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Westminster Hall

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2009

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 20 May 2009

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Elderly Patients (Bed Allocation)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Blizzard.)

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the provision of primary care trust beds and the criteria relating to that. I am also delighted to appear under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook; you take a keen interest in these matters, so it is particularly appropriate that you are here today. I also welcome my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O’Brien), the Minister and other hon. Members.

I have had a number of constituency cases concerning elderly and end-of-life care, but a recent personal interest has cast a different light on the subject. Some 1.3 million people are employed by the NHS, and I recognise the excellent care provided by staff, not just in Vale of York, but across the country. They deserve praise and recognition at every turn. Their level of care, commitment and dedication is outstanding; they are the true angels of the health service. Having said that, however, not all is well. Considerable changes have been brought in since 1997: the number of hospital beds has fallen; the role of community hospitals has been revised; and there is confusion about who is responsible for each bed, for agreeing the criteria for their allocation and for deciding who occupies them and for how long.

I shall explain my reasons for seeking this debate. I was fortunate enough to have a question on the provision of elderly care beds answered by the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope). However, I had great difficulty understanding the purport of the response. It began:

“Primary care trusts work with local authority partners to commission high-quality care services from appropriate providers to meet local patient needs”.

However, it did not say who those providers are, so it would be helpful to hear today who is involved at each turn in securing that decision.

I then put it to that Minister that, in my view, PCTs have too much power and responsibility and that many of their members are not clinically qualified and yet are taking key decisions about a patient with a terminal illness, which can cause great distress to them, their family and their loved ones. He replied that the Government have

“an appropriate process for commissioning high-quality services locally. It is the responsibility of primary care trusts to undertake that function and, in the case of the care of elderly people, to do so, through beds in hospitals, beds in residential care and so on, in partnership with their local authorities.”—[Official Report, 12 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 675.]

I want to focus on that area.

I shall address not the least of the changes to which I referred earlier. Since 1997-98, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of hospital beds, from 138,000, in 1997-98, to 121,780, in 2007-08. If people are spending less time in hospital after an operation, it can be a good thing, but within those statistics is a sub-figure for geriatric beds, the number of which has fallen from 30,200 to 20,700. That rings alarm bells. I hope that the Minister here today will explain where those beds have gone.

The Government want more people to end their lives in their own homes, and North Yorkshire is no exception. I support that, but many local authorities are reducing the number of places in council-provided care homes, which removes an element of choice, especially for those who cannot remain in their own homes, because, perhaps, they lack support or live in a very rural area where the provision of care is challenging. Over the next five, 10 or 15 years, sufficient care home places will not be available.

The role of community hospital has been revised. I understand that one change came in 2000 and another—possibly—in 2006-08. When I was first elected, it was generally understood that someone who was very seriously ill and likely to deteriorate and enter the end-of-life stage could end their days, over a prolonged period, in a community hospital. That understanding is no longer there. The confusion over the past eight years over the changing role of community hospitals is causing an element of concern and distress. Will the Minister explain how community hospitals fit into that?

On continuing healthcare, it was also my understanding that, once assessed, a patient would remain on that assessment for a prolonged period. That changed in September 2008: following six weeks on continuing health care, that category is now reassessed. Who makes those assessments? I understand that there is an assessor from the PCT and a social worker, but it is not clear who has the final say in each case and who can appeal. I hope to return to that point.

There is a lack of transparency and a clear understanding about the criteria for the allocation by PCTs of beds for the elderly, especially when a patient moves from an acute to a community hospital and when trying to vacate places in the latter over the long term. The way in which the criteria are applied is causing anxiety for patients and distress for families. This month, the Public Accounts Committee, dealing with terminally ill patients, reported:

“People who die in hospital are not always afforded the end of life care they deserve”.

It also concluded that patients are not always treated with “dignity” and “respect”. Patients sometimes have difficulty eating and drinking, which I found hurtful in my own experience. When a close member of the family makes themselves available to hydrate and feed the patient, that needs to be handled very sensitively. Those with such difficulties need particular care, and surely it is in the interests of the Government, the health service and the wider community that family members be encouraged to assist the patient in eating and drinking—hydrating and taking the right nutrition.

Over the past 10 years, the Government have engaged in various reorganisations of health care, but, somewhere along the line, have lost sight of the plight of elderly patients, in the view of the PAC. Clearly, this problem will not go away, but will increase, given that we are all living longer, owing to improved health care and scientific and medical advances, which obviously we all welcome. However, as part of the Government’s approach of meddling, the criteria for caring for the elderly in community hospitals have changed. I am finding it very difficult to get to the bottom of that change, and I would be very grateful if the Minister were to elaborate .

In addition to wanting to understand the process, both retrospectively and for the future, is the thrust of my hon. Friend’s anxiety that, in the absence of knowing who ultimately takes a decision, there is no sense of accountability or, indeed, opportunity to negotiate or review a decision, when it does not appear to have been taken on primarily clinical grounds?

There is a problem with both accountability and transparency. We need to know what the criteria are, who takes the decision and what the appeal mechanism is. A second concern is that decisions should be taken primarily on clinical need. I will elaborate on what I think about continuing health care assessment and why it is flawed. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the system seems to be driven on a cost-efficiency basis. I do not think that we can put a price on health care. Someone who has had a good life and lived to a good age deserves to be given by the health service and the community both dignity and a “good death”. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to elaborate on those three points.

Let me expand on the continuing health care assessment, which is the nub of the problem. In my mother’s case, 12 boxes had to be filled in. Even to a lay person, it was evident that she ticked a sufficient number of boxes, yet she was deemed to have failed the assessment. That obviously caused distress, but as I am capable of standing up for myself, I was able to argue our corner. However, that is not the case for a constituent of mine—I will not disclose her name, because I do not have permission—about whom I have been corresponding with the Department. The health care assessment form that she had to fill in ran to 23 boxes—23 different criteria that had to be met, many of which were obscure and opaque. It is very difficult for a lay person, particularly someone who is a close relative of the patient, to understand the assessment system. If someone is unable to eat, drink, take their medication and is in danger of falling, I would have thought that their condition was so transparent that they would tick all the boxes for continuing health care assessment. It is bewildering for a patient to have to tick 23 boxes for a primary care trust. Often, the options are not sufficiently well explained to the patient. If the case involves an elderly relative, the family need to understand the system to be able to explain it. If the patient is registered blind, profoundly deaf or is not able to read the form themselves, relatives will not make much progress in explaining to them the purport and the importance of the assessment.

Will the Minister explain who sets the criteria, who owns or has responsibility for the beds, and who, in each case, delivers the health care? Obviously, part of that is evident in the location of the bed—whether it is in an acute hospital, a community hospital or another place. Moreover, will the Minister explain who supervises the delivery of the treatment under the continuing health care assessment and does he think that supervision is adequate? I fear that there is evidence of systemic failure in the way in which the criteria of continuing health care assessment are defined. Where does one find the definition? Having seen two or three assessments from different primary care trusts, I understand that there is some fluidity in interpretation.

Community hospitals provide an excellent service. I am fortunate to have two in my constituency—Lambert hospital in Thirsk and St. Monica’s hospital in Easingwold—which provide excellent services close to the homes of local people. Many of the staff live locally and are well integrated in the community. Families, friends and loved ones are easily able to visit the hospitals and the patient can remain close to their own home in fairly familiar surroundings.

My understanding is that there have been significant changes to the role of community hospitals for patients over a six-week period—that arbitrary criterion seems to have been introduced in the past eight or nine years. I want to know why the changes have occurred, highlight the difficulties created by the new criteria and draw attention to the unfortunate results that they are producing locally in the care for the elderly.

It is true that funding for the NHS has risen consistently under both Labour and Conservative Governments since it was founded in 1948. Yet, while the Government have nearly doubled spending over the past few years, the number of beds has reduced overall. In particular, the number of beds available for the elderly has reduced by a larger proportion than any other beds. It looks as though money is being spent on management, bureaucracy, form-filling and pointless and endless reorganisations. We now have strategic health authorities. We had a primary care trust for the whole county—York and North Yorkshire—then four separate PCTs and now we have just one to cover the whole county. I am referring only to the PCTs. If we consider the ambulance service as well, we will see that the number of reorganisations throughout the NHS is bewildering. Surely it is the Government’s hope to ease the distress of elderly patients and restore their dignity by drawing attention to such issues.

In the time that I have been preparing for this debate—I am sure that the Minister is aware of this—the Public Accounts Committee has published a report on end-of-life care. Paragraph 2 is striking:

“People who die in hospital are not always afforded the end of life care they deserve, including effective pain management and being treated with dignity and respect.”

The report goes on to say that when

“someone is approaching the end of life it should not mean we abandon concern for their quality of life”.

Paragraph 3 states:

“Lack of co-ordination between health and social care services mean that peoples’ preferences for care are not always communicated effectively.”

That confirms the thrust of my earlier remarks. The report continues:

“People nearing the end of their life should be allocated a single health or social care professional contact to improve the co-ordination of care between services and providers.”

I know that it is the intention of the Government and the NHS to have a welcoming nurse for the patient when they are admitted to hospital. In my experience, and in the experiences of my constituents, that is not happening. Often even simple things are not done properly. For example, handovers at the beginning and end of each round are not as full as they should be, particularly when all beds are occupied. When a patient is admitted to hospital and given a terminal diagnosis, the GP should be informed of their condition. When that patient is discharged, a package on the continuing health care assessment is then given to their GP, but for the weeks or months that a patient is in hospital, GPs are kept out of the picture.

It is also wrong that an individual should see seven doctors in as many weeks. Continuity of care should mean, as far as possible, that a patient has a dedicated nurse and doctor—unless the doctor is on holiday or otherwise absent. I take some comfort from the PAC report.

The fourth conclusion states:

“There is a lack of education and training in basic end of life care.”

That is staggering. In the body of the report—paragraph 14 —the PAC states:

“A survey of doctors and nurses carried out by the National Audit Office found that only 29% of doctors and 18% of nurses had received any pre-registration training in end of life care.”

It is perhaps a good moment to pause and say that I am heavily related to the medical profession: my father was a GP; my brother is a practising GP; my uncle was a consultant surgeon; and we had two or three pharmacists in the family as well—I was never going to go into medical practice, because I do not do very well with the sight of blood. I have always understood that a good bedside manner is important for medical practitioners, and I am sure that for previous generations end-of-life care training was a priority, so what has changed? Staggeringly, less than 30 per cent. of doctors and 20 per cent. of nurses receive any pre-registration training, and they are the people to whom families and patients look to guide them through what is the most traumatic stage of life.

The PAC report goes on to state:

“Primary Care Trusts have limited understanding of the local demand for and the cost-effectiveness of their commissioning of end of life care services. Trusts should use the commissioning guidance provided…and benchmarking information provided by the National Audit Office, to assist them in allocating resources more effectively.”

I am sure that the Minister will want to consider that in the context of my earlier remarks.

The report continues:

“There is a risk that the additional”

money that the Government have

“committed to improving end of life care will not be used as intended.”

How does the Minister expect PCTs to account for how the additional money will be spent and how will information be fed back to the trusts to allow them to benchmark their performance in improving service quality?

The report states:

“There has been limited formal evaluation of the patient benefits associated with approaches intended to improve end of life care such as the Gold Standards Framework. The Department should”—

urgently—

“commission clinical evaluations to determine whether use of such approaches results directly in higher quality care.”

Will the Minister take this opportunity to comment on that?

The report also states:

“Some 70% of independent hospices have only one year contracts with the NHS and for 97% the funding they receive does not cover fully the costs of the NHS services they provide.”

That we are so dependent on hospices, as voluntary organisations, to provide end-of-life care will set many alarm bells ringing.

The report concludes:

“More people could be supported to die in their homes or in a care home if there was a more responsive system for providing the equipment and support services needed.”

On that, I return to the continuing health care assessment. Will the Minister explain how rapidly the equipment can be put in someone’s home? How close are we to the provision of 24-hour care in the home and are there big differences between the level of care that can be provided by two adjoining PCTs, for example, between the North Yorkshire and York PCT and the County Durham PCT? The report states:

“The Department should review how requests for equipment and other assistance that support people to remain in their homes are handled, and identify ways of improving the speed and flexibility of the provision of such services.”

I welcome this opportunity to set out my concerns. I hope that the Minister realises that my constituent’s mother died in January, and that now, in May, she is still chasing the PCT, which does not cover my constituency. That situation has caused enormous human distress. I hope the Minister elaborates, so that I can go back and explain to my constituents how the continuing health care assessment works, who in the PCT is responsible for taking such decisions and what the appeal mechanism is. Will he satisfy me that when the PCT takes such decisions, it does so on the basis of clinical need, and that the matter should not be seen, as it currently is, as a tick-box exercise for those who are approaching their final days?

The most worrying thing that emerges from the debate is the lack of education and training of professionals in basic end-of-life care, and the fact that people who die in hospital are not always afforded the end-of-life care, dignity and respect, effective management, hydration and nutrition that they deserve. If I achieve anything through this debate, I want to see a single professional contact and perhaps a review of the system for the allocation of beds by PCTs. I am most grateful to have had the opportunity to discuss this matter today.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Cook, for allowing me to say a few words, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), both on bringing to the House a subject of growing importance, and on dealing with it in a sensitive and thoughtful way.

Care of the elderly is a measure of the civilisation of our society. When people are at the end of their lives, it is a stressful time for them and their families, and they require a lot of dignity and respect. I declare an interest: my son is a consultant neurosurgeon who treats some of the hon. Lady’s constituents at the neurosurgical centre in Hull and he often allocates beds for elderly people.

In January this year, Help the Aged, which is merging with Age Concern to make a single charity that will lobby on behalf of elderly people, and the British Geriatrics Society, produced a report in which they highlighted the fact that almost half the doctors who specialise in health care for the elderly think that the NHS is institutionally ageist. That is a worrying statistic, and I will say more about it.

First, we should put this debate in context. In the past decade, the Government have increased by a phenomenal amount the resources going into health care, on which they are to be warmly congratulated and for which they should be thanked. I am sure that whoever forms the next Government will continue that process but, unfortunately, the outcomes in the health service are not perceived to have increased or improved at the same rate, never more so than in relation to this matter, probably because people are living longer, which is a blessing. The average life span is about 83 years for ladies, and 78 years for men—I am hoping that the next Government will allow sex changes on the NHS because when I am 77, I intend to go for a sex change. More seriously, the demands for care are growing consistently and will continue to do so.

The hon. Lady made the valid point that there are insufficient beds, but the really important point is patient choice. It is not so much a matter of how many beds there are in any one part of the system, but of ensuring that there is the right number of beds in each part of the system, however many that is. There are different ways of caring for people when they are elderly or terminally ill, and it is important to ensure that there are sufficient beds in each part of the system to care for them, and to enable them to have choice between acute hospitals, community hospitals, the hospice service, nursing homes and family care at home. Different people will make different choices as to how they want to spend their last weeks, months and years.

I will focus on hospices, because the number of hospice beds determines how many beds will be needed in the NHS. I am grateful to the Government for the funding of the adult hospice sector—much more so than for the funding of the children’s hospice sector, which is a different matter. The Government are funding the sector generously, but we must ensure that hospices remain essentially voluntary organisations funded by charitable donations, as that is their ethos and character, which is a good thing. However, we must also ensure that any care given by hospices that displaces care that would otherwise have to be given by the national health care service, and would thus involve providing beds, is properly funded. The NHS and the Government must continue to work with hospice centres to develop a proper service agreement under which the care provided by hospices is funded by the NHS, so that hospices can continue to provide service and increase service to meet demand. I know that the Minister is sympathetic.

The right hon. Lady—excuse me, the hon. Lady; she should be a right hon. Lady—made some excellent points on nursing homes, but the problem with nursing homes is the formula for deciding how much a family must pay in top-up fees for the bed provided. I am aware of one case involving a lady who had a stroke eight years ago and has not said a word since. She is doubly incontinent and cannot speak, stand, eat or support herself sitting up, yet her family must pay several hundred pounds a month in top-up fees for what is obviously nursing care, which traditionally would have been provided in a long-term hospital bed. Eight years after the stroke, the family is having great difficulty paying the top-up fee. The lady was reassessed recently, but the family must still pay just over £106 a week in top-up fees. That is not good enough.

The Government are short-changing not only families but themselves, as the situation means that people stay in hospitals because they are not happy to move to homes. The Government are missing a trick. If they were a little more generous, and ensured that social services were more generous in assessing the nursing care element, we could get more people into residential homes where they would have society and a better quality of life and would be nearer their families. All in all, that would be a good deal for the individual and for the public purse.

On care at home by the family, there are some wonderful, heroic families who care for loved ones at the end of their life. They can do so only because of the fantastic support that they are given by Macmillan nurses, who take a lot of pressure off the NHS to provide beds in hospitals. We must never lose an opportunity both to congratulate Macmillan nurses on what they do and to promote their activities.

I have probably said enough, so I will end by quoting Help the Aged and the British Geriatrics Society, which said that the NHS must

“stop being service-led and become people-centred”,

and must do it soon. I know that the Minister is doing all that he can to move in that direction.

Right hon. and hon. Members will see that there are 57 minutes left before we must move on to our next topic for debate. As we have three Members who wish to make winding-up speeches, I expect each speaker to take no more than 18 minutes.

Thank you, Mr. Cook. I will take nothing like 18 minutes, to the relief of right hon. and hon. Members. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this debate, and on her persistence on the issue. At the end of last week, I had the pleasure of walking through her constituency, which was enjoyable. I did the Ebor way as part of my training for the 126-mile challenge that I am supposed to be finishing this weekend. When I got to my own constituency, the weather changed somewhat, and it became rather less pleasurable. I am sporting an enormous blister on my left foot, which is something of a challenge.

The issue that we are debating is enormously important, and the hon. Lady is right to raise it. To echo the comments that have already been made, I think that all of us appreciate the wonderful work done in the NHS and in many care homes to look after our older people and ensure that they have the care and dignity that they deserve. That is not always the case, but a lot of wonderful work goes on, and it is important to recognise that.

Older people are the largest single demographic using NHS services. Despite that fact, the NHS is all too often not geared to the needs of older people. That lies at the heart of some of the problems that we often discuss in debates attended by the right hon. and hon. Members here today, who have a particular interest in the needs and rights of older people in health and community care.

The age of 60 is no longer old. People of 60 are still running marathons; I ran one a few weeks ago alongside people in their 60s, their 70s and even, amazingly, their 80s. Yet in the health service, people who reach 60 are suddenly regarded as older, or “elderly”, to use the term in the title of this debate. We must face the fact that despite attempts to counter the problem with measures such as the Equality Bill, which is going through Parliament, institutional ageism still exists within our health services, to echo the point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). That is simply not acceptable. All too often, older people’s needs are not met in hospital. Adequate provision is not made for conditions that are particularly, although not exclusively, related to older people, such as incontinence. That is a huge part of the problem.

We are all aware that funding for the NHS is a concern. The simple reality is that savings will have to be made in this difficult economic climate. The Budget estimates that those savings need to be about 3 per cent., or £10.5 billion, and that £500 million of savings have already been made. My first point to the Minister—and I am sure that we would all agree—is that the needs of older people, which I am afraid are not always met, as we heard from the hon. Member for Vale of York, must not be seen as an easy place to make further efficiency savings.

The Budget says that savings will be made partly by reducing the length of stay of people in hospital. Where clinically appropriate, that is something that we all support, but there is a concern about older people who are not necessarily so ill that they need to be in hospital but whose communities lack the facilities to deal with their needs. They may be simply too weak to live at home and cope alone, and I am afraid that they do not get the care that they need through local authorities to be able to do so. All too often, an unfortunate cycle arises. Older people are discharged from hospital back to their home, yet without the care and support that they need, they simply deteriorate, become ill again and are readmitted. The situation costs the health service huge amounts of money, because we are not dealing with people in a way that enables them to carry on without the need to go into hospital.

Primary care trusts’ funding is weighted by the number of older people in their area. We would therefore expect areas with more elderly people to have better care provision, but I do not think that the figures bear that out. One problem—this is a debate that we have had on many subjects—is that there is no ring-fencing. Surely, if there is a failure across the country to address the problem of dealing with older people who are not ill enough to be in hospital but clearly need a higher level of support, there must be some way to ensure that money is spent where it is needed.

Although this debate is about older people, my simple point is that whether or not people should be in a hospital or community hospital should be judged on their individual needs, regardless of age. Having said that, account must be taken of the particular situation that older people are in. Clinical judgments must take account of what will happen if the person is discharged from hospital. Too often, older people do not receive sufficient care in the community to prevent them from becoming ill again and returning to hospital. Although they are important, PCT criteria will continue to mask the problem until we break that cycle. There must be a principle of providing proper support in the community.

Emergency admissions of older people have risen in recent years, and that costs money. It is not ideal to keep older people in hospital for any length of time. They face particular problem such as being more susceptible to health care-acquired infections, and that will continue until there is more investment in community care and a better system of care funding up and down the country. That is what it boils down to.

On the other side of coin, we must look at the problem of bed blocking. Department of Health figures show that during one week in March 2008, some 2,232 people across the country suffered a delayed discharge from hospital. Beds are being used that need not be used if care in the community was adequate. The issue is not only about cost, but about people of all ages being unable to get the hospital beds that they need.

The hon. Member for Vale of York mentioned the end-of-life strategy, but that does not wholly relate to the subject of this debate, because many older people who go in and out of hospital are not at the end of their lives. We can and should enable such people to carry on living full lives for many years. However, end-of-life care is a particular issue for older people. As the hon. Lady said, about 40 per cent. of people who die in hospital do not have medical needs and therefore do not need to be there. A strong preference for dying at home was shown in the Public Accounts Committee report that she quoted. Despite that, 60 per cent. of deaths occur in acute hospitals. In many cases, the person has no clinical need to be there. Only 18 per cent. of people die at home.

Interestingly, the figures on the proportion of people who die in acute hospitals across different PCTs range from 46 to 77 per cent. In some parts of the country, more than three quarters of people die in hospital. As I have said, 40 per cent. of people who die in hospital do not have medical needs and so do not have to be there. We are therefore failing on both counts.

To echo the hon. Member for Castle Point, it is impossible not to mention the fact that the Government have invested heavily in the NHS. They are to be commended on that investment. At the end of the Government’s life, which is approaching, they will be able to say that they have put a lot of emphasis on the NHS. They can present that as a success. Nevertheless, the system of care for older people in this country is an acute and abject failure for this Government. Tony Blair infamously said that he did not want to live in a country in which people had to sell their homes to pay for care. Despite that, the Government have done precious little to address the system of care funding.

People have no idea what they are entitled to. In fact, they are entitled to very little unless they sell their house and drain a large amount from their savings, or they already live in poverty and so qualify for certain benefits. We do not have the national system of entitlement for older people that we need. I wait with interest to hear both the Conservative and Government policies for the next election. We have stuck our neck above the parapet with the Liberal Democrat minimum care entitlement policy, which states that every older person in this country should have some entitlement to care. I look forward to the debate on how much people should be entitled to if we go down that road. It pretty much follows the Wanless model. If people know that they have an entitlement, they can plan and have some security in older age.

We believe that our policy would go a long way towards stopping the cycle of people being discharged from hospital without adequate provision, getting ill again and blocking hospital beds unnecessarily. In the limited time that remains for them, how do the Government propose to deal with that problem, which they have not dealt with so far? There is a dual challenge and it is not easy to solve. Will the Minister give us some idea of how the Government intend to deal with it? Until this important challenge is addressed, we will not meet the needs of older people in our country, and everyone would agree that that is not acceptable.

In this House, we often speak of our constituents’ experiences and of our professional experiences. It is rare that hon. Members draw on their personal experiences when advocating for others. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this important debate. By speaking up for her constituents, she has spoken for all our constituents. I pay tribute to her candour and courage in relating her recent experiences as a caring daughter to her mother.

My hon. Friend’s speech was shot through with a sense of the quality of our NHS. She stated that our focus on care and what we mean by care defines how civilised we are as a society. I agree that whenever we discuss these matters, we must repeat our admiration and support for all the care workers and professionals in the NHS. That is a personal matter for me because my wife is an NHS-trained nurse—she has specialised in caring for the elderly and more recently has become a hospice nurse. My hon. Friend’s comments are apposite to the aim we all share of providing the best possible care for people throughout their lives, and particularly as they approach the end of their lives. She is right that nurses tend to be the apex of that consideration.

The case that my hon. Friend described raises serious questions about the reality of local policies. The complexity of allocating beds to elderly patients reflects the complexities of morbidity and mortality as age progresses. Allocation is linked to issues such as cancer, palliative care, and intermediate and continuing care policies. Issues of quality are also linked to the bed, once it has been allocated, particularly in relation to the Government’s dignity in care agenda.

In the wake of the Staffordshire general hospital case, we must discuss bed provision in hospitals. One of the Healthcare Commission’s criticisms was about insufficient beds. In 2007-08, the number of NHS beds was cut by 4 per cent.—6,722 beds—and in the past three years, as the NHS has struggled to recover from deficits, the number of beds has been cut by 11 per cent., or 20,699. It is important to emphasise the point that my hon. Friend made, citing a further statistic, about the disproportionately negative effect that that has had on geriatric beds and elderly people. Bed occupancy is still too high, running at more than 95 per cent. in some trusts.

I recognise, however, that bed cuts are a crude measure. Better care should lead to a reduction in beds, but it is not clear that the relationship is organic, as is testified by the Government’s recent failure to bring superbugs adequately under control, to deliver on single-sex wards, to provide isolation beds or to prevent the tragedy at Stafford. Sir George Alberti makes telling comments in his review of Stafford, noting that there are serious problems around bed management. Of the emergency admissions unit, he says:

“There are officially 37 beds in the unit but this has been increased to 49. The layout is poor and there are insufficient nurses, particularly to manage the extra number of beds.”

That point emphasises that there must be proper staff resources for the number of beds in place. It also has ramifications for the dignity agenda. Will the Minister confirm how many hospitals are operating beds, or wards with beds, in excess of their official capacity? If he cannot do that immediately, will he ask his officials to grant that information by writing letters to hon. Members who have attended the debate?

Alberti also recommended that patients should be reviewed at 11 o’clock every morning, seven days a week, to see whether they could be discharged. It is important that bed blocking is avoided, but the reverse is also true, and patients must not be turfed out of their bed for anything other than clinical reasons—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York argued that point emphatically. Will the Minister explain what safeguards are in place? If it cannot be demonstrated that the only criterion, or the overwhelming priority criterion, is clinical, the only other default position, which might be addressed under the term “administration” or “efficiency”, would, at the end of the day, be a cost consideration. That seems completely inappropriate if we want to give people the best possible care, particularly as they approach the end of their life.

There is a more important issue, and I thought it rather strange that the Alberti report did not address this. It is clinically critical, particularly for good nursing—it has certainly been proven to be best practice since time immemorial—to start discharge planning the moment a patient arrives in a bed. That applies even when the patient appears to be moving towards the end of their life, or when it is too early to determine whether there will be an opportunity to discharge them or whether they are approaching the end of their life, in which case consideration should be given to whether that will be in hospital or whether the patient will be given a choice about where to die.

My hon. Friend is examining this issue very thoroughly, but the concept of early discharge when a patient has been in a new situation for only one day or one week causes the most distress. How can we handle that more sensitively, rather than making the patient feel unwelcome when they have been there for only a short time?

My hon. Friend’s question helps to make this point clear. We must ensure that the emphasis is right. Early discharge should occur only on clinical grounds—in that sense, it is not early, but appropriate. Early discharge is never really justified because, if it is early, it is happening before it would be considered appropriate on clinical grounds. Perhaps her intervention will help me to clarify that I am arguing not for early discharge, but for a process of discharge planning that starts as soon as a patient arrives in a bed. That is good clinical practice, because part of getting patients as well as possible is looking at how that can be achieved in the shortest possible time with the maximum possible care and dignity. That is especially important where there is high capacity utilisation of beds, the numbers of which are reducing, particularly for elderly patients in acute and hospital settings.

Not only are bed numbers reducing, but there is a real lack of intermediate care beds, as has been debated by Front Benchers before. In Winsford, in my constituency, a former care home was converted into Elmhurst intermediate care centre, which opened recently. That NHS asset had been lying redundant for far too long—many of us campaigned and argued about it—and eventually the local NHS hospitals trust, which covers Leyton hospital and the Victoria infirmary in Northwich, decided to convert it into a 30-bed intermediate and rehabilitation care centre to provide around-the-clock NHS care outside the hospital setting. I have visited it, of course, and met the staff, management and patients, and it was encouraging to see the progress that patients were making, and that they were receiving great care and were very enthusiastic about the centre.

Such an approach is appropriate for rehabilitation, mainly for elderly people, not all of whom will go home. It provides an opportunity to avoid what seems to happen most of the time, when there is an emergency of trying to find a bed for continuing or later care, but the family are not ready. It gives people time to prepare and offers the patient a chance not only to recover medically, but to regain some of the confidence that is often lost as a result of a medical procedure. That work among Mid Cheshire Hospitals NHS foundation trust, the Central and Eastern Cheshire primary care trust—my hon. Friend made a key point about PCT involvement and who has true accountability—and Cheshire East Community Health shows how powerful it can be to work outside silos. We need much more of that kind of provision through the allocation of resources across the NHS. However, there must be a consideration of accountability and the question about who should ultimately take decisions on provision and allocation.

The elderly who are allocated beds are often receiving palliation. I am in no way suggesting that the state should try to usurp the fantastic work done by volunteers and professionals throughout the country in the hospice sector—no doubt the Minister will discuss the actions that the Government have taken on end-of-life care. The “End of Life Care Strategy” was published last July, although it was twice delayed. The headlines were about moving care away from hospices and into homes, and about various initiatives on the quality and continuity of care. That is an appropriate trend. St. Luke’s hospice in Winsford, with which I am very familiar, has a limited number of beds, but an awful lot of the best care can be given by finding ways of extending the great expertise within the hospice into homes and communities and into supporting the families and volunteers who can give people the dignity and, above all, care that they need.

There have been missed opportunities on moving towards an outcome-focused model of care in relation to what is described as a “good death”. Progress is demonstrated by the fact that we now talk about “good death” in Westminster debates. One has to track back only a few years to see when politicians were not using such phrases, in the same way that they sought never to be photographed when visiting prisons because they were concerned about the image that might be created. We are now talking openly about this, which shows important progress on debates about this sector, and we are refusing to withdraw from the issues that need to be tackled.

We need to continue to press the Government to consider delivering a tariff for palliative care, which has formed part of the debate about the future funding of hospices. In his previous role, the Prime Minister promised that, by April 2006, charities would not be subsidised by the taxpayer, yet that continues to happen in hospices across the length and breadth of the country, which is why the tariff would be a great step forward.

It is telling that the Darzi review, out of which the final iteration of the “End of Life Care Strategy” arose, mentioned palliative care only once. My hon. Friend made some important points that we need to bear in mind about not only the quality of end-of-life care, but training in it—as I said, I have a specific reason to be aware of how important that training is. Furthermore, none of the strategic health authority reports mention dignity as a key part of end-of-life care. Dignity does not just mean giving someone the option to die in a place of their choosing; it means receiving good care in that place and retaining the respect of self and others in the final days of life.

The Minister and I are unlikely to agree on my next point, which was also raised by my hon. Friend. I believe—I have been pressing this matter for a while—that the biggest scandal surrounding dignity in care has been malnutrition. Figures that I uncovered through parliamentary questions earlier this year revealed that in 2007—the last year for which figures are available—malnutrition killed 242 people in NHS hospitals. That marks a 20 per cent. increase in the number of people dying from malnutrition in hospitals since 1997. Conversely, the number of people dying in care homes from malnutrition has halved.

The regional increases were as big as 50 per cent. in the east midlands and 30 per cent. in the north-west and south-east. In fact, since 1997, 2,656 people have died from malnutrition in England, with the poorest performing regions being the west midlands, where 380 people have died from malnutrition in hospital, and the south-east, where 348 people have died. That is simply not good enough. I urge the Minister not to dispute the statistics, which is what happened during one of our first exchanges about the situation, but to recognise that, whatever his understanding of the statistical base, we need to get to grips with the problem. Such things are avoidable and can be corrected by giving nurses the chance to continue to offer the type of care that they would like to deliver, rather than deflecting them away from ensuring that nourishment is given.

Moreover, it is important to pick up my hon. Friend’s point about the care context of anybody who is moving towards the end of life or is in a very vulnerable and disabled state. It is important that care professionals encourage family members and other supporters to help with nutrition arrangements, because delivering nutrition is often quite boring and takes an awful lot of time. Nutrition is absolutely vital. It is ultimately one of the great tests of care for any trained nurse—they are, above all, motivated to care.

Finally, I shall mention continuing care, which has been a continuous bugbear for the Government. It is a complex issue because it sits at the interface between health and social care. Countless councils will testify that it is in relation to continuing care that PCTs first shed responsibilities in times of financial difficulties, because they know that the means-tested social care system might pick up the person and the tab. In June 2007, London Councils revealed that 13 boroughs had to provide £15 million to cover services heretofore provided by PCTs.

I hope that the Minister will address the serious concerns raised—I am sure that he will try to do so—particularly in relation to the number of beds in the NHS, and the issues of palliative care and dignity within that. It is increasingly clear that the failures of local health chiefs are not primarily to blame; it is the systemic failure of an ill-thought policy. We need to rethink that and show some leadership. Above all, we need to present patients—particularly as they approach the end of life—their families and those who really care the chance not only to make choices, but to get the care and dignity that they need. There should be accountability for the decisions made and those decisions should be taken on the basis of providing the best care, and according to clinical criteria, instead of people simply being offered what can be afforded because, at a time when someone needs to focus on care and dignity, they least wish to be confronted with purely financial choices.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate. Care for the elderly and for people at the end of life affects us all—whether it is for ourselves or the ones we love. I express my deepest sympathy, and that of the Secretary of State, to the hon. Lady on the recent loss of her mother. I am grateful not only for the general comments she made about the excellent work being done by NHS staff up and down the country, but for her praise for the doctors and nurses at Darlington Memorial hospital and at Richardson hospital. I add my thanks to them and to the thousands of others who work tirelessly to give their patients the best possible health care in an atmosphere of dignity and respect—especially for those who have reached the end of their lives.

I would also like to say—the hon. Lady might have already done this and I hope she will forgive me if she has done so—that if she would like to discuss her case with her primary care trust in more detail, I would be happy to facilitate that. I would also be happy to ensure that such a meeting is facilitated in relation to the case of one of her constituents that she mentioned. From what she says, her constituent has been having trouble getting to the bottom of some of the decisions made about the care of her relative.

The hon. Lady raised a number of issues that I will come to in turn: the criteria for allocating beds by PCTs; the funds available for that purpose; how the NHS deals with elderly patients, and the issue of community hospital beds. Decisions about overall service provision for all aspects of health care are made locally by the PCTs that work with the local community and clinicians. PCTs commission the services that they think they need to improve the health care of their populations. With local authorities, PCTs undertake regular local strategic assessments to understand their current and future health needs. They then commission the most appropriate services from a range of providers to meet those needs. As we have heard, those providers might be a hospital, care home, hospice or any other appropriate provider. They are then responsible for delivering the agreed level of service. Specific decisions, for example about bed numbers, will be made to best fulfil contractual obligations and provide the highest possible quality of care.

The hon. Lady raised the overall national decline in geriatric beds. Yes, that has been the case, but there are many more places for older people that are funded by the NHS—both in care homes and in their own homes supported by care home packages. I am sure that she will appreciate that individual decisions about the discharge of a patient can be complex and can involve a range of clinical and social factors. There will always be some difficult borderline cases, and a judgment needs to be made about the best way forward. The patient might return home with a care package, such as regular nursing care, or there might be a move into full-time residential care. Whatever the decision, it should be made in consultation with the patient and their family. Decisions also need to be kept under review, because people’s circumstances and condition can quickly change.

Individual decisions about treatment and discharge must be taken in the best medical interests of the patient by clinical professionals and for no other reason or by any other person. Although the PCT commissions services, including beds, it should play no part in the individual allocation of those beds. The hon. Lady asked a number of questions about what sort of criteria are considered when such decisions are made, and she had a list in relation to her own case. A few issues—they might seem obvious to hon. Members, but they are important—are behaviour, cognition, nutrition, psychological needs, mobility, drugs and medication, skin condition and any other significant needs.

The hon. Lady also asked to what extent patients’ or relatives’ views are taken into account. The national framework for continuing health care sets out the expectation that patients should be at the centre of decision making. They should be supported so that they can be actively involved in those decisions and relatives should be involved, too. She asked who makes the final decision on discharge. If there is some sort of dispute or disagreement, the final decision is made by the multidisciplinary team and the consultant in discussion with the family.

The hon. Lady did not ask this question, but thinking about this debate, I asked my officials whether there might be circumstances in which the wishes of a patient or a relative could be overridden. The answer I received is that the patient’s wishes are at the centre of the decision-making process, but the clinical well-being and needs of the patient may mean that it is not possible to meet them. For example, a patient might desperately want to go home, but the clinicians may decide that they would not be able to look after themselves, and do not have the necessary support at home to do so. In some exceptional circumstances, there will be a need for a clinical override.

I know that systems are in place and that guidance has been given, but they are simply not working. I cite a case that arose a week ago. A constituent from Canvey island was taken to Southend hospital, then discharged to a nursing home in Southend without the family’s permission or knowledge. She was not cared for properly at the nursing home, she did not take food, and she ended up back in Southend hospital. The family wanted very much for her to be moved back to Canvey island, where there are places in residential and nursing homes where she could receive care. I hope that that will now take place, but the system is not working.

The hon. Gentleman raises an individual case. As I indicated in my remarks, some decisions are difficult and some are borderline. In a service as big as the NHS, which deals with many people every day of the year, decisions will, unfortunately, occasionally be made which perhaps are not correct.

What is important is that if patients or their relatives believe that a decision is wrong, they come forward and make that clear to the people who made the decision. They need to appeal and take the matter up with the PCT. I would invite the hon. Gentleman, if he has not already done so, to raise the case with the PCT.

The problem has been sorted, perhaps with the hon. Gentleman’s help. His help should not have been required to sort it, but we are all human beings, and mistakes can be made. What is important is that if they are made, they are rectified as quickly as possible to the satisfaction of patients and their families.

I am grateful for the thoroughness with which the Minister is responding. He mentioned the number of beds, but has not yet touched on the change in the role of community hospitals and the length of time that patients can stay in them, or the point, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), about patients who are taken out of hospital, put into a care home or their own home, then readmitted in a short time as an emergency case. The Minister has also not dealt with my remarks about the thrust of Government policy to close council-run care homes. There was a consultation, which I believe has concluded. The perverse effect will be less patient choice, because there will be fewer care home beds in local authority control.

I was about to address those points, and I still have a bit of time to do so. However, if at the end of my remarks the hon. Lady feels that there are questions that I have not addressed, I would be happy to write to her about them.

The hon. Lady specifically asked how rapidly equipment could be put into someone’s home to facilitate their return home. I am advised that it can take several days, and that it depends on how long the occupational therapist takes to do the assessment. If specialist equipment is required, it could take longer.

The hon. Lady highlighted what she believes to be possible differences in policies and quality of care between PCTs. The national continuing health care framework is designed to ensure consistency across all PCTs. However, we recognise that there are still variations, and my Department is working hard to try to remove them. The national service framework for older people sets out the standard of care that all PCTs should provide, and therefore quality should be more consistent across all PCTs. We are working hard to ensure that that is the case.

The hon. Lady asked why general practitioners were not routinely informed. GPs are not normally involved or informed when a patient is in hospital. However, they should be informed as part of the normal discharge process, and they should also be invited to become involved in continuing care decision making, although attendance may depend on the GP’s availability at any given time.

The hon. Lady asked about training for NHS staff in end-of-life care. Additional funding has been found for training the work force in end-of-life needs and has been given to all strategic health authorities for the financial year 2009-10. She made a point about the rules changing in her community hospitals. I hope that she will forgive me, but I have not been able to get an answer on that in the time that we have had available during the debate, but I will write to her and hopefully provide the answer that she requires.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to make this point. My understanding is that the Government changed the role of community hospitals across the piece, not just in the Vale of York. It used to be possible to receive long-term end-of-life care in community hospitals, particularly in areas that had hospice facilities in such hospitals or did not have hospice facilities. My understanding is that it was Government policy that made the change nationally, not just in one specific constituency.

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will have to write to her with clarification. My understanding is that the policy in the particular hospital where her mother was staying is not to keep patients long term. I will have to write with clarification, if she will allow me to do so.

The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) raised the issue of delayed transfers. We acknowledge that they have been a problem in the past and still are a problem, but the number of delayed transfers has fallen dramatically since 2001. In 2007-08, there were 2,235 delayed discharges from 85,119 acute care beds, equating to 2.6 per cent. of all occupied acute care beds. That was down from more than 7,000 in 2001, so there has been a dramatic fall. However, I accept that we still have more to do, and we will work hard to ensure that we build on the progress that has been made in recent years.

I would like to make a few more general remarks about issues that have been raised by hon. Members, and explain what the Government are doing to improve the quality of care generally for older people. The transforming community services programme supports the NHS in delivering the commitment that we made in “NHS Next Stage Review: Our vision for primary and community care” to create modern, responsive community services of a consistently high standard. The programme seeks to improve the amount of information available about services, patient outcomes, quality and the overall patient experience. It also supports new models of service delivery as PCT provision is separated from PCT commissioning.

Many elderly people enjoy good health in their later years, but that is not always the case. A central objective for all NHS providers is to build care around the needs of each individual. That personalised care planning approach is the same for everyone, including the elderly. For a patient with a long-term condition, personalised care planning that is tailored around their lifestyle and aspirations provides them and their carers with information and self-management advice to help them to learn about their condition, and find out how best to manage it and how it will affect their life.

Most hon. Members will acknowledge that many people die well. At the end of their lives, they are cared for with dignity and respect, surrounded by their family and friends in an environment in which they feel comfortable and safe. They experience care that is well co-ordinated, holistic and ethical with regard to their personal beliefs and preferences.

I spoke about nutrition, and my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury spoke eloquently about malnutrition, which is a concern for those who provide personal and health care. People go into nursing and the caring professions—I include carers in this as well—because they want to care for patients, regardless of their age. I was shocked by the figures that my hon. Friend gave: there is obviously an increasing problem with malnutrition. I hope that the Minister will take that on board. I was staggered by the fact that the Secretary of State was not aware of initiatives such as those undertaken by the National Patient Safety Agency, as well as the nutrition now programme, which incorporates hydration. This is obviously an area of policy on which the Government must focus.

The hon. Lady is right. It is an important area of Government policy on which we place great priority. I do not want to rehearse my disagreements with the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) over his interpretation of the statistics, but basically we are talking about episodes of care within a hospital. Often, if an elderly patient goes into hospital to be treated for some acute problem or other, their initial episode of care in that hospital is not registered as malnutrition and, although there may be underlying malnutrition as well, the acute problem facing that patient is registered. Of course, by the end of their stay in hospital we all hope that the initial, main reason for their being admitted to hospital has been resolved. Often, their last episode of care in hospital is for the underlying malnutrition, which was already there. The statistics make it look as if people are becoming malnourished in hospital, but that is not so. We have had discussed this matter at length, both in Select Committees and in other arenas, and I do not intend to spend a lot of time going over it again.

As I was saying, I think that most people would accept that many people die well and are able to exercise choice in relation to where they are cared for and where they die. I accept, however, that not enough people experience a death like this. The Government are committed to improving end-of-life care for everyone. As hon. Members have acknowledged, we have developed an end-of-life care strategy specifically to meet the needs of people for whom end-of-life care is not as good as it could or should be. That strategy, published last July, set a clear direction for the future development of services and showed how we can deliver high-quality, responsive services across all settings for all patients and their carers, irrespective of their condition or circumstance.

The measures set out in the end-of-life care strategy are based on what interested parties, stakeholders and others told us what they thought was needed to bring about real improvements in end-of-life care. Included in those measures is provision, first of all, for all patients and carers to have individual care plans recording their preferences and the choices they would like to make, which should be reviewed as the patient’s condition develops and which should be available to everyone who has a legitimate reason to see them, including out-of-hours and emergency care services.

We are investing an additional £286 million in end-of-life services in the two years to 2011, which will more than meet the commitment on funding that we made in our 2005 election manifesto. Much of this additional funding will go directly to primary care trusts, which will, of course, retain the prime responsibility for commissioning services locally.

The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Eddisbury, the Conservative spokesman, also mentioned the importance of recognising generally that we had better wake up to the challenges presented by our ageing population. There are more people in this country aged over 65 than there are under 16. In the past couple of years, the carers and stroke strategies and, more recently, the dignity, dementia and end-of-life strategies have aimed at starting to improve the care for our most vulnerable older people. We will soon publish our Green Paper, which will look at the sort of care system we want in the longer term. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West is absolutely right: as a society and a country, we are not unique in the developed world in facing an enormous challenge and some difficult decisions to take about how collectively we decide to fund people’s long-term care. I hope that, when the Green Paper is published, we can have a good, open debate that may lead us to the sort of all-party consensus that we managed to achieve on the future of our pensions policy.

If I have not answered satisfactorily any specific question asked by the hon. Lady, I assure her that I will write to her. If necessary, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), will write to her on issues that fall under his area of responsibility. Treating the elderly with dignity and respect when they fall ill and come to the end of their lives is about much more than strategies and objectives: it is about what makes a decent society. In this country we can be proud that the NHS is there to help everyone, regardless of their wealth or background, but we can always do better.

Sitting suspended.

School Places

It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. This debate is important for my constituents. I am here to plead with the Minister, because the allocation of school places is hugely controversial in St. Albans, as is the lack of school places. I want to deal with the issue at both primary and secondary school levels. I am putting myself in the Minister’s hands in the hope that she will consider coming to St. Albans and taking a personal interest in the matter.

On allocation day in the St. Albans district area, 128 pupils were allocated places at non-ranked primary schools, and 80 of those places were in St. Albans parish. The number was reduced to 80 by the time of the fifth round of the continuing interest process, but a significant number of primary school pupils were left in limbo.

I have been contacted by about 50 angry parents, and at the latest of a series of meetings last week, I met many parents from St. Albans who are united in their disappointment about the failure of allocation of school places in our area. My constituents who are dissatisfied with the situation have formed St. Albans Battle for Local Education—SABLE—to press for solutions. The problem is partly the number of people who choose to live in and around St. Albans and partly the inability correctly to predict the required number of places. The problem arises every year, but this year it has become a crisis. The east of England plan proposes an extra 83,000 homes in Hertfordshire by 2021, which will undoubtedly place huge pressure on local schools.

The local authority admits that despite forecasts being produced annually for up to seven years ahead, using live GP birth data, planned housing information and trends in pupil movement between areas, the data for 2007 did not indicate that there would be a shortage of places for that year. An update forecast produced in April 2006 suggested that places might be tight, but that the situation would be manageable within existing provision. Only when the application data were analysed in November 2006 did the shortfall of places in the city centre became apparent, which is when additional provision was made centrally to accommodate that unexpected and unpredicted rise in demand.

Parents were left reeling in shock as they were told that there was nowhere for their children to go. In March, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) raised the problem of the global shortfall of predicted places at primary entry due to the inadequate forecasting system. According to the national press, some 2,250 children in the UK will not have a place in September, and that will rise to 5,000 next year. I have been led to believe that 300 more children may come into St. Albans district attachment area in September. The problem is increasing year on year.

What do we need? Parents in my constituency believe that we need a new school. St. Albans is a small, tight city district, and many parents who have moved into the city centre have expressed the desire for their children to go to local schools. In April, the possibility that a new school could be built in the city centre to solve the deficit of school places in central St. Albans was considered, but it soon emerged that there is no budget in the current climate to press ahead with such a major project. Nevertheless, some children in my constituency are still facing an uncertain future, and there is little to suggest that anything major is being done to address that.

In April, Hertfordshire county council's senior planning officer wrote to St. Albans district council stating:

“In connection with the issue of primary schools, it was explained that analysis of births and children's home addresses has identified a need for extra primary school place capacity in the area west of the city centre. At the meeting, a number of sites which could meet the need to provide additional primary capacity to the west of the town centre were discussed.

In 2007, a need was identified for at least 4 form entry capacity in the long term. Temporary capacity”

in the light of the under-forecast for the necessary provision

“was provided in 2007 through provision of temporary buildings at Maple, St. Peters and Aboyne Lodge Schools. However, that was for one year group only.”

Unfortunately, the provision to expand capacity temporarily has caused a huge knock-on effect. The planning officer continued:

“Herts Property met with representatives of the City and District Council in June 2008 to explain the difficulties and begin to explore possibilities. Since that time, 1 form entry of additional capacity has been provided at Bernard’s Heath Infant School”—

but not at the schools required—

“A further 1 form entry of permanent provision will be required at Bernard's Heath Junior School in due course to complete that provision.”

One issue on which Hertfordshire Property is awaiting feedback relates to the possible use of council-owned land and assets. It believes that the need to provide a permanent solution to the issue of primary school place provision to the west of the city has become urgent. The keen interest of the local community is reflected in the interest of its own members, who are becoming closely involved in the need to identify a solution. Three schools in my constituency, Mandeville school, Bernards Heath infant school and Bernards Heath junior school, have agreed to take the additional pupils in September, but that solves the problem for only a small number of additional pupils. Some parents, even now, are uncertain about where their children will go to school.

Those in St. Albans parish were allocated a non-ranked place with an average home-to-school distance of just more than a mile—1629.43 m—compared with a national figure for all children starting primary school in 2009-10 of 1397.11 m. Parents in my constituency believe that it is not reasonable to expect a four-year-old to travel that distance. On top of that, because the additional places are temporary and the three nearest schools that many parents in my constituency were advised by the local authority to put down as their top three choices were already over-subscribed by siblings from that bulge year, those parents who chose their local schools were in the invidious position of being told that there was no availability, and they were put at the bottom of the list.

My constituent, Mrs. Anne Martin, has been allocated a place for her four-year-old son that is 4 km from her home at the 10th-nearest primary school. Since appealing against that decision, she has perversely been allocated the 15th-nearest primary school. I fully support the right and desire for her and other parents in the same position to access local schools. Mrs. Martin wants her child to walk to school rather than being ferried by car. An additional problem is that many child minders and carers will not go several kilometres to a school outside their own areas, which leaves parents in my constituency totally in the lurch. St. Albans has followed the Government’s desire to utilise brownfield sites, but that has led to overdevelopment in the city centre and to a crisis for school places.

Many four to five-year-olds in my constituency have been placed in schools that can realistically be accessed only by private or public transport. It has been suggested that parents should place children on the walking bus that operates in six local schools, but many of them believe—I agree—that it is unreasonable for a four-year-old child and a mum, perhaps pushing a buggy with one or two siblings, to walk a mile and a half in each direction to school every day.

Many parents have reported that the sibling rule sometimes has perverse consequences, because it often favours children who live further away from a school when it comes to allocating places. I have been contacted by parents complaining that it allows families to move into the community, gain a place for their first child at a local schools, and then move out of the community. Some children come in from up to 16.8 miles away. That means that local children who cannot follow through may be allocated places at schools that are between ninth and 15th furthest from their home. That discriminates year on year against first-born children and only children.

The schools admissions code of the Department for Children, Schools and Families supports giving priority to siblings of children who are still at the school, but I am sure that the Minister agrees that in areas such as mine, which have suddenly and unexpectedly had to accommodate a bulge year, that causes a huge set of problems. Parents are rightly quoting the admissions code, which refers to giving “priority to siblings” and supporting

“families with young children of primary school age who may not be able to travel independently.”

But families such as those in my constituency who are members of SABLE find themselves having to trawl more than 3 km with small children to get to school, and the problem is perpetuated to their other children.

At secondary school level, things are little better. Our problem, I am sorry to say, is a school that parents are deeply unhappy with and has been in special measures. The villages experience particular problems. A number of families who live in Colney Heath in my constituency have been allocated a place at Onslow St. Audrey’s school in Hatfield. Potentially, that part of my constituency will soon, as a result of the Government’s wish for more houses in the area, almost be joined to Hatfield. The parents in my area feel that they belong to St. Albans. They would like to have schools that are easily accessed. They have been allocated a place at Onslow despite the fact that a previous independent appeals panel upheld the appeal on the basis that the route to school was illogical. The route involves using an underpass that many residents regard as unsafe, intimidating and isolated. It was deemed unacceptable for a previous constituent, yet now the council, having made some small improvements, is, because of our crisis in school places and the failing school that other parents choose not to access, causing my constituents to have to make unreasonable journeys in a way that many of the parents regard as unsafe.

Many parents were deeply unhappy at being allocated places at Francis Bacon school. They expressed concerns not only about educational achievement, but about the whole brand surrounding the school. I would welcome the Minister looking into that and seeing whether any support can be given to a school that is now trying very hard to pull itself up by its bootstraps, although the local perception of the school means that parents are actively choosing not to engage with it.

One parent, who lives exactly 1 mile from Beaumont, their first-ranked school, which is in the Fleetville area, said that their child is the only one to miss out and is now being sent to a school quite a distance away. Only nine boys from Fleetville went to Verulam. This is becoming a merry-go-round of mismatching, with pupils being sent elsewhere and then the sibling rule coming into place.

Parents living in priority areas felt that they might be able to access their preferred schools. However, we have many single-sex and faith schools in St. Albans, and that is causing perverse outcomes. Some people who choose a single-sex school are having to come from a long distance away. As a result, I would welcome the Minister’s view on a “swap shop” to deal with the perverse situation by which a child who wants a single-sex school is allocated a co-educational school, and a parent who desperately wants a co-educational school is allocated a single-sex school. I hope that a scheme can be brought into play in areas such as mine—I know that the position is not unique—so that parents can ask to swap, as people swap social housing tenancies, and there can be two sets of happy families.

Many parents say, “Is there nowhere that we can take our concerns?” The possibility of an independent ombudsman for education has been suggested. My constituent, Cristina Fenn, wrote to me only yesterday evening, asking whether it would be possible to have an ombudsman for education. That would be somewhere to turn for parents who are caught up in a merry-go-round of mismatched desires for schools and have slipped to the bottom because they followed the advice of the local education authority and selected local schools that are already oversubscribed, where sibling rules are causing a perversity of intake. She said:

“Where will next year’s admissions children who get no acceptable school place end up? Yet again?

What has happened to the 80 children this year? They”—

the authorities—

“are just turning their backs on 2 and a half primary schools worth of children. This is disgusting!”

We must consider these children’s futures and not treat them just as names and addresses. Ms Fenn says that she refuses to send her children to a school almost 2 miles away that is not her third, fifth or even eighth choice, and she is not alone.

Parents are asking what solutions can be put in place. Can guidance be attached to the sibling rule to avoid the perverse situation in which parents are totally unable to access local schools, totally unable to get out of their cars and let their children walk to school and groups of pupils are being split up so that one child is sent 3 km away when all their peer group have managed to access local schools? Can there also be support and help with rebranding exercises for schools that have not only fallen below the educational standards that parents choose to access, but have fallen so low in the confidence of residents—many of us in the House will completely sympathise with the lack of public confidence—that they are actively considering home schooling? The parents of two whole entries-worth of secondary school pupils filled the St. Alban’s arena saying that they are not prepared to accept a lower standard of education for their children when the Government promised them, “Education, education, education”. They do not believe that they are given a choice. They do not believe that they are given a fair way of filling in the forms when schools are already full and a local authority or a school itself will say that it is full. How can a parent have choice when their top three choices are totally filled up with siblings?

This is a complex matter. I very much hope that the Minister will visit my constituency and talk to not only parents but the district authority, which is putting together its local development framework, and the county council. I hope that that will offer us a way forward. In my area, some parents still do not know what will happen. The continuing interest rules are causing deep disquiet. People are keeping their options open, having been allocated perhaps a third-choice school, in the hope that they will move up the ranks. Other parents have no school place whatever for their child. I hope that the Minister will deal with some of those issues, and perhaps I can question her on some of her answers.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), on securing a debate on something that is acutely important in her constituency. She has brought her prodigious energies—

Order. I must explain that although interventions are permitted in a 30-minute debate, contributions are not, without prior arrangement. As we have only 14 minutes left, will the right hon. Gentleman please make his intervention brief?

I had understood that my hon. Friend had left a little time for me to speak, so there was an arrangement of sorts. Is that permissible?

That is fine, but the normal practice is to obtain permission from the Minister and also to inform the Chair. We now have 13 minutes.

I apologise, Mr. Cook, and my comments will therefore be much briefer.

I experience a similar problem in Harpenden, particularly with secondary education. Year after year, initial applications exceed the places available in the three excellent and popular schools. The outcome is invariably, after the continuing interest arrangements have come into force or additional places have been made available, that every parent and pupil does get a place at the school of their choice, but they go through a long period of uncertainty. I have obtained an assurance from the county councillor, Keith Emsell, who has been extremely helpful, that he will, if insufficient places are available through the continuing interest process, negotiate with local schools to expand capacity so that extra places can be created. He cannot, however, give an absolute guarantee.

I want the Minister to address whether there is some way to avoid putting parents and pupils through this harrowing process when, at the end of the day, we have always been able to accommodate them. Why cannot we offer a guarantee at the beginning, rather than the end? If, as I believe, national rules are to some extent hampering the ability of the county to offer such a guarantee, will she consider altering those rules? It seems that, in the first place, the county has to negotiate with schools. Secondly, if they negotiate before the process starts and expand capacity, that cannot be done on a provisional basis. That expanded capacity, if it is too great, results in places being made available for people out of the area and then, in subsequent years, their siblings can take places, thus making the situation more acute. Will the Minister address those problems—perhaps she can write to me—so that we can see whether we can avoid giving families and children that harrowing experience and causing them unnecessary distress summer after summer?

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook.

Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. She is a good advocate for the parents and pupils in her constituency. I cannot promise to come and visit, but I am happy to have a meeting with her and council officials about the issue.

Will the Minister extend that invitation to parents in groups such as SABLE, who would very much welcome being able to have a representative at the meeting?

Later in my speech, I will explain that it is the local authority that is responsible for allocating places, so parents’ first recourse should be to the local authority. However, I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and representatives of the county council and St. Albans city and district council.

I am sure that we would all agree that every child needs to have access to the opportunities and benefits that education brings. That means that we have to have two things: first, we need a fair and open admissions process that is responsive to the needs of parents, families and communities, workable for schools and clearly accountable for local authorities and schools when problems occur; and, secondly, we need to raise standards across the board—in all schools up and down the country—so that parents can have confidence in the professionals in schools and the quality of education.

We have strengthened our admissions process to ensure that it is as fair as possible, that it takes into account the views and opinions of parents and others, and that it has clear lines of accountability when things go wrong. The revised school admissions code, which came into force in February, places children and families at the heart of a fairer system. Unfair or covert admissions practices, which penalise low-income families and increase social segregation, have been outlawed. Local authorities must now set admissions arrangements for their local area, following consultation with the parents and communities they serve, and they must publish their school allocation plans.

I come now to the sibling rule. The guidance on page 36 of the new code says:

“The admission authorities for primary schools should ensure in their oversubscription criteria that siblings…can attend the same primary school”.

The hon. Lady will note that it does not say “must”. It is not a hard and fast rule; it is good practice. However, a local authority could use special circumstances, as she described, as long as it went out to consultation with all the parents in the area. This is not a “must”, but any changes would have to be agreed by all parents in the area—the consultation is the basis on which any changes would go forward. Wherever changes to admissions criteria are necessary, they must be published for public consultation.

When families do not get their first choice of school, the council will offer a place at the nearest school with an available place. Children who live further away than the statutory distance will be entitled to free home-to-school transport.

As a result of a stronger admissions code, we now have the fairest admissions system that we have ever had. A rise in school standards has meant that there is more choice than ever before. Nationally, 93 per cent. of families got one of their top three secondary school preferences this year, and the figure was the same in Hertfordshire. In St, Albans, only 1 per cent. of parents did not get one of their top three choices in the secondary sector, which means that 99 per cent. did.

Will the Minister address the inability to place a four-year-old on public or other transport to go to a primary school that is ranked 15th in terms of distance and parental choice? I completely understand the Minister’s views about accessing transport for secondary schools, but 80 of my parents have acute problems with primary schools.

Following the final run of the continuing interest process, the information that I have is that 58 children resident in St. Albans parish have been allocated a non-ranked primary school. Some 50 per cent. of those 58 children have been allocated a school that is nearer to their home than at least one of the schools that they listed as a preference, and 21 per cent. of the 58 have been allocated their nearest school according to Hertfordshire county council’s definition, although they did not rank that school as a preference. As at allocation day, all children resident in St. Albans parish who applied but were not offered one of their preferences were allocated a non-ranked school within the statutory walking distance. If that information is not correct, I am sure that the hon. Lady will write to me.

I want to be absolutely clear: the allocation of school places is a judgment to be made by local authorities, not central Government. Local authorities are responsible for planning school places and ensuring that there are enough places available to meet local need, and it is absolutely right that they are. Local authorities and schools know best the unique opportunities, challenges and needs in their local area, and they are in the best position to deploy their resources.

Local authorities are under a statutory duty to provide every child of compulsory school age with a school place, but they are not obliged to provide a place at a particular school. It is therefore important that authorities have robust planning processes in place to rationalise school places and to make accurate projections of future demand for places to secure sufficient funding.

As I stated at the outset, the provision of school places is for the local authority to determine. A decision has been taken to expand certain primary schools in the suburbs of St. Albans, rather than in the centre, and that has been unpopular with parents. However, in this case, the local authority felt that the expansion of those central schools was not feasible and decided to allocate places elsewhere.

On funding, it is crucial that local authorities make a full assessment of future demand for school places in their areas. My Department relies on those forecasts when allocating capital funding. Local authorities prepare their pupil forecasts on the basis of local circumstances, taking account of births, new housing, population migration and other factors. There should be no unexpected demand for reception places because of a rise in the birth rate, but I accept that other factors may be at play in this case.

Some £1.2 billion was allocated to authorities at the beginning of the current spending round—2008-09 to 2010-11—to provide for a growth in pupil numbers. The decision was made in that round that all the basic-need funding would be allocated up front to give local authorities a three-year planning window. That means that nothing is held back to help in the future. Funding is fixed for three years at the beginning of the spending review period.

In the current spending review period, £21.5 million of basic-need funding was allocated to Hertfordshire to enable the authority to provide additional places to meet increased pupil numbers. We operate a safety-valve mechanism for new pupil places funding. That delivers additional funding, but it is not offered every year. The safety-valve funding was allocated in 2008-09. Eight authorities applied for such funding for 2008-09 to 2010-11, but Hertfordshire was not one of them.

In 2008, Hertfordshire county council had more than 500 fewer primary pupils and more than 300 fewer secondary pupils to accommodate than it had projected the year before. Authorities also have the flexibility to use their overall resources to address changes to their priorities, and that includes providing new pupil places.

Eighteen primary schools in St. Albans have a more than 10 per cent. surplus of places, while eight are oversubscribed. Of nine secondary schools, one has a 39 per cent. surplus of places, while three are oversubscribed. The county council assures me that there are sufficient school places to accommodate local children, but the local authority must look carefully at its distribution and allocation of places to ensure that it is best meeting the needs of local pupils and families. Although there are enough places in the hon. Lady’s local area, I acknowledge her concerns and, once again, I offer her the opportunity to come with representatives from the local authorities to discuss the issue further.

As a parent myself, I understand that a parent’s decision about which school to send their child to is one of the most important that they can make. I therefore understand the disappointment and uncertainty that parents feel when they do not get their first choice. However, I want to be clear: a second-choice school does not mean a second-class education.

I have met parents at secondary and primary school level who did not get any of their choices. Will the Minister touch on the fact that places at some schools in the three top choices were totally taken up by siblings? As a result, some parents could not have their choice, but they did not know that.

Under our new system, we are trying to get much better information to parents at the beginning. I absolutely agree that parents cannot rank schools and give an informed preference if they are not aware of that information. We want to make much more use of parents’ forums to ensure that parents are at the heart of the system and that information is with them at the beginning, when they have to make their decisions.

We have placed a real focus on raising standards in all schools right across the board. The national challenge programme is ensuring that every school sees at least 30 per cent. of its pupils achieve five higher-level GCSEs, including in English and maths.

When making choices about which school to send their children to, parents need easy access to information about how a school is doing. We are currently reporting on the school report card, which we hope will give much broader information about schools, covering not just the narrow issue of attainment, but how schools address wider issues, such as the well-being of their pupils. We are also looking to include parents’ views about the school in the process, and we are consulting on whether such views should be on the report card.

In conclusion, local authorities need to use every resource at their disposal. They need to combine strategic direction with careful planning and to think creatively to ensure that every child benefits from the opportunities offered by education. We will continue to work with and support authorities to make that a reality.

Sitting suspended.

London Metropolitan University

I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the London Metropolitan university. It is with great pride that I speak in support of the university and its students and staff, but I am greatly concerned about what is happening and the institution’s future.

The London Metropolitan is a new university, in the sense that it is a conglomeration of former universities—London Guildhall university and the university of North London—and former polytechnics. Most of its buildings are in my constituency, in Holloway road in north London, and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). However, a considerable number of buildings are to be found in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway). Unfortunately, he cannot be here today, but he has done a great deal of work to support the students and staff in his constituency.

London Metropolitan university is unusual in that it has a large student body, most of whom are not traditional university students—that is school leavers or post-gap year students. Its students tend to be much older, their backgrounds tend to be much poorer and their previous educational achievements tend to be considerably less than those in other universities.

The university is a model of access to higher education for people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds, so it is exactly the kind of institution that the Government, in their many statements on widening access to higher education, have strongly promoted and supported. We should recognise that fact when considering the crisis through which the university is going and, above all, how we are to get out of that crisis. I hope the Minister will give me some good news about the likelihood of Government intervention to assist us out of this crisis.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate, and I entirely agree with him. He will be aware that some of my constituents are involved in the university, either as students or as staff. I see no reason why they should suffer because a number of administrators have made errors over the years, and I hope that the Government will ensure that they do not.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree with thrust of what he says, and I shall return to that subject in a moment.

I shall put things in context by citing figures on widening participation. The latest figures show that 97.3 per cent. of LMU students come from state schools or colleges and that 42.9 per cent. come from lower socio-economic groups. Across the UK, 21.5 per cent. of students in higher education institutions are mature students, but at the LMU the figure is 51.9 per cent. Of the 4,050 full-time undergraduate entrants to the LMU in 2006-07, 52.6 per cent.—more than 2,000—were mature students. In addition, there are 3,565 part-time students—the LMU ranks 18th in the UK on that statistic. In 2009-10, the LMU will receive £5.5 million for its widening participation activities, the funding being based on the number of students deemed to be the widening participation category, for which the LMU ranks 19th in the UK. The university also helps students with particular problems. We should recognise all those facts in our debate.

I shall come to the background to the problem in a moment, but first I want hon. Members to understand the context in which students study at London Metropolitan. My constituency has a combination of housing types. Some 31 per cent. is owner-occupied housing, while 70 per cent. is council or private rented accommodation. Many people earn well below the average income, but they do their best to struggle by. I have met many who have had the opportunity to study at the London Met, including single parents with large families living in difficult housing and experiencing all that goes with that. They found the university helpful and supportive, and it was able to assist them to get through their courses.

Post-school students living in nice halls of residence in Oxford have their own rooms, their own support system and enough money. I do not begrudge that, but those students are doing pretty well. By and large, London Met students live at home and do not have such facilities or support—for them, studying is much harder. The students’ completion rate, and the possibility of them dropping out or wanting longer to complete their courses, is a matter that comes up all the time. I want the Minister and hon. Members fully to understand London Met’s accounting procedure.

I appreciate the background of students at London Metropolitan university—many come from my constituency. However, I suspect that the reason for the drop-out rates does not lie entirely with the students’ social background. We must also consider what the university offers.

My hon. Friend is right. I am not trying to apportion everything, but I want hon. Members to understand the context in which many students are studying. I shall deal with the accounting procedure in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case about the benefits given to disadvantaged youngsters by the London Metropolitan university. Perhaps one should recognise that dropping out is not necessarily a huge negative; reaching a certain stage of education is a great advance on not having started.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) pointed out, there is also the possibility of going back at a later stage or even going on to another institution. Such matters should be taken on board by the Higher Education Funding Council and as part of the Government’s assessment of the performance of education establishments.

I shall give an example of the way in which many students value the institution. I quote from a letter, although I shall not name the individual as it would be invidious. It states:

“I work part time and would not be able to flourish in the same way without this particular course at this particular university. There weren't any other options for someone like me, who is a bit older than the average graduate, and returning to further education. This course and in fact all the other courses available at the university are like a jewel in a whole ocean of courses and colleges. This place allows access to education for people from all walks of life who would not normally be able to get a place in education at this level.”

It is worth remembering that.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what he asserts in relation to London Metropolitan university—I entirely agree with him—also applies to a number of the other new universities and colleges created since 1992, many of which are within a short distance of central London?

Yes, it applies to other universities and colleges, but the extent of cuts proposed for London Metropolitan and the loss of student places does not apply to others. The Met is in a class of its own, given the financial problems that it faces, and that is why I am pleased to have secured this special debate.

Does my hon. Friend agree that teaching in universities these days has an international aspect? The university’s institute for Cuban studies, a subject that is interesting in itself, attracts attention from students across the world, who go there to talk about what is happening in the Caribbean and other parts of the world. More and more universities in this country depend on international contacts and on students from overseas paying astronomical fees. It seems to me that the London Met has started something by looking at poorer countries with poorer students. It is making relationships across the world, and that is worth a five-star rating.

The university has been innovative through many of its special sections, departments and courses. The institute for Cuban studies is a good example, as is the working lives research institute. The university should be congratulated on and praised for establishing courses on such subjects as sustainable tourism.

My concern, however, is about the problems faced by the university. The HEFC has a duty and obligation to count the number of students in colleges, and module and course completions. Essentially, the funding of the rest of the university’s life is based on those figures. When an audit was undertaken by the HEFC, it concluded that student numbers and completions had been over-counted. As a result, huge cuts have been made to the university’s budget for future years and there has been a request for repayment. We are talking about very large sums: £38 million is to be repaid, and about £10 million a year will be cut from the university’s funding indefinitely. As a result, 550 full-time equivalent jobs—that probably adds up to 800 people, because many staff are part-time—will go. In addition, many jobs for hourly paid lecturing staff and others on short-term contracts will be lost, although the number is unquantified. Student numbers will fall by about a third, so 5,000 student places will be lost if this financial package goes through. That would be devastating for any institution.

I have two questions for the Minister in this part of my contribution. First, does the HEFC’s counting process take sufficient account of the difficulties faced by some students, especially those from poorer backgrounds, those living in difficult housing conditions and those facing other related issues? As the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) pointed out, such people do not necessarily complete the whole course, but they might well use the modules that they do complete to gain a place somewhere else or to better themselves in some other way. I get the feeling that a degree of punishment might be involved for those students and types of completions.

Secondly, on a difficult and more delicate area, what happened within the university to allow this systematic approach to reporting to lead to such a devastating consequence for the university itself? Apparently the figures became known to the vice-chancellor and the university’s governing body some time last year. In December, the governing body discussed redundancies but, bizarrely, the unions were not informed of the possible redundancies until two months later. A question mark therefore hangs over the management style of the former vice-chancellor and the flow of information. May we please have an independent inquiry to which unions, staff and many others can give evidence so that we can establish the truth?

The vice-chancellor subsequently tendered his resignation, but he will remain on the university’s payroll for a further six months. He therefore remains an employee of the university, albeit not in office, while a further vice-chancellor has been appointed.

Will my hon. Friend communicate to the Chamber what the vice-chancellor’s salary might be—vice-chancellors are known to be shelling it in?

I do not know what Brian Roper’s salary is. I believe that the figure is known, but all I know is that it has many noughts after the first figure—I think that there are at least six digits. Others might be able to help.

My hon. Friend might wish to know that, as I understand it, Mr. Roper’s salary is in the vicinity of £150,000, although I do not care to speculate about his expenses.

Because, although it is important and interesting, I am far more concerned about the loss of 550 jobs and 5,000 students potentially losing the opportunity for a university education.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Last week, I attempted to bring together both sides in my office to try to figure out whether there was any common ground. Sadly, the managers refused to meet the others, so we had to have two separate meetings, which did not actually work. The point was made that we must consider not only the numbers, which he is quite right to put to the Minister, but another issue: the university has some specialities that are almost unique to it, such as cabinet-making. The only other university in the UK that offers such a course is Buckingham, which is a private university, and the people we are talking about are not the kind who will go there to get these skills. This is not just about the raw numbers, but about what happens when those numbers fall. When that happens, some of these specialities will simply disappear, which will be a major loss.

That is a very fair point. Clearly, a relatively small but specialised department, such as the one to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, cannot be reduced by one third. Either it gets closed down altogether, or it is funded properly. Some departments must either be funded properly or not be there at all, because otherwise the situation is simply not viable. This degree of cuts calls into question the viability of many courses and, indeed, much of the university itself.

I am interested to hear that the right hon. Gentleman attempted to meet people from the university. When I first heard about these problems, I contacted the university and the two major unions involved—Unison and the University and College Union. I discussed with the unions their concerns, the problems that their members face and all the rest of it. I asked repeatedly for meetings with the vice-chancellor and the board of governors. One of the meetings was cancelled almost an hour before it was due to be held, and that is just one chapter in a series of such events. Only after I had met the HEFC, together with representatives of Unison and the UCU, did the university get back in touch and ask for a meeting to discuss the situation. It was concerned that I had gone to the HEFC without discussing it with the university first. Well, I am sorry, but I am the Member of Parliament for the area and, like all hon. Members—we all have constituents—I must go wherever I can go to get answers to my problems. However, the vice-chancellor has now resigned and a new one has been appointed.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Due to my former job as shadow Minister for higher education, I have been following this matter for some time. Perhaps he can help with something that has been puzzling me. Why does he believe that Government figures show that, in 2005-06 and 2006-07, the LMU reported non-completion rates of between 2 and 4 per cent., when it would be expected that such a university would report figures closer to 30 per cent? Why did the university get it so wrong? Why did the HEFC not pick it up much earlier?

That is a very interesting question—I am looking for the answer myself. It has been reported in the Times Higher Education. I had raised in this House the question of the very high drop-out and non-completion rate from that university, and suddenly it fell to a very low figure. I hope that the Minister will answer that question. If not, I hope that the university or the HEFC can provide some answers. The questions that we are asking—I am not speaking from a particularly partisan point of view—all point to the need for a proper inquiry into what went wrong. Above all, we need to try to get through this crisis so that we see not the decline of the institution, but its sustainability and development. It is important that I make the point that I have not come here to bury the LMU any more than anybody else in the Chamber.

Other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall not say a great deal more. I would like the Minister to understand the degree of anger and concern locally and within the teaching and student bodies. I hope that the new vice-chancellor, Mr. Alfred Morris, who just left the university of Lampeter and was previously at the university of the West of England—he has a reputation of dealing with places in trouble—understands the importance of taking staff into his confidence, of working with them to get around the problems, and of not heading solely down the road of redundancies. He should also be absolutely clear about the finances involved.

As I understand it, the HEFC has loaned £38 million to the university to help it through this particular crisis, and it is prepared to negotiate the repayment time. The predictions of the university’s future financial problems are exaggerated in the extreme, which leads the board in one direction only—that of immediate redundancies. The board has advertised for voluntary redundancies, but did not get full take-up. If it persists with this financial strategy, we will be looking at compulsory redundancies. A day of strike action has already been called by the UCU and there might well be others. A demonstration is planned this weekend in the Holloway road in support of the university and its staff. I hope that the Minister will recognise the strength of feeling around this issue and take the following action. First, he must set up an inquiry into what has happened at the university. Secondly, he must provide us with all information on the funding that has already been given to the university, and on the current arrangements that have been offered by the HEFC. He must be prepared, if necessary, to intervene on this matter.

I was grateful that the Minister replied to my parliamentary question but, with the greatest respect, sympathy is not enough. The HEFC is funded wholly by the Government. We expect it to act on behalf of Government policy, and we expect Ministers to intervene when necessary to protect jobs, courses and students. Neither those who are threatened with losing their jobs nor those who will be unable to go to university in the future are responsible for the auditing, the funding, or the accounting arrangements, and I do not see why they should be punished.

I guess my hon. Friend may be able to help me in this matter. The head of the HEFC is now moving to another university vice-chancellor’s job somewhere in the Midlands. Does he think that there could be a problem arising from the fact that that organisation has gone solid at the base?

Not at all. Some weeks ago, I had a very useful meeting with Professor David Eastwood, the former chief executive of the HEFC, and both the unions. The professor has now gone to be vice-chancellor of the university of Birmingham and his successor has been appointed. I and a number of colleagues are meeting them in the House on Friday afternoon to continue the dialogue.

I want the Minister to tell me that the Government understand our feelings. I want him to say how wrong it is to punish staff and students for the misdemeanours of others. We want an open public inquiry and, above all, we want action to defend London Metropolitan university. Such institutions are the gateway to education for many people who, for so long, have been denied access to university-standard education. At a time of crisis and recession, people turn to such institutions for opportunities to expand their lives and their education. Can we show some support, sympathy and understanding of the fact that it is those who caused this crisis who should be punished for it? Those who did not cause the crisis should not have to pay the price for the misdemeanours of others. We need this university and this opportunity, and I look to the Minister for assistance in his reply.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. As he knows, one of the constituent colleges of the LMU at the time of its merger in 2002 was London Guildhall university, which is located in my constituency. At that time, there was a view—it may have been an urban myth—that there was central Government pressure to create London’s largest university.

I am lucky enough to represent a number of universities, including some internationally acclaimed names, such as Imperial college, which is alma mater for my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), the London School of Economics and King’s college London. I am every bit as proud to represent the LMU. I worked quite closely—perhaps not so much in recent years—with a number of people from what was the London Guildhall university and is now the LMU in relation to its phenomenally successful Aimhigher initiative, the outreach of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his contribution.

The LMU appeals to a much wider range of students than many other universities. Moreover, it tries to appeal to a catchment area that would, to a large extent, have been excluded some 20 or 30 years ago. As I have said, there are a number of similar universities either within London or just beyond London, which have an international flavour and a large number of mature students. As someone who was the product of the state school, albeit a grammar school, and who ended up going to university at Oxford, I am aware that we have to extend far more broadly. I am saddened by the fact that because my old college is poorer than most Oxford colleges, it has to charge higher fees. As a result, the league tables suggest that it has very few state school students—around 40 per cent. rather than 60 per cent. However, that is not because it has not tried to reach out in the way in which the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

I have to rise to the bait. The hon. Gentleman did not name his college. Will he tell me how poor it really is, so I can check it out?

I suppose that was putting my foot in it. I was at St. Edmund hall, which is not a terribly wealthy college. Founded in the 13th century, it only achieved independence from its richer neighbour Queen’s college in 1958. We will move on. I will not rise further to the bait of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on this or any other related matters.

I respect the fact that the LMU has plans to take responsibility for its own problems. Under its new senior management, it has a plan in place. While I share a number of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Islington, North and am interested to hear what the Minister has to say in that regard, it has to be said that no university is owed a living. Although I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman worries about the institution and the number of jobs at stake, I have a bigger concern about the students, who have expended considerable money and goodwill in signing up for a course. For the course or the resources to be cut halfway through is tough, particularly given the recessionary pressures. I graduated just over 20 years ago, and left university without any debt. I had a full grant for which I am very appreciative, especially when I speak to undergraduates today about the huge debts that they are racking up. In many cases, mature students eke out relatively modest savings to study at universities such as the LMU. For them to have the course cut or the lecturers removed halfway through is little short of disastrous.

The Government must think seriously about where the university sector goes from here. The sector receives some £8 billion in public money, yet, in many ways, universities face very little threat of closure if they are seen to fail. I worry that there are some failing universities. There is an assumption that they should always be shored up regardless of their difficulties. Representing as I do the financial services sector, an argument could be made—probably by the hon. Member for Islington, North—that we have spent a lot of money bailing out banks. I have not always supported Government policy in that regard. There is a fundamental issue of moral hazard. We have an environment now in which people—whether they are vice-chancellors, governors of universities or directors of international investment banks—feel that however much trouble they get into, they will be bailed out, which can only encourage the very worst practices.

I do not want to detain my hon. Friend for very long, but I want to make a point. He has talked about the generality of universities. I guess that most people would agree that no institution has the right to a living, but this is a particular and peculiar type of university. The hon. Member for Islington, North has pointed out the nature of the people that it takes through its doors. It takes a great deal more effort to encourage those people to believe that they have a right to be in such a place. Sometimes they have no family support and struggle while they are at university. That is unlike many of middle classes, who take it as their right to move on to higher education. These students do not believe that they have such a right and think that the whole culture is against them; they are making a break. Therefore, this is a special case, and we need to think carefully if we want to encourage more people from such areas to have a shot at improving their lives. Universities such as this must be sorted out, so they can do just that.

My right hon. Friend makes a valid case. It is fair to say that a number of universities—Thames Valley and Luton, for example, which are no further away from his constituency—have a similar ethos. Indeed, one of the difficulties facing the LMU is that it got too big and unwieldy following too many mergers, when it should have had more of a collegiate feel.

The harsh reality—perhaps I am taking words out of the Minister’s mouth—is that the LMU is being forced to repay more than £50 million after auditors found that the drop-out rates were higher than stated. It has been overpaid through the funding mechanism by some £15 million a year since 2005, which is why it is in its current difficulties.

We should have substantial public investment in higher education and, clearly, the nation is going to face some very difficult times with public expenditure in the years to come. Although we should not necessarily ring-fence funding, I probably share the view of many hon. Members in saying that we should ensure that we do not penny-pinch too much on education, including higher education and, in particular, on one of the biggest Cinderella areas, further education, and on compulsory school education up to age 16 or beyond, depending on how the law changes in future.

We also need to maintain a commitment, as my right hon. Friend has said, to expanding and widening the social mix of students, but our universities need to be much more publicly accountable. I am extremely fearful that we lack such accountability. There is a sense that the LMU is too big and unusual to be allowed to fail. I am not saying that we should pull the plug on it or on other universities, but it would be bad to send the message that however incompetently a university or whatever institution is run, the Government are ready to bail it out. Institutions throughout the public sector, whether universities or, dare I say it, financial institutions, should not be too big to fail, not least because that might encourage risk-taking and sloppy management in future generations.

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

I realise that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. London Metropolitan, part of which is in my constituency, finds itself in a very sad situation, and this debate is important. I appreciate that much more work will go on between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the institution in future. However, the message has come through loud and clear that a lot of students, who would not have had the opportunity to experience first-class, first-rate further and higher education in previous eras, run the risk of missing out on many of the dreams and aspirations that they have worked hard to build up. It is vital that something is done, but I appreciate that some of the Department’s problems with the institution will be difficult to solve. I am nevertheless cheered to the extent that there at least seems to be a plan, and I am encouraged by the new management, even if they have some troublesome months and years to come.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate.

A great many of my constituents attend the LMU, and I have had hundreds of letters about its financial crisis over many months. As we have heard, a disproportionate number of the students at the LMU are older students, women students and black and minority ethnic students. Far from having family support as they go through university, they often have to support families, and are the single head of their households. My concern is not the staff, although any redundancy is extremely regrettable, but those students.

LMU is one of a range of higher education offers for people who are older, or who have jobs and families: Birkbeck, a London university college that offers excellent degrees based on evening classes, the Open university and others are adapted to the needs of non-traditional students. However, let me say this: when we talk glibly about access to higher education, my view, as someone who spends a lot of time working on and paying attention to what happens in the black community in relation to education, is that it is not only about access to higher education, but about access to higher-quality education.

I draw the House’s attention to the unspoken apartheid in higher education in London. The Russell group, including Imperial and the LSE, is largely white, and some of the former polytechnics are largely black and minority ethnic. The LMU has many unique courses and excellent members of staff, and features in the top 10 of any league table one cares to mention. I strongly believe that schools should not use the class background or race of their students as an excuse for underperformance, and the same is true of higher education institutions. It is precisely because I am concerned about the life chances of older students, black women and people of all nationalities who have struggled and beaten all their expectations and those of people around them to go to university that I am concerned about standards at the LMU in future.

I understand that the funding problems stem partly from the much-higher-than-average drop-out rate and partly from the fact that the majority of students at the LMU complete their course in four years rather than the standard three. I also understand—people have talked about bad management and the funding council—that there was a degree of collusion between the funding council and the university in misreporting for years before the former finally decided to pull the plug. That may be the responsibility of management, but it is also the responsibility of the funding council, which could and should have addressed the issue in a much more measured way, much earlier, to avoid this crisis for students.

My concern is, first and foremost, that the students should not suffer in this time of financial crisis.

I asked the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) why the drop-out figures, which the hon. Lady has mentioned, were not picked up by HEFCE or the university. Has she received any information that university departments were told to suppress drop-out information? My information is that that is exactly what they did. Far from being a cock-up, this was a conspiracy.

I do not dispute what the hon. Gentleman has said. As I have said, there was a degree of collusion between the funding council and management, which has now reached a crisis. Who is suffering? It is not the people at the funding council, but the students. That is my concern.

I want the rights and aspirations of the students and the range of courses, as long as they are high quality, to be protected. That is particularly true of the specialities, whether cabinet making or the study of Cuba, for which the LMU is renowned. I want the quality of the education offer to my constituents to be not only maintained but increased. There is no reason at all—I do not care what people say about the class or colour of undergraduates—why the LMU should bump along in the bottom 10 per cent. I want standards to be maintained and driven upwards. The background of students should not be an excuse for failure in any of our educational institutions.

I want the funding council to help, by whatever mechanisms are available, the LMU to get through this period without the students suffering. I also want Ministers and the funding council to look at their funding systems and schemes to ensure that they properly reflect the realities of student bodies in such institutions.

Given that we often look on universities as regional centres of education, and that students can move between them on exchanges, will my hon. Friend consider the possibility of financial collaboration between them, instead of rivalry? Why do they not work to support each other? The three universities should work together to serve the community—let us have some money from Imperial going into London Met.

More collaboration may well be part of the answer, but we must get the management and running of London Met right before there can be any notion of collaborating with other institutions.

We must look at our funding mechanisms. The funding council has not treated London Met fairly; it colluded in the situation up to a certain point, but then there was a cliff-edge crash, and the university faces potential cuts.

I wrote to the Minister about this issue many months ago, but I was disappointed with the response that I received, because he simply referred me to the funding council. Let me make a general point. We in Parliament have seen all sorts of core Government functions outsourced to organisations such as the funding council over the past 20 years. Although those functions have been outsourced, they are wholly funded and owned by the Government, and Ministers cannot hide behind such institutions. I am not suggesting that, having set up the funding council, Ministers should second-guess every decision, but it should be possible for the Government to intervene in special cases, if Members of Parliament have come to them. London Met is a special case, and Ministers have hidden behind the funding council for too long.

There is a range of issues about the management of London Met and about how we can help it through the present period financially so that students do not suffer. However, there is also an issue about whether the funding council considers the circumstances of institutions that have high drop-out rates despite the best efforts of their staff. When colleagues come to the Minister with special cases such as that of London Met, I urge him not to brush us off by referring us to the funding council. I think that every Member present has written asking him to focus on the special issues at London Met. Although there may be singular problems at the university, events there also raise general issues about further and higher education, which it is wholly appropriate for a Minister to focus on and get involved in.

In the many letters that my hon. Friend has had from her constituents, has anyone said whether they have an alternative place to go to in the event of their department or course closing? What are their thoughts for the future?

The reason why I am so concerned about this issue is that many of the students who have written to me are really in a panic. There may be alternatives, but these students do not know about them. They have often screwed up all their courage and got together every penny that they have to go to university, which is something that they never thought that they would do when they were younger. Now, thanks to a combination of the university’s management and the actions of the funding council, the rug has been pulled from under them in what are difficult times for all our constituents. People really are in a panic, and they deserve better from the management of London Met and from Ministers, because this issue has been bubbling under for a long time.

Redundancies may be inevitable at London Met, and more may need to be done to improve management there. We may also need to move away from an assumption that institutions can excuse underperformance—whether academic or management underperformance—by pointing to undergraduates’ class or race background. That is no excuse for anything. All those things may be true, but I ask Ministers at this point to focus on the students, for whom going to university means so much more than it did even to me, the Minister and other Members in the Chamber. The Minister should focus on the students and stop hiding behind the funding council. He should intervene to ensure that students do not suffer in this transition period and that the funding council knows that it cannot apply one-size-fits-all funding solutions to universities up and down the country whose demographics and social context may be very different.

We owe these students something. We should not have spent 12 years as a Government talking about education, education, education. We should not have spent 12 years as a Government talking about skills, the need to go forward and increasing access. Whatever problems it may have had in the past, London Met has reached a crisis, and we have not stepped in swiftly to protect the interests of the students and my constituents.

London Metropolitan is on the edge of my constituency, on the other side of the Holloway road. Many staff and students are constituents of mine, and a number of them have written to me, because they are concerned about the university’s dire financial problems and its future. Several interns, both international and local, who have worked in my office have come from the university, and I receive a weekly update on their concerns about what is happening in the university. The university is clearly in a serious situation, because it has to pay back £40 million of public money, which it has been wrongly paid. That will require significant restructuring, which will no doubt have a serious effect on staff and students.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, London Met has done a great deal of work on widening participation, and it runs a variety of successful courses promoting inclusion. Although it depends on how we count these things, one way of assessing Islington shows that it is the sixth poorest borough in Britain, while another shows that it is the eighth poorest. Either way, we are poor and, unfortunately, we have suffered from low levels of academic achievement historically. Universities such as London Met play an important role in attracting students who would not have considered university in the past.

The university’s vice-chancellor has now resigned, and an interim vice-chancellor has been appointed. However, it remains unclear how incorrect information about non-completions led to the university being overpaid. Others have referred to an error by the administrators, but I spent 20 years as a criminal lawyer dealing with cases that looked very much like this one, and I do not understand why the police have not been involved.

Does my hon. Friend support the view, which I expressed earlier, that we need the Government to order an inquiry into the management and running of the university? In the meantime, we need to protect staff jobs and the students. We need to sort the problem out now and for the future without blaming those who are, after all, the victims.

My hon. Friend anticipates my very next point. In the current circumstances, we need a proper inquiry into how on earth these things have happened. What has happened is unfair not only to the students and the staff, but to the taxpayer, because a trick has been played on us and we have overpaid the university, which is now in a desperate financial situation.

I ask the Minister and HEFC to look again at the issue. We must have better data auditing, because what we have seen until now really will not do. I agree with others that it is extremely unfortunate that the students suffering most come from the backgrounds that they do. Many people may to be blame, but the one group who are not to blame are the students.

I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople now. We have more time than normal, so I intend to divide the time equally, unless the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople want to leave more time for the Minister.

I did not intend to take even the 10 minutes that the three spokespersons normally take in the last half hour of a debate, because there are many points to which hon. Members with a direct constituency interest will want the Minister to respond. I simply warn the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who will follow me, that I may be briefer than normal.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing a debate that was obviously very important to him, and to his constituents and those of his constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). Of course, the issue must be seen against what is a pretty dire background for many students throughout the country. UCAS applications show that for the first time in many years, there will be probably be unmet demand in the summer, the clearing that normally takes place will not happen, and trading up may not happen either. The Government are to some extent culpable in those matters, but we are dealing with an institutional matter—the misreporting of statistics by a higher education institution to the funding council.

Some of what has happened is due to the complex modular way in which students study at London Metropolitan university, as opposed to the more traditional courses at some of the universities that have been mentioned, such as St. Edmund hall, which the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) attended, and where everything depended on finals. At London Metropolitan, as at many newer universities, there is a modular course of study, and the funding and the teaching grant is made up in a complex way.

I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that what the administrators were being asked to do was all very complex; it was complex, but not that complex—they are university administrators after all.

I think that if I had finished my point I would have got to that myself; none the less, that intervention is well made, because what I was about to say was that while the situation is indeed more complex than that of many other universities, the failure that has occurred is none the less a major one, by the perhaps well paid management of a university, and, indeed, there are serious allegations, as the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) twice pointed out. The situation is uncertain for 34,000 students and for the applicants who must have put in, in the current oversubscribed UCAS system, applications to study at London Metropolitan university in September. They must be full of uncertainty and worry about the institution to which they have applied. There is also uncertainty for the staff. I understand that 330 redundancies are contemplated in a total of more than 500 job losses by the university.

The hon. Member for Islington, North said that a troubleshooter, in the form of Alfred Morris, has arrived at the university to try to sort out the mess, having previously, in what people in Bristol thought was his retirement, helped out the university of Wales, Lampeter, and Trinity university college, Carmarthen. He is better known to people in Bristol for having been for many years the director of Bristol polytechnic, overseeing its transformation into the university of the West of England, Bristol, which is now one of the most successful universities in the country. I wish him well in the mission that he is undertaking at London Met.

The hon. Member for Islington, North mentioned the social composition of the student body at London Met, and called it a model of its kind in widening participation. I understand from the information supplied for the debate that 43 per cent. of the student body come from socio-economic groups 4 to 7, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) mentioned. The student body is older than is traditional, and there is a very high intake from the black and minority ethnic community. London Met specifically targets those groups, to meet its mission to widen participation. We would applaud it for doing so, and it is all the more of a shame that its administrative systems have failed to catch up with its educational mission.

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the skills that students learn at the university, such as cabinet making. I understand that silversmiths are also trained there. Perhaps more relevant to the modern economy, there are also many students studying media and music technology courses at the university. Those degrees will be essential to Britain’s future as we build an economy that will depend largely on the creative industries.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the specialist courses, because some of them are cutting edge, and very specialist, such as courses in sustainable architecture and civil aviation. There are a great many courses, and the place is doing well. For all the failings of the management in reporting and accountancy, the university as a whole should be congratulated on its innovative behaviour and its introduction of wider participation in education. That is why I passionately defend it.

The hon. Gentleman is right; the university should be congratulated on fulfilling its mission for its intake and educational programme, to enable its students to contribute to the modern economy.

To conclude, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, the hon. Member for Islington, North has called for an inquiry, and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington called for intervention by the Department, and those are probably necessary, given the seriousness of the situation financially, the effect on students, and the allegations that the hon. Member for Reading, East has repeated. London Met is a merged university, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, formed from London Guildhall and North London universities. Normally, when mergers have taken place in the past, such as that between the old University college Cardiff and University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, or the new merger creating the university of Manchester, the funding council and the Department offered a great deal of assistance to bring about a successful merger. I wonder whether that now needs to happen—in retrospect—at London Metropolitan. However, there is a need for both an inquiry and intervention to make sure that the university’s internal procedures and departments are as robust as they could be in controlling their costs and in providing that reporting functions work as they should.

I have two questions of a general nature about the sector. Let us hope that London Metropolitan university will prove to be the last instance of a university plunged into a desperate financial crisis. Given the current economic circumstances, however, that may not be the case. Is the Minister aware of any other universities that are in difficulty because of misreporting of statistics to the funding council? What action, if any, has the funding council taken against them to recover funds? It appears that the LMU is in a unique situation, but its administrators cannot be the only ones who have had a discrepancy in their statistics. Finally, does the Minister foresee any other intervention being needed by the funding council and his Department? Many universities, whether they are dependent on international fees or the domestic market, will be in economic difficulty, given the pressing global economic situation.

I congratulate you, Mrs. Dean, on the dynamism of the chairmanship, which changed halfway through the debate.

The debate is timely, first because there was a sit-in at the LMU last week, and secondly because it is important, if there are to be redundancies and courses are threatened, that we should hear a clear account from the Minister of how the Government will respond. I visited the LMU in March and I was immediately struck by the good work that was done there. To establish a unified institution in such a short time, from a merger in 2002, was a great testament to what had been done. Secondly, the contribution to widening participation is tremendous and is clear in the statistics, which show that 97 per cent. of people at the university are from state schools, and 43 per cent. are from lower socio-economic groups. The figures that I find interesting are those showing the percentage of mature students—52 per cent.—and the total of 3,565 part-time students.

My concerns are greatest about those groups in particular, as they are exactly the type of students that we want in higher and further education. They are fitting their studies around caring for children, perhaps, and around their employment. They make an economic contribution to the country and a contribution to the social fabric to society, as well as upskilling and reskilling, which is at the heart of the Leitch agenda. My concern is about the continuation of the excellent work that is being done with such students. Another thing that struck me was that for a relatively new university, the LMU is doing incredibly well in research. In fact, in one or two categories, it is almost a world leader. From a zero start, it has gone quickly to the forefront.

There is no doubt that in the next five or 10 years, models of learning will change. If the Minister has been to the LMU, he will know that it has a lab that serves 280. So advanced is the LMU that students can get iPods and download lectures before they go to them. Away from the main lecture theatre, they can interact online with the course material that they are studying. That is pretty much a revolution in how people learn. That is exactly the kind of evolution in education shown by both the Open university and Birkbeck, and it is ingrained at London Metropolitan university. I am incredibly impressed by what the LMU has done. It would be a shame if the challenges that it is facing curtailed any aspect of what it does, because it could well be a model for the future.

I welcome this debate and thank the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing it. Another important aspect to consider is the concept of value added. It is easy to look at a league table and say, “Well, they’re this far down the league table in this area,” but it is important to recognise where the students come from and where they will end up. It is important to recognise the benefit of the contributions made by those who do not complete a course but might come back later and those who are first-generation university students, even if they take four years to complete a course that others might take three years to complete.

Many of the students starting at London Metropolitan university are first-generation students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I agree that that is no excuse whatever for not having a successful education outcome, but it must be recognised as a starting place. They have difficult family circumstances and have many extra burdens not shared by the rest of our students. There are also cultural and language differences. I am sorry, but if a student embarks on a higher or further education course and English is not their first language, that must be recognised in the outcome they achieve at the end of the course.

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is making a powerful case, particularly for the US community college system, which uses dropping in rather than dropping out and in which people can pay for education at a rate that they can afford. Does he agree that that should be accelerated in the UK?

That is almost the perfect intervention at this point. My hon. Friend and I worked together during his time on the shadow Innovation, Universities and Skills team, and he is a strong advocate of the neighbourhood college scheme in the US. There is no doubt that London Metropolitan performs the function of a neighbourhood college as much as it does that of a traditional higher education institution. There is no doubt that there are great benefits to the concept of dropping in, gradually stepping up one’s educational level and not necessarily doing things in one large chunk. As I said, models of education are evolving, and I wonder whether that will not become the predominant model.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the university has a good record with local students, people returning to education and so on. That also carries the disadvantage that many such students live in difficult family or housing situations. They are often trying to maintain one or even two jobs as well. As he rightly said, that makes course completion within conventional parameters very difficult. The Higher Education Funding Council must recognise that in adopting an accounting procedure for such institutions.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Perhaps another great benefit of this debate is that it will push home the point that not everybody comes from a traditional background. If, according to the Leitch agenda, we want to reskill, upskill and get mature learners back into education to learn new skills, we need exactly that kind of model. HEFC, the Government and the Department need to realise that the stigma attached to non-traditional styles of learning has got to go. They are the way forward, and that is why this debate is useful. Hopefully that message will get through, and the funding streams and how they work will be reconsidered.

The big question is who or which group of people is responsible for the crisis. Before I come on to that, I shall point out, as other hon. Members have done, that there are two groups who are not responsible. The first is the majority of the staff of London Metropolitan university, who did not contribute to the erroneous accounting or the poor leadership and management that might have led to the difficulties. We must bear that in mind, and the hon. Member for Islington, North made a good case on behalf of the staff.

The second group of people who are blameless is the students, who have done their best to make their way into higher education. Many of them are paying fees. It is interesting to note that 8,000 international students from 155 countries write cheques to the LMU to conduct their studies, which subsidises to a certain degree the studies of some UK students. Students are now terrified that they will not be able to complete a course that is perhaps one of the biggest commitments that they have made in their lives to education—it is a major step forward and a major development for their life chances. The students are not to blame, and they are my primary consideration.

So who is to blame? It seems clear that there has been a management failure; the vice-chancellor has stepped down. However, it has come through loud and clear in other Members’ comments that the Higher Education Funding Council may well have played a role. If there were nudges and winks—“Well, we may overlook those numbers of non-completions for a couple of years”—that is a serious matter. The allegations are significant. It is the least that the Minister can do to hold an inquiry—we should look not just at the role that HEFC thought that it was playing, but step back and see whether any collusion took place.

Does the Minister believe that the current HEFC funding rules adequately reflect support for part-time and modular learning? More than that, are the accounting errors at London Metropolitan university a one-off? Does he have any reason to believe that the misdeclaration and the slight tweaking of drop-out rates in a direction favourable to funding have happened anywhere else? Given the staggering size of public finance troubles at the moment, what steps has the Minister taken to ensure that more careful attention will be paid to overpayments in future? What specific steps have been taken to ensure that we do not find out next year that the same thing has happened somewhere else?

What assurances can the Minister provide that the quality of teaching at London Metropolitan university—I certainly admired what I saw when I visited—will not be adversely affected by the clawback of £15 million over three years and the £38 million? In addition to what HEFC has done, what discussions have he and his Department had with HEFC to help the LMU improve its data reporting in future? There is a bigger question concerning the viability of higher education institutions. I am sure that the LMU’s situation—an organisation getting into difficulty, for whatever reason—will not be a one-off. We have heard calls for the Government to step in and consider the situation, including a call from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench for direct intervention to sort it out. If it looks as if the LMU will not make it—if it cannot pay back the £38 million loan and is in danger of going bankrupt—will the Minister and his Department allow that to happen, or will they step in?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing this debate.

Hon. Members have touched on important issues such as widening participation, particularly in London. I associate myself with what has been said about the contribution of London Metropolitan university to widening participation in north London. The statistics show that we have increased the number of young people and adults from poorer socio-economic backgrounds who go to university—my constituency, Tottenham, has seen an increase of 100 per cent., and there has been a commensurate expansion in widening participation in Hackney, Waltham Forest and Islington. We all acknowledge that alongside universities such as Middlesex, Greenwich, Thames Valley and East London, London Metropolitan university has made an important contribution to that in the London region.

London Metropolitan university has been important for women returners, black and ethnic minorities, people who are claiming asylum in England and those who speak English as a foreign language. It has achieved excellence in its research and contributions in architecture, the built environment, communication, culture and media studies, social work and social policy, education, pure maths and American studies. People rightly feel strongly about this university. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that many young people at the institution were not lucky enough to go to grammar school and Cambridge, as she did. They have had very different opportunities, which is why it is so important that we ensure that that institution has a future.

I will describe the history of what has happened at the institution, as we understand it. The crux of the problem is that the information on student numbers submitted by London Metropolitan university for the three academic years from 2005-06 to 2007-08 were shown to be inaccurate by the subsequent audit. The funding council’s concerns escalated over time. Previous audit work had identified problems with the university’s returns, which prompted further investigation.

The Minister has mentioned that concerns were flagged up in previous inquiries. Were he or his Department aware of those concerns before the major crisis arose recently?

I will come to that.

The data on student numbers that form the basis for the capitalised teaching grant that HEFCE pays to universities contained inaccuracies. Those inaccuracies led to an overpayment to London Metropolitan university of about £36.5 million. Discrepancies in student number information of that scale were unknown in the higher education sector.

The Department and HEFCE are in regular dialogue. Concerns were expressed when the first audits began in 2005-06. However, the scale of the problem did not become apparent until the last audit period. As the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) would expect me to say, it is right and proper that the Department allows the funding council to deal with funding decisions in relation to institutions.

I thank the Minister for being so generous in giving way. To press my point a little further, the Department was aware that there were concerns over the declaration of student numbers or completions before the final audit that caused the current crisis. Did it have concerns about any other higher education organisations at the same time?

Given the breadth of our universities, it will not surprise the hon. Gentleman that the funding council keeps us informed of a number of issues in relation to a range of institutions. Students and staff write directly to the Department about institutions. We are aware of a range of issues in different institutions. As I have said, the scale of this situation is unique, and it is of particular concern.

When was the Department first informed of these problems? What was its response to HEFCE and to the university? Why did the governors apparently keep this information secret from many people until this January?

I will deal with all those points in my speech. I would prefer to do it in that way rather than through separate interventions.

May I ask a question? The Minister may address it in the course of his speech. In order to build up the £36.5 million that is owed through overestimating the number of students going through the university, by how many students was the university short each year with nobody seeming to notice?

I hope that I will address that point in my remarks.

The difference with London Metropolitan university is the scale of the problem. The overpayments were unusually large. The funding implications are so significant because the university claimed that large numbers of students had completed a full year, when the evidence shows that they had done substantially less. That is the central point in the case. The university was making returns that were false.

Does the Minister have reason to believe that at any point when the university started making false or falsified returns, it was given to understand by the funding council that doing so would be okay?

I will come to that issue.

Non-completion is a significant issue at the university. HEFCE’s funding policies are rightly designed to encourage universities to help their students to complete the studies for which they have paid tuition fees. HEFCE has provided substantial funds to help institutions to improve retention, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North concentrated on that point. London Metropolitan university has received a substantial amount of money compared with other institutions to help it to retain students. In 2007-08 it received £6.9 million, which was reduced to £3.9 million this year. That money was given to help students to stay in the institution, notwithstanding the over-reporting that has taken place.

I understand the Minister’s argument, but does he not find it strange, as I do, that the university was submitting non-completion rates 13 times lower than the norm? Rates of 30 per cent. should have been expected, so why did his Department not pick that up for years? It is incredible that his Department and HEFCE were not on top of the situation.

I want to finish the entirety of my remarks. I have said that this is a serious situation, and I want to discuss where responsibility lies.

Under section 65 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, HEFCE has a legal power to reclaim grant money that is paid in error, and after due consideration the council decided to invoke that power in December last year. My Department’s agreement to that decision was neither required nor sought, but it is hard to quarrel with the reasoning behind it. We all know that times are difficult, and it is important that any funding body is cognisant of students in organisations as well as the method of funding that is allocated to other organisations in the higher education sector. For that reason, the council sought to discuss with the institution how it could mend and solve the problem.

The council was mindful that reclaiming such a large sum immediately could send London Met out of business, so it decided instead to recover the money in a phased and managed way that would both protect the continued viability of London Met and allow it to carry out the significant institutional restructuring that would be required. Accordingly, the council agreed with the university a schedule for recovering the grants that would spread repayments over five academic years.

Repayments on that scale cannot be made painlessly, but I hope and believe that the schedule of repayments that has been agreed will allow London Met to preserve its distinctive and valuable mission and to begin, through its restructuring programme, building for a more sustainable future. Nevertheless, I am aware that, on 19 February, the then vice-chancellor of London Met e-mailed all staff to inform them that the university would seek to reduce its staffing by up to 550 posts by July 2010. The university has since made it clear that more than half the posts will be lost through a mixture of voluntary and compulsory redundancies, and that the balance will be through natural wastage.

I shall not give way, because I want to make some progress. According to the briefing note that the university has circulated to hon. Members to inform this debate, further details about possible redundancies are likely to emerge later this month following consultation with trade unions.

I am anxious that my right hon. Friend completes his speech, but he has spent a fair amount of time reciting facts that all of us know, and I would hate for him to come to the end of the time available without having responded to specific questions that have been posed to him from all around the Chamber. Let me remind him of a couple of them. What steps has he taken to make sure that the quality of teaching at London Met is safeguarded? What discussions has his Department had with the funding council about London Met? Finally, will it, or any other college in a similar situation, be allowed to go bankrupt?

On the last question, I think I have indicated that I have no expectation that that college will go bankrupt. If my hon. Friend lets me progress, I can tell her that the university will be able to apply for a strategic development fund when it restructures and gets into proper discussions with the funding council about the way forward. That is the first thing, but the university has not done that yet.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and for Islington, North are well aware that my constituents go to that university too—indeed more of mine do than theirs. They also know that many of us have campaigned, over many years, to ensure that universities in other democracies in other parts of the world are autonomous and free from government interference. It might be nice for the local Minister to go in and start organising a university’s finances, but we live in a democracy in which this Parliament has voted for that autonomy and maintains it. That means that the Government cannot intervene in any situation in which a university is in discussion with the funding council, but we are seeking to ensure that students at the university can complete their courses. The university has not applied for emergency funding for students, indicating that it is not worried that students will not be able to complete courses. We are seeking to ensure—this point was raised by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—that the funding council is absolutely cognisant that where there are vulnerable subjects, which we must ensure are available across the university system.

May I bring the Minister back to the redundancies and the financial model under which the university is working? It is funded enormously from the public purse, as are most universities, and it is pursuing a redundancy strategy that does not appear to be necessary in terms of its current financial difficulties. Many people from the university are concerned, as am I, that an excessive number of redundancies are being planned, and that there is an attempt to restructure without any real understanding of the need to maintain courses and staff and student numbers. I understand what the Minister has said about the autonomy of universities, but they are not autonomous; they are funded by the public. His job, as the Minister, is to take care of the public purse and ensure that moneys spent on higher education are spent appropriately.

I take seriously the prospect of redundancies and the worrying risks that they place on people. It is probably premature to reach a conclusion on that issue, particularly given that the new leadership of the institution has come into place only recently. The university has not yet made a bid for strategic development funding, which will be important to how it reshapes and restructures its courses.

Even at the best of times, losing one’s job is a serious business for anybody, and I recognise what many lecturers have done over many years at that institution. I cannot guarantee their jobs, but I can promise that any person who is made redundant from London Met will have access to a full package of support for the unemployed, including training support, as one would expect the Government to make available. I also assure hon. Members that all London Met students who are currently enrolled will be able to complete their studies in the normal way. London Met has made no applications to the funding council for emergency support for students, but I hope and expect that any such request would be considered sympathetically.

That summarises where we have got to with the institution. The university has announced only recently the appointment of Alfred Morris, a vice-chancellor with tremendous experience of turning around institutions. It is for him to begin to determine the future of London Met.

There will, of course, be an independent inquiry, and an inquiry by the National Audit Office into the financial arrangements for universities, which will have particular regard to the London Met situation. With that, I hope that my hon. Friends in what is a difficult situation in north London will understand that all of us are doing our best.

Better Healthcare Closer to Home Strategy

Eleven days ago, a special health day was held in my constituency. I persuaded my local primary care trust to hold it on the grounds of the Wilson hospital in Mitcham. The PCT seemed quite sceptical about it and, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, it was not easy to persuade the PCT of how much interest there would be from local residents.

The health day was a chance for local people to find out about the NHS’s plan to improve services and open new hospitals locally. There were stalls giving health advice and information, the most popular of which featured a bicycle that powered a fruit blender. After a couple of minutes spent cycling, people were given a free smoothie, although whether they were in a position to drink it depended on their level of fitness. There were also dance classes and football tuition for children. I arranged for small groups of general practitioners to offer quick and simple health advice, and hundreds of people queued from 10 am until nearly 4 o’clock to see them.

We estimate that about 700 or 800 people came to the health day—I do not think that my local NHS ever imagined there would be so many people. I asked the local NHS to hold question and answer sessions to let people know about the NHS’s plans for the future. It set aside one room for about 50 people and planned to hold just two sessions. In the end, we had seven or eight sessions, all of which were packed to over-capacity. The sessions stopped every 30 or 40 minutes to allow the next audience in. I had warned the local NHS that there was a massive interest in the health service, but it would not believe how large it was.

The Wilson hospital is located in the most disadvantaged ward in my constituency and borough: Cricket Green. Life expectancy in Cricket Green is up to 10 years less than that in areas just a few miles away. Many local residents are shift workers, or come from ethnic minorities or groups who find it difficult to access doctors and hospitals. They feel discouraged from visiting a doctor because of surgeries’ limited opening times. Many local residents do not have a GP and, even if they do, they do not believe that the GP practice is open at times that fit in with their lives. MPs know about the existence of such people who are excluded from primary care in the NHS, but we often find it difficult to persuade our NHS managers that that is the case. That is why the Government are extending GP opening hours, although I am afraid that not all surgeries publicise their new hours.

A few months ago, before the health fair, I visited a practice that serves some of my constituents, although it is just outside my constituency. The people at the practice complained about the Government expecting them to open at times that were convenient to patients rather than to themselves. They said that not many patients asked for evening appointments. I was a bit surprised by that, so I asked them whether they told their patients that they were open at that time, to which they said no. Obviously, that needs to be sorted out. I think that all surgeries should contact all those on their practice lists to advertise their longer hours.

As MPs, we know about such blockages in the system, but the local NHS, the surgeries and the administrators often do not. That was why I knew that there would be an incredible demand from people to come to the health fair, but the local NHS did not. However, good has come from all this. My NHS managers are now only too aware of how much interest there is in improving the health service, particularly in disadvantaged areas. They had talked about consultation, communication and contacting hard-to-reach groups, but they had never really managed it. Thanks to the health fair, they did.

Great things are planned in my area to bring health services closer to the people who need them most. The Wilson hospital, where the health fair took place, is a shining example of that. The Wilson was endowed by Sir Isaac Wilson, a local benefactor, back in 1928. He specifically donated it for health purposes. However, not long ago, in the 1990s, there was a Conservative Government. The public campaigned long and hard to keep this much-loved cottage hospital open, but the Tories would not listen and they closed it. I am afraid to say that that was part of a pattern in my area.

In 1996, during the dying days of the Conservative Government, a secret plan was drawn up to close St. Helier, my local general hospital, even though it was an integral part of the St. Helier council estate, which, when it was built in the 1930s, was one of the largest housing estates in Europe. Under that Conservative Government, secret plans were made to move services away from the people with the greatest health needs in my area. Things happen slowly in the NHS, but a process was set in motion and eventually the local NHS proposed moving everything to Belmont in Sutton.

Unfortunately, the NHS is not representative of local people. Of the 18 board members of Sutton and Merton, my local PCT, none are from Mitcham and Morden, even though we are acknowledged to be the area covered by the PCT with the worst health and greatest medical needs. When there was consultation on where to have our local hospital, the results were overwhelming: St. Helier hospital was the favourite and Belmont was the least favourite. However, the NHS voted for Belmont anyway.

Luckily, in 2004, there was a Labour council in Merton, and it called in the NHS’s decision and asked the Secretary of State to decide. The decision to close St. Helier was reconsidered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) and, in late 2005, she agreed with residents and instructed the NHS to rebuild the hospital at St. Helier, because that would help to reduce health inequalities.

Unfortunately, there has been a battle over the matter ever since. For a while, no progress was made. Meetings were even held with Transport for London, during which the NHS made it clear that Belmont was still its preferred option. So, we carried on campaigning and, three years later, it looks like we have finally won. Last year, the local NHS finally agreed its plans for our local NHS. St. Helier not only has been saved, but will be rebuilt and refurbished. There will be new wards with single rooms to cut down on infections and improve patient privacy, a new local care centre and a new 24-hour GP service operating seven days a week. What is more, there will be four care centres, including one at the Wilson—the hospital that had been closed under the Tories and where we held the health fair. Those care centres will have diagnostics and treatments, dentists and GPs, and will be open when people want them to be. The Wilson is not just getting a care centre. It will reopen as a hospital, carrying out minor operations and with more than 50 intermediate care beds for people recuperating from operations or needing care that they cannot get at home.

The local NHS has called those plans Better Healthcare Closer to Home. The programme shows the stark contrast between Conservative and Labour Governments—hospitals closed under the Conservatives, but are reopening under Labour. However, at times, it has seemed as though our achievements have been in spite of the local NHS, and I still have great concerns. It takes a very long time to persuade NHS managers about anything. At the health fair, I showed them that there was huge demand for extra and better health care, and that it needed to be delivered in ways that were convenient to patients rather than to the establishment. The local NHS met more people in one day than it probably meets in a whole year of doing things its way, including hundreds of people from hard-to-reach groups with whom it has never had a conversation in the past.

My constituents are delighted that health centres are opening. They are over the moon that the Wilson is going to reopen as a hospital and they are cock-a-hoop that St. Helier has been saved and will be rebuilt and modernised. However, they are a little astonished that it is going to take quite so much time—[Interruption.]

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her health initiative and encouraging such a number of people to come out on that day. Like me, I am sure that she is pleased with the endorsement that the Better Healthcare Closer to Home project has received from the Health Secretary, who said:

“It is the type of project that we want to succeed”—[Official Report, 12 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 678.]

However, through her, may I ask the Minister to give us some reassurance that the BHCH project remains a top priority for NHS London?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am absolutely fine after falling over before his intervention; I did not knock any sense out—there is probably only stuff to go in.

Our new care centres and hospitals will take a long time to set up. It could take two years to get approval from the Department of Health and to plan, prepare, design and procure the care centre at the Wilson. It could take three years before building can start at St. Helier. A time scale of two or three years with nothing built at all is baffling to my constituents. It will then take a further two years to build the Wilson and four years to build St. Helier. I am sure the Minister can well understand that, as far as many of my constituents are concerned, 2016 might as well be the middle of the next millennium.

I am talking about an astonishing improvement to the local health service. Yes, the programme is complex and will cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Of course we do not want the buildings to fall down, but we are talking about a major capital project at a time when our local and national economies need a shot in the arm.

I do not ask the Minister to act recklessly. However, the Better Healthcare Closer to Home plans have been going back and forth for five or six years. After such a long time, local people know what they want and are impatient for things to happen. We all believe that the plans will put patients more in control of their treatment, particularly those in hard-to-reach groups with poor health who live in less well-off areas. I am asking the Minister to do all that he can to accelerate the programme.

There is still a lot of mistrust in our NHS, and there is also a great deal of fear that future Governments might be just as hostile to our NHS as the Government in the early 1990s. If we can speed up the process and get building under way more quickly, it will reassure my constituents that things really will happen.

I should praise my neighbouring MPs, the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who have supported the plans to rebuild St. Helier. They, too, will get new local care centres in Wallington and at St. Helier. They also have neighbourhoods where people’s health is not so good, and where the local NHS seems remote.

Our communities will be reassured if people can see with their own eyes that work is beginning. While plans make their slow, steady way through the hands of the mandarins and the bureaucrats, there is nothing tangible to see. At this point, I hope that the Government will be decisive and insistent. We all want this to happen—let us get started.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate and on her tireless work on behalf of her constituents, not least when it comes to health issues. I commend the health fair that she helped to organise in her constituency at Wilson hospital and I am glad that it was a success.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of letting the general public know about the improved general practitioner services that are now available around the country, including in her constituency. There are extended opening hours in the evenings and at weekends, and new health centres are popping up in every primary care trust area. She might not be aware that we have asked every PCT to ensure that every household in its area gets a leaflet—it is called “Your Guide”—explaining what is happening in the area, including details of GPs’ extended opening to ensure that the public are aware of such information, even if GPs do not communicate it directly to them.

During the past 60 years, we have seen dramatic changes in the way in which health care is delivered. Today, patients with more and more conditions can be treated and cared for in their own homes or in their local community. For many procedures that still require hospital admission, the length of stay needed has reduced dramatically.

As medical science has advanced, NHS staff have become ever more capable of amazing feats of clinical care. For some complex procedures or operations, it is important to have well equipped and well staffed specialist centres where round-the-clock consultant and specialist nurse expertise can be assured, and where technology, which is sometimes very expensive, can be concentrated. At the same time, there is a great deal of travel in the other direction, as my hon. Friend said. More and more care and procedures no longer need to be delivered in hospitals, but can be delivered in health centres that are closer to where people live, or in people’s homes.

As my hon. Friend said, there has been a long and extensive debate about how best to reorganise health services in her part of south-west London. Better Healthcare Closer to Home was launched in 2002. The initial proposal, which based acute services at Sutton hospital, was rejected by the then Secretary of State, in part due to arguments put forward by my hon. Friend. Since then, the strategy has evolved, and, alongside the Local Needs, Local Health review, it now offers the means to improve the quality of local patient care.

There is consensus in the Sutton and Merton area that change is needed. The fabric of the estate at St. Helier hospital is very poor. The trust has inherited a legacy of old buildings, some of which are more than 60 years old, and patients’ dignity is compromised by a lack of privacy and a shortage of facilities.

The NHS in Sutton and Merton is reshaping health care around the needs of local people. For example, it will replace worn-out accommodation with facilities and single-sex areas fit for the delivery of modern health care. It will concentrate acute care at one key hospital while providing more care locally, and it will aim to improve patient outcomes and tackle the all-important issue of health inequalities, which my hon. Friend raised.

We all agree that St. Helier hospital is no longer fit to provide the 21st century health care that its local residents expect and deserve. Spending increasing sums of money on inefficient, inflexible and inadequate facilities does not represent good value for taxpayers’ money. Better Healthcare Closer to Home proposes a number of local care centres supported by a local acute hospital. St. Helier will continue to be the centre for acute health care services for the people of Sutton and Merton, and it will bring benefits to the deprived surrounding area, including my hon. Friend’s constituency. Substantially rebuilding St. Helier at an estimated cost of £155 million will be the first phase of the redevelopment, which is due to finish in 2016.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

The proposed improvements will include 65 per cent. of beds in new accommodation, with the existing site being modernised to improve patient comfort and satisfaction, and half of all in-patients will be given the privacy of single rooms, which will help to tackle health care-associated infections. By 2013, three local care centres will be built, with a fourth at the St. Helier development, bringing traditional hospital services and primary care closer to people’s homes. Ten per cent. of all intermediate and post-acute care will take place in people’s homes and in a new intermediate care centre. That service, with the Wilson local care centre, will serve my hon. Friend’s constituency at a capital cost of £22 million.

The local NHS believes that the changes will prevent 1,000 unnecessary hospital admissions every year; enable 1,500 patients a year to recover 20 per cent. faster, with more post-hospital care in people’s homes; ensure that 65 per cent. of local people in Sutton and Merton are no more than 10 minutes’ travel time from their nearest out-patient appointment; and reduce travel times by 30 per cent. for people with long-term conditions. Additionally, about £185 million is being invested in the disadvantaged areas covered by the strategy. The lower average travel times will help to reduce inequalities in access to care.

The projects submitted to NHS London have a total capital value of £208 million, and are considerably more complex than most projects on that scale. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the assessment of all the projects must be thorough and the analysis robust. It is therefore taking a little longer than perhaps she and others would wish.

The Minister is doing a good job of setting out the long-term benefits of Better Healthcare Closer to Home. I should like to encourage him, however, to comment on the short term, and perhaps I can obtain an assurance from him that when the business case for the proposals is complete, which is expected to be by the end of this month, he will take personal responsibility for ensuring that the matter is expedited through his Department.

I was coming on to discuss the short-term process, which I think will help to reassure the hon. Gentleman.

NHS London, the PCT and the trust are doing everything in their power to make the soundest case for the success of the Better Healthcare Closer to Home strategy. To that end, the finance director at NHS London is working closely with the PCT to ensure affordability. The PCT and the trust have been asked to provide clarification on a number of issues to ensure that the business cases stand up to the strongest possible scrutiny. Bearing that in mind, the PCT will resubmit the outline business case for Better Healthcare Closer to Home to NHS London before the end of this month. NHS London’s capital management group and capital investment committee will consider the case, and a decision should be made by 7 July. The Department of Health will then be free to report its decision. However, to speed up the whole process, my Department will consider the business case in parallel with NHS London, before the capital investment committee meets in July.

The proposed changes in the strategy are a key service development for the NHS in London and, alongside the changes already being implemented at Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust and North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust, they represent the top funding priorities for NHS London. Indeed, a number of improvements have already been made through the strategy. For example, on the Wilson site, a GP-led health centre is due to open later this year. It is being procured through an open tender process. It will be open from 8 am to 8 pm, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and will be open to everyone, whether they are registered with a local GP or not.

I have had a conversation, as I understand my hon. Friend has too, with the chief executive of the London strategic health authority in the past 24 hours, and she has assured me that everything is being done locally to reach a decision in July and that the redevelopment of St. Helier hospital alongside the development of four local care centres for the residents of Sutton and Merton will be given the go-ahead. I urge my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to continue to work constructively and keep up the pressure on the local NHS and NHS London to ensure that progress is expedited and that the residents of my hon. Friend’s constituency and others in the area are provided with the best NHS services now and in the future.

Nimrod Project

May I say what a pleasure it is to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean? I should also like to acknowledge the fact that a number of other Members of Parliament, who admittedly are not in the Room but will be soon, want to make a contribution.

The BAE Systems site at Woodford in my constituency has a long and proud history. It first came into use back in the 1920s and has since been in constant use. Companies such as A. V. Roe, Hawker Siddeley and BAE Systems have built and developed many aircraft there, including the world-famous Lancaster bomber, which saw extensive service in world war two. I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring this subject to the attention of the House, not only because it needs to be illuminated among MPs who do not know about the insecure future of the Nimrod project, but because I want to set out to the Minister, whom I am pleased to see in his place, the reasons why the Government should continue to use the BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 option over the United States Rivet Joint aircraft.

Hon. Members should be aware that I am speaking as a constituency MP who represents not only the BAE Woodford site, but many hundreds of highly trained workers—skilled engineers and technicians who work at the plant and live locally in my constituency or those of my constituency neighbours in the surrounding area. Those BAE employees are relying on three further Nimrod aircraft being commissioned and the site continuing in use as long as possible. As the local MP, I visit the site often, and am well aware of the fantastic job that the whole team of employees does. The expertise of the defence sector workers in this country is world renowned, and it is also on their behalf that I am speaking today.

My contention is simple: to lose valuable contracts to the US markets, as we may well do if the decision goes against Woodford, will not only affect the current workers at the Woodford plant, but will be a death knell for the future of the defence aviation industry in the United Kingdom. Sadly, I do not have time to give all the background and history of the BAE site at Woodford and the Nimrod project, but it would be wrong not to pay my respects and pause to offer my sympathies to the families and friends of the 14 airmen who were tragically killed in the Nimrod incident over Afghanistan in 2006. I understand, however, that the problem that caused the fuel leak that resulted in the accident has long since been corrected and the Nimrods are now on course to have the fewest fuel leaks since the RAF began keeping a tally.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so mindful of the 14 servicemen who died aboard Nimrod XV230, based at RAF Kinloss in my constituency. Does he agree that it is imperative that the Nimrod replacement process continues as speedily as possible, not least because it would assuage any remaining concerns about what is a very aged Nimrod fleet? That is one among many reasons why the replacement programme should continue as speedily as possible.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point and I am happy to agree with him on that matter.

As I have said, the history of the Woodford site is very important, but I want to look forwards, rather than backwards. I shall start with the productionisation issue. I understand from BAE that the Minister visited the plant recently and made it clear that the option to convert the three development aircraft to production standard would almost certainly not be taken forward, yet the RAF has stated that it needs a minimum of 12 MRA4 aircraft to fulfil its operational tasks. I therefore invite the Minister to explain to the House how, without those three planes, the operational shortfall will be met and what the replacement measures will cost.

However, the key issue that I want to focus on today is the Helix programme. For those hon. Members who are not aware of it, it is a brand-new electronic surveillance mission system and it requires a further three aircraft. The Government have accepted that the RAF needs those planes and the capacity that they will provide, but the decision that the Minister faces is where the aircraft will come from. We are talking about either the brand-new, state-of-the-art Nimrods from the UK or—this appears to be the only alternative—the 40-year-old US Rivet Joint plane made by Boeing.

In late 2007, BAE submitted an outline proposal that the aircraft should be Nimrods, but the Ministry of Defence decided that the costs were too high and too much risk was involved. Since 2007, the situation has changed dramatically. I am pleased to acknowledge that the Minister agreed that a further bid by BAE Systems could and should be submitted.

Over that time, the MRA4 programme has matured; the development programme is almost complete and through-life costs are now well understood. Most important, perhaps, is that the decision not to productionise the three Nimrod airframes already in existence leaves them ready and available for conversion for the Helix programme. Given those developments, does the Minister agree that no decision should be made before a thorough examination of the BAE bid is made and carefully compared with the American option? I hope that he will at least give us a guarantee that that will happen today.

The MOD will doubtless wish to examine closely the question of cost. Does the Minister agree that there will be cost advantages, as well as advantages such as operational synergy, in operating Helix with a fleet of Nimrods, especially as the RAF already uses them and is familiar with them? I understand that the MRA4 plane has a longer shelf life than the Rivet Joint alternative— 25 years rather than 12. Is that the Minister’s understanding, and will those aspects will be taken into account in the appraisal?

I want to be sure that the cost-benefit analysis of the options takes account of all the effects of the decision, including those that might be unintended. For example, local employment, and therefore the local economy, will be directly affected, with up to 1,000 dedicated employees at Woodford having to face their jobs ending more quickly if Nimrod is not chosen for the Helix project. The UK would also lose the expertise developed in Woodford—expertise that would help possible future productivity—and support and service for the current Nimrod fleet, thus leaving the UK no option but to return to the US again and again for upgrades and maintenance.

In my view, the decision would also damage the UK defence industry’s ability to modify and improve electronic surveillance systems which, in turn, would severely cripple the UK defence industry’s future capabilities. The unintended consequences of a decision to buy American and the advantages of using the Nimrod must be factored into the cost-benefit analysis of the two options. Intelligence considerations are arguably even more important. If the American aircraft were used, all intelligence gathered would come to the United Kingdom via the US military, not directly to GCHQ, as it would if the Nimrod option were chosen.

Will the Minister tell hon. Members how the capabilities of the two aircraft compare? I understand that the new Nimrod is a world-class, state-of-the-art aircraft that offers exceptional capabilities. Does the Minister believe that the same can be said of the 40-year-old Rivet Joint American alternative? In an article that appeared in The Times last year, an RAF insider was reported as saying:

“I am incandescent with rage that we are even considering ditching what is a world-class, ‘gold standard’, war-winning capability in the name of economy and the dubious claimed benefits of greater interoperability with the USAF”.

Again, I would be grateful for any response that the Minister can give me.

On the question of maintaining national security, what level of control would the US have over the Rivet Joint contract? For example, could the contract be cancelled, or not renewed, if the UK used Helix for actions that the US Government did not support? Surely we should not hand over a vital part of the UK’s defence capability to the US in that way. Does not the Minister agree that there is a question of sovereignty and independence?

Finally—I am aware that other Members wish to contribute to the debate—the argument is not about protectionism. It is a question of short-term savings overriding long-term financial sense and stability. It will be more economic in the long term, and for the economy as a whole, to stay with the Nimrod programme. It is also right for the country. In the current economic climate, we would be better investing in UK jobs and developing the UK defence industry instead of subsidising US jobs and the US defence industry.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) on securing the debate. I emphasise that the matter unites all political parties represented in the north-west. I can tell the Minister that everybody is conscious of his willingness to engage in proper debate on the matter and to make himself open to argument. For example, when he visited Woodford recently, he listened to the concerns expressed not only by BAE Systems, but by its work force.

Although I shall not speak for long, I want to make a few central points and reiterate some of the points made by the hon. Member for Cheadle. We in the north-west of England are concerned that the nation should recognise the importance of the defence industry not only as an employer, but as a repository of the high skills that our nation needs for advanced manufacturing in future. Maintaining that skills base is not an arbitrary factor, but an important consideration; it has not only monetary value but something beyond that.

I realise that the Minister might not want to answer every detailed question raised this afternoon. The growing belief is that comparisons that might originally have been disadvantageous to the Nimrod have been evened up considerably in recent times. That is partly because BAE Systems recognised the need to make significant progress in order to satisfy the concerns of the RAF and the Ministry of Defence. Those were legitimate concerns, given the history of delays in such projects, but things have moved along.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend whether he is satisfied that at least part of the commercial risk has been removed as a result of the offer from BAE Systems to consider a leasing system and the cost equation involved in providing the Nimrod. If not, I would counter with serious doubts about the comparison with the Rivet Joint system. For example, we know that some of the costs involved in operating the Rivet Joint system will be disadvantageous. It will need bigger crews, and it will have certain other disadvantages that will lead to longer ongoing costs than the Nimrod system. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that BAE Systems arguments on the costs equation are going in the right direction?

Cost is an important part of the equation, but the sustainability of Nimrod as a military system is fundamental. There is no point in buying it if it does not do what it should. There is no doubt that the newer Nimrod system is better than Rivet Joint, but with the proviso that I conceded in conversations with the Minister and others. The key question is: can BAE Systems deliver the system when the RAF needs it?

In the end, we need to hear from the Minister whether delivery is still a fundamental problem. We local MPs need to say to the company that it has to close that gap and give the necessary guarantees. If the Minister believes that such things are already built into the equation, can we move forward, recognising that on jobs, costs and in terms of defence capability, Nimrod is the superior system?

It is a pleasure, Mrs. Dean, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) on securing this debate. It is on a matter of general public interest, particularly in the north-west of England, and I am struck by the number of Members from all parties who are here this afternoon to take part.

I totally agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said about the history of BAE Woodford. It has a proud history involving the RAF and the use of the very best of British engineering skills over many generations. As he has rightly said, it goes back to the Lancaster bomber in the second world war and the Vulcan just after the war, and it includes the first Nimrod, the MR2 and the current MRA4 programme. I also agree totally with what he said—I am so glad that he mentioned it—about the appalling tragedy of the loss of those 14 men in Afghanistan in 2006. That remains a very live memory. Those men died serving their country in a harsh and difficult environment, and we pay tribute to them. We bitterly regret their loss.

I shall deal in turn with three distinct issues: the current progress of the MRA4 project, the prospects for productionising the additional three aircraft in the MRA4 maritime surveillance role and the possible use of an MRA4 airframe to contain a new version of the Helix system to replace the R1 Nimrod. As all colleagues from all parties in the Chamber who have followed this history over the years know all too well, the MRA4 project has been very much less than a happy one, ever since the original contract was signed by the Conservative Government in 1996. One has almost lost count of the number of renegotiations of the contract since then. The story contains lessons for all of us on the procurement side and for those on the industrial side as well. Those lessons are being learned on both sides.

I am happy to say that the latest indications are reasonably favourable—in some respects, they are very favourable. The latest bad news is that there have been delays to flight trials, but the good news is that we hope that delivery of the first aircraft will be slightly ahead of the latest schedule later this year, which is very good news. The 2011 in-service date will be met, and we look forward to that. The Defence Committee asked me why we did not cancel the MRA4, but I assure hon. Members that, unless something completely unpredictable—indeed, almost inconceivable today—happens, I shall not consider that option at all. We look forward to taking delivery of those aircraft.

The question was asked whether we can do the job with nine rather than 12 aircraft. The answer is, “Yes, we can.” I do not want to go into too much detail, because these are delicate security issues, but the essential national defence task to which those aircraft will be put can certainly be done with nine aircraft. That will leave us with a great deal of capacity to do a wider job in the maritime surveillance role. I am confident that the essential task that we want the MRA4 to accomplish can be carried out. If we had 12 or 15 aircraft, no doubt we could put them to good uses. With current technology, however, there is no need for anything like the 21 aircraft that were originally specified in the totally different circumstances of the early 1990s.

I want to repeat what I said very clearly in Woodford on 27 April, because it is neither responsible nor kind—in fact, it is cruel—to encourage false hope. Although no formal statement has been made or formal decision taken—there are various formal procedures in the MOD to go through first—in all honesty, I cannot conceive of any circumstances in which it would feel right to spend additional taxpayers’ money on further MRA4 aircraft in the maritime surveillance role. I want to put that even more firmly on the record than I did in Woodford. I am afraid that it is a fact that everybody should take on board. I do not want people to spend money unnecessarily. In particular, I am concerned about people planning for their futures and facing up to the realities of the situation earlier rather than later. It is in that spirit that I make that point.

The third distinct issue is the one about which hon. Members on both sides are most concerned: our decision on the replacement for the R1 Nimrod and the question whether we can use these three potential MRA4 aircraft in that role. I shall not disguise from the Chamber the fact that, when I took over this job, many people said to me that that was not a sensible or realistic prospect. However, I am determined to ensure that we do not exclude that prospect unless we have considered its potential very carefully and thoroughly.

I know that BAE Systems put in a bid some years ago for a new replacement for the R1 Helix system, and that it was not one of the companies selected to undertake an initial study. I do not want to go back over the past. Under international and European law, we are allowed to take a national view, from time to time, on defence procurement, and there will be moments when I will feel that it is right to do so. If BAE Systems can come up with a sensible solution, I would certainly prefer a British solution.

I apologise to you, Mrs. Dean, and to the Chamber for being a little late. The Divisions confused me about when this debate would begin. The Minister’s response is very constructive and helpful. However, what consideration has he given to the life cost and operational synergies between Helix and MRA4? Could a great deal of money not be saved? This airframe could be used. I agree that there are complications, but surely considerable savings could be made, particularly in having one aircraft carrying out both functions.

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right that the through-life cost is the important issue in terms of cost and that cost itself is important. Cost has to be considered along with the other two issues that are most important to me—delivery time and technical risk. There have been far too many cases in the history of defence procurement in which we took on excessive technical risk and found that we were buying capabilities that did not work, or that we had taken far too long to acquire them, because we had had to solve all sorts of technical problems along the line. Historically, the Nimrod MRA4 project is a classic example of that, as too was its predecessor. We must be alive to those things.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is convinced that if I were to consider the matter on a through-life cost basis, I would come up with an equation that points clearly in the direction of the MRA4. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) is also very confident that the MRA4 would come out ahead on all those criteria. I do not know. I have not received proposals either for the Rivet Joint or from BAE Systems—if we get one—for the MRA4 in the signals intelligence and R1 replacement role.

On 27 April, I told BAE Systems three things: first, that if it wants to bid, I would enable it do so by briefing it in full on the necessary, up-to-date information about our requirements—that has been provided during conversations over the past few weeks—secondly, that I shall consider the three factors just mentioned; and thirdly, that it might feel handicapped, because clearly its bid would involve adapting an airframe to a role for which it was not originally conceived, the production of a new missions system that has not been in service before and the integration of those two things. Those are the three different technical risks involved.

The Minister is giving a very full response to our questions, and I look forward to the rest of his comments. According to our information, this is an either/or choice—either Rivet Joint or Nimrod—and he has not yet denied that. As we understand it, the American project is a 40-year-old product. Does he share my concerns about the structural integrity of an aircraft that might have spent most of the past 40 years in a desert somewhere in the United States waiting for a buyer? Cost is a major consideration, but safety is also uppermost in all our minds, including his.

I did not include safety in my three criteria, because safety must be taken for granted before we take anything beyond the first stage. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am not an aerodynamist or aeronautical engineer, so I have to rely on the experts to answer these questions. If he asks them directly, as I have done, the experts will tell him that the critical thing is not necessarily the age of the design of the airframe. The original airframe of the Rivet Joint is the same as that of the Boeing 707—he and I might remember going on one of them in our childhoods. The design has proved to be extremely viable over those years. It is the age of the individual airframe, which may not be anything like 40 years old, and the number of flying hours that it has done that are the critical factors.

Let me turn to the US air force, which does not have a reputation for cutting corners on safety. One or two air forces in some parts of the world may not be paragons when it comes to good safety records, but that is not the case with the US air force. The US air force plans to use Rivet Joint, which is the existing system that it is talking to us about, until 2040. According to its schedule, it will start to withdraw the system from 2036 going on to 2043, so take an average of 2040—I think that I am within a year or so of being accurate. In practice, many of the systems will be extended a bit longer than the out-of-service date as foreseen 25 or 30 years beforehand. The US air force is pretty confident about the viability of the airframe. That is the best answer that I can give to the hon. Gentleman. I will not prejudge this whole competition.

When the Minister makes his considerations, will he also take into account the importance of keeping highly skilled engineering jobs in the north-west, because that will attract further investment and give vitality to the region?

The answer is, of course, yes. I was going to touch on that important aspect in my concluding remarks.

In the limited time that is left, I hope that the Minister will make some reference to the intelligence questions that I raised earlier in my speech. I am referring here to the sharing of information.

I am sorry about this, Mrs. Dean, but we are all confused about the way in which this debate has been running this afternoon for the reasons that we all know about. Am I right in thinking that I have another three minutes?

Will it help if I clarify how much time we have left? We started this debate early because the previous debate finished earlier than expected. We may have another vote. [Interruption.] My pager is buzzing away. We can go on until 5.24 pm.

I am grateful for that, Mrs. Dean. In anticipation that we cannot go on for that long because of the expected vote, I will try rapidly to answer that important question. On that matter, unlike on other matters, the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. If we were to purchase or acquire by some contractual mechanism—I leave that matter open for the time being—the capability represented by the Rivet Joint, it would be exclusively British crews who will operate the system. The intelligence will come through to us in the first instance, and it would be for us to share that with our very important allies, including the United States, or it may be just the United States. It will be a matter entirely for us. We retain complete sovereignty over the ownership of that intelligence. There is no danger of our losing that.

The hon. Gentleman raises the theoretical political risk—I call it political risk—that the United States will embargo this country, stymie our defence capabilities, order its nationals no longer to service our aircraft or deliver spares for the aircraft that we are utilising and so on. I cannot estimate in what time scale such US actions or sanctions might be effective, if ever they were applied. I rate very low the chances of such an eventuality emerging in the world of the future, even after our time. I cannot believe that there will be a situation of such enmity between this country and its greatest traditional ally, the United States. Although there is a theoretical risk, it is not one on which I will spend a great deal of time. If such a nightmare scenario were to take place, there would be so many other issues of great national importance that that would not be a concern.

I am looking forward to receiving any offers that anyone wants to send in. If BAE Systems decides that it wants to send us an offer, that is entirely its decision. I have not requested it to send in an offer; I have simply said that I do not want to prevent it from sending in an offer. I will facilitate it putting together an offer, if that is what it wants, and we will consider it very thoroughly and fairly. All the issues that have been reasonably raised this afternoon will be weighed in the balance when we come to make a decision.

Our Prime Minister—I do not want to misquote him—has made it known that he would like, where possible, for purchases to be made of British products, because that will provide jobs for British workers in British factories and bring the maximum benefit. How will such a factor be weighed up? If the company provides assurances over design and reliability and says that there will not be the problems that have been experienced in the past, will that weigh heavily? Given that the trade union movement at Woodford has been constructive and co-operative with management on all occasions over recent years, I do not believe that it should lose out, especially as the Helix MRA4 would answer the requirements of the RAF.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the Prime Minister. I agree with him that the Prime Minister is an excellent Prime Minister. I think that I said the same in more or less the same words as the hon. Gentleman. All things being equal, or not quite entirely equal, I would prefer this contract to go to a British company. I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said about BAE Systems and its work force. I have had several meetings with representatives of the work force and have been impressed with how well informed they are and how pragmatic and effective they are in their dealings with the management. When I went to Woodford on 27 April for what was an exemplary meeting, the management asked the unions to be present at most of our meetings—that has never happened to me before. I thought that that was splendid, because it showed that real teamwork was going on between management and the unions so far as that factory and this project are concerned.

Earlier, the Minister made reference, quite appropriately, to the dangers of building up people’s hopes and expectations. He made it quite clear that the Government are not interested in doing that unless there is real reason to do so. That being the case, will he confirm the timetable for that decision? As the Minister has been to Woodford and paid tribute to its work force and management, will he give us a more specific idea about the timetable? We have been told that a decision is imminent, but it is only fair to those who have livelihoods at stake at Woodford to know what timetable the Minister has in mind, so that they will have a better idea of when precisely their futures will be known.

It is a matter of a very small number of months. We have had conversations with two potential major bidders in this project. I do not want to start setting some arbitrary deadline. I want to receive the two offers, and I want the bidders to feel happy with them. However, what I will not do is delay the project to accommodate the offers. It is very important for us to see progress and people going forward in a matter of weeks. It will be a very small number of months within which we will need to have got on board, in a final version, all the facts. As I have said, there are many considerations in such an operation. I have tried to isolate three, because they are the essential ones on which everyone should focus—they are price, delivery and technical risk. I have not disguised from BAE Systems privately, and I do not disguise from the Members of Parliament who represent the people who are employed in the factory, that on technical risk, it is not necessarily an equal race. We have to compare a proven system with one that will be new in terms of airframe, mission system and the integration between the two. There are some real challenges, but I do not mean to say that it is hopeless or impossible. If I thought that, I would say so and cut off any chance of anybody bidding. We remain totally open-minded, and I look forward to making a decision on that basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) made a good point about the future of the British aerospace industry and the engineering skills that we have at every phase in the design, development and production of aircraft systems. The Government do not get much credit for good news—nobody pays attention to it—but there was a piece of spectacularly good news the other day, when we confirmed that we are prepared to go with our partners on the European continent to negotiate part of the third tranche of the Typhoon programme. That enormously important programme involves a lot of aircraft and work, so it was considerably good news, not least for the main contractors involved and their work forces and for the subcontractors. The livelihoods of some 16,000 people in this country depend directly on the future of the programme, and it is going forward. I hope that that answers my hon. Friend’s question.

BAE Systems is investing its shareholders money, which we appreciate, and the Government are investing—such joint investment is the way forward, as I have said in many different forums and contexts—in three new unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned combat vehicles programmes. I will not go into the details or specifications of the projects, because, as the hon. Member for Cheadle will realise, such matters are confidential. I visited Warton, where that programme and the major contribution of BAE Systems to Typhoon tranche 3 are going ahead.

We are entitled to feel reasonably confident about the position of the aerospace industry in the north-west and its component manufacturers in other parts of the country, including the important Selex avionic systems site in Edinburgh. Every time I see the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) in a defence debate, I tell him that Selex’s long-term future would be menaced, if Scotland becomes independent. He must face up to those issues, which are important for the livelihood of his constituents and many people in Scotland. At the moment, they are nevertheless entitled to feel reasonably confident.

The future of the Woodford plant is a matter for BAE Systems; it is not for the Government to tell it what to do with its assets and plants, or how to structure its business, so we will not do so. However, my understanding is that Woodford will not remain an aircraft production facility much longer than a couple of years beyond the delivery of the nine MRA4s, whether or not we produce a contract to use the three test aircraft in a new role. In other words, instead of a 2012 deadline, we might be pushing a deadline of 2014. Two years is not nothing, but one could always argue that if bad news is coming and there is going to be some restructuring, it is better for people to have an early warning, so that they can change their lives aged 39 rather than aged 41 or 42. We can argue that both ways.

I was deeply impressed, both as an individual and as an engineer, by the chief engineer at Woodford, who has been there for many years, and by his team. The spirit at Woodford is magnificent. As long as we have real business and requirements for state-of-the-art avionics and aerospace in this country, which we will if the Government have anything to do with it, there will be prospects for the skills, dedication and track record, which have been demonstrated by the Woodford work force over the years, to find a continuing role in the industry, if not on that site.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.