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Commons Chamber

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

House of Commons

Tuesday 3 February 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Young Offenders (North-West)

1. What assessment he has made of the availability of rehabilitation schemes to young offenders in the north-west. (253521)

It is a core objective of the Government to improve rehabilitation schemes for young offenders with the aim of cutting crime and changing lives. We keep that under constant review.

I thank the Minister for his reply. One of the major contributions to reducing reoffending, especially among young men such as the ones held in Lancaster Farms in my constituency, is the use of residential outdoor courses, often supported by the YMCA. What will the Department do to encourage more use of those to help those young men rebuild their lives after their offences?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and it is important that we provide a range of activities to give people some experience outside the criminal environment and to try to change their lives by acquiring positive skills. He will know that throughout the north-west we have undertaken work with the Prince’s Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. In the last three years in the north-west alone, 332 awards have been made by the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. That partnership is important and will continue.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as well as providing support for young people with substance abuse problems and mental health issues, Blackpool youth offending team is working with Blackpool council to identify suitable accommodation for young offenders? A homeless young offender is much less likely to be rehabilitated than one with a home. Will my right hon. Friend therefore try to ensure that suitable accommodation is available?

Indeed, my hon. Friend makes an important point. When people return to the community from a young offenders institution or other form of such accommodation, they need help and support not only with education and training but with housing. I am meeting the Housing Minister tomorrow to discuss that very issue.

One of the best things for young people in young offenders institutions is purposeful activity. It has been reported that at Lancaster Farms young offenders spend an average of only 9.7 hours a week on education or team activities, and 2.2 hours on sport or physical activity. Will the Minister look again at the level of activity of young people in those institutions and ensure that they undertake purposeful activities?

I will certainly look at that. There is a wide range of learning and skills provision—including work experience, the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, and Prince’s Trust and other high-intensity work—going on in those centres. In relation to Lancaster Farms, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), we are establishing links with Lancaster probation service and Lancaster and Morecambe college to try to get people into employment when they leave the institution.

I must give the Minister a dreadful statistic. After 12 years of this Government, seven out of 10 young men released from the young offender custodial estate reoffend within 12 months and most reoffend 30 times within 12 months of release. What is he doing to stop that awful situation?

Those figures are coming down, but I accept in part what the hon. Gentleman says—there is still a high level of reoffending by young people leaving those institutions. As I have said, support is needed in learning and skills, literacy and numeracy, employment and housing, and in tackling the drug and alcohol problems that people have, and last summer we introduced the youth crime action plan to try to tackle some of those issues early on in people’s criminal careers. The hon. Gentleman mentions 12 years of this Government, but the Conservatives’ proposals to cut further money from this budget would be unlikely to lead to a positive improvement in activity at Lancaster Farms and Hindley in the north-west.

May I ask the distinguished Minister, for whom I have a very high regard—[Interruption.] May I ask how widely schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh awards—a fantastic scheme that does a great deal for the rehabilitation of young offenders—are available in north-west England, an area that includes my constituency?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, and who am I to ignore the great cheers that he received from his hon. Friends? If we are engaged in a mutual love-in, I may say that I have a great respect for him and his work as a member of the Speaker’s Panel and in this House. There were 332 awards made by the Duke of Edinburgh scheme in the last three years. Those young people have gone through the system, improved their lives and benefited from those awards. I want to see more of that, and that is why the partnerships with the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and the Prince’s Trust are important in the north-west and throughout England and Wales.

May I remind the Minister of another of the Government’s figures, which show that three quarters of those in young offenders institutions are dependent on drugs? Why did only 100 young offenders from Lancaster Farms YOI start drug treatment last year? Does the Minister agree with the chief inspector of prisons’ view, published in her annual report last week, that it is remarkable that so little has been done to tackle the fourfold increase in alcohol-related problems in prisons?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this Government have increased by a massive amount the resources devoted to overcoming those problems. Obviously, there is a lot of drug-related crime, which means that individuals who enter the system need greater support. In the north-west alone, three drug and alcohol programmes and two offending behaviour programmes are in operation. In particular, there is the CARAT scheme, which provides counselling, assessment, referral, advice and throughcare. It deals with self-esteem, drug programmes, sexual health, the supply of drugs, healthy eating, steroid abuse, stress management and relapse prevention. All those schemes are funded by Government resources that, unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s party has pledged to cut from our Department.

Coroners’ Courts

Under proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is at present before the House, a Secretary of State wishing to proceed to a non-jury inquest with a High Court judge in the circumstances specified would have to be satisfied that no other measures would be adequate to prevent the matter from becoming public. Those other measures would include rule 17 of the Coroners Rules 1984, which allows for a judicial decision by the coroner to exclude the public from an inquest in the interests of national security. That and other safeguards proposed in the Bill are likely to mean that the number of non-jury inquests sought by a Secretary of State would be no more than one or two a year.

It is the national security aspect that worries me. Does the Secretary of State recall the tragic events revealed by the inquest into the death of Lance Corporal Hull, who died under US friendly fire, and how the US wanted to ensure that the cockpit video of that event was restricted to the coroner only and withheld from the press and public? It was subsequently made public only on account of its being leaked to The Sun. Does the Secretary of State agree that inquests in closed session must be absolutely the exception rather than the rule? Would he also say that embarrassment to the Government of the day or to our allies is not a sufficient reason for closed inquests?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point— embarrassment is in no sense a criterion. I also agree that the use of non-jury inquests or proceedings in camera should be kept to an absolute minimum, and that is our aim.

The Justice Secretary knows well that the whole purpose of the coroners’ courts was to bring transparency to bear on the circumstances surrounding a death. Many of us still do not appreciate his argument that we cannot use public interest immunity certificates instead of having proceedings in camera. Proceedings in camera will undoubtedly lead to a great deal of bad will and people will be suspicious of what goes on.

Proceedings can already take place in camera. The issue is whether one would have a more comprehensive article 2 inquiry before a High Court judge without a jury. I accept that it is obviously far better, if at all possible, for all the proceedings of an inquest to be in public. The duty will be on the Secretary of State, if he or she wishes to obtain one of these certificates, to show that there are no other practical alternatives available. As I explained on Second Reading last Monday, the analogy with a public interest immunity certificate process falls down because if a PII certificate is refused by the trial judge, the prosecution can simply withdraw the prosecution. What triggers an inquest is not the discretion of a prosecution but the fact of a death, and it is that issue which the House must address.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Bill applies to Northern Ireland? Would he agree that it is very important that provisions to allow inquests to be held in camera remain in that part of the United Kingdom?

I accept, of course, that there are exceptional circumstances in which inquests would have to be held in private. However, I do not understand why the Government link those circumstances to those where there would be no jury. The Government have asked for suggestions, so have they considered the possibility of security vetting inquest juries in the same way that juries can be vetted in criminal trials for espionage and terrorism? That procedure has been in place since at least 1989.

We are certainly open to examining other alternatives, as I have made clear. I think that the House now accepts that there is a problem that cannot be dealt with simply by PII certificates. I am therefore open to considering the alternatives, although I think that there are some practical problems because we are dealing with extreme circumstances in which there is a very severe risk, not of damage or embarrassment to the Government but of an individual—a covert human intelligence source, say—being killed. That is why it has been judged that such matters should not go to the jury. In a criminal trial, even when some of it is held in camera with a jury that has effectively been vetted, the operation of PII certificates means that part of such evidence will not be disclosed to the jury.

One way or another, we have to face up to the fact that, if we want full article 2 inquiries, part of the evidence must be safely excluded from the jury. The issue is not whether that should be so but how best to do it, and of course I accept that it should be done in a way that properly commands public confidence.

When he leaves the Chamber, will the Justice Secretary double-check on the reply that he gave to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who is Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee? I think that the hon. Gentleman was correct to say that the Coroners and Justice Bill extends to Northern Ireland, and that is buttressed by the fact that last week we had very powerful representations by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission about the Bill, particularly in relation to legacy issues. With the greatest respect to the Justice Secretary, I think that he is wrong.

If I am wrong, I shall of course correct the record. I have just been passed a note saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said that he will not use the provisions in the Bill, and that they will not apply to legacy cases.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, if the new law had been in place, the inquests into the killing of Juan Charles de Menezes or the RAF Nimrod disaster would have been held in secret? Does he agree that, if that had happened, it would have caused outrage among the relatives of the deceased and that there would have been widespread public condemnation? Does he accept that, by pursuing the clauses in the Bill for the sake of one or two inquests a year, he is putting at risk public confidence and trust in the entire coronial system? Why will he not therefore listen to the voices of reason on the Opposition Benches?

I do not believe that either the de Menezes case or the Nimrod case would have been subject to the process that is proposed in the Bill. Those inquests self-evidently took place satisfactorily, without the need for such a system. As I have said already, in deciding whether to seek a certificate under the Bill, a Secretary of State would have to show that no other measures would be adequate to prevent the material concerned from being made public, so I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that at present there are two inquests that cannot proceed because the arrangements made in the de Menezes and Nimrod cases are not regarded as satisfactory. The choice before the House is whether to have inquests—albeit conducted under the proposals in the Bill, or variations of them—or not to have inquests at all. I repeat to the House that I do not regard the proposals as copyright. We are happy to consider other alternatives, but the House has to face the fact that there needs to be additional provision that is currently not in the law, because otherwise some bereaved relatives will go without an inquest at all.

Custody Licence Scheme

I have made it clear to the House that I will withdraw the ECL scheme as soon as we have sufficient capacity in the prison system to do so. We have been undertaking the fastest ever capacity programme, and 2,700 more prison places became operational in 2008, on time and on budget. A further 2,300 prison places are planned for this year, 2009. Court cells have not been used since the end of February last year, and police cells have not been used since 23 September.

When the scheme was announced by the Lord Chancellor’s predecessor in June 2007, he described it as a temporary measure. Since then, some 47,500 prisoners have been released early, of whom more than 950 have offended while on licence; those offences include three murders and two rapes. In the circumstances, did not the Secretary of State agree that when his colleague Lord Bach said last month that

“it is not entirely a satisfactory scheme”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 January 2009; Vol. 706, c. 1555]

he was guilty of the greatest understatement imaginable? Is it not, in fact, a positively dangerous scheme, and when does he propose to end it?

Personally, I would take out the adverb: it is not a satisfactory scheme. However, it is better than the alternative, and far better, in terms of seeking to manage the prison population to capacity, than the devices to which the Conservative Administration whom the hon. Gentleman supported used to resort. At one stage, the Conservative Administration had 3,500 prisoners packed into police cells in wholly unsatisfactory circumstances. Over a couple of months, a previous Conservative Home Secretary released 3,500 prisoners, including some who, because of the severity of their sentences, would be quite beyond the current categories eligible for an end of custody licence.

But would not the abolition of the custody licence scheme put added pressure on the prison population? The Secretary of State has made it clear that he has provided more places, and more are planned in prisons. What effect would a cut to his Department’s budget have on those plans?

It is quite clear that if the Conservatives were to follow through on their plans for formula cuts in criminal justice Departments, as proposed by the shadow Chancellor, prison provision would be subject to severe cuts.

Order. We have had anti-Conservative party propaganda from two Ministers, and we will call it a day at that. Ministers will answer the questions that are put to them.

I did not hear anywhere in the Secretary of State’s reply the answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones). Given that the scheme was supposed to be temporary, will it, or will it not, continue indefinitely?

No, it will not continue indefinitely. It is not a satisfactory scheme; no one has ever suggested that it was. It is, however, better than the alternatives that the Conservative Administration used, just for the record. It certainly will not be continued indefinitely, and I will seek to end it as soon as I judge that we have sufficient capacity. That is why we have been increasing the capacity of the Prison Service far faster than previous Administrations have done.

As there have been three murders, two rapes and many more serious offences committed by criminals who were released early under the Government’s end of custody licence scheme, will the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of the likely number of such offences that will be committed by such offenders who will be released under the scheme in 2009?

First, may I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on his first appearance in Justice questions? Secondly, the reoffending rate under the scheme has been pretty consistent. I am sure that he has the extrapolations written on his pad and will give them a wide audience in a moment. Thirdly, of course it is a matter of great regret and deep concern whenever there is reoffending from prison, but in quite a number of those cases, particularly in the serious cases, there is evidence to suggest that the offence would have been committed in any event. That was certainly the view of the trial judge in one of the worst cases, that of the Andrew Mournian murder.

I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome, but he cannot escape the fact that the offences, including murder, were committed by people who were released early under his scheme. That says volumes about the Government’s assessment of the need to protect the public. Is it not his intention to institutionalise, not end, early release through proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill that will require sentencing to be conditioned by the cost of the sentence? That will make sure that, in future, Government expediency is placed in front of criminal justice.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has a very short memory—I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but my comments are relevant to the Conservatives’ suggestion that only we have faced this problem. Other Administrations have had to resort to such measures. Some 3,000 prisoners were released between July and August 1987. As for the hon. and learned Gentleman’s key question, if he wishes to table amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill, we look forward to considering them. I have made it clear that there is no prospect whatsoever, nor is it Government policy, that at the point of sentencing, sentencers should have to take into account the resource costs of what they are proposing. That is not in the Bill, nor is it Government policy.

Mental Health Tribunals

5. What recent discussions he has had with the chief executive of the Tribunals Service on the operation of mental health tribunals. (253525)

The chief executive of the Tribunals Service has regular meetings with Ministers to discuss the service and its performance, including that of mental health tribunals.

Mental health tribunals are important for dispensing justice, but a constituent queries with me their ability also to operate impartially. If patients agree that they are psychotic, they are so judged. If they disagree, they are said to have no insight into their condition and are found to be psychotic. What consideration have the Government given to reviewing the whole process to address concerns that patients subject to a tribunal do not have guaranteed access to specialist legal advice, and that the panel composition militates against objective assessment of the facts of each case?

I am concerned about the example that my hon. Friend gives. If he wishes to come to see me to discuss it, I will be more than happy to do so. There are, however, two things that I would say to him. There is legal representation available for mental health proceedings at the first-tier tribunal, and there is also legal aid available at the upper tribunal. There are about 1,100 members of the tribunal, and they are split more or less evenly across the three disciplines that they are meant to represent.

Coroners’ Courts

6. What recent assessment he has made of access to coroners’ court services in small towns and rural areas; and if he will make a statement. (253526)

We intend to review current coroner boundaries in consultation with local authorities as part of implementing the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is before Parliament. The review will take full account of local needs.

I am sure the Minister agrees that public access to a coroner is important for justice. Does he agree that we must retain at least a part-time coroner on the Isle of Wight?

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. I can assure him that as part of the review, there are no plans to do away with the presence of a coroner on the Isle of Wight.

It is the number of rural coroners that is being cut from 112 currently sitting in 140 places to about 60. It is particularly they who are looking into military deaths, which may or may not be those that become secret proceedings in the future. The Secretary of State has gone to great lengths to say that only one or two a year would be heard in camera. Will the Minister give the House an example of one or two cases in recent years that were heard in public but which, under the new Act, would now be heard in secret?

May I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in relation to the review, we are fully committed to making sure that local access to the coroner service is retained. If we move to larger coroner jurisdictions, that does not mean the end of part-time coroners, and it does not mean that anyone in a rural area or anyone else will be denied access to the coroner services that they receive at present.

Already, the office of coroner for the county of Powys has been amalgamated with that of the coroner for Bridgend and the valleys. There is a feeling in Wales, and following on from the Coroners and Justice Bill, that there will be an over-centralisation of the service in Wales. Given the sensitivity that inquests often give rise to, will the Minister confirm that the issues raised by hon. Members, particularly that of rurality, will be looked into before the implementation of the Act?

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is fundamental, as I said, that people should continue to have access to the coroner service locally. We understand that that has particular resonance in rural areas. No changes will be made without full consultation with everybody concerned, including hon. Members of the House.

Helpfully, the Secretary of State has responded on the needs of families of deceased people when there is an inquest. Will his Department continue, with the Department for Work and Pensions, to make sure that the information on costs and allowances available to the families of those who have died becomes as easily available through a coroner’s office as it is through a registrar of deaths?

Stephen Ayre

Andrew Bridges, the chief inspector of probation, has already examined the serious case review into the case; it was conducted by the West Yorkshire strategic management board for multi-agency public protection arrangements, or MAPPA. I had discussions with Mr. Bridges yesterday and he confirmed that the shortcomings in practice were properly evident in the review. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has asked Mr. Bridges for an assessment, based on two inspections, of the quality of the supervision of offenders such as Mr. Ayre by the area MAPPA system. Mr. Bridges is completing that assessment.

As the Minister will know, Stephen Ayre was a convicted murderer who was let out of prison and who, three years ago, after repeated mistakes by the probation service, raped and abducted a 10-year-old boy in my constituency. The Secretary of State talks a lot about how he will put the victims at the centre of his Department. However, despite having met the father of the victim, he still refuses to release the internal report into the case—even to the family, let alone the public. As the Secretary of State knows, the parents cannot feel that they can get over what happened to their son until they have seen the full report. If the right hon. Gentleman will not release the full report to the family, the least that he could do is ask the chief inspector of probation to produce a report and put it in the public domain to help the family get over that appalling incident.

We all accept that it was an appalling episode. The purpose of any review is to identify faults. The chief inspector of probation is clear that the faults have been identified. Indeed, the overview report was presented to the young victim’s father.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State has taken a personal interest; he met the victim’s father on 18 June 2008. A number of things flowed from that: expedited support and counselling for the victim; an overview report to be prepared by the West Yorkshire MAPPA and shared with the victim’s father; and the inspection by staff from the National Offender Management Service public protection unit of a sample of cases in west Yorkshire to ensure that they are being well managed. More generally, my right hon. Friend decided that from December 2008, in respect of all MAPPA serious case reviews, we will share an overview report with the victim and the victim’s family.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that victims are not at the centre of this Administration. In 2008, there were 4 million fewer victims of crime compared with 1998, and we have significantly increased investment thresholds to support victims. That speaks volumes about our commitment to victims and to putting them at the centre of the criminal justice system.

Sentences (Multiple Rape)

8. What recent guidance the Sentencing Advisory Panel has issued on sentences for those convicted of multiple rape; and if he will make a statement. (253528)

In April 2007, the independent Sentencing Guidelines Council published definitive guidelines on the Sexual Offences Act 2003. That included a guideline on the offence of rape, including when it is carried out by more than one offender and including multiple offences carried out by the same offender. The Sentencing Guidelines Council took the Sentencing Advisory Panel’s advice into consideration when it formulated the guidance.

Two weeks ago, six men were sentenced for multiple rape. They gang-raped a 16-year-old girl with learning difficulties and for that they received between six and nine years—of course, they will serve only half that time. I notice that the Minister did not give me a straightforward answer. As far as I can ascertain from the SAP guidelines, the starting point for multiple rape is eight years in prison. Why, then, were those men given six, seven or eight years, and why were the aggravating factors, which are clearly shown in the SAP guidance, not taken into account? I am thinking of the age of the victim, the fact that she was raped on several occasions and the grievous attack with caustic soda that was carried out on her afterwards. Will the Minister support my recent letter to the Solicitor-General asking that the case be reviewed so that those men are given the sentence that they deserve?

As the hon. Gentleman suggests in a roundabout way, the Attorney-General has the power to refer back to the courts sentences that she believes to be overly lenient. She is considering this at present. I cannot say more to him about this case, although I accept what he said about its seriousness.

But is not the problem for many victims of rape the fact that in the UK we still have an average conviction rate of 6 per cent. and that many victims of this heinous crime do not see their offender brought to justice? What action are my hon. Friend’s Department and other Departments taking to ensure that offenders in the crime of rape are brought to justice?

My hon. Friend is correct to suggest that the number of complaints to the police about rape that result in prosecution is quite small. However, that is often because those who have been victimised do not feel able to go through with the prosecution. The current statistics are that 37 per cent. of all cases prosecuted as rape result in a conviction for rape, that 59 per cent. of cases prosecuted as rape result in a conviction for rape or another offence, and that 97 per cent. of those so convicted have a custodial sentence imposed. This is the highest conviction rate for 10 years.

I accept, however, that we need to do more in supporting victims and those who complain of these terrible crimes through what can be the terrible ordeal of going through the criminal justice system. We have extended the support available to women—and men, of course, who can also be subjected to this terrible offence—by providing sexual assault referral centres across England and Wales, more access to support, and a better understanding among prosecutors and police about how to deal with the victims of these offences. That is showing an increase in conviction rates, as indicated in the statistics.

The provisions of the Coroners and Justice Bill include replacing the Sentencing Advisory Panel with a sentencing council that will have mandatory powers. However, the circumstances and levels of criminality vary enormously from case to case, and judges use their discretion to ensure that the appropriate sentence is given in the light of their experience and knowledge. Do the Justice Secretary and the Minister agree that the independence of the judiciary is an important part of our constitution and that it should not be eroded by a quango?

I agree with that absolutely. That is in fact Government policy. The new sentencing council will not in any way fetter the individual decisions of sentencers, whether they be judges or magistrates, in the work that they do in our courts. It will have a judicial majority and will be chaired by a judge. I believe that that independence, vital to our system, will be guaranteed; it is certainly Government policy that it ought to be.

Departmental Funding Settlement

9. What services and policy initiatives will be affected by the funding settlement reached for his Department for 2009 to 2011. (253529)

On 19 January, I published to Parliament the Ministry of Justice’s corporate plan. The plan is based on my Department’s four strategic objectives and sets out what we aim to achieve, how, and with what resources. Further details of the financial allocations are given in chapter 6 of the plan.

Last year, the Secretary of State’s permanent secretary, Suma Chakrabarti, told to the Justice Committee that by December the Department would have a much better idea of what cuts it needed to make to live within its means. One assumes that that will result in some cuts in front-line services. Perhaps the Secretary of State could help the House by giving some indication of where those cuts are going to fall. Could he give me an undertaking that one of the cuts will not be the closure of the probation service office in Banbury, because that would be a very retrograde step for offender management in the north of Oxfordshire?

The corporate plan makes it clear that we are indeed seeking some reductions and savings—that is on the record before Parliament—including a 5 per cent. real-terms reduction in our administration budget. However, we are seeking to do that principally by taking out back-office functions, by cutting down on what I think the House would regard as unnecessary spending, and by reducing the use of agency and contract staff. The whole purpose of this—the same is true, for example, overall in the National Offender Management Service—is to do our very best to ensure that front-line services are properly protected. There are always better ways of delivering front-line services. If the performance of the probation services are compared area to area and within areas, it is clear that there is not necessarily a connection between inputs in terms of resources and their outputs in terms of caseload and reductions in reoffending.

I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State had to say about potential cuts to the probation service. Can he reassure the House that the probation service will not suffer cuts that would limit its capacity to monitor and maintain community service orders? In West Mercia, initial indications show that as many as 42 probation officers could be at risk.

We do not believe that that is the case. There will be a requirement on probation services, and others, to reduce their administrative costs and to look at new ways of working. For example, they might produce briefer reports for courts and so on. We have actually put extra money into the front-line delivery of high-end community penalties. The whole purpose of that is to make the system more efficient and more effective.

How much worse will resource problems be as a result of the alarming state of some of the Department’s IT projects? Will some have to be abandoned or cut in order to stay within limits?

It really is pushing it to say that the Secretary of State has IT plans if we bear in mind that the National Audit Office criticised his Department for trebling the cost—to £690 million—of the C-NOMIS IT project. It is also true that the Government have spent £50 million on accommodating prisoners in police stations and court cells, £131 million on doing up the Secretary of State’s offices, and £27 million on external consultants in the past year. Instead of wasting that money, those millions would have been better spent on not introducing the core day, which leads to the locking up of prisoners between lunchtime on Friday and breakfast time on Mondays, on dealing with prisoner overcrowding and with prisoner rehabilitation and on encouraging purposeful activity and education in prisons.

I do not mind taking lectures from some parts of the House about our budget, but it does not lie well in the mouth of the hon. and learned Gentleman or those in his party to criticise the savings that we have to make, because their only response is to say that they would cut even more. That is the straightforward reality; they would cut at least £100 million from the Ministry of Justice’s budget.

Sentences (Violent Crime)

10. Whether his Department takes steps to inform the public of sentences handed down to people convicted of violent crime. (253531)

The outcomes of criminal justice cases are provided free of charge to local newspapers, which play a key role in providing information to their communities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already announced that he intends to publish the final outcome of criminal court hearings on a public-facing website.

That will be welcome news for the victims of crime, but does the Minister agree that if there is to be any potential deterrent effect for those who may commit such crimes, they need to see that information. I cannot imagine that many of them will go online to see what their sentence may be. Will the Minister consider using a poster campaign, or taking out adverts in national newspapers, so that perpetrators know that they will be caught, and know what the consequences will be for their own lives?

My hon. Friend has offered a helpful and constructive suggestion, and we shall certainly look at it. I have seen national advertising campaigns in London on gun and knife crime, for example, that are very effective. In my area of Lewisham, the safer neighbourhood team included information in its quarterly newsletter to residents on people who were caught and convicted, and on the resulting sentences. We should consider matters as widely as possible to ensure that everyone, victims and offenders, is aware of the real cost of crime.

Shop Theft

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on guidelines to prevent re-offending by those convicted of shop theft. (253532)

As a matter of course, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I consider the guidelines and offer comments when they are subject to consultation. The guideline on theft makes it clear that a fine should be the starting point for an opportunistic theft from a shop, for example, but that custody is the appropriate starting point for those involved in gang-related shop theft. Following discussions with the hon. Lady and representatives of the retail industry and the police, revised guidance on the use of fixed penalty notices for shop theft are due to be issued shortly. We accept that there are plainly instances of the guidance not being followed, and that penalty notices for disorder are not appropriate for repeat offences or, normally, if the value of the property involved exceeds £100.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that full reply. I know that he recently met the Magistrates Association, which is deeply concerned about fines being imposed for a shop theft that might be fuelling a drug or drink habit. Will he use his good offices to intervene in the issuing of guidelines, to ensure that that set of circumstances will be met and that there will be a referral to court where appropriate?

Yes, and I commend the hon. Lady for her work on this matter and the way in which she has drawn it to the attention of the House and me. I recently met the Magistrates Association and the association of chairs of benches of magistrates—[Hon. Members: “Chairs of benches?”] Well, they were the chairmen of benches, some of whom were female.

The guidance is clear, stating at paragraph 6.21, that PND disposal for shop theft

“may not be appropriate for those who are known to be substance misusers.”

There are two issues here. The first is whether the guidance should be changed, and we do intend to change it. The second, whatever the guidance, is ensuring that the police follow it properly and that there is a proper audit of what they are doing.

Topical Questions

I am pleased to tell the House that this morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), announced further progress building on the implementation of the Corston report recommendations on women within the criminal justice system. Some £15.5 million of new money will be spent over two years on additional services in the community for women, with the aim of cutting their reoffending and reducing the need to imprison women convicted of less serious offences.

That is very welcome, but when innocent people are wrongly imprisoned, it is a traumatic experience that can scar them for life. When they are released, they often receive little support other than a helpline, which is welcome but not sufficient. Will the Minister meet me, a cross-party delegation of Members and Paddy Hill and Gerry Conlon of the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, to consider their proposal for a refuge that will give such people the residential, in-depth support that they need and deserve?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Of course, I and my ministerial colleagues will happily meet him, because how individuals are reintegrated back into society, particularly when they have been proved innocent, is an important issue.

T2. The Public Administration Committee has called for a mandatory register of lobbying activity by professional lobbyists, companies and pressure groups. I believe that there needs to be a legal duty to register in order to prevent lobbyists from claiming that they have a duty of confidentiality to their shareholders or clients. Will the Secretary of State consider legislating to create such a register in the forthcoming constitutional renewal Bill? (253547)

My hon. Friend will accept that the principal responsibility for the regulation of this House, as with the other place, lies with the House itself and not with Government. We look forward to recommendations from the Standards and Privileges Committee. It goes without saying that should there be a proposal for such changes that commands widespread support across the House, we shall consider it.

T7. Last year, the Secretary of State and I exchanged letters about the historic failings at Leeds magistrates court. He made it clear that all the answers that the public demanded would be provided. That has not happened and there is genuine consternation among the legal community in Leeds that the matter was tackled by scapegoating one individual. Some of the key answers to the problem, including what was meant by the fabrication of court outcomes and the number of convicted criminals who have not been followed up, have not been given to the people of Leeds. When will those answers be given? (253552)

Let me make it clear that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who was the Minister responsible, and I did a huge amount of work on what happened in Leeds, which was a scandal. It arose when West Yorkshire magistrates courts committee ran the magistrates court service in Leeds; central Government had no direct responsibility whatsoever. It has fallen to us to sort out the mess that the lack of proper leadership, control and management by the magistrates courts committee and the officials in that system created. We have been trying to sort out the problem. Of course, I am happy to discuss with the hon. Gentleman any further information that should be released. I cannot comment on the disciplinary process, but the responsibility for a scandalous situation must rest where it began—in Leeds.

T3. Is not it simply unacceptable for tax exiles to bankroll political parties? Will the Secretary of State support the amendments that I have tabled to the Political Parties and Elections Bill to make the practice unlawful? (253548)

T8. Recent events have shown the clear and urgent need to clean up our political system, so I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that he will consider introducing measures that command widespread support. May I therefore urge him to include in the constitutional renewal Bill a provision that has widespread support and for which the House has already voted—that for an elected House of Lords? (253553)

The House has indeed already voted on that proposal, as it has on the proposal for an 80 per cent. elected House of Lords. We have moved to a substantial cross-party consensus, as the White Paper, which I published last July, shows. Although we can introduce some measures in the remainder of this Parliament, conducting a full-blooded, root-and-branch reform of the House of Lords at this stage would be pushing it without full support from all parties.

T4. The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 came into force only in November. Although I acknowledge that it is still early days, has the Secretary of State made any assessment of its effectiveness and progress? (253549)

My hon. Friend makes the fair point that the Act is very young. We will keep a close eye on it and monitor its success. Eleven cases have been considered under it since November, including that of a 16-year-old and, of course, that of the doctor who was returned from Bangladesh. Even in a short time, the Act has already been successful in ensuring that those who are vulnerable and coerced into a marriage against their will are given the protection of the law.

T9. The Justice Secretary is answerable to the House for party funding. An investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Electoral Commission has already found the right hon. Gentleman to have broken his own law, and he is currently under investigation by the Electoral Commission for perhaps taking an impermissible donation. Given that he is in charge of trying to reform party donations and Parliament, would not being found guilty a second time undermine his credibility? Should he not seriously consider his position? (253554)

The hon. Gentleman has made two complaints against me. In the first case, there was a breach, but the Standards and Privileges Committee found it to be wholly inadvertent, and I apologised for it. If he is proceeding with the second, that will be the subject of investigation in the normal way.

T5. Does the Secretary of State share my pleasure at the public comments of the new Director of Public Prosecutions about the possibility of having more openness in the criminal justice system, by letting in the TV cameras in more circumstances than we currently allow? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should let in the TV cameras to open up the criminal justice system to a wider audience? (253550)

I of course commend the new director’s policy of greater openness. However, there are slightly complicated issues when it comes to having cameras in trial courts. The proceedings of the Law Lords at the point of judgment are already televised and the proceedings of the supreme court, when it starts across the road in October, will also be televised. However, the House would wish to consider long and hard before going down the route of some but not all American states and televising court proceedings. That could cause many more problems than it would seek to solve.

T10. In an earlier answer, to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), the Justice Secretary accepted that sometimes the sentencing guidelines were not being followed in cases of shop theft. Does he feel that they are being adequately followed for burglary? We have recently seen a rise in the number of burglaries, which is not a minor offence but a serious one that causes a great deal of pain and disruption. Is there any more that he can do to try to reduce its incidence in that respect? (253555)

I say two things on burglary. One is that the decline in burglary over the past 12 years has been dramatic—it has gone down by, I think, more than 40 per cent. That has been a great success on the part of the police and the local authorities—we claim some credit for it, too—and a very important change in making people’s dwelling houses far less vulnerable. Secondly, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, recently led the Court of Appeal criminal division to issue what amounts to very strong guidance to sentencers on burglary, particularly burglary of a dwelling. I think that we will see a toughening up of sentencing for burglary, and quite appropriately, too.

T6. The Government have put an enormous effort into speeding up judicial processes and strengthening the rights of victims. In respect of consumer protection legislation, does the Secretary of State think that there is a greater role for local authority trading standards authorities to play in mediating between consumers who feel aggrieved by a supplier of goods and services? Would that not be a way of keeping more cases out of court and of moving more quickly towards the speedy resolution of disputes? (253551)

There is great merit in the suggestion that my hon. Friend makes and I will certainly consider it, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to Question 19 and ask whether he will allow Bournemouth’s court cells to be used by Bournemouth’s police to detain suspected offenders? The police cells and the court cells are part of the same building. More police cells are being built, but unfortunately they currently get full—for example on a Friday night—and the police have to drive those who have been arrested all the way to Weymouth. There seems to be a lot of red tape, so I would be grateful if the Secretary of State looked into that.

I hope that I can offer the hon. Gentleman a helpful answer. Dorset police force has been given permission to use the cells at Bournemouth magistrates court at weekends during peak summer months, pending the completion of its custody suite. The points that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned are valid, and the cells in Bournemouth will have a greater call on them than is normal, particularly during the summer.

I doubt that it will have any particular effect. As my hon. Friend knows, the reclassification has led to a proposal that for a first offence, a penalty notice would be issued, consistent with the guidelines for penalty notices.

Why does the Secretary of State’s Department refuse to engage with local communities when deciding on new locations for bail hostels?

The Department and ClearSprings do engage with local councils. I have been very clear that since June last year, we have had to have discussions with the local council, the local police and the local probation board. From all such properties throughout England and Wales, roughly 7 per cent. of houses have attracted complaints from local councils or other organisations or individuals to date. The scheme is working quite successfully throughout the country, although in some small instances there will be difficulties.

Will the Justice Secretary reflect on the fact that, when a Prime Minister parachutes somebody into the House of Lords simply because he requires that person to be a Minister, it seems absurd and unfair to ordinary citizens that that person should remain a Member of Parliament in perpetuity? Surely those Ministers should cease to be Members of the House of Lords when, after 12 months, they give up? There is a precedent for this, because the bishops are not there for life—they are there only for the duration of their time as a diocesan bishop—and the same applies to the Law Lords. If my right hon. Friend agrees about this, can we incorporate the appropriate measures into this great legislative reform, when we get round to it?

It goes without saying that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s appointments of Ministers who have then been promoted to the House of Lords have involved people who can make a continuing contribution to the other place—

For many years to come. However, there is much in my hon. Friend’s point, and it was considered at some length by the joint cross-party group on House of Lords reform, which I chaired. I am quite sure that it will be an issue when—not if—this House finally considers the whole issue of House of Lords reform.

Given how few Government Bills have been programmed for this Session, will the Lord Chancellor proceed to introduce legislation if those on the Conservative Front Bench confirm their agreement to replacing an unelected second Chamber with an elected second Chamber?

If the hon. Gentleman looked around him, he would see that what he is proposing is a hypothesis that is unlikely to turn into a reality.

Will the Lord High Chancellor go very cautiously on that one? Will he also accept that, in the Bill introduced into the other place by Lord Steel, a number of anomalies in the present House—which is a very good House—are addressed? Will he support Lord Steel’s Bill, as the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee has commended?

I accept that a number of discrete proposals in the Bill are certainly worthy of support across the House. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, the reason all three parties in this House have been reluctant to support Lord Steel’s Bill is the high suspicion that his real purpose was to kick any greater reform of the House of Lords into touch. Many of us think that some of his proposed changes are necessary, but that they are by no means a sufficient part of a major reform of the Lords.


Employment Rights Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. William Cash, supported by Mr. Michael Ancram, Mr. John Redwood, Mr. Peter Lilley, Mr. Graham Brady, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. Bernard Jenkin, Philip Davies, Mr. Nigel Evans and Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, presented a Bill to provide that, notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972, workers or members of a trade union who are UK nationals shall have rights of employment in the United Kingdom equal to or as favourable as those afforded to foreign nationals or conferred by the United Kingdom Parliament.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 February, and to be printed (Bill 53).

Protection of Garden Land (development Control) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Paul Burstow, supported by Tom Brake, Lorely Burt, Andrew George, Susan Kramer and Mr. Edward Davey, presented a Bill to protect private gardens from development which is out of character with the surrounding area; to make provision about the circumstances in which a planning application may be rejected by a local authority and about rights of appeal in such circumstances; to prohibit repeated planning applications in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 March, and to be printed (Bill 54).

Home Repossession (Protection)

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Law of Property Act 1925 to require a mortgagee to obtain the court’s permission before exercising the power of sale, where the mortgaged land consists of or includes a dwelling-house; to make certain powers available to the court in actions by mortgagees for possession of a dwelling-house; and for connected purposes.

This Bill is about a very important human right: the right not to be thrown out of one’s home without a court order. It is a right that affects millions of people, and it is of even greater importance in times of economic downturn such as these. However, it is a right that we simply do not have in this country. A recent court judgment now allows unscrupulous lenders to sell people’s homes over their heads, without having first to go to court, when even just one mortgage payment has been missed.

The number of home repossessions resulting from defaults on mortgage repayments has increased dramatically in recent months. According to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, 45,000 homes were expected to have been repossessed by the end of last year, and 75,000 this year. The number of people in mortgage arrears rose to 168,000. The Financial Services Authority and the Council of Mortgage Lenders report that more than 1 million households are likely to default on a mortgage payment in the next year.

The Government have responded to the rising tide of home repossessions with admirable speed and decisiveness. The Prime Minister told the House on 22 October that new guidance had been given to county court judges to ensure that repossession of people’s and families’ homes was undertaken only as a matter of last resort. About a month later, on 19 November, the new pre-action protocol on seeking possession based on mortgage arrears came into force. Its purpose is to ensure that lenders and borrowers act fairly and reasonably with each other to resolve any matter concerning mortgage arrears. The Government have also introduced support for mortgage interest through the income support system, which has been improved. There is also the mortgage rescue scheme for vulnerable people and the home owner’s mortgage support scheme.

In the meantime, however, in a case involving Horsham Properties, the High Court ruled at the beginning of October last year that lenders—banks, building societies and investment companies—were entitled to sell properties, including people’s family homes, without having first to go to court for an order, following just a single default on a mortgage payment. That objective has been achieved as a consequence of the mortgage small print—according to the judge, “conveyancing shorthand”—that is in practically every mortgage deed, in combination with section 101 of the Law of Property Act 1925.

The purchaser of the property who is the new owner—very likely another faceless, compassionless investment company—is then entitled to a summary possession order against the borrower, the householder. The householder is now considered by the law to be a trespasser in his or her own home, which they no longer own. There is no defence in law against that claim. The new pre-action protocol and all the other forms of support that I have mentioned are therefore easily circumvented by unscrupulous lenders who invoke their power to sell the property in this way, without first having to go to court.

Both the Financial Services Authority and the Council of Mortgage Lenders have reported that UK sub-prime lenders have been taking an increasingly aggressive approach to repossessions, and predict that this trend is only likely to increase as economic conditions worsen. Hundreds of thousands of people and their families are therefore at serious risk of being thrown out of their homes, without first having had any opportunity whatever to put their point of view to a judge or to try to persuade the court that it is neither fair nor reasonable to evict them.

My Bill will reverse the High Court’s judgment. It requires that lenders—sub-prime or otherwise—first obtain the court’s permission, before they can call in their security by selling a property that is somebody’s home. It will ensure that the court that hears the lender’s application will have the power to delay the sale of the property and to give the borrower more time to repay, if that is appropriate in all the circumstances. It does not guarantee that people can stay in their homes indefinitely if they cannot pay the mortgage, but it does ensure that people have an opportunity to persuade an independent court that it is far too early, or disproportionate, to throw them into the street—with bags, baggage, furniture and kids’ toys—at the whim of a hard-bitten property company.

Most people might have thought they had protection against this sort of thing happening but, as a result of last October’s court case, they simply do not. It is truly shocking that in Britain in 2009, such a basic legal protection for home owners is not already part of our law, especially when human rights law requires there to be such protection.

The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled in a case against the UK— McCann v. UK—that the right to respect for one’s home, guaranteed by article 8 of the European convention, includes such protection. It said:

“The loss of one’s home is a most extreme form of interference with the right to respect for the home. Any person at risk of an interference of this magnitude should in principle be able to have the proportionality of the measure determined by an independent tribunal in the light of the relevant principles under Article 8 of the Convention, notwithstanding that, under domestic law, his right of occupation has come to an end… the applicant was dispossessed of his home without any possibility to have the proportionality of the measure determined by an independent tribunal. It follows that, because of the lack of adequate procedural safeguards, there has been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention in the instant case.”

Article 11 of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights also protects the right to housing. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has interpreted this in its general comments to include a right to due process and appropriate procedural safeguards before being evicted from one’s home.

In our recent report on “A Bill of Rights for the UK?”, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, recommended that one of the rights that should be protected in any UK Bill of Rights was the right to housing. We suggested in our “draft outline Bill of Rights”, the inclusion of provisions to the effect that

“everyone is entitled to be secure in the occupancy of their home”


“no one may be evicted from their home without an order of a court.”

Those provisions were modelled on the right to housing in the international covenant on economic and social rights and on the equivalent provision in the South African Bill of Rights.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the Joint Committee that a Bill of Rights should include protection for such social and economic rights. However, if the United Kingdom had a Bill of Rights that included such provisions, our courts would not have been able to interpret the law in the way they did in this appalling case, thus allowing lenders to cash in on their security by selling people’s homes without first having to obtain a court’s agreement that such a drastic step was proportionate in the circumstances. Until we have such a Bill of Rights, there is absolutely nothing to stop our courts giving the highest priority to the rights of banks over the rights of ordinary people to a fair hearing before they lose their homes.

This example of home repossession provides a good practical example of the way in which a Bill of Rights protecting social and economic rights such as the right to housing—including the right to minimum procedural safeguards before eviction from one’s home—could defend hundreds of thousands of ordinary people against more powerful interests at times of economic hardship. It shows that human rights are, and should be, universal. They are not a villains’ charter; they are for the middle-class professional struggling with a mortgage just as much as for the council or private tenant with rent arrears when each falls on hard times. No one should lose his or her home without good reason, without proper and fair justification, and without an impartial court hearing.

This problem is immediate and it is urgent. The judge in the Horsham Properties case said that it was a matter for Parliament to resolve. In the absence of the Bill of Rights that I advocated, there is no alternative but to try to change the law through this Bill, which amends the Law of Property Act 1925.

Question put and agreed to.

That Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mr Virendra Sharma, Shona McIsaac, John Austin, Mike Gapes, Ms Karen Buck, Siobhain McDonagh, Judy Mallaber, Rob Marris, Mr. Chris Mullin and Dr. Evan Harris present the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Dismore accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June, and to be printed (Bill 52).

Opposition Day

[4th Allotted Day]

Skills and Further Education

I inform the House that I have selected the Prime Minister’s amendment to both the motions that are to be debated today.

I beg to move,

That this House regrets that the number of young people not in education, employment or training in England has grown from 686,000 to 850,000 since 2000, that the number of adult learner places has fallen by 1.3 million in just two years, and that the number of UK students enrolled at university is now falling; notes that current policies are hindering training opportunities by cutting support for second-chance students, placing too much emphasis on paper-based qualifications rather than raising skills, imposing too many bureaucratic obstacles on employers wishing to offer apprenticeships and freezing the further education capital spending programme despite the Prime Minister’s commitment to bring forward capital projects; believes that providing improved opportunities to up-skill and re-skill is more important than ever given the challenges posed by the recession; and calls on the Government to boost the number of apprenticeships, provide more support to young people not in employment, education or training, help small and medium-sized employers access training, improve opportunities for adult learners, and introduce an all-age careers service.

These are tough times. Our challenge is, of course, to emerge from this recession with a better-balanced and stronger economy, which means an economy that has invested properly in skills. In order to assess the challenges that we face, we should review the record of the past 10 years to see how we managed to prepare ourselves for the tough years ahead during the boom years, which are now dismissed as the age of irresponsibility. Those were the years when employment was rising but the number of young people not in education, employment or training, or NEETs, also rose, from 660,000 in 1997 to 780,000 10 years later, an increase of 18 per cent.

That is what we were doing in the good times. We also know what we were doing in comparison with other advanced western countries. A valuable report from the OECD entitled “Jobs for Youth” records our performance during the growth years compared with the performances of those other countries. Again, the story is very clear. While our rate for NEETs was getting worse and worse, the rate across the OECD on the very same measure was improving. Having been better than the OECD average at the start of Labour’s time in office, after 10 years our rate was below that average.

The unemployment rate among 16 to 24-year-olds rose in Britain from 13.4 per cent. in 1997 to 14.4 per cent. in 2007. In other words, youth unemployment was higher by the end of the boom years. By contrast, across the OECD as a whole the average youth unemployment rate fell from 15.6 to 13.4 per cent. In other words, we entered the boom years with a youth unemployment performance that was better than the OECD average, and we now enter the recession with a performance that is worse.

In his plethora of statistics, the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned the historical record of the unknown, as opposed to the known, NEETs. Will he compliment Connexions in the black country, which has bucked the national statistical trend by both getting an increased number of 16 to 18-year-olds into training and work, thereby reducing the number of NEETs, and, in Sandwell, lowering the percentage of unknowns? It has therefore managed to improve statistics in both those areas.

That was an excellent speech. I happily congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the performance of the Connexions service in his area, especially as he made the crucial point when he described its performance as bucking the national trend, because it is precisely the national trend that we are focusing on in this debate.

If we had predicted in 1997 that we would be in the situation that we are now in, nobody would have believed us. If we had said that after 10 years of economic growth, and even after all the well-intentioned initiatives such as the new deal, we would have more young people not in education, employment or training and more youth unemployment than when the Labour Government came to power, Labour Members would not have accepted our forecast, but that is exactly what has happened.

I spent many years working in further education, and I recall that, in the period leading up to 1997, FE was left to go to rack and ruin; indeed, there was no capital spend towards the end of that period. One day when he has a spare moment or two, will the hon. Gentleman come with me to the A511 just a little north of Coalville town centre to have a look at the magnificent Stephenson college, named after George Stephenson, that has been built there, and which is having a huge impact on FE in Leicestershire? We will then see whether he can still read with a straight face the following phrases in the Conservative motion:

“current policies are hindering training opportunities…freezing the further education capital spending programme”.

What hypocrisy! If I were allowed to say that, that is the word I would use.

Thank you. Let me add that an intervention should not be taken as an opportunity to make a speech; it should be brief.

I will happily accompany the hon. Gentleman on a visit to his FE college if he will come with me and some of my hon. Friends to visit all the FE colleges whose governing bodies are now in little short of a state of crisis as their capital spending plans have been held up by this Government. That is the crisis in FE that we are drawing attention to, and it is causing a great deal of concern across the FE sector.

On 12 February, the Secretary of State will have an opportunity to visit Southgate college and there to hear of the plans for an £80 million development that would transform the college and make it a community hub. Sadly, however, the rug has been pulled from under its feet, because the capital approval has been withdrawn. That is the reality of the future facing what the Prime Minister said would be world-class accommodation.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I hope to turn to this issue later in my remarks, because we very much hope to get clear information on it today from the Secretary of State so that our FE colleges know where they stand.

We enter this recession with a weak position on skills, youth unemployment and young people not in education, employment or training. We need to learn the lessons from this policy failure so that we do not carry on making the same mistakes. There are several such lessons.

May I most warmly commend my hon. Friend for the good sense both of his motion and his speech so far? However, as he has moved on to the subject of skills, may I kindly ask him to rediscover his legendary cerebral powers and make sure that future motions in the name of our party do not contain such appalling terms as “up-skill” and “re-skill”?

My hon. Friend is fighting a very important battle for common-sense English. I shall take careful account of the point he makes, and we shall try to do better.

One of the reasons we face the problems that I am discussing is the policy mistakes made by this Government. One of those mistakes is, of course, the endless reorganisation of the world of skills. I am not going to give the House another potted history of the Government’s measures—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), says that he is relieved, but we are talking about his Government’s measures: the abolition of the training and enterprise councils, at a cost of £62 million; the abolition of the Further Education Funding Council for England; and the creation of the Learning and Skills Council and its 47 different local LSC branches. They had to be abolished so that instead there could be nine regional centres and, of course, the LSC itself is to be abolished and replaced by three new bodies.

In 10 years, we have seen a classic example of Labour’s hyperactivity in its endlessly abolishing and reorganising things. The end result was very well put in the recent “Simplification of Skills in England” report, in a section entitled “Rapidity of change”, which stated that

“the rate of changes in programmes, initiatives, organisations and procedures adds a further dimension of confusion for employers, who can find it extremely difficult to keep up with change and even become aware of new developments, let alone understand them.”

One of the problems is the endless process of change and confusion, which means that it is very hard for individual employers, and for individual young people who are trying to increase their skills, to find their way through the system.

Another problem has been the failure to reform our schools. As well as that schools failure, there is a skills failure: the failure to establish an effective skills policy that understands the difference between skills and qualifications. The Government have become obsessed with paying FE colleges to churn out paper qualifications, even if they are not valued by employers and even if they are not what young people or learners of all ages need. There is more to life, and indeed to education and skills training, than simply building up paper qualifications. It is because of the Government’s obsession with paper qualifications that so many people have lost out.

Adult learners have lost out, so I commend the excellent early-day motion signed by Members from all parts of the House on behalf of the Alliance for Lifelong Learning. Some hon. Members who are present have subscribed to the

“concern that over 1.4 million”

adult learner

“places have been lost in the last two years”.

We thought that the Labour party believed in adult learning; we thought that was one of the commitments and beliefs in the history of the Labour party. It is shocking to see this Government presiding over such a big decline in opportunities for adult learning across the country. The Government say that we do not need to worry because these are places for people to do basket weaving and belly dancing. Conservatives understand the value of those things—

I see my hon. Friend nodding in assent to that proposition. It is very important that people have an opportunity to enjoy those sorts of skills and activities, but it is not just those activities, however worth while, that have suffered—many that are of direct economic benefit have lost out as well.

I shall give way, provided the hon. Lady is a little briefer than her two colleagues were—I would appreciate that.

I recall that when I was working as an adviser in Surrey county council in the 1980s and 1990s, the then Tory Government cut belly dancing and basket weaving classes. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman recalls that too?

I do not recall those exact details. My recollection is that if one examines the figures for adult learning places, one finds that there has clearly been a significant reduction in the past few years. That is a direct result of this Government’s policies, and those reductions are not simply in respect of basket weaving and belly dancing.

Only last week, I received a parliamentary answer to a question in which I asked Ministers to describe in detail the different types of learning opportunities that had been cut under this Government. It revealed that in 2004-05 the Learning and Skills Council funded 1,456,000 places studying information and computer technology, but many of those places were filled by people who were not necessarily going to get a paper qualification in the end, so the axe came down. So by 2007-08, the number of places had fallen to 590,000, which means that nearly 1 million places have been lost in the last three years.

While the number of places has undoubtedly fallen, may I commend the proactive work of the Open university? It has recently introduced the Re-launch website which acts as a search engine to find both places and potential sources of finance?

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does on behalf of the Open university, which is based in his constituency. His point is well made and I strongly agree with him.

I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to Oaklands college in my constituency, which provides many courses for severely disabled learners, who struggle desperately to get funding, especially those in the 19 to 21 age bracket who cannot access student grants. The Government have severely cut the support given to my local college.

My hon. Friend is right, and that is another example of the obsession with paper qualifications. I spoke recently to a student with learning difficulties who was studying horticulture at an FE college, but the course would not gain her an NVQ. The LSC decided that it would fund the course only if it resulted in a paper qualification, so her worthwhile activity was cut as a result of a policy decision by the Government, and they should be ashamed of that.

Does the hon. Gentleman regret the way in which the Conservative Government introduced the national curriculum into schools in the early 1980s? It had the effect of pushing vocational education off the curriculum and alienating a generation of less able children.

We are now digging into the distant past. In fact, I support the principle of a national curriculum. As the hon. Gentleman will know, over the years it has been amended and changed in the light of concerns such as the one that he has expressed. I am trying to draw attention to why the decisions made by the Government have meant that this nation is not investing in the skills that we need, especially now in these tough times of recession.

My hon. Friend has made a powerful case about elements of complacency in the lifelong learning agenda over the past 10 years, but I am sure that he and others would want to look to the future instead of going through the history. Does he agree that, in view of globalisation and the tumultuous economic events of recent months, which will have a great impact in the decades ahead, we now need to train and retrain for four or five different careers over a lifetime in work that may last for 50 years, depending on changes to the retirement age? That is important beyond the paper qualifications achieved at university and to those who may never go to university, but who will need skills in a career that may last many decades.

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why many of my hon. Friends were shocked by a brutal answer from the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, in oral questions last week. We were talking about the importance of what are called—if I have permission from my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) to use the phrase—green collar jobs. The Under-Secretary said that people could get such jobs only if they had studied a STEM subject—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—at university. We then asked about retraining, including going back to university to get a new qualification that might help people to obtain one of those new jobs. Such opportunities have been cut yet again by the notorious equivalent level qualification cuts made by this Government. They simply do not get the importance of adult learning and giving people the opportunities to learn and reskill.

I have been generous in giving way, and I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because I know he has a longstanding interest in this subject. However, after that I will try to make some progress.

If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about adult training places, why is he proposing to cut £610 million from the budget?

No such cuts are proposed. We are refocusing the Train to Gain budget on what we think is the real need in our economy, which is more apprenticeships. Those are the proposals that my party has set out and they are the right policies for the economy.

I want to make some progress by inviting the Secretary of State, as he is about to intervene, to tell us more about the facts and figures behind the concern of many further education colleges across the country about the future of their capital spending plans. That is what we want to hear about today.

Indeed, I shall do that in a moment. However, will the hon. Gentleman help us? The leader of his party announced billions of pounds of spending cuts for the next financial year. He protected some areas of spending but not this Department. That is where the £610 million of cuts comes from. Is the hon. Gentleman in complete denial about the promises made by the leader of his party on 5 January?

The leader of the Conservative party made it absolutely clear that there would be reductions in the growth rate of public expenditure in the financial year 2009-10. They are a proposal in aggregate. Where we would make those necessary savings if we were in government is a subject for careful consideration. That is the position. I want to hear about the Secretary of State’s plans for the capital spending of FE colleges which are today trying to decide whether they should go ahead. We have already heard from several Conservative Members, but I shall quote to the Secretary of State some of the concerns that are being expressed in local papers. Let me quote from The Argus in Brighton, for example. City college Brighton and Hove was

“approaching a key stage in its application for funding but will now face an anxious wait to see the LSC’s next move…Plans for major work at Chichester College, Worthing College, Northbrook College in Worthing, Central Sussex College’s Crawley campus”—

and other colleges “have also been affected”. We have the same concerns about Wakefield college in Yorkshire and there are concerns in north Norfolk about an FE college there. We want to know from the Secretary of State—

If the hon. Lady is going to tell us what she is doing on behalf of her FE college, which is faced with capital cuts imposed by this Government, we shall be very interested to hear her.

I met the relevant Minister and representatives of Wakefield college less than a week ago, as soon as I was aware of the delay to the capital spending programme. I reinforce what I am sure my Front-Bench colleagues will say: this is a three-month review. It is a delay, not a capital cut. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should be wary of exaggerating and causing greater anxiety up and down the country.

If I may say so, the anxiety is not created by us. There is real anxiety among people on the governing bodies of FE colleges and the principals of FE colleges who are approaching us and asking us to raise on their behalf a statement from the Government about what they are doing. Perhaps it was my eternal optimism, but I thought the Chancellor meant something when he said in his pre-Budget statement last November:

“I can announce today that £3 billion of capital spending will be brought forward from 2010-11 to this year and next.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 495.]

I thought the Prime Minister meant it when he said in a speech on 5 January that

“we have…taken…tough decisions that will also benefit every region and nation of the UK to bring forward our capital spending programmes”.

If the Government are bringing forward capital spending, why is capital spending being delayed in the FE college sector?

The Secretary of State said in answer to questions on the subject last week that we should not worry because it is all in the pipeline. His pipeline is about as reliable as the one bringing gas to the Ukraine. His pipeline is not delivering the capital projects that Conservative Members are fighting for on behalf of our FE colleges. If it is all so fine, why has the Secretary of State asked Sir Andrew Foster to review the matter? What is the purpose of calling for yet another review if it is not a recognition that there is a problem? We want to know how many capital projects proposed by FE colleges are affected, the size of the funds involved, and when the Department first knew about the problem.

Another matter I want to refer to is the crisis involving wildcat action by workers in various parts of the country, which has been caused by their concern about what they believe to be the threat to their jobs from foreign workers. Clearly, we have to be very careful in how we approach this, as no hon. Member on either side of the House would have any truck with xenophobia. We believe in the free movement of goods, services and people around the EU, but perhaps the Secretary of State will illuminate the rather striking gap between what the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform have said about the action. The Secretary of State for Health said:

“If workers are being brought across here on worse terms and conditions to actually get jobs in front of British workers…that would be wrong and I can understand the anger about that”.

However, the Business Secretary said in another place the following day that there was no problem with the EU rules on the free movement of labour. He said:

“The statement issued by Total last night confirmed that workers from overseas are paid at the same rate as other workers on the site.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 February 2009; Vol. 707, c. 473.]

Being very generous-spirited, I shall take at face value the words of Lord Mandelson—and it is a long time since anyone has done that—about what he had discovered and the “confirmation” from Total. If all that is so, however, what is the competitive advantage of the workers being brought in from abroad over the workers we have seen demonstrating and asking for their jobs? That is the crucial question, and the crucial clue is surely in what the Prime Minister said when trying to explain the slogan—taken from the British National party—that passed his lips about British jobs for British workers.

On “The Politics Show” of 1 February, the Prime Minister said:

“When I talked about British jobs, I was talking about giving people in Britain the skills, so that they have the ability to get jobs which were at present going to people from abroad.”

That was the Prime Minister’s attempt to explain his egregious remark. If we take him at face value, the only explanation left for the failure of the workers we see protesting to get the jobs they hope to secure is the failure of his Government’s policies on skills. That is the only explanation left if we accept what the Business Secretary said and what the Prime Minister has offered as the meaning of his remarks. He meant that he was going to raise the skills of British workers so that they could secure those jobs, and they are protesting because they cannot get them.

I know the hon. Gentleman wants to be constructive on this issue, and it is clear that we want more skilled people and that there are people in this country who need more skills if they are to compete in any labour market, be it in England, Scotland or elsewhere. I have no particular knowledge of these matters, but I want to make an observation about remuneration and the rates for the job. I do not know what arrangements are made for workers’ accommodation—for instance, they may be put up in a large hulk or vessel—so we must be careful about this matter. The real point is what they take home and what they can send home, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that we must be constructive in our approach. We want as many skilled people as possible in this country, and it does not matter whether they are 20 or 60.

The right hon. Gentleman’s comments are a very salutary warning for Lord Mandelson, who should bear them in mind before he makes remarks such as the one that I cited about pay rates for workers from different countries.

The hon. Gentleman represents the party that gave us “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”, at a time when hundreds of thousands of British workers had to flee because there was no work for them here. He is talking about European directives, so can he confirm that, were his party to win power, its official policy would be to withdraw from the European social rights packages that are part of the law of this land—yes or no?

We believe that that is one of the things that need to be looked at as part of a negotiation about how the EU can tackle the jobs crisis that it faces. I am trying to focus on the Prime Minister’s words: his defence of the statement “British jobs for British workers” was that he meant that, by investing in more skills, we would be able to secure more British jobs for British workers. By its own measure, that approach has clearly failed.

We need more apprenticeships, and we can finance them by refocusing the money in the Train to Gain budget; that would pay for more apprenticeships, especially for people aged over 19. Labour Members raised the issue of the age range of people studying. The difference between the funding for apprenticeships for those aged under 19 and those over 19 is a form of age discrimination that we do not think is right. We want to offer workers aged over 19 a better deal when it comes to apprenticeships. We also want to offer a better deal to small and medium-sized enterprises. We believe that that, too, could be financed by a refocusing of the Train to Gain budget.

I have waded through one of the more tedious Government documents—their response to the Cabinet public engagement event in Birmingham in 2008. On that occasion, the Cabinet went to my home town and apparently met large numbers of local people, who raised with the Cabinet their concerns about various aspects of Government policy. Most of the comments in that Government document are pretty sanitised, but on skills for employment, the following crept in:

“While acknowledging the greater availability of apprenticeships, some employers were of the opinion that Government initiatives such as Train to Gain did not always meet their needs. Individuals also found it difficult to find the right apprenticeship for them, particularly in their local area.”

That is the Government saying that Train to Gain is not meeting the needs of local employers. That is what employers tell us, too, and that is why we think that the money should be focused on helping with apprenticeships.

I have set out the problems that the nation faces when it comes to skills. We want investment in apprenticeships, and we want more opportunities for people to get practical training, including adult learning places that are not linked to paper qualifications. What we have from the Secretary of State is an endless flow of announcements, many of which, on close inspection, add up to very little. Last week in oral questions I referred to the national internship scheme, which does not appear to exist.

Perhaps I could refer to another of the Secretary of State’s announcements—one that made the front page of The Daily Telegraph before Christmas, on Tuesday 9 December 2008. Underneath the fantastic banner headline of an article by Boris Johnson, “When did Christmas Trees Get So Expensive?”, there was the following headline: “Jobless middle class get study cash”. That article included the statement:

“John Denham, the Skills Secretary, announced in the Commons yesterday that he had spoken to university vice-chancellors to urge them to use the extra funds they will receive as a result of recent changes to VAT rates to spend on the ‘hard to reach’ group.”

I was in the House debating with the Secretary of State on 8 December, and I read that day’s Hansard. There was no such announcement by the Secretary of State. He did not announce any use of VAT. He had briefed The Daily Telegraph[Interruption.] Well, the story comes from him. He had briefed The Daily Telegraph on an announcement that he did not even make in the House of Commons. That is typical of the way in which the Government approach skills—through bogus announcements with no real policies behind them. That is no way to tackle the skills crisis that we face in this country.

I have already given way to the right hon. Gentleman. What we need is very simple: less bureaucracy, less interference in further education colleges and fewer fake announcements. We need more real apprenticeships, more adult learning, and more assistance to get young people who are not in education, employment or training into work. We need a more robust and responsive skills system. That is why we Conservative Members will vote for the motion tonight.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“commends the Government’s efforts to boost the number of apprenticeships, provide more support to young people not in employment, education or training, and improve opportunities for adult learners and introduce an adult advancement and careers service; welcomes the real help provided to those affected by the downturn, including increasing the support available through the further education and skills systems; further welcomes the £240 million allocated to help those facing redundancy or newly unemployed; welcomes the additional £140 million to boost apprenticeships, the trebling of Professional and Career Development Loans, and making the Train to Gain programme more responsive, including through £350 million support for small and medium-sized enterprises; notes the Government’s planned investment of £2.3 billion in renewing and modernising further education facilities over this spending review; commends its efforts to help colleges and universities become more responsive to the employer’s needs, including the £50 million Higher Education Funding Council for England economic challenges fund, and to ensure the £175 billion public procurement budget maintains and strengthens investment in skills; further welcomes the simplification of existing systems; further notes that three million people access the skills system every year, with more 18 to 24 year olds working or engaged in full-time education compared to 1997; further notes the number of students in higher education in England is rising, not falling; and further notes that the Government will resist calls to cut skills budgets, as this would undermine the steps being taken to provide real help to business and individuals now.”

I shall choose my language with care. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) chided his Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), for using the words “up-skill” and “re-skill”. He may not know that I know that the hon. Member for Havant took those words from the recent Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee report on skills—the same Select Committee that recently criticised my Department for using “impenetrable” jargon in our annual report. This is probably a topic where we should all tread very carefully, because it is easy to slip into the jargon of the insider and the professional.

I very much welcome the debate. The hon. Member for Havant has saved me a little time and effort, as I had been urging the usual channels to hold a debate in Government time on the very same topic that we are discussing today. The debate is needed to remind everyone just how much the Conservatives neglected skills and further education when they were in government, and how much the legacy, such as the appalling number of adults left without basic numeracy and literacy at the end of the Conservatives’ term of office, has hung over, and still hangs over, the population of this country. The debate is necessary to remind people just how much of a threat the Opposition still pose, because they get it wrong time and again—as we have heard this afternoon. They misunderstand the problem and propose the wrong solutions time and again—as we have heard this afternoon.

Can the Minister explain why, after 10 or 12 years of a Labour Government, 40 per cent. of school leavers are unable to get five GCSEs, despite the fact that those have been watered down, and 60 per cent. of working class boys are leaving school with virtually nothing at all—one in four people unable to read and write after 10 or 11 years of Labour government? How on earth can the right hon. Gentleman put the blame for that on the Conservative Administration?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman go back and look at the statistics about 10 years ago, and he will see that on every one of the measures that he quoted, there has been a dramatic improvement under this Government as a result of the investment that we have made. I, and other Labour Members, give nothing to the Opposition for the fact that we remain dissatisfied and want to continue to press forward, but we have every right to know how much we have achieved following the appalling legacy that we inherited.

I acknowledge, by the way, that there are hon. Members on both sides of the House concerned about local further education college projects currently in the pipeline, and I will deal with that situation as fully as I can in a few moments.

Does my right hon. Friend find it interesting that the Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition totally neglected to mention the huge amount of money that has been spent on union learning representatives—the £400 million or so that is vital to provide peer education? In Wakefield 39 per cent. of people in work have no formal qualifications whatsoever. Is it not vital that we invest in peer education and making sure that those people have qualifications? When we talk about ancient history and people in the 1980s going on youth training schemes and on the other botched training schemes that the Conservative Government ran, we should recognise that those people are now in their 30s and 40s, and will be working for the next 20 years.

My hon. Friend is right on both points. It is indicative that the hon. Member for Havant was unable to recognise one of the biggest success stories of recent years—that by providing modest financial support for people at work to encourage their friends to get involved in learning, we have reached many thousands upon thousands of people—about 250,000 every year—who would not otherwise have gone into learning. And they often volunteer for learning in basic numeracy and literacy, two areas where people find it most difficult to say, “I’ve got a problem and I want some assistance.” My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

I shall set out the huge gulf between the Opposition and the Government in respect of skills. We believe that in a downturn we need to invest in skills and training. The Opposition want to cut investment in skills and training. It is not acceptable for the leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), to announce that if his party was in power, from 1 April 2009 it would cut billions of pounds from public expenditure, and to name the Departments that would be protected and those, including this area of work, that would not be protected, and then for the hon. Member for Havant to say that there would be no cuts in any of these areas of spending. It is not credible or believable, and until I get a different answer, I will proceed by analysing the share of cuts that would fall to this Department and telling the House exactly what those Conservative cuts would mean for education and training.

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that there are seven spending commitments in the Conservative party motion before us? They are:

“support for second-chance students…opportunities to up-skill and re-skill…boost the number of apprenticeships…more support to young people not in employment…help small and medium-sized employers access training, improve opportunities for adult learners, and introduce an all-age careers service.”

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a lack of shame is a hallmark of the bourgeoisie, and is now being exposed in Conservative Front Benchers, who put forward all those spending commitments but also wish to cut spending?

I might choose more temperate and moderate language. However, it is reasonable to assume that many Conservative Members seeking to intervene will, like the hon. Member for Havant, want to suggest that more money should be spent. Conservative Members need to understand that they come from a party whose leader has told them that less money—that includes less money for skills and further education—should be spent. That means cuts.

On the subject of Train to Gain, I should say that the Government, along with the various bodies, have announced some important flexibilities for small and medium-sized companies. That will be really important for constituencies such as mine.

We have talked about how money has been spent in different ways. Does my right hon. Friend not find it curious that the Conservative party seems to be unclear about whether it intends to abolish Train to Gain or whether—like the Liberal Democrats and their “penny on income tax” before the last election—it intends to spend the money in about five different ways?

As the Conservative party has made clear, the whole £1 billion in the Train to Gain budget for 2010-11 would not be spent on those activities. I shall come back to that issue later. The whole package of support for small businesses, and now for larger companies, and for the 1 million people who will gain qualifications every year under the Train to Gain programme, would be removed. There is no doubt about that, and it is a great shame.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s comments about cuts, does he share my puzzlement that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) claimed that under his plans there would be more apprenticeships for young people over 19? In fact, the cuts announced by his party leader would mean that not one young person over 19 would have an apprenticeship next year.

I am afraid that that is true. If we move to cut hundreds of millions of pounds from a budget in just a couple of months’ time, large areas of spending will not be possible. For that sort of cut, we could shut six universities—but of course we could not do that overnight, and huge costs would be involved. The only things that could be turned off to achieve that are those that can be turned off quickly, and that means cutting all apprenticeships for those over 19.

I shall make a little progress and then come back to my hon. Friend.

We believe that, in addition to support for investment in skills and training, there should be an increase in support for those who lose their jobs. The Conservative party opposed the measures needed to pay for that. It would do what it did before—nothing. We should work with Britain’s businesses to deliver the training that they say they want. That would give people the chance to gain the skills that they need. As we have just said, the Conservative party would take that chance away from 1 million people and thousands of firms.

In these difficult economic times the Government have three priorities: first, delivering global action to tackle a global downturn; secondly, delivering real help now to families and businesses to help them through the challenges of the here and now; and, thirdly, delivering real hope for the future by stepping up investment in our infrastructure, industries and skills.

Let us start with investment. When the Conservative party left office—at the time when the current, recycled, shadow shadow Chancellor was Chancellor of the Exchequer—the budget for further education colleges was zero. At the time, the National Audit Office described FE colleges as

“ageing and their quality and fitness for purpose was often unsatisfactory, affecting the reputation of the sector.”

Colleges were not fit for purpose. Since 1997 the Government have invested more than £2 billion in renewing and modernising FE facilities, and we will spend another £2.3 billion in the current spending review period. Since the programme began, nearly 700 projects in 330 colleges have been agreed.

I sense from the Secretary of State’s tone that he welcomes this intervention. I hope that he will be able to give good news in advance of his visit to Southgate college, where people are hoping to improve their build dramatically but where its principal and governors, and other constituents, are concerned that although a lot of money and time has been spent on these plans, which went to the planning committee last Thursday, they have effectively been withdrawn because of the removal of capital approval. Will he now give a commitment that there will be approval for Southgate college’s plans?

As I understand it, no college plan has been presented to the LSC in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency for approval, even in principle. It may well be that his local college has aspirations and hopes to move forward, as many others do and rightly should, but it does not do this debate much good to claim that colleges were on the verge of final approval when they are clearly some way further down the line in terms of planning procedures. I will be happy to discuss the situation at the college when I visit it in a few days or a few weeks’.

As I was saying, since the programme began nearly 700 projects in 330 colleges have been agreed. At present, 253 schemes are under way or are fully approved. Only 42 colleges in the whole of England have yet to receive any investment. Last summer, the National Audit Office reported the programme as making good progress with the renewal and modernisation of the FE estate. It found that the great majority of projects had come in on budget and delivered great improvements for learners, and said:

“The capital programme for further education is enabling colleges and the Learning and Skills Council to achieve together what neither could have achieved on their own, and is delivering high quality buildings.”

Let me get a little further, if I may, in setting out the position.

As part of the boost to the economy, which the Conservative party has opposed, we have brought forward £220 million over the spending review period to this year and the next. Let us be clear: it is my intention to ensure that every pound that we have promised to spend will be spent. The capital programme has not been suspended.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the problem has been that the Learning and Skills Council announced the deferral of a small number of projects for three months, alarming every college principal with a capital project? Aquinas and Stockport colleges in my constituency have capital projects worth over £60 million, which is a big investment in Stockport and in further education. Those two colleges have planning permission. Can he assure me that their plans will go ahead?

As I understand it, the two projects to which my hon. Friend refers have received full approval in detail. None of the colleges that have received such approval is affected by the current delay in LSC consideration.

My constituency, Rotherham, has been hard hit, with job cuts at Corus and with Burberry shutting down. Three weeks ago, the Rotherham Advertiser filled two pages with the new plans for the new development at Rotherham college of arts and technology, which had been signed off. I was concerned about that being displayed, given the misleading guidance to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) has just referred. I am meeting George Trow, the college principal, on Friday. Could the Secretary of State’s private office write to me before then with the assurance that he has now given at the Dispatch Box, with reference to Rotherham college of arts and technology? I would be most grateful.

The remarks that I made apply to colleges that have received full approval in detail to proceed. I am happy to write to my right hon. Friend ahead of his meeting.

Having set out the success of the programme and made it clear that it is my intention to ensure that every pound that we have promised to spend will be spent and that the capital programme has not been suspended, let me turn to an issue that is of genuine concern to Members on both sides of the House. There are schemes in the pipeline that have not yet been fully approved, and the LSC has put further approvals on hold until it has assessed the whole programme. The LSC has not yet provided a full analysis of all those schemes, but I need to be frank: many more schemes are currently in preparation than can be funded in this spending round. Some colleges that have anticipated early approval will be disappointed. Priorities will have to be set and hard decisions will have to be taken.

It is clear that in some cases, unrealistic expectations have been allowed to develop or have been encouraged, which is unacceptable. The LSC is, by statute, responsible for the management of the capital programme, but as Secretary of State, I will apologise to any colleges that find themselves in the position we have discussed, and as Secretary of State I need to find out how that situation arose and what lessons must be learned for the future. That is why I have agreed with the Learning and Skills Council that Sir Andrew Foster should carry out an independent review of the LSC’s handling of the programme. I hope that I have outlined the current position to the House as much as I can, and I undertake to bring forward more detailed information when it becomes available and when I am able to do so.

I appreciate that the Secretary of State has recognised the problem faced by FE colleges. Could he add a bit more information about the number of colleges whose plans are “in the pipeline”, and on the value of those projects, so that we can have a rough idea of the scale of the disappointment that he is talking about?

I am not able to do that reliably. The problem is that if I were to give the number of schemes that have formally been through every process and which are, as it were, sitting in the LSC’s in-tray for approval either in detail or in principle, I would be understating the problem—and I do not want to do that. We have just discussed a college in north London that would not fit into that category, but where I accept that some work has been done in drawing up plans for the future. The procedure has a regional and a national element, and I would prefer to make information available to the House when I have a full picture of the number of projects in the pipeline, and the stage that they are at. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that as an honest answer. It would not help for me to present what might be seen as a narrow definition of the colleges that have expectations of approval in the next year.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way a second time. I understand what he is saying, and I appreciate the suggestion that he will make information available, but will he undertake to come to the House with such a statement? Can he tell the House when he might be able to give us the information? The uncertainty is itself part of the problem for the FE sector.

The LSC told me that it is working towards being able to take the complete picture, with some clarification on the decisions it can take, to its council meeting, which is due to take place on 2 March. I hope that in the days or weeks before 2 March it will be possible, by written statement or in whichever way is appropriate, to make information available. I make that undertaking to the House because we are very proud of the programme. It was praised by the NAO and it has achieved a great deal of good. Colleges are being built, the programme will be delivered over the next two years, and it is unacceptable that some colleges that hope to be part of that process in the near future may face disappointment. We will make available any information that we can as it becomes available.

Before the Secretary of State leaves that point, he will note that the management and administration of the LSC has been one of the most messed-about aspects of education in recent years. Will the inquiry have a look at whether the continual chopping and changing in the way in which the LSC did its job contributed in any way to the freeze that he is dealing with at the moment?

I have asked Sir Andrew Foster to look specifically at the handling of the capital programme. Moreover, we are going to establish an agency focused on young people and on skills, which the House will be debating in a few days’ time, to advise us and the LSC on what lessons should be drawn from what has happened in the past few months for the future handling of the programme by those two agencies. I hope that that addresses the hon. Gentleman’s point, at least in part.

I look forward to the Secretary of State’s visit to my constituency in a few weeks’ time, where he will be able to see for himself the remarkable rebuild of the two outstanding colleges in my constituency. But, as far as future capital spend is concerned, would he remind us about what the Opposition have said about the extent to which they are prepared to match the Government’s spending programme?

It would have been seriously remiss of me to forget to draw attention to that point, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Opposition spokesman told the Association of Colleges that he could not even guarantee to deliver the capital spend promised by this Government in 2010. I hope that any Opposition Members who are rushing to put out press releases saying how terrible the whole thing is will say that their own party wishes to cut spending in 2010.

A global economic slowdown is the time to increase, not to reduce, investment in skills and training. Companies that invest in training are two and a half times more likely to come through the downturn successfully than those that do not. Today it is even more important that business knows that it can get real help from the Government. Those who lose their jobs need support, including help with skills to get back into work, and young people need more opportunities to learn and train for the jobs of the future. That is what we are providing, and what the Opposition oppose. They say that my Department should cut £610 million a year, starting from 1 April. They oppose the Government’s fiscal stimulus and the borrowing needed in a downturn, so they could not match the new investment that we are making or the new support provided by Jobcentre Plus. Now is the very worst time to make cuts, just when people need training to help them keep their jobs, when businesses need to train their staff to boost productivity, and when people need extra support to help them train or retrain to get a job.

The hon. Member for Havant talks of young people without work, education or training. He knows that the figures that he throws about represent a smaller proportion of a much larger generation of young people. Not content with ignoring the extra 1 million young people in work or education since 1997, he throws into the figure young people who are at home bringing up children—the Tories used to be in favour of that. He throws in part-time students—they used to be in favour of them, too—and students on gap years, just to pad out his press release.

Of course there is a real, if much smaller, problem of young people apart from the system. But what does the hon. Gentleman do? He opposes the very things that would help, such as raising the participation age so that more young people get work with training, and the new deal, which is giving young people extra support. His concern turns out to be empty rhetoric.

I hope that the Secretary of State will treat this as a genuine request for information. Given his commitment to getting people back to work, what assessment has he made of the potential cost of adding students currently on benefit to those who are exempt from his reversal of funding for equivalent or lower qualifications?

That is a slightly complicated question, which I may need to reflect on when I have a look at Hansard. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the change that we have made to ELQ funding, to create new opportunities for those who have never been able to go to university, was the right decision. Further measures have been taken to ensure that there are higher education courses to enable people with higher-level skills to reskill—I can say that word, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire is no longer in his place—and gain new skills. That is the right approach to meeting the labour market’s need for people to retrain for a new career or a new direction.

The hon. Member for Havant mentioned apprenticeships. This Government have rescued apprenticeships from their collapse under the Conservatives and built them up so that they are well on their way to taking their rightful place as a mainstream option for young people. He could not match the extra £140 million that we are investing to provide 35,000 extra places this year. We want more than 250,000 apprenticeships next year, just when young people, and business, need that boost. The new national apprenticeship service will enable us to meet our ambition that one in five young people will take up an apprenticeship in the next decade, and to extend group training associations and support the extension of existing schemes. We expect the public sector to shoulder its share of responsibility.

Labour Members all know that when the Opposition were in power, apprenticeships were going the way of the dodo. None the less, does my right hon. Friend accept the concern about the position of some apprentices, given the difficult economic circumstances in which their employers find themselves? What action might be taken to ensure that the investment in current apprenticeships is not lost?

We have established a clearing house in the construction sector to try to match apprentices who may lose their jobs with other placements. We have also changed some of the rules in the system to make it easier for apprentices to continue their college-based training to get the necessary technical qualifications. We acknowledge the problem that my hon. Friend mentions and we are tackling it.

I have taken many interventions and I need to make some progress. I shall take more interventions if I can.

Even if the Conservative party stopped all apprenticeships for those over 19 next year, they would have to make further cuts of £400 million in education and training. We continue to expand higher education; Conservative Members could not.

More than 330,000 people learned new skills through Train to Gain last year, and more than 100,000 employers have engaged with the programme. By 2010-11, the programme will train 1 million a year. Train to Gain means training when and where employers want it, and it works for businesses and individuals. Forty-three per cent. of Train to Gain learners reported that they earned better pay, and 30 per cent. gained a promotion as a result of their training. Fifty-one per cent. of businesses reported an increase in staff productivity and 64 per cent. said that it improved their long-term competitiveness. The deputy director of the CBI recently said that Train to Gain is exactly the product we need at this time.

Yet the hon. Member for Havant and the Conservative party have repeatedly called for the abolition of Train to Gain. That means denying 1 million people and thousands of firms the chance to get on or use training to come through difficult times. Train to Gain lets us offer small businesses flexible training—short courses, which have an immediate impact on productivity. It has enabled us to work with companies such as Nissan, JCB and others to train workers who face short-time working. The Conservatives would stop that.

In the past two years, more than 1 million adults have gained their first literacy or numeracy qualification. Last year, almost 300,000 people got a level 2 qualification and 130,000 got a level 3 qualification—huge increases compared with five years ago. Those record improvements transform people’s lives and make a genuine difference. What would the hon. Member for Havant do? He believes that we should turn back the clock, end the courses and revert to subsidising Spanish courses for holidays.

Training will help companies through the downturn, but it cannot prevent every job loss. In the last recession, people who lost their jobs were abandoned without help or hope. Many drifted or were dumped on to incapacity benefit. Some never worked again. We will not turn our backs on those who lose their jobs. We have provided £158 million in new support to colleges, third sector organisations and Jobcentre Plus to help people get the skills they need to keep their job or find a new one quickly. We are challenging the whole education and training system to change the way in which it works, and to respond better to individuals and businesses. An extra 75,000 college places will be there for those who are out of work for more than six months. People will not have to choose between learning and earning; as they get into work, their training will continue.

At every level of education and training, people may want to reskill or retrain. We have supported and encouraged the Higher Education Funding Council, with £50 million match funding to help universities and support individuals and businesses now. A few moments ago, the hon. Member for Havant complained that he had read about that in The Daily Telegraph. Now the scheme is a reality, but he has not even congratulated us on it. That funding is possible because of the VAT cut, which the Conservative party also opposes.

We are trebling professional and career development loans, allowing for 45,000 new chances to gain skills and qualifications. We are planning for the future. We are establishing the skills funding agency to ensure that we can develop the skills that we need in the strategic parts of the economy, which will enable us to prosper when the upturn comes.

I welcome the fact that we are having this debate—a debate that the Government themselves intended to hold. I hope that I have explained why we wanted it. The Conservative party has a bad history, a wrong analysis of the problems, the wrong policies—and does not even have the courage to come to the House and explain how the cuts that its party leader has promised would affect this area of activity. Everybody will learn lessons from that.

The Secretary of State mentioned previous recessions. I have bitter memories of two recessions—one when I was in school and the other when I had just started work.

In the early 1980s, when I was in secondary school, my community in south Wales was devastated. Hundreds of people in one village could be thrown out of work in one day, sometimes as a result of the deliberate policy of the Government of that time. Shops were boarded up and people were in despair. Indeed, some people of my father’s era faced unemployment and insecurity for an entire generation.

I also remember being a young graduate trainee in 1990 in what is now PricewaterhouseCoopers, when the three people who sat near me—my manager and two supervisors—got a telephone call, reported to the fourth floor and were made redundant. They were then marched on to the pavement and I was told to clear their desks.

I have bitter memories of previous recessions, but many young people today simply have no idea what a recession is, because for the past 15 or 20 years they have grown up in an environment of increasing prosperity, rising house prices and a credit bubble—that is, in an age of consumerism. Now they suddenly find that that certainty—indeed, that bubble—has been pricked.

In a few months’ time, one third of a million undergraduates will be leaving university and, for perhaps the first time in a generation, they will not really know what the future holds for them. When I graduated 20 years ago, the pattern was the same as it is at present. Traditionally, the largest employers of graduates were in financial services, banking, the City and the professional services that support those occupations. However, the sector is facing its worst recession in a generation, so young people leaving university will be uncertain and worried about their future.

Those who are yet to decide what to do beyond school—to go into further or higher education—must be wondering whether it is worth making that investment, which now comes with increased personal debt, or whether they would be better off taking their chances in the workplace. Those already in the workplace knew that the dynamic 21st-century economy meant that they would probably have to train and retrain throughout their working lives. However, in a downturn or recession, they will have to rethink and to retrain all over again.

It must be something of a record in a debate on skills—I have had to do several in the three and a half years that I have been a Member of Parliament—that neither the Conservative spokesman nor the Secretary of State mentioned the Leitch report, which was meant to be the foundation of the Government’s skills strategy, taking us up to the 2020 economy. Perhaps that is because, two years on from Leitch, the Secretary of State and the Government realise that many of the recommendations and conclusions of that report are already effectively redundant, because the economy has changed. Many of the criticisms made of the report from the Liberal Democrat Benches in 2006 and 2007 are perhaps more apt now. In particular, employer-led demand does not seem so relevant when many people no longer have an employer.

Those who are unemployed or who fear unemployment will not be interested in arbitrary targets for qualifications. They need practical help now. We need a skills strategy, not a target for qualifications. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) may no longer be in his place, but I am afraid that we do need reskilling, which is ever more relevant, and not just the upskilling that seemed to be the foundation of the Government’s strategy just two years ago.

Some of the targets in the Leitch report, which are still embedded in Government policy, such as the attainment of a full level 2 qualification, as well as the funding linked to those targets, are perhaps not relevant to the many people who are having to refocus their lives and their priorities. For older workers in particular who may need to retrain to get a specific new skill, attaining a broad level 2 qualification, which is the Government’s main target, is not necessarily appropriate.

If we take reskilling to mean learning new skills in order to move into a different area of employment, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that such work is certainly happening in my constituency, particularly with the Honda workers. The Government are not ignoring such work; in fact, it is happening apace in my constituency.

I am not saying that no reskilling is taking place at all—obviously that would be absurd—but all the Government’s targets in the strategy that was commissioned by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor back in 2006 are linked to upskilling the work force. Those targets were not so focused on whether people needed to reskill throughout their working lives. That is the point that I was making.

That point is backed up by research that some of us will probably have received in advance of today’s debate from, among many other organisations, Age Concern. A study by Age Concern has shown that an unemployed man over the age of 50 probably has only a one in five chance of returning to employment within two years. That is worse than the survival rate for many critical illnesses. Those people need a quick, personalised intervention.

We need a whole new approach to adult learning that involves retraining the older workers in an ageing work force as well as preparing the young for the fast-changing world of work. Adult learning—formal and informal—is especially good for women, as was illustrated by the conclusions of the skills study that the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) has been chairing. Perhaps he will speak about it shortly. The study shows that women in particular benefit from adult education, because many of the women who are now in the work force did not attain particularly good results when they were at school. The attainment levels of girls in the 1970s and 1980s were behind those of boys—a complete reversal of where we are today.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for publicising the “Women and Work” report that was published today. Does he agree that, when we are looking at reskilling in the downturn, we need to look carefully at giving proper value to what some people might call soft skills—the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is not here, so I can say that—although I prefer to call them enabling skills? They are precisely the kind of development and personal skills that will assist older workers, and women in particular, to get back into work or to improve their work skills base.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was pleased to be able to play my part in giving evidence and taking part in the seminar that assessed the evidence that has led to today’s report. Soft skills are relevant to women in the work force, and to young people entering the work force. One of the most common things that I hear from employers, and the organisations that represent them, is that they want people entering the work force to have not only literacy and numeracy skills but cross-cutting skills that will enable them to sell, persuade, articulate and engage in teamwork.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to get across the message that we are absolutely determined that people who are just over 50 should have the same opportunities as anyone else? I had two such people in my surgery last week, one woman and one man. Such people might have 10, 15 or 20 years’ work left in them, and they have the capacity and the will to do it. They must not be made to feel that they are second class when looking for new skills, new opportunities and new work.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a result of the demographic change that is to take place over the next decade or so, our national prosperity will become increasingly reliant on the people who currently make up that part of the work force. As a result of the economic downturn, their pensions and economic stability are now more uncertain, and many of them have realised that they are going to have to stay in the workplace for a lot longer than they envisaged 20 or 25 years ago.

One qualification that definitely needs greater support is the recognised brand of apprenticeships. A forthcoming Bill will include the Government’s provisions for dealing with apprenticeships, and I am sure that we will spend more time discussing them during its passage. In the present economic downturn, however, it is vital to support employers and help them to meet the training costs of those whom they take on as apprentices. That would be a better use of the growth in the Train to Gain budget over the next couple of years, which would release £500 million into meeting the training costs of new apprenticeships. That would not involve a cut; it would simply be a refocusing of the growth in the budget that will take place in any event.

There also needs to be greater certainty for young people—or, indeed, older people—who are thinking of entering an apprenticeship. It is not easy to find out who is offering apprenticeships, whether in someone’s own locality or further afield. We need an apprenticeship service that would, in some ways, replicate that available for those wishing to enter higher education—a UCAS-type system—so that people could find out what places and remuneration were available, and what opportunities were open to them.

The public sector should also set an example, certainly for Government construction contracts but in other Government services and procurement projects too. The Government could make a tangible difference in this area, in contrast to the rather meaningless announcements that they have made so far about interns.

The issue of capital expenditure in further education colleges was the subject of an earlier exchange. The information that I have is that more than 20 schemes were delayed for three months by the national Learning and Skills Council in December. That means a real cost to those colleges; it is not just a matter of uncertainty about whether they can proceed with their plans. Many colleges have already engaged architects, for example. In my constituency, a leading firm of architects has laid off a third of its work force; other architects have approached me and said that they were expecting to have the go-ahead to work on these projects, but because of the downturn across the entire construction area, many of those professional people are now fearful for their jobs. Of course, some FE colleges have sunk professional fees into working up proposals, so the delay, albeit of only three months, should not be so easily dismissed.