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Westminster Hall

Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 24 October 2007

[Mr. David Marshall in the Chair]

Football Matches (Standing Spectators)

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

It is always a pleasure to initiate a debate under your wise and experienced chairmanship, Mr. Marshall, and it is a delight to see you.

I extend my congratulations to the Minister on his new appointment, although in his short tenure his record of sporting success is pretty dismal. Wales and Northern Ireland are out of the European championship, and England and Scotland are unlikely to qualify.

On a point of order, Mr. Marshall. Northern Ireland are not out of the European championship—they have only to beat Denmark and Spain to qualify.

Of course, I accept entirely what my hon. Friend says—I am sure that Northern Ireland will, as always, battle to the end.

To return to my point, the new Minister’s sporting record is dismal. The England rugby team are in demise and are no longer world champions, the England cricket team are in the doldrums, and Lewis Hamilton managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the Formula 1 championship. However, I hope that the Minister might today play an absolute blinder and, in doing so, endear himself to many genuine football fans in the country.

I do not wish to make the debate too technical or legalistic by referring to the various Acts that cover safety at sports grounds or that arose from the Bradford and Hillsborough disasters. The debate ought to be about whether the provision of safe standing areas at the highest level of English football is safe and desirable, and not about the intricacies of deciding what legislation to alter. Having said that, the abolition of terracing was not included in legislation—the power to do so rests with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. If he decided tomorrow that standing areas were to be allowed at premiership and championship football matches, on a recommendation, say, from the Minister, the Football Licensing Authority would have to allow it and the football authorities would have no option but to change their rules to allow clubs to comply with the change in the law.

The issue of approved safe standing areas at premiership and championship football grounds might not be of great concern to the wider public, but it is of concern to the many thousands of supporters who frequent football matches in the top two leagues. Many of them stand up during matches, such as the away support of Manchester United, and many see home supporters standing either for all or part of a match. Standing supporters are in contravention of premiership and league rules, and the safety authorities of local councils have, on occasion, penalised the home club because away fans were allowed to stand through a whole match because stewards were unable or unwilling to force them to sit down or to expel them.

If legal safe standing areas were allowed at football grounds when there is a demand and when clubs wished to introduce them, the current problem of illegal standing would be resolved. I emphasise the importance of a club’s wishes, because I am not suggesting that clubs be forced or obliged to introduce standing areas. Allowing safe standing would mean that those who wish to stand would have an area in which to do so, and those who wish to sit would have dedicated seating areas.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, but does he agree that we need to stress the voluntary nature of his proposal? The Foxes Trust, of which I am a member, is associated with Leicester City football club. It is surveying visitors to Leicester City to find the level of support for safe standing. It is no surprise to find that football supporters want to feel that they are part of a crowd, and not a member of the audience—that is the thrill of the game.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and I shall come to discuss the issue he raised. Of course, everybody stands up when a goal is scored or when a player is substituted and applauded from the pitch.

Before developing the reasons why safe standing areas ought to be allowed only when clubs and fans want them, I wish to deal with some of the myths and untrue assertions that have led us to the situation in which we find ourselves today. First, we must go into the history. Prior to the terrible tragedy at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989, professional football institutions had a complacent attitude and oversaw a chronic lack of investment in spectator facilities. In the 1970s and 1980s, a hooligan and violent element attached itself to football, especially at the top levels, which resulted in pitch invasions and violence, often organised by rival groups of hooligans. I have deliberately not described them as football supporters because they were not—they were violent hooligans who attached themselves to football and used traditional club rivalries as a cover for their criminal activities.

The Government of the time responded by introducing legislation to oblige clubs at the top level of professional football to segregate fans and, more contentiously, to erect fences to stop incursions on to the playing area. Tragically, the latter decision was to have fatal consequences. On 15 April 1989 at Hillsborough, an FA cup semi-final was being played between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Liverpool fans were allocated the Leppings Lane end, which had open terraces with a fence at the front, the gates of which were locked. The official report into the disaster—the Taylor report—makes it clear that the appalling tragedy of the 96 people who were killed was caused by too many people being allowed into the Leppings Lane enclosure. The pressure on spectators at the front increased, but there was no means of escaping on to the pitch. The Taylor report apportioned blame to the police, stewards, ground authorities and fences but did not say that the tragedy would not have occurred if the Leppings Lane stand was an all-seater.

Even now, those of us who listened, as I did, or who watched on television as the tragedy unfolded, remember feeling vividly a sense of helplessness. I cannot imagine the feelings that the bereaved families went through at the time or in the years afterwards. However, I must reiterate that standing supporters did not cause the tragedy. The tragedy was caused by the fact that too many fans were allowed into an enclosed area with no means of escape—they were fenced in.

My good friend the Minister represents a Bradford constituency. Bradford also suffered football tragedy. On 11 May 1985, a fire started in the main stand of Valley Parade. Everyone in the stand was sitting on wooden seats. The fire spread rapidly and, owing to a combination of events, 56 people were killed. Those tragic fatalities did not occur because all the fans were sitting down. They occurred because rubbish caught fire under the wooden floors, and the fire spread rapidly because everything else in the stand was constructed of wood.

I revisit those painful events to make the point that two appalling tragedies have taken place at football grounds in Yorkshire: one in a standing area enclosed by a fence and the other in a seated area in a wooden stand. However, the myth has grown that standing to watch football is inherently unsafe. It is not true.

After the Hillsborough tragedy, an inquiry was set up under Lord Justice Taylor. He produced an interim report, followed by a final report in January 1990. The Taylor report called for a major investment in professional football to improve facilities. It made many recommendations, covering a range of issues, including how many people should be allowed in standing areas and how that should be monitored. The overwhelming majority of the recommendations were welcomed by football supporters and have stood the test of time.

Lord Justice Taylor also recommended all-seater stadiums for the top two divisions of English football and the top division in Scotland. It is crucial that we read the report to see exactly what he said and the context in which he said it.

My hon. Friend is right that there were no specific recommendations covering the broad mass of football, but does he agree with me that one of the specific recommendations that Lord Justice Taylor did make—he could not have been clearer—was that clubs should not use the advent of all-seater stadiums to ramp up prices, yet that was blatantly ignored, which has been a contributing factor to some of the problems that we have seen in the years since? Does my hon. Friend agree that that was a specific recommendation and that it was ignored by football league clubs and others?

As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is true that that is exactly what Lord Justice Taylor said. I shall return to that point.

Let us examine exactly what Lord Justice Taylor said:

“There is no panacea which will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control. But I am satisfied that seating does more to achieve those objectives than any other single measure…It is possible that in the early stages of conversion there may be instances of fans standing on the seats or in front of them because they are used to standing or in order to register a protest, but I am satisfied that in England and Wales as in Scotland and abroad spectators will become accustomed and educated to seating.”

Lord Justice Taylor’s expectations in respect of seating have definitely not been realised.

As a result of the Taylor report, the Government provided more than £100 million of public money in a variety of ways to improve facilities at professional football grounds. In the 1992-93 season, the premiership was formed and vast amounts of money then flowed into football at the highest level—mostly, it has to be said, into the pockets of players, their agents and assorted advisers.

The premiership is the richest league in the world. Chief executives, particularly the current one, Richard Scudamore, have been brilliantly successful at maximising its income and turning it into a worldwide brand. Fabulously rich oligarchs, entrepreneurs and business men have acquired ownership of a number of clubs. Whether those trends are good for football or the national team and whether they are welcomed by football fans is a matter of opinion, and it is not necessarily relevant to this debate—with one exception.

When the Taylor report was published and the impression was put around that any standing area in top football grounds was unsafe, it suited the owners of many top clubs to replace standing areas, where entry prices were cheap—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor)—with seated areas, where much higher prices could be charged, particularly as the majority of the money to make the changes was coming from Government sources or the pools companies. The premiership has greatly increased the move towards higher ticket prices, with more corporate areas, and many fans of top clubs find watching premiership football live more and more expensive.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Perhaps I can give him some encouraging news. Pearse Flynn, the owner of my local club, Livingston, was very keen, once Livingston were in the premier league, to have standing areas, not only because prices would be cheaper but because he saw it as a way of increasing the size of the crowd. The average crowd in a 10,000-seater stadium was about 4,000 or 5,000 unless Celtic or Rangers were playing. I thought that that was a very good initiative, and it needs supporters. There are people out there who own football clubs and support the drive that my hon. Friend is making.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; he is absolutely right. As I would expect, and as always, Scotland leads the way. However, what he describes is not happening just in Scotland. There are owners of football clubs elsewhere in the United Kingdom who support safe standing areas, but I will develop that point later.

When fans asked for safe standing areas to be provided on grounds of choice and cost, they were originally told that standing was unsafe. When people pointed out that clubs in Germany and elsewhere on the continent had provided dedicated safe standing areas, and when people asked why, if standing was unsafe, the premiership had allowed one of its member teams, Fulham, to play for more than a year with open terracing behind one goal instead of closing that area of the ground, the argument changed. Fulham is an excellent example. Its situation is analogous to that of a hospital that is suddenly discovered to have a load of viruses in it, but the health authority, instead of closing it down, says, “Well, we’ll leave it for a year because it’s going to be rebuilt in a year anyway.” The premiership was saying, “Standing is unsafe, but we will allow one of our member clubs to have standing until such time as it gets round to putting in seating.” That is just one of the many contradictions and hypocrisies in this matter.

Instead of it being said that standing was unsafe, the new line was peddled that it was outdated, not modern and not in keeping with the global image of the premiership, that there was no real demand for it, that it would be turning the clock back and that it would cost too much money to provide safe standing areas. When that argument was challenged, a new argument was added. It was then argued by the premiership and the FLA that if an element of safe standing was introduced into top grounds in England, no international or European games could take place in those grounds, because FIFA and UEFA regulations do not allow people to stand at international or European matches. However, it was pointed out that every ground in Germany has safe standing, that 24,000 people stand at each match in a single stand at Borussia Dortmund’s ground, and that German stadiums are reconfigured quite simply for European and international matches.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but I just want to correct him. UEFA rules are that stadiums have to be all-seater to be involved in European competition. In Germany, there are flexible stadiums, and seats are put in for UEFA games.

I am grateful for the intervention from my hon. Friend the Minister because it is just the point that I intend to make. We want to have the same situation in this country as that which pertains in Germany. I accept his point about UEFA. It is clear that an international match must have an all-seater stadium, but in Germany, when domestic matches are played, the grounds are reconfigured and the seats are turned into safe standing areas. Furthermore—to put the icing on the cake—the World cup in Germany was played very successfully in those grounds, which have gone from seated to standing and back again.

When those arguments were put, the premiership and the FLA gave up. They did not have any more arguments. However, in the best tradition of British civil servants, a certain gentleman who was the chief executive of the FLA stated in an interview in 2002 that there was

“more chance of Martians landing”

than of the reintroduction of terraces. Some might regard that comment by a civil servant as hardly neutral and unbiased, but that is what he said—and he is in charge of the FLA.

I welcome this debate. To put it in context, I stood on the Kippax stand for 20-odd years before we were forced into an all-seater stadium at Maine road. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons for the reluctance to change back to safe standing is crowd control? Security guards who are looking at the crowd can see what is going on much more easily in all-seater stadiums. One of the ways to deal with that when reintroducing safe standing would be to have individual standing places.

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman’s last point is particularly pertinent. Nobody is suggesting for a minute that we should go back to the old system of wide-open terraces with unlimited access to standing areas. In Germany, people entering a safe standing area have tickets and, more to the point, the local safety committee limits how many people can enter and how many can stand safely. His point is a good one. I shall return later to the chief executive of the FLA.

Nobody is suggesting that clubs should be forced to provide safe standing areas. As I have demonstrated, and as all hon. Members here know, with modern inventions and innovations, such as those in Germany, it is quite easy for a seated area to be turned into a safe standing area by adapting the seats, but the premiership and the FLA have turned a blind eye to that.

Every week in most premiership grounds, fans stand to watch the match. Sometimes they stand in areas that are unsafe due to the elevation of the seats. Any Newcastle United supporter who has seen how their stands go up into the heavens will know that anyone who stands at the top is taking their life in their hands. It is highly dangerous.

When my club, Charlton Athletic, played in the premiership against Manchester United, the Manchester United fans occupied the whole away end, and they stood up to watch the match. The stewards and police were not going to eject 3,000-plus fans from the ground for standing up. Charlton, the host club, could not threaten to ban them from matches because they were Manchester United fans and not Charlton ones. All that happens in such a situation is that the FLA restricts how many seats a club can sell in the away end, thus penalising the club. Charlton and other clubs would like the option to introduce safe standing areas.

There is a clear contradiction between the treatment of supporters of premiership and championship clubs and the treatment of those who watch other sporting events and football leagues. Premiership and championship supporters are forced to sit to watch matches or run the risk of being ejected, whereas week in, week out, thousands of people stand to watch league one or two matches, rugby union, rugby league and horse racing. Indeed, in his report, Lord Justice Taylor went out of his way to say that having all-seater horse races would impact on—indeed, destroy—what horse racing is all about. He said that people must be free to move around, and that that was part of horse racing.

Has my hon. Friend ever seen groups of horse racing supporters threatening each other and calling out nasty things, or do they tend to get along in a friendly way?

I do not go to horse races very often, but I occasionally watch a big race on television, as I am sure my hon. Friend does. At the Cheltenham gold cup, one can see a massive open terrace packed—far more packed than many terraces in England or Scotland used to be 40 years ago—with people standing up. I accept that it might be a nice bunch of people who go to horse races, but the fact is that they are standing cheek by jowl—thousands upon thousands of people—yet it is quite legal because, according to the regulations, it is safe.

Recently, a big rugby league match was played at Old Trafford. I saw it on television at 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon—quite possibly the Minister saw it, too—at the home of Manchester United. The ground was nearly full, and fans were standing, quite legally, because the regulations do not apply to rugby league matches. The following week, when Manchester United played on the same pitch before a full house, everybody had to sit down, because the regulations apply to football supporters in the premiership and the championship. That is just another contradiction and nonsense in the current legislation.

It would at least make some sense if, instead of aiming legislation at the sport, we aimed it at the ground and said, for example, that at any event at Old Trafford, everybody had to sit down. Local safety people can lay down their own regulations, but rugby league fans can go into Old Trafford, stand up and not break any regulations. Indeed, it is not considered unsafe. That is nonsense, as I have said, and the FLA, which is charged with enforcing the regulations, knows that they cannot be enforced. Its chief executive, Mr. John de Quidt, who earns £72,105 plus an £8,000 performance bonus, said in his 2006-07 annual report:

“Progress on tackling persistent standing in seated areas continued to be disappointing…a vocal minority insist on standing…We have long recognised that, if a significant numbers of spectators are determined to stand, the options available on the day are limited.”

I wonder whether he got his £8,000 bonus.

In recommending all-seater grounds for premiership and championship clubs, Lord Taylor stated the belief in his final report that fans would come to accept all-seater stadiums—I have read the relevant paragraph. It is now clear with the benefit of hindsight that that prediction was wrong. Eleven seasons after the introduction of all-seater stadiums in the top two divisions, significant numbers of fans regularly stand at matches. The contradictions and inconsistencies increase all the time.

The inconsistency of approach was illustrated by a caller to a BBC Radio Five Live phone-in on standing and seating at football matches. The caller said:

“Having been made to sit to watch the match, supporters then walk en masse to the railway station and car and coach parking areas, many walking in the road weaving between traffic. They stand to queue to enter the railway station and then onto crowded platforms where approaching trains pass—often on electrified tracks with no protective guard rails. Then they board the crowded trains with many people having to stand. All this is legal and allowed by the authorities.”

The caller then posed this question:

“Having been told by a senior railway manager that commuters must expect to stand at peak periods, how come I’m not allowed to stand when watching my football team but told that I must stand when I’m commuting, when the football stadium isn’t moving at 70 mph?”

There is no answer to that question. There is no logic behind the rule that says that it is wrong and unsafe to stand up to watch a football match but that it is perfectly safe to stand in a crowded train travelling at speed.

I have tried to set out the reasons why I believe that safe standing areas should be allowed in premiership and championship grounds when matches are being played. The Football Supporters Federation has submitted a report to the Minister setting out similar arguments. I know that my hon. Friend has a copy, but I draw his attention to the introduction. It was written by Dr. Anne Eyre, a survivor of the Hillsborough tragedy, who argues that the question of safe standards should be properly debated, because too many incorrect myths and assertions are being made. Today, we are taking part in that debate.

In a nutshell, football supporters do not want to watch football in unsafe grounds; they do not want to see a return to the mass terraces of old; they do not want to prevent people from sitting if they want to; and they do not want to force clubs to have safe standing areas if the clubs do not want them. What I and other football supporters want is to be allowed the choice of safe standing. I want clubs to have the option, if they choose and if there is a demand from the fans, to put in a safe standing area.

The Taylor report arose out of an appalling tragedy. It was a long, detailed and good report, and many of its recommendations had the overwhelming support of football supporters and have stood the test of time. However, the recommendation on all-seater stadiums for premiership and championship clubs has not stood the test of time. Watching football while standing is not inherently unsafe. The no-standing regulations are not only flouted every week, but are unenforceable and throw up one contradiction after another.

In 1995, a politician, who is no longer a Member, said that safety must always be the number one criterion. He said that

“there is no reason to ignore technological improvements made since Taylor reported, which might now allow for safe standing.”

That politician was Tony Blair. Twelve years on, those technological advances have gone further still: for example, Germany staged a highly successful World cup in stadiums where everybody sits for international matches and where all seats are reconfigured to allow standing at domestic matches.

Week by week, the contradiction grows. It is all right for fans to stand in all-seater stadiums to observe a minute’s silence, to applaud the life of someone who has died or to sing the national anthem, but it is not safe to stand to watch the match. It is all right for fans to stand up when a goal is scored or for thousands of people to jump around at a pop concert at a major football ground, but you cannot stand to watch a football match. It is all right for commuters to be herded into packed carriages, standing in trains being driven around at 70 mph, because that is not deemed to be unsafe. Indeed, while we are about it, Mr. Marshall, in this hallowed place it is all right for nearly 650 MPs to try to squeeze into the Chamber, which has seating for only 400. That, presumably, is not unsafe, but no one can stand to watch a football match in a safe standing area, because it would be deemed unsafe.

The whole business is nonsense. The only way that the FLA can prevent away fans and some home fans from standing, such as those from Manchester United, Aston Villa and other clubs listed in Mr. de Quidt’s report, would be to install seat belts for away fans. They would have to be like airline-style seat belts, with stewards checking that everyone is locked in to allow the match to start. That is the logic of the argument. How else can it be done?

Once the Minister has studied the submission from the FSF and listened to what has been said today, I hope that he will acknowledge—using the words of our civil servant, Mr. de Quidt—that there is life on Mars and that the Martians have landed here. If he wants to know where they are, he might see them standing behind a barrier in a safe standing area watching a top football match.

It may help if I intimate to Members that I intend starting the winding-up speeches at 10.30 am. Three hon. Members have applied to speak, so if hon. Members are considerate, everyone will hopefully get in.

I congratulate my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff), on securing the debate. Some might not realise it, but football is extremely important to millions of our constituents, so it is vital that we have such debates.

I have a great regard for Charlton Athletic football team. Despite my accent, it is the closest team to where I was born, so I have a soft spot for it. I am delighted to find that football is not all love and peace nowadays—for instance, just because Charlton have been relegated, my hon. Friend decides to attack the sports Minister about English rugby, English football, Northern Ireland football and Scottish football. I am joking, of course, just as my hon. Friend was, but it is good to see that there is still some spite left in football.

I shall not speak about the difficulty involving the engineering required to change existing grounds, or about the difficulties of the European international competition. I shall speak only about the change in culture. It is nothing to do with standing being safe or unsafe. First, however, I shall address a couple of points raised by my hon. Friend when summing up.

If Piccadilly line travellers hated District line travellers with the same intensity that football supporters hated each other—we see it every week at football grounds—there would be bans. They would be completely segregated, but that is not so. Of course, it is safe to stand for the national anthem—that is a time when even football hooligans can be relatively peaceful. We have seen a culture change in that respect because we used to hear whistling and booing throughout, and that is a good thing. All-seater stadiums have helped to change the culture of football.

My hon. Friend’s last point was about standing in a crowded House of Commons Chamber. I have to admit that I sometimes get close to crossing the Floor as a result of the attitude of at least one person on the other side. That feeling of aggression is still there, and it cannot be removed.

I am probably the oldest Member here this morning, and I can remember travelling to football grounds in London in the 1960s when I was in the forces. There was no segregation; I stood with Millwall supporters and watched the games quite peacefully. Only after that did the culture start to change. No one was more upset than me when standing was banned because that was the culture throughout my football supporting life. I felt angry when seating was imposed on clubs, but for a long time I knew that the culture would have to be changed.

The 1980s were appalling. From the late 1960s through till the mid-80s, when I was working for Middlesbrough football club, at virtually every game I was in the directors’ box and saw fans chanting at both ends of the ground. I remember well a game that I saw after I had finished working for Middlesbrough. I am sorry to mention Ipswich Town in front of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is not happy that they beat his home side last night, but theirs was the first ground at which I stood with a Middlesbrough crowd. I was horrified by the racism, viciousness and chanting that went on. I almost ended up fighting with my fellow supporters because of that. Going to football grounds in those days was a dreadful experience and we do not want to go back to that.

It is not a case of having to strap supporters down to stop them moving about. The seats make it difficult for people to move about. I was horrified when I first saw the photographs of the German so-called safe standing because it would still have been easy for people to move about quickly and they would then be unidentifiable to those trying to monitor bad behaviour.

I spoke to the previous sports Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), only half an hour ago in the Tea Room. He told me that, at the debriefing after the World cup in Germany, it was said that the German football association would look again at safe standing in Germany. Beckenbauer himself said to my right hon. Friend, “You were right. We’ve got to go back to all-seater stadiums.”

May I also congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate? I suspect that his support for Charlton Athletic is tactical and means that he does not upset half his constituents, who are going for either Aston Villa or Birmingham City. He made some interesting points. It is rare for we in this House to discuss the national game, which is close to my heart. I always appreciate it when the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) invites me to all-party football group events. I am one of only a few Conservatives with a passion for the game and I want to say several things in this debate.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath cited a lot of the historical analysis. We had fences because of the hooligan debate in the 1970s and 80s, as a result of which there was a sense of penning in a whole lot of fans. I would not disagree with what he said about terrible disasters: the two in 1985 at Bradford City and Heysel, and then that at Hillsborough four years later. Of course, the authorities were partly to blame for locking gates at Bradford, which was why the death toll was so high. There were no fences and many fans in that wooden stand who were able to save their lives were able to come on to the pitch. However, that lesson was not learned four years later on that terrible day in April 1989 when, although a lot of drunken hooligans contributed to the problem, the main issue was that a fence could not be removed quickly, and also the authorities were very slow on the uptake. Those issues still live with us. It is legitimate for us to have a debate about footballing matters, as has been pointed out, because many tens of millions of pounds of public money—more than £100 million—was spent on improving our football stadiums following the Taylor report.

I have had the opportunity of watching two games in London in the past six weeks and I have seen both sides of the argument. I went to Loftus Road to watch a Queen’s Park Rangers match in the championship, and I visited the newest football ground in not just London, but England—Victoria Road, which is the ground of Dagenham and Redbridge—for a league 2 game three or four weeks ago. There was little doubt that the atmosphere there, even though it is a much smaller ground, was tremendous. There were seated and standing areas. Dagenham and Redbridge is clearly a great little family club and it prides itself on that. I was there to watch Bury, whom I have followed through thin and thinner over the years, and I was particularly delighted to find both their fans and Dagenham and Redbridge fans having a drink together in the bar before going to watch the game, albeit in segregated parts of the ground.

The atmosphere has clearly been affected by the fact that we do not have the opportunity and option to have standing areas. I have some concerns about the notion that we now turn the clock back. In many ways, discussing whether we have seated or standing areas is yesterday’s argument. The reality is that if are to have the voluntary code suggested by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, I am not convinced that that many clubs will want to change things. I fear that this is down, in part, to the management of the clubs.

There are those of us who have been passionate football fans. I remember what it was like in 1985, when attendances were at their post-war low and there was a real question about whether this national game was sustainable and, certainly, whether 92 professional clubs could be sustained. I wonder whether the ebb and flow might mean that we see lower gates in years ahead.

Speaking as a keen watcher of football on Sky Sports, it is evident, even for a number of premiership games, that matches are played in half-empty stadiums. The route forward might be that the Bolton Wanderers or Middlesbroughs of this world take the view that a voluntary code provides them with the opportunity to have a flexible policy over a period of time.

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I fear for our national game. In many ways, it would be useful if, at some point, we had a much broader debate about issues beyond standing. It is easy to blame agents, but there is endemic corruption throughout much of our game. There is administrative incompetence to a large extent, whether in the premier league or the football league, which has allowed, or meant that a blind eye has been turned to, all sorts of financial irregularities. They are not just something of the past; they are ongoing. I am sure that he, like me, has read Tom Bower’s book about the greed of football. I suspect that that is an ongoing issue. It is easy for the professionals in the game and all their friends in the media to point the finger at the greedy agents. A lot of greed and financial corruption is going on in the game as it stands, and little regard is being paid to the paying public—the spectators—who want to play their part. I fear that if there was a voluntary code, it would not achieve all that much, because the clubs would be happy to carry on with the situation as it is.

We now have some tremendous international stadiums. I have had the privilege of going to the Emirates stadium on two or three occasions in the past 18 months since it got up and running. However, we in London have particular concerns in respect of a number of premiership clubs and their stadiums getting ever larger, including at Arsenal. We are seeing possible expansion at Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, and Fulham, as was mentioned earlier, is now a premiership club, whereas only 10 years ago the team was playing in the lowest professional league. In all these cases, there is enormous pressure on transport services, although little attention and money has been given to that in relation to football and its wider responsibilities.

I fear that, in many ways, this is yesterday’s argument. There has been a great improvement in safety. I think that all of us are delighted that the endemic hooliganism that blighted the national game for so many years in the 1970s and 80s, when it was felt by many that our national game was a disgrace and our fans abroad were an absolute disgrace, is not so apparent. I am not so naïve as to suggest that there is no hooliganism at all in the game any more, but things are certainly considerably better.

In my visit only a few weeks ago to Loftus Road, I was surprised that in Shepherd’s Bush, within a couple of hundred yards of the ground, the pub I went into beforehand insisted that we showed our tickets so that the end of the ground that we were going into could be seen to ensure that we were being segregated. I had assumed that it would be all pints of beer, which I quite like occasionally, but this was a wine bar in which everyone was drinking wine. There was a different culture, not just in respect of the alcohol being consumed, but because there was a family environment. A lot of women now support our national game. All this suggests that there is a positive route forward and I worry that we passionate football fans are getting worked up about the issue of standing and all-seater stadiums.

There is little doubt that there are smaller attendances. Going back to my visit to Victoria Road to see Dagenham and Redbridge, there were only 1,700 fans in the ground. I suspect that, notwithstanding Colchester United’s great success in recent seasons, only 5,000 or 6,000 people turn up at Layer Road regularly. There are, therefore, broad issues to do with atmosphere that I think that we all want to encourage. We need to ensure that we encourage the next generation at a time when football will no longer be quite as high profile or attractive a game.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I will now allow the representative for Colchester United to have more than his say. This has been a useful debate, and I hope that we will have many more along these lines in the years to come.

I do not think that this is yesterday’s debate—it is about the future and the future of football. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate. He has laid out a clear, articulate view of all the reasons why the Football Licensing Authority has got it wrong, so I shall not go over all those points.

I agree with my hon. Friend about John de Quidt. Way back, when I was Minister for Sport, I first tried to raise the issue and sent the FLA to Germany to look at the stadiums, but I found that there was a deep-rooted objection to the idea. The FLA and the establishment in football were not interested in listening to the arguments, any of the supporters’ views or the safety argument. However, one by one, over the past few years, every single argument against safe standing has been demolished. Now, I am not quite sure what my hon. Friend the Minister will say, because there are no new reasons why safe standing should not be introduced. The new Minister, whom I congratulate, has an opportunity to start the way that he means to go on. He should not automatically accept what officials have said over and over again or listen to people who, for whatever reason, have decided that this is a no-go area.

We must continue to point out the hypocrisy and double standards. It cannot be right that the FLA justifies an individual at a football match being ejected for persistently standing in a lower-level tier, when at that same ground on the next Saturday that same individual can not only stand, but jump up and down and dance at a concert in any part of the stadium, including right at the top. That is not logical. The message that it is sending out is that the Government—if they continue to keep this attitude—the FLA, the premier league and the entire football establishment think that somehow football supporters are just a little bit less in the human race and are not to be trusted. Of course, the culture of football was in a particular situation years ago, but it has changed, and it has not changed because of seating. Even today, at any match at the Emirates, most of one end of the ground will be standing most of the time. It happens all the time. To argue that making grounds all-seater has changed the culture is complete nonsense.

I urge the Minister to sit down and talk to those supporters in the Football Supporters Federation who have worked passionately on the issue for a number of years, have done huge amounts of intelligence work in other countries at their own expense and have produced reports that give facts and figures that can outdo anything that John de Quidt can put in front of him. I urge him to give football clubs the choice of how they want their supporters to be treated and to allow that to happen. The matter will not go away, and we will have continually to return to it. Let us stop the ridiculous situation in which football supporters are treated as sub-human.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate and on the manner in which he presented it.

I have two admissions to make. First, I had hoped to come here this morning on the back of a great Colchester United victory at Ipswich last night. Until the 71st minute, that would have been the case, but we lost 3-1. The second admission is that I was a member of a working party of Liberal Democrats who brought forward a wide-embracing sports policy document, one tiny section of which opposed safe standing. I was a minority voice—we had to go with the majority—but I live to fight the battle.

I am in my 51st season as a Colchester United supporter standing on the terraces, and I am a season ticket holder. For 11 years, I have managed to turn down the generous offer from the club of a seat in the directors’ box. My view is that watching football from the terraces is completely different from going to an all-seater stadium. This will be the last season that Colchester United will play at Layer Road, which is the smallest club ground ever to be used in the championship and where the majority of the 6,000-limit crowd stand and watch. It is no coincidence that when the sound people came into every championship club last year, the loudest fans were those at Colchester United, where people stand—there is a totally different atmosphere.

When we move to the new ground—the eloquently named Cuckoo Farm—next year, it will be an all-seater ground. Last season, I made a point of going to as many away games as I could—I managed 15, all of which were at all-seater stadiums. The atmosphere at those grounds comes nowhere near to the atmosphere when fans can stand. I have not been to Dagenham and Redbridge, but I appreciate the situation. I shall miss standing at football matches. I also endorse the point that people frequently stand in all-seater stadiums, which I think is unsafe.

Another point is that people are built in different sizes, but the seats in a stadium are all the same size. Whereas on the terraces people can do a bit of moving about to be with friends or to go and chat at half time, that is a physical impossibility in an all-seater stadium. The other thing that I found out last year was that the grounds vary in quality, in the size of the seats, in the legroom provided and so on.

A situation that could arise—this has not been investigated, but I think that it should be—is deep vein thrombosis. If people are on a coach to an away game for five hours, and then spend two hours in the stadium followed by a five-hour coach trip back, they are crammed in for more hours than they would be on a transatlantic plane, so there are health issues.

Surely we are talking about consumer choice. If clubs think that there is capacity for safe standing areas, perhaps they could have pens, perhaps no more than four or five deep and 20 or 30 yd long. As a consumer who has stood on the terraces for 51 years, I would like to continue to stand on the terraces, because my experience of watching football the length and breadth of the land is that all-seater stadiums are not as good for atmosphere and consumer choice as those where we have the opportunity to stand.

I urge the Minister to relax the rigid regulation. When supporters and clubs can come to an arrangement whereby they can have small, secure areas, let them do it. My experience is that that would be a lot safer than some of the all-seater stadiums that I have witnessed.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate. Like him, I congratulate the Football Supporters Federation on the excellent document that it has produced on this issue. I congratulate, too, all those who have spoken. I do not think that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for whom I have enormous respect, is going to like what I have to say, and I think that she will now accuse me of being part of what she describes as “the establishment”.

As I listened to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath talk about the ridiculous situation that we are in because we have no legislation against overcrowding and standing on high-speed trains, I could not help but reflect that, rather bizarrely, we have legislation that prevents the overcrowding of chickens on trains, which shows how we get our priorities somewhat wrong in this place.

As others have said, we should always be looking at new evidence, and I welcome that which has been brought forward in this report. We should be listening to the strongly held views of football supporters such as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), but I do not believe that the case has been made strongly enough for the current arrangements to be changed.

As has been pointed out, particularly by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), the changes to the all-seater stadiums of our top-flight clubs were introduced as a result of not only the tragic and horrific events at Heysel and Hillsborough, but the broader environment at football games of hooliganism and violence, coupled with a poor safety record and low investment in football stadiums. However, that debate related to this country only, and not to what was happening in, for example, Germany, or to the similar record of hooliganism and violence at pop concerts and so on. We were talking about football in this country at matches between our top-flight clubs.

The introduction of all-seater stadiums has helped to facilitate a sea change in those clubs. The latest figures demonstrate a continuing downward trend in injuries at football matches. The most recent Home Office figures show a further 6 per cent. decrease in the number of arrests for violent disorder, which is the lowest that the figure has ever been.

Will my hon. Friend accept that the club with the smallest number of arrests last year in the championship, with only nine, played at the only ground that allows standing—Colchester United?

My hon. Friend is wrong. I can assure him that in other grounds, such as Bath City’s excellent ground—

Well, my hon. Friend should have made himself clear. Across the divisions, his claim is wrong, although he might be right with respect to championship matches.

It is worth reflecting on what the premier league said recently, which was that the introduction of all-seater stadiums

“combined with effective and professional stewarding and intelligence-led policing has seen public disorder all but eliminated from Premier League grounds”.

I accept that a combination of the two is required. That does not mean that we can be complacent. There are still incidents at football grounds during which it is hard to control crowds. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath rightly pointed out, the problem remains of fans standing when they are not meant to. There is a need for greater enforcement, as well.

I accept that there is no simple solution to crowd control, and there will always be the potential for trouble at grounds. However, surely the point is that when fans are in all-seater stadiums, it is far easier to stop incidents getting out of hand than it is if they are standing, whether they are in the most modern pens or on old-style terraces. We have heard already this quote from the Taylor report:

“while there is no panacea which will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control, seating does more to achieve these objectives than any other single measure”.

Surely, that is the bottom line. Although terracing is not inherently unsafe, it is not as safe as seating. Although architectural and structural developments have made standing safer than it used to be, the fact remains that standing is still not as safe as sitting.

No one is saying that standing is inherently dangerous, as we have seen from circumstances in Germany, but we talking about this country. The Football Safety Officers Association told me yesterday that even if standing areas were designed to the highest safety specifications possible, they would still not be as safe as reserved seating. That is a view shared by the Football Licensing Authority, the premier league, the Football Association and a large number of international regulatory bodies.

Of course, there are arguments against the status quo. Some suggest that a return to some standing would broaden the appeal of football, but the evidence suggests that having introduced all-seater stadiums has done just that—far more children, including, most pleasingly, girls, and women, now go to football matches. We should welcome that greater interest shown by women and, in particular, girls. It is great that football is the fastest growing participation sport among women.

Some would argue that football’s popularity has suffered as a result of the introduction of all-seater stadiums, but I have indicated that its appeal has broadened. That is true of attendance as well—the average attendance for a premiership game is now more than 30,000—which, as has been said, has enhanced our ability to host more international events, such as champions league and UEFA cup matches, where standing is outlawed. Being able to host those games means that fans have a greater chance to go to high-profile, high-quality games.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) suggested—he has left the Chamber now—that the introduction of seating has meant a hike in ticket prices. There is no question but that ticket prices, particularly for the premiership, are far too high. For example, research that I have done demonstrates that, this season, the cheapest possible regular adult English season ticket costs more than five times as much as it would in Spain, and four times as much as in Italy. That is despite the huge income from television rights. Frankly, that is a disgrace—it is real rip-off Britain.

The point is that although clubs have spent £1.5 billion converting their stadiums as a result of the Taylor report, huge additional sums would have to be spent on the introduction of so-called safe standing. The Minister has quoted already the Bradford City chairman, who was addressing the Bradford City Supporters Trust, which was arguing the case for safe standing. When he asked whether the trust would prefer safe standing or a new right winger, the clamour for safe standing died away very quickly. Of course ticket prices could and should be lower, and fans should not be priced out of the game, but the move to safe seating has not been the root cause of the ticketing rip-off, and the introduction of safe standing is certainly not the solution.

Some have argued—this was a major part of the contribution by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath—that football has been separated out from every other activity. He referred to pop concerts and other sporting events. In response to that, I return to the beginning of my contribution: football’s history is very different from that of other sports and pastimes. The troubles of hooliganism, violence and poor stadium maintenance are not unique to football, but the difference is that they have led to some tragic events in the history of that game. I believe that with the introduction of all-seater stadiums, football has changed. It is more popular and has a broader appeal, which is the way that I want it to stay. Football has changed in part at least because of the safety measures introduced over the past 20 years, in which seating has played an important part.

Although I shall, of course, continue to look at any new evidence, nothing that I have heard in this debate, or read in the report, persuades me that there is a strong enough case to call for a change to the current arrangements. Safety is paramount, and as long as sitting at top-flight football matches is safer than standing, I certainly shall oppose the introduction of any change.

I start, as others did, by congratulating the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing this debate. I noticed that he is a former chairman of the Charlton Athletic community trust. As a Kent MP, I thank him for the work that that club does in my community. It is a terrific example of a really good community club, and it does fantastic work in many schools and clubs.

It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to say that, but may I correct him? I am not a former chairman, but the current chairman.

I am delighted to hear that, and presumably there is a connection between that and the excellent work that it does. I thank the hon. Gentleman even more.

As others have said, this is an important subject, which, through the work of the Football Supporters Federation and the Stand Up Sit Down campaign, received a lot of coverage, and I congratulate them on that.

I often say to people that for a politician, opposition has very few advantages bar the opportunity to have a real think about some of the issues, which in my case are in sport. Since taking over as the Conservative party’s sports spokesman two-and-a-half years ago, I have had the opportunity to talk through this issue at length with many of the game’s regulatory authorities, the police, several club owners, Lord Moynihan—one of my predecessors, who introduced the initial legislation—and several fans groups.

I have also had the opportunity to listen to the views of many different Members: I remember having a conversation about the issue with the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) at a cricket match some years ago; I attended the study day that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) organised on the subject in March; and I listened to the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), who, as a Sheffield MP, has very firm views on the subject.

Broadly speaking, the arguments in favour of a limited return to standing are many of those that we have heard this morning. As the Stand Up Sit Down campaign has shown, a genuine group of fans want such a return, and they aim to secure at least one area of each ground where supporters can stand, subject to a code of conduct. The fact that that idea is popular is surely indicated by the fact that the campaign’s supporters cover 130 clubs. The measure would be limited, in that it would apply to only one small section of the ground, and it happens anyway—at least in part—as anybody who has been to a premier league ground will know. The technological improvements in ground design mean that it can be carried out more easily and safely than before, and it works on the continent in Germany, although we have heard that there may be a rethink over there. There is an issue about choice, in that supporters who wish to stand should not be forbidden from doing so, and it would improve the atmosphere, so some say. It will for ever be known as the Roy Keane “prawn sandwich” argument, but there is a feeling that the atmosphere at football matches is not what it ought to be. The elephant in the room, which I thought would not be discussed but was, is that the measure has driven up the cost of football tickets.

Set against that, the arguments are equally easy to itemise. I have heard many people, particularly those closely connected with Sheffield, say that it is simply too soon after the awful events at Hillsborough to countenance any change, and that to do so would provoke an understandable backlash. I had a long conversation with the Minister’s predecessor, and anybody who has talked to him, as a Sheffield MP, about the issue will realise the extraordinarily strong feelings that it understandably still provokes.

There is no doubt that the introduction of all-seater stadiums has helped to improve crowd management and behaviour. When the issue last came up about a year ago, I took part in a Radio Five Live phone-in on the subject, and I was absolutely amazed by the number of women who contacted the programme to say that if all-seater stadiums were removed, they would stop going to top-flight football matches. If there was one thing that came out of that hour-long phone-in, it was that conclusion, which rather surprised me.

There is a thought that the German solution is not applicable in this country, for very simple technical reasons: the effect of the weight of the crush barriers on the rest of the football ground’s structure would make them impossible to implement; accommodation spaces and concourses under those areas could not support the weight of those barriers; the gradient—in technical terms, the rake—of seated areas is too steep to introduce safe standing; if one were to herd in a greater number of people, one would have to make technical improvements to the emergency exits, which would not be safe; and the facilities at grounds are calculated on the basis of all-seater stadiums, so toilets and food areas would all have to be expanded. To correct all that and reintroduce some seating would involve considerable cost, and if that sort of money is to be invested in football, I am not sure that it is better to invest it in stadiums than in driving up participation at the grass roots. It would be a brave chairman who took that decision rather than invest money in the community, as clubs such as Charlton Athletic have done so successfully.

There is also the European issue. As has been said, UEFA and FIFA regulations demand that all matches at club and national level be played in all-seater stadiums. It remains the case that in just over two years of doing this job, with the exception of the Football Supporters Federation, no football body has lobbied or come to me and said, “We want this to happen.” The Football Association said to me yesterday that, outside that small and persistent group, it is not sure that there is a big lobby for the idea. That is partially because the debate has moved on. The viewing experience in modern stadiums is so superior that the issue is becoming less important. It is, in a way, yesterday’s argument.

As does the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I think that there is an extraordinarily strong argument that the price of tickets to watch premier league clubs is too high. However, I am not sure that there is a direct correlation between that issue and the argument today. They are two separate issues, which are best tackled separately.

In conclusion, it is difficult not to characterise the debate in the terms in which it has traditionally been couched. Football supporters are understandably campaigning for a return to standing areas, at least in part; however, those charged with managing safety and security in football grounds continue to champion all-seater stadiums. As an Opposition spokesman, I do not have access to up-to-date assessments, so I am happy to make the commitment today that if we win a general election and I keep my current job, I shall consider the issue again with all the evidence to hand. However, I still suspect that if a Minister with responsibility for sport from any party reviewed the matter, and there was evidence from football’s regulatory authorities that showed that they wanted to retain all-seater stadiums, and evidence from the police that showed that it would be unsafe to change, it would be an extraordinarily brave and, many would say, foolhardy Minister who, with the Hillsborough issue sitting on their shoulder, overturned the current situation.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing this important debate. I thank him for his work in football, not only with the Charlton Athletic community trust, but with the all-party football group, where on several issues we have shared meetings at which he has been at the forefront expressing his views.

I am rather sad that my hon. Friend and I are on opposite sides of the argument today, but I thank him for welcoming me as the new Minister with responsibility for sport. I am not sure that I can be held personally responsible for the failure of the England rugby team—indeed, was it a failure?—which did very well to get to that final, and I was very pleased to be there to see the team almost secure victory. Lewis Hamilton has not become a world champion, but as a rookie, he has done tremendously well, and we wait with bated breath to see what happens to the England football team with their European championship qualification.

I welcome the debate and the document from the Football Supporters Federation. The FSF is passionate about the case, and it wants a return to standing. It has been interesting to listen to the debate and to the diversity of views among the numerous colleagues who have spoken. I know that the issue provokes passion. As somebody who stood at football matches as a youngster, I enjoyed the benefits of standing and loved the fact that we stood and shouted for our team. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) is right: the issue is the culture, and the culture has changed. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) is right, too: we are moving on, which we need to do. Nevertheless, it is important that we respond to the points that have been raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has had to leave for a constituency engagement, but I would have said to her that the issue is not about Ministers being briefed by officials on a particular line. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) has said that we must consider the issue in great detail, which I have done because I have been lobbied by a number of bodies.

As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has said, I was at the Bradford City supporters trust meeting on Sunday night, and I pay tribute to the work of supporters trusts throughout football, because they do a tremendous job. The co-chairman of Bradford City football club, Mr. Mark Lawn, when asked about safe standing said, “The choice is clear: do you want us to spend money on improving players or on changing the configuration of the ground?” Hon. Members have said that there would have to be a massive reconfiguration of grounds, and the supporters to a person told Mr. Lawn, “We want the new player.” That sums up some of the issues.

I also spoke recently to Jarvis Astaire, who was involved with Wembley. He was passionate about all-seater stadiums being the way forward, because they provide opportunities for ground safety and crowd control. People know who has tickets and where they are going to sit, and the stewards can take care of the situation.

As has been said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), the previous Minister for Sport, is passionate about the issue because of what happened in Sheffield. So am I, because the impact of the Bradford City disaster in 1985 on the city was immeasurable, and it is still there. People attend a memorial service every year, and what happened is still alive in their minds.

As a Minister, I fully understand football supporters saying that the running of football should be left to football and that the Government should not be involved. However, we had to be involved on the basis of those disasters. I want to return to a situation where sports run themselves, because the debate should not be about Government interference. As has been said, however, there is a history of safety failures, violence and disorder that is not found in any other sport. Rugby league has been mentioned, and I was at Old Trafford, where supporters stood together—there is no segregation in rugby league, because the supporters get on. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston is right that that has not been the culture in football, and that violent scenes have taken place. We have made tremendous strides forward, but we cannot be complacent. Even this season events have taken place.

The first duty of the Government in considering the issue is to ensure that spectators can watch matches in safety and without fear of violence, disorder or antisocial behaviour. Proportionality is the key, and we must strike the right balance between ensuring safety and security and unnecessarily restricting the choices of clubs and fans. There remain good reasons for the all-seater policy, and I wish to set out the context of the current arrangements before returning to the relative merits of all-seater and standing accommodation.

The current system did not start with the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Lord Taylor’s recommendations were brought about in the context of all the lessons learned from a number of official reports into high-profile incidents at football matches in this country from as long ago as the 1923 cup final. His report was an attempt to wrap everything up, including safety and disorder issues, and to put an end to what was seen as the English disease. His recommendations were set out specifically to meet

“the needs of crowd control and safety”

at football matches in this country. As has been mentioned, in his final report, which took nine months of evidence and analysis, he stated that

“while there is no panacea which will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control,”

he was convinced that

“seating does more to achieve these objectives than any other single measure”.

The hon. Member for Bath also made that point.

It is worth pausing there for a moment, because that is at the heart of the debate in many ways. Lord Taylor acknowledged that a blanket approach to all-seater stadiums was by no means a perfect solution, but said that, on balance, it was a better approach than the alternatives. I shall come to those alternatives in a moment. I believe that the current available evidence supports Lord Taylor’s insight and bears out his understanding of the issue. In simple terms, his final report made it clear that the all-seater policy would help to bring about modern, safe systems and facilities, improve crowd management controls and ensure that there was no repeat of the disasters that had occurred in football grounds over the years. All-seater stadiums became the key part of a wide package of measures to bring safety and security arrangements into the 21st century.

The requirement for all grounds in the top two divisions to become all-seater provided clubs with the opportunity to transform their grounds from dilapidated, crumbling structures—Bradford City is a good example—into safe, secure and welcoming arenas. As part of the investment programme, the Government have provided more than £191 million of public money to help clubs develop their grounds. Now this country is internationally recognised as having some of the most modern and best-run stadiums anywhere in the world. Some 72 of the 92 premier league and football league grounds are now all-seater. Earlier this year, Sepp Blatter pointed out that Britain had set a great precedent by removing perimeter fences and using all-seater stadiums. In his words, that

“should be an example for everywhere else in the world.”

The all-seater policy was the catalyst for that change.

At the same time as improving their grounds, clubs, with the support of Government, have sought to improve the level of stewarding. All match-day stewards are now required to undergo a nationally recognised programme of training, assessment and qualification equivalent to a national vocational qualification level 2. As the Football Licensing Authority and the Football Safety Officers Association will testify, all-seater stadiums make it easier for stewards to manage crowds, and there is general acceptance that the quality of stewarding is higher than it has ever been.

There have also been improvements in policing techniques and the management of risk. Despite an ongoing problem with football disorder, police banning orders, which help to remove the unwanted element that previously attended matches, have had a positive impact and have largely been a success. Some 43 per cent. of premier league and football league games are now police-free. As the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent has said, the all-seater policy plays an important role in assisting ground management and the police to assess and manage risks and to control disorder when it occurs. Nobody has come to me from the football safety authorities, the police, football authorities or local authorities to say that they want a change.

Other improvements that I should mention are the clear allocation of responsibilities, the role of ground safety officers, purpose-built control rooms with good communications, the use of CCTV and the regular testing of contingency plans. Together with seating, stewarding and intelligence-led policing, they form part of a coherent package that we must regard holistically.

The available evidence supports that analysis. As has been said, in the 2006-07 season there were record average attendances. The average attendance was 34,379 for premier league matches and 9,938 for football league matches. It is interesting to note that, in the past 15 years, attendances in the premier league have increased by 65 per cent., and that on average stadiums are 92 per cent. full. In the 2006-07 season, there was also the lowest ever number of reported injuries. Figures show that injuries to spectators are rare, but spectators attending grounds with terraces were almost twice as likely to be injured as those attending all-seater stadiums. There was one injury per 39,000 people in all-seater stadiums, compared with one injury per 22,000 people in stadiums with terracing.

The Minister will realise from my earlier contribution that I am broadly sympathetic to what he is saying, but he has not really answered a question that was put earlier: why are there such different regimes in the same stadiums for football fans and for those attending a pop concert or another sporting event?

That is a good point, but I think that I have answered the question. It is because of the history of violence and disorder that has taken place. That was why segregation was needed between fans of different football clubs, which has not been the case in any other sport. That is not to say that there have not been improvements and, through such organisations as the Football Supporters Federation, great strides forward have been made. If we are to be brutal, the issue boils down to considering what is best for supporters’ safety in grounds, as the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent has said—I appreciate the support of the Opposition parties’ spokesmen, who are quite right.

I have a huge responsibility as the Minister with responsibility for sport to ensure that people can watch sport in safety. I have considered the matter carefully, and I have not heard anything to make me change my mind. My opinion may be coloured by the events that took place in Bradford and Sheffield, but I have listened to football safety officers, the police and local authorities, and it is vital that we make the right decisions based on the evidence before us. However, I am not shutting the door.

Does the Minister agree that it is vital to keep stressing the difference between football and all the other activities that have been referred to? We need only examine what happened in June at the champions league final in Athens and UEFA’s criticism of Liverpool supporters. The problems are sadly still with us.

That also colours my judgment on the current position. There have been massive steps forward, and I appreciate the work of the FSF, Supporters Direct and football clubs themselves in ensuring that they improve safety and the culture at their grounds. The culture is changing, and more women and children attend games.

The debate has been important, and we shall continue to examine the evidence and ensure that we listen to what has been said. On balance, I think that we have made the right decision in saying that, at this time, there is no need to change the regulations, for the reasons that have been outlined. Safety is paramount—we need to ensure that spectators are safe—but we value the input of the FSF. I look forward to having many more debates about not only safe standing at football grounds but football in general. We need to debate what is going on in football, and we look forward to that in the coming months.

I am grateful for the debate. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath has not convinced me to change my mind, but I recognise the strength of feeling and welcome hon. Members’ contributions to the debate. It is important for us not only to listen to football supporters, but to strike the right balance between safety and security and people’s choice. On balance, we have done the right thing. The debate has been tremendous, and we look forward to future debates on football.


I want to use this debate to raise awareness of incontinence, which MPs, Ministers and the public at large still find embarrassing and difficult to talk about. Well, we are going to talk about it today, not least because everyone needs to get the message that it is not an inevitable consequence of ageing and that, in most cases, it can be treated and cured, not just managed. I also have some questions for the Minister. First, will he ask his colleague who has responsibility for this area to meet the small group of experts, individuals and others who helped me to pull this debate together at such short notice, so that we can do more work together on finding a way forward?

Millions of people in the UK suffer from incontinence, and one in three adults will suffer from it at some point in their lives. In the average primary care trust, 5,600 people have urinary incontinence and 900 have faecal incontinence. Will the Minister let me know the latest statistics? Absorbent products such as pads cost the average PCT £750,000 a year, and the cost to NHS purchasers alone is about £80 million. I have written separately to the Minister about the current review of costs for incontinence aids, so I shall not go into that now. However, the biggest cost is that a failure to deal promptly and humanely with incontinence problems in older people can cause embarrassment and lead rapidly to humiliation, the loss of morale, hopelessness and the loss of the will to live, all of which are avoidable.

Incontinence is a personal and private condition, and studies reveal that it can take the average woman five years to go to her general practitioner for help. One health professional, Ruth Wint, told me:

“I saw women in my continence clinics who were so embarrassed that they hadn’t even discussed it with their partners or husbands”.

Immobility and the constant daily washing of soiled clothes, bedding and oneself becomes a depressing routine.

What are the bigger policy results of continence problems? They delay hospital discharge and might be a reason for admission to hospital or long-term care. Incontinence was a precipitating cause of nursing home admission for 89 per cent. of elderly people who received a substantial amount of care at home, and it is second only to dementia as the reason why older people enter residential care. It is a major factor in falls and has an impact on other long-term conditions. Informal carers are essential to keep people at home, but incontinence, especially faecal incontinence, might be the factor that prevents them from continuing as carers. Such cases place another burden on the taxpayer and NHS residential provision.

I know that the Minister cares deeply and personally about this issue, and I ask him to proclaim that incontinence is both a priority and a clinical governance issue, and that care benchmarks on what patients should expect from services regarding their incontinence are essential. This is a key health issue, but it is also one of those quiet and unknown health issues that will get a higher profile as time goes by and demographics change. There is a policy framework in place, but practicalities on the ground mean that it often falls short.

The Royal College of Physicians report “National Audit of Continence Care for Older People”, which was published in November 2006, produced a damming verdict that conforms to many of the individual cases that have been brought to my attention in preparing for the debate. The royal college found:

“Only 30 per cent. of services have a person with leadership responsibility for continence…Where a continence problem is identified, assessment or management of that problem is still not guaranteed…Whilst most of the structures required to provide continence services exist, the provision of true integrated services is incomplete…Documentation of continence assessment and management is inadequate…Management consists predominantly of containment rather than active treatment of the problem.”

Does the Minister accept the accuracy of those findings? What can Parliament and the Government do to put some of those things right?

I want to touch on several key areas, the first of which is public understanding. The antidote to people suffering in silence and the myth that incontinence is inevitable is public knowledge. That can be facilitated in a small way by debates such as this and, far more importantly, by Government programmes and the use of television, radio, leaflets and posters. More than 30 years ago, Kimberly-Clark broke the taboo and advertised Depend products on television in America. In the UK, we are still very shy about talking about this issue.

Not many people know that the immediate treatment for urinary and faecal incontinence is usually a disposable pad held in place by elasticated net pants. The construction of the pad is similar to that of a disposable nappy. If either of those items is wrong, the result is urinary and/or faecal leakage—and misery. A key part of public understanding is access to advice. Family members are often worried, but do not know where to turn, especially regarding older relatives who live alone. An effective partnership between health and adult services is essential, especially with regard to a good, confidential delivery and collection service for pads, and domiciliary help with household cleaning and hygiene, which is often a problem for confused or older people, or those who live alone.

Easy referral pathways to confirm a diagnosis and to rule out more serious conditions are needed, and self-referral systems need to be implemented to allow suffers to access specialised clinics without having to be referred by their GPs. Good access to confidential advice is also needed, not necessarily via a GP, but using pharmacies, NHS Direct or primary care staff in the community.

The second key issue that I want to raise is whether incontinence should be managed or treated. A good assessment should mean that clients are provided with the product that is most appropriate to their need in sufficient quantity—about four or five pads a day—but in areas where budgets are tight, the number provided is restricted and the quality of care is compromised. Effective assessment can often lead to a cure or an improvement in symptoms, but, sadly, those avenues are not always explored and the patient is parked and remains unnecessarily incontinent for the rest of their life. Permanently managing incontinence with pads is much more expensive than treating the problem and working towards a cure.

Proactive treatments such as pelvic floor exercises and bladder retraining should be used much more widely. There is a lack of awareness among the public, families and, indeed, some health professionals, that the condition can be treated and not just contained. According to a 1998 community nurse survey, 27 per cent. of people with incontinence were told by their GP that the condition was not serious enough for treatment and 26 per cent. were told to learn to live with it. However, 70 per cent. of people with continence problems will show a good response to treatment, which leaves only 30 per cent. with an intractable problem that they would have the right to have treated effectively so that they could be clean and dry.

The third key area is managerial accountability, starting with the priority that is given to incontinence. Many professionals to whom I have spoken have talked about managerial apathy. As incontinence is a quality-of-life issue rather than a life-threatening or acute medical condition, there is a tendency for it to be overlooked in preference to targets such as the reduction of waiting times. It seems that managers’ main concern is the cost of the pad budget, yet investment in the continence service would allow for good assessment and appropriate treatment and management that could not only improve a client’s quality of life, but massively reduce the cost of continence provision. Given the massive expansion of health budgets over past decade, surely PCTs can set up more continence clinics with more specialist nurses with knowledge of the problems. In Mansfield, in my shire, only two continence advisers cover the huge area of north Nottinghamshire. Is the Minister satisfied that continence services receive the priority that they deserve at PCT level?

The second managerial issue, which is probably even more important, is co-ordination and accountability. The interaction between the NHS and social services in this area is often incomprehensible to sufferers and their families, and I am told that it is often not understandable to managers and front-line staff. Examples of duplication or an absence of service have been abundant in my research for this debate.

Separate social services and health assessments often centre on other problems, or involve a multiplicity of agencies and sub-groups within the NHS and social services, none of which take direct responsibility for the well-being of the person. The inconsistent organisation of specialist services and line management, with variable priorities and progress in service developments, has been identified in academic studies, not least by Thomas in 2004. That was referred to over and again by sufferers and families during the few days that I had to prepare for this debate. Will the Minister look again at the working of the NHS-social services interface, particularly as it affects elderly people and such people who are incontinence sufferers?

The fourth issue is staff training. Several studies have criticised some staff as being uninterested in the problem or believing that it is beneath them. In Nottingham city, a programme of continence training for all social care staff—those in home care, residential care and so on—has raised staff awareness, understanding and competence when dealing with people who may be incontinent. Such widespread training for social care staff might be unique. Education for higher-level continence specialists is provided at diploma and degree level to ensure that specialist nurses have up-to-date knowledge. Does the Minister believe that there should be a properly funded national strategy for training for both social services and health staff?

Lack of time means that I cannot go into all the details, and I shall write to the Minister about other groups. It is not just the elderly who are affected. Other groups include pre-schoolers, school children, children with special needs, and older people with mental illness. I apologise to those many people. I have had many debates such as this and I have never had such a response from the public and people in the professions to bring cases to my attention.

My hon. Friend is well aware that there is a review of the pricing of urology and stoma products—it is the fourth review. Some of the proposals arising from that review involve major changes, including making dramatic reductions in costs. Does he agree that they must be examined carefully before they are implemented?

I have been in contact with many people who supply and use products, and the issue is of great concern. I have deliberately referred to it only in terms of writing to the Minister, because I do not want that to be the subject of today’s debate. It is a more general debate, and I am sure that my hon. Friend—he takes a close interest in these matters—will work with me and visit our colleague who has ministerial responsibility for the matter, and perhaps take a small delegation of people to raise those specific issues, so that we can maintain focus on the general issues.

I said that we could do far better for the 70 per cent. of people who could be cured, but we must also do better for the 30 per cent. whose condition needs management. Many thousands of patients suffer total loss of bladder and/or bowel control as a result of neurological injuries or diseases, such as spinal cord injuries in the young, multiple sclerosis in the middle-aged, and strokes or dementia in the elderly. Many of those people are extremely vulnerable and debilitated, and require the most time-consuming nursing care. For many of them, a catheter and bag might provide the only universal urine collection system. That is considered to be a last resort by health professionals, but there is no acceptable alternative. The system is associated with at least a 40 per cent. risk of complications, some of which may be life threatening. At some point, 100 per cent. of patients develop a urinary tract infection, and up to 50 per cent. of catheters block recurrently at any time of day or night as a result of encrustation. That leads to a heavy burden of work on district nursing services.

Some patients develop bladder stones. Others continue to leak urine, thus remaining incontinent and at risk of bed sores. Some might develop fatal septicaemia while others might develop a severe form of bladder cancer. That is the ugly, morbid aspect of incontinence, which is rarely mentioned but is so fundamental to the care of many older and seriously disabled people.

The urinary catheter in routine use today was introduced in 1937 and the basic design has not changed. Surely, in the 21st century in a society with an increasing number of elderly and disabled people, modern science and technology should make a greater contribution to researching and developing a more efficient, user-friendly urine collection system for palliative care. Does the Minister accept that his Department should have a 10-year plan for research into the development of techniques to alleviate chronic incontinence?

To a layman in this area, it seems that the work programme of policy should follow on from the Royal College of Physicians’ report to raise public awareness and break the taboos on incontinence; to keep people talking; to make treatment the first port of call, rather than management or containment of incontinence; to ensure that we treat in the 70 per cent. of cases when that is possible; to have clear local leadership and clarity of case management in specific personal treatment, so that everyone knows who is responsible for the whole treatment in any case; to have front-line staff trained and proud of their work with this group of people; and, finally, to research updated treatments. Will the Minister consider appointing a named person, to be responsible to him, to make that happen?

The issue is serious, and one that people do not like talking about because it causes embarrassment, but I know that the Minister cares deeply about the issue. I hope that his reply will help millions of people who can and should benefit from better and earlier intervention. Incontinence is a plague that affects one in three adults, particularly in later life. I hope that the Government will tackle the problem effectively.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this Adjournment debate, and I pay tribute to him for bringing our attention to an issue that affects so many people in our country.

We in Parliament should be debating and highlighting the very real everyday issues that make a difference to the quality of people’s lives. Let me also say that my hon. Friend has done a tremendous job of providing leadership in his own city on promoting regeneration and tackling social exclusion and social inequality.

My job today is not simply to say that the system is not working or that it fails everybody, because that would not be the case. My job is to explain many of the things that the Government have done, specifically nationally, to ensure that incontinence is taken far more seriously in local health economies and that people get the sensitive and professional treatment and support that they deserve.

Having said that, I begin by recognising that the system is simply not working in the way that it should in too many parts of the country. Too many patients and, indeed, family members describe a system that is neither sensitive nor effective. We therefore have a responsibility to work with my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who raised an important issue, to see whether we can ensure that the aspirations, ambitions and policies that are set out nationally become a reality in every local community, and identify the individuals and organisations that should take leadership and be held to account for the relevant services. Together, we must seek over time to ensure that the vast majority of people receive the service, sensitivity and support that they deserve.

Following this debate, I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), meets my hon. Friends and a group of interested and experienced professionals to talk about the practical measures that we can take to make a real difference. We need to place that on the record. We would then need to agree a programme of work that we could monitor not only at ministerial level but through continued debates in the House.

Let me deal now with some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North has made. I will not necessarily be able to deal with them all, given the time available, but I will do my best. As regards the cost to the NHS of absorbent continence products, we do not collect information about the number of continence pads and pants supplied by the NHS or about NHS expenditure on such items. However, research has shown that dealing with incontinence costs the NHS about £425 million a year and that the UK market for pads and appliances to contain incontinence is estimated at £143 million.

In 2000, the Department of Health published “Good practice in continence services”, which outlines the Government’s vision for integrated continence services. The guidance set out a model of good practice to help achieve responsive, equitable services, with an emphasis on primary care teams being proactive in identifying all people with incontinence and offering initial investigations and treatment. Early intervention is therefore important.

The guidance called for cohesive and comprehensive continence services that encompass urinary and faecal incontinence in all age groups—from children to older people—in hospital, at home and in care. It described how services should be based on agreed evidence-based policies, procedures and guidelines—that would be good—with group audit and review. Furthermore, it emphasised the importance of identifying and treating the underlying problem, rather than managing the incontinence with pads—the point that my hon. Friend reiterated throughout his contribution.

The achievement of the good practice envisaged in the guidance is being supported by the NHS essence of care scheme. My hon. Friend referred to benchmarking, and the scheme is a benchmarking tool designed to help practitioners take a patient-focused, structured approach to sharing and comparing practice to improve the quality of patient care. The relevant benchmarks reflect those aspects of care that are crucial to the experience of patients and carers and deal with the things that really matter to them, including continence and bladder and bowel care. Nationally, NHS organisations have embraced the principles of the essence of care scheme as fundamental to the implementation and delivery of good clinical governance. As my hon. Friend suggested, the application of benchmarks to practice can result in a real difference to the quality of care.

The Department also commissioned the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to develop specific guidance on this issue. NICE has published clinical guidelines on the care and management of faecal incontinence in adults, although it did so only in June, and there is always a time lag before such things take effect. Furthermore, NICE has published guidance on the management of urinary incontinence in women only this month. That indicates that the Government take the issue seriously, but the time lag between the introduction and delivery of national policy is always significant, which is why we need to engage with my hon. Friend and others to accelerate progress.

In 2001, the Government published the national service framework for older people, which is the first comprehensive strategy to ensure fair, high-quality, integrated health and social care services for older people. It is a 10-year programme of action, which links services to support independence and promote good health. It highlights the importance of services for key conditions, including incontinence—it is an important lever in that respect. It also highlights the need for culture change so that all older people and their carers are treated equitably and with the dignity and respect that they deserve.

Standard two stresses the importance of person-centred care—that is very technical language, but it means seeing each older person as an individual and asking professionals to shape assessments of needs and services around that person’s views and wishes, not the other way round. The development of integrated continence services was a key objective of standard two, with all local health and social care systems expected to have established integrated continence services by April 2004. That illustrates that we still have a long way to go.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of true integration between different agencies. The Government increasingly talk about personalisation, which means that individuals should not be treated as part of a system of mass production and that the system must focus interventions on the needs of every individual and, where there is a carer, every family. That is a major challenge for the health and social care system, and it has been identified by my colleague Lord Darzi, the Secretary of State and, indeed, the Prime Minister. Personalisation must be the next stage on our way to achieving world-class public services.

Some have made a case for targets, but we cannot have targets for everything, as my hon. Friend knows. He has been a great proponent of local devolution—of pushing power down to the most local level—to re-empower professionals and managers on the front line. We must therefore get the balance right and put in place systems and pressures that will hold people to account and support them in providing the necessary services, but that does not necessarily mean that we can impose things in a top-down way. We need policies and national leadership to enable people on the front line to take the issue far more seriously and to ensure that the services for which managers or practitioners are responsible are responsive and sensitive to individuals’ needs. As my hon. Friend said, services must seek to treat incontinence, not contain it.

I have been leading a big campaign to put respect for dignity at the heart of all care services for older people—in hospital wards, nursing homes, home care services and primary care services. We must position the issue before us right at the heart of the non-negotiable need to treat older people with dignity—in that regard, no issue is more central. We all know of the embarrassment that people feel—as my hon. Friend said, they will not disclose their problem for a long time because it is embarrassing and has a stigma attached to it. That embarrassment is only reinforced when they seek support and services and have the indignity perpetuated, rather than receiving the sensitive and expert response that they need and deserve.

I am also happy to consider including the issue before us in my dignity campaign. We now have 1,200 dignity champions up and down the country, who champion the needs of older people in different care settings. It might be useful for me to go away and look at whether we can do more about continence. We are doing a lot on nutrition for older people and we will announce plans on that next week.

My hon. Friend has raised a crucial issue and he has my cast-iron guarantee that the Government will take the issue seriously and work with him and professionals to improve services for people who experience this incredibly difficult condition.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Dementia Sufferers

I begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Marshall, in what I hope and believe will be an important debate. From sitting in that Chair, Mr. Marshall, you will know that debates in this Chamber are often described as important or significant, but I believe that the care of those with dementia justifies those terms.

We have not been good at recognising the significance of the matter in the recent past. To give a parochial and internal parliamentary example of that, there are 531 all-party groups, which range in significance, on subjects from nuclear power to table tennis but, as of June this year, there was no all-party group on dementia. Even within the House and despite the interest shown by individual Members such as those here today, we have not sustained pressure on the issue as we might.

It is not widely recognised outside the House that there is a medical condition that affects 700,000 people, is likely to be contracted daily by 500 new people, is terminal, has no cure, will grow in incidence by 40 per cent. in the next 15 years, and for whose development there is no treatment. If it were, we would expect the pressure on the Government to devote time and resources to it to be considerable and for it to come from many quarters. Those are the facts about dementia in Britain, but there is no sustained pressure on the Government to take action on dementia in the way that there is for other medical conditions.

Before dealing with the question of remedies, we must ask ourselves why that is the case. In February, the “Dementia UK” report was published. It was part-commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Society and was intended to provide, in its words, coherent evidence of the scale of dementia in the UK, and to combat inadequate attention from policy makers. The National Audit Office report entitled, “Improving services and support for people with dementia” was published in July. As I am sure the Minister will remind us, the Government will complete a strategy on dementia by the end of next summer. I welcome that, although it has been a long time in coming. I have no doubt that, in part, it was prompted by the two reports to which I referred.

It is clear from those reports that dementia incurs a huge cost. The NAO estimates the annual economic burden of the condition to be £14.3 billion, which is a colossal figure. It is more than the costs incurred by strokes, heart disease and cancer combined. Perhaps the scale of the difficulty has deterred us from dealing with the condition in the past, but population ageing will increase the problem.

There are emotional as well as economic reasons for our unwillingness to face up to the problem. General practitioners are sometimes unable or unwilling to make a dementia diagnosis in the absence of a cure or effective treatments. They perhaps feel that such a diagnosis would be without hope. More generally, we all find it difficult to face the prospect that the condition will affect us or someone we love. We might be able to see ourselves becoming afflicted with other conditions that get a great deal of financial and emotional support from the public, or with a physical disability, but mental health conditions are often overlooked, as the Minister knows, and we do not wish to face the prospect that it may happen to us. Again, that might explain why widespread, consistent and sustained pressure for action on dementia has not been brought. What needs to be done and what should we hope for in the Government strategy next year? I should like to address some issues on which I hope that the Minister will offer reassurance.

I have no doubt that the Government strategy will cover the issue of diagnosis. It is important that dementia is diagnosed not because that will set someone with the condition on a path to a cure—there is no cure—but because it enables sufferers and their families to make the necessary plans and to cope better with what is going to happen. Diagnosis brings about huge emotional stress but, at the time of the diagnosis, people have a great deal to think about and plan for. As the Minister knows, it is important—people often ask for this—that there be a single point of contact to enable people to get the necessary information and advice on the help and services that they can take advantage of. Too often, that is not available.

Officials from the Department of Health, including the chief executive of the NHS, David Nicholson, appeared before the Public Accounts Committee on 15 October to discuss the NAO report. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who is a member of that Committee, is here today. The officials were asked about a number of things, including the issue of a single point of contact. The officials reacted positively to the idea of providing a single point of contact where none currently exists but, less encouragingly, they spoke only of how such provisions might be made within the NHS. To some extent, that is understandable—they were NHS officials, after all. However, I hope that the people who will create the Government strategy will think about the issue more widely.

I hope that the strategy group looks at examples of good practice such as the Newbury Memory clinic. Everyone who goes there is referred to an Alzheimer’s Society adviser. We could look at that model with a view to national coverage, partly because there is a great deal of experience and knowledge vested in the society and similar campaigning organisations, and because the advice and support of voluntary bodies is more welcome and trusted by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia than information from Government agencies and sources. I hope that the Minister will assure us that consideration will be given to how to provide resources to the voluntary sector to carry out that important role.

We must also look more generally at the issue of mental health services, and ask whether they are up to the challenge and are capable of dealing with the mental health problems of older people, or of going in that direction. Concerns have been expressed about those issues, not least by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Dr. David Anderson, chair of its faculty of old age psychiatry, has levelled a fairly robust criticism of the situation that will give us cause for concern. He said:

“Some PCTs and Trusts are proposing the dissolution of specialist older people’s services with patients transferred to the care of general psychiatry services with no training in older people’s mental health, including putting older people on general wards claiming this creates an ageless service. This is a dishonest way of cutting costs to the detriment of older people and is not motivated by, nor will it achieve, meeting the needs of older people. It will provide older people with an inferior, second-rate service. The government’s priority status for mental health is read as mental health for adults aged 16-64. PCTs have no interest in anything other than target-driven working-age mental health services”.

I hope very much that the Minister will take account of those criticisms and ensure that the upcoming strategy addresses those concerns.

I fear that the issue of medical research will not be dealt with adequately in the Government’s strategy. The striking predicted growth in the incidence of dementia to more than 1 million sufferers by 2025 and to 1.7 million sufferers by 2051 is predicated on the absence of a cure and effective treatments. It seems to me, and many others, that successful research is the only way in which we can slow that growth. What is concerning is that little of the necessary research is currently funded or undertaken.

Only 1.4 per cent. of research papers since 2002 have been on this subject. Between 2000-01 and 2004-05, in respect of the national research programmes, at least, funding for research dropped in cash terms from £12.9 million to £6.8 million and, as a percentage of the health budget, from 0.03 to 0.01 per cent. I accept that the Government increased funding last year, but still the UK spends 24p per citizen on research into dementia compared with, for example, the 66p per citizen that is spent in the United States. It is illogical that we should spend so much less on research into dementia than we do on research into other conditions that cost us, as a state, proportionately much less.

One third of dementia sufferers live in a residential care home. The NAO report says that half of people in residential care homes and two thirds of people in nursing homes have some form of dementia. It follows from that, inevitably, that training for staff in residential homes is essential. Sadly, that type of quality training is not widespread, and there are consequences, one of which, as the Minister well knows, is the serious concern about inappropriate administration of sedatives in care homes. There are no two ways about it: care home staff need to be properly equipped to deal with dementia.

There are also too few specialist places. Again, on the NAO’s estimate, there are 124,000 registered places for 201,000 dementia sufferers. However, we have to be careful on this, because a good many care homes—in my constituency and, I am sure, in the constituencies of other hon. Members present—care admirably for those with the milder forms of dementia, with the support of the families concerned, despite not being technically registered places for dementia sufferers. We ought to be careful not to jeopardise the good care that is being delivered by being over-dogmatic on descriptions.

We must go on to consider the two thirds of dementia sufferers who live in their own homes, looked after in the main by 476,000 unpaid carers. Those carers are, of course, a lifeline. They are the only thing that stands between the dementia sufferer and much more expensive, not to mention undesirable, admission to residential care, which is not looked for by anyone. A substantial part of the huge cost to the nation that dementia brings with it is the time of carers, which is worth billions of pounds—money that the state would otherwise have to provide for that care. That, if there were no other reason, is a good reason to support those carers.

Of course, carers of all types suffer a huge range of difficulties. This debate does not allow us the scope to go into all of those, but let me make the argument that those who care for dementia sufferers perhaps have it hardest of all, because caring for someone with dementia does not only place physical demands on the carer. That condition also erodes the emotional and conversational bond between the carer and the person cared for. In very many cases, we are talking about spouses or children where the rest of the family might be far away. That can be an extremely lonely experience. In essence, dementia sufferers need the carer more and more as the carer loses more and more of them. That is an extremely difficult situation for carers to find themselves in. The Minister will recognise that any dementia strategy worthy of the name must offer practical help and assistance to those who care for people with dementia.

It is also important to co-ordinate well what we do on dementia. Last week, at the Public Accounts Committee, the NHS chief executive was asked about the possibility of a national dementia care services director. His answers on that were positive. He said, in connection with experience on cancer:

“We have found that having a national clinical director is an enormously powerful way in which to focus.”

That must be right. He was also asked when the appointment of such a national director might be considered and he confirmed that we might not have to wait until the Government’s dementia strategy is published. He said that

“if we are not careful we will lose a whole year if we do not get something moving forward.”

The point that the NHS chief executive was making is indicative of a wider point. The NHS operating framework for next year will be instituted in November or December of this year, substantially in advance of the publication date for the dementia strategy, so the question arises: how much of the preliminary research that will go into making up the dementia strategy will be made available to the NHS to use in determining that operating framework, so that the NHS can be influential in doing what is necessary and urgent to help dementia sufferers and their carers? We know, from what David Nicholson has already said to the Public Accounts Committee, that a national director’s position is under consideration. What else might be fed through to that operating framework in order for those changes to be made earlier, rather than later? Specifically, will there be a national dementia care services director, and will that decision be made before next summer, when the strategy is revealed?

Among the final subjects that I want to touch on, necessarily briefly, are the emerging technologies that we all hope will make life better for dementia sufferers. I am talking about telecare and extra care housing. These developments are happening throughout the country, in different localities, and are very positive and welcome. In what ways will the strategy encourage those types of solution, appropriate to the local context?

The last point, which is vital, concerns respite care. It is essential that respite care is available for dementia sufferers but, more than that, that the quality of that care is extremely high. This point is not unique to those who care for people with dementia. We know from all our experiences with carers that if the quality of respite care is not high, it is no respite at all. Many carers have said to us that the worst weeks of their lives have been when they took a week’s holiday, went away and spent the entire time worrying about what was happening to the person for whom they care. Yes, we should have respite care—and more of it, by all means—but may we please ensure that the quality of that care is high?

All the things that I have mentioned need to feature in the Government’s dementia strategy, which needs to make clear how they will be delivered. Simply setting goals and leaving it to health and social services authorities to decide how those goals may be met within existing budgets will not be sufficient. Worse still would be to conceive a strategy, announce it, declare victory and move on to the next problem, because a resolution of the problems that dementia poses will require sustained engagement from all of us, but particularly from the Minister and the Government.

The Minister knows that all those with dementia, all those who care for them and all those who advocate on their behalf have waited for the strategy and genuinely look forward to its publication. I hope very much that the Minister will do all that he can to ensure that when the strategy is revealed to them, they will not be disappointed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) on securing the debate, which deals with a topic of great importance in my constituency and that of every hon. Member present. During carers week, I met a group of carers from Warwickshire whom the hon. Gentleman had invited to the House. I know that care and carers’ issues are of concern to him.

As parliamentary champion for carers week, I have met some constituents who care for people suffering from dementia. There were quite a number this year—that was not by design, it was just how it happened. Listening to them talk about their experiences has driven me to want to improve the support that they receive.

I have previously raised my concern about the impact of caring on carers’ health. We know too little about the subject and more research should be done, but it is clear that caring for a dementia sufferer has an impact on health. Evidence from carers themselves suggests that such caring is physically and emotionally exhausting. A study reported in the British Medical Journal noted that caring for people with dementia was stressful and that 30 to 50 per cent. of such carers experienced depression. A study in the United States has discovered that caring has an impact on the immune systems of carers for dementia sufferers and stroke victims in particular.

Dementia affects about 700,000 people in the UK, and the number of sufferers is expected to grow to 840,000 by 2010. I met a carer in my constituency who had been caring for her husband, who suffered from vascular dementia, for a number of years. He was also fed with a PEG tube—percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy tube—and had a variety of other needs. His wife was a remarkable person who gave him a truly amazing level of care. She told me, “I am his nurse,” and described how she fought to establish a routine of care and to train paid care workers to her own exacting standards.

The biggest issue that the carer faced related to respite care. She managed to get a break each week, with support from Crossroads Caring for Carers, but only for short periods to play bingo twice a week and to shop for two hours at the local supermarket. Every attempt to use respite care for longer periods, especially one recent attempt, had proved traumatic. In fact, as a result of poor standards in one local care home, she had to visit the home repeatedly during the week to point out to the paid staff what they were not doing correctly. Her husband came home with an infection that she thought could have been avoided. She was so stressed at the end of what was meant to have been a respite week that she developed rashes and had to visit her GP.

My constituent had further worries about the support that she should have been receiving. She found that certain essential supplies were not made available to her. Although she received a free supply of incontinence pads, the pads that she needed when changing her husband’s pads were not supplied and had to be bought. Such problems and her concern about the low quality of respite care available locally made me feel that the situation was just not good enough. I wrote to the Commission for Social Care Inspection and others on her behalf.

After carers week, I visited an excellent drop-in and buddy service in my constituency that is run by Age Concern in Salford for the carers of people with dementia. I talked to carers while the people for whom they cared were supported by Age Concern staff and volunteers. The service was designed for people suffering from early onset dementia. Some of the people there were in their 50s, but many of the carers had been supported by Age Concern’s project for so many years that they carried on coming. I commend that service and hope that it will continue to be funded through the carers grant for many years to come.

I discovered that those carers talked about similar issues to those raised by the carer whom I had visited in her home the week before. One described to me how he felt that he had to fight the system to get his benefit entitlement and the supplies that he needed, on top of fulfilling the most exacting and difficult caring responsibilities. He found the process draining. I had a long discussion with carers about the inadequacies of local respite care. They were experts. They knew where the best standards were to be found, and they knew which homes were of low quality.

My hon. Friend the Minister has described Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia as asking new questions of our health and social care system, just as we are doing in this debate. He has announced the development of a national dementia strategy, which is to be published next year. Such a strategy must help to tackle some of the inadequacies in current services and to cope with the expected substantial increase in demand due to an increasing number of dementia sufferers.

The Minister has said that we must bring dementia “out of the shadows” and that people with dementia and their families should

“feel able to seek support at the earliest possible stage”.

I agree wholeheartedly.

Does the hon. Lady share my disappointment with the local government settlement in the comprehensive spending review, which represents just a 1 per cent. increase a year in the budget in real terms and less than half the overall increase in Government expenditure? Does she feel that as the needs of dementia sufferers grow, the hope of training and other support in social care is unlikely to be delivered?

I shall leave the Minister to deal with that political point.

While speaking of care for dementia sufferers, I have discussed unpaid family carers. That is appropriate because two thirds of older people with dementia receive care in the community, mostly from unpaid carers. Up to half the people with dementia also have depression and, as I mentioned, a third of those caring for an older person have depression themselves.

As the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth said, dementia costs the health and social care economy more than cancer, stroke and heart disease combined. Two wards in my constituency have high levels of deprivation and health inequality. I know that one ward has high levels of heart disease and the other has very high levels of stroke. The risk factors for diseases such as vascular dementia are similar to those for heart disease and stroke. It is likely that there are many dementia sufferers in my constituency—many of the carers whom I met during and around carers week were caring for dementia sufferers—but I do not have the information about dementia that I have about other serious diseases.

Given the national picture, it is fair to assume that there are probably some 1,000 dementia sufferers in each parliamentary constituency, and possibly more. Owing to my constituency’s high levels of health inequality and stroke, it is likely that we have more. I want to do what I can to advocate for those dementia sufferers and their carers and to improve the services that they receive. Many of them are managing without services and, indeed, in some cases, without a diagnosis.

Clearly, better awareness is needed, and sufferers must be referred earlier. That should lead to earlier diagnosis, which could help to ensure that the needs of sufferers and carers are assessed. In other debates, I have referred to carers’ rights to have their own needs assessed. Carers are providing remarkable levels of care to people with dementia and they should be supported. A further step is to improve treatment and support so that people with dementia are treated with dignity and respect.

It is key, as the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth mentioned, that we ensure that health care staff and those in respite care homes receive training to equip them to identify and meet the needs of this group of people. One of the carers whom I met reported to me that after her husband had spent a week in respite care, the person in charge of the care home complained about his behaviour, which he said other patients had found disturbing. All the behaviours being complained about were classic to dementia sufferers and were what she dealt with every day as an unpaid family carer.

I pay tribute to all the carers whom I have mentioned today and to the organisations that support them, such as Age Concern, Crossroads and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. I asked one of the carers what extra support or help she needed and told her that I would pass on what she said to Ministers. She asked for two things: support for an occasional longer spell of shopping so that she could wander round the shops rather than racing around in two hours every week; and respite care that would enable her to leave home for a week, or occasionally two. She has not been away for two weeks since her husband’s illness started.

We must ensure that standards in respite care homes are raised substantially, so that the carers whom I have described can have a decent break from caring without spending the whole time worrying about the standard of care. Such carers are the care for dementia sufferers and they deserve our support.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) on raising this issue and putting his case so well. He made a number of highly specific requests. I hope that the Minister has written them down because they are entirely deliverable.

I think that everyone has a personal tale to tell about dementia, often involving their own families. My personal memories go back to a gap year and working on a geriatric ward with some people with fairly extreme cases of dementia. Three tragic cameos stick in my mind from that time. I remember trying to stop an individual quite unknowingly eating a bar of soap by trying physically to take it out of his hand. I remember struggling to change the soaked trousers of a pre-senile dementia case—someone younger than I am now—and the look of affronted bewilderment and anger on his face as he came to terms with what was being done to him.

I remember another man who had entirely exhausted the efforts of his caring family because he was inordinately restless. He was admitted to hospital and acted with similar manic restlessness in the ward, fiddling with other people’s belongings and moving from place to place. One day, the staff and patients could take no more and he was put in a chair with a bar across it. Five days later—and after hours of struggling—he died, exhausted, of a heart attack. We never saw him again.

That is the rough end of dementia, and we all accept that it is a huge problem. Some say that it affects half a million people, some say more. As we have heard, there is no identifiable cure and the situation is likely to get worse. Wanless has told us that there will be millions of suffers and that the cost will be billions of pounds.

As is the case for most illnesses of age, dementia is a disease of degrees, ranging from forgetfulness to complete personality disintegration and regression, with a loss of control over bodily functions and the loss of all sense of time and place. It therefore makes differing, yet always distressing, demands on carers and the caring services. The size, scope and nature of the problem are relatively well understood. However, the life of individual patients who have the problem is not as well tracked.

Most dementia patients visit a number of different organisations under the health service because of their complaints, not all of which are to do with their dementia. They interact with a multiplicity of agents and local government, NHS and voluntary bodies. They see their GPs, and they might see people from a mental health trust and those from the acute trusts who deal with physical problems. Also, of course, they see social services for one reason or another. A flaw in their general care is that no single organisation has overall responsibility for managing their condition, or even ensuring that the information held by one organisation is shared with others.

There are genuine difficulties. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth referred to the National Audit Office report, which the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am member, discussed on Monday. The report showed some disturbing facts. It established that GPs were less confident in diagnosing dementia than before. That is partly because they are under pressure to diagnose at an earlier stage than hitherto, and they are possibly reluctant to give people prematurely what may be a fatal diagnosis. Diagnosis in care homes is weak, with 62 per cent. of people there suffering from some form of dementia, although that is not necessarily on the records. Equally disturbing is the fact that although many sufferers are admitted to a general hospital for physical conditions, a correlative mental health assessment is not made at the same time. That would be an easy place to pick up the problem and to deal with its symptoms.

One could be quite brazen and say, “Does that really matter? After all, the outcome is inevitable and it is not good.” When pressed on that question the other day by the Public Accounts Committee, David Nicholson and his officers were emphatic on that point and said that it did matter how early a diagnosis was made or attempted. Research shows that early diagnosis has an appreciable affect on the standard of care, even if it does not do much by way of a cure. It slows progress, so people can be put in touch with memory clinics and the like. All that is good and, given the will, it is something that the Government could advance.

The hon. Gentleman also made the point—I think that he has stolen some of my thunder—about the need for one person to be solely responsible for the condition of specific patients. The Public Accounts Committee gave that idea a warm welcome. We need better community management of the condition, which is certainly prevalent. A single reference point for carers would be more than helpful. I suspect that the reference point would be not the GP, but a specialist attached to a practice who was trained in geriatric medicine. That is not the only way in which the aim can be achieved, but there is certainly a need for a single reference point.

Under the quality and outcomes framework, GPs are financially incentivised to treat dementia. QOF points are gained through the way in which GPs manage the condition and report on it. I am less than convinced that the outcomes of the framework are rigorously evaluated and that people are properly rewarded for doing the right thing, with poor practice identified and monitored and good practice properly rewarded, and good practice not only encouraged, but spread.

Dementia patients often have a multiplicity of problems. Dementia is an illness of age, and with age comes other ailments. Dementia patients have particular difficulty in getting across to the doctor that they have a possibly serious physical condition that has nothing to do with their dementia. We know that dementia patients can suffer mental health problems that are not directly related to dementia. For instance, it is understandable that one could be depressed when demented. It is inappropriate to treat only for dementia, not for depression.

We also need to improve the care in care homes, which was another point raised by the hon. Gentleman. Figures show that 28 per cent. of care homes have specialist places. However, some 62 per cent. of those in care homes have dementia, which probably means that the bulk of the staff looking after them are not specifically trained. Indeed, as the NAO makes clear, those staff are not all good English speakers. The Minister will understand that the big move in care homes to keep wages down often involves a high use of immigrant labour. Some such staff are well qualified and very good at the job, but from time to time there will obviously be communication difficulties.

Some 40 per cent. of dementia sufferers in care homes are treated with neuroleptic drugs. In some cases that is wholly appropriate, but some situations that are chemically managed could be treated in other ways. There is good and bad practice in nursing homes and care homes. Good practice should be spread and bad practice eliminated, when possible.

That brings me to the topic of elder abuse, which relates not simply to dementia. One shocking figure suggests that 500,000 people are the victims of abuse in the later stages of life. It has to be said that they are usually abused by people in positions of trust, and often in the home. Abuse has an extraordinarily broad definition. Not only are those being cared for being abused, but sometimes those who have dementia or Alzheimer’s are capable of making life very uncomfortable for carers themselves. Indeed, 33 per cent. of care givers claim to have been abused at some time. It is certainly an area in which training, understanding and support is sorely needed and required for all involved in the process.

Ultimately, we all accept that there are no magic solutions. There are a number of helpful steps that the Government could take immediately. However, good things do happen. We need research breakthroughs and better drugs. There has been a lively debate about what drugs are available in certain places for dementia sufferers. I accept that for reasons that we do not properly understand, some drugs work for certain people but not for others. Considerations of value for money are also involved in the use of certain drugs across the piece. None the less, we need to investigate further why some drugs obviously work for some people but not for others, as is suggested in carers’ reports.

I cannot pass over the fact that we have had only a paltry 1 per cent. increase in the supporting people budget. That will create a monumental headache for local authorities such as mine. The large number of elderly people living in the area is not reflected in the funds available for treatment.

We all support increased respite. We all want to see quality care, not the cosh of the drug, as it were. As the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth said, we also want better integration with voluntary bodies, which play a valiant and necessary supplementary role in developing care across the piece. Finally, we need more research investment.

Beyond that, however, there is a bigger public health agenda. We must all face the fact that mental decline is a side effect of ageing, and we all suffer it to a degree— some more, some less. The effects are not the same across the board, however, and they can be accelerated or retarded by lifestyle. That is where the public health agenda interacts with therapeutic endeavour. An awful lot of work still needs to be done on that, and the Government recognise that to some extent and are setting about doing something.

If the concept of good old age is not an oxymoron, it is certainly an ideal and one that we should hold. In our ageist society, sadly, it is one that has yet to be recognised.

I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright), who, along with the Alzheimer’s Society, got the all-party group on dementia off the ground. I also pay tribute to the Alzheimer’s Society for its lobbying. As Members of Parliament, we are constantly lobbied by organisations, but the society has been significantly more effective than many others.

The all-party group will become a crucial tool not only in raising awareness, but perhaps in bringing about a change in policy and bringing all political parties together to find some of the solutions to what is, at times, a difficult problem. I share my hon. Friend’s surprise that such a group did not exist before, given that, as he has said, we have all-party groups on a number of subjects, including table tennis. The fact that we did not have a group on dementia is remarkable, given that 700,000 people suffer from some sort of dementia.

One reason for that is that this is a difficult issue.

I am pleased to see the Minister nodding in approval, because this is not a terribly party political issue. It is, however, a difficult issue, because it is not very sexy. Some illnesses and problems attract great media attention, and we find them somehow easier to deal with, but dementia is one of the hardest to tackle. Geriatric care, as it used to be known, often came at the bottom of the pile in terms of funding, and psychogeriatric care came even lower. Although people with dementia are by no means all over 65, a significant number are. As parliamentarians, we have a duty to change things and to address this extremely difficult issue.

My hon. Friend has mentioned several issues, including research, and more research clearly needs to be done. We must do what we can to slow the progression of dementia, because that will have a significant impact not only on those who care for people with dementia, but on the Government’s budget.

My hon. Friend has discussed training, which is a terribly important issue that also arises for people with learning difficulties and for parent carers of children with profound disabilities. We need training for hospital staff, dentists and other care staff—people whom we take for granted, if we are well—because they may not recognise the needs of people with dementia and may, indeed, not recognise dementia when they see it.

My hon. Friend briefly mentioned the over-prescribing of neuroleptic drugs. He was at pains not to be critical of their use, but we should accept the fact that using them significantly increases the risk of someone having a stroke, which would obviously have a profound impact on somebody who is already suffering from dementia. To some extent, the use of neuroleptics is a signal of our feelings of impotence when it comes to dealing adequately with people with dementia.

For the purposes of clarity, I certainly do not criticise all uses of neuroleptic drugs. My point concerns the nature of the care that is delivered in a particular care home and whether that care home is registered as suitable for dementia patients. I certainly know of people with mild dementia being well looked after in settings that have not been formally ascribed the status of being suitable for dementia patients, so we must be careful not to be overly dogmatic on that point.

Yes, I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying that. As he has rightly said, some excellent care is undoubtedly delivered.

My hon. Friend went on to mention the idea of a director of clinical care for dementia, and there is no doubt that the leadership and vision that such a post would bring to this field would have a significant impact not only on producing better outcomes for people with dementia, but on getting rid of some of the stigma associated with dementia.

The hon. Member for Walsingham talked about the impact of caring on carers and about stress and depression—

My apologies—the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley). Wherever the hon. Lady hails from, her points were well made. She mentioned stress, depression and social isolation among carers. She talked about the inadequacies of care support and about the fact that the care provided in some residential settings does not replicate the care that people receive in their own homes. She noted that carers’ confidence in respite care is crucial to determining whether they use it, which they need to do if they are to continue with their burdens. She also mentioned organisations such as Age Concern and Crossroads, and she gave a moving account of individuals’ experiences.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) described the rough end of dementia care in graphic terms, and I could share similar stories with him, having been a district nurse some years ago and having also seen people in care home settings. He referred to what happens on the ground, which is so important. He also mentioned key workers and training. Finally, he discussed elder abuse—a subject that we do not often feel comfortable addressing.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) is not with us today, but at Prime Minister’s Question Time he raised the issue of Aricept and the fact that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has not issued the data model that it used. NICE can play a significant part in the care of people with dementia, but its role has been overlooked. NICE does not currently take into account the social costs of care, but they are extremely important in evaluating the cost-effectiveness of any drugs that come on to the market to treat conditions such as dementia. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important for us all to have sight of the data model that NICE used.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Minister on two fronts: first on recognising the failures of the current system for dealing with people with dementia, and secondly on announcing the development of a new strategy to deal with dementia? Does she share my concern that the missing link, as Help the Aged has called it, is research—my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth mentioned that point? Will she join me in hoping that the Minister will deal with that aspect of the matter today?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. His points were well made. Of course, I should not do otherwise than join him in his two points of congratulation, and in making the point that more research money is crucial.

The other issue that has been touched on today is the 1 per cent. increase in the supporting people budget. An important aspect of it is cost shifting between the NHS and social services, and the feeling among local authorities in some parts of the country that their budgets and the money that they get from central Government are for ever shrinking—it is becoming extremely difficult for them to give effective care in people’s homes and to support carers of people with dementia. It is crucial that, given such resource constraints, we ensure that every penny is well spent.

My hon. Friend has mentioned pressure on council budgets. The current number of dementia sufferers in the East Riding of Yorkshire is 4,700. It is expected to be more than 7,700 by 2021—a very few years from now. I hope that the Minister will take on board the need for additional funding, to take account of what is probably the biggest issue facing British society—dealing with an ageing population.

My hon. Friend has made the point extremely well, and I expect that the Minister and hon. Members all agree that one of the main issues, and one on which we at times have our heads in the sand, is how to cope with our ageing population; how, as the hon. Member for Southport has suggested, to create a society that is not ageist in its approach; and how to look after those who will have to carry the burden of caring for those who cannot care for themselves.

In conclusion, I should like the Minister to deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, whom I again congratulate on obtaining the debate. However, I also want to ask him a question: who will care for carers if we do not? There will be no one to save the Government £6 billion a year as those carers now do—it has been estimated that £1 of Government money spent in the voluntary sector provides between £11 and £15 in services—and there will not be enough care home beds in which people with dementia can be looked after, or enough residential home places. I hope that the dementia care strategy will address the problems not only of people with dementia, but of the people who care for them.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that this is not a party political issue. He looked slightly nervously at me, as if I were going to attack the Government, but I do not want to do that. All that I want to do is make the lot of people with dementia, and those who care for them, better, and this debate is an important step towards securing that goal for the future.

I am well briefed. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) on securing this debate on a crucial issue. It seems that the issue will touch an increasing number of families—indeed, we know that that is happening. Many people seem incredibly uncomfortable talking about it, but it will become a growing challenge for our society. I have said that we need to bring dementia out of the shadows. It asks questions of the health and social care system—and of families and society—and we have not been able to address that issue thus far. Together we need to find a solution. We need to match our ambition to find a solution to the scale of the challenge.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman’s speech was thoughtful. I am delighted that he is to be the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group, and I look forward to working with the group to make a difference. In response to an important point that he made, I shall talk about the national strategy, but developing and announcing that strategy will be only the beginning of the journey. The key will be the delivery and implementation of change in every community, so that people who use services, and their families, have a very different experience from the one that many have so far had. The parliamentary group and, indeed, Parliament, have an important role in making sure that that happens.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton). I was not looking anxiously at her, but at the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), because he and I know each other rather well. I congratulate the hon. Lady on making this one of the rare occasions when an Opposition spokesman has not made a partisan point of any kind. That inspires tremendous respect for her, because this debate needs to be conducted on an all-party basis.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) for a thoughtful speech in which he raised issues that have not been raised elsewhere in the context of dementia. He raised the matter of elder abuse, which is sadly another growing problem in our society. I suspect that our public discourse on elder abuse is now at the same stage as our public discourse on child abuse was 20 or 30 years ago. Sadly, as I said this week, society is not as outraged by the abuse of an older person as it is by the abuse of a child—something that we should all want to address.

The hon. Member for Southport also referred to therapeutic interventions. Older people need to be supported in maintaining their health for as long as possible, so early intervention and prevention are crucial. My view is that not enough work is going on in communities to deal with loneliness and isolation among older people. Politicians of any colour never said, in passing the 1990s community care legislation or in developing policies since 1997, that it was not the responsibility of local communities, local authorities or anyone else to treat older people’s loneliness and isolation as a shared responsibility, and programmes were introduced to address those issues. In our thinking about social care, addressing loneliness and isolation should be an integral part of the system.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to groups such as one in Cranleigh in my constituency, which started walking for health programmes for older people, with the unexpected benefit that, having been set up to give older people in particular more exercise, the programme has also provided an important social outlet for people who might not otherwise get out and who feel isolated?

I am delighted to pay tribute to that group in the hon. Lady’s constituency. It is important to remember that, although the notion of an ageing society is presented as being all about burdens and negativity, many of the present generation of older people are healthier than any previous generation, which is a trend that will continue as a result of medical advances and improved affluence. We should also remember that many of the current older generation are more affluent than the previous generation. We should not present the situation as just negative. There is a challenge that requires us to think differently about our communities and public services, but it is by no means a negative. Politicians all have a responsibility to think about what that means for policy.

I want to mention in response to the remarks of the hon. Member for Southport that we are reviewing the entire regulatory system on protecting older people from abuse. “No secrets” was guidance issued to local authorities some years ago, and we are undertaking a fundamental review of it. We are examining the case for legislation. I am not a believer in introducing vast amounts of regulation and legislation, unless it can be proved that it adds value and will make a difference. However, if the absence of that regulation or legislation is failing adequately to protect older people, we have a responsibility to consider toughening the system.

The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness is right that we must include research in our process. Although that is not one of the primary objectives of the national review, I have made it clear, as the lead Minister on these issues, that we must look at research if the process is to have credibility and integrity. We will be looking at investment in research.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for the words that he has just uttered. When can we expect to hear the result of the examination of potential improvements in research spending, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford pointed out, halved from 2001 to last year?

We intend the national dementia strategy, when it is published, to reference our view on going forward on research, so it will be clear as part of the process. At the moment, that is not identified as one of the priorities for the development of the strategy, but I am willing to include it and to look seriously at research.

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the Conservative party has made no commitments, as far as I am aware, significantly to increase investment in local government. If it has, there will be tax implications about which we would be delighted to hear a little bit more. Hon. Members in Opposition parties are constantly stacking up all sorts of spending commitments, which is worthy indeed, but, of course, Governments must fund such commitments.

The Minister has been party to creating joint working between health and social care in order to try to create a seamless system. In that context, the decision of his Government to make such a discrepant allocation of funds between local government and health looks peculiar. I am not responsible for my Front Bench’s position. Personally, I would prefer to see a clearer and more balanced allocation between health and social care, so they can move forward together. If anything, social care’s need for cash seems even greater than that of health at the moment.

There was an era not that long ago when nothing plus nothing came to nothing, and those of us in the House who remember it know the dreadful state in which public services were left as a consequence. Frankly, it is a little disingenuous of the hon. Gentleman to make that point, when there have been record levels of investment in all public services year on year in the past 10 years, but I will address the serious issue.

If we are going to transform services for older people and disabled people in our society, we need a far more integrated approach between the NHS locally and local government, and between the voluntary and private sectors. We certainly need to look at the balance of resources between the NHS and services that are commissioned—not necessarily provided—by local government. I do not think that there is any difference between us in terms of direction of travel. The White Paper, “Our health, our care, our say”, committed us to considering, where appropriate, a redirection of resources from the NHS to local government in terms of the provision of certain services. I shall tease the hon. Gentleman by saying, “Watch this space.”

The Minister is right; this is the wrong subject for political knockabout. The key point is that the Government, by setting out their objectives in a strategy, will properly raise expectations in the dementia community as to what can be done. If those objectives are not supported with the necessary funding, we will find a good deal of disappointment among the dementia community, which is why concerns are being expressed about where the money will come from, in addition to the worthwhile policy objectives.

Yes, I agree entirely with that. But the hon. Gentleman must accept that his party is not saying to the people of England, “We are going to spend a lot more money on dementia.” There has been no such policy commitment.

Let me make it clear that there will be a 1 per cent. real-terms increase going into local government, and the NHS will receive roughly a 4 per cent. real-terms increase. The combination of those increases is significant. The Department of Health has an amount of money specifically for social care, the detail of which has yet to be announced.

In the spring next year, the Prime Minister will announce a new deal for carers. He has set up a consultation process, meetings are taking place throughout the country and in the spring there will be an announcement about additional enhanced support for carers, the funding of which has not yet been committed or announced as part of the comprehensive spending review. In addition, some of the commissioning decisions at a local level should be different from the current ones, in terms of the use of existing resources and, certainly, with regard to joint and integrated commissioning between the health service and local authorities. It is easy for an Opposition Member to suggest that this is just about more and more money, and then not make any commitments to spend any.

This is also about using existing resources more effectively and getting the decision makers on the ground to take dementia more seriously. The chief executive of the national health service appeared before the Committee and had to acknowledge that the system is letting too many people down, and to make commitments in that area, which is important. However, that has to be reflected in decisions made locally by those who run NHS and local authority organisations and those who make commissioning decisions. Part of the strategy will be to ensure that dementia is given a much greater focus and a much greater priority, which is consistent with the scale of the challenge that dementia now presents to communities and families.

I want to talk a little bit about how we are approaching the strategy. I deliberately appointed somebody with an NHS background, Professor Sube Banerjee—head of mental health and ageing at the Institute of Psychiatry and a clinical director for the mental health of older adults at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust—and Jenny Owen, who is executive director of adults, health and community well-being in Essex, jointly to develop this national strategy. Health and social care are working together, arguably for the first time, to ensure that the strategy is truly joined up, and the strategy delivery should reflect that.

I have also appointed Neil Hunt, the chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, to play a central role in the strategy’s development and to make sure that we are engaging with and consulting all those out there who have specialist knowledge and concern and passion about the needs of people with dementia. Our external reference group, for example, will include Barbara Pointon, the lady who incredibly courageously allowed a documentary about the deterioration in her husband’s condition to be filmed. After that documentary, all that was debated in the media was whether her husband died on camera or not. What an outrage! Why did the media not generate a debate about Alzheimer’s and dementia, rather than having an insider techie debate about whether the actual death was filmed? That really makes people angry. Meeting a person like Barbara Pointon, who has been through that hell and is prepared to go on platforms everywhere and argue the case for better, improved services for dementia, makes one realise that such people are the true people of courage in our country.

I would like to associate myself with the Minister’s comments. The courage of people who have been through such an experience is extraordinarily humbling. I agree with him that without people such as Barbara Pointon, our ability to debate and find solutions to some of these problems would be much less apparent.

I agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiments. Neil Hunt and the Alzheimer’s Society have done a tremendous job in raising awareness of these issues and pressuring the system to take them far more seriously than it has done hitherto.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley). She has used her experience and her passion for both social care and the needs of carers ever since she became a parliamentarian. She has made a tremendous impact in raising the profile of these issues in Parliament and more widely. Although, as she said, this is not a very sexy issue, it is important that individual parliamentarians champion issues that are less sexy than others. Out there, for the families and people in our communities and our constituencies, these are the issues that arguably matter far more than some of the others on which we spend a lot of parliamentary time. I pay tribute to her for the work that she continues to do in this area.

My hon. Friend has made a number of important points. The effect of caring on the health of the carer is something that we need to consider as part of our work on the new deal for carers and on the national dementia strategy. She is absolutely right on that point. She also referred to the fact that carers are usually the experts on the people for whom they care, which professionals forget too often. The relative—the husband, wife, son or daughter—knows far more about that person and what they need and want than a professional will ever be able to. In some of our public services, we have to change the culture of how carers are treated. Arguably, we need to do so more in the NHS than in the social care system.

Will the Minister pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth about expanding the voluntary sector and the role that it has to play?

The hon. Gentleman is even reading my mind now. I was just going to come on to that point.

On the question of expert carers—hon. Members should listen, because I do not think that this is widely known—we are developing an expert carers programme that we will launch in the summer of next year. Up and down the country, local training courses will be available for carers to help them with practical issues such as lifting and handling and with some emotional issues, so that they feel confident in taking on and working with the professionals and the public services not confrontationally, but to represent the best interests of the person whom they love. Empowering people is an important part of improving services. Yes, we can improve the leadership, structures and funding, but we also need to give those who use the services and family members far more control, power and confidence to fight for their needs and rights.

As well as the new deal for carers, I should mention that the Prime Minister has established a standing commission on carers under the leadership of Philippa Russell, a well-known activist for disabled people. She is a carer herself, with an adult son with learning disabilities. The idea behind the standing commission is to consider the long-term challenges that we face with caring responsibilities in our country. Inevitably, at the heart of that will be the ageing society and dementia. That standing commission will be an important step forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley also raised the question of respite. We have just announced a significant investment, as a result of a lot of all-party support, for disabled children and their families, with a particular focus on respite. One of the things that the new deal for carers must consider is respite care for adults. We have recently put some money into the system, and into local authorities specifically, for emergency respite care. Carers have told us that that is often a problem. When they have an emergency, it is very difficult to access respite care, and we need to build on that.

I am proud of the fact that the Government have given an annual grant to local authorities since 1999 specifically to support carers. It is a ring-fenced grant, and it is transparent. In recent years, it has not been ring fenced in the sense that we cannot force local authorities to spend it in the way in which we want them to, but a transparent and clear amount of money has gone to every local authority since 1999.

On raising the quality of respite care, does my hon. Friend agree that it is not strictly a cost issue, but a regulation issue? The discussion I had with local carers about quality standards raised a question about regulating to minimum standards. When the homes that were being complained about in my constituency were checked, they were at minimum standards and then they slipped below them between times. The problem is regulation, rather than cost.

I agree with my hon. Friend, although to some extent I think that there is a combination of factors. We have a regulatory system that secures minimum standards for the first time, and such standards did not exist before we introduced them. However, we need to do far more than secure minimum standards. People are entitled to expect quality personalised care. The next challenge for our health service and our society is to regard public services as offering people not only minimum standards, but highly personalised services. That is the next part of the mission when it comes to strengthening the public services at the heart of a decent society.

If the Minister is about to move on to this subject, I apologise. Before he leaves the subject of the voluntary sector—

I was about to echo the comments made by the hon. Gentleman, other hon. Members, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, Crossroads, Age Concern and Carers UK—we could go on and on. The voluntary sector is at the heart of our capacity to provide quality services and to enable people to feel comfortable about accessing services. We know that for some people, the voluntary sector is closer to communities than the statutory sector can ever be, and we also know that because there is a different history to the growth and development of the voluntary sector, it is in a position to advocate for people, often in an incredibly powerful way.

When, as the Minister responsible, I talk about integration of services in local communities, I do not just talk about the local NHS and local government—I always talk about the voluntary sector and the private sector. If we harness all the resources effectively that are being spent on care through those different sectors, we will end up with much higher quality, better services for people by simply using existing resources, without debates about the ongoing need for additional resources.

On the single point of contact, the Minister has talked about the desirability of involving the voluntary sector, and I am sure that we all agree about that. However, does he think that it would be a good idea for the single point of contact to be provided by the voluntary sector rather than by the state?

That is a difficult point. I personally believe that in every community there should be a single point of contact, which I would describe not as a one-stop shop, because that is unrealistic, but as a first-stop shop. If someone logs on to a website, visits a place or makes a call, somebody should ensure that they end up in the right place for the support that they need. We should aim to achieve that in every community.

Who would end up providing that service is open to debate. In some communities, the voluntary sector is undoubtedly best placed to do so. In other communities, the voluntary sector is underdeveloped, and the service would have to be provided by a statutory agency. Securing the notion of first-stop shops in every community, particularly in terms of older people, carers and the ageing society, should be an objective and ambition that we promote.

Turning to the strategy, first, we want to raise awareness about dementia, so that people begin to spot the signs at the earliest conceivable stage. Awareness-raising has to be not only about professionals, but about friends, family members and workmates. We know, as the hon. Member for Southport has said, that early intervention makes a difference. Recognising and spotting the signs, and not dismissing the symptoms as something entirely different, is incredibly important. Raising awareness and trying to remove some of the stigma is also crucial, and we will consider the best ways in which to do that.

Secondly, we want early diagnosis and intervention. All hon. Members know that GPs cannot be expected to be experts on every single condition. We have to ensure that primary care professionals have the maximum possible knowledge about dementia and a professional commitment that, if there is doubt or uncertainty, they will ensure that the person is referred appropriately to someone with specialist knowledge and expertise, rather than dismissing them or telling them that it is nothing to worry about. A major part of the strategy will be to consider how people access professional support and to ensure that we get those professionals to work with us to ensure early diagnosis and intervention.

Does the Minister agree that we need to recognise people’s concerns about, and fear of, a diagnosis of dementia, and to look at what is being done in Croydon, I believe, where what used to be called a dementia clinic has been renamed a memory clinic, and where referrals are now taken up more fully?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to recognise models of best practice. There is a lot of very good provision out there from which we can learn. We need the standards of all to be brought up to the standards of the best. Part of our strategy needs to involve highlighting places such as the Croydon memory centre and other services that already are providing the kind of support that we want to provide to everyone.

Given that dementia is the subject of today’s debate, will the Minister comment on dementia in young people, which is an extremely serious condition and, as has been said, a fatal diagnosis?

One of the benefits of the reshuffle is not only that I retain my job, but that, for the first time, I am responsible for all mental health provision in the Department. That means that I am responsible for the mental health of children, adolescents and adults and for dementia as whole, which is one of the issues that I need to address in assuming those integrated responsibilities. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, and his question is a new question being asked of our society. Quite frankly, the system cannot cope with younger people who develop dementia. The hon. Member for Southport has also referred to that point.

The third focus of the national strategy is on improving the quality of care, whether it is provided in people’s homes, hospitals or care homes. I have a really important point to make here: there can be no excuse for the neglect of older people, whether it is on a hospital ward, in a nursing home or through a home care service. We must continue to campaign to put respect for dignity at the heart of all care services. I do not accept the idea that we should always blame a lack of resources. There are certain non-negotiables and practices in the way that older people are treated that bring nursing and the NHS into disrepute.

I also believe, however, that managers, as well as front-line staff have a responsibility in this matter. Wards where more than 50 per cent. of the patients have dementia require different staffing arrangements from those where that is not the case. We pay NHS managers to make those decisions and to get that right. In the same way that there has been a debate about pupil-teacher ratios in the education system, we ought to have a debate, not about Ministers prescribing a certain number of nurses per patient on every ward in the country—that is not our job—but about managers, whose job it is to ensure appropriate staffing arrangements, especially if staff are having to cope with a ward on which dementia sufferers predominate, and if we want to give dementia sufferers high quality, personalised care.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southport and others about offering an integrated service to the patient and family members. Service users—patients and family members—are not interested in whether the service is provided by someone who describes themselves as a health professional or a social care professional; they are interested in a joined-up, integrated service that is sensitive and that meets their needs. They do not want to be passed from pillar to post between different administrative structures, so we need clear lines of accountability and responsibility at a local level.

I appreciate that the Minister is running out of time, but I do not want him to run out of it before touching on co-ordination, and specifically on a possible national dementia services director. Some very heavy hints have been dropped by the chief executive of the NHS about the desirability of that. Will the Minister tell us if, or when, that will happen?

Professor Banerjee, who is leading on that, is the Department’s clinical advisor on dementia. He is not a national director for dementia, and I need to give further consideration to that proposal. The difficulty is that, understandably, every area in the health service wants a national director. I have just appointed somebody in the Department to lead on autism. Previously, no official was leading on that issue, which is presenting a growing challenge for our society where children and young people are concerned. Indeed, the problem of adults with Asperger’s is now raising many issues. I cannot give a cast iron commitment today, but I shall reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s point. Certainly, that issue must be addressed as part of the national strategy. As David Nicholson has said, however, there is a strong case for having such a director. We have an excellent national clinical director for older people, Professor Ian Philp, who is highly regarded but who is not a dementia specialist. We will consider that possibility as part of the national strategy.

Clearly, training front-line staff is crucial, and we need a combination of universal basic knowledge and highly specialist skills. However, we still have a long way to go. For example, let us consider domiciliary care workers. As more and more people choose to remain in their own homes, rather than to go into hospital or institutionalised care, more of the service will have to be provided by home care workers. We need, therefore, to have a particular look at their expertise, knowledge and sensitivity to the needs of people with dementia; that applies to all professionals. On one hand, we need some minimum knowledge among the universal professionals and system, and on the other, we need a cadre in every community of people with specialist knowledge and expertise in dementia.

Finally, of course, we need to look at the relationship between national policy and leadership, and what happens on the ground with local priorities. I say gently to the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth that all political parties are united around the notion of localism and devolution and of not doing things from offices in Westminster and Whitehall. As we develop the national strategy, therefore, we must consider the pressures, incentives, levers and accountability mechanisms that we can put into the system, but which will not compromise the right of people on the front line to make key decisions. We must ensure, however, that they do not neglect people with dementia, and that those with dementia and their families are given greater priority and a greater status in decisions than has been the case thus far.

One of the reasons why we are debating this issue today is the lack of a national policy in the past, and another is the fact that people in local communities continually tell us that they are not getting the expert, personalised services that they need and want. Carers frequently tell us that they are not being treated with respect when decisions are being taken about dementia sufferers.

We have a long way to go. The challenge is to create the right balance and dynamic between providing clear national policy, leadership, standards and objectives, and understanding that in the end we are heavily dependent on the managers and professionals on the ground to make a difference. Furthermore, putting more powers in the hands of users and their families, through individual budgets, direct payments and simply giving them a greater ability to complain and to articulate their views, will have a major impact on raising standards and the quality of care in this area, as in many others.

I end by paying tribute to hon. Members for the all-party way in which they have approached this incredibly important issue. We are all committed to bringing dementia out of the shadows, and we have a solemn responsibility to those with dementia and their families and to ensure that we improve the quality of their lives.

Illegal Immigrants

I thank Mr. Speaker for giving me permission to raise this important subject today, and I warmly welcome the Minister to the debate to listen to what I and other colleagues have to say, and to respond in due course.

The control of illegal immigration is a very important topic, and the Minister is a very important person. Indeed, I reckon that she is one of the most important Ministers in the Government, because the first duty of Her Majesty’s Government should be to defend our island and control our borders. In that regard, we put a lot of faith in her and her Department. However, I must draw to her attention the fact that all is not working as it should. In places as land-locked as Northamptonshire, illegal immigrants are turning up on our doorstep, and it is causing huge concern to local residents, particularly because of the advice that the Border and Immigration Agency has given to Northamptonshire police whenever they have apprehended those people.

There have been in Northamptonshire two recent cases that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention. The first in mid-September was reported faithfully by the Northampton Chronicle & Echo on its front page. It said, “16 immigrants caught by police…were told to make their own way” to the immigration offices in Croydon. Those 16 illegals jumped off the back of a lorry, and three were apprehended by the police, who quite rightly phoned the Border and Immigration Agency, only to be advised to encourage those three to make their own way to the immigration offices in Croydon. Effectively, they were released.

If that was not bad enough, later in the same month, a group of African immigrants were found hiding in the back of a lorry in a Northamptonshire village. They were dropped off at a railway station by police and also told to make their way to the same immigration centre.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on yet again bringing forward for debate a topic that is very important to the people of Northamptonshire. In fact, half the MPs for Northamptonshire are in the Chamber. Does he agree that one problem for Northamptonshire is that if illegal immigrants do not get off the lorries as soon as they arrive from across the channel, the next stop for the lorries is Northamptonshire, where they get out?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that pertinent intervention. That is exactly the case. The Northampton Chronicle & Echo reported the second case that I mentioned, and it has a quotation from the lorry driver concerned, Mr. Adrian Coe, who found the men in the back of his truck. He said:

“We’d come from France and loaded the lorry up in Paris. But we had to park up in Dunkirk for a break and we reckon that’s where they got in.

When we got to Long Buckby and found them, we held them and rang the police.

We thought they’d take them away somewhere, we didn’t realise they were just going to drop them off at the railway station.”

According to the paper, a spokesman for Northamptonshire police confirmed that the men had been taken to Long Buckby railway station. She said:

“We called the immigration service to advise them we had these people. We were told to advise them how to get to the nearest immigration centre,”

which in Northamptonshire’s case is Croydon.

In the space of less than a week in the middle of September, there were two nonsensical cases in which illegal immigrants were released to do whatever they liked illegally in this country.

My hon. Friend calls it nonsensical, I call it bonkers. If one travels from the Gare du Nord, there is proper security, including British officials who check one’s passport before one is allowed to board the Eurostar train. Surely that should be replicated at all ports where lorries get on vessels to travel to the United Kingdom, and heat-seeking technology should be used that would be able to show whether any bodies were on the lorries. The best way to control illegal immigrants is to ensure that they do not come to the United Kingdom in the first place.

I am most grateful for that very wise intervention. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government must ensure that lorries are searched when they arrive in this country.

Before they arrive. I would check them on as many occasions as I possibly could.

There is also an important point about the welfare of those poor individuals. There have been horrible examples of lorries packed with illegal immigrants in dreadful conditions, and some people have died on their way into the country, which is why we need to secure our borders and ports. Being an island nation, it ought to be relatively straightforward.

I have mentioned two cases in Northamptonshire, but I am afraid that it is not just a Northamptonshire problem.

I was the person fortunate—or unfortunate—enough to receive a phone call from the lorry driver in the first incident, and I not only raised the matter with the local police but wrote to the Home Secretary, arguing that although those people were supposed to come from Iraq, we did not know whether they were infiltrators from Iran, terrorists, healthy, criminal or whatever. We were amazed at the response. I therefore wrote to the Minister—

I shall try to keep my intervention as brief as possible.

I asked for a review of the protocols, arguing that they simply were not good enough. Although I have not received a response to my letter, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) has, and I am told that changes have been made to the protocol. Will the Minister refer to those changes? If they have been made, it could help us in Northamptonshire enormously. Thank you, Mr. Marshall.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that informed and helpful intervention.

Before I move on from Northamptonshire, the latest figures with which Northamptonshire police have been kind enough to provide me show that some 27 people have been reported to them jumping off the back of lorries in the county over the past year. Those are fresh figures that are bang up to date. Some 74 other illegal immigration cases have been notified to the police, too.

I am afraid that the problem is not confined to Northamptonshire. I have the honour and privilege to serve on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill Committee, and in evidence to that Committee on 16 October, Jan Berry, the chairman of the Police Federation, confirmed in response to my question that the examples I cited from Northamptonshire were commonplace throughout the country. She said:

“That is an accurate description of what is taking place in many areas of the country, where there is not necessarily any provision for people to be transported to the different centres. When we call up, that is exactly the advice that we are given. We encourage people to get on a bus, train or other form of transport, and surprisingly very few actually reach the destination. It is certainly something that our members have said to us is of concern.”––[Official Report, Criminal Justice and Immigration Public Bill Committee, 16 October 2007; c. 56, Q108.]

That is a national disgrace, to be quite blunt, and the Government must act and act soon to prevent it from happening again.

In an effort to be helpful to Her Majesty’s Government, I have tabled an amendment to the Bill, new clause 17, which I hope that the Committee will discuss in due course. I seek the Minister’s support, and I hope that she will consider whether the proposed amendment might help to address the concerns that local people in Northamptonshire and, I am sure, throughout the country, have about the issue. My amendment would place a duty on the Border and Immigration Agency to ensure that those immigrants were detained by the arresting authorities.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I understand that there was some confusion about the time on the clocks when we suspended. I am advised by the Clerk that we suspended at 4.9 pm. We would have had 21 minutes left, so we will continue until 4.46 pm.

Thank you, Mr. Marshall.

I return to the new clause that I have tabled to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. New clause 17 would place a duty on the Border and Immigration Agency to arrange with local police for suspected illegal immigrants to be detained in custody until the agency could pick them up. The situation is so serious that there ought to be a legal duty on the agency to ensure that such people are not released. Hon. Members can imagine the concern in Northamptonshire that such people are being set free. Common sense says that they should be detained, but the law allows them to be released, and the agency’s practice effectively encourages their release. We simply do not know what type of people they are, whether they pose a threat to national security, or whether they have some kind of communicable disease that could infect local people.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is even worse in Northamptonshire because of the thousands of legal migrant workers from the European Union who come to the area? There is uncontrolled immigration, everything gets mixed into one pot, and there is a real danger of extremist parties coming in and peddling their wares.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as usual. I do not think that any of the major political parties realises the extent of public concern about immigration. Until one of the main parties deals properly with this whole issue, we will, as my hon. Friend says, see the growth of extremist political parties that distort the issue for their own ends and do not help at all. Serious issues need to be addressed. This is not a racist topic. Concern about illegal immigrants is nothing to do with where they are from or the colour of their skin. People are concerned about their illegal status and think that they should be detained until that illegality is addressed.

There are about 600,000 illegal immigrants in the country, many of whom are at large. Will the Minister confirm the latest estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the country? We see precious little sign of any effective deportation programme to ensure that such people are returned to from whence they came. Even if there were an effective programme, it would take 10 to 20 years to remove all the people who have entered the country illegally.

The specific focus of this debate is the practicality of the existing arrangements. Northamptonshire police and other police forces do their best in relation to the illegal immigrants whom they apprehend, but the official advice that they receive from the Border and Immigration Agency is to let such people go.

I hope that the Minister will address the issue of those people who enter the country illegally both by lorry and by air. Will she tell us when there will be proper passport checks abroad? When will the new equipment come in to ensure that those who destroy their documents aboard planes can be caught because we will have a copy of their passports and thus know where they come from? Those people will then not be allowed to enter the country.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I hope that the Minister will address it in her response.

A national scandal is occurring, and we cannot allow the official practice of the Border and Immigration Agency to continue as it is. At the very least, the agency must develop a presence in Northamptonshire. We should also amend the law to close the current loophole. Local law enforcement agencies such as Northamptonshire police are doing their best in difficult circumstances and I have no criticism of them whatever. Indeed, I commend their diligence in reporting cases, as instructed, to the Border and Immigration Agency. However, I utterly condemn that agency’s advice that the people concerned should be released into the wider community.

In my opening remarks I described the Minister as one of the most important people in the country. It is time for her to live up to that position, fully address the responsibility that her proud office confers on her, and take effective action to ensure that there are no repeats of such events.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Marshall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate, and I thank other hon. Members for their interest in this important issue.

I am aware of the detailed matters raised by the hon. Gentleman, because my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) has been discussing them with the Home Secretary, the Minister for Borders and Immigration and me for a number of weeks—at least since the middle of September. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has now taken them up directly with Ministers. It is the first time that he has done so, and it is good news that he has, and that hon. Members across Northamptonshire are taking an interest in such important issues.

I shall be brief, because I do not wish to curtail the time available to the Under-Secretary. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 17 September and asked for an inquiry and for changes in protocol. Will the Under-Secretary find out why I have not received a response, and will she write to me personally on that? She mentioned the names of certain other hon. Members but did not include me, and I am worried that my letter might not have got through.

I shall certainly look into that and ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives an answer as soon as possible.

The Government recognise that migration policy needs a new balance between economic benefits and the wider impacts of migration. The Government intend that only those whom Britain needs should come here to work and study. At the end of my remarks, I shall outline a number of new measures that we will introduce in the new year.

Cracking down on illegal migration—within and at the UK’s borders, and before people arrive—is an essential part of achieving that balance. The Government are committed to building stronger borders, and hon. Members who have travelled recently will have noticed, I hope, that all border immigration officers now wear uniforms and that checks have been stepped up. From next year, we shall introduce identity cards for all foreign nationals, which will make clearer which of them are entitled to be in the country and which are not. We also have a watch list, which means that those people trying to enter the country who are known to be dangerous are excluded. The quicker that we can match people to their real identity and tackle multiple identity fraud across the board, rather than only in the context of immigration, the better. I look forward to the firm support of the hon. Member for Kettering for the introduction of identity cards both for foreign nationals and for British citizens, as they are an essential part of maintaining our borders. From what Conservative Members have said, I am pleased to infer that they are leaning towards agreement with that position.

It is important to maintain our borders—within the country but also from outside. It might reassure the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) to know that airline liaison officers are deployed in a number of countries to prevent such people boarding aeroplanes in the first place. Under European initiatives, we shall introduce passenger name records in conjunction with European partners, although we already undertake a certain amount of such activity. The new measures will mean that the details of every passenger who boards an aeroplane will be sent to the UK immigration authorities, so that anyone who should not be entering the country is removed—either before or during the flight. I hope that that provides some reassurance.

Of course. Will the Under-Secretary say when that technology will come into use at airports and at points of embarkation and disembarkation?

It is already in use in some areas, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the details. We are looking to extend the coverage further with our European partners. Our work with some countries is better than with others.

Some detailed points have been mentioned about the incident in Northampton, and I have been asked by hon. Members to explain what the Government and the Border and Immigration Agency plan to do to tackle its cause. I agree that the police should not have released those who were released, and we have ensured that that will not happen again. The senior management at the Border and Immigration Agency have underlined to the regional directors who are now in place up and down the country—including for Northamptonshire—the need to treat so-called “lorry drops” as an operational priority. That advice is effective immediately.

The new directors are meeting chief constables from across the country to ensure that there is proper co-operation with the police, and the Home Office is working centrally with the Association of Chief Police Officers to make sure that there is buy-in nationally from the police. Most lorry drops happen in London and the south-east. In those areas, we have established mechanisms for responding to arrests within four hours in most cases, so that police cells are not filled up with illegal migrants and so that a Border and Immigration Agency member of staff is available to do the processing checks.

If someone applies for asylum, they are not always detained; they might be released. It is a matter of assessing the risk in relation to the individual, making sure that the case is properly documented, and providing that person with proper identity documents so that we know where they are and what they are doing. It is important to stress that that already happens.

We are also in the process of trialling mobile detention vans in Poole until March next year. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration has asked the Border and Immigration Agency to begin planning a second phase of trials, which will include tests on how we deploy mobile detention facilities “in country”. We shall consider Northamptonshire as a possible area for such work.

We shall shortly develop a series of joint activities with the police, one of which is shared intelligence planning designed to target facilitators of illegal immigration. I am sure that Members from all parties would agree that that is a good idea. As you might know, Mr. Marshall, organised crime may account for up to 75 per cent. of illegal immigration to this country, so it is important to have the police on board.

Some of that good work is happening in my own constituency. On Friday, I visited Operation Swale, in which Border and Immigration Agency staff are deployed in a police command unit—in London, a borough command unit—and can check people’s immigration status at the point of arrest and work with the police to ensure that criminals are deported if immigration offences or illegal status are part of the problem. The operation is having a huge impact on the streets of Hackney, Islington, and Waltham Forest, and I have met police officers from each of those three London boroughs. We need more of that kind of work, and I hope that that pilot operation will shortly be rolled out elsewhere. I shall certainly talk to my ministerial colleagues who are responsible for such matters so that they are aware of how well it has worked on the ground.

There is an arrangement in Kent whereby police patrols that come across cases of illegal migration take the relevant people to 24-hour screening units in Dover for processing. We shall continue to encourage the police to arrest illegal entrants so that those entrants can be properly screened and vetted, so that we know where and who they are, and so that they are appropriately dealt with.

There has been some success in preventing people from entering the country in the first place. We deploy state-of-the-art detection technology, particularly at ports abroad, as well as at our main UK ports. I have myself seen heartbeat monitors and devices that can tell whether someone is hidden in a van. That sort of work is important in reducing the number of illegal entrants. We also level civil penalties against hauliers for illegally carrying people into the country. Although I am heartened by the tone of today’s debate, in that Conservative Members clearly want to prevent people from entering the country illegally before arrival in the UK, I am sad that they voted against those fines. The fines have clearly helped.

That, along with our juxtaposed controls in France and Belgium, in 2006 prevented 16,898 people from crossing the channel illegally, and refused 6,801 people entry when they had reached the UK. It is important to put it on the record that we are already preventing many illegal migrants from coming into this country. In Kent, we have had good success in reducing the number of illegal immigrants arriving since 2002 by 88 per cent. We have made important progress.

Since the abolition of embarkation controls by a previous Government in 1994, we have been unable to assess with certainty the number of foreign nationals who enter or leave the country, which is why we are introducing some important changes in the next year. Before I go on to those, I have a little time to explain which other people we are removing because they should not be here. Last year, we removed more than 13,000 non-asylum immigration offenders, which is the highest number on record, and removed more than 16,000 principal asylum seekers who were unsuccessful in their claims—more than during the final four full years of the last Conservative Government.

Alongside that, asylum applications are already down to their lowest level since 1993.

Will the Minister confirm the latest official estimate of the number of illegal immigrants in the country, and will she be kind enough to respond to my request to look at my tabled amendment?

Will the Minister use her good offices to look at my tabled amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill?

I shall happily look at it, and I am sure that I shall look at more than just the hon. Gentleman’s tabled amendment. Some of the measures that I have mentioned today are already tackling a number of the issues that he raised. We always look at amendments from hon. Members of any party and any point of view.

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about official estimates, but they are just estimates, and we must deal with facts. That is why we will introduce our e-Borders system next year. It will count people out of and into the country, so the numbers will be clear. Our new points-based, five-tier system is based on the Australian system. Any Australian immigration official can quickly say exactly who is in the country, and who should and should not be there. They are successful in their work of deporting and encouraging those who are not there legally to leave, as we do, but we are hampered at the moment. The new measures, which I am sure that Conservative Members will support, will be welcome.

Last year, we removed nearly 3,000 foreign national prisoners. In the first quarter of this year, we doubled the number of removals compared with the same period last year. We are keen to remove the most dangerous people from the country first. That is important.

On monitoring people in and out of the country, our e-Borders programme has captured data on 29 million passenger movements—as I said to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, passenger name records and so on are part of that, as are airline liaison officers—and issued more than 15,000 alerts to border agencies about people who are not desirable to have in the country, which resulted in 1,200 arrests. We are having real success in tackling people who should not enter the country and who are dangerous to the UK.

During the next 12 months, we will oversee the biggest shake up of the immigration system in its history, and it will change out of all recognition. The points-based system, which is modelled on the successful Australian system, introduces five tiers for people wanting to enter the country. They range from highly skilled migrants down to agricultural workers. It will clarify and simplify a system that currently has 60 routes for people to acquire legal status in this country. There will be a transition period for people currently in the country under the old regime, but the new approach will begin to ensure that only people whom Britain needs can come here to work and study.

We are listening closely to independent advice from the migration advisory committee on the needs of the economy, to ensure that the people coming into the country will benefit it. The net benefit to Britain is substantial, but there is an impact on different communities. I represent an inner-London community that welcomes migrants and has done so for many years, but we recognise that there are issues for local schools, hospitals and so on.

The migration impact forum, which brings together people from a range of professional backgrounds as well as from different regions of the UK, will advise the Government on society’s capacity. It met on 17 October—I shall correct the record if I am wrong—with my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who jointly chair that important forum. In a few years, we will be well on the way to reinstating entry and exit controls to count everyone in and out. By the end of 2010, that system will be fully up and running. We will continue to make use of our new powers and resources to tackle illegal immigration in the UK and beyond our shores.

The Government’s approach is robust. We want a fair, firm and transparent immigration policy that is swift to deal with people whom we know should not be here, and swift to deal fairly with people who can contribute to this country so that they understand their status and position. We shall ensure that we count people out and in to achieve that goal.

Dudley Library Closures

What is a library? Is it a collection of books, DVDs, CDs and videos? Is it a place to expand knowledge or surf the internet? Is it a community hub, an information exchange, a homework club, a writers’ club, or a rattle and rhyme club for toddlers? The answer, of course, is that it is all of those and much, much more, but not for much longer in my constituency or in Dudley. I applied for this debate because, unless the Minister can come to our aid, the library service in Dudley is under threat with the recent announcement that the Dudley library authority is to close five libraries.

How did we get to that point? In October 2005, Dudley council commissioned a peer review of the service. It recognised many strengths, including staff commitment and motivation; high customer and partner satisfaction rates; excellent work with children, including Bookstart and rattle and rhyme sessions; improving book stock and usage; and improving information and communications technology provision and usage. It was hardly a poor report. However, it highlighted a number of areas to develop, such as management arrangements better to support and develop services and staff, and a need for stronger leadership and a clear vision for the service. It commented on a lack of flexibility to meet projected future needs.

Following that report, in September 2006, Dudley’s cabinet approved the document, “Providing a modern library service…a strategy for the future.” It proposed a vision for the library service to be open and accessible to all. It set out principles that would result in a modern service, chief among which was a proactive service valued by partners and stakeholders, and a service that exceeded standards and expectations of which we could all be proud. Staff and users cheered.

We were promised—and we looked forward to—services focused on the community’s needs with well trained and competent leaders, the right stock in the right place at the right time, bright lights, and welcoming, flexible buildings as a focus for communities. We were promised a proactive service that would be valued by partners and stakeholders—a can-do organisation. What did we get? There was an announcement in the press last month that Quarry Bank, Woodside, Dudleywood, Amblecote, and Wallheath libraries were to close. That announcement fell well short of our lofty ambition. There will be a disproportionate impact on my constituents because four of the closures will affect them directly. The plan was viewed quite simply as a cynical attempt to cut services in areas of low book and computer ownership to save money and help with the council’s finances and overspend, and to put pressure on the most politically marginal seat in Dudley.

Did I hear my hon. Friend correctly? Is Dudley council choosing to close libraries in areas of low book and computer use? If that is true, it is nothing short of disgraceful.

I am sorry to say that that is exactly right. Although GCSE results are improving year on year, the closures can only have a detrimental effect on that improvement.

Following the 2006 report, the authority held a staff conference. I was invited to make a contribution as a local MP and member of the all-party libraries and information management group. Although there was a degree of apprehension, many of the staff felt able to contribute and were confident that the subsequent year-long review would provide further opportunities to consult decision makers. Sadly, that proved to be the high point of the process, rather than the beginning of a genuine dialogue in which everyone had a stake and there was a wish to go from strength to strength.

Apart from on one or two half days and through visits from consultants, nothing was heard for the best part of a year. I received many letters on the issue from library staff, and I shall give the Minister a flavour of how they felt. One letter stated:

“I was told that there is to be no staff conference this year (2007). I feel this is a pity as all sorts of half truths and rumours are circulating around the libraries. It would have been an opportunity to announce to everyone in one go the new structure of the service and the place of everyone in that structure. The protracted and secret rolling out of change over months and months gives staff the feeling of instability and insecurity, made worse by being addressed in manner that makes them feel untrusted. Was not communication a subject that the Peer Review highlighted as an issue to be addressed?”

Another letter stated:

“‘Blueprint for the future’ has begun with a dramatic reduction in senior staff at Stourbridge Library. So much so that staffing such a large library open for 40 hours a week has become difficult to the point of not being able to deliver the quality of service to our customers of which in the past we have been so proud. Other libraries in Dudley are suffering in a similar fashion and we know they support us but are unable to give us their backing for fear of repercussions.”

A third letter stated:

“Our management have not forseen the problems we now encounter or if they have they choose to ignore them. They have used behaviour that is not far from threatening to intimidate the staff and prevent us from having an opinion. We have reasonably requested meetings and have been denied. We wholly embrace the remodelling of our service however recent events resulting in the present chaotic situation we now find ourselves in have led us to have no confidence in the process so far.”

Sadly, local residents and users of the service have also largely been left out of the review, which has once again allowed the rumour mills to roll. Reports of possible closures periodically appeared in the press and were subsequently denied by the authority. The first official word on the review was announced to the press at the beginning of September. The decision was agreed by the cabinet on 12 September and rubber stamped at a meeting of the full council last week. Thankfully, it has been called in by the scrutiny committee and will be examined in Dudley this very evening.

The Minister has experience of local authority matters and knows how to run a competent consultation. Will she comment on the fact that we are not able to get a copy of the full report, and on the lack of evidence of a feasibility study or any consideration of alternatives to the closures? There has been no impact assessment on the damage that might be caused to education or attainment and no significant consultation with staff or users. There is no evidence that local partners or businesses were consulted.

Not surprisingly, local people are up in arms. In one week alone, I received a petition signed by 2,000 people and hundreds of letters, e-mails and calls. In its wisdom, the authority has suggested replacing the libraries via a system of what it calls library links. The facility will have 1,500 books. Dudley council describes the facility as suitable for the community, but it is the equivalent of only five library bookshelves. The average number of books in the libraries is currently between 10,000 and 15,000.

In addition to those 1,500 books, there will be online links to town centre libraries that will be staffed for only 10 hours a week—partners and volunteers will be asked to work in support. The request service will be available through a computer to the borough’s stock and there will be next-day delivery. The council is advocating the replacement of a building that is at the heart of the community with nothing more than an electronic ordering desk.

I confess to being a lover of books. The local librarian in the area in which I grew up was as important to me as my school teachers. One of the joys of books is picking them off the shelves and browsing through them. One can even open them at the back page to find out what happens at the end. This is about the joy of books. As a mother and former teacher, I watched my children and those whom I taught developing a similar love of books, and learning the alphabet or dictionary skills, or how to use an index or bibliography.

When I visit the libraries in my constituency, I see all sorts of people of all ages browsing and comparing books, chatting, advising people and taking advice. I see children and students doing their homework and people taking part in book clubs. I see writers, silver surfers and grannies and grandpas learning to use e-mail. Those activities are all quality experiences. This is about community. It is difficult to accept that an electronic ordering desk that sounds suspiciously like a supermarket checkout and that will be staffed for only 10 hours a week will come close to the experience of a library.

Frankly, the residents of Dudley and Stourbridge deserve more. They deserve to be heard and consulted, and to retain at least the level of service that they currently access and library staff who are well trained, professional, engaged and—importantly—valued.

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 requires 149 top-tier local authorities to provide comprehensive and efficient public library services. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has a duty under the Act to supervise the delivery of library services and to promote their improvement. Broadly, that means that authorities are required to provide people who live, work or study in their area with free-of-charge access to books, printed material and pictures that they can borrow or refer to in line with their needs. That will not be the case if Dudley council’s new policy makes progress.

I accept that the closure of a library, or even a small group of libraries, does not necessarily constitute a breach of the Act, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would be alarmed if the closures were due to financial considerations alone, or if the library service was disproportionately affected by an authority’s need to make savings. I am convinced that Conservative-controlled Dudley council has been motivated by such considerations. Will the Minister formally intervene and call the authority to account to save the libraries in Stourbridge and Dudley?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) on securing this debate and on the hard work she does on behalf of her constituents. I also acknowledge the hard work that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) does for libraries nationally. She diligently takes every opportunity to ensure that we think about the role of public libraries in our public service infrastructure.

I share a love of books with my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge, and I completely endorse her view that libraries are an important part of the infrastructure that enables all members of our community to develop a love of books and to access books locally. I agree that browsing around a library, if one has such a facility, is a powerful way in which to push back the boundaries of one’s knowledge, interests and experience. Browsing is about exploring new literature, information and experiences, which can only expand one’s enjoyment of life and enhance the quality of it.

The Government are proud of our record on libraries, which have improved significantly since we came to office. In the past 10 years, there has been a 39 per cent. increase in library funding. The money goes to local authorities, and it is down to them to decide how they will use their resources, but extra money has been put in. Libraries are now open longer, which is welcome, and it is important that we have reversed the decline in the numbers of library visits. In the past five years, visits have increased by 7.5 per cent., so there are now 290 million visits every year to our libraries. That translates to 1 million people going to their library each and every day when the libraries are open.

I am also pleased that we now buy 1.5 million more books than were bought in 1997. That statistic is sometimes misinterpreted. Although the stock may be less than it was then, mainly because of new technology, we are acquiring more and therefore expanding the resources in our library infrastructure year on year, and I am proud of that.

Like me, my hon. Friend accepts that libraries have to change to be relevant to and attract the customer of today. They must respond to changes in the way in which we all receive information, given the very fast-moving developments in information and communications technology. They have to change, because our leisure patterns have altered, so the way in which we want to access facilities and the range of facilities open to us have altered. They also have to change because the price of books has altered—books have become cheaper, and sometimes the facilities offered in bookshops make them very attractive for people to browse around and to take their children to.

The best of our libraries are doing just that, and I shall take two examples in my hon. Friend’s area. Sandwell has express libraries in two children’s centres, which is a powerful way to reach at a very early stage the families who are most in need and to develop in children from the earliest stage a love of books, which is hugely important. Birmingham Central library is an interesting example, because its business insight service provides support to people who want to start, grow or develop businesses. Those are two examples of how we can adapt to the modern age.

I accept that. I know that Sandwell is doing very well with its libraries, as is Birmingham, and they are both neighbouring authorities. In this case, however, there is no evidence that Dudley ever considered thinking outside the box. If it could take the example of Sandwell or of Birmingham, I would be a very happy MP, but there is no evidence of that.

I hear that point, and I will address the local issue. Central Government have an important role to play in improving and benchmarking the performance of library authorities, raising awareness of best practice and developing national initiatives that can be delivered locally. However, my hon. Friend will know that our powers of intervention are limited by the framework of the legislation. Of course, the whole thrust of public policy is to devolve more and more authority downwards. In that context, it becomes ever more difficult to get central Government intervention. Even though we at the centre may be promoting a particular policy, democratically elected local authorities may choose to do something different. I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates that difficulty.

Let me now deal with Dudley. We have set 10 service performance standards against which we judge libraries. Dudley achieved those standards in six of the 10 categories. One of the standards that it did not achieve relates to opening hours. The figure for the aggregate scheduled opening hours per 1,000 population—that is a funny way of measuring it—is 114 against the figure for all metropolitan district councils of 129. The number of library visits per 1,000 population was, at 5,081, below the national average—it was below the figure of 5,303 for all MDCs. The number of items added to the collection per 1,000 population was low—it was 172 against 223. The number of years taken to replenish lending stock was much higher than that taken by other authorities—it was 10.5 years compared with an average for all MDCs of 6.4 years.

Dudley has one of the lowest per capita spends against the 39 per cent. increase in funding. Although it meets six of the 10 library standards and is good, for example, in respect of satisfaction indicators for adults, it has the lowest score among the metropolitan districts in the region for children expressing satisfaction with the service. Only Birmingham reports being open for fewer hours than Dudley, and Dudley acquires fewer books than neighbouring districts. Birmingham Central library attracts more visitors, and the number of visits to Dudley libraries is among the lowest in the region.

I understand the point about meeting those targets, but can the Minister explain how reducing book usage and reducing the hours to 10 a week will help Dudley to achieve anything apart from a cost saving?

No, I cannot, and I am interested in that comment by my hon. Friend. She has said that she cannot get hold of a copy of the report, but I have been told that the report is online and should therefore be available to her. I suggest that she has a look and writes to me if that is not the case.

I think that my hon. Friend agrees that, given Dudley’s performance, it was appropriate to have a peer review. As I understand it, Dudley consulted the local community, which expressed the same wishes as most communities: the community wanted modern, properly equipped libraries, good-quality stock and decent opening hours. They wanted better libraries, and I think that we can all accept that a radical review is right.

I am told that Dudley is considering extending its opening hours. If that is the case, we should welcome it. If that is the way in which Dudley chooses to use its resources, it is welcome. I am also told that it is entirely recycling the savings that it makes from any changes back into the library service. I am sure that my hon. Friend can confirm that with the local authority, but if it is the case, it, too, is welcome, because there is a pattern across the country in which, when libraries undergo reviews and there are savings, they tend to be taken back to the centre. Dudley is not doing that, which we should welcome.

I thank my right hon. Friend for being so generous in taking interventions. May I ask her to address the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) raised earlier, which was about Dudley council choosing to close libraries in areas of low book and computer ownership? Whatever the excuse for that, it means taking resources from those who are possibly less able to articulate their needs and desires. It is about taking away from those who have no political power.

I could not agree more, and I was just coming to that point. I understand the concerns about the proposed five closures. I understand that those five libraries account for 6 per cent. of library issues and 5 per cent. of visits, but if we want to extend access, it may be that that is where we should provide access. I am not against closures—that is true of any Government—particularly if they lead to an improvement in the service, but we have to be clear about the objectives and whether the strategy meets them. I do not know whether, in this instance, Dudley has as an objective of widening access to its library services, and I do not know whether it has asked itself whether these closures will help or hinder that objective.

There is also an issue about consultation in Dudley with the communities affected. In my view, it is crucial that Dudley should undertake proper consultation with the communities affected and should be clear, in putting forward its revised strategy, that it has clear objectives that we all understand and feel content with.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge has said, the scrutiny committee meets tonight. I will ask for a report from that committee. If the proposition remains that five libraries are intended to close, I will want to be reassured that the needs of the five communities are not overlooked. In that context, I urge my hon. Friend, who has brought this debate to Westminster Hall today, to continue with her good work locally to ensure that her constituents’ interests and needs are well met through a local library service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Five o’clock.