House of Commons
Tuesday 25 November 2008
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Manchester City Council Bill [Lords]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the promoters of the Manchester City Council Bill, which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2006-07 on 21st January 2007, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the promoters of the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill, which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2006-07 on 21st January 2007, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
Canterbury City Council Bill
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the promoters of the Canterbury City Council Bill, which was originally introduced in this House on 22nd January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
Leeds City Council Bill
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the promoters of the Leeds City Council Bill, which was originally introduced in this House on 22nd January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
Nottingham City Council Bill
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the promoters of the Nottingham City Council Bill, which was originally introduced in this House on 22nd January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
Reading Borough Council Bill
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the promoters of the Reading Borough Council Bill, which was originally introduced in this House on 22nd January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Department for Transport received almost 70,000 responses to the “Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport” consultation, which closed on 27 February this year. An equalities impact assessment consultation has since been undertaken to consider how development at Heathrow might affect equality priority groups. Responses showed a wide range of views on the proposals, and we are still considering the position. We have made it clear that the expansion will go ahead only if air quality, noise and public transport commitments are satisfied.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He will know that the Liberal Democrats were the first party to oppose the third runway and to support a high-speed rail link. Does he accept that many of the hundreds of daily short-haul flights that go to Heathrow from constituencies such as mine could be replaced by a north-south high-speed rail link, which would be good for the environment, good for the economy and would remove any need for a third runway?
As I have made clear, this is not an alternative—we are not posing expansion at Heathrow as an alternative to high-speed links. It may well be that, on economic grounds, both are required. That is why I have taken forward urgently work in the Department for Transport to look precisely at how we can develop new capacity, new rail links and, if necessary, high-speed rail links. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have regard to the views of the chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, who clearly represents the views of Scottish businesses. He said:
“Heathrow’s international route network is a national asset that is therefore every bit as important to Scotland’s future as it is to London’s.”
How does the Secretary of State answer the representations made by Lord Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, this week that the construction of a third runway at Heathrow would make it impossible to meet legally binding targets on air pollution?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Cabinet Minister best qualified to judge whether the third runway will reach air quality and noise standards is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and will he take his opinions particularly into account?
The Secretary of State will be aware of the controversy surrounding the so-called fantasy plane that has been used in the modelling essentially to force-fit the environmental tests and make them met? From which aircraft manufacturers and jet engine turbine manufacturers has he had confirmation that that plane will ever be in existence?
Of course, I am aware of the controversy. I know that the hon. Lady has researched these matters assiduously, so she will be aware that the assumptions made about that particular aircraft were not helpful in relation to any argument about noise or air quality. It was not a particularly noisy aircraft.
Every single plane that flies from London to north America flies directly over the north of England. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that if they landed, say, at Manchester, they would save half an hour of flying time, 400 miles of fuel on a round-trip and, if a north-south fast railway were built, passengers could be in London as quickly as if they had landed at Heathrow and had to fight their way in from the suburbs of London? Is it not time to think about that seriously as an alternative to a third runway at Heathrow?
The hon. Lady knows full well that a number of schools are in the immediate vicinity of Heathrow. Action has been taken to provide noise insulation at those schools. Clearly, in the event of there being any decision to expand Heathrow, further action would have to be taken to ensure that those schoolchildren were able to attend and participate in lessons in the way that they do already.
According to the local authorities affected, 114 schools and around 100,000 children will suffer from serious noise problems if a third runway goes ahead. Meanwhile, around the world, air traffic is falling, Stelios is telling the easyJet board that the days of exponential passenger growth have gone, and yesterday’s pre-Budget report predicted a fall in demand for aviation. Is it not time that the Secretary of State revised down his aviation growth forecasts and scrapped his plans for a third runway and mixed mode at Heathrow?
Unfortunately, the statistics that the hon. Lady quotes are not additional to any decision to build an extra runway. She simply gives the number of children currently affected. I anticipated that in the answer that I gave a few moments ago. She needs to ensure, when she is putting forward this case, that she has her statistics right and that she deploys them accurately as far as the House is concerned, so that we can have a proper debate about these matters. As I made clear at the outset, no decision has been taken on the matter. Any decision that is taken, will be taken in the light of air quality, noise and public transport arrangements.
Public Bus Services
Just under 4.5 billion bus journeys were made across England in 2006-07. There was a further increase of 600,000 journeys in 2007-08. Overall, local bus use has increased by over 17 per cent. since 1997. This achievement is due in part to the success of the London bus network, the hard work of operators and local authorities, and the introduction, of course, of increasingly generous concessionary travel by this Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The number of people using buses in Wakefield went up in one year by 30 per cent. following the introduction of the free pensioners pass, which made some dodgy routes in and out of Denby Dale and Kirkburton much more viable, and I thank him for that. Will he now look at introducing concessionary fares nationwide for young people—the 16 to 18-year-olds—whom we want to be able to benefit from free transport, particularly in the Wakefield district, where specialist schools are sometimes located 10 or 15 miles away from where a young person might live?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about the concessionary fares that were introduced from April of this year. She is absolutely right: more than 11 million benefit from that concession for the over-60s and for those with disabilities. I know that my hon. Friend and the work of the Youth Parliament very much push for young people to have access to free transport. I recognise the arguments, which are about them being socially excluded, but I do not believe that they fall within the same remit as the concessions that we have already introduced. Our assessment is that concessionary fares for all five to 19-year-olds would cost approximately £1.4 billion.
Bus ridership in the borough of Fylde has increased very substantially as a result of the concessionary fares scheme, but the local authority, over and above the additional funding provided by the Government, will this year lose some £360,000, whereas the borough of Pendle will gain £385,000. Can I seek an assurance from the Minister that he will re-examine the formula used to allocate the national budget for the scheme, to make certain that boroughs such as Fylde do not lose out?
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes the Government’s decision to introduce nationwide concessionary free travel for 11 million people. I recognise the issues that he raises. However, we spend approximately £1 billion on concessionary fares, mainly through the rate support grant mechanism, provided through local authorities. When we introduced the new nationwide scheme in April, we added an extra £212 million, which will rise to £223 million over the next two years, to compensate local authorities for that delivery. Invariably, all local authorities received on average a 30 per cent. increase in the allocation of moneys for the concessionary schemes. However, we always keep these matters under review.
Is not the problem that the figure for bus patronage is skewed by an enormous increase of use in London, whereas in most parts of the country, such as my constituency, the picture is one of services being reduced to the most profitable routes and to routes that are subsidised with ever-increasing and hefty subsidies from the taxpayer? Is my hon. Friend aware of the recent report by the Centre for Cites, which demonstrates what a huge problem deregulation has been in cities? How confident is he that the measures contained in the new Local Transport Bill will address that?
My hon. Friend raises some important points. Although the increase is principally due to success in London and the concessionary fare scheme, there have been other clear increases. Indeed, hon. Members have already referred to some in their constituencies: in Brighton, Nottingham, Oxford and York, for example, bus patronage has increased. I sincerely believe that the Local Transport Bill, which recently completed its parliamentary stages, will allow local authorities to decide what best suits their areas, and it is up to local leaders to use the Bill’s toolkit to make a difference for their local people.
Will the Minister recognise that the review that he has just promised needs to be carried out with the greatest possible urgency? The scheme whereby elderly people and disabled people will have three bus passes threatens to shoot a huge hole in the budget of dozens of local authorities throughout England. Harrogate’s local authority, which serves my constituency, faces a deficit, over and above the grant, of between £1.3 million and £1.6 million, depending on the volume of traffic this winter, and York has a multiple of that already. Will the Minister recognise that the distribution of funds bears no relationship whatever—
Let me make it clear that the additional funding that was made available as of April was distributed on the basis of the discussions that were held with, and the representations that were received from, more than 200 local authorities. Destinations, major shopping areas and areas with a high number of retired people were taken into account in the allocations. Indeed, we looked at the budgets that local authorities had allowed for 2006-07, and that is why I am confident that, on average, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in funding, out of the extra £212 million. We keep the matter under review, but we do not necessarily intend to revisit the whole operation, other than the administrative side.
Those with enduring mental health problems are not entitled to participation in the concessionary fare scheme, but they would undoubtedly use buses more if they were. Will the Minister reconsider the current classification of those entitlements?
My hon. Friend will know that the current scheme covers all those people over 60 years old, and approximately eight groups of people with disabilities. I recently attended a lobby by Sense on the issues of mental health and companions for people with disabilities. There are no current plans to extend those concessions, but, like all these things, we keep the matter under review.
The White Paper on rail set out the Government’s commitment to increasing rail capacity by 2014, backed by investment of some £10 billion. This includes the procurement of an additional 1,300 carriages for operation right across the network; 423 vehicles have already been ordered; and yesterday, we announced proposals to procure a further 200, which will benefit passengers in the Thames valley, around Bristol and on longer distance regional services in central northern England.
Last week, in evidence to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the Minister of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, admitted that the Department’s own forecasting models had failed to predict the significant increase in rail passenger growth. What steps are the Department taking to ensure that those models are improved, and that more accurate and reliable statistics are provided?
We simply did not anticipate the remarkable success of the funding that Labour Governments have put into the railways since 1997. Had we based things on the likely forecast when the Conservatives were in power, we would be managing a very small rail network today. In a sense, I take the hon. Gentleman’s question as a tribute to the success of Labour’s policy on rail. Obviously, we want that success to continue, and that is why we are putting in the extra investment.
Does the Secretary of State support the “In the can” campaign, through which rail users are encouraged to send a tin of sardines to the chief executive of East Midlands Trains because of the gross overcrowding? Or does he think that this tin of sardines would be better presented to him as Secretary of State, for his inaction and complacency?
I am grateful to Conservative Members for thinking about my health and welfare and ensuring that I eat oily fish. Having already received a tin of sardines from one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, I suggest that rather than sending his to me, he sends it to an appropriate charity in his constituency.
What proposals does my right hon. Friend have to bring forward new investment in rail to meet the current economic situation?
As I have already said to the House, some £15 billion is set out to improve our rail network, and it will concentrate particularly on capacity. We want to ensure that trains are appropriate and that platforms are of the appropriate length. I have established a group under the leadership of my noble Friend Lord Adonis to consider the question of new lines, electrification and high-speed lines for where they are necessary. A tremendous amount of work is under way at the Department for Transport to ensure that we have the capacity on our rail network to meet likely levels of demand.
My right hon. Friend will have heard it said that the Norwich to London line is second class, going on third class. To top it all, we now hear that there are 314 job losses to be determined—yes or no?—by Christmas. Secondly, the famous restaurant cars—often supported by many of our colleagues and others—are to be taken away. How is that compatible with quality service and with a franchise that says that there should be an ongoing kitchen in every train? How can there be a kitchen without a restaurant attached?
My hon. Friend has been assiduous in standing up for the interests of his constituents in Norwich, particularly in relation to transport and communication links between Norwich and London. I would be delighted to see him and any other Norwich Member with a particular interest in the restaurant facilities whenever that can be arranged.
The Secretary of State will know that it has been estimated that regulated and unregulated rail fares will rise by 6 per cent. and 7 per cent. What assurance can he give hard-working commuters that the issue will not continue to affect them adversely?
I recently met representatives of the Association of Train Operating Companies, and I set out to them that, in making any increases, it was important to take account of the current economic circumstances and the impact on those who regularly commute by rail—not least, those with season tickets. What is important is that some 60 per cent. of all rail fares are regulated and that since 1997 those regulated fares have remained within the overall rate of inflation. That is not to say, however, that we do not take seriously the impact on other fares; I hope that train operating companies will take that into account when setting future fare increases.
I welcome the Government’s previous commitment to the development of Birmingham New Street station, and I read with interest about the transport investment announced yesterday. However, if money comes forward in future, may I ask the Secretary of State not to overlook the region of the west midlands, and Birmingham in particular? It is in the heart of England and part of our manufacturing base, and we need investment desperately.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was at Birmingham New Street yesterday; the investment to be made there will transform the station and make it central to the investment that we are putting in right across the rail network. I hear what she says about the west midlands, which is an important network hub for the United Kingdom. I certainly look to seeing new investment there in the future.
Why has the decision been made not to proceed with the upgrading of the Stroud valley line, which is used to re-route services from south Wales to London when the Severn tunnel is closed? Why should passengers have to wait an extra hour to complete their journey at weekends for the want of a £32 million investment?
You, Mr. Speaker, will be aware that for over a decade I have been asking questions about the upgrade of the west coast main line, which, thanks to the generosity of this Government, is almost complete. However, even when it is completed, there will still be a capacity problem in the near future. What plans does the Secretary of State have to build a high-speed line going from London to Scotland on the west coast?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the Government for spending some £8.8 billion on improvements to the west coast main line. That has meant extra capacity and improvements in journey times right up the line and on either side of it, and it has been a considerable success. I recognise, however, that it is important that we maintain capacity levels and see where there are capacity constraints on the network. I am sure that my noble Friend Lord Adonis will take my hon. Friend’s submissions into consideration when looking at possible routes for future high-speed rail links. As my hon. Friend will be aware, there is more one route to Scotland.
The Secretary of State’s Department’s projections for future passenger numbers demonstrate that they will be well in excess of the capacity that the Department has planned. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that part of the strategy is to price people off the railways, which is why over the past few years, since 1997, prices have risen 6 per cent. above inflation and only this week we saw 6 per cent. and 11 per cent. increases in regulated and unregulated fares. Why does not he introduce a freeze on rail ticket prices for a year in the same way that the Chancellor has introduced, three times since 1997, freezes on fuel duty to help motorists. Why should motorists be helped and not train passengers?
I accept neither the hon. Gentleman’s premise nor his conclusion. He is wrong on both counts. The assessments of capacity that have been made are in keeping with the extra capacity that the Government will make available in terms of our future plans for the rail network. As I have indicated in response to previous questions, it is important that we not only go on looking to improve capacity—not only at the various pinch-points in the network where there is clearly congestion and overcrowding—but consider the longer-term plans for new capacity, new lines, electrification and high-speed links. I have set that out very clearly to the House and I will go on doing so, at least until the hon. Gentleman starts listening.
I make no apologies for referring to the west coast main line again, as it is a very important artery for Great Britain. The question of infrastructure, particularly the length of platforms, is troubling if we are to have these new locomotives working. I refer especially, again without apologies, to Wolverhampton, where the private developer leading the work has now stopped because of, he says, the lack of the possibility of growing the station in the present economic circumstances. Given the Chancellor’s statement yesterday, will my right hon. Friend ensure that these questions of capacity in relation to station infrastructure are considered carefully and properly for Birmingham and the whole west coast main line, but with a special plea for Wolverhampton?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important issue about his constituency. I said earlier that in looking at capacity constraints, not only the length of trains but the length of platforms is crucial to improving capacity and the ability of our trains to provide a proper service to his constituents and others in the west midlands. I will certainly consider the case of Wolverhampton with a degree of urgency.
The Secretary of State will want to acknowledge that since privatisation rail patronage has increased by 40 per cent. However, in contrast to his answer to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), recent independent research from the Institution of Civil Engineers and the university of Southampton clearly indicates that improvements in capacity have not kept pace with that increase in patronage. Following last week’s unregulated fare increases of up to 11 per cent., many people using the railways believe that the Government’s only strategy for dealing with capacity is to price them off them. Does the Minister not realise that overcrowding plus huge increases in unregulated fares does not represent value for money for the travelling public?
I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman said. Interestingly, when someone—perhaps it was the hon. Gentleman—was asked by The Times on Friday or Saturday what the Conservative party’s view was on these fare increases, no answer came. No answer was given on what the Conservative party would do if faced with a similar situation. Unfortunately, that is all too typical of the Conservative party’s approach to the present grave economic circumstances faced by this country and others.
Is the Secretary of State aware—and he probably is not—that one of the trains on the morning peak-time Morecambe to Lancaster commuter service has been taken off because of capacity problems with the west coast main line? We welcome the improvements that the Government have made to the line, which have made a difference, but there are still capacity issues for smaller lines crossing the main line. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss that matter?
South London Line
It is planned that the south London line service will be diverted away from London Bridge toward Bellingham to maintain connections into Victoria from stations such as Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill.
Are Ministers aware that the travelling public who use the railways from Denmark Hill, the two Peckham stations and South Bermondsey think that they and the Government have been hoodwinked? Would Ministers look at the plans of Network Rail and Thameslink, which, as far as we can remember, said nothing about the end of the south London loop line from London Bridge to Victoria? That line is used by many commuters in a part of London that is fairly poorly served as far as railways are concerned.
I am happy to look at the documentation to which the hon. Gentleman drew my attention. He will be aware that Thameslink modernisation is attracting £5.5 billion of funding for one of the most overcrowded routes in the UK. It will be an important addition to the capital’s transport system, given that it is the only overground railway through the centre of London. By 2015, the trains will be twice as long, and will be travelling much more frequently. I will, however, look at the information that the hon. Gentleman asked me to consider.
Also on the south London line is Crystal Palace station. There has been an announcement from city hall in the past few weeks that the extension of the Croydon tram link to Crystal Palace will no longer be worked on. There was £9.9 million in the budget for the scheme, but city hall has said that it will not progress with it unless the Government commit to funding the whole scheme beyond 2010. If we were to ask the Government for the money, would that be possible?
I take it that the hon. Gentleman is expressing regret at the election of Mayor Johnson, and at the dropping of many of the priority plans of Mayor Livingstone. The Department for Transport has allocated a fairly generous settlement to Transport for London of £40 billion over the next 10 years. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be disappointed at Mayor Johnson’s decisions, as are many people across London, but he has the money to prioritise the elements of transport that he thinks are appropriate, and perhaps he will take notice of what the hon. Gentleman says.
Cycling has an important role to play in people’s transport choices. The Government have been supporting local authorities financially, by issuing guidance and advice, and by providing ideas and inspiration. All that work is supported by a £140 million programme developed by our advisers, Cycling England.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Everybody knows the health and environmental benefits of cycling, but it is important that we inspire even more young people to take up cycling in the first place. What is his Department doing to train more very young children to take up cycling, and what is it doing about building more cycle paths directly to schools?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is well known that she is a keen cyclist who is often seen ready for the off, in her gear, at the last vote. Her question is spot on about the need for us to take as many steps as possible to encourage young people and adults to cycle. We have various plans, such as our work with Cycling England to train 500,000 young people between now and 2012 to attain level 2 at cycling, and travel-to-school plans are equally important to encourage cycling and walking.
Will my hon. Friend give a welcome to the proposal from Spokes, the Lothian cycle campaign, of which I am happy to declare myself a member, for a £20 million fund for cycle projects in Scotland? Under the previous Administration, Scotland was ahead of England, but under the Scottish National party, spending on cycling is falling behind. When he next meets his colleagues in the Scottish Executive, will my hon. Friend urge them to ensure that Scotland does not fall behind the rest of the UK in encouraging cycling as an important way of improving health and supporting the environment?
I would always take the opportunity to encourage anyone making decisions about transport, including colleagues in Scotland, to develop all possible modes. However, I might add that if my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), the chairman of the all-party cycling group, has his way, he will have me on a bicycle very shortly.
As a cyclist, may I encourage the Minister to join his two colleagues and get into the saddle himself? Will he join me in congratulating the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is rolling out a Paris-style rent-a-bike scheme in the capital? Does the Minister also agree that we will persuade people to use their bicycles for urban journeys only if we have better secure parking in town centres and, in particular, at railway stations?
I would support any development of cycling and giving people those choices, but I am equally aware that there has been some adjustment in the budget for cycle lanes and so on. However, it is obviously for the Mayor to make those choices under the devolved powers. Equally, I am aware that having the confidence to cycle, whether to school or for leisure, is a particular concern for parents and young people. That is why we have invested money in ensuring the safety and training of youngsters.
Today we are announcing more than £1 billion in transport spending. This includes £700 million of funding, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced yesterday would be brought forward to help stimulate the economy, together with £300 million of new Government funding to help speed up the delivery of links to some of the United Kingdom’s most important international gateways.
The £700 million will help to advance the Government’s plans to increase capacity on the motorways and other key roads, and to accelerate the delivery of improvements to rail services. The funding that has been brought forward and the schemes that can benefit include: £174 million to dual the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool; £300 million for 200 train carriages to relieve congestion on the Great Western, Northern and TransPennine rail franchises; and £300 million to introduce more managed motorway schemes to make best use of our existing motorway capacity.
In addition, £300 million of new Government funding will speed up the delivery of other key schemes, including: £30 million for improvements to the A180-A160 junction to improve access to Immingham port; £60 million to enhance traffic flow on the A12 between the M25 and Ipswich, improving access to Felixstowe and Harwich ports; £165 million for the south-east Manchester relief road to improve access to Manchester airport; and £54 million for improvements to the North London line on that important rail freight link. Delivery of some of those schemes is subject to agreeing regional funding contributions and the outcome of statutory planning processes. The combined package will help the Government to relieve congestion and reduce crowding on the railways.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that lengthy list of projects, towards the end of which he mentioned the Manchester airport eastern link road, which is vital to many industrialists in my area who export to America and the continent. Will that road, together with the proposals in the south-east Manchester multi-modal study, go ahead as a matter of urgency? My area has been starved of resources for roads. That road, and the allied roads that go with it, will be of huge benefit to a wide area. Will he assure me that the road will go ahead?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a considerable interest in the road, and I am aware of the need to improve access to Manchester airport, particularly from the east. That is why the scheme is to be brought forward as a matter of urgency. As I have indicated to the House, however, it requires regional funding contributions, and those must be agreed quickly if we are to proceed with the urgency that the hon. Gentleman requires.
We have taken several steps, such as the introduction of the Local Transport Bill. Buses are the backbone of our public transport system, providing more than 5 billion journeys every year. We want to ensure that quality services are available across the length and breadth of the country. The Bill is important for local authorities making decisions about what best meets their needs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred earlier to the steps being taken on railway travel.
That decision is for Swindon to take, but I think it regrettable. There will have to be negotiations with the local police and the road safety partnership on how that will play and when that change will be brought in. We have devolved responsibility and power to local authorities to determine what road safety measures are appropriate in their area, so this is very much a matter for them. Speed cameras have clearly saved lives and prevented injuries for many years, and they still have a role to play. I hope that Swindon will change its mind.
My hon. Friend highlights exactly the powers that are available to local authorities to add to the minimum concessionary schemes that have generously been introduced by the Government. By doing that in Barnsley, councillors have decided what their priorities are, and I welcome that. All hon. Members should urge their local authorities to consider the options for improving transport in their communities.
I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Environmental Audit this morning, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). There was a good exchange between us and members of the Select Committee about how we hope to reduce shipping emissions. The Marine Environment Protection Committee of the International Maritime Organisation is convening at a meeting in July, and the United Nations framework convention on climate change will be held in Copenhagen next November. We are doing all we can through the IMO, which is the appropriate body through which to advance measures that will achieve the hon. Gentleman’s objective.
In view of the fact that women are much less likely than men to have direct access to, and use of, a car, what is the Department doing to make sure that women who use public transport, walk or cycle, who have been shown in studies conducted by the Department to be fearful of—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I agree with her that anyone using public transport should feel safe and be confident that they can be safe. That applies particularly to women. My hon. Friend is right to raise the matter as she has, and I assure her that I will take a personal interest in the sort of measures that can be taken—for example, in terms of the new rail franchises, we are considering the installation of cameras to monitor trains. Giving women—and everyone—the confidence that they can use public transport safely is a perfectly proper ambition of the Department.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of Fresnel mirrors, of which we are great supporters. The evidence that we have shows that they are effective in reducing the number of side-swipe incidents and improving driver vision. We are sharing with our European colleagues the information and the data that we are collating. We are always looking to improve the safety of all vehicles. One hopes that the use of such mirrors will be one measure to achieve that. At the same time, we have given the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency £24 million extra funding this year to address the issue of foreign HGVs, as a higher proportion of them are in breach of road safety regulations than are UK vehicles. That funding has meant staff increases, 24/7 coverage, new testing stations and many more inspections.
I have already set out the arrangements for fare increases and it was made very clear to the Association of Train Operating Companies that they should take account of the present economic circumstances. To that extent, the Government were clearly and consistently setting out their policy to deal with the present situation. It is important to acknowledge that some 60 per cent. of the total fares are regulated fares, so, in those circumstances, the overall rate of inflation in those fares has been retained ever since 1997.
Women and Equality
The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—
Equality Impact Assessments
The new single public sector equality duty will ensure that public bodies are fair employers and that they design and deliver public services that meet the needs of the whole community. We expect that the costs will be mitigated by the efficiency gains of integrating the existing three duties into a single new process. The new duty is just one part of the simpler, stronger and more effective legal framework that the Equality Bill will deliver.
Will the Attorney-General’s “Race for Justice” declaration help public sector organisations, not least universities, to meet their single equality duty obligations? Does the Minister agree that there will be quite some kudos in being the first university so to do?
I agree that a university that took that opportunity and seized that initiative would gain a good deal of kudos. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does in the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism. Although “Race for Justice” is a criminal justice declaration, it is infinitely adaptable. It is there to expose systematically, and help to work away and erase, discrimination. It will read across excellently to universities.
Will the Solicitor-General address the point about low-paid women, particularly those in public sector bodies such as Government Departments? Will she assure us that the single equality impact assessment will deal directly with that issue?
An equality impact assessment was carried out when “A Framework for Fairness” was launched, and another will be carried out on the Equality Bill. I should make it clear, however, that we intend to tackle low pay for women in the public sector and also in the private sector. We have set out a number of models for how we intend first to expose it and secondly to tackle it. I believe that the hon. Lady will join cause with us, and I look forward to working with her.
I know that my hon. and learned Friend will agree that paving the way for equality carries costs, but does she also agree that we should measure the benefits as well? Should we not be especially vigilant at a time of economic difficulty when it is only too easy for things to slip, which would surely cause many more problems in the long term?
I entirely agree, but let us be clear about one matter: in business terms, diversity is dynamic. Involving people with different life experiences and different perspectives with which to frame their talents strengthens business, as well as matching it better with its consumers. Yes, of course we must be especially vigilant at this time of pressure, but there is no dosh in discrimination.
I am keen for equality impact assessments to be effective, but I fear that in some cases they have been more about going through the motions. Can the Minister tell me what work is being done to assess the value and change that result from such assessments, and what extra resource she will provide under the new legislation to ensure that there is effectiveness, not just a tick-box approach?
We have been examining, in specific terms, the impact that, for instance, going through a whole gender pay audit can have. Sometimes it is a process rather than an impact. That is why we have hesitated rather than going wholesale for impact assessments, assuming that they are the key to all mythologies and will put everything right. They do not necessarily do that.
We are working on this, and we consider that the watchword for the Equality Bill and for equal pay in particular is transparency. We will pin a number of proposals on to that basic bedrock as we take the Bill forward.
It does not matter whether one duty is involved or three: public authorities, especially local authorities, must have bought into their obligation to carry out those duties. What does my hon. and learned Friend think about Aberdeen city council, which, when it found that it had a £50 million budget deficit in February this year, cut services for disabled people in particular without conducting a disability impact study, any kind of assessment or any consultation? That was a despicable action by a Liberal-SNP administration. Will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that other local authorities, particularly those facing cuts in their budgets, do not—
Apart from the fact that that was obviously an utterly reprehensible way in which to behave, Aberdeen city council, like others, has a duty to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people. It therefore behaved not only in a disreputable way, but almost certainly in an unlawful way. We must make it absolutely plain that that kind of discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated as we move into a new era in which everyone starts to appreciate the importance and value that are to be attached to diversity.
We are continuing to back up and work with the police, prosecutors, courts and voluntary sector in their work to tackle domestic violence and we will change the law to abolish the provocation defence to homicide.
Mrs. Jennie Davies, the president of the Prestbury branch of the Women’s Institute in my constituency, has drawn my attention to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes campaign to end violence against women. What are the Government doing to develop and implement an integrated strategy to raise awareness of and prevent violence against women?
I would like warmly to congratulate and pay tribute to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes on its campaign to tackle violence against women and its participation in the End Violence Against Women coalition. This morning, I spoke at a conference that it is having just down the road on that very subject. Some years ago, the Government set up inter-ministerial groups to tackle domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual offences. We have brought them all together so that we can work strategically across Government on tackling violence against women. In January, we will publish a consultation on how we make further progress.
One third of incidents of violence against women are domestic, and the period between reporting a crime and the conclusion of a court case is often very long and one of increased risk. Too often the perpetrator of the violence remains in the family home and the mother and children are removed to a hostel. What more can be done to introduce justice into the system so that women can have the courage to report such violence and are not faced with having to take their children out of the family home while the proceedings are going on?
I agree that across the board, whether it is the police, local government, prosecutors or courts, we still have a long way to go, but we seem to be making real and substantial progress on tackling incidents of domestic violence. The British crime survey, in which women report to a confidential survey rather than to the police, shows that in the last 10 years the incidence of domestic violence has fallen by 58 per cent. We still need to tackle the great deal of suffering caused by domestic violence, but by working together and challenging the myths that domestic violence is just one of those things and that nothing can be done about it, we are making real progress.
Does the Minister agree that in the light of the experiences of Southall Black Sisters in my constituency, more needs to be done to support specialist domestic violence support services, especially those helping black, Asian, minority ethic and refugee communities?
Across the board, support for victims of domestic violence, as well as for its prevention, is very important and I pay tribute to Southall Black Sisters, an organisation that I know my hon. Friend has supported and worked closely with over the years. If someone does not speak English, is thousands of miles away from their family and is not working outside the home, it might be even more difficult for that person to escape from violence. We need to have the right support services on the ground and, once again, I pay tribute to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, which is looking at how it can tackle domestic violence in rural areas. Whether it is in Southall or in a rural area, we need to make sure that victims have the right support so that women do not have to put up with violence and children do not have to live in fear of it.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the support that I received in making sure that the new court in Bridgend had a domestic violence court. As the three years of funding for the independent domestic violence adviser ends in March 2009, what help will Bridgend get to ensure that that invaluable help for women going through court proceedings is still available?
A lot of lessons have been learned from the pilot projects that have taken place in many courts—including at my hon. Friend’s—which show how we can ensure that the perpetrators of domestic violence are brought to justice. Just a few years ago, only half of all domestic violence cases brought to court resulted in a conviction. That is now up to three quarters, and all courts, prosecutors and police recognise that it is important to bring offenders to justice so the level of violence does not escalate.
The cost of domestic violence is huge; in Leeds, it is estimated at £332 million a year. That is often not reflected in the funding from central and local government and the charitable sector that goes to domestic violence organisations, such as Behind Closed Doors in my constituency, which does a wonderful job in helping women in this very difficult situation. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that this issue should be looked at across the piece, and does she also agree that there is concern that some funding organisations do not prioritise domestic violence charities and organisations, because that is not seen as high profile or fashionable?
For the Government’s part, we have backed the campaign against domestic violence at national level. We have supported the police in expanding their work on domestic violence, and over the past decade there has been a transformation in how they respond to domestic violence. We have backed up specialist prosecutors—and I pay tribute to prosecutors for now taking cases that might previously have been dropped—and we work across the health and education services as well. On delivery of local services, however, it is important that local authorities fund local organisations. For our part at national level, we have made this a priority. It is down to local authorities to recognise the scale of the problem in their area, and to make sure there are local services for local women.
But does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in societies where women can be bought and sold like objects there is a greater risk of violence towards women, and what is she doing to try to combat this kind of exploitation of women and the consequent violence which leads to prostitutes, for example, being 40 times more at risk of a violent death than the rest of us?
My hon. Friend might well be referring to the fact that in local newspapers across the country we see women for sale for sex. It is important that we do not accept that as inevitable. Who wants to see in the back of their local newspaper, alongside “skip hire” and “lost pets”, advertisements such as, “New Thai girls. Choice of two avail., satisfaction always…nr Jct 11 M4, parking,” or, “Brazilian girls. Barkingside…£60 Full Service”? These are exploited women being sold for sex, and it is about time that local newspapers stopped taking advertisements from sleazy gangs exploiting women.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to publishing a consultation on a Government strategy on violence against women, but I regret the delay in bringing this forward. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition called for such a cross-cutting Government strategy more than a year ago. All the groups involved in this area—including, so it would seem from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Prestbury branch of the Women’s Institute—have been calling for such a strategy for some time now. Indeed, the End Violence Against Women coalition has even published a blueprint for such a cross-cutting Government strategy. Following the consultation, when will this Government strategy be put in place, and what on earth has taken the Government so long?
There has been no delay. We have been taking action across the piece, whether on domestic violence, sexual assault or human trafficking. We have been tightening the law, we have been backing up the police and we have been changing the court processes. That is producing results; now, for example, 45 per cent. more men are convicted of rape than 10 years ago. We are also challenging the myths and assumptions that go along with that. After 10 years of hard work on the issue—work which has made a difference in both rape convictions and in protecting women from domestic violence, and has highlighted the new threats such as human trafficking—the Home Secretary will launch a consultation in January on how we can make yet further progress. I urge the right hon. Lady not to undermine, or deny, the progress that has already been made, because we should be building the confidence of women in the criminal justice system, and we should be saying, “Yes we will take action, and it will make a difference.”
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on employment. Unemployment began rising in January, as this country, like so many others, began to feel the shockwaves of the credit crunch rippling out from the banking system in the United States. Each and every job lost is a personal tragedy. Our goal is to ensure that newly unemployed people do not fall out of touch with the labour market, and we will do everything we can to bring those who have been out of a job for some time back closer to the world of work. So, we will continue to reform the welfare state to help people back into work now and to prepare them for the upturn.
Britain starts from a strong position. The number of people in work reached its highest ever level this summer—29.5 million; earlier this year, we experienced the lowest claimant unemployment level since the 1970s; and there are more than 500,000 vacancies in the economy. By contrast, in the 1980s and 1990s, claimant unemployment twice hit 3 million, and between 1979 and 1997 the number of people on incapacity benefits trebled to more than 2.5 million. We all know the human cost that lies behind those figures: communities were scarred, and still carry those scars today; and whole families were left without work, not just for years, but for generations.
For the first time since 1945, the global economy is predicted to shrink next year. No country can be immune, but all Governments have the same goal: to make the downturn as shallow and as short as possible. If this had been done in the 1990s, the recession then would have been less costly to communities, less costly for individuals and less costly for the economy as a whole. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out details of a £20 billion fiscal stimulus package to support our economy—it is the right action to reduce, as far as possible, the human and financial cost of the downturn. The money means help for small business, a timely boost to the economy and capital projects to maintain employment.
The money also means a significant boost for older people in this country; we are putting in place a basic state pension of £95.25 and an increase to the guaranteed credit, which will ensure that no pensioner need live on less than £130 a week. My right hon. Friend said yesterday that he wants pensioners to benefit as quickly as possible. As we are not able to increase the pension and pension credit rates before April, we therefore announced that an additional £60 payment will be made to 15 million people from January. That is in addition to the £10 Christmas bonus, which will be paid as normal. The measures represent a significant increase in Government support for older people, which will really make a difference to pensioners, particularly if prices fall as expected next year.
The Chancellor also announced extra help for my Department next year. That £1.3 billion package will ensure that we can respond to the higher number of people claiming benefits. Over the past decade, we have reformed the welfare state to match more support with more responsibility. Yesterday’s announcement will enable us to continue our reform of welfare, to offer real help to people in these tough times. We will be able to maintain the service we provide, and strengthen our response in three ways.
First, we need to make the right support and conditionality available. We need to ensure that Jobcentre Plus can deliver as good a service as it does today to more people tomorrow. In the past, Governments have cut back on support and conditionality as the claimant count has risen. We want to do the opposite, and do more to help people, rather than less. Over the past 10 years, we have modernised our employment services almost beyond recognition. People used to get benefits from one agency and job advice from another—now someone cannot sign on without looking for work. Jobcentre Plus takes 80,000 calls a week, and its website gets 350,000 visits a day. The National Audit Office reports that
“the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found significant improvements in unemployment levels in the United Kingdom…related closely to the adoption of active job-seeking measures”.
Therefore, our first priority remains to ensure that everyone continues to receive this top quality service, and I am pleased to say that the system is coping well. Our target for jobseeker’s allowance is to process all new claims within 11½ days—in the year to date, we are processing them within an average of 10. For our crisis loans, demand has gone up, but processing times continue to fall, and budgeting loans are being dealt with 20 per cent. quicker than their target time.
But with higher levels of claimant count, we need further investment. The extra money that the Chancellor announced yesterday will ensure that we are able to maintain and expand our offer during a time of increased pressure on our services—help with CV-writing and job search, and time with personal advisers to develop action plans; to identify skills needs; and to get support with training, child care and interview techniques.
We need to ensure we have the right capacity. In the last spending round the Department reduced its staffing by 31,000 and has increased productivity overall by 12 per cent., as confirmed by the National Audit Office. We have saved money in back office processing and used that to invest in the front line. So there are now 1,500 more personal advisers in Jobcentre Plus than there were two years ago. But we need to recognise that in the current economic circumstances, we need to invest more in our front-line services, so we are today announcing a moratorium on Jobcentre Plus closures, and I can also confirm that the pre-Budget report will mean 6,000 more front-line staff in place in Jobcentre Plus next year.
Secondly, we need to ensure that we reach people facing redundancy as early as possible. The Insolvency Service now informs Jobcentre Plus immediately of redundancy notifications it receives. We had already doubled the funding for our rapid response service. Yesterday, the money available was doubled again, allowing us to help all companies facing 20 or more redundancies. That service will bring people swift access to the £100 million that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills announced last month to help people retrain and develop their skills, so that they can move quickly back into sustainable work, like the workers at Butler and Tanner in Frome, Somerset, nearly 300 of whom lost their job when the printers closed in April this year. With the help of the rapid response service, it is estimated that 90 per cent. have now found new jobs.
We know that local employment partnerships, which help match the unemployed to employers looking to hire, have been successful. Already more than 70,000 of our most disadvantaged customers have started work under the initiative. Now we will be able to extend that to include those who are newly redundant, too.
We have also announced the national employment partnership. This group will be chaired by the Prime Minister and will include the heads of business and public sector bodies, with a remit to ensure that employers work with the Government to enable people facing redundancy to be moved as quickly as possible into new jobs.
Thirdly, over the past 10 years, we have also opened up our service to private and voluntary sector providers. As David Freud recognised, that allows us to get the best of both worlds with Jobcentre Plus providing the core support and processing, and specialist providers helping those who find it hardest to get back into work.
Despite opposition to them from some parts of this House, the new deals have been successful, but they need to become more personal to the individual rather than being based on age, so we are introducing the flexible new deal. Some concerns have been expressed about the viability of these contracts in new economic circumstances. I am glad to report that we have compliant bids from 24 organisations and we have a minimum of four organisations competing for each of the contracts on offer. But it is important that we do invest more in the flexible new deal, both to give providers confidence but also to make sure that this time people who are further from the labour market are not abandoned. Some people say that there is no point helping people furthest from the labour market in the current circumstances. We say the opposite: when times are harder, we should be giving people more help, not less.
This Government are taking action, including action on the economy and action to help people face the effects of the global crisis. That is the right thing to do for this country, for individuals and for jobs. The £1.3 billion will help those who are newly facing redundancy and those who have been out of work for longer: more front-line staff, and more money for our private and voluntary providers, so that we can maintain our active regime. For those who have been out of work for some time, we will maintain and accelerate our overhaul of the welfare system to do everything we can to bring them back closer to the world of work. We will give more help now, to prevent individual tragedies today from becoming the scars on communities tomorrow. I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by thanking the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement? I listened with astonishment as he kept on trotting out all the old, discredited claims about the Government’s record on employment. Before the recession even started, their record was lamentable, despite all the boasts and all the misleading statements, such as the Secretary of State’s claim that Britain has had record levels of employment. That is just not true. Britain had a higher proportion of people in work in both the 1970s and 1980s.
The past decade has been one of wasted money and wasted opportunities. The vast majority of new jobs have been in the public sector, and not the private sector. Most new jobs have gone to migrant workers and not to British-born benefit claimants. The number of young people who are not in education or employment is 20 per cent. higher than a decade ago, despite the billions of pounds that have been spent on the Government’s mostly ineffective new deal programmes, described recently as a “calamity” by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field).
Before the recession started, the number of British people in work had already fallen by more than 300,000 in three years, so things were already getting worse. The number of people claiming incapacity benefit has barely changed for a decade and tens of thousands of unemployed people were excluded from the statistics because of clever manipulation of the figures by Ministers. For 10 years, the Government did not fix the roof when the sun was shining. Ministers have left themselves to run a marathon with holes in their shoes before they have even crossed the starting line.
We are now seeing jobs axed at a rate of more than 2,000 a day and we have the fastest rising unemployment since 1992. The OECD says that that will get worse and that unemployment will rise faster in Britain than in any other G7 country. Even the pre-Budget report yesterday forecast steeply rising unemployment—small wonder that the DWP needs more money to cope with the challenge.
No doubt that will help with the moratorium on jobcentre closures—what a farcical announcement that was. The Government have closed 492 jobcentres since 2002, and since unemployment started to rise in January they have closed a jobcentre a week. Guess how many they were planning to close next year? Three. Some moratorium. They have already nearly finished the closure programme.
With what else does the Secretary of State meet this tremendous challenge? Another committee, chaired by the Prime Minister. What a relief that will be to the thousands of people who are nervous about their jobs. There is no help for the large numbers of people in our smaller firms who face redundancy. The business tax cuts, designed to help smaller companies, are due to last for one year, even though the Government say that unemployment will continue to rise into 2010.
The Secretary of State boasts about the flexible new deal without saying that it will not even start for another year. Will he confirm that under the flexible new deal young people will have to wait 12 months and not six before they are eligible for new deal help? He could have announced the suspension of the rules that stop people retraining. We asked for that two weeks ago, so will he now take up our proposal to allow all jobseekers to train immediately rather than having to wait to be referred to the new deal? Have the employers joining the national economic partnership specifically committed to creating new jobs? If so, how many have done so? How will the Government ensure that small businesses that are considering making redundancies are aware of the rapid response service and will make use of it?
Why did yesterday’s statement not contain a real employment programme with incentives to employers to take on new staff of the kind for which we have called? When we launched our proposals, the CBI described them as “imaginative” and said that they would help
“small businesses keep people in work”.
The Secretary of State has announced today a sticking-plaster solution to the biggest challenge that we face as a nation. Unemployment is set to rise sharply and the Government have no idea of how to deal with it. They have wasted 10 years of opportunity and are now out of money and out of ideas. Ten years ago, the Government inherited an unemployment rate that was falling fast. It looks as if they will do just the opposite for their successor.
That was absolute confirmation that the Tories are now the do-nothing party. We are offering real help to people in difficult times. Those on the Opposition Front Bench have absolutely nothing to offer people because they are setting themselves apart from the orthodoxy around the world that we need both monetary and fiscal action now to help the economy. The right thing to do is to ensure that the problems with the economy are as short and shallow as possible, to reduce the cost to people now and to the economy in the long run. That is exactly the opposite of what the Tories did in the ’80s and ’90s, when they said that unemployment was a price worth paying. They wanted us to believe that they had learned those lessons, but even this week the shadow Health Secretary said that a recession
“on many counts…can be good for us”.
We have the Conservative deputy chairman saying that the recession should take its course. The only thing that we need to know about the Conservative Front Bench is that its members have not learned the lessons of the 1980s and 1990s, when they massaged and fiddled the unemployment figures and put millions of people on to incapacity benefit rather than helping them. In the middle of the 1980s, there was no requirement that people look for work. The then Conservative Government did not provide support or reform the welfare state as they should have done, but those are exactly the things that we will continue to do.
I turn now to the points made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). He trotted out his list of figures but, as I mentioned when we last discussed these matters, they are rather esoteric interpretations of the facts. He said that more public sector than private sector jobs had been created, but that is simply wrong: three quarters of the jobs that have been created are in the private sector. He said that we had a lamentable record on employment, but we had the second-highest level of employment in the G7—second only to Canada.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said that we were not going to act on unemployment, but we are proposing a package today that his party would not have proposed in the past, and could not propose today, because it is ideologically against taking action now to help people through the downturn. The Government will act because we understand the scars that the Conservative party left on communities, and we are determined to make sure that that never happens again.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today, but does he agree that it is as important to keep people in work as it is to get them off benefits and back into work? In respect of the Government’s response to Dame Carol Black, 300,000 people a year move from work to incapacity benefit, so is it not time that we dealt with the anomalies and inefficiencies of statutory sick pay? Should we not address that as an issue in the first six months of sickness, rather than wait until 12 or 18 months down the line?
I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes that report and the Government’s response to it, and he is right that we need to look at the incentives open to employers. He will have seen in our response that we want to work with employers, and we will be happy to work with his Committee on how we can change the incentives for people. We must make sure that every part of the system has the right incentives to keep people in work, because we know that being in work is, in the main, good for their well-being. It is not in the interests of individuals, employers or the Government for people to fall out of work if they can stay in work.
Our response today makes a significant advance in addressing Dame Carol Black’s points, but we are happy to look at whether an even more fundamental change to people’s incentives is possible. We would be happy to work with my hon. Friend’s Committee on that.
May I also thank the Secretary of State for giving notice of his statement? I also welcome the moratorium on jobcentre closures although, as the shadow Secretary of State said, few were planned for next year. In view of that, and of the rising unemployment in certain areas, does the right hon. Gentleman have any plans to reopen closed jobcentres, especially in rural areas or areas where there are unemployment hotspots? Since December, the number of jobseeker’s allowance claims has risen from 30,000 to 66,000. Is the Secretary of State planning to use the additional staff to ensure that the processing of claims is improved?
We were told earlier this year that there would be a review of the social fund. One consequence of people who become unemployed facing delays in processing and the two-week delay in payment is that they have to apply for a crisis loan. When will he announce the results of the review, and is he going to employ more staff to process those social fund loans?
I agree that engaging with employers is an important part of the job of Jobcentre Plus, but under the flexible new deal people have to wait 12 months before they get intensive support. They have to wait six months for basic support, yet the Freud report said that early intervention was essential, especially for vulnerable people. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to change the flexible new deal, so that intervention can take place much earlier, especially for vulnerable or young people?
Finally, one consequence of yesterday’s PBR was that some investment in public sector schemes will be brought forward. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with other Departments, such as the Department for Children, Schools and Families or the Department for Transport, to ensure that employers getting the contracts for those schemes are encouraged to take people off the unemployment register?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that it is actually 25 Jobcentre Plus offices that will be affected. I was slightly perplexed by his reference to rising processing times because they are within target and have been falling. Thanks to Jobcentre Plus staff, who have been working overtime and opening at weekends, we have maintained the service to which we are committed. We could not do that without extra investment next year, which is why the money coming in now is so important. It is the same for budgeting loans and crisis loans. We process crisis loans within two days, which is again under our target. It is important that we maintain those processing times because it is clearly important for people to get their money as quickly as possible.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are looking at the social fund. We commissioned a report from KPMG on it, and we will make proposals shortly. There is probably some agreement around the House that, if we can use that money to improve people’s financial skills and give them the help to bridge their way through difficulties and get back into work, that will be a very good thing.
We obviously want to make sure that the flexible new deal is effective. The proposals that we will make build very much on David Freud’s recommendations. He said that the new deal should work effectively, but having separate new deals for disabled, older and younger people meant that we were treating people according to their category rather than their personal circumstances. The flexible new deal frees providers to do what they do best, which is to innovate, and rewards them according to their achievements. The better they do, the more money they will get and, again, the money that we have announced today means that we can cope with the higher volumes and give providers confidence that we will be able to do that.
We keep under review whether we should fast-track people on to the flexible new deal. People in many of the categories that the hon. Gentleman mentioned can already volunteer to go to that stage and young people who have been out of education or training—NEETs—can and will be fast-tracked to the intensive stage of Jobcentre Plus help and then on to the flexible new deal. We will keep that under review.
It is important to say that the rapid response service and the £100 million allows that help to be provided to people even before they fall out of work, so the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell was wrong to say that people have to wait to get trained; they do not even have to be unemployed to get training because they can get access to it before they fall out of work. The earlier we help people, the easier it is to ensure that they find their next job.
As the Member of Parliament whose constituency under the Conservatives was No. 1 in Great Britain for long-term unemployment and No. 1 in England for youth unemployment, may I thank this Government for the new deal, which the Conservatives opposed and the funding of which the Liberal Democrats opposed? Employment in my constituency has been transformed by the new deal and the local employment partnership, which has just provided 130 jobs at the new Tesco in Gorton. The direct training centre is training men and women to be builders for the new increase in building that will result from the Government’s policies announced this week.
My right hon. Friend is right that the new deal has had a fundamental effect on unemployment. It has reduced long-term unemployment by three quarters. As he says, unemployment was one of the scars left from the 1980s, which he remembers so well.
The problem that would occur under the Opposition’s policies is that they would have to cut programmes, slow welfare reform and reduce the help available to people, because they are against the extra money that the Government put in yesterday.
Like so often, the headline announcements by the Government do not bear close examination. It is all very well announcing a moratorium on jobcentre closures due next year, but it is not much good to my constituency, which saw all three of its jobcentres close in January in Sidmouth, Exmouth and Axminster. Will the Secretary of State pledge today that he will re-examine whether there is a genuine case to reopen jobcentres, especially in deprived areas? Two of my wards in Exmouth—Town and Littleham—are in the upper quartile of deprivation on the national indices. Will he look at whether there is a genuine case for reopening jobcentres where they are needed—close to the people who need access to them?
I can give a guarantee that we will provide the service that people need. That is our commitment. We deliver services now through Jobcentre Plus, children’s centres, GP surgeries and other community settings. If there are ways in which the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should improve the service in his area, I shall be happy to listen to them.
It seems perverse that at a time when there has been a severe contraction in the construction industry, Eaga, which is responsible for implementing the Government’s warm homes programme, just last week said that any household in fuel poverty which applies for assistance will not be able to get it until the end of this winter because it does not have enough qualified people to deliver the upgrading of properties and the replacement of heating systems. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Prime Minister, in the new partnership committee that he is considering, to seek ways of dovetailing local ownership of identifying where we have work that needs to be done this winter with the availability of the skills that need to be harnessed to deliver the upgrading work?
I can give that guarantee. Indeed, one of the things that we have discussed is how we can ensure that the UK can capitalise on the opportunity offered by the initiative that my hon. Friend mentions in particular, and green jobs in general. There are significant opportunities for jobs growth in that area, and I am working with many Departments, in particular the Department of Energy and Climate Change, to make sure that we achieve that.
There was a similar scepticism when the then Chancellor, who is now the Prime Minister, announced local employment partnerships, yet they have helped 70,000 of the hardest to reach people into work. We are now saying that we want to ensure that that initiative is available to people who have recently been made redundant as well. We think that it is right to work with many of the larger organisations, such as Whitbread, Asda and Tesco, which have been very supportive of that, and have ensured that they offer people work trials and guaranteed training. If we can make our system as flexible as possible so that people are ready to go into work, and employers can play their part in saying that they will take people on as quickly as possible, we can help to fill those half million vacancies and reduce the effect of the downturn on our economy.
In the 1980s the west midlands was devastated by unemployment. Does not today’s statement demonstrate that, in contrast to what happened then, those who lose their jobs now will not be treated with indifference and contempt? If politicians do not want to lose their jobs, neither do our constituents.
My hon. Friend is right, of course. What he will see from this Government is real action, as I said. What we saw from the Conservative Front Bench was a scheme, to which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell referred, which fell apart within a day of being announced. The Institute for Employment Studies said that the scheme was almost 100 per cent. dead-weight, and the Federation of Small Businesses said that it would be a disincentive to hiring people who have recently become unemployed. It is because the Conservatives were not prepared to spend money in the downturn that they had to squeeze the scheme to the point of pretending that it did not cost any money. That is the difference between us. We are prepared to take action. They are not prepared to do anything to help people.
On the brink of the biggest economic downturn the world has seen since the 1930s, does it make sense either morally or economically to compel single parents to chase non-existent jobs in a deteriorating labour market, and threaten to reduce their benefits by up to 40 per cent. if they do not? Cutting automatic stabilisers in the midst of a recession is the mistake that the National Government made in 1935 when they introduced the means test. The Labour party then opposed Conservative policies. Why are they implementing them now?
That is the opposite of what we are doing. We are making the automatic stabilisers work even better. That is why we have announced an extra £60 in the Christmas bonus for pensioners. That is why there is a significant uprating of the pension—the biggest that we have had under this Government. That is why we are bringing forward child benefit increases. That is exactly why we have a £145 tax cut for people. Those things are making the automatic stabilisers work.
Surely if we can get even one extra lone parent into work because of that support, that is a good thing. If, as we believe, we can get more than 70,000 more lone parents into work, that is families helped and lives transformed. We do not penalise people for not finding a job. We know that our support works, and we want people to take it up. That is why the system was created as it was. Ever since 1911 there has been conditionality in the system, and that is exactly what we will continue to have.
May I inform the Secretary of State that I was a marcher on the people’s march for jobs in 1983, when more than 3 million people were unemployed and the Tories did absolutely nothing about it? They were the do-nothing party then, and they are the do-nothing party now. I welcome the Government’s proactive stance, but people who are employed in a company with fewer than 20 people may become unemployed and have no real experience of the benefits system. How will the extra resources be used to make them familiar with, and less fearful of, the process?
The rapid response service will be available to any company, making whatever level of redundancy, if they want to contact us. We guarantee that we will contact any company with more than 20 redundancies, and what my hon. Friend suggests is exactly what we will do: we will go in there and help people understand the benefits system and what they are entitled to. We will also, I hope, try to get them back into work before they have to sign on, by helping them look for work and with retraining, and by doing exactly as she suggests.
Aearo Technologies, a subsidiary of 3M, based in Poynton in my constituency, is taking 90 jobs to Poland. AstraZeneca, the largest employer in my constituency and essential to this country’s economy, is shedding more than 1,250 jobs over three years. The reason that it gives is uncompetitiveness in this country and the importance of the competitive global market. How will the increase in national insurance improve the situation?
How would cutting back public spending now, in the middle of a downturn, improve the economic situation? That is the folly of the Opposition’s policy: they would introduce fiscal tightening in the middle of an economic downturn. We propose to help the economy in the short term, and to make the downturn shallower and shorter, so that when the economy starts to grow, we can credibly say that we will live within our means and return the budget to stability. That is absolutely the right thing to do.
I am pleased that Belper jobcentre is staying open, because although it is the constituency of West Derbyshire, it helps a number of my constituents. I also welcome the extra resources for the rapid response service to help those facing redundancy. But, to clear up any confusion, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the service is available not just to the private sector, where it has proved invaluable in the past, but to public sector organisations, such as Tory-controlled Amber Valley borough council, which is planning a large number of redundancies because of its complete financial incompetence?
Can the Secretary of State tell us what the following constituencies have in common: Birmingham, Hodge Hill; Bolton, South-East; Bolton, West; Bury, North; Eastleigh; Halesowen and Rowley Regis; Islwyn; Leicester, East; Leigh, Milton Keynes, South-West; North-East Milton Keynes; Rossendale and Darwen; South Swindon; Corby; Kettering; and Wellingborough? If he does not know, I can tell him that unemployment is higher there now than it was in 1997.
May I tell my right hon. Friend that in Edinburgh, South in 1997, 2,037 people were languishing on the dole, but that this summer, thanks to the efforts of the new deal and this Government, that number fell to 667? I feel sorry for my right hon. Friend, because I know that he was waiting for an apology from the Opposition Front-Bench team for their policies of mass unemployment in the 1980s and 1990s, which they would bring back in this century.
Unemployment in my constituency has risen by 21 per cent. in the past year. Jobs have been lost in the manufacturing town of Thetford, and more are at risk. What would the Minister say to employers in my constituency, who fear that the proposed cut in VAT will do little to stimulate demand for British goods and preserve jobs in the manufacturing industries?
There is a £12 billion stimulus to the economy, and we very much hope that that will help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. If any of them are at risk of losing their jobs, we clearly share his worry about that. The rapid response service is there to help people if they do lose their jobs, but the whole point of yesterday’s pre-Budget report was to ensure that that is less likely. It included £7 billion of help for small businesses.
People in Chapeltown in my constituency will be very relieved today to hear that their jobcentre is one of the 25 that will remain open, but will my right hon. Friend also consider developing employment support services in the jobcentre, alongside the housing service and the voluntary sector, so as to serve better the needs of the long-term unemployed in that area?
We are certainly happy to consider that. As my hon. Friend knows, we are rolling out a new approach whereby people will be able to claim from Jobcentre Plus not only their benefits but their tax credits and housing benefit. They will be able to go to one place and get the information sorted out through one organisation, rather than through many different ones.
The Secretary of State questioned the statement, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), that two thirds of all new jobs are being created in the public sector. However, that was also a lead story in The Sun today. Has The Sun got it wrong?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his announcement that planned jobcentre closures, including that of the one at Shepherd’s Bush, will not proceed. That Shepherd’s Bush jobcentre is literally next door to the Westfield shopping centre, which has created 7,000 new jobs. However, the Tory council, which should have negotiated the employment benefits, has admitted that only 268 of the jobs are going to local people, and it has itself just issued redundancy notices to 4,700 people. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the reprieved jobcentres will get the resources to help my unemployed constituents, whom the Tories have clearly abandoned again?
Absolutely. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and other colleagues who have campaigned so hard for this announcement. He is right to say that the extra investment is needed, and the £100 million that we have said will be available will help his constituents, among others, to get exactly that help.
I welcome the statement and thank the Secretary of State for all that he is trying to do. Many thousands of my constituents are specialised, highly skilled finance and banking workers in the City. Their sector has been particularly hit by the credit crunch. Is there anything special that we can do to help them if they are made redundant?
Absolutely. The £100 million is there to get to people even before they lose their jobs. People may have banking skills that are highly transferable to other areas. With a little bit of quick retraining, we may be able to get such people back into work even before they fall out of work. If they do sign on for benefits, I should say that we give exactly the same priority to services for people with professional backgrounds as we give to services for people from different backgrounds.
I welcome the statement on the extra measures that the Secretary of State has taken. However, the moratorium on jobcentres will come too late for Burslem. Will he revisit the whole issue of how we can get the skills match and the front-line staff needed to help with regeneration and the whole job market? Will he meet me to see how we can achieve more in Burslem?
We are happy to consider how we can deliver the service. As my hon. Friend knows, we have modernised it so that there is now one agency, Jobcentre Plus, where before there were two. We take 80,000 calls a week and there are 350,000 visits a day to our website. That is a way of making sure that we help people. If my hon. Friend feels that more is needed, we will be happy to discuss that with her.
Does not the Secretary of State’s announcement of a major increase in spending on the flexible new deal for the long-term unemployed show that he is predicting a major increase in long-term unemployment? Does he agree with the Social Market Foundation, which has said that in the course of this recession, long-term unemployment—of more than 12 months—is set to quadruple?
I welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend today. However, will he look into a particular aspect of the situation of people who have lost their jobs? They are in a bad situation, but the most disheartening part of being unemployed is finding a vacancy, only to discover that it was filled two weeks earlier, although it is still being advertised at the jobcentre. Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that people do not waste their time in that way, that the employers who advertise in jobcentres notify them straight away when vacancies are filled, and that the jobcentres take down the notices about jobs that have been filled?
That is absolutely right. We depend, of course, on employers telling us when a vacancy has been filled. One of the things that the extra investment will do is to allow more people to work with employers, to get as many vacancies as possible advertised through Jobcentre Plus, so that they can respond to my hon. Friend’s point.
The Government were very sympathetic to workers at JCB who accepted a reduction in pay in order to try to remain competitive and keep their jobs—but that flexibility is not available to people on the minimum wage. Will the Government extend the same flexibility to people on the minimum wage, so that if they choose to accept a lower wage in order to retain the right to work, they can do so?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he ensure that the rapid response service goes for early intervention on skills training, so that if there is even a hint of redundancy in even the smallest firm, people start thinking about skills training as opposed to just looking at adverts for another job, so that this time a redundancy notice for any person may be seen as a chance to upgrade their skills—unlike what happened last time under the Tories, when people were left stood in dole queues and at home without hope?
I absolutely can give my right hon. Friend that guarantee. That is exactly what the rapid response service does. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell was wrong to say that people cannot train when they are on jobseeker’s allowance. He should read the Green Paper, which makes it clear that we have abolished the 16-hour rule where people are training to get themselves back into work.
More than 250,000 young people have already been through the new deal twice, and 80,000 have been through it three times. What does the Secretary of State propose to do to ensure that the new deal genuinely prepares people for work? Is it not just a revolving door that keeps them off the register of the long-term unemployed?
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, an independent organisation, has said that the new deal pays for itself, and it has helped to cut long-term unemployment by three quarters. We are reforming the flexible new deal on the lines that David Freud suggested, using private and voluntary providers, giving them the freedom to innovate, and rewarding them on the basis of results. Although the Conservatives say that they are against that, it is exactly the approach that they say that they would follow as well.
I welcome the additional 6,000 staff in the jobcentres. Was that figure calculated on the basis of a ratio between staff and the numbers of unemployed? If so, will there be an automatic increase in staff beyond that 6,000 if the numbers of unemployed go up beyond the Government’s current expectations?
Clearly, we use a range of scenarios and base our plans on that approach. I can give my hon. Friend my commitment that we will ensure that the service delivers for people’s needs, and we will do that not only by investing more but by continuing our efficiency programme, which has enabled us to shift resources from the back office to the front office and to increase the number of personal advisers by 1,500.
I beg to ask leave to debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration namely,
yesterday’s pre-Budget report.
It is an absolute disgrace that the Government have not conceded a debate on this, for it was not just a report but a crisis Budget and a reckless gamble with the public finances. It introduces a £20 billion fiscal loosening and a £40 billion package of future tax increases. The VAT changes, which add £12 billion to the national debt, will come into force next Monday, before any parliamentary approval is possible and without the opportunity to raise the widespread scepticism that the public and retailers have expressed about its merits and costs. The prospect of a rise in national insurance, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies has just confirmed hits anyone on an income of over £19,000, is already damaging confidence in a future recovery. The news that the Government are set to borrow more than any Government in history, and that the national debt will double to £1 trillion, has shocked the entire country.
If this had formally been called a Budget, there would now be four whole days of debate on it; instead, this Government refuse to have even one. They are running away from the argument, because they are losing the argument. These are the issues that the entire country is talking about, and I believe that we should be debating them in this Chamber. That is why, Sir, I seek this debate.
The hon. Gentleman asks leave to debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the pre-Budget report. I am satisfied that the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. Has the hon. Gentleman leave of this House?
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for your guidance on the convention regarding written ministerial statements? If one looks at the small print of the pre-Budget report, one finds a number of issues about which one would have expected to have a written ministerial statement, at the very least. For example, there is a statement relating to the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency in my constituency, which employs a large number of people. It says that the Government are intending to examine “alternative business models”. In the normal course of events, we would have expected a written ministerial statement on that, and it seems unreasonable that within the pre-Budget report a number of issues affecting our constituents, people who are working and people who are worried about the future of their jobs, are thrown away in a couple of lines in the footnotes. That is unacceptable and unfair.
Is it in order for them to pile into this Chamber on an important statement on employment, in which they have shown no interest, in order to demand a statement tomorrow? Why should it be that those who have no interest in the issue of unemployment—because they created so much—should have such a say in this place? [Interruption.]
Order. It is up to right hon. and hon. Members when they come into the Chamber. All I can say is that there have been occasions when I have been sitting in this Chamber when there have just been a few hon. Members attending to important matters. I often wish that they would pile in more often.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Now that you have allowed three days—[Hon. Members: “Three hours!”]—three hours’ debate, may I ask you whether there is any procedural reason why the Leader of the House, who is sitting in her place now, should not rise to alter the business of the House for tomorrow and the day after, to allow a full debate on what has been the most significant Budget statement we have had for the last couple of decades? Would you invite her to do so? We are meant to have control over taxation and public spending in the House, which is what makes us the supreme legislature in the country—in theory.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman must not push his luck. I gave him three hours, not three days. I said that the debate would begin at the commencement of public business tomorrow, so there is no need for the Leader of the House to do anything. I have made a ruling that the debate will take place then.
Children (Protection of Privacy)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to protect children’s privacy in the media; to make provision for the protection of children from avoidable emotional distress resulting from participating in, or being the subject of, media programmes or reports; and for connected purposes.
I must admit that when I saw all the hon. Members piling into the Chamber, I thought that they had come to hear me. A few have remained, but unfortunately most have now piled out again.
I would not want people listening to this debate to think that I had misspent most of the summer recess watching television, but I did perhaps leave for the office a little later in the morning and arrive home a little earlier in the evening, and I did enough channel-hopping to rekindle my intention to initiate the debate that I want to raise today. I say “rekindle”, because I have been concerned for some time about just where we draw the line in deciding whether children should be the subject, directly or indirectly, of some of our more voyeuristic and sensationalist television programmes.
We have often debated in the House the issue of children as the viewers of television programmes, whether we are discussing whether advertisements for junk food should be banned during children’s broadcasting or expressing concern about what is shown before and after the watershed. Fairly strict guidelines are in place about the use of child actors in television or the theatre, which include a local licence scheme. When it comes to reality TV, fly-on-the-wall documentaries and daytime talk shows, however, it appears that the boundaries of what is acceptable are becoming increasingly blurred. I am particularly concerned about programmes that show children becoming distressed or which highlight their emotional or physical problems or their dysfunctional family lives.
A colleague made a good point to me yesterday: in the past, such issues were usually addressed by making drama programmes, which would handle the issues much more intelligently and sensitively. We all remember programmes such as “Cathy Come Home” or “Boys from the Black Stuff”, which were compelling pieces of social observation. Today’s equivalent, however, would be to stick television cameras in every room of someone’s house and then edit the programme to show the arguments and tears of a family tearing itself apart. We have seen a surge of such programmes over the past few years—programmes that feature real children in real-life settings, such as “Wife Swap”, “Brat Camp”, “Teenage Tourette’s Camp”, “Can Fat Teens Hunt?” and “I Know What You Ate Last Summer”. For “Brat Camp”, the TV company’s promotional blurb ran:
“What do you do if your teenage kids are rude, abusive, on drugs and out of control?”
The answer seems to be: put them on TV.
Some programmes handle their subject matter more sensitively than others. I recently saw part of a Channel 4 production, “Dana: The 8-Year-Old Anorexic”, which was about a girl who weighed just 8 stone and who restricted herself to 175 calories a day. The programme provided an insight into the condition and a warning that girls—and young boys, too—are at risk of developing anorexia, but we are talking about a child with a form of mental illness, for that is what anorexia is. Could the same point not have been made without parading all the details of that child’s life on television?
Many of the shows that are of concern are parenting programmes, such as “Supernanny”, “Little Angels” and “The House of Tiny Tearaways”. I am not going to pass judgment on whether such programmes are educational or exploitative, not least because watching screaming toddlers is not my idea of entertainment; indeed, I have rarely managed to last more than five minutes before switching the television off. However, concerns were raised this year by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which said that the Government should
“Intensify its efforts…with the media, to respect the privacy of children…especially by avoiding messages publicly exposing them to shame”.
The shows that concern me most, however, are the daytime talk shows, of which “The Jeremy Kyle Show”—described by a judge in a recent criminal court case as “human…bear baiting”—is the most notorious example. The programme serves up damaged people in dysfunctional relationships for entertainment. It is the modern-day equivalent of the freak show. Some shows feature children as participants, but the ones that I want to highlight today do not. Let me quote some titles: “If I can’t have children, how can it be my baby?” and “Stop ignoring your daughter—I’ll prove you’re the dad!”. Then it gets even more complicated: “Brother—I’ll prove I’m the father to your ex-girlfriend’s baby!” and “Admit you’re a prostitute then prove my boyfriend’s the dad”.
After the unedifying spectacle of those couples or former couples airing all their dirty linen in public, the matter is resolved with a DNA test result being announced live on air. I watched one such show last week—purely in the interests of research, of course—which involved a young mother and three young men, each of whom could have been the father of her eight-month-old baby. One had been in prison when the baby was most likely to have been conceived, but was now back in a relationship with her. The second, who was one of his mates, had got together with her once the first had gone inside and had acted as the child’s father while he was in prison. Indeed, the second young man even had the child’s name tattooed on his neck. The third young man was someone whom she had picked up on the way home from a nightclub and who, when told that he might be the father, had urged her to have an abortion. Of course, when the DNA test results were revealed live on air, it was the last young man—the one who did not want the baby—who turned out to be the father.
People might make excuses and say that there is a public interest in showing such programmes or that they may encourage young women and men to be more careful about having unprotected sex. That would certainly be Jeremy Kyle’s excuse. One might say that the show’s producers will ensure that counselling is provided to the participants and that the young man involved will be given advice on how to be a good father, or that the participants do the shows of their own free will.
Someone from ITV called me today and told me that the channel adheres to strict internal guidelines and to those in the broadcasting code. It always requires parental consent for under-16s to appear on a programme, and DNA tests are carried out only when it is an essential part of the storyline—a statement that is slightly disingenuous given that the storyline is usually about who the child’s father is. It does not do DNA tests on school-age children, and does them only rarely on children over 18 months old—again, it is not done unless it is essential to the storyline—so the DNA tests mainly involve babies.
One might say that what a baby does not know will not hurt them, but the chances are fairly high that a baby who features on such a television programme will find out about it when they grow up. People in the neighbourhood will not forget about it, and the child’s future schoolmates will find out about it, so they risk humiliation and bullying, and feelings of rejection and hurt. I cannot help feeling that even if they do not find out about the programme, there is something plain wrong about it. Perhaps we do not use that word often enough these days.
The obvious line of defence is that it is ultimately the parents’ prerogative to decide how they bring their child up and to what degree they protect their child from or expose them to the risk of humiliation, embarrassment, bullying or worse. However, parents are enticed and encouraged by the media to appear on such shows, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they are not always sure what they are letting themselves in for. Carole Cadwalladr recently wrote an excellent article in The Observer called “When reality bites, it leaves deep scars”, which accused the show of disregarding evidence of a young man’s mental health problems before he appeared on it. A DNA test was done, confirming that he was the father of a baby girl. When he was interviewed afterwards, he said:
“I was totally stitched up…It was public humiliation…I just wanted the DNA test…And I didn’t have the money to get it done…it just seemed that they didn’t care.”
I suspect that there is an element of snobbery involved with such programmes. People think that kids with parents like that will have such dysfunctional lives anyway, and will be exposed to such pernicious influences and will be so damaged that the programme is the least of their problems, but I think that we have to establish a marker in the sand. That is what I want to do with my Bill. Surely the overriding principle when children are involved with such television programmes, either directly or by association, should be whether the show’s commissioning or broadcasting would be in their best interests.
The broadcasting code and the accompanying detailed guidance say broadly that due care
“must be taken over the physical and emotional welfare and the dignity of people under eighteen who take part or are otherwise involved in programmes…irrespective of any consent given by”
a parent or guardian. Children
“must not be caused unnecessary distress or anxiety by their involvement in programmes or by the broadcast of those programmes.”
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children believes that those guidelines do not go far enough, and it has set up an advisory body of experts to consider the welfare of children who participate in reality TV programmes. The NSPCC suggests that there should be greater recognition of the fact that it is often the most vulnerable families who take part in such programmes, and that parents and older children should have the right to veto any programme before its transmission. It also suggests that Ofcom should be able to intervene before programmes are broadcast and that the use of children in such shows should be carefully monitored. I agree.
All I ask today is that the broadcasters should start to show more responsibility and that the relentless tide taking us towards ever more brutal, humiliating and degrading TV programmes should be halted, at the very least where children are concerned.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Kerry McCarthy, John Battle, Roger Berry, Annette Brooke, Ms Karen Buck, Alistair Burt, Mr. Tom Clarke, Andrew Gwynne, Dr. Doug Naysmith, Mr. Jamie Reed and Alison Seabeck.
Children (Protection of Privacy)
Kerry McCarthy accordingly presented a Bill to make provision to protect children’s privacy in the media; to make provision for the protection of children from avoidable emotional distress resulting from participating in, or being the subject of, media programmes or reports; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 28 November, and to be printed [Bill 175].
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(11) (European Committees),
Defence and Security Procurement
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 16488/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, draft Directive on the co-ordination procedures for the award of public contracts in the fields of defence and security; and endorses the Government’s approach to the negotiations and its view that if, following European Council agreement on a text and negotiations with the European Parliament, the document remains within the UK’s negotiating position, the Commission draft Directive could be supported.—[Mr. Frank Roy.]
Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [lords] (programme) (no. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A (Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [Lords] for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 6th October 2008 (Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [Lords] (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Message
1. Proceedings on the Lords Message shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
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.—[Mr. Frank Roy.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [Lords]
Lords message considered.
Functions etc of a reclaim fund
Lords amendment: No. 7A.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
One of the central threads of the many debates that we have had in both this House and the other place was the principle of transparency, particularly in relation to the use of powers set out in the Bill. I wanted to be clear that transparency has been and always will be crucial to the scheme, and the Government are committed to acting openly when exercising the powers.
The amendment seeks to insert into clause 5 this provision:
“The Treasury shall lay before Parliament a copy of any direction given in subsection (4).”
Clause 5 includes a direction-making power, and we discussed the matter at some length in the Public Bill Committee. I would like to make it clear that the Government do not envisage using the direction-making power in the Bill to interfere in the day-to-day running of the reclaim fund and the management of its money. This will be the sole responsibility of the Financial Services Authority, which will regulate the reclaim fund for prudential purposes. I want again to stress first and foremost that it is not the case that the reclaim fund is a public sector body. The Bill sets out how the reclaim fund will be constituted. It does not establish a reclaim fund; that is a task for the industry. The reclaim fund is clearly independent of Government.
As I have explained on previous occasions, the direction-making power that we are taking is an ultimate sanction that the public will expect us to have to ensure that the reclaim fund functions in accordance with its articles of association, in particular in those areas that the Financial Services Authority will not regulate for prudential purposes. This is a power to be used only in exceptional circumstances, to require the reclaim fund to comply with its statutory requirements under legislation—no more and no less. We recognise that concerns remain about the transparency of how the power may be used. We have reflected on that, and we are content to agree to amendment No. 7A.
Concerns about transparency have also been voiced in relation to the definition of dormancy. The reserve power for the Treasury to amend the period of inactivity required before accounts can be considered dormant was originally introduced by negative procedure, in line with other powers contained in the Bill. However, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee subsequently considered the power and recommended that, since the definition of a dormant account is central to the purpose of the Bill, the power to amend the 15-year period should be subject to the affirmative procedure. We have listened to those comments, and are happy to agree to Lords amendment No. 10A, in accordance with that recommendation.
I believe that these amendments are straightforward, and I take this opportunity to thank again the Members who served on the Public Bill Committee. The Bill has received general support from all parts of the House, and I am sure we all look forward to its enactment and to resources being made available for the wider benefit of society.
May I begin by echoing the Minister’s concluding remarks? People are looking forward to implementation of the Bill, and we welcome amendments Nos. 7A and 10A and the Government motion to agree.
As the Minister said, the definition of dormancy is central to the Bill, and people are rightly concerned about any relaxation there might be in that definition, because they are rightly concerned about how they maintain their rights to what is effectively their money. It is right for the Government to have conceded that any changes in the limit should be dealt with through the affirmative procedure.
On amendment No. 7A, as the Minister said, the Treasury has powers under the Bill to give directions to the private company that will operate the reclaim fund. There was considerable discussion in this House and the other place about what checks and balances should be in place to control the use of the power by the Treasury to make sure that it is subject to proper scrutiny, and various attempts were made in both this House and the other place to introduce some controls. The last time we debated this Bill in the House, I tabled amendment No. 12, which would have required the Treasury to publish a direction within 28 days, and the Minister said:
“I am inching towards what the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) had to say.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 64.]
I am pleased that he has inched so far. Although he has not quite adopted the wording of my amendment, the Government came pretty close to doing so in the House of Lords.
I am grateful for the changes the Government have introduced as a consequence of the debates in this House and the other place, and we welcome the amendments.
Although the Bill has the word “Dormant” in its title, it seems to come back to life frequently. We now again have an opportunity briefly to discuss this important Bill, which has, throughout proceedings in the other place, in Committee and in this Chamber, commanded the broad support of all political parties. That is also true of these two amendments.
We support Lords amendment No. 7A, which will add transparency to the process here in Parliament in a way of which we approve. Perhaps more importantly, we support Lords amendment No. 10A. It is a key consideration, because the 15-year period for dormancy is inevitably somewhat arbitrary, and in time it may be judged that a period of 10 or 12 years, or longer than 15 years, is more suitable. The provision is central to the legislation, and it would be inappropriate for a change of that centrality to take place without our having an opportunity to reflect on it and discuss it.
I am pleased that the Government have chosen to take such an open-minded approach to the proposals that have been made, and the Liberal Democrats share the objectives that have been outlined both by the Minister and by the Conservative spokesman.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 10A agreed to.
PENSIONS BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A (Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Pensions Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 7th January 2008 (Pensions Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
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.—[Mr. Frank Roy.]
Lords amendments considered.
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments Nos. 132, 135, 147, 149, 150, 171 to 176, 188, 193, 194, 198, 199, 202 to 205, 239, 240 to 246 and 278. If the House agrees to these amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
Lords amendment: No. 1.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 56, Lords amendment No. 57 and amendment (a) thereto, and Lords amendments Nos. 58 to 66, 120, 123, 133, 136, 137, 146, 153 to 155, 157 to 168, 170, 207 to 214, 223 and 228 to 230.
Today, we enter the final stages of this landmark Bill, which will transform the saving habits of millions of people in the country. Before we begin this final debate, I should like to pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), to my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) and to my noble Friend Lord McKenzie for all their stalwart work on the Bill. Thanks to their efforts, progress on this Bill has been characterised by a high degree of constructive dialogue between the Government, stakeholders and the Opposition. That consensual approach is clear in the vast majority of the amendments before us. I hope that, during this final debate, we will retain that consensus approach to a certain extent.
On the issue of qualifying earnings, we reached a broad consensus on the way forward because of the constructive and supportive approach taken by a number of our stakeholders. Among others, I should like to thank the CBI, the National Association of Pension Funds, the Association of British Insurers and the TUC as well as colleagues in both Houses for their contributions to the debate on this important area.
As I said, the Government have listened to the points that have been made in debate, and to our stakeholders. Amendments Nos. 21, 22, 57, 61 and related consequential amendments are designed to address concerns about the potential complexity of the band of earnings at the heart of the quality test.
Amendment No. 61 makes it clear that trustees can change scheme rules as a route to compliance, but they still need to obtain the employer’s consent to change those rules. In order to minimise the risk of levelling down, this power cannot be used to reduce contribution levels. Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 and related consequential amendments enable employers to use an annual pay period to smooth the impact of irregular payments to workers.
Amendment No. 57 allows employers who are confident that their workers are on course to receive the new minimum level of pension savings to certify that their arrangements meet the quality standard. That will increase clarity and certainty for employers, while ensuring that individuals’ savings remain protected. The detailed processes will reflect the principles agreed with stakeholders and will be set out in regulations and guidance.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) has tabled an amendment to amendment No. 57 that would remove the Government’s ability to repeal the process of certification in the future. All our stakeholders have agreed that a review in 2017 is appropriate. Removing proposed new subsection (9) would mean that, following the review, we would not be able to repeal this legislation if it was felt that certification was not effective or necessary from the perspective of either workers or employers.
Amendments Nos. 23, 24 and 25 ensure that the limits of the earnings band are reviewed annually in line with changes to average earnings, and uprated accordingly. This proposal was an Opposition amendment but we accept that it is consistent with Government policy, and that is why we have agreed to it this evening.
Amendments Nos. 5, 12 and 15 extend automatic enrolment to workplace personal pension schemes. We always intended that automatic enrolment would apply to workplace personal pensions but concern was expressed on Report in the Commons that they could fall within the scope of two European consumer directives and that that might have prevented automatic enrolment into the schemes. Happily, when the Bill was introduced into the other place and following discussions with the European Commission, we were pleased to be able to announce that that would not be the case. That puts provision by the insurance industry on a level playing field with other provision, and it was warmly greeted by all our stakeholders.
Amendments Nos. 28 to 32, 41 to 46 and 57 make technical changes to the scheme quality requirements to ensure that the widest range of schemes can qualify. Other amendments in this group are minor and technical in nature and are entirely consistent with the overarching policy. I therefore commend the amendments to the House.
It is a great pleasure to be debating the Pensions Bill again as it moves majestically towards the statute book. As the Minister kindly said, it is good to see the hon. and learned Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) in his place. He is clearly a sad person because he cannot keep away from pensions, despite his huge new responsibilities in the energy field. I suppose we will have him to thank if the lights do not start going out in a few years’ time.
I join the Minister in thanking all the stakeholders that have been part of the process. She listed some organisations, and even more have been involved. For the real enthusiast, there have been any number of seminars, get-togethers, conferences and events to try to get the thing right. The Opposition are not wholly convinced that there is not a series of unanswered questions, but those questions are for another day.
It is interesting that the Government still have what I might describe as a schizophrenic approach to saving for retirement. Only yesterday they announced—well, they quietly slipped through—a further £2.3 billion stealth tax on private pension pots. Of course, at the moment they are trying to give people in this country two different messages. One is that the problems that have got us here have included borrowing too much and saving too little. The other is that they are to provide a fiscal stimulus that they would like us all to take down to the shops immediately and spend.
We face a huge number of amendments from the Government and just a sprinkling from the Opposition—ones on which the Government were defeated in the Lords or that the Government were good enough to accept. To that extent, there will be a reasonably pre-festive season air about this evening. Having said that, the Bill is not in the same league as the Pensions Act 2004, to which there were more than 1,000 amendments, so perhaps things are getting better—even though we still have an awful lot of amendments on our plate this evening.
I pay tribute to my colleagues in the House of Lords. Lord Skelmersdale and Baroness Noakes made a huge contribution to improving the Bill in the Lords, sometimes with the co-operation of Lord McKenzie, the Minister in the Lords, and sometimes without. They have made some major changes and a lot of minor ones, some of which I will not necessarily have time to touch on this evening, but on the whole considerable improvements were made to the Bill. I also pay tribute to those who served on the Committee in this House. It was a model of amity, co-operation and consensus, as far as that goes.
It is worth mentioning a couple of issues before I go into the detail of the first group of amendments. We have been allocated three hours for five groups of many amendments. Life being what it is, the fifth group relates almost entirely to an issue that has not yet arisen in the House—regulation of buy-outs of pension funds. It would be a huge tragedy if we did not reach that group in the time that the Government have allocated to us this evening.
On the first group, I intend to be even more selective than the Minister in the amendments that I want to speak to. As she rightly said, there are many technical and minor amendments and I do not see any purpose in labouring them in any detail. The central issues are clear. They are mainly concerned with the concept of automatic enrolment. My party has been convinced on that matter in the pensions field for longer than any other party. Indeed, it was our policy before the last election. It is important to recognise that in many ways we are all slightly mesmerised by the architecture—the design—of personal accounts, but the more important issue is auto-enrolment. The top prize is to auto-enrol people into existing pension schemes that have much more generous provision than the overall 8 per cent. contribution envisaged for personal accounts. It is important to remind ourselves of that as we get into the detail of the amendments.
As I said, many of the amendments bring simplification, clarification or rationalisation to the original draft of the Bill, and I want to make some observations on some of the amendments before I talk to our amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 57. The first issue principally revolves around Lords amendments Nos. 23, 24 and 25, which the Minister touched on. They were moved by Baroness Noakes and are designed to ensure that the Secretary of State does not in future let the value of the earnings threshold for personal accounts fall behind increases in the level of earnings generally.
There was one of those bizarre exchanges in the Lords in which the Minister, Lord McKenzie, was clear that it is, and was, the Government’s policy to uprate the earnings band in line with earnings. However, that was not in the Bill. As originally drafted, it appeared to give the Secretary of State carte blanche to decide how and when to revalue the band. Lord McKenzie talked about needing flexibility. He said:
“We always have this dilemma where we have a clear policy and objective and believe that uprating by earnings is the right way forward. However, given that we are setting down reforms for decades to come, there must be a strong argument in favour of flexibility.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 June 2008; Vol. 702, c. 1267.]
I do not regard that as a dilemma. If the policy is clear, why does the legislation not follow it? In the event, that argument did not persuade Baroness Noakes or, indeed, their lordships, because it went to a vote and the Government were defeated. I thank the Minister of State for graciously accepting that the amendment should stand.
The main issue—and it is very important, for reasons that I shall describe—revolves around Lords amendment No. 57 and amendment (a). Amendment No. 57 allows for what is called self-certification in respect of the qualifying earnings rule. That is a complex but important matter. It is clear from the design of personal accounts—we accept this as a principle—that if one is introducing auto-enrolment either into an existing scheme or to personal accounts, there has to be a mechanism whereby it is proven that the terms of the existing scheme are at least as beneficial to the employees as personal accounts would be. All the evidence from organisations such as the National Association of