House of Commons
Monday 18 May 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Sexual Assault Referral Centres
In 2009-10, £1.6 million has been allocated for sexual assault referral centres—SARCs. As part of the 2008 funding round, £659,000 was allocated, and a further £941,000 was announced on 15 April this year.
I welcome that fantastic news about funding, but when I met women from Women’s Aid a few weeks ago they were concerned that funding, although welcome, may be diverted from rape crisis centres and that they will continually have to reapply for funding from different pots of money. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that that will not happen? After all, rape crisis centres were set up for women, by women, for a specific function that is slightly different from that of sexual assault referral centres.
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We value the work of rape crisis centres and SARCs, and that is why we continue to invest in both of them. However, it is right that we look at co-ordinating provision where possible to ensure that we make the best use of funding.
The Home Office, working with the police, keeps all less lethal technologies, including water cannon, under constant review. There are no plans to introduce water cannon at the present time.
To reassure my hon. Friend, I have said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights that Tasers should not be used in public order control situations, and Tasers were not used during the G20 demonstrations. Officers equipped with Tasers raided a residence in an operation to arrest individuals suspected of criminal damage at the G20 protest. My hon. Friend makes an important point, however: there is a right to protest in this country, and Tasers are not appropriate for use in controlling such demonstrations.
Three weeks ago, four environmental protesters dressed as suffragettes superglued themselves to a statue of Viscount Falkland in Parliament. They were arrested for demonstrating unlawfully, held in detention for a total of 18 hours and given hugely restrictive police bail conditions, such as not being allowed even any contact with each other, although they were friends. Does the Minister accept that there is widespread controversy about the way in which lawful and peaceful protests are policed—as evidenced by the solicitors of the climate camp protestors today echoing our call for a full judicial inquiry? Does he agree that an inquiry would provide useful public guidance to the police on policing lawful and peaceful protest?
The hon. Gentleman will know that there is always a balance to be struck between protest and the rights of law-abiding citizens to go about their business and the protection of property. That balance is difficult for the police sometimes to maintain, but notwithstanding the case to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, we have an excellent example outside Parliament currently of the police dealing with quite a difficult situation—controlling the Tamil demonstration but at the same time trying as far as they can to allow access to Parliament. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, however, and he will know that Denis O’Connor, the chief of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, having been asked by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, will consider the whole issue of public order and tactics. We await that review with interest.
The Minister of State’s reply to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) is both measured and reassuring. Can I invite the Minister of State to confer with his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in order that those Ministers can explain once and for all to the Government of Sri Lanka, a country that I recently visited, that the British police are not in the business of seeking to restrain or disperse protestors by the use of water cannon simply because they are holding placards or waving banners of which that Government happen to disapprove? It is not the British way.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Foreign Office and Foreign Office Ministers are engaged in discussions with the demonstrators outside Parliament and, indeed, with the Sri Lankan Government about the whole issue of protest. In this country, people have a right to protest. That is what is going on outside, and in my view and that of many people, the policing of that demonstration, by facilitating protest but as far as possible allowing the public and Parliament to go about their business, is a testament to the police. It is sometimes difficult for the police, because people may say that something ought to be done about Tamils who are sitting in the road, for example, but the only way to move them, if they will not move, is by force. The way in which the police have tried to persuade people to conform is the right way forward.
Does the Minister not accept that what is going on in Parliament square is an absolute disgrace? It is an abuse of the right to protest. For seven weeks, the square has effectively been under semi-permanent occupation by the Tamils, and people going about their business in London have been disrupted. Why will the Minister not answer me when I ask how many police days have been devoted to the demonstration and how much it has cost? The Minister has told me that the Home Office does not keep those figures and that they are a matter for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Who is in charge of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner? The people of London should be told how much the demonstration is costing.
The fact is that the number of officers and the amount of resources deployed are an operational matter for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The only point that I make to the hon. Gentleman is that, far from being an affront to democracy, what is going on out there is a victory for democracy.
Having said that, I should also say that of course there are issues about how any demonstration is policed. However, I pose this question to the hon. Gentleman: what would be the effect were the police to conduct a clearance operation, bring the tents down and forcibly remove people, including women and children? Then we would see a protest from the other side of the argument. We have to look at the issue in a proportionate, sensible and measured way. We have to try to facilitate protest while trying, as far as we can, to ensure that people can go about their lawful business.
I agree completely with what the Minister just said. However, it raises the point of what counts as the “community” for the purposes of the Association of Chief Police Officers guidance on keeping the peace, for example. That says that the impact on the community is the first consideration in these circumstances. Does the Minister think that when protests are being policed, the “community” must include the interests of peaceful protesters themselves and that the matter is not exclusively about keeping the traffic running?
I absolutely agree, and I think that anybody would. Part of a protest is the individual demonstrator’s being able to demonstrate and to say and do what they want, within reason. Alongside that, the police, while facilitating the protest, have a responsibility to try to ensure, as far as possible, that traffic keeps moving and that people who are not interested in the demonstration can go about their business. The only point that I was making was that the police are doing a very good job with what is happening in Parliament square at present. To go back to the original question about the use of water cannon and other such equipment, it is encouraging to see our police policing such a demonstration in normal uniform, by and large.
Michael Savage was excluded for engaging in unacceptable behaviour by seeking to provoke others to serious criminal acts and by fostering hatred that might lead to inter-community violence. The exclusion is in line with the strengthened policy on exclusions that I announced to the House on 28 October last year. In his radio broadcasts, Mr. Savage has spoken about killing 100 million Muslims, and he has spoken in violent terms about homosexuals. Coming to the UK is a privilege. I refuse to extend that privilege to individuals who abuse our standards and values to undermine our way of life.
Notwithstanding the Home Secretary’s answer, she will be aware that the things of which she accuses Mike Savage are also illegal in the United States of America, and he has not faced prosecution there. Does she realise how ludicrous her ban is and the disrepute into which she has put this country in the eyes of many right-seeing—and, indeed, left-seeing—people in the United States? Does she also plan to ban Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and other middle-aged, white, ordinary American radio presenters?
I subscribe to the view, as expressed by another Member of this House, that
“It’s clear for reasons of our security that we must expel or refuse entry to those who preach hate, pit one faith against another and divide our society.”
Those were the words of the Leader of the Opposition, and I think he was right. Frankly, if the hon. Gentleman believes that it is appropriate for somebody to use words about Muslims such as,
“I said so kill 100 million of them, then there would be 900 million of them. I mean would you rather us die than them?”,
then he has a very different set of values than I have, and I want to ensure that those are implemented in the decisions that we make about who we do and do not allow into this country.
Many of us would agree with the thrust of what the Home Secretary has said. On the other hand, had that person come to Britain, he would find the great politeness of the people from her Department who welcome people to this country, but quite the rudest notices in the world. She—or someone—has removed “please” and “thank you” from every notice that her Department puts forward to visitors and returning people. Could she make Britain’s welcome to those whom we want a good deal more polite than it is now?
We have tried to improve the notices at our borders. It is important that when people enter the UK it is clear to them that it is the UK border and that we have certain conditions in place. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration is taking up points about the welcome to people coming to this country. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about our wanting to welcome those who come here in good faith—those who will make a contribution to this country, and who come here for holidays—and to differentiate between them and people such as Mr. Savage who clearly have no place in this country and would have no welcome here.
The Home Office’s production of a “name and shame” list was a self-evident gimmick and demeaning to Government, and it has led to a completely avoidable legal action that is producing splendid publicity for Michael Savage. Does the Home Secretary think, on reflection, that that was a mistake and the wrong way for the Government to behave?
No, I do not, because I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s party leader that we need to be clear about who we will and will not accept into this country. We need to be clear about the values that we have. Where someone preaches hate and foments hatred in the way that has happened in this case, where they provoke others to serious violence, and where they use phrases such as, in relation to somebody who said on his radio programme that he was gay,
“You should only get AIDS and die, you pig!”,
then it is right that we express our view about that. We recognise that coming to this country is a privilege, and we will express our values in terms of those we exclude.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Had an Islamic preacher said the equivalent about killing 100 million Jews, there would rightly have been outrage. There would have been—as there have been from Conservative Members—calls for that individual to be excluded. In developing our policy, we have taken an even-handed approach in saying that if people foment hate—if their aim is to drive division between different faiths and potentially to cause inter-community violence in this country—then they are not welcome in this country.
If it is an even-handed approach, could the Home Secretary explain why we have welcomed back to this country from Guantanamo Bay two UK residents, but not citizens, who are not only suspected terrorists in Afghanistan but wanted on murder charges in Spain?
We have, for some period of time, taken a position of wanting to see Guantanamo Bay closed. In order to help to facilitate that, we have accepted back, and in fact sought the return to this country, of those who are nationals and have previously been resident in the UK. I think that President Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo Bay is the right one, not solely because of the individuals there but because of the ability that that gives us internationally to take forward the sort of values that we hold, and the US holds, in fighting and tackling terrorism.
The immigration system is undergoing the biggest shake-up in a generation. We have strengthened our borders, started the roll-out of local immigration teams, introduced civil penalties for rogue employers who knowingly hire illegal workers, and introduced tier 4 of the points-based system for students. We are committed to removing those with no right to be here, targeting the most harmful first. Last year, more than 66,000 people were removed from the UK or left voluntarily, including a record number of foreign criminals.
Many of my constituents want to know the reason for the huge delays in the Home Office, which lead to the failure to remove illegal immigrants, who then acquire the right to stay in this country. The figures show that the number of removals fell in the last quarter of 2008 and was lower than in 2007. Why was that?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. The trend of our removals is significantly up. Of course, we have difficulties with some countries that refuse to issue documents, and that must be taken into account. However, there is steady improvement, as the report that the chief executive of the UK Border Agency gives regularly to the Home Affairs Committee—I see its Chairman in his place— shows.
We would have far fewer illegal immigrants to remove if we were even more effective in reducing the flow of illegals from northern France to Dover. What progress has the Minister made in setting up a secure holding centre in Calais? What benefits will flow from that?
I thank my hon. Friend for the question. Given his constituency, he knows more than most, if not all, about the issue. Let me reassure the House that the people trying to get into our country from Calais are not queuing up; they are locked out. Our bilateral conversations with the French have produced good progress. We will have a high-level bilateral meeting next month, when we hope to finalise the next stage of our reform to put in place what is already one of the most effective border controls in the world.
It would not be right to comment on individual cases. If the hon. Gentleman wants to take up the matter with me, I will respond in due course. On the general policy of detaining children, it is, of course, a last resort, and we have programmes to consider alternatives. However, regrettably, on some occasions, people who have not co-operated with the decisions of the independent tribunals and courts and would, in their view, otherwise abscond, face detention.
I think that this is the third time that I have asked this question of the Home Secretary and the Minister, but I am totally bewildered. Why can the Minister not get on top of cases of mums or dads who are married to or partners of British citizens—their kids, who are British children, run around my surgery—but cannot resolve their status? They might, yonks ago, have arrived here as illegal immigrants, but the problem is a no-brainer: they are not going back anywhere, so why cannot we get their papers regularised so that they can work and enjoy life? The problem is not small, but endemic. I have it every week in my constituency, and I do not want to wait till 2010 and 2011 to resolve it. When can those cases be resolved? Common sense should prevail.
I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance. I refer him to the comprehensive information that we have provided to the Select Committee. The legacy cases for failed asylum and immigration problems are being got through at a pace. Under policy and law, we rightly have to look at each case on its merits. We are doing that and we are on track to complete that in the timetable that the Home Secretary outlined. If I may say so, we are doing a good job of it.
Does the Minister of State agree that the effective removal of illegal immigrants is an important underpinning for public confidence? Does he also agree that it is just as important that the Government take the steps that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and I have raised with them to break the link between people coming here to work and those who settle?
The answers to the hon. Gentleman’s questions are yes and yes. It is important that temporary settlement rights do not automatically become permanent settlement rights and that that is made clear. One of the advantages of the points-based system is exactly that. It is backed up by the border control of counting in and counting out, which I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and he have supported. We have today introduced two new countries to the effective visa regime, and it is also important that those visas are counted in and counted out. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for that policy.
Has the Minister given any more thought to the idea that if someone fails in their application for asylum, appeals and fails again, and is then told that they have no right to be here and no further right of appeal, that decision ought to be picked up in person, so that that person is not informed by letter and allowed simply to disappear into the community?
There is much merit in that suggestion. When a failed asylum seeker’s appeal rights are exhausted, the procedures that we follow are critically important. However, we are regularly subject to legal challenge on that, which mostly results in the UKBA winning the argument and winning the case. There is a constant campaign, if I may use that word, to ensure that the law is enforced, but I nevertheless thank my hon. Friend for her suggestion.
The Minister talked in his initial remarks about the steps that he had taken to strengthen the UK borders. Could he explain to the House how reducing the number of diplomatic posts that process immigration and visa applications is improving and strengthening our borders?
I thank the hon. Gentleman; I know that the issue is important for his constituency. There is a misunderstanding abroad on that point. Partly as a result of security measures in some countries, but partly also as a result of change in management and improvements in efficiency, we now operate on a hub-and-spoke basis. It is important to recognise that our contracted agents are the first contact with the applicant, for both the application and the pick-up. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the number of positions that are designated to individual posts, rather than the number that are geographically located at such places, he will find that there has been an improvement through the hub-and-spoke approach.
The Minister will remember my raising the case of the 5,000 illegal immigrants given clearance to work in the security industry by the Security Industry Authority 18 months ago. Can he give the House a categorical assurance that none of those workers is still working in the security industry?
The hon. Gentleman knows that someone in my position can never give an absolute categorical assurance at a specific point in time, and no Minister could. I agree with him, however, that it is important for the confidence of the system that that is seen to be done. When we are able to report on the issue, he will see the effectiveness of the UKBA under its new structure and management.
I think that most people in this House and outside it would expect Ministers to have something of a handle on the issue 18 months later and to be able to give a clear answer. Let me then ask him two questions. We established two months ago that only 35 of those people had been deported. How many more have been deported since and where are the rest?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has a campaign on the issue, but a campaign should be based on the facts. He well knows that not all those people are liable for deportation, so his question is trying to move the goalposts. I appreciate that that is good propaganda; it is just not good policy.
Identity cards will start to be available to British citizens resident in Manchester from the autumn, at a fee of £30, and will, I am sure, become popular with members of the public who want a convenient and secure means of proving their identity.
The most recent research on the national identity service as a whole has shown, as research has consistently shown, that about 60 per cent. of the British public support the identity card scheme and less than 25 per cent. disagree with it. People will have the opportunity—and have already begun to take that opportunity—to register their interest and, in Manchester, to get the security and convenience that comes from being able to prove their identity far more securely than they can now.
The cost of identity cards has surged by a further quarter of a billion pounds to the present figure of £5.3 billion, which excludes every Government Department apart from the Home Office, and also excludes businesses, citizens and many sectors of society. Does the Home Secretary believe that there is a risk that the Manchester citizens who signed up for the card—no doubt in the fiction section of the central library, while having a continental breakfast—have signed away their privacy for life and given a blank cheque to this and, perhaps, future Governments?
I know that my hon. Friend would not want the facts to get in the way of an amusing question. He is wrong: the costs have not increased in the way in which he suggests. Last year, we were able to demonstrate a reduction of £1 billion in the cost of the instigation of the national identity service over the next 10 years. The cost for the people of Manchester to take up this opportunity on a purely voluntary basis will be £30, and we will see how many of them want to take up the opportunity.
There are already people in this country who have identity cards in their hands and in their wallets. We have already issued 30,000 identity cards to foreign nationals, and by November this year that figure will be 75,000. The hon. Gentleman might want to wish the scheme away, but it exists in this country now. I believe, given the level of support that we have consistently maintained for identity cards, that a sane Government will recognise the benefits to individuals of being able to find a more secure, more convenient way of proving their identity, which many of us have to do often in our lives. When we put that alongside the security that comes from being able to tie our identity to ourselves in a modern world, we can recognise the benefits. Also, as I pointed out to the House either at the previous Home Office questions or the one before, the idea that there are large sums of money to be saved by doing away with the scheme is completely fallacious. Anyone who suggests that will have a black hole not only in their plans for security but in their financial plans.
With every month that passes, it becomes clearer that the ID card scheme will never be introduced, yet, as the Home Secretary has just said, at last month’s Home Office questions she was determined to tell us about the new contracts that she had signed to create the system. There are billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money at stake, so will she pledge today to publish the details of those contracts and the break clauses in them, to remove any suspicion that she is trying to tie the hands of her successors and land the British taxpayer with a huge and unnecessary bill for a discredited policy?
I made clear and announced to the House the costs of breaking those contracts. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not proposing that I put commercially confidential information into the public domain—leak it, perhaps? We have been completely clear that, of the total cost of implementing ID cards, approximately 70 per cent. would need to be spent in any event, just to implement secure biometric passports. I presume that Opposition Members are not turning their backs on what every other Schengen country is going to do: put fingerprints into secure biometric passports. The operational costs of issuing ID cards in addition to that will be recovered largely from fees, so, as I said earlier, the Opposition’s suggestion that there is a large amount of money to be saved by scrapping the ID card scheme suggests that there is a black hole not only in their plans but in their finances.
Crime (Public Transport)
The Government fund schemes such as the secure stations scheme to reduce crime at transport hubs, with extra CCTV cameras, better lighting, and customer help and information points.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Last October, a 21-year-old woman was assaulted, robbed and raped at Kirkgate train station by a Romanian national, Ali Majlat, who has been given an indeterminate sentence and will serve a minimum of five years. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give my constituents that this evil man will be deported as soon as he leaves prison, with no leave to return? Will my hon. Friend also please knock some heads together at Northern Rail and Network Rail, to ensure that we get a live CCTV monitoring system so that the British Transport police can monitor what is going on at Kirkgate station?
This was a grave and hideous crime, and my sympathies go to the victim. As my hon. Friend says, the perpetrator is in prison—and I think most people would expect him to serve his sentence in full and then be considered for deportation, which is exactly what is happening. On my hon. Friend’s other points, I would be happy to meet her to see what else can be done.
Although the Government gave a very reassuring answer to the original question, does the Minister agree that many railways stations and even bus stations are unmanned at night and that in many cases those stations are very dark—almost like a morgue—and that there is a huge backlog of expenditure required to install the CCTV cameras and lighting that would make those stations much safer, particularly for the young and the elderly who are frightened to use public transport at night?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter on behalf of his constituents. Policing at stations and, indeed, station security is, of course, the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Transport, but I would be quite happy to raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with my colleagues.
The safer transport team based at Walthamstow Central bus and tube station has had a really good effect on bringing down crime levels in the area, but one issue that does not help to persuade people that this is actually happening is the diversion created in people’s minds by the use of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2006 to stop and search people who have been taking photographs in and around the bus station. Will the Minister look at how that law is operating? We recently had a ludicrous incident when an Austrian tourist who was taking photographs of buses was stopped and searched. That does not help.
We all know that if police officers spend more time on the beat, crime will be cut. Four years ago, the Home Office told us that police officers spent only 19 per cent. of their time on the beat. Can the Minister tell us today what the latest figure is?
What we need to be measuring is the length of time that police officers spend on front-line duties, not simply “on the beat”. The hon. Gentleman is aware that if police are literally on the beat, they are obviously not involved in front-line policing. As soon as officers undertake some policing, it means they are carrying out front-line duties, which is subject to a different measurement altogether. The figures have been rising in that respect. What we need to do is not just have police officers with more time for front-line police services, but guarantee the number of those officers. Given the funding commitments—or lack of them—from the Conservative party, I am not sure whether police officers will be there to spend time on whatever duties.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre’s “Strategic Threat Assessment” published last month, is the most recent study into child trafficking. It found that 325 children were identified as potential victims of trafficking or exploitation from data supplied covering the period 1 March 2007 to 29 February 2008.
I am grateful for that reply, but the Minister will have seen the report from the Home Affairs Committee last week, which painted a grim picture of a growing modern slave industry here within the UK, where abused children are some of the principal victims. What practical steps is he, along with other ministerial colleagues, taking to ensure that all relevant agencies coming into contact with trafficked children are aware of the issues, to end the culture of disbelief that unquestionably still exists among some professionals, and, most of all, to put a stop to our care homes effectively becoming holding pens for trafficked children?
We are concerned about children who are suspected of being trafficked, particularly if they go missing from care. The national referral mechanism is an important part of identifying those who may be victims of child trafficking. The young runaways plan brings together, across government, partners that are important in that process. The hon. Gentleman mentions local authorities; there will be increased guidance to them. They, at the end of the day, are responsible for children in such situations.
The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) is absolutely right to raise the issue of care homes. Last week, The Guardian reported that 77 trafficked Chinese children went missing from a home in Hillingdon, and hundreds more have gone missing in the past 10 years. I am grateful to the Home Secretary for coming to the Select Committee seminar last week, but will the Minister tell the House when she will be in a position to report back to the Prime Minister, who has asked her for an urgent report on the situation in care homes? Does the Minister not agree that the way to stop children being trafficked is to bring together the origin, destination and transition countries and put our faith in organisations such as Europol, which exist to try to stop this horrible practice continuing?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right, and I pay tribute to the work of his Committee and to the important opportunity offered by last week’s seminar, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary attended. There was an important sharing of views on these matters. He asks when the Home Secretary, and indeed the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, will report back to the Prime Minister. I believe that that will happen shortly—within the next few weeks.
Are the Government aware that they may be on the wrong point, as most children are trafficked from China and Vietnam? That being the case, should not the asylum-seeking provision be lifted for those children, because what we need for all Chinese and Vietnamese children is special screening by the border and immigration services—otherwise, children will always go missing from care homes?
May I first place on record our appreciation of the hon. Gentleman’s efforts? Few in the House have done more to achieve progress on this matter and I pay tribute to him. That screening, I am advised, is in place, but it is important that we have the closest scrutiny, particularly of the groups that he refers to. That is why it is important that we work in those countries to stop the flow of those people. We must also work hard here: it is not always easy to identify the age of a trafficked child, so we must have the mechanisms in place to proceed to identify exactly who the individuals are.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, were we to reintroduce the recording of embarkation details—I think we are going to do it—that would help enormously in stopping the trafficking of children, because we would know whether a person had travelled out alone and returned accompanied by five or six children?
In performing that role as part of neighbourhood policing teams, PCSOs offer valuable support to their community beat managers. The PCSO review, published in 2008, and the policing Green Paper were both broadly supportive of the PCSO role. In addition, the 2006 evaluation of PCSOs found that they had a key role to play in neighbourhood policing, and their provision of reassurance and visibility was welcomed by local communities.
We of course understand the fact that there is a real difference between PCSOs and full-time warranted police officers, and we want to maintain that distinction, but my hon. Friend is also right to point out that PCSOs—integrated particularly in neighbourhood policing teams, working side by side with warranted police officers, specials and, indeed, neighbourhood wardens—make a huge contribution to keeping communities safe and reassuring people out and about in different communities.
We will be retaining samples for a maximum of six months, after which time they will be destroyed whether the person is convicted or not. On DNA profiles, the public consultation paper “Keeping the Right People on the DNA database”, published on 7 May 2009, sets out our proposals and the thinking behind them. Our approach is supported by evidence on the propensity to offend, which indicates that there is a span of four to 15 years within which retention periods can be justified.
Our key consideration is implementing the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of S and Marper in a way that balances the need to protect the public with the need to safeguard the rights of the individual.
Will the Minister not act to remove immediately from the DNA database those who have been falsely accused? I draw to his attention the case of my 50-year-old constituent who challenged a group of unruly youths and faced false accusations. His DNA is now stuck on that database for ever. Can the Minister not assure the House that those falsely accused will be taken off the DNA database and the Court’s ruling complied with immediately?
I do not know the particular case that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but of course people can appeal to a chief constable to be taken off the DNA database, and indeed new guidance will be prepared to try to ensure that people in certain situations, perhaps such as the situation that he refers to, will be able to get their DNA taken off the database.
The Government continue to make progress against the threat that drugs pose to communities and families. Since publishing the drug strategy in February last year, we have made record numbers of drug seizures in England and Wales, we have seized more of the cash and assets of criminals and we have helped more people than ever before to access drug treatment. We have seen overall drug use fall to its lowest level since British crime survey measurements started, and we have seen drug-related crime fall, but we will continue to build on that progress and respond to emerging threats. That is why I will be launching a public consultation on the control of GBL later this month. As tragically shown by the recent death of Hester Stewart, controls are necessary to prevent the use of such precursor chemicals, and we will work to determine the best controls of that substance.
The Home Secretary goes on about her drugs policy at length, but is she aware of the damning indictment of it by the Centre for Policy Studies? It said:
“Labour’s War on Drugs has not, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, been fought. It has been a Phoney War—and an expensive failure.”
When will the Government adopt the Conservative party’s proposals, and stop managing addiction and instead focus on its root causes?
There are many inaccuracies in the report that the hon. Gentleman refers to. Overall, drug use is at its lowest level since measurements through the BCS began. As I said, we have seized more cash and assets in the past year than ever before. We made a record 216,792 drug seizures in England and Wales in the past year, and the Serious Organised Crime Agency seized more than 90 tonnes of class A drugs. We have seen the wholesale price of cocaine rise as a result of the impact of its work. We have got more support and treatment to young people than ever before and helped more people to access drug treatment, with more than 200,000 people now able to do so. We have also introduced well regarded campaigns to tackle drug use, and we are considering how to reform drugs education in our schools. That is a comprehensive list of progress.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and repeat the assurance that we gave the House on 29 April that we are working on new proposals. I am grateful to the Home Affairs Committee, of which my hon. Friend is a member, for its facilitation of that discussion.
On the British National party, all of us in the House would recognise that the increased scrutiny of that party is now exposing the true nature of its policies. I imagine that we would all wish to condemn wholeheartedly its policy of instructing its members not to describe people as being “black British” or “British Asian”, and its comments regarding the footballers Ferdinand, Walcott and James as not being English,
The hon. Gentleman’s question gives me another opportunity to put on record the Government’s categorical statement that we will not retain samples, which are genetic material, for longer than six months. As for profiles, to which I think he is referring, we know that keeping the profiles of those who have been arrested will enable us to solve crimes in the future. That is a proportionate approach.
If the hon. Gentleman reads what was actually said in the European Court judgment, he will find that the objection was to the indiscriminate, blanket nature of our policy, and that keeping DNA from those who had been arrested was not considered necessarily to be wrong.
My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the balance between the rights of the individual and the protection of the community. The Home Office is examining the way in which we manage CCTV systems throughout the country, and also the possibility of establishing a national CCTV board.
According to a recent report from the Campbell Collaboration crime and justice group, CCTV has
“a modest but significant desirable impact on crime”.
The report says that it is most effective in reducing crime in car parks and targeting vehicle crime, and that it is more effective in reducing crime in the United Kingdom than in other countries. I think that that is an endorsement of CCTV, but we must of course consider the impact on the privacy of the individual as well.
It is officers such as PC Steve Hobson who—particularly through neighbourhood policing teams—are helping communities all over the country to feel more confident and helping to make crime fall, and it is the actions of this Government that have ensured that there are 14,000 more police constables like Steve Hobson across the country now. Our difficulty is that Conservative Members have steadfastly refused to commit themselves to safeguarding those numbers.
We all understand that we need the strictest possible border controls to deal with immigration, but can my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration offer any reassurance to a constituent of mine who holds dual nationality that if she leaves this country using her New Zealand passport she will not encounter any difficulties, or any threat of deportation, when trying to return here using her British passport?
I can do my best to give that reassurance. Certainly no aspect of policy should produce a problem. However, I am sure that if there is a problem, my hon. Friend, as a hard-working Member of Parliament, will be on the phone to me immediately. Her question also gives me an opportunity to reassure her about the merits of the border control policy, including the electronic borders that now count people in and out of our country, and I ask all Members to support us in that endeavour.
I believe that we need to do both. That is why we have taken action, not least internationally through the Serious Organised Crime Agency and with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to tackle the import of guns, and why we are working with the National Ballistics Intelligence Service—NABIS—and its database in order to be able to track guns and where they come from more clearly. It is also why we will take action against deactivated firearms and why we have had a 16 per cent. fall in gun crime over the last year.
Why is the Home Office still proposing to retain the DNA profiles of innocent people for six years? Is the Secretary of State aware of correspondence that I and many others have sent to the Department about entirely innocent people who have been not only not convicted, but not even charged with any offence, and who believe that the march of the state and the surveillance society must be stopped, and that this is a very good place to start?
As I said to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), the European Court judgment actually said that the indiscriminate blanket nature of the retention of DNA was the issue and that that meant we were in breach of our human rights obligations. It did not say that we should not keep any DNA on arrest. As a result of the consultation we brought forward last week the Government have given a proportionate response to the judgment of the courts as we try to balance retaining DNA with our ability to solve crime. We have all seen that the retention on the DNA database of the DNA of those arrested but not convicted has led to a large number of crimes being solved that otherwise would have remained unsolved, including rapes and murders. That is something the right hon. Gentleman must also consider.
Further to the earlier question from the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) about police community support officers, what is the Government’s policy on Neighbourhood Watch? Does it have a role to play in the fight against crime, and if so, what support are the Government giving it?
Neighbourhood Watch has a fundamental role to play alongside the neighbourhood policing teams that are now in every community in this country. That is why we are investing an extra £1 million to help Neighbourhood Watch maintain that important role, alongside that performed by increased numbers of police officers and of PCSOs.
The Secretary of State will know that the vast majority of police officers and PCSOs in the West Mercia police area, and also those covering Shropshire, are hard-working and dedicated. Will she therefore give a commitment to the House today that there will be no cuts in front-line officers in the next financial year?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the police officers in West Mercia do a very good job, which is why crime has come down in his area and in mine. I have given a commitment to maintain our increased funding for the police grant, which will enable us at least to maintain police numbers. Unfortunately, the shadow Home Secretary has refused to give me a commitment that his spending plans, which would have reduced spending to the equivalent of about 3,500 police officers this year, would not be instituted. I can give a commitment to maintain police funding; the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues cannot.
The Home Secretary refers to police numbers, but it is no good having policemen if they are not out on the beat. Why is it that under her Government the amount of time the police spend on the beat is falling? In my county it is down to 10 per cent.
Not only do we have more police officers and a funding commitment that the hon. Gentleman’s party has signally failed to match, but, through cutting bureaucracy and providing handheld computers, we have more police officers and more PCSOs with more time to spend on their duties, which is why we continue to see crime in this country falling.
May I thank the Government for their action over the past 10 years on Gurkhas’ resettlement rights, while encouraging them to ensure that their new proposals are much more generous and give the necessary concessions? Will those proposals be implemented in time for us to celebrate them during the armed forces celebration day on 27 June?
The hon. Gentleman, like the rest of the House, will have to be patient. As I said on 29 April and as has been said in evidence to the Select Committee, we are putting in place new proposals to move towards the point that was made by the House in that debate, and I am optimistic.
I would like to make a statement on Members’ allowances. We all know that it is the tradition of this House that the Speaker speaks to the whole House, but in doing so please allow me to say to the men and women of the United Kingdom that we have let you down very badly indeed. We must all accept blame and, to the extent that I have contributed to the situation, I am profoundly sorry. Now, each and every Member, including myself, must work hard to regain your trust.
As a matter of urgency, and within 48 hours, I am calling the Prime Minister and party leaders, including those of the minority parties, to meet me and the other members of the House of Commons Commission. Also present will be the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig).
Leaders of all parties have made announcements on what should be done. Some of their proposals are very similar to those put to the House on 3 July last year by the Members Estimate Committee—which I chair—copies of which are lodged in the Vote Office. I want discussion to centre on the additional costs allowance and all those matters that have caused the greatest controversy and most anger with the public, and I include in that the early publication of the additional costs allowance, office costs and travel material.
While we await the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we must search for agreement, so that the Leader of the House can bring forward resolutions to give an opportunity for the House to deal with the immediate situation. In the meantime, I do urge all hon. Members not to submit claims for approval. Last week, I had a most productive meeting with Sir Christopher Kelly, who explained to me his hopes to bring forward reasoned proposals in the autumn. While we await the outcome of his work, it is imperative that we continue to improve our accounts and practice in the interim, and get in place measures that work and are seen to be working. I say again that we all bear a heavy responsibility for the terrible damage to the reputation of this House. We must do everything we possibly can to regain the trust and confidence of the people.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will be aware, Members on both sides of the House have now tabled a substantive motion calling for a vote of no confidence in you. When will Members be allowed to choose a new Speaker with the moral authority to clean up Westminster and the legitimacy to lift this House out of the mire?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken—[Interruption.] I will answer. I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken advice, but it is not a substantive motion. It is an early-day motion—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is telling me that it is not. Please give me credit for having some experience in the Chair. It is not a substantive motion; it is an early-day motion. The hon. Gentleman knows—
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is, as you say, great public anger outside that undoubtedly has harmed the reputation of this House. We all bear responsibility; I take my share of the responsibility, like any other hon. Member. I am not associated with the motion, Sir, but will you bear in mind that it would be very useful for the reputation of this House—I say this with reluctance, but I say it all the same—if you gave some indication of your own intention to retire? Your early retirement would help the reputation of the House.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have a great deal of personal sympathy for the impossible situation in which you find yourself. I have to say that the statement you have made would have been extremely welcome had it been made a few weeks or months ago, but I have very grave doubts, given the appalling situation in which we find ourselves—this midden of the House’s own making—that any action taken by Members of this House will restore the trust that we need. Is it not therefore necessary, and can you assist us in this, Mr. Speaker, for this House to resolve to accept unequivocally the results of Sir Christopher Kelly’s decisions—
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What I was asking was that the House be given an opportunity to resolve to accept the recommendations of that independent committee, to resolve to remove the remaining barriers to transparency so that everything can be revealed as soon as possible, and to accept that those right hon. and hon. Members who put us into this position by resisting reform cannot possibly be the right people to lead us out of the mire.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that until resolutions are put forward—I hope that they come forward in the meeting that I have proposed—for which the Leader of the House will have responsibility, and only then, will the House be able to proceed. He mentioned transparency, and, yes, as I have stated, I have heard leaders of the parties and others talk about many issues, some of which were brought up on 3 July by the Committee that I chair. What I can say about that point is that anything about transparency can be on the agenda at the meeting that will take place within 48 hours and can hopefully be translated into a resolution that this House can consider.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The times that we are living in are unprecedented, as far as Parliament is concerned. What is at stake is the institution of Parliament and its integrity. May I just say that I very much hope that you will take account of the fact that profound concern is voiced in the motion that is to go down tomorrow? May I ask you to bear in mind that the condition of the House today is rather like the condition of the country at the time of the Norway debate, and could you reflect on that?
At the meeting that you, Mr. Speaker, will convene within 48 hours, will you ask Sir Christopher Kelly what resources he would need to bring his report forward from the autumn, because that date seems wholly unacceptable? If it is a question of resources, they should be made available to enable him to do the work, certainly so speedily that it is done one month from now. I urge you to discuss that with the party leaders and the House of Commons Commission.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The reputation and standing of the House, in the views of those who send us here, are at the lowest point that I can ever remember. This is a constitutional crisis, and we now have to hear a statement about the future. Many out there will not believe that we are serious about the changes that are necessary as long as you are in the Chair. That is the terrible situation that we are in. I feel the greatest sadness that I have even had to raise this point. There is a motion on the Order Paper, and it should be debated, and the Government should acknowledge that it will be debated.
What the hon. Gentleman is doing, through a point of order, is debating the matter. [Interruption.] Order. He has a point of view, and I do not deny him that right, but he knows the rules of the House. That is not a debate that he can enter into through a point of order.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The majority in this House will fully support the statement that you made today. The majority in the House will fully accept that there has never been, in the history of our land, such an attack on the Speaker of the House of Commons. There has never been such an attack on the chairmanship and speakership of this House. Are not the steps that you are taking, with the steps that Sir Christopher Kelly is taking, the steps that the Prime Minister has asked for and the review of four years of our expenses, all designed to restore public confidence and public trust? Should not the House calm itself down, have a period of reflection, and support you, as the Speaker is entitled to be supported?
All I say to the hon. Gentleman is that the House of Commons Commission, which this House created—[Interruption.] Order. As far as I know, the Commission was created under statute. The House of Commons Commission has a responsibility. The party leaders—all of them, including the leaders of the minority parties—have a responsibility. What I am saying is: let all the parties involved meet and discuss the matter. That has never happened. What has happened is that one party has said one thing, the Prime Minister has said another, and the Liberal party another. Other individual Members have had a point of view, too. For the first time, people will be under the one roof, talking about this matter.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is a sad day for all of us. The point that you made earlier is, I am sure, absolutely right: the motion is an early-day motion, not a substantive motion. Is it within the power of a Back Bencher to put down a substantive motion, and if so, how?
Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. The whole House must welcome your statement today, so thank you.
Sir, in view of the Whit recess next week, will you be able to come to the House and make a further statement following your meeting with the party leaders? Following that statement, may we have a debate, so that I can make it plain that my constituents, like most people’s constituents, do not want to see you made a scapegoat for the actions of these Members?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask for your guidance as to whether there is anything in your power to guide the Government to provide us with an Opposition day debate in which this matter, which most of the House wishes to debate, could be introduced as a substantive motion?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. First, may I say that I welcome the opportunity not just for the main parties in the House but for the minority parties to have a discussion on the issue with you and to make recommendations? I believe, as other Members have said, that the very reputation not just of the House but of the future of good governance in the United Kingdom is at stake. May I ask, Mr. Speaker, whether you can give us an assurance that, after those discussions, a report will quickly be given to the House as to their outcome so that the matter can be put behind us and settled?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) have confessed to claiming fraudulently tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money for phantom mortgage claims.—[Interruption.]
Order. Please—[Interruption.] Order. We have to be careful about what we say. There are things that I could have said from the Chair expressing anger about certain things, but I had to be careful. I must ask hon. Members to do so, too. I caution the hon. Gentleman, not for my sake, but for his sake: he should not say this. In fact, I have to stop him saying it, and I give him good advice.
[11th Allotted Day]
Skills in the Recession
I beg to move,
That this House regrets the Government’s failure to deliver the skills training and education needed if the economy is to emerge stronger from the recession; condemns the incompetent management of further education colleges’ capital projects; is concerned that the percentage of young people not in education, employment or training has risen significantly since the start of the decade; notes the concerns of training providers that funding allocations for 2009-10 will not support current apprentices to the end of their training; is disappointed that an estimated 1.4 million adult learning places have been lost since 2005; and urges the Government to set out, in consultation with the Association of Colleges, clear criteria for the prioritisation of funding for college building projects, to provide support for more Masters degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects during the downturn, to fund learners over the age of 25 in level 3 STEM skills and to help apprentices at risk of losing their places to find new employers or new training places.
Our motion is about the economic crisis facing our country, but I sense that it is not the House’s preoccupation at this very moment. However, the situation that we are in is perilous, because we face serious economic difficulties, which is the subject that we are debating, at a time when the country has clearly lost confidence in us as the House of Commons. We have to reflect on the seriousness of the constitutional challenges that we face, as well as the economic challenges. It is the combination of the two that makes our situation so serious.
The seriousness of the economic situation was brought home to us by last week’s unemployment figures, which showed an increase of 250,000 in three months—the fastest quarterly increase on record, taking unemployment to the level it was when Labour came to office in 1997. The Opposition’s fear is that young people in particular will be the victims of the recession, one estimate being that if, tragically, unemployment were to rise to 3 million, more than 1.25 million of those unemployed people would be aged under 25.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend had an opportunity to see the recent statement by the Association of Learning Providers, pointing out how excellent the community programme under the Conservatives in the 1980s was, and saying that something similar, coupled with apprenticeships, could be a way of ensuring that apprentices do not lose their education and skills because they are thrown out of work. Will he look at that idea?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is certainly an idea that needs to be considered.
Although the recession has increased unemployment already, it is worth remembering that even in the boom years when the economy was growing, we were suffering from an increase in the rate of youth unemployment. The rate of unemployment among people aged 16 to 24 grew from 13.4 per cent. in 1997 to 14.4 per cent. in 2007, so even in the good times before the recession hit we were already going backwards and losing ground, compared with other OECD countries.
The hon. Gentleman is very generous with his time. I agree that skills are important, not only for young people but for everyone. Does he share my belief that we should be investing in skills and keeping people in employment through the short-time working subsidy, rather than allowing them to go to the jobcentre and trying to reskill them there? Would we not be better off investing in employment through the short-time working subsidy?
That is an interesting idea that is worth considering. Indeed, that is something else—going back to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald)—that we introduced in the early 1980s, when unemployment was high before.
I have an unresolved concern about clause 84 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. My hon. Friend has at least two brains and probably an exemplary memory, so I trust he will recall that both on Second Reading of that Bill and at questions to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—that is to say, on two separate occasions—I raised my concern that clause 84 as it stands is overly prescriptive because it would preclude from participation in apprenticeship schemes people with special educational needs, who might be well suited to an apprenticeship but who do not have level 2 and level 3 qualifications. The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), and the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), said that that concern would be addressed. I hope that in the other place it will be.
For a terrible moment I thought my hon. Friend expected me to remember what was in that clause, without jogging my memory. I am grateful to him for reminding us. It is an issue about which he is rightly passionate, and he is correct. One of our concerns about the Government’s approach to skills is that they are so obsessed with funding only the production of paper qualifications that people who, for whatever reason, may not be capable of getting a national vocational qualification level 2 are often deprived of access to training under the Government’s new model.
I remember a conversation at, I think, Coventry college, with a young lady with learning difficulties who was doing a course in horticulture. Because that course would not get her to an NVQ level 2, it was no longer going to be provided because of the priorities that the Government had set for the Learning and Skills Council. It is very important that people who can benefit from learning and from the most basic training, even if it will not get them an NVQ level 2, continue to have access to training and apprenticeships. My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making just that point. It strikes me, as a former training and development manager, that the worst thing we can do is to be over-prescriptive on the process and outcomes from a distance. Does he agree that the best thing we can do is find a system that delivers high-quality training but allows training providers to provide what is needed to achieve the outcome we all want—namely, employment?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity. Further to his response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), will he have a word with the Conservative-run council in Wolverhampton, which has cut £640,000 from the adult education service budget over a two-year period? That is absolutely monstrous, because it cuts courses for the very people whose access to education and training the hon. Gentleman supports.
There have been savage reductions in adult education because of the priorities of the hon. Gentleman’s Government and the way in which the Learning and Skills Council allocates funding only to those courses that produce paper qualifications. If the hon. Gentleman cares so much about the subject, he should sign the early-day motion that I and my hon. Friends have tabled, supporting adult learning and asking the Government to change their approach so that the cuts of 1.5 million places in adult learning over the past few years are reversed.
Does my hon. Friend not think it a real cheek for the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) to talk that way when the LSC has said that the Hitchin campus of North Hertfordshire college cannot go ahead with the building project that it has been encouraged to put up? The hon. Gentleman tells us about cuts, but, goodness gracious, this Government have cut back hard. My constituents really use the facilities, and we in Hitchin need the building programme to go ahead.
When my hon. Friend turns to that horrific topic, will he make reference to Brockenhurst college in my constituency, which I think he knows a considerable amount about, and the terrible position it has been left in as a result of the LSC’s appalling mismanagement?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: I did indeed visit Brockenhurst college recently for a briefing on the problems that it faces. I hope to turn to that specific issue in a moment, but, first, I should like to make some progress, because I have a bone to pick with the Secretary of State.
I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention in a moment.
The bone that I have to pick concerns what is happening to the number of young people not in education, employment or training. On the Government’s own figures, which we obtained in a parliamentary answer, and which have been constructed in a consistent series only since 2000, the number of young people not in education, employment or training in 2000 was 630,000. In 2008, eight years later, the figure had increased shockingly to 860,000. When I released the Government’s figures, the Secretary of State responded by saying that there had been a “straightforward deception”. He added:
“What the Conservatives don’t take into account is that there are far more young people of that age group in our society than there were 10 years ago.”
He therefore says that, because there has been such a big increase in the number of young people, it is misleading to count the absolute figures. However, I invite him to make that point to the Prime Minister, who, when challenged in this Chamber on the number of NEETs, said:
“In 1997, 5.2 million 16 to-24-year-olds were in full-time education or employment. The figure is now 6.1 million.”—[Official Report, 22 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 229.]
If the Secretary of State believes that referring to absolute figures is a straightforward deception, I invite him to agree that the Prime Minister’s use of absolute figures in that answer in the House was clearly a straightforward deception. If the Secretary of State looks not simply at the absolute figures but at the proportions in respect of what is indeed a growing number of young people, he will find that in 2000—the base from which we have to take these statistics—12.3 per cent. of young people were NEETs, and that by 2008 that proportion had gone up to 14.2 per cent.
There has been an increase in both the absolute figure and the proportion of young people not in education, employment or training—and it happened even during the boom years. It is important that the Government recognise the scale of the problem over which they have presided and do not attempt to avoid the implications of the failure of their own policies.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has been extremely kind in allowing me to intervene again. He will not know of my personal interest in these matters, although some of his colleagues will, and I should say that at times I am not an uncritical friend of the Government. My point is meant constructively. I recruited and served youth training scheme trainees, youth opportunities programme, or YOP, trainees, community enterprise scheme trainees and community programme participants. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that in those days, his Government’s provisions were make-work programmes without technical and training content. Does he agree that the Government should spend more money, because training and skills are expensive? Would he spend more money on the training and skills element?
We have put forward practical proposals on how, in this very financial year, we could put in more money—particularly, for example, to help young people who need training in science, technology, engineering or maths, also known as the STEM subjects. However, we need a mix. We need work experience; it is better to be doing something than to be doing nothing. If we are to emerge from this recession with a stronger and better balanced economy, it is absolutely essential that we invest in training and skills. That is why the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is so important and why my hon. Friends and I have called this debate.
On a more positive note, I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in commending the innovative work of the Open university when it comes to reskilling young people. Does he share my concerns that that fine institution has not been well served by the Government in the past couple of years?
My hon. Friend is an eloquent advocate of the Open university, which I have enjoyed visiting with him. He is absolutely right: the Open university, which has an enormous role to play, has suffered from the Government’s reductions in funding through the notorious equivalent or lower qualification, or ELQ, cuts. To be doing that during a recession seems absolutely extraordinary.
I hope to do that a little later. For now, I just want to address the hon. Gentleman’s point about young people not in education, employment or training. It is not true that the Government did not make efforts to reduce the figures. My area of Barnsley has traditionally had a low take-up of post-16 education and training; last year, however, it managed to reduce its number of NEETs from about 15 to 8 per cent. thanks to the valiant efforts of the Connexions service and Government funding. If a constituency such as mine can do that, other areas obviously can. We managed to do it through Government funding and very hard work by our local Connexions service.
I completely agree that it is possible to reduce the number of NEETs. Indeed, I have visited some fantastic programmes, often run by social enterprises, that do just that. I remember going to one in Keighley, for example, that was clearly reducing the number of young people not in education, employment or training. However, as in the example of those with learning difficulties, I was told that when the programmes do not yield a level 2 or level 3 national vocational qualification rapidly enough, the LSC cuts back the funding. A lot of programmes help to get young NEETs doing something—motorbike repair or whatever. However, programmes that do not immediately get students a paper qualification of the type that the LSC is willing to fund are suffering. That is partly why the number of NEETs is going up—it has gone up in absolute terms and as a percentage of the number of young people—and why the Secretary of State’s attempt to escape the implications of those figures was so irresponsible.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Keighley, my constituency. I understand that he was recently there, but is he aware that Keighley now has a £35 million LSC-funded capital build programme due to be completed next year, and within budget? I look forward to that development, which will form part of Leeds City college, and I hope he will wish it well. We are heading in a new direction in Keighley, and I am very proud of what is going on.
I am pleased for the hon. Lady that that capital programme is going on in her area. There is a lively debate about the Leeds City college plan. I personally think it is important that the merger mania in further education does not go too far. I am here to speak on behalf of the 144 colleges with capital projects that are not being funded in the same way as in her area.
As a fellow Hampshire MP, my hon. Friend may be aware of an organisation in my constituency called ITeC. It has a fantastic record of success—87 per cent. of its students, who are between the ages of 16 and 24, go forward to be placed in employment—yet it is facing significant cuts because of LSC funding problems. It is also facing the prospect of cutting up to 50 places before the end of July—the sorts of places that would help my constituents to get back into work. Would he care to comment on that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reason for this debate, and the point that we make in the motion, is that there is an enormous gap between the rhetoric from the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State, which is all about the importance of investing in skills in the recession, and the reality on the ground, which is the complete opposite of what they talk about in this Chamber. Further education colleges cannot secure the capital funding that they need to improve their provision, and many practical training courses are being cut because of the inability of DIUS and the LSC properly to manage their funding streams.
Undoubtedly the most serious crisis in skills provision is in the financing of further education capital projects. I would like—on behalf, I am sure, of Members on both sides of the House—to pay tribute to the work that colleges do. Many of us who visit colleges in our own constituencies and around the country realise that they are crucial in improving social mobility, providing practical training and giving people hope that they can emerge from this recession with more skills and better opportunities in life. I am sure that we all also appreciate the excellent work that the Association of Colleges does on behalf of colleges.
I will just make a tiny bit more progress, and then give way.
I have been visiting a range of colleges that are suffering from the capital funding crisis, and I have been shocked by what I have discovered. Last week, I was at Huntingdon college, where I was briefed at first hand about the problems that it faces. It clearly needs to move to a new site, which it has already secured. It is part of a regeneration project that now has a question mark over it.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend is mentioning the college in my constituency, which was grateful to him for visiting and taking the time to hear about what is going on there. He will have seen the state of its dilapidated 1960s buildings, where the staff are doing the best they can. Does he therefore understand why my constituents and staff at the college are appalled that they have lost out on £40 million that was promised for redevelopment at a time when we need to be investing in training, not taking money away?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, may I say that some of the interventions are now long enough to be mini-speeches? A large number of Members will be seeking to catch my eye, and this is a half-day debate. Although interventions are important, contribute to the debate and help the whole thing along, every one means that it is less likely that an hon. Member will have the opportunity to make his speech.
My speech is being cut even more rapidly than the FE capital programme.
I accept the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) makes—I have listed other colleges, which have a similar story to tell. One example is Brockenhurst—my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is in his place—to which a clear commitment was made to provide new training opportunities. Colleges have often been encouraged to bid and then told, “Ah, you’re only bidding for £20 million—that’s pathetic. Have you thought of bidding for £50 million or £60 million?” They have been actively encouraged to do that. Even when the original idea was for refurbishment or a modest set of improvements, they were told, “No, knock the whole thing down and go for a grandiose capital project.” Having had their hopes raised by the LSC, the Department and Ministers, they now find those hopes dashed. That is a cruel trick to play on a crucial part of training and skills in our country.
The hon. Gentleman has said several times in the House and outside that Ministers have encouraged colleges to submit inflated or over-grand bids. Will he give me just one example of a Minister going to a college and asking it to withdraw its bid and submit a new one? If he cannot, I would be grateful if he stopped making that allegation.
I shall deal with the Secretary of State’s responsibility in a moment. He has to accept some responsibility for the LSC’s actions. As with his denial of the figures for NEETs, it is not good enough for him to try to escape responsibility for the policy, when he must have known what was going on. If he intends to tell us that, for the past 18 months, when the LSC was telling colleges to bid for more capital, he knew nothing about it, he is admitting to incompetence and failure to discharge his responsibility as Secretary of State.
South Thames college, which is just outside my constituency and used by many of my constituents, received the other piece of bad advice that colleges got. It had an ambitious project and was advised to submit it in two halves. It got funding for the first half, but funding for the second has been put on hold, so it is stuck with a half done project that is no use to anyone.
My hon. Friend is right. Some colleges have already started demolishing part of their fabric, and lessons are taking place in temporary classrooms as they wait for permission for a capital project. In other colleges, the new project was to be part of the wider regeneration of an area. Many serious problems face at least 144 colleges.
I want to ask the Secretary of State some specific questions on behalf of many of those colleges about what is going on. My first question follows from his intervention. Why did it take so long for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, for which he is responsible, to realise what was happening?
We know from Sir Andrew Foster’s excellent report that alarm bells were sounding as early as February 2008, when the LSC’s director of property and infrastructure prepared a report. Its analysis of the capital promises being made concluded:
“This simply proves that the continuation of the current payment profile of projects is unaffordable to the Council.”
We know that that report from February 2008 was discussed by the LSC’s capital policy group in April 2008. We also know from Sir Andrew Foster’s report that the Department attended all the meetings of these groups at a senior level as an observer. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State said, and I accept his word, that he knew about the problems with the capital funding of FE only in November 2008.
How on earth can we have a Department in which senior officials are aware from April, possibly February, that they have an unaffordable set of capital commitments—we know from the minutes, which I obtained through freedom of information requests, that members of the Department’s top management team attended the meetings—and the Secretary of State seems to have been kept in ignorance for six months? That is an extraordinary way to run a Department.
The hon. Gentleman’s litany of concern for colleges would have rather more force if the Government whom he supported in the 1990s had done anything about their funding. Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that his position is greatly undermined by the fact that last year the National Audit Office pointed out the appalling lack of investment from his Government before 1997?
The one thing that colleges all say is that when they were funded by the Further Education Funding Council they were trusted to exercise discretion, which meant that they could tackle local problems such as NEETs without being funded by the Learning and Skills Council simply to produce paper qualifications. Colleges look back upon that freedom to run their own affairs very fondly indeed, and we are committed to restoring it to them. The best way to ensure efficiency and high performance from colleges is to give them the freedom to run their own affairs, and that is what we are committed to doing.
I want to pursue the important question of exactly why it took almost a year, from the first report by the Learning and Skills Council, in February 2008, for the Secretary of State to make his first public comment on the matter, which he did in late January 2009. Indeed, even now we are still waiting for him to come to the House to make a proper oral statement about what is happening to college funding. It is now 15 months since the problem was first identified. When he last made a written statement to the House, he said:
“I will make a further statement to the House after the recess”.—[Official Report, 1 April 2009; Vol. 490, c. 72WS.]
We have already had that recess; in fact, we are about to have another one, and still there is no sign of the Secretary of State volunteering any information. At every stage, the information has had to be secured by us, making freedom of information requests, tabling written questions and calling debates. It is a pity that at no point has he felt able to come to the House to volunteer information in Government time about what is happening to our colleges.
I am going to make some progress.
We know from Sir Andrew Foster’s excellent report why the problem built up in the way that it did. Sir Andrew gave one reason why the information was not percolating through to the Secretary of State:
“I am left with a distinct feeling that bad news was itself bad news, too difficult to handle; yet this is exactly what management has to do.”
People were not willing to bring to the Secretary of State the bad news about what was happening in the Learning and Skills Council and in further education capital projects. I regard that as a serious dereliction of duty.