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Westminster Hall

Volume 482: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2008

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 5 November 2008

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Internet Fraud

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

It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cook, and to see the Minister here, as well as a sprinkling of Members who survived the night and who managed to get up in time this morning. It is a huge privilege not only to have secured a debate on this subject but to have the very first debate after the earth-shattering events in America. I am pleased to be the first Member to congratulate Mr. Obama on dreaming the impossible dream and walking towards it.

I shall now bring us down to earth with a huge bump. What I shall discuss is terrible, but it is of crucial importance at this time of credit crunch, job losses and negative equity. The seeds have been sown for criminals to catch desperate, unwary people.

In the 1600s, the Duke of Buckingham stated:

“The world is made up for the most part of fools and knaves, both irreconcilable foes to truth.”

Things have changed tremendously. Obviously, knaves are still the foes of truth, but it is no longer just fools as well. Every one of us can be caught by the incredible complexity and professionalism of scams that take place on the internet, by telephone and by letter.

I shall illustrate that with one disastrous, devastating case that has affected one of my constituents. I first heard about it when my constituent wrote to me in April. The first paragraphs of his letter state:

“I regret to report to you that our current society and the government as a whole have failed to protect the victims of fraud.

I would like to state that fraud victims are far more damaged psychologically than violence victims.”

My hon. Friend is a wise, sincere and caring Member of Parliament, and he is right to bring this important matter to our attention. He will elucidate a specific case, but there is a general problem as well, and that is what I want to address. Not everything in Nigeria is working well, as we all know, but the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is well focused. It is the best bet to tackle the source of the great proportion of internet crime, fraud and scams, which particularly target and hurt vulnerable British people. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should target the source of fraud by giving even more support than they currently do to the EFCC?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I would rather leave it to the Minister to tell us what is being done and what can be done, but I take the point. Crucially, this is a cross-party matter, and I do not see a place anywhere for party point scoring.

The person involved in the example that I am using to illustrate my case is a professional man. We cannot say that he is a fool. In retrospect, he was obviously unwise, but he is a professional man. He was told that he had won a huge sum of money on a foreign lottery but that it was held by Customs awaiting payment of duty. To my utter amazement, he paid £104,500—I do not know where he found it—as duty and then received a receipt, ostensibly on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs paper. I have been told by HMRC that it is not a bad forgery. It stated:

“Dear Sir,

Ref: Consignment Boxes

We write to inform you that your consignment from Spain has been in our custody since 4th April 2008. We confirm that a total payment of £104,500.00 has been received on your behalf for duties. From our record we discover that your consignment has been in our custody for 70 Days which has attracted demurrage.”

The fraudsters then had the nerve to ask for more money:

“However, we equally discovered that a waiver was granted to you for 21 Days leaving you with a demurrage for 49 Days totalling £37,240.00 to be paid before your consignment can be released.

I also confirm that you have been given a 14 Days grace to pay this amount or risk further demurrage.”

That very convincing receipt was on what looked like official paper. Thank goodness the poor chap approached his lender for the £37,240—he thought that he would get half a million pounds, or something like that—and his lender smelled a rat. My constituent, still totally trusting, sent an apologising e-mail to the scammers and then got a most remarkable, defensive reply, which obviously let the cat out of the bag. The spelling and grammar were bad. It was from a firm called Asset Protection International, and included convincing information about the company, and photos and CVs of its directors, including their qualifications and family details.

My hon. Friend is giving an example from his constituency, but I suspect that each and every one of us have received e-mails to tell us that we have won a prize in a Spanish lottery. In the midst of my delight at winning a Spanish lottery, the question I always ask myself is, did I buy a ticket? The answer is, no, I did not—therefore, how can I win a prize? Does my hon. Friend not think that there is an onus on people, when they receive such e-mails—he has said that his constituent is a professional man—to utilise at least an ounce of common sense and realise that one needs to buy a ticket to win a prize?

Of course that is obvious in retrospect, but if a person is in desperate debt already and sees something that looks like salvation, will they remember that they did not buy a ticket? That is the whole problem. I shall come on to awareness, because the whole point of this debate is to raise awareness of the problem

Returning briefly to the example, I wrote to HMRC, which got further information from my constituent and is now working with the West Mercia police, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Association of Chief Police Officers, City of London police and the National Fraud Strategic Authority, but there is little hope of getting the chap’s money back.

Since then, one of our local papers, The Kidderminster Chronicle, has issued warnings about false lottery winnings, huge legacies from long-lost relatives overseas and a soldier in Iraq who asked a lady to look after his money for him until he comes back. Other cases have been highlighted in the newspapers. The Sunday Mirror told of the terrible tragedy of an elderly lady who was £80,000 in debt. She could not afford heating and died of pneumonia. The Times wrote about elderly people in Westminster who were caught by a prize draw scam. Those are all examples of “phishing”, which aims to get money out of people or to obtain their identity details.

I have an extremely good assistant who weeds out my e-mails, but yesterday the spam filter—I nearly called it a scam filter—did not pick up something that came to my assistant, supposedly from Abbey National. It stated:

“This is to inform you that your Abbey National Plc profile needs to be updated”.

All someone has to do is just click on it. It is absolutely scandalous that our spam, or scam, filter even lets that through.

There is another aspect to this. I am grateful to the Federation of Small Businesses for letting me know that nearly 20 per cent. of small businesses feel that the risk of online fraud is a deterrent to their buying and selling online. Small businesses report that phishing e-mails are a continuing problem. Theft of internet domain names is also a huge issue, with fraudsters posing as legitimate businesses trying to draw customers away. Damage can be done to a business’s reputation.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he share my concern that, in Wales, as a recent survey has revealed, only 35 per cent. of small businesses fully operate their financial procedures online? To emphasise the point that he has just made, more than 38 per cent. of them said that the threat of international fraud was a direct impediment to their developing their online services further.

That is true. It is a huge deterrent to small businesses.

I thought that I had secured a debate free of medical interest and that I was going to break the mould, but I met the editor of the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin recently who sent me a paper called “The counterfeiting superhighway”, by the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines, which mentions the huge numbers of online pharmacies that are putting at risk the people who use them. The foreword to that paper states:

“The internet has the power to be the greatest single force for good in history, the capacity to enable each of us to learn about people, places and events that were previously unimaginable.

How many of us would routinely invite fraudsters, thieves, pornographers, paedophiles, criminal gangs, terrorists and the like, into our homes? All of these inhabit the dark recesses of the internet and, every time we log on, we risk coming across them.”

The executive summary states:

“This report has been written with one goal in mind—to raise public awareness of the inherent dangers of purchasing prescription-only medicines…via the internet….The objective of this report was to clarify the likelihood of medicines purchased online being counterfeit, substandard or otherwise illegal, and to develop recommendations that will protect patients and consumers from the potentially lethal outcomes of access to these products.”

Some of the research published in the report is terrifying. In only 6.2 per cent. of online pharmacies is there a named, verifiable pharmacist; only 9.7 per cent. require a prescription for prescription-only medicines; 55 per cent. offer bulk discounts; and fewer than two in 10 physically exist, which means that they do not have a traceable bricks-and-mortar address.

The conclusion to the report states:

“With just an internet connection and a credit card, medicines that are stringently regulated in Europe and global markets can be bought effortlessly over the internet. As the results of this research reveal, the actual products delivered to buyers range from genuine—though still illegal—to dangerous substandard copies and illicit counterfeit products…At present, online buyers receive no shelter from the threat, and ironically the attraction, afforded by deceptive and corrupt online medicine sales.”

Here we have another example of ruthless criminals targeting the vulnerable.

We all call the hon. Gentleman “My hon. Friend”, and rightly so. Does he agree that the one issue the Government need to tackle is the lack of hard, verifiable data about the scale of the scams, frauds and cybercrime that are taking place? Even when hon. Members try to extract information about numbers of arrests, prosecutions and convictions for such crimes, the answer routinely bounced back is that such information is not held centrally. We need to start doing that so we can treat this area with the importance that it deserves and allocate adequate resources to it.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. As I have said, I am leaving it to the Minister to give us the answers; but I have one or two suggestions for him, one of which is that we need a widely co-ordinated campaign of research to discover the depth of the problem and ways to produce awareness in the ordinary person. I hope that the Minister will help us in this way when he winds up. It is essential that we try to catch and punish the criminals, but doing so will be extremely difficult. Our job is to raise the awareness of the vulnerable so that they are less likely to be caught.

I have one suggestion, request or recommendation. However, first, I remind hon. Members of the marvellous little book, “Commons Knowledge”, written by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), which has 10 commandments for Back-Bench Members of Parliament, including,

“Serve…the weak and the neglected”

and “seek the silent voices”. It is these people whom we are trying to protect: the older people living alone, suffering hardship because of inadequate pensions and because their savings have gone long ago. They are soft targets, and they are subject to scams by phone, by letter and, sometimes, by e-mail.

This is a timely debate. Since we are talking about raising awareness, does the hon. Gentleman agree that financial institutions have a duty to protect their customers? They are only too ready to send us letters and communications about all the services that they sell, yet they are not taking responsibility for informing customers about phishing attacks and how to better protect themselves. Is it not about time that the banks and financial institutions took some responsibility for protecting their own customers?

In an ideal world, yes. The huge problem is that I am beginning to distrust anything that comes from my bank by e-mail or mail. I am rather confused about the whole thing.

How do we get at ordinary people to warn them? Already, there have been lots of efforts at warning people on the internet and in the press, but a huge co-ordinated awareness campaign on TV, radio, press and internet is needed, so that few people can miss it and so that the elderly who do miss it can be warned by their relatives, friends, home helps or visiting nurses. I would hate to invent yet another special day, much as I would hate to invent another all-party group, but we could have a scam alert day—SAD—because it is sad that we need it. What day could we have that on? What is the saddest day of the year? It is the first Monday after the new year holiday. Monday is always sad, so scam alert day should be the first Monday in the new year.

When such a day is launched, a slogan is needed. In the 1700s, Lord Chesterfield had the slogan

“ridicule is the best test of truth”.

We have the modern equivalent of that already—although I did not invent it. That slogan is, “If it’s too good to be true, it’s not true.” We must blazon that abroad.

I think, Mr. Cook, that you are nearly as ancient as I am, so you will remember various slogans from the war that will never be forgotten—for example, “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases” and “Careless talk costs lives”. Why do we remember them? Because they were associated with a brilliant cartoon. On scam alert day, we need a huge cartoon to be launched with the caption, “If it’s too good to be true, it’s not true.”

If hon. Members will allow me a moment of levity, I shall describe the cartoon I would draw—if I could draw. The cartoon would be of Pinocchio, who was caught by a terrible scam, promised all sorts of goodies and went to the land where they were turned into donkeys. However, he had a conscience—Jiminy Cricket—who was a beautifully dressed cricket with a big badge saying “conscience”. My cartoon would have a picture of Jiminy Cricket lecturing Pinocchio and saying, “If it’s too good to be true, it’s not true.”

I really think we could do something to tackle this problem. Like Barack Obama walking towards the impossible dream, if we could raise the awareness of these scams so that people no longer take them up, in the words of the South African author Bryce Courtenay, we could

“dream the impossible dream and start walking towards it”.

It is a delight to see you so early in the morning, Mr. Cook, and to be under your tutelage. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on raising the issue. Like him, I passionately use the internet and could not exist without it; we google for Britain daily. We learn a lot from the internet, but the downside of it is the scams that take place, some of which he has described. I shall discuss some of medical scams that take place and are a problem.

The first scam I shall talk about is the genetic health warning. I have had permission to do so from Professors Clarke and Frayling, who have not published the information yet—although it is in the process of being published. They are both at the Institute of Medical Genetics at Cardiff university and are very senior individuals. Professors Clarke and Frayling talk about a recent TV programme “The Killer in Me”, which showed four celebrities carrying out a battery of genetic tests.

The website of the company Genetic Health states:

“Genetic Health has proudly partnered with ITV for a one off…documentary”.

The information produced by Professors Clarke and Frayling states:

“These tests, it was claimed, would indicate the susceptibility of each individual to a set of the common, complex degenerative diseases of today including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's dementia, osteoporosis and some of the common cancers.”

They take issue with the programme because it is accessible on the internet. Their argument will come out and will I am sure be on TV again. Some of the seductive techniques used to do the tests are exemplified in their paper, which also takes issue with

“the misrepresentation of what the test results could mean to the clients; the active promotion of the tests despite the evident doubts and uncorrected misconceptions of the ‘customers’; the qualifications and conduct of those undertaking the face-to-face marketing”.

The paper asks:

“Is it acceptable for a registered medical practitioner to front a company offering health-related services?”

Quite clearly, the professors’ point is that we have a professional organisation of genetic centres in the national health service through which thorough testing is carried out. People’s permission and consent to do so is obtained and they are advised and informed statistically and in other ways what the chances are that they have a genetic disease. No attempt is made to fool people in the way that this company is by saying, “You’re going to get dementia; you’d better do something about it.” We could guess what kind of advice the company gives people: a change of diet, stop drinking alcohol and start walking or running. People pay £100, £200 or £500 for that advice.

I shall refer to some of the other scams I have pulled off the internet. One is That website offers conventional tests and it has been said that it makes wildly exaggerated claims about cancer. The website states:

“Anti-malignin antibody screen test is designed to pick up cancers well in advance of other signs and symptoms, months before conventional medical tests can detect it.”

The website has a wonderful way of getting out of the problem if the tests do not work. It states:

“However, for advanced cancer, if the antimalignin antibody is wiped out”—

whatever that means—

“the test won't work.”

I have looked at the 17 papers on the substance malignin—they have suddenly dried up. The most recent publication gives a sensitivity of 59 per cent. and 62 per cent. as a test for breast cancer, compared with internet claims that false positives are 5 per cent. and false negatives 7 per cent, which are quite striking levels. The same information is listed in relation to prostate and bowel cancer tests. Again, the website gets out of it by saying that the tests are not 100 per cent. accurate, but that it is as good as it gets. There is no mention of going to see a GP or using the national health service to get an accurate follow-up or advice and counselling.

The same problems exist in the field of allergy testing. I will not go into it in great detail, but food allergies can be detected in almost anybody. Again, get-out clauses exist, stating that there could be a false positive or false negative. The information is very misleading when taken in complete isolation. I am sure that many hon. Members have been asked to take a blood sample by doing a finger prick test. The finger is pricked with a lancet; the sample is put in a tube and sent off. It is difficult to do that; getting blood out of a finger—I was going to say stone—is not as easy as it sounds. All sorts of things can go wrong—for example, there could be an infection or dry skin could mean that the blood drops do not form properly.

Tests on two particular enzymes are also available to locate certain types of damage. Those enzymes are traditionally used in the national health service as well, but they are only good for identifying certain kinds of liver problems; they do not identify tumours and so on. Again, that means that someone is given a false reassurance that everything is fine with their liver and that they can go away happy, carry on drinking and do what they want and they will not get cancer.

The problems mean that these tests will not necessarily give someone an accurate diagnosis. So I ask hon. Members why people do not go to their GP, instead of sending a company a cheque for £100 to £500 for doing these tests. These scams go on all the time. Why are people conned into having these tests? They are worried, they think there is a problem, and so they see an advert or something on the internet and say, “I’ll have a look at this because it’s too long to wait for a GP to do it.”

These scams are perpetrated not just on bogus sites, but on highly reputable sites, such as eBay. That has 20 million items for sale and some 200,000 items will be added in the next hour and a half. Thousands of scams are linked to eBay and people are trying hard to combat that. Leicestershire is in fact the third worst area in terms of scams that have been detected. Does my hon. Friend believe that organisations such as eBay and the authorities should work together more intensively to promote the training of police officers to assist with the detection of awful incidents of this kind?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course, that is what has to happen; these scams have to be wiped out. At certain times in their life, people feel vulnerable. People look for the evidence in relation to scams and if it is scanty, false or not proven, it is criminal harm to perpetrate these frauds and lies that affect people’s lives. I am sure that many people whose health has been affected in this way keep quiet about it. The labs that do the work and the advertising on the internet are not accredited, and we all know that labs have to win accreditation certificates in the national health service. There must be proper processing, and the confidentiality of results must be assured. However, there is no way to be assured of the accuracy of the results that people receive from the organisations that we are discussing. They have an amazing turnaround time of 10 days. Hard-working NHS labs can do things in as little as 20 minutes if they are urgent or within 24 hours if they are routine.

People do take responsibility for their lives. They think that they have to do that. They are continually being told, “You must take responsibility for your health” and “Don’t bother the GP,” so of course when they are having those problems, they turn to the internet. There are other types of testing that I can mention. There is dietary testing and food allergy testing. It is possible to have pregnancy tests done as well. All sorts of sampling can be done on the internet, and all those things are fully provided by the NHS and easily available.

Many aspects of the labs carrying out the testing need to be examined. A recent court case involved a Harley street doctor who was carrying out IVF—in vitro fertilisation. He was untouchable for some time by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. The authority took it upon itself to raid him and there was subsequently a court case. Plenty of that is going on.

For every aspect of people’s health, there is an internet site and a company operating in the way that we are discussing. Whether it is headaches, migraines, tiredness, fatigue, weight problems, eczema, psoriasis, asthma, catarrh, sinus congestion, digestive disorders, anxiety, ME or depression, people can have a test for it if they want.

With all this testing for allergies and so on, I am thinking of going into business myself. I have thought of the perfect website. On it, I shall offer a genetic test for gullibility. I shall ask people to spit in a bottle and send it off to me with a cheque for £500. Two weeks later, they will receive a letter telling them exactly how gullible they are.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this timely debate. He spoke about having an internet scam or fraud awareness day once a year. I suspect that we should have them once a week, along with the gullibility test that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) spoke about, because much as we think that people should use common sense—“If you haven’t bought a ticket, you haven’t won a prize”—many people out there are fairly desperate. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest gave a perfect answer to my intervention in that respect. Those people are looking for an answer, and an easy answer is to take a prize even though they did not enter the draw for it.

Both hon. Gentlemen spoke about health, and slimming is another issue. For people who want to carry on eating what they like and doing no exercise whatever, there will be someone who claims that they can sell them a slimming solution for $500. Clearly, there is a need for the gullibility test again.

The hon. Gentleman is aware, though, of the way in which phishing works. If 1,000 e-mails are sent out claiming to be from Egg or HBOS, one or two of the recipients will have Egg or HBOS accounts—or have bought a Spanish lottery ticket—and those are the people who are caught. It is not just the gullible people whom we have to watch; it is everyone. I receive about three such e-mails a week. Thankfully, I have not yet had one claiming to be from my own bank.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely right. I am chairman of the all-party group on identity fraud and I know the issues only too well. We had ID fraud week a couple of weeks ago, which was about trying to raise awareness of such scams.

I loved the cartoon in this morning’s Metro. Barack Obama is standing in front of an American flag before thousands of adoring, cheering people, his arms out, and his first words on hearing that he has become President are, “What now?” That is perfect. What now? Well, the answer is that he has a lot of work on his hands. In the United States of America, phishing attacks cost $2.8 billion in 2006 alone, whereas in 2004 it was $137 million. That shows the rise in such attacks in a short time. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is absolutely right; the attacks are aimed at hitting only one or two of the 1,000 people who are sent the e-mails. I am in receipt of loads of those e-mails, which are incredibly professional. When you open one, it looks as though it has come from HSBC.

Well, one does not know when one receives those e-mails. When I open the initial e-mail and it is from HSBC telling me that unless I fill in certain details my online account will be closed, I am a bit worried because I do not have an account with HSBC and I think that it is awful that the people at HSBC are going to close that account that I do not have with them, so I do not respond. However, I have had such e-mails from other banks with which I do bank, and that is the problem. They are professional and they use the logos that the banks use. They even, because the people responsible have a lot of brass neck, tell the recipients what to do to protect themselves from internet fraud. They tell people measures that they should take to protect themselves, because they are out to rob people’s money and they want to do things as professionally as they can.

I cannot say to people in this case, “How gullible can you be?” The people responsible want bank details and passwords. The people who respond think that they are sending the information to the bank, but it is redirected to the scamsters in Nigeria or wherever they are operating from. Nigeria, for whatever reason, seems to be a growth area in this business. Those involved only need 1 per cent. of people to answer. They can rake in millions of dollars from that small percentage.

I am amazed that people still respond when they receive an e-mail from someone whom they do not know in Nigeria who says that their husband has died and they wish to give them 10 per cent. of $150 million if they will help them to move the money. Let us say that I receive such an e-mail. The idea is that I help the person to move their money from Nigeria into my bank account. Then I give them the money minus 10 per cent., which I am to keep. I do not know those people, but they are trusting me to do that operation. Again, a gullibility test is needed. How stupid can some people be that they respond to those e-mails? However, the fact is—the hon. Member for Wyre Forest was right on this—that there is a small group of people out there who are vulnerable, trusting and, in some cases, desperate. They need money.

I have recently looked at boiler room fraud activity. I have seen letters from people who only wanted to get a bit of money to make their family secure, so they invested in worthless shares that were sold to them as a result of telephone calls from people whom they did not know.

The hon. Gentleman refers to Nigeria as the source of a good number of these crimes. Of course, there are other countries where they are also common. Does he agree that as a gesture of good faith, our Government ought to be working more actively internationally and that, in addition to signing the international treaty on the combating of cybercrime, which happened in 2001, it is high time that we ratified it and started to put more political clout behind that international campaign?

I am more than happy to be the conduit for that message to be passed on to the Minister, who I am sure, as he is writing his notes, will give a full and frank explanation as to when the treaty will be ratified. What has been said is absolutely right. We live in a global world. We see from the financial crisis that something that happened in one part of the world has affected everyone. The same applies to internet fraud. There are groups of people operating. For some reason, there is boiler room fraud in Spain. Groups of people there are trying to suck people’s money away using the telephone.

Part of the problem is that chip and PIN, which was introduced a few years ago, has been so successful at stopping people stealing credit cards and taking money in that way that the fraudsters have moved on to the internet and telephones. That fraud has gone up as fraud from stolen credit cards has gone down. There is still a problem with credit cards. Scams are still operating whereby people install software or a little camera and are able to work out people’s passwords. Yet people still use the same password for up to six cards. People are still afraid to put their hand over the chip and PIN keypad when entering their four digits, yet that is exactly what they should do. Even when at an ATM, they should put their free hand over the keypad in case there is a hidden camera above it. It is even possible that something has been installed inside the machine; everything may look all right but the purpose is to skim information off the card and to use it later. Chip and PIN has been effective; as a result, much more fraud is happening on the internet and the telephone.

I return to something that I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Wyre Forest. When financial institutions send out statements or bits of information, or ask us to borrow yet more money, or to take out insurance or whatever else they are selling, for goodness’ sake, they should shove in a bit of paper to tell the customer about the latest scams, such as boiler room fraud.

I have never received any information from my bank telling me to watch out for phishing attacks. However, many people simply do not know what phishing attacks are all about. If they have not been warned by their banks or the credit card companies, why should they be on the lookout for them? They may think it a bit odd now and again to receive an e-mail from another bank, one that they do not deal with, and they probably say to themselves, “Oh well, I’ve been sent that in error.” The fact is that people need to be told.

Awareness of scams is limited, and there are always new ones. As one scam is closed, the fraudsters are already thinking of the next one. There is no final victory. We need the financial institutions and the Government to tell us all the time what is going on.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned various scams. One scam has not yet been discussed. Phishers from other countries will sometimes try to develop a personal relationship with the recipient of an e-mail, eventually agreeing to come here to meet that person—probably a vulnerable person—but on the way to the airport they have a crash and are taken to hospital. They then say that they need money to be sent to them immediately so that they can get out of hospital and come over here—or some such heart-rending story. Those are the more sinister and awful scams. They play on people’s relationships and emotions.

I had not heard of that. That is a new one, and people should be made aware of it. We are talking about vulnerable people, but the perpetrators are callous and do not care. They do not care that an 80-year-old lady will lose her life savings. All they want is her money. I have been told of people in hospital being sent flowers by fraudsters in order to get more money from them. How callous can they be? Yet that is exactly what they do. That was a good example of a scam—one that I have not heard of before.

I believe that the onus is on the Government, working with the financial institutions, to run an advertising campaign. I cannot remember the last campaign on ID fraud. Capital One, in trying to sell its credit cards, now and again says that one can take out protection against ID fraud. How about the Government working with the financial institutions in running a proper campaign? Given the credit crunch, this is a time when everyone’s awareness ought to be raised, because a lot more people will be desperate for cash. We are coming up to Christmas and people will want to buy presents for their families. They may have lost their job or seen their savings being depleted, and they will be desperate for money. This is the time when people ought to be aware that others out there will be trying to get their money.

It has been suggested that we need to take an international approach, working with police forces throughout the world on intelligence in order to close such scams.

One case mentioned by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest was of a professional man—someone who ought to have known better but who, for all sorts of reasons, went ahead. Many of the letters that I have been shown by victims of fraud fall into that category. People say, “How come they fell for that? How come they parted with thousands of pounds to someone they did not know?” It happens because people are vulnerable, and if the fraudster gets them at the right moment they will part with their cash. In many cases, however professional people are, they do not believe that nasty people out there are quite prepared to steal their money.

Common sense is important. “Buyer beware” is vital on the internet, because whatever the problem, someone will be trying to sell an easy solution. Awareness is the order of the day. We cannot turn the internet back. Sales on the internet are huge, and we need to do a lot more to protect people from themselves, and from their own gullibility.

I make one aside. Financial institutions and the credit and debit card companies should invest far more in new technology. For instance, people using their credit cards to buy stuff on the phone are asked for the three digits on the back of the card or the four digits on the front. I know of one instance when the person taking that information used it against the person who owned the card. The number was written on a slip of paper and put in a pocket. The information was then abused. When buying items on the computer or even on the telephone, why cannot we slip the card into the mobile telephone or tap the numbers into the phone so that no one can hear the information that we have to give for the security check?

Internet fraud is on the rise. We have to do more to protect people. One thing that must be done is to ensure that people are far more aware of possible scams.

Order. In the absence of further contributions from the Floor, I remind Members that we must terminate the debate at 11 o’clock. Forty-four minutes remain for debate. We now start the first of the three winding-up speeches. I appeal to the Opposition Front-Bench speakers not to exceed more than a third of that time each.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this debate, and on representing his constituents so effectively—a role which we all play as Members of Parliament.

For the purposes of this debate, I looked back to my debate on 5 December 2007, which was on the same subject. The Chairman on that occasion, the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), took exception to the direction in which I took the debate. I was focusing on the fact that, a couple of days before, we had seen the loss of 25 million family records. I thought at one point, Mr. Cook, when you were leaning forward, that you were about to leap on the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who was focusing on medical fraud and those who promote or encourage medical tests. I wondered whether you were about to call him to order for taking the debate in a slightly different direction.

I was fortunate in that previous debate to have been well briefed, thanks to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who is chairman of the all-party group on identity fraud. That group’s work has informed all who have taken part in today’s debate.

Hon. Members are familiar with the different types of internet fraud. Phishing has been mentioned, as has identity fraud, spamming and scamming. I would like to add another—spoof websites. I do not know whether other hon. Members have suffered from spoof websites. The one that I have in mind was a local site for Sutton’s Liberal Democrats. When we clicked on the link, we found that the site purported to describe Liberal Democrat policy. Apparently, we were in favour of boiling babies, killing the first born and many other atrocious things. Hon. Members will of course be surprised to find that the organisation behind that site was the local Labour party.

I am certainly not new Labour. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point about political fraud. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), whose debate it is, used the slogan, “If it looks too good to be true, it’s not true.” The problem with that is that it includes virtually every Liberal Democrat “Focus” leaflet I have ever seen.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. When he sought to intervene on me, I am not sure that he intended to make that point—he clearly adjusted his intervention in an effective and immediate way.

One extremely good point raised by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest is that we could all be subject to internet fraud if we are not careful. Other hon. Members will have read the briefing for the debate, and will have been surprised or entertained to find that no less a figure than President Sarkozy had his bank account hacked into and sums withdrawn. He will no doubt be taking legal action over that, and I hope that he is successful. However, I am pleased to find that he was not successful in taking legal action against a firm that had produced a little voodoo doll in his shape. He took offence to that, principally because the manufacturers suggested that a life-size version should be produced.

I must move on to more serious matters. Hon. Members have mentioned different types of internet fraud. The statistics are alarming—we have had some from the US to allow the Obama link to be made, as well as statistics from the UK. The potential for internet fraud is huge. More than 15 million households in the UK have internet access and that is the pool in which phishers and others can work. In 2007, over 50 per cent. of adults purchased goods or services over the internet. A huge number of adults use the internet and the pool of potential victims is enormous. I will come shortly to a quote from a Minister, which I think underlines the scale of the problem.

Positive developments have taken place since I held a debate on this subject last December. Just over a month ago on 1 October, the Government set up the new National Fraud Strategic Authority. Its remit is to ensure that the criminal justice system focuses on the needs of victims. There should be stronger deterrents to fraudsters, greater public confidence in the response to fraud, and individuals and organisations should be given greater capability to protect themselves. In a press release announcing the new strategic authority, the then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) said:

“Fraud is a crime that is second only to the illegal drugs trade in terms of its impacts on the UK.”

I shall return to that quotation in a few minutes.

The strategic authority has an interim chief executive. I hope that the Minister will say at what point he expects that position to become permanent, as that would give more strength to the organisation. The Government have also set up the police central e-crime unit. That will be operational by spring 2009, and perhaps the Minister will confirm that it is still on track. I know that appointments have been made to it, but it would be useful if he told us exactly how many officers will be based in that unit.

The Minister will be familiar with concerns that have been expressed about the level of funding available for the unit. We should bear in mind what the then Under-Secretary said about fraud as a crime being second only to illegal drugs, and hon. Members will have seen quotations from various other organisations. Gareth Elliott, policy adviser at the British Chambers of Commerce, said that establishing the police central e-crime unit was

“a step in the right direction but £7 million does not seem like very much compared to the cost of cybercrime.”

My point is about businesses and the issue of responsibility that was raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). A survey revealed that one in five employees share computer passwords and 63 per cent. of businesses do not restrict access to any website among their employees. That goes back to the point about the responsibility of the businesses themselves.

All individuals and businesses have a huge responsibility. I cannot say that I have never allowed someone else to use my login. It happens, and we should try to stop it happening, but we are probably all guilty of not enforcing the right protective measures at some point. As someone who worked for 13 years in the computer industry before being elected, I should know better than most about the importance of maintaining appropriate levels of security. Concerns have been raised about how many resources will go into that unit, and perhaps the Minister could tell us precisely what level the fraud will be reduced by. Has the organisation been set a target that it must meet, and will the proposed £7 million be sufficient for the task? It would be useful to know whether online pharmacies will fall within the remit of the police e-crime unit. Will it have the necessary skills to address that specific and recent development in relation to internet fraud?

As part of the new approach, a national fraud reporting centre and intelligence bureau is being established, and there are similar questions about how many staff will be based in that unit, when consumers can start reporting fraud online and, critically, whether people will be encouraged to report all fraud. Until now, the Home Office has actively encouraged people to report fraud directly to their banks as opposed to the police, and the concern is that the level of fraud may be significantly underreported because banks and other financial institutions do not want people to know how vulnerable they are to that crime. Will the Minister confirm whether people will be encouraged to report all crime to the reporting centre? It may be too early to say, but what can people expect to happen once they have reported a fraud? Is the purpose of the reporting centre to accumulate statistics and identify trends, or is it expected that once fraud has been reported, action will be taken or the matter passed to the relevant police force, so that something concrete will result as a result of the report?

A number of hon. Members have rightly pointed out that business has a responsibility here, as do individuals. It was suggested that financial institutions should take a more proactive approach in writing to their customers, highlighting concerns about fraud and making people aware of the latest scams. Perhaps the broadband companies could also do the same thing. People who use the internet will do so through a fixed line or a mobile phone, and telecommunications companies and those that supply broadband could also communicate with their customers on a regular basis to highlight how internet fraud is developing, what action people could take and what issues they should be aware of or worried about.

I do not want to go over my allotted time, so I shall draw my comments to a conclusion. Clearly, action is being taken, but there are concerns about, for example, whether the £7 million that will be put into the e-crime unit will be sufficient, and whether the unit will be sufficiently resourced to do the job in hand. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort that it will be able to do the job that it is required to do.

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this debate. It is timely, because there is insufficient awareness of the matters involved, not simply by the public, but by business and the Government. We shall make a difference only if all three aspects are properly addressed.

A report for the Association of Chief Police Officers estimates that all types of fraud costs the UK economy at least £14 billion and adds that it would be surprising if the true total was not higher. A separate US study estimates that the annual cost of internet fraud to the global economy amounts to $1 trillion. The threat is rising. Eight out of 10 major businesses were targeted by cybercriminals last year, and according to the police, e-crime is the most rapidly expanding form of crime in this country. One journal has even described cybercrime as “the new drugs.”

A survey for the Government's internet safety website suggests that the public feel much more at risk of being a victim of online crime than of being robbed on the street, having something stolen from their car, or having their house burgled. According to the Association for Payment Clearing Services, internet and e-commerce fraud on credit cards was £223.8 million in 2007, which was up by 45 per cent. on the previous year. The number of bogus websites purporting to be those of genuine banks or financial institutions to entrap unwary customers is growing exponentially, and in 2005, according to APACS, there were 1,713. Last year there were 25,797, which shows the scale of the growth, which is continuing.

The online identity firm, Garlik, estimates that online financial fraud has grown by 20 per cent. in a year with more than 250,000 incidents in 2007. Business continues to be targeted with more than two thirds of the members of the Corporate IT Forum, which is made up of technology managers at the UK's largest firms, reporting increases in the amount of hi-tech crime committed against them.

We should not kid ourselves that this problem emanates from overseas. According to the US Internet Crime Complaint Center—IC3—the UK is the second biggest source of cybercrime behind the US, accounting for one fifth of all cybercrime, and as technology continues to change, the threats continue to change. A recent report on a new Trojan virus suggested that it had compromised more than 270,000 bank accounts and 240,000 credit and debit cards in the US, Australia and Poland, using a clandestine drive-by-download approach, which would not alert the user.

Some malicious software is even being offered to criminal networks on the internet with “non-detection warranties.” We are seeing the development of an online black market with criminals buying illegal data from third parties on online data supermarkets, as well as sharing that malicious software. Cybercriminals are becoming much more organised in their approach with the Internet Security Forum suggesting that raids in the virtual world to steal personal information and customer data for financial gain and fraud are being planned like bank raids in the real world. The development of more targeted and specific, unsolicited e-mail phishing attacks incorporating stolen information on the recipient to give the fraud the air of legitimacy, and duping people who would not otherwise have agreed to confirm their banking details following a bogus request are also increasing. They even have their own title—spear phishing.

In its report, “Personal Internet Security” the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology described the Government as having their “heads in the sand” over cybercrime. A senior police officer noted recently that British politicians

“don't seem to have an appropriate sense of fear”

about cybercrime, adding that

“we need to terrify, encourage or excite them.”

Although there has been some slow movement by the Government since then, business is still not impressed, with 57 per cent. of technology managers at the UK's largest firms saying that they did not believe that the police would deal with hi-tech crime properly. David Roberts, head of the Corporate IT Forum, said:

“IT chiefs in UK PLCs don't think the government appreciates the scale of the cybercrime threat, the seriousness of the threat or how much it is costing.”

He added:

“Business confidence in the Government's ability to help them fight cybercrime is at rock-bottom.”

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government’s approach, whether to identity fraud, internet fraud or the level of resources, is matched by their repeated failure to look after data properly?

The data issue is relevant, and I shall address it further and in more detail.

The online payment company, CyberSource, notes in its fourth annual UK online fraud report that

“the lack of interest from the police cited by many merchants seems to be encouraging fraudsters to be ever more bold. In many cases they will place orders with stolen credit cards and then wait outside the victim's house to collect the goods.”

However, I welcome the Government's decision to adopt our policy of creating a special cybercrime policing unit. The new police central e-crime unit, headed by Detective Superintendent Charlie McMurdie, is an important step forward, and I want to put on the record my recognition of his work over a number of years to highlight the issue and to develop strategies to combat online fraud. We should be under no illusion that the PCECU is a panacea; it is just one part of the solution. As we have heard, there are questions about how it is being resourced and what capabilities it will have, but it is an admission by the Government that they were completely and fundamentally wrong to get rid of the national hi-tech crime unit in the first place. The Government must do much more to deal with the growing threat.

I continue to be struck by the lack of any real urgency, priority or apparent willingness to obtain proper data on the true scale and nature of the problem, or to ensure that, once obtained, the information received is properly categorised, catalogued and analysed. Police databases do not currently distinguish between whether frauds are committed electronically or not, nor do Home Office and prosecution figures, so we do not even know how many criminals are being brought to justice for such offences.

We have made it harder for the public to report such crime and to provide the intelligence necessary to allow a strategic response to identified patterns of threat. The transfer of responsibility for receiving reports of online financial fraud from the police to the banks, which was introduced last April, was a mistake. What sort of message does it send to the public if, having reported an internet banking scam to the police, they are simply told to get in touch with the bank first? At best, it sends out a confusing message about the importance attached to cyberfraud. At worst, it suggests that the Home Office either cannot cope or cannot be bothered with such crime. It also builds even more inertia into a system already in desperate need of a jolt. If a report is received, the bank decides whether that information is reported to the police. It is then at the police's discretion to decide whether that report is recorded and, if it is recorded, whether anything is done about it. We must see what impact the new National Fraud Reporting Centre will have in bridging that gap.

However, the threats are not limited to domestic criminals; there are also sophisticated international criminal networks. It is therefore obvious that we need to work with our partners abroad. I welcome the lead taken by the FBI in Operation Botroast to combat illegal botnets, which are used to carry out mass spam and other attacks. It has also infiltrated criminal networks that buy and sell credit card details and bank log-in information through the DarkMarket website. The Serious Organised Crime Agency, as an FBI partner, played a role in that operation. However, international co-operation is not working as effectively as it should at all levels. As we heard, the British Government signed the European cybercrime convention in 2001 but, seven years on, ratification has still not taken place. Will the Minister confirm when ratification will be complete?

We have heard about data and, indeed, many frauds are now perpetrated using illicit information obtained through clandestine means. Business, all agencies and Government therefore need to raise their game. Certainly, on data security, the Government’s record, to say the very least, is pretty poor. We are obviously all aware of the loss of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs records, but in the past year, according to reports filed by different Departments, the Government lost the records of 30 million people. Recent information disclosed that almost one public servant is dismissed or disciplined every single day for data breaches and inappropriate use of personal information. That matters, because if the information gets into the hands of criminal networks, they will use it to perpetrate fraud on the unwary and unsuspecting, and to cause damage not only to individuals, but to confidence in the internet as a trade and business platform.

The public need better information and advice on how to take active measures to protect themselves. If they should fall victim of an e-crime, they need to be confident both that there is a clear way of ensuring that the information is reported, and that it will be acted upon. We called for the establishment of a fraud and cybercrime complaints centre, linked to an online safety and advice portal that works with industry, to draw together best practice and advice and provide the most up-to-date information. Of course we have, but it is not a dynamic portal. It is not updated on a regular basis using the information that comes through on emerging threats. It needs to be much more dynamic in that regard: it needs to be co-ordinated with reporting and policing, and in terms of getting information to the public.

The public need to know that their personal information will not be compromised and that they can take steps to protect themselves against identity fraud and the risk of other frauds that come from it. That is why we would impose legal obligations on financial services companies to report data breaches to the Information Commissioner and, if required by him, to notify their customers so that they can take steps to protect themselves. I also believe that education and awareness of the potential risks in the online environment need to be enhanced. That is why we would promote cyber safety and security as a core part of all information and communications technology training in schools and colleges in this country.

The Government need to raise their game on data security and to set an example. They are not doing that well enough at the moment. That is why we would create an offence of reckless handling of personal data by Government, making it a criminal offence for a Crown servant or Government contractor to lose personal data from their control. It is also why we would scrap the approach of creating ever-bigger databases that, rather than protect us, put us at greater risk of falling victim to fraud-type crimes. Storing all that data in one place produces a kind of honeypot effect. It attracts criminals who would use the information, which will have an impact if the data leaches away.

This country urgently needs to up its game. As CyberSource noted:

“As long as criminals believe they can get away with committing fraud against online merchants, the problem will continue to grow to a point where it may challenge the competitiveness of the on-line model”.

If the Government do not take cybercrime seriously, it would simply reinforce in the minds of the criminal gangs the idea that this country is a soft touch. If they think that, we are all more likely to be the next victim of internet fraud.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this debate and drawing our attention to this important issue. He has achieved at least his first objective of raising awareness of the matter. I am sure that all hon. Members are extremely sorry to hear about his constituent who was a victim of such distressing fraud. Unfortunately, the case that he recounted is serious but not unique. I also appreciate the comments of other hon. Members. They bring a great deal of knowledge and understanding to this important matter. Perhaps until the last contribution, there was a recognition that the problem is complex and that it will take more than Government to tackle it. The internet provides many valuable opportunities and benefits for law-abiding businesses and individuals but, unfortunately, some will always seek to exploit new technologies for criminal ends.

I anticipated that the hon. Gentleman would raise health-related issues, and I should like to respond briefly and generally to the points that he made. We want people to be able to order medicines from legitimate online providers. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has introduced a local scheme for registered sites, and purchasers should look for the logo when buying their medicines. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency carries out enforcement action against illegal and unauthorised sites that operate in the UK, and works with international partners to tackle the threat to the health of the public. I shall go away and consider the points that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) made and write to them—the latter took the point to another level altogether.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of an awareness campaign. We have awareness campaigns across Government, and I shall give some examples and say what we are already doing later. As I said, I will take his ideas on the matter away and consider them.

The story of how the crimes come about has been recounted by many people. E-mail provides criminals with the opportunity to target many thousands of people in the hope that some of them—it takes only a small minority—fall victim to promises of unexpected entitlements or prizes, such as foreign lottery wins. The fraudster often maintains that before the prize or entitlement can be released, the victim must pay a series of charges. Sometimes, fraudsters claim that they are demanding Government-imposed levies, such as a customs fee from HMRC or money for an anti-terrorism certificate from the Home Office. As in the unfortunate case we have heard about, they produce professional-looking letters that purport to come from Departments in an attempt to convince the intended victim that they are genuine.

Victims often become embroiled and lose a great deal of money before the scam becomes apparent. Worse, they may also find that they are at risk of identity theft if they have provided personal financial details to the fraudster.

We have spoken about the fact internet fraud is one of the fastest-growing crimes, not only in the UK, but the world. However, there could be an element of under-reporting to the police, because some people who have been victims of scams, when they come to their senses, think, “How stupid I have been.” They are embarrassed to report the crime to the police. Does the Minister accept that every victim should put their embarrassment to one side and report crimes so that the police at least have more leads as they try to tackle them?

That is a fair and important point. It reflects the subtle nature of fraud crimes. Somehow, people feel that they have brought it upon themselves and are reluctant to report it. People have been reluctant to report other crimes, but when they realise that there are sanctions available, that action will be taken and that the Government and others are interested, they get increased confidence and come forward. Our obligation is to demonstrate that those things are in place.

One thing that complicates matters for the Government is that many frauds are committed by criminals resident outside the UK. That presents difficulties of identification and investigation for law enforcement, and often means that victims are unlikely to get back their money. The Office of Fair Trading formed its scambusters team to address mass-marketing fraud. It cannot investigate individual cases or get money back for consumers, but, by working with other organisations, it can disrupt fraudsters and shut down their operations. The OFT’s Scams Enforcement Group brings together a number of law enforcement agencies, including trading standards and other partners, and focuses on law enforcement, consumer education and disruption of scammers’ routes to market.

The OFT also runs a scams awareness week every year. I shall refer to other awareness weeks later in my remarks, but I want to say now that it alarms me that someone as knowledgeable as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is not aware of that. That is not a criticism of him, but of the way in which the event is run. I will take that point away with me and consider it further.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Nigerian law enforcement agency. I want to confirm that we work closely with law enforcement agencies in different countries, including the EFCC. A number of hon. Members inquired about the convention. I can confirm that we will begin the formal parliamentary process to ratify it by the end of this month, with full ratification, subject to parliamentary approval, by the end of January 2009.

For the benefit of hon. Members, will the Minister explain why there has been such a long delay? Have there been specific issues that the Government have had to address? What is the reason for the length of time it has taken?

When Government seek to sign up to treaties such as this, there are always a number of complex issues. I do not know the exact answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will consider the matter and contact him later.

Advance fee fraud is just one form of fraud that can be enabled by the internet. Criminals often use the internet to carry out card-not-present fraud. They use stolen card details to purchase goods or services over the internet, and they also commit online banking fraud through the sending of e-mails that attempt to trick online banking customers into releasing personal financial details. I want to confirm to hon. Members that the Government take such fraud very seriously because it is a serious criminal matter. However, it is a notoriously difficult area in which to gather information. Robust pieces of research suggest the level of that fraud. A recently published report commissioned by the Association of Chief Police Officers suggested that, overall, fraud cost a minimum of £13.9 billion per annum. The OFT estimated that in 2006 UK customers lost around £3.5 billion to scams. The most recent annual card fraud figures published by the payments industry showed that total card fraud losses in 2007 amounted to just over half a billion pounds. Behind those figures is a victim facing a loss. At the minimum, they face distress and inconvenience and, in some cases, they face financial and personal ruin.

The Government have allocated £29 million over three years to implement the national fraud programme. That includes the creation of a National Fraud Strategic Authority, which was launched earlier this month. The authority will provide a strategic focus and mechanism for counter-fraud activity. It will develop and co-ordinate the delivery of a national fraud strategy, engaging stakeholders from across the economy. I was asked about the appointment of a chief executive. I can tell hon. Members that interviews will be held shortly, and we hope to make the appointment by the end of this year. The work of the National Fraud Strategic Authority is also overseen by a cross-departmental ministerial group, which I chair jointly with the Attorney-General.

The national fraud programme also includes additional funding for City of London police to take on a new national lead force role, offering assistance to other forces and establishing a centre of excellence to co-ordinate training and best practice. That expands the City’s lead force status for fraud in the south-east, for which the force has received additional funding from the Government and the Corporation of London since 2004-05.

A national fraud reporting centre, expected to go live in 2009, will also be established. It will radically streamline the way in which the public report fraud—including fraud committed over the internet—to the police. A promise that the police will investigate every fraud reported to the centre would probably be way beyond the resources of any law enforcement agency anywhere in the world. None the less, the centre will provide a powerful intelligence tool to law enforcement agencies that will help them to target available resources in areas in which they have the best chance of success. It will also help to form the basis of better prevention advice and alerts to fraud threats for business and the public.

The Minister may not be able to deal with this matter immediately, but if people report fraud to this centre, they will be concerned if they do not see any action. Will the Minister make it clear what people will be entitled to if they have made a report to this centre?

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that is pertinent not just to this debate but to policing in general. We are working with police forces to consider ways in which we deal with crime in general. We are looking at what the public can expect by way of standards and follow-up when they engage with police forces. I caution anyone against thinking that simply because they report a fraud there will necessarily be some action and a result at the end. I am sure that the authorities will do everything that they can, but I do not want to hold out false promise. The standard of service that people can expect is a fair point to make.

In addition to the national fraud programme, and in recognition that fraud committed through the internet requires specialist attention, we are also setting up the police central e-crime unit, which will be based in the Metropolitan police, to tackle electronic crime, and specifically fraud. The unit will act as the central unit for the police on promotion of standards for training, procedure and response to e-crime. It will bring together forces, the National Policing Improvement Agency and other groups to develop training and to co-ordinate activity to build up the skill levels within policing. There has been criticism about the amount of money that has been put into the unit. Let me explain to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) that this is not the only unit that will be seeking to tackle fraud. The important thing is that the unit will be working with other police forces that have a funded capability. The figure that the hon. Gentleman quotes is not the end of the story. We are working on our targets, but it is a bit rich to ask where the targets will be when we are under a great deal of pressure not to have targets. Of course we want the unit to succeed and we will be working with it to ensure that it does. We are looking to recruit staff at present. As they will be specialised, I cannot give any numbers.

Clearly, the initial amount of money may not be enough, and the Government may need to look at that again. Will the Minister say something about the responsibility of the financial institutions themselves because they need to do a lot more to protect their customers?

In many respects, the Government agree with the recognition by the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee that the problems facing us in making the internet safe cannot be addressed by Government, or any other group, alone. That is why we seek to bring together lots of different agencies and the industry. The industry has a responsibility as well. A joint get safe online week takes place and is supported by both the Government and the industry. We work closely with industry to identify ways of preventing fraud. Something that is not well known is that the Home Office works with industry on designing out crime. We work with a range of designers to see how we, and other areas in industry, can learn the lessons. I am sure that there is greater scope for more work in that regard.

Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I thank the Minister for giving up his time to respond to this short debate on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Although it is a little late, I welcome him to his new post and wish him well in what I think everybody would agree is one of the most challenging posts in Government.

I asked for this debate because I represent a constituency where fruit farming is the dominant type of agriculture. Kent is a county whose reputation as the garden of England is defined by its fruit farms, and I made my maiden speech on the subject when I entered the House in 2001. Since that time, I have served as secretary of the all-party group on the fruit industry, so this debate is taking place on behalf of the wider fruit sector as well as my own constituents.

However, it goes a great deal further than Kentish fruit farms. Since this debate was announced, I have been approached by many colleagues representing constituencies where other horticultural crops are grown. My concerns today are shared by, among many others, my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who support this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who reports similar concerns among his constituents who grow salad, legume and asparagus.

Given the timelines involved in the proposal to end SAWS in 2010, this is an opportune moment to raise concerns, as the Minister has the opportunity to take action now to prevent a disaster a year or 18 months hence. He should be in no doubt that it is a serious and genuine problem and not just the standard Westminster Hall whinge. I know of three growers in my constituency who have had to let crops rot in the ground as a result of labour shortages, and the problems caused by the abolition of SAWS were the dominant topic of conversation at the national fruit show three weeks ago.

The National Farmers Union’s seasonal labour survey for 2008 showed that a staggering 61 per cent. of respondents claimed to have lost income as a result of labour shortages, of which 58 per cent. was directly due to crops that could not be harvested. In effect, the crops were simply left to rot in the ground. A further 30 per cent. of losses were due to crops that, because of labour shortages, were harvested so late as to be unsaleable by the time they reached the market. The best estimate for total losses this year is £8 million, but that figure is expected to rise dramatically in 2009, and the figures are almost bound to be a serious underestimate, as less successful growers tend not to respond to the survey in the first place and growers more generally are notoriously unwilling to admit to failing to harvest crops.

Before examining the issues, I hope that we can agree on three specific principles. First, fruit farming, like horticulture more generally, is an activity that we all ought to support. All growers are vital small to medium-sized businesses that feed other parts of the local economy on the farms where they are situated, such as packing and transportation. When we last debated this issue 18 months or two years ago, fruit farming accounted for 12 per cent. of agriculture in this country, or 19 per cent. if the effect of subsidies is disaggregated. The industry produces high-quality produce close to the marketplace and, crucially, is completely unsubsidised. The Government’s healthy eating strategies, such as five a day, require UK growers to produce the fruit and vegetables necessary to make them work. In areas of top fruit farming, yielding fruit such as apples and pears, the trees also define the landscape. It is precisely because of fruit farming that Kent is known as the garden of England. Horticulture is an unqualified good thing.

The second principle is that, through successive Governments, SAWS has been a fantastic success for more than 40 years. SAWS is well managed by the operating companies and licensed by the Home Office, and all participating farms are carefully monitored. All participants in the scheme are genuine students, the money that they earn is taken home and invested in economies less developed than ours and, crucially, the abscondence rate is tiny. Many who come here as SAWS students go on to have successful agricultural careers in their own home countries; indeed, at the time of our last SAWS debate two years ago, the Polish Minister of Agriculture was Thomas Kowalski, who is an ex-SAWS student. In short, it is a fantastically successful scheme that should be nurtured and encouraged, not closed down.

The third and final principle, which is crucial, is that this is not an immigration and asylum issue. Participants are not looking to earn the right to stay here or to disappear into the black economy. It is a seasonal labour programme in which students come here on a work visa to gain specific agricultural experience relevant to their studies, earn some money and then go home. It makes no contribution to the more general immigration and asylum debate.

(North-East Cambridgeshire) I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that SAWS is a well-tried and tested system in which seasonal workers do not place pressure on the housing market or impinge on the benefits or schooling systems? As he rightly says, it is not to be confused with migration and immigration issues.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank him for that intervention. That is exactly the issue. SAWS workers come to do a specific task for a specific time, benefit hugely from the experience and then go home.

So what is the problem? At its peak in 2004, 25,000 students visited the UK through SAWS to work on our farms, earn money to take home and learn about our language and culture, as my hon. Friend said. The Government’s investigation into the matter, the Curry report, recommended that the number of places on the scheme should be increased to 50,000, or double that peak. However, despite that, the Government have committed to abolishing SAWS by 2010, in the hope that the shortfall will be filled by EU workers, particularly those from A8 accession countries.

The problem with that is fourfold. First, as I understand it, all restrictions on A8 accession countries are due to be lifted by 2011. Britain—I shall be careful how I say this—is not necessarily the most attractive European destination for unfettered migrant labour due to its climate, geographical isolation and associated higher travel costs. Worker registration scheme figures since 2006 support that, showing a downward trend in the number of A8 nationals coming to work in the UK in general and in UK horticulture in particular.

Secondly, there is a growing body of evidence that A8 workers are much more reluctant than SAWS students to work in horticulture. That is probably not a great surprise. They tend to filter away to less physically taxing jobs in the hospitality industry.

Thirdly—I would be the first to admit that this falls outside the Minister’s remit, but it is part of the larger problem—the domestic work force is reluctant to work in horticulture. The problem is closely related to the structure of the benefits system, which discourages the unemployed from taking temporary, seasonal work.

Finally, the Home Office has implemented year-on-year reductions in the number of seasonal agricultural workers in the years preceding the abolition of the scheme in 2010. In short, all the evidence suggests that the idea of replacing SAWS with A8 accession country labour will lead to a serious shortage in the work force, which will cause crops to rot, as we have started to see this year, and growers and horticulturalists to leave the sector. That cannot be a good thing in an economic downturn.

The solution is relatively simple and is fourfold. First, horticulture desperately needs an increase in the size of the remaining SAWS quota to manage the downturn in migrant numbers from the A8 accession countries. That would bring much-needed business confidence to the archetypically labour-intensive sectors of horticulture, such as soft fruit, top fruit and salad vegetables, and would be an easy win for the Government. Estimates from the NFU suggest that the recommended quota should be 21,250 for 2009 and at least 25,000 for 2010, or back to 2004 levels. If the Government really wanted to make their name with the industry, they could also lengthen the amount of time a seasonal worker can stay from six to nine months.

The second and longer-term solution is that horticulture desperately needs a new points-based system, or PBS, that is compatible with SAWS, and which embodies all the pre-2007 elements of SAWS. It would be perfectly reasonable to include new criteria that respond to broader societal concerns about the wider immigration and asylum debate, although, as I said earlier, this is strictly not an immigration and asylum issue. Such a scheme could easily include checks on arrival and departure for participating students; responsibility for ensuring departure being devolved to the SAWS operators, with return agreements in place with source countries; a strong educational and cultural bias, so that participants improve their English language skills and develop an understanding of British culture; and an appropriate inspection regime, including, if necessary, standards of accommodation and other employment conditions.

I know from my own experience—every year that I have been an MP, I have visited fruit farms over the summer, where many SAWS students are employed—that many growers do all of those things already. They have a programme of cultural visits, English language lessons in the evening, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, the industry should welcome an increase in standards across the board.

The third solution, and this falls outside the Minister’s remit, is to channel more inactive British citizens into horticulture. The Government have recognised this problem with the 2007 Freud report, “Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work”. I absolutely support the central tenets of that report, which include: implementing well-designed unemployment benefit systems and active labour market policies; making non-employment benefits more work-orientated, and adjusting taxes and other transfer payments to make work pay.

The Spanish example of a fixed, discontinuous contract, which allows a worker to have a contract with a company but only to be paid when work is available, is also worth examining. Such a system would do much to encourage the unemployed, those claiming jobseeker’s allowance and students to work in horticulture, and it would be an important element of any future solution to the problems that horticulture faces.

Finally, if I am being honest there are a number of solutions that horticulture itself needs to adopt. It needs to ensure that both horticulture in particular and agriculture more generally are attractive career options for younger people. Initiatives such as the Grow web portal, which is due for launch in November 2008, and the introduction of a land-based agriculture diploma are all hugely positive developments. However, the industry needs to do more, alongside the changes that I have requested of the Government, to alter perceptions of horticulture.

I am listening extremely carefully to the proposals for solving this problem that my hon. Friend is putting forward. As I understand it, an EU directive is behind this change to SAWS; it says that we cannot bring in workers from outside the EU if there are EU workers available to do the work. However, this is not just a problem for the UK. As I understand it, France, Spain, Germany and Italy all have similar problems. They seem to be getting round them by allowing quotas of non-EU people to come into their country to do this very important agricultural work. Is that idea worth consideration?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; such a quota would be a crucial plank of any new post-2010 agreement that would be put in place as a replacement for SAWS. It is very difficult to get an exact handle on all of these issues, but I am told that the problem is not so bad in countries such as Spain, because they are naturally a more attractive destination to students than the UK sometimes is, because of the greater travel costs to the UK and the climate here.

Absolutely. [Laughter.]

In conclusion, I hope that we can all agree that we should support horticulture in general and fruit farming in particular. The availability of labour is a key component—in some ways, it is the key component—in the industry’s success and future viability. Horticulture has been fantastically well served by SAWS under Governments of all colours for many years, but the scheme in its current form is due to end in 2010. All the early evidence suggests that labour from the A8 countries will not cover that shortfall.

What I need to impress on the Minister today is that horticulture desperately needs some breathing time. That could be achieved by extending the life of SAWS, as it is currently constituted, and increasing the number of people allowed into the country under the scheme. That would buy the time necessary to agree a new replacement scheme, containing precisely the elements suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, and whatever changes are necessary to existing regulations here in the UK to encourage more British citizens into horticulture.

The point of this debate—apart from welcoming the new Minister to his post, of course—was, first, to alert the Minister to the problem and, secondly, to highlight in general terms, and I am the first to admit that I am talking only in general terms, a number of possible solutions that he can, hopefully, work through with the NFU, SAWS operators and the wider industry. The clock is ticking to 2010, but there is still time to find a solution.

It is again a pleasure, Mr. Cook, to serve under you today.

I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) for his kind words. He said that my post was one of the trickiest jobs in Government and I agree. [Laughter.]

I also want to say that the hon. Gentleman’s contribution has highlighted exactly what the value of these short debates is. He said that his objective was to alert the Government to this problem and to put forward some solutions. I congratulate him, because he has done both those things. Having the detailed knowledge of a Member of Parliament who has a constituency involved in this sector is a godsend to a new Minister, alongside, of course, the information that the civil service professionally brings to my attention.

So I sincerely thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments today and I would like to suggest that the way forward, if he is amenable, is that we have a meeting, either with or without the NFU, which I want to meet in any event to discuss what the future of SAWS should be, because I think that the public would not understand what was happening if they saw that fruit and crops were not being picked and they would want the Government to provide a solution, within the remit of our wider policy.

First, I would just like to set out where we are on SAWS; I cannot answer all of the hon. Gentleman’s questions today, as I will explain. I have some personal knowledge of seasonal agricultural working in my part of the world, not in fruit picking but in haymaking, where the local children—usually boys, but sometimes boys and girls—would be hired by the farmers to get their hay in. Our local rural economy was absolutely dependent on that practice. I am sure that others, later in life, have gone to perhaps more attractive climates to pick fruit; I think that it was grapes in the case of the hon. Gentleman. So, as I say, I have some personal understanding of this sector, but of course nothing like his experience. I understand that SAWS—the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—was established in the 1940s as both an agricultural scheme and a youth-orientated scheme, to promote cultural exchange as well as to provide farmers with seasonal labour.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, until recently SAWS participants were required to be full-time students and they were mainly drawn from eastern European countries and states from the former Soviet Union. The big change in January 2004 saw the scheme being administered by nine operators, who work under contract with what is now the UK Border Agency, to recruit participants and match them to farm placements. The scheme seems to be a labour exchange, really, which does its job.

The scheme works on a strict quota basis with participating farmers and growers allowed to employ a fixed number of overseas workers though the scheme each year. I think that there is some confusion among lay people, who do not have the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of the scheme, that the quota is a specific mix and match for the operators. Of course, there are people who can come in to this country outside of the scheme. So, there is some confusion. I hate to say that the press cannot cope with complicated issues. However, let me just put that comment about the scheme on the record.

The changes to the scheme started with the accession of the eight eastern European countries, plus Malta and Cyprus, to the EU in 2004. That led to the 2005 SAWS quota being reduced from 25,000—the figure that the hon. Gentleman wants to see reinstated—to 16,250, in order to reflect the new pool of labour that was available because of the A8 countries. Since 2007, of course, that figure has just covered Romanian and Bulgarian nationals, which the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) referred to.

While I am on this subject, I would just like to respond to the point that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire made about the EU directive in this area. I am advised that the relevant provision is article 14 of the accession treaty, which requires the UK “to give preference” to accession workers over non-EU workers; “to give preference” is the appropriate phrase, I am advised.

Like my hon. Friend I welcome the Minister to this rather tricky post that he has inherited. I thank him for his reply, but the issue is not that we have plenty of Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian workers. There are more in my constituency, probably, than anywhere in the country—working mainly in factories. We cannot get the same workers who are building a life for themselves in our communities to work on the land, particularly where the work is not just picking fruit but also vegetable crops such as asparagus and leeks, and others that go almost straight from the farm to the table, through the supermarkets. They are not interested in that seasonal work, particularly if more permanent employment is available. There is a shortfall, which is what my hon. Friend is trying to deal with.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The world is getting more urbanised, if I may use that phrase. Highly intensive labour requirements in the rural agricultural sector mean that we do not have the pool of labour that we had in previous years and generations, and that is why it is incumbent on the Government to answer the question that is being raised, and square the circle. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that I understand that point.

To carry on with my explanation of the current situation, the changes that I have referred to—the A8 changes and the A2 changes, referring to Bulgaria and Romania—were made to reflect the enlarged EU labour pool and the fact that many of the countries from which seasonal migrant labour has traditionally been sourced have now joined the EU. As has been acknowledged, employers in the horticultural sector have benefited from the decision to open the labour market to the A8 countries. Not every EU country did that. There are restrictions, for seven years, I think, relating to European Union entry, that countries can adopt. However, now we are able freely to recruit from the A8 countries, with the consequence that those nationals no longer need to be included in the SAWS quota. That is exposing the problem that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent brought to our attention.

As of 1 January 2007, to complicate matters further, Romania and Bulgaria acceded to the EU, allowing their nationals to move and reside freely in any member state. Romanian and Bulgarian nationals are subject to restricted access to the UK labour market while we continue to monitor the impact that the expanded EU is having.

In light of our obligations under European Union law, following a transitional period of one year, from 1 January 2008, the SAWS was restricted to nationals of Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, the requirement to be in full-time education was lifted, to open up the pool of available labour. That was of course a break with a tradition going back to the 1940s. I have referred to the principle of Community preference, which means that we cannot place restrictions on European citizens with free rights of movement to work, while at the same time continuing to admit workers of other nationalities who are subject to immigration control to the UK to do the same work. Nor would it be sensible for us to do so.

What are we going to do? That is where the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent has put forward some sensible points. I concur with him on his point about what he described as inactive British citizens. The welfare-to-work strategies must identify the relevant shortages. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s positive comments about the attraction of the sector to people. Work is being done on that, and more is needed. The hon. Gentleman raised two specific questions: the quota and the issue of six months to nine months for length of stay. We need to include those in our deliberations.

Wider immigration policy is of course relevant. The hon. Members for North-East Cambridgeshire and for Faversham and Mid-Kent have made points about differences in the matter of seasonal temporary workers. Ensuring that we can count people in and out is of course a central and powerful part, with cross-party support, of our reforms to the immigration system to give the public confidence and inform the authorities. I hope to be able to report to Parliament significant success in that area. Of course, however, I have already learned, if I did not know before, that there are many sectors and examples in which special cases are made. One must consider the overall situation. That is why we have the expert advice of the migration advisory committee, which is ably chaired by Professor Metcalf of the London School of Economics.

The committee exists to provide independent, transparent and evidence-based advice to the Government on where labour market shortages exist, and where they can be filled by migration. I am advised that the NFU has submitted its evidence to the committee, and that is important. The MAC has published its recommended shortage occupation lists for the UK and, within that, for Scotland, for use in tier 2 of the points-based system. That was published on 9 September. I recognise that the point that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent is making was not included in that, so I am glad to say that we have now asked the migration advisory committee to turn its attention to the restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers’ access to the labour market, and the question of what impact the possible relaxation of the restrictions could have on the labour market. I am told that I am required to notify the European Commission about the issue by the end of the year. We shall consider the MAC’s recommendations across Government in that light. Of course, it is at that point, to avoid what the hon. Gentleman described, I think, as a potential disaster, that we need to take decisions and adopt policies and strategies to anticipate future problems.

The hon. Gentleman began his remarks by saying that they would not be a standard Westminster Hall whinge. I have never taken any Westminster Hall debate as a standard whinge, but he is raising a matter that is very important to the sector, and to his constituents and many other hon. Members’ constituencies. Changes and reforms are being made in immigration policy, based around the points-based system and the need to provide training, skilling and programmes to allow British citizens to fill skill shortages; nevertheless those policies need to recognise, as they do, that when shortages arise we can accommodate them where necessary through migration. That is why the advisory committee is so important and, if I may say so, why the constituency experience of Members of Parliament is important.

I sense that the Minister is coming to the end of his remarks, and just before he does I want to thank him, for myself and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, for his constructive and open-minded approach. We should very much like to take him up on his offer of a meeting. It sounds as if that would be most appropriate in the early part of next year, by which stage the report will have gone to the EU. I thank him once again for his constructive and helpful approach to the debate.

That is very gracious of the hon. Gentleman. I do not, of course, know his part of the world as well as he does, but I worked there, and as a northerner discovering Kent I was overwhelmed by what a beautiful area it is. The industrial sector to which he has referred is hugely important to us. The issue that he has raised has wide implications, such as the debate about food miles and carbon footprints, which I engaged with in my previous job, with the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith); we cannot square those circles without a vibrant, prosperous British agriculture sector. That means that we must have labour. There is no getting away from that. Technology can of course make changes, but I have yet to see a machine that can pick strawberries as well as a group of students.

Sitting suspended.

Higher Education

I am delighted to lead this important debate, which I have been trying to secure for about six months. It could not be on a more appropriate day, following America’s election of its 44th President, who will be the first African American to become the President of that country. Senator Obama has come from very humble beginnings, and that is what this debate is all about. I played a small part in the presidential election campaign, because I was over in St. Louis, Missouri, for super Tuesday. I was on the phone banks, canvassing for Senator Obama against Senator Clinton.

Order. Viewing the hon. Member from the position that I hold at the moment, I find it difficult to understand how his part could have been a small one.

I shall be very humble, and I shall not agree with you, Mr. Cook.

Senator Obama ended up winning Missouri by 50.1 per cent. to Senator Hillary Clinton’s 49.9 per cent., and I feel privileged to have played a small part in those presidential elections.

I congratulate the Government on the progress on the widening participation agenda since we came into power. I fully support their target of having a 50 per cent. participation rate in higher education, which I hope will be achieved in the next four or five years. The Aimhigher scheme has been successful in getting into the less well-known secondary schools throughout the country and giving their students a flavour of what life at university is like. It has also linked some of our prestigious universities with schools and further education colleges across the length and breadth of England.

I am sorry to admit that the legacy of the mining and engineering industries in areas such as the local education authorities that I represent—Barnsley and Doncaster—means that we have no great history of children going to university. That is why we have some of the lowest staying-on rates in the country. There is no doubt that the education maintenance allowance that the Government are providing is making a big difference in my constituency in encouraging students to stay on.

In some of the more deprived communities that I represent, most of which are former mining villages, it is proving difficult to persuade parents to support their children in going to university. The Government always rightly make the case that parents need to be more involved in their children’s education. However, in some communities, it is not just a question of involving the parents more; it is also about raising the profile of education in communities in general. It is going to take a long time—perhaps a generation—to achieve that change of attitude in the communities that I am referring to.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, which is one of the most important that we could have. He has mentioned the importance of the EMA in getting youngsters from deprived backgrounds to go down the higher education route. Is he aware that the EMA helpline, which helps such students and their parents to get that funding and encourages them into education, is not working at the moment? I have tabled a parliamentary question about that today. Does he think that the Minister ought to look into that?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If we are to reach the students whom we want to reach and get them to apply for EMA, it is important that the lines of communication are open. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

The difficulties that we have in the Barnsleys and Doncasters of this world have been recognised by local education authorities through enhanced education provision. In Barnsley, over the next five or six years we will close every one of the 14 secondary schools, amalgamate them and reopen nine advanced learning centres that will provide educational opportunities from 8 am to 10 pm, not just to students of school age, but to the community as a whole. That is Barnsley’s radical way of tackling this problem, and it should be applauded for that. It is receiving £150 million from the Government to achieve that grand master plan over the next five or six years, but, more importantly, the council is speaking with its wallet and is providing an equivalent £150 million of funding out of its own coffers to achieve that plan.

Let me mention what is going on in Doncaster, which I also represent. I have only two secondary school pyramids in my area, one of which, Ridgewood school in Scawsby, is one of the few engineering specialist schools in the country. More than 20 engineering companies were willing to sponsor its specialist status because of Doncaster’s long and proud engineering history. For example, the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard were built there. The other secondary school campus that I represent is Mexborough. We are currently finishing a brand new Mexborough comprehensive school building, which should be completed just after Christmas. That shows that the Government and local authorities are working hand in hand to try to change the life chances of people in deprived communities such as those whom I represent.

There are two main reasons why I have been trying to secure this debate for the past six months. First, I tabled a parliamentary question in the spring about the notional benchmarks for widening participation that universities should have set themselves. In April, I received a response to my question asking the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

“what information his Department holds on (a) the targets each member of the Russell Group of Universities has set itself for widening participation for students from poorer backgrounds in the last two years and (b) performance against those targets.”—[Official Report, 23 April 2008; Vol. 474, c. 2078W.]

The statistics are quite alarming. In the last full year for which statistics on the Russell group are available, of the 20-odd so-called elite universities in the country, only three met their targets on widening participation. They set those targets for themselves, so the targets were not given to them by the Government. First, let me give a roll of honour to the best universities. The best was the university of Glasgow, which set itself a benchmark of 11.5 per cent. and achieved 16.7 per cent. The university of Liverpool had a benchmark of 12.2 per cent. and achieved 13.6 per cent., and the university of Sheffield, which is in my neck of the woods, set itself a benchmark of 10.5 per cent. and achieved 11.1 per cent.

I am sorry to say that a number of universities were well below the target figures that they set. The worst example was the London School of Economics, which set itself a target of 10.2 per cent. and achieved only 4.3 per cent. The second-worst performer was the university of Southampton, which had a target of 11.6 per cent. but achieved only 5.6 per cent. The university of Bristol, at which I got my degree, set a benchmark of 10 per cent. and achieved 5.2 per cent., and the university of Oxford had a benchmark of 8.8 per cent., but achieved only 4.6 per cent. Lastly, the university of Cambridge had a target of 8.9 per cent. and achieved only 5.3 per cent.

That is the scale of the problem that we face. Oxbridge still takes one third of all its students from the so-called 300 schools—the top 200 private schools and the top 100 state schools in the country. That shows that some of our top universities need to do much more to widen participation in their institutions.

Those are enticing figures, but is my hon. Friend able to break them down by subject—for example, medical studies? Would the situation be even worse in that case? He has mentioned that engineering was doing well in one place, so has he done the figures on that?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an interesting point. I do not have those statistics with me, but one example that I shall come to later is bucking the trend to which he has referred. One of the best practice models that I will mention is a medical school that is achieving some fantastic results, but I take his point.

On Oxbridge, there was an interesting article in The Independent entitled “Oxbridge ‘miss targets’ for state school pupils”. It stated:

“Oxford and Cambridge Universities will fail to meet the deadlines for their pledges to increase significantly their intake of state school pupils, according to a study published today.

Both universities agreed with the Government’s Office for Fair Access to reduce the proportion of independent school pupils they admitted in the next five years. Oxford vowed it would take 62 per cent. from state schools by 2011, compared with the current figure of 54 per cent.; Cambridge agreed to improve its proportion by the same date from 57 per cent. to between 60 and 63 per cent.

However, the study by the left-leaning”—

whatever that means—

“Institute for Public Policy Research, published on the closing date for this year’s Oxbridge applications, found Oxford is likely to miss its target by five years, and Cambridge will not hit its until 2012.

Lisa Harker, the IPPR’s co-director, said: ‘Students getting three A grade A-levels at state schools are significantly under-represented at both universities.’”

I am sure that we all recall the case of Laura Spence, who was given a prediction that she would get five A grades at A-level in 2000 and was refused by Magdalen college, Oxford. Our current Prime Minister made a big point out of that at the time, and rightly so.

I seek my hon. Friend’s assurance, which I am sure that he will give, that he is arguing not for a reduction of standards for children from lower social and economic backgrounds but for fair treatment for those with equal qualifications. May I remind him that Laura Spence got her doctorate from Cambridge university last week?

I rest my case on that point. That shows how wrong Oxford university was. I am asking for a system that is fair to everyone. If my hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, is telling me that a student who achieves an A* in history at Eton has a qualification equivalent to a student who gets an A* in history in a challenging school, I have some dispute with him.

I am listening carefully as the hon. Gentleman develops his argument. I hope that he will accept that the Laura Spence example is not a good one. All the medical student applicants to that college had predictions of the same grades as her, and it took in state school pupils who had had greater disadvantage but who perhaps did not have her publicist. Indeed, a report of the Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) made that clear, and I urge the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) to consider it. I shall return on another occasion to applications and success rates, which are critical to his argument about Oxbridge.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and defends his local university well. The fact of the matter is that all universities need to do more to widen their participation, and some need to do more than others.

The second reason why I wanted to secure this debate was to shine a light on best practice models. That returns me to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). Models of best practice have involved adopting what has come to be known as positive action in widening participation. There are examples of positive action in a lot of universities, including a number of Russell group universities, among them colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge.

I wish to go into a little detail about what I regard as the best example of positive action at any university in this country: St. George’s medical school, which is part of the university of London. It is best described in another article from The Independent, dated 25 February this year and entitled, “Students from poorer backgrounds ‘catch up’ at university”. It reads:

“Students with lower A-level grades from some of the country’s poorest performing schools do just as well as high flyers from the independent or selective sector in their degrees, according to ground-breaking new research.

The findings have been seized on as vindication by campaigners who argue that universities should embrace positive discrimination to help candidates from struggling comprehensives.

The study looked at students at St George’s Medical School, University of London—one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country—where students from schools with low exam results can obtain a place with two Bs and a C grade pass, instead of the normal requirement of two As and a B grade pass.

All they have to do is show that their A-level results are 60 per cent. better than the average for their school.

It revealed that in their first-year exams there was less than a 1 per cent. difference—considered by statisticians to be insignificant—in the marks obtained by those with lower A-level grades when compared to those youngsters admitted under the standard route…Kenton Lewis, assistant registrar in charge of fair access at St George’s, said: ‘Without the scheme, the majority of these students would not have had the opportunity to study medicine. This is a clear indication that our innovative scheme has successfully widened participation without lowering standards.’”

The article cites the case study of a student named Mojisola Giwa, who was originally from Nigeria. It reads:

“Ms Giwa, 22, could have been lost to medicine had it not been for the St George’s initiative. She studied for A-levels at Newham sixth-form college in east London, so qualified for the scheme under which youngsters from poorly performing schools and colleges can obtain places despite not achieving grades as good as students from privileged backgrounds. She was offered a place at George’s provided she got four B-grade passes, as opposed to the two As and a B traditionally demanded of candidates.

Ms Giwa’s generation—she has a sister and two brothers—are the first from her family to enter higher education. ‘If it wasn’t for the St George’s scheme, it could have been impossible for me to study medicine,’ she said.”

That is the type of scheme to which I am referring.

Rather than refer to that as “positive discrimination”, which is a pejorative term in a way, why do we not call it “looking for potential”? We have to acknowledge that kids can be tutored to get high grades in certain exams if there is enough money and time to throw at them, but some kids do not have that opportunity. Let us call it “looking for potential” rather than “positive discrimination”.

The hon. Gentleman once again makes a common-sense point. I did not refer to it as positive discrimination; it was referred to as such as in the newspaper article. I call it “positive action”, which I think is along the lines that he suggests. The Minister might want to come in on this point at the end of the debate, but I think that it is illegal to have positive discrimination measures in such a matter. The hon. Gentleman will not hear me refer to it as positive discrimination.

The more detailed findings of the St. George’s project will be published shortly, and I recommend them as suitable bedtime reading for heads of widening participation and student recruitment at all universities. It is no wonder that this June, the St. George’s medical school project won the London education partnership award for professional contribution to higher education progression, and in October won the City of London special dragon award for social inclusion and received a special commendation in the Times Higher Education award for widening participation. This month, it is one of the three finalists in The Guardian public service award for innovation and progress in diversity and equality.

A National Audit Office report that came out in June confirms the point that I am trying to make about widening participation:

“Some progress is being made in encouraging under-represented groups to continue into higher education…But particular sections of society remain significantly under-represented and too little is known about the link between measures taken by institutions and any improvements in access.

The attainment of qualifications at secondary school is the principal reason for the difference in participation rates but social class remains a strong determinant of higher education participation. Women are better represented than men and those from non-white ethnic groups are better represented than white people. The National Audit Office has found that white people from lower socio-economic groups are the most under-represented group in higher education institutions.”

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, (Mr. Sheerman) who is the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, agrees with that point, which resonates with some of his Committee’s reports. The report continues:

“There are also significant variations between academic institutions in how good they are at widening participation. In 2006-07, one sixth of institutions made less progress than expected in recruiting students from areas with low participation. Those that became universities post-1992 generally do better than the Russell Group universities.”

I am running short of time, but I would like to make the following brief points. I would like the Minister to touch on three matters when he sums up. First, I would like to tease out his impression of the difference that the Office for Fair Access is making in the widening participation debate. I know from my spies in the higher education sector that sometimes it is perceived as too close to, or too cosy with, some of the universities. I would like his views on that.

Secondly, I know that it is too early to talk about the success of foundation degrees in widening participation. I will put my cards on the table and admit that I am a big supporter of them. I think that they will be a winner in the long run, but I would like the Minister’s view.

The third point is on the Open university, which has the proudest tradition of widening participation of any university, not just in the UK but in the world. In the briefing note that the OU provided to Members for this debate, it made a couple of key points to which I would like the Minister to respond:

“Part time higher education is a very cost effective way of widening participation so the support available to part time students should be enhanced. The OU would ideally like to see part time students have access to the support enjoyed by full time students—such as access to student loans, student bank accounts as well as other concessions…It is estimated that 40 per cent. of all higher education students are part time. So Higher Education funding models should be flexible enough to reflect this instead of being geared largely towards the needs of full time students as is the situation at present.”

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his exciting peroration, he will know that the Government’s policy on equivalent or lower qualifications will mean that about 20 per cent. of OU students will lose their funding. That will not simply leave things as they are but will make them worse. If the hon. Gentleman would challenge the Minister on that, he might get a reply as a result.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is another important issue on which I would like the Minister to respond.

I have focused primarily on the key role that all universities need to play in widening participation in this country. I have deliberately not touched on the other important issue—student finance and debt. It is worthy of a debate in itself, and I am sure that other hon. Members will include it in their contribution this afternoon.

As I said earlier, several best practice models, centred mainly around positive action, are employed by universities. They should become the norm rather than the exception. We still have schools in this country that have never sent a student to either Oxford or Cambridge, which cannot be right. We have all heard the expressions “failing schools” and “coasting schools”. I am afraid that at present, as far as widening participation is concerned, we have several coasting universities. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we have several failing universities that are not fully playing their part in tapping the untold intelligence and talent of our young people. I hope that today’s debate will stimulate a response from all universities on this important matter.

Order. As you all know, I have to start the first of the three winding-up speeches at 3.30 pm in order to enable us to finish by 4 pm. Five Members have indicated that they wish to contribute. I hope that they will all take account of time in making their contribution and also in accepting and responding to interventions.

The Government’s target of a 50 per cent. participation rate from lower-income groups is, as the National Union of Students has described it, bold and progressive. The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills was keen to make explicit the Government’s understanding of the importance of widening participation in higher education when he said on 8 April:

“To succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy, we must unlock the talents of all our people. Other countries better overcome barriers to reach talented students. We are wasting too much talent.”

Hear, hear to that.

Yet the stark fact is that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds make up around one half of the population of England but represent just 29 per cent of young, full-time, first-time entrants to higher education. As the National Audit Office pointed out in June, lack of participation is most acute among men and women from white working-class communities, which is the most under-represented group. That is the community in which I grew up. Such inequality cannot be allowed to persist.

The NAO also reported that the participation rate for men is currently 10 per cent. below that for women, and that social class remains a key determinant of higher education participation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) said. I am unsure whether the Office for Fair Access can intervene on gender participation issues, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s guidance on that.

On finance, we know that debt aversion is a prominent factor in poorer students’ decisions not to apply to university. Indeed, my own experience of attending university as a mature student highlights the well-established nature of that socio-economic trend over many decades, and it is my belief that the Government’s policies on variable top-up fees and the student grant may be barriers to increasing the number of poorer students going to university.

Evidence is also emerging that additional factors in the faltering progress include the unregulated nature of bursary schemes and the failure to address the needs of part-time students. The findings of research into universities’ bursary schemes conducted by Professor Claire Callender of Birkbeck university revealed worrying variations in the level of support available to students through bursaries. In essence, Professor Callender found that access to a good level of bursary support is dependent on where someone goes to university. The relatively small number of low-income students at Russell group universities had access, on average, to an annual needs-based bursary of £1,791, but the average hardship support for students at the Million+ group of universities, which the majority of students from deprived backgrounds attend, was £680—that is, £1,000 less.

Perhaps more worrying still is the use of bursaries by universities in the two groups. The research revealed that Russell group universities awarded 77 per cent. of all bursaries in 2006-07 on the basis of financial need. In the Million+ group, only 45 per cent. of the recipients were students experiencing financial hardship. In the majority of cases, universities with a higher proportion of poorer students are awarding bursaries for purposes such as marketing, rather than to support students struggling with the increased economic cost of going to university.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend remembers where bursaries came from in the first place, and why they were instituted in the system. I think that some of us probably do and have the scars to prove it. Secondly, does he think that a national bursary is required to sort out some of the problems?

I shall return to that matter. I agree with my hon. Friend’s second point.

Returning to the Russell group, the Higher Education Statistics Agency noted earlier this year that only six of the 20 universities in this institutional clique were reaching the Government’s targets on recruiting students from state schools. The majority of state school pupils are not from poor households, but this type of resistance to change does nothing to dispel concerns over the endurance of elitism and class discrimination at some of our most internationally respected universities. I am not at all surprised to find that the London School of Economics is in the stocks in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough described, because for years it has persistently offered places to well-off foreign students with less good qualifications than home-based students. That is a scandal that ought to be exposed. We have done little about that, as a political class.

I sense that my hon. Friend is tempting me down that route. I am not sure that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), is a governor there, but I shall certainly have a discussion with him after this debate.

Another worrying statistic is that only four out of 20 Russell group universities reached the Government’s specific target for accepting students from deprived neighbourhoods. Oxford university is 3 per cent. off its own modest target of 8.7 per cent. This cannot go on.

The Russell group would do well to look at the successful participation policies of the university of Leicester, recently named university of the year by The Times Higher Educational Supplement. I am proud of that university. Its vice-chancellor, Professor Bob Burgess, who came here to talk to county and city Members of Parliament a few months ago, has been a major figure in improving the all-round performance of the university of Leicester over the last decade. He has said, rightly,

“we are a university that tries to extend its reach and widen participation to the students who perform well in school and college, but are from social groups or areas of the country that do not traditionally come to university.”

That university has strengthened its links with state schools and maintained appropriate levels of investment in research and buildings and is listening to the student body.

I visited the university’s computer centre and library not that long ago. It is a fine place. I ought to declare an interest, because my daughter used to work in the library there. All the things that I have mentioned have been key to the success of this most progressive and democratic of east midland universities. Our county and region are well blessed with top universities.

The Times Higher Educational Supplement said that Leicester university is “elite without being elitist.” What a fine, concise phrase that is for improving higher education in our country. The university of Leicester’s performance throws out the argument made by antediluvian academics and their political supporters that accepting the Government’s demand for more students from lower-income backgrounds and state schools would inevitably lower standards.

The comment of Lord Patten of Barnes about the Government treating universities—presumably Newcastle and Oxford, where he is chancellor—like a “social security office” was provocative stuff from a Tory dinosaur, although it is hardly surprising that Oxbridge and some of its cohorts resent state intervention in what they consider their own private affair. But Chris Patten’s sponsored statement was useful in reminding us of the key role that the Office for Fair Access has to play and where it must show its mettle.

Surely, OFFA exists to challenge this type of entrenched prejudice against working-class students, especially as the higher education sector remains 21 per cent. away from the Government’s target for this group. Yet no remedial action has yet been taken by OFFA—when will the Children, Schools and Families Committee say something about OFFA?—against universities failing to fulfil their side of the bargain and more accurately reflect the society we live in and the potential of all our students, regardless of what their parents earn. Perhaps OFFA needs to be more assertive in its discussions with those universities that are seemingly incapable of change, particularly if the Secretary of State’s impressive commitment, which I started my contribution with, to creating a socially just higher education sector is to be fulfilled.

If we are to dissolve the class barriers to full participation in higher education from lower-income families, then all universities must be prepared to forge links across the state school sector and ensure that the privately educated minority—the 7 per cent. who are privately educated and have such disproportionately high access to Oxbridge and Russell group universities—are not over-represented among Russell group universities. It is a disgrace that that situation should have survived almost 12 years of a Labour Government, with another four, five, six or seven years to come, perhaps.

OFFA has a crucial role to play in successfully regulating admissions practices and policies and now is the time for it to get its teeth out of whichever box they have been stored in, put them in and show some teeth to the universities that are represented by some of the hon. Members here in this Chamber.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this debate. He and I share a background; we were teachers before being elected and we spent quite some years together on the Education Committee, as was, pursuing our interest in education. We have a lot of views in common on this issue.

As hon. Members’ contributions so far have indicated, a wide range of issues can be looked at in respect of widening participation in higher education. I wholeheartedly support the Government’s ambition, mentioned at the start of this debate, of having 50 per cent. of school leavers going to university. I was surprised, when that idea was first put forward, by the number of people who criticised it and opposed it as being totally unrealistic and undesirable, given that Scotland is already way past that target. Scotland has always valued education and succeeds at it to a far greater extent than England.

When Select Committee members went to California some years ago to look at higher education and further education, we talked to its equivalent of the chamber of commerce. The employers there were not echoing the voices in this country that said, “Fifty per cent. is far too much.” They said, “Here in California, the fourth largest economy in the world in its own right—if it were a separate country—we have 60 per cent. with degrees and it is not enough; we need more.” They were certainly signed up to the idea that access to higher education and expanding it is essential to the success of any modern economy in a globalised world.

I shall mention briefly the education maintenance allowance, which has already been touched on. That is a good initiative that has proved successful, but this year it has been a shambles that is still staggering on. A number of my constituents—including another one in the past week—have approached me because they have not received their EMAs, have not been able to get registered, despite making two or three attempts, or have registered but have not got the money. We hear all sorts of figures on how many people across the country are suffering, ranging from 50,000 to 300,000, but we do not know the real figure. What is the company doing about that, and what penalties will be imposed for this absolute shambles, which is destroying a good scheme? I have heard anecdotal evidence, as I said in the Children, Schools and Families Committee recently, of students from poor family backgrounds in Chesterfield staying on but dropping out within the first two months because that essential money was not there to support them.

Outreach work in schools is essential to encourage pupils considering staying on for post-16 studies and then going on to university, which has been touched on by hon. Members. The Sutton Trust, in research looking at pupils who started secondary school in 1997, found that young people who are eligible for free school meals are 19 per cent. less likely to go to university than those who were not on free school meals. Looking more closely, it found that if pupils on free school meals—the indicator of poverty—could be persuaded to stay on post-16, they were just as likely, after that, to go to university as people from more affluent backgrounds. The problem was getting them to stay on in the first place to clear that hurdle. EMAs were a great step in helping to achieve that, which is why this year’s shambles must be dealt with and resolved—it has not been resolved yet—and why there must not be a repeat of that in future.

Schools today play a much greater, and better, part in trying to overcome problems in respect of home background and role models. When I was a school pupil in the late 1960s and early ’70s, coming off a council estate in Sheffield, I knew absolutely nobody among my family, neighbours and friends’ parents who was a role model as a manager of a business, an accountant, a lawyer, a civil servant, a doctor, or a professional of any kind; I had never met any such person. It was only through school that that started to happen. Speaking as someone who was a secondary school teacher for 22 years before being elected, schools today are much more proactive and capable in what they are doing to raise that awareness among pupils and raise the aspirations of people who come from backgrounds where there are no such role models. All the excellent work that a lot of universities are doing in outreach work with local schools in their areas is starting to produce dividends, but it is a long, slow process.

After someone has got through all those hurdles, stayed on post-16 and applied to university, the problem arises, which has already been touched on, of gaining access to university. The Sutton Trust did another piece of research on admissions from 2002 to 2006, and it bluntly stated that state school pupils are losing out compared with those from private schools. The trust found that the number of pupils who went to Oxbridge universities from the top 30 comprehensives in the country was a third of what would be expected based on their A-level results and ability. The number from the top 30 private schools was more than expected. There is a clear and massive imbalance, based on the sort of school candidates go to, in intake to top universities, which is, of course, a category that extends way beyond Oxbridge. I am a proud graduate of York university, which has been rated seventh in the country for two years running now. We should not always be thinking of Oxbridge when we talk about the top universities.

The imbalance is clear. There is a barrier of some sort in the process that prevents bright children who go to state schools—93 per cent. of the school population—from gaining their due access to the highest-performing universities. We need to look at that issue carefully; we have still not resolved it, and we have already heard the comments about Oftoff, as it has been unkindly nicknamed, and whether it is achieving its purpose.

Another piece of research, by Professor Geoff Whitty of the Institute of Education at the university of London, has made the same point. He pointed out, on the basis of his research, that private school pupils gain more places at elite universities despite the fact that they get only slightly better A-level grades—the difference is typically about half a grade. He said that they were significantly more likely than their state school peers to get into leading institutions such as Oxbridge universities and the Russell group. Professor Whitty said that that meant that universities such as Bristol, which have experimented with considering students’ potential as well as their raw A-level results, were right to do so, and that universities should be encouraged to do that more widely.

Logic and common sense tells us that ability is not fixed at 18. At what point is it fixed? Certainly not then. I know from having been a head of sixth-form for 12 years, and from my own children, one of whom is now at university, that beyond the age of 18 people still develop an awful lot. It is obviously foolish to say that there can be no improvement beyond the A-level score that someone attains at 18. In a private school with half the class size and more teacher attention, and in a boarding school with a captive, spoon-fed audience, pupils may already have reached, or gone beyond, their potential with their A-level grades. As Professor Whitty points out from his detailed research, comprehensive schools, by contrast, must educate children of all abilities in larger class sizes, so pupils with given A-level grades are doing better, given their environment, than a private school pupil with the same A-level grade. There is a strong case for making allowances for that.

My final point—it has been suggested that someone might take it up, and I shall do so briefly, although we have rehearsed it exhaustively before—relates to tuition fees and student finance. As I have said many times, I cannot comprehend the logic that says the way to improve access and to encourage children from poor backgrounds, who traditionally do not go to university, is to lumber them with a huge amount of student debt through tuition fees. I cannot see a shred of logic in that approach. We shall come back to that argument a lot in the next couple of years, because we are about to conduct a review.

The £1,000 fee went up to £3,000, and it is going to go somewhere else. The Russell group universities propose tuition fees of £7,000, £9,000 or £14,000—or, as Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford university, has proposed, mortgage-level tuition fees. That will certainly stop children from non-traditional and poorer backgrounds even remotely considering choosing universities according to their ability, as opposed to their ability to pay.

When the new Labour Government introduced tuition fees, having said in the 1997 general election that they had no plans to do so, they largely based their proposal on an experiment in Australia. The Select Committee went to Australia and was told in Canberra, 10 years after the introduction of tuition fees, that there had been no problems at all for people from poorer backgrounds. When we went to Sydney and talked to the opposition party—which, ironically, was the party that had, in government, introduced the measure—we were told that the Government seemed to have forgotten all the research that they had been hiding, which had been drawn out only by freedom of information requests. That research showed that there had been problems and that children and students from poorer backgrounds now go much more often into shorter, cheaper degrees, which in turn get them into less well-paid graduate occupations. They cannot afford the mounting tuition fees under the system. Women, of course, who take career breaks because of children or who often make career choices that take them into less well-paid graduate professions, are the ones who have been hit hardest by the burden of student debt.

None of that should be a surprise. It is exactly what we would expect in England, and it is exactly what is happening in England. It is still not too late, when we think about Chris Patten’s mortgage-level tuition fees, to think again and return to a system of education paid for by the taxpayer and paid back by appropriate levels of taxation, with graduates contributing more either because they earn more or through a graduate tax of some kind. However, that is a debate to return to in more detail later.

I shall be brief. Of the nine hon. Members participating in the debate, seven have served on a Committee that I chair—even the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods)—so proceedings are a little interbred. However, it is a very good debate. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) was able to get the debate. It surprised me, because he cannot be on my Select Committee any more because he is now the deputy to the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber. I am amazed that he cannot continue as a good member of my Committee, but he can function as a Back Bencher and obtain debates in Westminster Hall. I am sad that holders of such posts can no longer participate in Select Committees—and of course they are unpaid. However, it is a pleasure to follow the argument that my hon. Friend put.

I think that my hon. Friend was a little tough about the Russell group, and some of the comments about it have been a little excessive; let me put the record straight. I would not demur from the overall argument. I attended the London School of Economics for both my degrees, and am one of its governors; but I am not a majority on the governing body and some of the situations that arise there are not ones that I welcome. However, it is a large governing body. I remind the House that we have independent universities in this country. They are not creatures of the state but independent institutions, and long may they be so. We want them to do all sorts of things, and jump through hoops, but at the very heart of the quality of the higher education in our democracy is their independence.

Not for the moment.

With independence comes the fact that we cannot—and thank goodness we cannot—tell the universities what to do on a daily or weekly basis. There are problems; I hear the arguments, which are well made.

I want to deal with three detailed points. The Select Committee on Education and Skills considered the widening participation agenda, and we strongly criticised the outdated admissions and application process that was still used in Oxford and Cambridge. However, Cambridge has mended its ways and has now come into the main body of applications for university entrance. Let us welcome that good change. Oxford has not done so, and it should. The one thing, in my experience of going into schools, that puts off many of the kids in our schools from applying to Oxford and Cambridge is the different and very distinct application process. They are immediately regarded as a swot sitting in the corner with a special application because they are going to Oxford or Cambridge. Both Oxford and Cambridge should long ago have come into line. Cambridge has and we hope Oxford will.

Also, many of our highly competitive universities put great faith in the interview process. I believe that the interview process is severely lacking with respect to any scientific basis, the way in which interviewers are trained, or not trained, and the passionate faith that is placed in it. When the Select Committee visited the United States the leaders of many Ivy league universities said that they did not believe in interviews. Indeed, the president of Stanford university said that if they wanted more people like them, they would interview. They use five or six criteria to identify the latent talent in applicants. It is right that we want to identify talented young men and women in our country, and to do so correctly, but much of the interviewing process is still lacking. It is hard to persuade the universities that interview that that is not the best way.

We have seen a profound change in outreach programmes in universities, but they are not always led by universities, and I think all of us would agree on the record that the Sutton Trust was a trail-blazer under Sir Peter Lampl. It blazed a trail, and said that if we want kids to go to research-rich universities, which they are terrified to go to because they think they are posh and not for them, we must get them to a summer school. Let them see and experience the university, let them meet some of the students and staff and get through those barriers. It was not the universities that blazed that trail; it was the Sutton Trust.

When one goes round universities now, they often conveniently forget that it was an external stimulus that set them on that path. However, they are doing much better now, and sometimes the Sutton Trust can step back a bit because universities such as the London School of Economics, Oxford, Cambridge and York now hold summer schools, and are progressively introducing new ways of outreaching to schools. Some have done that by setting up partnerships with academies, which is a progressive measure. I have argued for that in the institution that we discussed earlier, but I have not won the argument yet.

Universities that have gone in for academy partnerships are doing the right thing, but that is not the only way. Many universities now have outreach programmes in schools. They send students and staff into schools, and use their alumni, as happens in the United States, to go into schools from which they do not get students.

The Select Committee went to a number of universities in the United States that have a map of the country, and if they know of a state or part of a state that is underperforming in the number of talented young people applying to that university, they send local alumni to find out why.

There have been some remarkable improvements over the past 10 years—let us not deny that—and not only in terms of the extra money that has gone to universities. I know that some of my Liberal Democrat friends object to variable fees, but we have seen enormous enhancement in the quality of higher education because we introduced those fees, most of which have gone into paying university staff better. If we do not have high-class tuition and research, we will not have the world-class universities that we need. We have them now, and the money has, by and large, come from variable fees, which I was in favour of then, and still am.

No, I will not

I know that there was a hiccup with the payment of education maintenance allowances during the summer, because of the partnership with a private company, but they have had a good take-up, and analysis shows that they work and bring more young people from deprived backgrounds into higher education.

Let us not forget that the leaving learning age will rise to 17 and then 18. In our present economy, I would bring that forward by two years, and not wait. Raising the leaving learning age will be a remarkable opportunity to keep kids in education. It is good to have a go at research-rich universities and the Russell group, but if we do not keep kids in school until 18, they will never have a chance to apply to university. We always said in the Select Committee that all the evidence shows that if kids are kept in education from 16 to 18, they have the chance to go on. That is where my priority lies.

Let us not bash the Government for everything. During the past 10 years, resources, motivation and direction have been absolutely right. As with all Governments, they have not got everything right, but that would be perfection in any political system, even that of which Mr. Obama will shortly be President.

I have worked out that I can speak for six minutes, and no longer. I have been following the maths and the time as the number of hon. Members waiting to speak has come down.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who speaks with great experience as a long-standing member of the Children, Schools and Families Committee with a personal interest in the matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on raising the subject in his clear and typical style. This is my first opportunity in a debate to welcome the Minister to his new role, and I do so. I am pleased that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) arrived—we were briefly worried about him. It is noticeable that one in 30 Liberal Democrat Back Benchers, one in 90 Labour Back Benchers, and zero in however many Conservative Back Benchers, are here and participating.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough said that he would like to congratulate the Government, and I thought that he was then going to say that he could not, given the facts and figures. There is something in that, because we have not reached the 50 per cent. target, and we are not heading fast towards 50 per cent. The Minister’s Department will allow expansion by only 10,000 places next year, compared with 20,000 the previous year, because of the £200 million black hole. Widening participation and increasing participation are separate agendas, and one hopes that with an increase there is more scope to widen, but that does not necessarily follow. On the widening participation agenda, it is not clear that there are reliable figures showing that the Government have succeeded or can point to universities succeeding. If the Minister gives figures, I shall ask him to source them carefully, whether the baseline was chosen prospectively or is the one that most fits with the latest figures showing an improvement, and what category of lower socio-economic groups he uses, because that seems to vary year by year according to the subject. Widening participation is not just about increasing participation, nor is it just about full-time school leavers. That must be acknowledged. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) talks about other issues, including part-time and mature students who are such an important part of that agenda, as we all recognise.

Given earlier comments, I want to point out that I do not seek to speak for Oxford university, which is one of the two universities in my constituency, and Oxford university does not speak for me. I know that the chancellor does not speak as a representative of the student view or indeed the academic view at Oxford. I disagree with his view on releasing the cap on tuition fees, and I am happy to put that on the record.

A key issue about access to research-rich universities is that more must be done by everyone to improve the situation. At the point of admission, universities can deal only with people who have applied.

I will give way in a moment.

A lot of work must be done to encourage students to apply, and having a reputation for being posh and being a place where some people may not fit in is not helpful, which is why universities must ensure that that is not their image. They should resist being stereotyped and caricatured unfairly as having that image—that happened in the debate—when we know that it is not so. The key question is, are the success rates for those who apply—that is the second stage—equal? My criticism of Oxford, if there is one, is that sometimes the success rates have not been equal and there has been a higher success rate—generally on the same grades, because straight As are required for anyone thinking of applying—in some years for non-state school students, and that is unacceptable.

I agree that it is wrong that someone from an inner- city comprehensive with an A and two Bs is not seen as having the same level of potential as someone with three As from Eton. There are data to show, as has been cited, that that is so. It is not right that universities that are brave enough to accept that are attacked—Bristol was unfairly attacked—for doing the right thing. It is not a case of positive discrimination; it is ending unfair negative discrimination. Regardless of the independence of universities, the Government should insist that all universities within the scope of the evidence base, which is clear, should insist that the best, bright pupils from state schools, even when their qualifications are not as high as those from independent or grammar schools, should be able to apply and to be considered. The St. George’s evidence is very strong.

I do not have time to say more, except that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) about the deterrent of the student finance arrangements that the Government have introduced.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on initiating the debate. He and I spent about two and a half years on the same Select Committee and I know he is passionately committed to social mobility and to ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to access higher education. Indeed, he and I have similar backgrounds; we are both alumni of Bristol university and come from under-represented white working class families, as he put it. I even had free school meals when I was at school, and it will perhaps not surprise my colleagues to know that an early indication of my capitalist leanings was that I used to sell my dinner tickets to the highest bidder.

In his introductory comments, the hon. Gentleman said that dealing with this issue will take a generational change in social attitudes in some communities. Indeed, in or near our constituencies, all of us no doubt know of some schools that send 100 per cent. of their 18-year-olds to higher education and some schools that year after year send nobody at all. My constituency has one of the highest participation rates in higher education in the country. However, south of the river, Bristol, South—alongside Nottingham, North and Sheffield, Brightside—is one of the three lowest parliamentary seats in the country in terms of levels of participation in higher education.

We are trying to combat generations of under-achievement, poverty of aspiration and other challenging social indicators. Widening participation is a major issue that is largely linked to educational attainment and the potential of someone’s background. The hon. Gentleman has focused on fair access, which is a subset of widening participation; it relates to a small but none the less incredibly significant group of people. We are largely concerned with people who have achieved at school, but who for some reason do not reach the university destination that either reflects the level of their achievement at school or their potential.

The hon. Gentleman focused largely on the Russell Group list of research-intensive universities. In my role, I have several times met the admissions directors of Oxford, Cambridge, my own university of Bristol and some of the other universities in the Russell Group. I know that, as individuals—whether they are the manager or pro-vice chancellor responsible for admissions—they are all committed to ensuring that this problem is addressed with due seriousness. Several examples of good practice already exist in some of these universities—for example, Oxford university has a programme of engagement with teachers in state schools and visits high-performing state schools. That is a good thing to do, but, of course, visiting high-performing state schools that turn out a lot of children who do well at A-level leaves out states schools in which there are perhaps only one or two achievers. They are perhaps the people who are most missing out on fair access.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is extremely sad that when schools and universities try to identify latent talent in non-traditional geographical areas and press for admission procedures to be revisited, newspapers, such as the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, hyperventilate about social engineering and dumbing down? That contributes nothing to the debate.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he is exactly right. The vice-chancellor of Bristol university has a fat file full of criticisms from The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the head teachers of several leading private schools. Such criticisms are made every time the university tries to do something in relation to unfair admissions, even though such actions do not in any way dilute the entry standards, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said. None the less, attempts to deal with the issue of social context and the potential of applicants opens up the university to unfair criticism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said.

Bristol university does a lot to attract children from a wide social pool to go to university—for example, ChemLabS is a programme that not only encourages young people to take an interest in science, but to go to Bristol university, although many of the people who take part in that programme actually apply to other universities. The programme is a success in its own right, but that does not necessarily mean that Bristol gets the full credit for it. Leeds university has a similar aspiration and now has an inter-disciplinary science foundation year to ensure that children who perhaps have not got the right mix of A-levels to do a science course at a Russell Group university are given a grounding in science and maths.

I join my hon. Friend in commending Leeds university’s science access programme, which is proving successful. Equally, on the other side of the coin, as it is one of the Russell Group of universities, earlier this year, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute estimated that fees could rise to up to £7,000 a year. Does he agree that it is absurd to suggest that that will not have an effect on widening participation and encouraging people from less well-off backgrounds?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will come on to the issue of the fee cap, but I certainly agree with his point. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon mentioned that in relation to many Russell Group universities, we must essentially deal with the problem of comparing people who do not apply in the first place with those who do apply and often have three As. It is hard for the universities to discriminate between such applicants. Incidentally, the introduction of the A* grade is likely to make that problem even worse for admissions tutors.

Perhaps the Minister could respond to this specific point. On the issues surrounding the applications procedures, to which the hon. Member for Huddersfield referred, when Professor Steven Schwartz was vice-chancellor of Brunel university he produced a report that recommended we should shift to a system of post-qualification applications, so that the A-level or diploma results of young people are known. We would then know exactly who has good qualifications and would be able to match those people up with the research-intensive universities. What progress do the Government expect to make in switching from our existing examinations timetable to a system of post-qualification applications? Considering when that timetable was devised, it is now out of date.

The advice that young people receive early in their school career is essential. We must ensure that the independent advice that young people receive in schools is aspirational and that it challenges their stereotypical feelings or their parents’ feelings about the backgrounds from which they come. We must ensure they receive accurate advice about the subject choices they need to make, so they do not have the bitterly disappointing discovery at age 17 that the choices they have made do not enable them to apply to some of the top universities in the country.

Many issues are outside the immediate control of the universities and need to be addressed by policy makers. Debt alleviation, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), is certainly something that will concern many students from poor backgrounds. That is particularly the case for those who wish to take courses that are perceived to be expensive or that might take a long time to complete—for example, medicine. In its 2007 student survey, the British Medical Association said that graduates in medicine currently leave the system with at least £20,000 of debt. If the fee cap that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) mentioned is lifted in the future, which is an expectation widely held in the sector, medicine is likely to become an incredibly expensive degree. That means the social profile of those studying medicine will become even more skewed. There should be a level playing field for students who study in different modes—particularly for those who choose to study part-time, in relation to which the current funding system is prejudicial.

Why is this issue so important? I was curious to note that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough did not stress that not having fair access creates a barrier to social mobility in this country. Depending on which study one reads, we are either the worst or the second worst socially mobile country in the OECD.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the Sutton Trust several times. Sutton Trust reports, which I read with avid interest as well, have shown that 81 per cent. of the judiciary went to Oxford or Cambridge. Most of the leading members of the British media went to Oxford or Cambridge. Most heads of charities and, indeed, a significant proportion of parliamentarians—our colleagues—went to Oxford or Cambridge. The Sutton Trust produced a report in September 2006 on the educational background of the House of Commons. It found that 28 per cent. of MPs went to Oxford and 34 per cent. went to an independent school; 59 per cent. of the Conservatives went to an independent school. I heard today the Leader of the Opposition trying to associate himself with change and with a young person who has just been elected in the western world. If he thinks that an example of change is yet another old Etonian being elected to govern this country, he does not understand the meaning of change or social mobility.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) by reminding him that I was the first in my family ever to go to university, that I went to a state school and that I do not enjoy the privileged background that he claims is commonly enjoyed by Conservatives.

I welcome the Minister to his new role. I know that he shares my passionate support for the principles outlined by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who obtained this Adjournment debate and has usefully brought these matters to the attention of the Chamber.

Participation in higher education has a vital role to play in expanding opportunity and building a socially mobile, cohesive and just society. I know that the Minister shares those ambitions, but the uncomfortable truth is that rather than increasing opportunity across society, the expansion in university education in the past 30 years has served to cement social division. Opportunity for some has not meant opportunity for all, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough made clear. In 2005, the Sutton Trust found that people born in 1970 were less likely to have moved between social classes than those born in the year of my birth, 1958—it is hard to believe that I am 50, but I am. Behind that change has been a rise in educational inequality. Young people from the poorest income groups increased their graduation rate by just 3 per cent. between 1981 and the late 1990s. That compares with the rise of 26 per cent. for those from the richest 20 per cent. of families.

This week, a Cabinet Office report stated:

“Broadly, social mobility is no greater or less since 1970.”

Its conclusions are backed up by a recent OECD report that revealed that the link in the UK between higher education participation and parents with a university qualification is one of the strongest in the developed world.

Rab Butler, a great Conservative, once said:

“Education is the spearhead of social reform.”

However, despite the fact that more than £2 billion a year has been spent on widening- participation programmes, the participation rate of working-class students has increased by just 1 per cent. since 1995. If that were not bad enough, the improvement rate is declining: in the nine years to 1995, participation by working-class students grew at a faster rate. Astonishingly, for some groups, admissions are in decline. We know that from the latest UCAS figures.

Why is that? I say to the Minister, who has inherited much of the problem rather than created it, that it is because the Government have focused completely wrongly on two things; the admissions process and aspiration. It is a kind of pushmi-pullyu policy. However, the pitiful progress in attracting working-class students into higher education is not the result of a biased university admissions system or simply the result of inadequate aspirations. Let us be clear: there is an assumption abroad that universities are institutionally biased against students from poorer backgrounds. That prejudice was memorably demonstrated in relation to the Laura Spence affair, which we heard about again today, but there is no prima facie evidence of snobbery of that type. If there were, that would be a shocking indictment of our university admissions system. But in truth, fewer young people from working-class backgrounds go to university because universities receive far fewer applications from them than from their middle-class contemporaries. Far from proving discrimination, the evidence, such as it is, suggests that applications are treated with admirable fairness.

In two years of access agreements, OFFA has not identified a single breach of those agreements. In 2006, a report for the Higher Education Funding Council based on extensive reviews of the available research found that, if anything, the university admissions system favours applications from working-class candidates. Even the Secretary of State acknowledged that when he said that

“there is no evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with most admissions”.

On the push side of the policy, the Government have focused on raising aspirations. They have put millions of pounds into the Aimhigher programme, but research suggests that Aimhigher is not effective at targeting the worst-off students. Media analysis of the campaign illustrates the fact that its message is best received not by socio-economic groups D and E, but by group A. Those conclusions were supported by a revealing Government study that found

“no conclusive statistical evidence that such interventions have…led to increased aspirations to enter higher education.”

Surely that forces us to conclude that that is not the right approach. Given that the Government are cutting the funding for Aimhigher, I guess that they are grudgingly coming to the same conclusion.

The worst of their misanalysis found form with the Government’s decision on ELQ—equivalent or lower qualifications. I acknowledge that that did not happen on this Minister’s watch, but it was a decision by the Government of whom he is a part. It is sad to say that under this Government there is no chance for second-chance education. I have referred to 20 per cent., but it is actually nearer one quarter of Open university students in England and Northern Ireland who are losing their funding under the ELQ cuts. The cuts mean that 20 per cent. of all part-time learners will become unfunded from this academic year. We cannot continue to draw deeply on a shrinking pool of the same kind of students to stimulate growth in higher education. We must broaden access, which is why the Conservatives have called for the ELQ cut to be reconsidered as part of the bigger funding review.

We must move away from the idea that we simply have to pull more young people on to traditional university courses. In place of the strategy that deepens access for the few, I want a strategy that genuinely broadens access for the many. To do that, we must tear down the institutional barriers that inhibit imaginative solutions and innovative modes of learning. That means recognising that increasing participation is not just about academic offers made to 18 to 30-year-olds; it is about mature learners and vocational learners, too.

We must revisit the traditional assumptions about the patterns of higher education study. The rhythms and structures of campus culture are often simply unsuited to the needs of the under-represented groups. The ingrained pattern of low participation in some neighbourhoods and among certain social groups requires solutions that are sympathetic to the lives of different learners. Full-time study is difficult for those in work or with families. The financial burden of living away from home is heavy for those from low-income groups. We must recognise that different lifestyles necessitate different learning experiences, such as part-time courses, community-based learning, modular study and distance learning. Through changed modes of learning, we can change the chances of thousands of potential students. We can and must build bridges between aspiration, higher education admissions and achievement.

The Dearing review some years ago concluded that much greater flexibility in higher education provision was needed to widen participation, yet the system has not become flexible since then. The number of young first-time entrants to higher education studying part time has remained stubbornly fixed at 6 per cent. for the whole of this decade and we still have problems with modular study. In Britain, if someone leaves a university course early, they are branded a drop-out. In many other countries—notably, America—they are thought to have gained a credit; they have done one, two or however many years of college.

The advice and guidance for young people on higher education opportunities is not adequate. We need to think more seriously about an all-ages careers service that is dedicated to giving the right type of advice and that is focused in towns and cities but also available in schools. As was said earlier, these decisions are usually made by young people. We also need to think about having more HE in FE. FE colleges tend to draw on their local communities, and their cohort is more broadly based. They should be able to offer more higher education courses, yet bureaucratic barriers prevent them from so doing.

In summary, we need to think seriously about these matters again. That means thinking more imaginatively about modes of study and access points to learning because all should have a chance of glittering prizes, regardless of where they begin.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on securing this debate, and once again bringing this important subject to the House. It has been a good debate. I recognise the contributions that were made by my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and by the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes).

Widening participation in higher education is not to be confined to young people. It is highly relevant to the 6 million adults in the population that have level 3 qualifications, which approximates to A level, and level 4 qualifications. However, I shall concentrate this afternoon on young people.

I hope that the House will forgive me for not mentioning the contribution made by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who I know was upset. I did not sleep because of the events of last night.

Getting young people from a more diverse range of backgrounds into university is something that should matter deeply to everyone. That is because higher education transforms ordinary people’s chances in life. The School of Oriental and African Studies transformed my life. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough had his life transformed by his experience at Bristol university.

I was the first in my family to go to university. Many other hon. Members could say the same. Experiences like ours have been replicated thousands of times in families across the country. When I leave the House shortly after this debate, I shall be going to Buckingham palace to be made a Privy Councillor. My mother would never have dreamed, given the cleaning and home-help jobs that she had to do to help her five children get a quality education, that such a thing could have happened. Nor could she have imagined that the networks that university opens up would have brought her son to a place where he could be friends with the next President of the United States of America.

Widening participation is about producing highly-skilled and well-rounded people. It is also about social mobility and social justice, but it is just as much about learning for learning’s sake and the tremendous opportunities that it brings to those who participate.

I can understand the Minister’s excitement and pleasure on being made a Privy Councillor.

Our debate is also about money, is it not? The Government are in a real muddle over maintenance grants. Will the Minister take this opportunity—it matters to students from working-class backgrounds and others—to say how many new students in 2009-10 who would previously have been eligible for help will be worse off as a result of the change? Will it be 50,000, or 80,000? What will be the new taper rate for those maintenance grants?

I shall come to that later.

It is clear that an overwhelming majority of the 500,000 university staff in this country support the great principle first laid down by Lord Robbins—that every young person with the ability and the desire to do so should have the chance to go to university. Admissions officers tell me that they are with us in wanting more gifted young people to apply for their institutions’ courses. They share our frustration that, for the want of the right intervention at the right time, too many still have their educational horizons closed before they leave school.

I acknowledge that universities have taken action over the years to improve the situation, but it has to be sustained. Fifty years ago, one in 20 young people went to university. When I went to university in 1990, it was roughly one in five. Today, it is about one in three. The House will know that the Government remain committed to raising that figure to one in two.

The social mix of students is richer than it once was. In 1997, four in every five young undergraduates came from state schools. By 2006, that had risen to nearly nine out of 10 of a much larger student population. Likewise, in 1997 only 11 per cent. came from low- participation neighbourhoods; by 2005, the figure was 13.5 per cent.

We know that well over half of young people from all social classes want to go to university. That is the highest that it has ever been, and the rate of increase in aspiration and ambition has been fastest among the lower socio-economic groups. Since 1997, the Government’s policies have given no fewer than 300,000 more people the chance to go to university. Yet in a sense we have only just made a start.

I shall not dwell on the obstacles that we face in achieving the fairness that we all seek. Hon. Members have mentioned many. Those obstacles have not changed much over the years, although our methods of addressing them have. They include low aspiration. I disagree with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings; I believe that aspiration is essential to this agenda. My experience in working-class estates in constituencies such as mine and in the northern constituencies of my colleagues tells me that aspiration, the change in work and context in those communities, are vital factors in explaining why such young people do not go to university.

Ultimately, the universities themselves are responsible for which students they admit. It is inevitable that much of the onus to expand opportunity should fall on them. Most have responded positively to the challenge, and the Government have supported them in that.

For example, we have extended the Aimhigher programme, which has already done much to encourage young people to see going to university as an option. The programme operates on the principle that showing youngsters one concrete example of the fact that people like them can aspire to go to university is worth a thousand words. That is why we introduced Aimhigher Associates, a scheme to allow 5,500 undergraduates to mentor 21,000 children from the age of 13. That is a significant number. The initiative will be supported by £21 million over the next three years. I believe that it has the capacity fundamentally to change lives.

It is difficult to give way when less than two minutes remain. I know that we will return to the subject over the weeks and months ahead.

I could take the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough as an example. The university of Huddersfield’s Barnsley centre is directly opposite the further education college. The university authorities have not waited for the people of Barnsley to come to them; since 2005, they have brought a range of higher education opportunities to their doorstep.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the performance of the more selective universities. They, too, are now making progress. However, I acknowledge that to date it has been slower than the average for the whole sector. I am sure that members of the more selective universities will reflect on some of the statements made in the House this afternoon.

Notwithstanding the changes to student grants that we announced last week, I can tell the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that average household income is just under £40,000. That is why we guarantee that a grant will be available to those households, and that people will be supported. We have made a real improvement.

Graveyards and Burial Grounds

Good afternoon Mr. Cook. I shall start by quoting from “SAIFinsight”, the voice of independent funeral planners. Page 20 of today’s issue contains advice about how to give a good eulogy. My speech should be seen as a eulogy to the Minister, whose appropriate and detailed response will, I am confident, transform the situation regarding health and safety in burial grounds and graveyards across the country. I hope that she will do that to a time scale. Page 21 of the magazine notes its new publication, “A Not So Jolly Christmas”, and gives advice on how to cope with bereavement at Christmas. That provides an appropriate time scale for action—which I am sure the Minister has considered—in which to reach local authorities and other burial authorities. Hopefully, when families make a Christmas visit to the grave of their loved ones, they will not be confronted with the indignity that huge numbers of my constituents have faced in recent years.

I said huge numbers. There are 859 families in my constituency who have contacted me because their loved one’s grave has been staked by an over-zealous burial authority. Those 859 families are in one constituency. I have researched the subject and have discussed it at length on a number of occasions with the kind assistance of the Minister, her advisers, officials and the Health and Safety Executive. I have also taken the precaution of finding out about health and safety myself. I am the only trained topple-tester of memorials in Parliament and one of only a few in the country. Therefore, I can categorically say that of those 859 staked graves, the vast majority—upwards of 90 per cent. if not 95 per cent.—are not unsafe at all but are perfectly safe. Those that I have tested would demonstrate that.

What is going wrong? It is not the Health and Safety Executive. In 2007, a written answer stated:

“In 2004, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission wrote to all local authorities setting out the need for a pragmatic approach to this very sensitive issue.”—[Official Report, 20 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 610W.]

The problem is that some local authorities and others have not been listening. Instead of thinking pragmatically and understanding health and safety and the concept of risk assessment, local authorities have brought in private contractors and paid them a sort of piece rate, creating a perverse incentive for the contractor to stake or lay down the gravestones, deeming them to be unsafe whether they are or not.

A fascinating comparator is the Church of England. That has as many burial grounds as local authorities but it gives responsibility for them to church wardens. Those people are volunteers—unpaid but highly professional. They are people about whom the words “common sense” and “appropriateness” immediately spring to mind in all their dealings and voluntary work. In my constituency and across the country, church wardens assess the risk of burial grounds by using common sense. Therefore, when I asked the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon.Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) a question in Parliament on 5 June 2007, he was able to say that there have been no complaints about the policy and approach of the Church of England for the last 20 years. None. That compares with 859 complaints in my constituency alone.

Church insurers say that the number of insurance claims they receive from the whole country—on any issue, not only successful claims—averages fewer than two per year. There is a small issue to address about health and safety, as there is throughout society, but it is not a big issue. As I researched the issue, I was amazed. I thought that only Bassetlaw council had decided, in its infinite madness, to stake all the gravestones. In fact, I found that it is happening all over the country—in Staffordshire, Sussex, from Herne bay to Whitley bay, Stoke, south London, Plymouth and in Blackburn with Darwen borough council. They once said that there were 4,000 holes in Blackburn—now it is more like 4,000 stakes.

(Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue—he has done us all a great service. He is right. Darwen council, which covers part of my constituency, has not displayed common sense. One of my constituents told me that

“it came as a complete shock to find my late husband’s memorial labelled unsafe and banded.”

That was in September 2007. Darwen council has now learned its lesson. It tells me that when it topple-tests further graves, it will use in-house people whom it has trained, and it will pay the costs of reinstatement. I thank my hon. Friend for forcing Blackburn and Darwen council to do that.

I salute the wise burghers of Blackburn. I hope that my own council will take note of their prompt and wise action and will repeat it immediately following the debate. Let me quote from one of the people who go around staking the gravestones in my area, Mr. Jack Sills:

“The industry test is designed to protect the public from headstones falling over. We have a duty of care to protect those visiting gravestones. There have been cases of people dying when gravestones have fallen on them.”

That is what is going on; the private contractor who profits from the staking is overstating the case. Of course there have been occasional deaths, but there were none between 2004 and 2008 since I started campaigning on this issue.

It gets worse. A statement from the Crewkerne and west Crewkerne joint burial committee reads:

“When people visit and tend graves, they kneel down and normally pull themselves up by the headstone, elderly people in particular…Each time this causes the headstone to tilt over and become more unstable. We don’t want them to fall down as they could cause considerable harm.”

That is the nonsense on which councillors are making decisions to spend large amounts of money staking or laying down headstones. It is total nonsense for us to envisage thousands of elderly people across the country pulling themselves up and pulling the gravestones down. In my topple-testing capacity I have visited many graveyards, and I have not yet witnessed any incident of that kind.

The reasons for the minute number of accidents that have occurred are, first, playgrounds. Graveyards are sometimes seen as playgrounds and people playing in them occasionally have accidents as they do playing anywhere that is inappropriate. Secondly, alcohol. On occasion, inebriated people crossing graveyards late at night—whether or not they are fleeing from the police—have managed to come into contact with a headstone and injure themselves. I am aware of one occasion when that was fatal. That has happened in the last 20 years, but it does not happen only in graveyards. There have been no deaths in the last four years.

Let me mention railings. Many graveyards have railings around them. Take last year: Derby, death, railings, impaled; Rotherham, death, railings, impaled; Coventry, death, railings, impaled. I could go on. In Wycombe, there was a death from impalement on churchyard railings and in west London, someone was impaled on churchyard railings after a car accident. In fact, there have been more deaths from impalement on the railings of church or local authority graveyards than from the headstones. Of course there is a risk that young people who climb up trees to collect conkers will slip and fall. If there is something underneath, they could hurt themselves. If they fall on railings, they could kill themselves. Does that mean that we should remove every railing in Britain?

Walls collapse. In the 2007 storms, two people are known to have died from collapsing walls on the same day. Do we therefore knock down every wall in Britain? On the same night, people died from falling trees, roofs and sheds. These things happen. We absolutely should have appropriate health and safety and standards in construction and maintenance, but not the nonsense that we have had around the country. I could give huge numbers of examples, but I will not because of time.

We can imagine the distress caused to my constituents when they turn up and find the contractor staking their family grave or, as in one case, pulling and testing it with their hands until it moved, and then deeming it unsafe, because it finally moved.

What is the remedy? The remedy is good, clear guidelines, which I believe and hope have now been completed, that give a real risk assessment, not of the headstone, but of the whole public space, from the car parking to the railings and the path that people might slip on. As with any public space, there should of course be a rational risk assessment from time to time to ensure that it is properly maintained.

In Worksop cemetery in Bassetlaw, on my risk assessment—I am trained more widely as a risk assessor—the biggest danger is slates falling on someone’s head and damaging them from the roof of the local authority building that has not been properly maintained. That is what needs repairing, not the headstones.

In Langold cemetery, the danger is not fallen stones—there are none, because they have all been staked. The danger is that, because car parking has not been properly addressed, there is no proper turning circle, so a small child could be run over at the end or beginning of a funeral because a car has not been parked properly. Those are real risk-assessment issues.

In the guidance that I hope to hear, there would be nothing about staking, and all stakes would be removed. The stake at an angle is a trip risk; the stake higher than the headstone is a slip risk; and the stake that splinters because of weathering is a risk on both counts, and it carries a greater risk of impaling someone. The stake itself is a health and safety hazard.

We need proper consultation of families.

May I suggest that my hon. Friend look at the work of the Ford Park Cemetery Trust on its website? If he does so, he will find an example of how the community has become involved in taking care of a huge cemetery. I am sure that the trust will be grateful to him for the work that he is doing to draw attention to this very serious problem.

I shall have a look at that site.

Finally, local authorities and other burial authorities need to negotiate with the stonemasons regarding the tiny number of headstones that need some work. That way, the masons who make money from putting them in inappropriately fix them at their own expense, and the local authorities can fix the unknown ones that need a bit of work. We could then all move on.

It is clear what the Health and Safety Executive thinks. A letter was sent to me today, in which it states:

“The risk of harm from an unstable memorial is low, very low. Thus, control measures should be proportionate to the risk, and the assessment should aim to identify memorials that present real and immediate danger”.

That means virtually none of them, just as most railings, walls, trees and roofs in this country are not a major risk. We need common sense. Let us finally, Minister, have the common sense in time for Christmas so that, rather than having to read the funeral planners’ booklet on a not very merry Christmas, people can go and pay their respects in dignity and peace at their family grave, without the indignity of tape, stones laid down, or stakes. Let us get those things cleared, so that the world can move on rationally with decent health and safety.

It is bonfire night tonight, and I have a proposal for the Minister. A bonfire of the stakes will be an appropriate sign to the people of Britain that we take health and safety seriously and that the over-zealousness of the local authorities that have gone mad on the issue can be reined in, so that the dead can rest in peace.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) began his remarks by saying that they would be a eulogy. I must say that they were more than that: they were inspiring and overwhelmingly persuasive. It has been a joy to work with him on ensuring that what he wants to achieve—he has been working on this for some time—will soon be achieved, finally.

Clearly, how we treat our dead and those who mourn provides a fundamental indicator of the kind of society we are. As my hon. Friend said, we should therefore be treating our dead with decency and respect. Most importantly, we should be treating their families with the sensitivity and understanding that they need, particularly at the moment of bereavement.

Our policy on graveyards consists of three key principles: that the public have a realistic choice in the funeral arrangements for their relatives; that the services provided by burial authorities are professional, caring and sensitive to the needs of ethnic minorities and religious communities; and that local burial facilities provide a fitting environment for the bereaved and enhance the life of the community. Burials need to be carried out according to the relevant law and procedures, and the public need to have confidence in how their graveyards and burial grounds are managed. Cemetery services must also be consistent with our broader aims on the environment and cultural heritage.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the vast majority are owned by, and under the responsibility of, local authorities, although some are run by the Church of England and other churches, and there are some private and charitable graveyards. They each have responsibility for their burial grounds. The Government do not run or own burial grounds, but we set the legal framework within which operators must work. We can therefore influence how burial grounds are managed by providing the advice and guidance that my hon. Friend seeks, as long as they bear in mind the general principles that I have set out.

We have done a lot of work recently to take forward the policies for improving our burial grounds and the way in which cemetery services are provided. For example, we now have an advisory group of professionals who bring their expertise to the issues and problems that our burial grounds face, and we have carried out independent research into cemetery management. Additionally, we have finally undertaken a survey of burial grounds throughout England and Wales. We have also published the guidance for burial ground managers that my hon. Friend referred to, and conducted a review of burial law and practice.

Last year, we announced our response to the public consultation exercise on burial law reform. That identified a number of measures that we intend to take, including dealing with the shortage of burial space and the state of repair of some burial grounds. We intend to look at the case for modernising burial legislation. Those measures will help local authorities, and other providers, to ensure that their communities have burial facilities of which they can be proud and that will accord with the three principles. Although the provision of such facilities is an essential service, members of the public want cemeteries that provide a peaceful place for contemplation. They want a place in which they can remember the lives of local people and they want it to enhance their local community. Those are the reasons why the public are so concerned about the way in which some burial authorities have dealt with safety issues.

The safety issue is not new. It has been known for years that, very occasionally, a loose or unstable gravestone can, and does, cause injury. In a very small number of cases, the incident has resulted in death. Our hearts go out to the families of those who have died in such circumstances. Burial ground operators have a legal duty to ensure that they manage the risk of injury that can be caused by a broken or unstable gravestone. They also have a duty to manage other risks associated with the operation or maintenance of the burial ground. My hon. Friend mentioned car parking, but it can be the state of the road or the level of the kerb. Those risks can affect how safe people feel in graveyards.

Unfortunately, some burial ground operators, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Bassetlaw, have completely overreacted to the problem of unstable memorials by supporting many gravestones with stakes, or even laying them down. As my hon. Friend said, taking such steps may increase risk rather than diminish it, or may even create a new safety hazard in its own right.

Initially, the various burial professionals tried to provide guidance for their members on how to deal with the problem. However, that led to inconsistencies in approach. Our advisory group agreed to consider whether national guidelines should be formulated. Such agreement was hard to achieve because there were different views about how the problem should be tackled. After considerable thought, we decided to address some of the worst aspects of the actions that were being taken. Our advice was contained in a letter signed jointly by the relevant Ministers, and the chairmen of the Health and Safety Commission and of the Local Government Association. We said that the risk of an accident happening was low and that the action taken to manage that risk needed to be proportionate. We also said that it was essential to keep the families affected informed of what was happening.

That advice still holds true, but burial professionals have told me that practitioners need further practical advice to help them achieve their responsibilities. I agreed to consider what else could be done to help assess the risk of an accident happening, and then how to manage that risk proportionately and sensitively. We have been working with representatives from the HSE to develop such guidance.

I am pleased to say that the guidance is nearly complete. I know that my hon. Friend has been assiduous in ensuring that the draft guidelines, and the more complete guidelines, were not inconsistent. He has given us very good advice on how to tighten up some of the areas. I hope that we have now responded to the issues that he has raised, and that we have included his ideas in the new guidelines.

Last week, the Burials and Cemeteries Advisory Group agreed that, with minor revisions, the guidance could be published. The guidance included adopting, as far as possible, the helpful suggestions made by my hon. Friend during this debate and during a meeting we had a couple of weeks ago. I assure him that we will publish the guidance as soon as possible. It is basically a statement of good practice. It will demonstrate that burial ground operators should do what is reasonable and practicable to manage the risks associated with memorials as the law requires. It stresses a simple and proportionate approach to inspection and assessment.

The guidance has the support of all those in the burial industry, including the authorities, the masons and the managers. They have worked hard to develop it, and once it is published we expect them to take ownership of it and promote its use among their respective organisations.

Am I correct in saying that the discussions between the various parties have now been concluded and that it is a question of publishing the guidance rather than continuing with the negotiations? Will the Minister also say whether it is appropriate for local authorities to be removing the health hazard—the stakes themselves?

I was coming to that suggestion. My hon. Friend anticipates me in a positive way. The guidance will bring to an end the distressing sights of row upon row of uprooted or pushed-over gravestones, or those ranks of ugly metal stakes. I hope that it will also reduce the number of graves that are disfigured by the hazard tape and insensitive warning signs. In most cases, there is no need for action, for special equipment or for contracting in expert advice. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) gave a good example. She ran a campaign, calling on her own local authority to use in-house expertise. The authority now trains its own people to deal with the matter sensitively.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw made an important point about gravestones that have already been staked or laid down. Obviously, the action that will be taken will depend on specific circumstances. However, we have made it clear, and it is now on the record, that the guidance is about to be published. Any local authority worth its salt will now start preparing to incorporate that guidance. There is nothing to prevent them from behaving as if the guidance is already in place. I hope that the authorities will be contacting the burial ground owners to agree on how to proceed. I expect burial ground providers to review the decisions they have taken in all of the relevant sites in the light of the guidance. Where there is no good reason for a gravestone to be staked or laid down, I urge the council to restore the monument to its previous position. The council may follow the example that was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen and pay the cost of so doing. That will mean removing the stake or re-erecting the headstone, as appropriate, at a cost to the authority rather than to the individual bereaved families.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, any death or serious injury in our cemeteries caused by an avoidable risk is a tragedy. Sadly, some of those deaths have been of children. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that those incidents are extremely rare. By contrast the number of families who have been distressed by the precipitate action of authorities to make gravestones purportedly “safe” is very large—859 in the constituency of Bassetlaw alone. If that was reflected across the country, we would see many thousands of families being distressed by this clumsy way of dealing with what is an incredibly low risk.

Our cemeteries can be beautiful places for contemplation, but they are also a working environment. I say to my hon. Friend, I hope that this Christmas, families can visit the graves of their loved ones—in his constituency and elsewhere—knowing that the memorials will remain in place in respect of their memories.


It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the provision of allotments by local authorities and delighted by the amount of interest that the debate has generated, which is reflected not necessarily by the number of people who have turned up but by the number of e-mails and telephone calls that I have had from people around the country and other hon. Members who have taken an interest. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) has a particular interest in the issue, but cannot be with us this afternoon.

The issue is particularly important in my constituency and has become far more important in the past few years. I thank the eight Greater Manchester local authorities that took the time to provide me with information for this debate showing the lack of available allotment plots in Greater Manchester. To give a few examples, Bolton has 1,000 allotment plots and a waiting list of 200, with average waiting times of 18 months. Bury has 516 plots and a waiting list of 378. Oldham has 431 plots and a waiting list of 220. Rochdale has 450 plots and a waiting list of 175. Salford has 356 plots and a waiting list of 291. Stockport has 1,203 plots and 394 people on the waiting list. Trafford has 1,500 plots and 600 on the waiting list, and some people there have to wait up to six years. Finally, Wigan has 317 plots and 800 on the waiting list, often with a wait of three to four years.

Unfortunately, I could not get any information from Tameside borough or my own council, Manchester city council, but the figures, despite being incomplete, show that more than 3,000 people are on waiting lists for allotment plots in Greater Manchester. Although I could not get figures for Manchester, I did get some for my own constituency from the Association of Manchester Allotment Societies showing that my constituency has 450 allotment plots and 280 people on the waiting list. That is in just one of five constituencies in Manchester, which shows the scale of the problem across the city.

The situation has been worsening over the past 10 years, and waiting lists have lengthened with no sign of demand being met. Ten years ago, the situation in Manchester was somewhat more mixed. For example, there were plenty of empty plots at Southern allotments in my constituency, and there was even talk of the site not being an allotment site in future, but today it is full. Other sites were full 10 years ago and are now more so.

Attitudes to allotments have changed. Long gone is the image of the allotment holder as a retired man. Allotments have surged in popularity among young people, particularly women. There is no obvious single reason for that increase in popularity, but significantly more people in south Manchester live in flats and apartments with little or no outdoor amenity space, which has led more people to look to allotments as a means of accessing outdoor space.

I know that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that the problem is not specifically an urban one. I represent a rural constituency where we face the same problems as the voters of the Greater Manchester area. He talked about young people’s renewed interest in allotments and growing their own produce. Will he consider the transition towns movement in constituencies such as mine, which has engaged people of all ages in developing community gardens? An innovative scheme in my constituency is the “adopt a garden” scheme, which uses gardens that are not as productive as they might be for the good of those people.

People in my constituency are certainly looking into using abandoned bits of land as community gardens. They are not suitable for allotments, but they are suitable for community gardens. That should help to provide outdoor amenity space.

There are many different reasons why people are interested in taking on an allotment these days. A lot of people now see it as a particularly good way to keep fit and healthy, an opportunity to grow their own produce and a way to cut down on food miles. However, I am afraid that it looks as though the situation is getting worse. Didsbury faces a further threat to allotments from the Environment Agency’s plans for essential flood defence work. The agency’s preferred option is to cut a channel through the Bradley Fold allotments, which could result in the loss of up to 40 plots.

Local councillors and I have been supporting allotment holders opposed to that option, which I think was proposed only because the Environment Agency thought that it would be the cheapest and easiest option. However, I am confident that during the consultation period, the agency will come to agree that there is a more cost-effective solution that will avoid impacting on the allotments, because the agency does not appear to have taken into consideration the need to find an alternative site for the displaced allotment holders.

The waiting list for my constituency is not unusual. The figures for Greater Manchester show a consistent pattern of high demand and lack of supply. In previous debates in the House, other hon. Members have highlighted similar shortages in their constituencies and local authorities.

So what is the solution? Locally, I have sought to persuade the council to increase the number of available plots. At Southern allotments, after discussions with members of the Association of Manchester Allotment Societies, I introduced proposals to extend the site on to adjacent land, creating an additional 20 to 30 plots at very little cost. I have also encouraged the use of section 106 money from developments to expand and improve allotment provision, and I know that other hon. Members have suggested that as a good way to get extra resources to put into new allotments.

We have also urged the council to reopen the former Parrs Wood allotment site, which was closed several years ago to be sold off for development. The site was never sold and has been allowed to become overgrown. So far, unfortunately, the council has refused to agree to reopening it, with the feeble excuse that the quality of the ground is not good enough for an allotment site, even though it used to be one.

Even if the council agrees to reopen Parrs Wood allotments and expand Southern allotments, Manchester would still have a massive shortage of plots. What can be done to ensure that local authorities provide an adequate number of allotments? The Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 seems pretty clear that if there is a demand, the local authority has a statutory duty to provide a sufficient number of plots. In a previous Westminster Hall debate, the then Minister said:

“The council must assess whether there is demand for allotments in its area. If it decides that there is, it has a statutory duty under that Act to provide a sufficient number of plots.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 22 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 235WH.]

Does the Minister believe that waiting lists of more than 3,000 indicate that Greater Manchester has a sufficient number of plots? Is a waiting list of 280 for 450 plots in Manchester, Withington alone a sign of sufficient provision? I would argue that it is not.

In the most recent publication of the magazine of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, there is an article by a lawyer called Bryn Pugh, which states:

“It is arguable, in strict legal theory, that if there be a single person on a waiting list for an allotment, the municipal authority in quo is in breach of statutory duty. This statement might raise hollow laughter from those who are in areas where a would-be plot holder is more likely to accede to a burial plot before an allotment plot.”

Can the Minister comment on that view? Does he agree that this is a breach of statutory duty?

It is clear from previous debates on allotment provision and also from recent parliamentary questions that the Government have been reluctant to take the initiative and enforce the relevant legislation. Local authorities continue to exploit the Government’s reluctance to act by clearly breaching the 100-year-old legislation. Unless we take action now, the situation will only get worse.

The Government need to issue further guidance to make it absolutely clear to local authorities that they have a responsibility to provide allotment plots. Perhaps the Minister could also provide guidance on the use of section 106 money from developments to increase the provision of allotments. Ultimately, however, if local authorities continue to ignore the guidance, the Minister seriously needs to look at finding ways to compel them to comply.

I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) for securing this debate and I congratulate him on keeping this matter at the front of our consideration in our debates in Westminster Hall. I should also like to thank both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for allowing me to speak very briefly before the Minister replies.

It is very appropriate that we are discussing this matter at the time when allotment plots are traditionally re-let, at the end of the autumn season. I would also like to thank the Croydon Federation of Allotment and Garden Societies, the Park Hill Allotment Society and the Norbury Park Horticultural Society for the advice that they have given me. I am also particularly grateful for the advice given to me by Croydon council, which is an excellent authority when it comes to encouraging allotment provision.

Nevertheless, Croydon is an example of many of the problems that are faced across the country regarding allotments. Sometimes the waiting list for allotments in Croydon is not too bad, compared with the rest of the country. Sometimes the wait can just be a few months, but at other times it can be as long as 10 years. There is land within the borough of Croydon that was formerly used for allotments but is no longer being used. Unfortunately, I think that those resources are not being used by the council. Perhaps the council would argue that it would like grant money, and I would support it in that regarding allotment sites that are not being used. In one particular case, there are water problems with the area around South Norwood lake, so the council is not fully letting out allotments there.

Also, the Croydon Federation of Allotment and Garden Societies is in conflict with the local authority about whether or not the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 and the Allotment Act 1887, legislation to which the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington referred, are being properly used in terms of the undertaking given in that legislation that money acquired from land that is sold that is statutory allotments land should be reinvested in allotment provision. Regarding this allegation by the CFAGS, I am advised that it has never been tested in law in front of the courts. Obviously it is disappointing to think that, within my borough, that money is not being reinvested as it should be.

In the remaining minute and a half that I give to myself, perhaps I can proffer to the Minister some possible solutions, because I think that we will not get very far if we ask the Government to conjure up land out of nowhere; instead, it is a matter of better usage of land. What the Mayor of London is doing, with his proposals for food for Olympians in 2012 that is provided by the use of roof gardens, is good. The policy that is being pursued by the Scottish Government, to try to encourage public bodies to identify land within their ownership for allotment use, is also good.

Furthermore, I am very encouraged by ideas that are being pursued for pensioners to consider giving up some of the land in their possession, in co-ordination with traditional allotment holders, in return for a share of the crops that come from that land. There is perhaps a role there for local authorities and Government, to ensure that there is due and proper process in this area.

Finally, I should like to highlight the very good work that is being done by Eastbourne council regarding allotments, bearing it in mind that Eastbourne is an area that a lot of people retire to. The council has a very open-minded approach, encouraging applications from people for allotments well in advance of their actual retirement.

I thank everyone very much indeed for allowing me to speak in this short gap between the two main speakers today.

I would like to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) for raising the important issue of allotment provision in this debate. I would also like to thank the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) for his short but useful contribution.

Allotments are valuable green spaces, as has been said, and they provide many great benefits for communities. They play a vital role in connecting people to the process of food production and in promoting healthy eating. As was said during an intervention, there has been a revival in interest in “growing your own” fresh and cheap food, while reducing food miles. It may be a century since the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 was passed, but allotments continue to provide benefits to their communities and to grow in popularity.

It has been commented that the age profile of allotment holders is growing younger. As far as allotments are concerned, I remember Arthur Fowler in “EastEnders”. Although we do not have statistics on the age profile of allotment holders, we know from anecdotal evidence that, for the reasons that I have given, allotment users and those on the waiting list for allotments are getting a lot younger.

For many years, the Government have recognised the importance of allotments. The provision of allotments and their protection is set out in statute, as has been said, and my Department also offers guidance. However, I need to say at the outset that the provision of allotments is the responsibility of local authorities. Someone either believes in devolution or they do not; we believe in it. We believe that it is right and proper for local authorities to be in charge of the provision of allotments and for them also to be charged with the task of being responsible for allotments.

I accept that point about devolution entirely; I am a strong believer in devolution. However, does the Minister not accept that, even within the devolution framework, local authorities must work within their statutory duties?

I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but he needs to be quite clear. During his short speech, he said that he wanted guidance, action and compulsion. That makes me nervous, as someone who believes in people power at the lowest possible level. I was not clear if he was suggesting that the Big Brother state in Whitehall should step in and intervene on every single local authority to bring court cases and court challenges. Is that the policy of his party?

I was not for one second suggesting that the Government need to go with a two-footed approach to this issue. All I was saying is that, if local authorities are ignoring the guidance and the legislation, ultimately the Government need to take some additional action if local authorities refuse to abide by their statutory duties.

Before I continue with the rest of my speech, I think that the hon. Gentleman and those reading the debate need to be clear about the role of Government and the separation of powers. We pass laws and make legislation, but a good question, one that is worth asking, is who enforces those laws? We empower citizens to have rights to bring actions, if they need to do so. During the course of my short response, I hope that he will see that there is already sufficient guidance and legislation if constituency MPs and councillors wish to utilise them. I shall refer to that guidance and legislation further during my short contribution.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that section 23 of the Smallholdings and Allotments Act 1908, as amended, places a duty on local authorities, except for inner-London boroughs, to provide allotments where they consider that there is a demand for them in their area. If a local authority is of the opinion that there is such a demand, they are required to provide a sufficient number of allotments for letting to those residing in the area who want them. The community can and should influence the provision of allotments. Written representations may be made to the local authority on the need for allotments by any six resident registered electors, or persons liable to council tax, and the local authority must take those representations into account. That is provided for in section 23(2) of the 1908 Act. It is for the council to decide whether there is a demand for allotments in its area, and it has a statutory duty to provide a sufficient number of plots.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out that the legislation is more than 100 years old, but we do not believe in scrapping legislation simply because it is old, especially if it is good after amendment. The legislation means that allotments are uniquely protected. Under section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925, allotments cannot be treated as previously developed land. That makes it very difficult to dispose of or build on them. A council may dispose of an allotment only in exceptional circumstances, if it can fully justify to the Secretary of State, against robust criteria, that there is a need for a change.

We have discussed the roles of Government and Parliament. Our role covers disposal, and there are robust criteria for the Secretary of State to use when a local authority wishes to dispose of allotments. If the hon. Gentleman has an example in which his local authority, or a local authority near to him, has disposed of an allotment, I will be happy to ask my right hon. Friend to look into that.

Our guidance on open spaces supports the legal framework, and in 2002 we sought to strengthen protection. In 1998, a Select Committee inquiry into allotments concluded that the criteria for assessing the disposal of statutory allotments were too weak. As a consequence, they were strengthened and reinforced in 2002 by the revised planning policy guidance note 17 to ensure that the community’s need for the allotment in question would be taken into account, and that it would be considered surplus to need. That has had the impact of slowing down the loss of allotments. So, there was legislation in 1908 and 1925, a Select Committee report in 1998 and Government guidance in 2002, and far fewer allotments have been lost as a result.

Through PPG17 and planning policy statement 3 on housing, the planning system provides a robust framework for the protection and provision of all types of open space, including allotments. PPG17 advises local authorities to provide for all types of public open space. It expects them to undertake robust assessments of local need, to audit existing open space and to establish standards for new provision. Local authorities should use that information to plan how to meet their population’s future needs and to place standards of provision in their development plans. I hope that when local authorities prepare development plans, they will take into account the fact that younger men and women want to use allotments, perhaps as part of a lifestyle choice.

The Minister misses the point when he talks about the Government having strengthened the legislation to prevent the further sale of allotment sites. I accept that the legislation has been improved in that respect, but no action has been taken to deal with increased demand and the need for more allotments. This is not simply about preventing their loss.

I note the time and the tenor of the debate, Mr. Cook, and I do not want to cause offence, but I inevitably will. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He does not want a Big Brother Government, but he wants us to intervene. He and his colleagues complain about developments on the green belt, but there is a demand for housing and finite space. Last time I checked, we were an island. He thinks that we should demand that local authorities provide more space for allotments because of demand, but supply and demand work in funny ways.

We believe in devolving powers down to local authorities, and that councillors—I used to be a councillor, and so did the hon. Gentleman—are the right people to devise and decide on development plans. I believe that communities have the skills, the advocacy and the intelligence to elect councillors who will deliver on local community’s needs. I do not believe that the Government, including those of us who are based in Whitehall and are not connected to Manchester because we are MPs for places such as Tooting, are the best experts to decide what should go on in his area.

If the hon. Gentleman’s points prove to be properly made and there is sufficient demand to justify the provision of more allotment space over the provision of more housing, schools, community centres or open spaces, he should make that argument to his local authority.

As a south London MP and a former councillor, I agree entirely that it is important to give local authorities discretion. Nothing irritates more than the taking away of such powers. Would it help the Minister, in setting any future legislative framework, if I gave him more detail about the case that I have mentioned? Allegations have been made that the legislation, which we think might be satisfactory, is not being followed, because money is not being transferred in relation to statutory land. Would that guidance help with continuing policy?

As a new boy in week five of this job, I welcome advice, and I would be keen to look into such examples.

As the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington has pointed out, a local authority can use section 106 agreements to get the maximum possible planning gain for the local community. He has given good examples from his community in which the local authority has taken advantage of that facility. I repeat that it is the local authority’s responsibility to ensure that allotments are properly provided for and managed.

We have mentioned disposal. The Government and I believe in devolution and that local authorities are best placed to ensure that there is local provision. However, that does not mean that we cannot do anything, or that we will wash our hands of allegations of malpractice or of local authorities not discharging their duties under legislation, not following guidance or not keeping to the spirit of guidance.

In June 2007, we revised our guidance for plot holders and ensured that they know their rights. That is another example of how we are empowering citizens to know their rights. We are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. In the past year, we have worked closely with the Local Government Association to update and produce a second edition of “Growing in the Community”, which was launched in March. The updated guide reflects the significant developments in the allotments movement since 2001. It contains excellent examples of current good practice and shows innovative uses of allotments benefiting all sections of the community and highlighting their importance in promoting health, community engagement and community cohesion. Indeed, we could be said to be victims of our own success. By encouraging the use of allotments and encouraging plot holders to follow good practice, we have encouraged more people to want allotments. We cannot have a dam holding back demand, especially if there is also a need.

We are working closely with organisations that have an interest in allotments to consider how to engage with local authorities more effectively to ensure that they are clear about their responsibilities under legislation and planning guidance. We want to use that partnership work to build on current guidance and to ensure good practice. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about any matters with which he thinks I can assist him, or help to lubricate the machine within the authorities, I am happy to endeavour to do so. The same applies to any examples that he might want me to follow up.

We recently gave a grant to the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens to deliver support and best practice in relation to allotments, and to enable better dialogue. My colleague, Baroness Andrews, has taken a lead in those dialogues and will continue to support the work of partners, including allotment representatives, better to address the issues that allotment authorities and users face. Further provisions on community empowerment will be announced in the Queen’s Speech, giving citizens more rights to bring pressure on local authorities. I suspect that allotments are one area in which they will bring pressure.

To summarise, my Department is committed to allotments, and there is a strong legislative framework in place. There is also planning guidance on open spaces, encouraging local assessments on provision and need, and a policy of empowering local communities to highlight their needs. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has been a passionate advocate for these issues in his community. I thank hon. Members present for staying behind at this late hour to listen to the debate, and I hope that those who read the report of the debate will be encouraged and reassured that the Government take their concerns seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.