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Commons Chamber

Volume 483: debated on Monday 17 November 2008

House of Commons

Monday 17 November 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sex and Relationships Education

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of school teaching on sex and relationships. (235753)

The review of sex and relationships education has now been completed and the Government response to the review group's report was published on 23 October. The response includes a range of measures to raise the quality of SRE in schools, including our decision to make personal, social and health education statutory. It also includes action to address the key delivery challenges, the most significant of which is to improve the skills and confidence of those who deliver SRE.

I thank the Minister for that answer. This is a complex and important matter, on which the evidence is quite mixed. Does he share my view, based on some experiences, that many modern schools are more comfortable teaching about biology and the plumbing and, rightly or wrongly, experience more difficulty in teaching about relationships? What can be done practically to prevent lop-sided education from being given to children?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that young people are taught about sex within a moral framework and within one that teaches about relationships. That is one reason why I was persuaded by the arguments of the review group that we should make PSHE statutory. In primary schools, the focus should particularly be on relationships and their importance so that there is a proper setting for going on to talk about the sensitive matters around sex.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a place in sex and relationships education for teaching about sexually transmitted diseases, particularly for ensuring that young people get a realistic and accurate appraisal of HIV/AIDS and its consequences?

My hon. Friend is right that the subject of sexually transmitted diseases should be covered as part of sex and relationships education, on an age-appropriate basis, which currently means from secondary school age. It is compulsory for young people to learn about HIV/AIDS, and I am sure that that will continue to be the case.

Does the Minister not accept that many parents—and, indeed, grandparents—of primary school children are extremely concerned that this should become statutory? They believe that the right place for children to be taught these things is in the home—and, in some cases, a church—and they do not want the mechanics of sex taught at a very early age and to see the further destruction of childhood innocence.

I have always made it clear—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to make it clear again—that we are not proposing that five, six and seven-year-olds should be taught the mechanics of sex. We are suggesting that they should be taught about relationships, as I mentioned in response to the question of the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh).

The hon. Gentleman is right that parents should be involved with the school in making decisions about what should be taught and when. It is very important that parents are properly engaged and that much of this education takes place at home, but we have to take account of the fact that on some occasions some children are not taught these things at home, so we need to able to fill in for that absence, in school.

As well as dealing in school with sexual relationships, we need to look at general and social relationships with adults. Has the Minister had the chance to look at the details of the Barnardo’s survey of 2,021 people, which shows that 54 per cent. of adults believe that children are starting to behave like animals and that 45 per cent. believe that children merit the adjective “feral”? Unless the survey was drawn entirely from the Daily Mail readership, can the Minister think of any other reason for such a distorted view of young people in this country?

I am aware of that report and the reporting of it in the media today, but I have not had a chance to study it in full because of preparation for consideration of Lords amendments later today. I share the concern that I think was expressed by Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo’s. In my experience—there is considerable evidence to prove it—the vast majority of young people are responsible: they are more likely than any other age group, for example, to volunteer in our communities. We should do everything that we can to ensure that we provide positive images of young people to counteract the stereotype that sometimes comes across from certain parts of the media.

Does the Minister not accept that the more sex education we seem to have had, the more unwanted and teenage pregnancies we seem to have had, and that more sex education is not the answer and that perhaps less or even no sex education might be better? Moral upbringing should be the responsibility of parents, not teachers, and if we really want to tackle this problem it would be much better to look at the benefits and housing allocation systems than throw in more sex education for pupils in schools.

I am pleased to note from the expressions on the faces opposite that the hon. Gentleman’s comments do not reflect the opinion of his party’s Front Bench.

All the international evidence that we examined suggests that the opposite is the case. The number of unwanted teenage pregnancies fell by 12.9 per cent. in this country between 1998 and 2006, but it is still too high in comparison with the numbers in other western European countries. In European countries that create, through schooling, an environment that makes people happier and more confident about discussing sex and relationships at home, we see the rates of unwanted teenage pregnancies fall.

Sports and Arts Participation

2. What progress has been made towards implementing the Government's strategy to increase school sports and arts participation; and if he will make a statement. (235754)

Since the introduction of the national strategy for physical education and sport, the percentage of pupils engaging in two hours of high-quality PE and sport each week has risen from an estimated 25 per cent. in 2002 to 90 per cent. in 2008. We are investing £332 million to 2011 specifically to increase music participation. Building on that, the Find Your Talent programme will trial ways of providing five hours of arts and cultural experiences in and out of school.

Amber Valley has an outstanding sports development and leadership programme, including holiday programmes working with schools and even a mini-Olympics. The arts officers also do excellent innovative work with schools. Will my hon. Friend ask Amber Valley council to think again about whether it can possibly meet the sport and arts participation targets if it persists in its current plans for everyone in sport, arts and health development posts to be made redundant?

I know that my hon. Friend is an ardent advocate of the good work being done in her constituency, particularly on sports development, sports leadership and arts and cultural events. It is of course for a local authority to decide how to allocate its budget, but I hope that that local authority will find ways of meeting the national targets that it is expected to meet, using the posts designed to meet them within its budget.

Facilities—as well as excellent teaching, of course—are crucial to delivering the targets. St. Tudy school in my constituency has been given a grant to fund a new school building, but it now faces a shortfall. Were it able to complete the project, it would have a proper school hall and outside facilities for the first time. Will the Minister or one of her colleagues agree to meet me to discuss how the funding shortfall might be overcome?

I am pleased that there is to be a new school in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It is important for new schools to have a broad range of facilities, but it is for local authorities to use the funds at their disposal to meet the national strategies that we have established and to deliver our requirement for school sports.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Wright Robinson specialist college, a sport and arts college in my constituency where a £47 million project was opened two months ago by the Prime Minister, on its fantastic achievement as most improved school of the year? Will she also note the wonderful artwork at Acacias community primary school, also in my constituency, which was shown when the school celebrated its centenary earlier this month? We have seen wonderful demonstrations of the talent and innovativeness of children throughout the country, but especially in my constituency.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the good work being done in his constituency. It demonstrates that both sport and arts can play their part in developing a rounded education for young people and giving them different activities in which to participate, especially at specialist sports colleges. Ten per cent. of secondary schools are now specialist sports colleges. We recognise that sport is an excellent way of involving young people involved in education, and we expect the Olympics to enthuse even more of them.

Dance involves both physical activity and artistic benefits. What will the Minister do to make dance opportunities more widely available in our schools?

We intend to enable specialist dance colleges to work with other schools. I agree with the hon. Lady that dance is an excellent way of involving young people. One of the main problems with sport in schools is getting girls involved, and dance is an excellent way of getting them involved when they may not feel quite so keen on other forms of physical activity.

In my constituency, there has been a massive increase in sporting facilities in schools over the past 10 years. Participation is important and any increase is to be welcomed, but what is the Department doing to make sure we have more competitive sport, as competitiveness in schools is very important in improving our chances of success later on in various sports?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are encouraging competitive sport in schools. We have a national network of 225 competition managers working in partnership with schools, alongside national school sport week and, of course, our UK school games.

I noted the Minister’s original response, but is she not concerned that participation in sport among older children and teenagers is particularly low? Only 67 per cent. of pupils in year 10 and 63 per cent. in year 11 participate in the two hours of physical activity each week. What more can be done to encourage them to participate more?

It is important to recognise that there is a huge increase in the number of young people of all ages doing sport compared with six years ago when we first started this programme. There is a particular issue with pupils at key stage 4, and there is pressure on the curriculum, particularly when pupils are doing their GCSEs. We should note, however, that, overall, participation has risen among those pupils and that they have also achieved better GCSE results —so these aims are not actually in competition with each other.

Youth Crime Action Plan

The youth crime action plan sets out the Government’s triple-track approach of tough enforcement, non-negotiable support and early intervention. We have committed £100 million to implement the plan, starting in 69 local authorities and, by 2010, all local authorities will have received a share of the additional funding.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but can he reassure me that as much is being done to promote positive images of young people as to deal with youth crime, particularly in the light of the Barnardo’s report published today, which revealed that an alarming number of adults described young people and children as “feral” animals, with some even suggesting that teenagers should be shot?

My hon. Friend has been a great campaigner for youth services and a positive view of young people. We must remember that it is often young people who are the victims of crime. It is important that a small minority are not allowed to ruin things for the vast majority of our young people, who are not only law abiding but wonderful examples of volunteering, working hard and doing best by their communities. It is important that we celebrate young people, but we must not let the minority ruin it for everybody else.

I understand from the Government’s press release that they selected the first tranche of 69 local authorities to be funded by using

“a variety of data to help best focus resources on priority areas.”

May I give the Secretary of State some data? In the last year, seven young people have died in the borough of Enfield from knife crime. Is that not a sufficient number of wasted lives for it to be considered a priority for funding?

As I said, every local authority will be receiving funding over the next three years, but we have started the funding in those areas where levels of crime, truancy and deprivation were highest. We will make sure that this happens in every part of country, because no community should be blighted by youth crime or the kind of terrible issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. It is important that in every part of the country we focus on preventing crime through the kind of early intervention set out in the children’s plan; that matters in Enfield as in every part of the country.

I strongly welcome the emphasis on early intervention as part of an anti-crime initiative, as well as positive activities for young people, but may I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that we have long-term research to find out just how powerful the impact of early intervention is? The High/Scope Perry project in America did not reveal how effective it was until about 30 years after the early-years intervention, when it could show that those young people were less likely to end up in prison and were more likely to go to university than their peers.

It is vital that we have such evidence, but we already know that children with a special educational need, and those in care or with a parent or sibling who has spent some time in prison, are much more likely themselves to end up getting into trouble with the law. Given that we know that, we should be intervening early to make sure those children get extra support, starting in primary school. That is the right way to support them and their families, and to keep young people and our children on the right track.

Autism

5. What guidance his Department plans to issue to children’s trusts on the provision of an all-round regime of support for young people with autism up to the age of 16 years. (235759)

The Department is planning to issue revised statutory guidance to children’s trusts in November. The guidance is intended to explain what a children’s trust is and what it needs to do to improve outcomes for all children. Children’s trusts also have available to them the autism exemplar that we published in 2004 under the national service framework, which shows how multi-agency support should be provided to meet these children’s needs.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Her Department has supported the Autism Education Trust, which has just published a major report on the joint experience of families and schools in this area. The Department has done a great deal to support education and training in respect of autism, but will she carefully examine that report to see what more can be done to strengthen support on the social service side of children’s trusts, as well as the educational side?

I commend my hon. Friend’s work in the field of autism. I have seen many examples of it, and I know that he works very hard in his constituency. I am also aware of Blackpool’s good reputation; it is represented on our autism working group and provides a good example of work as part of a multi-agency approach. We will certainly keep in touch to see whether lessons can be learned from that. I emphasise that the multi-agency approach, which includes all people who are involved with children with autism, is part of the principle of children’s trusts. As I said, they are not just for children with autism, but for all children.

It is too easy to forget the contribution that parents of children with autism make, and I cannot speak highly enough of the parents who set up the Spectrum club in Newbury. However, it runs only up to the age of 15 for children with autism, and it is trying to work with West Berkshire council to extend provision to cover the crucial years between 15 and 18. I would be grateful to know what the Minister can do to encourage provision in this key area, so that these children can continue to improve so dramatically that they can go on to achieve at university and beyond.

I entirely agree that we should be examining the transition to adulthood, particularly for young people with autism. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that in May the Department of Health announced the development of an autism strategy for adults and the transition to adulthood, and we shortly expect the outcome of the tendering for that. I agree that this is vital, because it is no good training children through school if we then do not manage the crucial transition stage of getting them on to further education and eventual employment.

I realise that my hon. Friend has not been in her position for very long, but will she send a message to the whole of the Front-Bench team to stop shilly-shallying on this matter? We want more action. The Select Committee produced a report on special educational needs well over two years ago, and we expect faster improvement and sharper movement than has taken place, especially on what happens to children with a special educational need, particularly autism, post-16—the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) mentioned that. That age, 16-plus, is still a very dangerous and difficult time for children with special educational needs and their parents, and it is about time the Government pulled their finger out and did something.

I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments, but it is important that we get it right—getting it right is more important than rushing in with something that might not do that. As I said to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), this age is crucial for adulthood. It is part of our children’s plan, and the Lamb review is examining innovative ways in which parents can be involved in the progress made by their children with autism, particularly during that crucial transition period.

Over the past 10 years, the number of special educational needs statements has fallen by more than a third while the number of appeals to SEN tribunals has, not surprisingly, doubled. More than a quarter of such appeals are for children who have autism. Would it not be a better start to providing support for children with autism if in place of highly adversarial, costly and stressful tribunal referrals, the Government instead promoted special needs mediation, involving parents, local authorities, independent educational psychologists and other professionals, in order to come up with agreed educational needs profile plans to help the children most and soonest by providing multi-agency support, not multi-agency buck-passing?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we certainly recognise the difficulties that parents have finding a way through the statementing process and addressing the special educational needs of their children. That is why we have commissioned the Lamb review. There are 10 innovative projects finding different ways to involve parents so that they have confidence in the system. We will review the outcome of those pilots to find best practice and what gives parents confidence, because that is the key to the problem.

Will the Minister instruct the new children’s trusts to take good notice of those institutions that have been very successful in dealing with children with autism, such as Baskerville school in my constituency? The danger is that they will try to reinvent the wheel, instead of turning to those who have had experience of doing well.

It is important that we learn lessons of best practice, and that is what we are trying to do. We certainly have no intention of trying to reinvent the wheel, but it is important to listen to parents who tell us what the best practice is for their children. We are facilitating parents’ groups, for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, so that they can share information among themselves. It is really important to use examples of best practice and see how we can disseminate them around the country.

Sure Start

6. How many Sure Start children’s centres have been opened in Milton Keynes since the initiation of the scheme. (235760)

There are 13 designated Sure Start children’s centres in Milton Keynes, offering services to approximately 9,000 children aged under five and their families. The Government have allocated £14.7 million in capital and revenue funding to Milton Keynes in this spending review period to support existing centres and to develop a further seven centres by 2010 in order to achieve universal coverage for every single child.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The parents in my constituency who use children’s centres know subjectively from their own experience how valuable the centres are. Does the Minister have any objective evidence of the value of children’s centres generally, and can she comment on what would be lost if their funding were to be withdrawn?

I thank my hon. Friend for her close interest in the development of children’s centres, especially in her constituency. There is objective evidence from the national evaluation report on Sure Start. The latest report in March this year shows that children in Sure Start centre areas are benefiting significantly in some crucial areas compared with those who live in an area without a centre. The 2008 foundation stage profile results for this year also show that more five-year-olds are achieving a good level of development. Crucially, the gap between the lowest achieving 20 per cent. of children and the rest is beginning to close.

In Milton Keynes specifically, 53 per cent. of children have achieved a good level of development, compared with 48 per cent. last year. The gap between the lowest 20 per cent. and the rest has closed from 37.7 percentage points to 32. 5 percentage points in 2008. That suggests—as my hon. Friend implies—that the children’s centre programme is essential for the well-being of children and families and would be sorely missed were it not to continue.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s reply and found it disappointing that she chose not to say what the Government will do in response to the report in The Lancet last week, which yet again showed that Sure Start is failing to hit half of its targets. Most worryingly, for children and families from an ethnic minority background, some of its impact is still negative. Would it not be better if the Government were to listen to all of the research, so that we can have a proper debate on all the facts and ensure that Sure Start becomes the success that it needs to be for every family in this country?

The Lancet article simply rehearsed some of the findings in the national evaluation report in March to which I have just referred. It said that in five of the 14 areas there is now evidence of significant difference between children in Sure Start areas and others. Those crucial areas include the children’s social development, behaviour and independence, the parents’ ability to parent, the home environment and the use of services. In the other seven areas there is no statistically significant difference at the moment, but we are on a 10-year journey and we are continuing constantly to improve quality. I have no doubt that in time all those measures will show a significant positive difference in Sure Start areas.

I thank the Minister for her recent visit to my constituency to see the work in progress at Broad Oak high school, which is the most recent high school to have a children’s centre located on site. In view of the remarkable achievements of children’s centres and their great popularity with parents, will she tell the House whether there is now cross-party consensus on the future development and funding of children’s homes?

That is a very interesting question, which I am not qualified to answer. Only last week, I was with the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and, in front of an audience of children’s organisations and academics concerned about children, she wanted to scotch the myth that the Conservative party is not in favour of Sure Start children’s centres. She gave her assurance that it was, but we saw today that she has reverted to her default position of trying to undermine Sure Start at every opportunity.

Life Skills

7. If he will take steps to improve the teaching of life skills to pupils between the ages of 11 and 16 years in deprived areas; and if he will make a statement. (235762)

Personal, learning and thinking skills are embedded throughout the new secondary curriculum, which schools are encouraged to tailor to local circumstances and the needs of all pupils. Through PSHE, young people develop the social and emotional skills to make safe and healthy choices. On 23 October we announced our intention to make PSHE statutory, underlining our commitment to improving those skills among young people.

Does the Minister accept that although teenage pregnancy is a serious problem it is only a symptom of a much broader problem? Young people, particularly in deprived constituencies such as mine, do not have the right social and emotional aspects of learning that will enable them to make the right decisions in a number of fields, leading to teenage pregnancy, antisocial behaviour and lack of educational attainment. Will she work closely with the Department of Health to continue the great work on teenage pregnancy, and also look beyond contraception towards early intervention so that we can reach the minds of those young people when they are aged 11 to 16 and they can be enabled to make the right choices in their lives?

I know that my hon. Friend has worked hard in his area to tackle that issue. At the weekend, I viewed a DVD that has been made by young teenage mums in Nottingham. Without exception, they said that they would like to go back to the schools that they attended to tell young women not to make those choices—to tell them to use contraception and to learn how to use contraception. We have shown that effective delivery of local teenage pregnancy prevention significantly brings down rates, even in the deprived areas that my hon. Friend talks about. Our curriculum measures are in line with our recent decision to make PSHE compulsory. As we review the matter with Sir Alasdair Macdonald, we will certainly look at what we can include in those measures.

Does the Minister agree that life skills are best taught by parents backed by a full range of child-centred professionals? If she does agree, what is she doing to ensure that the work of school nurses is enhanced and not degraded?

I certainly have no intention of trying to degrade the work of school nurses. Of course, life skills are best taught by parents but it is obvious that in many cases young people do not have parents with the confidence or even the ability to teach those life skills. That is why we are looking at the PSHE curriculum in schools and looking at innovative ways in which to use that curriculum. As I have said, a review is taking place that will report next April, when we will be able to consider ways in which we should use the new statutory curriculum in order to deliver the skills that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Does the Minister agree that if both life skills and parenting skills were taught better to adolescents in deprived areas we would see fewer incidents of child abuse? Given incidents of gross abuse, such as the baby P case, does the Minister agree that it is regrettable that not much more progress has been made on the Laming inquiry recommendation about making senior service managers more accountable? It is surprising to many of us that the director of social services in Haringey has not seen fit to tender her resignation.

We are well aware that there is an ongoing inquiry and investigation, and at this stage I do not want to comment on that in the House.

It is important that we talk to young people about parenting skills for mothers and fathers. One of the striking testimonies given by the young people in the DVD was that in all but one instance the teenage fathers of the babies did not hang around. All the young women said that it was important that those skills were taught in schools not just to young women but to young men as well.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extremely important that all of us engage in conversation with our primary or secondary schoolchildren so that they can learn about the elective processes and how we can help them in future should they require help, and that in return we should listen to their opinions and worries?

A lot of work is being done with youth councils and youth parliaments. It is important that we listen to the voice of young people. I was recently able to sit in on a meeting of young people from Derbyshire youth council, at which they expressed to me some of their hopes and concerns. It is important that we continue to listen to the voice of young people so that we and their teachers—and school nurses—can talk to them in a language they can understand.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has brought families to the fore in the teaching of life skills. Does she recognise the need for more family and community education units? Children need to talk to their parents pre-11, and the approach of schools should be to the whole family, not the individual child.

I entirely agree that it is important to bring parents into the educational environment. With reference to the question about Sure Start centres answered by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, we can get parents involved with children’s centres and Sure Start to give them the confidence to bring up their children and answer their questions, bringing in those wider well-being and life skills right from the start.

Youth Facilities

9. What plans he has for expenditure on youth facilities in West Lancashire over the next two years. (235764)

My Department has allocated a total of £1.7 million to Lancashire county council through the youth capital fund for investment in youth facilities over the period 2008-11.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the impact of the youth opportunity fund and the youth capital fund across the country and in West Lancashire in particular?

We are making real progress with many hundreds of thousands of young people benefiting from the investment made in recent years, but there is much more to do. I am sure that in my hon. Friend’s constituency—as in all our constituencies—a common theme is that young people, adults and pensioners all say that we need more places for young people to go after school and at weekends and more things for them to do, so that they do not just hang around on the streets. We are investing that money to make sure that there are facilities for young people in constituencies across our country.

Ofsted Inspections

11. What progress has been made in his Department’s review of the conduct of Ofsted inspections; and if he will make a statement. (235766)

Ofsted has consulted on and is currently developing proposals for a more differentiated school inspection system, under which the frequency of inspections for good and outstanding schools will reduce.

I welcome that answer, because the question I would have posed was that it makes absolute nonsense that continuously well-performing schools have to be completely disrupted for two days but do not even have a proper inspection. Now that my right hon. Friend will be streamlining that part of the system, will he ensure that schools that continuously perform badly get extra help and assistance not just from Ofsted reports but with guidelines on where they can improve? We all want to see the lifting of school standards, not bashing well-performing schools over the head all the time.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, and I agree with much of what he says; it is important that Ofsted’s inspections are risk based, and that we focus attention on schools that are not doing well enough. Under proposals on which Ofsted are consulting, it will increase the proportion of satisfactory schools that are sampled from 5 per cent. to 10 per cent., so that we can ensure that we keep an eye on them. Through programmes such as the national challenge, we are focusing a lot of resources—£400 million, in respect of that scheme—on improving the schools that need it most.

Will the Minister suggest how we can ensure a seamless system of inspection, whereby we do not lose the benefits of inspection, but cause minimum disruption to schools prior to inspection?

The direction of travel has been away from the long notice that used to be given to schools, which caused a lot of disruption and distorted behaviour, to short-term notice of less than a week. That minimises disruption but gives some preparation time. Ofsted proposes to pilot no-notice inspections in some circumstances, to see whether that can improve things further. However, those are matters for Ofsted, which is independent of the Department; it is a non-ministerial Government department, and it is up to Ofsted to make its decisions.

Does the Minister not recall that Ofsted now spends more than £400 million per annum on inspections? Frankly, many of the inspections are not helpful, and are carried out by people without the right experience for dealing with the schools they are inspecting. Could he not start to save some of that money by abolishing the post of the academies adviser, who has now gone off to the private sector to a fundamentalist education trust?

As my hon. Friend knows, I hate to disagree with him, but I have every confidence in the job that Ofsted is doing. It has an enlarged brief; it is responsible for inspecting a wide range of settings, not just schools. That might explain why the cost of running Ofsted has gone up. Post-inspection surveys of head teachers show that 96 per cent. of schools agree that inspections identified the right issues for improvement, and 83 per cent. agree that the benefits of the inspection outweigh any negative aspects. The outgoing schools commissioner has not, to my knowledge, ever worked for Ofsted; he certainly does not do so at the moment, and it is not proposed that he should go on to do so.

The Minister just said that he has confidence in what Ofsted is doing, but Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, has said that improvement of standards in our schools has “stalled”. Does the Minister agree?

I certainly do not agree that standards have stalled in our schools. We will have to wait and see what the chief inspector of schools says in her annual report later this week about whether improvement in our schools has stalled.

CAFCASS

13. When he next expects to meet Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service officials to discuss their work. (235768)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, who has responsibility for children, young people and families, meets CAFCASS regularly, with the next meeting scheduled for December.

The Minister will be aware that CAFCASS reports often play a vital role in influencing court decisions, but is she aware that aggrieved parties have no right of complaint against CAFCASS, and that there appears to be little, if any, accountability? For example, I know of a case in which an aggrieved parent wrote a letter to his regional complaints manager on 9 January 2008, and eventually got an eight-line reply on 14 April 2008. Surely that is a disgrace. What does she plan to do to make CAFCASS more accountable?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to send me details of that case, I will pass it on to my ministerial colleague, and I am sure that she will be happy to look into it. On the face of it, I agree that waiting three months for a reply is not acceptable. Having said that, in general terms, as a result of recent Ofsted reports, CAFCASS is undergoing a significant improvement programme. There is an issue to do with consistency of practice in different regions, and it is being addressed through the improvement programme. However, if the hon. Gentleman lets me have the details, I will do what I can to pursue the matter.

School Standards

Since 1997, school standards have risen substantially—I am sure that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) is listening to this, because it refers to his previous question—thanks to a range of measures, including increased investment, excellent leadership and teaching, renewed primary and secondary teaching frameworks, better use of pupil data, and the targets that schools and local authorities have set for their pupils. The national challenge programme launched in June aims to raise standards in schools where fewer than 30 per cent. of pupils achieve five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths, and we have announced the next phase of our secondary school improvement strategy, “Gaining Ground: Improving progress in coasting secondary schools”. There is no sign of complacency.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but what are schools doing to encourage more youngsters to go into vocational education, which, as I am sure he realises, opens up many doors for a lot of young people who are disadvantaged in life?

My hon. Friend is right that we need to expand vocational education; that is why, through the publication of “World-class Apprenticeships”, we are committed to expanding the uptake of apprenticeships. Our aspiration is that by 2020 one in five young people will be starting apprenticeships. In addition, by creating the diplomas, which are a rich mix of academic and vocational learning, we will provide a different pathway for people to get into vocational learning through their education.

Topical Questions

The whole nation has been deeply shocked, appalled and angered by the tragic death of 17-month-old baby P. I know that Members across the whole House will have been contacted by constituents to express their revulsion that a small boy could suffer such abuse in this day and age, and their disbelief that this could happen again in Haringey.

Immediately following the legal verdict last Tuesday, I asked Lord Laming to report to me with an urgent assessment of how the reforms introduced following the Victoria Climbié inquiry are being implemented across the country. On Wednesday at 10 am, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I received the full serious case review. I was deeply disturbed both by the detail of the abuse suffered by baby P and by the failings of practice and management that it highlighted.

On Wednesday afternoon, and with the agreement of Haringey, I immediately arranged the secondment of the director of children’s services in Hampshire, John Coughlan, to ensure that proper procedures for safeguarding children in Haringey are in place and being applied. I also asked our national inspectors—Ofsted, the Healthcare Commission and the chief inspector of constabulary—to conduct an urgent and thorough inspection of the safeguarding of children in Haringey and to report to me in two weeks’ time. Mr. Coughlan began his work immediately last Thursday morning, and the work of the independent inspectors is under way. They will report to me by 1 December, and as soon as I have studied their findings I will publish Ofsted’s report and the action we will take.

In addition, I met Lord Laming this morning to agree the scope of his review, which will cover the key features of good practice and whether they are being universally applied across the country; the key barriers, including in the legal process; and what specific actions need to be taken to accelerate systematic improvement across the country, including on the issue of the independence of local safeguarding children boards. I am placing copies of my letter to him in the Libraries of both Houses. Tomorrow, I will set out the legislation that we will introduce to strengthen local arrangements to promote the safety and well-being of children across the country through statutory children’s trusts.

Professionals working with children in this country do a tough job, often in very difficult circumstances. However, where serious mistakes are made, there must be accountability, and I will not hesitate to act on the findings of the inquiry into what went wrong in Haringey and of Lord Laming’s review. Our responsibility, working together, is to ensure that children are safe and protected from abuse, and we will not rest until we have the very best possible child protection arrangements to safeguard our most vulnerable children in every part of the country.

Order. I usually allow the Secretary of State an opening statement of one minute, but that was well over a minute. A statement should be questioned by the Opposition parties. I therefore expect that some time this week the Secretary of State will come to the House and allow the main Opposition parties to question him, as well as, of course, all Back Benchers who want the opportunity to do so.

On another subject, the ocarina is an easy-to-play, easy-to-learn, easy-to-teach circular flute, and the centre of the UK’s ocarina industry is in Kettering. My constituents, David and Christa Liggins, actively promote the use of this low-cost musical instrument in schools across the country. Would the Secretary of State agree to meet my constituents and me to discuss how this low-cost instrument might help the Government to teach more school pupils how to play musical instruments?

I have heard ocarinas played many times, and my ministerial colleague would be happy to arrange a meeting.

On the wider issue, Mr. Speaker, I am happy to answer questions at any time. I thought that it was important to update the House on my meeting with Lord Laming at the earliest opportunity.

Of course it is important, but a ministerial statement is so important that it must immediately be followed by questions from Her Majesty’s Opposition. We are not able to do that today, and I make that very clear indeed.

The Secretary of State has rightly pointed out that after the Victoria Climbié tragedy, Haringey should have been an exemplar authority for child protection. I am sure that he will agree that the Government should show exemplary energy in pursuing concerns about child protection in Haringey. Six months before baby P died, Ministers received a warning letter from a former Haringey social worker. It was passed to the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which held a meeting in which Haringey council promised speedily to improve its policies on safeguarding children. Two weeks later, responsibility for inspecting child protection passed to Ofsted. What steps did Ministers, Ofsted or anyone in the Government take to ensure that Haringey lived up to its promise to improve child protection?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the review into Haringey social services that I instigated last Wednesday, and for giving me notice that he would raise the issue today. I sent him and other Opposition spokespeople a copy of my letter to Lord Laming.

A letter came from a lawyer for a former employee of Haringey, which went to the Department of Health. It was passed to the former Department for Education and Skills. It was not seen by Ministers. It was handled in the normal way through official channels. At that time, a reply was written to the lawyer to say that Ministers could not be involved in a particular employment case and that the right way to take the matter forward was through the social care inspectorate. That was done by the lawyer, and that process was followed up by a meeting in which the inspectorate confirmed that it was content that things had been done properly by Haringey in that case.

On the wider issue of Haringey social services, there was a review in 2006, and a further review by Ofsted in 2007, which gave a good report. It did not look at the particulars of the legal case; it looked at matters more widely. An investigation is now going on because I have sent the inspectors in. They will report to me in two weeks’ time, and I will take whatever action is needed to ensure that children in Haringey are safe.

I am sure that the Secretary of State appreciates that this is a question about the inspection regime. We know that in March the inspectors said that Haringey had to improve, and that in October Ofsted said that Haringey—and this was just after baby P had died—provides a good service for children. That report was based mainly on paperwork and desk research, and the author of that report was a former employee and colleague of the director of children’s services in Haringey. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the systems for inspecting child protection are sufficiently robust when that can happen?

I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters in more detail, as the House allows. The report in question was not authored by any colleague of the director of children’s services in Haringey at all. She was not the author of that investigation. There was an investigation by CSCI into particular allegations; it was content that they had been dealt with properly and closed the case.

Separately from that case, following the 2006 inquiry into safeguarding in Haringey, there was a further, routine investigation in the autumn of 2007, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, gave a good report. It did not involve inspectors’ reports and visits to Haringey—that was not the nature of the investigation. I have now called the inspectors into Haringey to see what needs to be done, and to see whether the issues that emerged from the serious case review are being properly implemented. I want to ensure that there is proper accountability and that we are doing whatever it takes to make sure that children in Haringey are safe. That is the right way to proceed. I will proceed in the right way, and we will ensure that everything is done to make sure that children in all parts of the country are being properly protected.

T3. I welcome the review by Lord Laming that the Secretary of State announced. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will review the role of local safeguarding children boards? Does he believe that the chairs of such boards should be independent? Will the report also consider the way in which serious care reviews are conducted? (235780)

On 22 October, we said that we would examine the operation of local safeguarding children boards, including independence and the conduct of serious case reviews. Evidence from the Ofsted reports in June shows inadequacies in some case reviews around the country. In my letter today, I have asked Lord Laming to consider both how to improve serious case reviews and the independence of those boards’ chairs. In my view and that of the children’s Minister, independence is a better way of proceeding. If we need to change guidance or the law to achieve that, we will do so on the basis of Lord Laming’s recommendations.

We obviously welcome the current investigation into the tragic events in Haringey. However, is not it already obvious from the evidence in the public domain that an inquiry that takes place over a period of just two weeks will be inadequate in getting to the bottom of the issues? Is not it clear that we need a public inquiry to establish exactly what happened in Haringey and why the lessons of the 2003 report have not been learned?

I asked for an urgent inspection from Ofsted, the Healthcare Commission and the constabulary. I said that “urgent” meant that I had to have a first report in two weeks. If they judge that they need more time to prepare a second report, that is fine, but I want action in two weeks and that is why I have set the timetable. The right thing to do is to examine what happened—the management failures, the problems of process and how that led to the wrong judgment, it seems, being made about the safety of the child. As I said, I am going to do that properly. I will wait for the inspectors and then act on the basis of their first report, which will come to me on 1 December.

T5. Use of the internet, e-mail and text messaging to bully others is, sadly, on the increase. As this week is national anti-bullying week, what more can the Government do with schools and youth services to ensure that the message is clear that bullying, whatever form it takes, is not acceptable? (235782)

The important thing is that, in every school, parents, teachers, children and young people need to work together to say that bullying is wrong, that it will not be tolerated and that we will do everything we can to ensure that it does not happen. Furthermore, we are announcing today funding to extend the Diana award for two more years so that children and young people who do that work in their communities are properly recognised for their important contribution to the safety and well-being of children in our schools.

T2. The Secretary of State is aware of proposals from Chelmsford-based Essex county council to shut two secondary schools in my constituency. If Colchester borough council comes forward with its own option, will the Secretary of State or a member of his ministerial team agree to meet a delegation from Colchester? Will he give that view the same consideration as whatever emerges as the Tory council’s preferred option? (235779)

Thanks to the hon. Gentleman, the issues in Colchester are never far from my mind, and I am grateful to him for passing on clippings from the Gazette. He knows that we need to change in Colchester to improve standards and that Essex county council, the Chelmsford-based organisation to which he referred, will make the organisational decisions. On that basis, if he considers it worth while, I am happy—as ever—to have another meeting with him.

T7. When the Secretary of State last visited Bristol, we met the seven heads of the local authority national challenge schools. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is even more important in times of economic downturn to produce children with decent qualifications and skills? What does he think that the national challenge will help to achieve to that end? (235784)

As my hon. Friend will know, we have already agreed the plans for Bristol, which will involve a further academy, bringing the number up to, I believe, eight in Bristol, and a further £500,000 of funding, to ensure that every child receives the support they need and that all schools are helped to get above our basic benchmark. We will achieve a goal that would have been impossible to contemplate 10 years ago, which is that every school in every community, for every parent and every child, will be a good school. That is our progressive commitment.

T4. Will the Secretary of State share with the House what plans he has for correspondence on children in protection and children at risk to be reviewed by his ministerial team? (235781)

As I just said, I investigated the matter last week, as did our permanent secretary. I am assured by him that at the time—this was in the previous Department, the Department for Education and Skills—the correspondence unit took advice from the expert policy team, whose judgment it was that in statute the matter was rightly for the independent inspector, not the Department. However, it is of course the case that at all times officials and Ministers have to make the right judgments to ensure that problems are spotted early and that action is taken. That is what we will do at all times and in all cases.

T6. Given the excellent advice that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), gave earlier, will the Minister tell us exactly what she is going to do to improve the statementing process so that parents believe that it is on their side, rather than designed to defeat them? In doing so, will she avoid the words “best practice”, “facilitator” and “engaging”, which she used earlier? She should just tell us what she is going to do. (235783)

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman objects to the words “best practice”. I would have thought that we should all be using best practice. Indeed, I believe that schools and local authorities should be looking at it. I have already stated that the Lamb review is looking into how we can get parents’ confidence in the statementing system. We have 10 innovative projects under way throughout the country, so that we can find different ways of getting parental confidence in the system. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed that.

G20 Summit

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of the three servicemen killed in Afghanistan in the past few days. They were Marines Neil Dunstan and Robert McKibben from the UK Landing Force Command Support Group, and Colour Sergeant Dura of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. We owe them and all those who have given their lives in conflict a huge debt of gratitude.

I should like to make a statement on the Washington summit on financial markets and the world economy. This was the first ever G20 leaders’ summit, which I attended this weekend with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In just over six months, the world has seen a 40 per cent. collapse in global share values, while global financial institutions have written off losses approaching $1,000 billion and world oil prices have peaked at nearly $150 a barrel and then sunk 60 per cent. We have seen a fall in global expectations for growth in the world’s industrialised countries from 2.5 per cent. in 2007 to below zero for 2009, with all the impact that that has on families and businesses and all the worries about mortgages, jobs and family security in Britain and around the world.

What is making this a fully worldwide crisis is that in recent weeks a problem that started in America has extended to emerging markets and developing countries, some of which are facing bankruptcy. These unprecedented global events call for unprecedented global action. While the economic problems of the 1970s created the G5 and then the G7, it is right that for the first time leaders from developed, emerging and developing economies, which are responsible for 85 per cent. of global growth, met and agreed on the urgency of common and concerted, and where appropriate co-ordinated, actions to address the financial and economic crisis.

To put the long-term challenge in context, in the next 20 years it is expected that the world economy will double in size. This will mean a doubling of opportunities for British business and new opportunities for British workers and families. However, to make the transition to, and secure the benefits of, an open and inclusive globalisation, we have to deal with three other consequences that that brings. Those are, first, the need for restructuring of industries and services, not least resulting from the rise of Asia; secondly, increased competition for resources as long-term demand for oil, food and commodities from the newly emerging economies threatens to outstrip supply; and, thirdly, now that we have global flows of capital, the need to ensure a global framework for financial services as a precondition for prosperity and security.

As epitomised by the sub-prime crisis, which started in America, at the root of the banking crisis was a failure by banks to manage risk, to understand increasingly opaque and complex financial products and to make transparent a developing shadow banking system—[Interruption.]

Order. I am always on the record as saying that I want Ministers, including the Prime Minister, to come to the House to make statements. That does not give hon. Members, including hon. Ladies, a licence to shout anyone down.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

In Washington, we agreed first of all fundamental reform of the way the financial system is supervised around the principles that Britain has been promoting. They are greater transparency, responsibility, integrity—to avoid conflicts of interest—better banking practice and international co-operation. That includes establishing international colleges of regulators; bringing transparency to tax havens by including them within the scope of the financial system; convergence of accounting standards; reviewing executive compensation schemes that encourage excessive and irresponsible risk-taking; full disclosure of toxic assets; and reform to end conflicts of interest in credit-rating agencies. We set a clear timetable, tasking our Finance Ministers to prepare immediate measures for implementation by 31 March, and to report back on progress with the full action plan at the next meeting.

The summit also agreed that the recapitalisation of the banking system was the right course of action. The action that we have taken in the United Kingdom to buy shares in banks has now been followed in every continent of the world, and guarantees have been introduced to allow banks to raise the money needed to continue to support the real economy, as they must, through lending to businesses and families.

We agreed that, against the background of economic conditions worldwide, a broader policy response was needed immediately, based on closer macro-economic co-operation. Importantly, we made it clear that, within our commitment to fiscal sustainability, the broad and international policy response would need to encompass both monetary and fiscal policy action. Although it is for independent central banks to make their own decisions, we recognised the importance of monetary policy to the restoration of growth. Some contended that it was impossible to cut interest rates in Britain for fiscal reasons, but, in fact, the Bank has now, in two successive months, made two cuts worth in total 2 per cent. and the Government have stated clearly that there is scope for further action. A measure of the level of international co-operation that has already resulted is the extensive currency swaps put in place between central banks and the co-ordinated cut in interest rates across Europe, Asia and America a few weeks ago.

Crucially, and for the first time, our Washington statement agreed a broad and concerted international macro-economic policy response in fiscal policy, meaning measures to support families and businesses now. First, we agreed that fiscal policy has an essential role to play alongside monetary policy in sustaining demand, with quick-acting measures to encourage a rapid impact with help for households and businesses. Secondly, we agreed that the benefits of fiscal policy action will be greater for each country if all countries can act in a concerted way.

This imperative is shared internationally. In recent days China, South Korea, Australia and Germany have joined other European countries, including Spain and France, in considering new fiscal stimulus packages. The European Union has already said that the flexibility in the stability and growth pact to recognise exceptional and temporary conditions will be used. President-elect Obama has already stated that a new fiscal stimulus package in the United States is both necessary and urgent. Most previously published forecasts have assumed the absence of co-ordinated fiscal action, but the downturn can be shorter and less deep if Britain takes action, and if that action is matched elsewhere.

It is for individual countries to make their own announcements, as we will do in due course, but the more co-ordinated the action, the greater the benefit to each country will be. I believe that the emerging consensus across the world—from the International Monetary Fund itself, from Governments of left and right, and from political parties, with only a few exceptions, in developed and developing countries—is that we should take rapid, co-ordinated and concerted action through the use of budgetary measures.

Over the past year, the central problem facing the global economy and the UK economy was inflation, driven by a sharp rise in international commodity prices and allied to a credit crunch, which left fewer options for Governments. This year, the reality is the sharp falls in commodity prices that are now taking place, while the credit crunch is leading to contractions in bank lending. The risk in this new environment is not stagflation but the impact on the economy of close-to-zero inflation at the time of a downturn, so it makes sense for Governments to support interest rate cuts with fiscal action. That is giving real help to families and businesses now, and I believe that, in addition to the announcements already made, we will see in the next few weeks many countries following with expansionary measures founded on that agreed international position.

The third central message of the summit is that in taking action, we must resist all forms of protectionism. These threaten to slow down and eventually to stall world trade, thus denying us the benefits of one of the great engines of new growth. So, uniquely, all nations signed an agreement that over the next 12 months they will resist pressure and refrain from raising new barriers to investment and trade. The key to confidence in open trade is, of course, the signing of the world trade agreement, on which talks have stalled since the summer. We cannot allow that impasse to continue, and I welcome today’s new agreement—following Saturday’s summit—to work towards a ministerial meeting in December. To ensure that the trade round is truly a development round that benefits the poorest countries, it will be accompanied by an agreed $4 billion aid-for-trade programme for infrastructure in developing countries. In discussing the issues facing poorer countries, the summit reaffirmed the importance of meeting the millennium development goals—an importance of applying the same common purpose to the challenge of alleviating poverty.

Some have argued that as long as the trade talks remain deadlocked on specific issues, no deal can be agreed, but the G20 was explicit about the action that we have to take: for the first time we have instructed our Trade Ministers to agree, by the end of the year, the outlines needed for a successful conclusion to the Doha agreement.

Finally, the G20 leaders have also agreed that the next summit will allow us to review, and to make decisions on, the wholesale reform of the international economic architecture—built in 1945 but no longer adequate for the challenges of 2008. In agreeing on the need for reform, we also set down the agreed changes that we believe are already essential: a greater voice and representation for emerging and developing countries; an urgent expansion, with broader membership, of the Financial Stability Forum; and, better identification of vulnerabilities and anticipation of potential stresses, with swifter action in crisis response.

The International Monetary Fund’s ability to assist countries facing problems as a result of the current shock depends on its reserves of $250 billion. We welcome the announcement from Japan to lend up to $100 billion, but that may not be enough, and we agreed to review the IMF’s facilities to ensure that it has the flexibility to give countries the help that they need. The World Bank agreed that it would make new commitments of up to $100 billion over the next three years to protect the newest, the poorest and most vulnerable countries, and $30 billion-worth of new facilities specifically to help address the problems faced by the private sector, including recapitalising banks and providing trade finance.

At this unique moment in our economic history, we are seeing the world come together to find global solutions to what are the global problems that we face. Over the next few weeks and following consultation, Britain, as the incoming chair of the G20, will lead the preparations for the next summit, working alongside past and future chairs. We will set out the schedule of events, meetings and papers that will take us to the next conference, the date and venue of which will be announced next week. In the run-up to the conference, we will monitor, following the recapitalisation of banks, the barriers to the resumption of funding, because this summit and the meetings that will follow are about the real challenges of everyday life: the need for people to have confidence in the banks that hold their savings and their mortgages; and the need to know that everything possible is being done to help them in their jobs. We pledge that with national and international action together—real help in difficult times—we will take people fairly through this downturn. I commend this statement to the House.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Colour Sergeant Dura and to Marines Neil Dunstan and Robert McKibben, who were all killed in Afghanistan. As the Prime Minister said, they were serving our country, and we honour their memory.

Everyone welcomes the fact that the summit was of the full G20, involving countries such as Brazil, India and China. It discussed the immediate response to the recession and proposals for the longer term. I shall start with the longer-term reforms. On trade, after so many false dawns, does the Prime Minister believe that this time there is a real prospect of agreement on Doha? On financial reform, there are the Basel accords, which govern bank lending. For a year, we have been arguing that the rules should be made counter-cyclical, but does the Prime Minister agree with me that international action should be combined with action at home, such as the debt responsibility mechanism that we have proposed for the Bank of England to call time on debt? On international institutions such as the IMF, does the Prime Minister agree with me that genuinely sharing global leadership with countries such as India and China means giving them a larger say in how these organisations are run?

The section in the communiqué on the IMF includes talk of early warnings. Is it not also vital that countries listen to the warnings that they are given? The IMF warned Britain last year that household debt was rising rapidly, that our financial institutions were vulnerable and that, as a result, we faced a potentially severe impact. In future, will the Prime Minister listen to these warnings?

Next there is the failure of the regulatory system, particularly concerning credit rating agencies and complex derivatives. The G20 rightly talks about the importance of co-operation, but can the Prime Minister be clear about what is actually proposed? It does not mean detailed international regulation, but international co-operation over regulation. The G20 communiqué rightly states explicitly:

“Regulation is first and foremost the responsibility of national regulators”.

It is quite damning about national failure. It says—this is the communiqué that the Prime Minister signed up to—that

“some policy makers did not adequately appreciate and address the risks building up in financial markets, keep pace with financial innovation, or take into account the systemic ramifications of domestic regulatory actions.”

For the past 10 years, the Prime Minister was the economic policy maker in Britain, so what responsibility does he take for those failings here?

I turn to the recession, about which the Prime Minister makes two claims. The first claim is that Britain’s economic situation is all imported from abroad. He has said that it started in America so many times that it is starting to sound ridiculous. Can he answer this—[Hon. Members: “It’s true.”] If it is true, he is going to have to answer this question. If Britain is so well prepared, can he explain why the IMF believes that the British economy will shrink faster next year than any major economy in the world? Can he explain why the European Commission says that we face a deeper recession next year than anywhere in the EU except for Estonia and Latvia? Far from being well prepared, Britain faces a deep recession. Is that not why in the past few months our currency has fallen more sharply than any major currency and more sharply than ever before in our recent history?

“A weak currency arises from a weak economy which in turn is the result of a weak Government”—

[Interruption.] I do not know why the hon. Gentleman is pointing at me; that was not my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) this week, but the Prime Minister when he was shadow Chancellor. As the hon. Gentleman was talking, I shall read the quote again. It says that

“a weak currency arises from a weak economy which in turn is the result of a weak Government”—

[Interruption.] I am so pleased to have made the Prime Minister smile.

The Prime Minister’s second claim is that there is universal support for a fiscal stimulus paid for by additional borrowing. Yet of the 3,500 words in the G20 communiqué, just 21 were about the fiscal stimulus, and they included the condition that the stimulus should be “appropriate” and “conducive to fiscal sustainability”. The real international consensus is that only the countries that have been fiscally responsible are best placed to act now. Is that not why the OECD recommended a fiscal stimulus for those countries that had consolidated their public finances? Is that not why the European Central Bank said that if a country has borrowed more than 3 per cent.—as we have done—it should not borrow even more? Even this weekend, what the head of the IMF actually said is that a fiscal stimulus should take place only

“where it is possible…where you have some room concerning debt sustainability.”

How can our Government claim that our debt is sustainable when our borrowing this year, before the recession has properly started, is among the highest in the developed world, and when we have just spent £40 billion on a bank rescue?

The Prime Minister keeps citing China, but China, like Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia—like half the OECD, in fact—has a budget surplus. In Britain, our Prime Minister used the good years to build up the biggest budget deficit in the industrialised world. Is that not why, in Britain, more discretionary borrowing now, without knowing where the money is coming from, is bound to mean higher taxes later? Is that not what the Employment Minister admitted last Tuesday? Is that not what the Chancellor admitted last Wednesday? Is that not what the Business Secretary, not known for admitting anything, admitted this morning, when he talked about

“a medium term adjustment some years ahead”

and a

“structural adjustment later on”.

Translated into English, does that not mean higher taxes under Labour?

Is it not the case that Labour’s borrowing bombshell will soon become a tax bombshell? Let us be absolutely clear about what this means: borrowing £30 billion now will mean an income tax bill for the average earner of nearly £1,500 later. Everyone knows the Prime Minister is planning a Christmas tax giveaway, but tax cuts should be for life, not just for Christmas. We need real tax cuts, not Labour tax cons.

Just two years ago, the Prime Minister said:

“No political party will be trusted if it promises stability in one breath and unfunded tax cuts in the next”.

Let me remind him of what he said. He pledged solemnly:

“To make unfunded promises, to play fast and loose with stability… is… something I will never do and the British people will not accept.”

So now that he has broken that promise—now that he is promising a borrowing bombshell—will he start his response by being straight with the British people? Will he admit that by borrowing more now, he will have to tax more later? Just for once in his life, can he give us a straight answer—do not his borrowing plans today mean higher taxes tomorrow?

Let me start with a quote from the Leader of the Opposition:

“I always think Leaders of the Opposition have to be careful not to… talk down the economy. You know there are some strong fundamentals in the British economy and we should celebrate those and point them out.”

That was his position a few months ago. He has changed his position today. A week ago, he said he favoured borrowing out of the crisis. Now he is against it altogether. Even the Americans agree that the financial crisis started in America. As for the regulation of banks, mortgages and pensions, it was his financial competitiveness working party that recommended the deregulation of pensions and mortgages only some time ago.

I have listened on many occasions to the Leader of the Opposition and to the shadow Chancellor, and I have come to the conclusion that they do not understand what is happening in the world economy. I do not think that the Leader of the Opposition realises that while last year, and in the last few months, the problem has been inflation—we have had inflation combined with a credit crunch—in the next year, the problem is deflation and the problem—[Interruption.] Inflation close to zero.

The answer is, as everybody has said at this international conference, that we combine monetary policy with fiscal action so that we have the best impact on growth in the economy. The Conservative party seems to be the only party that is now standing against what is a consensus developing across Europe and across the world: unless we take the fiscal action that is necessary now, and help businesses and families now, we will be undoing any benefit that can come from monetary policy and cuts in interest rates. I hope that the Conservatives will think again.

The right hon. Gentleman sometimes quotes Canada. The Prime Minister of Canada has just said, at the end of the meeting—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister— [Interruption.]

Order. I expect better from you, Mr. Soames, than shouting across the Chamber. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman should be setting a good example.

The Prime Minister of Canada said:

“There’s a view coming out of this meeting, very strongly I can tell you… that monetary policy alone will not be sufficient to take the global economy through this crisis. There will have to be fiscal action, and there will have to be additional fiscal action.”

That is what almost every country is now saying as a result of what is happening around the world. It is the Conservative party that is out of touch. Then, there is Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who said:

“What countries do you think should have it?”—

that is, the fiscal stimulus.

“I want to answer your question candidly. Everywhere where it’s possible. Everywhere where you have some room concerning debt sustainability. Everywhere where inflation is low enough not to risk having some kind of return of inflation, this effort has to be made.”

Let us also be clear about debt comparisons: France 55 per cent. of GDP; Germany 56 per cent.; Italy 101 per cent.; Japan 94 per cent.; the USA 46 per cent; the United Kingdom 37 per cent.

The Opposition have been wrong on every single matter concerning this downturn: they were wrong to oppose the nationalisation of Northern Rock; they were wrong to say that we should not act against shares speculation; they were wrong to say that we could not cut interest rates because the fiscal position was in a bad state; they were wrong to say on Sunday that we could not persuade the rest of the world of the need for a fiscal stimulus; they were wrong with their fuel duty stabiliser that would put fuel duty up by 5p now; they were wrong with the employment policy last week, which was dismissed by the Small Business Federation not as an incentive to employment but, after spending £2.5 billion, as a disincentive to employment. They have been wrong on every single occasion when they have turned their minds to economic policy. They are not only outside the national consensus, but outside the international consensus as well.

What, then, is the answer of the Leader of the Opposition? It is to bring back the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). That is what he means by “time for a change”. Everyone is tested by the economic circumstances we face: Governments are tested and Oppositions are tested. This Opposition have been tested and found wanting.

Order. Mr. Luff, you should calm down—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman should calm himself, or is he telling me that I am not chairing the proceedings properly? I do not think that he would want to do that.

I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Colour Sergeant Dura and Marines Neil Dunstan and Robert McKibben who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan this week.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. I, too, think that it was good that this was a G20 summit, which included new powers such as India, China, Brazil and others. I hope that that will be a precedent for the future because global governance can no longer be a stitch-up of the old powers alone.

I also strongly agree with the Prime Minister’s words on the danger of protectionism. The lesson from the 1930s is indeed that narrow nationalism and trade barriers will only make matters worse. Speaking as one who was at the inception of the Doha development round in 2001, I feel strongly that we must seek to trade our way out of this recession.

British exports, of course, will be boosted after the recent fall in the value of the pound after a long period of over-valuation. In my opinion, the shadow Chancellor was well within his own rights to talk about the falling pound, even if he made almost no sense at all. Does the Prime Minister agree that this sudden desire for currency stability is a bizarre U-turn from a party that once referred to the euro as a “toilet paper currency”?

The Prime Minister spoke a great deal today about a fiscal stimulus, and it is rumoured that he wants to borrow money for a temporary tax rebate. In my view, it is right to give money back to people on low and middle incomes who are more likely to spend some of that money, but instead of borrowing for a one-off tax cut, the Prime Minister could pay for a big permanent tax cut by ending unfair loopholes for the very wealthy. Would not that be fair? The right thing to borrow for is not short-term cash bribes, but long-term capital investment in infrastructure which the country needs in any case. Does he agree that extra borrowing can be justified only to fund green energy, sustainable transport and the homes we need for a sustainable economic recovery?

The Prime Minister still seems incapable of differentiating between good public spending and bad public spending. Why in the teeth of this recession, does he still want to waste £13 billion of the public’s money on an NHS computer system that will not work, £12 billion of it on a surveillance database that no one wants and £5 billion on ID cards that no one needs?

I know that in the past the Prime Minister has struggled to distinguish between cutting public spending and redirecting it as we want, but does he now accept that my party’s plans to redirect wasteful spending to things that people really need in a recession—such as homes, child care, education, training and fairer taxes—are the right thing to do?

The Prime Minister has spent several weeks jetting around the world. Will he now focus on three key steps that will help people here at home: permanent fairer taxes, borrowing only for long-term investment, and redirecting public spending towards the things that people really need in a recession?

The first thing that I should say to the right hon. Gentleman is that it is important that we do not cut capital investment at this time. The capital investment that we are making in homes, education, the health service and the environmental technologies of this country is capital investment that we will continue. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to support us when we say that it would be totally wrong, at a time when we are preparing for the next stage of the world economy, to cut capital investment in those areas.

I must also say to the right hon. Gentleman that we have removed tax loopholes in every Budget since 1997, including the loopholes removed by the Chancellor in the last Budget. I see no evidence from my reading of the Liberal Democrats’ policy document that they can find the billions that they say are to be found in the cutting of tax loopholes, and I believe that, when subjected to rigorous examination, their policy once again does not stand up.

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that if he cuts public expenditure and says that that constitutes savings, as he is doing, he is still cutting public expenditure by £20 billion.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and particularly welcome the international backing for the actions that he has taken. I think we all recognise that he has a difficult task to perform in ensuring that sustained public expenditure maintains our economy at an appropriate level and, at the same time, helps hard-working families. Can he assure me that he will resist the siren voices on the Opposition Benches calling for the introduction of a fuel duty stabiliser?

In the heat of the summer, to gain a bit of publicity, the shadow Chancellor announced that he had a fuel duty stabiliser. The problem with the fuel duty stabiliser is that the minute petrol prices fell to 97p a litre, the right hon. Gentleman would have been bound to put the price up by 5p a litre. I do not think that, even with his bluster, he can deny that that is the case.

This is just one of the Conservative ideas that were launched in the morning, were found wanting in the afternoon, and are never talked about now. The right hon. Gentleman had exactly the same problem with his proposed employment measures last week. His proposal to spend £2.5 billion on employment, one of the biggest outlays of public expenditure, was rejected by the Federation of Small Businesses as a disincentive. I think that the Conservatives will have to go back to the drawing board, but I do not think that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who lost them the 2001 and 2005 elections, will be of much help to them.

Will the Prime Minister not confess that he went to the summit to obtain cover for the short-term borrowing on which he intends to embark as much for electoral as for economic reasons? Does he not accept that the summit statement stresses debt sustainability, which he noticeably omitted from all his own statements, and that if he goes ahead with adding to the level of debt that will, I hope, be revealed in full next Monday, he will merely build up impossible problems for the Government who must follow, and must sort out the mess that he has created over the 10 years of his stewardship?

When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Chancellor, debt was 44 per cent. of GDP. At the moment, according to the IMF, it is 37 per cent. of GDP. That is debt sustainability: it means that we can build on a level of debt that is lower than the 1997 level to take the action that is necessary.

I went to the summit because, unlike the Conservatives, I believe that co-ordinated international action is possible. I believe that we can work with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world to take specific and decisive action to deal with the financial crisis, and I believe that we can work together not just on financial sector reform but on fiscal policy.

Despite saying a few weeks ago that borrowing was necessary, the Leader of the Opposition has today set his face against the fiscal stimulus that is necessary in this economy and other economies. He will find himself outnumbered by every major country in the world. He will find that America will have a fiscal stimulus in the next few months; he will find that the rest of the European Union will also agree to a fiscal stimulus; and he will find that the rest of the world will want that to happen. But if the Conservative party has not woken up to the fact that we have near-to-zero inflation coming up next year, and that fiscal stimulus is the necessary way in which to get around it, I do not think that the party will ever begin to understand the modern economy.

Will my right hon. Friend stick to the policies he has been outlining and give the fiscal stimulus that is necessary, and ignore the juvenile approach of those on the Tory Front Bench, whose Members apparently believe that borrowing is all right for bailing out bankers, but that when it is intended to make sure that people and small businesses all over the country have jobs and stay in business it is not acceptable?

Yes, if we had taken the Conservative party’s advice, the price of petrol would be going up by 5p per litre. It cannot deny that; that is the policy it announced a few months ago. Is this the right time for us to be increasing the price of petrol by imposing a 5p per litre rise? That is the Opposition’s policy, and it would harm people at this time. The Conservatives seem to be unable to understand that if inflation is falling substantially and there is a downturn and a credit crunch, we need the power of Government action to give a fiscal stimulus to the economy. I suspect that, under the influence of the right hon. Member for West Dorset, the Conservatives are lurching back to a monetarist policy such as that which failed in the past.

I welcome the G20 declaration, especially the section stating that its

“work will be guided by a shared belief”

in

“economic growth, employment, and poverty reduction.”

Given that tens of thousands of people employed in the financial sector around the UK are fearing for their jobs, not least in HBOS, is the Prime Minister confident that mistakes in regulation are not now being repeated with the abandonment of competition rules?

The hon. Gentleman opposes the action we took on competition rules in relation to HBOS and Lloyds TSB, but if we had not taken that action HBOS would have collapsed as a banking institution. The idea that the Scottish National party is putting around Scotland about HBOS being basically a healthy institution that came under fire because of London speculators is complete nonsense. It had a bad business model and it lost a great deal of money because of that bad business model. That has to be corrected, which is why Lloyds TSB has been given the support of Government with the share issue for the new HBOS-Lloyds TSB. The hon. Gentleman should stop peddling myths around Scotland about the viability of HBOS in its present form.

Will the Prime Minister ignore the bumbling opportunism of “boy George” and the Conservatives, and instead learn the lessons from Keynes that they have clearly failed to learn, by recognising that to avoid a 1930s-type slump it is necessary to borrow to invest and to cut taxes of the kind he is advocating? The alternative advocated by the Conservatives would result in a prolonged slump in Britain.

I fear that the shadow Chancellor said on Sunday:

“Gordon Brown told us before going to Washington that it was all about getting a global agreement for a fiscal stimulus package. He has not done that.”

How out of touch are the Opposition.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the trigger for all of this was a catastrophic failure of regulation of the financial services sector in the United States, but does he also agree that as London had become the world financial centre, it had an even greater need for competent regulation of the financial sector, and that the regulatory regime he put in place has failed abysmally?

First, I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged what the Leader of the Opposition has failed to understand: that the problems started in the United States of America. As long as the Conservatives do not understand how the problem started, they will never begin to understand how to solve it. When even the Americans agree that the problem started in America, it ill befits the Leader of the Opposition to try to mislead people about how the problem started. On regulation, we created the Financial Services Authority; we brought together all the different regulators to do so. The only policy the Conservative party has put forward on regulation in the last year or two is a policy to deregulate pensions, mortgages and the financial system. It should be ashamed of that policy.

The Prime Minister may recall that when he was in opposition he used to say that the strength of a currency was a reflection of the strength of its economy. Notwithstanding the fact that the world is going into recession, does he not think that the precipitant fall in sterling is down to the fact that the international community believes that we enter this recession in a worse state than almost anybody else?

First, I think that the former Leader of the Opposition should think twice about what he says about the currency at this stage. I have never, whether in opposition or government, given a running commentary on the currency, as the Opposition seem to want to do. I think that it is highly irresponsible for them to do that in the present circumstances. May I say that, in 1989, Lady Thatcher complained—[Interruption.] They have no respect, even when it comes to listening to the words of Lady Thatcher now. She complained of people

“trying to help the speculators and talks sterling down in the most unBritish way.”—[Official Report, 15 June 1989; Vol. 154, c. 1119.]

Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that any fiscal action he takes in the next few weeks will be to fight the problems that our constituents face, whether on homes and mortgages or in the workplace, and not fight the next general election?

We are trying to help people in difficult situations with their mortgages. That is why we are bringing in changes from 1 January to help people who are unemployed pay for their mortgages. We are trying to speed up social housing provision, so that we can replace the loss of private house building in the economy. On jobs, my right hon. Friend will note that we have enhanced the new deal that is available to help people moving from one job to another, and we have enhanced the ability to launch a rapid response in communities that are facing redundancies—that is how to help people in difficult situations. The way ahead is not to abolish the new deal, as the Opposition would do, but to enhance it.

As the Prime Minister considers his approach to dealing with all these issues, will he instruct Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to be as sympathetic as possible to those employers who are temporarily experiencing problems with cash flow, in the hope that jobs that will be crucial to the future recovery of the economy can be safeguarded for the future?

That is what we would try to do in these circumstances, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that HMRC will do what it can.

Relative to the fiscal stimuli throughout Europe, is it not a fact that Germany is in recession, the eurozone is in recession and, come January, the United States may be in recession? Following on from the point made by the Leader of the Opposition, may I say that even the G20’s communiqué referred to fiscal stimulus? Should that fiscal stimulus cover tax cuts, interest rate cuts above the 2 per cent. and spending plans, such as those for Crossrail? Is that not what the British people wish—or do they wish for the woeful and curmudgeonly approach of the Opposition?

I am surprised that the Opposition think that they have such genius that they can stand out against the opinion that is being expressed by right-wing and left-wing Governments and right-wing and left-wing economists. If the Opposition put themselves in a situation in which, facing a world downturn and the prospect of inflation reducing—as it will over the next year—and when we have interest rate cuts, they are unprepared to use the fiscal weapon, people will believe, as they will then conclude, that the Conservatives see no role for government in sorting out those problems. That is a big mistake that the Conservative party is making.

May I assure the Prime Minister, putting aside for one moment his heavy personal responsibility for the very serious situation in which we find ourselves, that I think he is right to continue here in Britain the overdue reduction in interest rates—as I am sure he intends to do—to boost consumer demand, which I hope will be done by a serious cut in VAT, and to increase investment in public works? More controversially on the Conservative Benches, and speaking as a Keynesian, may I say that he is right to fund that by further borrowing and to watch, as I am sure he hopes to do, the next two Governments trying to pay off the bills from an office in the International Monetary Fund?

Here we have a voice from the Conservative party saying that there should be a fiscal stimulus—[Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition suggests that the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) was joking, but I think that he was serious. He wants to see a fiscal stimulus because he understands what Conservative Front Benchers have decided they do not want to understand—that fiscal action is necessary in the circumstances that we face. Indeed, two weeks ago the Leader of the Opposition said that there had to be more borrowing: now he says that there should not be more borrowing. The Opposition cannot make up their mind in any given circumstances. The only change they represent is that they change their mind every week.

Will my right hon. Friend take no lessons from those who talk the pound down today and who sent the pound down 16 years ago with a disastrous exit from the exchange rate mechanism, which caused a record number of bankruptcies, a record number of people losing their homes, and record unemployment? Some people never learn.

I hope that the Opposition will reflect on what they have said about sterling. It is one thing to get a cheap and quick headline: it is another thing to take responsible action on behalf of the British economy. These are the people who said at their party conference, when they were in another particular predicament, that they would work with the Government and we would have all-party agreement on economic policy—[Interruption.] Does the Leader of the Opposition deny saying that? That is what they said then, but now they want to change their mind every week on policy, simply to get a headline. As one of their documents said a few days ago, the most important thing is getting a headline and it does not really matter what is said.

A year ago, the dollar was at a low level. This year, the pound is at a lower level. Currencies change—[Interruption.] If Conservatives want to give a running commentary on sterling, they are not even responsible enough to be in opposition.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to the introduction of international regulation for the credit ratings agencies next March. However, I urge him not to listen to the Opposition about light-touch, or even no-touch regulation, and ensure that the proposals are robust and provide real confidence for institutions and individual investors.

Is it not often the case that in a major conflagration the arsonist is spotted in the crowd watching the fire brigade at work? Does the Prime Minister still not accept any responsibility for the fact that five of our 10 biggest banks were allowed to over-lend under a system of supervision that he set up, and that the public finances were hopelessly over-borrowed under his chancellorship?

This is the Conservative party that was saying a few months ago that it wanted less regulation in our banking system. This is the Conservative party that produced a document saying that it was time for deregulation of mortgages. This is the Conservative party that cannot now claim that it has the answers to a crisis that it has no idea what to do about.

My right hon. Friend will know that Members’ memories tend to be very short. Perhaps he can jog our memories and tell us whether any one of the leaders at the conference suggested that they thought that it was inappropriate to borrow to provide a fiscal stimulus in their country or in any other country of the G20.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: a consensus is developing across the world. The G20 is a group of emerging markets and developed countries. It represents every continent in the world and a consensus is developing, from China to the US, to Canada, across Europe and over to Asia, that the way through this period of unique circumstances—a downturn, a credit crunch and falling inflation—is a fiscal stimulus. I do not think that, on reflection, many Conservatives would disagree. This is the right thing to do, and I hope that they will go back to the drawing board and think again.

Why did the Prime Minister ignore the strong advice that we gave him in the economic policy review, which he often quotes, to give powers back to the Bank of England and to concentrate regulation on capital adequacy because there was a credit boom under way? He should not in any way imply that we were ignorant of that fact. We warned him before Northern Rock went down, and if he had taken our advice we would not have had to nationalise a single bank.

Because in his document he said that it was time to deregulate the mortgage market. He must face up to the fact that that was his recommendation.

My constituents understand that doing nothing is not an option. They know what a depression is because they lived through one 18 years ago, and so they welcome intervention in the market. When my right hon. Friend chairs the G20, does he intend eventually to wrap the G8 into the G20? If the G20 is to become a financial regulator, what will happen to the IMF and the World Bank?

The reform of the international institutions that include the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the G8 and the G20 will be very much the subject of discussion at the next meeting of the G20. We have put forward our proposals for reform and other countries will put forward theirs. I believe that we will come to recognise that in the new world economy decisions cannot be made about the future unless the Asian countries and a wider spectrum of representation are included in discussions about the big macro-economic decisions. That is why I think that there will be general agreement about the need for change and I hope, on this occasion, that we will have support from all parties in the House when that change happens.

The Chancellor, I mean the Prime Minister—he is doing both jobs, I think—is talking as though the economy is not already receiving a huge fiscal boost. The Government will run a deficit this year of £50 billion or £60 billion. If we add all those American banks that went wrong, such as Northern Rock and Halifax Bank of Scotland, it must come to well over £100 billion. The recession has to take its course—[Interruption.] Just listen. Bad debts have to be written off, bad investments have to be written off and people and businesses need to repair their balance sheets. The Prime Minister knows that, even if some of his Back Benchers do not. If that does not happen, there will not be a solid base for recovery. He risks endangering that base for recovery with a massive increase in Government borrowing that will leave a legacy of debt and taxes into the future.

Now we have a new position from the Conservative party, which I think people will reflect on: the recession has to take its course and nothing can be done about it. We have heard three positions from the Conservative party: the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) says that there has to be fiscal action; the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) says that nothing can be done; and those on the Front Bench are dreaming up initiatives every day, all of which fail before they even reach the scrutiny of the afternoon. The Conservative party will have to think about whether it has a responsible economic policy at all.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the leadership that he has shown in trying to deal with this worldwide economic crisis. Will he tell the House whether anyone was prepared to argue the case for deregulation at the G20 summit? Is there anybody of any note, other than the Opposition, who is arguing that line?

Well, because the Conservative Front Bench was not represented at the G20 conference, nobody was arguing the case for deregulation. I suspect that if Conservative Front Benchers continue to argue the case for deregulation, they will not be at any other conference for a very long time.

The Conservative party wants to deny the truth that this was a downturn started in America with the financial sector problems, as acknowledged by one Conservative Member, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) and that it cannot be sorted out by national action alone and needs international action, including that action within Europe that the Conservative party would not support. The international downturn needs monetary policy to be allied to fiscal action, and the Conservative party cannot contemplate that. On every major issue it is out of touch not just with national opinion but with international opinion, too.

The G20 will no doubt have considered how to restore public confidence in political and financial institutions and how to reassure the public that they are not simply being offered a false prospectus of jam today and pain tomorrow. In view of that, and bearing in mind the pain and trouble that has already been caused, will the Prime Minister assure us that he is leading international consensus to ban from use anywhere the phrase, “No return to boom and bust”?

This country had 10 years of economic growth under a Labour Government and 3 million more jobs—something the Conservative party never achieved. Given that we now know that the Conservative party does not even have a policy to deal with the downturn, people will understand that they are better off with the leadership they have.

Many people around the world know that the measures being taken today are to defend their jobs and ensure that they have a future. For small businesses in the UK, that is incredibly important, so will my right hon. Friend in his leadership of the G20 take to them the message that small businesses in the UK and around the world are the backbone of our economies and need to be supported? What will he do to support them around the world?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Working with small businesses in her constituency, she does a great deal to promote the local economy. Interest rates have come down to 3 per cent., which will help small businesses. Having recapitalised the banks we have to persuade them that it is necessary to lend, and to remove the aversion to risk that exists in many banking institutions. Those who have been recapitalised by the Government signed up to stringent procedures—that they will make capital available for small businesses at 2007 levels—and we intend to work with them to ensure that happens. I hope that there will be all-party support for these things, but I am afraid that we cannot see it in the Conservative party today.

We are looking at that very issue through the Financial Stability Forum and it will be one of the issues addressed in the report on 31 March.

My friend mentioned tax havens. Is there anything we can do unilaterally or perhaps at EU level, or must it await multilateral action?

I believe there is now a genuine desire for international action to deal with the problems of offshore centres that do not respond to the normal regulatory rules that exist in the rest of the world. We can see from the communiqué that there is a determination to take action where it is necessary. Again, that is one of the subjects for debate after the recommendations on 31 March.

The Prime Minister noticeably did not answer the question that was just put about action at EU level. He answered only in the international context. During the statement, he repeatedly used the word “co-ordination” when in fact the declaration on the summit repeatedly uses the word “co-operation”. He knows perfectly well what the difference is—at least I think he does—so will he please tell us?

I am referring to the statement made after the summit by the President of the European Union, President Sarkozy, when he called for concerted action and coordination. There is general agreement that Europe must work together to deal with these problems. Unfortunately, the policy that I think the Conservative party is trying to put forward is a rigid form of the growth and stability pact. The Conservatives oppose it in Europe but seem to want to apply it in Britain.

Is it not the case that in previous recessions the bulk of Government borrowing had to go on funding a massive bill for unemployment benefit? Will my right hon. Friend join me in rejecting the Pontius Pilate approach of Opposition Members who want to wash their hands of responsibility for tackling the problems, and will he make sure that we have fiscal stimulus that will protect our constituents from the misery that mass unemployment would cause?

Last week, the Conservative party announced a proposal for employment that would cut employers’ national insurance and spend £2.5 billion on it. It was immediately—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says he knows that we have been looking at it. It was immediately rejected by the chambers of commerce and by the national Federation of Small Businesses because as usual—[Interruption.] The CBI welcomed it, but it was designed to help small businesses and the national Federation of Small Businesses says not only that it is a bad policy but that it would be counter-productive. The Conservatives spent £2.5 billion on that great initiative and got all their figures wrong as usual. It was confused, contradictory and ill thought out, and I predict we will not hear much about it from the Conservatives again.

The Prime Minister talks about jobs in this country, yet over 11 years he has added £66 billion to the burden for businesses in this country through regulation and additional costs. That is the burden that business is facing and that is what he can do something about, but he fails to do so. I challenge him today not to go ahead with the 1 per cent. increase in corporation tax due to come into effect next April, on the basis that business needs all the money it can get to protect the jobs it is providing at this very moment.

When we came to power, corporation tax was 33 per cent.; it is now 28 per cent. I fear that the hon. Gentleman is reading from the old script when he complains about regulation. I think that everybody understands the necessity for regulation in the financial sector to protect small businesses and savers.

Did my right hon. Friend have any discussions in the United States with his colleagues about the motor vehicle industry? Does he agree that we need sustained investment in that industry, particularly in newer technologies? That will have a much more positive effect than talking down the economy, which is what some people believe in doing.

That is why we have already made available additional money for investment in new technology for cars, to allow different motor manufacturers to adapt to new technology.

Conservative Members ask about car tax; if they had their way, they would put up fuel duty by 5p in the pound. That is the Conservatives’ policy for fuel duty. That is what they call the fuel duty stabiliser. It would mean an extra 5p, and they cannot deny that that is their policy.

The Prime Minister will know that interest rates are a double-edged sword, because low interest rates mean cuts in the value of savings, of pension funds, and of annuity rates. In his pre-Budget statement, will he take action to help at least elderly people, who may be the most vulnerable, by suspending the present annuity rules that can lock people into a punishingly low rate of return as they grow older?

There is more than one alternative for pensioners at the age at which the question of an annuity arises, but I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that as far as pensioners are concerned, the winter allowance is going up to £250 for all households of people over 60, and to £400 for households of people over 80. We recognise that for the vast majority of pensioners, the issue is their heating bills over the winter months. That is why we have raised the winter allowance.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. For Opposition Back Benchers, today felt like a particularly poor day in the history of shameless failures to answer questions. May I ask—

Order. I am not going to extend the statement. As for the word “shameless”, we should try to use temperate language when discussing such matters.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is helpful for Back-Bench Members to have a copy of a Minister’s statement once the Minister has made it. On this occasion, copies of the statement quickly went around the Government Benches, but they were very late arriving on my Bench, and that makes things a little difficult for Back Benchers.

Education and Skills Bill [Ways and Means]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Education and Skills Bill, it is expedient to authorise the charging of fees in respect of inspections by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills of independent educational institutions.—[Jim Knight.]

The Minister for Schools and Learners gave a disappointingly short introduction to the motion. I hope that he will have a chance to explain the motion to the House. It relates to the fee-charging provisions in what is now clause 97, which enables Ofsted to charge fees for inspections of schools in the independent sector. The explanatory note to the Bill as originally drafted says:

“The Government intends to use the power…to set fees for inspections that are no higher than is necessary to recover some or all of the costs associated with the inspections.”

As the fee recovers costs and no more, there was no need for a Ways and Means motion to be passed by the House. The memorandum of delegated powers, which the Government published at the same time as the Bill, said that the clause

“extends the power currently contained in s164(9) of the Education Act 2002 to require payment of inspection fees.”

The aim of the power is to limit the burden of inspection of independent education institutions on the public purse. Lords amendments Nos. 81 and 151, passed in another place, went further than that: they changed the wording of the clause so that it is now possible for the fees charged to exceed the cost of the inspection. That potentially changes the nature of the fee so that it is closer to a tax. That, of course, is why a Ways and Means motion is now necessary.

Lord Adonis was uncharacteristically opaque about the reasons for these changes when he introduced the amendments in another place, saying merely that they

“ensure that the Government’s policy in relation to the setting of inspection fees…can be implemented.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 July 2008; Vol. 703, c. 1600.]

Can the Minister confirm whether the statement in the original explanatory notes that the fees will be

“no higher than is necessary to recover some or all of the costs associated with the inspections”

is still true? If it is no longer true, why is he using these fee-charging provisions as a way of raising revenue or cross-subsidising other aspects of Ofsted’s work? If, in his view, it is still true, why does he think that this Ways and Means motion is necessary?

The motion in the name of my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is necessary in order to take forward the purpose of clause 97, which is to allow inspection fees to be paid annually and in advance of inspections carried out by the chief inspector. It carries forward and extends provisions already in place in the existing legislation.

As the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) said, amendment No. 81 will enable the Government to carry out their stated policy aims in relation to fees for the inspection of independent educational institutions. I think that this is the explanation that he is after. We propose that an annual inspection fee will be paid by all independent educational institutions, which will spread the cost of an inspection every three years, and that fees may be charged in advance of the inspection. One or more fees may be charged in relation to an individual inspection. That will allow for a fee to be paid each year where an inspection takes place every three years. This approach replaces the inspection fee system whereby schools were expected to pay their fee either in a lump sum immediately after inspection or in two instalments. Allowing institutions to spread the cost will help small institutions and those with limited budgets who may struggle to pay under the current system.

The annual fee, which we expect to be paid in October each year, will be calculated on the basis of the head count contained in the preceding annual return. Pupil numbers may fluctuate upwards or downwards, which means that in some cases the cost of the inspection may not reflect the fee paid. However, fees will be recalculated every October to take account of the latest available pupil numbers taken from the January annual return. That will minimise any under-charging or over-charging. In effect, the explanatory notes are right, but there is that small margin for error. It would not be practical to look at pupil numbers more than once a year for the purposes of setting that year’s annual fee, as the January annual return is the only source of pupil numbers. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great champion of reducing burdens on independent schools.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that independent schools already get a very generous subsidy from the taxpayer through tax benefits arising from their charitable status?

My hon. Friend must be careful to be fully cognisant of the whole range of independent schools, not only those that might be members of the Independent Schools Council, for example. The Charity Commission is ensuring that independent schools that have charitable status are earning it, and I am happy to see the difference that the new head of the commission is making in that regard.

There may also be a very small number of cases in which an institution, having paid fees in advance, closes before the periodic inspection takes place. Amendment No. 81 contains a power that will allow fees paid in such cases not to be refunded. This policy is to prevent institutions from exploiting the system by temporarily closing before an inspection is due. If refunds were made, institutions could then apply to re-register and pay only the initial registration fee, which we propose would be £500. In the majority of cases, that sum would be considerably lower than the fees refunded. There would be nothing to stop an institution continuing to exploit the system indefinitely if refunds were allowed.

I should reiterate that overall we intend to use the powers in order to set fees that are no higher than is necessary to recover some or all of the costs associated with inspections. I hope that with that clarification the House will be happy to approve the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Education and Skills Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A (Programme motions),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Education and Skills Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 14th January and 13th May 2008 (Education and Skills Bill (Programme) and Education and Skills Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption at this day’s sitting.

Subsequent stages

2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Steve McCabe.]

Question agreed to.

Orders of the Day

Education and Skills Bill

Lords amendments considered.

I draw the House’s attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments Nos. 1 to 23, 28, 32, 40, 81 and 151. If the House agrees to any of these Lords amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

Clause 22

Financial penalty for contravention of section 21

Lords amendment: No. 1.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 23, 33 to 39, 174 to 177 and 191.

I would like to speak first to amendments Nos. 1 to 23, and 38. I welcome the careful scrutiny that the Select Committee on the Constitution gave to the Bill. I also welcome the Committee’s detailed and helpful comments on duties on employers, related sanctions and rights of objection and appeal. The enforcement powers that local authorities have in relation to employers will be used only as a last resort, and would always be preceded by informal engagement with the employer. We will also consult employer organisations to develop clear guidance for employers to ensure that they fully understand what is expected and do not risk facing enforcement action. However, should enforcement provisions need to be used, the Government agree it is important to be absolutely clear that employers have rights of objection and appeal. These amendments ensure that this is the case.

Amendments Nos. 174 and 176 give effect to one of the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. They ensure that any regulations setting the amount of the financial penalty that a local authority can impose on an employer who has failed to comply with their duties would be subject to the affirmative procedure, except where those regulations reduce the amount of the penalty. The Committee recommended that the affirmative procedure would be needed only for the first use of the regulation-making power, and for any subsequent regulations that raised the amount of the penalty by more than inflation. However, as it proved difficult to link the provisions to inflation in this way, we have gone beyond the Committee’s recommendation and proposed the affirmative procedure for every use of these regulations, except where they reduce the amount. I am grateful to the Committee for its careful scrutiny and constructive recommendations.

Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 clarify that the duties on employers in chapter 3 apply in relation to employment in this House and in the other place. It is right that that employment should count for the purposes of the duty to participate, and that the duties to check that a young person is in education or training and release them to attend should apply, to ensure that young people can participate in the necessary learning. But, as is the custom, it would not be appropriate for local authorities to have powers of enforcement against this House or the other place, so the amendments clarify that the provisions in chapter 3 relating to enforcement do not apply. Amendment No. 35 is a consequence of the previous amendments, and the relevant definition is included in the new clause and can therefore be deleted from this one.

Amendments Nos. 36 and 37 are minor and technical amendments to aid interpretation of the Bill. Amendment No. 36 replaces the definition of a member of the House of Commons staff in the Bill with a reference to the existing definition in the Employment Rights Act 1996, and amendment No. 37 makes provision for who is to be treated as the employer in relation to House of Commons staff.

We discussed questions relating to Wales on Report in this House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), the then Under-Secretary of State for Wales, committed that we would

“ensure that the Bill is drafted in such a way that it enables all aspects of the policy to be capable of application in Wales in future”.—[Official Report, 13 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1287.]

My hon. Friend now occupies the office that I used to occupy in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and it a very comfortable one. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), the new Under-Secretary of State for Wales, in his place. I take this opportunity to congratulate him.

Amendments Nos. 39, 175, 177, and 191 enable the duties on employers in chapter 3 of part 1 to be applied to Wales in future, should the Assembly Government, having studied the impact of the legislation in England, decide to acquire the legislative competence to raise the participation age in Wales and bring forward a measure to do so. We think it important that duties on employers on either side of the border should be the same if the participation age is the same, so that the system is easy to understand and potential burdens on employers are minimised. The amendments ensure that should the participation age be raised in Wales, and should the Secretary of State use his power to apply the provisions in chapter 3 to Wales, any order he made would be subject to the affirmative procedure, and that Welsh Ministers would need to be consulted first.

I hope that hon. Members will agree that this group of fairly technical amendments improves the Bill, and I commend the amendments to the House.

I am grateful to the Minister for that clear explanation of the group of Lords amendments. He cited the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, but I do not believe that he mentioned the letter of 11 June from my noble Friend Lord Goodlad.

Given that Lord Goodlad was a former Chief Whip in this House, I was already convinced that everything he said in that letter was true. However, I was even more convinced once I had read it. Lord Goodlad makes the important point of principle that

“where the executive branch of government is given powers to impose penalties, minimum standards of administrative justice should be in place to safeguard people from wrongful impositions of demands for compliance or payment of financial penalties (whether because of a factual mistake or legal error on the part of the public authority). ”

He refers to the common law principle of audi alteram partem. As one of the last generation of state-educated pupils to learn Latin, I can tell the Minister that that means “Hear the other side.” It leads Lord Goodlad to ask why the Bill contains no express obligation to hear the employer’s side of events before a compliance or penalty notice is imposed. He goes on to ask, in English, why the Bill contains no express provision for reviewing enforcement and penalty notices.

The next matter of concern that my noble Friend raised relates to appeals. He said:

“In situations where an executive branch of government is empowered to impose sanctions, especially financial penalties, it is of great importance that accused persons have access to an independent court to question the legality of a penalty.”

Lord Adonis, in his response of 1 July, replied that, as the fine would be a civil penalty, recoverable through the county court, the employer would have the opportunity to put his case and effectively provide an appeal. However, Lord Goodlad said:

“We believe that as a matter of principle there ought to be express provision for an appeal to enable the person subject to a penalty to challenge the factual and legal basis on which the penalty has been imposed.”

He went on to cite the express appeals provision in clause 39 of the Pensions Bill, which creates a right of appeal to a tribunal.

Lord Adonis’s response was:

“We did not think it desirable to provide for rights of appeal because this would mean establishing a new body to hear such appeals. Unlike the Pensions Bill where there is a natural body to hear appeals (the Pensions Regulator Tribunal) we would have to create a new independent body to hear such appeals which did not seem justified in the circumstances”.

It is therefore slightly odd that the amendments, especially amendment No. 4, create an appeal to the first-tier tribunal.

Conservative Members agree that, following the letter from the Select Committee, it is important to provide a right of appeal. However, it would be helpful if the Minister explained the discrepancy between the point in Lord Adonis’s letter that a new body would have to be established, and the amendment, which states that the appeal is to be made to first-tier tribunal. Which first-tier tribunal? Lady Morgan, the Minister in another place, provides no explanation. Perhaps the Minister could let us know during the debate.

I am baffled—as a result, I am sure, of my ignorance of the new arrangements for the tribunal service—about to which of the various chambers and tribunals an appeal could be made. Would it be to the social entitlement chamber, which covers the asylum support tribunal, the social security and child support appeals tribunal and the criminal injuries compensation appeals panel? Would it be to the war pensions and armed forces compensation chamber? The most likely candidate is the health, education and social care chamber.

Let me relieve the hon. Gentleman of his pain. The appeals would be heard by a general regulatory chamber of the first tier. One of the aims and advantages of the new tribunal system is to avoid a multitude of small chambers. Given the small number of appeals likely, we do not think we need a chamber specifically for such appeals.

I am grateful for that response, which is on the record and will be helpful to those outside.

Let me return to Lord Adonis’s comments in his letter of 1 July. In that letter he said:

“the enforcement system against employers is not a criminal one, and would culminate in a financial penalty recoverable through the County Court”.

The point to note is that we are talking about a civil penalty. For employers, the punishment for not complying with the Bill—that is, for not providing training or time off for training—is a civil one, whereas the punishment for the 16 or 17-year-old who does not participate is a criminal one. It is the fact that the Bill seeks to criminalise young people that has raised so many concerns. We all share the aspiration of increasing participation in education or training to the age of 18, but how will it help a young person if he or she sets out on their career saddled with a criminal record?

The Children’s Rights Alliance for England, the British Youth Council and the Association of School and College Leaders all oppose the provisions that introduce criminal sanctions, even though they might support the general aims of the Bill. The Prince’s Trust, which has vast experience of helping the very group the Bill is principally aimed at, is concerned about criminalising young people. In her evidence to the Public Bill Committee, Martina Milburn, the trust’s chief executive, said:

“the bulk of the 40,000 people who we worked with last year had issues with drugs and alcohol. What do you do with a young person who is already going down the path of taking too many drugs and drinking too much and who just says, ‘I’m not going to do it’ and disappears?...Do you increasingly criminalise young people…or do you find some way of trying to reach them and sort out some of their issues?”––[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 22 January 2008; c. 16, Q36.]

My noble Friend Lady Morris fought valiantly in another place to try to find a way for the Bill’s objectives to be achieved without recourse to criminal law. On Third Reading she said:

“while we share the Government’s ambition to see each and every 17 and 18-year old receive the best education or training to help them realise their full potential…Our desire in all this was to ensure that no young person received a criminal record simply because they were disaffected with the system, especially at such a critical age and stage of their life, when a criminal record could be disastrous.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 November 2008; Vol. 705, c. 556.]

The Government have argued that penalties cannot be imposed except by using the criminal process, but it seems that civil penalties can be imposed on employers, whether they be individuals or companies. The Government say that the civil procedures are not designed for those under the age of 18, but again, I am not sure whether that is true. The county courts are very used to dealing with rent and money issues affecting 16 and 17-year-olds. The Government also say that if a civil penalty is not paid, the ultimate sanction is jail, which the youth court process that the Bill uses cannot resort to. However, most civil penalties are enforced through attachment of earnings orders. It cannot be beyond the wit of parliamentary draftsmen to ensure that those are the only remedies in law for ensuring the payment of civil penalties of £200 or less in such circumstances.

On the provisions concerning parliamentary staff, which the Minister mentioned and which the amendments would change, it is clearly right that all the duties and rights that young employees generally have should also apply to staff in the House of Commons and another place. As Lord Adonis said in Committee in another place:

“It is right that this employment should count for the purposes of the duty to participate—and the duties to check that a young person is in educational training…However, it would not be appropriate for local authorities to have powers of enforcement against this House or another place.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 July 2008; Vol. 703, c. 1424.]

I take the point, but it might be helpful if the Minister could explain why that would not be appropriate. Does that also mean, for instance, that the House of Commons authorities cannot be prosecuted for breaches of health and safety regulations or for the standards of hygiene in the kitchen? It would be helpful to have an answer to the latter point before 8 o’clock this evening or before any of us pops out for a cup of tea and a muffin in the canteen.

I rise briefly to speak about criminalising young people. It is in the nature of things for 16 and 17-year-olds to be disaffected and to baulk at participation. There is a great feeling that the Government have not done enough to find a way around the problem of criminalising them. We currently have too big a Government, with too much interference in people’s lives and too much of a nanny state. I urge the Minister—he is a good man who understands these things clearly—to look at the problem again and find an innovative way round it.

We will return to those points in the next set of amendments, so I will deal with them then, rather than now.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) for pointing out Lord Goodlad’s letter and the importance of audi alteram partem, meaning “Hear the other side”, which is what we have been doing throughout the process in the Lords. We will be debating the various ways in which we have been listening to the other side throughout today’s debate.

The hon. Gentleman underlined the reasons why we believe that the principle of having appeal is right, on reflection. I believe that I answered his question on the first tier of the new tribunals system that is in place thanks to the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. To some extent, when the Bill was originally drafted and scrutinised in the Commons, the measures that are now in place in respect of that Act were not in place. It is therefore appropriate that we now take cognisance of them.

The hon. Gentleman asked questions about civil versus criminal sanctions. I suspect that when we deal with the next set of amendments we will probe in a little more detail whether criminal sanctions are appropriate for young people on top of the range of things that are in place to encourage them to participate. However, it is appropriate that we have civil and not criminal sanctions for employers. The enforcement system for employers is not criminal. It culminates in a financial penalty that is recoverable through county courts, in which employers have the opportunity to present things from their perspective having used the right of appeal, if they so wish. That is appropriate, and we will discuss in a minute whether the measures for young people are appropriate. In essence, as the hon. Gentleman knows because we have discussed the matter at some length both in the Chamber, in Committee and in private, I believe that the youth court, because it is specifically designed to deal with training and sanctions for young people, is the appropriate body to deal with those matters for young people.

On the basis of those explanations, which I hope are adequate, I hope that the House will support the amendment.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 23 agreed to [Special Entry].

Clause 44

Variation and revocation of attendance notice

Lords amendment: No. 24.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 32, 40, 173, 178, 179 and 211.

I welcome this second group of amendments that were made in the other place and I believe that we therefore have a stronger, fuller and better Bill. This group makes further refinements to the support and enforcement system for young people, which is probably the most controversial and debated aspect of the Bill.

Amendment No. 40 enables a local authority to enter into learning and support agreements with young people. In a learning and support agreement, the local authority would agree to provide support and learning activity, and the young person would agree to comply with certain requirements. The young person must be involved in the process of identifying their needs and the best way to address them, and in negotiating the requirements that they in turn agree to stick to. That something-for-something approach is the model for our activity and agreement pilots aimed at 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training—or NEET—the evaluation of which will report fully later on in the year. Early signs are very promising that it is an effective approach to which young people respond positively. When we debated learning agreements in this House, I always said that they were best practice.

Contracts or agreements are also widely used by voluntary sector organisations, such as Barnardo’s and Rainer, in their programmes to support young people’s transition back to formal learning. The idea is popular with young people. Learning and support contracts serve to emphasise that both the local authority and the young person have responsibilities, and I hope that the House will support the amendment.

Amendment No. 24 is a minor amendment that makes it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that where a variation is made to an attendance notice, as provided for under clause 44, all the requirements about the description of education or training in the notice apply as they did to the original notice. So the education or training must satisfy the central duty to participate, be suitable for the young person and so on.

Lords amendments Nos. 25 and 26 give effect to another recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The amendments would ensure that the amount set in regulations for the financial penalty to be given to a young person could never exceed the maximum fine that a young person could receive in a youth court, which is currently £200. We have already said that, in practice, the financial penalty for young people would be significantly less than that figure, and I am grateful to the Committee for its careful scrutiny of the Bill.

On amendments Nos. 27 to 31, 173, 178, 179 and 211, the Government believe that very few young people will reach the enforcement process, and I hope that very few—if not none—will reach the very end of it. If a young person fails to participate, a local authority must engage with them, find them an option that suits them and help them to take up learning again. Even after enforcement action has been formally started, there will be a process of administrative sanctions, support and dialogue with a young person before they can reach the youth court.

I remind the House that the local authority needs to engage with the young person and offer them appropriate learning and support. If that is not taken up, a formal offer will be made, followed by an attendance notice, and if that does not work, the matter will go to the attendance panel. In turn, if the young person still fails to engage after that fourth stage, a fixed penalty notice will be issued by the local authority to avoid the need to enforce the matter through the courts. If the young person then fails to pay the fixed penalty notice, there is a right to appeal to the attendance panel. It is only then, if the attendance panel agrees with and confirms the need for the notice, that the matter goes to the youth court. That is at the end of a very long process with many stages, and if a young person re-engages in learning or has a reasonable excuse at any one of those stages, all enforcement action will cease.

The Minister says that if the young person goes back into education, all enforcement action will cease. Does that mean that they could continually engage with the enforcement process and go back enough to return to ground zero again? How will he ensure that they do not take the mick out of the system?

Naturally, we are concerned about mick-takers, so the process would not go all the way back to the beginning. In the end, the matter would come down to the judgment of the attendance panel, at the points at which I have described it working. If someone came back before the panel pretty rapidly and its members felt that they were a mick-taker, the panel would want to move pretty rapidly through the rest of the stages. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman in respect of such individuals.

Should enforcement action be taken against a young person, however, it is the Government’s clear position that no young person should enter custody as a result of committing the offence of failing to comply with an attendance notice without reasonable excuse. We are satisfied that there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that that will not happen to those aged under 18, and custody will not be available to the youth courts in respect of defaulting on the payment of a fine. Furthermore, we do not believe it is realistic that, in practice, any court would impose a custodial sentence for non-payment of a level 1 fine on someone more than 18 years old. However, the amendments would achieve greater certainty on that point and remove even the theoretical possibility of the situation occurring by transferring from the magistrates court to the county court the enforcement of a fine imposed for that offence only once the individual concerned had turned 18.

Building on all that, I turn finally to Lords amendment No. 32, which would introduce a commitment to undertake a review of the enforcement process for young people who did not comply with the duty to participate, so that we might be clear that the system was effective in reinforcing compulsion, and learn any lessons to improve the system. We have said that the review would be completed by 2016, allowing it to examine experiences of the first cohort to be required to stay until they were 18 years old. The review would also be chaired by someone who was independent to ensure that it was robust. The purpose of the review is to make sure that the support and enforcement system achieves what we want it to do—make sure that young people participate so that they can achieve, progress and reach their full potential.

The group of amendments to which I have spoken serves only to strengthen the support provisions for young people and ensure that the enforcement system is robust and fair. I commend the amendments to the House.

We are pleased to return to our measured consideration of these important matters, which absorbed a good deal of the debate in Committee and the House of Lords. We are grateful to the other House for its close consideration, which gives us a chance to debate these matters again. Without at all wishing to crow, I should say that the Government have had a chance to think again about some of the arguments advanced in Committee regarding the issue of criminalising young people, which so concerned Opposition Members.

Amendments Nos. 27 to 31, 173, 178, 179 and 211 ensure that ordinary adult fine enforcement procedures do not apply in the case of persons not complying with an attendance notice. Amendment No. 28 ensures that even pre-18-year-old offenders are dealt with in magistrates courts and that those over 18 are dealt with in county courts. Neither court has the capacity to impose custody, as the notes on the amendments make clear. Amendment No. 29 ensures that if the offender fined is over 18, they are dealt with in the county court. Amendments Nos. 28, 30 and 31 allow the Lord Chancellor to make further detailed provisions. Amendments Nos. 173, 178 and 179 are consequential amendments, inserting the words “or Lord Chancellor” after “State”. Amendment No. 211 invokes the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 to allow magistrates courts to revoke youth default orders when the individuals concerned reach 18 and apply new fines, depending on how the young person has complied with the order. Again, the county court will deal with that.

As an Opposition, we fully support the move to civil law, preventing custodial sentences and the utilisation of learner support agreements that delay the use of fines. The Minister has said a word about that issue today, and we debated it at length in Committee. We made the case consistently during the passage of the Bill and are pleased that the Government have finally agreed the position that we adopted at the outset. Time and again in the evidence sittings in Committee we heard that young people might be criminalised. That was of concern not only to the young people themselves, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) has mentioned, to many of the organisations that work most closely with the disadvantaged.

As compassionate Conservatives, we make no apology for allocating a disproportionate concern, energy and intellectual capital to the defence of the most vulnerable in our country, particularly young people. The experience of those who deal with young people—particularly disengaged and troubled young people—was made clear by their evidence. Those with such experience believe that if such young people were stigmatised or criminalised they could become entirely disengaged and impossible to re-engage in the education process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned, the Prince’s Trust waxed eloquent on that subject. I take this opportunity to wish His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales a happy 60th birthday; without him, there would not have been a trust to give the evidence that so informed our consideration and in the end persuaded the Government to change their mind. He is surely the greatest living Englishman.

A representative of the Prince’s Trust told us that

“the bulk of the 40,000 people who we worked with last year had issues with drugs and alcohol. What do you do with a young person who is already going down the path of taking too many drugs and drinking too much...The question is how you deal with that. Do you increasingly criminalise young people and just say, ‘Right, we’re going to lock you all up,