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Westminster Hall

Volume 501: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2009

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 1 December 2009

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Higher Education

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Steve McCabe.)

I want to begin, Mr. Benton, by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship and how delighted I am to have secured this extremely important debate on the future of higher education. Along with the rest of the sector, I was extremely relieved when Lord Mandelson finally announced the long-awaited review. After all, I had spent much of 2007, 2008 and 2009 calling for the Government to get on with that review.

As many people have said before, there is much to be proud of within our higher education sector. Its wider influence is important to the ongoing success of the British economy, its output is worth about £59 billion, it sustains 700,000 jobs and in the financial year 2007-08 the sector earned £23.4 billion. For every £1 million of university output, a further £1.38 million is generated in other sectors via a multiplier effect, according to a Universities UK report, so it is crucial that we do nothing to damage the sector’s ability to continue its strong economic performance and world-class reputation.

However, I wanted to secure the debate this morning because I felt it important that Members of Parliament should have an early opportunity to discuss and possibly influence the review process while it is still at its beginning. I have always felt that this matter is far too important to play politics with. Therefore, I hope that all parties will get involved with the review to endeavour to make it work for the entire higher education sector.

Since the review was announced, I have heard far too many people—both students and vice-chancellors—say that a rise in student fees will be the inevitable outcome. Some students and parents are concluding that this independent review process is nothing more than a public relations exercise to justify a rise in student fees. I acknowledge that the actions taken by this Government when they have conducted such consultations and reviews have led one to the conclusion that they perhaps arrived at the answer before they had even asked the question. I sincerely hope that that is not the case with this review, and I do not believe that it is.

Indeed, it is absolutely critical for the reputation of Parliament and the Government of whichever persuasion who will be in power by mid-2010 that this review and its recommendations are absolutely beyond reproach. There must be no hint of any conspiracy to raise student fees. I know that we in the Conservative party will treat the review and its conclusions completely on their merits.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this very important subject to the House at this time. Has he seen early-day motion 32, which talks about the negative effects of student fees, particularly on poorer families and students, in that they discourage students from going to university, which is a great loss to the country? It goes on to state

“that there are alternative models of funding higher education, which do not involve top-up fees; and therefore calls on the Government to publish full details of these alternatives to facilitate proper, informed debate and understanding before proceeding”.

Does he agree with that aim?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Yes, I saw early-day motion 32 and I think that the important thing is that the review, because it is independent, takes a detailed look at the current system and all the alternative systems, and then makes its recommendations. We should not try to prejudge that review at this stage.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing the debate, but on the tone with which he has started it. I say that because he is quite right that higher education is a crucial sector.

Furthermore, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for us to have a proper debate in the lead-up to the general election and so that we are not deluding people, we should put our cards on the table as to our own policies and make some proposals? If he agrees with that, will he, during this debate, make his own proposals, which he would like others to consider alongside the proposals of the Government, the Liberal Democrats and perhaps even the Scottish nationalists?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The key is that we have this debate before and during the general election, and that everybody has their chance to have their say. Indeed, the Liberal Democrat position is very confused, as he will know. The Liberal Democrat shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), is saying that he wishes to cut student numbers and does not wish to abolish student fees, and of course the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) is saying something completely different, so it would be good if the Liberal Democrats arrived at a firm position and debated from it during the general election.

From my own time shadowing the—

I will come to that, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to do so.

From my own time shadowing the higher education brief, I know that vice-chancellors and universities have a powerful voice in the corridors of power, which has been supplied by years of lobbying by their campaign groups. Although those voices sometimes compete with each other, they are none the less very influential; one has only to look at the number of briefings that we all received for this debate to realise the truth of that. However, I do not think that students will mind my saying that the student voice is not so clearly articulated. That is quite understandable, given that students have less resources to commit and experience more difficulty in establishing continuity within their leadership and organisation.

I will give way shortly, if hon. and right hon. Members will be patient.

Having said that, my former university, which I now represent as its constituency MP, fortunately has a first-class student union president and executive team in what is a very important year for students, and I know that they are doing their best to engage in this debate and provide a thoughtful and positive voice for Reading university students. Of course, the National Union of Students does its utmost to articulate the entire student voice and it rightly has a big role to play during the review.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this very important debate. Will he join me in congratulating the NUS on the effectiveness of its lobby a couple of weeks ago? I have certainly valued the contacts that I have had with student representatives from both Oxford university and Oxford Brookes university. That lobby was extremely well organised and I think that it has influenced the course of this very important discussion that we are having.

That is an important point. I have noticed that, over the past few years, the NUS has greatly improved its communications with Members of Parliament and its lobbying efforts, so I join the right hon. Gentleman in congratulating the NUS on its efforts in that regard.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him, both on securing the debate and his measured opening remarks. However, are not students extremely concerned that the higher education system, rather than being an engine of social mobility, is starting to entrench social inequality? For example, the social profile of those students who go into Russell group universities shows that fewer than one in six of them comes from a family with a less-well-off background, although such families represent 50 per cent. of the population. That cannot be allowed to continue and Lord Mandelson is right to look at the assessment procedures for those universities, is he not?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good and valid point. I will address it later in my contribution, if he will be just a little patient.

I do not think it sensible for the Government to exclude the democratic student voice from the independent panel involved in the review. Having a former chairman of the British Youth Council on that panel is welcome, but it appears to some people to be window dressing and is simply not sufficiently persuasive for those who doubt the Government’s intentions in announcing the review.

The Minister will be aware of early-day motion 1085, which calls for proper student representation during the review. As fee-paying customers, it is only right that students have their say, and as I said to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), I applaud the NUS for its efforts to make itself heard. Reading university students union has also taken the lead on this issue, hosting a debate in conjunction with the NUS the other week. It is only right in a democratic society that we have such debates, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned.

However, it is also important that any organisation that wishes to be part of an independent review process must not prejudge the outcome. It is critical that the review relies on the evidence and bases its recommendations purely on it. I know that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, makes a big thing of evidence-based policy, and tuition fees is one area where that is exactly what we should be using.

Today’s debate provides the Minister with a good opportunity to explain in his own words why the democratic student voice is not currently welcome on the panel and how he intends without it to ensure that the student voice is effectively heard. That will be important to the review’s universal acceptance and overall success.

The review on tuition fees will report after the general election. It is commonly understood that its terms of reference and chairmanship were decided jointly, or that at least the Conservative party was consulted on that remit, so does the hon. Gentleman think that the Conservative party pressed for the NUS to be included in the review?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I no longer have party responsibilities on higher education, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will be happy to provide an answer to that question later in the debate. The Minister will be aware of the importance I place on that issue as I have raised it several times on the Floor of the House and written to him about it. While not wishing to pre-empt his reply in any way, I hope that he treats the views of the student population of Reading and the NUS with the seriousness and respect they deserve.

I would like to make a couple of further points on the review of tuition fees. I have already said that any recommendations on that matter must be evidence-based. Frankly, however, I am not completely satisfied that the current fees have been fully justified by universities. As I travelled across the country while shadowing the HE brief, I felt that some students were being slightly short-changed by the quality of teaching and the support services at a number of our universities. Fees raised an additional £1.3 billion for universities, but I am not sure that I have seen a £1.3 billion improvement and investment in the student experience. Perhaps the Minister will say that that was never the intention of the fees, but we need that on the record.

Although comprehensive figures for student debt are still unavailable for the most recent student intake, several figures have been published that make sobering reading. A 2007 survey by estimated that students commencing studies in 2006-07 could expect to owe an average of £17,500 on graduation, while those starting in 2007-08 could see their average debt increase to £21,500, and medical students, who have lobbied me for the debate, of course have much higher debts. Before any Government consider burdening our young people with even more debt, it is imperative that the review justifies how the previous fee money has been spent.

If the review recommends a further rise, based on the evidence, I would like two further conditions to be satisfied: disadvantaged students must be better off and ordinary hard-working families no worse off, and all students should receive a markedly enhanced student experience.

There is one further consideration. The student loans method of financing higher education is far from cost-free to the taxpayer. Any raising of the cap under the current system will require additional subsidy from the Treasury, which is already subsidising student loans to the tune of about £700 million a year. The Minister’s departmental projections confirm that, at the current rate, that subsidy is likely to rise to £782 million in 2010.

With the national debt and the country’s finances in such a terrible mess, is lifting the cap financially sustainable? I am not yet convinced that it is. Figures I have obtained from the House of Commons Library show that increasing fees to an average of £5,000 would increase annual Government subsidy to around £1.25 billion in 2015, and just over £1.3 billion in 2020. However, if the cap rose to £7,000, the figure could rise to an astonishing £1.85 billion by 2020. The cost to the Treasury of student support in 2010, including grants, is projected to be around £2.6 billion.

Of course, I use those figures with caution as examples to illustrate my point, but in the light of the need for transparency in the review it is important that the Minister is open and honest about all the potential implications. In these times of economic struggle, can the Treasury afford to keep raising the subsidy it provides to student loans? At the least, the review will have to justify that huge taxpayer subsidy to the Treasury if it recommends a rise in fees.

I do not want the debate to concentrate only on fees. The review’s official remit is to

“analyse the challenges and opportunities facing higher education, and their implications for student financing and support”,

taking into account

“the goal of widening participation, affordability and the… simplification of the student support system.”

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and being so generous with his time. Does he agree that one of the problems is that the university sector is not homogenous? There are now very different universities, some of which, particularly the new ones, have never managed to get on top of their funding gap. If we are to look at the sector properly, we must examine the differential roles of those differentiated universities.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. There is wide variation in the types of university in the sector, but I think that that is a cause for celebration, rather than concern. If we can get the review right, there will, as he said, be room for all types of university and that diversity will be celebrated, perhaps even more than it is today.

I would like to cite the example of the university of Leicester, whose motto is “Elite without being elitist”. It goes for the highest possible standards, but the broadest possible intake of students, and it achieves that to a significant extent. That could be a model for the Government in how to avoid fees pricing out ordinary working-class students from the best universities.

The hon. Gentleman shows enormous pride in his local university, which is as it should be, but the answer to his question about which model the Government should use should really come from the Minister, rather than from me.

Although fees constitute a major part of the review, other important factors must be addressed over the coming months. One such factor is access to higher education, or widening participation, as it has become known. In July, a panel led by the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) reported that the Government have failed to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get to university and pursue elite careers. It found that

“the UK’s professions have become more, not less, socially exclusive over time”,

with 75 per cent. of judges and 45 per cent. of top civil servants having been privately educated.

The issue of social mobility gathered pace over the past week, following Lord Mandelson’s comments about admission to top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. He said that instead of relying on A-levels and exam results, universities should also take account of “contextual data”, such as an applicant’s school or home neighbourhood.

However, in talking about access to Oxbridge, Lord Mandelson was wading into dangerous waters by reigniting the argument about social engineering. For example, his comments were translated by one newspaper into the following headline: “Middle class students face university place struggle as Mandelson backs giving poorer students two-grade ‘head start’”. Yet both Oxford and Cambridge have set tough targets for the proportion of pupils they will take from state schools by 2011—Oxford’s is currently 62 per cent. and Cambridge’s is between 60 and 63 per cent. Although that is an important and admirable attempt to widen participation, we must be careful when setting top-down targets for admissions.

I believe absolutely that more of our brightest students from state schools need to attend our best universities, but instead of simply imposing top-down targets, we must ensure that young people are not put off from applying to those universities in the first place. That is arguably a bigger barrier for many young people, and it often comes down to lack of aspiration in those around them rather than in the young people themselves.

In one of its excellent reports on widening participation, the Sutton Trust analysed entrance to Oxbridge by individual school over the period 2002 to 2006. Interestingly, although probably as expected, it found that only 30 schools, or less than 1 per cent. of the total, accounted for 15 per cent. of all Oxbridge entrants. Why do certain schools and not others succeed in securing their pupils Oxbridge places? Careers advice has a crucial role to play. It is desperately lacking from the vast majority of state schools, where our brightest young people are simply not pushed to apply to our top universities.

Writing in The Guardian earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), the shadow Minister for universities, said:

“Young people from more deprived backgrounds do not lack aspiration, but rather knowledge of the routes to realise it.”

As we have been stating for years and as the Milburn report reiterated, there is not much good to say about the ailing Connexions service. The careers service in our schools has let down young people badly and contributed to a curtailment of social mobility.

The bottom line is that good information is vital to improving university access. Young people need proper support at every stage, from choosing appropriate A-levels to understanding student finance. I do not want to generalise, but a substantial cultural change is necessary in our schools if more bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are to apply to top universities in the Russell group, for example.

An interesting report on applications and admissions for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also by the Sutton Trust, highlights the problem. It found that students from FE colleges were the least likely to apply to top universities. There is clearly scope for further investigation of the reasons why students from FE colleges do not apply to top universities in the quantities that might be expected. My party would tackle part of the widening participation agenda by redirecting funding towards a substantially enhanced independent careers service in every secondary school and college. However, teachers must also encourage pupils with ability to apply to our best universities and not simply to assume that the best universities are for the privileged or wealthy. They are not, and I am totally convinced that they do not want to be.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in giving way. I agree strongly with the point that he just made about the need for a culture shift and raised aspirations in secondary schools—and, indeed, in primary schools—so that a far wider range of children can reach the highest level. Does he agree that the efforts being made by Oxford colleges, as well as other universities, to reach out into poorer communities, including mentoring by students, can be an important force in creating such a culture shift?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. When I visited Cambridge, I saw a number of outreach programmes. I was extremely impressed by that university’s mentoring programmes and the work it is doing to attract more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The work being done in that respect at Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell group universities is first-class.

Does my hon. Friend also recognise that mentoring has been around for some considerable time during the 25 years since I went up to Oxford? I went to the same school as the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). He, of course, was the black sheep of the family, having gone to grammar school and ending up a Labour Member of Parliament. However, the serious point is that we were lucky to have been at a state school with a tradition of sending a number of boys to Oxford every year. Twenty-five years on, the number is considerably larger than when we were there.

Oxford and Cambridge college tutors—not all, but many—have made a substantial commitment going back some decades to reach out as far as they can, but is not the real issue schools’ aspiration, as my hon. Friend says, to ensure from the age of 14, 15 or 16 that the brightest children from deprived households see any university, let alone Oxbridge, as an option for them?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I agree wholeheartedly. As I have suggested, I do not believe that the real problem lies with tutors or the outreach work done by Oxford and Cambridge. They are trying very hard indeed to attract large numbers of disadvantaged people through a series of programmes. Unfortunately, that is not being reflected by activities in some schools, such as those of the careers service. It is also partly to do with the fact that some teachers might have fewer aspirations for young people than those young people have for themselves. Good advice would certainly not go amiss within such schools.

The hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous in giving way. That is what is good about debates such as this.

In the spirit of the debate, may I say that when we talk about higher education, we always go on about Oxbridge and the Russell group, but the reality is that not enough young people from lower socio-economic groups aspire to go to any university at all? That is the challenge. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although we concentrate on a small group of elite universities that, as we found when we investigated, are doing a strong job of trying to get young people in—I do not blame those universities—the challenge is getting youngsters to stay on at school after 16 and aspire to go to any university? That is why the FE sector delivering HE is crucial as part of that journey.

The Chairman of the Select Committee speaks with great knowledge and passion. I will come to exactly that point in a few minutes, but I must make some progress now. I have been speaking for 25 minutes and I know that other Members want to speak, so I would like to keep interventions down to a manageable level.

The review can play a major role in ensuring that all able students—irrespective of background, postcode or father’s profession—can attend university, including the very best university if that is their wish.

We cannot discuss widening participation without mentioning the importance of part-time learners, who represent a significant proportion of the student body and have always been somewhat disadvantaged within the system. Again, the review is a perfect opportunity to put right some of the wrongs that they have suffered. I think that we would all agree that the artificial barrier between full-time and part-time students is unacceptable in a modern, diverse and accessible higher education system. Staffordshire university’s vice-chancellor, Christine King, has undertaken useful work on the matter, and I hope that it will be taken into account during the coming months as the review progresses.

In light of the changing student demographic, the review should also consider the higher education taught in further education colleges. The benefits of such provision include local access, wider participation and affordability. What is most important is enabling people to access education in a way and at a pace that are right for them. That means more HE taught in further education colleges and more part-time, distance and modular learning.

For that reason, as the Minister will be aware, I have long advocated that the UK take note of the US community college model of higher education. Such colleges provide access to higher learning for millions of students and, a bit like the UK’s further education sector, have a higher proportion of entrants from lower socio-economic groups.

Although I do not wish to use my time today to plug the American education system, several things of relevance to the review are worth noting. First, the US system is based on credit, enabling people to drop in and out of study as their lives dictate. The career ladder is rightly viewed as a career lattice, and students can accumulate credit until they are ready and able to transfer to a traditional university to complete their degree. I do not see why a progressive sector such as the UK’s should not have comparable flexibility. I acknowledge that the Government have moved in that direction by broadening foundation degrees, but much more could be done.

The second factor that impresses me is how networks of colleges pool their resources as part of articulation agreements. Some embryonic examples of that model can be found in the UK, such as the Staffordshire university regional federation—a collection of FE colleges affiliated to Staffordshire university. If we are to make tough decisions about the sector’s financial future, sharing backroom expenses could be one way to cut wasteful administrative costs.

The third point about community colleges is their engagement and integration with local businesses. The model has proved so successful that funding is usually in thirds: one third from the Government or state, one third from the individual and one third from local business. The emphasis on localised provision to meet local business needs has helped to differentiate community colleges from traditional US universities. The range of work-based learning provision covers courses such as soft skills, customised job training, short intensive courses and training for local businesses.

According to the Association of Colleges, one third of higher education places in colleges are often for adults seeking professional qualifications, with their fees being paid by the employer. The higher education review should look to expand such provision and examine closely what is happening in the US.

I believe, however, that true business collaboration will occur only when investing businesses have more say in the course material within institutions. In recent months, business in this country has justifiably criticised the quality of the school leavers that our schools are turning out, but it also needs to start putting more effort into supporting further and higher education so that the skills it needs are provided locally.

As well as debating the contentious topic of the future level of fees, the review will, I understand, consider the whole financial package on offer to students. That package is confusing to young people at school, as I think the Youth Council found in a report published earlier this year. The current system of local bursaries, grants, loans and other financial assistance such as private sector input is confusing. That is particularly unhelpful to those disadvantaged groups that rely more on such financial assistance. I hope that the review makes recommendations that would simplify the system for users. It may well be worth considering the merits of a national bursary system, for example.

In coming to informed conclusions about the student finance mix, the review should consider all potential options. That should of course include the call from the NUS for a graduate tax. Clearly, there are issues with that, as the cost of pump-priming such a solution may be well beyond anything the country can afford in the current circumstances, but it is essential that the review considers all possible solutions for student financing.

I intended to round off my remarks with a few comments on employability, but I am conscious that a number of hon. Members want to speak. I shall simply say that it is important for organisations with an interest in this issue to make their feelings clear during the coming months if they want to have a chance to influence the review. Such windows do not open for long, and for the first time in years the sector has a genuine opportunity to make real changes that will benefit the country both socially and economically.

I hope that by securing the debate and advancing my views constructively, a dialogue has been started that will result in a secure and, indeed, prosperous future for higher education in this country.

Before I call the next speaker, may I point out that I propose to commence the winding-up speeches at 10.30? I call Mark Williams.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) for securing this important debate. I feel slightly like a Welsh interloper in an English debate, but I hope that as I speak it will become apparent why some of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman are directly relevant to my constituents.

I represent two universities in Ceredigion, at Aberystwyth and Lampeter. Lampeter has now merged with Trinity College, Carmarthen. The universities are a source of great pride to us and provide significant employment in the county. Approximately 18,000 students are enrolled at our two universities and, as the hon. Gentleman described, those students play a huge role in the local economy. The university of Lampeter has had a tough time in the last year or so with the merger. There has been a great deal of pain; there have been job losses. However, the merger was essential and I think that the worst is now over. The new vice-chancellor has a great vision for the way forward.

There is hope. We have moved forward, thanks to the support given by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Assembly Government. I will not stray into devolved matters, but I would like to place on the record our appreciation for that support. Higher education in Wales is rightly devolved. The Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, Jane Hutt, is talking to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs this morning and the Minister present for this debate will come to see us on Thursday.

Last week, Jane Hutt made a statement about higher education in Wales. The point that I want to make is that decisions here and the review that we have been hearing about have a direct impact on the Welsh higher education sector as well.

Let me give some context for the higher education sector in Wales and its importance to the Welsh economy. Its annual turnover is £1.1 billion and it brings a further £1.1 billion into the Welsh economy. The sector provides 33,000 jobs directly or indirectly to Wales, and 640,000 jobs in the UK as a whole. It is fair to say that Wales punches above its weight in the higher education sector. If anything, the sector is more important to the Welsh economy than it is to the English, because it involves a larger proportion of gross domestic product. The Assembly Government have placed renewed emphasis on growing the knowledge economy. Higher education is one of our best sectors and we need to use that to our advantage.

Cross-border implications are of fundamental importance and need to be considered when policies are proposed, not least because Wales has the highest proportion of students coming from outside the country of any nation in the UK. We are having the review of fees. Such reviews and reviews of other higher education structures can have significant effect on how Welsh universities operate and their capacity to attract students. We need to keep the official lines of contact between the Minister’s Department and his counterparts in Cardiff Bay. That issue was raised in one of our previous Select Committee reports. I am referring to the extent of that collaboration and the extent to which there is knowledge in the Minister’s Department of a separate structure in Wales. I would be grateful if he outlined the extent to which that dialogue is ongoing.

I am a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and when we produced a report on cross-border higher education we identified a number of areas for improvement. The most stark was the £60 million funding gap between Wales and England. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) alluded to the funding differential between institutions in England. There is a real funding gap between Wales and England. I would be grateful if the Minister at least acknowledged that divide, as it has a huge effect on us, not least because Wales has a strong record of attracting students from overseas to our colleges. We also noted the importance of further education and the need for learners in some instances to cross the border. Again, that requires close collaboration between the Governments in Westminster and Cardiff.

We have heard about the importance of part-time study. In a refreshing speech, the hon. Member for Reading, East alluded to the importance of part-time education, including part-time degrees. Lampeter in my constituency has been at the forefront of developing models for part-time learning. Some 40 per cent. of the students in Wales are studying part time. At Lampeter, 6,400 of the 7,800 students are part time—a huge proportion. Again, Liberal Democrat Members want to break down the divide in that respect.

The higher education sector in Wales is an important driver of Welsh language provision. There are plans for a federal college to be established in 2010. That will make a major contribution to the development of the Welsh language at a higher level, and it is being supported at the universities of Bangor and Aberystwyth. We have made great strides in improving knowledge of the Welsh language through primary education, but there is a need to expand the knowledge of advanced and technical Welsh, and the higher education sector is starting to meet that need.

I am conscious of the time, but I want to touch on one other important matter affecting Welsh institutions. Concern has been expressed in Wales about the Secretary of State’s apparent intention to concentrate research funding on a few elite universities that can demonstrate world-class capability. I stand to be corrected if that is not the case, but it is the perception of what he has spoken about. Currently, of the £2.8 billion distributed by Research Councils UK, Wales receives about 3 per cent. This is one of the rare areas where I would be pleased to see the Barnett formula applied. We have high-quality institutions that will continue to attract research funding, no matter what the situation, but I hope that we are not moving to artificial control of the supply of research funding to certain favoured universities and departments, which could have a real and detrimental effect. What did the Secretary of State mean? Can the Minister assure me that if quality bids are made, they will not be prejudiced if they are not deemed by the Secretary of State to be from world-class departments?

Research funding is hugely important. One case study is the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, near Aberystwyth. It has received significant funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which supports the institute.

Wales has some exceptional universities. My youngest daughter did her first degree at Aberystwyth and was very happy with that institution—the hon. Gentleman’s own university. On finance, and research finance in particular, surely the generous Barnett formula allows sufficient latitude to provide the extra funding needed by the universities to which he refers. We in the east midlands, with a population of 4.25 million compared with 3 million in Wales, have substantially lower public expenditure per capita than that which the Barnett formula allows for Wales. There is scope in it for the funding; the hon. Gentleman does not need extra resources.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that observation. I know that he knows my area well, but I question the extent to which that latitude is there. That has not been the reality for research work in my constituency.

The work of IBERS would be considered world class, perhaps more so, as a result of the merger between Aberystwyth university and the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, but there is a danger that other growing and improving departments could miss out on funding that would enable them to increase their reputation. An element of competition is essential in research funding, but any perception that funding was sewn up for a favoured few would significantly damage our research base.

One recommendation in the Select Committee report was

“that DIUS makes available a specific allocation of research funds to develop the research capacity of HEIs outside the established elite to enable them to gain a track record of success and so be able to compete more effectively for research funds from other sources.”

In other words, we need to prime those institutions for the future. We also recommended that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, as it then was, investigated why Wales does not appear to receive as high a proportion of research funding as we would expect given its relative size. The Government were lukewarm about those recommendations, but I hope that the Minister looks at those matters again. I do not want to pre-empt the questioning, but he will certainly have questions on that subject on Thursday. We should not expect Wales necessarily to get a share based on population, but we need to investigate whether there are institutional factors within the funding councils that are operating against Wales and whether they can be addressed.

I shall conclude with a couple of examples of the work that IBERS is doing. It has just been awarded a Queen’s anniversary prize for further and higher education for projects to develop plant types that are more resistant to drought to combat climate change. It is doing pioneering work on biofuels and has been at the forefront of developing cattle feeds that reduce methane. That is only a snapshot and I could certainly introduce an entire debate on the work of IBERS, as I have before.

I want to make it clear that the research is extremely worth while and useful work, and it is being done as a result of research funding, which is why we need to continue to support Welsh research.

The Welsh higher education sector remains a hugely important part of our economy, and I urge the Minister to reflect on the impact on the Welsh sector of any decisions that he takes and to continue to develop strong relationships with his Welsh Assembly Government counterparts.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on introducing this important debate. Its focus, understandably, has been largely on access and funding, as we heard from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams). I want to add a few thoughts of my own.

I know well the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East as it includes the town I was brought up in. I was educated at the local grammar school, Reading school, as I mentioned earlier. John Weeds, the principal, does a fantastic job. When I was there over three decades ago, it opened up a lot of opportunities for a lot of people from relatively deprived backgrounds. I fear that its academic excellence, coupled with the fact that its catchment area is rather broader than it was in the 1970s and early 1980s when I was a pupil, mean that it probably has more children from middle-class, aspirational and professional backgrounds than when I was there. It continues to have fantastic academic results. It is a beacon, and it is rare for it to slip outside the national top 10 state schools for academic results.

At this stage, I ought to declare an interest: I have spent the past almost five years as a member of the advisory committee of a private college called the London School of Commerce. I do not know whether the Minister has yet visited it, but his predecessor, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), who is now Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, did. It has strong connections with the university of Wales institute, Cardiff, so I have been to Cardiff a number of times and am therefore aware of some of the funding and broad structural issues to which the hon. Member for Ceredigion referred. Professor Antony Chapman and his team at UWIC do a tremendous job developing an international flavour and first-class courses, particularly MBA courses, which have grown out of recognition over the past few years.

That role is an example of having an outside interest in an area in which I did not have much experience. I was a businessman before I entered Parliament and, obviously, representing my seat, as the Minister and other hon. Members will recognise, most of my interest and expertise in the House is on economic and financial matters. My interest in the college has opened my eyes to how higher education and quality higher education operate. The London School of Commerce is an innovative and leading college, the founding college of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers, and it focuses on best practice.

I wish to touch on visa issues, if I may. The college works closely with the Home Office, the British Council and visa control staff in our embassies abroad to ensure that, as far as possible, there is proper attendance—there are strict guidelines on expected attendance. Through text messaging and state-of-the-art technology, it ensures that it keeps tabs on its students, particularly those with visas coming from abroad. Working with other colleges will set a template that I know it will be proud of as time goes on.

We face some problems. This year’s student visa changes have left stranded many thousands of foreign students who wanted to come to this country. I am pleased that by the end of the year we anticipate the results of an urgent review by the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the operation of the visa system. It is right to ensure that a proper visa system is in operation, but everyone will accept that some hard cases have gone the wrong way.

A lot of colleges require money from international students. Let us face it: higher education is one of our biggest international businesses and the visa issue has become a major problem. There are issues at stake here. We need to promote education. Some £1.5 billion a year is raised from overseas students, which inevitably helps to cross-subsidise British students. In many ways, tuition fee levels cannot be discussed without considering the number of international students.

I am lucky enough to represent a constituency that takes in three of the finest of our global universities—Imperial college, the London School of Economics and King’s college. I spoke with Sir Richard Sykes, then rector of Imperial college, and he made it clear that to balance the books he had to take a lot of overseas students. He felt that there was an obligation, which I think applies to all our institutions, to ensure that we also take our home-grown product and do not allow the desire—and, in many ways, the need—for funding to crowd out suitably qualified students, particularly at postgraduate level and, to a lesser extent, at undergraduate level from our institutions. However, we should not forget the importance of overseas students to our economy. Not only do they bring in £1.5 billion in fees annually, but they spend about a further £2.5 billion off-campus and have huge export earnings.

Of course this is about bringing money into our system, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also about building meaningful partnerships between institutions in this country and institutions abroad? I think of my example of Lampeter, with its Chinese students and Confucius institute, which is partly funded by the Chinese Government. That is an example of meaningful links between two countries.

I was just coming to that. The single most important issue here is that this group of relatively young people will, we hope, go back to their own countries and become ambassadors for this country, or perhaps I should say these countries, given that I am speaking to the hon. Member for Ceredigion.

It is important that we build those links. As part of my involvement with the London School of Commerce, I have been to Dhaka in Bangladesh and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where there are two overseas colleges, both of which are thriving and doing tremendously well. It is no secret that many of our top universities—even those in the Russell group—are actively seeking connections with China and increasingly with India and other places in Asia as an important part of their growth.

In this country, we obviously have the benefit of speaking the lingua franca—English—which is vital in attracting students to these shores. We also have an internationally respected system. We must pay some tribute to this Government, although I hope that the same will apply to past and future Governments, for the fact that we have a rigorous examination system and a rigorous inspection system for our higher education product, which means that that product remains a great success.

We need to look at other countries, particularly the United States and Australia, which have a tremendous track record in higher education. Again, that is appealing because they speak English. We should recognise that we are talking about an important growth industry: 20 million people a year are being added to the ranks of the middle classes in China and India, so there is a tremendous opportunity for some of the brightest and the best to do postgraduate and, on occasion, even undergraduate courses here. This is an important market and we should be looking to plug into it.

I say that not least because, in the light of the credit crunch and the financial crisis, I have all too often given speeches in the past couple of years saying that we cannot and should not be overly reliant on the financial services industry in the years to come. Everyone recognises the need to achieve a balance of business. That is not to say that we should not admire our world-beating financial services industry, but it would be unwise to become overly reliant on it, as we have perhaps done in recent years, particularly in the tax income that comes from it.

We must look at other industries that will be sources of great strength, and those include the creative industries, environmental technologies and education. Calling education an industry may make one or two vice-chancellors quake—it is and remains a profession—but it provides an important overseas service and we should recognise its great importance.

One of the most encouraging aspects of my relatively limited experience in this field is that when I speak to vice-chancellors and other leading lights in the universities, they recognise the importance of broadening their horizons beyond this country and of ensuring that we are a beacon throughout the world. We need to keep a close eye on developments in this area, because they will provide a great opportunity not only in the next few years, but in the decades to come.

If we can position ourselves, we will reap enormous benefits, not least from the relationships that we will build institutionally and individually. As I said, one of the most important things that we can do is get some of the brightest and best young Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs of the future to spend a year or two in this country. That will provide some of our most important links. As we know from people we met in our own undergraduate and student days, if we can get people at that stage, it can make a terrific difference to this country.

I appreciate that I have spoken on a somewhat different plane from the other two contributors to the debate, but I think that we need to look at two issues. First, we need to have a quality product. To be honest, there has been some complacency in this country. As a graduate of Oxford, I certainly think that my alma mater has been rather complacent about its place in international league tables. A huge number of American universities are gradually making more and more progress in many of the international research tables, not least because they benefit from huge alumni funding and can attract some of the brightest and best students and academics. However, we have some tremendous universities, and a positive comparison can certainly be made between their positions in world tables and those of other European universities.

None the less, we need a much more global outlook. One needs only to look at the technology colleges and technology universities in India going back to the time of Nehru to see that they remain strong competitors. In a couple of decades, some of the best operators among the Chinese universities will also be global players. In terms of the quality product on which we will look to base our international appeal, therefore, this is and will remain a very competitive world.

We also have to look at the issue of quantity; we should not shy away from that. Obviously, there will be funding issues. One complaint is that some of our universities have put too much effort into getting bums on seats and filling courses, almost regardless of the quality of the product provided. However, the reality is that more and more people will want to go to university and will recognise the benefits of a university education as not only this country but the world becomes more middle class in its aspirations and outlook.

That is not to take away from the debate that has taken place about access, which is important, but it is vital for our quantity product that we look at some of this country’s competitive advantages on the higher education scene. We will not necessarily need a heavy touch from the Government, although much of our testing and regulation stand us in good stead. Degree-awarding status should not be watered down for the sake of it, because we want to ensure that our degree-awarding bodies set something of a gold standard in the international world of education.

I have had an opportunity to speak for rather longer than I thought I would. Hon. Members who have been able to make contributions feel passionately about this issue and higher education is an important aspect of this country’s expertise. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East for his contribution and look forward to what the Minister has to say about what I am sure is a very much a work in progress, although we will no doubt return to these debates in the months and years ahead, as higher education maintains its importance in the British economy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing a debate on such an important topic. He has been a Conservative higher education spokesperson and served on Select Committees alongside me for a couple of years, so I know that he has a long interest in these matters. Now, however, he is safely ensconced in the Conservative Whips Office. He said that the views that he expressed were essentially his own, although I assume that they were not too out of tune with those of his party or his Front-Bench spokesmen.

It is good to have a debate on this important issue, because in the run-up to the general election it is a worry that the Government and the Conservative party should be determined to stifle debate on the future of higher education and will deny voters at the election a clear opportunity to distinguish between the two political parties. My party is absolutely determined that higher education will be high on the agenda at the election.

Higher education is crucial to the future of the British economy. If we are to compete in the world, the knowledge-based economy will be crucial. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) rightly said that if we are to compete, particularly against the emerging economies of China and India, it will be on the basis of quality, not volume. People around the world look to the quality of British higher education, which already gives us the second largest share of the international market in higher education.

The hon. Gentleman also rightly drew attention to much concern in the sector about the tough regime introduced by the Home Office to control student numbers. It is important that the review body should look at how England, Scotland and Wales can be open in the international market to academics and students from all over the world.

The hon. Gentleman is usually intelligent about these things, but he must get out more. If he did, he would know that the Conservative Opposition have a highly distinctive position on higher education; it is sensibly and constructively critical of the Government when it needs to be. He should know that, because I was articulating that position on a platform with his colleague, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), just last week.

I shall look with interest at what my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman said in that debate.

The size of the sector has been mentioned and the hon. Member for Reading, East referred to the 50 per cent. target. Just to make it clear, I should say that the Liberal Democrats have never supported the 50 per cent. target. We believe that more people should have the opportunity to go into higher education, but setting an arbitrary target has never been a key part of that. [Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering from his seat, but what is more important—an Opposition party that honestly says that an arbitrary target is not the way forward, or a Government who for a decade have clung to a target that they were meant to achieve by 2010, which starts in 31 days’ time, but that they have no hope of achieving? They still say that that target is incredibly important.

Now, in the framework announcement of just a month ago, we have a new target of 75 per cent. of people achieving level 3 and above; no doubt that is to obscure the fact that the existing target has not been met and has no hope of being met in the foreseeable future.

What is really important is what the hon. Member for Reading, East focused on in a large part of his speech—not the volume of people who go to higher education, but who goes to higher education.

Will the hon. Gentleman clear something up for me? Does he agree with the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, the hon. Member for Twickenham, that the Liberal Democrats should cut the number of young people who can go to university?

My hon. Friend has not said that we should cut the number of people going to university, but simply reiterated the position that I have made abundantly clear on many occasions: we do not support and have never supported the 50 per cent. target. However, we do agree that there is a big problem with the social divide in higher education and with who has access to a high-quality higher education. That is why at the next general election one of our key pledges is for a pupil premium, so that disadvantaged children are not left behind their classmates and are able to succeed at 16, to stay on at 16 and to have the opportunity to participate in higher education. The logical outcome of that policy is that more young people will be able to go into higher education.

If the Liberal Democrat position is that to support a 50 per cent. aspiration is no longer right, is it not axiomatic that that must mean a cut in the number of young people studying full time at universities? That is what has been said by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). Can the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) confirm this morning that that is the Liberal Democrat position?

The Minister talks about a cut, but according to the Government’s preferred measure of 18 to 30-year-olds, for most of the past decade participation in higher education has been about 40 per cent.—sometimes slightly below, currently slightly above. We are saying that a 50 per cent. target, which was meant to have been reached next year, involves an arbitrary number with little meaning. We are about 10 per cent. away from that target, so to say that the Liberal Democrats’ not subscribing to a target that has not been met amounts to a cut is, I am afraid, not a very numerate position for the Minister to put forward.

Is the hon. Gentleman confirming that the Liberal Democrat position is that 43 per cent., the current percentage, is about right?

No, I am not saying that. I made it clear in my earlier remarks that we believe that there is a problem with the number of people going into higher education. There are vast pools of untapped opportunity in the country. I have made such points on umpteen occasions in the past four and a half years, when I have been speaking for my party on the subject. We have never subscribed to the arbitrary 50 per cent. target.

The hon. Member for Reading, East and several other hon. Members mentioned part-time learners. It is crucial that the review looks at how a level playing field can be constructed for people who choose to study part time. We know that the number of young people is going to fall over the next decade and that we need to upskill our work force, who are largely going to come from people who are studying part time. The financial and course regimes make that hard for people to do. Whatever the funding future is, we must make sure that it is level between those who study full time and those who study part time, and that credit accumulation and transfer is part of that future.

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the previous topic of student numbers, can he explain why the hon. Member for Twickenham included in his calculations the money savings from the cut in student numbers?

I particularly refer the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) to an article in The Independent on 17 June. If the hon. Member for Twickenham is making those financial savings by making such cuts, how can he not be cutting student numbers at the same time?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman—probably with assistance from his colleagues in the Conservative Whips Office—studies so carefully what Liberal Democrat spokespersons say in the run-up to the general election. We have a good record at every general election of putting forward not only what policies we would like to achieve in our manifesto but how we shall fund them. We shall certainly be doing so on this occasion. The exact mix of funding priorities and how we meet them have not yet been determined. Obviously, given the turbulent economic circumstances, different ideas have been mentioned at different times, but the final decision has not been made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) also mentioned part-time students, as well as cross-border issues. He and I are a pretty good example of the complexity of cross-border issues. He went to school in England, went to university in Wales and now represents his adopted-home seat, while I made the opposite journey. That was quite easy for us to do in the 1980s; it would now be a much more complicated educational—hopefully not political—journey for us to make. It is vital for the review to look at the complicated cross-border issues between Wales and England and with Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Coming to funding, the White Paper, published by the Government a month ago, makes it clear that the

“redistribution of existing funds and leverage of private investment rather than…new money”

will be the way forward. In other words, it says that a large part of the future funding growth of higher education will probably come from students or graduates. Everyone expects that the review will recommend an increase in contributions from the graduate body. As I said at the outset, it is a shame—to put it mildly—that that review will conclude well after the general election. The announcement of the framework said that the review would conclude in the summer, while the written statement announcing the review said that it would conclude in the autumn of 2010. Whatever the exact date, it will be beyond the time when people vote to choose their next Government. That is simply not acceptable, either to students or to their parents, and we deserve a clearer choice.

The Liberal Democrats reaffirm our commitment to abolish the tuition fees model of funding higher education. That model is broken. If we got into the fully variable model of the future, which is the logical conclusion of the fees model as begun by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, all sorts of social consequences will follow, including fair access to the professions, which was mentioned by several contributors to the debate.

It is crucial that the review should look at the various alternative positions, and the National Union of Students has done us a service by putting forward its idea of a graduate tax. However, whatever happens, it is not good enough for the Labour and Conservative parties to hide behind the review at the next general election and say, “We will have to wait and see.”

I am drawing my remarks to a close.

Discerning voters in Bristol, West, in Reading, East or in Tottenham deserve far better.

It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), whose speech was a powerful reminder of why the Liberal Democrats have not been in government since the days of Lloyd George.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) did us a great service by bringing this matter to the attention of the House, and once again he has shown what a champion he is of the cause of the student voice. He speaks eloquently and with insight on higher education matters, and—I say this to reassure the hon. Member for Bristol, West—there is rarely inconsistency between us. We speak regularly about such matters, and we share a vision for higher education that is informed and inspired by a determination to widen access to people of all abilities and from all backgrounds to the opportunities that they deserve.

That is because we care about social mobility and crave social justice—a Britain without barriers to self-improvement and without limits on opportunity. Participation in higher education has a vital role in feeding social mobility and thus achieving social justice, and so in building a cohesive and just Britain. That is why our great challenge is to broaden access to advanced learning. I have no doubt that that ambition is widely shared; certainly it is by the Minister. However, as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, the uncomfortable truth is that rather than widening access in that way, the expansion in university education in the past 30 years has in some senses cemented social division. Opportunity for some has not meant opportunity for all.

Just last month, Lord Mandelson published his framework document on the future of higher education. Its proposals expose the terrible lack of progress. Even though the figures have been recalibrated and recalculated, the Government have achieved only about 43 per cent. participation in higher education. Furthermore, as the Minister knows, successful women mask failure for men. Perhaps he will comment on that.

By a consistent measure, the proportion of entrants overall has been static for most of the past decade. Even though the Government have spent an immense amount of money on widening participation programmes, under the banner of Aimhigher, the participation rate of working-class students has hardly improved since 1995. If that were not bad enough, the rate of improvement has declined. In the previous decade, participation by working-class students actually grew at a faster pace, as Lord Dearing revealed in his report.

Labour is failing because it misinterprets what widening participation really means. We heard from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), and others, that a myopic obsession with improving access for a small number of students to a small number of universities has meant a preoccupation with policies focused on admissions and aspiration. The difficulty with both those views is that there is little evidence to suggest that the best universities are prejudiced against working-class students.

Indeed, Higher Education Funding Council evidence suggests rather the opposite—that they favour applications from those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that working-class students do not aspire to the same things as their middle-class contemporaries. Indeed, all the survey evidence shows that aspiration is growing most among those in the lowest socio-economic groups, and that working-class parents and grandparents want the same for their children as middle-class parents; it is a bourgeois, liberal myth that the working classes have a rather different view of such things. In fact, they know that education at university or college is likely to bring better prospects, and they want that for their children, just as their middle-class contemporaries do. What they lack is the wherewithal, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East so powerfully argued.

Wherewithal is a matter of the right kind of advice and guidance. Survey evidence suggests that many teachers do not point their students in the direction of university applications. The reason why fewer working-class children than middle-class children get to university is that fewer people from working-class backgrounds apply—partly because they do not get the right advice, and partly because they do not have the baseline qualifications to do so. Until we solve those two problems, programmes to encourage applications will at best be icing on the cake and, at worst, may displace the resources for dealing with those more fundamental issues.

The Government have focused on what I describe as push-me-pull-you policies. They have tried to pull more students in, by regulating—some would say interfering with—the admissions system; and they have tried to push students in through programmes focused on aspirations. However, push-me-pull-you policies do little to address the fundamental problems. Media analysis of the Aimhigher campaign suggests that its message is best received not by socio-economic groups D and E, but by group A. Those conclusions were supported by a Government study, which found

“no conclusive statistical evidence that such interventions have then led to increased aspirations to enter higher education.”

Surveys show that three quarters of young people from all social groups aspire to go to university, and another survey, as I suggested a moment ago, showed that 91 per cent. of parents and grandparents want their young people to go to university, regardless of social background.

What we need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East began to articulate, is a system that empowers learners. That argument has been powerfully made by the NUS and student unions. I entirely endorse the support that my hon. Friend has offered the NUS and student unions. At university I was union treasurer and my hon. Friend was president of his student union, so there is no prejudice among Conservative Members against the student voice—far from it.

Empowering learners means that we need to use the proceeds from the early repayment of student loans to fund extra places—10,000 of them—and that is what we have said we will do. Rather than just talking about helping people from poorer backgrounds, we need policies that do so by taking firm and distinctive action. That, I would point out to the hon. Member for Bristol, West, is a quite different approach from the Government’s. I do not blame the Government for having a different approach from ours. It is good democratic politics to have such debates and exchanges.

What would we do that would be so different? The first thing would be to establish an all-age professional careers advice service with a presence in every school and college. The Minister knows that just 6 per cent. of pupils in state schools at age 15 go on to study at Russell group universities, and just one in 10 of those state school entrants comes from the bottom two socio-economic groups. However, that is not surprising given that Sutton Trust research shows that many state school teachers would not advise even their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge. Many of those teachers with responsibility for offering that advice have not received the training that they would need to offer the best guidance. I do not blame teachers for that; we simply ask too much of them in that respect. What needs to be fixed is not the university admissions system, but the advice and guidance that young people get.

We also need to offer comprehensive advice about the employment and wage returns of courses. We need a good website to do that. Those things exist in other parts of the world. Indeed, several studies are going on in this country, and we have been looking at them closely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East is aware. We are determined to put such information in the hands of potential learners. It must be about where, how and when to study.

Employability is not just about what people study, but about how they study, a point that my hon. Friend also made. I have long argued, as he has, that we should revisit traditional assumptions about the pattern of higher education and study. We must recognise the value of different learning experiences such as part-time courses and community based, modular and distance learning. I welcome my hon. Friend’s advocacy of a credit-based approach; we are enthusiastic about considering taking that further. The fees review must give serious attention to the ways in which we support flexible means of study.

As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and others have argued—my hon. Friend has also championed the idea—further education colleges are at the heart of that approach. They are characterised by being local, and by accessibility and flexibility. Their cohort is typically drawn from a social range wider than that of most higher education institutions. Perhaps the Minister will explain why the amount of HE taught in FE colleges continues to decline, for it is a damning indictment that it has happened on his watch.

We also want more students to enter higher education through the vocational route. I see apprenticeships as being at the heart of that practical method, which is why we intend to introduce new vocational skill scholarships; that will allow people to go on that vocational pathway into higher education study.

The Government have based their policies on a double prejudice, and I hope that the Minister will either explain why or refute the fact. He may want to step back from that prejudice or he may wish to justify it. It is a prejudice against the university admissions system and a liberal establishment prejudice that the academic path is the only way to travel on the road to the good life.

We do not take that view. We believe that looking again at access points to learning, at modes of study, at the character of university life and at the advice and guidance that young people receive is the best way of allowing more people to achieve the glittering prizes that the Minister has achieved and to which so many others aspire.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing this debate and on the manner in which he put his case—and on his continued support for higher education. Time will not permit me to answer every question asked this morning, but we have had a good debate.

I note the comments made by the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and the manner in which they spoke. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was his usual consistent self. We have been meeting across the House for a considerable period over such matters, and I was not surprised this morning. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) demonstrated his most opportunistic style, but it was not worthy of the general standard of debate, and I shall return to the inconsistencies that he continues to display in relation to higher education. I believe that students, parents and the country deserve the best, and I hope that the Liberal Democrat leader is studying the hon. Gentleman’s inconsistencies closely.

Few issues divide the House as clearly as higher education. The Government’s record is clear. There have been year-on-year increases in public investment. In fact, we have seen a 25 per cent. real-terms rise in the public funding of universities since 1997. Large-scale increases in the public funding of research help to drive innovation and economic growth. Since 1997, the science budget has risen from £1.3 billion to £4 billion. When we talk about the success of our universities, particularly those that engage in world-class research, we should remember that it is largely the result of that funding.

We must also consider the students: more maintenance support is available to students than at any time in our history, including non-repayable bursaries for a large majority. There are more students at our universities than at any time in our history. More students from state schools are at university, and there are more students from low-participation neighbourhoods. Less well-off families are sending young people to universities, and I am pleased to say that more black and ethnic minority students are at university. I genuinely believe that that is a record of which the country can be proud. It turns the page on a past in which there was under-investment in research and in which continued growth, particularly for those from less well-off backgrounds, was not happening.

As has been said, last month, my noble Friend Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State who has responsibility for the universities, published “Higher Ambitions”—a framework document that sets out the challenges that we believe face universities over the next 10 to 15 years. The framework was not delivered to the sector from on high; it was widely championed and supported by the sector itself. It was a product of many months of consultation; indeed, it began with a debate, with many professors from the higher education sector making a contribution. It is a good document, and it has been welcomed not only by the sector but by the CBI and the National Union of Students. It is good a platform on which to build, and I am pleased to see the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings nodding.

An essential aspect of the debate is widening access. We made clear in “Higher Ambitions” that that was an important challenge. Indeed, we ensured that the question of access—not only for young people, but for mature and part-time students—was central to the fees review. We have consistently said that we need greater parity of funding, particularly for part-time students, and we asked the fees review to consider the matter closely.

The document also seeks to build on foundation degrees, and it acknowledges the important role that FE can play in the transition to higher education, so long as certain quality thresholds are passed; and it wishes to build on the work of the Aimhigher programme. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman seems to have his aim particularly on Aimhigher, but that would not be supported by all universities and certainly not by schools, which have seen an increase in applications to university as a consequence of the important range of activities that is taking place across the country. We say that there should be no artificial cap on talent.

Will the Minister confirm that, when the investigation into the debacle of student finance this summer is completed, we will have the chance to debate the matter on the Floor of the House?

It would be premature to pre-empt the conclusions. The report will be with me shortly. Of course I shall publish it, and hon. Members will of course want to comment. I acknowledge that it is a serious issue, but I also acknowledge the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) on social mobility, to which we will be publishing our response. We have also published our response to the work of colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families on their information, advice and guidance strategy. I would ask hon. Members to read it, because much of what has been said about information, advice and guidance has been addressed there.

I turn to the duplicity that was displayed by the hon. Member for Bristol, West.

Order. I must point out to the Minister that it would be unwise to use the word “duplicity”. It is an unparliamentary term.

You are quite right, Mr. Benton. We have seen an inconsistency between what was said by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on these matters and what was confirmed this morning by the hon. Member for Bristol, West. He now suggests that he will not support even a 43 per cent. participation rate. Does he support a freeze on fees because he sees it as a way to cut student numbers? That is what we heard earlier, but his leader has said that he could not honestly place it at the forefront of his manifesto. He said:

“You can’t carry on promising the same menu of goodies.”

The hon. Member for Bristol, West has to come clean with students.

Proportional Representation

I want to put the case for proportional representation—a system by which parties are represented in Parliament in proportion to the votes that they get in the country—and for triennial Parliaments, to keep politics on a short leash and to give the people more control over Parliament through more regular elections. I urge that those issues, particularly proportional representation, be put to the people in a referendum, which will allow them—not us—to decide whether they want them. That would preferably be done when the vote is at its highest, on 6 May next year, when the general election occurs. That would remove all the preoccupations of a hung Parliament, which is likely to follow that election. If that is not possible, I urge an early referendum on proportional representation.

I want to emphasise that securing this debate is not political opportunism. I am not a member of the Cabinet—nor of the shadow Cabinet, yet—and there are only a few months to go. I must, therefore, be absolved from the sins of opportunism, which afflict people at a higher level. Opportunism is not a Back Bencher’s disease—it is certainly not mine. I want and urge proportional representation, because it is right and because it is a much fairer system than the one we have now.

To further rebut the charge of opportunism, I have been in favour of proportional representation ever since I was elected to the House 32 years ago, and that is a long time. When I was first elected, I joined the Labour campaign for electoral reform and—incredible though it now seems—the bulk of support for electoral reform at that time came from the Conservative party, which wanted proportional representation to keep out socialism and Tony Benn. There has been a volte-face since then. Parties have changed their opinions on the issue very much in common with how they have changed them on Europe and the European Union. My rise within the cause of proportional representation was rocket assisted; as soon as I joined the Labour campaign for electoral reform, all the other members left to join the Social Democratic party, and I rapidly became chair and sole member. Those are my credentials; I have always supported proportional representation.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s passion for proportional representation, but why is he raising the issue when so many other pressing matters face our country, not least the economic situation? He represents a coastal constituency, and it is almost as though he is talking about what colour he is going to paint the deck while the ship is going down.

That intervention is largely irrelevant. I am raising the issue because it clearly is topical and important, because if we have a hung Parliament after the next election it will play a part, and most of all because all the other issues that we have to decide need to be decided on a fair basis, and that can happen only if the House represents the party allegiances and political preferences of the electorate. That is why I secured the debate. The issue is pre-eminent, simply because we need to make the House more representative of the nation’s views.

I am not so sure. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, but perhaps he has not had the experience that we have had north of the border of how proportional representation affects us and the constituents that we represent. Had he had that experience, I do not think that he would be on his feet today.

I certainly would. I accept that Labour party members in Scotland feel a certain amount of grievance, but they have to remember that proportional representation was introduced in Scotland to stop the system being swamped by the overwhelming dominance of the Labour party there, both in seats and political preferences. It was introduced to make the system fairer and to give other parties representation, and it has produced a coalition Government. My hon. Friend will probably tell me that it was a system in which whatever Jim Wallace wanted, Jim Wallace got, but since the people have voted effectively for a coalition Government, what could be fairer?

I do not think that the views of Labour party members in Scotland are relevant to the decision on the national system of proportional representation that I am urging. I accept that it is difficult to sell the system to Members of Parliament, because they tend to believe that whatever system elected them must be the best in the world, and that has been responsible for a lot of hostility to proportional representation. Our current system is not the best in the world. We could have a fairer system in which Parliament was constituted how the people wanted, based on their votes, and in which they therefore had an investment and felt that it was their Parliament, rather than one imposed on them by the electoral system.

I concede straight away, and it could be argued in this debate—I see a number of opponents of proportional representation rallying to the cause—that first past the post gives strong government. Strong government is appropriate to an empire, to war and to a country that wants to go around invading smaller countries, but not to an age when the people want more say in and influence on Parliament, and want it to respond to their views.

People want to identify with a Parliament that they have voted for. It can be argued that first past the post is appropriate to a two-party system, but that system is now much weaker than it was. In 1951, 97 per cent. of the electorate voted for one of the two main parties, but in the last European elections that proportion was about 44 per cent. Party dominance is inevitably weakening, and first past the post gives strong government by disfranchising huge numbers of the people.

Am I right that the hon. Gentleman just said that 97 per cent. of the electorate voted for one or other of the two main parties? Does that not mean, therefore, that 97 per cent. of the electorate wanted our country to be governed by one or other of the two main parties, which it is? Is that not representative democracy?

It certainly meant that in 1951, but that is long ago. Since then, all that has changed. At the last European elections, as I said, only about 44 per cent. voted for one of the two main parties. What do we do in that situation with first past the post, which is bound to give an unclear result? First past the post gives strong government by effectively disfranchising large numbers of the people. It disfranchises a large number of people who vote for the third party, the Liberal Democrats; anybody who votes for a minority party, because they do not have the representation that their vote should entitle them to; and, in most constituencies, people who vote for the minor, or losing, party. No wonder people feel that the current system does not represent their wishes.

Surely the greatest statistic of the last European elections was that less than 50 per cent. of the people voted. If we were to address the situation differently, we would look at why people are not voting at all.

That is true. It is my contention that proportional representation would increase the vote. I am afraid that that has not be shown in this country, but it has been demonstrated in countries that have turned to proportional representation, such as New Zealand and West Germany. We need a fair system. We must accept that first past the post is wanted by the leadership of the parties and many MPs because it is the basis of elected dictatorship, which is the system of government that we are lumbered with. It is a system in which our Government effectively drive a steamroller over issues.

In career politics, people love to climb aboard a steamroller, but the Government are all-powerful in such a situation. It is a top-down system in which decisions are taken on the sofas of Downing street, the Cabinet are effectively a ratification machine for those decisions and MPs are treated like sheep as they are driven into the Lobby to vote for the decisions that are taken by that small minority in Downing street.

The hon. Gentleman has used the word “fairness” a great deal throughout his speech. He knows that the vast majority of seats in the United Kingdom are either Conservative or Labour. If we had the alternative voting system, Liberal Democrat voters would always get a second vote, so he would create two classes of voter. Labour and Conservative voters would have only one vote, but Liberal Democrats, coming third, would always have a chance to cast a second vote. It would be simply wrong and absolutely disgraceful for some citizens to have two votes when others had only one.

The hon. Gentleman is in favour of fox hunting, because at the moment he is shooting dead foxes. Such a situation would be the result of the alternative voting system where people listed candidates in order of preference. It might well be that the Liberal Democrats are everybody’s second preference, because they are such a nice, warm, cuddly party.

No, the Liberal Democrats are cuddly, but I do not want to cuddle them at the moment. In proportional representation, everyone has two votes—one for the constituency and one for the list. Everyone has that right, whether they vote for one of the minor parties or for a major party. This parliamentary despotism of the elected dictatorship has inflicted damage on public perceptions of Parliament. It is one reason why people are so hostile to, critical of and alienated from the current system. Such feelings have been exacerbated by The Daily Telegraph and will be further exacerbated by the lunacy of Legg and his decision to throw us to the lions retrospectively, but I do not want to go on about that.

Proportional representation is one of the few ways to remedy the situation and restore respect for Parliament, because it gives the people the Parliament they vote for, puts the parties on a short leash and abolishes the elected dictatorship. However, that could mean that we have coalitions, like Scotland. The system led to coalitions in New Zealand and West Germany, but not in Sweden, where there has been a long-term dominance by the Social Democrats.

What is wrong with coalitions if that is what the people vote for? As it is, the betrayals come before the election as major parties dilute everything they stand for to develop a catch-all appeal. With coalitions, the parties that the people elect have to compromise on policy to form a Government. That seems to be a perfectly sensible system that reflects the views of the people.

Given that a coalition or a minority Government need support from other parties on particular issues, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that leads to decision making that has broader acceptance among the public?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it is absolutely true. Experience in New Zealand suggests that those coalitions have to be formed and reformed on every piece of legislation. There is no one permanent coalition that imposes its views on the people, because a majority in Parliament has to be built up on each piece of legislation and coalitions have to be formed around that legislation. In other words, every piece of legislation is wanted and develops maximum support. That is a fairer system than steamrolling legislation through, as we now do, on the basis of the party majority that represents some of the views of the people and was elected five years previously. I am all in favour of coalitions, both around legislation and in general.

As for the point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), people would have two votes if we adopted the additional Member system—one for the list and one for their constituency. That would force the parties to stop concentrating most of their campaigning on a few marginal voters in a few marginal constituencies and ignoring the rest of the country, particularly the safe seats. Grimsby is no longer a safe seat, although that is not my achievement, but in the past it was largely immune from national campaigns, which allowed me, in previous elections, to formulate my own policies, put out my own manifesto and conduct my own campaign without interference from the central party.

The central parties ignore the so-called safe seats and concentrate everything on the marginals. Under the additional Member system, that would no longer be possible. Experience in New Zealand has shown that it is necessary to campaign everywhere, particularly in the safe seats, because the party majority is bigger there and it is essential to get all those votes out to affect the voting on the list side of the equation. Therefore, such a system makes campaigns genuinely national and for all the people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that specific point. Is it not the case that under the current system, the hon. Gentleman, who is undoubtedly an individual, can go before his electorate in Great Grimsby and put himself forward as a person with a list of principles on which he stands to be elected? If he was not that individual but was someone on a party list under a proportional system, he could not exercise his own individuality. He would have to adopt what his party said on the party list. He is arguing against his own individuality, which brings great value to this place and to his constituents.

I am afraid that that point is also incorrect. I agree that it is very kind of the Grimsby Labour party to select a geriatric as its prospective parliamentary candidate; it is being kind to the aged, and I am eternally grateful for that. The point is that with the additional Member system, half or more of the seats are constituency seats, and the old rules apply. In other words, people would be elected on their own merits. It is essential for the parties to put forward the most attractive people on the list in the hope of winning votes, which is exactly what they do—whether they are independent or beautiful or whether they are Jordan or Katie Price.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is now being proportional in granting interventions as well. Does he agree that the system of proportional representation that allows the voter to make discerning choices between candidates is the single transferable vote?

I agree. I am coming on to that now. The candidate would appeal in his own way to his own constituency. However, that is a question of what system of proportional representation we would use. I do not want to get bogged down in an argument about which system is best; I have my own views. The most attractive system is the additional Member system, or MMP—the mixed Member proportional system—as it is called in New Zealand, in which half the MPs are elected on a constituency basis and half on a list basis, which would shrink the number of constituency seats. I notice that the Conservative party proposes to abolish a substantial proportion of our seats without any referendum or any consultation with the people or the electorates affected, so it cannot complain about the reduction necessary with MMP.

The additional Member system represents the current situation. Some among us are devoted constituency MPs, perhaps because we will not rise any further and have reached the limits of our prowess. That is not true in my case, but it is for many. However, for those who see themselves as ministrable—men or women of destiny who will rise to high office and cannot wait to get there—the seat is merely a stepping stone to power. Those are the two types of Member, and the additional Member system represents them by allowing the ministrables to appear on the party list.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry to have missed the first few minutes of his wonderful speech. Does he agree that the best way to deal with the accusation that an elected person on the list was just a party hack would be to ensure that only members of the party in a clear geographical area could choose the make-up of the list? That would get rid of the nonsense of people being imposed from the centre.

I agree absolutely that that is the way to do it. The weakness of the current system is the way candidates can be imposed on constituencies by moving somebody to the House of Lords—I have to tell this Chamber that I have not yet received an offer—or by bringing in young men and women of destiny, who have worked in Downing street or for Ministers or think-tanks, and who have had no contact with the real world and real people. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is therefore exactly right.

Another system is the single transferable vote, which is used in Ireland. It would mean larger constituencies, each with three or four Members. That is the preference of the Electoral Reform Society, although I am not sure whether it is the preference of the Liberal party. That is one alternative. The third possibility is that recommended in the Jenkins report, which is best described as the alternative vote plus. In other words, there would be a top-up of 15 to 20 per cent. of the constituency part of the vote, which would represent the majority—80 or 85 per cent.—to introduce greater proportionality.

Any of those systems would do, and any would be preferable to the current system. My preference is the New Zealand system. That is largely because I am an apprentice New Zealander, although the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) is a real one. That system has worked very well. It was initially opposed by Prime Minister Helen Clark and the Speaker, but both are now converted because the system works so well, ensuring that legislation is wanted and has the consent and support of the great majority of the House, and therefore of the electorate.

The New Zealand system was introduced after two referendums. Politicians there were so anxious to support first past the post that they erected two hurdles for the electorate to jump. However, the electorate were ready to jump those hurdles because they felt betrayed by both parties, as indeed they were. Similar feelings of antagonism to the political parties are building up here, and our electorate may well be prepared to jump. The system has worked well in New Zealand, and I believe it would work well here.

I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but so far he has failed to mention one important matter—the fact that all the systems he has spoken of would empower extremist parties and allow them into office. What is his view on that? He has not yet broached the subject.

That is just not so. Extremist or daft parties—from time to time, it seems that such descriptions could also be used of the majority parties—can be kept out by a threshold. They are not kept out in Israel, but should be. However, they are kept out in Germany; those who gain less than 5 per cent. of the vote have no representation. It is a simple expedient to keep out fascist or lunatic parties, which at the moment are perfectly free to stand and put their case before the people, and even to win seats in European elections.

I was praising the New Zealand system and saying that one system that I would not support is the alternative vote, which is used in Australia. It would not be acceptable here. That is not because it is Australian—some of my best friends are Australian—but because it is a daft system. It is a half-baked compromise, which has been espoused by a number of people, including Cabinet Ministers, who want to show themselves as being sympathetic to the growing demand for proportional representation but who are terrified to take the final step and introduce a system that is proportional. They therefore rally round the broken flag of the alternative vote. They show concern but will not do anything.

My beloved Prime Minister’s preference for a referendum on the alternative vote is daft. To put it simply, it would be a vote on nothing at all—a vote for those who do not want electoral reform or who do not want proportional representation. I would have to include my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor among that coterie, so determined is he not to have proportional representation. I do not know why he fears it, but when he was forced to introduce it for the European elections he brought in the worst possible system—the closed list. That was done deliberately, with the concurrence of the Liberal Democrats, to invalidate the case for electoral reform and proportional representation. He is now talking of giving us proportional representation for the House of Lords. That would make the Lords the more representative House, but he will not give us the alternative vote for the House of Commons. It would be a disaster.

I must come to a close, Mr. Benton, and I am sorry for having gone on a little too long. The conclusion is simply this: it is no use the advocates of first past the post, who are gathered here in huge number to put the case against me and destroy my argument, saying that their system is the best in the world and that we should keep it. That is not true.

Proportional representation is a much fairer and better system, and it would alleviate much of the discontent and alienation that are directed not so much against Parliament, but against the party system and the elected dictatorship, which are sustained by the first-past-the-post system.

This is not a question of us arguing about the types of system that would suit our purposes once the people have given their consent; such information is available from the Library. Today, I want to establish the case for putting the question to the people, and that is about democratic rights, and the nature and workings of producing a fairer system. It is the people’s decision, not ours.

Order. I propose commencing the winding-up speeches at 12 o’clock. A number of Members have indicated a wish to speak, so would right hon. and hon. Members bear that in mind?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this important debate.

I have worked closely with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe). He is a good friend, although I hope that saying so will not get him into trouble. We are the joint chairmen of the all-party group on the continuation of first past the post, and we feel passionately about that voting system. Interestingly, Scottish Labour MPs make up the largest number of members of the all-party group and it is very important that the Minister takes note of that. Those MPs have seen at first hand the chaos and mayhem that the voting systems have brought about in Scotland and there has been deep confusion in previous elections because of the different voting systems that have been put in place. Our all-party group recently had a debate about these issues here in Parliament with the Electoral Reform Society.

I go back to what I said in my first intervention today. Given all the problems facing our country at the moment, including the economic crisis, I am deeply concerned that organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, and hon. Members, should be pressing for this change in the voting system. That is such a distraction from all the things that we need to be addressing as parliamentarians.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He speaks with great passion on these issues. However, does the “chaos and mayhem” to which he has alluded extend to Wales? In Wales, we have had for 10 years an additional Member system and stable government, although at the moment the Government are not of my choosing; now we have a Labour-Plaid Cymru Administration, whereas previously there was a Liberal-Labour Administration. Above all else, in Wales we have had a clear programme of government negotiated by the parties in the full public gaze. That inspires confidence in the system rather than creating the “chaos and mayhem” to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.

I shall come to coalition Governments later in my speech. Ultimately, however, I do not know whether the coalition Government of Labour and Plaid Cymru are delivering for the people of Wales as the hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting.

Constituents come to see me in my surgery and I talk to them on their doorsteps. In nearly five years, not a single one of them—and there are 74,000 in all—has said to me, “You know, Mr. Kawczynski, I really want a change in the voting system; if there is one thing I want you to press for in the House of Commons, it is a change in the voting system.” What they do talk to me about is the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, funding for our schools and all the other things that affect them day to day. Not a single one of them has called for a change in the voting system. If a single constituent had written to me on the issue or had taken the time to come and talk to me about it, perhaps I would have a little more sympathy with it.

That is not my experience in Cambridge, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman might come and visit my constituency at some point to talk to some people who understand that politics and other issues are connected. We cannot separate the political system from the content of the politics that it delivers.

I tested the feeling on this subject in my constituency, on the basis of having been elected to the parliamentary reform Committee. I wrote to all my constituents. I must say that there was a very narrow result, but I received more than 7,000 replies. People came down narrowly in favour of electoral reform. However, more than anything, I learned about how many people wanted a debate on the subject and more information about it. It is wrong for the parties just to shut this issue down. There is a yearning among people for at least a look at what would be involved if there was a proper debate on electoral reform.

As I said, I only want to give the Minister the benefit of my own experience from Shrewsbury.

At the moment, we have a crazy number of voting systems in the United Kingdom. Last week, I had a meeting with Mr. Wardle, the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, and I put to him some of these issues. He said to me that it is not for the Electoral Commission to decide which voting system we have and that he would feel uncomfortable in trying to come up with any system. He added that it is obviously the responsibility of Parliament to decide on the voting system and that the Electoral Commission would have to work under that system.

However, Mr. Wardle said something else that I found interesting. He admitted to me that there were far too many voting systems in the United Kingdom—that was the chief executive of the Electoral Commission speaking. He said that in no other country in the world are there so many different types of voting system. That is a very powerful thing for the Minister to take away from today’s debate; even somebody as senior as the chief executive of the Electoral Commission is concerned about the confusion and the complications that are arising from all the different voting systems put in place by the Labour Government in the past few years.

The first-past-the-post system has served us well. The constituency link is essential. When I go to my electorate in Shrewsbury, I put my case directly to them. What would happen under PR, one of the other systems? We would have to hide our views. What would happen if we had the alternative voting system, which, as has rightly been said, is the Prime Minister’s preferred option? One would have to be far more cynical and hide one’s views, because one would always know that neither the Labour party nor the Conservative party would win. It would always be down to Liberal voters to be the king-makers and decide which party would get enough votes to take it over 50 per cent. One would have to blunt one’s ideology, passion and beliefs to placate those Liberal Democrats and ensure their second vote. I feel passionately against the second vote; I will come to that in a moment.

In my constituency, the Conservative party came third in 2001 and 2005, so it is Conservative voters to whom I will be appealing to ensure that a non-Labour MP is elected in the next general election. On the point about secrecy, does the hon. Gentleman think that Angela Merkel hid her views from the German electorate?

I am not going to start talking about Angela Merkel. This debate is about our own voting system in the United Kingdom. Far more seats are Conservative-Labour battlegrounds than Conservative-Liberal Democrat battlegrounds.

Why should the Liberal Democrats get a second vote? That is the most important point that I want to make. We cannot have a system in which people who vote for the Liberal Democrats or other minority parties get a second crack of the whip or bite of the cherry. Every citizen in the United Kingdom must be treated equally, and everyone should have a single vote.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby suggested that we should have large seats with multiple Members. I cannot think of anything worse. If we did have such a situation, I certainly would not be prepared to be a Member of Parliament; I would have serious difficulties in continuing to be one. I feel passionately about my constituency of Shrewsbury. All that I care about is representing the people of Shrewsbury. I am accountable to them. They know how I vote and come to see me in my surgery. I am responsible. Being one of four, five or six Members across a large area would be completely meaningless and involve no accountability whatever.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Conservative party policy is to reduce the number of seats, so his seat will be bigger anyway. He is concentrating on the constituency issue. Let me make it clear that I agree with all that he says about the joys of representing a place. Representing Grimsby is the chief joy of my life. It is wonderful. I love it, and I represent a community in a borough that would continue under the additional Member system. We would have somewhat bigger constituencies, as the Conservatives are proposing anyway, but we would still have the same constituency base.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the Conservatives wish to reduce the number of seats by about 60, but that has nothing to do with the voting system; we would merely cut the number of seats. I disagree with him. He and I both represent communities of roughly 74,000 constituents. We just about do the job of representing those 74,000 constituents with the resources available, but I could not possibly have the same interaction and accountability if I were one of six Members of Parliament representing a much larger area.

I turn to the European Union elections. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said that the elections had a poor voter turnout and asked why. It is a good question. It is simply because there is no accountability. I have said many times to the people of Shropshire, “I will give anybody in this room £100 if they can name me two Members of the European Parliament who represent us.” So far, in five years, I have not lost a penny. No one knows who those Members of the European Parliament are, because none of them lives, works, has offices or holds surgeries in Shropshire. Those MEPs have no accountability whatever to the people of Shropshire.

I must tell the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that the west midlands is larger in size and population than many EU countries, such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. How on earth can one be a coherent and accountable representative of an area of that size if one does not at least live in the community? I feel strongly that if one wants to represent the people of an area, one should at least live in that community and be part of it, because that way one will understand the local services and be part of the emotional drive for that community. The representatives in the European Parliament live hundreds of miles away with absolutely no accountability.

Is the issue not even simpler than that? People do not vote in those elections because they do not see the faintest relevance of the EU to their lives.

That is a completely separate matter that we will discuss another time.

I will end shortly, Mr. Benton, because you said that many hon. Members wished to speak. I will return briefly to the election of the two members of the British National party to the European Parliament. I do not know about the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, but I had shivers going down my spine when I found out that they had been elected. I am a democrat and believe that people should be allowed to stand as representatives no matter what their views are, but I am very concerned about any system that allows a party such as the BNP to get representation.

BNP members of local councils have been elected by the first-past-the-post system, so does what the hon. Gentleman has just said not apply equally to that system?

Being elected to local councils is very different from being elected to a national Parliament, or, in this case, the Parliament of the whole European Union.

As part of our duties as joint chairmen of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire and I visited the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh together and interacted with MSPs to hear at first hand some of the problems that they had faced as a result of PR. What was fascinating was that even the two Green party MSPs, the king-makers who at one stage prevented the Scottish National party budget from going ahead, said that they felt the current system was unsustainable.

Lastly, I have a point to make about the Liberal Democrats, and I have been looking forward to making it. No wonder they are here in such large numbers. I feel passionately that one must always put one’s country first, one’s constituency second and one’s party third, but the Liberal Democrats have always pushed the issue of PR on a purely party political basis to further their own cause. I think that it is such a shame that they are trying to force the issue through simply to get more Liberal Democrat MPs elected. That is absolutely unforgivable.

I hope that the Minister will take on board my concerns and that he has realised how passionately I feel about the issue. Never in the five years during which I have been a Member have I been so worried about a single thing going ahead under the Labour Government as I am about the possibility of their changing the voting system. We must safeguard the first-past-the-post system, which has nurtured our democracy and helped it thrive all this time. We must not endanger it.

Thank you, Mr. Benton, for allowing me to speak, although I will do so briefly because the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has of course mentioned most of what I would have said—as joint chairmen of the all-party group on the continuation of first past the post, we speak as one. However, I will make some additional points.

I have the experience at first hand, along with the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), of the Scottish situation, although I probably have a different point of view from his. Having been here longer than him, and seen the Scottish Parliament from its birth, the whole question of running it is a joke and not in the best interests of the people that we represent. I shall make a further point about that as I go through my speech. There is no doubt that what is imperative—and changing the voting systems has not made a jot of difference—is voter turnout. I have already made an intervention about that, on my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who secured the debate. However, unless and until we overcome that problem, democracy itself will be the loser.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the big advantages in Scotland has been that, where there was a safe seat, of whichever party, and a sleepy MP, MSP or whatever, such people have had to wake up and really work for the electorate, because they are competing with other politicians?

That does not apply in my case, as my vote keeps going up—but let us move on.

Voter turnout is the most important element that we should be addressing and doing something about, not changing systems. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned New Zealand, but I have seen that system at first hand, as I am sure other hon. Members have. It reminded me a bit of the trade unions in the ’60s, in which I played a fairly significant part, with all those smoke-filled rooms. All that I saw at first hand in New Zealand was the Speaker, who was of the Labour party, trading with all the minority parties in order to get any business through the House. The Prime Minister was his puppet. If someone tells me that that is a great system, I will tell them that I do not believe in it and that it does democracy no good.

Another interesting thing, which I have mentioned previously and which I thought the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham was going to mention when he addressed the Liberals, was that at one time the Liberals opposed proportional representation. Guess why? Because they were in Government. In 1921, they voted down proportional representation in this place. If we check the facts, we will find that to be the case, which goes back to the point of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham—self-interest. The Labour party must be the only party that has given away so much influence and power during its period in Government. For that to be the case is absolutely ridiculous.

I was not around in the 1920s, it may be a surprise to know. However, let us look more closely at the systems in operation in Scotland, which are confusing the public completely—I have seen women coming from polling stations crying because they did not understand the system and had not voted as a consequence.

In local government north of the border, what are we seeing today? Cuts. Why are we seeing cuts? Because the SNP Administration in Edinburgh is attempting to take back power. Devolution was supposed to do the opposite, but just this weekend we heard that if schools do not get into order, the Administration will take back the powers to Edinburgh. That is fundamentally wrong and against the whole spirit of devolution. Devolution is not a one-way process, but should be taken right down to the lowest level—if need be, to the parish council.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the reasons that we are short of money in Scotland is the Edinburgh tram system, which was supported by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, thereby defeating the Scottish Government? Although I consider it a waste of money, it was a good thing in a sense, because the issue showed that the Government could be defeated.

I am not sure that I want to go down the road of transport in a debate with the hon. Gentleman. The whole question of what the SNP Administration have done to transport, in particular to the link with Glasgow airport, is not the strongest point that he might want to make.

I will try to make another couple of points before I close. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham again made the point about Europe. I re-emphasise that case: I cannot name or even number the Members of the European Parliament representing Scotland. I do not know where any of their offices are, what they get up to or whether they are doing anything at all, but I know one thing—in this place we have 70 per cent. of the legislation coming from Europe to look at, because it has not been looked at as it might be by the scrutiny committees in Europe. That is wrong.

My final point is on the Scottish added list system, which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned. He tried to suggest that that system was likely to lead to no party hacks being elected. I do not suggest that my ex-hon. Friend George Foulkes is an honourable hack, but that is a classic example of somebody, who did not even think that he was going to be there, standing on the added list and being No. 1. He represents a swathe of Scotland and can sit there and twiddle his thumbs and be down here in the House of Lords.

I suggest that that is not a system that would or should be supported. I have always believed in this place and, before I came to it, that first past the post is the way forward. It is the best and most representative system as far as my constituents are concerned. Like the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, I have not had a single person in my constituency, other than the chattering class people, come to me and make any argument for me to change my point of view.

I shall be as quick as I can, Mr. Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this opportunity. When I saw that he was speaking, I had a funny feeling that he would refer to New Zealand and MMP, so—turning my accent up—I thought that I might just look at that a little.

Just before the referendum, I arrived in New Zealand and, as is New Zealand’s wont, I was shunted on to a radio station to do a three-hour talk-in, and of course the major thing being discussed was the impending referendum. Two things came out. The first was that the dislike of MPs at that stage in New Zealand was even greater than it is here at the moment, and the belief was that, in turning to MMP, it would have fewer MPs. Of course, that was wrong. Secondly, I became very aware that most of the people whom I spoke to on the streets and on that three-hour radio programme did not understand the system or what they were voting for and just wanted a change for the sake of change.

It did not work, of course. The first MMP Parliament in New Zealand increased the number of MPs from 99 to 120. Many New Zealanders were deluded by the idea of “fair votes” and were unaware until the results of that first election came through that they were virtually guaranteed a hung Parliament. That hung Parliament had the usual horse trading, and people slowly began to realise that they had a Government for whom not one single voter had voted—none of them voted for the Government they got.

The second thing that hit people was the proliferation of minor and often obscure parties, which ranged from the extreme left through to the extreme right. As ever with a hung Parliament, all those minorities had ambitions of being the controlling minority member of a minority Government—in other words, the tail that wagged the dog syndrome.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is bringing back a very biased report from New Zealand because, first, all the minority parties came into being before proportional representation was introduced. They were the result of party splits under the old first-past-the-post system. Secondly, the essence of his argument seems to be that New Zealanders were stupid, deluded or conned into voting for proportional representation. Surely he cannot be saying that.

The hon. Gentleman is right: I am not saying that. I am saying that the system was so complicated that it was extremely difficult for people to understand. The various arguments that were presented confused them, and some of them, particularly for the fairer votes system, were basically wrong.

For the first such election, in 1996, the New Zealand First party, led by a gentleman called Winston Peters, campaigned extremely vigorously against the Bolger National party or conservative party Government. The election results produced a hung Parliament. There were eight weeks of haggling, after which Winston Peters did an about-turn and agreed to join the National party in government, giving it a majority of one. Winston Peters was leader of New Zealand First and an elected Member, but he always had the security of knowing that if his electorate dispensed with him—which they eventually did—he could return as a list MP.

Subsequent elections resulted in further hung Parliaments, with a Labour Government led by Helen Clark that was supported by the Greens on the left and by Winston Peters, who had changed sides, and his party on the right. Every election resulted in a considerable period of haggling between the parties for the votes of those few seats controlled by the minority parties.

Until the last election, Winston Peters and New Zealand First showed the remarkable ability of political shoe-shuffling without so much as a blush, chopping and changing allegiances so as to be in government. Under the last Labour Government, which was led by Helen Clark, Winston Peters was rejected by his electorate, returned as a list MP and obtained power in the Labour Government as a Foreign Minister outside the Cabinet who did not take Cabinet responsibility. That was a ludicrous situation, but it happened under the system that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby believes works. The result at the very last election was a National party Government in coalition with minority representatives but not, fortunately, with New Zealand First.

As I have said, in the original referendum New Zealand voters were under the impression that, if they did not like MMP, they could have a second referendum. Unfortunately, the only promise made in that direction was a review by a select committee, and of course “turkeys at Christmas” came into effect. As part of its election manifesto, the current National party has promised a further referendum. However, it worries me that the complications of the electoral system will again not be fully understood. Nevertheless, the result will be interesting. I found on a visit to New Zealand shortly after MMP had appeared in its first election that it was exceptionally difficult to find anybody at all who would own up to having voted for it, because people disliked it so much.

Although this country does not have proportional representation, we have had recent cases of hung Parliaments; Parliaments where the Government have been stitched together with minority support. Both the Conservative party and the Labour party have been guilty of that. To my mind, none of those coalition Governments have been successful.

In these times in particular, I feel that we have to retain the first-past-the-post system and hopefully single-party Government. The economy in this country is dire and the situation in which a minority party wagged the dog and was unable to take difficult decisions would mean doom for this country.

I call John Mason. May I just point out to him, however, that we are hoping to start the winding-up speeches from 12 pm?

Thank you, Mr. Benton. I think that it was unfortunate that the first Back Bencher to speak in the debate took 15 minutes out of the allotted 30.

If I can be brief, however, I just wanted to speak very much in favour of proportional representation, from the Scottish and Glasgow experience. I have been elected five times since 1998, which I suspect is more times than Members here have been elected in the last 12 years. I have been elected four times under first past the post and once under single transferable vote, which was in a four-member ward. I remind Members here that, to be elected in a four-member ward, someone needs 20 per cent. of the vote under STV, which largely excludes smaller and minority parties. I would like to see five-member wards; I think that that is a better system. In a five-member ward, someone would still have to pass the hurdle of achieving 17 per cent. of the vote to be elected.

In January 1998, I was elected under the first-past-the-post system to Glasgow city council. I was the only non-Labour person at either council or Westminster level in the whole east end of the city, so the area was a bit of a one-party state. That is the danger of first past the post, that we end up with these one-party states. If someone has a good relationship with their councillor or their MP, that situation can be very good; if they have a bad relationship with them, the situation can be very bad and they have nowhere else to go.

In 1999 in Glasgow, there were elections for 79 councillors. Labour got approximately 50 per cent. of the vote, but took 74 of the 79 seats, giving them 93 per cent. of the seats on the council. Meanwhile, the Scottish National party, which got about 30 per cent. of the vote, took only two seats and was the second largest party on the council. Even Labour councillors would admit that that situation was not a success. There was no proper scrutiny in the council or in the committees, and my colleague—my fellow SNP councillor—and I ran around trying to look like a crowd.

We started to have proportional representation in Scotland in the Scottish Parliament elections in 1999; that was a form of PR. Alternative vote is such a tiny step that it is hardly worth looking at. The Scottish Parliament has this additional Member list system, whereby a city such as Glasgow has 10 constituency MSPs and seven list Members. That system is not ideal; it still favours the constituency MSPs and creates a bit of a two-tier system. However, it does mean that if someone’s constituency MSP is not working for them, they have the opportunity to go to a list Member.

What has happened in practice in the Scottish Parliament is that there are four larger parties, and so far we have had two coalitions and one minority Government. There is a tendency for decisions to be made with broader support in the Parliament, with two parties, such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats, or, now, with the SNP and whatever party would give support. Labour had to compromise to get Liberal Democrat support, most notably in introducing PR for Scottish local government elections.

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

The other argument has been that a small party could hold larger parties to ransom, but that has not been our experience in Scotland. It appeared to be the case, as has been mentioned, with the Greens, when two brought down the Scottish Budget, but they overplayed their hand, and when the Budget eventually went through with Labour support—and, I think, almost all-party support—the Greens were left nowhere, so a small party like that is taking a lot of risks in acting in that way.

There was a step forward in 2007 with the local government elections in Scotland. I thank the Liberal Democrats for that achievement. In Glasgow we had 79 councillors, but with 21 multi-member wards, and three or four members in each, there is a much better range of representation.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for obtaining the debate. He has been a supporter of proportional representation for a long time, and his enthusiasm is undimmed by the years. He put the case in terms of fairness, and there is definitely a case for PR on those grounds, but there is also a case based on confidence in politics. To come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), the current relevance of the debate lies in the fact that we are in a political crisis—a crisis of confidence in politics itself—and the existing electoral system is part of the crisis.

To deal first with fairness, hon. Members who support the first-past-the-post system are very fond of accusing parties that might benefit from a different system of arguing from their own interest. Of course, that also applies the other way around. Members who are here because of first past the post, but who would not be here under the proportional system are also arguing from their own interest. Fairness cannot be judged in that way. It must be judged by other means, and the obvious way to do that is to imagine, as a thought experiment, a situation in which we did not know how popular our views would be with the electorate and had to choose an electoral system knowing only our own views and no one else’s. In those circumstances, what system would be chosen: first past the post, or a proportional system?

Choosing first past the post means taking the risk of one’s political views being excluded for ever and of never having any representation in the legislature of the country. I cannot think of anyone who, faced by the question about fairness from behind the veil of ignorance, would choose first past the post. Perhaps some people might be so convinced that strong government is important that they would choose first past the post, despite the risk that their own views would never have any influence on the legislature, but it would be an extraordinary thing to do. People taking that view would probably take the view that democracy itself might be excluded.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that we were all taking our view for party political reasons, but that is not the case. In the past 12 years of Labour Governments, the Conservative party would have been much better off with a proportional voting system, yet despite that we want first past the post.

No. The Conservative party wants first past the post because that is the only way that it can form a majority Government with a minority of the vote. The idea that it is being generous about it is ridiculous. We need to get away from the idea that fairness can be judged from a partisan point of view, and think about it from a non-partisan point of view. I am sure that from a non-partisan view, taking into account all our interests, fair-minded people would never choose first past the post as their electoral system.

Surely, the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I said, which was that the Labour party in government gave away more power and influence, as a consequence of which we are now in the mire north of the border. In the party context, he would know, if he was listening to me, that the Liberals, for other reasons, were opposed to the concept of proportional representation in 1921.

It is also the case that the that Labour party was in favour of PR when it was founded and has since abandoned that view for national Government. Let us get away from the history and stick to the question of what is a fair system. I am sure that if we based our answer on a neutral point of view that got away from party interest and if people thought about it honestly, we would not conclude that first past the post was fair.

My second point is about confidence. It is a crucial point because we are in a crisis of confidence in the political system. We have to ask ourselves whether we can carry on with an electoral system in which Governments are very unpopular on the day that they are elected. The current Government were elected with 35 per cent. of the vote. Almost twice as many people voted against them as for them. It is not surprising that the Government were unpopular from the start. Most Governments in this country are unpopular. That unpopularity is part of the crisis of confidence in politics, as people do not see their political views represented in the way that politics works nationally.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned the 1950s. There was a sense then that the main purpose of the electoral system was simply to choose a Government from the two options available. It did not really matter how unrepresentative the Parliament was. However, the idea that the House of Commons is here simply to choose a Government cannot survive the massive reduction in support for the winning party. The electoral college notion of what the Commons is for cannot survive the present situation in which the winning party is so unpopular at the start.

We need to get away from the idea that the only purpose of the Commons is to act as an electoral college and that we all may as well go away once it has done that. We need to come round to the idea that the purpose of the House of Commons is to be a representative assembly. The first virtue of a representative assembly is that it represents the political views of the electorate. At present, it does not and it cannot regain any place in public confidence as long as that is the case.

The arguments against PR always come down to its not working in Israel or Italy and its helping extremists and damaging the constituency link, and a Conservative argument, which goes back to Mrs. Thatcher, is that consensus politics is a bad thing. None of those arguments works; for every Israel, there is a Germany, and for every Italy, there is a Scandinavia. There are many examples of successful, stable countries that use proportional systems. In any case, for Israel—a country that has been threatened existentially every moment since to came into existence—to have survived using PR is an example of PR’s success not its failure.

We have discussed the point that extremists get in at local level even with first past the post. As the percentage needed by the winning candidate drops, the chance of that happening increases. Moreover, if people feel excluded from a political system and unrepresented in Parliament, it breeds extremism. People have this the wrong way round: the failure to recognise the unrepresentative nature of this place breeds further extremism, and we must do something about it.

All the alternative systems put forward maintain the constituency link in some way or another, apart from the extraordinary system used in European parliamentary elections, which is the worst of all systems, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said. In the additional member system, half the seats are constituency seats. In STV, the constituencies are large, but because of the way that the system works, individual Members have to compete with one another in their constituencies to do their work better. If there is one disadvantage of STV, it is that it would make Members concentrate so much on their constituencies that the kind of ministerial candidates that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned might be put off. That is why national politicians in Ireland now and then suggest that STV should be abandoned. The people would not allow that to happen; they are convinced that STV is the best system for them, which is why it has won in all the referendums in Ireland on the electoral system.

The final point is one that always comes up from Conservative Members; it is always at the back of their minds: if we had had PR in the 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher would never have become Prime Minister, and all the radical reforms that she introduced would never have happened. I do not think that that is true; many of those reforms would have happened eventually, in a different way, with greater consensus and less social rupture than they did. We must ask ourselves whether we want further electoral coups d’état by minorities. Is that how to unify the country? Or given the crisis of confidence in politics that we face, do we need politics that is more consensual and based more on debate and agreement? We cannot have that under first past the post.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) forgets that we entirely applaud what Lady Thatcher did in the 1980s. A strong Government, however unpopular in some parts of the country, put this country back on its feet and made it possible for us to do what we do today as a country and an active participant on the world stage. But let us put that aside.

I applaud strong Government doing what is needed to get the country back on its feet after a difficult economic crisis. Does the hon. Lady applaud this Government for doing exactly that in response to the world economic crisis?

No, I do not applaud what the Government have done, but I applaud the fact that we have a strong Government, in electoral terms, and that those of us who are against them at least know what they are doing. We have certainty, and I applaud that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this debate. He is an individual, as I said earlier, and I mean that as a compliment. I congratulate him for adhering to his principles through the decades. This is an important debate; indeed, it is a perpetual one. For democracy to be vibrant, we must continually debate electoral reform. However, he based his argument on the fact, as he says, that we need a referendum on proportional representation on 6 May or on whatever date the general election might fall.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that we do not need a referendum. On whatever day we hold a general election, the people of the United Kingdom will know that one party—the Liberal Democrats—has made proportional representation one of the main planks of its manifesto promises. If more people throughout the United Kingdom vote in the general election for the party in favour of proportional representation than for all the parties against it, that party will become a Government and can introduce proportional representation at its leisure. That will be our referendum.

Is the hon. Lady saying that if the Liberal Democrats were to win the next election with 35 per cent. of the vote, we could change the electoral system without a referendum? I thank her in advance for her support.

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. If the Liberal Democrats have a majority of votes in the United Kingdom, or more votes than the parties against proportional representation—

No, I said more votes, but it does not matter which way one looks at it. If the Liberal Democrats get either more votes or more seats than all the other parties that are against proportional representation, they will be in a position to form a Government and go ahead with their plans.

Yes, of course there should. That is why it is Conservative policy to reduce the number of Members of Parliament and to equalise the size of constituencies. Votes in Scotland are not equal to votes in the rest of the United Kingdom, because of the differential size of the constituencies.

I must update the hon. Lady: Scotland now has the same numbers as the rest of the constituencies in the UK.

I appreciate that we have reduced the number of Scottish Members from 72 to 59. I agree with having done that. Nevertheless, throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, there is not parity of representation.

The hon. Lady is very generous in giving way. I will keep my remarks short and give way to her many times when I stand up to speak formally. Does she recognise that some, if not most, of the disparity between different constituencies is due to the deplorable lack of registration among a large number of voters—more than 3 million people, according to the Electoral Commission—who are eligible to vote but are not registered to do so? It is not possible to look at genuine parity until we have a universal registration of all those who are eligible to vote.

The Minister and I have had this conversation across the Dispatch Box on many occasions, and I agree that the comprehensiveness of the register is a sine qua non of having a fair and equal system. That is included in Conservative policy and outlook on this subject, too.

I will be brief now in my main remarks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on the eloquence with which they outlined the confusion in Scotland and quite rightly brought to our attention the problems that have occurred there because of the different types of voting system, which are sometimes all used on the same day, thereby causing confusion. I disagree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), who, although he has fought and won many elections, still has not quite got the point that a fair system has to be a simple system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) has very eloquently told us what he discovered in New Zealand, and I tend to believe him. He is our best link to New Zealand, and he is absolutely correct to say that, under its system, the people got a Government whom no one voted for, because they were a Government brought about by bargaining after the event, and the voters had no part in choosing them. To have a Government who are truly based on the three principles that government should be of the people, by the people and for the people, there must be three basic principles: those who are elected must be accountable to the electorate; the system must be certain and simple; and it must give power to the people and not to political parties.

First, on accountability, a voter must know when he or she goes into the polling booth not only how to elect a person but how to get rid of a person. It is a basic tenet of accountability that if we have a representative whom we do not want for reasons of ideology, personality or whatever, there must be a way of getting rid of that person. Under a proportional system with a list, that cannot be done by the voter. It can only be done by the party hacks. I, of course, love the party hacks, but that is another matter. They take power away from the voter. The unique link between the representative and those who are represented must remain. In parliamentary terms, it is the unique link between the Member of Parliament and the constituency. At other levels of government, that unique link must always be there because it gives us accountability. Only through accountability can we have a democracy that works and represents the people.

Secondly, I agree with the Minister that the system must be certain, and therefore simple. Much as I detest most of what the current Labour Government have done, I certainly accept that the people have spoken very definitely and certainly for the past 12 years. When the people have spoken, we know what they have said, although I hope that they will soon change their minds. Therefore, the Government, however wrong they might have been on many things they have done, have been absolutely legitimate. People have to know what the effect of casting their vote will be and also the effect of changing their minds—let us hope that they will do that in the near future.

Finally, a truly valuable system of democracy gives power to the people and not to political parties. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby is an individual, not a party hack. He is the perfect example of someone who is elected by first past the post, because of his ability to stand up for his constituents and his principles, regardless of his party—[Interruption.] Well, sometimes regardless of his party and to good effect, and regardless of what the Government at Westminster say. It is the individual in the House of Commons who makes this a great democracy, and that is possible only through a first-past-the-post, straight, simple and constituency-linked system. To tinker with that for the purposes of the current fashion, the prevailing wisdom in the press or the economy would be wrong. Our democracy is more valuable than any of those things, and we must protect it by protecting first past the post.

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell): as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) just said, he is living proof that the current system of electing Members of Parliament produces not only the cloistered, faceless, apparatchiks he so derided, but thoughtful, passionate, principled individuals such as him. I congratulate him on securing this genuinely important debate.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) seemed to be facing two ways at once. On the one hand, he was deeply worried about the prospect of change in the electoral system, so he obviously thinks it an important part of our constitutional arrangements. On the other, however, he spent a lot of time saying that it was not important and that Members of Parliament ought to concentrate on the sorts of things that his constituents were raising with him. However, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) rightly said, those two things are not mutually exclusive, but part and parcel of the same issue.

The issue is so important, and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby is correct to bring it up at this point because we are facing a crisis in the legitimacy of our constitutional arrangements. All parties recognise that. Conservative Front-Bench Members clearly recognise it and are coming up with all sorts of ways to address the crisis, as indeed are other parties and the Government. One can look at a whole range of constitutional reforms, including the open primaries that the Conservative party has rightly pioneered. In my view, there is a lot of merit in what the Conservatives have done in that area.

However, to look at all those constitutional reform measures and then exclude any discussion of the system for electing Members of Parliament is bizarre. The system should be looked at as part of the constitutional crisis that we face. The system is so important because it is about how power is distributed, and how power is distributed makes possible the answers to all the questions that the constituents of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham raise with him weekly in his surgeries.

In my speech I was saying that I wanted to have the status quo left as it is, with a first-past-the-post system. According to the media, the Labour Government will not have a referendum on PR on the date of the next election, but will put it in their manifesto and have a referendum should they be re-elected. Will the Minister give me a pledge that he will try to change the voting system not at the fag end of a Parliament, but only when his party has a fresh mandate?

The Prime Minister has made it clear that we are pledged to bring forward a referendum on the system in the next Parliament; there is no question of having it on the date of the next general election. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby seems to think that that will be on 6 May, but I have no such advance knowledge. None the less, by the middle of next year, there will be a general election. It is simply not possible to have the referendum, or any referendum, on that date and nor should it be.

This should not be a matter of party political calculation and, more crucially, it should not be perceived as such. Such a subject is fundamentally important. It is about the wiring of our constitution, and should not be seen as—or actually be—the subject of partisan political manoeuvring. If we had the referendum on the same day as the election, there would be the risk that the two things would get muddled up, and that is not the right way of doing things. As a Government, it is our settled view that any change in the electoral system should be subject to a referendum by the British people. This is their voting system and their constitution. It is not for Members of Parliament alone to decide on the matter.

I agree entirely with the Minister, but will he also agree that as part of that debate, we should be considering voter turnout?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Such things must be considered together; we are looking at only one part of the picture. He is absolutely right in suggesting that participation is central. There are many views about why participation is declining, and we must consider the issue across the piece, as we are doing. We have already taken measures to increase turnout and we are continuing to look at different ways of voting. I will shortly publish an electoral strategy that looks in principle at different ways in which we can address that issue and many others.

We have had a lengthy debate. In the few minutes remaining, I want to pay tribute to the passionate speeches that we have heard from all parts of the Chamber, from the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and his colleague in the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), and from the hon. Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for Glasgow, East (John Mason), for Cambridge and for Epping Forest. The different points of view expressed reflect the importance of the subject. No doubt we will continue this debate in the months ahead.

In the time remaining, let me caution all hon. Members about the use of language in such a context. Terms such as “fairness” are not objective terms; they are relative. The hon. Member for Cambridge made much play of his notion of fairness, but I ask him to consider this point. What is so fair about a system in which a party that year after year, decade after decade, gets simply 5 per cent. of the vote—as happens in Germany, which he holds up as a model of the system—determines the complexion of the Government? That is axiomatically not fair.

The situation in Germany is not like that. The grand coalition, which has just ended, shows the other option. The hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) pointed out that small parties cannot get their way when the larger parties agree, but the Minister is assuming that larger parties never agree, which is an extraordinary thing to assume.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the history of post-war Germany and see what percentage of the time has been occupied by a grand coalition in power. He will find that history proves my point rather than his. All I am saying is that we need to be extremely careful about using terms such as “fairness”. Personally, I prefer “legitimacy”, because in the end it is the legitimacy of the system—not our view but the British people’s view of legitimacy—that really counts.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a system in which a Government can be elected with an absolute majority, with about 25 per cent. of the electorate supporting them, is not sustainable in the long term. It is a system that has persisted and is likely to persist after the next general election, whichever party wins. Unfortunately, part of the problem is the low turnout, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire rightly pointed out. We have to look at different ways in which we can inject greater legitimacy into the system.

Seaside Town Regeneration

Nowhere in the United Kingdom is further than 70 miles from the sea—it has been a much loved resource for holidaying Britons over the years—yet our coastal towns, once famous holiday destinations, have suffered a steady decline over the past 25 years. Our seaside towns have not benefited from the urban renaissance of the past decade, and the national regeneration initiatives have overlooked the problems that they face.

The recent recession, ironically, has seen a resurgence in the popularity of our seaside resorts. Statistics from Visit England show that in July 2009, the number of holiday trips taken by UK residents to England was up by an impressive 40 per cent. compared with July 2008. Despite the latest revival, the Government’s understanding of coastal issues is poor and, as a result, regeneration efforts are badly co-ordinated across many Departments, which have a role to play in the process.

The significant urban focus in the Government’s regeneration and renewal agenda has exacerbated the challenges for coastal areas, as opportunities to invest, aid and restructure seaside towns have simply been overlooked. Even when funding opportunities, such as the single regeneration budget rounds, the neighbourhood renewal fund and the neighbourhood element of the safer and stronger communities fund, are made available, they have not been adapted to take account of the specific characteristics of seaside towns.

As the Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry into coastal towns demonstrated, a complex range of issues faces such areas, including changes in tourism trends, the seasonality of the seaside economy, frequent high levels of deprivation, coastal erosion, physical isolation and high levels of immigration of older people and emigration of younger people, which places pressure on social and community services.

Tourism is vital to the UK. Deloitte has estimated that the wider worth of the visitor economy is £114 billion, and that tourism attracts £20 billion a year in overseas earnings. It employs 8 per cent. of the work force and represents at least the fifth largest sector of the national economy. However, over the past 10 years, the UK’s growth in inbound tourism has underperformed compared with global competitors. National statistics indicate that if we had grown our international visitor economy at a rate that matched the increase in world tourism over the same period, the additional visits would have generated £3.2 billion more annually for the economy and 75,000 extra jobs. Does the Minister concede that that is a serious missed opportunity?

All British seaside resorts were developed as tourist destinations in the years after the first world war. The accommodation constructed at the seaside was, when built, better than what most people had in their homes. It was modern, and resorts were, by the standards of the time, exotic places. However, by the 1970s and 80s, continental resorts had developed, and over the past 30 years, the traditional bucket-and-spade tourism industry declined in the face of competition from low-cost European package holidays.

Resorts cannot rejuvenate their tourism appeal without analysing which areas of the towns are crucial to tourists and then engaging in a determined programme of improvement and renewal. Initiatives for reinvigorating our seaside towns ideally should come from local authorities with private participation, with the Government setting a framework that enables that. Seaside destinations tend to have significant infrastructure costs in excess of those that are borne by an inland area. The maintenance of coastal defences and the increasing risk of flooding—never more appropriate for those of us who have seen the front page of today’s edition of The Times—are just two examples of the enormous threat to inward investment and development, particularly from the private sector, which is reluctant to go into areas that might be threatened by coastal erosion or flooding.

For too long, there has been a lack of recognition of extra infrastructure burdens faced by seaside resorts. Instead, they are left to the local authorities to fund and, with squeezed budgets, are often forgotten, overlooked or put simply at the bottom of the “to do” list. Yet it is only after the public realm infrastructure receives investment that the private sector will be willing to invest.

It would be appropriate now to declare that my wife has recently become the owner of a holiday-let property in Cornwall. The hotel building allowance has been curtailed or removed within the tax system, which is ever more complex, expensive to comply with and demanding on cash flow. In April’s Budget, the Chancellor announced the potentially devastating changes to the tax rules governing the letting of furnished holiday property in the United Kingdom.

In the south-west, we have the greatest proportion of holiday letting accommodation and the change in the taxation will really threaten that industry. While the self-catering sector is an increasingly significant component of the UK holiday market, generating revenue of £1.8 billion per annum or almost 13 per cent. of all UK domestic holiday expenditure, property owners will from April 2010 face a greater tax liability in operating their holiday letting businesses. Along with budget hotels, camping and caravanning, the sector is one of the growth areas of the UK tourism industry.

The Treasury estimates that changes to the furnished holiday lettings rules will damage the tourism industry by just £20 million, yet research by the Tourism Alliance suggests an overall reduction in tourism spend of £200 million and a loss of 4,500 jobs in rural and seaside economies. At a time of recession and unemployment, what are the Government playing at by introducing such punitive measures?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. The tax system is disadvantageous to the UK tourism industry, particularly as at the moment our major competitors, Germany and France, are reducing further their VAT rate on hotel accommodation.

I shall continue on taxation specifically, but overall both the countries to which the hon. Gentleman alluded are backing their tourism industry in a way that our Government are not. I hope to give the Minister an opportunity to deny that and explain why I am wrong.

One of the Government’s core goals for their tourism responsibilities under the Development of Tourism Act 1969 has been to increase the quality of tourism products and services to make the UK tourism industry internationally competitive. Not only will changing from 100 per cent. relief on capital expenditure to the proposed 10 per cent. wear and tear allowance mean that the quality and quantity of the fittings provided will be reduced and there will be a lower level of maintenance, but immediate barriers to entry are being created, owners of holiday lettings companies could go out of business, and, ironically, farmers previously encouraged to diversify into tourism activities and holiday lets will now be disincentivised by the very Government who encouraged to them to take such action in the first place. If ever there were a lack of joined-up Government thinking, that is it. Nor has the change in taxation legislation been subjected to rural proofing, as the Government promised would happen to new taxation legislation.

Will the Minister take the opportunity of the debate to respond to the Federation of Small Businesses, which today in the papers has called for the Government to “Give us a Break” in respect of the changed legislation? He will no doubt be aware that the chairman of the FSB called for that, and I look forward to his response to the debate.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has not given tourism the attention that it needs and deserves. Tourism is ignored by Departments that have more clout in the great scheme of things. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is simply not seen within the Government as a defender of tourism's interests or a natural consultee. As current trends are showing greater personal responsibility towards individual carbon footprints, and altered holiday choices based on ecological rather than purely financial priorities, the error of the Government's ways in changing FHL rules can only be brought more sharply into focus.

English tourist destinations now have a fresh advantage over their foreign competitors, and an opportunity to capture new markets. The coastal holiday experience can satisfy sustainable lifestyle aspirations, offering locally and organically produced food, and health benefits associated with outdoor activities in the natural environment. The Government are being presented with opportunity after opportunity to take advantage of trends and changes in behaviour, attitudes and spending habits, yet time and again, those chances are squandered.

Transport infrastructure is another key issue that limits seaside regeneration. The Government’s failure to deliver on major transport projects for seaside destinations significantly affects their growth and competitiveness and adds cost to every journey. Coastal areas suffered disproportionately under a previous Labour Government as a result of the Beeching axe when branch lines such as the one to Sidmouth in my constituency were cut. The Government must now ensure that all tourist centres are well served by public transport to reduce as far as possible the use of individual vehicles. It must be accepted that tourism involves transport, which needs to be made not only ecologically friendly but cost-effective for the traveller.

It has been evident over the past 15 years that, rather than sitting in endless traffic jams on their way to the seaside, UK residents have chosen to fly to overseas destinations, at the considerable expense of our seaside communities and economy. The Government must step up to the plate and address that matter urgently. Specific problems affecting tourism also include the inconsistent level of support made available for tourism development by the Government and their agencies. That includes support for marketing destinations, the development of skills appropriate to 21st century destinations, and business growth. There appear, however, to be encouraging developments in that regard, with the British Resorts and Destinations Association and Visit England currently developing a seaside resorts futures document, which will emanate from the new England strategy in 2010. Yet the funding provided to Visit England is only £13 million and about to be cut significantly. That is a pitiful amount and resources must be increased so that they are commensurate with the size of the task.

Central Government should give coastal towns an opportunity to address their decline and renew and improve their tourist facilities. Customers increasingly demand quality of service and facilities, and coastal towns are well placed to meet that demand, in part because of their high quality historic fabric. For visitors who have come to enjoy the beauty of the coast, but need a base to stay overnight, a built environment that matches the quality of the natural environment is essential, and the development of a high quality hotel and leisure sector can help stimulate a modern visitor economy.

The Government must also play their part by reducing the burdens of red tape and bureaucracy. The planning system needs to become less process orientated. The local development framework and regional spatial strategies have been too long in their formation, and that leads to unnecessary tensions between planning authorities and developers and investors. I am cynical about the regional spatial strategy and welcome my party’s pledge to get rid of it. There is a need, particularly in current circumstances, to ensure that the public sector works to facilitate development and not delay it.

Bed-and-breakfast premises are particularly vulnerable to the increased regulatory burden. Guidelines are urgently needed for local enforcement officers in fire regulations and food hygiene to ensure that they carry out their enforcement duties proportionately, in a genuinely risk-based way, and not in a way that places a disproportionate compliance burden on small businesses. Fire regulations, in particular, affect a number of bed-and-breakfast owners in my constituency. I have tabled several parliamentary questions about the matter, and wonder whether the Minister has received similar representations, and what his opinion is.

Marinas, which have an important role to play in local regeneration schemes, are also burdened by red tape and regulation. That needs to be explored, particularly in the south-west. There is no marina between Portland and the constituency of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). There is nothing along my coast, and the Government would do well to consider a marina initiative.

Heritage can be a dynamic resource for regenerating coastal towns. The restoration of historic buildings to accommodate new uses can stimulate new economic sectors, such as arts and cultural industries. Examples include the successful restoration of the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, the development of Tate St. Ives, Bournemouth square, the Whitby abbey heritage centre and the Tern project in Morecambe. Offering visitors a broader range of attractions, with significant increases in spend and overnight stays, has a knock-on effect on retail and restaurants in the area. The Royal Oyster Stores restaurant in Whitstable has, for example, been particularly influential in fostering a market of high-spending visitors from London, who come to eat at the restaurant and then enjoy the shops, galleries and sea front in the rest of the town. The recently diversified local economy brings all-year-round tourism, ensuring a more stable economy and better job security for local residents. A similar experience has occurred in Cornwall with Rick Stein’s restaurants in Padstow, Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall at Watergate bay, and most recently the Hix restaurant in Lyme Regis, which I was lucky enough to try for myself.

Central Government investment in culture, arts and heritage is a vital and innovative way of creating a diversified and sustainable seaside economy. I should, therefore, welcome the Government commitment of £45 million over three years to a sea change fund. Indeed, as the shadow Minister for Plymouth, I was heartened by the £100,000 to help develop plans for relocating the Plymouth arts centre down on the Hoe. However, tourism is not a by-product of outreach, cultural-grant programmes, which are not a quick-fix solution.

Investment is probably the key issue holding back seaside regeneration. The lack of awareness and appreciation of the problems associated with seaside destinations has led to poorly conceived policy interventions such as the sea change programme, while the incentive structures associated with the regional development agencies have tended to focus the investment on easy-win structural projects, rather than tackling the more difficult underlying social issues, which hold back growth and development in such areas.

As a result of decades of decline and neglect, many seaside destinations suffer from high levels of deprivation. According to the Communities and Local Government Committee report, 21 of the 88 most deprived local authorities are in coastal towns. Such problems require urgent central Government intervention, so that those destinations can move forward.

In addition, the out-migration of younger households, to which I alluded earlier, and the growth in the care home industry have created a demographic imbalance, putting a higher burden on social services. In fact, 21 per cent. of residents of seaside towns are over 65, compared with the national average of 16 per cent. Efforts must be made to draw young people back to coastal areas. In Falmouth, a new further education campus is diversifying the local economy, increasing employment and vitality in the town. Student numbers at the campus are expected to reach around 30,000 and will provide a major boost to the local economy. That is exactly the type of innovative regeneration of coastal towns that is needed. I would like to see more colleges in coastal towns dedicated to training young people in the needs and requirements of the hospitality industry.

The extraordinary, abandoned fiasco of the Government’s casino policy almost suggested that the only panacea from Government to address the ills of a seaside town’s deprivation would be to bung a casino in the middle of it. At the time I had the honour of being the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and we put that one to bed for them. The policy seemed to serve no other purpose than simply costing time, money and effort on the part of all the authorities that bid.

The Treasury should now concentrate on working with the industry to improve the existing amusement machine licence duty system to deliver efficiencies for Government and business. The maximum jackpot levels for amusement machines should be reviewed, remembering that higher jackpots would mean higher levels of duty.

In order to succeed and flourish, seaside destinations must be year-round attractions, and one of the greatest challenges is to extend the tourist season. One of the most important factors in achieving that is the development of the meetings and conferences industry. In the 1970s and ’80s most of the major seaside resorts were significant players in the conference market, but with investment being ploughed into our former industrial cities from the 1980s onwards, competition to the resorts grew in parallel with the decline and impoverishment of their infrastructures. Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed a number of resort destinations pulling out of the conference market altogether, because their offering is no longer appropriate to the market’s needs, while others are struggling to remain competitive. If seaside resorts are to continue to be successful, the necessary investment must be made in the transport and local infrastructures that support business tourism.

Obviously, the major player in any effort to rejuvenate seaside towns and provide the necessary cultural injection is local government. However, local authorities are not always able or inclined to take a meaningful lead in the area, owing to funding restrictions and the lack of incentives to promote tourism. Tourism promotion is a non-statutory function for local authorities and, with increasing pressure on budgets, it tends to be the first activity that is cut. Given the inconsistent understanding of coastal issues and the pressure on public finances, there is increased need for local government to be encouraged to adopt entrepreneurial approaches to the use of its assets and the range of its powers to take things forward.

There is no dedicated national policy statement relating to coastal towns and that must be changed. For many years, until the mid-1960s, our seaside resorts were a major destination for domestic tourism. Since then the financial and physical decline of what were once attractive holiday destinations has simply been overlooked. Many coastal towns are surrounded by some of the most outstanding natural environment Britain has to offer. In my own constituency of East Devon, not only are there beautiful beaches but the Jurassic coast, a UNESCO world heritage site. We should rightly be proud of our natural and historic assets, and respect them as a worthy part of the future and our 21st-century tourism appeal.

A 2006 study for the World Travel and Tourism Council predicted that on present trends the UK would lose a further fifth of global market share over the next 10 years. One of the reasons for the unfulfilled potential of tourism and our coastal towns is the Government’s failure to appreciate how important those towns are to the UK, and particularly to England.

I hope that the Minister will use the time remaining to answer some of the questions and not simply say that what I have proposed requires increased money and that the Opposition are committed to spending no extra money, because that would be a cheap run for him. I hope that he will be worthier than that. I concede that some of my proposals would cost money, but others would be cost-neutral and require only a commitment by the Government that hitherto we have not seen. The clock is ticking on the Government, but it is not too late in the day for them to give some kind of demonstration of their commitment to the restoration of our coastal towns.

Although I enjoyed the culinary tour of the coastal towns of England that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) gave, I will disappoint him. What I found extraordinary and disappointing about his speech is the fact that, although Westminster Hall debates are normally non-partisan and constructive discussions about people’s concerns, today we heard calls for more spending on regeneration, more access to finance for coastal areas, more colleges, more students, more spending for transport, tourism and Visit England, and at the same time lower taxes. He might think this unworthy, but he should try coming here to explain that.

What the hon. Gentleman has done is set out eloquently the Opposition’s approach to economic policy in general, which is to make all sorts of commitments while calling for lower taxes and not explaining how any of them will be paid for. It has certainly been disappointing to sit here and listen to a party political rant dressed up as a serious discussion of his constituents’ concerns.

I will try to deal with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made, but if I miss anything I will ensure that he receives a letter on the subject. He is right that seaside towns have an important role in regional and local economies, along with other towns, cities and communities, and we want them to thrive and prosper. Many seaside towns are desirable locations and many people want to live there—not only those reaching retirement age, but younger people—because they offer an attractive environment, a good quality of life and varied opportunities for leisure and recreation.

Seaside towns are still important holiday destinations. Despite the diatribe of complaints to which we have just been subjected, in July alone domestic tourist trips nationally were up 20 per cent. on last year’s figures, and seaside towns will clearly have benefited from that.

It is difficult to generalise about seaside communities, given their very different economic, social and physical circumstances. There are big contrasts in the issues they face. There are resorts on the south coast, such as Bournemouth, Brighton and Poole, where the housing market and local economy are more buoyant and diverse, but which are still affected by changing trends in tourism. Others, such as Blackpool and Scarborough, have greater dependence on the traditional seaside tourist economy. Some areas have a high percentage of houses in multiple occupation, sometimes in poor condition. Some areas have strong and successful ingrained tourism industries while others have a declining tourist trade. Some areas, such as Brighton and Southend, have large numbers of people commuting to London, and others have higher numbers of people on benefits.

All those features present different challenges and opportunities for different communities, and clearly there is no magic bullet for every area and no simple solution that can be imposed from the centre. Instead, solutions can emerge only from detailed knowledge and understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by each resort.

Over the past two years, the Department for Communities and Local Government has funded two studies of larger and smaller seaside towns, undertaken by Sheffield Hallam university. Those have explored in depth the socio-economic issues facing individual seaside towns and the need for better evidence to inform the wider debate. A key conclusion of those studies is that our seaside communities still have strong appeal and great potential. There is no doubt that those areas are changing and improving the quality of their services to residents, tourists and visitors alike.

The Government support seaside towns through a range of mainstream policies to boost their performance and to deliver improvements in services for their communities. As for overall financial support, we have delivered the first ever three-year settlement for local authorities and fulfilled the Government’s promise to provide financial stability to local government, which has been more important than ever over the past 12 months.

On 13 November, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced additional funding for recipients of working neighbourhoods funds to enable them to do more to reduce persistent unemployment. Some of the most deprived coastal authorities, including Blackpool, Great Yarmouth and Hastings, will benefit. The Future Jobs Fund is creating jobs, apprenticeships and training opportunities for young people in Thanet, Brighton and Hove, Cornwall and other coastal areas. The Government’s increased support to the regional improvement efficiency partnerships is helping councils in coastal and other areas to meet their local targets and priorities. In the south-west, for example, the RIEP is undertaking work on asset management and economic development and regeneration.

Despite the very real and often severe problems faced by many seaside towns, we can be confident about their future if all those involved—central Government, local government, the private sector, and regional and local partners—work towards a common goal to maximise their opportunities.

Regional development agencies are helping to ensure that seaside towns in their regions achieve their full economic potential through their regional economic strategies. A single regeneration budget, about which the hon. Gentleman complained, is now part of the single budget for RDAs and benefits coastal communities as much as anywhere else. All coastal RDAs now have regional economic strategies that take account of coastal and seaside towns. The RDA for Yorkshire and the Humber, for example, has a renaissance towns and cities programme that includes several seaside towns, including Bridlington and Scarborough. The RDA for the south-west has supported seaside towns from the market and coastal towns initiative, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument that coastal communities have not benefited from any of the additional expenditure that the Government have delivered.

To make RDAs even more effective, we are bringing together their economic role and the spatial planning function in single regional strategies. Those will help to ensure that economic development, housing, planning and transport are better aligned towards achieving sustainable economic growth to benefit all parts of a region, including the coast.

Since 2003, RDAs have included tourism in their corporate plans and regional economic strategies, both as an activity in its own right and mainstreaming it into their other economic considerations. RDAs are also working closely with regional tourist boards in the development of regional economic strategies, drawing on their wealth of knowledge on how seaside resorts fit in with the regional tourism economy.

In addition to their strategic responsibility for and investment in tourism, RDAs are aware of the interdependence of seaside resorts and their rural hinterlands, and should work with resorts to take advantage of their value.

Through multi-area agreements, a number of coastal authorities and their partners are taking a much more active role in leading economic development and regeneration at a sub-regional level. Of the 15 MAAs signed since July 2008, eight include coastal authorities. The Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole partnership, for example, is focusing on improving skills levels, transport and sustainable growth. The Fylde Coast partnership, which covers Blackpool, Wyre, Fylde and Lancashire county, has a focus on coastal infrastructure, tourism, skills and the public realm.

Some coastal towns have established economic development companies to increase capacity to deliver economic regeneration. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Plymouth City Development Company was launched in 2008 and is working in partnership with the city council, the private sector, the South West of England Regional Development Agency and the Homes and Communities Agency to ensure that public spending can be used to deliver the city’s ambitious plans. That demonstrates a number of the ways in which this Government are working with partners, including the RDAs, right across the country to improve services and increase expenditure in coastal communities.

Super-strength Lager

I am sorry if I am slightly breathless, but my watch is a few minutes slow. I have two very limited objectives in this debate. The first is to persuade the Minister—

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Phil Hope): Would it be helpful if I intervened?

No, I will be all right. My first objective is to persuade the Minister that it would be a good idea to limit the size of cans of super-strength lager. The second is to persuade him that it would be a good idea to increase their price to discourage their use as the cheapest way of getting drunk. Last week, I put those two points in a topical question to his colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who has ministerial responsibility for public health; I am sure that this Minister was there. She gave me a beautifully crafted reply—but it was not, I fear, a straightforward yes.

I secured this Westminster Hall debate to invite the Department of Health to engage more fully with the issues and to tease out a fuller answer to the questions; I am sure that Westminster Hall debates were introduced for just such a purpose. As I told the public health Minister, a can of super-strength lager carries a voluntary health message from the drinks industry asking consumers to “enjoy responsibly” or “please drink responsibly”. It also carries a warning, which was put there last year at the behest of one of her predecessors at the Department, that the can contains 4.5 units of alcohol.

I do not need to tell the Minister that the maximum recommended daily intake of alcohol, according to his own Department, is three to four units for a man and two to three units for a woman. A can is a single-serve container and is intended, once opened, to be drunk straight away. One cannot screw the top back on or put the cork back in; even if one could, it would go flat, warm and totally undrinkable.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important and controversial subject. Does he agree that, for youngsters, warnings on cans can sometimes act as an invitation, rather than a deterrent, to use the super-strength cans? The price does not seem to be a deterrent either. We need parents to take greater responsibility in knowing what youngsters are doing and in preventing them from using alcohol, particularly in public. The involvement of parents is crucial and is probably a better way to tackle the problem than taxation or restriction.

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman is a parent like me, he knows that one can never cope entirely with the perversity of youth. If some people do the opposite of what one says, one cannot win either way; if we do not warn them, they do it, but if we do warn them, they still do it. I accept that maximums can become challenges to young people, but that problem has to be tackled in the young people themselves. Sooner or later in life, they are going to have to learn that the advice that others give them is sometimes valuable. If they do not learn it that way, they will learn it some other way.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but my question still stands: is it not irresponsible of the Department of Health to ask the consumer to drink responsibly yet allow the sale of a drink in a can that invites them to drink irresponsibly? Does the Department of Health expect the consumer to take a 500 ml or 4.5-unit can, solemnly pour out the relevant number of units—455 ml if they are a man, 335 ml if they are a woman—and throw the rest away? Does the Department not see that the sale of 4.5-unit cans undermines its own advice to drink no more than four units, or three for women, a day? That is why I want the Minister to ban 500 ml cans. I mean not a voluntary agreement—I fear that that would not work—but a ban on half-litre cans by law and a provision limiting containers to the maximum recommended daily intake. Most supermarkets—certainly my own local supermarket—are already selling only the 440 ml cans of super-strength lager, which contain four units. However, many off-licences and small corner shops sell the larger cans and will often sell them at a lower price than is charged at the supermarkets.

My second objective, which may be far more challenging but more important, is to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to increase the tax on super-strength lagers and ciders, which I am defining for these purposes as anything over 6 per cent. I recognise that that is a decision for the Chancellor, but he will never introduce a tax of that kind without a strong recommendation from the Department of Health. I have addressed that objective to the Department of Health, because the first step must be for it to persuade the Chancellor that a tax needs to be introduced for health reasons.

The first thing to do is to establish whether a price rise would reduce consumption. We already have plenty of evidence. The World Health Organisation states:

“There is indisputable evidence that the price of alcohol matters. If the price of alcohol goes up, alcohol-related harm goes down.”

The British Medical Association states:

“There is strong and consistent evidence that price increases result in reduced consumption.”

A letter from one of the Minister’s predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), has stated that evidence from other EU countries shows that increasing the price of alcohol through the tax system can reduce consumption levels, especially among younger drinkers, at least in the short term.

The Department of Health usually takes the advice of its own chief medical officer on health issues; the chief medical officer has recommended a policy involving a minimum price of 50p a unit, which would push the cost of a super-strength can up to £2.25. The homeless charity Thames Reach estimated that even a relatively modest increase, taking the price of a can of super-strength up to £1.50 in every shop, would have the beneficial effect of changing behaviour, persuading many problem drinkers to switch to lower-strength brands.

I am not advocating a complete ban on super-strength lagers. I recognise that strong lagers, consumed in moderation, have no more effect on health than any other drink. Many people like the taste of strong lagers. I have a relative who drinks a can of super-strength every day without fail; it can hardly have affected his health, as he is about to celebrate his 99th birthday. There are many specialist strong lagers, such as Old Tom, which is 8.5 per cent., but that is sold in third of a litre bottles.

However, it is a fact that the great majority of sales of super-strength lager and cider are to alcohol-dependent people who are often vulnerable and homeless. For them, the defining attraction is not the taste, but the price per unit of alcohol. Super-strength affects not only health, but behaviour. It causes people to get drunk very quickly and is a major cause of antisocial behaviour. Thames Reach often tries to persuade its residents to switch back to lower-strength lager—no lager at all, if possible, but at least to lower-strength lager. When they do, their behaviour immediately improves.

Thames Reach, one of many organisations faced with this problem, helps about 4,000 people a year. It estimates that 800 of them are drinking super-strength lager or cider. There were 47 deaths among the people whom it helped last year. It asked its staff to put the types of addiction in order of harm. They put heroin third and crack cocaine in second place. In first place, the most dangerous addictive drug, causing the most damage and the highest number of deaths, was super-strength lager. Jeremy Swain, the chief executive of Thames Reach, said that every year hundreds of men and women with serious drink problems—many of them homeless—are driven to an early grave by these extraordinarily powerful and destructive drinks. He said that we need the Government and producers to accept that the cost of cheap strong lager that can be purchased with ease from any corner shop is, in human terms, simply too high.

Mr. Swain described to me the case histories of some of the people that his organisation has lost. When he was banned from pubs, one man took to drinking super-strength lager in his flat on his own. Despite all its efforts, Thames Reach could not take him out of the tail spin of addiction and he died last year. Another man whom Mr. Swain described was addicted to the super-strength cider White Lightning, though he called it “White Frightening” because of the nightmares and the hallucinations he said it induced in him.

Super-strength ciders, often at 7.5 per cent. and sometimes more, are an equally great problem because they too have a very low price per unit of alcohol. People choose these drinks because they are cheap—the cost per unit of alcohol is low. Over the years, alcohol has become cheaper for everyone. Since 1980, alcoholic drinks have become 69 per cent. more affordable. The Minister will be familiar with these figures, as I am sure that they come from the Department of Health. The implication is that anybody now in their 40s has seen the price of alcohol more than halve in real terms since they were old enough to drink. Since they may also have seen their income double or treble, one can easily see how the temptation to drink alcohol and their ability to consume it has increased many times. It can be no surprise that, as alcohol has become more affordable, consumption has relentlessly increased—as has the harm from alcohol, which now costs the Government up to an estimated £25 billion a year.

Super-strength addicts are perhaps the most extreme example of a wider trend, but they are the ones who suffer as no others do. Thames Reach has a phrase for people suffering in that way: it calls them “the young olds”. They are the middle-aged men and women who suffer from the types of life-threatening problems, such as impaired mobility or incontinence, that are more commonly associated with people in their 70s. When its staff are asked to estimate the age of new arrivals, they are often 20 years out. They think that the new arrivals are in their 70s but it turns out that they are in their 50s. Their trouble is that they cannot access the health services available to 70-year-olds. The Minister, who is responsible for care services, will understand that these people are in need of care services although they do not qualify for them because they are so far under retirement age. This is a problem that society needs to take more seriously.

There is already wide support in the House for a super-strength tax, as witnessed by my early-day motion two years ago, which attracted 50 signatories. Some local authorities are beginning to take unilateral action. Westminster city council, for instance, has persuaded retailers in Victoria, Marylebone and Pimlico to stop selling super-strength in their shops and that has led to a marked reduction in antisocial behaviour in those areas. Pubs, of course, have never sold super-strength lager because they know that if they did it would lead to an increase in antisocial behaviour, which their customers would not appreciate. Many shops, for their own reasons, do not sell super-strength lager. It is not available in many countries such as Australia and Ireland, not because of any law but simply because it is not sold in any pubs or shops.

I understand the issues concerning civil liberties raised by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). I repeat that I do not seek a complete ban on super-strength lagers; that would be an infringement. However, we must recognise that such drinks have a powerful effect, not only on health but on behaviour. It is well within the remit of the Government to use the tax system to influence behaviour and health. We already do that in many ways, and the Department of Health has extended the principle in many areas in recent years. I suggest that this is an area where the Department of Health needs to use incentives and disincentives to try to influence people. These people are buying super-strength lager only because of the price per unit and because they live at the extremes of income. They have to save up money to afford a can. Clearly, an increase in the price of the can would have an immediate effect on their ability to buy it.

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I am being persuaded by his careful and well placed arguments. My concern is about the use of taxation, not civil liberties. As in this case, there are times when this place must act to protect people almost from themselves, as we did with the seat belt law and other legislation. He is making some extremely strong points. I am listening carefully to him and am prepared to change my mind on this subject.

I am grateful for that intervention. In the circumstances I think I have persuaded 50 per cent. of the audience already, and I shall be well pleased if I persuade 100 per cent. This is a modest proposal. I am not putting forward anything that would restrict people’s civil liberties. I am making my proposal in a moderate way, in the hope that the Department of Health can take action. I understand that there are difficulties with the proposal, which has been widely canvassed and trialled in Scotland, in respect of prices per unit. I find it quite an attractive proposal, and I do not know what the difficulties are.

Even if we did not go that far and had a super-strength tax that simply applied to beers and ciders over 6 per cent., that would send a strong enough signal to the minority of the population who drink strong lagers through choice. It would also be a strong disincentive to the much greater number of people who drink it as the cheapest way of getting drunk. It would have a beneficial effect on both health and behaviour. I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing the debate; he has proved himself an effective and persuasive champion of his cause. This is an important matter of concern for the House and he is right to say that the worst effects of alcohol misuse are plain to see in towns and cities across the country.

Excessive drinking can turn some places into virtual no-go areas on a Saturday night. The costs to the community, the police and the NHS are astonishing, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the problems of alcohol stretch far beyond weekend binge drinking. Perhaps the largest long-term problem for the NHS lies with those who do not get arrested, do not get admitted to hospital and do not realise the health risks they are storing up for the future until it is far too late.

My hon. Friend talked about units and I would like to explain exactly what we mean by that. Many people are unclear about what a unit of alcohol is, how many units there are in a pint and so on. For the record, one unit is 10 ml of pure alcohol. It is the amount that the body can, on average, break down in an hour. So, someone who drinks 10 ml of alcohol should not have any left in their bloodstream 60 minutes later. A standard pint of 4 per cent. lager contains two units. A stronger 5 per cent. pint of lager will contain three.

Some super-strength lagers of the sort my hon. Friend described can be as high as 9 per cent. alcohol, with one 500 ml can containing four and a half units of alcohol. A medium glass of 12.5 per cent. strength wine will have more than two units, whereas a large glass might contain more than three. That is the important thing to remember. The Government recommend that women should not regularly drink more than two to three units of alcohol a day. One large glass of white wine is more than three units. Women should not drink more than two to three units of alcohol a day and men should not drink more than three or four, which is just over one pint of strong lager. One can of super-strength lager, therefore, is more than an entire day’s worth of units for an adult male. We can all see just how easy it is to drink more than the lower-risk amounts.

In preparing for the debate, I discovered other particularly shocking figures. Some 10 million people regularly exceed the limits, putting themselves at risk of developing long-term health problems, and 2.6 million people regularly drink more than double the lower-risk amount, which increases their risk of death from an alcohol-related cause tenfold. Well over 1 million people are dependent on alcohol. To describe the same figures in a slightly starker way, that group of 10 million people who regularly exceed the limits drink three quarters of all alcohol consumed in this country, and the group of 2.6 million people who drink more than double the limits consume a quarter of all alcohol consumed, which is around 3,000 units a year compared to just 200 units for low-level-risk drinkers.

Since the early ’90s, we have seen a rapid growth in how much people drink and the annual number of deaths caused by alcohol. It is fair to say that the growth fell slightly in 2007, but it is still far too high. In 2007, 8,724 deaths were wholly attributable to alcohol, through things such as alcoholic liver disease. That was fewer than in 2006, but still more than twice the number in 1991. If we include deaths to which alcohol is a contributory factor—some cancers, for example—the number of deaths rises to 16,000, and rises still further if deaths caused by drink driving, accidents and violence are included.

The cost to the national heath service of all that is huge—about £2.7 billion every year. In 2007-08, there were more than 860,000 hospital admissions due to alcohol, which was 6 per cent. of all admissions. That figure is rising by more than 70,000 every year. Staggeringly, more than a third of all accident and emergency and ambulance costs may be alcohol related. All that adds up to a major public health problem and a huge source of avoidable cost, without even starting to look at the personal costs of alcohol abuse to individuals, families and whole communities.

What are we doing about the situation? We are determined to turn it around. In April 2008, we created the first ever incentive for primary care trusts to bring alcohol-related hospital admissions into the spotlight, through the vital signs indicator. That is one of the indicators in the NHS national operating framework, and it measures how a hospital is managing its admissions.

We have launched the alcohol improvement programme, which gives front-line staff the tools and guidance better to understand local needs and better to commission services. There has been a groundswell of support, with two thirds of all PCTs now choosing alcohol as a local priority and focusing funds and attention on what they can do to reduce harm from alcohol.

Alcohol is also one of the top 10 PCT priorities within the world-class commissioning programme, and GP practices are now encouraged financially to identify new patients who have unhealthy drinking habits and offer them advice on changing their behaviour. The evidence shows that one in eight people will go on to change their drinking habits. We now see better screening, commissioning and access to treatment. Last year, more than 100,000 people were treated for alcohol dependence.

My hon. Friend raised the specific issue of super-strength lager, from the size of the can to the case for minimum pricing and increasing the tax charged. We recognise the concern he described, which is that the sale of higher-strength lager, beer or cider in conventionally sized cans may encourage people to consume large quantities of alcohol. We take the view that consumers should have a choice of smaller measures in on-trade premises, and we have recently consulted on making it a legal requirement always to offer 125 ml measures of wine.

We will also consider the case for making higher-strength drinks available in smaller or re-sealable containers. My hon. Friend has mentioned before, and did so again today, the fact that many homeless people buy super-strength lagers. It is true that some homeless people suffer from a complex mix of problems, including mental health issues, for which I have responsibility, and various forms of substance abuse.

We will shortly launch “New Horizons”, our strategy for improving mental health services. More important is the fact that it will promote wider community mental health and well-being. It will also include specific work with those who have chaotic lifestyles, such as the homeless.

There is a good deal of public concern about the fact that alcohol is often sold at heavily discounted prices, and that that can fuel harmful drinking. As well as it being common sense, evidence shows that the cheaper alcohol is, the more people will drink. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend had to say and I share his concerns, as does the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point of view. It would be wrong, however, to think that there is one simple solution to the dilemma. Altering people’s behaviour is never easy, as has already been remarked upon, and we must start by empowering people to make sensible choices, based on the information that they need to make their own decisions. It is important that those who drink strong lager understand how strong their drink is, how much they are drinking and what health risks are involved.

The “Know Your Limits” campaign is catching people’s attention and making them think twice about how much they drink. Public awareness of the campaign is running at more than 70 per cent., which is high, and the number of people who know their daily alcohol limits—currently about a third—is growing.

Today is the first day of December, and shop windows are already heavy with decorations and festive bargains. I remind the House that later this week the Department for Transport will launch the annual drink-driving campaign. Those who drink and drive not only put themselves and others in danger, but risk a fine, a 12-month driving ban and a criminal record. I have hijacked my hon. Friend’s debate to put that clearly on the record, because we want to build on the momentum of those and other campaigns, including on rape and domestic violence. We shall introduce a new hard-hitting campaign for the new year to highlight the health risks of alcohol.

To go with raising public awareness, we need proper labelling. In 2007, we announced a voluntary agreement with the industry to show alcohol and health information on most alcohol labels by the end of 2008. We will publish the results of a second monitoring exercise shortly, together with a consultation on the next steps. Unfortunately, despite the good efforts of some companies, progress on labelling has been disappointing. Giving people access to the right information when they are buying alcohol is essential, and if industry cannot or will not deliver on its promises, we are prepared to take more radical action to ensure real progress.

We also need to tackle cheap alcohol. The Prime Minister has said that

“we will give local authorities the power to ban 24-hour drinking throughout a community in the interests of local people”.

Industry needs to take some responsibility when it sells discounted, high-strength alcohol.

Tax is, of course, a matter for the Chancellor, and I am not yet a Treasury Minister. In 2008-09, my right hon. Friend raised duty on alcohol by 6 per cent. in real terms, and he is committed to increasing it by a further 2 per cent. every year until 2012-13. When VAT was cut by 2.5 per cent. last year, duty on alcohol was raised to compensate. I am glad to say that when VAT returns to 17.5 per cent. in the new year, that increase will remain.

Through the new mandatory code for alcohol retailing, we have shown that if industry continues to act irresponsibly we will legislate. Cheap, very strong alcohol, combined with lack of awareness of the damage it may do, is costing the NHS billions of pounds—and the lives of thousands of people. Although intervention on pricing has been ruled out, we need to strike the right balance between supporting enterprise and respecting the rights of responsible customers, making a real difference. We have said that we will defer work on minimum pricing; we are still thinking about the matter.

We are starting to turn the tide in many areas, but we must always try to do more. In that way, we can help to improve the health of my hon. Friend’s constituents in Battersea and of the constituents of all Members. The needs of constituents must come first, and tackling the problem of alcohol misuse is critical to their health and to the future of our NHS.

Offshore Dredging

It is a great pleasure, Mr. Amess, to speak under your chairmanship on a subject that is of great concern to many of my constituents and to those of colleagues in coastal constituencies.

The Minister will know that the East Riding coastal zone, which stretches from Flamborough head to Spurn point and much of which is in my constituency, has one of the fastest eroding coastlines in north-west Europe. According to Hull university, the area with the fastest rate of erosion was

“At Road Junction South of Cowden”,

where the rate of erosion was 6.28 metres a year on average between 1954 and 2004. I am sure that the Minister will agree that we must not stop striving to improve our understanding of the forces that are changing our coast. A crucial point is that each bit of coast and each incidence of dredging is different and needs to be considered on its merits, even though that consideration should be informed by a full understanding of issues and research from around the world. Having a comprehensive understanding of the forces behind coastal erosion would enable us to come up with better measures to protect people’s homes and businesses in a sustainable and affordable way.

As I said, a significant number of my constituents are concerned that continued offshore dredging is having a direct impact on the speed of erosion along the east Yorkshire coast and the Holderness coast in particular. I pay tribute to Gavin Scott of Holmpton, a constituent of mine, for his indefatigable persistence in raising these issues. He was reported in the Yorkshire Post as saying:

“The Government would have us believe that the vastly increased coastal erosion in our area is due to global warming, climate change and a rise in the height of sea levels. But after sifting through all the evidence I personally think dredging in UK waters should now be totally banned…It displays a total disregard for other people and their livelihoods and seems to me to be tantamount to persecution of coastal dwellers.”

As you can see, Mr. Amess, feelings run high. Fisherman Derek Crook, whose home at Tunstall has been lost to coastal erosion, said:

“It is an absolute national scandal that the Government is selling sand and gravel to the Continent and it must be a contributing factor to beach draw-down.”

The hon. Gentleman has brought an important matter before the House. My fishermen and 40,000 of my constituents who live on Canvey Island share his concerns. The dredging of 32 million to 34 million cubic metres of spoil to make a deep, quarter-mile-wide trench for shipping for the new London gateway port at Corringham could have a devastating impact on Canvey Island’s sea defences, which run alongside the area where the majority of that dredging will take place, but Ministers do not seem able to take that on.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. A key issue is to ensure that we have a full and proper understanding of the processes at work and that such understanding as we have is shared with our constituents. The campaign group MARINET, which is part of Friends of the Earth and campaigns against marine aggregates dredging, claims that the dredging of offshore sand and gravel deposits can disturb the regeneration of beaches during the summer months. It argues that if beaches become severely eroded due to offshore dredging, coastal defences and particularly sand cliffs, sand dunes, salt marshes and shingle beaches can be progressively damaged, producing coastal erosion.

MARINET also points out—I hope that the Minister will deal with this issue—that Holland and Belgium do not allow the dredging of sand and gravel deposits within 25 km of their shoreline or in coastal waters whose depth is less than 20 metres. A question that my constituents have is why, if those rules are suitable in those countries, they are not suitable for the United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister can explain that.

The British Marine Aggregate Producers Association points to the fact that marine aggregate is playing a role in replenishing Britain’s beaches in some places. That raises another question in my area. If that sand replenishment is suitable along parts of Lincolnshire, where I understand that it happens, why is it not appropriate for the east Yorkshire coast? That is another issue for the Minister to deal with.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. I had a similar debate some time ago. Presumably he will get exactly the same answers. With regard to beach replenishment, does he not find it perverse that we are paying a company to bring ashore sand that will probably go back into the sea to fill up the trench that was scoured out to bring the sand in originally?

That is an interesting point and one often made to me by my constituents. I am not entirely sure that it is true. Certainly Holland, which has very much an evidence-based approach, is relying more and more on replenishment. I understand that it conducts—as we do—a full analysis of the impact before it dredges. It then examines what happens after the dredging and looks at the hole. That is a hotly disputed issue between MARINET and the dredging companies, which is why I hope that the Minister will be able to help us today. In Holland, they rely on that analysis. If the hole does not fill in and if the aggregate is taken from an area that is not part of the immediate beach replenishment system or part of that sediment that comes down the coast—in our case, it comes southwards—it is not obvious how taking it from elsewhere would have an impact. However, that is a hotly disputed issue.

A key point that I want to make today is to ask the Government to recognise the strength of feeling, doubt and scepticism among our constituents and to ensure that their minds can be put at rest if their fears are unfounded, or further to investigate if those fears have a better basis.

The aggregate producers association points out that dredging often occurs large distances offshore—8 km or more—and that permission would not be given if the experts felt that there was the slightest threat to natural processes. I know that that makes many of my constituents guffaw, but there is a system in place. It certainly has not been obvious to me, from looking at the evidence and examining it, that dredging relict deposits—deposits that are not part of a dynamic coastal system, but have sat dormant for thousands of years off the coast—has had an impact on the coast itself. It certainly does not remove sediment from the coastal system, because that relict deposit has never played a part in that coastal sediment system. I am yet to be persuaded that there is a problem from such dredging, which is the sort of dredging that happens off my constituency’s coast in East Yorkshire.

However, examples are often cited—including Hallsands, the proposed dredging off the coast of Filey a few years ago and others—where the analysis showed that dredging in certain places would have an impact on the sediment that would be available to go on the beaches of the area. It is a matter of looking at each issue in turn.

The marine dredging operations for sand and gravel in the UK are closely controlled and monitored by the Crown Estate, which owns the seabed out to the territorial limit, and the Marine and Fisheries Agency, which is a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs agency. Current regulations require all applications for a dredging licence to be accompanied with a full environmental impact assessment. That should be supported by a coastal impact study that considers whether the proposed dredging is far enough offshore for there to be no beach draw-down into the deepened area. They look at whether the proposed dredging would interrupt the natural supply of materials to beaches through tides and currents, the likely effects on bars and banks, which provide protection to the coast, and the likely changes to the height of waves passing over dredged areas. Those studies, therefore, look at the key issues and concerns that my constituents raise with me.

The Marine and Fisheries Agency says that it would refuse licenses where there was an unacceptable impact on coastal erosion, flood risk management or the environment in general. However, MARINET points out that little monitoring of the impact of dredging on fisheries and marine biological communities, or on shorelines and coastal defences, takes place during the lifetime or after the expiry of the licence. I would be interested to hear from the Minister on that. What happens during the lifetime of the licence and afterwards? That, MARINET quite rightly says, makes it very difficult to know whether to suspend a licence mid-term, if it is indeed true.

From the evidence I have reviewed, there is little to suggest that marine aggregate dredging is implicated in coastal erosion on the east coast. The general conclusion seems to be that material required to support existing shorelines is delivered from elsewhere along the coast—not offshore. Therefore, an offshore intervention is unlikely to interrupt that supply. I understand from the Environment Agency that since 2002 more than £9 million has been invested in research associated with marine aggregate extraction. Of course, not all of that will relate to the effect on coastal erosion.

At a public meeting held in March in Holderness in my constituency, which I convened, dredging industry representatives and Professor Mike Elliot of the university of Hull agreed that more research could only be of assistance. I put that to the Minister. While the evidence overall does not suggest that current dredging is having an impact on the East Riding coast, we must recognise that each case is different. Professor Elliot contacted me before this debate and said, “The point being missed at the moment is that each case is different. Dredging of North sea glacial deposits is different from the sand extraction just offshore for beach nourishment. There is the need for a dispassionate and fully objective look at this topic using evidence from worldwide.” That is a key message for the Minister to look again and ensure that coastal communities feel part of that and have access to it.

While the uncertainty attached to currently used predictive models is not fully recognised, those most at risk will always be tempted to think that the research does not sufficiently explain the situation in their area. To have their home at risk from natural forces is bad enough, but people feel particular injustice if their homes and communities—their most treasured and valuable assets—are seen to be put at risk by entirely avoidable commercial activities. What assurance can the Minister give that dredging off the east coast of England is not having a detrimental effect? Will he consider further research and what confidence does he have in our understanding of the physical impacts of aggregate dredging?

I want to give time to the Minister to reply, but before I finish I would like to address the topic of what can be done to help people who lose their homes to the sea. I congratulate Councillors Jane Evison and Jonathan Owen of East Riding of Yorkshire council for working so hard on this subject, and I thank the Minister and his predecessors for being so agreeable to meeting representatives from the East Riding to hear the case being put.

We have repeatedly asked for help for people who invest their last pennies—they often struggle to get a mortgage, as one might understand, if they buy a home near the sea. They put all they have into a home, but erosion often accelerates beyond the norm. Sometimes there are periods in which erosion is slower than normal, and then there are periods of greater pace and people lose their home. On top of losing everything they have ever saved and had in the home, they are forced to pay the cost of demolition to boot. I do not believe that a perverse incentive would be created if society as a whole covered the cost of demolition for the tiny number of people to whom this happens. I hope that the Minister can share good news with us on that front today.

We have seen recently the devastation that flooding can cause to people. In 2007, my constituency was one of the worst affected in the country; every town and almost every village in it was affected by flooding. If the Minister provides reassurance that the threat of coastal erosion is not being speeded up by avoidable activities, that will be welcome. Also, will he promise the people in my constituency and elsewhere who live with the risk of coastal erosion that the Government are sympathetic to their plight?

I have laid out the case that I wanted to put to the Minister. I hope he can respond positively on the issues of additional research and communication with coastal dwellers so that they have better understanding and confidence that decisions have been taken in their interest, not in a commercial or tax-gathering interest. I also hope that people who lose their homes to coastal erosion will be supported.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for raising an important issue and for securing this debate, which offers me the opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to coastal management—specifically, how we manage the licensing of marine dredging to ensure that it does not adversely affect the coastline.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his approach to the issue. We recognise the strength of feeling among his constituents and others, and I acknowledge his commendably rational approach in wanting to base his judgments, and wanting to see the Government base their judgments, on evidence and rational decision making. We fully appreciate that coastal erosion is a significant problem for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, as it is for other coastal communities who live in vulnerable areas. The Holderness coastline is notoriously susceptible to erosion. The process of erosion along the Holderness cliffs is not new; it has been occurring since the end of the last ice age. Over the past 1,000 years, the Holderness coast has retreated by about 2 km, causing the loss of 26 villages listed in the Domesday survey of 1086.

The English coastline has always been subject to continuous weathering from natural processes. The effects of those processes vary considerably from one part of the coastline to another, depending on the geological nature of the coast, the durability of exposed rocks and materials, and the waves, tides and storm surges to which they are exposed. As we all know, we are increasingly exposed to traumatic events such as storm surges and other incidents. The average rate of coastal change varies from place to place, from close to 0 metres a year in some locations to as much as 1.8 metres in others, although as the hon. Gentleman said, there are other areas where ingress has been much more significant, including along parts of the Holderness coast.

The latest science on climate change tells us that the risk of coastal erosion and flooding will increase over the next 100 years. I do not think that there is any doubt of that in the mainstream of evidence and scientific opinion. That estimate was confirmed by the new climate projections that we launched in June, which show the reality of a changing climate for the UK. We must both reduce our emissions and adapt to the inevitable changes in our climate. I will come to that adaptation in a moment, because the hon. Gentleman made an important point about how we can adapt in coastal areas. It is therefore all the more important to have up-to-date shoreline management plans. That underlines why now, more than ever, coastal areas need to be managed in an integrated and joined-up way.

For the Government’s part, we are committed to protecting people and property, both inland and on the coast, where it is sustainable to do so. We are investing record levels of taxpayers’ money and need to ensure that we continue to use it to best effect. For example, we have more than doubled spending in cash terms on flood and coastal erosion risk management, to £715 million in 2009-10. Our investment between 2008 and 2011 will total £2.15 billion.

However, there is always an element of frankness to this discussion: there will be some locations where building new defence structures, or maintaining existing ones, is just not viable. That is why the Government consulted over the summer on how communities can start preparing for and managing coastal change. Plans include a new fund to support community-level adaptation and proposals to enable local authorities to support homeowners who lose a property to erosion with demolition and moving costs. I will come to the announcements made today by my Department, but to clarify things for the hon. Gentleman I should say that we will pursue the issue of demolition costs in parallel with the announcements made today, rather than as part of the pathfinder projects.

I am pleased to confirm that today the Secretary of State announced the selection of 15 coastal change pathfinders. The projects will be driven by local authorities. When I have gone around the coast, I have tried to put the ask down to the local level and say, “Come forward with your ideas.” That has been the Department’s approach, rather than a man in Whitehall saying, “This is what will best suit you.”

The pathfinders are local authorities from around the coast that have been awarded a total of about £11 million to road-test new and innovative approaches to supporting communities in planning for and managing adaptation to coastal change. The East Riding of Yorkshire council is one of the pathfinders, and will receive more than £1 million to explore and test ideas for adaptation on the Holderness coast. The specific question that we face today is whether, in addition to natural processes, the extraction of minerals through marine dredging is having an effect on coastal erosion.

I am delighted that the East Riding has been selected as a pathfinder. I put it to the Minister that the places affected include the community of Aldbrough, where the road will be closed shortly, leaving residents, many of them elderly, trapped in their homes without proper access and dependent on the good will of neighbouring landowners to find a solution. As it will give the local authority greater tools to look after people and ensure that they have access, the funding will be welcome.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. To add a little flesh to the bone, I should say that East Riding district council will receive just over £1.2 million to provide practical guidance and support, helping communities through the transition associated with coastal change, including piloting a buy-to-let approach to support adaptation in vulnerable communities and developing the council’s existing roll-back policy.

I note in passing that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), who has a great constituency, is here today. Great Yarmouth borough council will also be part of pathfinder projects, receiving close to £300,000 for a joint project with the community of Scratby; I have visited that important community with my hon. Friend. The purpose is to explore and test different approaches to adaptation, such as roll-back and business-support programmes. Different types of innovation are coming forward from different local authorities. There is a wide range of measures and hon. Members will be interested because hopefully some of them will provide some of the tools for how we go forward.

I turn to the specific question of marine dredging and the effect that it may or may not be having on coastal erosion. I state at the outset that marine minerals are an important source of construction materials, meeting approximately 20 per cent. of the sand and gravel needs in England and Wales and amounting to between 17 million and 27 million tonnes per annum over the past 25 years. The levels of extraction vary between regions, depending on the availability of suitable material and the levels of demand.

The main extraction sites are located off the east and south coasts of England. The Government’s stated policy is to see the continued use of marine-dredged sand and gravel to the extent that that remains consistent with the principles of sustainable development. Policy is set out in Government guidance notes, in particular Marine Mineral Guidance 1, which—it is worth pointing out—includes a precautionary approach in consideration of applications for marine minerals dredging.

I shall now give some detail. New permissions for the extraction of marine minerals will be granted only where we are satisfied that all environmental issues, including coastal impacts, have been satisfactorily resolved. Furthermore, it is Government policy that all applications for dredging permissions in previously undredged areas require an environmental impact assessment.

We do not contest the fact that poorly managed aggregate extraction from the marine environment could cause a range of physical impacts, which may ultimately contribute to coastal erosion. That is why all marine mineral dredging applications are required to assess by way of a coastal impact study the physical effects of the proposed operation and its implications for erosion. A permission to dredge will be issued only if the regulator, the Marine and Fisheries Agency—soon to become the Marine Management Organisation—and its advisors, consultees and major stakeholders, are content that the proposed dredging is environmentally acceptable.

In all cases, conservative modelling and assessments of environmental impacts are undertaken and further supported through routine monitoring. I have copious details, and I will be happy to write to the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness to explain them and the continual assessment that goes on, such as routine monitoring of the dredger’s location and the volume of aggregate extracted, to ensure that any unforeseen impacts can be identified and mitigated. Additional monitoring of the sea bed allows direct assessment of the impact of dredge on the sediment transport environment and, hence, the impact on the shoreline. If at any time dredging activities are shown potentially to be causing coastal erosion, permission will immediately be withdrawn.

There has been a significant amount of research into the effects of marine aggregates dredging in general and into the question of coastal impacts in particular. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I have no doubt that the research will continue. We welcome that.

Does the Minister agree that we should take particular care to monitor the impact of dredging when passing the Montgomery, a munitions ship sunk in the Thames estuary near to where the dredging will take place? If that ship were to move and spill its munitions, or even explode, it would cause widespread devastation.

That is a useful intervention and we need a proper precautionary approach to all assessments of the impact of dredging, in all parts of the UK, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman alludes.

We are not aware of any scientific evidence that marine minerals dredging, as controlled by the Government since 1968, has had any effect on the coast or significantly affected the marine environment. Modelling and field studies on the impact of individual offshore dredging licences, and their cumulative impacts, have concluded that UK offshore dredging has not contributed to coastal erosion.

I should be happy to write to the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, and other hon. Members who have attended the debate, with further details and references to the principal points of research, if that is of help. I recognise that the issue is complex and that there is still a job to be done to reassure communities with more independent, objective and simple advice, set out in lay persons’ terms.

MARINET, which is part of Friends of the Earth, an organisation much of whose work I applaud, takes the strong view, which it propagates on its website, that dredging has impacts that are not properly understood. It cites the Sandpit report and others to argue that there is evidence for those effects. What can the Minister do to engage with MARINET? As long as it says that the Government are wrong and are being led more by money than by scientific considerations, there will be people threatened by coastal erosion who will be afraid that the Government are not doing the right thing.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that prompt, because I have met MARINET representatives regularly about a range of issues to do with the marine environment. Its main concerns include the impact on the marine environment as well as coastal erosion.

We accept that there will be an impact on fauna from offshore dredging. However, before dredging permission is granted, extensive surveys are carried out and they continue for the life of the licence. Surveys are also carried out in certain areas to determine the impact of dredging on shell fisheries, for example. It is worth saying that dredging can be halted, or shifted to another dredge zone in the area, should one of the monitoring reports demonstrate that the dredging is having an unacceptable impact on the flora and fauna or the fishing grounds.

I know that MARINET and others are often understandably concerned about recovery. Dredging areas are often split into smaller zones, one or two of which are dredged at a time, allowing for recovery of the sea bed. The dredging companies must obtain the approval of the Government before moving to a new active dredging zone. When a new dredging area is licensed, dredging companies will often relinquish an older dredging area of a similar size. There are ways, therefore, in which we can alleviate some of the concerns of MARINET.

I want briefly to touch on some of the additional points that were raised. I hope that I made it clear to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that we want the appropriate assessments before, during and after the process to be carried out properly, so that everywhere dredging takes place it is properly determined that it is appropriate to proceed.

The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness raised the contrast with Holland, and the reason for its different approach, and it is true that the approach is different there. I am sorry if I am repeating myself, but our approach involves the need to ensure that dredging, at whatever depth it happens—we do not arbitrarily set different depth levels—is driven by proper environmental impact assessments and continual monitoring. We do not distinguish between levels; we say that on all levels there should be an assessment of whether it is appropriate to go on. We do not adopt different approaches in different regions of the UK; what happens is localised to each individual circumstance, within broad parameters.

To conclude, I have no doubt that parts of the British coastline are under threat, and that the effects of climate change will only increase those pressures on coastal communities. As I have suggested, the Government will continue to respond and engage appropriately. We need to ensure that in doing so we target the right measures and resist the temptation sometimes to use dredging as a scapegoat for processes that can be natural.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.