Wednesday 15 July 2009
[Ann Winterton in the Chair]
Abortion Law (Northern Ireland)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Watts.)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs. Winterton.
When I was first elected to Parliament, I served on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Abortion law in Northern Ireland was an issue then and it will continue to be an issue until the Government fulfil their responsibility and grant equal rights to women in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that this is an immensely controversial issue. Parliament has taken a fair old battering in recent months, but we right hon. and hon. Members are at our best when we do what we are sent here to do: to engage in the battle of ideas with mutual respect, particularly on difficult, controversial issues like this. I trust that this debate will be conducted with that in mind.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I well remember campaigning with colleagues from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on a cross-party basis for the Belfast agreement in 1998. I campaigned with Sinn Fein in the Falls road in the morning, with the Social Democratic and Labour party at lunchtime, and with the Progressive Unionist party in the afternoon in the Shankill road. [Interruption.] I am afraid that my colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party were on the other side of the issue at that point. One thing that came through in talking informally to people was that, yes, this issue—sadly, in my view—unites the vast majority of politicians in Northern Ireland.
No, I will not.
The single exceptions are Anna Lo from the Alliance party and Dawn Purvis from the Progressive Unionist party. I have immense respect for those two people, who have shown great courage in standing up for what they believe in. Other politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly in the Assembly, share their views, but in the prevailing atmosphere people feel that it is difficult to express them, or they feel uncomfortable doing so. We all understand that; we are all under pressure from our electors.
We should all be concerned about this matter. It is a human rights issue. It is staggering that anyone can sit back and believe that it is okay to treat certain United Kingdom citizens as second-class citizens, purely on the basis of where they live. This is happening to women in Northern Ireland on a daily basis.
Devolution is a good thing, and I have no doubt that the devolution argument will be made today.
We did not devolve this issue to Scotland. There are, in my constituency and others, people from all over the UK, whether from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, who have the right to travel to have heart operations or to see cancer specialists. However, somehow, a woman from Northern Ireland facing potentially serious medical complications or even worse cannot travel and be funded for abortion services in the mainland in England. How on earth can that be right?
It will be said that this is not a matter for the Westminster Parliament. However, a significant e-petition on the No. 10 website has been signed by many thousands of people, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) tabled early-day motion 625. Of course, in May 2008, Northern Irish Members of Parliament had no compunction about coming to this place and voting to restrict the reproductive rights of my constituents, and they voted to reduce the abortion limit down to 12 weeks. I am afraid that anyone in this debate who trots out the argument that this is not a matter for Westminster has sold the pass.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, in addition to tabling an early-day motion, I tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on abortion rights in Northern Ireland, in response to which I received hundreds of letters from men and women in Northern Ireland, saying that, on this matter, the four major parties did not represent them and that they looked to the Westminster Parliament to be a voice for women there?
I am well aware of the strength of feeling on this issue. We are nothing—we are pygmy politicians in this place—if we do not stand up for the rights of people who feel that they do not have a voice. My hon. Friend is right to articulate the fact that many women—many people—in Northern Ireland feel that they do not have a voice on this issue.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the nearer to the people the decision is taken, the purer the democracy? People’s views should be respected. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to protect the unborn child and are absolutely right in holding that passionate view.
I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman, but his argument blows apart if localism is taken down to its purist level, because the local decision of the individual woman herself is the one that we are defending.
Women in Northern Ireland have been waiting for more than 40 years to secure the same sexual and reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK. The Abortion Act 1967 allows women in England, Scotland and Wales access to safe, legal abortion services. For women in Northern Ireland the situation is drastically different, because Victorian legislation—the Offences Against the Person Act 1861—is still in place there, which is a scandal. That means that women are only able to access abortion if their lives are in danger or if continuing the pregnancy would lead to severe and permanent harm. The penalty for obtaining an illegal abortion is imprisonment for life.
Northern Ireland women are living under a Victorian law created at a time of workhouses and child labour. Women were not even allowed the right to vote at that point, yet this law continues to govern the health and lives of women in Northern Ireland. The law in Northern Ireland is so restrictive that even a 14-year-old girl who had been raped or was a victim of incest, or even both, because that can happen, would not be able to access an abortion just because she had been raped or was a victim of incest. It is one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe.
I have huge respect for people who raise moral issues in this Chamber and elsewhere, but it defies my comprehension that somebody could say to a 14-year-old girl who had been raped that they would, because of their particular religious beliefs and their own particular morality, force her to go through the agony of childbirth to satisfy their own moral code. I do not see what is particularly moral about that, but I respect people who have a different point of view.
I would guess that this is one of the rare debates in which my views and those of my hon. Friend are not closely aligned. Does he not accept that, with policing and justice powers on the point of being devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is quite probable that that Assembly will widen the laws to include reference to rape, incest and other issues? Is not that the forum in which these matters should be debated? He has been a strong supporter of devolution and I know that he still adheres to that point of view.
I will touch on some of these points a little later, but I have already highlighted the inconsistency in respect of certain medical conditions: where there is no devolution people have a right for their travel to be funded, whereas in Northern Ireland that is not the case, solely in respect of abortion, even for rape victims.
For the vast majority of women in Northern Ireland who want access to safe, legal abortion services, their only option is to travel, either to the mainland or to other countries, such as Holland, and pay for an abortion procedure. Despite being UK taxpayers, women from Northern Ireland who travel to the mainland are unable to access abortion services that are available to women in the rest of the UK, free of charge through the NHS, which we all pay for, whether we are taxpayers in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. They have to pay for their own travel, accommodation and abortion procedures, which can amount to £2,000 or even more. That is not okay, although it is manageable if one has £2,000, but many people in Northern Ireland do not have access to such cash, so their choices are limited.
One way forward, which would not be popular with all of us—compromise is always required—might be to allow women from Northern Ireland to have a free abortion if they came to the mainland. In that way, abortion would remain illegal in Northern Ireland, but it would be legal for a Northern Irish woman to have an abortion in England. That would be illogical, but at least it would allow such women access to free abortions.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, which is in the spirit of my early-day motion 1754 and early-day motion 625 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. That is the least that the Government should do—I am giving away the conclusion of my speech—and I do not want to hear Ministers washing their hands of the matter by trying to farm it out elsewhere.
I shall give a short case study, and I am grateful to organisations in Northern Ireland for providing me with the information. Susan—the name has been changed—is 37 and is married with four children. She has found that she is pregnant with her family’s fifth child. She has recently moved back to Northern Ireland after living abroad for many years, and lives in a rural area where she has not built up a strong support network of friends, so she feels isolated. She believes that having another child would place unbearable pressure on her, her husband and their children. Since her husband lost his job 10 months ago, the family have been reliant on benefits and have no other financial or family support. That makes it impossible for Susan to raise £2,000 or £2,500 even to travel to the mainland to secure an abortion.
A myth surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland is that people there do not support a woman’s right to choose. A survey by the Family Planning Association in September 2008 showed that almost two thirds of people—62 per cent.—in Northern Ireland support abortion following rape and incest, but it seems that our politicians do not. Furthermore, in its submission to the UN committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland called for
“the same access to reproductive health care services and rights in Northern Ireland as are available in Great Britain”.
It has been estimated that since the Abortion Act 1967 excluded Northern Ireland, about 70,000 women have travelled to England and overseas to have an abortion. For the past 40 years, women have voted with their feet.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I do not know whether he took part in any of the meetings with women trade unionists from Northern Ireland, but there was strong support among trade unions for the measures that he proposes. They said that they were looking to us to help them.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is why we are here today.
A culture of secrecy continues to surround abortion in Northern Ireland. The majority of women who have abortions are unwilling to speak out about their experience because they fear the reaction from wider society, and sometimes from family and friends. The Family Planning Association is the only organisation in Northern Ireland that offers non-directive, non-judgmental counselling and support services for women and their partners or families who are faced with a crisis pregnancy. Its office in Belfast is picketed four days a week—I have seen videos of that—by anti-choice protesters, including protesters from Precious Life. Those protesters not only harass women going into the building, but intimidate them by telling them that they will be waiting for them when they emerge. When the women leave, the protesters follow them to bus stops and train stations, and thrust false information and graphic photos in their faces. That is not moral or acceptable, and I would not dream of doing that.
We have been reading about the harrowing case of Sir Edward Downes and his wife who chose to go to Switzerland to die. Would anyone with a shred of morality harass people who have made a brave, courageous, controversial but personal decision about their right to take their own life? I leave that hanging, because I find it one of the more revolting aspects of how the debate is conducted.
Abortion is upsetting for women, and they may be distressed and need to access the Family Planning Association’s counselling services. Northern Ireland is a small community, and a woman being followed down the street and shouted at is hardly inconspicuous. Despite the false information that the protesters give out, the FPA’s counselling service offers a welcome opportunity for women to make their own choice. That is what this debate is about—women in a small part of the United Kingdom having the right to make a choice that is available to women in the rest of England, Scotland and Wales.
The culture of secrecy also extends to politicians in Northern Ireland—I touched on this earlier—and many are unable to admit that they are pro-choice because of their party’s stated anti-choice policies. I have had dialogue with Northern Ireland politicians who felt that they were in a compromise situation. The secrecy around abortion in Northern Ireland permeates every thread of society, and masks the reality of what happens to women when they are faced with an unplanned pregnancy. It adds to the anguish and struggle that they face when making the decision and raising the money, sometimes without the support of family and friends. Such women decide to access safe and legal abortion services behind a veil of secrecy, and that is not acceptable in 21st century Britain.
In the past year, two UN committees have stated that abortion law in Northern Ireland needs to be amended. In 2008, the United Nations committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women recommended that the UK should initiate a process of public consultation in Northern Ireland on abortion law. In line with general recommendation 24 on women and health and the Beijing platform for action, the committee also urged the UK to consider amending the abortion law to remove punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion.
Regardless of whether the Government are devolving policing and justice, which includes abortion, to Northern Ireland, they should remember that to UN committees, Britain and the British Government are still responsible for the UK, which includes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. By signing up to UN treaties, the Government have made a commitment to meet the obligations for all UK citizens, not just some. There is a strong and powerful argument that the Government are neglecting their responsibility to enable women in Northern Ireland to access safe and legal abortion services, as recommended by the UN committees.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Department for International Development supports the global safe abortion campaign, because that is stated on its website. The Government provided £4 million to the safe abortion action fund, and £6.5 million to women’s health organisations. It is ironic to have one message for the developing world, and totally different values and messages for women in part of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to square that circle.
There is anecdotal evidence of women in Northern Ireland going online to buy medication to induce an abortion, even though that is illegal. Some women have accessed rogue websites, and received incomplete prescriptions or completely different substances. That could put their health in danger, and is a tragedy waiting to happen. The figures are there for all to see, and they show the number of deaths since 1967 as a result of people being so desperate that they will try illegal abortion methods. That is as much a moral issue as any other.
I do not believe that the Government whom I support do not care for women in Northern Ireland, or do not want to end the scandal of them being treated as second-class citizens in relation to their reproductive rights. The Minister may respond—Ministers have responded in this way in the past—by saying that this is not a matter for the Government any more. He may try to wash his hands of it, but I hope not. I say that it is an issue for this Parliament and for all Members of this House, as Northern Ireland Members have demonstrated by their willingness to restrict abortion rights for my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members who are on the other side of the issue from them.
I ask the Government to commit themselves to extending the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland while they can still do so. I am not holding my breath for the response to that request, but if they will not do that, which they should, they could start by redressing the blatant inequality faced by women by providing funding for women who are forced to travel to access safe and legal abortion services, so that they can access them free of charge in the national health service that we all pay for. That is the very least that should be done.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I make a plea for contributions to be as brief as possible, because I have received many names of people wanting to speak, and obviously many people have risen wanting to speak. We must also have the winding-up speeches, which may themselves have to be slightly curtailed. I call David Simpson.
I welcome you to the Chair, Lady Winterton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on obtaining the debate. As he said himself, it is on an issue that is very controversial across the United Kingdom, including, of course, Northern Ireland.
Each time that the subject of abortion is debated or referenced in Parliament, I am struck by a number of things that quickly rise to the surface whenever it comes to those who style themselves as pro-choice. I am frequently struck by their thinly concealed anti-democratic, anti-libertarian and anti-human rights stance.
Why do I say “anti-democratic”? The answer is simple. On both sides of the House of Commons—on the Government and Opposition Benches—there is probably near unanimous agreement that Northern Ireland should have a devolved Assembly, with devolved powers, and that that should eventually include policing and justice powers, but of course for some hon. Members, the people of Northern Ireland are not to be trusted with the issue of abortion. Despite the fact that there is overwhelming agreement across the political divide, Northern Ireland, in the eyes of some hon. Members, is simply not grown up enough, mature enough, clever enough or modern enough to be trusted with that decision. The message being sent to Northern Ireland by some hon. Members could not be clearer: “We support devolution for you, but only in so far as you do what we like and what we want.”
My speech will be short, so I will not give way.
What I have described is an anti-democratic stance. Why did I use the term “anti-libertarian”? Again, whenever the subject of abortion comes up, it quickly becomes evident that if hon. Members speak against abortion, speak in favour of tightening up abortion provisions or express a principled anti-abortion and pro-life position, there are some who cannot listen to that message respectfully but feel compelled to resort to name calling and demonising the people who do that. We have seen that in the past in the House.
Why did I mention an anti-human rights approach? Some people take the view that the solution to what they describe as the denial of a person’s right to choose is to deny a child’s right to live. I do not believe that, if anyone in the House were to say that a black or coloured baby, a Jewish baby or a baby from the travelling community should have its life ended, there would be a single Member of the House who would not be rightly outraged, no matter what justification was given by that person. However, there are those who tell us that a baby not yet born should have its life ended for no other reason than another person’s right to choose. I cannot and will not support that kind of cruelty being visited upon the innocent. Rather than making Northern Ireland like the rest of the UK on this issue, it would—
No, I will not; I shall be finished in 30 seconds. Rather than making Northern Ireland like the rest of the UK on this issue, it would be far better if hon. Members were to campaign for the reverse and to show the same commitment to the life in the womb as they show for consumer parenthood and disposable babies. The abortion laws across the UK do need to be reviewed, updated and amended, but they need to be reviewed away from the current situation and the free-for-all that exists in many parts of the country. I urge hon. Members to go down that road, not the one that they are trying to map out for the people of Northern Ireland.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) for raising this subject. It is a very difficult one and clearly this Chamber is very divided. The difficulties faced by young women in Northern Ireland came home to me when I went to a meeting in Portcullis House; I think that it was last week. Baroness Blood chaired the meeting. When I heard her talking about the situation of young women in Northern Ireland—women of child-bearing age—I was reminded of the arguments that I had to sustain alone, with almost no support whatever from other people, regarding the forced marriages of young women in my constituency 12 years ago. When I was elected 12 years ago, many people were coming to me for help to get a marriage annulled or to get divorced because they had been forced into a marriage in Pakistan. I had to do what I could. I also had to contact the Islamabad high commission to put a stop on entry clearance for the person coming in.
I got very little support on that, for the same reasons that women in Northern Ireland are not getting much support now—because the politicians in Northern Ireland know that it would affect their votes at the next election if they supported young girls asking for the right to have abortions there or asking for help to come here. Still to this day, the girls I helped in my constituency will not talk about that situation, for the same reason that the girls in Northern Ireland will not. In Northern Ireland, it is probably referred to as “What will the neighbours say?” In Keighley, it was family pride and family honour that was afflicting them. So I feel as though I am in the deep end with this. I understand very clearly what the girls in Northern Ireland are going through. People can tell by my voice that I am finding it quite difficult to talk about this. However, I am here this morning to maintain the position that women in the UK have the right to control their own fertility and their own child bearing.
No, I am sorry. If I give way, I will not start again, because I am finding this so difficult.
At the moment, young women in Northern Ireland are denied a right that women in the rest of the UK are allowed to have. However, I want to go back a little. I will be 70 later this year and I was of child-bearing age during the period before David Steel’s 1967 Act came in, so I know what the position was then. Many friends who had babies brought them up and were good mothers to them, but they had reservations about having them—they perhaps already had two or three children, so they had anxieties. At the time, women were not able to have a legal abortion.
Women have always been able to access safe abortions—the same must, and in fact does, apply as regards Northern Ireland—if they have the money and the wherewithal to find out where they are available, and David Steel simply ensured that there was a level playing field for all women. I suggest to Democratic Unionist Members that women in Northern Ireland today who want an abortion can get one if they have the money to come to this country for one. Those who do not have the money and who do not know how to get through the legal loopholes will not have an abortion. They will have to bring into the world a child that they do not want and that they will possibly have adopted at an early stage.
I have known women in such situations. In fact, I had a friend who performed an abortion on herself. She lost a great deal of blood and had to be taken into hospital. She had to put out all sorts of stories to explain why that happened. She had the beginnings of multiple sclerosis, and her condition deteriorated a great deal shortly after she performed the abortion. I am quite convinced that the two things were connected. Had she been able to have a legal, safe abortion, she would not have been forced into that situation.
I hope that the message that goes out from this Chamber is that the UK Parliament cannot go on in the present situation, with women in a small corner of the UK being denied the rights that are enjoyed by so many women in the rest of the UK. That is so unfair. I hope that Northern Ireland Members of Parliament will eventually change their attitudes. If we cannot achieve that, I hope that Ministers in this country will make available some facility to help girls who want to come to this country by ensuring that they can access abortions and that they have the money to travel here. The current situation is so wrong and so unfair on such girls, and I appeal to the Minister to look carefully at the issue to make sure that no one in the UK is denied an abortion simply because they do not have the money to catch a flight here.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton.
The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) said that we would be pygmy politicians if we did not do what we were sent here to do. What he advocates is certainly not something that I or my colleagues from other Northern Ireland constituencies feel that we were sent here to do. I hope that the implication of his reference to pygmy politicians was not that those of us from Northern Ireland are somehow less capable parliamentarians or legislators.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that because many of us in Northern Ireland get a bit fed up with British politicians who seem to think that they are the political Gullivers while we are intellectual Lilliputians, who cannot understand or deal with these issues ourselves and who need the wisdom and intervention of British politicians and international instruments.
I make no apology for standing here as, among other things, an Irish nationalist. As far as I am concerned, an Irish national Parliament should legislate on this issue for the whole of Ireland. I mentioned international instruments, and a protocol has been fully promulgated in the European Union making it clear that no European instrument or law will override the right of the Government and the Parliament of Ireland on abortion legislation. I speak from that very clear perspective and I make no apology for that.
My hon. Members for Reading, West and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) made several points. I fully accept that there is conscience on both sides of the debate, and the sooner we all recognise that the better. That was strongly reflected in some of the remarks by the hon. Lady.
Reference was made to the call by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to introduce the same rights as in Britain. The Good Friday agreement, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, provides for strong equality measures. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 names seven different grounds for equality protection, one of which is disability. Many groups representing disabled people fundamentally object to the amended 1967 Act precisely because it permits abortion practically right up to birth in the case of foetal abnormality. Foetal abnormality is used to cover a wide variety of issues and disabilities. In many cases, the Act sends the signal that those with disabilities would have been better off not being born. I know many disabled people, not only in Northern Ireland, who fundamentally object to that dimension of the Act.
The hon. Gentleman said that the law in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive pieces of such legislation in Europe, but the 1967 Act, which he advocates should be extended to Northern Ireland, is one of the most liberal, if not the most liberal, in Europe. Why should we resign ourselves to that?
The hon. Gentleman said that those of us who voted to amend the 1967 Act last year, when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 was going through the House, had sold the pass and did not have the right to object to the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. I simply point out to him that there was a full, clear and present threat to use the 2008 Act—this was the intent of many Members of the House—to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Members faced that very real threat and we were within our rights to seek amendments to mitigate it.
However, if the hon. Gentleman was trying to suggest that there should be some new constitutional compact fully to declare that this Parliament will never attempt to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, while Northern Ireland Members will stay out of subsequent legislation, that is a separate debate that we need to have. He cannot, however, say that we do not have the right to vote on the 1967 Act while he and other Members reserve the right to say that they will extend it to Northern Ireland.
Let me make it clear that that was not the point that I was making. I was merely pre-empting an argument, which has been made in the past, that Westminster politicians have no right to discuss the issue. I was pointing out that Northern Ireland politicians felt that they had the right to vote on legislation that affects my constituents. At no point in my contribution—the hon. Gentleman will be able to check the record—did I question their right to campaign against the 1967 Act.
I do not want to dwell on that, because I want to conclude, but I was taking up the hon. Gentleman’s point. He said that those of us who had voted to amend the 1967 Act had sold the pass and therefore had no right any more to object to Westminster extending the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. Well, we do object to the 1967 Act as it stands and we object to its extension to Northern Ireland. If he wants to carry that argument, it brings us into the case for some new constitutional compact here, which may well be worth looking at.
The hon. Lady suggested that politicians in Northern Ireland do not want to deal with the issue because it would affect our vote. The politicians who are elected by people in Northern Ireland come here on the basis of clear and credible positions. The issue is much discussed and debated in Northern Ireland, in the Assembly, on the airwaves and elsewhere. The suggestion that there is total secrecy and radio silence is wrong. There are contradictions in the arguments that are being made by my hon. Members because on the one hand the hon. Gentleman says opinion polls show that well over 60 per cent. of people favour the extension of the Abortion Act, yet on the other hand the hon. Lady says that we are failing to legislate on the issue because we fear for our vote.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I had the good fortune to grow up in a loving family and I speak as a father and grandfather, whose fourth grandchild is due in a month. I also speak as a Christian and I therefore believe that every cell of every human body is sacred. I support the stated position of my Church, the Church of England, which is strong opposition to abortion. For me, one abortion is one too many and represents a failure of all of us.
There are, however, many Christians and people of faith of other religions who balance their opposition in principle to abortion with the view that God is compassionate towards the needs and suffering of pregnant women and those around them. I respect the differences between the countries of the United Kingdom and see them as a strength, not a weakness. Therefore, I do not for a moment seek to undermine the perhaps more conservative traditional social attitudes in one part or another of the United Kingdom. I think that it is a shame that there are not more women in the debate, but that is a feature of our Parliament. I also think that we should recognise that we live in a male-dominated society with a male-dominated Parliament and Churches. I sometimes wonder whether men should vote at all, or even speak, on these issues in public. After all, all pregnancies are caused by men and it is women who take the grief.
I have never subscribed to the view of those who argue that abortion is a matter of a woman’s right to choose, as if women had an exclusive right. To me it is a partnership between a woman, a man, a child and, indeed, God. However, it is the mother who is pregnant and who will give birth and raise the child. I believe that Parliament cannot wash its hands of the issue, any more than the issue of abortion itself can be wished away. We are talking about discrimination against half the population of Northern Ireland—the female half. That is institutional, financial discrimination by the British Government against women who have paid their taxes and national insurance contributions. I am therefore ashamed that in our United Kingdom we treat women in Northern Ireland differently and penalise them financially.
However, it is rather worse than that. The situation faced by women in Northern Ireland has become tainted by a very nasty atmosphere of punishment and revenge by those who think that they are morally superior. I do not know of any women taking the decision to have an abortion lightly. From the figures, it is not naughty schoolgirls who have most of the abortions; 70 per cent. of them involve women aged 20 to 34—years, one would have thought, of some discretion and common sense. Of course, 64 per cent. of all terminations in England take place at under nine weeks’ gestation. However, the fact is that in 2008 1,173 women were forced to travel to England from Northern Ireland for termination of pregnancy. In parenthesis another 4,600 came from the Republic of Ireland.
There are far too many abortions in our country and we have all failed to find the answer. We continue to let down generations of young people of both sexes, and we need to address that. We should start by stopping the financial discrimination against women in Northern Ireland who face substantial costs of £2,000 and more when they have already paid their taxes. It is time that we stopped punishing women and started educating men.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton.
I believe that when Members of Parliament dare speak about abortion on demand they will soon find themselves engulfed in something of a hostile environment. I remember the last debate that was held in the House on this subject, and I can assure hon. Members that anyone who either mentioned an opposite point of view or pro-life position or even happened to quote a verse from the scriptures was totally laughed at and mocked in that debate. I am delighted that this is a more sane and normal debate.
I appreciate the fact that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) brought the issue up. I have no objection to the matter being discussed. The question is how it is resolved, which is a matter of the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives, and should be left as that. However, when many people champion the cause of minorities across the United Kingdom, it is regarded as laudable.
I want to champion the cause of the minority: the unborn child—the child who has not the ability to speak in the House. We will hear a lot of talk about human rights and the right of the woman. I have never heard, of course, whenever we have talked about the rights in this debate, about the right of the unborn child. Somehow, they do not seem to have rights, or those rights seem to be lesser compared with others.
Is not my hon. Friend touching on the very nub of the issue? The debate and resolution will be found only when all of us, as adult parliamentarians, balance the plight, needs and concerns of women who find themselves pregnant, whom we have got to have a concern for, and the plight of the unborn child, whom very few people appear to stand up for and speak for.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point.
It is also interesting that out of the 18 Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland constituencies not one has signed the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion. Of course he pointed out that that was because we were political pygmies. That is a slur against pygmies, because I think that they are quite nice people, and to suggest that is rather insulting.
Of course, contradictory messages are coming out, as was rightly pointed out by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). For example, the hon. Member for Reading, West suggested to us that we had not the guts to take the hard decisions, because we were behind our electorate: that our electorate were well ahead of us and wanted us to do it, but we were not willing. However, the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) suggested that politicians were not doing so because it would affect their vote. With the greatest respect, Labour Members cannot have it both ways—they usually try to, but some of us here are not willing to let them. They should not try to bamboozle us with nonsense. [Interruption.] I was elected to the House to represent my constituents. I assure the House that when the Northern Ireland constituency representatives here today face their electorate, they will discover whether the electorate are backing them.
With the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman cannot expect me, as a parliamentarian, simply to answer the question as he wants it answered. I shall answer it in the way that I was elected to answer, which is what I stand for—and I make no apology for it.
Let me say this about rape. Does destroying the unborn baby eradicate the tragedy of the rape? Does an act of violence against the mother justify an act of violence against the unborn child?
No, I am sorry. If the hon. Lady catches your eye, Lady Winterton, I am sure that she will be called.
The tragedy of the woman who has been raped is not eliminated by compounding it, by killing the baby. We have to lay some of these issues to rest. Another reason given for abortion is abnormality. Is the possible abnormality of an unborn child a justification for abortion? Whenever we talk about aborting babies because they may be handicapped, we are forced to make serious value judgments that I believe are reserved only for God and not for people sitting in this Chamber.
Why is there such haste? Let us get to the nub of the matter. The reason for the debate was made known by Dr. Audrey Simpson. She said that once the responsibility is transferred, as part of the handover of policing and justice powers, it will be very difficult to make a change. It is nothing to do with it being the right time to make a change; it is the right time to get one result—to force the Westminster Government’s hand. Indeed, she also said that the United Kingdom Government do not have the guts to stand up to Northern Ireland politicians.
Who does Dr. Simpson think she is? I have the right as an elected representative to speak on behalf of my people. When was Dr. Simpson elected? If she believes that she is right, she should put herself before the electorate. She should stand in a Northern Ireland constituency and find out whether she represents the people. I assure the House that she would find out that she does not represent them. She will not sit in this place.
No; I am finishing my remarks, Lady Winterton, as you asked.
It is interesting to note that, when someone is planning to terminate the life of an unborn child and destroy the miracle of God’s creation, they refer to the unborn as a foetus or the embryo. By contrast, when they plan to keep the child and cherish it, it is always known as “my baby” or “my child”. We never hear anyone saying, “I’m going to have a little foetus.” We never hear an abortionist saying, “We’re going to kill the little baby.” Our respect for the unborn seems to be strangely affected by the circumstances, and I was not elected to the House to support that position.
Many people feel very strongly about this matter, and I am one. Some may know that my family comes from Northern Ireland, and that some members of my family still live there.
The people of Northern Ireland have many strengths, but I do not understand why their politicians will not allow women to have access to abortion. The politicians may not agree with abortion themselves, and many of their constituents may not agree with it, but I tell them this: women in desperate circumstances will have an abortion. They may have one illegally, they may try to do it themselves, they may come to the mainland to have it or they may go to Holland; but they will have an abortion and we cannot stop them.
What we can do is make it fair. We should give women fair access to hospitals in Northern Ireland, where they can have the support of their mothers and where they can have the abortion quietly and discreetly. Please believe me, they will not have an abortion lightly. They will have an abortion only in desperate circumstances. Every abortion is a tragedy, and every woman who has had an abortion believes that. They will do it only if they absolutely have to do so.
There are good things about Northern Ireland, and many good things have happened there. Its economy is booming, and it is becoming much more liberal socially. There are now gay pride marches in Northern Ireland. There is a growing group of people there who come from a socially liberal background and are still not adequately represented by their elected representatives. The 21st century is coming to Northern Ireland, as it is coming to the rest of the world. It is important that that growing group should have some political representation.
Many who are socially liberal have chosen to move away from Northern Ireland, but some are now moving back. Changes are going on in Northern Ireland. Its politicians must change too. I deeply regret that the powers devolved to Northern Ireland under the Good Friday agreement included those relating to women and abortion. That was a mistake. We should have done the same with Northern Ireland as we did with Scotland and Wales: the issue should be a UK-wide one. I wish such authority had not been passed over, but it was.
I appreciate that I could be accused of opportunism, but I wish that we could grab the power back at the last minute, saying that we had made a mistake. I wish that we had not given Northern Ireland the authority over abortion. I do not believe that Northern Ireland politicians represent the views of the majority in Northern Ireland. They are behind the times. However, I believe strongly in the Good Friday agreement. I believe strongly in a peaceful Northern Ireland and in its growing prosperity, and letting it move on.
Would my hon. Friend allow me to put on record that the reason for having this debate today is nothing to do with the legislative timetable? It is everything to do with a film showing women in a distressed state being harassed by Precious Life outside the FPA headquarters. That is why we are debating the subject today.
My hon. Friend said that Northern Ireland is more socially liberal. She offered as evidence gay pride marches and so on. Does she appreciate that many of us are on what she would regard as the socially liberal side of those arguments, and that we have stood up for gay pride and participated in such events? Abortion, however, is different. It is not about the individual’s sexual or other rights; it affects the rights of an innocent third party, namely the child.
I respect the hon. Gentleman, but I do not agree with him. I believe that individual women should be allowed to make individual decisions. However strongly the hon. Gentleman may feel about the matter, I believe that women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their lives. They will continue to do so, whether or not he stops them.
No, because others wish to speak.
If we cannot grab back the power that we are about to devolve to Northern Ireland, the least that we can do is allow women from Northern Ireland to have access to abortion under the national health service. I do not want that smutty compromise; it is not right. I believe that women in Northern Ireland should be allowed to walk into a hospital as I could in London, and as a woman from Northern Ireland’s sister could if she lived in my constituency. It is not right, but it is the best that we can offer. I wish that we could at least do that before handing over these powers in Northern Ireland to gentlemen such as the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), whose views do not represent those of everyone in Northern Ireland. At the moment, such people do not have a voice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I did not intend to speak, but I cannot let my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) get away with some of the crazy stuff that I heard earlier. He depicted me and my constituents as primitive savages who attack pregnant women in the streets. I live beside a Family Planning Association clinic, my constituency office is beside it, and for 30 years I have worked as a general practitioner beside it. Never, in that whole time, have I seen baying mobs attacking people at the clinic. Occasionally there are crazies—there are crazy people on the pro-life side of the argument—and some of these things can happen, but for God’s sake please do not paint us as primitive savages.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Some of us face a conundrum. For 30 years I have worked with women in stress—I might be unique in the Chamber in that sense—and I have dealt with them sympathetically, humanely and compassionately. However, there is a difficulty, to which I have yet to hear an answer.
We spend millions struggling to save babies of 22-week gestation, and putting them in incubators, and quite often those lives are preserved, even if they are not of a high quality—that is another issue—but we throw 24-week gestation babies in a bucket to die. Somebody must provide an answer. We have got to find a balance. Some revolting arguments were made during the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. At that time, we ducked the issue, but it must be dealt with. We cannot throw a viable foetus—a viable infant—into a bucket to die at 24 weeks and say that it is right.
I do not think that 62 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of abortion. In my estimation, the figure might be 30 per cent. Yes, by manipulating the 30 per cent. figure—if one picked only those who were in favour—one could get 62 per cent. However, it does not stand up to sense that if two-thirds of our population are in favour of abortion, suddenly politicians like me cower in front of the 30 or 33 per cent. who are not in favour.
It upsets me that there is no Government NHS support service for a young woman who wants to keep a child. Often the pressures are economic, and time and again, in such cases, I have had to revert to various faith-based groups to provide support—often across religious divides and all the rest—for somebody who is desperate to hold on to an infant, but unable to do so for economic reasons.
We face a number of problems. Before we sort the debate once and for all, we need to start caring for people and young pregnant women, and not just seeing this as a disposable item.
Like all hon. Members in this Chamber—I think—I believe that any abortion is a tragedy. However, let me press a point on some of my male colleagues: they talk as though women take abortions lightly and that they do it for social convenience and without thought. I urge my male colleagues to have a little more respect for the women of Northern Ireland. Every woman whom I have known who has had, or contemplated, an abortion has gone through agony. So I should like to hear a little more respect for women who face that appalling decision.
I am afraid that time is against me.
In July last year, I tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 that would have extended the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. I did not do that because I wanted to override the will of the Assembly. We should bear in mind that that is permissive legislation. If it applied to Northern Ireland, it would not force a single woman there to have an abortion, which is why some of what I have heard is so wrong-headed. If women do not want to have abortions, and if they are not in positions in which they need to contemplate them, permissive legislation itself is not a problem. Unfortunately, my amendment never got debated on the Floor of the House. With the greatest respect to my colleagues on the Treasury Bench, I believe that the Government colluded in that, because they knew that, had it got to the Floor of the House, there was a very good chance that it would have got through, because there is a pro-choice majority on both sides of the House—thank goodness that this is not a party-political issue, as it is in the United States, where we see demonstrations outside abortion clinics.
I have been struck by the number of letters that I have received from women in Northern Ireland who do not feel that the male politicians who have spoken today speak for them. As people who are currently part of Great Britain, they are looking to their British Parliament to give them relief and to stand up for their rights. Male politicians on both sides in Northern Ireland do not agree on many things, but they agree about abortion. That is what makes women, whether ordinary women, mothers, daughters or those in the FPA, so desperate for their Parliament—we are their Parliament, too—to come to their aid and stand up for their rights.
As colleagues have said, abortion is not a problem for middle-class girls and daughters—even of some politicians in the Assembly—with the necessary money, contacts, time and support. However, it is a problem for thousands of working-class women and girls in Northern Ireland who either have to find the money and so end up coming late in their pregnancy—a doctor has spoken about late abortions—without family support and facing a more dangerous abortion than would otherwise have been the case, or who cannot find the money at all and are forced to attempt a botched job at home.
I will not take lectures on morality from people who are willing to see defenceless, working-class girls frightened and alone attempting to induce an abortion in their back bedroom. Is that morality in the 21st century? This is a difficult issue, but people need to have more respect for women and the seriousness with which they regard this decision. People need to recognise that women in Northern Ireland deprived of their rights for so long look to us, the British Parliament. Somebody said, “What is the urgency? What is the pressing concern?” The pressing concern is that it is 40 years since women in the British isles got that right. We can argue about the parameters of our abortion law, but I do not believe that there is an argument for continuing to treat women in Northern Ireland as second-class citizens.
Finally, a colleague said that he would like the decision taken by an Irish national Parliament. As it happens, yesterday, I was privileged to chair a meeting addressed by the President of Sinn Fein, who was reopening the debate on a united Ireland. I, too, would like to see a decision taken by a Parliament of a united Ireland, but Northern Ireland is currently part of the British isles and this matter falls to the British Parliament. So I apologise to no one for speaking up for the rights of all women in the British isles.
I have been involved in this debate for more than 40 years, and we have heard today all the arguments made throughout that time. If there is one plea, it is that we go to the barricades in the cause of toleration. Not many people do that. The compromise argument that the women in Northern Ireland who need and agonise over having an abortion should have it paid for in a hospital in Great Britain is perhaps the cause of toleration. Great congratulations should be paid to our Northern Ireland politicians for acquiring such toleration and creating an Assembly that represents a variety of opposing views. Let them please now apply that toleration to this issue as well.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). It is a shame that she did not have the opportunity to expand her views, because she would have made a valuable contribution to the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing the debate. My heart did not leap with excitement when I saw that it had reached the Order Paper, but we have had a good and, for the most part, well-measured debate, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the manner in which he opened it.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the so-called travel option. Northern Ireland is, and remains, part of the United Kingdom, so the fact that the abortion law does not extend to the Northern Ireland counties does not make abortion illegal. None the less, for logistic reasons—for reasons relating to travel and the rest of it—it remains a difficult option for women there to pursue. That messy compromise serves nobody well. Moreover, it encourages a double standard that pretends that it is all right for Northern Ireland to have a different law from the rest of us as long as people can quietly cross the Irish sea and have their terminations on the UK mainland. From the point of view of the women concerned, it is an exceptionally unsatisfactory situation. When young women contemplate a termination, they are at their most emotionally vulnerable. To remove them from the immediate ambit of their friends and family at that most vulnerable time is unacceptable.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the picketing of Family Planning Association premises, which was taken up by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell). Clearly, there are extreme views on all sides about this issue. If such picketing is going on, it is unacceptable. I bow to nobody in the defence of freedom of speech, but nobody suggests that freedom of speech is an unlimited right. When it comes to targeting individuals who are at their most vulnerable, that is an unacceptable use of freedom of speech, whatever the basis of it may be.
Finally, the hon. Member for Reading, West mentioned that women in the 21st century can go online to obtain abortifacients. If that is happening, women in Northern Ireland are clearly in the same situation that women in the rest of the country were in prior to David Steel’s Abortion Act 1967. When I was a law student, I remember reading about abortion cases in Scots law. At that time, slippery elm bark was one of the abortifacients that was used, and it was a brutal and inhumane procedure.
Many hon. Members have talked about starting from a position of strongly held principle. I respect such principles, especially when they come from a religious perspective. However, for me, this has always been an entirely pragmatic question. My view was formed some 26 years ago when I was outside a polling station in Glasgow. During a quiet spell, I spoke to the duty policeman who was reaching the end of his 30-year service. He said, “What party are you for, Sonny?”—people used to call me Sonny in those days. “I am a Liberal,” I replied. He said, “David Steel’s abortion Bill was the best thing that ever happened. People forget that when women went into public toilets to have abortions it was the police who had to go in and remove the foetus from the toilet.” I was struck then that whether or not abortion was illegal, we would never remove it from our society. As a matter of pragmatism—not high principle or religious belief—if that is going to be part of our society, I want to see it done in the most humane, clinical and controlled way possible. That is why the Government should, even at this late stage, take a careful look to see whether there is an opportunity for this House, while it retains the power, to have the debate that Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, deserves.
I will put forward the Conservative party’s view on the logistics of the matter and then make one or two personal comments. Having discussed the matter with my party—or, certainly, a number of people in it—we take the view that this is a matter for the devolved Assembly. As has been pointed out, the devolved Assembly cannot take that decision at the moment because policing and criminal justice remains a reserved matter. As the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) recognised, there were good reasons for reserving such matters to Westminster. It was to do not with keeping control over abortion, but with the terrorist situation that had existed in Northern Ireland for very many years. None the less, there are moves to devolve policing and criminal justice.
The target date, as set out in the St. Andrews agreement, was May 2008. That date was not set in legislation, but that was the target. Of course, we have gone somewhat beyond that because there was not sufficient confidence in the community to devolve such issues, but the matter is back on the agenda. I have had meetings with representatives of all the political parties in Northern Ireland, some very recently, and they say that the decisions on devolving policing and justice are imminent and will probably go through. If such a decision goes through, the Conservative party does not intend to oppose the devolution of policing and justice. We will accept that they have decided to devolve those issues. When it gets to that stage, the Northern Ireland Assembly can decide on abortion—they cannot at the moment because it is a matter of criminal justice and not health. We take the view that that is the right way to proceed.
I have every respect for the Minister, but I hope that he will allow me a little criticism for the way in which the Government dealt with some issues in Northern Ireland before the Assembly was restored. Decisions were taken in Committee in this House on matters such as local government reform and education reform in advance of the Assembly being restored. That was wrong. Those decisions should not have been taken here in advance of the Assembly being restored. They should have been left to the Assembly. I take the same view on the issue under debate. I am very happy to discuss it, but decisions should not be taken in advance of the devolution of policing and criminal justice, especially as all the main parties in Northern Ireland are united on this one issue and no other. I have been doing this job for four-and-a-half years and can remember no other issue on which all the parties were united. For us to take legislative steps that not only undermined the role of the Assembly but went against everything that all the political parties in Northern Ireland are saying would be wrong and somewhat anti-democratic.
The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) said that he had campaigned for the Belfast agreement. He went down the Falls road and other such places for which I commend him. I had some reservations about the agreement and expressed them at the time, but he supported it and he supported devolution. Let us complete the devolution and let the people of Northern Ireland decide.
On a slightly different point, does my hon. Friend agree that contrary to some of the evidence that we have heard in the debate, the polls taken of both doctors and the general public in the UK indicate that opinion is becoming far more conservative with regard to abortion, particularly at the upper limits?
There is a case for reviewing the upper limits of abortion. I voted to reduce the limits. My hon. Friend prompts me to express my personal views. I agree with the sentiments expressed by members of the Democratic Unionist and the Social and Democratic Labour parties in the debate. Seventeen years ago, I worked in connection with a special care baby unit. Even at that time, babies were surviving after 24 weeks gestation. They are now aborted and actually survive outside the womb, only to die in the most cruel circumstances. I simply cannot accept that that is right.
I am quite assured that there is now abortion on demand—quite illegally—in Great Britain. I take the view put forward by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who said that if anything, we should be tightening the abortion law across Great Britain and moving away from the current situation. Last year alone, there were 216,000 abortions in Great Britain. I simply cannot accept that many abortions are not carried out for social reasons. We all know of social excuses for abortions and we all know that we are not simply talking about teenage children who cannot cope.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, contrary to some of the evidence that we have heard that abortion is treated as a one-off sensitive issue, some women in this country, because abortion is available almost on demand, are aborting up to four or five times in a short space of time?
I always look forward to hearing the Minister, so I will bring my speech to an end. My hon. Friend makes another powerful point.
Conservative Front Benchers believe that the matter should be left to the Assembly. My personal view is that we should be tightening up the abortion law in Great Britain and not going the other way.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing this debate. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue and of where the decisions should be taken, he has every right to raise the issue, and the airing of views that we have had is welcome. We have had a good debate and some very strong and passionate opinions have been expressed by Northern Ireland politicians and others, including, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who has a tremendous record of dealing with very difficult issues. Indeed, she and I have worked on some together in the past.
In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West twice said that I would wash my hands of the issue. He may not like the answer that I am going to give to him, but it will not be an abrogation of responsibility; it will be a proper, clear, consistent explanation of by whom, where and how decisions on the matter should be taken.
When the House debates and makes judgments on abortion, we do so on a free vote. It is well understood that that is the traditional position in Parliament. The Government are also clear that the best place for discussion of and decisions on abortion law in Northern Ireland is the Northern Ireland Assembly, when criminal justice powers are restored. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) is right: confidence is growing that devolution of criminal justice powers can take place, and I hope it happens in the near future. Many of the discussions are now on the practicalities of implementing that.
Although the question of devolution of criminal justice and policing powers is particularly resonant at the moment, the argument that I have advanced is not an expedient. The Government have a long-standing position on the matter.
I will go on to explain the reasons for that.
The Government have a well established policy going back to 1920. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West is right that the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is the foundation of abortion law in Northern Ireland, but the Government of Ireland Act 1920 gave responsibility for the criminal law to the Northern Ireland Parliament. Within that responsibility for the criminal law was responsibility for abortion law. That remained the case from 1922 right through to 1972, when direct rule was imposed in Northern Ireland. The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 made some changes, but the Abortion Act 1967, which went through this Parliament, was not extended to Northern Ireland. Therefore, we have a consistent position going right back to the 1920 Act.
Some, including my hon. Friend and others who have spoken in the debate, argue that over the 37 years of direct rule, this Parliament should have legislated to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. That we have not done so reflects the very strong views that have been expressed consistently down the years by political and church leaders in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) drew attention to the amendments that she proposed to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have received letters from church leaders and from the four main party leaders in Northern Ireland expressing very strong views that the matter should be left to the people of Northern Ireland. They said that any attempt to legislate here would undermine the devolution settlement that we have all worked so hard to achieve.
That is a different situation for a number of reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington raised the issue of the unborn child, but it is also true—I was involved in some of the consultations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury refers—that there was a much wider mix of opinion on other matters on which this Parliament has legislated through Orders in Council in recent times. A much wider range of opinion came through in the consultations on those other measures, but on this matter, it is clear that there is not such a breadth of opinion. I have very little time left, so if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will move on.
The party leaders made it clear that the proposed amendments to the 2008 Act, which were not made, would undermine the integrity of the devolution process. As I have said, we have not suddenly lighted upon that position recently. Back in 1990, Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone urged the House of Commons to reject a move to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, saying that it would be
“offensive to the overwhelming majority of people in the Province”—[Official Report, 21 June 1990; Vol. 193, c. 1162.]
My hon. Friend referred to the Good Friday agreement, which was legislated for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Mo Mowlam, whom we still think of fondly and who was a committed pro-choice advocate, made it very clear that the matter was different in relation to the settlement in Northern Ireland. In the debate at the time, she said:
“Due to the universal view that the Act should not apply in Northern Ireland…we would need careful consultation with the parties.”—[Official Report, 20 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 815.]
Even Mo understood that the issue had to be dealt with in accordance with the wishes, will and views of the people of Northern Ireland.
I cannot, because my hon. Friend raised the issue of the pragmatic compromise, with which I must deal in the short time that I have left. The pragmatic compromise would be that we would not change the law, but that we would somehow facilitate NHS treatment for legal abortions for women in Northern Ireland in England. However, first, it is not clear to me that GPs in Northern Ireland would have the power to refer a woman for treatment outside Northern Ireland that would be illegal in Northern Ireland. Some might argue that women should be able to leave Northern Ireland for assessment as well as treatment here, but I would argue that that would be a serious breach of the relationship between the woman and her GP.
Secondly—this is crucial, and we have only seconds to go in the debate—we would either have to top-slice the Northern Ireland health budget to fund the compromise, which would undermine the devolution settlement, or taxpayers in England, Wales and Scotland would have to pay. That would take money away from my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West. Such a compromise would not work in practice. In the end, this important matter should be determined by the Northern Ireland Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Michael Shields
I am grateful to have the opportunity to call once again for justice for Michael Shields. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice for taking the highly unusual step of coming here in person to answer this debate. This is my third Adjournment debate in support of Michael, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence in the UK for the attempted murder of Martin Georgiev in Varna, Bulgaria in May 2005. Michael has always protested his innocence.
I have long been convinced that Michael’s case is a gross miscarriage of justice both for Michael—a then 18-year-old man jailed for a crime that he did not commit—and for the victim, as the real offender remains free. My previous reasons for supporting Michael include substantial flaws in the identification of him as the culprit, the absence of any forensic evidence and the confession of another man, Graham Sankey, to the crime. Those reasons have been strengthened by new eyewitness evidence and a polygraph test, conducted with the express approval of the Secretary of State, showing unequivocally that Michael was not at the scene of the crime.
We are at a critical stage in the campaign for justice. Despite new evidence, the Bulgarian authorities have refused to re-open the case. In December 2008, the UK High Court ruled that the Justice Secretary had the power to pardon Michael after considering the new evidence in the context of the evidence before the Bulgarian court. My right hon. Friend has decided provisionally that he is minded to refuse a pardon, but has stated that he will consider further representations before making a final decision. That provisional decision relies on extremely dubious identification evidence consisting largely of dock identification—a practice not allowed in this country for many decades. Identification parades were conducted in Bulgaria without defence lawyers present, using non-suspects who did not resemble Michael Shields and after Michael’s picture had appeared in Bulgarian newspapers.
In addition to Graham Sankey’s confession, there is considerable new evidence that positively supports Michael, including the lie detector test, new eyewitness statements and testimony from a Bulgarian porter in the hotel where Michael stayed. I draw special attention to the thorough investigation into a new sworn eyewitness statement from Mr. A, carried out by experienced officers from the Merseyside police major incident team at the request of the Secretary of State. The investigation shows categorically that Michael was not present at the scene of the crime. During the police review, Graham Sankey refused to be interviewed by the investigating team.
Eyewitness Mr. A recalls in his sworn statement:
“It was only when I saw the photograph of Michael Shields that I realised the police had arrested the wrong man. I was able to see Michael was a big lad and had blond hair. The lad in the white T-shirt who dropped the brick was short and dark.”
The police investigation concluded that Mr. A was
“truthful in providing this account”
and that he was an honest and independent witness who had befriended the victim, Martin Georgiev, only hours before the attack. Significantly, the police investigation found that had the incident taken place in the United Kingdom,
“the case would now be referred back to the Court of Appeal”
or the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and that Michael
“could be out on licence pending the outcome of that process.”
That is strong language. It has only one implication: it points to Michael’s innocence.
The conviction is unsafe. The evidence is consistent with the witness statement given by Councillor Joe Anderson, leader of the Labour group on Liverpool city council, in October 2007. Reporting what he had been told by two other eyewitnesses to the crime, Bradley Thompson and Anthony Wilson, Councillor Anderson recounts how he was informed that a man called Steven Clare had initially punched Mr. Georgiev, and that
“Shortly afterwards Graham Sankey dropped a large rock on his head as he lay prone on the ground… Both men made it clear that Michael Shields was not present at the scene”.
The Justice Secretary’s provisional decision rests heavily on the findings of the Bulgarian court, which relied exclusively on identification evidence that would not have been admitted in courts in this country. He fails to mention the admission by Tsoni Tsonev, member of the Bulgarian Supreme Judicial Council, that there were doubts about Michael Shields’ conviction, in reply to the petition placed before the European Parliament by Arlene McCarthy, MEP on 27 May 2008. Neither has my right hon. Friend referred to the concern expressed about the Bulgarian legal system in the European Commission’s 2005 progress report.
I ask my right hon. Friend to revisit the report of the Merseyside police, who have no vested interest in Michael Shields but are simply reporting what they found after a thorough investigation ordered by my right hon. Friend. It is important to record that Graham Sankey, despite the confession that he made through his solicitor on 29 July 2005, has consistently refused to be questioned. Neither has he challenged the continued references to his guilt. Press reports that he no longer stands by his confession have never been backed up by any retraction statement.
I have been informed that Michael’s legal team has been in touch with the CCRC since the provisional decision and that the CCRC has confirmed that it would be happy to consider a reference by the Secretary of State to consider the case under section 16 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995. Will my right hon. Friend refer the case to the CCRC under that power?
Last Sunday, I visited Michael in prison. Later, I joined hundreds of Michael’s supporters in attending a vigil at Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral. I praise the outstanding work in support of Michael done by the Bishop of Liverpool, who is convinced of Michael’s innocence. Those events reinforced my determination to speak out in pursuit of justice. Michael simply wants the facts of that fateful night to be known. He cannot understand why the new witness statements and the police report have not cleared him.
The people of Liverpool and the north-west are perplexed and angered at the provisional decision, which flies in the face of the findings of the Merseyside police. Feelings are running high. I accept that judgment cannot be based on emotion but must be founded on facts, but the facts of the new evidence point to a grave miscarriage of justice. If Michael was not present at the scene of the crime, he is innocent.
I ask my right hon. Friend for an assurance that his mind is not closed. The application for a pardon requires him to consider whether there has been a miscarriage of justice. How he goes about considering that is a matter of his policy rather than of any legal test. I urge him to consider the damage caused to the rule of law by an innocent young man’s remaining in prison, while another man who has confessed to the crime and against whom there is powerful supporting evidence remains unchallenged.
Outrage over the case risks diminishing public confidence in our judicial system, which none of us would want. Will my right hon. Friend carefully reconsider the detailed representations made to him and the evidence that he considered, put right this shocking miscarriage of justice and grant a pardon to Michael Shields? If my right hon. Friend feels unable to do that, will he refer the case to the CCRC, which is willing to consider it?
This is a highly unusual case. Michael Shields must not be caught between two jurisdictions. The Bulgarian court found him guilty, despite grave misgivings about the evidence that it considered. There are concerns over the complexity and doubtfulness of the identification evidence and, in particular, the dock identification, which has not been permissible in this country for decades. After Michael Shields was convicted, Graham Sankey confessed to the crime. I have detailed the critical parts of the new evidence that has emerged since then. I have commented on the findings of the Merseyside police, who carried out a thorough investigation, using the services of highly experienced officers.
Again, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for being present. I take his presence as an indication of the seriousness with which he views this issue. I ask him to consider all the points that I have made and the representations of Michael’s legal team, which will be submitted shortly. I ask him to give his full consideration to releasing Michael Shields and securing justice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on securing this debate. I am well aware that she and other colleagues from Merseyside are concerned about the continued detention of Michael Shields and the unreliability of the conviction in the Bulgarian court. She has led the campaign for his release tirelessly. This is the third debate on the case that she has secured. The other two debates were held in November 2005 and November 2007.
I have spent more time on this case over many years than on any other single case. I first became involved in September 2005 as Foreign Secretary, when I met Mr. Shields’ family for the first time. My hon. Friend mentioned that Adjournment debates are usually handled not by Secretaries of State, but by Ministers. I have discussed the matter with her and am grateful for her remarks. Given that the case involves a quasi-judicial decision that is mine alone to make, I thought it would be inappropriate to ask one of my ministerial colleagues to handle the matter. I thought that I should give my hon. Friend, Mr. Shields and his family the respect of explaining the position myself.
This matter is not technically sub judice, because it is not currently before a court here or abroad. None the less, my role in deciding Mr. Shields’ application for a free pardon is a quasi-judicial one. It follows that it would not be appropriate for me to respond to the detailed points of evidence given by my hon. Friend or others. Nevertheless, I give her the absolute assurance, which she sought at the end of her remarks, that I will carefully consider and reconsider the detailed representations that have been made and that will be made before reaching a final decision.
My hon. Friend’s second question was whether I would refer the matter to the Criminal Cases Review Commission under section 16 of the 1995 Act if I decided that I could not change my provisional decision. I have considered whether doing so would be appropriate on two occasions and will consider further representations on that matter.
The facts of the case are well known, and I shall not repeat them. I offered in a letter to meet Mr. and Mrs. Shields, and I gather that arrangements are in hand. I last met Mr. Shields on an impromptu basis when the Cabinet went to Liverpool in early January this year.
I will set out how my Department has handled the matter, what action we have taken, how I reached my provisional decision and what the next steps will be. I am happy to accept interventions from hon. Members at any point. Mr. Shields has sought a free pardon under the royal prerogative of mercy. That is an ancient and seldom-used power that can be exercised by the Secretary of State on behalf of Her Majesty. It has not been used since 1996, when it was used in very different circumstances. An individual had pleaded guilty to drink-driving, but it transpired that the breathalyser was inaccurate. There was no way other than by royal pardon to declare him not guilty.
Since 1997, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, to which my hon. Friend referred, has been responsible for reviewing alleged miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, when the convicted person has exhausted the appeal process. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission performs the same function north of the border. The existence of the CCRC makes it unlikely that a free pardon will again be granted in relation to a conviction secured in the UK, although that cannot be ruled out.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) in particular will remember that we actively supported the previous Government’s proposals to set up the CCRC when they came before the House. There was a general view, which I subscribe to, that in principle the tricky, technical job of reviewing evidence in cases in which a convicted person claims that he or she has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice are better dealt with by an independent body than by Ministers. Nevertheless, the law is that this Minister has to deal with this case, and I have done my best to approach the matter in the correct way.
My hon. Friends are aware that the advice that I was given last year, which I accepted, was that I had no power to consider a free pardon under prerogative powers for convictions secured abroad and when, as in this case, the applicant is serving the remainder of his sentence in the UK under a prisoner transfer agreement. That advice turned on a debate about the interaction of articles 12 and 13 of the European convention on the transfer of prisoners. On 17 December last year, two senior judges of the High Court, in a decision of the administrative court, said that I was wrong about that and that I do have the power to consider a pardon for Mr. Shields. The Court set out its view on how such a consideration should be undertaken. Both Mr. Shields’ legal team and I accepted the terms of the High Court judgment and did not seek to appeal.
The High Court decision was concerned with what the Court described as
“a pure question of law”
in regard to my powers under the royal prerogative of mercy. The Court did not venture a view as to whether Mr Shields’ application should succeed. It did not look at the merits of the evidence, because that is a matter for me.
Immediately following the High Court judgment, I appointed senior counsel, David Perry QC, to advise me on Mr Shields’ application. Mr. Perry is one of the most senior criminal barristers in the country. I also asked Mr Shields’ legal team to submit any further evidence that they wished me to consider. In February, on Mr. Perry’s advice, I asked Merseyside police to undertake consideration of certain matters in relation to Mr Shields’ application. Following consideration of those matters, the police submitted two reports to me—one in March and the other in May.
Subsequently, I received advice from Mr. Perry on all the available evidence and on how I should consider the matter. However, I must make it clear that any decision in regard to a free pardon is mine alone. It was not possible for me to delegate the provisional decision, nor can I delegate the final decision.
I strongly support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). My right hon. Friend said that he will not comment on the detail of the matter, but when I read the police report that he commissioned and invited to be undertaken, I was struck by the strength of opinion. There are not many police officers—I have worked with many—who have taken such a genuinely supportive view of such a case.
One of the recommendations made in the police report is that the case should be referred for review. However, the police also suggest that my right hon. Friend might consider releasing Michael Shields on licence, while he continues to consider the greater ramifications of the case. For me, that was a very telling recommendation indeed, which is outside the more detailed consideration that he must rightly give to whether a pardon should be issued. When considering the case, it would be of very great significance if he could find it in his heart to allow such clemency.
Of course, I considered the police report very carefully indeed. Detailed comment has been made about the interviews that the police conducted at my request. The very detailed letter—I think that there are 45 pages—that was sent by senior officials on my behalf to Mr. Shields and his legal advisers goes into detail to explain what provisional conclusions I came to after looking at the police report, among many other pieces of evidence.
On the other two matters, I have said that I have already considered referring the case to the CCRC and that, so far, I have decided it would not be appropriate. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside asked me whether I am open-minded: yes, I am open-minded on this matter. These are very difficult decisions indeed to take, and I must do so fairly and judicially. I am open on that, and on the last point that she raises, I am also open to representations about the proposal from the Merseyside constabulary. I have already looked at those reports, but I am open to further representations.
May I come on to that, because I want to explain the test that was set for me and why I think it appropriate for me to follow that? I also want to explain why I am ready to receive further representations. For the avoidance of doubt, I wish to state that, once the High Court had handed down its decision in December, the Bulgarian authorities played no part whatsoever in my consideration of Mr. Shields’ application. I add—again, for the avoidance of doubt—that any possible implications for the operation of the prisoner transfer agreement have also not played any part in my consideration of the matter.
I have sought to follow the judgments of the High Court, which, as I have said, came from two very senior judges. Paragraph 34 of their judgment states:
“In principle…the grant of a free pardon would appear to require a conclusion that, taking the Bulgarian courts’ judgment for what it is and without calling in question its correctness on the material which those courts considered, fresh evidence which the Bulgarian courts did not consider, taken with the material which they did consider and their judgment upon it justifies a conclusion that Michael Shields is morally and technically innocent”.
That is the test that I was in principle required to follow by the two senior judges of the High Court. Questions have subsequently been raised, including by those campaigning for Mr. Shields’ release, about whether that is an appropriate test.
It is worth putting on the record that, in the lead judgment of Sir Anthony May, president of the Queen’s bench division, the court records at paragraph 25 that the test of moral and technical innocence was one urged on the court by Mr. Weatherby—a barrister for Mr. Shields. I am not saying that such a conclusion might not have been reached in any event, but it is absolutely clear from paragraph 25 that it was a proposal from Mr. Shields’ lawyers that assisted the court in coming to its conclusion that the appropriate test was one of moral and technical innocence.
Paragraph 25 includes a précis of the submissions from Mr. Shields and states:
“Mr. Weatherby submits that the Prerogative Power of Mercy is a flexible one…The Secretary of State has jurisdiction to consider whether the claimant it morally and technically innocent…It would, said Mr. Weatherby, be quite unconscionable for the Secretary of State to allow a prisoner known to be innocent to remain in prison…The question for the Secretary of State it whether on all the available material there has been an injustice such that Mr. Shields is morally and technically innocent.”
As I say, that was urged on the court by Mr. Shields’ lawyers and was accepted by them. I have to follow a test, and that is the one I have been following.
I should like to put on the record that I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) in the conclusions that she has reached about her constituent. I do not question the fact that my right hon. Friend will have gone through the procedure put before him meticulously. Having worked with him in the past, I know that that is how he approaches things. Does he accept that in relation to some of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised, even within the terms of the judgment handed to him, which sets the framework for his consideration of the matter, he could have reached a different conclusion?
My right hon. Friend is inviting me to come to a premature conclusion about my final decision, which, for reasons that I am sure he fully understands, I cannot do. I have to wait and see what further evidence is submitted as to whether I agree with him and his right hon. and hon. Friends. However, I should like to say that I have an open mind on the matter.
I am perfectly aware of the great anger that there is on Merseyside about the provisional decision that I have made and that there is a great campaign on Michael Shields’ behalf. My right hon. Friend will know, not least from having worked with me—I thank him for his comments about that—that I do my best in these cases to apply myself to the evidence. Simply as a human being, it would have been easier all round for me if I had been able to come to the alternative conclusion. The provisional conclusion that I have come to is the one to which the evidence has drawn me, but I have an open mind. I have explained the background to the court’s adoption of the test, which was done, not least, at the urging of Mr. Shields’ own lawyers. Of course, even at this late stage, if Mr. Shields’ lawyers urge a different test upon me, I am ready to consider that as well.
The reason why it is not possible for me to answer that question directly is that the test did not state that explicitly. Moreover, in all appeals against conviction, it is normal for the burden of proof and sometimes the standard of proof to shift. I was not asked about that, and it would require a complete rehearing of the original evidence to come to a judgment about the guilt of those who are arraigned before the Bulgarian court.
What I was asked to do is to come to a judgment on whether Mr. Shields was “morally and technically innocent”, and that has been broadly the standard basis on which judgments of this kind—rare though they are—are taken. I draw the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the fact that I have taken the Bulgarian court’s judgment for what it is and have not called into question its correctness in relation to the material that that court considered.
I understand that there is concern about the test, but that was what the court said and, as I mentioned, it did so explicitly at the urging of Mr. Shields’ lawyers. Before I finish, I repeat that I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and her right hon. and hon. Friends.
Local and Regional Newspapers
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the plight of local and regional newspapers in a Welsh, if not Ceredigion context, but more generally as well.
The starting point for my interest in the matter was a visit a few months ago to the office of one of our local newspapers, the Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser, which is an immensely well-respected local weekly paper. I was surprised to find that the total staff complement for the newspaper was just five people, with only two journalists—half of what there were two years ago. The paper covers the town of Cardigan, the lower Teifi valley and north Pembrokeshire—a large geographical area. Sadly, it is now characterised by fewer news stories and more advertising features, or attempts to secure them, and less real news that matters to people, to help retain sales.
The paper faces a downward spiral: sales are hard to win back, and jobs are subsequently put at risk. To use a butchery analogy of trimming the meat, I am afraid that it has been a case not only of trimming the fat; the reality is that the muscle of the newspaper industry is being trimmed fatally.
There is a similar story on a bigger scale with Ceredigion’s other weekly newspaper, the Cambrian News, which has a readership of 68,000 people and covers a vast area. There are two editions, although that represents a reduction, covering Ceredigion, Machynlleth and Llanidloes in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), Merioneth, and the Dwyfor towns of Porthmadog, Pwllheli, and Criccieth in the constituency of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams). Next year, that paper will celebrate its 150th birthday, but it, too, faces the challenge of reduced advertising and the loss of editions, jobs and its capacity to hold local politicians and public agencies to account. That picture is replicated across the United Kingdom.
I fear that a diminished local press diminishes the principles of community and democracy. My local journalists tell me that it is simply impossible for them to attend, in the way that they used to, sufficient meetings of community and town councils, the county council cabinet or its planning and scrutiny committees, the community health councils, the local health board or the police authority. Disseminating the work of those bodies has been an essential role of the local press.
Furthermore, more controversially perhaps, the local press is unable to launch detailed investigations. Stories are left untouched, and potential stories are not revealed. In the spirit of this debate, I shall stick to local matters such as the proposed industrial development north of the town of Cardigan, ParcAberporth, which swallowed vast sums of public money but has yet to produce a fraction of the jobs that were promised. Under normal circumstances, that issue would have been pursued by the press, but the press is without the resources to delve, to question elected Members and to challenge our role here. Stories are missed and local issues are not raised or aired. That is mitigated only in part by a vociferous letters page, to which I have no doubt we have all been subjected in the past. A local press covering issues within the locality that the nationals would not touch is an essential part of our democratic process.
I am flattered that so many hon. Members have come to this debate. They represent diverse parts of the country. As someone who represents a scattered rural constituency with 174 villages, I believe that the community role of newspapers is critical. Pictures of local people enjoying themselves at the Borth carnival or the winners of the Aberystwyth and district agricultural show, reports from the women’s institute, the local sports page, items about Master Evans being picked for the under-11s or Mr. and Mrs. Davies’s golden wedding anniversary might be crass parish-pump stuff to some people, but it is important, cohesive community information.
Both our local papers have served the Welsh and English-speaking communities with distinction. The Welsh medium articles from local volunteer correspondents are important. They cover significant cultural events: the Urdd, local eisteddfodau and cymanfa ganu—the singing festivals—and Dydd Dewi Sant, or Saint David’s day. It is important that pre-eminence is given to the Welsh language in Ceredigion. But there are also the big campaigning issues.
The Tivyside promoted the restoration of Cardigan castle, which was the scene of Wales’s first eisteddfod, and the campaign for a new hospital. Cambrian News campaigned against compulsory purchase orders in Aberystwyth town centre, for retaining key services and meals on wheels and against industrial scallop dredging in our precious Cardigan bay. Local newspapers galvanise opinion, sometimes working more effectively as campaigners than we do. Sometimes they work in concert with politicians, sometimes against, but they promote community interest, action and engagement. They are still a cherished local resource and are successful because they are local to people.
My hon. Friend makes a prescient observation on campaigning. Is he aware of the fact that, as a direct result of the work of the County Times, which is surely one of the finest newspapers in the western world, I submitted a petition regarding concerns about wind farm transportation through my constituency, and that the County Times, working with politicians in the Welshpool area, was directly responsible for raising the issue, exactly as my hon. Friend rightly says?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that observation. I emphasise the case that politicians work in concert with their local newspapers, and I note that County Times journalists have been spotted in these parts today. No doubt, they are lurking somewhere in the Gallery.
Local news for local communities is important, but the newspapers are struggling because of the range of news media that is available to people. That was brought to our attention in the Scottish context by the Scottish Affairs Committee’s recent report, and also in Wales by the Welsh Assembly’s broadcasting sub-committee, which discussed the challenges resulting from the increasingly diverse ways in which members of the public can access news and current affairs.
I should like to discuss some of the problems: first, the undeniable decline in advertising revenue and the effects of the recession, although there were the seeds of decline even before the latest recession. Between 2007 and 2008, advertising in newspapers fell by 12 per cent., according to the Advertising Association. Advertising across the board dropped by 3.9 per cent., yet advertising on the internet increased by 17 per cent. Recently, Gannett, the US-based parent company of Newsquest, revealed a 45 per cent. fall in advertising year on year, between January and March 2009, with the resultant loss of 11 local newspapers in north-west England. I shall not stray further into England, but these messages need to be heeded across the UK.
Regional publications have been restructured in the light of the recession. In January, Trinity Mirror merged Media Wales with its north-west and north Wales divisions. Seventy-eight jobs were lost, including 10 in Wales—again, there is a loss of local titles and local offices. The growing characteristic of such restructuring is centralisation, with more journalists working from one location. The journalists for the Western Mail, the South Wales Echo and Wales on Sunday are now based in one centralised newsroom in Cardiff. Twenty years ago, the tentacles of the Western Mail reached out with correspondents right across the length and breadth of Wales. We had a correspondent in my town of Aberystwyth, but that time is long since gone.
The news groups will rightly assert that, beyond the sentimentality of local titles, they are businesses and must fit in with models of profitability, but there is an added, crucial imperative in Wales: a different political culture post-devolution of which the electorate needs to be informed. Regional newspapers therefore are a tool for political and constitutional engagement. And yet one has to look very hard to find news of Welsh politics.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered using his communication allowance—since he is talking about political engagement—in a proper, appropriate way to help his local newspapers and his constituents? For instance, he could take a full-page ad to promote take-up for Warm Front before winter comes around or he could promote the take-up of the pensioners’ credit, because two in five of our pensioners do not take it and lose £1,470 as a result. So he could use his communication allowance positively to help his community, and that would not do his local newspapers any harm, either.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those suggestions, some of which I shall take back to Wales with me and some I am using already. For example, adverts for my surgeries appear regularly in the local papers. Those surgeries are costly, but an important principle is involved none the less. I will mention that in connection with local authorities and other public agencies in a little while.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Trinity Mirror group, which has taken a hard-nosed attitude towards local newspapers and is about to close nine papers in the midlands, including the Burton Trader, the Ashby Trader and Echo and the Coalville Echo, which, sadly, ceases publication next week. Can we not develop the point raised by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink)? Should we not expect local authorities, public agencies and the Government to do far more information take-up advertising in local media that are under threat? Is not the message that must come from today’s debate, “Let’s do it now, before they disappear.”?
I concur. I will return to that point later. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is urgent, because, as he said, local titles are going to the wall now.
The lack of Welsh stories in the national news media is serious for those hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies and explains why we attach great importance to the nearest things that we have to a national newspaper—The Western Mail in the south of Wales and the Daily Post in the north.
I now come to the point raised by the hon. Members for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and for Castle Point (Bob Spink) on the emergence of local council publications, as distinct from advertisements in local newspapers. Although those papers contain local news, they are by their nature not independent and are competing with the commercial press, arguably speeding the decline of the local press and thereby reducing scrutiny of local authorities.
Is my hon. Friend aware that Birmingham city council is not only issuing its own newspaper, but that that paper is carrying advertising, therefore robbing local newspapers, such as The Birmingham Post, the Birmingham Evening Mail and the Express & Star, of important advertising revenue?
I shall append to what my hon. Friend said the phrase, “thereby threatening and jeopardising the future of those newspapers.” The Local Government Association has asserted that no threat is posed and that three fifths of all council magazines contain no advertising at all or less than 10 per cent.
The hon. Gentleman is proposing to distort market forces to provide a direct or indirect subsidy to local papers. Local papers are not known for their independent political view; many of them are outrageously biased politically. Is it sensible to ask for public funds before we can impose on local papers the same duty of political balance that we insist on from the broadcasting media?
I have some sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). I have been in touch with a number of my local newspapers, many of which cover not just Westminster but other central London boroughs, and the message that has come through loud and clear is that they worry intensely about council-run newspapers effectively stepping in their way. I can see that that is quite an issue. But is not the independence that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) mentioned largely illusory in many parts of the country, not least because local newspapers rely on local authority advertising, particularly recruitment advertising? Is not that one reason why there is less independence than in the broadcasting world?
That point was mentioned in the report by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which hon. Members will have read.
Local councils should be encouraged to take out longer advertising contracts, to run the campaigns that were mentioned earlier and to sponsor local party initiatives. There are precedents for that in Wales, with county councils sponsoring the Papur Bro—the network of Welsh language community newspapers across much of Wales. I encourage hon. Members to look at the Scottish Affairs Committee report and the one from Wales, which urges the Assembly to review its job-advertising strategy.
I take hon. Members’ points about the independence of newspapers, but I also take seriously the threat to their existence, because their absence would ultimately threaten and have a detrimental effect on our democracy.
The hon. Gentleman has struck a raw nerve on the point about local authorities. Whatever the threat from withholding advertising, the threat from setting up a rival publication is real in many areas. Has the hon. Gentleman seen the LGA brief—a self-serving, disingenuous document—which said that there was no threat whatsoever from local government newspapers, whereas we know that they are parasites and stiflers of local newspapers?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. I had a similar reaction to the hon. Gentleman’s on reading the LGA brief, although I will not use the poetic language that he uses. None the less, he makes a strong point about the threat to our local papers.
I want to celebrate the local press. It can be immensely irritating to us, but it undertakes a critical public service. When we talk about the press, as the National Union of Journalists reminds us, we are talking about individuals with mortgages, anxieties about jobs and many of the stresses that have been experienced by some of us, as hon. Members, in recent weeks. We need to talk about support for the journalistic community and upskilling journalistic skills, as our committee in the National Assembly recommended.
I do not want to be dismissed as some kind of luddite. We need to address the perception of daily newspapers publishing yesterday’s news tomorrow. That is the challenge. I will continue to campaign for the nearest that we can get to universal broadband across my area. That is not an easy task in rural Wales. I am a great enthusiast for the universal service obligation, with all that it entails, and much of what the “Digital Britain” report contains. According to Ofcom, 90 per cent. of people in our communities consume some form of local media; yet since the 1970s, newspaper circulations have been declining by 2 per cent. per year, and recently, local television and radio audiences have been declining as well. Among recent broadband adopters, 10 per cent. read fewer local newspapers and one in seven listens to less radio. For me, in the spirit of plurality, it is about choice overall and about choice of media. Many lack that choice, as local newspapers are diminishing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is generous. He has talked about new digital media. Let us be honest and say that we—all hon. Members in this Chamber—are unusual, being relatively middle-aged and big consumers of newspapers. The generation younger than us will barely look at a newspaper at all, and they regard digital media as the focus of attention for particular local stories. Although in central London we have some good online offerings from local newspapers, the big elephant in the room is that they face competition from the BBC, which benefits from a £3.6 billion annual subsidy, building up an impressive, active and interactive media operation. But that is the real problem. The next generation, who will not necessarily consume their newspapers in anything other than a digital form, is now finding that there is no point going online to see what the local newspaper has to say and will find quite effective local news through the BBC online offering, which has the benefit of significant public endorsement and funding.
On the one hand, I share the hon. Gentleman’s optimism about the new technologies, but on the other I am concerned, because we must seek a balance between those two things. I am reticent to say that the younger generation is not interested in local papers, and that is not my experience in my constituency. We must combine new and traditional technologies, and I shall come to that later.
Technological changes have threatened how news is consumed, and the internet is heralded as the natural successor to the printed word with the benefits of immediacy and interaction. All news groups have recognised that, and have reflected it in developing online newspapers. Trinity Mirror reckons that it still receives 90 per cent. of its income from the printed word, but 10 per cent. comes from digital. The balance is shifting, and that presents challenges to news groups, but advertising revenue on the internet is limited.
A critical theme for the industry is the rules on cross-media ownership. The NUJ’s evidence to the Welsh Assembly broadcasting sub-committee highlighted the dangers of an homogenised news service, but moved in the direction of relaxing competition laws to alleviate concern about disappearing and vulnerable titles. The recommendations following its investigations have been slightly usurped by recent announcements, but it urged that cross-media rules be relaxed to allow exploration of new partnerships and that there should be accompanying measures to protect the plurality of local media. In a Welsh context, the Assembly said that we should consider means of supporting English language journalism, including the upskilling of journalists to meet the challenges of online technology.
I hope that the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities throughout Britain will be minded to take a more strategic view of advertising to ensure that relevant titles are not overlooked. Implicit in that is the suggestion that an advertising strategy from local authorities, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the UK Government and so on must be communicated to the papers. In a spirit of Celtic solidarity, I commend the conclusions of the Scottish Affairs Committee whose report said that
“under pressure from the current economic climate, diminishing advertising, and the explosion of alternative news and information sources in electronic format, the industry has been forced to dramatically restructure itself, often at great cost to its dedicated and knowledgeable staff.”
I could so easily have inserted “Wales” instead of “Scotland” in that text.
It is vital that the Welsh Assembly and UK Governments ensure that the Welsh newspaper industry is not made unviable because of overbearing competition from public sector advertising and that the industry can create sustainable business models through consolidation and mergers, subject to appropriate safeguards, while maintaining high quality, varied and independent journalism that reflects the Welsh identity. One could easily have inserted “Wales” for “Scotland” in that conclusion of the Scottish Affairs Committee report, and indeed I have done just that. It fits the bill perfectly.
More recently, however, we have had the results of the Office of Fair Trading’s inquiry that accompanied the “Digital Britain” report, which recognised the problems facing local and regional newspapers and did not go down the route of legislation to change the rules governing media mergers. The Minister is new to his post, but he is mastering his brief. Will he assure me about the extent to which that will satisfy the concerns of some of us who believe that necessary mergers between different media organisations is one way of alleviating the great concern in our communities about the fate of local newspapers?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing this debate, and I agree with the main thrust of his argument. I am sure that the world would be a poorer place without a healthy Tivy-Side Advertiser in Cardigan, and that his constituents would be confused and bereft without the latest bulletin on the state of cockle-dredging and scallop-dredging in Cardigan bay. Such matters are important locally.
I am speaking today to share my long-standing view about how to reform society and improve our democracy. In my constituency in 1839, 20 Chartists were shot during their campaign for a charter. A few years ago, I drew up a charter for the 21st century. One element was to impose on our media a duty of balance in the same way as we do on broadcasters. That is crucial because the media generally—not just the local media, but the national media—have an outrageous right-wing bias. If they ask the country for the same sort of subsidies that the broadcasters receive, particularly the BBC, that responsibility must go with those subsidies. We can all think of examples from our local and national press of how they behave.
A neighbouring MP complained to the editor of a local newspaper that of the 14 press releases that he sent in this year, none was published. That MP is a former editor of a newspaper, and does not send in vacuous press releases. Newspapers are often empty of political news—they do not consider it worth reporting—or they are heavily biased, and rarely towards the left, the radical or the progressive side of politics.
We must consider seriously the other influences on advertising. Another newspaper said openly that it would not write fair reports on the Welsh Assembly, but attack it because it did not provide enough advertising when it advertised jobs. That is an example of the newspapers’ editorial line depending on advertising. We are in dangerous waters if we are talking about intervention. There is even a vested interest in respect of MPs. Some of us use local papers and our communication allowances. Does that mean that newspapers are more disposed to us? If they were, that would be wrong. They should take the same unbiased line that they take on other issues. We are all aware of a softening of criticism. How newspapers treated the recent reports of our immaculate expenses might have been influenced by the fact that MP A advertises in the paper, and MP B does not.
Many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall be brief. My main point is that I support the argument that local papers are valuable. They are immensely important in communications and in keeping communities together. In Welsh-speaking areas they are vital. However, we all know that the news that is trusted comes via broadcasters, not from local or national papers.
My hon. Friend is a renowned blogger who is widely read by many people in the political sphere. Does he agree that one way in which local newspapers have responded to their problems in recent years has accelerated the difficulties? They have failed to invest, to train their staff, and to pay and recruit decent staff, with the result that the problem that they responded to has worsened. The Mayor of London receives the chicken feed, as he described it, of £250,000 for 50 articles a year. Should we not balance the payments a little?
Indeed we should. Local newspapers are described as local, but many are run by the appropriately named Gannett Company, to which the hon. Member for Ceredigion referred. Decisions are made not in Ceredigion, Newport or Birmingham, but in America, for financial reasons. It is not imperative for local papers to be local any longer.
We are all sad about the disappearance of local journalists and the training ground where the seed corn of journalism was provided. It would be a great shame if local newspapers went under, but we know the realities of market forces. How many of us receive our news in the morning not by holding up pieces of paper, but by going straight to the website and seeing tomorrow’s papers the day before? The point is that we cannot have subsidies for the press without imposing a condition of political balance.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it may be helpful if I point out that at least six hon. Members and probably even more wish to speak, so if hon. Members could make their comments in five minutes or even a little less, everyone will be able to speak. We also have to have the winding-up speeches. Obviously we have to leave the Minister time to respond to the various points. I call Lembit Öpik.
I shall be guided by your request, Lady Winterton. As we heard in the outstanding speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), the local press is the key vehicle in reporting accurately and fairly on local goings-on—in scrutinising the workings of local councils and local courts. Unlike many national journalists, local reporters tend to live and work in the communities on which they report, so local people trust them as a source of news. They do not need to tap people’s phones or mobiles to get exclusives, because people trust them and talk to them, and people read the results of what they have investigated and what they write about, knowing that they are reading accurate reports about their own world.
The County Times, which is the weekly in my area, is a classic example—a role model for how what I have described can best be achieved. It is 130 years old; it was founded in 1879, in the same year as Montgomeryshire elected its first Liberal MP, Stuart Rendel. Two great and revolutionary leaps forward occurred in that same year.
As my hon. Friend rightly suspected, two journalists—Richard Jones and photographer Phil Blagg—have been here from the County Times, because they believe in reporting accurately and seeing at the coal face what, in this case, their MP does, but they also do that in many other environments, whether industrial, educational, cultural or social. That is because they want to get it right in a way that I am sorry to say the national press seems not as concerned to do.
As we heard, the problems are very serious. The County Times is part of North West News Media and is facing real difficulties. Northcliffe has just announced 30 more job cuts in Wales. I understand that the constrictive merger and takeover laws prevent some changes from taking place that would protect local newspaper jobs. Someone who works in the media in my area put it simply:
“To continue to do this we must survive as a local business. We are not asking for handouts, but we could do with some consideration from local Government.”
I agree with that sentiment.
The local newspaper business model relies heavily on advertising, as we heard. It accounts for about two thirds of local newspapers’ turnover. In recent years, advertising spend has been in a general decline of between 10 and 20 per cent., but since the recession hit, advertising in key sectors such as housing, cars and jobs has plummeted. Newspapers are desperately exposed because of the trend towards advertising online. In 2007, all media sectors except cinema and radio lost market share to the internet. We can give many examples, but the mood music is clear. Local newspapers need to have more consideration than they have had so far if they are to survive.
My first request, therefore, is for the Minister’s observations on the report by Lord Carter of Barnes, which earlier this year did not seem to go very far in relaxing laws on mergers and takeovers. Surely it is better to allow mergers and takeovers to occur than to lose local newspapers altogether. I would welcome the observations of the Minister and others in that regard. We are talking not about Murdoch-style empires, but about local businesses that just want to make ends meet, with journalists who are not well paid but have a passion for their work and their communities.
My next point concerns the shift of local government notices and job adverts towards websites and local government magazines and publications. Only about 1 per cent. of the councils that responded to a recent survey produced a magazine once a week, so if we want to get information out quickly, in about 99 per cent. of local authority areas the local newspaper is still the best way to do that. I would be grateful if the Minister let me and the House know what action he is taking to investigate that change. Local newspapers are a vital source of knowledge for local people in finding out where and how their council tax is being spent—and they are independent. On that basis, there is a strong political and democratic case for supporting local newspapers.
Of course, many newspapers are published daily. The Shropshire Star, which very sensibly bases an excellent journalist called Anwen Evans in my constituency, provides a counterpoint to much of the information that is blandly and inaccurately described in the national media. Again, we see the daily newspaper suffering in just the way that my local weekly newspaper, the County Times, is.
I shall therefore end with another question. Is the Minister willing to hear from a delegation from mid-Wales? Obviously, that is my interest. Is he willing to hear from editors such as Nick Knight and others about what they would like the Government to do to protect these vital services? As I said, none of them wants a handout. They simply want a hand-up, so that they can carry on serving the communities that they have served for more than a century. They have done that with a dignity, nobility, accuracy and grace that it would behove the national press to reflect.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing this interesting debate. He is right to say that local newspapers face a grave crisis. Seventy newspapers have closed in the past year and analysts have warned that up to half the UK’s local and regional newspapers may be shut within the next five years.
The recent “Digital Britain” report pointed out that
“there’s an imminent danger that large parts of the UK will be left without professionally verified sources of information.”
The importance of strong local and regional news came through in “Digital Britain”. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport described it as
“essential for the health and vibrancy of our democracy”.—[Official Report, 16 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 166.]
No one is saying that the standard of journalism in local papers is perfect, but local reporters are close to the community and they do try to provide independently verified stories in print. Local newspapers provide more diversity and access for different groups than the new army of bloggers could ever hope to achieve. The problem with blogs as a source of news is that they are self-selective and provide the view of one individual, not a balanced view. They often carry more opinion than facts and it would be a pity if they became one of our main sources of information.
The local newspaper is more than news. It is a way of binding our communities together and of archiving the history of a community. My local paper, the Stockport Express, has archives going back more than a century. It is difficult to see how the internet will provide such an archive in 100 years.
Research shows that local newspapers are the most trusted of all media, yet ironically, according to figures obtained by the Newspaper Society, of the £193 million that the Government spent on advertising in 2008, only 3.3 per cent. was spent in regional press and local newspapers. That was far less than was spent on radio and TV and less than half what was spent on posters—7.6 per cent.
Departments, which are already encouraged and expected to connect with local communities by engaging with local and regional media, should also look favourably on local and regional media, rooted within those communities, for advertising campaigns, recognising the unique public value, trusted environment and effectiveness that such spend offers, with resulting benefits for the local community.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who is the former Culture Secretary, said recently that he believes that there is a significant public benefit in Departments putting more ad spend into local newspapers. I agree. The loss of advertising to online media, coupled with the recession, is one of the main causes of financial problems for newspapers.
I have had experience of that in my own constituency with job losses at the Stockport Express and the move of its office and journalists to the Manchester Evening News head office. I objected to that because I fear that, in the long run, the unique nature of the Stockport Express and its long connection with the Stockport community will be undermined. Instead of being a newspaper in its own right, it could become a slip edition of the Manchester Evening News. That would be a shame, as the Stockport Express is one of only 25 paid-for weekly papers in the UK to have increased sales from readers, who love its grass-roots coverage.
I recently tabled a series of parliamentary questions to all Departments to establish how much the level of advertising in weekly and regional newspapers had gone down in the past five years. Some Departments provided more detailed information than others. The key findings were that spending on weekly and regional advertisements had clearly gone down in the major Departments of Health, of Communities and Local Government, for International Development, for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Northern Ireland Office. It has also slumped heavily at the Foreign Office, where the Minister responsible explained that the fall was due to a large increase in the use of internet advertising and a large reduction in the number of recruitment campaigns from 2006 to 2007. The Home Office figure was also down on 2004-05, although it was up on the previous three years. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence provided no figures, and the other Departments were not clear.
The amount of advertising from the Government will heavily decrease if the obligation to place statutory notices in local papers is removed. That would be wrong because controversial planning notices could find their way to a secluded part of a council’s newspaper or website. We need proposals to be set out in black and white in a place where all the community—young and old, web users or not—know that they can find them.
That brings me to the adverse impact on local newspapers of local authorities’ increasing role in taking paid advertising to support local authority information sheets or council newspapers. I support the proposal in “Digital Britain” for the Audit Commission to undertake an inquiry into the issue. The Newspaper Society wants strict guidelines issued to all local authorities to ensure that their publications are quarterly or less frequent. It also wants the guidelines to ensure that local authority publications and websites do not take advertising or statutory notices and that they focus on providing information about council services rather than general local news and non-council events listings. Councils should be encouraged to use the local media, not compete with them.
I welcome the current consultation on proposals for a contestable element in the television licence fee to fund sustainable independent and impartial news through independently financed news consortiums. Such consortiums would include television news providers, local newspaper groups or other news-gathering agencies. That would provide a great opportunity for local newspapers to work with other news gatherers and to benefit from cross-promotion to help to safeguard their futures.
Apparently, there are to be three pilots—one in Scotland, one in Wales and one in England—and I would encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to choose the bid from the Granada area for the English pilot. The bid is being put together by a number of north-west newspaper publishers, including the Guardian Media Group, which also has experience of running the Channel m TV station. As long as the bid firmly safeguards individual papers, such as the Stockport Express, which is part of the Guardian Media Group, I will be in favour of it.
Whatever emerges from the consultation, the popular, localised aspects of newspapers should not be lost. We should not forget that regional and national news TV and radio are very reliant on stories that are fed to them by local newspaper reporters on the ground. TV must plug local newspapers and promote and credit their stories on air to encourage people to buy those papers.
In the past, there has been tension. Newspapers have not wanted subsidies, because journalists and owners felt that that might affect their independence. However, I detect a sea change in thinking, which has been prompted by the current crisis in the industry. People now realise that local newspapers are too precious to lose and that they should be entitled to some form of subsidy for providing a public service and keeping the community informed about what its local councils, courts and police, health and fire services are up to. The BBC and ITV are highly subsidised and regulated, but we do not worry about their independence. The time is right for a change of heart, and independently financed news consortiums should provide the way forward.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing this important debate.
Local newspapers are facing a hard time, and the issue is particularly acute in Wales because newspapers are published in two languages. Furthermore, the nature of daily newspaper production means that the overwhelming majority of the population—about 85 per cent.—read London newspapers. That has direct implications for democratic accountability, and particularly for the Welsh Assembly. London-based newspapers rarely report Welsh news, and their Welsh correspondents have long gone. Where there are Welsh reports, they are included only in so far as they are relevant to English or UK news or where they have sport or showbiz connotations. Otherwise, they are in the “And finally” category with the weird vegetables, the two-headed ducks and the mysterious sightings. That is the daily fare for readers of newspapers in Wales, unless they read locally produced papers.
Added to that is the fact that providing newspapers in two languages involves particular pressures. Crisis is not too fancy a word for the democratic deficit that we face in Wales, and that is particularly true of the production of television news. ITV has more or less disappeared. When I told colleagues that having two languages in Wales was a particular problem, it was suggested that we could have ITV news on Channel 4. When I pointed out that Channel 4 in Wales is S4C and that the news, although it happens to be in Welsh, is produced by the monolithic BBC, the crisis became all too obvious.
As elsewhere, newspapers are facing pressures from other news sources, and the main pressure, as has been said, is on advertising revenue. That pressure comes from other media, such as web-based media, and its impact on journalists and editors has been all too clear. I am a member of the NUJ’s parliamentary group and I have a particular concern about the pressures on those who work in the industry. I recently visited my own local newspaper, the Caernarfon Herald, which, in contrast to some hon. Members, I will mention only once. I talked to the editor and the executive in charge of business in north Wales, who explained the streamlining that has recently gone on. There has, for example, been a reduction in the number of sub-editors, so journalists now write copy almost directly on to the page. There are also pressures on journalists to produce several types of copy. I was quite surprised to see that reports from the House that had appeared in the Daily Post, which is the morning newspaper, had also appeared in the weekly newspapers, although they were, of course, slightly changed. Presumably, those stories would also appear on the website. There are therefore pressures on journalists to produce all kinds of material, but there has been no increase in the numbers of journalists and certainly not in the number of local journalists.
What is lost, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion eloquently said, is local accountability—reports about local council or local court proceedings. Such things are the bread and butter of local reporting. They are often not riveting, but they are essential if local communities are to be kept informed and engaged. Without such reports, we will have a democratic deficit. That is what I fear we will see in the forthcoming Westminster elections in Wales and what we saw in the Welsh Assembly elections, when many people’s ignorance of what was going on in the Assembly was all too manifest in the level of discussion and in the turnout. We ignore that decline at our peril. Given the information on web-based sites and even local web-based sites, there are questions to be asked about their accountability and credibility.
I want to finish with a brief point about Welsh-language newspapers, which, for me, offers a glimmer of a way forward. With his close family connections to my constituency, the Minister will know that Caernarfon was once the epicentre of Welsh-language publishing, but I am afraid that that is no longer the case. We now have two weekly Welsh-language newspapers and various inserts in other papers. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, however, we do have a network of community newspapers. They are not “newsy” newspapers, but they at least tell people what is happening in their communities.
I recently visited Barcelona with the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, and we looked at community newspapers there. The key to their success is community involvement coupled with high quality. We should be looking at places abroad where newspapers succeed. I have an interest in minority languages, and what is happening in areas such as Catalonia, which are struggling to maintain interest not only in newspapers but in minority languages, is a great spur. There is much to be learned from such areas, including about the use of new technology.
I am grateful that I have been squeezed into the debate and I will limit myself to a single point in my five minutes. I want to expand on the point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), who has rightly given us another opportunity to debate the serious issue of the abuse of power and the misuse of public resources by local authorities.
In saying that, I do not underestimate the other factors involved, such as the appalling action by Trinity Mirror in my area, although I know that other groups are involved in these things. Such groups have caused long-standing titles to collapse and have then closed them, sacking highly respected and dedicated journalists.
The local authority role, if not the most significant, is certainly the most dangerous and insidious in undermining an independent and free local press. In making those comments I hope that I shall attract support from the three Front-Bench spokesmen. I say that for two reasons. First, the last time I debated the issue in this Chamber, on 20 January, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) made some slightly graceless and rather parti pris comments on the matter. He may crow at the moment because most town halls are under Conservative control, but that changes over time, and he may come, in time, and I hope sooner rather than later, to agree with the view that hon. Members of all parties have been expressing.
What the hon. Gentleman characterises as graceless was merely my pointing out that when he was leader of the council he published a free sheet to go to constituents, which cost council tax payers £300,000. Therefore, he is carping slightly in criticising the current administration for publishing a free sheet at no cost to council tax payers. Perhaps he will give a guarantee that if, God forbid, his party were ever to come back to run Hammersmith and Fulham, he would close the free newspaper.
The hon. Gentleman has not learned his lesson, but perhaps by the end of my speech he will have done. The second of the two reasons I wanted to set out was that there is an early-day motion in the name of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), and an amendment in my name, signed by members of all three parties—in fact, members of four parties—which clearly puts Labour and Tory councils in the dock for their publications. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has signed it.
In the brief time that I have, I want to use the example of Hammersmith and Fulham’s H and F News, which is published, although one would not know it, by the local council. It is a 64-page newspaper, fully underwritten by the taxpayers, with hidden subsidy—all the costs that a local paper would have, in accommodation, staffing and so on, are covered, and completely underwritten by public money.
I think that the marketing strategy goes further than hon. Members have so far said. The paper crows about what it calls the poor quality and low circulation of local newspapers—it says it can deliver to every door in the borough once every fortnight and claims to have nearly 10 times the readers of the nearest equivalent—and about its advertising offer, its huge splash and everything it can do, all of which is done by professional marketing people and, to their shame, journalists who have taken the shilling to leave the independent sector. It is quite brazen about it. The chap who edits it, who used to be a local journalist, says:
“The reality is councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham are being forced into producing weekly and fortnightly newspapers in order to fill a vacuum that has developed as a result of …underinvestment from within the industry”.
That is rather like a kerb crawler saying he is simply providing a service to young women who otherwise would not have their sexual appetites satisfied. I think that we shall treat it with the contempt it deserves.
As a consequence, two long-standing publications, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle and the Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush Gazette, each with more than a century of independent publication behind them, are now effectively merged, and a shadow of their former selves. Their chances, against the competition—if we can call it competition—of a new newspaper starting up, are effectively nil.
If there is any doubt left about what I am saying, I end with this example. There was only one story in Hammersmith and Fulham last week. It had two pages in the Evening Standard under the headline, “Plot to rid council estates of poor”, and the editorial and an article in the Daily Mirror under the headline, “Tories plan homes ‘social cleansing’”. Of course, it also had the front-page story in the excellent Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle under the headline “Thousands to face losing homes”. That story was by Aidan Jones, an excellent local reporter. I predict that no mention of that story will be found in the council newspaper. A story about how the courageous council is regenerating the scheme with the full support of MegaGreed plc might be found—but not the truth. That is the problem. What is happening is undermining, corrupting and corroding not just local democracy but the democracy in this House, and the hon. Member for Wantage should bear that in mind.
I am being told to sit down. The hon. Gentleman should come back on the point; he has the opportunity of a 10-minute speech and I have had the opportunity of a five-minute speech. I invite him to come back on the point, but ask him please to be a little contrite and considered in his comments when he does.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on initiating the debate, if only because it provides hon. Members with an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with their local newspapers. I shall resist that temptation, because my local journal is so intelligent that it would see through it straight away; it reads me like a book.
I recognise that all local journalists are having a hard time. They are losing jobs. There is a fall in advertising. They have competition, as has been mentioned, from the web, local radio and television. They struggle to get the younger generation on board. I do not see the Local Government Association as a significant long-term threat, as most councils will soon be so strapped for cash that they will not be able to put out any pieces of paper at all. However, I recognise that local newspapers are strongly supportive of their own economies, which contrasts quite well with national organisations such as the BBC, which lose nothing—as they are cushioned by the licence fee—from talking down the economy, something a local newspaper would never do.
Papers are essentially business. They sell information, of two kinds: information about products, which is called advertising; and information about communities, which is called news. Those are obviously linked activities. However—this point was made by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey)—they provide a cement for the community. They inform and provide a forum for discussion; they air problems and campaign for solutions. They may not do those things in a perfect way. From time to time they are, indeed, guilty of bias, and are not a mirror but a refracting medium, but they cannot be that way for long, because they need to stay in touch with the community that they serve. That, I guess, is what local journalism is about—turning everyday life into everyday news. That requires lots of journalists—what I would call community journalists, who have the same status, I think, as good classroom teachers. Their status needs to be elevated. They tell the story against a potentially vast news base. My hon. Friend illustrated all that that might involve in his speech.
We might compare that with national papers, which exist almost entirely in the Westminster bubble, relaying chitchat and recycling the same material again and again, and giving us endless doses of celebrity-watching: by going on the tube, I learn more about who goes in and out of Boujis than I strictly speaking need to. We see more and more stuff being syndicated and more and more pressure on newspapers to sensationalise and, where they cannot do that, pad everything out by piling on comment instead of facts.
If local journalism is troubled, journalism itself is in trouble. We shall get down to increasingly limited information, circulated anonymously, to anomic and remote communities. A foretaste of that can already be seen in some regional papers. I picked up a Nottingham evening paper at the weekend and for no apparent reason it included very little news about Nottingham, but it did have a picture of Barack Obama meeting the Pope. It was not even on the day he met him; it was just there because it occupied space.
We should not underestimate the genuine interest that communities have in themselves. If local journalism goes, not only will journalism go, but communities will change. In contrast to the Nottingham example, I had the delight of reading, the other day, the Westmorland Gazette. I do not know if any hon. Members are familiar with it, but it is a broadsheet time warp newspaper, full of enormous detail about the community. It is very successful, because community journalism can and does work. I am sure that it will morph, and become more web-wise and interactive, but I hope that it will not disappear, because I am certain that it has a key role, and it must survive.
I shall try to speak in less time than that, Lady Winterton.
This is the fourth or fifth debate on the topic in the past 18 months, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams). I am the secretary of the NUJ trade union group in Parliament. To save my speaking, hon. Members can find the latest updates about job losses by looking at the NUJ’s latest briefing. When we debated the matter 12 months ago, 1,200 jobs had been lost. I think that we are near 2,000 now. Things are the same in my area, where Trinity Mirror has lost its office and a number of staff, and that is undermining the papers, because a spiralling decline begins. If journalists are not there, the news cannot be covered, so people cannot read the news and circulation declines and people will not advertise. We are in that cycle.
What I resent is that Trinity Mirror, to use it as an example, is still a profitable company. It had profits of 16.6 per cent. up to 2008, and the figure for Johnston newspapers was 19 per cent. at one point. They are still profitable; indeed, comparing them with Tesco at 5 per cent., they are very profitable. At the same time, however, they were cutting staff; 31 per cent. of their production and journalistic staff went in the seven years before 2008. There is an element of crying wolf, but we nevertheless want to preserve the local press.
As a result of the NUJ’s meeting with the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, now the Secretary of State for Health, and thanks to his hard work, we had a meeting—it was requested earlier—with all sectors of the industry to consider the way forward. That meeting took place two months ago. Ofcom made proposals for a news consortium that could be funded partly by the savings of digital switchover. However, the new idea is to top-slice the BBC’s licence fee.
The constructive approach of establishing a newspaper consortium is the way forward, but I have some concerns. The new Secretary of State may reconvene that meeting, so that all sectors of the industry can get together again to see how far things have gone. My worry is about where the funding will come from. Top-slicing the BBC’s income will begin to undermine it. There needs to be a wider look at technology levies. We have raised the question before, and it works in other countries. How will the news consortium pilot scheme work in practice? What will happen to the staff used by channel 3 news providers? If ITV regional news is replaced, but the company is not a partner in the consortium, how will the employment rights of existing ITV employees be protected?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, if public funding is to go to those consortiums, how will the Government ensure quality journalism and a balanced approach to the reportage of news in the local area? If we are to subsidise local journalism, we must ensure that we invest in quality local journalism. This is not about restoring the profitability of some companies. In the good times, they made massive profits but failed to reinvest. That is partly why the industry is in crisis.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing this debate.
The news has been defined as something that people do not want us to see. All who have spoken in the debate have been at the difficult end of that. The Birmingham Post required all local MPs to pre-publish their expenses. One or two MPs were rather reticent to do so, but we nevertheless complied. That shows the power of the local press. Local papers, such as the Solihull News and the Solihull Times, publish what our MPs in my area have been up to, but many are not totally comfortable with that.
The important thing is that local newspapers should report on councillors’ grubby dealings. Council-run papers may publish the local news and the variety of other things described this afternoon, but they do not contain any of that hard news. They publish only what they want us to see. That is why I agree with the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter).
It is clear that the industry is in trouble. It has been in trouble for some time—long before the recession started. The Trinity Mirror group of newspapers has shrunk; on 2 July, it was announced that nine newspapers and 120 jobs in the west midlands would be lost. Staffing complements have been cut by all local papers, and advertising has dropped by 40 per cent. over the past two years and is still falling. Local newspapers are in competition with the internet for advertising, and the internet steals their local and regional news stories—another problem that needs to be addressed.
Regional TV is no longer local, and the regions seem to be expanding hugely. The only repository of truly local news is therefore the local newspaper, with regional additions. That is what we want, and that is what we need to keep. What is the solution? We have discussed mergers and the “Digital Britain” report, and I look forward to the Audit Commission inquiry. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister commented on that. What about collaboration? Why not use local reporters, jointly engaged by regional TV and radio? We would then have the best of all worlds.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) not only on securing this debate but on his excellent and thought-provoking speech.
Like many other Members, I feel passionate about the importance of local newspapers, something that was summed up extremely well by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) when he said that if local journalism goes, communities will change. He meant, of course, that they would change for the worse.
I spoke earlier today with the deputy editor of my excellent local newspaper, The Bath Chronicle. As one would expect, he was totally passionate about local and regional newspapers. He said that they are important because they stimulate the lifeblood of local communities and are the bastions of knowledge and democracy, especially in holding local government to account. With high-quality investigative journalism, they are able to shine a light into dark corners, and they provide a safety valve for local democracy.
As we have heard, however, times are hard. Having been one of the longest surviving continually produced daily newspapers, The Bath Chronicle has become a weekly newspaper. The number of editorial and commercial staff has been cut, and in the last few days we heard that a number of production activities such as subbing are to be moved to Bristol, with a further loss of local jobs. As a result, it becomes ever more difficult for our local newspapers to carry out investigative journalism, and to ask the hard questions that are so crucial to shining a light in dark places and holding local councils and other local bodies to account. As the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) said, that cannot be properly replaced by biased bloggers hiding away in their darkened rooms.
My local newspaper is not alone. As we have heard, local and regional newspapers have been facing difficulties for many years, difficulties exacerbated not only by the recent recession but by much newspaper advertising being moved, particularly to the internet. In 2000, 1 per cent. of all advertising was done on the internet and it is now about 20 per cent. In 2008, we saw a £400 million drop in the advertising in local and regional newspapers—a fall of 19 per cent.—and the figures are getting worse.
Crucially, the classified ads that used to be so important in selling local newspapers are now going to the internet. In 2000, 45 per cent. of all classified advertisements were to be found in local newspapers, and only 2 per cent. on the internet. Now, 45 per cent. of all classified ads are on the internet, and only a quarter are to be found in our local newspapers. Circulation is down, advertising is down and, as a result, revenue is down. The lifeblood of local newspapers is dwindling. They are in great difficulty. Sadly, many have had to close. Last year alone, 60 titles closed, all of them a loss to their local communities. As we heard from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), many hundreds of editorial jobs have been lost; alongside that, however, many hundreds of support staff jobs have gone.
We must remember that 1,300 local and regional newspapers remain. They employ some 12,000 journalists and 30,000 support staff. They are beginning to fight back. Because of a shortage of capital, they did not invest early enough in websites, but they are now doing so; for instance, at www.thisisbath.co.uk, my local newspaper is now a thriving provider of daily local news, with 80,000 unique hits every month, up 40 per cent. from last year. Many other local newspapers are doing the same.
Much more needs to be done to help those newspapers. We heard a number of suggestions. The “Digital Britain” report and Ofcom suggest that the BBC should become involved in partnership proposals. We heard about that from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and others. There is an opportunity to use the BBC’s resources to provide support and help to other news outlets through the independently funded news consortiums and partnership proposals. Like him, I am deeply worried about the Government’s proposal to top-slice the BBC, which will take money away from it without its involvement. By all means, let the BBC become more involved in partnership work, which is what it wants, and has started, to do. However, that should be within the remit of the BBC, using money from the BBC and with its involvement. I am delighted that 15 Labour Members have signed his early-day motion opposing that policy.
People referred to the importance of the relaxation of cross-media ownership rules. I am delighted that the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom are now considering such a move. The Government have said that it is important. I was also delighted that we had a lengthy debate about the important role that local councils can play by not overly developing their own media outlets, particularly taking advertising away from local newspapers. That is critical. However, we should look very carefully at the LGA’s figures, of which some were overly scornful. The vast majority of local councils are not taking action that is—currently, at least—causing problems for local newspapers. I welcome what the hon. Member for Stockport said about the important role of central Government in helping local newspapers.
Finally, all sorts of other exciting developments are taking place, such as ways of bringing different journalists together. The Press Association’s initiative in Merseyside to provide an independent source of journalistic information for local newspapers could be developed. No doubt we will hear more from the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) about his party’s proposals for local television, which I hope will not further damage local newspapers. I hope to hear that it will work in consultation with them. Local newspapers are critical, and we must take action now to provide support for them, or far more will close.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate under your excellent chairmanship for the first time, Lady Winterton. I do not wish to give too much fodder for local or national journalists to write articles about the disgustingly incestuous nature of the Westminster village, but I welcome the Minister to his post as the Minister for the digital industries or creative Britain—or whatever title he might choose to use. I have known him for many years and have the utmost respect for his ability and judgment. His only misjudgment ever was to join the wrong political party. However, I am sure that he will make an excellent Minister and I look forward to debating with him in the months to come.
We have heard a great deal from hon. Members this afternoon—nine speeches, in addition to that of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). They set out the woes of the local newspaper industry, of which this House is only too well aware. I think that this is the third time in six or seven months that we have debated this matter. However, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on giving us another opportunity to emphasise the point that this House takes what is happening in the local newspaper industry very seriously. As so many hon. Members have pointed out, it is fundamental to the health not only of our local democracy. Newspapers do not exist simply to uncover the wrongdoings of hon. Members or local councillors, but to play a vital role in bringing a community together. Picking up the local paper, either daily or weekly, reminds us of what is going on in our communities and prevents us from becoming solitary people living in rabbit hutches, going to work then coming home and simply switching on the television.
The hon. Member for Bath was right to point out that we still have a sizeable local newspaper industry. We are a newspaper nation. We have far more national newspaper titles per head than almost any other country in the world, and we still enjoy reading our newspapers, but change is afoot and technology is knocking at the door. As people have pointed out, a perfect storm of technology coupled with a recession is proving to be extraordinarily testing for local newspapers. It is dangerous to get into a mindset in which one simply tries to prop up existing institutions without recognising that change is afoot. Blogs, such as ConservativeHome, Iain Dale’s Diary or Guido Fawkes’ blog, are effectively taking over some of the role of national newspapers and are capable of breaking important stories with very few resources. That shows that technology will help to fill the vacuum. Nevertheless, we should, as Members of this House, be looking to provide potential solutions for local newspapers. The main job of finding a solution rests with local newspapers, which are, after all, private organisations, but the Government must be there to make that possibility effective.
The Government have published “Digital Britain” and set out a range of options. On the same day it published the OFT’s—disappointing—analysis of the local newspaper market. The document effectively said that the OFT would do nothing unless, or until, a referral was made and recommended no changes to the current regime. Ofcom is also considering media ownership rules. I know that the hon. Member for Ceredigion and other hon. Members have called for local cross-media ownership rules to be relaxed. We, on this side of the House, share that point of view and have called for that relaxation. We have urged Ofcom to bring its review to a speedy conclusion.
It would be useful to hear from the Minister when he expects Ofcom to report and, when it does report, when he expects the Government to look at it and reach a conclusion on what parts of the review they will implement. More than anything, local newspapers need a certain, clear, regulatory landscape and a clear way forward. It would be an extremely useful contribution to hear the timetable for what I hope will be a clear-sighted report from Ofcom calling for the relaxation of local media rules, recognising that the landscape has changed and that the internet now provides a much wider horizon, which has to be taken into account when considering competition measures.
The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. Local newspapers face competition for breaking major news stories, but an awful lot of what we illustrated as being in local papers is not of that nature; it is about local football teams and events. Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale do not pepper their blogs with such information, and never will. In a sense, they are not in competition in the way that he stresses.
Perhaps I did not express myself clearly enough. For example, a website such as ConservativeHome provides a community base for those of us interested in Conservative politics. Although it might break news, it also keeps us in touch with what that wider community is doing. [Interruption.] Luckily, I did not hear the hon. Member for Southport’s intervention. It might have broken my smooth stride as I move closer to setting out the Conservative policy.
Finally, the Government have proposed independently financed news consortiums. I was pleased to hear the scepticism from hon. Members about the Government’s proposals. Conservative Members oppose top-slicing of the BBC. I was astonished by the attack launched by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the BBC leadership. The Government have a tradition of attacking the BBC leadership when it dares to disagree with them. We saw that with the David Kelly affair and the Hutton report. But attacking the BBC for a lack of leadership simply because the director-general disagrees with Government policy—which, I remind the Minister, is not actually Government policy, but technically under consultation—crosses a line. I am sure that the Secretary of State, once he gets into his stride, gets his feet under the desk and understands his job, will want to apologise to the director-general for the attack.
I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to rush to his conclusion, but are we hearing today a complete reversal of the Conservative party position as expressed on 20 May. Then his party proposed to freeze the licence fee, which would effectively top-slice the amount of money that the BBC gets, but now it is saying that it would not. Back then, the Government said that they opposed top-slicing, but today they are proposing it. We, on the Liberal Democrat Benches, are getting very confused.
The hon. Gentleman has fulfilled a role, for many years, as my mentor, but at this point I would say to him—perhaps the pupil is getting above himself—do not be too clever by half. We have said that the licence fee should be frozen for a year because we are going through a recession and we want to help hard-working families. We find it hypocritical that the Government are saying, “Don’t touch the licence fee. By the way, we’re taking 3.5 per cent. off the licence fee and will do with it as we want”, which is exactly what they did—by the way—with the lottery.
We are also concerned about independently financed news consortiums. In effect the Government are saying, “This is how things have been, and this is how they should always have been.” We all know that regional news was based around the old transmitter system, and it was not regional news in the true sense of the word.
I hope that everyone can hear the clatter of the hooves as the knight on his white charger arrives in the form of Conservative party policy, which was presented to the media this afternoon. The Speaker’s rules about announcing party policy in the House before talking to the media do not yet apply; they will take effect in a year’s time.
What we have put forward is a consultation document, which is written by the well respected, legendary journalist Roger Parry, on the creation of viable local multi-media companies in the UK. In the one minute I have left, let me simply say that this is a bottom-up solution for local television and multi-media consortiums using local spectrum. Ofcom has identified 81 areas in which local multi-media consortiums could be put in place. They will include video, audio, print and web. Production costs will be much lower. There will be economies of scale and the consortiums will rely on the use of volunteers. They will be truly local multi-media organisations, and we expect local newspaper groups to play a very important role in bidding for the spectrum licences so that we can create truly local television and a vital multi-media organisation that will be the saving solution for local newspapers.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I do not have a lot of time, but I will do my best to refer to everyone who has spoken.
Naturally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing the debate and on his opening speech in which he set the ground for the entire debate. He covered most of the bases and managed to include not just his own local newspapers but those for Porthmadog, Pwllheli, Criccieth, Llannor, Llysfaen and Garndolbenmaen. Drawing all those in is a triumph for which he should be congratulated. He also touched on mergers, so perhaps I will set out the position. The OFT looked into the market and concluded—I cannot find the exact phrase—that it works and that it is sufficiently flexible and rigorous to allow a functioning local newspaper sector to exist.
The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) said at the end that the OFT would do nothing unless a merger was notified. Just to be clear on that point, the OFT concluded that the market was operational, but in cases in which mergers had been notified, it would have to look in more detail at the operation of the system. So the case is not closed. Work is going on to assess whether anything can be done to make the system more liberal and helpful to local newspapers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) spoke with his customary vigour about the lack of accountability of local newspapers. He said that they can be biased and unfair on some occasions. Like many hon. Members, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) referred to his local newspaper as a particularly trusted source of news and information for the community. He described the County Times as a role model. He also asked whether he could bring a delegation of editors to see me. Of course he can, but it must be an appropriately sized delegation of nice and good editors.
I am running out of time, as well as digging myself into a deep hole. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) talked—[Interruption.] Oh, it was my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). Sorry. When I wrote Stockport, I was looking at the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend talked at great length and with some erudition about Government advertising. Ideally, I should like to talk to her in greater detail about that. She made some interesting points. They did not come from the mainstream, which is all that I have read on the matter so far. If she would like to explore those ideas a bit more, I would be very glad to talk to her about them.
That is jumping the queue, but let me say that the Communications Act 2003 lays down that Ofcom undertakes such reviews every three years. Off the top of my head—I am new at this—the last review concluded in October 2006. The official line is that it will report back later this year. That should give the hon. Gentleman an indication of the kind of time scale that we are talking about.
As the clock ticks, let me say that I agree with the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) that the situation in Wales with respect to television is difficult and needs particular attention, which is one of the key reasons why Wales was chosen as one of the pilot areas. He talks about my family connection with his constituency. It is true that, even though I was born in south Yorkshire and grew up in Birmingham, the major milestones of my life have been recorded in the Dwyfor Leader—I am not sure whether it still exists—and that shows what a community newspaper means. One does not even have to live in the community to be part of the community.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) and congratulate him on taking the fight to the Tory Front Bench so admirably. The hon. Member for Southport— although I wrote Stockport again—talked about how local journalism can be at the heart of communities. Later on, he said that it would morph webwise and become interactive. That is true. The future of local journalism and local news gathering will be in the hands of not just journalists but communities. Local people will be delivering news to, from, by and of themselves. That does not mean that journalism does not need supporting, but we must look to new models.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) reminded us that, when we talk about journalists and the service that they render to communities, we are talking about not just abstracts and things that are important to democracy but people—large numbers of human beings who are losing their jobs, which is a tragedy for them and their families.
Earlier, I said that the seminar or working party on industry that the Secretary of State convened some months ago was very successful. Will the Minister liaise with the new Secretary of State to find out whether or not it is appropriate to reconvene it in September or October?
I wrote that down, and I will do just that. By all accounts, the seminar was a great event, and I will ask the Secretary of State to do it again. If he agrees, I will gladly attend.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) spoke with her usual elegance about collaboration. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) gave me a soupcon of wisdom about the things to come over the coming months. The hon. Member for Wantage shared with us the new Conservative proposal for 80 local television stations.
Thank you for the guidance that you will provide us with, Lady Winterton, through the next half hour—if the debate lasts that long—and for the chance to raise the issue of combat stress. Hopefully, the debate will be very short. My greater hope is for a positive response from the Minister, who should be sympathetic.
I intend to focus predominantly on the UK-wide organisation Combat Stress, which is one of the main treatment establishments and which has a main base in my constituency. As the organisation’s name indicates, it treats ex-UK service personnel suffering post-traumatic stress disorder derived from combat. PTSD is recognised in civil life, including among police, ambulance and fire brigade personnel, among whom it has the nickname, “the silent disease”. The effects on sufferers can be total destruction, for them as individuals and for their families. Sufferers get nightmares and flashbacks, become hyper-vigilant, suffer panic and fear of attack, and frequently descend into alcoholism.
The effects can lead to suicide. It is estimated that 262 British Falkland veterans have taken their own lives, compared with 255 lives lost in Falkland combat. Statistics released by the Ministry of Defence in March last year reveal that between 1 April 1991 and 31 December 2007, 162 British Gulf veterans died
“due to intentional self-harm or from other incidents where the intent was unclear, leading to open verdicts at inquests”—
that is a “Yes, Minister” type quote—which compares with 24 killed in action.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this debate. Is he aware of the American experience, which involves far greater numbers? The suggestion is that young men who have served are twice as likely to take their own life than those who have not served. We need to be particularly mindful of the American experience, given that it is greater than ours, when making our projection of the long tail that current operations are likely to have.
My hon. Friend pips me at the post, because I was about to say that those who serve are 2.13 times more likely to take their own life. Saying that it is twice as likely will do, because it shows why it is important to deal with the problem.
Increasing recognition of combat stress has, I hope, inspired the Government to ensure that general practitioners are aware of the causes and that they seek help for ex-personnel who show symptoms. Recognition is the key, but there is a need for treatment, which brings me back to Combat Stress, which specialises in the care and treatment of ex-service personnel suffering from combat-induced PTSD. It is recognised as the leading organisation in such treatment. Perhaps that is not surprising, given that it was formed in 1919 and that it has helped, treated, or both, 100,000 veterans.
Combat Stress’s current active and passive lists of personnel whom they serve come from about 20 theatres of operation, ranging from Borneo, Rwanda and Burma through to much more recent conflicts. Currently, just short of 2,000 ex-Northern Ireland veterans are on its lists.
To obtain better recognition of the problem, it is worth looking at the new referrals to Combat Stress for the year 2007-08, which total 1,160 cases with an average age of 44. Interestingly, over the 90 years, the average age is decreasing. The average length of military service of victims is about 11.5 years. However, I was surprised that the interval between discharge from military service and the first contact for treatment is 14 years. That apparently is the norm and according to Combat Stress, it has not changed for a number of years. The figures are therefore a warning, particularly given the current and recent service of so many of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not only a warning of demand to come, but a hint for early detection.
I hope that the Minister agrees that Combat Stress is the leader in the field and that it should be supported to the hilt by the NHS. It is not a respite organisation; it is an active treatment specialist for ex-service personnel with combat stress. It has 180 psychiatric clinical personnel and three centres, and specialises in getting its traumatised patients back into normal life in their communities with their families. I repeat: in that field, it is the best.
One Combat Stress treatment centre is in Ayrshire in Scotland and the other two are in Shropshire and Mole Valley. It has also developed outreach services nationwide. Huge, enormous sums have been provided by public donation, from both individuals and events. Recently, it received £3.5 million from Help for Heroes towards a building programme in Leatherhead. As the Minister will be aware, the Leatherhead Combat Stress centre is close to and linked with Headley Court.
Charitable donations amount to about 58 per cent. of running costs and the remaining 42 per cent. comes from the MOD—that is for this year. However, as the Minister will be aware, responsibility for funding is moving from the MOD to the Department of Health. There has been no problem for the Combat Stress unit in Ayrshire. The Scottish NHS has recognised the need, and has agreed full funding to come directly from a central source. Sadly, that is not the case south of the border.
I am sure that the Minister will recognise, and I hope accept, the need for full funding. The need is self-apparent, as is Combat Stress’s expertise, but it appears that there is a bureaucratic problem. The current approach for Combat Stress, as I understand it, is that it seeks funding from the primary care trust for each individual patient. That is a minefield. The cost to the charity in dealing with the bureaucracy and various foibles of so many PCTs does not bear thinking about.
There are precedents for direct central funding in such special cases, and I believe that this is one such case. I understand from quiet discussions with the relevant section in the Department of Health that it feels that that might well be the appropriate approach. The problem is that after long, drawn out discussions and negotiations, nothing has happened and no agreement has been reached. I hope—and I am sure the Minister will agree—that the need is obvious, that funding will be available and that Combat Stress’s expertise is demonstrated daily. Perhaps he could strengthen his accent and sort this out by mimicking the Scots.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on securing this debate. Few things can be more important than looking after the health of the brave men and women who risk their lives for us in combat, and there can be no clearer reminder of the sacrifices that they make than the moving scenes yesterday in Wootton Bassett as the bodies of eight young men were returned to their families.
Despite that tragic loss of life, it is important to remind families that the vast majority of those who see active service return home safe and well. Most ex-service people benefit enormously from their time in the armed forces and go on to lead full and productive lives after completing service, including active service in combat zones.
However, in war, there are casualties, and even those who return home physically unharmed may well have suffered severe mental trauma that can itself prove fatal, as it leads on occasion to suicide. It is important that we provide the best possible care for people who have to deal with the consequences of the difficult circumstances that they experienced in combat.
Afghanistan and Iraq are difficult, unfamiliar and extremely stressful environments. Sometimes it is hard to tell friend from foe, and there are constant threats from roadside bombs, land mines and snipers. Many may be deeply affected by their experiences. This Government believe that we need to do all that we can to give the right kind of support to those serving their country and returning to civilian life.
The most common mental health problems treated in the military are similar to those treated in the civilian population: anxiety, depression and alcohol problems. Research from Manchester university shows lower rates—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was talking about the research by Manchester university that shows lower rates of suicide among armed forces leavers than among the general population. The one exception is that there is a higher rate of suicide among young, male ex-service personnel who have served for only a short period. The reasons for that are not clear. The research does not comment on whether the service is a factor. The general lower rate suggests that it is, but it is perhaps not the only factor.
The most important thing is that we get help to the people who need it, when they need it. If a serving soldier experiences a mental health problem, they can attend one of 15 community and mental health departments that have been set up by the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry of Defence also provides mental health care for those posted overseas. In the UK, soldiers also have access to NHS outpatient mental health services.
The situation is different for veterans. When service personnel leave the armed forces, they become the responsibility of the NHS. The vast majority of service veterans will access the NHS in the same way as the rest of the population. Some find it difficult to engage and need additional help in getting the treatment that they need. That is not surprising. Young men are often reluctant to ask for help when it comes to their health, and much more so when it comes to their mental health. The strong military ethos adds to that reluctance, meaning that soldiers are among the least likely to come forward. They are therefore difficult to identify as being in need of help.
In partnership with the Ministry of Defence and the devolved Administrations, we have set up pilot schemes in six NHS mental health trusts. The aim is to identify, treat and help veterans with mental health problems. We are currently evaluating the way in which the pilots have operated, what benefits there have been to the people who have come forward with mental health problems and in what ways the service needs to be improved. When the final report is published, we will roll out best practice across the NHS to ensure that ex-service personnel get the assistance that they need.
Combat Stress and other third sector organisations are fully involved with the pilots. They have worked closely with the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health and the NHS to plan and monitor them. We want Combat Stress and the NHS to learn from each other to find the best way to help this cohort get better services than they currently receive. I am the first to say that the NHS still has to learn lessons in this area. However, I think that lessons are being learned from the pilots. When the report comes out, I hope that we will be able to find the best way of ensuring that ex-service personnel get help.
As in so many areas, providing the service that each individual needs requires statutory and non-statutory organisations. Combat Stress does good work and the hon. Member for Mole Valley rightly pays tribute to the way it assists service and ex-service personnel. Discussions are taking place between Combat Stress and the national specialist commissioning group, which will consider the application for assistance and funding once the discussions are complete. I accept his point that some of those discussions have been going on for a while and that we must draw them to a satisfactory conclusion. As far as I am concerned, a satisfactory conclusion means ensuring that the people who need help get that help. To do that, we must bring together the statutory sector and non-statutory voluntary sector to ensure that the best use is made of the services that people need.
The use of community psychiatric nurses with Territorial Army experience has been encouraging. They have common experiences and work with veterans’ organisations to identify people who are not getting the right support. Such psychiatric nurses can deliver treatment themselves or refer patients to the services that they need. We are investing unprecedented amounts of money in psychological therapies. The treatments that people need if they are suffering from depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder are important components of that investment. Those are the conditions that are most often experienced by ex-service personnel. That investment, which will rise to £173 million next year, will pay for an additional 3,600 therapists. The service personnel Command Paper commits us to raising awareness of the needs of veterans and to meeting those needs.
As part of our improving access to psychological therapies initiative, we published “Commissioning for the Whole Community”, which shows how primary care trusts can ensure that veterans get access to the mental health services that they need. In March, we issued more specific guidance on providing psychological treatment to veterans. It is for PCTs to commission services, including those from the third sector, based on an assessment of the needs of the local population. That includes veterans. We also underlined to the NHS the importance of taking account of the special needs of veterans, including possible psychological conditions, in the operating framework for the NHS.
I hear what the Minister is saying about PCTs. Although the numbers we are discussing are large as a percentage of the troops, they are not large as a percentage of a PCT’s portfolio of difficulties. Therefore, there is much to be said for centralising the arrangements so that veterans get the special treatment that they need. That could include the centralised funding of organisations such as Combat Stress.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we must identify where the services would best be provided. The general view is that services are best provided where there is a local need for them. As he has identified, this is a national problem. We must ensure that we identify how the services can best be provided and that we are not providing them just in London. We must have services for personnel who are based around the country. By and large, those will have to be local services. We might also need a national component. The discussions between Combat Stress and the various commissioning organisations must therefore be brought to fruition so that we can put in place the overall services that will best ensure that those to whom we owe a debt get the services that they need.
I thank the Minister for moving in the direction that I am trying to drive the debate. Organisations such as Combat Stress have outreach services that are linked closely to the pilots, as he said. Such services generally provide respite rather than treatment. The services should be driven from the centre, so that NHS bodies and organisations such as Combat Stress can put the diverse services into local areas without involving PCTs because of the key importance of this relatively rare and unusual problem.
It is on that point that I begin to part company with the hon. Gentleman. For each individual, we must put in place a package of services that is appropriate for them. We should not assume that a national organisation can do that without having close involvement with the local services that a person may need in Doncaster, Worcester or some other part of the country. Such an organisation should be in contact with local medical services, rather than trying to parachute in some sort of overall service nationally. Local service provision is crucial to individuals because they might not simply need one particular piece of medical help; they are more likely to need a package of help. A number of services need to be in a position to provide what an individual needs, and that requires the local PCT to be engaged in the issue.
Throughout the whole of the NHS, we are trying to make it clear that veterans’ issues are some of the key areas on which the NHS has to focus. The matter has not been dealt with in that way in the past, so it is quite a change for the NHS. I do not want to dilute the effort that is going on throughout the NHS to say to PCTs, which commission many of these services, “You have got to ensure that the services are in place for veterans where they are needed and that includes mental health services.” It is important that, where there is a need to provide some service at a national level, that can be done, but it is also important to ensure that where we have the ability to put in place local services—a package of services—to help individuals, we do so and people get the help that they need.
The pilot schemes will give us a better understanding of how we can engage nationally and locally to ensure that we provide the right type of mental health service for a diversity of people. Such services will not all be standard. People with post-traumatic stress disorder have different requirements, and it is important to respond to the particular needs of those people—for example, it might be that PTSD is exacerbated by a condition regarding homelessness or an employment or education issue. We need to make sure that a number of other local services are there to provide support. I do not claim that we have got it right. We must do much more and there is a much bigger agenda, which is why we now have a Veterans Minister in the Ministry of Defence and why we have stressed in recent years that we need to have much better services for veterans.
Earlier this afternoon, I was concerned to note that—the hon. Gentleman appears not to know about this—the Conservative party put out a statement, in which it said that it regarded the provision of mental health services for ex-service people to be a national scandal and that Britain was sitting on a time bomb. One would have thought that such rhetoric would elicit a major set of proposals, but the Conservative party made just one proposal. The single proposal—I understand that no extra money was proposed and, from the press release, I believe that no other ideas were put forward—was that there should be a telephone helpline. Well, the service charities already have helplines—the Royal British Legion has one and there is also the medical assessment unit at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. It is not clear what another telephone helpline would add. I am interested in the idea and will by all means look at it, but such a response—a single proposal—does not seem to justify the level of rhetoric of the press release and is somewhat inadequate.
We do not want to deal with things simply by having a telephone helpline, which to some extent already exists; we want to put in place a larger package, so that the whole of the NHS responds to the needs and concerns of services’ veterans. Responding in such a way will mean that if people have mental health problems, there is a package in place and we can provide services at a national level by working with organisations, such as Combat Stress.
We will work through the negotiations to enable the best possible package for people. I cannot guarantee the outcome of the discussions, but what I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I will go back to those who are negotiating and say that we want the matter resolved. We must continue to improve the quality of what we do for veterans, and we still have a lot of work to do. We have put in substantial extra funding and have made the matter a massive priority in recent years, but we want to ensure that there is a broad-based improvement in the circumstances of veterans and military personnel in the coming months and years. That is the least we can do for our service personnel. We will keep working with other Departments and groups such as Combat Stress to make sure that the right service support is put in place for our Army, Navy and Air Force personnel. We owe them that.
I begin by making a declaration of interest. Some years ago, when I was 16 years old, I undertook an engineering apprenticeship. I will leave it to others to judge whether that was a good or bad thing for the rest of the country. However, it has left me with a strong commitment and belief that, for many young people, the format of an apprenticeship is the best way for them to secure their future careers.
I was prompted to seek this debate following the excellent achievements of Knowsley council’s apprenticeships scheme. However, this is also a question of national relevance, and it is within that framework that I want to conduct part of the debate. How do we ensure that we are prepared to thrive as a country when we come out of the economic downturn? Many things can be done to support industry through these difficult times, but one thing is absolutely certain: it is vital that we continue to build an appropriate skills base. If we cut training now, there will be long-term, detrimental consequences.
More than 130,000 businesses already offer apprenticeships in England alone, yet that number needs to rise considerably if the target of one in five young people undertaking apprenticeships is to be met. That sets a clear direction and message about the sort of country that we want to be: one with a highly skilled work force and a modern, vibrant economy. Of course, industry has a vital role to play, but without support from the Government, businesses will inevitably struggle to deliver.
Funding is required to ensure that appropriate training is readily available. It is very helpful that the Government fully cover the training costs of apprenticeship programmes for those aged between 16 and 18. Given the importance of having a strong skills base for the economy, I hope that that will continue, although difficult spending decisions will have to be made in the next few years. However, perhaps the most challenging aspect is ensuring that the right apprenticeships are available and matched to the most appropriate prospective apprentices. I welcome the Government’s Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, and I will return to that subject later.
I shall now focus on the role that local authorities can play, using Knowsley council as an example. The council leader, Councillor Ron Round, has taken a very active leadership role and encouraged an innovative approach to ensuring that potential apprentices have the right selection of skills for the businesses that might wish to take them on.
The Knowsley council 100 apprenticeships gateway project identifies what is called a talent pool of eligible young people who are keen to secure an apprenticeship. They are then matched up with local businesses and the cost of training is subsidised. During the project’s first year of operation, in 2008-09, some 55 gateway apprentices gained employment in 27 different companies. The sectors involved included accountancy, engineering, IT, business administration, hospitality, customer service and social care. Phase 2 of the programme was launched earlier this month, and more than 600 applicants and 106 prospective employers have already been identified. That has been achieved through a dedicated team that offers advice and guidance to businesses and prospective apprentices.
The team, which is led by Knowsley community college and works alongside local subcontractor partners, has increased overall college apprenticeship framework success rates by 11 per cent. to 70 per cent. in 2007-08. The Minister will know that that is significantly higher than the overall success rate for apprenticeship providers across Merseyside and that it is also above the 63 per cent. national average—a rate that has grown from below 40 per cent. since the apprenticeship scheme was nationally relaunched.
Programmes are offered in 10 key occupational sectors at level 2 and in nine sectors at level 3. In total, they have reached more than 850 apprentices during the current year. By working together in partnership, they ensure that both businesses and apprentices make the most of the excellent opportunities that are available. Of course, Knowsley is not alone among local authorities in implementing policies to support local people and combat unemployment. Nearly five out of six councils have set targets to reduce the number of 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training, some 83 per cent. have targets to improve residents’ skills and 89 per cent. have at least one target on increasing employment.
Despite those achievements and the accompanying commitment that goes with them, there is cause for concern. With the disbanding of the national Connexions service, local authorities now have responsibility for information, advice and guidance services for young people in England. It has been well reported that some councils have taken that on board and are well prepared for those responsibilities, but some services have been decimated by cuts and are now patchy to say the least. That service provision affects the quality of information and advice available to students in many secondary schools, and it is clear that, in some cases, the necessary advice and information simply is not getting through to students. I am particularly concerned that students need to know about the advantages that apprenticeships can offer, because, if they do not, the chances are that they will be less likely to pursue that option. Will my hon. Friend the Minister give an assurance that the situation is being properly monitored and that action will be taken to rectify matters where there is a less than adequate service?
From 2010, with the disbanding of the Learning and Skills Council, local authorities will be responsible for commissioning apprenticeship provision for 16 to 18-year-olds in their areas. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is working with the Local Government Association’s React team to ensure that there is a smooth transition, but while colleges and sixth forms may feature strongly on the radar of local councils, some of the work-based learning providers that deliver the bulk of training for apprenticeships have a lower profile.
Will the Minister update us on what steps are being taken to ensure that all councils are aware that they have a responsibility to promote apprenticeships equally with other post-16 learning options and that, in the pursuit of best value in commissioning arrangements, work-based learning providers are invited to tender for the delivery of apprenticeship training alongside other providers? I have reason to believe that some employers—for example, one person who is able to offer some training as a provider—are often at a disadvantage in comparison with larger organisations, which are in a better position to tender. Such training may make a small contribution, but it may also be significant, and it might be worth the Minister looking into how that situation works.
It is important to remember that real apprenticeships include a contract of employment with a local employer and that young people value those contracts. Work-based learning providers, by definition, have very close links to local businesses. Local authorities across the country should look at the case studies that are available, particularly that provided by Knowsley council, and consider whether they would benefit from implementing a similar approach.
I have mentioned the snappily titled Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is currently completing its remaining stages in another place. It includes measures to establish the Young People’s Learning Agency, which is intended to support local authorities. I hope that that agency will look at what Knowsley is doing and perhaps use it as a model for other areas.
I support the proposals to give all suitably qualified young people the right to an apprenticeship by 2013 and to give a more general right to workers to ask for time off to train. How such measures are implemented will be crucial to their success. As well as the right to an apprenticeship, it is vital that such opportunities are relevant and well-matched. Again, the lesson from Knowsley is that that can be achieved through effective partnership working across all the parties concerned.
I started by saying that I have reason to be grateful for the older version of the apprenticeship scheme, and I do. I hope that future generations of former apprentices will be able to stand in the House in 20 or 30 years’ time and say how grateful they are for the apprenticeship that they had.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) on securing the debate, and thank him for all the work that he does, for his dedication and for the way he has spoken this afternoon. I think that we agree that this is the most important cause of all—enabling young people to fulfil their potential and be given the skills that they need to climb as high as their hard work and talents will take them. I congratulate him on showing such keen interest in apprenticeships and in local government.
During his membership of this House, my right hon. Friend has made himself an expert on skills and training, as befits a former teacher and someone who served an apprenticeship early in his career. His enthusiasm for a discussion about the role of local authorities in promoting apprenticeships provides a welcome opportunity to consider the good work and progress that councils around the country are making and the work that is being done by various Departments. I join him in paying tribute to the superb work of Knowsley council in introducing apprenticeships and expanding opportunities for young people in its area. I shall return to that issue later.
As my right hon. Friend has indicated, the Government are committed to building on the solid foundation of apprenticeships that we have laid in the past 12 years by increasing the number of apprenticeships available to young people and adults. In 1996, the number of people starting apprenticeships was just 65,000; by 2007, that number had increased to about 225,000, which was a 22 per cent. increase on the number in the previous year. The Government have helped more than 2 million people to start an apprenticeship, and we aim to have delivered more than 250,000 apprenticeship starts each year by 2020. To support that commitment, the Prime Minister announced a £140 million package in January to deliver an additional 35,000 apprenticeships this year, building on the £1 billion that has already been invested. He was right to say that investing strongly in apprenticeships will help not only those young people, but the country’s competitiveness, and it will extend opportunities to people who face redundancy.
We all know that the only way we will attract the jobs and businesses on which our country’s prosperity will depend is by showing investors that we have the skills that they need, and that the only way businesses will be able to compete is with highly skilled workers who will enable them to innovate more, exploit new technologies and capitalise on new ways of working to boost productivity, open up new markets and win new customers. We all know that if we do not adopt that approach, we will be much more vulnerable to competition from the countries and economies that do.
If anyone needs convincing about that, they should remember the two most important facts from Lord Leitch’s report on skills: seven out of 10 people who will make up the work force in 2020 have already left school, and, by then, there will be only 600,000 jobs that require no qualifications, compared with 3.5 million before the recession.
Therefore, it is crucial that my Department and other Departments work closely with employers to ensure that Britain has a work force with the skills and capabilities to meet our future challenges. Through our ongoing relationship with the Local Government Association, we have demonstrated to local government that it is vital in promoting and delivering more apprenticeships. The public sector and, within that, local authorities, have a crucial role to play. As an employer, the public sector supports around one in five of the work force. It is important, when everyone is facing the challenges of the recession, that we support people with jobs, skills, and training.
At least 21,000 of the extra 35,000 apprenticeship places that we have announced will come from the public sector. We are doing that because apprenticeships are a key route to building the national skills base and, at a time of economic downturn, it is vital that we continue to invest in people and their skills for the longer term. Apprenticeships offer employers important benefits, as my right hon. Friend said. Investing in a work force who have the right skills and experience to help a business develop and grow is an investment for employers as well, as they are less reliant on buying in temporary support.
To help to increase the number of employers offering apprenticeships, the Government have worked alongside local authorities and businesses. Our investment of £1 billion supports apprentices in all sectors. It enables young people in particular to increase their earning potential. An apprentice obtaining a level 2 qualification will go on to earn around £65,000 more over their lifetime than those who have not trained, and individuals with an advanced apprenticeship will go on to earn, on average, £100,000 more.
To ensure that more young people can access these opportunities, we are introducing legislation in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill which, for the first time, will put the apprenticeship programme on a statutory basis with other qualifications, as my right hon. Friend indicated.
It is important that a place on an apprenticeship programme is available to all young people who are suitably prepared and qualified for the programme by 2013. As we make apprenticeships a mainstream option available to all 16 to 18-year-olds, we will invest in training for older learners as well.
As my right hon. Friend set out so well, local authorities have a vital role to play in promoting apprenticeships in their communities and among local employers. I am happy to give him the assurances that he sought. I shall ensure that we write to him with more details about the monitoring arrangements and the encouragement that is being given to local authorities to promote and deliver apprenticeships in their area. I can tell him that there is considerable support and enthusiasm from local government for working with businesses in the local economy to generate new apprenticeships, but also, as employers themselves, for creating apprenticeships in the delivery of local public services. The LGA has announced a challenging ambition to increase apprenticeships in councils from 7,500 to 15,000 to help to deliver the target of an additional 21,000 apprenticeships in the public sector.
I join my right hon. Friend in paying a particular tribute to the work of Knowsley council, and I thank him for everything that he has done to support it. He spoke in detail about what Knowsley has been doing, but, on behalf of the Government, I would like to place on the record our admiration for everything that it has achieved. As he said, its innovative and pioneering programme has secured employment and training opportunities for more than 100 of Knowsley’s young people, and at a great pace. It is the first programme of its kind in the area, and a great example of how local authorities are working to support the Government’s agenda to increase apprenticeships and skills in communities. The council leader, Ron Round, whose vision it was to recruit 100 apprentices with local employers in less than 100 days, has set a benchmark for Knowlsey’s work and an example for other local authorities to follow. I am confident in saying that none of that would have happened if it had not been for the support of my right hon. Friend.
I was also pleased to learn from the new National Apprenticeship Service that in the Knowsley and Sefton areas more than 2,000 active apprentices are currently developing key skills in sectors such as construction, business administration, hairdressing and customer services. Again, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for working with employers in his area to encourage them to take up and provide apprenticeship places for local young people.
By providing key links with local businesses, Knowlsey council is creating opportunities to employ some of the brightest and best young people in the borough, and by developing partnerships and working with businesses, local education bodies and employment partners such as Jobcentre Plus, Knowlsey is helping to generate employment, as my right hon. Friend said.
We want similar work elsewhere in the public sector. In the pre-Budget report, we committed to using the Government’s buying power to promote apprenticeships. In letting contracts for construction projects, Government Departments and their agencies will now for the first time consider making it a requirement that successful contractors involved in public sector delivery have apprentices as an identified proportion of their work force.
Extending the principle beyond central Government, the then Secretaries of State for the Departments for Innovation, Universities and Skills and for Communities and Local Government wrote to local authorities on 2 June to encourage councils and public sector employers to promote skills and apprenticeships through the £42 billion a year that they invest. Not only are we putting in place procedures to use the central Government procurement process to encourage companies, including small and medium-sized enterprises, with access to Government-funded contracts to offer apprenticeships, but we are working effectively with local authorities to support them in using their spending power to increase opportunities for apprenticeships. In the guidance, “Promoting skills through public procurement”, which was published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Office of Government Commerce in April, we have set out how skills and training requirements can be legally embedded across all stages of the procurement process, from identification of need through to the way in which contracts are managed. We are now working with local authorities to raise awareness, spread good practice and identify areas where there is scope for local authorities to do more.
We want local authorities, with the assistance of regional development agencies, sub-regional partnerships and regional improvement and efficiency partnerships, to respond to the challenge set by the “New Opportunities: Fair chances for the future” White Paper and by the Houghton review to embed skills development and apprenticeships at a local level. To that end, we are encouraging local authorities and city regions to make their own commitments on skills through public procurement, which will help them to deliver their local authority agreement and multi-area agreement.
Apparently I have been appointed the new champion for apprenticeships in the DCLG. I take a keen interest in ensuring that we promote the benefits of apprenticeships to local authorities and to the communities that they serve. We are committed to supporting around a dozen apprentices within our own departmental work force. I am also keen to develop new ways that my Department, working closely with the LGA, can encourage and support local government in helping to get more people into apprenticeships. We will work with local authorities to ensure that there are linkages between LAA and MAA targets, that we engage young people who are currently not in employment, education or training, and that apprenticeships are fully understood and taken up by them.
We will also use our relationship with our agencies and delivery partners to promote apprenticeships. The Homes and Communities Agency, for example, has given a commitment that all construction work procured by Government Departments and their agencies should, where feasible, include a requirement for successful contractors to have apprentices as an identified proportion of their work force. That commitment is a high priority for the HCA, given the current economic climate, the high levels of unemployment of young people and the need for a skilled work force to sustain the required number of housing developments.
Economic downturns have historically been particularly severe on industries such as construction, but through our pledge to increase social housing, we have increased the opportunity to invest in construction apprenticeships. We would like more councils to follow the example of the award-winning partnership between Sheffield city council and the Kier Group, which has generated more than 1,000 employment and training opportunities since 2003. We would like more councils to contribute to developing those relevant and vital skills. To assist them in retaining and investing in the sector, ConstructionSkills is helping to match displaced apprentices to employers. More than 700 apprentices have been retained in the sector and are continuing to develop their skills.
Across the English regions, we have made up to £185 million available to RIEPs to work with local authorities and strategic partners in each region to support improvement and efficiency in the delivery of services. In the case of Capital Ambition and the London-based RIEPs, for example, we are supporting boroughs to increase the number of apprentices directly employed by them. Apprenticeships or other youth training schemes are now running in 95 per cent. of London boroughs. Therefore, not only is there now an increase in the proportion of young people working in London local authorities, but there is an increase in those people’s career opportunities and the authorities are contributing to the achievement of their targets.
The working neighbourhood fund is also making a contribution in helping to build capacity to deliver more apprenticeships. Knowsley council is a prime example in that regard, because it is investing £1.5 million of its working neighbourhood funding in supporting employers.
Despite the progress, we recognise there is more to do. With the National Apprenticeship Service operational since April, we are beginning to deliver tailored support and services to employers and local authorities across the regions. New technology, such as the National Apprenticeship Service’s online vacancy matching service, is increasingly making it easier to recruit people into apprenticeships. By working in partnership with local businesses, local authorities will continue, as in the example of Knowsley, to turn ambitions for more apprentices into real opportunities for local people.
In conclusion, I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that the Government have done a huge amount to promote apprenticeships and to recognise the vital role that local government has to develop them still further. I hope that I have demonstrated the Government’s belief that the role of local authorities is crucial in improving the skills of the communities that they serve. We have already provided local authorities with greater financial support, a clear ambition and a compelling vision; we have established the National Apprenticeship Service to help people through these difficult economic times; and we will do all that we can through our own recruitment and procurement programmes to provide people with the skills and opportunities to come through the recession stronger. We are doing all that because we know how important driving up skills and knowledge and boosting innovation and productivity are for individual people, the communities they live in and for our economy as a whole. These are great challenges, but the prize of transforming our economy by using those skills to make companies more successful and to bring new businesses to places such as Knowsley, creating new jobs and generating more wealth and prosperity, is greater still.
Question put and agreed to.