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Westminster Hall

Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2007

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 28 November 2007

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Further Education (South Yorkshire)

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

I am delighted to have secured this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I am also delighted that so many of my colleagues from South Yorkshire are here, and I look forward to hearing their contributions in due course. I hope that we can discuss a number of issues relating to further education provision in South Yorkshire, although the issues extend throughout the further education sector.

This debate originated in a recent meeting and dinner in the House attended by the principals of all the further education colleges in South Yorkshire, including Northern college—an adult education college based in the county that covers the whole northern region. As a consequence of that meeting, I decided to apply for this debate. Many issues were raised there, not least of which was the further education funding regime, which is affected by the 14-to-19 provision and will be affected by the decision to move 14-to-19 funding back to local authority budgets. I should like to express my gratitude to the principals of our colleges for providing us with the opportunity to have this debate.

I shall remind colleagues of the situation regarding skills in South Yorkshire, where there is a tradition of hard work and ingenuity, rather than lengthy study and formalised learning. The area is typified by lower educational attainment in secondary schools, lower post-16 participation and high numbers of young people not engaged in education, employment or training—NEETs, as they have come to be called. There are high numbers of unwaged adults and adults who receive incapacity benefits.

South Yorkshire is recovering well from the industrial collapse of the 1980s, when we lost our major industries of coal and steel. At the time, reliance was high on larger employers, such as the British Steel Corporation and the National Coal Board. We had fewer business start-ups and relied more on public sector employment than the national average.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, British Steel and the National Coal Board took on the post-16 education situation, particularly in Barnsley. The change in the industrial scene after their disappearance meant that the local authority had to reorganise its priorities completely, and the two education departments have concentrated on training. Does he feel that that concentration is sufficient to bring about the regeneration that we require in South Yorkshire?

My hon. Friend and I have debated many times the safety net provided in South Yorkshire by the National Coal Board and British Steel. Young people who went to work in those industries received a second chance for education through management and training schemes. I sincerely hope that the Government’s focus on training will assist us to address problems in South Yorkshire, but I fear—I shall refer to this again in a few moments—that we must address the underlying problems of literacy, numeracy and general education.

A few years ago, the Japanese company Koyo—my hon. Friend will know it well, as it is located in his constituency—tried to attract young people into its employ and give them adequate training. Provided that they came to the company with the ability to read and write and had basic skills, it would train them to do the job, but the company’s worry was that the young people’s literacy and numeracy skills were not sufficient. I hope that the Government’s concentration on training will help to improve the situation in our area.

I am pleased that the post-16 and further education agenda is receiving so much parliamentary time. We had the opportunity recently to consider some of its aspects during the Queen’s Speech debate on forthcoming education legislation. It is good to see that the post-16 agenda is firmly in focus. I hope that we shall hear the views of colleagues and the Government on apprenticeships—whether there will be enough places and employers to offer them—as well as on 14-to-19 funding, the future of the learning and skills councils, the education maintenance allowance, NEETs and the consequences of raising the school training participation age, not the school leaving age, to 18.

Where is post-16 funding likely to be allocated? The question was asked during the Queen’s Speech debate, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said that the Government were

“integrating for 14 to 19-year-olds”


“involving employers in our diploma programme and in education and training in schools and colleges. We have brought the funding of 16-to-19 education into my Department and local authorities precisely to allow that integration to work more effectively. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and I are working on that; we shall set out our proposals in due course.”—[Official Report, 13 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 568.]

My right hon. Friend indicated that funding for 16 to 19-year-olds will return to local authorities. The colleges’ first question is whether their funding will be reduced or protected and continued.

That is the key question. We have two fine institutions in Rotherham: the Rotherham college of arts and technology and Thomas Rotherham sixth form college—a big new institution where I had the honour of opening a new hall recently. They are the two lifelines for the young men and women in my constituency who will not go to university but who wish to plunge themselves into the labour market.

Ring-fenced and guaranteed funding for colleges must be flexible, and the education maintenance allowance is central to that. If funding is simply given into local authorities’ hands, there will always be a temptation, dedicated though Rotherham councillors are, to allow some of that money to slide to other local education authorities. We must ensure that the two education Departments—the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which deals with children up to the age of 18 or 19, and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—work together to send out a signal, as the Prime Minister said to the CBI on Monday, that the money will be there to reduce the 5.5 million unskilled workers in the work force to 500,000 by upskilling the other 5 million. We will therefore need lifelong education, but, again, the money will have to be found for that. I welcome the strong points that my hon. Friend is making.

My right hon. Friend has made his point eloquently. He is right to suggest that the funding must be protected and ring-fenced. He knows as well as most South Yorkshire MPs that the pressures on local government funding are constant. Probably next week, we will see a tight local authority settlement, and we need to ensure that the money for our colleges is protected.

So what about the funding for our colleges? Will it be administered by the local authorities? Will colleges receive separate funding? Will it still be distributed through the learning and skills councils? What will be the future of the learning and skills councils from now on? What role will they play in college funding? Since the days of the training and enterprise councils and the advent of the learning and skills councils, they have changed out of all recognition and been amalgamated and reformed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that, either today or in writing.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the annual statement of priorities from the local learning and skills council also refers to four special institutions—the four residential colleges. One of those colleges, Northern college, is in my constituency. One worry at Northern college about the funding proposed by the learning and skills council is that the curricula will be lessened rather than widened. For example, the college wants social sciences and humanities to be broadened, so that adult returners can go forward in their learning future. If the curricula are not broadened, the only option is to take GCSEs, which are not necessarily the right base for new learners. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider the curricula for those four institutions? Does he also agree that there is a need to review the funding for adult learners, whose contribution to the regeneration of South Yorkshire is so important?

Yes, I support my hon. Friend on that. He mentions Northern college, and we would do well to remember that we recently celebrated the Ofsted report on the college, which was one of the few to be rated as outstanding. The report was excellent and showed just how good a service the college provides. He refers to the foundation learning tier and the lack of a qualification to bridge the provision between further and higher education for adult returners. I hope that the Minister can say a little about whether the curriculum can be adjusted to provide a suitable qualification or subject for study that can provide that link into higher education for adult learners. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter.

Let me return to the idea of funding through local authorities for the 14-to-19 agenda and for our colleges. If the funding is not protected and the colleges begin to receive less funding, that will have a knock-on effect on the idea of the difference between vocational diplomas and academic qualifications. If the funding is not put in place, the vocational path will still be considered as second class to an academic career based purely on GCSEs, A-levels and so on. I hope that we will not allow that to happen and will bolster the idea of vocational training, which is so necessary.

In the debate on 13 November, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families responded to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who referred to the gap in funding between our schools and our sixth form colleges. The gap was 12 per cent., with funding for colleges lagging behind that for schools. The gap needs to be closed, rather than widened, to deal with the disparity in funding.

As I have mentioned, it will be interesting to know what the future holds for the learning and skills councils and what their role will be in the new system. Another point, which follows on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) said about residential colleges, concerns the idea of commissioning from the learning and skills councils. In the past, the learning and skills councils have commissioned tenders from large institutions. Northern college has made the point that it is a small college but a quality provider, as can be seen from its recent Ofsted report, but it is concerned that it will miss out if the learning and skills council continues to commission from large providers and does not allow for secondary commissioning from smaller institutions, such as Northern college. Will the Minister comment on that? Can he reassure Northern college that the tendering and commissioning processes will not exclude it?

The Association of Colleges, which provided a briefing for hon. Members for the meeting with South Yorkshire principals and for today’s debate, has suggested a single Government Department for those aged 14 to 19. In fact, it suggests that a single Department should cover those aged from nought to 19. At the moment, we have a division between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The Association of Colleges commented:

“It is important for one Government Department to be solely responsible for all aspects”

of education for those up to the age of 19. It makes the point that many people do not recognise the age-related boundaries, stating:

“The education and training offered pre-19 is considerably different from that offered post-19 and this could potentially threaten the efforts to open up basic skills routes through to level 2.”

The association argues in favour of

“A single national funding formula for 16-19 education regardless of…institution or location”.

That is what we have just been discussing. It also argues for

“No increase in bureaucracy as a result of working to two funding regimes”,

and for colleges

“to be able to decide their own responses to Government policy, including decisions on courses, pay etc.”

The association also stated:

“Cross-boundary student intake is not unusual for colleges and could result in some logistical confusion about funding for 16-19 education at local authority level.”

Those are just some of the issues raised by the association. They are relevant not only to South Yorkshire but across the country.

The Government want to increase participation in skills and training by raising the age for participation in schools, training and education to 18. That has been broadly welcomed by most commentators, but there are problems, some of which were referred to during the debate on the Queen’s Speech. We have to ensure that we use the resources that we have to intervene at the right point in a student’s life. The point was made during that debate that keeping someone at school for an extra year or two in a situation that they are unhappy with or do not like will not address the problem. If the problem is that kids are reaching 16 without basic numeracy and literacy skills, we should intervene earlier in their school career.

In Barnsley, Northern college has designed a qualification that extends to the age of 17, because it has found that young people in Barnsley will stay on from 16 to 17, taking advantage of the education maintenance allowance, and then enter employment at 17. However, it is worried that it cannot hold on to young people from 17 to 18. Some 8 per cent. of young people in Barnsley are NEETs—the lowest ever level—which the college is pleased with. To achieve that figure, it has worked hard with local schools, which it is essential that we do, because they must take some responsibility as well, and it hopes to reduce the figure even further.

The Secretary of State has referred to various structures that we will use to ensure that, by 2013, every young person is in education or training. They include the expansion of the apprenticeship scheme—we hope, to 500,000—the provision of proper advice and guidance to young people and the continuation of the education maintenance allowances, which have been a huge success in my constituency. Barnsley has the highest take-up in the country, which has done a great deal to improve out post-16 education, which a few years ago had the lowest participation rate in the country. I hope that that programme will continue.

The need for advice and guidance was stressed during the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Advice from the Association of Colleges has reinforced the idea that, for the national roll-out of the diploma to be successful, advice and guidance to 14 and 16-year-olds, which is usually provided in schools, requires greater independence. It suggested that local authorities should have a greater role, which was echoed during the Queen’s Speech debate. Also during that debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made great play of an organisation called Skill Force, although I do not think that it operates in my area.

An enormous effort has been made to regenerate the local economy in Barnsley, but it has no large firms, only small ones, which it is difficult to get to engage with colleges. Does my hon. Friend agree that greater flexibility is required in the provision of advice in towns such as Barnsley, to create an interface between those small businesses and colleges? That would put the authority in a much better position to provide careers advice.

My hon. Friend anticipates my next point about apprenticeships, where the same point applies. Not only the Association of Colleges, but those in areas such as ours are concerned that there is not a sufficient number of large companies to provide the number of apprenticeships needed. The Government have set a target of 500,000 new apprenticeships—a great aspiration—but the worry is that our industrial base, with so many traditional large industries having been eroded over so many years, does not have enough companies able to provide those apprenticeships. The fear is that we will lose out. He is right therefore in saying that we need flexibility to take advantage of the provision of such advice.

We must bear in mind—I realise that this is not relevant to further education provision—that some of our industries have been, and will be, affected by environmental taxation, such as the climate change levy. Further pressures from climate change and environmental taxation will affect areas such as mine and our remaining industrial base.

Diplomas are also relevant to the point that my hon. Friend has just made, and although they are welcome, I hope that they will not become second-class qualifications in the vocational world. Advice must be given to employers, because they need to understand that the diploma is a qualification of good standing. They need to realise the relevance of diplomas and to accept them as qualifications. Barnsley college has expressed this concern:

“Employers are unclear about the split in the funding and the way it will work. A very important aspect is that it is already difficult to get employers involvement in and understanding of the importance of the diplomas to vocational education and ultimately delivering the skills the employers are looking for. The government bases its claims on how the multi nationals respond. Few areas have these and there are none in Barnsley. The split between the departments simply reinforces for the employers that diplomas have nothing to do with the skills agenda.”

In South Yorkshire, we welcome the Government’s proposals on the post-16 agenda announced in the Commons and the airtime that they have received, and we want them to succeed and to benefit our areas. We want the people of South Yorkshire to benefit from the raising of the training age, from the apprenticeships and diplomas and from the provision of vocational education. Above all, we want the Government to ensure that those new structures will work, that they are copper-bottomed and that they will be adequately funded.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this debate. My constituency is served by three colleges in South Yorkshire: two big ones—Barnsley and Doncaster colleges—and a smaller one, Dearne Valley college, which is the closest to my constituency. It is only half a mile across the River Dearne in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. It acts as a good case study of how we need to fine tune the further education machine.

It is important to understand the origins of Dearne Valley college. In the early 1990s, the previous Conservative Government tried to reinvigorate deprived communities through their city challenge initiative. At that time, Barnsley council was the only local authority in the country to win two city challenges. As deputy leader of the council, I was proud of that because it showed that we were willing to work with any Government for the betterment of our constituents.

Ours was a joint city challenge between Barnsley council, Rotherham council and Doncaster council, and our vision—our flagship project—was the building of a university of the coalfields in the Dearne valley, because we could see the importance of higher education to the future of those communities. None of the coalfield communities in South Yorkshire had access to higher education provision at that time—the only place in South Yorkshire that did was Sheffield, and we wanted to correct that. However, we could not get the funding package together to deliver that university. I am not saying that we had to settle for second best, however, because that was not the case.

Does my hon. Friend recall that, in the initial stages of the development of Rockingham college, the location of the institution was an old bin depot in Wath upon Dearne? It is thanks to a Labour Government that we got a brand new college building on the site of the old Manvers pit. Is that not the case?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. It shows the lengths that we will go to, as both a Labour Government and a local Labour government, to pursue recycling.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, yesterday the Housing and Regeneration Bill had its Second Reading. As he will know, the new agency will incorporate English Partnerships, which played an important part in the regeneration of coalfield communities. Does he share my fear that the new agency may focus on the south-east rather than on the coalfield communities, as was the case previously? It is necessary to ensure that Ministers realise that the coalfield communities are still dependent on a great deal of regeneration and therefore we need the focus to be retained on those communities.

My hon. Friend, who is chairman of the all-party group on coalfield communities, is doing a magnificent job on that issue and I could not endorse his words any more strongly.

The one thing I did not mention about South Yorkshire colleges was the recent innovation whereby we now have University Centre Barnsley, due to the collaboration between the university of Huddersfield and Barnsley college, which is providing higher education within the Barnsley area after so many years without it.

Obviously, I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said. The same thing applies to the Doncaster end of my constituency, where Doncaster college has gone into collaboration with the university of Hull.

I would like to make a little progress now and get back to the Dearne Valley college case study. In the strategic area review conducted by the Learning and Skills Council, Dearne valley was recognised as an area of particular significance for planning. The review said:

“There is significant growth in Employment and Housing in the area, we feel that a local vocational Further Education College has much to contribute in providing further enhancement to the provision offered by Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham Colleges.”

Sheffield city region has established a special board to consider the Dearne valley. The Minister for Local Government, in whose Wentworth constituency the college is situated, and who unfortunately is not here this morning, has been selected to chair the first meeting of that group, which will take place this Friday, 30 November.

We have already mentioned the changes to the Government machine, as it were, and the separation of the two Departments. Dearne Valley college has some concerns about the implications of education funding for 16 to 19-year-olds being accessed through three local authorities. That means that the college must work in collaboration with Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster authorities. It is vital to emphasise the continuing importance of informed choice in driving the system for those aged 16 to 18 and in providing reassurance that funding will follow the learner, regardless of local authority boundaries. Although it is technically in Rotherham, almost two thirds of the students at Dearne Valley college come from Barnsley and Doncaster, and the vast majority of those students come from my part of the Dearne valley.

Moving on to the agenda for those aged 14 to 19, DVC is working on a number of collaborative initiatives related to diploma development. Diploma submission work is also taking place based on a DVC approach. Collaboration is essential if diplomas are to be successful. However, it is costly in terms of staff time in the preparation phase and there will be significant additional delivery costs: for example, the costs of travel where students move between education providers. I think that diplomas are the way forward and I am a big supporter of their introduction. They will be important to the future of South Yorkshire. Their one really big strength is the greater collaboration that is involved, both between colleges and secondary schools and between different secondary schools, to ensure that we have a network of diploma provision in all our areas. That is a strength rather than a weakness.

DVC is the lead college for Yorkshire and the Humber on the active participation in sports strand of the national higher education framework, to maximise the opportunities that will arise from the 2012 Olympics. I understand that there will be a national strategy for physical education in schools from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Universities seem to be well resourced to bring sport and fitness to the fore, but in FE there is no funding to support any entitlement to keep young people active. Is the Minister aware of that problem and, if so, will he raise it with his colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that it is rectified?

On adult provision, nationally, we have moved towards train to gain, but that scheme remains a contentious issue in South Yorkshire. The South Yorkshire colleges want to play their part in the delivery of train to gain. However, barriers will continue to exist if only full qualifications can be funded when individuals and employers want bite-sized chunks. Train to gain needs to be more flexible to meet the needs of both students and, just as importantly, businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises. That was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central made in his submission.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of train to gain, I wonder whether he would like to comment on the situation that arose in the summer of 2006 in South Yorkshire. At that time, a consortium of six colleges in the area bid for 1,600 places on the train to gain scheme, but they were allocated only 695 places, having been led to believe that they would achieve the full 1,600 places. Obviously, they lost out in the funding for that scheme.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. At that time, we were faced with a mini-crisis in funding for the colleges in South Yorkshire. We made representations to the Ministers at the time and hopefully that situation will not be repeated.

I know that we are still waiting for details of next year’s funding. However, the rate of standard learner numbers that we hear suggested would have a detrimental effect on college budgets and the ability of colleges to meet the demands in relation to students aged 16 to 19, when the emphasis is on those in the NEET category—those not in education, employment or training. There is also a lack of employers willing to take on apprentices, which was another point made by my hon. Friend.

There is also an issue about students with learning difficulties and disabilities. If they are 19-plus when they embark on a level 1 programme, although we can waive their fees, they are too old for education maintenance allowance and they do not qualify for the adult learning grant, as their programme is not a level 2 programme. That particular problem links with the general problem of 19 being something of an artificial barrier in lifelong learning, and I would like the Minister to say more about that issue later. I know that the issue overlaps the two Departments, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, but I would still like to hear his comments.

As we are looking at FE, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the jewels in our crown, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned: Northern college, which is in his constituency. It is an outstanding college that achieved grade 1 inspection levels from Ofsted in all categories last November.

Northern college is often referred to as the Ruskin college of the north. I am afraid that I do not refer to it as that; I refer to Ruskin college as the Northern college of the south. Northern college has brought three areas of concern to our attention as local MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone made the point about the problem with the current foundation learning tier and how that disadvantages adult learners in particular. The college states:

“The proposals for the Foundation tier do not include any broad based Humanities/Social Science curricula which would support this progression, and there is nothing available at level 2 outside of GCSEs which are not appropriate for adult returners. To put it crudely we are in danger of perpetuating a system in which the middle classes can access education, but the working classes (particularly those returning as adults) can only access skills training. For these adults to be able to progress to degree level study must be as valuable to the economy of the UK as those progressing to level 4 skills training.”

My hon. Friend made the second point that Northern college has drawn to our attention: that the LSC prefers to deal with big providers rather than the smaller ones such as Northern college. I shall not go into too much detail on that, because of time constraints.

The third point that the college made to us, on which I will elaborate, is that it has noticed that the statement of priorities calls for a review of, among others, the special designated institutions, of which it is one. It states:

“The LSC is just in the process of completing a detailed review of the four residential colleges which includes a value for money study and it is not clear what a subsequent review will add.”

That is my point. The college is outstanding in every inspection category and has already gone through one review, but we seem to be carrying out another review that is not particularly relevant.

That leads me nicely to another major concern that I have: the disparity in funding support currently available to adult learners in FE and HE. It underlines the point that FE is often considered the Cinderella part of the education service. Currently, adult learners in higher education have access to approximately £4.5 billion of support via grants, loans, bursaries and child care. That covers approximately 1.5 million adult students, taking up roughly 1.1 million full-time equivalent places in universities. Yet adult learners in further education have access to less than £500 million of support, catering for 3 million students or 630,000 full-time equivalent places. Obviously there are far more part-time adult students in FE than in HE. I know that the comprehensive spending review for the next three years has already happened, but I hope that we can revisit the matter in the short term rather than hide behind that.

As has been said, diplomas have the potential to transform our education system, particularly to the benefit of places such as South Yorkshire, but all stakeholders need to get on board. I am thinking of colleges, schools, students, parents and employers, particularly SMEs.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, when teaching diplomas, we need to encourage enterprise among students? He will have seen the figure provided in the briefing from the Association of Colleges: if we could get one in every 300 students to start their own business, it would greatly help the regeneration of the entire South Yorkshire economy. Does he also agree that there is a need to ensure that the diplomas have a currency that is accepted universally? As he knows, our focus on education in rebuilding and renewing the local economy in Barnsley has added to social mobility. Young people from Barnsley are travelling to work in Sheffield, Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds and Manchester, and a real stimulus to that is that the qualifications that they achieve are as good as qualifications anywhere. We need to ensure that diplomas have universal currency.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely forceful and valid point. Qualifications are currency in the job market, and that is what we must achieve with the diplomas. We must ensure that employers consider the currency of a diploma just as they do that of more formal academic qualifications. That is a key strand that we need to deliver as a Government; we must try to get that message over, particularly to SMEs.

Apprenticeships are popular in South Yorkshire. For example, in Barnsley in the past four years there has been a 167 per cent. growth in the number of apprenticeships. In 2002, there were 211 completed apprenticeships in Barnsley; last year there were 564. In Doncaster there has been a 147 per cent. growth in the same time frame, from 356 completed apprenticeships in 2002 to 830 last year. I support fully the drive to increase opportunities and, again, we must target SMEs to become engaged. I keep repeating that opinion, and I know that the Minister shares it. We have an over-reliance in South Yorkshire on very few large companies in the private sector and on the public sector. We need to engage more with SMEs.

I have flagged up a number of concerns that have been passed on to me by colleges in my area. Having said that, there is no doubt that the Government have done many things to improve further education, particularly lifelong learning, since they came to power. I hope that the Minister will accept that I make my points to improve the current model so that it can benefit many of my constituents who are currently disadvantaged, such as adult learners. They have been failed by the education system in the past and must not be in the future.

I remind the House, to save any embarrassment later, that the Chairman is required to call the first of the three Members who are to make winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the termination of the debate. We therefore have only 13 minutes left before I shall do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this important debate. He went through the background to the debate in some detail, including the recent economic development of South Yorkshire, and I shall not repeat the statistics that he gave. Unemployment in the area has reduced significantly but remains slightly higher than the national average—6.5 per cent. for South Yorkshire compared with 5.3 per cent. for England as whole. South Yorkshire traditionally enjoyed higher employment rates than the national average in the days of coal and steel, so we still have some way to go to rebuild the prosperity that we enjoyed in the past.

To some extent, those figures can be related to education maintenance allowance take-up in South Yorkshire. Barnsley has enjoyed a good take-up of the allowance but in Sheffield, for some reason, it is much lower and brings the South Yorkshire figure down. I am not proud to say that. The increase in take-up in Sheffield in 2006-07 was only 28.6 per cent., which brings the average increase in South Yorkshire down to 43 per cent. In England as a whole, it was 76.9 per cent. That statistic tells me something about what we need to do to build further education in South Yorkshire.

There are two parts to the problem: low aspiration, which is reflected in the higher level of young people not in education, employment or training—I hate the term NEETs, so I shall try not to use it—and Government structures and regulations that tend not to work to the benefit of further education. Those are the two points that we need to debate. Further education has a critical role to play in developing the post-16 staying-on rate, and in ensuring that we meet the economic and skills needs of this country and of South Yorkshire. Why is that the case? I have a firmly held view, based on my 10 years of experience working in further education, that young people—like anybody else—have differing needs. Some benefit from a sixth-form environment, but quite a lot benefit from the independent learning environment offered in further education. They need not to be spoon-fed but to be able to explore and learn in their own manner. In my view, many young people are ready and able to do that at a much earlier age than we have ever assumed before, which is why I welcome the involvement of FE in pre-16 education.

I want to see an education system that is increasingly geared toward the individuality of young people and that offers a mixed package, so that they can learn in a sheltered school environment and enjoy the independent learning environment of the local college. In most case, many young people would benefit from that mix. Therefore, colleges have a critical role to play, and in South Yorkshire they already cater for 61 per cent. of post-16 education. The importance of the colleges is suggested in the range of provision in South Yorkshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) mentioned Dearne Valley college. I worked at that college, which is why I mentioned its rebuild. I remember very well the old bin depot and was pleased to get out of it and into the brand new building. I will always be grateful to the Government for providing us with those wonderful new buildings. Dearne Valley college is a centre of vocational excellence for sports and fitness. One of South Yorkshire’s economic clusters is the development of sports, the fitness industry and sports medicine via the local universities. Dearne Valley needs to be embedded much more successfully in that economic cluster—the development of the sports economy of South Yorkshire—but it needs support to do that. Given the location of the college and the poor state of local transport because of deregulation in 1986, which at last we are doing something about, such support may involve helping some students to get to the college.

Northern college, which has been mentioned frequently, is a great institution that serves the whole of South Yorkshire and beyond; it is the Ruskin college of the north. The fact that we have the Ruskin collection in Sheffield underlines the point that was made earlier in that regard. Sheffield college, which is the biggest college in South Yorkshire, has a number of areas of excellence, not the least of which is catering. It has the most tremendous catering department that I have ever seen. It is good that I entrusted my wedding reception to the training department at Sheffield college, and I never regretted it for a moment. I got a much better deal from the college than I ever would have from any of the local hotels and institutions. It is an absolutely superb facility for young people in Sheffield. Many of our nationally regarded chefs come from the catering department of Sheffield college.

Sheffield college is also investing heavily in refurbishing its provision of engineering and construction, which is critical to the future of South Yorkshire. This is another of the economic clusters that I mentioned earlier and without it, South Yorkshire would grind to a halt. I am sure that the same is true across the piece in the other colleges in the area.

We need more support to encourage and incentivise young people to stay on after 16. That means that we must address the issue of why we have a lower take-up of education maintenance allowances. The Government have a role to play in that, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments.

Independent advice and guidance has not been mentioned so far in this debate, but it is a critical issue. As a former tutor, it is my experience that IAG is generally of a very poor quality in both schools and colleges, but particularly in colleges, and is underfunded. I stress the word independent—IAG has to be independent. If we want diplomas to work and to break down the divide between the academic and the vocational, IAG is absolutely critical in delivering that. If we do not fund it properly and ensure that it is embedded throughout the system, all the effort, funding and investment that we are putting into diplomas and meeting the skills agenda will fail. Many young people get badly placed in colleges and sixth forms, which is why we have the big drop-out rates at 17. The participation rate goes down not at 16 but at 17, when young people find that they are in the wrong place for their post-16 training and education.

We need more of an input from employers to deliver the number of apprenticeships that we need. Employers say a lot about the skills needs of the younger generation, but they, too, have to deliver. The Government have a bigger role to play, as well. I know that they are trying hard, but we really must crack this. Whether by regulation or more levies—I would not like to see us go down that route—we must get employers engaged in apprenticeships.

Free school meals are not offered to post-16 students in colleges, but they are to sixth-form students in schools. That inequity must be sorted out. It is totally unbelievable that we think it necessary to feed a child of 16 in school because they come from a low-wage background, but not somebody who is in college. The likelihood is that the poorer kids are far more likely to be in college than in the local sixth form. What on earth are we doing? My long-term ambition would be to feed all young people and children in schools.

In Finland, all children get free school meals. That may be a bit radical for the present times, but we could easily sort out the glaring inequity whereby kids in college do not get fed and kids in schools do. What on earth are we doing here?

Much has been said by my hon. Friends about the funding of colleges, so I will go through it fairly quickly. The point made about local authority funding and ring-fencing is a good one. Kids in South Yorkshire do not recognise the boundaries, so we need to ensure that the lines are straight and that the money meant for a fee goes to a fee when it goes through local authorities.

Other hon. Members mentioned Northern college and the need for a curriculum that enables adults to develop academically, as well as vocationally. Many of the skills needs in South Yorkshire are fairly specific to the area. Sheffield has just been awarded protected status for all locally made products, which are made by highly skilled workers. The term “made in Sheffield” is protected and cannot be used unless the product has been made in Sheffield. The only other city to enjoy that status is Windsor. We are very proud of that award, which is really important to us given our background in producing high-class cutlery, steels and so on. However, it means that the skills needs of the city are fairly special. Local further education has to be able to develop regionally. There should be locally accredited courses specifically designed to meet the needs of the area.

We have a cultural industries quarter in Sheffield that offers specialised development in the fields of film, television, art and so on. South Yorkshire has never been about just coal and steel. It has other very fine traditions, so please give FE the right to develop the courses that we need to deliver what South Yorkshire needs.

The situation is the same across the country—this is not just about South Yorkshire. If we can trust further education to be rigorous and absolutely certain about its quality and control, and if we can give colleges the chance to offer and accredit their own degrees, why on earth can we not give them the right to accredit locally and regionally their own courses at that level?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I feel slightly like a fish out of water this morning. It is my first outing on the Front Bench—I am even newer than the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson)—and also, I am a Welsh Member taking part in a debate that, although not just about England, is strongly regional. However, there are important lessons to be learned, and some of the messages that we have heard are pertinent to Wales, as well. People in the south Wales coalfields in particular will be listening to them, and I look forward to taking them back to Wales.

In that context, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) for raising this important debate about matters that affect his constituents and concerns that have been raised by many of his South Yorkshire colleagues. It is the timeliest debate possible, given the agenda on which we are now embarked.

I also want to pay tribute to the work in South Yorkshire of Higher Futures, the lifelong learning network, which seeks to combat the malaise of different learning providers and bring them together under one umbrella to provide fresh opportunities for the progression of vocational work-based learning. The network supports vocational education and lifelong learning, and, above all else, re-engagement and not just engagement. We have heard much about young people, but if the challenges of the Leitch report are to be seriously recognised, we must increase the participation of all groups in society, including young people, people who are making a change in course and the long-term unemployed. They need to be re-engaged, as well.

Liberal Democrats can agree with much of what has been said this morning, at least by Labour Back Benchers. It has been a refreshing debate. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central set the scene for why the subject is so important, not least the insufficient levels of literacy and numeracy. I used to be a teacher at primary level. If the system fails at primary level, there will be failures further along the line. It is essential that we address that.

I spoke to the principal of Barnsley college, who is one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, about funding. A real concern of hers is that if the lifelong learning networks agenda is to be pursued, there must be a seamless transition, which will require work by both the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. I liked what I heard about individualised learning. She used that expression as well, and said that we need to develop individual pathways to learning, which would involve money following the student through the education system.

There is an obvious need to provide a greater focus on basic skills. That is what employers tell us, as do students. Basic skills are the building blocks of any skills-based economy. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) discussed the disparity between middle-class and working-class participation. I have some figures on higher education. Over the past 15 years, the proportion of students in higher education with unskilled, manual worker parents has increased from 11 to 19 per cent. That is a laudable increase, but in the context of the increase in participation of those whose parents have professional occupations—from 35 to 50 per cent.—we still have a huge amount of work to do on engagement, and that means advice. We heard a great deal about advice from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith). We must address that matter and the role of further education institutions’ outreach work, which involves speaking directly with people in local schools.

It strikes me that the experience of hon. Members in their own constituencies is that the structures are in place. The local learning and skills council, under the leadership of Sheffield Hallam university, has had resources of £3.5 million guaranteed up to 2009. That is to be welcomed, but the continuing perception that further education is the Cinderella of the sector needs to be addressed. We heard that the gap in funding between schools and colleges is some 12 per cent. There are also concerns about commissioning from small institutions that really need to be looked at.

On 16 November, the Government announced their UK-wide initiative on new places for training, including some 120,000 new apprenticeships for the under-25s and 30,000 places for older workers. There may be some dispute over the figures, but as was said earlier, I hope that the Minister will discuss training, which will be workplace training, and the concerns about the capacity of local economies to offer work-based training. We heard about the lack of large enterprises in South Yorkshire. In my area, rural Wales, it is out of the question that large-scale employers will participate in such schemes, as the economy of the area is based on small and medium-sized enterprises. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that issue and on the dialogue that he is having with employers.

Looking back a couple of years, the goals of the lifelong learning network have been ambitious: 6,000 learners undertaking vocational and work-based learning across the network, and a 5 per cent. increase in learners accessing higher education. That is laudable and encouraging. I know that many of the targets have been met, but I fear a too rigid, too academic approach at the secondary level. Many young people have been switched off education. Again, if we fail at the primary level, we will fail further along the line to encourage people to pursue further education. We heard about NEETs—people who are not in education, employment or training—and the extent of the problem. Like other speakers, I do not like the expression.

The Tomlinson report advocated a wider diploma approach to secondary education that would embrace both academic and practical education. Liberal Democrats have advocated a credit-based system in which successful completion of courses should be rewarded with credits that can be accumulated and put toward a particular level of diploma. Pupils and young people need to be encouraged to mix and match vocational and academic courses. To most of us, that is the real world—that is how people function. We need a structure to support that mix-and-match approach and emphasis on workplace training. It seems to be working well in South Yorkshire, if insufficiently so—there is a mountain to climb in respect of such matters—but it is an approach that we need to continue.

The mismatch that we heard about regarding adult education is a real concern. The comparison between £4.5 billion and £0.5 billion is a serious problem. The message from this debate is that although the sector feels very much like the Cinderella of the service, we appreciate it and understand that it makes a fundamental contribution, and it is up to the Government and associated structures to provide resources.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) apologises that he cannot be here this morning. He had to pull out at late notice, unfortunately. Obviously, I was extremely pleased to be called in at the last minute to discuss someone else’s brief, but the debate gives me an opportunity to range across the further education sector. I just hope that I do not get my Front-Bench colleague into trouble by ranging too far.

Many of the challenges of further education have already been expertly outlined by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central in his thoughtful speech. I do not wish to keep Members for too long, but I wish to make several points that I hope will gain general agreement.

My first act, though, must be to congratulate our further education institutions for doing such an excellent job. We have heard how impressive FE institutions are, and hon. Members have mentioned Northern college, Barnsley college and Rotherham college of arts and technology in South Yorkshire. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) is making use of her excellent catering college. That shows even MPs how vital a role local further education colleges play in communities throughout the country. They fill a crucial gap between secondary and higher education, but too often their achievements are overlooked and their problems ignored. FE institutions are in many ways the forgotten or, as hon. Members have said, the Cinderella sector of our education system.

Hon. Members have spoken about the need for better access to high-quality vocational education and the worrying shortfall in fundamental skills, as the Leitch report made clear. As we seek solutions to improve our skills base in South Yorkshire and elsewhere, our further education institutions will, and should, play a pivotal role. Perhaps I can use the time available to me this morning to celebrate their achievements in South Yorkshire and elsewhere and to articulate a few of the challenges that face them.

One of the most attractive features of further education institutions is that they represent a much wider social mix than, for example, universities. Despite attempts to widen university participation in recent years, the social mix has remained stubbornly narrow. Recent statistics show that increases in admissions to universities from those from disadvantaged backgrounds have changed only marginally over the past decade. There is no doubt that access has been deepened more than widened, but there is debate about how far it has been widened.

I do not need to go to South Yorkshire to demonstrate how FE institutions differ markedly in social composition. Reading college in my constituency has a state-of-the-art design centre and a sixth form academy, and it teaches everything from GCSEs to PhDs. Such a wide range of disciplines naturally pulls in much wider social groups, which is why FE institutions can and should be harnessed to fill the skills gaps in local economies, such as South Yorkshire. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough made a valid point about free school meals and their availability to post-16s in schools, but not in further education colleges.

FE institutions tend to be rooted in and reflective of the local community. There is a sense of community ownership of local FE colleges, which also exists in schools but is less prevalent in universities. That was clear from the way in which hon. Members spoke about their local FE colleges this morning. Hon. Members raised a wide range of further education issues from funding differences between schools and colleges to the LSC’s role.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central rightly raised to the important issue of those who are not in education, employment or training—NEETs—in the context of increasing the school leaving age. I think that he said that NEETs in his constituency stood at about 8 per cent. Many of us across the political divide believe that compulsion is not helpful. During the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) described young people as conscripts and said that there is little point in forcing hostile 16 and 17-year-olds into occasional attendance at schools or colleges if they do not want to be there. I agree, and the Government may need to think again about compulsion, particularly as many young people in Barnsley find full-time work at the age of 17, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said.

I have always been of the view that carrot is more attractive than stick to a young person. Forcing teenagers to do something that they do not want to do will cause immediate rebellion, and encouraging young people to stay in education and training is more attractive. The hon. Gentleman highlighted the success of education maintenance allowances in his area, which has the highest number in the country. Clearly, that carrot has worked for young people in Barnsley, but I am sorry to hear that it has not worked as well in Sheffield, Hillsborough.

I note that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) used the encouragement of Government regeneration money on two occasions to encourage young people into education in a coalfield area. Dearne Valley college is making a real contribution to the Barnsley area, and the hon. Gentleman made his point extremely well in using the college as a case study running through his thoughtful comments.

There are many ways in which to offer better and more attractive opportunities to young people, but we must have real apprenticeships that offer work-related experience. The Government boast about increases in the number of apprenticeships, but the LSC has confirmed that about 50 per cent. fail to complete them. At present, apprenticeships are delivered by training providers, only 20 per cent. of which are employers. So there are no guarantees of substantial employer involvement.

Should not all apprenticeships involve systematic workplace training under the guidance of an experienced mentor? Would not that be more attractive to young people who currently opt out of the system altogether? The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) spoke about the lack of large companies offering apprenticeships in his constituency. It would be worth his while looking at how the group trade associations can make it possible to take on apprentices.

The train to gain scheme has not been a success for most young people. It has been heavily promoted, but the results have been extremely disappointing. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough made that point. Targets for learner numbers have been missed in every English region, including Yorkshire, and only 15 per cent. of learners have completed their training. My concern is that the train to gain scheme is over-bureaucratic, and it would perform much better if the brokers who act as intermediaries were removed. Indeed, the Select Committee on Education and Skills, on which I served, concluded that brokers

“may be succeeding only in adding an extra, unwelcome, layer of bureaucracy to the process.”

The fact is that most FE colleges already have well-established links with local employers and can recruit their own young people without the support of a broker.

There is also too much bureaucracy from the LSC. Further education is at its best when it serves the local community and local business together. I have outlined the problems of the train to gain scheme, but further education also suffers from too much regulation. For example, why is an FE college that wants to be flexible and responsive to local business required to seek approval for its courses from the LSC? Obtaining approval can sometimes take a long time according to those to whom I have spoken in the FE sector. FE institutions are looking for less centralisation and more autonomy in both funding and operation. That fits perfectly with the Government’s report by Sir Andrew Foster on further education, which called for

“less centralisation and moves towards greater self-regulation.”

Time is pressing, so I shall bring my comments to a conclusion. We have had a useful debate with a number of excellent contributions. The broad thrust of what hon. Members have said is that, if we are to fulfil our commitment to improve skills, support lifelong learning and strengthen vocational education, we must support our further education institutions. The Government’s further education Bill will soon come before the House, so this is clearly the beginning of an intensive debate, rather than the end. I look forward to engaging further with hon. Members in due course.

I am pleased to be here this morning, which is my first opportunity as Skills Minister to speak in an Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) for initiating this important debate. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who was present earlier. I am pleased that there has been a shared commitment this morning among all parties to this important agenda.

My hon. Friends know that, over the years, great solidarity was forged in our party between MPs representing constituencies such as mine, which is very different from those in Yorkshire, but which shared the high unemployment that blighted the lives of our young people. Many of us came into the movement because of what was happening, particularly in former coal mining areas. I was therefore pleased that one of my first major visits as Skills Minister was to South Yorkshire, where I spoke to employers and providers to get a sense of what is happening on the ground. I was particularly pleased to speak to people at the Forgemasters site in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn). Just a few years ago, the business had almost gone bust, but it has now brought on apprentices, who not only work alongside much older colleagues, but provide for the future, and they are seeing the business prosper. The company is therefore leading the way and showing what more we want to see in the region.

Hon. Members will be aware that much of my Department is also based in Sheffield, while the Sector Skills Development Agency is based in Wath upon Dearne, and I have visited both. Hon. Members will therefore see that the issue is close to the Department’s heart, and there is no way that it can slip off the agenda.

Not all Ministers can say this, but I hope to indicate that the spending review has been a good one for the sector. On 16 November, the Secretary of State announced the sector’s funding settlement for the coming period. It was a good settlement for post-16 learning and skills and will allow us to increase investment to about £12.4 billion up to 2010-11, compared with only £6.5 billion previously. I am particularly pleased that that will allow us to increase funding for adult participation by 17 per cent. over that period.

One realises just how important such funding is when one speaks to people about their concerns in sectors of the economy where people could currently almost be fully employed without qualifications. They recognise that jobs will not always be there for people who lack qualifications and that such jobs will go overseas, and they want the Government to assist them to gain qualifications.

It is important to mention the work that our union learning reps do on the shop floor, nudging, cajoling and encouraging people in their 40s, 50s and 60s to take up opportunities to acquire basic skills and level 2 qualifications. Those reps are acting in solidarity with people and preparing them for the changing economy, and that will help us to get South Yorkshire back to a position in which employment is beyond the national average.

It is also important to mention the huge capital investment that is going into the further education sector and to recall that the Government expenditure earmarked for FE was zero in 1997—it is now just under £500 million. It is important to appreciate that further education has moved on and can probably no longer be described as the Cinderella sector, as it was when many of the working-class young people whom we particularly want to flourish were unable to get funding.

Achievement records are up by 20 per cent. Post-16 participation in FE is higher than it has ever been. The number of adult learners now totals more than 3 million a year. Some 1.8 million people have gained the skills for life qualifications that we want them to have. Unfortunately, we will not be able to read about skills for life in our newspapers, but they are about more than the capital investment that I mentioned; they are about people being able to read to their grandchildren, to apply for jobs and to have the literacy that many missed out on in schools that were previously failing.

Since 2001, 16 large-scale further education capital projects have been approved in South Yorkshire, with £241 million coming from the Learning and Skills Council’s grant support. Barnsley college is benefiting from a redeveloped campus, with a new science and technology block, workshops and a sports hall.

Our continued refocusing of funding will enable us to target funding at the provision that is needed most by people in areas such as South Yorkshire. It allows us to subsidise courses, and it is important for people to recognise that there are subsidised courses in their name that offer level 2 GCSEs and national vocational qualifications and that there is a part subsidy at level 3 and A-level. People should take those courses, whether in the form of work-based learning or at local colleges.

Many colleagues have talked about the changes to the machinery of government. A letter will shortly be sent out explaining the shared principles that underpin the 16-to-19 and post-19 systems. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough argued for funding that follows the learner, and the provision will be transparent and accountable, focusing on quality and the learning experience. We need to ensure that there is coherent funding across the 16-to-19 and 19-plus systems and to recognise the many local authorities that can serve one college. That will be followed in the new year by wide-ranging consultation on our proposals, and I can reassure colleges in the area that they will be consulted. We are listening to them and hearing some of their concerns, and we are determined to get things right.

It is important to recognise that funding for the 14 FE colleges and providers in South Yorkshire has increased by £5.6 million. There has been a 23 per cent. increase in adult participation in level 2 courses in South Yorkshire. Barnsley, in particular, has seen a 45 per cent. increase over the same period. South Yorkshire has also seen an increase of just under 10 per cent. in 16-to-18 FE funding. Money is therefore going in and there is progress, and we need to build on that.

On the colleges that were mentioned, we recognise the excellent quality of existing provision at Northern college. It has not been excluded from the LSC commissioning process, and the LSC is working with it to deliver provision alongside its priorities. The foundation learning tier will be rolled out, providing progression pathways at level 2. The LSC statement of priorities shows that our commitment to Northern college is sincere, and we will work with it to ensure that it benefits.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham is not in his seat, but I should also mention the great success of Rotherham college of arts and technology and Thomas Rotherham college. In that respect, I hope to visit the region shortly.

It is important to recognise the contribution that apprenticeships will make. Hon. Members are right that there has been a growth in apprenticeships, and the situation will continue to get better. We are conducting an apprenticeship review precisely so that we can bring in small and medium-sized enterprises to ensure that our young people benefit from apprenticeships. The new vocational diploma will help to improve the participation rate—the number of those staying on until 18—and ensure that young people get work-based learning. New apprenticeships, which will ensure that people can work with smaller employers as well as larger ones, will bear down on the problem that hon. Members mentioned.

Order. We must now turn our attention to our next topic, which is the broad and very intriguing subject of welfare reform.

Welfare Reform

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and, as I am confident the Minister appreciates, my remarks will be concentrated on issues arising from this summer’s Government consultation document on welfare reform, with particular reference to lone parents. It is right, I think, to begin by saying that my comments, critical though they will be, do not undermine the principles of the welfare reform and welfare to work agenda that has rightly been at the heart of Government policy in the past decade. Huge progress has been made on several fronts, both directly, in employment, and in terms of the support services that run alongside, including the overall expansion of child care. There has been a major change in attitude and effectiveness at Jobcentre Plus, and the new deal programme and the investment that went with it has been successful.

That is a necessary and important reminder of the context of the debate. Indeed, the success of those programmes and of the Government’s overall economic strategy, with its emphasis on job creation, can be observed directly in the record of lone-parent employment in recent years. As the Minister knows, almost 60 per cent. of lone parents are already in employment, and the increase in lone-parent employment in the past decade, for which I have seen two figures—10 per cent. and 12 per cent.—is the largest entry into the workplace of any of the groups that are disadvantaged in the labour market. Thus we know already that the economic and welfare-based measures that have been directed at lone-parent employment have been successful.

In two ways, those measures have not been successful. First, they have not been successful in London. My thesis is that the relative failure of sustained lone-parent employment in London perversely demonstrates the very success of the policies that the Government have adopted in general to make work pay. Where work pays—outside London—lone parents have successfully entered employment. Where work, effectively, does not pay—in London—we have not been able to mirror that success. That tells us that incentives work, a point that I shall return to later. Secondly, my critique is about sustainability of employment, not job entry, and that, again, can be seen as relevant to London, where job entry rates for lone parents mirror those for the rest of the country, but job sustainability rates do not. A Government target that underpins the latest welfare reform Green Paper, based on job entry for a particular sector of the lone-parent population, is fundamentally misguided: it misses exactly the group of people, with exactly the problems, that we should be dealing with to be successful.

The welfare reform Green Paper proposes a quite significant tangential shift away from the incentives-based and support-based regime that has been successful across the board outside London. Central to that difference of approach is the migration of lone-parent claimants from the income support regime on to the jobseeker’s allowance regime. That is misguided and it will prove counter-productive. It is not necessary and I am most concerned about it, as are several organisations that work with children and lone parents.

Ministers have said that they do not expect the jobseeker’s allowance regime to be applied in a heavy-handed way, and I am sure that that is right. I do not doubt that it is not Ministers’ intention to come down hard on lone parents seeking jobs. However, that is not consistent with the jobseeker’s allowance regime, and it raises a question about how that regime can be applied consistently for all groups if Ministers say that they expect a slightly more supportive and gentler regime. How are lone parents to be taken out of a regime that is predicated on a quite severe conditionality test? We already know from recent statistics that the conditionality applied to lone parents on existing benefits has led to a sharp increase in sanctions in recent years. I understand that the number of lone parents sanctioned for failing to attend a work-focused interview has risen from 5,600 to 40,000. That is a very significant increase, but the sanctions regime under the existing benefits system is nothing like as severe as that which will apply when the relevant benefit is jobseeker’s allowance. Sanctions, given the increased numbers, will have a much more deleterious effect on lone parents and, worryingly, their children.

My first question to the Minister—perhaps she will not be able to answer all the specifics of my questions, in which case I should be grateful if she wrote to me with answers—is what such a sharp rise in the number of lone parents sanctioned in recent years tells us about how the system is now operating; and what warning bells that rings about the dangers for parents of the much sharper jobseeker’s allowance sanctions regime. Secondly, will the Minister clarify whether there will be two parallel systems of regulations applying to jobseeker’s allowance when lone parents have migrated on to that system? Surely Jobcentre Plus staff will have to operate within a single regulations system. Does the Minister have any expectation of the likely number of sanctions under that regime?

Does the Minister accept that sanctions imposed under the jobseeker’s allowance regime can mean the complete suspension of benefit, so that families with children are left with virtually no income, and nothing but the option of applying for benefit to be restored to 60 per cent. of its original level? That compares with a maximum loss of income of 20 per cent. under the income support regime. What assessment—this is at the heart of my concern about the proposals—has the Minister made of the implications for child poverty of leaving children potentially with no income?

Is the Minister aware of the impact of sanctions on associated benefits such as housing benefit? The reality of the situation that faces claimants in my constituency who lose benefit for even a week or two is that housing benefit is automatically suspended, putting the family into immediate arrears. If they are in the private rented sector or temporary accommodation, two weeks’ suspension of benefit alone can leave them £1,000 in debt. In fact, in-work benefit claims for housing benefit can take weeks to process. That leaves families at risk of homelessness action and bailiffs. At the very best, the families in social housing lose their chance to bid for a transfer. I can supply the Minister with numerous cases of families who have attempted to work, even under the present system, and have got into thousands of pounds of debt, with bailiffs coming into their homes, and who, despite chronic overcrowding, have been suspended from the transfer regime because a benefits claim has left them in arrears.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the housing benefit regime is central to the issue of people’s ability to afford to work? The high cost of housing and the cliff edge, as it were, of housing benefit prevents our constituents from gaining work and from living and working as people do in the rest of the country.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend, who has worked hard on the issue of housing benefit. The centrality of housing benefit and the impact of the way in which housing benefits tapers incomes, particularly for second earners in families and for people who are trying to work full time when they are in high-rent accommodation, is worrying. It is also a puzzle, as is the fact that the Government show so little interest in pursing the “Working Futures” pilot. I do not know whether that was tested in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but the system was designed for families in temporary accommodation in high-rent properties—£435 a week for Westminster council temporary accommodation—for whom improving status through work is almost impossible because of the housing benefit trap. The scheme was successfully piloted, but the Department appears to have no interest whatever in following it through. I am disappointed about that because I think that it is a good and sensible system. There are 60,000 households in London in temporary accommodation, and such a scheme could make a difference. There is a 30 per cent. difference in employment rates for people in temporary accommodation compared with families in social housing, which we need to address.

I have another set of questions about the proposed move to the new regime. The jobseeker’s allowance regulations allow for claimants to be treated as available for, and actively seeking, work. Will the Minister offer greater specificity on how that will relate to the availability of suitable child care? Is she confident about the provision of services for older children—those aged between 11 and 14 or 15, such as those who are part of the Government’s extended school programme? I must tell the Minister that I am not confident. The Government’s overall child care programme has been hugely successful—more than double the number of places are available, but they are almost exclusively for younger children. In fact, there appears to have been a levelling off in the rate of expansion in the past year or so. The Minister will be aware that the latest estimate by the charity 4Children is that there is only one place for every 200 children in the older age group in the country as a whole. There is little chance of closing the child care availability gap between now and next year—frankly, it is impossible.

What is the Department’s definition of child care for older children? There is a lack of clarity between the DWP and the Department for Children, Schools and Families regarding the definition of what extended schools are supposed to offer, yet extended schools will be at the heart of that child care provision. The extended schools offer explicitly does not offer child care. Given that extended schools are not designed to offer a service that will be at the heart of jobseeking, will the Minister say under what circumstances Jobcentre Plus staff can make a decision on what is appropriate and secure provision for older children? Given the vagueness and informality of the extended schools offer, how will staff at Jobcentre Plus decide whether provision is right for a parent or a child?

Is the Minister confident that there will be provision for school holidays, especially short holidays such as half-terms and Easter? In my area, which includes some of the most deprived communities in the country, such provision does not exist. That raises a secondary question about the use of the child care tax credit. That is taken up by very few people, particularly in London, in high-cost areas, where people need it. It is partly a take-up issue, but it arises partly because of a mismatch between the availability and cost of child care and the wages that people earn when they enter employment.

None of what I said is a criticism of the extended schools programme, which is excellent. I would like to see far more provision for children in wrap-around school hours, but I must tell the Minister that hard-pressed schools in my constituency that deal with large numbers of children on free school dinner entitlement have received an allocation equivalent to £20 per child per year for the next year. We are not going to be able to offer an 8 o’clock to 6 o’clock package with provision for school holidays based on that level of initial investment. I hope that the Minister will address that.

If a parent leaves or is forced to leave work because a child is excluded from school or from participating in a school event or is sick, or if child care arrangements break down, will the parent automatically return to full benefit under the JSA regulations? Who will arbitrate a dispute about whether it is reasonable for someone to leave employment on the JSA regime in such circumstances? Will it be possible for a lone parent to refuse a job on the ground that appropriate child care is not available? Will the DWP or Jobcentre Plus staff ask parents to use informal child care? That is a very important question, and we need clarity on it.

Will the JSA regulations be amended to ensure that no one is required to take work that does not make them better off? The regulations do not ensure that at the moment. Will the DWP fund child care while lone parents take a jobseeker’s direction? What specific arrangements are being made to help lone parents with children who have special needs? We do not have answers to those questions, and the Government timetable is short.

On alternatives, why is it not possible and, indeed, preferable, to keep lone parents on income support, which would avoid the risks I described, while making it a condition of benefit that they attend a work-focused interview? At the same time, the barriers that such people face could be assessed. After a few months, they could be moved automatically on to the new deal for lone parents and, after a few more months, they could be referred to a specialist provider. That would avoid the harshness implicit in the Jobcentre Plus regulations, and the risk of falling foul of the tougher rules on, and sanctions for, people leaving employment voluntarily.

In conclusion, work entry rates for lone parents are comparable with those for the general population. Incentives such as the tax credit do work—they are working outside London, where work pays. In places such as London, where costs are high and tax credit receipt is low, incentives are not working. We need to address that. The Department’s research confirms those things, and the Government need to take a different approach based on the one that I have outlined. It is consistent with the principles on which we agree: making work pay, overcoming barriers, keeping people in touch with the workplace and developing skills. That is consistent with everything that the Government have said about welfare reform in the past, and such an approach would be good for children, families and the economy.

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on attending the debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North outlined, the Government’s programmes to support people going into work have had some success. A system that asked little of people, whether lone parents or others, has been tightened up in the past 10 years. We expect people to keep to a combination of obligations—I like to use that term more than the concept of conditionality. Those who, for one reason or another and often through no fault of their own, find themselves reliant on the benefits system, have obligations. Alongside that, as well as expecting people to help themselves and their families, we have recognised in the past 10 years that people come with a range of baggage, and different needs and histories. That makes it difficult to have a national system and framework and to come up with a system that deals with everybody, because people are unique, as are families. That problem applies to the systems for income support, jobseeker’s allowance and incapacity benefit. That is why I have been looking closely at issues such as the jobseeker’s system.

I have been reassured by and, in some ways, surprised at, how much flexibility there is within the jobseeker’s allowance regime. At the moment, lone parents whose youngest child is 16 automatically move on to jobseeker’s allowance, but we expect to lower that to age 12 and, as is proposed in the Green Paper, to consider lowering the age to seven in years to come. Clearly, we have only recently finished our consultation on the Green Paper, so we have yet to respond formally. It is valid to ask: why, if we have been so successful, do we need to make some changes? There are a number of reasons for that and it is difficult to deal with them in the time that we have left, because we could spend a lot more time discussing this matter.

In the past 10 years, with our new deal programmes for different groups of people, whether young people or older workers, the work that we have done for lone parents, and even the expansion of pathways to work for people with health conditions and disabilities, we have been on a journey. We had a starting point where, as we know only too well, there was little support. Also, in the 20 years before 1997, we were dealing with high levels of unemployment. Not only has the economic environment changed in terms of the number of jobs that are available today, but we have high employment rates. With the right support and, as I have said, the right obligations, more people have been able to go into work.

We have to ask ourselves some questions about the difference between 1997 and 2007 and about the different provision that is available, particularly for families—whether in lone-parent or couple households—through in-work benefits, as well as through the development of child care support. As a founder member of the all-party group on child care, which my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North took the reins of in later years, I know only too well that it is and always will be difficult for any Government to come up with the perfect system of child care and work balance to meet the needs of all families. We can help and do whatever we can, but it is never easy to combine work and family life and we can just try to make it as easy as possible.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree with the basic thesis in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, which is that the capital has specific needs that the Government need to address differently?

I think that that is right. I look specifically, in a regular session, at the quarterly performance of London in terms of Department for Work and Pensions services. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics and London has a special responsibility for London. I accept that there are particular issues in respect of London and about how to make our dealings with various agencies in London work as well as possible, whether we are working with the Mayor, the London Development Agency or other bodies. An employment and skills board is being established in London, bringing those two aspects together. I will touch on that and on the announcements that were made on Monday.

On finance, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North would accept that some in-work credits have been changed: nationwide, the figure is £40, and in London it is £60.

There are some issues about the cost of housing, too. On housing and council tax benefits, I am not totally optimistic, because a number of people in work do not realise that they can continue to get access to housing and council tax benefit discounts. Clearly, we have to raise awareness of that.

At the moment, the DWP is leading on some important pilots on benefits, tax credits and the housing benefit triangle, so that when someone makes the journey into work, we can get things fixed at one point, rather than someone having to deal with lots of agencies. We are working with the Treasury on that. If that proves as successful as the first pilot in the north-east, I hope that we can consider how to deliver a better service on that front.

On housing, we will engage with colleagues in the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Minister for Housing, because there are some issues directly linking social housing and worklessness. We should consider how we grapple with those matters in different neighbourhoods and communities.

In the time that is left, I should like to deal with some of the other questions that were raised. I hope that I have dealt with, as much as I can today, and acknowledged some of the issues to do with housing benefit and housing.

The jobseeker’s allowance conditions, which I considered in great detail over the summer, are flexible enough to take account of the circumstances of lone parents. Of course, the responses that we are receiving on the consultation have given us some thoughts about how we look at that matter and about the guidance. I do not want there to be two separate regimes operating with JSA, because there are all sorts of implications with such an arrangement, and I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North is suggesting that. We are considering how to ensure that the existing guidance and flexibilities are used appropriately when dealing with a lone parent or someone on jobseeker’s allowance who has a family and child care responsibilities.

The current regime allows carers, including lone parents, scope to tailor their availability for work to suit their circumstances, linked to an underpinning minimum of 16 hours per week, so long as they still have reasonable prospects of finding work. At the start of a JSA claim, a jobseeker’s agreement is put together, setting out the hours that the claimant can reasonably be expected to work, as well as the types of work, location and wage that they are looking for. In our discussions, we are also looking at child care availability. There are already 9,000 lone parents on JSA with children under 16. Clearly, some lone parents are working with the current regime.

The issue of sanctions is important. We hope that the sanctions, and the obligations that come before them, are a way of deterring people from not engaging. I am looking at why lone parents are not attending a work-focused interview. Some 40,000 lone parents did not attend in one particular year. Considering that all we are doing is asking people to turn up for an appointment at a time of their choosing, why would a lone parent be prepared to take a cut in their family’s money by not turning up for such an interview? We will be evaluating that.

First, I want to know whether the lone parent was aware of what the interview was meant to provide. Secondly, I should like to know whether, if someone has missed an appointment, they have the opportunity to flag up why they could not make it on a particular day. I have yet to hear arguments about why it is so onerous for an individual to attend an interview to engage with them about what is available and what support there is, particularly when we are talking about their doing so when their children are at school.

We hear a lot about people not getting access to the benefits to which they are entitled, not sorting out their housing benefit and not knowing about child care. One way for them to resolve such matters is to attend a work-focused interview and ask those questions, so that we can ensure that the provision is understood and we know what the problems are.

It is valid to ask the question, because people are making a big judgment to take a cut in money for themselves and their children by not attending an interview. I am not saying that interviews work perfectly all the time, but many people, many of them women, have found them to be a springboard to helping them to focus on their future goals. Over the summer, many women have said to me, “I am so glad I was called in, because, to be honest, I would not have gone if I had not been asked.”

Briefly, on that point, will the Minister write to me after this debate and let me know how many people were sanctioned for failing to attend repeat interviews. The Government’s own research confirms that it is not initial interviews that are the problem, but people’s feeling that there is little point in follow-up interviews that do not add anything to the initial assessment. Does the Minister really, honestly believe, following the logic of her argument, that people should be losing all their benefit? There may be a case for that, but what will happen to the children?

I will write to my hon. Friend with some more detail on that matter. I understand that people do not necessarily lose all their benefits straight away: there is a graduated process and we have various hardship funds operating. However, that is a fair point. People are being asked in for an interview to get a plan of action and goals, including things to sort out—they may not be getting things that they are entitled to, they may not understand the tax credits or they may be unsure how they might be better off in work. One would hope that such things would be drawn out from one of these interviews, along with other things, such as skills and education needs, to enable them to move forward. I accept that inviting people for one interview after another without moving anything forward is not something that I want to spend DWP money on.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Economic Partnership Agreements

I should like to commence the debate with three preliminary points. First, I think that everyone generally supports free trade. However, if free trade alone could bring prosperity to the world, we would have no difficulties. The reason why the international community described the present World Trade Organisation negotiation round as the Doha development round was that there was a clear recognition among that community that a free market mercantilist approach—the sort of Gladstonian, laissez-faire, liberal approach to which the Liberal party used to subscribe—simply does not work. The international community has to intervene in trade policy to protect the weak. In considering trade policy, therefore, it is not good enough to say that the marketplace should determine everything.

Secondly, I want to make two apologies to the House. It is impossible in a debate of this kind to do justice to the many millions of people in developing countries whose livelihoods depend on the various trade arrangements that now exist, and I acknowledge that in the time available I cannot give pen portrait descriptions of all the flower growers in Kenya or small farmers in other parts of the world whose livelihoods are at serious risk, although I am sure that examples of the threats to such people will be mentioned during the debate. Nevertheless, I do not want the somewhat dry and technical nature of the debate to allow us in any way to lose track of the fact that the livelihoods of millions upon millions of the poorest people in the world are at stake.

My second apology to the House and to anyone who reads my speech in Hansard concerns the fact that this area of policy consists of almost impenetrable collections of initials, names, acronyms and other terms. I shall try to explain them as I proceed, but I am afraid that there is no way of making this debate an exciting read, because there are some quite technical interactions of various bits of trade policy.

It is to the great credit of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that, when he convened the G8 leaders at Gleneagles in 2005 under his leadership, the world made a series of commitments that has the potential, by 2015, to “make poverty history”. Obviously, the leaders of the G8 could not on their own agree a pro-trade package; that required the international community as a whole. However, the G8 signalled the importance to sustainable development of a genuinely pro-poor trade deal. To ensure that pro-poor trade deal, there was going to be a huge frontloading of aid—about $50 billion by 2010—of which half was earmarked for sub-Saharan Africa, so as to have a lasting effect. The chairman of the G8 summit concluded that the G8 must

“make trade work for Africa”,

and the communiqué to help Africa was signed by several EU leaders, including leaders from France and Germany as well as Britain. However, the Governments of those other member states have been noticeably almost silent during the EU trade negotiations.

In anticipation of the debate, the Minister asked me whether I was going to have a crack at the UK Government. In light of what I have said it is not particularly my purpose to do that. However, we are in this together. The Minister will know from past campaigns such as the millennium debt campaign and others that trade is of great concern to hundreds of thousands of people in the country, including many of our constituents. They rightly put pressure on us; we put pressure on the Minister; and the Minister has to put pressure on Peter Mandelson. Unless we shout at the Minister, when he shouts at Peter Mandelson his protests do not carry the same conviction. I hope that the debate will therefore enable him to say in discussions with Peter Mandelson at the EU Commission that trade is a matter of real concern to colleagues in the House of Commons.

The Gleneagles communiqué was supported by an extensive and detailed report from the Commission for Africa. It was an impressive document and I hope that people do not forget about it. It made clear that trade is the key to long-term prosperity in Africa. Sadly, after the G8 summit, at the last WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong at the end of 2005, there was a comprehensive failure to agree on the Doha round, and there has been no WTO ministerial meeting since then, despite the obligation to hold one every two years, which means that there should be one by the end of this year. An attempt was made to resurrect Doha at Potsdam earlier this year but I suggest that, in reality, Doha is dead. If it is not, perhaps the Minister will tell us which bits of it are still stirring.

Where does that all leave us? In the United States, there is the temporary African Growth and Opportunity Act, and in the EU there is the failing attempt to agree economic partnership agreements for the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. Mostly, those countries are in areas of former French, British or other European colonies.

Africa is where the negotiations are failing most. In 2005, the EU Commission was barely talking about the EPA agreements; it had reached an agreement with South Africa, but there did not seem to be any sense of urgency. Now, however, the clock is at five to midnight, because the WTO deadline for agreeing EPAs expires on 31 December this year—in just over a month.

It is highly unlikely that the deadline will be met for all regions. At best, the agreement on east Africa might proceed now that Kenya has signalled willingness to sign up to it, although the elections in that country mean that even that deal is uncertain. Moreover, last week, the Financial Times reported that east African countries will be forced rapidly to open their markets under the terms of a draft agreement that it had seen. That agreement will require east African countries to cut import tariffs on two-thirds of goods within two years. The agreement is reported to have a 25-year transition period for goods liberalisation, but the period will apply to just 5 per cent. of trade, which I suggest is unacceptable.

Before my hon. Friend moves on, does he agree that it is only pressure on Kenya’s horticultural industries, which could be put out of business overnight if they have to move to a system of generalised tariffs, that is forcing the conclusion of the east African agreement? East Africa contains some of the poorest and least-developed countries on the planet, such as Ethiopia and Somalia, and they, too, will have to open up their markets.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am sure that we shall hear similar points many times in the debate. The developing countries have been put in an impossible position. Either they sign up to something that they do not want, or they end up in the even worse scenario of having nothing at all. They really are between a rock and a hard place. My hon. Friend’s description of what is happening in Kenya, including in the flower industry, is absolutely correct.

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is raising an entirely reasonable concern about the negotiations on east Africa. By way of early reassurance to him, might I read the quote from Dr. Richard Sindiga, who is the Kenyan Ministry of Trade and Industry’s deputy chief economist and one of Kenya’s trade negotiators? He said:

“We have almost entirely protected those products by the most vulnerable people especially agricultural products. We will remove import duty on EU products in stages with an ultimate 80 per cent. by 2033”.

I hope that that offers the hon. Gentleman some reassurance that what people were worried about—at the end of last week in particular, I received representations from a number of civil society organisations—has not turned out to be the reality.

I have two points. First, in a previous incarnation I was the UK fisheries Minister, and it was always incumbent on Ministers to go back and explain that they had done as good a deal as they possibly could, so one sometimes has to accept that there may be a degree of special pleading from Ministers overseas when they have negotiated and concluded a deal. Obviously, they will put the best gloss on it.

Secondly and as I said, the aim of the debate is not to have a crack at the Government but to enable us to share information with one another. If the Minister feels that my information, which is drawn from people working closely on this issue, including policy advisers, many non-governmental organisations and my own team, is in some way not entirely up to date, I am sure that the House will be extremely interested to hear in due course what he has to say. However, listening to the EU Commissioner himself, Peter Mandelson, on “The World This Weekend” on Sunday, one got the distinct impression that the position was that the Commission had been negotiating for seven years and that it was now up to the ACP countries to take it or leave it. For reasons that I shall explain, that is unacceptable.

My understanding—again, the Minister may be able to help us on this—is that negotiations have broken down completely in west Africa and are stalling in the Caribbean, so what will we get? I think that we will get a fudge, which raises several questions that I hope we can address during this debate. First, does the failure to agree a package by consent and agreement reflect the fact that the package is inappropriate for the ACP countries and sub-Saharan Africa in particular, or does it reflect the way in which the negotiations have been conducted? I suspect that the answer is both, and that a number of countries will allege that the European Commission on occasion has substituted bullying for negotiation.

Secondly, if we do not have EPAs, what do we have, and where will the alternatives leave ACP countries? Is there a plan B or simply a void? The third, and in the long term perhaps most important, question is this. If EPAs are unworkable and the general system of preferences—known as GSP—is only temporary, what sort of trade deal should low-income countries have? What should the Commission be calling for? One thing is very clear: EPAs do not meet the aims of the Gleneagles communiqué, and the EU Governments who signed the declaration should be making that clear to the Commission.

How did we reach this position? As we all know, the current system of Cotonou agreement preferences, which provides ACP exporters with preferential access to the EU market, expires at the end of 2007. The Cotonou agreement legally requires the EU to leave no ACP country worse off after the expiry of the Cotonou agreement preferences, in ways that are compatible with WTO rules. The European Commission maintains that there is only one means to fulfil its obligation—EPAs.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the general rush to sign EPAs in December. When I asked the Secretary of State for International Development about that in the previous debate that we had on the issue on the Floor of the House, he said that EPAs had to be signed because of WTO obligations, but surely there are other solutions. We could have an extension of the WTO waiver, or we could look at the GSPs and avoid the raising of tariffs by January. There are legal ways in which we can avoid rushing into EPAs and work in the best interests of developing countries.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I shall come to the issue of waivers and GSPs in greater detail. It is a perfectly valid point that we should not be put in a position in which we are told that it is either EPAs by 31 December or nothing at all.

EPAs pose a serious threat to ACP economies, because we are now moving to a reciprocal relationship with ACP countries in which all trading partners have to liberalise. That is fine over time, but ACP countries need policy space. The EU is the largest trading partner for most ACP countries, but as an advanced industrialised collective economy, the EU is also one of the most powerful competitors in the world. Although it is possible to design an economic relationship with the EU that benefits ACP countries, the Commission’s current EPA proposals threaten to do the opposite. I submit that the proposals go far beyond anything that has ever been asked or that is required by the WTO and could have a serious negative impact on ACP countries.

There are three big concerns about EPAs. First, every developed country, including Britain and the United States, has used tariff protection during its history to develop industry. Indeed, every advanced economy has used tariff protection at various times during its history, but EPAs restrict that capability for ACP countries and could unleash a surge in European imports that would wipe out fledgling industries, such as Kenya’s dairy and flower sectors, as well as undercut the prices of agricultural products. Threats from the Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, mean that there could be a rise in tariffs that would equally devastate African countries. That puts at stake millions of jobs and thousands of companies in 76 of the poorest countries in the world, which depend on exports to the EU.

An example is Kenya’s horticultural industry. The sector is worth $700 million in foreign exchange to Kenya, but come January, Kenya could face a 10 to 20 per cent. hike in tariffs on all its exports to the EU, which could be sufficient to bankrupt some of its most successful export companies, which have been carefully nurtured through development aid programmes, including those of the UK. That is one of the real ironies. Many of the fledgling industries that face being seriously undermined are industries, occupations and trades that we have helped to build up with development aid over the past couple of decades. This story could be replicated across the globe from Lesotho to Namibia, from Papua New Guinea to the Pacific island of Vanuatu and from the Caribbean to Mozambique.

My second serious concern is that Governments of developing countries themselves stand to lose a major chunk of their revenue from tariffs. For instance, Zambia would lose $15.8 million—the equivalent of its annual HIV/AIDS budget. EU assurances that there would be aid to compensate only underline how this slightly crazy merry-go-round would increase dependency on aid.

The third and possibly most complex and important issue of all is how EPAs will affect regional trade. If people can get cheap widgets from the EU, why would they bother importing them from their neighbour in Africa or the Pacific? UN studies have indicated that EPAs could lead to contraction in exactly those low and medium-technology industries that are the basis for successful job creation and enterprise in Africa and elsewhere. Pitting African countries against one another is one of the most destabilising and disturbing aspects of EPAs. High tariffs between African countries have often discouraged trade between near neighbours. We should be encouraging trade between African countries. That, it appears, is what African countries want. The African Union has talked of a pan-African trade area, and the new East African legislative assembly is attempting to build a common market similar to the EU. If that is what African Governments want, we should support it, not destabilise it with EPAs.

EPA negotiations are at a critical stage. Detailed draft texts are belatedly on the table in all regions, and the Commission has set out its core negotiating parameters in all six ACP EPA regions. ACP countries are being placed under immense pressure to make major concessions. The Commission has refused many constructive offers that they have placed on the table and has failed or delayed in responding to other requests. A number of ACP regions have made it clear that more time is needed to reach pre-development trade agreements. As the deadline draws close, exporters are becoming alarmed at the prospect of high tariffs into the EU market.

The EU appears to be watching the clock. In his interview on Sunday on “The World This Weekend”, Peter Mandelson gave the impression that all trade negotiations tend to conclude at the last moment and that everyone plays it to the wire. I suspect that he is hoping that, as pressure mounts, ACP countries will have no option but to accept the Commission’s proposals. Many who have been involved in the matter, including many non-governmental organisations, are deeply concerned to hear from the negotiating room that the Commission is manipulating the prospect of development aid as well as that of the loss of market access to pressure ACP countries to agree to proposals with damaging implications for their development.

With the clear omission of a development component and an aggressive EU trade agenda, EPAs threaten the achievement of the millennium development goals. Part of the problem is that the Commission insists on including issues that are not required and were strongly opposed by the ACP at the WTO, including intellectual property, competition and public procurement. For example, the African Union’s collective position that

“except for trade facilitation, the other three Singapore issues of investment, competition policy and transparency in government procurement should remain outside the ambit of the WTO Doha work programme and EPA negotiations”

was stated in an AU Trade Ministers’ declaration of June 2005 in Cairo and reaffirmed in April 2006 in Nairobi and in January this year in Addis Ababa. On all occasions, it was simply ignored. The Select Committee on International Development, which I chaired during the last Parliament, strongly criticised the EU recently for forcing the issues on the ACP:

“the EU is abusing its position in the partnership to persuade the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries that the New or Singapore Issues are essential for development and by implying that there may be penalties if they reject them.”

So what will happen? It is now too late for credible, negotiated and detailed agreements to be established by 31 December this year. Judging from past precedents, such as the EU-South Africa trade agreement, negotiations still have two to three years to run. The available options are to agree without negotiation detailed schedules prepared by one party to the EPA talks; to agree EPA agreements that establish the key principles but leave the details to further negotiation; to replace Cotonou in January 2008 with the EU’s “next best” trade regime while negotiations continue; to create a better fall-back or interim regime for the ACP than exists at present; or to seek an extension of the WTO waiver.

The first three options are undesirable, and the latter two face problems. To agree EPAs either in principle or in detail without full negotiations with the ACP would be absurd. It would also raise questions of legitimacy. EPAs should be ratified as mixed agreements. They should certainly be ratified within the developing country agreeing them, usually—obviously, it depends on the constitution—by a vote in Parliament. That is what happened when South Africa reached an agreement on an EPA in 2002; it was ratified by the South African Parliament. Legal opinions—the most recent was secured by Oxfam—suggest that Parliaments in EU member states should also ratify such agreements. It is therefore undesirable that agreements should be reached without clarification or ratification in Parliament and without debate or details. Will the Minister confirm that the UK Parliament will have the opportunity to ratify or debate the EPAs? I understand that a European Scrutiny Committee meets on Monday. It would be helpful for the House to know what its scope will be in relation to the EPAs.

The third option is the default option, which would result in perhaps the least desirable outcome—the total void option. Even the Commission accepts that that would be a bad outcome. Officials say that, unless positive action is taken to avoid it, from January 2008, the EU will apply to imports from ACP countries the generalised system of preferences, the tariff regime applying to all developing countries.

The standard GSP regime—I stress that it is distinct from GSP+—is much less favourable than Cotonou for many ACP exports. ACP states without least developed country status will experience a jump in the EU tariff applied to some of their exports. Although many of the increases will be relatively small, 267 of the goods that they export will experience a tariff jump of at least 10 per cent. Nearly two thirds of non-LDC ACP states will see a tariff jump of more than 25 per cent. by value on their current exports to the EU; for just over one quarter of states, the proportion of goods affected will be more than 50 per cent. The figures and the impact are quite serious. The most seriously affected countries will be those that export a relatively high proportion of the products facing the steepest tariff jumps. All ACP countries will be affected, but 20 countries—including Belize, Kenya, Namibia, Suriname and Swaziland—will be hit particularly hard.

Any new tariff results in the payment of taxes to the EU, notionally by the importer but in practice, through a cut in the price paid, by the ACP. The Overseas Development Institute calculates that new tariffs of 10 per cent. or less would result in a transfer from the ACP states to European treasuries of some €156 million a year, more than 2.5 times EuropeAid’s commitment to health projects in all APC states in 2005. If tariffs of more than 10 per cent. and specific duties are included, the calculated EU tax take is much greater. Namibia, for example, could find itself paying four times as much in taxes to the EU each year as it receives from EuropeAid. However, such high taxes often will not be paid, for the simple reason that ACP exports will collapse.

The next option is a better fall-back regime, meaning GSP+. According to Cotonou, EPAs are not the only option; they are only the first to be investigated. Article 37(6) of the Cotonou agreement commits the EU to consider providing states that do not join an EPA with

“a new framework for trade which is equivalent to their existing situation and in conformity with WTO rules.”

The EU’s problem is that it has agreed to an obligation that it cannot easily fulfil. For eight years, it has failed to come up with a solution, but one regime comes close—the GSP+, available to the 15 countries that applied by December 2005.

To be an effective fall-back, the GSP+ must be accorded temporarily to all non-LDC ACP states from January 2008 and extended, at least for them, to improve its provisions covering the limited number of goods for which Cotonou is better. If the EU did so, it would avoid short-term disruption to trade, while giving all parties a breathing space in which to finalise an EPA or ratify and implement the remaining conventions needed to establish permanent eligibility. They are wholly autonomous actions that the EU can decide to take—the EU just has to do it. Otherwise, the only other option is for the Commission to introduce waivers under WTO rules. I shall return to that point.

Unlike the WTO waiver option, the solution is entirely in the hands of the EU. However, as with the waiver, the problem lies in the EU’s unwillingness to act. The casualty will be the EU 27’s credibility as a liberalising force. So far, the Commission has set its face against either of the changes to the GSP+, which the Commission alone can initiate, so we would be left with the waiver.

Waivers have traditionally been the response of choice from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states that wish to ensure the multilateral legality of their preferential accords. It is a favoured option for some in the ACP and the European Parliament. It is not without its problems, but there is a precedent that could be useful: the waiver for Cotonou that expires in 2007 was delayed for two years while the EU negotiated with objectors. Although that shows that obtaining a waiver is difficult, it also shows that the EU considers it legitimate to continue with Cotonou preferences while a waiver is being negotiated, as it did from 2000 to 2002.

The key obstacle, therefore, is EU reluctance to seek a new waiver. That leaves us in a complete mess—one that was totally predictable, as we have known for years that the EU needed to agree a trade deal before the end of this year. It would be highly irresponsible to put in place agreements that are either forced on ACP countries without adequate negotiation or agreed without the details. It would also undermine accountability through the ratification process. It would be a disaster for development if we went back to GSP, but the Commission is pushing the default line that higher tariffs will be the consequence for the blocs that fail to agree to EPAs.

That leaves us either with GSP+, which is the least nuclear option but only a temporary measure, or with the EU seeking a waiver. It appears to be doing little about that. Indeed, it is doing little about progressing towards an alternative agreement on GSP+. One thing is clear: the ACP, and Africa in particular, will not get the trade deal that they desperately need. The think-tank Open Europe put forward a list of proposals in a recent paper on how EPAs should be negotiated if they are agreed. It is a pragmatic list and includes

“a longer time frame for liberalisation”—

of up to 20 years—

“as much room for discretion as possible within WTO rules in terms of the scope of liberalisation”


“allowing individual country timetables for liberalisation, rather than a single schedule for EPA regions, to allow regional integration to proceed at its own pace.”

Other recommendations include the EU taking the threat of higher tariffs off the table, spelling out how it will allocate short-term aid to support tariff reductions and coming up with an integrated deal on preferences for developing countries with liberal rules of origin to be taken up by all low-income countries and, ideally, also harmonised through WTO agreements. That would be good, and it would also offset the trade-diverting effects of EPAs. I am sceptical that that will now happen as there are only four weeks of negotiations left.

So what is going wrong? Of course, there is no single simple solution. Removing the barriers that stand in the way of equitable global economic development requires action on multiple fronts: effective aid, debt relief, disease prevention and conflict resolution. However, world trade rules are currently a significant part of the poverty problem and fundamental reforms are needed to make them part of the solution. The capacity to trade, both among African neighbours and with the rest of the world, is the key to unlocking Africa’s prosperity. Effective world trade can and should be a powerful force for good. The numbers stack up. According to Oxfam, if the developing world were to increase its share of world exports by just 1 per cent., the resulting gains in income could lift 128 million people out of poverty. In Africa alone, that would generate $70 billion—approximately five times what the continent receives in aid. A mere 1 per cent. movement in Africa’s share of world exports would lead Africa to receive more than five times what it receives in aid.

Low-income countries need a comprehensive pro-poor trade deal at the WTO. The deal should mean that EU countries and other major industrialised countries open their markets unilaterally to the products of all low-income countries, liberalise rules of origin to make tariff and quota-free access a reality for low-income countries, offer incentives to encourage low-income countries to reduce trade barriers against their low-income neighbours, abolish all export subsidies and help low-income countries to develop their export capacity. Without a trade deal, there is the danger of going backwards on the Gleneagles declaration. With trade negotiations failing in the EU and the WTO and given the start of a new presidential race for the White House in the United States, it is time for collective action to make those reforms. Now is the time to get real about trade.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing this timely debate about an important issue that is worthy of discussion. I am looking forward to the Minister’s response—[Interruption.] I fully understand his need to disappear briefly while I am speaking, and I have not taken it personally. He will be back momentarily.

This is not about Government-bashing. We have some criticisms of the direction that the negotiations are taking, but we welcome the progress on aid and development that has been made over the past decade or so. However, a lot of that good could be undone by some of the examples given during the hon. Gentleman’s speech. For example, all the aid programmes in Kenya could be undone by the 10 per cent. tariff. That shows how ridiculous the situation has become.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I want to focus on the need to ensure that the EPA negotiations, if they have to be concluded so quickly—we can question that—put development at the top of the agenda. Development should be at the heart of such negotiations. It became clear—I wrote it down—during the meeting of the all-party group on debt, aid and trade last week, which many hon. Members attended, that this is all about the people. It is about the individual farmers whom we have met in their countries. It is about the farmers who, more recently, have visited us to ask that we campaign on their behalf. Sometimes we can get lost in the jargon, with EPAs and GSP+. Those people do not understand that. They understand the impact on their individual lives and the negative impact that the process could have.

I accept that it is necessary to replace EPAs, but I want to hear from the Minister how necessary it is to reach the deadline of 31 December without considering the alternatives of waivers. I probably do not need to go into much detail, as the hon. Gentleman has made a compelling case for the alternatives to heading at such speed to the deadline of 31 December.

The Minister will have heard many of the concerns. However, it is worth re-emphasising some of them. Instead of being pro-development and using the opportunity to push Europe forward as an area that prioritises development, we seem to be producing an open free market economy through the EPAs. Instead of offering a protective environment, in which those countries can develop in the short term, they are being opened up to the rigors of free trade. The policy sets developed against developing and opens markets up to competition before they are ready.

Those who were present at the meeting of the all-party group a couple of weeks ago were fascinated to hear some of the evidence about whether free trade and liberalisation is a good thing. We tend to have a mantra that says that we are all in favour of free trade and liberalisation, but some economists are producing a lot of work that demonstrates that there is not an automatic link between the two. Many other parts of liberalisation, including some tariff protection, are an important part of the mix.

We need to look more deeply at some of the work that is available on how unreliable free trade and liberalisation can be. We need to be critical of merely joining a train that is headed in a particular direction and we must question some of the fundamentals. I hope that we can consider that today and see what benefits people believe will come out of the headlong rush into free trade.

I am concerned that the agreements will not help local produce to develop in its own country. We have heard examples of companies that will be pushed out and products that may flood in from EU countries—subsidised products that will damage the development of value-added goods that offer a way for a developing country to make more money from its resources through sectors such as agroprocessing, clothing and textiles. I am sure that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) will talk about his experience in the Seychelles. Those producers and others who know the potential impact of the EPAs have genuine concerns. I am sure that he will want to talk about that in more detail.

The hon. Member for Banbury rightly mentioned that regional trading between countries would be reduced because of the blocs, and other countries could or would lose out to increased goods coming in from the EU. The blocs cut across the regional groups, which should not be broken up. In fact, we should be helping to strengthen those groups, so that we set up the African free trade equivalent of the European Union. Allowing that flood could damage many of those fledgling industries, which need support, rather than total exposure.

The danger is that social spending could be cut as Government tax revenues are impacted and Governments lose valuable money. The figure of $15 million has been quoted, and it is equivalent to the expenditure on Malawi’s HIV programme. It does not sound a lot to us, but $15.8 million has a significant impact on the work that Governments do in such countries. Furthermore, such black holes in Government revenue must be filled with—guess what—EU aid and aid commitments. That is contradictory, and it needs to be sorted out, because it is ridiculous for us to rush headlong into agreeing EPAs, only to end up picking up the bill for their impact. We therefore need to do a little more joined-up thinking about the impact of EPAs.

We have been promised that any opening up of markets that results in the Governments that will be particularly affected losing revenue would be dealt with through aid, but I do not think that we should be giving that reassurance. I would much prefer us to go back to first base and reassure countries that they will not need our aid because we will sort out the tariff problems in the first place.

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the difficulty for many ACP countries in these negotiations is that the EU is not only their largest trading partner, but their largest development assistance donor? They are therefore between a rock and a hard place if they do not sign these agreements.

I accept that, and the term “bullying” has been used on numerous occasions in various articles and briefings. There is a real difficulty for such countries, and although we often hear reassuring words at Government level—we would, would we not?—individual Members of Parliament in some countries feel a little less secure about the direction that is being taken. The hon. Gentleman is right that the EU is the biggest donor and that there is pressure to be seen to be of some assistance in trying to hit the deadline, but there is a contradiction there.

The hon. Gentleman’s remarks also raise the issue of capacity—the number of people with the expertise to negotiate on behalf of such countries. Again, we need to take the issue seriously. It was taken up seriously in the Doha round, and capacity building was a welcome part of what the UK Government did; indeed, I am sure that the Minister will tell us of other examples of where we have tried to assist with capacity building. However, it is still difficult for small countries to face negotiating teams from the EU or individual Governments in bilateral discussions. We therefore need to ensure that there is a level playing field in the negotiations.

We must accept that the Government have come a long way, and that is particularly true of 2005, when the Prime Minister and the documents that this country produced put us in the right place—all the words were there and the intentions were good. To return to the first comments by the hon. Member for Banbury, the debate is about giving the Minister extra grist to his mill, so that he can go to Brussels and say, “Look, we are cognisant of the problems that will arise.” We know that the Government want to get the best deal for the poor and the development agenda, but we need to ensure that that is delivered at EU level.

Producers in ACP countries are voicing concerns, and industrialists are worried—this is not only about NGOs and civil society, but about a large group of people across society. As the hon. Gentleman knows, parliamentarians recently held a couple of events to raise such issues, and a Ugandan MP, the hon. Joseph Mugambe, expressed concerns about the way in which EPAs were being forced on his country, with Parliament given no time to scrutinise and vote on them. He was worried for his country and lamented the lack of responses and understanding from the European Commission. He felt that EPAs were a bad deal for his country, but he was resigned to the fact that Uganda would sign up because the pressure applied to senior Government figures was so heavy, which goes back to the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Ghana is also under pressure to sign agreements, with British officials using their influence to ensure that countries sign. In a way, that is quite welcome, but the question is whether the negotiations have been fair all the way through, and I would like to hear whether the Minister is confident that that has been the case.

NGOs and the trade justice movement have rightly been upfront on the issue. As the hon. Gentleman said, just a small increase in trade would lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty—far more than increases in aid spending or some of the work that we have done on debt cancellation would achieve. Trade is the real key, and if we get things wrong this time, we could increase poverty, rather than reduce it, which would be a terrible step backwards when so much progress has been made recently.

Last week saw the draft East African Community-EC EPA—unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman said, this is one of those issues that uses a lot of acronyms. Although the term “draft EAC-EC EPA” rolls easily of the tongue, it is in direct contradiction with the UK’s policy on EPAs because it will undermine regional integration and impose rapid liberalisation, with the EAC opening up 63 per cent. of its trade by 2010, while access to the EU might be reduced because of stricter EU safeguards. The 10-year timing on the 63 per cent. is important, given that most countries understood that there would be a longer lead-in time of 25 years.

As the comments by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Banbury about the EAC negotiations show, there has been considerable concern about the issue. On the 63 per cent., let me reassure my hon. Friend that 63 per cent. of goods in the EAC already have no tariffs in respect of the EU. What has happened so far is that that has been written into the agreement. There is no fundamental change as regards the 63 per cent. I hope that that gives him, the hon. Gentleman and civil society groups that have followed the issue closely some reassurance.

I am grateful for that intervention because the shifting sands of this process mean that things are changing almost from day to day even though the deadline is tight. As regards the 10-year or 25-year period, I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the progress that is being made on the remaining 37 per cent. of goods and continue to bring pressure to bear. We hold debates such as this precisely to tease out some of the more detailed points, which are fundamental to the overall way in which the policy is developing.

As I was saying, such issues have been raised not by a minority of commentators, but by a wide range of people in civil society. At last week’s meeting, my colleagues and I met Aissata from the Agency for Co-operation and Research Development, a Kenya-based charity. To return to a point that I made earlier, she talked about the effects on individual farmers of the issues that we are discussing—her charity is one of those that looks after individual farmers in parts of Kenya. So often, discussions about development issues deal with numbers, facts, figures and legal arguments, and we forget that it is the people on the ground whom we are trying to help.

Aissata spoke very movingly about the small-scale subsistence farmers—usually women—who grow tea and flowers. They have had really poor experiences with previous programmes and have lost out in any new agreements, so they are worried about what will happen this time around. They have heard of EPAs because they know that the negotiations are going on. They are genuinely worried about the impact on their livelihoods and about whether they will, literally, be able to feed their families if changes suddenly take place over the next year or so.

The Commission is proposing a two-step approach, with countries signing interim EPAs by the end of this year and full EPAs by the end of next year. As we have heard, however, there are alternatives, and I urge the Minister to look at them to see whether there are other ways to deal with the process. I know that such negotiations always go to the wire and that time pressure usually means that we get a deal, but the pressure to introduce legislation quickly in the House often means that it is poor legislation. Although there is pressure to negotiate—without it, the negotiations could go on for ever—I urge the Minister to find a middle way and a timetable that allows us to have full negotiations and capacity building in the meantime.

To quote a recent statement from the Network of African Trade Unions:

“the deal that has now been presented to a number of regions, which has been dubbed ‘EPAs light’, will still have dire consequences for our economies and jobs. The fact that the liberalisation of tariffs on goods, including agriculture, will happen at such a level and rate as to threaten our small farmers and infant industries could spell disaster for some of the most fragile economies in the world. On top of this, the rapid loss of government revenue will paralyse our governments’ abilities to invest in education, health and decent jobs, all of which are crucial to sustainable development.”

This is how people on the ground, rather than those engaged in the highfalutin discussions that are a part of the process, rightly see the EPAs and negotiations.

Given the fact that the agreements are felt to threaten and undermine regional integration and could lead to extensive loss of jobs, livelihoods, revenue and policy space, is it possible that the Government should be doing more to ensure at EU level that more time is available for truly pro-development agreements to be reached? I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I know that he has made great progress in many of the matters that we have discussed. We all, however, need to be convinced that the EPAs can be made to work for the poorest in the world, and deliver a development agenda that we all want.

Order. There are 40 minutes remaining in the allocated time for the debate. I hope that the next hon. Member to speak will take no more than one third of that time.

When more than 200,000 people marched through my Edinburgh constituency in 2005 at the time of the Gleneagles summit, as part of the “make poverty history” protest, one of the key demands was for a fairer trading regime with developing countries. It is now almost universally accepted that fair trade, more than anything else, is the key that will ultimately unlock the poorest countries from the chains of mass poverty. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing today’s debate at what is certainly an opportune time. As he said, the debate is in part necessarily a dry one, but what is at stake is a matter of life and death for many people.

I doubt whether there is anyone who does not agree that we need to replace existing trade agreements between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. Where I would challenge the EC is on whether the economic partnership agreements, as they currently stand, are the best way to do that, whether the timetable that the EC has outlined is realistic, and whether the process has been fair. It is also important to remember that the EPA talks are taking place in the context of the latest floundering World Trade Organisation talks. Indeed, the long shadow of the failure to reach substantive agreements in the Doha round hangs heavily over the current negotiations. The irony is that the EU is pressing ACP countries to agree a deal by the December deadline to comply with WTO rules that in all probability would no longer be in the WTO rule book had there been a successful outcome to the Doha development talks.

Before I move on, I want to stress that although I have several criticisms to make of the EC on a number of points, I genuinely commend the Department for International Development and the Under-Secretary, particularly for his work in this area and the successes that he has had in securing changes. I only wish that there had been more of them.

I, like many others, was hopeful that the latest trade negotiations between the EU and the ACP countries would aim to deliver an agreement that was development-focused. I had hoped, initially at least, that the talks would deal with the interests of the poorest countries, rather than being concerned just with protecting narrow domestic interests. Instead, today the European Commission is on the verge of becoming the first Commission in 50 years to impose a wide-ranging increase of European Union tariffs on some of the poorest countries in the world. Let us make no mistake: if that happens it will be by choice, and not by legal compulsion, as has been claimed by Trade Commissioner Mandelson, among others.

I am sure that we are all familiar with the argument: the EU claims that a deal must be done by December to ensure WTO compliance. It says that failure to agree the EPAs by then will give the EU no choice but to

“fall back on our default preferences scheme”—

meaning higher tariffs for ACP countries—as

“there is no credible alternative”.

The issue of the deadline is the first point that I want to raise. The December date, although useful in the past for focusing minds, must now be recognised as a major obstacle to the securing of an acceptable deal. It is not necessary for me to point out that trade agreements on such a scale are hugely complicated, and anyone who thinks that the agreements in question can realistically be concluded in the next month is mistaken.

The current Trade Commissioner has said:

“The EU is not threatening to raise tariffs for these countries, but is doing all it can to avoid this.”

However, it is not true to suggest that there are no legal alternatives or that the December deadline is non-negotiable. It is not options that are lacking, but the political will to exercise them. As hon. Members have said, the EU could seek to extend its WTO waiver or to fine-tune the enhanced general system of preferences—the GSP+ that has been mentioned already—to allow all ACP countries to retain market access equivalent to what they have now. Forcing the pace of negotiations, as the EC appears content to do, can only disadvantage the weakest players, and makes a mockery of the EU’s development credentials. I ask the Minister again to take up the issue of the deadline with the EC, and to urge a rethink on what seems at present to be a red line issue for the Trade Commissioner.

There are those in the EU who have warned that failure to reach a deal on EPAs by December would be a public relations disaster. I am more concerned that by rushing into what as they stand would be unfair EPAs, we shall store up a humanitarian disaster for the future. Developing countries have much to lose from the EPAs, and precious little to gain. In May last year the Prime Minister—the then Chancellor of the Exchequer—said in Abuja, Nigeria, that

“we know even with fair access it will take time for poor countries to compete... instead of forced liberalisation, poor countries must be allowed the flexibility to decide, plan and sequence their own trade reforms.”

The then trade Minister, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), said in June this year:

“We believe that it is the preserve of the ACP to determine their own trade policy.”

I agree entirely. The problem is that the flexibility to decide, plan and sequence their own trade reforms is exactly what developing countries will be denied if the EPAs go ahead. The danger is that the EPAs will unleash a surge of European imports that could wipe out fledgling industries in many countries. Kenya’s horticultural industry has already been mentioned. It is a sector worth $700 million in foreign exchange to Kenya. The danger is that tariff hikes on its exports to the EU could put at risk some of the most successful export companies. Those companies, lest we forget, have been carefully supported through aid programmes, including those of the Department for International Development.

Other hon. Members will, like me, have heard the Commissioner deny claims that EPAs will open up the ACP markets to EU trade at the expense of local businesses and growth. However, it is undeniable that the EU is demanding greater and faster liberalisation than regions are willing to offer. I know that EC representatives have stressed that the changes will be implemented over time, but I am sure that other hon. Members will be as concerned as I am about the seemingly contradictory noises that we hear about the issue. It seems that there is a clear distance between what Trade Commissioners tell the press and perhaps even the Government, and what the negotiators tell the ACP representatives. We need more leeway in the negotiations to allow ACP countries to liberalise in a phased manner and at a pace that does not decimate their industries at a stroke.

Perhaps the most worrying impact of the EPAs in their current form would be their effect on regional integration. In the long term there can be no doubt that building up trade within Africa is more important than exporting to the EU. The EPAs are supposed to encourage regional integration, but as they are drafted they would fatally undermine the long-term prospects for such essential internal trade between ACP countries.

There is also a real problem with the way that the EC is pushing for an interpretation of “substantially all trade” within the EPAs that goes far beyond what ACP countries want, and which is, indeed, beyond what the UN calculates is necessary to foster regional trade. Similarly, even at this very late stage the EC is inconsistent about the percentages of product lines that it says it is willing to accept for liberalisation on the part of the ACP. Eighty per cent. is a figure that has often been quoted by senior EC representatives, but recent reports from negotiations in the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa, the East and Southern Africa grouping and the Caribbean regions indicate that the EC has been insisting on liberalisation commitments of up to 90 per cent. in some cases. I should appreciate the Minister’s comments on those points, particularly given that UN research calculates that eventual liberalisation towards the EU would have to be at a level of no more than 60 per cent. of trade; otherwise, regional trade would be undermined, rather than enhanced.

The key point is that the Commission’s approach to regional trade and integration in Africa seems to have no concern for development as a goal itself. The lack of any reliable impact assessments of the introduction of the current EPAs means that we cannot expect ACP states to sign up to them. I seek reassurance from the Minister that under no circumstances will signing up to an EPA ever become a precondition for aid recipients, whose European trading partners are often also their largest donors. It would be fair to say, therefore, that many ACP countries are caught between a rock and a hard place.

We have pursued that with the Commission, which denies that it has ever sought to link signing an economic partnership agreement to offers of aid. Resources might be available for aid for trade in order to help implement the provisions of EPAs, but that is very different from the concern that the hon. Gentleman has raised about conditionality.

I am delighted to hear that reassurance, because that fear exists among ACP countries and a number of non-governmental organisations. I thank the Minister.

It ought to be clear that we need urgent reform of EPAs and a radical rethink of how we approach this matter. I appreciate the concessions and changes secured by the Government and I commend DFID for making this a key issue within the EU. I fear that otherwise, it might not have even registered on many people’s political radar. However, if the EU’s claim to be development-orientated is to have any credibility, it has a long way to go. We ought to remember why we are having trade talks in the first place. Is there not supposed to be a development thread at the heart of these changes? I am struggling to see one. The Prime Minister has said that Africa is one of his great passions. I do not doubt him, but the coming month will be a real test of his commitment.

This is a timely debate because the negotiations are at a critical stage. I pay tribute, therefore, to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) for securing this debate, and through you, Mr. Cook, to the Speaker for allowing time for it to take place.

Much of the ground that I wish to cover has been touched on already. My hon. Friend covered the subject comprehensively. As he said, although it might be a dry subject, it is incredibly important to the 76 countries involved and to hundreds of millions of some of the world’s poorest people. If we get this wrong, we risk putting them into even greater poverty. I hope, therefore, that the Minister can reassure us some more—he has already begun to do so. Unlike in many debates, in this one we are largely uncritical of the Government. We are having this debate because we fear the consequences of getting it wrong.

I welcome the opportunity to put forward concerns expressed not only by trade negotiators whom I have met in Africa and the Caribbean, but by civil societies, by non-governmental organisations and particularly by Trade Justice Movement, which has supplied me with much useful information and kept me up to date with the state of negotiations. It is a fast-moving situation, and no doubt the Minister can update us further. As my hon. Friend said, we have another chance to address the problem on Monday in the European Scrutiny Committee debate.

Like my hon. Friend, I would like to ask the Minister what steps have been taken to ensure that Parliament will have an opportunity to scrutinise the EPAs, if they are agreed, before they are ratified by the EU, and before the British Government sanction them.

After a complaint from Brazil, which wanted increased access to the EU sugar regime, the World Trade Organisation met and declared that, by 31 December 2007, the preferential trade agreements with the 76 ACP countries must be replaced by EPAs, which should be WTO-compliant. Unfortunately, instead of celebrating a new era of global trade, we are here discussing the potentially harmful consequences. The Minister is obviously aware of the criticisms levelled by NGOs, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and by many hon. Members. Through the good offices of my hon. Friend, we are ramping up opposition in Parliament. It is only right that we should do so. It is becoming clear that rather than introducing a new system that will strengthen development within those countries, the EU is aggressively pushing a policy that largely benefits the EU while potentially damaging some of the world’s poorest people and nations.

Tariff protectionism has been a key tool employed by many developed nations, including our own, with reductions coming only when the vital industries affected were strong enough to thrive in a highly-competitive global market. However, it is worth noting the high levels of agricultural protectionism that the EU still employs. Under EPAs, ACP nations will find many fledgling industries forced to close as they face threats from the rest of the world against which they cannot compete.

The hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) invites me to use the example of the Seychelles again, where the tuna fishing industry faces closure and the loss of many hundreds of jobs among a population of only 88,000. That industry will go to Thailand or other low-cost producing countries, so the process poses huge dangers. There is another danger: if we are not careful, countries that against all odds are protected by such agreements, might be protected in such a way that they cannot add value to and develop their primary industries because they would have to compete with countries that can add value at a lower cost.

The loss of revenue from existing tariffs is of equal concern. Although there is an option to introduce VAT or other local taxes, I do not believe that that would cover the losses. Most significantly it would shift the burden of aggressive local taxation on to some of the poorest people in those countries. The IMF estimates that for every $1 lost from the harmonisation of tariffs, only 30 cents will be recovered through VAT or local taxes. In some cases, Governments will face a severe loss of revenue, and there are few mechanisms for replacing that. Inevitably that would mean cuts in public services in some of those countries.

Another concern relates to the effects on regional integration, which was also mentioned by my hon. Friend, and which might be more important than trade with distant global partners. If individual blocs increase trade among themselves, they will be likely to compete on the same basis, which will benefit them hugely. Having said that, some well-established tariffs ought to be abolished. For example, I discovered that the local brewery in Barbados is protected by a 15 per cent. levy imposed by the Government on beer from other Caribbean countries. It just so happens that that brewery belongs to Diageo. Sometimes, therefore, those tariffs protect not the poorest people, but the large, international players.

The behaviour of the EU has been the most disturbing part of the process. The negotiations are about to set in motion the first free trade agreements in which less developed nations have ever entered. However, they do not wish to do so. They have been forced to negotiate with one of the biggest global trading blocs and with, in most cases, the ACP countries’ largest international aid donors. Given the EU’s commitment to development, the keen awareness of other potential problems and the acknowledged and entirely understandable weakness of the ACP trade negotiators, one would have thought that the EU would have offered as much help as possible.

To my consternation, that has not been the case. The 31 December deadline looms and has been used as a battering ram to corral those very small nations into signing a deal out of which the EU appears to be the only winner. I shall give an example of how difficult that process is for some of the smaller countries. In Ghana, just one man is responsible for negotiating EPAs, for negotiating with the WTO, and for negotiating bilateral trade agreements between Ghana and other African countries. The EU will probably have a team of people just dealing with Ghana. That shows the inequality of negotiating power.

The hon. Member for Loughborough said that, in many cases, the Department for International Development has tried to provide the resources and expertise to bolster the negotiating procedure of those countries. I have met representatives from the Caribbean negotiating machinery, and very expert they are too. However, it is still quite difficult to see the parity of those countries’ negotiating positions when compared with the huge teams available in the Commission.

Many of these nations find themselves in negotiations that cover many hundreds of pages of close legal texts. Again, the ability of one man in Ghana—however good he may be—to deal with those negotiations puts such countries in a very difficult position. How are they supposed to assess fully the implications of signing an economic partnership agreement? That responsibility should have been addressed by the EU. In particular, the EU should ensure that proper impact assessments are carried out once the EPAs have been signed, so that their effect in future years can be fully understood and proper measures taken, either through international development assistance or other assistance, to cushion some of the worst effects. The hon. Gentleman clearly illustrated some of those effects through his quotation from the trade unions.

The fear has been raised with me on several occasions that not enough has been done to examine the impact assessments. There is also a need for transitional aid to help some of those industries that will be put out of business. All that has left some of the African, Caribbean and Pacific nations in something of a bind: uncertain of the consequences of not signing the agreements and ill-informed of any alternatives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and other hon. Members have said, the 31 December deadline is not absolute; there are alternatives, such as GSP+ and extending the waiver. I would be interested to know from the Minister whether he still believes that that deadline is absolute.

I would also like to know from the Minister what he thinks about the ongoing negotiations, for example, whether they need to include the Singapore terms or whether a goods-only agreement would be satisfactory. I ask that because the agreement initialled last Friday in Botswana, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho was, I understand, a deal only for goods. If that agreement is going to be acceptable, what is all the fuss about? Why cannot all those six groupings simply sign goods-only deals, with an agreement to include the Singapore terms at a later date?

I would also like to ask the Minister what provisions there will be in the agreements to review them subsequently, especially if there are dire consequences. Let us face the fact that the EU is not possessed of all the knowledge in this area and there may well be elements of each individual agreement that will need modifying. I would like to ask him what the process for that review will be.

I must comment on what I see as a difference in stance by the EU; others have commented on that issue, although perhaps not as directly as I would like to. Much of the argument about the agreements stems from the percentage of the ACP markets that must be opened; the term “substantially open” is obviously open to interpretation. It used to be thought that the figure was 80 per cent., with 100 per cent. of the EU market being opened, leading to an average of 90 per cent. However, in many cases now the EU seems to be moving towards a 90 per cent. opening.

There also seems to be a difference as to what baskets of special industries can be protected. It was thought that the figure should be 20 per cent., but it is now argued that it should be below 8 per cent. That 8 per cent. figure is very interesting, because it is the figure that the EU was arguing for, in reverse, during the World Trade Organisation negotiations, to try to safeguard its own highly protected agricultural industries. That was one of the key reasons why the Doha round of the WTO negotiations failed. It seems that the EU is using double standards in that respect.

Finally, I would like to issue a plea to the Minister to look very carefully at where the negotiations are going. There is potential for good in them, including potential for trade development, and no doubt some countries will thrive by having their barriers taken down. That is fantastic, it should be the aim, and it should be the aim also to lift these countries out of poverty through trade. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury cited the fact that a 1 per cent. increase in trade could lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Certainly, in the case of the Caribbean countries and other medium-income countries, it should be perfectly possible, with a little forethought, to lift them out of being medium-income countries and into being fully advanced countries, which are not in need of aid at all. It should be our aim to bolster the poorest of these countries, so that they are able to stand better on their own two feet.

The Minister has heard our concerns today. Those concerns will continue to be expressed, and I ask that, in the negotiations, he deals fairly with those countries, with many of which Britain has strong historic links.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing the debate. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), and the hon. Members for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) and for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), he has, with great rigour, raised in the House the concerns of many people in this country about these economic partnership agreements. I will endeavour to respond in the same way in order to address hon. Members’ concerns.

At the beginning, however, I should add a note of caution, in that this is a very dynamic phase of the negotiations. Things are changing very fast and negotiations are still taking place in a number of regions, so I hope that the House will recognise that I will be unable to give complete clarity in response to every point that has been made.

Nevertheless, let me start with the opening comments by the hon. Member for Banbury. I agree completely that a mercantilist approach to trade will not be enough to deliver the development benefits for the 1 billion people who still live on one dollar a day. We must intervene to ensure that development concerns are prioritised. That has been and will continue to be the Government’s approach, both to these agreements and to the Doha round of discussions.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to say that, although this debate will appear to be very technical to those who read our deliberations, this issue is nevertheless of enormous importance to the citizens of the 76 ACP countries, where there are millions of very poor people whose routes out of poverty depend in no small part on establishing better trade, both between their countries and with the European Union.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I profoundly disagree with his comment that Doha is dead. I was in Geneva only last week talking to negotiators from many of the countries that will be key to progress. In particular, I met the chair of the agriculture negotiating group, who is very clear that progress is taking place in those negotiations. Agreement there will be key to progress in other parts of the Doha dossier. Progress is taking much longer than we and, I am sure, all parts of the House would like. However, we believe that progress is being made. Despite the political difficulties that the chair of the group described, given the approach of the American primary season, we believe that a deal can still be done, even though we are at a critical point.

By way of providing context, the hon. Gentleman made the very good point—it was also made by other hon. Members—that no amount of aid will halve the proportion of people living in poverty, which is the key headline millennium development goal, without there being progress in other parts of the aid-trade debt relief agenda. For example, it is clear from statistics incorporated into the Commission for Africa report that more and fairer trade will be worth up to three times more to Africa than all the aid that it receives.

I am sure that most Members will agree that open societies that learn from and trade with other societies are enriched materially and culturally, and that trade creates jobs, generates income, gives consumers more choice and greater access to cheaper goods, gives access to cheaper inputs for producers, helps to stimulate competitiveness in an economy, allows technology transfer to take place, and stimulates co-operation and closer ties between countries.

The hon. Member for Cotswold said that it is true that no country has made progress without tariff protection. It is also true to say that no country has developed in the last 40 years in the absence of international trade and without bringing down tariffs at key points. It is for all those reasons that the UK has taken, and will continue to take, a keen interest in the EPAs.

I reassure the House that I have already been active in talking to Commissioner Mandelson, other EU member states and, crucially, many ACP Government Ministers and the lead negotiators from many of the six regions. Interestingly, none of the ACP Ministers to whom I have spoken has not wanted to sign an EPA. They have recognised the huge potential benefits that the agreements could bring their countries. If we can put in place duty and quota-free access to the European Union supported by simple, predictable rules of origin, ensure that the ACP’s own market opening is properly phased, and provide support for enhanced regional integration, economic partnership agreements can offer substantial development benefits to the 76 countries that the hon. Member for Cotswold mentioned.

I have mentioned the fundamental parts of the UK position, which we set out back in March 2005 and for which we have sought to secure the support of other member states and the Commission. In the past two years, we have had a number of robust exchanges about EPAs with other member states and the Commission.

It would be fair to say that the UK Government have not always seen eye to eye with the Commission on its negotiating tactics. For example, we made it clear in the position paper that we published back in March 2005 that we wanted an offer of duty and quota-free access to be put on the table up front at that point. It materialised in March and April this year, although two products were in transition periods. Simpler rules of origin were put on the table, although not until this September. We have made progress on securing the development benefits that we have agitated for in the past two years, but we would have liked the Commission to have gone further and more quickly.

What the Minister has said is helpful, but will he please answer one key question? If any of the six groups, or any individual country, does not sign an EPA by 31 December, is he prepared to stand by and watch the EU increase tariffs on it simply because there is not enough time to negotiate an agreement?

As I have said, we have had disagreements with the Commission over tactics, but it has shown flexibility and brought the other 26 member states with it around to the UK position. We have been making the case strongly that no developing country should have worse market access from 1 January, and we shall continue to do so in the discussions that are under way.

I have indicated that significant development benefits have potentially been secured under EPAs, the most profound of which is duty and quota-free market access. There are also simpler rules of origin and the ability to protect completely up to 20 per cent. of a developing country’s products from market opening. Some countries have actually offered to open up more than 80 per cent. of their markets. The Commission has not asked for up to 90 per cent. to be opened; there may have been some confusion because some countries and regions have wanted to go beyond 80 per cent.

There is still a long period for countries to reach the point of opening up 80 per cent. of their markets—up to 15 years at the moment, and we are pushing for more time beyond that. Written into the agreement is the provision of safeguards to protect particular industries in which there is a surge in imports. For example, food security would be a particular concern. Another development benefit will be regional integration.

To take some of the technical nature out of the debate, I shall give some examples of how countries will be able to secure direct benefits. The hon. Member for Cotswold mentioned the agreement that was signed in the Southern African Development Community region. As a result of that goods-only agreement, Namibia and Botswana, for example, will be able to sell more beef to the European Union market, as there are no quotas on it. The liberalised rules of origin could mean that Lesotho will be able to trade more clothing into the EU market, mirroring what it does in the US market. There are already direct development benefits.

I turn to specific questions that Members have asked. The Cotonou deadline is real; it is in place because the Cotonou agreement was challenged in the World Trade Organisation by other developing countries. I do not believe that a further waiver will be possible, as it would be challenged quickly and it would be difficult to get any sort of agreement. Developing countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Brazil and Indonesia all grow products for which ACP nations now get much better access into EU markets. It is difficult to conceive of their agreeing to a waiver.

The extension of Cotonou was one of the four alternatives to full EPAs that the Overseas Development Institute referred to in the papers that it produced in the summer. I shall explain why I do not believe that two of the other three alternatives were suitable. I share the House’s concern about the huge increase in tariffs that would follow the GSP, and we do not think that it is acceptable. That is why our position is that no country should have worse market access.

Equally, GSP+ is not a suitable alternative, although we are supporting the Seychelles’ request to move towards it, for example. GSP+ countries would have to ratify some 27 UN conventions on human and labour rights, good governance and the protection of the environment. We would not want to undermine those agreements and give access to GSP+ to the Zimbabweans or the Fijians. The rules of origin under GSP+ are not as good as those under the Cotonou agreement or the proposed EPAs, and there would be a tariff jump for many products. Beef, bananas and oranges are just some of the products that would be hit by GSP+.

The alternative to full EPAs that did have merit was framework EPAs, which are effectively goods-only agreements and put off the need for progress on services and Singapore issues until a later date. We have always been clear that countries should be allowed and encouraged to negotiate on that basis if they wish. If they do not—a number of countries have made clear that they do not—those requirements should be put off. Given the current time scale, we need to concentrate on goods-only agreements. That is the position that we have taken since the Madeira Development Ministers’ council, and will continue to take.

The loss of revenue from tariffs on key products is an issue to consider, but the considerable flexibility on which products will be opened up allows countries better to plan their market opening and to consider matters. I do not downplay the significance of that concern for some regions, but the goods-only agreements that have been negotiated will help to generate a significant increase in regional trade, and we want more regional trade benefits to be secured. The fact that some countries will have to negotiate further details under framework EPAs next year will provide for further regional trading benefits to be opened up.

Any goods-only agreement must be ratified by the Commission through its processes in the EU—that is a clear Commission competence. There will still be scrutiny by the House of Commons through the European scrutiny process, and agreements that go beyond goods-only will have to come through the House for ratification. We have a debate on the matter next week, and I have no doubt that there will be other debates to come.

We have provided funding not only to the Caribbean negotiators but to Economic Community of West African States, Pacific, SADC and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa negotiators, to help equalise the imbalance that Members have described between the EU and developing countries.

Heathrow Airport

Since the beginning of the millennium, the Government have been dithering over the pressing need to expand airport capacity throughout Great Britain. We have seen White Papers, judicial reviews, announcements, retractions and consultations. With tired predictability, the Secretary of State for Transport last week signalled that the Government might tack another runway and terminal on to Heathrow airport. That may or may not happen by 2020. The 2003 White Paper said that we should expect a new runway at Stansted as soon as 2011.

We grapple with aviation, which I believe is a must for business. I am a little more sceptical than many of my colleagues about the lobbying that comes from BAA, British Airways and others. I also listen very attentively to representatives from my own constituency in the City of London and Westminster—an increasingly important commercial hub—who recognise the importance of increasing aircraft capacity. The notion that we can take many people off aircraft, particularly for internal flights, and put them on to trains is something of a fallacy. That is possible to a certain extent, but given the reliability and the speed of our rail network, it is not a realistic argument for reducing substantially our air capacity.

In a moment or two, I will raise my concerns about the nature of the globalised economy. Increasingly, with the growing power of China, India and south-east Asia, we require a tremendous investment in our airports. However, this is not just an issue for business. Undoubtedly, we live in a much more affluent and outward-looking society, which is a very positive thing, but the flip side of that is that demand for leisure and personal flying will increase in the years ahead. I do not see that that is undesirable in the world in which we live.

If we look at some of the problems of our global society, we find that it is inward-looking, backward-looking and that opportunities exist for terrorists to develop networks. One of the most important things that any modern, forward-looking society can do is to ensure that its people have the opportunity to travel abroad and to see other cultures. However, to achieve that, we need to maintain our airport capacity.

The Government’s solution, which was announced last week, was another conventional yet inadequate solution to the long-term problem. By papering over Heathrow’s cracks, we get a cut-price remedy for our overburdened airports, but for how long and at what cost to the long-term health of our economy and transport system, the character of west London and the quality of life for local residents?

I believe that we desperately need a visionary outlook to improve transport and to have political leaders who have a firm eye on the future and the courage to take brave and innovative decisions. Too often, the UK’s transport decision making has lain in the hands of corporate interests and environmental pressure groups. Unfortunately, that has happened with the Labour Government. After a decade in office, we have seen no such strategic thinking from successive Transport Ministers, and our transport system has ground to a halt as a result.

Not even Crossrail can be credited to this Government until we can be sure that the financial arrangements are robust. Although I have always supported Crossrail, I recognise that there are relatively few votes in it for me because a lot of my constituents, particularly in Mayfair, the City of London and Bayswater, will be adversely affected. However, now that we have put that programme in place, I believe that it is essential that we ensure that the funding is there; otherwise there will be ongoing blight for a lot of local residents. I particularly want to touch on the blight for local residents in relation to the proposals for a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow.

We need more airport capacity, and I am all in favour of people’s horizons being extended by international travel. I would be in favour of the third runway and the Government’s additions to Heathrow’s infrastructure if I believed that it was a long- term solution, but I fear that it is not. London and the UK now need a new state-of-the-art hub airport.

Given the emergence of Canary Wharf over the past decade and half as an important commercial centre and the plans to develop in the Thames estuary, the airport would need to be located in the east of the capital. The centre of gravity in our capital city, both commercially and in population terms, is certainly moving eastwards, and that is a process that will continue in the decades ahead. By building from scratch, such an airport could be planned according to the needs of a modern, global economy and utilise advances in environmentally sound construction and high-speed rail links into central London, the docklands and beyond.

Flying in over the North sea, planes would not disturb a large residential population, and that could allow a truly modern airport to operate 24 hours a day. Business folk could depart to and arrive from India, China and the rapidly developing economies of south-east Asia at convenient times. Construction could take place with minimal disruption, and the airport would be located in a place that would allow future expansion.

I have taken the opportunity to raise this important issue because if the consequences of our current aviation difficulties are to be seen anywhere, it is in my constituency. In the City of London, we have a large international business community that needs proper transport facilities to function. In Westminster, we have cultural and historical wonders that draw visitors from across the globe.

I have no particular affiliation to airline companies, environmental groups or those living near Heathrow. However, on several occasions in recent years, I have walked—I mean walked, rather than driven—through Harmondsworth and Sipson, the two villages that would be wrecked by a third runway. Even though they are located just by the existing airport, they retain some charm from their centuries-old roots. The same can be said, just about, for places such as Stanwell Moor, which is located right under the flight path of the existing runways and where some historic 18th century buildings still stand amid the noise and pollution. The residents of those villages have been misled by promises from all Governments—Conservative as well as Labour—on Heathrow’s long-term expansion. This latest Government announcement is just a further stab in the back for all those who have held on in that quiet and pleasant little quarter of Middlesex.

It is clear to me as an MP who represents Britain’s financial heart that there is a strong economic case for a comprehensive overhaul of our thinking on aviation. I speak as someone who rejoices in the availability of air travel for all and sundry. The people who wish to encourage British people to stay in the UK for their holidays presumably have no interest in the earnings that we gain from overseas tourists, who will continue to come to these shores. We live in a global marketplace. Agricultural produce, which was mentioned in an earlier debate, comes to us from all parts of the world, and we should wholeheartedly support free trade with the developing world as the best way for our nation to rise out of poverty.

Flying is part of our commercial life, and Heathrow has been the mainstay of our international connectivity for more than 50 years. Now, however, is the time to move on. Heathrow is currently operating at full capacity. Every year, 68 million passengers cram into facilities that were designed to take 45 million. With its two runways, Heathrow is the world’s busiest airport and the resultant chaos is clear for all to see.

Flying into Britain, often for the first time, travellers from abroad can expect to be greeted by a shabby, overcrowded, understaffed and poorly planned mess of an airport, and Britons flying abroad face the frustrating prospect of long security queues and mind-numbing delays as the prologue to their hard-earned breaks.

None of that takes into account the problems that they might experience on arriving at their destination. Some 22,000 items of luggage are lost in transit from Heathrow each month. Heathrow has low landing charges through an outdated regulatory system. That leaves the busiest international airport in the world with landing charges that stand 17th in the world league. It makes very little economic sense, and it is not so surprising that important profitable revenue is often sought from retail outlets. BAA bosses have done their sums and found that necessary profits come not from passenger satisfaction, but from selling alcohol, perfume and Toblerone to a captive and often delayed audience. On top of that, operating at full capacity means that the airport is inflexible and staff are unable to respond quickly to changes in security procedures or to minor changes to the landing schedule.

We all use Heathrow airport because there is no alternative. The airport remains our single most important gateway to the global economy, but City bosses are beginning to claim that the Heathrow hassle factor is dissuading many business executives from travelling to our capital city. No one can blame them, especially in view of the delays that senior business folk often experience at immigration. It is expensive for companies to have staff unable to work simply because of costly delays in the travel system.

Research undertaken by the City of London corporation in 2002 revealed that some 70 per cent. of firms consider air services to be critical for business travel by their staff and that more than half of the respondents considered air travel critical for meeting clients. The square mile is the world’s foremost financial and business centre and has a high concentration of international firms that can choose any of the world’s major capital cities in which to locate. The City has made it clear that good aviation services and efficient, welcoming airports are a critical contributory factor to the continued competitiveness and ongoing success of the UK economy.

I do not believe that a new runway at Heathrow will solve the UK’s aviation capacity difficulties and help maintain economic competitiveness into the future. The supporting infrastructure is likely to remain inadequate, even with Crossrail, and the limited supply of land around Heathrow suggests that the area will not be able to cope with a significant increase in airport activity.

Talk of airport expansion will inevitably be dogged by environmental concerns about aircraft emissions, but we need to accept that unilateral action by Britain to cut carbon emissions will solve very little globally but will seriously disadvantage our economy. To put our interminable navel-gazing over Heathrow into perspective, China hopes to have completed no fewer than 49 new airports within the next five years.

I reckon we need to rethink completely the entire question of aviation and airports in Britain and resurrect the idea of a brand new hub airport to the east of London. To provide real competition, it should be operated by someone other than BAA. It is only right that the Conservatives take the blame for the monopolistic regulatory framework that we put in place when we were in government. It is not the right way forward. The idea of an airport out on Maplin sands was considered and rejected in the past, mainly on the grounds of finance, but as long as Heathrow remains open, most major airlines will not consider relocating and the private sector will not consider stumping up the finance.

In essence, government in the broader sense needs to take a brave step and accept that Heathrow will never be what Britain needs. Many other cities came to that realisation about their own outdated airports and had the vision to relocate: Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Paris and even places such as Beijing and Oslo, which I have visited in the past three or four years. Those airports are an absolute pleasure to pass through. We must reduce Heathrow’s capacity, rather than expand it in a piecemeal form.

At present, aircraft operating at Heathrow are rightly subject to strict flight controls to reduce noise for the nearby large residential population. In essence, the controls mean that few planes can fly between 11.30 pm and 6 am. I well understand and very much support the idea that people have to be allowed to sleep in peace. Furthermore, the airport is hemmed in by houses and roads, which severely restricts future capacity, including freight capacity. Aircraft going to a new airport in the Thames estuary, for example, could fly in over the North sea.

With no residential noise and little disruption during construction, such an airport could become a 24-hour hub, and there would be potential to enlarge it if necessary in the decades ahead. The stacking of planes, which currently is such a problem at Heathrow because of noise and environmental impact, would be a thing of the past. High-speed bullet trains could take passengers directly to the City. I travelled on a Maglev train to Shanghai. It took just eight minutes to traverse the 21 miles between Shanghai’s financial district and its international airport.

We could have such an airport as part of the regeneration of the Thames gateway, but it would require vision. Reducing Heathrow’s use would leave the potential for 2,500 acres of prime land for community development in a location near London with excellent City transport links. The sale of that land could help to fund the cost of a new state-of-the-art airport.

It must be recognised that our economy and quality of life will continue to suffer in an increasingly competitive world if we fail to invest in our infrastructure and think strategically for the future. Do we really believe that a sixth terminal and third runway at Heathrow will put to rest the issue of airport expansion for decades to come? We need an adaptable solution that allows us room to manoeuvre according to demand and future economic requirements. Above all, the Government should regard this as an opportunity to equip our nation as an internationally formidable partner and competitor for decades to come.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing a debate on this clearly important and topical subject, which he feels strongly about in terms of both the wider issues and his constituents. He touched in the later part of his speech on some of those wider issues but focused initially on some of the challenges of Heathrow.

We all recognise that Heathrow faces some real challenges—it is the busiest international airport in the world—but we also recognise that London and the wider UK rely heavily on good international links to support our economy. The hon. Gentleman set out many reasons why good air travel facilities at Heathrow are important for the economy and for the many people who use the airport for leisure and holidays. That is an important point.

The hon. Gentleman touched on some of the major challenges, particularly in respect of tackling capacity constraints in the face of increasing demand for air travel. In a sense, those challenges apply to all airports in the country, but particularly to Heathrow. We need to look at improving the service to passengers and, of course, to airlines as well. We also need to ensure that we are tackling the challenges, while meeting our climate change commitments and respecting the local environment around airports, particularly in respect of air quality and noise.

The hon. Gentleman was right to speak about the problems that face passengers at Heathrow. It was because of those problems that last week we published a set of proposals on how to improve the end-to-end journey experience, and we are now looking in more detail at how to tackle some of the issues that he raised. I shall touch on some of them a little later in my speech.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Before the sitting was suspended, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster made a suggestion about airport capacity: that we should provide a new airport in the Thames estuary. I appreciate that developing Heathrow is not the only answer to our capacity problems, but the hon. Gentleman might recall that the construction of a new four-runway airport at Cliffe in north Kent was thoroughly considered and consulted on in the lead up to the 2003 White Paper, “The Future of Air Transport”.

We recognised that an estuary airport would provide benefits in not overflying large populated areas. However, in view of the relative costs both for the airport and for surface access links, the time for construction and the financial viability of that option, the Government decided in favour of pursuing further development at existing airports, rather than building an entirely new one in the Thames Gateway.

Building capacity does not focus only on Heathrow. For example, the White Paper supported a new runway at Stansted, which would be the first new runway in the south-east for many decades. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our commitment to the new runway at Stansted has not changed. It is important to remember that the White Paper also supported making better use of regional airports, such as Birmingham and Edinburgh. Growth in regional airports has a real part to play in satisfying overall demand for air services, as I know from the new regional airport in Doncaster, which is hugely popular with local people. Despite that, however, Heathrow is the UK’s No. 1 and only hub airport, and we should not walk away from that even if there are problems.

Work is in hand to tackle many of those problems. Terminal 5 will open next March, and I am pleased that BAA plans to invest some £6.2 billion modernising Heathrow in the next 10 years. By 2012, Heathrow will have a total terminal capacity of around 90 million passengers—two out of three people will travel through terminals that are not yet open. Problems at immigration are being tackled. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the queues, and the Border and Immigration Agency is working with the Department and BAA to improve passenger flows.

On security, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the Secretary of State for Transport earlier this month set out a new industry framework to change the one-bag rule on hand luggage, without compromising security safeguards. Passengers should begin to benefit from that in early January.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the frustration of long queues. Last week, the Civil Aviation Authority published its proposed package of price caps and incentives for Heathrow and Gatwick. Final price controls are not expected until March next year following a period of consultation, but the package will aim to incentivise BAA to deliver, in the CAA’s words,

“genuine service quality improvements and to invest to raise the standard of service”

for both passengers and airlines.

The proposals contain an increased range of financial incentives for the airport operator, including targets for the percentage of passengers to be security processed within five and 10 minutes. As a further measure, the Secretary of State asked the CAA for its views on how to improve the transparency of check-in times and other aspects of performance related to getting people through an airport.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned surface access. The Government’s £16 billion funding deal for Crossrail is now in place and will provide a 30-minute link to the centre of London. From 2014, we will have an enhanced Piccadilly Line. The AirTrack scheme, if approved, would be a significant addition to Heathrow’s rail links and provide direct services from terminal 5 to the south-west rail network via Staines.

Those measures should improve the passenger experience, both in getting passengers to the airport and inside the terminals, but the fact that demand for both departures and arrivals exceeds capacity on the current two runways remains an issue—the hon. Gentleman talked a great deal about it—which is why the Government are consulting on a third runway.

We need to be realistic about runway capacity if we are to protect Heathrow’s international position. Our competitors have acted already: in contrast to Heathrow’s two runways, Frankfurt has three, Paris four and Amsterdam five. Although Heathrow is full and turning away new services, all three of those competitors have at least 20 per cent. spare capacity, which provides them with resilience and allows them to grow.

In principle, the Government are in favour of a third runway, but our support—I hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured—depends on achieving a noise limit such that there would be no increase in the size of the area significantly affected by aircraft noise as measured by the 2002 57 dBA Leq noise contour. It also depends on establishing air quality limits, so that we can be confident of meeting European air quality limits around the airport, and on improving public transport to the airport. The hon. Gentleman has shown concern about those issues.

I mentioned that Paris has twice relocated its main airport in the past 30 years—obviously, relocation is an element of this issue—but one of the chief concerns of many residents of the Heathrow area is night flights. I totally appreciate, for the reasons I set out, that given the increasing power of India and China and countries in south-east Asia, there will be ever more demand for flights to come in at three, four or five o’clock in the morning. We need to encourage that, but I cannot understand how we could do so with Heathrow as it is today or how it will be in future. That is one of the reasons why I am in favour of building an airport on the coast, so that we can cater for the flights that I mentioned, without disrupting the sleep of many millions of our fellow citizens.

I certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of ensuring that those who live around the airport can get a decent night’s sleep. Again, that is one reason why a third runway would be important in ensuring that the increased demand can be met, while not having to encroach on any of the night time activities.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his constituents in Sipson, Harmondsworth and Stanwell Moor—

I should mention that Sipson and Harmondsworth are in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and Stanwell Moor is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). I just wanted to make the point that I have visited those areas around the airport on foot and have seen with my own eyes some of the concerns and some of the beauty and charm that those areas retain, particularly for people who have lived there for many generations.

I hope that it will give the hon. Gentleman some comfort to know that there will be the opportunity for the nice communities that he visited to respond the consultation and for the comments that I am sure that he will wish to make during the consultation to be taken into account as well.

The consultation also invites views on the introduction of mixed-mode operations as an interim measure ahead of a new runway, subject to the same local conditions as a third runway. Depending on the consultation’s outcome, it will be for the airport operator to obtain the necessary consents in accordance with applicable planning rules and relevant statutory and other criteria. Final policy decisions on adding capacity at Heathrow will be taken at the earliest in summer 2008, in light of the results of the consultation.

This is not papering over the cracks. Our airports strategy is long term, looking ahead to the next 20 years or more, and I am confident that, with the significant investment going into Heathrow over the next few years and the proposals set out in the consultation on adding capacity at Heathrow, we can deliver a sustainable, customer-focused programme for Heathrow that supports a growing UK economy.


Mr. Cook, as you know, I have had the privilege of being a Member of this House for a good many years. Indeed, I was a Member of Parliament when HIV/AIDS first became an issue in this country. The world first became aware of AIDS at the beginning of the 1980s, when it was observed that young gay men in the US were dying from rare illnesses. The first documented case in the UK was in 1981. While scientists worked to piece together how the condition was caused, Governments had to work out how to respond to the new public health challenge.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health, who is replying to this debate, will remember the huge campaigns mounted by the Government: the “Don’t die of ignorance” leaflet distributed to every household in this country, the newspaper adverts and the public information film. Of course, there was such an outcry at the time because of the fact that to become infected was a death sentence. Infection with the HIV virus resulted within a short time in the breakdown in the human body’s immunity to diseases, such as pneumonia. In Scotland in the 1980s, diagnosis with HIV was followed by death with AIDS within an average of two years.

The main sources of infection varied in different parts of the country. In some places, AIDS was very much a disease among the gay population. In other areas, HIV/AIDS was primarily a problem among injecting drug misusers. That was the situation in Edinburgh, where we had a major epidemic in the 1980s, predominantly among our injecting drug users. It is thought that a clampdown on the availability of needles led to an increase in needle-sharing, and that that in turn led to the explosion of HIV infection among Edinburgh’s drug-taking population.

It was because of the scale of the problem in Edinburgh that I developed an interest in the subject and, under the private Member’s Bill procedure, successfully introduced the AIDS (Control) Act 1987. That Act requires health authorities to publish reports annually, setting out the numbers diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and to provide details of the work being done in their area on prevention, treatment and care. In the past year, the Government have indicated their intention to discontinue the central requirement of the Act. Health authorities would no longer be required to produce annual reports.

I understand that the epidemiological information provided by the reports is now provided centrally. However, without the reporting requirement in the 1987 Act, health authorities would no longer have to publish details of their work in the field of prevention, treatment and care. I am worried that that may reflect a wish—conscious or unconscious—on the part of the authorities to downplay the continuing incidence of HIV/AIDS as a major challenge in this country. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend set out for me how health authorities are to be held to account for their HIV/AIDS work, if the reporting requirements of the AIDS (Control) Act are to be dropped.

The nature of the epidemic in the UK has changed over the decades. The numbers of new cases diagnosed declined into the 1990s. However, from 1995, increases in heterosexual and homosexual transmission in the UK, alongside increased numbers of people infected abroad, led to a decade of steep rises. An estimated 7,800 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in the UK in 2006. The most common route of transmission is heterosexual sex abroad, while the highest number of new cases actually transmitted within the UK is among gay men.

The total annual number of new diagnoses shows signs of stabilising, which is welcome, but within the total there remain some disturbing trends. Levels of transmission among men who have sex with men remain high, there are worrying signs of increased transmission among drug users, and the number of people becoming infected through heterosexual sex in the UK is steadily climbing—from 232 in 2000 to 750 last year. It is wholly unsatisfactory that so many people are becoming infected and have to depend on antiretroviral therapy for the rest of their lives. We know how HIV is caused and how to prevent it from being transmitted, yet thousands of people every year still become infected with HIV in the UK.

Public knowledge of HIV and AIDS appears to have declined. While 91 per cent. of people in the UK knew that HIV was transmitted through unprotected sex in 2000, that figure fell to 79 per cent. by 2005. Our education system has a role to play here. HIV/AIDS is not a compulsory part of school education in any part of the United Kingdom. Ofsted reported this year that schools in England give insufficient emphasis to teaching about HIV/AIDS and that pupils appear less concerned about HIV/AIDS than in the past.

Funding is also key. While HIV prevention money in Scotland is still ring-fenced by the Scottish Executive, prevention funding in England and Wales can be spent at the discretion of the health authorities. Money that should be spent on HIV prevention is vulnerable to other pressures within the NHS. A survey conducted by the National AIDS Trust in 2006 indicates that, despite increasing rates of transmission, HIV prevention funding has at best stagnated and probably declined in real terms over the last decade. My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is considerable support for a return to some form of protected funding for HIV prevention work that is not at the mercy of other short-term budgetary needs. I urge her to consider those calls carefully. I would also be grateful if she could set out for me details of the implementation of the commitment in the 2004 “Choosing Health” White Paper to a £50 million mass sexual health awareness programme for young people.

Targeted action is also needed. One in 20 gay men in the UK is now living with HIV. The Health Protection Agency warns that prevention work among men who have sex with men is not succeeding adequately. In its annual report published last week, the HPA called for an assessment of the progress made within the NHS in commissioning soundly based services. The HPA also called for action to address the rising problem of heterosexual transmission within the UK. Such action would include targeted prevention activities alongside work to reduce stigma and discrimination within black ethnic minority communities, which are disproportionately affected.

Another aspect of prevention work is the uptake of post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP. The number of people seeking PEP is far smaller than the number of people who are at risk. Just over one in 100 men who responded to the 2005 gay men's sex survey had sought PEP, even though almost a third of respondents who had not tested positive had been at risk of infection. Clearly, awareness campaigns need to be continued. Furthermore, PEP is not always easy to obtain. I would be grateful for my right hon. Friend’s observations on the extent to which the NHS is now meeting the chief medical officer's recommendations that all primary care trusts should make PEP available.

Of the 73,000 people in the UK estimated to be living with HIV, about a third are unaware of their status. That means that over 20,000 people in the UK are HIV positive but do not know it; many of them will assume that they are HIV negative. That level of unawareness has two implications. The first is for individuals' own health, as people who do not know that they are HIV positive are not getting the treatment that they need to keep them well. At least a quarter of HIV-related deaths are among people who are tested and diagnosed too late for effective treatment. The second implication is for the spread of HIV, because people who mistakenly believe themselves to be HIV negative may be less likely to take all the steps that they should to protect their partners.

There have been improvements in this area. We have routine opt-out screening for pregnant women, and everybody attending sexual health clinics should now be offered an HIV test on their first screening, and subsequently according to risk. The Health Protection Agency's report, “Testing Times”, which was published last Friday, sets out the welcome increase in the number of people tested and the reduction in waiting times.

However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that there is a great deal of work still to be done in reducing the number of people who are unaware of their HIV positive status. Some 37 per cent. of HIV positive people visiting a genito-urinary medicine, or GUM, clinic still leave the clinic unaware that they have the virus. My right hon. Friend will be aware of calls for GUM clinic HIV tests to be conducted on an opt-out basis universally, and to be provided for every attendee every time they attend with a new condition.

There is considerable scope for non-HIV specialties to expand their contribution to HIV testing. The Minister will be aware of calls for routine HIV testing to be considered in certain relevant secondary care specialty centres such as TB clinics. Just last month, Scotland and England's chief medical and nursing officers wrote to all doctors and nurses seeking their help in getting more people diagnosed. As the Health Protection Agency notes:

“Perceived and real HIV-related stigma and discrimination by non-HIV specialists continues to be a major barrier to both the offer and uptake of HIV testing in wider healthcare services.”

There is also a funding issue. The 2004 “Choosing Health” White Paper pledged an additional £300 million over three years to transform England's sexual health services. In a survey of primary care trusts and clinicians in 2006, just under two thirds indicated that all or part of their “Choosing Health” funds had been diverted from sexual health services. The professional body, the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, advises that most of the “Choosing Health” funding has been diverted to alternative causes unrelated to sexual health, notably paying off PCT financial deficits.

There has, however, been a welcome focus on GUM clinics in recent years. A target was set for March 2008 that all patients should be offered an appointment within 48 hours of contacting a GUM service, and by August this year 86 per cent. of patients in England were being offered an appointment within 48 hours. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider retaining the target for a further three years, as it is vital that the progress in improving GUM services is sustained. Quite apart from the direct benefits of improved access, the target also serves to focus primary care trusts on sexual health—an area that we know might otherwise drop down the agenda.

In the early days, a positive HIV test was a death sentence. From the mid-1990s, however, the lives of people with HIV have been transformed by highly active antiretroviral therapy. An emerging issue in the past year or so has been whether financial constraints within the NHS have had an effect upon the availability of drugs. The organisations representing the main providers of sexual health and HIV services in England conduct an annual survey of primary care trusts and clinicians. In the 2006 survey, participants were asked whether their organisation had restricted prescribing of any specific HIV medications or tests because of cost. Of those that answered, 13 per cent. said that there had been restrictions, and 22 per cent. said that there had not been any yet, but that discussions had taken place. The authors conclude that that represented a significant move towards drug rationing within HIV services, and was of serious concern. I would be grateful for any insight that my right hon. Friend has on those findings.

Of course, not everybody in the UK is allowed free treatment. People who are not recognised as being entitled to be in this country do not have the right to ongoing treatment on the NHS. That includes people who have been refused asylum but who are allowed to stay because they cannot return to their own country. The Terence Higgins Trust and the National AIDS Trust each report that pregnant women with HIV have been refused free treatment to prevent transmission to their unborn baby. People with TB or other sexually transmitted infections receive free treatment, but if they also have HIV they can be billed for their HIV treatment. The Terence Higgins Trust reports that people have consequently walked out in the middle of their TB treatment, creating a public health risk.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recommendation from the Joint Committee on Human Rights that HIV be included with all other sexually transmitted infections that are exempt from charging. I support that call. Quite apart from the compelling humanitarian argument, it seems likely that the costs of allowing those people HIV treatment is unlikely substantially to exceed the cost of treating them on an emergency basis, as we do now when they succumb to HIV-related illnesses. The Government are conducting a review of foreign nationals' access to the NHS, and I urge them to consider allowing such people access to HIV treatment.

The approach of World AIDS day makes this an opportune time to discuss HIV and AIDS-related matters. The independent advisory group is leading a review into the Government's current strategy on sexual health and HIV, and there is widespread support for the view that once the review is published Ministers should go ahead and consult on a new strategy. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to put to my right hon. Friend some of the issues concerning HIV and AIDS in the UK today, and very much look forward to hearing her thoughts on those important questions.

I start by expressing my gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) for initiating this important debate, and I pay tribute to his continuing interest in HIV both nationally and internationally. He mentioned his sponsorship of the private Member’s Bill that went on to become law as the AIDS (Control) Act 1987. That set out reporting and monitoring requirements for the NHS at a time when there were no effective treatments, and when today’s detailed surveillance and monitoring were in their infancy.

Let me address the points that my right hon. Friend made on that Act. With his extensive knowledge, he will recognise that the understanding of HIV is now much greater than when he introduced the Bill that led to that Act, which was at a time when the nature of HIV transmission routes was unclear. In prevention, we now focus on the particular sections of our community that are most at risk: gay men and African communities—the groups most at risk of sexual transmission of HIV.

My right hon. Friend referred also to the investments that have been made in relation to HIV and AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. He will realise that in the early days, the mass advertising that was necessary—both on television and in leaflets—was far more expensive. We now have very focused delivery of treatments. He also mentioned ring-fencing. He has followed the subject closely, so he will know that funds that were previously ring-fenced for prevention are now in the baseline for the national health service, and have been since 2002. Later in my remarks, I shall indicate the huge benefits that that has provided.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that it is important that World AIDS day, in three days’ time, gives us an opportunity to take stock of achievements, while recognising that we need to do more, as he rightly said. Last week, two major HIV reports were published: one is from the UN on the global picture and the other is the Health Protection Agency’s 2006 annual report on HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Both make sobering reading. Despite global estimates having been revised downwards, the UNAIDS figures are still shocking, with 33.2 million people estimated to be living with HIV in 2007, 2.5 million new HIV diagnoses and 2.1 million deaths.

However, if we examine the situation in the UK, we have reason to be proud of our successes during the very long period for which my right hon. Friend has been following this issue. Deaths among HIV-infected persons fell from 749 in 1997 to 497 in 2006. That is a direct result of ART—antiretroviral therapy. AIDS diagnoses dropped from 1,080 in 1997 to 666 in 2006. Introducing routine HIV screening for all pregnant women has been a success. Today, 90 per cent. of HIV-infected women, up from 70 per cent. in 1999, are diagnosed before delivery, enabling treatment to be given to prevent HIV transmission to the child.

The offer and acceptance of HIV testing in sexual health clinics is now much more widespread. In all United Kingdom genito-urinary medicine clinics, voluntary confidential testing for HIV among men who have sex with men increased from 61 per cent. in 2001 to 85 per cent. in 2006. In heterosexuals, take-up increased from 41 per cent. in 2001 to 72 per cent. in 2006.

The huge success in screening people and therefore in identifying those at risk is the start of the answer to the question that my right hon. Friend posed about the information that it is now necessary to collect to inform treatment. I want to come on to that. Clearly, improving access to GUM clinics has been a top priority for the national health service. In September, 88 per cent. of patients were offered an appointment to be seen within 48 hours, up from 45 per cent. in May 2005. There is clear evidence that early access to services facilitates quicker diagnosis of infections, including HIV, and can break the cycle of onward transmission.

My right hon. Friend touched on the need to ensure proper education and access to counselling in our education system, including schools. He may have touched on the Ofsted report published in January 2005. The Department continues to provide funding for teachers and community nurses, who contribute to the provision of advice and support for our young people. We are developing specialist teams to improve their ability to ensure that such advice is clearly provided, but I recognise my right hon. Friend’s point that it is important to do more and, working with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, we are ensuring that that collaboration takes place.

As my right hon. Friend said, however, we still face significant challenges. I want to deal with those and some of the other points that he raised. Last Friday, the Health Protection Agency published “Testing Times”, its HIV and sexually transmitted infection report for 2006. It reported that although overall, the number of new HIV diagnoses appeared to be stabilising, they were still increasing in gay men. They remain the group most at risk of HIV transmission in the UK. Once all the reports for 2006 are received, the HPA expects a figure of 2,700 for new diagnoses among gay men in 2006.

To take forward the work on prevention and promotion of information that my right hon. Friend clearly identified as very important, we have to understand to whom exactly we are directing our messages and support. Our response involves looking specifically, although not exclusively, at the groups at highest risk; we are recognising the higher-risk groups. Those are gay men and African communities, who continue to bear the brunt of HIV in the UK and remain the focus of our national health promotion work. During the past two years, we have strengthened our national response by investing an additional £2 million in work by the Terrence Higgins Trust and the African HIV Policy Network. For African communities, we are working on interventions to increase awareness of the benefits of HIV testing and the importance of using condoms. We are working to achieve consensus on prevention priorities, as well as strengthening the evidence base for HIV health promotion in African communities in England.

My right hon. Friend recognises that, through that work, we are trying to ensure that we are using our resources to maximum effect to get information to those who need it. He will appreciate that the issue that we are still seeking to address in particular is late diagnosis. I am referring to people who either are unaware of their infection or are not coming forward for testing. However, we have made considerable progress on testing and we need to continue to invest in that.

My right hon. Friend touched on the question of automatic entitlement to free HIV treatment in the UK. HIV treatment is not included in the list of treatments exempt from charges under regulations. As he knows, people who are illegally here have no automatic right to free HIV treatment, but I am sure that he would acknowledge that that does not include asylum seekers, who do receive NHS services, including HIV treatment, without charge, and that treatment is not withdrawn from people whose asylum applications subsequently fail. They will continue to receive that treatment. Guidance on charging provides a number of safeguards specifically for maternity services and immediately necessary treatment, which is always based on clinical decisions. I am aware of the reports to which my right hon. Friend referred. There are difficult issues in this area, but I am sure that he would agree that all those who are ordinarily resident in the UK are entitled to access the treatment.

In conclusion, the action to prevent and address HIV in the UK continues to be a priority for the Department of Health. We have very good treatment outcomes for HIV and some of our health promotion work has been used as a model in other countries. However, we recognise the continuing challenges posed by HIV and sexual health. We are determined to continue to focus and prioritise the resources on that important matter. We are working with the expert advisory group on AIDS and the independent advisory group on sexual health and AIDS. As my right hon. Friend rightly said, we are undertaking a review of our strategies in consultation with others to ensure that we continue to take forward those measures.

We have made a great deal of progress since my right hon. Friend introduced his Bill. We are much clearer about the treatments that are available, about ensuring that we get advice through to the right people and about supporting those people. There is more to do, but as we approach World AIDS day we can be satisfied with the progress that we have made. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees with that conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Five o’clock.