House of Commons
Monday 20 July 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Digital Radio Switchover
The “Digital Britain” White Paper set out the Government’s vision for the delivery of the digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015. We have committed to a review of the progress towards that timetable in spring 2010, and we have also asked Ofcom to review and publish progress against the upgrade criteria at least once a year, starting next year.
Is the Minister not aware that “Digital Britain” has in fact failed to address the inadequacies of digital radio broadcasting coverage? I am sure that he will agree with that comment. Representations made to me so far suggest that the idea of a switchover is currently very unpopular. Instead of rushing ahead with the switchover, will he take positive action to allow people to see some tangible benefits?
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are rushing ahead. We have said that we will move Britain to digital by 2015. That gives consumers and the industry six years to make the upgrade, which we are doing because we are committed to radio, we believe in radio and we love radio, and radio will not have a future unless it goes digital. We are not switching off FM, and we are putting new services on the FM spectrum that is vacated by the services which move to digital audio broadcasting, because we want to see radio prosper and grow in the digital age.
Is my hon. Friend aware that switchover is affecting valued services on both radio and television? I have been lobbied by Teachers TV, which fears that it will lose an enormous part of its audience because the Department for Children, Schools and Families is stipulating that it must switch over totally to digital.
We are ensuring with radio switchover that community organisations and small community radio stations, which might currently be able to broadcast for only two weeks a year, will inherit the FM spectrum currently taken up by big regional and national FM broadcasters. Precisely such small, commercial, local community organisations will be able to flourish in the digital future in a way that they are technologically constrained from doing now.
The Minister is a Welsh speaker, so is he aware of the fears for the future of Radio Cymru, the BBC’s Welsh language national service? It is not currently available on digital and will not be available in large swathes of western Wales for reasons of topography.
I have, with personal regret, to tell the hon. Gentleman that I am not really a Welsh speaker. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Dwi’n dysgu, ’de? I should have been a Welsh speaker.
We are alive to the particular problems of Wales. There are serious problems with coverage, not just with respect to Radio Cymru but with digital coverage throughout Wales. We have made it clear that the nations and regions that are furthest behind in digital coverage will be the first priority for the most serious intervention, to ensure that they are not left behind when we move to digital. We have made it clear also that we will not move to digital unless 90 per cent. coverage at the very least is achieved.
I start by welcoming you to your post, Mr. Speaker—an elevation that was only marginally more likely than man walking on the moon, which happened 40 years ago today. I offer you my congratulations. I am sure that you will want to join me in offering the congratulations of the whole House to the England cricket team, which won an historic victory today—their first victory over the Australians at Lord’s for 75 years. We would also like to congratulate the Minister on taking up his post in the DCMS team.
The Government’s own figures state that there are 65 million analogue radios in circulation, and they hope that the cost of digital radios will fall to £20 a set. That means that the cost of upgrading the nation’s analogue radio stock will surpass £1 billion. Who will pay that £1 billion? Will it be the Government, or will it be consumers?
Mr. Speaker, I should apologise for having forgotten to congratulate you; I thought that we were taking your position for granted by now, but it is my first time speaking under your chairmanship. I offer my very sincere congratulations. I never thought that your elevation was unlikely.
The hon. Gentleman shouts “cricket” from a sedentary position. I can tell him that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), was at the cricket, which almost certainly accounts for the first English victory at Lord’s since, I believe, 1934.
In response to what we might call the “Tory sums” of the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt)—[Interruption.] No, Tory sums. We do not know how many analogue radios are in circulation; it may be 65 million. The first point to make is that those sets will not become redundant. The FM spectrum will be well used for new services that are currently squeezed out. We are working with industry to come up with sets that are consistently priced at £20 or less. That will enable consumers to add to the 9 million digital sets—
Order. May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who has been extremely generous in his remarks, that I do not want to have to press the switch-off button, but I am a bit alarmed that he has a second point in mind? It might be better if he kept it for the long winter evenings.
The point is that if people use their analogue sets, they will be able to listen to new radio stations, but not the radio stations that they have been listening to for a very long time. Was it not the height of irresponsibility to announce the phasing out of analogue spectrum without announcing any details or any funding for a help scheme, similar to the one that was in place for TV switchover? Will that not cause widespread concern among millions of radio listeners, who will feel that they are faced with the unenviable choice of either paying up or switching off?
I shall try to squeeze in my answer at the end of that extraordinarily long question. We will do exactly the same with radio as we did with television: we will carry out a full cost-benefit analysis of exactly what kind of help scheme might or might not be required, and we will proceed accordingly. There are 9 million digital sets in use already. Consumers have six years to decide how much they want to pay, for what equipment, to receive which services.
Free Theatre Initiative
Nearly 50,000 free tickets have been issued during the scheme’s first quarter, enabling thousands of young people to experience fantastic theatre who otherwise would not have done so.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new appointment, and I look forward to working with him. The Bolton Octagon theatre hopes to give away 4,000 tickets during the lifetime of the scheme. Will he congratulate it on the fact that by the end of the summer break it will have allocated a total of 718 tickets of its 790 ticket allocation, which I think is pretty good?
I regret that I will not be working with my hon. Friend for as long as I would like, as I think that he is standing down at the next election, which is very sad. I should certainly like to join him in congratulating the Bolton Octagon. Not only has it had remarkable success with the free ticket scheme, but it has had its most successful year ever in ticket sales. Of course, Sir Ian McKellen began his acting career in Bolton. If the free ticket scheme inspires another actor of his calibre, it will have been money very well spent.
Digital Radio Switchover
The “Digital Britain” White Paper was clear that analogue radio, via FM, will continue beyond 2015. After the digital radio upgrade is completed, the vacated FM spectrum will be allocated to community radio stations and a new tier of ultra-local commercial radio.
I congratulate the Minister on his new position, not least because I am a former pupil of Erdington grammar school in his constituency. As he knows, 52 per cent. of listeners have not converted to digital audio broadcasting. Many groups of listeners, including the blind, are concerned that their analogue radios may be turned off in due course. That includes, of course, all those analogue radios in cars. What hope for the future can the Minister give those groups?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s congratulations, and thank her for her adornment of my constituency. To answer her two questions quickly, on help for the blind, there is an important issue to do with audio description for radio stations along the spectrum. We have been working for 18 months—and continue to work—with manufacturers to make sure that sets that provide that description for the blind are made available at an affordable price in the digital future. On cars, we are working with the car industry to ensure that all new cars after 2013 contain digital radios. Technology already exists to convert FM receivers to digital in cars.
My right hon. Friend must take that up with Sir Michael Lyons and the BBC Trust. Sir Michael will perhaps be glad of the opportunity to take up those matters, because I am sure that he is conscious that he and the trust need to account to the public for them.
Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations on your elevation? Having served with you on the marathon Minimum Wage Bill, I welcome your conversion to short contributions.
Since April 2008, my Department aside from the marketing and economic development that it regularly contributes to Visit Britain and Visit England, has made eight separate grants worth over £4.2 million to the south-west region from its Sea Change programme, which supports cultural regeneration and the visitor economy. I am glad to say that the largest beneficiary of those grants was Torbay, which I can confirm was awarded £2.25 million in August 2008 for projects at Cockington Court and Berry Head.
The number of tourists in the south-west region did fall in the first quarter of this year for a number of reasons including the credit crunch and the recession. I am glad to say, however, that initial figures show that it is now rising. We can see from benefit returns that the 10 towns with the most benefit claimants returning to work have been in seaside areas, and I am glad to say that six of them are in the south-west, where people are getting more work. The “staycation” and short breaks are providing a good result in the south-west.
One issue affecting the whole country, including the south-west, is the growth of the swine flu pandemic. Hon. Members might recall that, at the time of the foot and mouth outbreak and after the 9/11 attacks, the Treasury granted an additional £20 million, which was match-funded by the industry, to assist UK tourism through those difficult times. I notice that there is nothing on the DCMS or Visit Britain websites about swine flu. May I ask the Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State what discussions they have had with the Treasury and the Department of Health to ensure that we avoid sensationalist headlines such as that in The Daily Telegraph today—“Crowds may be banned from major sporting events”? What plans are there to help the British tourism industry to keep people informed and to tell them that Britain remains a safe place to visit?
The Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), sits on Cobra, the civil contingencies secretariat, and we are in daily contact. We are constantly updated on the situation. At present, the advice is to stay calm—I urge the hon. Gentleman to do that—not to panic and to take precautions.
Sport (Young People)
Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations to you on your new role?
Part of the legacy programme for 2012 will be to ensure that we leave behind a system that encourages those of all ages, particularly children and young people, to play sport. The five-hour offer for children aged five to 16 has been expanded to include three hours a week for those aged 16 to 19. To combat the drop-off on leaving school, and as part of more than £780 million of Government funding between 2008 and 2011, we are investing more than £15 million to create a new network of sports co-ordinators for those who have left school in order to move on to further education. Through our unprecedented investment in national governing bodies, nine sports will now also work specifically to reduce post-16 drop-off by 25 per cent. for 2013.
Among other things, I would like to ask my hon. Friend whether in the context of the question it is better for people to sit on Cobra rather than drink Cobra.
My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that there is an enormous drop-off in sports activity by young people post-school, particularly among young women. Will he work with local authorities and perhaps with private sporting clubs to ensure that his Department’s marketing to encourage people into sport is taken up by those groups so that we can see our young people get back into meaningful activity?
It is a pleasure to sit on the Cobra committee, and I also enjoy a pint of Cobra now and again.
My hon. Friend is quite right about the drop-off rate. In trying to get 2 million more people active in sport and physical activities by 2012—a key legacy aim—we are looking at the drop-off rate post-16. I know that in my hon. Friend’s area of Manchester and in Salford the local authorities are doing a great deal of work with the local community, in initiatives such as StreetGames and the KICKz project, to encourage people to get involved in sport. I am particularly pleased with Sport Unlimited, which is aimed at 11 to 19-year-olds; that involves 900 young people and £36 million of investment. I hope that that will help to get them into more organised sport.
The Minister will know that obesity is a huge and serious problem. If the Minister wants joined-up thinking and joined-up government with the Department of Health, why is his Department allowing the selling-off of four more sports fields and more school land than ever before, which of course prevents young people from having access to sports and addressing that important issue of obesity?
The hon. Gentleman usually gets his facts right, but he is completely wrong on this occasion. It is a complete myth that sports fields are being sold off. This Government have put processes in place to make sure that sports fields are not sold off. In fact, we have had a net increase in the number of sports fields. It is not just about sports fields; it is about indoor sports arenas and ensuring that we have world-class facilities for our youngsters and sports people. The hon. Gentleman is right about obesity, which is why the Government introduced free swimming, which more than 80 per cent. of local authorities took up. I am sorry that some Tory local authorities did not do so.
I have made all my falderals thanking and congratulating you, Mr. Speaker, so I will move straight to the Minister, who visited my constituency and saw the Hamilton-Davies trust and the Barton Athletic club projects in partnership with Salford city council. Does he agree that the project to encourage young people leaving school to take up non-traditional sports such as boxing, wrestling and martial arts is to be commended? Does he also agree that the 70 and 80-year-olds whom he saw training at Barton Athletic was a great example to others?
It was a great pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and to meet people at the Barton Athletic sports club. He is right that we saw young people getting involved in a range of different sports, but I was very happy to see a 70-year-old and an 80-year-old rowing and achieving fast times in preparation for entering the world senior games. As we are talking about older people, let me say that it was a great pleasure to see Tom Watson nearly become the British open champion yesterday. I congratulate the winner, but Mr. Watson’s performance gave great hope to all those older golfers.
The Minister has rightly said that increases in sports participation are a critical part of the legacy plan for 2012, but does he acknowledge that after a good early start there has been stagnation? Does he accept that the latest figures show that in six out of nine key sports there has been no increase in participation in the past 12 months; that in three of those sports—rugby, football and athletics—there has been a significant fall in participation; and that fewer women and fewer people with limiting disabilities are participating in sport? The Government must do more. Will he acknowledge that there are good ideas out there, such as gift aid for junior membership of sports clubs and the Active Generation programme by the Prince’s Trust? What are we to make of newspaper reports of some new scheme to be announced next year?
Let me say again that, although the hon. Gentleman normally gets his facts right, he has unfortunately got them wrong today. He keeps criticising the legacy that we are trying to create, but he will know that involving 2 million more people in sport and physical activity by 2012 has never been achieved by any other host of the Olympic games. There is a fantastic challenge ahead of us, but we are already making progress. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the new funding arrangements for Sport England are enabling the national governing bodies to increase participation: money is going to where sport is. More than £5 billion of lottery and Government funds has been invested since 1997.
I hope that the Opposition will now stop carping. If good ideas are emerging, let us hear them.
We have not received any recent representations on the future of the bingo industry, but I am aware that such representations are being made to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We recognise the important social role that bingo plays in many of our communities, and continue to engage with the industry on a range of issues affecting the state of the sector.
Sadly, we have not got very far with the Treasury. Many of my constituents have contacted me to say that they are very worried about the future of Southend Mecca, and that they thoroughly enjoy playing the game. One hundred bingo halls have already closed over the past three years because of the 32 per cent. tax. Will the Minister have another word with the Treasury, in order to establish whether it can provide parity for the industry and lower the tax to the rightful level of 15 per cent.?
We continue to have frequent discussions with the Treasury, but the hon. Gentleman will know how much work the DCMS itself has done to support bingo. He will know, for instance, that in February we increased the permitted number of B3 machines in bingo halls from four to eight, and also examined stake and prize levels for category C and D machines.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong about the number of bingo halls that have closed. In fact, between 37 and 40 have closed over the past 12 months, which represents 6 per cent. of the industry, but that is still too many clubs. We are aware of the important part that bingo plays in our communities, and we will continue to work with the industry and the Treasury to try to alleviate its problems.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but surely there is a need to lobby the Treasury to ensure that there is some consistency in the tax rates. If ever there was a need for a taskforce to work on saving one of our great British institutions, this is it. Would my hon. Friend consider leading such a taskforce?
I am always happy to be involved with a taskforce, but given my hon. Friend’s reputation for becoming involved in key issues, he might want to chair this one. He will know that the Prime Minister has been involved in the discussions about bingo. He met a deputation from the Bingo Association, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), to consider the issues in greater detail. We continue to work with the Treasury and others to ensure that we add to the work that we have already done to support bingo.
When I next speak to those at the very successful bingo club at the Elephant and Castle, or the very successful bingo club in Surrey Quays, will I be able to tell them that the Minister’s Department will look again at the taxation of bingo, and lobby the Government, as soon as we know the court decision on participation valued added tax? That will give the Government another opportunity. The Department lost the last battle, but can the Minister assure us that it is determined to win the war?
The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. We await the outcome of the court case, but we continue to work with the Treasury. For example, we are discussing the current consultation on gross profits tax relating to gaming machines. As the sponsoring Department, we are working closely with the industry in the sector to try to ensure that its case is heard wherever necessary.
Digital Television Switchover
Switchover has been successfully completed in the Selkirk and Douglas transmitter group areas of the Border region, with the Caldbeck group area due to complete on Wednesday. A number of findings resulting from research carried out during the switchover have been used to refine switchover further for the next regions to switch.
As my right hon. Friend has said, in two days switchover will be completed in the Border TV region. I sincerely hope that my good lady wife will ensure that everything is in order when that happens in my absence. I believe that the digital switchover help scheme initially caused concern. Has the uptake that we budgeted for been as great as my right hon. Friend expected?
It has not been as great as we expected; there is a considerable underspend. We do not think that, by and large, that is because the scheme is too complicated, but issues raised in my hon. Friend’s area have been looked at, and the new advice and videos that are being provided are intended to make it less complicated. The main reason for the underspend is that most people have simply done it for themselves, perhaps helped by friends or family. The help scheme has been a great success, and has been valued by those who have used it. Nevertheless, there are always lessons to be learned, and we hope that we are learning them from the switchover in my hon. Friend’s area.
The Department has regular dialogue with representatives of the pub industry and other areas of the tourism and hospitality industry. That is essential to ensure that licensing policy reduces unnecessary burdens on small businesses while maintaining the necessary public protection.
That is all very interesting, but is the Minister aware that although responsible publicans—I am thinking particularly about such a group in the city of Wells—are doing what they can to counter irresponsible and antisocial drinking, when big retail chains sell loss-leading and discounted alcohol the pubs are blamed for the consequences? What is the Minister doing to counter that? What discussions has he had with the drinks trade to stop that particular unfairness, which is undermining responsible publicans?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He is right that responsible publicans ensure that they do not serve people who have had too much alcohol. Sometimes that causes problems outside their premises. We are working with the drinks industry. We responded to the all-party group on beer, members of which are present in the House today, in trying to look at the issues around pricing, and at a mandatory code to ensure that people do not have irresponsible promotions. Many such promotions are seen on the high street—for example, women can drink for free, or for £5 people can drink as much as they can. They are irresponsible promotions. Like him, I congratulate those publicans who act responsibly.
My hon. Friend is aware that the pub is part of the community. It is an important part of that fabric, but has he thought about the number of pubs that are empty? Has he considered the challenge of alcohol-free pubs as an alternative for young people? They would be a way of controlling young people, and of giving them a new way of life and an outlet.
My hon. Friend raises a good idea that has already been acted on in a number of areas. Buildings are being taken over and alcohol-free pubs are in place. I do not want people to run away with the idea that we think that that is a substitute for good community pubs. We want to see good, strong community pubs, and with empty pubs that may be a good idea to develop.
My Department has invested £242 million in the renaissance in the regions programme, which aims to raise standards and participation in museums across England. Since its inception in 2002, visitor numbers have increased by 18.5 per cent. In the east of England, visits by children aged 16 and under to hub museums have increased by 216 per cent. In addition 72 new jobs have been created in hub museums in the eastern region.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Perhaps it shows my ignorance but I do not know what a hub museum is. The museums in Southend are very good, but residents and children in particular from Southend often travel to London to visit some of the larger museums. What more can be done through the renaissance programme to encourage visits to regional museums, particularly by people from the east of England and other regions that are quite close to central London?
I know that the Department’s statutory body, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, has been working with Southend to increase its offer. I know that the council has many exciting projects, particularly concerning the Saxon King museum, and that a bid has been submitted for the Southend pier head project. As Minister for the East of England, I am obviously watching all those things closely and I am happy to help the hon. Gentleman with that work.
Snibston discovery park is a regional museum based on the former colliery of that name, sunk by the great George Stephenson. Would the Minister accept an invitation to come and look at the work that is done there? Creativity, energy and professionalism has enabled the museum to reinvent itself in the most impressive fashion. It is a successful museum for an area much wider than north-west Leicestershire. We could do worse than to have that as a beacon for the way ahead.
As this is my first appearance under your watchful eye, Mr. Speaker, may I add to the legion of congratulations that have been sent your way and put on record my huge admiration for the job you are doing? [Hon. Members: “More!”] I still have three minutes, and I could go on.
On Wednesday, the Minister will publish her independent review of renaissance in the regions, which she will describe as a real success. The report itself is, however, highly critical of the management of renaissance in the regions, including the criticisms of incomplete accounts, a lack of financial reporting and a lack of documentation. Is this why the report, which was given to the Minister at the beginning of March, is being published only at the end of July—the beginning of the summer recess?
The digital economy Bill is not one of those in the draft programme proposed for pre-legislative scrutiny. Many of its proposals were contained in the interim “Digital Britain” document that we published in January. They have been the subject of reports by Select Committees in both Houses, and we are currently consulting on the proposals made in the final report last month.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I welcome him to his new position. I am sorry that that Bill will not be in the pre-legislative programme, because if it were there would have been something for us to do in October and November before the Queen’s Speech. May I take it as read, however, that it will definitely be in the Queen’s Speech?
My hon. Friend will, of course, understand that we cannot at this stage say what will definitely be in the Queen’s Speech—we cannot do so until Her Majesty stands up and delivers her Gracious Speech—but given that it is in the draft programme and it has been heralded by the Government as one of the mainstays of our active industrial strategy, I think he can be fairly confident that it has good prospects of being there.
I have spoken to the Video Standards Council—the current UK agents for the PEGI system—about the classification of video games and have another meeting scheduled with it very soon. I have also had discussions with the British Board of Film Classification. Both organisations are working hard to ensure the success of the new system.
I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome the steps that the Government are taking on this issue. However, it is still a matter of concern that a game such as “RapeLay”, which shows extreme violence against women, can be downloaded from the internet. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that such games are not accessed from the internet, so that children and young people are properly protected?
We should be clear that the game was not classified, but was briefly available on Amazon and then was banned. The point that my right hon. Friend is making is about games that, like other brutal, unpleasant, illegal content, can be available on the internet. All steps that apply to any other content on the internet will apply to games. Specifically, as part of the Byron review we set up the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to work with content providers, internet service providers and all aspects of Government to make sure that such content cannot be accessed, particularly by children.
The Minister will know that Britain is a great leader in video and computer games, and while I take on board many of the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), will the Minister recognise that this is a global industry, not simply a European one, and in so far as we are going to have the safeguards to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, we will clearly also need to have global regulation along those lines?
The system of regulation for which we have opted—the PEGI system—is pan-European, and as such, we see it as the building block to moving towards a global regulatory future. The key principle is that the markings on games should make it clear to parents which games are suitable for adults and which are suitable and unsuitable for children and young children. Adults should be allowed to access adult content; children most certainly should not.
We are responsible for a number of important areas. We are announcing excellent results for our free swimming and free theatre tickets initiatives this week. I wish to add to the earlier congratulations to Andrew Strauss and his team on their superb result at Lord’s. In doing so, we should not forget the achievement of our women’s cricket team, who have won every international competition this year. We believe that they have made themselves the most successful English sporting team in a single year in history.
The hon. Lady will know that we are considering that at the moment. There will always be a balance to be struck between the sort of messages that advertising sends out about healthy living and its health impact—those issues will concern people a great deal—and the importance of sporting events and sport generally being properly funded. That applies to many of the funds that go to sports at grass-roots level.
I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern about the fate of local newspapers, as I believe we all do in this House. Those papers are the lifeblood of our local democracy, they hold local authorities and other bodies to account and they are a very important part of our democracy. If he has studied the recommendations in our “Digital Britain” White Paper, he will have seen a number of proposals that will help, including the establishment of independent news consortiums to help provide local and regional news. Such an approach could include ownership or part-ownership by existing or new newspaper organisations. We are examining a number of areas in order to help local newspapers, because we agree that they are vital.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that it is not my job to tell media organisations what they should investigate and what they should do. However, may I pay tribute to the excellent work that he has done in this House to highlight the problem of human trafficking? I am very sorry that he will not be here in the future to continue doing that. Perhaps now that he, sadly, has more time on his hands, he will be able to spend some of it persuading media organisations to do exactly what he has just advocated.
I want to ask the Minister what the news is following my intervention last Thursday with the education and skills people about the co-location of the Royal Opera House and National Skills Academy for Creative and Cultural Skills project in Thurrock. She will have noticed that I accused the Government of not being involved in joined-up government and of being confused and dysfunctional. To ask a pithy question: can we have the money to get this site under way this summer—yes or no?
To give a pithy answer, I am doing my utmost to get my hon. Friend the money. I am nagging, pushing and writing to the relevant Minister. I am doing everything I can to get the money, because I, too, have an interest in this.
It is great news that the England cricket team won a test match at Lord’s against Australia for the first time since 1934, and it is also great that the England women’s cricket team have won everything in their path. Another thing that has happened that has never happened before is the biggest investment there has ever been in sport, made by this Government. I hope that we will have more success, built on the success that we had at the Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing last year—and the hon. Gentleman should not count his chickens.
My hon. Friend is right. Not only did we have a successful test match in Glamorgan, but the school games will take place later this year, and the Ryder cup will be in Wales next year. In Wales, and all over the UK, expertise is being built up in sporting events, and I congratulate all involved in Wales on hosting some tremendous events.
We have supported the seaside arcades. As the hon. Lady will know, we had a review of the category C and D machines and we have also considered category B. The gross profits tax is part of the overall issue, but we will continue to talk to the Treasury. We work with the industry on a regular basis and we have alleviated many of the problems of seaside arcades, although there is a lot more to be done.
Does my hon. Friend agree that on a day when we have won the first Ashes test match at Lord’s since 1934, it is a shame that it was shown only on a fee-paying channel, not a terrestrial channel where more people would have seen it and perhaps been encouraged to participate in the sport in the future?
That is why the Government have instituted a review, chaired by David Davies. We hope that his panel will respond by September. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is sad when people can only see edited highlights on Channel 5, and sometimes not even those. We have to strike a balance between money going into the game and the opportunity for a wider audience to see such significant events.
I am sure that my hon. Friend or I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and a delegation, but he will be aware that this is primarily a matter for the Ministry of Justice. We are certainly aware of the concerns that he expresses: I understand that they will all be covered in a forthcoming consultation document that the Secretary of State for Justice will launch in the near future.
Yes: it was a decision to try to cut the bureaucracy within Sport England and to put the money directly into sports governing bodies, which we have done. We are working with county sports partnerships and local government. The regional sports bodies did well, but were not operating effectively and efficiently enough. That is why we made the change.
Those must be a matter for the BBC. It has plenty of senior managers who are well paid enough to make such decisions and account for them, without it being necessary for me to micro-manage salary levels for staff. I have always made it clear, including to the BBC, that we live in an age of transparency and accountability. We in this place have been through a painful process of moving towards that, which I welcome. In the long run it will do this place a great deal of good. I am not aware of any institution or organisation that has not benefited by being more open.
Ronaldo sold for £80 million, Manchester City effectively owned by a country and offering John Terry wages of £250,000 a week, and an English manager saying that every player in Scotland is available at a price: is it not time we had an investigation into the running and funding of British football?
My hon. Friend will know that is exactly why we wrote to the premier league, the Football League and the Football Association with a number of questions about the sustainability of football, together with issues around home-grown players. It is right for the Government to express the concern of ordinary fans and our communities about what is happening in football. The premier league is the best in the world and we want it to remain so, but we need transparency and sustainability. I shall be writing to the football authorities in the next few weeks to try to help move this thing forward, because there is great concern about the sustainability and viability of many football clubs.
Those conversations go on all the time. I urge Opposition Front Benchers not immediately to see parallels with foot and mouth, which involved a completely different set of circumstances. At the time, mistakes were made; too much of the countryside was closed down for the wrong reasons—partly because we were under pressure from the agricultural industry not to let people walk over land. In all the reviews of foot and mouth it has been acknowledged that that was a mistake At this stage, there is no suggestion that the swine flu epidemic need impact at all on tourism or on the sort of gatherings that my Department sponsors—sporting or cultural, or festivals. I was at two festivals over the weekend—[Hon. Members: “Which ones?”] Latitude and the wonderful Tolpuddle Martyrs festival. People should carry on leading their lives as normal.
The Minister for the Olympics was asked—
The £9.325 billion funding package that I announced to the House in March 2007 remains the budget for the Olympics. The project remains on budget and on time, and as part of my commitment to budget transparency, I have since May 2009 been publishing updates on a quarterly basis. The latest quarterly update was published earlier today.
Bearing in mind the United Kingdom’s present economic difficulties, is the Minister confident that sufficient funds will be forthcoming from the private sector for the 2012 games, and that the contingency fund will prove sufficient to fill the potential funding gap?
Yes, I am. That is an important question, so it is worth placing it on record that 65 per cent. of the contingency remains unspent. We are confident that it is sufficient to complete construction and the other commitments made in the budget. In relation to the hon. Lady’s questions about the private sector, she will know—because I have reported to the House—that contingency funding was used to make good the shortfall in private sector contributions both to the press and broadcast centre and to investment in the Olympic village—an investment that will yield about 2,800 homes. The private sector contribution to the staging cost of the games through the organising committee remains well on target, at more than £500 million.
May I add my congratulations to you on your election, Mr. Speaker? I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to take particular note of a gifted young tenor who sings “Jerusalem” at the Ashes. His name is Sean Ruane and he comes from Rossendale in my constituency. May I also urge my right hon. Friend to give serious consideration to whether he might have a musical role in the 2012 Olympics?
I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure that Sean’s talents, now recorded in Hansard, will go from strength to strength. I draw her attention to the consultation that is taking place around the country about the content of the opening ceremony, which I hope will be many things, but in no small part a showcase for great young British talent.
What recent changes have been made to the budget to support the ambitious new programme that, according to The Independent on Sunday, the Government are apparently launching to support grass-roots sport? How much sooner does the Minister think the Government will reach the target of getting 1 million more people into sport as a result of the campaign?
The budget to which I have just referred is almost entirely for construction, security and non-sport, non-participation activity. The costs to which the hon. Gentleman referred are being met in a variety of ways: the investment in school sport, community sports clubs and the reconstruction of facilities, and the £100 million a year that the Big Lottery Fund is spending on sport. That all means that whereas in 1997, when this Government came to power, Exchequer investment in sport was £50 million, that figure is now £400 million, so the campaign to get 1 million more people taking part in sport on top of the participation by young people at school is being funded by a steady increase in investment.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way in which we will measure the success of the Olympics is by participation in sport beyond 2012? Does she recognise the important and value-for-money role that can be played by non-for-profit voluntary organisations in delivering that and encouraging participation in sport as we approach the Olympics?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and frequently makes that point. The thousands of sports clubs throughout the country are the backbone of participation, and their contribution will enable us to achieve the target of getting 1 million more people active in sport.
A key element in containing the overall budget is the use of the stadium in legacy mode. I think that everybody would agree that Manchester showed the way after the Commonwealth games. In her initial public pronouncements Baroness Ford, the new chairman of the legacy company, has indicated her desire to re-examine the issue of a football use, and both the Rugby Football Union and the Rugby Football League are keen to use the stadium to support their bids. Given that the last four European cup finals have been played in dual-use stadiums, is the right hon. Lady prepared to re-examine her opposition to such a move?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have discussed this with Baroness Ford. We have not yet won the right to host the World cup in 2018. Clearly, if our excellent bid is successful, there will of course be a case for re-examination, but this is not cost-free, and the House should understand that plans will proceed to make sure that we honour our commitment to the International Olympic Committee and to athletes across the country in the bid book, that we will have, as a legacy for the games, a 20,000-seater, grand prix-capable athletics stadium. We are making good progress in building the legacy. Tenants include a school, the English Institute of Sport and the National Skills Academy. Baroness Ford is eager to squeeze every last benefit of legacy from every single venue, and I support her in that, but I want certainty and planning for the legacy of the stadium.
I shall answer speedily, Mr. Speaker. The cost of staging the games will primarily be met from the £2 billion budget of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, which was raised principally from the private sector. The costs of additional wider security and policing, and a £66 million public sector contribution towards the Paralympic games, are contained in the £9.3 billion public sector funding package.
As would be expected with a major national event of this kind, there will also be other attributable costs to the public purse, and they will be funded from within departmental expenditure limits.
Sport transcends politics. Every party in the House wants the 2012 Olympic games to be an outstanding success for the benefit of our great country. Can the Minister give any further details about which operations may be scaled back if there is a shortfall in sponsorship and revenue from the private sector? That is important: we want a success, but we also want the facts.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the Olympic games are being planned and delivered on a cross-party basis as far as humanly possible. The second point, however, is that as the development of the park has proceeded, decisions have been taken to put in further public sector investment where private sector financing has not been forthcoming. In staging the event, the organising committee will take full account of the likelihood of meeting its budget, which it expects to do. It is also worth the House recording that the committee is already substantially ahead of its private sponsorship-raising activities, so we have cause for confidence on that point.
We are determined to ensure that there is full equivalence between the Paralympics and the summer games and that the Paralympics are fully integrated into the organising committee’s plans, with a cross-Government Paralympic legacy plan, which will identify how we are going to use the power of the Paralympics to increase opportunities for disabled people more widely.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a leavers assembly at Ashbridge school in my constituency, at which a presentation was made by Shelly Woods from Blackpool. Shelly won a silver medal and a bronze medal at the Beijing Paralympics and made a truly inspirational presentation. What opportunities will exist to celebrate the Paralympics, as well as the Olympics, in the forthcoming open weekend?
I thank my hon. Friend and join him in congratulating Shelly on her contribution. The forthcoming open weekend, which will mark three years to go until the opening of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, will be marked across the country. Some 750 events are already registered, and I encourage hon. Members from all parts of the House to take part. In the north-west, my hon. Friend can go to one of many events, which include the academy cup at Greenbank sports academy and many others besides. The open weekend will be a great moment to celebrate achievements so far, and Olympic and Paralympic sports will both feature.
This weekend a great Olympian became the world boxing champion. Amir Khan is a great role model for young people in this country, yet small boxing clubs where people like him will come from in future are struggling. I wonder whether the Minister or the sports Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), would like to visit a new boxing club in my constituency and see not only the great young people coming forward, but the financial problems that they face.
I am sure that the House will want to congratulate Amir Khan. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about his dedication to providing leadership to young men—and, indeed, young women—right across the country as they take up boxing. As my hon. Friend the sports Minister has pointed out, investment is going into boxing clubs because of Amir Khan’s advocacy and the evident benefits to young people.
What progress is being made on the recruitment of thousands of volunteers from right across the United Kingdom to ensure that the Paralympics and the Olympics in 2012 are the outstanding success that we all want them to be?
The plans for volunteer recruitment will be announced next year and recruitment will start shortly thereafter. However, the scale of public enthusiasm for the forthcoming Olympics can be measured by the fact that although some 70,000 volunteers will be recruited by the organising committee, more than 250,000 people have already registered their interest. We in Government are absolutely determined to ensure that all volunteers who offer themselves for the games have an opportunity to get involved in their community in one way or another.
Swine Flu Update
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the AH1Nl swine flu pandemic. I wish to do three things today: to update the House on the spread of the virus, to provide additional details about the launch of the national pandemic flu service, and to set out how Members in all parts of the House will be kept informed during the summer recess.
In recent weeks, we have discovered a great deal more about the swine flu virus. While it has spread quickly, the virus has not become more dangerous. For the vast majority, swine flu remains a mild and self-limiting illness—and let me be clear: our advice to the public about dealing with it has not changed. However, as the number of cases rises, it is understandable that people are becoming more concerned, and all organisations have a role to play in providing reassuring, consistent and clear advice.
First, I wish to deal directly with advice to pregnant women, which, again, has not changed since the outbreak began. The chief medical officer says that most pregnant women with swine flu will get only mild symptoms, but pregnancy brings a higher risk of complications. Bearing these risks in mind, at present mothers-to-be are advised to continue normal activities such as going to work, travelling on public transport, and attending events and family gatherings. However, they are advised to take the following steps to reduce their risk of infection and complications: first, to observe good hand hygiene, with frequent use of soap and water; secondly, wherever possible, to avoid contact with someone who is known or suspected to have swine flu; and thirdly, if they have flu-like symptoms, to make early contact with a general practitioner, who may advise treatment with antiviral drugs. If in doubt, pregnant women should seek advice, and if they think they have symptoms, they need to contact their GP as soon as possible for antiviral treatment. The chief medical officer will be reissuing this advice later today.
I also understand that families with small children have concerns. The key characteristic of swine flu is fever. The first thing that parents should do is check whether their child has a temperature at or over 38° C. They should then contact the national pandemic flu service, once it has launched, or their GP, if their child has a high temperature and any one of the following symptoms: tiredness, headache, sore throat, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea, aching muscles, or limb and joint pain.
Since my last statement to the House, the daily reported figures from the Health Protection Agency have been replaced by weekly estimates based on the numbers reporting flu-like illness to their GPs. The latest figures published on Thursday show how the number of cases has grown, with 55,000 new cases of swine flu reported last week alone. There were 652 people in hospital, 53 of whom were in critical care. There had been 26 deaths in England.
The figures also confirm that the virus has now taken hold around the country, rather than in isolated pockets, and show how quickly this has happened. On 8 July, just six primary care trusts reported exceptional levels of flu-like illness. By 15 July, this had increased to 110 PCTs—hence our immediate decision last week to activate the national pandemic flu service. The latest figures show that nine out of 10 NHS regions are now showing exceptional levels of flu-like illness, based on GP consultations.
GPs are on the front line in this pandemic. They are coping admirably with the increased work load, and I am sure that the House will want to extend its thanks to them, to their staff and to everybody working so hard throughout the health service, the Health Protection Agency and the Department of Health. All professionals deserve our full support, and the best way to do this is to find new ways to relieve pressure on the front line.
The technology to launch the national pandemic flu service has been available for some time, but given the latest HPA figures, and drawing on advice from the field, we have now reached a point where the service is required. I can therefore confirm that the service will go live in England by the end of this week, subject to testing. It will be accompanied by a major public information campaign. After the launch, people will no longer need to ring their GP: they can either answer questions online via the new website or ring the call centre service, where trained staff will be able to assess them over the phone. If swine flu is confirmed, they will then get an authorisation number, which their flu friend can use to pick up antivirals from local antiviral collection points. I will ensure that all Members receive information on the location and number of collection points in their area before the launch of the service later this week.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the situation is different. We have not seen the same rate of spread, and, as a result, the service will not be in operation in those countries this week, but they may choose to opt in at a later date. People in those regions should, therefore, continue checking their symptoms on the NHS website, or via the swine flu information line, and then call their GP for diagnosis over the phone.
The Government must be as open as possible about the potential scale of the threat, so that organisations in the public and private sectors can plan effectively. Last week’s planning assumptions set out reasonable “worst case scenarios” for them to plan against. We published a range of figures covering the numbers who could get swine flu; experience complications, and be hospitalised or die. The assumptions also cover the number who could be absent from work because they or their family get swine flu.
Let me stress again that those are worst case scenarios, not predictions—and we need the media to play their part in reporting them as such. For the NHS, the assumptions mean that it can now step up its preparations to cope with a sudden surge in swine flu cases, and it already has detailed plans in place. Similarly, infrastructure providers and other essential operators, such as food suppliers and electricity, gas and water companies, already have continuity plans to maintain services. However, organisations of all kinds should now establish plans to reduce the threat that swine flu poses to the economy.
The Government have published guidance documents on continuity planning, and we have also set up a new business advisory network for flu to provide a single source of information and advice. Full details are available on the business link website—www.businesslink.gov.uk.
Let me now update the House on vaccines. The Department of Health has already signed contracts with two manufacturers to supply enough vaccine for the whole population. According to their delivery schedules, we should begin receiving supplies from August, with enough becoming available for at least 30 million people by the end of the year. Clearly, we want the vaccine to be available as soon as possible, but we cannot compromise on safety. We will take all necessary steps to ensure that the vaccine is appropriately tested.
We are also now planning the vaccination programme so that we can start administering vaccines to priority groups, including NHS and social care staff, as soon as we get the green light to proceed. We will continue to take the best independent scientific advice on all questions about vaccination.
Finally, I recognise that hon. Members must be updated during the parliamentary recess. I have therefore asked strategic health authorities to provide weekly briefings for MPs coinciding with the HPA’s national updates. They will cover local information on the number of diagnosed and confirmed cases and hospitalisations, as well as updates on antiviral collection points, local information on any clusters or other specific developments, and a hotline number for hon. Members to use to contact their local strategic health authority.
In addition, the civil contingencies committee will meet weekly, and Ministers and officials will be in close contact throughout the summer months to respond to emerging issues. This evening, there will be a briefing session open to all Members with the chief medical officer.
I am also grateful to the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) for the constructive conversations that we have had. I will of course keep Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers updated over the summer, and we will continue regular discussions with Health Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure a consistent UK-wide response.
In conclusion, concern has risen and there is increasing pressure on services, but there is no change to the advice or to Government plans. It is because we have planned carefully for this eventuality that we have large quantities of antivirals, a national pandemic flu service about to launch, and a vaccine on the way. That constitutes a solid base on which to deal with future challenges. I commend the statement to the House.
The House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for his further update on the flu pandemic response. I am sure that hon. Members also wish to offer our condolences to the families of those who have died as a result of contracting the H1N1 virus. Again, I join the Secretary of State in expressing our gratitude to all the NHS staff, particularly in primary care, for their response to the growing pressures arising from the virus.
The House will know that we supported the containment strategy and the shift to a treatment-only policy. In time, it will be important to understand how effective the containment strategy was in practice. There is some evidence to suggest that a significant number of people who might have been given antiviral treatment while the containment strategy was being pursued, or given prophylactic access to antiviral drugs, did not in fact receive it. Will the Secretary of State agree to a review of that in due course, although obviously not at this stage?
It is clear that there is still a considerable degree of confusion about what people should and should not do about this flu. Publishing planning assumptions and preparing for the worst is one thing, but we really do need the Government more effectively to explain that, up to now, we are not experiencing the worst-case scenario, and that we can therefore take a “business as usual” approach, except for those who have symptoms or contract this influenza. Can the Secretary of State confirm that from later this week, everyone who needs to will be able to access diagnosis and antiviral treatment via the pandemic flu line? Will he say what are the maximum distances to what he describes as local antiviral collection points? Can he explain why pharmacists are being used in some areas but not in others? Why cannot they be used more generally for now, while the numbers involved remain limited?
Over the weekend, conflicting advice was issued to expectant mothers. Consistent and accurate advice is paramount in a situation in which we are trying to maintain public confidence, so can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure that the chief medical officer liaises with the royal colleges and other associations to achieve consistency and clarity of advice to the public?
An interim solution for the national pandemic flu line is to be put in place. We know that the Treasury delayed until December signing the contract for a full solution with BT. Even so, this March, the Secretary of State’s Department said that it could be available by April or May. It should, according to the plan, have been activated in mid-June, when the pandemic alert was declared, but it was not. To that extent, it is a month late. It is clear that much of the confusion that we have seen in that month could have been avoided if the Government had delivered the pandemic flu line on time. BT says that it did all that was asked of it. Who and what caused the delay?
The Secretary of State still maintains that vaccination could begin by September. There is a great deal of public interest in a potential new vaccine, so it is vital that the Government set out clearly the process for licensing and implementation. Clearly, the fact that a vaccine has been manufactured does not mean that it has been licensed by the European Medicines Agency, the EMEA. We do not yet know whether the EMEA will be able to fast-track licensing based on the mock-up dossier, or whether it will need additional clinical data. We do know that in 1976, the US authorities began a vaccination programme with an unlicensed vaccine that had damaging side-effects. Can the Secretary of State therefore confirm that it is the Government’s intention to proceed only with a licensed vaccine?
I have asked the Secretary of State and his predecessors several times for a debate on vaccine prioritisation. Will he publish the advice on the criteria for that, and on the benefit of vaccinating young adults compared with vaccinating the elderly, who appear to have some acquired immunity? Can he tell us how many people aged 55-plus are estimated to have contracted the virus? Of course, we need also to know who he anticipates will fall into the at-risk category groups for vaccination, coming immediately after health and social care workers.
We have to plan for many more hospitalisations over coming weeks. The planning assumptions are for a clinical attack rate of up to 30 per cent. Will the Secretary of State now publish the modelling that forms the evidence base for that assumption? What is the basis for his belief that up to 50 per cent. of children may contract this influenza?
We know that the UK has the smallest number of critical care beds in relation to population of any major health system. May I ask the Secretary of State again what criteria he thinks should be applied to the cancellation of elective operations, and what plans the Government have to train additional NHS staff in the use of non-invasive ventilatory support?
Finally, last Thursday Margaret Chan of the World Health Organisation warned of the threat that developing countries face and their disadvantage in placing orders for a finite supply of vaccines. What more do the Government intend to do to ensure that access to vaccination reaches the most at-risk groups in developing countries?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and I agree with him: I am sure that we would all wish to pass on our condolences to those who have, sadly, seen a loved one die in the current outbreak. I also want to put on record again my thanks to the staff of the national health service, particularly those working at primary care level. I visited the antiviral collection point in Tower Hamlets this morning. Obviously, there has been some very real pressure on staff on the front line, who are dealing with lots of cases. In that part of the country, where staff have dealt with some of the highest levels of pressure, they have coped admirably well. We all owe them a great deal of thanks, as we plan to deal with the further challenges ahead.
Let me go through the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised; I shall take each one in turn. He asked me first about the policy of containment, and asked whether I would commission a review. I am confident—this is backed up by the advice from experts in the Department—that the containment policy worked well. It allowed us more time and breathing space, and it provided high-quality information, with which we were able to assess the early development of the virus. It is right to say, of course, that there came a point when it was hard to sustain the procedures of the containment policy in areas that were experiencing great pressure. He will recall that we relieved that pressure by allowing the outbreak management phase to commence. Let me just say to him that we will come back to the issue and look again at it—now is not the time to do that—but the early feeling is that the containment period worked well, and bought us time, which helped us to plan.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the planning assumptions. I hope that he will agree with my judgment that in this day and age, it is right to share with the public, business and public services the information that is given to the Department and Ministers about the likely effects of the virus, in terms of the spread of disease, hospitalisations and the deaths that sadly occur. I have taken the judgment that we should continue with that policy of openness, but we will at all times explain it and put it in the right context. As he will have heard, in all my statements I have stressed the “business as usual” message at all times, as have the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), and Professor Sir Liam Donaldson. I can do so again for the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) today; indeed, I did so in my statement. That is always the context.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about antiviral collection points and the steps being taken to ensure that they are accessible to people all over the country. He asked whether there should be maximum distances. Obviously, those are matters for every primary care trust. I said in my statement that I have asked that all Members be given information on the local collection points in their constituencies. We will make sure that that information is given before the national pandemic flu service launches. It is possible that pharmacies could play a greater role in developing that network, and I am open to the possibility that any Member, from any part of the House, may bump into me in the next few days and say, “We haven’t got enough collection points; some people will find it a long distance to travel.” Let us have that discussion, and respond to concerns, as we go along. We are confident that from the latter part of this week, we can stand up a service that will significantly relieve pressure on primary care and enable us to get medication to people who need it quickly.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the advice for pregnant mothers, which he said was confusing. Let me say again that our advice has not changed. I cannot make that clear enough. The front page of a newspaper stated that one voluntary body had said that people should not plan for a pregnancy—should postpone pregnancy, in effect—and there was a response to that from the Royal College of General Practitioners. I would be grateful if he would listen to this point: comment has been made on the advice prepared a long time ago for H5N1, bird flu, which, as I think he knows, would have been a more serious virus. It is important that care is taken to ensure that the statements that are made relate to the current advice. As I say, that advice has not changed.
The Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have played a superb role over the past few weeks, and I am sure that they will continue to do so. Both organisations have given clear advice today and in the past week, and of course we will continue to liaise with them to ensure that they can continue to play that role.
The hon. Gentleman said that the national pandemic flu service was “a month late”, and asked who had caused the delays. This brings us to the heart of some of the information that the Liberal Democrats were putting out this weekend. I am afraid that they were trying to score a political point when none was justified. As I have explained, when I came into the Department, the clear advice to me was that it would be justified to stand up a new national network—with all the resource, energy and time that that would take—when we had simultaneous outbreaks in many parts of the country and there was not only pressure in two or three places but more sustained pressure across the country.
I want to refer the hon. Gentleman back to the numbers that I quoted in my statement. I will read them to him again, because they illuminate this point. I said: “On 8 July, just six primary care trusts reported exceptional levels of flu-like illness.” One week later, that figure had increased to 110. On that day, 15 July, I took the decision—which was endorsed by Cobra—to activate the national pandemic flu service. We could have done it earlier, had the circumstances justified that. I have been clear since I came into the Department that the service could have been activated, should that have proved necessary. The change in the facts on the ground last week justified the activation of the service, and I do not believe that it is right to build a story about long delays and infighting. That has not been the case, and the decision was not technology-driven; it was driven by pressure on the ground.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a vaccine. There is a difficult discussion to be had about putting in place a prioritisation programme for vaccination that deals with higher-risk groups and health and social care staff at the same time. I believe that that can be done. Given that such a decision will be taken in the next week, or longer ahead, after the House has risen, I undertake to share that information in advance with the Members on both Front Benches, so that they can have an input into the decision.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a licensed vaccine. I repeat what I said in my statement: we obviously want to ensure that any vaccine is properly and thoroughly tested. A process was put in place for H5N1 but, as we are dealing with a mild virus, the circumstances are now different. The balance of risk attached to pursuing an unlicensed product is obviously much changed, given that this is a mild virus. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands these complexities. For me, the important thing is to get in place the necessary assurances on the vaccine as quickly as possible, so that we can move ahead with a prioritised vaccination programme, come the autumn.
The hon. Gentleman asked about critical care. We have taken great steps, not just recently but over a long period of time, strategic health authority by strategic heath authority and primary care trust by primary care trust, to ensure that there is sufficient critical care capacity in all parts of England to enable the NHS to cope. The publication of the planning assumptions last week gave further information to help local health services to plan for the expected levels of demand. Of course we will continue to do that at all stages, and to endeavour at all stages to give full answers and all information so that the hon. Gentleman and all other hon. Members can make informed judgments on these important matters.
I thank the Secretary of State for providing a copy of an early draft of his statement. I also add my thanks to health workers who are working on the front line and behind the scenes. I want to start by asking about the advice to pregnant mothers. Why, if the advice has not changed, did the National Childbirth Trust say that it was acting on departmental advice? Why was the website changed so late in the day?
The right hon. Gentleman talked about patients being advised to contact the national pandemic flu service. They have previously been putting quite a strain on our GPs’ services. Will he explain the six-month delay in getting Treasury approval for the hotline? The freedom of information request made it quite clear that there had been a significant delay in signing it off, which could have resulted in an undue work load on our GPs.
I tabled a parliamentary question on collection points earlier this month, in which I asked
“how many primary care trusts had designated influenza treatment distribution centres on 1 July 2009.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 174W.]
The answer, which I am sure the Secretary of State will be interested to hear, was that the information is “not collected centrally”. That does not inspire confidence at all. Who is in charge? Does the Department have a handle on what PCTs are doing, or is it all delegated to a different level?
There have been worrying reports in the newspapers about whether children can receive the vaccine before the final trial results are available. The right hon. Gentleman has tried to reassure us today, but will he explain why manufacturers have been exempted from liability for certain side-effects arising from the vaccines? No decision appears to have been made about the prioritisation of vaccines, yet SAGE—the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts—discussed the matter and made recommendations on 7 July. If that advice was available on 7 July, why has the Department not acted on it, and why are we still waiting for decisions to be made?
Finally, hospital staff are likely to be catered for, but what about care workers? My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has been advised by a care home that the PCT said it did not have the resources to give Tamiflu to care workers in the private sector, who would have to pay. Given that those workers are at the front line, and given the crossover between NHS and social care, will the Secretary of State address that? Will he also clarify what quantities of antivirals are left and explain why so few discussions with pharmaceutical wholesalers about the wider distribution of these products have been held?
In replying to the hon. Lady, I will endeavour to respond to any points from the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) that I have not answered.
The hon. Lady began by asking about the advice to pregnant women. I repeat that the advice has not changed. The Department has given very clear advice since the beginning—[Interruption.] Let me be absolutely clear to the hon. Lady in answering her question, which is very important to many people. Advice was given over the weekend that was based on planning for H5N1, so that clearly was not and is not relevant in this case. The advice was subsequently withdrawn by the organisation concerned.
In those circumstances, it is important to ensure good liaison and sharing of advice, ensuring that different organisations can give their own advice—there is more than one voice in this debate and there is international experience to draw on. At all times, however, we want to give the clearest possible advice, and where further advice or clarification is necessary, we will always provide it. As I said in my statement, the chief medical officer will reissue existing advice, bringing together all the latest information, which I hope will provide some reassurance to the hon. Lady. I do not think that what she said particularly helps in this situation. It is important to recognise that people need clear advice, so we must not and should not invent confusion where there is none.
On the hon. Lady’s claims about a six-month delay, it is important to recognise that the national pandemic flu service is the first of its kind in the world. I am sure that if there were any problems or glitches, Members of all parties would not hesitate to say that it was outrageous and would criticise us for launching a service that had not been properly tested. The service, which is innovative and provides a different approach, will significantly relieve pressure on the primary care front line. Our decision was not technology-driven or, indeed, driven by delays in government. The service has been available for commissioning for some time. With pressure increasing simultaneously in different parts of the country last week, I judged it the right moment to bring this service into being. If we had done that any sooner, however, it could have been a distraction to staff dealing with the early effects of the outbreak in their areas.
The hon. Lady made a fair point about PCTs and about data on antiviral collection points not being collected centrally. I undertook this week to supply all Members with information on local antiviral collection points before the launch of the new service. She is perfectly entitled to hold me to that commitment.
SAGE has discussed vaccines and has made recommendations to Ministers. The Cobra civil contingencies committee first discussed the matter at last week’s meeting. We recognised that further time might be necessary to consider the higher-risk groups and the order of priority for receiving the vaccine. We must ensure that we strike the right balance in respect of health and social care workers. Of course, that must be linked to schedules for the delivery of vaccine. The issues are complicated and interlinked, but I commit myself to sharing important information with the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) over the summer.
The hon. Lady made an important point about private care home workers: such front-line staff must be able to do their job, thereby relieving pressure on the national health service. That point has been relayed to me by various people in recent weeks, and it is not lost on me. We will come to a final decision on the matter soon. The aim of giving vaccine to health and social care workers is to ensure that essential services can operate, and that extra pressure is not put on already overstretched services. That principle will guide our approach to issuing vaccine.
Order. May I say to the House that, at 32 minutes, the statement and Front-Bench exchanges took considerably longer than I would have wanted or expected? I say politely to representatives of the Front Bench that it is almost invariably an unalloyed joy for me to hear them, but it is better for them to leave me hearing less and wanting more, rather than hearing more and wanting less. At least 15 Back Benchers are seeking to put a question, and I want to accommodate them all, so the usual rule applies: short questions and short answers.
Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State give us his assessment of how local parts of the NHS are dealing with the distribution of antiviral drugs? I would not want that question to be interpreted as being in any way critical of what has happened so far, as I commend him, his ministerial colleagues and everyone in the Department and the national health service for their contingency planning and for the implementation of contingency plans, as endorsed by that responsible BBC correspondent Mr. Fergus Walsh, whatever some other people might say.
I thank my right hon. Friend. Mr. Walsh has indeed done a superb job in providing balanced coverage to the public, and we pay tribute to him: if coverage is not so well and carefully done, pressure can be put on NHS services as a result of people worrying unnecessarily.
Let me outline what is happening in Camden: three chemists have extended opening hours; three antiviral collection points will be in place later this week, and I shall ensure my right hon. Friend has the details. I am told that there is a flu car for those without flu friends, so there is a local distribution system for people who might find it hard to get antivirals, and 350 courses of antivirals have been issued to date. The local response varies: some PCTs are putting in plans to respond to the requests of their local community, but in Camden, as he can clearly see, a detailed local operation is already in place.
We are now in the holiday season and a lot of people will be going abroad, so what advice does the Secretary of State have for airlines and travellers, especially as nine youngsters have been diagnosed with swine flu in China? Should not those considering going abroad ensure that they have proper insurance: the European health insurance card if they are going to Europe, and proper paid-for insurance if they are going to other countries?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, as people will be about to travel. It is important that people take the same precautions when travelling as they would when at home. As I have said several times today, it is very important that people travelling within Europe—not just one member of the family, but all family members—have the European health insurance card, as that entitles people to necessary medical treatment, including for swine flu, across the European Union. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage his constituents to ensure that they take that card on holiday. We recommend that if people have swine flu, they do not travel until their symptoms have stopped. We also recommend that people check the Foreign Office website for advice on travel to particular countries. If he wants more detail, I can write to him, but he is correct that people will want clear information on this important matter.
The Department, the Secretary of State and his predecessor have handled the swine flu outbreak very sensibly. While I accept that the outbreak has had tragic consequences for a few people, it is still mild and self-limiting. Is it not incumbent on all of us, both Members of Parliament and the media, to ensure that any reporting takes place on that basis, and that people are not panicked into believing there is something in the country that is worse than what we have—and are controlling—at the moment?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks. The Department has been well served by a number of Ministers, because—as my right hon. Friend will know in his capacity as Chair of the Health Committee—it has planned for this eventuality for a considerable time.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that everyone—including Members of Parliament and any representative of the media who speaks on a public platform—has a responsibility to deal with this in a calm and measured way following the advice that has been issued. Any unnecessary concern out there could put extra pressure on the NHS front line, and I do not think that anyone would want that. We will rise to the challenge. The NHS has always been a wonderfully resilient organisation, and it will deal with this issue, but let us not make things more difficult for the valuable staff who are in front-line positions.
I, too, wish to express my condolences to the families of those who have died from swine flu.
What discussions have taken place about the contribution that the Treasury will make to dealing with the swine flu pandemic, and with the burden that will fall on the devolved Governments in the United Kingdom? Does he agree that, regardless of the statistics on people who are presenting with swine flu symptoms, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland should offer the same service, given that we call this a national pandemic flu service?
I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s second point. We continue to have regular discussions with the four health Ministers, and Michael McGimpsey has been of great assistance in helping us to co-ordinate our response across the United Kingdom. All Ministers—in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England—agree that the right response is a UK-wide response, and that will continue.
We do not yet know the full cost of the pressure that the outbreak will place on services. We do not know the full cost of the vaccination programme, because we do not yet know how long the outbreak will last. As far as is possible, we must deal with that pressure within existing budgets and resources; but any extra requests for funding would be dealt with in the usual way, according to existing Treasury arrangements.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I am sure he agrees, however, that concern has grown over the definition of pregnant women and the under-fives as vulnerable groups. That is certainly the case in my constituency. Can he reassure my constituents that that vulnerability does not mean that they are more likely than not to contract swine flu? It is certain that in the case of pregnant women there will be no dangers to the unborn child, and it is certain that the treatment for the under-fives is entirely effective.
My hon. Friend has made an important point. Some younger people have not encountered this kind of virus before, while some older people have. However, it is not the case that anyone is necessarily more at risk of developing the virus than others; it is a question of people’s ability to withstand it after contracting it. That is an important distinction, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to clarify it.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about travelling, may I point out that the Secretary of State has said nothing about information at airports and ports? Is he issuing leaflets? What about the arrangements for incoming as well as outgoing passengers? What information will be provided, and will any health officers be available?
We have not introduced screening at United Kingdom airports, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about information. I will follow it up, and check that good information is provided at ports of entry. I am grateful to him for bringing the issue to my attention.
The FCO website states:
“Medical screening for the Swine Flu virus… has been introduced… at several airports for passengers arriving on international flights.”
That includes airports in China, although obviously practice differs elsewhere. In relation to China, the guidance states:
“The Chinese government continues to place great emphasis on screening and surveillance, rapid detection, quarantine and treatment.”
Obviously, we know about the situation with the young children, which emerged over the weekend. We will provide support to them as necessary, but it is for all countries to deal with the outbreak as they see fit.
This global pandemic is affecting our country in our summer months, and it is anticipated that the situation may get worse as we work towards the winter months. Obviously, however, many countries in the southern hemisphere are experiencing the pandemic during their winter months. How closely are we monitoring the levels of infection in countries in the southern hemisphere, so that we can learn from the trends as we work towards our winter months?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I can assure him that the international figures are monitored. At the risk of sounding overly critical, I think that our surveillance systems are better than those in many other countries, so we must exercise some caution in directly comparing the figures from one country with the figures from another. However, we keep a close eye on those figures. Obviously, one of the things about this virus is that it is spreading here during the summer months, which people would not always expect.
May I raise again the issue of constituents travelling overseas? Can the Secretary of State assure me that they will be able to contact the national pandemic hotline even if they are overseas, and that there will be some facility to direct them to where they should go, as language and other barriers might mean that they cannot access treatment when they need it?
I do not think that people can contact the service from overseas, but that is why I made an important distinction in my statement about people who are travelling. They should take all the necessary precautions, including purchasing over-the-counter medications, heeding the advice on the Foreign Office website and considering whether they should also have, if they are travelling within the European Union, a European Union health insurance card. The hon. Lady has raised an important point. I will see whether there is more we can do to provide reassurance. I would not want us today, when we are launching a new service for Britain, to be distracted by another issue, but if I can provide further reassurance or a better and more detailed answer in next 24 or 48 hours I will do that.
During the school term, it was easy to decide which schools had to close because there were outbreaks among the children. Is the Secretary of State talking to local education authorities about what will happen in September when the children return, because some schools might not wish to reopen?
The decision will have to be taken locally according to advice from public health officials. It is always the responsibility of the head teacher and chair of governors, and it would be premature to suggest that there should be widespread school closures. The majority of schools in England have broken up for the summer or are about to do so. We hope that that will have a beneficial impact on the spread of the virus, although we cannot be sure about that. We keep all these matters under discussion, and the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), regularly attends our Cobra meetings. We will update advice to schools if and when that is appropriate.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Hon. Members: “Mr. Speaker.”] I do apologise, Mr. Speaker, for whatever I said. Despite the Secretary of State's welcome assurances about keeping hon. Members in touch, does he agree that it is incomprehensible and further undermines the reputation of this House that, in the face of this and other crises, we break up tomorrow until 12 October, without any inkling of a recall to scrutinise the Government's actions?
I think that the arrangements I have put in place, and which I have explained in my statement today, will give hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially the Front-Bench teams, access to the information they need. We will issue a local hotline number, which will not be in the public domain, so that Members of Parliament can pursue any concerns over the summer months. It is very important that everybody keeps this virus in perspective. Parliament needs to keep it in perspective too, and if the situation changes I am sure that there will be conversations through the usual channels, but at this stage it is business as usual. It is important, however, that we have in place systems to make sure that people are properly updated over the summer months.
I think the Secretary of State missed the point made by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and others about people travelling abroad. A constituent of mine who was on holiday in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt could not leave the country and was incarcerated—I intend no disrespect—in an Egyptian national health service hospital, where he could not get any consular advice. Over the next few weeks, this scenario—involving, perhaps, people who, rightly or wrongly, have not arranged sufficient travel insurance—is likely to escalate enormously, putting enormous strain on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There need to be amber lights flashing to the FCO and the travel and insurance industries to make sure that a potentially large number of people are not incarcerated outside the European Union in grotty hospitals.
May I say three things to my hon. Friend? First, before they travel people should check the arrangements for dealing with swine flu in each country. Secondly, they should have appropriate insurance in place, should that be necessary. Thirdly, of course we will ensure with colleagues in the Foreign Office that there is appropriate consular advice and support for anybody who finds themselves in a difficult position. Those three things are absolutely vital—and for people travelling within Europe, the European health insurance card is, of course, a crucial document, and nobody should go on holiday without one.
The Secretary of State said he envisaged receiving supplies of the vaccinations by August and that he was prioritising vulnerable groups and vital NHS front-line staff. I am the husband of a wife who is seven months pregnant and due in September, so will he tell me whether he is considering putting women who are in the later stages of pregnancy in any of those vulnerable groups? What steps is he putting in place for hospital maternity units, because the babies of women who have recently given birth are particularly vulnerable?
On the latter point, hospitals have, of course, sophisticated systems for ensuring the safety of the ward environment. On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I can assure him that pregnant women are within the priority groups of those considered at higher risk. SAGE has given Ministers the conclusions on those groups. We have had our first discussion of them, but I can confirm that women in pregnancy are included. As and when appropriate—and not before too long, I hope—we will make public who is in those groups. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) asked that we do that, and I have no problem with it. We want at all stages to be open about the advice that we are receiving, but we must look at the vaccination programme alongside the operational requirements to ensure that health care staff and social care staff are vaccinated. These are the issues, alongside the delivery schedule for the vaccine, that we are currently balancing.
Does the research confirm whether people can get swine flu twice and whether antivirals and Tamiflu injections are of any benefit in preventing a second bout of swine flu? What work is being done to ensure that a vaccination for swine flu does not counter the normal vaccinations that are given to so many people in this country for winter flu, and on whether those two injections have any effect on each other?
Perhaps I will write to the hon. Gentleman to cover all those issues, but if he was asking whether people can get the vaccine or antivirals twice, I can say that the national pandemic flu service has an authorisation code that is meant to stop precisely that problem, so that the antivirals can go around to everybody.
May I take the Secretary of State back to a statistic he gave us earlier orally but which does not seem to appear in the written version of his statement? I think he said that there are currently 652 people in hospital with swine flu, of whom 53 are in critical care. That seems like a rather high proportion. How does that compare with other, more conventional forms of influenza, and does it mean that we are not getting people to hospital fast enough?
No, I do not think that it means that at all. We can give the hon. Gentleman figures on the hospitalisation rate if he would find them useful. It is important for me to say that we are at the early stage of a new virus, and although we want to give the House the figures as openly as possible as we receive them, this is a developing situation and I do not believe that he should read too much into them at this stage. We have given him the figures, they are being updated every week and people can make their own judgments on them.
At the previous statement on swine flu, the Minister had no answer to the question about what is being done about people getting cross-infected on a plane flying into this country. We have this strange situation where the Government seem to have done nothing to discourage people from flying into the country, while airlines are turning people away and preventing them from flying out of it with swine flu. What is the Government’s rationale for that? What threshold would there be before they did something to discourage people from flying in and infecting people on the plane?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should stop incoming flights—perhaps he does. From the beginning, the advice from the World Health Organisation was that, given what we knew about this virus, it would not be justifiable to place restrictions on international travel. That was the clear position at the start and I have not seen any WHO advice to change it. Obviously we pay close attention to what the WHO says at all times.
There has been a lot of talk about the FCO website and tourism abroad, but I am interested in what is happening to tourism in Britain. We are very much open for business, yet we see headlines such as today’s “Holidaymakers face travel ban as swine flu sweeps country”. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the tourism Minister to ensure that such headlines are placed in context and that the message goes out that Britain is very much open for business?
I think that I just gave that message in answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming). Britain is very much open for business and, as I say, it is business as usual for the vast majority of people. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a representative who attends the Cobra civil contingencies committee, and I am sure that in terms of business continuity we will continue to listen carefully to what he or she says. As I mentioned in my statement, we are developing strong networks for business, in order to give it the advice that it needs. That is being led by the Cabinet Office and it will be useful to tourism, as well as to other businesses.
At this stage, I do not want to give all the information about the vaccination programme piece by piece. I gave an answer to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) because there has been a lot of focus of women in pregnancy and giving further information on that is justified. We will say more in due course. Obviously we are purchasing enough vaccine to vaccinate the whole country, although not all that vaccine will arrive in this calendar year. Thus, we are putting forward a programme of priority vaccination for the autumn, about which we will say more in due course.
This morning, I rang a travel insurance medical hotline to seek advice about swine flu, but before I got through to someone I heard a pre-recorded message saying, “We can give you no advice about swine flu.” What advice is the Secretary of State giving the travel insurance industry? If I go abroad with a slight temperature would I invalidate my travel insurance were I to get swine flu?
That is a matter for the insurers; it is not necessarily a matter for me. I have said clearly throughout this statement that people should carefully check the FCO website and other advice before they travel, and they should not travel if they have symptoms. That advice is clear and if the hon. Gentleman has a query about his insurance policy, he should raise it with his insurer.
The Secretary of State is correct to say that swine flu is important and serious, but we must keep a sense of perspective, because the truth is that over the next six to 12 months many more of our constituents will develop cancer and heart disease and die from those illnesses. Will he join me in urging the media to report the illness of swine flu responsibly, thereby avoiding mass hysteria?
It is important to acknowledge—as the hon. Gentleman did—that accurate, balanced and calm reporting of this virus is necessary. If that tone is not struck, it puts pressure on the NHS and limits its ability to cope with the daily pressures, which continue, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says. The launch of the national pandemic flu service will take pressure off the health service by creating an alternative route for access to medication, and that will go a long way to helping to relieve pressure on the front line. We all have a responsibility to face up to the challenges as they come up, to deal with them as best we can, and to explain them as calmly and concisely as we can, which will help the whole country get through this challenge.
In conclusion, may I say that the NHS will get through this challenge, because it is wonderfully resilient? It has faced many challenges before and will face this one in the same way.
Parker Pen Factory, Newhaven
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I rise to propose that the House should debate the matter of the decision to close the Parker Pen Factory, Newhaven.
This is a specific and important matter that should be given urgent consideration. The decision to close the factory, taken by the American parent company, Newell Rubbermaid, will result in the loss of 180 jobs. This will have a terrible effect on the population of Newhaven, which is already suffering far more from the effects of the recession than other nearby towns such as Lewes. There has been a pen factory in Newhaven since 1921 and it has been Parker since 1945. Indeed, Parker Pen is the flagship employer in Newhaven, but the keystone of the bridge is now being removed.
The factory was visited by Mrs. Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, and it has a loyal work force in Newhaven, which has done its best to support Parker Pen over the years. There is a suspicion that the factory is being closed because the much stricter French employment laws make it more difficult to close the factory in Nantes—to which the jobs are being transferred. In other words, the employment laws in this country, which are supposed to encourage employment, will have the opposite effect on this occasion.
Whether you allow a debate or not, Mr. Speaker, I ask Ministers on the Treasury Bench to note the need for an urgent support package for Newhaven, which has suffered grossly from the recession, with a significant unemployment problem and the town centre being in a poor way. The support—or even rescue—package for the town should be put in place through the South East England Development Agency, with Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and help from Jobcentre Plus to deal with the 180 employees who will, sadly, lose their jobs. I ask Ministers to work with me for the benefit of my constituents.
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to make this case for my constituents.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that he has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24, and I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a point of order that may sound trivial, but is a matter of serious disappointment for young people in my constituency. For the last four years in the run-up to Christmas, choirs from my constituency have entertained parliamentarians, staff and other members of the Palace authorities over lunch. Last week, out of the blue, an e-mail arrived at my office saying that this would be banned in the future, as it was inconveniencing Members of the House during their lunch. Were you aware of that, Mr. Speaker? Surely we should be encouraging young people to come to this House, not barring them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the point of order that he has raised. I confess that I was not previously conscious of it, as will probably be apparent to him and the House by the rather measured terms of my response. Suffice it to say that, on the face of it, he and his constituents have reason to be disconcerted, and I will certainly look into the matter. I am happy to revert to the hon. Gentleman when I have done so.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You recently made it clear to Ministers that you expect substantive replies to parliamentary questions before the summer recess, which is a little more than 24 hours off. May I draw this to your attention and seek your support? Frankly, the biggest offender, in my view, is the Prime Minister himself. To buttress my argument, and to illustrate the point, I point out that I asked a question of the Prime Minister about his meeting with President Gaddafi, at the margins of a recent summit, in relation to matters raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and me about compensation for the victims of IRA Semtex whose provenance was Libya. The Prime Minister sent me a letter saying that was referred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but the only person who could answer my question was the Prime Minister himself—not even the Foreign Secretary. I also asked about the per diem remuneration for members of Chilcot, and the Prime Minister said that was a matter for Chilcot. He refuses to answer a simple question.
Mr. Speaker, will you, first, ensure that there are substantive replies from all Ministers by tomorrow and, secondly, look at the Prime Minister, who dodges the question time and again? I am certainly not prepared to put up with that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, which was put to me and the House in the characteristically blunt terms that the House has come to appreciate. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not seek to inveigle me into an argument between him and the Prime Minister, but what I would say to him is that who answers a question that the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. or right hon. Member poses is a matter for the head of the Department or, in this case, for the Prime Minister. Similarly, the content of such answers is a matter for Ministers and I cannot get into that.
What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the exhortation I issued to all Ministers to ensure that substantive replies were provided before the summer recess was an exhortation that extended to the Prime Minister as well, because he, of course, is a Minister. Moreover, I think I can gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who is an extremely experienced Member of the House, that he might feel tempted to try to give voice to some of these concerns in a little more detail in the Adjournment debate that will take place immediately prior to the summer recess tomorrow.
Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. Secretary Straw, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary David Miliband, Secretary Alan Johnson, Tessa Jowell and Michael Wills, presented a Bill to make provision relating to the civil service of the State; to make provision relating to the ratification of treaties; to amend section 2 of the House of Lords Act 1999 and make provision relating to the removal, suspension and resignation of members of the House of Lords; to repeal sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and to amend Part 2 of the Public Order Act 1986; to make provision relating to time limits for human rights claims against devolved administrations; to make provision relating to judges and similar office holders; to make provision relating to the Comptroller and Auditor General and to establish a body corporate called the National Audit Office; to amend the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 and to make corresponding provision in relation to Wales.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 142) with explanatory notes (Bill 142-EN).
Child Poverty Bill
[Relevant Documents: The transcript of oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 17 June 2009 on Child Poverty, HC 702; Second Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 42-I, on The best start in life? Alleviating deprivation, improving social mobility and eradicating child poverty; and the Government response, Second Special Report of the Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 580.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I hope that the Bill will have support from all parts of the House. I believe it is one of the most radical Bills we have debated in this Parliament. It sets out a vision of a fairer society that is bold and ambitious—a vision of equality and opportunity for our children that goes further than any other European country currently achieves. It entrenches that vision in our legislation for the long term.
We know that no law alone can end child poverty, but the Bill will help to hold the Government’s feet to the flames in pursuit of a fairer Britain. It will demand of Governments, now and in the future, determined action to cut child poverty and to stop children being left behind. Those are bold ambitions, but they are the right ambitions.
The Bill does more than simply set out targets; it embeds a set of values in our primary legislation. For a start, it is the chance for Parliament to make it clear that children in the 21st century should not grow up suffering deprivation, and that they should not grow up lacking the necessities that most of us take for granted, and which allow them to participate fully in society—things such as keeping the house warm, being able to go on a week’s holiday or being able to afford a bike to get out and about with friends. We are setting a clear target to cut the number of children growing up in low-income and material deprivation.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the figure on child poverty has in fact dropped over the past 12 years, in contrast to its having doubled over the previous 12 years. He will know too that our measure of child poverty is a relative poverty measure—it is an inequality measure. It is one of the most important things the Government have done to stop the inexorable rise in child poverty that his party and the Government of whom he was part presided over, and indeed encouraged when they chose to freeze child benefit three years in a row, so that, shockingly, in 1997 the level of child benefit was lower in real terms than it was in 1979. That is why it is so important that we have taken action to cut the number of children in poverty by half a million, with other measures in place to reduce it further.
The right hon. Lady talks about the values that underpin the Bill, and I certainly welcome those. Clause 8(5) lists a number of things that have to be taken into account in assessing and measuring progress once the Bill becomes law, including considerations relating to skills, employment and housing. Why is there nothing about the stability of the family environment? Surely that is one of the most important things for any child, is it not? Why is the Bill silent on that?
It is right that we support families, and we should support families of all kinds, whatever their circumstances. That includes helping them to have stability in their lives—stability for children as they grow. It is also right that we recognise what the Government can do and where the Government can take action to support families. That is why there is also a serious vision of equality embedded in the Bill. Labour’s child poverty targets have never just been about poverty; they have always been about narrowing the unfair inequalities that can haunt children throughout their lives.
I entirely support the right hon. Lady’s contention, but I am puzzled because the Government’s position on this Bill, which sets out targets and makes it a duty on the Secretary of State to meet them, is different from the one they adopted on my Fuel Poverty Bill, in which I set out targets and placed a duty on the Secretary of State to meet them. I was told:
“That is an absolutist position, and it cannot be acceptable to any Government.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 1199.]
I was told that it would be opposed at all costs. Have Ministers changed their minds about the appropriateness of such a step?
The hon. Gentleman is right in that it is indeed a radical thing for us to set Secretaries of State a duty to meet targets to cut child poverty and to abolish it by 2020, as set out in the Bill. We considered long and hard how best to embody the targets and the duty in the legislation because we think that ending child poverty is serious and will have an impact throughout the country.
Concerns about fuel poverty are reflected in the assessment of material deprivation, so we take the issue very seriously. The hon. Gentleman will realise that, for example, there are families who are concerned about being able to pay their fuel bills this winter, which has an impact on their children. We have taken an overarching approach to child poverty which looks at a series of separate targets because this is about opportunities for every child for many generations to come.
We believe that every child should get a fair start in life, and every child should have the chance to get on, to develop their potential and to chase their dreams. We believe in equality of opportunity for children as they grow, but we can make those opportunities real only if we also tackle the poverty and inequality that holds children back today. We know that children from low-income families do less well at school. We know that children on free school meals are only half as likely as the rest of their class mates to get five good GCSEs. We know that being left behind can be about missing out on educational school trips or music lessons, or not being able to get on the internet at home to research homework. It can mean cases such as those in the Barnardo’s report out today of the 14-year-old boy Jelani who got nothing at all for his birthday—except for £10 from a friend that he gave to his mother to help towards the cost of his school uniform. Children get left behind for years to come if their family get left behind today.
In fact, as I have just explained, the material deprivation target looks more broadly at the kinds of material circumstances in which families can find themselves. However, we have been clear that it is right to look at the relative poverty target because of the impact that that has on other aspects of children’s lives, and for all their lives.
We also know that if we are concerned to increase family income, often the best way of doing so is by looking at how to get more parents into work and increase their skills and employability, so that they can get better-paid jobs in future. However, we also know that family income can have a significant impact on children’s chances throughout their lives. It is simply unfair that some children should fall so far behind others and lose their chance to get on in life and properly fulfil their potential because of their family circumstances in early childhood.
Our main child poverty target has always been a relative poverty target and it must stay so. It means that as society becomes more prosperous, all our children must share in that prosperity. As the incomes of better-off families grow, the poorest families must not get left further behind, because if they do their children will fall further behind—and not just today, but potentially for decades to come.
The Bill goes further, because for the first time we are highlighting the importance of tackling persistent poverty. That, after all, is where the greatest harm for children lies. In the end, no Government action can prevent everything that goes wrong in families or causes problems for the children. However, we can work to help to get people the support that they need as soon as possible, so that the family is not trapped in poverty for years at a time.
It is clearly an evil for a child to be persistently poor. Likewise, it is an evil for a pensioner to be persistently poor, year in, year out. We welcome the Bill but, having legislated to eliminate child poverty, does the Secretary of State have a time scale in mind to legislate to eliminate pensioner poverty, or is that a second-order priority?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made substantial progress in cutting pensioner poverty, lifting pensioners out of poverty through measures such as the winter fuel allowance and the pension credit in particular, which has provided substantial support for pensioners. Therefore, the chances of being in poverty are now much higher for children than they are for pensioners. That is why we are saying now that the target to end child poverty in a generation is sufficiently important to embed it in legislation and make clear progress on it in future years.
We have seen significant changes over the past 12 years. When we started in 1997, child poverty had been rising for 18 years. In fact, child poverty doubled between 1979 and 1997.
I welcome the Bill, which I think will prove to be a significant milestone in tackling poverty in our country. I particularly welcome the provisions on local government. In order to meet the targets, can we encourage and support local government in all parts of the country to make rooting out poverty a top priority?
My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that local government often has considerable ability to make a genuine difference in local communities, tackling the estates with the highest levels of child poverty, helping parents into work or tackling problems that children in certain communities can face. That is why we have set out duties on local government in the Bill, including the duty to work with other agencies, such as the local police, the local health service and other organisations across the community. Tackling child poverty cannot be about just national Government; it cannot be about just local government.
The number of children in absolute poverty has halved since 1997 and the number in relative poverty has dropped by 500,000. We expect the measures that were recently introduced, including increases in the child tax credit, to lift a further 500,000 out of relative poverty. More than 600,000 more lone parents are in work, while the minimum wage has helped to tackle poverty pay. Some 3,000 Sure Start children’s centres are helping 2.4 million young children and their families, while £20 billion of support for families is being provided through the tax credit system—measure after measure sadly opposed by the Conservatives. Yet if we had not done that—if we had followed the Conservative approach and simply uprated the tax and benefit system by inflation each year since 1997—2.1 million more children would be in poverty today.
The Minister mentions the minimum wage and relative income, on which I completely agree with her. However, is there also a place for absolute figures? Does the minimum wage perhaps need to be higher, or do we need some kind of minimum income standard?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we take advice from the Low Pay Commission on the level at which the minimum wage should be set. We have also introduced tax credits, including the working tax credit and the child tax credit, to provide additional income for families. That has made a substantial difference of thousands of pounds a year to many families, without which many more would be in poverty today: it is transforming families’ lives.
However, this is not enough—we need to go much further. We need to be even more ambitious in future. We know that achieving these targets will not be easy. The very fact of setting a relative target means that as the economy grows and society becomes more prosperous, we have to work even harder to make sure that no one gets left behind. We know, too, that the challenge facing us is even more difficult in our current economic circumstances, but it is also even more important that we succeed. Over the past 18 months, we have continued to set out new measures to tackle child poverty, even in tougher times, including increasing tax credits, expanding child care, and increasing support for parents to get back into work. Everyone knows that it will be difficult to meet our target of halving child poverty by next year, but we believe that it is right to keep working towards it and to make as much progress as we can, even in more difficult times.
The recession makes action on child poverty even more important. The action that we take now is critical to preventing child poverty not just today but for many years to come. It was the failure of Tory Governments to help people through the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s that led to the big increases in child poverty at that time. Too many parents in the ’80s and ’90s lost their jobs and were abandoned, left in long-term unemployment or pushed on to other long-term benefits to fiddle the figures, with devastating consequences for them and for their families. Parents, and young people who were soon to become parents, not only fell out of work but fell out of the labour market altogether, making it harder for them to get back on their feet when the upturn came. The cost of that Conservative neglect was felt not just among the parents but among their children who are themselves parents today.
The Tories are sometimes accused of abandoning a generation: the truth is they abandoned several generations. [Interruption.] Conservative Members do not want to hear about the consequences for future generations, and for child poverty today, of their inaction and their abandonment of young people—future parents—in previous recessions .
The Secretary of State is making a great claim that the Government have done so much over the past 12 years. Why, then, have we just seen a record rise in unemployment, why is youth unemployment higher than when this Government came into office, and why has child poverty been rising for the past few years?
The right hon. Lady is opposing all the action that we are taking to help people who are unemployed. We are facing the first worldwide recession since the second world war; right across every country in the world job losses are increasing and unemployment is rising. The difference between my party and hers is that we believe we should not turn our backs on people. We believe that we should invest in people’s futures and help them to get back to work. Her party has repeatedly refused to support the £5 billion extra investment to help the unemployed back to work. I will give way to any Conservative Front Bencher who can tell me now that they will support the £5 billion additional investment to help young people to get back into work. [Interruption.] Hon. Members chatter from the Front Bench, but none of them has the confidence or the guts to stand up at that Dispatch Box and tell us that they will support the £5 billion additional investment in helping people who are losing their jobs today—shame on them. Once again, they are refusing to support people, and that will put more families into poverty in the future. Once again, they cannot accept that it was their failure to act in the early ’80s and early ’90s—a failure that they intend to repeat—that has left so many children in unemployed households now.
The hon. Gentleman is keen to intervene from the Back Benches. I will give way to him in the hope that he will go further than his Front Benchers are prepared to and say that he is ready to support the £5 billion investment to help people back into work today.