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Commons Chamber

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2009

House of Commons

Tuesday 9 June 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Savings

2. What his most recent estimate is of the percentage of household disposable income that is saved. (278505)

The latest gross household savings ratio is for the fourth quarter of 2008 and it shows that 4.8 per cent. of total household resources were saved.

Families saving for the future are under serious pressure, especially those with disabled children, as they come under particular pressure when the disabled child reaches 18, so saving is very important for them. What have the Government done to help those families? I ask that because some good Government initiatives that were introduced in the Budget seem to have got lost in the general credit crunch debate.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this point, because the Government announced in this year’s Budget that we will contribute an additional £100 a year to the child trust fund accounts of all disabled children, with the most severely disabled receiving £200. We are doing that because, as he mentioned, we recognise the particular issues that face disabled children as they reach maturity. They can, of course, control their trust fund assets when they turn 18.

There will certainly be a reduction in savings from household income in the Cheltenham and Gloucester area today, following the peremptory announcement by Lloyds of the loss of 1,600 Cheltenham & Gloucester jobs. Is it not the case that Lloyds has betrayed any regard for the dignity of people and their employment, and will the Minister join me in writing to the Cheltenham & Gloucester in order to ensure that people who are to be made unemployed are treated properly?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this point, and we obviously hope that people will be treated with decency in what is a very difficult time, not only for Lloyds but across the financial services sector. The question of the number of people employed by Lloyds is obviously a commercial matter for the company itself, but I am sure that Members in all parts of the House who have constituents who are affected will want to make sure that they are treated as decently as possible.

How can the Treasury properly promote a savings culture when it is led by a Chancellor who last week was scheduled to be sacked? [Hon. Members: “Where is he?”] If the Prime Minister does not have any confidence in the head of the Treasury, why should the rest of us?

Well, I am delighted to be able to report to the House that the Chancellor is currently at ECOFIN fighting for this Government’s interests, and in particular ensuring that the UK’s interests are represented as the European Community discusses the de Larosière report, which is entirely relevant to the City of London as it deals with the European supervisory framework. I think that that is exactly the right thing for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be doing, and it is in direct contrast to the policies of the Opposition, which are to reduce the influence of our country in Europe by leaving the European People’s party and refusing to engage.

I welcome my hon. Friend back to the Treasury; it is nice to see her in the team again.

As my hon. Friend will know, the savings ratio tends to be geared to what is happening to house prices, so it is no surprise that now that we are seeing a house price deflation there is a recovery in household savings. At a time of low inflation, savers will be looking for good deals, and I welcome the extension of the individual savings account scheme in the Budget and particularly the extension of savings opportunities for those over 50. Will she and the Treasury team continue to look at some targeted further developments of the ISA scheme to assist those who are now seeking to save in new ways?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this point. People over 50 will be able to save £10,200 in their ISA from October this year, of which £5,100 can be saved in cash. We know that this will be particularly welcome as savers seek better returns on their assets. It is, of course, a competitive market out there, so I urge anybody who has been adversely affected by the necessary reduction in interest rates to have a look at the comparator tables available on the Financial Services Authority website.

Can the Minister tell me why anyone should save at this time, bearing in mind that the return they get on any savings is either nil or minimal? Is she not concerned, as I and many other Members on both sides of the House are, about the situation of the elderly, who look to the income from their savings to provide them with a sensible standard of living? What are the Government doing about those who rely to a large extent on their savings to supplement any pension or other modest or low income?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening, but I just explained one thing that we are doing for the over-50s to ensure that they can get a better return on their savings—we have increased the limits up to which they can save tax-free in ISAs. This Government’s policy is to promote saving across the whole of a person’s lifetime, which is why we introduced child trust funds—I am delighted that three quarters of parents take those up for their children; we, of course, open them for the remaining quarter. It is also why we introduced and are expanding the ISA allowances, why the savings gateway will come on board from next year and why we continue to give advantageous tax relief to people saving for their pensions.

Bradford & Bingley (Bonds)

3. What representations United Kingdom Financial Investments has received on the cessation of interest payments on Bradford & Bingley’s 11.625 per cent. perpetual subordinated bonds. (278506)

The Treasury and UKFI receive a wide range of representations on issues relating to banks in receipt of public funds. It is not the Government’s practice to provide details of all such representations.

Bradford & Bingley has announced that it is going to default on the interest payments on these bonds. When it made that announcement the capital value of the bonds fell, so many people who have invested in these securities for their retirement income have lost out on both interest and capital. Given that Bradford & Bingley is effectively a Government-owned institution, does this not suggest that the Government are prioritising getting their money back ahead of their moral and legal obligation to bondholders?

This was a decision for the Bradford & Bingley board to make, judged against the objectives it had in its business plan. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the statutory debt owed to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme is about £14 billion, and the Treasury is owed about £4 billion. He will also be aware of the normal creditor hierarchy, and I believe that it is fair that the FSCS and the Treasury should be repaid ahead of subordinated liabilities. Furthermore, he will be aware that in such circumstances the 11.625 per cent. rate of interest should have given people who were taking advantage of these bonds some sort of clue that they were making a reasonably risky investment and that they would not necessarily be ahead of others who were making less risky investments.

Yesterday, we saw that Lloyds TSB was able to pay back to the taxpayer a net £2.3 billion, and the British Bankers Association today reports that bank lending to small businesses has increased over the past month. Although there is a long way to go, what do those developments tell us about the effectiveness of the Government’s strategy towards the banks?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the announcement made yesterday by Lloyds Banking Group. I think that it indicates that the recapitalisation of the banks and the actions that we took in January, on top of those in October, are working. We need to do more to continue to ensure that lending is available in the financial system, be it lending for people who want mortgages or lending to business, which is vital. Well over £50 billion of additional lending has been committed this year, which should make a difference in the future. The Government need to keep taking actions that will make a real difference in helping people and businesses through these difficult economic times, rather than leave people to their own devices, as the Conservative party would do.

Can the Minister confirm that he is about to appoint a valuer for the assets in Bradford & Bingley and that the valuer will be able to act with complete independence from the views of Ministers in valuing those assets? Can he also confirm that the valuer will be free to offer the same deal to bondholders and shareholders in Bradford & Bingley as the preferential deal offered to the same groups of people in respect of Northern Rock?

I can indeed confirm that the Government will appoint a valuer shortly. We hope to be able to do that before the recess, and a public appointments process is going on at the moment. The hon. Lady will be aware of the powers in the Banking Act 2009 and the role of the valuer—they have a remit to act independently. The valuer’s decisions will undoubtedly be a matter for the valuer, acting in accordance with his or her remit and existing legislation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the development at Lloyds. May I ask him to look further at the form of recapitalisation executed there—namely the reduction in high interest rate preference shares for normal equity—to see whether or not he could consider, in the case of Bradford & Bingley and others, using high-yielding bonds too? They could be repaid and therefore make it much easier, in terms of bank liquidity, to promote the very increase in borrowing that we seek.

My hon. Friend has a great deal of expertise in these matters, and I always listen with interest to what he says. Lloyds has made a commercial decision about wanting to repay the preference shares, and it is right to refer to the vital importance of liquidity in the financial system. As always, the Government will keep these matters under review.

Does the Minister accept that it is essential that United Kingdom Financial Investments should be seen to have genuine operational independence? Will the Government therefore take early action to put that body on a proper statutory footing?

We have made a number of announcements with regard to UKFI, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, it operates on an arm’s length basis. It is right that Bradford & Bingley and other banks that have received Government funds and involve UKFI in a supervisory management role should act on a commercial basis. We will continue to ensure that we provide the right level of resourcing for UKFI so that it can undertake the work that it needs to do, which is about protecting the taxpayer’s interests.

We have to bear in mind the fact that as a Government, we have invested huge sums on behalf of the taxpayer in our banking system. We need to ensure that we do all we can to protect the taxpayer’s interests, and that is what we will do.

Inflation

The Treasury’s latest assessment of inflation and its effect, and the effect of other factors on the economy, was published in the Budget. Since then, consumer price inflation was 2.3 per cent. in April.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post.

In the longer term, will the Government look again at the inflation target, perhaps with a view to raising it so that as the economy moves out of recession—it is doing that, which is very welcome—the green shoots of recovery are not crushed by too early and too steep an increase in interest rates?

We certainly have no plans to choke off growth when it returns, which is exactly why we have put so many tools and resources in place to ensure that we return to recovery as quickly as possible. The reason why we will not revisit the inflation target in future is simple: we do not see that there is a trade-off between inflation and growth, and in the medium term we believe that higher inflation will deliver higher interest rates, which in turn will dampen down our long-term rate of growth. That is exactly why, when the Chancellor published the Budget a month or two ago, he confirmed the Bank’s remit to keep the inflation target exactly where it is.

I had intended to congratulate the Chancellor on rising from his grave, but it appears that he is still lurking in the graveyard.

May I ask when the Treasury plans to reverse the not very successful quantitative easing programme, in order to moderate inflationary expectations?

The Governor of the Bank of England has been very clear that quantitative easing is a tool that he needs to ensure that monetary policy operates effectively in this country. That is perhaps why we have not seen the falls in prices that have been seen in other parts of the world. We are absolutely determined to ensure that the Governor has the tools that he needs to set that measure alongside a fiscal stimulus. Together, they amount to something like 4 per cent. of the economy. We believe that that is the best way to return to growth as quickly as possible.

The market is factoring in expectations of a significant rise in inflation, as reflected in higher bond yields. Why is that happening, and does it not run the risk of choking off any economic recovery when it comes?

That is exactly why the Chancellor has been clear that the inflation-busting remit of the Governor of the Bank of England remains undisturbed. What is important is that the Chancellor makes available to the Governor the tools that he needs to deliver on that inflation target. That is why it is important that it is down to the independent Monetary Policy Committee to help oversee how tools such as quantitative easing are used.

The Governor has been clear about how he will approach the question of when to stop using the tools that have been made available to him. He said in the May inflation report that that decision would be based on a judgment about the inflation outlook, so there is no change in the strategy or the approach. This is simply another way of conducting monetary policy within the framework that the Chancellor has set for him.

May I, too, welcome the Chief Secretary to his new position?

Last week in Beijing, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said that

“consumer spending in the United States will be restrained for some time relative to what is typically the case in recoveries. These are necessary adjustments. They will entail a longer, slower process of recovery”.

Going into this recession, UK household debt was even higher than that in the US, so why does the Chief Secretary think that the UK recovery will be so much stronger than that in the US and is he still sticking to his trampoline forecast of 3.5 per cent. growth in 2011?

The reason why we have confidence in the forecast is that we not only acted early, but acted to ensure that a considerable stimulus was put in place. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the return to growth after previous recessions in the 1980s and 1990s, he will see that it was not dissimilar to the return to growth that we project in the years to come. But that growth would not materialise and we would not see the recovery that we project if we followed the course of action proposed by the Opposition, and took £5 billion out of the economy at the worst possible time.

Like me, the hon. Gentleman will have read closely the speech made by the shadow Chancellor, who said this morning:

“You might think that the middle of a recession is not the time to be investing in the businesses and entrepreneurs of the future, but you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s actually exactly the right time.”

Can the hon. Gentleman perhaps explain why he plans to take £5 billion out of the economy in the middle of a recession?

Notwithstanding the progress that has been made arising from the G20 and all the rest of it—[Interruption.] This is serious—[Interruption.] We won every seat in Bolsover last week, six out of six—[Interruption.] Not in my area. I was on the streets speaking to voters and getting them out—[Interruption.] You are no good at maths, either.

Will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that this time last year there was serious speculation in oil and other commodities, and the price of oil rose to $147 a barrel? Speculation undoubtedly played a significant part in that. The price has now risen to $68 today. Will he ensure that there is no speculation of the kind that we had last year, to ensure that the recovery gathers pace through to next year?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor, in the Budget, projected that the consumer prices index would begin to fall over the course of this year, which is why it is important that we ensure that the Governor has the right tools at his disposal to ensure that we do not see prices falling uncontrollably and for an extended length of time. We will therefore ensure that the Governor has the tools that he says he needs, but we will need to keep situations such as the rise in oil prices under close review. That is why it is important that we retain a degree of flexibility. It is also why it will be important for us to carry on acting internationally, because the kind of co-ordination that my hon. Friend mentions is best done internationally. That is something that would be very difficult if we were to take the very different approach proposed by the Opposition.

I often want to intervene, although not particularly on this point; the question that I was going to ask concerns something that arose some time ago. What level of quantitative easing does the Chief Secretary believe is consistent with a low inflation target?

Well, I am afraid that that is a judgment that we will leave to the Governor of the Bank of England. The Chancellor has authorised up to £150 billion of quantitative easing, and the Bank has drawn down something like £125 billion so far. As I say, it is important that we provide the framework and give the Governor the tools to do the job, but it is also important for the confidence of markets and for delivering the target in hand that it is left to the MPC and the Governor to make the ultimate judgment about how much is needed now and how much is needed later.

Reoffending (Access to Services)

5. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues to ensure that methods of budgeting for health, education and skills enable quick and effective access to services required to reduce levels of reoffending. (278508)

The Treasury sits alongside 13 other Departments, including the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, in our work focused on reducing reoffending. My right hon. Friend will be glad to know that adult reoffending fell by 23 per cent. between 2000 and 2006, while juvenile reoffending fell by nearly 19 per cent. over the same period.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to answering these questions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that spending on aspects such as drug treatment and public health can have an implication for reoffending? For instance, the engagement of young people in school and in having a future through education is also relevant to reducing reoffending. Will he come with me to look at the success of the violence reduction strategy in Cardiff, which has prevented violent crime and also reduced the need for expensive surgery? Will he also ensure that officials in his Department make the connection between these different sorts of budgets?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the persistence and tenacity with which he has raised this issue with Treasury Ministers. I would be pleased to learn a little more about the work in Cardiff that he has talked about. It is a clear example of the way in which front-line public servants, when they are given greater freedom, can work together more effectively to deliver better outcomes on such an important agenda, very often for less money. I know that he will be keen to know more about the work of Sir Michael Bichard, who is working in 13 different areas around the country to consider how, within different local authority areas, we can bring together the work of public services engaged in similar endeavours.

Is this not an area where the Minister can bring to bear experience from his previous office? Is it not something that Governments of all colours are rather bad at—namely, spending on prevention rather than cure and spending upstream to avoid a problem rather than spending money on the consequences of that problem? Could not the excellent third sector organisations be deployed far more efficiently by the Government, with the right kind of backing, to stop people reoffending as frequently as they do?

I have to agree with the hon. Gentleman. Moving our attention and our resources into the business of prevention will, overall, be much cheaper for the country and will save a lot of human pain in the medium and long term. I must agree with him that the third sector provides extraordinary new potential, as do charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises. They can help on this agenda in two fields in particular. First, they can ensure that those who are convicted of offences are given much greater skills, education and literacy training so that they are better able to succeed in the labour market. Secondly, they can do a better job of helping people to kick the poison of drugs. As we know, that is the root cause of so much reoffending in this country.

One of the most effective approaches with young offenders in particular is finding paid employment. I have seen a scheme sponsored by National Grid that reduces the reoffending rates from 70 per cent. to just 7 per cent. through supported employment, taking young people into the workplace and ensuring that they have all the support they need. As has been said, this is all about prevention and ensuring that we invest in the long term by investing these moneys up front. Will he commit to ensuring that such schemes are replicated across the country so that we learn from the best practice that is already happening up and down our Prison Service?

The scheme that my hon. Friend mentions is very much the kind of scheme that will be more possible in the future because of the £100 million of investment provided last year in the youth crime action plan. As I say, ensuring that money and resources go into equipping people with the skills that they need to succeed in today’s labour market is one of the best investments that we can make in crime prevention. From my experience in my constituency, I think that that must go alongside well-organised, well-structured and well-delivered programmes to keep people away from drugs, too, but where there is innovation such as that pioneered by National Grid, we will, of course, seek to learn from it and build on it.

Debt Reduction

6. What recent discussions officials in his Department have had with the International Monetary Fund on the Government’s plans for debt reduction. (278509)

The IMF holds bilateral discussions with each of its member countries, usually every year, as part of its country surveillance function. IMF staff last visited London in May 2009 and met representatives of various institutions, including Her Majesty’s Treasury.

The IMF recently published its report on the British economy and the Minister’s colleagues have clearly read it, as they are very fond of quoting the odd phrase that supports the Government’s tattered economic policy. However, at its heart it is highly critical and calls for a

“more ambitious medium-term fiscal adjustment path”.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is bureaucratic code for, “We’re in a mess and the Budget doesn’t sort it out”?

I am afraid that I am going to be guilty of quoting from aspects of the IMF report again, but like me the hon. Gentleman will have read the IMF’s endorsement of the Government’s response to the crisis. It said that it was “bold and wide ranging” and would “support the recovery”—an echo of what IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said when he told “Newsnight” that it was “obvious” that the fiscal stimulus

“is the right thing to do”.

However, there will be differences of view with the IMF. For example, we have a different projection or estimate of what the return to growth will look like; the IMF estimates that economic growth will contract by 4.1 per cent. this year, but the consensus among independent forecasters is for something more akin to 3.8 per cent. It is not unexpected, therefore, that we will have different ideas and judgments about what is the right pathway back to fiscal balance. We are determined to make sure that we halve the deficit over four years and pay off something of the order of £50 billion by 2013-14. Where there are difficult decisions to make, we will make them, especially on tax and efficiency. Unlike the Opposition, however, we are determined to make sure that we protect front-line services because we think that that is the best way to protect businesses and families in this country while returning as quickly as possible to a sensible and sustainable fiscal position.

The economies of some European economies, such as Hungary and Latvia, are experiencing deep economic troubles, and traditionally they would turn to the IMF for help and rescue. They are also committed to becoming members of the eurozone, so is the Treasury having any discussions with the IMF on how to co-ordinate the actions of the IMF and the European Commission in respect of those failing currencies?

As my hon. Friend knows, conversations about such questions go on all the time with the IMF and within the European Commission. She underlines the point that we need a better system of international surveillance so that preventive action, where it is needed, can be taken fast.

Will the Chief Secretary confirm that this country is now formally in an excessive deficit procedure, and that the Economic and Finance Council wrote to the Chancellor on 27 April to say that the Government had not taken effective action to correct the situation? ECOFIN also said that, even on the Government’s own figures, our deficit will be more than four times the permitted 3 per cent. level. Is the Minister pleased or sad that that rules out this country joining the euro in the foreseeable future?

I missed the last bit, but the answer to the substance of the question is that we have to make sure that we publish a pathway back to balance that is open, transparent and credible. It will entail the difficult policy choices that were set out very clearly in the Budget. Difficult decisions will have to be taken, such as increasing marginal rates of tax on the 600,000 people who earn more than £150,000 a year. Serious efficiency measures will also be needed, but as my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary said recently, that is precisely the sort of discipline that we are determined to set out, and stick to.

Since debt reduction is of the utmost importance to developing countries, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government remain absolutely committed to achieving the millennium development goals?

Given the way our debts are growing, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that according to The Economist, our Budget deficit this year as a percentage of GDP will be the highest in the entire industrialised world?

The very reason we are able to mount the fiscal stimulus that we put in place this year is that, against international comparisons, we went into the downturn with relatively low levels of debt. We think it is important that we invest now, because if we did not provide the stimulus that we are putting in place, the recession would cut deeper and longer, and would more closely resemble the kind of experience that this country went through in the 1980s and 1990s. That is not an experience, thanks very much, that we want to repeat.

I do not know where The Economist got its figures, but the IMF figures indicate that debt in this country as a percentage of GDP is lower than in all our industrial competitors and will stay lower than theirs for several years. Is not the key thing about debt whether or not we can service it? As we reduce those levels of debt, may I ask my right hon. Friend not to cut the investments that we are making in jobs, wealth creation and public services, because those are what will guarantee that we can repay the debt in the long term?

I can provide that assurance because in the Budget the Chancellor was able to set out a pathway back to balance, which involved difficult decisions on tax, spending and efficiencies, not least adding to the £30 billion of efficiencies projected for next year a further £5 billion. The Chancellor was also able to set out the kind of sustained investment that we can continue this year, for example, in primary care trusts, with budgets up 5.5 per cent., in schools, with budgets up this year 4.3 per cent., in front-line policing, with budgets up this year 2.7 per cent., and in local councils, which this year helped to deliver the lowest council tax increases for more than a decade.

May I welcome the Chief Secretary to his new position? I am sure his arrival in his new post will be welcomed by the Chancellor as well, not least on the grounds that, presumably, the Chief Secretary’s spouse will not be plotting to replace the Chancellor. The IMF report that we have been discussing says that the UK recovery will be subdued and gradual, in contrast to the Treasury’s very optimistic forecasts, yet is was reported in The Times last week that even the Treasury’s projections were insufficient for the Prime Minister, and

“the Prime Minister tried to upgrade the growth forecasts to make the economic outlook appear rosier than it was; the Chancellor refused.”

Is there any truth in this allegation? Is this not another example of splits between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor?

What are important for the House are the estimates that were published. There is indeed a range of views right the way across independent forecasters. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt have access to those, as I do. The IMF, it is true, is on the pessimistic end of those forecasts, projecting a 4.1 per cent. contraction this year. I understand that the IMF has now revised its forecast three times since October last year, reflecting a degree of uncertainty in the international economy, but I merely note for the House that the IMF is at the pessimistic end of that range of forecasts. If one corrals the range of independent forecasts that are available, one finds the consensus among them is about 3.8 per cent. We think growth will be stronger than that but, as the Chancellor has said to the House a number of times, the international economy remains in an uncertain place.

Early Intervention

7. If he will take steps to ensure that policy to encourage early intervention is taken into account in decisions on expenditure in the next comprehensive spending review; and if he will make a statement. (278510)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on early intervention. Its benefits have been recognised in spending decisions and, for example, in January’s “New Opportunities” White Paper, as my hon. Friend knows, and they will certainly be recognised, as he calls for, in future spending decisions as well.

Will my right hon. Friend have a word with the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury and congratulate him on now being a little closer to the place where he can actually do something about social inclusion and early intervention? Will he also discuss with him the idea that the best way to pay off debt is to invest effectively and early, securing returns through people who have grown up to be more capable citizens due to early intervention? Will he therefore include early intervention, as the next theme of the comprehensive spending review, in every single Department so that we can start to receive repayments from that investment, to pay off the debt and to establish an effective economic base among our people as well as among our financial institutions?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the benefits of investing particularly in the early years of children’s lives. Sure Start children’s centres are a great example: we have invested almost £2 billion in them, and we will have 3,500 of them by the end of next year. It is absolutely right to say that that investment in children’s earliest years will amply be repaid in years to come. Future spending will not be needed because children will be better equipped for their future lives—transforming their chances. I can tell my hon. Friend that we certainly will reflect that perspective in the comprehensive spending review, when that work is under way. It would be catastrophic to impose £5 billion of unplanned spending cuts this year, as the Opposition have argued for.

Early intervention is welcome, but how does the Minister expect to cope with the lack of social and language skills of many pupils entering reception classes and the first years of primary school, which reflect the breakdown generally in British society?

Of course, the hon. Lady’s point is one reason why early intervention is so important. The network of 3,500 children’s centres will make a big contribution to preparing children at the start of their lives to do well, and for school when they reach it. It is vital that those investments be maintained. One great benefit of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on that issue is the cross-party support for it. He wrote a pamphlet jointly with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), and we need to sustain that commitment.

One issue that must be considered, along with early intervention, is poverty among families. The Government have a commitment to child poverty reduction targets, but unfortunately it has not been possible to implement them in recent years. We must stick with those targets, however, so will my right hon. Friend commit to keeping them as a priority and ensure that they are part of the comprehensive spending review next year?

I certainly will. We have made a great deal of progress in reducing child poverty. The number of children below the poverty line has been reduced by half a million since 1997; our commitment is to secure the eradication of child poverty in the UK by 2020, and we will shortly publish legislation to enshrine that commitment in statute.

I realise why it was impossible up until last week for the Chancellor to confirm the details of the comprehensive spending review, but, since the Chancellor has now reasserted control of his Department, will the right hon. Gentleman, on the Chancellor’s behalf, confirm that there will indeed be a comprehensive spending review? Will he also confirm the timing of that review and the period that it will cover?

An announcement of the timing of the comprehensive spending review has not yet been made, and I am not able to provide additional information on that, but of course there will certainly be one.

In the spending review, will the Government take into account the impact of oil prices, particularly on businesses and communities, which have great difficulties with them?

Yes, we certainly will. We have put in place an effective programme of support for businesses, which need help to get through this very difficult period in the world economy. We are starting to see clear signs that the steps we have taken are working, and we will maintain our support for businesses in the period ahead.

Public Sector Debt

10. By what date he next expects public sector debt to fall below 40 per cent. of gross domestic product. (278513)

In the current global environment of uncertainty, our focus is on ensuring that debt is on a downward turn in the medium term, and we have set out clear plans to do precisely that.

Does the Minister accept that the huge increase in Government debt in the UK represents significant extra tax rises for the British people in the future, and that the interest on that debt also represents massive amounts of public spending forgone in future years?

We have been very clear about what precisely we project and anticipate in the years to come. We have been candid and open about the tax and spending implications, and the efficiency implications. I know the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I tell him that the future costs of today’s downturn would be far more significant if we let it cut deeper and longer, and taking £5 billion out of public spending right now would guarantee exactly that.

I am sure the Minister is aware that on-balance-sheet debt is likely to rise to 79 per cent. of gross domestic product by 2013-14. I am sure he is well aware that, the Government having acquired several banks, that debt amounts to roughly £2 trillion, currently held off-balance sheet, in addition to another £1 trillion of public sector pension liabilities. Can he confirm how much debt is currently held off-balance sheet by the Government, and what percentage of GDP that represents?

We can be open about what the costs are of the current financial crisis, and those costs were set out clearly in the Budget. Both the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England have welcomed the degree of transparency about the kind of costs we have projected.

When calculating public sector debt, can my right hon. Friend assure me that the whole cost of private finance initiative schemes will be included? He talks of transparency; we need transparency in relation to PFI, which is at best a murky scheme, and at worst a failed scheme.

I know that I will not be the first Minister to answer that question by reminding the House that that is of course a matter for the Office for National Statistics.

Will my right hon. Friend reflect on what the alternatives might have been if we had not intervened in the banking system? My constituents—pensioners with savings, and people with mortgages and businesses—are relieved that the Government have taken the action that they have taken. Complaints from Conservative Members about the level of debt that that has given rise to demonstrate that they would have done absolutely nothing to assist those people, or to deal with the dire consequences that people would have faced as a result.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I would tempt him to go further. Of course, if the rescue for the banks had not taken place, not only would the economy be in a far more serious situation now, but its potential for growth would be in a far more serious position. That, in part, is precisely why the IMF has congratulated the Government on the bold and wide-ranging programme we have put in place, and indeed on the international leadership we have shown.

Topical Questions

Perhaps like many other hon. Members in this House, I have a branch of Cheltenham & Gloucester in my town. May I put it to my right hon. Friend that many people will be really concerned about the loss of jobs and services from institutions that have had so much public sector funding? Will he therefore ensure that the banks understand that although of course we expect them to make a profit and repay their debts, we also expect them to honour their wider social commitments to their employees, their customers and the wider community?

I fully understand the comments that my hon. Friend makes. She will be aware that Lloyds Banking Group is undertaking a restructuring exercise. To be frank, in some instances it does not make sense to have three branches of the same bank within 100 yd of each other. That having been said, it is vital that Lloyds Banking Group follows the right sort of processes, and that it treats not only its customers but its staff fairly. Although we are talking about an operational decision for Lloyds, Lloyds has made it clear that it intends, as a matter of preference, to try to carry out its proposals through natural turnover of its staff, and we hope that it will be possible to do that.

Order. In case there is a problem, I should say that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury opened by saying what great things his Department was doing. It would appear, however, that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury knew more about this particular subject.

I know he got off to a shaky start, but let me welcome the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury to his job. He is the fifth Chief Secretary I have faced—and hopefully the last before the general election. I hope he enjoys his move from No. 10 to the Treasury, and that the coffee is up to his exacting standards. At least he knows he will not be hit on the head by a flying mobile phone.

Will the Chief Secretary confirm that the Treasury’s current spending plans—the plans set out by the Treasury at the Budget—show that total real Government spending is going to be cut in the years 2011, 2012 and 2013? If that is the case, what on earth was the Prime Minister saying when he told the press conference last Friday:

“Public spending is due to rise every year”?

I thank the shadow Chancellor for that welcome, delivered with the self-assurance and charm that have become his trademark in the House. As he very well knows, when the Chancellor set out his Budget he provided for 0.7 per cent. real-terms increases in current spending. That is set alongside a move in public service net investment to 1.25 per cent. That was the position the Prime Minister was echoing last week.

I am sorry, but I must press the Chief Secretary on this. He gave us the current spending figures; I am asking about total Government spending, which is what the Prime Minister was asked about. The Treasury figures clearly show that that is going to be cut in 2011, 2012 and 2013. That is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer said on the radio, the day after the Budget, that he had cut overall spending. What on earth did the Prime Minister mean when he said that public spending was due to rise every year?

The position is as I have just stated. There will be real growth in public spending of 0.7 per cent. between 2011-12 and 2013-14, alongside a situation in which public sector net investment moves to a position of 1.25 per cent. by 2013-14. [Interruption.] I hear Opposition Members squealing “Cut” from a sedentary position. However, through our process of bringing forward capital investment into this year, we are indeed able to provide for reductions in capital spending in later years. What the Prime Minister was reflecting is very clearly the position in current spending as was set out by the Chancellor at the Budget.

T2. The prevailing economic philosophy is that the free movement of labour across Europe is good for the economy. Does the Chief Secretary agree with me that his Department needs to provide statistics to demonstrate whether a worker permanently resident in this country who gets a job has a greater economic multiplier effect than a temporarily resident migrant worker who gets the same job? (278529)

That subject has been debated extensively in both Houses and it was reviewed in some depth by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee. In their evidence submitted to that Committee, the Government were clear that, on average, migrant workers contribute more to this country than they take out. Obviously, it is important to keep that under close review. The advent of the Australian points-based system means that we are able either to raise or lower the bar to newcomers much more flexibly, depending on the needs of the labour market here and the overall economic contribution made to this country by migration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) apologises for being unavoidably absent owing to a recent operation on his appendix. As the Chief Secretary surveys the team in his new Department, can he think of any part of the Treasury ministerial anatomy that, similarly, serves no useful function, exists in a state of constant pain and was threatened with brutal surgical removal over the weekend?

Ministers will be aware that this week is carers week. Could the appropriate Minister from the Treasury meet the appropriate Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions to try to find the finances to end the unfairness in the carer’s allowance, which is completely lost following a very small increase in earnings or on retirement, despite the fact that the caring role and responsibility continue?

This being my first day as a Treasury Minister, having previously been at the Department for Work and Pensions, I can say I will be delighted to hold such a meeting.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government appointed Sir John Chadwick to advise us on the form of an ex gratia payment scheme that should be devised and the factors that relate to disproportionate impact. I can report that Sir John Chadwick has made progress; when I recently appeared before the Public Administration Committee, I gave further details about how his work was proceeding. I can confirm that actuarial advisers have been appointed to help him with his work, and that he has the staffing and resources he requires to do his job. We have always said that we wanted progress to be made as quickly as possible, and that clearly remains the Government’s position.

Last week, the Northern Ireland Secretary gave the House an undertaking that he would pursue with vigour the crisis facing investors in the Presbyterian Mutual Society in Northern Ireland. There is clearly a Treasury dimension to this. I would like to know what has been done, what is being done, and what discussions are being held on behalf of those investors—the most thrifty and decent people who are very anxious about having access to their funds now.

I sympathise with the situation that people who have made investments in the Presbyterian Mutual Society are facing. My hon. Friend will be aware that the PMS is not like a normal savings institution: it is not regulated by the Financial Services Authority, and when people made investments they did so in the form of shares rather than deposits. Different circumstances therefore apply. He will be aware that there has been an investigation. We have been looking into the whole issue of the regulation of credit unions and industrial and provident societies, and a report is due to be published shortly.

T4. In respect of the Government’s planned changes to furnished holiday lettings tax rules, could the Financial Secretary to the Treasury clarify whether it would be possible to distinguish between properties that are purpose-built chalets, caravans, and other properties with occupancy restrictions that are clearly intended for the holiday lettings industry, and other properties that have been lived in and could be lived in again by local families in need? (278531)

I would not want to encourage the hon. Gentleman in the view that that might give a way forward on this issue. Our position is that we have given support in the past. It is clear, under European Union rules, that that support would need to be extended to furnished accommodation not only in the UK but across Europe. We are therefore making that change, but only for a year; then our intention would be to withdraw the relief altogether, not just for some but for all furnished holiday accommodation.

Further to earlier answers, Britain’s national debt would be repaid more rapidly, and public expenditure cuts would be avoided more easily, if the top 700 British companies did not involve themselves in tax avoidance on such a grand scale. Why, in that case, does this year’s Finance Bill repeal section 765 of the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988, which requires companies to seek the permission of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs before moving cash offshore and to say whether the move will be to the detriment of the Treasury? That will encourage avoidance.

I do not think it will. Indeed, we are likely to debate the matter in the Finance Committee this afternoon. The Treasury consents rules were introduced in 1951 in a very different environment and they are now clearly out of date. The measures that I will set out in Committee this afternoon, with which we are replacing those rules, are a much more effective way of tackling the genuine problem of avoidance, to which my hon. Friend rightly draws attention.

T5. The announcement today by Lloyds TSB about the job losses at Cheltenham & Gloucester is a big blow, particularly to the 74 people who will be made redundant in Gloucester. The bigger issue is the 1,000 people who also work in our county for the Cheltenham & Gloucester mortgage business. Given that the Government control a significant stake through UKFI—which the second permanent secretary to the Treasury runs, and which is therefore not at arm’s length—can the Minister provide any assurance about whether those jobs are secure in the short and the long term? (278532)

As I have told the House previously, if we are to protect taxpayers’ interests, it is vital that UKFI manages its relationships with the banks in which the Government have investments commercially. Lloyds Banking Group is making commercial decisions. As with any major company, we expect it to act in a socially responsible manner and undertake due processes of consultation with its work force. My understanding is that that is exactly what is happening.

T6. Despite the massive investment of public funds in the banking sector, many small and medium-sized viable companies have contacted me to say that the banks are not providing the financial support that they require. What are the Chancellor and the Treasury team doing to ensure that money that goes to the banks finds its way to small and medium-sized businesses? (278533)

Let us first be clear that, when the Government took action to prevent the collapse in the banking system, we were investing not in the banks but in people who had savings and mortgages and in companies that had overdrafts in the banking system to ensure that it could continue. As a result of the negotiations in January, under the asset protection scheme, RBS has made legally binding commitments to invest more in businesses this year and next, as has Lloyds. The sums for businesses are £16 billion from RBS and £14 billion from Lloyds, on top of the additional investments that Northern Rock is making and the announcements from banks that have not taken advantage of the recapitalisation scheme, such as HSBC and Barclays.

We are in a position whereby much of the international finance that was available to the UK economy in the form of lending to business has disappeared in the past 12 months. We are putting that back in place through our negotiations and agreements with UK banks. We will continue to monitor, through the lending panel, actual lending in the UK economy, so that we can ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises and other businesses get the lending and financial support that they need to see them through the difficult times.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend saw the survey in the Financial Times yesterday of City economists. It showed that a majority thought the recession would end in June. The minority who did not thought it would end sooner rather than later this year. Does that not show that the City is coming round to the Budget forecasts for the economy? Is that not a clear endorsement of the Government’s programme for a fiscal stimulus?

My hon. Friend will be delighted to hear that I have no plans to provide a running commentary on growth forecasts. The Budget clearly set out our current expectations, and the next update will be provided to the House in the pre-Budget report. I merely note that several City economists and independent forecasters have revised up their forecasts for growth next year and adjusted their forecasts for the extent of the downturn this year. As I said in response to earlier questions, independent forecasters’ average for contraction this year is 3.8 per cent., which is much closer to the forecast that we published in the Budget.

T7. May I ask Treasury Ministers to look again at the position of those families who are being pursued by the Treasury for alleged overpayment of tax credits? I still have a steady stream of families coming to my surgery who are being chased, sometimes for up to £10,000 or more. They come in with detailed files of information, and I am absolutely inclined to believe that they have been entirely honourable and honest in looking at their claims. Those families tell me that the Treasury sometimes takes the more expensive period of their child care, rather than looking at their child care costs over the period as a whole. Those families do not like the way the Treasury acts as judge and jury, with no right of appeal. That causes huge distress, so may I ask Ministers please to look again at the issue and tell us that they can do something to help those families? (278534)

We have already made some substantial changes and improvements to the way the tax credit system works. One of the consequences is, for example, that complaints to the tax credit office are down by a half, compared with two years ago, so there have certainly been considerable improvements. The tax credits transformation programme that we have put in place is delivering. I accept that there is more to be done, but it is worth remembering that 6 million families benefit from tax credits, and that includes 10 million children. That is one of the main reasons why we have been able to reduce child poverty so substantially over the past 10 years, but we need to ensure that the system works as efficiently as possible and that overpayments are minimised. We have seen a big reduction in the number of overpayments, and we will work to improve the position further.

T8. May I give the new Chief Secretary another opportunity, while the cat is away, to play at being open about the Government’s spending plans? Given the analysis of spending plans by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Departments are projected to face a real-terms cut of 2.3 per cent., which translates into cuts totalling £20 billion. Can he come clean today and accept that the 2009 Budget heralded significant Labour cuts? (278535)

Let me be very clear—I am afraid I will have to repeat a number of the points that I made earlier. The Chancellor set out clearly what changes will happen overall to public sector net investment over the next few years and what changes we forecast to real growth in current spending. However, as he said as recently as last oral questions, with the degree of uncertainty in the international economy that we currently face, I just do not think that now is the time to start making detailed budgets for individual Departments for the year after the Olympics.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is any procedure available to the House—to Ministers or Back Benchers—to extend the time available on Thursday for topical questions to the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? The publication of ministerial responsibilities today reveals the true extent of the massive changes being planned, with responsibilities moving to and from the new Department. I have just come from another place, where I saw a private notice question to the Secretary of State and First Secretary of State, the noble Lord Mandelson, who singularly failed to convince the House of the merits of the change. The bewildering range of questions on Thursday’s Order Paper shows the scale of what is happening to the Department. For once, the topical question, “If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities”, is the one question to which this House needs an answer, but sadly 15 minutes will not be enough to deliver it. Is there any guidance that you can give me, Mr. Speaker?

That is not a matter for the Chair, but the House will have noticed that from time to time I tend to run topical questions beyond 3.30 pm, because they are very popular. No doubt those on the Front Bench will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say, and I thank him.

Road Signs (Tourist Destinations and Facilities)

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

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose duties on the Highways Agency and other public authorities to promote tourism by providing or permitting to be provided appropriate road signage; and for connected purposes.

The Bill is the product of the frustration of people whose businesses depend on tourism at the obstruction that they meet in getting approval for signs to direct motorists to their location in rural areas. They are frustrated particularly with the attitude of the Highways Agency and the planning authorities, which in turn are influenced by guidance from central Government; their frustration is shared by hon. Members. I am grateful to those who so readily agreed to be supporters of the Bill, including my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who is here this afternoon and who I know is seeking to deal with the same problem in his constituency.

Tourism is absolutely vital to most rural communities, and many tourist businesses depend on motorists finding their way off the main road to the wide variety of leisure, educational, catering, retail and accommodation facilities on offer. Many of those facilities depend on passing trade; others might already be known about but are difficult to find without a sign indicating where to turn off the main road.

I am not in favour of American-style billboards all over our roads and fields, advertising products that are not local, and a rush of such signs along some motorways might have prompted a tougher line being taken. That was understandable, but there is a completely different case to be made for local tourism signs. Signs for local amenities need to be attractively designed, well sited and not confusing or too numerous. It is right that there should be planning controls, so long as they are exercised proportionately and sympathetically. In too many instances, however, we find obstruction and disproportionate action.

In looking at examples of the problem, I want to distinguish between two types of sign: brown signs and privately provided signs. On trunk roads, the Highways Agency has a system for the familiar brown signs, although it is at best a fairly rigid scheme. High visitor numbers are required to qualify for a sign, for which the tourist attraction pays. On motorways, an attraction needs 250,000 visitors a year to qualify for a sign; on single carriageway roads such as the A1 in Northumberland, the figure goes down to 40,000, with the possibility of an allowance for seasonal businesses. Many tourist attractions try to get through all the hoops and meet the definitions to qualify and pay for a sign, but are still refused.

I wonder how many can match the experience of Berwick-upon-Tweed golf club at Goswick, south of Berwick. It is a beautiful seaside links course that attracts thousands of visiting golfers and will stage the pre-qualifying competition for the British Open every year for the next three years. It is the first course in the north-east to get that honour. In 2000, it paid £1,200 for brown signs. Recently, however, the Highways Agency removed the signs, without consulting the club or allowing it to make representations.

I took the matter up with the Highways Agency, which has apologised for its failure to consult. So that is all right: the signs will go back up, won’t they? Oh, no. They cannot go back up, because the Highways Agency says that they are no longer in line with its current policy on tourist signs. It says that the golf club should advise visitors through its website to look out for the road sign to Goswick and follow that route. That involves taking a dangerous turning off a single carriageway road, one of several turnings to places with confusingly similar names: Goswick, Cheswick and Fenwick. The idea that hundreds of visiting golfers should have to rely on their computer back home to spot the right turning is ridiculous. If the Highways Agency wants to prove my Bill unnecessary, it must abandon this ridiculous refusal to reinstate very necessary signs, and show more flexibility and helpfulness to rural businesses.

Another case involves a newly built country hotel at Doxford Hall, north of Alnwick, which simply needs to be added to an existing brown sign on the Al that refers to other local amenities at Doxford. Hon. Members might have seen a reference to this place, because the owner is planning to sell it and to give the entire proceeds to cancer nursing in the community in north Northumberland—a marvellous gesture. On roads other than trunk roads, local highway authorities are responsible for the signs, and some are helpful. I gather that Northumberland county council has agreed to brown signage for Doxford Hall on the local roads, for example.

Brown signs are clearly going to be approved for and financed by only the larger tourist businesses. Small country pubs, tea rooms, animal sanctuaries, potteries, bed and breakfasts, farm shops and other smaller-scale amenities usually try to have a smaller sign on the edge of a field or on a fence alongside the road. Some of those signs are needed only during the tourist season. They require planning permission, for which there are fees to be paid, whether the application is successful or not. A couple of years ago, the Department for Communities and Local Government, through central guidance, set off a purge of roadside signs, which hit rural businesses in many parts of the country. Council officials were dispatched to remove signs. One over-zealous official in my constituency actually started painting over offending signs with a spray can.

I believe that there is a need for a more tolerant attitude, and for a simple approval process to ensure that signs provide direction to nearby tourist facilities and that they are safely sited, from a road safety point of view, proportionate and adequately designed. The absence of such a light-touch system has led to a proliferation of parked vans, farm trailers and other less attractive substitutes for proper signs—although they, too, are now covered by the planning guidance and are at risk of removal.

In a period of recession, the countryside depends more than ever on visiting tourists contributing to the rural economy. People need to be able to see where the facilities are, and it is better for road safety that the motorist can clearly see where to turn off and find a meal, a bed, a place of interest or a facility for the children. My Bill simply places obligations on the Highways Agency, highway authorities and planning authorities to help the promotion of local tourist facilities by providing appropriate road signs or permitting appropriate signs to be provided. At the moment, small businesses too often feel that the system is working against them when it should be helping them, enabling them to make their services available to the motorist and thereby to support tourism in the economy of the countryside.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Sir Alan Beith, Hilary Armstrong, Mr. Nigel Evans, Mr. Adrian Sanders, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Denis Murphy and Dan Rogerson present the Bill.

Sir Alan Beith accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June and to be printed (Bill 107).

Opposition Day

[12th Allotted Day]

Knife Crime

I beg to move,

That this House believes that teenage knife crime and the increased incidence of carrying knives in many communities is one of the most critical social and law and order issues facing the country; welcomes the contribution made by the Home Affairs Select Committee in its Seventh Report, Session 2008-09, on Knife Crime, published 5 on 2 June 2009; commends the work done by voluntary sector organisations like the Damilola Taylor Trust to tackle the problem; and expresses the belief that the solution to knife crime will only come from cross-community co-operation to address its root causes.

Before I begin my remarks on the motion, I welcome the new Home Secretary and his new team to their positions. It is five years since I last did battle with the right hon. Gentleman over top-up fees, and it is a pleasure to shadow him again. I wondered whether he might prove to be the shortest-lived Home Secretary in the history of this country, but following last night’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party it appears that he might have to wait a little longer before he gets the opportunity to move into No. 10. Seriously, however, I look forward to debating the issues facing us all over the months ahead.

No doubt we will argue intensively over the failures of Government policy, but today’s debate is intended to be different. I understand from the Clerks that it is customary for an Opposition day motion to be critical of the Government and their policies, but this motion is not intended to do that. Rather, it is intended to stimulate a serious discussion about an issue that has been of concern to all of us—knife crime, particularly among our young people. It is an issue that is both serious and disturbing and one that should be subject to dialogue across the political and community divides.

Last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee published a thoughtful report on the subject, and during the course of its inquiry it invited representations from across the House. The Committee took evidence from me and the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, as well as from Ministers, so it seemed logical and sensible for the House to have an early opportunity to discuss the matter. I very much hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and give us his perspectives on the inquiry.

It is also sensible to give the House the opportunity to praise and discuss the views of organisations out in the community that deal with knife crime and its consequences. Our voluntary sector does hugely valuable work in trying to break down the knife culture and the tendency of young people to become caught up in gangs. We should recognise the importance of what they do.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words about the Select Committee report and for the tone of the motion. In giving evidence to the Select Committee, he went out of his way to stress the importance of cross-party approaches, which also includes the voluntary sector. Does he agree that only by parties working together and raising the issue above party politics will we truly find a solution to knife crime?

That is right. There will be times when we debate issues on a party basis, but not because we have different objectives. We all share the objective of reducing crime and knife crime and of restoring stability to communities affected by it. There may be times when we disagree over methods or are critical of Ministers because we think they have got it wrong. That is right and proper, but organisations and individuals out there are looking to this House for a grown-up and mature debate. It is right and proper that with an issue as serious as this one we take a step back from time to time and have a grown-up discussion of the kind that the right hon. Gentleman rightly started in his Home Affairs Committee.

Before I get to the heart of the debate, I want to make one important point. There is no arms race going on among all children in the United Kingdom, nor are all seven-year-olds carrying knives for their elders. There is an acute gang problem in some parts of the country, particularly in inner-city areas and most significantly in parts of London, but the vast majority of young people are decent, law-abiding citizens, getting on with their lives, taking their exams, working on a Saturday morning and having fun on a Saturday night. We must not allow a serious and important debate to create the sense that young people are a problem today.

I, too, welcome the thoughtful way in which the hon. Gentleman is approaching this topic. I entirely endorse what he said about the majority of young people being law-abiding and going about their business as excellent young citizens in the making. Does he agree, however, that one issue with which all of us—politicians and others—need to engage is the fact that there is a fear race going on out there? As the evidence taken by our Select Committee confirmed, young people are often frightened of the streets, and frightened of the images conveyed to them about other people carrying weapons. We have a serious duty to get the balance right, and our media colleagues have a serious duty to help us.

That is absolutely true. We should not seek to create a climate of fear. In the vast majority of our communities, this is not the issue that it is in some inner-city areas, although there are certainly law-and-order problems up and down the country involving antisocial behaviour and some criminality. Happily, the incidence of serious knife crime remains limited to a relatively small number of communities, but it is there none the less, and it is to protect young people that we need to continue this debate. They are far more likely to be the victims of knife crime, and to be scarred for life or even worse. It is for their protection that we need to get this right.

The reality of the situation is quite stark. The level of fatal stabbings is the highest on record. There has been a 34 per cent. increase in the number of people killed by sharp instruments such as knives in recent years. The number of people stabbed to death in England and Wales increased from 201 a decade ago to 270 in 2007-08, the highest figure on record. That is a serious problem. A serious knife crime—although not a homicide—is committed every hour. According to recent figures, 22,151 serious offences involving knives were recorded in England and Wales in 2008. That is equivalent to 400 a week, or one every half hour. We are dealing with a major problem, although it is more confined to some communities than to others.

The Select Committee’s report highlights the contradictions that exist between some of the figures that are available. There have certainly been improvements in some areas covered by Government programmes, although I must say that I should have been worried if there had not been, given the money that has been spent. Equally, however, there is an inescapable pattern that illustrates the scale of the problem.

The Committee points out that there has been a big increase in the number of knife injuries since the mid-1990s, as is made clear by hospital episode statistics, and that the biggest increase has taken place since 2006. There is also an alarmingly high propensity to carry knives. A 2008 MORI youth survey indicated that 31 per cent. of 11 to 16-year-olds in mainstream education and 61 per cent. of excluded young people had carried a weapon at some point during the preceding year. Of course those figures are bound to mask some legitimate activity, such as the carrying of a penknife by a boy scout, but the overall picture is nevertheless unhappy. The Committee also points out that random knife crime against strangers is relatively rare, although the terrible attack in Grimsby this week is an indication that it remains a threat.

I believe—and here my view may differ slightly from the Select Committee’s interpretation—that the real problem lies in the gang culture in many areas. Whether kids carry knives because they are in gangs or because they are afraid of gangs—the point made by the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck)—in many areas it is the gang culture that drives the problem, and I think that we must break that gang culture if we are to deal with the problem of knife crime.

As I am sure my hon. Friend accepts, gang culture exists not only out in the community but, increasingly, on the young offender prison estate. On admission to custody, the first thing that young offenders almost certainly do is join a gang, which causes tremendous trouble on the estate.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows about the reality of the situation from his professional experience, and he has taken an active interest in young offender institutions, their workings and their failings. I have visited a number of such institutions, and I share his concern about the fact that the gang culture is being perpetuated within prison walls—as, indeed, are some other problems that we face.

The root causes of the gang culture that leads to knife crime lie right across the policy spectrum, but they tend to be found in the same geographical areas. If we were to map out geographically rates of worklessness, family breakdown, educational failure and addiction in the family, we would find a high correlation between social breakdown and the gang culture, and the report makes it clear that there is a link between deprivation, gang membership and knife crime.

Is the hon. Gentleman also aware of research by the Sutton Trust, an educational research organisation, that importantly confirmed the apparent correlation between certain types of violent crime and inequality? It is not just a question of deprivation equalling violence; the sharp impact of inequalities in society unfortunately also has an influence on how some people behave.

The hon. Lady makes an important point, which she might elaborate on if she makes a speech later.

The truth is that those who join gangs often come from the most difficult family backgrounds—from an environment where they feel neglected and unwanted. Gang membership brings a perverse sense of belonging that they might not ever have got at home. It also exposes them to the danger of being exploited by the hardcore who build gangs around them, and increasingly by organised criminals who exploit local gangs for illegal trade, particularly in drugs. Some younger children are also vulnerable to being used by older gang members as caddies and—I know this from talking to young people in such circumstances—for carrying and hiding firearms. The Select Committee was right to seek information from the Home Office about the number of prosecutions in relation to caddies under the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, and I hope the Home Secretary will make reference to this issue in his speech.

The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. I do not disagree with any of his points about what kinds of young people are most likely to become gang members, but in my constituency I have been particularly concerned about the dynamics of gang activity. We wanted to set up a youth facility in a school that crossed a geographical boundary, but many young people in my community—both those who did belong to gangs and those who did not—were not prepared to cross it. We have to understand more about gang dynamics if we are to make an impact on this problem.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it illustrates why we must have community groups on the ground engaging in these problems. They understand the problems best, and former gang members can also be a powerful influence in trying to encourage young people who are a part of gangs away from them. They, more than anyone else, understand gang culture.

I am also in no doubt that tougher police action to smash up gangs is necessary. We have to break up the hardcore, and also, in a constructive way, peel away those around the fringes. Those two elements of the strategy are extremely important. To that end, the Select Committee has made a number of valuable suggestions. I do not agree with every one of its recommendations, but I think the report should provide a reference point for debating the issues.

I was particularly struck by the Committee’s comments about the influence of violent videos and video games on those with a propensity to violence. In most cases for most children, playing a violent video game is not going to turn them into a knife-wielding troublemaker, but for some it clearly can. The Committee’s comments about the presence of such material in detention institutions also raised a concern.

The Committee is right to highlight the need both to break down barriers between young people and the police and to address the reasons some young people seek “respect” on the streets. I also agree with it on the need for improved intervention at the point where a young person is excluded from school. However, there is in my view one area that can make a particularly great difference. In my evidence to the Select Committee, I focused on the need for early intervention. I believe that a successful battle against emerging antisocial behaviour can play an important role in combating more serious offences, particularly knife crime. As a society we do not intervene early enough to say no to a young miscreant. Most serious knife criminals are young men in their later teens, but all the anecdotal evidence I have been given is that they are often the same young men who three or four years earlier were responsible for less serious acts of antisocial behaviour in their communities. Not every 13 or 14-year-old troublemaker goes on to commit more serious offences—far from it—but some do, and we could do more to stop them.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, therefore, that we should be ensuring at least a guarantee of continuance, but preferably an expansion, of some of the early intervention programmes that we have been developing, such as the youth intervention programmes and the youth offending teams? We have rolled out a range of early intervention schemes in recent years and their continuation is utterly reliant on Government funding.

I shall go on to say a little more about how we need a mix of intervention to rein back and constructive engagement.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his remarks—he is absolutely right about this antisocial behaviour point. My local police in Kettering have told me that they know who all the teenage troublemakers are and they are becoming increasingly frustrated that they do not really have the powers to deal with the problem effectively. The Home Office is rolling out the fixed penalty notice scheme in six police forces around the country, whereby they will be able to issue notices to teenagers below the age of 16. That is not available at the moment in Northamptonshire, but it is a tool that the local police would very much like to have, because they could use it to deal effectively with the ringleaders and troublemakers among teenage groups.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need simple powers to be able to intervene early; indeed, I was going to set out some of the ways in which such change might work. We need a quicker, more comprehensive programme of early interventions designed to stop young people going off the rails without their being pushed straight into the criminal justice system and getting a criminal record that will blight their future. Far too often interventions are made too late in a teenager’s life and by the time the criminal justice system is brought into play irreversible behaviours have built themselves into that person’s life.

That does not mean that young people should not face the full force of the law if they have committed a serious offence—there will always be a need for some to be arrested and prosecuted because they have done so—but earlier, lighter and more straightforward interventions should be available to try to rein them back. As the Home Secretary will know, I have argued for a 21st century version of the clip round the ear: a series of swift, fair measures that can be deployed more nimbly than some of the cumbersome measures that are in place. That was what the Government originally intended with antisocial behaviour orders, but in the end they have created a system that takes too long to implement.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of using serious penalties when necessary, so are the official Opposition still in favour of a presumption of a custodial sentence for all knife carriers?

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will address that specific point a little later in my remarks—I will answer his question.

What we have proposed at this stage of the process is giving the police simple powers—working with a local magistrate—to issue grounding orders to young troublemakers and to apply simple community service penalties that do not give those young people a long-term criminal record. There will, of course, be instances where people break the law and use a knife to attack someone, and we need to have punishments available to break this cycle. That is why we also need tougher enforcement and sentencing. The precursor of a tougher approach on knife crime is getting more police officers out from behind desks and on to the streets, which is why it is so important that the Home Secretary continues to see through, and accelerates, the process of reducing police bureaucracy and paperwork, and why he will find, as he takes on his new job, that progress in some areas has been too slow. I hope that he will be able to accelerate things.

We also need to get much tougher when sentencing young people who are caught carrying knives or who commit other knife crimes. The issue of whether sentences should be custodial was extensively debated by the Select Committee—and with me when I gave evidence to it. I do not think that the current system imposes sufficiently stiff penalties. That must change because we need to create an environment where the default is not to carry a knife and where there is a big risk in carrying a knife, so that those who are more likely to offend do not do so and those who are afraid do not need to do so.

The starting point should be that anyone carrying a knife without a reasonable excuse should expect to be prosecuted—there are still those who are let off with a caution. We should make it clear that people convicted of carrying a knife should expect to receive a custodial sentence.

I made the point to the Select Committee that the presumption should be that offenders will be sent to jail. The minimum sentence should be a community penalty, with the offender doing positive work in the community, not a fine or a caution. We should not remove all discretion from the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service or the police, but if the norm is a tough penalty it will have the effect of deterring many people from carrying knives in the first place and removing the pressure to carry them that some feel.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Part of what is needed is certainty, so that people who are committing crimes know what will be the consequence if they are caught. Part of the problem is that too many community sentences such as the intensive supervision and surveillance programme see routine breaches that do not lead to any comeback on the offender. Does he agree that there is a danger that that builds in a sense that people can break the rules and get away with it?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a danger in the criminal justice system that we do not see things through, whether it is the enforcement of an antisocial behaviour order or the enforcement of a community penalty. If people see that they can get away with things, they will not respect the law. It is fundamentally important that if there is a penalty, we see it through and do not just let it lapse.

I see no reason to change the age of criminal responsibility at the moment, but I want those who carry knives around in their teenage years to be brought before the law and dealt with accordingly. I do not want a seven-year-old who is being used as a caddy to be prosecuted, I want the person using them as a caddy to be prosecuted. That is how the law should work.

What about an 11-year-old who has brought a knife out from home? Would the hon. Gentleman decide that that was criminal activity?

It clearly would be criminal activity, but if we get things right and create an environment in which we have tough sanctions for people caught carrying a knife, 11-year-olds will not feel the need to do so. That is the step that we have to take. We must create an environment in which people feel that there is a risk in carrying a knife, and therefore do not choose to do so. The risk that we can offer is a penalty that they will not wish to receive.

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that another matter that we should examine in relation to knives is the people who sell them? There have been many problems with them in the past and quite a lot of debates about the matter in the House. What is his view about that?

I would be open to all ideas as to how we can restrict the sale of knives to young people, and many retailers seek to do that. The problem is that it is not difficult for someone to buy a Sabatier kitchen knife from Sainsbury’s, pass it to one of the kids in their gang and go out and cause mayhem. That is the challenge—in our society, a knife is not a difficult thing to get hold of. We can take every step we want to restrict their sale, but ultimately that is a big problem for us.

There is one other area in which we need much tougher action. Drug dealing is endemic in many areas affected by knife crime. The Government have given out mixed messages about drugs in recent years, not just on classification but on sentencing policy and implementation. The truth is that we let off a significant proportion of drug dealers with just a caution, even those dealing in class A drugs such as heroin. That cannot be right, and it must change.

The Home Affairs Committee was absolutely right about the need for projects that engage and distract young people. We need both the carrot and the stick to deal with the problems of youth crime and knife crime. Up and down the country really worthwhile youth projects are helping, particularly in areas of deprivation where serious trouble and criminality can develop. There is the Frontline church’s youth work in Liverpool, Friday night football in Hampshire—in the constituency of the hon. Member for Eastleigh, where I commend the work being done by his local police—and martial arts work in Derbyshire. Those are all examples that I have seen in recent months of work being done to engage young people and get them away from an environment in which they may get into trouble.

To add to my hon. Friend’s list, may I mention young firefighter schemes? Another big problem area of teenage crime is arson, particularly of school premises. Active participation in such schemes kills two birds with one stone.

I absolutely agree, and I pay tribute to fire services up and down the country that, along with their more straightforward work of putting out fires and cutting people out of wrecked cars, are doing serious work in engaging young people and involving them in life around fire stations and fire services. They are helping in the engagement process.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the importance of youth activity. May I also remind him of the importance of youth leaders being able to challenge young people who carry and use knives? Some 10 years ago I was a volunteer youth worker in Peckham and Bermondsey in south London and I remember having to ask the young people to leave their knives at the entrance when they came in to play basketball. The fact that young people participate in a youth activity does not mean that they stop their offending behaviour. That needs challenging by strong youth leaders.

My hon. Friend is right, and one of the things that make for an especially strong youth project is the leader, and their credibility in the eyes of those who participate. If it is someone who has been there, who knows and understands the streets, and who can challenge that behaviour, it is more likely to succeed.

The Centre for Social Justice and the Damilola Taylor Trust are offering awards to those who lead the most innovative projects in deprived areas, and the Mayor of London has set up several mentoring and engagement programmes for young Londoners that have the potential to make a real difference. However, as the Select Committee points out in its report, there are too few volunteers in too many areas to do everything that could be done. As Members of Parliament, we can all encourage volunteering in our communities and support it where it takes place.

The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) has a point. We have similar problems in Coventry, and the Rotarians run a scheme every year that involves the police, the fire brigade and several voluntary organisations. They show kids the consequences of stealing a car and wrapping it around a tree. It is a very worthwhile scheme, and that is the sort of thing that we should consider.

The hon. Gentleman is right. For many of the young people who take part in such schemes, who come from the most deprived backgrounds, it is a new experience to have something positive to do and to be engaged in constructive activity. That is why the carrot—the community work and the support locally—is so important.

This is not a battle that any of us can afford to lose. Week after week, we hear reports of young people whose lives have been tragically cut short or who have suffered terrible injuries at the hands of other young people carrying knives. The Government have brought forward several initiatives, but the danger is always that Home Office initiatives just cost money and do not make much difference. I suspect that success will not lie simply with the efforts of this Government or a future one—albeit sincere and well meant—but with the way in which we harness the efforts of our whole society to try to turn back this unwelcome tide. It is important to ensure that in these difficult financial times the smaller voluntary projects that can make a disproportionate difference are not the first to be squeezed financially.

We have to tackle the root causes of worklessness, educational failure and family breakdown, and we have to foster a revolution in what we have dubbed our broken society. But we also need to deliver the direct, on-the-ground support that can steer those young people caught up in the knife culture away from it. The Damilola Taylor Trust and the Prince’s Trust are spearheading the “no to knives” coalition to seek to make a difference. I hope and believe that harnessing different groups to do what we as politicians cannot do on our own will help to create a coalition that can really transform things on the ground. I commend the groups involved in that work. They have the support of the present Government and will have the support of a future Conservative Government in continuing that work. We all want to see the day when serious youth knife crime is a thing of the past. Our job is to work together to bring that day about as quickly as possible.

I beg to move an amendment, at end add:

“further recognises that tougher penalties are being implemented against those who commit knife crimes, including a rise in the proportion of those caught carrying knives getting custodial sentences; supports the expectation to prosecute for knife possession and doubling of the maximum sentence for carrying a knife in public from two to four years; recognises that the Government has backed tough police enforcement action in the tackling knives action programme areas, including increased use of stop and search, noting that there were nearly 200,000 stop and searches, resulting in the recovery of over 3,500 knives, between June 2008 and March 2009; welcomes the additional investment going to providing targeted youth activity, including on Friday and Saturday nights; and welcomes recent provisional NHS figures showing a reduction in hospital admissions of teenagers following assaults by sharp objects.”

I thank the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for his remarks and his welcome to me as Home Secretary. I do indeed remember the last time we faced each other over the Dispatch Box—

I like to think that the nation won—[Laughter.] On any disagreements that we have at the moment, the hon. Gentleman may catch up in a couple of years. We were talking about variable tuition fees—we do not call them top-up fees—and at the time he and his party were staunchly against them, but now they are very much for them. That is probably a prerequisite for the debates that we will have about home affairs.

I welcome this opportunity to debate this important issue for the first time with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and his Opposition colleagues, and with other Members. I do not think that there is anything at all in the Opposition motion with which we would disagree and the spirit in which it was moved reflects the importance that we all place on tackling knife crime. It also reflects the concern about knife crime felt on both sides of this House.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. May I particularly welcome from the Back Benches the Government’s approach to this debate? The amendment before us this afternoon is an addition to the Opposition main motion, and does not traduce it. That is a welcome change.

According to the “A.B.C of Chairmanship” by Lord Citrine, on which I was raised, we would call our change an addendum, rather than an amendment, but there we are. I think that that is the right spirit in which to tackle this issue.

I am also pleased that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell welcomed the recent report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which has made such a valuable contribution to this debate.

The tragic cases of youngsters killed because of knife crime in London and elsewhere have shocked and saddened the nation. Reducing knife crime and crime among young people more widely is of paramount importance, not only because of the need to deal with the very small minority of young people who are persistent offenders and who cause considerable anxiety and harm to their victims, families and communities, but because addressing the issues that can lead to criminality among young people is essential for a fairer, safer society.

The Government’s addendum is designed to ensure that the progress that is being made by the hard work of so many people is properly recognised. First, on the more general issue of youth crime, it is encouraging to see that the numbers of young people entering the criminal justice system for the first time fell by 9.4 per cent. between 2006-07 and 2007-08. Between 2000 and 2007, the frequency of reoffending among young people fell by 23 per cent.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion. On the philosophy of behaviour, how confident is he that all young people know that murder is wrong and that it is at the apex of antisocial behaviour not because it breaks the law or because a custodial sentence might be handed out to them by a judge but because it breaks behavioural norms and the moral order in society? What does the Secretary of State believe is the benchmark by which young people judge that murder is unacceptable?

I believe that it would offend all civilised values to think that any young person—other than, perhaps, young people from the most deprived and difficult backgrounds, who have experienced such violence from their early years—would believe that murder was anything other than a crime, and a heinous crime at that. I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is raising. However, if it is that we have to reinforce these arguments and to consider things such as video games—I welcome their inclusion in the Select Committee’s report—and that we have to ensure that the message of how heinous such crimes are is reinforced to young people over and over again, not just by figures who they would see as figures of authority but by peer groups and people in their community, his point is well taken.

On the question of young people’s attitude to murder, is it not perhaps so much that they think that murder is acceptable but that they believe in their gangs and their communities that anything is acceptable when it comes to enforcing respect, to territorial defence of their gang or to demonstrating how much of a man they are? It is such attitudes that we have to undermine.

From all my experience, I think that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Incidentally, my press office had arranged for me to meet some police on Westminster’s Churchill Gardens estate yesterday and to walk around for my first on-camera shot as Home Secretary. By a real coincidence, that was where I was badly assaulted when I was 15. I came from the rough end of Notting Hill, and thought that this was a posh area of Pimlico, but the problem was a territorial thing because we were in an area that was not our territory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is absolutely right to say that such attitudes are ingrained in people, but sometimes they can be reinforced by the things that they see and read. That is why I want to repeat that the Home Affairs Committee has done us a service by mentioning the fact that people feel that they have to go to that extra level to prove how hard and tough they are, and how much harder and tougher they are than the other gang.

I was delighted to hear the Home Secretary say a moment ago that recidivism was falling. That is very positive, but does he share my concern about a small number of dangerous offenders who are convicted and imprisoned? Does he agree that, before they are released on licence, there must be a proper risk assessment and an absolute guarantee of ongoing supervision and monitoring?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Although I have not absorbed every aspect of this job in the last couple of days, my sense is that what he describes is already happening, and on an increasing basis, so that is an important contribution.

The youth crime action plan launched in the summer of last year is not only helping to bring young offenders to account for their actions, but is providing more support to address the underlying causes of poor behaviour. It places a greater focus on prevention to tackle the low-level but serious problems such as truancy or exclusion that put young people at increased risk of becoming involved in crime or antisocial behaviour.

Family intervention projects, which provide intensive and non-negotiable support for families living in chaotic circumstances, are having a remarkable impact. They are improving school attendance and behaviour, reducing incidences of domestic violence, and improving parenting skills. Operation Staysafe is preventing vulnerable young people from being drawn into criminal activity. The police remove youngsters from the streets late at night—a sort of 21st century version of the clip round the ear—and work with social services to establish what further interventions may be necessary to prevent them becoming victims of crime, or indeed, offenders.

There are now around 5,300 Safer Schools partnerships fostering better relationships between police and young people, with dedicated police officers working in schools to help tackle the causes of crime and antisocial behaviour. After-school patrols on bus routes and at transport hubs are tackling antisocial behaviour at school closing time, giving greater reassurance to parents and pupils.

I am pleased that the Home Secretary has moved on to the issue of parental responsibility. When I went out with the local police in Kettering, a number of teenagers were causing trouble and the police took them home to their families—who did not want to know. In fact, they were cross with the police for bringing the children back, so what more can the Government do to emphasise the point that parents have a big role to play in the activities that their teenagers get up to?

The next stage would be parenting orders or family contracts, and there is a range of other measures that can be used. I discussed this matter with a chief constable only this morning and I was told that, although some parents do not take full responsibility and act in an unacceptable way, the approach that the hon. Gentleman has described works on many occasions. It is a simple thing, but very effective. It always amazes me that, before the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the police did not have the power to take a truant back to school, let alone take a child back home. The simple powers that the police have asked for are very necessary, in my view.

I have talked about the more general issue of youth crime but, on the specific issue of knife crime, there are now tougher penalties for those who carry knives. The maximum sentence has been doubled and those convicted are more likely to go to prison. The age at which a person may purchase a knife has been raised to 18 and it is now an offence to mind a weapon on someone else’s behalf.

In June last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), my predecessor as Home Secretary, to whom I pay tribute for the work that she has done in this post over the past two years, launched the tackling knives action programme focused on 10 police forces across England and Wales rapidly to address the issue of knife crime in those areas. We now have an extended programme covering 16 areas, and have invested a total of £12 million. The programme is not only taking knives off the streets. It is also improving understanding among young people of the dangers of knife possession. As the Home Affairs Committee report acknowledged last week, there has been a notable reduction in hospital admissions for stab wounds in the areas where the programme is running.

Our amendment to the motion welcomes provisional figures published last month, which suggested a substantial reduction in the number of hospital admissions caused by the assault with a knife or sharp object of 13 to 19-year-olds for the 12 months ending January 2009 compared with the same period the previous year. Since the amendment was published just yesterday, a more recent set of figures published this morning shows that the trend is continuing, with a drop of 22 per cent. in admissions of teenagers with stab wounds during the tackling knives action programme implementation period from June 2008 to February 2009, compared with the same period the previous year. Provisional figures show a drop of 26 per cent. across England and a fall of 30 per cent. in nine tackling knives action programme areas.

I welcome the Home Secretary to his new post. I know that he will be a terrific success in all the challenges that he will face over the next few years. [Interruption.] With reference to his kind words about the Home Affairs Committee report, which we gratefully accept, one of the key points that we made on admissions to hospitals was that it was important that information should be shared between agencies. For example, the NHS trust in Manchester shares its information with the police and other agencies. Is it not important that that should happen across the country? That is one way to tackle the problem in a particular area.

I am tempted to blame the Health Secretary for the present state of affairs. May I say how much I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s contribution in this area, which, as Home Secretary, I know I will appreciate even more? When I was Secretary of State for Health, we made it clear in the operating framework, which is an important document for the health service and used to be called their marching orders, that it was a tier 3 local priority to exchange information and to engage and co-operate in this way. As a result, double the number of hospitals now provide the information. I accept that we have to go further, but that is an important result, given that we made it an operating framework tier 3 priority only last December. We are on the right track.

The figures are extremely encouraging. During the action plan’s first phase, there were 200,000 stop and searches and 3,500 knives were seized.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. My area is one in which the action programme has been introduced because of the problems that we have had with knife crime, resulting in a number of deaths, ending, unfortunately, with Ben Kinsella’s murder last summer. Youngsters were afraid to go out on the street because they thought other people were carrying knives, so they carried them themselves. The introduction of random stop and search among all young people was extremely helpful in putting a cap on the carrying of knives. I commend the policy.

It is valuable to get that first-hand experience from one of the TKAP areas. I am sure that that experience is repeated elsewhere.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way, and I echo those comments. However, he will surely realise that there is no such thing as random stop and search; it can be carried out only when a section 60 power is in place, and then it lasts for only 24 hours. Is that not one of the problems that he might want to address—how to enable random stop and searches in areas where there are real problems?

I acknowledge the special knowledge—the special constable knowledge, even—of the hon. Gentleman. I shall look at that issue, but, once again, my discussion with the chief constable of Warwickshire this morning suggested what the figures show—that, after eight months, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. These are eighth month statistics: 3,500 knives seized from 200,000 stop and searches. So we are at least on the right road, but, of course, I shall look at other issues.

In Islington, if an area had particular problems, the police were given for a limited period but for much longer than 24 hours the power to stop all youngsters, and that really helped.

I do not like to intervene in the conversation about stop and search, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Select Committee was right, however, to raise the concern that a small number of young people are worried about their safety and feel that they need to carry knives to protect themselves. Senior police officers have told us that the fact that fewer stop and searches now uncover a weapon suggests that the number being carried is declining further. But it is absolutely critical that we get the message across to young people that carrying a knife does not make them safer.

The advertising campaign “It Doesn’t Have to Happen” has been designed by young people, for young people, with that precise purpose. Aimed at 10 to 16-year-olds, the adverts portray unflinchingly the physical effects of knife wounds and have been viewed more than 13 million times. Of those youngsters surveyed, 73 per cent. said that they were less likely to carry a knife as a result of seeing the advert.

Through the Be Safe programme, 1 million young people will be able to attend workshops over the next five years on the dangers of knives and other weapons. We cannot be the slightest bit complacent, and one knife crime is one too many, but police forces tell us of encouraging signs that knife carrying is falling among young people, and the statistics on NHS admissions and on crimes committed support that view. Between October and December 2008, there were seven fewer fatal stabbings compared with the same period the previous year.

I completely agree with the reference in the Opposition’s motion to “cross-community co-operation”. Community and voluntary sector organisations have a crucial role to play in tackling knife crime. The motion is right to praise the work of the Damilola Taylor Trust, and I mention in particular Damilola Taylor’s father, Richard Taylor, who was appointed by the Prime Minister in February to be his special envoy on youth violence and knife crime.

I am most grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way a second time. We in the Select Committee were very keen to ensure that our report was not a knee-jerk reaction to another tragic death; that is why we took six months to complete it. We have also decided that, at the end of July, we will bring the stakeholders together to consider the report’s conclusions thoughtfully. I am very pleased that the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has agreed to participate in that seminar, and I hope that the Home Secretary will also find the time to come along and give us his views on the issue—as a way of keeping the issue going and retaining the consensus, which is extremely important. Without the stakeholders working together, no single agency can solve the problem of an increase in knife crime.

That is a very important development. Around that time, after the first year of the tackling knives action programme, we will be hosting an event, so perhaps we could combine the two in some way. I shall talk to my right hon. Friend about that.

It has been acknowledged that projects that work with young people and provide peer mentoring, diversionary activities, education and training can help prevent them from becoming offenders. That is why investing in better local services and activities for young people is so important, and, through the youth opportunity fund and the youth capital fund, and schemes such as the myplace programme, we are providing a total of £900 million to improve local services for young people. The best providers of such services are often local and community groups, which have a profound knowledge of the area and the needs of the people with whom they work. Over the next three years, we have specifically earmarked £4.5 million to help up to 150 local groups that are working to tackle knife crime, gun crime, and gang-related activity. We will announce the successful bidders for money from that fund next week.

On that point, apparently 20 per cent. of volunteers in Britain are male, and 80 per cent. are female. Obviously, many of the issues that we are discussing relate to male role models, or a lack of them. Does the Home Secretary have any views on what we could do to encourage more men in our communities to get involved and play a role in helping to be role models for young adults—younger males—whom they could probably help with the benefit of their experience?

The Minister of State, Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), just reminded me about Baroness Neuberger’s report on volunteering. Also, I know from my constituency that every year, in volunteers’ week, a special push is made to get people who do not normally volunteer—sometimes that is men, but it is other groups in our community, too—to realise the benefits of volunteering. There is more that we can do in that regard.

The issue of knife crime among young people is serious, and the motion rightly reflects that fact, but the tackling knives action programme is showing encouraging early signs of success. Through tougher action on those who offend and a greater focus on the causes of knife crime, and through excellent leadership and strong partnerships between the police, schools, social services and community groups, properly organised and adequately funded, I believe that we can address an issue that is rightly seen by the public as absolutely critical to the well-being of our society.

The issue will be one of my major priorities in the coming months. Along with the Secretaries of State for Justice and for Children, Schools and Families, I will host an event in July, as I have said, to discuss the outcomes and experiences of the first year of the tackling knives action programme, and will consider what further steps need to be taken to keep knives off our streets. I commend the Opposition for tabling the motion, and I commend the amendment to the House.

I, too, very much welcome the tone and the approach taken by the official Opposition, who have given us an opportunity to discuss this key issue. I also very much welcome the approach taken by the Home Affairs Committee in its attempt to build cross-party consensus, which hopefully can make real progress on the issue. May I also welcome the new Home Secretary to his post? I look forward to lively debate with him in the coming weeks and months, in the hope that I may agree with him on Home Office policy as much as I do on electoral reform.

The official Opposition are absolutely right in their motion: knife crime is one of the most serious problems facing Britain today. The number of children admitted to hospital having been assaulted with knives has gone up by 83 per cent. in five years. That is frankly shocking, but sadly there are no simple solutions, as we have heard; there is, perhaps, consensus across the House on that. We need a response from the education and health services, the police and the criminal justice system, so I was heartened to see the emphasis on cross-community co-operation to address the root causes of knife crime in the motion, and to hear it in the speech of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). That appears to us to be a new emphasis, which we welcome.

There is, however, still a clear distinction between the approach of Liberal Democrat Members on the one hand, and the approach of the Opposition and the Government on the other. That is highlighted in the addendum to the motion that the Government propose. Those two parties still continuously seek to try to outdo one another by advocating tougher penalties, which in the main serve to criminalise young people. By contrast, we believe that what is needed is an effective system of prevention that tackles the root causes of why people, particularly young people, carry knives, and which is coupled with targeted, intelligence-led, visible policing. We need to reassure young people that they do not need to carry knives for their own safety, and we need the support of the community to catch and convict those who threaten others.

Last year, 43 young people died from stab wounds. Of the 773 homicides in Britain in 2007-08, 270—35 per cent., or a little over a third—were caused by sharp instruments. That is the highest number of knife killings since records began in 1997, and it represents an increase of a third since that year. There was a 48 per cent. increase in stab-related hospital admissions between 1997-98 and 2006-07, and nearly 50,000 people, including 4,510 children, have been treated in hospital for knife wounds since the Government came to power.

Knife crime disproportionately affects young people. Between 2003 and 2007, stab-related hospital admissions for under-16s increased by 63 per cent. The Youth Justice Board’s 2008 MORI youth survey found that 17 per cent. of 11 to 16-year-olds in mainstream education had carried a knife in the previous year; the figure rises to 54 per cent. among young people who have been excluded from school. Some 85 per cent. of young people who carry knives claim that they do so for their own protection.

Those statistics speak for themselves. The toll of knife crime is horrendous and its increasing regularity is rightly fixed in the public consciousness as an overwhelming problem. There can be few more graphic or horrifying thoughts for any parent than that of their child being attacked with a knife. The images that we have seen in the media of the devastation wrought by knife crime over the past few months and years remain a harrowing reminder of the damage that these crimes can do.

The Government have made progress in tackling knife crime, but the problem remains far too large. In the eight months to November 2008, 3,259 people were admitted to hospital in England with stab wounds; that was a fall of 9 per cent. on the same period in the previous year, but it still represents a very substantial level. Furthermore, 604 of the victims were teenagers.

The tentative improvements are welcome, but they are far from being enough. Despite the evident escalation in the problem during the Government’s period in power, Ministers have clearly not given the sustained priority to tackling the problem that it deserves. We had some sense of the issue in the exchange between the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and the Home Secretary earlier in this debate, but to our continuing amazement Ministers have not fully implemented tactics that have been proven to work dramatically to reduce the problem. I shall come back to that issue in detail.

The effective policing of knife crime is about intelligence-led stop and search. Many people on estates where the problem is most serious know exactly who the menace is, but they are afraid to say. Visible and approachable policing is essential, not just for reassurance—as I said, many young people carry knives because they are afraid, not because they intend to use them—but for intelligence gathering. Metal detecting arches and wands used by police have helped to tackle knife crime, with outstanding success in areas such as Newham in east London, where I have seen them in operation.

However, one of the most effective means of reducing knife crime has not been rolled out nationally—in part, I suspect, because it needs co-operation between the Department of Health and the Home Office. I am referring to the so-called Cardiff model, which was created six years ago by Professor Jonathan Shepherd, a surgeon in Cardiff. The aim of the model is to improve police effectiveness and reduce emergency department admissions for violent crime-related injuries.

The accident and emergency department collects anonymous data on the precise location and time of the violent incident when patients first attend. Those data are shared by the hospital trust with the crime and disorder reduction partnership. The partnership then produces maps of violent crime, including knife crime, for its area, allowing the police to track violent crime trends and allocate resources to violent crime hot spots accordingly. That proven technique has cut hospital admissions for violence-related attendances by 40 per cent. in Cardiff. That information is from a peer-reviewed study: it is good, hard, solid evidence. In Cardiff’s Home Office family of 15 similar cities, it went from mid-table in 2002 to safest city in May 2007. In a recent study for the think-tank Reform, Cardiff was 51st out of 55 towns and cities with a population of more than 100,000 in terms of incidences of robbery or assault.

In other words, the experiment clearly worked. It began in 2002, and the Department of Health commissioned a paper from Professor Shepherd in 2004. It was updated again, explicitly for the then Health Secretary, who is now Home Secretary, in October 2007. However, a parliamentary question that I tabled both to the Home Office and to the Department of Health in November 2008 revealed that information on hospitals running such a scheme was not centrally collected. I am pleased that the Home Secretary has provided some evidence of progress in rolling out the scheme, but when will all hospitals be applying it and co-operating with their local police services? When, indeed, will all hospitals in TKAP areas be co-operating? My office had to submit a freedom of information request to all English NHS trusts, which revealed that as of today, of 135 relevant trusts that answered my request, only 29 share data in this way—just over 21 per cent.

I am pleased that the Home Affairs Committee has picked up on this point, which I made to it in evidence. At paragraph 39 of its conclusions, it says:

“We were disappointed to learn that this has not been fully implemented throughout England and Wales and recommend that this is done immediately. All agencies within partnerships should have an equal duty to share.”

This should not be a political issue: it is very straightforward. We know that the scheme leads to dramatic falls in cutting knife crime—it is an easy hit—but it has one major snag: it involves two Government Departments working together on a matter of overwhelming priority for the public, and I am afraid that until now they have signally failed to do so.

Will the hon. Gentleman place on record, for the sake of my successor as Health Secretary, that he is saying that we should insist from the centre that every local acute trust must adopt this system? I say that because I have spent the past two years being lectured by Liberal Democrat Front Benchers about the need to devolve power to the front line and not to engage in central direction.

That is an absolutely splendid smokescreen from the former Secretary of State for Health, not least because he knows very well that the only elected person in charge of the national health service is the Secretary of State for Health. I am convinced that if the NHS had accountability to elected people on the lines proposed by the Liberal Democrats the change would have been far more dramatic. People want knife crime to be tackled, and they do not want a load of excuses from one part of Government about not delivering on an objective set by another part of Government.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the evidence that he gave to the Select Committee and the useful comments that he made about Cardiff. I agree with him. Of course it is important that local areas should make decisions on their own, but where, as in this respect, there is a clear-cut case for the sharing of information because it will help other agencies to ensure that knife crime is reduced, it is important that the Government accept that recommendation and implement it.

Absolutely. We have had so many examples, over so many years, of this extraordinary Gosplan centralism applied to the NHS and to many other public services, in theory delivering the same standard of service across the country but completely failing to do so because the levers are not connected. Perhaps the former Health Secretary would like to come back to the Dispatch Box to explain why it has taken so long for the Department of Health to deliver on this overwhelming public objective, which, after all, came as an initiative from within the Department—from a surgeon who was fed up with fixing the faces of young people who were damaged by knife crime.

Why has it taken so long? The Government launched the tackling knives action programme in June 2008, part of which was to implement data sharing between hospitals and the police. In none of the nine TKAP areas were all A and E departments sharing data in that way, and in three areas—Essex, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire—no A and E departments shared data. Perhaps the Home Secretary would like to tell us why even the areas that were running the scheme did not apply it. There is such an obvious case for the scheme—for public health reasons and the objective that we all share of tackling knife crime.

Will the Home Secretary also tell us why the TKAP programme, despite its success, ran for less than a year before being incorporated into the Home Office’s violent crime unit? Surely any solution to knife crime must be a long-term commitment, not a flash in the pan and a headline-grabbing gimmick.

Further evidence, if it were needed, that the Government have not taken knife crime seriously in the past is the failure to collect the relevant statistics. The British crime survey started collecting data from under-16s—a significant group, as victims and perpetrators of knife crime—only since January. Police-recorded crime figures included data specifically on knife crime only from July 2008, even though statistics for hospital admissions show that the problem has been escalating for several years.

The Government have consistently failed, on almost every count, to take opportunities to tackle head on the problem of rising knife crime. Meanwhile, the public debate about tackling knife crime between the Government and the official Opposition still revolves around tougher punishment. We had confirmation of that today. The Conservatives believe that the current system lets people off too lightly and that anyone convicted of possessing a knife should expect a custodial sentence. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) confirmed that in his speech—it was not in the motion. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has said:

“If you are carrying a knife and you are caught, you should expect to go to prison. Plain, simple, clear.”

However, the official Opposition have obviously not done their sums. Based on the annual cost of imprisoning somebody, the number of extra prison places that would be needed and the estimated number of new prisoners as a result of the policy, we calculate that they are looking at a cost of £4.9 billion a year. The policy, from a party that has pledged to cut all sorts of taxes in a recession—corporation tax, inheritance tax, VAT, national insurance temporarily, stamp duty—would be the equivalent of adding a penny on the basic rate of income tax. If the official Opposition would not pay for it through a tax rise, will the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell tell us how they would fund it? He is not attempting to rise to provide some explanation.

Putting the policy’s questionable arithmetic aside, it also ignores the evidence that tougher penalties are far less effective as a deterrent than catching more criminals. A Home Office-commissioned study on sentence severity, which leading criminologists conducted, concluded that there is

“no firm evidence regarding the extent to which raising severities of punishment would enhance deterrence of crime”.

We already lock up more people per head of the population than any other EU country except Luxembourg.

Knife crime is perpetrated primarily by young men, yet the reoffending rate for a young man serving a first custodial sentence is 92 per cent.

I am sure that everyone is getting a sense of déjà vu at such exchanges, but the hon. Gentleman clearly knows that young men serving their first sentence are almost invariably given a short sentence and released less than halfway through it. That is why the reoffending rate is so high. If they were given a meaningful term, they would be much less likely to reoffend.

The hon. Gentleman assumes that if something does not work, it will begin to work if there is twice as much of it. A much more common-sense approach is to assume that, if a short sentence given to a young man leads to a 92 per cent. reoffending rate, it would be better to try alternatives, particularly since short sentences are given for relatively trivial offences. There was one thing that I entirely agreed with in the speech by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, which was his point about the need to head young people off—young men in particular—and stop them getting involved in a life of crime.

I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument about reoffending, but in one way the situation is even worse. The figures vary from age to age, but the statistics show that somewhere between 70 and 90 per cent. of young people on release reoffend, which means that they reoffend up to 4.5 times on average in one year. However, he will realise that, because only about one in seven crimes is detected, that figure probably means that a young man on release will have reoffended up to 30 times in one year, so we are talking about reoffending not just once, but many times.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, which emphasises the need to try alternatives to short custodial sentences—alternatives that do not involve educating young men in skills that we do not want them to acquire, and at an extremely high cost to the taxpayer. That is why I find so unsatisfactory the knee-jerk reaction of those on the Labour and Conservative Benches whenever there is a problem—“Lock them up for longer and throw away the key,” which flies in the face of the evidence of what works.

More than 25 years ago, I was a career civil servant in the prison department in the Home Office, working on criminal justice policy. Twenty-five years ago, when sentences were longer, the reconviction rates were the same. All things being equal, young people are much more likely to reoffend if they are given a custodial sentence. The experts have known that for a quarter of a century. When are we as politicians going to move away from the knee-jerk reactions of the tabloid press and deal with what works?

I very much agree with the hon. Lady and congratulate her on her excellent sound effects earlier in the debate. I certainly agree that criminalising a generation of young people who have become involved in knife crime, rather than addressing the reason why they become involved—exclusion from school, fear, peer pressure, gang membership, social deprivation and poverty or family breakdown, to name but a few—does the young people of this country a great disservice.

What we need, in addition to more effective stop and search and the wider implementation of the Cardiff model, is an end to the blanket criminalisation of young people. Of course those convicted of serious and violent crimes need to be dealt with proportionately, but we need to stop young people turning to crime in the first place and help those who stray into it to get back on the right track. Preventive programmes, such as a youth volunteer force, should be created to give kids something to do and to provide skills for later life. There should be more youth facilities to stop the devil making work for idle hands. There should also be more dedicated youth workers in safer neighbourhood teams and an effort by schools not only to identify kids at risk of being sucked into gangs at a young age, but to contact and enrol their parents in the fight to stop that happening.

For those who are beginning to commit low-level offences, acceptable behaviour contracts and positive behaviour orders should be used, which, unlike antisocial behaviour orders and curfews, require offenders to take responsibility for making amends for their actions without criminalising them unnecessarily. Custodial sentences are of course necessary for serious and serial criminals, but they should be the last resort, not the first.

That is a major point of difference between us and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, who talked about the presumption of a custodial sentence for carrying a knife. It is already possible to send someone to jail for four years for carrying a knife, but we cannot punish anyone unless we catch them first. What is needed to tackle knife crime is a lot less posturing about punishments and a lot more catching criminals by using the obvious tools that we have to hand. Labour cannot change its policies and the Conservatives have barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done.

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comment that so little is being done. Presumably he is aware of Operation Blunt Two in London. In the past year, more than 2 million people have been stopped, 10,000 arrests have been made—a rate of one every 51 minutes—and 25,500 knives have been seized. There has been a 30 per cent. fall in serious stabbings, and 90 per cent. of those caught in possession of a knife have been charged. Is that a good performance?

I began my speech, as I hope the hon. Lady recognises, by citing the fact that there has been a fall in knife crime and that the problem is being tackled. I find it distressing, however, that some of the easiest hits on getting knife crime down are being missed, particularly the application of the Cardiff model. We know that that model has reduced the number of people being admitted to hospital with knife wounds by 40 per cent. in the areas in which it has been applied. That is potentially a very dramatic gain, and we ought to be making it a serious, top-rate public priority to ensure that it happens. I do not get a sense of urgency, either today from the new Home Secretary or from his Department and its officials; nor is there an acknowledgement that this is an easy hit that could provide real action very quickly.

We will support the Opposition motion today because its emphasis is right, but we believe that the Liberal Democrats are the only party that is able to take a targeted and effective approach to knife crime that will really work.

Order. May I say to the House that as about seven hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, that suggests a tariff of about 15 minutes? Perhaps each person who is called will bear that in mind.

I will certainly bear that in mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I know that your request was not directed only at me. My speeches can be quite brief on occasions of this kind.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). He and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) gave evidence to the Select Committee and they can take credit for the recommendations that we made in respect of knife crime. I also want to reiterate my welcome to the Home Secretary. If every debate on Home Affairs issues is as consensual as this one, they will be extremely boring for the public, who expect them to be extremely robust. We will take this one as an exception, however. I perceive in this debate a willingness on the part of all the political parties to work together to ensure that we rise above party politics to find a long-term solution to the problem of knife crime that is affecting this country.

The motion tabled by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is one that I can gladly vote for. I know that the Government have tabled an amendment to it, but I hope that when the Minister winds up the debate, he will tell us that the Government will not vote against the Conservative motion. It would be good to send a message to the public that on some issues—not all, by any means—we can be united in our hope to deal with a major problem.

I also want to place on record my appreciation of the work of the previous Home Secretary. It is in the nature of democratic politics that we do not get to say goodbye before people go, even though the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell tried to say goodbye to my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) the last time she was here—

Indeed.

In my view, my right hon. Friend was a first-class Home Secretary, certainly as far as the Select Committee was concerned. Whenever we asked her to give evidence to us, she readily did so. She was always available to provide us with information, and I hope that the new Home Secretary will take the same position. I know that the Select Committee is seeking an early meeting with him; we have given him some dates to consider.

I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), formerly a Minister of State at the Home Office. He has now left the Department and gone to one with which, as a former schoolteacher, he has a kinship. He is the son of policeman, so obviously having the job of policing Minister was good for him, but he has now gone off to be the Minister with responsibility for children and schools. I wish him well. He, too, was very willing to work with the Select Committee.

I welcome the Minister of State, Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), to his new position. I have known him for many years in the House and I wish him well. He has a tough job. He will find the Select Committee very robust with him. He has just left the Ministry of Justice with the Sonnex case ringing in his ears. As I say, he can expect us to be very strong with him over ensuring that there is a proper joined-up criminal justice system. As someone who has come from the Ministry of Justice, he will understand the need to ensure that it is seamless. I do not blame him for what happened in the Sonnex case, although until last week he was the Minister responsible for probation. We hope that he will keep a close eye on what is happening in the Home Office.

All Members were right to mention the massive concern among the public and in the media about knife crime. We tend to react to high-profile cases, which is why the Select Committee felt it important to ensure that we did not produce our report too quickly; we wanted to bring together all the stakeholders, including the Opposition parties, the voluntary sector, the Government, the NHS and so forth—so that together we could try to fashion a number of recommendations that would be readily accepted by all political parties.

I did not intervene when the Home Secretary was presenting statistics, but I do not absolutely share his rosy view that knife crime has disappeared. There are, of course, trends showing that knife crime has reduced, but the headline figures are still very worrying indeed. Knife homicides increased by 26.9 per cent. between 2005 and 2007, and there were a total of 270 knife murders in 2007-08—the highest since the homicide index was invented in 1977. Knives were used in 6 per cent. of the British crime survey’s violent incidents in 2007 and in approximately 138,000 robberies, woundings or assaults.

Although there was a bit of banter about the hospital statistics, the fact is that the number of patients admitted to hospitals after stab wounds rose by 48 per cent. The total number of admissions to A and E—5,239—may seem relatively small, but the percentage increase causes us a great deal of worry. That is why the Select Committee fully accepted the Liberal Democrat viewpoint when the hon. Member for Eastleigh gave evidence: it is no good Manchester producing those figures and Leicester not producing them; they should be readily available to all the agencies that seek to deal with this important matter. Whether or not that amounts to central control, or central diktat, we need those figures if we are to get a clear picture of what is happening.

It is, of course, the victims about whom we should be primarily concerned. If any criticism of the Select Committee report could be made—and I make it as its Chairman—it is probably that we did not spend enough time talking to the victims. It is in practical terms difficult to do, because there are so many of them, so we concentrated on those who had entered the public domain and the people who were prepared to come and talk to the Committee about their own personal experiences. It is important to highlight the necessity to provide as much information as possible to the victims during the processes of the criminal justice system. If we do that, we will be much stronger in dealing with the overall causes of knife crime.

What are the causes? I know that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell was not overly taken by our description of an “arms race”. He pointed out that the vast majority of young people do not go around carrying knives; only a small proportion carry them, but the damage they do is profound. The Select Committee used the term “arms race” because we thought it an appropriate description of why young people decided to carry knives. A survey conducted by the OCJS—Offending, Crime and Justice Survey—showed that 85 per cent. of knife carriers in 2006 said that they carried their knives for protection. In other words, the only reason why they were carrying knives was that they felt that someone else was doing so, so they must protect themselves.

That means that there is a real problem with those who are supposed to protect young people: parents, the state—through the police—community services and, indeed, schools. We concluded that those four agencies were primarily responsible for ensuring that young people were protected, and that their failure, either individually or collectively, had led to an increase in the level of knife carrying. Someone who carries a knife and is in a situation of violence is likely to use that knife; that, in my view, is the reason for the problem of knife crime.

Is not another, perhaps longer-term, problem the fact that such people are growing up with the sense that they are on their own and must fend for themselves in society? The first time they need practical help from others in the community—people in authority, people who may be older than they are—they often find that it is not there, which conveys a very bad message to them. They tell themselves, “I’m going to have to take care of myself.”

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the problems that young people encounter when they are on their own and feel isolated. They feel that they have to carry knives because that is the only way in which they can protect themselves.

Let us think about those four agencies. Parents must ask their children where they are going and what they are doing. I think it was the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), a member of the Select Committee, who raised the issue of parental responsibility. Parents do have that responsibility. My children are aged 14 and 12. I ask them—not as often as I should—where they are and what they are doing, and I ask them to keep in touch with me if they are going out with friends. That is something that all parents need to do.

As our report states, the Committee found that the majority of knives carried by young people—34 per cent.—were kitchen knives from the family home. We do not expect parents to go around counting the kitchen knives every time their kids go out, but an awareness that the knives may well come from the home should be enough to get them thinking. The report also contains a paragraph on the importance of parents’ awareness of what video games their children are watching. I know that I have raised this issue in the House on a number of occasions. We feared that violent DVDs and video games contributed to the problem to some extent, because those who were predisposed to violence would be affected by very violent video games.

As for the police and other agencies, we believed that the initiatives on which the Government had embarked were important. As we have heard from both the present and the previous Home Secretary, a huge amount of money is involved. We did not feel that the “tackling knife crime” initiative had been around for long enough for us to say definitively whether it had been a success, and I welcome what the Home Secretary has said about the need for a review after a year. I am glad that he is getting all the stakeholders together. We would like to be very much a part of that—or we would like the Home Secretary to be very much a part of what the Select Committee is proposing to do. However, we consider it important for the various initiatives not to be duplicated. We feel that they should follow each other carefully and not be taken in isolation, because otherwise the problem will arise of spending money without knowing precisely what it is being spent on.

Let me now say something about schools. I am glad that we have been joined by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I believe it was his idea that one of his constituents, Mrs. Ann Oakes-Odger, should give evidence to the Select Committee. She produced some very interesting evidence about work that she had done with Essex police. A short film was made by another organisation, the UNCUT project in Leeds. These are examples of local good practice that should be followed in other parts of the country. We felt that there needed to be early intervention. This has to be done at primary school level; it is too late by the time children go to secondary school. That is why we felt that all year 7 schoolchildren should be asked to participate in an assembly or lesson dealing with the issue of knife crime.

We received some very impressive evidence of what the police are doing, especially in Scotland. We have to give young people alternatives to violence, and some of the schemes we heard about led to a reduction in knife crime. We were particularly taken by a scheme in Glasgow. As well as being the agency that tries to discover whether young people are carrying knives, the police are the best agency to prevent knife crime. We shall want to return to this issue, because the prevention of knife crime is the most important aspect of any discussion of the wider subject.

May I put on record the fact that Mrs. Ann Oakes-Odger, whom the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, is dedicated to tackling the curse of knife crime because her son was killed by people wielding knives? She is now devoting her life to ensuring that others do not experience what she had to experience.

I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I wish to express my gratitude to him for ensuring that Mrs. Ann Oakes-Odger gave evidence to the Committee. It is terrible experiences such as hers and that of the widow of Philip Lawrence that drive people to come forward, because there is nothing they can do to bring their loved ones back but they can put up ideas and fashion thoughts as to how we can proceed. We are very grateful for all the work done by the hon. Members for Monmouth and for Colchester, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and the other Committee members.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am now nearing your 15-minute time limit on speeches so I shall conclude shortly, but first I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. His Committee’s report is a very good and important document, and the subject of gangs is one of the most important areas it covers. Does he think that the Committee should return to this area in greater depth, because some of the statistics we have heard in the debate suggest that the growth in knife-related incidents in the last three or four years is a direct result of the increase in gang activity?

We certainly will return to this subject. We received evidence from young people—some as young as seven—who were a part of gangs and who said they were being used as caddies to carry knives for older children. The nature of gang culture makes it possible that knife crime will increase even further.

It has been a pleasure to serve, with colleagues from both sides of the House, on the Select Committee. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we recognised in our deliberations, there is a danger of demonising all gangs, and that gangs per se do not lead to an increase in knife crime? Instead, what happens is entirely dependent on the activities of the gang, and on whether a knife has become almost a fashion icon, before moving on to become something much more insidious and dangerous.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to him because the Committee was initially keen to produce a quick study and report on knife crime following a recent spate of knife attacks in London, but he said that the report needed to be much longer and more in-depth, and should examine a wide variety of issues.

What my hon. Friend says about gang-related violence is right. We are not here to demonise gangs. I am sure that the Scouts would not want to regard themselves as a gang. You may well have been a scout, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not one, but I know that the hon. Member for Colchester was. The Scouts gave evidence to the Committee, telling us that it is important to provide purposeful activities for young men—and, in the context of the Girl Guides, for young girls—to undertake.

In conclusion, the top few things that I would like the Government to do—the new Minister may announce all this at the Dispatch Box in his reply; who knows?—are as follows: ensure better data sharing about knife violence at a local level; implement the Select Committee’s domestic violence recommendations from 2008; ban violent video games and DVDs in young offender institutions; and provide early intervention. Those are just four of the points that the Committee made in its detailed report.

I would also like better activities to be provided for young people to ensure that they are engaged in constructive, rather than destructive, activities. The Committee looks forward to the Government’s response; we know that we published our report only last week, but I am sure that the Minister will respond within the due time. We will continue this conversation with the Government and we want to continue it with the Opposition too, because only by working together can we have a set of policies to which all stakeholders will be able to sign up. Let us keep the party politics out of this and ensure that the House of Commons is united in dealing with this terrible form of crime.