House of Commons
Thursday 29 January 2009
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords]
Motion made, and Question (15 January) again proposed,
That the promoters of the Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords], which were originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2006-07 on 21 January 2007, may have leave to proceed with the Bills in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).–(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means).
The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 5 February.
Canterbury City Council Bill, Leeds City Council Bill, Nottingham City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill
Motion made, and Question (15 January) again proposed,
That the promoters of the Canterbury City Council Bill, Leeds City Council Bill, Nottingham City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill, which were originally introduced in this House in Session 2007-08 on 22 January 2008, may have leave to proceed with the Bills in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).–(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means).
The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 5 February.
Oral Answers to Questions
Innovation, Universities and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
Figures for England show that about 90,000 student loan borrowers defaulted on student loan repayments for a month or longer in each of the last two years. In 1998, we introduced income-contingent repayment loans. It is generally not possible to default on those loans.
Obviously, the shock is the fact that 90,000 people defaulted; I am sure that the Minister is very worried about that, too. What extra support can we provide to assist students during the current economic crisis? The reach of credit crunch does not stop; it affects everyone, and, obviously, students are facing that pressure. What extra help can we give students, so as to ensure that people still feel they can go to university and are not frightened off from doing so? That is key for the future; what can the Minister say to us about that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for championing this issue; he has done so not only in relation to his constituency of Chorley, but by bringing it constantly to the attention of Ministers. Under the old-style loans introduced by the Conservatives in the 1990s, there can, effectively, be a default after just a month of debt, and, as my hon. Friend will understand, students often move accommodation and move in and out of jobs, so that 90,000 figure makes the problem of serious default—default for longer than six months and up to a year—appear a lot larger than it actually is. In terms of new graduates coming out of university in the autumn, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met student recruiters and those responsible for careers in our higher education system just before Christmas, and I will meet them again this week. We are looking at an internship scheme, and at encouraging employers in the private, public and third sectors to over-recruit into it. We have also increased career development loans—
While absolutely not wanting to discourage any overseas student from coming to this country, can I have the Minister’s assurance that he will pay particular attention to the position of overseas-domiciled students who can now avail themselves of student loans, because if there is any suggestion that this country is a soft touch and that those students can come here and then will not have to repay their loans, that will run the risk of discrediting the whole show?
I know the hon. Gentleman has taken up this issue and asked questions about it, and I want to reassure him that European legislation will ensure that we are able to engage closely with the tax agencies in European countries. That will enable us to collect the right details to ensure that students coming here from Europe repay the loans they have taken out to pursue their education in this country.
While defaulting on their loan is always difficult for any student, may I advise my right hon. Friend not to go down the same route as in Scotland, where one political party promised that it would write off all student debt? It got elected and discovered that it could not do that, and that there is no such quick fix. [Hon. Members: “Which party?] It was the Scottish National party. Students voted believing it was going to deliver on that promise, but it turned out to be a mirage. Can I get the assurance that this Government will not give such false hope to students?
While I accept that the income-contingent loans are better than what went before, does the Minister accept that the level of graduate debt is much higher now than it was 10 years ago, and will he further accept that it tends to hit women graduates harder because they stay in debt longer for reasons we understand?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the repayments of the loans kick in once income reaches a sufficient level, that there are repayment holidays for people if they fall on hard times, and that there are exceptions, such as for those with disabilities or mental illness. It is true that this is a loan system, but the terms of those loans are the best available in the country.
The Minister referred to his national internship scheme. Will he confirm that after I spent a Saturday afternoon chasing him round the TV studios, it became clear that there is no Government-funded national internship scheme and that the companies that he has identified as providing internships made it clear that no extra internships were intended on top of the ones already announced? Will he also confirm that the Government made a clear commitment to review the student loan regime, that the review will take place this year and that the review of student finance will look forward to ideas for the future and not simply be historical?
The first thing to say is that we are doing all we can to work with employers, careers services in universities, the National Union of Students and students themselves to ensure that students have the best choice and the best portfolio of things they can do when they graduate in the autumn. That compares very well with what was effectively the youth training scheme—YTS—when the Conservatives were in power; nothing was offered then. [Interruption.] The internship scheme was begun in a conversation that the Secretary of State had before Christmas with Microsoft, Barclays and others. I have continued those conversations—indeed, I was talking to Barnado’s just yesterday. So, there will be an increase in internships later in the year, and that will happen alongside the career development loans and all the other things that will be on offer at the end of the year. As the president of the NUS has said, this is not a time for panic; it is a time for proper information. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to bear that in mind when he is making public statements.
Students who graduate in about five months’ time will probably face an uncertain future, and many of them will never have experienced a recession before. Even those who get a job will still face a pernicious repayment regime for their student loans—a 9 per cent. flat-rate tax and a relatively unfair rate of interest. The rate of interest is meant to be subsidised by the Government, but it is at 3 per cent., and that is above the bank lending rate and above the probable expected rate of inflation, which is zero. Is it not time that we had more flexible arrangements for setting that rate of interest, to ensure that graduates are not being penalised at this uncertain economic time?
The hon. Gentleman calls for flexibility. Is that the Lib Dem approach to fees—saying one thing at the election and something else afterwards? Could he cite one bank in the country where someone could get a loan at a rate as low as the current retail prices index? He could not, but that, in effect, is what is available to students.
Earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform announced a £2 billion package to support the automotive industry for the future, and skills support is an integral part of that. Train to Gain has already been developed to meet the specific needs of the automotive sector. We announced on Tuesday our willingness to boost Government investment in skills for the sector through Train to Gain from £65 million to £100 million. My officials are now working with range of companies on training packages that will help work forces be ready for the upturn.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I very much welcome the statement made earlier in the week. Will he just say how wide his definition of the motor industry is, because we are not just talking about the car industry, and we must ensure that there are opportunities for component suppliers and the heavy goods side of the industry? Does he understand the problem for people on short-time working, which is that although they welcome the opportunity to train and upskill themselves, they have to buy their time for training? They should not be losing out twofold: by being on short-time working and having to pay the time for their own training. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should examine that problem and provide help?
I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. He will be aware that none of what I have been talking about would be possible if the Conservative policy to abolish Train to Gain had been implemented. [Interruption.] I think that a cut of £1 billion was the suggestion.
We have already taken up arrangements with Nissan and JCB—that gives a sense of the breadth of the approach—to provide training on down days when there is short-time working. Ensuring that we can do that is a key, flexible use of our training money, but it would be cut by the Conservative party.
Can the Secretary of State clarify what new money will be available for the motor industry in a broader context and for training, given that when the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), announced the package to the House earlier this week, he said that it was entirely consistent with the pre-Budget report that was announced in November?
That is absolutely right, but what we have been doing is changing the way in which the Train to Gain system operates to meet the needs of businesses in the downturn. So in addition to the money that we are making available to the automotive industry that is perhaps intended for some of the larger companies, we have also said that up to £350 million of Train to Gain money would be available in small packages for small and medium enterprises. We are keen that that should also be used by component suppliers and others in the automotive industry. The critical point is that while we are building investment in Train to Gain to £1 billion a year, following the pre-Budget report, the hon. Lady’s party has said that it would do away with that funding. That is the wrong thing to do.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that to abolish Train to Gain at this point would be absolute madness, and the principal of Stourbridge college—I was speaking to him this morning—agrees. My right hon. Friend has been to Stourbridge and seen the fantastically successful Train to Gain programme there. People are pleased that the programme has been relaxed to include redundant workers. However, especially in light of recent redundancies in the midlands, we need to remove the limit on redundant workers entirely, so that the programme can be responsive to particular local needs and help people train to gain and get back into work.
I very much enjoyed my visit with my hon. Friend to her local college in Stourbridge earlier this year and I was very impressed by the work it has done in leading the Train to Gain consortium that would be abolished by the policies of the Conservative party. The truth is that we are making the system more flexible. We are saying to colleges that they will have the option, especially with pre-level 2 skills, of being rewarded for success in getting people into work through training and not just for helping them to achieve an accredited qualification. We are always making the system look more flexible.
We also announced additional money at the beginning of the month of up to £83 million to create an extra pool of money for further education colleges to respond to the needs of those who have lost their job and been out of work for some time. That will be a flexible package of funding that colleges can tailor to the needs of the individual.
Does not the Secretary of State appreciate that the deadweight cost of Train to Gain and its failure to engage with SMEs is undermining attempts to provide meaningful training? Will he keep the Train to Gain money, but redirect it to apprenticeships and further education colleges that are better placed to respond to local needs?
May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Opposition Front Bench and congratulate him on his appointment? We look forward to continuing the debate with him.
At the beginning of the month, the deputy director of the CBI addressed a large audience of employers on the subject of the downturn, and he said that Train to Gain is just what business needs. If that is the view of Britain’s largest employer organisation, the Conservatives’ policies and approach, with their proposals for cuts at exactly the wrong time—£610 million of cuts in my Department to start on 1 April, although they have not explained where those cuts would be made—are wrong, and they need to change.
Will my right hon. Friend agree to take a flexible approach to bids that come before him—pursuant to the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew)—to ensure that both the supply chain and manufacturers obtain benefits from this scheme? Will he also, in the context of my constituency, ensure that there are no delays in developing the West Cheshire college, which will be an integral part of delivering the needs of the vehicle industry in my area?
It is not just a matter of being flexible, because we have indicated our willingness to do that. The compact that we have with the sector skills council for the manufacturing sector makes the use of the money much more flexible. Our ideal, actually, is to create a situation where within an area such as my hon. Friend’s we can comprehensively address the whole sector—that is, the major lead manufacturer as well as the supply chain. Maintaining the supply chain is every bit as important at the moment as maintaining the main plant. That is what we are aiming to achieve.
As for west Cheshire—I know that my hon. Friend is ambitious for his college—we have been looking to ensure that the training capacity is already in place to enable us to gear up training for the car industry in the way that he describes.
We continue to make encouraging progress with widening participation in higher education. The latest UCAS figures show that acceptances from England for 2008 are up by 7.4 per cent. on the same point last year, and this year’s figures are the highest ever. That means that there are more students in higher education than a year ago, including a higher proportion from poorer backgrounds.
I have a constituent who has been accepted as homeless and is on the homeless register. At 34 weeks pregnant, she has had to drop out of university after being told that until she has the baby, she is ineligible for housing benefit. Is the Minister aware that young people are being forced out of education for that reason and will he take action to ensure that those who fall pregnant while they are in higher education are not penalised?
A very young thing. In 1970, the proportion of undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge who were educated in state schools was higher than it is now. Given that all students at university today have had the majority of their education under this blessed Labour Government, to what does the Minister attribute that almost incredible, somewhat depressing and somewhat shameful statistic?
I do not recognise the statistic. This year there has been a 7.4 per cent. rise in the number of students from poorer backgrounds attending our universities. That must be a good thing. I think that increase is the result of the Aimhigher programme and the Aimhigher associates programme, which brings students back into schools and into their local communities to encourage other students to go into education. It is also the result of the work that the universities are doing through summer schools and classes with parents and students, all of which are designed to ensure that we get better equity across the system in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the system is perfect or that it was perfect when he went to university. There is much that we can do and it ought to be a cross-party issue.
Would my right hon. Friend agree that many universities are performing very well in widening participation? Cambridge has done very well, as opposed to Oxford, by having the same application process as all the other universities. That helps. Will he be more aggressive with the universities? Let us change the culture in many of the leading research universities; let us make them work harder and make them more understandable for working class kids. Working class kids respond to hard work and our universities do not work hard enough at the moment.
I know that my hon. Friend is something of an expert on that issue. I hope that he would agree that we are seeing a cultural shift, particularly among our most selective universities, and that he will welcome the group of 11 initiatives. Eleven of our most selective universities—the number is increasing—are coming together to pool and share the systems by which they widen participation, to learn from each other and to ensure that a student from a poorer background in the south of England who has benefited from one of the summer schools or classes can go to a university in the north of England. All that work will be going on over the next few months.
I am truly grateful for the interest that my hon. Friend continues to take in his constituency, which is very similar to mine. I know that he will welcome the work that Aimhigher associates are doing; these are young people who have been to university, who come back to school to work with young people in their home communities. I hope he will also recognise that good work is going on, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, through the reach programme, which is about encouraging young people, often from ethnic minority backgrounds, to aspire to go to university.
I have always believed that the re-designation by the Conservative Government of polytechnics as universities blurred the distinction between vocational and academic education and was a profound mistake. Could the right hon. Gentleman assure me and the House that in these straitened times everything possible will be done to stress that vocational is not second best, and that there are many people in this country whose potential can be challenged not by pseudo-academic courses but by rigorous vocational training?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows that I would absolutely agree with him on that. He is absolutely right that there has been an artificial divide in Britain, for all of the 20th century and into this one, between what we have perceived to be vocational and academic. I would encourage him to look at this year’s research assessment exercise results, which show that there is excellence to be found in our newer unversities, just as in our old ones.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures that he just read out, welcome though they are, have been achieved in spite of some of the approaches taken by some of the top universities? Does he agree that they could do more to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially early in their education, perhaps as early as primary school or middle school age, to raise their aspirations so that they might be better qualified to apply to those universities when they reach school-leaving age?
We could all do more. The universities recognise that there is more to do, which is why the group of 11 universities have come together to launch initiatives to ensure fair access to the most selective universities. The work of the National Council for Educational Excellence has made it clear, however, that schools could do more. My hon. Friend will also recognise that there are schools in our constituencies where the teachers themselves need to aspire to the very best for those young people and connect up to those universities, and where educational advice and guidance needs to be better.
Broadening access to higher education is critical to promoting the social justice that Conservatives crave, but social mobility has stalled since 1997. Although £2 million a year is spent on widening access, the participation rate of working-class children has risen by just 1 per cent. The report that the Secretary of State commissioned from Christine King, which he dismissed as provocative, says that flexible funding and learning is central to improving access. Surely we must build on the work of the Open university, Birkbeck and others who provide flexible learning; so will the Minister say whether the Government will back Professor King’s recommendations? One does not have to be Mastermind to recognise that flexible learning is the key to improving access.
The Government believe that we should take a strategic approach to future skills needs. The demands of the low-carbon economy and our future economic challenges tell us that we need more high-level skills in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects. We have already invested £29 million in additional university student numbers for STEM. We have also invested £76 million for capacity building in strategically important subjects, including STEM. Last week’s grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council set out the need for further investment in STEM and for universities to meet the needs of employers.
I thank the Minister for that response. Last Friday I visited the university of the West of England, which is keen to play its role in equipping people for green-collar jobs. However, there is a problem that many students who study humanities or arts subjects develop a real interest in environmental issues, but do not have the qualifications to go on to take postgraduate applied science courses. How can the Minister help such students to make the transition into green-collar jobs?
I am not surprised to learn that my hon. Friend was recently at her local university because she is a tireless champion of every sector of her constituency. I think that I know the answer to her question. As I understood it, she was asking how we get people who study humanities subjects into the STEM-related, green-collar jobs in which they have become interested. I have to say that the answer is that they need to do STEM-related degrees at university if they want to get STEM-related jobs. We are getting more people into STEM-related jobs, and we will need more, but the message has to go out that if people want modern, innovative, interesting green-sector jobs, they need to do STEM-related subjects at GCSE, A-level and university.
That was a most helpful comment for someone who has just done an arts degree at university, especially as equivalent level qualification funding has been totally taken away.
There is support on both sides of the House for the idea of growing the number of STEM undergraduates, because that is exactly what our economy needs. I acknowledge that, since 2004, there has been a slight reverse of the disastrous trend that occurred between 1997 and 2004. However, does the Minister agree that we need to influence what happens in schools, although he has no control over that, and that we need to influence what universities offer, although he has no control over that either? Furthermore, the Secretary of State has just issued a moratorium on additional places in our universities. How will we grow the number of STEM graduates if we stop people going to university?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I have to tell him that good things happen in government over which we have no control, including what goes on in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which last year succeeded in increasing the number of applications for STEM A-levels, just as we got the number of STEM university applications up last year. Across the board, we have a commitment to getting young people to do STEM subjects through A-level and on to university.
The hon. Gentleman said that it was no use telling people who have just done an arts subject to study a STEM degree if they want a STEM-related job. However, I must tell him the hard truth that if people want a STEM-related job, they need to do a STEM-related degree.
What more can my hon. Friend do to encourage schools to work with universities, such as those in Plymouth that have international reputations in marine and environmental science, to encourage people to look to science for a career? Science is vital for green-sector development.
My hon. Friend is a tireless advocate of her constituency’s educational institutions. Earlier, the Minister of State talked about Aimhigher, which builds exactly such links, and the academies programme is building similar links. Outstanding work is being done in not just her constituency but all over the country.
All the evidence shows that variable tuition fees have not deterred young people from lower-income backgrounds from applying to university. University acceptances for people aged 18 and under from lower socio-economic groups rose by more than 8 per cent. this year alone, demonstrating that we are changing the attitudes and aspirations of young people.
When we had the tuition fees debate in the House, I think that there was only one Member of Parliament who had substantial loans and fees to pay, and that was me. Of course young people assess these issues, but at this time, in our economy, they are aware that being a graduate will benefit them in the long term, and over their working life, for 45 years after graduation. I am pleased to see that this year’s figures show a rise.
A recent report by Universities UK confirms the statement that my right hon. Friend just made—that tuition fees have not put students off. It also shows that the number of people going to university from different socio-economic groups was stable until 2007. I welcome the improvement in 2008, which was largely a result of the Government’s Aimhigher project and the introduction of new grants. Sadly, I still meet students in schools and colleges who are unaware of the new support for them. Will he work, through schools and colleges, to ensure that those 16 and 17 year olds know of the additional financial support available to them?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her championing of those issues in Blackpool; I know that there is still much to do in that city to ensure that young people from poorer backgrounds know about the opportunities that universities can offer them. I hope that she will welcome the advertising campaign that began very recently, which is to run across the country. It reminds young people of the opportunities offered by universities, reminds those from poorer backgrounds that grants are available, and points out that people whose parents have a household income of up to £50,000 can still get a partial grant to get to university.
This is an important issue, and at my request, the Council for Science and Technology recently published a report with recommendations on how to improve links between the academic community and Government. The research councils provide advice to my Department; we used their expertise in developing our “Innovation Nation” White Paper. Across Government, the chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, has created a group of departmental chief scientific advisers to give a sharper focus to the contribution that scientific evidence can make on major cross-cutting issues such as climate change.
I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but in the report to which he referred—the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills report published in December 2008—his chief scientific adviser appears to want not to promote evidence-based science in Government, but rather to defend Government policy, or explain the absence of clear Government policy. How does the Secretary of State intend to develop evidence-based science within Government if his own chief scientific adviser seems unable to do so?
There are two important points to make. First, the whole point of having a Government chief scientific adviser—he is based in my Department because he has to be based somewhere—is that he is independent of Ministers. It would be quite wrong of me to suggest at the Dispatch Box that he is accountable to me for the advice that he gives. I appreciate enormously the work that he is doing to ensure that there is a chief scientific adviser in every Government Department where it matters, and to raise the status of that scientific advice. I have said this on record many times—I said it to the Select Committee recently—but I will say it again: the Government have got much better at using scientific advice, but they are not yet as good at doing that as they could be. I see it as one of my jobs to champion the matter among Ministers.
The DIUS Committee has severely criticised the Secretary of State’s Department for its presentation of data, and partly for a lack of evidence-based policy making, so we were surprised to read this week in The Times that Lord Drayson wants to decide where Government research spending is allocated. That would be in direct contravention of the established Haldane principle. Does the Secretary of State agree with his Science Ministers changing Government policy?
I made what I hoped was a reasonably important speech about the Haldane principle earlier this year. I made it clear that we respect the Haldane principle and that it is the research councils that decide who gets research grants. I also made the point, however, that Ministers and Government have a legitimate interest in the broad shape of research; for example, Ministers have encouraged the multidisciplinary programme across the research councils on living with environmental change, because we believe that that is one of the major challenges facing our society. That is quite different from Ministers deciding which research groups on which research issues should get funding. That is how I believe the Haldane principle should be interpreted in the 21st century, and I think there is a consensus on that among most, if not all, of the scientific community.
Research and Development
Government investment in research is rising to a record level of £6 billion by 2010-11. Yesterday, the Higher Education Funding Council for England set out to the sector how it will distribute research funding to universities, reflecting the approach in my grant letter to the council. I believe that in the current economic climate, it is vital to continue to invest in science and research. We will resist calls from others to reduce the amount of money that we spend in our Department.
My right hon. Friend has practically answered my next question. In the new economy, we are dealing with issues such as “Digital Britain”, renewables and nuclear. The universities in Scotland are underfunded. We are not getting the same funding as universities down south, yet we supply some of the best research and development in the whole world. Will he look into that issue and find some way to help those universities, which in the end will help the economy and this country?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is actually the case that the excellence of research in Scottish universities at present means that Scotland gets a disproportionately large share of the UK science budget. The problem is that for a year or two now, there has been a systematic approach to underfunding those universities. The real concern that people in Scotland should have about the universities and all of us in the UK should have about world class research is that that approach cannot go on for ever without undermining the very excellence that we will rely on for the nuclear industry, renewable energy and low-carbon manufacturing in the future. I hope my hon. Friend will continue his campaign to change those policies, which are threatening those universities.
On that last point about the Scottish universities, I want to follow on from the question of the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), having declared my interest as rector of Glasgow university. May I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the comment reported in The Herald today from the principal of Strathclyde university? I am being very inclusive. The comment is a reflection on the debate—I put it no more strongly than that—within the Russell group and further afield in Scotland in particular about the perceived efforts of the Executive to shift research and its funding into their assessment of the needs of the Scottish economic situation and jobs market? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the flexibility and the independence of the universities to concentrate on their perceived research needs must remain absolutely to the fore?
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave earlier about the Haldane principle, which I hope achieves the right balance between ensuring that the research councils can determine who gets which research grants and what gets funded, and that there is space for the fundamental blue-skies research that might appear today to have no future use at all, but will turn out to be the key to economic developments in 20 years’ time, within a sensible discussion about ensuring that we have sufficient capacity across disciplines in areas of great importance to us, as we are doing with the Living with Environmental Change programme. I believe that that balance is the right one. I do not believe that a directive approach from Ministers, thinking that they can second-guess the entire scientific community, would ever be the right way forward.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the funding of Welsh universities? I am sure that he is aware of the massive improvement in the level of world class research in Welsh universities revealed in the last research assessment exercise. It has gone up from 70 per cent. of the English level to 93 per cent. since 2001, but Wales receives disproportionately less money per head of population. Is there anything he can do to nudge the research councils into giving more money to Wales?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. I have discussed higher education policy with my opposite number at the Assembly; we are keen to work collaboratively, particularly on co-operation between English and Welsh universities. As far as research councils are concerned, we have to defend the principle that the money will go where the excellence is. The research councils will not distribute money on a geographical, regional, national or sub-national basis; it has to go where the excellence is. It is, perhaps, for the Assembly to work with the universities in Wales on how money is distributed, to make sure that the places where excellence can best develop are supported. The money will follow.
At our request, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is reviewing the impact of the equivalent or lower qualification policy. We will consider the council’s advice when we receive it later in the year.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and I hope that those who will be affected will find it encouraging. We are starting to appreciate the scale of the economic recession and he has just indicated that the Government are speaking to HEFCE about offering more help to people who become unemployed, particularly in respect of disciplines different from those in which they previously worked. I hope that he will accept that what the Government have previously said about financial support for ELQ students risks giving a very mixed message to those whom the qualification is trying to help.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges our announcement on increasing the amount of career development loans available to people who want to do postgraduate study. I hope that he will recognise the £148 million that HEFCE has put into employer co-funded schemes and programmes for people in work and attached to an employer who want to engage in further study. I hope he will also recognise the investment fund that HEFCE has announced for economic challenges. That fund, effectively of £50 million, is to ensure that people across the country are getting the skills to take up employment, reskill, retrain and upskill in these difficult times.
The decision to remove funding for ELQ students was a knee-jerk reaction and a mistake. As unemployment rises in the United Kingdom and people are desperate to retrain, the Government are beginning to look stupid on this issue. Can the Minister simply explain why the decision was taken, and will he at least begin to review it? People are desperate to retrain, and they cannot under this system.
Let us not get into an interpretation of “stupid”. We have explained the issue a number of times to the hon. Gentleman. Let me say this to him for probably the fifth or sixth time: in respect of people who do not have a first degree, it must be an imperative for the Government to redistribute funds—£100 million—to benefit them in these difficult times. If he chose to leave and do a second degree, it could not be right for the Government to reward him over someone who had not done a first degree.
We know that now is the time to invest in skills and training to prepare people for the upturn. This would be the very worst time to cut public spending, as some are proposing. Since my Department’s last oral questions, we have boosted the number of apprenticeships, which will rise by a further 35,000 next year, and have allocated almost £250 million extra to provide additional training opportunities to those facing or experiencing redundancy. We are working with major employers and the third sector to encourage internships and volunteering, and we are helping people to retrain by trebling the number of professional and career development loans and supporting the Higher Education Funding Council’s new £50 million programme to help firms and individuals meet the economic challenges that they face. We have learned the lessons of the past. We will neither abandon people nor push them into incapacity benefit. We are taking action now and providing real help for families and businesses in the downturn.
I thank the Secretary of State for his reply; I heard what he said in relation to apprenticeships. However, the principal of my local college, Carshalton college, which is very much in the front line as regards apprenticeships and wants to expand, says that there is a shortage of apprenticeships available. What more can the Secretary of State do to stimulate demand for apprenticeships in the public and private sectors, and what can he do to ensure that apprentices who lose their placements as a result of the company that they are working for going bust are able to complete their final qualifications?
One of the real challenges for the coming year is to ensure that the public sector plays as big a role as possible in providing apprenticeships. If all the public sector, say in local government, provided as many apprenticeships as the best local authorities, we would make a massive increase in the number of apprenticeships.
Secondly, we are working with major apprenticeship suppliers such as Rolls-Royce, which is agreeing to train additional apprentices over and above its needs for its own company to provide people for the local work force. As for redundancies, we have ensured that some of the rules and procedures that have prevented people from returning to college to finish the technical qualification part of their apprenticeship have been changed, and we are working with a clearing house to place as many people as possible who lose their jobs with a new employer to fully complete their apprenticeship.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I would not wish to try your patience, Mr. Speaker, by referring to the policies of the Conservative party; but from wherever a proposal came to cut the apprenticeship programme, for example to stop all apprenticeships for those over 19 this year, it would be a real disaster. We have rescued apprenticeships, and we must not go back to where we were 10 years ago.
The Prime Minister recently promised to bring forward our capital spending programmes, but Members in all parts of the House will have been contacted by further education colleges that are very worried that the opposite is happening, having found that their building programmes are being halted mid-stream. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many projects have been delayed, what is the value of the projects affected, and why his Department has been so slow to act when it was first informed of this problem last autumn? If he will not take the Prime Minister’s requirements for more capital spending seriously, why should the rest of the House?
I am grateful for the opportunity to make the position on capital spending absolutely clear. It is thanks to this Government’s investment that we will spend £2.3 billion over this spending period. There is no freeze in that spending programme. There is no question but that the £110 million brought forward for this year and the £100 million brought forward for next year will be spent. The issue is that the Learning and Skills Council decided in December to defer a number of proposals awaiting approval, and there are others in the pipeline. It did so so that it could assess the likely impact of the downturn on the viability of future proposals. It does not in any way affect the more than 250 projects that are already under way. However, of course there are concerns for colleges that are in the pipeline and looking for approval. That is why the LSC is appointing Sir Andrew Foster, at my request, to undertake an independent review of how the current situation for future projects came about. I hope that by March there will be a clear way forward for colleges currently facing some uncertainty. However, I must stress that there is no question of the money that has been allocated for this spending review not being spent; indeed, the spending profile has been brought forward.
All hon. Members champion their local colleges, but I do not think that anybody has championed theirs as enthusiastically as my hon. Friend. Land is one of the issues that the LSC is looking at, because a number of both current and future schemes depend on land sales. Should that be affected by the downturn, we will need to see where we stand. It is important for the LSC to take a comprehensive approach to the programme rather than single out individual items. I am afraid that my hon. Friend will need to wait until we have worked through the current process with the LSC.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It reinforces the point that I made earlier about why we are anxious to ensure that when possible, the public sector construction projects that are proceeding include a training agreement for the provision of apprenticeships and other workplace-based learning. Our college programme has already created about 500 apprenticeships through that approach.
In case people lose their jobs, we are working with the construction industry training board and have established a clearing house so that whenever possible, we can relocate apprentices in another job or enable them to continue their training in college. We are continuing to develop that process and will extend it to other areas of apprenticeships.
I recognise the wide range of very useful and sometimes excellent research carried out in universities such as Northampton, which I believe the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will be visiting in the near future.
There has been pressure in the past for us to apply an arithmetical approach to distributing research funding, perhaps particularly to the newer universities. Actually, the research assessment exercise that was published recently showed that those universities can win four-star grades for international-quality research purely on the merits of their research, without taking an artificial approach to distributing funding. We have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to recognise that when it comes to distribute research funding in March.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The London apprenticeship taskforce, which met again this week, is discussing that very issue. Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, is co-ordinating that activity across London councils with the LSC, to ensure that we can increase the number of apprenticeships in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s. They will ensure that local authorities and the NHS can do more, along with the many companies in London that, notwithstanding the economic downturn, want to recruit young Londoners to ensure that they benefit from the apprenticeship scheme.
My hon. Friend has been a considerable champion of Swindon’s case for a university. I have visited the town and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is going there.
It is not for Ministers in London to intervene in complex planning issues. However, I stress to my hon. Friend and all hon. Members who support new university developments that getting together an agreed local priority is critical to the process. I know that she will do everything she can with the local authority and others to bring people together and get a consensus about the way forward, because that is essential.
As the hon. Gentleman knows from my meeting with him and my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who supports the same proposal, it is for the Higher Education Funding Council to determine the successful areas. We hope that it takes into account fundamentally the need locally for higher education but also, when possible, the ability to maximise economic development and regeneration and to bring in partners such as local businesses and the regional development agency. We suspect that those places will receive priority.
I listened to what the Secretary of State said about the capital funding programme for colleges. It affects my own college—so much so that demolition work has already started on it and the funding has been withdrawn. Although the Secretary of State says that there is a review of funding, that the funding is in place and that decisions have been deferred, representatives of Barnsley college went to a meeting with the Learning and Skills Council on 9 January, and they were told that the LSC was reviewing its priorities for all capital programmes, and that no assurance could be given that any individual project would be funded or, if funding was agreed, on when it might be released. It looks as though the LSC is saying one thing and the Secretary of State is saying another. Will he look again at the project? Barnsley college has been left in a difficult position.
I need to make it clear that no funding has been withdrawn from any college that has been given final approval to go ahead. [Interruption.] Yes, the final decision. Until a college has been told that it has approval to proceed, it does not have that approval. It is critical to emphasise that there is no question of our not spending all the money that we said we would spend on the FE capital programme. However, colleges in the pipeline that have not yet had approval in detail are affected, and the LSC is addressing that. As I said earlier, I understand the position of colleges that anticipated approval at a specific time and now must wait till March to see what the situation is. That is why I have said to the LSC that I want it to appoint Sir Andrew Foster to undertake an independent review of how the situation has been allowed to develop, but that must not cloud the fact that we will spend the money that we have been given and introduce the capital programme, as promised.
We are deliberately increasing the Train to Gain budget, but the greater part of our resources do not go through that scheme, but go through colleges’ adult responsive budget at level 2, level 3 and pre-level 2. We are introducing greater flexibility in those colleges to meet the needs of newly unemployed people and we have recently announced additional money from our resources and the European social fund to provide that flexibility. I therefore hope that we will make a significant move towards tackling the problem that the hon. Gentleman identified.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 2 February—Opposition Day [3rd allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Building out of Recession”, followed by a debate entitled “Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful: The Case for Urgent Reform of Parliament”. Both debates will arise on a Liberal Democrat motion.
Tuesday 3 February—Opposition Day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Skills and Further Education in a Recession”, followed by a debate entitled “Child Protection”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 4 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Thursday 5 February—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The provisional business for the week commencing 9 February will include:
Monday 9 February—Remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill—day one.
Tuesday 10 February—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Banking Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Banking Bill.
Wednesday 11 February—Opposition Day [5th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed if necessary by consideration of Lords Amendments.
Thursday 12 February—Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Uprating Order 2009 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2009.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. I thank her, too, for her observant personal comments last week, which, she will be interested to know, prompted a letter from a lady in Reading who said that she would put these encounters into her weekly diary as “He-man meets Harman”. I can think of better.
There has been a sudden delay in the Political Parties and Elections Bill. Will the right hon. and learned Lady tell the House why that has happened? Given her close personal links with the aristocracy, is she not doubly ashamed by the apparent conduct of her four Labour colleagues in the Lords? May we also have a debate on cash for influence in this House? Does not the House of Lords pale into insignificance, given that, because more than 90 per cent. of the Labour party’s battleground funding comes from the trade unions, the party remains a wholly owned subsidiary of an interest group with its own policy agenda?
In looking further at the reputation of Parliament, does the Leader of the House not agree that the permanent encampment in Parliament square has become a national embarrassment? It is a total abuse of the legitimate right to protest. Will she make a statement telling us what plans she has to bang heads together in the various Committees of the House to rid ourselves of this grotty eyesore and restore some dignity to the appearance of this iconic seat of democracy?
May I salute those Members who attended the Westminster Hall debate on Equitable Life this week? Members of the Opposition parties outnumbered Labour Members by about five to one, which measures the contempt in which the Labour party appears to hold the thousands of responsible, cautious people who saved with Equitable Life—
We hear shouts of “Rubbish” from the other side.
Is it not a disgraceful breach of trust that those people have waited so long and received so little? What hope is there for justice and redress through Parliament if the ombudsman’s report is so callously ignored? Does the right hon. and learned Lady have enough sense of justice to make her speak up in Cabinet and to allow a full debate on this matter? Will she commit to doing so now?
The Government’s announcement on mixed-sex wards yesterday was long overdue but totally inadequate. After all, with which member of the Cabinet would the right hon. and learned Lady be willing to share a mixed-sex ward? As a champion of equality, will she now give us a debate on the need to end these wards, so that we can give the House an opportunity to adopt our proposals for getting rid of them and for doubling the number of single rooms in the NHS?
The latest forecast from the International Monetary Fund suggests that, contrary to the Government’s mantra that the United Kingdom is well prepared to deal with the downturn, the UK is actually facing the worst recession in the world. Can we therefore at last have a debate in Government time to allow the House to express its lack of confidence in the Government’s handling of the economy, or is the Leader of the House worried that this is yet another issue that would leave the Prime Minister, as reported yesterday, “tearful and dewy-eyed”?
It would appear that the Prime Minister has lost confidence in his own Cabinet and, it would seem, even in himself. He has complained that his Cabinet members are ducking interviews and leaving him to look like the Minister for the recession, yet today, curiously, we have learned that Labour MPs have been instructed by the Whips not to talk about the economy at all. So who is going to win the parliamentary BAFTAs—the “Glumdog in Despair” in Downing street or the Basil Fawltys on the Back Benches shouting, “Don’t mention the recession”? Put simply, when is this country going to get honesty from the Prime Minister about the severity of our plight?
The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the investigation into the conduct of a number of Members of the House of Lords and I understand that the Leader of the House of Lords is making a further statement there this morning. As hon. Members will have heard yesterday, the Prime Minister is concerned, as I know we all are, to ensure the highest standards in the House of Lords. Its members should have the privilege of serving there in the public interest, not in their own financial interests. We all need to be satisfied, as the public want to be satisfied, that there are clear and proper rules, that they are properly enforced and that there are adequate sanctions. Baroness Royall, the Leader of the House of Lords, is taking that forward.
The hon. Gentleman raised the question of Equitable Life. We have been in no doubt about the seriousness of the concern about the effects of these events on people resulting from the mismanagement by Equitable Life management and the failures of regulation, which actually began before this Government took office. We have to recognise, however, that where there have been failures of regulation, there must be an apology and there must be compensation. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave an oral statement to the House, setting out how she was planning to take this forward and to ensure that the compensation process could get under way. Today, the financial services ombudsperson—[Hon. Members: “You can’t say that!”] Oh, yes I can; sorry, Mr. Speaker, it just slipped out. The ombudsman is giving evidence to the Select Committee today. It is important that we seriously address these matters.
The shadow Leader of the House also raised the question of mixed-sex wards. A great deal of progress has been made on ensuring that those taken into hospital do not have to go into mixed-sex wards and can go into single-sex wards. Much progress has been made particularly in respect of those having treatment on planned admissions, but problems have remained with intensive care and accident and emergency. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made available £100 million to support further work and is keeping a close eye on the situation. He is determined to make further progress.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the economy. I take the opportunity to reassure him that I keep a very careful eye on ensuring that the House has sufficient opportunities to debate the priority No. 1 concern for every person and every household in this country. They would expect Parliament to scrutinise Government action and debate what is happening with the economy. We will have opportunities to debate it on the Banking Bill; earlier this week we heard an oral statement on the car industry; and the week before that we heard an oral statement on the banking industry. I undertake that, as far as we possibly can, we will make sure that there is an opportunity for the House to hear statements and to scrutinise and debate important economic issues every week. Next week, there will be a debate in Opposition time on education and skills, which is important and relates to the recession, and there will be a further Opposition day debate the following week. We can all play our part in ensuring that the House has an opportunity to debate these important issues.
Before I deal with the hon. Gentleman’s second point, let me say that I think that he and all hon. Members should focus on how we can help constituents, who may face the dreadful prospect of their homes being repossessed, to obtain the assistance that is being provided, and how, when businesses in our constituencies are struggling, we—as their Members of Parliament—can secure the information that will help them, too, to obtain the extra assistance that is available. Information on the Government’s website provides help for people and for businesses. I urge all hon. Members to download it, to take it to their advice surgeries, and to send it to their local chambers of commerce and citizens advice bureaux. Although there have been a number of focused initiatives, we must ensure that we serve as agents to obtain help for people who need it.
I have always believed that if people are in trouble and if people are struggling, it is the job of Government to step up and help them. That is why we have taken the action that we have taken. We expect people to respond and, if they think there are other things that we can do, to make suggestions, as did representatives of Southwark chamber of commerce when I met them last Friday. We expect people to contribute, to present proposals and suggestions, and to say if they think that we are not doing things right.
As for the hon. Gentleman, I know that just as in my heart of hearts I believe that the Government should help people if they are struggling, in his heart of hearts he does not believe that. He believes that there is no role for Government in this respect. His fundamental critique is that the Government are taking action when he thinks that they should not take action. In his book “Saturn’s Children” , he said that there should be cuts in housing subsidies, cuts in employment and training, and cuts in police services. He also said that the state should withdraw from education altogether.
The reality is that whereas we believe that the Government have responsibilities to people when they are struggling, the hon. Gentleman’s ideology is to do nothing—and, after all, he is a pivot of the Conservative party.
My right hon. and learned Friend may well be aware that the train operating company First Capital Connect, which made more than £48 million in profits in the first half of last year, has said that it will cut ticket office opening hours by 800 hours. That will affect 28 constituencies across the south-east. It will reduce customer services, passengers will feel less safe, and it will cost jobs. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to make representations to the Secretary of State for Transport and his Ministers and to give us time for a debate on the Floor of the House, because the proposal affects so many Members of Parliament and their constituents. It represents very poor value for money from First Capital Connect, and is, in my view, completely unacceptable.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this matter. Even if First Capital Connect is a private company, it is operating within a public service framework, and transport is an important public service. This is a matter for the regulators as well as for Ministers, but I shall ensure that it is brought to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport.
Another week is to pass without a debate on the economy in Government time. It is no good the Leader of the House asking the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to use their Opposition days for a debate that ought to be held in Government time.
We have called a debate on public spending because there seems to be a complete separation between the Prime Minister’s mindset and reality. He keeps telling us that he is providing public money to fight the recession, but, as we heard earlier in Question Time, the reality is that all around the country colleges are being told that their anticipated capital spend simply will not happen. Will the Leader of the House encourage the Prime Minister actually to attend next Monday’s debate in order actually to hear what is really happening? He seems to believe that he is the Mikado, and that because he has ordered something to be done, it has been done. It has not.
While we are talking about the economy, can we deal with some of those who can least afford the difficulties at the moment: people who live in council homes? They are being saddled with enormous rent increases in many boroughs and council areas this year, simply because the Treasury has withdrawn £200 million from the council rent account, which means that rents are going up by anything up to £2,000 a year. Is that fair to some of the poorest people in this country?
Can we have a debate, or at least a statement, on the worsening situation in Sri Lanka?
Next week, finally—if it is not delayed again—we will have the Political Parties and Elections Bill. Has there been any progress in establishing the one-stop shop for the registration of Members’ interests to avoid the confusion that there is at the moment? The House asked for that to be done. What is happening about it?
Lastly, last Tuesday we had a statement from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It was eagerly anticipated because the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was speaking from the Conservative Front Bench. He spoke; he roared; he did not ask any questions. But had he asked any questions, there would not have been a Secretary of State on the Treasury Bench to respond. We had a report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, dated 25 November, that made a recommendation in that respect. The Government have not responded within the two-month period. Why not? When will they do so? When will the issue be moved to the Procedure Committee for a new Standing Order to deal with what is clearly a constitutional anomaly and what some would say is a constitutional enormity?
The hon. Gentleman started by saying that I had simply asked for the Opposition to bring forward debates on the economy. That is to misconstrue what I said. I want to make sure that, every week, there are debates and opportunities to scrutinise the Government’s work. There is a rapid pace of change in the economy and, as it has been ever since Dick Whittington’s day, the City of London is an important financial services centre. Therefore, a global financial services crisis inevitably affects the City. We are an outward-facing, trading nation and a global recession affects our economy in particular. We want to make sure that the House is able to focus on the rapid change that is happening internationally and how it is affecting our economy and can call the Government to account for the actions we are taking.
The mindset of the Government and of the Prime Minister is to make absolutely sure that we are looking at what is happening and ahead to what will happen and taking the necessary action. The hon. Gentleman will understand that these measures take time to work through. We can work out the detail and announce them, but it takes time for them to work through and for their effect to be seen on the economy. That is why we can all help in our constituencies by making sure that businesses and families get the help they need.
The hon. Gentleman talked about council rents. There will be an opportunity to debate that next Wednesday 4 February during debates on the local government finance reports. Last week, he asked for those to be separate debates and to be voted on separately. I can tell him that that will be the case.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Sri Lanka, an issue of real and growing concern. I have spoken to Foreign Office Ministers, as I know the House will want an opportunity as soon as possible either to have an oral statement or a debate. The issue has been raised at Prime Minister’s Question Time, but hon. Members want to take it further and I will certainly look for an opportunity so to do, possibly in a topical debate.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the registration of Members’ interests and the question of dual reporting. The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons has done a great of work on this. He tells me that the Select Committee is due to report on Monday and that there will be an opportunity to sort out dual reporting and have a single system of reporting, which will be brought on a motion on business on Monday 9 February.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that, not long after the deputy leadership election, when she assumed her role, I asked her, and the Prime Minister at a later date, for a statement about getting rid of Members of Parliament’s outside interests where they serve more than one master—directorships, consultancies and the rest? She said that she was looking at the matter and had prepared some material on the subject. Is she aware that since that time, members of the shadow Cabinet—not content with £4 million of Short money—have also been making money on the side? More than half the shadow Cabinet have directorships and consultancies and it is time that we put a stop to it. Members of Parliament cannot serve more than one master. Can we start this clean-up now?
My hon. Friend raises a very serious point. If Members are acting as barristers and in court in addition to their work in the House, their constituents sometimes ask, “How do you have time to do it all?” But there is a different point when income is being received by Members that is not related to their duties on behalf of their constituents. The difficulty is that the public say, “If you are receiving money, what are you selling? What is happening? Why are you taking money? What is the person buying your services getting for those services?” We must make sure that there is public confidence in this House, that the public know that we are in here to do our job for our constituents and that we do that in the public interest, and not to line our own pockets. My hon. Friend has raised an important issue and we will have to return to it.
Will the Leader of the House-person—[Laughter]—grant a debate in Government time to allow Ministers to ponder, during this Government-created debt bust and pause in house building, and to give further consideration to their frequent assertions that large housing developments will not take place unless there is a suitable social infrastructure in place to support them, quite outside the normal section 106 agreements? Will the Leader of the House ask her colleagues to look further at this because it results in necessary housing going ahead without the proper infrastructure to support it, to the great disadvantage of all our constituents?
There will be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to raise the issue in next Wednesday’s debate on local government finance. I am sure that he will be able to make further points there. We must make sure that wherever there are housing developments, there is suitable infrastructure—whether roads, schools or health services—and that the planning system takes that into account. We are very much in favour of more housing being built as there is a need in this country, but it must be accompanied by the proper infrastructure. We certainly want to support the construction industry by bringing forward capital projects. Quite the opposite effect would occur if, at a time when the housing market is struggling, public sector capital infrastructure projects were delayed, so we will attempt to bring those forward.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a “Government-created” recession. He will know that there is a slowing of growth in China. Was that caused by this Government? He knows that there is a recession in America, France, Germany, Canada and Spain. If he simply talks about a Government-created recession, he will reinforce in everyone’s mind one of two things: either that the Opposition do not really know what is going on, or that they do know what is going on, but are more determined to make party-political points than to contribute to working together to help the country through this very difficult time.
Has my right hon. and learned Friend had a chance to see the report issued at 11 o’clock today on the conduct of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway)? Does she agree that his conduct since almost the beginning of this century has brought this House into disrepute, and will we have an opportunity to debate his conduct next week?
The report has been published this morning by the Standards and Privileges Committee, and it is entitled: “Mr. Derek Conway MP: Third Report of Session 2008-09”. I have not had a chance to study it in detail, but the Committee had already found that this Member had wrongly taken £13,000 out of public funds, and this report concludes that a further sum of £4,000 appears also to have been taken. The House must have a chance to consider this: we should all have time to read the report, and then the House will probably swiftly need an opportunity to debate it. The question the public will ask themselves is: quite how much money can somebody wrongly take out of the public purse while still continuing to hold their job as a Member of Parliament?
The Leader of the House has spoken of the responsibility of MPs to ensure that their constituents are made aware of the Government’s announcements on the actions they are taking to combat the economic downturn. My constituents continue to be bewildered by the announcements that are made, and by the lack of relation they bear to their experiences on the ground. In particular, businesses are telling me that they are still struggling to get the banks to lend to them, and councils that are participating in the mortgage rescue pilot, such as Brent, are telling me that they still do not have details of the scheme they are supposed to be piloting. May we have a debate in Government time about not only the measures the Government are taking, but about the impact those measures are having on the ground, because I think there is a very big gap?
I will look for an opportunity to do that. As I have said, it takes time for people to understand the help that is available to them. On behalf of the hon. Lady’s constituents—businesses big and small, and families who might seek her help—I ask her to go on to the Government website and print off “Real help now: for people and businesses”, which explains where to find help with homes, jobs and finances. That will be kept up to date. I acknowledge that there have been a number of initiatives; that is because we have needed to take focused measures, rather than just spread public money at large. That has meant that there is a level of complexity in the measures, but it is important that they are made clear and simple—and I commend the civil servants who have worked on the document to which I referred. I agree that we need to look for an opportunity for a debate but, in the meantime, the hon. Lady, like all hon. Members, can help her constituents.
To follow on from some earlier questions, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that in 2007 first-time home buyers generated in excess of £2 billion in high street and service-sector sales, but that the sum now being generated is a fraction of that? Being mindful that the business announced for next week focuses on building and public spending, will she agree to have a debate in Government time specifically on the perilous state of the house building market?
Can the Leader of the House tell us when she expects to convene the next meeting of the Modernisation Committee? [Hon. Members: “Never.”] If, as I suspect, that is not imminent, may we have a debate about the desirability of merging the Modernisation Committee with the Procedure Committee? That would enable one Select Committee of the House to look at modernisation and procedure in a co-ordinated way. If we cannot have a debate, can we have some action on this?
A lot of the work to modernise the House of Commons has come not only from the Modernisation Committee, but from the Procedure Committee that the right hon. Gentleman so ably chairs. I say to any right hon. and hon. Members who might be worried that the process of reform and improvement of the House of Commons has ground to halt that it absolutely has not, because the right hon. Gentleman is taking that forward through his Committee. The Modernisation Committee membership needs to be changed following the elevation of my former Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to his current position as my excellent deputy, but I assure Members that the work of modernisation is proceeding.
May I first declare my interest by stating that I suffer from type 2 diabetes? The Leader of the House will know that on Tuesday the Government’s health profile for England was published, which showed commendable progress in a number of areas, but an alarming rise in diabetes. The rate among adult males is now 5.6 per cent. and for adult females it stands at 4.2 per cent. She also knows that we spend £1 million an hour on treating diabetes-related illnesses and that it is the fifth biggest cause of deaths globally. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we deal with this alarming rise by providing members of the public with the opportunity of being tested? Will she arrange for a statement to be made on this matter as soon as possible?
I suggest to my right hon. Friend that he raise this matter in oral questions to Health Ministers on 10 February. Perhaps I can also take this opportunity to congratulate him on the work he does, not only in raising the issue of diabetes in the House, but in his charitable work to make sure there is public awareness of it. This is a public health issue; better public health can lead to postponing, or preventing, the onset of diabetes. It is important that people get screening for early diagnosis and effective treatment. It is my understanding that my right hon. Friend discovered that he had diabetes when he was helping to promote screening in his own constituency and offered to take a blood test. I congratulate him on his work, and I say to him that the Government will back it up.
May we have a debate on the unelected and unaccountable role of regional government in this country? Bradford council has been told that, on top of the 50,000 homes it is expected to have built in the next few years, which is already against its wishes and the wishes of local residents, it might be hit with a further increase in the number of houses it is expected to have built. My constituents are sick to the back teeth of every scrap of green space being built on, which has been imposed on them by regional government, which is both unelected and unaccountable. May we have a debate about this, as it is of great concern to many constituents?
I am sure that in the hon. Gentleman’s region there is a recognition that there need to be more homes and that there is a need for housing development, but that it must be in the right place and in the right areas with proper infrastructure. It is precisely for the reasons he mentioned that we are setting up regional committees so there can be regional scrutiny of the regional development agencies and the work of the Homes and Communities Agency at a regional level. I hope that soon—once the Committee of Selection has done its work—we will be able to proceed with those regional committees.
Wind farms are becoming increasingly central to the delivery of renewable energy. However, there is no factual knowledge that we can count on that defines the efficiency of the source of energy and there are no guidelines about the location of these wind farms. At present, Stockton and Sedgefield are facing planning requests for more than 90 turbines. This is, of course, a problem that the local authority is attempting to handle. If it turns down these requests, it will then have to face costly appeals. That is not fair and it should not be the responsibility of local authorities to handle this. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make representations on behalf of the many of us who live in areas that are facing planning blight from turbines, which are springing up everywhere in our rural areas?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and that is why we introduced the Planning Act 2008, which will involve bringing forward a national policy statement on energy. That will include the framework within which renewable energy projects can take place, under which once proposals are made they can be swiftly consulted on and either taken forward or dropped.
May I ask the Leader of the House to provide an opportunity to debate freedom of speech and political demonstration? She did not answer the point on Parliament square raised by the shadow Leader of the House. Although it is important that people should be free to demonstrate outside Parliament peacefully and to lobby Parliament, it is quite wrong that a squalid encampment should permanently disfigure the centre of our great capital city. Can we please deal with this expeditiously?
This is a matter of concern. Obviously, as the hon. Gentleman says, it is a question of the balance between freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate. This matter involves the City of Westminster police, the Mayor of London and the House authorities, and it is being considered under the general heading of constitutional renewal by the Secretary of State for Justice. I shall draw his attention to the comments made by the hon. Gentleman and the shadow Leader of the House.
During this worldwide economic downturn, none are suffering more than people who have savings. Can we have a debate to see how we can protect, and ensure there is a guaranteed minimum income for, pensioners and people who save? That would be a way forward and it would give them hope.
There is a great deal of concern about this, not least among savers. Many savers are retired, and that is why we have sought to ensure that additional financial support is provided to savers. There will be an opportunity to return to these issues during the remaining stages of the Banking Bill.
May I, too, push the Government for a debate on the economy in these times of recession and credit crunch? It should focus particularly on those who are stopping money reaching the real economy, such as irresponsible bankers, and on the crass and arrogant actions of Labour in Scotland, who, helped by the feeble Lib Dems, yesterday blocked £1.8 billion of new money. This would have been new money for councils, for health, for the vulnerable and for the disabled, and it would have provided support for 5,000 construction jobs. Reckless Labour is now—
Order. The hon. Gentleman should not get up and read out a speech. He should ask a question about the business for next week—it should be about the business of this House, not the devolved Parliament of Scotland. Perhaps the Leader of the House should try to answer, and then we can move on.
I know that many Members of the Scottish Parliament were concerned about the lack of investment in apprenticeships and training, and that many Labour MSPs voted against the budget on that basis. However, this is, as you say, Mr. Speaker, not a matter for this House.
Members of all parties met the director-general of the BBC earlier this week and expressed considerable anger over its stance on the refusal to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal on Gaza. That anger is shared by my constituents, many of whom are BBC employees, yet senior management seem determined to ride it out. So can we have a debate on the Floor of the House on this issue, which is wrecking the BBC’s reputation at home and abroad?
No one can be in any doubt about the intensely high level of concern in this House about the humanitarian plight of people in Gaza—that came out in the debate that we had in the past fortnight. Everyone wants to see not only an increase in the levels of Government humanitarian aid, which the Secretary of State for International Development has raised, but a recognition that the voluntary contribution is essential for humanitarian exercises, in addition to Government international pressure on the Israelis to make sure that that humanitarian aid gets through. Obviously, there has been nationwide dismay about this situation but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we need to step back—we should not step over the line—from telling the BBC, which is independent, how it should make its editorial decisions. I see from the papers that it is reviewing the complaints that it has received about this issue, a Westminster Hall debate has taken place on which. A statement will be made just after business questions by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, so provided “digital” is in the question, there might be an opportunity to ask him for an answer too.
I listened to the earlier exchanges about the decision of the ill-fated Learning and Skills Council to suspend its capital funding programme. May I add my voice to concerns about this matter, not least on behalf of Sharnbrook upper school and community college, which found that many months of negotiations with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, its local authority and the LSC had been undermined by that decision and that there was a consequent negative impact on its pupils? Was the Leader of the House disappointed that information on the matter came not from a statement from a Minister but through contact with Members of Parliament? Is she very disappointed that, again, this matter is not being debated by the Government in their time, but has to be brought up by the Opposition in order to pin the Government down about such an important capital freeze?
I do not think we need any lessons from the official Opposition on capital spending. We have said that we are determined to bring forward capital spending on our infrastructure across the board, so that, as well as providing real help for people now, we provide real hope for the future. The hon. Gentleman’s party has suggested cutting capital spending, so I suggest he address his questions to his own Front-Bench team, rather than to me.
May I add my appeal to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), because there is widespread concern, including among my constituents, about the BBC’s decision not to show the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal on Gaza? People up and down the country are licence fee payers and, although I appreciate that the Government cannot tell the BBC what it should be doing, Back-Bench Members across this House want to express their views and would welcome an opportunity to do so on the Floor of the House.
I take the point that hon. Members are saying that even if the Government cannot take a position, they feel free, on behalf of their constituents, to do so and therefore I should look to provide an opportunity to discuss the issue, possibly through a topical debate.
Is the Leader of the House aware that there is a Procedure Committee report, which was accepted by the Government, that would enable them to take action immediately on the eyesore and noise nuisance that desecrates Parliament square?
Will the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on Zimbabwe? I press this point week after week; my commitment to that country is 100 per cent. Horrors as great, if not greater, than those occurring in Gaza are taking place there daily—starvation and cholera are killing thousands of people. May we have a debate in this Chamber to reflect our horror and to urge action?
The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter previously. Since it was raised by him and other hon. Members, I have spoken to my colleagues in the Foreign Office and I will seek an opportunity to debate Africa, in particular the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur and Zimbabwe; I know that these are really important issues and I will look for an early opportunity.
May I, too, echo the concerns about the BBC’s decision on Gaza?
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Legal Services Commission is planning to move the processing of legal aid from its office in Wales, at a time when Welsh law is diverging from English law because of the developments resulting from the Government of Wales Acts, with the loss of 40 jobs? Can she suggest any parliamentary opportunities for me to raise this very important issue further?
I suggest that my hon. Friend, who is a champion for jobs in her constituency, should look for an opportunity to raise this matter in Justice questions next Tuesday. I understand that she could also seek a meeting with Lord Bach, who is the Minister responsible for legal services. I think everybody appreciates that these are important jobs for her constituency.
The latest figures show that in the year to come council tenants in the London borough of Sutton will be paying £10.5 million of their rent to the Treasury, which, in effect, means that council tenants in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park will be paying their April to August rents to the Treasury. May we have a debate in Government time with the title “Treasury profiteering from hard-pressed tenants”?
The Leader of the House will recall that she and I debated the need to change the law on cohabiting couples in Westminster Hall about two or three years ago. On 13 March, in the other place, Lord Lester will introduce a private Member’s Bill to reform the law for cohabiting couples. Following a two-year study by the Law Commission that reported in 2007 and the fact that the law has been changed in Scotland, do we not now need an urgent debate on the Floor of this House to see how we can change the law to protect the 2 million couples who are living together, and the 1.25 million children who are living with these parents and who are completely unprotected in the event of a breakdown of a relationship?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have just seen research that shows that after marriage breakdown the woman is likely to be around 25 per cent. worse off, and she usually looks after the children, so that has a bad impact on them. Men are likely to be some 25 per cent. better off, and that is why I strongly commend the proposals in the Welfare Reform Bill to ensure that fathers do not stop paying for their children when a relationship breaks down. My hon. Friend has been a champion, reminding everybody that although it is often unfair on children and women after marriage break-up, it is often even more unfair when cohabiting couples break up. This issue is under consideration by the Secretary of State for Justice and I suggest that she reminds him to make progress on that in Justice questions on Tuesday.
In better economic times, the Government set considerable store by praying in aid support by the International Monetary Fund for their economic policies. Yesterday, the same body issued a damning report on the state of the British economy. May I ask the Leader of the House for a statement by a Treasury Minister about the IMF’s findings, as many companies rely on such forecasts to enable them to organise their business affairs? As she said earlier, the provision of timely and accurate information to business is essential in these difficult times.
Will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland make a statement next week on the proposal to compensate the families of terrorists? That is causing great distress in Northern Ireland and affecting the peace process. The sooner that the Secretary of State comes to the Dispatch Box and knocks that crazy idea on the head, the better for all concerned.
We all hope and expect Northern Ireland to have a successful future, and we also have to honour the memories of those who have suffered, including the 4,000 who lost their lives during the 40 years of the troubles. We have to learn the lesson that Northern Ireland cannot prosper in the future if it continues to live in the grip of that painful past. I thank Lord Eames and Mr. Bradley for their report. In 200 pages, they made 30 proposals, one of which is especially controversial and the Prime Minister spoke about it to the House yesterday. We have to find a way towards reconciliation without endless repeats of massive inquiries such as the Saville inquiry, useful though that may turn out to be when it finally concludes its work.
Will the Leader of the House prevail on the Home Secretary for a debate on the management of the UK Border Agency? I wrote to the Home Office recently about my constituent Mr. Gary Allen, and the reply said that the agency could confirm that his application for indefinite leave to remain was still awaiting consideration. It went on to say that it was not able to give a precise date for that consideration. Mr. Allen began his application in 2002, so he has been waiting for six years. Does that indicate that something may be going wrong in that agency?
I think I have more immigration cases than any other Member, and I know that some cases—if they are complicated or involve different items of information that have to be obtained from other countries—can take a very long time to be sorted out. However, the agency is much quicker than it was and I commend its work. I suggest that, instead of raising the issue in business questions, the right hon. Gentleman seek a meeting with the Minister responsible to try to get Mr. Allen’s case sorted out.
On the matter of the demonstrations in Parliament square, I make the plea that we treat the individual demonstrators with respect and that we respect their views, which are sincerely held.
Will the Leader of the House have a word with her Cabinet colleagues about how they answer written questions? I have been attempting to obtain data about the performance of the ambulance service in the two districts in my constituency. That information used to be given in parliamentary answers, but since the regionalisation of the ambulance service it has been denied to us. The Colchester Gazette has been told that it can obtain the information through a request under the freedom of information legislation. Given that the Secretary of State for Health is constitutionally responsible for the conduct of the health service, should he not provide the information in parliamentary answers that a local newspaper could obtain on request?
The hon. Gentleman is right. We cannot have a situation in which freedom of information requests are answered but Members elected to hold Ministers to account do not get answers to their questions. That is the wrong way round. I know that every Minister wants questions to be dealt with properly, and if things are going wrong they need to be brought sharply to their attention. The Deputy Leader of the House is the clearing house for such concerns and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman meet him to talk about it.
May we please have a debate in Government time and on the Floor of the House about violence against women? The Equality and Human Rights Commission and the End Violence against Women Coalition will tomorrow publish a seminal report highlighting the fact that 3 million women suffer this terrible scourge every year in England and Wales, at an estimated cost to the country of £40,000 million, so is it not high time that this House debated its approach to some of the most vulnerable people in our society to whom we owe a particular duty of care?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. The British crime survey showed a fall in the number of women reporting that they had suffered domestic violence, and that is a welcome trend, but it remains a massive problem. He mentions the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission—I have had a chance to see it already. It shows that although statutory agencies are making progress with the support they provide—such as health authorities providing sexual assault referral centres—the map of gaps last year showed that one in three local authorities were providing no support services to women under threat of domestic violence. That has now fallen to one in four, so progress has been made, but it is still too few. Local authorities need to recognise that they must play their part in the battle against domestic violence. We should not wring our hands and say that nothing can be done, because action can be taken. There will be a debate on international women’s day, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise the issue then.
I add my voice to those on both sides of the House who are calling for a debate on Sri Lanka. While events there have been overshadowed in recent weeks by events in Gaza, the death toll continues to rise every day with many thousands of civilians caught between the warring factions. I urge the Leader of the House to do all she can to encourage the Government to bring that war to an end.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments and I will bring them to the attention of the Foreign Secretary. He is already acting on this issue, but he will be grateful for the support and encouragement of hon. Members. I will also look for a chance to debate the situation.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the publication today of the interim “Digital Britain” report. Last October, together with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, I announced that Lord Carter of Barnes would undertake a comprehensive review of Britain’s digital, communication and creative sectors and make recommendations to place the country in a position to prosper in the digital age.
Today, the Government are publishing Lord Carter’s interim findings. His report starts from the recognition that those sectors are not only important in their own right—they are worth more than £52 billion a year, with 2 million to 3 million people directly employed by them—but fundamental to the way all businesses operate and how we all live our lives.
Capable communications systems can help British businesses to become more efficient and productive, offering the potential to reduce travel. High-quality information and entertainment enhance our democracy and our quality of life and define our culture. In short, building a digital Britain is about securing a competitive, low-carbon, productive and creative economy in the next five to 10 years.
It is worth reminding the House of Britain’s traditional strength in these industries. The worldwide web was invented by British ingenuity. It was here that GSM was created and established as the global standard for first generation digital mobile communications. However, that strength is not just in distribution and systems. Our television, music, film, games, advertising and software industries are world-leading. The OECD estimates that the United Kingdom cultural and creative sector, at just under 6 per cent. of gross domestic product, is relatively more important than its equivalent in the United States, Canada, France and Australia. UNESCO considers the UK to be the world’s biggest exporter of cultural goods, surpassing even the US.
We cannot be complacent. The online age is rewriting the rules, changing the way that consumers access content and the old business models that have underpinned Britain’s creative industries. The challenge now is how to build the networks and infrastructure that help businesses and consumers to get the most from the digital age and how to fund the quality content that has always been our hallmark.
The Government’s thinking has been shaped by a series of important reviews, including the Caio review on next generation broadband access; the work of the digital radio working group; the Byron review on children and new technology, which led to the establishment of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety; the Convergence Think Tank; the digital inclusion action plan; and the Creative Britain strategy.
“Digital Britain” brings those strands of work together into a clear and comprehensive framework with five public policy ambitions at its heart: first, to upgrade and modernise our digital networks—wired, wireless and broadcast; secondly, to secure a dynamic investment climate for British digital content, applications and services; thirdly, to secure a wide range of high-quality, UK-made public service content for UK citizens and consumers, underpinning a healthy democracy; fourthly, to ensure fair access for all and the ability for everyone to take part in the communications revolution; and fifthly, to develop the infrastructure, skills and take-up to enable widespread online delivery of public services.
The interim report makes 22 recommendations to achieve those objectives and I will set out some of them for the House today. Britain must always be ready to benefit from the latest advances in technology, so we will establish a strategy group to assess measures to underpin existing market-led investment plans for next generation access networks. An umbrella body will also be set up to provide technical advice and support to local and community networks. To facilitate the move to next generation mobile services, we are specifying a wireless radio spectrum modernisation programme. In addition, the Government are committing to enabling digital audio broadcasting to be a primary distribution network for radio in the UK and will create a digital migration plan for radio. We will also consider how the digital TV switchover help scheme can contribute towards wider inclusion in digital services.
We will only maintain our creative strength if we find new ways of paying for and sustaining creative content in the online age. We will therefore explore the potential for a new rights agency to be established and, following a consultation on how to tackle unlawful file sharing, we propose to legislate to require internet service providers to notify alleged significant infringers that their conduct is unlawful.
Our third objective—high-quality, UK-made public service content—will be achieved by sustaining public service broadcasting provision from the BBC and beyond. The report identifies news—at local, regional and national level—and children’s programming as among the key priorities. The BBC as an enabling force is central to that objective. Strong and secure in its own future, it will work in partnership with others to deliver those objectives. We will also explore how we can establish a sustainable public service organisation that offers scale and reach alongside the BBC, building on the strength of Channel 4. We will consider options to ensure plurality of provision of news in the regions and the nations, and we are asking the Office of Fair Trading, together with Ofcom, to look at the local and regional media sector in the context of the media merger regime. We will consider the evolving relationship between independent producers and commissioners to ensure we have the appropriate rights holding arrangements for a multi-platform future.
Our fourth objective of fairness and access is, of course, crucial to delivering the Government’s policy of an inclusive society where new opportunities are available to all and nobody is left behind, so we are developing plans to move towards an historic universal service commitment for broadband and digital services to include options up to 2 megabits per second, building on the approach to postal services and telephones in centuries past. We will also ensure that public services online are designed for ease of use by the widest range of citizens.
Lastly, to help people navigate this vast and changing world, the report makes recommendations to improve media literacy and, in particular, to give parents the information and tools necessary to protect children from harmful or inappropriate content.
The Government have today set out an ambitious vision to ensure that Britain reaps the full economic and social benefits of the digital age. An intensive period of discussions with industry partners and others must now begin to turn the emerging conclusions into firm solutions. A final report will be presented to Parliament by the summer and I wish to thank Lord Carter for his work to date. In publishing the interim report today and making this statement to the House, we seek to invite members from both sides of the House to engage in the debate on the fundamental questions that will shape our country’s economy and society in this century. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for 15 minutes’ notice of his statement and a much more generous notice of the report, which we received in good time this morning. However, we were disappointed that yet again the contents were broadcast on the “Today” programme this morning, that they are in The Daily Telegraph and The Times, and that there was even a briefing at No. 10 at 8 o’clock this morning to which the industry, including broadcasters, was invited. I respectfully suggest to the Secretary of State that if he is serious about cross-party collaboration on these issues, he should respect the role of Parliament in this matter as in every other.
We welcome the interest that the Government have shown in our digital economy. All parties in the House are united in the desire to maximise the competitive strengths of our creative economy and the Government have obviously committed considerable resources to putting together the report. However, most people will be disappointed with it. The digital economy is vital for Britain because of our natural strengths in creating digital content, but, when it comes to the delivery of that content, we are lagging badly. We come 21st out of 30 for broadband speed, while 40 per cent. of our households do not have broadband at all and connections fell last year. On next generation broadband, the report itself concedes that we are lagging behind France, Germany, the US and Japan.
The statement and the report were a chance to put things right, but instead the Government—who have been the best customer for the management consultancy industry in the history of Britain—have promised no new action but a total of eight new reports. This week, a woman in California gave birth to eight babies. Perhaps in homage to her, the Government have announced eight new reports. Although the world was surprised and delighted with the arrival of the octuplets, we have all become wearily familiar with the Government’s continual substitution of reports for action.
The report does mention action. The most critical question of all, namely how to stimulate investment in next generation broadband access, is dealt with under action 1. What is action 1? It is to
“establish a Government-led strategy group”.
So the most important action is not an action at all but the establishment of a strategy group. A Conservative Government will make it a major objective to ensure that more than half the population has access to next generation networks within five years. Do the Government accept that as an objective? Will they deliver it?
The report says that the Government will
“work with…operators…to remove barriers to the development of a…wholesale market in access to ducts”.
If BT, which owns the ducts, does not co-operate, will the Government force BT to open them to other suppliers, as the Conservatives have pledged?
Can the Secretary of State tell us who is in overall charge—Lord Carter, the Business Secretary or the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport? Without clear leadership, the chance of delivering on such huge commitments is minuscule. So may we have a categoric assurance that there is no turf war going on between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and Ofcom that prevents the Government from showing the leadership that is so desperately needed?
On universal service obligation for broadband, we welcome the long-delayed commitment to ensure that everyone has access. But who will pay for that? Expressing a sentiment is fine, but without a road map for delivery it is surely a totally empty promise. The Government say that the universal commitment should be for 2 megabits per second access. Given that the national average access speed is 3.6, is not the scale of the Government’s ambitions pitifully low, in simply saying that they want to ensure that the whole population has access to half the current average speed by 2012? Is there not a real risk that these changes will be superseded by technological changes before they are implemented?
On digital radio, the report says:
“We are making a clear statement”
that DAB should be
“a primary distribution network”.
So how will that be funded? How will the Government ensure that DAB becomes available in people’s cars? How will they ensure that the signal is strengthened in rural areas? Without those details, this report amounts to no more than an empty gesture.
On copyright protection—an incredibly important issue—instead of a solution there is a proposal to set up a new quango, with a new tax on internet users. Why do we need another agency when Ofcom is already equipped and able to do that job? And why should legitimate internet users have to pay for the copyright infringement of transgressors?
The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), recently enraged the music industry by comparing illegal downloading to stealing bars of soap from hotels. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that for the Government theft is theft, whether online or offline?
On peer-to-peer file sharing, the report talks about consulting on legislation. So can the Secretary of State tell the House how internet service providers are supposed to identify illegally shared files, given what happened in France, where many users simply reacted by encrypting their files when the French Government introduced similar measures?
On the review of the terms of trade, can the Secretary of State give clarity on timings, given that while a review is taking place investment in independent production will be very hard to sustain?
Finally, on internet content, I notice that the Secretary of State’s idea for cinema-style ratings for websites is not in the report. Has it been sidelined, perhaps by voices in Government more realistic about the ability of Government to control the internet?
In October the Secretary of State said:
“Now is the time to move from…think tank phase to…delivery phase.”
So where is the delivery on next generation access? Another consultation. Where is the delivery on copyright protection? Another quango. Where is the delivery on peer-to-peer file sharing? Another consultation. Where is the delivery on the crisis facing local newspapers? Another review. Where is the delivery on community radio? Another consultation. Where is the delivery on terms of trade? Just another report. No concrete action, only eight woolly reviews.
A Conservative Government made telecoms deregulation happen. They made the satellite and cable revolution happen. Now it looks as though the country will have to wait for another Conservative Government to end the curse of endless reviews, reports and consultations and lay the foundations for a truly competitive digital Britain.
I listened closely to what the hon. Gentleman said, but I think he has fundamentally misunderstood the importance of the report published today, and of the action that the Government need to take, in partnership with others, to reach firm conclusions. He seems to think that the Government can simply impose a view and say, “It must be like this; now everyone can get on and do it as we say.” It has to be right to develop a strong public-private partnership in these complex areas, so that we get these decisions right and so that industry has confidence in them.
The hon. Gentleman made a statement in the middle of his contribution, which was something like this: “A Conservative Government will take action to ensure that more than half of the country has next generation access within five years.” That is a major spending commitment. I hope he has permission for such a commitment from the shadow Chancellor. That is a major, open-ended, blank-cheque commitment, and he should think very carefully before he makes commitments of that kind.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the process and why there was comment in the newspapers. No Ministers appeared on the “Today” programme today. It is, by definition, an inclusive process and we have drawn a wide range of voices into this debate. For that reason, it would be impossible for the Government to control all comment made about the emerging conclusions, but I can assure him that this House is hearing the detail of the report for the first time.
The hon. Gentleman says that most people will be disappointed with the report. I reject that entirely. If he were to ask the music industry or the film industry, he would discover that they see here a process that started with the “Creative Britain” document last year, whereby the Government are addressing directly the very serious concerns that they have raised, and are trying to come up with solutions that will work in the future, not simply saying that what is unlawful should be unlawful.
We have to recognise that young people throughout the country are exploring and using music differently from how they did in the past. It is unrealistic to think that the clock can be turned back, which is what the hon. Gentleman seemed to be suggesting. We have to create sensible solutions that will have some chance of enduring in the online age. That will be done by ensuring that we capture the benefits of the internet and the freedoms with which people can explore new content, while finding ways of paying for it in the future. On that, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I are absolutely clear: we agree that legislating to cut people off is unlikely to win public confidence in and support for this important agenda. It is a more sophisticated approach, which the hon. Gentleman has today shown himself completely incapable of understanding.
The hon. Gentleman asked who is in charge. Lord Carter is conducting a review, as a Minister in both Departments—a converged Minister, looking at these issues of convergence, as the hon. Gentleman puts it. He is reporting to two Secretaries of State and ultimately the Government. I think this has been a process whereby different parts of the Government are working very closely together and producing a report that for the first time brings together infrastructure and content. That is a major step forward.
The hon. Gentleman asks who will pay for broadband; that illustrates precisely why it is not as easy as sitting there and dictating. We will now enter a process with the operators of fixed and mobile networks to see how we can build out broadband services so that we work towards a universal service commitment. That will be the next phase of Lord Carter’s work. I said he would report before the summer; that seems to me a pretty firm timetable and it is not the woolly, open-ended process that the hon. Gentleman seemed to claim we were operating.
The hon. Gentleman asked about copyright, and why a new agency. I would simply say to him that these are complex issues and it is right to bring rights holders and ISPs together to work out solutions that will work for both.
On the terms of trade, we need to be absolutely clear that the independent sector in this country has flourished in recent times. He said it was all down to a Conservative Government. Well actually, no. It was the Communications Act 2003 which put in place the conditions for a flourishing independent production sector in recent times. As with everything, all options need to be considered as part of this review, but we will not do anything that damages the strength of that sector, which now has some companies that really are global operators, delivering huge economic benefits for this country.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of internet content. I said over the Christmas period that we needed to help parents to get better information about the content to which their children will be exposed when they use websites. The Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee reported on this matter last summer, and I say openly to the House that I am not sure how many parents know, for example, that YouTube’s recommended minimum age is 13, meaning that people under 13 should not use it unsupervised. I do not believe that it is irresponsible to raise such issues. Parents clearly do not know—they might be surprised—that there is a recommended minimum age for using such sites with lots of user-generated content, and the fact that the hon. Gentleman simply brushes the notion aside demonstrates his complete misunderstanding of the fundamental importance of some of the issues raised in “Digital Britain”.
We heard a disappointing and churlish response to a significant piece of work, and I would have expected better from the hon. Gentleman.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance copies of his statement and the interim “Digital Britain” report from his apparently converged Minister. As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) said, the report makes interesting but disappointing reading.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the UK has slipped in the global league table of digital adoption, skills and use. Other countries make the development of a digital knowledge economy the centrepiece of their economic development, and we should be doing that, but we are not. This morning, the Prime Minister said that the report set out the scale of his ambition, but he should have added that it offers few, if any, decisions. Where are those decisions?
Our public service broadcasters, from the peerless BBC to the multi-award winning Channel 4, are the envy of the world, but they face significant problems. They need help and advice, and they need decisions to be made now. Last September, the Secretary of State said that we would have those decisions today. He stated that:
“early in the New Year, Ofcom can conclude its review and Government can announce decisions and the process to implement those decisions.”
What decisions has he made? He welcomes talks between the BBC and ITV, and between the BBC and Channel 4, and talks about the possible involvement of Channel 4 in BBC Worldwide, but he offers no decisions. Apparently, we must wait until the summer—so much for urgency.
Does the Secretary of State agree, at least, that there is now a window of opportunity for exciting thinking about using Worldwide? Does he agree that any links between Worldwide and other broadcasters, including Channel 4, must lead to added value for the BBC, as opposed to using Worldwide as a cash cow for others? Why has he not been able—as he should have been—to rule out the top-slicing of money from the BBC? Why can we now not get on with making a return path part of the core requirement for digiboxes?
As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey said, perhaps the biggest disappointment relates to the plans for rolling out universal high-speed broadband. The Government promised that they would bring forward capital investment to help us out of the recession. This is one of the key areas in which that could be done. If done properly, 600,000 new jobs could be created in this country, but what have we got? We have some vague commitment to a universal 2 megabits per second provision. As the hon. Gentleman said, average speeds are already 3.6 megabits per second, so why is there such little ambition and such a low target?
Over the past few years, we have spent millions of pounds on the work of Ofcom, the Convergence Group, the Byron report, the Broadband Stakeholder Group, the Creative Britain group, the Caio review and much more. In return for all that work, we have today the announcement of a strategy group, an umbrella body, a delivery group, a rights agency, an exploratory review, a digital champion and an expert taskforce. Is this not further evidence of classic new Labour—high on vision and spin, but short on substance?
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman takes that approach. Let me deal with his central charge that this is disappointing, which echoes what the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) said. What is disappointing about making a fairly historic commitment on universal broadband services? The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) might have just banked it, but that is a fairly major statement on the path towards a fully digital society. I wish he would not brush that away as though it were insignificant. It is significant that we say we want to move towards broadband for everyone, and it is a moment such as the development of telephone and postal services.
Both hon. Gentlemen made international comparisons and suggested that we were being unduly cautious. Let me put on record something that contradicts what they said: France wants 512 kilobits per second and Finland wants 1 megabit per second. We are looking at options up to 2 megabits per second, so I hope they recognise that that represents greater ambition.
The hon. Member for Bath said that decisions were promised on public service broadcasting. Let me tell him the decisions that the report makes clear. There will be public service broadcasting beyond the BBC. Have the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives made such a commitment? [Hon. Members: “Yes!”] Well, I would be happy to hear it again today.
We also make clear the specific elements of public service provision beyond the BBC that are important, which is an important decision. We say that local, regional and national news are important. We say that we need quality programming for children, especially the over-10s. We say that we need production in all parts of the country. We are setting this down, and the hon. Gentleman is leaping towards institutional solutions, but that is the next phase, which will be dealt with in the final report. He seems to misread the process. We are publishing the interim report precisely so that there can be a debate about the solutions before they are finalised.
The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that there was rich potential in using BBC Worldwide both to enhance our position in the global market and to generate resources that can go back into British programming that can then be sold throughout the world. Of course, this is about solutions that work for everyone, which is why there is complexity and we are taking our time to get things right.
The hon. Gentleman asked why we did not rule out top-slicing, but because we are committed to plural provision beyond the BBC, until solutions are found that would certainly deliver such provision, top-slicing must remain in the mix as a possible option. Although the option remains on the table, it is not, as I have said many times, the solution for which I would instinctively reach first. I have said today that a strong and secure BBC is one that can form a partnership and play an enabling role, and that is my preferred route.
Lord Carter signals a significant change of policy on the return path for digital boxes by saying that that should be an option under the help scheme. We will explore that in more detail over the coming weeks.
The hon. Gentleman asked about capital investment in broadband, but that is a matter of public-private partnership, not simply the Government funding it all, which is what he seemed to be suggesting. We need to work intelligently with the communications sector and encourage the industry to work together to increase access to mobile and fixed networks. The Government will play a part in the debate in maximising the use of spectrum and ensuring that we have the right incentives for investment in this country. That is the intelligent approach, and I am sorry that the hon. Members for South-West Surrey and for Bath seem to misunderstand it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement and the interim report. He and I share a long-standing concern about the digital divide, in terms of availability, connectivity and internet literacy, which he has mentioned. Will he comment on how we might, through the report, strengthen our hand when it comes to the other divide—the divide that means that there are people who are not aware that there are dangers, as well as opportunities, and not aware of the protection that is needed, to which they can contribute? Will he today suggest that it is possible to strengthen the moderation role of providers and organisers of sites, because content appears on sites that would be totally unacceptable in print or traditional broadcast media?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his considered intervention. I point him towards research that says that one of the things that stops people from becoming bigger users of online services is a fear of what is online. We need to think about that. That is precisely why the issue of improving literacy and labelling of content is very important. Sometimes, when such issues are raised, there are immediate claims of an attack on free speech, or of censorship. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is true—my right hon. Friend pointed to this—is that the old media world had standards that guided people, so that they knew how best to use services. He is right to point to the need for similar standards in the online age, so that we do not take away the benefits or the huge, rich sources of information available to people, but empower people—parents—to make the right decisions about the content that they access.
I welcome the Government’s intention to move ahead with promoting investment in next-generation access broadband, but does the Secretary of State recognise that faster download speeds will make it even easier for online piracy and illegal file-sharing to take place, and will pose an even greater threat to our music, games, television and film industries? He will be aware that so far, talks between the internet service providers and the creative industries have been remarkably unsuccessful. Will he confirm that one of the few commitments that he has announced today is that the Government will legislate on the issue, and will he say when that legislation will be introduced?
I thank the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He has raised an incredibly important point, of which I am very much aware. When I came to this role just over a year ago, I said that it was a priority for me to ensure that we no longer simply stood by when the music industry faced serious damage. We have changed our tone in the past 12 months, as I hope that he recognises. We have given considerable urgency to the consideration of those questions, not least as a result of the promptings of his Committee and others. It is because of the connection between the ability to download and the content that is being downloaded that the report brings those two questions together into the same consideration. Music has faced the challenge sooner because, obviously, it is easier to download music over less capable networks, but as capability increases, the threat to the film and TV industries grows greater. That is why we are urgently considering the matter.
Today, we have proposed a commitment to legislate to ensure co-operation between the ISPs and the music industry. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the parliamentary timetable, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that once Lord Carter has finished his work, if the considered view of those whom he consults is that there should be legislation, we will move to legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of Swindon’s historical railway village, and the fact that as it is a conservation area, people there cannot have satellite dishes or cable. How will he ensure fair access for my constituents, many of whom are on low incomes or are pensioners, given Virgin’s virtual monopoly of supply via phone lines? How will he protect my constituents from high price increases once switchover happens?
I am very aware of the problem that my hon. Friend has raised, particularly in relation to Swindon railway village. Some of the measures that I have announced today will provide a long-term solution, because obviously, in the fullness of time, people may be able to access TV services through broadband, but in the short term that will not be possible. One of the issues emerging during the digital switchover programme is how we give people access to TV services where there are local restrictions to do with listing and the use of aerials and dishes. Her constituency has a thorny example of that kind of problem. I understand that the council is considering alternatives to cable for those residents, recognising the inflated prices that some may have to pay as a result of the options that they are given. Obviously, we hope that the council is able to offer those alternatives, and we will help, if we can, to ensure that the residents of Swindon railway village have a fair and affordable choice.
It is perhaps inevitable that a document that is more of the quality of a Green Paper than of a White Paper raises more questions than it answers—questions, for example, about the ability of the regulator to cope with the additional work load at a time when he is also being asked to take on the regulation of mail services, and questions about the wisdom of responsibility for the issue being shared between two Departments, which I think gets in the way. The Business and Enterprise Committee, which I chair, is lucky enough to be able to summon Lord Carter—the converged Minister—and question him; the rest of the House will not have that opportunity. Will the Secretary of State today commit to using his best endeavours to secure a full day’s debate, in Government time, on the very important questions that the document raises, so that we make sure that the House can thoughtfully make the maximum contribution to the process?
Let me deal with this, if I can, once and for all: this is an interim report. If I had come to the House today with Lord Carter’s final report, I can quite imagine that the cry from the Opposition Benches would have been, “These are fundamental questions for our society, democracy and economy, yet the Government have come along and imposed solutions straight away.” I believe that the process that has been established is the right one. As I said at the end of my statement, our wish now is to engage Members from all parts of the House on these incredibly important considerations. The process follows that of the Darzi review, which I think most people would consider to have been successful in stimulating a debate about the future of the national health service. I am sure that the business managers and the Leader of the House will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said about a full day’s debate, but he is absolutely right to say that the questions are crucial for the country and need to be debated by Members in this House. That is why I made the statement today.
My right hon. Friend is well aware that what I know about modern information communication technology can be written on the back of a postage stamp, but the people I worry about are those who think that they know about what is on the internet. Does he share my concerns about those parents who believe that they know what their children are watching on the internet, and how they are engaging with other people through computers? What sort of information does he anticipate giving those parents, and when does he expect to come back to us with further description of the tools that he believes are necessary to protect children from harmful and inappropriate content?
My hon. Friend has raised a really important point; I think that the divide between me and my children on communications issues is bigger than it was between me and my parents. The issue is huge, and I do not believe that all parents fully understand the range of information or content that their children can easily access. To raise that question is not to raise questions about curtailing access or about censorship; it is simply being responsible, and it is right, in a decent society, to say that parents should be empowered to find their way through a complicated, fast-changing world.
Although the watershed could never be used on the internet, it was nevertheless an utterly clear statement to parents about the kind of content that they could expect to find if they were to use services at a particular time. Opposition Front Benchers rubbished the suggestion, but I do not believe that parents know that there are recommended age limits for user-generated websites such as YouTube, or about the age limit of 13 to which I have referred. They should know, and they should judge whether it is safe for their child to use such websites or not. It is absolutely appropriate that the House should debate such issues, given that broadband and online services will be in every home in this country. It is not good enough simply to take the line that such things should not be considered, or that we are talking about gimmicks or grandstanding.
The Secretary of State presented an interesting Green Paper, but does he understand that people will think that he is trying to run before he can walk? He says that we invented GSM, yet there are large swathes of this country that do not have 3G. He says that we invented the internet, yet large swathes of the country do not have internet at all—broadband, that is. Does he further understand that when people say that 8 megabits can be supplied, quite often because of contention rates it is about 1.8 megabits? What does he intend to do to improve the infrastructure and concentrate on that before this vision thing?
I respect the hon. Gentleman’s background in the communications and media sectors, but perhaps he needs to be a little more careful in his language. He says that large swathes do not have access to broadband, but 99 per cent. of households can get some level of broadband, and six in 10 take it. He is right to say that although there is pretty wide coverage, the quality of broadband in certain areas may lead some people not to take it up. It may also be the content issues that I mentioned a moment ago that prevent people from taking it up. At 2 megabits per second, availability goes down to 93 per cent.
It is important for us to get the facts on the table, and then to consider a plan with industry to give it the right incentives to build up those networks, so that we progress towards the universal service commitment. It is not right, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, for the Government to say at this time that that must be a matter for public spending. I do not believe the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) was right to say that a Conservative Government would pay for next generation access to 50 per cent of the country. These are more complicated issues that we need to work through with industry. Crucially, incentives to invest have to be made right, and the Government can help to do that through regulation and change to spectrum availability.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s wide ranging statement and the leadership that has been provided on these issues by Lord Carter. May I encourage them to extend convergence beyond the two Departments right across Government? Does my right hon. Friend agree that given the nature of the internet, it is essential that we make the UK the safest place to do business online, and that that is equally important for companies and for individuals? Does he further agree that the speed and reach of the internet is such that legislation and bureaucracy are unlikely to keep pace, and that we therefore need a fast and flexible partnership approach involving industry, the Government and the House in cutting internet-related crime and other activity that undermines people’s confidence in using the internet in the way that it has such great potential to be used?
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend’s remarks. At all times, our approach needs to be characterised by a desire to capture and preserve the huge benefits of the online world—the ability to explore information and access content—and by working towards agreed rules that are in the public interest. That is not about curtailing freedom or introducing heavy regulation. We need to find our way though to develop agreed systems, with industry and Government working together, as my right hon. Friend has suggested. If those are to stick, a degree of international consensus is needed—such is the nature of the online space. Over the course of this year, the Government intend to build a better dialogue with international partners to see whether we can use some of the emerging approaches to make Britain a safe place to do business, as he says, and see whether those can be applied more generally to set new standards for the new age.
Are the Government at all worried about the way in which extreme compression is leading to bad quality of both analogue and digital broadcasts on many radio stations? When, for example, will cricket lovers be able to hear uninterrupted BBC cricket commentary on digital in good quality?
They can. [Interruption.] BBC 5 Live Sports Extra is broadcasting most international cricket on a fairly uninterrupted basis, although I take the comments of the shadow Minister for Sport, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson). If there are particular problems receiving the digital signal in his area, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) may wish to write to me. We are in a period when we are broadcasting on both the analogue signal and digital. When we reach the point of switchover, we will be able to increase the strength of the digital signal, which should lead to better quality signals in all parts of the country. I acknowledge that I am not an expert on extreme compression, but if the right hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me, I will provide a fuller reply.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement, with the economic benefits that those developments will bring to my constituents in the north-west region, considering our strengths in the creative industries, and the opportunities that will come to us with Media City at Salford. I draw his attention to the universal service commitment. He is aware of Alderman Bolton school in my constituency, a primary school which is running an innovative project with the children that involves giving them laptop computers and teaching them how to access the internet, how to learn using the internet and how to be safe using the internet. The school serves a disadvantaged community, and many of the children do not have access to the internet at home. Because very few of them have access to broadband at home, they cannot share what they are learning with their parents and the rest of their family, and they cannot do their homework using the knowledge that they have gained at school. How will my right hon. Friend make sure that the digital divide does not affect such children, that the statement will help them and that they will have access to broadband?
My hon. Friend knows that I know her constituency well, as it neighbours my own. The points that she has raised are incredibly important. I am proud of many things that the Government have done, but perhaps proudest of the way in which our primary schools have undergone a huge change in the past 10 years in their use of technology and all the rich potential that that offers to change the learning experience for young people. If I understand her correctly, she is saying that we need to enhance further what primary schools are able to do, but ensure that children can go home and continue their learning, working with their parents. The vision that we have put forward today is precisely about extending the availability of the highest quality broadband services and driving the take-up of those services, particularly among the most vulnerable people in our society. That is exactly the vision, and we look forward to working with her to make sure that we realise it.
May I raise the impact that the Secretary of State’s report will have on ITV? He will be aware of Ofcom’s analysis showing that as a result of the digital age, regional news on ITV will be unsustainable by 2011, so does he agree that even with the sharing of facilities with the BBC, alternative arrangements will have to be made from 2011 onwards, if there is to be plurality in regional news?
I recognise that these are delicate questions. I also recognise the importance of regional news beyond the BBC. I have spoken many times about that since taking on my present job. I proposed last year that we should look at co-operation in the regions, using BBC facilities, to see whether that could help to sustain a regional news service beyond the BBC. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that such a service at that level is very important for democracy at a local level. We have made good progress, and ITV and BBC have made considerable strides in seeing how the relationship can work and beginning to work out the practical issues that will come from sharing studio space and outside broadcast technology. Those discussions have reached an advanced stage, as the report indicates, and I hope that they will be concluded soon. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see in that the germ of an idea that can be taken further, so that the BBC can become an enabling force to sustain a healthy media industry beyond the BBC.
From both the questions and the answers, I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that although the digital age provides enormous opportunities, it poses a range of problems. Can he reassure me, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on publishing, that the publishing industry, which earns billions of pounds a year for the UK economy, is adequately protected in terms of international property rights in the digital age, so that the industry can protect the writers of today and tomorrow and continue to be a cash earner for the UK economy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Part of the challenge is to ensure that the benefits of content do not accrue only to those who distribute it. The issue is about ensuring that at every stage of the process—distribution and, crucially, creation—there are fair rewards for those who produce the things that people want to read, watch and enjoy around the world. Clearly, we are not in that position today, but we need to work towards it.
I did not mention publishing in my statement, but perhaps I should have done so. Publishing is one of the oldest creative industries in this country, and I would go so far as to say that our strength in literature is unparalleled. We have to work out new funding models to sustain the highest-quality content in the new age, and I am confident that we can do so. There is a willingness to engage in this discussion, both on the internet service providers’ side and the rights holders’ side, and the rights agency is the body that will bring those sides together to make solutions that work and that can stick. However, we have some way to go.
Lastly, I say to my hon. Friend that the issue is about finding solutions that go with the grain of how people use the internet today. The world has changed since people paid for every single, LP or book that they bought, and we need to find new ways of paying for content that are in keeping with the new ways in which people are accessing it.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to plurality in public service broadcasting. Does he accept that the issue is that the BBC has a never-ending, guaranteed increase in funding year on year, while commercial broadcasters are seeing their income go down year on year? Does he agree that the only sustainable solution to the problem—particularly given that the BBC still seems to think it worth paying Jonathan Ross £6 million a year—is to top-slice the licence fee, take it from the BBC and give it to commercial broadcasters in return for a commitment to public service broadcasting content?
The hon. Gentleman has put forward his view. I think that at times people in other countries would be surprised to hear some of the comments made about the BBC. At the end of the day, it is an outstanding and fine institution that provides brilliant broadcasting for this country. One of the best recent illustrations of that was the coverage of the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, which showed the BBC at its best.
Of course, we have to consider how the BBC should relate to the fast-changing media world; the hon. Gentleman is not wrong to raise that question, because it is important. I start from the premise that we should not only maintain a strong and secure BBC, doing the great things that it does, but look at how it can help to sustain a wider and healthy media infrastructure. It could work to support local media, including local newspapers—we increasingly need to debate that issue, and the important changes that it involves, in the House. The BBC could help to sustain content from the regions and beyond the BBC and high-quality content on the international stage. We need to have that debate, but I urge the hon. Gentleman not to reach straight for punitive solutions that are seen to undermine or attack the BBC. The BBC is a fundamental strength of this country.
Holocaust Memorial Day
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Holocaust Memorial Day.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for selecting this subject for debate. I note that the Deputy Leader of the House is on the Front Bench for the opening of this debate.
Holocaust memorial day is a theme that unites right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I welcome that. Last year’s topical debate on this issue was probably the most well attended that we have had. In debates such as today’s our clear message is one of shared resolve around the most important issues. I am keen to allow as many contributions as possible, so I will keep my remarks as brief as I can—and briefer than I would have liked. That shared resolve must be about not just learning more about the holocaust, genocides and other atrocities, but learning from them. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in committing afresh to ensure that the lessons at the heart of Holocaust memorial day are remembered and applied.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he has made an important point, particularly in the wake of the recent troubles in Gaza and southern Israel. There has been a real upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks in my constituency and borough, and more widely. The Community Security Trust recorded more than 150 attacks, the highest number since it started keeping details. That is a very serious matter. Does my hon. Friend think that those responsible for those attacks could learn a lot if they studied what had happened during the holocaust?
I am grateful for that intervention; my hon. Friend deserves a huge tribute for the progress made in the past few years in commemorating Holocaust memorial day and learning the lessons of the past. When we speak to holocaust survivors, or the families of those who died in the holocaust, about the criminal damage of synagogues and the desecration of graves in cemeteries, we find that they have a sense of déjà vu. It renders them speechless. Those who research the history of the holocaust see the dehumanisation and hatred that begins at one end of the spectrum and leads ultimately to the killing of 6 million people.
I totally agree with the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Holocaust memorial day is for remembering all the victims of mass murder and killings, and we remember those killed in Gaza, including the young children. Does the Minister not deplore the fact that the Vatican has brought back into the fold a British-born bishop who is a holocaust denier and obviously pro-Nazi? Although I accept that the Vatican has totally dissociated itself from his remarks, is it not unfortunate that that bishop is allowed to be so senior in the Catholic clergy, given that he simply denies that the gas chambers existed?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has a rich history of fighting anti-Semitism and racism. Let us be clear: those who deny the holocaust are not historians revising history—their views demonstrate anti-Semitism. We must make sure that our children understand, through education, that the holocaust did occur. We cannot pretend that it did not or allow those who say that it did not to have the oxygen of publicity.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has already given way generously in the early stages of his speech.
There are misguided souls who labour under the misapprehension that virulent and violent anti-Semitism is but a shameful historical fact, but not something with which we currently need to trouble ourselves. Will the hon. Gentleman use the authority of his office and the content of his speech to set out, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) did, the facts to the contrary?
In the process, will the Minister—a generous fellow—be kind enough to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who, sadly, is not in his place today? He is the author of a truly outstanding book entitled “Globalising Hatred: The New Anti-Semitism”. I had the good fortune to receive it as a Christmas present from my wife, who paid £12.99. The right hon. Gentleman would not like me to say this, but it is available new on Amazon for £9.