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Westminster Hall

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21 October 2008

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Higher Education

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

What a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair this week, Mr. Olner. While I am in such a good mood, may I thank the House of Commons Library staff for the enormous help that they have given me with this debate?

What are the critical questions that we should ask about higher education? Essentially, there are two. First, what are universities for? Secondly, how do we fund them? Let me try to answer the first question. When we had the debate about top-up fees, four years ago, we did not ask what we were funding. We went along the line of talking about providing more money for universities, instead of asking what we were providing the money for. I was interested in universities before then, because some history students in my constituency, at a respectable university, had not had a single essay marked in their third year. I began to ask what on earth we are paying for.

It is my contention that top-up fees have failed, because they have failed to make a market. We have approximately 165 university bodies in this country that can award degrees, of which all but a handful—three at the last count—charge £3,000 per student. So, in crude speak, a history undergraduate at Bournemouth is worth the same as a history undergraduate at Oxford, but that clearly is not the case.

Let me return to the original question: what are universities for? The Government have commissioned a plethora of reports and investigations on that question, in which they have been matched by the Russell group of universities. Will the Minister confirm in his summation that there will be a Green Paper on the future of universities and how they are funded before the House next agrees the parameters of top-up fees? That is critical, and they would be a beta-minus Government if that were not the case. I urge him to instigate a Robbins-esque review of the total university sector, and to have a mix including lifelong learning, the Open university, further education and the public library system. Our current HE model is seriously flawed, and it is time for us to have a grown-up debate about what we want for the university sector, after which we can decide how to fund it.

Let me try to help the Government to reach conclusions about what universities are for. In my book, they are for excellence not only in a UK context, but in the global environment. I recently went to China, and I have just finished my third visit to India. I am the lead IT person on the UK-India Education and Research Initiative team in India, and, last May, I took 14 academics to Bangalore and Hyderabad for a week. Interestingly, the universities that came were Imperial, York, Warwick, Kent and Greenwich, but not Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh or St. Andrews.

We need to get our major universities to think more globally about the space that they are in. Let me start with China, which has more than 1,000 colleges in its Academy of Sciences. There is an experiment involving three universities from this country—Liverpool, Nottingham and a cluster of north-eastern universities centred on Bradford—and a place 50 miles west of Shanghai. Extraordinarily, China will overtake the UK in the number of citations by its academics this year, which would have been unthinkable five years ago.

China and India’s research budgets in higher education are beginning to dwarf our own. We could argue that they should, given their size and potential economic strength, but Germany has already recognised the threat and has increased its research budgets for higher education, while we have not. Under the current financial arrangements, we cannot increase research budgets, but our universities will stand still if that remains the case. It is notable that many of our competitors, such as America, Australia, China, India and Germany, are increasingly targeting resources towards developing or sustaining leading universities, realising the benefits of co-locating education and research in universities and the important contribution that universities make to top-level research. Due to high levels of central Government investment since 2003, China’s 10 historic universities have been increasingly climbing the top-500 international league table rankings of universities, while our UK universities have remained steady. Data from the National Science Foundation in the United States show that 50 universities, comprising just under 8 per cent. of the 650 institutions there, have spent more than $150,000 on science and engineering research and development, accounting for 59 per cent. of federal research funding in 2006, with the top 20 universities accounting for about a third of funding.

The HE lobby has an emotional caché in Whitehall, but it is time for some detached thinking. Let us look at some tables. In the university of Shanghai’s top-500 world university rankings, Cambridge is fourth, Oxford is 10th, University college London is 22nd, Imperial is 27th, Manchester is 40th, Edinburgh is 55th, Bristol is 61st, Sheffield is 77th, Kings is 81st, Nottingham is 82nd and Birmingham is 91st. In that list, we have 11 universities in the top 100 in the world, but if one does not like Shanghai’s criteria, one can come closer to home and look at The Times Higher Educational Supplement list, which was published last week. It puts Cambridge third, Oxford fourth, Imperial sixth, UCL seventh, Kings 22nd, Edinburgh 23rd, Manchester 29th, Bristol 32nd, the London School of Economics 66th, Warwick 69th, Glasgow 73rd, Birmingham 75th, Sheffield 76th, York 81st, St. Andrews 83rd, Nottingham 86th and Southampton 99th. That list puts 17 of our universities in the top 100 in the world. If excellence is our watchword for the university sector, how can it be that we have only 11 universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai list and only 17 in the THES list? Are all our universities pursuing excellence as their watchword?

I do not want to generate complacency, but it is not a particularly bad record for a nation with fewer than 1 per cent. of the world’s population and about 2 per cent. of its gross domestic product to have 17 per cent. of the places in a league table of excellence. That is not a bad track record, is it?

It was not a bad track record, but it is static. Other universities in Europe, the far east and America are putting more into research and are going up the league tables faster.

Let me come back to my original question: what are universities for? Are they too introverted? Do they measure themselves only in relation to the UK? Should the Higher Education Funding Council change its perspective and adopt a global set of rules? I think that it should. In business, successful brands eat up other brands. Is there a role for a top-10 of global universities in the UK to be established, leading to a series of mergers and acquisitions? My sense is that Russell group membership needs to be halved. The fact that there is not a top-100 university in Wales or Northern Ireland should be of concern. Should we establish tougher criteria and double our research budgets for the top 10 universities in the UK? Is there a role for our top-10 universities to become chief executives of a cluster of other universities? How can we increase and improve the other universities? There seem to be no such plans afoot.

I have a passion for this subject, as my hon. Friend knows, and the scars to show it. The assimilation of such figures is difficult to assess, because we do not know what basic factors are relevant when the league tables are produced. Does he agree that one such factor, which he might mention, is the research assessment exercise in this country, which is linked to the amount of money that each university gets? That money is oriented around the golden triangle, whereas Leeds, Hull and others do not get it, which may act as a suppressant. It is possible that the issue is not the total sum of money, but its distribution by our RAE, which many academics do not like and think unfair. Although there have been changes, that still goes on.

It is fair to say that despite the low level of research money we are putting in compared with Germany, India or China, we seem to box above our weight. That reflects what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has said.

The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points, but he is overstressing the negative side. We have only 1 per cent. of the world’s population, but we produce 13 per cent. of the highly cited scientific papers and attain 10 per cent. of world research prizes. We received 44 Nobel prizes in the last 50 years. We are therefore punching well above our weight, pound for pound. We ought to celebrate that. Instead, we must focus on whether the right number of people in this country are going to university, given that that has increased fourfold since I went to university.

I hear the hon. Gentleman clearly.

I will take the London School of Economics as an example. It is one of our truly magnificent places of learning, but it has had greatly to increase the number of postgraduates it takes from overseas to balance its books. It cannot increase the number of undergraduates, because of the capping that the Higher Education Funding Council has placed on it. With respect, that is nuts. One of the great places of learning in the world is restricted in the number of undergraduates it can take by HEFC. The balance is wrong.

Let me come to a conclusion on excellence. Every university should have its own level of excellence, but not every university can have the same level when there are 165 universities. It is time to be brave and break the universities down into three strands. We should resolve to create 10 global universities. Under that, we should have 20 national universities of great significance. Under that, the rest should become regional centres of excellence, combining lifelong learning, the Open university, further education and our public library institutions.

Once we have defined what it is we agree to be excellence, we can move on to how we fund universities. Clearly, such a spread of universities could not be funded in the current way. Global universities would need to charge a market rate, with a maximum fee of £10,000. National universities should have a top-up fee of up to £6,000 and for regional universities it should be up to £3,000. In all cases, there would be a sliding scale of fees for students. There would not be a set fee for everyone, but fees would be based on ability to pay. That would be similar to the system for educational maintenance allowance for 16 and 17-year-olds in our secondary schools. Fees would therefore be redistributive, which is exactly what we want in this party.

I started by asking what universities are for, and I gave the answer of excellence in the global market space. I then asked how we should fund them. I have suggested that we break down the monolithic 165 universities into three groups, that we fund them differently and that we ask questions of them differently. I hope that I have started a debate and I look forward to the participation of other hon. Members.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I begin, of course, by congratulating the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) on securing this debate. He has a reputation for showing a great deal of interest in higher education and that was demonstrated in his opening speech.

I am proud to be the MP who represents the Open university in Milton Keynes. It is the UK’s only university that is dedicated to distance learning. Approximately 180,000 students currently study with the OU, meaning that more people study with it than at any other university in the UK. It has students in every single UK parliamentary constituency. It truly is the United Kingdom’s own university.

I wish to ask the Minister a number of questions. I congratulate him on his new post. He may be aware that in January, before he took his post, I tabled early-day motion 317, which I think was signed by all hon. Members in this Chamber, with the exception of the Minister. It highlighted the impact of the Government’s decision on equivalent and lower qualifications. While I do not want to go back over old ground, it is worth highlighting some of those concerns and looking towards the future.

My comments will be brief because other hon. Members wish to contribute. I will focus on the part-time sector. The Open university has been badly affected by the ELQ decision, but is doing its best to adapt its business model to a post-ELQ environment. The Government are supposedly committed to lifelong learning, yet approximately 29,000 Open university students across the country have been affected by the withdrawal of funding for ELQs. It is clear that the ELQ policy has frustrated attempts to enable people of working age to update and broaden their knowledge and skills in line with the changing needs of the economy and society more generally.

Some 68 per cent. of Open university ELQ students are over 35. Most can therefore be assumed to have degrees that are at least 10 to 15-years-old and in need of updating. Crucially, the policy will withdraw Government support for most graduate development. At the OU, most ELQ students are studying business studies, mathematics, computing, technology, science, education and languages—just the sort of skills the Government claim to encourage.

Higher fees for ELQ students will create a disincentive to carry out continuing professional development and the genuine risk that the main economic benefits of continuing professional development will be lost. It is perhaps worth reminding hon. Members that, contrary to popular belief, most ELQ students pay their own fees. Only 13 per cent. of ELQ students at the OU receive any fee contribution from their employer. Just 10 per cent. have all their fees paid by their employer.

Will the hon. Gentleman continue and say that students have to pay their fees up front rather than after they graduate? Does he agree that the deal that was supposedly struck for part-time students at the Open university during the debate on this issue has evidently been reneged on? That is what I was told by his predecessor as MP for North-East Milton Keynes.

The hon. Gentleman is very well informed. Indeed, I recall that he contributed to that debate. I believe he is right. I will be asking the Minister a few questions about the future. Perhaps when the hon. Gentleman makes his contribution he will also press the Minister to address these points.

The idea that funding is readily available from employers, especially in the current challenging financial situation, has proved to be simply wrong. Why would an employer pay for an employee to train only for them to change careers and leave their employment?

I speak as an Open university graduate and former OU employee. When he responds, the Minister will no doubt argue that it is more important to bring new people into higher education than it is to reskill those who have already benefited. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister ought to be reminded that in a rapidly changing economy, that approach is rather damaging to the central strategy in education of lifelong learning? It is just as important to reskill people so that they can return to the workplace as it is to get other people into higher education for the first time.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point and one that I was going to make. Especially in the current economic turmoil, we will see more and more people being forced to reskill. Only this month unemployment figures have risen. That is why this decision has been so short-sighted.

To be fair, Ministers have made some exemptions to the ELQ policy, but those do not go far enough. Only 4.6 per cent. of HEFCE-funded ELQ students at the Open university will be exempt under the proposals. It is equally difficult to see the logic behind why courses are or are not exempt. Why, for example, is teacher training included, while courses that lead to qualified teacher status are excluded? Perhaps the Minister could explain the logic behind the Government’s decision to exempt some groups but not others.

During the debate last year, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills made it clear that this policy was never intended to be a permanent policy and that it would be reviewed. So I simply seek clarification from the Minister today, now that the dust has settled and with the value of hindsight, as to whether we might see a review of the Government’s decision about the funding of ELQs. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that the current policy is indeed only in place for three years, after which we will see a return to the former position.

Briefly, I would like to ask the Minister some questions about three connected areas. I will start with the review of undergraduate fees that is due to take place in 2009. Although the Government’s proposed review is broadly welcomed by the higher education establishment, may I simply ask the Minister to give some clarity on the time scales for the review and perhaps he could also explain who exactly will be leading it? Given the importance of the review to the sector, surely the longer the higher education institutions have to prepare evidence, with at least a basic understanding of how the review will be run, the better.

The Minister will be aware that the Leitch review recommended that 40 per cent. of adults should become qualified to level 4 and above. However, it is clear that that target is not going to be met without significant input from the part-time higher education sector. As few if any details of the structure of the fees review have been published to date, can the Minister perhaps offer assurances that the Open university and part-time sector in general will receive appropriate attention in the forthcoming review?

I turn now to the proposals for a new credit transfer model in higher education funding. From an Open university perspective, it is clear that any new funding models should enable flexible learning pathways that encourage lifelong learning, providing a focus on the learner and encouraging learning progression between the further education and higher education systems. One way of helping to achieve that would be to allow credit accumulation and transfer from previous study. Therefore, could the Minister confirm that he recognises the value of such a flexible credit accumulation and transfer system and, perhaps more importantly, also confirm that that value will be reflected in the funding review next year?

In the last 12 months alone, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has launched a number of initiatives and consultations on higher education, including a consultation on proposals for new higher education centres, which closed on Friday; a consultation on its “Higher Education at Work – High Skills: High Value” report, which closed in July; a blog with nine issues for discussion on the future of higher education, and a student listening programme. However, what is not clear is exactly how this multitude of initiatives will be reconciled.

Finally, therefore, may I simply ask the Minister if these initiatives will be fed into the funding review, as would be logical, and what influence, if any, they will have on that review?

I conclude by making no apologies for standing up for the part-time education sector, which I believe has been neglected by this Government over the last year.

The Minister may shake his head, but some 209 Members signed early-day motion 317 earlier this year, highlighting their concern about the Government’s decision to withdraw funding from the ELQ sector. I simply ask him to look again at this issue in his review next year, with the value of hindsight, to ensure that the part-time sector in the UK is fully funded in the future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) on obtaining this Adjournment debate this morning. My hon. Friend has opened up a few interesting issues and probably set the odd hare or 30 running, given his views on major restructuring of the higher education sector here in the UK. He is a bit like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, but I am not inclined to be like Don Quixote’s faithful friend and companion, Sancho Panza, as I do not share his view about the requirement to go for, or even a suggestion that we should go for, a major upheaval in the HE sector. In fact, I think that that is the sort of idea that would blow up into a holy or unholy row among people in the HE sector, if it were to be implemented.

I was very interested in the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is on my left in every way. He raised the issue of research funding for universities. May I say to the Minister that—well, I can say to him what I like, I suppose.

I am telling the Minister the obvious, I suppose, because he knows his role better than I do. In December, he will be making decisions about the allocation of £1.9 billion of research funding to universities, and I believe that that allocation will be announced by the funding council in January 2009. It is important that he understands the role of universities such as my local university, the university of Derby, in driving research and innovation that is of relevance to the local, regional and national economy, and that he ensures that the university receives a research funding allocation that improves—hopefully, considerably improves—on the 2002 outcome, which of course was the last time that a similar decision on research funding was made.

This forthcoming allocation is crucial as it will determine the majority of the public funding for research in the university of Derby for the next five years, for the period from 2009 right through to 2013. It was a previous Minister who made the decision in 2002. Nevertheless, when that decision was made, 76 per cent. of the £1.4 billion that was allocated went to just 19 of the UK’s 120 universities, as a result of a Government decision to fund only research of international significance.

I have no argument about the HE sector funding areas of international significance and, of course, they should continue to fund such areas. However, the 2002 decision meant that the university of Derby received only £306,000 for 2008-09, which was made up of nearly £300,000 of collaborative research funding and £6,800 in quality-related research funding, even though the university is a key driver of innovation in the local and regional economy.

Therefore, I am extremely concerned that the Minister ensures that excellent research of national significance as well as research of international significance is recognised in the 2009 decision and that we are able to invest in the research infrastructure of universities to respond to local and national needs and to new and emerging markets in the period between 2009 and 2013.

I have been called to speak somewhat sooner than I expected; in fact, I was still preparing my notes.

We should first congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) on securing the debate and on giving us a thought-provoking and perhaps trenchant introduction.

We live in politically fluid times, and it seems that John Maynard Keynes is reborn with enthusiasm across many parties. He was, of course, one of the greatest Liberals of the 20th century. It also seems that the spirit of Milton Friedman is alive and well in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and there seems to be an internal debate going on in the Labour party about which direction it should be pursuing, including in higher education. It seemed to be the hon. Gentleman’s position that there should be a free market in higher education, including in fees, with different fees at different institutions, and probably for different subjects as well, and also that a new elite group in UK higher education should be introduced.

However, I point it out to the hon. Gentleman that one of the inevitable consequences of a market is failure. If there is genuine competition, the natural economic result of it is that an institution will fail. Although he said that membership of the Russell group club should be halved, he did not give us any idea which institutions he would downgrade or close.

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that markets create failures, and I think he is relating that comment to institutes of higher education, but markets also create winners and losers among the students themselves, and is it not increasingly the case that the losers are students from working-class backgrounds who typically leave university with debts that are almost 50 per cent. more than those of their middle-class counterparts? Does that not damage social mobility and is it not the role of my party and the hon. Gentleman’s party to reduce inequality rather than to accentuate and expand it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that lack of social mobility should trouble progressives of whichever party. It is certainly something that drives me as I put forward policies in this area for the next general election. He rightly says that people from poorer backgrounds who have accessed higher education face great challenges because of the debt burden—it will increase over the next few years—that they will face when they graduate, but I am more worried about the untapped pools of potential of students from poorer backgrounds that are not accessing higher education at all. That is the big challenge that faces all of us who want to ensure that everyone who is able to do so can access and benefit from higher education.

The hon. Gentleman may remember that it was mentioned in the debates on charging students for going to university that bursaries would be given as well. Professor Claire Callender has just written a book that shows quite clearly that working class students get less support and help than was intended in the original plans, yet Oxford and Cambridge—it is no secret that they would like to be private if they could get away with it, and they might yet—can give huge bursaries just to show how concerned they are that people get a fair crack of the whip. Indeed, working class students do not get a good choice or a crack of the whip.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, correct. When the Government introduced variable fees in 2004, they may have expected there to be a market in fees, but what has evolved is a market in bursaries, which I do not believe was predicted at the time. It is incredibly difficult for a 17 or 18-year-old contemplating where they will pursue their future studies to understand that market, and there is a growing consensus that perhaps there should be a national bursary scheme with national criteria to ensure that money is going where it is genuinely needed and that it will make a difference. I am studying that policy initiative carefully.

Higher education faces many challenges over the next decade or so. The CBI said recently that 42 per cent. of the jobs that we would expect to find in the economy of 2020, if it is possible to predict the economy that far ahead, are likely to need a graduate-level qualification. That is broadly in line with what Lord Leitch said in his 2006 report, but we know that only 29 per cent. of the current work force are educated to degree level, so a step change is needed to ensure that our work force have skills for a knowledge economy.

Much of the growth in learning is likely to come from part-time study by people who are currently in the workplace. One reason for that is that there will be a big demographic change over the next few years, and fewer young people from the traditional 18-to-21 age group will go into higher education. The sector will need to do much more to ensure that adults who are in the workplace can study part-time. As the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) said, that means a step change in how we fund part-time higher education and a reversal of some retrograde decisions that the Government have made recently, in particular on equivalent and lower qualifications.

It is hard to predict how our economy will evolve over the next decade. We could not have predicted 10 or 15 years ago some of the jobs that are currently available, or that there would be degree programmes to meet the demands of jobs such as those in gaming. When I was applying for my university place, the computer game was Pac-man, which was played with just two fingers on a watch or on a black and white television console. I would have been astonished if someone had told me that 20 years later many universities would be offering degrees in gaming. None the less, that is the case, and who knows where we will be in 2020? It will be essential that existing graduates are able to reskill, which is why the ELQ decision was a bad one.

The world is increasingly competitive, and it is essential that the UK maintain the position in higher education that it currently enjoys. As the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey rightly pointed out, we face challenges not just from our traditional competitors—North America, Australia and, increasingly, Europe—but from the emerging economies of China and India. It is all the more essential that we invest in our STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and in the people who will teach those subjects and inspire the youngsters who take them up in the future.

The UK must be open to the world’s best academics and students, and that requires a joined-up approach right across Government so that the Treasury or the Home Office does not throw obstacles in the way of academics accessing our universities.

In the 2001 and 2005 general elections, the Liberal Democrats opposed the introduction of tuition fees. The Labour Government decided to introduce them, despite indicating in 1997 that they would not, and then increased them after 2001, despite expressly saying in 2001 that they would not do that. We fundamentally disagree with the starting point—where we are now—but, obviously, it is my duty to comment on where the Government are going.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the prospect of the fee cap being raised.

I am interested that the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is his duty to comment on where the Government are going. I would have thought that it was more his duty to comment on Liberal Democrat views on student fees.

If the hon. Gentleman is patient, I will give him an indication of that, but there is a world of difference between a party in government saying at a general election that they will not do something and then, when they win the election and retake office, doing it, and an Opposition party saying at one general election what its position is vis-à-vis the Government of the day and then, between elections, thinking about what it might say at the next general election to meet the circumstances of the time.

May I follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton)? The hon. Gentleman is making a cheap jibe. In fact, the argument in 2004 was that tuition fees would not be installed in the system until after the 2005 general election. There were arguments against that, but that was the guarantee from the Government. Things changed in the new manifesto.

I was referring to the 2001 manifesto, which included a phrase that was often used in the 2001 general election:

“We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them.”

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, within two years legislation was introduced to bring in top-up fees.

Thank you, Mr. Olner.

I wish to return to raising the fee cap and introducing a market in higher education. As the Higher Education Policy Institute stated recently, if the fee cap were to be raised, there would be further cost pressures on the Treasury because of the increase in the cost of subsidising the real rate of interest on maintenance and fee loans. Whatever path the Government pursue, whether to put more money directly from Treasury funds into higher education or to pass the cost on to students, there will be a direct cost to the Treasury if the current regime of subsidising loans is to pertain. Given that choice, it would seem preferable for further investment in higher education to come from general taxation rather than from pushing further costs on to the most recent graduates.

The system needs some stability. I know that the Government will have a review in 2009, but there have been many changes in the past five years, whether in the fee regime that we have just discussed or in the maintenance support that is available to students. Some stability would be welcome. The new system needs to bed down so that we can genuinely understand what difference it is making and not have to make fundamental decisions in 2009 from a low and flimsy evidence base.

I am sorry for not following the hon. Gentleman exactly, but is it still the Liberal Democrat position to oppose top-up fees?

Yes, if that was not clear.

As the National Union of Students reminded us recently in its excellent report “Broke and Broken”, the recommendation of the Dearing report in 1997 was that graduates who benefit from higher education should perhaps make a 25 per cent. contribution to the cost of their study. But in some liberal arts subjects, the contribution of about £3,300 a year that graduates will make is already close to what the taxpayer contributes to the cost of their study. There is no scope, certainly in this sector, for asking graduates to contribute more.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton), mentioned the distribution of funding. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey implied that there are too many universities in the sector, with 120 institutions, ancient and modern, competing for income. Analysis by Grant Thornton, one of my former employers, has shown that the share of income is becoming ever more concentrated among the Russell group family of universities.

Will the Minister say what he thinks of the recent report from Million+, which calls, at least in the area of research funding, for a certain proportion of the research budget to be set aside to allow for a contribution to new universities to ensure that they are able to nurture their talent and to grow a new research base that is more evenly spread around the English regions?

Universities could take up other sources of income. Endowments need to grow. For that to happen, a cultural change is required, with all of us giving to our former universities. Next year, Bristol university celebrates its centenary and will, no doubt, hold an appeal in association with that to which I will certainly be a contributor.

I shall end by mentioning the Government’s review. It would be interesting to hear the Minister say when he expects the various strands to come to a conclusion. I believe that the intention to have a review was part of the deal made with Labour Back Benchers in 2004, the idea being that in five years there would be a review of the new system. Perhaps at that time they did not contemplate either the existing economic situation or the political timetable for a general election, which is likely to be held during 2009 or 2010. When does he expect the review to produce some firm policy conclusions, so that all three parties can ensure that the issue is debated sensibly at the next general election?

I hope that the review will be open-minded and not merely a justification for raising the fee cap. It will need to look at who benefits from higher education and who participates in it, and at the different modes of study, to ensure that all generations are able to participate. It should not be representative only of the sector and industry, but should generally involve young people. The UK Youth Parliament is keen to be involved in this issue.

Hon. Members should thank the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for introducing such a stimulating discussion. Our united purpose should be to ensure that British universities are funded fairly and that they keep us at the forefront and in the front rank of the world’s universities.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) on securing this important debate, which I welcome because this is a good time to discuss student finance.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his interesting and informative opening speech. He argued for excellence in universities, which is surely right. He has a view on how we achieve that with the three-tier system that he spelled out. He also spelled out clearly the growing international competition and the threat to our continued prominence in the sector globally. We will have to return to that point regularly in the coming years.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am proud of the achievements of the university sector. As illustrated in the recently published QS world rankings, and as he said, 17 of our institutions were in the top 100 universities around the world. The excellent Reading university—my local university—was just outside the top 100. That is pretty good, because more than 9,000 universities around the world are eligible to enter.

Looking at the situation positively, such figures prove that our top universities are globally competitive, in spite of the comparatively lower funding relative to some of our international competitors. It is clear that to maintain our international position the sector will continue to need sustainable funding from a variety of sources and that, in a time of economic downturn, public funding will continue to play an important role.

The Government are obliged by legislation to review the student support regime before the end of 2009. We Conservatives have consistently argued that the earlier that starts, the easier it will be for the sector to prepare the relevant evidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) recently said, the Government’s approach is to treat the review a bit like the start of one of those bicycle races where the competitors go as slowly as they can. There seems to be an endless stream of preludes to the review, pre-reviews and preparatory investigations. These are all very well, and we will co-operate where we can, but Ministers are moving so slowly that they are in danger of falling off their bicycles.

When the student finance review begins, I hope it will be based on hard evidence rather than on any preconceptions. There are rumours that some institutions are planning for the future on the firm assumption that the tuition fee cap will rise. If enough institutions plan on that basis, so the argument runs, a rise in the cap will become inevitable. My advice is that it would be folly and error to take anything for granted at this stage. The funding regime needs to be genuinely and openly reviewed based on the evidence.

I would like the hon. Gentleman to tell hon. Members what his party’s position is on tuition fees now. I remember that the Conservatives had a strong policy in 2004 against increases in tuition fees. Why have they changed their mind and what happened to change it, if they have done so?

Perhaps further interventions will be saved for then.

Speculation in the sector remains rife, with a recent Higher Education Policy Institute report addressing some of the implications of a rise in the fee cap. That report concluded that allowing fees to rise would be expensive for the Government if they kept to the current system of student support. HEPI proposes several options: charging a higher rate of interest, subsidising only part of the loan or cutting back on grants in the expectation that universities will use their higher income to offer bigger bursaries. None of those options is without controversy, but all require careful deliberation and I am sure that the Government will include them in their forthcoming review. HEPI is just one of the organisations that have expressed a view, but I am keen to stress that we Conservatives will approach the review in an open-minded way, although our full reaction will be reserved until we know more about its terms of reference.

If possible, today would be a useful time for the Government to provide more clarity on time scales for the review and more information on who will be leading it. All the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) asked in his eloquent speech—

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), it would be helpful and interesting for the wider public watching and reading this debate to know whether the Conservative party is still of the view that the number of places in higher education needs to be reduced significantly. Where does the hon. Gentleman think that the impact of those cuts would fall? Would it fall mainly on the least well off and those who have, traditionally, not been able to get into higher education?

For the benefit of both members of the watching public, we have no intention of cutting the number of places. In fact, as the hon. Gentleman will see in a few minutes, we intend to increase the number of places available for students at universities.

While we recognise that university is not for everyone, we want a further expansion of the sector. The sector has experienced unprecedented growth over the last 20 years, but we will go further. It is imperative that our universities continue to generate increasing numbers of skilled graduates to meet the needs of a globally competitive economy. The UK lags behind some of its competitors—for example, the United States—and we must be concerned about the extent to which we are falling down the OECD league for the number of young people going to university.

It is important to remember that any expansion must be properly funded. The student support regime has problems, and hon. Members have referred to many of them, including low take-up of bursaries. It is only right that graduates should pay something towards the cost of their studies, even if the mechanism and the level of repayment will always be a matter for genuine debate.

Without prejudging the outcome of next year’s review, it is clear that several areas will need special attention. One of the most important is the relationship between student support and widening participation. Despite bold rhetoric, the Government’s record on widening participation leaves much to be desired. Our young men in particular are missing the boat, and the proportion of young males going to university is lower than it was in 1999. The latest figures show that in 2006-07, the proportion of males participating in higher education for the first time was just 34 per cent.

People in lower socio-economic groups are also under-represented, and elements of the funding regime, such as the bureaucratic application process for bursaries, have done little to help. In the months ahead, we will carefully examine the financial and non-financial barriers to higher education for our under-represented groups.

We must also consider whether we have the right balance of support between full-time and part-time learners. It is a great shame, as my hon. Friend said, that £100 million was cut from second-chance learning without consultation with the sector. Some of the country’s best institutions, which have done a great deal to broaden access, are seeing their finances severely strained as a result.

As my hon. Friend also said, the unintended consequences of the equivalent or lower qualifications policy could be with us for a long time. That is why Conservatives called for the £100 million funding cut to be postponed and reconsidered as part of the larger fees review. My hon. Friend made some important observations about the credit transfer system, and all parties would do well to consider that carefully.

The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) spoke proudly about his local university. He is right to be proud, and to fight on its behalf for research funding. Derby has a growing reputation for its work in flexible learning, offering modes of learning that suit students rather than the university.

We are considering other ways of channelling funding into our universities. The recent revelation that Harvard’s endowment fund is greater than the total annual public funding for all universities in England has highlighted the fact that we need to encourage a culture of greater philanthropic giving. Only five of our universities have endowments worth at least £100 million, compared with 207 in the US. A report entitled “The Future of Higher Education”, produced by the Select Committee on Education and Skills, of which I was a member, recommended that the Government explore ways to encourage a more substantial contribution from business and individuals through the taxation system. In the US, people think nothing of giving to their university, and it is regarded by many as a way to give something back for the opportunities that higher education gave them.

Here in the UK, the Sutton Trust has led calls for increased match funding initiatives, and its 2006 report argued for an annual fund of more than £120 million. The Government’s response announced a three-year programme with an annual £67 million fund for match funding, which was implemented last summer. We support that initiative, and although such matching schemes have a public expenditure cost, we believe that we could make it easier for British universities to raise more money without relying on Government handouts.

We also believe that increased business collaboration should be encouraged. Many universities are now actively engaged in their local communities, but we must go further in encouraging true knowledge transfer between business and universities. The Government tend to believe that knowledge transfer is solely about spinning out companies from research. I do not dissent from the view that that is part of the picture, but universities may boost the economy in many other ways.

Many small and medium-sized enterprises are unaware of the value of their local university, and its research capability and cost-effective assistance. Real collaboration would occur if investing businesses had a greater say in the course content at their chosen universities, and universities could in turn use their private investment to best advantage.

I would like to congratulate Liverpool John Moores university on being the first ever university to reach the high level required to achieve an award for European business excellence under the European Foundation for Quality Management’s excellence model framework. I am due to visit its campus in the coming weeks, and I hope to learn more about that supranational achievement.

I would welcome a move to give universities increased opportunity to emerge with a different leadership role: economic leadership in their local community. In the US, community colleges, which are widely regarded as part of the higher education sector, receive upwards of 20 per cent. of their income from local business agreements. Local businesses could use their local institutions to train their local staff.

Increased business collaboration could not only be a much-welcomed additional source of funding for universities, but bring with it an increased sense of responsibility in the problem-sharing of their region. However, increased business collaboration does not mean that we should not recognise the value of learning for its own sake. It is important to emphasise that we are not opposed to the learning of mediaeval history or theology, for example, and indeed we advocate all sorts of learning.

The past 11 years of Labour government have shown us that the university sector is in need of a fresh approach. Conservatives are committed to supporting our excellent universities in the challenges that they are set to face. Many parts of our university sector are world class, and we shall do everything we can to keep them that way.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) on securing the debate. It has given us a timely opportunity to discuss an important topic that is always of major concern to hon. Members throughout the House.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton), and the hon. Members for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) and for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) for their contributions.

When we took office, universities were complaining about the funding that they received, and with good reason. Public funding per student had fallen by 36 per cent. between 1979 and 1997, and there was real concern in the sector about the health of higher education in this country, what it is for, and who it is for. Against that backdrop, this debate is so important.

Since then, funding for higher education has risen in real terms by 24 per cent. By 2010, it will have increased by more than 30 per cent., and that does not include the money available through the science budget, which will have trebled from £1.3 billion in 1997 to £4 billion by 2010. That means that we have been able to maintain funding per student in real terms over a decade during which student numbers have increased by nearly 1 million to 2 million in England. It means that we have been able to tackle the chronic £8 billion backlog of under-investment in infrastructure that existed in 1997, and it means that we have been able to sustain a world-class higher education system that punches above its weight in research reputation, demand from international students and our position in international league tables.

Any discussion about the future funding of higher education must start with an understanding of the system’s diversity, which is one of its strengths. Institutions range in size from the Open university, which the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes mentioned, with more than 200,000 students and distance learners, to small colleges of further education catering for a few hundred students who wish to progress from further to higher education, and value the opportunity to study locally.

Higher education providers also vary in mission. When debating this subject, it is important to emphasise the autonomy of our universities and the broad mission that can range across them: some universities are research intensive; some concentrate on excellence in teaching and widening participation; and some are remodelling what they do to engage with business. Let me say clearly that we value them all and want to recognise excellence wherever it is found and whatever the different mission of different providers is. However, the mission and the size of institutions vary, and so do the funding streams.

It is also important that I describe the national position.

If the Minister values all students equally, why did the Government cut £100 million from equivalent or lower qualifications?

I will come on to discussing part-time education and ELQs shortly.

Given the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey—I understand the nature of his remarks—it is important to say that we are second only to the United States in these league tables. The Shanghai league table measures only research excellence and has been criticised for measuring inputs, not outputs. Our market share of overseas students is second only to that of the US.

We have a world-class research base and our science is the most productive and efficient in the G8. I think that the following point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire: it is important to recognise that although we have 1 per cent. of the world’s population, we carry out 4.5 per cent. of the world’s research and can claim 8 per cent. of scientific publications. Against that backdrop, we can be proud of our universities’ contribution.

Just for accuracy, we should point out that much of the research is done by high-class institutes that might or might not have an affiliation to a university. The Government have been trying to obtain those affiliations because if there is an association, some of the papers done in those pure environments count. I remember using John Innes papers to help my department to receive an increase in its grade from a five. We must point out that there is a combination of factors to consider and that the research structure is pretty good, which can also lead to Nobel prizes.

My hon. Friend is exactly right and, in a sense, that underlines the point that knowledge transfer between research and business continues to grow. Since 2003, 30 university spin-out companies have been floated on the stock exchange at a value of £1.5 billion at the initial public offering. University income from business and user engagement has risen rapidly and stands at £2.2 billion per annum. It is important to continue to argue the case for both fundamental and applied research. However, the cornerstone of our success is the quality of our fundamental research and the Government are, of course, always interested in how that research is exploited in going forward.

Last week, I responded to a debate in the House initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) about the research assessment exercise. I recognise what hon. Members who represent universities have to say, particularly about local and regional business engagement. I hope that hon. Members are aware that there have been changes to that new exercise, although I am waiting to hear what the Higher Education Funding Council for England will say to me in December. There is recognition of the importance of applied research within the new formula.

On returning to the national position, English institutions generate about £17.5 billion each year. More than half of that comes from the Government via HEFCE and the research councils, which decide how individual institutions should be funded. About a quarter of that figure comes from all forms of tuition fees, but only about 10 per cent. comes from the fees that we regulate: those for UK and EU full-time undergraduates. At some of our more research-intensive universities, that figure is closer to 2 or 3 per cent. So, the forthcoming fee review, about which I shall say more later, is absolutely not the be-all and end-all of funding for higher education. About 2 per cent. of income comes from endowments, and the remaining £3 billion comes from other funding sources—everything from training contracts for employers to intellectual property rights and the income from conferences and lettings.

That is the national position. Let us now consider the range of funding for different higher education providers. The biggest fish in the higher education pond operate on budgets of nearly £1 billion; the smallest have budgets of about £5 million. Some institutions rely on their HEFCE grant for nearly 80 per cent. of their total income, and for others that figure is under 10 per cent.

Tuition fee income as a proportion of total income varies in different institutions—from virtually nothing to more than 70 per cent. The institutions at those extremes are, of course, specialist institutions rather than universities. However, their position should not be overlooked if we want to continue with that diverse system.

Why do we want diversity of funding? There are two reasons. First, it encourages each provider to identify and play to its strengths. Secondly, in these uncertain economic times, it helps providers to remain competitive. Happily, universities in this country are well run, but we live in challenging times. We cannot say exactly what economic conditions there will be during the next period, so in looking forward, it would at least be prudent for universities not to count on having the substantial increases in public funding that they have had in the recent past. A sensible strategy is for universities to continue to look for different ways to generate income. I want to mention some of the things that we are doing to encourage universities and higher education providers to do that.

We are successfully promoting closer links between universities and employers. We set HEFCE a target of having 5,000 co-funded places in 2008-09 and I am pleased that it has approved funding for more than 8,000 places. That stands us in good stead for our ambition of having 20,000 places by 2010-11.

In August, we launched our voluntary giving scheme, with £200 million to leverage £400 million in donations during three years. Some 140 institutions have chosen to participate, and many of them are doing so and have plans to transform their performance. That is not going to match overnight the endowment funds of institutions such as Harvard—at this point, I should declare an interest as an ex-graduate of that institution—but we should remember that it took American universities three or four decades to build up the funds that they now have. That scheme is important because it will not only generate extra money, but emphasise that universities are just as worthy of donations as other charities.

We also know that international students are an important source of funding for higher education. People from overseas account for about one in six of our student population. Globalisation and a strong international reputation have helped to make us an attractive destination for learners, and will continue to do so. Ambitious young people in search of a good career know that they are likely to end up working for a multinational business or at least for an organisation with interests or outposts in other countries. They also know how much more employable a period of study overseas is likely to make them. That and the fact that English remains the global language of commerce partly explain why so many international students want to study here. It has been estimated that students from outside the EU are worth £1.7 billion to the sector in tuition fees alone. Their value to the wider economy has been calculated at almost £4 billion a year.

However, other countries’ university systems are not standing still. Universities here will continue to need the income that international students bring in, and to benefit from the fact that their presence makes a scholarly community richer and more diverse, so the sector and the Government will need to carry on seeking ways to improve the quality of the experience that international students can expect when they get to the UK.

I come now to tuition fees and the extra income from variable tuition fees. Let me say two things about that. First, the Government, not students, meet the up-front costs of fees. We now pay out £4 billion a year to cover the costs of fees and student support. We have not had much experience of the new arrangements—some of what has been said this morning is a little premature—but there is no evidence that they are putting students off going to university. In fact, the situation is just the opposite: record numbers of students are applying, both generally and from less well-off families.

Secondly, in just one year, variable fees have generated an extra £450 million, of which £100 million is being recycled as student bursaries, thanks to the access agreements that institutions have agreed with the Office for Fair Access. To put that into perspective, £450 million is about 30 per cent. of the increase in income that universities generated last year.

However, before we even start to think about fees, next year, we shall publish our framework for the development of higher education over the next 10 to 15 years. The framework will set the essential context for the work of the review. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey is right to say that over the next period we must have a profound and far-reaching discussion about what universities are for. The framework will cover such issues as the demographic changes that we are seeing in society: over the next 10 to 15 years, the proportion of young adults available to go into universities will be falling.

We shall discuss research careers and the importance of people being able to dedicate their lives to such careers. That involves understanding the difficulty of people sometimes being on a short-term contract and understanding that we want people moving between universities and business. We shall discuss the student experience and globalisation in the context of e-learning.

We shall have that debate against the backdrop of a global downturn. The question will be how we ensure that our universities are well positioned as we head out of that period. All those subjects have to be considered thoroughly as part of the vision for higher education over the next couple of decades. Any future discussion of our policy on tuition fees will have to take account of that framework. Until we have had the debate across the range and diversity of our higher education institutions in relation to what they are for, the challenges that lie ahead and ensuring that this country is well positioned to make the most of the changes, it is premature to talk about setting timetables for a review.

The Minister is talking eloquently about the challenges that the sector will face. One challenge is the massive pensions black hole that is developing in the sector. Can he give hon. Members some idea today of the size of the black hole that has developed and what pressures it might exert on the sector?

No, I cannot do that today, except to say that when the hon. Gentleman puts his remarks in the context of a black hole, he is overstating what is a serious issue that is rightly part of the debate and will obviously have some bearing on the overall fiscal and financial funding for universities. Nevertheless, as I have said, substantial funds are going into the sector. We can have that discussion in due course.

Let me deal with the remarks made by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes about part-time students in particular. It is important to say that part-time student numbers have increased under this Government. Part-time students now make up 40 per cent. of the student population. The number of English students undertaking part-time undergraduate courses rose by 21 per cent. between 1997 and 2007.

The hon. Gentleman began by saying that he did not want to revisit the ELQ debate. I was watching as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell)—then Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, and now Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office—led those debates from the Dispatch Box. I do not want to revisit that discussion today, except to say that the Government were the first to introduce statutory financial support for part-time students.

We absolutely value the work of the Open university, and I look forward to meeting its representatives. I value especially its unique national status and the unique opportunity that it has to provide part-time and full-time courses for people throughout the country. For that reason, it has been able to get extra funds in respect of widening participation. I am sure that there will be every opportunity further to support the Open university—a university for which I have tremendous respect. I was pleased to be able to visit it when I was a Culture Minister to look at its provision and particularly its library. That institution is hugely valued by Labour Members.

We are not short of time—we have another 13 minutes—so we can consider the issue in some detail. The Minister has just spoken about the historical rise in part-time student numbers up to 2007 or 2008. What assessment have the Government made of the impact on future part-time student numbers of the withdrawal of ELQ funding? Will he also do what I asked in my speech and put some meat on the bones of where the exemptions have come from? They represent only 4.6 per cent. of current ELQ students.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that all Governments have to have priorities. I do not want to be too party political about this, but our priority has been to get extra funding into our universities to ensure that they are world class and to support widening participation. We have done well on those measures against the backdrop of what was happening during the previous period, when we were going backwards, so let us be generous when we discuss those priorities. We have also wanted to safeguard STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and initial teacher training.

The discussion relating to ELQ, as has been rehearsed several times, has not been about a cut. The OU’s budget went up by 2.4 per cent. It gained from changes to widening participation. The ELQ policy in the end means that more than 6 million people with level 3 skills can go to university for the first time. The hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about the opportunity to go to university for the first time, but that is clearly where the priorities of the Government have been in relation to funding. I am disappointed that he shakes his head in relation to those young adults having the opportunity to go to university for the first time.

I return to the two questions that I asked of the Minister. I appreciate that he is new to his brief, and the answer may come to him shortly. First, what assessment have the Government made of the impact of the £100 million cut in ELQ funding on the number of part-time students in the years to come, and never mind the historical data? Secondly, will he explain the reason for the exemptions for ELQ students, which represent only 4.8 per cent? Those are two simple questions.

I thought that I had explained that we are supporting STEM subjects. I hope that that is an explanation that the hon. Gentleman can understand. We are supporting initial teaching training—again, I hope he can understand that explanation. We have put extra money into part-time education for our universities. I hope he can understand that. However, we sought also to prioritise those going to university for the first time. I hope that that is sufficient an explanation.

The hon. Gentleman’s priorities may be different, and one has to respect that, but the Government have been clear about the agenda. It is not new to the House and the debate has been going on for a considerable time. The Government are absolutely clear about the fact that they want to support the Open university. They want to continue discussions with the OU about its unique national role, and we are pleased that we have been able to extend funding to the Open university on widening participation.

I welcome the opportunity to continue discussions with the OU over the next short while. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that his questions have been answered.

Again, I ask the same question. To be fair, the Minister endeavoured to answer me on one of the exemptions, but he has not yet said what assessment the Government have made of the impact of the ELQ cut on future part-time student numbers. Pray God they have made some assessment of the direction of part-time student numbers. Given that unemployment is rising and that people will need to retrain, the Open university will be a key establishment in retraining them.

The hon. Gentleman is now being unreasonable: as a result of his discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and because he has taken up these matters at the Dispatch Box, he will know that the Government have continued their discussions with the Open university on the number of students and on part-time students generally. We have also discussed those subjects with the Million+ group of universities.

The arguments have been well rehearsed. If the hon. Gentleman wants, I can send him copies of the letters sent by the former Higher Education Minister, but I do not intend to debate the matter again. We have already had that debate.

The Minister and his predecessor have said that the Government’s justification for the ELQ decision was that it would switch money to helping those accessing university for the first time. That has some coherence for the E part of ELQ—equivalent qualifications—but not for the L part, which is not much talked about. What about those who are tasting university for the first time by doing short courses? Universities throughout the country, not only the OU, are running community learning programmes. Many institutions say that they will have to slash those programmes because they will no longer be receiving the fee support. What assessment have the Government made of that consequence of their decision?

The hon. Gentleman probably knows that that was an important part of my portfolio as Minister for Skills. The Government broadly wanted to take a position where full level 2, 3 and 4 courses and other qualifications that were desirable in the marketplace attracted public funding.

Discussions are being held against a backdrop of a global economic downturn—changes that have happened rapidly as a result of the credit crunch. As with all Departments, we are looking closely at how to support people in training for skills, which includes further and higher education institutions. It continues to be something that we would expect to be under review at this time. In discussion with the sector, we feel that we are able to come forward with further plans to support people, particularly those who want to reskill—those who want to remain in the workplace, but in a different way over the next while.

I speak as an Open university graduate. Several times, the Minister mentioned the national importance of the OU, but will he also consider its international significance? For instance, it is training teachers in Africa. Following the civil war, 23 of the 25 Cabinet Ministers in Ethiopia had MBAs from the Open university. The OU has significance beyond our shores. Perhaps that is why we in the House care so much for it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to put that on record. As someone who is the product of leaders of much of that colonial world, who have great respect for the OU, I think that he is correct to put on the agenda its work of international significance, as well as its huge contribution nationally.

I have sought to explore all the issues raised in today’s debate and I am pleased that we have had this productive debate.

I look forward in the coming months to taking up those matters as the new Minister of State with responsibility for higher education.

Sitting suspended.

Youth Violence (London)

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting this important debate and for giving us the opportunity to discuss youth violence in London so soon after the House returned following the summer recess. I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities, and I am encouraged by the fact that, as he was a teacher in a former life, he is alert to our concerns.

On a wet day in July this summer, I was standing in my constituency with a large number of people, ready to pay tribute, by laying flowers and saying a few words, to young David Idowu. He had died a few days before, aged 14, in the Royal London hospital, despite the very best efforts of our health service to save his life. He was taken there three weeks earlier after being stabbed in the park near where we gathered, just next to where he lived. Having come home from school, he had gone out to join other youngsters to play football, as any 14-year-old in the summer might be expected to do. He had no history of violence and had been a model pupil; his family were a loving, Christian family, whom I knew. Suddenly, David was attacked and stabbed, and within three weeks he had lost his life.

This morning, the South London Press, not because it seeks to glamorise such things, has the headline, “He never stood a chance”, which is followed by the sub-headline, “20-year-old killed in gang hit”. The background to the debate is not, for me, party political: I do not seek to worsen the position, but to reflect on the fact that, clearly, as all colleagues know, we have had a terrible spate of horrible violent crimes in London affecting our young people. Not that other things have not happened elsewhere in the country—I woke up this morning to the sad news that a youngster had been killed in Merseyside in a similar way. I want to share reflections on the position, and to suggest, among all the extremely good work that is being done, that there are signs of hope, and how, together, we can ensure that it does not simply carry on, and that we are not fatalistic about it.

As well as being a lawyer, I was a youth leader in Southwark just off the Old Kent road before I came into politics. I learned the value of working with young people, and of doing things that turned them from becoming adult troublemakers to being good citizens. I can think of many people who were pretty rough characters in their teens, for whom there was a high risk that things might go wrong, who turned out to be absolutely model citizens in our community—I have known some such people for 25 or 30 years.

One of the helpful briefings that were sent to me ahead of this debate was from the Greater London authority. The GLA officers, on behalf of the Mayor of London and the London assembly members, make the point, which I want to make early in this debate, that although we have youth violence in Greater London, it is perpetrated by only a minuscule proportion of our young people and that, mercifully, only a small proportion of our young people are victims—the Mayor and the GLA put the figure at 1 per cent.

One key message that I hope we will get across today is that almost all our young people are good, upright, law-abiding, well behaved people who want to live full adult lives without criminality. We have to support and encourage them. The worrying thing, from the evidence, is that many more than 1 per cent. of them are worried and fearful that they are not safe. There is an increasing climate of fear about the lack of security for young people, which we need to address, because if youngsters do not feel safe, there is a risk that they will do what they think necessary to make them safe, which may involve taking weapons out with them. In the end, that may make them far less safe than before.

The figures are grim. The Howard League for Penal Reform has just produced a report that I commend to colleagues, entitled, “Why Carry a Weapon? A Study of Knife Crime Amongst 15-17 Year Old Males in London”, which begins with a stark couple of pages:

“During the course of researching and writing this book in 2007, there were 16 fatal stabbings of teenagers in London”.

The youngsters involved are then listed. The following page states:

“By August 2008, a further 20 teenagers were fatally stabbed”.

If ever one wanted a reminder of the importance of the issue when one is reading an academic or sociological report, one should begin with those names and figures.

The figures have gone up a little. I am concentrating on Greater London, but it is clear that in the past two years, there have been between 20 and 30 deaths of teenagers from stabbings in the area, and others have died through other violent crimes. Some 26 teenagers died violent deaths last year, and 27 have died violent deaths already this year.

I should like to pray in aid the work that is being done. Rather than repeat it all for the benefit of colleagues, I simply say that an enormous number of people have thought about and worked on the issue, and I want to pay tribute to them. A meeting in the Palace of the all-party parliamentary group on social science and policy was addressed by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Hitchcock of the Met. He said that politicians need to stop using the issue as a political argument and start working together—I say amen to that and commend the fact that there is very good working together at all levels of public authority and elsewhere. I shall suggest later how that can be extended.

We had a topical debate on 5 June in Parliament, thanks to the Leader of the House, and the Select Committee on Home Affairs held a one-day evidence-taking session in March. The Committee is about to begin an inquiry into knife crime, which I support. I hope and believe that it will hold one of its first sittings in a secondary school in my constituency, so that people can share their thoughts and reflections. The Home Office has consistently made commitments, including an announcement by the Home Secretary today, to which I am sure the Minister will refer, on additional funding, particularly to keep young people safe in and around school and when they come out of school. The evidence is that one of the most dangerous times of the day is the middle of the afternoon, just after school time; indeed, that was when David was killed, and when others have been attacked and killed.

The Mayor and the GLA have made it clear that they see the matter as a priority, and the Mayor is working on an announcement that is due in the next few weeks. We look forward to that, and I have no doubt about his commitment to doing all that he can. My local authority, like others, is working to prepare to collect the wisdom of all the other agencies involved and to take it on to ensure that the gaps are filled. It plans to hold a summit conference of all the agencies in Southwark within the next few weeks. Everybody is working hard, and there is no criticism that people are not seized of the issues.

I am not going to trouble colleagues with huge numbers of statistics that would distort the debate, but I would like to share a couple to put things in perspective. One of the relevant background facts is that we have only had statistics including knife crime for one year, so there is no easy point to be made by comparing this year with last year. The number of knife and sharp instrument offences, as recorded by the police, for violent crime offences in the Met and City of London police areas—Greater London—for the last year, is 7,428 in total, or 18 per cent. of all violent offences. That is the level of the issue. Nearly one in five violent offences involves weapons—either knives or sharp instruments. That is a warning sign if ever we needed one. There is a greater propensity now to carry a weapon—it could be a broken bottle, but it is often a knife.

I have listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, all of which I support. Does he accept that evidence emerging from local hospitals suggests that the number of knife attacks may be a great deal more significant than that which is currently recorded by the Metropolitan police?

The hon. Gentleman is right. I had only two more statistics to give, and one is on that very subject. The statistics on hospital admissions are highly relevant, up to date and topical, but before I deal with them, may I just give the other crime statistics? The hon. Gentleman’s point is very important, and he was right to raise it.

In my own borough, in which we have excellent police leadership from our borough commander, Malcolm Tillyer, and from Superintendent Victor Olisa—both of whom I regularly meet—the figures show that knife crime is down 10 per cent., gun crime is down 36 per cent. and youth violence is up 7 per cent. Therefore, despite all the efforts, the one area of continuing concern is the lowering of the age of youngsters who are involved in violence and using weapons of violence.

I turn now to the statistics that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) has mentioned. I have the London-wide statistics for admissions to hospitals for stab and gunshot wounds for 2006-07: there were 10 admissions of youngsters under the age of 16 with gunshot wounds; there were 38 admissions of 16 to 18-year-olds; and 160 admissions of over-18-year-olds. As a percentage for England—the figures are collected on an England basis— 10 per cent. of all those under 16 who were admitted were London youngsters; 38 per cent. of all those between 16 and 18 lived in Greater London, which is very high; and 17 per cent. of the over-18-year-olds lived in Greater London. In the last year for which figures for stab wounds are available, 72 of the under-16-year-olds who were admitted—or 40 per cent. of all those throughout England—were London youngsters.

In just two seconds. Some 33 per cent., or 252 youngsters aged between 16 and 18, were admitted with stab wounds, and 22 per cent., or 1,071, of over-18-year-olds were admitted. Like the hon. Member for Edmonton, I surmise that that is not the whole picture. Given my knowledge of the street—many others are pretty wise about what goes on in our communities—I know that people often do not go to hospital, because it is the last thing that they want to do.

I want to endorse that point. I recently met some general practitioners in my constituency who said that they believe that some of the young people whom they treat are victims of knife crime who give another excuse for why they have been injured. They believe that the problem is far greater than the statistics show.

The hon. Gentleman represents an east London constituency. We have heard hon. Members from the north and east of Greater London, as well as from the south, endorse that. I am sure that that is true—by definition it will be. The worry is that if someone goes public with their involvement, it will trigger a police investigation and then a victim will be really fearful. One of the issues is witness protection. Because I have been prompted, I will use the opportunity to say that although a defendant has been arrested in the David Idowu case, the community and the police are still short of all the witnesses whom they know exist. Obviously, there is a natural fear about giving evidence.

A lot of really good work has been done by organisations in London and beyond. Let me summarise that and, in addition to thanking the GLA for its submission, thank three other organisations which have given me some very good material. They are 11 MILLION, the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, which is based in my constituency at London bridge, Action for Children, which is based in Highbury and the Howard League for Penal Reform. Those organisations give us a very clear indication of what young people themselves think. We need to ensure that we listen to those young voices.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green and his team are carrying out some research at the moment, which involves 90 children and young people. They have obtained these quotes from youngsters about youth violence. An 11-year-old girl said:

“Gun and knife crime is really getting me worried, angry, nothing is safe any more. Even on the news every day there is a new murder story and it is making this world the worst place in the universe.”

A 14-year-old said:

“The media publish that we are all knife-wielding maniacs, and this is just not true. We are just people. The media always focus on the bad. This is a significant minority.”

An anonymous teenager said:

“My cousin has been stabbed by a gang and it was heart-wrenching to know that a group of youths did that. Not all youths are like that though.”

Lastly, a 15-year-old girl said:

“My mum won’t let me go on my bike to my friends house who lives 20 mins away because she is afraid of the violence.”

Youngsters realise that it is a minority who carry out such crimes. They know that, and they do not want to be misrepresented. However, they know that it is right to feel afraid.

I have two more comments from youngsters. One said:

“I think young people carry knives because they are scared for their own safety.”

The evidence shows that carrying knives is initially thought to be cool, and then it moves on to being about feeling safe. All the evidence is that a person is much more likely to be unsafe if they go out tooled up with weapons.

The last comment is from an 11-year-old girl:

“They do it because they may have family problems or feel insecure. But I think the main reason they do it is because they are scared of getting hurt so they hurt others so others can’t hurt them.”

The young people come to some very good conclusions, to which the Minister has access. They talk about raising self-esteem and aspirations among young people, and rehabilitating, training and educating young offenders effectively. They also talk about the need for good education programmes, such as knife awareness programmes and knife referral projects, and good peer mentoring, because young people are most likely to be influenced by those of a similar age. They want young people to be given more good things to do—a common plea that we all hear in every constituency and community in the country. They mention the importance of role models, particularly when there are no adult male role models at home. All the evidence indicates that someone else needs to substitute, if there is not a father or father figure at home. Early intervention schemes are also cited. I say to the Minister—and I do not mean to be confrontational—that all the evidence is that most young people believe that stiffer sentences do not deter knife crimes. I know that that is controversial, but that is what young people say.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a very thoughtful and balanced contribution to this very important subject. In drawing on some of his sources of information, is he aware that the Institute of Education has produced a very important piece of research, which also sets some of the issues that he is describing in a context of social inequality and polarisation. Tragically, there is a clear correlation between youth violence and highly polarised communities. The hon. Gentleman rightly lists a number of the complex causes of youth violence, but does he agree that there is this wider social context that we also need to address?

The hon. Lady is right about that. She is a really good London MP, and on London issues she is assiduously effective in raising what matters to our communities—particularly for people who are less well off and have harder lives, and for young people. I think it is important to say that.

In some of our communities the polarisation can be because of different ethnic backgrounds. In Southwark, for example, we have quite a lot of relatively recently arrived people from the horn of Africa. There is a danger that they find their security in a sort of tribal grouping, which means that they are antagonistic to other groups. The factors are not always ethnic; sometimes they are to do with postcode. I learned something the other day: the biggest rivalries in London prisons are postcode rivalries, about where people come from. That is the biggest cause of conflict in prison now—and it has traditionally applied between secondary schools, and so on.

I have two last points to make about the research, before my concluding remarks.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). I am trying to make sure that I give way to hon. Members.

This is an important subject, and the fact that 14 London MPs are present for the debate is testimony to that. My question is about international parallels. The hon. Gentleman has talked about evidence from various UK organisations. What does he think that we can learn from, for example, New York city, which is possibly the most similar city to London, in many ways? The crime rate there has been quartered in the past 15 years.

I have been to New York and talked to the New York city police, and others, who have done some extremely good work. They do that most effectively through very good community-based policing and community-based projects. The sorts of things that work very well in New York are dedicated police for the estates and districts, who know the area like the back of their hand—they have push bikes and can abseil up tower blocks and so on. Involving the local community also works, so that the concierges on the estates are often people who live there, such as those who have taken early retirement.

I wanted to weed out material from my remarks rather than adding to it, but another interesting comparison is in a United Nations comparative report on children’s issues around the world that was published at the beginning of the month. It made the point above all that we in Britain still demonise our children more than most countries. That is the impression that I get. In continental Europe, the attitude towards children and young people is entirely different, by and large. Children and young people are included more, and they are not separated into age groups. They have much better relationships, normally, with parents and grandparents, which is very important, and families live closer together. We have suffered a lot—this is a slight distraction—from social housing policy separating families over 30 years, so that the grandparents live nowhere near the grandchildren. That has been a huge disadvantage, because all the evidence is that elders can be hugely influential in making sure that children stay on course. Often they are better confidants than parents, and they can be more influential.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am really keen that as many hon. Members as possible, in addition to the Front-Bench spokesmen, get a chance to speak in the debate.

I want to select the most important of the “Action for Children” comments. Some 41 per cent. of the young people know someone who has been personally affected by the things we are discussing—it has really spread now. The issue affects nearly half the families with young people in our area; 30 per cent. have been personally affected in some way, such as, for example, by the threat, “We’ll get you later”; 36 per cent.—a third—are worried about gangs in their area; and only 28 per cent. now feel very safe in their community. That is very worrying.

We are talking in this context not just about inner-city streets, which are traditionally the rougher, tougher areas, but places such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). The views in Sutton, Barnet, Haringey, Hillingdon or anywhere else are no different. Youngsters believe that their image is directly related to knife and gun crime, which they see as symbolic. They believe that if knife and gun crime can be brought down, those perceptions will change.

The Howard League for Penal Reform makes things very clear in key statements in the foreword to its report, which has just come out and which I commend to all colleagues. It states:

“We believe that headway can only be made if we focus on empowering young people, restoring their self-esteem and providing them with alternative strategies for dealing with conflict.”

It adds:

“Punitive sentences are likely to be irrelevant at best and counter-productive at worst”.

The report cites education over enforcement as the better way to proceed and states that all the evidence is that collaboration among the local organisations is what succeeds. There is mention of mediation, anger management and all those things, which we know work.

Out of all the difficulty—I want to end with this positive point—something came out very strongly. When I was standing in the rain, after David’s death, the mum of another teenager who lived just down the road said “What can I do to help?” That made me think that there are many people who want to do more but do not feel empowered. I talked to her, and to local families and youth organisations, and a coalition of organisations has now come together in my borough, Lewisham and Lambeth to turn our tragedies into a positive outcome. This Thursday, at 6.30 pm in the Royal Festival hall, that coalition of people will come together to launch their campaign. The website already exists. They have chosen, by a collective decision, the title, “Enough! Make Youth Violence History”. That makes the point that we do not need to reinvent the wheel; rather, we need to support and strengthen existing organisations that are doing good work on the ground and bring all the people, such as the mum who asked how she could help, into existing organisations that are looking for more people.

I shall give two examples of such organisations. One in my borough is called XLP, and it has been doing excellent work with young people for 10 years. It has a bus that is taken out to some of the estates. With more volunteers, XLP could go out more often. The Oasis Trust, just over the bridge in Kennington, does excellent youth work and radio projects in the summer with young people. With more volunteers, there could be more evening and youth club work. On Thursday, there is to be an appeal by all those local organisations—the list is too long to set out, but it is available on the website. The message is “Come and join us: if you are a company, perhaps use your community action day to come and volunteer; or increase the amount of mentoring you give. If you are an individual without much time but who may, even in these difficult days, have a bit of cash, could you put it into our organisation so we can fund another youth worker? If you are a mum who does not think she has much time, but who wants to do something, why not come and see whether you can volunteer with a local youth organisation?” The idea is to build on what exists. I hope that it will appeal.

We have also set ourselves a target—I mention this to the Minister, so that he can whisper favourably in his colleagues’ ears—that some of the money from dormant bank and building society accounts that the Government are legislating to release for youth projects, and for which we are grateful, should be available not only for capital projects and new buildings, but for revenue projects to support additional work on the ground in Greater London. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury kindly said that we can go to see her in the near future to make sure that the case is understood and that money can be drawn down.

I shall end with my shopping list. We, as a community, need to do all that we can to support parents and families. We need to support schools, which are increasingly doing early school support in the morning, breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. We need to minimise school exclusions. All the evidence is that the excluded pupil is the most vulnerable and prospectively the most troublesome pupil. We need to deglamorise gangs. All the evidence is that in the end gang membership is not a satisfactory way to live one’s life and is much more dangerous than other ways of life. We need to develop after-school, evening and weekend youth services. Youth services are often great on a weekday but not much good on a Friday night, Saturday or Sunday, because they are not open. We need to develop mentoring, starting really early. Good mentoring can start at 10 with the transition from primary to secondary school. We need to support our youth services.

I make a plea—my hon. Friend knows that I am seeking to persuade colleagues to do something in our boroughs, and I think that the Mayor is being positive about it—for a detached youth worker in every Greater London ward, to complement the safer neighbourhood teams. They should be independent of the police and should be good youth workers out on the street. Those are sometimes more effective at getting intelligence and young people’s confidence. I commend that idea and would be grateful if the Minister would be good enough to look at it. We need to increase the protection of witnesses, so that they are confident to give evidence, and we need to support existing good organisations.

Lastly, we need to be optimistic that together we can say, in the words of the newly-formed group that is launching on Thursday, “Enough! We can make youth violence history.” This level of youth violence is inevitable, and I think that we can have a different city, as New York and other places have evidenced. I am keen that we collectively look for ways to do that.

This is a most important and well-attended debate. I intend the winding-up speeches to start at 12 o’clock, so if hon. Members show a little self-discipline, I will allow as many as I can to speak.

I will keep my remarks short, Mr. Olner. I thank the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) for securing the debate and emphasising that people across the community in London are rising up to try to find a means of solving this significant problem.

In my constituency, interesting and good work has been done by young people who want to have an input in that debate. I particularly want to mention Eliza Rebeiro, who is 15 years old and runs the lives not knives campaign, and also Michael Castle. Both emphasise the importance, as did the hon. Gentleman, of not demonising young people and of recognising that they have a contribution to make to the debate.

As an MP I have visited families in Croydon who have suffered the loss of children through knife crime. Unfortunately, Croydon has the justified reputation of having the highest number of knife killings in this country, and the destruction to those families is especially heart wrenching. The parents of Oliver Kingonzila have lost another son this year through a heart attack, and in many ways they will also suffer the sadness of seeing their other son deported after finishing a prison sentence, so they are being punished once again.

I am also mindful of the extremely good work being done by the co-ordination between Croydon council and the Metropolitan Police Service in coming up with many solutions to tackle the issue. It is often forgotten that the Government put in place good architecture to encourage working between different parts of the public sector, and that has very much come to fruition in the work that has taken place in Croydon.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a wider range of community groups also have an important role to play in tackling the tragedy of knife crime? I would like to highlight an initiative in Barnet in which the police, the council and a number of church groups have been working together on a project called the week of peace, which has a range of ways to try to promote youth self-esteem and mentoring and to tackle some of the underlying causes of knife crime.

That kind of joint approach is a good one. I am keen to give other Members the chance to speak, so there is not enough time to detail the work on those initiatives being led by our borough commander, Mark Gore, and a leading councillor, Steve O’Connell, but some of them include working with education and welfare officers to identify those youngsters who might be at risk of being involved in a conflict and taking them from the streets before they get involved in trouble. They try to bring together all of the different members and stakeholders in the public sector in what is called a turn-around centre so as to identify how they can work to deal with the issues. Croydon also has a licensing committee in situ that is able to meet at 24 hours’ notice and remove a licence from a premise that has obviously been a source of trouble, as was done in the case of the murder of the young Oliver Kingonzila.

I would like to conclude by making a more controversial statement. I have seen incidents in my town in which there has clearly been no respect for the police service. We had an incident in front of 300 shoppers last Saturday afternoon during which there was a pitched battle of extreme violence between youngsters. It did not lead to a killing, but nevertheless we see a situation in which no respect is given. I believe that the very good work being done by the police, local authorities and others in the public sector will eventually lead to a success, but in the immediate short term, a more radical solution is needed. I know that in saying this I will raise the spectre of Croydon’s reputation being further damaged, but people are already being killed on the streets of Croydon. We have an Army with the highest reputation in the world for civil policing. For a short period, and as a pilot programme, I believe that our Army would be better used on the streets of Croydon, rather than being left at Basra airport. That would send the message that we will no longer tolerate the killings.

I have already written to the Minister of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), about that proposal, and I am extremely grateful to him for coming to Croydon to listen to the views of young people there. It was really impressive that a Minister came to listen and not to speak. He is truly a listening politician. I know that he has not been able to reply to the letter that I wrote to him on that controversial idea, but when people are being killed on the streets of Croydon, we have to do something immediately to try to stop it.

I will keep my remarks as brief as possible, as you have suggested, Mr. Olner, as a few other colleagues would like to speak.

This is an important debate. I will start by saying that Upminster is part of the London borough of Havering, which as an outer London borough does not suffer the same level of youth violence as some inner London boroughs. Nevertheless, we have had a mercifully small number of tragic incidents. Each and every incident in which a child dies is a tragedy for the families concerned. If there has been no successful prosecution, those families find it almost impossible to grieve properly and move on because they are unable to feel the sense of closure or of justice being done that would enable them to at least cope with—they can never get over it—the loss of a child.

There are two aspects to the debate. One relates to the reasons young people get involved in gangs and violent behaviour, and the other, which flows from the first, is what action can be taken. The reasons why young people get involved in gangs are wide-ranging, and those involved often come from homes in which there is no order or support from parents. Children often turn to gangs for a sense of belonging, and the gang leader is often a charismatic young person who might have suffered violence or a lack of order in their own lives. They gain self-respect and self-confidence by intimidating, bullying and manipulating other people, sometimes weaker, young people, who will feel safer within a gang, in the knowledge that they are less likely to become a victim themselves.

Friends of mine who are criminal barristers have said that some young people will attend court having got into trouble without really understanding where they are, or why they are there, and that sometimes their parents do not bother to turn up. I ask hon. Members to imagine a young person who has committed an offence and ended up in court, but who does not have the support of family members. That is the case with a small proportion of them.

I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that tragically many young people involved in criminal and antisocial behaviour often come from families where the parents might have been drug or alcohol abusers or have severe mental health problems or other similar conditions. In addition to working through the youth services and with young people, we need to look at the capacity to provide family therapy and support to help break that cycle of difficulty, which can cascade down through generations.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. A safe, secure and supportive family background is the foundation that children need to lead productive lives and to take every opportunity, educational and social, put in front of them. Without that, they face enormous difficulties.

For the small number who receive a custodial sentence, it is essential that while in custody they receive an education and training and develop an understanding of right and wrong, which they might not have had before they went in, so that they come out better people and with an understanding of what went wrong in their lives. That way they will be better placed to have a positive and constructive future.

Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a dire need for more research? The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned the role of postcode, geographical frictions in our society, and we heard last week at the all-party group on social enterprises about the role and amorphous nature of many gangs. Surely society needs to understand better the motivations of the young people who get involved in violence.

That would also help schools, which are doing a lot of good work through their pastoral care and the clubs that they run for the social side of young people’s lives. However, schools cannot be expected to fill a void in young people’s families. The demands on schools are growing every day, but there is limited time in the school day. They are doing their very best—they do everything possible—but full responsibility cannot be put on them to control, for example, knives and drugs entering their premises. There is no magic wand. A combined effort is needed: schools, families, the police and community groups need to join together. There is no magic, two-minute solution.

Children need to know that if they do something knowingly wrong, there must be a penalty and that they must take personal responsibility for their actions. The youth facilities in my borough are extremely good and wide ranging, but I am constantly being written to by young people telling me that there is nothing to do; they are quite surprised when I write back with a big list of all the things to do. However, it is not the responsibility of councils, schools or anyone else, to entertain children. Parents have the primary responsibility for knowing what their children are doing and finding things to occupy and interest them.

Detached youth workers have been mentioned in respect of the unclubbables— young people who do not want to belong to anything—but that is a very long-term procedure. I have spoken to detached youth workers who will identify groups of young people out in public places at night and getting themselves into trouble. It takes a very long time to approach them and to even get them to talk. Getting them to change their attitudes and to understand that there are other, more positive, ways in which they can spend their time is a long-term procedure. It is very valuable, but will not bring an immediate solution. Clubs and organisations for young people have something to contribute: the armed forces cadets, scouts, guides, boys’ brigades, St. John Ambulance and church clubs all have something to offer young people. If only we could get them there to see what is on offer, they would find that actually they could enjoy it and acquire new skills and a sense of self-confidence and self-respect, which are the essential precursors to having respect for other people and to moving forward in their lives.

Finally, I shall mention something that might surprise hon. Members, because it is not something that we instantly associate with youth violence. I would like to see promoted the benefits of dance, socially and in schools. The health, social and artistic benefits of dance could bring in disaffected young people who perhaps do not want to do sport—the physical benefits of dance are just as great. Particularly with the music that goes with it, it might be attractive to those young people. We should find ways of promoting dance among them and diverting all that negative energy into something positive that could change their direction and bring out their talents. It would be an investment in the future, because our young people are the next generation of professionals in this country, and we need to bring out the best in them. We must work together to put back on to the right track those going astray and in the wrong direction.

Thank you, Mr. Olner, for allowing me to make a brief contribution to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on obtaining this debate; his contribution on his own inner-London borough was very thoughtful. It is a tribute to the importance of this debate that so many hon. Members have turned out today. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and from the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling). This is a major issue about which we all feel very strongly.

To be brutally honest, I fear that we will not necessarily be able to find an enormous number of solutions out of hon. Member’s speeches, and I confess that much of what I shall say will be to put on the record some of the concerns in the city of Westminster. In the past six months there have been some 303 recorded youth violence incidents in Westminster—a 6 per cent. drop from the previous year. We can all be pleased with that reduction, although I take on board a number of the concerns about the reliability of certain statistics, particularly in relation to the more serious aspects, such as knife crime.

The very great majority of youngsters in London constitute a positive and valued part of London’s population, but find themselves tarred with a particular brush and considered a problem in their youth—that probably happened in all our youths, but it seems to be an even more prevalent media story today. I am not complaining about the media, and one fully understands that some of these terrible crimes need to be covered, but the fact remains that the great majority of London’s youngsters are extremely hardworking and thoughtful. We have all visited schools. It never ceases to surprise us how well genned up are many of our youngsters on matters political and how in many other ways they are able to make a great contribution.

It must be extremely difficult to be brought up in the very busy parts of London, particularly of inner London, where there are relatively few things for teenagers to do.

To reinforce that point, one of the most exciting things that I have done in the past few weeks was to visit the City of London academy in Bermondsey where, last Friday, it held a school election for its head girl and boy. The turnout at all the assemblies was huge. There were six candidates—three girls and three boys—which was a sign of real, mature interest, excitement, enjoyment and fun. This morning, I had the privilege of being able to ring up the winners and say, “Good luck, guys; I hope you live up to your promises.” The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is much good energy and talent, and that we need to pick up on those examples, rather than look elsewhere.

I could mischievously suggest that the hon. Gentleman should also speak to those who came third. That would be a very typical thing for a Liberal Democrat to do.

I guess I stepped into that one.

As is the case with a lot of crime, the perception and fear of crime are often at the heart of the problem. The significant coverage given to all the recent knife and gun crime fatalities has meant that young people naturally feel scared. I have heard of pupils from Westminster City school articulating their concerns about feeling intimidated by gangs of youths in the street and on buses. It is important that young people believe that youth crime is taken seriously, that reported incidents are dealt with swiftly and effectively and that there is a police presence on our streets and transport systems to make people feel safer.

There is a problem with perception in some schools, which, I suspect, goes across the board. Schools that are seen to be addressing and debating issues of youth violence, including those in which police officers have been stationed, often report parental concern, particularly at the time of application, about the very fact that there is a police officer linked to the school or that there is a high-profile debate about youth violence. Other parental concerns include schools’ work with community organisations such as the excellent Uncut, which works in my area. Those concerns put parents off and are perceived to demonstrate that those schools are in trouble. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to urge all schools, in London and elsewhere, to recognise that this issue is a fact of life that we have to debate and address? Does he agree that if a school does so, it is not a sign that it is a sink school?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She has made her point extremely well, and I do not need to add to it.

Concern about youth crime extends to older constituents, because youth violence spills out into busy public areas. Many hon. Members will know that one of the most high-profile knife killings occurred in my constituency on 13 May last year, when a 22-year-old man had his throat slit in a McDonald’s on Oxford street. That happened in front of horrified shoppers, while rival groups hurled drinks and fought on the pavement outside. That sort of youth crime is not somehow ring-fenced; it affects the population at large.

I recently met one of Britain’s top trauma surgeons, who operates at the Royal London hospital. He confirmed that there are significant problems with the collection of evidence and reporting of knife violence to the police, and recommends a more joined-up approach between all the authorities concerned, including the police, the Home Office, hospitals, the Mayor of London and local authorities. I am pleased that the Mayor intends to emphasise the need for joined-up thinking in the strategic framework for London that he will launch next month. Similarly, Westminster city council is keen to develop information-sharing protocols and codes of practice with neighbouring authorities in order to work together on addressing the serious youth crime and violence that transcends boundaries. As the hon. Lady has rightly pointed out, in many of our schools in Westminster, the majority of children and parents are from outside the borough, which makes such joined-up thinking all the more important.

We have discussed the complex factors that interact to increase the probability of a young person turning to violence. They include a lack of discipline and of role models, fractured families, personality type, lack of support and the influence of peers and siblings. I am afraid that the glamorisation of gang violence is another factor, which will be very difficult for us to counter fully.

My final point is about the initiatives that are taking place in Westminster city council. Today is probably an appropriate day on which to mention this, because the leader of the council has just come out with a detailed plan to address what he regards to be the 3 per cent. of problem families who produce 97 per cent. of the work load in a whole range of Government Departments. One initiative in particular is worth serious consideration. Offenders who are sentenced to do community service are often required to do hundreds of hours of unpaid work, and the council would like to incorporate that work locally as part of suitable youth diversionary projects. That would also help to introduce a sense of responsibility and purpose, and would, I hope, do its bit to reduce reoffending.

I, too, start by congratulating the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) not only on having the good sense to secure this important debate, but on regularly speaking up in Parliament about London-wide issues.

I think that I am, unfortunately, the Member with the largest number of knife murders this year in my constituency. As those events unfolded, my constituents and I were not prepared for what was about to happen, and we did not fully understand the gravity of the issues that we would have to face.

[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]

Today, I shall draw out three issues that are critical if we are to deal effectively with the wave of knife and gun crime in the capital. I hope that the Minister will address them all in his response. The first issue, which I have touched on in questions that I have asked previously, is the lack of adequate research into some of these issues. I have two examples to demonstrate that, one of which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. He discussed the territorial aspect of much of the friction that occurs in relation to prisons, but there is much evidence emerging in my constituency that people who live in the N18 area will not cross into the N9 area. I am sure that there are similar problems in other constituencies. We do not fully understand that problem, and more research is required to do so.

My second point relates to gang culture. There was an interesting seminar last week, which many hon. Members present attended, at which detailed research was discussed. Most of that research is going on in other parts of the country, but the area most affected by this problem is Greater London. We need much more research into gang culture. I suggest to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) that understanding why and how horrific incidents take place, including the reasons for them, would take us a long way forward in producing policies in response to such incidents.

Several hon. Members have mentioned schools. They play a critical role, but not in the conventional sense. It is the wrong approach to talk about introducing wands and other mechanisms to find out which pupils are carrying weapons. We need to monitor what is happening in schools, because much of the evidence that has emerged in recent years suggests that exclusion is the first alarm bell regarding possible antisocial problems. It is obvious that schools have a role to play in that regard. They know when there are difficulties at home and where there are fractured families. They know, from the exclusions themselves, that antisocial behaviour is beginning to occur. When kids are permanently excluded, they are well on their way to some of the difficulties that we are experiencing across London. Schools play a critical role, but that role should be about information, education and trying to bring kids back in, rather than excluding them. Schools should involve other agencies when they are experiencing difficulties, and they should be able to include all pupils in their activities.

The third area that I want to discuss is our short-term approach, because there is a need to reassure the community that we are dealing with gun and knife crime effectively. We have Operation Blunt to disrupt the activities of gangs and youths who are involved in antisocial behaviour and violent crime, and we need to look at the criminal justice system. I ask hon. Members to look carefully at how the youth justice system is responding to this wave of violence. There has been a greater recognition that cautioning is not good enough, but I think we should go further.

The latest case in my constituency was a murder at the beginning of the year. The young person who was found guilty of that crime was given only a five-year sentence. I will not comment directly on that case as I am sure that specific factors led the court and jury to that decision. However, I point to the signal that it sends out about how seriously we are dealing with the problems. There is a role for the whole criminal justice system in taking care to ensure that we send out the right signals about how seriously we treat these issues.

I hope that the Minister will respond to those points. Once again, I congratulate everybody on contributing to this debate on what is a very important issue.

Like others, I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this debate. He has led from the front on issues of violence in his constituency. Indeed, his life was put at risk by the actions that he took in trying to bring a case to justice, and I commend him for that. I also congratulate the Minister on his first attendance at such a debate. He has missed the four or five that have been held in the last six months on this issue. No doubt he will be in post for the four or five that I anticipate will regrettably be held in the next six months.

Like my hon. Friend, I will start by setting out some ground rules that should apply to this debate and to debates of this nature. First, we must not typecast youngsters. I am pleased that nobody here has done so. Some hon. Members have deployed statistics to confirm that only a very small minority of young people are violent. The figures I have heard are that 3 per cent. of young people are members of gangs and a third of gang members do not offend. We are therefore talking about only a small number of young people. Only 3 per cent. have carried a knife, which means that 97 per cent. have not.

We must accept that there are no simple solutions. There have been calls for mandatory prison sentences, huge increases in school exclusions and short prison sentences for youngsters when the evidence shows that that is unhelpful and does not lead to a reduction in reoffending. Hon. Members have outlined a number of possible solutions today. We must accept that the solutions will be complex and will involve many different aspects of work for many different Departments and organisations, such as the police.

We must accept that there is a sound basis for the crime statistics that we use so that we do not argue about those instead of about what the solutions should be.

The hon. Gentleman has made the point that the solutions may be complex, but they must also be relevant. Particular attention must be given to the times when the mass of problems occur. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned after-school responses by youth workers. Also relevant is what is offered by the youth services. In my constituency, Working Together for Wimbledon has youth workers working after school and offers young people the chance to do sessions in rap and music rather than the more traditional activities. That is an important part of the response.

I agree entirely. The solutions must be appropriate and timely. An example that I have often heard and that I am sure the hon. Gentleman has heard is the timing at which safer neighbourhood teams are out and about patrolling. We need them not at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning when nothing is happening, but at 9 o’clock on Friday and Saturday nights when things are beginning to hot up, so to speak.

We are all in broad agreement that the problem we are trying to tackle is the growth in youth violence and in the number of young people who are dying as a result of knife crime. We all recognise that area of growth. Unfortunately, we are on track for a record number of young people dying by stabbing in London this year.

People are trying to tackle this problem in different ways. My hon. Friend has described what is being done by “Enough!” and I wish it good luck and success. There have been a series of marches because communities have felt that they need to do something. A march is a visible way of raising concerns. We have heard protest songs. Perhaps other hon. Members have been e-mailed by Kinzli Coffman, who sent me her protest song. That was the only way that she could think of to respond to this issue as an artist. Choice FM has been running a successful campaign to reduce violence and has been trying to find diversionary activities for young people to take part in.

I will try to give the elements that must be in a comprehensive solution. Clearly I cannot give an exhaustive list and I may repeat what other hon. Members have said. The starting point must be to boost the public’s confidence and reduce their fear of crime. We must also increase their confidence in the system’s ability to respond to the issues that they raise. On reducing the fear of crime, we had an interesting sitting of the Home Affairs Committee last week where the regional editor of the Newsquest Media group confirmed that his group has agreed no longer to carry adverts for massage parlours because doing so feeds the trafficking of women. In effect, it is pimping for pimps. Perhaps regional editors should look also at their role in the reporting of crime. That is not just about the impact that that has on the fear of crime, but whether it potentially leads to more young people carrying weapons because of what they read in the press. We need a greater level of responsible reporting.

To boost people’s confidence in the system, the police must look at how they are equipped to respond. Over the summer, Ian Johnston made some interesting comments about the public’s perception of the police, particularly in relation to very simple things such as whether the police answer the phone when somebody calls. The police must look at how they should respond.

On the possible solutions, I am grateful to Juanjo Medina from the school of law at the university of Manchester. I was at last week’s session where he set out his suggestions. I also thank 11 MILLION, as did my hon. Friend, and Jennifer Blake of the Eternal Life Support Centre, whom I met on Sunday when I heard some of her ideas. The first point must be about research. All hon. Members have said that we do not have a detailed body of research that assesses what works and what does not. Apparently, we do not have longitudinal studies looking at young people from an early age up to their teenage years to see what is effective. My first question to the Minister is whether he will make a commitment on behalf of the Home Department to commission that research or pull it together so that there is a body of detailed research that we can look at.

There must also be research into what is happening in accident and emergency units. The police, the health service and the Home Department must work together to ensure that there are detailed statistics. I understand that there has been a significant increase in the number of people going into A and E as a result of violent incidents, but that our health service is fortunately getting much better at saving them. Those incidents do not therefore feed through into death statistics. However, there is an increase in such instances.

We must then look at policy. The Government are doing good work in tackling issues such as child poverty and social exclusion, which clearly feed this problem. We must look at the level of support that is available. The support must target the most prolific gang members, but it must also help their families, perhaps in a discreet way rather than in a head-on way.

We must look at the support that is provided to schools. I will be interested to hear what the Minister, who was a teacher in his previous guise, has to say about this issue. As has been said, exclusion is the single greatest trigger of future problems. The Minister could usefully comment on what can be done to assist schools in that respect and in tackling the issue of knife crime without scaring off parents. Other support includes trauma counselling for those who have witnessed violence, who are often very young people.

Then, clearly, we need to move on to the policing aspect. Stop and search has a role, as long as it is targeted and as long as police recognise that, for example, some gang members are on the periphery of the gang and are not involved in criminal activity; in their case, therefore, the approach needs to be as subtle as possible.

I will bring my remarks to a conclusion by referring to the issue of diversionary activities. We hope that those activities will be funded by dormant bank accounts, once that money is tapped. In the all-party group on child and youth crime, we heard that in Moss Side, rather than in London, young people have to be taxied from that area out to youth activities, because, astonishingly, there was nothing for them to do there. I hope that that is not also the case in London, but it may be, and if it is the case, clearly we need to see investment in youth provision—not necessarily youth centres, but youth activities—in the areas that need it most.

I hope that the Minister, for his maiden experience of these sessions, has heard a reasonably cross-sectional and apolitical contribution from all Members, apart from the little diversion there about school exclusions, and also some very sound suggestions that I hope he will take on board.

I would also like to congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this debate and on the very mature and well-grounded comments that he made. I know the passion that he has about this issue, which I share. We both took part in the people’s march against knife crime on 20 September and I know that he was as affected as I was by the contributions made by family members, friends and other people in the community who had been touched by knife crime against people whom they knew. It would have been very difficult not to have been moved by the outpouring of emotion that came from that event and, in part, that emotion has been reflected in other contributions that we have heard from Members today.

It certainly puts this debate in context that there has been another murder overnight, admittedly not in London but in Liverpool, and I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of everyone in the House will go to the friends and family of everyone who has been touched by these appalling incidents.

I would also like to congratulate the Minister on his appointment and welcome him to today’s debate. I hope that he will bring some new focus and attention to this most serious of issues.

This has been a well-informed and interesting debate and I have agreed with a large number of the points that have been made by Members during it. I would just like to pick up on the last point that was made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about the situation in Moss Side. Sadly, the taxiing of some young people to youth facilities from that area was not necessarily simply because those youth facilities were not on the doorstep; it was the fact that those facilities were in a different gang member’s area and therefore it was not safe for members from a rival gang area to go there. That highlights the terrible tragedies and issues that, sadly, so many young people have to face in their everyday life, not just across London but across the whole country.

I would also caution the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) about the idea of very firm approaches to this problem, including his suggestion that the Army be used. That would be absolutely the wrong way to address this issue, which can be dealt with by firm policing, prosecutions and prevention strategies, building through communities. To use the Army would send out entirely the wrong message.

One of the phrases that has emerged in all the discussions in south London has been that we want a “volunteers army”, rather than the military. We need more people to become involved, to provide that extra capacity and to be the type of role models that the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and other hon. Members referred to earlier.

That emphasis on community is extremely important in this debate and we should recognise the very positive contribution that young people play in their communities and the essential role that they perform. Last night I was at a school prize-giving at the Chafford school in Rainham, which has a very good peer mentoring process. It is championing and leading the way on this issue, showing that we need to focus on community activities to make a difference.

Understandably, many hon. Members have highlighted the shocking number of teenagers who have been killed on London’s streets; 27 teenagers were murdered in London in 2007 and that number has already been reached for 2008. These tragic events feed into the appalling situation of violent crime where knives are used. Last year, 258 people across England and Wales lost their lives in incidents where a knife or other pointed weapon was used. That figure was up by nearly a fifth on the figure for the previous year and up by more than a quarter on the figure 10 years ago.

One of the most disturbing trends is that both the victims of these crimes and those suspected of carrying out the offences are getting younger and younger. What is unacceptable to me is the impact that these serious offences have on the quality of life of youngsters growing up in our city. A recent report by NCH, the children’s charity, highlights the shocking situation of young people growing up with the real fear of becoming a victim of crime, particularly violent crime. Even more recently, there were the comments by the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales, who said that children and young people in England felt increasingly unsafe in their local area, with one in four concerned about violence, crime and weapons.

Part of the challenge is to ensure that we obtain better data about the nature and extent of violence against our young people, and young people need to know that that information matters. That is why it is essential that crimes against under-16s are recognised within the British crime survey. It has not been helpful that the Government have been so slow to act on that issue, because the failure to include that information gives the impression that, in some way, because those crimes are not measured they do not count. That is why the issue of reporting is so relevant.

As we have heard, recent analysis of accident and emergency units has shown that knife-related injuries may well be very heavily understated. Certainly that was the indication from one east London hospital where some research was carried out. That is why I endorse the Mayor of London’s support for the greater use of depersonalised A and E data across London, alongside police data, to provide a more comprehensive crime picture regarding prevalence, geography and trends.

The hon. Gentleman is being rather partisan; I thought that this was meant to be a non-partisan discussion, but he has been critical of what I had to say earlier. I urge him to reconsider that criticism because, after all, within France and Italy the use of the military within policing is an established process. The situation here is so serious that my constituents are, as he has described it, so afeared of being killed, and indeed are being killed on the streets of Croydon, that we need to think of an urgent means of intervention to deal with this matter. The proposals that he puts forwards about long-term solutions will work, but we need immediate action now.

Immediate action can come through a very strong and firm policing presence. That is the way to do it: to get more police out on our streets, to equip them with the tools that they need to address this issue, and to empower sergeants at the heart of community neighbourhood teams with the ability to invoke stop-and-search powers for a limited period if they know or have received intelligence that a serious crime of violence is about to be committed in their area. That approach is a far stronger, far better and far more community-oriented way to deal with these types of crimes, based on information that is provided to those police sergeants who are very much at the heart of the community. This type of policing is an issue that I have raised before and I urge the Minister, in his new role, to consider taking it up, because it could make a significant difference in breaking this appalling situation that we see in far too many of our communities at the moment.

I come now to the Government’s announcement today about additional funding for safer schools partnerships and for ensuring additional funding for routes home from school and for other safeguarding measures. I welcome the focus on those areas, but we need to understand that this issue is not simply about specific people at specific times in specific areas. It is a much broader issue than that, and I urge the Minister to consider a much more wide-ranging set of initiatives to address it. That is why we need to strengthen families, to provide younger people with a much more stable environment to grow up in; that is why we need to encourage young people away from crime, by helping them off welfare and into work; that is why we would introduce the national citizens service for all 16-year-olds who want a place to help them to develop as individuals and allow them to make their own contribution to society; and that is why we would put much greater emphasis on getting people off drugs, rather than maintaining them in addiction.

I welcome much of the work that is being done in our communities. Kids Count is an innovative organisation that seeks to give voice to young people, ensure that they are very much at the heart of the debate, and explain how they can have a positive say. In addition, the Mayor’s office has taken firm steps through educational programmes to tackle violence.

I welcome this debate. It is good that we have had an opportunity to discuss the issues, but we need a commitment to short-term, medium-term and long-term action. We have the power and a duty to act. Young people are our future. We must ensure that they can look forward to that future with confidence and hope, and without the fear of falling victim to the scourge of violent crime.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) for securing this important debate and for the reasonable way in which he introduced it and set the tone for what has been a constructive discussion. I thank him and all Members who contributed to it. I shall make a few general comments before trying to respond to all the points that have been made by hon. Members.

I want a strong message to go out today so that anyone listening to this debate will realise that there are, understandably, many views on how best we can tackle youth violence, not just in London but across the country, and that although we do not all share a particular view, we are united in our commitment to making that a priority. We are also united in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the young people—there have been too many of them—who have lost their life in recent times.

It is absolutely clear that youth violence is a challenging area for communities—not only where it happens but where there is fear of it happening—and for the Government. It is not helped by some media coverage of horrific cases, which sometimes gives the wrong impression that all young children are out of control and that no one is safe on the streets of our capital. Behind each of the stories is a personal tragedy, but, mercifully, such instances are rare. However, because there is tragedy and an issue to resolve, we are determined to take robust action against the minority of young people who commit violent crime.

I shall not give too many statistics, apart from saying that three quarters of young people do not get involved in crime or offend, and 5 per cent. of the worst offenders are responsible for about half the youth crime that takes place in their area. As many hon. Members have said, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of young people do well and are a credit to themselves and to their families.

I want to say something about the background to the issue, which has shaped our approach and will go on shaping it. We set out earlier this year a broad and comprehensive approach to tackling youth crime in the youth crime action plan, which seeks to reduce all types of criminal activity by young people. It is fair to say that many of the commitments made in the plan and the interventions that are proposed will go some way to tackling violent crime among young people. We are backing the plan with £100 million of funding over the comprehensive spending review period to help prevent young people from getting involved in crime.

There are three pillars to the youth crime action plan. The first is tough enforcement in response to unacceptable or illegal behaviour. The second is non-negotiable support to address the underlying causes of poor behaviour, including the use of parenting orders, and the third is early intervention to tackle problems before they become serious or entrenched. The reality is that we cannot have one unless all the others are in place. That has been picked up by hon. Members throughout the debate. It must be clearly pointed out to young people who are in danger of committing a crime or carrying out antisocial behaviour that they face swift enforcement and a response to stop bad behaviour in its tracks.

Hon. Members have also pointed out that we must look at longer lasting solutions to the problem. We must change behaviour—it is hoped that that will not require too long a period—but also have an effect in the longer term.

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about understanding why young people may feel that it is somehow in their interest to carry a knife. He made a plea for involving young people in the process of finding out why they feel that way, and I want to reassure him that that is precisely what we are doing. If he sees a campaign in the media about knife crime and looks at how the message is being put out, he will realise that the campaign not only targets young people but that often it has actually been drawn up by young people themselves.

We need to concentrate on practical steps that will make a real difference. Several hon. Members referred to the Home Secretary’s announcement about security on the way to and from school. That was a response today to the tragic events in Liverpool, but I assure hon. Members that the plan has existed for some time and that we intend to roll it out.

We also want to look at diversionary activities for young people. My constituents are like those of the hon. Gentleman: their first response to a question about young people is often not about the danger that young people pose but about the lack of activities for them in the area. The Government are looking at the issue, particularly what is available on Friday and Saturday nights. It is not rocket science that we need to ensure that resources in an area are targeted not only at where they will be most useful but at when they will be most useful.

Several hon. Members referred to statistics, and I want to reassure them that that work is being done across the Government. In particular, my Department is working with colleagues in the Department of Health to collect data, but we have to make sure that when they are brought forward, they are in a proper, manageable form that allows us to make proper comparisons. A danger if we do not do that is that people may get the wrong impression when the media report the figures.

The hon. Gentleman said that young people are reluctant to come forward. I understand that and do not underestimate the difficulties in encouraging them to do so. This is about building trust and a sense of safety and well-being in the area, and that is not easy, but we want to ensure that victims are at the centre of what we do and that they feel that the system works for them.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about tougher sentences not deterring criminality. I agree very much with the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) in this regard. I want to send out a clear message that this is not an either/or situation. We must ensure that there are measures in place to divert young people and that they have positive role models. We must use education and so on, but we must also do things in the short term. That means sending out a message to young people who carry weapons that they will be detected, that action will be taken against them, that they can expect to find themselves in court for serious incidents, and that, in some cases, they can expect a custodial sentence. Deterrence is important.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey was tempted to make international comparisons. I was pleased that he mentioned local neighbourhood policing, which is at the centre of what we are doing. We want to embed it through the policing Green Paper, but we are also doing some work on gangs. The overarching theme in many of the issues that we discuss, whether knife violence or gun crime, is the growing preponderance of gangs in our areas.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the event on Thursday, “Enough! We can make youth violence history.” I wish the group well. Unfortunately, I cannot be there because I am due in Liverpool on Friday. Tragic events there have given us a new focus.

The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) made an important point about not demonising young people. He also discussed best practice. What we are trying to do in 69 areas—12 of them in London—is to concentrate resources but also to learn best practice. I agree with what he said about the need for a solution, if not with his solution.

The hon. Member for Upminster made important points about the lack of family support and role models. I thought that she was answered very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who made a point about alcohol and drug use—

PC Gordon Warren

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate, which is the third parliamentary debate on this subject in the past 14 years.

This must be, without a doubt, the Metropolitan Police Service’s longest-running unresolved dispute. The beginning of this tragedy dates back to a period in policing when Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt, the tough nut in “Life on Mars”, would have felt in his element. It started in April 1982, with a booze and blue movies all-night party, about which I will give a little bit more detail later. This story has blighted Mr. Warren’s life and has hung like the proverbial albatross around the necks of a succession of Metropolitan Police Commissioners—Sir Kenneth Newman, Sir Peter Imbert, Sir Paul Condon, Sir John Stevens and Sir Ian Blair. With a story that has spanned 26 years, there will be long, static periods where nothing happens. But much has changed since the last debate eight years ago, which is why a debate now is appropriate.

The medical officer, who was central to this story, is now deceased. Sir Ian Blair, who was also central to it, is gone—I must say that neither Mr. Warren nor I particularly lament his departure. I speak only from my personal experience of Sir Ian Blair’s involvement in this case. I can tell the Minister that what I thought was a confidential conversation that I had with Sir Ian was then relayed in writing to Mr. Warren in a way that was completely inappropriate and unacceptable. Another change is that the new Mayor clearly intends to take a hands-on attitude towards the Metropolitan police. The final thing that has changed is that Mr. Warren has prostate cancer. I mention this with Mr. Warren’s agreement, not to engender sympathy, although it may do that, but to highlight the urgent need for closure on this matter.

The House is no stranger to the case of Police Constable Gordon Warren. I debated the case in this Chamber on 12 January 2000. It was also raised by my predecessor, Nigel Forman, who said in his speech that it was his longest-running constituency case. Unfortunately, it was my longest-running case in 2000, and it has dragged on for a further eight years.

Ministers are no strangers to the case, either. I met two Home Office Ministers when they were in office—the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). The Metropolitan police is, of course, familiar with the case. I have met Sir Paul Condon, Sir John Stevens and Michael Bennett and Glen Smyth of the Police Federation. We now have a new Minister who is familiar with this case.

In the previous debate this morning, I mentioned how the Minister would have to face four, five or however many debates on knife crime in future years. He may, indeed, be faced with a number of debates about the case of Mr. Warren, unless it is satisfactorily resolved shortly.

I want to set out, again, the key events of this sad saga, so that the Minister is fully briefed. He has clearly been briefed by his officials, but there are always two sides to a briefing, and the Minister needs to hear the other side as well. The case started in April 1982, when Mr. Warren, then a serving police officer, was asked by his senior officer, an inspector, to attend a party at Sutton police station while on duty. Quite rightly, Mr. Warren refused, but that event triggered the whole sorry saga. That inspector actively tried to secure Mr. Warren’s dismissal.

Another key event took place in January 1985, when a medical certificate was issued by the doctor, who I mentioned earlier—the medical officer who is now deceased—saying that Mr. Warren was medically unfit. That assessment was overturned by a number of consultants who confirmed that that was not so. But a year later, another medical certificate was issued by the same doctor.

In 1988, Mr. Warren won damages for wrongful dismissal and further damages in the Court of Appeal in 1989. In February, 1994, an ex gratia interim payment—I stress that it was supposed to be an interim payment—of £85,000 was offered by the Met. In April 1994, as I have mentioned, my predecessor as Member of Parliament, Nigel Forman, secured an Adjournment debate in the House on this subject.

In 1995, Sir Paul Condon finally—13 years after the blue movies party that Mr. Warren rightly refused to attend—wrote to Mr. Warren issuing an apology, in which he stated that there were absolutely no grounds for Mr. Warren’s dismissal and no question of mental instability or paranoia.

The story moves on. In April 2000, and then in May 2000, letters were received from Sir Ian Blair, then deputy commissioner, offering a conditional settlement and then withdrawing it after Mr. Warren did not accept the settlement within an arbitrary period of time set by the Met.

In April 2002, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), wrote to me challenging a number of assertions made by Mr. Warren and, interestingly in my view, stated:

“It is difficult to think of another respondent”—

by which he means the Met—

“seeking over a long period of time to offer a sum of money to a plaintiff well in excess of the sum awarded by the court.”

I wonder whether the then Home Secretary, when he wrote to me, pondered why that might have been so. Perhaps the Minister intends to refer to that letter as well, in which case he may also want to reflect on why the Met was so adamant that it wanted to provide compensation that the letter says was

“well in excess of the sum awarded by the court.”

The Met is not a charity, so it must have had a reason for making its offer. I can suggest a few reasons. Could it be that the Met thought it had a serious case to answer, had done Mr. Warren a terrible injustice and might still be subject to a legal challenge? Or is John Kenny, an ex-inspector who has followed Mr. Warren’s case closely, right to state in a letter to the Daily Mail just a couple of days ago:

“If ex-Police Constable Gordon Warren...wins his case then it will conclusively prove that not all police ill-health retirements have been honestly earned and will thus fuel further the long-held suspicions that this expensive ploy of awarding such golden goodbyes has been used by the service for years to rid itself of those considered to be causing it an embarrassment”?

Those are a few explanations as to why the Met thought it appropriate to offer for a long period of time a sum of money in compensation

“to a plaintiff well in excess of the sum awarded by the court.”

There is an extensive case history, documented in parliamentary debates—I am sure the Minister has had to read them or summaries of them—Home Office questions and correspondence between successive police commissioners, Home Secretaries and Home Office Ministers. However, 26 years on, there are still, unfortunately, outstanding issues.

First, I shall mention the apology to which I have already referred. An apology was issued by Sir Paul Condon, who said that

“you are entitled to a full apology, which I unreservedly give and regret the distress caused to you.”

That apology was accepted, or considered acceptable at the time. However, the fact is that that was issued 13 years ago, and the matter is still unresolved. Therefore the apology has worn rather thin, and it would be appropriate for a further apology to be issued, reflecting the fact that the matter did not end with Sir Paul’s letter.

The second impasse relates to the compensation figure. In fairness, I should point out that the matter has been before the Court of Appeal, which did not award aggravated or exemplary damages. However, as I have just quoted, it seems that the Met believed that there was a very strong case for offering Mr. Warren compensation. At one point, £95,000 was mentioned, but it came forward with a figure of £85,000, which was well above the sum awarded by the court, and recognised that the Met knew that it had done wrong and that it had to be seen to be offering a financial settlement that repaired some, but clearly not all, of that damage.

The third sticking point, which can never be resolved, is the Met’s reluctance over decades to record Mr. Warren’s allegation of perjury against the medical officer. Crimes may now be recorded over the internet, and everyone in the police force knows that every allegation of crime must be recorded, but for decades the Met refused to record Mr. Warren’s allegation. However, we are where we are, and the medical officer is deceased, so there is no point in pursuing that issue, and it is impossible to continue down that road.

I anticipate that the Minister will refer to the fact—I want to address this pre-emptively—that the perjury allegation was investigated. That was stated in correspondence from a previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). Mr. Warren contends that the court papers make it clear that perjury was never fully investigated in the way in which the letters to me allege that it was, and that what was investigated was bias.

One could argue about the fine detail of what is or is not in the relevant court papers, but I emphasise that in 1994 the Met acknowledged that it had a serious case to answer, and the offer of what was then a substantial sum of £85,000 acknowledged its failings in the case. Mr. Warren and I do not find that offer acceptable. He has not worked for the past 26 years because of the apparent vendetta against him, which made him leave the force. If one considers the cost involved and the anguish experienced, the offer of £85,000 was paltry.

Where does Mr. Warren stand 26 years after the fatal party? He has been unable to pursue the career to which he had, until then, devoted his life. He wanted to continue carrying out his daily business as a policeman in, as Sir Paul Condon described, an exemplary way. He suffers to this day from the legacy of that vendetta. He has had the false allegations about his mental health thrown back at him by neighbours decades after the fateful party in April 1982, because his case, as the Minister knows, has received considerable coverage in the local press, the police press and publications such as Private Eye. It is a well-known case locally.

The case smacks of the bad old days of the Met. It features attempts by less principled colleagues to throw a straight policeman out of the force, with a medical officer working for the Met producing a medical certificate stating that Mr. Warren was suffering from a personality disorder with paranoid tendencies, which the courts later found to be unlawful. It contained offers, which were unjustified in Mr. Warren's view, of medical pensions designed to persuade him to leave the force. Perhaps it was simply a case that his face did not fit and he was too honest for the job that he was being asked to do.

Twenty-six years down the track, it is time for justice to be done. Mr. Warren now suffers from cancer, and it is likely that it will take his life. All he wants at this point is the knowledge that his struggle for justice was not in vain, and a simple apology and settlement. I implore the Minister, the Metropolitan police and the Home Office to give this man the closure that he has tried to obtain for the past quarter of a century.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this debate. The issue is longstanding, as he said, and I pay tribute to his commitment to his constituent in pursuing it. However, I am not sure what I can say that is new on the matter. As the hon. Gentleman has made us aware, the issue has a very long history, having run for nearly 26 years. It was raised in debates by the hon. Gentleman and his predecessor on at least two occasions—in 1994 and 2000. In the light of its long history, I do not intend to go into it in great detail, but it is important to set out the main points.

In January 1985, a medical certificate was issued to Mr. Warren by Dr. Charles Bott, the selected medical practitioner for the Metropolitan police, certifying that Mr. Warren was medically unfit and suffering from paranoia. The decision set out in the certificate was overturned on appeal by the independent medical referees appointed by the Home Office, but in 1986 another medical certificate was issued by Dr. Bott, and in 1988, the second certificate issued by him was declared by the administrative court to be unlawful, based on the technical ground that, when a medical officer of the force has already expressed a view that is adverse to a particular police officer, he cannot lawfully act as the qualified practitioner for deciding whether the same officer is permanently disabled. In acting as a qualified medical practitioner, Dr. Bott was performing a quasi-judicial function and was under a duty to act fairly.

During the hearing that year, Mr. Warren was awarded £13,312.53 by way of full compensation. The court did not order his reinstatement, and exemplary damages were refused. In 1989, Mr. Warren appealed to the Court of Appeal, seeking reinstatement and exemplary damages. Although the appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal, he was awarded a modest sum of a further £3,500. In response to claims that Mr. Warren had told lies against Dr. Bott, the Court of Appeal determined that Dr. Bott did not act unreasonably or irrationally, and that he had reached his decision in good faith. Lord Justice Balcombe, who presided over the case, believed that it was important to express in his concluding statement that

“the police have behaved very properly”

with regard to Mr. Warren and his case. He urged Mr. Warren to recognise that there are two sides to the story.

It must be noted that Mr Warren’s case against the Metropolitan Police Service was considered by both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, and that full compensation was awarded. In April 2000, after many years of protracted correspondence, the Metropolitan police wrote to Mr. Warren stating that, after careful consideration of the case in its entirety, it would make an ex gratia offer of £85,000, which had already been offered, and that the offer would be available for a further 28 days, after which it would be permanently withdrawn. Mr. Warren did not accept the offer and declined it by telephone.

Correspondence on 8 May 2000 to Mr. Warren from Sir Ian Blair, in his then role as deputy commissioner, formally closed the matter. The letter clarified that no further correspondence about the matter would be entered into, any letters received would not be acknowledged, and that any telephone calls would be promptly terminated. I understand that, on behalf of his constituent, the hon. Gentleman wrote to the Metropolitan police on 24 July 2008 asking for his case for compensation to be reconsidered. It was explained to him that it would not be reconsidered, and that the case remained closed.

I understand why the hon. Gentleman wishes to bring the case to a resolution and to help his constituent, particularly in the light of Mr. Warren’s state of health. However, this is not a matter in which Home Office Ministers have a specific role, following the creation of a police authority for the MPS on similar lines to police authorities for other forces. The Home Office has no legal authority to intervene in a matter of this kind, as it is a dispute between the hon. Gentleman’s constituent and the Metropolitan Police Service. However, I am confident that the Metropolitan police will be aware of today’s debate.

I have heard the argument before that the Home Office has no remit in the matter and I must express some surprise at that. The Home Office clearly intervenes repeatedly in relation to policing issues and I am sure that it has regular dialogue with the Metropolitan Police Service, the police authority and the Mayor in relation to these types of issues. Therefore, it is astonishing simply to say, “It’s not within our remit and we cannot intervene or seek to influence the matter.”

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman and he has clearly listened to my comments. It is not simply a matter of saying that the Home Office has no remit; he is talking about a case that has been to court and that clearly has legal aspects. I reiterate: the Home Office has no specific role in regard to the matter. The arrangements are that the creation of a police authority for the Metropolitan police in line with other police authorities means that the Home Office has no legal authority to intervene. The Home Office clearly has a view about policing matters, but the parameters of the case in respect of it being a legal dispute between a former employee of the Metropolitan police and the Metropolitan police means that it is not something on which the Home Office can directly intervene in the way he is asking. I want to make that clear.

I also want to make it clear that I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said about the actions of the Metropolitan police and I understand very well his sincerity in raising the issue. He has a view that has been echoed in parts of our media about what the Met’s intention might be on these matters, but there are other views and sides to the case. The facts, on which we can all agree, are that the Metropolitan police has made an apology—although I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the timing of that—and it has made an offer. As he politely threatened at the beginning of the debate, I am sure that he will not let the matter rest. I have pointed out the limitations of Home Office Ministers with regards to the issue, but I am confident that he will look at what appropriate channels are available to continue pursuing the case on behalf of his constituent. Unfortunately, the line that he has taken today cannot be pursued and the assurance he is seeking from me is not one that I can give.

I do not know whether the Minister was about to conclude his remarks, but soon after he began his response, he said that he believed that the police had acted fairly in the case. Although I am sure that he now knows from his briefing where Mr. Warren is in relation to the incident, he may not be aware that the inspector who kicked the whole process off by issuing the invitation to a blue movies party when Mr. Warren was supposed to be on duty was offered some words of advice about how he should conduct himself as his punishment for organising that event during police time. I hope that the Minister would agree that the outcome has been very different for the two key protagonists in the case. My constituent, Mr. Warren, has suffered immeasurably, whereas the person who kicked off this whole sorry saga has suffered with some words of advice.

I was about to conclude, so let me say this. I understand that Mr. Warren and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman are more than frustrated about these matters. However, there are channels of investigation for the Metropolitan police—not only in relation to looking into the case of Mr. Warren, but the other issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. There are also ways in which the Metropolitan police can be held to account for how it has investigated the matter and dealt with it over a period of time. Unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, I have to say to him today that Home Office Ministers do not have the authority that he is asking for and therefore I cannot give him the reassurance that he seeks.

Sitting suspended.

National Skills Academy (Crewe)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir John, in my first Westminster Hall debate. I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me the debate. I also congratulate the Minister on his new role and wish him well in it.

This important debate has three purposes. The first is to establish common ground on the fact that there is a skills shortage in the rail sector, that it will continue to be enormous and that maintaining the status quo is simply not an option. The second purpose is to recognise that the current system of vocational training for apprentices, although well meaning, is still too disparate, is not working for the railway industry and is not meeting the ever-growing demand for specific rail engineering skills. The third purpose is to proffer a potential solution to the acute skills deficit in the form of an employer-led and apprentice-focused national railway skills academy in Crewe.

I invite the Government to view such a proposal as providing the most effective and sustainable vehicle for meeting the inevitable surge in demand for railway engineers and technicians, as well as ensuring that our young people have the opportunity to build a strong and long career in the railway industry. I hope to tease out from the Minister the prospect of a fifth round of funding for the national academies in the next three to six months. I hope that we can have an assurance that the Government are looking at that closely for the near future.

On 5 June, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills recognised the skills gap in the rail industry in rather stark terms:

“We know there are major skills shortages in finance, construction, science, engineering, and IT. We anticipate a huge demand for skilled workers to build and deliver nuclear power stations, green power generators, Crossrail and the 2012 Olympics.”

What is interesting about that statement is that the one skills area identified with no recognised national employer-led skills academy is engineering, which needs to be put right. Crossrail is only one of a number of rail investment projects that will see the demand for skilled labour rise. It is expected that, by 2012-13, Network Rail, Transport for London and Crossrail expenditure will have risen by 50 per cent. to approximately £9.5 billion.

In its review of the transport sector, the “Skills in England 2007” report said this about the rail industry:

“In the last decade, passenger numbers have soared by 40 per cent., with 1.3bn train journeys last year. This is the greatest number since 1946, when the network was twice the size. Freight on railways has rocketed by 60 per cent. in the same period, with credible current projections of similar growth over the next decade.”

Against a backdrop of an insufficient number of engineers to meet the current capital expenditure, it is not difficult to see why we are heading towards a serious shortage of skilled workers, which could threaten the delivery of some major rail schemes. That is backed up by research from both the sector skills council, GoSkills, and the Railway Industry Association. To see the effect that the shortage is having on the railways, we need only look back to 2004, when Network Rail was forced to fly in 12 mechanical engineers from India to ensure that the £15 billion west coast main line upgrade was completed on time. That enables us to appreciate the severity of the situation. Whether it is rolling stock maintenance, mechanical or electrical engineering, civil engineering or infrastructure maintenance, the cupboard is in danger of becoming bare.

The average age of a member of the railway engineering work force is 56, which does not bode well for its future. We must create a new generation of skilled workers to free the railway industry from the current constraints on its output. There are areas of the railway industry where apprenticeship schemes are working and bringing some success, but as the severe shortage of skills demonstrates, those schemes do not even come close to meeting the demand.

So what is needed? I shall suggest three things. First, we need the development of a clear career route for all those entering the railway industry. Secondly, we need a national co-ordination of skills that brings in a single new gold standard for industry training, which is what the national academy is looking for. Thirdly, we need the re-energising of the rail industry as a vibrant, highly skilled and valued career choice that helps to improve social and economic inclusion.

I have been spending time in Crewe visiting the various railway businesses, both passenger and freight, and seeing at first hand the apprentices working on steam engines, on overhauls and on freight. Two things become clear when one spends time with those young people—I say young people because we are talking about both men and women. They value the work that they do and are dedicated to it, and they see it as providing a real future for them and an opportunity that they might not otherwise have had.

One of the goals set out by the Learning and Skills Council is to

“raise the skills of the nation, giving employers and individuals the skills they need to improve productivity, employability and social cohesion”.

That could have been written for the rail industry, because it fits perfectly not only with the situation that the rail industry is in, but with where it needs to be now and in the future.

National skills academies are defined as

“employer-led, world-class centres of excellence delivering the skills required by each major sector of the economy”.

It seems to me that a national railway skills academy would meet all the core elements of a national skills academy. I return to my earlier point—engineering is a huge sector that lacks cohesiveness in its training and apprenticeship schemes. A national centre at Crewe with regional training centres of excellence that draw on and complement existing schemes around the country would provide the backbone that we need to ensure that the reskilling of the railway industry starts now, rather than when it is too late.

Why Crewe? My first point is clear: why should it not be Crewe? Crewe is a strategically and geographically vital part of the railway structure. It is at the heart of the railways. It is synonymous with the railway industry, but perhaps over and above that it has people with the experience, expertise and passion to drive the railway industry forward. In addition, the academy would provide a much-needed boost to the regeneration of Crewe. Many young people in Crewe are looking for direction in their lives. Those who have discovered the apprenticeship schemes running in Crewe that I have described are thriving in that environment. Unfortunately, the lack of funding for setting up apprenticeship schemes means that young people are being turned away at a time when we need more engineers to fill the skills gap.

We have reached the unfortunate position of knowing that we need the skilled labour, yet the skills gap is increasing—this at a time when the skills are most needed. The danger is that the schemes that we have to move the rail industry forward, such as Crossrail, new high-speed links and the regeneration of the railway network, are lost at the time when they are most needed. We need to equip the rail industry for the changes and expansion that lie ahead. To do otherwise would represent not only a lost opportunity but another generation lost to the railway industry.

This debate is not about making Crewe the only winner as a centre for a skills academy. It would be a national scheme. The advantage of such a scheme is that it would bring the rail industry together under one umbrella, so that everyone knew the required standards and qualifications, and what skills were needed to meet the challenge. Crewe is and always will be a railway town. It has the potential to raise the railways again, and to provide another generation with the opportunity to work in a tremendous and extremely enjoyable career.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir John. Just as this is the first Westminster Hall debate for the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), so it is for me. Indeed, it is my first debate as Minister. We are as green as each other. I congratulate him not only on making a well-argued and sincere speech on behalf of his constituents, but on securing the debate. He raised many important issues.

The national skills academy network is one of my Department’s flagship programmes. The academies are employer-led centres of excellence that sit at the heart of the skills system, enabling young people and adults to train for jobs that are crucial to Britain’s long-term economic success. They bring together employers—from small and medium-sized enterprises to multinationals—and specialist training providers to address skills issues in a range of industries and to provide training solutions to the practical needs of businesses.

It is important to note that the skills academies highlight the extent to which we are trying to design a truly demand-led system in which the Government are the enabler. Provision is led by demand from employers and learners; it is not dictated by the Government.

The hon. Gentleman said much about apprenticeships. I am delighted to see his commitment to them and his advocacy on their behalf. I applaud him, and encourage him to retain sight of them as the situation becomes longer and broader, as it inevitably does in this place. I hope that he will retain his focus on apprenticeships. The Government have certainly prioritised them, and are investing large sums of money in them. Apprenticeships were effectively a broken system that had fallen into disuse and disrepute under the previous Administration. In a typical year, there were only 75,000 apprenticeships at any one time—that is not even starts or finishes. We now have well over 100,000 quality apprenticeship completions a year and rising, and investment is still rising.

Skills academies, which are part of the national blend in delivering upskilling projects, offer a range of provision from basic literacy and numeracy to higher education, and from national vocational qualifications to pre-employment training. Some programmes are for full-time study; others are available in a flexible format, depending on what companies and employees want. Government investment in the NSA programme is expected to reach an estimated £120 million by the end of 2011, which sum we expect to be matched by employers. We anticipate that that investment will help about 880,000 learners to receive skills and learning support during the first five years of the programme.

The Minister will have noted that I mentioned a gap in the national skills market for engineering. Does he accept that? Does he engage with my view that that is the area that the national skills academy should concentrate on if it is to fill that gap?

There is not a gap in engineering, but there are pressing needs, as in many other sectors. Nor is it entirely true that we do not have a skills academy that deals with engineering. We do not have a skills academy called “The National Skills Academy for Engineering”, but skills academies deal with manufacturing, process change, materials and the production and supply industries. All those contain a significant engineering component.

I make it clear that the Government are cognisant of the fact that there are pressing needs in engineering. Driving up the outputs that we get from SMEs is clearly part of the Government’s strategy, but the fact that we can always use more does not betoken a system that does not work. The hon. Gentleman referred to apprenticeships being oversubscribed, but that does not mean that the system does not work. It is a demand-led system, and it is a roaring success, particularly as investment has grown exponentially over the Government’s time in office.

Currently, 10 national skills academies are up and running. They cover a range of sectors, including construction and financial services, nuclear energy, and sports and leisure. They involve household names such as Tesco, Toyota, Reuters and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Six more academies are in planning, four of which were announced a fortnight ago by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Those four are enterprise, power, IT and social care. A national skills academy for power will obviously involve a significant engineering component.

I may be jumping the gun, but the rail industry needs to see the establishment of a rail national skills academy. There would need to be further consideration of a fifth round for that to become reality. I ask the Minister directly: is that now going to happen? Are the Government considering it? Can we have a clear answer as to exactly where we are going with the national skills academies?

I was coming to that—the hon. Gentleman asked about it in his speech. That is the direction in which we want to go. I am not in a position to promise the fifth round, just as I am unable to promise an NSA for railways, but I can tell him that the programme so far is successful and popular, and that all the rounds have been considerably over-subscribed. The fact that he is here today to debate the matter is testament to that. Although I cannot promise in the Chamber today the new money in advance of future spending rounds, I can tell him that that is the direction in which the Government wish to go.

It is worth pointing out that all successful bids in the process went through a rigorous competitive selection programme, which was organised by the LSC independently of Ministers. The selection programme is supported and validated by employers, whose job it is to ensure that it is robust at every stage. Each bid is assessed against three key criteria at the first review stage and against two additional criteria at the interview stage. One would expect those sets of criteria to be challenging. Although the projects are match funded, we are doling out large amounts of taxpayers’ money, so the systems must be rigorous to ensure that the best bids are successful and that the best value is derived.

I know that the Minister would like to make some progress, but I want to go back to what I said at the beginning of my speech about putting right the dearth of skilled labour for the railways. Does the Minister accept that there is a shortage? From what his Department has said previously, that seems to be its position, as I mentioned. If so, is he sympathetic to an NSA as a means by which to recreate that skilled-labour work force for the rail industry?

We need more engineers in the railways and in other sectors of the economy. It is to train more people to higher standards that we are driving up the skill level of the work force across the board. There is no limit on the number of NSAs that can proceed to business planning, but they must all be consistent with the overall skills priorities for their sector, be able to offer training through specialist providers and present a sustainable business plan that includes substantial funding from employers.

I applaud the submission of a bid for an NSA for railways and I hope that the people who put the bid together, who will inevitably be downhearted and miserable at not being selected, step back and see that the process was competitive, and that although some bids were selected, others were not. We hope that there will be another round. If there is, I hope that those people come back with an even better bid.

The hon. Gentleman tells the story and makes the case well, so he could help them to put their case again going forward. I say to the railway community in Crewe: please do not be downhearted or take this as a “no” from the LSC—it is not exactly that at the moment. He makes a good case for an NSA for the railways, and the Government are more than open, as is the LSC in managing the process, to hearing it again.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot go into the details of the bid. The LSC has already given detailed feedback to the bidders and has told me that it is more than happy to keep working with the Cheshire and Warrington Economic Alliance on any future bid. I share his view on the importance of the railways to the nation, the future economy, the 2012 Olympics and, obviously, Crossrail. There will be an even faster-growing demand for skilled railway workers in future and, as a nation, we need to get things right.

I was impressed by Pete Waterman’s piece in The Mail on Sunday about skills shortages in the rail industry and the need to develop the next generation of engineers, as I have been by the hon. Gentleman. Others in Government and the education and skills community will also have read the article. He wrote from personal experience about the value of apprenticeships and capturing the enthusiasm of young people who are left cold by formal qualifications, and putting them on course for well paid jobs. That is what the Government want. In fact, we give every 18-year-old a right to public funding so that they can continue their training and education at university, college, in work or through an apprenticeship until they are 25 or achieve a level 3 qualification.

I should restate that the Government want every major sector of the economy to have an NSA, as resources allow. The programme has been successful so far, and if and when we move to a new phase, unsuccessful applicants such as the railway NSA will be encouraged to reapply. I say again to the bid team: please do not be downhearted and have another go, because NSA status is a prize worth seeking. Railways are vital to the country as well as the local regional economy in Crewe. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are skills challenges within that sector that we need to address.

I am grateful for that and I am sure it will hearten those behind that robust and important bid. However, is there a time limit for any future NSAs, bearing it in mind that the LSC’s existence might come to an end? What time scale would we be working to if there was a fifth round?

There is no time limit and there are no fixed time scales. At the moment, NSAs are administered by the LSC, but they are not a function of its existence. When the LSC is reorganised and becomes a different kind of organisation, we expect the successor organisation to take ownership of NSAs. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we certainly do not expect the NSA programme to die with the passing of the LSC. In the meantime, the LSC and regional LSCs remain on hand to help railway employers to design and deliver the best training, increase employer demand for and investment in skills, and boost the training of individuals so that they can flourish in the labour market.

I would like to ask one last question. The Department for Transport and Transport for London have shown some interest in the bid. Can the Minister hold discussions with representatives from those organisations to gain more knowledge of what the NSA for railways would offer?

The bidding process is not really a matter for me as it is run by the LSC, but I am more than happy to meet TfL and anybody the hon. Gentleman would like to—

Ex-servicemen (Prison)

Over the past year or so, it has come to my notice that an increasing number of ex-servicemen are appearing regularly in the courts in north Wales and Cheshire. Very often they are charged with serious offences, including wounding, sexual assaults and drug offences, together with robbery. Some of those offences appear to have no explanation or rationale behind them other than a manifestation of hopelessness by the individuals concerned.

I tabled some parliamentary questions in March, to which the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), duly responded. On 5 March, I asked what estimate he had made

“of the number and proportion of current inmates of prisons in England and Wales who served in the UK armed forces in either of the conflicts in the Gulf.”

He replied:

“This information is not collected centrally. Data from nationally representative surveys of some 2,000 sentenced prisoners near release conducted in 2001, 2003 and 2004 show the proportion of prisoners who had previously served in the armed forces as 6 per cent., 4 per cent. and 5 per cent. respectively. However, there are no estimates available for the proportion of veterans in custody who have served in specific conflicts.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 2625W.]

That response was unsatisfactory on several counts. First, why was the survey made in the first place? What happened as a result of finding that the figure varied from 4 to 6 per cent? Did the Ministry think that that was an acceptable figure and decide to do nothing?

Secondly, by saying that no estimates exist, it appears that the Ministry could not care less. Anybody who knows anything about the criminal courts will know that whenever a person pleads guilty or is convicted of a serious offence, a court report is routinely ordered. The probation service is bound to inquire about an individual’s recent history, and that would show whether a person had recently served in the armed forces and been in a conflict zone. The information could be collected very easily. Therefore, why has that not been done, bearing in mind the fact that probation officers spend a large amount of their time filling in forms? I found the response to be at variance with what I discovered and what I was told by members of the legal profession in north Wales and Cheshire.

I mentioned the matter to Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, who also thought that the figures were a little questionable. He then e-mailed his members and in August he found that 8,500 people, or about 10 per cent. of the prison population, had served in specific conflicts. That figure did not take into account the large number on community penalties, which could be about 3,000 to 4,000 people.

Therefore, we have a serious problem that has not been acted on by Government. I understand that a scoping survey is being conducted by the prison in-reach service—the PIR project—which is sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. It is likely to conclude that there is major problem, according to issue No. 9 of Veterans World. The PIR project is a partnership organisation between the MOD, the Ministry of Justice and ex-service charities. It has conducted a pilot study at Dartmoor prison and concluded that 16.7 per cent. of those surveyed had undertaken military service.

In 2002, the organisation Veterans In Prison carried out a survey. It looked at 10 prisons in particular and found that 118 former armed services personnel were inmates out of a prison population of 1,191. That amounts to about 9 per cent. or more. Therefore, the problem has been around for quite a time. However, it is becoming worse and more acute because servicemen and women spend far longer in conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan than previously. The times between each deployment are much shorter and consequently the pressures on service personnel are considerably increased.

The case histories examined by NAPO show that the majority of ex-soldiers suffered at some stage or another from post-traumatic stress disorder and that very few had received any counselling or support at any time after their discharge from the Army. There also appears to have been a failure to identify their status at the time of arrest or at committal to custody.

Committed staff at Everthorpe prison have compiled an advice pack for former soldiers in which they offer to liaise with counselling services. However, that does not appear to be available nationally. The PIR project has published a list of the help and support that are available. It is also improving the awareness of welfare visits that can be arranged for ex-service prisoners.

Probation staff in North Yorkshire are developing the integrated domestic abuse programme in local garrisons in partnership with Army welfare. Staff report that PTSD is frequently cited as the principal reason for violent behaviour and is linked to drug and alcohol use as a coping mechanism.

Before highlighting a few case histories, I should say that some years ago I went to see the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he was Defence Secretary to ask him whether he could make funding available for a clinic in north Wales run by consultant psychiatrist Dr. Dafydd Alun Jones, who is an expert in PTSD and so-called Gulf war syndrome. I was told that it was a matter for the Department of Health.

When the right hon. Gentleman became Secretary of State for Health, I asked him again about the matter and he said to leave it with him. That was five years ago and the clinic is now shut. No priority has been accorded to the problem and I fear that it has been swept under the carpet. If any other rational explanation appears during the debate, I shall be pleased to hear it.

In Devon and Cornwall, a soldier was discharged from the Army for misconduct after being sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for threatening a drug dealer with a firearm. The report prepared for the court indicated that he was suffering from PTSD as a result of serving in Northern Ireland and also in Iraq. The diagnosis was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence psychiatrist. The soldier made no excuses for his behaviour and felt that his sentence was justified for what he did. However, he feels bitter that he is “stuck with psychological problems” from his service in the Army.

In South Yorkshire, a member of NAPO prepared a court report on a soldier who was convicted of arson with intent and of possession of a sawn-off shotgun. There were a number of co-defendants and he was not the leader of the group. He was recruited by others who had been friends in the same regiment. The report concluded that the origin of events lay in military training and the ethos of supporting comrades. The person who was assaulted was the subject of personal grudges from the leader of the group. The defendant said that his training had led him to obey orders without question and that while he accepted that he was not ordered to commit the offence, he agreed to take part in it because of comradeship.

In Cumbria, a soldier, now 23, served with the Parachute Regiment and undertook two tours in war zones. He left military service in late 2005 with no previous convictions. Since then, he has had seven convictions, five of which resulted in periods of custody. He reports that he failed to readjust to life in the UK, finding it hard to

“reconcile the devastation, horror and distress of the war zone”

with the comfortable life he found himself and others taking for granted. He was then diagnosed with PTSD.

A trooper from Cumbria based in barracks in Germany had an initial active tour of duty in a war zone in 2005. He was home on leave in 2007 and then out to a war zone after that. He and a family member became involved in an argument outside a public house about the propriety of the current war situation. He ended up being charged with assault as a consequence. He had a previous military conviction, from 2005, for fighting, within weeks of returning from a war zone. On that occasion a plan of counselling was agreed and the military decided that unpaid work should be done at the barracks. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

In Cumbria, a soldier was convicted on court martial of several violent offences, following his return from the Gulf in 2003. He was diagnosed with PTSD, dishonourably discharged and given five years in custody. Also in Cumbria, a probation officer has reported supervising an individual, with considerable Army experience, who is currently in prison for wounding with intent and racial harassment. He was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence, for public protection, and is currently assessed as high risk. Again, he was diagnosed with PTSD.

Staff working with lifers in Her Majesty’s prison Liverpool have identified several individuals suffering from PTSD. I could go on and on. There are several Welsh examples, including that of a soldier from south Wales, aged 47, who was sentenced to 60 months for kidnap and false imprisonment of an adult female. I could detail many others. Staff working in a Lincolnshire prison who have attempted to assist such individuals say that since 1984 military services have tended to deny that there are any problems—individuals in the military do everything they can to deny it.

In Gwent, two men who had seen active service in the past 10 years, both of whom were diagnosed with PTSD, were convicted of very serious offences—and so on and on. I have dozens of examples on file, but obviously I do not have time to recount them now.

Since I raised the matter in August, and after some publicity accrued, I have received many letters from serving officers and people in other ranks, mostly if not exclusively in the Army. I received a letter from a gentleman from Prestatyn in Denbighshire, on the last day of August:

“Dear Mr. Llwyd,

Having read the article on the BBC website titled, ‘Jails hold 8,500 ex-servicemen’, I feel as you do that something should be done to support veterans of the armed forces.

In my case I was medically discharged from the Royal Air Force in 2003 through illness, and the lack of support was apparent. Well to be honest, there was no support whatsoever. I understand that my case is not the same as being imprisoned, but the underlying fact is the same, when you leave the Armed Services there is nothing.

I am very lucky, after fighting for what I believe I was entitled to I got my life on track, but it took several years of hard work research and support NOT from the MOD but from my family.”

The Government have paid little attention to the problem over the years, and it is high time that they took positive action. Since I have been raising the matter, I have had numerous e-mails from many ex-servicemen and women, throughout the services, confirming that the overall feeling is that there is no back-up for returnees when they come back to civvy street. Simplistically, I would say that as we spend many weeks training those men and women for combat, we should spend many weeks at the conclusion of their service debriefing them properly, offering counselling, where required, and assisting with obtaining retraining and/or jobs, with housing and with family problems. Those people have witnessed scenes that people like me can only imagine. They have seen close friends and comrades killed and mutilated. It would be strange, indeed, if they did not require counselling to come to terms with the hell on earth through which they have passed.

There should be a presumption in favour of counselling in every case. I recently received a communication from an ex-serviceman who had served in Iraq. He said that on the conclusion of his tour of duty he was flown to Cyprus with his comrades for three days’ R and R. There was alcohol day and night. On the concluding day, they were all put together in a hall, and an officer asked them, “Any problems, anybody? No? Fine.” Tick the box, and that was it. Obviously, in the macho culture that exists in the services, those men would not admit problems in the presence of their friends and comrades. It would have been far better, if there was something really serious to discuss, to ask the question on a one-to-one basis.

I believe that aftercare cannot be left to the voluntary sector alone. A fully structured period prior to discharge is required. NAPO recommends that all reasonable steps should be taken to reduce the number of men sentenced to custody and that information and referral services should be provided to ex-armed services personnel on arrest, at report-writing stage and on reception into custody. Armed services personnel should receive information and education on the benefits of stress counselling in general and be given support where it is needed.

In response, the Minister will no doubt say that the voluntary sector is dealing with the matter through the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, veterans organisations, the British Legion and so on. I say that that is not good enough. We need a fully structured procedure, under which there might be an encampment of some kind, with experts in the field to deal with all people coming back from active service. If the Minister says that this is a matter of resources I do not think that will go down very well, especially when we recall what was set out in The Independent on Sunday this week: £86.8 million was spent on private education for officers’ children, and in the Royal Air Force £1 million was spent on chauffeurs, £3.4 million was spent on waiters in officers’ messes, £800,000 was spent on bar staff and £2.8 million was spent on paying chefs. At a time when serving soldiers must make do with inferior kit, failure to act on the problem positively and urgently will be seen as further evidence that the Government have breached the covenant with the armed services in the most obvious and serious way. I believe that with proper support and counselling several thousand people who are in custody would not be there, which is a scandal. Action is required now.

I thank the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) for raising this serious issue. I take issue with his approach. I do not accept his challenge that the Government do not care about the issue, and I do not accept that my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and I in the Ministry of Justice are not focused on examining and dealing with the issue, and on considering whether there are real policy implications for us in relation to bringing forward solutions and helping with what I know the hon. Gentleman wants us to do—reducing offending and reoffending behaviour in our community. Whether crimes are committed by members of the Army, Air Force or Navy who have entered civilian life or by other individuals, key issues in relation to mental health services, alcohol and drugs affect reoffending behaviour.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s comments because we need to focus on such matters. Taking action benefits the individuals who commit crimes and the communities they come from, and it brings a cost saving to society by reducing crime and the difficulties that people cause. My colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, as well as other Ministers including me, are willing to focus on the issue and to consider whether there are synergies between people leaving the armed forces, problems associated with their experiences in the armed forces and what happens to them in their offending behaviour in later life. As a result of discussions—I welcome the contribution to the debate made by the National Association of Probation Officers; in fact I discussed the issue with the association on Friday, when we jointly addressed a conference in north Wales—we need to examine some key issues. Already, following concerns, and following the discussions between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice at official and ministerial level, there are particular concerns that warrant and need further exploration.

First, we need to get a genuine figure for the number of ex-service personnel who are serving prison sentences. The figure of 8,500 has been mentioned. Our last survey, in 2002 showed that it was about 5.6 per cent. of prisoners, some of whom had served in the Army many years before their prison sentence. We need an effective estimate of the number of ex-service personnel serving prison sentences. We are looking at how authoritative research can accurately reflect that group of the prison population. Additional work on that would be valuable, and I give a commitment to the hon. Gentleman that we will do that to establish the need and the number of individuals concerned.

We need to look at the nature of the offences that people who have served in the Army are committing and whether they relate to the fact that they have had experiences in the Army. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of case studies. With respect to colleagues, we need to look not at the anecdotal evidence, but at the factual material underneath, to find out whether there are real issues relating to future offending behaviour. We need to look at what steps, if any, we can take jointly with the MOD to ensure that we prevent offending. We also need to look at what we do with former servicemen and women serving prison sentences, and whether it is available to us to use specific interventions in custody to meet the potentially complex needs that might be demonstrated by that group. I include those suffering from PTSD in that group, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Prior to the publication of NAPO’s report in August, we were looking at those issues in detail. We have undertaken further research to establish more clearly the size of that group in the prison population and are looking at the development of systems and procedures for identifying ex-service personnel upon reception into custody. We need to look at facilitating ease of access for a wide range of services available through the MOD-led prison in-reach initiative.

I do not deny that there is more that we can look at and more that we could do. Raising the profile of the subject poses many questions and challenges for us in the future. We could potentially look at addressing aspects of offending through continued improvements to the mental health services available for current and former service personnel. In particular, we need to look at the range of the 14 current offending behaviour programmes and the six programmes for drug abuse available in the prison estate to see whether they are available and applicable to former service personnel.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent a constituency in north Wales and know that there are many people there with military backgrounds, and many people who have committed offences have that background. We need to look at whether we can adapt the offending behaviour programmes in a positive way for those individuals. We need to examine good practice and ensure that we disseminate it across the prison estate. In line with our general principles on reducing reoffending, we need to explore how we work across Government with colleagues in the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly to ensure that we support private, public and third sector organisations in making appropriate interventions.

A significant amount of work is being done within the MOD and the Ministry of Justice to look at those challenges. There are 15 MOD departments of community mental health across the UK, plus satellite centres overseas. There is also access to St. Thomas’ hospital and the Priory Group for those who require help and support. There are more than 150 mental health professionals working across the MOD, including 13 tri-service psychiatrists, 99 military mental health nurses and another 50 civilian psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health nurses. Mental health professionals are now being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to help support those who have, as the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, seen very difficult things in very difficult circumstances.

However, none of that provision is what I would term “breaking the military covenant”, which is how the hon. Gentleman described it. I believe that it supports the military covenant and values our troops both on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan and when they leave the services. That is not to say that improvement in the work we do in that regard could not be made, but it is certainly a commitment from my colleagues in the MOD to help support mental health issues, often in the field when they are first identified.

Specifically for veterans, the MOD and the NHS have launched a range of community-based mental health services, including a pilot scheme offering specialist advice at six sites across the UK. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the work that was undertaken at HM prison Everthorpe by a prison officer who previously served in the Falklands. We look at that as an example of extremely good practice on what we can do to ensure that we help and support individuals and clearly identify the needs in that establishment and elsewhere.

That is clearly an example of good practice, but I would like the Minister to explain how one can intervene before it becomes a question of dealing with a criminal. Does he not agree that it would be far better to have a programme whereby a person is discharged and given several weeks of debriefing, going through expert counselling if necessary and receiving assistance to get them back on to civvy street? I do not deny that what is happening in Everthorpe is good practice, but let us see whether we can crack that nut before it gets that far.

Again, I am speaking for the Ministry of Justice in relation to what we are trying to do in prisons, and HM prison Everthorpe is a good example of where skills and expertise from people who have been through that experience are focused on prisoners who have a military background. There are many thousands of Army discharges every year, and it is not just a question of resources, because I am not speaking for the MOD. We need to focus on individuals who are showing signs of drug, alcohol or mental health problems when in the service and offering that support when out of the service, because many people leave the service and do not go on to offend.

I accept and agree that early intervention is always, in every circumstance, a positive thing for us to do. Early intervention on mental health support, as I have tried to describe, is available, and we should cherish and build on that. Indeed, there are more than 100 mental health in-reach teams consisting of 360 staff, and by 2005-06 nearly £20 million had been invested in that service across the prison estate to look at those issues.

There are real issues about individuals from military backgrounds going on to offending behaviour. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that early identification and support needs to be available in-house in the MOD where possible to track individuals with drug, alcohol or mental health problems on leaving the service, and that is already being provided by the MOD in collaboration with the NHS. We need to look at the real facts about why many people with military backgrounds are in prison and whether their offending behaviour is linked to their military background or to problems associated with it. For example, we should look at whether there is a higher proportion of domestic violence, arson, drug-related offences or sexual offences. We need to know that level of detail and what length of sentences offenders from military backgrounds are being given, so that we can look at providing effective interventions in prison to help them, as we would to prevent reoffending by any other prisoner. That is a key issue, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it.

In conclusion, there are certainly real issues. We should not overlook the successes that we have had to date in our endeavours to improve outcomes for offenders and to protect the public. However, there is an ever-changing prison population profile, and there remains scope for the development of new and different services to deal with that. I will simply leave the hon. Gentleman by thanking him for raising the issue in the way in which he has done. We need proper evidential research on ex-service personnel in custody, and that is a matter of great concern. We need to ensure that we have a greater understanding of the mental health problems of service personnel and potentially of the predisposing factors, which I think are the key in the development of violent and offending behaviour in particular.

There are no quick fixes on that. The latest figures from 2002 show that around 5.5 per cent. of the prison population have an ex-service background. NAPO’s survey conducted earlier this year showed a higher figure. We need to establish that figure in detail, but I recognise that it is a real issue that we need to examine. When we examine it, we must do so for the purpose of making our communities safer, reducing reoffending and making people lead more productive lives.

It being Two o’clock, the sitting was adjourned without Question put.