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Commons Chamber

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

House of Commons

Thursday 15 November 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

University Spin-outs

1. How many spin-outs by universities have been floated on the stock market in the last five years. (164249)

According to data collected by the University Companies Association, or Unico, in the last five years 30 university spin-outs have been floated with a flotation valuation of £1.5 billion. The number of spin-out companies formed rose from 232 in 2004-05 to 261 in 2005-06.

Universities’ approach to the issue varies. Some, such as Cambridge, are keen to encourage their staff to set up spin-outs—Nottingham also has a strong record in this respect—but others are keener to secure the proceeds of success themselves. Have the Government a view on which approach is best, and has there been any attempt to issue best-practice guidelines?

We do not yet have an approach that we advise universities to adopt as best practice, although in a speech at the Universities UK conference in September I said that we needed to discuss how universities and wider society could best capture the benefits of the intellectual property that is developed in universities. We will discuss the issue over the year, but if my hon. Friend will forgive me I will not commit myself to producing guidance until we are sure that the current diverse approach is not a better way of allowing universities to find a way forward. We will, however, continue to invest in the higher education innovation fund which has enabled many universities to exploit innovation so successfully.

Company Start-ups

2. What estimate he has made of the number of companies started up by graduates in Wales in 2006. (164250)

The higher education business community interaction survey records 159 graduate start-ups in Wales in 2005-06. That is, however, an underestimate, because it records only start-ups known to higher education institutions, and some graduates will set up companies after leaving higher education.

In north-east Wales, the North East Wales institute of higher education is concentrating on developing links with industry because we want to develop an entrepreneurial spirit in the area. Does my hon. Friend agree that the establishment of a university in north-east Wales for the first time in its history would make a huge contribution to the entrepreneurial spirit in the area, and will he do all he can to assist that step?

As my hon. Friend knows, both higher education policy and support for enterprise are matters for the Welsh Assembly Government, and the status of institutions is a matter for the relevant authorities in Wales. However, he is right to draw attention to the importance of universities working closely with business. I know that the North East Wales institute has a strong track record in working with the aerospace sector and a number of other important sectors in that part of the world. My hon. Friend will have to take the matter up with the Welsh Assembly Government directly, but I wish him and the institute every success.

Yesterday at Aberystwyth university there was a conference on the problems of female entrepreneurship and the growing disparity between the numbers of men and women establishing businesses. Notwithstanding what the Minister said about the devolved nature of these matters, may I urge him to contact those in charge of the female entrepreneurship programme at Aberystwyth university and see what lessons can be learned and applied across the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the fact that we want to encourage more entrepreneurship in our universities. According to a study published earlier this week by the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, our universities need to do more. In fact they have transformed themselves over the past 10 years, but if I were asked whether more needed to be done my answer would obviously be yes. If we are to ensure that we have a successful, competitive United Kingdom economy in the future, we need our universities to work ever more closely with business.

I should be happy to make inquiries about Aberystwyth university’s entrepreneurship programme. Although the NCGE survey suggests more or less gender-equal access, I am sure that there is more we could do.


The Government are committed to increasing the number of young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths at higher education level. The Department works closely with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and funds STEMNET, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network, which promotes awareness of those subjects and engagement among young people.

I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend is working closely with his colleagues in the sister Department. I often hear criticisms of the careers advice given to young people in schools, which is said to be not all it should be when it comes to steering people into STEM subject areas. Is my hon. Friend aware of the excellent work that some trade associations and learned societies, such as the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, do to promote such subjects so that people are encouraged to go to university to study them?

A lot of good work on the STEM agenda has been going on for a number of years and I pay tribute to all those who have been working in the area. Progress has been made and the number of STEM qualifiers has increased by 10 per cent. since 2002-03. The situation is very patchy but a lot of people are working in this area, including the learned societies. My hon. Friend will know that I was at the recent Bill Bryson awards launch from the Royal Society of Chemistry, a terrific programme encouraging young people to take an interest in science. We want more people to be excited about science and taking science at GCSE, A-level and university. That is important for our society as a whole and for our economy.

I share the sentiment expressed so eloquently by the Minister at the end of his answer, but does he accept that getting the data right is key? Does he also accept that it is progress since 1997 that should be measured, rather than picking out what might appear to be a random year for each individual subject? Will he stick to a constant set of data on STEM entrants and base it to 1997 so we can all monitor progress effectively?

We are always happy to publish time-series of data in these areas. I was trying to indicate that there has been an increasing problem but that there are some signs that the situation is getting better. It is particularly pleasing that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service acceptances are up by 9 per cent. for maths, 9 per cent. for chemistry and 12 per cent. for physics compared with the previous year. But there is a problem, particularly in computer science, and in that we do not have enough qualified physics teachers in our schools.

Let us not forget some of the progress that has been made, or that the level of science graduates aged between 25 and 34 in the UK work force is higher than in the United States, Germany or Japan. In fact, our figures are 50 per cent. higher than the European Union average. There are a range of further things that we as a Government need to do to encourage the STEM agenda, but we should not forget where we are today in terms of the labour market.

I praise the Minister and the Government for all they have done to promote science. Never in my lifetime have I seen a Government promote science as well as this Government have. Given that nuclear power is once again on the political agenda, I am seriously concerned that there are no undergraduate courses in nuclear engineering in this country. I urge the Minister to talk to the universities and to explore the possibility of setting up nuclear engineering courses, as there is no doubt in my mind that we will need far more nuclear engineers in the future.

There is a lot of nuclear engineering research capacity, particularly in the north-west, and we had the recent announcement of the development of a nuclear skills academy. This is an important area, not least because the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency is doing substantial work and will continue to do so over the next 20 to 30 years. The Government will have to make decisions on a new generation of nuclear power capacity. Those decisions have not been taken yet, but I would expect the academic community to want to do its bit to ensure that we have the high level of skills that will be required in the future if the Government make those decisions.

We certainly welcome the Government’s recognition that the number of students studying science at university is a key part of the overall investment package for science. Indeed, the Minister and the Government has been almost evangelical in preaching to higher education institutions and industry about the virtues of investing in scientific research and development. However, since 1997 the Government’s departmental spending on scientific research and development has been falling, both in percentage terms and in real terms, over the last few years. Why is that?

My Department has been in existence for only just over three months so it is a little difficult to refer to such figures. The simple fact of the matter is that the science budget was £1.3 billion when we came to power in 1997 and it is £3.4 billion now, so it has more than doubled—and it will have more than trebled by the end of this comprehensive spending review period. We now have 150,000 more undergraduate students studying science subjects than in 1997-98, so we are making considerable progress. There is a challenge, however. David Sainsbury’s report, which the hon. Gentleman is waving around, talks about the race to the top, and that is exactly where we need to go. That is why the Government are implementing in full the findings and recommendations of the Sainsbury review, and we are launching a debate on how we can move beyond Sainsbury. I want us to have the world’s best innovation ecosystem. We are starting from a strong position, but we can and must do better.

If we are to have enough science graduates to meet the needs of a globalised society and the challenges from China and India, we cannot leave it all to the boys; we will have to ensure that we encourage girls to take up science subjects. I am encouraged that my hon. Friend is having discussions with the Department for Children, Schools and Families. There is some evidence that teaching science in a single-sex environment encourages more girls to come forward. Will my hon. Friend please have more such discussions on that subject?

I am always happy to have discussions with my colleagues in the DCSF on the STEM agenda and how we can encourage both more young men and more young women to take science subjects. We currently fund a UK resource centre that is specifically targeted at encouraging more women to take up science subjects, but I will be happy to have the discussions my hon. Friend recommends.

Work Placements

Since 1997, we have expanded the number of apprenticeships from 75,000 to about 250,000. In 2013, we aim to introduce an entitlement to an apprenticeship place for all 16 to 19-year-olds who meet the entry criteria, and our longer-term commitment is to increase the number of apprenticeships in England to 400,000.

May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to a survey by the excellent Building magazine which found that last year some 50,000 youngsters applied for 7,000 construction apprenticeships, and that number of placements was about 25 per cent. lower than in the previous year? Providing training places is only one part of what needs to be done; there must also be training placements in industry. Does the Secretary of State accept that that requires clients to insist on proper training on the job? What will his Department and other Departments do to insist on apprenticeship training on the jobs that they are paying for?

I must make it clear that the figure of 250,000 is for work-based apprenticeships, so it does not include the extra number of programme-led apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend raises an important point, however: in some sectors of the economy the need for apprenticeships and our capacity to fund them exceeds the number of employers willing to create them. Over the next few years we will significantly increase the resources available for apprenticeships in sectors such as construction and, possibly, some areas of engineering. We will need to engage with employers both directly ourselves and through the sector skills councils, because we as a Government do not want to be in the position of putting money on the table to fund apprenticeships without the employers being willing to match it. The offer is a substantial one, and we need to get across to employers the advantages of taking it up.

The economy of north Oxfordshire is almost entirely made up of vibrant small and medium-sized businesses. At a recent business breakfast in Bicester, I conducted a straw poll and found that not a single employer had yet heard of diplomas or what would be expected of them in terms of their involvement. The same point applies to apprenticeships. I have a simple question for the Secretary of State: who is meant to be going out and talking to employers, and signing them up and getting them involved in both apprenticeships and diplomas? If that does not happen, there will be a complete disconnect.

That is a very important question. At the moment, responsibility for that matter is led by the sector skills councils, as well as my Department, and we have enormous support from the private sector, particularly through the apprenticeship ambassadors network of senior employers. However, the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on a really important question—whether the apprenticeship programme as a whole needs a clearer focus and leadership. That issue was raised by the House of Lords report on apprenticeships, and we are looking at it and a number of other issues. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a couple of weeks ago that we want to reform the programme so that a young person who qualifies for an apprenticeship effectively has a credit—the value that we are prepared to pay to them to fund the apprenticeship—so it becomes clear to an employer that the value of taking on an apprenticeship might be £3,000, £5,000 or even £15,000. That will really encourage the small businesses that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

When Stafford college and I make joint presentations to employers about the “train to gain” initiative and apprenticeships, we find that we can stimulate greater interest among employers in providing places for apprentices. Will my right hon. Friend consider what more he can do personally to approach employers at a national level, and how he can make the best use of Members in approaching employers at a constituency level?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who, like a number of other Members, is very active at a local level in pushing training. My ministerial team has already committed itself to meeting representatives of every CBI region. We are about halfway through that programme, and we hope to undertake a similar exercise with the British Chambers of Commerce later this year and next. So at a personal level, we are trying to get out there to talk about “train to gain”, the skills pledge and apprenticeships in particular. However, my hon. Friend is right—an enormous amount of work can be done by Members at local level, and I shall certainly give consideration to writing to them setting out the practical actions that can be taken at local level to promote these important issues.

In answer to my parliamentary questions, the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that the number of advanced apprenticeships has fallen, but he has admitted that he does not know how many are provided by employers directly. He talks about the House of Lords report, which said that of the 130,000 businesses that the Prime Minister claims are providing apprenticeships, many are in fact private training providers. Yet in 2002, the Government agreed with their own advisory committee that apprenticeships should be employer-led, with training providers acting as agents providing support for work-based schemes, rather than providing the bulk of training. Five years on, the Government have failed to honour that agreement. Is that not because on apprenticeships, as with so much else, this Government are just bluff, bluster and blunder?

Let us just recall that some years ago—around the time, I think, that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was a senior economic adviser to the then Government—not a penny of public money went into apprenticeships and there were just a few tens of thousands of them. When we became the Government, there were just 75,000 apprenticeships; now there are 250,000 and, what is more, we are achieving higher completion rates than ever before, so I am happy to defend the Government’s record on apprenticeships. However, I want to ensure that apprentices receive uniformly high-quality training, based with employers, that provides a proper combination of work-based learning and the additional skills that a fully fledged apprenticeship needs to bring with it. If there are any parts of the system in which that is not so, we need to deal with that as we expand the programme.

Vocational Courses

I and my Ministers regularly meet a number of representatives of the small firms sector, such as the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Engineering Employers Federation. As I said a few moments ago, we are embarking on a programme of meetings with representatives of the CBI regions to push “train to gain”, the skills pledge and apprenticeships in particular.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman recognises the role of small businesses; incidentally, I am very glad that he has been appointed Secretary of State, because he will do an absolutely first-class job. However, can he confirm that figures from his own Department reveal that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs—has gone up from 154,000 in 1997 to a staggering 206,000 in 2006? Is that figure not an absolute disgrace and an indictment of his Government?

Everyone recognises the challenge of those young people who are not in education, employment or training; the most recent figures for 16 and 17-year-olds are actually down, which is welcome. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families set out a number of measures on 5 November to strengthen our current work. In particular, we will ensure, through Connexions and other means, that we do not lose track of young people who drop out of the system and that there are no artificial barriers, time delays and so on to bringing young people back into training when we can encourage them back.

The hon. Gentleman will perhaps share my disappointment that his party is opposed to the aim of raising the participation age for these young people so that each of these 16 and 17-year-olds is either in work with training or in education. Given his concern about these issues, I hope that he will speak to his Front-Bench team and persuade them to change their policy.

Given the Secretary of State’s previous answer, I think that he has missed the point. Under the previous Conservative Government, when I was in business we took on young people and trained them on the job. They went away for academic education once a week and obtained a qualification at the end. That is because they wanted to be there, rather than because they were forced to be there. Was not the Conservative Government’s approach better?

No, because what went hand in hand with the Conservative Government’s approach was huge numbers of long-term young unemployed people who were out of work year after year. The new deal has achieved an end to that long-term youth unemployment. There is an issue to address concerning young people who are in and out of work. Too many young people are not engaged in education, work or training, but what we are doing, both in the short term and by raising the participation age, is the best way of ensuring that that group of young people does not slip through the system. Because we will introduce diplomas and strengthen the apprenticeship system, the offer in place for young people will be of higher quality than we have been able to provide in the past. That is the attraction that will keep them in the system.


6. What assessment he has made of the effect of the university bursary system on the number of university students from disadvantaged backgrounds. (164258)

The university bursary system is an integral part of the wider student finance package that ensures access to higher education. The system is working. Applications have increased this year by more than 6 per cent., the proportion of applicants from the lowest four socio-economic groups has increased too, and universities are committed to paying more than £300 million in bursaries to students.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging response. However, in my constituency, potential university applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds still have concerns about the financial cost of going to university. When the Government raised the upper limit for top-up fees last year, they said that they wanted each institution to prove that it was widening access. What more can the Government do to encourage and reassure potential students that they will get the necessary support from bursaries or whatever if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds where their families have no history of going to university?

I think the challenge of ensuring that we get people from all backgrounds to fulfil their potential and to access higher education is one of the most significant that we face. We have done more to bring in our fairest and most progressive system of student financial support, but we are going even further with a series of changes for next year. We are significantly increasing the proportion of students who will get non-repayable grants and, crucially, we are guaranteeing to young people who get the education maintenance allowance at 16 the amount of money that they will get when they go to university at 18. That is a positive and important step forward, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.

I agree with my hon. Friend on that last point, in that a much earlier intervention in the individual’s aspiration to go to university is required. What steps is he taking to work with other Departments to ensure that university remains an option to children earlier on in their schooling, not just because of the financial background but because of an aspiration that university is part of their education and a gateway to a much better life in terms of training and their ability to earn as they go on?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Student finance is important, but I think that aspiration is the most critical challenge that we face. That is why the Aimhigher programme, for example, which runs taster weekends and taster schools to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds to go to university, is so important. We also need a much better relationship between universities and the school system, with universities taking responsibility for widening access. The recent announcement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the importance of more partnerships between universities and schools is particularly important.

Further to that question, could the Minister expand on the success of the Aimhigher programme so far in reaching those groups who do not have a tradition in their families of going to university?

I think that the Aimhigher programme is particularly important, and we have recently announced the continuation of the funding of that programme for the next three years. The evidence shows that the scheme is working, but we also need to ensure that it is targeted as effectively as possible. That is why last year we asked the Higher Education Funding Council to ensure that that is happening and we will bring forward proposals to make it happen.

Maintenance Grants

7. How many additional students entering higher education in 2008 he estimates will be eligible for maintenance grants under the new arrangement. (164259)

From September 2008, the income thresholds for the full maintenance grant will be increased from £17,500 to £25,000 a year, with a partial grant available for incomes up to £60,000. We estimate that an additional 100,000 students will ultimately be eligible for a maintenance grant. Around one third of all students will be entitled to a full grant and a further third to a partial grant.

I thank the Minister for that response. I welcome the answer given by the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in response to the previous question about the fact that pupils receiving educational maintenance allowances will get confirmation at 16 that they will be entitled to a grant. Could the Secretary of State tell me what is being done to reach out to people who leave education but then want to re-enter it slightly later, and to educate them and inform them about their right to grants?

For those who would be eligible for the same financial assistance for their first degree, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the DVD that I have recently advertised to all Members. It is available to Members from my Department in suitable numbers to communicate with all constituents; or the simpler way is to provide a link to the new website created for our advertising campaign. We are keen to get the message across to as many people as possible.

If my hon. Friend is talking about people who are later on in life and would not come under the same financial provision, perhaps because they are working, she is right. There will be a need to encourage older people back into university, often to study part time, as well as those young and first-time undergraduates whom we are encouraging through the current financial system.

The way in which the package of measures for maintenance grants and tuition fees available to students in England and Wales is arranged means that there is a financial incentive for Welsh students to go only to Welsh universities. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be profoundly depressing if we had reached a situation where youngsters in the Rhondda, one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, went only to Welsh universities? Will he engage in conversations with his counterpart in the Welsh Assembly to ensure that youngsters in my constituency have a full range of possibilities when they go to university?

I am responsible for the financial arrangements in England; the devolved Assemblies have to make their own arrangements. Although we discuss these matters with the devolved Administrations at an official and ministerial level where necessary, it is for those Administrations to take their own decisions on them.


8. What steps he is taking to ensure that higher education is able to meet the skills needs of employers and their staff. (164260)

We are already working to address employers’ higher-level skill needs. The Higher Education Funding Council’s three regional higher-level skills pathfinders linked to “train to gain”, the 13 higher educational institutional employer engagement pilots that are developing new approaches to co-funding by employers, and the growing number of foundation degree enrolments all exploit close links with business. Our forthcoming higher-level skills strategy will boost that activity further.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and for his forthcoming visit next Wednesday to Keele university in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where he will find Labour well and truly alive and kicking. Keele Labour club has record membership and is busy seeking student views on the lifting of the £3,000 tuition fees cap. I am sure the Minister agrees that the best way to meet employers’ and the country’s needs is to encourage as many students as possible from all backgrounds into higher education. Where does the review process on the cap now stand? Will he ensure that the process is not monopolised by vice-chancellors, and encourage students in higher education, further education and schools to send in their views?

I am very much looking forward to my visit to Keele next week. Our position on the cap has not changed one iota. We want to see the first full three years of operation of the new system, and then we will have an independent commission that will report to Parliament. That is the right stance. It would be wrong to rush to premature judgment. It is a pity that the Conservative party does not take that view. We have recently heard from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) that he wants to see the cap lifted, and we have heard from the hon. Member for—

Two months ago the Department announced that it would withdraw funding for students in higher education studying equivalent level qualifications. Will that not have a disproportionate impact on institutions such as the university of Northampton, which have been successful in attracting students from disadvantaged groups? Does it not go against all the principles that the Government espouse about people being able to retrain for better career opportunities?

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, but I profoundly disagree with it. Spending public money to give people who already have a degree a second degree, while 70 per cent. of adults in the working age population do not have even their first degree, is not the right priority. One could argue that we should choose to focus more on those with existing qualifications and less on those without them. I would disagree with that proposition, but it is at least a coherent view. However, one cannot legitimately argue that the choice is not there to be made.

The Secretary of State spoke earlier about encouraging adults back into the education system. Does he not appreciate that institutions such as the Open university, which have such a major contribution to make to educating adults, expect that they will lose up to £32 million of funding? Does he value the contribution made by such institutions, and how can he equate what is happening with his other statements about wanting a flexible work force that embraces retraining?

It is simply not the case that the Open university will lose that amount of money. I and the Secretary of State have met people from the Open university to make that clear. We have also made it clear that no institution will lose in cash terms, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England is currently consulting on the issue. We are not cutting funding from higher education. We are saying that £100 million over three years ought to be reprioritised from those people who already have undergraduate qualifications to those who do not have even their first degree. I believe that that is the right priority in public policy terms.

If the Government are serious about improving skills, why have they cut £100 million from institutions devoted to part-time and mature students? The funding change was sneaked out over the summer by the Secretary of State, probably because it contradicts the Leitch report. It appears that the Government do not wish to support graduates who need to retrain.

Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) said, can the Minister explain how ripping £8 million out of Birkbeck college’s budget and £30 million from the Open university’s budget increases opportunities and improves skills? Does that not send out the message that the Government have abandoned—

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench; I think that this is his first appearance there at Question Time. May I politely urge him on future occasions to listen to the previous answer before he commits himself? I made it abundantly clear that we were not cutting £100 million from the higher education budget. We are seeking to reprioritise the budget from people who already have a degree to those who are not even at first base. If the Conservative party’s position is credible, it must go to adults in the workplace and tell them that they are not a priority for public funding.

Low-income Families

9. What recent submissions he has received on the number of students from low-income families in higher education. (164261)

The submissions that I have received tell me that there has been a steady increase in the number of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds entering higher education. The proportion of young people from the bottom four socio-economic groups entering higher education increased from 17.6 per cent. to 19.9 per cent. between 2002-03 and 2005-06. The new package of financial support that I announced in July will help to remove any financial barriers to going to university, but we also expect universities to become more active in helping to spot and nurture talent in schools at an earlier age, which is why Lord Adonis and I published a prospectus on encouraging university, trust and academy links.

Distribution of educational quality at primary and secondary levels along class lines lies at the heart of a situation in which the 7 per cent. of those who are privately educated bag 40 per cent. of the places at the top 20 universities. That is not only a national scandal, but damages economic competitiveness and impedes social mobility. Despite what the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph might say, will the Secretary of State try even harder to get a broader spread of people into higher education, especially into the Russell group, which has such a chronic and dismal record in that regard?

I assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to work with universities to ensure that they operate fair admissions procedures, unlike the Opposition, who recently announced that they would abolish the Office for Fair Access. My hon. Friend pointed out that educational disadvantage can happen at an earlier age. We want to get more universities engaging deeply with schools so that young people as young as 12, 13 or 14 are identified and encouraged to apply to all universities. That is why we are so keen to see universities working with schools to establish trusts and academies.

Career Development Loans

Career development loans are a successful programme administered by the Learning and Skills Council to help individuals invest in improving their skills. Loan capital is provided by three high street banks at commercial rates. The Learning and Skills Council meets interest costs on loans while individuals are participating in their chosen course. Since 1997, 160,000 loans have been lent by the banks, with a total value of £689 million.

I welcome the scheme, but I should like to bring to my hon. Friend’s attention a case involving one of my constituents and his son, who took out an £8,000 loan, which was paid to a training provider who then disappeared with the money, leaving my constituent with debt. Will my hon. Friend look into the issue to ensure that there is not a wider problem with the vetting of training providers? And what will happen to my constituent and his son, who still have to pay back the £8,000?

I am genuinely sympathetic to anyone who has been affected as my hon. Friend’s constituents have. In general, career development loans work. Of those who take them out, 85 per cent. have said that they would recommend the scheme to a family member or friend. That would not be happening if there was systematic failure. In the small number of cases where a provider has ceased training, the Learning and Skills Council has taken steps to allow individuals with loans to delay the repayments, extend their loans to complete training elsewhere and protect their credit rating. I understand that my hon. Friend’s constituents were written to to that effect. However, given the concerns that she has expressed, I would be more than happy to meet her and discuss the issue in detail.


We have raised the proportion of young people completing their apprenticeships from 24 per cent. in 2001-02 to 63 per cent. in 2006-07. That has been achieved while the number of apprenticeships has trebled since 1997, standing now at 250,000. We are on track to achieve within the next few years completion rates similar to those of the best of our competitors in Europe.

I hear what the Minister says, but a number of my constituents regularly tell me that they would like shorter and more intensive apprenticeships and similar training courses. Does he not agree that for people on low incomes, or perhaps even no income at all, that could be a useful solution? Can he give me any encouragement on that subject?

There is a balance between the length of a course and its quality. Nevertheless, we will shortly be making some announcements about how we can ensure that there is greater flexibility for people coming forward with qualifications below level 2—the equivalent of five GCSEs. We need to do more to expand the number of apprenticeships, and we are committed to doing that—but there are already three times as many apprenticeships as there were 10 years ago. That represents real and significant progress.

Topical Questions

In a rapidly changing world, Britain can succeed economically and be socially inclusive only if we develop the skills of all our people to the fullest possible extent, carry out world-class research and scholarship and apply knowledge and skills in order to create an innovative and competitive economy. My responsibility is to lead my Department in working to meet those challenges.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. Will he comment on his Department’s responsibility for the provision of English for speakers of other languages—ESOL—for people who need English and citizenship in order to acquire indefinite leave to remain? I am hearing some unfortunate stories about dodgy characters setting up organisations that simply charge £200 for a certificate that states that a person has attained a certain level of English. There are other organisations, such as the English Speaking Board Ltd, which are apparently perfectly all right. They charge, but the people who use them do not end up with no English; they are tested, and the courses are very useful. We need to get through to our communities the importance of knowing English. This is not just about getting a certificate; it is about actually using English.

My hon. Friend has made two points. She is absolutely right to identify the importance of ESOL, and I am determined that my Department’s budget for the teaching of English—which has trebled over the past few years—should be used to support the broader Government agenda on integration and community cohesion. I believe that the vast majority of ESOL courses that we fund are of a very high quality—the reports from organisations such as Ofsted support that view—but I invite my hon. Friend to contact me if she has concerns about particular providers, as I would be happy to have my officials investigate them.

The Secretary of State has talked about expanding the numbers in the apprenticeship programme, but how many of the extra apprenticeships are likely to be in London? Is he talking to the Home Office about ensuring that his strategy for expansion works alongside the economic migration strategy? As a London MP, I am aware that many economic migrants are working in precisely the kinds of industries in which he would like to see the apprenticeships being established. Is he having discussions with the Home Office on this issue?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The distribution of apprenticeship opportunities is uneven across the country, and it does not always match where one might think that the greatest demand is. That is certainly an issue that we want to address. Indeed, I met the Mayor of London only yesterday evening to discuss the work that we can do with him to increase the number of apprenticeships in the city. The hon. Lady is also right to say that expanding the number of apprenticeships, and the opportunities in general for young people and adults to acquire higher skills, offer the best chance for those people to get the available jobs, thereby reducing the pressures that some employers feel to bring in migrants to fill them.

Does the Minister agree that in order to be globally competitive, we need strong regions across the whole UK? Will he join me in praising the Harraton skills centre in Washington in my constituency, which is doing innovative partnership work with all the high schools across Sunderland and giving vital skills to young people to enable them to go out and play their part in the world?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate her on the work that she does in her constituency to champion these issues. We need more training providers—whether colleges or independent providers—to work proactively with schools in their area to ensure that we have continuity, that we raise aspirations and that we drive skills up to the highest levels. This will be critical in enabling us to meet the economic challenge that we face, on both a regional and a national basis.

T2. The Minister will be aware of the target to raise 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product from research and development by 2010. The vice-chancellor of Southampton university recently expressed concern that the target would be difficult to achieve because children are not taking the right GCSEs. Does the Minister accept that a reason for that might be related to another target—the school league tables? They mean that teachers often persuade children to take subjects in which they are more likely to achieve a higher grade, rather than the science subjects that children often regard as difficult. What is the Minister’s solution? (164275)

No, I do not agree. Actually, the target for the United Kingdom is not for 2010 but for 2014. In fact, a target of 2.5 per cent. of research and development at aggregate level does not make a lot of sense; it is a crude input measure. Yes, we want increased R and D, and on Monday the Government published the 2007 R and D scorecard, which shows that our top-performing companies are increasingly investing in R and D; the top 850 are up 9 per cent. this year, which is welcome progress.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of hard or easy school subjects. We talked earlier about the STEM agenda. The Government are doing a lot of work to encourage people to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics and we are seeing some real progress, but that is due to the hard work of many individuals over several years.

I am just trying to master the finer points of the new topical questions procedure, Mr. Speaker. I hope that the Secretary of State is the person to whom my question is addressed, but I am not quite sure.

I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm that the number of young people aged 18 to 24 not in education, employment or training has increased by more than 100,000 since 1997. I am sure he agrees that those are wasted opportunities and blighted lives. He would have been outraged if 10 years ago we had forecast that under a Labour Government that number would deteriorate. What is his explanation of the deterioration?

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that he greatly overstates the situation. The figures that he is using include, for example, young women who are not in work because they are having a child, and university students who are taking a year out before they go to university or before they start work after university. I do not at all diminish proper concern about anybody who is not engaged gainfully in employment, education or training, but the hon. Gentleman does his case no good by overstating it and including a significant number of people who are undertaking perfectly legitimate and proper activities.

But the definition has not changed in the past 10 years—and in some of the groups the Secretary of State identified, such as young mothers, the number has fallen over the past 10 years. The problem seems to be serious, so will he confirm that the number has gone up from 910,000 to 1,050,000? I observe that he did not suggest that compulsion was the answer for the 18 to 24 age group. Will he confirm that he does not believe that compulsion is the answer, and that the right answer is better education, better training and better opportunities?

I certainly do not believe that compulsion is the right answer with that group, but I do believe that compulsory participation up to 18 is the right answer and that the hon. Gentleman is wrong, because it is important that as a society we organise ourselves to give maximum opportunities to ensure that at 18 people are equipped to enter the world of work successfully. Beyond that, there is certainly a major challenge for my Department, with the Department for Work and Pensions, to join up Jobcentre Plus services with the training that we offer to ensure that that group of young people—the ones we should be worried about—not only get into work quickly, as a great majority of them do, but also that they stay in work, gain qualifications and remain in employment. Doing that over the next few years is a major challenge for the Government, and one that I shall be undertaking with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

T7. One of our nation’s greatest institutions was created by the nation’s greatest post-war Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. I speak of the Open university, of which I am a graduate and for which I used to work. Would the Minister care to elaborate on the rather blasé reply given to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) a few moments ago about the future of the Open university, which will, despite transitional funding, lose £40 million a year, thus imperilling 25 per cent. of its enrolled student numbers—30,000 people. That cannot have been the intention of our Government on their election in 1997, can it? (164282)

I entirely endorse the position of principle set out earlier by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, but transitional protection will be put in place by HEFCE for the Open university and for other institutions that might otherwise be hard hit by a sudden transition. More importantly, I cannot think of an institution better able to offer new forms of higher education to the millions of people in the adult work force who have never been to university and never had the chance of higher education, but will need to do so in the years to come. We will, with HEFCE, willingly work with the Open university and every other institution to make it clear how the advantages offered by the rising number of people who we want to come into higher education can be taken by such institutions. So I think that the future can be enormously positive.

T3. How would the Secretary of State answer the most difficult supplementary question that his officials anticipated that I might have asked if we had reached Question 13 on the Order Paper, about the division of responsibilities for further education between his Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families? (164277)

The answer to that challenging supplementary question is that the reorganisation of the Government into a Department focused on skills, research and innovation—my Department—and a Department focused on children and families is radical but entirely logical. It poses some serious issues that we need to deal with—for example, the funding of further education colleges that have both 16-to-19 and adult provision—but none of those problems is impossible to solve. I am working very closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and we will consult on the way that we intend to handle these issues in the spring. It was not quite so difficult as the hon. Gentleman thought.

T4. I wonder whether the Secretary of State could now answer the question that he was asked by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State: can he confirm that the number of 18 to 24-year-olds currently described as NEETs—not in education, employment or training—has gone up by approximately 15 per cent. between 1997 and 2007, judged by essentially the same criteria as were used in 1997? (164279)

The latest figures clearly demonstrate that the numbers are coming down. However, I would be the first to admit that this is an exceedingly challenging area. That is why, for example, we have local authorities, the Connexions service and others looking at the hot-spot areas in the county, to learn, from best practice, what works to target that challenging group. It is also why—I agree with the Secretary of State about this—the raising of the compulsory education and training age has a role to play. When I heard the Leader of the Opposition say yesterday that he could not give an answer on that issue because the Conservative party’s position was in flux—

T8. Stourbridge college in my constituency is delivering 40 per cent. above its original “train to gain” contract target, and it will deliver 100 per cent. next year. It is about to establish Stourbridge Training to respond to employer-led demands. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to visit Stourbridge to see what a can-do college is doing to reinforce the message that we need a relentless focus on and investment in skills and training, not just for those in colleges and schools, but for those already in work? (164283)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the close working relationship she has with her local college and the support that she gives it. Her college is doing exactly the right thing. The system of funding for adult skills is changing and will be led much more by employer demand. Colleges that succeed will be the ones that organise themselves to make the greatest contribution to “train to gain”. I am pleased to hear about what she is doing locally. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation is already planning to visit the college, and I hope that I may have the opportunity to do so in the future.

T5. By Ministers’ own admission, 40 per cent. of apprenticeships are not completed. Does the Secretary of State undertake to perform a skills audit to ensure that apprenticeships will marry up to the skills required by employers? (164280)

Apprenticeship places are created by employers, who do that because they believe that it will help them to meet their skills needs. By introducing the credit that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a few weeks ago, we hope to make the financial support available to employers much clearer. With that, and the further reforms that we will produce later this year with our draft apprenticeship reform Bill, we can make sure that apprenticeships are of a uniformly high quality. We inherited a situation in which less than 30 per cent. of apprenticeships were completed. We have done far better than the Conservative Government, with far more apprenticeships.

T6. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and wishing the best of luck to all the British entrants in this week’s world skills competition in Japan, which opened yesterday? I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) is there at the moment, and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is to go shortly. In particular, I wish good luck to my constituent Miss Donna Leach, from the Cutting Edge hair salon in Cinderford, who is representing her country in the skill of hairdressing. (164281)

Absolutely—I give my best wishes to all the team members in the world skills competition, and we all look forward to the world skills competition coming to this country in four years’ time. I am grateful that Members on both sides of the House have supported the local, regional and national competitions that helped to select the team, and I hope that they will continue to offer that support in the future.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 19 November will be—

Monday 19 November—Second Reading of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

Tuesday 20 November—Second Reading of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Supplementary Provisions) Bill.

Wednesday 21 November—Opposition day [1st allotted day] there will be a debate on health care- associated infections, followed by a debate entitled “Failure of the Government to Pursue Schools Reform”.

Thursday 22 November—Topical debate—subject to be announced, followed by Second Reading of the Sale of Student Loans Bill.

Friday 23 November—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 November will include:

Monday 26 November—Second Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill.

Later today, the House will have the first of the topical debates under the new system. I have chosen the subject of immigration. Members should contact me to propose subjects for future topical debates. Each week, the subject I have chosen for a debate on a Thursday will be put on the annunciator on Monday evening.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. Last week, I asked her what had happened to regional Select Committees. Yet again she talked about regional accountability, but not regional Select Committees. Will she make a statement on the Government’s position? Do they believe in regional Select Committees or not?

The mandate for EUFOR, the peacekeeping force in Bosnia, expires on 21 November. Its renewal is vital. The 10 December deadline for the final status of Kosovo is approaching, still without any indication of an agreement. May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary on the situation in the region and the status of EUFOR’s mandate?

When the Government introduced 24-hour drinking, we opposed the decision because of the obvious impact on crime and public health, but the then Home Secretary rubbished our argument, and said:

“This is a committed and coherent effort to promote responsible drinking”.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics says:

“There is…an urgent need for an analysis of the effect…on…alcohol consumption, as well as on anti-social behaviour”,

but all that we have had from the Prime Minister is a half-hint to the media, some spun headlines and no change in policy, so may we have a debate in Government time on the impact of the ill-considered licensing reforms?

On Home Office targets, the chief executive of the National Policing Improvement Agency says:

“Because…a stolen milk bottle counted the same as…a murder”,

the police concentrate on

“volume crime rather than serious crime.”

After 10 years, five Home Secretaries and countless Criminal Justice Acts, the police seem too busy to solve major crimes, so may we have a debate in Government time on Labour’s total failure to get a grip on serious and violent crime?

Today it has been reported that the Government want to extend the period for which terror suspects can be held without trial to 58 days. The Leader of the House has consistently said that such announcements should be made to the House first, but yesterday, when the Prime Minister made his security statement, he made no mention of 58 days. In interviews two days ago, the Home Secretary refused to set a limit. What changed the Home Secretary’s mind? Why did the Prime Minister not announce the decision to Parliament in yesterday’s statement, and when will the Home Secretary come to the House to make a statement?

At 8.20 yesterday, Admiral Lord West said he was not

“fully convinced that we…need more than 28 days”.

By 9.5 he said that he was “personally, absolutely” convinced. Another Minister in the Government of all the talents, Lord Jones of Birmingham, attacked the Government’s change to capital gains tax, saying that it was a “terrible thing”. Lord Malloch-Brown—another GOAT, currently resident in Admiralty house—believes that we need to talk more to Hezbollah but less to Washington. With every passing week, the Prime Minister’s big tent looks more like a circus marquee, so may we have a debate in Government time on collective ministerial responsibility?

Mr. Speaker, you couldn’t make it up. Finally, may we have a debate on maritime safety, in which we could discuss the appropriate use of maritime flags. Yesterday Admiral Lord West raised the maritime flag D: “Keep clear: I’m manoeuvring with difficulty.” Perhaps the Prime Minister should have raised flag M: “My vessel is stopped and is making no way through the water.” Is it not time that he pulled into port and let another captain take over the job?

The shadow Leader of the House raised a number of serious points, one of which was about regional accountability. The Government remain committed to strengthening accountability, through the House, for regions in England. That is the position that we are taking forward, but we need to discuss how we develop proposals. We have suggested that the issue be looked at by the Modernisation Committee; as the right hon. Lady is a member of it, she knows that it will discuss regional accountability. Our position remains absolutely clear: we want strengthened regional accountability to the House. The exact form of that accountability will be a matter for discussion and agreement within the House.

The right hon. Lady mentioned EUFOR, to which the Foreign Secretary referred when he led the debate on the Queen’s Speech. The right hon. Lady and other colleagues will, if they see fit, have the opportunity to raise the issue again in Foreign Office questions on Tuesday.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of alcohol consumption; I know that that is a concern among Members on both sides of the House. That may well be a subject for a topical debate, as it seems to be topical almost on a weekly basis.

The right hon. Lady talked about Home Office targets for the police. I do not accept the idea that the police treat the crime of a stolen milk bottle and murder with the same seriousness; I think that that is completely wrong, and a wrong point.

The House had an extensive discussion about detention yesterday, following a statement by the Prime Minister. The Home Secretary has made it clear that she will seek discussions with all parties. We want to have the right powers to protect everyone in this country and the right safeguards for all suspects. Proposals will be brought before the House, hopefully on the basis of an agreement across all parties. We will continue to consult and hope that agreement will be reached.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the next round of post office closures? As Royal Mail will not tell me anything of its plans for closures in my constituency, although it tells me in a letter that “as an important stakeholder” I will be “notified” but not consulted, at least a debate would give Members an opportunity to discover how much more damage that pretty awful management is to inflict on the post office network.

The future of the Post Office and individual post offices is important for all Members of Parliament. My right hon. Friend will know that the Government have committed £1.7 billion of investment in the post office network up to 2011. He referred to the post office local area implementation plans. The Government remain committed to national networks, and it is important for all hon. Members to respond and be involved in the consultation. The Post Office should take representations from hon. Members seriously and not simply notify them of the outcome.

Following yesterday’s statement, may we have a further statement outlining the details and practicalities of the e-borders proposals? Given that 90 items of information can be required of people going in or out of our airports, which will be an El Dorado for identity theft, what security measures will be in place at every airport to make sure that that information does not get into the wrong hands?

On 4 July the Prime Minister said that

“the extradition treaty with the United States is a matter for continuing discussion.”—[Official Report, 4 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 954.]

As many of us still feel that the extradition treaty is one-sided and unfair and needs urgent revision, may we, as a House, join in that continuing discussion?

May we have a statement on the arrangements for the loan to Northern Rock? Yesterday the Prime Minister refused to answer questions on the terms of the loan to Northern Rock on grounds of commercial confidentiality. As that information has been freely available on the internet and is in the hands of every banker, market maker and trader, why is the British citizen—the taxpayer—the only person who is not allowed to know what has been done with our money in that respect?

Lastly, may we have a debate on multitasking, with particular reference to the Home Secretary? When she was reporting the latest fiasco to have befallen the Home Office—only four months after the event—the Home Secretary said that she wanted to be a Minister who acts rather than talks about that situation. May I gently suggest that we want a Minister who does both?

The hon. Gentleman asks about data collection when people leave and arrive in the country. We are clear that as much data as can be captured to help with immigration information and anti-terrorist information should be collected and, subject to appropriate safeguards, shared. He has a regular opportunity to raise such issues at Home Office questions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the extradition treaty. Nobody in the House should argue that if there is evidence that somebody has committed a criminal offence abroad, such as in America, we should allow them to escape justice in this country and not be extradited. We have to remember that that is the basis of extradition—[Interruption.] There is a question about reciprocity, but we should first say what we want to do in this country. Do we want to harbour criminals from other countries? We certainly do not. Do we want to ensure that those who have committed offences here are brought back? Yes, we do. It is not about doing a deal, but about doing the right thing in respect of each possible offender in each possible country.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Northern Rock, which would be a suitable subject for an Opposition day debate. The Chancellor set out the position clearly yesterday—that he will bring to the House by way of an oral or written statement any further information that can be made available.

Is it the Government’s intention to bring to the Floor of the House for debate—before they develop the next 10-year strategy—the results of their recent consultations on the current 10-year drug strategy?

The relevant Minister will no doubt bring further information to the House, but my hon. Friend could propose that subject for a topical debate. It crosses a number of areas of concern, so it would be appropriate for such a debate.

Let me return to yesterday’s security statement by the Prime Minister. The Leader of the House will have seen—it was all over the newspapers, television and radio this morning—stories suggesting that the Government are about to extend the detention limit from 28 to 58 days. If so, the Prime Minister should have told us yesterday, or will the Leader of the House confirm that it has all been made up by the media and that there has been no briefing whatever?

What I can tell the House is that the position is as it was set out by the Prime Minister yesterday. Before that, it was set out in a document laid before the House by the Home Office on 25 July, which says:

“The scale and nature of the current terrorist threat… lead the Government to believe that we need to look again at the time limit on pre-charge detention.”

Four options were set out then and hon. Members have set out further options. As the Prime Minister told us yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will seek talks across the parties to determine what proposals we can put before the House.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is now hope of universal agreement that this Parliament has to act in the interests of democracy against the arms race in party political spending, which has grown out of control over recent elections? Does she also agree that, as a democratic Parliament, we should be very cautious about accepting the suggestion of the leader of the Conservative party that we trade off party political donations—they may have to be examined—especially when at the moment there is no national consensus about state funding for political parties? The British public have not yet been properly consulted, so we need to adopt great caution before moving in that direction.

Order. I ask hon. Members to ask about next week’s business. It is easy to get a question in, but we are supposed to be debating the business for next week.

My hon. Friend will have an opportunity—not next week, but in due course—to debate his important point further. Provision is made in the Queen’s Speech for a Bill to ensure correct controls on party campaign funding at elections. I agree that we must tackle the problem of the arms race. No one wants to see more and more money being spent by the parties in an arms race on election spending, particularly when fewer and fewer people are voting, so it is right to move forward on tackling that arms race.

Judith Todd, daughter of the late Garfield Todd, long associated with Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, came to Parliament yesterday to discuss, among other things, the desperate plight of the people of Zimbabwe. Their plight is easily forgotten. When he was Leader of the House, the current Secretary of State for Justice promised that there would be a major debate on this subject here in the Chamber in Government time. Although we had one debate just before the recess, we were promised a debate on the Floor of the House before Christmas. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether we can have that debate? I would like it next week, but that might be expecting too much. Will she promise me a debate on Zimbabwe before Christmas?

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it might be useful to have a debate next week on the importance of Select Committees in providing checks and balances between the Chamber and the Executive? It has been suggested that we should move forward to regional Select Committees. It seems to me, however, that all parties are having difficulties in providing personnel for the existing Select Committees. Is it therefore a good idea to have many more?

My hon. Friend’s point is one of the reasons why proper consideration of how regional accountability is to be introduced is necessary. I pay tribute to the work of Select Committees. All Members will recognise that they have enormously improved the House’s scrutiny of the Executive. We want to make sure that we bring in strong, robust, credible, regional accountability, but in the process we must in no way damage the important work of departmental Select Committees.

Yesterday, in the statement on national security, to which my party has given broad support, the Prime Minister announced a strengthening of the e-border programme. While we recognise the importance of checking the background of those who enter the United Kingdom, in the absence of that programme being implemented in the Irish Republic, or being applied along the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, people from Northern Ireland are likely to be treated as foreign nationals when travelling to this country. That has grave implications for the Union. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate to discuss the economic, social and constitutional consequences of the strengthening of the e-border programme?

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s important and substantive points not only to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but to that of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I am sure that they will want to reassure him, and it might be a good idea for him to seek a meeting with them to ensure that the matter is dealt with satisfactorily.

May I support the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) about post offices, as I am dismayed by the announcement of closures in my area? My point, however, is about yesterday’s security statement. I was pleased that the Government have consulted Muslim women and plan to set up a committee to consider access and influence in mosques. Will my right hon. and learned Friend use her position and talk to other Ministers to ensure that Muslim women in Wales are involved in such important discussions? May we debate the issue next week? The key to capturing hearts and minds lies with Muslim women, and they should be at the centre of any strategy.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. As she will know, I and the other Minister with responsibility for women have as one of our priorities the empowerment of black and Asian women within their communities. We are also determined to ensure that there are more black and Asian women councillors. Part of the process is to include all communities within democracy so that they feel that they have a real stake in its future.

May I be this week’s shop steward and ask about the Senior Salaries Review Body report on pay and allowances? What could that report conceivably have contained that requires four months for the Government to reflect on it? Is this a unique example of the Government seeking to bury good news?

First I said that it would come shortly. Then I reassured the House that it would come very shortly. Last week it was imminent. Today I can say that the time draws nearer and nearer —the time that will surely come.

The whole House will be aware that the High Peak constituency is the spiritual home of the right to roam. I therefore welcome the Government’s intention to extend the right to roam to coastal areas. At present, however, the intention is to introduce that right as part of the marine Bill. As we all know, the marine Bill has been delayed beyond this Session. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider, perhaps next week, introducing the right to roam in coastal areas in a stand-alone Bill, separate from the marine Bill, so that we can fulfil our commitment?

It has been announced that the marine Bill will be produced in draft, which will enable full involvement and consultation, not only by Select Committees but by those outside the House. This matter is a priority for the Government, so we will bring the Bill forward. No doubt all those concerned with the matter in my hon. Friend’s constituency will contribute to that process.

May we have a debate in the House on the capacity of local police teams and community safety teams to deliver on Government targets? My part of London now has fewer police than it had a decade ago. Our policing is 24 head-count below the budgeted total that it is meant to have. At the same time, safe and stronger community funds are being cut. Meanwhile, only yesterday, the Prime Minister talked about what needs to be done in communities such as mine to help national security. May we have a debate on the overall Government strategy, so that we can make sure that it works as a whole?

I will bring the hon. Lady’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and ask her to write to the hon. Lady. But the hon. Lady is struggling under a misapprehension. Her constituency has more police than 10 years ago.

Indeed it has. There are more police community support officers, and a big investment has been made. I will invite my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to write to the hon. Lady and place a copy in the House of Commons Library, as other Members are showing an interest in this point.

My right hon. and learned Friend might be aware that I have been campaigning for justice for my constituent, Michael Shields, who has now been transferred from prison in Bulgaria to prison in this country. Now that there is confusion about whether it is appropriate for the Bulgarian or the United Kingdom authorities to consider granting a pardon for Michael Shields, will she ensure that there is a debate, or if not, a statement in the House?

I understand that my hon. Friend, who has championed her constituent’s cause, has sought an Adjournment debate. It is important to be able to repatriate to this country people who have committed offences abroad so that they can serve their sentence nearer their families. If the original conviction was made abroad, however, it appears that its overturning must be campaigned for and achieved abroad. No doubt she will bring the matter further to the House’s attention.

All Members of the House will be aware of growing concern over the military covenant. Last week, the nation came together to pay tribute to servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country. Given the Royal British Legion’s campaign to honour the covenant, does not the Leader of the House feel that it is important to have a debate in Government time to consider such issues further?

There are regular defence debates, and perhaps I can take the hon. Gentleman’s point as a suggestion for next week’s topical debate.

Will the Leader of the House consider allowing a debate on the public health impact of nail bars? A constituent has drawn my attention to the fact that the proliferation of nail bars with staff who are not properly qualified is leading to, in particular, problems resulting from the use of methyl methacrylate to attach nail extensions. The chemical damages the nail bed, and is banned in the United States. This issue is of great importance to women in my constituency and throughout the country, and it would be helpful to have a debate about its public health aspects as soon as possible.

I will bring my hon. Friend’s points to the attention of my ministerial colleagues. There has indeed been a proliferation of nail bars, and I think that if there are public health implications we need to be confident that they are being looked into. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to write to my hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) has secured a debate on the Barnett formula next week, when no doubt we shall hear the usual nonsense about relative spending in the United Kingdom. Given the finding by Oxford Economics that there is more public spending per head in London than in Scotland, surely we should debate the matter on the Floor of the House and put to bed once and for all the nonsense peddled by the Conservatives about subsidy and Scotland.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there will be a debate on the Barnett formula in Westminster Hall next week.

I strongly endorse what was said by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig).

Forty-five days ago, we raised the minimum legal age for purchasing tobacco products to 18. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether, if any of those who entered today’s ballot for private Members’ Bills are successful, the Government will back the sentiments of early-day motion 235, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler)?

[That this House welcomes the increased legal minimum age of sale for tobacco products from 16 to 18 years of age; notes that, according to a recent survey by the British Retail Consortium, retail crime has increased by 50 per cent.; notes retailers' concern that they may face intimidation or violence as a result of the change and that smaller independent retailers are at greatest risk; further notes that fixed penalty notices can be issued to those under the age of 18 years who attempt to buy alcohol; considers that if it was an offence for those under the age of 18 years to attempt to purchase tobacco this would act as a deterrent to children from doing so and relieve pressure on shop owners and reduce potential violence; and calls upon the Government to bring forward proposals to bring into line the legal penalties for the attempted purchase of tobacco with that of alcohol as well as increasing support in all areas for under 18s to quit smoking.]

I tabled an amendment, early-day motion 325A1, which reads:

after ‘proposals’, insert both to ban cigarette vending machines from which under 18s can buy tobacco products and’.

The amended motion envisages the creation of an offence of attempting to purchase tobacco under 18—similar to the existing offence involving alcohol, and attracting a fixed penalty notice—and the banning of cigarette vending machines, which constitute a way of overcoming the important public health legislation introduced on 1 October.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s persistent campaigning for better public health, which is ensuring that there is less damage to the health of people who take up smoking and continue to smoke. I will draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

The interpretation of new driving licence regulations involving minibuses in a way that was never intended in the legislation may have disastrous consequences for the ability of schools to field teams and provide sports, extra-curricular activities and, indeed, other types of activity. Is there any prospect of a debate on that?

I will bring the issue to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families as well as that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, but the hon. Gentleman could also make it the subject of an Adjournment debate.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate next week on the impact of unnecessary bureaucracy on farmers? My constituent Mr. John Collinson, who has farmed for 40 years, is now having to attend a course on how to put a trailer on the back of a Land Rover and another course on how to drive cattle from one side of his yard to another. Such bureaucracy imposes an unnecessary burden on a struggling industry, and I hope that the Government will give priority to a debate on it.

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Let me add, however, that one of the most important causes of increased record-keeping among farmers is the importance of public health and disease prevention, and we must ensure above all that that continues.

May I echo the request by the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on the Government of all the talents? Lord West, probably one of the finest naval officers of the post-war years, told the truth and was then undermined by the Government. Lord Drayson has gone racing, Lord Darzi is part-time, Lord Malloch-Brown has confused everyone and Lord Jones will not vote. The only person who has come out of this with any credit is my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who had to tell the Government what to do.

I will not be suggesting that as a topic for debate. As the House will know, the question of ministerial appointments is a matter for the Prime Minister.

Please will the Leader of the House ask the Minister with responsibility for roads to come to the House on Tuesday and make a statement on the A303 Stonehenge upgrade project? Twenty-one years ago, when the Leader of the House and I were fresh young Members, it was identified as a flagship project. Ten years ago the Culture, Media and Sport Committee branded Stonehenge a national disgrace, and there was a public inquiry. Three years ago the inspector submitted a report to Ministers, but a decision has not yet been announced. We need an announcement, not just for the benefit of my constituents who regularly experience gridlock but for the benefit of the whole economy of the south-west and, above all, for the sake of the heritage aspect of Stonehenge. It is a world heritage site. If we do not get a decision soon we shall have years more dither, and we cannot afford that as a nation.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that he and I are still only approaching our prime. As for the A303, the Department for Transport is considering it. No doubt the hon. Gentleman has made representations which the Department is considering sympathetically.

Early-day motion 279 is entitled “Scope’s no voice, no choice campaign”.

[That this House notes the significant difficulty many disabled people with communication impairments face in getting the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) equipment they need to communicate; further notes that as many as 600,000 people in the UK could benefit from access to AAC equipment; further notes that without the means to communicate people cannot express themselves freely, discuss ideas or make choices, which severely limits their life chances; further notes that freedom of expression is a fundamental right enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998; regrets that access to AAC equipment remains a lottery for most people based on age, postcode and education status; further regrets that 23 per cent. of respondents to Scope's recent No Voice, No Choice survey had not had an assessment of their communication needs before they were 16 years old; further regrets that over one quarter of respondents to the same survey had to pay for equipment themselves or ask a charity because they could not get their equipment funded by a statutory agency; and calls on the Government to recognise communication as a fundamental right and ensure that people with communication impairments of all ages get the AAC equipment and support they need so they can lead more independent lives, access work, leisure and education opportunities and fulfil their potential as full citizens.]

May we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House next week on the provision of alternative and augmentative equipment for those with communication impairments who need such equipment? Given that Scope and others have estimated that approximately 600,000 people in the country could benefit from such equipment, given that 23 per cent. of people who need it are not assessed for it until they reach the age of 16, and given that more than a quarter of deserving cases cannot obtain statutory funding for such aids and must therefore either pay for them themselves or secure charitable support, is it not high time that we had a debate on how we can improve provision so that people who are in desperate need can lead independent lives, gain access to education, work and leisure and have the opportunity to realise their full potential?

The hon. Gentleman has just demonstrated that he is one of the talents. He has proved the point that we want to listen to people with deep convictions, a great deal of experience and something to contribute to the Government’s work. I will bring his serious and important points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as I know the hon. Gentleman does himself.

Kettering hospital, which my constituents must attend, has the worst rate of Clostridium difficile in the country. Their chance of contracting it is three times the national average. Unfortunately one of my constituents caught the infection on going into hospital, and died some months later. When the relatives went to register the death, the registrar wanted to put something other than C. difficile on the death certificate. When the relatives queried it, the registrar said, “We do not like to put it down because it makes our figures look bad.” May we have a debate in Government time—while the Leader of the House is still in her prime—on the fact that the Government seem to be fiddling the figures rather than dealing with the underlying problem?

An Opposition day debate on hospital-acquired infections will take place next week, and no doubt the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise those points then.

Could one of the early topical debates be on housing expansion and infrastructure, concentrating on the lack of co-ordination between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport? The Government’s housing expansion programme for the borough of Kettering envisages the building of 13,100 extra houses by 2021, increasing the local population by a third; yet last week the Highways Agency confirmed that it would issue proposals to restrict local vehicular access from Kettering to the A14, which is the main road through my constituency.

I will take that as a suggestion for a subject for next week’s topical debate. Should I choose it, I imagine that we would hear many Labour Members concerned to ensure that there is more affordable housing to rent and to buy so that people can have the housing they want to meet rising expectations. I would also expect Opposition Members to say that they did not want any extra housing, with the Opposition Front Bench saying different things depending on what day of the week it was.

The Leader of the House will know—I wrote to her last week with the information—that the performance of Government Departments in answering named day questions varies; some are very good, some are very poor. The Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions are particularly appalling. The MOD answers only 22 per cent. of named day questions on the due date and the DWP answers only 30 per cent. Mr. Speaker, I know the importance that you attach to Ministers answering questions from hon. Members on a timely basis. What action will the Leader of the House take to get her more recalcitrant Government colleagues to pull their socks up and treat this House with courtesy and respect?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I thank him for the information that he has brought to my attention, which I shall raise forcefully with my ministerial colleagues. The whole point of this House is to hold the Executive to account. Ministers do not operate on their own behalf; they operate in the public interest and are accountable to this place for what they do. Parliamentary questions are very important in that respect, and I shall take forward the hon. Gentleman’s points.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Earlier in business questions, the Leader of the House said that my London borough has more police officers now than it did in 1997. I have just had time to go and check. May I refer her to a parliamentary question from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—

Order. I am going to stop the hon. Lady. She should remember that I was an Opposition Back Bencher, and the one thing she will learn is that you are sometimes disappointed by the answers that Ministers give. [Interruption.] No, it is not the done thing to raise a matter as a point of order because you are unhappy with the reply. If the wrong information was given, there are other ways of dealing with it.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The matter is whether the Leader of the House gave correct information to this House. The Leader may have inadvertently—

Order. The right hon. Lady has more experience than the young Back Bencher; I do not want to be patronising. Ministers give replies in good faith and I will not allow an hon. Member who feels that information is wrong to use points of order. There are other ways to raise these matters. I do not wish to prolong the matter—[Interruption.] I hope that the right hon. Lady is not challenging me. I am in a good mood today and I do not want to be in a bad mood.

Bills presented

Housing and Regeneration

Secretary Hazel Blears, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Des Browne, Secretary Hilary Benn, Mr. Secretary Hutton, Yvette Cooper and Mr. Iain Wright, presented a Bill to establish the Homes and Communities Agency and make provision about it; to abolish the Urban Regeneration Agency and the Commission for the New Towns and make provision in connection with their abolition; to regulate social housing; to enable the abolition of the Housing Corporation; to make provision about sustainability certificates, landlord and tenant matters, building regulations and mobile homes; to make further provision about housing; and for connected purposes. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 19 November, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 8].

Health and Social Care

Secretary Alan Johnson, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Jacqui Smith, Secretary Des Browne, Mr. Secretary Hutton, Mr. Secretary Hain, Secretary Hazel Blears, Secretary Ed Balls, Mr. Secretary Woodward and Mr. Ben Bradshaw, presented a Bill to establish and make provision in connection with a Care Quality Commission; to make provision about health care (including provision about the National Health Service) and about social care; to make provision about reviews and investigations under the Mental Health Act 1983; to establish and make provision in connection with an Office of the Health Professions Adjudicator and make other provision about the regulation of the health care professions; to confer power to modify the regulation of social care workers; to amend the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984; to provide for the payment of a grant to women in connection with pregnancy; to amend the functions of the Health Protection Agency; and for connected purposes. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 19 November, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 9].

Topical Debate


I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of immigration.

Mr. Speaker, I am very grateful for the opportunity to open this debate and to break some new ground in the modernisation of this place. As the House will imagine, I was delighted to be informed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House earlier this week that I would have the honour of opening this debate. I think that we can say with a rare degree of confidence that this afternoon’s debate is certainly a question and is certainly topical.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) is to answer for the Opposition. We are fast becoming pioneers of constitutional innovation; I reject the label “guinea pig”. Both of us saw the UK Borders Act 2007 through one of the first public evidence sessions at Committee stage. I can assure the House that although a Conservative, the hon. Member for Ashford gives an excellent impression of being someone comfortable with the modern world. Indeed, that is one of the reasons why he is such a successful deputy to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis).

I do not plan to detain the House for long, as today is an opportunity for us to hear from right hon. and hon. Members about one of the most important questions in public life today. I will confine my remarks to a few points. Eighteen months ago my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) provided the House with one of the more memorable analyses of what he felt he found in a Government Department. He later asked me to lead a programme of reform, which is now beginning to deliver results. My right hon. Friend said at the time that change would not be instant, but nevertheless reform of migration control was essential and achievable. He said at the time that

“there are problems that can be resolved but I do not pretend to you that they are going to be resolved quickly.”

A year and a bit on, I believe that we are beginning to see some of these reforms bear fruit. We are around 100 days away from the introduction of a points system for migration control, which means that only those whom this country needs will be able to come and work and study.

My hon. Friend says that the points system will control the numbers of people coming into this country. I should have thought that there was huge support among voters for that strategy. However, it will do nothing about the numbers coming from the new accession countries. What plans do the Government and our colleagues in Europe have to try to control the mass movement of people here from those countries? How many people does he estimate will come from the accession countries over the next few years?

I have learned not to make projections about future numbers, but my right hon. Friend will know that where it is possible for us to impose restrictions on new accession countries, we plan to use the powers that we have under the different EU treaties. That is the decision we took when we renewed our policy towards Bulgaria and Romania.

When we set the points score for migrants, we will listen to independent advice on where in the economy we need migration and where we do not, and on the wider impact of migration. Both the independent committees are now fully up and running. Once policy is set, it is vital that that policy be enforced. It is for that reason that today about half the world's population now need a fingerprint visa to come to the UK. Yesterday we signed contracts for systems that will, in time, screen all travellers against no-fly lists and intercept lists. At our borders from January, a unified border force will deliver tougher policing of our airports and ports, as the Prime Minister set out yesterday. Following Royal Assent a week or two ago to the UK Borders Act, and in addition to the Terrorism Act 2000, that force will have the powers it needs from the outset.

Will the Minister review his stated reluctance to enter into any kind of estimate of future numbers? Surely it is the case that if we cannot count them, we certainly will not be able to control them.

I shall talk about numbers in rather more detail in a moment and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to intervene again; indeed, I may pose him one or two questions during my remarks.

Backing the border force are the immigration police, equipped with greater resources but also prioritising the removal of those most harmful. We are beginning to see the results. About 180,000 people whom we believe have no right to come to Britain have been taken off planes from around the world over the last five years; that is about two jumbo jets a week. The tests of our border screening systems have already triggered alerts, resulting in 1,200 arrests. In 2006, we removed nearly 3,000 foreign national prisoners, the highest figure on record. In 2006, we removed more than 16,000 failed asylum seekers, more than the number of unfounded claims made—that is about one every half an hour, 24 hours a day. We are now resolving asylum cases faster than ever before; about 40 per cent. of asylum cases are now resolved in just six months, compared with the extraordinary spectacle of two years just to make an initial decision back in 1997.

Is the Minister aware of something that happened in Northampton a few weeks ago? A lorry driver discovered people trying to get into the country illegally in the back of his lorry. That was reported to the police, but all that happened was that they were told to get on a train and go to Croydon. Is that an example of the Government controlling illegal immigration?

That practice is unacceptable, and it is precisely why we are now putting together agreements with police forces up and down the country. It is also why we are putting in place extra resources for in-country immigration policing. I must tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that when I moved the motion through this House to increase visa fees overall by £100 million in order to strengthen the resources that our immigration police had at their disposal, his party decided to abstain. I thought at the time that that was surprising—but sometimes we witness surprising things in the House and in such debates.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—I almost referred to him as “the right hon. Gentleman” as I thought that that might be his correct title, but if that is not the case yet I assure the Minister of State that it is only a matter of time. In his enthusiasm to secure the removal of failed asylum seekers he must be very careful indeed, not least when dealing with people who have come—I would say “fled”—to this country from Darfur. In light of the evidence collated by both the Aegis Trust and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, it is dangerous for the Government rashly to assume that although it certainly might be unsafe to return a Darfuri asylum seeker to Darfur it is somehow safe to do so to Khartoum. These people are at risk of imprisonment, torture, death or a grisly combination of all three.

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that remark. He has consistently raised the matter with me, and he will know that it was the subject of a court case in another place yesterday. The judgment was that in certain circumstances it might well be safe to return people to parts of Sudan. However, that is no substitute for giving careful and individual attention to the specifics of any case, and we will continue to operate that policy. I hope that we shall debate this matter again.

I wish to draw the Minister’s attention back to a point that he made just before the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). He said that extra funding had been allowed for the police to compensate for migrants moving into areas. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the figures used for taking such account of areas are up to date? In my county of Cambridgeshire the chief constable, Julie Spence, has gone on record to say that the figures the Home Office are using in respect of paying for police officers are out of date and inconsistent with the much larger number of people in the county now as a result of immigrants moving into the area.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I welcomed Julie Spence’s comments. She helpfully said that migrants had been the powerhouse behind some of the economy in Cambridgeshire such as agriculture and some other services. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing will have more to say on that when settlements for the police are announced later this year.

I wish to contrast this Government’s policy with the Conservative party’s absence of policy in some regards. Its policy is benighted by two simple problems: there are no figures and there is no force. Let me start with the figures. In January 2005, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said that he would limit the number of refugees coming to Britain. In December 2005, the hon. Member for Ashford said, which I welcomed:

“We will be looking at that again”.

Needless to say, that policy disappeared from sight. The idea for an overall cap then emerged. The details were not very clear, but the hon. Gentleman was quoted in The Observer on 12 August this year as saying that the proposed cap would apply only to

“economic migrants from outside the EU”.

The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) repeated that on 29 October. That can only mean one thing: it will apply only to migrants from outside the EU coming to the UK primarily for work-related purposes.

In the absence of specifics from the hon. Gentleman, I asked the Office for National Statistics to tell me exactly what this would mean. Based on the international passenger survey for 2005, the ONS estimates that only approximately 23 per cent. of foreign nationals who came to the UK in 2005 for a year or more indicated that they were non-EU citizens and that the main reason for their stay was work-related. In other words, of the 496,000 who entered in 2005, 403,000 were either EU citizens or were non-EU citizens not coming for work-related reasons. They are presumably outside the cap. On that basis, it appears that the cap would not cover four out of five such people. The question of who is left is therefore a matter for debate. We can tell a little about them from the work permits that we issue. The following figures are for the year up to September 2006: 31,000 in IT, 20,000 in health, 17,000 in business and management and 13,000 in financial services.

The hon. Gentleman must answer this question: who will he stop coming to Britain? Is not the truth that his refusal to name a figure is a fig-leaf for the fact that there is almost no difference between us? Is there not in fact a consensus between us, which he is trying to deny?

I understand why the Minister is desperate to pretend that he is adopting a Tory policy, as that is very fashionable in his Government. He has just been quoting figures from 2005. Is he therefore telling the House that, contrary to his assertion to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that he will not make estimates, he is assuming that the level of immigration to this country from inside the EU in 2005 will be the permanent level of immigration from inside the EU? If the Minister is assuming that, I suggest he is wrong; it is extremely unlikely that the enormous influx that we experienced from Poland and the other A8 countries—the accession countries—in 2005 will be the normal level of immigration from inside the EU. I assure him that under a Conservative Government, who would insist on transitional arrangements for all new EU member states, it would not be that high.

We have put in place transitional arrangements for Bulgaria and Romania, and I think that the hon. Gentleman supports that policy. The right hon. Member for Witney clearly said on 29 October that

“what matters is the net figure”.

Today’s figures show that the net balance is down again; it is 191,000. The right hon. Gentleman said it would be much higher. This is the second year in a row in which it has declined. My point is simple: what is the hon. Gentleman trying to hide by refusing to name a figure?

There is a second, and equally important, point. In addition to the absence of a figure, there is an absence of force. It is crucial for migration control in the future that we have biometric identification of foreign nationals coming to this country, so that we can screen them before they come, and make it possible to check them when they are here. I thought we agreed on that. The hon. Gentleman said in the Committee on the UK Borders Bill that

“there is no difference on either side of the Committee in our recognition of the need to combat illegal working. If the new documents”—

ID cards for foreign nationals—

“are to prove useful in doing so we have no objection to them.”––[Official Report, UK Borders Public Bill Committee, 8 March 2007; c. 238.]

Imagine my surprise when I read in the fine print of a press release from a colleague of the hon. Gentleman that the start-up costs of the ID card system for foreign nationals would be among the cuts the Tories would make. At this year’s Conservative party conference, the Tories said they would cut the set-up costs of ID cards for foreign nationals—some £40 million in 2008-10. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in the hope that he might be able to help me understand this.

Will the Minister confirm that total net immigration is broadly equivalent to the number of people coming in now thanks to the unprecedented number of work permits issued—that is work permit holders and their families—and that non-EU work permit holders make up the whole of net immigration? Can he explain why some of the countries with the highest number of work permits—Pakistan is an example, although many people from that country make a great contribution—have exceptionally high levels of inactivity, according to both ONS and International Labour Organisation figures?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise the need to distinguish between those coming here for work, those coming to study and dependants. According to what the ONS said this morning, a quarter of the inflow is students; I assume that they are outside the cap, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten us. I do not think that the Conservatives are proposing reintroducing the primary-purpose rule, but I should be interested to know whether dependants will be inside or outside the cap.

In the interests of time, I shall move on; I have only one minute left.

I want to strike a final note of consensus and to do something unusual for a Minister—I want to congratulate the Conservatives on some of their principles. It was welcome that they insisted that their candidate for Halesowen and Rowley Regis step down. It was wrong for him to say that Enoch Powell was right, and the House will know, as I discovered by reading The Birmingham Post last week, that much of that speech was completely unacceptable. Comparing our immigration policy with

“a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”

is something that we need to remove from British politics. I hope that the hon. Member for Ashford will join me not only in applauding the Conservative candidate’s resignation, but in condemning his remarks. Will he join me in rejecting the arguments of Enoch Powell and in sending a clear message to this House and beyond that the days of the politics of—

I, too, am delighted by the innovation of the topical debate, and I am further delighted that in the first such debate we have the opportunity to discuss this week’s scandal surrounding the Home Office and immigration. My only fear is that if this becomes the slot in which we discuss the Government’s worst mistake of the week, the Minister for Borders and Immigration and I might get more than our fair share of opportunities.

Is not one of the tragedies of all these scandals that no one ever says sorry? The National Audit Office has just discovered that the Home Office wasted £33 million on an asylum centre at Bicester that was never built; no brick was laid and no sod was turned. No Minister has said sorry, no one has resigned and £33 million has been totally wasted. There is scandal after scandal and no one apologises.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Bicester scandal would doubtless have made a good topical debate in the week when it happened—all of about three weeks ago. However, we have of course moved on to new Home Office fiascos, for which I am sure no one will ever apologise.

I do not want to spend all my time on the events surrounding the Security Industry Authority cover-up. However, I am slightly surprised that the Minister did not devote one second of his speech to the topical issue of the day relating to immigration, preferring instead to delve—in a very welcome way—into Conservative policy, which he would of course like to adopt, in the mode of this Government. One or two aspects of this week’s scandal have emerged since Tuesday that the House should be made aware of. As the Minister knows, there are two big questions: did the Home Secretary behave competently, and was she open and honest with this House and the public?

Let me take the second question first by quoting what the Home Secretary told the House on Tuesday:

“My approach was that the responsible thing to do was to establish the full nature and scale of the problem and to take appropriate action to deal with it, rather than immediately to put incomplete and potentially misleading information into the public domain.”

In other words, she was only waiting until she had the full facts before publishing them. I do not think that that is an unfair characterisation of what she told us; she said that, when she could tell us the facts, she would.

What are we to make, therefore, of one detail of the documents published on Tuesday that has been neglected? In paragraph 22 of a document dated 30 August and written by Mr. Peter Edmondson of the policing policy and operations directorate, he says:

“Press Office do not recommend any sort of public announcement on this, as the full extent of the number of illegal workers with SIA licences is not yet known and there has been no failure in the system. Instead they propose to use reactive lines should this issue ever come to light.”

That is not the response of a department waiting to collect information before publishing it;

“should this issue ever come to light”

is a phrase used by a department that was hoping that it could keep the whole situation out of the public domain permanently. I do not want to stray over the boundaries of permissible parliamentary language, but the memo reveals that the Home Secretary was not being fully candid with the House when she said on Tuesday that she did not want

“immediately to put incomplete and potentially misleading information into the public domain.”—[Official Report, 13 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 532.]

She hoped that she would never have to put anything in the public domain, and she has been caught out.

What is the point of the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party calling now and again for a mature debate on immigration if Front-Bench spokesmen—and, indeed, many Conservative Back Benchers—continually leap on every passing tabloid bandwagon? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find some time in his speech to address the big picture.

I am disappointed that a former Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee does not think that a Home Secretary covering up a scandal in her Department is a serious matter for public debate. It is perfectly clear that she wished to evade any kind of public responsibility for, and public debate about, a use of illegal immigrant workers in areas of the utmost national sensitivity. If the hon. Gentleman does not think that a serious issue that this House should debate, he is just wrong. I also refer him to the letter that the Home Secretary has now placed in the Library of the House, which contains—

Could the hon. Gentleman let me know whether he is going to debate immigration today? If he is, I am happy to stay and listen; if he is not, I have letters to sign.

I am terribly sorry that the hon. Lady has been kept from her letters by the discussion of a scandal affecting one of the big Departments of a Government whom she purports to support. She would benefit from listening to what the Security Industry Authority said to the people whom it was dealing with in August:

“If you use security operatives to protect your premises or your people, then there is a risk to your operations and to your reputation if you do not take steps to review the situation. The risk could be at the level of incompetent security or poor reputation if illegal workers are discovered on your premises. However, it could be that your defences against crime or terrorist action are compromised.”

That is one of the most serious messages that could have gone out. The Home Secretary told us on Tuesday that the Metropolitan police had said that there was no compromising of security in the various buildings affecting it, or, indeed, in the compound with the Prime Minister’s car in it. That is clearly contradicted by what the SIA was telling people. Even worse, the Home Secretary has still refused to publish a list of the sites where security might have been compromised. More to the point, what has been done to correct this?

The Home Secretary asked us on Tuesday to judge her on her actions, rather than her words, but that is impossible if she will not tell us what the effect of her actions has been. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who is winding up the debate, can address some of the questions that the Home Secretary declined to answer on Tuesday. The Home Office has now had 48 hours to get its story straight, so perhaps it can address those questions. How many more illegal workers were guarding Government buildings or other critical national infrastructure? Can the Minister guarantee that no illegal worker is still guarding any Government, police or military building or any other part of our critical national infrastructure? How many of the 5,000 illegal workers identified have been caught, and how many have been removed from this country? Until Home Office Ministers answer those questions in this House, the public will know that they can have no confidence that Ministers have solved this problem. The fact that they have spent the past four months trying to hide its extent suggests that they are more concerned about saving their own skins than protecting this country’s security.

The background to all this is the long-term failure of this Government’s immigration policy. The Minister for Borders and Immigration is a good man in a bad Government. His predecessor summed up the ineptitude of the Government’s policy when he stood at that Dispatch Box and accused me of playing the numbers game with immigration. This Minister is at least bright enough to recognise that immigration is a numbers game. Numbers matter in immigration, and they have been out of control under this Government. The key fact that they have missed over their 10 years in power is that even if immigration is economically beneficial, which broadly speaking it is, if it runs at too fast a rate it can cause stresses and strains. In recent weeks, I have seen examples of that in places as far removed from each other as inner-city Bristol and Boston in rural Lincolnshire. We have heard the same stories of schools finding it difficult to cope with children who arrive unable to speak English and of communities—many of them established ethnic minority communities in this country—that are made uneasy by the pace of change around them.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about keeping down numbers. In the exchanges during the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration, mention was made of the primary-purpose rule. Does the hon. Gentleman intend to reintroduce it if and when the Conservatives are eventually re-elected?

The straight answer to a straight question is that we do not. We have suggestions for improving the position, particularly on forced marriages—an issue that I know deeply concerns the hon. Lady—and I shall come on to those in a minute, because I want to spend some time discussing our policy, although, unlike the Minister, I do not want to spend all my time doing so.

Wellingborough has an extremely complex mixture of races and religions. It works exceptionally well, but tension is beginning to arise because of the numbers coming in from the European Union. I am concerned that the extreme parties will move in to exploit the situation unless politicians from the main parties start talking about the matter. Is not this debate a good example of how we should proceed?

I agree. One of the things that I suspect would unite the Minister and me is the idea that if mainstream politicians do not talk about immigration, we leave the field clear for extremist politicians. We must not do that. I am delighted that this House is having this debate now, because many of the underlying tensions that extremist parties seek to whip up are about the rate of change being too high. It is too high and it is accelerating. The Government have recently had to increase their long-term projection of net annual immigration from 145,000 a year to 190,000 a year. Today, we received figures confirming that. More than two thirds of the total increase in our population is due to immigration. Net immigration means that we need to build more than 70,000 new houses every year in addition to those that we need for other reasons, such as longer life expectancy and an increasing number of family breakdowns.

Immigration is about more than economics, although we must be clear about the economic effects. As I said a few minutes ago, they are generally positive, but the impact is different for different groups of people.

In a second.

One of the most dishonest and irresponsible phrases mentioned in this debate has been used repeatedly by the Prime Minister:

“British jobs for British workers.”

The Minister cited Enoch Powell. I simply point out that the most Powellite use of language that we have recently heard on this subject came from the Prime Minister. I hope that the Minister and many of his colleagues who are present are ashamed to belong to a party whose leader uses phases such as that one, not least because the Prime Minister knows that it is meaningless. If a firm in this country advertised, “British jobs for British workers”, it would be prosecuted. It is a promise that he cannot possibly fulfil.

The Government are being simplistic on this subject because of their policy’s failure over such a long period of time. They have had to resort to ever-tougher rhetoric. I am afraid that the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the chaos in the immigration system that people see in their daily lives leads to precisely the sort of position in which extremist politicians and politics can flourish. The Government should be ashamed of their performance on immigration over 10 years.

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the demands that immigration is making on this country’s resources, such as housing and schools. The pressure is now being felt in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs visited Belmarsh prison, where officers are doing a magnificent job in extreme circumstances. As 25 per cent. of the prison’s population are not even able to speak English, because they are foreign nationals, immense pressure has been put on its resources, as has probably been the case in prisons across the United Kingdom. That is another factor that needs to be considered.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. The Government’s policy has failed. In the face of that failure, the Conservatives have made proposals designed to produce a balanced immigration policy, seeking to capture the economic benefits while minimising the strains.

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs should listen to his own Minister, who spent his entire speech talking about our policy. We believe in a cap on economic migration from outside the EU. We should have transitional controls on migration from any new EU entrants. Such controls are allowed by the EU treaties and we are using them to regulate the flow of new migrants from Romania and Bulgaria. It was a mistake for the Government not to follow France and Germany‘s example of using this transitional measure when the eight central European countries entered the EU in 2004. Anyone who comes to the UK from outside the EU to be married should be at least 21 and should have some command of English. To enforce controls against illegal immigration, we should set up a proper unified border force combining the police, the immigration service and Customs so that we have an effective, specialist force. This is a balanced set of proposals, with no hint of alarmist language and no sense of pulling up a drawbridge. They would restore public confidence and improve community cohesion.

Let us contrast that with the current position. The Prime Minister promised us a new style of government. He said that his Government would be frank, candid and competent. Instead, we have a Home Secretary who this week has been exposed as shifty, evasive and incompetent. The immigration system is failing, the Home Office is still not fit for purpose and the Government’s reputation is deservedly in tatters.

Order. The House will understand that we are on an experimental journey with the first of these topical debates. The powers of the Chair to alter the time limits come in very handy at this moment, so I propose that instead of the 12-minute limit on Back Benchers’ speeches, we will have a 10-minute limit. Hopefully, that will accommodate all those who are seeking to participate. I refer to those from whom I have had notice that they are seeking to participate, because there is a distinction.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to be taking part in your experiment this afternoon.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I think that he spent nine minutes on Government policy and about 30 seconds on setting out Conservative party policy. It did not include the identity of the island that will be the offshore centre for the processing of immigration cases under a Conservative Government. Perhaps we should wait for the winding-up speeches for that.

We all lavish the Minister with praise and think that he is a wonderful man. I believe that he was described as a good Minister in a bad Government. I think that he is a nice man in a tough job. He is not all that nice, though: I have found him to be pretty tough in dealing with immigration cases, and certainly with the ones I have brought to him for consideration. I sometimes think that he considers the word “discretion” to be some kind of perfume by Chanel rather than a ministerial power. He certainly has not exercised it very often when I have come to him with cases that I believe to be important, but I suppose that that is the nature of his job.

The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Ashford, was right to point out the problems that the Government have had, and everyone acknowledges that there are problems with certain aspects of immigration policy. This week, the Home Secretary gave us a full explanation about the Security Industry Authority, in which she set out the steps that she and Ministers have quite properly taken to ensure that the problem will be resolved by Christmas. The hon. Gentleman said that some questions remain unanswered, but that is wrong. The relevant questions have been answered, and any that remain must be answered only after all the facts have been considered in full.

I am pleased that the Minister is to give evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on 27 November. As well as considering Romania and Bulgaria, we shall pursue with him the question of how the Government have handled the SIA’s employment of illegal immigrants. We shall also consider the problem with the figures—to be fair, they were produced by the Department for Work and Pensions and not the Home Office—that recounted that about 300,000 people were not on the official register of those who had come to this country to work.

We will also consider the most recent developments on eastern European migration to this country. The Conservative party participated in the all-party support for the enlargement process over a number of years, and it also claims to have supported the Nice treaty. How sad, therefore, that it should be so critical of the large number of eastern Europeans who have quite rightly taken advantage of treaty obligations to come to this country.

I ask the hon. Member for Ashford to have a word with the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) about the wonderful relationship that he has developed with his eastern European community in west London. A recent Home Office report showed that the contribution of migration, especially from the A8 countries, had boosted the British economy. That is why I am glad that we took the decisions that we did in 2004, as those people are most welcome in this country. I am disappointed, of course, about Romania and Bulgaria, but on 27 November we will hear from the Minister why he came to those conclusions. We will also hear from the Romanian Minister for Europe about that country’s views on the subject.

The figures are serious and need to be examined, but we must consider immigration in a balanced and non-hysterical way. I am sorry that, every time the matter comes up, the Opposition try to hype it up as though vast numbers of people were coming into the country. As the hon. Member for Ashford knows, Government immigration rules still make it very difficult for people to come into the UK.

I commend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), on her proper and balanced performance on a recent “Newsnight” programme on immigration. She set out the facts and the Government’s attempts to tackle illegal immigration very clearly.

If we both get the train, I shall meet the Minister for Borders and Immigration this afternoon—not in Jerusalem, but in Birmingham, where staff from the British high commission in India are going to talk about illegal immigration into the UK. They will seek the support of the stakeholders involved—community groups and leaders, and families—and their message will be that there is a better alternative to paying vast amounts of money to people traffickers in Amritsar. The people who do that are made to travel all the way through Asia and Europe before they enter this country, where they live in the shadows, unable to be proper members of society. I hope that that message is taken on board.

The Minister is right that there have been improvements over the past year. The Select Committee will examine those improvements in due course but, as my hon. Friend knows, I feel strongly that the Home Office is not doing enough to get the backlog down. It is wrong that it takes three weeks to get a reply from the director-general of the immigration service. It is now called the Border and Immigration Agency, but merely changing to a new name does not improve the efficiency of the service on offer to Members of Parliament.

In addition, it still takes too long to get a reply from my hon. Friend the Minister, who took four months to reply to a letter from me. That is wrong: he is right to be tough, but the process can be improved only if Members of Parliament are provided with information that they can readily give to their constituents so that they are satisfied. If people who wish to stay in the country are told that they cannot do so, that response should be given quickly, at the very least. In that way, the people involved will be able to make the decisions that will genuinely affect their lives.

I turn now to the issue of foreign prisoners in our prisons, something that I have written to the Minister about. In one case, the prisoner involved left the country within a couple of hours of being released from prison, but we need to improve the system, so that prisoners who finish their sentences are on the plane back to their country of origin as quickly as possible. I do not want the House to believe that I spend all my time visiting prisons, but one governor, whose prison has a lot of foreign prisoners, gave me anecdotal evidence that paperwork from Lunar house and Apollo house was needed before people at the end of their sentence could be allowed to leave the country.

That shows that there is a problem when it comes to administrative efficiency. I am sure that the Minister goes into his office on a Monday morning and tears his hair out—I mean that imaginatively!—when he sees the list of questions and letters from Southall, West Ham and other places all over the country. In their surgeries, MPs are always asked, “Why is it taking so long?” and “When will they give us the time limit?” I am sure that my hon. Friend hears the same questions in his surgeries, but we are talking about being fit for purpose, and ensuring that the people who respond to such correspondence get the answers right.

Finally, I know that the Minister puts a great deal of faith in the points-based system, which he inherited rather than created. Although I do not share his optimism about the success of the scheme, I shall give him a degree of latitude and take it on faith when he says that it will work, but it will affect people who come here from outside the EU. As he knows from the recent work done by the EU presidency, the EU has a falling population. We need to look abroad, beyond the boundaries of Europe, if we are to sustain ourselves as the finest and largest single economic market in the world. That was the aim of the Lisbon agenda, but we cannot do that unless we have the people. Even enlargement, with Turkey coming in, will not solve that problem.

The points-based system discriminates against those who want to come from outside the EU. It means that we will still have problems with shortages of skills in restaurants, for example, and with getting chefs into this country. Those are the sort of specialist problems that I hope that the Minister will address. I know that he has his migration impact forum and a lot of advisers, and that he deals with the subject properly and seriously because of his constituency interest. All I ask him to do is to consider the evidence. If the system needs a bit of tweaking by the start of next year, I hope that he will look favourably on our suggestions and see whether we can improve it even further.

It is a great privilege to take part in this first topical debate. The rules, as I understand them, are that everybody can speak for 10 minutes—unless they belong to the Liberal Democrat party, in which case they get six minutes. Labour and Conservative Members agree on the issue of immigration, as on many others, so it falls to me to make the liberal and enlightened contribution. Six minutes is long enough to do that.

This week has been particularly embarrassing for the Home Office, given the scandal about the SIA. The Government still need to make it clear why the Home Secretary did not take the opportunity on 8 October, when the House of Commons returned after the summer recess, to make the statement that she made earlier this week, but there is a wider point about the culture of the Home Office. It has legions of press officers who are paid for out of our taxes—people who could otherwise be employed as teachers or nurses, or in other parts of the public sector. However, they are being used and deployed not to reveal information to the public, but to conceal it. That is an extremely bad way for a Government Department to proceed.

European Union immigration has had a big impact on constituencies across the country. I depart from the Conservative party view on this. People often forget that there are huge mutual advantages to the arrangements. Many of our constituents choose to retire, say, to Spain, or their children choose to spend a gap year working in Paris. We should not forget that there are benefits to our constituents of arrangements with other EU countries, as well as benefits to us of having people from the new accession nations working in our communities.

In the constituency that I represent there are huge labour shortages, especially in unpopular areas of work such as in slaughterhouses and agriculture. It can be difficult to recruit people from the immediate community to work in those areas. However, people do not come to work only in relatively low-skilled jobs. People such as dentists have come from eastern Europe and are making a huge contribution to our society. If the Conservative party wants to keep all or a large number of the people from eastern European countries out of the UK, how much more does it estimate it will cost to have services such as plumbing provided? There has clearly been an increased supply of skilled labour from eastern Europe and if it were removed, that would have a detrimental impact on our constituents.

Many people in the community that I represent are extremely positive about the contribution that has been made by people from new accession countries. They think that they work hard and have made a genuine effort to integrate. I make a prediction here and now that if living standards increase significantly in eastern Europe—I hope that they do—there will come a point perhaps 10 years from now when people in constituencies such as mine will resent all the Polish people going back to Poland because they will leave us in the lurch in many parts of our local economy. The whole story will have been turned on its head.

I want to talk a little about the wider shame of what I heard the Conservative spokesman say. When I was growing up, the big issue of foreign policy was the cold war and how it could be brought to a conclusion. The British Government at the time—a Conservative Government—made a point of saying to countries such as Poland and Hungary, “We are on your side; we stand with you against the Soviet tyranny.” But as soon as the Conservatives have an opportunity to demonstrate that in any meaningful terms, they abandon those people altogether. Someone of my age was brought up with the assumption that the most access that we would ever have to Polish people would be fighting them in the third world war. How fantastic it is that instead Polish people are coming here within an enlarged European Union, sharing our values of democracy, belief in liberal free markets and freedom of speech and are living in our communities, making a contribution and filling labour shortages. What an enlightened change that is; what an amazing success of British foreign policy, and how sad it is that the Conservative party is so small in its outlook and unable to recognise and acknowledge that change. It is still seeking to put barriers in the way of those people and restrict their opportunities.

I assume that the hon. Gentleman also condemns the Governments of the vast majority of other countries in the EU which all welcomed, as we do, the accession countries into the EU but put on precisely the transitional controls that we neglected to put on? The French, Germans, Italians and Spanish all put on transitional controls. They welcome the Poles and other workers, but they want a controlled system. That is a more sensible way of enlarging the EU.

The usual assumption of the Conservative party is that the other countries in the European Union are all wrong. I give credit to the Government. The British Government were enlightened and intelligent in terms of self-interest but also of generosity of spirit to the 10 new accession countries in allowing those people to come and work here. The situation in Germany was slightly different because it shares a long land border with Poland so the effect might have been even more pronounced. We have benefited hugely and we have demonstrated to those countries, their Governments and their people that Britain is a trusted ally within the EU. Immigration is helpful to us in our foreign policy and our domestic economy. It is no coincidence that we are in a better position to grow and expand our economy than many of the more sclerotic economies that the hon. Gentleman holds up as an example.

There are problems with large numbers of people coming into the country. There is pressure on housing and other services—schools were mentioned. If large numbers who do not speak English as a first language come into the education system, that is problematic. However, overall we have a reasonably dynamic economy in Britain. It has shown continuous growth for the past 15 years, and successful economies attract labour. People want to come here, work here, provide for themselves and their families and create new opportunities for themselves. That creates a better, more open, more dynamic economy and society for us in this country. We should celebrate the contribution that has been made by people from outside the United Kingdom while recognising the pressures on some public services. We must have an enlightened and liberal approach to immigration in this country.