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Commons Chamber

Volume 492: debated on Friday 8 May 2009

House of Commons

Friday 8 May 2009

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).

Green Energy (Definition and Promotion) Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

First, I would like to offer my thanks to the cross-party group of right hon. and hon. Members who originally sponsored the Bill, and to colleagues who have taken the trouble to be here today. I know only too well that being here on a Friday is not always desperately convenient for hon. Members. I would like to thank the many companies and business groups that supported and promoted the measures, including the National Farmers Union and the Micropower Council. I should like to thank the Public Bill Office, which contributed its secret ministry, and the redoubtable Mr. Ron Bailey, who has performed his usual wonders.

I should like to thank the House of Commons Library, which produced a very useful note on the Bill, but I have to say that it contains a glaring error. It says that the measures apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, whereas clause 7(2) makes it clear that they apply only to England, so anyone who was nervous about that can relax. I should also like to thank the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. and learned Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), and his colleagues—and not only those in his Department but others, too—for working hard to progress the debate on this green energy Bill. There is at last cross-party agreement—something that I have long sought—on the need for Government action to put in place measures to liberate the pent-up ingenuity, creativity and capital of businesses and markets, and the public’s pent-up enthusiasm to engage with delivering real power to the people by decentralising the way in which we create and use energy in this country.

Time is the most precious commodity on a Friday, and private Members’ Bills are fragile vessels in the face of time. I therefore intend to keep my remarks relatively brief, and I implore others to do likewise, despite any temptation to the contrary. Besides, there are other Bills on the Order Paper that certainly merit debate and discussion, so I will resist the obvious temptation to use this opportunity to repeat at length my warnings about the dangers of climate change, and my comments about the opportunities created by the need to come to terms with climate change, and the threat and challenge that confronts this generation globally. This generation will have to deal with the problem of climate change; if we fail, our children and grandchildren will be not only amazed but appalled, and rightly unforgiving. However, may I just mention a new initiative, the Prince’s Rainforests Project launched by the Prince of Wales, which is enormously welcome? I urge everybody who has access to a computer to go on to its website, and to click on the relevant buttons to demonstrate support for that very fine project.

The opportunities before us are enormous. Rebuilding the economy as if the earth mattered is an enormous task, but it brings together an array of interlocking benefits—not just sustainable economic growth and safe green jobs, but enhanced global and national security, improved social justice at home and abroad, and a more thriving and robust natural environment. I think that the whole House will agree that bringing those things together is a worthy task, but it will require vision and courage, relentless attention and, above all, hope. In that mighty context, this little private Member’s Bill may seem a trifling affair. It is indeed a modest Bill—modesty befits private Members’ Bills—but I believe that if it succeeds, it will play its part in helping the clean energy sector to grow, and helping all of us citizens to find it easier to play our part in the green revolution.

Let us take a quick look at what the Bill contains. Clause 1 defines the various terms used. Many of them originate in existing Acts, and these definitions have been adopted, where appropriate. Clause 2 defines the term “green energy” and specifies that the principal purpose of the Bill is to promote it. It includes energy efficiency because the energy that we do not use is the greenest energy of all. Green energy is defined as

“energy generated from renewable or small-scale low-carbon local sources”.

An important point about this definition is that it includes efficient small-scale district heating systems and micro combined heat and power systems.

I welcome the Bill, especially its mention of heat pumps, which are a potential major contributor to energy efficiency, but it does not specifically mention solar thermal installations—heating water in houses from solar power, which is already worth while to install. Does the hon. Gentleman’s definition include that, or would it be a worthwhile change to the Bill in Committee?

The Bill includes those technologies by reference to a previous Act—the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 introduced by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). They are not mentioned specifically.

I hope the whole House will recognise the importance of cutting household and business fuel bills, especially at a time of recession. Clause 2 promotes the cause of alleviating fuel poverty. Work carried out by National Energy Action has shown that installing air source heat pumps in homes off the gas main can cut heating bills by 75 per cent. and CO2 emissions by 66 per cent., so green energy can also help end fuel poverty.

Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the things that we have so far failed to get over, not least to the Government, is that the purpose of many of these technologies is not just to meet the overwhelming pressure of climate change, but to help people in the downturn, and particularly to help the poorest? This is a win-win-win situation and one which, sadly, the Treasury seems not to have understood.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has an immensely distinguished record in this matter. He is right. The Bill is not just about being green—being good for the environment and the natural world. It is about being good for human beings, especially the least well off, who stand to gain most from such measures.

Clause 3 calls for the Government’s current microgeneration strategy to be reviewed. The present strategy was drawn up following the Energy Act 2004. It has worked quite well, but there is general agreement that it needs to be updated. The Government accepted that last year and are, I hope, already working on a new strategy. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that subject later in the debate. As industry sources have said,

“If we updated the microgeneration strategy, this would focus collective action, lead to investment and help create a whole new generation of jobs in retrofitting energy efficiency and microgeneration.”

I hope the Minister will also clarify the Government’s position on implementing the new feed-in tariff system for small-scale electricity generation, which offers clear rewards to people who go green. As the experience of Germany has demonstrated, this reform alone has the capacity to engage the public’s imagination, attract major investment and create tens of thousands of jobs.

Clause 4 requires the Government to review permitted development orders, with the purpose of removing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles, which currently impede the installation of green energy measures in non-residential and agricultural premises. An example of the problem that the clause is intended to address is that it is currently possible for a head teacher to install a small wind turbine on his home, generally without having to get planning permission, but impossible for him to do it at his school, which is rather silly and an anomaly that the clause seeks to put right.

The inclusion of agricultural premises is, I hope, significant for the farming industry. The opportunity for farmers in this context is immense. A report from the Carbon Trust last year suggested that the rural potential of small-scale wind power is more than four times that of the potential in urban areas. But if we can harness the potential of anaerobic digestion on farms, linking biogas up to the gas grid, the consequences could be hugely beneficial as a result of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from farming and creating sustainable energy from waste.

However, I fully accept that we cannot allow a free for all. There must be safeguards against proposals that threaten to create noise nuisance or visual blight. It may well be that any review will need to consider a range of planning options to promote microgeneration projects on agricultural and non-domestic premises. The important thing is that such projects are generally promoted and not impeded by Government policy.

Clause 5 relates to permitted development rights in domestic premises. Considerable progress has been made on this issue by the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006. I had the pleasure of supporting that Bill during its progress. The Act removed much of the hassle involved in installing solar thermal or photovoltaic technologies in domestic premises, but it did not extend to micro wind installations or air source heat pumps. The Government have said that they want to put that right, and the Bill aims to do just that.

Planning obstacles, whether valid or not, have proved a major barrier to small-scale wind technology in particular. I have heard of one company that has 25,000 applications snarled up in the planning process. But again, I am not advocating a complete free for all.

The schedule sets out criteria that I recommend to the Government when considering these issues. In particular, it contains safeguards relating to noise, visual intrusion and buildings protected for heritage reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it requires microgeneration installations to comply with a certification scheme. This should deal with the problem that has arisen with wind turbines, for example, which have been installed with worthy intentions in places where they are largely ineffective because there is not enough wind.

Clause 6 is intended to encourage the Government to consider the anomaly whereby businesses and home owners who improve their property by installing green energy units may be penalised later by higher non-domestic rates or council tax valuations. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on whether he believes there is a contradiction in relevant Government policy.

Finally, this is, as I said, a modest Bill, but I hope it is a helpful one. It brings its own array of interlocking benefits. It is meant to be helpful to industry and investors, who are urgently looking for clear and simple support from legislation affecting their businesses. It is meant to be helpful to the farming industry in developing its potential as a significant source of energy generation in rural areas. It is intended to be helpful to people living in fuel poverty, and to all who are struggling to pay for electricity and heating, and who are dependent on inefficient fossil fuels; helpful to all who want to play their part in reducing CO2 emissions; and helpful to the Government in meeting their own targets on fuel poverty, renewable energy and climate change. I commend the Bill to the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) on his foresight and imagination, on securing the place that he received in the ballot and the Bill that he decided to put before the House, and on the understanding that he exhibits of where we are now in terms of microgeneration, where we need to be, what the impediments to microgeneration development are, and how we can move forward. He says that this is a modest Bill, but I do not agree. It may be modest in its extent and language, but it will have a substantial effect on the progress of microgeneration, its installation and its development, should it be enacted in the way that he has set out, as I am confident that it will.

I say that because, as the hon. Gentleman knows and has underlined, microgeneration appears to be modest in its ambition with regard to the individual installations that provide the electricity and heat, and modest apparently in terms of the amount of electricity or heat that is produced by each microgeneration device, but the overall effect that the widespread installation of such devices will have on our heat and electricity supply is potentially very far from modest. As he underlines, these devices do not simply assist in providing greener energy, but they cut people’s fuel bills, which can be a hedge against the continuing issue of fuel poverty in domestic dwellings, and they can make a tremendous contribution towards the development of sustainable energy sources.

I support what the hon. Gentleman says about reducing fuel poverty and saving energy as a consequence, and I am a strong supporter of the Bill, but will he acknowledge that these private Members’ Bills often achieve these objectives in legislation, but they are not implemented by the Government? May I draw his attention to the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, which the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) supported and I proposed, which still awaits implementation? So many opportunities are lost even when Bills get through on a Friday.

The hon. Gentleman curiously seems to have read my mind, or even part of my speech. Sometimes private Members’ Bills, rather like planning permission for microgeneration, appear to run into some difficulties in practice once they reach the statute book. That is true of not only his Bill, but the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), which contained clauses that I regret to say arose from an unsuccessful private Member’s Bill that I recently tried to put through the House, the magnificently titled Management of Energy in Buildings Bill, which, among other things, attempted to secure a wider range of permitted development orders for microgeneration devices. One of the issues in today’s Bill is general permitted development orders relating to micro wind and heat pumps, which I would have anticipated might have been sorted out by now. The general permitted development order regime was extended under that Act to other small-scale renewable energy devices, but not to those particular categories, for a number of complex reasons that I will not detain the House with today. Nevertheless, progress that I thought might have been made under that Act has not come to pass, so I am delighted this morning to see that, among other things, this Bill contains a clear statement of where we should go on such orders, the time scale of that, and how matters should progress. That is an important part of the Bill.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in what has not been an easy week for the Government, one way in which they could get some good publicity would be if the Minister today not only promised to implement that part of the Bill that it is the Government’s duty to implement, but all those bits that still hang around in other Bills, so that we all felt that our work in producing these private Members’ Bills would bear fruit? Such a commitment today would cost the Minister nothing and would be valuable to the Government and to the Opposition.

I am encouraged by the Government’s commitment to renewable energy in general in the range of recent new instruments to incentivise renewable energy and small-scale renewable energy output, and the commitments that have been made and are being made to the development of renewable and sustainable heat and the role of energy efficiency in the development of a sustainable renewable energy strategy. A number of the issues that have arisen from private Members’ Bills are being addressed by such commitments. It is unlikely that the Minister will give a blanket undertaking this morning that every clause of every private Member’s Bill relating to heat, energy and renewable electricity will be implemented tomorrow, but it is fair to say, without any hint of partisan discussion on the issue, that there is a sea change in ensuring that the impediments to the development of renewable and small-scale sustainable energy, which have existed over a period of time and which hon. Members have through, private Members’ Bills, among other measures, sought to overcome, are by means of such devices and commitments being substantially addressed.

However, it is true that substantial impediments remain, which come in a number of shapes and sizes. We have the impediment of the fact that renewable energy devices are, unlike traditional forms of energy delivery, up front capital intensive. Substantial capital is required to install them and thereafter the revenue consequences are slight. Once installed, the earning capacity of such devices, is significant, and the introduction of the feed-in tariff and the renewable heat incentive, will, I hope—I remain optimistic on this matter—ensure that the certainty for the capital investment that is required in those devices can be enhanced. Nevertheless, it is still true that to suggest to a small business or a household that they put up front between £4,000 and £12,000 to install such a device on the understanding that, eventually, there will be a payback, when they have been used to paying a quarterly electricity or gas bill for their heating supply, represents a considerable turnaround in how people view their arrangements with their energy suppliers. That impediment might be overcome by the introduction of leasing arrangements for microgeneration devices, so that the capital cost can be avoided and the cost of the running those devices can be rolled up in the revenue stream that is generated as those devices are used over time.

A second impediment relates to the connection of such devices to the grid and, in particular, to the distribution network. Indeed, it would be rather a good idea if Ofgem and the grid operators had a good look at the extent to which the theoretical backwash of energy that should enter the grid from, in particular, renewable electricity devices, in practice never gets near the transmission network but simply goes around the distribution network. If we end up with billing arrangements under which small-scale energy generation, as part of the energy mix, is rolled up with the total cost of transmission and distribution, a significant impediment to microgeneration development will remain.

In the past, such impediments were considered fairly insignificant, because, then, it was thought that microgeneration would have a fairly insignificant role to play in the future. However, given the renewable energy strategy that is developing, and the ambition for microgeneration and small-scale generation to become a part of overall renewable energy generation targets, it is far from small-scale in practice. If we also consider the indicative proposals in the renewable energy strategy for reaching the 15 per cent. target for renewable energy—not for renewable electricity—as part of the energy mix by 2020, we see that out of that 15 per cent., it is proposed that no less than 9 per cent., which, according to my maths is about 1 per cent. of the total energy supply, should be supplied by solar heat.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) mentioned the importance of solar heat and solar thermal technology, and in the renewables strategy solar heat plays a substantial role. When we break that down, it means a large number of small installations on the roofs of houses and small-scale commercial properties, and in agricultural areas and so on—all of which individually make a small contribution but collectively add up to the proposed large contribution to the strategy. That would probably mean several hundred thousand installations on the basis that, currently, we install a few thousand per year throughout the country. That represents a quantum change in the rate of such installations, and in their distribution throughout different sectors of domestic energy, small business and agricultural environments.

The clauses in the Bill that seek to remove the third impediment to such installations, the planning arrangements, are therefore potentially very important and valuable. Those impediments have largely been removed in terms of solar thermal technology, but, for other important technologies such as micro wind and, particularly, air source heat pumps, which I believe will also make a substantial contribution to the 15 per cent. energy target by 2020, the impediments remain.

Heat pumps, incidentally, are scheduled and projected to provide some 4 per cent. of the 15 per cent. energy target. Again, my maths partially elude me, but that represents about 0.5 per cent. of the total future renewable energy supply, and it would also be based on a large number of small installations that, collectively, would make up the total. Therefore, the idea that they should fall within the general permitted development order is, as far as domestic properties are concerned, very important, but the Bill goes much further by clarifying the environment, as far as such planning is concerned, in the commercial and agricultural sectors.

On occasions, we have talked about microgeneration as if it were all about putting a small turbine, a small solar thermal device or a solar panel or two on our roofs. However, some of the biggest gains in the not-too-distant future will relate to small and medium-sized enterprises enhancing the insulation of their properties and putting money-earning renewable energy devices on their roofs, around their premises or within the curtilage of their agricultural land to enhance their businesses and secure their energy supplies.

There is an impediment, however, because most small business rent their premises, so there is no enormous incentive either for them or for the landlords of such properties to equip themselves with such devices. The Bill offers some succour, however, in the clauses relating to council tax payments. In Committee, I hope that the business rates for small-scale commercial premises will be considered, because they represent an important means of removing a number of disincentives to the installation of renewable devices.

Overall, the ambition that we now properly have on microgeneration and small-scale generation is real and attainable—attainable, provided that we diagnose the future impediments to the imposition of such energy production devices and systematically ensure that those impediments are ameliorated or eliminated from the system. The Energy Saving Trust recently projected that, by 2050, 30 to 40 per cent. of our overall energy supplies could arise from distributed, small-scale renewable energy at local, district, housing and small-scale commercial property levels.

My concern is that that ambition, which could play such a key role in the provision of our future energy supplies, could be tripped up by impediments that we can easily remove. The Bill goes a long way towards removing a number of those impediments, and I commend it for that. If, in a few years’ time, we get the level of renewable energy generation in our communities and homes which is not only desirable but essential as far as our energy mix is concerned, we will be able to look back and say that this Bill played a part in making the change. For that, we should thank the hon. Member for East Surrey.

It is a great pleasure to speak from the Front Bench in support of the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). He is not only my former boss, but my enduring mentor and inspiration. Since my arrival in Parliament in 2001, he has been an extraordinary influence on the whole debate about not only microgeneration, but climate change and the broader importance of the environment. He has worked as Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee and, as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he pulled the Conservative party on to a new agenda. That will be seen as a historic turning point not only in the fortunes of the Conservative party but in the general debate about such issues in the United Kingdom. His gravitas has meant that he has been able to muster an impressive consensus across the Chamber, and not just today; during the preparation of the Bill, he has tapped parts of the political establishment that others would struggle to reach. I congratulate him on this excellent Bill.

I will not speak for as long as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), but then I do not have his technical expertise. He is an expert on these issues and I hope that the Minister listened carefully to all his comments because he made sound points, particularly about the detail of the Bill.

If I had to encapsulate what the Bill is about, I would say that its message is that the microgeneration agenda has come of age. That agenda has been pulled from the fringes of politics and the energy debate into the mainstream. That is not only because of climate change, but because of how technology is advancing and how the consumer’s interest is now about becoming more involved, rather than just being a passive recipient of energy. The rising cost of old fossil fuels means that people are becoming more energy-efficient and want to play a more active role in energy production.

The Bill is incredibly timely. It says to the Government that, for a long time, other voices—from the Conservative party and their own Benches—have been calling for a far more radical and ambitious approach to microgeneration. Now it appears that the Government are joining that consensus, and that is very welcome. In particular, they have accepted the need for feed-in tariffs to change the economics of microgeneration and create the incentives to push the issues forward. However, it is not enough for the Government to accept the agenda—they have to grab it and get on with it.

The Bill builds on the success of the Planning and Energy Bill, which was brought to the House last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), and on previous work in the Government’s Energy Bill and the microgeneration strategy. This Bill says that we should try to make real progress now, before it is too late—before people become cynical and start thinking that this is all just another exercise in tilting the status quo with further incremental changes to existing patterns of energy use.

The Bill might be modest, but as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said, it contains important measures that, we hope, could have a disproportionate impact on energy users, energy consumption and opportunities for consumers. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey said, it is not just a technical measure; we must not lose sight of the opportunities that it will present for consumers and businesses. There are huge opportunities for the microgeneration sector to become a much larger employer and an engine of growth in the energy sector. It can create new, long-lasting, satisfying jobs through which people can build careers and support families—the sort of jobs of which we want to see more in the 21st century. We do not just want to see the UK as an attractive place to deploy microgeneration equipment and technology. We want it to be an economy in which it makes sense to build such equipment and commercialise the research and development. If the Government are responsive, the Bill will go a long way towards making that happen. I hope that the Minister will rise to the opportunity that the Bill gives him and his Government to get with the programme and join the consensus in the Commons.

The hon. Gentleman is rightly enthusiastic about microgeneration and the opportunity that it offers for future UK energy policy. Will he tell us what the Conservative party commitment is on what our renewables targets should be by 2020, in relation to the generation of electricity and energy as a whole? I have looked for the answer, but have not found it. If his party were in government, what would be its target? That is the context in which the Bill would play a significant part.

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. We do not yet have a specific target on microgeneration per se. However, we do know that it ought to play a much larger role, although there are a lot of barriers to get out of the way. Broadening the scope of what we mean by microgeneration is another important point of detail. The technical threshold for microgeneration is set far too low; a lot of the technologies included in the definitions in the Bill are applicable at a much larger scale. As the technology, the enthusiasm and the grid evolve, a lot of these things will be better or more efficiently deployed at community or larger-business level than at householder level.

A lot of the debate is exciting for people at home. The issues have resonance with voters because they can see the potential to deploy something in their homes, whether wind turbines, solar panels on their roofs or ground source heat pumps. However, many of the technologies, particularly combined heat and power, are tricky to install at the level of the individual home. I know that because I am trying to install a combined heat and power boiler at my home and it is still not there despite the supplier’s promises from last year. It is still not quite ready and the technology is certainly not ready for mass roll-out.

A lot of the technologies are small, certainly compared with the large-scale generation of the utility companies, but perhaps they are just beyond the size appropriate to go into an individual home or beyond the means of an individual home owner to deploy. We need to do more work. We will look carefully at the issues and I hope that we will be able to support the Government’s microgeneration strategy; if we form the next Government, we will certainly seek to build on it. The detail is key, and the updating of the Government’s microgeneration strategy is vital. The message going over the top must be that we want to push the issue forward now. We do not want yet more iterative consultations or yet another review. We want to grip the agenda and produce something for people to work with and to enable people to start installing microgeneration technology in their homes this year. That is what we are talking about.

Feed-in tariffs help, as does removing unnecessary planning obstacles. Removing the possible disincentive on council tax would help significantly. Council tax plays a disproportionately important role in people’s judgments, as they go to huge lengths to avoid paying what is undoubtedly the most unpopular tax of all. If there is concern, well founded or not, that people will be pushed into another bracket of council tax as a result of improving their property by installing these technologies, that will probably cancel out whatever feed-in tariffs or planning law changes are put in place. Clause 6 is important to assure consumers that improving the energy generation capacity of their home they will not push them into a new bracket.

Conservative Members strongly support this Bill. A greater microgen deployment is crucial. We support the Government’s target on microgeneration, but we will be looking to see whether there is scope not only to match them but beat them by going further. However, there is no point in talking about higher targets and more ambitious goals if the mechanisms are not in place to deliver and there are no proper incentives to help people to deploy these technologies.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey, I will not rehearse the arguments about the imperatives for action in the face of climate change. I think that everybody here today shares that view, because I see huge expertise and wisdom around me on both sides of the Chamber. I look forward to listening to the rest of the debate, which I hope will be short so that we can get on with getting this important measure on to the statute book.

The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) generously thanked a whole list of people for their help in preparing the Bill and supporting its presentation before the House, but the one person he failed to mention was himself. It is important that there is, across the House, a recognition of the role that he has played not only in bringing this Bill before us but in keeping climate change and the shift into renewable and sustainable energy systems on the political agenda, especially when many Members in all parts of the House were uninterested in it for long periods of the past 10 or 20 years. It is right that we recognise not only the specific credit to which he is entitled in relation to this Bill but the longer-term, bigger-picture credits that are to be associated with him.

The hon. Gentleman was also unduly modest in identifying the merits of the Bill. It has a role in tying together a whole series of measures that have been introduced by this Government, particularly driven by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Minister of State, all of which are to be welcomed. I suspect that the Bill may have greater significance than the hon. Gentleman claimed because, if we look at what is happening at a global level, what concerns me most is that all the recent figures about global carbon emissions show that they are rising at a faster rate than the worst-case scenarios offered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—at about 3.3 per cent. annually. The danger is that that takes us into some of the most worrying prospects of the climate change agenda, driven by feedback mechanisms in the planet that will be beyond the control of any, or even all, global Governments. That is the nightmare scenario that many of us fear. Exactly where that may take us can probably best be seen by making a brief visit to the cinema to see Peter Postlethwaite’s film, “The Age of Stupid”, which is the starkest of warnings as to where the planet could end up if we fail to act dynamically in the decade ahead of us.

That is where microgeneration—decentralised energy—will have a much more prominent part to play than some of the other aspects that have, perhaps understandably, commanded centre stage in debates in this House. The reality is that whether or not carbon capture and storage works, it is unlikely to be a significant factor in reductions in carbon emissions before 2020. For those who believe in nuclear power as a solution, that too is unlikely to be delivering new energy until the post-2020 era. However, all the dynamic changes that are required will have to be delivered pre-2020.

The most accessible area for us to make real progress is in the field of decentralised energy that is generated, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, at a local, community, town and city level. The scope for that is vast. I have been looking at some of the current projections about where and how microgeneration can deliver on this agenda. In truth, as well as being fearful of the consequences of a lack of action on climate change, I am equally excited by the scope that we have for dramatically changing the pattern not only of our energy security picture but of our economic prospects.

A couple of weeks ago, a company called Delta Energy and Environment produced a report that said that, if the UK took seriously the shift into renewable energy by 2020, the economic consequence would be to give us a £12.6 billion surplus in our energy accounts as opposed to what could be monumental deficits if we do not invest in our own renewables but become increasingly dependent on the supply of energy from external sources. We could achieve that surplus if we invest with confidence in our ability to meet our own renewable energy needs. In practical terms, that translates not only into energy security at a local level but job security and job prospects for the generations of young people who are coming through and would love to be part of the solution to today’s and tomorrow’s problems rather than just part of the problem.

I am pleased that we are seeing, as a Parliament, the possibility of an incremental upward adjustment of what we mean by microgeneration, as the Bill refers to a 10 MW capacity for microgeneration. That becomes phenomenally important when we start to evaluate the different sources of energy that are currently available to us.

Having come to this House on a wet and gloomy May morning in London, it is hard for us to grasp that the planet still receives from the sun 1,500 times more energy than its population can consume. However, that remains the case, and it is part of the solar renewables agenda that we have to connect to, even though other parts of the world may be able to do so more readily and abundantly. There are also the abundant supplies of renewable energy that come from the wind, from the tides and from beneath the earth.

The specific dimension that I want to focus on is the much neglected one of energy from our own UK waste, particularly in the form of biogas that can be recovered from the recycling of household waste in the form of anaerobic digestion. At the moment, we have a miserably poor record of making use of what is seen as a problem here but recognised as a resource elsewhere. The UK currently recycles about 50,000 tonnes a year of household decayable waste through anaerobic digestion, which is less than 0.4 per cent. of our household waste.

If we were to have a more ambitious approach to recycling waste and turning it into biogas by anaerobic digestion, we would have a huge opportunity to give ourselves access to renewable gas supplies and heat. The National Grid Company recently produced a study stating that if we were to take the matter seriously in the UK, by 2020 we could supply 50 per cent. of our domestic heating needs from the gas extracted from recycling our domestic waste. It stated that there were no technical difficulties about connection with the grid and that it was simply a matter of political will and how we incentivise that.

That is why I support and endorse the hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) expressed that we will try to synchronise the feed-in tariffs that will be introduced for electricity with those for gas and heat. It would be much better for the UK if we could introduce a single simple and coherent scheme, so that those doing the investing knew what were to be the relative costs, risks and merits of the three elements of renewables. It does not help if people are left trying to guess what they might be for two of the elements, with only electricity being introduced with certainty. I know that there are procedural difficulties in that, but I encourage the Minister to introduce a co-ordinated view of the shift to renewables.

I have been looking at what the shift to renewables will mean in the context of what is happening in another country, specifically Sweden. It estimates that, by the same date of 2020, it will be able to produce 10 TW of energy simply from the recycling of its domestic waste. It can add to that a further 60 TW from the recycling of other waste in the system, which will effectively cover the entirety of its carbon emissions from transport.

Sweden is seeking to focus on using biogas to change to a green gas transport system. Other countries are seeking to harness the gas that they produce and put it into the grid. For the fuel-poor in the UK, that would make a massive difference, because 80 per cent. of their energy costs come from heating their homes. If we were to understand that and accept the National Grid Company’s invitation, we would be able to offer something quite dramatic and astonishing to the 5.5 million households in the UK that are living in fuel poverty.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at the same time as helping the fuel-poor and driving down costs, that would drive us away from our dependency on other countries for our gas supplies? With the political turbulence throughout Europe at the moment, we would not be so reliant on other countries turning the tap on or off.

That was not in any way meant as an insult; I just wished to question why we cannot occupy the space that the hon. Gentleman describes.

I brought across representatives of a couple of German biogas companies to talk to people in my constituency who were very keen on moving into biodigestion of domestic waste. One thing that staggered not the community but the local authority representatives was the response when the Germans were asked what the costs would be. They said that that would depend entirely on the period of the waste disposal contract. They said, “We will offer it to you in very simple terms. We will guarantee fixed prices for your gas for the whole period of the waste disposal contract, whether 10 years or 15 years, rising only by RPI.” The local authority representatives looked as though their brains were struggling to grasp that, and one of them said, “How can you do that in a world of spiralling gas prices in the international gas markets?” The German representative said, “Precisely because we are not dependent on the international gas markets. We are not captives of the spiralling prices. We will generate gas from your waste—as long as you keep supplying the waste, we will keep producing the gas. We make our money out of the gate fee.”

We could become consumers of green gas in precisely the way that we can currently become consumers of green electricity. The benefits of energy security and stable prices are therefore of dual importance, not just to the nation as a whole but specifically to those who have found spiralling energy costs plunging them back into fuel poverty.

I wholeheartedly endorse my hon. Friend’s sentiments about renewable gas. From his observations of municipal contracts, a number of which are coming up for long-term renewal over the next couple of years, does he agree that bringing forward a renewable heat incentive to underpin the renewal of those contracts could be very important in securing contracts for the anaerobic digestion and gas production that he suggests is necessary?

That is important, but it is also important that the House consider other possibilities that may arise in how we can approach the decentralisation of energy generation. One lesson that struck me in my work on examining arrangements in Germany was that, across continental Europe, there is a much stronger tradition of decentralising not only energy generation but ownership and accountability. In the UK, we have found ourselves consumed by all sorts of arguments about planning blight. There are local objections to the installation of wind turbines, and I expect that there would be similar objections to the development of biodigesters.

In Denmark, there is a far greater distribution of localised biodigestive plants, which feed back into either local communities or the gas grid. One reason why there is less controversy in other parts of Europe is that there is a far greater degree of local and popular ownership, and people are stakeholders in their own system. I discovered the importance of that in a community in Nottingham that I am working in, the Meadows. There was an application for a wind turbine, not exactly in the centre of Nottingham but on the banks of the River Trent as it sweeps around that inner-city, poor community. Wind surveys were done by the university and identified three possible sites, one inside the Meadows on the embankment and two across the river in wealthier parts of Nottingham.

We had to have inquiries and consultations and everyone anticipated that there would be massive objections. We got it completely wrong. At the very first meeting, a guy stood up and said, “Just let me understand this. This wind turbine, it’ll be generating electricity that will be coming into my house, and it’ll be coming off my bills. Is that right?” We said, “Well, sort of right. It will be shared between all of us, but technically that is true.” We said that we had to decide where it would be located. He said, “There’s no question about that; it’s got to be located here.” People murmured, “Why?” He turned to everyone else in the audience and said, “Listen, if this is a money spinner and we put it in areas outside our own, where the rich people live, that money’s never going to come here. If it’s going to work for us, we’ll have it here.” The murmuring became a rumble of enthusiasm and the planning application went through without a single objection from the community where the turbine was to be located. Why? Because it would own the turbine.

We need to learn from other parts of Europe that it is not only a matter of renewal of local contracts, but of building in local stakeholding. If people see themselves as the drivers of change, we will discover in the UK what we find throughout Europe: schools that hand over their roofs to solar arrays because that generates income for them; whole towns and cities where local authorities give over their municipal roofs to generating decentralised energy. All that provides a social, economic and ecological momentum, which is incredibly empowering. The Bill represents that for me.

For years, many other hon. Members and I have longed for the dynamism that the Minister and the Secretary of State have brought to the debate on green energy. Now we have it. The Bill allows us to dovetail many initiatives that are on the table and make them a coherent whole.

I remember a wonderful tale about how a village dealt with a problem. A child fell down a well and was shouting to be rescued. Various villagers lowered their ropes into the well to try to reach the child. The first rope was 20 ft short, the next was 15 ft short, the next was 10 ft and the last was, tantalisingly, only 5 ft away from the child. The villagers could not work out what to do, but a voice from the bottom of the well called out, “Tie your ropes together.”

The Bill invites us to tie the ropes—many of which the Government, the Minister and Secretary of State have provided—together to harness the enthusiasm and urgency of our times. I hope that Hansard records today that we have an hon. Member, a measure and cross-party momentum that had the sense to tie our ropes together.

The top of a music score often includes in brackets a composer’s instruction such as “With enthusiasm”, “With fury” and so on. I want to join in expressing enthusiasm for the Bill.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) for promoting the Bill and for his work on environmental and green issues over many years. He is not a late arrival on the scene. Colleagues from all parties pay tribute to him for his work: he has understood for many years, as some of us have tried to do, the importance of such issues. The measure is another manifestation of that understanding.

I have always been a great fan of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). He has been fantastic in his advocacy of green issues. In his core contribution, he made the central point that the Bill is about returning energy and environmental policies to people, individuals and communities, which is where they used to be. We sometimes forget that the great 19th century successes happened not because the Government in Westminster and Whitehall organised the energy industry, but because the villages, towns and cities had municipal initiatives. They were driven by the pride in Manchester, Nottingham, Guildford—if it was big enough then—and in my part of London, in the old boroughs of Bermondsey, Camberwell and Southwark. People wanted to do their own thing and they were proud that the water or electricity company they used was theirs. It meant that people were in it together.

Such a policy had two other benefits. First, it made everybody responsible—people had to think through the implications. Secondly, it educated everybody. People understood what farmers, environmentalists and many in the rural community understand: lights do not go on because one presses a switch; it is a process that depends on our planet and our harnessing energy wisely. The Bill will return us to understanding what we need to do to ensure that the planet is safe and to avert the risk which we all know exists. That is the context for the measure.

On a day when we all woke up to unhelpful news about politics and Parliament, we are discussing far more important issues than those that led this morning’s news. There is significant agreement between all the main parties about those issues, and I note that the list of private Members’ Bills on the Order Paper includes four that deal with the environment and energy. Apart from the measure that we are considering, there is the Land Use (Garden Protection etc) Bill, the Climate Change (Sectoral Targets) Bill and the Renewable Content Obligation Bill.

It is no accident that, when Back Benchers introduce Bills, they are often what could be described as “get on with it” measures. The science urges us to go further and faster than Governments have gone, and colleagues from all parties are saying, “Please get on with it.” I therefore hope that the Minister, whom we respect greatly and who is hugely committed to his work—I have worked with him in his many guises in many Departments over the years—will be positive and enthusiastic when he responds. Let us get on with it.

There are two coincidences today apart from that of the four measures on similar subjects. Today is the deadline for responses to the Government’s heat and energy-saving strategy consultation. For those who thought that they might respond, today is the day. I hope that the debate will be perceived partly as a response to the consultation, because the contributions relate specifically to what the Government asked people to respond to. The consultation document states:

“The consultation recognises that the upfront cost of energy efficiency in microgeneration measures is likely to be a barrier to greater uptake. The policy proposals outlined look to remove this barrier and get people to act now.”

There is a need to remove barriers, take away disincentives and give incentives. The Bill would do all that.

The other coincidence today is that Which? has produced a report about how confusing energy tariffs are. We all know that they are a nightmare for most people. Seven in 10 people find the number of gas and electricity tariffs available confusing. Conversely, if people have their own wind turbine, heat pump and so on, and supply energy for not only their home, school, industrial estate, village or town, but sell something to the system—thereby contributing—that is not confusing. People have no difficulty in understanding that. It is exactly what people want and need.

My colleagues and I support the Bill. My predecessor in the job, my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) sends his apologies; he cannot be here today. He is a sponsor of the measure, which is therefore supported by our Front Benchers and has been since its inception. I have a micro concern, about which I would like an amendment in Committee, but I shall outline that shortly.

Clause 2 states:

“The principal purpose of this Act is to promote green energy.”

It makes clear what constitutes green energy and that the Bill is about energy from renewables or small-scale low-carbon sources. It also includes energy efficiency provisions—another important part of the equation. The Bill says clearly that the Government should get on with the microgeneration strategy that was included in the Energy Act 2008—it was a bit late in the day, but we got there eventually—but which has not yet been implemented. In effect, the Bill says, “Please, Parliament decided that it wanted this to happen. Let’s move quickly now, rather than slowly.”

The Bill makes clear the sort of things that everybody can do. They are easy to understand, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, although sometimes they are a bit harder to deliver, because of the technology, the supply chain or whatever. The Bill is about increasing the number of microgeneration systems in existing buildings, having a fiscal regime that effectively promotes microgeneration, ensuring that feed-in tariffs work easily and are not difficult and ensuring an incentive for renewable heat. All those things produce the benefits that we all know about. They produce sustainable communities and enhance community cohesion, whether in big cities, such as Nottingham or London, or in small villages in Cornwall, Surrey, Cambridgeshire, where the constituency that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) represents is situated, Cheshire or wherever. Those things also create and sustain green jobs—indeed, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of jobs are involved; one needs only to look at Germany or other countries that have led the way—and they help to reduce the burdens that create energy poverty, which adds to the poverty that we know about.

The hon. Member for East Surrey made it clear that we have to do something about the planning barriers that get in the way. The Government have understood that we need to lift the burdens—not to allow abuse of the planning system, but to ensure that things that the farmer, smallholder or householder would naturally do do not involve having to jump through lots of planning hoops. That is important, whether we are talking about domestic premises or a farm, or whatever.

Also, the hon. Gentleman made it clear that people who do those things, thereby contributing to their good health and wealth, and to the health of the community and the planet, will not be financially disincentivised. He also made it clear that their doing those things will not add to their burdens, and that they will not end up paying a bigger council tax bill or whatever. We have to encourage people, not discourage them, and the tighter their budgets, the more important it is that we do not discourage them.

I have been listening with care to the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. I wonder whether he would care to comment on permitted developments on agricultural land of the sort that he has described. A farmer might decide to put a significant anaerobic digestion or other renewable plant on his land, but the local community might say, “That’s not the right place to put it. We don’t want it in that site. We wouldn’t object to it somewhere else, but not there.” Permitted development is, of course, permitted development. It would not enable local engagement to that extent. What role does the hon. Gentleman feel the community should be able to have in that situation?

That is a valid point. I was brought up in villages until I was 18, and controversial issues always arise when the big farmer puts in place a big new plant or whatever. As I understand it, the Bill calls for a review of the system, in order to prevent matters that need not be part of the planning process from having to go through it, so that more things will be allowed automatically. However, large developments that are controversial and intrusive would still have to go through the planning process, so I do not think that there is a disagreement between the Minister and me.

I absolutely believe that what the hon. Member for Nottingham, South said is true: when people understand the benefit to them personally and to their communities, the objections to the wind farm or whatever suddenly disappear almost completely. People say, “Look, it’s ours—it’s harnessing our environment and it’s part of our community.” Often such projects also have some beauty, character and style and they add something. I therefore hope that there is no disagreement between the Minister and me.

I shall be very brief with my other points, because I do not want to delay either this Bill or those that follow it. Let me make clear my one objection and ask the hon. Member for East Surrey to think about it in Committee. My one concern is about the definition of “green jobs”, which are described in clause 1 as

“jobs associated with producing or promoting green energy”.

I do not have a problem with that, in the sense that those jobs are clearly green jobs, but I want us to be clear that defining “green jobs” is not uncomplicated. I have here—the Minister may know what I am about to say—a parliamentary answer from his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to my question to the Secretary of State about what the Government’s definition of a green job is. It states:

“There is no single definition of a ‘green job’ because we do not believe that some jobs should be green and others not.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2009; Vol. 490, c. 707W.]

That is probably a wiser position. We sort of know what we understand by “green jobs”, but let us not limit it. In fact, the UN has a much better definition, which I can offer the hon. Member for East Surrey:

“Green jobs are defined as positions in agriculture, manufacturing, R and D, administrative, and service activities aimed at alleviating the myriad environmental threats faced by humanity.”

If we are going to have a definition, let us have a broad one, not a narrow one.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his interesting speech. I will certainly take a look at the issue, but the definition contained in the Bill is for the purposes of the Bill. It is not for wider purposes.

I completely understand. My concern is that we might end up with lots of different definitions of “green jobs” in different bits of legislation; such issues are the blight of legislation. We ought to try to use a common definition. I understand exactly the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I hope that there will be a way of reconciling it with mine.

I want quickly to check what role the Government think microgeneration and renewables should play, so that the Minister has an opportunity to put it on the record. According to the latest Government figures, 5 per cent. of electricity in the UK in 2007 was produced by renewables. I understand that the target is 10 per cent. by 2010, which is pretty soon, so the question is: what are we going to get to by 2010? Is 10 per cent. still the Government’s target? What do they believe we will achieve? The expectation or aspiration—they have said that it is not a target—is that 20 per cent. of electricity will be produced by renewables by 2020. I want to know whether that is still the Government’s position. They have also said that 15 per cent. of all energy, as opposed to just electricity, will be renewable by 2020.

There is a strong argument, which my colleagues and I believe, that if we are to meet the European Union target for the whole of our energy mix, we may need 35 per cent. of our electricity to come from renewables by 2020. Our party’s position is clear—my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge played a large part in formulating it—and we believe that that can be achieved. We believe, bluntly, that we ought to have much more ambitious targets. We believe that it is possible to have a target of 30 per cent. of electricity coming from renewables by 2020 and that 25 per cent. of energy could come from renewables. As a party we reject the nuclear option, which we do not think is necessary, so we do not include it.

I am keen for us to see the Bill as an opportunity to build a consensus on making a more ambitious contribution on renewables. I asked the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, who is not in his place now, what the Conservatives’ position was and he said that they had not finalised their view. That is fine, but they will need to do so before an election, so that everybody knows what they will be voting for if they vote for a Conservative candidate.

I have a second question for the Minister. With regard to whether we are going to achieve what the hon. Member for East Surrey wants us to achieve, I am troubled that the solar photovoltaic and low-carbon buildings programme should be ending this summer. The programme has been so over-subscribed that the Government are closing the doors and have not allowed anybody to put their name on the list since the end of February. I am concerned that that is not the right response to a Bill such as this. We need something that says that the Government understand the importance of giving in to the public demand, which the Bill reflects, for people to get on with things. When a school says, “We want solar PV,” and is told by the Government, “I’m sorry, you can’t have it anymore; the system is not available,” the practice does not reflect the Government’s view.

I will end with this point. I am proud that 80 per cent. of colleagues in my party have signed the early-day motion supporting the Bill. I hope that that stands as a testament to the commitment of our party. I hope that we can encourage many more colleagues in other parties to support the Bill as it makes its way through the House. I checked this morning on the early-day motion list and saw that 34 per cent. of Conservative colleagues and 23 per cent. of Labour colleagues support it. I hope that colleagues the Front Benchers will go away and tell their colleagues that the Bill deserves support. The time has come for this issue to be at the top of the agenda. I had the privilege of introducing a showing of “The Age of Stupid” at a cinema in London a few weeks ago. If anyone, inside or outside the House, is still not persuaded, that film is a must-see.

I hope that the Bill will be supported by Parliament, and that, by the end of this parliamentary Session, whatever the noises outside might be on other issues, we will have made significant progress on advancing the contribution of renewables and microgeneration and, in so doing, advancing the empowerment of individuals to run their own lives and deliver their own energy. In that way, in the foreseeable future, we could have an energy-independent Britain in an energy-independent Europe.

One of the curious things about my parliamentary career and that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) is that people continually get us mixed up. Over the years, each of us has frequently received letters addressed to the other. So when I recently got a letter congratulating me on introducing the Green Energy (Definition and Promotion) Bill, I felt that I ought to come along here today to set the record straight by saying that it was nothing to do with me. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this extremely important Bill, which I thoroughly support and which will be of enormous benefit to many of my constituents.

My constituency is a rural area, much of which is off the gas networks. The future for microgeneration is therefore extremely important there. At the moment, most rural households rely on oil, liquefied petroleum gas and, of course, coal. In Northumberland, we still burn a great deal of coal. Curiously, at certain times of the winter in still weather, the pollution levels in some of the country villages approach levels that are not permitted under European or domestic air purity regulations. If those regulations were tightened further, some villages would fail the test. Moving away from burning fossil fuels to heat our homes is therefore extremely important.

We are making considerable progress in the north. We have a lot of timber, and wood energy is becoming increasingly popular. In fact, the new swimming pool that has recently opened in Hexham is heated exclusively by wood energy. However, the use of such energy is really available only to the larger institutions that can handle the storage and transportation of the wood. One or two other larger institutions in my constituency are introducing it, including a local hotel which makes a great issue of the fact that it is heated using sustainable wood products. This is part of the idea of promoting green tourism in Northumberland.

In agriculture, farmers are extremely interested in developing anaerobic digester systems. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that an impediment to the success of this process is the linking of the digesters to the grid. In areas where there is no gas network, the digesters produce gas to work turbines that generate electricity. That is a sensible idea for farmers, but the cost of linking the system to the grid is a considerable disincentive. I have no specialist knowledge of this matter, but it seems to me that the amount that the electricity supply companies are charging for upgrading the grid or for connecting to an anaerobic digester are prohibitively high. Those costs need to be looked at more carefully.

I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) about ownership of individual turbines and other generators of decentralised energy. My constituency has been defined as an area suitable for large-scale wind turbine development, and there are now applications in place for 80 turbines in a relatively small area. As hon. Members can imagine, that has caused considerable annoyance and irritation to the locals, who believe that the landscape of Northumberland, which is one of our big selling points, will be damaged by the overdevelopment of the turbines. They will also get no benefit from them, apart from the small amount of money—the bawbees—that the companies give back, perhaps to renovate a village hall or something like that. There is no real payback for the community for having these things on their doorstep. Microgeneration involving turbines within a community would provide a direct benefit, however, and the whole idea would become very much more popular.

I do not want to detain the House, because I believe that the Bill should go through. It is an extremely worthwhile Bill and I thoroughly support it. What microgeneration needs is that gentle push to make it economic, and once it passes through that barrier, there will be an explosion of decentralised energy across the country, which will make a huge contribution to the cleaning up of our planet.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) for his historically long campaign for the green energy that this country so desperately needs, and also to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who represents one of the most beautiful parts of the country. As a soldier, I dug many a hole in his constituency. I was told that this was to protect me—I think from the sergeant major, rather than from the elements. It is a beautiful part of the world, and I fully understand his constituents’ concerns about the number of wind turbines that might go up. My constituency is on the edge of the Chilterns, also one of the most beautiful parts of the country, and there is real concern there because the Chilterns generate wind. There is always a breeze coming through the valley, and people are very worried about the possible blight of the area.

I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson); it is not often that we say of Members across the Chamber that we are friends, but he and I are friends, and I am sad that he is leaving the House at the next election and not fighting his seat. He still has a lot of work to do, he is very young, and I do not really understand his decision, although I know that he has a commitment to his family. We have had this debate before, but he is an expert in this area—perhaps not an expert like the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), who has a doctorate in this field, but an expert on the ground in his community, arguing the points that he referred to earlier. Perhaps, as we get closer to the election, he will think again—but he is a stubborn man, so perhaps he will not.

Unlike many hon. Members, I do not have a long history of talking about green issues. I have been converted, not least by the work of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey, but also by having two teenage daughters. Young people understand this whole area much better than we do. They really understand that they are going to inherit this Earth that we live on, and they have real concerns. As I go around the schools in my constituency, whether in the more affluent areas or on the more deprived estates, I hear the young people saying time and again that the environment and the future of this world that we live in is the most important thing to them. I always imagine that they think about whether the nightclubs are going to be open late, or what the fashion of the day might be, but when I sit and talk to them, they ask me, “Why aren’t you doing something about this? Why aren’t you protecting the environment that we live in? What’s the delay?” They say that there seems to be consensus in politics in this country and around there world that a catastrophe is coming down the railway lines, and ask “Why aren’t Governments of any description doing something about it?” I am very proud of those on my Front Bench—I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats as well—because we have all come together on this issue and we are now moving forward. I am one of the converts who needed to come on board to bring this through.

Some would argue that I have been a convert for a long time, because I am passionate about part of the environment—namely, the rivers and lakes of this country. That is because I am an angler. The fishermen of this country have protected more of the environment—certainly more of the rivers—than nigh on anyone else. The amount of money we pay for our licence fees and our bait, for example, makes it obvious that we are driving that economy forward. We are passionate about the rivers, canals and lakes of this country, but they are desperately under threat. I went fishing last weekend, and I have noticed a clear change in the river environment due to increased acidity. Invertebrates have a real problem with acidity, in the oceans as well as in our rivers.

I should also like to pay tribute to the Select Committee, which I have not heard mentioned this morning. It used to be the Trade and Industry Committee, and it is now the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. The reports that it has produced over the years have been very helpful in driving these arguments forward. The Trade and Industry Committee’s report of 30 January 2007, “Turning Consumers into Producers” started the discussion, by pointing out that this is not an “us and them” situation, and that people can take part in the generation of energy in their own towns, villages, businesses and homes, so that this country can go forward.

I also declare an interest in that RES, one of this country’s great research establishments dealing with green and sustainable energy, is right on the edge of my constituency. The wind turbine that one sees when coming round the northern part of the M25 is about 50 ft outside it; it is actually in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), even though it is part of the Langleys, which are in mine. I have visited RES many times and I understand that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, together with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, visited two weeks ago and looked at the fantastic research being done at this great establishment. Interestingly enough, the Business Secretary kindly called me to let me know that he would be in my constituency—but as the site is not located there, my office told him which MP he should call. That may seem a trivial point, but it is crucial when one thinks how important this place is. It is a leading world-renowned company in the drive for renewable energy, yet the Government did not know exactly where it was based, which was slightly worrying.

One huge benefit from the visit of those two Secretaries of the State was that it sent out message to the renewable energy industry. The attendance of those Secretaries of State two weeks before this Bill was presented to the House today sent out a signal that the Government were going to do something and remove some of the roadblocks. This Bill will remove some, although not all, of the roadblocks in the Government and the business community that have prevented us from going forward.

Whenever I visit RES, I am always made aware that we have some of the greatest research skills in the world and have developed some of the greatest products in the world, yet they are being used elsewhere rather than in this country, where they were developed. In many cases, taxpayers’ money has been used—quite rightly—on research and development, but we have not taken sufficient advantage of the energy efficient products that have been driven forward by those research skills. When I visited Sweden, I saw these products in use, and when I visited Canada 20 years ago, that country was using our technology, which is still not being used to drive forward energy efficiency here today.

When I speak to representatives of such companies, I hear that the real block is capacity. If these products could be sold with the knowledge that they would be allowed to go forward within communities, the whole thing would swing into action. At the moment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, it is very expensive and difficult to get the equipment installed because the manufacturers do not have the capacity. I hope that the Bill will help to remove that block. It should be allowed to go forward into Committee; I hope that the Government will support it today.

I will try not to detain the House, having heard the call to keep our comments brief, but I would like to touch on one or two issues.

I add my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) not just for this Bill but for all his work on green issues. It is a long while since I last came to the House on a Friday to participate in debates on private Members’ Bills, which I hope demonstrates my commitment to this cause and my appreciation of my hon. Friend’s work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) referred to his being wrongly informed about a ministerial visit, which turned out not to be in his constituency. We often wonder where the Government are going, and I can inform my hon. Friend that I regularly receive letters from Ministers telling me that they are visiting my constituency, only to find that they are visiting another one. I sometimes fail to receive letters, on the other hand, when Ministers are visiting my constituency. That is by the by.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead also referred to RES—based close to his constituency—which is appealing against a refusal for a wind farm in my constituency, so perhaps I should not say any more about that. My hon. Friend will understand that the company is not always appreciated in the way he appreciates it.

I strongly endorse the argument that we need to make the planning rules easier, and I should like to pick up on the Minister’s intervention on the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) in which he mentioned permitted development orders on agricultural land. I do not want to introduce an element of dissent into today’s proceedings, but anyone hearing the Minister’s intervention would probably assume that he was saying that farmers had complete freedom to build where they want, but that is not the case.

Perhaps I may finish the point, after which I will, of course, allow the Minister to intervene.

There are already considerable restrictions on what farmers are allowed to do. First, the permitted development order allows development only within the curtilage of the farm buildings or premises, not in open countryside; and, secondly, there are serious limits on how much extra building space is allowed. In some cases, farmers have to notify the local authority of their intent to build, so the opportunity for the community to intervene is effectively provided automatically.

I think that the hon. Gentleman has inadvertently misinterpreted what I said. I said that if the consultation resulted in permitted development being granted to landowners more generally, it would change the current situation as the hon. Gentleman described it. I mentioned a local community’s opportunity to intervene; the Bill asks for consultation if landowners are allowed greater permitted development than they currently have.

I happily accept the Minister’s comments, but that is the purpose of the consultation, and if the conclusion of that consultation is that landowners should have more freedom, it would seem that all the objectives had been met. I strongly suspect that the Minister is right that there would not be huge support for a completely free and open approach. The point reiterated in the clauses on domestic and non-domestic premises is that if we are to encourage microgeneration, we may have to accept some relaxation of the planning rules. We can all debate the extent of the relaxation, but the schedule, although applying only to wind turbines, is extremely relevant. I hope that the Minister and the Government will understand it and leave it in the Bill.

Let us consider the technology of the mobile phone industry as an example. When I first entered the House, those with mobile phones had to carry a car battery around with them. The advance in technology resulted partly from the fact that the then Conservative Government—I was glad to be a member—allowed some relaxation in the planning legislation governing the construction of masts.

I reiterate that it is not my or the Bill’s intention to enable landowners to do all sorts of things without reference to the local community. It is essential that proper safeguards are in place. The purpose of the review will be to see what can be done to enable the more rapid roll-out of new technologies in rural areas.

I am grateful for that clarification and I trust that the Minister has taken it into account; I look forward to hearing his response in a few moments.

My second main point is to emphasise the need for a swift introduction of the feed-in tariff. This morning’s debate is largely a matter of consensus, so now is not the time for huge criticisms, but I regret that it has taken so long to introduce the tariffs. It is several years since my colleagues and I advocated them; the sooner they come into force, the better. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) rightly said, it is not only about electricity. I shall come on in a few moments to anaerobic digestion, which, as I shall venture to say, has huge scope—but it will happen only if we have a feed-in tariff for gas as well as for electricity. We need that or some equivalent mechanism.

Before moving on to that issue in more detail, let me pick up the point about the importance of decentralisation of the system and thus of local ownership, which interests many hon. Members. You and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, share a current application, which straddles our constituency boundary. One reason it is opposed—there are many—is the fact that local people see nothing in it for them. The electricity disappears into the national grid and is gone; there is no local ownership. I am not suggesting that we break down the grid, but there needs to be a mechanism whereby local communities feel some benefit. Whether the development is private or the community owns it is secondary to whether communities see a direct benefit.

There is an argument that locally generated electricity reduces transmission loss. The more we can reduce transmission loss, the better. Even if electricity could be individually identified, which of course it cannot, the electricity generated by any wind farm would not necessarily go within 100 or 500 miles to be used. We cannot undertake such measurement, but if we could have not only a more properly decentralised system, but a decentralised way of accounting, so that people understood that they were buying equivalent to the energy generated by their local power source, there would be much less resistance to such projects.

The great importance of the feed-in tariff lies in microgeneration. Over the years, the Government have been rather wedded to ROCs—renewables obligation certificates. I do not pretend to know a huge amount about them, but they are not suitable for small-scale activity. They may be fine for large-scale renewable power sources—I reserve judgment, as I do not know enough to say—but they are certainly not adaptable for small scale, and it is so important that we move quickly to find a mechanism that is.

It is quite odd that we have got through nearly two hours of debate without anybody referring to the vexed issue of money and cost, but it is terribly important and needs to be included in this analysis. One reason investment in microgeneration is being held back is that microgeneration, for the person installing it for their own use, is often not viable, or the payback period may be very long. The kit they install, whatever the source of the renewable, will go on generating power even when everything is switched off at night. The feed-in tariff would give people an income from the power they generate but do not use.

That is a terribly important point and it is worth hanging a point of reference on it, which is the experience in Germany. Last year, the German Government evaluated the cost of introducing feed-in tariffs and how they need to be incorporated in domestic bills, set alongside the savings that Germany has made by transferring other, much less efficient subsidy systems. Feed-in tariffs have reduced household energy costs, rather than pushed them up. Would the hon. Gentleman like such an initiative to be replicated in the UK as part of the measures proposed in the Bill?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. In a moment, I shall come to my own experience of the German perspective, having also been to look carefully at what the Germans are doing.

My final point on ROCs is that the Government have been rather obsessed with wind power as the means of meeting their renewables targets over the last few years. That is partly because ROCs are suitable for that purpose, although I am glad that some variation has been introduced to the proportion of ROCs available in relation to power from different sources. I hope that the introduction of the feed-in tariff and microgeneration will enable us much more effectively to spread the sources of renewable energy and not depend so much on very large wind farms, which, as several hon. Members have said and as you and I are both aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, cause immense local resistance, not least because they are often seen as huge blots on the landscape.

I want to discuss what I have seen happening in Germany, especially vis-à-vis anaerobic digestion. As a number of hon. Members have said, virtually anything can be anaerobically digested—livestock manures, slurries, sewage sludge and, of course, food wastes. To return to the point about money, so much of what is done—the composting, which is virtually the only system on any scale that is getting rid of organic, putrescible waste—is viable for the compost operator only because of effective subsidy, either through landfill tax or whatever is coming back into the system.

If we want renewable power to be not only an important part of our climate change policy but accepted by the community as important, the sooner we can move it away from a form of subsidy, the better, although I am not suggesting that it may be impossible to achieve this without any form of cross-subsidy, as we get through ROCs.

I fear that, in financial and economic terms, some of the developments of the past few years, which may be a necessary staging post, are not sustainable because they rely too much on some form of cross-subsidy from either ROCs, the landfill tax or elsewhere.

Hon. Members have mentioned the fact that biogas can be fed, through the necessary filters, directly into the gas network. That is right, but it will work properly only if we have some sort of feed-in tariff that suits it. I want to stress in particular the point about agricultural waste. Those who know me will not be surprised that I have returned to the issue; my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) referred to it briefly. In the last few months, the Government have introduced some highly restrictive measures on livestock farmers as a result of the nitrates directive. I shall not go into the rights and wrongs of that, but it means that farmers face huge investment costs in relation to storing and dealing with waste.

The time scale does not synchronise here, because farmers have to act within the next year, but if these two things could have been brought together with a little more cross-Government thinking, a lot of that investment could have been not in storage systems, but in biodigesters, enabling animal waste to be used to create a worthwhile resource in the form of biogas.

Biogas and the digestion of such materials create a useful digestate, which rightly can be fed on to the land. It is neutral in many ways, but it is a valuable source of nutrients—and that at a time when agricultural fertiliser costs have been rising dramatically, setting aside the issue of the sustainability of continuing to use fertilisers whose manufacture is itself often highly energy inefficient.

As others have said, and as National Grid suggests, biogas could generate perhaps 18 per cent. of total UK gas demand. More importantly, it could prevent up to 75 per cent. of methane emissions from current manure management practices. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South said, that is already happening commonly not just in Germany, but in many of the northern countries of mainland Europe. It is based on a feed-in tariff-type system, which was generated not only as a means to meet renewables targets, but as part of Germany’s search for greater domestic energy security.

As the hon. Gentleman also said, Germany is much less dependent on the vagaries of the world gas markets. That, too, is an extremely important measure and one reason Germany is probably two decades ahead of this country in this. In Germany, there are 3,000 anaerobic digestion plants. The National Farmers Union estimates that this country could have up to 1,000, but there are fewer than 20.

There are other bureaucratic obstacles. I have mentioned the issues of planning and the current lack of a feed-in tariff, which are important, but there is a third issue, which was touched on earlier. We need to find some way of incentivising—or forcing if incentives will not work—the companies that operate the electricity national grid and gas networks to be receptive to feed-in by microgeneration plants, whether it is electricity or gas. That is a huge challenge that I do not underestimate, but nothing else will work if we do not have that. It is part of the joined-up approach that is needed.

I strongly support this measure and I pay huge tribute to everything that my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey has done. I entirely endorse what Members have said about the huge step forward, which I think my hon. Friend underplayed, that the Bill represents. However, it cannot make that step on its own. As I said, unless the connections—the rules, protocols and so on—enable the installation of such systems, it cannot work. That is a challenge for the Government.

There is consensus across the House, as has been said, about the need to promote microgeneration and renewable energy. I hope that, on that basis of consensus and understanding, the Government will not only welcome this Bill but do everything they can to bring it into force as soon as possible—unlike with some of the measures we heard about earlier—and do their bit to encourage and enable anyone who wants to invest in such a system to put their electricity or gas straight into the grid, so that the full benefit from the system can be gained.

This has been a high-quality debate on an important Bill, and I welcome the important and significant contributions made by a number of Members. Before turning to the contribution and Bill of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), let me deal with some of the other contributions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), who has a strong record in this area and has pushed hard in many ways the issues of feed-in tariffs and a renewable heat incentive, has championed this cause for a long time, as have other Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), whose knowledge on these issues is also substantial, made some fascinating points about the local generation of gas and the importance of ensuring that we address the local generation of electricity. His point about the benefits that can come from local people owning the generation of their own energy is important, and was also made eloquently by the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), all of whom have taken up this issue. The Government recognise the importance of local people becoming stakeholders, and we want that to be developed in the coming decade.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) calls himself a recent convert to these issues; we welcome him to the green agenda. He made an important contribution to this debate, and I welcome that. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) spoke about the importance of pulling microgeneration from the fringes of the energy debate and into the mainstream, and I share his wish. That approach builds on the Government’s microgeneration strategy and on the great raft of energy, planning and climate change legislation that we took through the House at the end of last year. Much of the microgeneration strategy, which I shall come to in a moment, has been implemented and we now need to ensure that it is revitalised; the Government fully intend to do that.

I am conscious of the House’s wish to move on to other debates. I suspect that my response will take about 30 minutes, and after the hon. Member for East Surrey has responded, I hope that we can move on—with your consent, Mr. Deputy Speaker—to the Bill that I know my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), wants to speak on.

The hon. Member for East Surrey has a long track-record in raising green energy issues. That record is highly respected in the House, so when he introduced this Bill, we knew that it needed to be taken very seriously. He does not bring up these issues frivolously or to score points. Indeed, I am sure that he will not mind my repeating that when I asked him whether he wanted just to score some points, or to get a Bill through and do something serious, he was very clear that he wanted the latter. That, indeed, is how he has approached this issue throughout our discussions.

I hope that we can support the Bill and ensure that it will enable the Government to build on the work that we and others in all parts of the House have done in recent years to support the development of microgeneration technologies in the United Kingdom. My discussions with the hon. Gentleman have gone well, and the Government have sympathy with many of the points in the Bill and its aspirations. There are some clauses that we do not believe are right, however, and I shall say more about that in a moment. We think that quite a lot of work needs to be done on the Bill’s detail, and I hope that—without in any way gutting it, and making sure that its thrust is taken through—we can ensure that we get a Bill that the microgeneration industry regards as positive news, that advances the green agenda, and that makes the important contribution I believe it can make to ensuring that we deal with climate change issues.

Of course, significant parts of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill are already covered in the Government’s programme to support take-up of renewable energy and low-carbon technologies at domestic and community level. We want to ensure that we can create a sustainable market for renewables and low-carbon, on-site energy technologies.

There is increased interest in microgeneration technologies, with individuals and communities wanting to play their part in tackling the challenge of climate change. The Government want to encourage that interest and make it easier and more attractive for individuals and communities to contribute. Taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South, the key to feed-in tariffs is achieving the necessary degree of vested interest—in the best possible sense—that comes from having a local source of energy from which people benefit and which they can see making a direct contribution to their local community. That may well meet some of the concerns that Opposition Members have expressed about onshore wind, but other types of renewables may be helped by the introduction of feed-in tariffs and, in due course, the renewable heat incentive.

Before going into the details of the Bill and our views on the clauses, I shall set out the broad background to the energy agenda and how the Bill fits into it, commenting on feed-in tariffs as I do so. We face challenging targets to increase the use of low-carbon energy, which will require a concerted effort over a long period. Having cross-party support is important to that effort, because we are talking not about a period of one Government, but about decades of change that will be required to deal with climate change. As much as I would like to believe that the Labour Government will continue for decades to come—ambition is important—I suspect that that will not be the case. However, I shall briefly outline our ambitions for the energy picture in the coming decades.

First, we need to ensure that electricity in particular is generated in a way that does not damage the environment. We need to ensure that the requirement for massive change and massive investment by large-scale energy companies is fulfilled, and we need a nuclear base load to provide the base on which renewables can be built—that is enormously important. In addition, substantial build-up of renewables is essential. Leaving aside microgeneration for a moment, I am talking not only about very large-scale renewables—the large offshore and onshore wind farms—but about more localised energy generation. In various ways, not through wind alone, such sources will provide renewable energy generation.

Renewables generation suffers from the problems of intermittency—energy is not generated predictably all the time—so flexibility is needed in energy generation. Our energy policy must therefore take in coal and gas-fired generation with carbon capture and storage. That fits well with escalating generation, but also key are the growth of community-based energy and ensuring that individuals can see that they can contribute by generating their own energy. Also, because the best energy is the energy that we do not use, as has been said, we must make an enormous effort on energy efficiency.

That is the overall picture. Nuclear provides the base load and renewables are the essential component. Flexibility comes from coal and gas-fired power stations with carbon capture and storage, but we also need local and diversified energy generation, as well as individuals, where possible, generating their own energy through microgeneration; and, on top of all that and across the board, we need greater energy efficiency.

Would the Minister be kind enough to answer the specific questions on what percentage of green energy generation he thinks we will achieve by 2010 and 2020, and where we stand in relation to the Government’s targets? That is an important part of the description.

The target is clear: the Government want 15 per cent. of our energy to be generated from renewable sources by 2020. That is the key target—the European target that we want to hit. We are working hard to increase the amount of energy that comes from renewables—not just microgeneration, but other forms of renewables as well. We will have to wait and see where we are by 2010, which is not far away, but we are working hard to achieve the maximum possible generation from renewables, so that we can get for ourselves the sort of platform that we need to move forward. One thing that we need to do by 2010 is to make significant changes to boost the amount of renewable energy generation. We want an eightfold increase—a massive increase—and the present rate of progress is just not good enough. We are conscious of having constantly to accelerate the rate of change in the energy revolution that we need to take place.

Have we done enough so far? No. We are only at the beginning of an energy revolution that will transform things, and there is much more that we can, and must, do. Renewable energy and low-carbon technologies are an integral part of the Government’s strategy to deliver on our climate change goals, and they will play an increasingly important role. We face a no-less-than eightfold increase in renewables, and the increase may possibly go well beyond that. Small-scale, on-site energy technologies will definitely have a major part to play.

Before addressing that issue, I want to talk about the key objectives of our energy policy, which are: first, to tackle climate change; secondly, to provide energy security; and, thirdly, to tackle the issue of affordability, including fuel poverty—and we want to do all three of those things in the face of the global economic crisis, the credit crunch. The task before us is considerable, but the Bill has something important to say on all three of those key objectives on which we have to deliver—on climate change, energy security and affordability. We have to ensure that the challenges are met, and that we provide a clear vision on how we will do that.

Microgeneration must be not just small-scale, but community-scale. I should just mention that one of the impacts that feed-in tariffs will have is on the word “microgeneration”. There needs to be a discussion about what we are talking about when we say “micro” now. We were quite clear in the past that we were talking about individual homes having a small wind turbine, or a ground source heat pump or something like that, but now, with the move to feed-in tariffs, we are, at 5 MW, talking about something far more substantial. The opportunities for the renewables industry, which was regarded very much as an industry based on individual homes or small businesses, will be much greater after the introduction of feed-in tariffs in April next year. Feed-in tariffs will make a real difference, and I am not sure whether “micro” is quite the right word any more; perhaps we should refer to “small-scale renewables”, or something like that. Perhaps that is a debate for another time.

I am listening to the Minister with great care. I am sure that he is aware of the need to be careful about the use of the word “renewables” to the exclusion of other technologies that are not, strictly speaking, renewable, but are low-carbon. Fuel-cell technology and micro combined heat and power are examples. I am sure that he is aware of that point, but I just want him to make it clear.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, which is why we probably need to be a little careful about the Bill, too; it is about green energy, but there are those in the nuclear industry who would regard nuclear generation as green energy. The same is true of other energy generators. Perhaps we need to have a discussion about definitional issues and what they mean. I certainly take his point: there are green energy sources that may not necessarily be renewable. He is quite right about that. Perhaps we need to have further discussions on that, not today but in time set aside for that debate.

I want to move on to how the microgeneration strategy has developed. The Government brought forward a microgeneration strategy in March 2006 with the aim of identifying obstacles to creating a sustainable microgeneration market. Many of the actions in the strategy were completed, and we reported on those in June 2008, when the renewable energy consultation was published. There is no doubt that the microgeneration strategy has helped to galvanise support for microgeneration technologies. It also increased the limited knowledge of the small-scale renewable and low-carbon technologies that existed at the time, such as ground source heat pumps, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal and micro-wind turbines. The House will be aware of the significant progress in successfully implementing the majority of the actions in the microgeneration strategy. It is right to say that as a consequence of our work over the past two years, we have benefited from a deeper understanding of how the microgeneration market works, and how important it is to making a contribution to an 80 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.

Building on evidence from research into consumer behaviour, from tackling planning restrictions, and from tracking capital costs means that we are now in a better position to take forward building a sustainable market for microgeneration in the UK. A key object of the microgeneration strategy was to create the conditions for microgeneration to become a realistic alternative or supplementary source of energy generation. The strategy contained 25 actions to tackle the barriers to widespread uptake of microgeneration. To date, 21 of the 25 actions have been completed, three have been closed as they were overtaken by other events or other measures, and one remains and will be completed later, we hope. With the majority of the strategy now fully implemented, and many of the barriers to microgeneration removed, we believe microgeneration policy needs to be revitalised by the forthcoming renewable energy strategy and the heat and energy saving strategy.

Some have felt that the strategy does not go far enough in bringing microgeneration into the mainstream. We believe that we need to go further. However, we want to identify some of the key achievements to date. Many households have seen microgeneration installations put in as a result of their becoming permitted development. We have some issues to resolve in relation to noise, particularly on micro-wind and air source heat pumps. The Bill will give us the chance to examine some of those.

The microgeneration certification system is making progress and should provide consumers with independent certification of microgeneration products and services and a route for complaints. Consumers tell us that a robust certification scheme which provides quality assurance and information and advice on performance is important in building confidence in microgeneration technologies.

The big six energy suppliers, as well as some of the smaller ones, now offer export tariffs for excess electricity sold back into the grid. As outlined in last year’s Budget, Ofgem and energy suppliers have committed to providing impartial advice to consumers on obtaining the best financial rewards.

Since April 2007 there has been a large increase in the number of microgenerators accredited under the renewables obligation, from 410 units to 1,329 by 31 March 2008, of which 1,047 are represented by an agent. The strategy as a whole has been largely successful in addressing some of the barriers to microgeneration, particularly some of the planning and technical barriers. Most of the individual actions have been successfully delivered. However, there is still work to be done to ensure that conditions for microgeneration as a realistic option are improved, especially in ensuring good information provision, and further work to address the costs of microgeneration.

The low carbon buildings programme is helping with up-front costs and easier access to renewables obligation certificates—microgenerators now get the highest level of ROCs. Better export tariffs provide ongoing support.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned the low carbon buildings programme phase 2, which was the £50 million capital grants scheme launched in December 2006, and he referred to the money running out. He seems not to have noticed that in the Budget there was the announcement of a further £45 million of new money allocated to the low carbon buildings programme. I was able to announce last week that £5 million of that would go to ensure that some of the applications in relation to solar photovoltaic could get going again. We hope that that issue has been addressed.

I was aware of the announcement, but not of its impact on this year’s prospective opportunity for the disbursal of money. Are people still allowed to apply if they had not applied by the end of February? Will some of those applications be granted? Is the scheme open for bids again, so to speak, and will there be further disbursal to projects in this financial year?

The intention is to deal with the bids that have come in. We are not reopening the scheme, but we have the additional funding of £45 million and we want to identify the best way of taking that forward. There was a problem about whether funding would be available for some of the applications. We have resolved that by bringing forward the £5 million. We now want to look at how the remaining part of that money would be best spent. That will be considered during the next few months. We hope that we will be in a position within a relatively short period—we are talking of only a small number of months—to publish the renewable energy strategy, and we hope then to be able to set out how we will deal with some of these issues. We need then to consult with the industry to ensure that it is satisfied that that is the right way to make progress.

The renewable energy strategy was originally to be announced in the spring. Will it be announced at least before the summer recess, or will it be in the spring as originally promised?

We intend to announce it by the summer break. We are working through some quite complex issues and I hope that we will be able not only to revitalise the broader renewables agenda and ensure that that is taken forward, but to revitalise the microgeneration agenda and ensure that that is taken forward. There is quite a bit more work still to do, and if we are to take this forward with the accelerating speed that I referred to, we need to ensure that some of these ideas are thought through. It will be before the summer, but I will not give a specific date at the moment.

Clause 1 is an interpretation clause, which I am fairly relaxed about, but it may require amendment to take account of subsequent changes. We can accommodate the clause, but minor amendments may be required.

Clause 2 frames the Bill, setting out its principal purpose, which is to promote green energy. In the Bill, green energy means energy generated from renewable or sustainable small-scale local sources, and energy efficiency measures. The Government are fully committed to promoting green energy and will continue to do so. During the past 12 months a considerable amount of work has been done on consultations to bring forward later this year the strategies to which I referred to help the UK to meet its share of the EU 2020 renewable targets, to ensure our energy security, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to play our part in tackling climate change.

As I said, this work will require a radical shift in reducing the consumption of energy and in the take-up of renewable and low-carbon energy technologies. Promotion of green energy and providing householders, communities and business with incentives and the information to play their part will be an integral part of the strategies that we will bring forward.

The Energy Act 2008 provides for the introduction of the feed-in tariff and a renewable heat incentive, so we now have the powers to bring forward effective incentives to encourage the take-up of microgeneration technologies. We still intend to consult this year and we hope to do so in the run-up to the summer on the detail of feed-in tariffs, and later in the year, perhaps at the turn of the year, we will consider the renewable heat incentive, so that we have a package of policies to revitalise take-up.

We will seek to retain clause 2, but it will be made clear that the definition of green energy relates only to this Bill, and we may need to tighten it slightly. As we have said, green energy is a term that is often used more widely, so we do not want to give it a legal definition that restricts it to microgeneration or more narrow aspects. However, we are happy in principle to retain the clause and to ensure that we have a definition with which the hon. Member for East Surrey agrees.

Clause 3 involves the revision of microgeneration strategy and requires the Secretary of State, within 12 months of the commencement of the section, to

“publish a revised microgeneration strategy…under section 82…of the Energy Act 2004”

and, before doing so, to

“invite comments on the draft…strategy”

from stakeholders.

According to the clause, the strategy should include measures to increase the number of microgeneration installations in existing buildings, financial and fiscal measures that will ensure the cost-effective of green energy and measures to promote the effective implementation of feed-in tariffs for small-scale generation of electricity established under part 2 of the Energy Act 2008.

The Government have already addressed most of issues detailed in the clause. For instance, work on “Heat Call for Evidence” and the heat and energy saving strategy shows that microgeneration heat technologies have a role to play in de-carbonising domestic heating; and we have said that the consultations on the renewable energy strategy and the heat and energy saving strategy will help to inform our decisions on how we support microgeneration. Given the parliamentary timetable, if the Bill is passed it will probably be enacted in about October, although that is very difficult to predict, and by then much of what it calls for will probably be well under way. The question is, can we include in the clause what we plan to do in any event? With a bit of redrafting, I think that we can. There is no massive difference between what we and the hon. Gentleman want, so, with a bit of redrafting, I think that we can get the clause into a mutually acceptable shape that has the broad support of this House and the other place. As part of our work over the summer, we believe that bringing forward a statement on our actions and policies will provide a lot of reassurance to the microgeneration industry.

The Bill also seeks to increase the number of installations on existing buildings by means of financial and fiscal incentives and measures to promote the effective implementation of feed-in tariffs. I have already indicated our position on feed-in tariffs, and we hope to consult on that in due course. However, we are reluctant to have a vague commitment to financial measures, so we want to be much more specific about what we will do. That is one matter on which we need discussions, because, as we know, once we put a measure into statute, all sorts of things can happen with people running off to the courts, saying, “Does it mean this or does it mean that?” We need to be very clear about what we mean by the provision, and, although I am not sure that there will be a great deal of difficulty with it, let us just ensure that we reach a position with which the Government and the hon. Gentleman are content. The feed-in tariffs provide a basis for moving forward on much of that work, and I hope that the renewable heat incentive does, too.

I must mention devolution, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, I need to clarify the Bill’s scope. He is quite right that the Bill applies to England and, therefore, does not have broader applicability, because, in relation to this clause, microgeneration encompasses the generation of not only electricity, which is a reserved matter, but renewable heat, which is a devolved matter. We believe that what the clause seeks to achieve could happen in the context of the renewable energy and the heat and energy saving strategies, and that a suitable amendment could be found to ensure that the strategy in the clause works alongside and within the context of the broader strategies. We are therefore prepared to support an amended clause to signal our commitment to microgeneration.

Clause 4 would commit the Government to carrying out a review of development orders with a view to extending permitted development to a range of renewable energy equipment installed on non-domestic premises, including agricultural land. I gather that the clause has the support of the National Farmers Union and the CLA, the Country Land and Business Association. Permitted development rights allow certain types of minor development to be carried out without specific planning consent from local planning authorities. Secondary legislation relating to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990—namely, the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, as amended—sets out these rights. In May 2007, the Government set out in their White Paper “Planning for a Sustainable Future” their intention to extend those permitted development rights wherever possible, with the right safeguards in place—that is an important caveat.

The objective has been to unclog the planning system and encourage the generation of renewable energy by home owners and non-householders alike. The Killian Pretty review of the planning application system in November 2008 endorsed those ideas. One of its key recommendations for reforming the system to make it more efficient and proportionate was to reduce the number of minor applications that require full planning permission.

Following publication of the White Paper, the Government undertook four major reviews of permitted development. One considered the potential for extending permitted development rights to domestic microgeneration and to other non-domestic renewables. On the basis of the conclusions of the domestic review, we extended permitted development rights to a range of domestic equipment in April 2008. Subject to certain restrictions, home owners can now install solar panels, for example, without having to incur the cost and work involved in submitting a planning application. We want to do the same for businesses and institutions such as schools, hospitals and community groups. That is why we are considering the recommendations from the non-domestic review and we intend to conclude a set of proposals for consultation in the summer.

The clause makes special mention of agricultural land. I can confirm that special rights for agricultural installations of microgeneration equipment will be included in the Government’s proposals. The clause requires the Government to carry on with their intended programme of work and to report as soon as reasonably practical. We accept that. However, it may be possible to improve the clause. As I mentioned earlier, in April we introduced permitted development rights for a range of domestic equipment.

What we have not been able to do to date is include, within the fold of permitted development, the issue of micro wind turbines and air source heat pumps. The difficulty is that those technologies make a noise and have the potential for negative impact on others. In a moment, I will come to clause 5, which commits the Government to moving forward on those types of renewables. However, as a general point, pure permitted development may not always be the answer; there may be other options. There is a possible alternative to having to seek full planning permission by completing a planning application and to being able to proceed, by way of permitted development, without recourse to a planning authority. It is called prior approval.

Prior approval works on the basis that consent from a local authority is deemed to have been given if nothing is heard from that authority after a certain period. It is particularly of benefit to farmers, who can carry on their business with minimal recourse to their local authorities. We have been looking at the use of prior approval as well as other mechanisms that would match the level of control required to the type of development in question. I propose that, rather than simply considering the potential for permitted development, the clause should allow the Government to consider a range of planning options that will assist renewable energy equipment, including seeing whether we can find ways in which prior approval can help take the issues forward.

I return to the point that I raised with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. Local people should be able to object to a planning process if they feel concerns about a development of significance to their local community. I acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for East Surrey when he said that he had no wish to prevent local communities from ensuring that they can raise genuine concerns. I entirely accept that point and hope that we can find a way of changing the clause so that those points can be taken on board.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for what he has just been saying. As he said, the prior approval process already exists in a number of areas. I suggest that the local planning authority, as the representative of the local community, already has the opportunity under prior approval to object if it feels that a full planning application is necessary.

Several of us have raised the issue of anaerobic digestion, which the Minister has not really mentioned, either in respect of the feed-in tariff for gas or of the planning issues for anaerobic digestion, especially in the context of agricultural farms. Will those considerations be included in the studies and reviews that he described?

On prior approval, one would hope that local authorities are representative and reflect the views of local communities but, at the same time, the local community should know that something is going on so that it can tell its local council that it has concerns. It is important to find the right way of doing this and I therefore support the suggestion in the Bill that it should be properly consulted on. I will be clear with the hon. Gentleman. I do not want merely a blanket development permit so that farmers and large landowners can decide that they are going to plonk something—perhaps including an anaerobic digestion plant, a biomass facility, or a range of other things—close to a local community that has objections to it. The planning process would not be able to take account of that. I do not think that that is what he wants, I know that it is not what the hon. Member for East Surrey wants, and it is certainly not what I want.

Local residents are already concerned about the delegated powers that officers often use unless a development is called in by a local councillor. When this is discussed further, can we look carefully at the delegated powers that an officer already has and often uses? The information does not get out into the community and it does not know what is going on. We should let the councillors, not the officers, represent the people whom they are elected to represent.

That is a good point, but we need to be careful. Officers tend to inherit these delegated powers and councillors assume that there is not much that they can do about it, whereas they can do quite a lot about what they delegate to their officers and what they do not. It is the councillors’ responsibility to ensure that the officers are doing only what the council wants them to do, and if they think that there is an area where they should not have delegated powers, then they should not have them. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that we need to ensure that local communities are not subjected to something being put in by a landowner, the officers using their delegated powers, and the thing getting through before the local community even knows it is happening. That is not satisfactory, particularly if it is something that the local community would be concerned about.

I can tell the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) that anaerobic digestion would be included in the consultation.

Noise is an area of concern as regards ground source heat pumps and wind turbines, and we want to ensure that we consider how that is dealt with. We hope that we will be able to get a consultation out very shortly in the coming months. In all probability, that should be well under way before the Bill is taken through. The consultation that we undertook last year related to 37 dB, but we need to be much more ambitious in this case. I have spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), and we are content to consult, among other things, on 45 dB, which is what the industry has been asking for. There are concerns about this; let there be no mistake about that. We also have to take account of the fact that the World Health Organisation is looking into noise levels, and that needs to be factored into how we would achieve this.

In a sense, this issue has been hanging around for too long. It needs to be resolved, and my hon. Friend and I want it resolved as soon as it reasonably can be. We should therefore be looking to oblige the Government not so much to consult as to legislate, perhaps within six months of the Bill going through. It would be more realistic if clause 5 were to refer to granting permitted development rights within six months, not three months, of the Act being passed.

The clause refers to the schedule, which sets various conditions relating to microgeneration. The Government consider that the schedule contains inappropriate details, and we cannot agree to it as it is, but some parts of it have merit. Those parts, or at least the issues raised in the schedule, can be included in the consultation. However, we will ask that the schedule as it currently stands be removed.

Clause 6 requires any increase

“in the value of a property arising from the installation of”

a green energy measure

“or a microgeneration system after the day on which this Act is passed”

to be

“disregarded for the purpose of assessing council tax or non-domestic rates”

on that property. I shall explain what is already being done. Council tax is a property tax, based primarily on the value of a person’s home. There are no plans to link the level of council tax that a person has to pay to how energy efficient their property is. I am told that making changes or improvements to a property that increase its value cannot result in a higher council tax band until the property is sold or any general revaluation of properties takes place. An increase in the band will take place only if the alterations add sufficient value to the property to move it into a higher band.

The value of a dwelling depends on a number of factors, including its size, lay-out, character and locality. Generally, any improvements made to a property will not be taken into account for banding purposes unless, as I said, the property is sold. Even then, the alterations will not necessarily mean an increase in the council tax band. That will happen only if the alterations have added sufficient value—reflecting 1991 values—to push the property into a higher band. Some local authorities, with assistance from British Gas, have provided a one-off rebate on council tax bills to council tax payers who have taken certain measures to improve energy efficiency in their homes.

Microgeneration equipment is already ignored in the assessment of rateable value for non-domestic rates until the next revaluation. The exemption was introduced on 1 October 2008 and will also apply to any 2010 rating list, so that equipment fitted between 1 April 2010 and 31 March 2015 will not be assessed for rates until 1 April 2015. I am told that it is unlikely that fitting microgeneration equipment at business premises would lead to a reassessment of their rateable value. Nevertheless, the exemption was introduced to remove uncertainty and provide clarity and reassurance to businesses working to reduce their carbon footprint.

The Government therefore do not believe that clause 6 would make much difference in practice. The council tax system already disregards improvements until a property is sold, and then they only matter if they add sufficient value to push the property into a higher council tax band. Such an impact would rarely result from the presence of microgeneration equipment. The legislative framework for council tax is complex and lengthy, and it is dealt with separately in different legislation. We see no merit in adding to that complexity, so the Government will not support the clause being in the Bill. I hope that to get the rest of the Bill through we can reach agreement that the clause be deleted, given the background information that I have just provided that there are some safeguards already in place that will hopefully help the microgeneration industry.

I am conscious of the time, and I want to give the hon. Member for East Surrey the opportunity to respond. I thank him very much for bringing the Bill to the House and hope that it will have a successful passage based upon my comments about the Government’s position. We would like to get a Bill like this through. I know that the hon. Gentleman would, and we know from the debate that most Members who have spoken would. I believe that that broadly reflects the views of the House as a whole, so I hope that with a good deal of collaborative work in the coming month or so, we will be able to take the Bill through Committee, amend it and bring it out the other side successfully.

I am aware of the time and of the fact that the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary has been sitting behind him patiently waiting to introduce his Bill. I suspect that he had no option but to be patient this morning, and I shall therefore be brief.

The debate has been interesting and worth while, with contributions of high quality. Three themes emerged: empowerment and ownership, about which so many hon. Members spoke; the need to engage with people, and the Government’s acceptance of the need to move on to enable people to engage with the agenda. We also heard about energy security. All sorts of good things have come together.

I started by saying that the Bill was modest, but hon. Members’ generosity has persuaded me that I might have been excessively modest in my description. The measure is capable of moving significantly towards the greener, safer way of producing energy that we all support. I am delighted to see clear evidence of growing cross-party consensus about the sort of measures that we need to take if we are to modernise our energy systems properly and make them fit for purpose in the 21st century.

I am extremely grateful to all those who took part in the debate. I listened to the Minister with great care. He made it clear that he and I have had conversations about the Bill and his comments today coincided entirely with my understanding of where those conversations would lead. I look forward to continuing to work with him positively to ensure that the “guts”, as he put it, of the Bill end up on the statute book as soon as possible. That is what industry needs and the public expect.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

Schools (Health Support) Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It has been a pleasure to witness the Bill that was considered before mine and deals with energy, energy supply and the environment receive a Second Reading. However, that is not my brief today.

I have had fruitful discussions with the Under-Secretary about this Bill and I have received reassurances, which I hope she will reiterate today. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), the Opposition spokesman, with whom I had discussions. I was treated very courteously and, with some reservations, she is sympathetic to the measure.

Nobody should interpret the Bill as an attack on education policies, teachers, head teachers and the staff who assist teachers or the medical profession. It should be seen as a way of tackling some of the concerns and problems that some children experience at school. I recognise from what the Under-Secretary has told me that much progress has been made, and I do not want to detract from that. Indeed, I am probably the last person who would want to do that.

Nevertheless, it is worth highlighting some of the problems that some children experience. I appreciate that the subject is broad, especially when we consider some of the illnesses and disabilities that many children experience. I have had quite a bit of co-operation from the Liberal Democrats. The other day, I attended a meeting of the all-party group on diabetes. Many parents were at that meeting. I listened not only to them, but to the children, and I heard about the problems that they were experiencing as a result of illnesses and disability, and equally about the concerns of the parents, who sometimes clash with the authorities over what their priorities are. For example, the education authority could have a totally different priority from, say, the health authority. There are certain elements in my Bill that would bring such authorities together.

The Prime Minister has had some difficulties this week, but he agreed at very short notice to meet one or two parents and some of the children. That is a side of the Prime Minister that the public do not often see. I am sure that the parents and the children appreciated the fact that he was taking an interest. In fact, if the House wants to know, he said to me, “Even Obama’s interested in this health area.”

Nevertheless, we need to get on. I am grateful for the opportunity to bring the issue of health support in schools before the House. I hope that the Bill will provide the impetus for those in all parts of the House to realise the importance of decent support for all children with long-term health conditions in schools. I hope that the Bill will enable the House to do something about that. My Bill would amend the Education and Inspections Act 2006, establish standards in schools for the support of children with specified health conditions and make provision for the inspection of such support. The 2006 Act places a duty on schools to promote pupil well-being. However, as it does not explicitly refer to the support of children with health conditions, their needs are not being met in many schools. Local authorities, primary care trusts and schools must work in partnership to ensure that all children receive the appropriate support that they need to live a full school life.

Let me pay tribute at the outset to the many organisations that support the Bill—in fact, some of them are represented in the Gallery. Their expertise has been crucial in bringing the Bill to the House. I am going to read their names out, because the public and the House do not always see the tremendous effort or the hours that they put in, sometimes voluntarily, in this case for the welfare of our school children. Those organisations include the Anaphylaxis Campaign, Asthma UK, the British Heart Foundation, the Children and Young People HIV Network, CLIC Sargent, Coeliac UK, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, Diabetes UK, Epilepsy Action, Input, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, the National Centre for Young People with Epilepsy, National Voices, the Royal College of Nursing, TreeHouse, Scope, Sickle Cell and Young Stroke Survivors, the Stroke Association, the UK Children with Diabetes Advocacy Group, Vision 2020 UK and YoungMinds. In addition, I would like to express my appreciation for the hard work that my staff have done on the Bill, along with the organisations that I have named. They have shown tireless dedication to the cause and I appreciate their help.

I recently met a young constituent who was at Westminster as part of a lobby of Parliament by a leading health charity, Diabetes UK, on behalf of children. That lively young man enjoys, for the most part, a successful and fulfilling life at school, despite the challenge that type 1 diabetes poses. My constituent’s condition is well matched by a caring and well-informed family, excellent support from a local GP and outstanding care from the diabetes unit at the local hospital in Coventry. I do not doubt that the House is unanimous in its admiration for the thousands of medical professionals and families, such as those I have referred to, who support children with long-term health conditions across the UK.

That determined young man does not allow his condition to obstruct his education. My constituent and his family face the test of ensuring that the consistency with which they and their medical team treat his condition is matched by his school’s aspiration to ensure, in a holistic sense, that his educational well-being is guaranteed. In expressing that concern, I intend no criticism of my constituent’s school, as I think I have made clear. Chief among the school’s aspirations is excellence in primary education, and I hope that the House will join me in commending it and its peers for their unswerving desire to achieve that standard, which it reaches and surpasses.

I want to underline, however, that while many schools do provide excellent medical support for children with long-term conditions, that standard is not universally upheld. There is every reason to change that. I believe that the Government are genuine in their use of the maxim Every Child Matters. In an age when many strive for universal equality, it is crucial that Members of this House, and particularly of the Government, ensure that the desire for inclusion places children and young people at the forefront. My Front-Bench colleagues have sought to improve educational attainment and the quality of school life, and they have achieved much in doing so. The Schools (Health Support) Bill is aimed at promoting the universal equality that the whole House strives for, and offers practical steps to allow us to prove that every child matters.

My constituent’s struggle to obtain adequate health support is not unique. An estimated 20,000 children under 15 in the UK have type 1 diabetes, 83 per cent. of whom do not have good blood glucose control. In fact, the UK has the lowest number of children attaining good diabetes control in Europe. The struggle is not unique to children with diabetes. Across the UK, more that 1 million children go to school every day while braving the trials of a long-term medical condition. On average, two children in every classroom have asthma, and 57 per cent. of those children and their carers lack the confidence that someone would know what to do if they suffered an attack. A further 12,500 people suffer from sickle cell disease in the UK, yet only two out of the 107 local education authorities surveyed by the Economic and Social Research Council had written policies on the sickle cell disease in schools.

One in 10 children and young people between the ages of five and 16 have diagnosable mental health disorders. Children and young people with a disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—ADHD—or a conduct disorder are more likely to be excluded from school. Exclusion in this context refers not only to physical exclusion but to social exclusion, because poorly managed mental health problems, as with any others, mark children out as different from their peers. In common with children with physical illnesses, many have problems accessing medication on school premises. Children who suffer from sickle cell disease also have an increased risk of experiencing a stroke, potentially at school.

These examples cover just a few conditions, but the problem of finding decent medical support in schools is endemic, and there is a raft of other long-term and chronic illnesses from which children and young people suffer. Decent school health support allays carers’ fears about the adequacy of support in the event of an emergency. It also allows children to participate fully in school life, meaning that they do not have to be excluded from activities that their peers take for granted, such as sport or school trips. Decent health support is vital if children are to reach their full potential. Without it, conditions such as diabetes can have an impact on a child’s cognitive functions and ability to learn. Decent health support means that inclusion need not be an illusion. For the cost of providing health support training to schools that do not have a policy in place, the benefit is multiplied many times over.

Let us imagine a child who needs to inject insulin up to four times a day, whose school does not have a health support policy in place. If they are unable to inject themselves, someone—a parent or guardian, perhaps—might have to make the journey to school at least once a day.

The hon. Gentleman is making a good case for his Bill and I agree with him about the problems that he alludes to. I recently went out with school nurses who were training teachers in how to administer adrenaline for a particular child who had various allergies and might suffer anaphylactic shock. This is an eminently sensible way of ensuring that teachers are on hand and trained in what to do in case of emergencies. I am told that because of the shortage and diminishing number of school nurses, they are no longer available in many schools to provide that sort of advice, which makes it difficult for certain children to go to those schools if they cannot be sure of receiving the necessary emergency treatment. Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am about the shortage of school nurses?

I believe we are all concerned about what the hon. Gentleman has outlined, but that is one of the reasons why health authorities and local authorities must, as I said earlier, sit down together to develop joint priorities. The other day I met a lady who had similar problems, and it was clear to me that the local authority viewed its priorities in one way while the health authority viewed them in quite another. As long as that continues, there will be problems; this is one issue that my Bill is designed to address—or to get the Government to address. While that division continues, we will never get a proper set of priorities for treating these illnesses. At the end of the day, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, resources come into play here.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this Second Reading debate. I join him in paying tribute to charity organisations in his and my constituencies and throughout the country.

I would like to raise an issue touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I was recently dealing with a constituency issue relating to problems with the provision of Epipens for treating children allergic to nuts, for example, for anaphylactic shock. The key issues there were about resources and consistency of practice across the entire local education authority. Inevitably, there were resource implications. I am worried that in dealing with a whole load of illnesses and long-term conditions, the resource implications are going to be very significant. Does the hon. Gentleman have any definitive data on how many children and local education authorities are involved and what level of resources we are talking about?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in general terms, but I shall come on to deal with the point later in my speech.

The parent or carer responsible for injecting the child may not be in employment and this responsibility can create a knock-on effect of financial burden to the whole family and beyond. Furthermore, children who are not supported in the management of their health condition are more likely to suffer from complications that can threaten their lives and place an increased burden on NHS services in primary and secondary care.

Health support in schools should be an integral part of medical support for young people. That is not to say that schools should be required to give comprehensive medical support rather than merely to augment the work done by medics and carers. The Royal College of Nursing advocates the use of school nursing in providing health support. It is simply not possible for a school nurse to be present for the event of any medical emergency or a health incident that might require any degree of support. School nurses have a vital part to play in health support, however, as they provide expertise that teachers cannot be expected to have. Conversely, in terms of health support, it is crucial that they are able to expand their mandate of health education to provide teachers with advice on how to handle situations that long-term conditions can give rise to.

The key element in the provision of health support is ensuring that teachers are able to teach while being aware of the health support that is a critical part of some of their pupils’ education. The current voluntary guidance is not working and implementation is patchy: while some schools provide fantastic support, others are failing their most vulnerable students. An explicit requirement is needed, backed up by effective regulation from Ofsted, to ensure that all schools meet the needs of all children with long-term conditions.

In closing, I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will be able to offer some hope on school support to the charities and campaigners who have worked so tirelessly for this cause. I believe in my Bill. Finally, in response to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), I point out that there are roughly about 1 million children who, one way or the other, have a difficult medical condition.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for referring to the situation in my constituency, but linked to the specific issue of resources is that of children whose first language is not English. I have three schools where more than 95 per cent. of children do not have English as their first language. The resource implications for and the pressures on those schools are significant and they have not received recompense through ethnic minority achievement grant. In these straitened, less than benign economic times, how does he see the problem of children whose first language is not English? For instance, they may also have diabetes, which is prevalent in my constituency too.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. To a certain extent, I sympathise with what he says. I am thinking about the parent tongues of those who go to a particular school in my constituency. They speak about 27 different languages and the school does a magnificent job. To take a step forward in dealing with the problem he outlined, we must start with, on the one hand, the Department of Health and the health authorities and, on the other, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the education authorities, to see what their priorities are. Unless we can get a joint approach, we will always have these problems.

As I said earlier, some schools do well in relation to medical treatment for such children, but the situation is not the same across the country. Unless we can get some uniformity and agreement between the health authorities and the education authorities, we will not get the national cohesion to deal with those problems that we would like.

I have outlined the problems, and while I would not expect the Department for Children, Schools and Families to solve them all, one of my objectives today, and certainly one of the objectives of the voluntary organisations and the professional people who have put such a tremendous effort into this, is to highlight some of the difficulties experienced by those children and their parents.

We must bear in mind the fact that a family might contain only one breadwinner. If the family is of reasonable size, that one breadwinner might be required to go to the school to give three or four injections a day. That has a host of implications. By and large, we always try to encourage the family unit, whichever way it is defined, and the best way to start to address those problems is more and more to unite the family unit. Most of those in such families are affectionate towards one another and have a good home life, but if they begin to have medical and economic problems sitting on their doorstep, that can lead to a lot of tensions.

Those are the issues and the range of social problems that we want to address, and my Bill is a little step in the direction of trying to address them. Once again, I offer my appreciation of the support that I have had from Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Basingstoke and from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I am looking forward to her giving in her winding-up speech an indication of how we can take these matters forward.

I also appreciate the work done in this area by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I am not criticising the teaching profession, headmasters or schools. I am trying to get a united approach across the country to deal with some of these problems, because if we are not careful, we could end up with a lottery. Hon. Members have heard that expression in relation to many fields where the service that people receive can depend on the area they live in.

I commend the immense amount of work that the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) has done to bring the Bill to the House. I think everybody would agree that he has made an exceptionally strong case for the Bill, and I reiterate the thanks he gave to the many different organisations associated with children’s health that do so much behind the scenes to ensure that we are properly briefed on the issues that face families today. Those organisations include Diabetes UK, which made a comprehensive briefing available in advance of today’s debate.

Nothing is more important than our children’s health. When a woman finds out she is pregnant and when she has her child, one of the first things she wants to know is that the child is as healthy as can be. One of my children suffers from asthma and often has to medicate at school, and I am thankful for the support he gets from his teachers. However, parents who have to live with the day-to-day realities of a child with a long-term chronic condition want them to be able to participate in everyday life as best they can, and school is a pivotal part of every child’s life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) alluded to the fact that many children throughout the country have long-term conditions that affect not just their academic performance in school, but their ability to participate in other ways. Social exclusion can be a real problem for children with long-term conditions, and they have to be able to deal with it. The Bill highlights the importance of this issue, and I commend the hon. Member for Coventry, South for bringing it to the attention of the House.

The Bill also highlights the importance of local authorities and local primary care trusts working with schools to provide children living with long-term conditions such as autism, asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and anaphylaxis with the support they need. The Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), and I recently spent a great deal of time on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill talking about how important such co-operative working is. She will doubtless draw the House’s attention to the new conditions within that Bill that will further help to enable co-operative working.

There are already significant obligations on PCTs, schools and local authorities to support children with long-term conditions. Indeed, since September 2007 schools have had a duty to promote the well-being of all pupils, including those with long-term conditions, under Every Child Matters. Children’s trust boards and young people’s plans are designed to provide the co-ordination between local authorities and PCTs that the hon. Member for Coventry, South rightly identified is too often lacking. Indeed, there are already measures in place in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to underline the importance of supporting children with long-term conditions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most vital aspects in the provision of care for children and young people that certainly should not be overlooked is respite care, particularly for autistic children, and especially when there is more than one such child in the family? Indeed, I have had constituency casework in that respect. Does my hon. Friend agree that the focus should continue to be on respite care, which is a Cinderella service for many local authorities?

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us of that important service, which can be a lifeline for many families and can often help to ensure that they can continue to cope when they have particularly difficult and stressful situations to deal with. He is right to say that it is a Cinderella service, and that we should ensure that it continues to get the support it deserves. The Bill deals with the question of how difficult it is to get such services to work together, and without the support that my hon. Friend mentioned other things can easily start to fall to pieces.

It is important to remember that schools have a legal duty under the Disability Discrimination Act to children with long-term conditions. The Act’s definition of “disabled” is drawn very broadly and covers everybody with

“a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his”

or her

“ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

It would seem there is no apparent shortage of legislation, so why are parents and children still struggling to cope in the way the hon. Member for Coventry, South has already outlined, which has left him feeling that it is absolutely imperative that he introduce this Bill today?

There is an abundance of fine words in existing legislation, but a sharp contrast becomes apparent when one looks at the availability of medical and specialist support in some areas, which leaves too many children—especially those with diabetes—finding it difficult to manage their conditions effectively. Two years ago, the Government produced a report highlighting the fact that our system of support for children coping with diabetes lagged behind European systems. Children with diabetes faced a postcode lottery, with many having good access to support, but many not. Indeed, according to the Government’s report, one in 10 young people with diabetes did not have a consultant with specialist expertise in diabetes, and nurses providing the type of specialist support that such children need, such as advice on diet and other matters, were stretched thin, with case loads well in excess of the Royal College of Nursing’s recommended levels. That left 84 per cent. of diabetics aged under 16 with poor or very poor control of their condition.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has already done a great deal of work on these matters, and I commend him for the commitment he has shown to children’s health issues during his years in Parliament. He has highlighted the critical role played by school nurses in providing a vital connection between health, education and children’s well-being, linking school and home. They can identify precisely the types of vulnerable young people we are talking about today and help them to cope by providing support in school. However, a written answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), published on 22 April, graphically shows that the Government are well behind schedule in delivering on their promise to have at least one full-time, year-round, qualified school nurse working with each cluster of primary and secondary schools. The shortfall of more than 1,000 school nurses nationwide is significant because it is specifically cited by head teachers as one of the key barriers to enabling schools to support children with long-term health conditions.

Children are finding it difficult to cope and there is a shortage of school nurses: it is little wonder that teachers and schools feel ill equipped to provide for children who need support either to get through the day or to medicate themselves during the day. The inconsistency in the availability of professional support on the ground and in our schools, the lack of training for school staff, and the growing fear among teachers about the threat of litigation if they administer treatment and things go wrong, perhaps through no fault of their own, are all factors that must be considered alongside the Bill’s provisions. Conservative Members certainly support the intention behind the Bill of enabling children to get the education and the opportunities they need at school, but we recognise the importance of ensuring that we have on the ground professional support for teachers. Only in that way can the school outcomes that we want for all children be achieved. All the issues have to be debated in more detail than today’s debate allows.

Children do get the support we want them to have in areas where local authorities and primary care trusts work together to support schools and to put in place the practical measures that are needed. Areas such as Birmingham already have successful plans to support children with long-term conditions. In Birmingham, when a child is diagnosed with diabetes or any other condition, the PCT promptly goes into schools to provide the relevant training to class teachers and other key staff, and written guidance and training materials are provided to the school. The city council provides insurance cover for all staff, which is dependent on their receiving training from a health care professional. That helps to overcome some of the fears of litigation that I think hon. Members will have come across in their constituencies, which can put a barrier in the way of teachers helping in the way that they want to. There are other examples of that type of practice up and down the country. I hope that in Committee Members will look further at how the good practice of authorities such as Birmingham can be made more widespread across the country.

Again, I commend the hon. Member for Coventry, South for introducing the Bill. I wish the Bill well, and offer it support from the Conservative Front Bench, with the caveats that I mentioned. I hope that in Committee the issues can be dealt with in more detail, and that further provisions can be put in place, so that children who have some of the most difficult conditions to deal with are encouraged to excel and achieve their potential in school.

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on the Bill? It is well worth while, and he is getting support from across the House. He put the case for the Bill, and pointed out the problems faced by some children in some schools, but the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) has just mentioned some examples of good practice. Not every school is failing, but some children in some schools have problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South, mentioned the evidence brought to us by Diabetes UK and a range of other organisations. One thing struck me when I looked at the evidence. Of course there are medical needs, and there are cases where it would be very helpful if people, including teachers in school, were aware of those needs and could perhaps make sure that a child got treatment and took their medication and so on. However, it is not just medical needs that matter. Examples were pointed out of children being excluded from lessons or extra-curricular activities, sometimes because of a misunderstanding about their conditions and the long-term problems that they had to deal with. There were examples of children having to eat alone if they had specific food requirements. It struck me, when looking at that evidence, that one could over-emphasise the medical aspects. There are social and other aspects, too. In some cases, what is needed is understanding of, and training about, social needs as well as medical needs.

The Bill extends the general duty already on schools to support pupil well-being, and makes specific requirements relating to health. I understand the concerns that have been expressed by one or two Opposition Members about not wanting to place on schools too-onerous requirements that would have major resource implications, whether financial or in terms of human resources. I think that we are all conscious of that; we have to be reasonable about what we expect a school to do, given its resources.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South, who opened the debate, and the hon. Member for Basingstoke pointed to what can be done if not only schools but primary care trusts and local authorities are involved, and if we get the right levels of co-operation. It is not just a case of saying to a school, “Here, get on with this”, when it does not have the help and support that it needs from other organisations, particularly PCTs.

In some cases, understanding is missing; I will refer in a bit of detail to one specific condition. I have spent a lot of time in my years in the House dealing with issues to do with HIV. Schools may have to deal with that long-term condition if a pupil has an HIV infection. The situation is quite complex. It raises issues not so much about treatment as about confidentiality, for instance. The Bill would require a school’s governing body to have a policy about how a condition should be dealt with, and appropriate training would go a long way towards dealing with some of the problems that children currently have to face.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the growing number of children being turned away from primary and secondary schools because they have HIV? That shows a lack of understanding not only of the children’s condition, but of the law.

Absolutely. I shall give one or two examples of that. There is indeed ignorance of the law. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, which applies to schools, specifically refers to HIV. Under the terms of the Act, someone should be regarded as disabled from the point at which infection occurs. By ignoring that, a school might well be breaking the law. The difficulty for many parents would be how to get the law enforced. They may not even be aware of the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act.

A further problem in relation to HIV is that of confidentiality and disclosure. HIV is not a notifiable condition. It is up to the person living with HIV whether they choose to disclose the fact that they have HIV. There is no requirement to disclose the condition. Parents of children with HIV are unsure what they should or should not do. HIV is a condition that, we know, attracts stigma and discrimination, so a parent may wonder whether to disclose their child’s condition and what the consequences might be for the child.

There are examples where that has gone badly wrong, so there is a clear case for much better guidance to be given to schools on how they should deal with children with HIV. If my hon. Friend’s Bill went through, a school would be required to have an appropriate policy.

I pay tribute to all the work that the hon. Gentleman has done through the years campaigning on HIV/AIDS. We have national clinical frameworks, within which there is leeway for local authorities and various agencies to respond appropriately to the needs of their area. One of the possible criticisms of the Bill is that it takes an overly generalised approach. In some respects it may be said that it undermines the existing general duty on local education authorities and the NHS to provide the services that they are already providing to children with long-term conditions.

I am not entirely sure I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I can see that there may well be differences in the incidence of a particular condition. HIV is an obvious example. In London particularly, there is a relatively high incidence, but there are rural areas where the incidence is extremely low, so it is much more likely that a school in London might have to deal with a child who has HIV than a school in, say, rural Devon. That does not mean that that could not happen in rural Devon. It is not rocket science to draw up some fairly simple, clear guidelines about how a school ought to approach the issue.

Let me give some examples of what can happen to children. A child attending a nursery school attached to a primary school in Middlesex was due to start in the reception class in September, and the child’s mother asked the head teacher if the school had any policy on informing parents in the event of, say, an outbreak of chickenpox. The head teacher asked why, and the mother explained that her daughter had an auto-immune problem, HIV. That information was then spread around the school and the head teacher told the mother that all the teachers had concerns about teaching her child, and that the dinner ladies would have to be told in case the child had an accident. The mother tried to explain that no one was at risk simply by being in the same room as her child, and eventually the head teacher said, “Look, you really ought to take the child to another school, and don’t tell them that your daughter has HIV. Just enrol her without telling them.” That is a perfect example of a complete lack of understanding. We are not asking the school to be able to treat someone with HIV; we are asking it to have some understanding about what it means.

Another case concerned a child transferring from a primary to a secondary school just last year. The primary school knew about the child’s HIV status and passed that information on to the secondary schools without asking for the parents’ consent, and the secondary schools then said that they wanted to inform all sorts of people in the school about the child’s status.

Those are the sorts of things that can happen when people within a school are not aware of how they should deal with a child with HIV. That is one specific condition, but I could quote a range of examples. I do not suggest that such problems arise in every school, but they do arise, and too frequently. If there was training, if there was some understanding, if there was a policy within schools of just how a child with such a condition should be dealt with, we would avoid these problems. That is where I see the value in the Bill. Yes, I understand the resource implications and that we might have to think through carefully how we bring in some of the provisions, what conditions are covered, and whether the condition would require a school nurse to be available before the school could be expected to deal with the problem.

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. He makes a powerful commentary on the importance of understanding long-term illnesses and conditions such as HIV in schools. Does he therefore share my concern that that understanding is in no way helped when we have such a massive shortfall in the number of school nurses throughout the country who would be providing the professional advice, support and training that he so eloquently advocates?

There is a problem. We do need more school nurses, and I do not think that any hon. Member would disagree that we should be trying to fill that gap and provide more school nurses. That is why we need to think through how the Bill will be implemented and what conditions may be included, perhaps initially and then later. But that should not blind us to the notion that better training and information could help, and that where there are examples of good practice, as the hon. Lady mentioned in her speech with regard to the PCT and what is being done in Birmingham, they could be built on in other parts of the country. That would certainly help.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South has done an excellent job in bringing the Bill to the House, I hope that it will be allowed to make progress, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments in reply to the debate.

I shall give a cautious welcome to the Bill. The hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) is to be commended on his work, on his collaboration with the charity and voluntary sectors and on his generous cross-party tributes to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and to other Members.

In the Bill, there is much that any sensible, caring and community-minded Member would support. Schools would be required to produce and implement medical conditions policies and upgrade their current guidance, and every child would have an individual health care plan. We consider those proposals to be sensible, but I have a concern about the Bill, although I add the caveat that we support its intent. The Bill involves the head and the heart, and our heart is with it, because there is a demonstrable need for such policies. The hon. Gentleman kindly provided the national figure of about 1 million for those children and families who are affected by a serious medical condition, so something needs to be done. Indeed, there is an argument—a slightly tangential argument—that the Government should have introduced their own Bill, rather than rely on one of their Back Benchers.

My concern is with the element of compulsion, and perhaps I did not make that clear to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). We must not disregard best practice locally between local NHS trusts and local education authorities in carrying forward national clinical framework policies on, for example, diabetes. My constituency has a high prevalence of several long-term conditions—diabetes being one, chronic, obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma being others. We do not know why, but asthma affects a large number of young people. In my constituency, in particular, it affects the 12 per cent. of people who have a south Asian background.

We must not lose sight of the wider context, particularly when the issue comes back, as it often does, to funding and resources. Respite care, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) is a big issue, and it is difficult to provide adequate daily and weekly respite care for parents and guardians of children with long-term conditions. No local education authority will ever say that it has sufficient provision and resources to carry out that work.

The Bill also relates to mental health—an issue identified by the charities to which the hon. Member for Coventry, South referred. However, of itself, mental health is a major issue and a growing problem for children and young people, and I am not entirely sure that the national clinical frameworks are yet able to cope with it. On a recent visit to my local district general hospital, one problem that clinical staff identified was the lack of provision at weekends and out of hours for teenagers and young people with mental health problems.

Litigation is also a consideration. I talked earlier, when intervening on the hon. Gentleman, who was very generous with interventions, about anaphylactic shock, allergies and Epipens. The bureaucracy and problem in providing a consistent policy across my local education authority for a relatively small number of children with such problems, which are obviously life threatening, demonstrated to me how complicated the issue is, particularly its resource implications for training and skills, let alone its legal implications.

My hon. Friend brings to mind a visit that I made recently to Chatham and an organisation called The Place2Be, which operates in a local school with children who, as a result of incidents in their lives, are vulnerable to mental health problems. Does he agree that that is one example of the many schools throughout the country which already go above and beyond what is expected and try to fill the gap—particularly in mental health services—that exists due to a lack of provision by local primary care trusts?

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent and astute point, which is worth reinforcing. For the avoidance of doubt, I should make it clear that I am not implying that through his laudable Bill the hon. Member for Coventry, South is undermining the work already being done. However, in many respects there are exemplars of how to deal with children with long-term conditions.

That brings me to another issue on which we need a joined-up policy. I hope that I am not being unfair to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not think that his Bill takes it into account. I am thinking of children with conditions who are carers themselves. In this country, we have still not given sufficient attention to the issue of young carers. To give them their due, the Government have moved forward on local provision for carers, but we should not forget about the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke wisely alluded to school nurses. In many local education authorities, the delivery of that service is undermined by a lack of people—mainly women, but also men—who put themselves forward for the important role of school nurse. The role is similar to that of a district nurse, and it is vital for delivering first-class medical and clinical care and education into the community.

Earlier, I mentioned the pressures in some local schools with diverse populations. In many parts of the country, mainly in urban areas, many children come into school without being able to speak English; the hon. Gentleman will have instances of the same thing in Coventry. Yesterday, I was talking to someone I know whose wife is a teaching assistant. Virtually her whole day is taken up in giving one-to-one tuition to a little Bulgarian boy. That is fine, but think of the resource implications if we intend to impose the regulatory framework that the Bill would involve, and how that would affect schools across the country. It would be very resource-intensive. If the Bill goes into Committee, I would be interested in whether we could conduct an impact assessment and ascertain the likely cost and the resource drain on local authorities. The aim is laudable, but we live in difficult times. I suspect that it would be a big ask to make schools such as some in my constituency—schools with structural issues of demography and population—deliver the level of service, which is consistent across the country, involved with that aim.

I shall conclude. We all welcome the Bill and the chance to debate what has rightly been described as the situation of invisible children, who are often overlooked and pushed to the side in mainstream schooling. While I am at it, I should pay tribute to some of the superb schools in my constituency that look after children in these situations. Middleton primary school in Bretton has a unit for deaf children, and Jack Hunt secondary school also looks after deaf children.

It is right that we should have this debate. These children have a right to the best education, irrespective of their long-term conditions, and we have the responsibility to deliver it. At the same time, however, we should recognise existing best practice and not lightly dismiss the revenue costs that might fall on local education authorities. With those caveats, I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry, South. I hope that the Minister has some good news for him in her remarks.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on his speech and on his promotion of this excellent Bill. I hope that the Government’s response will recognise the need for the proposals within it.

My principal reason for speaking in the debate is to highlight the courage and determination of one of my constituents, Sophia Loizia. Sophia is 17 and now a sixth-former, but a year ago, during her GCSEs, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Thankfully, she is now in remission and in good health, but she has had one of the toughest years imaginable for a young person. Earlier this week, she attended the lobby, which many other hon. Members will have attended, organised by the coalition of charities that has been alluded to. She was one of five young people who went to Downing street to petition the Prime Minister in support of my hon. Friend’s Bill.

I do not intend to say anything more about what are intensely personal matters, as well as matters of public interest, save that I was so impressed not only by how highly intelligent Sophia was but how extraordinarily mature. It occurred to me that the fact that younger children, or those who may not have the same levels of accomplishment, have to suffer and go through serious medical conditions, as well as trying to cope with their education and the other pressures concerned, highlights the need for provisions such as this Bill. Thankfully, childhood cancer is relatively rare, although I pay tribute to the work that CLIC Sargent does in supporting children who have cancer.

A condition that is not rare—indeed, it affects up to one in 10 or 11 young people—is childhood asthma. I should perhaps declare an interest in that, many years ago now, I missed at least two years of mainstream schooling through asthma. I attended a special school and then went back into mainstream schooling. At that time, in the 1960s, there would have been no real understanding within mainstream schooling of the needs of children with medical conditions. I should underline that both the schools I attended were absolutely excellent. I should also say in passing that both—Chartfield school in Putney and Peterborough school in Fulham—have been closed by Tory councils in the past three years, despite vigorous campaigns to keep them open.

This week, on 5 May, we had world asthma day. Also this week, Asthma UK, one of the supporters of the Bill, launched its report, “Missing Out”, which specifically concerns the effect that asthma has on schoolchildren. I was shocked to find that 40 years on, 50 per cent. of children with asthma say that they have problems joining in lessons and going on school trips, and three quarters say that they have problems joining in sporting activities. Medication for asthma has improved hugely over the past 40 years, and it is amazing that children—up to two in every class nowadays—can still be restricted in that way.

The third condition to which I want to draw attention affects children on the autistic spectrum. That, too, is recognised far more than it would have been several years ago as a condition that affects very large numbers of children, many of whom will be in mainstream schooling. Again drawing from personal experience, my godson attended a superb school for autistic spectrum children, Queensmill school in Fulham. As a consequence of the excellent education there he was able to go into mainstream schooling, and his experience has been unfailingly good. Despite what we have heard about the need for more resources, that is partly because of the level of resources that the Government have put into both special needs schools and teaching assistants and support for mainstream schools. Largely, however, it is due to individual teachers who, although they had no experience or knowledge of autism, went and found out about it so that they could deal with autistic spectrum children.

That additional burden should not be put on individual teachers without support, because the general experience of parents of autistic spectrum children is that they do not have a good time in mainstream schooling. I wonder whether that is partly because it is regarded more as a behavioural than a medical condition, and because teaching professionals who would not presume to know about the treatment of medical conditions think that they know how to deal with children on the autistic spectrum. In fact, they need just as much support on that as on other matters.

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s position, which comes from personal knowledge and experience. On provision for autistic children, is there not an unfortunate choice for many parents to make between a lower level of care locally, particularly respite care, and out-of-borough or out-of-county provision? That might be just as good, but it restricts their access to their children, which is detrimental to family life.

This is an all-party debate and I do not want to introduce party politics into it, but a lot of this goes back to resources. In my experience, it is difficult to get Conservative councils in London to provide sufficient resources for special needs children, which is an expensive area of provision and easy to cut. It has been shown over the past 10 years that there is a need for commitment to that. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. There is something of a postcode lottery, as provision is different in different parts of the country and even of the capital. The more that can be done to maintain support for children on the autistic spectrum in mainstream schooling, the better it will be, although there is clearly also a need for special needs education for those with more severe conditions.

I do not wish to take up a lot of time, but I have mentioned these slightly anecdotal matters because they show that for a large number of children—we have heard that it is 1 million across the UK—there are serious daily problems. I emphasise that we are talking about not special treatment but equitable treatment. It is about enabling children who have medical conditions and health problems to get the same level of education as children who do not. Some of the examples that I have given illustrate the fact that problems often occur when children move out of special needs education into mainstream schooling, which we all welcome, or when children who have been out of school for a long period come back following medical treatment.

The solutions are quite common-sense in a way, such as informing both teachers and pupils about the need to consider the problems that individual children have. I am sure that many teachers ensure that that happens as part of their pastoral care, as is suggested by my own experience as a governor of a sixth-form college with a strong pastoral tradition. However, there are also examples of crass behaviour, such as a teacher saying a child returning after a long absence for medical reasons, “Well, you’ve got no excuse for not catching up with your work now”, or fellow pupils who were friends in the past feeling awkward or in extreme cases indulging in bullying.

It simply requires people who understand the conditions to sit down with their staff and pupils and explain them, so that the children who return to school do not have constantly to explain to every teacher and pupil the nature of their condition and their continuing symptoms and needs. In almost every case, there will be continuing treatment—medication, chemotherapy and so on—that needs to be administered, and continuing frailty. Children inevitably go back to mainstream education before they are fully recovered.

Opposition Members have suggested that the Bill might involve too many resources or be too bureaucratic. I think that it is a light touch measure, which focuses on two or three principal needs for information and training and on a substantial number of children—not a small minority—in schools throughout the UK, who need such support and help.

I am pleased that the measure has support from all parties; I hope that it also has Government support.

I commend the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) for introducing the measure. I approach the debate not only as a Member of Parliament, but as one very conscious of my role—I suspect that other colleagues also play such a role—as chair of governors of a local primary school as well as trustee of a city academy. The subject of the Bill has been a real issue for us and I have had occasion to discuss it with fellow governors and our head teacher.

It is clearly right to pay the Bill serious attention when 22 organisations form a coalition and ask us to support it. As constituency Members of Parliament in England—I say “England” advisedly; it is an England measure—we have all been involved with some of those organisations. I put on record their names: the Anaphylaxis Campaign, Asthma UK, the British Heart Foundation, the Children and Young People HIV Network, CLIC Sargent, Coeliac UK, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, Diabetes UK, Epilepsy Action, Input, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the National Centre for Young People with Epilepsy, National Voices, the Royal College of Nursing, TreeHouse—which is the national charity for autism education—Scope, Sickle Cell and Young Stroke Survivors, the Stroke Association, the UK Children with Diabetes Advocacy Group, Vision 2020 UK and YoungMinds.

Those organisations represent young people—some also represent adults—with 16 different conditions, which are not uncommon in many schools in this country. Four of the organisations lobbying today are concerned with children with diabetes. Indeed, Diabetes UK has led the campaign. This municipal year, the mayor of Southwark has chosen that organisation as her charity. She suffers from diabetes and has done good work to raise funds and increase the profile of the needs of those with diabetes. I know colleagues in the House who have also done such work because they, too, are sufferers.

Two organisations in the list specifically deal with epilepsy. That triggered in my mind a realisation of the importance of the obligation on schools to ensure that there is a proper understanding of and response to people with such conditions. When I was at secondary school, somebody had an epileptic fit in front of me. I had never seen an epileptic fit before. For the first minute or so, I had no idea how to respond. I did not even register logically what was happening. That showed me the importance of preparedness among staff and pupils to deal with those conditions. I stress “and pupils”, because they need to know that it is not unusual, and should not be a problem for them, that one of their school colleagues might have a condition that needs help. Nearly everybody at school needs help, be it be emotional, psychological, mental or physical help. Schools will be better places and the quality of education and opportunity there will be better if they and all their members—the governors, the teaching staff, the non-teaching staff, those who come into schools and the pupils—know how to deal with those issues.

I want to signal how important the work done by the associations that I have mentioned is, by referring to three of them, one of which—the Multiple Sclerosis Society—is based on my constituency. I have had good involvement with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, which is led by Robert Meadowcroft, whom I have known for many years. A former member of my staff works for the Multiple Sclerosis Society now. We all know what fantastic work the society does in raising consciousness and awareness, increasingly through young people sharing their experiences, ensuring, as happened with the lobby here, not only that adults or workers come to lobby us, but that the people who live that life come to see us, and not only in our constituencies and surgeries, at meetings and in our communities, but here, too.

Also in my borough, although not in my constituency, is Sickle Cell and Young Stroke Survivors. Sickle cell disease is a condition that disproportionately affects those from Afro-Caribbean communities. I have the privilege of representing the local authority with the largest African community in Britain, and the issue is relevant to that community, as it is to people from black and other communities. Finally, there is Scope, for which, again, a former member of my staff works. Those examples indicate how good and effective those organisations are. Through the medium of the Bill, they have come to us to say, “Please see if you”—Parliament—“will agree to this very simple change in the law.”

That leads me to my next point, which is to commend the hon. Member for Coventry, South for producing a superbly short Bill. Private Member’s Bills are much easier for the House to deal with if they are short. The title of the Bill is short. There is also a good, robust view about when it should come into effect, namely within two months of the day on which it is passed. That is unusually refreshing, because normally the start date for legislation is way down the track. Clause 2 says that Ofsted should consider how schools deal with the issues covered in the Bill as part of its inspections.

The key to the Bill is clause 1, which would impose on schools’ governing bodies the obligation to produce and implement a medical conditions policy, which would have two components. Proposed new section 38(11) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 says that the policy should set out

“the means by which records of the specified health conditions of children at the school are to be recorded and maintained”

and

“the preparation of an individual healthcare plan for each child”.

Clause 1 would also require the training of staff to enable them to respond, which would include not just teaching staff, but teaching assistants, the people in the kitchens and so on. There are also other things, which, to be honest, are incidental, including an obligation on NHS bodies, local authorities and primary care trusts to co-operate.

The hon. Gentleman has also been in wise in saying that at this stage he does not want to specify which health conditions would be covered, which he is leaving to Ministers. That is both a good thing about the Bill and a weakness, because until a Minister did that, the Bill would have no substance or import. There is no obligation on Ministers to do that by a certain date, so I guess there would have to be an amendment in Committee to change that.

Obviously, I cannot predict the outcome today, but I would have thought that if the Bill reached Committee, that would be the stage at which to thrash those issues out. After all, that is why we have a Committee stage.

I am absolutely comfortable with that reply. That was also my assumption. The Government will have to respond and say what they think, and they will have to show a willingness to define those conditions. I simply want to put on record that the Bill depends on having a list of those conditions. That might not be so easy to achieve, as there are many very common conditions, and some very rare ones. One would have to find a way of writing such a list.

Since I have been in the House, there have been many debates about whether it is better to have special schools, mainstream schools with specialist provision, or mainstream schools that can take everyone, whatever their needs. We need to be careful not to imply that the only schools that should exist are mainstream schools. I have never taken that view, although some colleagues do. I know from visiting schools in my constituency that there are mainstream schools that have a fantastic ability to meet the special needs of their children, either specifically or generally. I can think of two examples. Snowfields primary school, near London bridge, has a unit for dealing with children with autism which is hugely valued and recommended. The other is a relatively modern primary school in Rotherhithe, Alfred Salter school, which I think the Minister visited recently. It is a really good, well-led school with provision for children with physical disabilities and the capacity to deal with children with hearing impairments, and so on. It was built, and works, as a school that caters for those needs.

There are also really good special schools. For them, the provisions in the Bill are already par for the course. Nothing needs to be added to their obligations. Again, there are two pre-eminently good examples in my constituency. Spa school is a Bermondsey school for children and young people with autism. It is a really great, friendly, successful, high-achieving school. Cherry Garden school deals with children with considerable physical and other educational needs. Happily, it is about to get a hugely well-earned new school building, for which the head has been waiting for a long time. My most moving moment at a school play was last Christmas at that school. Every pupil took part, no matter what their physical or other disability might be, yet it was absolutely the most moving experience.

There are some fantastically good schools, but the Bill is really about the others, like the school of which I am chair of the governors. It is a mainstream school, but it may also be attended by children with epilepsy, sickle cell, diabetes, a mental health problem or whatever.

Theoretically, a group of schools with different specialities could take a cluster approach by pooling their specialist provision.

Yes, of course that is right.

I am sure that the Minister will advocate caution, and that is also my position and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who speaks for us on education. I am not seeking to block the Bill today; nor would my colleagues wish to do so. We are cautious, however, about whether the Bill as it stands represents the right way to go, and I want to set out our reasons for that.

Every primary school is already required to adopt a huge number of policies. The primary school of which I am chair of the governors has just reviewed all its policies, and one extremely experienced governor has kindly volunteered to rewrite them, so that none of them takes up more than two sides of paper—ideally, we want to get them down to one side—so that they are simple to read. There are a massive number of policies.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South will know from experience in his constituency, as I do from my own, that the legislation that this place passes has placed huge burdens on the governing bodies of schools, whether in relation to admissions policies, which we have just had to revise, or to others that we bring into force. Some provisions have a huge impact. Schools have rightly been challenged by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and they have sought to respond to it. We thus need to be careful not to embark on a policy that is burdensome rather than of benefit. We need to discover whether the objective could be achieved in a different way, by guidance rather than by a policy with an obligation. That is the question I have in mind, and I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response to it.

I come to the debate with some slight indirect pride because the St. James primary school in Bermondsey has just had its Ofsted report and been judged outstanding. I have no doubt that that is due to the leadership of the head, who was appointed a few years ago, and all her staff team, to whom I pay tribute. This is an absolutely fantastic small school with 210 places in Jamaica road near Bermondsey tube station. What being on the governing body of that school has taught me—I joined it on purpose so that I can never be accused of failing to have my feet on the ground, as it were, when it comes to how things work on the ground—is that every child really does matter. “Every Child Matters” is a Government phrase—originally Lord Laming’s initiative and it has rightly been implemented—and it is important to look at every child separately in respect of academic and social achievement. A good school should automatically seek to have a pastoral care regime and a social care regime for every child. It should be the responsibility of the school, because it takes the place of parents, to look after every single child.

The last question I pose—it is a rhetorical one—is whether all this is sufficient, as it were, and whether it is an obligation. It is also a question of whether Ofsted, when it inspects, should have to check whether what is in the Bill all actually happens. I have not done the necessary evidential research—not even into all the schools in Southwark, let alone around the whole country—to know what the Minister will have more access to than me, which is the extent to which all this is already good practice and already happening. We need an intelligent debate about what the evidence shows.

One thing I do know is that it is imperative that under the compulsory state schools system, any youngsters going to primary or secondary school with asthma, which can be very debilitating, or with a heart condition, which can make them much less alert and agile for long parts of the day, or with cancer or HIV, must be given the same dignity, respect, value and opportunity as everybody else. That is what the Bill is about. That is why I commend the Bill’s initiative; I will listen with interest to the Minister’s advice on whether this is the best way to achieve the objective that we share, or whether we need to find other ways in the minutes ahead. If the Bill goes to Committee, my colleagues will happily participate and work on the agenda that the hon. Member for Coventry, South and the 22 organisations have set us.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on producing a Bill that is modest in size, but whose intention is far-ranging. There have been too many problems in our schools when it comes to dealing with children who suffer from certain types of conditions.

I am going to speak specifically about dyslexia and dyspraxia this morning, although they were not in the list that the hon. Gentleman set out in introducing the Bill. I fully appreciate, of course, that it was not an all-inclusive list and that there was no intention for the Bill to exclude children suffering from such conditions.

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the organisation that he speaks for that there was certainly no deliberate attempt to exclude them in any way whatever.

I am grateful for that clarification.

Young people and children with dyslexia and, in particular, dyspraxia, face significant problems. In the latter case, far too many people lack understanding of the condition. I recall that 20 years ago, staggeringly, there were local education authorities that did not recognise or accept the condition of dyslexia. Consequently, no help was provided for children suffering from that condition and they were written off as troublemakers—children who could not be bothered to get into the work ethic and do their lessons. People did not appreciate that there was no lack of will to learn among those children. Because of their condition, they found learning extremely difficult, and because their condition was unrecognised, no help was provided. They became deeply frustrated, which could lead to behavioural problems or lack of interest in learning.

Writing those people off as troublemakers was unforgivable, but, fortunately, great strides have been made in the last 20 years. The condition is recognised and people fully appreciate that specialist help and attention have to be provided to such children to help them to get a fair and decent deal to enable them to learn like other children in their class and minimise any disruption that they might cause to those other children. However, there is still a problem with dyspraxia because of the lack of knowledge and understanding of the problem. I fear that too many children in our schools might, to varying degrees, be affected by dyspraxia where it goes unrecognised—which means that help cannot be provided—simply because of the lack of knowledge among too many teachers that it is a problem. That is why I particularly welcome the Bill providing for

“training for school staff to support the implementation of individual healthcare plans.”

With that training and the acquisition of skills, there would be greater opportunity for teaching staff to recognise and identify the problem, so children could be set in the right direction to seek the appropriate help, and schools and teachers, working with medical practitioners, could plan a proper scheme to help those children.

There is a problem, however. I do not know, and will not know until I hear the Minister’s speech, whether the Government want to give the Bill a fair wind so that it has the opportunity to be considered in Committee and possibly reach the statute book during this parliamentary year. I do not know what will happen, but if the Bill does not succeed during this Session, for whatever reason, I will make a plea to the Minister.

The intentions behind the Bill are admirable and necessary to improve upon an existing situation. We all, as constituency Members of Parliament, have experience of parents trying to get their children statemented so that their problems and needs can be identified and provided for. All constituency MPs experience during their parliamentary career the frustration of the time-consuming problems that can be involved in getting a statement in the first place. Once a statement has been prepared and a course of action and help identified, it can be difficult to ensure that that assistance is provided. That will continue even if the Bill, by some quirk, does not become law.

If the Bill does not become an Act of Parliament, I shall urge the Minister to ensure that her Department works determinedly and channels its efforts to improve the existing situation, drawing on a number of the attributes identified in the Bill to ensure that children who, medically and through no fault of their own, have a disadvantage in life that impacts on their ability to learn get a fairer and better deal so that they can compete with their peers in the classroom to get the finest education that this country can provide for its next generation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on his success in the ballot and on introducing this Bill. I know that he feels passionately about this topic and that he is speaking on behalf of many young people with health needs and their parents. We are aware that the availability of good-quality support at school for children with long-term medical conditions is a major issue that needs to be addressed. I am grateful to him for introducing this Bill and for rightly highlighting the very real barriers that these children face. It is a tribute to his commitment that we are here debating this issue today.

We have heard from Members today many examples of schools that are not delivering the support that children need, and many Members raised particular instances in their constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) drew our attention to the very real difficulties faced by children with HIV. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) spoke eloquently about a constituent of his with childhood cancer. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) told us about problems affecting children in his constituency with sickle cell anaemia, and the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) told us about difficulties in his constituency with children with dyslexia and dyspraxia.

We completely support the Bill’s underlying intention to improve support at school for children’s health needs. However, I have some concerns about whether having a legal duty on schools at this stage will actually deliver the best outcome for these children. We want schools to work together with us on this matter, and I hope to be able to explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South and to the House how I believe we can achieve the better outcomes we all want through other means, and to set out what we have done and will do. His Bill has given me the opportunity to do that.

We know that many schools are already providing very good support to pupils where it is needed. The hon. Members for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) gave examples of places they had visited and schools they knew about where that excellent support was being given. However, such examples of good practice are not uniform across the country, and where schools are not doing well, it can be for a range of reasons, such as lack of knowledge about such conditions, misconceptions or fear about what offering support would involve, lack of appropriate training, or concerns about possible litigation, as was mentioned. There may well be other barriers, and we need to find out what they are.

A legal requirement on schools to have a medical conditions policy now would be a bit like putting the cart before the horse: we need to understand the barriers before imposing such a duty. At this stage, it could be strongly resisted by schools and teachers as an additional and unreasonable burden. I do not want to force teaching or support staff to take on responsibility for administering medicines where they may not be qualified or confident to do so. I would rather work with schools to identify barriers and find ways to overcome them, and to bring them with us.

Does the Minister not think that one of the other, most notable barriers is the Government’s failure to deliver on their promises in respect of school nurses? We are, after all, still 1,000 school nurses short of the target that the Government themselves set.

Of course we want to see more school nurses, but there has been a 38 per cent. increase in their number between 2004 and 2007. However, we recognise that we need to go further.

Although having a policy is important, it will not in itself guarantee better provision. The proof is in the implementation, and the way to improve provision is to identify the barriers that prevent schools from supporting these pupils, to share good practice, to increase awareness and to reassure schools about what is involved.

As has been mentioned, schools already have a statutory duty to promote the well-being of their pupils. Well-being is defined as the five Every Child Matters outcomes, one of which is being healthy and staying safe. We recently consulted on guidance on what this means in practice, and I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South and the House that we will ensure that the final guidance includes specific reference to the importance of schools considering the health requirements of their pupils, particularly those with long-term health conditions, as part of this duty.

On the provisions in the Bill regarding consulting parents and their children on individual health plans, we certainly agree and are addressing that issue in the child health strategy. The strategy sets out the plans for universal, targeted and specialist support across three life stages—early years and pregnancy, school-age children and young people—as well as the additional support for children and young people in need of acute or ongoing health care. It also sets out how the delivery system can be supported in implementing the recommendations, and in particular how the range of services in contact with children and young people can work better and with families to achieve common aims. A specific commitment is included to ensure that by 2010 all children with complex health needs have individual care plans to support co-ordinated care.

Published alongside the strategy is “Securing better health for children and young people through world class commissioning”—a guide that will support commissioners in delivering the vision set out in the strategy. Commissioning is key to providing local services and to accommodating the individual respective elements of individual care plans: one size cannot fit all.

That individualised approach, while working with the surrounding services, is central to how we perceive the future of schools. We are developing a White Paper that sets out our vision for the 21st century school, which will offer a genuinely personalised learning experience for all its pupils, including those with medical conditions. Our aim is that 21st century schools will inspire young people and engage parents, carers and the local community in the life of the school. They will work closely with other local children’s services to overcome the barriers to learning that pupils may face and to stretch and challenge the most able learners.

Our child health strategy encompasses the Government’s long-term vision of a 21st century children’s health service aimed at improving the health and well-being of all children, with a specific focus on children with disabilities. With schools, GP practices, hospitals, Sure Start children’s centres, the voluntary sector and Government all playing their part in support of families, we want to ensure that every child has a healthy start in life and a brighter future.

The Bill proposes placing a duty on NHS bodies to co-operate with school governing bodies. The concept of such co-operation is not new. Section 26 of the Health Act 1999 imposed a duty on NHS bodies to co-operate with each other, and section 22 of the National Health Service Act 1977 created a duty of co-operation between NHS bodies and local authorities, but of course that is just a general duty, where co-operation means sensible working together to ensure that the public are served to best effect.

We go further, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned, in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which received its Third Reading in this House on Tuesday and is now on its way to the other place. That legislation will make schools a statutory relevant partner in their local children’s trust, with primary care trusts and others, and require them to work in partnership with other local agencies to improve children’s well-being. They will be represented on the children’s trust board and contribute to the preparation and monitoring of the local children and young people’s plan. All relevant partners of the children’s trust will be able to pool their budgets to commission or deliver more integrated and effective services, which better match the needs of each child, young person or family.

Those changes will lead to much greater co-operation between services and facilitate easier access by schools to the services they need to support their pupils. I put on record here that we will make specific reference in our guidance to the need for partners to consider what is needed locally to support schools in managing children with medical conditions.

Clause 2 refers to inspection and monitoring. Inspectors already draw on evidence in a range of plans in place for individual children, including care plans for children who are looked after, education plans for children with special educational needs, and health care plans. Those plans identify any specific provision the children need to ensure that they are able to access education effective; they also ensure that appropriate measures have been put in place to protect the children’s well-being. Many of the plans include statements relating to children’s health, and inspectors will have access to them and to the views of pupils, parents and staff on how pupils’ needs are being met.

As I said earlier, in our final guidance on how schools should meet their statutory duty to promote children’s well-being we will include specific reference to considering the health requirements of pupils, and we will develop strong, school-level indicators that, taken together, measure a school’s contribution to pupil well-being. We will ask Ofsted to reflect those indicators when it designs the cycle of inspection starting in 2009.

Further accountability will be delivered through our proposed school report card. We have been consulting on what that report card might look like. We believe that it will make the school accountability system better able to recognise the full range of each school’s achievements, not just attainment. It will complement and sit alongside Ofsted inspection reports, and it is intended to be clear, powerful and easily understood by school governors, parents and the public. We are consulting on what categories of performance would be included on the report card. Attainment, of course, is one category—we do not want to lose sight of that—but we want to include things like pupil progression, how good a school is at narrowing attainment gaps for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and, crucially for this debate, how effective schools are at delivering wider outcomes, such as children’s well-being.

Does the Minister envisage that the report card would specifically say whether each pupil had a condition, and address the question of how the school was responding to it?

The report card will be much broader than that. We are looking to introduce a document that can be read by the public and by all parents. It would not go into that much detail. However, the Ofsted report would sit alongside it, and that, of course, would go into much greater detail. We also intend the views that parents and pupils hold about the school to form part of the school report card. That will give schools a powerful incentive to recognise parental concerns, which could well include concerns about children’s health needs and how well the school addresses them.

Once again, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South for introducing the Bill. It gives me an opportunity to set out the fact that in our recently published child health strategy, we announced that we will update our current guidance, “Managing Medicines in Schools and Early Years Settings”. That will be crucial to giving school staff the confidence that they need, and getting the buy-in from those schools that, for whatever reason, are giving children with health needs the support that they deserve.

The revised guidance will include clear statements of what is expected from those involved in supporting pupils with medical conditions, such as schools and primary care trusts. We first need to understand and address the barriers that schools face when it comes to providing necessary support, and we need to identify how those barriers can be overcome. We will work with the expert organisations, including Diabetes UK, and with schools and school staff, to identify the barriers and the best way to address them. Alongside revising that guidance, we have made a commitment to an awareness-raising campaign. The aim of the campaign will be to raise the profile of the issue in schools, promote consistent good practice across the country, and enable schools to cultivate a positive support ethos.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families is setting up a stakeholder group to help review and revise the guidance and provide recommendations for the awareness campaign. The group will comprise officials from the Department of Health and from DCSF, the main stakeholders and the lobby groups, and school and head-teacher representatives. Parents of children with long-term conditions will possibly be represented, too.

Once again I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South on introducing the Bill. As I said at the outset, I fully support the intentions behind the Bill, but I hope that I have been able to explain why I do not think that legislating for a legal duty is the right thing to do at this time. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate how we can deliver the outcomes that we all want through the new legislation and guidance in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, and through the measures outlined in the recently published child health strategy and the guidance that will underpin it. That includes, of course, our commitment to working with all interested parties and stakeholders to update the “Managing Medicines in Schools and Early Years Settings” guidance. That, together with accountability mechanisms such as the comprehensive area assessment of local authorities, Ofsted inspection of schools and the proposed new school report card, will deliver the outcomes that my hon. Friend envisaged in his Bill.

We want to bring schools along with us, not by coercion through a legal duty, but by working together to make best practice common practice. We want to work with all stakeholders—PCTs, schools, local authorities, disability charities, parents and children themselves—to ensure the very best outcomes for all children with health needs in schools.

With the leave of the House, may I say that we have had an interesting debate today, with many good contributions exploring the Bill, whether hon. Members agreed with it or not. During the debate I became conscious of the danger that my Bill would pile more legislation on teachers. It was pointed out earlier that much legislation these days affects teachers, and it was not the intention of my Bill to impose a greater burden on them.

The Minister has honoured the commitments that she gave me in private conversations, so I do not intend to pursue my Bill. Given that my hon. Friend has made a number of concessions and that considerable progress has been made, campaigners have achieved quite a lot today. They have forced the House to have a good debate on the issues, and they have gained considerably from what the Minister said. If they read Hansard, they will see exactly what they have achieved.

My role was merely to bring the Bill before the House. More important for campaigners and for the House is that the assurances given by the Government today are followed through. If they are not, I assure my hon. Friend that I shall be one of the first to remind her.

Once again, I thank all the campaigners involved and Members on both Opposition Front Benches. Members of the Opposition parties have treated me very courteously, as have my colleagues. A number of hon. Members were unable to be present today. That is understandable, as Friday is a constituency day and Members have heavy commitments.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Land Use (Gardens Protection Etc.) Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I have very little time. My Bill is designed to protect back gardens, front gardens and green land, and to tackle some of the problems of overdevelopment. There have been a number of attempts over the years to legislate through private Members’ Bills to deal with the problem, and many debates in the House. Without doubt, the issue needs to be addressed, as I have seen over the years from developments in my constituency, especially in Mill Hill, Hale and Edgware wards, but not limited to them—developments that begin, continue and conclude with the changing of the fundamental character of a residential neighbourhood.

In my area one often finds, on turning a street corner, that the old houses have been knocked down and a block of flats has been built since one last went down that road. Some people have sold off their back gardens to developers, who apply for planning consent to build four or five houses or a block of flats on the land. We must do something to protect gardens wherever they may be, even if they are not formally defined as part of the green belt. That is what my Bill seeks to do.

Clause 1(2) inserts new sections in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to create a new requirement that planning authorities should give “special regard” to gardens and green spaces. It is not restrictive in the way that designating a piece of land as a greenfield site would be. It simply gives a nudge to planning authorities to use their discretion. Rather than telling them that they must do something, it simply reminds them not to forget about back gardens and their importance to the character of an area and the way of life of a community.

I shall give one or two examples from my constituency. The case is well made by a decision by the planning inspectorate concerning an application at 57-63 Marsh lane and 9-11 Glenwood road, Mill Hill. It was strenuously opposed by the local community, Mill Hill Preservation Society, Laing Field and Moat Mount residents association and many others. The appeal was on the proposal to build seven houses in a row of back gardens, but the inspectorate allowed it. The inspector said:

“As far as the backland is concerned I think that six dwellings sited as proposed, in spacious gardens . . . would not look unreasonably cramped.”

The inspector also commented that the gardens have an interesting biodiversity, but ignored that fact. That application had been opposed by the local community and rejected by the council with my support and that of the ward Liberal Democrat councillors, but the decision was overturned by the inspectorate on appeal. Holders Hill road in my constituency has virtually ceased to exist as it was originally constructed due to such developments.

My Bill also deals with urban green spaces laid out as a public garden and land used for public recreation or having wildlife and biodiversity. A couple of sports grounds have gone. The Mill Hill tennis club in Flower lane sold out to developers. It cannot be blamed for that: it was offered a huge amount of money. A block of flats was then erected on the tennis courts.

The same thing happened in west Hendon. The Neeld tennis club, a long-standing tennis club, was the lessee of the site. The new freeholders gave it a lump sum to take out a new lease and money to move out. There was then a planning application. The inspector said that although

“UDP Policy…seeks to resist the loss of playing fields”,

he did not think that private clubs counted towards that. He criticised the council for not having done its homework to establish the level of demand for tennis courts, and, surprise, surprise, he went on to say:

“Despite the opposition of local residents I find no compelling reason as to why residential development would not be an acceptable alternative use on the site if it were to be redeveloped.”

He allowed six dwellings on the site.

Now the club has to move out and the council has agreed to give it part of a public park—two thirds of Sturgess park—on which to build a new tennis club. Obviously many questions arise around that, but of greater importance is the sequence. We lost the original club to a housing development—not affordable housing—and now we are losing public open space to relocate the private tennis club that was displaced by that housing development.

My Bill aims to tackle these problems. I could give many more examples, but we do not have the time for that. It does not do so in a heavy-handed way, but it does remind the council, and the planning inspector, that our green spaces, gardens, front and back, parks and recreational spaces and areas of biodiversity are important to all of us. They must be given due regard, but they are not at the moment. We must act as quickly as possible before our green spaces become overdeveloped brownfields. I have had letters of support from all over the country. The Bill’s time has come and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not talk the Bill out.

I am aware that time is short. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing his place in the private Members’ ballot and bringing forward this important debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who initiated similar debates in the past.

Because of the lack of time, it is not appropriate to go into the full background of the situation regarding garden and backland development. Suffice it to say that one of the criticisms of the Bill is that it has too narrow a focus and does not look at the wider context of the Government’s policies on garden and backland development. It is interesting that the concept of special regard to the desirability of conserving gardens and urban green spaces is a loose one. Were the Bill to proceed, I hope that it would be looked at more robustly in Committee.

As we are short of time, it might be worth mentioning that the policy that existed prior to 2000, which was enunciated by the last Conservative Government in 1992 under planning policy guidance note 3, did not include any definition of gardens as brownfield, and neither did it contain density targets. Indeed, the guidance discouraged residential infill where inappropriate and gave a broad discretion for councils to protect the character of their locality. It stated:

“Where authorities consider that the pressure for development and redevelopment is such as to threaten seriously the character of an established residential area which ought to be protected, they may include density and other policies in their local plans.”

It added:

“Where the planning authority considers that existing densities in a particular area should not be exceeded, a policy to that effect in the local plan can help to deter the speculative demolition of sound housing.”

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Conservative party, if elected to government, is committed to altering the rules on brownfield development, returning them to the position in 1992. With that, I support the Bill.

It is a pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on his efforts to introduce the Bill. I pay tribute to his work. I hope that I do not talk the Bill out in the vast number of seconds that I have to discuss it, but I should like to speak briefly about its two main elements.

First—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 26 June.

Business without Debate

Climate Change (Sectoral Targets) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 12 June

Renewable Content Obligation Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Sheltered Accommodation (Barnet)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ms Diana R. Johnson.)

I hope that I have rather more success with this debate than I had with my private Member’s Bill.

At the start of the year, Conservative-run Barnet council announced that it intended to cut entirely warden and scheme manager services from tenants living in sheltered housing in the borough. The council makes no bones about it: this is a cut to save money. In its consultation document, one of the more outrageous ideas was to ask the elderly and vulnerable people who are affected to suggest what alternative cuts should be made if their services were to be left alone. How ludicrous is it to suggest that the elderly should be able to trawl through the council’s budget to identify alternatives?

Instead, the council proposes to provide a floating support service that would be linked not to any particular sheltered housing location, but to an individual and only for a few months, with the long-term aim of ending even that inadequate alternative. It even proposes to end the dedicated alarm service. In its document, the council suggests that

“many people already living in sheltered housing are unhappy about paying charges for a service they could manage without”.

That shows just how out of touch Conservative Barnet council is. Not one of the dozens of people to whom I spoke suggested that they were unhappy with the service. Every single one, though, was extremely concerned and frightened about the consequences of the council’s proposals. All believed the consultation to be a complete sham, based on bitter experience of Conservative Barnet council’s past consultations.

The council suggests that part of the problem is inadequate financial support from the Government, yet it has had above-inflation rises in aggregate external finance every year since we came to power bar one, the year reflecting the census. It was widely believed to have underestimated the population, but Barnet council chose not to challenge it.

If the council wants to look for savings, it should start with the 22 per cent. pay increase that Conservative councillors voted for and Labour and Liberal Democrat groups opposed. If it had not recklessly lost £27 million in speculative investments in Icelandic banks, the interest alone would have gone a long way to meeting the costs of that dangerous cut. It is not fair to expect vulnerable elderly people in sheltered accommodation to pick up the bill for the Conservatives’ mismanagement of the council.

Many tenants make the point that they would not be in sheltered accommodation if they had been able to remain in their own homes. They are there because they require that support; indeed, they would not have been offered sheltered housing without first being assessed as being in need of it. The council suggest that others who are not in sheltered housing are being “discriminated against” because they receive less support. That is a false comparison, which shows the need to level service up not down, and the council’s failure to provide adequate sheltered housing to those who need and want it. From my own observation, as well as tenants’ own comments, it is clear that the majority would be unsafe if left on their own. They have varying degrees of frailty, many are bewildered and forgetful and it is clear that some really ought to be moved into higher dependency support. However, they manage to cope with the help of the current warden service.

Many tenants told me that they gave up larger, family-sized council or housing association properties, which are in high demand, in return for the offer of sheltered accommodation with warden support. Without wardens, the tenants would not have moved. The proposal therefore will have a deterrent effect on other elderly people occupying larger properties, because they will be less willing to downsize to sheltered accommodation.

The tenants’ descriptions of the council’s proposals include, “very frightening”; “people will die”; “chaos”;

“it is a great injustice”; “it will cost more in the end”;

and

“it’s diabolical to pick on the elderly”.

I was also shown a number of tenancy agreements that demonstrate that a significant proportion of tenants have a contractual right to a residential warden service, and that it would be a breach of contract to remove the service.

Many health issues—perhaps the most important kind of issue—were raised with me. Individual examples include epilepsy. One resident has had three epileptic episodes; he was found promptly by the warden and an ambulance was called. The fits struck so quickly that there was no time for him to have called for help. A resident with a laryngectomy valve has just one hour to get to hospital if the valve comes out. If it does, she cannot—for obvious reasons—call or phone for help herself. She relies on the warden to do so. An oxygen-dependent tenant relies on the warden to check on his medication and the oxygen to ensure that they are being taken and used properly. Another resident said:

“I collapsed and knocked myself out. The warden came straight away.”

Another commented:

“I am asthmatic and the warden regularly checks on me.”

Still another asked:

“Who will let in the ambulance staff if there is an emergency?”

With no warden service, the number of calls to the emergency services will increase, because beforehand the tenants would have relied on the wardens.

However, the residents rely on wardens for help in more than just emergency situations. One said:

“The warden calls the GP if we are ill. The GP might not come if it was just us.”

Another commented:

“He sits with me, reassuring me until the paramedics arrive.”

Many residents told me about wardens organising GP and hospital appointments, collecting prescriptions and supporting ill tenants:

“She cooks a meal if someone is ill.”

It is clear that, to the sheltered accommodation tenants, wardens are a lifeline—a word that they frequently use.

Wardens play a big role in the safety and security of their tenants and their homes. They help deter and keep out intruders, and alert the police if necessary. They check on the security of the premises, especially in the evenings. Some tenants commented that, due to forgetfulness, doors are sometimes not secured at night. One asked:

“Who will deal with the fire brigade? Our common parts alarm is not switched through anywhere, and we rely on the warden to call them.”

Another said:

“The warden checks that our smoke alarms and emergency cords work.”

A third said:

“I overcooked something, and the smoke alarm went off—the warden was there immediately.”

The issue of fire was also raised:

“We’ve had two fires. We rely on the warden to deal with the fire brigade.”

In another example of forgetfulness, a tenant left her handbag on an open staircase. Luckily, the warden found it and returned it to her. The level of reassurance given by the wardens’ presence cannot be overestimated—

“Every day, he checks on us.”

I was also told that

“The warden holds spare keys for us, in case we lose them or urgent help is needed.”

In blocks with lifts and upper floors, wardens are a vital support for tenants who cannot use the stairs unaided in the event of an emergency or lift failure. For obvious health and safety reasons, such tenants will probably have to be rehoused at ground floor level, putting additional pressure on housing stock in acute shortage. Alternatively, they will have to be housed in accommodation with higher, more expensive support.

Following the winter’s heavy snow, it is not surprising that many commented that their warden cleared the paths of snow and ice. Furthermore,

“The warden made dinner for me, when the carer didn’t come due to the snow.”

Wardens know their own tenants well—by sight, name and behaviour pattern. They will be the first to know if someone is missing, unwell or otherwise suffering. No floating service could ever have such important, intimate knowledge of such vulnerable people.

The warden service really comes into its own when it comes to social needs. Its dedicated men and women support their tenants, in ways that go way beyond their contractual duties, out of their common humanity towards people who depend on them for help. Tenants spoke of their fear of isolation, without the social activities that wardens help to organise:

“She helps make life liveable.”

Examples given to me include:

“The homely touch—she puts flowers in the reception”;

“Who will put up the Christmas decorations and cook the Christmas lunch?”;

“The human factor—she remembers my name”;

“I can’t read or write, and she reads all my letters for me. I don’t want to ask others, as they’d know my private business”;

and

“The warden delivers meals from the on-site restaurant to me. I’m 94 and can’t walk far or prepare my own food.”

Extra help given by wardens includes: information and advice; form-filling for benefits; the social club—coffee mornings, visits and outings; cooking meals for the tenants together; help with minor home repairs; changing light bulbs; help with shopping; maintaining contacts and links with residents’ families; and ensuring that residents are up and about in the mornings. None of that support can realistically be given by a floating service.

As part of my research, I also contacted and surveyed sheltered accommodation tenants whose warden service had been withdrawn and replaced with a floating service. All complained of very brief visits and a lack of interaction between the visiting support worker and the tenants, either individually or collectively.

I have listened to my hon. Friend with great interest. What he describes is not only happening in Barnet and Hendon; he may not be comforted to know that many Conservative boroughs across London, including Hammersmith and Fulham, are doing exactly the same, and it goes alongside cuts to meals on wheels, domiciliary services and all services provided for social tenants. In every single case, and despite campaigns by the GMB and other unions, the cost goes up and the service quality goes down. We are talking about a concerted political campaign against social tenants, and it is continuing throughout London.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. He is absolutely right. I know a little about what has happened in his borough. If my local elderly people were look at what is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham, they would fear that Barnet might follow it with serious cuts to other services such as meals on wheels.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has seen the Help the Aged booklet published earlier this year on support for older people living in sheltered accommodation; there is a lot to recommend to him in that publication.

The root cause of Barnet’s cruel proposal can be found back in 2003, when the “supporting people” system was introduced, separating support services such as wardens from housing costs. I am sure that when these changes were introduced, it was not foreseen that councils such as Barnet would exploit them to cut services to vulnerable people. I urge my hon. Friend to carry out, as recommended by Help the Aged, a review of the policy on sheltered housing, including consideration of whether sheltered housing should be taken out of “supporting people” to end the artificial separation of housing management and support that will prove so detrimental to Barnet tenants if the council gets it way. We have to be absolutely clear who is responsible for what is going on in Barnet: the Conservative party, heartless, not compassionate, intends to withdraw this service.

It is clear that the council’s proposals have caused immense worry and fear for the tenants who stand to lose their warden service. As part of my survey of tenants, I asked them to rate their service: only a handful gave ratings below nine or 10 out of 10, and many went even higher. Not one agreed with the council’s proposals. The tenants referred to their wardens as “materfamilias”, “friend and confidante”, and “our guardian angel”. The human cost will be fear and isolation of elderly, frail and vulnerable people—those we should be doing everything we can to support. Some will die through lack of emergency response. Others will inevitably be forced to move to more expensive forms of support, which will no doubt prove to be a false economy. These proposals cannot be justified, either subjectively from the tenants’ individual viewpoints, or objectively from their impact on other council services or budgets. The proposals must be withdrawn without delay to give elderly tenants in Barnet the safety and security that they need and deserve.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this important debate on warden services in sheltered accommodation in Barnet. I have read about his hard work on this matter in his constituency carefully and followed it closely. The whole House will acknowledge that such services are vital to many vulnerable people in the borough of Barnet. My hon. Friend is a great example of a connected, responsive and campaigning constituency Member of Parliament.

I should like to do two things in responding to the debate. First, I will set out the national policy context in respect of housing and related support needs for vulnerable and older people; then, I will turn to the specific concerns in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am sure that he is well aware that this Government are mindful of the housing and support needs of all vulnerable and older people, wherever they live—whether in their own homes, with family, in supported housing such as sheltered or extra-care accommodation, or residential care establishments. The issue is becoming increasingly important as the population of this country ages. The Government’s vision in this policy area is to ensure that our vulnerable and older citizens get the best housing and support services that can be provided, locally and in the most effective way.

In order to achieve that vision, we have provided unprecedented sums of money for local authorities to invest in this area. The “supporting people” programme has provided funding to local authorities to deliver housing-related support since 2003. As my hon. Friend knows, “supporting people” is a cross-cutting, preventive programme providing housing-related support to help vulnerable people to live independently. It helps more than 800,000 older people each year, enabling them to maintain their independence through, for example, sheltered housing, home improvement agency and adaptations services, community alarms, and floating support. Such support covers a large number and range of services, generally at a low unit cost, and it can secure independence for a large number of older people. The Government have invested more than £8.7 billion since the programme began in 2003, and we have announced a further £4.9 billion of funding up to March 2011. That three-year settlement will provide stability for service planning and delivery over that period. It will hopefully bring about efficiencies and economies of scale by providing certainty and longer-term contract and procurement services.

Housing-related support services are provided in conjunction with social services for those with more intensive needs. For frail older people, they can be provided in supported accommodation or, increasingly, delivered to their own homes. Those services are for a smaller number of people—some 30,000 a year—and come at a relatively high unit cost, but they still avoid the need for expensive residential care.

That example illustrates an important principle of the “supporting people” programme, namely that it is an invest-to-save budget. Expenditure of £1.5 billion in housing-related support services, alongside other expenditure costs associated with supporting vulnerable people, such as social care costs, delivers estimated net savings to the Exchequer of £2.7 billion. That comes through costs saved to the NHS and savings on the provision of long-term, expensive residential care. The model underpinning that analysis shows the value of providing good-quality, strategically relevant services to meet local needs and priorities and to support the early intervention and preventive agenda. It reduces calls on other services, such as those on the NHS through emergency admission to hospital.

In this financial year, 2009-10, for the first time the “supporting people” budget has been paid to local authorities without being ring-fenced. That provides them with an opportunity to work more flexibly and to develop new and innovative ways to support vulnerable people in a range of situations, including by delivering more holistic and needs-based services for older people.

That brings me to an important part of my speech—the devolution of responsibilities and priorities to local government. We emphasise, and I am sure my hon. Friend agrees, that it is for local authorities to decide how best to design and commission services. Central Government believe that local authorities are best placed to identify services to meet the needs of their local areas, and to balance local priorities. Central Government are not in the business of dictating to local authorities or service providers the details of what local services to provide and how, or indeed of micromanaging the delivery of those services.

However, we are equally clear that in developing and commissioning local services, local authorities should take into account the views and experiences of local service providers, local people and especially service users. I shall discuss that in relation to Barnet in a moment. Consultation and needs assessment are critical to ensuring that any changes in services are effectively managed and reflect the wishes of service users as well as enabling local authorities to meet the needs of all such users. That was emphasised in the “supporting people” strategy paper, “Independence and Opportunity”, published by my Department in 2007. One of the strategy’s most important features is the emphasis that it places on keeping service users at the heart of the delivery of housing support.

The importance of needs assessment and consultation with service users is also enshrined in the quality assessment framework for the “supporting people” programme, which sets out the standards expected in the delivery of “supporting people” services. It has become an essential part of the administering authorities’ means of ensuring that providers deliver services to an acceptable standard and in accordance with contractual expectations. The QAF identifies methods of evidencing achievement and has been a successful practical tool for ensuring continuous improvement in services for delivering housing-related support over the past five years. We have recently raised the bar of what is expected at all levels of the QAF. Its original purpose remains—to ensure that quality standards across the sector continue to be raised and that services evolve to meet the changing needs and aspirations of clients.

In February 2008, my Department published “Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods: A National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society.” In that strategy we set out how sheltered housing is often a positive choice for older people who want to remain independent, but who value the little bit of support or shelter and the sense of security and community that such a scheme can provide, as my hon. Friend articulated. We stated in that document:

“Sheltered housing, extra care and care homes at their best can be vibrant community hubs, tackling exclusion and promoting active ageing, even if the accommodation itself is dated.”

I am also aware that a number of residents in sheltered housing across the country, not only in Barnet, are concerned about changes to resident warden schemes. This is an important and complex matter, and, in view of its seriousness, my ministerial colleague, Baroness Andrews, chaired the first meeting of the sheltered housing working group in April. The meeting brought together a wide range of interested parties, including representatives of service commissioners, providers and residents, and considered how best to support good local decision making and practice. The group agreed to take forward two discrete strands of work focusing on resident engagement and consultation, and service models. It also agreed to report to Baroness Andrews on progress in a short time.

I hope that I have made clear to my hon. Friend the Government’s commitment to the matter. We believe that local authorities are best placed to decide priorities and the local design of services, but that appropriate consultation with local people should be at the heart of such design.

In that context, let me consider Barnet council. My hon. Friend set out with great eloquence and passion his concern about Barnet’s priorities and consultation on the matter. As he said, Barnet proposes to reduce the amount of funding for sheltered housing by £950,000 as part of a borough-wide strategy to find £12 million of savings in the authority in 2009-10.

Of course, it is right for local authorities to examine their activities and the manner in which they provide services to ascertain whether they can provide better value for money for the taxpayer. We endorse that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees. However, I have to say to my hon. Friend that the proposal and the related cuts amount to one twelfth of the financial savings required by the authority. That raises several questions, which I would like the local authority to answer. I question whether such a large proportion of cuts or efficiencies should focus on one specific part of the authority’s activities, especially one that provides a service for older and often vulnerable people.

I also question the timing. I am not one for conspiracy theories, but is it purely coincidental that the local authority wishes to make large cuts in money for supported people and warden services in sheltered accommodation in the first year that we state that moneys provided through “supporting people” are no longer ring-fenced? The intention behind removing the ring fencing was to allow local authorities to provide innovative solutions tailored to local needs and the wishes of the local population. We did not see the removal of the ring fence as a green light to cuts in services for the elderly and the vulnerable.

I question whether Barnet is taking into account the important principle that I mentioned earlier in respect of “invest to save”. I have read correspondence on the matter, especially from Unison, and it is clear that unions and others believe that the new scheme would cost more, following the cuts in service that Barnet advocates and the subsequent increase in involvement by other statutory agencies, such as social services and the primary care trust. Unison made the good point that residents who leave hospital would have to spend time in a nursing home because there would be no one on site to monitor them closely. That obviously puts major pressure on budgets and costs in the NHS and social services.

As I have said, it is not the Government’s policy or wish to intervene in the affairs and priorities of local government, which is best placed to decide what happens locally. However, I highlight to my hon. Friend my concern that, as part of the £12 million efficiencies programme, Barnet seems to focus on £950,000 of cuts in warden services and a £1.4 million direct cut in children’s services—to be fair , the local authority states that changes in services will mean a corresponding increase in resources of around £970,000 for children’s services. Nevertheless, there remains a cut of approximately £500,000 to children’s services. There seems to be a series of cuts focused on vulnerable people and younger people in the borough. In contrast, I have been told that the proposed cuts in central expenses in Barnet amount to £14,000. Council tax payers in Barnet need to consider whether those priorities are appropriate.

I have been told that Barnet has completed the consultation on the change to its sheltered housing and warden services, but has yet to take the final decision on the budget reductions and the changes to those services. I am also aware that there is considerable interest in the outcome of the consultation and in the future service delivery and funding arrangements that Barnet plans to put in place.

My hon. Friend has led the opposition to the proposals from the front, and I again pay tribute to him. I am told that the Barnet portfolio-holder with relevant responsibility will consider the findings of the consultation later this month. I will keep a close eye on the issue, as I am sure my hon. Friend will. I hope that the portfolio-holder in Barnet will answer some of questions that my hon. Friend and I have raised in the House today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.