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Commons Chamber

Volume 497: debated on Monday 12 October 2009

House of Commons

Monday 12 October 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

The House will be aware of the protest on the roof of Westminster Hall. For very good reasons we do not discuss matters of security in this Chamber, but I wanted to say to the House at the first opportunity that I have had a preliminary report and the full circumstances are now being investigated urgently and thoroughly. The results of that investigation will be considered by a meeting of the Joint Committee on Security in the very near future. Whatever action is necessary will be taken.

Secondly, as I emphasised before the recess, I repeat that I am keen to make good progress both at Question Time and in the conduct of ministerial statements. I am therefore looking to each Member to ask a single, short supplementary question and to the Minister at the Dispatch Box to provide a brief reply.

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Care

1. What recent assessment he has made of the sustainability of provision in the child care sector; and if he will make a statement. (292191)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall answer question 1 with question 5.

We monitor the child care market, including the sustainability of provision, on an ongoing basis through regular surveys, and feedback from local authorities, Government offices and partner organisations. Local authorities have substantial Government revenue and capital funding to help to ensure that providers in their areas remain sustainable while continuing to give children the best start in life and provide invaluable support to their parents.

I apologise: I did not hear the Minister say that question 1 was grouped, but if he did I am very grateful to him.

My constituents, like those of others, benefit from a mixed market in child care provision, which includes state, private, voluntary and independent providers. Will the Minister therefore not show some shame for the way his and the Government’s policies have plunged a third of providers into the red and left parents, other providers and the sector as a whole in a great state of uncertainty?

It is lovely to see the hon. Gentleman back from the break as well. In 1997, something like £1 billion a year was provided for child care; now the figure is £4 billion; and 470,000 families now get direct child care support through the tax credits system, at an average of about £68 a week. The long-term viability of nurseries and child care provision has been enhanced as a result of legislative strengthening by this Government, as well as increased and unprecedented resources. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents would thank the Government for that.

Child minders provide invaluable child care for many parents. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, 40,000 people have left the profession since 1997. What are the Government going to do to ensure that more parents can avail themselves of such provision, particularly because they prefer and rely on it?

People will leave the market and the sector for various reasons, whether personal or otherwise. That is just common sense. However, in respect of free provision for three and four-year-olds and the additional roll-out that we want in order to ensure free provision for two-year-olds, let me say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect a great deal, that there is now more opportunity than ever for parents, families and carers to have appropriate, high-quality child care provision. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that, as opposed to sniping at what is a good and enviable record.

My hon. Friend will know that this Government have an amazing record on child care provision, but there is now a worry: at the same time as we applaud reaching down to two-year-olds, how do we guarantee quality under the new arrangements?

My hon. Friend, who is obviously very knowledgeable about the issue through his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, makes an important point. The inspection and regulatory regime that we have put in place with Ofsted will ensure that we can enhance quality and, at the same time, sustain funding and investment or increase them wherever possible. For example, local authorities have more than £1 billion at their disposal in capital and revenue funding to ensure the sustainability of the child care provision available in their areas.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents access child care through the Government’s excellent Sure Start children’s centres, and will he confirm the Government’s commitment to those centres, which provide not only high-quality child care but the necessary support to parents?

Like Blackpool, Hartlepool has benefited enormously from Sure Starts—indeed, I think that every single constituency in the country has. The Government remain committed to ensuring that more than 3,000 Sure Starts and children’s centres are provided in this country. The scheme has provided for a revolution in child care provision, allowing the earliest and best possible start for our children, which will put them on a road of improvement and attainment throughout their lives. I would have hoped that the whole House supported such an important measure, but it is fair to say that the Opposition support the abolition of Sure Start and will not commit to funding for it.

At last year’s Labour conference, the Prime Minister tried to grab the headlines by announcing the extension of the early years free entitlement to all two-year-olds. This year’s conference revealed that the Government will pay for that policy by scrapping the help with child care costs that is given to thousands of hard-working parents, most of whom are basic-rate taxpayers. Are the Government not trying to create an illusion of progress when they are in fact axing one child care policy to pay for another? What further cuts is the Minister planning to make to fund the rest of the Prime Minister’s announcement?

I completely disagree with what the hon. Lady said. The expansion of free places for two-year-olds is fully funded through savings by, as she says, phasing out tax relief on child care vouchers. That is at no extra cost to the taxpayer. I have to say, however, that the savings to the taxpayer are disproportionately given to the more well-off families—the figure is in the region of 6 per cent. We will continue to make sure that we invest in high-quality child care for low and middle-income families because all the evidence shows that that is vital for improving outcomes. If the hon. Lady wants to continue to narrow her focus on the highest earners, that is up to her, but the Government are on the side of low and middle-income Britain.

ContactPoint

2. What recent progress has been made on the roll-out of the ContactPoint database; and if he will make a statement. (292193)

Significant progress has been made on ContactPoint. We are receiving promising feedback from early adopter areas about how ContactPoint is helping people who work with children to identify problems and prevent them from escalating. From late October, local authorities can start training ContactPoint users across England.

I thank the Minister for that reply but, given the Government’s record on data protection, does he not see that ContactPoint risks information on millions of children falling into the wrong hands, fails to protect those children and should be scrapped?

Instead of reading the scare stories in the papers, the hon. Lady should get off her high horse and talk to some of the early adopters who are using the system already. Let me quote one of them to her. A consultant paediatrician working with children at the Countess of Chester hospital in Chester said:

“ContactPoint was a very easy tool to use. It allowed me to rapidly access relevant information about a child in who there was suspected non-accidental injury. This information was invaluable in guiding further management and the whole process took less than five minutes whereas previously a lot of time would have been spent making phone calls and trying to track people down for information.”

The hon. Lady should talk to the people who are using ContactPoint.

I could quote to the Minister several consultant paediatricians who think that their job of dealing with child protection will be compromised by the use of ContactPoint. Will the Minister therefore confirm how many people have applied to have their children’s details shielded on ContactPoint and how many of them are Ministers—including himself, perhaps? If he is completely happy with the security arrangements surrounding ContactPoint, will he now undertake to publish in full the data security review on ContactPoint carried out by Deloittes, which he has declined to publish since February last year?

I look forward to hearing the names of the consultants who, according to the hon. Gentleman, say that ContactPoint will threaten children’s safety. There was a time when the Conservative party, having appropriately opposed a policy going through the House, would not then write to local Tory councillors deliberately to undermine its implementation. This shows why the Tories are not fit to govern.

Academies

3. What recent assessment he has made of the progress of the academy programme; and if he will make a statement. (292194)

This summer’s excellent GSCE results include our open academies once again achieving a faster improvement in the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs than the average national improvement rate. I can tell the House that I have today approved four new academy projects in Hampshire, East Sussex and Plymouth. I can also confirm that I approved a further 15 academy projects over the summer recess.

If the Secretary of State is such an enthusiast for the academies programme, why does he not extend it to primary schools, as my party is pledged to do? In fact, why is he going in the opposite direction, with his own Ministers saying that such an extension would send a shiver down the spine of parents?

There are a number of very successful all-through academies that are combining secondary and primary provision, but we have made it absolutely clear that the massive diversion of resources away from our primary and secondary schools in order to extend the cost of expanding academies to primary schools would not be value for money; it would be very disruptive and not the right thing to do if we are trying to raise standards in our primary schools.

Just before the summer recess, my right hon. Friend announced a review of secondary education in Gloucestershire to be conducted by Graham Badman. Should Graham Badman produce a report that encourages the building of an academy in my constituency, will my right hon. Friend give it full support and join me in encouraging the local authority to support a £13 million academy in my constituency as well?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for the review of the national challenge programme in Gloucestershire. Graham Badman has done his review; it will come to me shortly and we will respond to it in due course. I hope that we will be able to accept his recommendations. I fully expect further proposals for academies in Gloucestershire and, if that proves to be the case, I will support them absolutely. My hon. Friend will then be able to join those in Hampshire, East Sussex and Plymouth who have welcomed new academies, which will allow us to continue to raise standards in our secondary schools.

Will the Secretary of State please give an assurance that where an academy is in process, but that process has not been completed—I am thinking of Sheen school in my constituency—funding will remain committed to it and will not be removed under any deficit-cutting programme?

I have made it clear that I am accelerating the academies programme and accelerating secondary school improvement. There is no question of having any cuts in our academies or school improvement funding this year or next. While the consultation is ongoing, there will be no cuts from this party. The question is whether the other parties can make the same commitment, and I am afraid that the answer is no.

As the number of academies increases, is it not particularly important that they all comply fully with the schools admissions code? Is the Secretary of State absolutely convinced that all parties in the House understand the importance of compliance with that code?

I toughened up the schools admissions code last year and changed the regulations. I am very clear that all schools—whether they be maintained or faith schools or academies—must comply fully with the code. When I did so, however, I was attacked by the Conservative Members for my actions, so I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance he mentioned. I will deliver fair admissions, but they will not.

The Secretary of State has already indicated that funding will be crucial to the development of the academies programme. In September, he gave an interview to The Sunday Times in which he said that he was planning to cut £2.2 billion from the schools budget and that those plans had been in train within his Department for several months. Will he therefore, first, tell us when he gave the directive to his Department to look into the cuts; and, secondly, will he now publish the list of the proposed cuts that he went through with The Sunday Times journalists?

It is very interesting to hear that question because on the Saturday before my interview, the hon. Gentleman’s party called for savage cuts and then when a discussion about efficiency took place, he backed off very fast indeed. The fact is that a year ago I asked an expert adviser to help me to find efficiency savings so that I could shift them to the front line. I am clear that I want the budget for education and schools rising year on year, and I would like to see that in real terms. The only way I can guarantee that teachers and teaching assistants are there at the front line, however, is to find savings in procurement and in how schools work together to free up those resources. I want the budget to rise next year, the year after and in future; it is the Conservative party that wants cuts—and cuts now. That is the difference.

I had intended to ask the Secretary of State to speed up decision making on academies in Plymouth, so I am delighted that he has made his announcement today. Will he confirm that as we are ready to go, we can in fact open the academies next September?

I went to visit Plymouth a year or so ago and the Minister for Schools and Learners has been there since. I am announcing today that both the Tamarside and John Kitto community colleges have been given the go-ahead to open in September 2010. In the case of Tamarside, it will be through the sponsorship of the university of Plymouth, and in the case of John Kitto it will be through the sponsorship of Exeter diocesan board of education. These will go ahead in 2010 because we are committed; we will deliver our national challenge and every school will be above the basic benchmark by 2011. That is my commitment—one that time and again I get attacked for making by the Conservative party.

I have now had an opportunity carefully to consider the Secretary of State’s answer. I still cannot understand how it can be that the last time we were here before the recess he told us he was going to resist all cuts to the education budget, but we then discover that a full year ago he had asked his officials to look into cuts. May I ask him about one of the specific proposals he discussed with The Sunday Times—that to axe 3,000 head and deputy head teachers? Does he now accept that that was a mistake?

No, of course I do not. The truth is that it was not I but the leader of the Liberal Democrats, at his party conference, who was confused about the issue of savage cuts. I made it very clear that I want the schools budget to keep rising year on year, and that I want the school education budget to rise year on year in real terms. We are achieving that in the current year, but we must be realistic: real-terms rises in future years will not be as high as they have been in the past, which means that the only way to deliver for the front line is to find savings. I think we can do that through school balances and procurement, and also by ensuring that schools work together and share their leadership teams. Every school should have a head teacher, but schools can share leadership teams in order both to raise standards and to become more efficient.

The hon. Gentleman should be supporting me in this regard, but once again he is not doing so. I—and, I think, he—would like to see education spending rise in real terms; it is only the Conservative party that is advocating cuts and more cuts.

The Secretary of State will be aware that among the very best performers in GCSEs this year were the schools run by ARK—Absolute Return for Kids—and by Lord Harris. They did up to four times as well as other comprehensives. The people running those schools say that their success depends on absolute freedom from local bureaucratic control. Does the Secretary of State agree?

The really interesting aspect of that is the fact that the list of local authorities now co-sponsoring academies includes one or two Liberal Democrat councils, one or two Labour councils and 11 Conservative councils. The hon. Gentleman says that they are wrong to be taking such action, and should get out of the way.

At his party conference, the hon. Gentleman praised Mossbourne. It is clear from the Mossbourne prospectus that the head teacher there teaches, and knows that his success depends on the teaching of vocational subjects such as dance, drama and arts, which the hon. Gentleman says should be downgraded to become second-class subjects. He needs to go back to the drawing board when it comes to his own policies.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for refusing to answer the question and exposing the threadbare nature of his own position. I am also grateful to him for reminding the House that the majority of local authorities are now under Conservative control. That is a welcome reminder of how poorly Labour authorities have done in improving education. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for highlighting—

Order. I am not interested in hearing about what the shadow Secretary of State is grateful for; I am interested in hearing a question—very soon, I hope.

I am also grateful for your skilled chairing of our debates, Mr. Speaker.

The Secretary of State’s right hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) has said—like us—that academies should become the norm in the state sector. Does the Secretary of State agree with that?

I think that where we are raising standards in under-performing schools, academies are doing a tremendous job. They are doing so because of the partnership that we have with Labour and Conservative local government. That is opposed by the Conservative party, which believes that only deregulation is making the difference, and does not recognise the importance of rising investment to delivering the academies programme.

I read an article in The Times today which says that

“one of the aspects of hitting 40 for which no one prepares you is that your body, like a nuclear power station operating at the margins of safety, develops an override mechanism that simply shuts all systems down at critical moments. Usually after lunch.”

That was written by the hon. Gentleman, and I think that his critical systems have been shut down today.

Land Sales (Schools)

4. What estimate he has made of the amount of land sold by schools for non-educational purposes in the latest period for which figures are available. (292195)

The information requested is not held centrally. Schools and local authorities do not need the Secretary of State’s consent to sell school buildings or land that is not school playing field. However, all proceeds from the disposal of school playing fields have been reinvested in school sports or educational facilities since legislation was introduced, under section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act, in 1998.

I wrote to the Minister about two excellent schools in my constituency which share a site in Evington, in Leicester: St. Paul’s Catholic school and Leicester grammar school. Leicester grammar school wants to vacate its land and sell it to St. Paul’s school, which wants to buy it but has not sufficient resources. As the Minister must pass Leicester to reach his constituency in Gedling, may I ask him to drop by one Friday and try to resolve the matter? I think that with good will and the support of the Government, both schools can get what they want.

I would be keen and very happy to drop into my right hon. Friend’s constituency in Leicester to see for myself the problem he has outlined. I know that he has been trying for some months to resolve this particular issue. He will know that Leicester grammar school is an independent school, and the Secretary of State and I have no authority to talk to it in respect of the disposal of the land to which he refers, but the local authority does of course have a duty to ensure that St. Paul’s school has sufficient land available to it for school playing fields, and it is on that basis that I hope we can find a way forward.

Of the many thousands of playing fields being sold off by the Labour Government or Labour local authorities in direct contravention of repeated manifesto commitments, some 342 have been sold because apparently they were the wrong shape. Would the Minister care to tell the House what playing fields that were the correct shape before are now of such a strange shape as to have to be sold off forcibly?

I do not quite know what the hon. Gentleman means. Before 1998 there were no controls over the sale of school playing fields. It was the introduction of legislation that required any local authority that wished to sell school playing fields to receive consent from the Secretary of State. Actually, the correct figure is that there have been 203 approved playing field sales since 1997, and I say to the hon. Gentleman that significant numbers of the school playing fields that have been sold have resulted in schools being able to reinvest in their school playing facilities, as I saw for myself at the Lincoln Christ’s Hospital school where a bit of waste ground designated as a school playing field was able to be sold and the sum reinvested into changing rooms, better facilities and improved playing fields for that school. That will have been the case up and down the country, and instead of taking a dogmatic view the hon. Gentleman ought to have a look and see what is actually happening.

Statementing

6. What plans the Government have for the future of statementing for children with special educational needs. (292197)

We have no plans to end the special educational needs statementing system. I know how interested Members are in SEN, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) for initiating the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008. We launched the first annual publication following that Act last week. We have sent a copy to Brian Lamb so that he can reflect its findings in his report on parental confidence in the SEN system.

I am grateful to the Minister, but I did not actually ask whether she was going to end statementing; I simply asked what the Government’s plans were, given that the Secretary of State had indicated in his response to the media coverage of Brian Lamb’s inquiry that they were going to look at taking statementing out of the hands of local authorities because a lot of parents think there is a conflict of interests there. I simply wanted the Minister to set out what specific steps the Government are going to take to put the Secretary of State’s pledge into action, and I ask her to do so now.

Perhaps I should reiterate that we have no plans to end the current statementing system, but we do want all parents to have confidence in the SEN system, and the hon. Gentleman will know that Brian Lamb is currently conducting a report on parental confidence, which will be published later this month. Also, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an announcement at the end of September on pilots in certain parts of the country to test how assessment could be made more independent of local authorities, and we will of course look at the outcomes from those pilots.

During the recess, I visited a number of schools in my constituency and it became clear that there are still problems with delays in statementing. Will my hon. Friend use her good offices to ensure that local authorities undertake statementing as quickly as possible and provide the proper resources to ensure that those children with special needs get the support they require?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right to say that there are time frames that have to be complied with, and of course we want to ensure that where children need statements those statements are obtained as quickly as possible.

Home Schooling

7. When he expects to issue recommendations for home schooling in Gloucestershire arising from the report of the Badman review; and if he will make a statement. (292198)

We announced our response to the Badman report on home education on Friday 9 October. Home education is an established part of the British education system. The arguments in the report for giving home-educated families better access to public services are strong, particularly when a child or young person has special educational needs, and our response sets out the practical steps we will take to implement these and the other recommendations in the review.

I thank my hon. Friend for what she has to say, but does she accept that there is at least some misgiving about the nature of Badman’s recommendations and that there is a need for proper consultation, particularly in my county, where quite a large number of people have chosen to home educate their children? Will she ensure that her door is open to those of us who want to talk to her about some of those problems, so that we do not have an unnecessary spat over what could be an important way forward?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue. May I reassure him that the consultation on the registration and monitoring recommendations remains open until 19 October? It has been open since June; nearly 1,000 responses have been received, and clearly we would welcome any further such responses.

Given the Government’s general acceptance of the Badman review, have they left themselves enough scope to respond to these important representations, particularly in respect of the conditions attached to registration?

The hon. Lady will know that, as I have just explained to the House, the consultation will have taken place over a considerable period—from June until 19 October. A further response was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Friday of last week, which set out further areas for consultation arising out of the Badman recommendations. There has been sufficient time for this consultation, and clearly the Government need to consider the responses—we will do so in the next few weeks.

The Minister must be aware of the real worry felt by people who home educate; there is a feeling that this is the beginning of the thin edge of the wedge—I use a cliché—and a move towards the German system of banning home education altogether. Will she give a categorical assurance that that is not the Government’s intention?

May I just reassure my hon. Friend that this Government’s view of home education is one that supports the rights of parents to home educate? However, there is a balance to be struck and the Government need to be sure that children who are being educated at home are receiving a suitable education. I hope very much that the Select Committee that is examining this issue will put forward its own views on the Badman review, and we will certainly be considering all the responses to the consultation.

Standards (Primary Schools)

There has been a significant rise in standards in primary schools since 1997. Compared with then, about 98,000 more 11-year-olds are achieving the target level 4 for their age in English and 98,000 are doing so in maths, based on the 2009 provisional results. We set out plans in the schools White Paper for improving all primary schools, and there will be a package of support in 2009-10 that will enable a range of successful programmes to be expanded.

I note the Minister’s reply, but can he tell me why 500,000 children left primary school in the last educational year unable to read? Will that not lead to their not engaging in secondary school and to their being inclined to add to the already high rate of truancy?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the 500,000 children. Instead of decrying what is happening in primary schools, he would do well to celebrate—I am sure he does this in respect of his own constituency—the real achievements that have taken place. Since 1997, we have seen an increase in the figures for level 4 plus of 17 per cent. in English, 19 per cent. in reading and 17 per cent. in maths. Are we satisfied with that? No, we are not. Do we want more children to have the correct standard of reading, writing and arithmetic? Of course we do, so we have a series of measures and programmes in place to achieve that.

Does the Minister agree that to achieve a high standard of learning children need to have a place to be educated? Will he tell me what he is going to do about the fact that some 100 children of primary age in my constituency do not currently have a place in a primary school?

My hon. Friend will know, because I have met her and Slough’s director of children’s services to discuss the particular issue in Slough, that we are seeing what we can do to resolve it. Primary school places are an issue in Slough and in some other authority areas across the country, which is why we recently announced a £200 million programme to see how we can address it. We are about to announce, in the not-too-distant future, the allocation of that money, in order to try to address some of the very real problems in Slough and in other local authority areas.

The Minister will know from the written answer that he gave me in July that fewer than half of 11-year-olds in the poorest decile in the index of multiple deprivation achieved the basic standard in reading, writing and maths, compared with three quarters who achieved that in the top 10 per cent. Frankly, whether it is a quarter or a half of 11-year-olds who are failing to grasp the basics, the Government’s record of achievement is dreadful. Is he not ashamed of the enormous achievement gap between those at the bottom of the index of deprivation and those at the top in the very skills—reading, writing and maths—that every child needs if they are to escape a life of poverty?

I am not ashamed of what the Government have achieved with primary schools. I am proud of what the Government have tried to do and are doing to tackle this issue, which we all recognise. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s points. Only recently, we received the results of the pilot of Every Child Counts from Edge Hill university, which showed that one-to-one tuition and small groups made a significant difference with some of the most difficult young people in terms of the educational challenge that they present, the special educational needs that they have and the difficult family backgrounds that many of them come from. We are expanding and developing these programmes—not only Every Child Counts, but Every Child a Reader—as the hon. Gentleman will know. That one-to-one tuition, which has been expanded through the whole primary school age group and will now be rolled out into year 7 in secondary schools over the next year, will make a significant difference. If we put that together with some of the other measures that we are taking to deal with the social issues around those schools, we will see a real improvement.

I remind the Minister that in 1997 only six out of 10 kids in school aged 11 reached the required standard in reading, writing and maths. That figure has now gone up to eight in 10, due no doubt to the doubled investment that this Labour Government have put into kids in schools. Will the Minister defend his budget in the current economic climate and do everything that he can to increase it to give kids from working-class areas the chances that they deserve?

One of the points that I was trying to make in answer to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is that there have been real improvements in primary schools across the country, including in some of the most socially disadvantaged communities. The difference between our stance and that of the Opposition is that they say that because there are still things to be done—because young children in our schools still do not reach the required standard—everything in primary education is wrong, that the teachers are not teaching properly and that progress is not being made. Our approach is to say exactly what my hon. Friend has just said: there has been progress, but there is still more to be done and the programmes that we have laid out, as well as the record levels of investment, will tackle some of them and will lead to a continuing rise in attainment in our schools.

Independent Safeguarding Authority

9. What recent assessment he has made of arrangements for implementation of the Independent Safeguarding Authority’s vetting and barring scheme; and if he will make a statement. (292200)

Today sees the launch of the first stage of the new vetting and barring scheme. I can tell the House that arrangements are on track for the implementation of ISA registration by individuals from July next year. In advance of that, I have asked Sir Roger Singleton to look again at the definition of “frequent and intensive contact” with children that will trigger the requirement for individuals to register. He will report to me in December.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that before a Member of Parliament visits a school in his constituency for prize-giving he will have to be vetted?

I absolutely refute that. If the hon. Gentleman had looked in his inbox—I accept that 29 July was quite recent—he would have seen the letter from me to all MPs that makes it absolutely clear that when an MP is visiting one of their local schools for prize-giving or whatever else, there is no requirement for them to register. Only if he were teaching a class regularly would he have to register—I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will be, so he will be fine.

My right hon. Friend will have been pleased to hear that Volunteering England has welcomed the introduction of the vetting and barring scheme as a simplification and a sensible step forward. On the question of frequency and intensity, will he answer a question from my local town-twinning organisation? When a group of foreign children is in the town for a week or 10 days at a time, will that cross the intensity threshold for registration? Indeed, are foreign children covered by the scheme at all?

If foreign children are coming to our country to stay with a local family on a school exchange or as part of twinning, yes, the family that is hosting them will be required to be on the ISA list, so that parents in a foreign country can know whether there is any past child-related offence. We have thought about this very carefully and only by doing it in such a way could we ensure that children from our country and those from abroad are safe.

Did the Secretary of State see the admirable article by the inspector in charge of the Soham case in which the inspector ridiculed the excessive bureaucracy, which will mean that many decent, innocent people have to be vetted in this stupid way?

I am very sorry indeed that the hon. Gentleman, who is normally a wise counsel, has used such intemperate and ill-informed language on this issue. The fact is that the person who made the recommendations on the Soham case is entirely behind the changes that we are making. The definition of “frequent or intensive” is difficult, and we need to make sure that we are clear in the way in which we apply it. There has been much misinformation on this issue, suggesting that a parent taking their children to school for a neighbour, or someone helping out once in a while in school is required to register. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts and the reality, and not the nonsense in some briefing papers, before he asks questions in the House.

School Buildings

10. What research his Department has undertaken into the effects on educational standards of the quality of school buildings. (292201)

We have recently extended until 2012 the contract for the independent evaluation by PricewaterhouseCoopers of the impact of Building Schools for the Future investment on pupil achievement. As more and more BSF schools open, this work will include evaluation of design quality. We will continue to publish annual reports from PricewaterhouseCoopers and work with Partnerships for Schools to ensure that lessons learned from this evaluation inform the BSF programme, and design guidance for schools.

It was a pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend to Plymouth in the summer, particularly to Stoke Damerel school, where he saw for himself the best results that it has ever had and, alongside the efforts of students, teachers and parents, the contribution made by investment in the buildings. May I ask him when he expects to announce the next round of Building Schools for the Future, in the hope that Plymouth will feature?

Stoke Damerel community college is an excellent school, and it was excellent to see its design and the improvements that have been made. We hope to announce the next round of Building Schools for the Future in a few weeks, including the six authorities over and above the initial six that we announced a couple of months ago. Part of the purpose of my visit to Plymouth was to look at its readiness to join the roll-out of the programme.

Head Teachers (Retirement)

We estimate that 38 per cent. of current head teachers will have retired by 2015. Dealing with the loss of their skills and experience will be a challenge and an opportunity. We have invested £30 million through the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services succession planning strategy to ensure that this demographic challenge is managed effectively. The national college continues to work closely with schools, local authorities and faith bodies around the country to find, develop and keep excellent head teachers.

The Minister has used the word “challenge”. Other people describe the number of head teachers retiring as a crisis. In that regard, may I ask the Minister why on earth the Government have announced at this stage the scrapping of 3,000 head teachers and leadership posts in schools? Will that not make the situation much worse?

I do not accept that there is a crisis in head teacher recruitment. There is a challenge, and that is one reason why we have given the national college £30 million to help develop succession planning, which is necessary. On the issue of axing 3,000 head teacher posts, that is not a figure that the Department has used. It is right as we develop schools for the future that we look at how schools are organised and managed, and federations are one way forward. Certainly, we have never used the figure of 3,000 head teacher posts to be axed.

There is an increasing number of cases in which schools advertise for heads, but the number of people who apply is small and the quality of the applicants is indifferent. To what does the Minister attribute that, and what does he intend to do about it, because far too many schools have acting heads for far too long a period?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but the latest figures show that vacancies remain stable at below 1 per cent. As he has said, no school is without a head, but there are schools with acting heads. I have explained what we are doing about it: we are working with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services to seek to identify at an early stage in their career those people who might want to be head teachers and work with them to achieve their goal. We have also tried to ensure that we do as much as we can to support head teachers in post in schools in their administrative and financial tasks. One reason why we have increased the number of administrative assistants and, indeed, of school business managers is so that head teachers can concentrate on their major task, which is teaching and learning in the school.

Class Sizes (Chelmsford)

13. In how many primary schools in Chelmsford there were over 30 pupils in a class on the latest date for which figures are available. (292204)

As of January 2009, no primary schools in either Chelmsford or West Chelmsford breached the infant class size duty by having classes of 31 or more pupils in reception or key stage 1. One class misreported its school census return, but this did not result in a breach of the duty. There were 11 primary schools in West Chelmsford and 21 in Chelmsford with classes of 31 or more pupils at key stage 2. It is for local authorities to consider how their level of provision best meets the needs of local parents and children and to consider any necessary improvements.

What help will be given to schools which, as a result of financial difficulties and possibly going into deficit, are planning to make teachers redundant so as to cut costs, which could adversely affect the size of classes?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the target of class sizes of less than 30 in years 1 and 2 and in reception is a firm target that must be complied with. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take action if schools do not do that. It is interesting to note that in 1997, 29 per cent. of pupils were in classes of more than 30, which compares with just 2 per cent. today.

Topical Questions

May I report on two issues? Although this was not debated in Parliament during the passage of the Childcare Act 2006, I have today written to Christine Gilbert, and I am copying the letter to the House of Commons Library, to make it clear that reciprocal child care arrangements between parents where there is no payment involved should not be a matter for regulation, and I have agreed today with Ofsted that with immediate effect this will be beyond the scope of its child care inspections. We will make this crystal clear by changing the regulations in the coming period.

I should also report to the House that in the early summer I pledged £655 million to ensure a sixth-form or apprenticeship place for every school leaver this September. That would be 55,000 more places. I have to report that the demand for these places has again outstripped our expectations. As a result, I am making a further £11 million available now to pay for a further 2,300 places for school leavers this September. That will be a total of 57,300 places, which will be guaranteed by the Government and would be cut by the Conservatives.

During the recess, I visited a middle and high school in the United States of America. Displayed outside the school and in every classroom and room in that school was a Union flag—that is, a flag of the United States of America. Should we not follow that example, and would not pride in our country thus be part of education?

I have visited the United States a number of times. I know that there are some parts of the southern states where different flags are flown, but I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the stars and stripes, rather than the Union flag. It is important that we fly the British flag, which should be flown on town halls throughout the country—we fly it on our Department. It is a matter for individual schools to decide what flag they fly. We have never mandated that as a matter of law, and I do not think that that would be the right approach to take. It is for individual schools to decide.

Order. I want as many people as possible to get in, so I need short questions and short answers.

T8. Chesterfield college in North-East Derbyshire has seen an increase of 10 per cent. in enrolment figures as a direct result of the recession. What extra financial support is the Department giving FE colleges around the country—Chesterfield college is not the only one—to make sure that young people throughout the country get access to the skills and training that they need to see them through the recession? (292223)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we have provided an unprecedented sum of money—an extra £655 million—to meet that September guarantee. He has just announced an additional £11 million to help another 2,500 learners, because we are absolutely committed, as I know my hon. Friend is in North-East Derbyshire, to ensuring that no one is left behind with this recession. We need the skills to allow our country and our economy to prepare for the upturn and to be prosperous in the future.

T2. The Secretary of State will be aware that in some London boroughs there are not enough primary school places. When can we expect an announcement confirming that a mechanism has been developed and agreed to ensure that local authorities, such as Sutton in my constituency, are adequately supported through the basic need safety-valve funding, enabling those desperately needed school places to be built? (292217)

May I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said in an earlier answer, that we know that there is a problem for some authorities in different parts of the country, including London? We have received representations from authorities, following our announcement that we would make available to local authorities throughout the country £200 million to deal with the problem, and we expect an announcement to be made shortly.

T9. The Prime Minister stated at the Labour party conference that there would be more for schools, not less. Can we ensure that, after the age of 16, most children in Chorley go to the exceptional Runshaw college? However, the colleges gets less funding than a school with a sixth form, so will Ministers ensure that there is more money for those colleges that provide such education? (292224)

That is an important point, and I would welcome a meeting with my hon. Friend to ensure that end. He will be aware, however, that funding has increased enormously over the past 12 years. We are committed to reducing the gap between school sixth forms and comparative further education colleges. We want to do that, and we have had success and made inroads into the issue, but we are looking at it still further.

T3. What can we do to ensure that special schools that are opened for the most difficult and sometimes rather nasty kids in society are opened in proper and suitable locations, not unsuitable locations, and that, for instance, the kids from throughout Essex who are taken to the school that Essex county council has just opened on Canvey Island, go to the school, not to the town centre, where they are causing mayhem? (292218)

I was with the Schools Minister at Huntercombe young offenders institution only last week, and that visit convinced me that we need to do more to intervene early to ensure that children with learning difficulties or young people with behavioural problems get the extra support that they need. That is integral to the way in which we plan our secondary school provision and take forward Building Schools for the Future, and our behaviour partnerships will ensure that such provision is at the centre of people’s thinking, rather than on the periphery or excluded, as it sometimes has been.

No, not all new schools are fitted with sprinklers, but the expectation is that unless they are low-risk schools, they will be fitted with sprinklers. We passed regulations on the matter, and, clearly, when new schools are built, fire safety is of the utmost importance.

T4. Why did only 189 pupils who receive free school meals achieve three A-level passes at A grade last year? Is that not a total indictment of the Government’s education policies, and does it not show the betrayal of the poorest families in our society? (292219)

I am proud of the fact that the local authorities with the greatest concentration of the most deprived pupils have seen the fastest rise in results. I am proud also of the fact that schools with more than 50 per cent. of pupils receiving free school meals have achieved twice the rate of improvement of schools with less than 5 per cent. of such pupils. That has all happened because of the progress made by this Government. I am concerned, however, that in the most deprived schools, the most deprived pupils still do not make the progress that we would like. The only way to do so is through the intensive investment and one-to-one tuition that we are putting in to back those pupils—funding that would be cut in the schools cuts proposed by the Opposition.

Ministers will be aware of the very high percentage of young offenders who suffer speech and language difficulties, so may I welcome the money that the Department has allocated to address the issue? Will Ministers assure me that the screening process that is being devised to identify such young pupils will incorporate the advice of adequate professionals, such as speech and language therapists?

The answer is that it absolutely will. A few weeks ago, I was in Knowsley with my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), and we saw a really good example of alternative provision. We saw schools making sure that young people got extra help and support before they got into trouble through crime. Just now, I referred to my visit to Huntercombe young offenders institution; two thirds of young people in custody have special needs and they often have speech and communication difficulties. The only way to deal with the issue is to intervene early, at primary school, before the young people get on the wrong track and get into trouble with crime. We need to make sure that they get the help, but it is essential that they get that help early.

T5. Following the tragic and well publicised deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca Hardwick in my constituency, has the Secretary of State had any thoughts about how to improve the protection of vulnerable children? Has he had any liaison with other Government Departments to see whether better guidelines can be issued, to make sure that such problems do not occur? (292220)

As the Home Secretary made clear, in that case a vulnerable child and her mother were not properly protected. All the agencies failed, which is a matter of huge regret and shame. It is essential in our society that we pull together to make sure that we do not see a repeat of such a horrific incident. We are actively talking about that issue, so that we learn the right lessons from that terrible case.

York has done well on capital funding for schools, gaining about £12 million a year under the Labour Government, compared with less than £1 million a year under the Conservatives. However, we still do not yet have a date for joining the full Building Schools for the Future programme. Will the Labour Government continue Building Schools for the Future if they win the general election?

The answer is very clear. We will keep investing in Building Schools for the Future; indeed, we are doing so this year, next year and the year after. The Conservative party has pledged a £4.5 billion cut. That, I am afraid, would mean that schools would not be rebuilt or refurbished in my hon. Friend’s constituency or in constituencies represented by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

T6. In a parliamentary answer, the Secretary of State said that he had no idea how many children suspected of having been trafficked had gone missing from local authority care. If any trafficked child goes missing, that is appalling. If the Government do not know how many are going missing, how can they put the problem right? (292221)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, because we have talked about this issue on numerous occasions, a national referral mechanism is now in place to try to help with the identification of such children. There is a real debate, not only about the numbers of such children in local authority care but about how to keep them safe. The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed, rather than debated, this issue; he knows that trying to protect children in local authority care is extremely difficult. Once they are in care, many try to escape because they believe that the authorities are acting against their best interests and that if they escape, the traffickers will look after them. The issue is very difficult. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to gather more information. However, he knows as well as me that the answers are extremely difficult.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Wandsworth has the lowest proportion of pupils granted their first choice of secondary school in London? Furthermore, there are no secondary schools in an area of 7 square miles in the centre of the borough; parents and children there are uniquely disadvantaged, as they do not qualify—at least on distance grounds—for any oversubscribed school. Will the Minister meet those parents and advise them on how best to start a new secondary school?

I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about that issue. The provision of schools in an area is, of course, a matter for the local authority. However, if he feels that a meeting involving him, the local authority, the parents that he represents and me would help, I would be only too ready to attend.

T7. Recent Government figures show that pupils with special educational needs are eight times more likely to be permanently excluded than those with no such needs. Will the Government kindly tell us what measures are to be included in the forthcoming guidance on dealing with rowdy children, to ensure that such children receive fair and proportionate treatment, particularly as many of them suffer from severe learning difficulties? (292222)

I hate to repeat a point that I made earlier; this is the first day of the new parliamentary term. We published the guidance two weeks ago, and in it we made it clear that the only way to deal with that issue is for the exclusion of a child with special needs to be a last resort and for there to be early intervention, a diagnosis of the problem and extra and special help so that the young person stays on the right track; such measures will sometimes include alternative provision. In that way, we can prevent such exclusions, which are a failure for the system, from happening.

May I commend the work of Booktrust to my right hon. Friend, particularly the work of Irene Mandelkow, the Bookstart co-ordinator in Liverpool? She and her team have increased the number of pre-school children registered with libraries tenfold in the past 10 years.

T10. Will the Secretary of State confirm that capital expenditure in schools in urban areas is higher than in rural areas and that there are possibly more temporary classrooms in rural areas than in urban areas? That obviously impacts on poverty: what is he going to do about it? (292225)

The important thing to do is to ensure that our local authorities manage their capital programmes well, which sometimes means local authorities investing to ensure that rural schools can work together to share facilities, so that even with smaller rolls the money can still go further. The important thing is to ensure that we refurbish or rebuild all our secondary schools and all our primary schools in the next 10 years: a pledge that this Government will make; a pledge that the Conservative party, I am afraid, cannot match.

During the summer my right hon. Friend visited the excellent Neston high school in my constituency, and also released £25 million for the building of an academy in my constituency. In both cases, there are issues about the quality of buildings. Will he look carefully to ensure that moneys released require buildings to be built that are sustainable and environmentally friendly, because that is a good investment for the future?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and all those who have ensured that these new schools are being rebuilt and opened. We had an excellent visit to that school and heard a brilliant orchestra there. We need to ensure that our brand new schools are environmentally friendly, that they are planned well in acoustic terms so that they can cope with the needs of deaf children, and that they have the sports, music and arts facilities that they need. But one can do that only by continuing the investment in our schools—investment that we will guarantee and that, as I have said, the Conservatives are determined to cut.

Sale of Government Assets

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the proposed sale of Government assets announced today.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to come here this afternoon and answer questions about the sale of Government assets.

Our overriding ambition is to lock in the recovery and then to lay the foundations for growth in the years to come. Because of the action that we have taken this year, we are confident that growth will return to our economy towards the end of this year and into 2010. Over the months to come, therefore, the Chancellor will set out more detail around our plan to halve the public sector deficit over four years once recovery is secured. This entails a return to growth with support for firms and families; fair tax rises for those most able to bear the burden; and slowing the growth of public spending. As the Chancellor set out in April, an ambitious programme of asset sales is part of our plan—a plan that sets out up to £16 billion of property and other asset sales, with proceeds raised being used to support our priorities, including new capital investment and paying down debt.

Today the Prime Minister set out a few details of that programme, and in the months to come we will publish a portfolio of assets to be sold. It will cover assets for sales, and assets where we wish to explore different ways of managing things in the future. The portfolio will include the Tote, the Dartford crossing, the student loan book and the channel tunnel rail link. We know that councils will make a major contribution to the overall level of asset disposals through sales of housing and other assets, as will central Government property. As I said, these three elements are expected to deliver £16 billion in receipts over the period 2011 to 2014. However, we aim to secure receipts from central Government sales within the next two financial years where and when market conditions are right.

We have already sold £30 billion of public assets since 2004. This success, building on the £22 billion sale of 3G licences in 2000, played a major role in the reduction of debt over the past decade. We have made tough choices to cut debt in the past; those decisions allowed us to support the economy now. We will not flinch now from tough choices to allow us to live within our means in the years to come.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling this urgent question. It is Parliament’s first day back, and we have seen old habits—this national car boot sale was announced in the media yesterday evening, with a major speech by the Prime Minister and no statement to Parliament.

I have no objection to the principle of asset sales, which are an important part of managing the public finances. However, there are big questions about timing and content. Can the Chief Secretary first confirm the Treasury’s own figures that the net worth of Government has declined from 70 per cent. of GDP in the late 1980s, before the big privatisation, to nil today and will decline to a minus figure in 2013? That means that if the Government were to sell off the whole of what remains of the public sector, they would have to pay somebody to carry it away.

On the substance of the Chief Secretary’s answer, he said that there would be £16 billion of sales. Is it not true that £13 billion of that will be from local authorities and that, as he confirmed to me in a discussion on the radio at lunch time, there is no pressure on local authorities to make those disposals and they will be free to invest the money raised? In that case, how will the sales narrow the Government budget deficit, if at all?

Can the Chief Secretary explain why the Government were in favour of privatising the Tote in 2008, then announced in the Budget this year that it would be kept in the public sector in the medium term, but now say again that it is to be privatised? The Tote has had more false starts than any race in history.

On the timing of this announcement, the Government have a terrible record in selling public assets, with the history of gold sales and the sale of QinetiQ, which was condemned by the National Audit Office. There is now a proposal to sell land, in a market in which development land is at about 15 to 20 per cent. of its peak value. Is that not an absolute guarantee that the Government will not get value for money, and that this announcement has been driven entirely by political concerns?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the question and for his renewed interest. I know that that is completely unrelated to his own difficulties to do with tuition fees and mansion taxes at his party conference recently.

Let me be absolutely clear about the substantive question that the hon. Gentleman poses, because it is important and there will be wide interest in all parts of the House about our strategy. As I said in my statement, in the Budget, the Chancellor set out the ambition to sell about £16 billion of assets over the period 2011 to 2014. About £11 billion of those assets will, of course, be local authority assets. That is based on a long-term picture of what local government tends to sell each year. Over the past 20 years, local authorities have raised something like £3.7 billion a year, and of course they are free to keep those receipts and reinvest them in priorities such as affordable housing and schools.

In addition, we anticipate that something like £2 billion of central Government property can be sold and reinvested by Departments. We believe that additional business and financial assets can also be sold, such as those that the Prime Minister listed, and that something like £3 billion can be raised from them over the next couple of years. Of course, that money will be available to pay down debt.

How telling that at the end of the Prime Minister’s summer of denial, instead of following the Conservative lead and taking the tough decisions required to get the deficit under control, this morning he has ducked the issue and chosen to peddle the illusion that asset sales can somehow avoid the pain of fiscal adjustment—taking people for fools again. Can the Chief Secretary confirm that he, at least, understands that asset sales, however necessary they may be to reduce debt, do not reduce the deficit, and that they can only ever be a supplement to, not a substitute for, proper fiscal discipline?

Can the Chief Secretary confirm also that the package of central Government assets mentioned this morning amounts in value to little less than a week’s worth of borrowing at the current levels, and that it is not the Government’s intention to seize the proceeds of sales of local authority assets? Can he tell the House why anyone should believe a word the Government say on asset sales when they have announced every single one before? The Tate in 1999—[Interruption.] No doubt it is coming. The Tote announcement was made in 1999 and was in the Labour party’s 2001 election manifesto. The announcement on the student loan book was made in 1997 and again in 2007, on URENCO in 2005 and on the channel tunnel rail link in 2007. Not a penny piece has been achieved from any of them. Will the Chief Secretary confirm that the value of all those assets is now significantly lower than when their sale was first announced? Indeed, did not the comprehensive spending review 2007 pencil in a £6 billion receipt for the student loan book alone—twice what the Government now expect to get from flogging off the entire package?

Selling the family silver will not solve the crisis in the public finances. The country has had enough of denial, dither and delusion. The Government need to start taking the tough decisions, not ducking them, or call an election and let someone else get on with the job.

I enjoyed the remark about tough decisions. I have made a mental note of the Tate. The hon. Gentleman presumably refers to tough decisions such as proposals on state pension plans—I understand that the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, having looked at his plans, has discovered that he is £3 billion short and five years out in his sums. So I will not take lessons in tough decisions from him.

The hon. Gentleman knows that bringing public spending within the bounds of what is possible in the years to come will take a mixture of things: growth coming back, investing in new industries and jobs, the right decisions on tax—decisions that he has opposed consistently; I think that the Conservative party has voted against something like £20 billion of necessary tax increases for the years to come. It requires tougher decisions on spending in the years to come, but where there are things that the Government should not hold on to, we should sell them off. Yes, we should allow local authorities to keep receipts to invest in local priorities, but business or financial assets, such as those that the Prime Minister talked about today, can be sold off and the proceeds used to pay debt.

In 2008, I spoke in the House about defending the jobs in the Tote in Wigan, in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner). After meetings with Downing street and the Minister at the time, a commitment was given that, in any future sale, the jobs and the investment in north-west Wigan would be protected. Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment that that is exactly what will happen? The first I heard as a local Member of Parliament about the 600 jobs and the sale was over my porridge at six o’clock this morning.

I do not think that the Government’s position on the sale of the Tote has changed in essence. The medium-term decision was to keep it in the public sector, but now is the right time to look at the possibility of its sale. The dimensions and constraints around the sale of the Tote that my right hon. Friend outlined have not been disturbed.

Columns 586 to 588 in Hansard on 9 July 1987 contain the acceptance by the Labour spokesman that the Dartford bridge—effectively the first privately funded, operated, designed and built public works—would, as I said as Minister in the previous column, have tolls for 15 to 20 years. How can we have trust in Parliament if both sides accept something and then one side says, “We’ll keep the tolls going so we can sell it off”?

Again, the precise way in which the different assets are sold will have to be the subject of further debate and conversation, not least in the House. That is why it is the Chancellor’s ambition to bring before the House a portfolio of assets, which we believe could be sold. There will be several different questions that relate to different assets, but once the portfolio is published, we might be able to have a bit more of a debate about the precise detail of each one.

What does the brief say about the Thurrock-Dartford toll in relation to the fact that it is lawful to toll a riparian crossing only to control and manage congestion? How does a sold bridge and tunnel allow either the operators to get a return, or the Government to continue to pay, if they are constrained by the European Union directive?

There will be many different questions on each of the assets. In some cases, the sale of the assets will require us to return to the House to change legislation but, as I said, once the portfolio of assets is published, we can have a proper debate about the whys and wherefores of each one.

In 2001 and 2005, the Government made a manifesto pledge that they would nationalise the Tote in order to gift it to racing. Will the Minister tell us what proportion of the proceeds from the sale will be given to racing and what steps he will take to safeguard the jobs in Wigan, because he studiously avoided the question on that from the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)?

The announcement today has done nothing to disturb the policy commitments that have already been made about the different sales of assets. However, the Government must balance the need to get best value for the taxpayer in the years to come with the constraints and policies regarding each of the different businesses and assets. That is quite properly a subject for further discussion in the House.

May I just clarify things? We have consistently made a commitment to the racing industry that if we sell the Tote, we will contribute half the receipts back to the racing industry. Is that still our position?

How much have the Government pencilled in from sales of leisure centres owned by local authorities, and how many of those leisure centres are currently facing financial ruin because of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’s claims to recover retrospective VAT?

The figures on local authority asset sales that have been put before the House this afternoon are projections based on the pattern of local authority asset sales for the past 20 years. Over the last 20 years, local authorities have sold something like £3.7 billion of assets a year. As the recovery sets in and as market values return, we have no reason to think that those values will be any different in future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a lot of people listening to this debate will think that it is a bit rich that the market got us into this situation, but the market will now be able to buy our assets on the cheap?

As I said in my statement, the Government must not only lock in the recovery, but lay the foundations for growth in the years to come. As growth sets in, our ambition is to halve the deficit over four years. That is going to require a number of difficult decisions. If we want to invest in creating new industries and new jobs in the years to come, as well as to put public finance on a sustainable footing for the medium term, there will be difficult decisions on tax and difficult decisions on spending. However, if we can create new investment in the infrastructure that we need in the years to come and if that can be financed through selling off assets that we no longer need, it is the right decision to take.

Will the Minister confirm that his brief fails to alert him to the common sense of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber relating to the funding and history of the building of the two tunnels under the Thames and the Thames bridge? It was intended that they would be paid for and then made free. In a spirit of joined-up government, will he confirm that the Department for Transport is at this very moment looking at proposals that could lead to the removal of the tolls altogether?

The Department for Transport has to look at a whole range of scenarios for the years to come, not least whether another crossing is put over the Thames. That is why I said that the ambition over the next couple of years—the next two financial years—is to raise something of the order of £3 billion from the disposal of central Government businesses. We think that the assets listed could make a big contribution, but there will not be a fire sale. We will seek to extract the most value for taxpayers from the sale of the assets. That is why the Chancellor will return to the House with a portfolio of assets that we think it is right to sell over the next couple of years—the assets to which the hon. Gentleman referred will, I think, be among them.

The programme that we are putting before the House now, and which we will put before the House in more detail in the months to come, does not include disposal of the Government’s interests in financial institutions.

I would define a fire sale as selling things for substantially less than we think we could secure for taxpayers. However, this Government have a good record of selling assets in order to pay down debt, not least regarding the money that was raised from 3G licences in years gone by. Those decisions allowed us to go into this recession with debt at something like 36 per cent. of gross domestic product, which is much lower than other countries in the G7. Those decisions have helped us to ensure that help is available for businesses and families to get through this recession—help that the Conservatives opposed.

With all these public assets due to be sold off, may we be reasonably satisfied that at least the Palace of Westminster will not be flogged off to some land speculator or property company in the near future?

On 29 June, the Prime Minister said that the £16 billion would be redirected to public investment. Will the money go to investment or to pay off debts? Even the Prime Minister cannot spend the same money twice.

As I tried to say in my reply to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), we think that local authorities will be able to secure some £11 billion of asset sales and central Government will achieve some £2 billion of asset sales. That money will be available for re-investment in infrastructure and other capital investment priorities. There are some businesses that can raise some £3 billion over the next two financial years, and those proceeds can be used to pay down debt.

Can the Minister confirm that the onward sale of the Tote will be on the basis of the seven-year exclusive licence that was in the original sale? Will the Treasury be willing to consider a revised bid put forward by a racing consortium?

The answer to the second question is yes. The answer to the first question is, as I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), that the current policy position on the sale of the Tote is undisturbed by the announcements made today.

Libya

Mr. Speaker, with your permission, I will make a statement on the circumstances surrounding the decision of the Scottish Justice Minister on 20 August to release on compassionate grounds the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

As the Prime Minister has said, Lockerbie was a terrorist act of the gravest brutality. It was the largest peacetime loss of life on British territory. It was a major tragedy, with the killing of 43 Britons in the sky and in Lockerbie, 190 Americans and people of 19 other nations. It was an act, by people and a state, that breached all norms of humanity. That is why the reception for Megrahi on his return in August at Tripoli airport was so unacceptable.

My statement today sets out the events leading up to the Scottish Justice Minister’s decision to release Megrahi. I will set out the changes in Libya’s relations with the international community since 1988 and address the three central issues raised in respect of the UK Government at the time of his release: first, the decision by the Government to sign a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya that did not exclude Megrahi; secondly, the relationship between the British Government and Scottish Executive in the decision-making process; and thirdly, the separate questions of the investigation into the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher and the compensation for victims of Libyan-supported IRA terrorism.

The House will know that today is the 25th anniversary of the Brighton bombing, when the IRA attempted to murder a British Prime Minister and her Cabinet, and did kill five people, including one Member of this House, and injured many others. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Libyan Government were linked to a number of terrorist organisations, including the Provisional IRA. Libya’s support for international terrorism defined its relations with the western world.

As right hon. and hon. Members will recall, WPC Yvonne Fletcher’s murder in April 1984 led us to cut off diplomatic relations. The bombing of a nightclub in West Berlin in 1986 was followed by US air-strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi. When evidence emerged supporting allegations that Libyan intelligence officers had been involved in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Libya hand over the accused and imposed sanctions when it failed to comply.

During the 1990s there was evidence from a range of sources that the Libyans were also actively pursuing a range of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes, as well as the development of ballistic missiles. Libya was a pariah state whose activities posed a clear and unambiguous threat to international peace and stability, and to our security in this country. The story of the past decade has been very different. Libya has abandoned its support for international terrorism and stopped its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, in a series of events that merit the term “unforeseeable”.

In 1998, the US and UK Governments put forward a detailed joint proposal for the trial of the two accused of the Lockerbie atrocity. Our joint commitment to close and transparent working in all matters has continued throughout this case. We reported our proposal to the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary-General and, with the support of the Security Council, in 1999 persuaded the Libyans to surrender the two accused to a specially constituted court in the Netherlands where a Scottish panel of judges, without a jury, would try the accused under Scots law. Libya also agreed to pay $10 million compensation to each of the families of the victims, whatever their nationality, if the defendants were convicted. Megrahi was found guilty under Scottish law by the court in 2001 and his conviction was upheld on appeal in 2002.

Against that background and, as I will explain later, in particular after the Libyan admission of responsibility for WPC Fletcher’s murder, the UK restored diplomatic relations in July 1999. The long-term aim was clear: the normalisation of relations with Libya.

On 19 December 2003, following months of secret discussions with the UK and US, the Libyans announced that they would eliminate their weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons programmes, and restrict the range of their missiles. They also agreed to immediate international inspections and to be bound by all the relevant international agreements, which they now are. Today, we share information and co-operate in our efforts to disrupt and dismantle terrorist groups in Europe and north Africa, in particular al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, which was responsible for the kidnap and murder of Edwin Dyer in May. We also try to find common ground in the UN and elsewhere on matters of common concern.

There is also an entirely legitimate commercial dimension to our ties. With the largest proven oil reserves in Africa and extensive gas reserves, Libya is potentially a major energy source for the future. We work hard to support British business in Libya, as we do worldwide.

We continue to have serious concerns about human rights in Libya, including about freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, political prisoners and the mistreatment of migrants. There are a number of important outstanding issues, in particular concerning the investigation into the murder of WPC Fletcher and the campaign for compensation by the victims of IRA terrorism.

In May 2007, Prime Minister Tony Blair made his second visit to Libya. His summit with Colonel Gaddafi at Sirte covered the full range of our interests with Libya. Mr. Blair signed a defence accord and witnessed the public signature of a major BP exploration contract. Also agreed was a memorandum of understanding on negotiations for a judicial co-operation package, including a prisoner transfer agreement and agreements on mutual legal assistance, extradition, and civil and commercial law.

The UK had a model agreement, based on Council of Europe arrangements, that was the starting point for negotiation on our prisoner transfer agreements with any country and that provided the starting point for negotiations with the Libyans. Four points are relevant. First, a PTA provides for prisoner transfer, not prisoner release. Secondly, it provides a framework for transfer, not a right to transfer. Thirdly, a PTA cannot be used when appeals, including by the prosecuting authority, are outstanding, as in this case. Fourthly, Ministers in the sentencing jurisdiction—in this case Scotland—have an absolute right to veto any transfer.

This standard draft had no provision for any carve-out for any named prisoner. However, the Scottish Executive made strong representations for us to seek to alter the standard PTA so as specifically to exclude Mr. Megrahi. The UK negotiation team, led by the Ministry of Justice, sought in good faith to achieve this goal.

The Libyans insisted that the only PTA that they would sign was a PTA without any exclusions. So the Government had a clear choice. We could agree to a standard PTA with no exclusions, retaining for Scottish Ministers an absolute veto over any request for prisoner transfer in the case of Megrahi—a veto which they used in August this year—or we could have ended the negotiations to prevent an application for prisoner transfer. This would have set back our wider national and commercial interests that flowed from normalised relations, as the Justice Secretary has made clear. Since the PTA involved no prejudice to the rights of the Scottish Executive, nor pressure on the Scottish Executive, the Government decided it was right to go ahead. The PTA finally took effect in April 2009.

In September 2008, a new factor came into play. Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The Libyans became increasingly concerned at the prospect of Mr. Megrahi dying in a Scottish prison. They communicated this to the Government and to the Scottish Executive. It was repeatedly made clear in reply, including in the Prime Minister’s meeting with Colonel Gaddafi on 10 July this year, that the decision on Mr. Megrahi’s fate was exclusively for Scottish Ministers and the Scottish judicial system.

Notwithstanding that any decision on release was for Scottish Ministers and the Scottish judicial system, the UK Government had a responsibility to consider the consequences of any Scottish decision. We assessed that although the decision was not one for the UK Government, British interests, including those of UK nationals, British businesses and possibly security co-operation, would be damaged—perhaps badly—if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison rather than in Libya. Given the risk of Libyan adverse reaction, we made it clear to them that as a matter of law and practice it was not a decision for the UK Government and that as a matter of policy we were not seeking Megrahi’s death in Scottish custody.

In Scotland, compassionate release generally comes into play in the last three months of a prisoner’s life. Scottish Justice Secretary MacAskill has set out the process by which he arrived at his decision in August this year to refuse the PTA transfer but to grant Megrahi compassionate release. He also set out the grounds on which he did so. As the Scottish Justice Secretary repeatedly stated in his announcement, this was a decision for him and him alone to take. The Government were clear that any attempt by us to pressure the Scottish Executive would have been wrong. At the press conference announcing his decision, the Scottish Justice Secretary confirmed that there was “no pressure from Westminster”.

It is also important to address the unfounded allegation that we ended our search for progress in dealing with the legacy of Libya’s past support for terrorism. Admission of responsibility for WPC Fletcher’s murder and the payment of compensation were necessary for the restoration of diplomatic relations in 1999. Four years later, we secured Libyan agreement to a joint investigation into the murder. It was clear, including to the family, that anyone prosecuted for the murder would have to be tried in Libya. Since 2007, the Libyans have refused to allow the Metropolitan police to return to complete their work. We share the determination of the Fletcher family to find answers, and continue to work on this case.

In 1995, Libya provided critical information on its past links to the IRA. At that time, the then UK Government wrote to the United Nations declaring that they were

“satisfied that they have largely met our expectations”

in accounting for the extent of their support for the Provisional IRA. Libya has since then considered the issue a closed matter. Nevertheless, in respect of the campaign involving hon. and right hon. Members to secure compensation from Libya in respect of its past support for the Provisional IRA, we have created a dedicated unit in the Foreign Office to facilitate the families’ renewed campaign. The unit is currently working with hon. and right hon. Members to secure a visit to Libya soon.

Twenty-one years on, the ongoing pain of the Lockerbie atrocity remains a testament to Libya’s past association with international terrorism. Her re-entry into the community of nations does not and cannot absolve her of this responsibility. It does, however, represent a major step forward. The Government make no apology for their part in securing this progress and we reject the charges repeatedly made but not justified. The PTA was not an agreement for Megrahi’s release. The Scottish Justice Minister said he was not pressurised to release him. We did not forget the victims of IRA terrorism, or WPC Fletcher. On that basis, I commend this statement to the House.

We are grateful to the Foreign Secretary for making a statement and we of course concur with his remarks about the horrors of the Lockerbie bombing and about the 25th anniversary of the Brighton bombing, the memory of which means a great deal to all of us in the House, but particularly to those of us in the Conservative party.

In other respects, we will differ with the Foreign Secretary’s statement, because it is our view that the release of Mr. Megrahi by Scottish Ministers was a mistake, that the episode was characterised by obfuscation and confusion on the part of Ministers at Westminster and that it damaged the standing of this country in the United States. The Secretary of State said that the decision was absolutely wrong, and the director of the FBI said that it made

“a mockery of the rule of law.”

As the Foreign Secretary has pointed out, relations with Libya have improved over the last 10 years, which we all welcome. Since then, as he also pointed out, Libya has voluntarily dismantled its programmes on weapons of mass destruction, surrendered al-Megrahi for trial and co-operated on migration and counter-terrorism. We all want that co-operation to continue for the future. In the opinion of most people of this country and in our opinion, however, the case to release Mr. Megrahi against that background was outweighed by the requirements of justice and the fact that he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of 270 people—an opinion shared across the parties, including by the leader of the Labour party in Scotland, who said that this would not have happened if the Labour party had been in power there.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the decision to release al-Megrahi was the fact that the Scottish Executive, having concluded that they could not transfer him under the prisoner transfer agreement because it would breach assurances given to the United States, then concluded that it was appropriate to release him altogether. Would it not have been more sensible to conclude that if it was inappropriate to return him to Libya as a prisoner, it was even more inappropriate to release him as a free man?

In the time available, let me put a few short questions to the Foreign Secretary about the Government’s own conduct. Will he clarify what advice the Foreign Office gave to Scottish Ministers? We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s middle east and north Africa directorate wrote to the Scottish Justice Secretary saying:

“We do not consider that the UK entered into a definite commitment, legal or otherwise, with the United States.”

However, both the United States Attorney-General and Secretary of State were adamant that assurances had been given to the US Government that any person convicted would serve his sentence in Scotland—and, by implication, would serve the sentence. Why was there this fundamental difference of opinion between Westminster, Holyrood and the United States?

Secondly, the Foreign Secretary appears to have argued in his statement, in line with what the Justice Secretary said in his interview at the beginning of last month, that trade played a big part—a view that I see the Justice Secretary now assents to—in the decisions made about the prisoner transfer agreement. In that case, why did the noble Lord Mandelson say of that suggestion that

“it is not only wrong; it’s completely implausible and actually quite offensive”

to say that the release of al-Megrahi was in any way linked to trade. [Interruption.] If the Foreign Secretary thinks that Lord Mandelson was wrong—however risky it may be make that assertion—he can say so and we can get that clear! Even more importantly, will he say what the event was that changed the Government’s policy on the prisoner transfer agreement and caused the Justice Secretary to change his mind? What was the event, threat or negotiation that led to that change? Is it the case, as Colonel Gaddafi’s son has asserted, that Megrahi was

“always… on the negotiating table in all commercial, oil and gas contracts and when British interests were discussed in Libya”?

The Foreign Secretary said nothing in his statement about relations with the United States. Given the evident differences of opinion with the US on the nature of the assurances given about Mr. Megrahi, should not the United Kingdom have informed the US about the change of policy on the prisoner transfer agreement? My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) tabled a question on 7 September, asking whether that was done, but no reply has yet been given. Will the Foreign Secretary clear up the confusion now by saying whether the US was informed of the British Government’s policy and, if so, what was said in response? Will he now accept that the Government’s handling of this matter in the aftermath of the Scottish decision left a great deal to be desired?

The Foreign Secretary effectively argued in his statement that the Government were happy to see Mr. Megrahi released—he can put that a different way if he does not agree to those words, but that is effectively what he argued. Does he agree with me that it was therefore deeply regrettable that the Prime Minister stayed silent on this issue for five days after the release, and that it took him another four days to say that he respected the decision? Would it not have been better for the Prime Minister to say immediately either that he disagreed with the decision, or that he agreed with it if he thought it was, on balance, the right thing to do?

Twelve days after the release, it emerged that the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) had told the Libyans at a meeting in Tripoli that the Prime Minister did not want al-Megrahi to die in prison. That statement received tortuous confirmation from the Foreign Secretary when he said what he subsequently said in this statement—that

“we were not seeking his death in prison”.

Why, then, did the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families say that

“none of us wanted to see the release of al-Megrahi”?

How can that be reconciled with the statements of Foreign Office Ministers? Why was the Cabinet unable to express a coherent view on the subject? Did it not damage this country in the eyes of the world that it was unable to do so?

The Foreign Secretary commented on the prospects of taking forward the case of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. Will he say whether he sees any realistic prospect of success, and what the next steps will be?

While we welcome the fact that the Government have changed their policy on support for the families who were victims of Libyan-backed IRA terrorism, can the Foreign Secretary assure us that as well as assisting those families, and consistent with that, Ministers will now raise the issue with Libyan officials and Government members whenever the opportunity arises? It seems extraordinary for Her Majesty’s Government to give assistance to the families but never mention the subject in their dealings with Libya.

Will the Foreign Secretary concede that, when all the facts are taken together, it is clear that damage was done all round because of the Government’s mishandling of the matter? Not only do the British public disapprove of this decision; our American allies were mystified and felt let down, from the President downwards. At present it is harder to pursue improved relations with Libya after all this, because of the cloud of suspicion that currently hangs over Britain’s dealings with that country.

Given the number of questions, the huge public interest in the matter and the need for clearer answers to those questions, should we not have the independent inquiry into the matter for which we have called throughout?

Let me deal with the points made by the shadow Foreign Secretary.

I think that much of the right hon. Gentleman’s quarrel—he was quite open about this—is actually with the Scottish Justice Secretary. He described the way in which his view of the case differs from that of the Scottish Justice Secretary. He was right to say that there was a difference between the prisoner transfer agreement and compassionate release. As I said in my statement, the prisoner transfer agreement is not an agreement for release, but an agreement for the transfer of a prisoner from a prison in one country to a prison in another country. As I also said in my statement, the prisoner transfer agreement was not available for use because of appeals that were under way, including one from Scottish Ministers in respect of the length of the sentence. However, the Scottish Justice Secretary dismissed that.

The advice to the Scottish Executive was the subject of letters published last month. There was no legal bar to the decision made by the Scottish Justice Secretary. It is also important to point out that at every stage in the late 1990s it was clear—as it would have been clear to any Government talking to another Government—that the Government could not bind the hands of their successors, and could not foresee all the circumstances of the future. Certainly, I think that the transformation of our relations with Libya qualifies for the term “unforeseeable”.

The right hon. Gentleman cautioned me about the risky business of decoding the remarks of my right hon. Friend Lord Mandelson, but actually they did not need to be decoded in this case. What Lord Mandelson said—as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out—was that there was no deal for the release of Megrahi in respect of trade, and that is absolutely right. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman was condemned in quoting the words of Lord Mandelson. As for the son of the Libyan leader, he has made it quite clear that there was no deal in respect of Megrahi’s release.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the next steps to be taken on the Fletcher case. Obviously I will not give a running commentary on all the aspects, but I look forward to meeting the Metropolitan Police Service and the Fletcher family again this month with a view to discussing how we might take that forward. I think it would be wrong to give false hope at this stage, because the Libyans have made it absolutely clear that they consider the matter closed.

Of course we will continue to discuss the support for the families of the victims of IRA terrorism with the Libyan authorities, but we have reached the very clear view that there is more chance of its being addressed on a humanitarian basis by representatives of the families than in a Government-to-Government negotiation. It is important to be open and clear about that.

I said in my statement that candour and transparency were the essence of our special relationship with the United States. That relationship, and that basis, have been fulfilled at every stage of this affair. The right hon. Gentleman will I hope have seen the article in the Financial Times last month by the new United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, which made it absolutely clear that our relationship with the United States was as strong as ever, and I hope he will also have studied carefully the words of Secretary Clinton yesterday, who could not have been more fulsome or clear about the strength, and continued strength, of the relationship between the UK and the United States.

May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and note in passing that long recesses are not a good advertisement for Parliament, as too often we cannot ask questions when they are most pertinent?

The Foreign Secretary has once again tried to suggest that at all times the British Government acted appropriately and that they got the best possible result for everyone involved. I have to tell him that that is not the view of many victims of the Lockerbie massacre, or the victims of Libyan-supplied IRA Semtex bombs, or the family of WPC Fletcher—not to mention President Obama. How were the United States Government able to secure compensation from Libya for the Lockerbie bomb victims, yet the British Government failed to secure compensation for IRA bomb victims? Why did it take this summer’s row to force a change in policy on compensation for IRA victims?

Today, the Foreign Secretary has once again protested that there was no link between al-Megrahi’s release and any trade deals; yet his explanation of why his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice totally changed his position on the prisoner transfer agreement with Libya suggests, in his own words, commercial considerations were a key factor, so is it not the case that trade came before justice? Even if trade issues did not affect the final decision to release al–Megrahi, is the Foreign Secretary saying that in all UK Government negotiations with the Libyans there was never any discussion involving any type of linkage between al-Megrahi’s possible future release and trade deals for UK companies?

While we all welcome the changed Libyan policies in recent years in respect of terrorism, will the Foreign Secretary not accept that the Libyan regime still has an extremely poor record on human rights? According to Amnesty, peaceful opponents of the regime can face execution merely for speaking out, so will the Foreign Secretary make it clear today that Britain wishes to see Libya clean up its act on human rights, and will he therefore explain why Britain has been training Libyan police and Libyan special forces, and granting a growing number of export licences for everything from water cannon to armoured personnel carriers?

Given all this, surely the Foreign Secretary must think again about our call for an inquiry, and the Conservative call, and announce an inquiry that covers all aspects of the UK-Libyan relationship in the run-up to the release of al-Megrahi. Nothing else will be able to reassure the public that trade in arms did not come before justice. Anything else should be unacceptable to this House.

I want to start by saying very clearly that the fundamental issue in this case was the right of Scottish Ministers to take this decision without pressure. It is the word of the Scottish Justice Minister—not a member of the governing party in the United Kingdom, but a member of the Scottish National party—that it was his decision, his decision alone and a decision taken without pressure from Westminster; he himself has said that. The most fundamental responsibility of the Government was to respect the constitution of this country, which has devolved powers in respect of this issue, and that was acted upon very diligently by the Government.

In respect of US compensation and the victims of IRA terrorism, the hon. Gentleman will know that the United States were at a different stage in the restoration of diplomatic relations than us. We restored diplomatic relations after the resolution of the WPC Fletcher issue, and, as I explained in my statement, the United States were at a much later stage in their discussions. None the less, I think it important to support the campaign being waged by hon. and right hon. Members on this issue.

I will check Hansard, but the hon. Gentleman did say in his question—I wrote it down—“Even if trade negotiations did not affect the final decision.” That was an important thing to say because I could also quote what he said on the radio when debating with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, which was far from such an admission. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has now recognised that the final decision was not affected, as it could not be because we were not putting pressure on.

In respect of Libyan human rights issues, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Foreign Office publishes an annual human rights report. He is right to draw attention to this, and I mentioned it in my statement. I certainly agree with him that we want to make human rights abuse a thing of the past, wherever it exists. Finally, the Libyan police training is a programme to help Libya meet its human rights obligations; far from undermining the case, which he and I share, that Libya needs to clean up its act, this was a way of helping it to do so.

On the inquiry, which is the hon. Gentleman’s single transferable answer to every conceivable policy problem, his call seems to be ill-founded. On the sentencing authority, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish authorities are the right people to consider whether there are any issues in that respect, and I come to this House to explain the facts of the case. Given that a lot of the papers have already been published—last month—I think there is more than enough material for him to make his own judgments about the situation.

Order. Leaving aside the evident interest in this statement, there is heavy pressure on business today, as the House will appreciate, so once again I appeal to each hon. or right hon. Member to ask a single short supplementary question and to the Foreign Secretary to provide us with a brief reply. I call Mr. David Hamilton.

One thing that angers most Scots, as it does people throughout the UK, is that this Government did not condemn outright the action taken by the Justice Minister in Scotland. His decision angered the vast majority of Scots and people throughout the UK. What message does it send to our armed forces fighting in Afghanistan that we release a prisoner who should never have been released?

I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend, whom I know to be a strong supporter of our work in Afghanistan and of the extraordinary bravery of our troops there. I hope he will accept that there is not a scintilla of doubt about the Government’s commitment in that respect, nor a scintilla of support or succour given to those who would be attacking our troops. He said that this was a decision that we made. It was not a decision that the Government made; it was a decision made by the appropriate authorities—in this case, a single member of the Scottish Executive: the Scottish Justice Minister. It is right to say very clearly that it was not for the British Government to take this decision. It was for the British Government to assess the consequences of the decision and to make it clear that we were not seeking the death of Mr. Megrahi in jail, although it was a decision for the Scottish Justice Minister to make. That is something we said repeatedly throughout this affair.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, as Secretary of State for Scotland in 1988, I had to travel to Lockerbie on the night of the disaster? Never for a moment did I expect that the person convicted of murdering more than 200 people would be released and sent home having served only eight years of a 27-year minimum sentence. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that he has made a remarkable admission today? In his statement he said—correctly, of course—that it was the Scottish Executive’s Minister who took the decision, but he went on to say that the UK Government had a responsibility to consider the consequences of that decision. He says, in his own statement, that the only consequences that they considered were the implications of al-Megrahi dying in a prison in Scotland, rather than at home. So has the Foreign Secretary, by his own admission, not acknowledged that he paid more attention to the views of the Libyan Government, who were responsible for this terrorist outrage, than to the views of the United States, almost 200 of whose citizens were killed on that evening?

I remember where I was in 1988—I was a student in New York. I can well imagine the emotion and passion that exist—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary says that he remembers the right hon. and learned Gentleman travelling to Lockerbie at that time. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman never expected the transformation in Libyan relations that has taken place, nor anticipated the terminal cancer that struck. I want to address, head on, the nonsense that he talked at the end. We considered every eventuality—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but the statement is absolutely clear that we had a responsibility to consider the consequences of the decision that was taken, and the decision—be it one way or the other—had to be accounted for. Three possible decisions could have been taken, and they were all considered as part of our contingency planning for what the Scots might do, of their own accord, in the decision that was theirs to take.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton), I fully support the Scottish Justice Secretary’s decision to send al-Megrahi home. During the middle of this furore it was reported that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had sealed the papers for ever regarding the Lockerbie bombing. Is that the case, and if so why?

That is the first I have heard of it. Obviously, some of the papers were released by the Scottish Executive last month and the normal freedom of information rules will apply. Perhaps my hon. Friend is referring to the papers of previous Governments—I do not know if that is the case, but I am happy to have a word with him afterwards to get to the bottom of his concern.

Is not the real problem that we have now in this country two competing jurisdictions—the Scottish Executive and the UK Government—both pursuing aspects of foreign policy and with overlapping and sometimes conflicting responsibilities? What is the Foreign Secretary doing to sort out this muddle and confusion and to prevent it from happening again, so that we can bring some coherence to our relations with other Governments?

There are no competing jurisdictions when it comes either to foreign or criminal justice policy. The right hon. Gentleman will know that there has long been a different system of criminal law in Scotland, which was previously administered by Ministers of the Crown here in London. However, now that his right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has arrived, I should say that his party now supports the devolution settlement in Scotland and I suggest that he stop attacking its continued presence in the United Kingdom.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, which has allowed Members on both sides to express their concern over the decision that has been taken. He mentioned the establishment of a new unit in the Foreign Office to help the families of the victims of IRA terrorism. Will he give an undertaking to this House that it is not just the creation of the unit that matters, but full and unequivocal support from Ministers for the campaign? Will he give thought to the idea of a Minister’s leading the delegation when it goes to Libya to ask for that compensation?

I certainly give my right hon. Friend the commitment of full ministerial engagement and support. However, I think it would be unwise to turn this into a Government-to-Government issue. It is far better that we support the families, who are campaigning for the victims, and their representatives in Parliament, because I think that a humanitarian appeal is more likely to succeed. I do not want to raise expectations of imminent success in this area, but I think that a humanitarian appeal has more likelihood of success than a Government-to-Government negotiation.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary deprecates the comments we heard from those on the Labour and Conservative Benches who seek to undermine the Scots legal system, where it is custom and legal practice to release prisoners who are terminally ill on compassionate grounds. The decision by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill on al-Megrahi was based on the recommendation of the Parole Board and the prison governor, and on the medical advice of the Scottish Prison Service. Does the Secretary of State agree that it was correct to make a decision based on quasi-judicial grounds and not on political considerations?

The particular role of the Justice Secretary in Scotland, like that of the Justice Secretary in the UK, is circumscribed by quasi-judicial aspects. They have been followed through in this case and that is why the Prime Minister said that we respected the process by which he came to his decision.

Given that this was a decision by a Scottish Minister on compassionate grounds, I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has seen any assessment of the evidence that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) mentioned a moment ago—particularly that on the medical grounds—or whether, in a few months’ time, we might discover that compassionate release is as effective a cure for cancer as it once apparently proved for Alzheimer’s disease in another high-profile compassionate case?

I have no evidence to suggest that the medical opinions were other than straightforward, but we are all obviously watching the clock on this issue.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is disquiet among many people about the fact that Mr. Megrahi withdrew his appeal the day before Kenny MacAskill made his announcement, presumably because of the return of prisoners legislation? Does the Secretary of State not agree that as a consequence, people are disappointed that the opportunity perhaps to find other perpetrators of Lockerbie who have never been brought to justice has been lost? Does not that, in itself, justify an inquiry?

Although the Megrahi appeal was dropped, the appeal by the sentencing authority—by the Crown—was not. That is why the prisoner transfer agreement would not have been applicable in that case. Of course, it is completely within the rights of those in the Scottish system to establish any sort of inquiry that they want into the decision that was taken.

May I tell the Secretary of State that the victims welcome the initiative of creating this special unit? Together with Northern Ireland colleagues, I have been privileged to attend weekly meetings at the Foreign Office in connection with this issue, but we want the opportunity to go to Tripoli to indicate that this can be a source of final reconciliation. We need more leverage from Ministers to get us access to Tripoli, where the victims can put their case before the Libyan regime. I urge the Secretary of State to tweak things a bit, just to put that extra energy into it.

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said—he has been a doughty campaigner on behalf of the victims. In fact, I think that he was in a meeting in the Foreign Office the week before this all blew up, and he will know that there is a real commitment to that proposal. I am happy to talk to him about the sort of tweaks that he thinks necessary, but I think that the case that he made for a visit to Tripoli is overwhelming, and I look forward to its being met.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that I represent the family of Bill Cadman, who was a constituent murdered in the Lockerbie atrocity? The family feel incredibly strongly, as do the other families. The Scottish fatal accident inquiry was too limited in scope, because it did not cover security issues. Why has there never been a proper full inquiry into this atrocity, so that the families of the victims could secure proper closure?

I did not know about the individual family concerned, but I know that there are strong feelings among the families in the UK. It is right to keep saying that the criminal justice investigation and the final prosecution were undertaken under Scots law. It is for the Scottish Executive and the Scottish system to decide if there are any holes in that approach and, if there are, to follow that up.

If the decision to release al-Megrahi were made not by the Scottish Justice Secretary but by the Foreign Secretary’s colleague, the Lord Chancellor, would the Foreign Secretary still feel constrained to remain silent in the face of the world’s press?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that such a decision, whether in Scotland or in the UK, is for the Scottish Justice Secretary or for an English Justice Secretary to take, alone and on their own. Its quasi-judicial nature applies in both systems.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that after all the sound and fury generated by Governments, the people who are left feeling more alienated and marginalised than ever are the families of the 259 passengers and crew from Pan Am flight 103 and of the 11 Lockerbie residents? They are the ones who are left feeling, more than ever, that they are further from the truth. I have asked the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs to hold an inquiry into how the machinery of government in London and in Edinburgh has operated to produce this lamentable situation. Would the Foreign Secretary assure me that if the Committee were minded to proceed with such an inquiry he and the rest of the Government would co-operate with it fully? Does he not think that the families deserve that at the very least?

I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will follow all the appropriate procedures and precedents when it comes to the establishment of inquiries by this or any other House.

May I, too, emphasise the strength of feeling among many friends and family of the Lockerbie victims about the fact that there should be a full inquiry, especially as they believe that the dropping by Megrahi of an appeal may deprive them of any opportunity of really finding the truth and achieving the closure that they want?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s words have been heard in Scotland as well as here, because it is for them to decide whether or not there is the basis or evidence for a new inquiry of any kind.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that there is evidence that the Libyan Government supported terrorist groupings, including the Provisional IRA, even in the early 1970s, and that the papers that were recently released prove that the then Labour Government offered inducements to the Libyan Government, seeking the withdrawal of their support from the murderous Provisional IRA? Will the Government therefore actively engage with those innocent people who have suffered because of the IRA-Libyan connection, and lead the delegation to Libya?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He dramatises the shift that has occurred in Libya’s position in the international community over the past 15 years. It is certainly our determination to work closely with him and with his right hon. and hon. Friends. I repeat to him what I have said in response to other questions in the House: it is the leadership of the group on humanitarian grounds, rather than on bilateral Government-to-Government grounds, that holds the best chance of success, and on that basis, we are absolutely committed to supporting him in any way that we can.

On 16 December 2003 a meeting took place between officials from the British Foreign Office and Downing street and Libyan intelligence officials. Just three days later the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced the WMD deal. At the negotiations in the Travellers club, the subject of Mr. Megrahi was raised. Could the Foreign Secretary tell us in what context it was raised, and can he assure the House that there was absolutely no link between the status of Mr. Megrahi and the WMD deal?

In my statement and in my answers to questions I have given a full explanation of the situation. I have also explained the circumstances leading to the abandonment by the Libyans of their WMD programme. As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who speaks for the Conservative party on these issues, has made clear, there is cross-party consensus about the process and the outcome in respect of Libya’s weapons of mass destruction programme and its nuclear programme. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be better off resting on that basis.

New Member

The following Member made the Affirmation required by law:

Chloe Rebecca Smith, for Norwich, North.

Personal Statement

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a personal statement.

I am grateful to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for its consideration of the detailed report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards following his seven-month investigation. I want to apologise unreservedly to the House, as I have to my constituents, for wrongly claiming for the cost of films alongside my broadband and cable connection. This claim should never have been made and, as the Committee notes, I paid back the claim in full as soon as it was brought to my attention.

On the issue of second home allowances, the commissioner and the Committee recognise that my London home is indeed a home. They dismiss the most usually repeated newspaper descriptions of my living arrangements, and I welcome this judgment. As the report makes clear, I sought and received written advice from the parliamentary authorities that supported my main home designation and, indeed, I spent more nights in London than in Redditch for three of the four years in question. I have never flipped my designation and I own only one home.

The Committee recognises that there is no evidence that the taxpayer would be any worse or any better off as a result of my having made a different decision. However, in retrospect the commissioner concludes that I should have used my discretion to change my main home designation. I accept the Committee’s conclusions and I therefore apologise to the House. I want to say sorry, too, to my constituents. They are my No. 1 priority, and for too long this investigation has overshadowed the work that I do for them.

Health Bill [Lords]

[Relevant Documents: The Eleventh Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Health Bill; Marine and Coastal Access Bill, HC 396, and the Fourteenth Report from the Committee, Legislative Scrutiny: Welfare Reform Bill;Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill; Health Bill, HC 414.]

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee

New Clause 12

De-authorisation of NHS foundation trusts

‘(1) In the National Health Service Act 2006 after section 52 insert—

“52A Application of sections 52B to 52E

(1) Sections 52B to 52E apply to—

(a) an NHS foundation trust authorised under section 35 on an application under section 33;

(b) an NHS foundation trust established under section 56 to which subsection (2) applies.

(2) This subsection applies to an NHS foundation trust if—

(a) at least one of the trusts on whose application the NHS foundation trust was established was an NHS foundation trust within subsection (1)(a), or was an NHS trust all or most of whose hospitals, establishments and facilities were in England, or

(b) the NHS foundation trust is the result of a succession of mergers under section 56, any of which involved an NHS foundation trust within subsection (1)(a) or an NHS trust all or most of whose hospitals, establishments and facilities were in England.

52B De-authorisation: regulator’s notice

(1) The regulator may give the Secretary of State a notice under this section if it is satisfied that—

(a) an NHS foundation trust to which this section applies is contravening or failing to comply with, or has contravened or failed to comply with, any term of its authorisation or any requirement imposed on it under any enactment, and

(b) the seriousness of the contravention or failure, or, if there has been more than one, of any of them taken together, is such that it would justify the Secretary of State making an order under section 52D.

(2) The notice must be in writing.

(3) With the notice the regulator must give the Secretary of State a report stating the reasons why it is satisfied as mentioned in subsection (1).

(4) Before giving a notice under this section, the regulator must consult first the Secretary of State (unless the notice follows a request by the Secretary of State under section 52E) and then—

(a) the trust,

(b) any Strategic Health Authority in whose area the trust has hospitals, establishments or facilities, and

(c) any other person to which the trust provides goods or services under this Act and which the regulator considers it appropriate to consult.

52C Grounds for de-authorisation notice

(1) In determining under section 52B(1)(b) whether the making of an order would be justified, and in determining whether to give a notice under that section, the regulator must consider these matters (among others)—

(a) the health and safety of patients;

(b) the quality of the provision by the trust of goods and services;

(c) the financial position of the trust;

(d) the way it is being run.

(2) The regulator must publish guidance as to the matters (including those mentioned in subsection (1)) that it proposes to consider in making those determinations.

(3) Before publishing any guidance under this section, including any revised guidance, the regulator must consult—

(a) the Secretary of State,

(b) each NHS foundation trust to which this section applies,

(c) each NHS trust intending to make an application to become an NHS foundation trust, and

(d) such other persons as the regulator considers appropriate.

52D De-authorisation

(1) If the regulator gives notice under section 52B in relation to a trust, the Secretary of State must make an order for it to cease to be an NHS foundation trust.

(2) An order made under subsection (1) must specify the date when it is to take effect, which must be within the period of 5 working days beginning with the day on which it is made.

(3) On an order under subsection (1) taking effect in relation to a body, it ceases to be an NHS foundation trust and a public benefit corporation and becomes a National Health Service trust.

(4) The order must specify, in relation to the trust, the matters mentioned in paragraph 5(1)(a) to (c) of Schedule 4 and, where the trust has a significant teaching commitment, the matters mentioned in paragraph 5(1)(d).

(5) The order may provide for any provision under subsection (4) specifying the number of executive directors and non-executive directors to take effect at the end of a period specified in the order.

(6) Schedule 8A makes further provision about trusts in respect of which an order is made under subsection (1).

(7) If it appears to the Secretary of State to be necessary in order to comply with provision made under subsection (4), or made by regulations under paragraph 4 of Schedule 4, the Secretary of State may by order—

(a) terminate the office of any executive or non-executive director of the trust;

(b) appoint a person to be an executive or non-executive director of the trust.

(8) Within seven days after the day on which the Secretary of State makes an order under subsection (1) the regulator must publish its report under section 52B(3).

(9) In this section “working day” means any day which is not Saturday, Sunday, Christmas Day, Good Friday or a day which is a bank holiday in England and Wales under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971.

52E Secretary of State’s request

(1) If it appears to the Secretary of State that there are grounds for the regulator to be satisfied as mentioned in section 52B(1), the Secretary of State may request the regulator in writing to consider exercising its power to give a notice under that section.

(2) A request under this section must—

(a) specify the NHS foundation trust to which it relates, and

(b) state the grounds relied on by the Secretary of State.

(3) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament any request under this section.

(4) If within the required period the regulator does not give a notice under section 52B in response to a request under this section, it must, within that period, publish its reasons for not doing so with a statement as to how it has complied with section 52C(1).

(5) The required period is—

(a) 14 days beginning with the day after the regulator receives the request, or

(b) any longer period specified in the request.

(6) The Secretary of State may by order extend or further extend the required period.”

(2) Schedule 2 (which inserts Schedule 8A to the National Health Service Act 2006, which makes provision about de-authorised NHS foundation trusts) has effect.’.—(Mr. Mike O'Brien.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 11—Notification of Care Quality Commission special reviews and investigations—

‘(1) The Health and Social Care Act 2008 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 39 (bodies required to be notified of certain matters) after subsection (2)(d) insert—

“(e) an investigation under section 48 (special reviews and investigations).”’.

Government amendments 21 to 37. [Interruption.] I appeal to Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly to allow for orderly transition to the next business.

I rise to move Government new clause 13. This amendment would insert the new clause into the Bill to enable a designated mental health NHS foundation trust to earn up to 1.5 per cent. of its total income from income that it derives from private charges. The new clause also contains a definition of mental health foundation for that purpose.

In the course of the Bill’s passage through Parliament—[Interruption.] Sorry, Mr. Speaker, I am afraid that my speaking notes are not in the right order. I apologise for that. They have just been reorganised, and I think that those who reorganised them did so somewhat more efficiently than they should have. Let me move to new clause 12 and Government amendments 21 to 37.

The Mid Staffordshire Foundation NHS Trust failed its patents and the national health service. Members will be well aware of the history of that case, the House has debated it at length and I am grateful to many hon. Members, from all parts of the House, who during the past year have drawn our attention to the issues at Mid Staffordshire. We have to learn the lessons from that case and ensure that such events cannot take place again. The report of Dr. David Colin-Thomé, the national clinical director for primary care, contained a number of recommendations that are being taken forward, including better co-ordination among both the regulators themselves, and among the regulators and the primary care trusts and strategic health authorities.

I am very grateful. On that particular point, following the dreadful events in Staffordshire did the Minister issue to the strategic health authorities throughout Britain a lessons-learned document or any other instructions?

Dr. David Colin-Thomé undertook a report on the issue, so a full report on the lessons to be learned was issued throughout the national health service. It was not issued as a ministerial directive; it was more a clinical examination of the issues that had arisen. We have now started an inquiry into the details of what happened locally in the trust. The inquiry is hearing evidence and will, we hope, report towards the end of this year or the start of next. I hope that that deals with the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Improvements have been made: for example, Monitor has formalised and improved its contact with the Care Quality Commission, which needed to be done; and, working with the CQC and Monitor, we are tightening up the quality requirements for aspirant foundation trusts.

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