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Commons Chamber

Volume 491: debated on Monday 27 April 2009

House of Commons

Monday 27 April 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Dedicated Schools Grant

1. How much dedicated schools grant has been allocated to schools in (a) East Devon, (b) Devon and (c) England for 2009-10. (270732)

The Government allocate funding to local authorities, not by constituency, so we do not hold figures separately for East Devon. The guaranteed unit of funding per pupil for Devon is £3,843. The amount of dedicated schools grant that Devon receives is dependent on the number of pupils on roll. Devon will receive around £359 million for 2009-10. The indicative total of dedicated schools grant for England for 2009-10 is £29.8 billion.

I am most grateful to the Minister for that answer. He came down to Devon recently and gave an interview to my local paper in which he admitted that Devon is still slightly below the average for funding. The reality is that if the average amount allocated to schools according to the Government’s funding criteria were met in Devon, Sidmouth college would be £300,000 better off in 2009 and Exmouth community college—the biggest secondary school in Europe, with 2,500 pupils—would be better off by £900,000. Does the Minister not agree that education in Devon is just as important as education in Birmingham? I have always considered him a fair man; will he therefore undertake today to end that discrimination against Devon’s schoolchildren?

I am looking forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman next month to discuss those issues and the dedicated schools grant review that we are undertaking. The truth is that Devon receives well over £1,000 per pupil more than it did in 1997, as part of the 75 per cent. real-terms increase in schools funding. We are committed to protecting school budgets, as we review the dedicated schools grant. I note that the hon. Gentleman is also meeting the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to discuss those matters, but I am not sure that he can make the same commitment.

We on the Conservative Benches support the Government’s approach to education. We are totally committed to it—we want more education, we want more jobs; we want all these things—but could the Minister please explain to the House why South Devon college, which is a showpiece in the south-west, has had its funding cut for this year and why Dartmouth college is falling to bits? The people there are ready to rebuild it, but they cannot get the funds.

The hon. Gentleman has come to see me to talk about Dartmouth college. We have discussed how we might be able to take things forward, as we roll out our Building Schools for the Future programme, which is a Government commitment to refurbishing or replacing every single secondary school over 15 years. I know that South Devon college does a fantastic job and I am keen to see it develop as an outstanding provider of education in Devon. However, if there are issues that I need to look at with the Learning and Skills Council, I shall be happy to do so.

National Challenge Programme

2. How many academies and national challenge trust schools he expects to be opened under the national challenge programme. (270733)

Our national challenge programme provides resources to transform up to 70 additional schools into academies and up to 70 schools into national challenge trusts. This September, more than 300 academies will open, and we expect that academies will have replaced more than 200 national challenge schools. So far, we have agreed 16 national challenge trusts and we are expecting to agree a further 34 shortly, of which 30 will open this September and 20 will open in 2010.

In 2006, we opened two new city academies in Mitcham in my constituency, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Conservative councillors. Those two schools have now doubled the number of pupils getting five GCSE passes. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the sponsors, Lord Harris and the Church of England, as well as all the staff and the pupils at those schools? Will he also warn people that although those on the Conservative Front Bench may have converted to supporting academies, Conservative local councillors on the ground do not want schools in deprived areas?

My hon. Friend makes two important points. The first point is that academies in disadvantaged communities are driving up results faster than the average, which shows that academies work. The second point, which she made about her constituency, but which is equally true of Dudley, is that for all the bluster from the Opposition, it is Conservative councils that are blocking academies round the country.

If the problems with the national challenge programme continue, and if Ministers end up having to hold an inquiry into the matter, will the Secretary of State assure us that the evidence that Ministers give to the inquiry will not be “false”, a “fiction” and “sexed up”, as Dr. Boston suggested of the evidence given to the SATs inquiry?

All the evidence that is given by this side is accurate, and when any mistakes are made, they are always corrected as soon as they come to our awareness. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting the national challenge programme, because it is transforming the life chances of children in schools around the country. He should not join the Conservatives in opposing that part of school improvement policy as well.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, earlier this year, his Department agreed a multi-million pound investment in the village of Maltby in my constituency, which included the rebuilding of three schools, one of which is the secondary school that is going to become an academy. Is he aware that the Conservative opposition on Rotherham borough council have voted against this, and that, on 15 April, at a meeting of the scrutiny committee that attempted to prevent the project from going ahead, the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Tory party, Councillor Lynda Donaldson, voted against the rebuilding of those schools?

I understand the point that my right hon. Friend is making. I think that there is a theme here. Some people believe that the academies programme is right because it takes out the role of local authorities. Presumably that is because they are Conservative local authorities that oppose academies, as we have seen in London and Dudley. We are also now seeing it happening in Rotherham. Luckily, there is a Labour council in Rotherham and it is taking forward the academies policy. It is those Members on the Government Benches, not those on the other side, who believe in school improvement for disadvantaged children.

In the current economic climate, surely education reform is vital to strengthen our economy. Will the Secretary of State now accept that extending bureaucratic interference in education is not the way forward?

I am totally against the extension of bureaucratic interference, but I also believe that it is important that our schools should do a good job by all the children in our country. That is why Jim Rose is producing his primary curriculum review on Thursday to ensure that primary schools focus on the basics, including phonics. I do not support proposals to withdraw the national curriculum from some primary schools. That would set back reading, learning and phonics, and it would be the wrong thing to do. I will stand by parents on doing the right thing by education, and not by Opposition Members.

At the weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), in a widely acclaimed speech, announced a new Conservative policy that would extend the academies programme to include primary schools, freeing those schools from local and national bureaucratic interference. The former Labour education adviser to Tony Blair, Conor Ryan, welcomed the proposals in his excellent, well-written blog, but he expressed shock and disappointment at the response of Ministers to these proposals—particularly the “uncharacteristically sour” response from the Minister for Schools and Learners. He said that the Government’s response would send chills down the spines of “thoughtful Labour supporters”. Is the man who did so much to craft the education policies for the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and Tony Blair wrong, and, if so, why?

The hon. Gentleman is well known for his support for early reading, for literacy and for phonics. We have introduced a role for phonics and literacy in the national curriculum, and that will be strengthened on Thursday. The idea that he could support some successful primary schools opting out of the national curriculum beggars belief. This is not just about collaboration; it is also totally dishonest to come along with a policy to expand investment in academies while advocating cuts in the schools budget. That is what will send chills down the spines of parents.

Building Colleges for the Future (Barnsley)

4. What assessment he has made of the effects on sixth-form provision in Barnsley of the financial difficulties in the Building Colleges for the Future programme. (270735)

I understand the difficulties being faced by Barnsley college, which is one of the 144 capital projects being considered by the Learning and Skills Council. The additional £300 million of capital funding that was announced in the Budget, including £80 million from my Department, will enable a number of the most urgent projects to start within the spending review period. In line with Sir Andrew Foster’s recommendations, the LSC is consulting on which capital projects can be brought forward in that period.

First, may I point out that I have not changed my name and that the entry on today’s Order Paper is a typo? I am still the MP formerly known as Eric.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. He knows perfectly well the situation of Barnsley college. The fourth element of the college’s rebuilding scheme is accommodation for our sixth forms, because the vast bulk of our sixth-form provision is within the college. Will he add his voice to that of the local Barnsley MPs in pressing the Learning and Skills Council for a decision in relation to Barnsley college—I hope one that will allow that fourth phase of the development to go ahead?

My hon. Friend will understand why it is hard for me to press the LSC at this stage while it is carrying out its consultation, but as I said, in the next two years, £80 million of 16-to-19 funding is being brought forward now to help to deal with the issue. I understand the particularly acute needs of Barnsley college, given the advanced state of the plans and the investment there. The consultation will be done properly. We will also ensure that no college loses out. Like him, I would like the building of that final stage of the Barnsley project to be completed as soon as is practically possible.

I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that all the secondary schools in my constituency have sixth-form provision. On 2 March, they were given their figure for the year. By 23 March, some schools had £90,000 removed from them—within three weeks. Will he meet a delegation of headmasters from my constituency and explain to them why they are losing so much funding and will have to cut sixth-form provision in my constituency?

I fear that the hon. Gentleman may have missed the Budget announcement, which allocated—

No, the hon. Gentleman did not miss the Budget announcement, in which case he will know that in the Budget we allocated £650 million over the next two years, which will guarantee more than 50,000 more learners, and all the learners in 2009-10 and 2010-11, including in his college. I am happy to have a meeting with those headmasters to say to them that they are getting the money. I hope he is not misunderstanding the position and he ought to be pressing his Front Benchers, who so far have failed to match our September guarantee for September 2009 and September 2010. That is what I will say when I meet his college principals: we are the ones guaranteeing the money; the Conservatives are the ones guaranteeing the cuts.

It is not only Barnsley that has these problems. Skem college has outstanding a £41 million development of a new campus—a first and major step in the regeneration of Skelmersdale, which is a town of significant deprivation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in Skem college is vital for the social and economic ambitions of the town and the college, and that a needs-based approach must be the one that is adopted when reviewing these matters?

My hon. Friend is completely right and that is what Sir Andrew Foster proposed. He said that the Building Colleges for the Future programme is a brilliant programme. It is helping hundreds of colleges around the country and it is a record investment, but we have more colleges with plans than we have resources available. That is why this must be based on need. I have to tell my hon. Friend that if she wants to see that investment flowing through, it is vital that she continues to campaign for a Labour Government, because the Conservatives would cut those budgets.

Of that £650 million, will the Secretary of State confirm that some has been allocated to the excellent Telford college of arts and technology? In a time of rising unemployment in Shropshire and the west midlands, the college does a great job in reskilling and retraining people, and indeed keeping young adults in full-time education, yet they have been let down. They were told to think big and plan big, but now they are being told that a large extension cannot go ahead because the funds have dried up. That means that at least £1.6 million from existing funding will have to go into the design costs, let alone the abandoned build costs. Will he commit in the House today to TCAT being allowed to expand to meet the rising demand?

The point I made a moment ago was that we have more projects in the pipeline than we have resources in the next two years and that the LSC is going through a prioritisation review. We will ensure over the coming years that all those projects are completed in time, because we will guarantee the funding, which the Conservative party would cut.

It is also the case that, because of the £650 million allocated in the Budget, the LSC has been able to write to all schools and colleges today to tell them that we will be guaranteeing the funding for September this year and next. We will fund the September guarantee because we want all young people who want to do so to stay in school or college or be on an apprenticeship. However, despite my repeated requests, I cannot get similar backing from the Conservative party because the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) knows that the cuts committed for his budget would not allow that funding to flow. That is the difference. If the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) is honest, he will tell his constituents that fact. I am the one guaranteeing the funding. His party is not.

Excluded Children

5. What recent discussions he has had with local authorities on proposals to abolish appeals panels for excluded children. (270736)

There are no proposals to abolish these panels. This Government are committed to retaining the right for parents of permanently excluded pupils to appeal to an independent appeal panel, which is an established safeguard for pupils and parents.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am particularly concerned about talk, especially from the Opposition Benches, about stopping these panels. They are a particular safeguard for children with special needs, who we know are three times more likely to be excluded. Will she assure me, the Council for Disabled Children and the National Children’s Bureau that this Government and the education system will support these children, rather than let them down, which is much more likely should that despicable policy ever see the light of day?

My hon. Friend is right to draw that to our attention. Certainly, an amendment to that effect was tabled to the Education and Skills Bill by the Conservative party. The Special Educational Consortium said then, and we agree with it, that children with special educational needs were already disproportionately represented in exclusion statistics and the amendment would remove one of the remaining few checks and balances currently operating in the system.

Of course, schools sometimes mistake disability for disobedience. Children with special educational needs are nine times more likely to be permanently excluded from school, and the Government are rightly committed to reducing the incidents of such exclusions. In the light of that, will the Under-Secretary of State consider the merit of amending the law so that a child with SEN or disability may be permanently excluded from school only if a review has taken place of the sufficiency and effectiveness of the reasonable adjustments that have been made under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to seek to accommodate that pupil?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I pay tribute to his expertise in this area of special educational needs, and we certainly share his passion and commitment to promoting improved outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities. I am, of course, aware that he has a private Member’s Bill that is due for its Second Reading on 15 May. I believe that that is one proposal that may be considered in it. We certainly look forward to debating that.

While I accept my hon. Friend’s answers to those questions, and following on from the question asked by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), a few years ago a pupil in a high school in my constituency physically attacked a teacher and other pupils, who required treatment for their injuries. He was then excluded but put back in the school by an appeals panel. Is not the real problem that there is not sufficient provision in publicly provided residential accommodation for young people with serious behavioural difficulties to go into from time to time?

We certainly recognise the difficulties that children and young people with behavioural and emotional problems present in schools. That is why we are looking at the review of special educational needs; we have Ofsted reviewing special educational needs and Brian Lamb looking at how we can improve the experience for parents and young people. Certainly, part of that is how we manage behaviour in schools and how we ensure that there is sufficient provision to enable these young people to fulfil their potential.

Government figures last year revealed that there was a drop of 13 per cent. in permanent exclusions between 2003 and 2007 despite a 50 per cent. increase in the number of children suspended for five times or more— 867 of them excluded for 10 times or more—at a time that saw 4,370 fixed exclusions for serious racist abuse and more than 207,000 serious offences, such as sexual abuse and violence. Yet, in no fewer than 40 per cent. of appeals against permanent exclusions, reinstatement was upheld so that pupils could return to the scene of their offences with impunity, most of them having nothing to do with SEN. Does the Minister think it right that a pupil who has been excluded for violent crime, racist or sexual abuse should be readmitted to schools under any circumstances against the better judgment of the head or the governors?

We are certainly committed to backing head teachers’ authority when pupils’ behaviour warrants exclusion. Last year, the number of successful appeals was just 1.2 per cent. of all permanent exclusions, so we must get this in balance. We obviously recognise, and we have said in response to Alan Steer's report, that repeated suspension should lead to permanent exclusion. We are certainly giving back head teachers authority in that.

Free Nursery Places (Reading)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As he knows, free entitlement to early-years provision for three and four-year-olds is a universal offer that is taken up by almost all four-year-olds and more than 95 per cent. of three-year-olds. In Reading that equates to approximately 3,500 places, helping to give three and four-year-olds the best possible start in life.

There is no doubt that the extension of free nursery education is one of Labour's finest achievements. In order to spread the word to a wider audience, can the Minister tell the House how many extra nursery places have been delivered in all Berkshire authorities since 1997?

I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend that information because the figures before 1997 are not available, but we know that it was not a priority for the Government at that time: free provision was patchy and often depended on whether one had a good Labour council funding it, or whether one could afford to pay. This Government have been the first to introduce and to be committed to universal free entitlement for all three and four-year-olds, and we remain so because of the difference that it makes to reducing inequality, to helping every child to fulfil their potential and to helping families to balance work and family life. Parents want to know whether all that will be in jeopardy if the Conservatives come back into government.

Many nursery providers in my constituency are under considerable financial pressure thanks to the changes made by this Government. A recent survey found that about half have considered closing. Many cannot meet the cost of free entitlement. How do the Government expect a broad range of nurseries to remain in business in Reading and elsewhere if they cannot afford to cover their basic costs?

Frankly, that was nonsense. It is because this Government doubled the number of places for the under-fives that the private sector was able to expand in the way it did under the Government last year; there are now more than 1.3 million places. The funding that we are putting in for free entitlement is enabling those providers to stay in business largely. Certainly our independent research shows that the money that we are putting in—£4 billion a year across all early- years provision—is sufficient for free entitlement. We want local authorities to be more consistent in the way in which they administer that, but it is helping the private sector to thrive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) is absolutely right. When it comes to nursery places in Reading or any other part of the country, the Minister knows that the sums do not add up. Two out of three nurseries still cannot provide free places for the Government money that they receive. Why, when more than 9,000 families are predicted to see their child care close by the end of this year because of the financial crisis, is the Minister failing to take action to stop the instability that is so damaging for so many families up and down the country?

The £1.3 billion per year for the free entitlement is enabling many nurseries in the private sector to continue. We are committed to continuing that funding, along with the funding for Sure Start children centres and all the early-years provision in our maintained schools. The question that parents want answered is whether the hon. Lady, if a Conservative Government came to power, would be committed to continuing that funding and continuing the provision for the under-fives

Secondary School Expenditure

Separate figures are not available for secondary schools, as funding is not allocated by phase. Revenue and capital combined funding per pupil aged three to 19 in England for 2009-10 is £6,400. The average guaranteed per pupil unit of funding in the dedicated schools grant, which is the core element of school revenue funding, for 2009-10 is £4,218.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and may I say what a vast improvement that is on the situation before 1997? In the context of the financial crisis, does he detect any lessening of the Government’s enthusiasm for seeking convergence in the funding of the 93 per cent. of children in state schools and the 7 per cent. of children in private schools?

There is no lessening of enthusiasm at all; our commitment remains to safeguarding schools budgets. We are committed to the increases that we set out the year before last for this comprehensive spending review period—unlike others, who can make no commitment for the last year of that spending review period—and on the basis of those increases, we are narrowing the gap all the time.

The Minister always seeks to deal with questions in a helpful and sensitive way. Am I right to believe the information that is coming to me from a number of my local secondary schools that there is a problem in the funding of sixth-form education? This deeply worries me, because I believe that, at the sixth-form level, we really do dictate how people will succeed in their subsequent career and life. Is there a problem? If so, what are the Government going to do about it? As he knows, I come from what was Cheshire—now it is Cheshire East.

I shall try to put this as helpfully and sensitively as possible. As we set out in response to earlier questions, in the Budget we announced more than £200 million for this year and more than £400 million for next year so that we can fully fund post-16 places and, indeed, an additional 55,000 extra learners. We are not just saying to schools and colleges, “Plan on the basis of what you had already predicted at the turn of year for post-16 places.”; we are also saying, “If you can stimulate more into learning, we have the resources to listen to what you are saying and to see whether we can do even better than you were expecting.”

We all welcome the increase in the baseline funding for secondary schools, but will the Minister assure us that, once again, he will re-examine the area cost adjustment, in order to take account of children who live in small pockets of deprivation and underachieve, yet are paid less than those in accommodating areas, where schools overachieve above the average and there is no deprivation, simply because they are not in metropolitan areas?

Certainly I can tell my hon. Friend that we are looking at a new formula for the dedicated schools grant for the next spending review period. We have been working and consulting on that for some time, and we expect to be able to make some announcements towards the end of next year on the outcome of that work. During this spending review period, we acknowledge, for the first time, that there are pockets of deprivation in some of our wealthier authorities; we have begun a process of acknowledging exactly the point that he raises.

In the middle of March, Lutterworth college—the biggest school in Leicestershire—which is in my constituency, was told that it would get a certain sum for post-16 education, but at the end of March, the Learning and Skills Council told it that the sum would be less. Now, after the Budget, the Government are saying that they are going to find the money after all. May I say sensitively to the sensitive Minister that the situation is chaotic—to say the least? Can he now guarantee that Lutterworth college will be able to fund every place that it expected to fund this coming September?

I welcome the investment to which my right hon. Friend has referred in earlier answers. Do figures exist to show the funding that is being put into the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Is he confident that it is sufficient to ensure that every student who wants to study one of those subjects can do so?

I do not have the figures at my fingertips for the extra resources that we are putting into the STEM subjects, which my hon. Friend champions so passionately, but it is crucial that we sustain the momentum that we have developed in science, technology, engineering and maths for our economy and to enable individuals to prosper in life. Those skills and competencies are hugely important, and we will continue that commitment as we carry out the review of schools funding that I mentioned earlier.

Free School Meals

8. What his most recent assessment is of levels of educational achievement by pupils eligible to receive free school meals; and if he will make a statement. (270739)

The attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals has improved strongly since 1997. An estimated 20,000 more FSM pupils now get the expected standard—level 4 or better—in maths at the end of key stage 2, which is the end of primary education, than 10 years ago and the figure is more than 16,000 for English. Last month the Department published “Breaking the Link between deprivation and low attainment—Everyone’s Business”, a comprehensive assessment of the reasons why children receiving free school meals attain less than their peers at every key stage, and we will say more on that key issue in the White Paper later this year.

Both the OECD and the Rowntree Foundation agree that the great achievement of Labour over the last 12 years has been the widening of the gap between rich and poor in our communities. With 75,000 children receiving free school meals and 45 per cent. of them not getting a grade C or above at GCSE in any subject, what does the Government have to be proud of?

We are proud that standards have risen in every authority and that the most deprived areas have made the biggest gains. We are proud that schools serving the most deprived pupils have made the most progress. We are proud that underperforming minority ethnic groups have made above average progress. We acknowledge that there is still a strong link, at individual pupil level and starting at 22 months of age, between disadvantage and achievement levels. Therefore, anyone serious about a progressive agenda would not cut Sure Start and children’s centres, would not oppose national challenge and personalised interventions such as one-to-one tuition and would certainly not abandon the national curriculum through primary academies, meaning that effective reading schemes such as synthetic phonics would not be mandatory for those who need them most. Those are the policies of the hon. Gentleman’s party.

As the Minister will be aware, I am an evangelist for universal free school meals. In trials of universal free school meals in Hull and Scotland, educational attainment, attendance and behaviour all improved. At a recent conference of the Caterers Association, concern was expressed that the nutritional standards were too stringent. I do not know whether that is the case, but I have had representations from pupils in Gateshead who felt that taking the chocolate off the top of their flapjacks was a step too far. We all want school food to be healthier, but what is the Minister’s response to the flapjack issue and the concerns of the association?

While I am partial to the occasional flapjack, with or without chocolate—in fact, I enjoyed one with plain chocolate, cranberry and macadamia nut over the weekend—I do not think that they would meet the nutritional standard, with or without chocolate. My hon. Friend raises a more serious issue about the importance of free school meals. We are looking to pilot universal provision and we will make some more announcements on that shortly.

All pupils, especially the most disadvantaged, need reliable assessments to ensure that they are making progress. However, I have serious questions about the Government’s handling of assessment and their ability to deliver reliable assessment this year. The Minister said last year that delivering national curriculum tests was a mission-critical issue for his Department. When we warned on 19 May that last year’s tests were going badly wrong, the Secretary of State said that it was an issue that he personally was monitoring closely. On 30 June the Government eventually acknowledged that the whole testing process had descended into shambles. Just how closely did the Secretary of State monitor those tests? How many times did he meet Ken Boston, the head of the agency charged with delivering the tests, between the alarm being raised in May and the end of June?

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was pressed throughout the whole of the debacle relating to the delivery of the SATs for which it was responsible. The QCA was pressed by officials, by me and by the Secretary of State. We commissioned an inquiry into these matters, so serious were the problems relating to test delivery. Lord Sutherland carried out that inquiry and he remains of the view, as confirmed in a statement last week, that no new information has come to light that changes his findings from that inquiry, which said that the responsibility lay squarely with the contractor, ETS, and with the QCA.

The Minister, like the Secretary of State, is once again evading responsibility for the truth. Ministers’ testimony in the Sutherland report depicts them—the Minister has repeated this statement—as having regularly

“pressed QCA’s Chief Executive for answers.”

The Secretary of State told me in this House on 16 December that throughout the critical period, Ministers

“pressed QCA’s Chief Executive for answers.”

He told the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that

“time and again…my officials and Ministers raised questions with the QCA”. —[Official Report, 16 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 996-999.]

Under further interrogation, he insisted, “We regularly asked questions”. However, the QCA chief executive testified to the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families last week:

“I was not asked to meet…the Schools Minister in the months leading up to the delivery failure…including the critical marking period in the final eight weeks. Nor was I being ‘pressed’ by ministers for answers on the telephone or by e-mail.”

Is Ken Boston lying? If not, who is?

The Secretary of State did press three times by mid-June. I have here a whole list of a series of meetings that I, officials and the Secretary of State had with officials from the QCA, including Ken Boston. There was one problem when I recollected his presence wrongly as regards two meetings a fortnight apart. At the second meeting, on 2 July, I met Ken Boston and David Gee. I previously met David Gee and I previously met Ken Boston on all those occasions—[Interruption.]

The records of all those meetings were given to Lord Sutherland. He carried out his inquiry, which was described even by Dr. Boston last week as fair. That inquiry fairly and squarely laid the blame and the responsibility where they should lie.

Fair Admissions Policies

We recently improved the statutory framework, making admissions fairer, more co-ordinated and easier for parents. For 2009 entry, 83.2 per cent. of children got their first choice of secondary school, with 96.2 per cent. securing one of their preferences. Parents must now be consulted on local proposals and the schools adjudicator can examine arrangements without formal objection. Local authorities must now report annually to the adjudicator on fair access, informing his report on compliance to the Secretary of State.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Every year, schools admissions have been a hot topic in my constituency. I can understand the concerns of parents who are choosing a primary or secondary school place. As part of a fair admissions policy, we need quality information. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give parents in my constituency that they will have access to all the relevant information to enable them to make a fair choice?

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that in Stockport, which covers his constituency, parents’ preferences for school places were met at higher than the national average level. From next year, parents need only to apply to their home local authority for school places, including for applications in year. Information for parents must be clear and comprehensive and choice advisers are available locally to help the disadvantaged. We are requiring local authorities to produce composite prospectuses by 12 September each year.

Last April, we published a parents’ guide to help parents navigate the admissions and appeals system. We will update that in July to ensure that parents have all the information that they need.

Ministers have tried hard to amend the policy to make it better, but is it not still the truth that in local authorities where many or all schools are their own admission authorities it is sometimes very difficult to have a fair and flat playing field for applications? For example, in areas where there are a lot of Church schools, people who go to church get a far better deal than people who do not. What will Ministers do to give all pupils a fair opportunity to have access to all secondary schools?

The first thing we have done is to make sure that all schools, whether they are their own admissions authority or part of the local authority, act in accordance with the current code. They have to abide by the admissions code. Through that mechanism and also in the fact that we are now allowing the schools adjudicator to look into objections from wherever they come, we can continue to update the code and ensure that it is fair.

Topical Questions

I know that parents, teachers and children will be concerned by the reports over the weekend about the flu outbreak in Mexico. As a contingency measure we shall today remind schools and children’s centres of our detailed guidance on planning for a possible flu pandemic, but our clear advice is that they should continue to operate as normal, taking their usual precautions against the spread of seasonal flu outbreaks and viral infections. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will make a detailed statement to the House this afternoon.

We are publishing the Jim Rose review of the primary curriculum on Thursday, and ahead of that we are today publishing Sir Alasdair MacDonald’s review of personal, social and health education. Our expectation, following his review, is that PSHE will become compulsory from September 2011, and we shall consult on the draft regulations alongside Sir Jim’s final report.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The only non-denominational all-girls school in my borough is at the far end of the neighbouring constituency of Wimbledon, which means that a large number of parents have been to see me recently because they wanted a girls school for cultural, religious, social or other reasons but have been unsuccessful owing to proximity being the only criterion. Can my right hon. Friend do anything to look at how we select places for all-girls education to ensure that it does not just favour the most well-off parts of our boroughs?

As we heard earlier, my hon. Friend is a champion for children and parents in her constituency. As she knows, it is the local authority’s job to commission those places, but it is perfectly possible for parents to make proposals for new schools. It is also now the case that under the admissions code parents should be consulted about admissions arrangements. If unfairness and lack of choice are problems for parents in my hon. Friend’s constituency, I encourage her and local parents to make representations as part of the admissions code process for next year.

The Minister recently announced that Lancasterian school in south Manchester had been successful in becoming a specialist school for communication and interaction, so does he agree that Manchester city council’s plans to cut provision at Lancasterian threaten its future and should be shelved to give the school, which was rated as outstanding by Ofsted, the opportunity to become even better?

I am not personally familiar with the Lancasterian school, so I am not familiar with the circumstances and with what Manchester city council has said, although I am sure that I will be able to read the hon. Gentleman’s press release later. I am happy to see whether there is anything I need to look into more thoroughly.

T2. Following the exchanges that we have just heard, can my right hon. Friend tell me how many times he personally pressed Ken Boston about SATs results and tests? (270758)

I can, and I would happily have answered the question directly if the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) had raised it with me. I have nothing to add to the evidence that I gave the Sutherland inquiry, which showed—as I said to Lord Sutherland—that following the exchange we had in oral questions on 19 May, I immediately, between my office and Ken Boston’s office, raised the question with him and asked for reassurances, which I received. Secondly, I had a meeting with him on 2 June where I was reassured. Thirdly, on 6 June I asked Ken Boston to respond to a constituent of mine who had raised concerns, and Ken Boston wrote on 16 June to reassure my constituent that things were on track. As Lord Sutherland shows, Ministers regularly pressed Ken Boston and the QCA. It was only at the end of June that the actual problems arose. As Lord Sutherland says, his inquiry was fair. It had broad terms of reference and it concluded that ETS and the QCA were at fault. I entirely support Lord Sutherland’s inquiry and his conclusions, and we will implement them, as is the proper thing to do.

T3. I am encouraged by Ministers’ comments about the reinstatement of sixth-form school funding. The Coopers’ Company and Coborn school in my constituency faces underfunding of 12 per cent. for its sixth-form pupils, while the Sacred Heart of Mary girls school faces similar underfunding of 10 per cent. They are eagerly awaiting a letter confirming that their funding will be reinstated. Will the Secretary of State confirm irrevocably that Coopers’ Company and Coborn and Sacred Heart of Mary will receive funding for all their pupils in this year and to 2010? (270759)

The answer is absolutely and irrevocably yes. The Learning and Skills Council wrote to all schools this morning to say that its plans as of the beginning of March will be delivered. It will come forward with more detailed allocations in the next few weeks. What happened was the number of those wanting to stay on was much larger than our budgets allowed for, and the LSC—wrongly in my view—committed to schools that such numbers could be met, without the funding being in place. We had extensive discussions about the budget, which led to the £654 million, and that means that we can now meet the September guarantee. It is only when there is money in the budget that a commitment can be made, and we now have the money in the budget and are making a clear commitment. I urge the hon. Lady to ask her colleague, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), to reply to my letters, because he will not match my commitment at the moment.

T4. On Friday, I will visit the STAR centre at Keighley college. The centre, which is for primary and secondary children, promotes science, technology, engineering and maths, and puts an emphasis on aerospace research. Will the Minister assure me that funding for such centres will continue? (270760)

As a former vice-chair of the all-party group on space, and having visited many of our companies and businesses that are devoted to aeronautical and space research, I can guarantee for my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to continuing to support the technological industry, which will create many new jobs in the future.

T9. The Secretary of State is pleased to describe school governors as the largest team of volunteers in the public sector, but they are beginning to feel that they are the most put-upon volunteers in the public sector as his endless review of their role goes on. What plans does he now have for changing school governance, or does he agree with many school governors that as the system is not broken, it does not need to be fixed? (270766)

Although the hon. Gentleman turns his back on reform altogether, there is a case for building on school governors’ strengths. Most school governors would agree that they could do with a better commitment to training to fill any skills gaps in the governing body. Many would agree that a commitment on trained clerks to governing bodies would be helpful to guide their work. There is plenty more that we can do to improve both the challenge and the support that governors offer schools. We are hugely grateful for their work. I am reviewing their role with others, and I expect to be able to produce proposals in the next couple of months that will take school governance forward.

T5. Last week, with a delegation from Halifax, I met the Minister for Schools and Learners to stress the need for Building Schools for the Future funding to cover Calderdale council as a priority. Will he assure me that Calderdale’s case will be considered, and will he visit my Halifax constituency so that he can see our need for such investment, especially as it will be a major consideration for Lloyds when it decides on the security of HBOS jobs in Halifax? (270762)

I certainly enjoyed meeting my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) last week, along with others from Calderdale. It is really important that we continue to consider the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) makes, particularly as regards Castle Hill and Todmorden schools in the authority. The matter is not straightforward, as she knows, but she is making an exceptional case. I just remind her, and anyone from her constituency who is listening, that it is the Labour party and this Government who are committed to Building Schools for the Future and to continuing that funding, rather than cutting it as the Conservative party would do.

That was a recommendation of Lord Sutherland’s that we will seek to take forward in future years. In 2005, the QCA announced its decision not to proceed with online marking in 2006 and 2007, and in 2008, when Ken Boston, then chief executive of the QCA, wrote to me about the testing contract with ETS, he made no proposal for online marking. At no point has Ken Boston ever pressed on me the case for online marking. It is Lord Sutherland who is now pressing that case on the basis of his thorough, effective and independent review.

T6. I note from reports in the media that senior staff of examining boards now sell their services to schools and teachers, advising them how best to prepare pupils for the exams that they will set and mark. Is that not a clear conflict of interest that blurs the boundaries between private profit and public service, and should it not be outlawed if we want to continue providing our children with the high-quality, objectively assessed state education that will benefit them all? (270763)

I was very concerned to hear of some of the practices advocated during one particular course or session that someone associated with one of the examining boards was last weekend reported by the BBC to be carrying out. I know that our independent regulator, Ofqual, and the examination board involved were equally concerned about that, and are looking into the matter. I do not think that I should make any further comment at this stage.

What recent assessment have the Government made of the effectiveness and adequacy of child employment and child performance legislation and regulations, and is it not time that some progress was made with reform, before there is serious injury or damage to children?

I looked into this a few months ago. The legislation is in place; the issue is whether local authorities are properly implementing the legislation and the guidance. We contacted local authorities, and will continue to do so, to press them to take seriously their obligations to make sure that the registration schemes in place work properly. Our view is that it is not right to toughen up the law. The important thing to do is to make sure that the law that applies is implemented. That is the approach that we are taking to the very important issue that the hon. Lady raises.

T7. The Secretary of State will know that one of my local nursery schools has been treated quite appallingly by Ofsted. Is he prepared to meet the headmistress of the nursery school, along with the chairwoman of Ofsted? (270764)

My hon. Friend has kindly corresponded with me on the subject. I think that Ofsted has agreed that the initial report was unsatisfactory, and that the issue now is the rather large amount of compensation being pursued because, for six days, the report was on Ofsted’s website. As he knows, Ofsted is a separate Government department, answering directly to Parliament and not to my Department. I would advise the nursery owner to go to the independent adjudicator, and/or through him to the parliamentary ombudsman, who can perhaps help to resolve this outstanding matter.

Will the Minister take action to stop Essex county councillors selling off Castle Point’s school playing fields for development, and will he accept my congratulations on the Government’s record on protecting our school playing fields?

It has become a bit of a treat for us at topical questions when the hon. Gentleman pops up and has a go at his Tory former friends on Essex county council, as he always does. On his point about playing fields, I am grateful to him for his congratulations. We have certainly made every effort to protect them. In the few cases over the past 12 years in which they have been sold off, it has normally been because the school has closed and the whole grounds were surplus to requirements. I am certainly keeping a careful eye on Essex county council, thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s efforts and those of one or two others in this House.

T8. Is there a better system for assessing pupil performance at key stage 2 than SATs, and if so, what is it? (270765)

As my hon. Friend knows, we have an expert group which is looking at what we can do to improve the system of assessment. My hon. Friend also knows my clear view that objective assessment at key stage 2 must continue. That view is widely supported by the clear majority of parents. The key thing is to make sure that the accountability system improves so that we can reward schools that achieve progress for every child. That is what our report card will do, and we will publish details of that in the coming weeks.

Prisons and Probation

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on prisons and probation.

Let me begin by paying tribute to the 70,000 staff working in the services. Last Monday, the Minister responsible for prisons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), issued a written ministerial statement about the serious disturbance that occurred at Ashwell prison, Rutland on Easter Saturday. Prison Service staff acted with exemplary skill and professionalism in dealing with the riot. I thank them sincerely, as I do officers of Leicestershire constabulary and other emergency services who so ably assisted. Prison Service and police investigations are now under way.

Investing in prison and probation services has been a key priority for this Administration. Prison places are up by nearly 25,000, to 85,000, with spending rising by a similar proportion. The probation case load has risen by 52 per cent. since 1997, but spending has increased by 70 per cent. in real terms. This is the first post-war Government to see a sustained reduction in crime—down 39 per cent. since 1997, with the chances of being a victim the lowest for a generation. There was a 23 per cent. fall in adult reoffending between 2000 and 2006.

Understandable concern has been expressed about the numbers of juveniles and women held in custody. There has, over the past year, been a reduction of 8 per cent. in the number of juveniles in jail, while the number of adult women prisoners has fallen by 3 per cent. over the same period. In response to my noble Friend Baroness Corston’s recommendations, I have committed £15.5 million over two years to help divert vulnerable women offenders from prison. We also want the Prison Service and the NHS better to deal with offenders with mental health problems. My noble friend Lord Bradley’s report on this will be published shortly.

My noble friend Lord Carter of Coles was asked in 2007 to consider how better to manage short and medium-term prison pressures. I published his report alongside an oral statement on 5 December 2007. Since the publication of Lord Carter’s report we have already provided an additional 3,500 prison places. Lord Carter recommended that net capacity should be brought up to 96,000 by 2014 and that 7,500 of these places should be created by the construction of three 2,500-place prison complexes, described as Titans. In June last year we launched a consultation on those proposals. I am most grateful to all those who responded. The Government’s response to the consultation is published today, along with the document “Capacity and Competition Policy for Prisons and Probation” and an economic impact assessment. Copies are available in the Vote Office and the House Library.

Once a prison is established in an area, almost without exception the local community becomes very supportive of it. A prison is a source of secure, well-paid employment and a focus for much highly creditable volunteering. The research evidence, which shows that prisons have no adverse effect on house prices or crime rates, is then borne out by experience, although proposals for new prisons can at first be controversial.

I did see merit in Lord Carter’s proposals for 2,500-place prisons, especially as they would have been complexes with four or five distinct and separate regimes, but most of those whom we consulted took a different view, and believed that the advantages were far outweighed by the disadvantages. Not the least of those of that view was Dame Anne Owers, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons.

I have looked very carefully at everything that has been said and, in the light of the consultation, concluded that the right approach is to deliver the 7,500 places not through Titans but through five prisons holding 1,500 offenders, each divided into smaller units. We already operate successfully a number of prisons at or around that size.

We will leave that to one side for a moment.

The new prisons will be neither Victorian replicas nor large warehouses. They will be modern, purpose-built institutions for adult male prisoners only. They will be safe, secure and effective in helping prisoners deal with their offending and develop the work, education and life skills that they need to turn their lives around.

I can announce today that we are working to secure sites for the first two 1,500-place prisons at Beam Park West in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, and at Runwell in the borough of Chelmsford in Essex. Both prisons will be privately built and run, and their construction and operation will sustain many hundreds of jobs. Prison capacity planning depends crucially on projections of future demand and judgments about the cost-effectiveness and appropriateness of replacing older places with new capacity. Those and other considerations are kept under constant review, and further decisions about sites and the removal of older provision will be announced in due course. However, in that context, I can tell the House that we will not be pursuing a prison on the Omega site in Warrington.

Work is already in hand to increase capacity by approximately 8,500 places over the next three years. It also remains my intention to withdraw the end-of-custody licence scheme as soon as safely possible. The expansion will include two new public prisons, Isis, adjacent to Belmarsh, and Coltishall, a former RAF base in Norfolk; and two new private prisons, Belmarsh West and Maghull. We are also expanding HMP Littlehey, near Huntingdon, to provide 480 places by early next year, as a quicker, more cost-effective option than buying and converting a prison ship.

At all times, but especially in today’s economic climate, we have a duty to ensure that prison and probation services work as efficiently and effectively as possible in the interests of the public. We are seeking to improve the efficiency of public sector prisons through reforms to work force structures for new uniformed staff and by reducing management costs. From today we will consult on the detail of those plans.

Nearly 90 per cent. of prison places are delivered directly by the public sector, but the private sector also plays an important part. The Government’s approach to competition was described in last November’s pre-Budget report and in last Wednesday’s Red Book.

I have already set out the situation for new-build prisons. Five existing prisons have previously been subject to competition. Of those, Manchester, Buckley Hall and Blakenhurst are run by the public sector, and Doncaster and Wolds are run by the private sector. Each will be subject to a new competition as their current contracts end. Blakenhurst now forms part of HMP Hewell, so we will put the Hewell cluster out to competition when the contract for Blakenhurst ends in August 2011. Two poorly performing public prisons will be market-tested this year—Birmingham and Wellingborough. Public, private and third-sector providers will all be invited to bid in respect of those market tests.

It is against a background of greatly increased real-terms budgets that the probation service is being asked to make some savings of low percentages this year and thereafter. Detailed analyses show that, historically, the work load and resources of probation areas have not necessarily been well matched—especially when measured against convictions, the key determinant of work load. So, we now seek to target resources better to match needs. We want to be clearer about the service that probation should deliver, to reduce administration costs and rigorously to manage contracts.

The probation trusts programme gives areas greater control over budgets and enables the private and third sectors to provide more services. If probation boards fail to become trusts, then from 2010 options will include amalgamation into existing trusts or being put to competition in the open market. Probation court services will remain with the public sector, as required by the Offender Management Act 2007. Probation areas are now also required to review their services against a national “best value” framework. If services fail to meet the standards necessary, areas must improve performance or use competition to identify alternative providers. As the first services to be reviewed in 2009, at least 25 per cent. of community payback and victim contact services will be subject to competition in this open market.

As I have already reminded the House, since 1997 we have provided nearly 25,000 places to accommodate the most serious, dangerous and persistent offenders; and we are committed to bringing the total number of places up to 96,000 by 2014—just five years away. Over the past decade, prison conditions have been transformed. As Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons has acknowledged, prisons today are more decent, more constructive and considerably more secure. They are places both of punishment and reform. The measures I have announced today for expanding and modernising the prison estate, and for the management of prisons and probation, will allow us to realise still further improvements to public protection and reoffending, with maximum benefit for the tax-paying public. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Justice Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I join him in paying tribute to the service and commitment of prison and probation staff, and police and emergency services, under such challenging conditions. May I therefore express my disappointment that once again he has trailed a major policy announcement in the weekend press, with the Government’s usual disdain for this House?

I should say at the outset that I welcome the Government’s U-turn on Titan prisons; giant warehouses are no good for reforming prisoners or for protecting the public. However, the Justice Secretary first announced Titans amid great fanfare in 2007. Why has it taken almost two years to work out what Opposition parties, the chief inspector of prisons, the voluntary sector and prison officers told him then? Is it because the Government ran out of money, or because the policy ran out of spin? The stark reality is that this U-turn is the nail in the coffin of a flawed approach to tackling crime.

Violent crime has nearly doubled under Labour, with Ministers advised to expect a further surge during this recession. The Justice Secretary has released more than 50,000 prisoners early, including 14 violent offenders every day, to grossly inadequate aftercare; and we have seen Ashwell prison virtually destroyed in a riot. Does he now at last accept that these systematic failures are the direct result of his Government failing both to provide enough prisons and to provide the right prison regime? Take prison numbers; more than half of prisons are overcrowded, and 70 per cent. of prisoners are in overcrowded cells; and on top of early release, dangerous offenders have been moved to open prisons to create space. We now face the possibility of serious unrest, with prisons bursting at the seams. Can he tell the House whether he received any warning from the Prison Service of the riot at Ashwell before it took place? Has he received any further warnings of possible unrest elsewhere?

The current crisis is a direct result of reckless neglect by Ministers. Many will suspect that the sudden conversion over Titans is really just cover to delay or dilute the Government’s pledge to provide the additional 15,000 places that we need, net, by 2014. Ministry of Justice officials advised only last year that 15 prisons would be needed to match the capacity otherwise provided by Titans, but the Justice Secretary is now proposing just five. Will these be mini-Titans, or is he reneging on his pledge to provide the extra places that we need within the timetable that his officials have said is necessary? We will look carefully at the particular sites that he now proposes. Can he explain what consultation process is under way for each site?

Then there are the costs. The Prison Service already faces a black hole of nearly £500 million. How will the Justice Secretary fund these proposals? He says that he intends to end early release. Well, he has said that before. When will it end, and does he recognise that nothing can make up for the failure to invest in the prison estate since he was first warned of the looming crisis more than a decade ago?

As I said, I welcome the abandonment of the Titan model in favour of smaller prisons, because we will never reform our prisons until we reform the poor regimes that are the direct result of overcrowding. However, these proposals are too little and too late. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that more than half of all prisoners now have serious drug addictions, but that fewer than 10 per cent. are on rehabilitation programmes? Can he confirm that vital programmes in work and skills have been shelved because of the overcrowding, and does he accept that far from a reduction in adult male reoffending from prison, as he claims, there has in fact been a rise in reoffending from 57 per cent. in 1996 to 65 per cent. in 2006, at which point the Government fiddled the figures rather than tackle the problem?

Turning to probation, the Justice Secretary has, I think, announced cuts. Will he tell the House how many probation areas will see a reduction in their budget, and can he guarantee that public safety will not be compromised? Amid the disinformation and bluster, two things are now crystal clear. The Government are papering over the cracks of a prison crisis that is entirely of their own making and, as the author of that failure, the Justice Secretary appears incapable of providing a credible solution.

Let me respond to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s points. First, on leaks, I can tell him—if he had been in my Department, this would have been visible and palpable to him—that I did not appreciate the leaks that took place. But the last party and the last individuals in the country to complain about leaks should be the Opposition and their Front Benchers. They actively encourage leaking, and they need to bear that in mind. They want a culture of leaking, in which people are not loyal to the Government of the day. [Interruption.] Well, that is what he sought, and as one sows, as the good book says, so shall one reap.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me why it has taken until now to alter the policy in respect of Titans—it has been altered, and I make no pretence that it has not been. Well, we had a consultation. Lord Carter of Coles was asked to produce a report, and he went away and produced it. I was attracted to his proposals; there was no dispute about that. I thought that large prisons, provided that they were divided into smaller units, would work and be cost-effective. On the face of it, the arithmetic was also very attractive. We had a consultation, and rather to my surprise there was overwhelming opposition to the proposals for very large prisons, not least because prisons had not been built on such a scale before. We had no experience of that, and experience abroad was, on the whole, not good. Yes, I did listen to people—I plead guilty to that. I have never had an ideological view in favour of 1,500 or 2,500-place prisons. I have a view in favour of prison expansion, but I happen to think that today’s proposals are the better way, and a number of prisons of the size that I have described already exist.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about an advance warning about Ashwell. No, we received no warnings, and neither did anybody in the Prison Service, so far as I know. Nor have we received any warnings about any impending difficulties inside prisons, although he would not expect me to go into any detail if we had. Riots and serious disturbances take place from time to time in prisons, but since he was trying to imply that things had got worse since 1997, I shall say that actually they have got a lot better on almost every measure. There is 10 times the investment in drug treatment. I will send him explanations of this, but there are much better reoffending rates than ever before. After a temporary period when the prisons were under very serious pressure, they are no longer “bursting at the seams”. The number of escapes has gone right down, to zero last year, and touch wood and please God that may continue. That can be compared with the early 1990s, when there were four escapes a week—so many that private offices did not bother to tell their Ministers, as they were seen as routine. Prisons are safer.

On probation, we already told the probation services about some reductions in their budgets for the current year, but that budget was over their budget for last year. Since those services have underspent by getting on for £30 million, there will, in practice, be no cuts to budgets for this year.

The hon. and learned Gentleman may wriggle, but the Conservative Government established a measure, which they said was the best measure of crime rates—the British crime survey. The Conservatives admitted that, according to the British crime survey, crime had gone up by 50 per cent. between 1981 and 1997. According to the same measure—theirs—it has gone down by 39 per cent. since 1997. We are the first Government since the war to get crime down and we are proud of it.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, especially his commitment to dealing more sensitively than through the normal Prison Service with vulnerable women, and to addressing mental health issues. Far too many of our prisoners have a difficult background and end up with mental health issues.

I particularly want to ask my right hon. Friend about community payback. The public need to know that people who have offended are doing useful things in the community, and that that is one way in which we can begin to turn lives around, especially young offenders’ lives, so that they recognise not only the impact of their crime, but what they can give back. What proposals does he have to ensure that community payback genuinely works more effectively and that many more local people are properly involved?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her approval of what I have said. It is important that the public are better informed and involved in community payback. That is why we have introduced the high visibility jackets, which have gone down very well throughout the country, as a senior officer in the Lancashire probation service told me in Blackburn on Saturday. Even in areas where there is a bit of resistance, the public now see the point. We want the public to make proposals for the use of community payback schemes. At a residents’ meeting—again in the blessed borough of Blackburn—on Friday, exactly that proposal came up, so the point is getting through.

I also thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement—and for the advance warning I gained by listening to him on the “Today” programme. I also welcome the announcement that the extravagant and much-derided Titan programme has been abandoned, but I do not welcome much of the rest of the statement. How is building five very big—dare I say Promethean?—prisons instead of three enormous Titan ones any sort of change of direction? Raising the prison population to 96,000 is inherently the wrong policy, even if the right hon. Gentleman has found a slightly cheaper way of doing it—although he failed to tell us precisely how much cheaper, and I will press him on that.

By linking the fall in crime with the rising prison population, the Secretary of State seems again to claim that prison works, but will he not admit that crime rates have been falling since the mid-1990s in almost the whole of the western world—except, it seems, Belgium—regardless of whether countries have used prison more? In relative terms, Britain is in the same place now in the international league table of crime as it was then—in the top two. In comparative terms, the Government’s prison expansion policy has made absolutely no difference to crime.

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the current financial conditions mean that the country can no longer afford that sort of posturing? As the Prison Reform Trust pointed out, we already spend an astonishing 2.5 per cent. of our gross domestic product on criminal justice. We now need to concentrate all our resources ruthlessly on what works to prevent reoffending and to prevent crime. We know that short-term prison sentences do not work. Three quarters of all young offenders reoffend within a year.

Will the Justice Secretary now admit that his own Department produces briefings that clearly indicate what does work? For example, alcohol and drug treatment in the community both work. They work on the one hand to reduce violent crime and, on the other, to reduce acquisitive crime. We also know that restorative justice works to reduce both. He should be retargeting the overstretched probation and prison resource budgets on what works, not tinkering with the details of how probation and prison are delivered.

The country can no longer afford to waste resources on policies, the only objective of which seems to be to curry short-term favour with tabloid editors. We would not allow tabloid editors to decide what sort of treatments should be used to prevent swine flu, so why should we allow them to decide what works to reduce crime? The game of punitive leap-frog between the Labour and Conservative parties is an expensive indulgence that the country should no longer tolerate.

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said and I now look forward to every Liberal Democrat “Focus” leaflet across the country declaring the consequence of that policy, which is that dangerous and violent offenders and persistent drug dealers will no longer be sent to prison. As for crime rates, perhaps he will also ensure that not a single author of a “Focus” leaflet will ever claim credit for getting crime down in his or her area or criticise a Labour or Conservative council for some failure in the other direction.

Frankly, the hon. Gentleman’s remarks were waffle from beginning to end. What we know is this: of course it is true—there is almost a consensus on it in the House—that where possible, offenders should not be sent to prison. That is why we have put large sums of additional money into the probation service, including £40 million recently, to help the courts divert persistent offenders away from prison. The number of short-term prisoners has been going down. It is the serious offenders who are going to jail—the ones whom the hon. Gentleman seems to want to release.

As for crime rates, all I can say is that there is a relationship between central Government and local government policies and whether crime goes up or down. That is, without question, the reality. The political choices that the public make about crime and law-and- order policies make a difference to whether their streets are safe or not.

I know that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Justice, would have liked to be here, were it physically possible, in order to respond to today’s statement on behalf of the Committee. As a member of the Committee, may I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision not to proceed with Titan prisons? I also welcome his reference to the drop in the number of young offenders held in custody and his intentions in relation to both the Corston report and prisoners with mental health issues. I must inform the House that the Committee found the report by Lord Carter deeply unconvincing.

Members will read today’s statement and documents with great interest, but my right hon. Friend will be the first person to acknowledge that the devil is in the detail. Will he undertake to continue to listen and respond to concerns from the Committee, not least on the need to invest in community sentencing and restorative justice, to make investments that work in cutting reoffending and, in particular, to get the judges to understand the value of such sentences? Will he also undertake to listen to what the Committee has to say about justice reinvestment and the work on the role of the prison officer that the Committee is engaged in?

The answer to all my right hon. Friend’s questions is yes. I am very committed to restorative justice, which has been a passion of mine for many years. In respect of the judiciary, it is worth both him and the House bearing in mind that the judiciary is committed to making use of alternatives to prison, but the criticism usually made of the judiciary is not that it is too hard on offenders, but that it is too soft. The judiciary is in a difficult position, as are all public policy makers.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that Boreham airfield was also on the list for consideration as a Titan prison? Can he assure me, for my constituents’ peace of mind, that Boreham airfield will not be proposed at a later date for consideration as a mini-Titan prison? Boreham would be totally unsuitable for that purpose and the people of Chelmsford would not accept it.

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have announced the two sites today, and a list was made public on Friday, in response to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), of the large number of sites that we have looked at. We have made relative assessments those sites. I cannot make a prediction for ever and a day, but we have announced two sites today and the one to which the hon. Gentleman referred is not one of them. I would add that it is improbable that we would build two prisons quite so close to each other on such different sites.

According to a statement on page 125 of the Red Book, published last week,

“all new-build prisons will be built and managed by the private sector”,

yet the Secretary of State seems to have been saying something rather different this afternoon. He mentioned a couple of new-build public sector prisons. If he is moving away from all-private-sector new build, I would very much welcome that, given the lack of evidence that such developments are cost-effective or that the private sector runs those prisons efficiently. Will he clarify the position, and will he also confirm that the five existing prisons that to go out to competition will be open to competition from the public sector as well as the private sector?

The answer to my hon. Friend’s last question is an emphatic yes; they will be open to competition from the public and private sectors—and, indeed, from the third sector. So, too, will the two prisons—at Birmingham and Wellingborough—that are to be market-tested. I very much hope that prison officers and the public sector will put in a bid. As for the cost-effectiveness of the private sector, on page 7 of the capacity document that we have issued my hon. Friend will see a reference to the cost-effectiveness benefits that have resulted from having part of the service in the private sector. What was in the small print in the Red Book is fully consistent with what I have said. Should there be any doubt about it, what I have said is the truth.

May I ask the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor whether it is still the intention to build a prison for 1,600 inmates adjacent to Featherstone and Brinsford in my constituency? If that is still the intention—the application has gone in from his Department—will he give me an assurance that it will be a public prison, not a private one?

The answer is yes to the hon. Gentleman’s first question. That is still our intention. The answer to his second question is that I cannot give him that commitment because no final decisions have been made.

My right hon. Friend is well aware that my constituents want the Omega site in Warrington to develop as a high-quality business park containing quality offices, new technology manufacturing and associated hotels and retail premises. Will he assure us that his statement today that the Department is not seeking to locate a prison on the Omega site will hold for now and for the future?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As far as this Government are concerned, that is an absolute guarantee. We have, and will have, no plans for a prison on that site. We cannot say that about everywhere, but one of the compelling arguments that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) have advanced is that Warrington already has two prisons—Thorn Cross and Risley. We also took into account the attractions of that particular site.

The Justice Secretary has announced today that there will be five prisons, each holding 1,500 offenders, but he has identified only two sites: one in Essex and one in metropolitan Essex. Today’s Colchester Gazette reports that his Department is looking at three sites in my constituency. Will he explain what consultation has taken place with the local authority and the local Members of Parliament? Will he give us a decision on whether Essex is going to get one of the additional three sites?

We have no plans to build additional prisons in Essex, apart from the ones that have been announced. Last Friday, we responded to a freedom of information decision of the commissioner—the FOI request had been put in by the hon. Member for Billericay—and from recollection, the information provided listed 72 sites across the country. That reveals an inherent problem in the planning of all such big projects: to begin with, such sites must be identified fairly privately—the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) will know that, as I think he served on a local authority—but many sites are ruled out from the beginning. However, an FOI request was made. I thought there were good reasons, precisely so as not unnecessarily to worry local residents as the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have been worried, not to make those proposed sites public, because these were simply inquiries. However, wherever a decision is made to secure a site—that is the decision, and no more, that I have announced today in respect of Runwell and Beam Park West—there is a proper planning process and process of public consultation in the normal way.

I would have liked to ask the Secretary of State why he thinks locking up an additional 25,000 people—many if not most of them with drug and mental health problems—is a matter to boast about, but I will not, as I must ask him about probation cuts in Leeds and west Yorkshire. He said that this is simply a matter of moving resources to convictions. The Leeds MPs have been approached by the Leeds probation officers, who tell us that they are losing a large number of posts, yet the work load is growing.

Will the Secretary of State agree to look at the Leeds situation to see whether Leeds MPs are being misled. If they are not, will he reverse these cuts in my area?

I am very well aware of the concern of parliamentary colleagues and the probation services across the Yorkshire and Humberside region. There are particular reasons for the levels of concern, and of course I am ready to meet with my hon. Friend and his colleagues. As the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who has responsibility for prisons and probation, has just commented, Steve Wagstaffe, who is the new regional director of offender management for Yorkshire and Humberside is examining the budgets of those probation services in conjunction with those services. If we need to make other decisions, we shall do so.

The Beam Reach business park in Rainham in my constituency was actively being considered as a potential site for the prison in London and I note that Beam Park, which is on the edge of my constituency, has now been put forward. Will the Secretary of State confirm the category of prison envisaged at Beam Park and the nature of the consultation and discussions that will take place with local residents, so that they are clear as to the proposals being made?

It will not be an open prison and it will not be a category A prison. For different reasons, open prisons and high-security prisons most worry local residents. It will be a normal category B or category C prison. The precise decision will have to be made closer to the time of opening, but of course there will be a lot of consultation about that. In some areas—although not, as it happens, in my area of east Lancashire, where we want a prison but cannot find a site for one, despite active local authority support across the political spectrum—there is public concern about the siting of prisons. I understand that, and I saw for myself in Peterborough, for example, huge opposition to Peterborough’s new prison when I was Home Secretary, but it now has a prison, which is working well and is publicly supported. I am glad to see the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) expressing his support for that.

There will be anxiety, but these are very good, well- paid, secure jobs—typically for those who have lost their jobs as semi-skilled or skilled manual workers, especially men, in manufacturing industries. This is really good news for the area, economically as well as socially.

Is not asking the public what offenders should do as part of the community payback scheme the worst kind of populist nonsense imaginable? May I also ask my friend about the small print of the prison budget in the Red Book, where he calls for £82 million of savings to be made by allowing prison staff arrangements to be reprofiled? What, exactly, does that mean in plain English?

One man’s populism is another man’s or woman’s democracy. I say to my hon. Friend, who shares a valley with me, and much else besides, that all of us have an interest in maintaining and responding to public approaches and public attitudes. Personally, I do not think that it is remotely populist in the pejorative sense of the word to ask the public where they think various works of environmental improvement should be carried out. The public, not me or the local probation service, came forward with that idea at one of my residents’ meetings on Friday. Why should we as Members of Parliament, Justice Secretaries or the probation service think that we know best and the public know least.

May I say to the Justice Secretary that he is quite right to jettison Titans? I noted in the statement that the new prisons are to be run privately. May I also say to him that it is very important that the contracts make express provision for proper and purposeful activity, particularly education and work, and that furthermore the Department must do its best to prevent people from being churned through those prisons? What is important is stability within the population, so that purposeful work can be delivered.

I entirely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman in all the points he makes. One of the values, if one gets them right, of larger prisons—for example, the cluster at Her Majesty’s prison Hewell, formerly Blakenhurst, between Bromsgrove and Redditch—is that it is possible for prisoners to serve the whole of their sentence in one place: in a cat. B local prison, to a cat. C trainer, and then to a cat. D open prison. With one offender manager, there is a better chance of ensuring that prisoners stay straight when they leave.

Swine Flu

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the reports of human cases of swine influenza, known as the A(H1Nl) infection, in some parts of the world, notably Mexico and the United States of America.

The outbreak began in Mexico on 18 March, and as at 9 pm last night, there have been over 800 cases and 89 deaths in that country. However, to date, only 18 cases in Mexico have been confirmed as being caused by the H1Nl virus, and it is highly possible that other, more routine causes of infection are also currently circulating in that country.

On Tuesday last week, under the terms of the international health regulations, the United States reported seven cases of the H1N1 infection. On Friday 24 April, the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that samples from Mexico contained the same virus as those in the United States. Twenty cases have now been confirmed in five different states of the USA, four have been confirmed in Canada and one in Spain. Suspected cases have also been reported in New Zealand, France and Israel, although it is important to note that these are suspected cases and have not yet been confirmed as the H1N1 infection.

In the UK, 25 cases under investigation have been reported. Eight of these have proved to be negative, and three are currently undergoing further specialist tests. These three patients are in isolation wards in hospital, after recently travelling in Mexico. People who have been in close contact with them are being contacted. The remaining 14 suspected cases are undergoing initial investigation and the people involved are sufficiently well to be managed in the community.

It is too early to say whether the cases in Mexico and the US will lead to a pandemic. Scientists do not yet understand the extent to which cases in Mexico and the US are linked and are not yet able to make a complete assessment of the health implications of this new virus.

A pandemic is declared when the World Health Organisation raises the pandemic alert to phase 6. That means that there is widespread person-to-person transmission of a virus in the general population. At the moment we are at phase 3.

The director general of the WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, has declared that this is a public health emergency of international concern. The WHO is convening a committee of experts from around the world that is meeting this afternoon to review the situation and to determine what further action is required at a global level.

In deciding the state of the pandemic alert, the WHO bases its decision on expert scientific advice based on the available epidemiological and scientific evidence. The range of symptoms in the people affected is similar to those of regular human seasonal influenza. It is important to note that, apart from in Mexico, all those infected with the virus have experienced mild symptoms and made a full recovery. The swine flu that has been isolated in Mexico and the United States is sensitive to the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza. Those drugs are effective in treating the illness, provided they are taken quickly enough. They can also reduce the length of symptoms and usually their severity.

I would like to outline the measures that we are taking in response to this significant health threat. The UK has been preparing for a flu pandemic for the past five years. We have established a stockpile of enough antivirals to treat more than 33 million people—half the UK population. All NHS organisations have pandemic flu plans in place and the Department of Health is now working closely with the NHS to ensure that those plans can be put into action so that antivirals can be made available to the public very rapidly should we reach that stage.

Over the weekend, the Government have been putting in place precautionary measures to implement the plans that we have been developing in case of more widespread infections in the UK. I have spoken to ministerial colleagues and my Opposition shadows this morning, and I will be convening a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Committee immediately following this statement.

We have enhanced our port health checks so that passengers arriving in the UK with symptoms of illness are identified and assessed. Information is being made available to passengers arriving at ports and we have provided urgent advice to doctors. Should the virus start spreading widely in the UK, we propose to use our antiviral stockpile for treatment of symptomatic patients. We already have advance agreements in place with manufacturers, should a vaccine be developed, although it is important to note that it will be some time before scientists can develop a vaccine, as the virus is not yet sufficiently understood. Experts are currently examining whether vaccination with the regular, seasonal flu vaccine can in any way boost immunity to the H1N1 strain, and we are considering how best we can use the limited stocks that are currently available within the UK.

Many people will wish to know whether they should wear face masks. Although we are aware that face masks are being given out to the public in Mexico, the available scientific evidence does not support the general wearing of face masks by those who are not ill while going about their normal activities. We are, however, urgently looking into how we can increase our stockpiles of face masks for health care workers who are treating sick patients. We have also established infection control guidance to support staff when treating or caring for people who have symptoms.

We already have well-advanced plans for providing information to the public in the event of a pandemic, in particular about what people can do to help themselves in the event of swine influenza being confirmed in the UK. Updated information is available on the NHS Choices and the Health Protection Agency websites. Further information is also available for health and social care staff on the Department of Health website. We are putting in place an information line containing recorded, up-to-date information for those who want to know more about this type of flu. In addition, NHS Direct is providing information to people who have recently travelled overseas and are worried that they may have symptoms.

There are three key messages that I would like to stress at this stage. First, it is important to emphasise that in all cases outside Mexico the symptoms of this illness are mild and all patients have made a full recovery. Secondly, we can all take simple measures to prevent infection, in particular, covering one’s nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and washing hands regularly. Anyone who develops flu-like symptoms should go home and contact their general practitioner. Thirdly, anyone who has recently travelled to the affected areas and is experiencing influenza-like illness should stay at home in order to limit contact with others and seek medical advice by phone from a local health professional or NHS Direct. In line with advice from the World Health Organisation, there are currently no travel restrictions on those who are planning to visit affected areas. Anyone who is planning to do so is advised to ensure that they take the measures I have outlined to prevent infection and consult a doctor immediately if they show signs of flu-like symptoms. To enable local health services to respond to the pressure that the possibility of a pandemic may put on services, we are working with primary care trusts to ensure that arrangements are in place to support that distribution arrangement for antivirals, should it become necessary.

There is understandable trepidation and concern across the world. Here in the UK, we are monitoring the situation very closely, alongside the WHO and our international partners. The UK has been preparing for such an occurrence for a number of years, and the WHO has recognised that the UK and France are the two best-prepared countries in the world. I wanted to use this opportunity to update the House on what we know so far, but I shall, of course, keep Parliament fully updated on what is obviously a rapidly developing situation.

I am sure that the House is grateful to the Secretary of State for making a statement at the first opportunity, and I was grateful for the opportunity to see it beforehand and for the conversation that we had about this matter this morning, to which he referred.

May I express—I hope on behalf of the whole House—our sympathy with, and support for, all those in Mexico who have suffered as a consequence of this outbreak? I hope that, through the WHO, we will be able to continue to give the greatest possible support to that country. However, the current situation illustrates a point that we have discussed before in relation to pandemic preparedness: that an influenza pandemic would expose dramatic differences in the ability to respond in different parts of the world between the most developed countries and the least developed countries. The national reporting systems in Mexico are clearly not as good as they should be. For a month, several hundred cases had emerged in Mexico before the point last week when the CDC in Atlanta—the Americans’ responsible authority in this area—on behalf of the WHO, became aware of the new strain and was able to trigger the necessary alerts. Clearly, the UK and developing countries are interdependent, and we should be supporting them and trying to ensure that we have not only better alerts, but the resources available to support such countries in responding more rapidly and more effectively to flu outbreaks.

As the Secretary of State said, the United Kingdom is among the better prepared countries, and we have been discussing such preparations for nearly five years for that to be the case. If the WHO, which is meeting this afternoon, moves the alert status from phase 3 to phase 5, as is possible, given the nature of what we know, that will trigger a response in this country. As the Secretary of State implied, it is important for us not to assume that what is in the UK pandemic plan and its underlying assumptions about the likely profile of an influenza pandemic is what we will experience in this case. That plan is much more geared to more severe symptoms than we have seen in the cases that have emerged in America and elsewhere; this is, in a sense, more like the Russian flu of 1977, which was an H1N1 flu virus for which the vaccine was available within three months and the clinical attack rates and mortality rates were much lower than were assumed in the pandemic plan. We do have reasons to be optimistic, including the mild nature of the flu that has been experienced in other countries. However, we do not know whether there is a much greater prevalence in Mexico, with only the most severe cases going to hospital.

It is important that we review our preparations, and I have several points to make in that respect. We have a stockpile of treatments, although in an answer on 12 January the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo) said that Department modelling had shown that prophylactic or preventive use of antivirals in a flu pandemic would be effective. That would require a stockpile of 75 per cent. equivalent of the population, rather than the 50 per cent. that we have at the moment. Perhaps the Government could tell us what further steps they have taken following that reply in January.

The Secretary of State will also know that for four years we have told the Government that other countries, including France and Australia, have a strategic stockpile of face masks and gloves. It is not for distribution to the whole population, but it is to ensure that everybody in frontline care would be able to wear face masks and gloves. The Government say that they are urgently looking for face masks, but when SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—emerged the international supply of face masks disappeared almost overnight. It is therefore unlikely that the Government will be able to procure face masks very readily.

The Secretary of State may be able to tell us something about vaccine research and our support for it. In November 2005, President Bush devoted $2.8 billion to improvement of vaccine technologies, and I hope that we can say that we are doing our bit, especially as we have some of the leading scientists in the area.

If there is a change in the WHO alert status, it will trigger a communication exercise with the public about our pandemic preparations, under the pandemic plan. On 22 January, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) asked for a debate in Government time on pandemic preparedness, but the Government have not given us that. I wish that they had, as it is better to discuss the issues raised by a pandemic before it happens rather than when we face the immediate prospect of it happening. None the less, will the Government now accept that request?

The flu contingency plan states that if a WHO phase 5 alert is declared, UK Health Departments will run a national door-drop and advertising campaign. Are the Government ready and willing to do that, were it to be triggered today? Why is the EU Commission offering travel advice while the WHO and the UK Government are not? Will those who are travelling to Mexico or the south-west states of the US have access to antiviral treatments for prophylactic purposes on the NHS, rather than just through private prescriptions, to reduce the risk of transmission?

I welcome what the Secretary of State had to say about updating the House regularly and I heartily endorse what he said about the general importance of hand hygiene. I look forward to further updates in due course.

I agree with the general points that the hon. Gentleman made. It is important that we deal with this across parties and across all the devolved Administrations. That is how I intend to proceed. He is also right to draw attention to causes for optimism, and it is important to get the balance right. We do not want to frighten the lives out of individuals unnecessarily, but we do want people to be properly alert to the dangers. The media yesterday were fairly well balanced, but some hyperbole crept into some reports this morning.

It is important to stress that there is no pandemic at this stage. The scientists are working hard on the issue, and we will know from the WHO meetings later whether we move to a phase 5 alert. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is still not phase 6, but it is important to recognise also the mild nature of the symptoms outside Mexico.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the dramatic differences in countries’ preparedness. I am not prepared at this stage to say what happened in Mexico, but what I do know is that Mexico has been a very active member of the WHO and it is always present at the G7-plus and is always keen to talk about this issue. I want to know more about what happened before I say anything that is even mildly critical of the Mexican authorities.

The House has discussed pandemic preparedness. I know that we have not discussed it on numerous occasions, but we have probably discussed it more than many other Parliaments. There is a broad measure of agreement between us and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the matter has been discussed between Ministers and shadow Ministers and with officials, so I think that we have given sufficient time to it.

The hon. Gentleman says that that was Opposition time, but I am talking about parliamentary time as if we all owned that time.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we are ready for a national door-drop. Yes, we are. He mentioned face masks. I wish we were further ahead with face masks, but we have nearly enough face masks for staff, and it is important to note that they are not just ordinary face masks. The face masks that we would give to NHS staff have much better filters and are much more sophisticated, as they need to be. We need to ensure that we address that situation quickly.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned advice that came from the Commission. My understanding is that the advice came not from the Commission but from the commissioner, and it probably was not that helpful.

The UK and the US are working closely together on vaccine research, in which GlaxoSmithKline, in particular, is an important player. The partnership between the US and the UK will lead the way in vaccine research. If this turns into a pandemic, the key issue will be to identify the strain of H1N1 and to produce a vaccine. It is likely to take between six months and a year to identify the strain and to produce and manufacture the vaccine.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point was about prophylactic drugs. The last time we debated this subject, we were prepared for an H5N1 virus—an avian type of flu. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, this is a human type—H1N1—which gives us some cause for optimism that we can tackle it. We do not know yet, but the general flu injections that people take might help. However, the H5N1 prophylactic that we had available is not applicable in this case.

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that he was talking about antibiotics—I am sorry, I misunderstood him. We have sufficient stocks of antibiotics. They are very important, because most of these cases will lead to complications, which antibiotics will deal with. If he was talking about using antivirals as a prophylactic, we have sufficient quantities. The hon. Gentleman’s point was whether we should give prophylactics to people who go to the affected countries. My view at the moment—we will discuss this further—is that we should not, because we need to ensure that we have sufficient stocks for 50 per cent. of the population if an outbreak occurs. We will obviously keep that under examination, but at this stage I do not think that that would be wise.

I, too, want to thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House at the earliest opportunity to give this statement on what must be a busy day for him as he assesses the advice that he is getting. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) wants to apologise for his absence.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the difficulty in understanding the nature of the threat is caused by some of the mysterious aspects of this outbreak? Why do the cases appear so much more severe in Mexico than elsewhere in the world? Will the outbreak always be this virulent? Did it actually start in Mexico? The Secretary of State said he was convinced it did, although one cannot be certain that there were not sub-clinical strains elsewhere before the first Mexican report? Has the antigen drift made it less pathogenic as it has spread from Mexico? That is one cause for hope, and it is why we are seeing different pathogenicity elsewhere.

How easily is the disease spread from human to human? That is not yet known, but how easily the disease is spread from human to human and whether that transmissibility is sustained as the virus changes, as such viruses do, will determine as much as anything else the extent to which the disease is likely to become a pandemic. Of course, we do not know what protection, if any, is available from the H1N1 seasonal flu vaccines.

It is important to note that only one published paper on the two isolates from California has been available on the CDC—US Centres for Disease and Control Prevention—website. It is not yet possible to compare those isolates with the Mexican isolates to see whether the genetic changes—the genetic assortment that appears to have taken place, according to that paper, between the 1918 north American strain and the 1979 Europe and Asian strain—are replicated in all such cases. There are simply too many unknowns, so I share the Secretary of State’s caution, but it is wise to assume that the worst may happen and to plan for it, which the Government appear to be doing.

I have a number of questions. First, may I pursue the issue of preparedness in other countries? We are in a world of global travel, so the weakest link in surveillance and reporting will be the one that causes delay in bringing the virus to scientists to study so that public health experts can give advice. Will the Secretary of State say more about what we can do to improve surveillance and public health in areas such as central America—not just in Mexico—as we needed to do, and still need to do, in the far east in relation to the threat of bird flu?

Is the Secretary of State certain that we have right the proportions of the antivirals, Relenza and Tamiflu? If there is a differential, and it is possible for the virus to become resistant to one but not the other, which would be unusual but possible, it might be good to have a balance of both. As I understand it, we have a preponderance of the oral form but not a huge amount of the inhaled version—for obvious reasons in terms of ease of delivery—and that might become a factor.

Has the Secretary of State given any thought to what might happen if the worse comes to worst and the buying of antivirals by asymptomatic people, privately or over the internet, causes problems for public confidence in the distribution system? I share his scepticism about the appropriateness of providing prophylactics to travellers, as that might be an inappropriate way, outside a country’s plans, of introducing antivirals that could lead to resistance.

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could draw his remarks to a conclusion, as a number of Back Benchers are hoping to contribute.

Finally, can the Secretary of State reassure us that there will be full international co-operation between scientists and countries? That scientific effort will give us the information we need, and the hope of a vaccine sooner rather than later.

I think the hon. Gentleman was musing aloud during the first part of his contribution. I do not know the answers, and the WHO does not yet know the answers to the issues he raised about the strain and how we can deal with it.

The hon. Gentleman asked what we can do on the weakest link argument. What we can do is support the WHO. Although the WHO is keen to ensure that all countries co-operate, he knows that one country in particular—Indonesia—is refusing to provide certain information about avian flu that could help us. It is very important that every country gives information to the WHO so that it can co-ordinate activity. Supporting Margaret Chan and her colleagues at the WHO is the greatest contribution we can make.

The hon. Gentleman says that there is a preponderance of Tamiflu, which is quite true. I understand that Relenza can be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, for whom Tamiflu is inappropriate, so I think that we have the right balance. There is a preponderance of Tamiflu because it can be taken by most of the population, except pregnant and breastfeeding women and some other groups. We are fortunate to have Relenza for them because many countries have only Tamiflu.

It is important that hon. Members do not get into the issue of buying antivirals yet—there is not a phase 6 alert. We have talked about all the things that we need to do at this stage, and the hon. Gentleman is right that full international co-operation is absolutely essential, which is why the WHO deserves all our support.

Order. I ask Back Benchers to limit their supplementaries to one brief question, and for similar responses, because many hon. Members wish to catch my eye and we have important business on the Budget to follow.

There is absolutely no complacency on such issues, but we are all reassured that the Secretary of State has made a statement in the House immediately and that the UK has been singled out as one of the better prepared countries.

The Secretary of State will know that I have a particular interest as one who initiated some of the preparations and as the MP for Monklands hospital. The situation at Monklands is being dealt with by the Scottish Government. I have been in touch with the local MSP, Karen Whitefield, and the Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who has acted with commendable speed. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that there will be maximum co-operation, liaison and exchange of information between the devolved Governments and central Government, because something such as this is no great respecter of borders inside or outside the United Kingdom?

I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. Two of the three cases under examination involve people from Scotland. I spoke to Nicola Sturgeon yesterday and again today. She has acted with admirable promptness and has been extremely co-operative. We will work together on this, because it is otherwise no good talking about international co-operation—[Interruption.] Of course, this is international co-operation. This is a UK-wide issue, so we will deal with it as such through Cobra. We will ensure that there is absolute solidarity and close working between all the devolved Administrations.

The Secretary of State said that if the virus starts spreading widely in the UK, the Government propose to use their antiviral stockpile to treat symptomatic patients. What would he say to elderly and vulnerable constituents in Kettering and elsewhere, and to the parents of young children, who might not have the symptoms, but want to ensure that they do not pick up swine flu if it spreads widely in this country?

If people do not have the symptoms, the advice at this stage is that which I gave in my statement: catch it, bin it, kill it. People should ensure that they use a handkerchief or tissue when they cough or blow their nose, ensure that that is thrown in the bin, and then ensure that they wash their hands. That advice is very simple, but it is the most profound that can be given in such circumstances.

If people do not feel unwell at all—if they feel fine—I would not want them to be concerned, whether they are elderly constituents in Kettering, Hull, Cambridgeshire or anywhere else. If they start feeling sickly but have not been anywhere near Mexico or the US, they will, in all probability, have a cough or cold—adults get between five to eight doses of that each year—and they should deal with it in the normal way. If, however, they have had contact with anyone who has been in those affected countries, they should go home and contact the Health Protection Agency or a health professional. That is the advice that we should give, rather than giving anyone the feeling that we have moved to a phase 6 alert when we have not.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and the information that he gave. May I take him back to a point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)? There is a marked difference between the death rate reported in Mexico and that reported outside it, apparently due to the same strain of flu. Does the Secretary of State think that more than one type of flu might be going around, which would make the dangers more complicated than have been realised, and is he in close touch with the Mexican authorities, especially those in Mexico City, about the public health warnings and advice they are giving, especially regarding people cleaning their noses and wearing face masks to try to reduce the spread of the virus?

My hon. Friend is right: the situation in Mexico is complex. I mentioned 800 cases and a large number of deaths, but at the moment only 18 of those cases are linked to H1N1, which is why there is the suspicion that there are other illnesses involved in Mexico. We are in close touch with the authorities there through the WHO, but I can assure my hon. Friend that no one is in closer touch with them than the US authorities, because of course this is a cross-border issue for the US. We want to help the Mexican authorities to deal with the matter, and we want to help them to help us understand what is going on there, because until we do we will not have the key to whether this is the kind of pandemic that we all hope it is not, but that we fear it may be. The key is finding out what happened in Mexico.

I appreciate that the Secretary of State has given thought to prioritising to whom to give vaccines should the need arise, but, following on from the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), does the Secretary of State feel that there is an argument that some priority ought to be given to certain groups of people—for example, to those on the front line of health services, who may well be dealing with people who come in with the relevant symptoms, or those working in airports and port authorities?

It is important to be clear—I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman is not—that we do not have a vaccine. We do not have something that can be injected or taken to prevent anyone from getting this flu. We have an antiviral; if people develop the symptoms—if they are symptomatic—and take it, all the evidence is that they will recover very quickly. We cannot take that action until they are symptomatic. There is a view that one could use those antivirals as a preventive measure, but no one is absolutely sure of that. As for using up that precious stock of antivirals, it should be borne in mind that we were catering for 25 per cent. of the population; we have now expanded provision to cater for 50 per cent. of the population. We do not want to diminish and dilute that by using the antiviral in a way that we are not sure will have a beneficial effect. There is not a vaccine, a pill or tablet, or medication that anyone can take to prevent the illness—yet. There may well be, once the scientists have had a chance to examine the strain and produce a vaccine, but that will take some time.

Order. May I reiterate my earlier comments? The time left for this statement is very limited, so I re-emphasise the importance of brief questions and answers.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that modelling the spread of such illnesses is incredibly difficult. As by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) indicated, that is partly because of the way in which we travel today and because such a virus can mutate and change, hopefully becoming less harmful. Perhaps that is where we are. It requires a hugely challenging laboratory exercise to maintain a full understanding of what is happening. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that he and his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have at their disposal the resources for that, so that we can not only follow the path of the illness, but ensure that we learn lessons from what has happened?

I am entirely satisfied that that is the case, and entirely satisfied with regard to the NHS. The matter has been a tier 1 priority in the operating framework for the past three years. However, I am not complacent about the issue. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) raised an important point: we are talking about something that is actually happening, as opposed to preparing for something that we were worried about, so we have a chance now to modify our approach, depending on what we find. However, I think that we are in a better state of preparedness than most other countries.

Will the Secretary of State assure us that just as there are good relations between England and Scotland at ministerial level, there are good relations between officials?

Yes, I can. At the officials’ Cobra meeting yesterday, Scottish officials were involved and made an important contribution. There must be good relations, and that is the case at ministerial level and at official level.

We know already that flu is the largest vaccine-preventable disease in the UK and the viral load is much higher in children under two, so as we look to the future beyond any immediate danger, will my right hon. Friend consult the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and consider an annual flu vaccination programme for children under two, who are more likely to pass the virus on to their families, carers and friends? Such a programme would have the added benefit of scaling up the public health response, which would enable us to respond to the threat in any future pandemic.

My hon. Friend raises a more general point about flu inoculation. We give children the flu jab if they are asthmatic and particularly vulnerable to flu. I will talk to my colleagues about how far we can move to a vaccine for those under two years of age. That is an important general point. With reference to swine flu, the antivirals work for children as well. That is very important.

The British pig industry has been having a particularly hard time of it recently, so the chief veterinary officer’s remarks this morning reassuring people about the safety of eating pork were most welcome; only the New Zealand farming industry to date has issued a statement saying, “Don’t stop eating pork.” Has the Secretary of State met his colleague, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to discuss reassuring the public about the safety of eating pork and, if necessary, diverting funding to promote a safety in eating British pork campaign?

I have just spoken to my right hon. Friend, and I will speak to him again at the Cobra meeting immediately following this statement, at which we will discuss that. My right hon. Friend tells me what the hon. Gentleman already knows: we do not have any pigs or pig products from Mexico in the UK.

The idea of phoning NHS Direct is very good. NHS Direct would fax the chemist, and the person affected would get a friend to pick up the pills. My concern is that people will be very scared and NHS Direct might be overwhelmed with calls. What preparations have been made for escalating the number of staff responding?

That is the next phase. We are not at that phase yet. The hon. Lady rightly points to our plans, if we are at a stage 6 alert and are dealing with a pandemic, in which case we would want everyone, especially those who are elderly and living alone, to have a friend who can go and collect their drugs for them, to avoid people travelling around. We have good plans to ensure that, at that stage, people can access such a distribution system and that it would work. It is important to emphasise that we are not at that level at present, and I hope we never get to that level.

Cheapest Energy Tariff (Information)

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 relating to the regulation of domestic energy providers; to require an energy company to publish on invoices information indicating whether the customer is on the cheapest tariff offered by that company, based on pattern of energy use, and the savings to be gained from any switch to this tariff; and for connected purposes.

The idea behind the Bill is relatively simple—too many consumers are paying too much for their energy consumption. Energy companies could do more to provide information to highlight where customers could find cheaper tariffs.

I am grateful for the cross-party support for the Bill, as can be seen from the names of sponsors from both sides of the Chamber. It is supported by those who signed early-day motion 749, from which the Bill is drawn. I welcome Conservative Front Benchers’ support for the Bill. When I raised the matter with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the House, he described the idea as “ingenious”. I welcome the third-party support outside this place from groups such as Consumer Focus, Which?, the Energy Action Group, Help the Aged and Age Concern, which have all lent their support to the debate.

The Bill’s aim, I hope, is to help consumers realise that perhaps they need to do more to achieve cheaper tariffs. It is designed to help all consumers, but particularly those in fuel poverty. We know the definition of fuel poverty: 10 per cent. of a household’s income being spent on keeping their living areas warm. It is much easier, however, to quantify the issue itself, because Government figures are at least two years out of date and the independent group Consumer Focus estimates that about 5 million households are in fuel poverty. If we needed evidence of that, we might look only at the winter of 2007-08, when something like 22,000 people over the age of 65 died of a cold-related illness—far more than in many European countries with colder climates.

Constituents often write to me—I am sure I am not the only Member who receives such correspondence—and graphically describe how they have to deal with the effects of high energy and food prices. Indeed, they often have to choose between the two. One constituent said that he could afford only one hot meal a week and lived off biscuits and bread, because he could not afford the high energy prices he was charged.

We know that too few consumers switch between suppliers. Ofgem is looking at the issue and has suggested that an annual prompt, reminding consumers how they can switch from one supplier to another, would be a good idea. Often, however, the problem is that consumers do not know whether they are on the cheapest tariff with the energy company that already supplies them. That is the point of the Bill; it is designed to make all that information much clearer. By way of early-day motion 749 and the Bill, I have suggested that energy companies be obliged to provide information—assuming the customer is on a direct debit and has online access—about whether their consumers are on the company’s cheapest available tariff, given their pattern of energy use. There should also be clearer information on energy company bills about whether savings could be accrued if the consumer were to switch to the cheaper tariff.

That is the bare minimum of information, and much more could be included in the energy bill. Certainly, more tariffs, including social tariffs, could be put on bills to ensure that all consumers saw whether they were on the cheapest tariff. The proposal has various advantages: consumers would be able to see how much they might save if they switched; it would act as a reminder and allow people to see whether consumers take advantage of the latest discounts; and it might encourage some consumers to pay by direct debit or set up online access, which could help with their bills, and might even help the energy company itself.

The fact that bills are too complicated is beyond doubt. Which? estimates that, on average, there are 15 tariffs per energy company. If we take into account all the variants, including payment methods, special offers, discounts and so forth, we see that there are about 4,000 different tariffs, and the evidence clearly suggests that that is all very confusing. I have recently seen evidence to suggest that a quarter of all those who switch, and up to half of all those who switch as a result of direct selling on the doorstep, switch to a worse tariff. That is clear evidence that there is a lot of confusion out there. Until recently, a customer on a social tariff had no guarantee that they were on the cheapest tariff. Thankfully, Ofgem has taken some action to try to put that right, but it clearly illustrates that there is widespread confusion with regard to this plethora of different tariffs. That is wrong. We need simple measures, with energy companies putting on bills information about the cheapest tariff, given certain preconditions. Payment by direct debit and online access are two of the preconditions. However, that is a bare minimum—it does not prevent energy companies from adding other tariffs, including social tariffs, to try to ensure that they meet their social responsibility to help the customer to achieve the cheapest tariff possible.

The direction of travel is in our favour. Ofgem is considering the issue. It has suggested, for example, that energy companies might be required each year to display on their bills the customer’s usage against an average group of tariffs and declare whether the customer has paid a premium. That is a step in the right direction, and it is to be welcomed. However, an annual statement is not good enough. This prompt—this comparison with cheapest tariffs—should be issued when consumers get their bills through the door, because that is when they are most aware of their tariff.

We all accept that energy companies need to make a profit—there is big investment to be made in the infrastructure and so forth—but at the same time they owe a social responsibility to their customers, and that needs to be met. The industry has made some helpful moves. Energy companies have introduced social tariffs and funded the Home Heat helpline, and the Energy Retail Association and Citizens Advice have been helping customers, but they could take this one further, very simple step to help customers to achieve the cheapest tariff. That would create a lot of good will for them and do a lot to help consumers with their bills at this time of very high energy and food prices. Ofgem is heading in the right direction, and the industry is trying to make moves to help consumers, but we need a clear message from Parliament on this issue. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. John Baron, Mr. Lee Scott, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle, Nick Harvey, Mr. Peter Ainsworth, Mike Penning, Dr. Kim Howells, Mr. Peter Bone, Dr. Ian Gibson, Mr. David Laws and Dr. Richard Taylor present the Bill.

Mr. John Baron accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 87).

Ways and Means

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Amendment of the law

Debate resumed (Order, 22 April).

Question again proposed,


(1) It is expedient to amend the law with respect to the National Debt and the public revenue and to make further provision in connection with finance.

(2) This Resolution does not extend to the making of any amendment with respect to value added tax so as to provide—

(a) for zero-rating or exempting a supply, acquisition or importation,

(b) for refunding an amount of tax,

(c) for any relief, other than a relief that—

(i) so far as it is applicable to goods, applies to goods of every description, and

(ii) so far as it is applicable to services, applies to services of every description.

As Britain recovers from the impact of the world recession, it will be British business and the skills of the British people that will ensure that the upturn comes as quickly, as strongly and as sustainably as possible. Today’s Budget debate is about the best way of supporting British business and the British people this year, next year and in the years to come. It is about whether we invest for growth or undermine recovery with ill-conceived cuts. It is about whether we identify the parts of the economy in which we have real strengths and the potential to have global leadership, or refuse to support them effectively.

The debate is also another opportunity to set out the gulf between the main parties on how we respond to the global downturn. I believe that that gulf has become increasingly clear over the past few days. There are three defining issues for today’s debate, on which the Opposition first show that they do not understand the problem, secondly propose policies that would make things worse and thirdly do not understand what needs to be done. That is what this debate today is about.

Is that really what this day’s debate is about—the Opposition? Is it not extraordinary that the Government begin with an attack on the Opposition rather than with an exposition of their own case?

There will be a good deal more of that before I have finished, but I will of course set out precisely what the Government propose to do for business and the British people to develop their skills and bring about recovery. However, this is a Budget debate, and it is important to understand that there are choices to be made between the approach that is being taken by this Labour Government and the approach that is being put forward by the Opposition. I make no apology for setting out the key issues on which that choice has to be made.

The Opposition believe that the challenges facing Britain are more or less a uniquely British problem, created here and with answers that lie solely in Britain. They are wrong. What started with the fall-out from sub-prime mortgage lending in the US has spread quickly around the world, turning into the credit crunch, which in turn has hit businesses in all parts of the economy in every part of the world. What this country is experiencing is the first global recession since the end of the second world war, and what is happening to us is, in essence, happening to all comparable countries.

Given that the Secretary of State mentions the world “comparable”, if things are happening comparably to all of us in this environment, why are we worse off than comparable economic powers in the G20?

The interesting point is that the fall in UK gross domestic product in the last quarter of 2008 was the same as the fall in GDP in the eurozone as a whole and in the United States of America. In Japan, GDP fell by 3.2 per cent. in the year to February 2009, and Japanese exports fell by 45 per cent. So in fact, I am right to say that the experience of similar economies is broadly comparable to our own. It is because our challenges are broadly similar to those of other countries that our response needs to be broadly similar. That means maintaining investment in the economy and avoiding cuts in public spending in the middle of the recession.

I apologise to the Secretary of State for missing the opening moments of his speech—it is ironic that a ten-minute Bill does not always have to last 10 minutes.

Can the Secretary of State explain why this global downturn has occurred, whether it started here and what has caused it if not policy mistakes by this Government and a number of other Governments around the world?

I have to say that the ten-minute Bill that preceded the debate was one of the best timed that I have experienced. I think that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) ended some three seconds short, so that is a poor excuse for turning up late for the beginning of the debate, when I explained how what happened in the United States of America in the sub-prime market and its link to the various financial instruments around the world have affected the real economy. The key point is that many countries are affected and we have to examine the responses that are being made.

The response around the world, which I believe to be right, is that Governments should maintain investment in the economy at this time and that they should avoid cuts in public expenditure in the middle of the recession. The G20 summit was about international action to get the global economy back on track—countries around the world introducing a huge fiscal stimulus and more resources for the International Monetary Fund and for developing countries.

The Secretary of State said that he does not believe that public expenditure should be constrained in the recession, yet the Budget introduced a cut of nearly £1 billion in education and more than £2 billion in health. I wonder whether he can square those two points.

I said that public expenditure should not be cut in the recession—that is the Conservative party’s policy. The Budget sets out clearly that public expenditure will continue to grow—certainly not as rapidly as in the past 10 years, but it will continue to grow. That is a different approach from the Conservative party’s insistence that we should cut public spending now.

The main Opposition party makes its second defining mistake because it does not properly understand the nature of the problems that face this country. It perceives our problems as uniquely British and therefore turns its back on important international action. The Conservative party says that all that matters is action now, here, to reduce borrowing and cut spending. For that reason, the Conservatives proposed a series of policies which, individually and together, would make things worse.

The Secretary of State suggests that one should not cut in the teeth of recession. That is sensible, and it is therefore disappointing that the Government are doing that. Even if we assume that their figures are right, if we find that, towards the end of the year, we have not recovered and the independent forecasters who forecast negative growth next year are correct, will we look forward to a pre-Budget report in which the Government reverse the damaging cuts planned for next year?

The Government are setting out plans to maintain public spending on front-line services to grow them in future. I am not about to set out a different Budget from that which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced last week. That Budget defined the key choice that voters in this country must make between a strategy of maintaining investment and growing our way out of recession and Conservative party policies, which would make things worse.

In a moment, I will set out exactly why those policies would make things worse, but first I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, from 2011, according to the Government’s figures, Government spending will grow at 0.7 per cent. a year? Will he also confirm that, in Margaret Thatcher’s toughest year when Prime Minister, public spending grew by more than 2 per cent.? This Government will have to cut harder and faster than ever happened under Margaret Thatcher because of the huge public debt that they have incurred.

That is an extraordinary intervention for the hon. Gentleman to make, when his party demands massive, real cuts this financial year. The Budget sets out real growth in public expenditure and the efficiency savings that will be necessary to ensure that we maintain spending on front-line services. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman asks a question that is designed to divert attention from the policies, with which I am sure he does not agree, of Conservative Front Benchers to do enormous damage to our economy through cuts.

The Opposition’s record is very clear. They opposed the fiscal stimulus set out in the pre-Budget report last November. The immediate victims of their policy would have been the families whose incomes would immediately be cut today by tax increases. However, the money from that fiscal stimulus is now feeding through to benefit British business. The Opposition have proposed spending cuts of £5 billion in this financial year. They have never said where that would come from, but they have none the less promised cuts now. The shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury has promised to repay £6 billion of debt next year. Again, he has not said where that would come from or how that payment could be made, but we should take what the Opposition say at face value.

I was out in my constituency on Saturday and met a constituent who had lost his job on Friday and whose wife had had a baby on Wednesday. I was pleased to be able to inform my constituent that he could get a career development loan and that his family would be able to apply through the tax credits system on the basis of changes in their circumstances. That constituent was optimistic about his chances of finding work in this recession. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating our right hon. Friend the Chancellor on the VAT cut and will he challenge the Opposition? We cannot leave a generation unemployed through this recession.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The approach taken by the Opposition when they opposed the fiscal stimulus is one that would have been designed to hammer the sort of family she met in her constituency last week, taking away the support that is now being offered through tax cuts, which boost family budgets, and the support for people who lose their jobs. That is wrong at the level of the individual and the family and it is wrong at the national level, too.

Taken together, the policies advocated by the Opposition would take billions of pounds out of the economy now, and away from British business now, in the middle of the recession. It is the wrong time to do that, when a struggling private sector needs public sector support and investment. The Opposition make the wrong judgment today, as they did last year in the banking crisis. If we followed their advice, the recession would last longer, the recovery would be slower and the cost would be greater in the long run. It is a mistake to believe that their cuts would help us out of the recession. We have to invest and grow our way out of recession.

It is on that point that the Opposition make their third defining misjudgment, because they cannot offer British business and the British people the support that they need to grow this country for a more prosperous future. Our Budget builds on the measures that we have already taken to get lending and credit going again following the banking crisis, to boost the economy and to provide extra support for skills training for those who lose their jobs in order to get them back into work.

The Secretary of State is talking about support for individuals. Does he accept that people over 50 have suffered disproportionately during the recession from the loss of jobs and will he look into specific measures targeting help at them? May I also congratulate him on not sitting on his hands, but taking action to get us out of this recession?

There are two ways that we help those whom the hon. Gentleman is concerned about. One is by having a fiscal stimulus and maintaining public expenditure, because that increases, with others, the number of jobs available in the economy. The second way is the measures that we took earlier this year to create more than 100,000 additional training places for people losing their jobs, so that there is support for those who need to retrain and reskill.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of any other major advanced industrial economy that is not pursuing fiscal stimulus policies and is not proposing to invest—or actually investing extra—in education, training and science?

No, I am not aware of any country that is proposing to pursue the policies being advocated by Her Majesty’s official Opposition. The reason is that in other countries the judgment is that opposition to a fiscal stimulus, opposition to necessary borrowing and an insistence on cuts would mean that those Governments would not be able to take the measures that need to be taken to support their businesses and families, and exactly the same would apply if we followed the strategy being advocated by the Opposition. If we did that, we would not be able to take the measures that we have set out in the Budget.

If we followed the Opposition’s advice, we would not be in a position to enable more than 100,000 firms to benefit from HMRC flexibility on payment. We would not be in the position in which the Government have signed £1 billion of guarantees under the working capital scheme or in which nearly £290 million of applications from 2,500 small businesses were being dealt with under the enterprise finance guarantee. Nor would we be in a position in which the Government strategy in this Budget has enabled us to extend more support for businesses’ short-term cash flow.

If we listened to the Opposition, we would not be in a position to enable businesses to spread this year’s business uprating over three years. We would not be in a position to extend enhanced loss relief, allowing losses to be offset against tax bills due on the previous year. That alone will benefit 140,000 firms. We would not be in a position to introduce a top-up trade credit insurance scheme to help businesses to maintain their finances. Because we recognise the importance of the motor industry now and in the future, we are able to complement the £2 billion loan guarantees that we have made available with a time-limited vehicle scrappage scheme to boost sales and lower emissions.

The House and the country need to know that the Opposition cannot promise any of this support for British business. Their only proposal to date has been a national loan guarantee, but they set aside no money to pay for it—as ever. It was, of course, the shadow Business Secretary who said that the taxpayer would take a hit, but the rest of his Front-Bench team have refused to provide any finance for the scheme, and it was an empty promise.

While we are supporting business, we are also supporting individuals and families who have been hit by the downturn. Once again, the Opposition have to admit that their ill-judged economic strategy means that they could not match these measures. In total, the Budget provides an extra £1.7 billion to help people to get back into work quickly and to guarantee a job or training for young people. We have already begun to provide more than 100,000 retraining places for those losing their jobs; now, we will be able to invest an additional £260 million in training and recruitment subsidies to help young adults aged 18 to 24 who are approaching 12 months of unemployment to get the skills that they need to get into work or to guarantee them a job offer. A further £655 million of funding from the Budget will enable us to deliver more opportunities for 16 to 18-year-olds in schools and colleges next year. There will be more than 250,000 apprentices starting this year—nearly four times more than in 1997—and more students will be going into higher education than ever before: 40,000 more than two years ago.

Recognising that this year’s graduates face a more challenging labour market, we have already announced 2,000 new paid internships supported by the higher education economic challenge fund, and we will build on that in the weeks to come. Following an agreement with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, graduates already claiming jobseeker’s allowance for six months or more will be able to do a work experience internship for up to 13 weeks alongside claiming benefit and looking for work. We will continue to invest in Train to Gain. It is a hugely successful work-based training scheme that is popular with employers, and it will soon be training about 1 million people a year. It is typical of the Conservatives that they have already promised to scrap it.

The Budget commitment to an additional £300 million of capital spending for further education colleges in this spending review period, and a further £900 million in the future, will be widely welcomed. It will bring around £400 million worth of extra work for the construction industry in the next two years, creating jobs and apprenticeships.

The shadow spokesman for Innovation, Universities and Skills has already warned the colleges not to rely on the Conservatives to match even our previous spending plans for 2010-11. It is because they have made such a fundamental misjudgment about the nature of the challenge that they cannot match the measures that I have outlined. That is why the choice is so important. The Conservative party— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) says from the Opposition Front Bench that I do not believe that. I believe it profoundly and absolutely: the choice between the political parties—between the Government and the Opposition—is more stark, more marked and more clear today than at any time in recent years.

While I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that it is important that the investment in colleges takes place quickly—before the money would be cut in the unlikely, awful event of a Conservative Government taking office—may I put it to him that there is a more pressing reason for that? The investment in colleges is vital to economic recovery, as well as being vital to training—for example, the investment in the new college at the former MG Rover site at Longbridge. To make sure that those projects remain on track, will he ensure that that money gets through and does so as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will know, as the House does—we have discussed this before—that in 1997 the capital programme for FE colleges was zero. Even before last week’s Budget announcement, we had a budget of £2.3 billion for investment in FE colleges. I know of his interest in the Longbridge scheme and the importance he attaches to it. We have asked the Learning and Skills Council to move quickly to consult the sector on the criteria to be used for prioritising the funds. I hope that it can give clarity and certainty to colleges in the near future, but the development of that capital programme is ultimately a responsibility of the LSC.

The Secretary of State says that the Conservatives do not care about FE colleges and funding, and that our record is woeful. This afternoon at 2.30, as he might be aware, I had an appointment with his colleague, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. That appointment was to discuss the failure to fund Blackpool sixth-form college’s capital programme and Myerscough college in my constituency. It was cancelled. Subsequently, I have found out that the Minister then spent time in the gym. If he has time to spend in the gym, but no time to meet me to discuss the funding of colleges, does not that say a lot about the priorities of the Secretary of State’s Department?

My hon. Friend the Minister, who has responsibility for colleges, has met an enormous number of Members of Parliament, who understandably have had concerns about the FE capital programme. I am quite sure that if he was not able to meet the hon. Gentleman today, he will be able to do so in the not-too- distant future.

There is an even more fundamental flaw in the Opposition’s thinking. As Britain recovers, we will need to grow an economy that is better balanced and more equitable. Yes, the finance sector will still have an important role to play, but we need to grow British businesses in all the sectors where we have the ability to compete and lead around the world—the digital economy, life sciences, renewable and nuclear energy, electric vehicles and low-carbon advanced manufacturing—as we move towards a low-carbon economy.

The huge potential is there, founded on the record doubling of investment in science and research over the past 10 years—this Budget maintains the science ring-fence on the research councils budget—but we cannot just hope to exploit our potential. We must make it happen and the Government have a key role to play—working with markets to ensure that British companies and British employees have the best chance of competing fairly but successfully, here and abroad, in those huge new markets.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need a balanced structure for taxation. Admittedly, the Government have scrapped VAT on a lot of bingo costs, but why have they decided to highlight bingo as an area of gambling to be more heavily taxed with the increase in bingo duty in the Budget?

I am not even going to pretend to be particularly well equipped to answer a question on the taxation of bingo. I read far, wide and deeply to prepare for this debate on British business and skills, but I clearly and unaccountably failed to go into sufficient detail. Having slightly made light of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I know from representations made to me and to many other Members of Parliament over the years that an important constituency interest is involved. I do not want to mock his question, so perhaps I may write to him on the matter, or encourage one of my Treasury colleagues to do so. I have tried to give a fair answer to his question.

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend that we must have a more balanced economy in future, with a bigger emphasis on manufacturing and other sectors rather than just the financial sector. He talks about fairness in competition. Does he agree that it is necessary to have an appropriate exchange rate for sterling to ensure that we compete fairly, and not have the overvaluation that we have had for the past 11 years, leading to our structural trade deficit, which is now coming back into line, I think?

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) can probably give a better lecture on the dangers of setting targets for exchange rates than I can. We tend not to set targets for exchange rates and steer well clear of that topic.

The reason for setting out the approach that we need to build areas of the economy where we have a competitive advantage is that it highlights another investment that we can make because of how we are responding to the global downturn which is available to us and not to others. The Budget has created a new £750 million strategic investment fund to support advanced industrial projects of strategic importance. Part of that is earmarked for crucial investment in low-carbon industries, which together with other public and private investment will create a £1.4 billion programme of targeted support for the low-carbon economy.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State is disappointed that having spent nearly £1.5 billion a year on funds to encourage renewables, we are at the absolute bottom of the European league for the amount of energy that we get from renewables.

The truth is that because of the investments that we have made, we can prioritise that key energy sector, which is important to our national interests and also for its growth potential in British business, with the confidence that we do. The point that the hon. Gentleman should perhaps accept is that without the crucial investment that we have set out in the Budget, which would not be available from the Conservative party, the policy would not come to fruition. I am pleased that we are making the investment and that we are also creating a broader policy framework for the development of renewable energy. This country will benefit from it in future.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that this Government will also continue to stand by funding for pure research—pure science—in contradistinction to applied? Applied science is extremely important for jobs and prosperity, but for building the base of knowledge, sometimes with unexpected spin-offs, pure research is also extremely important and should continue to be funded.

Of course, my hon. Friend is right. I have set out my views on that and the assurances that he wants are in speeches to the Royal Academy of Engineering and others. The Minister with responsibility for science, my noble Friend Lord Drayson, has done the same.

It is important to maintain fundamental research, but that does not mean that we cannot ask questions about how we organise our research effort to ensure that we get the maximum economic benefit from it. That very important discussion with the research councils is actively under way.