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Commons Chamber

Volume 476: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2008

House of Commons

Tuesday 20 May 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Smoke Alarms

1. What her estimate is of the percentage of residential dwellings fitted with at least one smoke alarm in (a) Kettering, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England. (206421)

Ownership of smoke alarms in England now stands at 80 per cent. of households and we are seeking to raise it further as those without alarms are often in those groups who are most at risk from fire.

Information on smoke alarm ownership in Kettering and Northamptonshire is not held centrally. However, 82 per cent. of households in the east midlands region own one or more smoke alarms.

Last year, in Northamptonshire there were fires in 463 homes, 247 of which did not have smoke alarms fitted. Will the Under-Secretary congratulate the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, which has launched a campaign to get smoke alarms fitted in residential homes, and ensure that those that are fitted work? What steps are the Government undertaking to spread the message that those who do not have a smoke alarm are twice as likely to die in the event of fire?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right that the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph is running a good, strong local campaign. Eighty per cent. of homes have smoke alarms, but people are twice as likely to die in a house fire if they do not have a smoke alarm. In one third of cases, there is no working battery in a smoke alarm, so we are running a high-profile campaign with the actress Julie Walters’s television programme. It is a hard-hitting campaign to ensure that people check their smoke alarms on a weekly basis. We also pump-primed the fire and rescue service with £25 million over four years. That money has been used to ensure that 1.9 million smoke alarms nationally have been fitted and I think that that is making a huge difference across the country.

I have been delighted to be involved in my hon. Friend’s campaign on smoke alarms. Has he also considered the huge importance of sprinklers? Is he prepared to consider making mandatory the installation of fire sprinklers in residential homes, especially in care homes for the elderly and for children?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for her ongoing campaign for her constituency—we have done some work together on that. We have made it a requirement for all new care homes to have sprinkler systems when there is more than one bed in a location. If there is only a single bed, it is a requirement to have a sprinkler or a system whereby there is a smoke alarm and a door-shutting mechanism so that fire cannot spread. Through building regulations, we have also introduced a requirement for fire sprinklers for buildings of, I believe, over 30 m and for warehouse-style buildings above a certain size and height.

Some alarms can now also detect carbon monoxide, which is responsible for the death of 30 to 40 people every year in this country. There are concerns that many more problems go undiagnosed. Will the Under-Secretary join me in urging the use of devices that can detect not only smoke but carbon monoxide?

I am happy to do that. I believe that Cleveland in particular has provided a strong local service, and it is part of the statutory duty to go out and ensure that community fire safety work is taking place throughout the country. Cleveland and many other fire and rescue authorities focus on carbon monoxide, whereas others focus on smoke alarms. Other fire rescue services have done completely different things—for example, in one area, chip fat fryers are being replaced with safer versions so that there are fewer kitchen fires. I therefore congratulate the hon. Lady on supporting the carbon monoxide campaign, and I know that fire and rescue authorities up and down the land are taking a closer look at it.

The Under-Secretary knows that a good proportion of domestic fires, and the injuries and deaths that go with them, are associated with discarded smoking materials. What steps have the Government taken to pursue the development and sale of reduced ignition propensity cigarettes of the sort that Canada and some states of the United States of America require? They need to be actively smoked, otherwise bars along the length of the cigarettes mean that they go out. Are not they a safety device, and why are we not moving along that path more rapidly?

We are working with our partners in the European Union on cigarettes that are less liable to cause house fires, through my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, who has been actively engaged on the issue. I am sure that my hon. Friend will see some of that work come to fruition in the coming months, as we work with our partners on guidance to help change the system, both here and across the continent.

Does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of increasing the percentage of domestic dwellings fitted with fire alarms in England is through the work that the fire services do in providing people with free advice on the use and installation of fire alarms? In that respect, will he join me in praising Essex fire service for the tremendous work that it does by increasing awareness of safety and installing free fire alarms in domestic dwellings?

I am very happy to congratulate Essex fire and rescue service on the work that it is doing. Such work is being done throughout the land. As I have said, 1.9 million smoke alarms have been fitted through the £25 million that my Department has provided between 2004 and 2008. Some 1.5 million home fire risk checks have been performed by fire and rescue services throughout the country. Fire and rescue services are finding that ensuring that people are alerted to fire risks in the first place not only is effective in saving lives—we now have the lowest number of fire deaths since 1959—but results in savings, because it means that fire appliances and crews are called out less and less often to put out fires.

Overcrowded Accommodation

2. What assessment she has made of the capacity of the private rented sector to contribute to a reduction in the number of families in overcrowded accommodation. (206422)

Working with local authorities has shown that providing access to larger properties in the private rented sector can be a positive solution to the problem of overcrowding in some circumstances. We will shortly be publishing good practice guidance on the Department’s website demonstrating the practical solutions that local authorities can take—and which some are taking—to address the problem of overcrowding.

I am very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend’s response. Will she outline the review of the private rented sector that Julie Rugg is undertaking and will she also tell the House when we will receive information on how she sees larger houses being utilised to manage overcrowding?

The review of the private rented sector that Julie Rugg is undertaking will report in October and is focusing on four key themes: how to create an accessible private rented sector; security of tenure for tenants; the provision of safe and decent homes; and improving landlord-tenant relations. Over the past few months, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues in the House, local authority leaders and others about the question of whether, if it comes up to standard, the private rented sector could be part of a family of providers, as well as about tackling houses in multiple occupation and overcrowding. I hope that that will all feed into the housing reform Green Paper that the Prime Minister announced will be forthcoming at the end of this year.

Has it dawned on the Minister that the move to pay housing benefit directly to tenants rather than to landlords for new tenancies will result in an increase in evictions and a reluctance among private landlords to let their houses to people on benefit?

With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is a somewhat patronising attitude towards tenants. I understand that the driver for the change was about ensuring that those renting in the private sector who have traditionally been in receipt of housing benefit can take more responsibility for finding their housing and assume more financial responsibility, too. The change is about developing a more independent approach, rather than a dependent approach. I also understand—I am sure that colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions will be happy to provide him with information on this—that safeguards are in place, particularly for vulnerable tenants, to ensure that rents are paid and, where appropriate, that adequate and suitable support is given either by Jobcentre Plus or by local authorities, or by charitable organisations working with particular groups of vulnerable people.

Milton Keynes council is using the private rented sector to try to provide more suitable accommodation for many of the people on its waiting list and those in overcrowded accommodation. However, does the Minister accept that a major disincentive for council tenants to move to the private sector is the security—or rather, the insecurity—of tenure in the private sector? Will she ensure that the review considers that issue seriously?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I have outlined, security of tenure is one of the issues that Julie Rugg and her colleagues are addressing. For people to feel safe and comfortable about alternative options, particularly where children are involved, they want to be assured that if accommodation is provided in the private rented sector, they can make the appropriate arrangements for schools, doctors and, I hope, employment, too. I hope that my hon. Friend and colleagues on both sides of the House will engage and make their views known to Julie in her review.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the private sector can take advantage of the housing market because people cannot afford to buy their own properties, which is driving up rents in the private sector? Has the time not come for more investment in the public sector, because it is the people in that sector who can really deal with the housing problem? Can we make more houses available through the public sector?

It is absolutely the case, as my hon. Friend has outlined, that although we seek to engage with positive landlords in the private rented sector and to tackle landlords’ bad practices, the issue is also about building more affordable homes for low-cost ownership and, importantly, for rent. That is why we are investing more than £8 billion in the next few years. We want to increase the number of homes being built and those that are available for social rent. As I have said to colleagues across the House, MPs play an important role in making sure that local authority bids for growth points or housing supply targets are underpinned by an understanding of the housing needs of those communities and the priority that should be given to those who need homes for social rent. As MPs, we can play an important role in ensuring that what is talked about locally is delivered on the ground.

Council Tax

The Government have no plans to abolish council tax. We agree with Sir Michael Lyons, who concluded in his independent report on the future of local government that council tax is basically sound and should be retained.

Sir Michael Lyons also said, at paragraph 7.239:

“I am satisfied that a local income tax could be feasible…and could viably replace all or part of council tax”.

Given that the council tax is being used in Gloucestershire even to top up flood-relief spending, and that the poorest households still pay 7 per cent. of their income in council tax, compared with just 2 per cent. for the richest, is not it time to perform another tax U-turn for the lowest paid?

Sir Michael Lyons also looked, very properly in my view, at the implications of moving either to full or local income tax. If we went to full income tax, there would be a rise of 7.7p in the pound, and if we went to a local income tax that covered only half of council tax, that would add 4p to the basic rate of income tax. I do not think that families want to pay such amounts.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a local income tax were levied instead of council tax, practically it could only be levied nationally and assigned locally? That would make the word “local” in local income tax rather redundant.

My hon. Friend expresses himself with great knowledge, as usual. He is a bit of an expert on these matters. I understand that if we were to have a local income tax, not only would it have to be administered nationally, but the cost for business would be absolutely enormous. The latest estimate is that the administrative costs would be £100 million, particularly affecting small businesses.

I do not know whether there is a discount for council tax payers in England for senior citizens aged over 70 who live alone, but if not, will the Minister consider introducing a scheme similar to the one introduced in Northern Ireland by my colleague the Finance Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)? Such a scheme would be very productive in targeting senior citizens who live alone and who are at the lower end of the income scale.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a general discount of 25 per cent. for people who live alone. Clearly, local authorities have discretion regarding other adjustments that they would like to make. A number of local authorities have given discounts to particular sections of the community, so that option is open to local authorities.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to keeping a property-based council tax at the heart of local government finance, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that local councils should be able to raise finance from a range of sources other than a property-based council tax? Does she agree that it is particularly important that a higher proportion of their revenue is raised locally if they are to be accountable to the local electorate?

Yes, it was Sir Michael Lyons who said that the property-based tax was an important element in the accountability of local authorities to the people that they serve. It is clearly important that local authorities have some flexibility, and we have recently decided that we will give them the ability to raise supplementary business rates in their area, subject to a whole range of safeguards to ensure that they do not impose a burden on business. There are already business improvement districts, in which local people get a vote on raising more money so that they can do the things that really matter to their local communities. It is important that we do not enter into the debate on a local income tax lightly, because such a tax would involve a massive shift from older people to hard-working families. I know that the Liberal Democrats choose to talk about a local income tax as though there would be no losers; actually, there would be many thousands of losers, mainly from hard-working families.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, although I might agree with her that a local income tax is the wrong answer, a real problem has none the less been created by her Government as a result of the plethora of unfunded burdens, regulations, inspection regimes, red tape and ring-fenced funding that reduces the scope of local authorities to make local decisions for local people? Against that background, does she regard it as a considerable achievement that one third of the increase in the basic state pension is now eaten up by the increase in council tax?

Much as I like the hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “Surely some mistake!”] It is only because I can look him in the eye. Much as I like him, I am afraid that he is significantly out of date, and I urge him to catch up. In the past 12 months, we have slashed the number of targets for local authorities from 1,200 to under 200. We have also un-ring-fenced £5 billion of resources for local authorities and their partners to spend on the things that really matter to local people. There is now a slimmed-down regime for local government, because I am determined that local authorities should be able to respond to the things that people think are important. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on that.

Household Rubbish (Charges)

5. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the relationship between charges for the collection of household rubbish and council tax. (206425)

Our Department is working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on policies to reduce household waste, including possible waste incentive schemes.

I thank the Minister for his response. Will not the Government’s plans for bin taxes simply harm the local environment by causing a surge in fly-tipping and backyard burning, as well as increasing bills for families? Is he aware that in the Republic of Ireland, which already has bin taxes, one in 10 people burn rubbish in their backyard? Surely the Government should be working with councils to extend recycling opportunities.

Of course, we are doing just that—extending recycling opportunities. The performance of local authorities in recent years—including the hon. Gentleman’s own, to which I pay tribute—has been extremely good. I recognise that fly-tipping is a concern, and we have made it clear that any pilots that go ahead would have to be in authorities that could show that they already had a good fly-tipping programme in place, as well as good recycling programmes. I think that we can reduce the risk, but this is clearly one of the things that we can test through pilot schemes, once we get them up and running next year.

In his discussions with his ministerial colleagues on how we manage household waste, will the Minister look at what is already happening in continental Europe, where biodegradable waste is being put back into the waste stream in order to deliver heat and electricity from biogas on a scale that the UK is barely even paddling in? When residents can be the beneficiaries of sustainable energy systems from their own waste, we see a profound change in the culture. Will the Minister explore that process for the UK as well?

My hon. Friend is right, and he knows a great deal about these things, including what goes on in many parts of the continent. My Department and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are encouraging local authorities to look widely into the kinds of investments and methods that are used—including on the continent—to make the best use of waste as well as to encourage recycling. Part of the provision that we shall put in place over the next three years will double the amount of private finance initiative cover to allow investment in a range of different techniques to go ahead.

May I caution the Minister? In some authorities, including my own—Liberal Democrat-run St. Albans—the literature that accompanied the waste collection was so badly worded that it caused utter confusion and had to be redrafted, rewritten and re-sent. [Hon. Members: “Recycled?”] Unfortunately, we have not had a Tory administration in St. Albans since 1997; otherwise, I am sure that we would have had a better service. Compounding that, we are now going over to a fortnightly putrescible waste collection, which is causing disturbance as well as raising concerns about smells, odours, flies and, indeed, infections. May I ask the Minister to keep a close eye on authorities that are going over to that system and to evaluate the situation after a reasonable time, as I am concerned that residents in my constituency are not being well served?

In the end, the decision on whether to move towards collecting mainstream household waste every other week—in many areas where that happens, they also collect the recyclable waste at the same time—is clearly one for local authorities. I am sure that the hon. Lady will keep a close eye on the situation. We in central Government are interested to see the impact of these schemes, but in the end it is properly a decision—all Members would surely recognise this—for local authorities to take in view of what is best for their area and what can best help them achieve the recycling rates that this country requires over the next few years.

Council Housing (Disrepair)

In 1997, we inherited a £19 billion backlog of disrepair in council housing. To tackle that, we committed to making all social housing decent, which includes tackling disrepair. By 2010, more than £40 billion will have been invested in improvements to social housing, and work will have been completed on more than 3.6 million properties, improving the homes of 8 million people, including 2.5 million children.

I very much appreciate the track record that my hon. Friend has set out. Is he aware, however, that 31 local authorities, including Northampton borough council, will not meet the decent homes standards until after 2010, and that another 19 have arm’s length management organisations that do not yet have an investment programme, and no date has been given? What is the Department going to do to put pressure on those local authorities to deliver decent standard houses by 2010? I have to say that their failure to do so means that some of my constituents live in unacceptable standards of housing and some of the most vulnerable families live in harsh poor conditions.

My hon. Friend is a true champion on behalf of Northampton and a real expert on housing issues. I have visited her constituency and we also discussed this matter in an Adjournment debate last year. I understand that, in January, Northampton borough council completed a consultation on a borough-wide housing strategy in which the priorities for housing in the borough were identified as increasing supply and improving the condition of the housing stock. I know that she is providing strong political leadership in her borough on this matter. I ask her to continue to flag it up to me so that we can continue to work together to minimise further slippage on disrepair.

Does the Minister agree that for people living in council areas where there is a history of disrepair and deprivation, there is a knock-on effect on the well-being of tenants, which often leads to low self-esteem, low educational attainment, depression and a reliance on drugs? Does he agree that it is therefore necessary for the Government to have a robust and external cyclical maintenance scheme in operation on a regular basis in order to improve the quality of life of people living in council houses?

The hon. Lady makes a really important point, because housing is a key indicator of life expectancy, educational attainments and general feelings of well-being. It is right for the Government to have moved forward by investing unprecedented sums of money in decent housing so that this generation does not have to face the enormous backlog of disrepair left by the previous Tory Administration.

Will the Minister use a departmental circular to remind local authorities of their moral obligation—quite apart from their legal obligations—to ensure that when they allocate houses, the fixtures and fittings are there and the house is clean? Far too often, my constituents and, I think, those of other hon. Members, complain to us about the callous disregard of housing departments, including Thurrock borough council, that allocate dirty and squalid housing units that are falling apart as a result of inadequate fittings. That has got to stop, as these people are under a lot of—

My hon. Friend has made an important and serious point. When there are voids and when housing is reallocated by a council or housing association, that provides a good opportunity to ensure that any necessary repairs are carried out and any necessary health and safety measures undertaken. I shall go back to the Department and consider what he has said.

Given that the Government’s expenditure of £12 billion on decent homes standards has increased the number of homes that meet those standards by only 14 per cent., given that they now admit that there is no chance of their meeting the 2010 target on decent homes, and given that a record 1.7 million families are on council housing waiting lists, is it not about time the Minister admitted that the Government are letting down the very people whom they claim to represent?

I may have misheard what the hon. Gentleman said, but I do not think he declared any interests in housing policy in regard to private contractors.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is missing a trick. We ought to consider where we have come from, and what we have achieved over the past 11 years: 580,000 new kitchens, 440,000 new bathrooms, 910,000 new central heating systems and—here I follow the trail of answers given by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda)—the rewiring of 630,000 council houses to ensure that they meet fire and safety requirements. The hon. Gentleman’s party created an appalling backlog in repairs and maintenance, but this Government have tackled it.

I welcome the decent homes target, but does my hon. Friend accept that council house management and maintenance allowances are far too low and below the level required for the decent homes standard to be met? Incidentally, we inherited that legacy from the Opposition.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s expertise in housing matters. His local arm’s length management organisation, Bolton At Home, is a fine example of what can be achieved in the context of decent homes. I can tell him that management and maintenance allowances per dwelling have increased from about £1,031 in 2001-02 to £1,721 in 2008-09, which constitutes an average real-terms increase of 4.6 per cent. per annum.

We are examining the whole principle behind the financing of council housing, and will report shortly. One of the issues that will be examined is management and the maintenance allowance.


7. What assessment she has made of the impact on the summer floods of 2007 of householders concreting over front gardens; and if she will bring forward proposals for planning permission to be sought prior to such alterations being carried out. (206427)

Two thirds of the homes that were flooded during last summer’s floods were flooded by the run-off from surface water. That is why the Government announced in February that, in future, people would need planning permission to pave over front gardens when the material used makes the surface impermeable.

The Minister will know that 5,500 householders have been unable to return home, and that about a quarter of them are still living in caravans. To what extent has he implemented the conclusion in the Pitt report that no householder or business owner should of right be able to add any impermeable surface to his property? Will he support the Land Use (Garden Protection) Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), which will be presented to the House in due course?

The hon. Lady is right. Figures that I published today suggest that 5,500 householders are still not fully back in their own homes, and although the number living in caravans has fallen by some 1,000 over the last couple of months, it is still about 1,400. Progress has been made, but more needs to be done over the next few months.

As the hon. Lady said, one of the drainage recommendations in the Pitt report was that people should have to obtain planning permission if they wished to hard-pave their front gardens. We will implement that recommendation from October.

Before my hon. Friend goes down the planning consent route, will he acknowledge that a charge is incurred by local people who make planning applications for developments of this kind? Will he instead go down the building consent route, which would mean informing all contractors in the area that they must abide by the regulations laid down by their local authority on water containment?

The best approach to deal with the particular problem of increased run-off as a result of paved front gardens is the planning permission route. We are looking at whether, having implemented that in October this year, we should apply similar standards to non-domestic properties such as offices, industry and car parks. My hon. Friend may like to know that we will produce guidance on how householders can pave over their front gardens without using impermeable materials that will require planning permission.

The many thousands of houses that were tragically flooded last summer, partly because of the concreting over of front gardens, will not be helped in any shape, size or form by the prevention of that in the future, because the concrete that is there already will still be there unless the Government intend to make the measure retrospective. What is important is that gardens as a whole should be preserved—not just front gardens, but all gardens. Will the Government therefore ask the planning system to take a look at garden grabbing? We need to keep our gardens in our town areas. If we do that, that is where the water goes, so never mind setting up an army of spies to look into whether people are planning applications for their front gardens.

That is a matter for local authorities as local planning authorities, and they take such issues into account where they are relevant.

Community Groups

8. What progress has been made on proposals for the transfer of assets to community groups; and whether the proposals in the empowerment White Paper will affect this process. (206428)

Since May last year, community groups have been assisted on asset transfer projects in 20 areas, the Cabinet Office has allocated £30 million in refurbishment grants, and there is new guidance for local authorities. The White Paper will build on that, and in particular propose a new right for citizens which will ensure that councils consider proposals to transfer underused properties or land to community ownership.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and I particularly welcome the emphasis she placed on the transfer of land. Does she agree that community land trusts have a particularly important role to play in achieving a permanently affordable stock of intermediate housing, and will she encourage the transfer of assets to such trusts?

My hon. Friend has an extremely good record of being imaginative and innovative and of supporting such projects in her area. We now have 14 community land trust pilots—overseen by Salford university—in both rural and urban areas. In some of the rural areas, we already have people occupying the homes that have been built in this way. This is a very imaginative way of ensuring that affordable housing remains for the long term. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) later today to consider how we can press on further with this agenda.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I thank her for seeing me about the Cashes Green site—and I also look forward to hosting the Under-Secretary when he comes to Stroud. What progress is being made on the pilots, and when will the full report eventually be produced by Bob Paterson and others?

My hon. Friend is also extremely supportive on these issues, and I know he has been imaginative in taking them forward in his own area. I can promise him that there will be a report on the pilots. He will know that there are still some technical issues to be explored, particularly in relation to the urban pilots, which are on a broader scale and therefore require more work to be done. I will make sure that we come forward with our proposals as soon as we can, as I understand that there is a pressing need to get a proper framework for this way of working. Not only community land trusts but community ownership in general can ensure that organisations are sustainable for the long term, with an income stream that means they are less dependent on grants from local authorities. That is why such trusts are such an important part of the Government’s business.

Preventing Violent Extremism Programme

I have held regular meetings with a range of partners, including Muslim communities, the police, the Local Government Association, parliamentarians from both Houses and others with an interest in the preventing violent extremism programme. We are working closely with these partners at every level—local, national and international—to build the resilience of local communities so that they are able to stand up to the messages of extremism.

Can we be sure that, in pursuing her laudable aim of combating Islamic extremism and fundamentalism, the right hon. Lady conducts a very thorough audit of the Islamic bodies that participate in these schemes and receive Government recognition? Can she also say whether the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an extremist organisation, participates in any way in the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board or any of its contributing bodies?

The right hon. Gentleman is right that it is extremely important that, in allocating our funding to local authorities, we have a good degree of reassurance about the kind of projects funded. We are about to embark on a three-year programme involving £45 million for local authorities, so I am absolutely determined to ensure that we will fund projects that really help to build the resilience of local communities. The local police are closely involved with local authorities in making these funding decisions at local level. The Government offices are being strengthened to ensure that there is extra reassurance. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, despite the fact that this money is, in general, local government grant, I want to make absolutely sure that after 12 months we look at the situation again.

On the organisation to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, I am extremely keen to ensure that we continue with our policy of engaging with the groups that are prepared to stand up and tackle and condemn extremism. That will be the continuing policy, and wherever people are not in that category, they are not groups with which we wish to collaborate in our endeavours to tackle extremism.

I am encouraged by that response. Will the Secretary of State confirm that part of the money allocated to this programme will be used to try to convey to young Muslim people the message of senior Muslim scholars that the use of violent extremism in political causes is essentially un-Islamic?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, and a key part of our strategy is to tackle the ideology perpetrated by extremists. It is absolutely vital that young people, and also women, have the ability, knowledge and skills to stand up and combat these messages. That is why we have an extensive programme of work with women. There is the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group, and I intend to have a similar group of young people who will be empowered to take on leadership roles and to play a much larger part in their communities. This is the point at which we move from small projects that reach a few people, to trying to get the message across not just to the Muslim community but to all our communities that it is the voice of the overriding, law-abiding majority that we must hear, and that we must tackle this ideology, which threatens our communities.

The Secretary of State will be aware of claims that the Muslim Association of Britain—one of the four founder members of MINAB, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) referred—is, in effect, the British arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Has she carried out an assessment of this claim and can she definitively say to the House that it is untrue?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the founding partners of MINAB are those organisations that have committed to having proper standards in their mosques, and to being part of our policy of standing up and condemning and tackling Muslim extremism. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that checks are carried out regarding all the organisations that we fund. There was some question recently—it was perhaps raised by the hon. Gentleman—about the Cordoba Foundation, in Tower Hamlets. That organisation was not funded under our preventing violent extremism programme. The local authority in Tower Hamlets was going to engage with the Cordoba Foundation; it decided not to, and that was absolutely the right decision. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that these checks are carried out, and I am determined that we will fund organisations that want to stand up and encourage the mainstream, moderate Muslim majority in this country to feel strong enough to rebut these messages of hate and extremism that threaten a minority of our community, but which nevertheless constitute a very serious and important threat.

Local Government Expenditure

10. What proportion of local government expenditure was (a) raised locally and (b) met by Government grant in 2007-08. (206431)

About a quarter of council revenue spending is financed by council tax; about three quarters is financed from Government grant.

Is the balance of funding right? If more money were raised locally, would not local authorities and local councillors be more receptive and sympathetic to the needs of people who live in their areas?

Some argue that, but it is also important for all local councils to be properly funded. That requires a significant redistribution of central Government funding, which we make each year, and, thus, a significant proportion of central Government support, which we give each year. Over the past 10 or 11 years, the proportion of funding raised through council tax has remained at about a quarter. The proportion of central Government funding has, of course, risen: local councils have seen rises of more than 39 per cent. above inflation over those 10 years, which directly contrasts with the three years before 1997, when there was a 7 per cent. real-terms decrease.

Why is local government grant divided in such a way that a child educated in Devon receives £500 per annum less than a child educated in Manchester? Given that teachers are paid the same nationally, how on earth can that be fair?

Quite simply because, although the hon. Gentleman’s party leader does not appear to want to continue it, we have a system of funding local councils and the people who live in their areas according to the needs in those areas. That is intrinsic to our system, and that is the way it will remain.

Topical Questions

My Department will continue with our three priorities of building more homes, empowering local people and building strong communities.

In my constituency, three times as many properties continue to be sold to second home buyers than to first-time buyers. The Government’s rural advocate and their Affordable Rural Housing Commission recommend action, and meetings that I had with the Minister for Housing’s predecessor and with the Prime Minister have left the door open for action, so can I assume that the Government will act to rebalance the market? If so, when will they do so?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Planning policy statement 3 on housing empowers local authorities to shape housing according to the specific circumstances of their local areas. I understand the point that he is making about rural areas, particularly in respect of second homes. Our problem is that introducing something such as a requirement to obtain planning permission to use a property as a second home is difficult and impractical. That is because decisions on a planning application can be made only on the basis of land-use planning considerations, and whether someone who is purchasing a property already has a main residence elsewhere is not such a land-use planning consideration. I understand the points that he has made, and that the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) is examining the matter.

T2. In the two years since the system’s introduction, my local authority, like many up and down the country, has not taken the opportunity to designate areas for selective licensing of houses in multiple occupation, and, as a result, many of my constituents are living in very substandard conditions. I know that a review is being undertaken. Will the Minister incorporate this matter into the review to ensure that we find a way to move forward, so that there can be a genuine partnership between Government and local authorities to cover those who are not being serviced locally? (206412)

My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. We have provided an opportunity in a number of different ways for local authorities to investigate and license properties that represent HMOs—for example, the mandatory licensing system and the additional licensing system for smaller properties. I must say to him that only one local authority has sought permission from the Department to use that power. We also have selective licensing for a wider area, where a local authority believes that a situation is detrimental to the sense of neighbourhood in those communities. I believe that about five authorities have come forward in that regard, and his is not one of those. The Building Research Establishment is reviewing the licensing arrangements and I shall ensure that it takes on board the points that he makes. We must ensure that available powers are used, and where they are not being used, we need to know why. We need to look into this area.

I was very concerned to read in The Independent on Sunday that the Prime Minister is very critical of the Secretary of State’s handling of the bin taxes. I was especially interested to read that a Downing street spokesman had said of the bin taxes that they would be

“Brought in over Gordon’s dead body.”

Given the bin taxes’ ability to come, zombie-like, back from the grave, that does not bode especially well for the Prime Minister’s long-term prospects. Will the right hon. Lady now lay this discredited policy to rest and kill off the bin tax pilots and the bin tax laws currently before Parliament?

I do not know about people coming back from the dead, but I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the Dispatch Box from Crewe, and I know that Tamsin Dunwoody will be an excellent Member of Parliament for that constituency from Friday morning.

The Government’s interests lie in ensuring that we encourage people to recycle. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my care for the environment and ensuring that we have a proper system of incentives and rewards to encourage this country to take its responsibilities for the environment seriously. I thought that the slogan was “Vote blue and go green”, but that does not sound very green.

Well, I am not sure that that will do for the Prime Minister. May I remind the Secretary of State that the Government have put a pin into the voodoo doll of the bin tax on four previous occasions? They scrapped it on 27 April, 12 September and 24 October last year, and again as recently as 5 May this year. Given that those occasions coincided with deep crises for the Government, may we anticipate a further announcement about the fate of the bin taxes in the early hours of the morning on Friday 23 May?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman recognises this statement:

“The Government’s decision to provide a power for five local authorities to introduce financial incentive pilot schemes for reducing waste is a good news for councils and local people.”

That is a direct quotation from Paul Bettison, who is the Tory chairman of the environment board of the Tory-controlled Local Government Association. Perhaps there is a rift between the LGA and the hon. Gentleman.

T3. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Councillor Manjula Sood, who last Thursday was unanimously elected as lord mayor of Leicester, the first Asian woman lord mayor of any UK city, and in almost 800 years of the mayoralty in Leicester? Following Councillor Sood’s example, will my right hon. Friend say what progress has been made to ensure the recruitment of a greater number of women councillors and councillors from ethnic minorities, especially women councillors from ethnic minorities? (206413)

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in those congratulations. I have met Councillor Sood and I wrote to her on 30 April congratulating her on her appointment. I wrote:

“I am so proud of your achievements. You are an inspiration to others”.

I agree entirely that we do not have enough councillors from black and minority ethnic communities, especially women; we have only 168 out of 20,000 councillors. I am pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality this week launched a taskforce to see what practical steps we can take to ensure that more people come forward so that our councils are more representative of our communities as a whole. I have no doubt that Councillor Sood will be an excellent lord mayor and I wish her all the best for her year of office.

Thanks to the Minister for Housing’s transparent choice of stationery, we now know that her Department expects house prices to, at best, fall by 10 to 15 per cent. What is the Department’s estimate of the worst-case scenario?

What we are working towards at the moment is how we can engage with the construction industry, mortgage lenders and across Government to ensure that we do whatever we can to deal with the present challenges. Fundamentally, we need a long-term view of how we can ensure that when the upturn comes—and it will—we are on task to build more homes. That is our agenda and that is what we will do. We will continue to engage in a common-sense, practical way that delivers for our communities.

T4. Many of my constituents express increasing frustration about the length of time that they have to wait on Sheffield council’s waiting list for a council house. What does my right hon. Friend think needs to be done to improve allocations policy and to make it work more successfully for our hard-working decent families? (206414)

I know of my hon. Friend’s interest in this subject and her commitment to ensuring not only that we build more affordable homes, including social homes for rent, but that we avoid the mistakes of the past, when we have often created two cities in one—one for those in the social housing sector and one for those in the private housing sector. As we work towards producing our Green Paper on housing reform towards the end of this year, we will look at how the allocation system can be fairer and more transparent and at whether there are inequalities in it that need to be addressed. We need to address how much more we can enable people to get the skills to work while finding ways in which we can support young working people on low incomes so that they get access to housing.

T9. Given that Cranbrook in East Devon will be a prototype eco-town, can we expect some support from the Government in ensuring that it is a zero-carbon development through the provision of a combined heat and power station? (206419)

We are obviously working with the local authorities and partners in the Cranbrook area to support the delivery of the housing and of the necessary infrastructure. To support that, we have provided £1 million in 2007-08 and £5.5 million for 2008 to 2011. At the same time, we are working to see how we can ensure that homes can meet higher environmental standards over the next few years. I am working with the industry on a journey towards zero carbon for all new buildings by 2016. Clearly, some developments in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world will be affected by that.

T5. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the tremendous contribution that the new deal for communities programme can make to the regeneration of local areas, including King’s Norton in south Birmingham. When will she make an announcement on the final year’s funding for the new deal for communities programme? When she makes that announcement, will she emphasise the importance not only of the much-needed infrastructure work but of the community development work that will be one of the important legacies of the programme? (206415)

I am very pleased with the progress on the new deal for communities in King’s Norton. My hon. Friend has been a key driver for that programme. I should be in a position to make some final decisions in June, so he does not have too long to wait. I urge the local authority in Birmingham to work with the community development trust that is already established there. My hon. Friend will know that regeneration is about far more than just bricks and mortar. Unless we support the families in those areas, we will not get the long-term sustainable regeneration that is so important for the future.

T10. May I commend the Secretary of State for calling my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) shortly after his victory in the London mayoral election? I think that the Minister for the Olympics did the same. What advice has the Secretary of State given to the Prime Minister, who has yet to make that call? The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that he would make contact with the Mayor“when they have matters to discuss”. In London, an awful lot of matters need to be discussed, not least knife and youth crime. Will the Secretary of State have a word with the Prime Minister, as perhaps it is time for him to make that call? (206420)

The Prime Minister has done better than simply making a private call. He has congratulated the Mayor in public and is happy to engage with him. The hon. Gentleman might want to have a word with the new Mayor himself. I understand that the Mayor recently met Mayor Bloomberg, from New York. Mayor Bloomberg’s advice to Mayor Johnson was to get rid of his manifesto commitments as soon as he could, because he might find them a bit inconvenient. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell the new Mayor that he wants him to abide by those commitments.

T6. The Housing Minister will be aware of the concerns that are being raised by some residents of newly built estates about the role of property management companies. She might well be aware of the all-party group that has recently been set up. Will she be willing to meet that group to discuss its concerns and what the Government can do to address those issues? (206416)

I welcome the formation of the all-party group, and the work that my hon. Friend contributed to its establishment. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) who for some weeks now, if not months, has been talking to me about the problem of the lack of empowerment felt by residents in homes run by property and land maintenance companies in respect of charges on communal areas and other matters. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friends, and I apologise for not having been able to find the time before now. We will make sure that an appointment is put in the diary.

Could the Minister explain how a contradiction in Government policy will be resolved? On the one hand, the Government are working for the regeneration of our high streets, market towns and seaside resorts. On the other, their planning policies—which may allow an additional four supermarkets in Teignmouth and Dawlish, bringing the total there to seven—are likely to lead to the closure of shops in those high streets.

I certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to press on with our policy of putting town centres first and making sure that they are vibrant, exciting places for people to shop. We also intend to make sure that we plan properly for the impact of major retail developments. There is no contradiction at the heart of our policy making: we intend to make sure that our retail centres continue to be the sort of places to which people want to go to do their shopping and which contribute to the quality of life that is so important to all of us.

T7. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accept that it is time that the Cabinet met outside London? I suggest that their first such meeting should be held in Stockton-on-Tees. That would give Cabinet members the opportunity to listen to, and gain experience from, local people, and to hear about the wide range of delivery of Government service. (206417)

As usual, my hon. Friend is a champion of her area. In a speech just last week, I suggested that the Cabinet might like to consider meeting outside London—

In Crewe, indeed. My proposal was not just for the Cabinet to meet outside London, but that it should engage with local people and schoolchildren to take evidence about what is happening in our communities. That is vital, as there is an awful lot that we can learn from the day-to-day experiences at the sharp end. I cannot promise my hon. Friend that the first meeting will be held in Stockton, but I am sure that she will be the first of many to seek such a meeting.

T8. My right hon. Friend knows that the best way to tackle extremism is through understanding and knowledge. Crawley’s Interfaith Network does a fantastic job of bringing together people of faith—and of no faith—to increase that understanding. Will she ensure that the funding that has made it possible for us to have a co-ordinator will continue, so that the network’s excellent work can go on? (206418)

As usual, my hon. Friend raises an important matter, and one in which she has been particularly active in seeking to build the resilience of her local community. She will know that the Government’s inter-faith strategy has been out for consultation, and I hope to be in a position to respond very soon. It is absolutely vital that we bring together people of different faiths. Very often, people discover that the major faiths in this country have far more in common than they have differences. The opportunity for people to debate and to do things together is really important. This is not just about social dialogue: it is about social action that brings people together to share experiences. That is the way we build strong communities.

Hundreds of my constituents are still not in their homes after last year’s floods, and dozens are still in caravans. I know that, like me, the Minister is fully aware of the suffering and anguish that so many people have endured in the past year. What steps are he and the Government taking to work with the insurance industry to ensure that people get back in their homes as soon as possible, and that hundreds of people are not still out of their homes come Christmas?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Something like 1,000 households are still not fully back in their own homes, and about 300 are still living in caravans in his East Riding local authority area. So far, central Government have given his council over £6 million, and there will be more to come. I met the leader of the Association of British Insurers last week, and I shall meet the chief executives of the leading companies in a couple of weeks’ time. I pay tribute to the work that they and local councils such as the hon. Gentleman’s have done to try to get people back in their own homes. It is clear now that over the next couple of months we need to step up our efforts and pull out all the stops to get more people back in their own homes, certainly by the anniversary of those terrible floods last summer. That is exactly what we will do.

Adults with Autism

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose duties upon the Secretary of State and certain organisations involved in health and social care in respect of support for people aged 18 and over with autism; and for connected purposes.

I declare an unremunerated interest as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society.

Autism is a lifelong condition, yet from the lack of support available to adults with autism and the lack of knowledge of their needs, people could be forgiven for believing that that is not the case. I am using the term “autism” now and in the Bill to refer to all adults on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism.

At this point, however, I should like to deviate from what I intended to say to welcome strongly the Government’s announcement on 8 May in which they set out a number of actions in relation to adults with autism. Those actions include increasing the Department of Health’s capacity to work on the issue by employing a full-time autism specialist and by having one of the Department’s officials working specifically on autism, as well as undertaking research into the number of adults with autism. I believe that that is a real step forward and that those measures have the potential to make a real difference to the lives of people living with autism.

I am introducing the Bill, though, as there is still an imbalance between the increasing recognition of the need to provide support to people with autism and the action taken to meet that need. That discrepancy is highlighted in the recent National Autistic Society’s report “I Exist”, which details the experiences of adults with autism and the action taken by local authorities and primary care trusts in relation to autism. The report reveals that almost two thirds of adults with autism do not have enough support to meet their needs and that more than nine in 10 parents are worried about their adult son’s or daughter’s future when they are no longer able to support them.

I will come back to more of the findings of that report as I discuss the clauses of the Bill, but first I should like to read out a quote from the mother of an adult with autism, which I found particularly moving. She said:

“My daughter has quite calmly said that when we die, she plans to kill herself because she knows she will be completely alone and unable to care for herself. She weeps on a daily basis because she is so scared of the future. There is nobody to help her manage her daily life, and more importantly, who will love her when we’re gone?”

I believe that the duties in the Bill would be instrumental in transforming the experiences of such adults and enabling them to achieve fulfilled and independent lives.

I should like to make it clear that, when I refer to independent living, I am using the definition that the Disability Rights Commission used:

“all disabled people having the same choice, control and freedom as any other citizen—at home, at work and as members of the community. This does not necessarily mean disabled people doing everything for themselves, but it does mean that any practical assistance people need should be based on their own choices and aspirations”.

So what change is required? Well, we still do not know how many adults there are with autism in the UK, and that lack of information has a negative impact on the planning of services. More than three quarters of primary care trusts do not keep a record of how many adults with autism there are in their areas and 86 per cent. of local authorities say that if they had more information about the number of adults with autism in their areas, it would help them with their long-term planning.

The Government now intend to support a study of the number of adults with autism. That is why I am not calling for that today, but it is important that action for adults does not wait for that study to report and that that research is reinforced by action locally. Therefore, the Bill would also require local authorities and NHS bodies to identify people with autism in their areas and maintain a register of the numbers, which should also include carers.

In addition, the Bill proposes placing additional duties on local authorities and NHS bodies, because despite recent Government guidance to tackle the inaction by local services, it is apparent that not nearly enough is being done to support people.

There is a lack of clear responsibility for autism at a local level, and that needs to be addressed. First, there is currently no responsibility for autism at a senior level. The director of adult social services guidance published by the Department of Health in 2006 attempted to tackle that in part by stating:

“Local authorities shall ensure that the DASS draws up clear lines of responsibility, within his or her staff team for managing the needs of all adult client groups,”

with autism defined as one of those client groups, yet only 39 per cent. of local authorities say that the requirement has been met. A duty on local authorities and NHS bodies to appoint a senior-level person or team with responsibility for autism is essential if the situation is to improve.

Secondly—this is closely linked to the previous point—in the majority of local authorities there is uncertainty about which team provides support for people with autism. As autism is a developmental disorder, not a learning disability or a mental health problem, many adults with autism, particularly those with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism, are passed over by both teams, receiving no proper help from either. More than 60 per cent. of adults with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism say that they have experienced problems when trying to receive support from their local authority or health services. Of those, 52 per cent. were told that they did not fit easily into mental health or learning disability services.

That is perhaps unsurprising, given that nearly half of local authorities say that they do not have a process in place to manage how people with autism who do not fulfil the learning disability or mental health criteria receive support. As one local authority said,

“service silos means ASD doesn't fit. ASD falls between service areas”.

The structural disadvantage that adults with autism frequently experience is a major factor in poor outcomes, and many adults’ problems go unaddressed. The Bill therefore requires local authorities and NHS bodies to establish and publish a route by which all persons with an autism spectrum disorder may access assessments and any resulting care.

Thirdly, there is a worrying absence of references to autism in many strategic planning and commissioning documents produced by local bodies. Commissioning strategies should include the requirements of people with autism. To bring that about, it is essential that local authorities and partner NHS bodies have regard to the requirements of people with autism in their area when undertaking joint strategic needs assessments. Many areas are still to publish their joint strategic needs assessments, but it is clear from those that have done so that many assessments do not cover adults with autism. That is not acceptable.

Fourthly, the Bill would require local authorities and NHS bodies to secure sufficient training about autism for staff who are in regular contact with people on the autistic spectrum, and those involved in assessment. It is of great concern that more than 70 per cent. of local authorities do not believe that care managers receive sufficient training about autism either in their initial professional training or as part of their ongoing professional development. That is perhaps unsurprising, given that more than three quarters of local authorities do not have an autism training strategy at all.

Some 98 per cent. of local authorities and 100 per cent. of primary care trusts say that the Government could provide them with more guidance and assistance to support adults with autism, so there is near-universal demand for more support. From that it can be concluded that there is a recognition that existing work and initiatives have not gone far enough. The Bill therefore calls on the Secretary of State to ensure that there is regional support to assist local authorities and NHS bodies in taking forward good autism practice. The Bill intends to address the inactivity in relation to autism, particularly locally. It is time to recognise that it is unacceptable for adults with autism to continue to be socially excluded. We know what change is required; we now need action from local services to make that change happen.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Angela Browning, John Barrett, Roger Berry, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Geoffrey Cox, Michael Fabricant, Mrs. Janet Dean, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Bernard Jenkin, Anne Main and Mr. Andrew Turner.

Adults with Autism

Angela Browning accordingly presented a Bill to impose duties upon the Secretary of State and certain organisations involved in health and social care in respect of support for people aged 18 and over with autism; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 111].

Orders of the Day

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords]

[2nd Allotted Day]

(Clauses Nos. 4, 11, 14 and 23, Schedule No. 2 and any new Clauses or new Schedules relating to the termination of pregnancy by registered medical practitioners)

Further considered in Committee [Progress, 19 May].

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Clause 14

Conditions of licences for treatment

I beg to move amendment No. 21, page 9, line 10, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

‘(b) after “father” insert “and a mother”.’.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 12, page 9, line 10, after ‘parenting’, insert

‘and a father or male role model’.

No. 22, in clause 23, page 19, line 6, leave out from ‘(2)’ to end of line and insert—

‘after ‘father’, insert ‘and a mother.’.’.

No. 13, page 19, line 6, after ‘parenting’, insert

‘and a father or male role model’.

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 21 and 22, which are in my name and in the names of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. I should explain why, in the amendments, we have gone slightly further than the debate with the Government over whether the word “father” should be in the clause. We propose to retain the wording “a father” and add “and a mother”.

In the Government’s consultation, they received an overwhelming amount of correspondence from the public in favour of a reference to fathers and mothers. More importantly perhaps, clause 54(2)(c) refers for the first time in the Bill to gay couples acting as fathers, and I believe that in the interests of balance, there should be a reference to mothers. We propose to amend the Bill accordingly.

Since 1990 there has been a huge amount of research on the effect of absent fathers, demonstrating an increasing understanding of the importance of the role that fathers play in the home. That is not to suggest that if a family breaks up and the father leaves, that is simply bad for the children: research that we published recently, which was drawn from more than 3,000 evidence sessions, showed that the effect on those broken families is remarkable—75 per cent. of the children are more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent. are more likely to succumb to drug addiction, 50 per cent. are more likely to have serious alcohol problems, and 35 per cent. are more likely to experience some form of unemployment or welfare dependency.

The research highlights the fact that fathers bring something more profound to the parenting process, which has for too long been taken for granted. In some cases people are determined that it should not be discussed. One set of evidence published as recently as 2007 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation states:

“Maternal ‘inputs’ are not consistently correlated with indices of their children’s development once they enter secondary school, whereas paternal ‘inputs’ are so correlated. Indeed, there is an indication that teenagers’ sense of self-worth is predicted by the quality of their play with their fathers some 13 years earlier.”

The report goes on to say that that

“has demonstrated links between parental reports of father’s involvement at the age of seven and lower levels of later police contact as reported by the mothers”.

Obviously, that makes the strong and profound point that the effect of fathers on both sexes during the teenage years is important.

Something of which I had not been aware came from the research that we have conducted in the past two and a half years, and I should like to put it before the Committee. It is simply this: the effect that absent fathers have on young girls too. That issue is often forgotten. We always hear of the effect of a father’s absence on young boys in respect of the whole issue of role modelling and giving them a stable beginning. However, in Britain we have some of the highest levels of under-age sexual activity, particularly among young girls, and there is very strong evidence to suggest that the effect of an absent father is to distort that further. That is because young girls more often learn empathetic and non-conditional love—something important and profound—from their fathers. They learn that it is possible to have a relationship that does not necessarily involve sex. We all know about the pressures that a young girl is under from young boys at such a time, and her relationships may have to countenance sex at an early stage. From most of the studies, it is clear that the absence of a base from which to understand how far such relationships need to go has a huge effect on such daughters.

The studies that we have been considering show consistently that such girls lose out in a way that we have not understood or even talked about enough. We know all about how sons need stable father figures who give them decent modelling, such as going out to work and having a creative relationship with the mother; however, the absence of a father is as significant for a daughter as for a son. The evidence on young daughters is also absolutely critical.

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I apologise for intervening so early in his speech, but he was moving on to another point.

Although I accept as an ideal a great deal of what the right hon. Gentleman says, does he not accept that there are bad fathers, and that bad fathers can have a bad influence in some circumstances? The picture is not always as rosy as he paints it.

It is far from rosy, and I am not trying to paint a picture in which the simple arrival of a father makes a huge difference, regardless of what has happened with him. There are plenty of very bad fathers out there; there are fathers who are absent but arrive at particular periods and cause mayhem. We know about that. In many of the areas that I spend a lot of time visiting at the moment we see much of that. We also know about the problems surrounding those who are loosely described as stepfathers, but whom we might call “friendly father arrivals”. Such men are not related to or involved with the child, and levels of abuse can follow—not sexual abuse necessarily, but violence, possibly against the mother. As the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) knows, violence against women is at very high levels and rising.

We know all about those problems. I am not trying to paint some incredibly rosy picture. However, my point is that, on the whole, the absence of fathers has a detrimental effect on children; the vast majority of fathers are more likely to be positive influences if they are connected to and held to the family for various other reasons.

May I bring the right hon. Gentleman from the general to the specific? We are dealing with the duty on clinics when they consider applications from lesbian couples and solo parents. Does he consider that lesbian couples with children are broken families, to some of which he attached the litany of concern that he rightly has? If he does, what evidence does he have that children with lesbian parents are going off the rails?

I do not consider them to be broken families. We do not have enough data to understand exactly what the nature of the outcomes is—I shall come back to that point in a second.

We know that absent fathers have a detrimental effect on their children. That is found up and down the income scale—the percentage effect is exactly the same for people living in Chelsea as it is for people living in difficult parts of Lambeth. It is not about whether the families are broken—I used the word “broken” because they are without a father. Cohabiting and gay couples are slightly different. I shall deal with the subject of gay couples in a moment, and I hope that that will explain a little more to the hon. Gentleman.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is aware of the study carried out by the Office for National Statistics about six or seven years ago? It found that the incidence of behavioural disorder in 11 to 16-year-old boys was up to three times higher in households where there was a single parent or where the parents were cohabiting than it was in those households where the parents were married. That is a real issue, facing our people day to day in our streets and cities throughout this land.

I do not want to go down that road, but I will say this as a link to the intervention by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris): the issue with regard to cohabiting is the scale of break-up. We know from the reports that have been done—we have seen endless reports and we are just beginning to get through some of them—that 50 per cent. of cohabiting relationships are likely to break up. One in two will break up before the child is five. That is an enormously high figure; the highest level of divorce for married couples with a child is one in 12. There is a particular problem with cohabitation, which brings me neatly to the Bill, because there is no recognition in it of family ties: as long as the people involved are considered to be “stable” or in loving relationships, treatment should be available. That is how the Bill stands, which makes it even more important that we reintroduce the recognition of the need for a father, because we are dealing with the strong likelihood that there are cohabiting couples who will want to undergo such treatment, and such a change would act as a strong reminder to them, much as it will do to lone parents.

The right hon. Gentleman is making general points about single parents. Can he tell the Committee what evidence he has that his assertions apply to couples who approach IVF clinics and are in receipt of such treatment? Research shows the contrary of what he is suggesting.

I do not believe that there is such a debate about research. The trends may or may not be ameliorated slightly, but over time I suggest that the level of break-up for cohabiting couples will be higher, even for those receiving IVF, than it will be for married couples. That is the nature of such relationships. I am not going to debate that with the Minister, but it is a fact. I do not think that that will change, regardless of IVF. The right hon. Lady says that I am speaking generally, and I am, because I am making a point about why there is a problem, and why the need for fathers is so important.

My right hon. Friend is making an articulate and powerful speech. Is he aware that despite the fact that it is necessary for clinics to consider the need for a father, there is no evidence that there has been any discrimination against same-sex couples or single mothers in accessing treatments?

My hon. Friend makes me jump ahead of myself. I shall come back to that point in a second because I do not believe that there is any such evidence; I agree with him on that.

If the hon. Lady wants to intervene on that point, she will be able to so in a moment, because I am coming to it.

To conclude the point about cohabiting parents, I suggest that it is the nature and the break-up of such relationships that put children in such difficulty. Recognising in the Bill that it is important for people to understand the importance of the father in a relationship can only strengthen their thought process as they go through this course of action and will hopefully act as a reference for them in the future. We cannot promise anything, but taking it away will have exactly the opposite effect. It is as though we are saying to couples, especially in the heterosexual world, that fathers are less important than mothers and that, therefore, they do not need to be considered. There is little research that any of us can claim one way or the other about outcomes for gay and lesbian couples. I draw no inference from that other than that we need more research, and I am sure that that will come in time. I—like everybody else, I hope—would want such relationships to prosper and for any child to benefit in such stable, successful relationships. I believe that the amendment would help and not act against that.

I am pleased to co-sponsor the amendment. Is it not the case that the current legal framework was fashioned two decades ago when child development theory appeared to focus almost entirely on the relationship with the mother? In the past 20 years, so much evidence has emerged of the sort that the right hon. Gentleman adduces in his well argued speech that it would be perverse to write the father out of the script, as the Bill would do if left unamended.

I agree. The Government’s action is unnecessary and they have overreacted—I shall deal with that shortly. Stonewall described the change today as a tidying-up exercise, but my problem is that when one tidies up, one can also tidy out. We need to be conscious of what may be lost, and balance it against what may be gained.

Why do the Government need to make the change? Some in the gay and lesbian community will feel uneasy about the original guidance on the father, and they will have made representations. They will probably feel some unease about the amendment. I am sympathetic to that, but the key point is that unease does not mean that there is discrimination. To what extent is there discrimination? Is there simply a sense of unease that does not change any outcomes? The Government’s position is that they need to remove the original clause, which referred to the father, because they perceived it as discriminating against gay or lesbian couples.

I was struck when reading the debates in the other place by the fact that the Government spokesperson made such an absolute case. He is not a lawyer but he made a case that would brook no opposition because, according to him, the original clause clearly contravened the convention on human rights and that was that. However, I do not believe that even the strongest proponent of the Government’s view would go as far as that here. Even Lord Lester says that there is a strong case, but his published views state that the matter is confusing and fraught with contradictions. We must consider whether the original provision somehow constituted an abuse of rights.

I will give way shortly to the hon. Gentleman, who is easing forward on his seat. He has been active in the past two days and I want to keep him rested because he has further to go. I hope that he recognises that I have his best interests at heart.

I have not heard in our discussions about any couples who have gone to a clinic and been refused on the ground of the existing clause.

The right hon. Gentleman has made that assertion in this place and elsewhere, and I have therefore caused it to be investigated. I do not know whether he is familiar with the Birmingham women’s hospital, where the eligibility criteria for Birmingham-funded treatment and entry on the waiting list for assisted conception include:

“A stable, heterosexual relationship of two years minimum.”

That is direct discrimination against lesbian couples and single women. If the right hon. Gentleman wants an example, there it is.

That was a great try by the hon. Lady, but it does not work. I am debating what is in the Bill. The reality is that clause 14 is an advisory clause. Let me remind her how the Bill is phrased. It requires that account be taken of the welfare of the child,

“including the need…for a father”,

and, if our amendment were passed, a mother. Nowhere does the Bill say that if that situation does not pertain, people will be not be allowed that treatment. Should anybody attempt not to allow such treatment after the Bill is passed, it would be illegal.

May I take my right hon. Friend back to his point about human rights law, which was referred to in the other place? Does he agree that it is a little curious that human rights law seems to look purely at the view of the adult? What about the child? Does a child not have the right to be born with a father? Is that not the most fundamental human right that any child in the world could ask for?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) made an intriguing intervention, because under Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority guidelines, discrimination for treatment on the basis of sexual orientation is not allowed. That clinic in Birmingham is therefore breaking HFEA guidelines.

I was coming to that, too. My hon. Friend is quite right. The point is that protection already exists under human rights legislation and is embedded in the Bill.

The hon. Lady will have to wait—she has had her shot and I want to finish this point. The reality is that what has been described cannot happen and should not happen. My answer, therefore, is that we will not see it happen.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that a good many of us wish that the situation were as described by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)?

On the European convention on human rights, the House is advised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which includes Members of the right hon. Gentleman’s party. In a unanimous report, the Committee stated that “Without justification, such distinctions”—the distinctions that he wants to put into the Bill—

“may be in breach of the right to respect for private life without discrimination”.

The report continued:

“Similarly, the Convention prohibits unjustified discrimination”—

he has not shown justification for his position—

“between married and unmarried parents for the purposes of recognition of parental responsibility, or wider family law decisions on access and custody.”

The Committee went on to say that that needs to be removed in order for the provisions to comply. If the right hon. Gentleman is relying on people being able to go to the law, rather than having law that does not discriminate, I would suggest that he has got the law the wrong way round.

I am grateful for that intervention, but I simply do not agree, and I am not alone in that—there are human rights lawyers out there who do not agree with those recommendations either. I have a brief here from a human rights QC, who says that lawyers do not believe that that is how the Bill will be seen. In reality, the Government have set themselves on siding wholly with the rights of the adult. The truth, however, is that the rights of the child must also be a paramount consideration. That is the point for those who deal in this area. For instance, the UN convention on human rights and the ECHR both make it clear that the rights of a child to have such parents is the paramount consideration and that no element can override that.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point, but it is worth saying in return that I have some advice on the ECHR recommendations which is about whether it is necessary to override the rights and freedoms of others, and which would prevail. It continues:

“This works both ways in the circumstances of this Bill. The child once born has Art. 8 rights which should not be interfered with for the protection of the rights and freedoms of”

anyone, including

“same sex parents unless…‘necessary’”.

The advice continues:

“‘Necessary’ here means something that is clearly required…not…anything that is thought to be socially convenient at any particular time.”

The issue is the well-being of the child, not, in this case, the well-being of the adult concerned.

If hon. Members will allow me, I shall make a couple of minutes’ progress, then I promise that I shall give way generously. I understand that many hon. Members want to get involved. I have some other advice relating to other cases in which this matter has been raised before. For example, a 1990 custody judgment involving a minor featured this statement about the balancing of rights:

“The question was not where”

the individual child

“would get the better home. The question was: was it demonstrated that the welfare of the child positively demanded the displacement of the parental right.”

That is the key to what we are saying. My view, and I believe that of eminent lawyers, is that this is a balance of rights, and in the end, in the case of human rights, the courts must place as paramount the rights of the child.

To most people outside the House, the right hon. Gentleman is simply talking common sense; they must wonder why we are even having this debate. Is it any wonder that people think politicians are out of touch with ordinary people when we have such debates? It is nonsense to suggest that we should not take into account the need for a father. We are not insisting that single women or lesbians do not have IVF treatment; the only thing we are saying is that there should be a father figure somewhere, who may be a grandfather or another relative. Many single parents depend on father figures, whether they are grandparents or other relatives. It is just pure common sense, and the fact that we are even debating it is ridiculous.

The more I listen to the hon. Lady, the more I am in danger of agreeing with her. I have to say that she is right, because we have to come back to the single point at stake; we should not be dancing on the head of a legal pin, but recognising common sense and what most people say. I shall come back to that point. On the legal debate, I simply say that I recognise that when two lawyers are in a room, there will be five or six opinions at a minimum, and one can take it whichever way one likes. I want to return to the question of where the balance lies. That is what the hon. Lady has just said, and I want to move on to it now.

Is there not a central contradiction in the right hon. Gentleman’s argument? He began by saying that there are many reasons for discriminating against single parents or lesbian couples where no father is in the picture, but went on to say that we should have legislation on which four or five lawyers will come up with different opinions, when the alternative is something straightforward that cannot in any circumstances be seen as discriminatory by him or anyone else.

I do not think it discriminatory to remind people of the importance of the role of the father. Why is that discriminatory? Why does the hon. Lady want to introduce a Bill that is against the idea of fathers in any respect?

With respect, I am going to finish this. The hon. Lady may not like it, but she is going to get it. I have to say to her that that is utter nonsense. Those who signed up to the amendment and who agree with me are simply saying, “Come on, this is common sense.” All we are saying is that we should take into consideration the need of a child for a father, not, “If there is no father, you will never get treatment.” We are suggesting only that that be considered. [Interruption.] That is nonsense and the hon. Lady knows it; it is what is in the Bill that counts.

I have found some of the evidence rather surprising, given that the Human Rights Act 1998 takes precedence in how legislation is interpreted, which means that the legislation could not be properly interpreted as preventing lesbians or single women from receiving help in conceiving. About two minutes ago, I printed out the frequently asked questions section from the website of the Birmingham Women’s Health Care NHS Trust assisted conception unit. One question is:

“Do you treat single women and lesbian couples?”

The answer is:

“Yes, these are reviewed on a case-by-case basis as with all our patients.”

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that technology is a lovely thing, and while the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) may not have liked it from me, she certainly is not going to like it from him.

All I want to say by way of conclusion to my hon. and right hon. Friends, and in this context to my hon. Friends across the Floor who have signed up to and agree with the amendments, is the following. I simply say that this comes down to the Government, to a balance of judgments, to the rights of the child versus the rights of adults, and to the importance of fathers and the demonstrable body of evidence regarding the effect of absent fathers on children and families.

We must balance all those considerations. Nothing is absolute. I am not for one moment saying to the Government that I am absolutely right; I am saying that there is a strong level of doubt about the Government’s position. They need to argue the case in almost absolute terms, because it is they who are setting out to do away with the existing code. It is they who are doing away with it, not me. I am simply standing for the status quo and arguing—as ever, with legislation—that they must make their case and we will listen to it. However, the case has not been made, and I do not believe that it exists.


There might be an element of doubt, but the Government are playing absolutes over this. They say that this provision absolutely contravenes human rights, but I say that it does not and that their evidence is insufficient.

I am concluding my speech, so if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I want to let other hon. Members get in.

In regard to the way in which the advisory section should work, I believe that clinics should be sensitive to the needs of all parents, as I have stressed from the beginning. If they are sensitive, when the requirement comes up for people to take cognisance in this way, even gay and lesbian couples will think about it. It is a great prompt to allow people to think, “Yes, maybe we’ll have to find some way round that. We’ll have to do something”. As the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) has said, people will try because it is important. That is all that we want. We want people to recognise that fathers have a major role to play, and if they are not around, let us find a way of ensuring that their influence can still be felt.

What is important for hon. Members tonight is that they do not sit here thinking, “I am right.” Rather, everyone in the House should examine their conscience and ask themselves on the basis of the balance of this argument whether they are in any doubt at all. If any Member of the House has a shade of a doubt about whether to support the amendments, I ask them to remember that it is the Government who have made the case for stripping the provision out. We have not made that case. They are the radical proponents here, not us. We are arguing for the status quo. Anyone with a scintilla of doubt in their mind should vote for the amendments, and for the status quo.

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I gently remind hon. Members that we are in Committee and not sitting as a House?

I am grateful to have an opportunity to answer the points made by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in full. If we are talking about scintillas of doubt, confusion or misunderstanding, I certainly believe that that has been begun by his contribution today. On the one hand, he has said that, if the provision is discriminatory, the Human Rights Act 1998 will protect lesbian couples and single women. On the other hand, he says that the Act should not be the machinery—

With respect, I did not say that it was discriminatory. I said that it was not discriminatory, and that people are protected by the convention on human rights.

So, on the one hand, the Human Rights Act can deal with any problems that might arise as a result of the wording of the provision, but, on the other, the Act should not be the engine that is pushing the Government to change the law in order to avoid any doubt. The right hon. Gentleman has stated that there are 50 opinions for every lawyer who looks at this question, yet he is against trying to clarify the law.

The hon. Lady might care to reflect on the fact that Parliament decides such questions. If we decide to do so by legislating inconsistently with the Human Rights Act, it is crystal clear that we can decide on the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), which would override the provisions of the Human Rights Act provided that we use the words “notwithstanding the Human Rights Act 1998” in the amendment.

Well, that’s all right, then—[Interruption.] I have already pointed out one example of overt discrimination, relating to the eligibility criteria used since November 2006 at Birmingham women’s hospital. I am told that questions are frequently asked on the web—understandably, given the published eligibility criteria—as to whether or not lesbian couples and women are being discriminated against.

Let me finish the point, and then I will.

My point is this. Frequently asked questions and the answer are one thing, and an overt piece of discrimination is something else. If there is a lack of clarity in the current law, we have an opportunity to sort it out today. If we were to confirm the need for a father, to add the need for a mother or to move away from the carefully thought out wording proposed by the Government, there would be increased confusion—or, worse, no clear law at all. Many hospitals would have eligibility criteria for IVF treatment as explicit as that published in Birmingham, so we would then have to wrestle with the Human Rights Act.

Frankly, why, in the 21st century, are we doing this? Why are we putting ourselves in such a position? Why are we saying, “We are not really overtly discriminating against lesbians or single women, but if we are, the Human Rights Act will sort it out, even though the Human Rights Act does not apply at the moment”? Why? [Interruption.] I always worry when people say that they are only applying common sense, because all too often common sense is a cover for discrimination, narrowness and an inability to face the 21st century.

I personally thought that the hon. Lady provided a compelling example of discrimination and that the attempted rebuttal was profoundly unpersuasive. Is she aware of another example of a lesbian couple who went to an IVF clinic in pursuit of treatment and were told in terms that their best option would be to go to the pub and find themselves a man? If that is not discrimination, it is not entirely obvious what is.

The difficulty is that lesbian couples or single women who wish to have children will be influenced by the current confusion, which will be perpetuated by the amendment suggested by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green.

Let me finish the point first.

Those people will continue to be confused and will end up believing that IVF is not for them. In that case, they may well go out to a pub and get pregnant or try other informal means of doing so. The disadvantage is simply this: there will be no details of the biological father on the register, yet that will become increasingly important as time goes on. As a result of the amendment, no more fathers will be brought into any more families. That is the central point. It is important to give legal rights to lesbian couples and single women. As far as lesbian couples are concerned, we will then at least have two legally recognised parents instead of just one. What is wrong with that?

I think that my hon. Friend displays a very patronising attitude towards lesbian women. I do not think they will be that confused by someone saying that if they go for IVF treatment they will have to take into consideration the welfare of the child and the need for a father. I would have thought that that was pretty easy to understand; my hon. Friend may think that that is difficult, but surely most reasonable people could understand it. Most people, including lesbians and single women, might well think that that would be a good thing. Unless they absolutely hated men, they might well like a positive male role figure in the child’s life. It is good to have a father figure in a child’s life. Do colleagues think that it is nonsense to have a male figure involved in a child’s upbringing? Might it not be a good thing, if possible, or should it not at least be taken into consideration? I think that some colleagues display the fact that they are way out of touch—

Order. The hon. Lady is making a very long intervention, which is bordering on a speech. She was also making it in a direction that made it very difficult for me, and the Hansard reporters, to hear.

It may well be the case—I certainly hope that it is—that before deciding to have children, people will appreciate that those children must be brought up in loving households. In my experience, based on the lesbian mothers whom I know, before they make the very serious decision to have children in what is not, in all circumstances, the most liberal of worlds, they look to the welfare of the child and to how they can best bring that child up. They do not need a doctor who is not trained in and has no particular experience of these matters to give them counselling on what sort of father figure they should seek, how long that father figure should be involved in their lives, and exactly what “father figure” means in what circumstances. It is not for a doctor to make that sort of decision.

We should trust the good sense of parents—of women—who do not need to be patronised by anyone, or told how they should bring up children. Motherhood is a serious matter, as is fatherhood, and we should allow parents to make serious decisions themselves.

In the hon. Lady’s common sense-free world, what takes precedence, the supposed right of adults to have children or the actual right of a child to have access to and enjoyment of both parents during his or her upbringing?

I am very concerned about some of the comments that are being made by Conservative Members about children with single parents. I had only a mother to bring my brothers and me up. I am all right, and my brothers are all right. Of course we relied on other adults who were brought into our lives via our mother and our experience of life: many role models are available to children. Members should not make blanket judgments about children and families, and they should not demonise such a large number of children.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what purports to be common sense is reminiscent of the “back to basics” campaign of the past? Is not the insistence on a male role model for lesbian couples tantamount to saying that lesbian families are not proper family forms?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is being very generous in giving way. Does she agree that the world that she is describing is not so much a common sense-free world as the real world? In the real world, there are bad fathers and sometimes bad mothers. There is no ideal version of the right combination of parents in every circumstance.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her generosity in giving way. Whatever may be the case in Islington, in Staffordshire it is actually thought normal for a child to have a mother and a father. Does the hon. Lady think it is equally normal for a child to have two mothers?

I think it is wrong to make judgments about families, and to tell one family that they are normal and another family that they are abnormal. I think it wrong for a seven-year-old to be pushed to the edge of a playground and teased or vilified; I think it wrong to vilify single parents; and I think it wrong for the law to discriminate against lesbian couples. In this day and age, we should pass the Bill unamended.

I know that people have asked why on earth we are debating this issue, but I am very glad that we are debating it. I was a member of the Joint Committee that considered the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, as it then was, last year. We recommended

“that the proposal to remove the ‘need for a father’…should be put to a free vote of both Houses of Parliament. To inform that vote, the balance of view of this Committee is that it would be detrimental to remove entirely the requirement to take into account the ‘need for a father’.”

I was one of the Committee members who changed their minds during the submission of evidence. A number of peers, of both sexes, also changed their minds. The reason was very straightforward. I was always concerned about the broader principle of our approach to this proposed legislation. The first point was that both Houses of Parliament should set the legal framework and be the de facto bioethics commission for this country, and then once we have set the legal framework it should be for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to regulate—not the regulatory authority for tissue and embryos, which was going to be the body but which the Government then abandoned, but another body, and in terms laid down by Parliament.

We also made it clear that the final decision on an individual case of in vitro fertilisation treatment should be taken between the mother, the clinician and the husband or partner—that the decision should be taken at the lowest possible level. Our Committee also made it clear that we would take into account the situation regarding civil partnerships and how that had changed attitudes and how adoption and fostering authorities would not discriminate against same-sex couples: the current law does not prevent single-sex couples from adopting or fostering, or, indeed, from having IVF treatment.

In the evidence we took, it was made clear to us that single-sex couples could provide a warm background that was stable and loving, and that could be a lot better than that provided by an unhappy heterosexual family where the father abused the mother, or came home late and drunk, or hit the children. There was no question in our minds that a single-sex couple could be very good foster parents or adoptive parents. That was not the issue. What was particularly interesting was the question of why on earth this ever came near the Bill in the first place: why was there a need to take it out?

We discovered the answer to that, too. We did so on 6 June 2007, when the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) was interrogating Mr. Ted Webb, the deputy director of scientific development and bioethics at the Department of Health. The hon. Gentleman asked that erudite official why it had been decided to remove the need for a father. Mr. Webb told the Committee:

“From a legal point of view the legislation at the moment”—

the new clause that takes out the need for a father—

“does not actually seem to achieve anything. So we have looked at it from a legalistic point of view more than anything else. It does not prevent treatment being provided to single women or same-sex couples, and also does not seem to fit too comfortably with the Government’s wider civil partnerships policy. So I think that is really our starting point for recommending that the need for a father reference is taken out of the legislation”.

My hon. Friend brings to our attention a remarkable piece of information, and it is a great shame that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is not present to hear it, as, against all the conventions of this House, she has made her speech and pushed off.

Order. In fairness to the hon. Lady, I should say that there is a Division in the Finance Public Bill Committee and she asked my permission to attend that.

I am grateful for that information; the record has been put straight, and I will not go there.

We also took evidence from a lot of specialists and academics in this area. One of the most interesting evidence sessions involved academics from Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere. Professor Ann Buchanan of Oxford university was asked about the need for a father. She said that

“the evidence for the roles of fathers is important,”

and that she and her colleagues had conducted two major studies which show that father involvement

“is strongly related to children’s later educational attainment. Children with involved fathers are less likely to be in trouble with the police. Father involvement is associated with good parent-child relationships in adolescence. Father involvement protects against adult experiences of welfare and later mental health problems and it applies in different ways to both girls and boys”.

That was pretty convincing, so we then listened on the same day to Professor Susan Golombok, from Cambridge. When asked about the need for a father, she said:

“In a way, it is common sense…so that fathers who are highly involved with their children, are emotionally available to their children, warm to their children and also exert a reasonable level of discipline have better adjusted children. These children also do better at school and they have better relationships with peers and so it spreads out into their wider social circles. The other side of that coin is that in families where fathers are not very involved or who are anti-social in their behaviour, who are not good parents—begging the question of what that means—the outcomes for their children can be negative. Really, it all comes down to the quality of parenting offered by fathers which makes a difference to outcomes for children.”

That was pretty clear, but on Second Reading—

Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise what Professor Golombok went on to say in the same session? She said:

“Families are all very different and you find very good relationships in single-parent families and you find two-parent families with bad relationships so I do not think that you can really generalise in that way.”

She continued:

“What I was trying to say…is that in lesbian mother families where two women are heading the family, the presence of two parents seems to be more important than the fact that one parent is male. It is the relationship rather than the gender.”

Yes, and she also said:

“To my mind, it suggests that the idea that a mother and a father are both a good thing on the whole for children, and also some basic assumption about the structure of family life is undeniable.”

Was that not the very reason why the Committee came to its conclusion regarding two supportive parents? The overwhelming evidence that we got from Professor Golombok and, indeed, from the other academics, whether they were in support of a male figure within the household or whether they were giving evidence on lesbian couples—Golombok is the leading expert on lesbian couples—was that the supportive family unit was important, which is why we made the recommendation that we made.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who was the distinguished Chairman of the Joint Committee, which came to the conclusion that I started my speech with.

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what the vote was on that issue, and how it came out the way that the Chairman of the Joint Committee has just described?

Off the top of my head, I cannot remember the vote, I am afraid, but I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman enlightened us.

The hon. Gentleman has the advantage—I cannot remember that bit of the story. However, that does not detract from the case I am making.

My final quote comes from the Second Reading of this Bill in the other place, on 19 November 2007. By this time, the Government had come to a number of conclusions and had rejected some of their earlier proposals. One of the arguments being proposed was that, if we did not do away with the need for a father, that would discriminate against all single mothers. That was attacked head-on by the Archbishop of York, who said:

“However, there is all the difference in the world between children who find themselves in a single-parent family through bereavement or breakdown of parental relationship, and those who find themselves in that situation by design…If discrimination is indeed the issue here, surely the greater discrimination is in ensuring that a child will never have any chance of knowing its natural father”.

He concluded by saying:

“The child’s right not to be deliberately deprived of a father is greater than any right to commission a child by IVF.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 November 2007; Vol. 696, c.705-6.]

Does the hon. Gentleman therefore accept that, if single women and lesbian couples are driven away from regulated IVF clinics to other methods in order to have children, their children will never know who their natural father is because they will be outside the protection of the regulation of IVF services?

If the Minister’s nightmare were to come true, she would be right, but I do not believe that it is the situation or would be in the future. When I discussed the issue of parenthood among lesbian couples with a lesbian couple who are constituents of mine, they made it clear that this does not feature on their radar screen at all.

In that case, would the hon. Gentleman like to explain why it was necessary to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 to prevent internet access to unscreened sperm for precisely the purpose that we are discussing?

That is a very important issue, but as far as I can see, it has nothing to do with this particular issue. The Science and Technology Committee in the previous Parliament, which was led by the hon. Member for Norwich, North, examined that issue specifically. We made recommendations accordingly, and I was pleased that the Government accepted them.

In conclusion, I have no desire to discriminate against single mothers, many of whom do an amazing job bringing up wonderful children in as close to a family atmosphere as possible—it is never their desire to do so in this way. I know that many same-sex couples also do an astonishing job and are very loving couples when it comes to fostering and adoption. I just hope that we will consider the offhand way in which, for legalistic reasons, the Government felt it necessary to introduce this entire clause into the Bill. In my judgment, it is simply not necessary and it is causing a great deal of distress to a lot of people. I hope that hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House will simply say to the Government, “Please think again. We think this is a bad idea.” I hope that such people will vote against this measure.

This is an equalities issue, whether or not anyone tries to deny that, because the provision bites only on lesbian couples. This House has established over recent years a very good and honourable record of ending discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or anything else. If the amendments were to be voted through, the House would be taking a step backwards, and it would clearly be in contravention of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The provision does not just affect lesbians; it would also affect heterosexual single women who wish to have a child.

Okay, but the arguments have primarily been motivated by the fact that lesbian couples will want to have children; it is they who are at the root of this, and that must be completely wrong.

What would either a single woman or a lesbian couple have to do? If they were to fulfil the requirements of the current legislation or the requirements that would be in place if the amendments were to succeed, they would have to produce a token father, but there is no guarantee that such a person would have any part in the future of that child. We face a real danger, because there would undoubtedly be cases of women being forced or pressured into entering into informal arrangements, such as going to the pub to look for a likely temporary partner or receiving unlicensed, unregulated sperm, which carries all sorts of hazards to which I would not wish to see women exposed.

Has the hon. Gentleman actually read the wording of the original Act that this will amend? Let me read it to him. It says,

“unless account has been taken of the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of the treatment (including the need of that child for a father”—

to which we would add “and a mother”—

“and of any other child who may be affected by the birth.”

How does that provision act as an absolute device to refuse treatment?

In this instance, the need to take account of something strongly implies the requirement to produce a father figure, and that would be interpreted by many—including several hon. Members—to mean that a father, real or otherwise, would be required.

I have a close relative who is a single woman who wishes to have a child by IVF. She is governed by the present regulations, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) simply seeks to preserve. If I thought that what my right hon. Friend proposes would lead to the results that the hon. Gentleman suggests, I would vote with the hon. Gentleman, but it has not. My relative has not had to go to the pub to pick someone up or to do anything that he would not want her to have to do. All she has had to do is take account of these factors. Account has been taken and she has been allowed to proceed. Speaking for myself, I hope with all my heart that she is successful.

I endorse that entirely, and I am glad that the system has worked in her case. However, it is much more realistic to retain the present wording of the Bill about supportive parenting, as that is much more important. We no longer live in a “Janet and John” world where everybody has an ideal father and an ideal mother. Let us be honest and admit that many fathers have been damaging. How many single parents are left without a supportive father for their child because the natural father has deserted them, often with associated domestic violence? I know of far more cases in which that is true than of lesbian couples having IVF.

If we follow the provisions of the Bill, we stand to guarantee supportive parenting. We are almost assured that that child will have two parents. Not only that, but should anything happen to one of those parents, there will be another clearly identified parent with parental rights to look after the child. I can see nothing wrong with that: it is entirely logical.

We do not apply such strictures to same-sex adoption. We have legislated for that and we allow lesbian couples to adopt, and be responsible for the upbringing of a child, without a father. Why should it be any different for a child produced by IVF?

There is another inconsistency. If a woman has tubal or hormonal therapy for infertility problems, no one asks questions about parenthood. That only happens when it comes to IVF, which suggests that there is an element of discrimination behind this.