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Commons Chamber

Volume 493: debated on Thursday 11 June 2009

House of Commons

Thursday 11 June 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Committee of Selection


That Claire Ward be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Helen Jones be added to the Committee.—(Mr. McAvoy.)

Independent Review of Home Education


That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report, dated 11 June 2009, of the Independent Review of Home Education.—(Mr. Heppell.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Minister of State was asked—

Human Tissue Legislation

1. If he will direct the Office for Life Sciences to review the arrangements for pharmaceutical and medical biotech businesses to access samples of human tissue. (279000)

The Human Tissue Authority is currently assessing the impact of human tissue legislation and regulation on tissue-based research. This is of course primarily a matter for the Department of Health.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but lack of access to human tissue samples is impeding research in the fight against cancer and other diseases. Most human tissue removed in surgeries is currently incinerated, but with patient consent it can be put to very good use. Will the Minister ask the Office for Life Sciences to look into creating a database to record what samples are available where across the country to help academics and biotech companies to achieve scientific breakthroughs?

The hon. Lady is right that bioscience is hugely important. For research on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia, access to human tissue can mean real advances. The Office for Life Sciences is co-ordinating activity and I am pleased that the Department of Health is among the group of Departments represented. She will also be aware that in March this year the HTA announced a project to assess the impact of tissue legislation and regulation on tissue-based research.

Extremist Activity (University Campuses)

2. What recent assessment he has made of the levels of extremist activity on university campuses; and if he will make a statement. (279001)

The assessment of the law enforcement agencies is that there is some extremist activity on a small number of campuses. Where it occurs it is serious, but the assessment is that it is not widespread. Following the issuing of guidance to universities on this matter last year, we continue to work with the higher education sector to help it to reduce the risk of extremist activity on its campuses and to protect the safety of students and staff.

According to the British high commission in Pakistan, half of those granted student visas go missing when they come to the United Kingdom. What discussions is the Minister having with universities and the authorities to ensure that that ends, and ends soon?

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that there has been a change to the visa regime, which means that so-called bogus colleges have largely been closed down over the past year. Now, only 1,600 colleges have been granted a registration, compared with 4,000 previously. I am in regular discussion with my colleague in the Home Office, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the Home Affairs Committee is also looking into the issue. My colleague in this Department and my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration will give evidence before it.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but I gently suggest that his civil servants might be allowing him to become a little complacent. If he talks to Jewish students about the intimidation on campuses earlier this year, in which Islamist organisations fuelled by outsiders intimidated Jewish students, not allowing them to meet or make their case, he will learn that it was a grave and worrying moment. Will he meet a delegation from the Union of Jewish Students and the Community Security Trust to discuss these issues? We cannot allow the notion that there is no problem to gain ground.

I have already met the Union of Jewish Students and I have set up a group within the Department that includes representatives from the universities to discuss these issues. We will meet regularly to continue to make an assessment of the anti-Semitism that can exist on campuses and to do all the appropriate work to minimise those threats and those issues for Jewish students. That kind of xenophobia and racism have no place in the national life of this country.

Small Businesses

Since 2005, we have reduced the administrative burden on business by £1.9 billion and are on track to deliver our promise of a 25 per cent. reduction worth £3.4 billion by 2010. We plan to adopt new simplification targets for 2010 to 2015 which will address regulatory costs for all businesses, but especially small businesses.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment and promotion, which were well deserved. He has always taken an interest in small businesses. He will be aware that the First Secretary has made a number of encouragingly pro-business speeches recently. In fact, he said that both the Government and Europe should get off the back of small businesses. He seemed to be implying that the Government now want to come out of the EU social chapter. Is that the case? Will the Minister also confirm that it is still his Department’s intention strongly to resist the job-destroying agency workers directive?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, which are greatly appreciated. I ran a small business myself for a period and I know the importance of good regulation for small businesses. Some regulation is good, but the Government are keen to reduce and eliminate unnecessary regulation. The type of regulation that is acceptable to the Government should support workers. The minimum wage is a form of regulation of which we are very proud. We all support that type of good regulation, but we will always eliminate bad regulation. We are always listening to businesses to hear what they have to say, so that we can do that as often as possible.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, reducing the imposition of regulation on small business is important, but another important factor is ensuring that finance is available for small businesses. He is aware that the enterprise finance guarantee is working well and is getting money for small businesses to where it should be. Is he satisfied that there is sufficient money in that scheme to ensure that, as we are at the turning point of the recession, the vital resource of money for small businesses will be available for some time to come?

It is, of course, extremely important that such finance is available for small business. I noted, as I sat as a Whip in the Chamber, how the Opposition have stopped talking about the ineffectiveness of so-called Government schemes. Those schemes are working. It is always important to listen to business and to hear what it has to say about the availability of resources. If there are shortages, we will certainly listen to what small businesses have to say.

May I, for the second time in less than 24 hours, congratulate and welcome the Minister and extend that welcome to the rest of his ministerial colleagues on the Front Bench, pausing only to regret that the majority of the team—and its most powerful members—sit in another place? I invite him to reassure the House of the Department’s commitment to regulatory reform, and particularly to the deregulation of small businesses. I urge him to reconsider the provisions of my private Member’s Bill, which would remove the requirement for a small business to apply for rate relief so that it would be applied automatically, instead. I withdrew that Bill voluntarily on the basis of assurances from the Government that, to be honest, have not been met.

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his kind words. As I mentioned previously, I ran a small business, so I know the frustrations caused to businesses by the imposition of what they perceive as unnecessary regulation. I can assure him that I will do all I can to remove unnecessary regulation for small businesses, because I bear the scars of having to go through lots of forms that I could not understand.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to a key role in the empire of Mandelsonia. It is good to see him on the Front Bench.

In tracking the concerns of small businesses, we are seeing the cost of compliance moving up their list, and that is a worry to many who recognise the role of small businesses in creating most of the jobs that will pull us out of recession over the next 18 months. Will he assure the House that the dropping of regulatory reform from the original title of one of the component Departments does not mean that there will be a relaxation of attention on this important area for small and medium-sized enterprises?

As the Minister responsible for regulatory reform, I can assure him that I do not intend that its importance should drop in any way. It is a vital part of creating a more efficient and competitive economy and I will do all I can to take the agenda forward.

I, too, welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. I lose track, but I think that he is the seventh or eighth Minister whom I have shadowed in the last few years and I genuinely hope that he lasts longer than his predecessors.

Despite the Minister’s claims and his welcome experience in small business, red tape is strangling enterprise. Let me give him an example. To install new microgeneration technologies in this country, a business must comply with not one, two or even three regulators but five separate regulators, three of whom make separate charges. Is that burden of regulation intentional, or is it just the result of ministerial incompetence?

It is never the Government’s intention to create difficulties for anyone. Our intention is to make progress. I should be very glad to have more information about the specific example to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and I shall gladly look into it. I thank him for his kind words, and assure him that I intend to be here for a very long time.

Scientific Research

My Department will invest some £5.5 billion in research funding in 2009-10. This is made up of the science research budget, which will reach almost £4 billion next year, and the Higher Education Funding Council quality-related research grants.

The Minister will recognise that science is long term and involves dedication. Does he accept that there is consternation in the science community that, since the latest reshuffle, neither of the words “universities” or “science” appears in the name of his Department? Moreover, the Science Minister and the Secretary of State are both in the House of Lords and therefore unaccountable to this House. The Science Minister is also forced to take on defence duties as well, and there is a real fear that the needs of strategic, long-term science will be subordinate to business. How can he reassure the science community on all those points?

I am afraid that I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that our Science Minister brings an enormous wealth of expertise from his industrial background that is to the advantage of both the country and the Government. As for the Department, it makes absolute sense to bring together our leading-edge scientific research and support for business and the fields of higher and further education. The economic situation that we face requires all those things to be brought together, in the interests of scientific research and the country’s economic future.

My hon. Friend will know that the investment in science that the Government have made in the north-west of England has paid real dividends, in that it has attracted high-quality science and protected and developed businesses at the leading edge of our economy. Will he assure the House that investment will continue to be made outside the golden triangle of the south-east, and that there will be real investment in science in the regions?

The investment over recent years in the north-west has been extremely welcome, and is a reflection of the fact that the science budget has trebled since 1997. We have maintained our commitment to the science budget, and that stands in contrast to the signals given yesterday, when we were told that the Opposition are planning a 10 per cent. cut across the board in such funding. The sort of choice that the country will face in respect of science funding is therefore quite clear.

May I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)? Notwithstanding the Minister’s proper defence of the Science Minister’s credentials, will he accept that there is very real consternation in the universities in general, and the science community in particular, about the fact that the words “universities” and “science” have been deleted from the name of this mega-Department? What can he do truly to reassure us?

The hon. Gentleman has been in the House a very long time, and I have to remind him that it is not unknown for science to be a responsibility of this Department. That was the case until a couple of years ago, so I do not see the need for consternation about its return to the Department. That synergy was there before, and it will still be here in the future.

The leading scientific research undertaken at places like Loughborough university, and the development of resulting products, will be vital if we are to bring our economy out of the current recession. However, although the global figures always sound impressive, is my hon. Friend aware that there is often a shortfall at local level in the amount of funding available for the development of leading scientific projects, and especially for bringing them forward to market? Will he ensure that greater emphasis is placed in future on those technologies that will make a real impact on the economic situation of the east midlands region as a whole? Will he argue the case that, far from being reduced, funding should be increased, as the technologies being developed will create jobs both locally and internationally?

I know that my hon. Friend is a real champion of science funding, research and educational opportunity. His point about the application of science and bringing research to market is well made. We are hugely committed to that. It is one reason we have backed the science budget and why it is in such a different state today from the science budget that we inherited when we came into office. I assure him that that commitment will remain in the future.

May I welcome the Minister for Business to his wider range of responsibilities? Of course, investment in science, technology, engineering, maths, and also in the arts and humanities for the digital economy, is essential if we are to emerge from the recession even stronger. In just a matter of weeks, there will be hundreds of thousands of graduates leaving our universities in the bleakest job market for a generation. Now is an ideal time to expand the research opportunities for them, so that they can learn, invest and build our future, rather than have a taste of the dole queue.

We are acutely aware of the graduates who will come out of universities in the coming months. The predecessor Department, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, announced measures on the expansion of internships and so on to try to expand opportunity for people in that position. I quite agree with him that research should not just be about science; we have also expanded funding to the economic and social research budget, which has gone up from £105 million in 2004-05 to £166 million in the last financial year. Once again, there is a stark contrast between that commitment, and pledges for a 10 per cent. cut across the board from the Conservative party.

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), one of the key areas in the north-west for science development is the Daresbury laboratory and business park. Its output is key to science, invention and research and to products being brought to market. It is key to have the space and the willingness to develop that through factories and other facilities. There is an important point to be made about Daresbury: it is one of the key areas in the country with the room to do that. I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that he keeps that in mind when he is looking at funding for science, as Daresbury science and business park is one of the key areas in the country for that.

My hon. Friend makes his point very well. The excellence at Daresbury is well recognised. I know that he is a strong advocate for it, and I can assure him that that is understood in Government. His points about the spin-offs and benefits from that are absolutely correct.

There are clearly many unanswered questions about science funding in the future. Just two years ago, the Prime Minister announced with a great fanfare that he was creating a new Department called the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which basically separated science from business, yet less than two years later he has abandoned that new Department and taken us back to the future, with all the resultant costs and confusion. The question is: was he wrong back then, or is he wrong today? Like Thomas More, I see no further alternative.

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman has been living for the past two years, but I have to tell him that there have been some changes in the economy in that period. We face a worldwide economic downturn, and in those circumstances it makes absolute sense to bring together science, business, and higher and further education. We now have a Department in which educational opportunity, science and innovation and support for business all work together for the benefit of the country’s economy. That can only be a good thing, and I would have hoped that he supported it. Perhaps he should address his concerns to his party’s Treasury spokespeople, given the 10 per cent. cut in the Department’s budget that his party would make if it had its way.

Further Education Colleges

5. What estimate he has made of the costs incurred by further education colleges in seeking (a) application in principle and (b) application in detail status for the capital expenditure programmes. (279004)

The Learning and Skills Council and independent property consultants are working with colleges to understand the extent of the costs. Until that work is completed we will not know the exact expenditure that colleges have incurred, but no college that has acted reasonably will be left unable to meet its financial obligations relating to that matter.

How many colleges have had to abandon building projects over the past nine months, and what impact will that have on their ability to cut costs to meet Treasury efficiency targets?

It is important to acknowledge the concern felt as a result of what happened, the fact that there was a review subsequently, and the fact that there is a process in place through which colleges will receive decisions in a way that is objective and meets the priorities involved. It is also important to remember that we are talking about not whether, but how investment will be made. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could pledge that his party will meet the investment in further education that this Government are promising.

My hon. Friend knows that his new Department will be judged on how well it does its job, so may I urge him to prioritise the decisions on colleges? When a constituency college of mine, Kirklees college, Huddersfield, took over the failing Dewsbury college, it was given clear promises that it would have a rebuilding scheme. It has been delayed and delayed, however, so it is about time that that bureaucratic nightmare ended and we allowed people to get on with such schemes, which are good for education and good for the regeneration of our towns.

Yes, and may I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work in his constituency and in his role as a Select Committee Chairman? There is a process in place, and all parties agree that it is the right process to deal with what occurred following the Foster review. The Learning and Skills Council will very shortly take decisions on those projects that meet the priorities and criteria that the Foster review set out. I can promise my hon. Friend that he will not have to wait long for those decisions to be announced.

Colleges throughout the country will have been dismayed to receive from the Learning and Skills Council yet further correspondence stating that the decisions that were supposed to be taken on capital programmes last week have been delayed. Indeed, the LSC’s national projects director said:

“We made an erroneous assumption that 30 to 40 projects might be shovel-ready, but there are an awful lot more.”

Does that not indicate to the House that the LSC is still in turmoil? Perhaps the Minister will reassure the House today. Exactly when can our colleges expect to know whether they will get the money that they so badly need?

The hon. Lady will know that the previous chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council resigned over the matter and that Ministers came to the House and gave an explanation and an apology for what had occurred at the LSC. The new chief executive wrote just last week to all college principals to explain that he was hopeful of announcing the projects that will go through to the next stage of the process very soon, and I have no reason to believe that that is not the case.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend and fellow MP4 band mate on a well-deserved promotion to his new post? We look forward to hearing the song that he will no doubt write about it.

On the colleges issue, my hon. Friend will be well aware of the worry that has been caused, the delay to the capital programme and the money that colleges have already expended in order to be shovel-ready. In my constituency, Goole college, which is part of the Hull college campus, is trying to push forward a project as part of the town’s renaissance project; and, in north Lincolnshire the excellent John Leggott college is shovel-ready and a local contractor, Clugston, is ready to go in and deliver. Will my hon. Friend look into the issue as a priority and give those people the news that they hope to hear?

I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to my post. Being shovel-ready—to use the phrase that appears in some papers relating to the issue—is one of the criteria, along with a scheme’s impact on the local economy and local learning, and so on. Those criteria are now being used to come to an objective decision. On his concerns about the expenditure and costs that have been incurred so far, as I said in my answer to the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), reasonable costs will be reimbursed to colleges. I also assure my hon. Friend that the Learning and Skills Council’s decisions will be announced shortly.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his new job or, should I say, jobs, because he has a couple. He has inherited a lamentable situation, but I wish him personally very well and success.

Further education colleges are strongly rooted in their local communities and characterised by their localness and accessibility. They successfully attract many learners from non-traditional backgrounds. What message does the Minister have for the thousands of learners and lecturers who now have to use sub-standard Portakabins and other accommodation as a result of the continuing delays that have been caused by the mismanagement of the capital programme and budget? When does he expect them to have proper classrooms again?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He and I worked closely together when we were both Whips, and I am sure that that will aid our working relationship in our new roles.

My message to those learners and to people across the country would be that I am positive that far fewer students are in Portakabins now than under the hon. Gentleman’s party when it was in power. During its last year in power, it invested not a penny in further education colleges; there were 7 per cent. real-terms cuts in further education budgets during its last four years of power. From what we heard yesterday, I am afraid that it is clear that if it came back to power, there would be more of the same.

Barnsley college has spent £12 million in preparing for its capital programme refurbishment. It is halfway through a four-phase redevelopment, two phases of which have already been completed. The third phase led to the demolition of the college. We are not only shovel-ready, to use the silly phrase, but the shovels have been on site since last year. Our programme has been interrupted, but there is absolutely no reason why the Learning and Skills Council cannot allow the project to continue. Barnsley college is £12 million in debt—technically, it is insolvent.

I can reassure my hon. Friend by repeating the commitment that no college will be allowed to become insolvent as a result of the process. My hon. Friend raised the matter with the Prime Minister yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, and he was probably reasonably pleased with the answer. Barnsley college is one of the colleges being considered by the Learning and Skills Council under the objective criteria following the publication of the Foster report. I am pleased that there has been a high level of investment so far in the college, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will not have to wait long to hear from the LSC about whether Barnsley college has been successful in its next phase.

Adult Numeracy and Literacy

6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of adult numeracy and literacy courses. (279006)

Since we launched our skills for life strategy in 2001, we have enabled 2.8 million people to achieve nationally recognised qualifications. Our strategy is changing lives and helping people to find, stay and progress in work, increase their earnings, help their children and play a more active role in their communities.

I very much welcome that response, and I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. Does he agree that there are some real signs of improvement in our colleges due to the Government’s early action? Job losses, however, remain part of the landscape. Will he encourage more people to take up the courses so that, if they happen to lose their jobs, they will be in a much better place from which to apply for new ones?

I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome, although she slightly inflated my status. It is important that we commit to going further and try to be ambitious about our targets and ambitions for literacy and numeracy; that is why we recently refreshed our skills for life strategy in relation to those skills. It is also important to remember that the skills impact not only on the adult who acquires them, but on that adult’s family. The ability to read a story to the children and help them with their sums and homework is really important. It is essential that we change the culture around such issues in our country—particularly in respect of numeracy, which has not been given the importance that it should have been in relation to literacy. We have a lot more to do, but good progress has been made so far.

Should not numeracy and literacy be taught first in the home? We should encourage families to eat together, speak together and learn children the language and social skills that they need, rather than leaving that to public sector funding. We need to resolve the problem of broken families.

We do, although we should teach the children rather than “learn” them, as the hon. Lady said. Seriously, though, she is right that such skills must start in the home. That is why it is so important that those basic skills should be taught to adults who have not acquired them. We are trying to address the issue from both ends, through, first, improving literacy and numeracy delivery in schools. That has been going on for the past 12 years. Remember that children who started school in 1997 are now young adults coming through the system. We are also trying to make up for the decades of neglect of literacy and numeracy. We could blame Macmillan, Harold Wilson or anyone we like, but the legacy needs to be dealt with. That is what we are trying to do. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We must try to think family as we try to enable the skills to be taught from an early age.

Higher Education Facilities

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Higher Education Funding Council for England on new locations for higher education facilities in England. (279007)

On 6 May, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) wrote to the HEFCE reaffirming the Government’s commitment to the new university challenge.

Is the Minister aware that probably nowhere in England is further away from any institute of higher education than Berwick-upon-Tweed, and that a very good community-based bid involving Sunderland university and institutions on both sides of the border is going to be submitted? May I ask her and her fellow Ministers to take a close personal interest in filling this gap and bringing something to Berwick that would be hugely beneficial on both sides of the border?

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, some 27 areas have expressed an initial interest in applying for a new university centre. We have been delighted with the enthusiastic response from partnerships across the whole of England. I am sure that the application from his constituency will be considered alongside all the others, but we certainly take a special interest in it.

My right hon. Friend will know that in South Yorkshire our only higher education institutions are based in Sheffield. As long ago as the early 1990s, the three former coalfield boroughs of Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster were successful in winning city challenge funding from the previous Government. We tried to make our flagship project the establishment of a university of the coalfields in the Dearne valley. Would it not be fantastic if this Government could achieve the grand objective that the boroughs set, as long ago as the early 1990s, of establishing a university of the coalfields in the Dearne valley in South Yorkshire?

I know how passionately my hon. Friend feels about the quite low aspirations, in a sense, to go to university that there have been in our area among young people. I know, not only as a fellow South Yorkshire MP but as the regional Minister, that he has been campaigning extremely hard on that. He is absolutely right—we need to do everything we can to support young people in our area in going to university. That has been our aim, and it will continue to be so.

Intellectual Property

The Government work to tackle IP crime in three main areas. First, we have to get the legal framework right, so I have been working with my ministerial colleagues on the “Digital Britain” agenda, particularly on the problem of file sharing. Secondly, we have to co-ordinate enforcement activities. That is why I have set up a new ministerial group to deal with issues of enforcement and to support the IP group. Of course, we also have to raise capacity and awareness.

Does the Minister agree that online piracy represents a threat to the survival of the TV, film and music industries? What progress has he made in persuading internet service providers to take action against illegal file sharers by adopting a graduated response? Can he confirm that the Government will legislate to back up any action that is agreed?

The hon. Gentleman is right; this important issue is challenging Governments across the world. Indeed, over the weekend elected politicians have been standing on that agenda in Sweden, and he will be aware of issues that have been raised in France. In this country, we have said that it is important to move to notification, which will reduce file-sharing activity so that people know that what they are doing is illegal, and we will move towards legislating to compel internet service providers and rights holders to work together.

Apprenticeship Courses

9. How much has been allocated to fund apprenticeship courses in (a) South-West Bedfordshire and (b) England in 2009-10. (279010)

Funding allocations to apprenticeship training providers in England, including Bedfordshire, for the 2009-10 academic year have not yet been confirmed. The national apprenticeship service will notify providers later this month. We expect to spend about £1 billion on apprenticeships in 2008-09 and more than £1 billion in 2009-10.

Of course, we are not cutting any student places. In relation to apprenticeships in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, my understanding is that Bedford Training, for example, has exceeded its maximum contract value and reported a waiting list of 20 learners, but will have enough funding in 2009-10 to recruit all 20. However, if I am incorrect about the issue that he raises, I will meet him and ensure that we look into it.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but I hope that he accepts that there is a funding problem. It has been primarily caused by many employers trying to cope with the recession and having in their terms to cut back, and apprenticeships are one area in which they are doing so. A number of young apprentices in my constituency have finished only 50 per cent. of their courses. I ask my hon. Friend to look at that problem to see how he can help those young people to complete their apprenticeships.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, although I should point out to her that adult starts on apprenticeships have risen from 300 in 2006-07 to 27,000 in 2007-08, so the context is increased investment rather than any reduction. We have to make that clear. However, she is absolutely right to point out that redundancy can have an impact on apprentices, as it can on anyone else during an economic downturn. The national apprenticeship service provides a one-stop shop for employers, providers and learners to access information support should that occur, and the intention is to place apprentices on suitable schemes. Also, the length of time for which they may undertake training if they cannot immediately be placed has been extended. However, it is important to set the context of the increased investment and number of apprentice places.

I welcome the Minister and the rest of the team to their posts. Members of all parties are really pleased to see the rise in the number of adult apprenticeships, and the funding for 2010 looks reasonably secure. The problem that the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) raised was about employers taking part.

On 9 June, in a comment to The Guardian, the Chancellor made it clear that education would be one of the priorities after 2010, together with housing, transport and health. Will the Minister give the House a categorical guarantee that in that period the funding for adult skills—particularly adult FE and higher education, which will be crucial to the future of our economy—will be maintained and not cut?

The commitment of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to apprenticeships is well known and long-standing, and I confirm that it will remain an absolute priority of this Government to grow the number of apprentices and invest in them. I have been appointed Minister with responsibility for apprentices and will work in the Department for Children, Schools and Families as well as the new Business Department, which shows our commitment to connecting the under-19 and adult apprenticeship schemes. I also commit to engaging an apprentice in my own private office.

I, too, congratulate Ministers on their new posts, although we believe that our colleges and universities are not simply the instruments of a Business Department, and they certainly do not look forward to reporting to Alan Sugar.

I congratulate the Department on its efforts to improve social mobility with an imaginative new route into the House of Lords—four Ministers so far, and at least another one on the way. Does the Minister recognise that in order really to improve social mobility we have to spread apprenticeships and provide new routes from them to university? Does he accept that at the moment, the biggest single victims of the recession are young people? They see apprenticeships disappearing even after they have been started, and they face the prospect of finding it hard to get to university when they apply, and of being unemployed when they leave university. Will the Minister, new to these responsibilities, make a simple commitment that no young person who has started an apprenticeship will find themselves losing it before they have been able to complete it?

As I said earlier, some redundancies in firms are inevitable during an economic downturn and a recession, and that could include apprenticeships. I have committed to ensuring that the national apprenticeship service will do all it can to place those apprentices in similar apprenticeships elsewhere, and that extended training is available if that is not possible in the immediate future.

The hon. Gentleman is right about social mobility and the need to focus on younger people and apprenticeships and increase the numbers. As someone from a working-class background, with a steelworker for a father and a dinner lady for a mother, I know something about social mobility and the importance of training, education and apprenticeships. I knew as a young man growing up in south Wales that many of my friends benefited from the apprenticeships that were decimated when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power. That is why we are making such investment. We will publish a framework in the summer for apprentices getting through to university.

Topical Questions

Our Department brings together support for business and enterprise with innovation, skills and further and higher education policy to ensure that we foster competitiveness and spread opportunity. All that is important to Britain’s economic future.

Are the Government still committed to implementing the entire package of reforms proposed by Richard Hooper on regulation, pensions and ownership? Lord Mandelson recently said that that was vital to the Royal Mail. Is it still vital or has it been ditched to save the Prime Minister’s skin?

The reform of Royal Mail is important, and Richard Hooper recommended the three elements that the hon. Gentleman outlined. The Bill to carry forward those reforms has completed its stages in the other place and been introduced here. Its Second Reading is a decision for the business managers at the appropriate time. On whether all three elements are essential, they are very important, but, as the Secretary of State also said, we will continue to try to secure best value for the taxpayer, and the timetable for any transaction for Royal Mail may be a little longer than that for the legislation.

T3. This Government have given a clear commitment to continuing to support business and enterprise during the recession. What additional dividends does my right hon. Friend anticipate from the appointment of Sir Alan Sugar to the departmental team? (279026)

Sir Alan Sugar is one of Britain’s most well known and respected entrepreneurs. He will act as an adviser to Government—not as a Minister. We believe that it is important to draw on that sort of entrepreneurial talent precisely because of the economic challenges that the country faces. While we draw on the best talent available, others are indulging in parlour games about peers and personalities. We will continue to draw on whatever talent is necessary to do the best economic job for the country.

May I congratulate the Minister on his elevation to Cabinet status in Lord Mandelson’s amazing, ever-expanding empire, which now stretches from space to defence sales to universities and further education? No doubt Lord Mandelson has other territorial ambitions in mind.

On 11 May in the House of Lords, Lord Mandelson said:

“It would be irresponsible of the Government to allow delays to the suite of measures needed to reform Royal Mail and secure the future of the universal postal service… Any delay would merely serve to threaten the sustainability of the network.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. 848.]

The Minister knows that we expected Second Reading of the Bill two days ago, on Tuesday. He knows that it is the acid test of whether this lame-duck Government are any longer capable of delivering a difficult decision about any important subject. Why is the Bill being delayed if it is not because of the internal political dissension in the extraordinary Cabinet in which he now finds himself serving?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman must know that no date for a Second Reading was announced. The Government are committed—[Interruption.] The Government are committed to reform of the Royal Mail. The challenges that it faces in addressing the pension fund deficit, the need for investment and change, and the need to change the regulatory system are real. We remain committed to the legislation, which will be brought forward. What the Secretary of State also said about the transaction is that we have a duty to secure the best value of money for the taxpayer and to have an eye to the market conditions, but the legislation will be brought forward.

T6. I am very pleased that this year 55 per cent. more young people in Stockport are going to university than in 1997. The new university centre, in which Stockport college of further education has expressed an interest, will encourage even more young people to do higher degrees. However, Stockport college is still in negotiations with the Learning and Skills Council about its capital programme. When a final decision is made, may I urge the Minister to ensure that consideration is given to the college’s excellent record of achievement and that funding is released so that the college can complete its new town centre campus? (279029)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaigning and lobbying that she has done on behalf of her constituents. I know that she wrote to the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills earlier this month to reiterate her support for that programme. As I said earlier in questions, the Learning and Skills Council will be announcing decisions in the near future. One criterion in the new objective set of criteria that followed the report commissioned earlier this year is the ability of any investment to impact on learning.

I brought a legislative reform order on insolvency before the House just some weeks ago, and I recommend the debate to the hon. Gentleman very strongly.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the provision of learning for pleasure and its importance to communities, and to older people in particular? I thank her for recently leading a lively debate with some lively elderly people in my constituency, on Bar lane in Riddlesden. Learning for pleasure can mean all sorts of things, and can create cross-departmental savings and advantages. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to hark back to 1983, when I took a course at my local college—I was unemployed at the time—in teaching English as a second language. As a result, for four years I dedicated my Wednesday mornings to teaching young Pakistani women who had entered this country as wives. They were not allowed to go to the local college, but I was able to introduce them to English, which was a useful exercise for them and me.

I have very fond memories of the meeting that I had with those lively older people in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They were extremely keen to put their views on how important learning is for older people. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have studied the White Paper “The Learning Revolution”, which sets out an ambitious vision for community learning in the 21st century, with £30 million of spending added to it. She is quite right that there is often a social impact too. The experience that she described is one that I know is shared by many others. The White Paper will do a lot to encourage that kind of activity.

T5. The Minister responsible for further education will be aware that the College of West Anglia in my constituency is one of those colleges whose capital programme has been put on hold. It was to have a new campus which would have been the centrepiece and foundation stone of a major regeneration project in South Lynn. The delay will not only impact on the wider community but cause widespread anxiety among the staff, lecturers and students at the college. Will the Minister confirm that the changes and reorganisations in his Department will not impact in any way on the LSC’s decision? (279028)

I can absolutely confirm that the changes in the Department will not impact on that, because we have already set in place the necessary measures to resolve the issue of the pipeline projects—the capital projects for FE colleges—through the Foster review, which has set out the objective criteria that are to be followed. They include considerations of the impact on regeneration and on learning, and of whether a project is ready to go ahead. I should like to add that, in this year’s Budget, the Chancellor pledged an additional £300 million for that capital project in recognition of its importance during the economic downturn. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not have to wait much longer to hear the results of the LSC’s deliberations.

T8. May I press my hon. Friend on the case for the Mid-Cheshire college redevelopment? It is an absolutely fantastic £35 million redevelopment project for a college that provides an outstanding quality of education. However, the project is not quite shovel-ready, and the fact that delays to the shovel-ready projects have already been announced means that colleges further down the line will face even more delays. The college is desperate to know the time lines for the decision on its allocation so that it can plan for the future. It is also worried that the LSC’s recent announcements on the criteria used to determine funding do not mention quality. Surely the funding should follow quality, and outstanding colleges such as Mid-Cheshire college should benefit from that funding. (279031)

Funding will follow—or will lead—improved learning opportunities. That is part of the project. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done to promote that project in his constituency. The projects that are not quite ready to be dealt with at this stage will be dealt with later in the year if they are at the appropriate stage by then. In addition to the £300 million from the Budget, which I mentioned earlier, an additional £2.3 billion will be spent on these projects during this comprehensive spending review period. Furthermore, there has already been an indicative letter from the Treasury to the Learning and Skills Council about a further pledge of £300 million a year, so this is not something that will come to an end—provided, that is, that we have a Government who are committed to making that investment.

T10. The education maintenance allowance has been a huge success. However, one of its problems is that there is a sharp cut-off related to parental income. One of my constituents, a single parent, has a son at university and another in sixth-form college. Does the Minister accept that the sharp income-related cut-off takes no account of additional circumstances and can discourage many people from staying on in education? Will he look into that? (279033)

I do not think that I can agree with the hon. Gentleman that the scheme discourages young people from staying on. Quite the contrary: when I have visited colleges, I have spoken to young people who are very grateful for the EMA. It has been a success. However, I am willing to look into the particular circumstances that he mentions, although that has not been what I have heard as I have gone round the colleges and universities.

Notwithstanding the answer that the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills gave earlier, does not he recognise that the Postal Services Bill seems to have disappeared into the legislative ether, somewhere between the other place and Committee Room 14? Does not he accept that one part of that Bill is of particular importance for the future, whatever happens? That is the regulatory toolkit that is needed and that has been agreed on by those on both sides of the House. If he is not going to bring the Bill forward, will he at least agree to bring that measure forward?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that regulatory change in postal services is necessary, and the proposal in the Bill is to put at the heart of the new regulatory system the maintenance of the universal service—the six days a week, one-price-goes-anywhere service that is at the heart of our postal system. I remind the House that the conclusion drawn by Richard Hooper was that if we did not change and reform the Royal Mail, that service would be under threat. That is what has happened in some other countries, and it is certainly not what we want to see here in the United Kingdom.

May I refer once again to the LSC’s review of further education college building, particularly in respect of the Manchester college? In terms of excellence, capacity to learn and shovel-readiness, that college’s proposals are high on the priority list. Manchester college differs from other further education colleges in that further education is the most likely route in Manchester for the overwhelming majority of young people in post-school education, as they do not go in sufficient numbers into higher education. It thus matters far more that our FE system, which is already excellent, is improved. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that point on board.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point on behalf of his constituents and shows his intimate knowledge of the education system in his constituency. I can only repeat that the LSC is considering all the projects in the pipeline and will make its announcement shortly, based on the objective criteria that we have talked about. We should remember that this is not about whether we should make investment in further education, but about how we make it, which is in stark contrast to what would happen if the Conservative party were in power.

Business of the House

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 15 June—Opposition day (13th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on the impact of business rates followed by a debate on the impact of the recession on rural communities. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Tuesday 16 June—A general debate on European affairs.

Wednesday 17 June—Mr. Speaker’s valedictory and tributes by the House followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Business Rate Supplements Bill.

Thursday 18 June—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on food, farming and the environment.

Friday 19 June—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 June will include:

Monday 22 June—The House will meet to elect a Speaker.

Tuesday 23 June—Second Reading of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 24 June—Opposition day [14th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 25 June—House Business.

Friday 26 June—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I also welcome the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) as her new Deputy Leader of the House, and express the appreciation of Opposition Members for the manner in which her predecessor, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is now an Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, conducted himself in that position. His grasp of detail and his approach to the House was respected and appreciated—and his mastery of Spanish, I understand, makes him well suited to his new job as Minister for Latin America. [Hon. Members: “And French.”] And French, we are told. On his moving, we thus say a friendly adios—and au revoir, too.

I want to take this opportunity to extend our gratitude to House staff for keeping this place going during the tube strike.

May we have a statement—or even a debate—on the legitimacy, remit, structure and organisation of the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? As we have just heard in parliamentary questions, the recent reshuffle that the Prime Minister was forced into staging has to be seen as one of the most shambolic in political history, with 11 Ministers resigning from the Government in the course of seven days. Worse still, civil servants in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills returned to their desks after lunch to find that their Department had been abolished, and subsumed into the empire of “he who must now be named the First Secretary”. This new super-Department has 11 Ministers, over half of whom are non-elected peers—no doubt exactly what the Government have in mind as they discuss their latest schemes for democratic renewal. Now that Lord Mandelson is Secretary of State for almost everything—including outer space—and has become the de facto Deputy Prime Minister, is the Leader of the House still in favour of her earlier proposal that he should be able to answer questions in the House of Commons?

May we have a debate on higher education and the prospects of graduates? We must not forget that universities too have been casually added to Lord Mandelson’s portfolio. However, this is the week in which we learnt that in 2007-08 one in seven students dropped out of university, a quarter failed to finish their degrees, and almost half the students at London Metropolitan university quit their courses before the end of the year. Worse still, a report published today suggests that 40,000 students graduating this year, no doubt with heavy debts, will still be struggling to find work in six months’ time. With the scale of the mess that the Government’s have made in higher education becoming more apparent by the day, does the right hon. and learned Lady really think that this is the time to be creating further upheaval in Departments just to satisfy ministerial empire-building?

The reshuffle has also left some important pieces of legislation in complete confusion. May we have a statement on the Government’s immigration policy? Comments made by the departing Home Secretary on the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill during her appearance in the Chamber last week left Members on both sides of the House perplexed about the Government’s basic policy on immigration, and about whether they are in favour of a future cap. Given that the British National party managed to win in areas that the Labour party had deserted, where much concern was expressed about the impact of immigration on jobs, does the Leader of the House not think that there should now be a clear statement of what the Government’s policy on immigration really is?

Let me repeat a question that I asked last week, and which Opposition spokesmen pursued during Question Time today: when will we debate the Second Reading of the Postal Services Bill? May I also ask when we shall see the draft legislative programme that we would normally have seen by this time of year?

Last week the right hon. Lady asserted that a Treasury Minister had recently updated the House on the progress of the independent inquiry into Equitable Life compensation during a debate in Westminster Hall. However, the only real information that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury gave there was bad news—the fact that no actuary had yet been appointed to Sir John Chadwick’s review body. The Government have been deliberately vacillating for months, and I have to say that I think the House’s temper is beginning to fray. Will the right hon. Lady now give an absolute guarantee that Sir John will produce an interim report—for us, in the House, before the summer recess—on how Equitable Life policyholders will be compensated?

Is the Leader of the House concerned about the fact that since she has become Minister for Women and Equality, the number of women in the Cabinet has actually decreased? Although we know that she could never be dismissed as mere window-dressing—indeed, if she were, I would immediately become the window cleaner—may I take this opportunity to reiterate my support for any bid that she might yet make to become Britain’s second woman Prime Minister? I echo the comment made on The Guardian website this week:

“I'd like to see Harriet Harman as Labour’s candidate for PM at the next election. She’d be just like Margaret Thatcher—a female party leader who convinces millions to vote Tory.”

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s appreciative comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the former Deputy Leader of the House, who now has responsibility for European issues. I agree that he was a brilliant Deputy Leader—and he does not only speak Spanish; I believe that he also speaks French, German and Italian.

And probably Welsh as well.

Let me also express, on behalf of all of us, our appreciation of the House’s staff in connection with the tube strike, and say on behalf of everyone in London that we expect agreement to be reached. Londoners cannot be held to ransom and have their lives made a misery as a result of a dispute involving the tube, which is the backbone of London’s transport structures.

The hon. Gentleman commented on the new structure of the Department responsible for business; there have, of course, been departmental questions to that Department this morning. We make no apology for putting supporting business and tackling the economic crisis at the centre of Government action. That is a priority for this country and the biggest challenge for Government. We make no apology for reconfiguring the machinery of government to be focused effectively on that task.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the prospects for graduates. It is right that we see further and higher education not only as essential for individuals who want the opportunity to achieve their full potential, but as a central economic issue. The recovery has to be skills based, and include as many people as possible, which is why configuring the universities into the Department responsible for business at the centre of our economic strategy is very important. Since we came into government there has been a massive increase in the number of people able to undertake further and higher education. The most recent figures show that since 1997 there has been about a 300 per cent. increase in the number of my constituents who now are able to gain degrees; I am sure that the picture will be the same in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. That is massive progress, on which we will continue to build.

Our immigration policy remains as it ever was: firm, fair and points-based. We have all been shocked and horrified by the fact that two great regions of this country—the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside—are represented by the British National party, which has in its constitution a provision that no one who is not white can be a member. Under the Equality Bill that is passing through the House, that constitution will be made unlawful. I know that the Opposition voted against the Equality Bill, but I hope that they will now strongly support the Bill, which will prevent us from having an apartheid political party in this country.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) was being interviewed by George Alagiah on Channel 4, she said, “I was born in Egypt but I could be a member of the British National party because I am white. You were born in Britain but you would not be able to be a member of the British National party because of the colour of your skin.” All of us should agree that there is no place in this country for a political party to have an apartheid constitution, and the Equality Bill will prevent that.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) asked about the Postal Services Bill, which he noticed was not in the forthcoming business that I have announced. He knows that I announce two weeks at a time. The Bill has completed its stages through the House of Lords, and he must await the announcement of its arrival in this House.

The draft legislative programme has been delayed because this year we had elections in June, immediately prior to which there was a purdah period; previously the elections were in May. That affected the timetabling of the draft legislative programme, which will appear very soon.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Equitable Life. It is the policyholders who have lost out in Equitable Life who are frustrated and want action quickly. The House will be updated, before it rises, on the progress on Sir John Chadwick’s investigations.

As far as women in politics are concerned, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued attention to this issue. It is important that women in politics make sure that we deliver for women in this country. Politics is not about us as politicians; it is about what we as women and men working together can do in respect of the lives of women and men in this country. That is why I hope that Members on both sides will be prepared to support extra maternity pay and leave, more flexible working for balancing work and family responsibilities, ending pay discrimination against women and having more women in the House of Commons.

On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued a written statement about the situation facing Dairy Farmers of Britain, in which he guaranteed that all parties would work together to try to minimise the impact of the closures taking place and the demise of dairy farms. The regional development agency, the banks and the local work force are working together to try to avoid the closure of a dairy in my Blaydon constituency, which could happen tonight. The one group that it is not doing its bit is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Please can we have what the Secretary of State offered: an updated statement to the House as the situation develops? Please will the Leader of the House pass that message on to DEFRA from me?

I know that this issue demands urgent attention, and the points that my hon. Friend makes are very forceful. This needs to be looked at right away, but there will, of course, be an opportunity to discuss these matters when there is a general debate on food and farming next Thursday.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) raises a very important issue for all the farmers who are members of that co-operative, and I hope that it will be debated.

First, may I join in the tributes to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? He entertained us in the debate on the idea of a Dissolution yesterday evening, despite having been reshuffled to the Foreign Office. My only regret is that the Leader of the House was not able to join us for that debate as well. One would have thought that the Dissolution of the House was a business of the House matter—but it seems that as far as the Cabinet was concerned, it was a matter for Wales, and Wales only. In any case, the Leader of the House has survived in the Cabinet—she is one of the few Members who have done so—and we are glad about that.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) raised the issue of the machinery of government. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was created only two years ago in a great splash of publicity. I have with me a letter from the then Secretary of State, who has since been reshuffled, in which he says that the new Department gives him the opportunity

“to make a real difference to people’s lives”—

a difference that he describes as “enormous and very exciting.” He goes on to say that the Department

“will provide a strong, integrated and permanent voice across Government for effective investment in research, science and skills at all levels”.

This “exciting” and “permanent” addition lasted for only two years, however, and then disappeared in order to gratify Lord Mandelson. It cannot be right for government to be conducted in this way, without recourse to Parliament, without any parliamentary opportunity to debate the practicalities and cost-benefit analysis of such changes. I invite the Leader of the House to give the House the opportunity to discuss how government is arranged, because such changes cannot be made on a whim. There are costs involved and practical consequences, and we should have the opportunity to debate them.

I note that the only opportunity to discuss the economy next week will be provided by the Opposition. The Government, having given us an assurance every week that there will be such an opportunity, have failed to provide one. However, we need a debate very soon on the prospects for public sector spending. We know now that the Conservatives are committed to 10 per cent. cuts, but we suspect that the Government, too, are committed to cuts in public spending. Would it not be better to have an honest, open and grown-up debate about the prospects for public spending, so that we can actually see what the consequences will be for our public services?

May we also have a debate on the probation service? Cuts in this area will have a very dangerous effect on our country, and we now know that £120 million is to be cut from the probation service budget by 2012. Probation work is a difficult enough job without the reduction in manpower that will result from that cut. We all know that the probation service is essential to protecting the public, so may we have a debate about what is envisaged?

I was tempted to ask the former Deputy Leader about my final point in the course of last night’s debate, but he is at the Foreign Office now, and therefore does not know the answer, so I will ask the Leader of the House. The Prime Minister has come up with a raft of parliamentary and constitutional reforms from the “committee on public safety”, or whatever it is called, which he urges us all now to embrace. Can the Leader of the House give me a clear timetable for implementing those proposals? Unless we implement them as a matter of urgency, the public will not believe these are genuine urgent reforms; they will believe they are simply yet more spin to get the Prime Minister out of a difficult situation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, too, for his comments about the former Deputy Leader of the House, and I would like to take the opportunity to welcome warmly my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), who is going to be an excellent successor to the previous excellent Deputy Leader of the House. On the machinery of government changes, we should all recognise that what will help the economy for the future is having a strong economy based on science, technology, research, manufacturing and higher education. So bringing those all together in a very powerful Department at the heart of central Government, which will work with all the regional development agencies, and with Scotland and Wales, is important. That is what lies behind this new machinery of government.

As for the economic debate, the hon. Gentleman drew attention to the fact that there will be two Opposition day debates on Monday, and they will touch on the economy. There will be a debate on European affairs on Tuesday, which is bound to have the economy as a central issue because the global economic crisis obviously has to be tackled at the European and international level, as well as the national level. One in 10 of the jobs in this country depend on Europe, and he can certainly be confident that for Labour Members the economic dimension will be very much to the fore in the debate that we have scheduled for Tuesday 16 June. In addition, on Wednesday 17 June there will be a debate on the Business Rate Supplements Bill, so what with the Opposition day, and debates on European affairs and on the Business Rate Supplements Bill, enough debate on the economy has been scheduled for next week. If the hon. Gentleman wants, he can suggest a further such debate by way of a topical debate—but I did not think that that was necessary.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned public spending, and he was right to say that the Conservatives have revealed that they would cut it. They have already shown that public spending will have to be cut to pay for their changes to inheritance tax, which help the wealthiest, and for their wish to pay back debt quickly at the expense of cutting public services. They have already said that they want to cut public investment this year and next—right in the middle of a recession. The Government are determined to ensure that we have public investment not only to help us through the recession, but to sustain important public services for the future. Of course we will have to pay back debt, but our choice on tax is to increase the rate for the top rate taxpayers to 50 per cent., rather than to give huge inheritance tax cuts for a few thousand millionaires.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the probation service, and he will doubtless be able to seek to put his questions directly to Justice Ministers at Justice questions next week. There has been a 70 per cent. real-terms increase in probation funding over the past 10 years—

It has not all gone on computers that don’t work; there has been an increase of more than one third in the staff, and reoffending rates have dropped.

May we have an early debate on the engineering and steel industry? My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and I have asked for an urgent meeting with the First Secretary of State, because although there are some welcome signs of recovery, the lag-time for steel is considerable and orders on the books are down by half. We could be facing a serious situation—there is potential for closures—in the engineering and steel industry. That would mean that as a recovery takes hold we would be importing the steel, which until now has been made in Britain. We need some temporary bridging help, and that should be discussed fully in this House. If it is not, can the Leader of the House urge the First Secretary of State to find time, among all his other responsibilities, to meet my colleagues and me to discuss this vital issue?

I certainly will urge the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to meet my right hon. Friend and other Members of Parliament who are concerned about the issues that he has raised. Perhaps we should have a topical debate on the point he makes about the steel industry, and the effect of this situation not only on the constituency and the region that he represents, but on Teesside and the north-east. We have to ensure that we secure our manufacturing base in these difficult times. That is an issue for many Welsh Members of Parliament too, so I will take what he says not only as a request for a meeting with the Secretary of State, but as a suggestion for a topical debate next Thursday.

May we have a debate on food labelling? Has the Leader of the House seen the latest report from the Consumers Association, which reveals that a number of sandwiches that are on sale to the public labelled as “healthy” actually contain more salt than nine packets of crisps, and are awash with saturated fat? Should not our law require that salty, fatty rubbish be labelled as such?

The right hon. Gentleman may find the opportunity to raise this issue in the general debate on Thursday 18 June.

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend understands the shock, anger, grief and disbelief of parents, and indeed the whole community of Plymouth, on learning of the arrest earlier this week of a nursery worker and the charges today. The police and social services are clearly offering support, but will she advise me and keep me informed of any appropriate opportunities to raise the issues that will inevitably flow from the concerns of the parents and the community?

Order. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) may not realise it, but this matter is now sub judice because there has been a charge. It is best that we move on.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on family courts, because she will be aware of growing concern about their operation? The judiciary and social services appear to decide the future of children—in some cases, the children have been kidnapped from their natural parents—and there is no opportunity for the parents or the media to cover these particular events. Is it not time that there was justice and fairness for natural parents? Children should not be dealt with in court, behind closed doors and in secret, where only the social services and judiciary have any say and they cannot be held to account.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the family courts are incredibly important. They do decide children’s future and make life-changing decisions in respect of parents, especially when they order children to go for adoption or be placed in care. It is because of the importance of their work and of all those who work in them that we have introduced a measure of openness into the family courts. Although we must ensure the anonymity and privacy of children whose detailed family circumstances are being discussed in the courts, it is also important that there should be public confidence that people can see the evidence on which the courts are making those decisions. In the past week or so we have introduced openness in the family courts, so that people can see that the courts are doing their work fairly and that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done.

If I could say to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy)—

Order. I have made a ruling on this matter. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is making an argument at the side of the Chair, but let us not take that matter any further. It is not helpful when hon. Members come to the Chair to put the case to me that the Leader of House had something to reply on the matter. [Interruption.] Order. I am not privy to what the Leader of the House might say, and I must decide what is taken on the Floor of the House and try to make sure that things are properly done.

The right hon. and learned Lady is not going to mention anything about the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton, so I take it that that is the end of that matter. I call Mr. Hancock.

May I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 581, in my name and that of 242 other hon. Members on the question of a proper requirement for food labelling, especially regarding chicken?

[That this House believes that all chicken meat, including imported chicken meat, should be labelled as to farming method and preferably stocking density; further believes the labelling regulation that requires packs of shell eggs to be labelled as to production method should be extended to chicken meat; congratulates Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Compassion in World Farming on their Chicken Out! campaign calling on supermarkets to introduce labelling as to farming method to allow consumers to make informed choices; notes that most UK chickens are still reared intensively in overcrowded conditions and have been bred to grow so quickly that many suffer from lameness and heart problems; and calls on the Government to make it a requirement for all chicken producers to meet the conditions of the RSPCA’s Freedom Food scheme.]

When her ministerial colleagues come to the House next Thursday for the debate on food, farming and the environment, will she ask them to introduce proposals to make it a requirement on chicken producers to follow the freedom food scheme promoted by the RSPCA to provide proper transparency and an understanding of what people are actually eating when they eat chicken products?

As I said to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), there is a debate on food, farming and environment next Thursday. The questions of food labelling, nutritional standards, school meals and healthy diets should perhaps be the subject of a topical debate.

May I urge on my right hon. and learned Friend the argument for a debate on public spending because it is in the interest of the whole country to know where cuts would fall. People in the public sector want to know whether those 10 per cent. of cuts would impact on their jobs, and on education and many other areas. Even people working in private firms dependent on Government contracts need to know how they would be affected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) mentioned the steel industry, and that too would be hit by a 10 per cent. cut in public spending. It is important that we tease out where the Opposition parties—not just the Conservative party—stand on public spending, because it will affect people’s lives.

I will take that as a suggestion for a topical debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that we needed a further debate next week on the economy, and we do have the opportunity of a topical debate. Perhaps we could have a topical debate on the impact on the economy and on public services of future investment in public spending.

We are clear that every penny of public money invested must be properly spent; that we have to bring the public finances back into balance over the medium and longer term; and that the taxes that should go up should be those on the highest earners. We are determined to protect capital investment in policing, education, health and transport. A 10 per cent. cut in public investment would cause serious concern for those services and all those who work in them. I will look to make that the subject of a topical debate next Thursday, so that the Opposition will have plenty of time to explain to those who depend on the public services how they will withstand 10 per cent. cuts.

In the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday on constitutional renewal, he said that the Government

“will work with a special parliamentary commission comprising Members from all sides of this House, convened for a defined period to advise on necessary reforms”.—[Official Report, 10 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 797.]

I welcome that statement. Can the Leader of the House now fill in the details? Who will sit on this new commission, what form will it take and when will it be set up? Is not the need for this commission the final nail in the coffin of the Modernisation Committee?

I realise now that I failed to respond to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on the time frame for the announcements that were made by the Prime Minister yesterday. There will be the opportunity for me to bring before the House a resolution that will establish the Committee of the House, made up of—I hope—senior Members who have put a lot of time and effort into these issues, as the right hon. Gentleman has done, so that we can look at many of the proposals that have come, not just from the Modernisation Committee, but from the Procedure Committee and ad hoc groups such as Parliament First. Then we can see whether we can complete this work within a limited time frame, preferably before the House rises for summer. After all, most of these proposals have been knocking around for some time.

Members of the House need to get together and say what we need to do now to ensure that the House can work more effectively, especially in relation to the choosing and timetabling of non-Government business, especially on e-petitions and on strengthening the integrity and work of Select Committees. We should not hang around: we should make some decisions. It is right that that is not led by the Government, but by a Committee of the House. To facilitate that, I will bring a resolution to the House to set that Committee up.

I cannot tell the House at this stage how many members the Committee will have or who they will be, because we will have to have discussions on that. However, if hon. Members would like to put themselves forward to be considered for the Committee, they can let me know.

As for the timeliness of the measures to restore public confidence, the House will know that shortly we will have complete transparency on all the claims made by hon. Members and the allowances paid over the last four years. The House authorities will put those on the website very shortly. That transparency will be reassuring to the public.

The House will also know, from the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, that there will be legislation on a new parliamentary standards authority. The Justice Secretary and I held talks with the leaders of all the other parties yesterday. I hope that we can have the necessary legislation before the House—and conclude all stages—before the House rises for the summer. The public want complete transparency. They also want to see that we are no longer deciding the rules for our allowances and administering them. They want that to be done independently, and that is something on which all the party leaders agree. It is not technical and complicated, so we should just get on and do it.

The third element of restoring public confidence concerns those occasions on which Members were paid allowances to which they were not entitled and that did not comply with the rules as they were at the time, which might have been the result of a mistake, not wrongdoing. Whatever the reason, those overpayments need to be paid back. The reassessment process will apply to all Members, not just those of a particular party. All claims for the past four years will be considered. The public can then be sure of complete transparency. All the claims will be on the website and there will be a new independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to administer all claims, and money that needs to be paid back will be paid back. We can also improve the way in which this House does business, and in that way we will ensure that the public have the confidence that they are entitled to have in this House of Commons.

Would my right hon. and learned Friend agree that some of the constitutional issues trailed yesterday by the Prime Minister are so fundamentally important that they should be fully debated in this Chamber? As Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, I single out the proposed change to voting age. It is fashionable to think that reducing the voting age to 16 is a brave, new approach, but the implications of becoming an adult at 16, and losing all the protections of “Every Child Matters” and the five outcomes, are very serious. We must not imperil children and truncate childhood without serious deliberation.

The argument about the age at which people are entitled to vote is worth having. No one could get the impression from the statement that the Prime Minister made yesterday that a snap decision would be made on that. I have indicated those aspects of the statement on which we want prompt and expedited action, but the Prime Minister also mentioned areas in which further debate is necessary. I know that people have strongly held views on different sides of the argument about voting at 16. I think that there is a strong case for very good citizenship education in schools, and as soon as that is finished, people could come out of the classroom into the polling station. There is an argument for votes at 16. I appreciate that some people do not think so, but no one can seriously argue that giving young people the right to vote at 16 is equivalent to child abuse. We need a sensible debate.

Further to the question by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and in the light of the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday on constitutional renewal, may we please have a debate next week in Government time on the Floor of the House on pre-legislative scrutiny? Given that there is widespread agreement across the parties about the benefits of such scrutiny, but that in the Session 2007-08 only nine of 31 Government Bills were published in draft, would not such a debate allow the Government the opportunity to state whether they agree that in future, pre-legislative scrutiny in the name of better Bills should become the norm rather than the exception?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. We need more scrutiny in advance. The publication of the draft legislative programme is an attempt to ensure that the public can be more involved in the likely legislative process. We need more Bills to be published in draft, but if the time scale is urgent we also need to retain some flexibility for the Government. The ability to publish clauses in draft also exists.

I agree with the sentiment that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, although I am not quite sure where his suggestion would come in the process, but I will reflect on that point.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for organising a general debate on European affairs. Will she arrange for the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who has been working very hard in the European Councils to try to get an amendment on the extension of copyright for recording artists, to be at that debate? Is she aware that a meeting of COREPER takes place today and that the Czech presidency is abusing its position as president to keep the British proposal to extend copyright to 70 years off the agenda? The Czech presidency is trying to keep it off the agenda for the Council meeting at which the matter should be decided before its presidency ends.

The work of the British Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills must be commended for getting the issue on to the agenda and on getting it the support of Parliament. Surely we cannot allow subterfuge by the Czech presidency to prevent this matter, which has a majority in Council, from going to Council.

My hon. Friend has made a number of important points that I will draw to the attention of the Ministers who will be participating in the European affairs debate next Tuesday.

May we have a debate on the effectiveness and accountability of regional development agencies? The Government say that RDAs are key to promoting economic recovery, but this week, the South West of England Regional Development Agency announced tens of millions of pounds-worth of cuts in funding, which means that projects such as dredging the docks in Falmouth, which will safeguard existing jobs and create new jobs, will now not go ahead. Does that not make a mockery of the scrutiny process, as the Regional Select Committee will, at best, get to take a look at the decision after it has already happened?

The Regional Select Committees, in particular—and the Regional Grand Committees, when they start their work—will be able to hold the chief executives of RDAs to account for their plans. They will be able to require them to set out their plans and will scrutinise them, especially if the agencies do not stick to those plans or deviate from them in a way that damages the local economy. I do not know whether the hon. Lady plays a part in the Regional Select Committee, but hon. Members should not complain about the democratic deficit in terms of the RDAs unless they are prepared to participate in the Select Committees that have been established precisely to hold them to account.

I have been making complaints on behalf of my constituents for some time about the poor performance of rail services on the section between Milton Keynes and Euston. Those services have been improving but last week there were a series of failures that were the responsibility of Network Rail involving speed restrictions, points failures, loss of signalling and a complete signalling failure, which caused major disruptions. May we have a debate about Network Rail’s stewardship of the west coast main line track and its inability to allow the train operators to deliver reliable services for my constituents?

I know that this issue affects a number of Members. Indeed, it was raised in last week’s business questions. I think it would be a useful subject for a Westminster Hall debate and I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on behalf of her constituents in Milton Keynes, because railway services are an important issue for her constituents.

At its conference yesterday, the NHS Confederation indicated that it believes that, after 2011, the NHS will face the most sustained and severe fall in funding in its history. Given that that is an important ingredient in the requests that have been made for a debate on public expenditure, will the Leader of the House temper her enthusiasm for granting that debate for a moment until the National Audit Office has had a chance to publish an independent report that illustrates what public expenditure actually means—Department by Department—in years two and three of the current public expenditure round? It is clear from what the NHS Confederation says that that is when the Government cuts will bite.

Obviously, we consider any reports from the NAO and listen to what is said by the NHS Confederation, but nobody could doubt the Government’s commitment to the national health service since 1997. We have made a massive investment in hospitals, clinics and in the training of doctors, dentists and nurses, and have given a massive commitment to health services across the board, none of which would have happened had the Conservatives remained in power. If public spending is slashed, the people who will suffer will be those who cannot afford to go private. We will protect public services.

May I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that when we have the debate on public expenditure, we should examine the Tory 10 per cent. cuts, but it is also important that we should have a balanced debate? Does she agree that we should consider the impact of the Government’s public expenditure of the past 12 years on constituencies such as mine, which have seen massive investments of capital expenditure on schools, health care facilities, children’s centres, nurseries and sports facilities, with a new running track and a massive refurbishment of the library and learning centre in my constituency. Should we not consider the impact on our constituencies of the Government’s public expenditure?

I will take my hon. Friend’s contribution to mean that he adds his weight to the suggestion that we have a debate on the economy, and, in particular, on the effect of capital spending. The important point is that capital spending is not just about jobs, such as those in the construction industry—when the private sector construction has been hard hit, it would be disastrous to cut investment in public capital, which provides jobs—but we also need to continue to invest in education, transport and policing. I shall take his proposals as a suggestion for a topical debate next week.

The Constitutional Renewal Bill was published in draft almost two years ago. It has been the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny and over the past year I have asked questions about this on numerous occasions. Ministers have come to the Dispatch Box 12 times and given a reassurance that the Bill would be published soon or imminently. We have been given that answer 12 times in the past year. The Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box again yesterday and told us of his apparent commitment to constitutional renewal, but that will appear to be just another empty promise unless the Leader of the House can give us a firm date for the publication of the Constitutional Renewal Bill and its debate in the House.

Hon. Members will know from the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday that certain additional measures on the constitution will be considered apart from those contained in the Constitutional Renewal Bill, which was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Committee of this House and of the House of Lords. The measures in the Bill will be considered, but they will be accompanied by additional measures, the first of which being the subject of the all-party talks that began yesterday—the setting up of a Parliamentary Standards Authority.

Order. I have been in the Chair for only a few minutes, but I have a sense of long questions and answers. If I am to try and get every hon. Member in, I should like to request short, single questions, and, I hope, concise answers. I call Dr. Brian Iddon.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At my advice surgery last Saturday, I received two complaints about the behaviour of private parking companies. The more outrageous involved a woman who took a party of children to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in my constituency only to find, when she came out, that a hefty fine had been placed under her windscreen wipers. Similar things are happening across the land, and KFC is particularly prone to complaint. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) had an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on the matter last week, so please may we have a topical debate so that all hon. Members can bring the complaints to the Floor of the House? In that way, perhaps we can persuade the companies to behave more decently.

May I gently put it to the Leader of the House that her excellent critique of the British National party was rather spoiled by the suggestion that the official Opposition opposed the Equality Bill? She knows full well that we put down a reasoned amendment and that, when it failed, we supported giving the Bill a Second Reading. Looking at the business for the next two weeks, may I assure her that she need not be worried about the Postal Services Bill not getting through on Second Reading? It has the full support of those on the Opposition Benches.

I do not see how the Opposition can say that they are in favour of the Equality Bill, given that they did not vote for giving it a Second Reading in this House. They voted against it, and proposed an amendment that used the words

“declines to give the Bill a Second Reading”.

In any language, that means that the Opposition were against it, but I believe that there is more agreement in this House about equality than meets the eye. I do not want the Equality Bill to be one of the big dividing lines between Government and Opposition. I would appreciate it if the Opposition would support it, even though they wanted to decline to give it a Second Reading.

Order. I am now going to turn to a member of the Chairmen’s Panel, who I know will set the House a good example. I call Mr. David Taylor.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May we have a ministerial statement on the future of the Forensic Science Service? Restructuring proposals would lead to a third or more of its staff losing their jobs. As we know, the FSS provides a comprehensive, integrated and world-class service in 120,000 cases a year, from crime scene to courtroom. We really must try to protect that skill base, if at all possible.

I am not only in favour of the Equality Bill, I am in favour of giving it proper scrutiny, including at Report stage in this House. The Leader of the House will know that I welcome the moves by the Prime Minister to reach all-party agreement on how we can programme that scrutiny better. In the meantime, however, will she accept that she is in charge of the Bill and that, when it comes out of the Public Bill Committee and returns to the Floor of the House, it is up to her to ensure that there is enough time to give all the groups of amendments proper scrutiny? I hope that she will give an assurance that there will be proper consultation and enough time to ensure that all those aspects are covered.

I certainly want that to be the case. We want to listen to all sides of the House and to have proper scrutiny of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman has been entirely consistent in his concern to ensure that amendments brought forward after Committee stage are scrutinised on the Floor of the House. That is really important, and I hope that the Committee under the chairmanship of the Chair of the Public Administration Committee will be able to look into that, as well as the other matters that it has been asked to consider.

May we have an urgent debate on industrial relations in London Underground? It appears that, before the dispute started at 6 pm two nights ago, the union signed an agreement that would have meant the suspension of the strike. Yet, 35 minutes later, members of the management told the union that they had made a phone call and could no longer abide by the agreement that had just been signed. We need a debate to establish exactly who that phone call was made to, as there is a real suspicion that the fingerprints of the Mayor of London are all over the provocation of the dispute. If the Mayor interfered and caused the suspension of the strike to be lifted, I think hon. Members ought to be made aware of that.

We want the Mayor of London to play his part in bringing all sides together to make sure that the backbone of London’s transport network is working properly for Londoners. We need a proper public transport system, not megaphone diplomacy or soundbites from any side.

I know that I must try to keep my answers as brief as possible, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but, to clear up any possible misunderstanding, I think that the fact of the matter is that George Alagiah was not born in England.

Next week, Government and Opposition peers will have a free vote on a clause inserted by this House into the Political Parties and Elections Bill that gives candidates in general elections the option of having their full home address on ballot papers—which is what happens at present—or to have their constituency address there instead. True to form, however, the Liberal Democrats in the upper House are imposing a three-line Whip against the clause. They say that they are doing so on the grounds that they want this House to have a better opportunity to debate the matter. If the clause comes back to this House, will the Government guarantee that we will have time to debate it and vote on it again, if necessary?

We will of course try to make sure that all the issues involved are properly debated when the Bill comes back to this House.

The Leader of the House will share my concern and disappointment that flying the flags of the British overseas territories and the Crown dependencies at the trooping the colour ceremony has once again been ignored. I refer her to early-day motion 1644:

[That this House looks forward to the 2009 Trooping the Colour ceremony on Saturday 13 June to mark the Official Birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; notes with pride that the flags of all the nations of the Commonwealth are always displayed in and around Horse Guards Parade for this great occasion; and calls on the Government to ensure that the flags of all Her Majesty's Territories are also flown in time for the ceremony, including Her Majesty's Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man. Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark, together with Her Majesty's Overseas Territories of Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Ocno Islands, St. Helena, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cuhna, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands.]

Will she ensure that the Minister responsible for this great British occasion makes sure that the flags are flown and that we respect all our British territories, as well as countries in the Commonwealth?

I was very pleased that the Child Poverty Bill received its First Reading today. Will the Leader of the House say when Second Reading will be, and can she assure me that we will not read anything about the Bill in the papers before Members have had a chance to pick it up from the Vote Office tomorrow?

There has been extensive consultation and discussion already about the Bill to tackle child poverty, as well as statements about its contents. There is a distinction between statements and Bills. If a Secretary of State or a Minister comes to the Dispatch Box to make a statement, Members of the House do not expect to hear the contents of that statement on the radio or television beforehand, with TV and radio interviewers being the first to ask questions. When there is a statement, the first people to ask questions must be Members of this House, but the publication of Bills and consultation papers is a different issue.

May we have an urgent debate on immigration and political correctness? I represent an area where a British National party MEP was elected, and I suggest that people voted for that party not because they endorse its nasty breed of politics but because they are frustrated that the mainstream political parties do not appear to be addressing their legitimate concerns. The way to take on the BNP is not to hire a rent-a-mob to throw eggs at its members and jostle them when they make public statements, but to address the issues that are leading so many people to vote for the party out of frustration, even though that is misguided.

Throughout history and across Europe, people’s fears about their jobs and their standard of living has always provided an opportunity for far-right parties to stir up apprehension. That is why we are so determined to step in. We will not just say that the recession should take its course, or that unemployment is a price worth paying, and we do not accept that people who lose their jobs will lose their house. Instead, we will provide real help for people in tough times and make sure that we take every action that we can to tackle the problems of the global economic crisis. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there is no place in British national life or in our democracy for a party that excludes people because of the colour of their skin.

Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is closing a hospital outpatients facility in my constituency and moving it to a small town in another constituency. The matter will come before the local planning committee. The chief executive of the trust has said that unless the planning committee approves the proposal, it is likely that the whole scheme will be dropped. May we have a debate on the accountability of the chief executives of NHS foundation trusts who clearly try to blackmail a planning committee?

Perhaps I should draw that to the attention of Health Ministers, and perhaps they could write to the hon. Gentleman.

May we have a debate on the future of the distribution industry? Cities such as Milton Keynes are, because of their geographical location, traditionally the home of many such companies. Unfortunately, as a result of rising fuel and vehicle duty, many of those companies are struggling. For example, this week, TK Maxx in Milton Keynes closed its distribution centre, with the loss of 275 jobs, and moved it to Poland. What does it say about the policies of this Government when companies feel that they have to move their businesses to Poland, rather than stay in Milton Keynes?

One of the most important tasks of the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is to make sure that we get the right climate to enable businesses of all sizes—large, medium and small—to survive, make it through the downturn, and flourish in this country, and to have a more prosperous future.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A number of hon. Members convened this morning at 8.55 am to attend the Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee to consider the draft Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2009. The Committee was abandoned and cancelled at very short notice—at 5 minutes to 6 o’clock last night—causing inconvenience not only to us but more especially to staff, who travelled long distances in desperate circumstances today, during the tube strike. Much more worrying to the wider public is the fact that the amending regulations—

Yes, and they are due to take effect on 7 July. The regulations are hugely out of date; they should have been brought into force on 1 May 2008. No explanation was given for the cancellation of the Committee; we were told that it was due to unforeseen circumstances. That means that businesses have extremely short notice of the need to implement the provisions, which, as I say, are due to come into effect on 7 July. The cost is estimated to be £95.7 million to businesses, charities and voluntary bodies, and £2 million to the public sector.

I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to use your good offices to ask the Leader of the House, while she is in the Chamber, when we can expect the regulations to come before the House. We are prepared to consider them and give them proper scrutiny, but it is unacceptable for the Committee to have been cancelled at the shortest possible notice. I am sure that many hon. Members, and the staff who were asked to assist us in considering the regulations, were not made aware of the cancellation. It is unacceptable to cancel at such short notice.

First, I regret it if inconvenience was caused to Members and staff in the way the hon. Lady described. I am conscious of the fact that, through a typographical error in documentation, another Committee of the House had a slight mishap in its timings, but the situation was not as drastic as that which she described. As to the substance of her point, I am sure that she understands that I cannot rule on that from the Chair, but she has had the opportunity to put her point on the record. Perhaps, if she was seeking an answer from the Leader of the House, her point might have been better put as a question during business questions. However, she has made her point. The Leader of the House may seek to pursue the matter through a point of order, but I am unable to make any ruling.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) had given me a bit of notice, and had asked a question in business questions, I would have sought the opportunity to answer her question. I am not able to give her the precise answer that she needs now, but I will look into the matter. If it appears to be helpful to do so, the Deputy Leader of the House or I might pop up with a point of order later, so that the House can know what the position is regarding that Committee.

I do not think that we can do better than that.

Bill Presented

Child Poverty Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Stephen Timms, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Ed Balls, Secretary Yvette Cooper, Mr. Liam Byrne, Jim Knight, Dawn Primarolo, Helen Goodman and Kitty Ussher, presented a Bill to set targets relating to the eradication of child poverty, and to make other provision about child poverty.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 112) with explanatory notes (Bill 112-EN).


[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 485-I, on Valuing and Supporting Carers, and the Government’s response, First Special Report of the Committee, Session 2008-09, HC 105.]

Topical debate

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of carers.

I am pleased to open this debate on carers during national carers week. The way we look after people with care and support needs defines us as a society. Everyone, at some point in their lives, will know and love someone who needs care. Many of us will need care ourselves, for whatever reason. It is an indication of the strength of our society that every day, between 5 million and 6 million people care for their family members. They do an incredible job, often giving up a huge amount to care for someone they love. Carers are not a group separate from the rest of society—they are society.

Through the 10-year carers strategy, which, as some hon. Members will remember, we launched almost exactly a year ago today, the Government want all carers to be universally recognised and valued as being fundamental to strong families and stable communities. That is the unifying vision for the future of our long-term strategy. We want support that is tailored to meet an individual’s needs. We want carers to be able to care for the ones whom they love and still enjoy a life of their own. We demand recognition that both carers and the cared for are full and equal citizens.

We have a lot to do before we realise that vision but, one year on, we are on our way. One person who will help us to realise that vision is the chair of the standing commission on carers. I am delighted to announce to the House that Dr. Philippa Russell has been appointed to that role. I want to place on record my thanks to her and all members of the commission for the work that they are doing to develop, implement and monitor the strategic vision, alongside the cross-Government programme board that has been established, and of course the inter-ministerial group, which I chair.

I want to begin by recognising the particular contribution and needs of young carers. We have a special duty to support young carers and to protect them from excessive caring burdens and inappropriate caring roles. As part of our £75-million Think Family programme to support all families at risk, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has set up six extended family pathfinders for young carers. The Department of Health is supporting those pathfinders to test how we can better support families with young carers. We believe that young people who have caring responsibilities for a family member should not be denied the right to enjoy their childhood, and to grow up like every other child.

Yesterday, together with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who is the Minister with responsibility for disability, I met carers in Islington and Camden at the official launch of the new website and telephone helpline for carers, Carers Direct, which I will say more about in a moment. One of the concerns that people there raised was the lack of awareness of the needs of carers among the host of different organisations and individuals whom they encounter in the health service and on local councils. I agree with them that it is important that professionals and others who offer support for carers understand their needs. That is why, over the next two years, Skills for Care and Skills for Health will develop a range of new training programmes and awareness-raising modules about carers for those professionals. We have also commissioned the Royal College of General Practitioners to develop training for GPs, based on the new action guide for primary care, to help GPs better understand carers’ needs.

Of course we all welcome training for professionals in the field. In common with many other hon. Members, I met some carers in my constituency on Friday. One of the issues that came up was training for carers, not the professionals. One constituent said that she had gone on a training course that had dealt with the particular complex issues affecting her son. She said that she could not express of what huge benefit that was to her in understanding his condition and disability. I know that some research projects are going on, but I ask the Minister to consider training for carers as well as professionals.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that matter. I will say more about it in a moment. I know that he is a real champion for carers in his constituency. We have a training programme, which I shall say more about later, called Caring with Confidence, which is not for professionals; it is for carers, and is delivered by carers, which I think is unique. That is extra work that we are doing. He is right to highlight the issue, and we are responding directly to the concerns that he raises on behalf of his constituents.

It is really important that GPs understand the additional help that there is for carers, so that when a carer goes to them with health needs, they not only help to meet those requirements but signpost—refer—the carer to other sources of support in their area.

The Minister referred to extended family pathfinders, and I was waiting for a little more expansion on that theme, but he moved on rather quickly. Will he explain how the scheme will be co-ordinated? Will its co-ordination be the function of health services, social services, education or GPs?

I shall happily write to the hon. Lady to give her those further details. The pathfinders scheme operates through the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Its purpose is to look at the needs of families—as a whole—that are in stress or in areas of disadvantage, which find it difficult to get through life as a family and have complicated caring arrangements and responsibilities, and to understand what works when building a package of support around a family. We want to pilot and test those things in different settings—rural, urban and so on—so that we can understand what families need. However, I shall write to her to detail where they are, how they are funded and so on, so that she understands those points.

I thank the Minister for giving way on the point about support care packages, because one of my constituents sadly died after a support package was not put in place. Mr. Tonkin starved himself to death in a care home while waiting to return to his family. It took more than five months to begin putting a care package together, but still it never came together, despite the family wishing to support Mr. Tonkin’s return to his own home. I therefore caution the Minister, because introducing new structures might sound very good, but we currently have structures—in terms of carers and care packages—that are not working.

The hon. Lady will understand that I cannot comment on a particular case, because I do not know the details. However, I do know that we have to do both: drive up the standards of residential and domiciliary care throughout the country. I am therefore delighted that the Government have given not only ordinary grants to local authorities, but an additional £520 million to help the process of transforming social care and raising the quality of care throughout the country. Responsibility for the quality of care rests with the Care Quality Commission, which conducts inspections of care homes and others who might provide the care to which she refers.

There is also a separate complaints process in place, which the hon. Lady—on behalf of her constituents and, indeed, the family of her constituent—can use, particularly in respect of local authorities, if an individual has not received the care that would be expected. She can use the complaints process to take the matter forward.

I should not like to leave the Minister with the wrong impression that the care home was at fault; it was the inability to put a care package together, through the Department for Children, Schools and Families, so that the family could have Mr. Tonkin go home. The care home itself treated him very well, apparently. I do not wish to leave the Minister with the impression that it was a poor care home.

I am grateful for that clarification.

I shall move on to respite care, because we know that caring for someone can be hard. Six out of 10 carers say that the biggest thing that we can do to help them is to give them a break. That message was repeated by the carers whom I met at Centre 404 in Islington yesterday. Since we introduced the carers grant in 1999, more than £1 billion has been provided to councils to do just that. The grant is worth £240 million this year and will increase to £256 million next year. It includes £25 million a year for councils to respond immediately to carers who are in a crisis and can no longer care for their loved one. Encouraging the national health service to recognise that support for carers is as much an issue for it as it is for local councils and social care, so we have allocated an additional £150 million to primary care trusts between 2009 and 2011 to work with their local authority partners to provide personalised breaks for carers.

My constituency has a very high percentage of disabled people, because of past industrial disease, and a very high percentage of elderly people. Many carers are being short-changed by an outdated benefits system, which simply does not recognise the enormous contribution that carers make to looking after people who need them to stay at home and give up their jobs in order to assist them. What does my hon. Friend have to say on that point?

I shall come on to allowances and benefits in a few moments, but my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that there is a concern about whether the combination of allowances and benefits works in the best way, because it is a complicated system. Whatever the processes are for reviewing, developing and reforming that process, however, right here and now help is at hand, because individuals can go to the new website that I have described, look at the benefits system and allowances, see what they qualify for and ensure that they get all their entitlements to help them get through the situation.

I thank the Minister for this morning seeing the Swale carers group, whose members are listening in the Gallery. If we included Skype on that website, we could connect carers and enable them to talk to each other and share their experiences. It is the isolation that they feel most of all. Will that provision be on the site?

I did enjoy meeting, just before the debate, the Swale carers group, whose members are here to—I hope—listen to and take back messages from the House about the support that is available for carers. Carers Direct, the new website, has an interactive facility, and my hon. Friend is right to point out that people feel isolated. I do not know whether many carers blog, but there is a blogging facility on the site. People can literally type in their thoughts, feelings and problems, and watch and listen to other people with similar problems and share information. That facility will break down the barriers for many people who feel isolated in the very important role that they carry out.

The Minister talked about NHS funding and £150 million that has been allocated over two years, but will he say more about how carers and others will be able to track how it is spent in order to assure themselves that their primary care trusts allocate it and spend it on carers’ needs?

I know that the hon. Gentleman, speaking as a Liberal Democrat, is fully supportive of devolution and of devolving responsibility for resources and decision making to a local level. He will know that the additional £150 million that we have put into PCT budgets, although not ring-fenced, is for the purpose to which he referred. Part of his responsibilities as a local MP, along with those of carers, might be to ensure that the local primary care trust understands the needs of carers, does the job that it should be doing to assess people’s needs and ensures that it allocates from its budget the money that the Government have allocated to it to support carers in the area. I hope that he works with local carers to ensure as much—and, indeed, that every Member works with local carers to ensure that local primary care trusts and authorities carry out proper needs assessments and the proper development of programmes and policies to support carers, who do such a fantastic job throughout the country.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. He mentioned, in addition to health service funding, funding to local authorities. My constituents in Wiltshire will be slightly baffled by that, however, because the county is at the very bottom of the league table for revenue support grant to local authorities. Will he therefore say a little more about how the extra funding has been distributed among local authorities, and the formula that has been used?

I do not have the facts and figures about the hon. Gentleman’s local authority, but I know that local authorities have had a record 45 per cent. increase in Government funding in real terms over the past 12 years. As a result, local authorities have improved dramatically the quality of a whole range of services in their areas. In addition, the carers grant that I mentioned has been distributed to local authorities. I do not have the figures on how much his local authority has received, but I assure him that it will have had some. I hope that he will put pressure on his local authority, which is almost certainly controlled by members of his own party, to ensure that it gives to local carers the priority that we expect in its assessment and delivery of services, and that it makes the right choices to provide resources to the most vulnerable and caring people in our society.

We want innovation to be at the heart of everything that we do for carers, so, as part of the carers strategy, we are setting up 24 sites to test, demonstrate and evaluate good practice in support for carers. That action will improve outcomes for carers and provide value for money, and the sites will look at health and well-being checks for carers, breaks for carers and how the NHS can better support them.

Yesterday, on the first anniversary of the carers strategy, we launched Carers Direct, which will give people from all backgrounds—young, old and those with disabilities—access to the information and advice that they need. They will be able to support and talk to each other through the website.

With the best will in the world, Members of Parliament will have met, and national carers week will have involved meetings with, a minuscule number of carers. Millions of carers out there have a sense of isolation because of the 24/7 nature of the caring that they do. Any investment in technology that will link and bring people together, so that they can get over the sense of isolation, is great. Furthermore, can Members of Parliament have information so that through our local press we can try to make people aware of the issues? Carers often live in isolated conditions.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For those people—I shall not stereotype them—who find it less easy to access websites, there is also a telephone helpline. Anyone can ring that and get direct, face-to-face—or mouth-to-mouth—contact, so that they can discuss their needs. [Interruption.] I am not sure that I got the phrasing right there; never mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker—you know what I meant.

The helpline, as well as the website, is important. We need to break down people’s isolation. Carers need advice. We know that the system is complicated and that people do not understand the benefits and allowances available to them. They may not know what is available in their areas. If they get on the website or use the helpline, they can find out more and access the support that they need to do their job better and reduce the sense of isolation mentioned by my hon. Friend.

A comprehensive strategy goes far wider than the remit of the Department of Health, so we are working across Government to improve the lives and conditions of carers. Like other constituency MPs, I regularly meet carers and take up their individual concerns in my own constituency. I have had the privilege of meeting lots of carers this week, as part of carers week. One subject that has continually come up is carers benefits. The Government accept that we have to look again at that issue. I remind the House, however, that we have already given a lot of support. Last year, for example, we provided nearly £1.5 billion in carer’s allowance to support carers. That, along with the carer’s premium and other income-related benefits, forms a vital part of the financial package of support for carers.

For carers who work or want to work, the Department for Work and Pensions has increased the amount that someone can earn while still receiving carer’s allowance, from £50 a week in 2001 to £95 a week now—one of the highest earning limits of any benefit. Given the complexities of the benefit system for pensioners, we have also taken steps to simplify the claiming process for pensioners who are carers—they might, for example, qualify for the carer’s premium in pension credits.

We need to do more. Even now, as I discuss pension credits, allowances and benefits, I know that people will worry about the complexity. Last December’s welfare reform White Paper reaffirmed our commitment to look carefully at carers benefits. We do not want to make the benefits system even more complex; frankly, carers’ lives are complicated enough already. That is why the Department wants to make any changes to benefits not only in the context of the social care system, but alongside its wider ambitions for welfare reform, so that the changes lead to a long-lasting and tailored system of support.

For many carers, there is more to life than simply fulfilling their caring responsibilities. If carers want to work, we want to help them do so. We want to step in, not step aside. Let us give—

Order. I am afraid that the Minister has used up his time allocation. He has been generous in allowing interventions, but time has been added for that.

It is good to have this opportunity to debate the issues affecting carers across the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to all those who care for relatives and friends. It is a taxing and often thankless task, and it is right that the House should pay tribute to them. Well over 200 right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have signed early-day motions 1519 and 1355 in support of carers week. That stands as our debt of gratitude.

I also pay tribute to the organisations that support carers, particularly Carers UK, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, the countless local support groups and the online carers’ chat rooms and information sources, which are increasingly important for mutual support—a point made by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) a moment ago. I pay tribute also to all those involved in organising carers week. That is now in its 14th year, which is testament to its effectiveness in highlighting carers’ concerns and needs.

According to Carers UK, there are about 6 million carers in the UK and more than three in five people will become carers at some time in our lives. I was interested that the Minister said yesterday in the departmental press release that there were only 5 million carers, as opposed to the 6 million identified in the 2001 census. Have the Government done a recalculation? If so, will the Minister put into the Library evidence of how many carers there are? Perhaps he will catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to cover that point.

Too often, carers bear the brunt of inadequate provision of care and support. They are among those who are suffering the most because there has been prevarication on reform, not least on the part of the Government. Help the Aged and others have called for carers to be supported as an integral part of the care and support system. I am sure that other hon. Members will speak in more detail about the Select Committee report. It is one of the indicative issues of this debate that a Department of Health Minister and his shadow should be leading the discussion on a Department for Work and Pensions report—a report that certainly has ramifications for the Department for Communities and Local Government, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Cabinet Office, among other Departments. It is important to note that the health and well-being of carers rightly dominate the concerns and focus of carers and those for whom they care.

The report can be condensed into two main areas. The first is soft support for carers—inclusion in Government policy across the board, information services and so on. The second is discussion of carers’ wages and benefits and the issues faced by carers who are in employment. That raises pertinent questions of the Minister about where we are up to on the carers strategy. We want not a list of pledges, but a list of what has been done to date. One specific issue is whether primary care trusts are actually using the money provided for emergency-only respite care for the purpose for which it was intended. Will the Minister clarify that point, which relates to what the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) said a moment ago?

The Government are very good at dragging their feet on such pledges. Yesterday, the Minister announced a hotline for carers in Islington. Carers had called for that and welcomed it, but it was first promised in the 1999 carers strategy, on almost the same day as I first entered the House following a by-election. The hotline was reannounced in the updated strategy and was supposed to have been in place early this year. The House will be aware that the Government have been similarly slow in setting up the national flu helpline—a key part of their pandemic flu plan. What confidence can anyone have in a Government who take 10 years to set up a phone line?

Last year, the Prime Minister and the previous Secretary of State for Health trailed a carers’ wage in the press before the publication of the strategy. Will the Minister confirm that that, in the end, was just more spin? It only ever referred to an extension of direct payments to spending on carers—and not even that has happened. Obviously, the biggest step forward for carers will be reform in the long-term care system. The Government’s financial squeeze has led to rising eligibility criteria at the local level, and too often carers bridge the gap. So I ask the Minister again: in carers week, of all weeks, and before spring technically ends in a few days’ time on 21 June, where is the Green Paper that the Government have categorically promised and guaranteed?

For 11 years, the Government have ignored a particular issue. Tony Blair told the 1997 Labour party conference that he did not want his children to grow up in a country where people had to sell their houses to fund their long-term care. Since then, we have had the Wanless report from the King’s Fund, in 2006. We also had a “zero-based review”, announced by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) in response to the Wanless report in 2006, but there is no evidence of any serious work having been done on it.

The hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) said in the House that he thought that the comprehensive spending review 2008 would deliver a solution. The CSR announced a Green Paper, to be preceded by a consultation on the future of care and support. A Green Paper is, by definition, a consultation too. That Green Paper was due in early 2009, March 2009, spring 2009, and June 2009. Can the Minister confirm that the timetable in the departmental plan is now—surprise, surprise—summer 2009: that is, by September?

Next week, we will be taking the Health Bill through its Committee stage. I was pleased that Lord Darzi, under pressure from his peers, amended the Bill to add carers as a group who must be consulted on the NHS constitution. I was astounded by that omission and the neglect on the part of the Government. The Bill currently defines carers as

“persons who, as relatives or friends, care for other persons to whom NHS services are being provided”.

That seems a somewhat draconian contraction by the Government of the definition of a carer already inscribed in the Health and Social Care Act 2008, which has the broader definition of

“people who care for service users as relatives or friends”,

with no other qualification. Why are the Government seeking to reduce the statistics on carers?

In support of my hon. Friend’s case, does he think that part of the problem is the dissonance between what the Government say about the importance of carers and the fact that carers’ interests tend to slip so regularly off the Government’s priority agenda?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who chairs, admirably and with great credit from both sides of the House, the all-party group on dementia, which has a major read-across to all the concerns of carers. He is right. It is no good to lay out so many expectations across the board, particularly for people in hard-working and sensitive areas such as caring, only for them to be dashed when the rhetoric does not convert into action. One of the greatest challenges that we face as politicians is to hold the Government to account on the expectations that they have raised.

I want briefly to touch on the subject of young carers. It was, to say the least, slightly concerning that although the Health Committee discussed young carers in its report, the Government’s written response completely omitted to mention them. The Minister must have realised the Government’s embarrassment about that, because he briefly alluded to young carers in his opening remarks. I hope that that embarrassment will now be covered by the Government making a specific acknowledgement that they need to address the issue of young carers in a written document whereby they can be held to account. They may therefore need to issue an addendum to their response.

The 2001 census found that there were approximately 175,000 young carers in the UK, although that figure is believed to be higher by those who work in the field and see things for themselves. The average age of young carers is an absolutely shocking 12 years old. One in three regularly misses school, and one in four has no external support whatever. That has led to tragedies such as that of Deanne Asamoah. When will the Government take action? Following the Minister’s acknowledgement that the needs of young carers must be addressed, given their absence from the Government’s response, we need to move from words to a good set of actions that can be implemented and will support young carers.

It is right for the House to be debating issues facing carers. They are, as those involved in carers week have put it, a “secret service”, so it is right that this House should do all it can to bring them out of the shadows, and that the Government should do all they can to support them. Conservative Members thank carers for the sacrifices that they make in order to improve the lives of others and their loved ones, and recognise that helping carers is one of the best ways to help those they are caring for. Most importantly, we join third party organisations in calling on the Government to publish the Green Paper on care and support without any further delay. Only in the debate about reform can carers begin to hope for a system that does not let them down. If, as seems increasingly likely, the Government cannot get beyond the stasis of a divided and leaderless party, for the sake of carers and all those in our society who need help, the Minister should urge the Prime Minister to call a general election.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I know that there are hon. Members in all parts of the House who are hoping to catch your eye. I come to the debate to represent several of my constituents who are carers or who work for caring organisations.

In responding to my earlier intervention, the Minister referred to the need for MPs to play a part in ensuring that the NHS spends the £150 million that has been allocated over the next two years wisely and well in order properly to meet the needs of carers. I can assure him that in my area not only am I well in touch with carers, but carers make sure that I am in touch with their concerns. We have a very effective carers’ centre run by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, which has now been there for more than 20 years. It was opened in the 1980s, as probably one of the first of its kind to be established, and it is highly regarded by all the carers who have been through its doors over all those years.

My reason for speaking is to convey to the Minister and Members in the House several comments that were made to me by carers at an event that I attended yesterday as part of carers week. I invited them to put their comments in writing. They particularly feature carers’ concerns about the inadequacy of the benefits regime that relates to the carer’s allowance and so on. There is a strong sense that this issue is well overdue for attention. It has been the subject of plenty of reports from Government, yet they are still not addressing it. Ken Fish, a carer in my constituency, asked:

“Why should Carer’s Allowance be stopped when the carer receives old age pension at 60 for women and 65 for men, when carers are entitled to Carer’s Allowance for caring for more than 35 hours per week and when the same carers have paid National Insurance Contributions or have had credits paid for them when they are continuing to care as both they and their cared for get older, frailer and less mobile?”

That is at the heart of many of the representations that I am sure will be received by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Margaret Burrows said:

“Older people that are carers need more help and support to continue in their caring role. No age restrictions for receiving Carer’s Allowance. I feel unappreciated by society for being a carer, in particular for those carers caring for someone with mental health problems.”

Another carer I met at the coffee morning, Pat Rogerson, said that she received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions saying that she was entitled to the carer’s allowance, but when she read on a little further she found that the next paragraph said that she could not get the carer’s allowance because she was getting a pension. She asks why a letter like that is sent, and why she is not being paid the carer’s allowance. June Baine, Rhona Banford, Jill Winder and Christine Holmes also want that question answered.

Although the Minister was helpful in explaining the complexities of the current system, he did not go on to say either of two things: that the Government honestly do not believe that this is a financial priority and feel that it cannot be afforded at this time—that would be the straightforward thing for him to say—or that there is a timetable by which the level of the carer’s allowance will be raised and its eligibility extended, so that pensioners, who often shoulder some of the greatest burdens of carers, will get proper recognition in the payments that they receive.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we cannot afford not to do something about this issue? If carers decided—I am sure that very few of them would wish to do so—that they could no longer shoulder such burdens, and the state was asked instead to do the work that they do unpaid, we would end up with a very much greater liability on the taxpayer.

It is estimated that our 6 million carers are worth £87 billion in the burden that they shift from our public services—both social care and the health service. Taking on that responsibility affects their physical and financial health in the long term. We know from the statistics that were published during last year’s national carers week that many carers find that by the time they have finished their caring role, their earnings potential has been diminished and their savings have been run down, and they feel let down as a consequence.

It is good to have a national strategy that outlines many aspirations, which will be shared by everyone in this House and beyond it, but setting ambitions for 2018 makes them seem an awfully long time away. The message that I have heard from carers who are caring today is that they cannot wait for those ambitions to be realised by 2018, or for the carer’s allowance to be raised at some point in the future. Can the Minister therefore guarantee that the Government will shortly set out a timetable for the very necessary reform of the carer’s allowance?

I wonder also whether the Minister could say a little more about the time scale for the roll-out of the national strategy. It is not entirely clear what the milestones are and how carers on the ground can satisfy themselves about the strategy and hold people to account locally for delivering it. At the event that I attended yesterday, Lorraine Brown said that better services for carers of young people and for the cared-for, such as younger people with dementia, were particularly important. All too often, dementia services for people who become senile at an early age are inadequate. They are often put with older people suffering from dementia, in a se