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Westminster Hall

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2007

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 4 December 2007

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Development (Aylesbury Vale)

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

Good morning, Mrs. Humble. In welcoming you to the Chair, I confidently look forward to your firm, fair and wise stewardship of our proceedings. I welcome other hon. Members present, including the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats; and I welcome very warmly my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who will speak from the Conservative Front Bench.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is not able to be present today. He has championed the cause of local interests in respect of sustainable development over a long period and he would ordinarily be here, but he is a shadow Foreign Office Minister and is today in Israel, involved in discussions about the future of the middle east. I hope it will be understood that he cannot be with us this morning.

I pay particular tribute and take this opportunity warmly to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), upon his deserved elevation. I was pleased to hear of it, and I genuinely wish him well in the exercise of his new responsibilities.

The subject matter for debate today is development in Aylesbury Vale, to which there are a number of components. I start by focusing on housing. In doing so, I make it clear beyond peradventure that I am not one of those who say, “We do not want any housing here.” The logic of the situation is inescapable. The facts are clear: there is and will continue to be a substantial demand for new housing, long into the future, and I readily accept that Aylesbury Vale must take its fair and allocated share.

We all know the facts of the situation, which would inevitably press upon any Government. On the whole, people are leaving the family home at a younger age than they used to do; they are marrying or partnering later than they used to do; sadly, they are breaking up more frequently than they used to do; and they are living longer than they used to do. For that combination of reasons, it is an inescapable reality that we must have more units of housing. That has always been my position, and I have often stood up for or conceded the inevitability of new developments, sometimes including historically new settlements, even in the face of some local opposition. One must take a responsible view on such matters.

The issue is not whether we have new development in Aylesbury Vale but how much we can realistically be expected safely to absorb. The south-east plan was published and submitted to the Government in March 2006, and the panel of inspectors advising the Government responded to it in August 2007; as a result of that process, a number of things have become clear.

In particular, I confess that I very much welcome the strong conclusion in the panel of inspectors’ report that, as far as south-west expansion and the ambitions of the Milton Keynes Partnership are concerned, it would not be proper at this stage to think ahead and plan prescriptive numbers for as far into the future as 2031. That was the ambition of Milton Keynes Partnership, and it is absolutely right that the judgment was made that it would be better to stick at planning and providing for the period up to 2026. I also welcome the fact that the ambition of Milton Keynes Partnership to secure agreement to a figure of 7,500 new properties to the south-west of Milton Keynes—for my purposes, that means the village of Newton Longville in my constituency—has been rejected. Between now and 2026, the figure is not to be 7,500, unless the Government were so injudicious and maladroit as to intervene to insist on it; instead, it is to be 5,400. That is very welcome. It would be even more welcome if the Minister felt able to give a clarion commitment to the acceptance of that rather more satisfactory proposal.

I am also pleased, and I know that residents of my constituency engaged in these matters are pleased, that the principle of the urban intensification of Milton Keynes has been accepted, with plans for 10,400 new homes within the urban area of what even now is the relatively new city of Milton Keynes. Above all, I am pleased that as a result of the commentary of the inspectors, no new settlements are proposed.

That is a short and pithy summary—believe it or not—of a vast array of issues that had to be considered, both at the time of the submission of the original plan and of the inspectors’ determinations. However, I want to make it clear to the Minister that I am not cavilling at everything, or saying that is all thoroughly bad news, and that it is dark, dingy and gloomy—that is not the case. There are some compensations for Aylesbury Vale, and I have put them on record today.

In relation to housing, there are three other points to which I would like briefly to allude. First, I confess that in my constituency there is some regret and not a little frustration that the inspectors should have rejected the argument that some significant development could and should take place east of the M1; it would have been justified in itself and, as an inevitable corollary, it would have significantly reduced the pressure on Aylesbury Vale. That was not accepted, but even so there is a crumb of comfort—a substantial one—for my constituents. The inspectors’ panel report says clearly that it does not accept that the east side of the M1 should be viewed as some sort of permanent boundary, and that no development east of the M1 could ever take place. It is prepared to contemplate the possibility. It would be helpful, notwithstanding his understandable reluctance to make precise long-term commitments at this stage, were the Minister to signal nevertheless that there seemed to be a good deal of merit in what the inspectors had said. That is the first point that I want clearly to put on the record.

The second point is the question of affordable housing. It seems to me that the south-east as a whole, and arguably Aylesbury Vale in particular, faces a real and demanding challenge, and it is not always clear to me that Ministers are completely sensitive to the extent of it. I hope that the Minister, who is a rising star in the Prime Minister’s firmament, can demonstrate today precisely that sort of sensitivity to the concerns of a constituency Member of Parliament; it could augur well for his future but, more importantly, for the well-being and contentment of my constituents.

Why do I mention affordable housing? The Government are very keen to put on record the desirability—no, the overriding imperative—of substantially greater housing numbers, including and, arguably, particularly in the growth areas, of which Aylesbury Vale is one. I understand that, and there is a certain amount of criticism from time to time of the level of housing completions taking place in the south-east, uttered not least by the Minister for Housing on Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill last week. I say that the Government must be realistic. The estimated shortfall in public subsidy for the provision of housing that the Government regard as essential has been calculated as being no less than £56 million. I think that that is a huge consideration.

A £25 million shortfall is estimated in respect of social rented housing, and I think the sum is of the order of £31 million to fulfil the requirement of low-cost home ownership. The former is of special significance in my constituency but I do not entirely dismiss the significance of the latter. That is not my view, nor is it the judgment of the Conservative party or the hack estimate of an amateur unfamiliar with the terrain, it is the considered and, I think, authoritative view of the South East Regional Housing Board.

The board has put it to Ministers that it is simply not credible—I underline those words and, I think, quote them—to suppose that the south-east as a region can construct 10,900 social houses with £407 million when on the strength of the previous year’s £406 million it could put up only 8,100. To suppose that on the strength of another £1 million one can produce another 2,800 houses beggars belief—these are tales told to the marines—and I appeal to the Minister, who is nothing but an emblem of common sense at all times, to appreciate that there is a lacuna in Government thinking.

If Ministers want that substantially greater development of the social rented sector and of low-cost housing, they have to be prepared, to put it bluntly, to stump up the cash. It is not acceptable to fail to stump up the cash but then to berate and belabour decent, committed providers in my constituency, or simply to lambast the developers. That is a significant additional concern to which I would welcome a reassuring response from the Minister.

My third concern in relation to housing is on the subject of the intended eco-towns. That is a concept that I feel sure, Mrs. Humble, will require no elaboration for you. I suspect that you are familiar with the background to and the minutiae of Government policy in that arena and I therefore do not intend to detain the Chamber overly long on the matter. The Government are proposing a competition for the establishment of eco-towns and I want to tease out of the Minster whether there has been an application for the establishment of an eco-town in Aylesbury Vale. That would be illuminating information. Even if he does not have the facts at his fingertips, he is guided by wise individuals to whom the rules of order prevent me from referring, and it may be that a piece of handy information will squirrel its way towards him during the debate and he will be able to answer that important question. I emphasise that my constituents will be interested to know.

I would be struck, and to a degree perturbed, if an application had been submitted and received by the Minister’s Department. My understanding is that the precise form that the eco-towns will take is as yet undetermined. Indeed, I am advised that it is part of the competition to tell the Government what the towns ought to look like. However, certain criteria have been set out, one of which, if memory serves me correctly, is that the towns should be for at least 5,000 new homes. If such an application had been received by the Minister that would clearly and brutally cut across the advice of the inspectors’ panel report, which was that no need for new settlements had been demonstrated. Palpably, if one were creating a whole community that was to be dignified with the term “eco-town” it would effectively amount to a new settlement.

I would also like to establish from the Minister what the rules will be governing the creation and development of such eco-towns. Will they proceed on the basis of a requirement for full planning permission, a wholly rigorous public consultation process, and an independent examination? That would seem to be entirely proper, and the minimum safeguard required by my constituents if such a monumental development were to proceed.

Is it alternatively the case, or might it become so, that the Government are so keen to see towns of this kind established that a less rigorous—or dare I say, to use the jargon, more “light-touch”—planning procedure might be envisaged? I very much hope that the latter is not the case, and of course the Minister has a heaven-sent opportunity today to reassure me and to say: “The hon. Member for Buckingham has absolutely nothing to worry about. There may or may not be an application, but it will have to go through a very rigorous process, no less rigorous than—indeed, identical to—the arrangements that typically obtain at the moment.” The Minister has in front of him an open goal if the evidence suits his case. He has merely to kick the ball into the net.

That deals with the housing element of the equation. However, as someone recently said to me in a neat encapsulation of the challenge from the point of view of my constituency and beyond, the housing element is mandated; the infrastructure is not. The Minister might be aware that Roger Tym and Partners, the consultants who were deputed to look into these matters and offer their assessment, did a very substantial piece of work on the subject of infrastructure in the light of the proposed growth-area status for Aylesbury Vale. They concluded that for Aylesbury alone, £768 million of infrastructure expenditure would be required. That is an enormous sum and it leads me to focus on an important issue of principle. If we are talking, as Ministers, shadow Ministers and Back Benchers have consistently done, about the requirement for sustainable development, what we need to know is whether the Government accept what has previously been acknowledged to be true—that if we are to have the housing established, we need to have the infrastructure to go with it.

Of course the Minister will be aware that the south-east plan, which included quite ambitious proposals for new housing, did say that the housing needed to be “closely related”—I use that expression advisedly, as it is a direct quote from the report—to the availability of infrastructure and associated services. My understanding, not least from replies to me and other hon. Members from the Minister of Housing, was that that was also the stated position and promise of the Government. I then saw the inspectors’ panel report and one of the less agreeable features of it. It said that it did not accept that housing expansion needed to be contingent on the delivery of necessary infrastructure. That was a bolt from the blue for me, for my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, for the North Bucks Parishes Planning Consortium, with which I met last week to discuss these important matters, and a good many other constituents besides.

Last week, on Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, I asked the Minister on which side of the argument she fell. Did she accept what I thought was regarded as a prosaic truism, namely that housing had to be accompanied by infrastructure, or did she side with the panel of inspectors? I yield to no one in my admiration for the talents of the Minister, but I was somewhat disappointed by her judgment. She seemed to think that the argument was more in the direction of the inspectors. She did not say that in so many words, but she offered me no comfort and proceeded to bemoan the low levels of completions and to bang on about what the Government were doing on infrastructure, which was far from giving the commitment that the two had to go hand in hand—which I regarded as axiomatic.

We need to know clearly whether Ministers accept that housing and infrastructure must go hand in hand. Do they accept the judgment of the south-east plan authors or do they side with the inspectors? That is a matter not of detail, but of principle, which underlies development both in my own area and, potentially, in others around the country.

The Government, of course, are minded to talk about the community infrastructure levy and to wax lyrical about the scope for investment in infrastructure, but I am simply not sure how easy it is to get substantial funds for strategic infrastructure projects. In other words, I accept that one can get some quick wins with smaller-scale initiatives necessary at the time of housing development, but it is not always easy with the big issues and the high-cost projects. I refer, for example, to the present and past difficulties with the A418, which is in my constituency and also relevant to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury.

Perhaps the Planning Bill will usher in a Huxleyite brave new world and there will be some good news to report on that front: procedures will be more timely procedures, resources will come on stream and, all of a sudden, we will have much less to worry about. However, resting content on that basis would probably be a triumph of optimism over the evidence of history. If the Minister is able to speak about what the Planning Bill might betoken for speedier agreement for infrastructure, that would be welcome, but I have to point out that Buckinghamshire county council—in pursuit of a section 106 agreement—recently required three and a half years from conception to completion of the agreement. I am very concerned that it is not going to be easy to get substantial projects.

Let me place on record my relief and satisfaction that, as a result of good work done locally by Buckinghamshire county council and Aylesbury Vale district council, something in the order of £33.4 million of funds for infrastructure projects—a miscellany of different projects—has been secured. Moreover, as far as the third phase of the growth area fund resources is concerned, the local authorities have applied for an additional £27.4 million of financial support. We do not yet know the outcome of those applications, but I am cautiously hopeful that we might garner additional funds by that route. I hope that the Minister will not sniff at what I say, or think me unappreciative of what my own area has managed to achieve, but those are relatively small sums when considering the overall estimates of Roger Tym and Partners and the supposition that, for big projects, we are talking about several hundred million pounds of required funds. So far we have levered in just less than £33.5 million and are pursuing almost another £27.5 million, so there is, frankly, still a great deal to be done.

Why do I attach so much significance to the pursuit of such large funds? The answer is simple. When considering Aylesbury, we are talking about the biggest expansion—relative to its existing size—of any town in the south-east of England. That is the scale of the project that we have to consider. In those circumstances, with something so big, how will we get the necessary resources? Buckinghamshire county council has told me that sometimes feasibility studies and initial design can already be a huge drain. That is committing resources on a wing and a prayer, when the expectation of managing to attract public funding is somewhere between remote and non-existent. We are talking about the A413, A41, A418, A4146, about increasing the size of Stoke Mandeville stadium, about a higher education facility, about green spaces, community resources, flood defence, public utilities and so on. Very significant sums of money will be required.

The South East England Development Agency chief executive, Pam Alexander, is very explicit on the matter, and I am grateful to her. She has said that major social, environmental and economic infrastructure is a “critical requirement” for the success of a more ambitious housing programme. She is very clear.

Similarly, the South East England regional assembly and the inspectors advising the Government are clear about the crucial strategic significance of the east-west rail route. They think that it is indispensable. Does the Minister agree with that proposition? How does he envisage that Government can assist in bringing it on-stream expeditiously? What prognosis for its future and its interaction with housing development can he offer to me and other right hon. and hon. Members today?

In the context of infrastructure I have to refer to electricity supply. Our local supplier, EDF, has made the point that it cannot plan ahead. There is, effectively, a presumption under regulation against investment in expectation of substantial additional housing numbers. That is a regulatory matter that is within the auspices of and can be changed by Government. A shortage of electricity supply either for homeowners or business customers is not an irremediable problem, but the matter needs to be addressed; otherwise, by 2012 a shortage is likely. That is a real consideration, as is the judgment of Thames Water that there needs to be very significant expansion and improvement of sewage treatment facilities in and around Aylesbury to which “very significant costs” are attached. I hope that the Minister will not think that I am speculating idly or engaged in a polemical rant against him, because that is not the case. I recognise that there is always a limit to what is available, but I want the Minister to appreciate the significance, scale and urgency of our requirements. Those cannot be swept under the carpet.

Finally, having talked about housing and infrastructure per se, I would like to say something more broadly about public service provision. Approximately three years ago, the hospital and primary care trusts in Milton Keynes and south midlands hired consultants to look at the expected health service provision needs in the light of anticipated and, dare I say, as far as the Government are concerned, mandated expansion of the area. As the Minister will know, the area was the subject of a development study and is a development area. The consultants reported—and Ministers have access to all this material—that an additional 142 hospital beds would be required by 2031, that an extra 84 beds in the community would be required, that 56 additional day care places would be needed, that the area would have to be able to deliver 100,000 accident and emergency admissions, that an extra 3,000 999 calls would have to be capable of being dealt with, that a further 1,100 initial meetings with a district nurse would be required on top of existing numbers, and that an expected increase of 200,000 in general practitioner consultations would be necessary.

Those are very significant numbers, as I know the Minister will appreciate. In that context, I ask myself what, in reality, seems likely to be delivered. I am not a harbinger of doom. I go about my business with an additional glint in my eye and spring in my step on a daily basis, and the Minister certainly would not accuse me of spreading gloom and doom. However, I have to temper my natural enthusiasm for life with a recognition of the constraints under which we are operating and the obvious disparity between what Hedra consultants are saying we need, and what seems likely, on present trends, to be on the table. The reality is that in our area we are struggling. We are not vastly expanding health services: we are struggling on a daily basis to keep the ship of state afloat. The Vale of Aylesbury primary care trust has a very substantial deficit which it is seeking to reduce and ultimately, perhaps, to eliminate. To put it bluntly, the order of the day in our area is not “expansion, expansion, expansion”; it is “cuts, cuts, cuts.” It is the responsibility of local Members of Parliament to seek to resist or mitigate the effects of those cuts, in the interests of our constituents, as best we can, while lobbying Government for the best possible allocation of resources to meet local need.

The fact is that we have a cuts agenda locally, not an increased resources agenda, and I say to the Minister that, as in respect of infrastructure, there is an issue in respect of the development of the health service. What we need is not the belated provision of partial infrastructure, but the timeous and parallel provision of the necessary infrastructure. Very often, as the Minister will concede, the history of development shows that when we get the houses, we get the infrastructure either late—and often inadequate—or simply not at all. That will not do. We must have the resources on time; otherwise, we will not have that symmetrical and sustainable development to which—rhetorically at least—we are all are signed up.

In relation to health provision, I know from the evidence of my local GPs, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, who has eloquently made this point on previous occasions, that frequently there is a huge time lag—a time lag of up to 18 months—between the arrival of new residents in the area and the passage through the primary care trusts and to GPs’ surgeries of the necessary capitation payments that allow for the provision of the additional facilities which, frankly, we should be able to take for granted. Those are very big and important issues, and I would welcome Members’ comments on them. The fact is that there is a huge funding challenge: funding of infrastructure; funding of our health service; funding of education facilities; funding of adult arrangements and social care provision; and funding of the Thames Valley police force, one of the worst-funded police forces in the country.

Of course, the Minister will say that that is a matter for his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Office, and I accept that in departmental terms that is so. Equally, I hope that he will acknowledge the responsibility to try to ensure that there is joined-up government in these matters. A great deal is expected of district and county councils by way of commitment to development, and it is perfectly proper for the Government to take a view as to which areas should develop.

I myself have tried to be and will continue to be thoroughly constructive in these matters. I think it comes with the turf, just as it does for district and county council leaders. We do not just say “the houses must go to Hull,” because that is not a responsible position, and it is also, ultimately, a rather selfish stance. It is fine for people who have houses, who live in my, on the whole, fortunate, successful and affluent constituency, but we do need to provide additional housing, and I am quite happy to play my part in selling the case for necessary development, on the understanding that I am also selling the case for sustainable development. I cannot realistically, in all conscience, be invited to tell my constituents that they can have the houses but will not get the infrastructure.

My ambition is simple: I want a sustainable development that will lead to improvement, not deterioration, in the quality of life of residents of the Buckingham constituency. I hope that the Minister can help me to achieve that for the benefit of my area. I look forward to what the hon. Member for Chesterfield, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham and the Minister have to say.

In following the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I want to congratulate him on securing this debate. In his speech, the hon. Gentleman said that he hoped that the Minister would not accuse him of a polemical rant. There is no danger of that, for every time that I hear the hon. Gentleman speak, on whichever subject, he always puts forward the most rational, coherent and reasoned analysis of that topic. That is absolutely true on this occasion, and I would not disagree in the slightest with a word that the hon. Gentleman has uttered. I will simply try to add my comments as an outsider, who has never, as far as I know, been through Aylesbury Vale, let alone visited it, so I bow to the knowledge of a local expert.

This is the second debate in which I have participated in the past two or three weeks where the Minister and the Front-Bench spokespeople have been outsiders. They are no experts on the issues that we are debating. One debate was on local government reorganisation in Norfolk, and now we are on housing development in Aylesbury Vale. Is that really the best way to run the country and make policy on such local issues? The people who should be deciding on the best shape of local government reorganisation in Norfolk are the locally elected politicians who represent their communities. Those who should have the power and control to decide on development in Aylesbury Vale—or, indeed, in my constituency of Chesterfield or anywhere else in the country—are the locally elected politicians. They know their communities and their local conditions and circumstances.

That is how the power would be held more or less anywhere else in Europe, including Scandinavia, or the United States that I have visited. We are the most centralised of the western democracies, with 90 per cent. of our taxation raised in London and handed out, with strings attached, by various Ministers to various arms of local government—and, unfortunately, increasingly to local quangos that are totally unaccountable, unelected and appointed. This debate is a classic illustration that that is not the way, and we should reverse all of that. The local knowledge on how to implement housing growth, for example, is far superior to that of any politician speaking in this place who is not a local, or to any Minister or civil servant sitting in their offices in Eland house off Victoria street and deciding what happens, in fairly minute detail, across the whole length and breadth of the country.

For example, I know that central Government have expressed some impatience with what they perceive as unnecessary delays with some housing development in Aylesbury Vale. Yet if we look at the local circumstances, we can see some good reasons for that. One development at Berryfields, for example, where all of the section 106 agreements have now been signed, has taken some time to negotiate since there were a considerable number of small developers involved and the local authority had to do separate negotiations with every one of them. That is quite complex, and I know that the local authority is now looking to try and deal with those problems differently, by having lots of pre-planning meetings before planning applications are even submitted and by adopting the simplified tariff approach pioneered by Milton Keynes. I know, from talking to Barratt, the FTSE 100 company that builds 10 per cent. of this country’s houses every year, that it is full of praise for such a simplified approach. Where there is a flat tariff, it knows what it is going to pay on every building that it puts up, and it does not have to get into the same detailed level of local negotiations each time. It is simpler for everybody.

With another development, the Princess Mary hospital in Wendover, there has again been central Government impatience about how quickly the local authority gets on with building new houses. Yet there, the problem is not with the local authority but with an arm of central Government, because the Princess Mary site is an ex-Ministry of Defence hospital. The problem is with the Ministry of Defence and the Government side getting their act together to move the process on. Central Government are so quick to blame local authorities on all sorts of issues, but closer analysis often reveals that the problem is much more complex and may indeed sometimes lie with central Government.

Another issue, which the hon. Member for Buckingham perhaps skirted around when he discussed eco-towns, is private developer Greenway’s proposal for Aylesbury Vale. Greenway suggests that it could build an eco-town, although, as we have heard, the conditions under which it could do so are not yet known and are in the gift of central Government. There is a suggestion that Greenway’s proposal, which is to build 4,000 houses just north of Winslow—a town with just 4,000 residents, not 4,000 houses—would hardly qualify as an eco-town. The proposal would create huge infrastructure problems, and we have heard lots of examples of that. Traffic in the area is already way beyond capacity, and building another 4,000 houses would create huge infrastructure issues.

Greenway suggests that it can build a relief road to get around the problem, but when would that infrastructure be built? The proposal appears to be to build 200 houses a year over 15 years, but would Greenway build the relief road before the 4,000 houses, given that the local roads are already over capacity, or would it wait 15 years, until it had built all 4,000 houses, which would obviously be the wrong way to do it? There are therefore lots of local issues, and the county, district and borough councils involved are far better placed to understand and deal with them than anyone in central Government.

Other infrastructure issues have been touched on, and I want to explore them further. We are talking about building large numbers of houses in the area. Milton Keynes, which is just over the border from Aylesbury Vale, has the greatest planned housing growth in the entire south-east, and some of that massive growth may spill over into Aylesbury Vale. Although that is an issue for discussion and some disagreement, Aylesbury Vale itself has the third-largest planned growth in the south-east. If house building takes place on such a massive scale, there will obviously be huge infrastructure questions, which the hon. Member for Buckingham has raised.

Road issues have been mentioned, for example. The A413 and the A418 are the two main roads in and out of Aylesbury, but they are already over capacity. We may end up building large numbers of houses on greenfield sites north, east or south of Aylesbury. Interestingly, we have not had mention of building on the green belt, and although the distinction between green belt and greenfield is pretty clear, people often confuse the two. In this case, nobody is saying that we cannot build on green fields, and there are plenty of places to build in a rational, planned way, so that, thankfully, does not seem to be an issue here. However, if we build large numbers of houses on what are essentially greenfield sites, we will create an awful lot of extra traffic. Unless we build everybody a light railway or other railway system, there will be a lot more car traffic, which will require a lot more roads to be built in a planned way before, not after, the development is opened. If the local road structure, including the A413 and the A418, is already over capacity and more or less gridlocked at rush hour, we cannot possibly throw huge amounts of extra traffic on to it without completely bringing to a standstill not only the central town of Aylesbury, but outlying villages such as Wing and Bierton, which already have huge problems and need new road networks now, not when thousands of extra houses are built in the area.

On rail links, the north-south links are, as always, fairly good, but the east-west links are not very good. There is strong pressure in the area to reopen the east-west link, with a rail line from Aylesbury to Milton Keynes, but where would the funding come from? Would it come before or after significant housing development creates even more pressure, because roads either do not exist or are massively congested? If we want to get people out of cars and on to rail, we must have the rail network before the event, not after, when areas are already gridlocked and congested.

I also want to pursue slightly further the issue of electricity. There are all sorts of examples relating to the EDF issue, and I have a copy of the detailed five-page letter—hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to read it out—that Alan Sherwell, a councillor on Aylesbury Vale district council, wrote to a Minister in the Department on 19 October, although he has not yet had a response. It is a detailed letter on one specific issue—the infrastructure for the electricity supply. Given the number of houses and the development in the area, capacity has already been reached for delivering electricity. We have heard that if people want to build a new cluster of 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 houses, they have to provide a new sub-station and new electricity infrastructure.

EDF gives the example of the Aylesbury East grid at Bierton, just north of the town, which is already at capacity. Further development would require more electricity infrastructure. EDF estimates an up-front cost of £6 million and says that, from the order being placed, it would take two years for the components to build the sub-station to be delivered and for it to be built. We are talking about a two-year run-in time and £6 million up front, before progress can be made. Where does the £6 million come from? Does it come in small, piecemeal amounts from different housing developers, most of which do not even have the contracts yet? We have discussed Greenway’s proposal to build a road. Would the road come after it had built 4,000 houses or before? From the developer’s point of view, it would always be after; from the local community’s point of view, it has to be before.

What happens in the case of EDF? Do the Government step in with a private company such as EDF and provide the up-front funds to allow the infrastructure to be put in place before the houses and, we hope, the offices and other units required to provide employment are put in place? There is a major issue in relation to the two-year gap or run-in time between order and completion. The infrastructure will have to be in place before the houses are built, but who will provide the money? EDF is not. Small, piecemeal developers are not; they would not be capable of providing all that money anyway. Who will fill the infrastructure gap, which in this case relates specifically to electricity?

Then there is the employment issue. If we massively expand the housing capacity around Aylesbury, Aylesbury Vale and Milton Keynes just next door, where will those people find employment? Will they all be commuters, heading into London? The railway route from Aylesbury to Marylebone in London is already at capacity. The line is partly shared with London Underground and there is no more capacity on it. Where will the tens of thousands of people who will live in the extra thousands of houses over the next few years work?

The hon. Member for Buckingham talked about sustainable community development. If it is to be sustainable in every sense of the word, where will the people work? Local employment must be provided, because those people could not use the existing transport capacity in terms of road or rail to commute to London to work. One fear of local government in Aylesbury Vale relates to the fact that it is under pressure from the Government to keep hitting central targets on development of housing. Some of that pressure could lead to the use of land that is suitable for developing industrial parks and office parks that would provide employment for the growing population, but there is pressure to release such land quickly for housing. Some land is suitable for employment purposes or housing and some land is suitable only for housing. What a short-sighted mistake it would be if, in pursuit of centrally imposed targets and pressure, houses were built on land that was suitable for employment purposes and then in five or 10 years people turned round and said, “But where are the jobs for these people? Where can we build the employment parks?” We must have infrastructure planning, whether it relates to road, rail, electricity or employment. We have to sort those issues out up front.

The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling point. It would be an irony indeed if the displacement of appropriate business premises on the one hand and the paucity of wider infrastructure on the other proved to be the lethal cocktail that discouraged enterprises from taking root in Aylesbury. Does he agree that the proposal that we should be thinking in terms of an extra job per household is very modest? We have to be 21st century about this and realise not only that two people in many of these households will want to work, but that they will need to do so.

As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The local council has talked about wanting at least one-to-one sustainability in terms of new employment for new housing and a new population, but one house does not equal one person seeking a job. Couples today expect that both people will work more or less throughout their adult lives. One of them may be part-time for part of that, but they will be working and both will be full-time for the bulk of their working lives. Of course, when children become adults, they are often in the original family home—I know, as I have two adult children who rarely seem to be out of the house, even though they have left home—as they cannot afford to get on the housing ladder until much later in their lives than our generation used to expect. One home may well have not one person but two, three or four who are looking for employment in the area, just as it may well have not one or two but three cars. Runaway housing development, with no employment infrastructure, will cause massive problems a few years down the line.

I saw an example of that recently on a visit to the High Peak of Derbyshire, an area that I know well—I worked there for 17 years. There was an industrial estate, and the eyes of some people there lit up with pound signs at the thought of selling it off for housing development. The value of the land for housing is immeasurably higher than its value as industrial land. There is huge pressure to sell land for housing, but where then will be the jobs for people living in small communities, in that case in the High Peak of Derbyshire and in the case that we are discussing in the largely rural area around Aylesbury Vale? We cannot have everyone commuting to Milton Keynes and London when the road and rail infrastructure either does not exist or is already overloaded before many thousands of extra houses and tens of thousands of extra people are added.

We need joined-up thinking and planning, and we cannot just leave it to piecemeal developers and local authorities, whose financial capabilities are restricted because central Government control 75 per cent. of their finances and what they can borrow to invest. The Government do not want to affect the public sector borrowing requirement, hence their disastrous policies on social housing to rent and stopping the building of council houses entirely for the past 10 years. In that climate, local authorities cannot deal with the problem on their own. Both the other parties keep talking about localism, even though they destroyed it, starting in the 1980s and continuing in the 1990s. If we were to reverse the central control, local authorities would have the power to raise funds for local infrastructure and to plan and decide locally, as they do in France, Germany, Sweden and southern Illinois, all of which I have visited. That power does not exist in this country at the moment.

Central Government should have a light touch and not impose hard, centrally driven targets that are not suitable for local circumstances. They should get their act together and, as has been mentioned, provide the infrastructure of road, rail, schools, health services and employment before they rush into building huge housing estates with thousands of houses, tens of thousands of people and no local facilities to serve them. It must be planned well, and who should the Government listen to in that planning? It must be local people, communities and their elected representatives. They are the experts, and they know their area, its problems and the places where building could or could not take place far better than anyone sitting in the offices at Eland house on Victoria street, just up the road from the Houses of Parliament.

It is a pleasure to follow two such eloquent speeches. Before I go into detail, I need to declare an interest. My husband is the deputy chairman of the South East England Development Agency, which has a core part to play in any development. He is also, as leader of East Sussex county council, a member of the south-east county leaders, who put forward what is in effect the final plan that the inspectors came up with on housing development in the south-east. I also have some knowledge of the area in question, as a member of my family lives in the vale of Aylesbury.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate, and I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury Vale is not here. Or is it Aylesbury?

My apologies; I was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). The debate has given us the opportunity to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham in full flow, and when he is in full flow, there is nobody better in the House to explain a complex situation.

It is not often that a Conservative will say that they broadly agree with a Liberal.

I know—it is a stain on my record for ever more. The points made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) were, in principle, ones with which I thoroughly agree.

This is not the first time that I have stood up in this Chamber and discussed the subject. In fact, I think that I was possibly the first Member of Parliament to raise the issue of overdevelopment during the past 10 years in my constituency. Yet again, I am familiar with the arguments. The other strength that I hope I can bring to the debate is that as a Scot, I was brought up near Glasgow. I have experience of the enormous council house estates, or schemes as they are called in Scotland, built all around Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee—mono-housing with no infrastructure, no jobs, no shops, no churches and no pubs. The Scots are living with the consequences 50 years later. The last thing that I would wish on any community is mono-culture housing that creates the social problems that we have seen Scotland suffer from, as well as other parts of the UK—Newcastle upon Tyne is a particular example.

Let me maintain the unusual harmony between me and the hon. Lady: she has talked about huge council estates in Scotland and the problems that they created, but that is not only a problem with huge council estates. In my constituency, a development of 3,000 to 4,000 houses on the Peak district side of Chesterfield is privately built and in a desirable area but has no community room, no schools and no facilities. Everyone has to travel out, even to take their kids to infant school. People cannot walk to school, so they have to drive. That is a problem not only on council estates, but on huge modern estates of any kind.

I agree. The oldest exemplar before us is the case of the housing schemes in Scotland, and any mono-culture development of any size has to be avoided. That is why I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham on mentioning so strongly the need to create a sustainable community. That is what the Government tell us that they want to do, and we have to take them at their word.

Like my hon. Friend, I accept absolutely the need for more housing. There is no argument about that in any political party. The argument is precisely that which was put forward by both hon. Members who have spoken: do we have a top-down imposition of housing or a bottom-up acceptance by the local community where they see the communities develop and feel that they are in control of that? That is where the debate will lie.

The debate is encapsulated by the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which has just had its Second Reading, and the Planning Bill. The Government are dictating to local communities. However much the Government say that consultation has been brought into the system, essentially there is a top-down imposition of targets. Our communities are against all development because they feel that they have lost control and that the only thing that they can do is object. The planning system is brought into such disfavour in communities because a local developer—or any developer—puts in a planning application, local people object, it is turned down on perfectly rational grounds by the local planning committee, the developer appeals and almost invariably the planning inspectorate is suspected by our local communities of carrying out the Government’s wishes—it does not, and I exonerate it from wishing to do so. However, local communities perceive that the inspectorate carries out the Government’s wishes. That does nothing for the acceptance of planning developments, because people get cynical about the whole system.

In my view, and those of many others who have read the provisions in the Planning Bill, the Government’s attempts to tighten even further local communities’ development difficulties will only exacerbate that situation. However, this is not the place—I can feel you getting twitchy, Mrs. Humble—for a long dissertation on the faults of the Bill; that will be for Second Reading next Monday. However, the issues exemplified by today’s debate have arisen because people feel that they have lost control.

I, too, wish to hear from the Minister whether the Government accept the south-east plan, as reported by the inspectors, which represents a reduction on the numbers wanted by the Government, and a minor increase on those wanted by the south-east area—I am using the broadest definition of “south-east”. However, I understand that 29,000 houses a year are being built in the south-east area anyway, and it is believed that a figure of 32,000 is not beyond the realms of possibility, but more than that will be an unacceptable number for the south-east.

Returning to my comments about mono-housing, there is confusion over the definitions of affordable housing and social housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred to the need for both low-cost housing for purchase and an increase in the rented sector. Unfortunately, however, the two have become interchangeable, which might well impact on the Vale of Aylesbury. If it is not clear that social housing is merely a part of affordable housing, and if it is defined as affordable housing only—if the two become synonymous—we could go back down the route of a mono-culture development. We need to maintain the difference between the two.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham terrified me with the estimate by Roger Tym and Partners of £760 million for infrastructure, although I suppose that I should not have been terrified. If I understood his figures correctly, he said that Buckinghamshire county council has received £31 million in infrastructure money so far and will receive another £30 million. If we accept the consultants’ figures, there will be a £700 million gap in infrastructure money in the Vale of Aylesbury alone. He also referred to the community infrastructure levy proposed in the Planning Bill, but the Bill does not make it clear how that levy will work. The nice fluffy idea is that developers will pay the levy and that it will be based on the Milton Keynes tariff. However, people are deeply suspicious. My memory is that the public spending statement mentioned that the regional development agencies, which will be responsible for planning and housing, will also benefit from the levy. If they are to be included, and if the £700 million infrastructure costs for the Vale of Aylesbury are to be covered entirely by the CIL, how much will developers have to sell their houses for in order to pay for it? I am sorry, but I am not a sufficient mathematician to work that out.

On the Milton Keynes tariff, Councillor Isobel McCall, the leader at Milton Keynes, has warned that although the tariff simplifies things very much and goes a long way towards allowing the local authority to provide an infrastructure, it is not enough. The local authority ends up making bids for money from various different pots to try to stitch together enough to put the infrastructure in place. The system needs changing.

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on some of the difficulties of the tariff. I hope that he will serve in Committee on the Planning Bill; if he does, he will discover that the clauses on the community infrastructure levy are bland, to say the least. We do not know whether the tariff will be a set tariff; if it is, we will, of course, have difficulties with values throughout the country. If it is based on a tariff system, the same point will apply. However, if the Government expect the community infrastructure levy to fund the infrastructure in one small area with the sum of £700 million, I suggest that the houses that will be built must be over the £1 million mark. That is hardly social or affordable housing, with the best will in the world. It would produce a monoculture of millionaires, and I do not think that we want that in the Vale of Aylesbury.

I, sadly, will be deprived of the joys of participating in the Planning Bill Committee, but Val Letheren, Martin Tett and Carole Paternoster, county and district representatives in my area, are anxious for reassurance about the community infrastructure levy. The expectation of funding so much from such a modest instrument seems an enormous one. Is my hon. Friend aware that on the strength of the record of the planning gain supplement, top-slicing is the order of the day? Not only are we expected somehow to raise huge funds locally, but we are not even allowed to keep the bulk of them.

The difficulty that we have is that the Bill is totally opaque—it does not explain. We have been assured that the clauses will be brought forward while the Bill is in Committee.

Order. I remind the hon. Lady that we are talking about development in Aylesbury Vale. I have allowed some debate about the Planning Bill, because of issues about how development may proceed, but I hope that she will return to the issue at hand.

I dearly wish to keep in order, and frequent references to the Vale of Aylesbury have so far helped me to do that, but we can envisage, projected forward—at least I have avoided the phrase “going forward”, which should be struck from the English language—difficulties with the provision of infrastructure, and the Government’s approach to its development, in the proposed new system.

On infrastructure, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and the hon. Member for Chesterfield both rightly raised not only the issues of shops and churches, but the more fundamental issues of transport and of energy and sewerage provision. I shall get into trouble again, because I wonder whether the Minister can advise us whether the provision of the energy required for a development, such as the one in the Vale of Aylesbury, would be regarded as coming within the responsibilities of the new infrastructure planning commission. The White Paper suggested that there might be five to 10 national infrastructure issues. I understand, informally, that that has been increased to 40, or possibly 80. However, we are still trying to find out what might be regarded as a national infrastructure issue. Might it be argued that a power sub-station for 5,000 new houses—it is 5,000—in the Vale of Aylesbury is relevant to the national infrastructure commission? Might the required new roads and railway lines be relevant, too, and might they be brought within the new system? If so, any new development in the Vale of Aylesbury would, I suggest, be delayed yet further as such issues are worked out through the new structure.

Some real questions must be asked about how the infrastructure will be developed within the Government’s proposals. Indeed, if any such proposal were to win an eco-town award, again one would ask whether it was relevant to the national infrastructure, because if it was, it would have to go right the way through the new infrastructure planning commission, which is, theoretically, meant to speed things up. It will be an interesting debate to determine whether the commission does that.

There are real questions, which I hope the Minister will answer, about the proposal to build in the Vale of Aylesbury more houses than local residents currently feel able to take. In the 50 years since I first visited that part of the world, I have seen huge expansion in the area. The ancient villages and towns have expanded beyond any recognition. Local people are prepared to accept further development, but unless they feel that they have control over the amount of development, that they accept it, and that they are prepared to live with the consequences and the requirements, so that they can secure a doctor’s appointment and a school for their children and get to work more locally than before, the Government will face a form of civil breakdown, which I am sure they would not wish for and which, in their heart of hearts, they would never have envisaged.

If communities do not accept and believe in their own area, one way or another we will face real problems. I very much hope that the Government take that dire warning on board. None of us wishes to see it happen, and we do not encourage it. We believe that more housing is needed, but unless people accept that need and own it, real problems will emerge.

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. It does not seem too long ago that I responded for the Government in an equally important debate, in which you participated, about the economic regeneration of Blackpool. However, it is nice to see you in the Chair for what has been a good-natured and illuminating debate this morning.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate. When I was appointed a Minister, he was one of the first people to congratulate me and send me a note, for which I was grateful. His courteous and, it must be said, positively cutting manner, his eloquence in the Chamber when holding the Government to account and his hard work as a constituency MP are a real pleasure to watch. His membership of this House raises the parliamentary average, and I am grateful that he is a Member.

I genuinely think that it has been a good debate. The way in which we plan and deliver the development of local communities to maintain and improve on our strong economic performance and to provide much-needed additional housing, while imposing and securing sustainability in every sense, is among the most challenging issues that we face. I welcome the opportunity to respond, and I have enjoyed listening to hon. Members’ contributions. However, I am afraid that I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he knows this—in his request for me to comment on precise housing numbers. He knows that I am constrained in what I can say because of the current position on the spatial strategy for development of the regions.

The draft south-east plan submitted by the regional assembly underwent extensive consultation and public examination, and the independent panel submitted its recommendations on the draft plan to the Government in August. They are being considered, and we expect to publish our formal response early next year. The response will undergo a 12-week statutory public consultation, and we will then consider the comments and views of all interested parties before preparing the final regional spatial strategy. I am afraid that I must disappoint the House by not commenting further on any detailed aspect of the proposed changes before that process occurs.

The national perspective is important. The recent housing Green Paper set out the Government’s ambition to deliver a substantial increase in new housing. The case for doing so is clear. Since the early 1970s, we have been building more slowly than new households have been forming and have experienced a sustained increase in house prices as well as rising numbers on housing waiting lists. As I mentioned on the Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill last week, poor and inadequate housing can have a major impact on health, well-being and educational attainment.

In Aylesbury Vale, lower quartile house prices are now more than eight times lower quartile earnings, putting home ownership out of many households’ reach. More than 2,000 households were on the district’s housing waiting list at the end of March 2006, more than double the number for 2002, which is simply unacceptable. To address the situation, we aim to deliver a minimum of 240,000 new homes a year by 2016, with a total of 3 million by 2020. That goal is based on extensive analysis of housing supply, demand and affordability.

We recently established a new body, the national housing and planning advice unit, to provide independent advice to central Government and regional planning bodies. The unit’s initial advice on the housing numbers published in October underlines the scale of the challenge that we face in meeting our objectives for long-term affordability. It is important that regional planning processes consider an appropriate range of housing numbers with a view to meeting long-term needs. Unless we get it right now, our sons, daughters and grandchildren will lose out. As I said last week, housing will become a source of inequality if we do not act now.

As well as increasing numbers, we must meet high environmental and design standards and deliver thriving, sustainable communities. That has been a theme of this debate, and rightly so. Local authorities, working with residents and local partners, are at the heart of shaping the vision for their locality. I dispute the point that the process has been centrally driven and top-down. The process does not work if that is the case, and it must be bottom-up if it is to work. The importance of local authorities’ place-shaping role is reflected in the recent changes to relations between central Government and local government. We have strengthened local area agreements and significantly simplified local authority funding and performance management arrangements.

The planning system exists to help local authorities achieve the principles that I have described. It is a plan-led system, because we need a proactive and integrated approach to development and place-shaping. We are committed as a Government to the principle of sustainable communities. In 2004, we introduced new evidence-based planning systems at the regional and local levels to enshrine that principle. Plans must now be supported by a robust and credible evidence base, and plan-makers must show in a sustainability appraisal that they have addressed sustainability.

Through their local development framework core strategies, local authorities have a clear opportunity to set out the vision for their area for the next 15 to 20 years. They should set out clear strategic objectives for how their areas will be developed and a delivery strategy for achieving them. We recognise that it is important to ensure that the necessary infrastructure accompanies development, which has been another theme in this debate. Local planning authorities must therefore develop a strategic approach to infrastructure provision when preparing local development frameworks and work with infrastructure providers to ensure that they are clear about how the place will look in 15 to 20 years, so infrastructure providers can plan on the basis of a clear picture of the future shape of the place. By working together, those bodies can influence how the area develops.

We appreciate that the infrastructure has to be paid for, and we are putting in place arrangements to help local planning authorities in that. The Planning Bill has been extensively debated this morning—perhaps more than I anticipated. Suffice it to say that the Bill was introduced on 27 November and, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) has said, Second Reading will take place next Monday. The Bill will allow a community infrastructure levy on new developments to support infrastructure delivery. The levy will be a better way to increase investment in the vital infrastructure needed by our growing communities. We believe that it is right and fair that local communities should benefit more from the uplift in land values that arise from planning permissions being granted. The levy will enable that to happen, and we will shortly publish further details of our proposals.

The community infrastructure levy is to be a national instrument. Will the Minister accept, when focusing on an area of intended growth such as Aylesbury Vale, that the order of magnitude of the infrastructure investment required is much greater, and that it will impose greater pressure on the instrument that he envisages?

I do not want to pre-empt publication of the community infrastructure levy proposals, but it will be the responsibility of local and regional bodies to work with developers in order to discuss the matter further.

I shall turn to the growth plans, the infrastructure and the support funding and delivery arrangements for Aylesbury Vale and the wider Milton Keynes and south midlands area. By way of background, Aylesbury Vale lies within the approved Milton Keynes and South Midlands sub-regional strategy. The development of the sub-regional strategy was managed by a steering group, made up of representatives from a wide range of local authorities and other key stakeholders. Following extensive public consultation and examination in public by an independent panel, the sub-regional strategy was approved in 2005. As a result, there has already been a substantial opportunity to address concerns relating to growth in Aylesbury Vale.

The planning strategy for the Aylesbury Vale area is being rolled forward for a further five years in the south-east plan. It also considered the possible expansion of Milton Keynes into some parts of Aylesbury Vale. I am aware that Buckinghamshire county council, Aylesbury Vale district council and others with an interest in Aylesbury Vale and the growth of Milton Keynes attended the south-east plan examination and made representations on planning issues in the area.

It will be for Aylesbury Vale district council to bring forward detailed proposals to implement the sub-regional and regional strategies through their local development documents. Those documents will provide further opportunity for public consultation, community involvement and partner engagement, so that delivery at the local level will be shaped to reflect the needs and priorities of the area.

The hon. Member for Buckingham said that the allocation for affordable housing in the area has increased, but only from £407 million to £408 million, and he asserted that it will not stretch to meet the affordable housing needs of the area. The Government are making £8 billion available for the provision of affordable housing in 2008-2011—an increase of about £3 billion over 2007-08. Nationally, the money will provide at least 45,000 new social homes by 2010-11. That is double the number that we saw in 2004-05. It will help 25,000 households into home ownership every year.

A final decision has still to be taken on the regional split of those resources. The proposed allocation for the south-east region is expected to rise to £500 million by 2010-11. That will provide an average of 10,900 affordable homes a year in the region in each of the next three years—about 20 per cent. up on the current level. Allocations to individual schemes will depend on the quality and value for money of bids submitted to the Housing Corporation.

Eco-towns have been mentioned. They are small new towns of between 5,000 and 20,000 homes. Such settlements would achieve zero carbon development and allow more sustainable living by using the best new design and architecture. Proposals for eco-towns will be assessed against criteria set out in the prospectus that we published in July 2007 alongside the housing Green Paper, and the final decisions, as I shall stress later, will be subject to public consultation and testing in the planning process. At the moment my Department, alongside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and other key Departments, is assessing the bids that have been received. Hon. Members will understand that I cannot pre-empt that process and comment on any bid. We expect to announce the results in early 2008. Having said that, I reassure the hon. Member for Buckingham that, were an eco-town in his area included in the final list, there would be an opportunity for all interested parties to make representations when the scheme was tested through the statutory planning process. Eco-towns will be part of that process.

Partnership is important, and delivering growth in Aylesbury Vale, as elsewhere, depends on strong partnerships between a wide range of organisations. It is not driven by any one organisation. To ensure that, the Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth area benefits from the establishment of the inter-regional board, which I chair—it probably does not benefit from that, to be frank. It brings together regional and local partners and representatives of the full range of delivery agencies at the highest possible level, with the aim of aligning their spending with the growth agenda and co-ordinating infrastructure investment throughout the sub-region. The board has focused on matters on which high-level executive intervention is necessary to deliver the growth agenda.

At the events that I have attended in the region, I have been struck by the commitment, professionalism and ambition of all the partners concerned, who want to ensure that the area is not just literally but psychologically at the centre of the UK, driving growth and prosperity and ensuring that it is a fantastic place to live. I have been inspired when I have been there—it is a great place to live and, presumably, for the hon. Member for Buckingham to represent.

A local delivery vehicle, Aylesbury Vale Advantage, has been established to co-ordinate plans for the sustainable growth of Aylesbury Vale. The district council, together with Buckinghamshire county council and other local and regional partners, also plays a key role in that LDV, ensuring that the views of local communities are reflected. The LDV is supported by the Government, and we have recently increased the revenue support to it for 2007-08 to £600,000. It has co-ordinated the programme of development for Aylesbury Vale, setting out its growth plans and plans for infrastructure, including the green, social and community infrastructure needed to support that growth.

Infrastructure has been a key theme of the debate. A number of growth area assessments followed the wider sub-regional Milton Keynes and South Midlands study. The growth area assessment for Aylesbury provided for implementation costs to the public sector of some £440 million, divided between utilities, transport, social facilities, affordable housing and urban renaissance. The study went on to suggest that the key implementation issues to be addressed could be summarised as the need for additional funding from the Government for transport, community facilities and affordable housing, the requirement to promote urban renaissance and attract inward investment and the need to constitute a focused delivery agency. The sums given were to be for a long-term implementation programme until 2016. Although the figures have been challenged and new ones are being developed, we have made a start on a funding programme.

I want to address some points that the hon. Member for Buckingham has made. He questioned whether there is joined-up thinking on expenditure on such things as health, police, water and electricity. There has been concern about water, waste water and electricity supplies, particularly in Aylesbury. Although utilities such as Thames Water are under a clear legal obligation to provide both water and waste water supplies and services, we aim to work in partnership with all those concerned. We also recognise the need for the matter to be studied early in the planning process, so that future problems can be resolved.

Hon. Members have mentioned electricity. We understand that there is a bid in growth area funding round 3 to address capacity issues, so I cannot comment directly in advance of considering and determining the funding application. We understand that the electricity distribution company is unwilling to lay out investment in improvements at its own expense and wants someone else to underwrite it, and that will be considered.

I pledge to write to the hon. Member for Buckingham on his other concerns, which I have not had time to address. I hope that he recognises that sustainable growth in Aylesbury is about not only building houses, but providing high-quality, well designed developments with first-class services, where people will want to live. It is about balancing housing provision and expected job growth. We aim to do that in Aylesbury Vale, and to involve the local community and resolve its concerns. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who has made a first-class contribution, is reassured by those comments.

Public Service Television (Children)

[Relevant document: First Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2007-08, on Public Service Content, HC 36-I.]

I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on children’s public service broadcasting. As the Minister will be aware, there has been a lot of concern over the past few months about what has been happening to children’s TV. Similar concerns have come from a range of sources, including the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which dealt with the issue in its report on public service broadcasting in general, Ofcom, which is currently engaged in a major consultation on the future of children’s TV, and Pact, the trade association representing the independent production sector, as well as Equity and the Writers’ Guild. Parents have also expressed their concern, and Ofcom has spoken to them as part of its research. A huge variety of people have therefore expressed similar concerns about the decline in new UK programmes.

Recently, one British TV programme, “My Life as a Popat”, featured a British Indian family. It was the only programme of its kind, but it has gone because ITV has stopped all investment in British children’s programming. Under the Communications Act 2003, which specifically referred to a “culturally diverse society”, we expect publicly owned public service broadcasters to provide programmes that appeal to a wide range of people, and it simply cannot be right that such programming is disappearing.

In terms of children’s broadcasting, the volume of new UK programmes is running at about 17 per cent., although that is a considerable overestimate because it includes all the repeats; if we took those out, that percentage would drop considerably. The number of new programmes is therefore already minimal and under threat of dropping further.

Until relatively recently, there was a choice of programmes on BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, and some of those programmes were excellent. Indeed, just last month, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts gave an award to the makers of “Wise up”, which Channel 4 used to fund. The programme tried to encourage children to become engaged in social issues. In one episode, a child wrote in because she was concerned about her mother smoking, and “Wise up” arranged for her to interview the then Health Minister about smoking policy. Such initiatives are really good, but they have disappeared.

Of course, there are concerns about the negative effects of media, including TV, on children, and the toxic childhood campaign has had things to say about excessive time spent watching TV. There are also perfectly legitimate concerns about children being exposed to inappropriate materials on the internet and in video games, and none of us would try to argue that safety issues did not matter, particularly online, or that TV was a substitute for parenting. However, the fact is that children do watch TV, and they are now watching more children’s TV, according to Ofcom’s figures, despite competition from video games and the internet. We should therefore make sure that they are watching the best, but the best is under threat.

Earlier this year, Philip Pullman—author and signatory to the toxic childhood campaign—was quoted in The Observer as saying that

“we should be able to trust the television channels to create and broadcast excellent programmes for our children, programmes which reflect the lives of modern British children in the society they know as well as exploring the imaginative, the funny and the fascinating.

The fact that such programmes are almost impossible to make today is not due to any lack of talent; it’s due to the dogmatic insistence that profit is more important than anything else”.

In research carried out by Ofcom, parents expressed very similar views about children’s TV. More than 80 per cent of parents thought that public service programming for children was very important, but only 43 per cent. thought that it was being delivered satisfactorily. That opinion gap is much larger for children’s programmes than for adult programmes. A YouGov study for the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television found that 70 per cent. of parents agreed that UK-produced programmes are important and contribute to the UK’s cultural identity. The fact is that children like UK-produced shows. I mentioned earlier that 17 per cent. of airtime given to children’s programming broadcasts UK-produced shows. However, that airtime receives 34 per cent. of the market share on the basis of viewing figures.

My sons are both adults and well beyond watching children’s TV, but I recall some of the programmes around in the ‘70s and early ‘80s when they were young. Back then there was a lot of competition between the BBC and ITV, and both produced innovative and engaging programmes, some of which would be recognised by everyone today, such as “Blue Peter”, “Magpie” and “Rainbow”. Those programmes date back to when there was real competition between the channels to attract audiences. That competition helped to generate better and more innovative programmes.

Investment in children’s TV has traditionally come from the main public service broadcasters, such as the BBC and other channels covered by communications legislation. However, in recent years, investment from ITV, Channel 4 and Five has collapsed. According to Ofcom, total investment, over the last decade, has dropped by 50 per cent. However, that is probably an underestimate, because it includes programming commissioned before the most recent round of cuts. Some estimate that the actual reduction, when the latest cuts are taken into consideration, could be as much as 80 per cent. ITV and Channel 4 have stopped investing in UK children’s shows completely, and Five has cut back significantly.

The BBC increased investment quite significantly over that period, but now the BBC budget generally is under pressure and there will be significant cuts across the organisation, from which children’s TV will not be immune. Over the next five years, we expect the BBC to cut its investment in children’s programming by 10 per cent. It says that it can still deliver good-quality programming despite that reduction by becoming more efficient. I hope that it is right. However, a 10 per cent. cut is not insignificant, especially when set against other things that have happened.

There have been improvements in some other places. S4C, the Welsh language fourth channel, has budgeted to spend some £11 million on original programming for children during 2007. That is way above its share when compared with the percentage of children in the UK who are Welsh-speaking. It is a significant investment. S4C is also looking to expand and produce more new programmes on a dedicated channel. However, with all due respect to S4C—and I am pleased that it is doing that—it is aimed at one part of the UK and a minority of children.

If we consider the reasons for the decline in investment, there is no question but that the emergence of more and more digital channels has resulted in fragmentation of advertising revenues and audiences. Commercially, it is much easier to make a game show than a good-quality children’s programme. The huge explosion in the number of channels is making it much more difficult for Ofcom to require broadcasters to provide public service programming and maintain the interests of children. Of course, Ofcom is required to take some market forces into account, too. It is limited in what it can do.

Some people—a minority—say, “Well, the BBC is doing fine, so isn’t that enough?” I do not think that it is. The BBC has increased investment, which has cushioned the overall fall. However, despite the fact that the BBC has increased investment, there has been a huge drop. Ofcom has shown that there will be a further drop of as much as 21 per cent. That assumes that the investment from Five does not decline. Even when Ofcom considered the positives, the best and most optimistic conclusion was a rise of 10 per cent. in investment in new UK programming. That optimistic scenario was based on an assumption that the BBC would invest more, when the reality is that the pressures on the BBC will mean that it will decrease its investment.

The consequences of the lack of investment will be that drop in new programming, of course, and a lack of choice. Back in 1998, BBC channels accounted for about one third of all new UK children’s programming on public service broadcasting channels. In 2006, that figure was up to 75 per cent. and, following present trends, it will soon reach 90 per cent. I agree that the BBC is doing a good job, but it cannot do everything. I do not think that people want a choice between British shows on the BBC and imports everywhere else. That is where we are in danger of going. People want some genuine choice in public service programming and some creative competition—the sort of thing that was happening in the 1970s and 1980s.

On the new cable and satellite channels, virtually everything is imported. Those channels are responsible for only 10 per cent. of investment in UK programming. That is not surprising—they are commercial organisations that cannot fill the gap left by the main terrestrial broadcasters. That specific point was picked up by the Select Committee, which recommended that the terrestrial broadcasters—ITV, Channel 4 and Five—ought to continue to invest.

Ofcom says that the BBC is not enough. The Government, in a White Paper on the BBC review, said that it was important to sustain the plurality of the public service broadcasting providers, which complement and compete with one another. The BBC itself says that it is not enough on its own. The director of BBC Vision in a speech in July said that the BBC does not want to be a monopoly, and that competition was good for the BBC, as it keeps it sharp.

In relation to the quality and range of original programmes, the Communications Act 2003 says that children’s programming is a core part of public service broadcasting. Under the Act, that should be considered across the board—across all the channels. I am sure that it was not envisaged under the Act that there would be just one significant provider. Although the BBC has more than one channel for children, the BBC channels are to a large degree catering for children of different ages, so we do not get that much choice between them. There are some age-specific issues here. The Ofcom surveys and research say that the problem is much greater for children over the age of about nine. The provision for pre-school and early school years is considerably better, but the real holes in programming begin once we get to nine and above.

Ofcom’s powers are limited. It is required to report on whether the Communications Act 2003 requirements are being fulfilled. Ofcom is saying clearly that they are not. There are real concerns, especially for children older than nine. Yet that is about as far as Ofcom can go. It can issue advice, as it did to ITV. Ofcom said that reducing children’s programming would be a significant change that it would not like—but ITV went ahead anyway.

The question is, what shall we do? Ofcom will be producing a response to the consultation and, starting next year, will be reviewing public service broadcasting. The Government will be looking at the spending. Those things are important—Ofcom doing that work and the Government looking at what comes out of the review—but if we wait for those reviews, we will probably be waiting for a couple of years. Everything that we see now—what is happening with investment or new programmes—suggests that we cannot wait for two years. If we wait, there will not be people to make the shows, because the decline in funding is undoubtedly affecting the production sector. The independent production sector, which made a lot of programming, particularly ITV’s, but also the BBC’s, consists of freelance writers, directors and performers, who will go somewhere else if the money and work disappear to find other things to do. Already some of the companies in the independent sector are having to scale down. If that happens, it is difficult to see how they can sustain themselves and how new talent can come through.

Yes, we need the long-term strategy, but we also need to think about what to do in the interim. Ofcom has suggested a number of things that could be looked at, and I will mention a couple of them. One would be straightforward investment to provide investment in the production of children’s programmes that meet agreed criteria and which is targeted where there are shortfalls, such as for nine-year-olds and above. Perhaps a more attractive proposition would be to look at a tax credit, which could be beneficial and targeted. We have precedent, because we have a tax credit system for British film, which is there to stimulate the production of new British films. A tax credit would be easier to use in TV than in film, because it would be easier automatically to tie it to the fact that the work has been produced for a British broadcaster. One can produce a film, but there is no guarantee that anybody is going to like or distribute it, which is always a danger, but targeted tax credits in the children’s TV sector are clearly an option. In the longer term—after the Ofcom review and Government review—if alternatives were being developed, one would need some form of exit strategy from the tax credit, but I would not have thought that impossible to devise.

As someone who represents Soho as part of his constituency, I have obviously seen the benefits of having such a tax credit in the British film industry over the past 10 years, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that it does not come without a certain amount of controversy and that there has understandably been a paring back. How can we ensure with the tax credit system that we are not just producing a hell of a lot of quantity, rather than having quality programming coming through? The Government have wrestled with that balance over many years. Obviously, there have been financial issues, but there is little doubt that the balance was wrong three or four years ago regarding quality and quantity, and the Government have understandably taken action, as far as the film business is concerned, to ensure that it is put right. I am not sure that tax credits, even for children’s programming, would necessarily result in the right answers that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

I understand the point and I would not argue that a tax credit is the longer-term answer. My question is what can we do immediately in the short term? I hope that over the next couple of years, through the reviews that are taking place and through what Ofcom is doing, we will get some idea of longer-term provision. Can we wait that long before we do anything? Perhaps a tax credit is one way of plugging a gap. I understand about quantity and quality, but we are at such a crisis point that the issue is finding something that stimulates a bit more creative programming in the interim, pending the longer-term review.

On the tax credit paring back problem, one of the ideas that has been put forward is that the tax credit should be awarded to broadcasters who can demonstrate an investment strategy over the previous three years that includes stability of investment and then growth, so that we are not replacing what would have been otherwise planned.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. The conditions attached to a tax credit are obviously critical in making sure that we avoid some of the problems that could otherwise turn up. Channel 4 is one of the channels that ought to look at re-entering public service children’s TV. Yesterday, I heard the news that Channel 4 is pulling out of educational programming.

That was the news. I understand that the programming is not being chopped and that it is being transferred to the internet. It is easy to assume that that means that everybody can still see it, but that is not necessarily the case. Channel 4 could be an alternative home, and it could create some healthy competition for the BBC. It has produced some good stuff—I have mentioned “Wise Up”, which recently received an award. Of course, under the Communications Act 2003, there is no explicit requirement for Channel 4 to broadcast children’s shows, but we expect it to provide programmes that appeal to a diverse audience and programmes of educative value. Channel 4 seems one of the obvious channels that could step in and fill some of the vacuum, particularly for older children. That is where the biggest problem lies, since the cuts and since Five withdrew from programming for children over seven. We are missing shows that could fit in with Channel 4’s strengths.

There is a dearth of high-quality UK-made programmes and a danger of their further disappearance. The evidence is clear that public service programming for children on the commercial channels is under threat. Virtually everybody, including the BBC itself, agrees that the BBC on its own is not enough and that we need intervention. The Select Committee has asked the Government to identify an appropriate number and range of UK-made children’s programmes and to take steps to intervene, if there is a shortfall. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport acknowledged that the Government value UK programming and that there is pressure on commercial broadcasters. Ofcom is still consulting, so I understand that the Secretary of State might not want to specify any particular intervention today, but I hope that he will acknowledge that problems exist and look seriously at what might be done, whether it is tax credit or some other short-term intervention. If we do not act soon, within two or three years it will be too late.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on his thoughtful contribution and on securing this debate. He referred to the profit motive and the lack of profitability of many children’s programmes. He mentioned some great concerns, such as that only 17 per cent. of product on our main television stations is home-grown. As he rightly said, the explosion of channels—they are not necessarily widely available, although I suspect that they will become increasingly so to both young and older people in the years ahead—plays its part as well.

It is a little depressing that more of our product is not sold overseas. One appreciates that it might not earn the same enormous sums as “Inspector Morse” or many of our period dramas, but we make some tremendously high-quality children’s television that should have a broad overseas market, particularly in the two great economic superpowers India and China.

The hon. Gentleman gave an interesting example, which I suspect was a counter-example, in relation to S4C. I do not know all the facts, but I presume that there is quite a large demand on the Welsh Assembly’s education budget to ensure more and more Welsh-language programming. Throughout Wales—not just in the traditionally Welsh-speaking parts in the north and west—children from the age of 5 or 6 are expected to be learning Welsh, and television is an important part of that. I suspect that his example is the exception that proves the rule about the state of children’s programming.

This debate is about public service television for children, but as anyone in the TV production world can tell us, some of the current problems stem in large part from proposals for strict new regulation of advertising during children’s programmes, and I shall concentrate some of my remarks on that matter. The proposals to restrict advertising have played a large part in the virtual standstill in commissioning, producing and creating shows for young people in all parts of the commercial television world. We all know the acute financial problems faced by the ITV companies as well as Channels 4 and 5 and, as the hon. Gentleman made clear, budget constraints at the BBC will only get worse.

I am not blaming the Government. We now live in a world of many channels, and it is difficult to sustain the idea that there should be any licence fee, let alone one that is so high. I suspect that there is a political consensus that we should get the balance right, but it is almost inevitable that children’s programming will suffer. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, both ITV and Channel 4 have completely pulled out of commissioning new UK children’s shows, and Channel 5 has cut back on its range of programming, having already axed shows for older children. In one sense one might think that that would be good news for the BBC as a public service broadcaster. However, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out, that does not lead to more consumer choice, which I view as the key engine for greater innovation and flair in programming, and for ensuring that we have a product of such quality that it will be marketable on a global basis as I have described.

My instinctive reaction to the news of proposed new regulation is invariably suspicion. In the present context I think that that is justified. I confess that when the body that regulates television, Ofcom, began its widespread consultation, at the end of last year, on a proposal to restrict food and soft drink advertising in programmes with a particular appeal for children, my hackles were raised. I am to become a father for the first time in a matter of five weeks, and I suspect that in the years ahead I shall watch lots of programmes and get used—as the hon. Member for Walthamstow probably did in the ’70s and ’80s—to hearing children talking about particular products. I might take a slightly different view at that juncture; but, fundamentally, I believe that advertising is one of the most important safeguards for a free and open society.

In principle I do not object to the notion that advertising of dangerous or highly addictive products should be outlawed, but products that are widely and legally available should not be subject at all to advertising bans. Naturally, some intoxicants, such as alcohol, or addictive products such as tobacco, cannot legally be sold to minors, and in that regard it seems to me that commensurate restrictions on advertising such products to minors should be acceptable. However, activists have waged highly orchestrated media campaigns in recent years for a blanket pre-9 o’clock watershed ban on junk food advertising on television.

If that is the case, then one should ban minors from buying chocolate. My distinction concerns products that are considered unsuitable for minors to buy, and restrictions on advertising of such products before a watershed is fine; otherwise, I do not want advertising outlawed.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are more fat children in Sweden than in Finland, and yet Sweden has a ban on advertising to children, and Finland does not?

My hon. Friend is obviously considerably better travelled than I am with respect to such matters, but I look forward to getting a box of Scandinavian chocolates from him before too long.

Ofcom has regarded many of the proposals as disproportionate in the way that they balance economic impact and social benefit. As has been pointed out, two groups stand to lose most from the marketing restrictions: one is, of course, the advertising industry, but the other consists of the many independent television companies that rely on advertising to fund the production of high-quality new children’s programming. Perhaps understandably, the advertising industry expresses deep frustration at the recent turn of events.

Recognising the increasing concern about childhood obesity, the advertising industry has proposed some fairly strict new rules on content, such as the removal of licensed characters and celebrities from advertisements that are directly targeted at primary school children. That amounts to an effective voluntary code, albeit one that is established in the shadow of concerted media-led pressure, which one might argue is tantamount to blackmail.

The advertising restrictions originally proposed were specifically targeted at children up to the age of 11, but it now seems likely that there will be an extension to the age of 16. As ever, with any blanket proposal, there is a risk of unintended consequences; and so it has proved. My constituency, and particularly Soho and the west end, contains the heart of Britain’s independent television industry. A number of companies that create children’s programmes have written to me to say that high-quality and domestically-produced programming has a five-decade-long tradition of excellence, and one that they hope will continue. That thriving and, to a large extent, world-leading industry feels under threat, because of the financial problems faced by ITV, which was previously the biggest single investor in new UK children’s programming in the commercially-funded broadcasting sector, and because of the food and drink advertising proposals.

It is accepted that the broadcasters’ investment in programming is directly linked to the amount of advertising associated with that programming. By restricting advertising, Ofcom, as the TV regulator, effectively restricts the broadcasters’ ability to invest in new UK programming. The advertising companies’ lobbyists suggest that the proposed advertising ban would result in a loss of revenue in the order of £40 million a year. According to Government figures, that would fall away over time as advertisers began to adapt to the new rules. However, it is estimated that the average annual investment by commercial channels in new UK children’s programming would be about £30 million.

Paradoxically, that would also undermine one of the strongest defences for maintaining the TV licence fee. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out, we are heading towards the BBC being the only significant investor in new UK children’s programmes. The ban would end the tough competition between the BBC and the commercial sector. Only strong competition will ensure that innovation and flair are at the heart of children’s programming, which will be a joy not only to generations of British children but to young people across the world to whom such programmes should be marketed.

The health benefits of reducing the amount of sugar-filled food and soft drinks that children consume cannot be denied. However, other countries have succeeded in stimulating the production of children’s television while introducing advertising restrictions. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) pointed out the differing approaches in neighbouring Scandinavian countries. In Australia, where adverts during children’s programming have been restricted for some years, the leading public film and television agency invests more than half of its total television funding in children’s programmes.

It is fashionable to criticise all such measures as being the result of a nanny state. No one can deny that children need a level of protection greater than that afforded to adults when it comes to the content and surrounding material that they are likely to see on television. Even for the youngest and most impressionable of minds, advertising should be regarded as a positive experience, allowing a younger generation to make a choice about products that it wishes to consume; without that plentiful choice we would all be living in a far duller and a less free world.

I apologise to you, Mrs. Humble, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) or being late—the Mayor of London has not solved all the transport problems yet, but I am sure that he will after re-election in May. I have a constituency interest in this matter. White City in west London is in my constituency, and a number of my constituents work at the BBC and have worked in children’s television spin-off productions. I am also a member of the performers’ alliance parliamentary group and work closely with the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union. We have received a number of representations about the Ofcom review. This debate is timely in setting the climate for the review and trying to influence the agenda that it will address.

I want to address the issues around skills, jobs and the development of talent as the result of the review. We have all expressed the importance of the UK for children’s television, and we have a worldwide reputation for creating some of the best children’s programming. The children’s genre is the UK’s biggest television export genre after film and drama, and it accounts for 15 per cent. of all finished television programme exports. Exports of children’s programming outperformed exports from all other countries in consultations and research undertaken in recent years. We have acknowledged that it takes great skill and talent to achieve that world-class standard. It takes years to hone those skills and consistently to create world-class children’s shows that are exported internationally. The common wisdom is that creating top-class children’s programming involves a specialist skill set by its very nature, because it has a specialist audience.

We are proud of our achievements so far. The most important thing about the Ofcom review is that we build upon the achievements and do not jeopardise existing provision. The vast majority of companies that create children’s programmes are specialist. The most recent census by the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, the trade association for independent producers, showed that the vast majority of children’s companies have a turnover of less than £1 million. They make up more than 20 per cent. of the companies within our economy with turnovers of under £1 million, which indicates that they do very little work in other genres. They are extremely specialist, and even the biggest companies in the sector, such as Aardman, Hit, Entertainment Rights and Chorion, are specialists in children’s content. When non-children’s companies move into children’s programmes, they poach staff from within the children’s sector to oversee the move, which is what RDF Media has done recently.

My concern is that we are in danger of losing those skills for ever if we do not nurture that sector of the industry. The decline in funding has already hit the production sector dramatically. Independent production companies traditionally made 70 per cent. of ITV’s children’s programming. They, and the freelance writers, directors, performers and crew members who work with them, have borne the brunt of the cuts in investment. In several of our constituencies, we have seen a number of staff laid off or reduced to short-term working. The decline has not been gradual: ITV’s withdrawal from commissioning new shows in early 2006 meant that around a third of the total funds available to independent companies literally disappeared overnight. That would be hard for any business to manage, but the vast majority of children’s companies are small, specialist operations, and it has become crippling for a number of them. As the Minister knows, some companies have gone to the wall as a result.

Companies in the independent sector are already scaling down and jobs are already being lost. Several of my constituents in the production sector have lost their jobs in recent months. It is hard to see how new talent will be able to come through in the future and develop the skills needed to maintain our status in this country as one of the world’s leading creators of children’s programmes.

For the companies that have managed the sudden drop in investment, the BBC is now the monopoly buyer for many types of public service programmes. No one—certainly not the suppliers who make the programmes or the BBC itself—believes that that is healthy. The BBC has publicly stated on a number of occasions that a strong and healthy independent sector is crucial to providing creative competition and fostering innovation. In addition, the dramatic fall in investment is removing the incentive for talented producers, writers, performers and creators to continue to work within this area of television. We have lost a number of creative workers to other fields as a result of that.

Those who continue to work in the sector are seeing ever-increasing pressures on their fees and are more often expected to work outside the standard industry contracts in an attempt to save money. In fact, they are being exploited as a result of the pressures on them. The fees paid to the so-called talent are being squeezed, as the hourly budgets available for children’s programmes are being reduced. It is important to understand that the fees are already modest and are paid for work relating to individual projects, so there is no certainty of continuing income.

I have looked at the minimum weekly rates for performers working in television on Equity contracts, which range from £545 to £640 depending on the employer. That includes transmission on a major UK channel, but it is not a huge amount when one considers that it is paid only for those weeks when the performers are lucky enough to be working. Even so, budgets are so tight that such standard contracts are often ignored within the industry now. That helps to minimise secondary payments, such as royalties owed to performers and other rights holders when a programme is successfully sold or exploited in other markets.

The downward pressure on contracts and fees is now stronger than ever, and many people are finding that it is just not financially viable to carry on within the industry. We need to ensure that there is an incentive for talented people to work in the field, particularly in the production of high-quality programmes for children, and to ensure that those skills are passed on to the next generation, otherwise they will be lost. People entering the industry now need to ensure that they are mixing with the highly talented and creative people who have developed the high-quality programmes that we have seen in recent years.

The Treasury’s review of skills set great store by employer-led training, which is one of the key strategies being developed with Skillset, the sector skills council for the audio-visual sector. The strategy has been welcomed in the industry and by the trade union and is the key to the future. Children’s programming has traditionally excelled at employer-led training, because, uniquely, it is multi-genre and acts as a microcosm for the rest of the industry. It has been a test bed for new young talent in the industry to develop their skills and often to go on to other genres with equal success. Examples of people who got their break in children’s television include—I leave opinions on this to individual taste—Lenny Henry, Phillip Schofield, Ant and Dec and Tony Robinson. As I have said, leave it to individual taste. Behind the camera is a long list of writers, directors and other crew members who learned and honed their skills in children’s television.

The question for the Minister as part of the review is who will nurture such talent in the future? It is hard to see how new talent will be able to come through and develop the skills that are needed in the long term to maintain our status as a world leader, if the funding supply is reduced and the financial pressures continue as at present.

If further public support becomes available for children’s programming at some future point, whether through a contestable fund, tax breaks, which have been advocated today, or other methods, it would be helpful if a condition of access to the funding were the use of appropriate contracts and respect for decent terms and conditions for those responsible for writing and performing the work. That will help to ensure that leading talent has the incentive to continue working in this field, that we embed skills for the long-term future and that the next wave—the next generation—have those skills passed on to them in an environment in which they are not exploited but incentivised to perform at their best.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing this debate on what is a very important topic for a very important industry. Before coming to the substance of my remarks, I want to refer to my intervention on the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). I think I am in danger of every chocolate company in the country writing to tell me that chocolate is, of course, not addictive. The point that I was trying to make was that sweet things in particular have a moreish taste for children and it is important that we carefully consider how we advertise stuff to children. That is what the Ofcom review did and what we have debated in the House. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House have agreed that the Ofcom proposals should be put into effect and then we can review them over a period of time.

Will the Minister examine the cost of the advertising ban in terms of the advertising revenues of TV companies? A figure of £30 million is being bandied around, but I do not know whether it is correct. Perhaps the Minister, in his summation of the debate, will tell us. Will he tell us now, or perhaps at another time, whether the ban is having an impact on children’s behaviour? Of course, it will not work on its own, because most of children’s behaviour in relation to what they eat is about not only advertising, but peer group pressure—it is about what everyone else has. However, before I divert into a health debate, I will give way.

In some senses, this is no different from the arguments that went on about tobacco advertising and sport sponsorship from tobacco advertising. We have to find alternatives, if we agree that such advertising is not desirable.

I take the point, but I am not sure whether I would like to draw many parallels between chocolate, fats and cheese, and tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco is harmful to health. Alcohol in excess is definitely harmful to health. Of course, none of us here would ever indulge in either of those terrible things—at least, I do not in one, but I perhaps do in the other.

In preparing for the debate, I was thinking about my own childhood and the TV programmes that I used to enjoy as a child, and what impact they had upon me. I remember watching every week a programme called “How”, which included a lot of scientific explanation. I found that programme absolutely intriguing, and I think that I learned a lot from that. Jack Hargreaves, I think, did a country life programme about fishing and other things, which I was also intrigued by. I remember science fiction programmes like “The Tomorrow People” from when I was a teenager. I remember the first programme of “Magpie” and even appeared on the second programme—I have, I believe, the first ever “Magpie” bird badge ever presented to anyone. As a consequence, I was addicted to “Magpie” for ever afterwards. There was also, of course, “Blue Peter”, which we would always watch, I think, on a Monday afternoon. I also watched the programmes my kid brother, Paul, used to watch—he was 10 years younger than me. He watched things like “Byker Grove”, “Grange Hill” and “Tiswas”. I never quite understood “Tiswas”, but he seemed to enjoy it.

Then we look at today. I do not know what kids of today watch, because, unfortunately, I do not have any children. Congratulations to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster on his forthcoming parenthood. I am sure that he will have many a happy hour watching TV programmes with his toddlers. There are programmes that have been mentioned already, like “My Life as a Popat” and, of course, the still-ubiquitous Blue Peter”.

Today, the market is very different for children. They can shop around more for media and other activities—they can go online and they have DVDs. When I was a young lad, there was no such thing as a video, let alone a DVD, and there was no way to buy programmes or films in shops. That competition is diversifying the advertisers’ market and is partly causing the problem. To say, as I think that some might, that it is the fault of the Ofcom ban would in my view be misleading, because the problem of advertising, as it concerns the main TV companies, is a lot bigger—and in some ways a lot worse—than that. We need to look at the future of TV itself.

The real question about the figures on the number of British companies is whether we should produce here or whether we should import. We can buy in American programmes. I remember a lot of good American programmes, such as “Hopalong Cassidy” and “The Lone Ranger”, which we used to enjoy. I do not think that we had many cowboys in south London at the time—actually, maybe we did have a few cowboys in south London, but not with big hats and horses. There was, however, an essential difference between those programmes and British-made programmes. I think it important that children are exposed to programmes that have an inherent British cultural element, and we are in danger of losing that if we allow production to be, in effect, moved abroad, or to be restricted to just the BBC.

One has only to look at examples of British comedy programmes translated and remade in the United States. I watch the UK versions and I laugh. I do not know about other hon. Members, but when I look at the US remakes, I do not understand where they are coming from, because they appeal to a different sense of humour and a different cultural element. We have, of course, different cultural mixes and subcultures in this country, and it is important that our industry tries to reflect that—a programme that I mentioned earlier, “My Life as a Popat”, is a very good example of that. The BBC is investing, but it has no competition. If the genesis of the creativity that we had in the ’70s and ’80s was competition between the independent sector and the BBC, then we are losing that vital dynamic between the two. It is good for the BBC for there to be a flourishing independent children’s sector in TV programming.

How much TV children should watch is a matter of debate. Dr. Arik Sigmund and Sue Palmer, the author of “Toxic Childhood”, suggest that too much TV is bad. Yes, we all agree that if a child is plonked in front of the TV and left there all day, it is not good for their upbringing. However, restricting the number of TV programmes will not prevent that situation, because, as I have said, there are DVDs, and parents are very good at sticking their children in front of a DVD that they have bought at the local supermarket or on the high street—on the high street, I hope.

Many TV programmes can be good for children, and the debate pack lists several such programmes. “Rainbow” explored language and number concepts; “Book Tower” encouraged creativity and reading; “Art Attack” encourages creativity; the “Fun Song Factory” encouraged young children to dance and sing along; “Fifi and the Flowertots” promotes the environment and health; and “Brainiac” is science made fun. The only one of those that I have seen is “Brainiac”, which is an intriguing programme that is very well put together. A 2006 university of Chicago study of 800 schools concluded that an additional year of pre-school television exposure for students in the model had slightly raised average test scores, so the idea that we can let children’s TV go to the wall because it is bad for them is wrong.

The question is, what can we do? We could wait for the Ofcom report, but what will we lose in the meantime? Children’s TV has expertise, and as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) has said, we are in danger of losing its writers and producers. The problem is that if we lose them, it will be hard to bring them back later. When the phone-in competition debacle happened a few weeks ago, one suggested cause was the lack of training given to TV producers, which meant that they did not understand what they were getting themselves into. If we lose children’s TV programmes, we are in danger of losing the expertise and the training that people have to produce those programmes, and it would be hard to bring it back.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned tax credits. I shall not today commit the Liberal Democrats to spending £10 million, purely because we all know about the wit of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable)—I should not like to be on the wrong end of something that he said. However, the idea of tax credit must be examined. The Government should consider that option’s costs and benefits, and in particular, the argument that if one increases production, the cost is not a tax loss, because one brings more revenue back into the country, as has happened with the film industry.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the debate. It is customary in such debates to congratulate the Member who has secured it, but my congratulations are heartfelt, because he has brought to the attention of the House an important subject that deserves debate. The debate itself is timely, as hon. Members have made clear.

I also congratulate those organisations that have campaigned so assiduously over the past few months about children’s television, particularly the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, Save Kids’ TV and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer. Some of their campaigning has found its way to stage 1, because it was reflected in the recent excellent report by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.

It is fair to say that children’s TV has been caught in a perfect storm. The Communications Act 2003 removed a direct obligation on public service broadcasters to provide children’s programming, replacing it with an indirect obligation to provide children’s programming as part of broadcasters’ general public service remit. There are the continuing difficulties faced by some of our commercial public service broadcasters, which have led to cuts in children’s programming, most notably at ITV. There is also the inevitable consequence of a multi-channel digital environment providing much more competition and choice.

There is also the issue of the forthcoming advertising ban by Ofcom, so ably highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) in his most excellent speech. Before I move on to the substance of that speech, I will also briefly congratulate my hon. Friend on the news of the impending birth of his first child, which fills us all with joy. My second child will follow his about five weeks later, and I can tell him what he has coming as a new parent. He may represent Soho, but I can assure him that he will not see that place again for the next six or seven years—at least, not after seven o’clock in the evening.

My hon. Friend made a most excellent point, and while it is not my place to question the ban that is now being put into effect, one does wonder about the intellectual coherence of such a ban. For example, I have already referred to the multi-channel environment, but children get their messaging not only from the television, but at the bus stop and on the internet. That ban, which is estimated to cost some £20 million or £30 million of advertising revenue per year, could throw the baby out with the bath water. We might be spuriously protecting our kids from inappropriate advertising, while replacing it with less quality programming to watch in direct consequence. My hon. Friend’s points were extremely well made, and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

As I indicated in my opening remarks, some of the crisis facing children’s television might well be an inevitable result of a rapidly changing technological environment. Reference has been made to the Channel 4 announcement yesterday that it is moving its £6 million education programming budget on to the internet. Indeed, from a sedentary position, the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), made the point that the provision is going on to the internet, which reminds us how much we have lost from his elevation, given his candid remarks in previous debates on many issues that have proved so helpful to me as the Opposition spokesman. However, that is not an attempt by Channel 4 to cut its funding of provision for children, but a recognition—made explicit in its announcement yesterday—that providing educational programmes for kids while they are at school is not the best way of reaching them. Most research shows that almost everything that kids learn or watch nowadays is via the internet, so it makes sense for Channel 4 to look at putting things there within its innovative remit.

As the Minister will no doubt say, one aspect of technological change is this peculiar paradox: although there is a crisis in children’s television, we have never had so much of it. In the past five or six years, we have moved from having six dedicated children’s television channels to having 25 of them, and from 20,000 hours of programming to 112,000 hours of programming, which is an increase of around 500 per cent. The BBC says that it has more than doubled original programming from 476 hours to 1,276 hours, while Five still broadcasts 652 hours. Indeed, public money on original programming has risen from £70 million to £126 million. One could be forgiven for asking, “Crisis? What crisis?”, except that when one hears that phrase, one knows that there is a genuine crisis.

We therefore need to narrow down the terms of this debate. The headline of our debate makes it clear that we are talking about the need to preserve plurality and competition in children’s programming, above all to preserve a semblance of original, British-made programming for British children. Of the 25 dedicated channels, for example, 18 are owned by American companies such as Disney, the Turner Broadcasting System and Viacom. Indeed, within the hours of programming that I have mentioned, public service broadcasting hours have fallen from an average of around 4,500 to 5,000 hours a year to 4,250 hours. The hon. Member for Walthamstow made it clear in his speech that most predictions see those hours falling dramatically. As we have heard, ITV’s hours have fallen from about 724 to 468. In evidence to the Select Committee, the chairman, Michael Grade, was asked whether he could see children’s programming forming a part of ITV’s main schedules. His reply was explicit:

“In the long term I cannot see it, no”.

At this point, it is appropriate for me to congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on his excellent speech. He reminded us again what a fine leader of the Labour party we have lost, and how different things could have been, if party members had seen sense in July. He brought alive for us the unique nature and quality of children’s television, of our production skills and of the pressures being brought to bear.

I am about to leave the Chamber for another meeting, for which I apologise. I have made that clear because I did not want the hon. Gentleman to take it as a response to his reference to my leadership of the Labour party.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—he is more senior and wise than me—for that warning.

The theme of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was picked up by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, who focused on the need to preserve British programming and on the innate qualities inherent in it. He got to that point only after a lengthy disquisition on comparisons between chocolate and tobacco. Indeed, at one point I had a vision of his acting as a reverse Willy Wonka, going around closing chocolate factories. I have no doubt that he will be inundated with Wispa bars in the weeks to come, just in time for Christmas. However, he has made some valid points. Among the reams of statistics cited today, it is telling that repeat programmes now form 86 per cent. of children’s programming and that original programming has fallen from about 29 per cent. of public service broadcasting to 10 per cent.

That is the crisis that we face. We are considering plurality: is the BBC to remain the sole provider of original children’s content; and will we have British-originated programming in years to come? In many ways, that change mirrors the decline of the British film industry after the second world war.

Ofcom is conducting a review, which is useful for many reasons, not least because of the international comparisons. I was struck by the fact that, when it comes to intervention, the British model appears to be as stripped back as the German and Spanish models. Even America—it is supposedly the home of non-intervention, but those who study American politics and systems know that it is a highly interventionist and regulatory environment—has a quota system on top of the system that we use. France, Australia, Canada and many other countries have a mixture of output and production quotas, with direct funding and even tax breaks.

If one looks abroad, one realises that countries across the globe value their indigenous broadcasts, although they may not be of the same quality, depth or breadth as British children’s programming, even at this late stage. We have a viable, highly successful and high-quality industry, and we should be considering what options we have to help to sustain it. Some of the options are set out in the Select Committee report published recently, and some are set out in the Ofcom review. Those options include doing nothing and allowing the status quo to be maintained—in effect, allowing the BBC to become the only commissioner of British-originated children’s programming. However, I doubt whether anyone would be content to leave things like that.

Two viable options are emerging. The first is the tax credit. I hear the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster about the danger that programmes may be made simply to benefit from the credit. The Government have spent several years trying to get the film tax credit right, which is a useful comparison. Although many in the UK film industry are annoyed at the way in which it has come about, given that less money is now available for UK film, I have to tell the Minister—through gritted teeth—that there is a grudging recognition that the tax credit is now narrowly and properly focused to try to root out abuse of the system. However, it is early days, and I may change my mind on that point.

As I understand it, PACT has proposed a sensible and narrowly focused option of a tax credit worth 30 per cent. of the production cost that will expire in 2012. To pick up explicitly on what the hon. Member for Walthamstow has said, such a tax credit would act as a lifeline for the industry until an alternative model is present. When we talk about an alternative model, we are talking about not only children’s television but the bigger picture of what we should do about public service broadcasting in a multi-channel environment. That is the big debate that will kick off early next year, and children’s programming will form part of that. In fact, it may form the vanguard of what we do.

The Select Committee, ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), has come up with the idea of a public service fund, which would somehow top-slice the licence fee and give other public service broadcasters a slice of the fee to carry out public service broadcasting. Another idea is to create a public service licence fee pot to allow broadcasters or production companies to bid for funds. That seems to be the most fertile idea that people are debating, and we are looking at it closely. Personally, I do not support the idea of creating a separate channel for or publisher of children’s programming or public service content.

Another alternative may be to reconsider and amend the Communications Act 2003, so that we revert to the system under the previous broadcasting legislation, with a direct quota for public service broadcasters. However, that might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, considering the fact that the environment now is so different to that of 15 years ago.

This debate has been incredibly valuable. It has come at the right time, as the overall debate will start to crystallise in the new year. The Select Committee report has been published; we are due to receive the results of Ofcom’s review early in the new year; and in the spring, we will see Ofcom’s wider conclusions on public service broadcasting. We wait with bated breath to hear the Minister’s early thinking. Most hon. Members involved in the debate recognise that we have a fantastic resource in UK-originated children’s programming, and we must consider imaginative and sensible ways in which we can ensure that it continues to exist.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bayley. First, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the debate, which, as all hon. Members have recognised, is important and comes at an appropriate time. I pay tribute to him, too, for the work that he does as secretary of the performers’ alliance parliamentary group alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Like the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), I pay tribute to the organisations that have helped my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow to get to this point through their work campaigning on behalf of children’s programming.

On those rare occasions when we can put partisan political differences to one side, it is important that we discuss the subject in great detail, as we have this morning. The future of children’s programming is a serious issue, and it is important that we reach the right conclusion on where we need to be. Before I forget, I congratulate the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and for Wantage on the impending births in their families in anticipation of everything going okay.

I do not think that anyone would argue with the assertion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow that British children’s programming is among the best, if not the best, in the world. I acknowledge all the contributions that make it the best. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made about the skills base, knowledge and expertise in production companies was not lost on me, and it would be wrong to lose those things. I recognise the urgency of the matter.

As we have heard, we all have rich memories of television from our childhoods. Programmes such “Blue Peter”, “How” and “Magpie” have been mentioned, which have not only entertained but educated us. “LazyTown” has been referred to, which I understand is a Finnish programme. It is about healthy lifestyles and, as the Minister with responsibility for sport, I am delighted that we have programmes that help people to have better, healthier lifestyles, so I congratulate that programme.

Children’s programmes have raised many matters for people to face and deal with. The “Just Say No” drugs campaign in “Grange Hill” has embedded itself in our national psyche. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) mentioned other programmes such as “Tiswas” and “My Parents Are Aliens”, which simply make us laugh. The impressions that such nostalgic programmes give us last for life, so we must take this opportunity to consider what will happen in future. I have taken great delight in sitting down and seeing many programmes with my children, who are now grown up and have children of their own, and I now sit down with our grandchildren and watch programmes that impress them. Many of us remember the “Doctor Who” series from when we were children, and it is great for me to sit down with my grandchildren and see them be scared in the same way that I was. We should not forget the impact that successful children’s programmes have on our national economy. “Teletubbies” and “Bob the Builder” had enormous worldwide success and are being closely followed by new programmes such as “In the Night Garden”, which has captured the imagination of millions of children.

It is sad, although appropriate, that we are concentrating not on the success of children’s programmes but on the problems that the children’s television industry faces. As hon. Members have said, Ofcom’s report on the future of children’s television highlighted a number of problems. It confirmed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has said, that parents believe that the UK-originated children’s programming is highly valued, but many feel that it is not being delivered satisfactorily, especially in reflecting cultures and opinions from around the UK. Ofcom’s figures show that, as has been said, 17 per cent. of children’s television is made in the UK, and I acknowledge the point that was made about repeats in that figure. Those programmes represent a 38 per cent. share of viewing, and the majority of them are commissioned by the public service broadcasters.

Children are watching more children’s programming, according to Ofcom, and viewing in children’s airtime has increased from 27 per cent. to 30 per cent. of total viewing since 2002. As the hon. Member for Wantage has said, at first glance there has never been more children’s programming available. There are about 25 dedicated channels, and about 113,000 hours of programmes are transmitted each year. The BBC, which has produced children’s programmes since July 1946, launched two digital channels in 2002 specifically for children, and now 80 per cent. of us live in digital TV homes. CBeebies, for nought to six-year-olds, and CBBC, for six to twelve-year-olds, are the two most popular children’s channels in the UK. As has been said, there has also been a positive response to S4C’s public consultation on its proposals for a new children’s channel, especially from parents and Welsh language organisations. That is another interesting opportunity.

If we look more closely, we see that cartoons account for 61 per cent. of the output, and a high proportion is international, mainly American, programming. I am not going to criticise all American programming and animation, as that would be completely unfair. Programmes such as “High School Musical” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” are of a high quality and entertaining. However, there is understandably concern that more programming needs to reflect our culture, in a way in which only programmes such as “Byker Grove” and “Grange Hill” can.

Why are we in the current position? As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow and others have said, it is well documented that ITV has withdrawn from commissioning new children’s programming. It was the biggest investor in UK children’s programming in the commercial sector, with an input estimated at between £22 million and £25 million a year. The impact of its withdrawal on the industry therefore cannot be underestimated. However, we must recognise that ITV operates in a commercial world and must be realistic about its opportunity costs.

We are moving rapidly towards a fully digital age, and the developments that I have outlined, along with greater restrictions on advertising in and around children’s programmes, are challenging commercial public service broadcasters’ ability to sustain their public service programming, including that for children. In that respect, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wantage for explaining Channel 4’s position regarding the move from television to the internet, which my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) mentioned.

Channel 5 is facing the same problems and recently announced that it was axing its programming for older children aged up to 11 to concentrate on television for four to seven-year-olds. It believes that focusing on programming for younger children will increase its chances of generating revenues from merchandising, the vast majority of which come from pre-school programming for under-fives.

The Government recognise that advertising restrictions are having an impact on the industry, and I understand the concerns that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster eloquently raised in that respect. He will understand that increased childhood obesity and poor diet are two of the most significant public health issues in our society, and it would have been irresponsible of the Government not to recognise the need for decisive action.

Has the Department conducted any study of how quickly the ban on advertising will lead to a reduction in obesity in children and young people?

Not yet, but we are obviously looking at the issue. We clearly have to tread with caution. Along with health and education colleagues, I sit on the ministerial committee on obesity, which must suggest realistic ways of combating obesity, while recognising the impact on industry and the wider commercial world, and we are committed to doing that. In striking that balance, we must help families to lead healthier and more active lives, and a key element of our comprehensive approach is the commitment to changing the nature and balance of food promotion to children.

As a result of wide-ranging consultation earlier this year, Ofcom announced significantly strengthened new rules, including a ban on high-fat, salt and sugar food advertising in and around all children’s programming, on dedicated children’s channels and in programmes of particular appeal to children under the age of 16. Ofcom also set out new rules on the content of advertisements targeted at primary school children, banning the use of celebrities and characters licensed from third parties to make promotional, health or nutritional claims.

We all accept that this is a complex issue, and Ofcom has sought to strike a balance between the need to protect the health of our children and the need to consider the impact on our broadcasting industries and particularly children’s television programming. That is why the Government and Ofcom will undertake comprehensive reviews of the impact of the new rules. Based on an extensive regulatory impact assessment, Ofcom has estimated that the new rules will have a net cost to the industry of up to £27 million.

All the issues that I have set out were considered earlier this year as part of Ofcom’s review of the future of children’s television programming, which was the most substantial analysis of British children’s TV ever produced. Ofcom’s report identifies a number of options that emerged from stakeholders, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has alluded. One option was to maintain the status quo and leave lead provision to the BBC. There were also broadcaster-focused options, such as a dedicated fund for children’s programmes or output quotas. Other options included production incentives, such as tax credits, and I share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster about the tax credit position. I also thank the hon. Member for Wantage for congratulating the Government—through gritted teeth or otherwise—on the success of tax credits for the film industry. None the less, the issue of quality and quantity is important, and we must look at it. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow and Ofcom’s review both discussed the option of extending Channel 4’s remit or creating new public institutions, such as a non-BBC children’s channel.

As my hon. Friend has said, Ofcom’s discussion paper is now in the public domain, and the responses to it will form part of the national debate that Ofcom has called for on the future of children’s television, and today’s debate is an important ingredient in that. The Government will listen to that national debate with great interest, and, again, I acknowledge the urgency of the situation, given the time scales involved. Whatever decisions the Government and others make, it is important to ensure that they are the right decisions. I assure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that we are fully engaged in this issue. When respected industry figures, such as Anna Home, Floella Benjamin and others speak, we have to listen and take the issue seriously.

We have already engaged with the industry. In April this year, the DCMS organised a seminar, in conjunction with BAFTA, in order to examine the future of UK children’s programming. We have brought forward our wider review of funding for public service broadcasting, beyond the BBC, to follow up Ofcom’s review of the same subject. That will feed into our work on the implications of convergence, which is particularly important because older children and younger teenagers now watch less television and use the internet and mobile phones more than ever. Those work streams will ensure that we take full account of the changing context of television when considering the place of UK-produced children’s programming.

This has been an important debate for reasons outlined. I believe that a consensus will emerge on the need to maintain UK programming and to ensure that we remain the best in this field. We must also acknowledge the impact on skills, which is why the Government have carried out important work to develop skills programmes with the industry. Trade unions in the industry also have a big role to play. We must move this debate forward, because if we do not act quickly, our best endeavours will not be enough to retain the necessary skills.

We must examine and debate these interesting issues more fully. If we do that in the spirit of this debate—putting partisan politics to one side—a consensus can be reached that will enable us to come to a conclusion that benefits this sector.

Sitting suspended.

Children (Custody/Access)

I shall raise specific circumstances in my speech, but I will give those concerned anonymity. I shall make as little reference as possible to facts and dates.

Order. I caution the hon. Gentleman that the prescription must be anonymity. If there is any prospect of identifying an individual case that is before the courts from what he says I shall have to interrupt him; I think that he understands that.

I understand, and am fully aware of the requirements.

My constituent and his wife are a mixed-race couple. They married outside the UK but moved to my constituent’s home city of Aberdeen some years ago and were habitually resident there. Some time ago, they had a child with a disability. The child was cared for by both parents. The mother left the matrimonial home, taking the child with her, without the father’s consent. The father’s view is that the child was abducted, and some six years later he still has no knowledge of the child’s whereabouts.

Some months after the separation, the father received notice of an order made in an English court. He did not at that point become involved in the case, but made efforts to contact his wife and child, and at the same time sought advice on his position from Scottish solicitors. That process took some time. He was not able to contact his wife and it was clear to him that the Scottish solicitors were not really aware of the English legal position. He subsequently instructed solicitors in England and Wales, and applied successfully for legal aid.

My constituent was very specific in his instructions to his solicitors. He had done some legal research and become something of an expert in the law in this respect. In his view, his wife and child were domiciled in Scotland and his wife abducted the child of the marriage and took her to England without his permission as a guardian of the child. The information that he received from the English courts was that an interim order had been made. His first challenge was that it was made without his being given the opportunity to answer, and he instructed his solicitors accordingly. Secondly, he was of the view that the proper jurisdiction to deal with any dispute between him and his wife was the Scottish courts. The solicitors were instructed to challenge the jurisdiction of the English court and the vires of the order that had been made.

Several months were spent on the legal aid process, but eventually legal aid was granted, but only for involvement in residence and contact. It appears that the solicitors whom my constituent instructed did not raise the jurisdiction issues, and ignored them completely. Those matters are being dealt with separately by my constituent, but in the meantime he attempted to employ other solicitors. It is a common fact of life that solicitors do not want to take on a case that someone else has started, so it is difficult to find a new solicitor. That is exactly the situation in which my constituent found himself, so he decided to represent himself in the courts. From that time he has pursued the issue through the English courts. My constituent was recently advised—I heard this morning—that he has been refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords, so he has exhausted all his remedies in the English courts, and the case will probably go to the European Court of Human Rights.

While he was challenging the issue in the English courts my constituent began proceedings in the Scottish courts for divorce and for a residence order in respect of the child, or, failing that, a contact order. Initially, jurisdiction was not accepted by the Scottish courts because of the English proceedings, but that decision was overturned on appeal. However, the case was later sisted—a Scottish term meaning “suspended” or “put to sleep”—to allow the English court procedure to continue. The legal position in Scotland is that the courts cannot make an order for divorce unless they are satisfied as to the welfare of any child of the marriage. Clearly that was not possible for the Scottish courts in the circumstances and they effectively ceded jurisdiction to the English court, even though that jurisdiction was not fully tested in the Scottish court. The whole case, therefore, including the divorce, cannot be determined until the matter is resolved in the English court.

I want to pursue three issues with the Minister. They might seem technical, but they are extremely important to my constituent, and to the wider context as well. The first relates to an issue raised by my constituent—jurisdiction. The law is very clear. Section 41(2)(a) and (b) of the Family Law Act 1986 sets out the rules for court jurisdiction in relation to child custody:

“Where a child who—

(a) has not attained the age of sixteen, and

(b) is habitually resident in a part of the United Kingdom,

becomes habitually resident outside that part of the United Kingdom in consequence of circumstances of the kind specified in subsection (2) below, he shall be treated for the purposes of this Part as continuing to be habitually resident in that part of the United Kingdom for the period of one year beginning with the date on which those circumstances arise.”

Despite the fact that my constituent’s wife and child were habitually resident in Scotland, within three months of their departure from Scotland, the English courts seized jurisdiction and granted an interim order in contradiction of the 1986 Act. For reasons that I have discussed, I have not given precise dates so as not to identify the parties.

My constituent entered into proceedings in the English courts within the 12-month period, but in any case that is irrelevant, because section 41(2)(a) of the 1986 Act states that the habitual residence does not change

“without the agreement of the person or all the persons having, under the law of that part of the United Kingdom”—

in this case, Scotland—

“the right to determine where he is to reside”.

Section 41(1) provides for a 12-month period, and section 41(2) makes the father’s, or any guardian’s, consent necessary. However, none of those jurisdiction requirements was met when the English courts were allowed to deal with my constituent’s case. The English court had no jurisdiction under legislation governing those matters, but it granted the order anyway. Despite that fact, subsequent hearings, all the way to the Court of Appeal, upheld the order. It is clear from the judgments that the provisions of the 1986 Act were not fully considered. As I have said, my constituent acted on his own behalf and had no expert legal advice, and I would hope that the court would take that into consideration. The assumption seems to have been made at every level that after 12 months’ residence, the child automatically assumed habitual resident status in England. Nowhere, in any of the judgments, was section 41(2) considered, and at no point did any judge make it explicit that the court took over the father’s rights under section 41(2) by, for example, pleading the paramountcy of the interests of the child’s welfare.

My constituent believes that his rights as a father have been taken away from him by the courts. It seems that at no stage in his contact with the legal process, whether with solicitors on both sides of the borders, or with the courts, was there a full understanding of the way in which section 41 should operate. Will the Minister address that issue? I have been intimately involved with this case over the past few years, and it makes me very concerned about the way in which, not only this case, but other similar cases, should be dealt with. Scotland has a completely separate legal system, which is entitled to be recognised.

I should like to raise another issue about the operation of the legislation, and the way in which it can prevent a speedy resolution to often very difficult problems. I spent many years as a solicitor in Scotland specialising in family law, so I have some experience of the issue, and know how sensitive the courts need to be and how difficult the issues are. My constituent’s position all along has been that the English courts have no jurisdiction and that the case should be dealt with in Scotland. He was advised on both sides of the border that if he made any plea in the English courts for residency or contact, he would put at risk his position on jurisdiction. He was presented with a dilemma. He feels strongly about the jurisdiction issue, and he has pursued it. Apart from the initial error by his London solicitors, he has made no attempt to apply for a contact or residency order. That has worked against him in several ways. He lost the argument about jurisdiction in the English courts, and the judges have made it clear that they are not sympathetic to his case, because they regard the jurisdiction issue as a distraction. He regards jurisdiction as a fundamental issue, and as a Scottish lawyer, so do I.

The 1986 Act exists to regulate processes within the different jurisdictions in the UK, but it seems that it can be ignored at will. That is difficult enough to accept, but if my constituent’s advice that he would prejudice his position by presenting a case for residence or contact is correct—I believe that it is—the Government should address the issue. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that family proceedings have “as little bureaucracy”—I put that in inverted commas—as possible. If artificial impediments such as a preliminary plea or jurisdiction can prejudice fundamental issues such as residency or contact with a child, I hope that the Government would want to deal with the matter. I ask the Minister to look at it carefully.

The solicitors initially consulted on both sides of the border and the judge of first instance appears to have acted in complete ignorance of proper jurisdiction in all aspects of the legal process. In such difficult and sensitive issues as residence or contact with a child, the law must be considered and applied meticulously and sensitively. My own experience dealing with family matters in Scotland is that that is generally done, but the Minister will be well aware of the various concerns raised principally by groups representing fathers in custody cases, some of whom have gone to extreme lengths to make their point. My constituent has avoided that, and he has applied himself to studying the legal issues and presenting his arguments, which is the appropriate way to proceed. However, from my considerable contact with him I know his intense disappointment, frustration and sense of unfairness at how his case has been dealt with in every part of the legal process.

As far as my constituent is concerned, the law is explicit about what is intended. He thinks that his rights have been bulldozed in a way that he finds difficult to understand—despite his substantial experience of the law, he is a lay person and not a lawyer. I submit that it is not good for the legal process and not good for the system that that perception should prevail. The case is difficult and the father’s choice might not be one that all of us would make, but he feels strongly about the issue. He feels even more strongly that the system is unfair and makes it difficult for people in his position to get the right treatment.

At the end of the day, a young child has been denied contact with her father for several years. The case is likely to progress to Europe, delaying the matter further. The Government should address the issues, and I am anxious that the Minister should do so. I appreciate that she has not had advance sight of my speech, so it will be difficult for her to respond in detail. I do not expect her to do so, but I would be very pleased if she were to write at a later stage.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) on securing this debate; the subject must be a harrowing and difficult one for him and for his constituent. Any case that involves the relationship of a child with its parents has to be dealt with to the highest possible standards and with the greatest sensitivity. I shall, of course, respond in writing, giving details that I may not be able to provide during our debate.

Although many parents separate amicably and make good parenting arrangements thereafter, we all know that conflicts can arise from separation that are upsetting for all involved, particularly the children. In the vast majority of cases in England and Wales, parents make appropriate and adequate provision for bringing up the children, including making contact arrangements. Usually, they do not need recourse to the courts to achieve that. It can be done in a perfectly amicable, adult and sensible fashion. The Government do their best to give them additional support whenever possible, such as providing better information or promoting alternative dispute resolution services.

In “Parental Separation: Children’s Needs and Parents’ Responsibilities”, which was published two years ago, we set out a range of measures to help yet more separating parents in England and Wales. That document dealt with improved access to quality information, and advice to separating parents that was tailored to their individual needs. It provided an increased focus on delivering practical assistance and legal help, as well as signposting other appropriate services. It tackled linked problems, to allow parents to find a non-court-based resolution when it was safe to do so, and it proposed the development of alternative dispute resolution services.

Inevitably, some cases come to court. The early identification of harm, with early dispute resolution meetings in appropriate cases, is extremely important. We do everything that we can to encourage the parties to attempt mediation, and, as far as possible, we give greater support to help families make contact work. Section 8 of the Children Act 1989 provides for courts in England and Wales to make four types of orders. A residence order governs where the child will live, and a contact order governs whom the child will see. A specific issue order provides for certain actions to be taken—for example, the child must attend a specified school. A prohibited steps order says what must not happen—for example, that the child's home must not be outside a certain area. Section 11 of the Act provides for certain conditions to be attached to a contact order.

In 2006, more than 90,000 such applications were made, and more than 100,000 orders were made, as many cases result in more than one order being made. For example, a resident parent may apply for a residence order and the non-resident parent may, in response, apply for a contact order. The court may also make an order of its own motion, without an application being made, if existing family proceedings are already before it. A residence order may be shared if the child spends significant periods of time with both parents; and there may be variations in the type of contact for holidays, weekends, overnight stays and so on.

There is a fairly comprehensive package of appropriate contacts for the child. However, it is incumbent on me to say—I know that my hon. Friend agrees—that whatever is decided, it has to be done in the best interests of the child. That is the focus of all our policy on children and contact through the court system. It is always possible that the court can order contact only by telephone or letter or, indeed, that no contact may be made. That is rare, and such an order would only be made if there was any indication that the child would be placed at significant risk.

In recognition of the fact that those cases are private proceedings—that is, that a parent has asked the court to intervene—the court may also order that there should be no order. Such orders are not common, but where parents have an agreed arrangement, it might be better for the child for no order to be made. When section 8 residence and contact applications are made, and where the proceedings are contested, the courts must take into consideration the factors listed in section 1(3) of the 1989 Act, which are known as the welfare checklist. The list is not exhaustive, but it is generally regarded as the minimum that the court would be required to consider. Most importantly, it includes the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child; their physical, emotional and educational needs; the effect that the changes in circumstances might have on them; and their age, sex and background, as well as other characteristics considered relevant. Any harm that they have suffered or are at risk of suffering clearly has to be taken into account, as well as the parents’ ability to meet their needs.

Families end up in court because they cannot agree arrangements between themselves. In some cases, there are serious welfare concerns: domestic violence is an obvious example. In January 2005, we changed the application procedure for section 8 cases to ask applicants and respondents about any risks of harm to the child. If there is an indication of risk, the application forms are sent to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—CAFCASS—which will conduct certain checks, undertake a risk assessment and advise the court accordingly. From 1 October this year, that is a statutory duty for CAFCASS. I hope shortly to publish an evaluation of the effectiveness of that procedure.

In other cases, there may be concerns about parental drug or alcohol abuse, or mental health problems. The courts can order CAFCASS to consider those matters. It can also ask for a medical expert opinion—for example, from a child psychiatrist if it is possible that the child has mental health problems as a result of the conflict. CAFCASS is available to try to help conciliation between the parents. Often, parents reach an agreement in those cases.

We conducted a piece of research, following parents through the two-year process. The evidence that we have received suggests that that was a positive way of trying to move things forward. In most cases, an agreement about contact was reached or the cases were closed. I hope that in ongoing cases we can continue to improve our services, using that method to ensure that appropriate conduct is arranged. My hon. Friend mentioned the issue of jurisdiction. He cited the Family Law Act 1986, and the fact that deemed residence is only for a year—after that, the general rules apply. After one year, the child could end up being habitually resident in another part of the United Kingdom.

Does the Minister accept my point that parental consent is necessary? If the habitual residence changes, that does not happen automatically.

My hon. Friend is right: parental consent is necessary. He has already mentioned the case of his constituent, who has had to deal with some apparently bad advice that he received early on. That is being dealt with separately, but I am happy to write to my hon. Friend with some views on how he might progress the matter, if appropriate. The problem is that the child may become habitually resident in another part of the United Kingdom, and it would be for the courts to make a decision, still with the interests of the child at heart. My hon. Friend’s constituent made the application within the year, so section 41, as he mentioned, would apply. If he had not done so, section 41 would become irrelevant. However, even where the order is made in the wrong jurisdiction, it has to be obeyed until discharged, and case law ensures that that is so. The individual could apply to the English court to have that order discharged or, indeed, to the original, correct court.

In the short time available, I should like to pick up a couple of other issues raised by my hon. Friend. It is not right to say that the Act is ignored whenever that suits the court. The Act is designed so that the order protects the child at all times. Courts with jurisdiction can make orders that are recognised and enforced in other parts of the United Kingdom. However, a subsequent court can make a new order, which could supersede the earlier one, but only if it has proper jurisdiction and it is in the child’s welfare interests. That would apply on either side of the border. As my hon. Friend pointed out, historically, Scotland has its own legal system, which differs in substantial ways from that of England and Wales. That is why we have made provision to deal with contact and residence cases in which people live on different sides of the border. It is possible for two sets of proceedings—one in each jurisdiction—to be under way at the same time. The legislation applying to contact and residence cases in Scotland is different, but both the Government and the Scottish Executive are united in the view that children should have contact with both parents, as long as it is safe and in the best interests of the child.

Finally, there is no bias against fathers in the Children Act. Parents with parental responsibility are treated equally. As I said, the welfare of the child is paramount, and that applies in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The Act is designed to support proper decision making for children, by ensuring that the cases are heard in the most appropriate forum. My hon. Friend has given me a number of details that I want to look at more closely. I will write to him, insofar as I can comment on cases before the court. As he knows, I am limited in what I can say, but I will do my best to give him as much information as possible on that particular case.

Ministerial Accountability

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley, and I am pleased to see the Minister in the Chamber. The purpose of my debate is to focus on the way in which Ministers are held accountable by the House, primarily through written questions and statements.

As the Minister will know, I have been in correspondence with the Leader of the House over the rather poor performance of a number of Ministers in answering written parliamentary questions on a named day. Let me set out the reasons for my concern. I asked all the Departments how good they were at giving substantive replies to named day questions. Some Departments do extremely well, and it is fair to say that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House give a substantive reply to 100 per cent. of questions on the named day, which is very good.

Unfortunately, the same is not true at the other end of the spectrum, in Departments that cover important policy areas such as defence and work and pensions. Only 22 per cent. of questions to the Ministry of Defence received a substantive reply on a named day, while the figure for the Department for Work and Pensions is only 30 per cent. Interestingly, both Secretaries of State are part-time, as they are each responsible for two Departments. When the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) is wearing his defence hat, he manages to answer only 22 per cent. of named day questions on the due day, but when he is wearing his Scotland hat, he manages a much more impressive 85 per cent. In the same way, when the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) is operating in his capacity as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, he answers only 30 per cent. of questions on the named day, while the Wales Office, which admittedly has a much smaller number of questions to deal with, manages to answer them all on time.

Members have a limited number of ways of holding Ministers to account, one of which is questions, so it is not good enough for Ministers to answer only a fifth of questions on the due day. That is bad enough, but it is difficult to obtain data on the issue. I know from experience that Ministers do not miss the due date by a day or so; often, we do not receive a substantive answer on the given day, and we have to wait for it for a week or two weeks. Departments do not seem to take seriously the importance of answering Members’ questions on time and as fully as possible.

Although that may be due to changes in the machinery of government and to reorganisation, neither the Department for Children, Schools and Families nor the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—both Departments emerged from the former Department for Education and Skills—could give me the information that I sought, because they simply have no tracking system capable of telling them when they answered questions. I have written to both Ministers concerned, because if those Departments cannot monitor their performance, I do not see how they can be confident of discharging their responsibilities to the House.

I suspect that the Parliamentary Secretary will not be surprised to learn that the Home Office could not answer my question before prorogation, and still has not done so. Its performance in dealing with Members of Parliament is pretty lamentable at best, and it is the only Department that could not answer my question at all. That is not good enough, and I have raised the issue with the Leader of the House, who promised to take action. I would therefore be pleased if the Minister could explain what action has been taken and whether we are likely to see any improvement.

I have a couple of examples to illustrate the sort of questions that do not get answered, and which raise important issues about the way in which we are governed. We all know about the problems at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and about the loss of child benefit data. Over the weekend, on a much smaller scale, a similar problem was reported at the Department for Work and Pensions. Discs containing a lot of sensitive information about thousands of customers were left with an ex-contractor, who was no longer entitled to have them. The information was unencrypted and not kept securely, so there were clearly some lapses in information security. I tabled a number of questions about the issue to the Department for answer on a named day—Monday 26 November. I specifically asked the Secretary of State what procedures his Department had put in place to deal with the transfer of personal data, what personal data he has provided to bodies such as the National Audit Office, what personal data belonging to members of the public is stored by his Department and other agencies, and what discussions he has had with his Department’s agencies about how they keep information secure. I received a holding answer but, a week later, I still have not received a substantive answer.

They were not complicated questions, and the answers about the procedures that are in place should be available today. One would hope that, given the recent focus in government on information security, it would not be difficult for a Department such as the Department for Work and Pensions, which holds data on millions of members of the public, to answer some simple questions, and direct me to the document or website that sets out its procedures for looking after personal data. The fact that I have not had an answer—not even part of an answer—is rather poor, and shows that there is a gap.

There are slightly more amusing responses that show the seriousness, or lack of it, with which Ministers deal with the House. I tabled some questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the support provided to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who also has responsibilities in the Government Equalities Office. I asked the Secretary of State some straightforward questions about what discussions he had had with the Leader of the House on the Under-Secretary’s ministerial role, and what support was available to her from the Department. The Under-Secretary herself responded with a holding answer—perhaps reasonably; she may not know what discussions the Secretary of State has been having with the Leader of the House.

The other questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that the Under-Secretary failed to answer on the due day, however, were very straightforward; they were about which Government Department is responsible for the Government Equalities Office, and what ministerial responsibilities the Under-Secretary has in the GEO. I received a holding answer. I received a holding answer, too, when I asked which Department was responsible for her ministerial salary and for the provision of ministerial support. It is pretty poor if a Minister cannot even tell me of which Department the Government Equalities Office is part, what her ministerial responsibilities are, who pays her salary and which officials support her, as that information must be available. The fact that I did not receive an answer on the due day—and it was not a complicated question that required months of research—shows that some Ministers in some Departments do not take their responsibilities to the House seriously at all.

I want to touch on one or two other issues, but perhaps not in quite as much detail. However, before I leave the topic of written answers, I should like to raise something with the Minister. The two worst performing Departments are the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions. The Ministry of Defence has 229 press officers. The Department for Work and Pensions has 180. Clearly, both Departments put a high priority on dealing with the press. The Leader of the House promised me that she would speak to her colleagues “forcefully”, so may I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that if some resources were shifted and some press officers fired, more resources could be put into dealing with this House, so that Departments could prioritise their accountability to Parliament, rather than to the media. We might then find that the performance of those two Departments in particular would improve considerably. I put that idea out in a generous spirit, and perhaps the Minister would tell me what she thinks of it.

I want briefly to touch on the importance of making statements to the House before the matters in question are announced to the media. The shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), has already raised some examples with the Leader of the House. The Secretary of State for Transport made a written statement about the expansion of Heathrow, yet the news was announced on the “Today” programme before the statement was given to Members of the House. The Secretary of State for Justice made a statement on constitutional arrangements in Britain, but we heard all about it on the “Today” programme. The Ministry of Justice also published things on its website about its organisational review that might affect the National Offender Management Service before a statement was made to the House.

In another example involving the Department for Work and Pensions, which seems to be a bit of a whipping boy in this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) challenged the Secretary of State during oral questions about his briefing on incapacity benefit assessments and why it had been made to the media on the “Today” programme well before being made to the House. The Secretary of State admitted in a written answer to me that although copies of the report had been placed in the Vote Office, they had not been made available to Members in the Library until the afternoon. Information had thus been given to the media and discussed at length well before Members could obtain the details of the statements. The Leader of the House herself said that it was her job to be the “policewoman” who makes absolutely sure that statements are made to the House before they are made to the media.

The final issue that I wish to raise is topical debates and parliamentary questions. With the changes in Departments and the expansion in the number of Departments entitled to a full hour of questions, which I support, questions now operate on a five-week rota. There are slightly fewer opportunities to question each Department, although that has been offset somewhat by the welcome innovation, on which I congratulate the Government, of topical questions for Departments with a question time of more than 30 minutes. It is an advantage and stops us going through contortions to fit topical questions into the questions that happen to be on the Order Paper. I am sure all Members have faced that challenge from time to time. The Leader of the House tried in her own small way to make the rota a little more flexible; I understand that she tried to get rid of questions to the Leader of the House, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead batted that proposal away.

I leave the Minister with this thought about topical debates: they should be genuinely topical. There was a general feeling in the House last week that the debate on apprenticeships and skills—important as the matter is—was not the most topical debate that could have been chosen. At this very moment, the Leader of the House is meeting my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and the Liberal Democrat spokesman to discuss how the choice of topics for topical debates can be made more transparent to Members. I welcome that and hope that the meeting is fruitful.

The Leader of the House has said that the whole point of the House of Commons is to hold the Executive to account, and she made it clear that parliamentary questions are important in that respect. When I raised the matter with her at business questions on 15 November, she was good enough to thank me for the information that I gave her from my league table—for want of a better description—and to say that she would raise the matter “forcefully” with her ministerial colleagues. Will the Minister tell us to what extent the Leader of the House has had an opportunity to be forceful? Most importantly, when will we see an improvement in Departments’ performance in answering questions, particularly the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions, both of which cover policy areas that are important to members of the public? Both Departments need to make a huge improvement to the way in which they deal with the House and with questions from Members of Parliament. I look forward with great interest to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this debate. The issue is undoubtedly of fundamental importance. In our well-known and long-standing system of parliamentary democracy, it is crucial that the Government are properly accountable to Parliament. Day in and day out, Ministers come to Parliament to account for the Government’s actions and decisions, answering letters and parliamentary questions from MPs and peers. In view of the comments made, it is worth giving a bit of context before I come to the hon. Gentleman’s particular points.

First, the setting is that the principle of ministerial accountability to Parliament is a convention of some long standing and is clearly set out in the ministerial code, which is a guide to the principles and practices expected of Ministers. In publishing the code in July the Prime Minister confirmed that:

“The acceptance of Ministerial office brings with it a serious responsibility and duty to the nation.”

In setting out this responsibility and duty, the code goes on to state that

“Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies”,

and that is what we are discussing.

Through the resolutions that were carried in 1997 both Houses made explicit how they expect Ministers to discharge their responsibilities to Parliament. I reaffirm the seriousness with which the Government take their responsibility to account to Parliament. The terms of the resolutions are reflected in the ministerial code, and the constitutional convention of ministerial accountability to Parliament, through a range of means to which I will refer, is, in my view and experience, alive and kicking.

Both letters and parliamentary questions are worth a mention, and the hon. Gentleman has referred to the latter. To give an idea of scale, in 2006, excluding freedom of information requests, Departments received 226,427 letters from MPs and peers, compared with 203,734 in 1996. The Government have an absolute commitment to providing informed and timely responses to letters from hon. Members, which are one of the means by which Ministers are held to account. In 2006, the last record that I can refer to, 77 per cent. of such correspondence was replied to within the targets set by Departments, compared with 72 per cent. in the previous year. We have therefore seen an improvement. In my experience, Departments are far from complacent. They do recognise the importance of dealing with inquiries and being held to account, and they seek to take steps further to improve their performance.

On the issue of parliamentary questions that the hon. Gentleman raised, the number of written questions has increased enormously, almost doubling since 1997—up from 214 per sitting day to 396 per sitting day for 2006-07. The introduction of the written question procedure in the September recess shows, if one looks at how it is used, that hon. Members are more than willing and more than able to hold Ministers to account even during a parliamentary recess. I welcome its introduction by the Government. It is worth noting that answering an oral question is estimated to cost around £385 and a written question £140.

I welcome the innovation of being able to table and have answered written questions in September. In terms of the growth in scale, perhaps I am being unfair but I do not understand the disparity in performance within Government. The Department of Health, which was asked in the last Session 1,615 named day questions, almost double what the Ministry of Defence was asked, managed to answer 63 per cent. on the named day. The Ministry of Defence achieved just a third of that performance. I do not buy the idea that just because more questions are being asked that should lead to poor performance. Some Departments are clearly very good at answering, and some are not.

The difficulty, if I can put it that way, with the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that it makes very straightforward comparisons across Departments. It is not a directly comparable matter. Not only do Departments receive different volumes of correspondence and parliamentary questions, which it is important to consider, but they have different targets for replying. That is legitimate, to reflect the nature of the Department.

I would urge caution in making comparisons, because the nature of Departments’ business varies greatly, as does the nature of the questions. Of course, Departments will have to do a greater or lesser amount of work in greater or lesser detail, depending on the question. As a Minister responsible for responding through both correspondence and parliamentary questions, I am keen to ensure full and comprehensive replies. The matter is not directly comparable, but it is worth saying now—I was intending to refer to this later—that there have been some notable successes. In terms of its performance in dealing with correspondence, the Home Office is up by 14 per cent. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is up by 9 per cent. with a particular improvement by UKvisas, and, of course, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is up by 13 per cent. That should convey the fact that nobody is complacent, and that we intend to push forward in a systematic way.

While Ministers are responsible for their own answers to parliamentary questions, I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as I have said, the Government have an active and deep-rooted commitment to the issue of ministerial accountability to Parliament. There is also a duty on Ministers, set out in the ministerial code, to be as open as possible with Parliament. The guidance to officials on drafting answers to parliamentary questions repeats those obligations. The Public Administration Committee has published a number of reports on ministerial accountability and parliamentary questions, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with those. In response to the last such report, which the Government were glad to receive, we set out a number of initiatives designed to disseminate good practice across Departments. If hon. Members are dissatisfied with the response that they have received to a parliamentary question, they can, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly done, take the matter up with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

The Procedure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into written parliamentary questions, and we look forward to receiving its recommendations. For the context that I want to give, it is important to note that there been many improvements and changes in accountability to Members of Parliament since 1997. First, that we are even sitting in Westminster Hall is testimony to the fact that the Government have increased opportunities for scrutiny, and therefore the accountability of Ministers to Parliament, through the introduction of Westminster Hall debates. The Speaker also has discretion over urgent questions in emergency debates. In October this year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House set out in more detail a number of measures that the Government seek to introduce following the report of the Modernisation Committee, “Revitalising the Chamber: the Role of the Back Bench Member”—evidence, I believe, that we are seeking to be more accountable. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will draw this debate and the points that have been made to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

Furthermore, in terms of increased scrutiny, the Government have recently introduced topical questions and topical debates to increase opportunities for accountability. Going still further in respect of openness, transparency and accountability, we are now going to be the first Government to publish an annual list of gifts given and received by Ministers and an annual list of visits overseas by Cabinet Ministers. From next year, details will be published of all Ministers’ travel overseas. This Government was the first to publish an annual list of special advisers’ numbers, names and costs, as well as a code of conduct and model contract for special advisers. It is important to remember that our previous Prime Minister was the first to initiate appearances before the Liaison Committee, and to hold a monthly press conference. I suggest that all those points reflect greater accountability, openness and transparency, and we have made a significant difference to the amount of information available about the activities of Departments and Ministers through the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

That commitment to openness and transparency is certainly reflected in the changes seen to the ministerial code in July this year. The code has been strengthened so it now clearly sets out the principles that all Ministers must follow. In publishing the ministerial code, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also announced the appointment of an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and an annual statement covering those interests that will be published.

I would also refer the hon. Gentleman to the “Governance of Britain” Green Paper, published in July, setting out our plans in a number of areas for a new relationship between the Government and the citizen. We need to look not only at the steps that have already been taken but at the commitments to go still further. As for the hon. Gentleman’s allegation that Government statements are made to the media before they come to Parliament, the ministerial code is absolutely clear. When Parliament is in Session, the most important announcements should be made in the first instance to Parliament. I would assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers take this most seriously. I will of course make sure that the points raised in this debate will be drawn to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman suggested a bit of reorganisation of press officers. In terms of answering parliamentary questions, there are many officials across Departments who are going about their everyday work serving the public. In the course of that work, they are answering parliamentary questions. So while I note his suggestion—and I am sure that he would not wish that we stopped communicating on matters of importance to the public, such as the take-up of benefits or campaigns on drink and drug abuse, or the latest news on foot and mouth—I do not agree that simply moving people around would improve the situation.

On procedures for data transfer at the Department for Work and Pensions, it is worth remembering that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary have both set out in recent weeks a number of reviews that will be conducted into the security of data storage and transfer within Departments. It is indeed the case that this matter has been open to considerable scrutiny and will continue to be so.

In conclusion, the Government are absolutely clear and open about how Ministers should be held to account by Parliament and the public. It is something that we all take seriously and work to our best endeavours to achieve with our Departments. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers in this Government are completely committed to both the principle and the practice and are always trying to improve still further.

Women’s and Girls’ Football

I begin by thanking all those who continue to make women’s and girls’ football the fastest growing sport in the United Kingdom. They are the unsung heroes—the volunteer coaches, referees and administrators—without whose dedication the beautiful game would not be successful. This was brought out effectively by the report last year by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which shone a welcome spotlight on the world of women’s football.

The 14 recommendations at the end of the report solicited responses from both the Government and the English Football Association which, if fully implemented, would maintain the growth and the health of women’s football in this country. It is worth reminding ourselves what has happened in women’s football in just over a decade. It was only in 1993 that the Football Association had the vision to bring women’s football into the football family. Before that, it was out in the cold. There were only 80 girls’ teams in England in 1993, but a decade later, in 2004-05, that had grown to about 8,000 teams. It shows that, with a little bit of organisation, the appetite was there. Those teams played in the affiliated competitions organised by the governing body. Just under 2 million young women and girls play recreational or informal football.

We must understand that football, as our national game, brings young people, including some from inner-city areas, into sport. Through the window of football, they can go on to play other sports. It is very important that those young people, who are sometimes at the bottom of the economic ladder, should be able to find their way back into society through the world of sport. There is no better sport than football to achieve that. It is a huge sport across the nation, with 45,000 football clubs. The impact of football, including women’s and girls’ football, on our social infrastructure is not to be underestimated, and the impact on elite sports, too, in the past decade is remarkable.

I am sorry to say that the professional side of the beautiful game, with one or two exceptions, has not lived up to the expectations raised by the Select Committee in the 10th recommendation of its report. That is disappointing. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) will raise those issues later, if she catches your eye, Mr Bayley. Even now, I hope that the Football League and the premier league, along with the English Football Association, which has done a good job with women’s football—I think that women footballers recognise that—will revisit the policy on women’s football.

Money is not a problem in the national game. The TV and sponsorship deals by the Football League and the premier league in the recent past are some of the biggest in their history. It is interesting that Tesco is forming, or trying to form, a women’s premier league with the FA, and I wish them success. I hope that that lead is followed by both the Football League and the premier league, as it is important. I recommend that the professional game look at what Tesco is doing. I spoke to my hon. Friend the Minister—he is a big friend of mine: he, too, has a Yorkshire seat and came into politics through the same route as me—who shares my feelings about the matter. I hope that when he meets the Football League and the premier league he raises with them the question of corporate and social responsibility. It is in their enlightened self-interest as football clubs to pay more attention to the growing fan base for women’s football. Indeed, they should do so, even for what one might call rather mercenary reasons.

My niece was first inspired to play football after watching Sheffield Wednesday play at Hillsborough. However, she cannot regularly indulge in that practice because of the cost of the tickets. Does my right hon. Friend think that the cost of going to watch professional football teams is a barrier to engaging young women and girls in football?

That is partly true. I think that my hon. Friend’s niece ought to be paid by Sheffield Wednesday to watch the team, although that is another issue. I will receive another tirade of abuse from the Wednesdayites in Sheffield for saying so. Many professional clubs are now seeking a junior audience, and they offer family tickets. Many of them are genuinely trying to make sure that they attract a younger fan base than they have in the recent past.

Does my right hon. friend agree that the issue is not only about attending football matches, but about the coverage that women’s sport receives in the media? Compared with other parts of Europe, only about 5 per cent. of television or written media in this country covers women’s sport. Without those role models, it is almost impossible for people to follow through. Will the Minister look at ways to bring the promotion of women’s sport into the media?

I shall come on to that later in my contribution. In spite of the professional game not doing as much as it ought to have done for women’s football, the team has performed brilliantly on the world stage. It qualified for this year’s World cup in China, and went on to reach the quarter finals of the competition. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who is a great rugby league fan—[Interruption.] Good grief, what heresy—I should have said that he is a great rugby union fan. However, he will be interested to know that when the US played England in the women’s World cup, the audience of 1.8 million was greater than that commanded by the England rugby union football team when it played later the same day. That just shows the audience that women’s football can command when it is shown on terrestrial television such as the BBC. The coverage that it receives in the media, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) has just referred, ought result in more column inches, particularly as we have a national side of whom we can all be proud.

By qualifying for the World cup in China, that women’s side also qualified Great Britain for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Let us remind ourselves of the recommendations that the Select Committee presented to the House. In its 13th recommendation, it said that we ought to look very seriously within the football world at our ability to present teams at the Olympics. The Committee was talking about 2012, as I do not think anybody believed that the women’s team would qualify for 2008. However, it did so, and thus the same principle applies. The English FA, along with the Government, supported the Select Committee’s recommendation that we should stage GB teams for both males and females in 2012, and indeed in 2008. As I said, we have qualified for the 2008 Olympics.

When I arrived in China a few weeks ago to attend the women’s World cup as the Prime Minister’s ambassador for the 2018 World cup, I attended the semi-final in the Dragon stadium at Hangzhou. I met Hope Powell, head coach of the England women’s national football team, who was capped 66 times for representing her nation, including as vice-captain. She was very disappointed; indeed, she was annoyed. Hope went on to tell me that even though the team had qualified, it would not be allowed to represent its country, because the four football associations of England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland could not agree, so the girls, as one can well imagine, felt very let down. They had taken their nation to the football World cup, and in the process had qualified for the 2008 Olympics, but they had been let down by the Football Association.

Representations were made, as all the football powers were there, including FIFA, because it was the FIFA World cup for women. At half-time in the women’s final, Simon Johnson of the Football Association and I met FIFA’s general secretary, Jerome Valcke, who agreed that if the four football associations agreed to badge us as a GB team—whether its members were from England, or were a mix of players from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—FIFA would allow that, because the decision was entirely up to our nation. I spoke to Simon Clegg of the British Olympic Association only yesterday about the issue, and he, too, is annoyed that, although we have qualified to send a team to Beijing, we have been denied the opportunity to do so.

There was agreement all round to ask the football associations, on their return from China, to come to an agreement to allow those athletes to compete. After we had seen FIFA’s general secretary, Simon Johnson, Hope Powell and I had a chat in the hotel with Alan McRae, the second vice-president of the Scottish FA, and Howard Wells, the general secretary of the FA in Northern Ireland. On that evening, I felt fairly confident that we would reach an agreement, but it was not to be. A conference call took place between the officers of the four football associations, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but they said no, without even giving a reason for their stance, or any encouragement that the issue should even be debated.

That decision has denied their athletes and players the right to perform on one of sport’s most coveted stages—the Olympic games. Hope said to me that, on that 2008 stage in Beijing, with a fair wind and with a little bit of luck, we could have been in the medal count. That would have a tremendous impact on sport in this country. Even playing in the Olympics would have had a tremendous effect; if the team reached the final, there would be a profound effect, not just on women’s football, but on women’s sport in this country, which would provide the biggest boost to women’s football that it has ever had.

Those blazers, however, have made a decision for our nation, our women’s footballers and our beautiful game. Thanks to their decision, we now have the debacle of Sweden playing Denmark for our place in Beijing in 2008. We are the laughing stock of women’s sport throughout the world. Our women qualified for the World cup and for Beijing, but then some blazers sat down together and, without giving a reason or engaging in any debate, have denied those athletes, whom they purport to represent, the greatest stage that they could ever have: the 2008 Olympic games. It is a national scandal that our athletes should be denied the right to perform on the international stage. Those athletes have been denied the chance of a lifetime by the blazer brigade, who are protecting their own self-interest.

Other sports and teams will perform on that stage in 2008. The partially-sighted team will play football in Beijing, as will the disability football team, but not the women’s football associations’ team. That ought to be questioned. All sports-loving organisations should ask those football associations why they made that decision. Every women’s organisation ought to write demanding why they denied the greatest lift to women’s sport that we could have had in this country. That question should even be asked by the media—back-page writers and sports writers ought to ask why we have denied those people the opportunity to perform on the greatest stage in sport at the Olympic games. We have to ask those questions, just as the Select Committee did. My hon. Friend the Minister has been at the forefront of the campaign to get the football associations to change their minds, but without success. Unfortunately, I accept that it is too late for our team in 2008, but I believe it necessary for us to raise this issue. It is right for the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister and others to do so, because it is one of the biggest disgraces for women’s sport that we have seen for many years.

May I put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) for being such an able champion, not just of women’s football, but of our national team, by whose achievements we were all so impressed? Those achievements were the result of tremendous efforts on the part of the team and of a small and honourable number of supporters. We members of the Select Committee that prepared the report brought before the House were pleased to see that the Football Foundation has joined that group of active supporters by changing the way that it makes grants for community support across the country, ensuring that there are pathways for girls into sport.

Some very laudable changes have been made, but we have to see many more. All too many girls—who are incredibly enthusiastic about football and really love the sport and want to achieve personally—constantly find completely unnecessary barriers in their way. Girls cannot get access to teams, because there are so few teams playing in organised sport that they cannot get a proper set of games together; they find that they are not allowed to play until Sunday night, when the fields have all been mashed up; and, at school, there might be boys’ teams, but there are not girls’ teams.

People do not seem to realise that more than 1 million girls play organised football in the UK. It is the fastest-growing sport for girls and the best way out of obesity, but it also lets girls achieve, just as boys can, and do things that they really enjoy and are good at. They can participate and learn the other life skills that people who play football learn.

Like my right hon. Friend, I think that it is absolutely appalling that we are letting down our national team. We must take action to ensure that we give a consistent message of support to our players. We are their supporters, and we must ensure that they do not have barriers put in their way and that they can achieve for themselves and for us.

It is good, Mr. Bayley, to welcome you to the Chair again—we met here earlier this morning. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) not only on securing the debate but on all that he did for sport in his time as Sports Minister. I know that even before then, sport was a great interest of his. As he rightly said, we have been involved in similar things for many years, and sport is a passion for both of us. I thank him for all the support that he has given me in my role as Minister with responsibility for sport.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has brought a strong team with him today: my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) and for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth), who sits on the taskforce on women’s football. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) is sitting behind me offering support and assistance. I know that he is a passionate supporter of sport in all forms.

I offer my strongest support for the points that my right hon. Friend has made and the way in which he has made them. What has happened to the England women’s football team is a scandal. As the Minister with responsibility for sport, I have been struck by the passion and commitment that sport can inspire, and never more so than in the case of women’s football. Since my appointment to the post, the work of the women’s game has been one of the greatest matters of pride, but also the greatest concern to me, because of where it fits in the beautiful game, as my right hon. Friend has said. There is a dichotomy in the success of the national team and the frustration of their being taken out of the 2008 Olympics, at which they would have had the opportunity to play on the world’s greatest stage.

We are at a crucial stage for the future of women’s football. As my right hon. Friend has said, women’s football is the number one female participation sport in England, with more players competing in affiliated competitions than in any other team sport. In the past seven years, there has been a 227 per cent. increase in the number of female football teams and a 165 per cent. increase in the number of players. However, there are real and clear challenges ahead. How do we capitalise on the fastest-growing participation sport in the country? How do we harness the talent and commitment of women players and provide the support and infrastructure to allow our players to compete at the highest international levels?

Before my hon. Friend moves on from that point, I want to mention that, as he knows, Loughborough plays a key role in preparing the women’s team. Does he believe that the blazers, as we call them—quite rightly—understand even one iota the amount of dedication that the young women involved put in to train to be top-level athletes? Does he agree that it seems ridiculous that all the effort that he has talked about has been thrown away by a ridiculous decision?

I agree and, as my hon. Friend knows, I was happy to visit Loughborough and see the wonderful facilities that are available for all sports. I share his compassion for the women who have been denied that opportunity, which will never arise again for some of them—hopefully, it will arise again for some of them in 2012, but it will not arise for others. The players have shown commitment and enthusiasm in difficult circumstances. Many of the women players have child care responsibilities and had to deal with extra commitment at work just to get to the World cup.

We have a massive opportunity in front of us, and I fully intend to ensure that we do not miss it. Although we criticise the blazers, we have a strong and positive base. Nobody can deny the huge strides that have been made in the past 10 years, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central has said, and I applaud the FA for its ongoing commitment to the game, but we want a lot more, a lot faster. We saw England reach the quarter finals of the World cup, holding the eventual winners, Germany, on their way, and being the only team to do so and to prevent the Germans from scoring. Like my right hon. Friend, I was interested to see that more people watched that game—1.8 million people in total—than the England versus Samoa rugby world cup match, which was happening at the same time. England are now ranked 10th in the world and have won all three of their opening qualifying games for Euro 2009. Arsenal—unfortunately, or fortunately—have continued their dominance of the women’s domestic game, winning the FA cup in front of a record crowd of more than 24,000 at Nottingham Forest, with a further 2.1 million people watching at home. Perhaps more significantly, it also became the first British club to win the UEFA cup.

We are seeing great strides in the elite aspect of our game, and I am delighted that that success is being transposed to the grass-roots level. I have already mentioned that we have seen a huge rise in the number of women involved in football: the “Active People” survey in 2006 highlighted that 250,000 women and 1.1 million girls play some form of football. We have also seen a rise in the profile of the sport, with a recent FA survey indicating that 5 per cent. of the adult population in England claim to follow the women’s game.

Campaigns such as the FA’s “Girls United” initiative have sought to build on that base, using England’s participation in the World cup to increase participation and improve the perception of the game among the nine to 11 age group. The site received more than 25,000 hits during the World cup. My right hon. Friend has mentioned a new and welcome partnership between the FA, Tesco and the national sports foundation, launched in October. It will deliver more than £1 million of investment directly to the game at county level and support the invaluable army of volunteers who continue to allow the game to thrive at that level.

The FA Tesco skills programme has been rolled out across 12 counties, attracting 50,000 participants in the first two months, 23 per cent. of whom were girls. We have also seen the first Tesco skills centre for girls, which feeds the FA’s Colchester centre of excellence. The FA has begun to focus its attention on youth development, with a restructuring of the 52 girl’s centres of excellence and an increase of funding and support to deliver twice-weekly quality coaching and localised fixture programmes in every region for the first time.

Women’s and girl’s football development officers are in place in every county, and we have more than 13,000 coaches, all aiming to emulate the incredible achievements of Hope Powell, England’s head coach for 10 years and the only woman in the UK with a UEFA pro licence. My right hon. Friend and I know her personally, and her dedication is unsurpassed. She was delighted by the success of the team.

Hope could not be here today, because she is in South Africa coaching youngsters in Cape Town. I have consulted her on a wide variety of issues, and the fact that she is in demand internationally as well as nationally shows her quality.

I congratulate and applaud Hope on her work as a coach.

All the initiatives are to be welcomed and applauded, but are they enough? I, like my right hon. and hon. Friends, am clear that they are not. The achievements, particularly of our teams performing at the highest level, have come against the odds and against expectation, so we must ensure that we move forward with the game. The two incidents that sum up my frustration are those that my right hon. Friend has mentioned.

First, our women’s team will not be able to compete at the Olympics in 2008. My right hon. Friend said that they won their place on merit and that the situation was not fixed in any way. It is sad that the home nations could not even offer an explanation why they would not allow them to compete on behalf of Great Britain. An explanation is important to us, because we want to ensure that we understand the reasons. As my right hon. Friend has said, we understand that FIFA made assurances about the independence of the home nations in the wider football world, so the decision is appalling.

I shall pursue the questions that my right hon. Friend has asked. He is right to say that everybody should do so, because we do not want the same thing to happen in 2012. We want to ensure that when London hosts those games, men’s and women’s football teams represent Great Britain. My right hon. Friend is right. Despite the best efforts of us all, including him and the Government, we tried to resolve the issue, but we were frustrated by off-pitch issues.

We were happy to give the team a drinks reception at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in order to honour its achievements. We talked to the players about their payments during the World cup, and my second frustration is with the reported £40 a day they received, which does not constitute a sufficient or proportionate return. The players are realistic about the current status and financial position of the game and have not called for payments equal to those of their male colleagues—perhaps it is to be hoped that one day they will. Instead, their arguments focused on the impact that that level of remuneration has on the game more widely. The majority of players took unpaid leave to take part in the World cup, which meant that they lost wages and have to recoup their working hours, which in turn severely limits the hours that they can train for club or country.

I have said that Arsenal have been successful in the European cup, but they were recently knocked out. The coach puts that down to the fact that the players had to recoup their earnings owing to the time that they spent away for the World cup. Effects can be seen on the pitch, too, and both Hope and Arsenal have reported a noticeable impact on the fitness of, and injuries to, players. That is not acceptable, but it encapsulates the problems facing the game.

Current success, therefore, comes in spite of the structure, rather than as a result of it, which for me is where the real challenge lies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has said, no one can question the dedication and commitment of our players, or of the millions of women and girls who participate every year. However, what more could have been achieved with greater resources and support? How can we build upon our success and progress in order to take the game to the next level and to ensure excellence at all levels? We need a sustained approach to the domestic league game, which will hopefully become fully professional, so that role models can be provided to girls and women who want to play.

The women’s game is an example of what the DCMS is trying to achieve in sport. We want to ensure that we touch those who do not see sport as a route out from the situations exemplified by my hon. Friends. The women’s game has shown that it can provide such a route. I was pleased to speak with Brian Barwick last week, who shares our view that a commitment to women’s football is needed. I was delighted to hear that the FA intends to back those welcome sentiments with positive and timely action.

The women’s game is gaining increased corporate recognition within the FA and has an extra representative on the FA council. Its revised national game strategy has set stretching targets for the women’s game aiming for a 15 per cent. increase in women’s teams, a 50 per cent. increase in girl’s teams and 100 new female disability teams by 2012. However, we need to go further and quicker. The FA’s review of the women’s premier league will consider how it can become more competitive and how that, in turn, can contribute to the England team’s future success.

The review will also consider how we can create a more sustainable professional model, seeking greater investment from established men’s clubs as well as wider funding options to allow the women’s game to stand apart from the men’s game. The recently-established, highly-successful partnership between Leeds United Ladies and Leeds metropolitan university is a key model that I hope to visit early in the new year. The important point is that we do not want the women’s game to be just a mirror of the premier league or Football League, but to evolve independently and to be sustainable, so that we avoid incidents such as the Charlton incident—when Charlton were relegated, the women’s team were the first casualty.

Another key element of the FA’s work is the ongoing assessment of mixed football. The FA is conducting a season-long trial allowing over-11s to play in mixed teams. We shall await the outcomes of this trial before considering further rule changes.

Finally, the FA is committed to reviewing the resources provided for the England senior women’s team as part of the FA’s strategy review, which is due to be published early in 2008. I also welcome the work of the Professional Footballer’s Association, which has given membership to female footballers in order to support them in the national team and to encourage the women’s game more generally.

This has been a timely debate and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central for raising it. A lot more work needs to be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South is on the taskforce and I know that she will keep the pressure on to ensure that we deliver what we want to achieve. I thank hon. Members who participated in today’s debate. We look forward to successful women’s football at all levels.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.