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Commons Chamber

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 15 May 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords](By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 22 May.

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

New University Towns

We want to give everyone who has the talent the chance to go to university whether they are about to leave school or already in work. Students should have access to local provision offering flexible courses to suit their needs. Our new university challenge initiative gives the chance for 20 towns or areas to develop new university centres or campuses by 2014. We are delighted by the interest that exciting initiative has generated.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. I understand that the Higher Education Funding Council will lead debate on the initiative. Through the Secretary of State, may I suggest that the council considers the Alsager campus? It was formerly part of Manchester Metropolitan university, and is one of the foremost sports science and physical education colleges and is right next to Alsager school, which is a business and enterprise college. Bearing in mind the difficulties that may arise in the economy it makes sense to me—does it to the right hon. Gentleman?—that an existing facility should be used for one of those splendid new universities.

The hon. Lady is perfectly correct. The Higher Education Funding Council, rather than Ministers, will both set out the details about how the new university challenge will work and, ultimately, take decisions about where developments take place. I am sure that the council will note the hon. Lady’s remarks. Because the area is very close to her, I am sure, too, that she will welcome the £70 million investment by Manchester Metropolitan university in the university development in Crewe.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the importance of more people going into higher education. I admired the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) in pressing for a proposal that has much to commend it. We want better links between further and higher education, and more higher education across the country.

Will the Secretary of State clear up the widespread confusion about what the Government are actually proposing? His Department recently briefed one paper that he was committed to 20 new universities and the Prime Minister was so carried away on the “Andrew Marr Show” the other day that he promised

“a university…in every town and city”,

but the £150 million that the Secretary of State has set aside for his programme is not enough to pay for even one new university. What is it? Is it a university in every town? Is it 20 universities? How many new universities does he want to see?

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. He features so regularly in the list of shadow Cabinet members most likely to be sacked that those of us who are his admirers are always delighted to see him on the Front Bench again.

In February, we said that over the next six years—the current comprehensive spending review and the next—we wished to be in a position either to open or to commit to open 20 new centres. As we made perfectly clear in the document, most of them are likely—often but not always—to be developed on the basis of existing college investment, such as further education colleges, in association with an existing university. For example, at the universities of Medway, where three existing universities have come together to develop a campus of 10,000 student places, such a development can bring university education to people who otherwise would not have it. That is the whole point of the policy.

Higher Education (Employers)

I recently launched our high level skills consultation document, which sets out our proposals to increase employer engagement in higher education. We have announced new funding rising to at least £50 million by the end of the decade for courses funded with employers. Already, more than 30 universities are developing co-funding proposals with employers, and I expect the consultation to stimulate further interest.

The Government are rightly widening access to higher education for young people, but what about people like me who left school and did not have the privilege of going to university? Many people already in the work force would benefit from higher education, so does my hon. Friend agree that we should encourage them to widen and broaden their education and skills?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Seventy-four per cent. of the 2020 work force are already in work at present, and unless universities can work with those people to take them to the highest level of skills and education we will not compete internationally. Substantial numbers of people are prepared to take up those opportunities; 6 million adults in the work force have A-level equivalent qualifications, but are not yet at degree level. I remind those who say that such initiatives will not succeed that although 31 per cent. of our adult work force are currently educated to degree level, in countries such as Japan, the United States and Canada the figure is already 40 per cent. We need to take things forward with real alacrity.

I suspect that many employers reckon that they pay quite enough in their taxes for full-time education for 13, and increasingly for 15 years. Will the Minister therefore ensure that insofar as there are any co-funding arrangements along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), they co-fund vocational and further educational courses that would perhaps be of direct relevance to employers in developing their businesses in the decades to come?

The key point is that we need people to be educated and trained in those kinds of courses not only at further education but higher education levels. The hon. Gentleman can take cheap shots at employer commitment, but if we are to achieve the required skills levels in the adult work force, we can do so only on the basis of a significant contribution from the Government—we are committing to that—together with contributions made not only by individuals but by employers stepping up to the plate. Only by that combination of efforts will we succeed.

My hon. Friend will know that some of the biggest employers in the country are supermarkets such as Tesco, which currently put very little into higher education. Could not steps be taken about that? These are the people who suck the wealth out of our towns and cities and take it out of communities—is it not about time that they were made to put something back through higher education and lifelong learning?

I have no particular brief for Tesco, but it is a big supporter of the apprenticeship programme. Indeed, it has recently been taking a lead on the development of the retail foundation degree, which it and other retailers are adopting as part of their commitment to upskilling people within their work force. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that employers need to work with us across the board to meet that high-level skills challenge.

I note what the Minister has said. It is obviously good to encourage employers to invest in higher education, but how will he ensure that the plans announced in the consultation do not blur the distinction between education and training and lose sight of the purpose of a university?

This is an age-old debate that centres on a rather artificial distinction. When we talk about the distinction between vocational and purely academic studies, we need to remember that some of the most highly reputed degree courses in the country, such as law and medicine, are directly vocational. We need to ensure that people are properly educated and trained to increase not only their intellectual capability but their skills capacity.

Many publicly funded regeneration projects are taking place across the country. In London alone, we have Crossrail, the Thames Gateway, 2012, and the Kidbrooke regeneration in my part of London. Many companies are making a great deal of money out of that investment of public funds, but they need people with vocational skills in engineering, construction and so on. May I urge my hon. Friend to enter into discussions with the companies involved in those projects with a view to supporting not only higher education but further education courses?

I can certainly give that commitment because it is what we are doing already. For example, we are looking to use the procurement process to ensure that there is an increasing commitment to apprenticeships and high-level skills contributions on the part of employers who gain contracts.

I am sure that my colleagues on the Front Bench strongly support the principles that the Minister has laid out. However, the reality is that the skills sets that are desperately needed in industry require STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects. Will the Minister consider new learning and teaching styles, particularly using the games industry? We are world-beaters in that industry, particularly at the university of Abertay in Dundee. Those skills could enable young people at schools, colleges and universities to be taught STEM subjects, to which they currently do not get access because we do not have the teaching force to be able to deliver them.

Significant improvements are taking place in the STEM teaching work force. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to use the games industry as a means to engage young people and adults in STEM subjects. I take heart from the fact that, although we undoubtedly need to do more, recent applications to study STEM subjects at university are increasing.

Basford Hall

3. What assessment he has made of the effects of the retention of Basford hall, New college, Nottingham on higher and further educational provision in the area; and if he will make a statement. (205662)

The Learning and Skills Council has been working with the college to develop plans to rebuild the Basford hall site. The rebuilding will ensure an enhanced service and the extension of the provision of further and higher education in Nottingham.

My constituency sends the fewest people to further and higher education of any constituency in the United Kingdom. Last year, our local community, with the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, worked hard to retain our only further education college. Will the Under-Secretary now examine how fast the proposal to retain and revamp that site has progressed? Will he agree to meet me to ensure that no machinery of government changes, no problems about land swaps and mergers will stand in the way of one of the most educationally deprived communities in the UK retaining and enhancing its further education college?

My hon. Friend knows, because we have had such discussions in the past, that my constituency is just beneath his in terms of the number of young people who make their way to university. There are plans in his constituency for a merger, especially across the FE sector. Of course, I or my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education will be happy to meet him to ensure adequate and appropriate provision for some of the most vulnerable young people in the country.

I am delighted that the Under-Secretary is aware of the possible merger of New college with two other colleges in the Greater Nottingham conurbation to create a super-college. Will he take steps to ensure that small campuses such as Basford and neighbouring Hucknall, where there is genuine disadvantage, are maintained and receive further investment?

The intention is to revamp and rebuild Basford precisely because it is in such a deprived neighbourhood and such work is necessary. I was pleased when I learned from the Learning and Skills Council that that would happen. Such decisions will come to Ministers in due course, but I hope that he senses sympathy from the Dispatch Box to the issues that Nottingham Members of Parliament continue to raise about the need for adequate provision for their constituents.

Adult Learners

4. How many adult learners were enrolled on courses in England at the latest date for which figures are available. (205663)

In 2006-07, around 3.2 million learners aged 19 plus were on Learning and Skills Council-funded further education, Train to Gain, work-based learning courses and former adult and community learning courses. Since 1997, our investment in the further education skills sector has increased by 52 per cent. in real terms. That means that, since 2001, more than 1.75 million adults have gained a literacy and numeracy qualification and, in the last full year, the number of adults participating in skills for life courses increased by nearly 50,000 to more than 350,000. Those participating in level 2 courses increased by nearly 40,000 to 470,000.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He knows that the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education published a survey that revealed that the number of adults participating in education is falling. My local college, Sutton College of Liberal Arts—SCOLA—has experienced a 10 per cent. drop in the past 12 months. Adult learners week, which starts on Saturday, will reveal the wide range of exciting and interesting courses that are available in the UK. Does the Secretary of State accept that Government policies for getting adults to participate in education are not working? Is not it time for a rethink?

No, I do not accept that. For the reasons that I have given, there has been a massive expansion in the number of adults doing the things that transform people’s lives—learning to read, being able to handle basic numeracy, having the qualifications that enable them to get a job and progress in their work. We have been right to concentrate our efforts on that.

However, we also acknowledge that there is clearly an intrinsic value in learning for its own sake. Part of that is funded through our budget and the ring-fenced budget for adult and community learning. Much of it is funded through other Departments, such as free access to museums, galleries and archives. Much of it is developed informally and in the voluntary sector, with major organisations such as the National Trust or Government bodies such as English Nature being big providers of adult education.

In the consultation on informal adult learning, we are looking at the range of activities that, during the past 10 or 15 years, have transformed the ways in which adults learn. We will introduce proposals to strengthen that process in the future, not weaken it, and to engage not just my Department, but the whole of government in promoting that type of learning.

Will my right hon. Friend look at the anomaly whereby the non-European Union spouse of a UK citizen who settles in the UK has to wait one year before being eligible for home tuition fees when enrolling on a college course to learn English? That runs counter to the Government’s commendable encouragement of new immigrants to learn our language.

I think that I take a different view from my hon. Friend on that subject. People should be free to marry whom they wish to marry, but I believe that someone who brings a spouse to this country who does not speak English has a responsibility to their partner and the rest of the community to assist in their learning of English. I do not take my hon. Friend’s view that that is a matter for the state to subsidise. We should say to people, “Bring your spouse here, but you should ensure that they have adequate English to participate fully before they come, and from the day they arrive.”

Cutting through the Secretary of State’s verbiage, he must be aware that the number of publicly funded places in adult education has fallen by a staggering 1.4 million in two years. He says that that is because money is being spent on Train to Gain and skills for life, but he must know that those cuts are disproportionately affecting the very people those programmes are designed to help. Participation in adult education by skilled manual workers has fallen by 7 per cent. in a single year, wiping out the progress of the previous decade. Can the Secretary of State tell us why, if his policies are such a success, the total number of people on Government-funded programmes, including Train to Gain, actually fell last year?

To measure the total number of courses is a very poor indicator of success in this respect. It is quite ridiculous to say that a one or two-year course, leading to a vocational qualification at level 2 or level 3, should be given the same weighting as a four or six-week short course, undertaken with great satisfaction but purely for the joy of learning. We have done exactly the right thing by emphasising spending on those parts of education that equip people with the basics to get on in society and the skills in order to participate in work. To take the total figure of funded, short, informal adult education courses, and to ignore all the other education funded by the Government, and the progress on work-based learning, is wrong.

In Stockport, many older students returning to further education find the financial support provided by the adult learning grant very valuable. Can the Secretary of State tell me what more his Department is doing to advertise that grant so that more older people are aware that they will get financial support if they return to further education?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the adult learning grant to the attention of the House. It was developed in pilot form in previous years, and extended nationally from September, and it is now making a huge difference to people’s ability to study. We are at the stage in the year where we have just over two terms’ experience of the promotion of the grant, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I and the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will be looking at the lessons learned to ensure that we achieve the maximum possible take-up of that grant.

Higher Education (Funding)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the decision to change the funding arrangements for equivalent and lower qualification students on higher education institutions. (205664)

We are not cutting funding to higher education. The amount of ELQ funding being redirected between institutions from this September is just 0.1 per cent. of the total income, and after three years, no institution will have lost out from its 2007-08 baseline. Our ELQ policy puts learners first and it helps deliver an even greater expansion of the number of first degree entrants, which I believe to be the right priority.

The Minister may call that redirection; others might call it cuts. Has he spoken to the people who run Birkbeck college here in London, which, as many colleagues in the House will know, has educated adults from London, and from throughout the UK and overseas for nearly 200 years? I can testify to the success of what Birkbeck has done for many of my constituents, but the college feels that it is suffering hugely from the Government’s policy on ELQ funding. Can he talk to those at Birkbeck and report back, and if the college persuades him or has an argument that is justified, will he review the policy?

I always have an open mind. I have consistently discussed such matters with Birkbeck college, but I utterly refute his claim that we are cutting the higher education budget. Over the past 11 years, we have increased it in real terms by 23 per cent. In respect of ELQs, Birkbeck college’s budget for next September has increased by 5 per cent. That is not a cut in any shape or form.

All Prime Ministers, particularly Labour Prime Ministers, look to their legacy at some point. One of the finest achievements of the third Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was the creation of the Open university, which is now in its fifth decade. Could my hon. Friend reassure me about the future of that institution, in which I was a student and for which I worked at one time? The changes being made to ELQs seem to be having a damaging effect on the medium-term prospects of what has been a wonderful British institution with an international reputation.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments about the Open university. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I spoke at the annual conference of the Open university students association—much to my surprise, I got two rounds of applause. Even with the changes, it is important to make it clear that the Open university’s budget for next year is increasing, by £4 million more than this year. The real challenge is getting institutions with a fine track record, such as the Open university, Birkbeck college and others, to go out into the workplace and tackle the skills needs of the 6 million people who are educated to A-level, but who have not yet gone on to degree level education.

What representations has the Department received on confusion about funding, particularly in the 16-to-18 group, following the split of the Department for Education and Skills?

We are currently in the midst of the consultation on the machinery of government changes. I have spoken at two consultation events in the past week. The representations that I have received at those events have of course been about detail, but it has not been suggested that there is confusion. We are rightly putting the commissioning process into the hands of local authorities for pre-19 provision. We will be establishing a skills funding agency to drive adult skills needs post-19.

Reference has already been made this morning to adult learners week, which starts next week. Universities and colleges throughout the country already make a great contribution to adult learning, through the provision of short courses and evening classes, on everything from vulcanology to foreign languages and local history. Such courses offer a great social mix, bringing together people who have already been in higher education with those who are tasting it for the first time. However, the financial viability of such courses will be completely undermined if the state funding for people who already have higher education is withdrawn as a result of the ELQ changes that have been mentioned. Ahead of adult learners week, will the Minister undertake to promise the higher education sector that the important work of engaging with communities—part of the core mission of universities—will be protected?

It is certainly part of the mission of universities to do that. However, now that the funding allocations are public and, for instance, Birkbeck college’s budget has increased by 5 per cent. and the Open university’s budget has increased by £4 million, it is critical that those people who have criticised the Government’s policy in this area—some are sitting on the Opposition Benches—should justify their claims about decimation of provision. Those claims are simply not borne out by the reality.


6. What recent discussions he has had with the president of the Confederation of British Industry on apprenticeships. (205665)

My right hon. Friend has not met Martin Broughton, the president of the CBI, recently, but, on two occasions last month, he met other leaders and officials of the CBI such as Richard Lambert, the director general.

During those meetings, did the CBI express the view that I firmly hold that whether a business is large or small, there is a big gulf between the Government, and what they are trying to do, and the businesses that are trying to offer apprenticeships? What is his Department doing to bring the two sides together to enable the best possible use to be made of the apprenticeships being offered?

The answer is, no it did not. It welcomed the Government’s review of apprenticeships and our commitment to asking big employers to overtrain. It also welcomed our commitment to direct payments for some employers and to establishing group training associations for smaller small and medium-sized enterprises. It is trying to work with the Government to increase employer engagement so that more apprentices come forward. I am pleased that, in the hon. Lady’s area, where 2,300 young people have started apprenticeships, there will be an increase of 500 next year.

But, in practice, even in an area such as Slough, which is one of the most productive towns in the country, young people starting apprenticeships find it hard to get the employment placements that they require. They do the college-based parts of their courses, but I regularly get desperate letters from mums and young people saying, “Although I’ve written hundreds of letters to employers, I can’t get a placement.” What more can the Government do to ensure that ambitious young people get the chance to train?

My hon. Friend is right to identify those profound issues. I was pleased to be in her constituency with young apprentices a few weeks ago. I hope that she and other hon. Members on both sides of the House will be pleased that, for the first time, the cohort of young people going into apprenticeships will have a matching service. Before then, there was a matching service for young people who wanted to go university, but there was no service to connect vacancies and employers with young people who wanted apprenticeships. That will make a big difference in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

It is important to do as much as we can to help smaller businesses to offer apprenticeships, particularly by helping with the training framework and fostering the required relationship between those businesses and further education providers. That means that we must do all we can to encourage group training associations along a hub and spoke model, with providers and bigger employers acting as a spoke into smaller employers that can provide more apprenticeships. We have had a good response to our consultation, and I hope that that will make a big difference in her constituency in coming months.

I am a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which is investigating the impact of shipbuilding in Scotland. I am delighted to report to the House that record numbers of apprentices have been employed in Fife and Glasgow since the days when the Conservatives were in power. Will the Minister assure me and those apprentices that we will do all we can to ensure that, when they complete their training, jobs will be available to them?

I will continue to do all that I can by working with our colleagues across the border to ensure that we maximise potential for young people. However, Labour Members are disappointed that our colleagues in the Scottish National party continue to ration apprenticeships, and that they seem to be looking to downgrade them in Scotland.

It is common to think of apprentices as young school leavers, but, last Friday, when Stafford college and I jointly hosted a Train to Gain seminar for local businesses, manufacturing employers expressed a desire to engage people of different ages as apprentices. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the help that is available to young apprentices is also available to older workers who want to be apprentices?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that we are also talking about adult apprentices over the age of 25, and we are committed to seeing their numbers grow. This will particularly help women returners, who often want to come into non-traditional areas and to be productive in the wider economy. I am really pleased to hear that my hon. Friend held that seminar for employers in his constituency, and I hope that other hon. Members will take up that initiative. Train to Gain is a programme with more than £1 billion in funding up to 2010-11. That money is there for employers to subsidise training, and, alongside that, the growth of adult apprenticeships is key.

Further and Higher Education

7. What recent steps the Government have taken to increase the numbers of students participating in further and higher education. (205666)

Increasing participation and the nation’s skills is key to unlocking individual talent and to long-term economic and social well-being. We are increasing learning opportunities and strengthening demand from young people and adults, through measures including better information, advice and guidance; skills accounts; an improved level of higher education student support; new courses co-funded with employers; the new university challenge; and increased capital investment in the further and higher education sectors.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he tell me what he is doing to improve the provision of information for young people who want to become students?

This is a critically important area. We have made huge progress educationally in the past 11 years, but I acknowledge that one of the areas in which we have the most to do is advice and guidance. An initiative that we announced recently, the Aimhigher Associates programme, is critically important in this regard. It will involve 5,500 undergraduates going into schools, working alongside young people and helping them with their UCAS applications. We still hear too often of instances of young people in schools not getting the appropriate advice and guidance. We need to look at providing incentives to schools to make this more of a priority, and I am discussing that matter with my colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The Minister will know that Jodrell Bank is in my constituency and partly in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). Its important and innovative e-Merlin project is under threat because its funding is likely to be removed. Is this the way to encourage young people who are interested in science and technology to go forward into higher education? Will the Minister or the Secretary of State meet me to discuss this concern?

From a sedentary position, my right hon. Friend has just assured me that he will meet the hon. Gentleman. The Government are committed to astronomy, but this matter is rightly being taken forward by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, and a consultation is taking place. I have to say that, if the Government had stepped in and established this project from the beginning, we would have been criticised for intervening in matters that were properly matters for the funding council.

Can the Minister explain the finding in the latest report from the Learning and Skills Council on further education that safeguarded provision, far from being safeguarded, has collapsed by 42 per cent., affecting 185,000 adults over the past three years?

I do not recognise the figure that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. We are certainly committed to maintaining the level of funding to informal adult education, for example. We have also maintained as a priority learning for learners with learning difficulties and disabilities. We need to ensure that this central direction is implemented on the ground, and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter.

Last week, I met the principal of the excellent Leicester college and was again reminded of the work that the Government have done to make available allowances and grants to enable students to participate in further and higher education. However, I was disturbed to hear that, in some sections, there was still a low level of awareness of the availability of such grants. Will the Minister assure me that steps will be taken to ensure that all students who could benefit from such allowances and grants are made aware of their availability and enabled to take them up?

In both further and higher education, we are committing a significant amount of resource and effort to getting that message across. There is radio, TV and online advertising, and we have gone out of our way to do this not only from a Government perspective but through working with the Association of Colleges, with universities and with the National Union of Students to get the message across. If there is one person who is unaware of the provision, that is a challenge for us, but we will keep on trying to get the facts across.

Despite the Government’s huge spending to encourage the participation rates of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds in higher education, those rates remain little changed since 1999. Government policy and numerous initiatives have failed, so what does the Minister think went wrong and what does he plan to do differently in the two years he has left?

The hon. Gentleman really does need to check the figures on this matter. If we look at university applications—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will find this if he looks carefully. University applications for last year were up by more than 6 per cent. and they are up again by more than 6 per cent. this year. Among students from lower socio-economic groups, the proportions are increasing, albeit not at the rate that I would wish. That is why we are committing significant resources as a Government to make further improvement.

To continue on the theme of widening participation, the Minister will know that only three out of the 20 Russell group of universities are actually meeting their benchmark figure for recruiting students from low-participation neighbourhoods. What more can he do to push the Russell group to widen participation rates further?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a real interest in these issues. If he looks at the Russell group figures on state school entrants and young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and lower-participation neighbourhoods, he will find that the proportions have gone up since 1997-98, but every vice-chancellor I speak to acknowledges that we need to do more. That is why we strongly pushed for greater structural links between schools, colleges and universities and also why we need better advice and guidance in schools to encourage young people to gain access to the most appropriate institution that best suits their talents. Sometimes that advice is not forthcoming; we need to ensure that it is.

Can I give my hon. Friend some advice about what went wrong? I will tell him what went wrong when they shut the pits. Higher education used to be sponsored in every area of the National Union of Mineworkers, in collaboration with the National Coal Board, enabling miners at every single pit to engage in higher education if they wanted to. Some went on to university, Ruskin college and all the rest. But the Government of that lot opposite smashed all that at a stroke when they closed all the pits in those dark, dismal years of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The electorate out there should never forget it.

May I say that I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend? It may be 11 years since we came to office, but people can and should have long memories about what the last Conservative Government did. My hon. Friend also highlights the commitment within the mining industry to pushing people up to the highest skill levels, which provides an example for every business.


8. What progress his Department has made towards achieving its public service agreement targets on innovation. (205667)

We have just entered the period covered by the new public service agreement. Past trends indicate that good progress is being made. For instance, the latest UK innovation survey reports that 64 per cent. of UK businesses were active in innovation over the period between 2004 and 2006 and that there was a 19 percentage point like for like improvement over the six years before that. University interaction with business and other users has been increasing across a range of indicators, with support from Government programmes such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund. Our White Paper, “Innovation Nation”, sets out further policy commitments to help innovation flourish right across our economy and public services.

There must have been some reason why the Department started out being called the “Department for Innovation” apart from the fact that a Department called “DUS”—Department for Universities and Skills—would have sounded a bit dismal. I suppose “DIUS” has pretensions to sounding like a Greek god-like Department. I remain intrigued to know what Ministers are doing in practical terms to encourage inventiveness, ingenuity and innovation in constituencies like mine? What difference do the people of Banbury and Bicester see as a result of this Department being called one for “Innovation”?

We are indeed the Department for Innovation, and Dius is a minor Roman god for oaths—or, as someone once said, for swearing! As a Government Department, we are doing a great deal to encourage innovation across our economy. If the hon. Gentleman looked at “Innovation Nation”, our White Paper launched in March, he would see that, in addition to our new policy commitments, a range of activities are already under way. There is funding for the Technology Strategy Board, which will spend £1 billion over the next three years in collaboration with industry to stimulate innovation. We are doubling the number of knowledge transfer partnerships, enabling university researchers to work with companies on practical projects. There are new commitments in “Innovation Nation” to annual innovation procurement plans that every Department will produce, so that we can harness some of the £150 billion that we spend every year on encouraging innovation and developing more growth-oriented small businesses.

The Sainsbury review is a stinging indictment of Government failure when it comes to innovation. It contains about 100 criticisms. I am sure that the Minister has read it. As for the Government’s response—the White Paper “Innovation Nation”—it appears to me to be an admission of guilt.

After talking for 10 years about public procurement innovation, the Minister said last week that we haven’t cracked it yet. On page 3 of the Sainsbury review, Lord Sainsbury says:

“Demand-side factors, such as procurement and regulation, which can play a role in encouraging innovation, have received too little Government focus”.

Does the Minister agree with his well-respected predecessor?

When I met David Sainsbury yesterday, he was very satisfied indeed with the progress that we are making in implementing the review’s recommendations. One of the things that we have done as a Government is establish a science and innovation framework from 2004 to 2014. We have made a policy commitment to funding the science budget at least in relation to the level of growth of the economy, which is why it will grow by 2.7 per cent. in real terms over the next three years.

The hon. Gentleman’s policy, as I understand it from the shadow Chancellor, is to share the benefits of growth. When the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), rises to ask his question, perhaps he will tell us either that he agrees with the shadow Chancellor, or by how much he wants to cut the science budget.

Topical Questions

Despite all the progress that we have made in the past decade, too many adults struggle with low or out-of-date skills. A third of employers do not train their staff, and 8 million workers go without training each year. We must tackle those skills challenges to secure a prosperous and fair Britain. Yesterday we signalled our intention to consult on a statutory new right to request time to train, which will allow millions of employees to start a conversation with their employers about how they can become more productive members of staff and enjoy better career prospects. We also believe that that will encourage employers to take up the increasing Government support for training programmes that is available to them.

The Secretary of State will know that for decades Cumbrian Labour Members have sought to establish a higher education institution in the county. Thanks to the Government, we now have the university of Cumbria, Britain’s newest university, which is being funded with more than £100 million. How can the Secretary of State help me to ensure that it meets the needs of local employers?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to yet another example of the Government’s commitment to investment in higher education. We have all been delighted with the establishment of the university of Cumbria. I suggest that my hon. Friend sit down with university staff to examine the document on higher-level skills that was produced a few weeks ago by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. It sets out all the different ways in which universities can work with local employers to develop foundation degrees, short courses and many other ways of working—full-time and part-time—which can ensure both that the university meets the needs of employers and, equally important, that my hon. Friend’s constituents who want to go to university have the chance to do so close to home, and to study a course that will make a real difference to their lives.

T2. Given that the national student survey is endorsed by the Government and funded by the taxpayer, what action will the Minister be taking to investigate the recent claims that records have been falsified? (205651)

I take those allegations very seriously. The evidence—such as it is—is that this is an isolated example of students apparently being encouraged to rate their institution more highly than they might have done unprompted, and I utterly condemn it. I know that the Higher Education Funding Council will take this matter very seriously. It is very important, not least to universities and students, that people can have full confidence in the national student survey, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers will want to make sure that action is taken should there be any breaches of the protocol.

T3. In presenting the Government’s draft Queen’s Speech yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke about the importance of those who live in this country being able to speak English. I understood the point that the Secretary of State made earlier about it not being appropriate to provide English language tuition to everybody who happens to live in the UK, but there is real concern about the level of fees for ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—courses and the potential of that to discourage and disadvantage those who are established in the UK. Will the Secretary of State keep the effect of these fees under review, and will he make sure that they do not have an adverse impact on such individuals and on community cohesion? (205652)

Of course we will keep the level of those fees under review and look at what happens. It is important to say, however, that the ESOL budget has trebled since 2001, and we expect it to rise in real terms over the course of the comprehensive spending review. This whole exercise is about making sure that ESOL reaches those who need it most. A further consultation is currently under way on the suggested principle that, where areas have to set priorities, they should prioritise long-term residents with a commitment to this country who make the biggest impact on community cohesion, rather than transitory migrant workers who may not be here in a year or two.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware of the recent Foreign Office decision to cut massively the support that it offers students from other countries through Chevening and Commonwealth scholarships. Was the Secretary of State consulted in advance on that Foreign Office proposal, does he accept that it has caused widespread concern among our universities, and will he urge the Foreign Office to reopen this decision, which is harming the international links of our universities?

We are discussing this matter with the Foreign Office. It is part of the Foreign Office’s process of focusing on its key strategic priorities, such as climate change, security and counter-terrorism. Notwithstanding that, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is maintaining a global programme with a particular focus on countries such as China and India that are of real long-term importance to the UK, and the FCO expects more than 900 Chevening scholarships by 2008-09, so this is still a substantial programme. Nevertheless, I am talking to the Foreign Office about this matter.

T4. The chemical industry in Teesside is booming, thanks to the policies pursued by this Government, and there are many major investments and new projects in the pipeline. When I met industry representatives recently, they expressed concern about a shortage of engineers, certainly in the northern region. They estimated that we needed 13,000 engineers by 2015. What are the Government doing to tackle this shortage and to meet this demand in the future? (205653)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. The Government are doing a number of things already. We have reformed the training system through Train to Gain, so it should be easier for employers to influence the provision in local colleges to meet the needs of these industries. We have developed a national skills academy with the process industries, to make sure that we have the right infrastructure of training. Also, as we have discussed, it is now much easier for companies to work with universities to develop appropriate courses and degrees. Having said all that, we recognise that there are industries that are vital to the future of this country and that can project a clear need for skills in the future, and we must look at those key sectors and make sure that the training system is organised to meet their needs. I will be coming to Teesside in, from memory, early June, and perhaps I will have an opportunity to discuss some of these issues locally with the industry and my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State welcomed the establishment of the university of Cumbria, which means that the administrative county of Somerset is the last in the country not to have a university. Somerset has some university courses, which are administered by Yeovil college and others, but no university. In the light of what he said to the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), does he believe that there is a strong case for a university in Somerset?

There may well be, but I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to take a leading role in responding to the new university challenge because the new university centres will go to the places that can put the best case locally to show that they have the capacity to deliver higher education, that it will contribute to the local economy and that it will open up opportunities for participation in higher education that would not otherwise exist. Ultimately, it will not be for me to say that Somerset should have a university, but I encourage people such as him, who think that the potential is there, to get working with partners at local level and be ready to put the case forward when the Higher Education Funding Council opens the process later this year.

T5. Do Ministers accept the urgency of the need for us all to live our lives more sustainably? What are they doing to ensure that higher education and further education institutions help to raise levels of awareness and application of sustainable development? (205654)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall point out three things. The further education capital programme of £2.3 billion, which I announced a few weeks ago, will be for new projects. They will all have to meet the new higher green standards that will be published in July, which will give us as high a standard of sustainability as any part of the public sector building programme. HEFC, too, is agreeing to ensure that its capital programme contributes to meeting the reduction in its carbon footprint necessary for the Government to meet their expected carbon budgets.

We are actively discussing with the Association of Colleges, Universities UK and others how we can work with them and with students to ensure that we achieve the reduction in carbon emissions right across the further and higher education estate that will be needed. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, but we are very active on it and I look forward to his support.

May I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) about the e-Merlin project at Jodrell Bank in our respective constituencies? While accepting the point about the funding councils, will the Government acknowledge that this is not only a national but an international centre of excellence for astrophysics? It is vital that its valuable work, which greatly benefits the science and technology base in this country, is encouraged to continue and to expand.

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the internationally recognised experience at the university of Manchester, which owns Jodrell Bank. As has been said, decisions on the e-Merlin project are very much a matter for the Science and Technology Facilities Council. In accordance with the Haldane principles, it would be wrong for Ministers to interfere with that process. That body will probably be making decisions in early July. It has already indicated that the e-Merlin project is part of its future strategy for radio astronomy, which involves exciting projects such as the square kilometre array and, potentially, the extremely large telescope. Radio astronomy has a very bright future in the United Kingdom, and the Government are committed to continuing to support it.

Tomorrow, the Bishop of London will celebrate 100 years of the Bishop Creighton House settlement in Fulham, which was founded by his distinguished predecessor. Bishop Creighton House, which is led by Rory Gillert, and Hammersmith and Fulham volunteer centre, led by Marion Schumann, are two of the most successful volunteer agencies in London, but volunteering requires money for infrastructure, training and development. Given the appalling cuts in voluntary sector funding by Tory-run Hammersmith and Fulham council, what more can the Government do to support these outstanding institutions?

I think that all in London are disappointed and astounded by some of the cuts that are being made in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I am pleased that my Department has been able to extend the Train to Gain programme, which is £1 billion-worth of investment, to volunteers. We have done so to ensure that volunteers with the right skills are able to play an active role in their communities, and I hope that those who wish to do so will be able to move on to jobs. I am also pleased that the Learning and Skills Council supports programmes for volunteers in his constituency, including the Torch project at the Lyric theatre. We will continue to do all we can against the backdrop of cuts that he describes.

T6. Can my right hon. Friend make a statement on the proposed motion from some university and college unions calling for an academic boycott of Israel? (205655)

The Government are completely opposed to such a boycott, which will harm rather than help moves towards peace and reconciliation in the middle east. It is significant that the motion before this year’s University and College Union falls well short of calls for an outright boycott. I think that that is because the proposers of the motion know that there is no widespread support for that among UCU members. Both Israel and the occupied territories contain both progressives and reactionaries, and the problem with boycotts is that they make the job of progressives much more difficult and entrench the position of the reactionaries.

T7. The young apprentice programme run by Jo Heavens at New college in Swindon has been a stunning success and changed the lives of many young people, as my right hon. Friend saw for himself a few weeks ago. Does his Department have any plans to expand young apprenticeship schemes, given yesterday’s announcements, as well as 18-plus and adult apprenticeships? (205656)

Yes, we do. I was delighted to go to Swindon and meet the young apprentices. There are remarkable success stories around the country of young people who have started an apprenticeship programme at 14 or 15 before they leave school, doing three days a week at school, a day in the workplace and a day at college. If such schemes are well run, they are hugely motivating for the young people. We want to see that provision expanded, and a significant expansion in apprenticeship starts for those over 16 and older workers. Our aspiration is that in a few years’ time, one in five young people—far more than today—will have a chance to do an apprenticeship. I hope that many of those will have the chance to get their first exposure to a young apprenticeship—as my hon. Friend’s constituents do in Swindon—as it is highly motivating.

T8. Stockport college of further education has received £69 million of Government cash to build a new state-of-the-art town centre campus, and the college and its leadership were rated as outstanding in a recent Ofsted report. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Peter Roberts, the principal, the staff and students on achieving such excellent results? (205657)

I am delighted to offer my congratulations to everybody at the college who has been involved in the building programme and in achieving such excellent educational outcomes. There are some fantastic things going on in further education. My hon. Friend’s college has benefited by £60 million, but 10 years ago the national budget for FE college capital programmes was zero. Earlier this week I was able to visit another part of the country, Crewe and Nantwich—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”]—where an FE college is being built, at the expense of £60 million, so that area too will benefit.

T9. We heard earlier about apprenticeships. Some 150,000 new apprenticeships will be created, with Government support, and that has to be welcomed. However, we also heard disappointment about the Scottish Executive rationing apprenticeships—they have slashed modern adult apprenticeships by 80 per cent. Does the Minister share my concern that unless the Scottish Executive act now, Scotland will lack appropriately skilled people to fill the gaps left by 1 million people leaving the Scottish labour market in the next 10 years? (205658)

My hon. Friend is right. In 1997, there were only 75,000 apprenticeships on this side of the border, and many of us looked to Scotland, which still had an apprenticeship base. It is deeply worrying to see SNP colleagues now rationing and downgrading apprenticeships and, potentially, jeopardising the prospects of young people in Scotland. This is a devolved matter, but we take apprenticeships very seriously—

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 19 May—Consideration in Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 20 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 21 May—Second Reading of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill [Lords].

Thursday 22 May—Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 June will include:

Monday 2 June—Remaining stages of the Planning Bill—day 1.

Tuesday 3 June—Conclusion of Lords amendments to the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to the promotion of energy from renewable resources, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to maritime policy.

Wednesday 4 June—Opposition day [13th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 5 June—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by a general debate, subject to be announced.

Friday 6 June—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the business of the House.

As the Leader of the House will be aware, it is normal practice to give the House advance notice of statements by the Prime Minister. Last week, I asked the right hon. and learned Lady when the Government would announce their draft legislative programme. She would not give a date to the House. Yet, at the weekend, the date was given to the media. Why were the media given advance notice but not Members of this House?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the House that the Chancellor had to announce his taxation proposals on Tuesday, during a by-election campaign, if they were to go into the Finance Bill. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that that was incorrect and that, for example, the proposals could have been introduced simply as a new clause on Report after 22 May? Was that not just a blatant attempt at an election bribe?

Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England warned the country to brace itself for a recession. Every day, the cost of living is creeping up, and earlier this week, the Minister for Housing inadvertently revealed that there is a real danger of a housing market crash. The Governor reaffirmed that in his statement and said that interest rates should not be cut for at least two years, which will deeply worry those who are struggling with their mortgages. So will next week’s topical debate be on the decline in the housing market?

In the international women’s day debate on 6 March, the right hon. and learned Lady said that the Walsh review on flexible working was

“not into whether we should increase the age of children whose parents can have flexible working, but into how we will go about doing it.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 1934.]

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will take forward the review’s recommendations but said that they will now consult on implementation—another consultation on top of a review. Is that not just a delaying tactic that will create more uncertainty for business? May we have a statement from the right hon. and learned Lady, as the Minister for Women and Equality, to clarify the Government’s position?

We learned this week that a High Court judge has allowed a disabled women to seek a judicial review of the Government’s decision to shut thousands of post offices on the grounds that it discriminates against disabled people. That comes on the back of reports that 3,000 further post offices are threatened with closure on top of the 2,500 previously announced. It has also been revealed that the Saturday delivery service is under threat and that Postcomm has called for parts of Royal Mail to be privatised. Post offices are a lifeline for both urban and rural communities. We are committed to the universal service, but the Government are presiding over a reduction in services. So may we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the Government’s position on the future of the Post Office and Royal Mail?

The Government are dithering over flexible working and presiding over the decline in our post offices, and their economic policy is a shambles. They have backed down on capital gains tax, the taxation of non-doms and the 10p tax rate, and we learned this week that they are backing down on changes to the corporate tax regime. Policy is set to grab the headlines, with no thought for the consequences. Speaking of which, will the right hon. and learned Lady now tell the House the impact of the Chancellor’s commitment to change income tax thresholds in the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords?

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Prime Minister’s statement on the draft legislative programme. I have made it clear to the House before that my view is that there is a distinction to be made. If a statement has new content, it is important that it be made to the House first. On the timing of statements, the most important thing is that everybody in the House understands that a statement is to be made, and that that information gets to all Members. I do not think that the House should be so jealous of its right to hear when a statement will be made, but it should be jealous of its right to hear the content of the statement.

On the timing of the changes that will be made to the Finance Bill as a result of the adjustments made after the abolition of the 10p rate of tax, the right hon. Lady will note that the changes will indeed be made to the Bill before the Crewe by-election, but after the local council elections. The fact is that the Chancellor agreed that the adjustments should be made; the issue of how to go about making them has been considered, and he has come to the House with his proposals.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the housing market. The Chancellor and Prime Minister have made it clear that we are concerned about what is happening in the housing market, especially with so many people coming to the end of the fixed-rate part of their mortgage. Uncertainty in the banking system is causing what is being described as the credit crunch. That is why there has been a considerable number of proposals on how to put liquidity into the banking system to enable greater availability of mortgages. For that reason, we have come forward with proposals to help first-time buyers and broaden the opportunity for shared equity schemes. If the right hon. Lady wants a debate on the subject, I will take her remarks as a proposal for a topical debate, but she can of course make the issue the subject of an Opposition day debate, if she sees fit.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Walsh review, published this morning. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has tabled a written ministerial statement on the report by Imelda Walsh, who conducted her review at the Government’s request. I thank her warmly for the work that she has done, and for her report. The Government accept the proposals in the report, but it is right that people be given time to read it. The Prime Minister has said that we expect to introduce her proposals early next year.

I think that the right hon. Lady would agree that we were correct to introduce a right to request flexible working for parents with children aged up to six. Many parents have made such a request and have had it granted by employers, but we need to make sure that more people are aware of their rights. We recognise that the difficulty in balancing working life with bringing up children does not end when the child reaches its sixth birthday, and that is why we agree with Imelda Walsh’s proposals to raise that age to 16.

Okay; the reality is that a lot of changes have come forward. Maternity pay and leave have been extended and paternity leave has been introduced for the first time. Sure Start children’s centres, nurseries, tax credits—a great many measures have been introduced to help working mothers, and working parents in general. The truth is that they were brought forward by a Labour Government against the dragged anchor of Tory opposition. We are planning to build on those measures, and if the Conservative Opposition now intend to support that, we welcome it. However, to say that the suggested measures are Conservative proposals is an attempt to rewrite history, and the Conservatives really should not treat the public as fools.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned the Post Office and Royal Mail. She said that she is committed to universal post offices. Against a background of falling revenue for the Post Office and falling numbers of people at post offices, perhaps she will say how she would fund keeping all the post offices open. She knows that there has been a review of the Royal Mail, evidence has been taken and interim findings have been reported, but the full report will be presented to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform next year.

In this age of greater freedom of information and transparency, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a debate on the Short money that flows to Opposition parties? It is many millions of pounds, and parliamentarians find it impossible to discover who gets the money, how it is used and how it is balanced between Ashcroft money and other money. Greater transparency should work for one and for all. It is about time that we lifted the lid on that money, who gets it and for what purposes.

That is a very good proposal from my hon. Friend. I will take it up and report back to him and the House, if necessary. As he says, the Short money is millions of pounds. It is available to enable Opposition parties to develop policy, not for party political campaigning. It should be subject to greater transparency and I will report back on the matter.

First, can the Leader of the House tell us when she was first told that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted to make an additional Budget statement on Tuesday? Secondly, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister keep on telling us that the announcement on Tuesday was nothing at all to do with the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, but the people of Crewe and Nantwich, like everyone else, might have some concerns about the matters that affect the pockets, homes and livelihoods of our people. Given that fact, and that this week we have heard that unemployment has risen for the third month in a row, food prices have gone up more than 6 per cent. in the past year, and we face probably the greatest uncertainty in the housing market, which everybody knew but the Minister for Housing inadvertently confirmed on Tuesday, could we move next Wednesday’s business so that that day—the day before the by-election—there could be a debate on the economy in Britain, possibly entitled, “Are the Government still on the people’s side?”

Out there in the real world, everybody realises that the Government are scrambling to undo all the things that they have done. In the Chamber there appears to be a state of total denial among those on the Government Benches. Housing, which featured in the draft legislative programme, is clearly important. May we have an early debate on how many affordable houses have been provided so far, how many will be provided under the Government’s current spending plans, and how many additional houses will be available after the announcements made by the Prime Minister yesterday? All the analysis suggests that it is a matter of hundreds or a thousand or two, rather than tens of thousands, and that there has been a lot of hype and very little delivery.

I join the plea for another debate on post offices. It is bad enough that most of the proposed closures in London have just been confirmed, that many other closures are proposed around the country and that Crown post offices are facing franchising, as is the one in the borough that the right hon. and learned Lady and I represent, but hearing that we are to lose our Saturday delivery as well suggests that something is pretty rotten in the state of the Post Office. The Government take responsibility. They have been in power for 11 years. Will the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform come to the House and explain whether that, too, will be Government policy, just as all the closures have been Government policy or supported by the Government?

Lastly, the Leader of the House has said, to her credit, that she is keen to get the processes of the House reformed so that we do things logically. She knows that on Tuesday night, we at last debated the “Statement of Changes in the Immigration Rules”. The only trouble was that the rules came into force at the end of February and we could not have the debate until the middle of May.

And it has done so for many years. May we please bring to an end the nonsensical system whereby secondary legislation comes into force before either House has had a chance to debate it and decide whether it agrees with it, and whether or not there has been consultation? The Minister for Borders and Immigration, to his credit, had to make a major concession because he accepted the arguments put in opposition to some of the rules, and the rules will now effectively have to be redrawn.

Please may we have a proper, timetabled sequence for secondary legislation so that we see, debate and decide a draft, and the measure comes into force some time later?

The hon. Gentleman asked when I was first told that the Chancellor had reached a conclusion about the proposals that he was to put before the House on the 10p rate of tax and when he asked to make an oral statement on them. I do not like not answering questions, but this might be one of those issues on which there is not supposed to be complete, utter transparency and openness. So I will not answer the question at this point, but I will take advice on whether the issue is one of those Government things that remain as part of internal discussions between Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman’s second point was about the economy of Britain. I remind him that although in the last quarter unemployment figures showed an increase, unemployment is lower now than it was this time last year. There is a continuous increase in employment, and that is very important. That is one of the reasons why the Chancellor and the Prime Minister set a great deal of store on ensuring that liquidity remains in the banking system, so that continuous finance is available for small businesses and they can continue to employ people. The economy remains on track. The international situation is difficult, of course, and people are concerned. However, we are doing all that we can to keep the economy stable and growing.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned housing. He will know that a great deal has been done on housing in the past 10 years. In his constituency and mine, more or less every flat on every council estate has had new windows, doors, roofing and lifts. There has been massive investment in housing. He will also know that more social housing—flats and houses—has been built. Furthermore, there are 1 million more homeowners than when we came into government, and we are planning for there to be 1 million more still. Of course, there are difficulties in the housing market at the moment because of the credit crunch, which started with the sub-prime mortgage problems in America. However, we intend to do all that we can as a Government, and we are working to ensure that the housing market is as stable and protected as possible.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the Royal Mail. It is right that there should be a review because of changes in how people are communicating, particularly in respect of electronic communications. I thank Richard Hooper, formerly of Ofcom, who has undertaken the review on behalf of the Government. What is important is that we have a fair deal for Royal Mail users and employees and for taxpayers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of this House having debated secondary legislation after it had come into effect. It certainly seems odd that we should debate something that has already gone into law. However, I am sure that there is a perfectly good reason for it; I just cannot remember what it is at the moment. I am sure that I will be reminded by my colleagues before the end of oral questions about why something that seems rather illogical is in fact entirely logical. If I am not, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the issue.

The Government rightly keep banging on about cutting vehicle emissions. Outside your official residence, Mr. Speaker, is where Ministers’ cars sit. In inclement weather, the drivers sit there with the motors running, presumably to keep warm. When it is hot, they also sit there with the motors running, presumably to keep the air conditioning on. Yet there are serried ranks of Toyota Prius hybrids out there, run by Ministers to cut emissions. Will my right hon. and learned Friend liaise with her colleagues and perhaps provide suitable facilities so that the drivers can have a room adjacent to that parking area and stay warm in winter and cool in summer without unnecessarily polluting the atmosphere?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which I shall raise with my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Transport.

When does the right hon. and learned Lady expect to receive the Baker report on MPs’ pay, and when does she expect a debate on it?

On 24 January, the House agreed that Sir John Baker would look into the question of MPs’ pay in respect of pegging it to a rate that would obviate the need for Members of the House to decide on our own pay. It was agreed that Sir John would report, and that we would have an opportunity to debate and decide on the report’s conclusions, before the House rose for the summer recess. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that Sir John is proceeding with his work and is on track. There will be enough time for hon. Members to look at his report before it is debated, which will be well before the House rises in the summer.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for the House to look at the level of support provided by our consular services to business men abroad? I am speaking of my constituent Norman Mark, among others. He sunk his life savings into a café in Turkey, only to find it occupied by local villagers. He has had little meaningful support from our consular services overseas and Turkish services here.

My hon. Friend has reinforced the importance of the role of consular services. I will bring her constituent’s case to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

May I take the Leader of the House back to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the National Insurance Contributions Bill? After the panic Budget statement on Tuesday, there may be implications for the Bill—although there may not; I do not know—before it starts to pass through the House of Lords. After all, the whole idea was to put national insurance contributions and income tax into line. Will we need another panic statement on that issue?

As I understand it, making changes to the National Insurance Contributions Bill [Lords] in respect of the 10p tax rate would be out of scope. Matters of taxation are taken through the Finance Bill.

My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware of the untimely death of Scottish football legend Tommy Burns, who died earlier today. Tommy was a well-respected figure, not only in Scottish football, but throughout the UK. He was recognised for his contribution to the Scottish national football team and his beloved Celtic football club. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join the all-party Scottish football group and others in sending the House’s condolences to Tommy’s wife Rosemary and his four daughters? He will be sadly missed.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am sure that the whole House will join him in paying tribute to Tommy Burns and in sending our condolences to Tommy’s wife Rosemary and his four children. Tommy was a highly respected figure in the football community, both as player and coach. Like his close friend and team mate Phil O’Donnell, he was a family man. Both of them will be sadly missed.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady consider allowing a topical debate on dentistry? Clearly, I have a declared interest in the subject; because of that, I get considerable pressure from outside the House. The debate should be broad and cover not only the national health service, although the Select Committee on Health has a report coming out soon, and to be fair, national health service dentistry is in a shambolic state. Could the debate be very broad, and cover prevention and education? It should also consider the General Dental Council, which is a very expensive, authoritarian, invasive and unpleasant organisation in many ways. For example, I cannot understand why it asks dentists and dental nurses about their sexual interests in a questionnaire. The GDC is asking whether—

Dentistry, as the hon. Gentleman says, is an important public health issue. He will have an opportunity to raise it in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, if he so chooses. I shall consider his suggestion as a proposal for a topical debate.

I warmly welcome the Government’s proposals to extend the opportunity to request flexible working to the parents of older children. The Labour Government have a great record on helping parents to balance family life and work. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that since 1997 the number of women in work in Wales has risen by nearly 13 per cent.? Does she agree that our proposals will be of great help to those women? When may we have a debate on the subject of family balance and work?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and I shall bring them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The fact that the stay-at-home mother now goes out to work has been a huge social revolution. We must ensure that women who go out to work can help the family finances and contribute to our economy and our services and can be the sort of parents that they want to be as they bring up their children. It is important that work is flexible around family needs, rather than the other way around. Some people have said in the past that such provisions are a burden on business, but we think that it is important for the whole of society that children are well brought up.

The next frontier in the question of flexible work is the care of older people. Just as the stay-at-home mother now goes out to work and is not available for the full-time care of her children, the stay-at-home daughter who used to care for elderly relatives goes out to work, too. We need to ensure that work is flexible not only for parents but for people who care for older relatives. I hope that the Opposition, as well as the whole House, will back us when we move forward on that.

May we have a debate on the online filing system? A recent Public Accounts Committee report showed that 3 million people filled the forms in wrongly, and understated their situation by £3 billion. The problem is that the online filing system was thought up by committee. It is complicated and difficult. I defy almost anybody to fill it in correctly. In America, which has many more taxpayers, the Internal Revenue Service administers the system through the public sector. That is highly successful and has worked well for years. Why can we not go down that route?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to raise that subject during the debate on the Public Accounts Committee motion this afternoon. I think that that would be an appropriate issue on which he could seek to catch the Speaker’s eye.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a ceremony with local children to celebrate the complete rebuilding of Washington school in my constituency, which is part of a £120 million investment in secondary education in the city of Sunderland. Will the Leader of the House try to make time available for a debate on the benefits of that level of investment for young people in our constituencies, and the impact it has in transforming their lives and life chances?

I am sure that the parents, teachers and pupils of Washington school will be glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to raise the issue in the House today. We think that investment in schools is investment for the future. An investment in education for the next generation has sometimes been characterised as spending—there have been complaints that we have not mended the roof while the sun is shining—but investment in children’s education is the best foundation for the future economy.

May I make a plea that the right hon. and learned Lady use the weekly business questions to respond to Members’ requests for debates rather than indulge in long party political statements?

I am consistent, and my question concerns the fact that Zimbabwe is dropping out of the picture, despite the fact its people continue to suffer. An election has been held and no proper results have been declared. Is it not time that the House held a debate on Zimbabwe, for which we are responsible as we put Mr. Mugabe in power in the first place? May we have a debate on the Floor of the House, in Government time, so that we can urge action and try to bring some peace and stability to that part of the world and to its long-suffering people?

I will try to refrain from making party political points in business questions. The problem is that I am severely provoked by the Opposition. I will try to heed the hon. Gentleman’s words because he, at least, is consistent in raising business issues in business questions. Indeed, he is consistent in expressing concern about Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, torture seems to be on the increase, more people are being killed and there is displacement. The electoral commission has said that there should elections in August, but torture, killing and displacement are not a background for free and fair elections. There was an Adjournment debate two weeks ago on Zimbabwe, but the hon. Gentleman is right and, although we do not want to provide Mugabe with an opportunity to say that everybody should rally around him because it is all the fault of the British Government, we need to have a debate on the subject soon.

Following today’s publication of the report by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, may we have a debate as soon as possible on openness in party political donations so that this House and the country can be fully aware of the systematic deception in the funding of individual shadow cabinet Members’ offices, and the way in which donations have been made to individual Members that have not been registered as they ought to have been in the Register of Members’ Interests?

Order. We cannot accuse the shadow Cabinet or any other hon. Member of deception. [Interruption.] I have seen the report and I know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Perhaps he should withdraw the statement about deception. That would be the best thing to do.

I withdraw the suggestion of deception, but I would like an opportunity to expand on my comments as soon as possible.

The Prime Minister made his statement on the pre-legislative programme yesterday. It included £200 million to fund the purchase of properties for rent or for use in shared equity schemes. However, The Press and Journal reports today that that £200 million is already with the Housing Corporation and is intended to help those who are unable to buy homes of their own. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to make another emergency relaunch statement to explain that the money is being recycled and that it applies to England only and to explain which of the spending programmes are to be slashed to fund yesterday’s headline?

The draft legislative programme, which we published yesterday, is, I believe, an important opportunity to set out the key points of the Government’s forthcoming legislative programme, which will form the basis of the Queen’s Speech, together with other important issues that run alongside that programme. It is an opportunity for the public to see work that was previously undertaken behind closed doors. There will also be an opportunity to debate the draft legislative programme, with a full-day debate before the House rises in the summer.

Will the Leader of the House look at early-day motion 1567?

[That this House welcomes the launch of the Fair Tips Charter Campaign by the Daily Mirror and Unite the UNION, while recognising there are honourable owners of hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality outlets who ensure that all gratuities are paid to their staff in addition to at least the minimum wage without deductions; is also aware that HM Revenue and Customs class service charges, cover charges, gratuities and tips all as gratuities for national insurance contributions purposes yet many hospitality establishments still treat these as extra payments to the proprietors and do not pass them on to their staff in addition to at least the minimum wage; understands that this practice is legally allowed at the moment because of regulation 31 subsection 1(e) governing the Minimum Wage Act 1998; and calls on all other trades unions and media to support the Fair Tips Charter, all hospitality outlets and their trade associations to sign up to and operate the four pledges in the Charter and the Government to introduce an amendment in the Queen’s Speech that will ensure that all tips will be paid to staff in addition to the minimum wage.]

The motion is tabled in my name and has been signed by 42 Members from across the Benches. It welcomes the launch of the fair tips charter campaign by Unite the Union and the Daily Mirror. As many as 1.5 million people are not getting their tips on top of their minimum wage. The Leader of the House might recall that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform promised on 3 April that he would meet my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). Will he extend that meeting to the Unite group in Parliament, which is backing the campaign? May we have a statement from the Secretary of State about how he will bring about the change? It does not require legislation, merely a change to the regulations, and I assume that it was left out of the promises for the Queen’s Speech on that basis.

I congratulate the Unite group of MPs and Unite on their work on the fair tips charter. Obviously, it makes good sense for tips to be in cash. However, even when tips are given in cash, there is a question about whether they reach those who have provided the service for which the tip is meant. I know that the subject is being reviewed by the regulatory reform department in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and no doubt its representatives will meet hon. Members, Unite and employers to discuss it further.

May we have a topical debate on whether anything could or should be done to stem the flow of increasingly tacky political memoirs? Does the Leader of the House agree that authors who do not meet a certain quality threshold should perhaps be required to donate the proceeds to charity?

That is not a question about the business of the House, and I will therefore quickly pass over it.

This morning, I have become aware that there has been another problem on the west coast main line to the south of Milton Keynes. This time it appears to be a massive signal failure; last week, it was blamed on a power failure. Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate in this House on the reliability of the west coast main line and transparency on the part of Network Rail about why problems occur and when it is going to put them right?

My hon. Friend brings to the House a matter that is obviously of great importance to her constituents. I will bring it to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Transport, but she might also seek an opportunity to raise it in the pre-recess Adjournment debate.

May we have an urgent debate on standards in education? Yesterday, the chief inspector of schools told the Children, Schools and Families Committee that improvements in standards had stalled. After the Prime Minister’s lamentable performance yesterday, is it not clear that not only our children’s education but this Government are irrevocably stalled?

I think that that is one of those provocative questions. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who was sitting next to the hon. Gentleman a moment ago—[Interruption.] Well, I thought that the question was party political point scoring, but I will answer it in any event.

I thank the Select Committee for its work on testing and on standards across the piece. This Government have given great priority to investing in education and to ensuring that there is a fair and open system of testing that is helpful for parents, pupils and teachers, and that there is individual personal tuition for each child. We want more people to get education further on in their lives. That is why we are introducing an apprenticeship programme and increasing to 18 the age at which some education should still be going on. If the Opposition are as concerned as we are not only that every individual should achieve their potential but that the economy should have the supply of skilled and qualified workers it needs, I hope that they will back us in these proposals.

May I encourage the Leader of the House to respond more positively to suggestions by the Conservatives that we discuss interest rates in this House? It would offer an opportunity to remind people who are anxious about interest rates that, for five years under the Conservative party, interest rates were over 10 per cent., and that although they are creating worry for people, they will not reach those levels because of this Government’s good stewardship of the economy.

My hon. Friend will have heard the Chancellor earlier this week, and the Prime Minister yesterday, express the Government’s commitment to doing all we can to keep inflation low so that the Bank of England can keep interest rates low. Over the past 10 years, the Government have ensured that the economy has been run in such a way that we keep interest rates low. That has been the most important thing, alongside people having jobs and being secure in them, in ensuring that the housing market remains stable. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point.

May we have a debate on the Highways Agency’s investment in trunk roads in the south-west? I have often drawn attention to the safety improvements that are necessary on the A303, but may I also highlight the A36, particularly the stretch that runs through Standerwick, climbs over Black Dog hill, and straddles the Somerset and Wiltshire border? That road has a proven accident record. Standerwick has no protection at all as regards the speed limit, and it is time that something was done. The Highways Agency seems to be dragging its feet.

That can be raised with Ministers in the Department for Transport; no doubt the hon. Gentleman has done so. Highways, particularly the ones that he mentioned, are a huge issue in the south-west. That is partly why it is important that we come forward with our proposals for regional committees of this House. If the Highways Agency, regional development agencies, the Learning and Skills Council and regional organisations are making decisions that are hugely important to a region, we must have proper accountability to this House. I hope that in future south-west regional MPs will be able to hold the Highways Agency properly to account for what it does in their region as well as ensuring that Transport Ministers hold the Highways Agency to account nationally.

Yesterday, there was a very good debate in Westminster Hall on the Royal Mail and the Post Office. If we had known then what we know today about the views of Mr. Stapleton from Postcomm, there would have been universal condemnation from Labour Members, at least. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a debate on the role of regulators and whether they should initiate policy, particularly in such a sensitive area as the Post Office, and is not this so important that we should have it as a matter of urgency?

I will refer my hon. Friend’s point to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who will no doubt have seen and taken seriously the points made in that debate.

May we have an early debate next week entitled, “Consideration of Bills in Public Bill Committees”? The right hon. and learned Lady will know that I am serving on the Committee that is considering the Counter-Terrorism Bill. Does she agree that parliamentary scrutiny of Bills is essential? In that context, is it not profoundly wrong that Government Whips should confine membership of the Committee to those who agree with them? Furthermore, is it not wrong that they dissuade Labour Back Benchers from participating in the debate and instead ask them merely to attend to their private correspondence? That surely undermines the highly important process of parliamentary scrutiny.

We want the process of parliamentary scrutiny to be improved. That is why we are publishing the draft legislative programme, why more Bills are published in draft, and why we have the Public Bill Committee process. The question of who serves on a Committee is for the Committee of Selection, and the proceedings of that Committee are a matter for its Chair.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend bring to the House details of the funding of the parliamentary research unit in order that we may have a proper debate on state funding of political parties and add to the information that will be coming out in the next four weeks, as required, on shadow Cabinet members, who now have to reveal the full details of the private, hidden funding that has been secretly funding their offices over the past year?

I think that my hon. Friend refers, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), to the report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, “Conduct of Mr George Osborne”. I thank the Committee for its report, in which it accepts the conclusions of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. There is no further action for this House if the commissioner’s conclusions, as endorsed by the Committee, are accepted.

Order. I am going to ask again that we should talk about the business for next week. We have to be careful about how we are abusing business questions.

I want to return to the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which rightly seeks to align the level of national insurance contributions with the level of taxation that people pay. Does not the Leader of the House understand the implications of the previous questions? There is likely to be a black hole as a result of the Chancellor’s statement on the 10p tax rate and raising the threshold at which some people pay tax. He has bungled again, and we need to have him back at the Dispatch Box to explain himself. There is a genuine problem, and I urge her to look at it much more carefully than the cavalier approach she has taken so far.

I am certain that the Treasury would have taken those issues into account in their decision. Notwithstanding that, I shall raise with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor the points that the shadow Leader of the House and the right hon. Gentleman made.

May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to early-day motion 1576?

[That this House notes that 16th to 17th May marks the 65th anniversary of the raid on the Ruhr dams by 617 Squadron RAF (The Dambusters); pays tribute to the extraordinary heroism and skill of the crews, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC DSO DFC, and to the ingenuity of Dr Barnes Wallis who designed the bomb; regrets that of the 133 men who took part in the raid, 53 gave their lives on that mission; and supports the Bomber Command Association in its campaign for the erection of a suitable memorial to commemorate those who served in Bomber Command and their contribution to the eventual liberation of Europe.]

It reminds hon. Members that tomorrow is the 65th anniversary of the Dambusters’ raid, undertaken by Squadron 617, which flew out of Lincolnshire. As one of 11 Lincolnshire Members of Parliament and a born and bred yellow belly, I urge all hon. Members to sign the early-day motion. Will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for the Ministry of Defence to make a statement about when a memorial will be erected to commemorate the actions of those brave and heroic men?

I will bring my hon. Friend’s forceful points to the attention of my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence.

If there is no conflict of interest, will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement or debate next week on the Prime Minister’s intention to remove ministerial severance pay?

The hon. Gentleman knows that, before the debate in the House on 24 January, the Senior Salaries Review Body made some proposals about withdrawing severance pay if a Minister got another job before the period for which it was to be paid had elapsed. The House agreed, and we said that we planned to implement the proposals, which would claw back severance pay. We intend to do that.

First, I concur entirely and sincerely with the tributes to Tommy Burns, who sadly passed away earlier today.

May we have a debate on ring-fencing for local government funding? I am sure that all hon. Members welcomed the recent announcement of more than £4.5 million of extra funding to allow pupils from every school in the UK to visit the former concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland. Unfortunately, the Scottish Executive have refused to ring-fence those moneys, which would guarantee that pupils from every Scottish school could participate in those visits. Such a debate would allow us to expose the Scottish National party’s lack of support for life-changing visits.

Several hon. Members have just returned from visiting Auschwitz, and they felt that it was important. Given that it is so important to understand the international lessons of history, several hon. Members have been incredulous that the Scottish National party should take such a narrow-minded, introverted view and prevent young people from having those opportunities, especially when the money has already been made available.

Given that there will be even more post office closures, is not it time we had an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on plans for the post office network? It has been announced that two more post offices in Putney will close, ignoring my constituents’ concerns. After the local election results, the Government said that they would start listening. Is not it time for the Secretary of State to come to the Chamber and start listening to representatives who reflect the views of millions of Londoners and millions of people throughout the country, who are devastated by post office closures in their communities?

All hon. Members are concerned about the post office network and, since 1997, we have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in it. Under the Conservative Government, there was no public subsidy to the network, but we have made the investment. The hon. Lady should say where she believes that the money would come from—what taxes would increase or services would be cut—to finance the investment in the post office network for which she calls.

May we have an opportunity to question the Information Commissioner in person about his determination—insane in the current security environment—to make Members of Parliament disclose their private home addresses?

While we wait for that, may we have a debate on early-day motion 1476?

[That this House deplores the transfer by Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea of Mr Simon Mann after nearly five years in gaol, in contravention of assurances given to the UK Government that this would not occur while his appeal process was still underway; is appalled that he has been held in shackles in Black Beach Prison ever since; condemns the continuing refusal to grant United Kingdom consular access to him since a single visit in March; and urges the Government to seek the support of the United States and other influential countries to safeguard Mr Mann's human rights in this perilous situation.]

More than 100 hon. Members have signed it and some of the most senior Back Benchers from all parties, including a former Labour party chairman, have sponsored it. It is about the fate of my constituent, Mr. Simon Mann, to whom consular access has been denied since his enforced appearance in a television interview on Channel 4, in which he was obliged to incriminate himself before a trial, which appears to have been put off sine die.

The hon. Gentleman and several of his hon. Friends have raised the matter of Simon Mann, which is of concern to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s concern to its attention again and, if any more information is available, I shall ensure that he gets it. I hope that he will let either me or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office know about any further proposals, and action can be taken on them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Information Commissioner. Hon. Members know that requests have been made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the home addresses of Members who have homes in London, where they stay when they are away from their constituencies. They must have a home in London for when the House is sitting. Journalists have made freedom of information requests for the publication of hon. Members’ addresses in London, where they are often far away from their families, living on their own. There are security considerations and the hon. Gentleman will know that the information has been refused. The information tribunal’s decision that the addresses should be made available has been appealed against and is now before the High Court. I will not therefore say anything further except that the High Court is considering the matter because an appeal was made on the basis that the decisions would breach hon. Members’ security. The point is that, when we come to the House, we need to be able to speak about all sorts of controversial matters, for example, animal rights extremism—

Order. I reminded an hon. Gentleman earlier when the High Court case was mentioned that, for the purposes of the House, the matter is sub judice until their lordships report back to us.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that Departments answer ordinary written questions in a reasonable time? Some time ago, I tabled two questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government. One simply asked whether it would place in the Library the transcript of the conference call between the Minister for Housing and 16 hon. Members about future proposals on eco-towns. It was a straightforward question. My second question asked what proportion of the Western Otmoor proposed eco-town was in the green belt. I have not received an answer to either question yet. It may be that the Minister for Housing undertook in the conference call that no eco-town would be built in the green belt, and 25 per cent. of Western Otmoor is clearly in the Oxford green belt. However, the fact that answers are inconvenient to Ministers is not a reason for not providing timely answers to written questions.

I will chase up the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s written questions. It is important that Ministers answer questions promptly, fully and factually.

May we have an urgent debate on poverty? Despite the Government’s handbrake U-turn on the 10p tax rate, the lowest paid and poorest in society will remain worse off as a result of the changes. Will not 2008 go down as the year that Labour abandoned the poor?

I believe that the Opposition had scheduled a debate on pensioner poverty for Wednesday and it was replaced by a debate on Burma, which was important. I will bear the hon. Gentleman’s points in mind. He knows that the Government have kept tackling poverty at the forefront of our agenda. That is why we want everybody to be able to be in work, and believe that there should be a minimum wage, tax credits and targets for ending child poverty and pensioner poverty. We have made progress on all those aims. Given that the Opposition opposed us on all those issues, it is good that, instead of being a drag anchor of opposition, they are now belatedly backing our objectives.

The Leader of the House mentioned the importance of history. May we, therefore, have a debate on the world heritage site at Saltaire in my constituency? The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently said that the Saltaire village was built by Sir Titus Salt as an act of self-aggrandisement. Many people in my area found that rather offensive, and are very proud of what Sir Titus Salt built in Saltaire. Perhaps a debate would allow the Secretary of State to understand what a fine man he was.

The hon. Gentleman could raise that matter in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, but I shall bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

May I take the Leader of the House back to the glorious years of Prime Minister Blair? She will recall that he said that nobody would have to wait more than six months for an NHS operation. Yesterday, the Healthcare Commission published its annual report on the health of the nation. In my local hospital, more than 25 per cent. of patients reported that they have to wait more than six months for an operation. May we have a debate on the difference between what the Government say and the reality in the health service?

The Healthcare Commission has produced its findings, and I would like to thank the commission for its important work. The findings show that more than 90 per cent. of patients report that their care in NHS hospitals was either good or excellent. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not remember what I certainly do: in my constituency advice surgery, people used to come in and literally break down in tears because they were waiting for a hip replacement. Sometimes they would have to wait for one or two years. I also remember the consultant in the local hospital pointing out the number of people who died while waiting for cardiac surgery. We have targets to reduce waiting lists; the Opposition said that they would abolish all central targets. We want to make more progress, and with the extra investment we have put into the NHS that progress is possible. It certainly would not be possible with the public service cuts that would come about under the Opposition’s proposals.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Two reports have been made available to the House this week from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. If the Leader of the House is going to refer to them in obviously pre-planted questions from Labour Members, it is right that she should fairly reflect what the report says. I would like to draw your attention to paragraph 79, where the commissioner says:

“I do not believe it would be fair or reasonable to criticise Mr. Osborne as a result.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) acted on advice from me and my office. The commissioner goes on to say in paragraph 80:

“The Opposition Chief Whip’s office took the right action in consulting the registrar and acted in good faith in interpreting the guidance which they believed they had received.”

When dealing with such matters, it is important that the Leader of the House reflects accurately, not selectively, what is in the report.

I am going to give a ruling on the matter. The Chief Whip has put the matter correctly, and I am going to close this matter down. The statement of the Leader of the House should be about the business for the next week, and perhaps the following week. I do give leeway at times because hon. Members may want to raise important issues, but it looks as though I shall have to make things tighter because such matters should not be brought before the House at business questions. There are other opportunities to do so.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My recollection is that when an hon. Member wishes to criticise another hon. Member, it is the practice to inform the hon. Member that a criticism is about to be made. That is my understanding of the practice. If I am right, Mr. Speaker, would it be possible for you to reaffirm that rule?

I do reaffirm it. Normally, when an hon. Gentleman is mentioned by name, I usually ask whether the Member concerned has raised the matter with the hon. Gentleman to allow him to be in the Chamber. I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman; I reaffirm that.

Of course, this matter was slipped in by way of a report, and I might have to be tighter about business questions. The danger of being tighter is that legitimate matters that hon. Members might want to bring before the House, such as the bereavement of a famous football star, might not be allowed. I ask hon. Members to bear in mind what business questions are about.

On a separate point of order, Mr. Speaker. Again, I seek your guidance about ensuring that the record in Hansard is correct. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that Her Majesty’s Opposition had opposed the introduction of flexible working. That is not correct; we did not vote against it, and I seek your advice on how we can ensure that the statements in the record are correct.

The best advice that I can give is, “Don’t bring that up in a point of order”, because it is not a point of order.

On a separate point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall the Opposition day debate on Burma yesterday. Because of the number of speakers, the Minister replying had only 10 minutes in which to try to respond to the whole debate. In the course of those 10 minutes, two hon. Members, whom I will not name, intervened and used up valuable time. Neither of those two Members had been present for any substantial part of the debate; they had come in a few minutes before the end of the debate and intervened. I am not sure whether that is a matter of order, but it is certainly a matter of convention in the House that Members do not behave in that way. I would appreciate it if you reasserted that convention.

In the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes, there is no breach of the rules. A Member coming into the Chamber late can seek to intervene. It is up to the Member addressing the House to decide whether they accept that intervention; it is not a matter for the Chair.


I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of anti-Semitism.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for calling this debate on anti-Semitism. It comes at an appropriate time, as it has been a year since the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism reported on its inquiry. On Monday I laid a Command Paper before the House. It gave an opportunity to reflect on the all-party group’s work, and today’s debate is a good opportunity to congratulate all Members of this House—Back Benchers from all parties—on the contributions that they have made, and to congratulate our stakeholders.

More than 100 people were present on Monday, including spokespersons from Front-Bench teams from all the political parties, Members of the House of Lords and stakeholders from the Jewish community, including Jon Benjamin, Jeremy Newmark and Richard Benson from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Community Security Trust and the Jewish Leadership Council. Just as importantly, there were many people of other faiths, and as the chair of the Faith Communities Consultative Council I was particularly pleased about that. The name of our consultation document that has been sent to faith communities is “Face to Face, Side by Side”, a phrase coined by the Chief Rabbi himself. I was also pleased that he was present on Monday to contribute to our celebration of the work of the all-party group, the Command Paper and the work that has been done, one year on.

I am going to talk about the measures in the document, the work of the all-party group and other measures as well. It is a good time to state our gratitude to the all-party group and the team of officials who have been working incredibly hard to bring 10 Departments together, while working in harness with the Jewish community to bring about a cogent set of proposals.

I will talk in a moment about the proposals made by the Department for Children, Schools and Families on school linking, the proposals to allow devolved capital to be used to provide security for school buildings for the Jewish community, better data collection involving the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, which is important, and the role of the inter-faith strategy and how it ties in with that work, as well as my Department’s work with other Departments supporting the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism.

Although a great deal of work has been done, I am sure that hon. Members will talk about the great deal of work that remains to be done. I am the first to accept that a great deal remains to be done about hate crime on campuses, for example. I will talk a little about that, as well as about our recent debates in the Chamber about Holocaust memorial day. I received a number of representations after Holocaust memorial day calling for additional funding for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. I am pleased to say that we have enhanced its funding from £500,000 to £750,000.

While the Minister is on that subject, I am sure he will agree that the trust deserves admiration for and congratulations on its tremendous work. It is very important to increase education about the history of the past 70 years, to help to minimise for a new generation the chance of a repetition of that history.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. Although this debate is about anti-Semitism, one of the most encouraging aspects of this week, and of Monday in particular, is that other faith communities and groups that face prejudice are set to benefit from the outcomes of the inquiry. The valuable lessons to be learned from the work, which is supported by some funding from my Department, are now being learned in other parts of Europe and around the world. We should all be pleased about that.

That work must be underpinned by policies and strategies to increase racial equality and build community cohesion, particularly through education. More generally, I am pleased to say that my Department has made some £50 million available throughout the country to fund community cohesion projects. We have made significant progress on many of the commitments that we made in response to the inquiry, which made 35 detailed recommendations. However, we recognise that there is no room for complacency.

The number of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK remains far too high. The Community Security Trust recorded 547 incidents in 2007. Although that represents an 8 per cent. fall over the previous year, it is still the second worst figure on record. We must therefore continue to work with all our stakeholders to bear down on the problem.

Since the publication of the inquiry’s report, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and his colleagues have worked to encourage parliamentarians in other countries to conduct similar inquiries. The Government greatly appreciate the group’s work and have offered it support, including financial support. My Department has provided funding, which has helped the inquiry to go across Europe and beyond, to the United States and Canada. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our embassies and high commissions have worked with the all-party group to make its overseas visits a success, offering practical support and local advice on parliamentary structures and suitable contacts.

A key development has been the establishment of the inter-departmental working group, which consists of representatives from across Whitehall, the parliamentary committee against anti-Semitism, representatives from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust, and other Departments, including the FCO, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney-General’s office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and my Department, as well as the police, who have worked closely with us.

The working group is unique in that it brings together the Jewish community and Departments to ensure that commitments made in our original response are taken forward. The working group has been hailed across Europe and in the United States as a model of best practice. However, we cannot leave the matter there. We will review the work again in 2010 and there will be regular meetings of the inter-departmental group at least twice a year.

We have ensured that by April 2009 all police forces will collect data on all hate crime, including anti-Semitism. We recognise that anti-Semitic discourse continues to be a concern, and to this end we have funded the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism to research the impact of anti-Semitic discourse on the atmosphere of acceptance of anti-Semitism.

The inquiry also focused on the importance of school linking. The Government acknowledge that and are providing £2 million in funding over the next three years, which is supported by a £1 million donation from the Pears Foundation. I should like to put on record my personal gratitude to Trevor Pears for his support for the project. That funding will provide a national website and resources to help to support schools in forming effective links.

Members who were present for our debate earlier this year on Holocaust memorial day will recall the support expressed in all parts of the House for the scheme that the DCFS is funding, with some £1.5 million, for two sixth-formers from every sixth-form college to have the opportunity to travel to Auschwitz. I was fortunate to meet a couple of sixth-formers from the Crypt school in my constituency who had been. I know that the scheme is welcomed throughout the House.

I had the good fortune on Tuesday to travel to Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust and students from my constituency. Everybody who was there—the Members of Parliament and all the students—found the day a deeply moving experience. Will my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that support for such visits will continue?

I can, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend has stated. Those visits have received support from across the House. I know from conversations that I have had with young people who have been that the visits have made a difference to their lives, and I am sure that that has been her experience, too.

Time is short and it is important to give other hon. Members the chance to contribute to the debate. Ongoing work is being done on anti-Semitism and the internet, which I shall happily discuss when I wind up the debate. I have already mentioned the importance of targeting anti-Semitism on our campuses, on which my Department and the inter-departmental group is doing sustained work with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Through our work with the police and the CPS, we will continue to work to ensure a greater number of prosecutions, which is incredibly important.

The Minister is touching on an important issue, which is the what is happening on campuses. I should like to highlight the excellent work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which means that students arrive on campus much more aware of the dangers. However, is there not a considerable responsibility on university authorities to take more action? The issue is not just about crime, but about that telling phrase, which I remember from my Northern Ireland days, “the chill factor”—that is, not necessarily crime, but making people feel that they are unwanted. Do university authorities not have a greater role to play in making their campuses welcoming to people, so that we can have genuine academic freedom?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The powers are already there, in legislation, but it must be incumbent on individual universities to take this issue and those powers seriously. That is part of the reason why my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education brought out guidance earlier this year. He has also met Jewish students to see how that work can be taken further.

I conclude by saying that although a great deal of work has been done, I appreciate that there is much more to do.

The official Opposition welcome unreservedly this topical debate, which is the first such debate we have had, although I remember debating the issue in Westminster Hall about a year ago. We would welcome topical debates on other aspects of racial and religious hatred, such as Islamophobia.

The debate allows the House to consider the Government’s progress report on combating anti-Semitism, which followed last year’s Command Paper, as the Minister said. The Command Paper followed the all-party parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism, which was chaired by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). We honour the work of the all-party group against anti-Semitism, and I try to stay in close touch with its chairman, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is present. I am especially mindful of the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who is a vice-chairman of the all-party group and who might seek to catch your eye today, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Before turning to the progress report and issues that arise from it, I want to consider briefly the context in which the report was set—namely, the level of anti-Semitism in Britain today and its impact on the country generally and on the Jewish community in particular. I have mentioned racial and religious hatred. All forms of hatred against people on the basis of their race, religion, sexuality or condition—indeed, all forms of hatred against people—are an unqualified and unmitigated evil. However, there is a special horror for those of us who are Europeans, in the widest sense of the word, in and about anti-Semitism. The reason for that is almost too obvious to state: the holocaust.

As the Minister has reminded us, the Government recently marked Holocaust memorial day with a debate. Looking around the Chamber, I see that many hon. Members who attended that debate are present. There was a powerful and unmistakable consensus in that debate that the legacy of the holocaust—itself the consequence of more than 2,000 years of anti-Semitism in Europe—is still with us. Let me give a striking example. Many places of worship in Britain today have been subject to violence, including churches, mosques and gurdwaras. There have been atrocious incidents, but only one religious institution in Britain is under threat to such a degree that those who attend it are advised not to linger outside after worship: the synagogue.

We all commend the outstanding work of the Community Security Trust, which is involved in dialogue with the Government at a deep level. The Minister spoke about the multi-faith dimension of work on this issue. It is characteristic of the CST that it offers to other religious institutions and faith groups its expertise in protecting congregations and synagogues. Like a virus, anti-Semitism is peculiarly mutative, adaptable and resilient. It is multifaceted and, as was observed in the Holocaust memorial day debate, a light sleeper.

When I was growing up, anti-Semitism was largely confined, in the context of extremist ideology, to neo-Nazi groups, but that has changed. It is now also championed by some who claim—mistakenly, as my Muslim constituents would point out—to speak in the name of Islam. It is in that context especially that contemporary anti-Semitism, in general, and the Government’s progress report in particular, must be considered. I shall concentrate on four issues: the internet, anti-Semitic incidents, universities and the responsibilities of institutions more widely.

As I have said, anti-Semitism is peculiarly adaptable. It adapts to technology, and anti-Semitic hatred is now available online at the click of a mouse. The Government’s report says that the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will

“host a ministerial seminar to find ways of improving action and impact on internet hate”.

The Minister said that he would touch on those matters when he responds to the debate. It would help if he told the House whether the Government had any objections to signing the additional protocol to the Council of Europe’s convention on cybercrime, and how the recommendations of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe conference on the same subject have been followed up.

The Government have committed to introducing national police monitoring of anti-Semitic incidents and offences by 2009. Again, it would be useful if the Minister confirmed that that deadline will be met and if he described what the Government will do to encourage the reporting of anti-Semitic incidents and offences. Picking up on a point that he made, I know he will agree that we must not be deceived by the fall in number that he reported into thinking that the problem is necessarily easing, because one could argue that the figures from the previous year were artificially boosted by what happened in Lebanon at that time, about which there were many reports.

As for universities, as the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) said, the menace of anti-Semitism is particularly acute in higher education. That menace does not express itself only in the visible activity of anti-Semitic groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Jewish students also report anti-Semitism on campus as a mood, an atmosphere and a mode of discourse. The right hon. Gentleman described it as a chill in the atmosphere. That leaks out especially, perhaps, from debates on the middle east, and can prevent Jewish students from enjoying a normal university experience. It can even deter young Jewish people from attending certain institutions altogether.

It is significant that the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the CST and the Jewish Leadership Council support the Union of Jewish Students in the view that much work remains to be done. I note that the all-party group is disappointed that the DIUS is still only considering the CST’s proposal that it should set up a sub-group on anti-Semitism in higher education. When will Ministers take a decision on that?

Finally, I want to address the responsibilities of institutions and of local and national Government. We believe that it is wrong for institutions to participate in events that are hosted by anti-Semitic parties such as the British National party. It therefore follows that it is also wrong for them to participate in events hosted by other anti-Semitic organisations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. I make that point because it was reported this week that John Holmwood, a sociology professor at Birmingham university, which is an excellent institution, spoke at a local debate that was organised by Hizb ut-Tahrir. It should also be unacceptable for local authorities to support groups that are willing to engage actively with Hizb ut-Tahrir, such as the Cordoba Foundation; we understand that that is the case in Tower Hamlets. The Cordoba Foundation appears to be involved in Campusalam—a Government-sponsored programme to tackle extremism on campus—so we would welcome clarification from the Minister on that.

I repeat that we welcome the debate. We honour the contribution that the Jewish community makes to Britain and has made for many years. We stand united, in this House, against anti-Semitism. There are huge challenges and there has been some progress, but there is a great deal more work to do.

I, too, start by welcoming the debate as well as the efforts of the all-party group against anti-Semitism and the Government to eradicate anti-Semitism. There is a sensible consensus on this issue in the House.

I have no criticism of the Minister, but I will make one helpful suggestion for future debates. In his press release, the Minister honestly outlined the areas in which the Government believe that further action needs to be taken—addressing the number of cases brought to prosecution, tackling anti-Semitism on university campuses, and challenging hate crime and extremism on the internet. The Minister has very helpfully said that he will update us on progress when he responds to the debate. Perhaps, in future, he might be willing to do that at the beginning of a debate, as that would give us the opportunity to ask further questions on the back of the information that we have received, rather than simply hearing the Minister’s response at the end, when there is no opportunity for us to ask more questions.

I recognise that the Government are doing a good job, and it is clear that progress is being made in a number of areas. However, the Minister, who has responsibility for community cohesion, has also said that there is no room for complacency, and that is quite right, because there is no reason or justification for complacency. I am sure that other hon. Members will have been sent the figures for violent assaults on members of the Jewish community in the UK last year, when they reached record levels. Even in what is portrayed as leafy, trouble-free Surrey, there have been incidents recently of swastikas being daubed on vehicles, pavements and signposts. Just as worrying—if not more so—are the allegations involving teachers in certain schools being anti-Semitic, because there would clearly be a long-term impact on the pupils if any indoctrination were taking place. There is no room for complacency.

The Government have made some welcome proposals in relation to increased funding for the Holocaust Educational Trust, which we fully support. Like many, if not all, the hon. Members here today, I have been on a visit to Auschwitz organised by the trust, and I think that we all came away with a permanent impression. The evidence of the industrial scale of killing there certainly left an indelible impression on me. That is something that we cannot, and never should, forget.

There are areas in which the Government are making progress, but some additional questions need to be asked. The Minister has said that by April 2009 police forces will collect data on hate crime, including anti-Semitism. Will he update us on how many police authorities are already in a position to do that, so that we can get a feel for whether that is a realistic target? If he tells us that only three or five are ready, clearly we are not on track. If he responds by saying that only 10 per cent. are in a position to do it, we might need to examine the matter more carefully.

The Minister has also highlighted the fact that local authorities can use their devolved capital funding for investment in security in schools, which is welcome. Will he clarify what will happen where there is no devolved capital funding available? Is there any scope for additional funding from a central pot to be made available if the local authorities cannot access funding for themselves?

Good progress is being made, but, as the Minister highlighted, there are also areas in which further progress is needed. He mentioned the prosecution of hate crimes, and it would be useful to know whether research shows that there is a greater inclination not to pursue hate crimes involving anti-Semitism—as opposed to other hate crimes— through to prosecution. It would be useful to know whether there is any difference or whether the problems are consistent across all hate crimes, in which case any proposals would be beneficial in tackling all kinds of hate crimes and ensuring that they are taken through to prosecution.

The spokesman for the official Opposition, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), asked specific questions about the action that is to be taken in universities, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned hate crime and extremism on the internet. The Government clearly need to take action in that regard, but also to acknowledge that in some cases it will be difficult for the service providers to know precisely what is going on. This relates not only to anti-Semitism; I understand that there are issues relating to the way in which some of the political websites report on women MPs in the House of Commons. Some very aggressive things have been said. The Minister needs to look at those issues.

I should like to conclude by saying that there is all-party agreement on this matter. There is a consensus and a desire on the part of all Members of Parliament to ensure that anti-Semitism is consigned to the dustbin of history, where it belongs, and that firm action is taken as and when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in any corner of the country. The Minister is guaranteed our support on this matter, and we welcome all the efforts that he is making to tackle the problem.

I thank the Leader of the House for very appropriately allocating Government time to debate this issue today. Only yesterday, in Stamford Hill, yet more serious anti-Semitic graffiti appeared. I have left a photograph of an example for the Minister. The stencilled graffiti are clearly part of a concerted campaign calling for jihad in an area with a significant Jewish population.

Is it not even more sinister that it chillingly describes jihad as the only solution for Israel?

Indeed. Worryingly, reports are also coming in that the problem has spread to other parts of north London in the past 24 hours. This highlights the necessity not only for vigilance but for ongoing action. I encourage all Members on both sides of the House to join and actively participate in the all-party group against anti-Semitism.

One thing that has characterised this issue perhaps more than most others in my brief six or seven years in the House is the fact that we have managed to achieve a coalition, not only intellectually but in relation to activity and working practice. Perhaps even more remarkably, the Government have managed, cross-departmentally, to bring every single one of the eight Government Departments into active participation, and allowed us, the ordinary Members of Parliament, to be vigilant in regard to those who do not place this matter high on their priority list, with a view to ensuring that all eight Departments participate fully.

On the point about collaboration that the hon. Gentleman has rightly made, does he think that it might be helpful, when the Government draw up their statement of British values, to include a history of Jews in the United Kingdom and an observation about tolerance? Any new citizen signing a citizenship contract should be aware of the history of tolerance in this country.