House of Commons
Tuesday 10 July 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
London Local Authorities Bill [Lords]
Considered; to be read the Third time.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Memorandum of Understanding
I do not intend to review the memorandum of understanding between the Government and the devolved Administrations. It is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor.
It is clear that Strathclyde police and the Met worked very closely and effectively over the incident at Glasgow airport. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether counter-terrorism should be regarded as a devolved matter and, bearing in mind the seriousness of the threat posed to the United Kingdom, whether indeed it should be?
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that question. Counter-terrorism is a reserved matter. Our experience of the police investigations over the past week or so suggests that it is probably fixed as a reserved matter. In fact, devolution fits quite comfortably into that, even where policing is devolved, as it is in Scotland, where Strathclyde police, as he rightly points out, played a blinder, to coin a phrase, in the work that they did in co-operation across the UK.
I understand that my right hon. Friend does not need to review the memorandum of understanding, but will he, in his discussions with the Scottish Executive, take the opportunity to raise the recent announcement that could result in the loss of 900 jobs in my constituency if the Freescale closure goes ahead? Will he impress upon the new Scottish Executive that it is much more important to fight for jobs in Scotland than to talk about separation from the United Kingdom, which would put investment in Scotland at risk?
I understand the concern that my right hon. Friend, as the constituency Member for East Kilbride, shares with the 900 people who might lose their jobs if Freescale closes. He will know that the Scottish Executive gave significant support—about £1.9 million of regional selective assistance—to the company when it was known as Motorola. These matters are, and have been, the responsibility of the Scottish Executive, and they should not take their eye off the ball in meeting their responsibility to ensure that they create and sustain jobs for the benefit of people in Scotland—a record that we were rightly proud of having achieved when we ran the Executive.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the attack on Glasgow airport makes it more important than ever that we improve public transport access to our Scottish airports? That means investment in heavy rail into Glasgow airport and Edinburgh airport, as well as the new tram line to Edinburgh airport. Will he ask our new Transport Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), to make it clear to the Scottish Executive that they should accept the democratic decision of the Scottish Parliament, let us get on with investing in trams and public transport and work with the British Government?
My right hon. Friend has a certain expertise in relation to transport. However, without that expertise, but as one who regularly uses both airports, I know how important it is that we build the infrastructure. It is important for not only security, as we saw from the attack on the airport building in Glasgow, but the sustainability of these drivers of the economy. I echo what he says. The will of the Scottish people in relation to these transport links is clear and democratically expressed, and we in the UK Government, particularly in the Department for Transport, stand ready to be of any assistance that we can in achieving that will.
For those who could not hear me the first time, the arrangements between the Scottish Government and the UK Government have been working particularly well since the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to praise all those involved in countering the challenge of terrorism in Glasgow and elsewhere?
That is probably the easiest question that anyone has ever asked me at the Dispatch Box, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for it. I have absolutely no difficulty in repeating what I have said consistently since the incident: all those involved in responding to the immediate circumstances—those present at the scene, members of the public, those who provided services, members of the uniformed services who showed extraordinary bravery in difficult circumstances and those involved in investigating and responding to events—have worked very well and they are a credit to their services, themselves, Scotland and the United Kingdom. This is a fine example of those in the United Kingdom working collectively, and good evidence for why we should keep that Union.
It is almost as great a pleasure to question the right hon. Gentleman on Scotland from the Back Benches as it is to question him on defence from the Front Bench.
Should there be, as is widely feared, a proposal to close one of our three naval bases, and the right hon. Gentleman receives representations from the Scottish Executive that it should not be Faslane, but gets suggestions, while wearing his Ministry of Defence hat, that it should be, how will he resolve such a conflict of interest?
The hon. Gentleman asks not only a speculative question, which he knows I will not answer, but a complicated, speculative question. I think that I can respond to what underlies the question. I pride myself on the fact that every decision I made as Secretary of State for Defence, and in every other ministerial portfolio I have held, was made in the interests of the responsibilities I had in the job. I will continue to make decisions on defence in the interests of the defence of the United Kingdom, so there will be no conflict of interest.
As a fellow Ayrshire Member of Parliament, will my right hon. Friend extend to Glasgow Prestwick the congratulations and willingness to give support shown to Glasgow Abbotsinch? Prestwick was able to take diverted flights that day and the next without a single loss to the time-scheduled business of the airlines.
Everyone who played their part in ensuring a response throughout Scotland’s transport infrastructure that Saturday afternoon and into the Sunday, to ensure the safety of passengers and the public, deserves praise. Indeed, those at Glasgow Prestwick airport, which is just at the edge of my constituency, but unfortunately not in it, although it is in that of my hon. Friend, are entitled to credit for what they did to respond. That added to the safety of the people of Scotland, but also to their ability, given that many wanted to go on holiday that day, to do so with the minimum of disruption.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position, and I congratulate him, and the Minister of State on a well-deserved promotion.
The initial answer of the Secretary of State notwithstanding, does he not accept that the division of responsibilities between this place and the Parliament at Holyrood is now a topic that is ripe for review, as Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander and others have argued? If he were to join me in leading the call for reform of the constitutional convention, he could put his Department at the fulcrum of that debate.
Like the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who leads the hon. Gentleman’s party, I am wary of invitations to join anyone, lest the doors open in a fashion that one does not expect. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position. I understand that, like me, he has dual responsibilities and I congratulate him on his promotion to both those challenging jobs. I look forward to working for him—sorry, with him. [Laughter.] It was bound to happen. I look forward to working for him as a citizen of Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman, like me, was around in Scotland when a lot of the work was done, and he knows fine well that the devolution settlement, which was intended for the long term, took a long time to agree.
The hon. Gentleman says it was a process; we need to check the quotation that the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) constantly uses, because I think that he has it the wrong way round. In any event, to get back to the question, the settlement took some time.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and the members of his party never gave up their ambition of federalism. I understand that—they are entitled to come to the Chamber and ask questions that are designed to mask that federalist ambition. My view is that the settlement, which was cast for the long term, has not yet lasted that long term. It is still robust enough in its current form to serve the people of Scotland. He knows that the Scotland Act 1998 has a pragmatic mechanism for adjusting the settlement, if necessary, by orders in the House. I believe that there were 18 last year. The solution is perfectly pragmatic and can be adjusted. We need to spend less time arguing about the constitutional issues to do with the settlement and more time making it work for the people of Scotland.
May I associate Conservative Members with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the emergency services and members of the public who showed such bravery in the face of the incident at Glasgow airport?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Scotland Office and wish him well in his endeavours. I also welcome the new Minister of State. Given that we are all three staunch Unionists who are committed to making the devolution settlement work, I hope that we will make much common cause in the months ahead.
I do not want to begin by telling the Secretary of State how to do his job. However, I encourage him to eschew the complacency of his immediate predecessors and take a direct interest in the evolving mechanisms to allow full, frank and effective working relationships between London and Edinburgh. If it is not his job to review the memorandum of understanding, will he point out to the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor that it states that,
“this document will be reviewed by representatives of the administrations at a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee, at least annually and updated as necessary.”?
Like devolution, the memorandum of understanding is a pragmatic document. It was intended to serve not the processes but the people of Scotland. It has served the people of Scotland, in that methods of working in the spirit, if not necessarily the letter, of the memorandum have been found to benefit them. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that we should have meetings for the purpose of meetings?
The Secretary of State has already made it clear that he understands that some Members of the Scottish Parliament interpreted the Government’s actions in recent times as compromising the spirit, if not the letter, of the memorandum. What can he say to the House today to reassure Members of the Scottish Parliament that arrangements between London and Edinburgh will be based on mutual respect? What steps will he take to ensure that all branches of the UK Government, including the Prime Minister’s office, are fully engaged on that basis, regardless of the opportunities that arise to highlight political differences?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have no interest in playing politics with my role of representing Scotland in the Cabinet or being the Minister who is responsible for ensuring that the devolution settlement works for the people of Scotland. I know from my conversations with him before I took the job that he has no interest in playing politics, either.
We should all act against the words that we sometimes use, and I will live up to that. I intend to work co-operatively—I have done it, both across the Chamber and beyond the Chamber with other Governments, in every ministerial post that I have had. I am therefore certain sure that I can co-operate with other Scots politicians.
I have met Mr. Ennals on various occasions and I look forward to meeting the recently appointed national manager for Scotland, Paul Hughes, in the near future.
I congratulate the Minister on his promotion.
It is important to ensure that, when we convert to digital, the area that the terrestrial signal covers improves. Will the Minister commit the Government to ensuring that at least every household that currently receives a terrestrial analogue signal can get a reliable digital signal after the switchover without having to pay a minimum of £150 for satellite?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Not every household can get an analogue signal currently, although 98.5 per cent. of the population can. I have reminded the House on a number of occasions that that affects many of my constituents in Inverkip, who cannot get an analogue signal. About the same number—98.5 per cent.—will get a digital signal, so the vast majority of people who can get one signal will get the other one. I understand that, because of engineering and geographical constraints, it is not possible to say that every single person will get a digital signal, but 98.5 per cent. of people get analogue and the target is for 98.5 per cent. or above to get digital.
My hon. Friend will be aware that there are many elderly people in communities in Scotland who regard television not just as a little bit of joy in the corner, but as a necessity of life. Will he assure me that such people will be taken care of and be given the free boxes where they are entitled to them? Will he also ensure that companies that try to move the goalposts and to make money out of the situation will not be able to do so?
My hon. Friend makes a valid and important point. The Government have ensured that around £600 million is available as part of the BBC licence fee settlement, to ensure that vulnerable people—not just pensioners, but others—will receive the help and support that they need. We understand that for large numbers of people in society television is not just a source of entertainment but a vital source of information and companionship. As we move into the digital era, with more and more of the spectrum available, the range of services that people will be able to access through television will be much broader. It is vital that nobody is excluded from that because they do not have the financial means. The Government are committed to ensuring that that does not happen.
Plenary Joint Ministerial Committee
The Government are aware of calls for a meeting of the joint ministerial committee and will consider this proposal.
May I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful response? May I also commend him for the constructive and positive way in which he has engaged with the new Scottish Government? That contrasts sharply with his Back Benchers and with some of his still-in-denial colleagues in Edinburgh. It is five years since the plenary committee and most of the other joint ministerial committees met. Whereas that was perhaps excusable when Labour ruled the roost in all the devolved Administrations, it is unacceptable when we have a dynamic new SNP Government in Scotland and a Plaid Cymru Deputy First Minister in Wales. Does the Secretary of State accept that the joint ministerial committees have a vital role to play in improving dialogue, and will he ensure that they meet as early as possible?
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I have not noticed the dynamism of which he speaks. I have noticed a number of announcements that appeared to be comparatively easy hits, but the real business of government is yet to challenge the Scottish Executive. When it does, we will see just how dynamic they really are.
That said, I have ministerial responsibilities and I will carry them out appropriately. I will work co-operatively with those who work in the best interests of the Scottish people. That also means not creating another level of process through meetings, if those meetings are unnecessary. The hon. Gentleman has pointed out that the MOU talks about the joint ministerial committee, but it also says that most contact
“should be carried out on a bilateral or multi-lateral basis, between departments which deal on a day-to-day basis with the issues at stake.”
That is how things work now, and they work well.
If the plenary committee is to meet, does the Secretary of State agree that it will require the kind of approach to which he says he is committed, which is to recognise that devolution is a continuing and developing process that needs constructive engagement? On the other hand, Scottish Ministers from the Scottish Parliament need to recognise that they do not have a mandate for independence.
I am sure that the Executive in the Scottish Parliament know fine well that they do not have a mandate, because they can count. They know that about two thirds of the people in Scotland voted for parties that seek to maintain the Union, and for obvious reasons—because the Union serves the people of Scotland well and has done for some considerable time. I should point out, however, that the right hon. Gentleman slightly misrepresents my position. I am a devolver, but I am not an evolving devolver. I will ensure that the settlement, which I think is the right settlement, works properly for the people of Scotland, but let us test it.
As Secretary of State for Scotland, I work closely with the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns). As is normal practice, he will undertake duties on my behalf if I am absent on other official duties.
I am often tempted to give a one-word answer to certain questions at the Dispatch Box, but I will resist that temptation today. I would put myself forward either as Superman or as a time lord. I would also say to the hon. Gentleman that, in considering whether to take on these responsibilities, I thought long and hard about whether both jobs could be done. Given the level of ministerial support that I was being offered, and the knowledge that I had of the responsibilities involved at the Ministry of Defence, I took the view that both could be done. Time will tell whether I was right. I suspect that we should stop speculating about how this appears and just see whether there are issues in either Department that are not being dealt with properly.
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), the Secretary of State said that he prided himself on always doing his jobs to the fullest. When it comes to the £50 billion of defence contracts due to be awarded over the next few years, which job will he be doing to the fullest in order to avoid any conflict of interest? Will he be lobbying for Scotland and the local defence industry, or for the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces? He cannot do both.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. Like me, he brings with him experience of defence issues, and I look forward to his questions both here and at Defence questions. I will give him the same answer that I give to this question every time: the decisions that I make as Secretary of State for Defence will be made in the best interests of the defence of the United Kingdom. I guarantee to do that, so there will be no conflict of interest between this and any other job that I have, whether it be as a constituency MP in Scotland, which I have been since I was elected, or as the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Over the past five years, the labour market in Scotland has performed very strongly. The most recent figure, 2.53 million, marks a record high in the number of people employed.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Unemployment in my constituency stands at 2.4 per cent., but it will rise substantially as a result of the actions of members of the Scottish National party and Tory-controlled West Lothian council, who are scurrying about my constituency as we speak issuing redundancy notices to hundreds of their own members of staff who, this time last year, were working for the best-performing council in Britain. Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the actions of the SNP and that Tory-controlled council, and tell the latter that it should go back to the negotiating table?
I am concerned at my hon. Friend’s news. It will be of some comfort to his constituents to know that employment levels in his constituency are at record highs. However, it will be of little comfort to them or to people throughout the rest of Scotland to know that, if the plan goes ahead to replace the council tax with a local income tax capped at 3p in the pound, it will leave a black hole in local government finances of nearly £1 billion—
The hon. Gentleman says “Jackanory”, but it was actually the Institution for Fiscal Studies that demonstrated that. The only ways to plug that gap will be either to impose tax hikes on the hard-working families of Scotland or to implement massive cuts in local government services, which will mean hundreds more redundancies of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) has described. It is incumbent on those who advocate this policy to explain how they will fill that £1 billion black hole.
The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) suggests that redundancy notices are being sent around West Lothian. Is the Minister aware that the letters that have been sent out implement single status under the delegated powers given to West Lothian’s chief executive by the outgoing Labour Administration. The letters make it perfectly clear that not one single redundancy is intended and that not one single redundancy notice has come out—[Interruption.] Given the unemployment trends, will the hon. Gentleman have a quiet word with his friends to stop the trend of raising the spectre of redundancy where none exists? Will he recognise that it is the intent of West Lothian council that employment should be maintained for all staff?
The hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to explain exactly how his party promises to plug that £1 billion black hole, but he failed to do so. He spoke about delegated powers to councils and also had the opportunity to explain his party’s policy to remove from councils the right to raise local revenue—[Interruption.]
The Scotland Office maintains regular contact with the Scottish Executive on security issues, including ministerial contact as required.
From time to time, the media expose gaps in our security systems, especially as far as obtaining security passes is concerned. Bearing it in mind that the terrorists at Glasgow airport appeared to have infiltrated the national health service, will the Secretary of State ensure that all future personnel requiring security clearance are subject to the most thorough background checks before passes are issued? Will he also liaise with the Scottish Executive to ensure that the police and security services carry out these checks where private companies or contractors are involved?
I trust that those who issue security passes in areas where danger to the public is possible—areas it is important to keep secure—recognise and live up to their responsibilities and their duty of care. That duty is shared not just by the UK Government, the Scottish Executive and their agents but by private security companies. I will take every opportunity I can to remind those who have the ability to influence that sort of practice that it is important that they live up to their duties.
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Home Information Packs
As we have set out before, over the past three or so years the Government have spent £19.5 million on the development and trials of energy performance certificates and home information packs. Energy certificates could save nearly 1 million tonnes of carbon a year.
The figures do not include the considerable sums spent by assessors, inspectors and businesses on qualifications, training and preparing for the introduction of the HIPs regime. Is it not time that the Government apologised to them for the inept way in which they have handled the issue and the consequent impact on those people’s livelihoods?
We are concerned about the position in which energy assessors find themselves. It was certainly a problem when the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors decided to take a judicial review against energy certificates. However, it applied to energy certificates, not HIPs. We are working with housing associations and local councils to bring forward some early energy certificates in the social rented sector so that we can also help to support some of the energy assessors in advance of 1 August when the programme begins.
Does the Minister share my astonishment and that of Milton Keynes association of home assessors that Tory MPs are trying to pin the blame for the debacle on the Government rather than on themselves? The Milton Keynes inspectors certainly know where the blame lies and were not surprised that none of the Tory MPs whom they contacted even bothered to meet them.
I am sure that that will have been a disappointment to those involved at Milton Keynes. This issue is about providing useful energy information for people’s homes. We already see such information on fridges and washing machines, for example, and it is about time we had it on our homes as well.
Will the Minister admit that the introduction of HIPs was too big a step to take in one go and that she should now go back to the drawing board and see how to make energy performance certificates work? I have a suggestion for her. The European directive requires an energy performance certificate only every 10 years, so the Government should look further into that and similarly require such a certificate only once every 10 years—irrespective of how many times a house is sold within that period.
I am slightly surprised at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, because I think it important for people to have up-to-date information. If we want sellers and buyers to take decisions on the basis of information about their homes, the ability for them to do so if it is 10 years out of date—it could refer to fuel prices that are 10 years out of date—is much more limited. It is disappointing that he has decided to back the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ view on the issue. We think it right that there should be more up-to-date information. We have said that we will consult further, but we are clear about the importance of recent information.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that there have been problems with the implementation of HIPs, but I am sure that she will also accept that the principle behind them—namely, that a prospective buyer should have as much information as possible before making an offer—is absolutely right. The major problem with our process of buying and selling houses in this country is the number of offers that are withdrawn because a prospective buyer finds out after making an offer information that they did not know about, but could have known about, before. Will she give a degree of certainty to those involved in the buying and selling process that the Government intend to pursue and go ahead with HIPs based on that principle?
My hon. Friend is right that there is a series of problems with the current way in which homes are bought and sold. In fact, first-time buyers often face the greatest pressures. One of the advantages of the home information packs is that they will provide information for first-time buyers for free that previously they would have had to pay for. We are clear that HIPs and energy performance certificates need to go ahead on 1 August. There are wider issues as well around home buying and selling on which we want to work with a range of stakeholders to improve.
She has risen to heights that I am not likely to achieve. That may owe something, of course, to her charm and abilities, but she must concede that it owes nothing to the fact that her Department spent £895,000 in three months marketing a policy, the centrepiece of which has been ditched, in which the latest research by Saga indicates that 50 per cent. of the population has no trust, and which the local authority inspectors who must enforce it say is unenforceable. Will she use her new Cabinet-rank status finally to lay this disaster of a policy to rest?
May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post and congratulate him on his Front-Bench appointment—[Interruption.] His elevation, indeed. He should, however, think carefully about the position of his Front-Bench colleagues on this matter. They have said that they support measures to improve the environment, but the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is considerable. It is no good having warm words if they are not prepared to back measures to deliver warm homes.
It is on days like these that I really regret that there are not more engineers in the House, simply because, as my hon. Friend will know, the measures on the energy performance certificates and HIPs represent the most significant action that we have taken on the domestic market in terms of energy conservation and improving standards. Will she assure me that having started this process we will continue to monitor it and roll it out completely over the housing stock of this country?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance and potential benefits of the programme. It could not only save customers and consumers about £300 a year on their fuel bills, but also save a million tonnes of carbon a year. That is important. It is why we have made it clear that it needs to begin on 1 August and then to be rolled out. We will monitor it. We are setting up a new advisory group, working with stakeholders, including estate agents and Which?, to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible and properly benefits consumers.
We have a range of programmes to support improvements in the energy efficiency of existing homes. As well as the energy performance certificates that are being introduced, we have the decent homes and Warm Front programmes, and are working with energy companies through the energy efficiency commitment. However, we recognise that we need to go further to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes.
I am sure the Minister agrees that it is most important to improve energy efficiency in existing housing stock. That would, after all, produce a win-win situation: warmer homes, lower fuel bills, and the tackling of carbon emissions from a significant source. When will the Government extend the code for sustainable homes to existing houses, as recommended by the Sustainable Development Commission?
The code will apply to new homes. As the hon. Lady knows, we have set an ambitious time scale for all new homes to be zero-carbon within 10 years. As for her important point that we need to do more for existing homes, the energy efficiency of several million homes has already been improved, and the energy performance certificates will not only give people information about energy efficiency but suggest ways of cutting their carbon emissions and fuel bills—improving the lagging in their lofts, perhaps, or installing cavity wall insulation. We want that information to be linked with financial support, for instance through the energy companies.
Is not one of the most important ways of encouraging householders to undertake energy efficiency measures the provision of reliable local advice? Will my right hon. Friend speak to her colleagues in other Departments about the possibility of extending the support of the Energy Saving Trust to one-stop shops and other ways of promoting such advice?
My hon. Friend is right, but it is not just a question of information. Improving energy efficiency has to be relatively easy: householders who find it a real hassle to obtain quotations or find out how to get work done are much less likely to make the necessary improvements. We are working with the Energy Saving Trust to find ways of making it easier. We also see a potential for the private sector to step in. Some companies are considering “green mortgages”, which are linked to advice and suppliers. We will need to go further, however.
I, too, welcome the Minister to her extended role.
I am sure the Minister knows that the 21 million homes in this country are the economy’s biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, and that at least 15 million of them will still be here in 2050. Has she decided when she might begin to implement the powers she has had since 2004 to require the upgrading of those homes? That would cut bills, improve comfort levels and tackle climate change. Can the Minister assure us that, in her new role, she will work hard with the Cabinet to persuade it to make progress on this vital aspect of climate change?
It is good to see that the hon. Gentleman is still is his place. I know that he has a long history of strong involvement in this issue, and cares about it very much.
We are considering a range of ways of helping people to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. As I have said, we have already helped several million householders with our existing programmes, and over the next few years the new energy certification programme involving energy companies is expected to help 3 or 4 million people to install cavity wall insulation. Those are substantial improvements.
I think we should concentrate first on the incentives that we can introduce and on cost-effective improvements such as cavity wall and loft insulation, but technological improvements are also needed. We need to find more cost-effective ways of improving solid-wall insulation, for instance, if we are to make a real difference in the future. We hope that the zero-carbon new homes programme will create technological spin-offs that can be applied to existing homes as well.
Do we not already have legislation that could be used to implement tougher and bolder minimum standards for energy efficiency? House builders are failing to meet the existing minimum standards on a grand scale. Why does the Minister not give the building inspectorate greater sanctioning powers and resources to enforce the new higher standards?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about enforcement. There were weaknesses in the enforcement of the 2002 building regulation improvements. Since then, we have enhanced the enforcement of the latest improvements in the building regulation standards of 2006 by putting in place a broad programme of training and other steps such as compulsory pressure testing. We need to go further, however, and we will over the next 10 years progressively set higher building regulation standards for energy efficiency in order to cut carbon emissions from homes; we are clear that improved enforcement must be a part of that programme.
Local Government (Cheshire)
We are now assessing bids for unitary status against the criteria specified in our invitation. We will have regard to all information available, including all forms of public opinion, when measuring against the criterion that any change must have a broad cross-section of support from stakeholders and partners.
Why has the Department not consulted local people on plans to restructure local government, except for those representing bodies such as unelected quangos? Is the right hon. Lady aware that a recent Cheshire-wide MORI poll that showed that in the borough of Congleton there was a derisory 16 per cent. support for a single, county unitary authority, only 27 per cent. support for a two unitaries solution, but 55 per cent. support for improved working of the two-tier system? Will she agree to meet me to discuss the only viable solution, which is supported by the majority of my constituents and myself?
I am well aware of the hon. Lady’s deserved reputation for assiduously ensuring that Ministers know of her constituents’ views. We have during this entire process been very clear about the criteria that would be assessed. Local authorities have rightly conducted extensive consultations with their communities in a variety of ways, such as via telephone polls and face-to-face surveys. One criterion is that there should be support from a range of stakeholders as well as from the public, because if we are to achieve the desired efficiencies and joined-up working through the bids we must ensure that there is broad support.
The hon. Lady asked for a meeting; we will reach decisions on these matters in the near future, and as I must be absolutely scrupulous about the information I receive, it would not be right to enter into lengthy discussions. If the hon. Lady wishes to send in some representations, I am sure that I will be able to receive them, but I must be extremely careful about the process that I adopt in reaching decisions on these issues.
As another Member who represents a constituency in the historic county of Cheshire, may I invite my right hon. Friend to agree that Cheshire’s current two-tier structure, where responsibility for planning, transport, housing and social care is split between the town hall and the county hall, is completely confusing to the Cheshire public?
I am very conscious of my hon. Friend’s tremendous record in ensuring that her constituents’ views are made clear to Ministers. She will know that the invitation for bids to restructure resulted in 26 bids, 16 of which are still being considered, and that there are two options for the Cheshire area. Restructuring must be about achieving increased efficiency and better joined-up working and getting results for the local community. I am well aware of the points my hon. Friend makes, but I am sure that she understands that I must consider all the representations from, and views of, the public before reaching final decisions.
This is almost a Cheshire love-in. May I say in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) that a unitary system of local government would result in a democratic deficit? As our new Prime Minister has talked a tremendous amount about trusting the people and localism, should not the views of individuals carry as much weight in this consultation as those of the quangos and stakeholders who appear to be the main people and bodies being consulted by the Government? Does the Secretary of State agree that an improved two-tier system will maintain localism? Let me also say that I wish her well in her new post—bubbly though she is.
Again, I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s energy and vigour in representing his constituents. He will know, I hope, of my commitment to ensuring that local people have more of a say over their communities, and the challenge for me is to turn that into a reality, rather than simply warm words, and that is what I will endeavour to do. I am sure that he would accept that it is important that, as well as consulting the public, we are sure that all the partners that have to work with local government broadly support the proposals, because this is about getting better results from bringing people closer together at local level, whether that is the health service, the local police or local government. That is what can have the most impact on improving services for local people.
I had an opportunity yesterday to welcome the right hon. Lady to her post. I assure her that in the last 24 hours nothing has diminished my enthusiasm for her new role, which I say in the spirit of an Essex love-in.
Will she confirm that in a letter to her Department the Chief Secretary to the Treasury described the unitary council bids, including the one from Cheshire, as a “waste of time”, warned that costs “may overrun” and said that the Treasury
“simply cannot afford to bear”
the risk? I do not wish to rub the right hon. Lady’s nose in it, but given that the Treasury thinks that it will be expensive, her predecessor thought that it was a distraction, and that ballots throughout England have rejected the unitary proposals, will she do the sensible thing and reject that ridiculous reorganisation? Will she also accept the hand of friendship from this side of the House, as we promise to work closely with the Government to achieve better two-tier working and value for money for the electorate?
I, too, had the opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post yesterday. I am afraid that on this occasion I will have to resist his blandishments and his hand of friendship. He will know that the criteria by which these bids are to be judged clearly include affordability, as well as broad support from stakeholders across the community. We will therefore look very closely at the numbers. I would always expect the Treasury to be very concerned about affordability, as indeed are we, because if these proposals are to go ahead, they need to be practical, realistic and deliver real improvements for local people. I am not interested in simply moving the pieces around the board, but—like, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman—in genuine results, greater efficiency and higher quality services for local people. Those are the criteria by which the bids will be judged.
Planning White Paper
Ministers and officials from my Department have met environmental groups a number of times in the preparation of the White Paper and since publication. Other Departments have done the same. That is part of the priority that we are giving across Government to gathering views as part of the current consultation on our proposals.
My hon. Friend will be aware that environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have stated that the planning White Paper
“opens the door to nuclear power stations and airports which will take the UK’s fight against climate change backwards”.
Can my hon. Friend allay the fears of the public and confirm that those are unfounded remarks? Can he also confirm that the proposals will make climate change a priority, ensure security of energy supply in the future, and put an end to the delaying tactics that have stopped companies investing billions of pounds in this country?
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. The proposals are designed to reinforce, not reduce, the public’s chance to have their say at every stage in the process. The proposals will ensure that the planning system in the future reinforces our efforts to tackle climate change and reduce emissions. It is the case that major projects, especially green and other energy projects, have often taken too long to get through the current planning system, and that is another reason why our reforms are so important.
As this is a day for congratulations, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box and hope that he enjoys this particularly difficult portfolio.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware, because his head was probably in his brief this morning, that the Secretary of State refused to rule out the abolition of green belt protection. Will he be advising the Government’s new unelected planning quango to give the green light to green belt destruction? What assessment has he made of the effect of concreting over the green belt on climate change and flooding? Are not the Prime Minister’s warm words on listening to communities, which my hon. Friends have mentioned, just empty rhetoric and spin from a controlling, centralising Administration?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady at least for her opening comments; I knew that they were too good to last.
Let me be clear: we remain completely committed to the principles of the green belt. The proposals in the White Paper on planning do not change our policy on the green belt.
This morning I sponsored an event at which a number of green non-governmental organisations expressed their concern about the future of public involvement, especially in respect of major infrastructure proposals. Does my hon. Friend understand the concern that giving councils too much discretion in how they engage the public will result in many doing the minimum necessary? Do we not need a statement of minimum rights of public involvement? Do we not need to ensure that council statements of community involvement are tested for their fitness?
The White Paper proposals are right in looking to local councils to put in place, for the majority of their work, consultation and involvement arrangements that are suitable to the circumstances. On the fears of Friends of the Earth and other green groups about public consultation in relation to the proposed process for major projects, I say again that big projects will entail public consultation and will involve the public at every stage—in the preparation of new national policy statements and project proposals by developers, and with reinforced rights of access to inquiries, which may take place as part of the planning process.
I attended the meeting of a coalition of 14 environmental groups that has just been mentioned. Those groups do not believe the Minister’s reassurances about the intent of the new planning legislation. What will Parliament’s role be in deciding the new planning framework? Will there be a free vote, as councillors are legally obliged to have when sitting on planning committees, or a whipped vote?
I would recommend that the green groups that somehow have doubts about our intent and the detail read the White Paper more carefully. We have invited comments on all the key proposals, and the Department has published detailed consultations on four other specific areas. I welcome the discussion with those green groups. At the close of the consultation in mid-August, we will come to a view of how to proceed with the proposals and with legislation for the future.
I welcome the way in which the new guidance on planning and climate change associated with the White Paper will put local authorities at the heart of ensuring that new buildings are energy-efficient. Will my hon. Friend consider giving local authorities a similar role in relation to listing old buildings, particularly those from the 1950s and 1960s such as the civic centre in Plymouth, which, incomprehensibly, has been listed without any account being taken of its huge carbon footprint?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on managing to use this question to raise that issue. Happily, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing is sitting on the Front Bench. She will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments, and I am sure that she will respond in due course.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has received and approved applications from four local authorities to establish areas for selective licensing of private rented housing. The applications were from Salford, Middlesbrough, Manchester and Gateshead.
I welcome my friend to his important new post, where I am sure he will do well. Pendle has more than its fair share of rogue landlords, but the local authority inexplicably seems to be dragging its feet on selective licensing. Can we learn anything from the authorities he has just cited about their experience of bringing in selective licensing?
I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to the Treasury Bench. He has been a strong and doughty champion of selective licensing in the face of a Lib Dem council in Pendle. I suggest that he continue in that strong role, fighting for a decent quality of life for residents by putting pressure on the local authority to ensure that there is selective licensing in due course.
The fire and rescue service has a long history of working with the police at the scene of fires where criminal activity is suspected. Recent research commissioned by the Arson Control Forum, a Government-sponsored body, has focused on detection and investigation using forensic evidence. My Department and the Home Office are both represented on the forum and take a full part in its deliberations.
Will the Minister consider finding time in his diary for a visit to the arson control taskforce based at Kettering fire station, so that he can be fully briefed on the exciting new initiatives to combat arson between the Northamptonshire fire and rescue service and the Northamptonshire police?
I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman’s invitation, but I am already well aware of some of the very good work in Northamptonshire, where the fire and rescue service works closely with the police, and through a recent campaign to remove abandoned vehicles, actually reduced the number of car fires by 60 per cent. That is very effective work and those involved locally should be congratulated on it.
Children, Schools and Families
The new Department for Children, Schools and Families brings together for the first time ever in one place the responsibility for all policy across Government to promote the well-being of children and young people. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I start this statement with a proposition on which I believe every Member of the House and every parent and grandparent in our country can agree: every child matters, and we all have a responsibility to ensure that every child has the chance to develop their talents to the full.
After decades of underperformance, we have turned the tide. We have rising standards—more than 58 per cent. of 15-year-olds achieved five or more good GCSEs in 2006, compared to only 45 per cent. in 1997. There is new investment, with 35,000 more teachers, 172,000 new classroom assistants, more than 1,100 new schools and more than 1,300 Sure Start children’s centres. Teenage pregnancy rates are at a 20-year low. Re-offending rates among young people are down, and 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty.
Significant challenges remain, however, which require us to change and to renew. We know that parents want a greater focus on standards. We have far more to do to close the attainment gap between poorer children and their better-off peers. There are still too many young people not staying on in education and training after 16, and 2.8 million children still live in poverty, with many falling behind in learning before they even start school and more likely to end up in trouble as they grow up.
In this statement today, I can announce immediate steps that we can take to reinforce our focus on standards in the classroom and personalised learning; to back teachers and improve discipline in and out of school; and to strengthen school leadership. We take those steps as we begin today a national consultation on how we can put the needs of children at the centre of our policy making, and build a stronger, fairer Britain, breaking down the barriers to opportunity so that every child and young person has the chance to make the most of their talents—not just a privileged few.
First, on standards and personalised learning, a child who cannot read, cannot write or cannot master basic maths will never succeed in education. Our priority must be standards, not structures. So we will renew our focus on the things that really matter to parents and meet their rising aspirations, and that means getting the basics right.
Since 1997, we have raised standards in literacy and numeracy in primary schools. We are now implementing the recommendations of the Rose report into early reading to ensure that all schools and nurseries teach phonics properly. And the “every child a reader” pilot is now helping 5,000 six-year-olds with significant literacy problems to learn to read.
The next step is to raise our game in maths and build on the successful numeracy strategy that we launched nearly 10 years ago. I can tell the House that Sir Peter Williams, the chancellor of Leicester university and chair of the advisory committee on maths education, has agreed to lead a review of the teaching of maths. His review will look at effective methods of teaching and learning in primary schools and nurseries. He will advise us on how to develop pupils’ deeper understanding of maths and on the development of our “every child counts” pilots, to help pupils falling behind in primary schools.
Effective teaching is increasingly geared to the distinct needs and progress of individual children, so I want to see a greater focus on personalised learning, with appropriate support and schooling for gifted and talented children, those with special educational needs and those falling behind.
We know that regular testing is essential for monitoring the progress of individual pupils, but there should be scope for schools to make well-informed judgments on when pupils should be tested. While we do not support streaming, which makes a blanket and often arbitrary judgment on children’s intelligence and can ignore their individual talents, I strongly support setting for individual subjects, with judgments made by heads and teachers, according to the needs of their school.
I can tell the House that, building on the £1 billion that we have already allocated to personalised learning in 2007-08 and following the recommendation of the Gilbert review, I am allocating £150 million over the next three years to expand the highly successful assessment for learning programme, to help further teachers build expertise in tracking individual pupil progress and in monitoring and mentoring achievement.
Greater personalisation, assessment for learning and our successful social and emotional aspects of learning programme will benefit all children, including high achievers, but they will also help us to tackle underachievement and raise standards among disadvantaged children. As we expand our extended schools programme of out-of-hours provision in sport, music and drama to every school by 2010, we need to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their parents do not miss out but have a chance to benefit from extra out-of-school tuition and after-school clubs. I can therefore tell the House that, over the next three years, we will now provide an additional £265 million to enable extended schools to do more to support disadvantaged children and young people. By year three, the funding will enable all schools to offer those children two hours per week of group activities in term time, plus 30 hours of additional activities over the holidays.
To secure our economic future and promote opportunity for all, we must also do more to improve the post-16 staying-on rate. We will legislate over the coming year to raise the education leaving age to 18, but we also need a 14-to-19 curriculum that is relevant and engages young people in learning, offering them the skills that they need for future study and to succeed in the workplace. Details of the first five new 14-to-19 diplomas will be available within the month and be ready to be introduced into schools and colleges in September 2008.
As we drive up standards, we must also do more to back teachers, to free them from unnecessary bureaucracy and promote discipline and let our professionals get on with the job in the classroom. We are committed to the current work force reform programme, developed with our social partners, to free up teachers’ time to teach, and I have asked my Department to examine what more we can do to reduce unnecessary burdens for teachers and heads.
Later this week, when we report on our review of the secondary curriculum for 11 to 16-year-olds, we will ensure a more focused curriculum that teaches the basics, but reduces prescription and puts more power in the hands of individuals schools and teachers. That will enable schools to personalise their teaching to meet the needs of different pupils, enabling us to place trust in the professional judgment of heads and teachers. To give teachers time to prepare for the new curriculum, I can announce that we will allow an extra inset day for all secondary schools in the school year 2007-08.
Our “teach first” scheme is attracting and keeping high-performing graduates working as teachers in some of our most challenging inner-city schools. From September, it will be extended from London and Manchester to the west midlands, and, by 2009, to Liverpool, and Yorkshire and Humber. Building on the “transition to teaching” programme, we will consult on a new “teach next” programme to promote mid-career routes into teaching, especially for people from industry and the sciences.
Teachers cannot teach effectively unless they also have the power to maintain discipline. Teachers now have, for the first time, new statutory powers to tackle disruptive behaviour, including legal rights to restrain violent pupils and confiscate property. Every child has the right to feel safe in school. We should expect good behaviour in all our schools and see it in all our schools. Ofsted has therefore agreed that it will shortly issue strong new guidance to inspectors, which will make it clear that behaviour by pupils that has a negative impact on learning is unacceptable. Repeated low-level disruption, as well as more serious isolated incidents of bad behaviour, should not be tolerated. By making that clear, Ofsted will, in effect, raise the bar for what is satisfactory behaviour and what is not. Ofsted’s inspectors will focus on behaviour during inspections and where they find behaviour to be inadequate, they will conduct monitoring visits to make sure that it improves.
As well as driving up standards and promoting discipline, I want us to do more to back strong and innovative school leadership. Specialist schools are driving up standards across the country. Trust schools will cement partnerships between schools, businesses and other local organisations and bring new dynamism and innovation to support strong school leadership. Our academies programme is driving radical transformation in weak and failing schools in disadvantaged communities. All academies now actively collaborate with schools and colleges in their area, just as all schools should co-operate with academies. Currently, all academies replacing local authority schools proceed with local authority endorsement at the feasibility stage, and at the funding agreement stage we already have a duty to consult local authorities and we take their concerns fully into account.
Results in academies are improving faster than they are in other schools. Truancy rates are down. Increasingly, inner-city local authorities such as Hackney, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield are putting new academies at the centre of their local school strategies. The test of whether an organisation can be a potential sponsor should not be its bank balance, but whether it can demonstrate leadership, innovation, and commitment to act in the public interest; so, from today, I am abolishing the current requirement for universities and high-performing schools and colleges to provide £2 million before they can sponsor an academy. Many universities are already engaged with academies. I now want every university actively to engage with academies.
At the heart of the innovation in the curriculum that academies make possible is flexibility, which we will maintain for all new academies—built on the platform of the core national curriculum that, as with most existing academies, all new academies will follow in English, maths, science, and information and communications technology. Academies have told me that they make the greatest impact on standards when they are a central part of the local community. They already have a duty to collaborate with all other schools in their area and are inspected by Ofsted against that. In addition, we have now removed their VAT costs on their buildings when their facilities are used by the wider community.
It is my belief that, as we move towards our target of 200 academies by 2010—rising thereafter to 400—we should accelerate the pace of the academies programme over the next few years, with a much greater role for universities. This afternoon, the Minister with responsibility for schools and academies, Lord Adonis, who is making a statement in the other place, is announcing that funding agreements are being signed off for the following new academies: the Brunel academy in Bristol, the John Cabot academy in Gloucestershire, the Shireland collegiate academy in Sandwell, the George Salter collegiate academy in Sandwell, and St. Michael and All Angels Church of England Academy in Southwark. I can also tell the House that on the basis of today’s announcement abolishing the £2 million entry fee, the following nine universities have expressed an interest in sponsoring new academies: University college London; Imperial college; the university of Nottingham; the university of Manchester; Queen Mary, university of London; Aston university; the university of Central England; the university of Wolverhampton; and the university of the West of England.
My hon. Friend will have to encourage it.
By backing strong leadership and teachers, we can focus our efforts not on structures, but on standards in the classroom, and on giving every child the best possible education. So that we can build a national consensus, engage universities, the wider public and the private sector, and drive forward our ambitions for children and young people’s education, the Prime Minister and I will chair a new National Council for Educational Excellence. The council and its members will act as advocates and champions, so that we can transform expectations and aspirations for the education system, and mobilise every section of the community to get behind our national mission to become a world leader in education, and particularly our aspiration for every secondary school to have a business and university partner. Sir Michael Barber has agreed to act as senior adviser to the council, which will meet for the first time later this month.
My Department’s focus is on raising standards in schools, backing teachers and promoting strong school leadership, but schools cannot bear the whole burden. All the evidence shows that a child’s life chances, and their chance of having a safe and happy childhood, are decisively shaped by their experiences in the first 22 months of life—by early-years education, family income, a supportive family environment, diet, and the opportunity to play and do sport. We need excellent universal services for all children and families, but there will always be some children and families who face additional challenges. We must tackle the causes of child poverty, youth crime, family breakdown and wasted potential, so that we can strengthen our society and deliver security and opportunity for all. We recognise the importance of early intervention and targeted support for children with special educational needs and disabled children. The new Department and the Ministry of Justice will have joint responsibility for youth justice, and it is vital that we spot problems in that area quickly, before they escalate into crises.
We have a complex agenda. We will shortly publish our 10-year youth strategy, our national strategy on safeguarding, and our strategy on teenage parents, but I intend to use the opportunity offered by the new Department, and the remaining months of the spending review, to consult widely on how we can use all the levers at our disposal to promote strong communities and strengthen family life before we set detailed goals and the direction for the Department and children’s policy for the next 10 years.
In the coming weeks, we will launch a nationwide consultation to draw up a children’s plan for our country. To help us to draw up the plan, over the next four months we will consult teachers, children’s professionals, universities, colleges, the voluntary sector, parents, and children and young people. To enable us to do so, Ministers in my Department will co-chair three working groups alongside a leading practitioner. The three groups will consider the range of education and wider services affecting children and young people. There will be one group for nought to seven-year-olds, one on eight to 13-year-olds and another on those aged 14 to 19. The groups will involve experts from schools, colleges, children’s services, health partners, the criminal justice system, the wider public, and the voluntary and private sectors. I plan to be able to report the results of that consultation and set out the emerging children’s plan in the autumn.
That is a challenging agenda, but getting it right is critical to the future of our country. Every child has talent, and through the measures that I have set out today and the consultation that we will now begin, we will ensure that every child gets the best start in life and the support they need to make the most of their talents. I commend the statement to the House.
First, may I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment? During his brief period on the Back Benches, he campaigned vigorously on child poverty and helped to secure improved respite care for the parents of disabled children. I place on record our admiration for that work, and express the hope that we can continue to work with him on those issues in a constructive, bipartisan way. May I also welcome what I take to be the good intentions that he brings to his office? Specifically, I welcome his commitment to use “all the levers” at his disposal to strengthen family life. Given that earlier today the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband), said that the Government were indifferent on the family, may I welcome that early U-turn?
I also applaud the Secretary of State’s new commitment to excellence, diversity and discipline in our schools, which is another embrace of Conservative policy. However, that prompts the inevitable question why, after 10 years of a Prime Minister who promised a relentless focus on “Education, education, education”, is such an ambitious agenda still required?
May I specifically ask how the new strategy on numeracy announced today fits in with the existing strategies on numeracy that have already been announced? When he was Chancellor, the Prime Minister announced a series of maths strategies, starting in 1998 with an intensive numeracy strategy. Next, we had a new national numeracy strategy from the then Chancellor. Then we had “Maths year 2000”. In 2002, we had the then Chancellor’s response to the Roberts review on maths teaching. In 2005, we had a new strategy that prioritised the small group teaching of maths. In every year in which performance was measured, however, the Government failed to achieve their own targets on improving numeracy. Is not today’s announcement just a rehash of policies already announced by the Prime Minister over the past 10 years and already found to be failing? No wonder Alastair Campbell wrote in his diary:
“Ed Balls—no good on message—all he does is repeat what Gordon Brown has said”.
I welcome the general principles behind what the Secretary of State has said about more personalised learning. Ensuring that teaching is tailored to the needs of each child is valuable, but may I ask why, if the Government value giving close attention to individual pupils, class sizes for the youngest are actually increasing? In Labour’s last election manifesto, Ministers claimed that they had abolished infant class sizes of more than 30, but that is simply not the case. The latest figures show that the number of pupils aged five, six or seven in classes of more than 30 has risen by 50 per cent. in the past two years and trebled since 2002. What are the Government doing to redeem that broken promise?
Truly personalised learning means teaching individuals according to their needs, stretching the most talented and nurturing the weakest. I agreed with the Secretary of State when he said that setting by ability is central to any successful approach. May I ask why only about 40 per cent. of lessons in secondary schools are set by ability? In 1997, as part of their very first drive for more personalised learning, the Government pledged to increase the number of children set by ability, but in 2005 they watered down their commitment to setting by no longer recording which classes were actually set. May I ask why that was allowed to happen? And what steps will be taken now to support and incentivise teaching by ability?
I welcome the emphasis that the Secretary of State has placed on discipline in our schools. New statutory powers are welcome, but many teachers are still asking why the Government refuse to give them all the powers and protection that they need to enforce discipline. Specifically, will he commit to giving heads the final say over exclusions, so that authority is clear in schools and teachers can feel supported in their drive to maintain discipline? Is it not the case that occasions when heads have had their decisions on exclusions overridden has risen by 20 per cent.? How can that be defended?
I also welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to more academies—academies build on the city technology colleges introduced by the last Conservative Government, which enjoy bipartisan support. I particularly welcome his announcement of a relaxation of the barriers to involvement in setting up new academies. That policy were first championed by Conservative Members. May I ask why he has apparently decided to undermine the independence of new academies by placing them increasingly under the influence of local authorities, when the original vision was of liberated new schools championing excellence? Will he reassure us that he is not abandoning the existing cross-party consensus on academies and moving back to the left to appease the reactionaries who want no change in our schools?
In an interview with the New Statesman last year, the Secretary of State admitted that he was personally critical of his own Government’s handling of the Education Act and their promise of greater freedom for schools. He said that his top priority was
“getting back to clear dividing lines between us and the Conservatives on education policy”.
His top priority was neither working for pupils nor championing excellence, but entrenching division for partisan purposes. Will he show that he will rise to the challenge of his new post by demonstrating that he now recognises that what happens in the classroom is too important to be reduced to partisan positioning? He has an historic opportunity with his new Department to get the fundamentals right for children, schools and families, and I hope that he will work with us and others to put pragmatic reform at the heart of his mission.
May I start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and welcoming him to his new brief in the shadow Cabinet? Like him, I am very much looking forward to our debates in the coming weeks and months. I know how much he enjoys debating in this House and I hope that we will be able to have some good debates. Although there will be disagreements, I hope that in some areas critical to our country’s future we will be able, together, to shape a consensus on how we can give every child the best start in life, how we can promote good schools and how we can tackle the causes of crime. In that spirit, I welcome what he said about the importance of standards and what he said about personalised learning, and I welcome the support that he has given for the measures that we have taken on discipline.
Let me answer a few of the hon. Gentleman’s questions. It is right that we need to make more progress on mathematics. We have benefited from the Rose review on reading, and we want to ensure that we do the same with the maths review. I remind him, however, that in 1997, 62 per cent. of young people reached level 4 in maths, while today that number is 76 per cent. Over 100,000 more young people are now meeting the required standard in maths. We have made progress, but I want to go faster. I welcome his support in making progress.
On reducing school class sizes, it is right to say that some infants are still in class sizes of over 30. That applies to about 1.4 per cent. of all infant classes, compared with 29 per cent. in 1997. However, there is further to go, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support in that context too.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the importance of setting. Setting is very important indeed. It has been increasing in core subjects, and I should like it to go up further. I welcome his support for setting, which I hope he supports rather than grammar school streaming. It was interesting, from my point of view, to hear no mention of that in his response.
I should like to follow up the hon. Gentleman’s point about academies by reassuring him that we are not going backwards on academies; in fact, today we have announced the largest number of academies in one day that there has ever been, and in one stroke we have more than doubled the number of universities that are supporting academies. It is right to say, however, that I was not the first person to make this proposal. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is not on the Front Bench, but I should congratulate him on his appointment to a new job as shadow Minister for universities. In fact, when I arrived in my Department his May speech to the CBI was included in my briefing pack, because officials had never seen such a devastating attack on grammar schools and rebuttal of the case for selection. He even convinced the Leader of the Opposition to support him—at least for 48 hours. My advice to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is this: next time the Leader of the Opposition declares a clause IV moment in education, be afraid—very afraid.
I am very keen to debate education policy with the hon. Gentleman. I have been looking back at some of the contributions that he has made in recent years. Let me give one example from The Times, where he wrote:
“Every parent in Britain should be given a scholarship for their child, worth broadly the amount currently wasted by the State on their schooling. This scholarship could then be used to buy a place at schools, which would have to compete for parents’ money just as vigorously as airlines now compete for their holiday custom.”
I want consensus, but there will be no consensus on the Labour Benches on the case for school vouchers. There will be no consensus on a public spending cuts guarantee for schooling, nor on an approach to tax incentives for marriage that would help a few but stigmatise large numbers of children in our society who, through no fault of their own, would be worse off but also treated as second class because of a death in the family or a break-up of their family. Let us have consensus not on the basis that some children matter but that every child matters. If we want to raise standards, let us do so in all schools by putting resources in place to deliver that. In my view, only this side of the House is prepared to will the means to that end, which is why I commend this statement to the House.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this statement. It is not so much a breath of fresh air as a gust of it; he has covered so many topics. He must be congratulated for concentrating on standards, and on assessment—bringing back the skills, which many teachers have left behind, of assessing students in a thorough way. I also congratulate him on his emphasis on a more flexible curriculum and less prescription.
As my right hon. Friend would expect of those of us deeply interested in education, I have found two little quibbles. First, I ask him please not to put too much emphasis on just one form of phonics. The Select Committee on Education and Skills found and recommended that all programmes of teaching people to read actually work. Secondly, we have a wonderful academies programme, and he must be congratulated. Many of us have been working for a long time on the link between universities, businesses and those who care and know about education. That part of his statement will be a milestone, and I congratulate him.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, and for his leadership on these matters over a number of years. I look forward with some trepidation to my first appearance before his Select Committee if, as I hope, he is confirmed in his current position, and I look forward to his advice and guidance in the coming years.
My hon. Friend is right to make sure that we are careful about the way in which we approach the issue of reading. The Rose review provides us with the opportunity to implement this programme, and so does the “every child a reader” scheme. Every child learns in a different way. We need to give teachers the tools to do the job, but also to allow them to ensure that they teach each child, which is what our commitment to personalisation does.
I also say to my hon. Friend that academies have an important role to play as part of our mainstream education policy. Our ambition is that every school should be a specialist school, a trust school or an academy, and I pay tribute to the work that he and many Labour Members have done in recent years to encourage universities to engage in our academies programme. Today, we have more than doubled the number of universities that are sponsoring academies, and over time I hope that we can ensure that every university does so.
I genuinely welcome the new Secretary of State to his post. He has been an important individual in front of and behind the scenes in this Government for a long time, and we are pleased that the Prime Minister—the former Chancellor—has put him into this job because we assume that that indicates it is a priority for the Government. We also welcome the fact that other elements of children’s policy will be part of the Department’s responsibilities, and we hope to find common ground on many issues in future.
I want to raise some questions about several points in the statement, starting with funding. The Secretary of State announced a couple of new initiatives on funding, which we will check, if he does not mind me saying so, to ensure that they are genuinely new. I was disappointed, given that the Prime Minister was there to support him today, that he did not mention what is surely one of the Government’s flagship policies on education funding, which was announced by his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in March 2006 and reannounced, as is the practice, in March 2007: bringing the level of state education funding up to the private school level. We later found out that the announcement actually meant that by about 2022, the level of state funding would be up to the private level in 2005—a less impressive pledge. May we have confirmation today of when that objective will be met, and whether it will be as far into the future as most commentators think? Would it not be more sensible to deliver that objective through mechanisms such as a pupil premium, but starting with those children from the most deprived backgrounds, targeting pupils by setting up a premium that follows them through their educational experience?
Secondly, I should like to clarify the position on academies. The Secretary of State put a positive gloss, as we might have expected, on academies policy. I have become accustomed to expecting that reports in the Financial Times will be reasonably accurate. We read this morning, presumably through a briefing from the Department, that there will be a huge shift in tone on academies and no more reform for its own sake. We also found out that, under a new regime, councils will have to support proposals for academies at all stages of the process, from the initial expression of interest to the implementation stage, for the Secretary of State to be comfortable. Briefing behind the scenes appears to have occurred, and suggests that he will make it more difficult for academies to be approved. Today’s statement did not give that impression. Will he clarify whether there is to be any change in the requirements for local government approval for academies? Lest we are suspicious of the figure of 400 academies, will he tell us the financial provision that the Department’s budget has made for academies for the next five or six years?
The Secretary of State said much about personalisation. As a newcomer to the portfolio, I assume that that is the current jargon in education policy, which I imagine many teachers believe that they have been trying to implement in the past 30, 40, 50 or 60 years. Is not there a tension between a personalisation approach, which tries to help individual pupils, and the perception from today’s statement that much of the personalisation is being handed down from the centre? That appears to contradict the statement that he made in an interview with Polly Toynbee only a few weeks ago, when he said that the Department cannot direct everything from the centre. What flexibility will there be in the funds that are passed down for personalisation so that schools and teachers can use the money sensibly, and teachers are not treated like children?
Given that the hon. Gentleman is a man of some means, were he to want to sponsor an academy, I would be happy to take an application. However, unfortunately, he does not qualify as a high performing academic institution, so the £2 million contribution would still apply to him.
Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. It is our commitment, which the Conservative party will not match, to increase state spending per pupil to the current amount of private spending per pupil. Parents would expect and want us to do that. Our spending review provides for making progress towards that goal. It is our ambition to increase spending to that extent, but we cannot do that if we have to cut spending to pay for either a £21 billion tax-cutting package or capital gains tax reforms. It is important to ensure a disciplined approach to spending. The new initiatives that I announced today mean new money from our Department’s spending review settlement up to 2011.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the pupil’s premium. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has already made it clear that, in our funding settlement for schools, we will continue to target deprivation but try to do that in a more sophisticated way using tax credit data, in which the hon. Gentleman will have some interest.
I said that the best teachers practise personalisation. We want to give more teachers the training and resources to do so, but it is up to individual teachers in the classroom and individual schools. Throughout the country, the best schools—those in our “every child a reader” pilot, which have made the fastest progress at primary level—have established school-based, personalised learning and tracking projects. The best trusts are those that share information between schools on the way in which to effect local personalisation. We do not, therefore, have a centralising agenda.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked me about my statement on academies. Just to make it absolutely clear, I said that all academies now actively collaborate with schools and colleges. All academies replacing local authorities proceed with local authority endorsement at the feasibility stage now, and there is already a duty to consult local authorities at the funding agreement stage. I have made my announcement to the House first, not the newspapers. The newspapers did not get that right and I am happy to take this opportunity to correct them.
I might well ask my right hon. Friend where the universities are in the north-east of England, because he did not answer that point. Will he take a keen look at the situation in Blyth, where we have just approved an academy school, which is not more than a mile away from the brand new Blyth community college, which was built to the tune of £14 million? I have heard that there will be surplus places and redundancies among teachers when the two schools are up and running, so will he ensure that there is parity between pupils at the academy and those at the community college and that they receive the same amount of money per head?
I know that my hon. Friend has strong views on that issue and that he has already discussed it with the Minister for Schools and Learners in an Adjournment debate. I am happy to visit with him, and I hope that we can reassure my hon. Friend that what is being done is fair, in terms of pupil funding and capital funding, and has the best interests of his constituency at heart, particularly the poor or more disadvantaged members. That is my commitment to him and that is what we shall deliver.
I warmly congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. In view of his long-standing interest in the issue of children with disabilities, I hope very much that good progress can be made in the national interest. Given that local authorities are in a position of virtual omnipotence, as the bodies that assess and decide, and pay for and provide the service that children with special educational needs receive, and given that in a truly compelling report issued in the summer of last year the Select Committee on Education and Skills argued strongly for the separation of assessment on the one hand and provision on the other, will the Secretary of State, as a new broom sweeping clean, look again at the issue? His hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and the Committee were right; the Government were dismissive, sneering and wrong.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to these debates over many a year. I had the opportunity to work closely with him on our review of services for disabled children. I can reassure him that our Department is not only the “every child matters” Department, but the “every disabled child matters” Department. We shall take seriously the issues of disability and special educational needs, on which he has some expertise. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners is planning to meet him shortly to discuss such matters.
The hon. Gentleman’s specific point is one that we shall consider as we consult on our children’s plan. I want to ensure that schools and children’s services departments work closely together. I shall, for the first time, examine the issue that he raised. I do not promise to reconsider the policy, but I promise him that I shall consider the point carefully.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and on his statement, as well as on his emphasis on leadership and standards in the classroom and on his reiteration of the objectives of academies, albeit not those set out by the Conservatives, but those in the Government Green Paper in the spring of 2001. In the plan for children and the three strands, and in the allocation of £265 million for children who are particularly disadvantaged, will he and his Ministers take account of the fact that, in developing standards, it is aspiration from the family and overcoming dysfunctionality in the family that are so crucial? Will he emphasise family learning and overcoming the biggest obstacle of all to children, which is a family who have no expectation of success in the future?
My right hon. Friend is quite right. His leadership on the issue has been very important and has meant that we have gone from having a small number of city technology colleges when we came into government to the expanding programme of academies that we have put in place and are strengthening today.
My right hon. Friend is right that we should emphasise the causes of poor standards in schools, one of which is a lack of effective family support. It is part of our extended schools programme and of the Department’s wider programme to address these issues. In order to ensure that every child matters, this cannot simply be about children; it must also be about support for parents and grandparents. Supporting the family means supporting all generations of the family. We need to ensure that busy parents are given the support that they need to balance work and family life. For those parents who want parenting classes or whose children get into difficulty, we will provide more targeted support.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I have an excellent special school in my constituency, Park Lane school. Further to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), will the Secretary of State look at the funding of Cheshire county council in respect of its ability to provide the best and most appropriate education for those with learning difficulties, particularly autistic children? It appears that the authority is no longer prepared to fund places for such children out of county because of the cost, even though those schools provide the best and most appropriate education.
I am happy to look at that issue. I have a specialist school in my constituency called Kingsland school, which also does a great job in providing support for primary years children with severe learning or physical disabilities. There is a place for specialist schools, as well as for allowing children to have support in mainstream schools, and we need to provide choice for parents. In my view, the authorities have a responsibility to ensure that the funding is in place. I am told by the Minister for Schools and Learners, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) that funding has been put in place, but if there are difficulties in accessing that funding, I would be happy to discuss that in detail with the hon. Gentleman.
Children from less well-off families are simply not able to buy into the music, drama, arts and culture that are so educationally enriching and that are enjoyed by many better-off children. I therefore welcome the additional money that my right hon. Friend has committed to extended schools. May I remind him, however, that the most deprived schools in my constituency receive only £10 per child per year for the full range of such activities? Even the money that he has announced today will probably provide only a three or fourfold increase on that amount. Will he assure me that he will look hard at how to direct resources to the most deprived schools in the most deprived communities, so that those children can receive the kind of wide-ranging cultural support for their education that clearly produces results?
I know that my hon. Friend has worked hard to champion the interests of the most disadvantaged children in her constituency. Our commitment is clear: we want all schools to be able to offer people—parents and children—extended school facilities, and we need to ensure that the funding is in place to enable that to happen, and to provide the necessary advice and support. Disadvantaged children and their parents should not be prevented from accessing those services because of a problem with resources. That is why I have made announcements today to ensure that there is more money in place to deliver on the commitments that I know my hon. Friend wants for her constituents and that I want for all our constituents in this country.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. I wonder whether he could help me with one particular point in his statement. Last year, the Government said that they were putting additional money into maths education, yet today he has announced a review into how maths is taught. Is that not the wrong way round?
I think that I answered that question when it was put to me by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). We have been improving our maths teaching over the past decade, and that is reflected in the test results, which have been rising year on year. However, over the past two or three years, we have not seen the same pace of progress that we saw in the earlier years. We want to keep up the momentum. In the consultations that my colleagues and I have had, it has been put to us that there is a case for looking at the way in which we teach mathematics, in a similar way to what happened in the Rose review. The right way to do that is to get experts to come and advise us, and that is what we are doing. When we implement the report, we will again be able to accelerate the pace of the progress that we have been making over the past decade.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s emphasis on disadvantaged children in our education system. He is right to point out that the most disturbing gap in education is between those who do well, who are generally from affluent family backgrounds, and those who do badly and are from poorer backgrounds. He has announced a couple of initiatives, and the £265 million will be very welcome. Will he guarantee that, as we look at the structure of schools, we will ensure that children and young people from the most disadvantaged families are not crowded out by the often sharper elbows of those from the more advantaged families?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. That is exactly what the new and fair admissions code is designed to deliver. I would point out that since 1998, primary schools in the areas of highest poverty have improved at nearly twice the rate of schools in the most affluent areas, so we have made progress. Furthermore, academies admit a higher proportion of pupils with special educational needs and those entitled to receive free school meals than the proportion living in the relevant postcode area. I firmly believe that academies, if done properly—they are being done properly and that will continue—can help support my hon. Friend’s agenda. They are there to turn round the education of disadvantaged kids who are falling behind in the toughest areas—and we intend to ensure that they do precisely that.
I have an excellent special school in my constituency—the Ravensbourne, which caters for children on the autistic spectrum, among others. Those children receive a very good education, but the families have a great need for proper and appropriate respite care because every day is a challenge to them. It is important to enable the parents to continue to support their children and any siblings in the family. Just to be able to undertake ordinary everyday activities, the parents need the occasional break. Does the Secretary of State realise that additional funding is needed for appropriate respite care for autistic children?
The hon. Lady is quite right to point to the particular challenges that autistic children and their families face. Only recently, I visited the Treehouse special school in north London, which caters for autistic children. While there, I witnessed the powerful and intense support that teachers provide to those children during the day. I was marvelling at the fact that the parents then have to do it all on their own from 3.30 in the afternoon until 9 the next morning. The burden placed on those parents is very substantial, and they do it all willingly because they love their children, but we have a responsibility to ensure that they get the short breaks they need, which can often make the difference between coping and crisis. The hon. Lady thus makes a powerful point, which we take very seriously.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on achieving his new position and on his statement, particularly the part relating to academies. I draw the House’s attention to discussions going on between the Department and a number of cathedral choir schools, which wish to transform themselves into academies so that not just a few children, but large numbers of them, receive a brilliant musical education. Those schools can then act as centres of excellence for other state schools in the area. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if he dropped the £2 million entry fee for this group of schools wanting to transfer, it might not be too long before he could announce to the House the very biggest increase of academies ever in this Government’s history?
If I were able to do that, I would be pleased and I would look forward to such a day with great pride. I speak as someone who has never sung in a choir, but who has often attended such services, and I know that the professionalism and discipline of the children is something to behold. If some of the teaching and learning from which they benefit could be spread more widely in the community, it would be a very positive contribution. These are schools that would undoubtedly benefit from any relaxation of the £2 million limit. I look forward to seeing them make representations, perhaps through my right hon. Friend, as soon as possible.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on introducing an education system that sounds remarkably similar to the one I went through in Scotland in the 1950s. May I commend to him the Bromley children’s project? It involves parents early on and it is responsible for reducing the number of exclusions per year from 50 to two in just one primary school. Will the right hon. Gentleman look further into the funding of local education authorities that are debt free, but unable to spend the credits that they receive from the Department? How does he reconcile raising the school leaving age to 18 with the ability of the same children to get married at 16?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the detail of her questions. On the first two, I offer her a meeting so that I can take up the issues with the Minister for Schools and Learners. If a return to focusing on standards in the classroom is a return to the 1950s, I welcome that. It obviously did the hon. Lady no harm at all and so much the better if we can ensure that such opportunities are spread to more children in our communities.
On the hon. Lady’s last point, we are not raising the school leaving age to 18; we are raising the education leaving age to 18. We are hoping that that will be taken up in further education colleges through apprenticeships and by people in work. The important thing is to ensure that no children are leaving school at 16 with no ongoing education and that people in work are trained between 16 and 18. That is what we will legislate to deliver.
May I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about extending schools, in particular his recognition of the need to expand provision to allow children from more disadvantaged families to benefit more greatly? When he is thinking about targeting that, will he think specifically about the situation in areas of deprivation that are close to areas of relative affluence—where the proximity of affluent areas can inhibit the building up of the very community infrastructure that is necessary for things such as extended schools to work effectively? Will he discuss with his colleagues, perhaps in the Department for Communities and Local Government, how we can ensure that extra support is targeted on deprivation, not on whether someone who is rather more affluent lives a few streets away?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. We are looking at that in the resource funding arrangements for schools and in our capital building programme. Our vision is not for schools to be open between 9 in the morning and 3.30 in the afternoon, but for them genuinely to be at the centre of their communities. We need to ensure in our academies programme, trust schools programme and in “building schools for the future” that we build schools with facilities that can be open in the evenings and at weekends, that we provide exactly the kind of resource infrastructure that can serve the constituency that he mentions, and that that is at the centre of our thinking as we take forward our capital programmes.
In his statement, the Secretary of State says that we have now turned the tide, with more than 1,100 new schools. That is good news, but can he name any constituency where a secondary school has been demolished and there are now fewer secondary schools than when the Conservatives were in power? To help him out, I can tell him that the constituency begins with W.
I think that I am grateful for that question. This is the first time in the past year that I have been able to come to the Dispatch Box in a question and answer session with the hon. Gentleman without having to worry about whether I know the youth unemployment figure for his constituency compared with 1997. He will remember the particular exchange, as we all do.
On the hon. Gentleman’s particular point, I will need to look at that in more detail. If he wants to have a discussion about it, I shall be very happy to do so.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s support for skills training. Does it mean that all young people in Liverpool who require skills training will be able to receive it? Will he give special attention to those who leave school without education, qualifications and a job?
I will give special attention to those young people. In my experience—this is why the Department is so important—if we are to focus on the skills needs of young people at 16, 17, 18 and 19, we have to start focusing on their ambitions and those of their parents when they are much younger, at eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12. As we work on our new children’s plan, I want to ensure that we take the FE sector and its expertise and apply that to our thinking in primary schools and the early years of secondary schools. If we are to fulfil the ambition that my hon. Friend sets out, we need to start raising the levels of ambition much earlier than we are at the moment.
May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to his comments on legislating in the coming year so that pupils will not be able to leave education until they are 18? What discussion has he had with the Ministry of Defence and his colleagues there, because 35 per cent. of armed forces recruits who join the ranks are under 18? They are a vital part of our armed forces. If this legislation goes through, surely they will not be able to join.
I think the answer is that the Ministry of Defence, as an employer, will have a responsibility, as it does very well at the moment, to ensure that while in work people have effective training between the ages of 16 and 18. As I said, our commitment is to ensure that young people are either in school or college full-time, or in part-time education while they are at work. That training can happen on the job or in college. My guess is that the Ministry of Defence does it pretty well.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly the news of extra funds for extended schooling and personalised learning, which I think is key to overcoming disadvantage. Will he consider distributing those funds directly to schools on the basis of the deprivation statistics, to ensure that they benefit disadvantaged young people irrespective of the council areas in which they live?
We will need to look at that in detail, but we intend to give schools and parents power to decide how the money is spent, and to ensure that young people who receive free school meals or qualify on the basis of the deprivation statistics have a personal entitlement to take up extended school opportunities. That is our intention, but we will need to work out the funding arrangements.
I understand that following the reorganisation of the Secretary of State’s Department, the Learning and Skills Council will lose responsibility for new school sixth forms. Will it be transferred back to local education authorities, or will it go to the Department?
Responsibility for the funding of 14-to-19 education, whether in trust schools, specialist schools, academies or grammar schools—which will reassure the hon. Gentleman—will reside with our Department, but will be routed through local authorities rather than the Learning and Skills Council. The new Department will take responsibility for training those over 19.
Would the Secretary of State be kind enough to examine the funding arrangements for Southfield School for Girls in Kettering? The Department has designated it a specialist sports college, but it is still struggling to fund the provision of a sports hall. Surely there is no point in giving schools specialist status unless such schools are properly funded.
I do not want to stray too much into the details of the school when I do not have them in front of me, but it strikes me as odd that a specialist sports school should be without a sports hall, and I should be happy to look into the matter in more detail. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me setting out the position, I will find out what advice we can give him.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said today, but may I ask him to look closely, during his review of children’s services, at the way in which parents of children with special needs are being treated? Will he ensure that, following assessment, there is a point of access to the health and educational support that they need? As parents of children suffering from Asperger’s syndrome have discovered in my constituency, too often they are bounced from pillar to post and have to undergo assessments again and again.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the key findings of our review of disabled children’s services was that parents need to find ways of navigating the system. One of the best ways is to establish a lead professional, along with parents’ forums, who can act as an advocate. In drawing up our children’s plan we will ensure that children’s services, schools and health officials are involved at local level, in order to deal effectively with complexity that may at times be inevitable but is still quite distressing for parents.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcements, particularly the announcement of funding agreements for the two new academies in Sandwell. I am sure that they will enhance educational achievement in the borough. However, may I draw his attention to a body of young people whose needs often go unrecognised? The education of young carers is often impaired by their caring responsibilities for near relatives, which cause them to miss out on the educational opportunities that are available to other pupils. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to help to identify and support those people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When preparing for my new brief I was shocked to learn of the 150,000 young people in England and Wales, currently under the age of 18, who are caring for a sick or disabled relative, often a parent. Social services departments and education authorities in particular need to ensure that those young people are supported so that they are not excessively burdened, their childhood is not strangled by their responsibilities, and they are given educational priority.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the two academies. I recently met the leader of his council—a Labour leader who is a great champion of the academies programme as he knows what it can do for disadvantaged kids in his area.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recognition of the crucial role parents play in giving their children the best possible start in life, and his commitment to addressing that. Does he agree that every parent matters, regardless of whether they are married, single, divorced or cohabiting?
I completely agree: every child and every parent matters. The idea that we should stigmatise some children or parents for their circumstances, which are often no fault of their own, is a return to a “back to basics” agenda that we thought was in the past. My hon. Friend will have seen that the Prime Minister was present on the Front Bench but that, unfortunately, the Leader of the Opposition was unable to be present as he was at a press conference explaining the comment of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) that most families—
I welcome the appointment of Sir Peter Williams to undertake the review of how mathematics is taught in the primary and nursery sectors. May I ask that he be invited to examine whether there are any correlations in respect of schools that teach maths as merely being of utility and those that teach it with excitement, flair and drive, which is undoubtedly how to succeed in engaging young people in science and mathematics?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I also thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your guidance, which I will, of course, take on board. I apologise to you for what I did. Let me say in answer to the question that I will make sure that the Williams review addresses the issue my hon. Friend raises.
I welcome the statement, particularly the part on the personalisation of services, but is my right hon. Friend aware that Leicestershire is still the lowest funded education authority and that we would need increased funding in order to achieve parity with many other authorities? I know from personal experience of my son’s school and others in my constituency that although we want to deliver the excellence that my right hon. Friend has talked about, that will become a reality only if there are more changes in how the funding formula works for places such as Leicestershire.
The F40 group has made good representations on behalf of my hon. Friend’s area and councils in a similar position. I will make sure that we look into this matter. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners is addressing it, and he will take seriously the issues that have been raised.
I was delighted to welcome the Secretary of State when he brought the Prime Minister to Preston Manor high school in my constituency earlier today. Did his officials make him aware beforehand that had he been visiting 11 years ago, he would have found that not only that school but every school in my constituency had a pass rate of less than 50 per cent. for GCSE pupils achieving A* to C grades, and that last year the pass rate for Preston Manor and every other school in my constituency was higher than 74 per cent.? Will he pay tribute to the inspirational leadership of the head teachers and the work of the teaching staff in my constituency for that achievement?
I am certainly happy to pay tribute to the head teacher I met today and all the staff and pupils of that school, who are clearly engaged with and excited about learning. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in championing the interests of all the schools in his borough. As he will know, in 1997 23 schools in London boroughs were achieving a pass rate of less than 46 per cent. for pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs; in 2006, there was only one such school. That has been achieved because of leadership such as that we witnessed at the school we visited today and the championing of such causes by Members.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role and the existence of the new Department. I especially welcomed in his statement the recognition that the future of a child’s life can be determined in the first 22 months. As well as setting up the three working groups, the first of which will deal with a child’s life up to seven, can he look at our investment across each stage and perhaps continue the rebalancing of investment to the earliest years in order to avoid the growth of inequality, which happens even before a child arrives at school?
I will certainly ensure that I look at that particular issue. One of the key priorities for our Department is to ensure that, as we integrate services for the youngest children and as we make the most of our new network of Sure Start children’s centres, those children and parents who most need help are accessing the services in those centres. It is a priority for me to ensure that we use that network of support to target the disadvantaged to whom my hon. Friend refers, so that we can try to address the issues before they become much harder to deal with in later life.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 6 June there was a debate in Opposition time on the Government’s failures on the NHS IT programme. In answer to our charges of incompetence, the then Minister of State— now the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), both prayed in aid the National Audit Office report on the NHS IT system. They used various quotations and Hansard accurately recorded what the Ministers said. It has now been reported that the Ministers have recognised that the words that they used were not contained in the NAO report. Phrases such as “a positive report”, “much needed” and “well managed” were not in the report. The Ministers are now apparently seeking to correct the record without coming back to the House, which has a correct record of what was said, to apologise for the inaccuracies and the mistaken utterances that they made to seek to defend their now threadbare position. I seek your guidance as editor of the Official Report as well as the person responsible for the conduct of business in this House.
Alcohol (Harm Reduction)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the regulation of the pricing and labelling of alcohol products; to further restrict alcohol advertising; to make provision in relation to public order and alcohol-related offences; and for connected purposes.
This month a smoking ban has been introduced in England and people have been asking what the next big public health challenge is. I, for one, believe that we urgently need to turn our attention to the growing effect that misuse and abuse of alcohol is having on our society. In many ways, that is a more difficult problem to tackle than smoking. With smoking the message is quite clear. A person’s health is affected whatever the level of smoking. Smoking can kill and it affects others. With alcohol, the messages are less clear. People who drink regular small amounts live longer than teetotallers. Red wine is regarded as having some health benefits and the good news for cider drinkers is that it was recently discovered to be high in antioxidants.
I probably need to declare an interest here because I am actually a member of the all-party groups on wine, beer and cider, and at the end of the week I will be visiting one of my local pubs. I fully acknowledge that for many people alcohol is a source of enjoyment rather than being a problem. But it is becoming apparent that there is a growing problem due to the misuse of alcohol.
The facts speak for themselves. In 2005-06, there were more than 19,000 diagnoses of episodes of alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver in England—an increase of 178 per cent. in the past nine years. As if that were not bad enough the figures show that not only is the incidence of liver disease increasing among the middle aged but younger people are being diagnosed more frequently. There has also been a well documented increase in young women binge drinking—there are more under-18 female hospital admissions than male, and the prevalence shows a strong link to the increase in the rate of binge drinking. Hospital admissions of patients with alcohol poisoning have almost doubled over the past 10 years.
The escalating direct health problems are bad enough, but high alcohol intake is often linked with unprotected teenage sex and hardly a person in the country has escaped the impact of alcohol-related antisocial behaviour. So tackling the alcohol abuse problem will not only improve the health of the nation, but will help reduce levels of antisocial behaviour. Three years ago, the cost to the nation of alcohol misuse was estimated as £20 billion. It is time for action.
Sadly, I am not saying anything new. In 2004, the Prime Minister’s strategy unit launched the alcohol harm reduction strategy for England. It was absolutely appropriate that there was top-level attention from the then Prime Minister, who wrote the introduction to the strategy. The strategy has seen disappointingly little progress, so my hope for the future is that the current Prime Minister succeeds and turns warm words into positive action. I do not think that the Minister with responsibility for public health has been announced yet, but we have a clue in that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), is sitting on the Front Bench, and I welcome her to her new job. Simple measures can be implemented that, when taken as a package, will help to tackle the problem.
First, I want to talk about pricing. In a ten-minute Bill, I am not allowed to consider tax-raising powers, but the more general issue of pricing and display of alcohol needs to be tackled. Currently, alcoholic drinks are frequently used by supermarkets as a loss leader, and that practice must stop. There is clear evidence to show that the cheaper beer is, the higher the rate of binge drinking. Many alcoholic drinks are relatively less expensive than they were 10 years ago, which means that children are increasingly able to afford to buy alcohol.
A report from the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2004 reviewed the evidence on the relationship between price and consumption, showing that increased consumption was closely related to the rise in affordability. In particular, heavy drinkers and under-age drinkers are more affected than other drinkers by the price of alcohol. For that reason, it would appear to make sense to place a duty on retailers to prove that they are not selling alcoholic drinks as loss leaders.
I am not a lone voice in that regard. The Royal College of Physicians, in its evidence to the Competition Commission in respect of the groceries market, made one major recommendation:
“Supermarkets should not sell alcohol below cost price and preventive measures should be introduced if necessary. The result of below-cost selling is likely to be a rise in consumption, leading to more alcohol-related disease, social disorder and other social problems. It is highly irresponsible for supermarkets to sell alcohol below cost or at a deep discount, knowing the likely consequences. If supermarkets wish to make a positive contribution to the health of the nation and be more socially responsible, they could switch to discounting healthy foods.”
Alcohol advertising also needs to be tackled. The 2004 strategy called for a review of the code, and Ofcom introduced new restrictions in October 2005, but those are self-regulated. Adverts are now not supposed to link sexual success with a brand. The rules on portrayal of daring, aggressive, irresponsible or antisocial behaviour were tightened, and adverts should not have a strong appeal to those under 18. Things have improved.
A recent analysis of those changes by the advertising industry concluded—surprise, surprise—that the new code of advertising was working. Unsurprisingly, it believes that no further regulation is necessary. That belief appears to be based, however, on an assumption that there are low levels of public concern and that most adults do not think that banning advertising would reduce under-age drinking. No direct assessment has been made of the impact of advertising on young drinkers. The industry also claims that a pre-watershed ban is not necessary because current restrictions mean that alcohol advertisements are not placed in or around programmes watched by a high proportion of under 18s. That misses the point entirely, because while some programmes with high viewing figures may have a higher percentage of adult viewers, their overall viewing figures are so high that the number of under-18s watching and being influenced is also high.
Alcohol Concern reviewed alcohol adverts during a seven-day period in December 2006. It demonstrated that more alcohol adverts were shown before the watershed than after and that the majority of supermarket alcohol-related adverts were shown before the watershed. Evidence from other countries demonstrates a clear link between advertising and alcohol consumption. Manufacturers would not waste their money on advertising if it did not increase sales.
Despite the fact that there is a complete ban on advertising tobacco products, I am not yet convinced that a complete ban on alcohol advertising is necessary. We should commence with the following measures. First, there should be no alcohol advertising before the watershed or in cinemas unless the film has an over-18 rating. Secondly, we need to take a close look at sponsorship of sports events and music festivals to ensure that advertising linked with those events does not glamorise and thereby increase drinking.
Improvements are also needed in education and labelling. In the 2004 strategy, the Government stated that they would completely overhaul the way they presented messages about alcohol and they announced a programme to improve work in schools. The success or failure of that programme is as yet difficult to assess, but it is increasingly apparent that alcohol education programmes in schools do not address the binge-drinking culture. However, when binge-drinking spills over into antisocial behaviour and young drinkers come into contact with the criminal justice system, we have an opportunity to get clear messages across to young people who may be developing problem drinking habits or behaviours. That opportunity is currently being wasted.
I propose that arrest referral schemes be introduced in every borough command unit as there is growing evidence that working with offenders positively and proactively can reduce reoffending owing to alcohol-related offences. The Government have introduced alcohol awareness campaigns, but again it is a little too early to assess their impact. However, the Government have resisted legislating on alcohol labelling, although they have encouraged the alcohol industry in that direction. The Bill addresses that deficit and would set a date by which all alcohol products would be labelled with clear information about the number of units in a drink, a reminder of the different safe limits for men and women and a warning about the use of alcohol in pregnancy. That would help people to make informed choices about which drinks they choose.
Those measures, combined with a hard-hitting advertising and awareness campaign, would go some way towards tackling the alcohol-related problems that blight the lives of many.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Sandra Gidley, Mr. David Amess, Bob Russell, Norman Lamb, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr. John Pugh, Dr. Doug Naysmith, Lynda Waltho and Chris Bryant.
Alcohol (Harm Reduction)
Sandra Gidley accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the regulation of the pricing and labelling of alcohol products; to further restrict alcohol advertising; to make provision in relation to public order and alcohol-related offences; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 142].
Orders of the Day
consolidated fund (appropriation) (No. 2) bill
Order for Second Reading read.
Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith, and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism
I beg to move,
That the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 11th June, be approved.
I want to make two points at the outset. First, Members will know that as a result of our deliberations on the Terrorism Act 2006 a compromise position was reached, whereby section 25 was inserted so that there was something to go back to, given the agreed premise that we annually review the 28-day period, which is rather complicated in terms of the law. Secondly, Members will understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), the then Home Secretary, announced on 7 June that a terrorism Bill would be introduced in the autumn and that we are keen to consult on the 28-day issue. I shall ensure that the consultation paper we want to circulate on that issue is put into the public domain for all interested parties before the summer recess. When we say that we want full consultation, that is absolutely what we mean. I realise the House will say that it is for us to prove that we are serious about consultation and I entirely accept that point—unfair and misguided though it may be—but we are very serious.
The Minister says that he will consult on 28 days. Does he actually mean that he will propose a 90-day detention period and that he wants to consult on that?
No, with the greatest respect, I do not in the sense that I think it fair and reasonable to start from the premise that we will not suggest going from 28 days back down to 14 days, for reasons that I will come on to. However, the consultation period will include an array of options—the status quo and beyond 28 days—but things are not as simple as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests: simply keeping 28 days, or going back to the debate on 90 days.
The strict response to my hon. Friend’s question is no in the context of the consultation on 28 days, but he will remember that, when we announced that a subsequent Bill would be introduced in November—I suspect, post-Queen’s Speech, but that is a matter for business managers—one of the other elements in that Bill was post-charge questioning. So his point about post-charge questioning will certainly be part of the broader review of and consultation on the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, because he will appreciate that these two issues have a very clear linkage. One of the arguments in favour of the extension from 14 to 28 days, which we are renewing today, has been the length of time needed to question. Indeed, if post-charge questioning were introduced, it would clearly be at least an argument to be put in the balance when considering either whether the 28-day provision had to be extended, for which there is no evidence at the moment, or indeed whether the period should be reduced. Of course, the reason we are having this debate is that, subject to the order, the detention period is, in fact, 14 days.
That is an entirely fair point, but I would go further and say that I take the legitimacy of the point that how post-charge questioning relates to 28 or 14 days is important, which is why we will go down the suggested route of a Privy Council review of intercept evidence. How pre-charge detention for 28 days or otherwise, intercept evidence and post-charge questioning interplay is, again, a factor that needs to be taken account of in the consultation. Indeed, as we have made clear in the past, the raft of legislation about acts preparatory to terrorism will equally come into play as well. It is incumbent on the whole House to consider how all those elements hang together. So, in the broad sense, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
The Home Affairs Committee unanimously found recently that there was no justification to extend the 28-day provision, but will my hon. Friend also bear very much in mind the fact that in recognition of the acute terrorist threat that we face—no one is likely to dispute that—both Houses agreed to 14 days without any Division whatsoever? Likewise, the increase to 28 days carried in this House was also carried in the Lords—again, without any Division. We have a consensus—28 days—and we should retain it unless there is compelling evidence that there is a justification to go beyond it.
That is an accurate reflection of what has gone before in respect of the 14 and 28-day provisions and a perfectly fair viewpoint, as I would expect from my hon. Friend, on going beyond 28 days. It is the job of myself and other Ministers to try to persuade people, if we come to this view, that we need to go beyond 28 days. It is certainly incumbent on the House to treat the matter very seriously in all respects, as I know that it will, but I would question in part my hon. Friend’s point about substantial evidence. By its very nature, the only evidence that we have is of the rather limited period—the past year or so—when the 28-day provision has been in action and what we learn every time an alleged plot is disrupted. Given the traditional understanding of the word “evidence”, I am not sure whether it is useful in that respect.
Will the Minister confirm that the current 28-day period is likely to be extant until such time as further evidence is adduced? He seems to suggest that we might simply move to 90 days, almost as some sort of safety net. There is no evidence for that. Will he reassure me on that?
On the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, I am not suggesting that. On his former point, I do not want to pre-empt what the House does with the order. If the House does not pass the order today, 28 days cannot be extant, because we will be back to 14 days. I apologise if I have not made myself clear. We think that, at the very least, the case has been made. Certainly the alleged plots since that time have substantiated the position on 28 days. We need to take a collective view, hopefully based on consensus, on whether, in utter extremis—I know that we use 28 days in extremis—there should be some way of going beyond 28 days when required.
There are currently six cases that went to full term in relation to the 28-day period. I will come on to discuss that in some detail. In three cases there were subsequent charges; in three there were not. This relates partly to my clumsy point about evidence. The issue is as much about looking at where we are going over the next couple of years, in terms of the threat, as it is about assessing where we have come from. That is why I do not like the use of the word “evidence” in that narrow literal sense. I am not saying—in a hidden way or otherwise—that it is all about 90 days at this stage and the consultation is a big cover for that. We want a serious and sustained consultation on whether 28 days will suffice, whether we need some sort of mechanism portal, or whatever else, to go beyond that in extremis, as I said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, or whether we need to settle on something beyond 28 days, which may or may not be the 90-day limit that was discussed at the time.
The difficulty that we face in the House is that, in a free society, if we agree to changes in the law, they must not only be justified—they must be supported by people who are democrats and who want to live in a free society. If we accept restrictions that, in themselves, do the job of the terrorists, we may be playing the wrong game. I hope that the Minister will not get too hung up on the suggestion that there is no evidence. Many of us feel that if we are to combat this terror, we have to look at the situation far more widely and intelligence has to be important. It is not just a question of what we do when we have people in custody.
I absolutely accept my hon. Friend’s point and not least her argument that we need to look far beyond this order—whether we have 14 days or 28 days—and consider matters in the widest context, including legislation, intelligence and all other areas, in terms of how we go forwards. I also accept her point that our starting premise must be what we all accept and agree is normality in terms of the rule of law and the statutes that govern this country. We depart from that certainly not in haste, or at leisure, but only in extremis and in very difficult and daunting circumstances.
On pre-trial detention without charge, my objection has never been to the motives of Ministers, but rather to the draconian measure that I believe they have proposed. I understand why the hon. Gentleman is quizzical about the term “evidence”, but he said himself that he would need to persuade the House. I put it to him that he would at least need to show some very clear disbenefit to the country, constituting some sort of threat to our security, in the absence of the extension he favours, if he were to persuade us. One way in which he might proceed would be to agree to provide Privy Council briefings to Privy Councillors—I would not benefit because I am not a Privy Councillor, but many are and would—as an earnest of good intent and of collective approaches by the Government.
I am not one either, so that is at least something I share with the hon. Gentleman. He makes a fair point. As I have said, what we want to do, in terms of putting the documents out before the summer, is have the widest possible audience, rather than doing that on Privy Councillor terms. We can get a view that is part evidence-based, part speculation, and partly based on making some assumptions, to the extent that we can, about the nature of the threat that is to come. We cannot be trapped in a dimension that says we are fighting the threat that we knew a year ago, or two or three years ago. The situation is finely balanced. That is why, in part, I hesitate about “evidence” meaning things clearly one way or the other. Invariably, in the course of our discussions, there will at least in part be some speculation when it comes to where, taking into account the services, the police and all other opinions, we think that the likely threat will be. That is my only cavil about evidence; I am not saying, “Sorry, mate, I don’t have the evidence, but let’s do it anyway.”
As the Minister knows, for many years I have been strongly in favour of an extension beyond 28 days in the interests of preserving the security of the people. The Government, and certainly the former Home Secretary, understand that the real issue is the interaction with the Human Rights Act 1998, around which the control order legislation works. Does the Minister accept that that is one of the fundamental problems? It has led to a situation in which the Minister and the Government cannot achieve what they want, and in which the subject is deprived of their liberty. Does he not agree that the simplest answer is to ensure that the alleged terrorists receive habeas corpus, have a fair trial and are subject to due process, and to get rid of this absurd legislation, which was passed in the middle of the night, when sunset turned into dark?
I am blessed to have such an ally. The hon. Gentleman’s points are well made and consistently made, but they are wrong. At the core of his suggestion is the idea that the police are dilatory in their activities and keep people for 14 or 28 days, or whatever the cut-off point is, simply because it is convenient for them. The police—along with the security services, the Government and all right-thinking people—want to bring those who are detained to court in the swiftest fashion and at the earliest opportunity, and with the strongest possible case. We have had discussions about the interplay with the European convention on human rights, and I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise. He swoops on me in corridors when I am trying to go for a quiet cup of tea; he creeps up on me all the time, and we have very interesting discussions. There is an issue with parts of the judiciary and how they interpret the convention, but I do not think that the convention is at fault.
Perhaps we can dispose of one of the arguments that I have heard adduced by people outside the House in support of an extension to the 28 days. It is argued that if a suicide bomber survives an attempted bombing but is injured, and so is not available for questioning, the extension would be necessary. Is it not the case that if we introduced post-charge questioning, those circumstances could not possibly apply, because someone who was injured while planting a bomb clearly has a prima facie charge against them?
My answer to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) would have to be “Maybe.” I do not know the specifics, and we could talk about the example that he gave in some detail, but as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg)—another non-Privy Councillor—suggests, the person would have to be arrested first. That is a moot point. Of course, if someone was so badly injured that rational discourse and discussion, and taking part in a police investigation, was beyond them, the issue of the timing of the arrest and the starting of the clock would come into play, as is fair.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome makes a fair point about the interaction between post-charge questioning and the issue of where we go on the question of the 28 days, and I am serious in saying that we want debate on it. I hope that I do not need to rehearse many of the substantial points on why we think that 28 days is necessary as a minimum. Everyone knows the arguments about encrypted messages, the greater internationalisation of threats, and the increasingly complex nature of the terrorist networks. We have to investigate what internationalisation means in terms of cryptography, languages and computers. These things are becoming ever more complex. We think that a period of at least 28 days is sufficient.
I remind the House that we are talking about the annual renewal of the order. The timing has not worked; it would have been preferable by far if we were in a position to move on to the Bill now, but reviews were carried out on the Home Office’s functions and on the legislation. No matter what our speed, I do not think that we could have had that dispatched in time; we would still have needed a review.
I repeat that we want a substantive debate. There is no ruse to introduce a Bill on the first possible day after the summer to which everyone had better agree or else. When I was on Harrow council, I used to go on about consensus all the time. A Conservative councillor said, “It’s all very well your talking about consensus, but by consensus you mean everyone agreeing with you.” That is, of course, not the case, because I am, at root, a consensual politician. It behoves us all to get to a place where we agree on the necessary legislative framework to counter the threat, and the process that we are about to undertake is part of that.
Everything that hon. Members have said about how intercept evidence, post-charge questioning and other elements of the Bill fit with pre-charge detention is entirely fair. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about starting from the premise of our rule of law and departing from that only in extremis given the nature of the threat is fair. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House understand the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the importance of implementing the right measures to counter it, which includes the international dimension. Government Members and Opposition Members, including all Front Benchers, are clear that we must strike the right balance between protecting the rights of the detainee and ensuring that an investigation proceeds properly and effectively and that the police can deal with the complexities of investigations into modern terrorism.
This debate almost involves sparring before we get to the wider debate about how the order fits with all the other elements of a subsequent terrorism Bill. I am happy to meet Front Benchers and individuals who want to discuss 28-day detention or any other aspect of the Bill during the consultation. We are trying to arrange sessions with the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I repeat that we are serious about that consultation.
I hope that all hon. Members understand why this order is necessary. If it is not passed, we will return to a 14-day limit on 25 July. We can have a substantive debate about what the order does and what a 28-day limit means in the context of the other elements of the proposed terrorism Bill in a proper, reflective and discursive way, as befits this House.
I welcome the way in which the Minister has presented his arguments to the House this afternoon. I tell him now that we will not vote against the renewal motion.
It is important to bear in mind what we are debating. When the Prime Minister made a statement on the matter, there was a telling moment when the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) stood up and described 90-day detention almost in terms of a mantra to which people should sign up in order to show that they are tough on terrorism. We must get away from that sort of attitude. This House must clearly be robust in doing our best to protect the security of people in our country, but we must balance that with winning an argument about values, where our adherence to civil liberties is one of our principal weapons in defeating those who want to harm us. If we start signing up to easy solutions and, worse still, start dividing this House on the basis that if one does not sign up to a particular concept—for example, 90-day pre-charge detention—one is on the other side of the argument or, worse still, on the other side in terms of fighting terrorism, we will get off to a very bad start. I hope that we can avoid that, and the Minister’s words this afternoon reassured me that we are moving in the right direction.
It is important to remember what this afternoon’s debate is about. We keep on talking about extending 28-day pre-charge detention to, possibly, up to 90 days, but this debate highlights the fact that the current norm—indeed, it is a norm only for terrorist offences—is 14 days, and that the extension to 28 days, on which this House reached a consensus, is already an exceptional power that we need to scrutinise frequently because it is such a dramatic departure from normal practice. We have moved radically away from accepted practices that view 24 or 48 hours at a time as being long periods to detain somebody before charge. We should always bear that in mind, because otherwise we will fail to understand why our forebears thought that short periods of detention pre-charge were all that was acceptable, given that at such time a person is merely under suspicion and charge should usually follow rapidly after the police have had the opportunity to confirm or disprove in their own minds the suspicion that they may have.
Does my hon. Friend accept that at least two former Attorney-Generals and the reviewer, Lord Carlile, had suggested that the 28-day period could be extended? Furthermore, does he accept that, however, much we try, it is impossible to achieve anything without recognising that this provision, which pivots on the human rights legislation, will not be able to achieve its objective unless we deal with the fundamental problem that lies in that human rights legislation?
I am afraid that I find myself constrained to disagree with my hon. Friend on both counts. On the first count, various arguments have been advanced as to the need to go beyond 28 days detention, but the previous Attorney-General made it absolutely clear in a number of statements—most recently only a few months ago—that he had seen no evidence to justify doing so. He argued that very strongly at a time, I might add, when the then Home Secretary was making noises to the contrary, as was highlighted in this House. As the then Home Secretary never provided any evidence to back up his assertions, I rather preferred the Attorney-General’s view.
As to my hon. Friend’s second point, although there are serious issues surrounding the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998—he has highlighted them on many occasions and they are legitimate topics for debate—I am not sure where they would bite in the context of this debate. I acknowledge that if the Government were to move to 90-day detention, that might be challenged under the Human Rights Act, but the Government are currently at 28 days, and there has never been any attempt to challenge that on the basis of its being in breach of the HRA. Indeed, as my hon. Friend will know, under exceptional circumstances of national emergency it is at least technically possible, well within the scope of the HRA and the ECHR, to declare a state of emergency and, if necessary, to bring in detention without trial. I am not recommending that to the Minister, but it has happened in the past. In the case of Northern Ireland, it was a huge mistake. Nevertheless, it is possible to do it without in any way falling foul of the HRA or the ECHR. Although important issues may be debated in this area—my hon. Friend specialises in it and has spoken on it often—it is not really a live issue in the context of this debate.
My hon. Friend has rightly emphasised how unprecedented and extraordinary the 28-day provision is. In order that we might underline the rarity of the circumstances that could justify its use, could he tell the House whether I am right in thinking that the Government have accepted that the number of cases that they have identified to which the 28-day provision could apply could be counted on the fingers of one hand?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and, indeed, I had a list of questions that I was going to ask the Minister in order to seek clarification, of which his was one. My understanding is that the number of occasions when it has been necessary to go to 28 days, in the context of the total number of people detained, is very few. The Minister will doubtless be able to help us on that in his winding-up speech, and I have a list of questions for him. Anecdotally, it has been suggested to me that, although the police found it useful to go to the 28-day limit, it was not strictly necessary to do so because their investigations and inquiries had been effectively completed within the preceding 24 or 48-hour period. The Minister’s information on that will certainly be valuable.
I would like to make one other point. We compare ourselves, rightly, with other common law jurisdictions. In the context of current events, we can read a great deal about what is happening in Australia, which appears to be taking some important steps to apprehend suspected terrorists. I understand that in Australia the outer limit of detention remains at 14 days—the Minister may be able to confirm that—which was achieved only after a rigorous debate in which many people suggested that 14 days was already a long time. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but in the United States, which is seen as a country that is pretty draconian in dealing with terrorism, 10 days is the maximum period for which a person may be detained.
We have to compare such figures because these are common law jurisdictions operating under many of the same handicaps for the state, or at least protection for the detained person, and it is worth bearing in mind that they have felt able to confine themselves to those periods, even though when we first debated this matter the police and the Minister made a persuasive case for going beyond 14 days, however reluctant I was to do so and however much I might wish to return to the 14-day figure if possible in the future.
I turn to the questions that I feel it useful to raise before the order is renewed. First, it would be useful to know how the provision is working in practice—how many times has it had to be used? Linked to that, I would be pleased if the Minister told the House how any detention beyond 14 days has operated in practice. Perhaps I can just flag up some of the areas that are of interest to me, which might be of interest to the House. As a result of what we did, we asked the Government to introduce a completely new set of Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 rules. It is pretty obvious that rules designed to cover the detention of a person for what is usually 24 or 48 hours are not suitable when someone is in custody for a 21-day period. Will the Minister help the House on the question of how frequently individuals have been transferred to prison from police cells during the period of detention, and on how the system has operated with regard to bringing them back to police stations for further interview?
I am concerned that code H, which is the new code brought in to cover terrorist cases, still allows—at least in theory—for a person to be questioned for hour after hour over a period that could extend to 28 days. I do not think that that has happened in practice, but I am sure that the Minister will agree that having a code that allows questioning to take place almost incessantly over a 24-hour period, apart from an eight hour break for rest, is not really suitable for someone being detained for a long time. Is there not a danger, which we flagged up previously, that any statement made in that period might be challenged at a subsequent trial because of the degree not of coercion, but of sheer drudgery and the stressful experience of frequent questioning? I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that if he has any information that he can give the House.
When a person is held for a long time, he may decline to answer questions through, for example, fatigue. Should we not examine the statutory warning that judges give, to the effect that the jury can draw adverse conclusions? I wonder whether it is appropriate when the questioning has lasted many days.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. Given that the PACE rules are clearly linked to the renewal that we are discussing, I hope that the Minister can respond to it, too. We want it to be clear that, if somebody is detained and interviewed, the interviews can be used. It serves no purpose to end up with a successful challenge to the use of interviews because it is argued that, notwithstanding the PACE rules, the process has become oppressive simply through the sheer repetitive nature of the questioning and the fact that someone is questioned over a long period when the rules were designed to deal with questioning over a short time. If the Minister can help us with that and on the extent of any analysis of the issue, I would be grateful to hear from him because that may provide some reassurance. If he does not have those answers this afternoon, perhaps he could write to me and place the information in the Library. That would helpful.
Another issue troubles me and I approach it with care in relation to recent events. The period between arrest and charge has historically been short—often very short—and that meant little opportunity for media speculation about the nature of the offences for which individuals had been arrested. However, as the period of detention between arrest and charge lengthens and is not subject to the full rules of contempt of court—although it could fall within those rules—there is a plethora of media speculation. I believe that the Attorney-General has expressed her concerns about the matter and that she may have contacted the press collectively to do that. However, we cannot simply ignore the matter.
Recent events suggest that press speculation is unconstrained and, because no charges are brought, there is no mechanism for stopping it. I fear that we will reach a position whereby it can be argued that a fair trial is impossible because of the amount of prejudice that has been occasioned to defendants in the period between arrest and charge. Given that 28 days is a long time—indeed, seven days or two weeks is a long time—I wonder whether we should think again about our approach to the matter. If we cannot impose some form of self-restraint, the time may come when we must consider other means. As the Minister knows, we discussed that in our proceedings on the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The subject was carefully approached and there was a widespread consensus that we did not want to take that road. However, I am increasingly worried about the matter.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Does it not also apply to cases of extradition? Often, the British authorities suggest that they intend to seek extradition and, before they start proceedings, the media speculate at great length. Consequently, other countries decide that there is no possibility of a fair trial in this country. Does not the point also apply to speculation in the House?