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Commons Chamber

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010

House of Commons

Wednesday 13 January 2010

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Motion made, That the Bill be read a Second time.

Oral Answers to Questions

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces (Morale)

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the morale of members of the armed forces based in Scotland returning from active service. (309549)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. The men and women of our armed forces are remarkable people and I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues about support for our armed forces and their families.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, with which I totally agree, and for his good work in Scotland. Does he agree that people in Scotland want to see our returning heroes—and particularly those with families—treated with dignity? That means that they should be given priority in housing and should not be made homeless, which is what happens at the moment in Castle Point.

I agree with the sentiment behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. Although I do not know the details, I am sure that he understands that when it comes to situations such as that in Castle Point, whether they arise north or south of the border, we need to handle our returning heroes with great care and sensitivity, including when it comes to issues relating to housing. Local connections to local areas should be properly taken into account, and if that is not happening in Castle Point, I think that most of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would consider that to be shabby.

Will my right hon. Friend raise the question of psychological and psychiatric services in particular, because cases that have come to me recently have highlighted serious deficiencies? Although I commend the work of Combat Stress in Hollybush House in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), it is a voluntary charitable organisation that is taking up much of the strain that is sadly not being taken up by the psychiatric services offered to our troops on their return from combat.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the need for continuing support as people prepare to return from theatre and at the point at which they arrive. I had the great honour of meeting some of our soldiers as they returned from theatre in Afghanistan and they talked about the need for continued and ongoing support. That includes support not just with housing but with dental care and health care, including mental health treatment, both in-patient and out-patient. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the veterans Minister have considered this matter very carefully and if my hon. Friend has any specific suggestions about how the situation could be improved, I am sure that they will listen with great care.

Does the Secretary of State understand the contribution that is made to morale by the knowledge that outstanding medical services are available in Selly Oak hospital and, of course, at the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court? If he has not yet visited either the hospital or the rehabilitation centre, may I urge him to do so? He will see at first hand the courage of the patients and the skill of the staff.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right about the remarkable dedication of the staff, of which we have all heard. I have not yet had the honour of visiting; I do not know whether that was an invitation—it was an invitation by proxy, I think—but I would happily accept it. We all know by repute of the remarkable conviction of those men and women who care for our heroes on their return, which is why we have increased the investment in those medical facilities. We are determined to do more whenever we possibly can.

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. Many veterans returning from active service suffer from mental problems and, unfortunately, some of them end up in custody. Recently, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence have started a process of identifying veterans in custody in England and Wales in order to ensure that they are matched with the appropriate support agency, such as the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress. Given that prisons are a devolved issue but defence and looking after veterans are not, will the Secretary of State seek to use his offices to ensure that the Scottish Government play their part in trying to ensure that our veterans in custody are looked after and given the support that they deserve?

The hon. Gentleman served with distinction in the armed forces, in the Scots Guards, so he will know that it is always important that we should look to see what more we can do. That is why we have specific programmes to help those ex-servicemen and women who are unemployed and it is also why we are developing Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Justice-specific programmes to help those who are coming out of prison. If there is a gap—I do not want to make that assertion—and if there are lessons to be learned north and south of the border, I will happily convene conversations and meetings between the Royal British Legion north and south of the border, ourselves and Scottish Government officials to ensure that we can learn lessons from one another and to ensure that those ex-service personnel who have unfortunately found themselves in prison get the proper support to which they are entitled.

Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the work of the Royal British Legion Scotland, the Army Benevolent Fund in Scotland, Poppyscotland and others for the work that they do in supporting those who have served our country in the armed forces? Those organisations bring to our attention time and again the fact that many ex-servicemen fall through the net in Scotland. Will the Secretary of State, using his offices as a clearing house for communications between the Governments here and in Edinburgh, see whether he can do more to ensure that that situation improves?

In the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, I am happy to do whatever I can to assist. He is absolutely right about the work of the British Legion and of other charities across Scotland and the UK. There is enormous public affection in Scotland and across the UK, and immeasurable public respect, for our heroic men and women returning from this and previous wars, and public collections on Remembrance day continue to grow the further we get from the second world war. However, it is incumbent on us all to bear in mind that remembrance is not a one-day event, but an every-day-of-the-year event, and I am happy to see what can be done to take up his suggestion.

In that spirit, may I bring to the attention of the Secretary of State the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) will introduce a Bill later today to establish a veterans covenant similar to the military covenant for serving members of the armed forces? Will the Secretary of State undertake to argue the case in Government for my hon. Friend’s Bill to be given time, so that a proposal on which there is a clear consensus can become law?

We will, of course, consider the detail of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. The sentiment behind the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) is correct. This is about trying to find additional ways of supporting men and women returning from war, whether they are injured or have returned safe and well. It is not just about that, however; it is also about supporting the extended service families—the husbands of the women who serve, the wives and girlfriends of the men who serve, and their children—which is why we are looking at making commitments on matters such as the provision of housing, health and dental care, and support for children of those in the armed services with special educational needs. We are doing a huge amount, but I am sure that we could do more.

The Royal United Services Institute today said that there is likely to be a 20 per cent. cut in service personnel in the years ahead. That would mean fewer service personnel in Scotland than in the Irish Republic. Is that good for morale, given that there have been more than 10,000 defence job cuts in Scotland since Labour came to power and a defence underspend of more than £4.3 billion in recent years?

There are currently 12,000 members of, and 6,000 civilians working in, the armed forces in Scotland. I do not agree with today’s assessment on the percentage reductions in the armed forces, but what is absolutely clear is that were the hon. Gentleman’s party in power and were it to have its way and have Scotland separated from the United Kingdom, there would be a 100 per cent. cut in the armed forces, because there would be no Royal Navy, no Royal Air Force, no British Army and no shipbuilding for aircraft carriers on the Clyde. We have enormous respect for our armed forces, north and south of the border, and we laugh with contempt at his ludicrous arguments.

Cross-Border Transport

2. What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Executive Ministers on the resilience of cross-border transport links to extreme weather conditions. (309550)

The Department for Transport and the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, have been regularly monitoring salt supplies and stock levels across Great Britain with the help of agencies, local authorities and companies that supply salt. There has been very good co-operation across the UK.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. However, airport closures, train delays and hazardous driving conditions made it very difficult for Scots travelling to see friends and family over Christmas and returning to work in the new year. There is particular concern about salt supplies, with the Scottish Government saying that the stocks are steady and well managed, but local authorities crying that they do not have enough. Does he think that Scotland has learned the lessons well enough from England’s big freeze last February?

Remarkable efforts have been made, again north and south of the border, by gritters, by all those involved in the emergency services and home help, and others to keep Scotland moving, and largely that has met with some success. However, there are lessons to learn. Some local authorities have not had enough supplies, and early in the deep freeze, there was not enough co-ordination or co-operation. We can learn lessons from what has happened during this cold spell in Scotland.

On the issue of extreme weather, may I offer my thanks to the Government for the introduction of a new weather monitoring station for cold weather payments in Strathallan in my constituency? Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State urge on his ministerial colleagues the need for even more local monitoring stations so that those payments can be made appropriately to the people who need them?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the improvements that we have made to monitoring stations. I can confirm to the House that in Scotland cold weather payments have accounted for £39 million of additional support across Scotland, helping 400,000 Scots who otherwise would find it difficult to heat their homes and cook their food during the deep freeze experienced there.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the staff of cross-border rail services, particularly on the west coast main line, who kept the trains running even when every other form of transport had ground to a halt and who managed to provide information and care to passengers whose journeys were inevitably delayed?

I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency over the weekend to see how local people were coping with the deep freeze. As a former transport Minister, he has enormous experience of rail services. He also has a detailed knowledge of the huge efforts made to keep the west coast main line fully operational and on time. Difficulties were experienced in other parts of Scotland—train services between Glasgow and Edinburgh were disrupted, as were many other services, but remarkable efforts were made to keep that line open. I pay tribute to the way in which the company workers stayed longer and worked harder to maintain the tracks, making a huge commitment to keep Scotland moving.

Employment (Ayrshire)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. I visited a number of organisations in Ayrshire last week, including the coalfield community transport initiative, where I met people who are now in work thanks to the future jobs fund.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend has made time to come to Ayrshire. However, she may not recall that in 1997 one of her predecessors, Brian Wilson, the Minister at the time, set up a taskforce because of high unemployment in the Prestwick area. The taskforce has proved to be highly successful. I wonder whether she can arrange a meeting between herself and Ayrshire Members of Parliament, along with Scottish Executive Ministers.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Following the national jobs summit, which was successfully held in Glasgow on Monday and at which more than 120 delegates were present, I can confirm that I shall be pleased to hold a similar, local summit in the Ayrshire area. I am also pleased to note the good work that has been done by local authorities and the voluntary sector in Ayrshire. To date, that work has created almost 500 jobs, from the future jobs fund, for young unemployed people. That is a magnificent contribution to overcoming the problem affecting every community in Scotland.

I am sure that the Minister’s summit will be welcome, but in Ayrshire alone a further 3,419 people have been forced on to the dole in the past 12 months. Can the Minister tell all those people, as well as the hundreds of thousands of other jobseekers in Scotland, where exactly they will find the signs that Scotland is coming out of recession that the Secretary of State claimed were there on Monday? He claims that those signs exist, but is it not the case that the evidence in Ayrshire and elsewhere in Scotland simply does not back him up?

There are clear indications from a number of independent experts that we are moving out of the recession, but we are certainly not complacent. We are well aware that there are hot spots of unemployment—in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire—but unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, when the hon. Gentleman’s Government ignored those areas, we are determined to protect the most vulnerable. That is why we are investing £1.2 billion throughout the United Kingdom to help young people into work. It is also why we have changed the young person’s guarantee, from 10 months to six months, so that we can get young people into paid work at the earliest moment, providing them with the opportunities to become well placed to get into the job market.

The Minister and the Secretary of State are good at talking the language of the 1980s, but sadly not so good at dealing with the issues of the present. On the very day that the Secretary of State claimed that there were signs that Scotland was emerging from the recession, the latest purchasing managers index showed that manufacturing was still contracting and that the flow of new orders in Scotland was considerably weaker than elsewhere in the UK. The Minister and the Secretary of State refer to the future jobs fund, which has brought some benefits, but is it not the case that the fund is increasingly focused on public sector employment, rather than on our hard-pressed private sector? So other than warm words—

Today there are 250,000 more people in work in Scotland than in 1997. That shows the credit of our policies, under which we do not allow people to be left behind. We are strongly committed to maintaining our support for the most vulnerable in our community. That is why the future jobs fund will be creating 15,000 jobs in Scotland and why we have managed to assist thousands of people in the past year in getting back into work if they have faced the prospect of redundancy. We are certainly not complacent, unlike the previous Government, as their record shows.

Scottish Culture

5. If he will hold discussions with ministerial colleagues to develop policy on promotion of Scottish culture throughout the UK. (309553)

Scotland’s culture is known throughout the UK and beyond. There are now more Burns suppers in England than in Scotland. As a fiercely patriotic Scot, I take every opportunity to promote Scottish culture with my ministerial colleagues.

The Secretary of State is an excellent representative for Scotland. Would cultural interchange be further encouraged by promoting the good idea of having both Celtic and Glasgow Rangers playing in the English leagues?

I would have to declare an interest before responding to that question, as I am a part-time follower of one of those teams. I will leave it to the House to guess which one. Of course, that is a decision for the football authorities and the football clubs. What would enhance cross-border cultural exchange is a return of the Scotland versus England friendly football matches. I think that the home internationals will return shortly, with Ireland replacing England, and that there is now a commitment to a return of the Scotland versus England football matches. I have spoken to the Scottish Football Association about that. There was an agreement to have such an arrangement in 2008, but Scotland withdrew from it. Having grown up around memories of the Wembley Wizards of 1928 and 1967, Kenny Dalglish’s great goals at Wembley and occasional England victories at Hampden, I think that it would be a remarkable sporting event and a highlight in the football calendar, so I say, “Bring it on.”

Does my right hon. Friend share my hope that the BBC Trust will respond positively to the current consultation about putting MG ALBA, the Gaelic television station, on to Freeview? That would allow the benefits of that station to be appreciated and its quality output to be seen by a wider audience not only in Scotland, but across the UK.

Despite the comments of all the doomsayers and those who are culturally ignorant, MG ALBA is a fantastic success, which has exceeded its ambitions regarding its share of audience. It is a young and growing medium that deserves and is entitled to our continued support. If it were available to a wider group of viewers across the UK, on different platforms, that would be a real boon. I will do everything I can to make that happen, but the BBC Trust certainly has a responsibility to help to make it happen.

The Secretary of State has spent a great deal of time in my constituency, and I am grateful for that. Is he aware of the proposal to locate an offshoot of the Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee, and will he join me in supporting that venture? Will he agree to meet me to see how Westminster can help us to locate the V and A in Dundee?

My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for Dundee. He pestered the Government until we agreed to give additional money for the games industry at the university of Abertay, and it is his victory that that money is in place.

The V and A proposal is a devolved issue, but I believe that there is a need for about £15 million of Scottish Government investment, and I urge them to find the money for that fantastic project, so that people across the world have additional reasons to visit the great city of Dundee.

Cross-Border Transport

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the economic benefits to Scotland of proposed high-speed cross-border rail links.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): I met the Secretary of State for Transport to discuss the high-speed rail link on 5 November, when he visited Glasgow, North-East. (309554)

There is now growing agreement in all parties that the high-speed rail network must serve central Scotland. Does the Secretary of State agree that both Edinburgh and Glasgow must be on that network and that both those cities should work together to that end?

The high-speed rail network could be an enormous investment and make enormous improvements to our infrastructure across the country. Initially, it will run from London to the midlands, but there is a commitment from the Government to try to go further. If we can get that rail link to Scotland, it is important that it should serve two of Scotland’s great cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and there is a commitment to help to make that happen. We are determined to make that investment, working with the company.

As well as providing faster rail services from Scotland to London, the high-speed rail network will also offer the opportunity to have faster direct and indirect services to the continent of Europe. Will the Secretary of State do what he can to ensure that opportunities for travel not just to London, but to the continent, are also maximised in the plans for the high-speed rail network when it is developed north of London?

As I said before, initially, the commitment is to a service from London to the midlands and then to go beyond that to Scotland into Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is important to make that investment in those hundreds of miles of rail track to help to make it happen. Such transport connections between Glasgow and London are crucial, which is why it is important that the Scottish Government should reinstate the Glasgow airport link—just those seven miles from Glasgow city centre to Glasgow airport. I find it ridiculous that people can go to Glasgow, Central station and get a train to Manchester airport, but not to Glasgow airport.

New Deal

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the operation in Scotland of the payment for results system for the New Deal. (309555)

New deal training organisations face the prospect of their income plummeting because they only receive full payment when their clients find a job. In the current climate, when it is harder to find jobs, their income has already plummeted, threatening the services offered. Will the Minister investigate the implementation of the flexibility that the Department for Work and Pensions promised, because in the current climate it is simply not working?

I am happy to take up any particular concerns that the hon. Gentleman may wish to bring to my attention, but I can assure him that we are keeping the flexible new deal under review. The whole point of it is to move people into sustainable, long-term and permanent employment, which is why we think that it is important that a payment-by-results scheme is appropriate.

Fuel Poverty

8. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive on steps to assist households in Scotland in severe fuel poverty which are not connected to the mains gas grid. (309556)

May I urge the Minister to rectify that? If people use heating oil to heat their homes, their fuel is likely to be more expensive so it costs more to pay the bills. Those people are more likely to be in fuel poverty and at the end of the queue to apply for measures to help insulate the home. Is not one of the lessons of this cold spell that help should be directed at the homes that need it most, which means that people who use heating oil should be at the front of the queue, and not at the back of it? [Interruption.]

There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber, which is very discourteous both to the Member asking the question and to the Minister answering it.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

This Government have done more than any other in recent history to do more about fuel poverty. In 2007 alone, the winter fuel payment took 200,000 households throughout the UK out of fuel poverty, and we are determined to tackle the problem even further through the new Energy Bill and take a further 100,000 pensioner households in Scotland out of poverty. We are certainly not complacent, although we see no irregularity in the non-oil—gas and electric—fuel market, which might otherwise cause us to consider regulation at this point. However, we will certainly keep these issues under review.

The Scottish house conditions survey shows that those who do not have access to mains gas are twice as likely to be in fuel poverty as those who do have such access. The Secretary of State mentioned earlier the importance of cold weather payments. Given the current situation, will the Minister press her ministerial colleagues to extend and increase those payments to other vulnerable groups?

The cold weather payments are triggered by the temperature and Scotland has, of course, benefited more than other parts of the UK because of its geographical location. It is this Government who increased the cold weather payment in September 2008 from £8.25 a week to £25 a week—an increase of over 300 per cent.—so I certainly do not think that there has been any complacency on the Government’s part.

Youth Unemployment

9. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of policies to reduce the level of youth unemployment in Scotland. (309557)

We are determined to help those of all ages who are out of work to get back into work. Since 1997, we have seen the number of 18 to 24-year-olds in Scotland claiming unemployment benefits for six months or more halved.

I thank my right hon. Friend and congratulate him on his answer. Is he as concerned as I am at the possibility that, because of the Scottish Executive’s proposal to change the rules for the payment of education maintenance allowance, 7,000 young people will end up on the dole, as they will not receive their £10 or £20, given the new threshold of £30? Is that not a disgrace? What can my right hon. Friend do to help these young people?

Many parents and grandparents across Scotland are worried about what their children and grandchildren will be doing when they leave school or university this year. We all have a responsibility to see what more we can do. My worry is that the Scottish National party Edinburgh Government seem to spend so much time trying to get Scotland out of Britain that they spend so little time trying to get Scotland out of the recession.

Employment

10. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to promote employment in Scotland. (309558)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about employment in Scotland, and I co-hosted Scotland’s first ever jobs summit on Monday this week in Glasgow.

What assurances can the Minister give about the quality and permanence of the jobs that he claims to be creating for young people in Scotland?

First, there is a guarantee that those jobs are better than being on the dole—the option that the hon. Gentleman’s party took throughout the 1980s when in government; and there are a quarter of a million more people in work throughout Scotland now than there were when we came to power. But of course, the genuine point behind the hon. Gentleman’s question is about guaranteeing that those young people get meaningful employment, that the job turns into a career and that such people, when they themselves have children, have the finance and self-dependency to provide for them. We are determined to do all that we can.

Despite the best efforts to promote employment in Scotland, my constituents and constituents in Glasgow will be severely hampered by the decision of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport to withdraw the Renfrew ferry. It has done so because it does not have any funding from the Scottish Government. Will my hon. Friend raise the matter with Scottish Government Ministers in order to reinstate the ferry service?

My hon. Friend is always on the case, defending his constituency and promoting employment there. If the Renfrew ferry is another transport project that the SNP Edinburgh Government have cancelled in the west of Scotland, many people in the area will believe that the SNP just does not understand that part of our country.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Captain Daniel Read, from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps. He died in Afghanistan on Monday, undertaking the dangerous work of protecting his fellow soldiers and civilians from explosive devices. The courage and selflessness of this work is truly breathtaking. His sacrifice will not be forgotten, and we send our sincere condolences to his family and friends.

I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute also to Rupert Hamer, who lost his life in Afghanistan while reporting from the front line, and to his colleague, who was injured. Our thoughts are also with their families, friends and colleagues. We are grateful to all those who put themselves in danger to ensure that the world is aware of the bravery of those serving in Afghanistan and the realities of life there.

Because of the devastating earthquake overnight, Haiti has moved to the centre of the world’s thoughts and the world’s compassion. The Government will respond with emergency aid, including firefighters, emergency equipment and finance, and give further support to help the people of Haiti to recover from that devastating event.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I am sure that the whole House will agree with the Prime Minister’s statement of condolence.

Looking back, our economy entered the recession with one of the largest budget deficits of any first world economy. On reflection, does the Prime Minister regret that?

No, we had one of the lowest debts—the second-lowest debt—in the G7. Our debt was lower than that of America, lower than that of France and of Germany, lower than that of the euro area and lower than that of Japan and of Italy. It is because we had a low debt that we have been able to take the measures that are necessary to help companies to deal with the recession, to help the unemployed get work, to help young people who are leaving school and to help thousands of small businesses survive. We took the right action in the recession; the Opposition advised the wrong action.

May I associate myself with the tribute that my right hon. Friend has paid to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that today marks the sixth anniversary of the death of Tom Hurndall, the British photographer who was shot by an Israeli sniper while trying to rescue children from danger in Gaza? Will he join me in paying tribute to the Hurndall family for their tireless efforts in cutting through so many smokescreens put forward by the Israeli military authorities, to get to the truth about Tom’s death and uphold the principles of accountability? Will he agree that as an international community we have no less responsibility to uphold the principle of accountability for the 352 Palestinian children, whose names we will never know, who died last year—

The situation in Gaza is serious. As I said last week, the only way forward and the only solution is a peace settlement between an Israel that needs security within its borders and a Palestine that needs to be a viable economic state. I have repeatedly urged the Israeli Government to improve access for humanitarian aid and workers. In addition to what I said last week, I should say that we have already spent more than £20 million on meeting urgent aid needs in Gaza. The Secretary of State for International Development announced a total package of £53 million for Palestine on 28 December, and that was with a particular focus on Gaza. We will meet the humanitarian needs of the Gaza people where we can. Access is important, but everybody knows that it is a political settlement that we need in that area.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Daniel Read from the Royal Logistic Corps, who died in Afghanistan serving our country? As the Prime Minister said, the work of bomb disposal experts is truly inspiring when we hear what they do to protect their comrades.

I also join the Prime Minister in sending our sincere condolences to the friends and family of Rupert Hamer. He and photographer Phil Coburn remind us of the bravery and professionalism of journalists who also put their lives at risk to ensure that they report on the work of our armed services overseas.

Finally, of course, I associate myself totally with the Prime Minister’s words about the terrible events in Haiti, and send my support to those involved in the humanitarian effort. Obviously, we look forward to a full statement in the House by the Secretary of State for International Development when appropriate.

The whole country will wish to praise the work of the emergency services and how they have dealt with the unexpected long spell of cold weather. We have all seen and heard incredible stories about neighbour helping neighbour. Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that everything that can be done is being done to ensure that we have sufficient supplies of salt and that it is being properly distributed so that we can keep our country moving at this time?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to tell the country the most updated situation on the transport network and the protection of our roads by salt. Virtually all main transport networks have remained operational throughout the period. For the work of our highway and other maintenance workers, and to those who are running the emergency services and the thousands of people who are volunteering—I pay tribute to organisations in areas around the country—the country remains deeply grateful. It shows that when there are difficulties, the country comes together as one to meet them.

Five airports in the south and midlands have been and will remain closed for a period this morning, but I believe that they will open later today. We are working with the Highways Agency, the devolved Administrations and representative local government to manage salt supplies. It is important that every road remains safe. It is also important that we have sustainable supplies of salt for what is the longest and worst period of bad weather for 30 years in this country.

As for salt, one of the salt producers has announced this morning that it will produce additional salt. We expect imports of salt in the next few days as a result of arrangements entered into weeks ago, and we are confident that, with the measures announced yesterday by the Transport Secretary, we will be able to maintain the road network. We are working closely with local authorities, and I hope that people will continue to be able to work together for the common good. It does prove that Britain works best when Britain works together.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that answer. The pressure on supplies and the steps taken to ration salt in the last week clearly show that lessons can be learned for the future. Can he tell us what steps he will take to hold a review and to involve those in local government, to ensure that we learn those lessons?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that each time we have a winter weather problem we should learn lessons from it. Last winter, we set up the UK Roads Liaison Group, and it made three recommendations that we implemented—for local authorities to hold a six-day salt supply, for the Highways Agency to have a bigger reserve and for transport workers to be allowed to work longer hours to deliver the salt. It also recommended the creation of a Salt Cell to ensure a fair distribution of salt throughout the country. We will review all those arrangements after this winter period, but at the beginning of this difficult spell, the Highways Agency had 13 days of supplies, and we are now building on that with orders from abroad and additional production from UK mines. We are doing everything that we can, and the Department for Transport has made every effort to consult all local authorities.

My right hon. Friend will know that today in Great Britain 80,000 children are living in care, 80 per cent. of whom will live in care until they are 16, not in a loving, stable family home. Is it not time that this House considered the lives of looked-after children again and considered that if a child is not living in a stable, loving home in the first 18 months of their life, adoption and long-term fostering must be their right in order to enter a loving, stable home?

This is a real challenge not only for all local authorities, but for all people. We must not only pay attention to the number of children in care, but make sure that those children have the chances that every other child has for educational attainment, for jobs and for stability in their lives as they leave care. In 2007, we published the White Paper “Care Matters” and we set out to transform the prospects of children and young people in care. We have made some progress with placement stability, there has been an increase in educational attainment and we have better outcomes for care leavers, but at the same time we must move faster to close the gap. That is why it is important to recognise that public expenditure has been necessary in this and it has doubled since 2000 on the needs of children in care. That is what we have tried to do to help those children.

I want to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Captain Daniel Read from the Royal Logistic Corps, who tragically lost his life serving in Afghanistan on Monday. I also want to add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Rupert Hamer, the distinguished defence editor of the Sunday Mirror who died in an explosion on Saturday, and of course to the family and friends of his injured colleague, Philip Coburn.

As the Prime Minister said, as news is coming in of the terrible earthquake in Haiti, all our hearts go out to the many, many people who will be so terribly affected by that natural disaster. I am grateful for what he said about the Government’s humanitarian response.

Given everything that has come to light in the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, will the Prime Minister now do the decent thing and volunteer to give evidence to the inquiry before people decide how to vote on his record in government?

The Chilcot inquiry has drawn up a list of those people that it wishes to interview and has invited the people on the dates that it has done. I will follow the recommendations of the Chilcot committee. I have nothing to hide on this matter and I am happy to give evidence. Equally, at this time, I thought that the outcome of the debate in the House was that the Chilcot inquiry should decide when people were heard.

The point is that this is not just a question for Sir John Chilcot; it is a question for the Prime Minister’s own conscience. When the decisions were taken to launch this illegal war, he was not only in the room—he was the one who signed the cheques. He should insist on going to the inquiry now. People are entitled to know before they decide how to vote at the general election what his role was in this Government’s most disastrous decision. What has he got to hide?

Nothing, and the right hon. Gentleman was the one who wanted Chilcot to make the decisions about whom he called. He cannot on one day say that Chilcot should decide and then say that he or someone else should decide what happens.

On the Iraq war, we have given every single document to the Iraq inquiry. We have given it the opportunity to look at every document and to ask for which documents it wants to be declassified. The only documents that will be withheld from publication are those that directly affect national security and international relations. This is a full inquiry being run by Sir John Chilcot. People are being interviewed, rightly so, and asked for their evidence, but it is for the Chilcot committee to decide how it proceeds—that is what the right hon. Gentleman proposed.

Early Intervention

Q2. What discussions he has had with hon. Members on an all-party approach to early intervention since 9 December 2009. (310397)

I have visited my hon. Friend’s constituency to look at early intervention programmes, and I am very happy that cross-party discussions on these matters take place. Everybody knows the importance of early intervention to help young children.

There are also tremendous economic consequences of early intervention, and early intervention bonds, social impact equities and many other financial instruments raise money from the capital markets rather than from the taxpayer. Will the Prime Minister please encourage the Treasury to look at these imaginative and creative ways of raising money, so that we not only help individuals but find a long-term way of writing down the national debt, thereby reducing the burden on UK taxpayers?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of social impact bonds. They are being looked at by the Justice Secretary at the moment. If the first 48 months of a child’s life are more important than the next years because of what is learned or not learned, we have to do more to help children under five. That is why we introduced Sure Start and the child tax credit, and doubled the credit for children in their earliest years. It is also why we have given maternity and paternity leave. All these are important ways in which we can help young children in their earliest years, and I believe that there should be a cross-party consensus on keeping them; I hope that there will be.

Given that the Home Affairs Select Committee heard powerful evidence yesterday that one of the primary causes of crime is poor parenting and dysfunctional families, what more can this Government do to bring forward effective policies on early intervention to ensure that fewer children stumble on to the conveyor belt of crime?

If I may do so, I refer to the proposal that we are putting forward and the family intervention programmes that I saw in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Let us be honest: there are about 50,000 families in this country that lead such chaotic lives that we need to intervene and turn them round. We need to make a contract with them that a no-nonsense approach will be adopted by them and by us. That is what lies behind the family intervention programme. We are investing heavily in that, and in the parenting tuition that is necessary as part of it. I hope that the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) will agree that that is a way forward. That is a better expenditure of money to help the children he wants to help than a return to the married couples allowance.

Engagements

Q3. In the past 12 months, people in Blackpool have turned out in unprecedented numbers for Remembrance day and Armed Forces day ceremonies and to give a civic welcome to troops returning from Afghanistan. Blackpool has done that because people recognise the sacrifice being made by those who risk their lives daily. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will continue their resolute action against any extremist group, wherever it comes from, that seeks to disrupt and dishonour that support? (310398)

I praise Blackpool for hosting the first Armed Forces Veterans day. I know that Blackpool has lost soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and my hon. Friend is right to say that we must commemorate all those who have served and made sacrifices for our country. I share his views on extremists who use freedom of speech in our country to foster division and incite hatred and, in some cases, to incite people to kill. We have already strengthened our powers to allow us to prosecute them, and an organisation was proscribed yesterday as a result of our determination to do what is absolutely necessary through the legal process. This is also about standing up for our shared values and showing young people in Muslim communities in particular that we stand for values of justice, dignity and fairness. I believe that our Prevent strategy, which involves talking to people in their schools, churches, faith groups and mosques, is an important way of building inter-religious consensus and a belief that we can solve all our problems together.

After the events of last week, the Prime Minister told his colleagues that he would change the way he governs. Can he tell us how he will be different?

I think that I should start by saying that the right hon. Gentleman looks very different from the poster that we see out there. If you cannot get your photograph right, it is pretty difficult to get your policies right as well. Last week, we announced plans for digital Britain, plans to improve education in our community, and plans for 70,000 jobs in offshore power. We also announced our new growth strategy. This is the Government who are moving forward with policy. He can have his posters; we will have the policies.

The Prime Minister asks about pictures. Why don’t we do a bit of market research? When it comes to Labour Members’ election addresses, hands up who is going to put the Prime Minister’s picture on the front. Come on, hands up. [Interruption.] Four! There are six of them who do not want him in the Cabinet, and just four who are going to put his picture on their election addresses. He has been airbrushed out of the whole campaign.

Let us see if the Prime Minister has changed. Let us see if he is prepared to do something that he has never done before—listen to people, and admit his mistakes. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) asked a very straight question. When Britain went into recession with one of the largest deficits in the industrialised world, that was because this Prime Minister thought he had abolished boom and bust. That claim was wrong, wasn’t it?

As I keep telling the right hon. Gentleman, we went into the recession with one of the lowest debts in the G7, and the reason we had one of the lowest debts in the G7 is that we had taken action over the previous years to run down the debt that had been run up by the Conservative Government.

I think the country would prefer our policies to a person who has three policies on one day. The right hon. Gentleman needs three television election debates because he has three versions of the same policy to put forward in the debates.

The Prime Minister talks about his policies. We now know what his own election co-ordinator thinks of his policies—yes, the Development Secretary. I do not know whether he is the chairman of the campaign or the co-ordinator of the campaign: the Prime Minister has three people co-ordinating his campaign.

This is what the Development Secretary said. He said that Labour

“don’t… have any policies. For God’s sake, Harriet’s helping write the manifesto!”

I must say that I think that is completely unfair. After all, the deputy leader of the Labour party took only five hours and 32 minutes to come out and support the Prime Minister, whereas the Secretary of State for International Development took six hours. [Hon. Members: “Question!”] All right, here comes a question. Let us try something else to see if this Prime Minister has changed. Will he now admit the truth about spending cuts? He has stood there week after week and denied what everyone knows to be true: that there will be spending cuts. The Chancellor now says that those cuts will be the deepest for 20 years. Will the Prime Minister repeat those words?

The right hon. Gentleman is becoming even redder—much redder than he is in his photograph on the poster. I have to say that what you see is clearly not what you get.

I have to say this to the right hon. Gentleman as well. I wish that he could talk about policy. We are coming out of the most difficult recession that countries have faced. Every country around the world is facing the difficult public spending decisions that the Chancellor talked about last week. I agree exactly with what he said: that every country has got to face up to it. But there is one way of facing it up to it, and that is publishing our deficit reduction plan, and another way: the right hon. Gentleman’s not knowing what he wants to do on the married couples allowance, not knowing what he wants to do on national insurance, and not knowing what he wants to do on the top rate of tax. He is asking people for a don’t know at the election rather than a yes or a no; and the only policy he has that is not going to change is his policy on inheritance tax, which helps the richest persons in our society.

If the Prime Minister wants to know how people are going to vote, why does he not find some courage for once and call the election?

The Prime Minister talks about policy. The country is fed up with his policies, but his colleagues were not complaining about the policies; they were complaining about the weakness, the dithering and the backbiting. That is what they were complaining about.

Everyone can see that the Prime Minister will not change the way in which he governs. Everyone can see that he will not answer the question, and that he will not be straight with people. Is not the conclusion of the last week that the Cabinet and the Labour party are too disloyal to support him, but too incompetent to remove him? Should he not ask for the verdict of the British people, so that we can get rid of the lot of them?

I must say that the right hon. Gentleman’s airbrushed poster had better lines on it than the lines that he is delivering today. He should get better lines from the shadow Foreign—[Interruption.]

This is what the Leader of the Opposition said only a few days ago:

“I messed up and there is no other way of putting it, you know; I was thinking about all sorts of different things and I misdescribed our policy.”

He has misdescribed what he is doing, because we know that on the health service there is no guarantee for cancer patients; we know on police that there is no guarantee about neighbourhood policing; we know on education that there is no guarantee of education to 18; and we know on the recession that the Conservatives would have done nothing to take us out of the recession and that they would have gone back to the policies of the 1980s. When he finally wakes up to the fact that policies matter more than posters, he will know that his policies are actually those of the ’80s, not those for 2010.

Will the Government back my amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill next week that will rid Parliament of parasitic non-doms?

Q4. We have heard why, however implausibly, the Prime Minister will not give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry before the general election, but may I ask him a question that he can answer right now, because I am simply asking for his opinion? Alastair Campbell made it clear yesterday that this Prime Minister was intrinsically involved in all the decision making in the run-up to Iraq, so does he personally regret any of the decisions taken in the preparations for, and conduct of, the war in Iraq? Is he personally sorry? (310399)

I have already said that the reconstruction that was done after the war effort in Iraq was insufficient; the general view held by many people who have looked into this is that insufficient preparations were made for that. But I was part of the Cabinet that made the decisions on Iraq, and I stand by the decisions we made.

Q5. This week, a Member of the House has resigned, with mental illness being a factor. I make no comment about individual cases, but as the law stands any Member of this House who suffers a bout of serious mental illness can be automatically disqualified from office, no matter what the prospects of recovery. That is wrong, and it would never be tolerated for a physical illness, no matter how debilitating. Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity presented by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to implement the Speaker’s Conference recommendation that this wrong should be righted? (310400)

My hon. Friend has raised a very important issue. The Justice Secretary and the Health Secretary are giving careful consideration to the appropriate way forward, and I understand that we will also respond in due course to the recommendation to the Speaker’s Conference report that was published on Monday.

The first duty of any Government is to keep our nation safe. Given the tens of thousands of abuses of tourist visas, work visas and other visas, how confident is the Prime Minister that he has a firm grip on this nation’s national security?

At every point we try to be as vigilant as possible in the way we run the services that are necessary for our national security. Immediately after the Detroit attempted bomb on Christmas day, it was for us also to make sure that our security arrangements for people coming into the country were satisfactory, and I ordered a review of those arrangements, as I told the House last week. Equally, we also decided that the co-ordination of our different services is an important issue, and, facing new technology and new methods being used by terrorist groups, we had to do more to ensure the full co-ordination of all our services to deal with potential incidents. That is another set of work that has been put in motion. So at all times we seek to be vigilant. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the introduction of biometric visas and then of the e-Borders system will be of great benefit to us in being able to identify people coming into and going out of the country, and I hope there will be all-party support for that.

Q6. Employment in the public sector is very important to the economy of Wales, and cuts in the short term would impede the recovery of the private sector. Has my right hon. Friend made an assessment of the difference between the impact of the tough but long-term approach he is taking and of the precipitate, immediate and unplanned cuts that are demanded by the Leader of the Opposition? (310401)

I can say from the work that has been done that if we had pursued the same policies as in the 1980s and the 1990s, 1.7 million fewer people would be employed today. It is because we took action to help young people into work and to help small businesses that the unemployment claimant count, which was 10 per cent. or higher in some of the recessions of ’80s and ’90s, has remained half that today, and we are determined to do still more to help young people into work and those adults who are looking for work. The difference is this: when it came to the recession, other parties were prepared to walk by on the other side, but we decided to act.

I am thinking of all the issues that the hon. Gentleman wishes me to talk about in relation to the western Sahara. The one thing that I have been worried about is the growth of ethnic violence in these areas. The one thing that we have tried to do is increase—indeed, double—our aid to these areas, and the one thing that we have been worried about is the growth of terrorist groups in these areas. That is why we are taking the action that is necessary to dissuade people from terrorism. I have had numerous conversations with leaders in these areas. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to direct me to a specific point, I will take it up.

Q13. Does the Prime Minister recall in September 2008 acclaiming the success of the 16 Air Assault Brigade and 2,000 British soldiers in delivering to the Kajaki dam a turbine? Will he tell the House why that turbine, which cost lives, has not been installed? Who makes these important military so-called strategic decisions? The turbine was delivered at a high price and has not been installed— (310408)

I have investigated the issue. Rightly, it is asked of us why the turbine is not working, when it was delivered at great cost in terms of lives and effort. Other sources of power have been found for the areas that were supposed to be served, but it is still our intention that that turbine be used to create the power that is necessary for the economic advance that is possible.

Q8. Essex teenage tearaways are being sent to a sensitive residential area in Castle Point by Essex county council without any consultation whatsoever. They are terrorising residents, elderly frail people and businesses with extreme bad behaviour. Does the Prime Minister agree that people should always be properly consulted, and that the location of those establishments should be sensitively and carefully considered? Essex county council should be ashamed of putting it— (310403)

No one should be expected to suffer from antisocial behaviour. That is why we have created neighbourhood policing units that have a responsibility for dealing with antisocial behaviour as well as with crime. It is also why we are targeting families such as those that the hon. Gentleman mentions, whose lives are so chaotic that they are disrupting the lives of people around them. No pensioner, in particular, should be expected to suffer from that. That is why next month we will be announcing new measures to help people who are victims of antisocial behaviour, so that we can get quick action to them as well as deal with the problems at source. I hope the hon. Gentleman can be assured that we are taking the action that is necessary, but recognise that this is a problem for many people in the country.

Q15. Today’s stunning results in the schools in Staffordshire, Moorlands demonstrate 10 years of remarkable achievement and a decade of investment in dilapidated schools transforming them into modern learning centres for the whole community. Why is it—[Interruption.]—that the hardworking students and the efforts of school staff, head teachers and governors are constantly talked down by the Opposition? (310410)

They can try and shout down good news but we will tell people. Ten or 12 years ago there were 1,600 underperforming schools in our country when we came to power. Today the figure announced is fewer than 250. This a huge change that is being met by the national educational challenge. We should continue to ensure that by 2011 there is not one underperforming school in our country. We ought to offer the best education to every child. Even if Conservative Members sneer, we will continue to finance the education of every young person in this country.

Q9. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for playing extra time. May I ask the Prime Minister what he is doing to prevent the population of this country from reaching 70 million? (310404)

We have introduced the points system for immigration. The points system is working because where we need no unskilled workers and need workers who have specialist skills but not other workers with skills, they will not now be invited into the country. Of course, when people come into the country, they must have a contribution to make to this country. The points system is ensuring that net migration is falling. It is also ensuring that where we do not need workers to come into the country, they do not come in.

Order. I should be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so quickly and quietly.

Withers LLP (Privilege)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has drawn my attention to an e-mail he received from Withers LLP, a firm of solicitors, which could in his view amount to a contempt of the House by seeking to intimidate a Member in his parliamentary conduct.

I have decided that this is a matter to which I should allow precedence. Therefore, under the rules set out at pages 167 to 168 of “Erskine May”, the hon. Gentleman may table a motion for debate at the commencement of public business tomorrow. It will appear on the Order Paper after any statements and before the topical debate on Afghanistan.

I shall arrange for the text of the e-mail to be published in the Official Report.

Following is the text of the e-mail:

[Sent: Tuesday, August 04, 2009 5:51 PM

Subject: Private and Confidential

Dear Mr Hemming

Thank you for your various e-mails yesterday. My client’s response to the points which you have raised in these and earlier correspondence is as follows.

1. The original leaflet and offending text

It is abundantly clear that the offending text referred to, and would have been understood by those reading it to refer to, our client. You have alleged that the compulsory purchase order (CPO) proceedings involve other parties. However, it is clear from Councillor David Osborne’s evidence given to the public inquiry on 14 July 2009 that he was not aware of any other parties who owned plots or who were objecting to Tesco’s proposals and presenting alternative proposals other than our client. Asda and Sainsburys had already sold their land to Tesco. It is clear from the context of the offending text that you were only referring to plots of land which are part of the CPO and only the plots owned by our client. Even though he was not specifically named, he was clearly identifiable to the thousands of people to whom you distributed your defamatory and maliciously false leaflet.

You were clearly wrong to say that our client purchased his plots with the intention of delaying the Tesco development, as you now admit. Moreover, we do not agree that a landowner objecting to a CPO of his land and who has made very serious alternative proposals for redevelopment can he be guilty of “spoiling tactics” and this defamatory and maliciously false allegation is strongly objected to by our client.

In order to settle this matter we, therefore, require an apology in respect of both the serious allegations plus payment of our client’s costs, a substantial payment to a charity of his choice and an undertaking not to repeat the allegations or any similar allegations, particularly in Parliament.

Your threat to make a statement in the House of Commons referring to our client’s alleged “spoiling tactics” in this and other situations and that our client’s threatened proceedings amount to “bullying and an attempt to gag opponents” is tantamount to blackmail. These allegations are untrue as our client is only trying to put right a serious wrong to his reputation. We note that you would only make these allegations under the cover of parliamentary privilege. My client objects very strongly to you doing this and would ensure, via other sources, that the House of Commons were fully appraised of the true situation and not misled.

We deny that our client has been involved in any “spoiling tactics” at the Swan, Maypole or in Worcester. He certainly does not have, as you claim, a track record of “spoiling tactics”. By making such allegations you are clearly aggravating the damages which you will now have to pay to a charity of our client’s choice.

You say that you have spent time meeting my client and talking about the Swan development. Notwithstanding, it seems that you have failed to understand what my client is trying to achieve.

All that my client wants is to vindicate his reputation as swiftly as possible. However, if a suitable correction and apology, costs, damages and an undertaking not to repeat these or any similar defamatory and maliciously false allegations cannot swiftly be agreed, he will have no alternative but to issue proceedings.

We obviously also need to discuss how quickly you can circulate your apology around the constituency. Clearly this will have to be done much more quickly than your usual six weekly cycle in order to alleviate the continuing harm to our client’s reputation.

Meanwhile, could you please inform us, as we requested in our original letter of 29 July 2009, how many copies of the offending text were distributed; who wrote the offending text; who authorised its publication; who published it; and the date of issue.

2. Alternative wording to those to whom the original leaflet was not delivered

As previously indicated today, our client has no objection to replace the offending text with the new text set out in your e-mail of yesterday’s date sent at 12.32 pm.

Yours sincerely,

Withers LLP]

Haiti

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if he will let the House have the most up-to-date information on the recent massive earthquake in Haiti.

The House is aware that Her Majesty’s Government do not have the historic links with Haiti that they have with the rest of the British-speaking Caribbean; none the less, the entire Caribbean will be looking to the Government’s response to this awful tragedy. Haiti has had a turbulent recent history. It has very poor infrastructure and it will be reliant on international help—

Order. The hon. Lady will have an opportunity to develop her thoughts, but at this point we will hear from the Secretary of State.

I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by this question to update the House on the present situation. A series of major earthquakes struck Haiti last night in the area around the capital, Port-au-Prince. The strongest of these was reported at 7.2 on the Richter scale. Up to 13 aftershocks have since taken place. Information on the scale of damage and the number of people killed or injured is slowly emerging. Our initial estimates suggest that some 6 million people live in the affected area, and 1 million people in the worst affected area. Early press reports and limited information from the United States Government and the United Nations describe numerous collapsed buildings, including a hospital, many houses and the presidential palace. By any measure this is a terrible tragedy.

My Department has a four-person field assessment team en route to Port-au-Prince in order to determine the priorities for urgent assistance. We have already mobilised a UK fire and rescue service search and rescue team of 64 people with dogs and heavy rescue equipment. The team and their 10 tonnes of equipment are at present assembling at Gatwick airport and are ready to deploy as soon as the airport reopens following heavy snow. We are urgently looking at all options to ensure that the search and rescue team can deploy as quickly as possible, including the possibility of an RAF flight. I have been informed that the United States currently has two search and rescue teams mobilising and ready to depart from Miami. The Iceland search and rescue team is also mobilising. However, a further complication facing all teams is that Port-au-Prince airport is believed to be unusable. We are urgently assessing alternatives.

Haiti is, of course, one of the poorest countries in the world. The need in the aftermath of this tragedy is likely to be very great. The United Kingdom stands ready, as part of the international community, to provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of this devastating earthquake.

The House is aware that Her Majesty’s Government do not have the historic links with Haiti that they do with the English-speaking Caribbean, but none the less, further instability and privation in Haiti is a matter for the entire region. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his very full response, which moves us on from the press reports that we have heard this morning. I am sure that people in the Caribbean who are following the debate, and people in Haiti itself, will be grateful that Her Majesty’s Government are so keen to be of assistance.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and of course I wish to pay tribute to the depth of her knowledge and experience of the Caribbean. I am sure that it will be of comfort to her constituents and others across the country that the Government, and I am sure the whole House, are determined for Britain to play its part in response to this tragedy.

My hon. Friend is right to recognise that although Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we have not historically had a strong development relationship as a consequence of the fact that the French, the Canadians and the United States have primarily led on development assistance to Haiti. However, as I have said, we stand ready to consider what humanitarian assistance is required once the rescue phase of this tragedy is complete.

I thank the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for her question and the Secretary of State for the response that he has given the House.

Throughout the country, there will be deep concern for the people of Haiti at this awful time. As the Secretary of State said, it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and it is the least well equipped to cope with such a catastrophe. As all the evidence shows, the actions taken in the immediate aftermath of the disaster will determine how effectively the needs that result from it are addressed. In this case, the whole international community should ensure a swift and effective response, although clearly the United States is in the key position to provide help.

Will the Secretary of State give further details about the composition of the UK assessment team being dispatched to the region? When will it arrive, and when will we know what further support the British Government can offer? Can he assure the House that the whole Whitehall machinery, not just the Department for International Development, is firmly joined up on that point?

Can the Secretary of State provide us with any information about the number of British nationals who are currently in Haiti, their situation and the steps being taken to look after them?

As I said, the United States will no doubt have the leading role in the international response. What recent conversations has the Secretary of State had with his counterparts in the United States to ensure that that response is properly co-ordinated?

Many members of the British public will want to do all they can to support the people of Haiti at this time. What guidance can the Secretary of State give as to how their efforts should best be directed? Can he also update the House on how the neighbouring Dominican Republic has been affected?

In 2007 my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), a shadow International Development Minister, became the first senior British politician for some time to visit Haiti and spent time with the UN forces there, who are so important in these circumstances. We hear that they have been hit hard by the earthquake. Can the Secretary of State update the House on the latest news about the impact of the earthquake on the UN mission in Haiti, and what discussions has he had with colleagues at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York about the matter?

Our total focus at the moment must be on saving lives and getting help to those who need it, but will the Secretary of State accept that in due course and when the time is right, it will be necessary to have a full review of Britain’s emergency response process in such circumstances?

Let me associate myself with the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman expressed. I shall endeavour to answer the range of questions that he put before the House.

I certainly concur about the need for swift and effective action, and as part of the international community we are endeavouring to achieve that. The field assessment team is a four-person team, and is required to give us the opportunity to achieve the co-ordination of which he spoke. I can assure the House that there has been no delay in assembling the search and rescue capability—the 64 British firefighters who are gathering at Gatwick as we speak, to take forward the rescue phase of the effort.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as I sought to reflect in my original answer, we are working closely with our colleagues across Whitehall. Discussions are already under way with the Ministry of Defence, and of course with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The hon. Gentleman asked about British subjects in the affected region. The situation on the ground is chaotic, and as a consequence the information remains sketchy. I sought the advice of the Foreign Office minutes before appearing at the Dispatch Box, and it has had approximately 15 to 20 calls from family members here in the United Kingdom raising concerns about the possibility of UK nationals being in the country. Two of those identified in those calls have already made contact with their families since the calls were made to the Foreign Office earlier this morning. I can assure the House that the Foreign Office is keeping the situation under very close review.

In relation to contacts with the United States Government, the judgment to mobilise the 64 British firefighters was on the basis of conversations with our opposite numbers in the United States. Their assessment was that the need was clearly already so great that assistance in addition to the two American heavy lift and heavy rescue capability teams now en route to Haiti would be required. It was on the basis of conversations with the Americans that we mobilised our team.

As for what British citizens who are concerned about this human tragedy can do, my understanding is that as we speak, a meeting of the major British agencies is taking place. As is the case with similar tragedies, there will then be a judgment as to whether to launch a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal or independent appeals by the charities.

Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has already issued a statement. As I understand it, the Chinese and the Brazilians have raised concerns in relation to a number of the peacekeepers they have as part of the UN mission in Haiti, but it would perhaps be more appropriate for me to take the opportunity to update the House in due course, as the situation develops, on those and other related matters.

I too thank the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for giving us the opportunity for this update today, and I associate myself and my colleagues with the comments made by the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State. The horrors in Haiti this morning are utterly unimaginable, and the impact is all the worse for being the latest in a very long list of geographical disasters, which are complicated by political divisions and terrible uncertainty.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the initiative the Secretary has announced and the speedy response he indicated. Will he tell us what other forms of assistance, beyond the rescue teams, he is contemplating, perhaps as the next stage of assistance with the recovery? Others in the European Union and from elsewhere in the world will also be looking to see how they can assist. Will he explain to the House how all those different efforts will be co-ordinated?

The international community has a desperate habit of losing interest in, and forgetting, countries once the television crews have gone home, so looking to the longer-term, will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that with our partners, he will re-examine the support that we provide to Haiti and other vulnerable countries like it, and prepare help for them on a sustainable and secure basis?

Again, I am grateful for those remarks and associate myself with the determination that the hon. Gentleman communicates that the United Kingdom should play its part. Let me deal with two or three of the specific points that he raises. He is right to recognise that in any major disaster such as this one, there is a rescue phase—and that is what our efforts are focused on at the moment. The assessment team will contribute to the recovery phase and to an assessment of the humanitarian requirements.

In the wake of a tragedy such as this, there are always requirements for food, shelter, clean water and medicines. That is why the hon. Gentleman’s point about the co-ordination of the international effort is so apposite. We are already in discussions with OCHA—the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs—which has historically led such efforts. Tragically, because of our familiarity with major disasters over recent years, it has developed real expertise in the cluster system, whereby individual countries can slot their contribution into a more co-ordinated and joined-up international effort.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the European Union, which is historically one of the partners of Haiti. We are already in discussion with European partners, and we anticipate that ECHO—the European Community Humanitarian Office—the EU’s humanitarian assistance arm, will be heavily engaged in the response to the tragedy. Again, I will take the opportunity to update the House on the continued efforts to co-ordinate those international efforts in due course.

Some of the earliest of today’s press reports talk about the overwhelming numbers of people presenting themselves with severe lacerations and broken limbs to hospitals that have collapsed. Will the Secretary of State outline what medical elements are in the package of immediate support that the UK is offering? They will help to keep people alive.

We are delivering a capability through the 64 search and rescue specialists, who have expertise and knowledge. However, in the first instance, our challenge is physically to get people out from under the rubble. The indications are that because the centre of the earthquake affected a very built-up area of Port-au-Prince, there will be a requirement to remove people from the wreckage of buildings.

Alongside that, we are working with others to make sure that the medical supplies and medical professionals required to address this challenge are deployed. The Red Cross—both its international arm and the Red Cross bodies that represent individual nations—is already heavily engaged. I assure my hon. Friend that this is one of the issues that we have already been regularly discussing this morning.

The International Development Committee looked at the Government’s response to emergencies a couple of years ago. I commend the Secretary of State on his ability to show how that works at very short notice. We visited the emergency room in Victoria street.

Can the Secretary of State ensure that the co-ordination that follows from this disaster will avoid a lot of duplication of effort, which can go to waste? That has happened with other disasters. In particular, will the United Nations have the capacity to play that role, as it sought to do in Pakistan?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s question and the knowledge and expertise that he and his Committee have brought to bear on these issues. It would be fair to characterise the United Nations capability as significantly improved, although still with significant room for improvement. I am mindful of the lessons that needed to be drawn after the Pakistan earthquake, and we have put significant effort into strengthening the capability for immediate response and co-ordination.

I have already been questioned elsewhere this morning on why we are sending an assessment team in the face of the immediacy of the human tragedy. It is to address exactly the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman—so that we can both understand the scale of the humanitarian need and deploy effectively with our international partners to address that need. Alongside the rescue phase, work is already under way genuinely to understand the needs of a country that we should not forget was desperately poor even before this tragedy. Then we will be working with the United Nations to ensure a co-ordinated and sustained response to this tragedy.

With an island such as Haiti, there is always a danger that an earthquake will be associated with a tsunami, although thankfully that does not appear to have happened on this occasion. However, does my right hon. Friend recall that after the tsunami in the far east, the world pledged to improve the early warning systems for tsunamis and earthquakes? Was there any early warning on this occasion? What are his thoughts about the early warning preparation and the preparedness of the wider Caribbean?

It is one minor consolation in the face of the scale of this tragedy that a tsunami was not one of the features of this earthquake. But I assure my hon. Friend that the issue of early warning systems has been central in many minds following the terrible tsunami on Boxing day some years ago. I was then serving at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I took the opportunity to visit Aceh at the time. It was clear that many more lives could have been saved if there had been more effective early warning systems. That is why, since the terrible tragedy of the first tsunami in Aceh and Sri Lanka, we have worked closely with the Governments affected to provide that support.

I have to say that it was a great source of pride to me, on behalf of all Members of the House, to see, on a recent visit to Bangladesh, that British taxpayers’ money had helped to contribute to the disaster preparedness of the people there. That had prevented the tragedy of the recent cyclone from being an even greater tragedy, as a result of early warning and the provision of cyclone shelters. There are lessons that can be drawn from elsewhere in the world, and we have been working on this matter for a number of years.

Do we know whether the Government of Haiti are still functioning, or have they taken high-level casualties? Would it not be a double disaster if, in addition to the casualties on the ground, there were further political instability in an island that is already pretty fragile?

The position, I am afraid, is not yet clear. We know that the presidential palace has been damaged, along with other significant Government buildings. A spokesman from the Haitian Government broadcast on CNN this morning, urging help from international partners. However, the situation in the country is both chaotic and unclear. That is why we are working so closely with our friends and colleagues in the United States and elsewhere—to try to get a clearer and quick assessment of the true situation on the ground.

My final point is that the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that a disaster on this scale would test even the strongest of states; given Haiti’s blighted history, it will undoubtedly require the support of the international community.

Will the Royal Navy be galvanised as part of this important aid and rebuilding programme? Will my right hon. Friend contact the United States to ensure that it uses its extensive naval resources to get important aid, including medical supplies, into Haiti?

I would not wish to prejudge what assets could be required by the international community. The early indications are that although Port-au-Prince airport was unusable this morning, there are other airports both in Haiti and the Dominican Republic that would perhaps provide a more immediate and speedier response than would be offered by the deployment of naval assets. However, I am sure that if that requirement emerges, it will be given serious consideration, given the scale of the United States’ naval assets in the Caribbean and the region.

When the priorities for what is needed in Haiti are established, will the Secretary of State give an assurance that food and actual materials—blankets and so on—will be given, rather than a cheque being made over to the authorities?

As I said, an assessment team is en route at the moment to judge exactly what is required. However, within the capability of the Department for International Development are exactly the kind of supplies of which the hon. Gentleman speaks—whether they are as basic as blankets, tents and canvas to provide shelter or the ability to work with other British agencies to provide water and sanitation; an organisation such as Oxfam is literally world class in the provision of water and sanitation in the wake of such disasters.

We will consider all the requirements and options but I would fully anticipate that, as has consistently been the case in humanitarian responses in recent years, the response will involve material goods, rather than simply the writing of a cheque.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British overseas territory, is not too far from Haiti. Is he giving consideration to how the Haitian people living in TCI—there are several thousand people of Haitian origin there—will be affected, and to any assistance that can be given from British territories in the region?

I am sure that the overseas territories department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be considering that matter. Our most immediate priority within the Department for International Development has, of course, been the rescue response and the recovery phase. But it is right to recognise that there will be a regional dimension to this tragedy. That is why we have such strong working relationships through the overseas territories department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In response to the question that my hon. Friend has raised, I can say that I expect that those will be utilised.

The Secretary of State may know that there are significant numbers of French-speaking people in the UK, who I am sure will have a particular interest. The Churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, have strong links with Haiti. Furthermore, organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas have sent many people with expertise in various fields to work in Haiti over the years. Can the Secretary of State make sure that those groups, among others, are called on? I am sure that they wish to assist, and will be competent and able to do so.

Of course. I pay tribute to the work that Church organisations and non-governmental organisations from the United Kingdom have done for some time to support the people of Haiti, often in extraordinarily difficult and challenging circumstances. As you can imagine, Mr. Speaker, it has been a rather busy morning for us in the Department, but I anticipate that in fairly short order we will bring together the relevant NGOs—those that have worked in Haiti and/or have an interest in responding to this humanitarian tragedy—so that we can update them and assess how they can help.

Bill Presented

United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. William Cash, supported by Mr. John Redwood, Mr. Peter Lilley, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. Bernard Jenkin, Mr. Graham Brady, Sir Peter Tapsell, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. John Whittingdale and Mr. Brian Binley, presented a Bill to reaffirm the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 48).

Veterans’ Welfare

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to review and report to Parliament annually on the support provided to armed forces veterans across the United Kingdom in respect of access to health services, access to welfare schemes and access to other support; and for connected purposes.

We ask a lot of our armed forces, and it is appropriate that in this House we should regularly acknowledge our debt of honour to the brave men and women who put their lives at risk on our behalf in many different parts of the world. I am happy to do so again today. As our country has been embroiled in different conflicts in recent years, it is also right that at the beginning of Prime Minister’s questions each week, it has become the custom to pay tribute to those who have died serving our country—as we did again today, following the sad news of the death of Captain Daniel Read, of the Royal Logistic Corps, in Afghanistan. I should like to add my condolences to those already expressed by the Prime Minister and others.

The support given to the armed forces is actively debated in the House and rightly so, but today my focus is on the veterans—the millions of people who have served our country over many different decades and have returned to civilian life. In our own constituencies we come across them every day, contributing immeasurably to local communities while modestly playing down the roles that they had and the risks that they took.

I have been delighted in recent years to assist more than 400 constituents in obtaining their veterans badge. I have been honoured to present many of them and to listen to the experiences of the people who have earned them. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have been approached countless times to help veterans in their civilian battles as they try to get assistance with the health, financial or other problems that now confront them. Through Armistice day and other initiatives, we will not forget the sacrifices of those who have died, but it is equally important that we do not forget those who have survived but who need our help to cope. High levels of war fighting over the past decade have created a new generation of veterans with specialised needs at the same time as earlier generations who fought in the second world war and subsequently move into old age and experience the extra problems associated with their service.

In helping our constituents, we are given invaluable support by all kinds of organisations. My constituency includes the historic home of Earl Haig, whose eponymous charity plays a huge part in supporting veterans and their dependants and in raising awareness of the challenges facing them. There are countless others, such as the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, whose networks of volunteers across the United Kingdom tackle some of the most complex welfare issues imaginable.

The demand is great and I acknowledge that it is recognised by the Government. Beyond the introduction of the veterans badge, we have seen the establishment of the Veterans Agency, the publication of the service personnel command paper and, more recently, the pathway initiative. The shortcomings in the support available to veterans are obvious from the awareness campaigns undertaken on their behalf. Research on health services by my hon. Friends the Members for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) has established that 80 per cent. of local health authorities in England and Wales and 57 per cent. in Scotland have no idea how many veterans they have treated under the priority access scheme. Local health services do not understand the scheme and so veterans are losing out.

The British Medical Association has suggested simple changes that could transform the situation, including better training for NHS personnel on clinical matters affecting veterans and requiring a patient’s veteran status to appear on the front of his or her medical records. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People points out that a veteran in the UK has to endure hearing loss of 50 dB—twice that of their United States counterparts—before they will be considered for compensation in the UK. As many of my father’s generation found out to their cost, the five-year time limit imposed for applications for compensation is too restrictive and excludes many from accessing the support that they should have.

Away from health issues, Poppyscotland’s recent research shows that the second most common problem facing veterans after mobility issues was financial difficulty, yet as it points out, there is no single point of delivery for financial advice for veterans in Scotland. Research from the Royal British Legion has shown that many veterans have been forced to wait an unacceptable amount of time before receiving grants to which they are entitled and homelessness remains a real blight, with the charity Veterans Aid taking around 2,000 calls per year from veterans who are homeless or at risk of being homeless through debt and other problems.

Looking after veterans is complex and demanding, and it is made more so by the fact that the responsibility for care and support is divided among different agencies and Departments and between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. I accept that the Government’s 2008 Command Paper, “The Nation’s Commitment”, has sought to bring Departments together. It also seeks improvements in the ways in which local authorities and devolved Administrations consult the Ministry of Defence on veterans issues. Despite the myriad Government measures and voluntary schemes, however, assistance provided to veterans across the United Kingdom remains too fragmented. Organisations working with veterans keep reminding us that they are often reluctant to claim their entitlements and none of them wants preferential treatment.

We must recognise that we owe veterans a duty of care. We must spell that out. We must do better to make veterans aware of their entitlements and how to access them. We must transform the way in which health and other service providers fulfil their obligations to veterans and take care of their specialist needs. To help us achieve all this, we need urgently to reform the way in which we gather information about the needs of veterans and how they access help. In Parliament, we should debate a Ministry of Defence report on these issues every year.

This Bill seeks to address such issues and to allow Parliament to fulfil its scrutiny role more effectively. It would establish a legally binding code on veterans’ welfare, setting out a duty of care to veterans. That veterans covenant would include the right to an individual needs assessment, spelling out the services in which they should have priority or other access. It would also provide for monitoring reports on individuals’ experiences at appropriate points in their lives. The Bill would place a duty on the Ministry of Defence to implement the veterans covenant by maintaining a register of veterans, co-ordinating the work of UK Government Departments and liaising with the devolved Administrations. Finally, the MOD would be required to report to Parliament annually on the implementation of the code.

The debt of honour we owe to our veterans is vast. As a modest step towards tackling our dues, I beg leave to introduce this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr. Michael Moore, Nick Harvey, Willie Rennie, Bob Russell, Mr. Alistair Carmichael, Mr. Paul Burstow, Julia Goldsworthy, Malcolm Bruce, Danny Alexander, Sir Robert Smith, John Mason and David Cairns present the Bill.

Mr. Michael Moore accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 47).

Opposition Day

[2nd Allotted Day]

Education, Training and Skills

I beg to move,

That this House notes with concern the increase in the number of young people not in employment, education or training and the fall in the number of apprenticeship starts; further notes that there will be a shortage of university places in 2010 and that the continuing problems with the Student Loans Company will impact on those students beginning their studies this year; calls on the Government to clarify its position on university places after the annual Higher Education Funding Council for England grant letter and on imposing fines on those higher education institutions that take on more students to meet the 50 per cent. participation target; further calls on the Government to consider proposals for the rapid expansion of apprenticeships and to free further education colleges from stifling bureaucracy so they may meet the needs of young people; and urges the Government to offer 10,000 additional university places in order to build aspiration, opportunity and a competitive economy.

The basis for the motion is very simple: sadly, it is a widely recognised fact that young people in our country are the first and worst victims of this recession. The shocking figures are all too familiar. The number of young people not in education, employment or training is now more than 1 million—it is 1,082,000. The rate of youth unemployment in Britain, with 950,000 young people unemployed, is one of the worst in Europe. In fact, it is a sad irony that the Government were first elected in 1997 on a pledge card that they would reduce youth unemployment by 250,000. Under their watch, it has risen by more than 250,000 since then. That is a very serious challenge to us all.

This is not just about youth unemployment or the fact that young people have been the first and worst victims of the recession. It looks as though the higher education and training budget has proved to be one of the first and worst victims of the fiscal crisis that the Government have created. The Opposition understand the need for tough measures and for public spending to be brought down, because that is the mess that the Government have created and that has to be tackled. However, we have called this debate because we want to hear from the Minister what measures the Government are taking to tackle the crisis, and a full explanation of how he believes the cuts that have been announced in stages over the past few months will impact on universities and colleges. I have to say to the Minister that the suspicion is that the Department that he represents has fallen victim to the political arguments in the Labour Government between—[Interruption.] The Minister denies it, but not with an entirely straight face. The arguments are between the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, who famously said on 20 September 2009,

“I said…that I wanted to see us carrying on with real terms rises in our key public services”—

we will not hear the word “cuts” pass his lips—and the First Secretary of State, Lord Mandelson, who said on 14 September 2009 that

“spending in some areas will be reduced”.

When challenged on whether front-line services would be under the spotlight, Lord Mandelson said:

“Everything is going to have to be examined.”

The First Secretary of State is making an example of his Department in a strategic debate that he is having with some of his Cabinet colleagues about what approach the Government should take to the fiscal crisis. If that is what he is arguing as part of Labour party strategy, we should not be surprised that it looks like, so far, by far the biggest cuts have fallen within the budgets of higher and further education.

It is worth being clear about what those cuts are, so it would be helpful if the Minister explained them properly. Our understanding is that a £180 million efficiency saving was announced in the 2009 Budget; a £600 million further reduction was announced in the autumn statements; and a £135 million further reduction was announced in a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 22 December. That adds up to what is believed to be a £915 million cut. What steps is he taking to deliver those reductions and what does he think they mean for the numbers of students and the quality of the student experience? We want to hold him to account, and universities need to know exactly what the cuts will entail.

Buried at the end of the letter to the HEFCE, was a revealing figure that brought home the scale of the reductions. At the beginning of this period, in 2007-08 prices, the planned unit of funding—the amount of teaching support for students—was £4,140. According to the letter to the HEFCE, that will fall to £3,950 in 2010-11 in constant prices. That looks to be the key figure, and it is contrary to all the assurances we have had that teaching would be protected as part of this exercise. How does the Minister plan to deliver those significant reductions in the higher education budget?

We also hope to hear from the Minister about what the reductions mean for the number of student places. We are close to the 15 January deadline for applications—we understand that it was extended by a few days because of the weather—but can he indicate to the House how many university applications he expects this autumn? From provisional figures collected earlier in the year, we know that we were already looking at a 12 per cent. increase in applications for 2010 on top of applications in 2009—and 2009 was itself a record year.

We understand the reasons for those big increases in applications. With high rates of unemployment, many more young people apply to go to university, and of course there was a mini baby boom in the early ‘90s, which means that there is now a large number of 18 and 19-year-olds in that cohort. We want to hear from the Minister how many places will be available at universities for this further surge in the number of applicants. The fear is that there will be an increase in the number of young people applying and an absolute decline in the number of places available for them.

That would be an extraordinary position for the Government to have got themselves into. They have an official target of getting 50 per cent. of people into university. First the Government set the target, and then last year universities offered extra places for those students. Now, however, we are told that institutions will be fined for taking on those extra students. This must be the first time a Government have fined an institution for taking the steps necessary to reach the Government’s own announced target—in this case, of more people going to university.

The Opposition do not believe in artificial targets, such as the 50 per cent. target, and are comfortable with the Robbins principle, which states simply that

“courses of higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”.

That seems to us a much more sensible approach than artificial targets. At the same time, we have practical proposals for how we could find more places for students in the crisis year of 2010.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about targets and pooh-poohing the idea behind them. He talked earlier about units of funding, but does he not acknowledge that the lack of targets under Tory Governments in the 1990s led to one of the lowest ever units of funding for university students?

I accept that in that period we saw a big increase in student numbers but not a comparable increase in the unit of resource per student. Labour Members used to make that criticism, but now they are presiding over a reduction in the unit of resource per student. That is why, this time, we have a specific proposal for 2010 that avoids the problem identified by the hon. Gentleman. We have cautiously and prudently identified an extra source of cash that could go to universities in the crisis likely to be faced in the summer of 2010 of so many university applications with a possible reduction—on the Government’s plans—in the number of places. We have said that there should be a bonus—a special discount—for people who repay their student loans early, which would bring extra cash into the system now, before Lord Browne of Madingley has a chance to report.

The hon. Gentleman has raised that point before. He said that it is a practical proposal, but will he tell us how he has costed it and what its cost is, including the dead-weight cost of giving a discount to those who would repay anyway?

We have made a simple and cautious assumption that by summer 2010, there will be £30 billion of outstanding student debt. We believe, from looking at similar but not identical schemes in New Zealand and Australia, that it is reasonable and cautious to assume that 1 per cent. of that debt will be repaid early—£300 million.

In order to avoid the problems now faced by Ministers, which the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) mentioned, we have fully costed university places. We have not used places costing less than the average—if anything, we have costed them slightly more highly than we believe is the average. We have said that a university place costs £10,000 a year in total public funding, which includes maintenance and teaching support. Over three years, therefore, the full cost in public expenditure of a student place is £30,000, which means that the £300 million that we have identified would provide an extra 10,000 places.

That is a carefully costed, fully explained model that does not—this touches on the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed—involve any reduction in the unit of resource per student. Those would be extra places on top of the Government’s planned number of student places. Given that we are waiting for the proposals from Lord Browne’s funding review, and given the inexorable looming crisis and special circumstances facing us this summer, that is the right thing to do. Unlike Ministers, who appear to be proposing a reduction in the number of places for students just when there is a surge in applications, we are confronting a practical problem that needs addressing, because the Conservative party cares about educational opportunities for young people who wish to go to university.

When Ministers announced their latest round of cuts before Christmas, they talked about delivering more education courses for students through two-year degrees. We fully understand the case for such degrees. They are by no means a complete solution to the pressures faced by universities, but they are the kind of option that they have to consider. As so often happens with the Government, however, they proposed apparently new ideas that in reality have been around for some time and which they themselves have been undermining through their own policies. Will the Minister confirm, therefore, that in the same week that the briefing was issued saying that we should not worry about the public expenditure reductions because in future we would have so many two-year courses, the HEFCE announced a reduction in funding for foundation degrees, which are one way in which the shorter courses are delivered? Such initiatives are already in the system. The HEFCE has said that it will

“reduce the funding provided through the targeted allocation to support foundation degrees, and keep this under review in light of any further requests for efficiency savings.”

So at the same time that this supposedly radical new approach to universities is being floated, the funding for the initiative that is supposed to bring it to pass is quietly being strangled. That is an example of the Government’s spin running along completely detached from the reality.

We are pleased that Lord Browne’s review is a funding review—something that we pressed for—and not simply a fees review. We hope that it will tackle the underlying problems and pressures facing universities. Meanwhile, we are concerned to tackle the challenge that our universities will face in 2010, because we do not believe that the Government are doing so.

While we have the Minister here in the Chamber, let me ask him about another concern, which we realise many students still face, namely the continuing operational problems of the Student Loans Company. Let me remind the House of how the Government launched the policy in July 2006 and of the expression used by the previous Higher Education Minister, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell). For those of us on the Opposition Benches who wrestle with our constituents’ problems, it is worth reminding the House that the case for the new system was that it would result in

“clearer information, faster decisions, timely payments and accurate repayments.”

That is what we were promised in 2006, when the policy was launched. Since then, of course, we have had a shocking report, revealing not just the many cases of maladministration and incompetence, but problems that go back to the Department, which was endlessly chopping and changing the rules for student maintenance, creating a system that was far too complicated for the Student Loans Company to administer.

I hope that the Minister will tell the House, first, how many students are still waiting for their student grant forms to be processed and for the money to be received; secondly, how many disabled students in particular are still suffering from such problems; and thirdly, what assurance he can give us that the problems that are still hanging over from last year will not interfere with the efficient handling of new claims for 2010, which are starting now. We know, from the spirals of problems that the tax credits system, the Rural Payments Agency and the Child Support Agency have got into, that the real problems start when we do not sort out the first year’s problems before the second year of cases arrive. That is why the issue is so important. We need to know that the overhang of historical problems will not affect the next round of student applications.

Does my hon. Friend, who is making such an interesting speech, concede that there is an analogy with student numbers? Just as the grants and loans for last year have got mixed up—they might get mixed up with next year’s too—so the backlog of students who might have taken gap years or otherwise will now impact on the further demand for student places in the coming year.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes an important point. That is another reason why we believe that there will be a surge in applications in 2010. Some prospective students who could not get a place last year will reapply this year.

On student places, the 1 per cent. from the student loan book and so on, do I understand the hon. Gentleman to be saying that the 10,000 places to which the motion refers will simply be for one year, as appears to be the case, or does he expect a 1 per cent. premature pay-down from that £30 billion every year, which is the only way, on his figures, that those 10,000 extra places could continue year on year, with other cohorts going through?

Our policy is designed for the particular problems that we will face in the summer of 2010. The places are costed for three years, so the students will be able to continue at university, and we are assuming that £300 million will be coming through. We have designed the measure specifically to tackle a crisis caused by particular reasons—because unemployment is so high and because of the surge in the birth rate—and before we have had Lord Browne’s wider proposals on higher education reform. We need to do something for an immediate, pressing crisis, and that is what the policy is aimed at doing.

I will give way to the Minister again, but let me say that we are noticing a pattern: we put forward practical proposals to solve problems and we are questioned about them by his party.

It is because they do not add up. However, will the hon. Gentleman answer the question that I asked him earlier: what estimate has he made of the dead-weight cost of his proposal, in relation to those who already pay back early?

We are talking about extra payments that we are bringing into the system as a result of the discount. Of course it is true that there is a modest amount of repayments. We have done the calculations, which include an allowance for the modest amount of repayments made, which will benefit the discount. That is why we can afford the policy, with the £300 million coming in. That is how the policy has been costed.

Let me now turn to a subject over which we have occasionally drawn a discreet veil. However, in the year when we are marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great William Gladstone, it is right that we should devote a moment’s attention to the policies of the Liberal Democrats. In the 200th anniversary year of the grand old man of British politics, we are going to lavish attention on the Liberal Democrats. I enjoyed participating in a radio discussion over the Christmas break about his achievements with Lord Adonis, who was far more passionate in his defence of William Gladstone than was Lord Steel, who was also on the programme.

We are going to give some attention to the Liberal Democrats because hon. Members on both the Conservative and Labour Benches would like to get a sense of where Lib Dem policy on university fees currently lies. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) would like to take the opportunity to clarify that in his speech. However, as he studied history at Bristol university, perhaps we should try an historical account, just to be clear where we are.

In 2005, his party, like my party, went into the general election saying that fees should be abolished. With the financial pressures facing universities, we have recognised that that is not a sustainable policy. We have accepted that fees must stay, and we look forward to seeing whatever proposals emerge from Lord Browne’s report. The Lib Dems started off in 2005 by saying that they would abolish fees. Then, when the hon. Gentleman took up his responsibilities, he looked into changing the policy. However, I have to warn him that, although it is perhaps rather sad, I keep old copies of Times Higher Education.

It is, but it also means that I have records of the various statements that the hon. Member for Bristol, West has made about higher education policy over the years. There is an article in Times Higher Education in September 2008 that is headed: “Leaders of Lib Dems to ditch fees policy”. It says:

“The leaders of the Liberal Democrats plan to abandon the party’s opposition to student tuition fees. Stephen Williams, Lib Dem Shadow Secretary of State…said that the policy was not sustainable…Mr. Williams said that Nick Clegg, the leader of the party, had come to this conclusion after ‘long internal discussions’.”

In September 2008, the original policy was apparently to be abandoned. We understood that, and that is what the hon. Gentleman said to Times Higher Education.

By 2009, there seems to have been rather a dramatic change. I have here an old Liberal Democrat press release—that is even sadder—from 17 March 2009, which is headed: “University fees should be scrapped not doubled—Williams”. By March 2009, the Lib Dems were back to their election policy that university fees should be scrapped. Their policy, which had been carefully considered after a large amount of internal debate, was going, and they were back to saying that fees should go.

Then we had the excitement of the Liberal Democrats’ party conference. By September 2009, we had a statement from the Liberal Democrats that was reported with the headline: “Liberal Democrats may ditch pledge to abolish tuition fees”. It therefore looked as though they had once more recognised that, sadly, their policy was not feasible. It was reported that:

“On the opening day of the Lib Dems’ annual conference in Bournemouth, Clegg said he had to be ‘realistic’ about whether the flagship policy was affordable given the country's mountain of debt.”

It looked as though the Lib Dems went into their party conference attempting once more to abandon their pledge to abolish their policy. However, after the latest set of changes—it is only because the hon. Member for Bristol, West is an historian by trade that I am taking the House through the background—we now understand that the Lib Dem leader is saying that

“he could not scrap tuition fees in one Parliament but said he would do it over six years.”

That is a subtle distinction. The policy cannot quite be done in one Parliament, but that extra year, taking us beyond the next election, suddenly makes it possible.

Given that we all know the kind of propaganda that the Liberal Democrats put about on the doorstep, both Conservative and Labour Members would appreciate it if the hon. Gentleman could confirm, perhaps in an intervention, that what I have described is an accurate account of the history of their internal discussions on tuition fees since the last election. We would all very much appreciate it if he could give us today’s policy.

Indeed. Will the hon. Member for Bristol, West tell us that policy, so that we can tell the people who are sometimes taken in by wild and uncosted Lib Dem promises exactly what they are saying?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to extract from the Liberal Democrats their policy on tuition fees. Is he aware that the students union also wants to know where things stand with tuition fees?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I believe that the National Union of Students has said that the Lib Dem policy is as clear as mud. That is why it is so important to take this opportunity to find out exactly what the policy is and what the magical thing is that they will manage to do in the sixth year that they could not do in the previous five.

Does my hon. Friend agree that even if he is fortunate enough to pin down the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the House, what the spokesman says will be academic? When candidates walk down streets and knock on doors, they will say anything, however contradictory, to any voter who opens the door in the hope of winning a vote.

My hon. Friend is so right, but at least we are trying to find out. I have been trying to put on the record what we know about their policies so that we have an opportunity to ensure that we can authoritatively explain the position.

I have talked about higher education, and I want briefly to ask the Minister about where we are with skills and apprenticeships. There are ambitious targets on apprenticeships that are not being delivered. That is a similar story to what happened with the ambitious targets for participation in higher education. Will the Minister confirm that the latest quarterly figures for apprenticeship starts show that in the past three months, just 39,500 young people started a new apprenticeship? That is 26 per cent. fewer than in the same period last year. Will he confirm that those figures, sadly, show a decline in trend? That is despite the fact that they include apprenticeships at level 2, which is equivalent to GCSE level, whereas the Conservatives believe that apprenticeships should stand for what they have always stood for historically—qualifications at level 3, which is equivalent to A-levels. We would like to hear from the Minister about what is happening on his record on apprenticeship numbers. We are committed to shifting money from the Train to Gain budget to ensure that there are more opportunities for people to take up apprenticeships. Doing that, and having more places at further education colleges, is the right way to tackle the problems that young people face in this recession.

The first line of my hon. Friend’s motion refers to those

“not in employment, education or training”,

which is a growing number. One difficulty for those not in education, employment or training is where on earth they should go for advice. Jobcentre Plus cannot give them advice, because it does not know where the jobs, education or training opportunities are, and Connexions seems to have disappeared for anyone who has left school. Will he confirm that when we come into government, the work clubs that we propose—some voluntary job clubs already exist—will be able to give advice to those who are not in education, employment or training about how they can get back into the world of work, or back into education or training? If that does not happen, those people will be lost for ever.

What my hon. Friend says is so true. One of the real challenges and real problems that young people face is the disappearance of the careers adviser and the shocking weakness of information, advice and guidance. The Government produce report after report identifying that problem—indeed, it was powerfully expressed in the Milburn report on social mobility—but do nothing about it. They have an increasingly fragmented system. As my hon. Friend has said, Connexions appears not to be functioning as intended. That is why we believe in having a straightforward, all-age, independent careers service. It should be armed with the latest information available on the web, and more information should be collected than is currently available, so that young people will at least be guided through the maze that the Government have created of so many different vocational qualifications and training routes. That is very important.

Finally, the Conservatives have committed in our proposals to working together to ensure that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work with the Department for Work and Pensions to tackle the problems that young unemployed people face. I welcome the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) beside me on the Front Bench, because we are very aware of current criticisms about the Government’s approach. The DWP welfare-to-work budget means jobs without training, and the fact that the Learning and Skills Council is paying FE colleges to churn out paper qualifications means training without jobs. The Conservatives are committed to ensuring that those two programmes are delivered in a coherent and complementary way, so that the work of FE colleges is focused on ensuring that young people are employable, and, equally, so that welfare-to-work providers focus on providing the training that young people need. We propose having incentives to reward them for long-term performance.

My hon. Friend has mentioned FE colleges. He will remember the fiasco earlier this year when colleges such as the former Dunstable college, now Central Bedfordshire college, in my constituency were out of pocket. That college was left £700,000 out of pocket because of the situation regarding plans that it had proposed and money that it could not get back. Will he touch on what he foresees for the future of such FE colleges, after the way that they have been treated, in relation to their future capital budget?

That is a widespread problem concerning FE colleges, about which there is a lot of unhappiness. What happened was that the colleges had become too dependent on LSC grants to pay for their capital projects, and so, as was shown by some figures that I obtained in a parliamentary answer, the proportion of the total capital spend that was coming out of the LSC capital grant was getting higher and higher. That meant that every £100 million was buying less capital than it used to. We believe that it is possible, with some ingenuity, to increase the effectiveness of the public budget to secure more FE capital.

The Conservatives are committed to tackling the problems that young people face and to ensuring that they have extra places at university next year. We are committed to ensuring that FE colleges can thrive without the level of bureaucracy and red tape that they face under this Government. We are committed to ensuring that further education and training will work alongside welfare to work. For those reasons, I commend our motion to the House.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“recognises the Government’s commitment to maintaining investment in apprenticeships, higher education and skills and its commitment not to repeat the mistakes of past recessions, and to ensure that young people are not trapped in long-term unemployment; notes that since 1997 there have been 339,000 extra students in higher education, more than ever before, and that public funding has increased by over 25 per cent. in real terms creating the world-class higher education sector enjoyed today; further notes the Government’s commitment to managed growth in higher education to sustain quality and success in widening access, creating the most diverse student population ever; commends the Government’s commitment to helping graduates through the downturn; further notes that investment in apprenticeships today is over £1 billion in 2009-10, and that in 1997 there were only 65,000 starts compared to 240,000 in 2008-09; further notes the success of Train to Gain in supporting over 1.4 million course starts; commends the September Guarantee offering all 16 and 17 year olds an apprenticeship, school, college or training place; and acknowledges the Government’s investment of £1.2 billion in the Future Jobs Fund to guarantee a job, training or work experience for every young person unemployed for 12 months, and the graduate guarantee giving graduates unemployed for six months a guarantee of a high-quality internship or training, or help to become self-employed.”

First, let me wish the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) a happy new year. I am pleased to be here in the Chamber at this early point in 2010 to put the Government’s case yet again. It has been interesting to watch with marvel his transition from a flint-hearted monetarist to a caring, sharing and compassionate Conservative—perhaps securing his place in some future, distant Cabinet.

I reciprocate, collectively, the Minister’s best wishes for the new year. He mentions the year 2010; was not that the target year by which 50 per cent. of young people were to participate in higher education? Is that target being met? Is it the Government’s intention that it should be met, or has it been tacitly dropped?

As a former Higher Education Minister, and as someone who is recognised across the House as one who is constantly aware of the detail of issues, the hon. Gentleman will, I know, be aware that that is an aspiration of this Government and that it has been consistently opposed by the Conservatives. Labour Members are very proud of the participation rate of 43 per cent. and of the fact that more young people are in higher education than ever before.

I am delighted to learn of that aspirational facet of the Minister’s great concern. Will he tell us simply when he hopes that aspiration will be achieved?

If we continue to invest and to ensure, as we will, that despite having more students in higher education this year, there will be even more next year, we will meet that aspiration. Of course, in difficult economic times it is also important that students who need it get a grant to be in higher education—a grant that the Tories abolished and we introduced. It is all about managed growth, and we stand clear on that.

I have met many young people in Blackpool who have benefited from the high aspirations put to them by the Government. Through the Government’s Aimhigher programme and the reintroduction of grants, those young people are now going into higher education, which they had never before even thought about. They are exactly the young people who have benefited from the Minister’s and the Government’s programme.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We stand by Aimhigher, and I know that my hon. Friend will be very sad to know that the Opposition are committed to abolishing that programme, which supports the poorest young people across the country to make their way into higher education. I hope that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will clarify his position on Aimhigher when he concludes the debate. We wish that the Opposition would match their words with deeds, which yet again we have not heard from the Conservatives today—it has to be action, not just words.

The Opposition motion talks about the Government’s higher education policies, but it does not, of course, talk about what we have achieved, so it is important that I put that on the record this afternoon. Since 1997, the total investment in higher education has risen by 25 per cent. in real terms, while spending on science and research has more than doubled. That is a Labour achievement. The last decade has seen 340,000 more students get a place in our universities because of the 50 per cent. aspiration, making about 2 million more home students in total. Again, that is more than ever before in our country’s history—another Labour achievement. There are more people applying to university from non-traditional backgrounds and from the most deprived constituencies than ever before, with applications from constituencies like mine up not just by 10, 20 or 50 per cent., but by 100 per cent. That has happened under this Government and is a result of such programmes as Aimhigher, which Conservative Members would scrap. Once again, this is a Labour achievement.

My right hon. Friend is talking about the Government’s achievements in this area and about people from non-traditional backgrounds. Does he agree that the important steps that the Government have taken to support and improve the situation for part-time students, which the Conservatives had left virtually without support in 1997, have played a significant part in the story?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting the position of part-time students on the record. It is this Government who have introduced support for part-time students for the first time. My hon. Friend will have seen that in our grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, we flagged up the position of part-time students. He will also have recognised that we asked Lord Browne to look specifically in his review at the further support that will be needed to get more equity into the system for part-time students. The Conservatives have not faced up to any of that.

Everyone recognises the huge £6.4 billion capital investment in our university infrastructure across the country. Science facilities are now there, whereas they were falling apart under the Conservative Government—not to mention our commitment to research and teaching. All of that has taken place under a Labour Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that research and development is the lifeblood of manufacturing and industry in this country and that any proposals that Opposition Members have to cut that funding will have a major effect on the economy of this country, particularly in Coventry and the west midlands?

My hon. Friend is right: we cannot get back to growth without a ring-fenced research budget or without a commitment to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He will have been alarmed at the £610 million cut to my Department’s budget that was proposed by the Opposition 18 months ago. They wanted to do that 18 months ago—before the further, deeper, quicker, faster cuts that were called for by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on “The Andrew Marr Show” at the weekend. That would mean that there was absolutely nothing to support advanced manufacturing, nothing to support the low-carbon industries that we need for the future, and nothing for our digital economy or for our life sciences. It would mean a cut to the budget that they rely on.

If that is the Opposition’s proposal, does the Minister agree with me that it would have a major impact on apprenticeships as well? It will affect apprenticeships and industry, which shows that the Conservative policies are a sham?

My hon. Friend knows that there is a £34 billion black hole in the Opposition’s proposals that cannot be costed. It absolutely means the loss of those advanced apprenticeships that they say they want. He also knows that the Opposition are not only unable to explain where the money would come from, but are also proposing—I hope to hear more about this in the winding-up speeches—to cut and abolish Train to Gain. That would undercut the parents of young people—often those from the poorest communities—who will be deprived of the training and skills they rely on in order to move forward. The Opposition are also very equivocal about unionlearn, which we are very proud of.

On the potential future—or non-future under a Tory Government who want to scrap it—of Train to Gain, does the Minister agree that the employer reaction to the implementation of that scheme, not just from big employers but from the small and medium-sized ones, has been very positive, showing that this is the type of scheme that they want to participate in in greater numbers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Tories are standing in the face of the CBI, small employers and the millions of people who have benefited from Train to Gain. Those people gained qualifications that they did not previously have. They are the engine of our economy—the people on the factory floor who want to improve their skills and drive the economy forward. Let me say that I remember the old CSEs, which meant young people in Tottenham being streamed off, failing to get the qualifications that they should have had. It is this Government who have put the qualifications back in place under Train to Gain.

Let me clarify our position on two points that the Minister has made. We believe in refocusing Train to Gain on apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship training, and we believe that that was the right decision to take, given the evidence that much of the Train to Gain budget is spent on training that would have happened in any case. We also believe this is the right decision in a recession.

Secondly, the Minister suggested that we did not believe in unionlearn. Let me make it clear that I have visited unionlearn projects and I believe that it does a valuable job in spreading access and knowledge of training. We do support unionlearn.

Yet another difficult-to-believe conversion from the hon. Gentleman! This cosying up to the unions, my God! Most people will be very surprised to see the hon. Gentleman cosying up for beer and sandwiches with our unions across the country. We do not believe it.

One thing that we like about unionlearn is that it is very cost-effective, and we in this party believe in the scrupulous management of public money. The amount of encouragement and training that one receives for relatively modest sums of money is very attractive indeed.

That is amazing: the Conservatives are praising a Labour party policy—which they opposed—for its cost-effectiveness. This debate is beginning to make the Lib-Dem flip-flop on tuition fees look mild in comparison.

Another new-found concern is the one about young people who are not in education, employment or training. The hon. Gentleman often mentions them, but not the 4.6 million young people who are in work or in full-time education. That is an important figure, because it has risen from 3.9 million, which was the figure in 1997. Of course, at this difficult time for our economy, we are concerned about young people and, particularly, those who are not in employment, but that is why we have to stand by them at this time and not walk by on the other side.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to think back to the days—I think it was 1984—when he worked in the then Prime Minister’s policy unit and the downturn was more severe because of the absence of Conservative proposals. They took the view that the recession and unemployment were a price worth paying. Yet again this afternoon we have heard nothing from the hon. Gentleman about whether he would keep the future jobs fund for young people and whether he supports our September guarantee for young people. They were not even mentioned.

We heard no proposals at all—other than 10,000 extra student places—to support young people at this time, even though the hon. Gentleman knows that, in any downturn, young people who are a long way from graduation are the people who are most affected. I have yet to hear one Conservative party proposal to support those young people. The hon. Gentleman has not uttered anything and, for a party that is serious about taking power in the upcoming general election, that cannot be acceptable.

Once more we heard the confused policy concerning 10,000 extra university places in priority subjects for one year. The right hon. Member for Witney repeated it at the beginning of the year, but said nothing about the dead-weight cost of £300 million and the fact that young people are already paying it back. Nothing has been said about that cost; and very importantly, nothing has been said about whether the hon. Member for Havant has received permission from the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) to increase public borrowing to meet that extra cost. The increase is inevitable, because the Government borrow the money. The proposal would add to the current deficit, which the hon. Member for Havant says he is against. I see him squirming, because he is not used to not doing his maths, but he would add to the deficit for the taxpayer, and the policy is uncosted.

There is also the question of who the Conservatives would really help. Which students would be most likely to pay back that money? What constituencies would they be likely to live in? Surely they would be from better-off families. The policy feels like the Conservatives’ position on inheritance tax—benefiting the few over the many—and that cannot be a sensible way to proceed.

I should like to make the situation absolutely clear. Extra cash would go to the Exchequer because the policy would involve the early repayment of student loans. The people who would benefit are marginal students who, otherwise, would not have got places at university; and we all know that, sadly, those students are most likely to come from less-advantaged backgrounds. Like so many policies from today’s Conservative party, it is a highly progressive measure.

How can another form of borrowing be a highly progressive measure? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is another form of borrowing?

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that it is not, but I must put on the record that that is a mistake. He does not understand the way in which Government finances work, and again the public cannot take that proposal seriously.

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the problems that we have had at the Student Loans Company, and I have been at pains to ensure that, on this issue, the House has been kept fully informed at every stage. I shall do so again today. The company informs me that by 11 January, 918,600 students had had their student finance approved. That is 48,000 more than at the same point last year, and I hope that the whole House will join me in welcoming the assurance, which I have received from the company chairman, that he is taking the action that is required to improve the service so that students and their parents receive the service that they rightly expect.

I know that there has been concern about students who have applied for disabled students’ allowance. Just over 19,000 applications have been made this year: 6,000 have been approved; and more than 9,000 await further information from the applicant or the assessment centre. The hon. Gentleman will understand that every year students take into their own hands the process of going to receive their medical assessment, and I hope he recognises that about 70 per cent. of those students present with dyslexia. Many take some time to go through the assessment process, but over the exam period their many requirements prompt them to move quickly through the process.

On exactly that point, I have been approached by the mother of an autistic constituent whose travel to the Guildford college where he does a music degree was paid for last year. A taxi driver has taken him to college since last term, but the student has not received his funds and the taxi driver has not been paid. Nobody is asking for more information; the work just has not been done. If the Minister could look at the case, he would really help that anxious student, his anxious mother who has just been diagnosed with an illness and the small taxi company that is losing money because of the problem.

I am happy to ask the chief executive of the Student Loans Company to look specifically into that case. By necessity, all such cases are complex and there is an onus on the company to ensure value for money and probity in the applications that are made. However, my hon. Friend refers to a situation in which the student previously received funds, so I am happy to look into what has happened.

Importantly, overall we are doing all that we can to help young people during this difficult time. The foundation stone of much of that work is the young person’s guarantee, and on that point I should like to clarify our amendment. We announced in December that that guarantee, including the future jobs fund, would be available to young people after six months of unemployment. The £1 billion future jobs fund is part of the Government’s overall investment of £5 billion to help young people back to work during the recession. The White Paper, “Building Britain’s Recovery”, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions published before Christmas, announced that the young person’s guarantee will be extended, so that all 18 to 24-year-olds still unemployed after six months will be guaranteed access to a job, training or work experience. This will be supported by more time with their personal adviser and a proper personalised back-to-work plan.

While the Minister is on the subject of guarantees—and I apologise for drawing him back to the student loans issue—he did not clarify the position for January and February admissions. He will know that a significant proportion of students enrol in those months, so can he give the House an absolute assurance that they will have no problems with their finances?

The process for this year began just before Christmas. It is under way and it is going well at this stage. There is a commitment from the Student Loans Company—from the chair and chief executive, right through the company—to act on the report by Sir Deian Hopkin to ensure that it does not make the mistakes that were made last year in processing and scanning, or in people’s inability to contact the company. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman will continue to hold the company to account to ensure that that commitment is honoured.

My hon. Friend has set out the considerable achievements of this Government in higher and further education and employment for young people. We need to protect research and investment in education and training to hasten the economic recovery and employment, especially in manufacturing. However, how could that be done with a £915 million cut in higher education? Would further education pick up the slack?

My hon. Friend asks a good question—he raised the same issue before Christmas—and if I may, I will come to that point later. We are supporting graduates at this time. We are committed to internships and I am pleased by the level of applications from young people in the graduate talent pool, and the fact that employers are coming forward in their thousands with internship places. The regions are acting to ensure that young people have something to do and can acquire the skills that industry and business say that they need. A range of opportunities is being provided across the country, and the Small Business Federation—as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced—has been able to support our drive to ensure the provision of internships.

We are also ensuring that there are 24,000 extra places for postgraduate study in the system, as well as more volunteering opportunities and support for young people who want to set up small businesses after graduation.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the importance of the regional dimension in the Government’s initiative. I know that the Northwest Regional Development Agency is playing a critical part, together with HE and FE institutions. Does he think that the potential for such action in the future would be helped or hindered by the abolition of RDAs, as suggested by the Opposition?