wearing a “smoking ban enforcement” high visibility jacket. So those people are out on the streets. The point that my hon. Friend raises should probably be raised with the Serjeant at Arms. I would suggest that she do that.
I think that in the normal course of events it is received in July, but I cannot give any assurances as to when it will be received or published. I will write to the hon. Gentleman if I can tell him anything further, and I will place a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library.
I add my congratulations to those of my colleagues and also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who was a particularly inspired appointment. I was encouraged and stimulated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s statement on Tuesday, and particularly by what he said about devolving more powers back to Parliament. Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House expand on the issue of the Queen’s Speech, which I found quite interesting, and the possibility of involving Select Committees and individual Members in that debate?
I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome. I have suggested to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Chair of the Liaison Committee, that the consultation with Members and the scrutiny of the draft legislative programme—the programme will be announced by way of a statement of the House—should be undertaken by the Liaison Committee, and he has been good enough to agree that that is what he will do.
Since the terrible events of 7/7, I think that there has been only one debate in the House on integration and cohesion. Given recent events in Glasgow and London, will the Government find time, in their own time, for a substantial debate on integration and cohesion in Britain?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and perhaps he will allow me to reflect on it. We have had running-through debates on Bills, statements and oral questions. The issue of community cohesion has been a big preoccupation—rightly so—for the House. It was mentioned by the Prime Minister in his statement on the constitution and the question of Britishness. However, I will reflect on whether we should seek time for a whole debate focused on the question of how different Departments, local authorities and voluntary organisations are contributing to the question of cohesion. It is Communities and Local Government questions next Tuesday, so perhaps he could prompt my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the matter then.
I add my congratulations to my right hon. and learned Friend on her new role and commend her on the adult and measured way in which she responded to the traditional yah-boo politics offered by the Conservative shadow Leader of the House. With regard to the bids for unitary status that are being assessed by the Government, she will know that the Government intend to make a decision later this month, hopefully in the House. Does she believe that due weight will be given to the fact that, in Bedfordshire, more than 200 local employers are backing Bedford borough’s bid and that 20,000 people have supported petitions on the Bedford borough and central Bedfordshire bids?
I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. As he has acknowledged, the question of unitary status will be the subject of a Government decision and announcement in due course. I know that it is an area of great concern, not just in Bedfordshire, but throughout the country. I will draw his comments about his constituency to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
On behalf of the Democratic Unionist party, I congratulate the Leader of the House on her appointment. There is grave concern in Northern Ireland over the role of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and especially over how the office has dealt with inquiries into former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Pending arrests have been published to the media and have taken place in a blaze of publicity. Officers who have been detained have sometimes been denied drugs and medication while in custody. In the past, the office tried to bury a report that showed that 50 per cent. of police officers have no confidence in it. Will she allow a debate on the Floor of the House to discuss the concerns about the Office of the Police Ombudsman and to consider how some degree of accountability might be built into the office to ensure that those with grievances have some way of airing them?
There will be an opportunity during Northern Ireland questions on 25 July for the hon. Gentleman to raise those points. I am sure that the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland will note his points and, especially, his concern that there should be greater confidence in the important work that it does. Let me take this opportunity to express my support for the very difficult work that is still ongoing to build confidence on all sides in Northern Ireland following the important strides that have been made. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could seek a meeting with the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, if he has not already done so.
May I add my congratulations to my right hon. and learned Friend? I am sure that she will have some sympathy with my request for a debate on the women’s land army, given her role as Minister for Women. Its members are the forgotten veterans of the first and second world wars. While we welcomed what happened with the Bevin boys last week, we should also honour those women, who worked very hard.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. She was a long-standing champion of women at work in the trade union movement, and she is thinking about the important contribution that women made to this country in times gone by. I will take up her point and get back to her. As Minister for Women, I will liaise with my ministerial colleague. We should take a bit of action.
During the deputy leadership campaign, the Leader of the House called on her Government to renegotiate the Chicago convention, which has a loophole that permits extraordinary rendition: the process through which many people have been kidnapped from around the world and, in some cases, taken to places where they might be tortured. She said that we need to be
“absolutely certain we don’t have a situation where we are complicit in torture because our airspace is being used or planes are landing in our country and then taking off again.”
Will she secure a debate to clarify whether the Government will indeed act on her recommendation that we should reform the Chicago convention to bring extraordinary rendition to an end?
May I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s record on raising such important issues? I remind him that when I was in the Department for Constitutional Affairs—now the Ministry of Justice—I gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and dealt with the question of how we can find out what is travelling through our airspace. Many people think that it is anomalous that while one must declare whether an aircraft is carrying a VIP or a dangerous substance, there is no requirement under the Chicago convention to declare whether prisoners are being carried. No doubt my ministerial colleagues will note the hon. Gentleman’s point. They are already concerned about the matter and will be looking further at the possibilities.
May I also welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her job? As someone who has rekindled his interest in Back-Bench rights in recent days, I am delighted that she will be protecting them for us. When will we debate the Prime Minister’s ideas on constitutional reform? My constituents are not interested in anything that would damage the Union and they are certainly not interested in creating two-tier MPs, but they are interested in our developing a structure that will allow the challenges that we face in England to be thoroughly debated in this place.
I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. Many of us felt that he did very good work as a Transport Minister, and I always thought of him as our version of Jeremy Clarkson, albeit more progressive and green. I say to all who are rekindling their interest in being on the Back Benches that Back Benchers can quite often do a great deal, while sometimes not all Ministers can do as much as they want. I will strongly support the work that my hon. Friend will no doubt do as a Back Bencher.
The House will have heard the Prime Minister talking about regional Ministers. We will have to discuss how we make them appropriately accountable to the House so that their work can be scrutinised. He has also raised the question of regional Select Committees, on which the whole House will need to work together to ensure that we have an appropriate structure that works well.
Given that UK laws and traditions specifically forbid Parliament from binding its successors, may we have a debate on the retained clause in the proposed new EU constitution that effectively gives the EU the permanent right to seize more powers from this country without any further agreement? We must address the EU democratic deficit.
There is strong concern that the House should carry out proper scrutiny of EU issues, and I will shortly meet the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee. There is no question of a referendum because there is no new constitution or constitutional treaty. Any amendments to an existing treaty will be subject to the proper scrutiny of the House, which is what we would all want.
May I join the chorus of welcomes to the new Leader of the House? Is she aware of the recent collapse of First Solution Money Transfer Ltd? The company specialised in taking remittances from Bangladeshis to Bangladesh, but its collapse means that some 20,000 people have lost money that might amount to millions of pounds. I suggest that the matter is too important to be left to an Adjournment debate, so I hope that the Leader of the House will speak to her ministerial colleagues to ensure that we have a statement or, preferably, a debate in the House, about how it was possible for the company to collapse leaving such debts, the role of the regulators, and what the Government are doing to ensure that our constituents get their money back.
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important issue. The situation involving First Solution Money Transfer is heartbreaking for not only the people who put money in, but those who were expecting the vital remittances that form an important, albeit largely unseen, part of the international development effort. People who come to this country to work hard—sometimes they have two or three jobs—and send money back to their country of origin are the hidden heroes of international development. My hon. Friend’s point is important for my ministerial colleagues in not only the Department for International Development, but the Treasury. I will consult them on how we can ensure that we take up the issue and report back to the House.
I warmly congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on her appointment. I hope that she will indeed prove to be the House’s representative in the Government at least as much as—of course she is—the Government’s representative in the House.
As a matter of urgency, may we please have on the Floor of the House in Government time a debate on the Modernisation Committee report on the role of the Back Bencher and the use of non-legislative time? Given that the issue was sufficiently salient to merit a reference by the Prime Minister in his statement to the House on Tuesday and that, when I asked this question of the right hon. and learned Lady’s predecessor three weeks ago, he gave me a reply that was encouraging but unspecific, may I appeal to the Leader of the House to give me a reply that is at least as encouraging and rather more specific, perhaps by guaranteeing that the debate will take place on the Floor of the House before the summer recess?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He is assiduous in pursuing the question of the role of Back Benchers in the House. I suspect that he has not only welcomed me to my position, but set me my first test. I thank him for drawing the matter to my attention and I will get on it.
May I add my voice to the welcome that we want to give to my right hon. and learned Friend in her new post—it is great to see her there? May we have a debate on the Floor of the House on the important subject of the plight of leaseholders with social landlords when major works are initiated? The Government’s policy of ensuring that the decent homes standard is met in all our affordable housing is fully supported, given its importance, but it means that those who have bought their council flats are facing huge bills.
I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s constituency work on the plight of leaseholders, who, as such, rather than as tenants, did not realise that when their flats were improved—as a result of the investment made by this Labour Government—they would have to pay capital charges; many of them were wholly unprepared for that. She has worked with me in my capacity as a constituency MP to try to ensure that the Government do all they can to ensure fairness for leaseholders, and she will know that under the new Prime Minister, the Government are focusing increasingly on the issues facing those in affordable housing, including the lack of it.
May I set the right hon. and learned Lady another test? On Tuesday, the Prime Minister launched “The Governance of Britain”, a document proposing an ambitious programme of constitutional reform that has enormous implications for the House of Commons. Should not the Government be interested in the response of the House to that document, and should we not have a two-day debate, in Government time, so that the Executive can reflect on the views of the House?
The document to which the right hon. Gentleman refers sets out work for a number of Departments—on local government, on the relationship with the judiciary and on House issues. I suggest we ensure that each responsible Department, and I as Leader of the House, take forward the proposals outlined in the document, ensuring as much consultation as possible, and, on the journey on which the Prime Minister has set us, keeping in mind the overall picture. My right hon. Friend has said that we need not only to take individual measures forward, but to take an overview. We will have to consider how we do that without losing sight of the overall programme.
May I also congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and her wonderful deputy on being appointed to their new roles? They are modernisers and great feminists, which is a great treat for us.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider making time available on the Floor of the House to discuss Darfur and the recent UN resolutions? There have been many resolutions on Darfur, and it has now been acknowledged that there should be a peacekeeping force. The matter is of huge interest to Mr. David Moorhead, head of religious education in one of my local schools, Sacred Heart, and to hundreds of his pupils and of my constituents. We would like something to be done, and we want to send a clear signal from the House that we take the matter very seriously and want the action that has been promised.
I thank my hon. Friend for her warm words of welcome to me and to my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House. She raises an issue of concern not only to her, but, as she rightly says, across the House, and among the public. We debated in the House the progress that needs to be made in Darfur through the United Nations, supporting the African Union and the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. I think that her point is that we need to hear more from the Government, so perhaps she could make the issue the subject of an Adjournment debate.
Yesterday in the House I highlighted the case of a constituent who was going blind, but who had to have private treatment because it was not available on the NHS. Yesterday evening, another constituent rang me to say that exactly the same thing had happened to her: she could not get NHS treatment and the only way to save her sight was to go private. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate or statement on access to NHS treatment in north Northamptonshire for blindness?
I will consider the points that he makes and will raise them with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. Obviously, as the hon. Gentleman says, it is important that we tackle as early as possible illnesses and diseases that can lead to blindness, so that people can continue to lead a full life.
May I join in the praise recognising the popularity of both appointments to the Office of the Leader of the House? Seeing women promoted to such positions is a joy to all of us. The Parliamentary Information and Communication Technology team recently sold HTC mobile communication devices to a number of hon. Members, but the phones have proved faulty, unreliable and extremely expensive. PICT will not take them back or replace them with things that operate correctly. Given that many Members were forced into buying them because of the faulty equipment available to Members who have distant offices in the Palace system, and who cannot use the Library computers because they are not working, may we have a debate in the Chamber on the quality of services available to Members, so that we can actually communicate with our constituents and the support teams in offices at some distance from the Chamber?
I thank my hon. Friend for her warm welcomes, and I hope that we will live up to the House’s aspirations, and ours.
Electronic communication is very important if Members of Parliament are to do their work properly and keep closely in touch with their constituents, so it is not a technical point that she raises but a point of real substance on how we fulfil our responsibilities as constituency MPs. I raised the issue with the Clerk of the House yesterday after my hon. Friend mentioned it to me—in the Lady Members Room, actually—and the Clerk told me that Kevin Tebbit is undertaking work on the provision of services to Members, so that there is a clear line of accountability and a management structure. When things go wrong, Members thereby know who to hold accountable and where to take their concerns, and something is done about them.
May I join those who have congratulated the new Leader of the House on her appointment, and wish her well in her new job? Will she find time for an urgent debate on the proper and appropriate use of the facilities of the House, and the activities of right hon. and hon. Members in relation to the constituents of other right hon. and hon. Members? I raise the matter having discovered that an event for the Cheadle Business and Professional Group was held—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has made the general point that he wanted to make, to which I think it is reasonable for the Leader of the House to respond. If he wishes to take the matter further, there are channels through which he can do so.
May I add my congratulations to my right hon. and learned Friend? That is how she told me to address her when I first came to the House. May we have a debate on the benefits of the national health service, as reflected in early-day motion 1842?
[That this House pays tribute to Nye Bevan and the radical, reforming Labour governments of 1945 to 1951, for establishing the National Health Service (NHS) on 5th July 1948, thereby removing the fear of ill health from hardworking families; and pays tribute to NHS staff throughout the United Kingdom, who provide health care free at the time of need, 24 hours each day, 365 days of each year.]
On this day in 1948, a radical, reforming Labour Government established the national health service. For the first time ever, the fear of ill-health was taken away from hard-working families. Will she join me in congratulating NHS staff on providing health care free at the point of need? Is she as surprised as I was to learn that there is no hospital in the United Kingdom named after Nye Bevan, the man who created it?
Like everyone else, I have rarely been more joyous than on seeing the new leadership team in the Chamber, defending the rights of Back Benchers like myself and our newest addition, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). I add my support to him during his no doubt short respite on the Back Benches to call for a full debate in Government time on the proposed constitutional changes. I do not believe that the regional representatives or spokesmen on behalf of the Government are the answer to the West Lothian question. My constituents are concerned that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, being Scottish Members, can vote on health and education in my constituency, but I cannot do the same with respect to theirs. If English votes for English MPs is not the answer to the West Lothian question, let us have a debate on what is.
I should have thought that as a fellow English Member of Parliament the hon. Gentleman would welcome the notion of regional Ministers appropriately accountable to the House, and the possibility of regional Select Committees to give a greater focus on the English regions. I know that he is a supporter, as I am, of the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those of us who support the Union do not see how it could work sensibly for Members elected from constituencies throughout the Union to come into the House, but for some not to be able to vote on some legislation. Having been elected from the various parts of the Union to the House, all Members must be entitled to vote on all legislation, whether they are from Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland or London.
Order. At the risk of sounding churlish, I think the Leader of the House may not mind too much if we do not have any more congratulations today. Every Member is offering congratulations, which is taking a considerable amount of time out of the time available.
At this week’s Hampton Court Palace flower show, the growing schools garden, which was sponsored by what is now the Department for Children, Schools and Families, won the gold medal. After the flower show the garden will be moved to the Birmingham botanical gardens in my constituency, where it will be accessible to all the schools in Birmingham and the area. May we have a debate in the House on the way in which our schools use outdoor facilities and available allotments, particularly in our big cities, for educational purposes so that such gardens, like outdoor classrooms—[Interruption.]
Order. The Leader of the House has sufficient material to reply.
I congratulate the work of all those involved in the outdoor classroom in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and acknowledge the wider point that she makes about outdoor work between schools and on the land held by schools. May I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not to stop Members congratulating me? It might be the last time they ever do so.
May I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, and take the opportunity to remind her gently that there are more than three parties in the House when she comes to represent its views. May I ask for a debate on airport security and use the opportunity to pay tribute to John Smeaton, the one-man scourge of international terrorism at Glasgow airport, the hero of Abbotsinch airport. I am sure the Leader of the House would agree that he and other members of the public showed immense courage and bravery in tackling the terrorists at Glasgow airport. Will she use her new office to convince the Prime Minister that honours should be winging their way to Glasgow?
The whole House joins in the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, which were also expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) during Prime Minister’s questions. I send my best wishes to the responsible official whose work the hon. Gentleman brought to the attention of the House, but whose name I did not catch.
I congratulate the Government on the document “The Governance of Britain”, which is an exciting and ambitious programme. When may we have a debate on the section entitled “Making Parliament more representative”? It is a huge achievement that we now have a woman deputy leader of the Labour party, but we still need more women on these Benches.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the question of all-women shortlists, which was the vehicle by which we have managed to get more Labour women Members of Parliament into the House. When I was first elected to the House 25 years ago, I was one of only 10 Labour women MPs. We now have 97 Labour women MPs. Then, the House of Commons was 97 per cent. men and only 3 per cent. women. We have changed that, but we still have a long way to go. I know that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who is both shadow Leader of the House and shadow Minister for Women, will want to increase the number of Conservative women MPs from only 17 at present.
Yesterday I had the unforgettably sad privilege of attending the military funeral at Dover castle of Corporal John Rigby, who was killed defending his men just outside Basra palace. Having met his parents, Doug and Liz Rigby, and his twin brother Will, I can understand from where he derived his character, his courage and his reputation as one of the finest soldiers in the British Army. Today, on the “Today” programme, I heard a spokesman from Hizb ut-Tahrir saying that it was acceptable for British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, like Corporal Rigby, to be killed. I do not know if that spokesman is a British citizen or not. If he is a British citizen, may we have a statement from a Home Office Minister explaining why he should not be put on trial for treason? If he is not a British citizen, may we have a statement from a Home Office Minister explaining why he is allowed to reside in this country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing two very important issues to the Floor of the House. I know that he is extremely assiduous as a Back Bencher in the House and a strong protagonist of the rights of Back Benchers, and I look forward to working with him. May I express my sincere condolence and sympathy to the family and friends of Corporal John Rigby. It was a tragic death and we all express our sympathy. I, too, heard the comments of Hizb ut-Tahrir this morning on the “Today” programme. I know that my colleagues in Government are extremely concerned to enforce rigorously the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 in respect of those who promote terrorism. They will have heard what was said. The matter is under continuous review. I had the bizarre experience of Hizb ut-Tahrir coming to see me, as a woman parliamentarian, in my constituency surgery and arguing to me that they would prefer to see a caliphate rather than a parliamentary democracy. They do not believe in women doing anything outside the home. We must be very concerned to make sure that subversion and support for terrorism are not fomented in this country, and my colleagues in Government are very much concerned with that.
May I refer to a matter of business that the Leader of the House has announced—I know that that is an unusual practice during these questions—which is the debate on forced marriages, which is to occur on 10 July? I congratulate the Government on taking over the private Member’s Bill and look forward to legislation to tackle forced marriages. However, because it started as a private Member’s Bill, there has not been the kind of preliminary discussion and debate that we usually try to have about new legislation, and that, following the very welcome statement by the Prime Minister, will clearly happen more in future. Can the Leader of the House use the summer to try to initiate a widespread debate about what is in the legislation and what should be added to it, so that by the time it comes back to the Floor of the House for Report and Third Reading we can ensure that all the communities have been properly engaged in a debate on this very important subject?
What my hon. Friend says is important for two reasons. Obviously, the House needs to be sure that we get the legislation right and that there is proper scrutiny. Also, what she proposes is important because it will be part of reinforcing the message that we want to go out to all communities in this country—that forced marriage is not acceptable. Women and men must be able to choose their own partners in marriage and not be forced. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Lord Lester, who introduced the private Member’s Bill in the House of Lords, and my colleague Baroness Cathy Ashton, who took it through. As my hon. Friend said, the legislation has been introduced in a rather unusual way. I will consider how we deal with that, but the Bill, and its principle, is very important.
May I echo the views expressed on both sides of the House that we should have an early debate on the constitution? Bearing in mind that we have Scottish-only votes for Scottish business, Northern Irish-only votes for Irish business, and Welsh-only votes for Welsh business, is it not a constitutional and democratic scandal that Members representing Scottish constituencies, and Ministers too, vote on matters and drive them through when they have no democratic authority and are in no sense accountable?
I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is, like me, a supporter of the Union. It is curious, is it not, that when parliamentary colleagues complain about this they always mention Scotland and Wales but never mention London? If he is concerned about the asymmetry of our devolution arrangements, perhaps he can think about London and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland and Wales, and then he will come back to my answer, and my view, which is that I am a strong supporter of devolution and a strong supporter of the Union and this House.
Higher Education (Student Support)
With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement on reforms to support for students in higher education.
I am delighted to make my first statement as the first Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. In establishing my Department, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister charged my colleagues and I with the twin aims of providing a strong, integrated permanent voice across Government for effective investment in research, science and skills at all levels and ensuring that research, higher education and further education serve their wider purposes—supporting social mobility and inclusion for the disadvantaged, and cultural growth. Success in higher education will be one key measure of my Department’s work. The skills and talents of our people are our greatest natural asset, and our universities and colleges must offer world-class standards of teaching and research.
Since 1997, the number of home and overseas students has increased by over 400,000, and the funding of higher education institutions has risen by over 20 per cent. in real terms. Before 1997, funding per student had declined by 36 per cent. in less than a decade. In today’s global economy, we cannot afford to stand still. The growth in the number of graduates being produced in India and China is dramatic. Around the world, countries are increasingly investing in the high-level skills and the cutting edge research that universities provide. To compete and prosper in this world—to respond to the needs of leading global and national businesses—we must enable many thousands more people to study and graduate each year. To become a world leader in skills, as Lord Leitch recommended, we must aim for at least 40 per cent. of adults to have higher level qualifications by 2020.
Everyone who has the potential and qualifications to succeed in higher education, whatever their family background, should have the opportunity to participate. No one should be held back from realising their potential. That is fair, and it is right for our economy. We cannot be satisfied when only 28 per cent. of students come from low-income backgrounds. We are wasting the talents of too many young people for whom university study should be a realistic ambition, not out of reach. We recognise, too, that hard-working families on modest incomes have concerns about the affordability of university study. They have high aspirations—rightly so—and we should help them to fulfil those aspirations. To meet the challenges of achieving world-class skills, and to make the most of the talent and ability of every individual, we need to be willing to change.
That is why I propose four major changes to our system of student support. First, we will increase substantially the number of students entitled to maintenance grants. These changes will take effect for students from England entering higher education in 2008. More students will receive full grants worth £2,835. From September next year, full grants will be available to new students from families with incomes of up to £25,000, compared with £18,360. We estimate that 50,000 more students each year will receive full grants once the system is fully up and running. With the addition of £310 bursaries from higher education institutions, these students will be guaranteed £3,145 a year.
Moreover, eligibility for maintenance grants will be extended to many more students from families on modest and middle incomes—hard-working families who are doing the right thing by encouraging their children to go to university. Students whose families have household incomes of up to £60,000 a year will in future benefit from eligibility to a grant. More than 100,000 extra students at any one time will be entitled to a partial grant once these proposals are fully implemented. More than 250,000 students will gain from our proposals once fully implemented. Of those, 35,000 will gain by more than £1,000 a year and a further 125,000 by more than £500. For a student from a household on £25,000 a year earnings, that will mean an extra £1,100 a year in maintenance grant. For a family on £50,000 a year with two children at university, it will mean that each student receives a grant of £560 a year. Today, just over half of students who entered higher education in 2006 received a maintenance grant. From 2008, two thirds will do so. A third of students will get a full grant, compared with 29 per cent. now, and a further third will get a partial grant, compared with 22 per cent. now. To fund this improvement and the other measures that I am announcing today, we will be investing over £400 million a year when the system is fully in place. That is a major increase in support to students.
Secondly, able young people from low income homes should aim for university, confident of the financial support they will receive. From the 2008-09 academic year, a 16-year-old who qualifies for an educational maintenance allowance will be guaranteed a minimum level of maintenance support at university. This 16-year-old will be guaranteed at least five years of maintenance support for their studies—through school, college and university. The guarantee will support aspirations for higher education. It will provide certainty about the financial support to fulfil their potential. Young people starting their studies at sixth-form or college will see a clear route into higher education. More than 250,000 16-year-olds a year will get the guarantee. Of course, in developing that package, I will work closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that support goes to those students who are qualified and demonstrate their rigorous compliance with the system.
Thirdly, for students whose parents have not attended university, the support of others can be crucial in deciding to go to university. We want to give new emphasis to students acting as role models and mentors for young people who might not otherwise go on to higher education. I propose to double the number of such mentors on our popular and successful student associate scheme from 7,500 to 15,000. That means one generation of students supporting the next generation of children towards college or university.
Finally, we also want to offer graduates more choice about the repayment of their loans. Students starting in 2008 will have that option once they complete their degree. When graduates face significant new out-goings in their lives, such as buying their first home or starting a family, they will have the option of taking a break from their loan repayments. They will be able to take a break of one year, two or more, for up to five years. That will help graduates make flexible choices about their finances at key points in their lives and careers.
In the next three years, the reforms will help us meet growing aspirations for higher education within the comprehensive spending review settlement and allow us to fulfil commitments that we have already made. The proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds who go on to higher education will continue to increase and universities will receive the same funding for teaching each student in real terms, so that excellence in teaching and learning can be maintained.
The reforms promote aspiration, offer opportunity and provide support to students from hard-working families. They promote the world-class standards of our colleges and universities and help deliver the skills and knowledge that business and society need in a global economy. I commend them to the House.
Let me begin, alongside all the other welcomes that you have already heard, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by welcoming the new Secretary of State to his post. I look forward to debating and questioning the Government on the important issues that he raised today.
We agree with the Government about wanting the greatest possible access to higher education of good quality. We also recognise that, contrary to some of the fears that were expressed, it looks as if top-up fees have not so far made the problem of access to university worse. However, it must also be acknowledged that we do not appear to be making significant progress in improving access, as the figure for students from modest backgrounds has been stable at about 28 per cent. over the past few years. We therefore welcome any measures that the Government can take to improve access to higher education in future. However, I should like to ask the Secretary of State for more information about some of his proposals and their scope.
First, what about part-time students? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that many students from modest backgrounds who go to university are looking for part-time study? Progress has been made in more modular courses. Will any of the provisions that he announced today make it easier for part-time students at university?
Secondly, will the Secretary of State tell us a bit more about who will be responsible for delivering some of the measures that he announced? Aimhigher is an excellent programme, which involves links between universities and schools. Is not it a pity that we now have two education Departments when, in the past, the programme was clearly in the Department for Education and Skills? Which Department will be responsible for Aimhigher?
We welcome the extension of the mentoring scheme that the Secretary of State announced. It appears to involve people at university visiting schools and arranging programmes in schools through the school system. Surely it will be far more complicated now that two Departments are involved instead of one.
The Secretary of State referred to extra spending of £400 million. Will he confirm that the sum is within the education spending totals that the then Chancellor announced earlier this year, and thus in the totals that were already set? If so, will he make it clear where exactly the resources are coming from in the overall Budget that the now Prime Minister announced when Chancellor of the Exchequer? [Interruption.]
Order. We must not have mutterings from the second Bench. The House listened courteously to the first statement; that should also apply to this statement.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Secretary of State can respond to the questions, which will concern many people in higher education, including students.
Will the Secretary of State tell us more about the prospects for the future of the bursaries scheme? There has been media comment in the past few weeks about what might happen to bursaries, and the Minister with responsibility for higher education, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), made carefully drafted comments, in which he appeared to cast doubt on their long-term future. Will changes to bursaries form any part of the package and funding changes that he announced?
On a wider point, does the Secretary of State accept that approximately 90 per cent. of people who leave school with two good A-levels already get to university? The deep challenge that we must all confront is that, if we want more people to have access to university with the right qualifications to benefit from higher education, we need to examine what is happening in schools. Is not the fundamental challenge, which everyone raises with us, increasing access to the GCSEs and A-levels that students need if they are to have a prospect of getting to university? Is not that the problem that the Government need to tackle?
Let me tell the Secretary of State about a visit that I recently paid to one of the excellent summer schools, which are aimed at broadening access to university. There, teenagers who had not previously thought of going to university suddenly realised that they could benefit from it, and then one saw their shock when they realised that the GCSEs that they had been studying, and perhaps the A-level for which they had been entered, were not those that they needed to do the course about which they had become excited. The Government’s targets and points system mean that many teenagers are encouraged to do the GCSEs and A-levels that do not offer them the best prospect of getting to university.
Meanwhile, study of the subjects that are often crucial to getting to our most academically valuable universities are declining. There is a decline in the number of people who study modern languages and individual real sciences at GSCE and A-level in state schools, and an increase in the proportion of students who study the crunchy and more academic subjects—further maths and modern languages—at private schools. How can the Government achieve their objectives of widening participation if the only lever that they pull changes the maintenance grant when fundamental improvement in the quality of education at school is the key? Is not that another reason why splitting the Department for Education and Skills in two will make it harder to achieve those important objectives?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks and congratulate him on his appointment—I welcome him to his new job. I have known him for a long time and always admired his wide interest in social policy. In his previous job in particular I admired his intellectual honesty, and I hope that he gets more support from those behind him in his current job than he did in his previous post.
My impression is that the hon. Gentleman does not have a great deal to say about the package. It is a shame that he has not grasped its importance to delivering two things: the skills that we need as a society to prosper and the opportunity for many of our fellow citizens, especially young people, who currently do not fulfil their full potential. I hope that, perhaps in later debates, we will get a more generous welcome for the Government’s reforms today.
Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s specific points. The package is not about part-time students. However, last year, the Government introduced a system of support for fees. Many higher education institutions offer support for part-time students through access to learning funds. In 1997, when the hon. Gentleman was last in government, there was no support for part-time students, and most of today’s part-time students would not have had the chance to be in higher education. Part-time study is important and we are building, especially with industry, co-funded courses in higher education. We expect many, if not all, to be on a part-time basis, and to deliver the higher quality vocational skills that are needed. We therefore recognise the importance of part-time education in the overall picture.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the splitting or creation of the two Departments. Some years ago, I was the Minister with responsibility for children and young people, and personally I feel that there is a compelling logic to having a Department—which the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls) now leads—that is able to look at family and children’s issues in such a coherent way. There will be certain issues at the interface between my right hon. Friend’s Department and mine, which we will sort out—they are easy to identify, and they will be easy to tackle—but the gains for our children from having the focus that the new structure offers will be enormous. I do not believe that it will make the slightest difference to the already successful scheme involving university students going back into school to work with students, particularly in science, maths, technology and engineering—the subjects that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about—to ensure that they have the right qualifications. We have already recognised the importance of that work.
The bursary scheme is enormously important. I have been in this post for only a few days—
Eight days. I have been in post for only eight days, but the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) encourages me to say that we have no plans to change the bursary scheme. It is an important part of all this. Indeed, my statement slightly understated the extent to which some students will be better off, because many bursary schemes offer an amount that is much more generous than the minimum that I mentioned.
Of course higher school standards are important throughout the system. We already have the best ever school standards. The standards in our poorest performing schools have improved faster than across the education system as a whole, and that will continue to provide students who will come into higher education. We all know, however, that at the moment some of those students will get to the age of 16 and lose their way and go out of the system because they do not think that university is for them. These measures will address the needs of those students and get them into higher education.
I genuinely warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new job. What a way to start. His statement is good news for working people and their families, and for students who will be encouraged to enter higher education for the first time. Those of us who have looked at this area know that what is needed is the full package, and that the earlier we start, the better. My right hon. Friend will know about my passion for the mentoring role, which is at the heart of the recommendations. I welcome them very sincerely.
Of course, all of us who are interested in education will add one proviso. The full package must go right the way through, keeping these young, talented people in the system so that they go into higher education and then into postgraduate education, so that they can become PhDs, researchers and leaders in technology and innovation. But we will give my right hon. Friend a little time before he needs to come back to us on that.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. However the Select Committee structures are determined by the House, I am sure that we will be drawing on his considerable expertise in this area and in this new role. Mentoring is enormously important, and some young people do not get the necessary support at home to achieve their full potential. If we can provide it in other ways, that is enormously important.
A second matter on which I agree with my hon. Friend involves another part of the story that we can tell. The higher education institutions are doing increasingly effective work on ensuring that, once students have entered higher education, they stay there and complete their first degree or other qualification as successfully as possible. That is essential. Internationally, we have a very good completion rate in higher education. I am convinced that the measures that we have put in place today will relieve some of the pressures that can divert students who feel that they cannot complete their courses, or who are diverted from their studies by having too much paid work. The provisions will help people to do as well as they possibly can at university.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new job. May I say how much I look forward to working with him? I also welcome the fact that the Prime Minister was here earlier. I am afraid that he is not in his place now, as usual for the Liberal Democrat response. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that he was here at the start of the statement; I hope that that means he will be making student support a priority. I certainly welcome the recognition that the previous system was woefully inadequate, and that a family on an annual income of £17,500 is hardly wealthy. My concern, however, is whether the extension of maintenance grants to more people might be a prelude to lifting the cap. Is that the Secretary of State’s intention? I would be grateful if he could make that clear.
The Secretary of State spoke earlier about part-time students. Does he recognise the challenges for students who are studying at less than 50 per cent. of a full-time course and who therefore have no access whatever to maintenance grants? Part-time students are often older or poorer. They are more likely to be from an ethnic minority background, and very likely to have caring responsibilities. Yet they are just the kind of people whom Leitch recommends must be attracted into education. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the income of such students is severely affected by having to pay fees up front? Does he propose to change that? I must remind him that we were vehemently opposed to the introduction of those fees in the first place. Similarly, does he have any plans to extend maintenance loans to students studying courses in further education colleges?
Is the Secretary of State considering introducing a national bursary system? I should like to add my comments to those that others have made about the increase in funding for mentors. That is welcome, as long as it happens at a very early age, because young people make choices about their future as they enter secondary school. He failed to answer a question from the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on how the proposals are to be funded. Does he intend to fund them by cutting other aspects of the higher education package, or should we expect to hear of changes to the interest rates on maintenance loans over the next few years? I hope that he will make that clear in his response.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I, too, was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was on the Treasury Bench for the statement. I confess that I might have had more difficulty getting this package through in my first eight days in office had it not been for the considerable support that I have received from him.
Nothing that we have announced today prejudges the review of the fee system which is in the pipeline for 2009. This will not affect it in any way. It will happen as has been promised, and nothing should be read into today’s announcement in regard to that review. Part-time students have already been discussed. A decision had to be made about the intensity of study that would attract assistance with fees, and the decision was made a few months or a year ago to limit that assistance to those who were studying at 50 per cent. intensity or more. There are some people who fall outside that category, but many of them are in work, and that is the reason for the low intensity of their study. Also, there are special provisions for those whose ability to study is limited by a disability. We put together a good package; it was certainly much better than anything that had existed previously for part-time students.
We have no plans to have a national bursary system. There is a minimum requirement, but we believe that there are advantages in individual institutions shaping the bursary scheme to their intake and to the type of students that they attract.
On the CSR settlement and allocation, the House will have to wait until later in the year for the details to be published. However, what I have announced today comes within our CSR settlement limits. Nothing that I have done today puts in jeopardy any commitments that we have already made in higher education, including the funding of student places or the desire to increase the number of participants in higher education.
May I very warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment as Secretary of State for this exciting and important new Department? He has made an excellent start with today’s statement, which will be strongly welcomed by students at both the universities in Oxford and by everyone in the country who wants to extend access to university to people from poorer backgrounds. I particularly welcome the guarantee, which is a radical and progressive innovation. Will it not be crucial for that to be effectively communicated to prospective students and their families? Will my right hon. Friend tell us a little more about how he will get the message across about just what a big improvement this is?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. He raises a very important issue. We already have a communications group, which my Department inherited from the previous Department, and its members include Universities UK, the National Union of Students, the Association of Colleges and other key stakeholders. We will want to bring that group together at a very early stage to look at how we can effectively communicate that message right down through the system. Taking into account the comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, we will need to ensure that that message goes to young people who are well below the age of 16, so that expectations build up among much younger school children and their parents about the system that lies ahead of them.
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I tell the Secretary of State that although it is natural to want to address the Member who asked the question, other hon. Members might not be able to hear him unless he speaks into the microphone?
Will the Secretary of State clarify that the effect of his announcement is that the staff-student ratio will remain the same and not continue to worsen? Is not the real issue with access that the millions spent on school buildings have not been matched by the changes in curriculum, testing and teachers’ working practices that are necessary to challenge ability and to improve standards in our secondary schools?
What I have said, and I repeat, is that the settlement enables us to say to universities that we will maintain the real level of funding per student as student numbers increase. Of course, individual institutions have to take decisions about how they want to staff themselves up. It is not for me to start dictating that. However, that is the funding commitment, which I am able to repeat.
As for schools, I simply say that I know that the standards that we are achieving in our schools are at the highest ever level. We have had particularly rapid improvements in some of the most poorly performing schools and most poorly performing areas. There is a way to go, and we want to build on that success, but I do not think it is the case that we have failed to raise school standards across this country; quite the opposite.
I welcome the package, not just for the 14,000 students at Loughborough university, but for many of the parents for whom it will make a difference. While the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is in the Chamber, may I ask the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to use the Sure Start programme to drive down even deeper and earlier in a child’s life to encourage those parents who probably would not have considered higher education as an option for their child even at that early stage? Staying on in education beyond 16 was never considered in our family, so I know from experience that encouraging that expectation is an important consideration.
Will my right hon. Friend at some stage explain to me, perhaps in writing, what additional support can be given to the type of students at Loughborough university, with its connection with the 2012 Olympics and the additional support that is required for our future athletes who are based there?
I hope that it will be acceptable if I write to my hon. Friend on the particular point about students at Loughborough. It is important, and probably needs a better reply than I would give this afternoon.
As for taking the message right down through society, I have a hope for the Department—a rather bigger one almost than I have set out—that we create and embed a culture of going to higher education across our society in a way that we have not yet achieved. We have got more people going to university and have improved access from the poorer groups, although not to the extent that we want, but we need to achieve a culture in this country whereby most parents—indeed, all parents—think that going into higher education is an option for their child if they have the ability to do it. Sure Start is one of the ways in which parents’ aspirations are changed. The most remarkable thing that I found out about Sure Start in my area is that we thought that it was for the children, but it was the parents who suddenly realised how much more they could do. It is because of that that children benefit so much more. We will work to get that message across.
First, may I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and welcome his first statement? It is essential to raise aspirations among youngsters from low-income families and to remove the financial impediments that there may be for them to access higher education.
The Secretary of State is probably aware—this may be uncomfortable for the Labour party and some members of the Conservative party—that because of Northern Ireland’s excellent grammar school system and the retention of academic selection, 25 per cent. more youngsters from low-income families gain admission to higher education. In light of that, and the fact that many of them will go to universities in Scotland, England and Wales, will he tell us which measures will apply to youngsters from Northern Ireland, so that there is uniformity of financial provision for them? What discussions does he intend to have with the Ministers for Employment and Learning and for Education to ensure that the parts of the package that might not apply to students from Northern Ireland will be replicated in Northern Ireland through the Department there?
I made it clear, but I repeat the point, that this is a package for English domiciled students. It applies to them, and them alone, wherever they study within the United Kingdom. On grammar schools, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), whose views are rather distinct from his.
I warmly welcome the statement. It is true that the number of young people from working-class and lower-income families who are at university is still too low, and in terms of the Oxbridge and Russell group universities, the level is a disgrace. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether he intends to promote a review of the education maintenance allowance? Eligibility for that is crucial for the commitment that he made to support 16-year-olds through higher education. Some young people are still just beyond the fringes of eligibility for EMA and would benefit from higher education, but they are leaving the system at that point. We need to do more for that group of young people.