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Commons Chamber

Volume 472: debated on Thursday 21 February 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 21 February 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Thursday 28 February.

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Higher Education (Internationalisation)

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on the globalisation of higher education. (187368)

I regularly speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Our higher education sector plays an important role in international development. Our universities attract students from more than 200 countries, helping them to acquire skills and knowledge that are of benefit to their home countries. Universities collaborate extensively with their counterparts overseas to deliver courses, to exchange staff and students, and to conduct world-class research. My Department's bilateral programmes with India, China and African countries complement DFID’s work.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that positive response. In Crawley we are working hard to acquire a university campus. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while universities benefit students at home, enabling students overseas to learn together and share experiences is a very good way of promoting education in the United Kingdom?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am well aware of her ambition to establish a university campus in Crawley. It is true that the internationalisation of higher education brings numerous benefits to our own students and also to students who come here to study, and who take their knowledge of education back to their countries along with, hopefully, a good impression of our country and our education system.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to praise the work of the dedicated staff of the British Council who operate in a number of developing countries throughout the world, not only advertising our universities but helping to establish campuses in those countries? Will he also take the opportunity to praise the work of British Chevening Scholarships, a body that provides scholarships for people who might not otherwise be able to afford education in this country?

I am delighted to do so. I have met Chevening scholars in Bournemouth in the recent past. In my present post I have worked with the British Council in China, and have observed its role in helping British universities to offer British higher education in that country. In an earlier role I met British Council staff in Pakistan, where they were doing much to promote awareness of further and higher education in this country and to deliver English language courses in that country.

Small Businesses

2. What steps the Government are taking to assist the development of leadership and management skills in small businesses. (187369)

We have increased our commitment to our leadership and management programme through Train to Gain from £4 million this year to £30 million per year from next year. We aim to develop the capacity of small business managers to understand the skills needs of their businesses, and to use the publicly funded Train to Gain programme. We expect around 42,000 companies with between 10 and 250 employees and some 60,000 individual managers to participate in the leadership programme over the next three years, and we expect that to result in about 150,000 learners from those companies using Train to Gain.

There are many small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency and, indeed, in the wider Stoke-on-Trent area. Although I would love to mention them all, I suspect that that would both be unfair to those that I missed out and would incur your displeasure, Mr. Speaker.

Will my right hon. Friend outline the practical steps that could enable the measures he has described to help small businesses and starter businesses, not just in my constituency but in the wider Potteries area?

I hope that a number of steps can be taken to promote the scheme, in addition, of course, to the steps that my hon. Friend himself might take. We hope that small and medium-sized enterprises will be approached by skills brokers operating at regional level to promote awareness of the scheme. In fact, we know that that is already happening. It will also be possible for training providers to approach companies directly.

The offer is a good one. Public investment in developing the skills and management experience of businesses will enable managers to understand how they can use Train to Gain funds to secure further public funding to raise the skill levels of their staff. This is a very good proposition for small businesses. It is tried and tested, we have expanded it dramatically, and I hope that all Members will help to promote it in their areas.

My right hon. Friend will know of the considerable growth in small businesses in my constituency, but there are crucial problems. People lack confidence in their ability to develop small firms, and in particular to cope with the volume of regulation. How can we devise courses that will teach them that they have the talent to deliver, and also that they are able to cope with all that regulation?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is actively dealing with the issue of regulation and the environment for small businesses by means of deregulation and other mechanisms, and that is an important part of the picture. My Department, meanwhile, has recognised that for business managers, understanding the skills needs of their businesses and the way in which investing in skills can improve productivity and profit is not simple or straightforward. We believe that, by investing public money in improving that understanding and those skills, we can help managers to run their businesses while also enabling them to unlock further public investment in their staff.

Skills Pledge

By December 2007, more than 950 companies covering almost 2.7 million employees had made a skills pledge to develop the skills of their employees, including basic skills such as literacy and numeracy and work towards relevant valuable qualifications to at least NVQ level 2, which is equivalent to five good GCSEs.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In Halifax, thousands of my constituents work in small and medium-sized businesses, which are vital to the economy. Can the Minister tell me how many people in Halifax have participated in the scheme, and what skills and benefits they have developed through that?

Thirty-nine organisations in the Yorkshire and Humber region have participated in the skills pledge, but my hon. Friend will be aware that large companies such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Royal Mail have also signed up to the pledge. The most essential programme in her constituency, as in others, is Train to Gain, with its more than £1 billion of investment over this comprehensive spending review period. That engagement of employers with a broker and local colleges in skilling up their work forces is what will produce results in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Does the Minister agree that, although it is fine for larger and leading organisations to commit to the skills pledge, it is equally important and yet a great deal more difficult to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to participate actively? Will he ensure that the minimum of bureaucracy is required, and does he acknowledge that the maximum of encouragement is expected from Government to ensure their participation, both in apprenticeships and other structured training programmes?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The first thing to say is that this endeavour cannot be just a national one; it has to be a local one, and there is certainly a role for local chambers of commerce across the country to pursue skills agendas in their areas. Secondly, we have ensured through the Train to Gain programme that the absolute priority is hard-to-reach companies, and that includes companies that have not invested in skills in the previous period. Through that, and our plan for growth where we recognised and introduced changes to make this as simple as possible, we can ensure that small companies are able to access the relevant money to upskill their work force.

As someone who went through a craft apprenticeship training scheme where education and training were available up to and including degree level, I am aware that this is very costly for smaller employers. Has my hon. Friend any plans to extend finance to SMEs in particular?

My hon. Friend raises a good point, and he will be pleased to know that in our recently published apprenticeship review we discussed piloting direct payments to ensure that small businesses are able to engage in the apprenticeship programme.

University Applications

4. What discussions he has had with representatives of universities on encouraging applications from students from all backgrounds. (187371)

This Government remain fully committed to increasing and widening participation in higher education. To remain competitive, our economy needs more graduates, and it is right that those benefiting from higher education should come from all walks of life. I have had many discussions on this important matter, which in essence is about ensuring that talent does not go to waste and our nation does not lose out as a result.

Is the Minister aware that parts of West Lancashire are among the most deprived in the country? Public transport links are not good throughout the constituency and are particularly poor from places such as Skelmersdale. That disadvantages young people who want to attend either the university within the constituency or those on our borders. Given that the odds can be stacked against young people from low-income families, does the Minister not agree that we must provide as much support as possible to improve young people’s access to higher education and the career opportunities that that will give them in later life?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate her on the work that she does on this issue. I believe that we should provide as much support as possible for the potential students in her constituency to whom she refers. That is why we brought back non-repayable grants and why, from this September, we are significantly expanding the proportion of students who will be eligible for such grants. Even with the mechanisms already in place, I hope that she would join me in welcoming the fact that in her constituency entry to part-time and full-time undergraduate courses has increased by 40 per cent. in the past 10 years.

We are all glad about the Government’s commitment to higher education for all. Will the Minister pay particular attention to one group of people—the sons and daughters of Gurkha soldiers? Last year, Gurkha soldiers were given equal status to British soldiers in every respect—pay and conditions, home leave and so forth—save for the fact that their children are not yet given home-student status. I understand that the Department is working on this matter with the Ministry of Defence. Will the Minister commit himself to giving home-student status to Gurkha soldiers’ children, and will he tell us how the negotiations with the Ministry of Defence are progressing?

I am highly aware of this issue. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not make a cast-iron commitment on the Floor of the House today, but I have discussed the matter in detail with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence. We are examining the issue and I hope that we will be able to say something about it shortly.

My hon. Friend will know that the university of Bolton has a fine record of attracting people from all walks of life. However, he also knows that there is a high drop-out rate across the country—the university of Bolton is included in that. What more can we do to help to retain students who are attracted to universities and help them to stay in the courses that they have opted to study?

This is extremely important, although it is necessary to put it into context. We have some of the lowest drop-out rates in the advanced world. The recent Public Accounts Committee report included two tables. If we look at the one that includes both those students who transfer to another university and those who achieve a different higher education qualification, we get a more realistic picture. It shows that non-completion rates have reduced consistently since 1998.

The Higher Education Minister must accept that the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds accepted to universities has not increased as he would have wanted. Does he accept that debt aversion is a problem? Whether or not he accepts that, does he agree that there is a need for proper research into the reasons why there are not more applications from students from poorer backgrounds? Will he commission that proper research so that we can have evidence-based policy?

We have discussed this in the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills, and we regularly conduct research into these issues. There has been an increase in the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups applying to and being accepted by universities. I want that to be higher, which is why we have a host of policies in train to achieve that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in celebrating last week’s figures on applications to study at university next year. They show a significant overall increase of more than 7 per cent. and an increase in the proportion of applications from lower socio-economic groups.

Is the Minister aware that both Oxford and Cambridge still take one third of their students from 100 so-called elite schools—80 per cent. in the private school sector and just 20 per cent. in the state school sector? Both those universities are failing to meet their abysmally low widening participation rate targets of 9 per cent. What more can he do to drag those two universities kicking and screaming into the 21st century by widening their participation rates?

I understand the genuine concern on the issue. It is acknowledged by the vice-chancellors and senior management teams at both institutions. Those institutions have made progress in broadening their access, but, as with all institutions, there is much more to do. One of the most effective ways of achieving that progress is by having much stronger school-university partnerships, involving institutions across the country, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Members of Universities UK are well aware of the need to broaden access to universities and they are making every effort, but does the Minister accept that one of the best ways to encourage all people from all backgrounds to go to university is to teach the proper subjects in schools to give children a chance to do so? The number of 18-year-olds with a decent A-level is some 25 per cent., so the target of 50 per cent. is heroic. Why are more students not taught the individual sciences of maths, physics, biology and chemistry, rather than a general science that eliminates them from our best universities?

I know from many discussions with the hon. Gentleman and from his background that he takes these issues very seriously. One key change being made by the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to ensure that triple science is more widely available from the coming academic year. That will help with the issues that he raises. We have made progress, but we need to do more.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in towns such as Keighley a growing number of young women from the Asian community are doing really well at A-level and going on to university every year? I am so proud of that and I hope that it will continue. However, is he also aware that once they get to university they are often bullied by young men about their style of dress and their general conduct? Can he ask vice-chancellors to be protectors of those women, so that they can conduct their lives as they wish?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue and I know that she has taken a particular interest from a constituency perspective. It is critical that all students from all backgrounds, faiths and nationalities come together on campus. The institution then has a responsibility not only to ensure that all students are protected, but that they are integrated within the student community.

We discovered last week that the Government are spending some £211,000 for every disadvantaged student they get into university. We now know that at least a fifth of those students are leaving within a year, despite the Government spending a further £800 million to tackle drop-out rates. We also know that student debt will shortly reach £21 billion. Can the Minister tell me which one of those financial failures gives the taxpayer best value for money?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his claim that a fifth of students leave university within a year and I ask him to go back to the figures and look at what he is saying. The figures can be made to add up for the claim that £200,000 is spent for every widening-participation student, but only if the total money spent on widening access for all less well-off and disabled students is divided by the total number of additional full-time students from lower socio-economic groups. However, that excludes part-timers, mature students and those students from better-off backgrounds whom we nevertheless want to encourage to apply to all universities, especially the selective universities. The hon. Gentleman needs to address that point.

As for so-called student debt, I understand that the Conservatives are still committed to a real rate of interest for repayments on student loans. We should have a comment from them on whether that is still the case, because it would do nothing to help students.

I know that my hon. Friend visited the very good North Warwickshire and Hinckley technical college in Nuneaton recently. When he has talks with the professors at universities, will he ask them to recognise fully the wonderful diplomas that will be rolled out in the tertiary sector? Very good work is being done, but if it does not create a route to university for some students, it will have failed.

I very much welcomed the opportunity to visit the college in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I agree that the development of the specialised diplomas is one of the most significant educational changes that we have seen in a generation. For it to succeed, we need all universities to recognise them as an admission qualification for higher education. All the indications from universities are that that is happening, and I welcome that.

A young person whose parents have had degree-level education or who come from a professional background is more than four times more likely to access higher education than someone whose parents have a manual occupation and have not been educated to degree level. Given that, does the Minister not think that some of the widening-participation budget that is allocated for retention, which has already been mentioned, might actually be more appropriately spent by universities on targeted outreach work for individuals from schools that traditionally do not access higher education?

Our commitment to widening participation, as well as the investment that we have put into that area, is clear and strong. However, we need to keep under review the way in which that money is spent. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to target those schools and communities where access is lowest to ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that people fulfil their talents. That should include the provision of information, advice and guidance.

Adult Apprenticeships

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

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he take this opportunity to tell the House what can be done to support not only adult apprenticeships but all apprenticeships in Scotland in the same way as they are supported by the Government in England?

My hon. Friend will know that that is a devolved matter. I have been in discussion with my counterpart in Scotland and I know that they have not sought to make progress on modern apprenticeships in the way that we have most recently on this side of the border. It is a devolved matter and I know that it is the subject of great debate in Scotland.

In a previous Question Time, the Secretary of State admitted that there was a 40 per cent. drop-out rate for apprenticeships. Does the Minister not agree that that is an extraordinarily high figure and does not justify the huge investment from the Government? What is his Department doing to tackle that unacceptable situation?

I think that I said to the hon. Lady that completion rates for apprenticeships were currently at 63 per cent. I ought to remind her that completion rates in 1997 were 25 per cent., that there was no inspection and that investment in further education colleges in resources for apprenticeships was nil. The Government recently published their apprenticeship review precisely in order to ensure that quality improves and that more young people are able to take up apprenticeships and complete them.

In assessing how this welcome programme can involve women, will my hon. Friend look in particular at the recent Select Committee report “Jobs for the girls”, which considered the impact of occupational job segregation on the worrying continuing gender pay gap and the waste of skills in the economy? Will he particularly look at the issues included on how to encourage women over 25 to have the confidence to go into non-traditional jobs, on how the drop-out rate is partly the result of low pay—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and for the way in which she continues to champion issues of equality in relation to apprenticeships, particularly for women. I hope that she will be pleased by the recent announcement on apprenticeships, as more money will improve prospects for women. I hope, too, that she will welcome the last chapter of the apprenticeship review, which deals with those equality issues. One thing that it highlights is the need for critical mass pilots to get a number of women in a cohort into a particular sector. In my early weeks in this post, I was pleased to visit Kier construction in Islington, where they were working with women and upskilling them in the construction industry. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that women feel more confident about coming into such sectors at an older age than they might have done when they were aged 16 to 18. That is why the pilots are so important.

I am pleased that since 2003-04 we have seen the doubling of completion rates for apprenticeships at both level 2 and level 3, but will the Minister tell us what he will do, first, to make sure that retention and completion rates are higher and, secondly, to disincentivise employers who train people to a particular level but then drop the apprenticeship because the people are economically useful to the company, because that is one of the huge barriers to young people completing their apprenticeship?

On the issue of drop-out, we do everything we can to raise completion rates and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s acknowledgement in the House this morning, but it is important not to say that young people have “dropped out” of an apprenticeship—they have completed a part of their apprenticeship and often go on to other occupations and valuable work that is right for them. One of the things that we have been keen to do is to ensure that there are programme-led apprenticeships, perhaps for young people who are not ready for an apprenticeship. We are absolutely committed to ensuring the quality of apprenticeships, but such young people can work in college, based around the sector, in preparation for an apprenticeship. We believe that that is absolutely key to driving up standards and completion rates. It is also important to acknowledge that in the end this is employment, and the whole thrust of the review is to incentivise employers to recognise the contribution they need to make to their local community so that we are all investing in our young people.

My hon. Friend may be aware that BRUSH, a group of companies in my constituency, is for the first time taking on apprentices in the engineering sector that was decimated in the 1980s and is now re-growing. However, the group has reached the stage of having to put up billboards around the town to attract people to apply for those posts, as people feel, because of the state that engineering has been in for the past decade or so, that there is a problem with its future. What is my hon. Friend doing in his Department to ensure that we promote engineering and the fact that it has a bright future? BRUSH has full books and a healthy future in front of it, so we need to promote the benefits of engineering to young people, because it is the foundation of everything we do in the UK.

My hon. Friend is right, which is why we have included in the apprenticeship review a requirement for schools to ensure that there is appropriate careers information about available apprenticeships. In relation to engineering, he will be pleased that SEMTA—the Science, Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies Alliance, the sector skills council—has identified careers information and work with schools as a clear priority in its sector skills agreement.

I do not want to be excessively brutal with the Minister—[Hon. Members: “Go on.”] No, I know that he is desperately worried about being forced to repeat what he reluctantly acknowledged at the previous departmental question time, which is that the number of apprentices is falling at all levels. The Leitch report makes it clear that reskilling and upskilling adults who are already in the work force is vital to our economic future, so can the Minister tell us, ideally without more banter and bluff, why the number of adults not yet skilled to level 2, on all types of Learning and Skills Council-funded provision, including workplace training, has plummeted by 620,000—a staggering 42 per cent.—in the past two years?

It is becoming routine to have ding-dongs on this issue in the Chamber every few weeks. What the hon. Gentleman should concentrate on is the number of young people who have started an apprenticeship and the number who have completed one. The number of young people who started an apprenticeship this year is 180,000; the number who started an apprenticeship in 1997 was 65,000, so there has been tremendous progress. The number of young people who completed an apprenticeship this year was 103,000, and we have already discussed the poor completion rate when the hon. Gentleman was in power. Those are the figures. That is improvement and he should support the apprenticeship review to ensure that we take it even further forward.

IGCSEs and A-Levels

6. When he last met university vice-chancellors to discuss the value of IGCSE and A-level qualifications. (187373)

I meet many vice-chancellors to discuss issues of importance and interest to them, including reforms of our national qualification system. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it is for higher education institutions to decide what use they make of all qualifications in their admissions procedures. The recent report undertaken by the 1994 group of universities shows a widespread welcome of the changes being made to A-levels to ensure that they provide the right level of stretch and challenge for those going on to higher education.

Does the Minister accept that universities regard IGCSEs as having more academic rigour than GCSEs? Can he explain to my 15-year-old son, who just got an A* in his IGCSE maths, why the Government regard that achievement as being of no value?

The qualification is not accredited. Let us look at the facts. IGCSEs are not compatible with the national curriculum. For example, the English language IGCSE does not include compulsory study of Shakespeare or any other author, unlike the GCSE, and an assessment of speaking and listening is optional, whereas it is compulsory for GCSE. Furthermore, there is no non-calculator paper in the maths IGCSE. Those are the concerns. The IGCSE is not an approved qualification for funding, and as it has not been accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, there is no regularised mechanism to ensure comparability with GCSEs.

In respect of the research-intensive universities, has the Minister considered the impact of the introduction of the A* grade at A-level? Specifically, does he think that the A* grade will increase or decrease the proportion of students from state schools in research-intensive universities?

We need to monitor that issue. The latest modelling shows a very marginal change, not the kind of change that my hon. Friend suggests, but I accept that as we move towards an A* qualification, we need to keep the issue under close review.

May I tell the Minister that he is living in cloud cuckoo land if he does not realise that public confidence in the quality and rigour of public examinations is falling, as evidenced this week by the announcement that students of modern foreign languages will no longer undergo an examination, merely a continual assessment by the teacher? Does he also appreciate that his Government’s failure to accept the IGCSE as a proper qualification, when the market clearly believes that it is one, merely adds to the lack of public confidence in the Government’s willingness to maintain standards in our public examinations?

There is a real and ongoing problem of Members of the House seeking to run down the qualifications gained by young people in this country. When the director-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s education branch examined our A-level system a couple of years ago, he identified that no similar qualification anywhere in the world was as rigorously and regularly tested. It is instructive that Opposition Members talk of the IGCSE, a qualification undertaken predominantly in independent schools. I urge them to concentrate on the needs and interests of the vast majority of children in their constituencies, who do not attend independent schools.

Astronomy Research

The UK has world-leading expertise in astronomy research, including expertise at Glasgow university in gravitational wave radiation. The Government are increasing the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the main public funder of astronomy research in the UK, by 13.6 per cent. over the next three years. We have asked Research Councils UK, as part of its continuing oversight of the health of disciplines, to conduct a cross-council review of physics research, including astronomy. The review will be led by Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of the university of Southampton, and I expect the review panel to report to RCUK in the summer.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments about the good record of Glasgow university, but as he will be aware, its physics department is dependent on the STFC for more than 85 per cent. of its research budget. Does he agree that, pending the outcome of the Wakeham review, it would be premature to cut programmes—by up to 25 per cent. in the case of Glasgow? Instead, and not reaching for the stars, may I ask him to consider a transitional arrangement?

I agree that a cut would be premature and it is not happening. Overall, the expected number of astronomy research grants in 2008-09 is 323, which is significantly more than the 247 that there were at the start of the comprehensive spending review period in 2005-06. In this financial year, including the impact of full economic costing, universities will have had a 67 per cent. increase in astronomy funding compared with 2005-06. That represents real investment in university research departments. I congratulate those at the university of Glasgow who undertake astronomy research. They are world class in their field.

I am disappointed to hear the Minister boasting once again about science funding and physics funding, because as a direct result of his decision on STFC funding last year, physicists are saying that there is a crisis. Astronomers, researchers and the Royal Astronomical Society also say that there is a crisis. Does he accept that there is a crisis, or does he think that they are all wrong?

I am aware of the number of representations that I have had from the astronomy community and the particle physics community as a result of the STFC’s settlement, but we should look at the facts. There will be no cuts to particle physics grants in the coming financial year. The research grants to astronomy are at their highest level for many years. We have seen a doubling in the science budget. We are spending over £500 million on physics a year, and that figure will go up over the next three years. So we have a sound track record of major investment in physics. Physics is one of the great strengths of the United Kingdom, and I am sure that the Wakeham review will want to take a broad look overall at the health of the discipline.


At the heart of our reforms will be the creation of a new national apprenticeships service to drive up the number of apprenticeship places and ensure that young people and adults get the opportunities to succeed.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the enormous welcome for the investment in my constituency, Calder Valley, which has many high-end engineering companies, but what can his Department do to encourage more young people, particularly girls, and women who have taken career breaks into reskilling through engineering apprenticeships?

My hon. Friend is right to say that in relation to women, there are two issues that are important for engineering. We should make the system flexible enough, and we should have enough advanced apprenticeships to ensure that women returning to work after having children can progress within the profession. I am grateful for the work that we have been able to do to fund WISE—the initiative within engineering to help women return to work—and for the increased places in advanced apprenticeship. The Science, Engineering and, Manufacturing Technologies Alliance and the sector skills councils that cover the range of engineering skills are doing a great deal of work to advertise to women and to ensure that those places are available for them to take up if they want to.

I welcome the importance that the Government attach to increasing the number of apprenticeships, but does the Minister agree that skilled engineers, tradesmen and technicians are in huge demand in the UK economy and that many of the current vacancies are being filled by immigrants? What new emphasis can the Government give to apprenticeships to attract young people in the United Kingdom to take up apprenticeships to fill the vacancies that are so important to the employers of this country?

The hon. Gentleman is right. In a strong economy, in which there has been growth in every quarter, young people in the marketplace compete with people who have arrived in this country from a number of places. That is why we initiated the apprenticeship review, which we published last month. The whole thrust of that is to make it easier for businesses to take on young apprentices and adults. One important thing in relation to engineering, given the size of some of the companies, is group training associations. Through them a small engineering company, perhaps low down in the supply chain, can cluster together with a training provider. There is then a hub and spoke model, in which there is someone to deal with the training and necessary bureaucracy, and the company can have the apprentice it needs.

Leitch Report

Last summer, the Government published “World Class Skills”, which sets out our plans for implementing the Leitch recommendations. To support that ambitious reform programme, total Government investment in adult skills will increase to £5.3 billion by 2010-11. That increase in investment will support more than 7 million learners in the period 2008-09 to 2010-11.

In Swansea, there is a wonderful flagship development called the SA1 project, in which small and medium-sized enterprises can relocate to an old dockland area. Many of those companies have fewer than 20 employees and they are reluctant to invest in skills and training because of time and financial pressures. Will the Secretary of State consider how we can invest in and support them by advising and guiding them on how they can invest in the training and skills agenda?

I am sure that my hon. Friend heard my earlier statement about investment in the leadership and management of small and medium-sized enterprises in England. That is precisely designed to ensure that the leadership of small companies understand their skills needs and are supported in using public money. We have shown that that model works in England and we are expanding it dramatically. I hope that the devolved Administrations, who bear responsibility for skills in their areas, will look at it and see what would be appropriate for their circumstances.

Topical Questions

I have today given further information about the development of the new advancement and careers service in London. Getting from a job with few prospects to a good job can be as tough as getting off benefit and into work. People who want to get on need support in improving their skills and often in sorting out child care, tax credit, housing and other issues. The new joined-up approach to providing advice and support is crucial to overcoming those barriers. Two pilot services will open in London later this year. The first will serve Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth; the second will be developed in partnership with the Mayor and will have a particular focus on those who already have a job but want to develop further skills, take more responsibility and earn higher wages.

We talk about social inclusion and social mobility, yet the 50 per cent. of the population in the lowest three socio-economic groups obtain fewer than 10 per cent. of Oxbridge places. More than 50 per cent. of those places go to the less than 10 per cent. of the population who are educated in private schools. What urgent action is planned to tackle that scandalous social stasis, whereby many thousands of able, working-class students are being pushed out by the sharp elbows and deep pockets of the well-to-do?

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education acknowledged earlier, this is an important issue. Let me say this to the House. There are things that can be done directly by universities in their admissions processes. It is significant that this week Cambridge university has announced that it will drop the requirement to have a separate application form and is falling in line with UCAS. Equally, if children are educated in schools where teachers say to them, “Oxbridge is not for somebody like you,” it is not surprising that Oxbridge does not recruit those students. We also have to work with schools to ensure that young people of high ability from working class backgrounds get every support and encouragement to fulfil their full potential. That must start in the school, which cannot expect everything to be done at the moment of admission to university.

T8. The Secretary of State will be aware that the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh is one of this country’s centres of excellence for astronomical research. What assurances can he give to staff there that the actions of the Science and Technology Facilities Council will not rob the country of that first-class facility? (187400)

I acknowledge the valuable work that is done in astronomy departments right across the United Kingdom. The point that needs to be made is twofold. As with all research councils, the STFC will, over time, make decisions about changing priorities in research. The fundamental point to accept is that, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation said, total funding going into university research for astronomy will next year be 63 per cent. higher than it was in 2005. This is not a Government who are cutting science budgets, and that needs to be accepted. There will always be difficult decisions to be taken about where scientific research should be concentrated, but without those difficult decisions things would never move forward, and that would not be right either.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Durham university and its partners on bidding to sponsor three academies in Durham? Does he agree that, if successful, that could be a very positive step forward in terms of raising aspirations further in this country and securing more opportunities for our young people? (187394)

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in congratulating Durham university. The structural link that needs to be built between universities and schools, whether in the form of academies, trusts or in other ways, is critical to raising aspirations and improving social equity and access to university in the way that Members of this House want. I hope that all universities will look at the opportunities that exist in their local communities and regions to see how they can build those strong and deep structural links in the way that Durham is trying to do.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his student support regulations are seriously defective? Ministers say that students in families on between £21,000 and £38,000 should receive a partial maintenance grant based on a sliding scale, but the regulations say that they should all receive the maximum £1,230. Does he agree with the National Union of Students that students should claim whatever financial support they are entitled to?

First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise this question. I assure him, and the House, that I am advised that the intention of the regulations is clear and that their drafting would not give rise to a claim for higher payments in the way that he suggests. Local authorities and the Student Loans Company use the accompanying guidance when they assess applications for student support. No money has been paid out incorrectly, and no local authority has raised any concerns. None the less, given that he has raised the issue, we are reprinting the regulations with the correction made.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for acknowledging that I gave him advance notice of the question. It sounds as though we are going to get the regulations amended in the light of the points that I made to him. Let us be clear about this. In the past month, he has admitted that prisoners have received hundreds of thousands of pounds in student maintenance because of what he called an unjustifiable provision in his regulations, and this morning he has said that he is going to change the regulations again because of another mistake in the rules of access to maintenance grant. So prisoners have been getting money that they should not and students can claim money that they are not supposed to get. Why is his Department so incapable of getting the right money to the right students under these regulations?

Of course, that is not what has happened. On the question that the hon. Gentleman raised yesterday, clear guidance was made available by my Department on that issue in December. We are not amending the regulations. We are not coming back to the House to seek its permission to change the regulations. They are being reprinted—

Yes; we are reprinting them to make the intentions of the regulations absolutely clear, as I told the House. The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong when he says that the drafting of the regulations gives rise to a higher claim. He is simply wrong about that. However, I am grateful to him for the way in which he raised that point.

With regard to payments of maintenance grants and maintenance loans to prisoners, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that as the Secretary of State who found out about that, I am the Secretary of State who took action to stop it.

T3. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent projections that suggest that it will take woman graduates on average 16 years to repay their student debt, while it will take male graduates only 11 years. Will he confirm that that will be taken into account in the development of student financial support policy? (187395)

The issue is that repayment of student loans is income contingent. In other words, it is related to how much people earn. I believe that my hon. Friend is right in principle in what she says. However, the issue that needs to be addressed is not the structure of the repayment of student loans, but the many other reasons why women earn less than men in our society. The Government are addressing that matter through the women and work commission, and in other ways. That is where we should focus our attention.

When the A-level courses beginning in September are reduced from six modules to four, is it the intention of Ministers that students should study the four modules more rigorously, or simply compensate by doing additional A-levels? Will that disadvantage students who are now in the lower sixth form year, who go on a gap year, and find themselves competing for university entry against fellows with more A-levels?

The move from six modules to four has been widely welcomed, along with the greater use of synoptic questions and the extended project. All the indications are that universities greatly welcome those changes as a means of improving what is already a very good qualification.

T4. I salute the Government’s support for pure research in science, including physics. Last summer, I visited the impressive and worthwhile particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva. Can the Minister tell me how much support the Government has given to CERN, and when the facility will reopen following a rebuild? (187396)

The Government have provided a substantial amount of money to CERN—from memory, I think it is something like £700 million during the past four years. I can confirm that according to current plans, CERN will be open for business, with its new large hadron collider, in July this year. It is a tremendously exciting project—the biggest physics project ever—and it will provide great opportunities for the four experiment types planned at CERN.

Will the Secretary of State use his Department’s influence with the Learning and Skills Council to see whether it can provide funding for projects such as “Mentoring for U” at Chelmsford prison? The project does fantastic work in helping dyslexic prisoners to improve their literacy skills, which helps with their rehabilitation and gives them a better start once they leave prison.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I met the LSC leadership on offender learning this week, and I will be happy to ask the council to look at the scheme he described. He will be aware that in our test-bed regions in the east of England, Bedford and the west midlands, much pioneering work is going on in relation to offender learning. I shall ask the LSC to consider the issue.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend realise that apprenticeships are the lifeblood of the west midlands, which has always been noted for its manufacturing base? What is he doing about the quality of apprenticeships? (187398)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows that, in the past few years, the Government, through the Learning and Skills Council, have rigorously raised standards in apprenticeships and withdrawn support from training providers that were not seen to deliver. We will go further through the apprenticeships review. First, it will be clear that an apprenticeship that does not involve work-based training with an employer is not an apprenticeship. Secondly, in the draft apprenticeship Bill, which we will publish later this year, we will set out the basis for clearly defining the rights and responsibilities of apprentices, employers and the training system to ensure that, nationally, across the sector and across occupations, the apprenticeship is universally regarded as a high quality training qualification.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend impress on his European counterparts the importance of the work to reskill and upskill the employees of Vauxhall Motors in partnership with our further education sector? Will he stress that that is the way in which Europe will win the race to the top and stand a chance of competing in the global economy? (187401)

I would be happy to discuss the details of the issue that my hon. Friend raises with him. In general, he is right that this country, contrary to what is often said, has a strong manufacturing base. We are still the sixth largest manufacturer in the world. However, our future lies in high value added manufacturing, which depends on having the research capability and the skills in the work force to do the best engineering and manufacturing. Skills are at the heart of that, and I would be pleased to discuss with my hon. Friend the work at Vauxhall Motors.

T10. Further education colleges work best when they are allowed maximum flexibility on the sort of courses that they can put together and the partners with whom they can work. What more can we do to reduce the ring-fencing of budgets in the FE sector to promote better educational partnerships with not only other educational institutions but workplaces? (187402)

May I say to my hon. Friend, who takes a keen interest in the activities of his local FE college, that there is a genuine balance to be struck between the central direction that we need to achieve our skills targets and giving sufficient flexibility beyond those targets? The current system of funding is moving in that direction, and I hope that that answers his concerns.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 25 February will be:

Monday 25 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to international development followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [6th allotted day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to international development.

Tuesday 26 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to the effectiveness of the EU institutions and EU decision making, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [7th allotted day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to the effectiveness of the EU institutions and EU decision making, followed by motion to approve a local government restructuring order relating to Cheshire.

Wednesday 27 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to climate change, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [8th allotted day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to climate change and remaining amendments on clause 2.

Thursday 28 February—A debate on Welsh affairs.

Friday 29 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 3 March will include:

Monday 3 March—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [9th allotted day] covering clauses 3 to 7.

Tuesday 4 March—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [10th allotted day] covering clauses 3 to 7 not completed on 3 March.

Wednesday 5 March—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [11th allotted day] covering clause 8, the schedule, new clauses and new schedules.

Thursday 6 March—A debate on women’s representation in democracy.

Friday 7 March—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 and 13 March will be:

Thursday 6 March—A debate on the International Health Partnership.

Thursday 13 March—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Human rights on the human rights of older people in health care.

My thanks to the Deputy Leader of the House for that information.

The Government promised that, in place of a referendum, we would have line-by-line scrutiny and 20 days of debate on the Lisbon treaty. But the House has been given only 14 days of debate, and last night a group of defence amendments was never even reached. Failing to debate such an important and weighty issue as the defence of our country is unacceptable. Will the Deputy Leader of the House commit to giving an extra day of defence debate?

We found out this week that, to meet Government targets, seriously ill patients are left for hours in ambulances instead of being admitted to accident and emergency. Over the past 15 months, such deplorable treatment of patients has led to at least 44,000 delays being reported. May I suggest that we have a topical debate on the Government’s obsession with targets and the impact that it is having on patient care?

Having lost the personal details of 25 million people and subjected millions of families to the appalling mismanagement of tax credits, staff at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are now in line for record bonuses of £23 million. That is almost £1 for every person whose details have been lost. Will the Chancellor make a statement to explain why the Government are rewarding a Department that has failed our families so badly?

The Government have spent £800 million trying to cut the number of students dropping out of university. But more than one fifth of those students are still dropping out, which is a decrease of a mere 1 per cent. over eight years. Spending £800 million for a 1 per cent. return is a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money. We need the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to make a statement to the House on the disastrous failure of his policy.

Only a small number of illegal immigrants are ever deported from the UK. But we now find that a large number of those people are turned back by the country to which they are deported and returned to the UK because the Home Office has messed up their paperwork. Even when the Home Office tries to deport someone, it cannot get it right. We need an urgent statement from the Home Secretary on the continued mismanagement of her Department.

Finally, two years ago, Tony Blair promised that our troops would get anything that they needed for their protection. But this week, commanders in Afghanistan have said that they do not have funding for helicopters that they desperately need. The Government coroner says that troops have inadequate equipment, and there are reports that defence cuts may be as much as £3 billion. This cannot be right. We need a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence urgently, explaining why the Government are failing properly to protect the brave men and women who daily put their lives at risk in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

This is a Government who have reneged on their pledges to Parliament, failed patients, let down our future generation and betrayed our armed forces. This is a Government who are staggering from one disaster to another. They are incapable, incompetent and in a mess. The British people know that they deserve better and they are not impressed.

The hon. Gentleman began by raising the consideration of the Bill to enact the Lisbon treaty. He knows very well that we wanted to give the House a proper opportunity for substantial consideration of the Bill. We have set out a process, which the House agreed following a full debate, that enables the House to have a discussion on the substantive issues, as well as giving time to consider amendments. The Opposition, moreover, accepted that approach in their own programme motion. Furthermore, the Government promised to be flexible with respect to the timetabling on individual days, and we have been flexible. We were flexible yesterday, giving three hours for the amendments as well as three hours for the general debate. The suggestion that there has not been proper consideration of this Bill is quite ridiculous. We have allowed 12 days for the Committee of the whole House, which is more than the Committee stages for the Nice and Amsterdam treaties and the Single European Act put together.

The hon. Gentleman went on to raise the issue of waits in ambulances for A and E. I do not know whether he is aware of the fact that, in the past two years, 98 per cent. of patients were seen, diagnosed and treated within four hours. In the last quarter for which we have statistics, 2.7 per cent. of people waited more than four hours, and in the quarter before that it was 1.7 per cent. It is quite wrong for the hon. Gentleman to scaremonger in this way.

The hon. Gentleman then went on to talk about the HM Revenue and Customs bonuses. The bonuses that were paid in—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much conversation going on, and that is unfair. The hon. Lady has been asked several questions, and she is entitled to answer them.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The bonuses paid in 2007-08 were for work carried out in 2006-07. In line with the wider civil service, bonuses are paid to encourage and reward officials and to enable HMRC to improve its performance and service to taxpayers and the Government.

The hon. Gentleman then complained about student drop-outs. The truth is that we rank fifth in the OECD in the first degree completion rates. We have a survival rate of 78 per cent., which is far better than that of most countries in the European Union.

On defence spending, the hon. Gentleman once again indulged in some quite ridiculous scaremongering. The truth is that, in cash terms, the United Kingdom is the second highest spender on defence; we are second only to the United States. The increases that have been agreed in the comprehensive spending review baseline represent an average 1.5 per cent. real-terms increase over the next few years.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of deportations. I think that those points were perfectly well answered by the Prime Minister yesterday, but if the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member has any further questions on the issue, they can raise them in Home Office questions on Monday.

The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware of the long-standing support of three Home Secretaries and 180 MPs of all parties, as well as Amnesty International, women’s organisations, faith groups and thousands of individuals, for the Jane Longhurst campaign against violent internet pornography. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend to deliver quickly on the assurances given at the Dispatch Box by the Justice Secretary to include the promised measures in the forthcoming Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that is currently in the other place?

Of course I am well aware of this important issue, and of the effective campaigning that my hon. Friend has done to raise the issue with Ministers and in the House. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill contains many good, important measures. As he knows, it is vital that the Bill secures support in both Houses to a reasonable timetable. That means that difficult decisions sometimes have to be made. However, I am sure that my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are aware of the public support for the measures that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and I will refer the matter to the Secretary of State.

In answering the question about defence, the Deputy Leader of the House talked about the amount of money spent by the Government, but the crucial issue is the burden placed by the Government on soldiers in the front line. The International Development Committee visit to Afghanistan revealed how vital it is to have adequate helicopter support because the transport situation is so difficult. A defence statement would be useful, so we could ask questions on the real impact on the ground of helicopter deployments.

When the Government brought in modernisation, it was put to us that the whole point of timetabling was to improve scrutiny, but as we saw with the Northern Rock Bill, if timetabling is not handled properly, we do not get effective scrutiny, and the Government were unable to deal adequately with concerns in the House about the Granite vehicle, which so affected what exactly the Government were nationalising. Will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that, on vital issues such as Northern Rock, we have proper time for debate?

I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests in respect of energy matters to do with my shareholding in Shell and to do with the offshore oil and gas industry. I also remind the House that I am vice-president of Energy Action Scotland, a fuel poverty charity. I call for a debate on fuel prices and note that yet more price rises for the country to contend with are revealed today. The Government have relied on low fuel prices to tackle fuel poverty, but we desperately need more investment and effective measures for warm homes. The Government need to explain how they intend to deal with their increased VAT take as prices rise and with the increased profits for the fuel companies that have come from carbon tax allocations.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has prayed against the changes in immigration regulations and would like to see that matter debated on the Floor of the House so that Members can express their concerns about how those changes might impact on people. In previous questions, my hon. Friend has welcomed the fact that we are to have debates on Welsh affairs and women’s affairs, but when Commonwealth day comes, may we also have a debate on Commonwealth issues, which would allow a wide range of concerns to be raised across the House?

Finally, in the Christmas Adjournment debate I raised issues about the Post Office and the Deputy Leader of the House arranged for the Minister with responsibility for the Post Office to reply in writing, but it would be useful to have a debate now on the progress of the post office closure programme, so that Members confronted by it could inform the House how it is working on the ground. Those of us who represent the north-east of Scotland will have to wait until May to find out, but we still need to know how the closure programme will happen. The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs has said that if we save a post office, we do not necessarily have to close another one in lieu. Many Members are saying, apocryphally, that that is not the message they are getting on the ground with the current closure programme. A debate on the post office closure programme would therefore be extremely timely and would help us to understand exactly what the Government require of the Post Office.

The hon. Gentleman began by raising the issue of resources in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I am sure he is aware that the financial resources for work in those countries is over and above the normal defence budget expenditure. He went on to raise questions about the handling of the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill. When it was decided to bring that measure forward, it was felt important that the House should have the opportunity to agree how it would progress. That is why there was a debate on the programme motion on Tuesday. All stages are being properly gone through here and in the other place. Opposition Members tend to want it both ways: on the one hand, they say they understand the reasons for expediting the legislation, but on the other hand, they complain when it is handled quickly.

The hon. Gentleman went on to raise the issue of rising fuel prices and fuel poverty. Let me remind him that this Government introduced the winter fuel allowance, which has now been increased to £300 for older pensioners. We are also spending record sums on Warm Front, the programme to insulate houses and improve heating, which gets to the fundamental issues that the hon. Gentleman was trying to raise.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we are taking advice from Ofgem on the competition issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the prayer laid by his colleague the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) against the immigration regulations. Obviously, colleagues at the Home Office are fully aware of that.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) also requested, in essence, two topical debates; that is what I shall take his suggestion to be. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman speaks from a sedentary position. The fact of the matter is that topical debates are in Government time. He asked for a debate on the Commonwealth and another on the Post Office restructuring programme, which is under way. I well know that that is a matter of concern across the House, particularly in relation to rural issues. The truth is that the Government have spent £2.2 billion on supporting the Post Office and will spend a further £1.7 billion, so Royal Mail should be able to manage a proper network within those resources.

As the hon. Gentleman said, consultations are under way. I want to emphasise the fact that those consultations have a real impact on outcomes. For example, across the 11 areas for which final decisions have been announced, 23 closure decisions have been withdrawn. In addition, with 19 area plans so far published, an average of more than 10 per cent. of the initial proposals have been changed, so it is important that people take part in the consultations.

Further to the assurances that the Deputy Leader of the House has just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on legislation to deal with violent internet pornography, she will be aware that the need for such legislation was highlighted by the brutal murder some five years ago of my constituent, Jane Longhurst, a respected teacher.

Assurances have been given in the past by the Government. In addition to the reminders that the Deputy Leader of the House has undertaken to give to her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, will she remind them of the 50,000-signature petition on the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and I presented to Parliament, and of the fact that the Dutch Parliament, as well as other European Parliaments, is carefully watching what happens in the House with a view to introducing legislation along similar lines?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points, which I shall relay to colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

When does the Deputy Leader of the House expect to receive the Electoral Commission proposal for the single registration of Members’ interests?

When are we going to get the regional Select Committees that we were promised so that we can begin to hold to account some of the quangos that operate in our regions?

My hon. Friend is quite right: it is important that the accountability of regional development authorities and other regional bodies is improved, which is why the proposal was made in the summer in the White Paper “The Governance of Britain”. The way that that should be done is being considered by the Modernisation Committee, and it will report soon.

Given that the Government disgracefully rigged the business of the House yesterday—discussion of the Lisbon treaty—may we have an urgent debate on the foreign policy, defence and security elements of that treaty so that we can send out a clear message from the House that we care about these matters, unlike the Government?

The truth is that there was a debate yesterday about the defence aspects. Furthermore, next Monday there will be time for a debate on the international development aspects.

Will my hon. Friend consider holding a debate on the regulation of the life insurance industry? When my constituent, Mrs. Susan Hurrell, was diagnosed as being terminally ill with ovarian cancer and contacted her insurance company to claim as she was convinced that she had terminal illness cover, the company said that she did not. Her husband contacted the company again some weeks later; again, they were told that they did not have that cover. Some months later, the company agreed that they did in fact have cover, but it refused to pay out because they had not claimed within the 13-week period.

Does my hon. Friend agree—

My hon. Friend has made a powerful case and raised an important issue. I will take away his suggestion for a topical debate on the matter.

This week, the United Kingdom Government recognised that independence in Europe represents optimal relations for nations in Europe—except Scotland, of course. A Scotland Office Minister said that there should be no changes to the devolved settlement, in the same week that Wendy Alexander wants more and the Prime Minister wants more and less all at the same time. When can we have a debate in Government time on that confusing approach by the Whitehall Government?

I do not believe that there is any confusion at all on that matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise any concerns that he has with Scotland Office Ministers in questions.

Mr. Speaker, you will know that this week it was announced that 169 sub-post offices are to close in London, many of them in deprived areas. I have one in my constituency, in Vauxhall street—a little town centre that has just been regenerated, but which will now have its heart torn out. As the Leader of the House herself has some such post offices in her constituency, will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for a debate on post offices, because people do not believe that the consultation is anything other than a sham?

As I said earlier to another hon. Member, I do not believe that the consultations are a sham. However, I accept that there is strong feeling across the House on the matter and we will keep the question whether to have further consideration—in addition to the Adjournment and Westminster Hall debates—under review.

May I put it to the Deputy Leader of the House that when she says that we are spending 12 days considering the Lisbon treaty in Committee, she is saying something that is not true? Half the time is spent on debates of the Government’s own choosing—as a platform for their own views, not for Ministers to respond to amendments tabled by hon. and right hon. Members. By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that line-by-line scrutiny is taking place when whole rafts of amendments—for example, on defence and foreign policy—have been simply passed over and not discussed at all.

May I endorse the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for at least an extra day on the defence aspects of the treaty? Otherwise, the Government will not have delivered their promise of line-by-line scrutiny.

The truth is that the approach that has been taken to consideration of the Bill and the treaty allows for consideration of amendments and for debates on the underlying issues in the Lisbon treaty. That is what concerns the British public.

Can we have a statement from my hon. Friend on the process for the root and branch review of Members’ expenses, which is under way? As I understand it, the House gave authority to the Members Estimate Committee to carry out that review, but if press and media reports are to be believed, everyone and their granny wants a piece of the action. Can we have clarity on the issue, if for no other reason than that the authority of the House be undermined no longer?

My hon. Friend is quite right that this is an important issue and the public need to know that the resources that Members have for fulfilling their responsibilities are adequate and properly accounted for. As he knows, before the Standards and Privileges Committee looked into the case of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), the House decided to refer the question of all the allowances to the Members Estimate Committee for a root and branch review. That review and that work are now under way.

In the light of the case of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, the Standards and Privileges Committee has proposed some changes in the operation of the Register of Members’ Interests. That makes an important contribution to debate on the matter. It would be helpful if the House considered all the issues together, and examined the Committee’s suggestions in the light of the report from the Members Estimate Committee, in order to resolve the matter before the summer recess.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House take very seriously the questions that have been put about programme motions, not least those relating to the Lisbon treaty? I am sorry, but the hon. Lady is utterly wrong. Not only many Members but many people outside believe that, because of the programme motions, the House cannot undertake the job it is here to do: scrutinise legislation—in this instance, a treaty. Large tranches of amendments are not being debated at all. Will the hon. Lady ask the Leader of the House and the Government to provide time for a debate on programme motions and their destructive effect on the House’s ability to do its job?

As the hon. Gentleman knows very well, a whole day’s debate was devoted to the programming of the business, and the motion that followed the debate was passed. The hon. Gentleman is frustrated, but the House’s overall view was made clear on that occasion.

I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that fair trade fortnight begins next Monday. Is she also aware that Cardiff became the world’s first fair trade capital in 2004, and that it now contains more than 150 outlets—cafés, shops, businesses and other organisations—that use and sell fair trade products? Does she not consider this important movement to be worthy of a debate?

Fair trade is indeed a very important movement in this country. I congratulate my hon. Friend and the city of Cardiff on the significant progress they have made in expanding fair trade in the city, and I will consider her request for a debate.

Over the past few months more and more research has been published calling into question the Government’s policy on biofuels, including an excellent report by the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. I declare an interest as a member of the Committee. In the light of that research, will the Government find time for a debate so that the House can reach a view on an issue that may affect the country’s environmental future?

The hon. Lady is right: biofuels are an important new development. DEFRA will consider the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, but, as the hon. Lady knows, all Select Committee reports can be debated in Westminster Hall.

The Deputy Leader of the House will recall that before the recess we made some important decisions on the Standing Orders of the European Scrutiny Committee and its Sub-Committees. May I urge her to look at the account of those decisions, which I have passed to her? As a result of one of them, we held our first public meeting yesterday, in line with the Modernisation Committee’s recommendation that we should examine documents and conduct pre and post-Council scrutiny in public.

The Deputy Leader of the House said that she would try to involve Members more in European scrutiny. Five debates are outstanding that are to take place in the new European Committees, but they are not listed on the papers that have been circulated among Members. Will the Deputy Leader of the House undertake to list the debates we have arranged each week and circulate them by some method, so that Members with an interest can let it be known that they wish to take part?

My hon. Friend is an excellent Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, and he makes a good point. We have made important decisions on improving European scrutiny, and I am glad that the Committee reached agreement yesterday on how that improvement should operate in practice.

As my hon. Friend knows, we promised the House that in the autumn we would review the operation of the new procedures. I will consider his point about the European Standing Committees—or the European Committees as they are now to be called—but I remind him that during the debate on European scrutiny I said that those debates would be listed on the Order Paper in future.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House consider arranging an urgent debate on the Environment Agency, which has just announced that in Somerset it will stop cleaning out the waterways and ditches, or reams as we call them? There has been no consultation with anyone, and I do not think even the Government know what is going on. Anyone who knows anything about flooding knows that it is desirable for the water to go into the rivers as quickly as possible so that it flows away. If the waterways and reams are not cleared, we will experience another of the disasters that we have suffered over the past two years, and the situation will get worse.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I will ask my colleagues in DEFRA to write to him about it.

There are about six almost identical local authority private Bills before the House designed to deal with the nuisance that pedlars are causing in many towns and cities throughout the country, and even more such Bills are likely to be presented. Bills of this kind are extremely expensive to promote. Will the Government consider supporting my Pedlars (Street Trading Regulation) Bill? It would save Government time, and an awful lot of public money.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government consider all private Members’ Bills that are presented to the House. He probably also knows that the matter he has raised was considered in some detail last year when we debated the Bill that became the Charities Act 2006. However, I will draw his remarks to the attention of my colleagues in the Cabinet Office.

May I add to the calls for a debate on the post office closure programme? We are seeing savage cuts throughout London: my constituency, for instance, will have lost more than half its post offices since 2003. Given that there is cross-party concern and that post offices are vital community assets, will the Government find time in their programme for a debate?

As I have told other Members, I know that there is strong feeling about the matter across the House. I will relay the hon. Lady’s concerns to Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

The Government frequently say that time for debate in the Chamber is limited. On Thursday 28 February we are to have a one-day debate on Welsh affairs, although many Welsh issues are devolved. The population of my region, the west midlands, is considerably larger than that of Wales, but there is no devolution in the west midlands. When may we have a one-day debate on the west midlands?

My hon. Friend is an effective champion of the west midlands and of his constituency, and he has made an important point. I hope he will be encouraged by the establishment of regional Select Committees, in which it will be possible to consider such matters more thoroughly.

The Deputy Leader of the House has just announced a further two weeks of unremitting European legislation. At the same time, important domestic Bills are stacked up awaiting Report. The Health and Social Care, Housing and Regeneration, Energy, Education and Skills, and Planning Bills are all out of Committee. Can we not vary this rich European diet with some home-grown roughage?

I am sure that many Members are sympathetic to the right hon. Gentleman’s concern, but, as he has heard, it is also the case that many Members would like more rather than less discussion of the Lisbon treaty, and I think it important that we complete that process.

May we have a debate on the powers of the police to deal with armed foreign nationals on United Kingdom territory? My question arises from an incident that took place in September 2005, which has just been reported. Apparently, British police were deterred from arresting an alleged war criminal, General Almog, when armed El Al air marshals refused them access although British sovereignty covers planes once they have landed on United Kingdom soil. This is clearly an incredibly important issue, which extends beyond that case to other possible cases.

My hon. Friend raises a significant point, and I will ensure that her remarks are drawn to the Home Secretary’s attention.

As the Deputy Leader of the House might be aware, next week has been designated national eating disorders awareness week. There are currently two early-day motions on the subject, one of them in my name: early-day motion 973.

[That this House, recognising that 25th February to 2nd March has been designated Eating Disorders Awareness Week, notes with growing dismay the increasing number of young people, especially female, suffering from eating disorders; further notes with concern the number of websites encouraging millions of vulnerable young people to become anorexic or bulimic, falsely promoting eating disorders as a lifestyle choice and supplying tips on how to maintain their disorder in secret; believes that these sites should act responsibly towards young people; and calls on the Government to promote awareness of the dangers of these sites and provide support for those affected by eating disorders and their families.]

According to official estimates, up to 1 million people a year now suffer from eating disorders and up to 90,000 are actively seeking help. May we have a debate on these important issues, with particular reference to the poisonous influence of websites that actively encourage vulnerable young people, particularly young women, to choose anorexia or bulimia almost as a lifestyle choice?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and important issue to do with young women’s health, and I will draw his remarks to the attention of not only the Department for Children, Schools and Families, but the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has responsibility for the regulation of the internet.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) have touched on this matter, but may we have a debate on increases in the winter fuel payment, which are necessary as it is not keeping pace with the cost of keeping warm? I must declare an interest in that. May we look, too, at the massive increases in the profits of British Gas?

My hon. Friend makes a surprising revelation in her question on the winter fuel allowance. The Department for Work and Pensions keeps the level of benefits under constant review and, as she knows, Ofgem is looking at competition in the energy market.

May I offer my support to calls for a debate on Commonwealth issues? It would give us an opportunity to find out what discussions the Government have had, particularly with African Commonwealth countries about what they are doing to help influence change in Zimbabwe. As President Mugabe tucks into his birthday cake today—it is his 84th birthday—he will do so safe in the knowledge that many of the other inhabitants of his country are starving because of a lack of food and an inflation rate running at 100,000 per cent. African Commonwealth countries must do more to influence change in Zimbabwe.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the serious situation in Zimbabwe. I know that Foreign Office Ministers do pay attention to it, and that they raise it with colleagues at international meetings.

During last week’s recess, we learned that the security of this building was badly compromised: an illegal immigrant who ran away from security guards at Heathrow in December 2004 was found to have been working here for almost two months on a false pass. Home Office Ministers tried to cover that up, but failed to do so as the information was leaked to a Sunday newspaper. Will the Home Secretary—who, happily, has just arrived in the Chamber—be asked to make a statement on this issue, which is clearly of huge importance to the security of all of us?

I think that what the hon. Gentleman has been led to believe from reading the newspapers is inaccurate. I will ask the Home Secretary to write to him.

Kent has several ports of entry, and in recent years it has taken delivery of a number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum. The cost of providing the support they need has now risen to just over £10 million, and Kent county council is having considerable trouble reclaiming that money from the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Will the Deputy Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on this important subject?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the general policy on these issues was discussed yesterday following the Home Secretary’s oral statement. If he has further concerns, he should write to Home Office Ministers.

Will the Deputy Leader arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House next week to make a statement justifying the changes to the regulations governing the granting to supermarkets of licences to run pharmacies. I want the Secretary of State to explain why the Government have changed the rules, which will tie the hands of primary care trusts so they have to grant any application to any supermarket that promises to stay open for 100 hours or more. That will put out of business many small, family-run pharmacies that have served their customers well over many years.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Obviously, the first consideration is the safety and well-being of patients, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of Health Ministers.

May I draw the Deputy Leader’s attention to early-day motion 987 on tandoori and curry chefs?

[That this House notes the concern of Asian restaurateurs that new immigration regulations are causing a shortage of tandoori and curry chefs; further notes that this shortage is threatening the viability of many restaurants that have contributed both financially and culturally to the UK; and calls on the Government to review the regulations, such as the need to speak good English before arrival, so as to ensure an adequate supply of temporary work visas for tandoori and curry chefs.]

The Deputy Leader will no doubt be aware of the contribution Asian businesses have made to this country, both financially and culturally—indeed, chicken tikka masala was voted this country’s favourite dish. Such businesses are struggling to recruit new chefs, however, because of immigration regulations. May we have a statement on the workings of the regulations so that we can look at how such businesses can continue to prosper for this country?

It is, of course, important that Indian restaurants in this country retain their high standards. However, I do not think that anyone can seriously suggest that different immigration regulations should apply to the sector. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there was a debate yesterday on this matter following the Home Secretary’s statement, and he can raise his detailed point in Home Office questions on Monday.

Order. I see that I am now down to my Thursday regulars. I will take them all, but I must have one supplementary and one alone. I am sure that Mr. Mackay will lead the way.

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House share the concern felt by me and many taxpayers in my constituency about the huge costs of certain inquests, particularly those involving juries? May we have a debate on that next week?

As the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, coroners’ courts are, like all civil and criminal courts, run independently; the processes are under the control of the judiciary, which is totally independent. He will also, however, be aware that we have published a draft Coroners Bill, which we hope to introduce at some point, and which would modernise the coroner service.

Given our current foreign policy and defence commitments, would it not show this House in a bad light if we did not have proper line-by-line scrutiny of the Lisbon treaty, not least because it contains new provisions with possible new defence commitments, including a contingent commitment to European common defence? I ask for more time, please, to save the honour of this House.

The hon. Gentleman’s point has been raised by several other Members. I have answered it, and I do not have anything further to add.

Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren are currently choosing their A-level options, yet the Government are reducing the number of modules at A-level from six to four. Many schools think that, as a consequence, A-levels are being devalued and that, therefore, children should take more A-levels than they otherwise would have. May we have a clear response to that, which we failed to get earlier in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)?

I do not think there is any truth in the suggestion that A-levels are being devalued, and I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman was not satisfied with my hon. Friends’ earlier answer, but they are in control of that situation.

May we have a debate on teaching culture in schools? The subject is close to the Government’s heart. Indeed, last week when the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced the Government initiative, he said he felt that it would be, among other things, the

“chance to perform on a stage, to learn a musical instrument”.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House share my concern about the news that funding for Milton Keynes music service will be cut by £113,000, meaning that many of the 5,000 students currently receiving the service will no longer do so? How does that square with this Government commitment?

The truth is that spending on schoolchildren has doubled in the past 10 years, and that has included significant improvements to music teaching and the music service across the country.

May we have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the serial abuse of human rights in Burma and the continuing political crisis in that country? Given that only last week the vice-chairman of the Karen National Union, Padoh Mahn Sha, was assassinated at the instigation of the sadistic military dictatorship, would not such a debate allow us to expose in detail the systematic abuse of human rights, to highlight for the sham that it is the proposed political reform in that country and to chart the way to salvation with freedom, peace and justice for the long-suffering people of Burma?

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty campaigner for the people of Burma. His concerns were shared across the House when we had a debate on the issue only a few months ago, but I understand that the situation is changing and I shall raise the matter in the Foreign Office.

The Foreign Office replied today to my written questions on the role and duties, and terms and conditions, of the new president of the European Council. It stated:

“Discussions on these issues have not yet started.”

We are therefore handing an open cheque to the EU. May we have a debate on this absurd and irresponsible neglect of our national interest?

The hon. Gentleman knows from the business statement that EU institutional reform will be the subject of debate on Tuesday. He will then be able to make his views clear to the Minister for Europe.

Given that the Government wisely distanced themselves from the suggestions about incorporating sharia law made by my old school friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury—that is the name-dropping bit—may we have a statement on consistency from whichever Minister it was who approved the decision to pay benefits in respect of multiple marriages and polygamous partners provided those arrangements were contracted abroad before people came to this country?

I understand that it is untrue to suggest that husbands with multiple wives have been given the go-ahead to claim extra welfare benefits; the welfare benefits date back to 1987.

I want to take the Deputy Leader of the House back to the business that she announced. She will know that day 11 of the debate on the European Union (Amendment) Bill will include discussion of clause 8, and thus the House will be given the opportunity to vote on whether to carry out the Government’s promise to hold a referendum. That business does not have protected time and will conclude at the moment of interruption. Given that it will take place on a Wednesday, many spare hours in the evening will be available for us to debate it at length. That would be the preferable option, but will she at least confirm that the Government will protect that business? My fear, shared by many Conservative Members, is that a number of statements will be made that day to curtail debate on this incredibly important issue.

The programme motion for the consideration of the Lisbon treaty, including the arrangements for the 11th day, was agreed several weeks ago. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that, contrary to what he is suggesting, fewer statements have been made on the days when the Lisbon treaty has been debated.

I want to continue the discussion on the lack of available Committee time to consider the Lisbon treaty. I have had the pleasure of attending each Committee sitting. It has not been too tiring, because most sittings have lasted for only one and a half hours. Selected groups of amendments are clearly not being reached—we only ever debate the first group selected. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is keen on protecting the rights of Back Benchers. One thing that would help the House would be if the arrangements for the six allotted hours were changed so that the vast bulk of the time was spent in Committee, rather than discussing a motion. The Government have agreed to be flexible on the matter. Will she examine it and publish the timetable for next week, setting out how the split between the motion and the Committee is to be delivered?

The hon. Gentleman is right—we promised to be flexible, and we have been. We look ahead every week to consider the appropriate balance, taking into account the level of interest and the number of amendments tabled.

Will the Secretary of State for Health make a statement on the national health service’s approach to group B streptococcal infections in newborn babies? Three out of 10 pregnant women carry the GBS bacterium, which is the most common cause of life-threatening infections in newborn babies, affecting 700 babies a year, 75 of whom die as a result. The NHS does not routinely screen for the condition, but if it did, 80 per cent. of the infections could be treated.

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that infant and maternal health has improved in the past 10 years because of this Labour Government’s trebling of spend on the NHS. I am sure that he can write to the Department of Health about the detailed points that he raised.

HMP Woodhill

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement. As the House will recall, in his statement on 4 February 2008, my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary announced that he and I had jointly agreed to ask the chief surveillance commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, to conduct an inquiry to

“investigate the circumstances relating to the visits to Babar Ahmad at HMP Woodhill by Sadiq Khan MP in May 2005 and June 2006, to establish whether the visits were subject to any form of surveillance and if so by whose authority and with whose knowledge, and to report his findings to the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and…the Justice Secretary.”—[Official Report, 4 February 2008; Vol. 471, c. 661.]

Sir Christopher has completed his inquiry and submitted his report, and I should like to thank him for his work and for the speed and efficiency with which he carried it out. Today, I am laying his report before the House; copies are available in the Vote Office.

There should be absolutely no doubt about the vital importance of covert surveillance techniques and the contribution they make to the protection of us all from terrorism and other serious crime. Covert surveillance is an essential tool for the police and security and intelligence agencies, and the ability to make use of it must be preserved. It is, however, right that its use is carefully regulated. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 mandates the form of authorisation and inspection for a range of investigatory powers, including two distinct types of surveillance: intrusive surveillance and directed surveillance.

Intrusive surveillance is defined as the covert acquisition of information on a residential premise or in a private vehicle. It requires the authorisation of a Secretary of State, or of a chief constable or equivalent, together with the approval of a surveillance commissioner. Directed surveillance is any other covert surveillance that does not constitute intrusive surveillance. Directed surveillance can be approved by senior officers in the police, but does not require, in any circumstances, authorisation by a Secretary of State.

The House will be aware that the 2000 Act also covers the interception of communications. That is a power that can only ever be used for limited purposes, and requires in each case the explicit prior authorisation of a Secretary of State. It is to interception, and to other surveillance requiring the approval of a Secretary of State, that the Wilson doctrine applies. Sir Christopher makes it clear that

“the surveillance which I am investigating does not appear to me to be within the Wilson Doctrine, because it does not give rise to interception as defined by the legislation, nor would it require authorisation by the Secretary of State.”

This is in line with the Government’s stated position on the doctrine. As the facts set out in Sir Christopher’s report make clear, it is not relevant in this case.

Let there be no doubt: all forms of covert surveillance are subject to a strict and rigorous statutory regime for authorisations; are conducted in accordance with the guidance set out in the statutory codes of practice; and are overseen by the various independent commissioners—normally recently retired members of the senior judiciary—established under the Act to ensure that those using the powers do so in compliance with the law and to the highest standards of integrity. There is an independent tribunal—the Investigatory Powers Tribunal—established to investigate and rule on any complaints.

I turn now to the details of Sir Christopher’s findings. As he reports, Babar Ahmad was arrested on an extradition warrant on 5 August 2004 and the following day remanded to HM Prison Woodhill. Sir Christopher found that warrants for intrusive surveillance for closed non-legal visits and for directed surveillance for open non-legal visits to Babar Ahmad were properly and correctly authorised in August and September 2004. The first intrusive surveillance authorisation was cancelled in December 2004. The second and relevant directed surveillance authorisation lasted until December 2006.

Sir Christopher has studied all the documentation on this authorisation and its reviews and renewals. He says of this that

“it suffices to say that the documentation shows that correct procedures were followed in accordance with the legislation and Codes of Practice were followed and proper considerations addressed.”

Sir Christopher records that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting visited Babar Ahmad in prison on three occasions, in October 2004, in May 2005 and in June 2006. On the first occasion, before my hon. Friend was elected to this House, he visited as a solicitor, and Sir Christopher finds that his visit was not monitored in any way. My hon. Friend’s later two visits were as an approved visitor under the approved visitors scheme for category A prisoners. He made an application to be put on that scheme as a friend, and before his election to this House. However, Sir Christopher notes that after his election,

“he remained listed in the prison records as a friend.”

The two visits that occurred after my hon. Friend had become an MP were monitored by surveillance. It is absolutely clear from Sir Christopher’s report that my hon. Friend was not the target of that surveillance.

Sir Christopher finds that none of the senior officers responsible for authorising the surveillance knew at the time that the Sadiq Khan listed as a friend was a Member of Parliament. He finds that

“the fact that he is a Member of Parliament first became known to”—

those officers—

“as a result of press reports since mid-December 2007.”

He concludes however that

“two junior officers who applied for or reviewed authorisation and three who were directly involved in the monitoring knew that Mr Khan was a Member of Parliament, but they had no reason to regard this as significant.”

As I have just said, Sir Christopher concludes that the authorisations were in line with the legislation and codes of practice. In summary, Sir Christopher concludes:

“The conversations between Mr Khan and Babar Ahmad on 21 May 2005 and 24 June 2006 were monitored. The monitoring was carried out lawfully under the legislation. It was properly authorised and fully documented.”

There have been some concerns raised about the extent of surveillance in prisons. Sir Christopher comments on these. He notes that

“it is difficult and commonly impossible to prove a negative, but detailed enquiries on my behalf show no trace in recent years in prison records or anywhere else of any person known to be a Member of Parliament having been monitored during a prison visit.”

There have also been claims made about surveillance of legally privileged conversations between prisoners and solicitors. In his statement on 4 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice said in respect of conversations between prisoners and their legal advisers:

“Those are all subject to explicit safeguards which generally prohibit such interception or surveillance”.—[Official Report, 4 February 2008; Vol. 471, c. 661.]

The statutory codes of practice governing this make it clear that

“In general, an application for surveillance which is likely to result in the acquisition of legally privileged information should only be made in exceptional and compelling circumstances.”

It is, though, important to note that the legislation does not absolutely forbid the monitoring of such conversations. Sir Christopher says on this point:

“I understand from further enquiries which I have made that, since 2005 at least, there have been no authorities for directed surveillance of legal visits in prisons in England and Wales to prisoners in custody in relation to terrorist or other criminal matters.”

I have asked the police service about the matter, and have been assured that that is in fact the case. Sir Christopher goes on to say:

“I know nothing to suggest that any unauthorised directed surveillance has taken place in relation to legal visits to such prisoners during the period to which my investigation relates.”

I hope that that deals clearly and fully with the concerns raised. If any hon. Member, or any member of the public, has a specific complaint to make, the proper thing to do is to refer it to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which this Government established for precisely that purpose.

I referred earlier to the Wilson doctrine. Although that does not apply in this case, Sir Christopher does suggest that there is some scope for confusion as to the correct interrelationship between the Wilson doctrine and the legislation. The Government do not propose to amend the Wilson doctrine, but accept that current codes of practice do not fully clarify the extent to which reviewing officers and authorising officers should pay special attention to conversations involving or potentially involving a Member of Parliament. I am therefore announcing today that the Government will review the statutory codes of practice, and in particular that we intend to clarify that, as regards covert surveillance, conversations between Members of Parliament doing their constituency business and their constituents should be considered as “confidential information”, and treated in the same way as other confidential information, such as conversations between a person and their lawyer or minister of religion. That will more clearly give such conversations additional protection.

As regards this particular case, Sir Christopher has found that the procedures for surveillance operations of this kind were properly and lawfully applied and that my hon. Friend was not the target of surveillance. Sir Christopher identifies a need to clarify the position with respect to MPs as set out in the code and I agree. The action that I have announced today will ensure that that happens.

May I first apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who is unavoidably absent from the House today? I thank the Home Secretary for an early sight of the statement and, if I may say so, for much of its content. I also wish to thank Sir Christopher Rose for having conducted the review expeditiously. Parts of what he has had to say in his report are undoubtedly reassuring in relation to the correct procedures having been followed in compliance with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

There are, however, some issues in the report that should give the House considerable cause for concern. First, the Home Secretary may agree that it is unfortunate that in relation to the police officer referred to by Sir Christopher Rose as X, but widely known in the public domain as being Mr. Kearney, it was not possible for what he had to say to be tested by Sir Christopher, notwithstanding the fact that the allegations originated from him in the first place. As a result, parts of those allegations have not been fully tested by Sir Christopher, for understandable reasons relating to forthcoming trials. Were it to turn out that Mr. Kearney was right in his assertions that he had made repeated representations about the impropriety of bugging the conversations of the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), and that the other police officers were wrong in their assertions, would the Home Secretary agree with me that that would put a different complexion on the nature of the investigation and inquiry?

Is not the nub of the matter—and the principal criticism that can be levied at the police—the fact that junior police officers who were carrying out the monitoring and review of the bugging became aware that the hon. Member for Tooting was an MP but decided that that had no bearing whatsoever on the nature of the intrusive surveillance that was taking place? It may well be that the authorisations made by the senior officers who knew nothing about that fact were perfectly valid in the context of the RIPA categorisation of how to go about bugging. However, I have to say to the Home Secretary that when one looks at the junior officers’ lack of response to the realisation that they were dealing with an MP coming on visits, it appears to show a woeful lack of understanding of what RIPA says.

Under section 28 of RIPA, such authorisations are allowed only in circumstances that involve national security or the prevention of crime—there are other categories—and one can understand why Babar Ahmad might have been bugged but, at the same time, the decision has to be proportionate. Unless it was suggested that the hon. Member for Tooting was in the course of his visits going to engage in a criminal conversation with Mr. Ahmad or in some conspiracy with him that would seek to undermine the criminal justice system in this country, it ought to have followed logically that those police officers would have been alerted to the fact that surveillance ought not to take place.

Are not wider issues raised about the extent to which we now have a surveillance society on such a level that a large number of intrusive investigations are being authorised by police officers at a senior level but are being carried out and monitored by police officers at a junior level? The result of that must be to cause anxiety that there will be instances when individuals whose conversations ought not to be monitored, for the very good public policy reasons outlined by the Home Secretary, will be monitored. For those reasons, I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement of a review of the subject. I urge her to widen it to consider more generally the extent to which those areas of surveillance that fall outside the scope of the Secretary of State’s warrant, whether they relate to the bugging of an MP’s conversation when they visit someone in prison or elsewhere or to legal advisers and their conversations with individuals, should be looked at afresh.

The public are entitled to reassurance that we have not in fact created a system whereby there are substantial loopholes that allow junior police officers, through ignorance, inadvertence or possibly malice, simply to decide that they want to continue to listen to conversations when all the pointers mean that those conversations should remain confidential and, in some cases, privileged.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his measured response to my statement and to Sir Christopher’s report. In relation to the specific points that he raised, Sir Christopher outlines at some length in paragraph 10 the inquiries that he undertook and what he learned about the meetings that the officer he identified as X had with a variety of people, as well as about the opportunities that he had during the course of those meetings. At the end of paragraph 10, Sir Christopher explains why it was appropriate to choose not to interview X further.

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about the expectation that people might have had about the way the monitoring of a conversation that, as Sir Christopher identified, clearly involved a Member of Parliament on constituency business would be treated. As I said in my statement, the current codes and law make it clear that those police officers did not act outside the current codes and the law. However, it is precisely in order to ensure that there is clear guidance about the way in which an MP’s conversations with a constituent should be treated that I propose the changes to the codes that I outlined in my statement. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that needs clarification, and that is what we will provide.

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman was making this point, but I want to reiterate clearly for the benefit of the House and the record the fact that there is absolutely no suggestion that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting was the target of the surveillance or that there was any suspicion at all that my hon. Friend should have been the target of the surveillance. The report makes it absolutely clear, for example, that reports of the monitoring were filed and that it was decided to take no further action. My hon. Friend was not the target, and nor should there be any suggestion that any cloud rests over him. Sir Christopher Rose is absolutely clear on that point, and we should all be clear about it, too.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, for the speed with which the Government set up the inquiry and for the conclusions that have been put before the House, which, of course, I accept. I welcome the review that she proposes. Will she give us a timetable for when that review will be completed and tell us who will conduct it? On the subject of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), will she confirm that the report makes it very clear that when he was visited on 8 March 2005 by the pre-assessment police officer he was affable, forthcoming and fully co-operative and that all the visits he made subsequent to that were as a Member of Parliament? Will he be getting a copy of either the tapes or the transcripts?

On my right hon. Friend’s first point, I am proposing not a review but action to amend the codes. That amendment will require detailed consultation with the relevant public authorities and, of course, it will also require public consultation and the opportunity for debate in this House. I intend that all that work will be completed within this calendar year.

On my right hon. Friend’s point about our hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, it might help my right hon. Friend if I read from paragraph 22 of Sir Christopher Rose’s report, which concerns the visit that was made by a detective constable from the Metropolitan police special branch to complete an inquiry questionnaire for the benefit of the prison and a report for the police at the point at which my hon. Friend was applying to become an approved visitor, before he was a Member of Parliament. It states:

“It is apparent from these documents that Mr Khan told the officer that he had given up his full-time job as a human rights lawyer with his own company to become a prospective Labour Parliamentary candidate for Tooting.”

It goes on to state:

“The officer commented in his report that Mr Khan was very affable and forthcoming.”

I think that that makes it clear that my hon. Friend fulfilled his responsibilities.

I, too, start by thanking the Secretary of State for an advance copy of the statement. Sir Christopher Rose’s remit was very limited:

“To investigate the circumstances relating to the visits to Babar Ahmad”.

He does, however, make comments on a wider range of points and I would like to touch on them briefly first.

First, on the Wilson doctrine, I acknowledge what the Secretary of State said about its not applying in this case, but I welcome the fact that the codes of practice will be reviewed. Clearly, we need that clarification as the chief surveillance commissioner has made it clear that in his view it is unsustainable in its present form.

The report has been turned around extremely rapidly, within only a couple of weeks, yet during that time Sir Christopher managed to assess that routine bugging has not taken place. Some Members will find it astonishing to have achieved that within those time scales, so I hope that the Home Secretary will consider, as the Law Society suggested, that it may be appropriate to hold an inquiry into whether much larger scale bugging is indeed taking place.

On the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), and who knew what and when, there is useful clarification. The Home Secretary has said on a number of occasions that the hon. Gentleman was not the target of surveillance, but Sir Christopher Rose’s report says that junior officers were aware that Mr. Babar Ahmad’s prison friend was a Member of Parliament, so could the Home Secretary confirm whether additional guidance will be given to officers in that respect and how that guidance, once implemented, will be monitored?

The astonishingly rapid turnaround of the report on the bugging of conversations between the hon. Member for Tooting and Mr. Ahmad addresses some of the concerns raised by the incident but leaves up in the air the whole question of whether we are moving towards an ever more intrusive surveillance society in which nothing is private and everything is analysed, recorded, logged and stored. That is a question the Liberal Democrats will pursue relentlessly.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s penultimate point, it is precisely because I feel that the guidance, and in fact the statutory codes of practice, relating to RIPA should clarify the position with respect to those who review and monitor and authorise any conversations that might involve a constituency MP on constituency business that I have announced and propose today that we should amend the codes.

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, about the Wilson doctrine, he referred to the view of the then interception of communications commissioner that there was potentially no longer a place for the doctrine. That point was fully responded to in a written ministerial statement on 30 March 2006 by the previous Prime Minister, who concluded at that time that the Wilson doctrine should be maintained. That position was subsequently confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Sometimes, I feel we cannot win. I have read the transcript of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, when Members urged speed on him, me and Sir Christopher Rose. Sir Christopher Rose carried out the inquiry speedily and effectively. In fact, he has slightly broadened the terms of reference in order precisely to take in the concerns about legal privilege that have been outlined and, as I have noted today, his report was clear. He said:

“I know nothing to suggest that any unauthorised directed surveillance has taken place in relation to legal visits to such prisoners during the period to which my investigation relates.”

Paragraph 26 also states:

“Although this is not within my Terms of Reference, I understand from further enquiries which I have made that, since 2005 at least, there have been no authorities for directed surveillance of legal visits in prisons in England and Wales to prisoners in custody in relation to terrorist or other criminal matters.”

I reiterate what I said in my statement: the Government set up the Investigatory Powers Tribunal precisely to investigate concerns about the way investigatory powers were being used, and I recommend any Member or member of the public with concerns about the use of those powers to refer them to the tribunal.

I commend the Home Secretary for a speedy response to the case and an appropriate and measured reply. I listened carefully to what she said about the Wilson doctrine, but of course it was established at a time when we did not have directly elected Members of the European Parliament or of the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly. When we review the issue, will my right hon. Friend clarify whether any of those privileges apply to those office holders?

It has subsequently been confirmed that the Wilson doctrine does not apply to those office holders. However, I confirm that it is my intention that the work to extend the scope of the definition of confidential information in the codes of practice will explicitly include constituency work by MPs, and that it will extend to Members of the European Parliament and of the Welsh devolved Administration. Before anybody asks, extension of that kind in Scotland and Northern Ireland would be a matter for their devolved Administrations to take forward in parallel.

My constituent, the retired detective referred to as X, is surprised that Sir Christopher Rose did not ask him to co-operate. He, above all, wants a fair trial; he offered his co-operation and does not know why it was not sought. Both he and the journalist with whom he is charged with aiding and abetting an offence in public office are concerned for their safety and, because of the range of activities at Woodhill prison of which they are aware, they are also concerned that there may be an attempt to silence them. Will the Home Secretary comment on that aspect?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will realise that I shall not comment in detail on an ongoing court case. Sir Christopher Rose’s report, as I have already pointed out, makes clear in paragraph 10 the process he undertook with respect to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent.

When the issue was first raised in the House, I expressed my concern, as the MP representing Woodhill and many of the staff who work there, about the uncertainty that might be caused if the inquiry dragged on, so I am extremely pleased that Sir Christopher Rose has so effectively and thoroughly completed the inquiry in a short time. I urge the Home Secretary to resist strenuously any spurious Mohammed al-Fayed-type allegations that may cause the case to be dragged out endlessly by all sorts of conspiracy theories. Will she clarify whether the new guidelines will refer to prison staff as well as police officers and others and, if so, will she make sure that they are as clear as possible so that prison staff can concentrate on their important job of protecting us all and are not worried by unclear guidelines about what they may or may not do?

Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the statutory code of practice that will relate to covert surveillance will include all those involved in the review, monitoring or authorisation of covert surveillance. I agree that it is important that the review was carried out quickly, not least for those who are clearly working hard in Her Majesty’s Prison Woodhill.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the Wilson doctrine is often misunderstood as though it meant that a Member of Parliament is totally immune from the interception of communications even if engaged in serious crime or aiding and abetting terrorism? What the doctrine actually means is that such an exceptional interception would require the highest level of authority and would subsequently have to be disclosed to the House of Commons. Is that not a good principle for the protection of constituents and others, and one that should rightly be extended to directed surveillance?

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the amendment I propose to the statutory codes of practice with respect to covert surveillance. The law already says, with respect to confidential information, that there is not a blanket prohibition on the monitoring of a conversation that might involve confidential information. As he rightly says, any surveillance would need to be in exceptional and compelling circumstances and would, therefore, need much higher levels of authorisation.

My right hon. Friend has given some important and welcome reassurances on the surveillance of legally privileged conversations, but there have been widespread media speculations about the recording of lawyers’ conversations, and attempts to found those speculations have been heard in the House today. Will she confirm that it is not the case that such conversations are recorded?

As I said in my statement, in paragraph 26 of his report, Sir Christopher Rose finds clearly from his further inquiries that

“there have been no authorities for directed surveillance of legal visits in prisons in England and Wales”.

Furthermore, he says,

“I know nothing to suggest that any unauthorised directed surveillance has taken place in relation to legal visits”.

It is clearly important that strong regulation is in place in both the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the codes of practice. I reiterate that rather than talking to newspapers, it is probably more useful for people with concerns about such issues to take them up with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which the Government set up precisely in order to ensure confidence about how the powers are used.

While the Home Secretary is undoubtedly right that the Wilson doctrine was not violated in the case that we are discussing, has it not shown that there is an illogicality in the fact that such an event is not covered by the Wilson doctrine, probably quite inadvertently? As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) just said, it is quite clear that MPs should not and must not be immune from any form of surveillance if they are suspected of serious crime and such surveillance is properly warranted. In making the changes to procedure that she has announced, will the Home Secretary make it the case that the Wilson doctrine will apply to surveillance on Members of Parliament by the police rather than the security services, so that eventually, at a time when national security allows, it can be reported to the House?