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Commons Chamber

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 10 January 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 10 January 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Second Degrees

1. What Government policy is on the provision of funding for those seeking to gain second degrees; and if he will make a statement. (177246)

We have asked the funding council to redeploy, by 2010-11, £100 million of the £329 million that currently goes to support students studying for equivalent and lower qualifications. This will provide an opportunity for some 20,000 full-time equivalent students to enter higher education for the first time or to progress to a higher level who would otherwise have been turned away.

My right hon. Friend is aware that many of those seeking to obtain second degrees are women intending to return to work after taking time off to look after children, people who have lost employment and are seeking to retrain, or those who have a first degree that is not relevant to the employment that they need to acquire. Does he accept in principle that the Government should provide support to such groups?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Although the Government have made clear their desire to reprioritise some of the funding to those who have never had the chance to go to university, we are also protecting for equivalent or lower qualification funding foundation degrees, which are a major route of vocational retraining, and a list of exempt, strategic and vulnerable subjects that are important to the economy and are, therefore, most likely to provide employment opportunities to a woman who is retraining. Even when the changes have been implemented, there will be many routes available to the women whom my hon. Friend describes who need to re-educate at a higher education level.

The three universities nearest my constituency, Keele, Birmingham and Wolverhampton, have real concerns about the proposals. Unless the Government do a U-turn—there is no shame in that; they have done many before—there will be a detrimental impact on all the students, all the staff and, in particular, the budgets of those universities. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) rightly pointed out the other night that the impact on Wolverhampton university’s budget would be equivalent to £2.5 million worth of cuts. Is that acceptable?

I do not accept the figures that have been presented as a realistic prediction. Even if one set aside the transitional protection, which means that no institution will lose in cash terms over three years, the figures ignore the fundamental point that no money is being lost to higher education. The £100 million that is being reprioritised will be available for students who have not otherwise had the chance to go to university, so the universities that say they will lose money are effectively saying that they do not believe that they can recruit a single additional student from the vast pool of people who have never been in higher education. In reality, all those institutions are already recruiting such students successfully. They simply need to build on the efforts that they have already made. We are clear that we need to provide the transitional protection that enables those institutions to adjust the ways in which they work to make sure that that happens.

Since the Open university is a UK-wide institution, does the Government’s policy have implications for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Has the Secretary of State discussed the matter with his counterparts in the devolved Administrations?

The proposals that we make affect the funding of English students. With reference to the interest that exists in the devolved Administrations, the most important answer is the one that I gave in response to the previous question. We are making sure that we have put in place the transitional protection and the support for relevant courses to ensure that important universities such as the Open university are able to recruit additional students, change their way of working, come through strongly and deliver the education that is needed. There is no reason why any student who might be planning to go from Scotland in the future should fear that the open university that they wish to attend will be damaged by our proposals.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his powers of persuasion with the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), who was one of the 63 Labour MPs who signed the original motion criticising the Government’s policy but voted against the very motion that she had signed. She is a Member for a Scottish constituency, where the policy that she now supports—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should ask a supplementary question, not question the motives of another hon. Member: put the question to the Minister.

May I follow the Secretary of State’s previous response and invite him to use his excellent powers of persuasion to argue that his policy should apply in Scotland as well?

I, unlike the hon. Gentleman, respect the devolution settlement and believe that it is important. It is not my job to persuade another devolved Administration to adopt particular policies. However, as reference has been made to the debate earlier this week, I point out that it has not escaped the attention of many people—including, I am sure, many members of the Open University Students Association—that the Opposition motion did not oppose the principle behind our proposals. A number of my hon. Friends signed the early-day motion, but Tuesday’s debate was about securing the interests of the institutions that would be affected by the change. The measures that I have set out secure the future of those institutions, and my right hon. and hon. Friends who supported the Government on Tuesday were right to do so.

That was a very complacent answer. I invite the Secretary of State to confirm that Universities UK, the Open university, Birkbeck, the university heads of pharmacy, Million Plus, the National Union of Students, the University and College Union and the CBI criticise his policy. Will he confirm that he has even united The Guardian and the Church of England in opposition to his policy? I applaud him for creating such a broad coalition, but I thought that the new Prime Minister wanted to create broad coalitions in favour of his policies, not against them. Can he identify a single serious body in the world of higher education that supports his policy?

One of the responsibilities of government, which I accept, is that sometimes one takes difficult decisions that are widely criticised. It is true that not everyone accepted our decision to prioritise opportunities for people who never had the chance to go to university. In Tuesday’s debate, not a single voice among Conservative Members was raised on behalf on people who have never had a chance to go to university, which tells hon. Members everything they need to know about the Conservative party.

Of those studying at the Open university, 25 per cent. are doing science, maths or technology courses. The Prime Minister recently said that science, innovation and technology are crucial to any advanced industrial economy. Why is the Minister planning to make it harder for undergraduates to study those very subjects?

The answer is that those STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects are among the list of protected courses in the proposals on which the Higher Education Funding Council for England has consulted. We have yet formally to receive HEFCE’s advice on its consultation and to respond to it, but I entirely share the point that has been made. We need to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to study the disciplines that are important to the economy.

I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on persuading 63 of his colleagues to vote with him on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the higher education sector remains unconvinced that this is a sensible policy, particularly in its impact on certain students whom the Government want to attract into higher education. Will he belatedly now undertake a full equalities impact study on the impact on women, older students and poorer students, and, to allow room for that study, delay implementation until 2009 when the wide-ranging review of higher education is scheduled to take place?

It was not my powers of persuasion on Tuesday but the fact that the hon. Gentleman, whom I welcome again to his post today, spent most of his speech reading out the briefing for Labour Members of Parliament that—

That was the turning point. That was what they found persuasive.

The Department intends to conduct a full equalities impact assessment of the entire system of higher education funding when the relevant decisions have been taken. That is the right way to handle that important matter.

Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is a fundamental principle of our higher education system. It is vital that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and voice controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy. A definition of academic freedom setting out this principle is included in the model articles of government for higher education institutions. We expect all institutions to include such a provision, protecting academic freedom, in their governing documents.

How could such a definition be used to help combat the growth, such as it is, of extremism on university campuses, where surely, of all places, intolerance of any kind, particularly intellectual intolerance, should not be allowed to flourish?

I very much agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s question. I recently gave a major lecture on the importance of academic freedom; I argued that within such freedom lies one of the most powerful means at our disposal to refute violent extremist views on campus and promote a cohesive community. I strongly believe that academics must use the tools of their trade to expose the faulty logic and flawed arguments of those in favour of violent, extremist solutions.

The Minister will be aware from Adjournment debates of my interest in this subject, and he will know that there is statutory protection for freedom of speech on university campuses. If a lawful meeting, approved by university authorities and the police, takes place and there is a demonstration against it, does he agree that the police have a duty to ensure that the lawful meeting can go ahead, rather than be disrupted by demonstrators? Demonstrators would have the right to demonstrate, but not to prevent a meeting’s right to freedom of speech.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he and I have discussed such issues in the House before. He, I or other people might find a whole range of views objectionable and disagree fundamentally with them, but individuals have the right to express such views at a higher education institution as long as they are within the law. That is why the Government do not support a blanket no-platform policy. The most effective way to counter and challenge views with which we fundamentally disagree is by open, rational argument.

The House is well aware of the danger of extremism on university campuses, and we understand that the Government are shortly to publish guidelines on the monitoring of extremist activity at our universities. What obligations and duties over and above those required of an ordinary UK citizen will be imposed on academics to report the activities of students?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not pre-empt guidance that we will shortly publish. Nevertheless, we published guidance last year on helping institutions to secure the safety of their students. Clearly, if illegal activities are taking place, it is incumbent on any responsible citizen to deal with them and report them.

Lifelong Learning

3. What assessment he has made of the effect that withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower qualifications will have on lifelong learning. (177248)

7. What assessment he has made of the effect that withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower qualifications will have on lifelong learning. (177254)

We are not cutting funding to higher education; in fact, funding has been and is increasing significantly. Our decision is the right one for lifelong learning. It directs funds to those who most need them and is a fairer way to spend public money. It is the best way of making progress towards the target that 40 per cent. of the working-age population should have a higher-level qualification.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer and the Secretary of State’s at the beginning. The Secretary of State referred to the full assessment that will be made as part of the review of higher education funding. Would it not be more sensible to delay the decision on the withdrawal of funding until that assessment had taken place? However persuasive Ministers were to their colleagues, they have not managed to persuade any of the institutions, including the university of Gloucestershire, which has written to me expressing great concern about the issue. If the Ministers’ case was so sound, surely they would be able to use rational argument to persuade their colleagues in higher education?

I do not believe that there is a case for delay. Were we to delay, the alternative critique would be that we were not allowing institutions sufficient time to plan for the new system. Interestingly, as the Secretary of State said earlier, the Conservative party did not oppose our policy in our debates earlier this week. It offered principled opposition for just one year—until the 2009 commission. With respect, that is not really principled opposition, but opportunism.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s characteristic good humour, we still do not know why the 63 Labour MPs who signed early-day motion 317 voted against an identical motion on Tuesday evening. Will the Minister explain? Does he agree that it adds to public cynicism?

I do not believe that that is the case at all. [Laughter.] Forgive me—perhaps it is not a surprise, but I do not agree with that. There was a request for reassurance that institutions will be able to cope with this pace of change, and we have set out very clearly, in detailed terms, the protections that will be available to enable them to do so. That is why people are being, and will be, reassured.

Was it not the case on Tuesday night that neither of the conservative parties defending the status quo opposed the principle of this, nor did they make any constructive alternative proposals on the way forward? In my constituency, 82 per cent. of constituents have never been to university, some have never been anywhere near a university, and some do not even know what a university is. If their children and grandchildren are to have a better chance in life than they did, this transfer of funds is an essential first step.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was he who pointed out in the debate earlier this week that we heard not one word from the Opposition about the importance of targeting people in our communities who are not yet at first degree level. Six million adults in the workplace have the equivalent of A-level qualifications but have not yet progressed to degree level. I believe that they are our first priority in public expenditure.

Doubtless one of the tools in the tool box that the Secretary of State used magically to convert the 86 Labour Members who signed my early-day motion was to convince them about all the exemptions regarding students currently studying for ELQ qualifications. Will he acknowledge that those exemptions account for just 4.8 per cent. of students currently studying for ELQs at the Open university? If he does not acknowledge that, will he, as he has clearly considered the matter, tell me exactly what percentage of students will be exempt?

The hon. Gentleman has bandied about several statistics this week. Earlier this week, he gave a fanciful figure about the financial impact on the Open university. The merit of his argument is not helped by exaggeration. We strongly believe that, with the protections that are in place, open institutions such as the Open university and Birkbeck are best placed to reap the rewards of the growth that we are proposing.

Speaking as somebody who tutored in the Open university when it was first established, I believe there has always been a healthy mixture of people without academic qualifications and those seeking to adapt and improve their academic qualifications. Setting one group against the other threatens to undermine one of the few lasting achievements of that Labour Government.

If one had asked Jennie Lee in 1966 whether she thought that a founding core element of the mission of the Open university was to provide degrees for people who already have them, I do not think that she would have recognised that description of its central purpose. In the hon. Gentleman’s party, money always grows on trees, but in government one has to make choices and set priorities, and I believe that the interests of those who are not yet at first degree level come first.

When the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) raised the issue of women returning to work, the Secretary of State said there were many avenues for them. The group of women who find it most difficult to get back into work after having children is that of women who have a first degree. Can the Minister go further by guaranteeing that those women will not be penalised by his proposals, and will he acknowledge their important role in the future of our economy?

I am indeed concerned about the interests of women. Of the 20 million adults within the workplace who do not have a first degree, 10 million are women. As the Secretary of State explained, women who already have a first degree will be able to take a vocational foundation degree, which is in many senses the most effective way to retrain, and to apply for one of the strategically important and vulnerable exempted subjects. They will be able to consider those avenues, and that will help them to retrain and reskill.

Science

4. If he will increase financial support for science in the north-west and if he will make a statement. (177249)

The science budget is not allocated on a regional basis. However, it will grow over the next three years from £3.4 billion this year to £4 billion in 2010-11. Universities in the north-west are well placed to share in that growth.

Is the Minister aware of the potential damage that will be caused by the Government’s reduction in support for academic research in science and its impact on Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy, including Jodrell Bank observatory, one of the world’s leading astronomical centres, which last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Lovell telescope? Will he review urgently the £80 million shortfall in research funding to prevent damage to the United Kingdom’s research capacity and effectiveness in physical science, and to its international reputation?

It might help the House if I put a couple of facts on record. The budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council is going up over the next three years by 13.6 per cent.—an increase of £185 million over the budgetary period. The STFC will spend £1.9 billion during that three-year period, a significant proportion of which will be spent in the north-west. Like other research councils, the STFC has to make some difficult decisions, and it has to decide what its priorities should be. The Government are concerned about the health of all the disciplines, which is one of the reasons we have asked Research Councils UK to undertake a series of reviews of the health of the disciplines, starting with physics. Bill Wakeham will lead that review, and its terms and references have been scoped out.

The noble Lord Sainsbury of Turville created three important science sites in Britain at Harwell, near Oxford, where the diamond synchrotron project is now operating, and one at Daresbury in Cheshire, which serves all the northern universities. Is my hon. Friend aware that 300 to 400 jobs—three quarters of the staff at the Daresbury site—are at risk due to the £80 million shortfall in the STFC budget? I recognise what my hon. Friend says about significant increases in the STFC budget, but it appears to have been badly handled in this financial year.

The Government remain absolutely committed to developing Daresbury and Harwell as sites and innovation campuses. Figures have been quoted in some of the press in the north-west about potential job losses, and I say in response that for a number of years there have been plans to close the second generation light source, or SRS, and some redundancies will be associated with that. Because of the difficult decisions the STFC has had to make, it has announced a voluntary redundancy programme for all its sites, not just Harwell, but Daresbury and in Scotland as well. It will be some time before the pattern of voluntary redundancies becomes clear. I do not think that it is right to say that there is a definite figure for job losses at Daresbury or anywhere else. The Government will, of course, continue to monitor the situation closely.

Dr. Brian Cox of Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy has said:

“Scientific research is not a luxury, it is a necessity”.

I am concerned that most of the cuts that will occur as a result of the £80 million shortfall will not be to major facilities, but to small grants going to physics and astrophysics departments, not only in the north-west, but throughout the country. What assurances can the Minister give that that bedrock of blue skies research in physics and astrophysics, which brought us things such as the MRI scanner, will be protected?

I agree with Dr. Brian Cox that scientific research is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity, and in the north-west a great deal of world-class scientific research is conducted. During the past few weeks, the university of Liverpool have been developing a model that can predict the risk of any person developing lung cancer in a five-year period. The university of Manchester, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, has discovered a key process that may be involved in the spread of cancer, which could lead to new treatments to stop 80 to 90 per cent. of cancers in their tracks. A great deal of research into other matters, too, is being undertaken at north-west universities. As I said earlier, the budgets of all research councils have grown—for example, the STFC budget has increased by 13.6 per cent. and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s budget has increased significantly. However, it is up to research councils to determine their priorities, based on their best assessment of the science. There will be change because we live in a changing world and difficult decisions have to be taken, but it is best if those best placed to make the judgments are allowed to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and other hon. Members have demonstrated the effects around the country of the £80 million deficit in the science budget. The problems are also manifesting themselves internationally through our potential withdrawal from the linear collider project among others. The Minister, given his responsibility, must have some interest in our embarrassing withdrawal. Doubtless, he shares some of the embarrassment, but does he accept any responsibility for the problems that are affecting our international reputation?

I have a deep and abiding interest in science and the ability of our science base to contribute to our economic prosperity and social well-being in future. I passionately believe that it is vital to continue to invest in science. That is one of the reasons for the Government’s doubling the science budget in the past 10 years. It will triple by 2010-11.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at some of the facts: the STFC’s budget is increasing by 13.6 per cent. and the overall science budget is increasing from £3.4 billion to £4 billion. Yes, difficult decisions must be made. On particle physics, the STFC says that its priority is CERN—I believe that that is right and that it will be recognised as such by the scientific community.

Adult Apprenticeships

We have announced that, for the first time, funding will be targeted specifically at expanding apprenticeships for adults aged over 25. That will mean 30,000 additional such apprenticeships costing £90 million over the next three years.

Unemployment among the over-25s—the very group at which adult apprenticeships are targeted—is double the national average in large areas of the north-east of England. Does my hon. Friend take that into consideration when allocating resources?

The north-east was the first area that I visited to look at apprenticeships. My hon. Friend is right that unemployment remains a problem in the north-east, certainly in his constituency. I want to reassure him that one of the criteria for ensuring that we get extra adult apprenticeships is linking them to the unemployed as a priority group.

Ministers have said that impartial advice on adult apprenticeships is available from learndirect and the next steps agency, which are both operated by the Learning and Skills Council. The difficulty is that the LSC is almost invisible in constituencies such as mine. What qualitative research is the Department undertaking to ascertain the LSC’s success at engaging with employers, especially small and medium-sized employers? All the Department’s laudable schemes will be as nothing if there is no connection between the LSC and local employers.

We must recognise that there has been an increase in apprenticeships, led by the Learning and Skills Council. However, we should also acknowledge that we set up the apprenticeship review precisely to consider issues about the national leadership and profile of apprenticeships and their relevance to medium-sized and smaller employers.

Ministerial questions and answers are often characterised by spin and bombast. I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary will answer a straightforward and short question. A few weeks ago, on 21 November, the Prime Minister said that there were 250,000 apprentices. Just before Christmas, as the Under-Secretary knows, official figures were released detailing whether apprenticeship figures had gone up or down. Do they show that the number of apprentices at level 2 and level 3 is greater or less than the number that the Prime Minister cited in November? I have the figures here, in case the Under-Secretary does not.

And the hon. Gentleman talks about bombast and spin! He knows that when we talk about apprentices, what is important as a statement of fact is the number of apprentices starting and then completing. Apprenticeships last for different periods across the country. They are not like university courses; they do not start in September and end three years later in June. They start at different times. I can confirm that the average number over the past three years is 250,000. I have to say that when we inherited apprenticeships in 1997, there was no inspection and the completion rate was less than 25 per cent. We therefore make no apology for ensuring quality and ensuring that some employers and providers are not in the system, which accounts for the drop most recently.

Learning and Skills Council

I last met Mark Haysom, the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, on 12 December. Ministers in my Department regularly meet the LSC chief executive as part of the overall accountability and performance framework.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s reply. As he will know, the predecessor of the Learning and Skills Council was the training and enterprise council. In North Yorkshire there were good relations between businesses and the local TEC. I now find that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned, the Learning and Skills Council tends to be invisible to local businesses. What plans does the Secretary of State have to encourage the LSC to engage positively with local businesses to sell the skills and business training that it offers?

A number of different measures are being taken forward. First, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced over the Christmas recess that LSC funding for small and medium-sized enterprises for management training and training to understand their skills needs will increase from £4 million to £30 million. That gives the LSC a vastly increased budget with which to offer a practical and useful service to those businesses that want to understand their skills needs.

Secondly, as our response to the Leitch report made clear, we are keen to encourage the development of local employment and skills boards, as is the LSC, which will bring together training providers and employers locally to create a forum in which to discuss with the LSC how its funding is used in that area. We want that bottom-up influence on the use of LSC funding to grow in the years to come, because I acknowledge that, in the process of driving up standards in education—for example, through the improvement in the completion of apprenticeships, which is one of the LSC’s real achievements—the LSC has at times been felt to be insensitive to local needs. We recognise that, and so does the chief executive of the LSC. I hope that in the years ahead the hon. Lady will see the sort of flexibility that she is looking for.

The answer is that the Government need a mechanism to distribute the record sums of funding to deliver adult education. The amount of funding going to adult skills over the next three years will increase by 17 per cent. That will cover everything from basic numeracy and literacy to level 2 and level 3 qualifications and Train to Gain. The question for the Government is always whether every one of those decisions should be taken directly by Ministers or somebody working directly for them.

Well, my hon. Friend expresses the view that that should always be the case, but I think that there are strong advantages in keeping some distance between the practical day-to-day decisions taken locally and Ministers. Two Opposition Members have today talked about the need to ensure that funding is available locally. Some degree of separation between Ministers and those funding decisions is desirable. That separation should not be total, nor should the arrangements always be exactly the same as they are today; however, I am not sure that we would be better served by simply having such a huge sum of money administered by Departments and Ministers.

Apprenticeships

8. What recent discussions his Department has had on the availability of apprenticeships; and if he will make a statement. (177255)

Alongside announcing investment of more than £1 billion in apprenticeships, we are introducing a new national online matching service. We will publish the outcomes of our review of apprenticeships early this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response and I welcome the expansion in the number of apprenticeships. Along with that review will come further development. My constituents in Gillingham and Rainham will undoubtedly benefit from apprenticeships. I am worried, however. As this is a regeneration area where much work has been done on identifying shortfalls in skills opportunities and where we need to attract different business sectors, will the Minister ensure that his work matches the provision of services with the expectations identified through other work in other Departments and through local partnerships?

My hon. Friend is right. His area is a growth area requiring substantial housing development over the forthcoming period and the Olympics are not far away, so we need to ensure that our sector skills councils work in tandem with the apprenticeships scheme to produce growth in sectors such as construction across the piece. In respect of big national schemes such as housing, it is important for local adults and young people to come in, secure apprenticeships and benefit the local area.

In answer to the main question and in the earlier exchange on adult apprenticeships, the Minister made much of the quantity of apprenticeships put in place by the Government. Will he give more emphasis to considerations of quality—not just having an inspection regime, but, more importantly, ensuring that our current apprenticeships are relevant for the global skills that will be required for the decades ahead?

Yes. Key to ensuring quality is inspection, which I have to tell the hon. Gentleman did not exist before. It is also key to ensure completion of apprenticeships, which has increased from below 25 per cent. to 63 per cent.—another achievement. It is also important that employers are confident in our apprenticeships, so I was pleased to hear Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, saying:

“I am a huge fan of apprenticeships because of the benefits they bring to the individual and business”.

Being an apprentice does not mean only learning a trade in a certain discipline; it provides good discipline in many things that affect people’s livelihoods. I would like the Minister to recognise the status of the time-served apprentice, whether female or male. Once that is established, people in this country will be as attracted to apprenticeships as people are in such countries as Germany.

My hon. Friend puts the case brilliantly. It is important to ensure that this group of young people has the same status in our society, frankly, as graduates. That is what we are seeking to achieve in the apprenticeship review, as we understand that, in the end, an apprentice is mentored and assisted in routine, discipline and dedication, which are skills that parents across the country want for their young people. We must ensure that we celebrate the success of these young people, which is exactly what we will seek to achieve in the months ahead.

Open University

10. If he will make a statement on his Department’s proposals for funding for the Open university in 2008-09. (177257)

Funding for individual universities is for the Higher Education Funding Council to determine on the basis of the grant letter that we expect to issue in the near future. We have already announced that for higher education as a whole, there will be a funding increase of 2.5 per cent. in real terms in each of the next three years. The Government’s priorities, including employer engagement, widening participation and more opportunities for mature learners who have so far missed out on higher education, will create excellent opportunities for the Open university over the coming years.

Notwithstanding his answer, the Secretary of State knows that his proposals for equivalent or lower qualifications will deprive the Open university of a stream of funding. I have read the report of the debate on this subject, but could he enlighten me as to where I can find the body of evidence that justifies the changes that he has proposed and that shows new students are being deprived by the current arrangements? When will there be proper consultation on a proposal that appears to have been introduced without any discussion with colleges such as Birkbeck, or with the Open university?

The evidence can be found in the Leitch report, which clearly described the need to increase the number of graduates in the work force by 2020. That means that people who would not otherwise have the chance to go to university can do so. The evidence is based on international comparisons—comparisons with what our major competitors are doing—and tells us where we need to be in terms of the skills of our work force in order to be able to compete internationally. Certainly there is evidence of the potential for that, as was mentioned earlier in respect of the number of people who are already qualified to level 3—those who have reached the normal level for entry to university, but have not had the chance to go there. The challenge—and I do not shy away from it—is to encourage higher education institutions to reach out to that group of students, and I believe that they will succeed in doing that.

Topical Questions

Last week, in pursuit of my departmental responsibilities, I launched a consultation on how the provision of English for speakers of other languages can make the biggest possible contribution to community cohesion and integration by prioritising assistance to those with a long-term commitment to building their lives in this country.

Given that learning in retirement has been shown to have health benefits—prolonging life and as a consequence reducing the burdens on our national health service and social service care budgets—will the Secretary of State or his ministerial team look again at the redefinition of the vocational courses currently provided by institutions such as the Sutton college of liberal arts and lifelong learning in my constituency? The narrowing of the definition has meant that courses that many older people have come to love, rely on and enjoy over a number of years are being priced out of their pockets, and that is having knock-on effects on costs in the health service and elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I will continue to defend the way in which the Government have concentrated resources on building up the skills and qualifications of people of working age for reasons set out in the Leitch report, but education that is undertaken purely for fulfilment, enlightenment and general personal development—another purpose of education, which is important throughout life—matters to the Government as well. Next week I shall launch a consultation on how informal adult education of that sort can be developed in the years to come. Yesterday I consulted the University of The Third Age, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the BBC, Help the Aged and the association representing museums and galleries—a wide variety of organisations. I think that this is an important challenge for the Government and for society as a whole, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will participate in the consultation when it is under way.

At the end of November, our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched a multi-million pound plan for the regeneration area of the Thames Gateway. An integral part of that plan was the skills, training and opportunities sector. What progress has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made with the commitment to deliver three new campuses throughout the gateway area? Will he accept an invitation to visit—

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue because the plans for new campuses are not only exciting, but some elements of them are unique, particularly the proposal that all students who gain a level 3 qualification be given the chance to progress to higher education. Progress is being made: the university of Essex in Southend had its first intake of undergraduates in September 2007, and further developments are in the pipeline. However, I would very much like to take up my hon. Friend’s invitation to visit the campuses that are in, or that serve, his area to see for myself the progress that is being made.

To follow on from the question of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), does the Secretary of State agree that colleges have an increasing role to play in the provision of vocational education? Many millions of pounds have been spent on the college in Macclesfield; it is part of the new learning zone, and it is very welcome and is doing a wonderful job. What increased support can the Secretary of State give to colleges, which exist to provide the skilled people this country needs for the future?

Part of the support is obviously the Government’s spending, which is increasing as I mentioned earlier: there will be a 17 per cent. increase in spending on adult skills over the next three years. Secondly, there is a major capital programme—more than £2 billion will be invested in the further education and training estate colleges, improving them to world-class standards to develop specialisation over the next three years. The hon. Gentleman did not ask his question in a partisan spirit, but I will point out that there was no capital programme for further education in 1997; we have already spent more than £2 billion on further education colleges, with another £2 billion to come in the years ahead.

T3. Will the Secretary of State outline what plans he has to advertise and promote the Government’s new and exciting package of student support, so that especially young people from families from which nobody has ever been to university respond, and do so before the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service deadline of just next week and therefore have an opportunity to access university education from September? (177273)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We have been running a major TV, radio and DVD advertising campaign to get across the benefits of the new system of student financial support. Indeed, last week we launched the First to Go campaign, targeting that one-third of young people from families from which nobody has previously gone to university. We must get across the fact that under the new system two-thirds of students will be eligible for non-repayable grants, which is in stark contrast to the system we inherited from the last Government.

T4. In the light of revelations that almost half the colleges on the Department’s list of approved providers for overseas students are bogus, what action will the Secretary of State take to deal with that, and does he agree that it is a very serious problem that adds to illegal immigration? (177274)

We need to get the balance right. Overseas students are a significant benefit to our universities and to the country; they are worth about £5 billion to the UK economy. However, we have to tackle illegal immigration. That is why we established the education and training register three years ago. Since then—I regard this as a virtue of the system—124 colleges have been removed from that register. We now conduct unannounced visits to institutions that wish to go on to the register, and I believe that the introduction of the new Australian points-based immigration system will give us greater powers to identify bogus colleges and remove them from the list.

T5. Men who live in Slough earn about £450 a week, yet men who work in Slough earn £550 a week on average. That is a reflection of the low skills levels of the residents I represent. They are working with local business to try to tackle that. A striking finding from the research we did with local businesses is that they want soft skills—they want people with a determination to learn. What can the Government do to help to promote soft skills, and enable ordinary people to get the kind of work that is available in Slough, which my constituents cannot access because of their lack of skills? (177275)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She rightly says that such skills are what employers are identifying—indeed, that was the first thing on the agenda of the new business council that the Prime Minister set up. We have asked the new Commission for Employment and Skills, led by Sir Mike Rake, to examine how we can improve on this issue. More than £1 million of funds within Train to Gain will be available for businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises in particular. Part of those funds will be able to be used by small businesses in particular, where managers and owners recognise a problem and want to deal with it. We are taking this matter seriously, and I suspect that the new commission will make proposals later this year.

T6. May I ask the Minister for Science and Innovation whether he has visited the survey ship James Cook? If he has not, will he make efforts to do so in order to lend his authority to the work that it does, using tools such as the remote submersible Isis, in exploring the under-sea ecology, and which through international co-operation is adding hugely to mankind’s knowledge of those environments? (177276)

I have not been on the James Cook, but I would be delighted to do so in the future. I am aware of some of the wonderful research work that it does. Obtaining a greater understanding of our oceans and of how climatic conditions are changing, as they are at the moment, is important in supporting the overall picture that we have on climate change. Ensuring that we get a better understanding and better predictive models is one of our important priorities.

Ministers have a job to do to explain away the decline in the number of apprenticeships. Perhaps less controversially, may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it is essential that future employers will want to take on the apprentices who have qualified? Can he give us the assurance that he will pay particular attention to the destinations of qualified apprentices and to their being able to obtain long-term employment, rather than merely being able to complete the course?

It is obviously important that apprenticeships lead to secure employment. Of course, the crucial part of an apprenticeship is that an employer knows that the individual has a solid grounding in the world of work, as well as the particular technical and vocational skills that go with it. The apprenticeship review that I hope we will publish in the fairly near future will set out how we strengthen the leadership of the apprenticeship programme. I hope that it will find ways of demonstrating more clearly that the programme is delivering what we want, which is an increase in the number of people both going on to apprenticeships and successfully completing them. Those are clearly the real-world outcomes that we need to be able to measure and report on.

T8. Can my right hon. Friend tell us about the progress that has been made in respect of diplomas as a means of entry to universities? Specifically, what is the attitude of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to diplomas? What discussions has he had with the Russell group of universities about their attitude to diplomas? (177278)

My hon. Friend raises an exceedingly important point. If diplomas are to work, as we strongly believe they can and will, we must ensure that they are seen as a legitimate entry means to university. The recent decision by UCAS on the tariff for the diploma is an encouraging example. The participation of the higher education sector in the development of the diplomas is crucial, and we need to ensure that people who take the diplomas can see them as a means of progressing right the way through the education system to university.

T9. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the concern in the science community, in particular the physics sector, about the allocation of science funding, not least from the volume of questions asked by hon. Members this morning. I am sure that many will welcome the review of science funding announced by the Secretary of State. I am not certain that institutions that have invested heavily in physics, such as Durham university in my constituency, will be comforted by simply referring the matter to the research councils. Is there more that the Government could do to protect physics research in those excellent institutions, so that they remain economically competitive in terms of international research? (177280)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is important to make a big statement of principle on this issue. The Haldane principle, established many years ago, says that Ministers should not intervene directly in the funding decisions of research councils. That is to protect the autonomy of research councils in deciding where research should take place. When the Science and Technology Facilities Council made its proposals, despite its above-inflation increase in grant, to reduce certain areas of physics expenditure, it would not have been appropriate to breach the Haldane principle, to step in and to take money away from the Medical Research Council and give it to the STFC. However, because of the concerns, I did my job by asking Professor Bill Wakeham, the vice-chancellor of Southampton university, to produce a report on the health of physics as a discipline, which will consider our overall funding of physics, including those areas that have attracted controversy. As the Secretary of State, I have done what it is right for me to do and—

In the light of an earlier answer, do the cases of Frank Ellis and David Coleman not show the extent to which academic freedom is under threat, and how fragile it is in this country? Does the Secretary of State agree that academics should have the freedom to explore unpopular and unconventional views in universities of all places, and not be put off by the intolerant, illiberal and politically correct bullies?

When we compare academic freedom in this country to that in many other countries, we find it is very robust and at the heart of a successful university system. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman that academic freedom is a key tool in tackling violent, extremist ideology, and we need to push that forward strongly.

UK Energy Policy

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
(Mr. John Hutton)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on UK energy policy. Our strategy, as set out in our energy White Paper last year, is designed to achieve two objectives—first, to ensure that the UK has access to secure energy supplies and, secondly and together with other countries, to tackle the global challenge of climate change.

The competition for energy resources is increasing. Access to supplies across the world is becoming increasingly politicised. As a result, the cost of energy is rising. And few who have been exposed to the science of climate change now doubt the immediacy of the threat to our planet. As the UK shifts from being a net energy exporter to a net importer, our ability to source a diverse range of secure, competitively priced energy supplies will be one of the most important challenges that we face as a country—affecting our economy, our environment and, ultimately, our national security.

Our strategy to manage these risks is based on three key elements, which are increasing energy efficiency and helping people and businesses make a real contribution to solving the challenges we face; using the widest range of cleaner energy sources; and ensuring that the UK is as energy independent of any one supplier, country or technology as possible. Let me touch on each of these.

We have already set out the measures that we are taking on energy efficiency. These could result in savings of between 25 tonnes and 42 million tonnes of CO2 by 2020. We will keep these measures under review, going further and faster wherever we can. We are also planning for the amount of UK electricity supplied from renewable sources to treble by 2015. The Energy Bill, published today, will strengthen the renewables obligation and help to speed up the deployment of an even greater share of energy from renewable sources. Offshore wind, wave and tidal power will all gain from that new approach.

The Government are also committed to funding one of the world’s first commercial-scale demonstrations of carbon capture and storage. CCS is a technology that has the potential to make a critical contribution to tackling climate change. Measures in the Energy Bill will enable that to move forward.

If we are to be as energy independent as possible, it is also vital, first, that we continue to press the case for energy market liberalisation in the EU, and secondly, that we look to maximise economic domestic energy production. Finally, we must ensure that energy companies have the widest range of options open to them when it comes to investment in new low-carbon power generation.

Over the next two decades, we will need to replace a third of the UK’s generating capacity, and by 2050 our electricity will need to be largely low-carbon, so we must be clear about the potential role of nuclear power. In October, we concluded a full and extensive consultation across the UK, seeking people’s views on whether new nuclear power should play a continuing role in providing Britain with the energy that it needs. Today I am publishing the Government’s response in the form of a White Paper alongside our analysis of the comments that we received. I can confirm that, having carefully considered the responses, the Government believe that new nuclear power stations should have a role to play in this country’s future energy mix alongside other low-carbon sources. The Government’s view is that it is in the public interest to allow energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations and that we should therefore take the active steps necessary to facilitate that.

Nuclear power has provided us with safe and secure supplies of electricity for more than half a century.

It is one of the few proven low-carbon technologies that can provide base load electricity. Nuclear power currently provides us with around 19 per cent. of our electricity requirements.

Nuclear power will help us to meet our twin energy challenges: ensuring secure supplies and tackling climate change. First, a continuing role for nuclear power will contribute to the diversity of our energy supplies. Secondly, it will help us meet our emissions reduction targets, as every new nuclear power station will save the same amount of carbon emissions as are generated by about 1 million households. The entire lifecycle emissions from nuclear power—from uranium mining through to waste management—are only between 2 and 6 per cent. of those from gas for every unit of electricity generated. Thirdly, nuclear power will reduce the costs of meeting our energy goals. Analysis of future gas and carbon price scenarios shows that nuclear is affordable and provides one of the cheapest electricity options available to reduce our carbon emissions. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Flynn must be quiet. It is unfair to the Secretary of State while he is making a statement to the House.

Our energy suppliers recognise that, and in a world of carbon markets and high fossil fuel prices, they recognise that nuclear power makes commercial sense. For those reasons, I do not intend to set some artificial cap on the proportion of electricity that the UK should be able to generate either from nuclear power or from any other source of low-carbon energy. That would not be consistent with our long-term national interest. Given that nuclear power is a tried and tested, safe and secure form of low-carbon technology, it would be wrong in principle to rule it out now from playing any role in the UK’s energy future.

Not surprisingly, however, some important concerns were expressed during the consultation about nuclear power. They fall in to four broad categories: safety and security, waste management, costs, and the impact of nuclear power on investment in alternative low-carbon technologies. Ensuring the safety and security of new nuclear provision will remain a top priority. Having reviewed the evidence put forward and the advice of independent regulators, we are confident that we have a robust regulatory framework. The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that our regulatory framework is mature, flexible and transparent, with highly trained and experienced inspectors.

However, it is right that we should work closely with the regulators to explore ways of enhancing their efficiency in dealing with new nuclear power stations. I am keen, therefore, to ensure that the UK has the most effective regulatory regime in the world. I believe that it could be a critical differentiator for the UK in securing access to international investment in new nuclear facilities. I have asked Dr. Tim Stone to take that work forward, alongside his continuing work on the financial arrangements regarding new nuclear power stations.

Secondly, during the consultation, many argued that a permanent solution for dealing with existing waste must be developed before new waste is created. We have considered the evidence fully, and our conclusion is that geological disposal is both technically possible and the right approach for managing existing and new higher-activity waste. It will be many years, of course, before a disposal facility is built, but we are satisfied that interim storage will hold waste from existing and any new power stations safely and securely for as long as is necessary. In addition, before development consents for new nuclear power station’s are granted, the Government will need to be satisfied that effective arrangements exist, or will exist, to manage and dispose of the waste that those stations will produce.

The third concern relates to cost. It will be for energy companies, not the Government, to fund, develop and build new nuclear power stations. That will include meeting the full costs of decommissioning and each operator’s full share of the waste management costs. The Bill includes provisions to ensure that, and transparency in the operation of the arrangements will be essential.

So in order to increase public and industry confidence, we will establish a new, independent body to advise on the financial arrangements to cover operators’ waste and decommissioning costs. The advice of that new body will be made public. The nuclear White Paper published today sets out a clear timetable for action to enable the building of the first new nuclear power station, which I hope will be completed well before 2020. The Planning Bill will improve the speed and efficiency of the planning system for nationally significant infrastructure, including new nuclear power stations, while giving local people a greater opportunity to have their say. A strategic siting assessment, to be completed by 2009, will help identify the most suitable sites for new build. We expect that applications will focus on areas in the vicinity of existing nuclear facilities. Work is already under way on assessing the safety of the new generation of reactors.

Finally, we must work with our EU partners to strengthen the EU emissions trading scheme to give potential investors confidence in a continuing carbon market. We look forward to the Commission’s proposals later this month. I remain firmly of the view that there should and will be room for all forms of low-carbon power technologies to play a role in helping the UK meet its energy objectives in the future. Nuclear power can be only one aspect of our energy mix as, on its own, it cannot resolve all the challenges that we face. Meeting those challenges requires the full implementation of our energy and climate change strategy, with nuclear taking its place alongside other low-carbon technologies. The Energy Bill will ensure that we have a legislative framework enabling all of those technologies to make a positive contribution to our future requirements for cleaner and more secure energy.

Giving the go-ahead today that new nuclear power should play a role in providing the UK with clean, secure and affordable energy is in our country’s vital long-term interest. I therefore invite energy companies today to bring forward plans to build and operate new nuclear power stations. Set against the challenges of climate change and security of supply, the evidence in support of new nuclear power stations is compelling. We should positively embrace the opportunity of delivering this important part of our energy policy.

I commend this statement to the House.

May I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement?

There has never been a more pressing time for responsible policy making. Carbon emissions are changing our climate, we are paying $100 for a barrel of oil and we are facing a clear and massive energy shortfall. It is our duty to set political scrapping aside so that we can make sure that we do what is right for the country. So let me make it absolutely clear that, where we can find agreement with the Government, we are up for it and we will reach that agreement.

Our vision on nuclear is clear: we must refine the planning system, set a price for carbon to establish a long-term climate for investment, and ensure that there is clarity on waste and decommissioning. On no account, however, should there be any kind of subsidy for nuclear power. Judging by what the Secretary of State has just said, our position is, by and large, similar to the Government’s. If business wants to invest in new nuclear power stations on that basis, it should be free to do so, and it should know that the investment climate will remain stable under any Conservative Government. Any such investment must not be allowed to detract from unrelenting effort to improve efficiency and to encourage renewable technologies, microgeneration, decentralised energy and feed-in tariffs.

The first of our concerns—and those of investors—is the apparent weakness of our national skills base. Is it not the case that the nuclear installations inspectorate cannot find, recruit, train and retain the number of skilled employees it requires to assess and approve the different types of reactor for which licences are sought? Is it the Secretary of State’s policy to require the NII simply to accept or reject the proven designs submitted to it, or will it be empowered to reject the endless subsequent design adjustments that have so dogged the industry in the past?

Both the Government’s policy and ours is that there must be no subsidy. Although nuclear companies claim that they do not want subsidies, suspicions remain that the industry will end up asking for them, either through subsidised waste disposal or guaranteed off-take agreements. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the industry will not later request some form of subsidy?

Will the Secretary of State tell us more about the authority of the new advisory board that he intends to set up? How will it assess and confirm the honesty, accuracy and integrity of new-build projects, and might he not prefer to set up that board on a statutory basis?

On the question of waste, what do the Government mean by their reference to the “full share” of waste management costs rather than to the full costs of waste disposal? Who exactly will pay for what? On decommissioning, we accept that companies will set money aside, but how can the Government be confident that their economic modelling is correct, and what would happen if a nuclear company went bankrupt?

We need a long-term price on carbon, but the present carbon regime is weak. The EU emissions trading scheme is insufficiently robust. Does the Secretary of State agree with us that it needs to be underpinned by a possible carbon tax? In the spirit of the responsible approach that we wish to engender, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is illogical to continue with the climate change levy, which taxes nuclear, when a carbon regime should release nuclear from carbon penalties and affect only methods that create carbon?

We shall study with the greatest care the broader proposals set out in the White Paper and the Energy Bill. We note in passing that the Government appear to be putting no limit on the number of new nuclear power stations that might be built. We regret that the Government seem to have rejected feed-in tariffs, even for microgeneration, but we welcome—at least as a first step—their proposal to band the renewables obligation to give more balanced support to emerging technologies in a way that removes the perverse bias towards onshore wind and methane.

We are critical of the delay in respect of carbon capture and concerned about the contradictions in the Government’s policy. Britain was ahead of the game; now, it is not. How can the Government say that it is not their policy to pick one technology over another when they have done exactly that in determining the terms of their carbon capture competition?

Whatever happens to nuclear, it is clear that it is part of a much bigger picture. If we are to have secure, affordable and green energy in 20 years’ time, we must do much more to encourage energy efficiency, we must achieve a fundamental shift toward microgeneration and decentralised energy, and we must lead the world in taking advantage of renewable and new energy technology. Today’s statement is just one part of that process. The true test of the Government’s determination will be whether they continue to put together all the pieces of the energy jigsaw.

I broadly welcome what the hon. Gentleman says. All of us Labour Members will welcome what I hope is the end of the flip-flopping on nuclear policy that we have witnessed from the Opposition in recent months. [Interruption.] We probably need to move on. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the Planning Bill’s progress through the House, because it is a critical part of speeding up the introduction of low-carbon technologies. So far, his party has been lukewarm in its support for that legislation. We have set out a full, balanced and diverse energy policy that includes support for renewables and diversified energy systems. Nuclear will be one part of our policy in future, not the sum total of it.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific points about nuclear, including on reactor safety procedures. Of course, that is properly and responsibly a matter for the nuclear installations inspectorate, but clearly its decisions could have important financial implications for potential new nuclear investors. As it is a matter for the NII, I do not want to comment on any aspect of the safety and approval system. On his point about subsidy, there will not be a subsidy for new nuclear, and we have made that absolutely clear. As for the new body that he asked about, we will consider all the options. As I say, the Energy Bill is published today; its Committee stage will start in the next few weeks, and there will be plenty of opportunity to consider the argument then. He asked how the body would do its job. We will need to get good, decent, experienced people to serve on it, and I am sure that there will not be a shortage of people prepared to do that.

The hon. Gentleman asked what was meant by the “full share” of decommissioning costs. Each energy company that wants to operate a new nuclear power station will have to meet its full share of the cost of new nuclear waste. I do not think that that policy is unclear. Of course, what each company’s share will be needs to be resolved, because it will obviously depend on how many nuclear power stations that operator runs. There will be an opportunity later in the spring for us to consult fully on the details of the financial mechanisms that we are proposing. I hope that the broad principles will be available for the Committee considering the Energy Bill later next month.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the financial modelling for the economics of new nuclear. We have proceeded on a prudent, conservative basis—I hope that he will like that—in terms of understanding the modelling of nuclear economics in future. We have taken the best international evidence from the International Energy Agency and others to form the basis of our calculations. On carbon pricing, we are waiting to see new proposals from the Commission on the ETS. We will keep all our options open for the long term to make sure that investors have sufficient confidence that the ETS will work in the way that we want it to. There has to be a robust, increasing price for carbon; it is a pollutant, and we have to make sure that we regard CO2 in that way.

The hon. Gentleman raised his familiar arguments about feed-in tariffs and the renewables obligation. I am sure that there will be other occasions when we can consider the detail of those matters. Finally, I do not accept his view that the UK has slipped when it comes to carbon capture and storage. We are one of only three countries in the world to have signalled their willingness to invest and support the demonstration of a commercial-scale carbon capture and storage project. The others are the US and Norway. That puts the UK in a global leadership role; we are not losing ground on CCS.

There is much to welcome in the energy White Paper, and of course we cannot separate energy policy from the overriding need to tackle climate change, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been nothing to stop anyone coming forward with a suggestion for a nuclear power station in the past 20 years? He can understand why people will ask, “What has suddenly changed?” On carbon prices, is he talking about some form of carbon price guarantee? On subsidies, will he make it clear that the obscene windfall profits for generators from free carbon allocation needs to be looked into at some point?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all his years of service as a Minister in the Government. On his point about the ETS, we will have to wait and see what proposals come forward from the Commission later this month, but I have tried to put forward in the House today our view that we need a strengthening of the ETS. The issue of allocations and allowances will have to be looked at carefully as part of that.

My right hon. Friend’s more fundamental question was about what had changed. It is of course true that any company could have brought forward a proposal to open or operate a new nuclear power plant, but they would not do so unless there was a clear planning framework and a view from Government that such a plant could be an acceptable way forward. Today, that signal is being given, but it was not previously. That is why there have not been new applications for some considerable time. The other things that have changed are the science of climate change and the economics of nuclear power, to which I referred, including carbon markets. That is leading to a totally different situation.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, just in case we had not read it in the newspapers last week.

I am not clear about what the Secretary of State has just said. As the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) asked, what has changed? The Secretary of State said that, following a second sham consultation, the Government have come up with the answer that they first thought of, which is hardly a surprise. He said that the Government would now take the active steps necessary to facilitate new nuclear, but we are still not clear what they are. We still do not know how we will dispose of the waste. How are companies meant to invest with certainty, unless the Government give them guarantees and subsidies? Can he give us a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no subsidies at any stage of the entire process? Can he put that on the record?

Is there not a danger that new nuclear will lock us rigidly to a technology for the best part of a century, at a time when other technologies such as carbon capture and storage and renewables are evolving practically every day? Is not the danger that the technology will be obsolete by the time that we get the first, small amount of new nuclear power?

What about before 2020? We have an energy crisis now. Does he agree with his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), who said:

“It would have been foolish to announce…that we would embark on a new generation of nuclear power stations because that would have guaranteed that we would not make the necessary investment and effort in both energy efficiency and in renewables.”?—[Official Report, 24 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 32.]

She was right. Why does he not agree with his predecessor that going ahead with new nuclear inevitably crowds out renewables and energy efficiency, in terms of Government time, expertise, and manpower? Why are the Government so slow on such issues? Why are we producing half the renewable energy of the rest of Europe, when we have the resources to do far more?

What about fuel poverty? The Secretary of State did not mention it. Will the Energy Bill include anything on mandatory social tariffs? There are too many people in this country living in fuel poverty, and the statement offered them no hope. I cannot decide whether new nuclear is a white elephant or a red herring, but it clearly is not the answer to the energy problems that we face today.

I am saddened but not entirely surprised by that response. I am particularly disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not understand what I said in my statement. If he would like me to send him a copy with bolder type, so that he can understand it, I shall be happy to do so. It may be helpful if I cleared up one or two confusions under which he is labouring. We are not mandating the use of nuclear power.

Well then, obviously the hon. Gentleman has understood my statement. We are not giving planning permission today for new power stations, and we will not subsidise them; I have made that absolutely clear. If power companies want to invest in other forms of cleaner technology, there is obviously nothing stopping them doing so. Those are decisions that the energy operators or companies will make. It is transparent from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution that we in this House could benefit from some fresh thinking, instead of a rehash of all the old prejudices that have confused the debate for so long. We want open minds, not closed minds. I am all in favour of reducing emissions, and we can start with what comes out of the hon. Gentleman’s mouth.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement. It will be particularly welcomed in my constituency, the home of British Energy. May I draw his attention to the fact that thousands of jobs in Scotland are tied up in the nuclear industry? It is vital to the science, engineering and technology base of the Scottish economy. Will he use his persuasive powers to try to convince the Administration in Holyrood, led by the Scottish National party, of the error of their ways, and to make them understand the vitality of the industry and its importance in the energy equation?

On my right hon. Friend’s latter point, I shall certainly do that. We invited Scottish Ministers to support a Sewel motion in the Scottish Parliament to facilitate the operation of the energy clauses of the Bill on a UK-wide basis. That would have been sensible, because the clauses are designed to ensure that there is no subsidy going into the costs of nuclear waste decommissioning and disposal. It is a missed opportunity.

My right hon. Friend is right about the manufacturing consequences of the announcements that we are making today. There could be a renaissance in UK power engineering, with significant consequences in constituencies all over the United Kingdom. I hope that that is another reason why hon. Members will support what we are trying to do.

I am in no doubt that today’s statement from the right hon. Gentleman represents a very big step forward and a welcome one in progress towards building a new generation of nuclear power stations. In that context, I am particularly glad about the response of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), which underlines the fact that there is now broad cross-party support for the issue in the House, which is genuinely welcome. Another key test that the Trade and Industry Committee laid down in its report 18 months ago related to a carbon price. The Secretary of State referred to that in his response. There is not much in his statement about that, and there is not much in the documentation. Will he repeat to the House his assurance that if the second phase proposals to the Commission are not strong enough, he will take unilateral steps in the United Kingdom to provide a firm price for carbon?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he and his colleagues on the Select Committee are doing. I agree that if there is cross-party consensus on these matters, that would be a tremendously good thing for the long-term future of our country. In relation to carbon markets, the most sensible thing for us all to do is to wait and see what the Commission proposes. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will look carefully at those proposals. We do not rule out any option, as I said, but it is important that the carbon price is strengthened in subsequent phases of the emissions trading scheme. That will be important for the economics of nuclear, and will be the right signal for our approach to climate change.

My right hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that we will have to replace one third of our power plants by 2020 or so. Bearing in mind the existing published material, including that from the Health and Safety Executive, his Department and various other agencies, on the timetable for justification for site search, planning permission and so on, does he accept that it is unlikely that there will be any new nuclear power plant on stream by the time we have to replace that one third of our energy plant? Does he therefore accept that our concentration now should be on replacing that one third of energy with renewable energy, to make sure that that new one third of power plant is indeed low-carbon?

We need to do all those things. I tried to make it clear in my response to the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, that our argument today is not that nuclear can fix all the problems. That would clearly be the wrong argument, but we should not rule nuclear out because on its own it cannot meet all the challenges. My argument today is that it has a role to play. I do not believe that it is unlikely that there will be new nuclear power stations operating in the UK by the middle of the 2020s. It is likely that there will be several nuclear power stations operating by that stage. We should also remember that it is not just the 2020 target towards which we must aim our sights—it is 2050. Between 2020 and 2050 the challenge of responding to the science of climate change will intensify, not become easier to deal with. That is why it would be wrong in principle to rule out now one proven form of low- carbon technology.

I welcome the statement from the Minister and from our Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), and I look forward to being able to work on the progress of a Sizewell C. Does the Minister recognise that it will be much more difficult to do that if the second half of the Planning Bill is not changed? My constituents accept that the decision on the safety of nuclear power should be made here centrally, but when it comes to a discussion about the much needed road changes and so on for such a large construction, they want to have an inspector locally to whom they can put their case. If they do not, we will hold up the proposals to a degree that the right hon. Gentleman will find unimaginable. He must give local people direct influence, not hand the matter over to a quango. They want an inspector.

I welcome the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I had the good fortune to be in his constituency yesterday to look at Sizewell B, which is a phenomenal success story—probably the most successful pressurised water reactor in the world. It is coming towards the end of 445 days of full load capacity without a break. That is an extraordinary achievement, and I congratulate his constituents on it. His comments in relation to the Planning Bill will have been heard. The Bill is in Committee, and there will be an opportunity to consider the detail of that. As a point of information, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman does not need but others might, the Sizewell B inquiry took 340 days. It dealt with local planning issues for only 30 of those 340 days, so anyone who argues that the current system is defensible does not live in the real world.

Bearing in mind, first, that taxpayers will pay more for nuclear electricity to cover decommissioning costs and will still have to pay for any shortfall, which could run into billions; secondly, that taxpayers will have to pay the massive construction costs for storing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of highly radioactive waste; thirdly, that taxpayers will also be called on, if necessary, to guarantee a minimum price of carbon; and, fourthly, that the last round of nuclear build led to the country and taxpayers having to pay £5 billion to bail the nuclear industry out of bankruptcy, as well as £70 billion to deal with the waste, is not the whole nuclear project the mother of all white elephants?

No, it is not. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend takes that view. He raised a number of specific points about decommissioning and waste disposal. We all accept that the responsibility for dealing with the legacy waste from the Magnox and advanced gas-cooled reactors will occur on the balance sheet of Governments for some considerable time. That is right, and there is no point pretending otherwise. Clearly, taxpayers will be involved to that extent. My statement was about the future of nuclear power. In a nutshell, we should learn from what has happened, and we can do so. There is a different way of doing it. We should be open-minded about the future. I know that my right hon. Friend follows these arguments closely. For me, the science of climate change is changing my understanding of these matters. It is imperative in our national interest that we do not take a decision now that we would rue in future. To deny future generations the benefits of nuclear power would be entirely the wrong thing to do.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the response from my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). Is the Secretary of State aware that British Energy has recently objected to proposals to expand Lydd airport in my constituency, because of the effect that that might have on the existing nuclear power station at Dungeness and a possible future station on that site? In view of his statement today, will the right hon. Gentleman make representations to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to call in the airport application and hold a public inquiry, so that the effects of the airport proposals on the nuclear power station and on the local environment more generally can be subjected to independent public scrutiny?

I welcome the support from the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what we are trying to do. On his specific point about Lydd and the planning application, I am completely unaware of those issues, but as we say in the trade, I will cause inquiries to be made.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. Why on earth are we repeating the nuclear folly of the last years, when one power station was 14 years late, there were vast cost overruns, and £75 billion was required to manage the waste? The new thinking on waste is to bury it in a hole in the ground, which was the answer 40 years ago. I appeal to the Government to turn away from this atrocious decision and turn to the renewables, which are practical and cheap, especially marine power, which has long been neglected, tidal powers and the other marine powers, which are clean, non-carbon, practical, British and eternal?

We are making significant support available so that the renewable sources of energy that my hon. Friend mentioned can come to fruition. Through the renewables obligation, all of us are subsidising renewable power. It is the right thing to do. We are not subsidising nuclear. So I do not believe that what I said today will in any way crowd out from the energy mix of the UK in the future a proper and growing role for renewable power.

The Government seem to have rejected the idea of the feed-in tariff for the UK, but in Germany it has massively increased the amount of renewables. Will the Government at least stop lobbying within the EU to stop feed-in tariffs?

The renewables obligation is a genuine market mechanism and that is why it has been successful. It has overseen a rapid increase in renewable energy in the UK and we should stick with what works. The feed-in tariff in Germany has undoubtedly incentivised microgeneration in particular, but a significant extra cost has been borne by consumers as a result.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the effect of his statement today on future waste streams is quite small because of the historical legacy and the inefficiency of previous systems and waste from the weapons programme? Will he also ensure that as part of the ongoing work that is undertaken, work is done through Sellafield Ltd and the university sector to ensure that improvements are made in the exploitation of those waste streams for future power sources?

Yes, it would be right and proper for us to look at all those options. Primarily, that will be the responsibility of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and others, but it is worth making it clear that the new generation of reactors is likely to produce significantly less waste than Magnox and AGR, and that has to be a good thing.

The Minister may know that recently I initiated a debate in Westminster Hall on clean coal technology. Given the UK’s vast coal reserves and the fact that he has said that he has an open mind about these matters, will he be a little more specific today with respect to the opportunities that could be made available for clean coal technology, perhaps with regard also to the question of Medway and the opportunities for exporting our technology to China?

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, the Kingsnorth Medway application is a current application and at some point it will come to me to be approved, so it would be improper for me to say anything about that today.

Coal has an exciting role to play in future. The successful demonstration project in carbon capture and storage will be critical. If CCS does not work, we will have to work twice as hard on energy efficiency, renewables and other sorts of low-carbon technology to make good the deficit, but if we are prepared to back the right project—post-combustion coal is the right way to take CCS forward, partly because it would suit the UK’s requirements, but it also has significant global application, given what is happening in China and other emerging economies—the UK could, rather unlike the hon. Gentleman, take an important global leadership role in supporting exciting new clean coal technology in the future, and I hope that he will support that.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s clear leadership in terms of the two big issues of security of supply and climate change, but also in terms of my constituency and the engineering industry. Last night I was talking to Graham Honeyman at Forgemasters, and in the light of this decision it is giving serious consideration to an investment in a 15,000 tonne open die forging press, one of the largest in the world, and the associated melting and engineering capacity that goes with that, because there is a chronic lack of capacity globally for such programmes and many others. In the light of this statement it is important that consideration is now given to the supply chain of that so that we can capitalise for UK Ltd more fully than we have done before.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. He is absolutely right in relation to the supply chain and the industrial matters that touch on the important issue of new nuclear in the UK. Forgemasters is an excellent company. I have had the benefit of seeing at first hand its extraordinary facilities and expertise. We will need to invest significantly in the nuclear skills industry and in engineering if the UK is to take advantage of this opportunity, and I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend in Sheffield and elsewhere to make that happen.

I too welcome the statements from both Front-Bench spokesmen on the reconsideration of nuclear power, but the Secretary of State mentioned the Planning Bill. May we take it as read that the White Paper is a draft national policy statement, and, if so, how does he plan to take forward consultation and what plans does he have for inviting the House to consider the White Paper as a national planning statement?

We need to take forward the detailed work on a nuclear national policy statement and that work is under way. I do not think that the national policy statement will be the White Paper; we need to do more work on that. The NPS will need to be as site specific as it possibly can be in relation to possible future nuclear sites. I understand that there will be an opportunity for the House to approve nuclear national policy statements about all of the national policy statements, and that will enhance the democratic credibility around planning for major infrastructure projects in the future.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that although he may be right in his analysis, one of the reasons for scepticism is that the nuclear industry has a long history of misleading the public and previous Governments about the costs, safety and aspects of waste disposal? What makes him think that he has not been misled this time?

There is no doubt that many people in the country have real concerns about nuclear going forward, and we have heard some of those expressed today and we heard them expressed during the nuclear consultation exercise. It is a subject of great emotion for many people. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my assurance that we have looked carefully—my officials, Ministers, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and previous Ministers in this role—at these issues. We are in a different set of situations now. The science and the economics have changed, and the nuclear engineering capacity and capability have also changed significantly. The simple question for all of us today is not whether we should consent to an individual nuclear power station or mandate power companies to use nuclear—that is not what I am talking about—but whether we want to rule out for all time the possible contribution that a proven, and it is proven, form of low-carbon technology could make to tackling climate change and energy security problems in the UK. It would be entirely the wrong thing to do today to rule out this technology in perpetuity knowing that it could make a significant difference. That is not just my view but the view of many others in the scientific community and the Sustainable Development Commission and others.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the reply of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that my constituency is the home of the majority of nuclear fuel manufacture in the UK. What assurances can he give me today that the NDA will enter into meaningful discussions with Toshiba Westinghouse to ensure that a suitable business model can be developed to make sure that we can sustain the manufacture at that site of nuclear fuel for the benefit of the UK and to realise the benefits of fuel and energy security for the UK?

Again, I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman says. In relation to Springfields, these are matters for the NDA to resolve and work through. We have given it the executive responsibility to handle these matters and it should get on with it. I hope that he will be at least partly reassured to know that I want to see the UK gain the maximum that it can for its industrial sectors and manufacturing capacities from what we seek to do. I am sure that it is also the NDA’s view, in managing the business and taking it forward, that it needs to maximise every opportunity for new business, growth and employment in the UK nuclear industry. That will be my priority and I will ensure that Ian Roxbrough and the NDA board are aware of that.

On the question of investment in alternative low-carbon technologies, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement during the recent recess, not repeated in today’s statement, of a major expansion in offshore wind power. Does he agree that between now and 2020, that decision has much more significance for our secure energy supplies and cutting carbon emissions than his nuclear decision today? Will he confirm that the contracts for the interconnectors to bring the electricity from offshore to the coast and from the coast to the national grid will soon be in place, a matter of great importance to the power industries in Stafford?

I can certainly confirm that work is under way to make sure that we can take full advantage of the extraordinary opportunity that offshore wind offers the UK. In the short term, my hon. Friend is also absolutely right that this is what we should be focusing on. Work is under way, particularly in relation to the point about transmission access. That is critical. There is precious little point in building offshore wind turbines if we cannot connect them to the grid, so we had better make sure that we have that issued sorted.

I do not suppose that it will come as a total surprise to the Secretary of State that the Scottish National party remains fully opposed to new nuclear power stations; fortunately, the SNP Government in Scotland will not allow new such stations in our country. I remind the Secretary of State that that stand is supported by many Labour MSPs.

May I press the Secretary of State further on the question of financing the containment and guarding of nuclear waste for a period in excess of recorded human history? In the White Paper, he talks about using an exercise in waste-cost modelling to set a fixed price or upper limit for nuclear operators. Can he tell us how that price will be calculated and how he will ensure that it is paid? Will generators have to provide security for future costs at the outset, or is he talking about a one-off payment when they put the waste in the depository?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point about the attitude of Scottish Parliament Ministers, I should say that that is obviously a matter for them. The Bill and the White Paper respect the devolution settlement. I think that those Ministers are making a mistake and that their stand has more to do with a political stunt than taking a responsible long-term decision in the best interests of Scottish electricity consumers and the wider UK perspective. I regret the stand that those Ministers have taken, and I believe that they will come to regret it too.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point on financing, I should say that a lot of the detail is set out in the White Paper. I do not want to go through all the detail in this response, but the clauses will apply only to England, and not to Scotland, in respect of the technical plan and other issues; the hon. Gentleman should not be too worried about them. In February, there will be an extensive consultation setting out in more detail how the particulars of the provisions will work. As I said, I hope that that will be of assistance to the Select Committee.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State, the Minister for Energy and the Prime Minister on their courage and wisdom in making today’s decision, which is long overdue. I welcome it.

The Secretary of State knows that my constituency is home to the single largest concentration of British nuclear workers in the country. Following today’s announcement, will he work with me to ensure that, although there will be multinational efforts in part, the delivery of new reactors in this country will be predicated on British workers, British nuclear expertise, British companies and British skills and experience?

May I reciprocate my hon. Friend’s warm feelings? He is my constituency neighbour; I see locally and in this place the excellent work that he does as an advocate for his constituents, and I am aware of the arguments that he makes for the UK nuclear industry. He has done a great deal to help the decision that we have announced today. The UK and his constituents will be well placed to take full economic advantage of new nuclear technology, and what is good for the UK nuclear industry is certainly good for my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement because of my interest in Hinckley Point.

West Somerset and Sedgemoor district councils have been working on a framework document for local people to get planning gain over the life of the nuclear industry; Hinckley Point has been around since 1957. Will the Secretary of State consider forming some sort of framework agreement extending from central Government to local government, so that the benefits come straight to a community fund or some other form of organisation that could benefit local people directly in their areas?

I am happy to consider what the hon. Gentleman has said, although such matters are primarily for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments about renewables, but as he is well aware, the fishermen of Fleetwood—and the ferry operators that transport their goods from Fleetwood to Northern Ireland—are concerned about the large number, and size, of offshore wind farms proposed for the Irish sea. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there are meaningful discussions between those whose livelihoods are affected by those developments and the energy operators so that there can be a solution that satisfies both sides?

I certainly recognise the issue that my hon. Friend has raised; she and I have already discussed it a number of times, as fishermen in my constituency have raised similar concerns with me. As we set about the process of siting further offshore wind turbines, of course a full and proper consultation will be necessary. Furthermore, an effective strategic environmental assessment of the proposals will have to be made. I am sure that that will give my hon. Friend’s constituents the opportunity to get involved in the decision making.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on standing up to the muddle-headed thinking of the environmental organisations that claim to be green but are against nuclear power. His statement has provided a clear framework for going forward. Will he confirm that he will consider some of the research and development implications of the White Paper? For example, it is still not possible safely to channel the variable supply from renewables through the grid. More research is needed on that issue.

We still need to consider pre-emission and not just post-combustion carbon capture and we genuinely need more science and engineers for the development of power stations. I hope that the Secretary of State will work with his colleagues to ensure that specific skills targets and encouragement for research grants are given to the relevant people.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words. I agree that we are at the beginning of the process, not the end. A lot of work will need to be done on a number of different issues—he referred to science, engineering and skills and I accept what he said. The Government have a role to play and they need to play it.

Obviously, we considered carefully whether we could support a variety of different technologies through the competition process for CCS. We had clear legal and other advice that the right thing was to be clear about which technology we were inviting interest in and bids for. The competition would have been much more complicated if those basic ground rules had not been properly established. There are opportunities across the European Union for other types of project to be supported. The European Commission is seeking to develop 12 demonstration projects in the EU, and I hope that there will be other opportunities for other technologies to be explored fully.

The Secretary of State has confidence in nuclear power, but does he not have concerns when he considers Finland? The latest plant there is already two years behind schedule and running over budget only three years after construction started. Has the Secretary of State taken that into account in his long-term planning?

The competition for carbon capture and storage may be difficult, but the Government’s job is to do difficult things, not make things easy by making exclusions. If the competition were genuine, it would have embraced the full variety of technologies.

I tried to say that there would be opportunities for other forms of CCS technologies to be properly developed. We are not against that. However, in this country we have to be clear about the ground rules for the competition, and we have done that. We have acted properly and prudently, taking into account the advice that we have received.

The hon. Gentleman made a wider point about nuclear power. The project that he mentioned has run into difficulties; that is a matter of fact. However, it is quite wrong to conclude from that any general or wider lessons for the UK.

We have to be honest and recognise that the statement is as full of holes as the Sellafield reprocessing plant. Margaret Thatcher promised 10 new nuclear power plants and delivered one. We have heard about the Finnish experience and know that Germany, which is tackling climate change with a thorough energy policy, is eradicating the possibility of new nuclear plants there. When does my right hon. Friend anticipate that the first new nuclear plants will be commissioned and how many will we get?

As I tried to say in my statement, I am not going to set a limit or attempt to calculate the number; that is not for Ministers to do in an energy market that operates on liberal parameters. Industry estimates suggest that the first such nuclear power station could be operational in the UK by 2017. I think that an optimistic assessment, but it is what the industry is saying.

To those who sneer about the contribution of nuclear power, and many in the House have done so, I simply repeat what I said in my statement: we should keep an open mind and not rule out the potential benefits of nuclear power. That, for example, was the view of the Sustainable Development Commission and I think that it is right. Nuclear power could make a significant contribution to carbon mitigation in the UK. Furthermore, the view of Patrick Moore, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, is interesting; in April 2006, he wrote in The Washington Post that nuclear power could make a decisive and important contribution to saving the world from the serious threat of climate change.

Business of the House

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

Monday 14 January—Second Reading of the Education and Skills Bill.

Tuesday 15 January—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Health and Social Care Bill, followed by motion to approve the payments into the Olympic Lottery Distribution Fund etc. Order 2007, followed by consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Finance) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

Wednesday 16 January—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled “Pensioner Poverty”, followed by a debate entitled “Human Trafficking”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 17 January—Topical debate. Subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Supplementary Provisions) Bill.

Friday 18 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 21 January will include:

Monday 21 January—Second Reading of the European Union (Amendment) Bill.

Tuesday 22 January—Second Reading of the Energy Bill.

Wednesday 23 January—Opposition Day [7th Allotted Day] (First Part). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the Student Loans Bill.

Thursday 24 January—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by motions relating to Senior Salaries Review Body report on parliamentary pay, pensions and allowances.

Friday 25 January—Private Members’ Bills.

Next Wednesday, 16 January, the Government will publish the report of the Senior Salaries Review Body on parliamentary pay, pensions and allowances. At the same time, we will issue a written ministerial statement setting out the Government’s response and table the relevant motions that will be debated by the House on the following Thursday, 24 January. Because of the difficult decisions that we have taken over the past year to stage the public sector pay awards, inflation has fallen, and that has allowed the Bank of England to keep interest rates down. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, as Members of this House, we too—[Hon. Members: “This is a business statement.”] As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear—[Interruption.]

As Members of this House, we too are paid from the public purse, and it is right that we should be subject to the same disciplines on public sector pay as the rest of the public sector.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I respect the fact that the Leader of the House is trying to be helpful, but this is not business—it is something else—and I ask you to guide her to make this statement at an appropriate time—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry, but I did not hear the conclusion of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks because of the noise in the Chamber.

I invite you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to advise the Leader of the House on how she might help us by giving a statement in the right way and at the right time.

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I can assist the House by explaining that I was saying that because I am about to make an announcement that is important to the House about how, in future, the pay and pensions of Members of this House will be set.

I am dealing with a point of order at the moment. In responding to that, I suggest to the Leader of the House that however helpful she is attempting to be in this matter, we are really dealing with the business of the House for next week rather than the detail that she was trying to be helpful in giving to the House at this stage.

I apologise if I have strayed out of order, but I was hoping to explain to the House that we will publish the SSRB report in advance of debating it so that Members will know that they will have adequate time to debate it, and so that they will know that this will possibly be the last time that they will have to go through that exercise because of the review that we intend to set up.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I also thank her for giving us an insight into the speech that she will give on 24 January in the debate on the SSRB report. I note that she was attempting to make a statement to the House on the Government’s position before the Government have published that position and before Members have seen the SSRB report.

On an entirely different subject, can the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that at around the time of St. David’s day we have a debate on Welsh affairs?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister was less than convincing when he tried to explain his ever-shifting policy on ID cards. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has written to him and has not received a reply. When will the Prime Minister make a clear statement to the House on his position on ID cards?

Last year, the Government graciously accepted the Modernisation Committee’s recommendation to have topical debates, yet only the first debate was genuinely topical. Since then, the right hon. and learned Lady has selected subjects to match the Government’s news agenda. Will she now listen to the House and agree to a topical debate on Sir John Tooke’s report on the shambolic handling of the recruitment system for junior doctors?

Yesterday, despite the importance of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, we had only one day to debate its remaining stages. Many amendments were not debated. Can the right hon. and learned Lady make a statement on why the consideration of this important Bill was cut short?

In November, in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister promised to make available in the Library details of the “preventing violent extremism” programme. Despite repeated promises from Ministers, the information is still not there. When will it be placed in the Library?

When the Prime Minister still claimed to be a change, he promised to

“entrust more power to Parliament”.

Since then, the Government have made no fewer than 28 policy announcements to the media before Parliament. Just this week, we have had press briefings on the NHS, nuclear power stations and deactivated firearms. When will the Leader of the House ensure that her ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister, do what he promised and put Parliament first? Every week, she tells us that she puts Parliament first, yet every week her colleagues treat Parliament with disdain.

Another of the Prime Minister’s changed policies was that there should be a deep clean of hospitals to fight superbugs. Yet now we know that only 50 out of 1,500 NHS hospitals have had a deep clean. The cost of the treatment is coming out of existing budgets, and the Health Secretary thinks that it is all a waste of time. When will the Health Secretary come to the House to make a statement on the Prime Minister’s deep clean programme?

Yet another of the Prime Minister’s new policies was, notoriously, to promise British jobs for British workers. However, as we now know, 80 per cent. of new jobs go to migrant workers, the Government have lost a court ruling on foreign junior doctors, and the Government are weakening the resident labour market test. Will the beleaguered Work and Pensions Secretary take a break from the mess that he has created and make a statement to the House on the mess created by the Prime Minister?

Do not those examples tell the sad truth about this Prime Minister? In the words of his own right hand man, he simply cannot claim to be the change, and is not that why his latest relaunch is doomed to fail?

The right hon. Lady raised the question of ID cards. The Prime Minister made the Government’s position clear to the House yesterday, particularly in relation to the importance of biometric information on passports and on visas for foreign nationals, and to the fact that if there were any progress towards making that compulsory for British nationals, it would be in the light of experience that we would be bringing it back for a vote of this House. That is, and remains, the position on ID cards.

We have had a number of topical debates—in Government time, as the House will remember—on matters that are important regionally, nationally or internationally, topical and of public interest. We have so far debated immigration, climate change, apprenticeships and financial problems for low-income families, and I invite all hon. Members to continue to propose subjects that they think are topical. One of the problems is that in order to give Members enough time to plan to be part of a topical debate, we give out information and make the decision earlier in the week. Because that process happens earlier in the week, the subject is inevitably less topical by the time we debate it later in the week. [Laughter.] The reality is that there is a trade-off between giving people notice and topicality, but we have committed to review the situation, as we undertook to the House and the Modernisation Committee, and we will do so.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the recruitment of junior doctors. She will know that we have recently had the publication of important work undertaken as part of the Tooke report.

Indeed. I am dealing with it because the right hon. Lady asked about it. On that basis, we will go forward in consultation with the British Medical Association to improve the situation.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the amount of time the House had to debate the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill on Report. We sought to make extra time available yesterday, but we acknowledge that it did not turn out to be enough. If we have the opportunity, consistent with ensuring the implementation of the Bill—particularly with regard to the time-critical issue of prison officers’ right to strike—we shall see whether we can find some extra time when the Bill returns to this House on consideration of Lords amendments. We all agree that the amount of time spent last night was unsatisfactory.

The situation has raised a point that we will face again, and which business managers need to talk about: the amount of time available for this House to debate major Bills on Report. A number of major Bills have received a Second Reading or will receive it soon, and the question is whether enough time for Report is structured in, or whether we should seek to find more. If we do the latter, it will put pressure on the amount of time that the House has to debate non-legislative issues, or we will end up doing so at the expense of the amount of time hon. Members are able to spend in their constituencies. We all want enough time for scrutiny on Report, and we need to address this matter, especially in the light of the House’s experience last night.

The right hon. Lady talked about the Government’s approach to tackling extremism and our action on that, and I shall look into the points that she made.

Once again, the right hon. Lady made accusations and asserted that Ministers were making policy statements to the media that were rightly for this House. She gave a number of examples. I look into every single example, and I take the matter very seriously. I agree that it is important that Ministers are answerable to this House rather than the media. One example that she cited was the announcement today by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about deactivated firearms. I looked into that matter before I came to the House today because there are always judgments to be made in such situations, and I wanted to know what the background to this one was and why the announcement was not the subject of an oral statement to the House.

The issue in question is an intention that will be subject to consultation. It is a detailed and complex area, about which there will be consultation, and my right hon. Friend will come to the House with any proposals before we are asked to consider them in legislation. We have a business statement today and an important debate later on Army personnel; we also have a topical debate today, and we have had an important debate on energy. The question is whether it would have been right for her to come to the House to make a statement about the launch of a consultation about deactivated firearms. As far as I am concerned, she made a sensible judgment, which I am quite happy to defend to the House. I do not agree that we are not putting Parliament first.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) talked about hospital-acquired infection. We are on target to progress with our deep cleans, and we do not think that they are a waste of time, as she alleged.

He did not say that. We think that patients value them, and they are very important.

The right hon. Lady also talked about migration. I remind her that we discuss that matter often in the House, and one of the key issues to keep under consideration is the Government’s migration impact forum.

I wish the right hon. Lady and the whole House a happy new year.

May I bring the Leader of the House back to MPs’ pay? When I was first in the House, we worked ourselves up into a great state about our pay. The Government, led by Mrs. Thatcher, made it plain that what we wanted was against the level of settlement that they wished us to award ourselves. We passed our resolution, we incurred the displeasure of our constituents, and Mrs. T brought forward an order that fitted her wages policy. Before we debate our resolution on MPs’ pay, may I ask the Leader of the House whether the same procedure, in which we pass a resolution that cannot become effective until the Government place an order for us to vote on, will operate? Before we vote—and perhaps make fools of ourselves—will she tell us whether the Government will bring forward only an order that fits their wages policy for the public sector?

My right hon. Friend is right. The process, under the current procedures of this House, of setting, debating and voting on our pay, pensions and allowances is as he described it, based on his memories. That is why many Members say that they find it unacceptable, and we know that the public do not accept that MPs should decide their own pay and pensions by voting. Therefore, we intend to review the procedures for setting MPs’ pay and pensions in the future, with a view to examining options that find objective criteria for pay determination within a framework that does not require Members to vote.

Order. Clearly, many Members are hoping to raise questions on this statement. May I ask that there be a single supplementary question put briefly to the Minister and a short response.

Madam Deputy Speaker—[Laughter.] You may not have been very helpful by making that point then, rather than later. [Interruption.] I am standing my ground.

We had an energy statement, which was important; it may or may not have been welcome. Following the questions put to the Prime Minister yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), our new party leader, and my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), our new energy spokesman, on fuel costs and fuel poverty, will the Leader of House provide time in the near future for a debate on the effects of rising international fuel costs on people in this country and their fuel bills? Throughout the country, many people are finding the increased costs a difficult burden, and we would all benefit from a discussion about where we are, and where we can go to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

We have just had the end of the consultation period on the Government’s proposed local government settlement for the next three years. The right hon. and learned Lady will know, from our constituencies, that there is much unhappiness among all parties about the proposed tight settlement, and in relation to all councils and types of councils in England. Before we have the “big bang” debate later this month where we vote on whether we accept the settlement, could she find time for a debate that gives colleagues the chance to explore the impact of the proposals of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for their type of council?

On Members’ pay, pensions and allowances, may I help the right hon. and learned Lady by suggesting that, next Wednesday, when the Government propose to publish the report from the independent body, she comes to the House after Prime Minister’s questions and makes a statement, which we can explore, on the Government’s position, so that the House is well informed in the week before we debate the issues? That is sensible and will facilitate the most managed method of dealing with the amendments that will inevitably be tabled.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made an early bid for a Welsh debate around St. David’s day. We have had a terrible time in parts of the Commonwealth—Pakistan and Kenya—over Christmas and the new year. Commonwealth day is 10 March. May we have an annual Commonwealth day debate so that those of us who believe that the Commonwealth should and can be effective can try to persuade the Government to use their influence to ensure that democracy is supported more effectively throughout the Commonwealth?

Lastly, following the big issue of yesterday, the Leader of the House has been helpful. We had a seven-and-a-half-hour Report stage on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. More than four fifths of that time—more than six hours—was spent on Government new clauses, new schedules and amendments. There were 120 of them, all on matters that should not take time away from Government Back Benchers and Opposition Members. There were nine debates to be had on issues as important as blasphemy, prostitution, sex offences, pornography and personal data; yet we had only one out of nine. May I suggest that, in future, we negotiate the time for Report stage, which is the time for Back-Bench and Opposition contributions, and that if the Government want to do their own thing, they do it in extra time that they add to the agreed time? Only by doing that can we avoid the nonsense of the House of Commons considering one of the major Bills of the year but debating only what the Government wish to discuss, as happened yesterday.

The hon. Gentleman reinforced the points about the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. He expressed what is largely a shared view. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) had already raised the points with me, so I was well aware of the concerns. In the interests of brevity, I shall not add to my comments in response to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, but we take the point, which was well made.

On the energy statement and fuel costs, fuel poverty and fuel costs were raised many times in the topical debate before Christmas on people living on low incomes. However, the subject could be considered for a further topical debate and I am sure that it will be discussed on Second Reading of the Energy Bill next week.

There are obviously further proposals to make on the local government settlement, but Communities and Local Government questions will take place on 15 January, which is next week. The hon. Gentleman is right that it has been a tight settlement. We must be careful with the public finances, but there has been a real-terms increase, which has been important year on year in areas such as my constituency and his in the London borough of Southwark. There has been a real-terms increase, despite the growing demand and the fact that we would all like more.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether, when we publish the SSRB report on 16 January, which is next Wednesday, and the written ministerial statement which sets out our position, and table our resolutions, we should make an oral statement. We are trying to make the written ministerial statement, which will be the Government’s response to the SSRB report on MPs’ pay, as full and as explanatory as possible so that we not only table the resolutions and enable hon. Members to examine them straight away and consider their amendments, but ensure that they have the Government’s argument, set out as fully as possible, in an inevitably lengthy written ministerial statement. That will give hon. Members quite enough material to work out whether—and if so, how—they want to amend the resolutions. They will have more than a full week before the debate on 24 January. A written but full ministerial statement is the right approach.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned St. David’s day, which is not for two months. The debate does not always take place on the day, but we always have a debate for Wales within 12 calendar months. He mentioned Commonwealth affairs. The Foreign Secretary recently made a statement to the House on Pakistan and Kenya. I will bear the hon. Gentleman’s point in mind, bring it to the attention of the Foreign Secretary and ask my right hon. Friend to come to the House if there are further points that he needs to make about the Commonwealth.

Would it be possible to have a debate next week on the total lack of democratic accountability of the housing trusts that took over our council housing following various stock transfers? I have realised in the past few days that they are outside the remit of the freedom of information legislation, which makes matters even worse.

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s point and I know she wants to ensure that her constituents have not only high quality housing but some measure of redress if that is not the case, and that there is proper accountability. The Government are considering that important issue and we hope that there will be an opportunity in the next Session to introduce a housing Bill, which deals not with the supply side—the subject of the current measure—but issues such as the rights of tenants. I know that my hon. Friend will play a major part in contributing to policy development on the matter.

Further to the questions about next Wednesday’s business, what conceivable reason can there be for the Government’s not placing in the Library today a copy of the SSRB report, which they have had since July, about which the Leader of the House sought to make a statement today, and which is widely available in the media?

The SSRB report is not yet printed. [Hon. Members: “July!”] We need to be sure that the leaders of Opposition parties have sufficient time to read the report before its publication. [Interruption.] Just bear with me.

We need to be sure that leaders of Opposition parties have enough time to consider the report so that they can make their responses to the Government before we publish our response. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] It is also crucial that Back Benchers have sufficient time to examine the resolutions, consider the amendments that they might want to make and consider the full report.

The right hon. Lady claims from a sedentary position that leaders of the Opposition have not had a copy of the report. That concerns me. [Interruption.] Let me just say that a copy of the report was given to her party leader on Monday.

I am reassured that the leader of the Liberal Democrats has received his copy. That leads me to believe that the Leader of the Opposition has not told the shadow Leader of the House that he has got a copy or what is in it.

How have we once again got ourselves into a position whereby we are invited to vote on our remuneration, given that we have been assured on several occasions during the 20 or so years that I have been in this place that it would not happen again? If we are to set up a review, can we ensure that it does not include too many complex criteria? Surely the solution is to link our remuneration to the fortunes of preferably the humblest of our constituents and leave it that way for eternity.

If we had acted on my hon. Friend’s suggestion a number of years ago, we would not be in the position that we are in now. He tabled a motion that we should not set our own pay and that it should be indexed. I have announced to the House that we are now acting in the spirit of his proposals, albeit some years on.

Further to the earlier exchanges on the subject, can we please have a debate on the Floor of the House next week on the Government’s approach to the programming of the Report stage of each and every Bill, in the course of which it would be possible, among other ideas, to consider the merits of the imposition of time limits on Back-Bench speeches?

I think that this issue needs further consideration, not just in the debate about programme motions, but by taking it in the round and looking ahead. That involves both consultation with the usual channels and the business managers reflecting on it. I very much take the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of this morning’s report about British troops serving in Afghanistan being given blood supplied by the Americans that had not been properly screened? Those troops are now going through the horror of waiting to see whether they have HIV, hepatitis B or other sexually transmitted diseases. Given that our fine soldiers are out there doing what they are doing, they should not be subjected to that. Can we have a statement as soon as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. She is right to want to ensure that our troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq receive the highest possible standard of medical support and health care. The issue that she raises is one that she or other hon. Members might have the opportunity to raise in this afternoon’s debate on armed services personnel.

Can the Leader of the House make time for an urgent debate on the Select Committee on Health report that was published today? The report highlights the vital job that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence does in difficult circumstances, but identifies problems that need to be resolved. I am concerned in particular about the problem that some primary care trusts have in implementing NICE guidelines on IVF treatment. Can she arrange for a debate in Government time?

The Government are of course considering their position on the Health Committee’s important report. We, too, share its view of the good work that NICE does. If the hon. Lady wants to make points about the report in advance of the Government’s response, she will have an opportunity to do so in another of the much-maligned topical debates, which will take place in a few minutes.

Yesterday, without any discussion on the Floor of the House, we sent a Bill down to the other place that contained clause 105, which will result in the jailing of quite a number of women engaged in prostitution and criminalise thousands of them if it is eventually enacted. I found that lack of discussion terribly frustrating. There was also an important amendment on, effectively, zero tolerance that needed discussing.

Ministers have gone to Sweden and Amsterdam today to study prostitution and, yesterday, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) announced that there would be a Bill in the fourth Session of this Parliament on prostitution. May I therefore suggest two alternatives to my right hon. and learned Friend? We could either have a topical debate next week on prostitution, so that we can give guidance to the other place on the feelings of elected Members of this House, or we could take those clauses out of the Bill entirely and include them in the Bill to be introduced in the fourth Session of Parliament.

My hon. Friend makes an important and constructive point, which I shall certainly reflect on. As he said, the Home Secretary has announced a six-month review period on the law relating to prostitution. As my hon. Friend also said, the issue will be debated in the other place, and I will also look at whether there will be an opportunity for a topical debate to consider it.

Will there be time for a debate on disabled people’s access to public transport? In particular, perhaps the relevant Minister could explain in that debate why there will be no companion passes to help disabled people travel under the concessionary bus pass scheme.

We have oral questions to the Secretary of State for Transport a week on Tuesday. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could take the opportunity to ask her then.

I hope that the Leader of the House has acknowledged the huge concerns about yesterday’s performance in the Report stage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. However, I am unclear about what the proposals are to ensure that that simply does not happen again. We increased the size of a Bill by roughly a third and denied the House a debate on major issues, as many hon. Members have acknowledged. Can we have an assurance that that will simply never happen again and that there will be sufficient time for a proper debate on Report? Can we also have an assurance that the points that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made will be taken on board, namely that the time when we legitimately question the report from the relevant Committee—that is what it is supposed to be—should be separated and that if the Government wish to introduce new clauses on such major issues as prison officers’ right to strike, that should be done in Government time, rather than taking away from our opportunity legitimately to question the legislation?