House of Commons
Thursday 10 December 2009
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Leeds City Council Bill
Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.
Bill to be considered on Thursday 7 January.
Reading Borough Council Bill
Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.
Bill to be considered on Thursday 7 January.
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Nuclear Power Station (Bradwell)
The Government requested and received comments from Natural England—formerly English Nature—on the appraisal of sustainability and habitats regulations assessment reports on the site at Bradwell, which was nominated in the Government’s strategic siting assessment process.
I thank the Minister for his response but, even though I am an enthusiast for new nuclear power stations, may I draw his attention to the serious concern expressed to me, particularly by local fishermen and oystermen, that the volume of the outfall from a new power station is likely to be four times greater than that from the previous power station, thus causing serious continuing damage to the ecology of the Blackwater estuary? Can he assure me that that will be addressed, perhaps by ensuring that the intake and outfalls will be sufficiently far away?
The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in representing the interests of local fishermen and people who are concerned about the impacts on the environment. I can confirm that Natural England’s response suggested that there was insufficient evidence that a development at Bradwell could have no adverse impacts on the Natura 2000 sites and associated features. The Government took that on board during the assessment, and the conclusions in the habitats regulations assessment reflect that. Natural England has suggested that further assessment is needed, not least in relation to climate change and rising sea levels, of which he will be aware. I can assure him that I will keep a close eye on the matter, as will Natural England, to ensure that the pertinent factors he raises are taken into account.
Climate Change (Forestry)
The Government welcome the Read report, which sets out clearly how forestry in the UK can contribute to tackling climate change. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Forestry Commission are considering the report in detail and we will use its findings to develop our policy. We will outline next steps in DEFRA’s climate change plan in the spring.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to increase tree planting in this country by 40 per cent., given the climatic change problems facing us? What consultations will he engage in with various organisations before reaching a decision on the matter?
The Read report has only just been published. I spoke at an event for its launch, where many of the people who would express a view on the subject were present. I agree that we should seek to achieve the objective that my hon. Friend mentions, not least because the Read report points out that if we managed to achieve it, that would contribute a significant proportion of the reduction in CO2 emissions that this nation needs to achieve by 2050.
North Wiltshire and Wiltshire more widely boast some of the most ancient and natural woodlands anywhere in England, in Bradon forest, Savernake and elsewhere. However, large parts of our oak population are threatened by oak decline syndrome, and a number of similar pathogens threaten our ancient woodlands. What does the Secretary of State intend to do about that?
We have a research programme that is examining a number of the diseases that have emerged, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Their emergence may indeed be a consequence of climate change. We have a very big programme examining phytophthora and I was able to see some of that work in a visit to the south-west in August. I am happy to write to him to provide more information about the specific issue that he has raised.
The report is very welcome. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Welsh Assembly Government about what Wales could contribute to increasing woodland cover to 16 per cent.?
I will certainly have discussions with all those who could contribute to ensuring that we achieve that objective. I should point out to the House that, in the 90 years since the establishment of the Forestry Commission, there has been a significant increase in forest and woodland cover in the country, after our having got to the point where we had chopped down almost all the trees that we had.
The Forestry Commission report states that, in the next 10 years, the capacity of the UK’s forests to absorb carbon could be reduced by up to 70 per cent. Will the Secretary of State therefore look to the capacity of Britain’s uplands as a complementary source of carbon sequestration? Given that the average hill farm income last year was just £5,000, does he acknowledge that he must act quickly to restructure farm payments, to ensure that the upland stewards of our carbon sinks are fairly rewarded and are kept in business?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have changed the system. We will introduce the uplands entry level scheme, which we consulted on widely and which was welcomed at the time. The truth is that those who farm and those who manage the land have a real opportunity here not only to contribute to sustainability and to the management of the landscape, but to reduce carbon emissions both through peat bogs—the national parks want to play a role in that—and by planting trees where we can to soak up carbon.
I accept that the report is just out, but does my right hon. Friend agree that forestry has the potential to make a highly significant contribution to our emissions reduction targets? Indeed, with an increase of 4 per cent. in woodland cover over the next 40 years, we could, by the 2050s, achieve a reduction equivalent to 10 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions.
I do indeed agree with my right hon. Friend. Trees are wonderful carbon-eating machines.
Carbon Footprint (Copenhagen Summit)
I and three officials from DEFRA will attend the Copenhagen climate change summit, where we will push for an ambitious agreement on forests and the protection of our oceans. The CO2 footprint of these flights will be 1.54 tonnes. We will offset that by buying certified emission reduction credits, as we do for all flights.
Trees are very good “carbon-eating machines”. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that 202,500 trees will have to be planted just to cover the CO2 emissions of the Copenhagen jamboree?
I do not regard the Copenhagen summit as a jamboree. I am sorry that some Opposition Members seem to think that there is not a problem with climate change. I suspect that that is an embarrassment to those on their Front Bench. Frankly, I cannot think of a more important meeting, because the consequence of failing to get an agreement would be very serious for our planet, for our climate and for biodiversity.
Given the importance of getting a deal on carbon emissions at Copenhagen, DEFRA should be leading from the front. Eighteen months ago, the Government announced a new body, the centre of expertise in sustainable procurement—a quango within a quango—to assist, among other things, in cutting emissions from the Government’s own estate. We now know that the Government estate will miss its 2010-11 carbon targets by some margin. Is the Secretary of State, who leads on sustainability issues in the Government, embarrassed by that fact, and if so, what is he going to do about it?
In 2007-08, across the Government office estate, we achieved a 6.3 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions. In the DEFRA office estate, we have already achieved the 2010-11 target of a 12.5 per cent. reduction against the 1999-2000 figures.
This summer, DEFRA’s grant-aided delivery partner, Keep Britain Tidy, carried out a major vehicle litter awareness campaign that resulted in a 25 per cent. reduction in litter in locations monitored by local authorities throughout England. DEFRA continues to work alongside the Highways Agency and local authorities in keeping the roads under their responsibility clear of litter.
The most recent local environmental quality survey states that litter on verges and landscaping alongside rural roads is now a significant problem. When does the Minister intend to introduce measures to give local authorities greater powers to fine registered vehicle keepers or other responsible people when litter is thrown from vehicles, especially fast-food detritus, which is particularly obnoxious?
Those who litter from vehicles are subject to the same laws that apply to anybody else on the street. Although it can be difficult to identify an offender, especially in a vehicle moving at speed, 65 fixed penalty notices were issued during a recent vehicle litter campaign. The Government are examining the matter very closely and if a compelling case can be made, legislation might be forthcoming. We will certainly give that serious consideration.
In the light of the fact that surveys done in my own city, Belfast, show that the people who are responsible for most littering are those who eat fast food, smokers, the 18-to-35 age group and those who chew gum, is there a need to target initiatives to reach people who are particularly culpable?
The most important challenge is changing behaviour. DEFRA provides a grant funding of £25 million a year to Keep Britain Tidy, and about £1.2 million each year goes specifically towards behaviour-changing campaigns, which are clearly targeted, as appropriate. That has raised awareness of traffic litter, resulting in a 25 per cent. reduction in litter from vehicles.
A significant amount of the litter on our streets, especially that thrown from cars, is cigarette material, particularly butts. What is the Department doing to get tough on the cigarette manufacturers? It is about time that they put something forward for clearing up the mess to which they contribute.
Obviously, we have discussions with a wide range of people who manufacture items that contribute to litter. In truth, it comes back to behaviour change. Education, above all else, is what changes behaviour, and behaviour change is needed to deal with litter.
There does not seem to be much evidence of behaviour change. Will the Minister applaud the work on that aspect of Bill Bryson and the Campaign to Protect Rural England? Roadside and pavement litter especially are made up of cigarette butts and chewing gum, but as there is little evidence of behaviour change, what more can the Government do? What is the take-up of the Minister’s grants?
There is keen take-up of the grants. A number of local authorities have taken up various offers of grants to work towards reducing litter. The Government have made important powers available to local authorities, if they wish to use them. When those powers are applied, they have a good record of working effectively.
This is a very popular question this morning. I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Food Standards Agency to ensure that we have tighter, clearer and more accurate origin labelling.
Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose are all backing our honest food campaign to stop imported food, which is often produced under lower welfare standards than our own, from being passed off as British food. Why cannot the Government do more to help British consumers and farmers in that regard?
The Government have been working on this for some time. We welcome the Opposition’s honest food campaign—it would be churlish not to say that it is a good initiative. The Food Standards Agency issued new guidance in 2008. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), started a campaign in October last year with, I believe, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. We are working in Europe to try to ensure that food information regulations are as tight as possible, although they will not come in for perhaps another two or three years. We are supporting supermarkets that are labelling food more clearly, so that consumers can buy with greater confidence.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many of us have been campaigning on this issue for many years? Will he help us on veal, especially? Veal is a very good thing to eat—the animals are incinerated if they are not eaten—but we must ensure that people eat English or British veal, rather than imported veal, which comes from animals that have much poorer lives than our own animals.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who points out that the Government have been working on this for some time. Veal is one of the products whose labelling ought to be clearer under regulations. I hope that he and the whole House are aware that the EU protected food celebration takes place this afternoon at New Covent Garden; we will be launching Cornish sardines as the 40th UK food to achieve that status. I hope that Opposition Front Benchers will join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me at the celebration this afternoon, because those products are 40 of the best in Britain and are getting worldwide acclaim because of the protected name status, which we support vigorously.
Does the Minister accept that clear, honest food labelling is important not just for reasons of being straight with consumers, but because accurate information allows consumers to send a clear message to food producers about what they want to buy and what those producers should produce, which could allow his Department to reduce some of the burden of red tape and regulation on food producers?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are encouraging retailers to mark and label countries of origin more clearly. I chaired the latest meeting of the pig meat taskforce earlier this week. We have reached a collective agreement—it ought to be finalised by 1 February—on pig meat, which has suffered because many foreign goods that are imported are claimed to be British bacon or British pork pies. I have no doubt that the agreement and new regulations will be launched on 1 February.
Following my Adjournment debate last week about the labelling of goods from Israeli settlements in the west bank, has the Minister finalised the voluntary guidance that is due to be published for British retailers?
I can advise my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in the plight of the Palestinian people, as do many of us in the House, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has today laid a written ministerial statement before the House, announcing that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has issued guidance to retailers who wish to respond to consumer demand for greater clarity on the origins of produce from the Palestinian occupied territories. My hon. Friend will be able to obtain that guidance and download it from the DEFRA website.
I spoke yesterday to Peter Thornton, owner of the Cumberland and Westmorland Sausage Co., who like me is appalled that sausages can be processed in this country from imported meat and then labelled as British, even when the animals have been reared under conditions that would be illegal in this country. Does the Minister agree that one of the supermarkets ombudsman’s powers should be to enforce both the honest labelling of food and humane animal welfare standards for imported food to match the excellent standards in British farming?
There is clearly a consensus in the House that country of origin labelling should be tighter. I think that the Liberal Democrat spokesman is trying to tease from me what the supermarkets ombudsman should or should not do when he knows that we have yet to announce the conclusions on the position of an ombudsman. That might very well be one area in which such an ombudsman, were one to come about, would take an interest.
My hon. Friend should recognise not only the importance of country of origin labelling and welfare standards, but the importance of ensuring that when people purchase goods they know how many food miles they have travelled to reach this country, and the importance of recognising the quality of UK farming.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. British farmers are spending more on higher welfare standards and they want to be supported in that by British retailers. We believe that the British consumer wants to support them and that we should ensure that country of origin labelling is clearer, so that British farming gets the support it deserves.
When meat can be imported and then labelled as British, it misleads consumers and lets down our farmers. The Secretary of State says that he wants that practice stamped out. In January he said that he was pressing strongly in Europe, and in June he told this House that he was “pushing in Europe”. The Minister has just repeated that the Government are working in Europe, so why in European Union negotiations this year did the Government oppose mandatory country of origin labelling?
I do not think that that is the case. The hon. Gentleman knows that competency in those matters rests with the European Union. The Italians have already been taken to task for trying to introduce a compulsory labelling system in Italy, and Ireland and Malta have already been told that that is not possible in their countries, either. We are negotiating in Europe to try to get the best deal possible, which, I have to say, is not the same position as that of the Opposition.
I have here the minutes of the European Council’s working party on foodstuffs, dated 31 July. Let me tell the Minister what they record: the Italians, the French and nine other member states supported mandatory country of origin labelling; the UK opposed it. We knew that Ministers had failed to deliver honest labelling, but now we know that they actually argued against it. Is not it a disgrace that, for months, this Government have made cynical promises on food labelling which they have not had the slightest intention of keeping?
This is a complex issue, and the position that the hon. Gentleman describes is not that of the Government. We are doing all we can to get more accurate country of origin labelling, and we are working to ensure that the food information regulations, when they are introduced, are as tight as they possibly can be.
My Department is working with the Inland Waterways Advisory Council and the waterways authorities to establish and to quantify the wide range of goods and services delivered by inland waterways. That will build on work undertaken by my Department and IWAC to evaluate those benefits. British Waterways’ research estimates that its canals alone deliver public benefits of some £500 million per annum and support more than 20,000 jobs in local economies throughout the country.
I congratulate the Minister on winning the support of the Treasury for ways to maintain the integrity of our invaluable canal network and expand their capacity. Does he agree that, for the future, a third sector model—a sort of National Trust for the canals—would be the best way to harness public enthusiasm for the canals with environmental and economic benefit and the stability that has been achieved in recent years?
Indeed. I pay reciprocal tribute to my right hon. Friend and other hon. Friends who are so assiduous in keeping an eye on the future of British Waterways because of the wide benefits involved, and to the Treasury, which listened to the arguments and responded to them. The third sector model has featured in the Government’s announcement, and British Waterways sees the potential for this alongside the exploitation of its property portfolio. It is a fascinating way forward designed to tap into the good will towards the waterways around the country, and I am sure that we will explore it further.
The Minister will know from the reports that the Select Committee has done on our canal network of the importance of the property portfolio in contributing income to maintain the good progress that has been made on the historical infrastructure of the canal network. What assurances can he give me that that property portfolio will not in any way be degraded under potential new arrangements and put at risk the income needed to maintain the historical infrastructure of our canal system?
The real turnaround in the waterways has been to do with the success of the exploitation of the property portfolio under the British Waterways model, and we acknowledge that the third sector model referred to by my right hon. Friend would indeed necessitate the use of that property portfolio. It is also to do with the record investment that this Government have put in, with £800 million in grants over the past decade alone. The current state of our waterways and their maintenance, improvement and restoration, is a tribute to the work of British Waterways but also, I have to say, to the importance that this Government have placed on them.
Marine Conservation Zones
The first marine conservation zones will be established on 12 January 2010, when the two existing marine nature reserves around Lundy and Skomer automatically become MCZs. Advice on potential sites from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee is due by autumn 2011. The Secretary of State will then consult on and designate sites in 2012. MCZs, together with other types of sites, will form an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas.
I welcome the creation of MCZs, with their rounded approach to conservation and the protection of marine life and wildlife. Can the Minister tell me whether the Dee estuary, which is already an important environmental site and a special area of conservation, will be a prime site to be designated?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the fact that, today, part of the Dee estuary—one of six sites of community importance in the UK—will be formally designated as a special area of conservation by the Secretary of State. I have written to other hon. Members who will have designations in their areas announced today. The Irish sea conservation zones regional project will consider the conservation potential of various parts of its area, including the River Dee. If there are parts of the Dee that have conservation potential—we already know from designations that there are—that are not already protected by other means, then they will indeed be considered.
Single Payment Scheme
Payment reductions have been made in respect of some 7,748 claims under the 2008 single payment scheme. That represents 7.3 per cent. of the claimant population of 106,500.
I thank the Minister for that response. The minimum penalty for non-compliance is now 3 per cent. of the total single farm payment for any farmer. One of the most common triggers for a penalty is failure to notify animal movements within three days. That three-day limit is imposed by DEFRA, yet the EU regulation allows up to seven days. Why is the UK gold-plating the European regulations to the disadvantage of our farmers? Why cannot DEFRA allow the EU norm of seven days for notification of animal movements?
As the hon. Gentleman indicates, penalties are imposed for a variety of different reasons. These rules are laid down primarily by EU legislation, and the Rural Payments Agency does not have real discretion in applying them. We have recently made some improvements to the scheme relating to the removal of set-aside and the 10-month rule, and we will obviously continue to do what we can to make the system as beneficial to British farmers as we can.
Ministers have announced that 80 per cent. of payments under the single payment scheme have been made to farmers, but given that we have estimated overpayments of more than £20 million and underpayments of more than £38 million in the scheme last year, what guarantees can the Minister give farmers that 2009 payments will be accurate?
It is a little churlish of the shadow Secretary of State not to welcome the once again improved performance of the Rural Payments Agency. It has been improving year on year, and this year it managed to pay out £1.3 billion, which is almost twice as much as last year, two weeks earlier than last year to four times as many farmers. From our point of view, that should be complimented and lauded.
Although we do not have official figures on the number of dairy farmers, it is believed that the number of dairy farms in England fell by about 5 per cent. between 2008 and 2009. The source of that figure is the cattle tracing system. The trend in UK dairy production is towards fewer, larger herds.
The Minister will know that there has been a steep decline over the past 10 years. On Saturday, I was at the Gisburn auction marts to present some certificates to young farmers, who were enthusiastically showing their livestock. Clearly, however, enthusiasm will not be enough to secure the future viability of dairy farming in this country, so what sustainable future can he offer young entrants into dairy farming in the UK?
I think the hon. Gentleman knows that, notwithstanding the concern and anxiety of young farmers coming into the industry, the British dairy sector is fundamentally sound and is expected to do very well over the medium to long term, due to efficiency improvements, innovation and investment in new products. We are much better placed than most of our European competitors, and we will do all we can in Europe and the UK to ensure that we support the British dairy industry.
I wonder whether I could confirm what the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said about dairy farming. My constituency is similar to his—not quite as beautiful, but almost—and for the past two years I have been the president of the Keighley and district agricultural show. I have been made painfully aware of the feelings of many farmers, and I am not sure whether the Minister is aware of how deep those feelings go. Not just they but their children are being forced out of the industry, because there is not a wage to be earned.
Obviously, I commend my hon. Friend for the position that she holds locally. Notwithstanding the reduction in the number of dairy farmers, the volume produced is not far short of where we were 10 years ago—13 billion litres rather than 14 billion—and we are well within quota. I reinforce the point that the UK dairy sector is much better placed than those elsewhere, and the recent trends in prices across the world demonstrate a keen rise in recent months. We want that to continue, because the dairy industry is very important to UK agriculture, making up 18 per cent. of the whole industry.
A few weeks ago, the awful announcement of Corus closing on Teesside triggered an immediate and proper response and financial intervention from Government. The dairy industry is dying on its feet. The milk price today is lower than the production price, and that cannot be sustained. Will the ombudsman—ombudsperson in the Minister’s language—have anything to do with milk prices when examining the supermarkets’ actions?
Obviously, if an ombudsman is introduced, it will very much be up to him or her to determine which issues to consider most closely. Ultimately, we believe that markets determine prices. I reiterate that the UK dairy industry is in a much better position than most of our EU competitors. A high-level group has been set up by the European Agriculture Council to examine the problems of the dairy sector, which are not exclusively UK problems and are much more serious in other member states. It is examining the situation to see what assistance can be given to dairy across Europe.
Food Production (Research)
The Government invest £254 million a year in food and farming research in England and Wales, and £50 million through Department for International Development research overseas. That covers sustainable farming—reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to climate change and protecting against pests and diseases—and tackling food waste.
My right hon. Friend mentioned climate change. Obviously, one of the enormous challenges to agricultural systems around the globe is the capacity of climate change to change agriculture totally. Are we satisfied that research in the UK will ensure security of food supply from our domestic producers, come what may with climate change?
Adapting to climate change is, as my hon. Friend indicates, an important task for the farming industry, and a significant proportion of the research that we are funding looks at that. To take a practical example, some very good research is being done at East Malling Research into the ability to produce crops using less water, which will benefit horticulture growers in the country.
What will be the impact on food production of the decision to discontinue weed cutting in the lower Avon valley? Is the Secretary of State prepared to meet a delegation of farmers to review the matter?
As always, I would be very happy to meet a delegation with the hon. Gentleman.
As I said earlier, I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Food Standards Agency to ensure that we have tighter, clearer and more accurate origin labelling. I have had no discussions with the devolved Administrations.
The labelling arrangements as they stand facilitate not only the potential deception of consumers, but the theft of good will built up by generations of Welsh farmers who produce, for example, Welsh lamb. Does the Minister understand how dismayed those farmers will be when they hear of his rather lame response to the points put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert)—that this Government have stood in the way of attempts to change those labelling regulations?
No—as I said a moment ago, we are doing everything we can to protect British produce. I also mentioned that we are celebrating Cornish sardines becoming an EU-protected food name later today. There are 39 other products, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will come to New Covent Garden to see them and celebrate with us.
Economic Downturn (Rural Economy)
While the economic downturn is having an impact in both urban and rural areas, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs analysis of data from other Government Departments and the regional development agencies suggests that, when compared with the economy in urban areas, the picture in rural England so far has been more positive.
Is the Minister aware that some 200,000 people living in rural areas do not have bank accounts; that mainstream banking facilities in rural areas are closing; that pubs, post offices and schools are closing; and that in some areas, village halls are closing because they cannot be maintained? Will the Minister and his Department undertake a review of the position of rural areas as a result of what has been happening recently, not least the recession?
That is a very important issue, as I know from my own constituency. In June 2009, the Department for Work and Pensions, which is the lead Department for financial inclusion, and the Commission for Rural Communities jointly published a report on financial inclusion in rural areas, “Rural Money Matters”, which found that rural areas did not appear to fare worse than urban areas, although it suggested that analysis on a smaller scale would be likely to identify smaller pockets of significant hardship. I am certainly concerned to keep an eye on that.
The most recent three-month report available is for the end of August 2009. Between 1 June and 31 August, 5,202 cattle were slaughtered in England for bovine TB control purposes. Figures are provisional and subject to change as more data become available.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the devastating impact that the slaughter of herds has not only on the farmer’s business, but on the farmer and his or her family—it completely destroys their entire life. Furthermore, there are questions about the reliability of the TB tests. How much does the slaughter policy cost and what is the long-term policy, because we cannot just go on slaughtering more and more cattle when it obviously is not working?
Order. One answer will do.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We are sensitive to the tragic impacts on farms, families, regions and areas when TB strikes. The Secretary of State set up the TB eradication group last November. It has met 19 times and has already produced a report that recommended a raft of initiatives to try to deal with this. The problem will only be eradicated in the medium to long term, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department is doing as much as it can to support the group.
Mushroom Composting (Emissions)
Mushroom compost-making plants such as that in my hon. Friend’s constituency require a permit under the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2007 and local authorities are responsible for enforcing compliance. DEFRA also issues statutory guidance on best available techniques in order to minimise air emissions, including odour.
As well as the loss of quality of life in the surrounding houses from the stink from mushroom composting, is the Minister aware of emerging evidence of problems with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a killer disease, caused by people breathing in the spores? Is it not time that action were taken to close down Tunnel Tech in my constituency?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his hard work and conscientiousness in bringing this issue to my and my predecessor’s attention. The Health Protection Agency is, as of today, investigating the prevalence of COPD in the locality where he has identified concerns. Further, the agency will also investigate the potential for the composting operation to cause or exacerbate COPD. Those investigations will be in consultation with the local primary care trust and I understand that the local council has already made contact with the HPA.
DEFRA works hard across Government to ensure that all Departments take account of specific rural needs in their policies. Indeed, I met with my colleague in the Department for Work and Pensions only last month specifically to discuss rural issues.
Picking up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who has pinched yet another question of mine—the problem is that we both come from the same stable—may I reiterate that approximately 200,000 people living in rural England do not have access to broadband facilities? Would that not aid financial inclusion as it provides access to valuable information, online banking, credit union services and other such services?
Perhaps the hon. Lady should have some more interesting pillow talk than it appears she is having—[Laughter.] She is right: digital communications are crucial in rural areas as well as in urban areas. They make a big difference not least in access to banking and other important services and facilities. We are working hard on that issue and putting extra resources into it, including moneys from heads for which I have specific responsibility.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. I am delighted to see that we have been joined by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). We were a bit worried that since the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had promoted him to the Privy Council and shadow Secretary of State in its press release this week, he might have been banished by his colleagues.
Having heard the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and the Minister on this subject, I am confused about the Government’s position. Will the Minister now clearly say that he supports the Which? campaign for country-of-origin food labelling and backs British food?
We do support the campaign for clearer country-of-origin labelling. We took a different position from Europe in respect of mandatory labelling for everything. That would have meant labels a foot long on pizzas identifying the source of every bit of pepperoni. We want clearer labelling so that we can have informed consumer choice and support British agriculture.
Given that meat production generates six times more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of fish, cheese or vegetables, should CO2 emissions related to food products not also be included in any future labelling system? Would that not be one of the most effective means of adapting to climate change?
I can tell my hon. Friend that agriculture is making great efforts to reduce the impact of the carbon that it produces. It is very supportive of every effort to increase sustainable production and is doing what it can to tackle climate change.
Single Payment Scheme (Mr. Peter Philpot)
Mr. Philpot’s single payment scheme claims have been complicated by a number of factors, including both corrections to and transfers of entitlements. Progress has been made recently in resolving the underlying problems and the Rural Payments Agency is working to resolve the outstanding issues and to confirm the results to Mr. Philpot as soon as possible.
I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that, on 29 October in this place, I raised that issue with the Secretary of State, who kindly agreed to consider it if I sent the relevant paperwork. That was sent the same day, but since then neither my constituent nor my office have heard anything. Will Ministers consider the matter again as a matter of urgency? Otherwise, we can only draw the conclusion that the RPA is nothing more than a master-class in misadministration.
I outlined earlier the dramatically improving performance of the RPA, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take some reassurance from that. I can only apologise that neither he nor Mr. Philpot have received an update of the position. My responses are obviously researched in preparation for questions, and I am told that progress has been made, but I will find out exactly when Mr. Philpot will be told and communicate that to the hon. Gentleman later today, if possible.
Flood Defences (York)
I am pleased to say that the Environment Agency is developing a flood alleviation scheme for the Leeman Road-Water End area of York. The scheme will cost approximately £6.5 million and protect 550 properties.
It is nine years since the worst flood on record in York. I remember clearly that night when hundreds of local citizens and soldiers built a mile-long wall of sandbags on top of the flood defences to protect 550 homes on Leeman road. We are still waiting for the flood defences to be improved. When will the Environment Agency consult the public on its plans, and when do we expect the improvements to be built?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I am pleased to confirm that the consultation will begin in early 2010 to help to select the best solution. Subject to funding, construction should begin in early 2012. It is important to get the flood defences in place as soon as possible, subject to consultation.
DEFRA’s responsibility is to help us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House that about 100 farms in Cumbria have been severely affected by the recent flooding, in particular by large quantities of stones deposited on their land. I visited two farms affected last week, and I will shortly announce details of help through the rural development programme for England.
I think that the whole House will agree with the Secretary of State and offer its condolences to farmers in Cumbria. However, on another matter, the United Kingdom—that means the British taxpayer—is currently facing a possible £300 million fine for breaching the air quality directive. London is doing something about it. What will DEFRA do to try to avoid the fine?
DEFRA is working carefully to ensure that we are within the scope of the directives. Only two weeks ago, we hosted an air quality summit with local authorities to look at best practice and to share it with many local authorities. We are in close contact with the Mayor of London, because most of the roads where there are problems are in the London area. We are working with him and his officials to try to ensure that together we can solve the problems in London and avoid the fines that might be coming our way.
Does the Minister share my relief that British Waterways will retain its property portfolio and the income from it? Does he consider that the third sector model that British Waterways is now pursuing will enable it to work more closely with local communities, such as that around Rudyard lake, which is concerned about sailability and is fighting for facilities for disabled people at the lake?
I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend and members of Rudyard Sailability recently to see the excellent work that they do. Everyone is concerned to ensure a satisfactory resolution as soon as possible, so that the work can continue. The Treasury has acknowledged that the mutual or third sector model is an interesting way forward and it is keen to explore it. I am sure that the Treasury will be seeking views from hon. Members and others on how the idea can be fleshed out, because it offers an exciting prospect for building on the good will that exists towards our waterways.
We certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should do everything that we can to achieve responsible dog ownership. I visited the Dogs Trust re-homing centre in Harefield to support its annual campaign, which raises awareness with the message that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. There are dogs charities and dog organisations all over the UK trying to get the message home, and we want to do the same. Dog licensing did not work. Chipping is a more modern, technologically superior, less expensive and less bureaucratic system, and it may be something that we want to consider in future. Chipping is not under consideration at the moment, but one can never close the door entirely, particularly to improvements in the welfare of animals.
Indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on promoting the use of forestry and woodlands for a variety of purposes. We have come to recognise that forestries have not only an intrinsic value, but a value in respect of climate change, carbon and flood alleviation. Forestries also have a prominent role to play in many other respects. I applaud the work that she does to promote those ways forward.
The UK will be represented at today’s meeting in Paris, but no Ministers are there for the simple reason that Ministers are here in the Chamber answering questions. Our policy on reform of the common agricultural policy has been set out clearly in the past. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been a leading advocate of reform and a strong supporter of a shift in funding towards pillar two and agri-environment schemes, for the reasons that we have already covered in questions so far.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that windrow composting is now widespread, with more than 40 sites throughout the UK. However, it presents a danger: it is smelly and dirty, and it involves the release of Aspergillus fungus spores, which are a danger to health. What is he doing to encourage local authorities to join together to provide ways forward for other energy systems, such as the anaerobic digestion system? Is that something that he is working on?
It certainly is. I am aware of the close interest that my hon. Friend takes in the issue that he has raised. We doubled the incentives for anaerobic digestion under the renewables obligation system from 1 April this year. I am putting in about £10 million for demonstration projects, and when feed-in tariffs come in, they will add a further incentive. The House recognises that we are talking about a technology of the future. It is about to take off, and I encourage farmers and others who are responsible for green waste to look into it.
As I discussed with the egg and poultry conference about two weeks ago, our position is still to hold firmly to the 2012 ban on battery cages. I was asked what plan B was. Plan B is to lobby the Commission to ensure that there are no imports of eggs from countries with lower standards, and to introduce a new marking number—No. 4—for those eggs that fall below standard. That is plan B, but we have not yet given up on plan A, which is to hold firm, and hope that the Commission holds firm, to the ban on battery cages that will come in in 2012.
I certainly can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government take the health of Britain’s bees and other pollinators very seriously indeed. The decline in bee health is a complex issue with no single cause. The insect pollinator initiative consortium has now considered the expressions of interest received and has invited four research bids for the £10 million that has been made available. It will make its final decisions on allocations early next year. In the interim, it is crucial that all interested parties play an active role in DEFRA’s healthy bees plan in order to tackle this hugely important and complex issue. They have a lot to say, and lots of expertise, and we want to hear from them.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There is so much good work being carried out by the Environment Agency and by volunteer groups around the country, including in my own constituency. I am sure that, like me, he has spent many happy weekends knee deep in the waters—subject to the Environment Agency’s approval, of course. I will happily look at the issue that he has raised and drop him a line to give him the state of progress.
I promise to take careful note of the kind bid that my hon. Friend has made. Perhaps it will be the first of many.
Very gladly. If the hon. Gentleman will give me further details, I will do precisely that.
What are the Government doing to encourage the producers and retailers of halal meat to increase the use of pre-stunning, which is compliant with the Koran and which would have significant welfare, economic and political benefits?
There are no plans to change the regulations on religious slaughter as they stand at the moment. My hon. Friend and I have had a meeting with some of his constituents in the past month to discuss this issue in depth. We obviously encourage support for the regulations as they stand, but there are no plans to change the status quo.
The proposed Milton Keynes-Bedford canal enjoys cross-party support and will bring many benefits to the region. It has interesting financial arrangements and could well go ahead, but it is stalling at the moment. Will the Minister use his influence to get the project moving again?
For obvious reasons we try not to intervene in individual projects, recognising that British Waterways has a good overview and has achieved a lot in the past decade in opening up new stretches of canals that had fallen into disrepair. I wish the project well and if the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I shall take a look at it. I applaud the enthusiasm of the people who want to open that stretch. We have many such instances across the country, showing why the strength and enthusiasm of volunteers are such a bedrock of the British Waterways network.
Many farmers are challenging new maps from the Rural Payments Agency. Will the Minister consider looking at an RPA presence on the ground so that a more constructive process for challenge could be developed, along the lines of moving towards stewardship applications with which farmers seem much happier?
The progress on re-mapping the country is steady. Earlier this week I chaired a meeting between the RPA, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Agency and the Tenant Farmers Association, which are relatively pleased with the progress that has been made on a complex issue. There are deadlines in January that we have to meet and we are working as hard as we can to ensure that that takes place, so that we can pre-populate the maps for next year’s claims. At the same time, we welcome the progress made in the payments for 2009.
Will my hon. Friend give an updated statement on the surface water charges that affect sports grounds, churches and charities?
I am pleased to give an update. My hon. Friend and others who have lobbied assiduously on that matter will be pleased to know that the issue appears in our Flood and Water Management Bill. With the support of this House and the other place, we will get that measure on to the statute book and protect scouts associations, churches, community halls and others.
In light of the outbreak of the fatal disease swine fever in Russia, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to re-examine our bio-security arrangements?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point and he will know that we are always vigilant. The teams monitor carefully what is happening elsewhere and he can rest assured that we will do what is required in light of the evidence. If he would be interested—I am sure he would—I will be happy to write to him further.
The Secretary of State may be aware that there is great local concern that sites have been identified for potential land raise facilities for waste disposal on the boundary between my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). Will he give a clear statement that he believes that such approaches are increasingly out of date and unacceptable and that we should be looking for approaches that generate energy from waste, rather than just dumping it, often in inappropriate locations?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. We need to get our landfill down, which is why—because of the landfill levy—domestic recycling rates have risen from 8 to 37 per cent. in the past 12 years. I shall be consulting after the turn of the year on whether we should ban certain products from landfill. Food waste is a good example; why put it in landfill when we could turn it into energy?
Business of the House
May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?
The business for the forthcoming week is:
Monday 14 December—Second Reading of the Personal Care at Home Bill, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.
Tuesday 15 December—Second Reading of the Flood and Water Management Bill, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to Welsh language.
Wednesday 16 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.
The provisional business for the week commencing 4 January will include:
Monday 4 January—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 5 January—Second Reading of the Fiscal Responsibility Bill.
Wednesday 6 January—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Video Recordings Bill.
Thursday 7 January—A general debate on the pre-Budget report.
The provisional business for the week commencing 11 January will include:
Monday 11 January—Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 7 January will be:
Thursday 7 January—A debate from the Public Administration Committee on “Lobbying: Access and Influence in Whitehall”.
Through you, Mr. Speaker, may I also offer my best wishes for Christmas and the new year to all hon. Members, and on behalf of all hon. Members, may I offer our best wishes for Christmas and the new year to the Clerks of the House, the Officers of the House, catering teams, the cleaners, the police, the doorkeepers, and all who work so hard to keep the House running smoothly? I think that everyone deserves a very good Christmas and new year.
May I thank the Leader of the House for giving us next week’s business?
I warmly welcome the change from the right hon. and learned Lady’s initial refusal to allow time for a dedicated debate on the pre-Budget report. The House will want to discuss the issues raised by the Chancellor’s statement of yesterday, and we will particularly welcome the chance to highlight that the Government’s pay freeze will hit the poorest public sector workers, unlike our proposals, which excluded the million lowest paid employees. This debate will also give Ministers the opportunity to explain the cost to the NHS of the rise in national insurance.
If I am on a winning streak in asking for debates, may I repeat my other request, for a debate on Afghanistan? I appreciate the efforts that the right hon. and learned Lady is making to ensure that every week we get an opportunity to question Ministers on Afghanistan, but does she appreciate that Members are looking for a more substantial opportunity to discuss Government policy on Afghanistan, particularly in advance of the proposed London summit at the end of January, so can we have a full day’s debate, in Government time, early in the new year?
I welcome today’s written ministerial statement from the Leader of the House on the Kelly report. We are relieved that the Government have finally accepted our arguments that legislation is needed now to implement Kelly in full. Can the right hon. and learned Lady give an indication of when this proposed legislation will be brought forward and whether it will take the form of a stand-alone Bill or an amendment to existing legislation?
When may we debate the motion on private Members’ Bills, which has been languishing on the Order Paper for more than a week? Unless we debate and resolve the issue soon, we will run the risk of not debating any private Members’ Bills at all in this Session.
May we have a debate on yesterday’s report from the Public Administration Committee on the unsatisfactory handling of the special report from the ombudsman on Equitable Life? As the Committee recommends, a mechanism needs to be found so that we can debate findings from the ombudsman without having to rely on either Government or Opposition motions. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that it would be sensible for the Government to respond to that recommendation during the debate on the Wright Committee report on Commons reform?
In the same vein, when will we debate and vote on the Procedure Committee’s report on the election of Deputy Speakers? This is an initiative from you, Mr Speaker, which requires action if we are to get a new system in place before the beginning of the next Parliament. The Procedure Committee has said that it is seeking the endorsement of the House. When might it secure it?
May we have a debate on the Copenhagen agreement early in the new year? This is an historic moment, which we hope will deliver a real and meaningful settlement. Given that, will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that the House is able to debate the conclusions of Copenhagen in full, and its implications for the UK?
Finally, as the right hon. and learned Lady has made clear, astonishingly, this is the last business question before Christmas, so, despite the fact that many people have yet to send a single Christmas card, I, too, would like to take this opportunity to offer you, Mr. Speaker, and all hon. Members including the right hon. and learned Lady, as well as all the staff and Officers, from the Clerks to the caterers, the cleaners, the police and the doorkeepers, a very happy Christmas and new year.
I am happy to accede to the right hon. Gentleman’s request for a debate on the pre-Budget report, and I have announced that. We are also looking for an opportunity to hold a debate on Afghanistan, and, given the context of the London summit, it is obviously even more important that the House has an opportunity to debate the issue, as well as hearing statements from Ministers, which have been made regularly, and hearing from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time when he answers on the subject.
The right hon. Gentleman made a point about the Kelly report and legislation to take forward Sir Christopher Kelly’s proposals. We all recognise that the House had to deal with the public anger and concern about the abuse of the allowance system by some Members. The House did not sit back waiting for Kelly. We have already substantially changed the allowance system and legislated for the establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. As the right hon. Gentleman recognises, there will be further legislation, particularly to make it the responsibility of IPSA to decide Members of Parliament’s pay and pensions. We had, of course, already voted not to decide our own pay, but we will now bring forward legislation to put that on a statutory footing. I am not yet in a position to tell him and the House whether that legislation will stand alone or be added to existing legislation, but, whatever the vehicle, we are determined, and the whole House is agreed, that we should go forward on that basis. There is, as he said, a motion outstanding for debate on private Members’ business. It is important that that is taken forward, and it will be.
On Equitable Life, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury set out in the Opposition day debate on Equitable Life, Sir John Chadwick will produce an interim report by the end of the year, and a final report in the spring. He is hard at work on that very important business.
The election of Deputy Speakers has been considered by the Wright Committee. The Committee has also considered how the House chooses the Chairs and members of Select Committees, how the public can provide input to debates in the House of Commons through petitions and how House business is managed. I have written to Opposition parties about those issues, because how we should make progress on them is a House matter; it is not for Government diktat. We want to achieve consensus and we want to bring forward a motion on which both sides of the House can agree. I have asked Opposition parties to give me their views on all the issues that the Wright Committee has dealt with, so that I can introduce promptly, within the time limit that is expected of the Government, a motion that will achieve consensus, so that we can go forward with that important Committee’s proposals.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s festive comments, did he say that he had not sent a single Christmas card yet?
I said that some people have not.
Well, it could be said that the shadow Leader of the House is not one of the most cheerful Members of the House—[Interruption.] No, he is not. However, this is the time for Christmas parties. Even though it has been a very difficult year for the House and for the economy, we should not ignore the festive season altogether. With that in mind, I have been thinking about what we should all sing if we were to have a karaoke party, and I have allocated to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) the karaoke number, “Remember You’re a Womble”. As the shadow Leader of the House is really the Morrissey of the House, I have chosen for him the Smiths number, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, and for myself, I have taken a Billy Joel number, “Uptown Girl”.
Ho, ho, ho, Mr. Speaker. [Laughter.] May I wish you and all our staff and Officers of the House a Happy Christmas?
And all Members of the House, including even the hon. Gentleman.
Thank you very much.
I, too, welcome the fact that there is to be a debate on the pre-Budget report. I fear that it is unravelling at such speed that we may have to have an alternative pre-Budget report before the original is even debated to correct some of the errors in the first one. Nevertheless, that debate is welcome.
On private Members’ Bills—here, I declare an interest— I am very keen, obviously, that time should be set aside for private Members’ Bills and that the resolutions should be considered. However, that is one of the matters discussed in the Wright Committee report, which suggests an alternative arrangement for dealing with private Members’ Bills. I cannot for the life of me see what the problem is, given that the Committee has produced a draft resolution, on page 94, to be put before the House. It is not for me, or the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) or the right hon. and learned Lady to decide what is appropriate; it is for the House to decide. The Wright Committee has set out its draft proposals. Why cannot they now be put before the House?
There will be a debate on universities after today’s statements. No doubt, the issue of the fiasco and chaos of the Student Loans Company will be considered, but it would be appropriate to have a statement from the Secretary of State to tell us just what has been happening. More importantly, what is being done about the company’s senior management and chief executive? They have let down students across the country, who now find themselves in extreme difficulty. Will there be a statement to that effect?
May we have a debate on what I can only term abuse of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 by police? It is not satisfactory that people up and down the country are being stopped and told that they cannot take photographs—and if they have taken photographs, they are asked to delete them from their cameras—apparently on the whim of police officers. So far, people have been told that they cannot take a picture of Christ Church in the City, St. Paul’s, railway wagons, Christmas lights—and of Mick’s Plaice, a fish and chip shop in Chatham! Such photography is not prime terrorist activity. I honestly think that the police need some education about the very strong powers that we in this House give them, to make sure that they are not used improperly.
You didn’t say that during the miners’ strike.
I did, actually.
Lastly, I know that the Leader of the House is committed to the use of plain English in enactments and Government pronouncements. She has said so many times and has gone to great trouble to provide easy-to-read translations of what might otherwise be opaque in the Bills under her own control. However, may I draw her attention to the statement made earlier this week about smarter Government? I shall read out one of the conclusions of the attached paper. It states:
“We will align the different sector-specific performance management frameworks across key local agencies…thereby increasing the focus on indicators relating to joint outcomes.”
Does that make any sense at all? I do not believe that it does. This management-speak is nonsense, so will the Leader of the House eradicate it from Government business?
Again, happy Christmas!
On the pre-Budget report, there will be a debate when the House returns in the new year, but there is also Treasury questions next week and hon. Members can ask questions and raise issues then.
On the Wright Committee report, I think that it is perverse of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to object to being consulted. I will bring the proceedings before the House, but I am consulting the Opposition Front-Bench teams. Of course it is a matter for the whole House, and for Back Benchers on all sides as well as for those on the Front Benches, but it is not unreasonable to give the Front-Bench teams an opportunity to give their views as to what should be brought to the House. However, if they do not want to be consulted, they do not need to respond. I have given them until 16 December.
The debate this afternoon on students and universities will provide an opportunity to discuss the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about terrorism, and I can tell him that there are Home Office questions next week when they could be discussed. He also made a point about the smarter Government publication and plain English. If he could pass me a copy of what he read out, I shall work out a translation for him before the end of business questions this morning.
Order. No fewer than 23 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As always, I would like to get everybody in. Members will be conscious that there is a ministerial statement to follow, and that underlines the importance of short questions and answers.
May I add my voice to those hon. Members calling for a debate on the parliamentary reform Select Committee, of which I was a member? I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to read the minority report submitted by myself and the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), which at least indicates that there was no consensus on the Committee. I think that a debate would show that, although we were a minority on the Committee, we would be in the majority in the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for her work on the Committee. The issues that she teased out in her minority report show that although the principles and objectives are clear and shared by everyone, how we put them into practice is far from straightforward and needs proper consideration.
Given that the country is bust and there is now no money for anything, that the recent local government reorganisation in Cornwall trebled in cost from £20 million to £60 million and that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has said that any legislation enacted by this Government to reorganise local government, particularly in Devon, would be changed by legislation by an incoming Tory Government, will the Leader of the House have a word with her colleague the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and ask him to come to the House before Christmas to make a statement to end the uncertainties surrounding local government reorganisation in Devon and elsewhere?
We have had a debate on local government this week, but I shall ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to write to the hon. Gentleman.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that we have an early debate on defence procurement, so that Britain’s world-class defence industrial base will get the full benefit in these difficult economic times of the Ministry of Defence’s substantial budget?
This is of importance to not only the MOD, but the regions from which our procurement is obtained and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I shall raise my hon. Friend’s comments with the Ministers concerned.
Would the Leader of the House ensure that the Wright report and the minority report are debated side by side with the report on the election of Deputy Speakers? Could we have a full day for that, not one that is delayed by statements, so that many people can take part in the debate?
I take note of those points, which are seriously made. I should say that we often decide that we really want to protect a day, and on such days, for example, Opposition days, we never want to put on Government statements. That is because our doing so encroaches on the Opposition’s time for the subject that they have chosen for debate. Sometimes statements are made because of a genuine emergency and we have to bring them to the House. Obviously, I want to ensure that there is a full day’s debate on the Wright report, but I cannot guarantee that a statement will not need to be made to the House.
People from Toyoda Gosei, the Japanese car parts factory in my constituency, wrote to me recently saying that they had 30 different nationalities employed there. Could we have a debate on hiring practices, because although I am sure that its hiring practices are completely non-discriminatory, there is widespread concern in south Yorkshire that employers are perhaps not giving a fair crack to local Yorkshiremen and women, and we need to discuss with employers how to bring more of the local work force into active work?
It is important not only that we have training, high skill levels and the appropriate skill levels in the local community for the jobs that are available, but that those jobs are made available through the jobcentres and that the regional development agencies work with employers to make sure that agencies that do not just choose workers from abroad are used. My right hon. Friend makes an important point and it is being taken forward.
May I welcome the Leader of the House’s assurance that the debate on the Wright Committee’s proposals will not be delayed by Front-Bench discussions? Does she intend that debate to take place before the end of January?
As I told the House at last week’s business questions, there is a time period within which it is expected that the Government would respond to Select Committee reports, and we expect to respond within that time period. In this case, I believe that that more or less finishes at the end of January, but we are not waiting until the last moment and we will respond when we can, after we are satisfied that there is a reasonable consensus as a basis on which we can then debate the report and reach agreement.
I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware of the report that was published today about the health needs of children in immigration detention centres. I know that the Government have improved the situation, but recently a child in my constituency was badly emotionally damaged by the experience of going into a detention centre. When can we have a debate in which we can consider ending the practice of families with children being put into immigration detention centres?
We want to make absolutely sure that children do not suffer just because their parents have not abided by the immigration rules and regulations. Perhaps my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to raise her question during Home Office questions next week.
The Leader of the House is wrong in her choice of karaoke song—surely the appropriate Smiths song for my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House is “This Charming Man”.
Could the Leader of the House organise a debate in Government time on immigration policy, specifically so that the House can debate the Home Secretary’s interesting remarks last night? He said that the Conservative policy of an immigration cap was a “legitimate option” within the debate. I am glad that the Home Secretary is coming to recognise the wisdom of Conservative immigration policy, as all reasonable people do. If he is going to do a U-turn, the whole House would want him to do so in this place so that we could welcome it warmly.
That question was, frankly, too long, albeit that it was amusing in parts. I hope that others will not seek to imitate the Green model.
The Home Secretary has certainly not done a U-turn. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise that point with the Home Secretary in Home Office questions next week. I am going to look at the hon. Gentleman in a different light after he has shown himself to be a true Smiths fan.
My right hon. and learned Friend will know that in this very rich city of London this Christmas will be a hard one for many people. Is she aware that the centre for runaway children run by the St. Christopher’s charity is in danger of closing down? Could we have a debate on this? The fact is that we should keep this precious resource going and that St. Christopher’s does a wonderful job for runaway children—not only those from London, but those from all our constituencies up and down the country.
Obviously everybody is concerned at all times of the year, but particularly at Christmas, about children who are not with their family and about whom their family are desperately concerned, and about what provision exists for such children. I shall raise the point about St. Christopher’s with the relevant Minister.
The future integrity, independence and authority of this House depends upon the implementation of the proposals of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee and the Procedure Committee. Will the Leader of the House give me and the House a firm commitment that these proposals will be decided on a genuine free vote, unencumbered by the Whips on either side of the House?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should foster any sense of apocalypse about this. We should all seek to work together to maintain the integrity, independence and authority of the House. Of course we will have a debate on the Wright Committee report, and it will be on a free vote. Members should jealously guard their free vote on House issues.
On the Wright report, may I point out that it is important to remember that this is a political institution, that political parties exist for a reason and that this House would never ever survive a day’s business without the workings of the usual channels and the Whips Offices? Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear that in mind in her deliberations?
It is also worth our reminding ourselves that we are all elected on a manifesto, whereby we make promises to our constituents that if we get elected we will strive to keep our promises. One thing that would undermine our democracy is if we got elected to this House and then did not deliver on our manifesto commitments. That is why we have a majority Government, rather than a minority Government, and why it is the job of the Government to deliver their business in order to keep their manifesto promises.
On environmental protection, is the Leader of the House aware that today the Flood Risk Regulations 2009, statutory instrument No. 3042, come into force? They have not been consulted on or scrutinised by this House or issued to all the relevant parties. Will she issue an apology to the House? Will she castigate the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for this? Will she assure us that these regulations will not come into force today, and that they will be properly scrutinised and properly consulted upon? They form part of the Flood and Water Management Bill—she just announced that it will have its Second Reading next week. The DEFRA Whip on the Treasury Bench—
Order. I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I think that there was a request for a statement next week somewhere in her remarks, but I did not readily identify it. I call the Leader of the House.
We have just had DEFRA questions. I can reassure the hon. Lady, if she did not manage to raise her question with DEFRA Ministers, that all procedures were followed. Anyway, there is a debate on flood and water management next week, in which she might seek to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye and to make her comments.
Will the Leader of the House pass on my thanks to the Chancellor for making a statement on getting serious about tax avoidance? One can hear the breaking of glass in News Corporation and the Telegraph Media Group. With that in mind, there is no better place to start than media groups to ensure that they pay an appropriate amount of tax in this country. Will she ensure that that is taken forward?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important for companies and corporations to pay their taxes in this country and for individuals to do so, too. There is a particular issue for us in the House of Commons and for people who seek to come into the House of Commons. It used to be said that there should be no taxation without representation. We raise the taxes—we pass the Finance Acts—and so we should turn it around and say that there should be no representation without taxation. The idea that someone should purport to come into this House to make other people pay taxes while saying for tax purposes that they do not live in this country is bizarre.
Will the Leader of the House, in her busy schedule before Christmas, take the time to draw the Foreign Secretary’s attention to early-day motions on the situation in Kurdistan, and particularly the adversely altered imprisonment arrangements for Abdullah Ocalan? If he were to pass away in Turkish custody, the security of us all would be greatly compromised.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about this matter. There will be an opportunity next week in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, if he thinks that it is appropriate, for him to set out those points in more detail.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the wonderful Christmas party in your apartments yesterday. It was much appreciated by my granddaughter.
May I ask for an early debate based on early-day motion 346, on organ donors?
[That this House notes that 10-year-old George Higginson, who was tragically killed in a road traffic accident, donated his organs as gifts of life to five other people; wishes to pay tribute to the courage and selflessness of his parents who continue to support and promote organ donation; and supports Mr Higginson’s suggestion that arrangements be made at polling stations to give people an opportunity to register as an organ donor whilst voting at the forthcoming general election.]
It was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). The final sentence reads that
“arrangements be made at polling stations to give people an opportunity to register as an organ donor whilst voting at the forthcoming general election.”
From my experience of bereavement because of a sudden accidental death, I know that it would certainly have helped me to have known that my late husband’s organs had been used to save the lives of other people.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I said to the House last week that we would look into whether information about signing up to the register of organ donors could be made available at polling stations. I am interested in my hon. Friend’s comments about the Christmas party. Did they have karaoke at it, I wonder?
This is not a politically sexy subject, but it is an essential one that underpins freedom of speech, innovation and research, and societal change. Scientists and academics have a duty to criticise publicly the poor research and unsubstantiated claims of others in the public domain, but it seems to me that they are often silenced through fear and threat of lengthy and costly libel actions. May I urge the right hon. and learned Lady to hold a debate as soon as possible on UK libel laws?
I shall raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with the Justice Secretary.
The shadow Leader of the House’s song should, of course, be “Young Love”.
May we have a debate on the private finance initiative? As each successive report comes out, it appears that it is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequence for our nation. With hundreds of billions of pounds stored up over the generations, it would help if we were to reform or abolish it. It would certainly assist the Chancellor in bridging the various financial gaps that he described to the House yesterday.
The private finance initiative is massively changed from when it was originally embarked on. The reality is that in every constituency throughout the country we have really important capital projects—hospitals, schools and housing—that have been brought forward earlier because of the PFI system.
The question gives me an opportunity to reply to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who asked me to translate “Putting the Frontline First”. On his point—I will not read it all out again—the quotation basically concerned the fact that performance management indicators should be common across the different Departments, rather than each Department having a different performance management indicator, pulling in different directions. It is really about partnership working towards common objectives, which is probably gobbledegook in itself.
During the holocaust, a Foreign Office official infamously wrote a minute in which he referred to the time being wasted by what he called “wailing Jews”. When Mr. Rowan Laxton, the head of the south Asia desk at the Foreign Office, was convicted in September of an outburst in which he referred to “f— Jews” and was fined £350, his barrister said that that was
“going to have very grave and long-term consequences”
“whatever happens in court is secondary to the effect it will have on his career and reputation”.
Given that he has been reinstated in the Foreign Office and appointed to a new job and that that job has not been revealed, may we have a statement confirming that the job will have nothing whatsoever to do with the middle east?
In the sort of situation that the hon. Gentleman has raised, which concerns an individual employee of the civil service, I am not in a position to answer the question. However, as regards his overall point about the horror of anti-Semitism, I know that I can look to him to support the measures that we will introduce in the Equality Bill to give proper, strong legal protection so that people are not discriminated against or harassed on the grounds of their religion.
Is the Leader of the House aware that every day this week, thanks to your good offices, Mr. Speaker, school choirs have been able to sing in Portcullis House? At 1 o’clock today, Priory school from my constituency will be singing. Will my right hon. and learned Friend be able to join me in the audience and encourage other Members to be there, too?
They are up against the quality of Chorley yesterday.
I, too, pay tribute to all the schools who have come to Portcullis House, to you, Mr. Speaker, for initiating this, and to those hon. Members who have brought their schools here. I thank my hon. Friend for the invitation and I shall go.
Chorley school was excellent yesterday—I heard them.
Is it possible to have an early debate on the importance of community hospitals? Clitheroe hospital in my constituency provides a tremendous service to local people. A lot of rural villages use it and, as the Leader of the House knows, we do not have the same bus service as everyone else and a lot of people do not have access to cars to be able to go to the main hospitals. It was due to be replaced with a £12 million new hospital, but that has now been frozen while the trust considers the availability and provision of new services. Please may we have a debate on this subject? It is supposed to be a national health service that also includes rural areas.
Absolutely it should. People locally, through the local health service organisations in consultation with hon. Members, patients’ organisations and the local community should decide where those services are put. I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman is not happy with the proposals, he should write to the Secretary of State and ask to meet him to discuss this.
May we have a debate on sentencing so that we can discuss the case of Gregory Davis, who killed my constituent, Dorothy Rogers, by stabbing her 31 times and then chased her son, Michael, into the school playground and killed him, too? Does the Leader of the House at least understand the anger of my constituents at the news that after just six years, Mr. Davis is now enjoying unsupervised day visits to Oxford and could be released within weeks?
Everyone will have absolute heartfelt sympathy for the relatives of Dorothy Rogers and her son Michael and will appreciate the concerns that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman on behalf of his constituents about the situation as regards Gregory Davis. Because the hon. Gentleman was able to give me notice of his question, I have already talked about this matter with the Justice Secretary, who has been looking into it this morning. He is happy to invite the hon. Gentleman to a meeting on this subject. The sentence was handed down by the courts but Gregory Davis was then transferred to a psychiatric facility. I think that we can all understand the concerns and a meeting with the Justice Secretary will be very important.
Under Standing Order No. 14, the Government are required to bring forward 13 days for private Members’ business. Private Members’ Bills will be presented next Wednesday, and unless by then the Government have nominated dates on which their Second Readings may be taken, the system will collapse. Will the Leader of the House name those 13 days, or provide a debate on changing the Standing Order?
A motion has been tabled to amend the Standing Orders to provide for private Members’ business in a Session that will inevitably be shorter than usual. However, the system will certainly not fall into chaos; it will proceed in an orderly and democratic way.
May we have a debate on winter fuel payments and the need for regular review and uprating of those payments to pensioners? In that debate, we could also address the issue highlighted in early-day motion 407, which points out that those who reach the age of 80 after 27 September will not qualify for payments in the following year.
[That this House congratulates the Government on the provision of winter fuel payments for those aged 60 and over; further congratulates the Government on providing an increase in the payment for those aged 80 and over; notes with concern, however, that those people who turn 80 after the arbitrary date of 27 September are not eligible for the increased payments throughout the following winter; and therefore calls on the Government to change the qualifying date to ensure that those aged 80 on or before 31 December receive the increased payment in the year they are 80.]
There will be a benefits uprating statement this afternoon, and the Prime Minister spoke about the matter during yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions. If there is anything further that the hon. Gentleman would like to raise, perhaps he will write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and keep the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland informed about his concerns.
The Leader of the House was asked whether we could have a debate—or a statement at least—about the fiasco involving the Student Loans Company. It is not good enough for her to say that there is, coincidentally, a general debate on higher education this afternoon. There is a damning report about the Student Loans Company and ministerial involvement in it. It might be just one of those things for the right hon. and learned Lady, but students are suffering fear and hardship, night and day, and we want a statement in the House.
Hon. Members will have an opportunity to ask their questions and to get them answered by a Minister during this afternoon’s estimates debate. I would have thought that the point for Members is whether it is possible for them to raise the issue and get a response, whether that is as part of a topical debate, an estimates day or any other business. The question is whether there is an opportunity, and the answer is yes.
As this is meant to be the season of good will, is it not extremely mean-spirited and Scrooge-like of the Leader of the House to try to restrict debate on private Members’ business in the new year to just eight days, instead of the statutory 13, especially when most of the Bills at the top of the list are being promoted by Labour Members?
If we have a shorter Session, there are fewer days for private Members’ business, so this is just proportionality—there is nothing unusual at all.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about benefits uprating and how that supports the action that the Government have taken to help people through the global recession. I shall place full details of the uprating in the Vote Office and arrange for the figures to be published in the Official Report at the earliest opportunity.
As the global recession, which had its origins in the US sub-prime market, began, we said that we would act to protect people in the UK. Since then, the Government have taken decisive action to support families, jobs and businesses. As the effects of the credit crunch spread to the real economy, we acted to protect people’s deposits in banks and to stabilise the wider financial system. Then we acted by making available an additional £5 billion to help people in the labour market to remain in work or get back to work as quickly as possible. We ensured that the Jobcentre Plus network and our providers could not only maintain but increase our support to the increased numbers needing help.
We were determined not to lose a generation of young people to work, which is why we set up the future jobs fund and why we will now guarantee every 18 to 24 year-old who has been unemployed for six months a job, a training place or a volunteering opportunity. The action that we have taken has had an impact. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will lay out further measures in our “Back to Work” White Paper next week.
Let me turn to the statement. I wish to tell the House that we will act to provide real help for people when they need it most during the early stages of recovery. People of working age who are claiming income-related benefits will have their benefits uprated in line with the Rossi index, which is the retail prices index less housing costs. That means that people who receive benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, and incapacity benefit will receive an increase of 1.8 per cent from April 2010.
For those benefits that are traditionally uprated in line with the retail prices index, this year, as a consequence of the extraordinary global conditions, the RPI has moved into negative territory—it stood at minus 1.4 per cent in September. That means that those who rely on benefits being uprated by the retail prices index could have expected to see their benefits frozen in cash terms, which would have meant no increase at all next April. However, because the Government continue to demonstrate their commitment to helping the poorest and most vulnerable in society, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has decided that those benefits should be increased by 1.5 per cent. from April 2010. That means that we will increase benefits for disabled people and carers, and statutory payments for parents and others who receive national insurance-linked benefits, by 1.5 per cent from next April. Recipients of attendance allowance, carer’s allowance, disability living allowance, and maternity allowances will have those important benefits uprated to ensure that they do not fall behind.
The basic state pension is traditionally uprated in line with the retail prices index, but as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed in yesterday’s pre-Budget statement, the basic state pension will be uprated by 2.5 per cent from April 2010. That means that, from April next year, the basic state pension for a single person will rise by £2.40 to £97.65 a week, while the standard rate based on spouse’s or civil partner’s contribution will increase to £58.50, giving a pensioner couple a total of £156.15 a week. That above-inflation increase, which is delivered as a result of a commitment by this Government, will ensure that more than 11 million pensioners receive a real-terms increase in the value of their basic state pension.
The uprating of state additional pension feeds directly through to public service pensions and to some aspects of occupational pension schemes. As a result, we are unable to uprate those benefits without creating unintended consequences for occupational pension schemes. In the circumstances, we plan to hold state additional pension flat in cash terms this year. However, the 2.5 per cent increase in the basic state pension will mean that, on average, pensioners in Great Britain will see an overall increase of 2 per cent in their state pension.
For the poorest pensioners, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor also confirmed that the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit will rise from next April by £2.60 a week for single pensioners and £3.95 for couples. That means that, from April next year, no single pensioner need live on less than £132.60 a week, and no couple on less than £202.40 a week. That represents a real-terms increase of more than a third for the poorest pensioners since 1997. The above-earnings increase in the pension credit guarantee underlines the Government’s ongoing commitment to tackling pensioner poverty, which has already ensured that there are 900,000 fewer pensioners in relative poverty today than there were in 1998-99. In fact, the Government have spent around £100 billion more on pensioners since 1997 than we would have done if we had simply allowed the policies of the previous Government to continue.
We have taken action, and we will continue to take action to ensure that people do not have to face the recession alone—abandoned, as happened so often in the past. We have learned the lessons from the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, which is why our upcoming White Paper will set out the next steps in our continuing determination to invest in people and give them the help they need because, for this Government, unemployment will never be a price worth paying.
The package of uprating proposals, which is worth around £2 billion for 2010-11, represents significant and worthwhile help for those who are among the poorest and most vulnerable in society. It provides real help in a challenging year, and I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. This recession has hit families hard throughout the country, and, as we heard yesterday, low and middle earners, particularly those earning £20,000 and above, will pay the price for the Government’s fiscal irresponsibility.
The Minister’s statement comes at a time of great challenges. Unemployment has reached 2.5 million, with youth unemployment being higher before the recession than when the Government came to power. There are 2.5 million pensioners living in poverty, and the rate of child poverty has increased by 400,000 since 2004. We welcome any action that provides greater support to the innocent victims of Labour’s failure to tackle poverty, but does the Minister agree that it is completely unacceptable and deeply cynical for the Government to increase benefit levels before an election, only to cut them after an election? That is exactly what they appear to be doing.
The Government are committed to a 1.5 per cent. rise in child benefit, disability living allowance, carer’s allowance and incapacity benefit, but they have no funding to continue the measure after the election. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has made it clear that
“the Chancellor committed himself—or rather, his successor—to increase those same benefits by 1.5 per cent. less than inflation this time next year”;
and the pre-Budget report confirms that the policy
“avoids a further permanent increase in expenditure”.
It is a pre-election con, paid for by a real-terms cut in benefits following the election. Does the Minister understand that such sleight of hand is exactly what we have come to expect from her Government and one reason why so many hold politics in such low esteem? Will she also confirm that this year there is no £60 Christmas bonus, which many pensioners valued this time last year, and explain the reason for its absence?
We welcome the increase in the basic state pension, which will be a relief to pensioners who have seen their savings hit by low interest rates. Will the Minister confirm when the Government plan to restore the earnings link for the basic state pension and will she explain how the Government plan to pay for it, having set their face against a state pension age increase that would save £13 billion a year?
There was a hidden threat to pensions in yesterday’s pre-Budget report. The Chancellor’s opaque reference to
“phasing in the roll-out of pension personal accounts” —[Official Report, 9 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 369.]
appears to herald yet another delay in the Government’s flagship personal accounts scheme. Will the Minister confirm that personal accounts will not be fully up and running with 3 per cent. employer contributions until 2017? It is not high earners who will lose out from the delay, but people on middle and low incomes, because it potentially leaves millions of people facing a gap in contributions that they might never take up.
The measure will not only fail to improve the levels of saving, it could actually reduce saving rates at the very time that we need them to increase. The Association of British Insurers said:
“This money will be saved at the expense of getting the low-paid into long-term pension saving, which is absolutely vital for their future welfare in retirement.”
Will the Minister confirm that the PBR has taken £2.4 billion out of the pensions of people on low and middle incomes? I also note that the Government are not uprating state additional pensions. Will the Minister tell us how many pensioners are going to lose out as a result?
On disability benefits, following the Opposition day debate on Tuesday, I note that there is still concern about the threat that the Government’s care reforms pose to disabled pensioners. All the preferred funding models in the Government’s Green Paper are underpinned by the integration of attendance allowance and disability living allowance for the over-65s with a future care and support system. In effect, those cash benefits, which are currently paid directly to recipients for them to use as they wish, would be integrated into local authority social care budgets, and that would give older disabled people less control and less independence.
On Tuesday the Government were making up policy on the hoof without providing any details. They now have to answer a series of serious questions about how the new policy will work in practice. Will people entering a new scheme with equivalent needs to people currently receiving disability living allowance or attendance allowance get the same entitlement? Finally, will the Minister confirm that the Government are cutting £130 million from the national health service budget as a result of the rise in employer’s national insurance which was announced yesterday?
I was going to thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the £2 billion of extra resources that, even in difficult times, this Government have managed to find for those who are poor and vulnerable. However, I did not hear any welcome at all in his remarks. He talked about the increase of 1.5 per cent. in disability and carer’s benefits, but it would have been a zero-rate increase if we had not brought it forward as the Chancellor announced yesterday. That is not a cut in benefit; it is a 1.5 per cent. increase in benefit this year, over and above the current rate of RPI minus 1.4 per cent. Does he welcome that? He did not say whether he welcomed the fact that those who rely on disability and carer’s benefits will have an increase this year instead of a freeze.
On the earnings link for the basic state pension, the hon. Gentleman knows that Parliament has already legislated to restore the link from 2012, or by 2015—the end of the next Parliament—at the latest.
Who abolished it?
Obviously the Conservatives abolished it in the 1980s. [Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers say that we have done nothing about the earnings link for the basic state pension while we have been in power, but we have raised the basic state pension above prices every year since 1998-99. Every year we have seen a real increase above RPI; in 18 years, the Conservatives increased it once, and they did so to compensate for the introduction of VAT on fuel. We have a far greater record of which to be proud than the Opposition.
I can confirm that the personal accounts reform programme will begin in 2012 as planned, but there will be a slowing of implementation to enable us to ensure that this very complicated and large programme can be put into effect appropriately.
On additional pensions, the hon. Gentleman asked why there is no increase this year, and that is because of the feed-through to those private sector pensions that are contracted out. Such a measure would be extremely complicated, and there would then be an increasing difference between public sector pensions, which would get the increase, and private sector pensions, which are often linked to RPI increases and have planned for a zero-rate increase. We felt that that situation would not be desirable, but I emphasise that all pensioners will see a real-terms increase because of the 2.5 per cent. increase that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his pre-Budget report yesterday.
The Opposition have spent the past few months telling us that in the depths of a recession we should cut public expenditure. They voted against the fiscal stimulus and the extra help from the Department for Work and Pensions for those in the real economy who have to deal with the effects of the recession, and for those who have been unemployed. Indeed, the Opposition continue to say that they would cut the deficit further and faster, but I still do not know, and I have not heard from the hon. Gentleman, whether they support the uprating—whether they support the £2 billion of extra money that we have been able to allocate for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. I note with interest that he gave us no indication of whether the Opposition support today’s statement.
I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of the statement. May I offer her my commiserations? When there is good news, the Secretary of State comes to the House to make the statement; when it is bad news, the Minister of State does so. I therefore thank her for coming to the House with this statement. However, we had hoped that it would provide us with the bits that the Chancellor forgot yesterday. When we saw a copy of it a few moments ago, we anticipated the Minister explaining that April’s rise in child benefit and disabled people’s benefit was temporary, and that when the 2011 increase comes about it will be as if the 2010 increase had never happened. Mysteriously, she forgot that as well. I wonder whether her Department actually knew, or knows, about this; when we read the small print of the pre-Budget report last night, we spotted the problem and I challenged the Minister’s ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), about it in the Chamber. I asked whether there would be real-terms cuts in 2011, to which the hon. Lady replied:
“I do not think that there will be a real-terms cut”—[Official Report, 9 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 424.]
Will this Minister clarify whether the Department was told about the issue in advance, and indeed whether it knows now, that what it proposes is a real-terms increase before the election and a real-terms cut after the election? Is that not a definition of cynicism?
The Minister mentioned additional pension and the state earnings-related pension scheme, or SERPS. Surely the Government could have indexed SERPS if they had wanted to; pensioners who heard that they were getting 2.5 per cent. would hardly have thought that the Government were picking and choosing which bits of their pensions to index and which bits not to. Can the Minister confirm that next year SERPS will be indexed fully in line with the RPI, and not clawed back as child benefit and disability living allowance have been? Can she also confirm that more than 10 million families and disabled people will, as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, be subject to a real-terms cut—by definition—between 2010 and 2011, because whatever the inflation rate in September 2010, the Government will put less than that on the benefit rates for 2010? That is a real cut; it must be. Will she confirm that?
Among the additional pension components is the graduated retirement benefit. That is not subject to contracting-out issues, so will the Minister confirm that she will index that benefit, which many older pensioners receive? I am sure that she will, because there is no reason not to.
Had we had a real-terms increase in 2010 for disabled people and families that was a permanent feature of the system, we would have welcomed it unreservedly. As it is, it is a temporary, pre-election feature of the system. It should have been made permanent. We all hoped that the statement today would make that clear; it is almost as if the Government are embarrassed about what they have done.
I am not embarrassed about a statement on uprating that, at a time of economic challenge and difficulty, puts £2 billion of extra resources into the pockets of people who are often the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. I am rather surprised that the hon. Gentleman could think that I would be.
The rise in retail prices-indexed benefits is not temporary, but real. It is happening in April next year instead of a zero increase. I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that we have been able to get extra resources now into the pockets of those on child benefit, disability allowance and incapacity benefit, rather than inflicting on them the zero increase that the RPI benefits would have left them with. We are helping 5.5 million people, and I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.
I confirm that we will increase SERPS indexation in line with the RPI; the question was simply whether we could, in the short space of time, give assistance with additional pension in that way. There would have been a difficulty with uprating the additional pension rather than holding it flat this year; it would have meant that the public sector would have got the increase, but that those responsible for private sector pensions, which are connected to this, would all have been planning for a zero-rate increase and would not have been able to increase their pensions in line with the increases we announced in the time available. We therefore felt that it would be better to do it in a more orderly way and keep additional pensions at zero for now. That does not mean that an increase connected to RPI will not come through in due course.
As someone who occasionally criticises the Government, I should say to my hon. Friend that one of the most impressive achievements of the Labour Government since 1997 has been to undermine pensioner poverty substantially. We should also bear in mind the winter fuel allowance, which was introduced almost from the moment at which Labour was elected. That compares well with the disgraceful poverty that pensioners had to face year after year during the last Tory Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I am certainly very proud to be part of a Government who are the first in our history to break the link between old age and poverty. People over 65 are now no more likely to face poverty than any other generation or age cohort in our society. That is a substantial achievement. I am also proud that instead of spending a mere £60 million on helping pensioners with their fuel bills—the situation we inherited in 1997—we now spend £2.7 billion a year on that, because of the introduction of the winter fuel payment.
May I direct the Minister’s attention to the group of pensioners who were very responsible during their working lives and established a quality and way of life funded not only by benefits or the state pension but by the savings they had made? Their quality of life has now been dreadfully undermined, because the rate of interest on savings has plummeted to almost zero. Are the Government and the Minister concerned about that group of people, who were highly responsible during their working lives but are now suffering? They cannot benefit from the announcements—announcements that I welcome—from the Minister this afternoon.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the announcements, which is more than his party’s Front-Bench spokesman did. The historically low interest paid at the moment, because of the economic situation we find ourselves in and the world finds itself in, has caused particular issues for those who rely on interest from savings in their retirement. We do our best to assist them—particularly, for example, by increasing the personal allowance thresholds, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor did in his Budget last year. That lifted another 600,000 pensioners out of tax altogether, and 60 per cent. of pensioners now pay no tax.
Although we are concerned about pensioners who rely on savings income, I should also say that 55 per cent. of pensioners receive less than £10 a week, or no income at all, from investments. In essence, today’s statement is more about them, as the hon. Gentleman himself acknowledged.
I warmly welcome this statement on benefits uprating; it is proof today that the Government have not abandoned the poor and vulnerable. I particularly welcome the uprating on state pensions. Some of us will recall Mrs. Thatcher’s being handbagged because of the Conservative Government’s disgraceful record for cutting pensions rather than upgrading them. Will my hon. Friend confirm that some analysts in the media are suggesting today that, when we take account of the RPI and inflation trends, the increase may be worth about 4 per cent. in real terms? Will she also confirm that the Government have done more to bring pensioners and retired people out of poverty than any Government since the introduction of the welfare state? A Tory Budget—
Order. This is becoming a speech.
I share my right hon. Friend’s passion for the results of our work on eliminating pensioner poverty. Pensioners are now no more likely to be poor than other age cohorts in our society. There is still more to do, which is why we continue to work to improve access to pension credit, to assist those who are still on low incomes.
I can confirm that, with the RPI at minus 1.4 per cent., the 2.5 per cent. increase is closer to 4 per cent. If he had chosen to, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor could have frozen the basic state pension; instead, he chose to increase it by 2.5 per cent.—and that is closer to a 4 per cent. increase, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) said. I know that across the country many of the spokespeople for our 11 million pensioners welcomed the announcement when they heard it in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s statement yesterday.
Earlier, during business questions, I asked about the level of winter fuel payments and was told to await this benefits uprating statement, but unfortunately there is nothing in it about that issue. I welcome the Government’s introduction of winter fuel payments and the increase in the basic state pension that has been announced. However, is there not a need for regular reviews on increases in winter fuel payments? Also, what about the £60 Christmas bonus for pensioners this year?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor always keeps in view the level of the winter fuel payment, which the Conservatives have called a gimmick but is £2.7 billion of real help that ensures that when the weather gets cold, pensioners do not have to worry about turning their heating up. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s view on that. On uprating, my right hon. Friend keeps that under review. When the winter fuel payment was first introduced it was £20; this year, it is between £250 and £400 for all people over state retirement age—substantial and real help for those who wonder whether they can get through the winter and worry about turning their heating up. There is no need for them do that because of the winter fuel payment, which should be arriving even as we speak.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in previous recessions stretching back to the ’70s, on every single occasion the people at the bottom of the pile have come off worse? This is the first time that those least able to weather the storm have come off better than many others, including—dare I say it?—some bankers who could have been hit even harder. Can I suggest to my hon. Friend that this is an example of fixing the roof even when it is raining for those least able to bear it?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s comments. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor was very clear in his approach to the pre-Budget report, of which this uprating statement is a very important part. He believes that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden of the challenges that face us in the economy at the moment. This uprating statement proves that he has delivered that in action.
Will the Minister take steps to end the scandal whereby British taxpayers are funding the now uprated child benefit payments to EU nationals who live in this country but whose children reside in their country of origin?
We keep these things under review. However, we are bound by EU reciprocal laws on social security that enable the 1.5 million UK citizens who live and work in the European Union to benefit in turn from local arrangements in the countries in which they work.
We all appreciate what the Government have done over the past 10 or 12 years in general terms in increasing benefits across the board. Having said that, coming back to the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), can my hon. Friend reassure me that she will keep the winter fuel allowance under review, bearing it in mind that oil prices and so on are starting to creep up?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is committed to keeping the winter fuel payment as the helpful benefit that it is. Its size has gone up consistently since it was introduced, and we now spend £2.7 billion a year on ensuring that older people need not worry about keeping warm in winter.
The Minister has a reputation for not trying to dodge a question and giving an honest answer. Will she therefore explain to the House whether, given that when we get to 2011 this year’s 1.5 per cent. increase is going to be disregarded, that means there will be a real cut of 1.5 per cent.? Could she be absolutely clear about that?
Flattery will get the hon. Gentleman to all sorts of places; I welcome his comment about my answering straight questions. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken action to ensure that 1.5 per cent. of money can be given to those on carers’ benefits, who otherwise, without the action he has taken, would have been facing a zero increase in today’s uprating statement. That assists 5.5 million people. This morning, when asked about what would happen in 2011, he said that we will have to decide in 12 months’ time what will happen for the next year. The hon. Gentleman knows that benefit upratings are held only on an annual basis, so we cannot speculate from this far away when we do not know what the rate of inflation will be and what the implications for uprating will be in 2011.
Obviously, 1.5 per cent. is more welcome than zero per cent., but for the carer’s allowance, which is particularly low, it is not very much. Can the Minister see a way towards pulling carers allowance up?
We can have some interesting debates about the interaction of benefits, but today we are talking about their uprating rather than changing their balance in the benefits system. We all know from our own constituency case loads of the crucially important work that carers do. That is why I am pleased to be at the Department for Work and Pensions when we are bringing in the historic changes that, from April next year, will credit carers into access to the basic state pension for their caring responsibilities. For the first time, it will be possible for someone who has cared for 30 years to get the credits to qualify in full for the basic state pension. I am very proud of that change, which this Government have managed to bring in.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In response to a freedom of information request for papers relating to Cabinet Committees dealing with devolution to Scotland and Wales, the Information Commissioner determined that those papers should be released. Today, Sir, the Lord Chancellor has laid a written ministerial statement indicating that he has used the veto that Ministers possess to prevent the release of those papers. In nine years, that veto was not used; it has now been used twice in one year. In this instance, it has been used before the matter has gone to an information tribunal, and the Lord Chancellor has not, as he did previously, come to the House to explain his decision in an oral statement.
I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Information Commissioner is likely to undertake a special report to Parliament. May I seek your guidance—perhaps if you cannot give immediate guidance, you might ask Mr. Speaker—as to how this special report, which is obviously of crucial importance, can be placed before the House for debate, because it is clearly inappropriate that such a report, which criticises the action of a Cabinet Minister, should be in the hands of the same Cabinet Minister in determining whether it should be placed before the House?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The papers referred to, which date from 1997, relate to devolution to Scotland and Wales, and also to the English regions. I have in my hand a certificate that the Secretary of State placed in the Journal Office today in which he takes the view that the public interest favours the continued non-disclosure of all the information concerned. Bearing that in mind, could we, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) requested, have some clarification as to the procedure for ensuring that any report that the Information Commissioner makes is not withheld by the Secretary of State but is made available to the House, because so far it does not appear to be accessible?
I have no prior knowledge of the point that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) have raised. Clearly, it is a very serious matter. It is not something that I can rule on now, but the House has certainly heard what they said, and it is clearly on the record. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench, and Mr. Speaker too, will want to look at the matter very carefully and decide precisely what course of action to take.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you heard whether there is to be a Statutory Instrument Committee meeting today to scrutinise the Flood Risk Regulations 2009, which are due to come into force today? Is it the Government’s wish for us to scrutinise them in the normal way?
I have to say the same thing to the hon. Lady. I have no knowledge that any statement of that kind will be made today, but again, the point that she has made is firmly on the record and I am sure that those responsible for these matters will take note of it.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you give me guidance on what the legal position is if a statutory instrument is not properly laid before Parliament, has not been properly consulted on with outside bodies and has not been properly scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament? Is that legal? Can such an instrument come into effect?
I think the hon. Lady is tempting me into all sorts of hypotheticals that I would be well advised to avoid. She has made the point, and as I said, I am sure that those who respond to these matters will look at it.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Concern has been expressed in various quarters of the House today and earlier about the treatment of private Members’ Bills and the time available for them to be discussed and processed in this Session. Can you do anything to ensure that they are properly debated and that proper time will be made available to deal with them?
I understand that the Leader of the House is looking very carefully at that situation to see precisely how it can be resolved. It is a very important matter, and it needs to be cleared up without delay.
[1st Allotted Day]
Vote on Account, 2010-11
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Students and Universities
[Relevant Documents: The Eleventh Report from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, HC 170, Session 2008-09, on Students and universities, and the Government’s response, HC 991.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2011, for expenditure by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—
(1) resources, not exceeding £9,653,466,000, be authorised, on account, for use as set out in HC 33, and
(2) a sum, not exceeding £11,071,732,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, to meet the costs as so set out.—(Mr. Heppell.)
I call Mr. Phil Willis.
What an august start to a debate—I am very grateful to you for making the historic decision to call me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I welcome this estimates debate on the report on students and universities that the then Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills published on 2 August. Although I recognise that many Members may wish to broaden the issue, I wish to keep my remarks to the report.
Far too often, the work of our universities is discussed in isolation from the very people who are the principal recipients, the students themselves. We often talk about research, institutions and organisations without mentioning the students, yet the quality of the experience that they get often not only determines their life chances but is critical to our nation’s future. At this time, it behoves all political parties to take the issue of quality and standards in our universities to heart.
The taxpayer contributes something in the region of £15 billion to our universities, and there are currently about 2.3 million students of different sorts in them. They make a significant contribution too, through the money that they pay universities. The question that my Committee asked was whether the taxpayer and the students got good value for money and whether it was a quality product. We strongly welcomed the initiative by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), when he was Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, of posing the question, “What do we want the higher education system to look like in 15 years’ time?” That was exactly the right question, and I compliment him for beginning that debate.
I wish to put on record that over the past 10 years, the higher education system has received a significant investment of resources, both in revenue and particularly capital. On the matter that the Select Committee on Science and Technology, as it now is, is particularly interested in, there has been huge investment in laboratory infrastructure and so on. I have started on a positive note, and I hope that the Minister has noted it.
We considered whether the student experience is truly world-class, as it is often portrayed. Although fees and funding frequently came into our deliberations, they were not part of our brief, so I shall not comment on variable fees. The Committee looks forward to the report of the review by Lord Browne of Madingley, which should inform the debate after the general election.
I pay tribute to the four members of the Select Committee who are present for the debate. I have to say that our inquiry and our final report have not been without controversy, and it is fair to say that our mailbag was not only large but contained extremely diverse responses to our recommendations. That is exactly what a Select Committee report should do—it should be able to create debate and, to some extent, controversy. I thank all those who contributed to the report, including vice-chancellors, academics and representatives of professional bodies. In particular, I wish to single out students. We met a great number who were an absolute pleasure to deal with, and I wish to put on record our appreciation to the National Union of Students, which constantly provided the Committee with high-quality evidence and was prepared to take on board a number of the criticisms that we made.
The Committee actively sought out innovative ways to engage with students. We visited universities, and at Oxford we even had the equivalent of a speed-dating session, at which we spoke to a number of students in different formats. We also held a major consultation for three months as part and parcel of our work. We were rigorous in taking evidence, but it was controversial. I therefore wish initially to remove some misunderstandings.
We had no intention of undermining what I and my Committee believe to be a world-class higher education system. Our criticisms are to try to improve it rather than undermine it. Given the rapid changes in the sector, which are likely to accelerate in future months and years, we wanted to add to the debate about the future of the sector. We were therefore somewhat surprised by the reaction of the Government and the higher education sector to our report. When it was published last August Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, was quoted in the press as saying that he did not “recognise the committee’s description” of universities. The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, who is in his place, was equally scathing about the fact that we had produced a report during the summer recess, which I found quite strange.
The Government echoed that line in their response to the report, stating at paragraph 1:
“We believe that the picture of our higher education system which emerged in the report was far less positive than is in fact the case.”
Universities UK was equally hostile to the report. Indeed, many parts of the higher education establishment appeared largely defensive and reluctant to engage in many of the issues. They gave the impression that Parliament somehow had no right to interfere in the product being delivered, and that we should just let them get on with it. Given the fact that we have put in £15 billion of taxpayers’ money, that attitude is frankly unacceptable.
Over the past few months the Government and the higher education sector, having dismissed many of our concerns, have quietly been getting on with implementing most of the key recommendations in the report. Perhaps that is the way things are and how the system works. I hope that the Minister will explain why there has been a change of heart—perhaps the Government were planning it in the first place. [Interruption.] I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) does not have swine flu just before Christmas.
I wish to deal with four matters, the first of which is the information available to prospective students, which is absolutely essential if they are to make informed choices about institutions and courses of study. We found that although universities’ prospectuses competed on their public relations appeal, they did not present information in a consistent format to allow easy comparison. We concluded that the sector should develop a code of practice on information for prospective students, which should cover the time a typical undergraduate student should expect to spend attending lectures and tutorials, in personal study and, for science courses, in laboratories during a week, and a clear indication of who would be teaching them.
The need for that information was brought home to us by a mature student doing a nursing degree, who pointed out:
“Getting a clear idea of the hours involved and when lectures would be was incredibly important to me because of child care.”
The sector has seen a huge growth in the number of mature students—post 21-year-olds—and part-time students, and those who study specific modules at a variety of different sites, and they need to be able to plan with certainty.
We did not recommend the standardisation of either courses or curricula. To do so would be to undermine university autonomy and academic freedom, and the core strength of our university system. To be fair, the Government responded fairly positively and agreed that it would be helpful for prospective students to have access to information concerning work loads. They have asked the Higher Education Funding Council England to examine the issues, in consultation with the sector.
By contrast, Universities UK appeared to see little need for change, stating:
“Universities have already put significant resource into publishing information for prospective students”.
That is true, but they said that the problem was students’ failure to navigate the information that was already there. We were therefore pleasantly surprised to see in HEFCE’s statutory responsibility for quality assurance report, which was published in October this year, that its teaching, quality and student experience sub-committee considered that:
“Institutions also clearly need to provide information in an appropriate common format. This should cover the nature and amount of staff contact that students may expect, the nature of the learning effort expected, the time this will take, and the academic support likely to be available.”
That is exactly what we had recommended in the report that was dismissed, so hallelujah! The Government, in their plan for the future of higher education, “Higher Ambitions”, which was published in November, on which I compliment the Minister, state:
“It is…important to ensure that potential students have the best possible information on the content of courses”.
We warmly welcome that.
The second area our report covers is the treatment of part-time and mature students. The failure of the current system to treat part-time students on the same basis as full-time students is, in effect, a form of discrimination. That is not only wrong, but it hinders the achievement of the Government’s objective of 40 per cent. of all adults in England gaining a higher education qualification by 2020.
Although we did not take extensive evidence from part-time students, there was a strong feeling that although some universities actively welcome them and make appropriate curriculum provisions, many do not. In the latter, students have to take what are effectively full-time courses in part, rather than appropriately designed modules.
Is not the real issue that as each year goes by, the distinction between full-time and part-time courses in terms of hours taught becomes increasingly irrelevant? In many universities and for many courses, it would be very difficult to distinguish clearly between a student attending a part-time course and a student attending full time? Many students on full-time courses will attend for fewer hours than students notionally on part-time courses.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why it is it is absolutely imperative for the review that is taking place to look at how we deliver higher education in totality and does not simply say, “Some students work part time and some work full time.” We certainly need to consider that. I hope the Minister will tell us in his winding-up speech that that, and not simply funding, will be addressed in the review.
We were disappointed that Universities UK did not address the matter in its response. To go back to what the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) said, one area we looked at in the inquiry was the delivery of modularised curricula, which means people can dip in and out over a longer period, accumulate credits and transfer them between universities. There were some very hostile reactions, particular from some in the Russell group of universities, which frankly did not participate in that more universal response.
We were pleased, however, that in “Higher Ambitions”, the Government stated:
“In order to attract a greater diversity of students, more part time study, more vocationally-based foundation degrees, more work-based study…and more study whilst living at home must be made available.”
I think we are making progress—I put that on the record in a spirit of co-operation.
The quality of teaching should be a core aspect of the undergraduate experience. It did not surprise us that the views of the students to whom we spoke ran the full gamut between complimentary and downright critical, but we were stunned by one constant criticism that came up time after time. One student said that
“university lecturers seriously need to take lessons from school teachers on how to teach. They are clever”—
that is a compliment—
“but they are not skilled at conveying the message.”
That is quite a powerful thing to say. It would clearly be inappropriate to have an Ofsted-type approach to teaching quality in universities—I fully accept that and we do not recommend such an approach—but it is important that the Government and the higher education sector draw up and implement arrangements applicable across the sector that would allow students to convey concerns about poor teaching, and ensure that universities take quick remedial action. We should empower students in that way. The Government should require universities, as a condition of support from the taxpayer, to have in place programmes to improve teaching quality and the effectiveness of all academic staff—I do not think that that would interfere with their autonomy—and there should be a review of the common practice in universities of using graduate students to teach, albeit in view of the main academic staff. That concern, which was raised by many students, clearly needs to be addressed.
The Government’s initial response was lukewarm, but it is fair to say that successive Higher Education Ministers have pressed universities on that issue and made money available to improve teaching. Although the Government said that they believe
“it is right that higher education institutions are responsible for ensuring their staff hold appropriate qualifications”—
the Minister has asked HEFCE to explore with the sector whether institutions’ human resources strategies provide adequate information about their approach to staff professional development—we feel that the Minister needs to take the issue of improving teaching quality seriously.
I value the work that the hon. Gentleman and his Committee did on the report. On his point about the involvement of graduate students in teaching or in support of the teaching effort, and linking it to what he is saying about professional development, is there a case for recognising the role that graduate and research students can play, and for actually structuring appropriate training and support, so that the quality of their teaching helps to raise the general standards?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Committee certainly did not say that we should not have graduate students teaching; we said that they should be properly trained. Quite often, their experience is nearer to that of the students’, and they can therefore have a much close interrelation. However, the idea that a person can suddenly teach at graduate level just because they have completed their degree is stretching things.
On my hon. Friend’s response to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), we also need to recognise that part of the problem is that many graduate students are told to teach, and they are expected to do so, perhaps while their supervisor is on sabbatical. They are not properly remunerated for it, which is bad for the person taught as well as for the graduate student.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. The reality is that we need to get a grip of the issue. We must not have teaching on the cheap. We would not get high-quality research on the cheap and we expect people to deliver those programmes, and that should apply to teaching.
It was disappointing that Universities UK accepted none of the criticisms on teaching in universities. It said in its response:
“In our experience, criticism of the quality of teaching and standards tends to be isolated and anecdotal, and not borne out by larger scale surveys such as the National Student Survey or the CBI survey of employers...nor the national data on complaints.”
None of those surveys asked those specific questions, so they did not get the answer. However, I am grateful to the Minister for recognising that the quality of teaching is important and that we need to do something about it.
The final area I wish to examine is standards. That issue has generated much heat in the media, though not as much light as I would have liked. In my view, a key role of a Select Committee carrying out an inquiry is to test the orthodoxies—a thankless task, but essential. The orthodoxies on standards in higher education as we perceived them are, first, that the UK’s international reputation is of strategic importance, and I think that we would agree with that. Secondly, universities themselves have the responsibility for maintaining the standards of their awards —again, we agree. Thirdly, maintenance of standards is integral to universities’ autonomy and that autonomy is the keystone of the sector. Fourthly, all universities have systems in place to ensure that courses are regularly reviewed and, fifthly, the Quality Assurance Agency conducts regular visits to universities to scrutinise how they maintain standards. Who could disagree? The system should therefore be perfect. However, what we found when we challenged those orthodoxies was a somewhat uncomfortable truth.
We found that the system in England for safeguarding consistent national degree standards in higher education institutions is out of date, inadequate and in urgent need of replacement. With even the head of QAA describing the degree classification as “rotten” and “not fit for purpose”, the issue needs to be taken seriously. The current arrangements with each university responsible for its own standards are perhaps no longer meeting the needs of a mass system of higher education in the 21st century with 133 higher education institutions and more than 2 million students.
One statistic sticks out like a sore thumb. The proportion of first class and upper second class honours degrees has steadily increased over the past 15 years, with the proportion of students achieving first class honours rising from 7.7 per cent. in 1996-97 to 13.3 per cent. in 2007-08. There may be good reasons for that, such as better teaching, harder-working students or a metamorphosis in students’ ability. However, there may be perverse reasons, such as universities inflating marks to keep their positions in the league tables. I hope that it is the former, not the latter. The short answer is that we do not know. That is the uncomfortable truth. Nor is there any appetite whatsoever to investigate the reasons for that significant degree inflation objectively.
When we asked Universities UK about the increase in the number of first class honours, the answers we got would shame a first year student in statistics:
“Universities UK acknowledged that there had been ‘a lot of talk and publicity on this in the last six months or so, about degree classification’, but told us that ‘the patterns of degree classification have not changed all that much over the last ten years—only a six per cent rise in the percentage of Firsts and 2.1s’”.
Ministers appeared to take at face value explanations about grade inflation without detailed analysis. In fact the figures showed a steady increase in the proportion of first degree students achieving first class honours—an increase over the period of 72 per cent. That needs explaining, but rather than engage with the issue, it seems that everyone prefers to look the other way and hope for the best. Why? The defence is always university autonomy. I am talking here about institutional autonomy, not academic freedom.
The Committee rightly dared to question the institutional autonomy of universities to set and maintain their own standards, not because we wanted to lead an onslaught on the autonomy of higher education, but because we found evidence that autonomy was, if anything, obscuring, if not undermining, quality and standards. As a Committee, we would defend vigorously the right of universities to maintain autonomy from the state and be the custodians of academic freedom. That is the unique strength of our university system and why it is admired around the world. But in return, universities must be able to provide clear, peer-reviewed evidence that they are the true custodians of standards too. They cannot have it just one way.
How we compare academic standards across different institutions is not easy, but simply to ignore the challenge is unacceptable. The evidence we received on assessment methodologies gave us serious grounds for concern. One witness told us that there is
“considerable variation across the higher education sector in assessment practices. Whilst this can be seen as a consequence of institutional autonomy, the rationales for the various institutional choices that have been made are unclear”.
We established that quite small variations in the way in which degree classifications are determined can have more effect on the classification of some students than was generally realised. One academic told us that
“my university runs what has been described as a very perverse model for classifying degree schemes. What happens is that low marks between 0 and 20 are rounded up to 20 and high marks from 80 to 100 are rounded downwards, and then they are averaged together, so you have this non-linear average before making a classification.”
If that is the basis on which we award degrees, something is wrong. There needs to be transparency and if the price of higher education organisational autonomy is a lack of transparency and inconsistent standards, we have to ask whether it is worth it?
Two pieces of evidence that we took from students and during the inquiry gave us real concern. First, different levels of effort were required in different universities to obtain degrees in similar subjects, which might suggest that different standards may be applied. Secondly, we came across some pointers that students in England spend significantly less time studying, including lectures, contact time with academic staff and private study, than their counterparts overseas. Our visit to the US confirmed that. We made no conclusion about these variations other than to ask that more research be done to examine whether these factors affect quality. That is not an unreasonable thing to ask. Sadly the Government said that they were
“not convinced of the usefulness of further...research”.
The only answer we were given by vice-chancellors, whose overseas market might be affected by declining quality, was that as international students continue to apply to our universities standards must be satisfactory. As we say in the report, we consider that it is
“absurd and disreputable to justify academic standards with a market mechanism”.
Of course, the defence of standards by both the Government and sector was the existence of the Quality Assurance Agency. But we found that the QAA focuses almost exclusively on processes, not standards. That is why we called for the QAA to be transformed into an independent quality and standards agency with a remit to safeguard, monitor and report on standards. We did not seek some standardised format that could mechanistically be monitored by an Ofsted-type organisation. Instead, a quality and standards agency would take up the challenge of maintaining standards across the sector rather than simply within individual institutions.
In reply the Government said:
“The Quality Assurance Agency...does a good job but needs to take on a more public-facing role and one which allows any concerns about quality or standards to be investigated quickly, transparently and robustly.”
That misses the point. It is not better public relations that are required for the QAA, but a better examination of standards.
In a discussion only two weeks ago, I was intrigued to hear the new chairman of the QAA, Anthony McClaran, outline a proposed consultation on key principles and processes for a revised quality assurance system. He said that the purpose would be to provide authoritative, publicly accessible information on academic quality and standards in higher education; to command public, employer and other stakeholder confidence; to meet the needs of funders and of autonomous institutions; to meet the needs of students; and to reply on independent judgment. Hallelujah! That is exactly what we have called for. Quite frankly, I am not bothered whether it is called the quality and standards agency or the QAA, providing those issues are addressed.
That was a useful exercise for the Committee to undertake and it pointed out several issues that need further discussion. The Committee recognised the strength of our higher education system and that to meet the needs of a 21st century, post-recession economy, the system has to work harder, better and to a higher standard than ever before. We have to compete with a US system and an Administration that has just put nearly an extra $1 trillion into higher education, and with China and India, which are putting untold wealth into producing not just widgets, but the highest intellectual quality. That is why we did the report and why we recommended it to the Minister. In that spirit, I hope that he will respond in an appropriately supportive way.
I thank the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee not only for the report before us today, but for the report by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, which he also chaired. There is no doubt that his Committee has a good reputation for holding Government to account. That is what Select Committees are about. He said that some Members might wish to go broader than his report, which I have read, and I intend to do so.
The thing about students and universities is that people need a university before they can discuss them. It is not a packed Chamber today, is it? However, the two hon. Members for Oxford constituencies—the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith)—are present. That says something about the fact that Oxford university is probably the most famous university in the world and has done tremendous things not only for Britain, but the world.
I am grateful—as too, I am sure, will be the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)—for my hon. Friend’s recognition of Oxford. However, my hon. Friend must remember, when talking about universities and Oxford, to mention both of them—Oxford university, and Oxford Brookes university and its excellent work.
But I shall try not to mention Oxford United.
I was elected MP for Carlisle in 1987. As a Cumbrian MP, I was faced with a particular challenge. More than 300 years ago, the area’s application for a university was turned down because of our warlike neighbours, the Scots; it was thought inappropriate to have a university so close to the Scottish border, so it was put in Durham. People in Cumbria long took it for granted that they would not get a university, as a result of which so few of our young people actually went to university, and many of those who did, such as Lord Bragg of Wigton, Hunter Davies, Margaret Foster and Sir Brian Fender, the great educationist, did not return for many years. That meant the area was being drained of its talent, which we needed to bring prosperity.
Soon after I was selected as a candidate, I went to a lecture by the vice-chancellor of Preston polytechnic, as it was then—it is now the university of Central Lancashire. He said that north Cumbria and south-west Scotland were the most deprived areas in western Europe in terms of higher education provision. When I was elected, therefore, one of the first things that I knew that we needed to do was to provide local people with the opportunity to study for a degree without having to leave home and to encourage others to study there.
I am grateful to a good friend of mine, the noble Lord Glenamara, who was then chancellor of the university of Northumbria. Ted Short, as he was called when a Member of this House, was the Education Secretary who took the decision to locate the university in the north of England in Lancaster, not in Carlisle. As a Cumbrian, he always regretted having to do that, but I think that it was the fault of the local authority.
I worked well with Lord Glenamara, and in 1992, we opened—he kindly asked me to open it with him—the Carlisle campus of the university of Northumbria in the historic quarter next to the cathedral. That was the first time people from my area and north Cumbria could get a degree in their own constituency. And it made a difference. I remember meeting a young girl who must have been in her mid-20s with a child of about eight—obviously, she had a baby very young—who was attending the university. She had a child to look after and was thrilled that she could do a degree and become a teacher. There was great satisfaction in that example.
When Labour came to power, my area got a brand-new hospital—the first private finance initiative hospital to be built in this country. However, the old district general hospital, which was a listed building, had no use. That could have been a disaster, because listed buildings with no use are, in many ways, a menace, as I know well. However, St. Martin’s college—one of the finest teacher-training colleges in Britain—which was looking to expand out of Lancaster, took over the old hospital. It is now a teacher-training section of the university of Cumbria.
We had the critical mass of facilities needed to build the university of Cumbria. My noble Friend Lord Dale Campbell-Savours, who at the time was the Member of Parliament for Workington, proposed a university of the Lakes, which in some ways was meant as a virtual university, but at the end of the day it was not successful, and a traditional university was chosen instead. However, for many years we had had a very good art college, which became the institute of art. We pulled those things together and two years ago we were able to say, “We have a university of Cumbria.” That was a magnificent day for many of us—as I said, the area had waited 300 years—and, as hon. Members can I imagine, we were rather pleased.
There is no doubt that the university has teething troubles. The buildings are spread throughout the county: it has two campuses in Carlisle; there is one in west Cumbria; another, called Newton Rigg—it used to be the old agricultural college—is out in Penrith; and there is a 115-year-old teacher-training college, Charlotte Mason college, in the Lake District at Ambleside. Those facilities were brought together, along with part of St. Martin’s college in Lancaster, to create the university of Cumbria. We are well aware that we need the university if we are to attract talent and business, and to keep that talent. That has gone very well, and I am thankful to the Labour Government for that provision.
There is, however, a difficulty about the location of the headquarters, which I think, being MP for Carlisle, and because it is by far the largest city in the area, should obviously be in the city of Carlisle. That was agreed, as too—finally—was the Caldew viaduct site, which I suggested many years ago. Everything was going well until the current economic problems. We now have an £8.4 million annual deficit and the capital moneys for the headquarters might no longer be available or its provision might be stalled. I find that puzzling, because as far as I am aware there has been no cut in the higher education budget, so it is not a question of the effect of the recession. Rather, there are obviously other issues at play, and over the past month or two the local media have highlighted the problems.
I have talked about the campuses at Charlotte Mason in Ambleside and at Newton Rigg in Penrith. One of my concerns is about the talk of mothballing those campuses and moving a lot of the staff and the teachers to Lancaster—to return to the 1960s, that was when Cumbria lost out to Lancaster, which is now probably one of the top 12 universities in the country. However, the reality is that we cannot have a university of Cumbria, the majority of whose students are in Lancaster. That will undermine the whole process.
I asked the new vice-chancellor—I sympathise with him, because he has not been in post very long—to come down on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation with Cumbrian parliamentarians from both Houses. I would like to ask the Minister, who is now in his place, whether he will have time after that meeting, probably early in the new year, to meet a delegation including myself and others to discuss the matter further. Although we have made great progress, we have a problem, and we have to come through it.
I recognise that the university of Cumbria has to build its own reputation. I suspect that it might be many years before it has the reputation that Oxford has, but that is what we must try to achieve. We must try to improve the university. However, we will overcome the problem. The university has stalled, but it will continue; indeed, other great strides have been made during this time. Before 1997, we did not have any medical training whatever in Cumbria. We are now part of a medical school and are training medical students. We also have a campus of the new dental school based in Liverpool, so we have made amazing strides and we are looking forward to the future.
What I would say to those hon. Members who take universities for granted is that there are parts of this country that have been deprived for centuries. We are getting over that, but we should not lose the impetus. We should continue to strive to make higher education available to as many people as possible.
I congratulate the Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), on introducing this debate and on his leadership of our Select Committees, which has been much appreciated. May I also commend the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who came into the House on the same day that I did in 1987? He has stuck up for his constituents and made an important point, to which I will obliquely return later.
It occurred to me in preparing for this debate that it is almost exactly 17 years to the day since I became the Further and Higher Education Minister, in the then Conservative Government. And, for the record, it is now nearly 15 years since I stopped being that Minister. I realise that that is a mere blink of an eye in the history of institutions as venerable as Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrews. Nevertheless, I am staggered by how many of the issues remain current. It is rather like the gentleman from Salamanca university in the late middle ages who was locked up by the Inquisition for five years and resumed his next lecture with the deathless words: “As I was saying yesterday”.
When I was doing the job as the Higher Education Minister, I was very much involved in higher education quality issues and issues of access to higher education. It would not be generally known, because it was private correspondence, but my first request through my private office on becoming Minister was for further information on the socio-economic background of participants in higher education at that time. One therefore should not feel that we are talking about a matter of interest to just one or two parties. It is remarkable to me, looking over that period, how little has changed with the institutions that we are dealing with—and in certain cases, the personalities we are dealing with. At the same time, however, the sector has undergone major expansion since the 1990s, which has been superimposed on the rapid expansion that began in the 1960s after the Robbins report and was accelerated in the 1980s, so that, in rough terms, we now have between 10 and 20 times as many students as in my days as an undergraduate.
I suppose that we should declare any current interests. First, I was a member of the previous Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills. I signed the report and in no way do I resile from our conclusions. For the reason that the Chairman of that Committee has outlined, we needed to be pretty trenchant in what we said. As for my personal interest, I suppose that I should declare that I am a graduate of Oxford university, as we are well represented here. At the same time, my wife comes from an educational background in the Principality, as some hon. Members might be aware. I am also a governor of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff. I say that not as some statement of virtue—although it is a hugely engaging, interesting and constructive job—but, I hope, as a validation of a certain range of interest in higher education across the piece.
Anyway, it is far too late in my political career for any covert elitism or for making elaborate gestures against alleged dumbing down, or even any in favour of it. Nor am I particularly interested in megaphone diplomacy with Universities UK about alleged strengths and weaknesses. What seems practical is that we should recognise the strengths and find practical and useful ways of mitigating the weaknesses, always operating within the context of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Even if we have been quite harsh and blunt as a Select Committee in some parts of our report and its press release, it is entirely proper that we have challenged some of the conventional wisdom and any element of defensive complacency. To quote from almost my first speech as an ingénu Minister, from about the first time that I was let out and considered safe enough to speak in public, “The days of the unaccountable professional are over.” That was true in 1993, and it is still true.
In relation to my work as a governor of the institution that I have mentioned, perhaps I might also advert the fact that I am particularly proud that one of the bits of our mission statement is that governors should act as the safeguards and guardians of the philosophy of dissent. It is terribly important, and entirely consistent with the principles and values of higher education, that we should have a debate about such matters. We should bring them out and not seek to push them under the carpet.
I would like to begin my remarks by putting three points firmly on the record, in case they are misunderstood. The first point—I say this in no sense to soften up the opposition to our report or another view to it, wherever that might come from—is that the British university system, although not faultless, is an overall success story on almost all counts, including student numbers, which have already been referred to, and completions of degrees. We have a low drop-out rate and high participation and success. We have major international participation, which has also been referred to, and, at the same time, we sustain research excellence well above our weight. Some of the great continental universities—the Parises, the Bolognas and the Bonns of this world—have tended to fall behind simply because they have fallen victim to the coils of bureaucracy and inadequate resourcing.
Last time I said something good about British higher education, it coincided with a lecture tour that I was giving in the states of the former East Germany. I delivered a speech in Halle, which was duly picked up by The Times Higher Education Supplement, which gave me the headline—shock, horror!—“Minister goes to East Germany to say nice things about British higher education”. However, it was and remains my view that those comments are appropriate.
My second general point is that Kingsley Amis got it wrong when he said “More will mean worse.” In my earlier days, I would perhaps have said that “More will mean different”, and I would now modify that message only slightly to read “More means more diverse.” To take my own institution, the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, as an example, we have just been under the hammer of the Quality Assurance Agency because of our application to be awarded research degree-awarding powers. We were awarded those powers on 7 September, and we are now proceeding with an application for university status and title. It was an intense process, involving the engagement of specialists, the entire academic body and the governance of the institution; it was no soft touch.
However, obtaining those research powers does not preclude our institution from offering initial teacher training or being actively involved with further education colleges. It is not an either/or situation. Sometimes, when we talk about diversity in the system, we do not always recognise that it can exist not only across different institutions but within an institution, where different departments are doing particular things according to their own strengths.
In any case, I do not think that it would be acceptable to revert to some kind of rosy, cosy myth of an Edwardian university, with donnish obscurity plus a few self-indulgent, privileged undergraduates. Even if we wanted to do that—I do not believe that anyone does—we could not, because there is now a huge stakeholding in higher education across society. The aspiration to get one’s children into higher education has now become a kind of middle class entitlement. The issue is whether those from other classes and backgrounds can match that. In addition, a dynamic economy requires a significantly graduate population.
The third issue that I want to mention is that of institutional autonomy. In evidence, Dr. John Hood, in particular, averted to the changing character of autonomy. As the Chairman has already said, our Select Committee attached importance to those observations. I am slightly sorry that the Government have rejected the idea of a concordat on this subject. Even if the Minister is not in favour of that, he needs to impose a self-denying ordinance above and beyond any legal constraints that he might have.
I want to endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of that recommendation to review the meaning of autonomy. In some areas, there is not enough autonomy; academic freedom is under threat and needs to be safeguarded. In others, however, the taxpayer is entitled to expect universities not to hide behind their autonomy if they are unwilling to engage in evidence-based processes that would widen participation or improve standards.
I entirely endorse the spirit of that intervention. It is better that we should look at this subject properly, and not in an hysterical way. To make a general point about educational debate, it is, paradoxically, often expressed in terms of an either/or situation: either one is completely in favour of autonomy or one is against it. Such false polarities characterise so many of these debates, and we should look at the matter objectively.
In any case, the Minister needs to hold himself back, and he and his colleagues in the devolved Administrations need to look at the activities of their funding bodies. There is evidence that they collectively hanker after centralised planning functions, which, in my view, they are ill equipped to discharge, and possibly legally constrained from so doing.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a thoughtful contribution to our considerations. Does he agree that the best expression of autonomy is when autonomous bodies collaborate, and that the funding mechanisms need to pump-prime, or at least catalyse, that kind of collaboration, which is a celebration of autonomy, not its negation?
That, too, was a hugely helpful intervention. We are beginning to build up a picture. We really must stop telling people in higher education what they have to do, and leave them to make the right decisions. That is not meant as a threatening remark. If we are to implement reforms, they need to achieve buy-in from academics and institutions, whose confidence in the system we must retain, and whose self-confidence we must not subvert in the process. We do not want an infantilised HE system that is simply told what to do.
Having cleared those preliminaries, I want to speak to three areas of policy. At first sight, they might seem disparate, but I believe that, when viewed from a wider perspective, they hang together. The first is the quality assurance system, to which the Chairman has already referred at length. As I have mentioned, I played a part in this. In some respects, it has come under increasing strain: first, conceptually, because it is still not clear from the evidence—it was not clear to me when I was a Minister—how we compare a first in one discipline with a first in another, or firsts obtained from different institutions. These are difficult “apples and pears” questions to respond to.
Operationally, there is also a lack of clarity. We need to be aware that there is a temptation, or a tendency, towards upwards academic drift, about which we have already heard. At one end, that might involve the Russell group, with its higher proportion of firsts; the other end might involve some of the hairier anecdotes that we pick up and occasionally hear in evidence about courses that have been “stuffed”.
I know from our own work that there are some interesting dilemmas between the extent to which one should try to get people in for access reasons—through clearing, for example, and by other means—as against the maintenance of standards. It is an interesting question: do we want the proportion from clearing to rise, to remain at the same level, or to drop? The answer is not necessarily the same for all institutions.
We need to achieve a system that delivers more perceived autonomy and that also has more teeth to deal with cases of alleged failure. We have also heard examples of that. We have allies in this matter, and, in some respects, things are easier than they used to be. We now have the national students survey, which I welcome. We also have local student feedback. We must bear in mind that students are now stakeholders, because they are paying fees. I know that some universities are concerned about people going to a TripAdvisor-type system and rating their professor, as happens in some American institutions. I do not think that we could stop that. My own family would certainly use TripAdvisor to check out a hotel, and I do not think it unreasonable for someone to check out their professor as well, as long as they did not take everything that they read on such feedback sites literally.
As Universities UK mentioned in its response, money spent on quality assurance has opportunity costs. The Government’s proposed cuts in the higher education budget are likely to drive a wish to achieve value for money, but we need to ask how much money we should spend in order to save money. I would be inclined to go against the message from the Select Committee and give the external examiner system one last chance. If we were to do that, we would need some kind of external, central involvement in spot-checking, outside the system, perhaps involving inserting an extra examiner from time to time.
I would also like to see some international participation. People will immediately comment that no one other than ourselves has an external examiner system. That might be true, but if such a system is a virtue for us, it could be educational for us to have someone coming over from Bonn university, or Rimini, or wherever. It could also be a useful way of cross-checking our own achievements. Are we as good as we think we are? That is the question that we have to keep asking. Our potential students will also ask it, whether they come from the United Kingdom or abroad. As the new chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, Anthony McClaran, has already reported, there are signs that the agency will place greater emphasis on institutional audits, as well as the alternative route of cause for concern inquiries. This is perhaps the more fruitful area for levering up standards.
I have mentioned the great efforts that my institution had to make to get itself accredited for research degree-awarding powers. The logic is that institutions should go through a re-accreditation process in a way that would be quite familiar to American universities, up to and including Harvard. I am not sure that we need to go that far, but I believe that there needs to be a slight element of precariousness in degree-awarding powers. They are bestowed, but they should also be able to be suspended or withdrawn with good cause.
It is perhaps ironic that I am leaning towards a two-tier structure with a re-introduction of some of the old distinctions between HEFCE as the funding council and the Higher Education Quality Council, which was run by the academic world, before the two in effect came together in the QAA. I acknowledge that the taxpayer has a perfectly proper interest in seeing that the £15 billion of public funds are well spent and that students are getting degrees with at least a minimum threshold standard, while the institutions operate to proper and internationally acceptable standards of academic commitment and governance. I want to emphasise the need for governance to be coincident with the academic effort. If governors are not talking to the academic board, they should be.
Beyond that threshold issue, or above it, the academic world itself both wants and claims to be able to manage a quality assurance system within its own institutions and by reference and audit across. This needs to be academically driven and focused on meeting quality standards. That needs largely to be influenced not so much by some comparison with a Platonic norm, as by compliance or otherwise with the academic goals and aspirations set by the institution itself including what it asks of and or promises to deliver to its student body. I am not so interested in a sort of Gertrude Stein-ish “A first is a first is a first” as a definition of common quality standards. I am interested in the double questions: in a degree from a certain university, first, is there something that has currency—the national interest test—and, secondly, does the course meet the needs and aspirations of students, which is the user test?
That brings me to qualifications. Part of the enhanced diversity to which I referred is the explosion of activity at all levels. In my days as an undergraduate, it would almost have been possible to claim no acquaintance with mature students at all and not very much with graduates. Now the whole system has opened up, with huge participation in higher degrees, mature students and part-time students, all on different courses and with their activities co-existent. These may range, for example, from diplomas and foundation degrees, which I now feel, having been an earlier sceptic, are one of the better innovations of the present Government, through, first, undergraduate degrees—the classic degree—to taught masters’ degrees and doctorates. Remember also the huge range of opportunities for short courses and continuing professional development qualifications. My own institution is quadrupling its CPD effort over the next few years.
I am sure that we are right to call for a closer look at the integration or at least the concentration of policy between further and higher education and more generally within the framework of post-compulsory education and lifelong learning. We need to drop what I used to characterise as “Go at 18 for three years and you’re out”, and develop a much more flexible framework to meet the needs of students, including those returning to study after a break and, of course, those in remote parts of the country to whom the hon. Member for Carlisle referred; Cornwall is the same sort of issue. We need to meet the needs of employers, and they operate in localities as well.
Into this area falls the need for better transcripts of actual attainment rather than the current classification system that no longer seems fit for purpose; we have been told that as if we did not need to work it out for ourselves. We need a properly functioning credit system that carries credibility and is accepted, and a proper national record of achievement. I sometimes ask myself why we got that far by 1993 but have got no further forward since. As academics would certainly say, Rome was not built in a day, but all of this agenda has been, to my knowledge, at least 20 years in the gestation.
Finally, I want to refer to students themselves. They are now a major force in society, even in politics, and, very largely, a force for good, both now in their student days but also as developed and empowered citizens as graduates. Certainly those we met during our evidence gathering gave an excellent account of themselves and, in doing so, revealed the diversity of roots and backgrounds that now characterise the sector.
What does the hon. Gentleman say to the critics who would compare the activity and work of our students with other students in other countries and suggest that our students do not work hard enough?
I would always take that with a measure of scepticism, although not always from the hon. Gentleman, but this kind of thing needs analysis. Even within our own student sector, the word on the street is that some courses, some universities and some types of approach are much more or less demanding than others. It is a bit odd that this has arisen through a quality framework that is supposed to be delivering not a uniform product but a product to uniform principles, if I may put it that way.
Would not it be appropriate at this juncture to place on the record our appreciation of those aspects of student activity that do not so often capture the headlines in our local press or come to us in our mailbags—the enormous contribution that students make to charitable work, community activity and to politics, as well as to sporting activities in the areas served by the universities? That work greatly benefits local civic society.
I hugely agree. It is very important. To be frank, I doubt very much whether I would be a Member of Parliament now had I not participated in junior common room activity at university and done things that were, frankly, probably more educational than the courses that I may, or may not, have taken at that time. Let us celebrate that and not be mealy-mouthed about it. It is good news and, as I said, a force for good.
One only has to be a constituency MP to be sensitive to the pressures that are now coming on to students. The House knows that we did not engage on the fees issue ahead of Lord Browne’s review; it would have been improper and unhelpful to do so. But, without being pointed to the Minister, it would be difficult to overlook the known problems with the Student Loans Company and the recent Office for Fair Access report on the widespread lack of awareness of bursaries even when they were on offer. Whatever eventual student support package is hammered out has to be fair, affordable and sustainable.
On the access issue, there are two levels. One is touched on in the report: the admission of students with regard to their own context and background. The second, which is much more difficult to identify, is what I might call the non-admission of students who have never been encouraged to apply in the first place and whose experience of the state education system seldom, if ever, gave them a chance to do so. There is a chilling effect, as well the pressures on students who do get in.
Across the student scene, the quality issues to which I have referred will be pointed and aggravated by the squeeze on public funding, about which we heard yesterday. Clearly a cut of public support for higher education on the scale envisaged—£600 million, I gather—even if it has been heavily discounted in advance and if prudent higher education institutions have factored it into their planning, is likely to change many aspects of the scene quite radically. I hope that, as the report suggests, we will encourage Lord Browne in what seems to be his widening remit to look at some of the wider issues, not just the tuition fees issue on its own.
We touched in our report on the issues of postgraduates, overseas students and, my own particular interest, part-time students, who already make up a major, or even in some cases a preponderant part of the student body in many institutions. Trying to meet their needs and the needs of our future society will need a radical and more flexible approach. I hope that in due course we can look afresh at the unique importance of the student support package. Frankly, the Education Act 1962, when I was an undergraduate, is still the driver of all this. The good old ship has gone along for 47 years, collecting barnacles, wrinkles and all the other things that good old ships have, but occasionally they have to be taken to the breakers’ yard and we have to start again.
Our entire concept of funding, and of the regulation of student numbers, is driven by this good old model, yet the reality is that student life is now far broader and more diverse than ever it was then. To cater for the conventional cohort—for the students the media still write about—is often to neglect the legitimate interests of other students. The entire locus of business, further education, skills acquisition and the needs of the future economy are simply not factored in. I personally would favour initiating a process of shifting—over time, I stress—to a package of support for all post-compulsory education together. That would need to be largely student-driven, and it would include entitlements to public funding based on entry qualifications and neutral as to the mode and time of delivery, topped up with student savings, inputs from employers, and any top-up national or local public funding to meet specific needs.
There are, perhaps, welcome signs of the Government, in their present economic difficulties, moving towards this—I heard the Chief Secretary being interviewed on “Newsnight”. Sadly, however, this is largely motivated by the need to make cuts, rather than by a desire to enhance the role of students and their universities, but this mode of thinking in responding to these much more diverse needs is nevertheless right. Also, although the Minister undoubtedly faces difficulties ahead, he must plan for happier times as well, and I detect a real readiness among higher education institutions to get on with that job.
In all of this, I am conscious of the need to work with the grain of academic opinion and student interests. No Minister in the United Kingdom should claim to deliver higher education, and no Minister should aspire to do so over the heads of those who actually do deliver higher education. Furthermore, no Minister should wish to ride roughshod over academic interests in the cause of the nostrum of the day.
There is a perfectly proper role for Parliament in acting on behalf of the taxpayers, and that is one of the jobs our Select Committee has decided to try to advance. We have a right and a duty to inquire about, and call for, appropriate changes and developments, but the House will not expect me, at this late stage of my parliamentary career, to shun the importance of the great institutions that we have at all levels, or to denigrate their palpable achievements to date.
I was one of those non-grammar school boys who were fortunate enough to be admitted to the university of Hull in 1958. In those days, there were only 23 universities. This report talks a lot about access, but access to universities is a lot easier today than it was in 1957 when I was due to matriculate. I must admit that I had never heard of the word “matriculate”; I thought it was a medical term, but I soon realised how hard matriculation really was, because in those days in order to get into university it was necessary to have an O-level in a foreign language. Greek and Latin were preferred, but French would also be accepted. However, my only language was “Lancky”, and getting into a white rose university when speaking with a strong Lancashire accent was even more difficult.
However, I made it to the university of Hull, and it was a life-changing moment, such as everyone has. There are only a few truly life-changing moments. Coming to this place was another one for me, but going to university was the most life-changing moment. I think that is true for almost every young person who is fortunate and privileged enough to go to a university.
Going to university is not just about gaining a qualification. I went to university to graduate as a chemist. I wanted to study chemistry ever since I got my first chemistry set at the age of 11. That is all I wanted to do, and the chemical industry was looking for thousands of graduates in chemistry, so my reason for going to university was plain and simple. However, I realised soon after entering university that it was about more than getting an education. I was from a small country village. I had never met a black or Asian person, or a Buddhist or a Muslim. I met them at university, however. I was fortunate enough to be admitted to Ferens hall on the Cottingham road site of the university of Hull, and I was thrown together not with my chemistry colleagues, but with lawyers, philosophers and mathematicians from all over the world—Mauritius and Canada, for example. I send a lot of Christmas cards now, which is very expensive, but I do not mind because I have kept in contact with all the fabulous people I met. I learned about their culture and their opinions.
I was also surrounded by Tory students. My family had always been strong socialists. I did not go to university to be a politician, but I soon became one, because I had to defend my opinions against other people strongly expressing theirs. That was the case all around the university.
The library was fabulous, with row upon row of books. I did not browse only the chemistry stacks; I looked at all the other books, too, although I could not read them all, as there was not enough time. We have to realise that, for every student who goes to university, the experience is much more than studying the subject. Of course I studied hard—I had to—but I learned so much. It was a true life-changing experience.
Halls of residence are important in this regard. So many of our students now live in terraced housing in the cities, sometimes four or five in a house, and they learn from each other, of course. However, I learned a lot more by being in a hall of residence, and I regret the fact that we are not building student accommodation on the same scale as in the past. It was not cheap, either, by the way. Of course, I was lucky enough to get a grant, as I came from a family with a modest income. That is why I was always cautious about grants and fees, and I still am cautious in the debate about top-up fees—a topic I may return to soon.
In those days, there was also a certain deference to members of staff. We could not challenge some of the professors, as they were elitist. That is something else that has changed—and for the good, in my opinion. Students are much more challenging today. They are much more willing to challenge their professors and lecturers about their opinions. When I was lecturing at university, I always said to my students, “Don’t believe every word I am saying or every word you read in the textbook. I am only giving you today’s opinion. Tomorrow’s opinion might be different.” I think all lecturers should get that message out clearly to all their students.
Another difference between now and then is that there were far fewer courses to choose from. The prospectuses were half as thick as they are today, and it was fairly easy to choose a subject to study. Today, however, prospectuses contain a mind-boggling variety of combinations of courses. As the Chairman of our Select Committee, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), has already said, some prospectuses are not very well laid out. I think that students are drawn to the more attractive prospectuses, however, and universities are now realising that one way to attract good students is to produce a colourful prospectus with lots of clearly laid out information.
There are far more students nowadays, too: 2.3 million of them, as has been said. Consequently, lecturers are having to teach much larger groups. I have lectured in a lecture theatre to groups of 100 people, mainly coming in from different departments for a lesson on an ancillary subject. I would not like to lecture to 100 or 200 students regularly, however, because the personal contact between lecturer and student is very important. It is particularly important in tutorials, but nowadays tutorial groups are very large, sometimes with 20 or 30 students. I used to have groups of five or six, and I got to know all my students quite well. I was therefore able to know their abilities and classify them almost before they got their degree classifications—without telling them, of course. The move to teaching larger groups of students at universities has taken away some of that important personal contact.
Does this changed dynamic the hon. Gentleman describes—the altered relationship between teacher and taught—not emphasise the need for us to be clear about the quality of teaching and learning, as the Select Committee report argues?
Yes, I absolutely agree. It is okay to lecture to large groups, but university teachers must be able to meet students in smaller groups as well. It is also extremely important to have tutorials run by a lecturer, rather than by a graduate student, which is increasingly the trend today.
Our report also talks about plagiarism, which has not been mentioned yet. We talk to students and lecturers alike about plagiarism, which is undoubtedly on the increase. It is a much bigger problem today than in my day, but it existed then. Let me tell hon. Members a little story. As a chemist, I used to give unknown chemicals to my students, and they had to go and analyse them chemically and with instrumentation. I would give them compound No. 24, for example, and they would come back with a perfectly written account, with the right answer at the bottom, about what chemical it was. I had a very bright student who always came back with the right result. His copy was absolutely perfect—I could not fault it—but I became very suspicious of him. I thought that he was picking up the practical books of students from former years, finding out exactly which chemical compound No. 24 was, and giving me the right analysis. He was plagiarising. So I decided to crush some Polo mints up and give them to him as compound No. 36. He came back with a perfect analysis for compound No. 36, only to be very disappointed when I said, “I don’t know how you’ve got that, because what I gave you was just Polo mints.”
We have to be careful about plagiarism, which is harder to pick up today. Some lecturers have told us that they can pick out, with complicated computer programmes, students who are plagiarising, but I think that students are smarter than computers.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the House deserves to know whether the student he mentioned got a first at the end of his degree? Secondly, he will remember that when he and I were university teachers, new ways of teaching and learning might not have arrived, but we were not taught or given any instruction about how to teach.
My hon. Friend’s latter point is absolutely true. In answer to his first point, I have conveniently forgotten.
Another sad thing about universities today is the fact that academic staff are not encouraged to take on extra-mural activities. The postgraduate side of work has killed that, and the research assessment exercise, which is now known as the REF—research excellence framework—exercise. In my time, academics were positively encouraged to get involved in the community and to be councillors. I was a councillor for 21 years. I still did the same amount of teaching as all my colleagues and I still ran a research group, but I felt comfortable enough to do another job, as well, which I hope was of benefit to my local community. Academics were also encouraged to be justices of the peace on the bench of the local magistrates court, and to be school governors. I picked up an interest in demonstrating my chemistry knowledge and did a famous “magic of chemistry” show once a month for 29 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) has seen that show in Huddersfield city hall.
Today, however, because of the pressures on academic staff, they rarely get involved in the community. I was a safety officer for 13 years in my chemistry department, which was the largest in Britain. As such, I was often asked to investigate deaths, fatalities, explosions and fires to give a chemical analysis of what had happened. I investigated the burning down, in Manchester, of the biggest coffin factory in Britain, and I investigated a fatality in a small dye house in Brighouse, in Yorkshire. That wide-ranging experience meant that I was able, as a lecturer, to excite the students by giving anecdotes in between all the facts they needed to acquire from me. Universities have changed enormously, and academic staff and students have a lot more pressure on them today than I ever had.
In the past 10 years, under Labour Governments, we have had a 21 per cent. expansion in the number of students in universities, so access has become a lot easier for many people in that time. We have increased the amount of money spent on universities by 25 per cent.—in real terms, taking inflation into account—so I am very pleased with the way in which universities have developed in my time in Parliament.
I would like to take a pop at vice-chancellors, who have been very sensitive about the report—some more so than others. I should like to say to the people who have been caught by the report that if they have been a bit upset by it, we have done our job, because the only Select Committee reports we have ever done any good with are those that generated a lot of controversy. We once announced to the Royal Society that we were going to look at how it spent public money. My goodness, what an uproar there was! People asked how we dared to look at the Royal Society and the cream of scientists in Britain, but they were spending public money. In the end, the report was good, but it created a lot of debate and discussion about the Royal Society. I think that we helped to put it on the map. Some people had never heard of it. Similarly, this report has generated a lot of criticism and debate, but that is all to the good and is for the health of students and universities, both of which are the subject of the report.
Let me address some further comments to the vice-chancellors. The other day I saw a graph of salary rises for ordinary workers in all organisations and of salary rises for those who manage those organisations, which were well ahead. By the way, I declare an interest in this matter. I am a member of the University and College Union, so I speak from that point of view. If one looks at the way in which the salaries of vice-chancellors and academics have risen, there is no comparison between the two. I heard yesterday that public sector salaries were going to be pegged back to 1 per cent. next year, but I do not think that the salaries of vice-chancellors, and of chief executives of housing associations and other public bodies, will be pegged back to 1 per cent. I hope that they will, but I do not think so. Of course, I shall be reminded that they are independent organisations and that we cannot control the salaries of vice-chancellors—or can we? After all, we control the salaries of the staff who work for them.
Moving on, the relationship between teaching and research is discussed in the report. I have always believed, and still do, that it is important for teachers to be at the cutting edge of their subject. As far as I am concerned, with the odd exception, the only way of being at the cutting edge of one’s subject is to do research, or through scholarship, which I accept is equal to research in some subjects. I found, by doing research in my subject and learning about what was happening in every laboratory all around the world, I could put on special courses for my third-year students about big molecules and carbon-60—and that was before Harry Kroto got his Nobel prize. That sort of thing excited my students, because they could see the frontiers of their subject advancing and many, although not all, of them wanted to do research. It is important to be at that cutting edge as a lecturer, so that one can pass on one’s enthusiasm and passion for the subject that students want to know about.
I always found that the lecturers whom the students complained about—there were a lot of bad lecturers in the universities and perhaps there still are, although I hope there are fewer—were often those who came in from 9 till 5, did not work there during the summer vacation doing research and just did the basic job. I do not think that that can be done any more, but there must undoubtedly be some bad teachers out there. If research is done in a university, there is not only better teaching but a better library, because the researchers are aware of all the new publications and insist on the library putting them online or buying them in. For STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects in particular it is important to have a good library, but I think that is true of all subjects.
What can we do about bad teachers? I sat on the promotions committee of the university of Salford for more than 10 years, and I had to judge the best and worst teaching across departments, so I thought that I knew who the better and the bad teachers were. The problem was there, even though students and lecturers could complain and complain when they did not think someone was pulling their weight. Our report flagged this issue up. What can we do about poor teachers teaching undergraduates in universities? The universities have not really grasped the problem, but when teachers are flagged up early in their career as bad, it may not be entirely their fault. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield asked, what kind of training do they get? Some universities are still not unplugging these people and putting them into professional development programmes. Our report flags that up, and the universities really ought to take notice of it.
My hon. Friend is getting to the heart of the matter. Does he agree that the incentives to be a good university teacher are still very small? In contrast, publishing often very mundane articles in obscure journals has become such an industry, and is so well rewarded by universities, that teaching is still neglected.
In my time, we did not differentiate between the three areas of teaching, administration and research. We had to do a bit of each, but that has declined in universities. People who can produce papers give their university a good reputation, and ironically the universities think—and I do too—that that attracts better students. Research has always been given a lot more importance than teaching, and that is even more true today. That is a shame, and I agree with my hon. Friend.
Our report also deals with contact times: when students are able to meet their teachers in the lecture theatre or the tutorial room. They vary enormously from one university to another, even within the same subject. At some universities and in some subjects, the contact times amount to about six or seven hours a week only. What are we teaching students? I used to have friends who believed that they could ignore lectures—they could not ignore practicals, which they had to attend—and still get a good degree. There are not many of those people around, of course, but I think that six or seven hours a week is a poor level of contact time in any subject. We must remember that we are looking for value for money. Some students pay full fees, so “value for money” is an important phrase—sadly, in my opinion.
In yesterday’s pre-Budget report, a £600 million cut in the budget for higher education and science was announced, which the supporting papers say is to apply to “lower-value or lower-priority” programmes. I am not sure what that means, and if my hon. Friend the Minister can help us with that this afternoon, I am sure that many people in the academic system would be pleased.
Our report also talks about portable credits, another matter that has to do with access. The university of Bolton, which I represent, has one of the best access programmes of any university in Britain. The trouble at the other end, by the way, is that it has one of the worst drop-out rates. It gets praised for its access, but criticised for its drop-out levels. We really have to address that problem, and our report suggests a way out—the introduction of portable credits.
I have talked to many students who have studied both part time and full time at my local university. Some of them have to drop out for all kinds of reasons. For example, a student may have to drop out to take over a business when there is a death in the family. Again, women may have to leave to have children, or wives or husbands may have to follow their partners to another town when that partner gets a new job. Consequently, the students have to drop out of their local university course.
For a lot of people, particularly in communities such as mine, it is very difficult to stay at university and get a full-time, three-year degree. It is almost impossible for many. Part-time study is a boon for them, but even that can be difficult: people might have to drop out of even part-time study for a thousand and one reasons.
The report encourages universities to give credits for every part of the courses that students do, so that people can take the credits from one university to another, or even come back into the same university a few years later. We have to look at that if we are really serious about ensuring access to universities and degrees.
I have to congratulate the Government, as the infrastructure in universities today has improved tremendously. I am on the external advisory board of Manchester university’s school of chemistry, and I visit quite regularly. The transformation of that university in the last decade has been so spectacular that I have not been able to believe what I have seen on my visits. I congratulate the Government on putting a lot of money into the infrastructure. I have even opened new laboratories that are state of the art.
Incidentally, one of the criticisms that industry often makes of students of STEM subjects concerns the university laboratories where we train them in techniques and instrumental procedures. If those laboratories are not as good as the industrial laboratories where they will work when they graduate, we are wasting our time. When this Labour Government first came into power, I am afraid that the instruments and laboratories were out of date. Industry was very critical of undergraduates’ lack of experience when they started work, and it had to start training them from scratch. That situation has improved tremendously.
Our report also looks at international students. As I have said already, they are a tremendous boon in our universities because they give students a rounded experience. Some universities rely a lot more than others on attracting international students and if they could not come here in their present numbers, those universities would suffer badly. We should never forget that, so I just want the Government to be a bit cautious about the fees that international students are charged. It is not just about money. It is about having them here to interact with our own students, so money is not everything.
The report recommended a national bursary scheme, but sadly the Government have rejected that idea. There is a lot of competition now between universities, which have formed themselves into bodies such as the millennium plus group and the Russell group. That suggests that competition is going on, which is not altogether a bad thing. However, it would be a sad thing if some universities were able to give more and better bursaries than others. I agree with the report’s conclusion that we should have a national bursary scheme, and I hope that my Government will have another look, please, at that proposal.
I have a very favourable attitude to the TRAC approach—the transparent approach to costing, which reveals the true costs of teaching and of research. There is some overlap, but there will always be a grey area in the middle, and it is very important to know how much we are spending on teaching across the departments of each university, and between one university and another. That has been another big step forward.
I shall finish by dealing with the Government’s response to our report. They said that we painted a picture of our HE system in a less than positive light. I am sorry if we did that, because none of the Committee members who took part in these investigations wanted to paint our university system in a poor light. I think that I indicated through my concluding points that tremendous progress has been made all round—in admissions and in infrastructure. This country is still producing some of the best university students in the world at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and long may that remain so.
I am delighted to be able to contribute to this estimates debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who has great knowledge and experience of this area. May I congratulate the Select Committee on Science and Technology and, in particular, its Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), on giving us such a thought-provoking and wide-ranging report? I also congratulate him on his excellent speech. Indeed, all the speeches have been first class—I hope that hon. Members will excuse the pun—not just 13 per cent. of them. Perhaps we can have a Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education investigation at short notice into the number of first-class speeches being given in the House of Commons—although we still have some balance to come with the Front-Bench speeches.
As the House will know, I continue to take a particular interest in the higher education sector, so I was delighted when the Committee published this much-anticipated report back in August. Despite the controversy in the sector, I am grateful that the Committee has set out so many of the important issues in the higher education sector, not least those involved in the fees review, which we need to examine in detail. It was important that the report put down a few markers, and it has been helpful in doing that.
Hon. Members may be aware that last week I held a Westminster Hall debate on the future of higher education, which also proved to be useful and thought-provoking. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all the hon. Members who turned up and contributed so intelligently to that debate, because I know that it had a very early morning slot and a few people probably had to get in a bit earlier than they would have liked.
As I say, the report is thorough and wide ranging. It highlighted salient issues ranging from admissions to teaching, and from standards to scandals in some places. In some ways, there is so much in this report that it is difficult to know where to start, but I wish to use the time available to me today to build on some of the issues and arguments that I set out in that Westminster Hall debate, putting a particular focus on standards and quality. I should also like to say a few words about Professor Hopkin’s report on the Student Loans Company and about the Minister’s thoughts on the recently published report by Demos advocating the introduction of a “civic corps”.
As autonomous institutions, universities have the responsibility for maintaining the standards of their awards and the quality of their teaching to students so that they can achieve those standards. The body responsible for assuring standards is the QAA but, as the Chair of the Select Committee said, the report notes that the QAA’s role
“focuses on processes rather than standards.”
In evidence to the Committee, the then QAA chief executive, Peter Williams, with whom I have discussed this several times, confirmed that the purpose of the organisation is to
“ensure that institutions have effective processes in place to secure their academic standards”.
“but we do not judge the standards themselves”.
So although the QAA is said to have responsibility for assuring standards in universities, it has little or no power to enforce them. It is not like Ofsted, for example—it certainly does not have anything like the same powers.
I am not as critical of the QAA as this report or the Committee appears to be. I have no doubt that the QAA acts more as an influencer than as an enforcer of standards, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. In many cases, the results of its influence are reassuring in keeping standards high. However, the report is right to raise the following important questions: is it right that the organisation that inspects our universities has, in effect, no real powers; and is it right that it is directly funded through subscriptions by universities? The Committee is right to question the cosy relationship that apparently exists within the sector. For example, I was shocked by some of the reports that I received when I was shadowing this brief of the external examination system and the cross-checking of degrees. The QAA’s current purpose, therefore, should be robustly challenged, and I think that that is what the report has done. When we talk about university standards, especially in the international context, we need to know that the quality assurance system is accountable, rigorous, transparent, responsive and public-facing.
The Committee rightly raised concerns about the comparability of academic standards between universities. I fully appreciate that there is no national curriculum in higher education and nor do I want there to be. As they are autonomous institutions, it is only right that different courses are offered in different universities. In my former brief, I travelled around the country to numerous institutions and can understand why potential students are confused when applying to different institutions. However, the Committee struggled to assess the current situation, finding itself in difficulty when it dared to question whether a degree from Oxford university meant more than one from Oxford Brookes. The question made vice-chancellors very uneasy. However, in this day and age and at a crucial time for higher education, it is imperative that standards are understood in their consistent application across the sector. I simply ask whether all degrees, irrespective of where they are taken, should be set against a consistent set of standards across all higher education institutions.
If the fees review decides to open the market and to allow universities to set their own fee level, they will need to prove to students that they offer value for money and that their degrees are considered worthy by employers. The Government and vice-chancellors sell the concept of higher fees by saying how much more income will accrue through a worker’s lifetime as a result. This needs to be evidence-based and to be constantly under review. In this digital age, there is absolutely no reason why universities cannot provide students with all the information that they need to make an informed choice.
It might well be the case, as the Committee’s report suggests, that the current system of self-regulation is out of date in the 21st century. However, something holds me back from supporting this view unreservedly. My gut instinct is that on the whole—there are always exceptions—universities are at their finest when they are at their freest and at their best when they have more autonomy, not less.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) talked about comparing apples and pears. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) accept that a plural system is bound to be a diverse one, but that students need to know whether they are choosing apples or pears? The kind of information that he describes is essential if we are to create empowered learners.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. It is about access to information. The more that universities become an arm of the state—through Whitehall or through quangos—the worse standards will become, weighed down by bureaucracy and box-ticking. The more interference that comes from Government and their agencies, the harder universities will find it to compete internationally.
Following that earlier exchange, does my hon. Friend not agree that there is a risk that if too much is imposed from the centre, that might destroy some of the diversity that we all feel is important?
That is critical. It is unimaginable to me that the Government should have any more involvement than they do in universities. That applies not just to the Government but to the arms of government, such as HEFCE, which are greatly involved in universities. Some would say that they have too much involvement and slightly suffocate universities’ ability to undertake some of the activities that they would clearly like to undertake.
One thing that was outlined in the report and confirmed in the remarks made by the Chairman of the Select Committee is the culture at the top of the HE sector. The report described it as “characterised as defensive complacency”. I happen to believe that in some parts of the sector there is defensiveness and complacency. There is also often ambivalence to criticism. Sadly, it sometimes reminds me of the “Little Britain” character whose answer to any question is “Computer says no.” Sometimes, when speaking to vice-chancellors, I felt that, whatever the question, the reply would be the computer said no.
I believe that the universities have to give the question of standards and quality the seriousness it deserves and find a solution that generates confidence. However, I would instinctively rather that came from within the sector, not from the Government. From what the Chairman of the Select Committee said, it sounds like the QAA is taking that matter seriously.
Before things get too negative, let me say that I have great respect for vice-chancellors and the job they do in universities. Let us not forget that the sector is still world class and generates huge revenue for the country. The job is already difficult as many vice-chancellors have had to close departments, lay off staff and work within very tight budgets over the past couple of years. I am sure that their job will be made even harder by the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday that the Government will cut £600 million from the higher education budget.
I have looked through the pre-Budget report, but it is not clear to me how the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property expects to achieve that saving by 2012-13. Perhaps this debate will give him a good opportunity to explain where that money will be saved. He must also tell us how, at a time when universities have been asked to “up their game”, as Lord Mandelson put it, that will not have a detrimental impact on the learning experience or quality of education in our universities. However, things might become clear after we have heard an explanation, so I shall reserve my judgment.
Graduates will increasingly expect help with employability, especially in a continuing deep recession with high youth unemployment. When the Institute of Directors gave evidence to the Committee, it defined employability as a mixture of basic skills, personal qualities, good attitude and being reliable. To demonstrate a better service, universities should do all that they can to help their students to get into the world of work. Several universities are already leading the way in that area, including my own—the excellent Reading university—and it is fair to say that many universities that I have visited have dedicated teams to help students. Whatever happens with the fees review, universities will need to be able to demonstrate a marked improvement in the quality of the student experience.
It was worrying that the Committee’s report detected no evidence that tuition fees at their current levels had driven up quality on campus. That is not surprising, given that fees hardly vary across the higher education sector, and therefore give students little incentive to look for value for money among institutions. It would appear that some universities are slightly short-changing students, so I agree with the Committee’s recommendation that the fees review should involve the commissioning of independent research on the impact of a higher cap on course quality. Neither the Government nor universities should expect students to pay thousands of pounds more for their degree if teaching and course content remain exactly the same.
As I have hinted today, and as I said during last week’s debate, I am not completely satisfied that universities have justified the current level of tuition fees. As I have travelled around the country while shadowing the HE brief, I have felt that some students were being short-changed by the quality of teaching and the support services at some universities. The fees have raised an additional £1.3 billion for universities, but I am not sure that I have seen a £1.3 billion improvement in the student experience over the past five or six years.
Although comprehensive figures on student debt are still unavailable for the most recent intake, the figures that have been provided make sober reading. A recent survey estimated that students who commenced their 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 increasing to £21,500. Of course, medical students’ debts are much higher, so I say again that before the Government consider saddling our young people with even more debt, it will be imperative for the fees review to justify how the existing fee money has been spent to improve the student experience.
Ensuring that students have access to robust and comparable information about what they can expect from their time at university must be at the heart of proposals coming out of the review. It is only right that students, as fee-paying customers, receive the best and most accessible advice and guidance that universities can offer, although of course that is if students are lucky enough to secure the funding to which they are entitled in the first place.
Professor Hopkin’s report into the student loan fiasco found “conspicuous failures” in the current system that led to universities shelling out hundreds of thousands of pounds in emergency funds to students left without money. The report found that the processing system had faced problems due to lost documents, equipment failures and difficulties with the online application system. Only 5 per cent. of phone calls were answered at peak time. The Minister knows what a monumental cock-up this was by the Government. Financial support is specifically targeted to help those who need it most, and it is exactly those people who have been so badly let down by the fiasco. Indeed, some have now left university and many more are still suffering. Many families have been counting the pennies this year, and the last thing that they needed was to have to fork out extra funds thanks to Government and Student Loans Company incompetence.
I shall give the House a couple of real examples of the difficulties that families have faced. One student says:
“I am a 30-year-old mature student with a one-year-old child. I have embarked on a one-year PGCE course... I applied at the beginning of the year and have not received any funds at all. My tax credits stopped when my course began and I cannot pay my child’s nursery fees. I am struggling to survive financially and cannot afford to live never mind buy the books. I fear I will be forced to leave university in the New Year if someone does not intervene.”
This crisis is a real blow to the widening of participation. Here is another example:
“My daughter has been told she is eligible for a grant and loan. She has received nothing. I lost my job and have had to borrow the £1,060 first payment for hall-of-residence and pay for food etc. Neither her father nor I went to university and we are so proud of her. She is sick with worry and does not want to be a burden to us. She then received a letter telling her she will get no money until January. She is distraught and about to leave, thankfully, she received an A for her first piece of work. She has agreed to stay but says money worries are affecting her study and health. She is not the only one.”
I can confirm that she is not the only one. I was recently at a Wantage hall founder’s dinner at my university, the university of Reading, and I was fortunate enough to talk at length to a number of students. Many had not received the money to which they were entitled and were in desperate financial trouble. One female student told me that unless she could find £700 by Christmas, she would have to leave.
We could go into almost any university and, with very little or no effort, find the same story, demonstrating the size of the cock-up. In November, 176,000 students had still not received the financial support that they were promised and to which they were entitled.
May I say what a powerful case the hon. Gentleman is making about what is an absolute crisis? Does he agree that, in summing up, it would be useful if the Minister could guarantee that the second tranche of Student Loans Company grants will be paid on 28 January? Without it, literally tens, if not hundreds or thousands of students will simply have to leave university at that point.
That is exactly the message that I have received from students, and I hope that the Minister will directly address that question when he sums up. I know that the Front-Benchers are anxious to speak, and I shall try to finish in a couple of minutes if they will all bear with me.
A recent report by Demos included comments and proposals on the introduction of a civic corps—it would be paid for by increasing the rate of interest that university graduates pay on their loan—to carry out community service. I fully appreciate that our young and unemployed people need real action to help them to turn their lives around, and volunteering in the community can be a way of raising self-esteem and helping people to develop important soft skills, such as teamwork, while doing something positive for the local area. Indeed, such initiatives sit very well with my party’s plans to get Britain working and, in particular, our “Work Together” initiatives, which involve volunteering in local communities.
But where have those comments come from? Are we not in the middle of an independent fees review? Anyone making such comments is surely pre-judging the outcome of the fees review, so, unless I have misunderstood the Minister or he has been misquoted, the situation makes no sense at all. I would genuinely find it helpful if he dealt with the issue, because, if he did make those comments in the middle of the fees review, he has been very unhelpful.
The Committee’s report looked at community colleges, and, as the Minister and others will know, I have been passionate about them for some time. The report looked at credits, which, for the purposes of widening participation, are incredibly important to the system in this country, because they enable people to drop in and out of study as their lives dictate. I do not see why we in the UK, given our progressive sector, should not be able to do something that is comparable in flexibility to the US community college system. I acknowledge that the Government have made moves in that direction by broadening foundation degrees. However, much more could be done.
The Select Committee report is right to say that
“if the community college credit system model operating in the US were adopted in England, it would provide much greater flexibility in higher education in this country, which will be essential to widening participation.”
That is absolutely right. I will not go through the other interesting aspects of the community college system, but they are mentioned in the Select Committee’s report and I endorse them.
As the Minister knows, this is an opportunity to make the real changes that the sector needs. Now is the time for fresh and innovative thinking. I thank the Select Committee for its report and for making a thought-provoking contribution to what will be an interesting but very intense debate over the weeks, months and years to come.
This has been an excellent debate, although I am not sure that I want to put a classification on it. I enjoyed the thoughtful and good-natured contribution made by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). I also enjoyed the speech made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who talked about his journey across the Pennines to Hull; I was reminded of my own journey across the Severn estuary, with the valleys-boy accent that I had at the time, to the strange world of Bristol university, where I met different classes of people whom I had never come across before.
This debate shows Parliament at its best, because it is based on a Select Committee report that is an example of Parliament at its best. During my first two and a half years as a Member, I thoroughly enjoyed serving on the Committee that preceded the now former Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Select Committee reports make an important contribution. I wish that we had more opportunities such as this to debate the thorough research and evidence-based reports that Select Committees produce.
Yesterday’s pre-Budget report provides a context, and it has already been mentioned by a couple of speakers. On page 110, among a series of bullet points covering cuts in IT, the criminal justice system, residential care and rail franchises, is tucked away a reference to anticipated cuts in higher education:
“£600 million from higher education and science and research budgets from a combination of changes to student support within existing arrangements; efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities, science and research”.
The Minister has already been asked to provide several bits of information when he sums up; I hope that he will clarify what that £600 million-worth of cuts means. I am thinking particularly of student support, which has been on a rollercoaster in the past 12 years. Grants were first abolished, then reintroduced. Provision was then extended, but clawed back 12 months ago. I hope that there will not be a further rollercoaster ride for students.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the worst possible things would be if students had gone to university with a particular profile of grants and loans on offer, and then found that those were being withdrawn and that their legitimate expectations were not being met?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Students in their third year may already have a completely different financial scenario from what prevailed when they applied; not only that, but students from the same families who are assessed on family income may also experience entirely different outcomes. Brothers and sisters doing the same thing may have different grants or eligibility for maintenance loans.
Will the Minister also clarify what the cuts in science and research will be? The Chancellor said in yesterday’s pre-Budget report that science, innovation and a low-carbon economy were the way forward for this country, and Lord Mandelson has said much the same. It would be perverse if all that were now undermined by budget cuts.
The hon. Member for Reading, East mentioned the report on the Student Loans Company by Professor Sir Deian Hopkin, which came out on 8 December. It is a particularly damning report, and it is strange that there has been no sign of contrition on the part of the directors of the Student Loans Company. I remind the House that these people actually paid themselves a bonus last year, when they should have been preparing for their new responsibilities for this year. Will the Minister clarify his and his Department’s responsibilities in this respect? Will he undertake, at least between now and the election—I am not necessarily predicting what will happen then—to follow closely the progress of the directors of the Student Loans Company to ensure that we do not have a repeat of this fiasco and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned, further grants are paid on time?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the president of the National Union of Students that heads should roll at the Student Loans Company?