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Westminster Hall

Volume 467: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2007

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 20 November 2007

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Children (Immigration Detention)

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

Today is universal children’s day. It is also the anniversary of the 1959 declaration of the rights of the child and of the 1989 convention on the rights of the child. It therefore seems a suitable day to try to bring the attention of Ministers to bear on one of the most tragic and socially excluded groups of children in Britain in 2007—children in immigration detention.

Such children are uniquely vulnerable, partly because of the media climate around immigration and asylum, so it is possible to treat them in a way in which the state would not treat other children in this country. Children in immigration detention are vulnerable because, as we all know, when party leaders consult the polls, they find over and over again that one of the issues that people are most concerned about is immigration, asylum and borders. The Government have chosen to meet that fear and the concern reflected in opinion polls with an increasingly draconian system of immigration control.

This group of children is also uniquely vulnerable because who speaks for them? I know, because I have spoken to Ministers about this, that Ministers get constant pressure from Labour MPs in marginal seats who are worried about public opinion on immigration, and MPs who are calling for ever stricter and more draconian regimes. The pressure is all one way.

I apologise in advance that another commitment will take me away before the end of the debate, but as a Labour MP in a marginal seat, I just want to say that the pressure is not all one way. Quite a lot of my constituents are concerned in particular about children in this situation.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am not saying that all the pressure is one way, but the majority of pressures on Ministers are in one direction, whether they are pressures from the media, polling data or what MPs say on the Floor of the House and privately. That is why this group of children is uniquely exposed and uniquely vulnerable.

I remind colleagues that when the question of detaining children originally came up, in the 1998 White Paper entitled “Fairer, Faster and Firmer—A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum”, the Government were saying that families should not normally be detained for more than a few days and only if they were due for removal. The starting position was that the detention of children and their families would be the exception rather than the rule and would last a few days at most. That was the basis on which MPs put the legislation through the House. The position now is that children are being detained in detention centres for up to three months and beyond. I shall come to the facts of the situation later in my remarks, but if people think about it, it is extraordinary that one of the wealthiest liberal democracies in the world should find itself locking up children arbitrarily for indefinite periods. We came to that position as a result of media and political pressure.

What are the parameters of the problem? It is not easy to establish the figures for the numbers of children held in immigration detention at any one time. The best figures available to me are provided in the Home Office publication “Asylum Statistics”, which says that on 30 June 2007, 35 under-18s were being held in immigration removal centres. Of those, five had been in detention for seven days or less; 20 for between 15 and 29 days; and 10 for between one and two months. However, the previous edition of “Asylum Statistics” gave a figure of 50 children on 31 March. The most recent Home Office figures show that in the first quarter of 2007, 200 of the 3,580 people recorded as being removed from the UK on leaving detention were children.

Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems relates to the statistics and figures? They are totally unreliable; we cannot obtain accurate figures from anyone. A report by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in November 2006 called “Seeking Asylum Alone” shows that, according to Home Office figures, 2,755 unaccompanied and separated children applied for asylum in the UK in 2004, but the number of Refugee Council referrals was 3,867. I know that these children are not necessarily detained, but where are they if they are not detained?

The hon. Gentleman has made a very important point, to which I will return. Whatever people’s views on our system of immigration control, whether they think that it is too strict, not strict enough or just very badly managed, which is my view, we cannot have a robust system without the figures, and both on the general question of children and on the particular question of children in immigration detention, the figures are not robust enough. I have been very disappointed, in doing the research and looking at previous responses to questions, with Ministers’ approach. Whatever the House believes the direction of travel should be on immigration control, at the very least we need robust figures. On the basis of the figures available to me, we are talking about some 200 children in the first quarter of 2007, but I will return to the question of the figures.

Let me begin to talk about the conditions in which the children are held. There are general issues that make those conditions deplorable. The first general issue that makes the detention of children for immigration purposes deplorable is the arbitrary nature of the detention process. I ask hon. Members to reflect on the fact that a child who has committed a criminal offence and is put in prison, who is serving a sentence at Her Majesty’s pleasure—that is how sentencing is termed for children under a certain age—has more rights than a child held in immigration detention and is dealt with in a more transparent way. Immigration detention is not ordered or sanctioned by a court; it is an administrative power. People are not being detained because they have committed a criminal offence. That means that there is a lack of transparency and accountability and it gives the immigration service the kind of control over people’s lives and rights that a court would not have. The first thing to say about the detention of children is the arbitrary nature of the process.

The second general issue, which is worth a debate on its own, is medical treatment. The medical treatment available to detainees in a detention centre has been a general concern. I want to refer to issues raised by doctors and groups such as Médecins sans Frontières. It is tragic that an organisation that is used to dealing with medical concerns in war zones and famine regions had to come to Britain to do an investigation into our detention centres. Among the issues raised by doctors in research that I have seen are depression and suicide. Many people in detention centres have post-traumatic stress disorder or are depressed. Some have been tortured and are not receiving therapy for that. Some are HIV-positive, but are not receiving the treatment that they should receive in the detention centre. Some come from areas of the world where malaria is prevalent, have lost their immunity to malaria after coming to the UK and have difficulty getting the proper course of treatment. Some suffer from tuberculosis. Those are general medical issues covering everyone being held in detention centres.

I suggest to Ministers that a detention centre is a peculiarly unsuitable atmosphere for detaining children. The arbitrary nature of the process—people do not know what will happen to them—and the problems with medical treatment are two general concerns.

Does the hon. Lady share my concern about such children, who come from outside the EU, which is that there is no system for appointing a guardian ad litem, a lawyer or anybody to have an interest in them while they are in Britain? They go into the system with no close friend and no support and just disappear. I am worried about children who disappear—not just those who disappear in care, but those who disappear in detention—and go back home on a plane without anybody knowing anything about them. Is she thinking of saying something about that?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. The way we are discharging our duty of care to such children simply is not satisfactory or appropriate for a country such as this in the 21st century.

Having spoken generally about the problems in detention centres, I move to some specifics relating to children. I could quote from many pressure groups and lobbyists, but I cannot do better than to quote the Government’s own chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, on her most recent inspection of Yarl’s Wood immigration centre in February 2006:

“Our most important concern…remained the detention of children.”

She had raised that concern in her previous visit to Yarl’s Wood. One of the disturbing things about the 2006 report is how little had been done since her previous visit.

“Yarl’s Wood held 32 children at the time of the inspection, seven of whom had been there for more than 28 days. There was still no evidence that children’s welfare was taken into account when making decisions about initial and continued detention. Though a social worker had recently been appointed, her role was unclear…We understand that she subsequently resigned.”

I have known Anne Owers for years, ever since she was campaigning on immigration issues and I was a lobbyist on race and immigration issues. If the chief inspector of prisons puts such a paragraph into the introduction of her inspection report on a detention centre, it should not take a debate such as this to make Ministers realise that our treatment of children in detention is not satisfactory.

I should like to allow colleagues to hear the voices of children in detention, because in the debate on this issue—which is driven by concerns about polling, pressures from MPs and the latest front page of the Daily Express, among other things—not enough attention is paid to the voices of children. The Children’s Commissioner for England visited Yarl’s Wood in 2005. His report said many things about what he saw, including one thing that I thought disturbing:

“During our visit to Yarl’s Wood, we spoke to a number of children”,

as that was the main purpose of the visit.

“Not one of these children had any clear idea or, in the case of some children, any idea at all, of why they were detained at Yarl’s Wood.”

It is one thing to say that a robust immigration control system requires the detention of children, but what immigration control system requires the detention of young children who do not know why they are there or what will happen to them?

A Save the Children report quoted the mother of a detained child:

“After the detention Michael was in a bad way. The bedwetting was a problem again and he had nightmares. He wouldn’t go upstairs without me. At 9 pm when I took him to bed, I had to go to bed as well because he wouldn’t let me leave…Michael was afraid of the police coming again. He was always afraid.”

During a House of Lords debate on immigration in December last year, the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds spoke about a case familiar to him from his diocese:

“We have experienced the case of Antonio, whose father committed suicide in Yarl’s Wood in order that his teenage son should not be deported with him. Antonio went through the whole of that trauma and is now being cared for by a family in south Leeds. But he is not alone. The fear of the 5 am knock on the door pervades many Leeds families.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 December 2006; Vol. 687, c. 1674.]

A Children’s Society representative says:

“We frequently witness first-hand the impact detention has on children. We are supporting a family in Yorkshire who were detained and then released. The mother has since been very ill, partly as a result of stress and not being able to get proper medical treatment while they were in detention.”

The issue of medical treatment will come up again, and I shall return to it.

“The five-year-old, the youngest child, was so traumatised by the experience that he became mute. He has had some counselling, but I understand that there are still huge problems, and he doesn’t come to our project anymore because the bars on the windows upset him, so we have to visit him at home.”

A specific case was passed to me this morning that I should like Ministers to look into—the case of Meltem Avcil, whose 14th birthday is tomorrow. She will spend it behind bars in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where she has been detained with her mother for almost three months. In August this year, 12 immigration officials carried out a dawn raid on her home in Doncaster. The two were taken to Yarl’s Wood in a caged van and have been held there ever since. Since being incarcerated at Yarl’s Wood, Meltem has had no appropriate schooling. She and her mother have had poor medical and social support. Her psychological state has deteriorated and she has had to be taken to hospital after self-harming. We all know that we need a robust immigration system, but what immigration system creates as casualties traumatised children—children spending three months behind bars, celebrating their birthdays behind bars and not knowing what will become of them?

I return to the chief inspector of prisons, because what she said is important in this context, and Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons cannot be accused of being partisan or hearing only one side of the story. She raised a number of concerns in her report last year. She said that, despite the fact that there was a social worker in the centre, her role was unclear, that children were being detained for as long as 112 days, and that in most cases children were being detained for too long. She found that Yarl’s Wood was still not performing sufficiently well in terms of purposeful activity. Immigration officials were still found to be leaving centre staff and detainees in the dark about their status and removal dates—again we return to the issue of children not knowing why they are there or what will happen to them.

The chief inspector of prisons’ 2005 recommendation that the detention of children should be exceptional and for no more than a few days has not been achieved. In 2005 the inspector also recommended:

“Initial authorisation procedures should be strictly followed and an immediate independent welfare and needs assessment carried out, to set out a care plan and inform decisions on continued detention.”

That had not been achieved at the time of the last report. The inspectorate could not even obtain data. Even for Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, the staff at Yarl’s Wood could not produce data showing whether there had been any changes to the pattern for detaining children.

“No initial needs assessment was undertaken following the arrival of a child”;

it took place only after 14 days’ detention.

At the time of inspection, the reports that social workers were trying to produce were not being used by officers. Children who were interviewed reported feeling frightened at being taken into detention—one child was scared when the police broke down the door. The quality of education provision was still not up to scratch. Sufficient activities were not being provided for children. Staff were not receiving appropriate training. Detainees were still being told what beds they had to occupy, and families were being split up. Children were having to sleep with strangers. Those issues were all raised in 2005. When the inspectorate returned in 2006, it found that relatively little progress had been made.

I have spoken about the inspectorate because I believe that one cannot query the views expressed in its reports, but I want to mention also the views of other stakeholders and interested parties on what is happening to children in immigration detention. I begin by citing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I shall return later to the fact that the United Kingdom has entered a reservation to UN protocols in that regard.

Before the hon. Lady continues, will she confirm that Britain is the only country to have made a reservation?

We are the only country in the world. I shall return to the point because it is a grave and shameful matter.

The UNHCR regrets that the UK has made a reservation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in order to be able to pass immigration legislation without reference to its obligations under the CRC. It stated:

“UNCHR strongly disapproves of the UK’s reservation in this area, which the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated is not compatible with the objects and purpose of the CRC. However, it is important to note that the reservation is at least limited to the passing of legislation only, and so would not appear to operate as a relevant factor in questions relating to operational matters, such as decisions made regarding the implementation of immigration detention policy in specific cases. The Government, therefore, is free to follow humanitarian and moral imperatives to inform its policies on the detention of children.”

The Minister will doubtless be relieved to know that the Government are free to allow humanitarian and moral imperatives to inform their policies on the detention of children.

I turn to what other stakeholders and people who have visited those children have said. The Children’s Society states:

“We don’t think it’s ever acceptable to detain children for the purposes of immigration control. In practice it’s very difficult for families to abscond because they need contact with services like health and education and it’s much harder for a family to disappear.”

The Refugee Children’s Consortium has called on the Government to use the UK Borders Act 2007 to stop the detention of children. The four UK children’s commissioners have expressed “profound” concern about the detention of children.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that it views the detention of minors as

“a special cause for concern, and we are clear in our guidance that minors who are asylum seekers should not be detained at all…where exceptional circumstances necessitate the detention of asylum seeking children, states should also make provision for the independent monitoring of the mental health of detained asylum-seeking children, which should be facilitated by access to appropriate non-governmental organisations”.

Save the Children, in its report “No Place Like Home”, suggested that children in detention were vulnerable on account of being children, being detained and being immigrants. The all-party group on refugees published a report in July 2006, to which the Government have not responded, saying that the detention of children

“makes a mockery of children’s rights legislation”.

Finally, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its report on the treatment of asylum seekers in March 2007, found that the UK was in breach of its human rights obligations by detaining children. One of the report’s authors, Lord Avebury, said that

“lack of accountability for all aspects of the detention of children pervades every level of policy and practice, and is exemplified by the Government’s steadfast refusal to publish comprehensive statistics on the matter.”

The lack of accountability pervades every level of policy and practice. Today’s debate is my humble attempt to try to shed some light on the process and to bring some accountability to it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. She will agree, I think, that there are two separate issues. One is whether the detention of children is ever justified. The other is how they are treated during the period of detention, if there is one. Having spoken to many constituents about the issue, I know that there is a certain acceptance that a short period of detention may sometimes be necessary rather than simply releasing the child, with all the risks that that might entail. However, there is overwhelming support for the greatest possible care for the children during the short period for which they might be detained. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the issue.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. When the matter originally came before Parliament, there was a consensus that detaining the family for one or two days might be necessary as part of the process of removal. However, no one taking part in that debate—some hon. Members who are here today were present then—ever envisaged children being detained for three months or beyond. No one ever envisaged that periods of detention would be so long.

I turn to what the Government are doing. I would not want it to be thought that the Government had paid no attention to lobbyists. First, the Minister for Borders and Immigration made a welcome statement about the need to incorporate a code of practice on the treatment of children as we rolled out the borders legislation. That statement was greeted with some gratitude by those who had lobbied on the issue.

Let me set out the Government’s position on some of the issues that I raised this morning. First is the question of the reservation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A question was tabled about the subject in July and the immigration Minister responded. He said:

“The Government believe the reservation remains justified in order to maintain an effective immigration control.”

The Government justify the reservation in the name of immigration control. We come back to the media and polling pressures—and the political pressure. In the end, a robust and sustainable system of immigration control, which is what Members from all parties want, has to be a system that the community as a whole, including even the asylum-seeking community, believe is firm but fair. A system of immigration control that is chaotic, badly run and contains a deeply flawed approach to vulnerable people such as children, will never achieve a consensus, and it will continue to be problematic. In his written answer, the Minister also said:

“we are proposing to introduce a code of practice to ensure that in carrying out its functions in the UK the Border and Immigration Agency takes appropriate steps to keep children safe from harm while they are in the UK.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1350W.]

That was a welcome statement. However, Ministers have also said things that were not quite so welcome. For instance, in a debate on asylum seekers in Westminster Hall in March 2007, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) raised the question of the detention of children. The Minister said:

“We have also debated the question of detention. I am anxious to explore alternatives to detaining children. Sometimes, parents have a responsibility too; when I sign off cases of children who have been in detention for some time, I often find out that that has been because their parents have been disruptive or abusive or have exhibited dangerous behaviour towards staff”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 28 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 482WH.]

What is the Minister for Borders and Immigration saying but that children are being detained because of misbehaviour by their parents? I urge the Minister for the Home Department to read again the relevant UN convention. It is quite wrong and contrary to best national practice that children should be detained or punished as punishment for the behaviour of their parents, but that is what the immigration Minister said in March 2007.

In response to efforts in debates on the UK Borders Act 2007 in October to get further protection for children, Ministers spoke about the problem of judicial review, saying that trying to give asylum-seeking children the protection of children’s legislation would

“create a risk of judicial review and other legalistic devices being thrown against the agency, which will slow down its ability to remove people to the country”.—[Official Report, 29 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 553.]

The Minister for Borders and Immigration said:

“Judicial review presents a serious problem: between January and March this year we received an average of 79 judicial reviews a week challenging enforcement activity…I fear that the change to section 11 proposed by the hon. Member for Ashford would simply multiply those barriers.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 233.]

I have been a Member of Parliament for 20 years, representing a part of the country with one of the largest numbers of immigration, refugee and asylum seeker cases. No one knows better than I do about vexatious judicial review applications or deplores them more than I do. They are a waste of time and hold up false hope to my constituents, who all too often have to find money out of their own pockets to pay for applications that are going nowhere. When I see that they are going nowhere, it is now my practice to ring the solicitor and ask, “Where exactly are you going with this?”

I do not believe in giving false hope to constituents, and deplore the fact that some of the poorest and most marginalised constituents have to find hundreds of pounds to pay for what are essentially legal delaying devices. If there is a problem with vexatious judicial review applications, however, the Government must deal with it, and not use it as an excuse not to meet the spirit and letter of their obligations to children. One understands the point made about jails, but it does not justify the wholesale abrogation of this country’s obligations under the convention on the rights of the child.

Another part of the Government’s response, on which many people have lobbied, is the pilot project on whether there are alternatives to detention. Apparently, those in the pilot are in supported family accommodation in a hotel and are being helped to work towards voluntary return. Families are expected to stay within the pilot scheme for eight weeks. It is too early to say how it is going. Worth while as the pilot is, however, it does not help children in detention at the moment, there is no indication of how it has reduced, or will reduce, the number of such children, there is no information on the criteria for entry into the pilot scheme, and there is no sign of how it will be independently evaluated. Although the pilot is welcome, one would like to see more transparency and a hope of independent evaluation.

Furthermore, as part of the Government’s response, we have a report, entitled “Review of UKIS Family Removals Processes”. It was commissioned by Dave Roberts and written by Judith Evans. I do not know if either of them is in the Chamber today. If they are, I hope that they will not take this personally, but I found it a bizarre and inappropriate document. It talks about putting the welfare of the child at the centre of the removal process, but that seems to amount to the idea that, as part of the removal process, immigration officers should keep a particular eye on the child. It does not talk about referrals. The report states that officials

“should consider appointing named officers during any detention visit to review the reactions of the child to the process of detention.”

Let us stop and think about that. Officials bang on someone’s door at 8 am—they have said that they will not knock on people’s doors before then—and a named official watches the child to see how they react to having their door knocked down and their mother dragged off to detention. What is the point of that, other than to make a token and derisory concession to the need to put the welfare of the child at the centre of our approach?

The report makes an even better recommendation. Obviously, the people who wrote it have read the same things as I have about how frightened and traumatised the children are by the process of being dragged away to detention, so they have thought very hard about what can be done about the psychological impact on children and proposed that the uniform of immigration officers be changed. They seem to be saying that what is frightening the children is the fact that the uniforms are navy blue or black and suggesting that they should be a pale colour—maybe pink or lilac! The idea that a child will be less traumatised by having their door kicked down and being dragged off to detention for an indefinite period by officers wearing a pink uniform rather than a black one has no place in an official Home Office report. Even when I was in the Home Office, which is now 25 years ago, we could have done better than that. It seems to me that the report was produced to address the widespread concern about the conditions in which such children are held, but it does not address the relevant points.

I know that hon. Friends involved closely with this issue wish to speak, so in conclusion, may I say that I am very concerned about the figures for children in detention? In particular, I was concerned by the response to a parliamentary question tabled in July by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who asked the Secretary of State:

“how many cases were referred to Ministers for review of the continued detention of children on immigration grounds beyond 28 days in each of the last three years”?

If a child is to be kept beyond 28 days, the case is meant to be referred to a Minister, although no Minister has yet turned down such a request. The Minister replied:

“The information requested on referrals is not centrally collated and could be provided only…at disproportionate cost.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 916W.]

If we are serious about the welfare of children, at the very least we ought to keep centrally figures available on a monthly basis on the number of children we are holding beyond 28 days. Whatever a person’s view on immigration control, it is not acceptable that we are keeping children beyond 28 days—in one case that I have raised with Ministers, for three months, in another, 112 days—and that those figures are not kept centrally. If one thing comes out of this debate, I hope that it will be a commitment from Ministers that from now on they will look at their record keeping on children and unaccompanied minors in detention. In particular, they ought to be able to provide Members, on request, with the number of children being held beyond 28 days.

We also need to do some really robust research into whether detaining families with children is necessary. The argument is that if we do not detain them, they will abscond. People assert that that is not the case. However, I am yet to see comprehensive research that proves it one way or the other. Above all, however, I put it to Ministers that reports that suggest changing the colour of uniforms are derisory. If Ministers are taking seriously the trauma that children go through, the Government need to commit themselves to bringing down the number of children in detention. How many times do international organisations, children’s pressure groups, Her Majesty’s inspectorate and the commissioner for children have to raise the point that the Government must bring down that number?

I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) said; there might be occasional cases when a child has to be kept in detention for a few days. But the fact that increasing numbers of children are being detained for increasing periods, and that Ministers cannot say at any given time how many are being held for longer than 28 days, simply is not acceptable. I accept that the front page of the Daily Express will not be calling, five days a week, for action on children in detention. It is also perfectly true that nobody ever made their career in government by building a fair and humane system of immigration; one builds a career by the constant rolling-out of crackdowns, toughness, fresh initiatives and so on. However, I put it to Ministers that in 2007, it is time for one of the wealthiest liberal democracies in the world to comply with international standards on the detention of children. As other Members have said, it makes a mockery of our children’s rights legislation that children in immigration detention continue to be held in such numbers for so long and in such conditions. I hope that Ministers will take on board some of what is said this morning, and that we can make some progress on the issue.

I have two Members standing, and I intend to call both of you if I can. However, you are both facing Clocks, and I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 10.25 am.

I have only two points to make. Before I do so, however, I want to say that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Her speech was robust, compassionate and incisive, and the Minister will need a good quarter of an hour to deal with her points. I shall not cover the same area, but I thank her for raising the matter. It is constantly referred to in the Chamber, but not properly addressed.

My first point is on why the immigration service is so secretive. I suggest to the Minister that a group of Members—I should be one of them—might like to spend a day or two at the ports of entry, seeing what the immigration service does, particularly with regard to unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers and such like. I do not think that many hon. Members have seen what goes on there. I have joined the parliamentary police scheme, but I am halted every time I want to go to the immigration service, because it is outside the police’s control.

I should have admitted to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington that I was in her constituency last Thursday on a police raid in a sauna.

I was part of the police operation.

I have an idea of some of the problems that the hon. Lady mentioned, and some hon. Members who are present, and certainly some active members of the all-party trafficking of women and children group, which I chair, would be much more friendly and well disposed towards the Government if they could see what was going on.

Secondly, the all-party group had the director of social work for Manchester before it about a month ago, and she referred to a different sort of detention, which it will be useful to mention. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are usually put in the care of the local authority, which is supposed to involve detention and to be a safe place, because the constant refrain from all people in positions of authority is that we must put children in a safe place. I saw a child walking along Oxford street when I was on patrol with two policemen, and they took the child, who they thought was 13, into the care of the police station in St. Marylebone, because they believed that it was a place of safety. If local authority care is a place of safety, why do so many children disappear from local authority care? The director of social work in Manchester said that some children who come into care in Manchester disappear within minutes, and that others do so within hours.

I raise the matter only because the hon. Lady raised the issue of detention. If detention is too open, the children disappear, but if we have it as she would, there is criticism, too, because it would be incarceration. I do not quite know how she would redress that balance, but at the moment too many children disappear. In a recent report from the Home Office, the number of children who were thought to be trafficked was 380, and about 190 of those, who were in the care of local authorities, disappeared.

I also want to mention some other numbers. I have only the 2004 figures, because the figures are up the creek, as we know, but we are talking about 55 unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, 55 from Somalia, 50 from Vietnam, 55 from Iran, 35 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 35 from Iraq, 35 from China, 25 from Eritrea, 20 from Uganda and 20 from Ethiopia. Those figures are for a three-month period only, so an enormous number of children come into this country unaccompanied. Some will end up in detention, some will end up in the care of the local authority, and an awful lot will go missing.

The Government do not have their hands on the problem, because when the children disappear they are never found. Many children from China “disappear”—they do not, of course, disappear, because an aunt, uncle or friend probably finds them. However, the number of unaccompanied children either in detention or in the care of the local authority is increasing. The numbers are about 3,000 to 4,000 a year, so it is a big problem.

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) taking up the cause, the way in which she spoke and the great deal of research that she obviously undertook to present her case. It was a very fine contribution, which the House should note.

It is significant that the three Labour Members speaking today all have neighbouring constituencies: Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, Hackney, South and Shoreditch, and Islington, North.

I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. We all know about south Devon, but my point is about Labour Members.

We are involved in the subject because we have multicultural and multi-ethnic constituencies, and immigration issues are real, serious and demanding of their Members. As the MP for Islington, North, I take up a large number of immigration and asylum cases all the time. Although there is nothing wrong with having a public debate about immigration, I appeal to the media to have a debate occasionally about human rights, justice and the nasty underside of immigration law and control. It is easy to get a headline saying, “There is too much immigration. We must control it. There are too many problems,” but the other side of the issue is the incredible contribution that migrants have made to our economy and standard of life. We would not have much of a health service, or, indeed, many other vital services, if there had not been immigration over the past 40 years.

Another consideration is the treatment of individuals who have been denied the right to remain in this country and who have been threatened with, or are in the process of, removal, and the detention that is then carried out. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and I visited Yarl’s Wood, and we spent a lot of time there. We saw all its sections, had meetings with the staff and discussions with people who are held there—frankly, one must refer to them as inmates, because that is in reality what they are—and we looked at the whole place. Whatever the decorations, equipment or concerns of staff, the issue is that we lock children up. For the child to leave their parents to make or take a phone call, to go to the medical room or wherever else, they must go through a series of prison-style locked doors.

Children are very impressionable. Young children remember small things for the rest of their lives. All of us have photographic memories of certain instances that happened when we were three, four, five, six or seven years old—it is an impressionable age. I do not think that any of us was in detention at that age, and none of us went through that sort of experience, but that is the memory that we are imposing on a number of children through our policy. We should think seriously about that.

My hon. Friend and I visited Yarl’s Wood because of our ongoing concern about the problem. I must say that although many of the staff at Yarl’s Wood were pleasant and clearly trying to do their best, I was unimpressed with the medical officer, whom I think I met when my hon. Friend was in another part of the facility. When I raised with the medical officer the concerns that had been raised with me about medical treatment there, he was quite dismissive and refused to accept that there was a problem with people not being provided with proper treatment for malaria. In his attitude, manner and unwillingness to engage, he stood out from some of the other staff. He seemed to reflect the concerns that are raised over and over again about the quality of the medical treatment at Yarl’s Wood.

I did hear some of that conversation, but not all of it. My hon. Friend raised those points. Children in detention should be under the protection of the Children Act 2004 and have access to full-quality national health service care and, if necessary, to social services protection, just like any other child in the country. I am not convinced that the reality of detaining children guarantees any of those things.

The campaigns on Yarl’s Wood are considerable. Local people have often complained about it and there have been many demonstrations outside it. There is a history of problems in its administration. There is a wider point, however. On 28 March 2006, the Refugee Council pointed out that more than 2,000 children a year are locked up by the UK Government for immigration purposes. It had launched a new campaign and stated:

“The campaign is demanding an end to detention for children because:

It causes children distress, depression, creates behavioural changes and confusion. It can cause and exacerbate physical health problems; and lead to lack of sleep and weight loss. It disrupts a child’s education, and can seriously undermine their ability to learn. It runs contrary to various international standards, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

I could not have put it better myself. This country is proud of being a signatory to the UN charter, the European convention on human rights, the 1951 Geneva convention, the convention on the rights of the child, torture conventions and all the others. They apply to us here, as well as to the demands that we make on people in other parts of the world.

Bail for Immigration Detainees, which has done good work, produced a handbook and press release on 2 July. The press release stated that children are being damaged by immigration detention because

“No special consideration is given to the needs or best interests of children when deciding to detain a family. Detention is not clearly justified in each case, and existing alternatives to detention are not fully considered. Families, and children, do not fully understand why they are detained, have no automatic legal representation and their detention is not subject to a time-limit or independent review. Processes for welfare assessments of families and ministerial authorisation for detention beyond 28 days do not protect children from prolonged and harmful detention.”

I hope that the Minister will give us some hope that all children who are being detained will be subject to ministerial decision so that we know exactly how many are being detained and why. I also hope that she will consider the Swedish system of having a caseworker assigned to a family, going through the whole process with them as a supportive mechanism. Very few, if any, children are detained there, and I do not see why we cannot do the same in this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington rightly referred to the statements made by Anne Owers, the former chief inspector of prisons. Like her, I know Anne Owers well and admire her work hugely. The fact that she made an unannounced visit to Yarl’s Wood some time ago, in February 2006, made her statements and expressed concerns about children in detention, should be taken seriously.

My final point has an international context, relating to UN conventions. I attend UN Human Rights Council meetings as a non-governmental observer and have taken part in a lot of activities surrounding them. Many people there fulminate about abuses of human rights around the world, and rightly so—I join in all that—but that also applies to us. The United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed its concern that

“asylum seekers have been detained in various facilities on grounds other than those legitimate under the ICCPR, including reasons of administrative convenience.”

That statement was made some time ago, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concerns about the UK Borders Act 2007. It has stated:

“UNHCR would like to encourage legislators to examine alternative arrangements for children to ensure that required contact management will be conducted in a child friendly manner and within the overall normative framework of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention.”

We signed the convention on the rights of the child and pride ourselves on being a country that has democratic institutions and a robust defence of individual liberties and human rights. Detaining children defeats all those things. I appeal to the Minister to re-examine seriously the whole policy of detaining children and recognise the damage that it does to them. As a start, Ministers should know exactly how many children are detained at any one time and why, and they should have to give personal approval for that detention. That would show us to be taking seriously the rights and needs of children. I hope that we can move on to a system in which it is simply not necessary to detain children at all. We are damaging them, it is wrong and it is not morally correct.

Thank you, Mr. Olner, for calling me to give the first winding-up speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) not only on her speech but on using such parliamentary occasions in the most effective way possible—to highlight an ongoing area of Government policy that a Member regards as deficient, giving a Minister an opportunity to justify or, better still, alter and adjust it.

I agree with the hon. Lady’s broad observations about the party political context that underpins much of the debate on immigration and asylum. It is shocking that the leaders of some political parties in this country seem to regard polling evidence in marginal seats as the main determining factor in deciding policies that have a direct impact on people’s well-being. She mentioned the front page of the Daily Express, but it could have been any one of a number of papers—even the one that, until recently, was edited by the new chief spin doctor of the Conservative party. That paper takes an aggressive view of this area of policy and seems to put pressure on the Government and other political parties to respond in rather draconian terms, which often jars with the better and more liberal instincts of millions of people.

The problem with the current approach to immigration control is not just that it is draconian, which I personally deplore, but that it is wholly ineffective.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention, because I wholeheartedly accept her point. We hear a huge amount of extremely tough talk from the Government—they are “cracking down” on aspects of immigration policy the whole time—yet it does not seem to have worked. If it had, they would manifestly no longer need to crack down, because their policy would have achieved their desired objective.

Most people would accept that there may be a need for transitional arrangements while people’s immigration and asylum applications are being processed. It may be that, for short periods of time, it is desirable not to separate children from their parents and that it is necessary to hold them in those circumstances. Most people, however, would wish their treatment to be entirely humane and that the atmosphere and surroundings in which they are kept are as close to a home and as far removed from a prison as possible.

I have three broad points to make. The first is about the Government not enforcing the UN convention on the rights of the child and about their desire to be seen as tough in this area. They seem to be concerned that anything that smacks of a UN-led, consensual, international approach would be seen as a sign of weakness. I do not know whether their position has changed, but I have a quote from a debate in the House of Lords, three years ago, in which the relevant Minister said that the Government believe that

“a duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children could severely compromise our ability to maintain an effective asylum system and strong immigration control”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 June 2004; Vol. 662, c. 996.]

Unless the Minister can tell us that the Government’s position has since changed, that quote provides the context for our considerations this morning. The Government seem to be saying that the rights of children in those circumstances take second place, and will do so indefinitely, to what they see as the benefits of having a strong system, and that the well-being of the child is somehow incompatible with having overall strength and resilience within the system. If that has changed, I am sure that the Minister will correct me and inform us more widely.

My second point follows on from a point that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington made. I was pleased that she quoted my noble Friend Lord Avebury regarding the absence of published figures for children who have been detained for immigration purposes. I have done some research in this area, and there seems to be a reasonable consensus that the figure is about 2,000. It is extraordinary, however, that we do not have a reliable figure. I cannot believe that this is genuinely an area in which the costs of compiling that information are, as the Government would put it, disproportionate. There seem to be all kinds of Government statistics being compiled in all kinds of areas in which people might have only a passing interest in knowing the facts and figures, whereas this is a central area of public interest. It behoves the Government to do the research and make that information available.

I have tried hard to get an indication of the scale of the situation. According to the figures supplied to me, 540 children were released from detention centres in the last quarter of 2005, so the information is already two years out of date. That figure was an increase of 20 per cent. on the previous quarter. If those figures were representative, they would indicate rising numbers of children in the system and an upward trend over time. It is an extraordinary state of affairs that we have to speculate about this situation, which should be made transparent and obvious to anyone who takes an interest.

My third point is one that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) touched on. As a mature and reasonably enlightened liberal democracy, we should look to learn best practice from other countries. The hon. Gentleman talked about the caseworker system in Sweden. Having a caseworker who can act as an advocate, provide legal representation, be a voice and give guidance to a child in those circumstances would be a wholly progressive step, and the Government should consider it in greater detail.

The Government talk about their “Every Child Matters” campaign, but if that is to be anything other than a slightly trite slogan, it must encompass children who are not British children within the mainstream education system. It must mean that literally every child has a set of rights and that we have a duty and obligation to them. It is on that basis that my party supports the “No Place for a Child” campaign of Save the Children, the Refugee Council and Bail for Immigration Detainees, which calls for alternatives to child custodies, such as granting such people bail, or having them attend reporting centres or stay in supervised community accommodation. The campaign also proposes a host of other measures that might lead to a more satisfactory resolution to this vexed issue than that which the Government have so far managed to achieve.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on her introduction to the debate. It might surprise her to know that I agree with a degree of her analysis of the problem. I part company with her and the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), however, on the idea that the debate is being driven by the tabloid press and by political leaders running before the tabloid press. The wider issue of immigration levels has become a matter of genuine concern for communities all over the country, not just those that are represented by Labour Members, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) pointed out. It is therefore imperative that mainstream, moderate, democratic politicians address this issue, because if we do not, we leave the field clear for unpleasant, racist extremist parties. That would be the worst of all worlds.

I agree particularly with the hon. Lady’s points about the appalling inadequacy of the statistics on which public policy in this area should be based. She has clearly researched this area well, but I assure her that after two years of asking Home Office Ministers about statistics, facts and figures that I cannot believe that they do not know, I have a file in my office, which I am happy to share with her, full of answers containing phrases such as “this information is not collected centrally” and “this information can be collected only at disproportionate cost.” A lot of that information concerns people whom the Government have locked up, such as foreign prisoners, and whether they have been moved to immigration detention centres, as well as aspects of the asylum system. I am frequently torn between concluding that the Government really do not know those figures, which is appalling, or that they do know and are not telling me, which is equally appalling. Neither conclusion is very palatable for Parliament or for confidence in the competence of the immigration system.

On the issue of figures, I have a confession to make. When I came down from Cambridge, my first job was as a graduate trainee with the Home Office, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Home Office keeps millions of files full of figures. I would regard with a certain amount of scepticism any reply saying that a figure cannot be provided because of disproportionate cost.

I am glad that the hon. Lady has confirmed the scepticism that was already in my mind about whether the Home Office has that information.

I thought that he had finished.

I have had exactly the same problem, but I have also had the enhanced problem of receiving contradictory answers from the Home Office—some saying that it does not have the figures, and some saying that it has the figures but then giving the wrong ones. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Home Office give completely different figures on convictions for trafficking offenders in this country? Therefore, even when we get figures, they are not the same or right. That is even more confusing.

I thank my hon. Friend for that cogent intervention. The more we delve into this matter, the more depressing the situation appears. I am sure that the Minister would like to address that.

I have some sympathy for the Minister, because there is a case for saying that in a system of controlled immigration we need to have the power to detain people at some point, and may need to detain families. As did other hon. Members, I visited Yarl’s Wood, and, like any normal, civilised human being, I came away profoundly uneasy at the sight of young children behind bars, of doors being clanged shut and of jailers—that is what they are—with huge bunches of keys, yet behind those doors were children playing happily.

There is something about that situation that would give rise to a huge sense of unease in any civilised person. That is why many hon. Members rightly raised the prospect of alternatives. Many mentioned the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which stated in its 1999 guidelines that detention should only be resorted to for a minimal period in cases of necessity. It also made a point that was made earlier about the UK Borders Act 2007. I moved amendments to the Bill, which, it should be said, were supported by Liberal Democrat Members, that would have applied the conditions of the Children Act 2004 to the Bill, but the Government rejected them partly for the reasons that were set out by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, and partly because they said that such conditions would render impossible the proper work of immigration officers. We doubted that on the grounds that the same duty is already applied to police officers who clearly have to make positive and occasionally coercive interventions against children. As it does not stop them doing their job, I was not convinced by the Government’s arguments.

Nevertheless, even the UNHCR accepts that detention is needed in some circumstances. There are two central questions for the Minister to answer. Are we detaining as few children as possible for as short a time as possible, and are there alternatives to detention that would be equally effective?

The first question, which involves delays, is a long-standing problem of the whole asylum and, indeed, wider immigration system. Delay is still endemic. Asylum and immigration tribunals are overwhelmed because cases are not handled in the most efficient manner possible. Some of the victims of delay and incompetence are children, who are held in detention for far longer than I suspect even Ministers would wish to be the case.

I, too, have asked many parliamentary questions about Yarl’s Wood. I was told that few children are held there for more than 28 days, but I doubted that response. Some of the evidence that has been produced today suggests that my scepticism was justified. It is clear that delays happen. They are part of a wider systemic problem. As was said earlier, Ministers talk tough but act ineffectually in this area.

The second big question is around potential options or proper alternatives to detention, which were discussed by the all-party group on refugees. I would like the Minister to deal particularly with two of the options that it mentioned. The Swedish option has already been discussed. Another option is electronic monitoring and tagging.

The UNHCR report on alternative detention notes that the 2001 Home Office evaluation of tagging in the criminal justice field stated that there was a 90 per cent. compliance rate among criminals. I am aware of recent research that is less positive about tagging, but I would be grateful if the Minister were to address it as a possible option. The point has been made that, of all the people who may be detained because of asylum and immigration matters, families are probably the least likely to abscond. Therefore, would tagging be effective?

The other alternative that I would draw to the Minister’s attention is the work in Melbourne, Australia, of the Hotham Mission. I am sure that she is familiar with it, as everyone who deals with this area has been told that it works extremely well. It seeks to ensure a sound basis for improved welfare and to establish a safe environment for those who are the equivalents of those detained in this country. It houses 120 asylum seekers in 38 properties, provides support and runs a befriending programme.

Clearly, outcomes are important. The point about the Hotham Mission is that, of the people who had gone through the project, 43 per cent. received immigration status, 57 per cent. had their claims refused and left the country, and 0 per cent. absconded. That is a spectacular figure for this difficult area. If there is a project somewhere in the world in which 0 per cent. of people end up absconding, we should be looking hard at it.

Regardless of the wider immigration crisis, which shows no sign of improving, it ought to be easier to cope with the asylum system than it was a few years ago, as the numbers have come down—thankfully, largely because of the present absence of Balkan conflicts. I hope that the Government’s refusal to insert a duty of care for children into the 2007 Act is not symbolic of their general attitude. As I said, I have some sympathy with the Minister, but I still need convincing that the Government are being either efficient or humane in their treatment of children in immigration detention.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour, the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), on securing this debate on this important subject. I believe we all agree that her contribution was thoughtful, thoroughly researched and, as usual on this issue, passionate. She has a strong track record on immigration issues in her half of Hackney and here in the House.

I am heartened that there seems to be consensus in the Chamber that this country needs a firm, fair and swift immigration process and policy. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) asked whether the Government believe that we should have a strong immigration policy. Yes, we do, and that is one reason why we are unveiling changes. We are 100 or so days away from the new points-based system that will be launched in February, which will mean that only those whom we want to come to this country and contribute to it will be able to do so.

However, such a system will require enforcement. When I was first elected as a councillor in 1994 and first came across the issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I certainly did not think that I would stand here one day as part of a Government who have to make tough decisions about detention, including detention of children. It is not something that we aim to do but something that we have to do as part of the immigration process.

I shall outline some of the things that the Government are doing to try to reduce the number of children in detention, and measures that we have taken to improve their welfare. I shall also do my best in the time available to answer the many points raised, particularly by my hon. Friend, but by others as well.

The Minister for Borders and Immigration takes the matter seriously. Indeed, when he was putting together the UK Borders Bill and taking it through Parliament, he listened closely to what representatives of refugee and children’s organisations said was needed to ensure that children in detention received greater support and care. For two years now we have had in the Border and Immigration Agency—formerly the immigration and nationality directorate—a children’s champion. In June this year, my hon. Friend unveiled the children’s code. If I have time, I shall go into it, but, as it has been published, I may have to skip over it more quickly than I would like.

If the Government are concerned about how children are treated in immigration detention, why do they not simply extend the provisions of the relevant children’s legislation to children in detention? Surely that would be the easiest way. As has been pointed out, those provisions do not hamper the job of the police, so why should they hamper immigration officers?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I hope that I will be able to answer some of those questions as I go through the matters that have been raised. The Home Office has attempted to ensure that the Border and Immigration Agency is much more focused on the welfare not just of children but, generally, of all the people for whom it is responsible. We have made some progress.

We are considering alternatives. I highlight particularly the Clannebor project in Yorkshire, where specialists work closely with families. Case conferences include the parents of the children in discussions about options for their going home voluntarily. We will be starting a similar pilot in Kent at the end of this year. The pilots take account of the Australian model to which the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) referred, and we hope that they will lead to solutions and a reduction in the number of children in detention.

It is worth highlighting that children are in detention because their parents are at risk of absconding, or are on the point of removal. The parents have the opportunity of leaving voluntarily so that their children would not have to be in detention.

I seek the Minister’s assurance that she is not saying that children are being detained because of the faults, crimes or suspected criminal activities of their parents.

I am happy to clarify that. The limited circumstances in which children may be detained under immigration legislation powers are when they are part of a family group for which detention is considered necessary. Occasionally and exceptionally, unaccompanied children may be detained, perhaps overnight, when there is no other alternative for their care, perhaps because social services could not be contacted. That would happen only in extremis, and for their safety. The general principle, as I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates, is that detention is used only when necessary, and that is especially true for families with children.

The detention of families with children is, naturally, regrettable. No one wants that to happen, and the Government do not detain such families lightly. Such detention is emotive, but it happens and will continue to happen when those who have no right of stay in this country will not leave voluntarily. That is the point about parental responsibility. We would prefer families that have no lawful basis for staying in our country to accept that fact and leave voluntarily but, sadly, they do not.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of vexatious judicial reviews, and it is worth noting that there are about 80 judicial reviews a month of people in detention, not all of them with children, but the Government have never lost a case on the policy of having children in detention. Regrettably, that often delays a family’s departure and means that children are in detention longer.

The Minister must share my concern about the quality of much legal representation, particularly in the initial stage of immigration. Does she believe that some cases have poor representation throughout, and that cases that could have been successful are often lost because of that representation? Should that not be looked at?

My hon. Friend raises an important point that I identified early on as a constituency MP. The quality of advice that people receive, not only on immigration but on other issues, is variable. I hope that the changes in legal aid support and the quality controls that the Government are trying to establish will also help in the immigration area. He is right to identify that better advice and support can help in a number of ways, not least to ensure that families are held in detention no longer than necessary.

Although families may be detained under the same criteria as individuals—while identity or claims are established, because there is a risk of absconding, as part of a fast-track asylum process, or to effect removal—it is not usual for them to be detained for more than a few days at a time, and they are accommodated in dedicated family rooms—[Interruption.].

Order. Two hon. Members are talking rather loudly while the Minister is addressing questions that other hon. Members have asked. Perhaps they will desist from doing so.

The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) asked whether it is possible to visit detention centres, and has heard that other hon. Members have done so. The Government are always happy to facilitate hon. Members to make such visits.

The Border and Immigration Agency and the Home Office would be happy to facilitate a visit if the hon. Gentleman wants that.

Detention of families is kept to a minimum, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington asked about the number of children detained after 28 days, and particularly about ministerial involvement. I will look into that further, and write to her or perhaps ask the Minister for Borders and Immigration to take up the matter. She made a fair point.

That brings me to the general issue of figures. We know how many children are in our detention estate at any one time, but that changes daily, which is often a reason for confusion because figures change as people are removed from the country. I acknowledge that there is still room for improvement in the published statistics, and emphasise that the Government are keen to be as open and transparent as possible.

We have introduced a number of measures better to identify, locate and refer children who are not in the estate, to which the hon. Member for Totnes referred. We are working on that, but children not in the estate are ultimately the responsibility of local authorities. I remember the issue from 1994 when I was first elected to a London borough council and became responsible for social services. It is worrying, and a balance must be struck between keeping children safe but not locking them up when in care, and ensuring that they have relevant support. I emphasise that since 2000, when I was a councillor, the Government have set up a network of authorities to provide better support because of the pressure to ensure that local authorities develop a reservoir of expertise.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to guardian ad litem, but children in detention are with their parents, and it is worth remembering that parents have ultimate responsibility for their children. It is not the Government’s intention to separate children from their parents, and that is why, sadly, children go into detention more often than we like.

We are worried about children who go missing from care, and we are working on that with other Departments. It is not easy to solve the problem, but the introduction of identity cards, locking a child’s identity clearly to themselves, will help, particularly where trafficking is concerned. I see informal adoptions in my constituency, and it is difficult to know where all the children have come from. Identity cards will be a major step, and I look forward to the support of the hon. Gentleman and his party as that matter progresses.

My hon. Friend was critical of the Government. She rightly highlighted that these children are exposed and vulnerable, but emphasised that they are with their parents. They are not taken away from their parents, and it is worth remembering that. The number of children detained at the longer end of the scale—for up to three months—has fallen, and we do not want it to be so high, which is why we have introduced the pilots. I will write to her with more details if she wants me to as time is short.

Every child in the system will have a single case owner so that families and individuals claiming asylum will have better support to progress their case more quickly. Delay is one of the main reasons for children being held.

I want to touch on medical treatment, which was raised by my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Children have access to GP-level services with ready access to secondary and tertiary health care services in the community. All removal centre health care providers are in the process of registering with the Healthcare Commission, and will provide fuller oversight and the sort of accountability that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington rightly raised. That is an essential part of the system.

Children in detention are subject to the Children Act 2004, which the courts have said must apply, subject to practical constraints that inevitably arise from the fact of detention. For example, two social workers from Bedfordshire work full time at Yarl’s Wood to ensure that the Act is adhered to. We address psychological and health needs by providing an independent social work and health assessment for children detained with their families, as well as ensuring that everyone has access to GP screening, if they want that, in the first 24 hours.

I shall not have time to go through all the issues at Yarl’s Wood, but the barred gate has been removed, and a normal door has been installed, which addresses one of the points raised. Changes have been made to ensure that children at Yarl’s Wood receive a better service, but I am keen to continue the dialogue with my hon. Friend and to keep her appraised of that progress.

In summary, we have a central dilemma. Some people seeking asylum must be removed because they will not leave voluntarily. We do not want children to be detained, but should we separate them from their parents? I do not believe that children should be released into local authority care and separated from their parents. Our option is slightly better, but our main aim is to reduce the number of children in detention through the pilots that I outlined, and we use tagging when that is appropriate. I hope that those measures will reduce the number of children detained unnecessarily.

Local Government (Norfolk)

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important subject and I look forward to being under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I also thank the Minister for being here to answer our questions, because he had to rearrange his diary to do so, and I am particularly grateful to him because he is the Minister responsible for this issue. A number of colleagues from Norfolk are also here. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) contacted me to say that he is unable to be here because of a Select Committee commitment, but the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) may grace us with his presence later.

I initiated the debate to express my concerns about the Government’s proposal to have the boundary committee consider a unitary authority based on an expanded Norwich city, and about the consequent changes for the county and district councils in Norfolk. The view in Norfolk—certainly among Labour members in Norwich—is that a Norwich unitary authority is a done deal and that Ministers have already made their decision. Indeed, so confident is Norwich city council that, in September, it appointed a director of transformation—that is almost like something out of J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter”—on a modest stipend of £90,000 a year. We should remember that that was before the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 had passed through the House. The director’s remit was to help to “shape and deliver” a new unitary council—no ifs, no buts.

My purpose this morning is to impress on the Minister that there is, to say the least, a considerable lack of support in Norfolk—and, I suspect, limited support in Norwich—for his specific unitary proposal. There are serious questions about the nature of the proposal, the impact on local communities and the danger that the county of Norfolk as an administrative unit will be abolished. Whatever people’s views on the issue, however, perhaps the most fundamental question is about democratic accountability.

I remind the Minister that for many of us in Norfolk this latest initiative follows the failure of Norwich’s bid this summer to become a unitary authority. It failed to meet the Government’s own criteria, and that was thought to be due to the inherent weaknesses of the city’s current boundaries. The Government have therefore now decided to move the goalposts and establish a unitary authority based on an enlarged city boundary.

I represent the constituency of Mid-Norfolk, which is shaped rather like a large banana resting on top of Norwich. There are two district councils in my constituency—Breckland to the west and Broadland to the east, and local government in both gets high marks for council tax and the delivery of services. Parishes in Broadland are divided between the constituency of Norwich, North and my constituency, so I must declare an immediate interest.

Following the original bid earlier this year, I did not receive one letter, telephone call or e-mail supporting the bid for a Norwich unitary authority and the possible impact on Broadland district council or Norfolk county council. In fact, quite the opposite happened, and I received hundreds of letters, phone calls and e-mails opposing the proposals. Every town and parish council formally objected, and those formal objections will be on the files in the Minister’s Department. Those objections were based on a perceived threat to county and district councils that were efficient, gave value for money and which the Government themselves rated highly for the delivery of services. Sadly—this is sad—the perception of Norwich city council was the opposite, and the Audit Commission qualified its accounts in 2004-05 and 2005-06.

Local Norfolk opinion was best summed up in an editorial in the Eastern Daily Press on 23 June 2007:

“We have long believed that there is no need for the change. Norfolk County Council is a four star authority, while Broadland has the best record in the country on such issues as recycling. Why, then, hand the keys to a council”—


“far beneath the Premier League on performance and service delivery?”

That opinion is as relevant today as it was in June. My concern is that the Minister has decided to use the model of a Norwich unitary authority as a baseline to reorganise local government in Norfolk, and that his unofficial riding instructions to the boundary committee have ruled out the status quo.

As my hon. Friend mentions concerns about Norwich, will he reflect on the opinion of the Audit Commission, which said that Norwich city council’s financial management was not yet fit for purpose?

My hon. Friend is a distinguished member of the Public Accounts Committee and has emphasised the point that I, sadly, am trying to make, which must bear heavily on the mind of the Minister, who is, of course, a former Treasury Minister.

I urge the Minister to think again. There are two obvious reasons why the status quo should be considered and, indeed, act as the template. First, we have a documented, agreed set of statistics on council tax, performance, delivery and accountability, with which theoretical options can be tested. Secondly, given Norwich city council’s at best uneven track record, it is surely absurd to use an underperforming model as the template. We would not do that in business, and my experience of the Ministry of Defence is that such a model would go into what the Army calls the “laugh and tear up file”.

I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could clarify whether he is opposed to unitary authorities across Norfolk in all circumstances or just to the procedures and processes in this particular case. I have several comments to make later about some of his earlier remarks, but what is his stance on unitary status for Norfolk full stop?

I do not want to be discourteous, but if the right hon. Gentleman had read the Eastern Daily Press over the past few weeks, he would have seen what my position is. I happen to be in favour of the status quo, although other people have different views, which is perfectly legitimate. There is a discussion to be had about the principle, to which the right hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly return in a minute, but I am concerned both with the principle and the processes.

Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of a two-tier system, not a unitary system, in all circumstances?

I do not know, frankly. I want to have an honest debate in which all the options are under consideration. As I have tried to emphasise, it is obvious that the template must be the status quo, but it is not on the agenda. There are perfectly legitimate reasons for considering different variations as regards unitary authorities, but the status quo must be considered as a template or an option.

We now come to consider and question the process by which the Minister seeks a unitary solution. He is minded to ask the boundary committee to consider the issue. Much to the surprise of many of us in Norfolk, the boundary committee, under its chairman, Mr. Max Caller, has begun the process. To date, it has received no written terms of reference from the Minister, but that did not prevent it from beginning consultation even before the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 had been passed in both Houses. Indeed, it has effectively issued an ultimatum to the county and district councils to produce proposals based on a unitary model by the end of the month. They have been told that the status quo is not an option, and non-participation will mean non-consideration.

By means of letters and telephone calls, I have attempted to establish the boundary committee’s remit. My noble Friend Baroness Shephard of Northwold attempted to do the same in a debate in the other place on 12 November, as did my noble Friend Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market in a debate on 14 November. Neither obtained a satisfactory answer. The point that they made, and my point now, is that the boundary committee’s demand for councils to produce proposals by the end of the month, when there are no ministerial terms of reference, may, as my noble Friend Lord MacGregor put it, be illegal—and it is certainly, to say the least, bad practice. Will the Minister confirm that as yet there are no terms of reference for the boundary committee? If so, will he advise the boundary committee to cease its harassment of our councils and remove the arbitrary deadline of the end of the month? I was told by one boundary committee official that the purpose of the deadline is to enable the boundary committee to consider proposals according to a timetable.

I have used the term “harassment” advisedly. All the Norfolk councils that I have spoken to have said that the chairman of the boundary committee and his officials have been very pro-active, and rather menacing. Indeed, in an interview that the chairman gave to the Eastern Daily Press on 6 November, the reporter noted that local council leaders and officers had been told that he “carries a big stick” and that non-co-operation in the process is not an option. Despite still being opposed to the unitary authority case, those district and county councils have been forced to prepare options that are not their first choice, have serious cost implications and are not supported by any public mandate.

To illustrate how biased the process is, I shall quote from an interview that the chairman of the boundary committee gave to the BBC’s “Politics Show” on 26 October, which can be found on its website:

“Q: Is retaining a two tier authority an option? Because many people claim that this exercise is now a paper one and that a unitary future is inevitable.

A: Well a lot will depend on the terms of the invitation that the Secretary of State gives the Boundary Committee but we think we are going to be invited to propose a pattern of unitary local government for the county, and the only way we would not propose such a pattern is if we were convinced that the two tier system was better than any unitary proposal that we could come up with. And I honestly think that’s unlikely.”

So it has already been decided—that is a fact—by the chairman of the boundary committee, before his terms of reference have even arrived.

It seems to me once again that that creates fertile ground for a future judicial review, and the involvement of the Audit Commission. It is almost Alice in Wonderland. Hon. Members will recall the Queen of Hearts who was always screaming “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.” Whatever the merits or demerits of the local government reorganisation for Norfolk, we can be sure of one thing: the people of Norfolk will be consulted only on the margins. In the BBC interview that I mentioned, the chairman of the boundary committee said:

“It’s not the function of the Boundary Committee to hold a referendum, that’s not the way we do business. We want to know that there is a broad cross section of support but that’s not the same as a referendum. And it’s evidence and argument that we’re interested in rather than five thousand emails all saying the same thing.”

Up to a point I agree with that. We have all been subject to a mass lobby. However, it seems to me that that is the attitude of a non-elected functionary who has already made up his mind, rather than someone approaching an issue with an open mind.

I remind the Minister and the chairman of the boundary committee that democracy matters. In fact, that statement is the logo displayed proudly at the bottom of the boundary committee’s notepaper. The trouble is that public opinion will count only in a very general, loaded way. As far as I am concerned, democracy counts when we have elections and issues are placed before the people. In the May local elections my party took seats from other parties in Broadland, and the same thing happened in South Norfolk. That was achieved on a platform of opposing the Norwich unitary authority. That is cause and effect. It matters. It is direct democracy—not a lot of sham workshops, stakeholders’ meetings and what Baroness Hollis of Heigham, opposing a referendum in Norfolk in a debate in the other place on 8 October, at column 72, called a “reiterative process”—whatever that consists of.

The Minister and the chairman of the boundary committee must face facts. There is no majority constituency in Norfolk for their proposal. Indeed, the more coverage the fixed proposal receives, the more it arouses the opposition of Norfolk people. At a purely constituency level, I should be very grateful for the publication by the Eastern Daily Press of the enlarged boundaries of a greater Norwich. The reaction that I have received has been considerable. I have not even touched on the costs incurred in the exercise. Norfolk county council has already allocated £250,000. The borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk has allocated £200,000, South Norfolk council £200,000 and Norwich a minimum of £90,000. What about the time, effort and morale of officers working in the district and county councils?

We have been here before. The Minister may not be aware of it, but for the past six years the primary care trusts have been organised and reorganised from one to six and back to one. In the latest attempt of the Norfolk primary care trust to rationalise local community hospitals it was forced by public opinion to beat a retreat. I am grateful that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is here, because I also want to refer to the example of the proposed amalgamation of police forces—Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. We were told that it was a done deal. All the arguments stacked up. It would happen. Everything was prepared. Thanks not least to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), the right hon. Member for Norwich, South was sadly—I mean that—forced to resign as Home Secretary, and within a week his successor had said that amalgamations would not take place. How does the Minister think the people of Norfolk and Norwich will trust Government proposals such as the present ones? Nothing is set in concrete.

In case I am being too parochial, let us consider what is happening elsewhere in the country, with the process of forcing unitary authorities on counties. In Cornwall, there is chaos and confusion; in Cheshire, there was a judicial review, which was rejected, but a right of appeal has been granted; in Bedfordshire, councils have been set at each other’s throats, and there are calls for judicial review. None of the time lines laid down by Ministers has been adhered to. That relates back to the time line set by the boundary committee.

Given the present dog’s breakfast, I suggest to the Minister first that he should establish and publicise the terms of reference for the boundary committee, taking into account the majority desire across Norfolk for the status quo—he should recognise that as an option that must be considered. It might turn out not to be the option that he, or, indeed, the majority of Norfolk opinion, goes for, but it should be considered seriously. Secondly, I suggest that he should advise the chairman of the boundary committee to remove an artificial deadline for the submission of proposals by councils, given that there are no terms of reference. The deadline of the end of the month must be removed. Thirdly, he should establish a proper way by which any proposals may be tested against public opinion—what Norfolk people want or specifically do not want. That should encompass Norfolk across the board—the people of Norwich, Cromer, Aylsham, Watton and King’s Lynn all have a right to know. It is just dawning on people beyond greater Norwich that the Minister’s proposals will have a direct impact on them.

This is an issue on which different MPs and parties will hold different views, but there is a suspicion in Norfolk that a done deal has already been accepted, and that Norfolk will just have to accept what is given to it. The chairman of the boundary committee, with his experience in Haringey, may think that we are a bunch of hicks. Let me tell him that we are not. Democracy matters. Norfolk will not let itself be abolished.

Order. A number of hon. Members wish to participate in the debate and I want to bring everyone in if I can, but I must warn hon. Members that I intend to call the first winding-up speech at 11.55 am.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Olner, for that comment and to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for organising the debate—it is an important subject and I am glad that he has done so. I am also grateful to the Minister for the decisions that he took in the summer to deal with what was a long-standing and significant issue—namely, the absence of unitary status for a great city such as Norwich.

I begin from the position of believing that unitary authorities are, in principle, beneficial. There are a number of issues, such as planning, transport and economic development, particularly in a growth area such as Norwich, which make it extremely important that there is a coherence rather than dislocation of public authorities. I could cite a great number of examples of discontinuities between the county and the city on important development issues around the city, but I do not wish to take up everyone’s time. Those problems are acute because Norwich has been identified—rightly—as a major growth area for the coming period, and the large amount of economic development will involve matters relating to infrastructure. I profoundly believe that we will get more coherent, transparent and effective decisions if we have unitary local government, as in other parts of the country.

It would be bizarre if places such as Peterborough and Ipswich were to have unitary authorities, but cities such as Norwich did not. That is why I applaud the decisions taken by the Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government earlier this year, specifically regarding Norwich, because the difference between its municipal boundaries and its actual physical boundaries—the built up areas that fall within a number of hon. Members’ constituencies—is greater than any in the country. That is a reflection of the fact that Norwich has been a growing city for decades, but the municipal boundaries have not changed to take account of it. The various inconsistencies are still more acute in Norwich than they would otherwise have been. I am glad that the Secretary of State decided to look at Norwich’s situation and the case for unitary status on the basis of wider boundaries than were previously suggested, and that the Minister was able to carry through and announce that. I welcome those decisions.

I must contest the assertions made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk on popular support. It may seem strange to him, but we in Norwich also have elections. The elections that took place in Norwich on the same day as those in his constituency gave an overwhelming mandate for unitary status. The Labour party, the Green party and the Liberal Democrats were strong supporters of unitary status for the city of Norwich. Overwhelmingly, those parties make up the elected city council of Norwich. The Conservatives were against the proposal.

I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that I read the Eastern Daily Press every day. My problem with what he said arose from the fact that I could not draw out his position from his interviews with the paper, because it appeared a lack coherence. However, he has now made clear his opposition to unitary status in all circumstances.

I shall send the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the Eastern Daily Press. I have always said, as has been quoted, that I happen to be in favour of the status quo. It is as simple as that.

I understand that, and it is what the hon. Gentleman told the Eastern Daily Press. The question that I asked was slightly different. I understand his argument—it is a traditional conservative argument, which says there should never be any change—and that he is in favour of the status quo. The question, which he was good enough to answer when I asked it earlier, was about whether he fundamentally believes that unitary status will be a good thing in future. The previous Conservative Government, as was clear from their dealings with boundary commissions, believed that there was a case for unitary status. His heroine, Baroness Thatcher, put forward changes that abolished urban counties for exactly the same reasons, so it was therefore not self-evident that a Conservative politician would be opposed to unitary status in all circumstances. I understand the conservative argument that there should be no change, but that is the issue I pursued, and I was grateful for his clarity and candour in response to my earlier questions.

My point is that there is strong support in the city of Norwich for unitary status for the city, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said. If he looked at the business community and at a wide range of voluntary and community organisations, quite apart from votes cast at elections, he would see that there is strong support for the changes, and rightly so.

Will the right hon. Gentleman remind the House whether Labour party election literature in Broadland and South Norfolk specifically supported unitary status during the last elections, and whether that was part of the manifesto?

I do not recall the exact manifesto published in each ward in the city of Norwich, but it is clear, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, that the leadership of the Labour group on the city council and the Labour party said on many occasions that they strongly supported unitary status for the city. I believe that that was reported in the Eastern Daily Press. The Greens, to be fair them—I am not often fair to them—supported it, as did the Liberal Democrats who used to run the city council, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) will probably confirm. There is no doubt that there was a clear mandate on the issue in Norwich.

Finally, on the point the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk made about the done deal, he gently and kindly reminded me about police reorganisation, but I should remind him that the police authority in Norfolk and many others supported the changes, and that nothing is a done deal in politics until it happens. Anybody who suggests that it is a done deal is wrong. Rather, the Government, to whom I pay tribute, have recognised the case and appointed a series of independent individuals as part of a statutory process to look at the issues in detail. I am sure the Minister will describe that process when he responds. That is precisely what ought to happen, and what the Government ought to be commended for.

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would, unlike his colleagues, say that he welcomes the change, sees the benefits that might accrue, and put forward proposals. The leader of the county council in Norfolk—a Conservative—has made his proposals for, in this case, a unitary county, but he accepts the principle of unitary status. Other Conservatives are making similar arguments. The Conservative party would be best served if its elected representatives saw the merits of the case and engaged in a serious discussion about what is best for the future of the county in the same spirit as the Minister.

I am grateful that we are having this debate, and I hope that it will continue in a free and open way.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. It is important, but I sense that there is a lack of opportunity for these issues to be discussed publicly in Norfolk and for public engagement.

My starting point is different from that of the hon. Gentleman. If I were starting with a clean sheet of paper, I would opt for a unitary authority. There is a case a for having one authority to deliver all services: there would be clarity so everyone would know which authority delivered local services, and one hierarchy, so it would be likely to be cheaper. There seems to be a compelling case on paper if one is starting afresh. However, we must ensure that there is clear evidence on which to build a case for change. Surely we are all in favour of evidence-based policy making. When I met the boundary committee, I naively put to it my presumption that it had clear evidence of the case for unitary authorities—namely, that they deliver better services with better co-ordination, that they are cheaper to run on the whole, and that they provide better value for money. The response that I received concerned me. The committee said that the evidence was pretty mixed. There is no clear evidence that unitary authorities deliver better services, better co-ordinated services or even better value for money.

If the Minister agrees that we should be engaging in evidence-based policy making, is there any justification for an incredibly expensive change that would use resources that are needed to deliver services to the people of Norfolk? On what evidence has he based his case if even the boundary committee says that there is no evidence? That seems to be absolutely fundamental.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk mentioned health and social care. The Government made something of the fact that by last October Norfolk was close to achieving in health and social care what they call coterminosity. At long last the primary care trust, as the commissioner of health services, broadly matched the social services authority—the county council. The Government saw that as a good thing, and I agreed. There is a real problem with co-ordinating health and social care, and a horrible organisational divide between the two. It makes a lot of sense to have those services at the same organisational size when starting to try to integrate them. Six months later, the Government are talking about destroying all that. I find that utterly bizarre, if we are in favour of evidence-based policy making.

The process is horribly flawed. The initial process involved Norwich city council putting forward a bid for unitary status. Inevitably, it concentrated on its own concerns and the bid neglected the concerns and interests of the rest of the county—a completely flawed process. When the Government considered the bid, they reached the remarkable conclusion that they would reject the application that had been made but would approve in principle an application that had not been made and that they would do so without any evidence in favour of or opposing such an application. That is scandalous and completely contrary to evidence-based policy making.

The process is quite remarkable and bizarre. Local authorities have been asked to present their cases in principle for a unitary option for Norfolk before the terms of reference have been issued. No one would believe it if it were not happening. It is remarkable. Nevertheless, that is how the Government want to proceed. Local authorities are being put into a straitjacket. They feel that they have no option but to put forward proposals that they may not be convinced about and that will inevitably be rushed through. The time scale is utterly ludicrous.

On cost, over the summer I made requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to Norfolk county council and Norwich city council. The two authorities have together spent £600,000 on the initial process at a time when services for elderly people in our county are being cut and when many of our schools need extra funding. How on earth can anyone justify spending £600,000 on an initial process when there is such a need for funding for services in a rural county such as Norfolk, which has serious problems with educational attainment? That is scandalous. Incidentally, that amount covers the start of the process. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, every authority is setting aside £100,000 or £200,000 to cover the main process. That beggars belief.

I have argued for a Norfolk convention. I do not want that to be a Liberal Democrat initiative or a Liberal Democrat-run idea. I want everybody to consider it seriously as a way forward. We should not have a political carve-up. We should engage the people in Norfolk and civic society in such judgments. Self-evidently, people should be able to consider the status quo option. It is extraordinary to rule out one option, particularly given the fact that there appears to be no evidence to support the idea of change. At the very least, the evidence is mixed.

At all costs, I oppose the concept of a political carve-up. I share the suspicion voiced by the hon. Gentleman: this is probably a done deal. I assume that Norwich city will get its unitary status whatever the people of Norfolk say. However, the criterion that we are told should apply—that any proposal should be supported by a broad cross-section of the community—will not be met. One can tell from hon. Members in the Chamber that the county’s political leaders are all over the place, with varying views on the issue. There is no gathering of support for any unitary option.

What is happening is a democratic outrage. We must not have a political carve-up. We must slow the process down and allow proper consideration by the people of Norfolk. Those people should decide.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this important debate.

I was interested to hear the speech made by the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). Norfolk has seven local authorities and, apart from one, they are all performing very well. The flaw of his argument about Norwich is that the council has failed consistently and is by far the worst performer of the seven authorities in Norfolk. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk pointed out, the Audit Commission was damning in its two reports on Norwich city council.

The city council failed in its bid for unitary status on all five criteria. The right hon. Member for Norwich, South talked about Peterborough and Ipswich, but they happen to be well-run authorities. In the wider counties that are involved, there is considerable support for unitary status for those councils. That support does not exist for Norwich’s case. Norwich is entirely on its own in Norfolk. There may be some support in Norwich, but I doubt that it is substantial. If we consider the different organisations that cover Norfolk, there is no support for unitary status for Norwich.

I find it absolutely staggering that the boundary committee has received no terms of reference from Her Majesty’s Government, but has begun preliminary work. It has said to the local government family in Norfolk, “Go out there, and try to come up with some solutions.” As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk pointed out, those organisations are being forced to spend substantial amounts of money on the process and the chairman of the boundary committee has been menacing and proactive. Based on everything that the chairman has said, one would conclude that it is already a done deal. Why should the local authorities in Norfolk have any dealings at all with the committee? It has no terms of reference, and I do not see why those authorities should engage with it in any way, shape or form.

Do we need change in Norfolk? The binary system that we have works well. Norfolk county council is a four-star council and has done extremely well. My local borough council, King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, is a beacon authority. Its focus on regeneration, value for money and accountability is second to none in the country. It has delivered better services with a reduced council tax demand. Let us consider the other district councils. Great Yarmouth has improved hugely over the years. North Norfolk is a good council. There are also Broadland, Breckland and South Norfolk; we have some excellent councils in Norfolk. The current system is working well.

Could unitary government work in Norfolk? Of course it could in theory, but in practice I am persuaded that, because Norfolk is a large shire county, some of the functions performed by the county council can be carried out only on a county-wide basis, with one authority in strategic control of functions such as highways, education and social services. A county council is needed to provide that framework. However, functions such as housing, planning, environmental health, and regeneration could be carried out by the county council only at the expense of accountability and only in a remote way, which is why they should be performed at the local level. That explains why the binary system works well in a county such as Norfolk.

We have a dilemma, therefore. Norfolk county council is obviously too large to carry out the whole panoply of local government functions, yet the existing boroughs are far too small to become unitaries. The only way to move forward would be to have complete upheaval, so why change things? As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk said, the proposals are entirely politically driven; there is no public support for them whatever.

As for cost I, too, have had a look at primary care trust reorganisation. Ten years ago, we had the Norfolk health authority, which itself was the consequence of a substantial number of earlier reorganisations. It was working very well, but the Government came along and said that health commissioning needed to be brought closer to the public, so they set up five or six PCTs across the county, all with their own chief executives, directors of finance, directors of corporate affairs and whole armies of bureaucrats. Ten years on, it was decided that that system was not working well, so we went back to the Norfolk health authority concept. In the meantime, various senior officials in the health service walked away into the sunlit uplands with redundancy packages of £300,000, £400,000 or £500,000, costing huge amounts. There was no consultation with the wider public.

I have been reading a report entitled “The 2006-07 DCLG Process for Creating New Unitary Authorities in England” that was prepared recently by Professor Michael Chisholm and Professor Steve Leach. In their conclusions, they were absolutely damning of the Government. They said:

“The process is so flawed that it corrupts the body politic”.

They also said that retrospective legislation was in principle pernicious and that the process was biased in favour of unitary outcomes. The Minister should read the report if he has not already done so, because it is extremely critical of what has happened so far.

Do we need any change? My strong view is that there is no such need at the moment, because the status quo works very well. Of course, if one were starting local government in the shire counties from scratch, one might well consider a unitary solution. The pragmatic approach, however, is to ask why something should be changed if it is not broken.

There was a quotation from a Government Minister in one of today’s papers, which said:

“The public hates the word ‘reform’; people think that means changing things for the sake of it.”

The proposals constitute just that: change for the sake of change, with absolutely no wider public support and with a Government organisation—the boundary committee— completely out of control.

I urge the Minister to listen to Norfolk MPs. We are saying, “By all means go ahead with the process, but please do not rule out consideration of the status quo.”

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). I shall take up where he left off on the theme of change, because it seems to me that the proposals are just the latest example of an insatiable desire that affects all Governments to engage in fiddling and changing things. I shall examine that theme generically and discuss the lessons that can be learned for Norfolk.

Wherever proponents of change are found—in the private or public sectors—it can be useful to look at how the same issues emerge, the same dramatis personae take to the stage, and the same stratagems are employed to achieve change despite strong and often compelling arguments against it. That applies in activities as apparently diverse as mergers and acquisitions of commercial companies and in delivery of changes in the adult education system or in the tax and credit system—to take two examples purely at random. I do not know why the Minister smiles, because the record shows that a lot can be learned in both of those areas. He should know that better than most, but I shall not dwell on that subject. The delivery of new computer systems is another such activity, as are private finance initiatives and the conversion of mutual building societies into banks.

Thank you, Mr. Olner. I was about to mention the reorganisation of local government. Whichever activity is under discussion, the proposed changes usually have certain common features. The benefits of the change are often questionable and unproven. It is worth saying at this point that one is not opposed to all change, in all circumstances, all the time. Nevertheless, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) correctly articulated the Conservative position, which is that, if change is not absolutely necessary, it is necessary not to change—not least because change can itself bring all kinds of unpredictable and undesirable consequences in its wake.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that nevertheless, for my constituents in Norwich, South, it is indeed absolutely imperative to change, for the reasons that I set out?

Not necessarily. The first thing that the citizens of Norwich need is a council that can look after their money properly, rather than one that, as the Audit Commission has said, is not fit for purpose. Once the council has got its basic management sorted out, it could think about other things, but it should put the tasks in the right order first. However, let me repeat that my party is not opposed to change in all circumstances.

My hon. Friend may not be aware of an article that was published in September in the Eastern Daily Press in which the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) put forward his arguments in favour of unitary authorities. It illustrates the very point made by my hon. Friend. The right hon. Gentleman was quoted as saying:

“I think the position of the city council to reject a £20m investment in one of the areas of greatest need is educationally ignorant and particularly backward-looking.

You have to question the seriousness of the city’s unitary bid. People will look at the position the city council has taken and think—what is it doing turning £20m down?”

His assessment of his own city council is pretty abysmal, therefore.

My hon. Friend makes the point very eloquently. As I was saying, a number of common themes emerge. One is the theme of huge financial costs, which are usually much larger than originally stated. Another is the presence of characters who stand to benefit from change whether or not the wider interests of the organisation and of its customers are served. Last is that of a jargon or patter that, at least superficially and on first hearing, makes what sounds like a convincing case for change.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that the proponents of change often adopt the same approach, in which the first tactic is to overstate the benefits. For example, most GPs say that it would have been better not to have proceeded with the NHS IT system, even though it promised huge benefits. Another example is that of mergers and acquisitions, most of which fail—although loads of people make money from them.

The second tactic is to understate the risks and costs. The Minister knows all about that from the example of individual learning accounts, which I mentioned earlier. And who would now doubt, despite the benefits that were touted at the time of demutualisation, that Northern Rock would have been better off had it remained a mutual building society rather than converting to a bank?

Another important tactic is to act very fast so that there is little time for those who doubt the wisdom of the proposal to examine the case against it. A good example of that is the tax credits mess, in which the timetable for testing whether it would work was compressed almost to the point of extinction. Many hon. Members have seen the results of that in their constituencies.

I am tempted to say that another common theme is emerging in cases in which there has been a mess: the presence of the Minister. I shall not say that, however, because it would do him a disservice. He was a Treasury Minister for many years, and I am told that once one puts on a Treasury hat one can never entirely take it off. I am hoping, therefore, that he will view the proposals with a very jaundiced eye—not because change is always bad, but because one should make the case for it stack up, which nobody has yet convincingly done.

The people who benefit from change go by different names. Sometimes, they are called merchant bankers and lawyers. They look for transaction fees. Sometimes, they are called chief executives—a phenomenon that is common to both the public and private sectors. On occasions, they stand to receive an enormous pay-off if they lose their positions, and so face the enticing prospect of financial independence for many years to come without the inconvenience of actually having to work. Sometimes, the people benefiting are called professors of local government, who receive commission for writing long and important reports. The people who lose are often the same, although with different names: council tax payers, shareholders or people who want their garbage collected once a week and find that that is not possible.

The last category is the cadre of professional explainers or witch doctors who explain how marvellous everything is going to be. Sometimes they are called PFI consultants; sometimes they are called financial PR consultants—I should declare an interest in that regard—and sometimes they are called Ministers. The key is to develop a convincing patter. Plausible examples are needed of how silly the present system is. An example might be that parish councils cut the grass, but district councils clean the pavements or county councils clean the roads. It might be that district councils collect waste but county councils dispose of it, or that counties deal with social services, whereas districts deal with housing.

The essential point about all these examples is that the proposals—if one can call them proposals in the absence of terms of reference—for local government change in Norfolk exhibit all these characteristics. The benefits are entirely theoretical. We can have a debate about the benefits, but as the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said, they are benefits on paper. We have had loads of experience in this respect. If 25 reorganisations of the national health service since 1982 have taught us anything, it should be that organisational tinkering must be treated with great caution.

There are enormous risks. The creation of, say, four social services departments where there is currently one involves enormous risks. There is the potential nightmare of organisational change, with vulnerable children—goodness knows, we have had experience of that issue in Norfolk—falling through the gaps in the new organogram, at a time when we have barely digested the changes caused by the merger of educational and social services for children into a new department.

The cost estimates vary, but they have been put conservatively at £100 million. I should like to know where that money is coming from. We have just had a very tight settlement through the comprehensive spending review. Why should the poor council tax payer stump up for what are at best theoretical benefits? For that matter, why should the central Government taxpayer stump up—after all, they are mostly the same people—when there are so many better things, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk pointed out, on which we desperately need to spend money?

In any case, those are conservative estimates. By how much will we see the costs explode? The largest component of the reorganisation of the police service in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire proposed by the right hon. Member for Norwich, South—the cost was £88 million—was merging the IT, at a time when people were saying that they wanted more police officers. How much will it actually cost to merge the IT of the different local authorities in Norfolk? No matter which proposal is chosen, we have to have the status quo as an option.

Of course there are characters around who stand to benefit from the process of change, whether the wider interests of the organisation and its customers are served or not. If we had several unitary councils, there would be several new social services directors, education directors—call them what you will; even with the merger of children’s services, there would be new senior staff—and directors of planning and transportation. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) mentioned the transformation director, on a stipend of £90,000. How much transformation we get for 90,000 quid remains to be seen. The answer is probably not much. If, however, we have a unitary council, there will be a number of highly paid officers taking enormous redundancy packages, as we have already seen in relation to primary care.

Once again, we have seen the tactic of acting very fast so that there is little time for those who doubt the wisdom of the proposal to examine the case. The chairman of the boundary committee is going around prejudging what form of government will emerge from the process in a way that is possibly unlawful, as we have heard, and certainly dangerous for democracy and consultation. Astonishingly, councils are expected to provide intelligent answers on local government reorganisation when they have not even been told what the question is.

Finally, a jargon or patter is needed that will at least superficially, on first hearing, make what sounds like a convincing case for change. Fortunately, that is not my job. I await a reply from the Minister, but I remain to be convinced.

I am conscious that only two or three minutes are available to me so I will keep my remarks brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on initiating the debate, which is timely in that we want to get things right for the people of Norfolk.

Does the Minister agree with me that the central aims when determining local government structure should be strengthening local services, bringing decision making closer to the people and improving efficiency? The Conservative party put those three issues to the electorate in Norfolk at the last local elections and received a substantial mandate.

Does the Minister agree that restructuring councils into fewer authorities than the eight that currently exist will create bodies too large to deliver the standard of local services that local people have come to expect within the current structure? That is a point lost, I hasten to say, on the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who has chosen to leave the debate at this stage. I am sure that we will take that point up with him afterwards.

I have various questions that I should like to put to the Minister quickly. I put it on the record that if he cannot give us responses in his closing remarks, I shall be very pleased if he responds to me in writing. Why is the status quo in terms of two-tier working not an option for Norfolk? When is it anticipated that the boundary committee will be given its terms of reference? What, if any, mandate does the boundary committee have to require councils to engage in a process before receipt of the terms of reference? Subject to the response to the two previous questions, is it realistic and acceptable for the boundary committee to hold local authorities to a submission date of the end of November if it will not receive its terms of reference by that date?

Can the Minister give an insight into any predetermined outcomes, especially with regard to the number of unitary authorities that would be acceptable for Norfolk as a county? If there is no predetermined number, will he provide assurance that all unviable proposals will be discounted after initial consideration in order to avoid the unnecessary use of local authorities’ scarce resources?

What is the status of Norwich’s bid? Is a unitary Norwich a predetermined outcome? Is the approach being taken with regard to Norfolk a precursor to the adoption of that approach in other two-tier areas? If not, will the Minister explain why that approach is deemed appropriate for Norfolk in isolation?

Given that the potential reorganisation is imposed rather than requested, will funding be made available to support reorganisation costs? How important are community identity and public opinion when compared with affordability and value for money? Is the review constrained by the Norfolk boundary determined by the boundary committee? Is the Minister willing to meet representatives from the authorities in Norfolk that are working up models in order to discuss their proposals?

From discussions with local residents, there appears to be little appetite for wholesale reorganisation and the implicit costs. However, we have been told by the boundary committee that public opinion is but one consideration and in no way an overriding one. Can the Minister confirm to what extent public opinion will be allowed to influence the decision on the local government review in Norfolk? I look forward to a written response to all those questions if the Minister cannot answer them in full today.

All hon. Members who have spoken so far are from Norfolk and obviously have much more detailed knowledge of local circumstances than me or the speakers who are likely to follow. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate and on an excellent, detailed exposition of the facts. The one point that was slightly non-factual but on which I agreed with him wholeheartedly came when he referred to the Alice in Wonderland style of the process—sentence is passed first and the evidence is looked for afterwards. That analogy certainly appeals to me. I made that comparison quite recently in the House when debating the rather strange, Alice in Wonderland way in which this place often works.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the boundary committee logo, which is the statement “Democracy matters”, and asked, quite appositely, how that could be when in a review such as this, the views of local people and the various local councils involved were ridden over roughshod or ignored completely. He described the process as a dog’s breakfast, talking about the cost when it is supposed to save money, about the problems of judicial reviews across the country in similar circumstances, about the confusion that arises and about the timelines and time scales that simply are not being met.

The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) made a legitimate point from a different perspective; it is possible to see a logical case for cities being unitary authorities. In my county of Derbyshire, some years ago, when a Government of a different complexion tried to impose unitary authorities, the compromise arrived at was that Derby City would become a unitary and the rest of the county would continue with the two-tier county and district or borough structure.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) made many valid points. As he said, if we were starting with a clean sheet—starting afresh—we might well be able to see the logic of a unitary system. Other hon. Members made that point, too. However, we are not starting with a clean sheet; we are not starting afresh. The current situation has developed over a long time and is not the clear-cut situation that we would have if we were drawing up plans for something from the beginning.

My hon. Friend asked where the evidence was for going through the process and for the conclusion that we are told we will reach even before the process has begun, which is a unitary system. He made a number of telling points when he spoke with the boundary committee, asking what the evidence was for the process, what the benefits for co-ordination would be and where value for money would be gained. The boundary committee said, “Well, actually evidence isn’t conclusive on that at all.” In that case, why are we going down that expensive, time-consuming, frustrating road in the first place, especially when, as several hon. Members have pointed out, we are facing a considerable squeeze on Government finance that will get much worse in the next three years under the common spending round that has just been announced?

The Government asked for proposals to be submitted before the terms of reference were even laid out. All the authorities involved were supposed to propose their ideas for a costly upheaval and reorganisation without knowing on what grounds they would be judged. We have come across that all too often in various government reorganisation schemes. The point was made several times that the time scale had been rushed.

My hon. Friend made another telling point. He had found out by means of a freedom of information request that two of the authorities involved had already spent more than £500,000 on initial preparations alone. If we add in the cost of all the other authorities’ initial preparations and of the whole process, if we continue down that road, a very considerable amount of money will have been wasted on a bureaucratic process that is supposed to benefit the council tax payers of Norfolk.

I was particularly impressed by the suggestion of a Norfolk convention, to which I shall return, but all options should be considered. How can a genuine consultation be held if some options, such as the status quo, are ruled out from the start? My hon. Friend spoke of the democratic outrage at how we have gone about the matter.

Before he finishes, can the hon. Gentleman clarify the Liberal Democrats’ national policy on unitary local government, particularly in cities but also more generally?

I shall certainly do so. It is on the very next page of my notes. From my point of view, both personally and as a spokesman for my party, what should we do? As has been said, we should not start from here. The Redcliffe-Maud report of 1966 to 1969 recommended a completely single-tier unitary system. That was rejected, and the Local Government Act 1972 dumped the issue. There was a major upheaval of local government in 1972; a dozen county councils disappeared and lots of changes were made. It was one of the greatest upheavals of local government in our country’s history, but it dumped the proposals of the Redcliffe-Maud report. Had the bullet been bitten back then, when a major national review was occurring, we would not be in this position today.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the situation continued. We had a total of 35 years of tinkering, change and messing at the edges from different Governments of all complexions who never tackled the system fundamentally. During those years, I have seen the matter from all angles and from the grass roots. I spent four years as a parish councillor and 12 years as a borough councillor, and I worked for a county council as a teacher for 22 years. I have seen the workings of local government from every possible angle other than city government. I remember well the pressure from the Conservative Government in the 1990s to impose unitary authorities. It caused huge dissension in Derbyshire, just like the dissension we are seeing throughout the country and in Norfolk today. The outcome was a unitary city, with the rest of the county continuing under a two-tier system.

I favour unitary authorities for the logical principle involved, but the issue is how to get there and whether it can be done satisfactorily in the situation we are in. I certainly favour smaller unitary authorities. When the Derbyshire argument was going on many years ago, I argued not for a county-wide unitary authority but for smaller ones in such areas as north-east Derbyshire. We are often told by academics and Government thinkers that that is not efficient. It is very democratic, and it can also be very efficient. I have visited small towns in the USA and all the Scandinavian countries where it works. In Norway, a town with as few as 20,000 inhabitants runs everything—police, health, fire brigade and education—not just the standard local authority services run by a district council in this country. It can be done on a smaller scale, and democracy may well be worth an extra premium if it comes with local accountability.

If a Government of any party believe that unitaries are the way forward, they should say so in their general election manifesto and go on to introduce legislation to that effect. Redcliffe-Maud provided such an opportunity 40 years ago, but no Government has done so since then. The 2005 Labour manifesto did not mention restructuring as such and did not mention the imposition of unitary authorities in any way. It said:

“We will ensure that councils are organised in the most effective way to lead and support local partnerships and deliver high-quality services”.

It referred to

“streamlining administrative structures while promoting decision making at the level that will make a difference.”

It was totally open-ended and non-committal about what that process would involve. That cannot be seen as a democratic mandate to impose unitaries in various hand-picked areas of the country.

If a Government believe that local communities should decide, they should have a proper process to allow that. That is certainly not what is happening with the process that is under way in various counties, which involves preconceived Government preferences and rules out some options, such as the status quo. It asks for proposals without stating the terms of reference and conditions by which they will be judged. It gives the power to unelected, unaccountable boundary committees. That is not the way to do it. The communities affected should decide what system of local government they want.

The proposed Norfolk convention is an echo of what happened in Scotland, where the Scottish convention led to devolution and the Scottish Parliament. It has involved all parties and extensive consultation in the community, and it took some time to achieve an answer that had widespread support across Scotland—from the Scottish people; we shall leave aside England. The proposal for a similar convention in Norfolk is excellent and should be employed throughout the country wherever such measures are proposed. Preconceived ideas should not be imposed from the top, there should not be a closed list to pick from and, above all, the local community should be involved in maximum consultation, rather than the sham that is taking place at the moment.

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. If I did not know the Minister better, I would be inclined to say that he should simply stand up and give in. If this were a decently refereed boxing match, it would have been stopped long ago on points. The tidal wave of good sense that has come his way in expressions of huge concern about the proposals that we are debating would convince any neutral observer that something has gone badly wrong with the process of government for us to be here discussing them in this way. I should be grateful for a few minutes to illustrate some of my concerns.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on his opening speech, which touched on many of the points that have been amplified during this debate. I thought that he spoke with suppressed outrage on behalf of his constituents and, I suspect, the vast majority of the people of Norfolk. He spoke of his constituents’ views, expressed both to him and through the ballot box, and of the quality of performance of local authorities, which may be swept away in a reorganisation. He spoke of the bullying—let us be plain about the word—of the boundary committee in how it started and has gone about its work. He spoke about the concerns that this might be a done deal, raised the issue of whether the people would be consulted and mentioned the boundary committee’s motto, “Democracy matters”. Well, we shall see.

The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) spoke of his belief in the importance of the unitaries in Norfolk. He is entitled to do so—anyone is entitled to put their view in this debate—but neither he nor the council that he is promoting are entitled to be the tail wagging the dog. There is neither the numerical majority to do that, nor, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) made clear, the moral authority, given the quality of the councils being wagged by the unfortunate tail of Norwich city. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to express his views, but it should be borne in mind that the tail should not wag the dog.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) made a key point about the democratic base and the case that had recently been put to the electorate, and he ended with a series of questions to the Minister that I shall reiterate.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes)—he is an outsider in this debate, as I am—admirably summed up our concerns. He made a key point about Labour’s manifesto, saying that it gives the Government a completely open-ended chance to reorganise local government, with no parameters. It effectively gives them the opportunity to do what they want, no matter what the opinion of the majority might be in any particular place—an utterly wretched situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) raised many questions about the way in which the process had been put together. His contribution was not only illuminating but entertaining. I agree with him on the process and about the timetable problems that have already arisen. The reorganisation has not run according to the timetable. Indeed, it is already well off it. The trouble is that it will result in a rushed process that could be dangerous to the processes of democracy.

My hon. Friend was joined in that concern by Sir Michael Lyons in his consideration of the future of local government. In page 11 of his executive summary about local reorganisation, he said:

“The vast experience of reorganisation in this country provides a warning about the risks of poorly developed or executed change, and shows that it is by no means a panacea. I therefore put a much stronger emphasis on the responsibility of authorities to develop effective and flexible coalitions, which transcend boundaries and seek joint solutions to problems where those offer potential advantages.”

Most on this side of the Chamber would say that that opportunity ought to remain in the minds of the Minister and of the boundary committee; it is a much better way forward than what seems to have been proposed. My hon. Friend stopped short of declaring the whole thing a shambles, but what is in process might yet turn out to be one.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) asked whether there was any evidence about costs. He spoke of asking the boundary committee, with regard to its evidence-based process, what evidence it had for going forward. He got the honest answer, “Well, it’s a bit mixed.” He could have gone to others. He could have asked the previous Minister for Local Government, now Minister for the Environment, for his views. I did so when the Public Bill Committee was debating the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. We spoke about the costs of the process of reorganisation, and I asked whether we should be wary, on the basis of our collective experience, of those who wave cost savings at their electors as the potential good news behind restructuring. The Minister answered:

“The answer to that is yes.”—[Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill Committee, 1 February 2007; c. 89.]

If even the Minister cannot see that as a key point to be taken forward, none of us should be under any illusion about the matter. If a reorganisation or restructuring is not being pursued for financial reasons or efficiency, what is it about?

I have two concerns about this reorganisation. The key one is democratic accountability. It is clear that the council submitted its proposal under the formula and the timetable, but that it failed utterly on every ground to convince the Government of its case for it being a unitary authority. The Government’s invitation to councils to take part in the process, published in October 2006, gave a clear indicative timetable. It said that by July 2007 a final announcement—no ifs, no buts—would be made of those areas that would be restructuring into unitary authorities. Well, it was not final. Out of the shambles of the application came the invitation to the boundary committee to proceed.

I task the Minister with this question. If all the other councils in Norfolk say that they do not want a change, and if they say that they want to remain with the status quo because it delivers effective and efficient local government in Norfolk, is he seriously prepared to allow the case being made by only one authority to override the views of those who are democratically elected in other parts of the county? I should be grateful if the Minister were to answer that.

My second concern is the invitation to the boundary committee. Most of us are quite surprised, given the width of its remit, that it has taken the job on. On what basis or criteria did the Government decide to invite the boundary committee to do the job? There is no doubt that they have the power, but I have heard no explanation of why, in some cases, it was decided to call a halt to the process and why, in others, it was decided to involve the boundary committee. It seems difficult to avoid a sense of arbitrariness.

I conclude by raising publicly the questions that I asked the Minister in a letter dated 14 November. They adequately sum up the concerns that have been expressed today. My first question was about the remit given to the boundary committee in relation to Norfolk, and whether the Minister would publish it. It is extraordinary that the committee is beginning work with no one else knowing what it has been tasked with. I do not see the point of that.

The second question was what time frame had been set for the review to be conducted, where it was set out and when it would be made public. The third point was that the timetable set out in the original invitation to councils in England had proved valueless for a number of proposed reorganisations. I asked what guarantee the people of Norfolk would have that the current timetable of the boundary committee, should we ever know it, would be adhered to.

The fourth question was about the powers that the boundary committee has to compel local authorities to submit information to it while it is conducting its review. We heard of the sense of menace with which the boundary committee is asking for information. That is a reflection of what has happened to local government. Many Members are concerned about that, and if the Minister can do anything about it in the years to come, it would be appreciated.

There is a sense that local authorities now look upwards to those from the Government and partnership agencies that are running them—and that they are afraid of not doing what they are asked to do—rather than looking outwards to those who elected them. That fundamental change in local government has been emphasised over the past 10 years, and it desperately needs to be cracked into.

My fifth question was whether any options for the structure of local government in Norfolk had been ruled out. We hear about the status quo not being a viable option. Who said so? Where does it say that it cannot be allowed? I have not seen it said in any Government document that two-tier local government is no longer acceptable in Britain. Of course it is. Why is it being ruled out in this case? Who said so? And who told him to say so? Is it possible for the local authorities to argue that the retention of the status quo is the best solution to the structural review?

My sixth question was about who is to pay the costs of the work of the local authorities engaged in the review at the request of the boundary committee and the Government. It is not that the majority of councils in Norfolk accepted the invitation and that the financial costs should therefore be on their own heads. They have been sucked into it, through matters completely outside their choosing.

My seventh question was about what intention there is to consult the public by way of a referendum to seek their views on the existing structure of local government and any proposed changes. The eighth was about whether the change would be implemented without the public being consulted by way of a referendum?

Those questions sum up our concerns. The Minister has a clear sense of them. Having been to a meeting in Dereham last week with a number of councillors from all the Norfolk authorities, I can say that their concerns have been more than properly expressed this morning. The real concern is that people have not asked for the change, they were not consulted about it, and they are unaware of any benefits. They do not know what they are being asked for or why. They do not know why the man who is asking them has the powers to do so, because nothing has been published. If the Minister can help us this morning, we would be much obliged.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. It is clearly a matter of great concern and interest to him and his colleagues. I thank him also for his kind words in welcoming me to the debate. I take my duties in the House seriously, although the 300 people that I left at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre may take a slightly different view.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and have discussed many of them with Members representing constituencies in the east of England and with local authority leaders—district and county. The timing of the debate is important because I am working on the terms of reference and the guidance that will be given to the boundary committee to take the next stage of the process further. That is not yet done, so the terms of reference are not sealed. I want to make it very clear, therefore, that the outcome of that process is not a done deal. Nothing is prejudged. I welcome what he expressed as his desire for an honest debate with all options under consideration. I understand and accept that he is in favour of the status quo, but I take those comments to indicate that he is not necessarily against serious consideration of change from the two-tier system.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is, and has been for some time, a strong advocate of a unitary authority, as he has shown in this debate. I am pleased that he has welcomed our proposed steps. He is right: opinions are mixed. Opinions within councils and local authorities are mixed, as are those among the public. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) reminded me that during the election in May in one of his constituency wards, an anti-unitary candidate polled just 80 votes.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said that the Government’s interest in unitaries is politically driven. Over the past year, we have not looked at any proposals for unitary status and reform and reorganisation unless they were developed and submitted from the areas affected. We received 26 proposals under that process from all political parties. Those were led rightly by politicians in local authorities, but were not party-politically driven.

I shall give way once, but if hon. Members will forgive me, I want to deal with the many points that have been made in the small amount of time that has been left to me.

Is the Minister concerned that local authorities in Norfolk are expected to come up with their own vision of a unitary Norfolk before the terms of reference have been set? Is that not nonsense?

I knew that I should not have given way. If the hon. Gentleman will give me the time, I shall deal precisely with that point. Other hon. Members have made it, including the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) brings his considerable experience from the Public Accounts Committee to the wider perspective on this debate, and we have debated before many of the issues that he raised. The steps taken over the past 12 months have met precisely the lessons that he draws from his PAC experience. We have studied proposals, some of which were based on benefits. The risks have been considered and there has been, and in some cases continues to be, a very close examination of the costs and financial viability—given my background, I ensured that that happened. The timetable for views and comments is far from being rapid and compressed. In fact, I am being urged by many to ensure that it does not take too much longer. I realise that delaying this process will not make many of these difficult decisions any easier, but I want to ensure that I take into account fully all the information and representations that we have received when coming to final decisions, just as I propose to do with the terms of reference and guidance for the boundary committee.

The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) set out three tests: efficiency, better services and decision making closer to the people. That is quite right. Each unitary proposal that we are proceeding with has met those tests, which will continue to be applied to any proposals that might emerge from the process led by the boundary committee. Either I shall cover the questions posed by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), or they will be contained in the terms of reference. I have met leaders of local authorities that might be affected and am ready to do so again at appropriate stages of the process.

On the general question of unitary authorities, I would like hon. Members to think back to the relevant White Paper and the invitation to submit proposals. Those were in response to evidence and arguments put to us at the time that, in some two-tier areas, existing arrangements simply did not deliver the governance that we require from our local communities and authorities in this modern day. There can be a duplication of services, confusion and inefficiency between the two tiers—the points outlined by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). We were also told that for some areas a move towards a unitary authority could improve accountability, create stronger leadership, and improve efficiency and services to local people. Those have been the objectives throughout the process and the criteria against which we have judged any proposals. That is very far from change for change’s sake.

On Norwich in particular, far from failing on every count, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire suggested, the Secretary of State judged—I confirm this—that there was a reasonable likelihood of the unitary proposal from Norwich meeting three of the five criteria: strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership; neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment; and support from a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. The problems were with value for money and affordability. By looking at the boundaries, we can take a closer look at whether there is a viable unitary option based on Norwich but, perhaps, encompassing a wider city boundary. From meetings that I have had recently, I am quite clear about the interests that will be in the terms of reference and guidance, and I shall reflect on points put to me in this debate and meetings before issuing those terms of reference, which I aim to do in January, so that the boundary committee can formally begin its work on the review.

The boundary committee has begun a preliminary process of contacting local interested parties and authorities to explain the process of the review and to instigate informal discussions to get background and ideas for the future. I deplore the accusations that the boundary committee has acted with menace, harassment or bullying. The plain fact is that if local authorities do not participate, they cannot play a part in and influence the debate.

The boundary committee does not have powers to compel local authorities to submit information. It is a matter for local authorities to decide how to respond. The terms of reference and guidance will set out the boundary committee’s remit, which will be made available in the House Library. I will also make them public and send copies to all hon. Members who have participated in this debate and who are affected by the constituencies covered. The time frame will be set out in the terms of reference as well. To be clear, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 does not require us to conduct referendums, but the process will last a number of months, and there will be plenty of opportunity for local authorities and the public to make their views known throughout.

I shall address a point about which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk was particularly concerned. When asked for advice, under the terms of the 2007 Act the boundary committee can recommend that the Secretary of State implements the proposal without modification or that she does not implement it—in other words, that the status quo should remain—or it may make an alternative proposal. If it does the latter, it must undertake clear consultation.

In summary, there is no predetermined number of local authorities at the end of the process, which will be open and widely consultative. The way that it will be conducted is set out in statute and there will be plenty of opportunities for hon. Members to play a full and influential part in the House and in their constituencies.

Economic Development (Falkirk)

I want to talk about the economy of Falkirk, because that is my constituency. However, to some degree, it is a false construct, because economies in our constituencies—local, regional, national and global economies—are increasingly interdependent. I shall make two points and ask two questions. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office about the enterprise strategy, because it seems to be one of the Government’s most important tasks. The Government are consulting on the strategy, and that will result in a White Paper early next year. I shall also raise the issue of the reorganisation of an agency in Scotland. It is primarily a devolved issue, but it still has important implications for many businesses and industries throughout my constituency. Some organisations that I shall mention operate within my constituency, but they may be based in colleagues’ constituencies. If I refer to such an organisation, I shall explain that it is in a colleague’s constituency, but that it employs my constituents.

I shall start by putting the issue into a localised context for my hon. Friend the Minister. I am absolutely confident that he will want to hear a good deal about Falkirk, so I shall give him some of that action. Employment in Falkirk is at 78 per cent., against the Scottish average of 76 per cent. Historically, Falkirk was an iron town: it supplied the shipbuilding and related industries on the Clyde and in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Until the late 1970s, the general assumption locally was that people would continue to be employed in the iron and related industries, and in the tertiary manufacturing industries that went with them. The typical pattern was for a man to start work at a bus factory—Alexander Dennis, for example, which still exists—and work there for his entire life. Frequently, that was the sole family income, and it was the model of employment for a good chunk of my constituency. Ironically, unemployment was higher and employment was lower than today, so when people look back to the golden age of Falkirk’s iron and related manufacturing industries, which were far greater then, they look back to a period of higher unemployment and lower mean family incomes. Generally, people were less well off.

Today, my constituency’s economy is much more service-based, and based on the fact that it is a 25-minute train ride from Falkirk to Edinburgh or Glasgow. I call the whole area, “Glasburgh”, because it is increasingly becoming one large economic entity of its own, rather like a large metropolitan area in England. Glasgow and Edinburgh are growing economies, and my constituency benefits hugely from that. Many commuters travel to service industry jobs in banks in Edinburgh and—to some degree—in public bodies in Glasgow. Many private sector organisations are based in Glasgow, too, but there is a general pattern whereby more people tend to travel to Edinburgh to work in the private sector.

The claimant count in Falkirk has decreased by 2.2 percentage points in the past half-dozen years. Falkirk is more reliant for employment on large enterprises than others, and many of my constituents are employed in the chemical industries. There is a refinery at Grangemouth in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), and he does a great deal of work with the companies in those industries. In particular, there is a very large company called INEOS, and it is expanding. It has a very successful business story, and the company employs many of my constituents. Unlike Members, they do not often care about travelling across boundaries to do their jobs, so they travel two or three miles out of my constituency and work in the chemical industry.

It is artificial to remove the chemical industry and related industries—the refinery—from the economic footprint of my constituency, or indeed of central Scotland, because if we consider the patterns of employment and the way in which the economy operates, those industries make all the difference to the local economy. If we discount the refinery and the effect of the chemical industries on the Falkirk economy, none the less, there is a varied pattern: a range of industries and companies, large and small, and their future will increasingly shape Falkirk’s future.

Falkirk has a programme called, “My Future’s in Falkirk”, which is a 10-year economic development initiative to transform the area into a diverse and modern economy, and also make it a nice place to stay. Last week, Falkirk acquired a lottery fund living landmarks grant of £25 million, the biggest ever awarded, which will go towards building two, big, nodding kelpies. A kelpie is a big horse, in case there is any doubt. It will be a fabulous landmark, sitting alongside the Falkirk wheel, which was built with funding of £80 million, much of which came from the lottery and from Europe. The wheel is one of Scotland’s foremost tourist landmarks. It does some good for the local economy, but these things take time, and the strategy of all local agencies, including the local authority, Falkirk council, Scottish Enterprise and private sector agencies that help develop the economy, will ultimately—one hopes—generate about 3,000 to 4,000 jobs. It had not gone to quite that extent until now.

The “My Future’s in Falkirk” initiative has generated a commitment, on paper at least, of £750 million of private-sector investment in the area. That is significantly ahead of its original target, which was to generate £200 million by the end of 2012. By then, 4,250 new jobs are expected. That is quite a specific projection, and I never know how those projections are made, but the significant expectation is that the initiative will generate a large number of jobs, and an additional £50 million a year is expected to be generated for the local economy.

I shall mention a couple of points about my constituency’s profile. The economy is significantly affected by Grangemouth’s refinery and chemical industry, but it is proving successful at diversification. It has its first strategic community plan, and it has notched up successes of late, with many more in sight—they are at the planning stage. The general idea is to make it clear far and wide that Falkirk is an excellent place to live, and that it has a growing economy. A masterplan has been unveiled for a 60-acre eco-friendly village. Planning is a devolved issue, and I shall not wax rhapsodic about it, but we must recognise that if one has a service economy, and many commuters hoping to travel to Edinburgh and Glasgow, where land values are high and prices are expensive, we must build houses where we can so that people can live in such locations and travel to work. We must strike a balance of course, because we want to encourage industries locally and people not just to live but to work locally.

However, we must recognise the nature of the Scottish economy and its overwhelmingly dominant area, which is the central belt between Edinburgh and Glasgow and either side of it. Therefore, the development of decent homes is very important. It is a devolved issue, but I always reflect on the importance not just of local employment but of commuters and travelling.

However, throughout the area, Falkirk has more people employed in manufacturing than Scotland as a whole. Perhaps I could say a word or two about Alexander’s, which is unarguably one of the most important companies in the area. It is a manufacturing company that exports much of its product and employs about 900 people. About three years ago, it virtually went into receivership. All those jobs were saved by a new management team, some of whom had previously worked in the company, in conjunction with what was then a Labour Scottish Executive. They turned what could have been a disaster into an enormous success, and Alexander’s continues to employ people right across the skills spectrum. Of course there are some jobs that are towards the lower end of the spectrum, but many of them are highly skilled, which is reflected by the trade unions that represent the workers there. The future for Alexander’s is generally very bright indeed.

Borg Grech Photography, which is also based in Falkirk, is a small photographic company that has developed wireless technology to allow a camera and computer to talk to each other. The technology has proved valuable to visitors to the Falkirk wheel, and the company is currently building on its success to reach out across Scotland.

Another important economic issue in my area is the redevelopment of what was formerly the Alcan site. It was a large, world-sized aluminium company site and at one stage many thousands of people were employed there. The site is no longer in operation and it is being redeveloped by the local authority, Scottish Enterprise and other agencies as part of “My Future’s in Falkirk”. Companies are being encouraged to come in and invest. It is a legendary site because many retired people in my constituency worked there. There are large numbers of former artisans who worked in iron foundries and at Alcan, which was a related industry. They tend to be in their 70s and 80s now, but they talk a great deal about the site, so what happens there is important. I hope that there will be increasing economic activity there, albeit of a different kind.

The Helix development, of which my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, is at the centre of local discussion, and the £25 million grant is crucial to it. The general principle is that by making the area attractive, we will flag up how Falkirk and the surrounding area is a good place for businesses to be based. That, in large part, will help us to move towards the target of £750 million, although I am always cautious when I refer to such figures as I like to see the colour of the money and know who the companies are and what they are going to do, rather than just see a projection. Although I absolutely welcome the principle of a potential £750 million investment, I am keen to know the detail. I appreciate that it will take time to unfold, but I shall keep my finger on the button.

Another company that I wish to mention is Malcolm Allan, a butcher’s. I went to visit it expecting something quite different from what I saw. The butchery trade has changed enormously in the past few years and, rather than being a few butcher’s shops, the company now supplies products to every town in Scotland—right across the board, even wee villages have a product from Malcolm Allan. It supplies high-quality, top end of the range pies, meat products and so forth and employs about 100 people. Such companies make all the difference to our local economy.

Lomond Plant is another great company. It has been started up by an entrepreneurial family and is doing incredibly well. The only constraint on its growth is the land around it; in one case, an owner is not keen to sell. That is a pity, as it could grow enormously. It employs several hundred people and hires out plant. People tend to work not on the site but with the plant all over Scotland. It is a great success story, constrained only by the unavailability of land in the area.

There is a Falkirk business panel, made up of local businesses, the local authority and Scottish Enterprise, which was recently joined by a group of entrepreneurs from the United States. I know from speaking to them that they were enormously impressed by the energy, drive and imagination of the business panel, which is making a great difference to our area. Environmentally, it is important to flag up the fact that 88 businesses in the Falkirk area are registered with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for waste disposal and so forth, and more than 3,000 are registered with Falkirk council.

Having given details on some of the companies in the area, I wish to make the point that local businesses, like those across the United Kingdom, ultimately tie into a much larger economy. Their success and failure will depend on not just their ability to recruit and train locally but much larger factors—the cost of money, the fiscal regime, globalisation across the board and competition from the enormous investments that India and China are making in training, science and technology and the threat or potential benefit of that to our economy.

It is essential that my constituents and businesses in my constituency get a chance to feed into the Government’s enterprise strategy. My understanding is that, due to the nature of the Administration in Scotland and devolution, there is a little confusion about what the whole thing means. The temptation for people in Scotland is to think that enterprise is a devolved issue and that anything to do with enterprise strategy is therefore devolved. In this case, many of the issues involved are manifestly reserved, and it is important for the consultation that will lead to the White Paper to be extended to my constituency and right across Scotland. Will the Minister assure me that he will examine the possibility of that happening?

Scottish Enterprise is a devolved body, and I do not intend to comment on its operation, but it acts extremely well in conjunction with many employers in my area, my local authority and other agencies. One can discuss until the cows come home how those organisations are best structured—I do not really have an ultimate view on that—but I understand that they may be restructured, in effect passing certain powers up to the Scottish Executive and certain other powers down to local authorities. In the case of a large local authority such as Glasgow or Edinburgh, I can see how that might make sense, as there are economies of scale and expertise to be made at local authority level. I am lucky enough to have excellent officers and good councillors in my local authority, but there is a danger—I shall put it no stronger—that if certain powers currently held by Scottish Enterprise are devolved to local authority level, local economic decisions may be over-politicised. They really ought to be made for economic reasons, not short-term political reasons.

Within the constraints of devolution, reserved powers and so on, will the Minister say whether he has a view on the reorganisation of Scottish Enterprise and whether he is watching its progress? I am especially impressed by the acting chief executive, Stuart Ogg, and his colleagues in my area, and I know that my colleagues who share the Forth Valley Enterprise area feel the same way. I would be concerned with developments if it looked as though we might overly politicise some local economic decisions that would be best kept at a business and economic level.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Chope. I am sure that you have an extensive knowledge of the economic situation in Falkirk, and that it has been added to by the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce). It is of course an entirely legitimate and expected role of Members of Parliament to act as advocates and ambassadors for their constituencies in Westminster and Whitehall, but there are few more active advocates for their constituencies than my hon. Friend. He never misses an opportunity to promote his constituency as a good place to live, work and do business. It is to his credit that this is the second debate that he has managed to secure in a few months on economic development in the town of Falkirk and the wider region of central Scotland, and that he has been tireless in advocating the needs of his constituency in that regard.

My hon. Friend asked specifically about how the UK Government’s enterprise strategy will be taken forward in Scotland, about the effect of the changes that the Scottish Executive might make to the enterprise network, and about how those factors interact. He was right to say that it is impossible, in the 21st century, to isolate a nation, let alone a region or town, in terms of economic strategy. These matters are interconnected and that is evidenced by the fact that there are Government Departments in both Westminster and Edinburgh with the word “enterprise” in their titles.

It is not possible to say that enterprise is either reserved or devolved; it is closely interdependent with other factors. Decisions that we take here, as a Government, on the macro-economic framework and the taxation regime, and in relation to European regulations and the wider fiscal framework within which business operates, must have an impact on local economic development in Scotland. It is false and simplistic to say that matters relating to enterprise and economic development in Scotland are devolved. That is not the case and my hon. Friend is right to highlight those factors today. I shall address the two issues that he discussed in a moment.

My hon. Friend was right to locate his comments about how the economy in Falkirk is doing within the wider picture of how the Scottish economy is doing. Recent Scottish gross domestic product figures confirm that the Scottish economy continues to grow at above-trend rates. Since the beginning of 1999, there have been 20 quarters of greater-than-trend growth, which shows that Scotland, like the UK as a whole, is performing consistently well. In contrast, over the same period, progress in some of the major eurozone countries has been constrained by sluggish growth and high unemployment, the American economy has experienced well-documented difficulties and many economies in south-east Asia have been in crisis. So, at a time of international economic uncertainty and rapidly fluctuating commodity prices, Scotland continues to perform well, and more and more people are finding work in a growing economy. This year, there have been record levels of engagement with the labour market and historically low unemployment. Moreover, there have been record highs in the number of people available to take up employment.

Those things have not happened by accident. The Government have pursued policies that combine active labour market stimulation with flexible labour market policies, which allow employers to create jobs and people to take those jobs, and which make that choice pay by ensuring that people are better off in work than they would be on benefits. Programmes such as the new deal have helped to provide more than 280,000 additional jobs in Scotland compared with 1997. The new jobs being created in Scotland since 1997 are overwhelmingly in the private sector. We do not apologise for creating more nurses, doctors, police and community support officers, but it is a myth about the Scottish economy that the growth and employment is located entirely in the public sector. That is not the case. As my hon. Friend discussed, the companies that are expanding and doing well in his constituency are typical of private sector companies throughout Scotland that have been expanding and taking on more workers. As he pointed out in his opening remarks, the Scottish employment rate is 76.5 per cent.—that is higher than the UK equivalent and has been for the past three years. The proportion of those who are economically active, meanwhile, outperforms the UK figure, and the Scottish unemployment figure is lower.

Those figures would have been inconceivable 10 or 15 years ago, when my hon. Friend and I were growing up in politics and became used to Scotland lagging behind the UK even in a time of high unemployment. Constituencies such as Falkirk and Inverclyde used to be at the back of a long tail of constituencies with dreadful unemployment figures. Unemployment now stands at 5.4 per cent., whereas the figure across the EU is 7.1 per cent. Behind those figures are people and families who can now aspire to better things for their children, enjoy more holidays and look forward to Christmas in a way that simply would not be possible were we still in the high-unemployment economy that existed when unemployment was regarded as a price worth paying.

My hon. Friend mentioned many companies in his constituency and the people who are creating jobs and driving economic growth. He mentioned in particular Malcolm Allan the butchers, which is a great example of a small, local company with an entrepreneurial spirit seeing an opening in the market and moving it forward. I would like to share with him an example from my constituency that highlights what is going on in Scotland beyond Falkirk. Port Glasgow, in my constituency, has a huge new Tesco store, which is very welcome and has created many new jobs but has put pressure on the traditional town centre. What is going to happen to the traditional small shops and businesses that employ small numbers of people and have been the backbone of the local economy for many years? My hon. Friend talked about the local butcher in his constituency making a difference; our active Port Glasgow town centre traders association is headed by the local butcher, Drew Mackenzie, who is an excellent businessman and has real entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for Port Glasgow. He is helping to drive forward an agenda that will see the town centre flourish alongside Tesco; it does not have to wither and die.

The Minister and I clearly have something in common—entrepreneurial and excellent local butchers—and it is good to hear about Drew and Malcolm. I also have a company called Composite Energy, which is looking to extract methane from under the ground. It tells me that there was considerable risk in setting up the venture, which involved people reducing their incomes and making substantial investments, and that it will not pay off for some time. Does the Minister agree that the way in which we tax such businesses is absolutely fundamental to whether they can make a fist of things in the early years?

I agree entirely. We must have taxation and broader fiscal strategies that encourage entrepreneurialism and encourage people to create jobs. Those jobs might not be created in the same volume as those created by massive employers in our constituencies in years gone by, but we are tired of putting all our eggs in too few baskets. We need a diversified employment base in those areas, and given a choice between having one factory employing 1,000 people and 10 factories employing 100, I know which I would choose. We have to ensure that we encourage those small businesses.

In the few minutes remaining, I shall address the two specific points that my hon. Friend raised. He rightly said that the Government are engaged in consultation with business in preparation for a new enterprise strategy paper next year and that much consultation has been taking place throughout the UK. He is also right to call on the Government to ensure that Scottish businesses are consulted, especially in areas that are not devolved, because we cannot simply isolate the conditions for the economic growth of small and medium-sized businesses and say that that area is devolved; it is not. I assure him that the Government will work closely with businesses in Scotland to make sure that they have an input into our enterprise strategy for the years ahead. As the UK develops its policy, it is vital that the voices of Scottish businesses are heard on many of the broader issues of taxation and European regulation that have been mentioned, and on the question of how we rise to the challenges of globalisation.

My hon. Friend mentioned the reform of the enterprise network. I shall not stray too far on to that because it is devolved, but we are all watching it with interest. We know that it is important to get this right. It is important to have a higher-level strategic view across regions—those of us who have been local councillors know about the demands on local council finances—so that we do not lose vital economic stimulation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing these issues to the House’s attention. He is an excellent advocate for his constituency and as long as he is a voice representing Falkirk in the House, the needs of business, enterprise and employers in that area will never be short of a close and articulate friend.

Digital Broadcasting (Forest of Dean)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Chope. Just to be clear about the scope of this debate, it is primarily focused on digital radio broadcasting services, although I shall touch at the end on digital television and ask the Minister one or two questions about it.

On 19 July, Ofcom announced a licence to provide a multiplex digital local radio broadcasting service in Gloucestershire. Having studied the advertisement and discussed it with colleagues who are more technically knowledgeable than me about such matters, I had several concerns about how well the digital multiplex would serve my constituents.

I wrote to Ofcom’s chief executive on 13 September to express my concerns about the tender advertisement. The advertisement implied that there would be a big focus on a transmitter at Churchdown, which would leave my constituents disadvantaged, due to the geography of our county. I also expressed concern that the tenders would inevitably focus on the urban and more densely populated parts of the county, which has Cheltenham and Gloucester at the centre geographically, and that they would tend to leave the more outlying rural areas, including my constituency in the Forest of Dean, somewhat at a disadvantage. I had a response from Ofcom on 5 October which I thought was rather dismissive of the concerns that I had raised on behalf of my constituents. I did not think that it dealt adequately with my concerns.

On 24 October, applications closed for the licence for Gloucestershire. There were two applicants: MuxCo Gloucestershire Ltd and Now Digital. Having taken some time to study their bids, I believe that neither would provide decent or acceptable coverage for my constituents in the Forest of Dean. The bid from MuxCo is much the worse of the two, from my constituents’ point of view. Looking at the mapping that has been provided, it seems that the whole western part of my constituency and three of the four towns—Cinderford, Coleford and Lydney—would be almost completely excluded from being able to receive the digital radio signal. My rough estimate is that well over half of my constituents would be excluded from the company’s broadcasts.

Is my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour aware that whereas the MuxCo proposal is disadvantageous to his constituency, it does include most of the Cotswolds, but the proposal from Now Digital, which gives his constituency a little bit of coverage, gives the Cotswolds virtually none? Does he agree that it is unacceptable for Ofcom to put out a tender that does not include the maximum number of people in both our constituencies?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Indeed, I was about to discuss the Now Digital proposal. As he may have guessed from my comments on the MuxCo proposal, the Now Digital one is marginally better for my constituents, but, as far as one is able to tell, it still excludes Cinderford and Coleford and a large chunk of the population in the west of my constituency, and, as he said, it almost completely excludes his constituency.

The extraordinary thing about both bids is that they exclude large chunks of Gloucestershire, which is actually the area covered by the broadcasting licence, but they broadcast to significant parts of Wiltshire, south Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. Many people who are not covered by the local radio stations will be able to get the signal, but many of the people who ought to be able to get it will not.

I have written to both companies, first, to try to get more accurate information. The number of people who will or will not be covered under their bids cannot be ascertained from the map—it is not very clear. I am realistic and could understand, given the geography of my constituency, if less than 100 or even 99 per cent. of my constituents were covered. Indeed, under the current analogue broadcasting arrangements, some parts of the constituency that are large geographically but relatively small in population numbers do not get very good coverage. However, a bid that excludes significant parts—three of the four major towns, and approaching more than half of my constituents—is simply not acceptable and cannot really be considered a bid for a Gloucestershire local broadcasting system.

Therefore, I wrote to both organisations and to Ofcom to ask for more information but also to ask them, particularly Ofcom, to take into account my concerns after seeing the bids and to consider whether the situation could be improved. My constituents are very concerned about it. I have had people write to me in the past about digital television broadcasting and the problems that they experience with it, and I know that many of them are concerned about problems with radio broadcasting.

The Government very much promote the move to digital broadcasting across platforms, as do I in general—it has several advantages—but it is important that as many constituents as possible are included in the digital world and that we do not set up a digital divide, with my constituents being on the wrong side of it. I would be very pleased if the Minister would address that concern.

As a result of my securing this debate, Ofcom has been in touch with my office and provided me with a helpful briefing note—at least, it is helpful in respect of the facts; it is not particularly helpful in respect of the process that it will follow. It states that it does not require that any specific areas within the outline boundary—in this case, Gloucestershire—be served, and that it does not have a preference about the transmitters that the companies use, which, of course, does not cheer me at all.

Ofcom also stated that its assessment will consider the population coverage achieved within the county as a whole, but that it is prevented from requiring that all or any part of the area be served. Clearly, that has left me with a great concern that one or either of the bids will be approved unchanged, and that my constituents will be locked out of being able to enjoy local digital broadcasting in the future. That is not acceptable.

I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what guidance her Department gives Ofcom and licensees about balancing the geographic coverage of their broadcasting footprint and the number of people that they reach, and how they balance the different areas. Clearly, they are looking at Gloucestershire as a whole. My view is that even if they were to reach a certain level of population and geographic coverage in Gloucestershire, it would be unacceptable if some parts of the county were wholly or partially excluded, particularly if they contain a large number of people. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain whether there is any way of taking that into account and ensuring that areas are not completely excluded.

I would also be grateful if the Minister would provide information about the number of people in my constituency who would be excluded from receiving digital radio broadcasting under each of the bids, and whether she thinks that it is right, as we move to a digital world, that significant parts of the population are excluded.

Finally, just to finish on the radio piece, are there any plans in the future, as there are with the analogue television signal, to switch off analogue radio signals? Clearly, it would be a serious matter if significant parts of the population were unable to receive them. For many people, particularly those who are isolated or unable to get out, radio and television as a means of communication with the outside world are incredibly important, and it would not be acceptable to cut them off.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and promise not to intervene on him again. The position is even worse than he has outlined. I understand that the multiplex platforms will serve as platforms for a variety of programmes, so that not only the BBC but commercial radio will be affected. For example, if his constituents were cut off, they would be cut off from Radio Gloucestershire and also from commercial programmes such as Classic FM, so there would be a huge void.

My hon. Friend is right. A multiplex broadcasts a range of radio stations, so if someone cannot receive a signal they miss out not just on one station, but on all of them, which is serious.

The issue highlights a number of concerns about digital television in my constituency. Digital or analogue switchover in the Forest of Dean will take place in 2010 or 2011—different parts of my constituency receive signals from different transmitters because of the geography and topology of the area. A number of people receive poor digital television reception at the moment and many have no choice but to use a satellite platform because they cannot receive a digital terrestrial signal. I have pressed the Department about that, but the only answer that I have been able to get is that when digital switchover takes place the

“'vast majority of people in the Forest of Dean will be able to get a signal”.

“Vast majority” can mean many things to many people, and given the big gaps on the radio broadcasting map it would be helpful if the Minister would clarify what “vast majority” means. Clearly, it will be not be acceptable if significant parts of my constituency cannot receive an adequate digital television signal after switchover. The Government have made plans to ensure that most people in the country can receive a digital television signal, and I had been content with previous answers until I looked at digital radio coverage and saw how patchy it was. That has elevated my level of concern about television coverage. The Minister knows that the television switchover from analogue to digital worries people throughout the country.

In the Forest of Dean, digital TV coverage is patchy, and digital radio coverage on the local multiplex is proposed to be “very poor” in one bid and “poor” in the other bid. Mobile phone coverage is also patchy in my constituency. My constituents have a right to be included in the digital future, and not to be trapped on the wrong side of a digital divide. That is the nub of the issue, and I shall be grateful if the Minister will turn her attention to it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this debate, and giving the Chamber the benefit of the attention that he has given to digital broadcasting and television in his constituency. I will deal with the specific issues that he raised, but it is important to look at the context, particularly the rapid transition to digital broadcasting that is under way.

This is an exciting time in our transition to digital broadcasting. As he and other hon. Members know, switchover began in Whitehaven at 2 o’clock in the morning last Wednesday. The analogue television signal was switched off and replaced with digital signals. That means that everyone there now has a choice of how to receive digital services. For the first time, all Whitehaven residents can receive digital television terrestrially via an aerial. That gives viewers in the area access to the wider choice of channels that is a feature of digital TV. Everyone can now receive the BBC’s digital channels, which they have been paying for through their licence fee but, until now, could not receive via an aerial. I will return to the hon. Gentleman’s point, but Whitehaven and his constituency are probably not dissimilar. It is not possible to deliver digital terrestrial TV without switching off the analogue signal.

Early evidence from Whitehaven shows that the switchover went well. There are bound to be a few hitches and glitches along the way but, on the whole, people have been able to use the equipment, and the process seems to have gone smoothly. Most people seem to be genuinely pleased with the increased choice of channels now open to them, and are getting used to using the new equipment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes some comfort from that for when the analogue signal in his area is switched off and a digital is introduced. The hon. Member knows that switchover for most of his constituents, who receive their signal from ITV West, will start in 2010.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that Digital UK and Ofcom track awareness of switchover, and awareness in the ITV West region is better than the national average at 91 per cent., which is 8 per cent. above the national average; 85 per cent. of households have already converted their primary TV, but not all their sets, to receive digital signals, which is also well above the national average. That suggests that his constituents are well prepared for switchover.

It would be worth while for the hon. Gentleman to remind his constituents why digital is better. First, it can be received by more homes. At present, only around 75 per cent. of homes receive the digital terrestrial signal, and only by switching off the analogue signal can digital terrestrial coverage be increased. We want to increase it to 98.5 per cent. Unless my officials give it to me, I do not have the figure for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. They have passed me a note stating what I knew—around 98.5 per cent. of his constituents should have access. I will write to Digital UK and Ofcom on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf to find out whether they have more accurate figures for coverage. Given the dispersal of the population in his constituency, his constituents are clearly more vulnerable, and I accept the proposition that underpins what he is saying.

Access to digital TV provides better sound and picture quality. Many people can access digital TV by other means, such as satellite, cable or broadband, but many others will wish to continue receiving TV through their aerial after switchover. One reason for switchover is to release spectrum for new and different uses, and Ofcom is consulting on that. There is a range of exciting possibilities, including high-definition TV, mobile TV, and wireless broadband, and new services are emerging daily in this fast-changing communications environment. We hope that Ofcom will shortly publish the conclusions of its consultations on how to allocate that spectrum.

The main content of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was on digital radio. The switch to digital TV provides new opportunities for people to receive digital radio services, because all the main digital TV platforms also carry a range of digital radio channels. There are some 26 digital radio stations on Freeview, and satellite and cable services offer even more.

Interestingly, radio is one area where convergence can be seen in action. It has been possible for some time to listen to digital radio not only via digital TV and digital audio broadcasting but over the internet, which offers thousands of stations that can be received through portable wi-fi radios without the need for a DAB radio to access the services. We reckon that around 15 per cent. of total radio listening is across digital platforms, so the hon. Gentleman should remember that DAB is only one way in which his constituents can access digital radio.

The Minister is right in saying that a wide range of radio stations is available on digital television and the internet. Local radio stations are available on the internet, and some constituents use that, but clearly not everyone will want or be able to do so. Will local radio stations—for example, Radio Gloucestershire and Severn Sound—be available on the digital television platform, or will it provide only national stations? That is important.

I am being told from behind that it will probably just be the national stations, but I should have thought that those other stations will be available on the net. That might be one of the solutions that is particularly appropriate to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, given the dispersed nature of its population.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has done this yet, but I was going to suggest that he engage in discussions with others in addition to the broadcasters, given the commercial way in which licences are settled. Discussions with the regional development agency and others might yield a new way of supporting funding and access to the new communication platforms. The regional development agencies certainly played a key role in rolling out broadband in areas where it was uneconomic to do so on a commercial basis, although I do not know whether that is relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. If he engages in such discussions, they may well be fruitful, and he may want to come back to me after he has had an opportunity to discuss the issue.

To date, about 5.5 million DAB sets have been sold in the UK, but we should remember that there are 100 million analogue sets. DAB sets are therefore still quite a small part of the total market, but we expect them to be one of the things that people spend their money on when buying presents over the Christmas period. In addition, one in five adults now lives in a DAB household, and we expect that figure to double to 40 per cent. by the end of 2009. We therefore expect quite rapid growth.

Recently, the second national DAB multiplex was awarded to the 4Group, which is led by Channel 4, and we hope that that will lead to the delivery of an even greater range of services. Although we are seeing such growth, I must acknowledge that the coverage of national DAB signals is a barrier to growth, as both hon. Gentlemen have experienced. Broadcasters and Ofcom have recognised that and are working to improve coverage. The BBC has already committed itself to extending the coverage of its national DAB stations to 90 per cent. during the current charter, and I hope that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean welcomes that. The commercial national stations—on the Digital One multiplex—already achieve nearly 90 per cent. national coverage. That means that those who are covered listen to stations such as Classic FM, which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) mentioned.

It is all very well the Minister quoting national figures, which say that 90 per cent. of people have coverage, but under one of the proposals, 90 per cent. of my constituents will not have coverage. Does the Minister not agree that the tendering process for the two bids is very unsatisfactory when there is such inequality of coverage in a county such as Gloucestershire?

I would agree if the decision had gone one way or the other, but we do not yet know what decision Ofcom will reach on the two applications. I cannot prejudge the view that it will take, but we do know that coverage matters, although I should make it clear—this will probably not be of enormous comfort to the two hon. Gentlemen—that coverage means population coverage. Population coverage is the key, not geographic coverage. I completely understand that that creates difficulties for those who live in particularly isolated areas, but it is population that we want to reach with these new licences—the 13 extra licences for local digital radio that Ofcom is in the process of offering in the market and which the hon. Gentlemen are concerned about.

I hope that both hon. Gentlemen welcome the fact that Ofcom is also involved in the “Future of Radio” consultation, which is looking at whether Ofcom should have greater powers to increase the licensed areas of local multiplexes and enable local stations to increase their coverage. That consultation has just taken place, and Ofcom is due to publish its conclusions shortly. The Government will be considering its recommendations on this and other issues, and I am sure that both hon. Gentlemen will want to let us have their views on Ofcom’s document when it emerges.

The hon. Gentlemen are clearly primarily concerned about the licence for the Gloucester multiplex. Those were advertised in July, and a decision is expected in January 2008, but it is clearly inappropriate for me to comment on any decisions. As I have told the hon. Gentlemen, Ofcom is bound to put a greater emphasis on population than on geography.

The Minister has been very clear about that, as has Ofcom, but one of the things that I asked her was whether she thinks that that is appropriate. It is appropriate for a national broadcasting system and national data, but is it appropriate for a local radio station completely to exclude big chunks of whole counties? Might the Minister’s Department not wish to look at that when it discusses with Ofcom the framework that it uses to allocate licences?

Let us look at what comes out of Ofcom’s review. At the end of the day, however, licences are allocated on commercial grounds, and it is for those making submissions for licences to decide how many separate stations they will have to give them the coverage that they need. If we believe that the issue is best driven by the market, it is extremely difficult for us to lay down criteria, which would intervene very negatively in the market and probably prevent the development of the sort of local radio stations that we are looking to have throughout the country. We therefore have a tension between public benefit and commercial viability, which is why I suggested that one way for the hon. Member for Forest of Dean to take the debate forward following the allocation of the licences might be to enter into discussions with the regional and local authorities to see whether they feel that they have any role to play where there has been a market failure of the kind that he alleges has occurred in the allocations. We must wait and see what happens following the allocations.

In correspondence with Ofcom, the hon. Gentleman asked why its advertisement gave Churchdown hill as an example of a transmitter that those applying for a licence might want to use. There is no determination on the part of Ofcom to ensure that that is the transmitter that is used by whoever is awarded the licence—it is simply given as an example. Again, there are clearly huge technical challenges, given the terrain of the Forest of Dean, and both of those who have applied for the licence will no doubt have put their minds to the issue. It is in their interests to increase the audience, but they must do so in a way that remains commercially viable for them.

The other issue to which Ofcom will have regard—I hope that the hon. Gentleman approves of this—is how fast the applicants will roll out transmission of the service across the area. As he will know—I am sure that Ofcom will have told him this—there is a series of other criteria to which it will have regard, and I can write to him about those if he does not have them.

The Government have no plans to set a timetable for radio switchover. The issues for consumers and the industries are far less clear-cut than they were for TV. As I said, digital coverage so far is much lower, but we are considering calls to set up a working group to consider the future of digital radio in the UK. One issue that any such group would need to consider is how to ensure that as many people as possible can have access to the great range of services offered by digital radio.

In conclusion, digital broadcasting can bring benefits for consumers, including better quality and better choice, but Ofcom must work with industries to consider the barriers to the growth of such services.

Housing (West Ham)

Before I outline some of the difficulties faced by my constituents because of pressure on the housing market in Newham, I want to welcome the commitment in the Queen’s Speech to a housing and regeneration Bill, and in particular to increasing the amount of new social housing to be built. The key challenge will be to ensure that homes that have already been promised are provided.

I want to focus on housing pressures in my constituency which need to be addressed if the Government’s aim of ensuring that everyone has access to a decent, affordable home is to be realised. My first concern is that the new homes built in my constituency should be suitable for the people who most need them. To put it simply, we must build homes for those who are in the most need—those who are already on the housing list for affordable, acceptable accommodation. I speak particularly of the 5,000 people in Newham who are housed in temporary accommodation for years on end, shunted from property to property because their salary does not allow them to get their foot on the first rung of the housing ladder.

Let us not misunderstand what that means to those families. They are often shunted from home to home as their leases finish. They do not have the stability that comes with a permanent home. They do not manage to put down roots; they cannot sign on doctors’ lists; they cannot participate in local leisure clubs; they cannot participate in the community in which they live. Children must often move schools, or travel long distances for their education, which makes it difficult for them to fulfil their potential. That situation obviously does not make for a good community, but neither does it make for an equal society. Moving home is also an expensive business, and the cost affects the very poorest people in society.

There is currently a waiting list of 30,000 for Newham. We must build enough homes to ensure that each of those 30,000 households can find an appropriately sized home at a price they can afford. The waiting list for a two-bedroomed property in Newham is about eight years, rising to 10 years for a three-bedroomed property and 13 years for a four-bed. That is the waiting list for a property—not a house. I hope that the Minister will accept that those waiting times are far too long. It is larger family homes that are most urgently needed in the borough, but those are the least likely to be built.

In a prime example earlier this year of the pressure on housing in Newham, a three-bedroomed council property in Plaistow was named by Roof magazine as the UK’s most desirable property, not because of any palatial views or extensive landscaped gardens, but because Newham council received 1,035 applications for the property from would-be tenants. Why? Although the property is well maintained, I am sure that the £81 per week rent, which is a third of what one would expect to pay in the private sector, would make it very desirable indeed for the tenant who secured it. On average the council receives more than 330 applications for each property that it advertises. What practical measures are the Government taking to ensure that new homes are an appropriate size for those on the waiting list? Living in temporary accommodation is not acceptable and does not make for effective or sustainable communities.

A second pressure that should be considered when appropriate housing build for my community is being determined is the dreadful overcrowding that families endure. Size does indeed matter. During the summer of 2006, only 6 per cent. of the homes being developed in the borough had three bedrooms, whereas 65 per cent. had two bedrooms. Smaller properties are a safer and more attractive opportunity for investors, but as young single people become couples, and lucky couples become families, the need for bigger properties grows. Those bigger properties are not available. Newham has the highest average household size in the country. According to the 2001 census it has the greatest number of households in the UK with five or more residents—20 per cent.

The lack of bigger homes is a principal cause of overcrowding, which is a huge problem in Newham, where entire families often live in one-bedroomed flats. The negative impact of overcrowding on family, education, health and community cohesion have been ably demonstrated by organisations such as Shelter, but, sadly, those impacts are all too frequent in my borough. The 2001 census showed that more than a quarter of Newham’s households are overcrowded, lacking at least one room for the number and type of people in the household. It is a London-wide consideration, and the draft London housing strategy proposes that 42 per cent. of social rented homes entering the programme should have three or more bedrooms.

Research by the Housing Corporation in 2006 indicates that about 82 per cent. of people aspire to own their own home. Nationally those aspirations are gradually being realised, with 70 per cent. of homes owner-occupied, but in Newham less than 50 per cent. of houses are owner-occupied. I hope that our aspirations to assist people to realise their home-ownership aspirations will be taken seriously.

That brings me neatly to the issue of the right to buy—its regulation and its impact on West Ham. I should certainly welcome measures to cool the overheated buy-to-let market, which has helped both to ratchet up the cost of temporary accommodation for local authorities, at an extreme cost to the Exchequer, and to decrease the affordability of housing for ordinary working families, above all in the capital. Housing benefit spend in my borough is £245 million. A third of that—£67 million—is spent paying private landlords. The average amount of housing benefit paid to council tenants in Newham is £70 a week. The average housing benefit payment for temporary accommodation is £350 a week—five times that paid to council tenants. It does not take a genius to recognise that funding additional social housing provision in my borough could prove beneficial to the Exchequer, not to mention to those families who cannot afford to work and keep a roof over their heads.

Official Newham statistics state that of the 950 new homes completed in 2005-06, only 132 were for the social rented sector. I have no doubt that the bulk of that new private accommodation will be buy to let: 45 per cent. of the market homes in London are bought to let, and the proportion is greater in areas where property is cheaper. In comparison with many parts of London, Newham is cheap. I recognise the importance of the private rented sector for those who cannot yet afford to buy their own home, and for those who are seeking more temporary accommodation, but rents are climbing as rapidly as house prices. We do not want to return to the Rachman era in London, with people being forced to pay exorbitant rents because they have no other choice.

I want to touch on regulation. The Housing Act 2004 introduced a welcome mandatory licensing scheme for larger houses in multiple occupation. It placed the onus on the landlord to register the property with the council, or face a fine. That means that environmental health officers have a much better chance of finding the properties that are more likely to endanger the health and safety of the occupants, and of improving the immediate physical conditions and management standards. I do not want the Minister to get me wrong: some landlords understand their responsibilities both to their tenants and to the wider community. However, a small number exploit their tenants, graze on housing benefit subsidies and ignore the impact of antisocial behaviour on neighbouring residents. I have lost count of the number of complaints that I have received from my constituents about absentee landlords.

There are two principal problems with the current regulations in my constituency. First, the mandatory licensing scheme only covers homes with three or more storeys. The borough contains the largest building site in Europe—if it is not, it feels that way—and some of the population is made up of migrant workers who often live in small homes, many to a room. The homes are too small to accommodate the number of people living in them, and many facets of living, some with significant links to health problems, overflow into the street and garden.

Secondly, the exceptionally high levels of occupancy are causing stress in local communities, and the local council does not have the power to do anything about it. Residents have told me that they will most likely sell and move if the situation does not improve, and their homes are more likely than not to be bought and let, thus exacerbating an already difficult situation. I have discussed the matter, albeit briefly, with the mayor of the borough, and I understand that he would not welcome additional powers unless they were accompanied by severe penalties. The financial reward for cramming houses with large numbers of people is so great that paltry fines do nothing to deter such behaviour; rather, they reinforce the contempt in which some hold the law and those who enforce it.

Little is done to protect those in smaller houses of multiple occupation. Some 80 per cent. of such homes are not covered by the mandatory licensing regime, and the vast majority in my constituency fall outside the mandatory threshold. Newham’s environmental health officers must play detective to check that standards are being met, which wastes precious time and resources. If they finally get a landlord to court, he or she would face only a risible fine. I hope that the Minister will consider extending the threshold to all houses of five or more occupants and ensure that the penalties are sufficiently severe and easy to enforce to deter those bent on breaking the law for the easy-to-obtain and high financial benefits.

I am also concerned about the density at which new homes will be built—higher density properties where viable are encouraged by the new proposals. Density of new properties has increased by almost 60 per cent. in this country. In 1997, there were an average of 25 dwellings per hectare; in 2005, there were 42 dwellings per hectare. I appreciate that higher density housing will mean that less land is needed for the proposed 3 million new homes, and that that will help to protect what little remains of Newham’s green and pleasant land, but I cannot advocate a return to the tower block estates of the 1960s and 1970s, which so drastically altered the physical landscape of our towns and cities, produced innumerable social problems, and destroyed communities.

Newham has had many high-density housing developments and by the 1980s had one of the highest concentrations of tower blocks in Britain. The developments failed as communities and the resulting social problems cost the borough and the country huge amounts to put right. The blockbusters programmes of the 1980s attempted to get rid of blocks throughout the country, so why would we want to build more of something that we have recently disposed of? Why would we knowingly recreate the same problems? Public confidence in high-rise tower-block living has been severely eroded, and therefore new blocks are unlikely to include mixed communities. I urge the Minister to look again at the issue and to ensure that we do not create isolated tower blocks of social housing that are destined for failure and disposal.

I am concerned about density. I listen incredulously to nimby debates in the House in which representatives of Her Majesty’s Opposition speak against any housing development in their area. They demonstrate little appreciation of others’ living conditions, particularly people in the capital. Newham is already densely populated and will undoubtedly become more so as we approach 2012. I am told that we will build a city the size of Portsmouth within my constituency by 2020, but even now, even in the backstreets, it is impossible not to notice the constant bustle and the number of people walking by.

The 2001 census, which is disputed locally as it tended to under-count the population, showed the population density of London to be 45.6 people per hectare. My borough, Newham, was shown to have 67.3 people per hectare, almost one and a half times the average population density of London. The 2006 estimate for the population density of Newham was yet higher at 72.4 persons per hectare. At 45.6 persons per hectare, London is the third most crowded of the major European cities after Paris and Barcelona. Some 15 per cent. of the UK’s population lives in London, but it covers less than 0.5 per cent. of England’s land mass, which has an obvious effect on the quality of life.

In conclusion, I wish to put on the record issues about which I have spoken in the House before. There are clear interrelationships between housing and poverty in my borough. The exceptional cost of housing and the problems caused by a lack of public sector housing are compounded by the impact of the benefits system. I have spoken previously of evidence from my constituents that housing benefit and the way in which it combines with other sources of income, benefits and tax creates a poverty trap for those in low-paid work. Overcrowding and unsuitable housing contributes to the stark health inequalities that people in my area face as compared with their peers in Westminster, Kensington or Chelsea. The interrelation between high housing costs and other types of deprivation is clear to me, as I hope it is to the Minister, and I believe that a strategic approach to combating the problems engendered by housing affordability and supply is imperative.

I have outlined a whole agenda of issues that I have brought to the Minister directly from the community I serve. The issues arise from a challenging reality, and are urgent and immediate to my constituents and those of many other hon. Members who serve areas in which there is high stress on housing. Will the Minister recognise that we must find real and lasting solutions to these problems? Not to do so would undermine much of what the Government are trying to achieve in the creation of a fair and equal Britain.

May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope, for what I believe is the first time? I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) has secured this debate on the important issue of housing demand in her constituency. I wish to pay tribute to her work campaigning on behalf of her constituents, particularly on housing-related topics such as overcrowding and homelessness, which I shall mention later.

My hon. Friend articulated well the serious pressures on housing in her constituency. She recognises, however, that the issue does not arise only in West Ham or London as a whole. Every region in the country now faces affordability pressures, which is why the Prime Minister has made housing a key priority for the country and the Government. Much is being done but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there remains an awful lot to do. There is a great deal to cover in the time available, and the matter must be set in context. If I do not cover all my hon. Friend’s points, I should hope that she would allow me to write to her in future.

It is clear that Newham has high levels of housing demand, as my hon. Friend stated. The number of households on the local authority register of housing increased by slightly more than 4,200 between March 2005 and March 2006, and the latest figures show that there are 5,988 homeless households living in temporary accommodation in the borough. That is one tenth of the total of households in temporary accommodation, a proportion that is, frankly, too high for one single London borough. It is imperative that we work on securing both adequate and affordable housing options in the area. Additionally, the census shows that overcrowding is an issue—more than a quarter of households were deemed overcrowded in 2001.

Although affordability is a problem nationally as well as in London, it is further compounded in Newham where average weekly earnings were assessed at £383, compared with a London average of £450 per week, and average house prices stand at £237,065. There are also relatively low levels of employment, with just over 48 per cent. of working-age adults in employment compared with an England and Wales average of 60 per cent. The number of single-person households is also relatively higher in Newham—it stands at 34 per cent. compared with an England and Wales average of 30 per cent. The borough has the highest proportion of lone-parent households with dependent children in London. All those factors fuel the demand for housing.

So, why do I mention those facts? As my hon. Friend so eloquently made clear, there is a direct link between housing, prosperity, aspiration and opportunity. If people have poor housing, they will have poor life chances. We need to intervene to deal with that. The combination of high levels of social rented tenancies and low employment levels means that accessibility and affordability are vital to get the right sort of housing for my hon. Friend’s local community.

My hon. Friend asked what measures the Government are taking to ensure that new homes of an appropriate size are being built. Planning policy statement 3 sets out how the planning system will deliver. Local planning authorities will have to identify enough land to deliver the homes needed in their area over the next 15 years. We have published new guidance that shows how councils can find the land they need. In cases where councils have not identified enough land and do not grant sufficient planning permissions, planning inspectors will be more likely to overturn their decisions and give housing applications the go-ahead.

We regard it as essential that local authorities maximise the supply of building land in their areas, and so we announced in the housing Green Paper published in July our intention to establish a new housing and planning delivery grant to reward local authorities for the delivery of new housing. We will make £510 million available for that grant in the comprehensive spending review. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing launched a consultation on how the new grant should work to provide incentives for those who are doing their bit to deliver the extra housing needed, including bringing more empty homes back into use.

Overcrowding and the supply of family homes were central to my hon. Friend’s speech, so I want to expand on those issues. First, however, I want to set the strategic context in London. We believe that the challenge posed by London’s housing needs will best be met if we give the Mayor a strong strategic role. That is why the Greater London Authority Act 2007 gave the Mayor the responsibility for producing a statutory housing strategy and for advising Ministers on the allocation of housing investment through the regional housing pot in London. In September, the Mayor launched his draft housing strategy, which will go through a period of consultation before it is finalised next year.

Last month, we announced the proposed regional allocations of housing investment, which will offer London an unprecedented £3.97 billion in 2008-11. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing is considering the Mayor’s recommendations for how that funding should be allocated between affordable housing, local authority decent homes, private sector decent homes and regeneration. All that additional funding will allow us to provide more social housing, which, as my hon. Friend said, is sorely needed in London to reduce the use of temporary accommodation and to alleviate overcrowding in the capital. The Housing Corporation’s recent bidding round reflects the proposals to improve the housing choices for Londoners in the Mayor’s strategic housing investment plan, which is part of the draft strategy.

In the meantime, we will invest £1.5 billion in the London affordable housing programme for 2006-08. Through the AHP, we have provided 6,350 social rented homes and 5,370 low-cost home ownership homes in London in 2006-07. We aim to provide 8,000 social rented and 7,870 low-cost home ownership homes in 2007-08.

Newham is central to that growth. Crossrail, the Olympics and Paralympics and the need for a legacy from those games, Stratford city and the Thames Gateway all offer an unprecedented period of opportunity for the borough and its residents. Across the borough and, specifically, in the 2012 unit at Newham, agencies and organisations are working hard to ensure that they achieve a lasting legacy from their role as one of the key host boroughs for the Olympics. That legacy will include the provision of new affordable housing and the creation of jobs for local residents. I hope that my hon. Friend will find it positive that some £38 million of London’s affordable housing programme for 2006-08 has been allocated to Newham to deliver around 500 affordable homes.

We are also looking forward to massive regeneration at Canning Town and Custom House. That project forms part of my Department’s mixed community initiative, and includes the building of 8,000 new homes and the creation of 500,000 sq m of floor space in a revitalised town centre. The aim of the £2.5 billion project is the physical, social and economic transformation of a highly accessible location in London, creating a sustainable and cohesive community.

There will also be investment in the retail areas, new or improved schools, health, leisure and other community facilities. That will reap dividends for the communities living there and in the surrounding areas. External support for the project is also strong. English Partnerships, the London Development Agency and the Greater London authority, together with a consortium of housing developers and registered social landlords, have all registered their commitment to realising the vision of Canning Town and Custom House regeneration.

I turn now to the new deal for communities in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which began with a bang on the Brooks estate—quite literally—when Watts Point crashed down under a controlled explosion in May 2003. Now, 200 new homes are being built by the community housing group and extensive internal and external refurbishments have been carried out on many of the Newham properties. Although work is expected to continue until 2010, the Brooks estate already looks greatly improved.

My hon. Friend mentioned the plight of those in her constituency who live with overcrowding. The Government are aware of that. It is a particular problem in her borough but there are also serious issues of overcrowding in other London boroughs. We are taking action to reduce overcrowding in areas such as my hon. Friend’s constituency by seeking to increase the supply of housing in general and, in particular, to increase the supply of family-sized homes.

Through the Housing Corporation’s 2006-08 affordable housing programme in London we have increased the proportion of new social homes with three or more bedrooms from 27 per cent. to 34 per cent. Through the London housing pot for 2006-08 we are also funding £20 million of works to extend or remodel social rented homes to provide family homes with four or even more bedrooms.

Following recommendations from the Mayor, which have been accepted by the Government, we shall look to increase further the proportion of homes in the Housing Corporation’s 2008-11 programme with three or more bedrooms to 42 per cent. We also want to help families to take a first step on the housing level, so we will move incrementally towards a target that will require 16 per cent. of all intermediate homes funded by the Housing Corporation—and by the home and communities agency once the Housing and Regeneration Bill receives Royal Assent—to have three bedrooms or more by 2010-11. We will also fund five sub-regional co-ordinators in London between 2006 and 2008 to work with boroughs to tackle overcrowding.

My hon. Friend mentioned with great eloquence her concern about the density at which new homes are to be built and that we should not return to the tower block estates of the 1960s and 1970s. Government policy on the density of housing is set out in PPS3. Density is a measure of the number of dwellings that can be accommodated on a site or in an area. If done well, the imaginative design and layout of new developments can lead to a more efficient use of land without compromising the quality of the local environment. The highest density of housing in London is found in Kensington and Chelsea. We need to stress the importance of good design and good quality to ensure that people have the homes that they deserve.

The Mayor’s London plan provides a matrix for residential densities. In the West Ham area, that will vary from at least 200 habitable rooms per hectare in less accessible locations up to 700 habitable rooms per hectare and more in very accessible locations, such as near town centres and major transport interchanges. The borough is already generally building to those density standards

The Government are committed to achieve a step change in the supply of housing throughout the country. We are putting in place the framework and the funding to achieve our ambitions. However, it is not just about what Government can do. It must be a shared endeavour, with private, public and third sector delivery parties all playing full roles. We must involve local communities, too. In short, everyone needs to play their part. Working together, we can make a real difference. With my hon. Friend leading her community in West Ham, I am sure that we will see the housing pressures relieved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two o’clock.