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Westminster Hall

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2010

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 23 March 2010

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Disability Policy (Economic Downturn)

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

As always, it is a great pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Olner.

As we move towards the end of this Parliament, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak about an issue that has been of great interest to me during my time in the House. I pay tribute to many hon. Members and peers from all parties, to the all-party group on disability and to the all-party group on learning disability, which I am privileged to co-chair with the distinguished Lord Rix, for their work on this issue. The House has been extremely well served by many organisations such as Mencap, Leonard Cheshire, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and RADAR. Their contribution has been vital not just to progress for people with disabilities, but to democracy.

In the past, many people with disabilities were subject to discrimination with regard to employment opportunities, poverty and inflexible social care. For that reason, some hon. Members, many of whom are here today, campaigned vocally for the rights of disabled people. Our fundamental objective remains the promotion of disabled people’s human rights of inclusion, independence and freedom. Those rights help knit together cohesion in our society. There have been great strides over recent years, but everyone knows that there is a long way to go.

The Government can be rightly proud of their record on disability issues. I warmly congratulate the Minister and his predecessors—especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who did a first-class job. I am impressed by the work of the Office for Disability Issues, which has been headed knowledgeably by the Minister, who has long been a campaigner for disability rights. My first contact with him was in 1986 when I received a letter from a young social worker emphasising his support for my private Member’s Bill on disability rights and advocacy. That Bill became the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986.

I am delighted that the Minister is still fighting hard for equality and opportunity, and that his Department has been committed to meeting the needs and aspirations of the 10 million people with a disability—through Equality 2025, by strengthening the legislation with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and by leading the way on the United Nations convention on disability rights. Through employment programmes, increases in disability benefit and an incredibly ambitious social care reform agenda, the lives of many people with disabilities have undoubtedly improved since 1997.

The past year has seen exceptional changes in the British economy as we have moved into and out of recession. The inevitable tightening of the Government’s fiscal belt means that there will be changes and efficiencies in the public sector over the next few years. The reason for this debate is to seek to ensure that cuts in public spending are not aimed disproportionately at some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Alas, we have seen that happen in many recessions.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that just as funding for international development has been ring-fenced by my party, there is a strong case for ring-fencing the money for people who are disabled because they, too, are vulnerable? I pay tribute to him for his work on this issue and on international aid over many years.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and welcome his remarks. From exchanges in the House, he will know that in Scotland we feel strongly about ring-fencing because the additional money made available to the Scottish Government did not go where it was intended to go.

As I was saying, in previous recessions, the weak and vulnerable have tended to be targeted as part of a dogmatic free-market agenda. We have seen that again in certain local authority areas. It is vital that legislative reform and services for people with disabilities should continue to have the momentum of investment and commitment from Government and local authorities. Everybody with a disability, whether their needs are moderate or complex, deserves the opportunity to live a fulfilling and rewarding life.

I will start by discussing the issues in social care—in particular, the roll-out of the Government’s ambitious and widely supported personalisation agenda, which includes direct payments, personal budgets, individual budgets and the right-to-control scheme. Those are vital tools that provide independence for people with disabilities. An excellent example of the potential of personalisation comes from Daniel, a young man in east Sussex who is deaf, uses British sign language and has Asperger’s syndrome. He has worked closely with the RNID to choose a package that includes flexible care at home, assistance to increase his confidence on public transport and the vital support needed to help him get a job in Asda. Such examples provide insight into the potential of personalisation. Public spending cuts during the recovery should not stall that vital reform. I am glad to say that the new £7 million right-to-control scheme suggests a continued commitment to its implementation.

About 46,000 adult service users now have personal budgets, compared with only 60 three years ago. About 86,000 adults received direct payments in 2008-09, which is an increase of nearly 30 per cent. on the previous year. Although no social care programme should have cost-cutting as its sole objective, academic research has shown that support packages based on direct payments are on average about a third cheaper than directly provided services. I argue that we should reinvest the efficiency savings made through the personalisation programme back into social care. However, at a time of fiscal belt-tightening and demographic change, personalisation reconciles the seemingly contradictory needs of increasing user satisfaction and meeting the financial constraints in which funding streams operate.

In the post-recession world of economic reticence, there can be no let up in the roll-out of personal control because it is only through widespread provision that the number of services provided for service users will increase. People often say that we cannot allow a postcode lottery to develop and that uneven implementation across local authority areas should not occur. That is why I applauded the move towards a more nationwide perspective on the issue of social care, and I look forward to a future of national assessment and social care portability.

I know from the experience of the Act that I sponsored that safeguards also need to be built in and pursued, so that there is full implementation of the intended programme. Brokerage must be available, accessible and not open to exploitation. In some excellent documents produced by Unison, a compelling case has been made for local authorities to carry out at least a part of the brokerage system. For people who are uncomfortable and unable to cope with the prospect of becoming an employer and managing their own budget, we need to ensure that social services provide the necessary practical provision. We know from experience that one size does not fit all.

Where there are popular, well established services, often provided by local authorities on a larger scale, they must not be used by councils—some of which, frankly, are incompetent—as an expendable and disposable resource to cover their own financial priorities. Too many local authorities have used personalisation as an excuse to slash costs and repair the damage caused by their own mismanagement. Personalisation is a process through which we improve social care provision; it is not a political football to kick around town halls.

As a former president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I mention this with a heavy heart, but one example relates to Aberdeen city council, where financial mismanagement led to a multi-million-pound overspend that needed to be plugged. Who are bearing the brunt of the council’s ineptitude? Disabled people, because the council has been closing day centres, care homes and respite centres.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that personalisation should not mean isolation? Personalisation at home is potentially good news, but people need to get out and have support. Day centres are important, and volunteer groups should not be undermined by an aggressive system of tendering. Often if we want to encourage volunteers in the community, it takes many years to build up well trained and informed voluntary groups.

I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. When I was preparing for this debate, I met and heard from a number of voluntary organisations, many of which echoed the view that he just expressed.

I turn to the issue of Scottish local government. Aberdeen city council is tightening its eligibility criteria to exclude people from care; it is hard to believe that that is happening in the United Kingdom today as we speak. To raise eligibility criteria in such a way is fundamentally short-sighted, because continued care and support reduces the number of cases in crisis and helps to encourage people into work.

We also need to remember the staff, some of whom are low paid and many of whom are female care workers. They are the backbone, and central to the survival of these care services. There needs to be reskilling to enable people to adapt to changing roles, but staff are not expendable; they are precious. Safeguards must be built in, so that those employed by service users are given full employment rights and know where they stand in relation to liability insurance and tribunal awards.

Is the right hon. Gentleman concerned about the potential connection between the important point that he is making and the scandal that appears to be emerging, which is that primary care trusts in our part of the world—in England, Wales and perhaps also Scotland—are not receiving the amount of money that was supposed to be allocated by the Government? That money is being absorbed into the general budgets, which is outrageous.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. If we have what many have called a national care service, I hope it will be easier to identify where the problems that he mentioned are occurring.

I should like to echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) just said, and be slightly more specific. It is not just about cuts; it is about ensuring that the money that the Government have allocated to various parts of the system gets to the people for whom it is intended. For 2010-11, the Government have allocated £100 million for carers’ services in England—for things such as respite care and breaks. Research from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers shows that only about a quarter of that money will be used for carers and, shockingly, that a quarter of primary care trusts will be spending less money on carers next year than last year, despite substantially more money being earmarked by the Government for carers’ services.

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I think we all recognise that the system would break down if it were not for carers, who often give up 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We acknowledge the contribution of such people.

Last week, I met carers in my constituency, who do a wonderful job. The right hon. Gentleman may have seen my recent work on the disability facilities grant—I tried to get a debate on that subject today, but he pipped me to the post. The grant enables disabled people to live in dignity and independence, and to remain in their homes. An increase in that grant might well cut the overall cost of caring for people in the long run, so it would be financially prudent. Will he join me in asking for a review of how the grant operates? People are waiting far too long for their facilities.

Thank you, Mr. Olner. I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) said; it would not be a Westminster Hall debate if he did not make an intervention.

We need to be bold in tackling the problems of economic inequality and poverty for people with disabilities, and doing so should motivate hon. Members from all parties. Leonard Cheshire’s 2009 disability review, which is an excellent document, shows that 42 per cent. of respondents found it difficult or very difficult to manage on their personal income. Some 63 per cent. of respondents were in fuel poverty and 55 per cent. did not have any savings. Leonard Cheshire’s 2008 report, “Disability Poverty in the UK,” found that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Many of those issues have been exacerbated by the recession.

We need to consider ways to increase employment further, reduce discrimination, improve educational provision and ensure that the welfare system works effectively for disabled people, who are, in many cases, unable to work. Although employment is not the panacea for ending all disability inequality, it plays an important role in reducing social, economic and cultural barriers by providing many disabled people with that vital sense of meaning and independence. The employment rate for disabled people has increased from 38 per cent. in 1998 to 48 per cent. in 2008. However, only 10 per cent. of all people with a learning disability work, which is why the extension of targeted Government programmes, such as the Jobs First pilot scheme, is essential.

The recession has made finding a job much harder for everyone in society, and people with disabilities start at a clear disadvantage.The unemployment rate for disabled people increased from 8.1 per cent. in October-December 2007 to 10.4 per cent. in October-December 2009, and the economic inactivity rate of disabled people at the end of last year was 44.1 per cent, compared with 16 per cent. among people without a disability. Sadly, stigma and discrimination are still present. More than half the respondents to Leonard Cheshire’s 2009 report believed that they had been discriminated against in the workplace, which is totally unacceptable in any circumstances.

The Government are working hard to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and that needs to continue with even greater ferocity in the post-recession climate. Pathways to work, which has helped more than 180,000 people into work, should continue to be delivered robustly and fairly. Indeed, £1 billion of investment has been promised for the period between 2008 and 2011. However, payment by in-work results, a key part of the programme, can occasionally result in the most able jobseekers being creamed off and the least able clearly being neglected. It would be wrong to ignore those who face the most challenging obstacles to employment.

The access to work scheme has also proved a great success, helping some 44,000 people into employment. There is an ambitious Government promise to double the budget from £69 million to £138 million by 2013-14, which I hope will be achieved. Access to work provides support for adapting premises and people travelling into work, but there is more to be done to highlight the scheme to employers—ensuring that portability is built in and forcefully making the moral and economic case for employing people with disabilities.

Earlier, I mentioned benefits. Part of the programme for encouraging employment has been to reclassify incapacity benefit as employment and support allowance. That has been supported by disability charities as a much-needed change that judges people by their potential and removes the expectation that certain people with disabilities cannot work. Continued safeguards are required to ensure that the work capability assessment does not force some disabled people on to jobseeker’s allowance, which can fail to meet their longer-term needs.

Inequality and discrimination are not only present in the economic sphere. Great steps have been taken to extend equality legislation to people with disabilities, the disability equality duty in 2005 being just one example of the Government’s legislative commitments. However, problems and challenges remain. Of all adult protection referrals to social services, 15 per cent. involve crime or abuse against people with learning disabilities. In order to deliver real disability equality in the economic upturn, disabled people need more than economic rights, vital though those are.

Significant cultural changes are also required. We need to tackle in no uncertain terms disability hate crime, which is currently the subject of a formal inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission; the lack of political representation; and a cultural refusal to integrate disabled people fully into many aspects of modern society. That is why the Equality Bill, which has been welcomed by the Disability Charities Consortium, is so important. The Bill will put a new equality duty on public bodies, use public procurement to improve equality and extend the use of positive action in political life, which has been welcomed by the great united voice of those involved in disability who rightly make their views known to us as parliamentarians.

In the post-recession climate, it is incredibly important that the Government should enforce the relevant provisions of the Equality Bill so that service providers do not adopt a policy of doing the least possible. It is by delivering those wide cultural, social and political changes, alongside a legislative programme for social care reform and economic assistance, that disability policy after the recession can bring about real change for disabled people. That is the hallmark of a caring society and of a modern and inclusive Britain.

I thank the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for securing the debate and making a detailed and thoughtful contribution. He listed several groups, organisations and individuals, including the current Minister and his predecessors, who have made a significant contribution—I will not name them all today, but they know who they are.

One of the things that pleases me about the debate is that it gives me the chance to wish the hon. Gentleman well, as he has decided to stand down from Parliament. He was a stalwart in the fight for disability rights and will be very much missed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I will touch on another Scottish problem that he mentioned—the ring-fencing of funds—because he was disappointed, as was I, when money allocated to the Scottish Government to be spent on those living with disabilities was not spent on that intended purpose.

Living with a disability is not only an issue for the individual concerned; it affects their family, friends, carers, employer and the entire community. It is worth remembering that whatever we have to cope with in the UK is nothing compared to the problems faced by others elsewhere in the world, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees. During my six years on the International Development Committee, I witnessed at first hand people with a range of disabilities, who often had a fraction of the help and support we see in the UK, and yet we are painfully aware that the level of support here falls well short of the mark.

I would like to pay tribute to groups and organisations that do excellent work on disability. RADAR, an organisation to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, recently invited spokesmen from all parties to say what their parties would like to see happen after the election. The subject of today’s debate is disability policy after the economic downturn, but unless the economic downturn ends before the expected election date of 6 May, we are discussing disability policy for the next Government. At the RADAR event, I said that I did not believe that any one party had all the good people, ideas and wisdom. Whichever party forms the next Government, I would like to see it put dealing with the problem at the forefront, rather than use any disability-related matter as a political football, because the issues that people have to live with day by day and week by week are more important.

The debate focuses on disability policy after the downturn, and as an optimist I hope that that will not be too far in the future. Before looking to the future, however, it makes sense to look at how the downturn has affected those living with a disability today. Disabled people have been disproportionately hit by the downturn in several ways. We have seen the cost of heating, food and transport rise in recent weeks, months and years, while we know, as is detailed in Leonard Cheshire’s report, that the income of a family with a disabled parent or child is often much lower than average. I hope that those people will not be forgotten during the election campaign, because that group has a much lower than average record of turning out to vote, but they feel a much higher than average impact from Government policies and they need those policies to be right.

With a general election just around the corner, now is a good time to look to the future and to learn lessons where we have made mistakes in the past. At this time, disabled people will rightly be looking for commitments from all political parties that policies for the disabled are not seen as a good idea in the boom years but unaffordable in difficult economic times. That would be exactly the wrong way to look at disability policies. The next Government, whoever they may be, should consider the huge opportunities for making use of the vast pool of untapped potential among people with disabilities in every constituency in the country.

However, for disability policy to be a priority for the next Government, we need a House of Commons that is full of MPs who recognise the importance of disability and related issues. One way to achieve that would be to encourage more disabled people to vote. Whether through a postal or proxy vote, every individual, no matter what their disability, has a democratic right to make their voice heard. It is therefore a real point of concern that people with disabilities continue to have one of the lowest rates of political participation in the country. At the last election, it was estimated that less than 20 per cent. of certain groups of disabled people voted. If we want a strong voice for disabled people in Parliament, we need to have MPs who have been elected with the help of disabled people and those living with disabilities, and who can be held to account by them.

If we are committed to supporting people with disabilities, we also need disabled people to be elected to this place so that we have more people who have a more direct interest in the issue. I am not saying that those who do not have a direct interest do not have awareness and cannot campaign and work for groups that are most directly affected, but disabled people would add to the mix in Parliament.

The onus is on politicians to provide something that is worth voting for. Too often, disability issues have been seen as an add-on, and tagged on to the end of other policies. In the future, we should mainstream independent living, accessibility and disability awareness. Disability should be a thread that runs through policy as a matter of course. One of the things that any new Government could do is repeal section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, which sends all the wrong signals about mental health.

The disabled people to whom I speak do not want much. They ask only for a fair deal and a level playing field. Central to that will be the drive towards independent living, which must continue in the next Parliament. I know that the current Government are not too keen on primary legislation on the subject—they do not feel that delivering independent living requires it—but I am surprised to hear that from a Government who have published more new laws than any other in living memory. They have made a mistake on that count.

I am pleased that we now have the Independent Living Scrutiny Group to review progress on implementing the independent living strategy, but I believe that primary legislation could make a contribution and clarify disabled people’s entitlements. That would be the best way to proceed.

Independent living must be at the core of our approach to disability in the future. Personal budgets that give people the right to choose their own priorities are the right way forward. At the same time, we must ensure that we create a system that does not allow independent living to be abused as a way of giving people more say over less funding. A real concern in the economic downturn is that we may pass the buck—whether to individuals or local authorities, who have to work with restricted budgets.

In 1997, a Government were elected who admirably made cutting child poverty a key priority. However, they talked the talk but did not walk the walk. Yesterday, the Child Poverty Bill went through its final stages in the House, but it includes a new definition of eradication of child poverty which would not be acceptable in any other walk of life. To say that something has been eradicated means that we have got rid of it; saying that it is as bad as in neighbouring European countries is not the same.

I would like the next Government to take a much more determined approach to tackling disability poverty. Leonard Cheshire Disability has gone into that in great depth in several reports over the years, and, for those who are following this debate, following its work would be a wise thing to do. It is simply not right or fair that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Much of that is down to an insensitive system that does not adequately take into account the higher living costs that often come with having a disability.

One young mother mentioned to me that the bicycle that her able daughter uses cost £50, yet her disabled child’s bike—with stabilisers, supports, controls and so on—cost four times as much. Shoes for an average child may cost about £20; for a child who needs built- up shoes, foot splints and so on, a pair of shoes can cost £200.

The Minister will know that some local authorities and financial institutions still consider the care component of disability living allowance as part of an individual’s disposable income when calculating social care entitlements or whether someone can apply for credit or loans. We must agree that there ought to be a change so that the system takes account of the extra costs of living with disability when conducting income assessments for benefits or measuring disability poverty. If we are to start to make a dent in disability poverty, we must recognise that DLA is not additional income but is for meeting the additional costs of living with a disability. Might I suggest that the tax system proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), which would lift the lowest earners out of tax altogether, would be a good place to start?

I would also like us to banish the idea that people are in some way acting altruistically by acting on disability issues. Not only do we have an obligation to act but the reality is that society as a whole benefits when disability is treated as a priority. Properly investing in people with disabilities to help them back into work and live independent lives will save billions of pounds a year in unemployment and other benefits. It is also simply the right thing to do.

Looking forward, we will start to deliver fairness for people with disabilities only when we begin to build disability awareness into every Government Department and every aspect of employment. Disability issues impact on every sphere of government, from transport, health, education and housing to Department for Work and Pensions benefits and much more. I have touched on the work that the Department for International Development does on disability abroad.

Disability policy affects millions of people. If we are to consider disability policy after the downturn, we should consider how best to build disability awareness into the priorities of every Government Department. Fairness for people living with a disability will not be achieved by treating disability as an afterthought. It ought to be at the forefront of our mind when we make policy.

I trust that the issue will be at the forefront of the mind of the next Government, and I would like to hope that in the next 25 years we will move forward on disability as much as we have moved forward over the past 25 years on race, religion, age and gender discrimination. I often feel that disability issues have fallen behind. I wish whoever forms the next Government all the best in dealing with the serious problems that those who live with disabilities experience every day, week and month.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) on securing this debate. He made a wide-ranging speech in which he covered the waterfront of these issues.

The only disappointment is that it takes the right hon. Gentleman to have a good debate on disability policy. It is a shame that the Government have not had more debates on the Floor of the House. It is not necessarily the Minister’s fault—I have been pressing the Leader of the House for more frequent debates on this topic. The Government had debates in 1999, and in 2004 and 2006—sadly, both coincided with the days of European and local elections—but they have not had one since. The opportunity that the right hon. Gentleman has given us to discuss these important issues is very welcome, and many of the points that he made are shared by Members on both sides of the House.

I also take this opportunity to wish all the best to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), who will not be standing again. Having listened to his speech, I have to say that he sounds as passionate about these issues as ever. He listed a range of challenges for the future, so perhaps he should stand again so that he can take his part in campaigning on them. I recognise, as the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill did, that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West has been campaigning on these issues for many years, so perhaps he feels that he has done his bit, but it certainly sounded as though there is still much more that he wishes he could do. I wish him very well for the future.

Whoever forms the next Government will, in forming policy, have to consider the operation of the disability facilities grant. We must give the Government credit for increasing the grant over the past three years from £146 million to £166 million. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should go even further, because that is money well spent and it will save even greater sums in the longer term? Does he agree that the grant should be changed to introduce a rapid repair and adaptation service for minor works, so that people do not have to wait months and sometimes years for adaptations that will allow them to live with dignity and independence?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point when saying that a lot of the money that is spent on things that the disability facilities grant buys is well invested. It often enables people to stay in their own homes, meaning that they do not have to go into expensive residential care. Investing in such things often makes a great deal of sense.

The point made by the hon. Gentleman links well to one of the central points made by the right hon. Gentleman, which was that whoever forms the next Government will face a challenging set of public finances and that the vulnerable should not suffer in such circumstances. The right hon. Gentleman put his finger on why that does not need to be so. Even if the Government have to reduce public spending—whoever forms the Government will have to do so—that does not mean that they will have to cut public services. He mentioned some of the changes in the personalisation of social care leading to money being spent in better, more effective and more innovative ways.

The public sector has to focus on delivering some of the things that the private sector has delivered over the past few years during this difficult economic period by improving productivity, doing things smarter and doing more for less to ensure that we can still deliver good services to people with good outcomes, even in a challenging situation. In respect of personalisation, the right hon. Gentleman put his finger on the way in which that circle can be squared and where money can be better spent. The points made by both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Castle Point highlight that, regarding the public finances overall, spending money wisely is smart spending. We need to see more of that.

It is worth focusing on one interesting aspect of this recession that is a good thing —this is where I slightly disagree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West—which is that the impact on employment for disabled people has not been too bad. Disabled people have not suffered as much as others from the downturn. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission produced a report recently, last July, looking at the impact of the recession on various groups, including disabled people, which said that they had not been disproportionately affected. Clearly, they have been affected just the same as everybody else, but they have not been disproportionately affected. The only caveat to that is that the EHRC said that part of the reason for that was that disabled people were not as employed as everyone else: they started from a relatively low base. However, having said that, it is good that the recession has not had a disproportionate effect on disabled people and that the gains that they have made in terms of getting into work have not been reversed by the recession. That is welcome.

It is worth remembering that one of the key reasons that disabled people, before, during and after a recession—several hon. Members made this point, and the right hon. Gentleman also made it when mentioning the excellent Leonard Cheshire report about disability poverty—are poorer is that they are less likely to work. Whoever forms the next Government will have to improve the number of disabled people who get into work.

I am happy to say that the Government have made some progress—the employment rate has gone up, as the right hon. Gentleman said, but I think that everyone would agree that it has not increased as much as we hoped. The big challenge for whoever forms the next Government is to make serious inroads on the significant number of people on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance who still have not been able to get into work. The tragedy is that there are now more disabled people on those two benefits than there were in 1997 when the Government came into power. The figure has increased by a bit—about 13,000—but it still stands at just over 2.6 million people, 800,000 of whom have been on those benefits for more than 10 years, so they have not been helped.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. Does he agree that it is not just a question of what the Government can do and about Government policy; it is also about what employers must do? Many major employers to whom I have spoken in my constituency would go that extra mile to help employees who develop a disability to continue at work, but they do not take that extra care or consideration into their recruitment practice. It is vital to get employers on board in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman is right. He cautions us about one thing in particular. We spend a lot of time talking about those disabled people who are not working and what we need to do to give them help and support to get into work. The other side of that equation is ensuring that employers understand that the reasonable adjustments that they might have to make to employ someone with a physical disability, a mental health or fluctuating condition or, as the right hon. Gentleman said, people with learning disabilities, are often not that great. By making some relatively modest changes, we can ensure that such people have the opportunity to work and make a contribution and, equally, employers can take that into account in respect of people in the existing work force who develop a disability.

There cannot be an employer of any size that does not have someone on its staff with a mental health problem, for example, given that one in four of us will have one at some point in our life. An employer may not know that they have employees with mental health problems, but I am sure that they do have such employees. It is about encouraging employers to make changes to keep those people in work and help them to remain effective. Perhaps that is one of the gaps.

There are some good employers. The Employers’ Forum on Disability has some good members who do excellent work. Perhaps that knowledge is not widely shared. That is a challenge not just for the Government, but for Members of Parliament when talking to employers in their constituencies. I always try to do that when talking to employers in mine. I ask them what they do to employ disabled people. Do they think about that? Do they think about their recruitment practices? We can all do that. All the campaigning groups, a number of which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, campaign on that all the time.

When talking about getting disabled people into work, we must look at what the Government can do. The statistics on disabled people employed in the public and private sectors show that the public sector as a whole has a pretty good record, although it could do better, and that it employs a significant number of disabled people. The Minister will not be surprised, because he and I have had this little joust before, that central Government are not impressive at hiring disabled people. His Department has been working on that matter and he may say something about it in his speech: he has led some initiatives and employs someone with a learning disability in his private office, which is welcome. However, only 3.6 per cent. of employees in the two central departments of the Department for Work and Pensions—corporate services and shared services—have a known disability. That figure is not high enough: it is not as good as other Departments. Given that the DWP is the Department with the Minister for Disabled People, it ought to be doing better. The Minister has started work on that and whoever forms the next Government needs to continue doing it and taking it further.

An important feature of the percentage of disabled people in Departments is that it is measured on self-declaration. The Employers’ Forum on Disability does not advocate that people should be forced to declare. When we do anonymised surveys, the percentage rises to around 13 per cent.

That is interesting, but it highlights an issue. Why are employees happy to say that they have a disability in an anonymous survey but not prepared to be open about it? It is important, not just for the Government but for companies, to create an environment in which people are not forced to disclose a disability, but feel comfortable about doing so and feel that their disability will not be a disadvantage and that, if they need any adjustments, those will be made without fuss and they will be treated exactly the same as everyone else.

The Minister’s point perhaps shows that more progress has been made, but it is worrying—this is not just true in Government—that a significant number of people are concerned about being open about their disability, not necessarily because of the reaction of their managers, but perhaps because of the reaction from their colleagues. They are not confident that disclosure will not set back their chances of success. That is not just an issue in Government: it is an issue in society as a whole and we all need to work on it.

I have some specific questions for the Minister on welfare reform and on getting some of those on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance into work. Notwithstanding the progress that has been made, there is evidence that there are issues with some of the Government’s programmes. For example, when I asked the Minister how many and what proportion of those claiming employment and support allowance had left the benefit to go into work since its introduction, he could not give me the information and said that it simply was not available. If the Government do not know how successful the benefit has been, and how many people leave it and get into work, it is difficult to assess how successful their employment programmes are.

There seem to be some worrying signs that the Government’s flagship employment programme for disabled people on out-of-work benefits—the pathways to work programme—is not working as well as we hoped. Employment programmes will be critical as we emerge from the recession, the economy starts to grow, and we try to get people back into work. The Government’s White Paper in December 2009 said:

“When Pathways to Work was extended to new areas, following the initial pilots, no employment impact was found.”

The latest data show that, in provider-led areas, less than one in 10 claimants going through pathways to work have moved into work. Later data show that there is parking and creaming—the right hon. Gentleman referred to his concern about that—and that those who need most help are left on one side and not helped. Government research and their report, “The influence of outcome-based contracting on Provider-led Pathways to Work”, said that there is

“management pressure to focus on job ready clients”—

people who are not that far from the labour market—with

“less time being spent with clients who are further away from work…Parking (giving other clients a bare minimum of service) was seen as appropriate practice”

to which

“there was a clear management steer”.

There was concern that

“outcome-based contracts do not reflect an expectation that providers will work with the harder to help.”

That is important. we must be able to help those who need most help and who may have been out of work for the longest time. The right hon. Gentleman raised that concern. It is one reason why, as we suggested, we must use private and voluntary providers, as the Government are doing, but we must be more rigorous about paying them on outcomes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), the shadow Chancellor, said that that would enable a Conservative Government to use the savings from benefits to do as the right hon. Gentleman said and reinvest the money in employment programmes, partly to scale them and have a reasonable expectation of dealing with the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who are out of work and need help, and importantly to pay an amount of money that varies according to the help that people need to get back into work. If someone has been out of work for many years and perhaps has a complex disability, a provider could be given a significant sum to invest in training, help and support to get that person back into work, whereas someone who is not so far away from the labour market, has perhaps not been out of work for long and needs only a small change in their skills will not be given as much because their case is much more straightforward. That variable amount of investment is critical in ensuring that the hardest to help are not left on one side, which is what the right hon. Gentleman suggested might be happening.

The right hon. Gentleman flagged up some concerns about work capability assessment. Several organisations have raised such concerns with me, and whether the test properly assesses someone’s capability to work. The Minister has acknowledged that there are concerns about that, and the Government are looking into those issues, some of which have been reported by staff. Some work has been done. The Government’s internal technical review, and the independent review are due to be published later this year. It would be helpful if the Minister told us what medical experts and representative groups he has been working with on the Government’s review, whether a draft is ready, whether he can give a commitment on when the final report will be available, whether any changes have been identified in the work capability assessment, which would need to be changed in regulations, and whether any work is under way to draft them.

A specific matter was raised by Macmillan Cancer Support, and parliamentary questions were asked about it. Those with terminal cancer are not expected to undergo a work capability assessment, and there is supposed to be a process whereby they move straight to the support group so that they receive help immediately. That is important for those with a terminal diagnosis. The process is good, but Macmillan Cancer Support has suggested that that does not always happen, and that some people with terminal disease have been asked to undergo a work capability assessment when it is not appropriate. It has produced a report, and perhaps the Minister will tell us whether there has been any progress on tightening that up.

The right hon. Gentleman spent quite a lot of his speech on personalisation and the right to control, and rightly so. The change is supported by all three major parties in the House, and we all agree that we would like it to go faster. He highlighted the progress that has been made so far, which is welcome. Measured from a low base, there has been a lot of progress, but from the other end of the telescope, considering the number of people who receive social care and could benefit from a more personalised approach, we still have a long way to go.

We supported the right to control measures in the Welfare Reform Act 2009, and we worked with Cross Benchers in the other place to persuade the Government to include social care funding. I am pleased that that has been included in Trailblazers, but I confess that I am a little disappointed that Trailblazers will not start until later this year and will run for another two years, which could delay the roll-out in the rest of the country. I had a bit of fun when Trailblazers was given that interesting title. I agreed with the Minister that the name Trailblazers, instead of pilots, indicates the direction in which we are moving, and that the debate is about how we do that, how we can be most effective, and how the rules work.

My one concern relates to the written statement of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on 25 February, when she announced Trailblazers and said that the

“findings will help inform the decision as to whether the Right to Control can be rolled out further.”

That was unhelpful. My understanding was that we want the right to control to be rolled out further. The issue is not whether, but how, and the lessons to be learned from Trailblazers are to ensure that we can roll out the right to control further, include more funding streams, and do so more effectively. I should be grateful if the Minister confirmed that that is the Government’s intention, and that the use of the word “whether” does not suggest any reticence in rolling that out. If there is a clear message from him and a clear statement from me, people will be clear that that personalisation approach will continue whoever wins the election. That is important for local government, who will do much of the work. Local authorities need to know that, whoever becomes the Government at Westminster, that approach will continue—I hope that it will be speeded up—and they cannot use the impending general election as an excuse to go slowly, but must continue to roll that out for the benefit of those who depend on social care.

Equality 2025 is the Government’s advisory body, which includes disabled people, and gives the Government advice on how to make progress towards their objectives on disability equality by 2025. The Minister will know that there has been a review of Equality 2025. I asked him some questions about that, and he said that the report was not published immediately to allow officials in the Office for Disability Issues to fully consider and implement the recommendations. He said that the Government will publish the report by the summer, and I wonder whether he could be more precise about the timing. Can he tell the House anything more about those proposals, what is in mind, and how the proposals will increase the effectiveness of Equality 2025 in advising the Minister on disability policy?

In conclusion, the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill has done the House a service by securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to talk about these important issues. Although there are some disagreements about what has been done and the pace of change, there are a lot of shared views on all sides of the House about the importance of enabling disabled people to get into work and about personalisation. Whoever wins the next election, I hope and believe that we will see further progress in that important area of policy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner, and to respond to the debate led so ably, as always, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). I am grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members, for their tone and for hon. Members’ passion about keeping this important agenda moving forward. I will limit my remarks to answering some of the questions, and I will build my speech around the questions raised by right hon. and hon. Members.

Employment is a key and fundamental issue if we are to achieve our objectives of equality by 2025. In the road map that we have published recently, that is one of the 14 important strands of work identified not by the Government but by disabled people. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) rightly pointed out, the whole road map, and employment in particular, is monitored by disabled people and reported on regularly. That initiative is led ably by Baroness Jane Campbell, who I am sure all hon. Members hold in the highest regard.

One issue that is raised repeatedly by hon. Members on both sides of the House is the inability of parents who care for disabled children to find child care. That makes it difficult for parents to obtain employment, and flexibility from employers is needed. The parent could be able-bodied, but the problems of child care and flexible working arrangements can be a barrier to employment and income for that family.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. He will be aware that as part of our carer’s strategy, we have developed care partnership managers, and within that funding stream there is opportunity for replacement care. I met with care partnership managers from a number of areas in the UK, along with Carers UK, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers and Crossroads Care. All reported that they were pleased with the development of the care partnership managers who work in communities on the ground and bring together different care groups to provide carers with information about opportunities for work. There is a budget stream to provide for replacement care. These are early days, but that type of initiative has been welcomed and we need to develop the infrastructure on the ground so that it has an impact on the group in the way described by the hon. Gentleman.

May I also echo the words of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) in wishing the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West well, and acknowledging the contribution that he has made to our discussions and debates, and to the whole issue of disability rights across the country? Although he has no ambition to remain in this place, I detect a passion and know that he will continue to champion the issues that are important to him. I am sure that they are part and parcel of some of the reasons why he came into public life in the first place.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean is right to say that disabled people have not been disproportionately affected during the economic downturn. Of course we recognise that many disabled people have lost their jobs, but we know from labour market statistics that many people are finding jobs as well. Around one third of people get back into work within three or six months, and after that period there are a lot of support programmes. One point that it is important to focus on is the fact that disabled people are considerably under-represented in the type of industries that have been badly affected by the recession, such as the construction industry, for example. As the hon. Gentleman said, a higher proportion of disabled people work in the public sector, and all hon. Members have discussed how we should manage public funding in the future. That is something that we have to keep an eye on.

Our ambition is to see more disabled people in employment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill pointed out that we have seen an increase in numbers, and we want to build on that work. That is why we have developed work programmes such as pathways to work, access to work and the future jobs fund, which assists disabled youngsters up and down the country. It is about developing the infrastructure, bringing together partnerships on the ground and developing relationships between councils, Jobcentre Plus, regional development agencies and employers, to ensure that those opportunities arise. We have seen that with the local employment partnerships, which have been a tremendous success.

We are not able to flick a switch and suddenly have all that infrastructure and all those relationships in place—it takes a while. We have not had a programme like pathways to work before. The figures that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean mentioned are right; it is disappointing that we have not seen the numbers that we expected. However, when talking to providers from the public, private and voluntary sectors, I have found that relationships are maturing on the ground and that there is better co-operation.

I was in Rochdale recently, where there are a high number of people on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance. In the Shaw Trust building, there were also Jobcentre Plus staff working. We are seeing organisations harness their energies on the ground, and that is essential if we are to take the agenda forward. It is not about flicking switches but about building up partnerships. Of course there must be accountability, and I agree with the point about ensuring that we have outcomes. However, we must have a service fee for certain groups, particularly if we want to see a flourishing third sector and small organisations taking part in employment programmes with their specialist knowledge. They obviously need a cash flow, and to have to wait for a year would be challenging and difficult. We have developed the prime contractor model that takes the bulk of the contract and then partners up with specialist organisations. We must ensure that those relationships are fair and equitable.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean made a point about parking. We commission reports to look into our programmes, and they deliver criticism. That is a reflection of a mature Government and we must respond to that. We all want these initiatives to work and we will test a number of models to ensure that we get the right formula. None of these things have been tried anywhere before; we are leading on this. Rather than flicking switches or clearing the decks and starting again, it is about evolving programmes and involving disabled people. That is why we will develop the accelerator funding model that rewards more those disabled people who have been unemployed for longer. We need to examine that and see how it works and whether it provides us with the right type of formula, but I suspect that we shall need a range of programmes to respond to the varying needs and the differences between the regions up and down the country.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean asked about the work capability assessment. He will know that we involved disabled people’s organisations with the design of that assessment. We can argue about the figures for incapacity benefit and we have traded those before, so I will not be tempted to go into that territory. If I was on normal form, I would, but I will not today. However, we do need to see a change in that respect and to consider what people can do, rather than what they cannot. We assess about 30,000 people every month. The professional health care people from Atos must have at least three years’ post-qualifying experience.

I recently organised a seminar for all Members of both Houses of Parliament, with Atos and Department for Work and Pensions staff, to answer various questions. One question was asked by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), who is a medical professional himself. He raised the concern that our constituents often raise with us— “Have my GP’s or specialist’s reports been read?” He requested that we have a box on the assessment form to be ticked in order to be sure that the reports have been read and, within two days, that was done. It was the fastest policy change that I have ever seen, so I gave him the award for the fastest policy change of the Parliament. He was very pleased when I was able to advise him of the change, and now I am advising the House.

The personalisation agenda, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill rightfully put at the centre of his speech, is vital to achieving our ambition for equality for disabled people by 2025. We have the trailblazers, and there is an important distinction between trailblazers and pilots. We are doing that work, and when we say that we want to do more, it is not a case of stopping and saying whether we are going to do it; it is about how the funding streams interact with one another. The discussions and consultation that we have had on the Right to Control initiative say that we need to see how it works, not because we want to stop it but because we want to get it right—because if we get it wrong, confidence in that new approach will be lost, which will mean delays to the way in which we want services to be provided for disabled people.

One of the things that will be essential in the trailblazers is access to good-quality advocacy and support. For the right to control to be equal, there must be good advocacy and support. Someone with a learning disability or a mental health issue may find it more difficult to navigate their way round the direct payments to which my right hon. Friend referred than someone with a physical disability. That is why the models that we need to examine through the trailblazers must ensure that there is good advocacy and support.

I am delighted that the Minister has touched on advocacy. Advocacy was at the heart of the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986, and we have seen many good examples of best practice. Sometimes I worry, though, that we have not made as much progress as we might have in advocacy. I know that my hon. Friend often highlights that issue, but is it not positive, not only for the disabled person but for the advocate, to ensure that advocacy remains central to our approach?

I agree absolutely. I wrote to my right hon. Friend about the progress since the 1986 Act and I was going to come on to that. It was a little while ago—a whole hairline ago, sadly.

One example that I have seen is in Essex. The Essex Coalition of Disabled People provides direct payments administrative services for disabled people, with a contract from Essex council. I think that Southend and part of Cambridgeshire are also involved. That provides disabled people with sustainability of funding, and the funding is also used for other services such as good advocacy and support. With the trailblazers, when we are considering the models, we need to ensure sustainability of funding for good advocacy and support, because if the right to control is to work not just for one year but for all years, that must be in place and it cannot rely on year-to-year, hand-to-mouth funding. It is a central part of delivering successfully.

On the point that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made, it is important that we involve voluntary groups. We cannot think that the right to control will be there for everyone. We must be wary of people who advocate only one way and who have an ideology in that respect. For the majority of people, the right to control will work, but for some people it will not work, so we do not want all the services to be run in a particular way. That is why, in relation to the trailblazers, where we have funding streams that will become individualised for things such as supported employment, we do not want services to collapse if people withdraw funding.

What the initiative will do is change the way in which the power exists at the moment, so rather than disabled people being the passive recipients of what the council, the health service or whoever says, they will have far more power. They will need to be consulted on, and involved in, services. Perhaps that will prevent the issues in local authorities that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill described arising.

A number of hon. Members referred to stigma, hate crime and the discrimination that too many disabled people face. We have made a great deal of progress on that front in recent years, but we need to continue to fight the battle. In some ways, in these years, we are seeing the best and the worst in terms of inclusion. We all remember the fantastic scenes just up the road in Trafalgar square when our Olympians and Paralympians came back from Beijing. They included gold medal winners, and people were celebrating their achievement, not because they had overcome adversity in the way that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West referred to, but because of their sporting prowess. It was a fantastic achievement.

Thirteen million people tuned in to the BBC’s coverage of the Paralympics. That was more people than in any other country in the world. The Paralympics are a very important force for portraying a positive image of what disabled people can contribute to their country. This is about tackling attitudes, and if we can tackle attitudes, we can tackle behaviour. There is so much work to be done.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill mentioned the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry into hate crime, which was born out of the most appalling crime that took place some two years ago. Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca were the victims of hate crime, which led to their taking their own lives. The most depressing feature of the case was that Fiona Pilkington had no expectation that anyone would do anything about it. The shame of that is shared by us all. We need to fight such crime.

The Olympics in 2012 offer us a huge opportunity to shift attitudes and change behaviour. I have no doubt—I am sure that none of us has any doubt—that we will win medals or that our Olympians and Paralympians will do a fantastic job in representing our country in our capital city and at the other arenas and venues around the UK. However, it is vital that we have a good number of disabled people working and volunteering at the Olympics. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics and disabled people’s organisations to ensure that many thousands of disabled people—4,000 or 5,000—are part of the volunteer work force.

We need to look at things such as adjustments so that people who need personal assistants can take part. One can imagine people attending Olympic venues being welcomed and escorted to their seats by a young woman, perhaps with cerebral palsy, and her PA. That is one example, but what would it do to advance attitudes towards disabled people if we multiplied it by thousands? It is very powerful, and it is important that we do not miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use the power of the Olympic and Paralympic games.

Let me touch on access to work for people with learning disabilities. My right hon. Friend does great work with the all-party group. As hon. Members have said, we have not seen the increases that we would have liked in the number of people with learning disabilities getting employment. Shortly after I completed my social care course, I got my first paid job, as a care worker with people with learning disabilities, so seeing the advancement of this group of people has been a passion of mine.

As part of our “Valuing Employment” strategy, the Department recently announced that it would employ 400 people with learning disabilities over the next year or so and work in partnership with our contractors. We will make access to work more flexible not only in terms of physical adaptations, but by making job coaches available. We will build on some of the work that we have undertaken with Project Search, an initiative that works particularly with public sector bodies and hospitals.

I recently met students with learning disabilities at the Norwich and Norfolk University hospital who had been given internships and learned about different jobs around the hospital. I was delighted to hear that many of them had secured full-time employment. Indeed, one of their colleagues told me how delighted she was when one of the young men came to her to say that he would be spending the weekend paintballing with colleagues from the hospital. He was taking part in a mainstream exercise, and they were including him as a friend and colleague.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s positive speech, but does he accept that various charities have produced much evidence showing that people with learning disabilities do not get the attention from the health service that they need and deserve, because they do not have the facility to express their needs and wants? Will he consider the many studies on this subject and keep in touch with those of our colleagues who deal with health matters?

Indeed. As my right hon. Friend will know, the “Valuing People” document highlighted the fact that there was great inconsistency. As in many public services, there are shining examples of what is best, and we all want to see them across the piece. A woman with learning disabilities is entitled to receive the same public health treatment—the same screening for breast cancer or cervical cancer—as anyone else. A number of charities and organisations for people with learning disabilities have developed Easy Read so that such people can properly understand their health needs and the various processes and procedures that they need to go through to live a healthy life. I was recently in Rochdale, where I was shown an Easy Read booklet about a whole range of matters that had been published for people with learning disabilities. However, we must continue to keep that under review.

Before I conclude, I should say that although my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who is sitting behind me, cannot contribute to the debate because he is my Parliamentary Private Secretary, we all acknowledge that he has made a huge contribution to work on disabled people’s issues in his time in the House. Indeed, shortly after the debate, I will be speaking on Insight Radio, which is based in his constituency and run by the Royal National Institute of Blind People. In Committee and on Report, my hon. Friend laid an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill to ensure that a higher rate of disability living allowance is paid to 20,000 blind people, which will assist them enormously. The RNIB ran a great campaign, and I am delighted that there was cross-party support for it.

I am sorry if I appear to be pursuing my hon. Friend, but he is so interesting and he is giving us many ideas. I would like to have had time to raise an issue that has worried me and many others for many years—the number of people with learning disabilities who find themselves in prison. It is often thought that the courts send them there because they cannot think of anywhere else to send them. Baroness Stern has had a great deal to say on the issue, as have Nacro and Sacro, and that will not have escaped the attention of my hon. Friend and other colleagues. It really is very worrying to see such things in this modern age.

That is right. Before I conclude, I will refer to the report by Leonard Cheshire. If we tackle poverty, that will have a significant impact on tackling the number of people in prison. I am not saying that there is a direct link and that being poor means that people will commit crime, but we know that people living in poorer conditions can be tempted down that route. To tackle the numbers that my right hon. Friend mentioned, we need to ensure that we have better educational outcomes, better skills and better employment opportunities, and we need the hope that disabled people can contribute to mainstream society. That would have an impact on the number of people with learning disabilities going to prison, and I have been in correspondence with colleagues at the Ministry of Justice about the issue.

A couple of weeks ago, my right hon. Friend kindly chaired a meeting to discuss the 40th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. At that meeting, my right hon. Friend Lord Morris of Manchester talked about how he had managed to get the Act on to the statute book. He reminded us that when he first introduced his Bill in 1969, he had drawn first place in ballot for private Member’s Bills, but only one organisation for disabled people contacted him after he wrote around. Oh, how times have changed—and that is a good thing.

As Lord Morris told us, organisations did not write to him because they had no expectations, given that disability issues had not been debated since the 1940s. We have made great progress in the past 40 years, but we need to do more for the advancement of the 10 million disabled people in this country. We need to do that for the sake not just of those 10 million people, but for the sake of all 60 million people who live in our society.

Physics Research

It is a pleasure to have the debate, and I am delighted that there is so much interest in it among parliamentarians and the public, given that we are competing with astronauts and the like at the launch of the new space strategy. Of course, those matters impact on physics and its funding, and the future and health of physics research in this country impact on our ability to exploit discoveries in space.

I want to concentrate on two different areas: the funding problems and other problems at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which is one of the funding bodies for physics, although not the only one, as physics is funded also by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and several physics projects are funded by other research councils; and future careers in physics and the supply of physicists for teaching and research.

It would be inappropriate in what will, I think, have to be a short speech, to go through the whole history of the creation and funding of the STFC, but right hon. and hon. Members will know that it has been beset by problems from its birth. I remember being in a Delegated Legislation Committee dealing with the regulations setting up the STFC. It was a merger of the old Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which managed the large facilities. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) were concerned, in that debate, about whether the STFC had a sound financial basis, given the liabilities that were being carried forward into the new research council by the CCLRC. We were given assurances by the Science Minister at the time that everything would be fine and that the STFC would not be destabilised by any funding problems and concerns that affected the large facilities council that was to be one of its parents.

It is clear, objectively, that that assurance was not delivered on. The recent report by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, about research council allocations, which looked closely at the STFC, made several criticisms of the way it had been put together, and of funding decisions. Two years ago the council had a flat cash allocation. Despite spin from the Government to the effect that it received a significant funding increase, it clearly did not, going by the funding that could actually be spent, as opposed to allocations relating to the value of buildings and facilities. That has led to great distress in the science community at large and the physics community in particular among those people who rely on grants to fund their research in particle physics and astronomy. A number of other areas are funded by the STFC.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that astronomy, which is the area of greatest interest to me, is financially beleaguered because, despite our having world-class resources and facilities, such as those in Armagh, those concerned are always fighting for what feels like a very tight fund? The Government commissioned a report on near-Earth objects, which made 14 recommendations, only one of which has been implemented. Does he agree that, if the Government are serious about astronomy, they need to make a serious and long-lasting funding commitment to it?

I agree. The failure to capitalise on initiatives and drive them through is symptomatic of the problem. There is not money for the here and now, and it becomes difficult to plan for the future. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his commitment to astronomy and for his significant role in the all-party group on astronomy, and to his family for their contribution to space research and discovery.

It is well recognised that there is a problem in the funding of astronomy and particle physics, and I hope that the Minister will at least recognise that. It is a problem that cannot be allowed to fester; it must be solved. There are at least two ways to solve it. The Government’s proposal is to accept all the planned cuts, make a new start at a lower level of funding, and see whether we can find a way to protect and give stability to the STFC and physics research budgets. Alternatively, we could say “No, we will not accept that serious damage should be done now. We must find a way to rebalance the position to the status quo ante—the position before the significant cuts in funding, and particularly grant funding, that are proposed for the community.”

I do not think that I can go through the list now. It can only be described as a bonfire of the acronyms—the projects whose funding is due to be abandoned or significantly reduced. Behind those acronyms lies a great deal of good science, and many good people have planned their careers on the basis of being able to see through those projects and of UK participation in those projects. Even if the Government, and politicians more widely, do not think long term about research priorities, the individuals who do the work—particularly those in the public sector, who are not well paid compared with their private sector colleagues or, indeed, compared with what their skills could get them in the private sector—must think long term. They must plan their careers, and where they and their families will live.

Behind each budget cut is an individual story of great distress, and of people’s planned careers being cut. That is happening not because of anyone’s inability to make a scientific case in open competition through peer review, on a level playing field—that is always the risk in science—but because of what those people see as near-arbitrary cuts in the programme, and an arbitrary or at least non-transparent decision that means that, although the Government have boasted of an increase in the science budget, the funding for research grants in their field has fallen. That means that the success rate for grant applications in that area of work, which was already low because of the tough competition—which is a good thing—has fallen even further. In addition, of course, the bonfire of the acronyms means a blow to the UK’s credibility as a long-term partner for projects involving scientists, research institutes and funding from other countries and their Governments.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that blue sky research is most important, and that it should not stall under the current difficult economic conditions? The large hadron collider is one such case. We do not know whether it will tell us much about the Higgs boson or what it will tell us about fundamental particle physics, but it is likely to lead to discoveries that could help to resolve the world’s key problems, including medical problems, so it is not something that we should discard lightly. We should continue to support it, and other blue sky research projects.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is greatly missed on the Science and Technology Committee, where he made a unique contribution, and a strongly supportive one in certain areas. I remember him particularly being a great advocate of embryo research. As an engineer he will recognise that it is not only our commitment to the large hadron collider, which has been protected in all that has been happening, that is important; experiments based on, but separate from, the subscription to the large hadron collider are part of some of the projects that are threatened. The funding of those—and our participation—seems doomed to end unless alternative funding can be found.

That is one of the tragedies of having large facilities that cost a great deal of money to build and run but do not maximise our country’s and the physics community’s exploitation of those facilities, because the funding to maximise the use of the resources is not available. Those are the fundamental problems with the planned cuts to specific, named projects. In addition, of course, there is the lower success rate for grant applications, because of the shortage of funding for direct grants.

It is appropriate at this point to consider how the Government propose to solve the problem. It varies between refusing to accept that there is a problem and launching a review of the structure of the STFC. Indeed, Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, did the latter on 16 December 2009. That was the right thing to do, because there is a problem. One does not come up with proposed solutions, however strong, unless one first recognises that there is a problem. It was unfortunate that on 16 December Lord Drayson should have said that he welcomed the results of the STFC prioritisation, because one person’s prioritisation is another’s posteriorisation. It is not appropriate for politicians to hide behind words when talking about significant cuts in funding.

According to the press release, Lord Drayson said that there are

“real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant-giving roles within a single research council.”

However, the proposal that has emerged is that the research council should not be split. There is a difference of opinion about that, but I do not want to dwell on that aspect. I have a series of questions about the meaning of some of the alleged solutions emanating from the announcement of 4 March on the new arrangements for the STFC.

According to the press release, the proposal is that

“reducing the pressures from the international subscriptions and UK-based facility operations would substantially remove the risk that unexpected pressures would lead to a disproportionate pressure on the STFC’s grants portfolio.”

I am not sure that reducing the pressures would substantially remove the risk. Eliminating them would substantially remove that risk. Unexpected pressures resulting from changes in the exchange rate and the cost of running facilities would lead to disproportionate pressure on the STFC’s grants portfolio.

What the physics community is looking for from the review is not the promise of another review, future negotiations or other ways of reducing the risk, but clear solutions to the problems that do not further disadvantage physics funding and do not set the STFC’s budget for grants at its current low level. That is the subject of my questions.

The press release said:

“It is important that STFC adheres to its new balanced budget going forward”.

That means, I think, that according to the Government the STFC needs to adhere to its new reduced budget for grants. So much money is being given in subscriptions because of the low rate of sterling against the euro and other currencies. Will the Minister confirm that adherence to the new balanced budget means that there will not be a readjustment of the funding in grants up from the current level—that we are where we are, and that we have to get used to living without British participation in a number of projects, and with a lower rate of success in grant applications?

The press release goes on to state that there are two

“significant short term pressures on STFC”—

I think that this is the right analysis—

“sharp and sudden variations in exchange rates arising from international subscriptions, and the funding of demand-led large domestic facilities.”

I think that that is correct. However, they are not short-term pressures if the damage that is done to the available funding for grants is not corrected. If that is not done, what would have been short-term pressures will become long-term funding reductions. Will the Minister say whether the STFC’s grant budget is fixed in stone at its current level? Whatever solution is introduced, it will not redress that problem.

The press release pointed to the

“considerable support provided by BIS to STFC in recognition of adverse exchange rate movements this year and last, some £40 million in total.”

That was a mixture of grant and loan. I understand that some of that loan was to be repaid from future years, or the next year. Will the Minister clarify that? If he cannot do so today, I ask him to make it explicit in a letter to me. I want to know exactly how much of what has been given to the STFC for each of the past two years and for the current year to support its budget has to be repaid from future budget allocations. Will that still be the case if no further grant is awarded and the exchange rate is fixed so that the Treasury takes the risk above a certain level?

If there is no future support, and there is a buffering of exchange rate variations, which might seem sensible, the key question is: at what level will the buffering take place? If it takes place at the current level of the pound—it is likely that the pound will increase and that the STFC could benefit, having more cash to spend from such an increase—and if that windfall goes to the Treasury, above a £3 million buffer, the STFC will not benefit. Indeed, it seems that it will not benefit from the grant and loan support that it currently receives.

I ask the Minister to reassure me that there will not be a double whammy. What has gone down might go up. The STFC has lost out from what has gone down. Will it miss out on the benefit from what goes up and lose its grant support? That will have serious implications for its future health.

I am grateful once again to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that the Minister needs to understand that such questions are important because increased and reduced budgets cannot be easily accommodated in the long-term planning of physics and astronomy? In other words, an increase or a decrease in budget can be catastrophic to long-term initiatives of benefit to the country. We need clarity, even if it is slightly bad news, because the scientific community could at least plan to live within its means.

That is right. What was disappointing about the press release and the announcement is that, in many cases, it was not a long-term solution. I realise that funding for the support of large domestic facilities will be ring-fenced, and that arrangements will be made for other research councils to pay their fair share, and I welcome that. However, in respect of international subscriptions the press release says only that

“from the next spending review onwards…BIS is looking at options for managing the currency risks better.”

I thought that it was doing so before 16 December 2009, and before the review. If it is still doing so, it is not the long-term solution that we need.

The press release states merely that

“BIS is working closely with the Bank of England on how to reduce the exposure of the STFC.”

It then states that a “new arrangement will provide”. A new arrangement might provide, or would provide, but no new arrangement has been proposed as yet. I would be grateful for some clarity on that. I have seen proposals whereby the Treasury will take the risk and benefit of any changes that have an impact greater than £3 million on budget exchange rate changes, but the key point is where the baseline is drawn.

Criticisms have been made, not least in the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, about the management of the STFC. I shall not speak for or against the recommendations or the criticisms made in the science community. However, politicians should take responsibility for the overall budget position, and not seek to hide behind their failure to recognise that there is a problem—or behind those individuals running the research council. The Haldane principle makes clear that it is for research councils, through peer review, to allocate funding to specific projects. I realise that, but the Government must take responsibility for the overall allocations to research councils. They are made by the Government.

In the remaining time, I wish to deal with the question of scientific careers, particularly in physics. At the moment, it is difficult. People working in university physics laboratories that are funded by the STFC or the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council—the success rate for grant applications to the EPSRC is so low that it has taken the unusual step of placing a ban on repeat funding applications—are not happy with the situation. When PhD students or young post-doctoral students in such departments seek advice on whether it is a healthy area in which to work, they get the answer that one would expect from more senior researchers who are facing difficulties with ongoing funding and with cuts in the projects on which they are working, often in collaboration with other countries which are not withdrawing support. What advice do those researchers give to the undergraduates, doctoral students and post-doctoral students in their department? They will not tell them that it is great field in which to work and that the future is healthy. They will tell them the opposite, which will lead to problems in retaining some of the brightest and the best that we need. We have that problem throughout our education system, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) will talk about.

We still have a fundamental problem with the number of entries to A-level physics. Data from the Joint Council for Qualifications show that between 1985 to 2008, there has been a slow and inexorable reduction in numbers. Indeed there was a year-on-year reduction until 2006-07. There was a slight upturn in 2008, but the number was still the third lowest since 1985. Although there has been an improvement in mathematics and, to a certain extent, in chemistry, we have not seen the same in physics.

Without people taking physics A-levels, it is hard to see how we can encourage them to take physics degrees. Other data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which the Minister must be intimately acquainted with—I am sure that it is his bedtime reading given his worries about the state of higher education funding, and it may even help him get to sleep—show that the number of applicants to study physics as a first degree qualification has not risen since 1985; indeed, the number has been flatlining. Therefore, despite the best efforts of this Government to promote science, which have been far better than those of the previous Government, it cannot be said that they have been successful.

One of the reasons is that we are in a vicious circle. Students are not studying physics and graduating in sufficient numbers with physics, so there are not enough people who have the necessary specialist background to go back into teaching physics to inspire the next generation of young people to study physics at school. That circle must be broken. I do not see how that can be done while the Government continue to pile debt on students.

Students will not choose—if they can do the maths and these students can do the maths—to take relatively low-paid jobs in teaching or in research when they can go into other jobs in, for example, the finance sector where their numeracy is not only well regarded but much better rewarded. Public sector teaching posts and research posts will never be able to compete with some of the salaries that are on offer in the City, but the Government can make an effort by not imposing a further distortion of career choice by piling huge amounts of debt on graduates. Students know that that debt is there waiting for them when they pass the threshold and will hold them back in their ability to get a mortgage and settle down with a family. Moreover, they will see their peers, who are in other fields, get on the housing ladder much earlier. That is a real problem.

The first thing that I want to hear from the Minister is that he recognises that we have not made progress in the number of entrants to physics A-levels and physics degrees. I want to hear those words from him, because the first law of science is to define the problem. If we are not able to define or recognise the problem, it will be difficult to find the solutions that we need.

Another problem is that half the population—the female half of the population—are not staying in physics or in engineering. The burden of debt is a particular problem for them. There is obviously a stereotyping of careers going on and a question over whether careers advice is adequate in girls’ schools or to girls in schools, given the relatively small numbers who study the subjects. The Royal Society report recently demonstrated a significant leaky pipeline, which is much greater for women scientists than for male scientists, and much more work needs to be done by research funders to identify the problems, to do exit interviews, to do surveys and to find out why the people they fund are leaving science in such a way.

A short debate such as this is not enough to do justice to all the information that I have been sent, and I am very grateful to the people in the field for sending me the information and background, to the Institute of Physics and to the research councils themselves that have provided briefings.

In the next few weeks, as we go through to the general election, I hope that physics and science will have a very high profile. I will continue to make these points, seek to hold the Government to account and hope that we will see, in the general election, a clear difference between the parties on the specifics of funding. I hope that my own party will make it clear that it will find the resources from existing budgets to re-stabilise the STFC, and that we have clear proposals to give stability to physics funding.

We need to break the vicious cycle that exists for physics students, physics graduates and physics teachers. We have failed to break out of that cycle over the past 20 years and, disappointingly, during the tenure of this Government. I recognise that the Government have increased the science budget in real terms and that, overall, science spending has increased, but the fundamental facts, as set out in the Royal Society report, are that our share of spend on science as a proportion of our GDP is no higher now than it was when this Government came to power and no higher than it was during the Thatcher years. We have not solved the problem and we must not be complacent. I urge the Minister not to be complacent because we are far, far away from the target of 2.5 per cent. of GDP being spent on science, and the trickle-down effect of the failure to meet that target can be seen in physics and so many other subjects. I look forward to hearing his response to this debate.

I congratulate my fellow Oxford MP, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), on securing this important debate. Physics is vital to Oxford and Oxfordshire, to science in the UK and to our economy more generally. I, too, thank the Institute of Physics and others who have sent me very helpful material on the matter. It was an Institute of Physics report that suggested that nearly 6.5 per cent. of the UK economy is critically dependent on physics research. Beyond that, the physical sciences drive something like a third of the UK economic output.

High-tech manufacturing accounts for half the manufacturing jobs in the UK, and the UK is a major venue for science, with UK businesses attracting £4 billion in inward investment to fund research and development. Such increases in private investment in research and development followed rises in public investment in science. In that sense, the increases over the past decade, which I was pleased the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, have had a significant and dramatic impact on the UK economy. In that context, it is all the more tragic that we face some of these pressures and dilemmas.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we have only to look at the long-term impact of the Apollo space programme in the United States to see how what could be regarded as pure research or the pursuit of scientific goals directly impacts on the capability of the economic sector to make profit for the industry? Indeed, the United States is still benefiting from the investment that it made in the 1960s.

Yes, indeed. The difficulty of forecasting the economic impact of blue-skies research is something that I will come to later.

I share the concerns voiced by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon about the pressures facing the Science and Technology Facilities Council in general and physics funding in particular. As I have said, those pressures are tragic, given that they come after an unprecedented investment in science in recent years. I certainly reinforce the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked about the future of the STFC grants and I urge the Government to look very carefully at that area of funding again.

There is an important question to be asked about who should carry currency risk; there is indeed a case for its being a responsibility of the Treasury. However, if that is the case, there must be an understanding and an agreement of the long-term real international currency-weighted value of the commitment that is being made to these international projects.

As I said, Mr. O’Brien, UK science was starved of investment for many years before 1997 and a real difference has been made by the increases since.

The right hon. Gentleman said that science was “starved” of funding. However, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has pointed out, the percentage share of GDP that was invested in science during the years that he mentioned is exactly the same as the percentage share of GDP that is invested today. So is the right hon. Gentleman arguing that the Government today are starving science of money?

No. Of course, there has been a considerable increase in GDP as well. The figures that I am citing today—for example, the science budget is nearly £4 billion a year now, having been virtually doubled—show that there has been a very substantial increase in investment, and science has benefited from that. I acknowledge the pressures on science funding and indeed I am calling on the Government to look again at the situation facing the STFC in general and physics funding in particular. However, it is only fair to acknowledge the progress that has been made and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do so.

Furthermore, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon referred to the importance of science in the context of the general election and the debates that we will be having in coming weeks. If the Conservative party wants to cut public expenditure more quickly than the Government are proposing to, the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) must say either that cuts in science funding will be greater than those proposed by the Government or that funding will be cut somewhere else to prevent the cuts to science funding that would otherwise happen. There must be an honest debate about cuts too.

I am really glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised that issue, because it is entirely in the Government’s hands to produce a comprehensive spending review. They have refused to do so and that is what is creating all the uncertainty around the STFC and many of the other research councils. So it is a bit rich of the Government to accuse the Opposition of not coming clean on figures when they have all the figures to hand and all of the powers to make a decision to hold a CSR.

I did not actually accuse the hon. Gentleman of not coming clean. What I said was that, as the Conservatives had come clean and said that they wanted to cut public expenditure harder and quicker than the Government are proposing to, there are questions that they had to answer.

I apologise, Mr. Olner. I think that I called you Mr. O’Brien a few minutes ago. That was my mistake and I apologise for it.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution to the debate. We often face each across this Chamber because we have many interests in common. I hope that he will recognise two important points. First, the capital spending of his Government—the Labour Government—has been significant, in higher education in particular. That must be recognised and I recognise it.

Secondly, however, the recurrent funding in science spending as a whole is not a doubling. The doubling of the science budget has run simultaneously with the reduction in spending from departmental budgets. So, although there has been a 40 per cent. real terms increase in overall science spending—not a doubling of the spending—science is only getting its fair share of GDP growth. That is more than science received under the Conservatives, but it is no more than science’s fair share and that is why we are still well behind other countries in the proportion of our wealth that we spend on science and research.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I want science and physics to have an even fairer share.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned capital. I want to talk briefly about the Science Research Infrastructure Fund, which was another success story in terms of the boost that it gave to facilities and to staff morale by attracting staff from overseas. It also impacted positively on student numbers and encouraged greater use of facilities by businesses, including smaller businesses. However, since the SRIF ended and funding became part of the full economic cost of research allocated by the research councils, there is now some concern that the money is not being spent within universities in support of the research infrastructure, doubtless because of other pressures that the universities face. I wonder if the Minister can say something about that subject.

I also wanted to talk about the research assessment exercise and how it is developing. That exercise also had a significant impact on the science and innovation base, by helping to improve the overall quality of UK research. Nevertheless, it is of concern that its successor—the research excellence framework—has “impact of research” criteria.

In mentioning those criteria, I return to the point that was made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who has now left the Chamber, when he talked about the long-term benefits of big projects and blue-skies research. That emphasis on “impact” is probably a consequence of a shift in the thinking of at least some of those steering UK science policy for publicly funded scientific research to demonstrate economic and societal impact.

However, there are real difficulties about the criteria and the methodology of the research excellence framework, and it is hoped that they will not be too restrictive for physics and other disciplines. We can all probably think of many cases of breakthroughs in physics—in relativity, quantum mechanics or whatever area—where it would have been very difficult at the outset of the research to have said what the consequences and the benefits of that research would be. How the difficulty of demonstrating the benefits of research fits within impact criteria based around the economy and society is another issue that it would be wise to look at further.

This debate matters not only because science is important in its own right, but because it means jobs, prosperity and welfare for the future, both for those who work in science and for those in the many jobs that are generated by science. In Oxfordshire, we have seen big successes, including the Harwell science and innovation campus, and major facilities, such as the Diamond Light Source and the ISIS neutron facility in Harwell, which are global centres of pioneering research. The Rutherford Appleton laboratories are developing new techniques to help in the development of fusion. The tier 1 computing centre at the laboratories is the UK focus for processing data from the large hadron collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or CERN.

Sharp Laboratories UK, which is based in Oxford science park, is another example of a company based in Oxfordshire. It employs more than 100 people and it conducts world-leading research and development, creating technologies such as advanced flat screen displays. Companies such as Sharp Laboratories UK are based in the UK because of the strength of the UK science base and because of the graduates trained in cutting edge science, which that science base provides. We have a good record in Oxford and at Oxford university in spinning out companies from physics research. Companies such as Oxford instruments are now well known world leaders and newer companies such as Oxonica and RF Sensors are bringing physics research to the market, generating local jobs in the process.

If we are to sustain that success—surely there ought to be general agreement that it is vital that we do so—we must more effectively resolve these questions of basic funding. We also need to look still further at the support that is given to businesses as they develop, grow and apply the benefits of scientific research, because the recession has put pressures on science businesses, as it has on other businesses, and perhaps especially on smaller science-based companies. As we know, to bring a piece of world-leading research to commercial applicability and ultimately to profit can take several years and can require several stages of investment.

The recession and the situation in banking has meant that some companies are not getting the right money at the right time. If the UK is to continue to exploit the strength of our research base, there is a need to focus support on these science companies, through the provision of long-term investment in start-ups and through large-scale science-focused venture capital funds. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what further can be done to support the commercial application of science in that context.

All the economic benefit that we get from our strength in science, including the critical mass of talented people that physics requires, is stimulated and sustained by public investment in science. Given the demonstrable value to the economy of scientific research, will the Government reaffirm their commitment to fund increases in basic science spending in line with the science and innovation framework for the decade from 2004? Will the Minister offer some hope and encouragement to physics in universities, which, as we have heard, is under such pressure at the moment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this debate and on analysing the situation so effectively.

I am not a physicist, so I needed to reflect on why physics in particular faces a problem and why it is so important. I looked briefly at what physics research has provided us with. It includes obvious things that we use every day, such as the world wide web, or that some of us might have to use, such as radiotherapy and other cancer treatments. Modern techniques for cancer diagnosis and treatment depend on physics research, and advances in physics-based diagnosis and therapy will continue to lower cancer mortality rates and improve the health of the nation.

Much of the research that we do not hear about will almost certainly make the most important changes to how we live. Physics is responsible for the development of a vast array of technology, including technology to tackle climate change and for magnetic resonance imaging, now a routine technique for medical research. The list goes on and on. Of course, we cannot take physics in isolation.

I was recently pleased to be paired with a scientist last November through the Royal Society scheme, and we had some fascinating discussions on the links between research, policy making and funding for research. The Royal Society recently published a report entitled “The Scientific Century: Securing Our Future Prosperity”, which contains two urgent messages. The first is that the UK needs to place science and innovation at the heart of our long-term strategy for economic growth; the second is that we face a fierce competitive challenge from countries that are investing at a scale and speed that we may struggle to match.

To quote from that important report:

“Ten years into this new scientific century, the world is slowly recovering from a severe financial crisis. Food security, climate change and health inequalities are rising up international policy agendas. And countries such as China, India and Brazil are reshaping the economic and political landscape. Faced with such uncertainties, the UK must build on its existing strengths. This country has a proud track record of achievement in science and engineering. Today, thanks to sustained investment”—

credit must be given where it is due—

“we have the most productive research base among the world’s leading economies. Our universities are ranked second only to those of the USA. And the outputs of our research are increasingly threaded through the economy.”

The report goes on:

“It would be disastrous if, at this stage, there was a withdrawal of support for our world-class universities, or the incentives which have been put in place to encourage translation, commercialisation and knowledge exchange. At the same time as we have improved our record on science and innovation, other countries have improved theirs…While the UK contemplates further reductions in spending on higher education and research, most other major economies, including the USA, China, France and Germany, have outlined ambitious plans to increase investment and boost their innovation performance.”

In my view, the Government have not used the all-important fiscal stimulus provided at the onset of the recession to invest in science infrastructure. The VAT cut of £12.5 billion could have been spent much more productively.

The Royal Society goes on:

“If the right policy choices are made now, the UK can remain at the vanguard of international science and secure its prosperity throughout the scientific century.”

Its recommendations include prioritising investment in excellent people, strengthening Government’s use of science, reinforcing the UK’s position as a hub for global science and innovation, better aligning science and innovation with global challenges and revitalising science and mathematics education.

Similarly, the Institute of Physics manifesto for the 2010 general election calls for science funding that will keep the UK at the forefront of research, a fiscal and regulatory environment that fosters science-based innovation—

I have been mulling over the hon. Lady’s point about the VAT cut. I put it to her that that is not a good example of where money could be found. The VAT cut was a short-term fiscal stimulus to help soften the recession and get the country out of it. It was the sort of measure that can be turned on and off, so it would not have met the long-term needs of science. I do not think that we want to use short-term devices to fund science; long-term commitments are needed.

I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I was just identifying how we could have approached the fiscal stimuli. There were important choices to be made at that point.

The IOP also calls for access to high-quality physics teaching for every child. I have a lot to say about that. It is a whole package. It starts from the time a child begins to understand the world that we live in and continues through true engagement in science at school to university, a PhD and further research, if funding exists. The Royal Society recommends that we provide incentives to recruit teachers, retain them and attract them back to science subjects, and that we commit to increasing the number of primary teachers with science expertise. That is important.

We do not have enough primary school teachers with specialist scientific qualifications. How can we inspire pupils if we do not have staff with qualifications and enthusiasm? It is sad that we have lost enthusiasm even in our secondary schools. Cuts in experimentation have made science a less attractive subject. Of course we have new syllabuses, but they do not necessarily increase take-up at A-level and in further study, as we hoped. We should establish new expert groups to advise on the development of science and mathematics curriculums and qualifications.

I sit on the Children, Schools and Families Committee, which recently undertook a short inquiry into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. One question that arose was the position of women in physics. The comment was made that if we could attain gender equality, we would almost have cracked the problem of the shortage of physicists. Only 22 per cent. of physics A-level students are female, and that figure decreases throughout the career progression. Only 15 per cent. of research assistants and less than 5 per cent. of physics professors are female. We clearly have a gender issue that must be tackled more rigorously than it has been so far.

It is interesting to note that the engineers that the Select Committee interviewed were far more upbeat about the future. We can do it, but there is a lot more to be done. It is likely that the Minister will talk about all the incentives put in place to attract more science teachers, but the fact is that we have not done enough. Young people need an improved science education, whether they are destined to become professional scientists or scientifically literate citizens. Like other areas of education, science and mathematics have suffered from rapidly changing political expectations and reforms.

The No. 1 priority must be the quality of specialist teachers. Prior to 2009, the UK had failed to meet its recruitment targets for secondary science and mathematics teachers every year for more than a decade. There is so much to be done. The Royal Society’s research suggests that without excellent teachers there is little hope of inspiring children to stick with science. What more will the Minister do to tackle that situation, starting with the first levels of education? If we crack the problem of getting excellent people, will there be the necessary funding?

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made an important reference to the STFC. On 11 March, Times Higher Education reported:

“The Science and Technology Facilities Council will be restructured in a move that, it is hoped, will protect grants for astronomers and physicists in the future. The council has faced a series of funding crises, caused in part by a fall in the value of the pound, which pushed up the costs of subscriptions to international facilities. This has forced the STFC to withdraw from international projects, run national science facilities below capacity”.

We have heard of new arrangements that will improve the situation, but there are still uncertainties. Professor Foster of Oxford university welcomed the announcements from Lord Drayson, but said:

“This doesn’t help with the current disaster. There is no hope on the horizon and no new money.”

It is reported that the STFC is pulling Britain out of 25 international projects.

It was announced in the pre-Budget report that £600 million would be cut from the funding for universities and research. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that in the context of the Budget. What is the future and where is the hope? Like my hon. Friend, I would like the Minister to be clear about the recent funding of the STFC and what the future offers. The future is clearly fragile for research in physics and other sciences. We need clear, encouraging commitments today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this timely and relevant debate. It is pertinent to ask about the future, given that there has been no comprehensive spending review to establish the security and stability of funding.

The hon. Gentleman raised the future challenges for physics, in particular the exposure to exchange rates. There may be a ring fence for science, but it feels like the bolt cutters are at work when changes in the exchange rate are not compensated in full. He raised the issue of loans. The Science and Technology Facilities Council was able to operate this year, last year and the year before because of a loan from the Government, but loans have to be paid back and so add pressure for the future. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that.

The hon. Gentleman then took a wonderful canter through the landscape of physics in Britain and alighted on the fact that the number of people studying for the physics A-level has been falling. To add some numbers to that, I should say that it has fallen by 5,000—from 33,000 people in 1997 to 28,000 in 2008. That is not a good record on A-level physics. I hope that we will do better in future.

There have been some great contributions. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke about the large hadron collider. I assume that there is a link with his constituency; if so, he did a good job.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made a considered contribution. I feel I was a bit bullish for jumping in too early because his point was that although science funding has been increasing—I agree that there has been an increase in the absolute level of funding—there are still challenges. I welcome his words. He focused on the research assessment exercise and spoke of successes in his constituency. He did his constituents proud in his representation of the work that takes place there.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) gave a gentle and considered view on physics. She admitted that she does not come from a physics background and focused on the societal benefits from physics in the longer term and the Royal Society’s report. She paid particular attention to the plight of teachers and made the plea that gender equality might solve the teaching and student problems in physics.

I am conscious of time and want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond to the questions that have been raised. However, I will say a few words about the terrain of physics in Britain. As we look forward to the election and beyond the recession, it is clear that we cannot go on with the debt-fuelled economic model that prepared us badly for the downturn and has left us ill equipped for recovery.

Sir James Dyson prepared an in-depth report at the request of the Conservatives entitled “Ingenious Britain”, which looks to the future of science and physics in Britain. It rightly says that there should be no more talk of Britain as a post-industrial state. I notice that that phrase has crept into our dialogue, but Britain’s future should not be considered in those terms. As the Royal Society put it, this will be a “scientific century”. Advances in science, engineering and technology will continue to determine our success as a nation, as they have in the past. Britain will need not only more scientists, but more designers and engineers to turn the science into the high-tech products and services that create jobs. Today’s debate is a great chance to highlight the contribution that physics will make.

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

Physics underpins much of what we think of as technological progress. The Institute of Physics has highlighted 10 case studies to show how curiosity-driven research has led to practical results. Medical diagnostics, satellite navigation and advanced manufacturing rely on advances in the physical sciences. Many hon. Members have iPhones and personal digital assistants, which have come about largely due to physics and the space industry. There are few better examples than the work of Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, which gave us the worldwide web.

Unfortunately, despite the increase in funding that I have acknowledged, physics has had a rough ride under the Government: at least 22 physics departments have closed since 1997; funding for individual physics students, undergraduates in particular, has fallen by £170 in real terms; and Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show that the proportion of physicists in UK universities has fallen over the past decade.

The Government’s main physics body, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has lurched from crisis to crisis with the pressures placed on it by the Government. The Government have broken faith with the science community, in particular when it comes to physics; they have led it up the garden path and lulled it into a false sense of security by churning out endless rhetoric about protecting science, while slashing the science budgets for this year and next year.

On the subject of rhetoric, will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that under a Conservative Government there would be no cuts in science spending in the next year? Secondly, does he accept that the Treasury should take the risk of currency fluctuations, as was proposed recently by Lord Drayson?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising those questions. I have made it absolutely clear that we are committed to two things over the next year: to the future of science and to a multi-year ring-fenced science budget. There is nothing wrong with the ring-fencing principle. I make it 100 per cent. clear that we are not committed to this Government’s budget up to 2011. However, that matter does not particularly relate to science.

On the Treasury question, there is clearly pressure on the STFC in particular and science councils in general in relation to exchange rate fluctuations. I would like more flexibility in that area; the Government sign bilateral—international—agreements, for which they are supposed to pay, yet when the exchange rate changes, the hit is taken by the research council or the facility in respect of writing the cheques. That cannot be right, and work needs to be done on that issue. However, it is above my pay grade to make policies on behalf of my party at the moment.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the Treasury, but someone from his party will have to say something if there is going to be proper three-party politics with specifics. May I bring the matter back to my earlier question? I was not sure what he was saying. Is he saying that if his party is in government next year, when we will still not be out of recession, it would not cut spending on science overall because of the importance of science spending as a vehicle to aid recovery out of recession? Will he be a bit clearer on that? I am still not certain about the matter.

I noticed that when the hon. Gentleman was talking about the science budget, he used the word “hope.” I can use more than the word “hope” about the future science budget.

It is completely unfeasible for an Opposition party that has no access to the Government books to determine what the budget will be this side of an election. I cannot do that because, as I said, it is above my pay grade to do so. If he is asking me whether I would like the science budget to be maintained at the current level, the answer is that I would, of course, like that to happen. Would I like the budget to increase? Of course. However, given that the Government have virtually bankrupted the country, the question is whether it is possible even to maintain the budget that they have. Of course, I will fight tooth and nail to try to do that, but as I say, it would be entirely incorrect for an Opposition party to make a budget before they have succeeded to power.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised these questions, because there is a duty on politicians—particularly those in the Government, who have access to the books— to be as direct and straightforward as they can about future funding levels. The Government have had the opportunity to carry out a comprehensive spending review, and they have refused to do so. Their arguments are incredibly feeble: that somehow there is uncertainty about the future and therefore they have to create more uncertainty by not having a comprehensive spending review to set, at least, the minimum benchmark for science. That has a disproportionate impact on science because, if the STFC—among other research councils—does not know what the 2011-12 budget is, it cannot allocate the research grants this year. The Government have added to the uncertainty around physics in particular, and they need to deal with that matter as soon as possible.

There are questions about the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Council and the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which formed the STFC. I remember being opposite the then Science Minister, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), when he took great pleasure in boasting about how the STFC budget would rise by 13.6 per cent. However, we and the science community knew that its near cash budget—the cash available to spend—was completely flat for that three-year period, as can be seen from the figures published by the Government.

If that was not bad enough, the financial outlook today is much bleaker than in 1997. At the very least, we owe it to the science community to be clear and honest about the challenges ahead. Major physics cuts have already been made. STFC grants are down by 10 per cent., and studentships and fellowships have been cut by 25 per cent. That is largely a result of the uncertainty created by the fact that the Government have not had the comprehensive spending review and allocated the budgets for future years.

Twenty-seven significant STFC projects have been abandoned, £5 million has been cut from the National Physical Laboratory and £573 million has been cut from universities this year. Capital cuts have hit physics particularly hard. As I think the Minister acknowledged when we last debated the matter in the House, further cuts of £600 million will be made by 2013. That is an overall Labour science cut of about £1 billion. We need to acknowledge that if we are to have a coherent and honest debate about physics.

Adding insult to injury, the Government have stubbornly refused to hold a comprehensive spending review, which I can only assume is based on cynical political reasoning and the black art of propaganda—the desire not to tell people what the Government’s reckless spending means for the future. That, again, adds to future uncertainty. The result is that the STFC has held back its commitments.

In fact, if the Government had been straightforward and produced the comprehensive spending review and the science settlement for the following three years—even if it were at a lower level—there would be at least some certainty within the science community, and the STFC would not have had to pull back the number of grants that it was allocating. A big question needs to be answered about why the comprehensive spending review was not held. Does the Minister acknowledge his or the Government’s—I know the matter is not his particular hat—contribution to the uncertainty that is being felt?

The falling value of sterling has already precipitated funding cuts, which has forced other research councils—not just the STFC and those related to physics—to put their hands in their pockets, take away their own research money and give it to the STFC, so that it can cover the exchange rate fluctuations that have been caused by international agreements entered into by Governments. I welcome the review of those arrangements, but we need more certainty around the direction that the Government are taking.

If the Government refuse to tackle the debt crisis, the STFC’s costs could rise even higher because the pound will probably plummet further. Ultimately, currency is a sign of the world’s confidence in a particular economy. If the pound plummets further, the STFC’s costs will increase because of the exchange rate differences. Put simply, Labour’s debt crisis is the single biggest threat to the future of physics and science funding in the years ahead. We need clarity going forward, rather than a Government in denial. I hope there will be no denial today. I know that the Minister is a straightforward chap, and I am sure he will not be in denial this afternoon.

We must take action to play down the deficit and restore confidence in the public finances. That is why if there is a Conservative Government, we will hold a Budget within 50 days, and deal with the matters of the multi-year ring fence. We will allocate a multi-year science budget that will be ring-fenced. That will help us provide a stable investment climate for research councils in the long term.

There has been a lot of debate about the meaning of “ring fence”—we have also debated that in the Select Committee on Science and Technology. Does the hon. Gentleman’s reference to ring fence mean that the money will not be raided within the year for other spending, or does it mean that the amount in the ring fence will never go down because it is protected in some way—that it will either stay the same or go up? Will he be clearer about that? It would be of great benefit to the understanding of what we are discussing.

That is a complicated area, because there are many different types of ring fence: parliamentary ring-fencing, where the budget is voted for separately; Treasury ring-fencing, where there are hundreds of little pots all over the place; and general departmental ring-fencing in one or two areas. I am talking about using the Government’s existing definition of the ring fence. Whether we will consider the elements within that ring fence is another question, particularly given the exchange rate pressures on the ring fence at the moment. That needs to be looked at. I am referring to the existing definition of the ring fence and nothing more than that.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the Government’s definition of the term “ring fence” is that money allocated in-year, for a certain year, is protected from being raided for other things? Would he extend the definition of ring fence, so that planned spending—for example, that outlined in a CSR—is also protected? It is not clear that the Government ever mean that by the term “ring fence”. It is important for people listening to this debate to know whether, when people say that there will be a ring fence, that means money will be protected year on year from being cut or whether it merely means—this is important in itself—that it will be protected from cuts within that year.

I would be happy to divert the debate to that subject, but it could take quite some time. To be absolutely clear again, we are committed to a multi-year ring fence for the science budget, with pretty much the same terms under which it currently operates, but we are not committed to Labour’s budget. I will be happy to chat with the hon. Gentleman about precise definitions after the debate, but I want to conclude my remarks in the next two minutes so that the Minister has time to respond.

There are some vagaries in the statements that the Government and the Science Minister have made on physics funding. It makes some sense to move the space budget to a new space agency and to look at a way of creating a buffer between the STFC grants and its fixed costs, but can the Minister provide any more detail on the Government’s plans for that area? The new arrangements announced by the Science Minister on 4 March are pretty vague, so will the Minister explain what the Government mean when they say that they will be

“looking at options for managing the currency risks better”?

What options is the Department looking at, and what did the current Science Minister mean when he said that

“the Department expects to continue to provide STFC with a level of protection similar to that which has been provided this year”?

Why did he use the words “similar to”, rather than giving a definitive statement? Has the Department budgeted to compensate the STFC for those exchange rate fluctuations? It is a straightforward question. Are the Government planning to compensate fully or are they not?

What assessment has the Department made of the likely cost to the STFC of future exchange rate fluctuations? Is there an estimate of what the effect might be? Physicists and the STFC will want to know the answer, as will the science community overall, and vague language only adds to uncertainty, so the debate provides a good opportunity to tidy that up. Finally, will the Minister now admit that the Government to a certain degree botched the creation of the STFC in 2007? Ministers decided to merge the other two research councils to create the STFC, so will he admit that the structural changes announced by the Science Minister on 4 March will return us to the pre-2007 arrangements?

Britain can be proud of its reputation for world-class physics, astronomy and space science, and we can be optimistic that British physicists are working today to generate new ideas and inventions to fuel a high-tech recovery for the future, but we must face up to the reality of the current difficulties if we are to secure a stable climate for investment for the future. Labour’s debt crisis is the single biggest threat to physics over the next decade. I hope that the Minister will agree with me that the future of physics is at serous risk if the Chancellor refuses to tackle the deficit seriously in tomorrow’s Budget.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing the debate. He brings great expertise to these matters and continues to return to them in the House, and I recently had exchanges with him in the Science and Technology Committee. I also thank the other Members who have spoken. It has been a good debate, with contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who attends nearly every debate on higher education and such matters, and the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie). If time prevents me from addressing all the points that have been raised, I shall of course respond in writing.

The timing of the debate is fortuitous because, while we have been debating, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Science and Innovation have been speaking at the launch of a new body, the UK Space Agency. Its creation is yet another demonstration of the Government’s commitment to science. Its launch was attended by many schoolchildren who have been enthused by meeting men who have stepped on to the moon, and that is yet another demonstration of our belief that a strong British science base is essential if we are to have the bright social, economic and academic future to which Members have referred today.

Hon. Members know that the public finances are tight. The Government cannot turn away from that or deny it. I cannot guarantee that the unprecedented increases in public funding for science that we have seen over the past 13 years will continue at the same rate in the next few years, but I can say that the claim that the hon. Member for Windsor has made publicly—that the Government plan to cut £1.2 billion of public funding for science over the next five years—is false. He has added that he cannot give a commitment that his party would not do likewise; that claim, by contrast, is all too credible.

I assure Members right from the outset that the Government remain absolutely committed to science. Indeed, my ministerial colleagues and I continue to make the case within the Government at every opportunity for increases in science funding by virtue of the contribution to growth that we believe our science base has made and must continue to make in future. I hope that Members will recognise our commitment to science, which, in relation to the debate, is probably best described in the document “Higher Ambition”, published in November 2009, which sets out our commitment to STEM. That strategy relates to much of what the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said about enthusing young people and having the teachers. Indeed, the strategy goes beyond that because it asks our universities to realign and move in that direction because we believe that it is so central to our economy.

Lest Members should think that those calls fall on deaf ears, that initiative, which has been carried forward by successive Ministers, has brought record levels of public funding in science, including the 10-year science and innovation investment framework, which was initiated not in the Departments that previously had responsibility for science, but in the Treasury, and it was led by the Prime Minister. That is our commitment to science, and we have had it for many years.

It is clear from the debate that Members believe, as I do, that physics is a crucial element of that commitment to science and to our way of life. Physics provides a fundamental understanding of the world and is at the heart of our civilisation and our standard of living. Through the study of physics we are able to make breakthroughs in many other fields of study, including health care. Many advanced medical diagnostic treatments follow fundamental research in physics. Just about every modern appliance is underpinned by physics, from our mobile phones to the internet and high-definition televisions, on which many of us rely.

Physics forms the basis of our high-tech, advanced economy and employs many people in this country. Important contributing sectors to the UK economy include electronics and optoelectronics, which employ between them over 1 million people. High-technology physics-based industries will help to ensure that the UK is able to compete successfully in the modern global economy, and we will also look to physics research to help overcome the major challenges that still exist in the century before us. Much that has been said about green technology is underpinned by the importance of physics. There are other challenges as well in respect of the underpinning and our better understanding of the mechanics of climate change and greenhouse gases, all of which require the expertise of good physicists.

Given the key role of physics in our society, it is clearly important that we invest, and continue to invest, in science and technology and the training of scientists. We have not had a Save British Science campaign because we have not needed one. Our record on support of the science base is strong, and the Government remain a champion of it. In 2010-11, funding of science and research will have doubled against what it was in 1997. My Department’s total investment in science and research will have increased from £5.5 billion to nearly £5.9 billion, which is a 7 per cent. rise.

I am pleased that the Minister mentioned Save British Science—now the Campaign for Science and Engineering. We should pay tribute to its work. It was set up in my constituency in 1986 to save British science because the level of funding of science in 1986 was such that science needed saving. Does he accept that the level of funding—not just gross domestic product share, but in real terms—is now the same as it was in 1986? It has increased, but it has increased only back up to 1986 levels, when Save British Science was created to save British science from that level of funding.

I recognise that there has been substantial investment. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said in her contribution, this country may have the most productive science sector. Therefore, by any definition, if one looks at outputs, research papers and quality, we can be proud of the investment that has been made over successive years. It means that we remain second only to the United States in global scientific excellence as measured by citations and a range of indices of which our scientists can be proud.

We were talking about straightforwardness, honesty and clarity. I am not quite sure that I heard the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. Will the Minister confirm that spending on science has only just, in the past year or so, approached the level that it was at in 1986-87?

I said that we did not have a Save British Science campaign, which he knows that a past Administration put up with. He also knows—I was coming on to capital—that the budget for higher education capital at the time we came to office was about £75 million. Notwithstanding the savings that we have asked the sector to make, it is £404 million this year, and we have spent about £6.4 billion on capital alone. That goes to the heart of the cost of science on our campuses, which requires investment in facilities, particularly when we are asking universities to encourage young people across the country to take up physics. It takes investment, and investment of more than £2 billion has been made since 1998 to help address the long-term under-investment in university infrastructure, buildings and capital equipment.

However, we also rightly want to ensure that we are getting uptake among students. I am aware that there have been concerns about the number of students taking physics and other STEM subjects. It is because of that that we have particularly asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support the growth of STEM, and, in this funding year, it has set up a £10 million fund to help universities make the transition to STEM subjects.

I am pleased that between 2003 and last year, the latest period for which figures are available, the number of home students enrolling on first degrees in physics rose by 13 per cent., and over the same period, home students taking physics PhDs rose by 37 per cent. The trend is a positive one, and demand continues. In fact, the latest figures from UCAS show that applications are up by 13 per cent. on last year.

I must challenge those figures. I have never understood why Ministers choose the baseline that they choose when they say that something has risen by, for example, 13 per cent. I often thought that it was random, but now I think I can see that they just choose the lowest point and then compare the current position to it.

There was a significant dip between 2001 and 2003—I do not know the reasons for that. If the Minister is talking about the low point, I should say that it was 2003. However, on the latest figures that I can find, we are still below where we were the year before the baseline that he used. Could he explain why he always uses that baseline rather than, say, 1997, which would seem to be a more rational baseline?

I have the figures in front of me: first degree entrants in 2002-03, 2,990, and in 2008-09, 3,555; masters programme entrants in 2002-03, 545, and 555 last year; and PhD entrants in 2002-03, 525, and a growth last year to 805. That is a huge increase, on any analysis, so I do not recognise the numbers that the hon. Gentleman has arrived at. I do not think that this is a matter of dispute. We are seeing the uptake of STEM subjects at GCSE and A-level rising steadily, and that is feeding through to our campuses.

On research, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East, some have claimed that the quality and volume of physics research have suffered as a result of this Government’s policies, but the facts show that the opposite is true. Physics has been and continues to be treated generously, as it benefits from its strategic importance. After the 2008 research assessment exercise, the Government asked the funding council to protect the share of quality-related research funding to STEM subjects from decline due to higher increases in research in other areas, and therefore the volume of staff submitted in all subjects has risen by 12 per cent., and in physics by 3.6 per cent. So there was also good news on the funding that physics was able to attract.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has been referred to again, as on several other occasions. Of course the Government take the matter seriously, and are already acting on it. There is no denying that the STFC has faced problems, and the Government recognise that better management of international subscriptions through measures to manage exchange rates, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities are needed to allow the STFC’s grant-giving functions to be managed with a higher degree of predictability.

On 4 March, my noble Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation announced new arrangements for the STFC that are designed to ensure that it can plan with greater predictability and provide its community with more stability through better management of pressures arising from international subscriptions such as CERN, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities such as Diamond.

Those two measures, which are supported by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society, will address the two main sources of uncertainty that the STFC has historically faced. Lest it be thought that those two learned societies did not greet my noble Friend’s announcement with some pleasure, and given the work that had been put in by Mike Sterling, their reaction is worth quoting:

“We have been particularly concerned about the way in which unforeseeable rises in international subscriptions due to the falling value of the pound have put extreme pressure on the funding available from STFC both for research grants and the running of UK-based facilities. Today’s announcement demonstrates that the problem has now been recognised and we look forward to seeing how it will be addressed.”

It will be addressed in the coming months.

Much that has been said about the STFC is historic. We recognise that there have been structural issues, but my noble Friend has sought to address them. I hope that physicists will be pleased with that—

Turks and Caicos Islands

This debate is about the governance of the Turks and Caicos Islands. I led a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to the Turks and Caicos Islands in the summer of 2004, the first such delegation for 40 years: they were feeling somewhat neglected. The delegation comprised Members of the House of Commons and of the House of Lords. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who is in the Chamber today, was a member of that delegation. Given recent events, I must add that I have no interest to declare as I have not been back to the islands since 2004.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are an archipelago of 40 small islands at the south-eastern end of the Bahamas chain. Only the four largest islands and two smaller islands are permanently inhabited, with a total estimated population of about 36,000, of whom two thirds live on the largest island—Providenciales, or Provo as it is known locally. The islands are divided into two groups—the Turks Islands and the Caicos Islands. Each group is surrounded by a continuous ring of reefs but separated by a 22-mile-wide channel, the Columbus passage, which is named in honour of Christopher Columbus—based on the slightly controversial claim that he made his first landfall in the new world on the island of Grand Turk in 1492. That claim, disputed by many, marks the start of a history of controversy for the islands, a story linked by tax evasion, piracy and exploitation in all its forms. It is also a story of a people who have not got the governance they deserve.

The islands have a fascinating and often painful history. Tourism is a logical consequence of the beautiful crystal-clear waters and white sandy beaches. Some might see the wheel coming full circle, with the islands’ notorious history as a haven for pirates in the 1600s and 1700s, along with the fame derived from its salt rakers’ refusal to comply with British demands for tax in the 18th century, reflected in the prominence of this tax haven’s exploitation in the 21st century.

The islands have struggled with governance. A presidency, although it lasted for 25 years until 1873, was not a great success. Although it provided internal self-government and integrated the Turks and Caicos Islands, the post of President appears to have been viewed by the British Government as a reward for public service. No President was an islander, or belonger as they are called, and none were appointed in consultation with the local population. They governed autocratically and failed to diversify, relying instead on a single product: salt.

In 1874, the islands were officially declared a Crown colony and a dependency of Jamaica. But by the 1950s, Jamaica was moving towards independence, so TCI opted to stay under British rule and a new constitution was introduced in 1959. A general election was held for the first time in the history of the islands on the basis of universal adult suffrage and a secret ballot. A new legislative Assembly was elected and an Executive Council was created to advise the Administrator, a person appointed by the British Colonial Secretary.

Ten years on, TCI saw the hardening of party political lines. The Progressive National Party was the Government of the day and the People’s Democratic Movement was in Opposition. But amidst the growing pains of the fledgling political system, accusations were made that three Ministers in particular were overstepping their authority. An already volatile situation was worsened when Miami police charged the same three Ministers with serious felony offences. British lawyer Louis Blom-Cooper was asked to investigate corruption allegations. He found evidence of corruption and malpractice, but the cornerstone of his recommendations—that certain persons were not fit to hold public office—was ignored, thus strengthening the notion that in politics the only crime is being caught.

Following Blom-Cooper came Roy Marshall. From the inception of adult suffrage on TCI, governance was divided into single-member constituencies, based on the true meaning of one person, one vote. Each person had one vote only and could vote for one candidate in one district only. The Roy Marshall commission reacted to the political and social divisions exposed by Blom-Cooper and decided that 11 constituencies returning 11 members had huge potential for cheating and corruption, as well as for giving small groups of friends and family the opportunity to control the electoral outcome.

The commission therefore increased the number of constituencies to 13 and grouped constituencies together, so where there had been three constituencies returning three representatives, now there would be one constituency returning three representatives. Each voter now had multiple candidates for whom to vote. Far from blunting polarisation, the next election heightened it. Strong party candidates pulled weaker ones to victory with them, with the result that the PDM wiped the board, winning 11 seats to the PNP’s two.

The 1976 constitution marked the pivotal moment in the islands’ constitutional history, clarifying how the powers and responsibilities of elected members of the legislative and executive arms of government should exist and function in relation to the powers of the Governor, and paving the way for self-determination. Broadly, this constitution said there would now be a resident Governor, appointed by the British monarch, with specific responsibilities for defence and foreign affairs, internal security and the police and the public service. But it also said that there would be an Executive Council of the Governor, the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary and the Attorney-General who would be responsible for other Departments of Government—education, health, tourism, etc. The Governor was obliged to consult the Executive Council in formulating Government policy.

The second part of the 1976 constitution was the Legislative Council, consisting of a Speaker drawn from inside or outside the Council, but elected by the Council members; 13 members democratically elected from 13 districts; plus three members appointed by the Governor, the Government and the Opposition, the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary and the Attorney-General. Since that time, yet another constitution has been adopted, and so it goes on.

That was the history of governance when we visited in 2004. The Legislative Council had experienced a very eventful year, with two by-elections taking place in marginal constituencies, resulting in a change in government. We were struck—I certainly was—by the youthful make-up of the new Government; the average age of Ministers was about 28. Personally, I was concerned about the apparent lack of experience of the Ministers and vowed to inaugurate an all-party group in Parliament to engage with TCI politicians on their regular visits to London. This I did, but until yet more problems arose regarding accusations of maladministration and corruption following a visit by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, TCI Ministers did not give much priority to meeting us on any regular basis.

There was a flurry of activity following the publication of the Select Committee report, but alas the damage was already done. Subsequently, Her Majesty’s Government dissolved the Government and Parliament and returned the islands to direct rule via the Governor. I do not wish to explore the detail of the allegations: broadly, politicians were accused of selling Crown land for personal gain. But I understand why Turks and Caicos residents see Her Majesty’s Government’s actions as tantamount to a recolonisation of the islands.

We have to make a clean break with the mistakes of the past. We have to create a path towards economic and political stability that will last—unlike previous attempts. The economy has to be sustainable and financially sound. Above all, the new economic and political systems have to be transparent and strong enough to withstand the possibility of corruption.

At the start of this new century, there is a 50-year history of constitutional changes that have not bedded down into the people’s consciousness; a history of corruption amongst politicians; and, worse, examples of Ministers charged in the USA with felonies and drug trafficking, yet continuing to hold public office. We also have examples of a civil service that is blatantly embroiled in politics. This extremely volatile situation was not helped by the emergence of wealthy eastern European groups seeking investment opportunities in TCI, so I was unsurprised by the decision last year of Governor Gordon Wetherell to suspend the islands’ self-governance pending investigations into ministerial corruption.

During our visit in 2004, we had full and frank discussions about the islands’ future. We were interested to hear the plans to empower the islanders, who are known as belongers, by enabling them to own land and property. We heard much about their increasing prosperity through the tourism and financial services that have benefited many of their neighbours, and the Government’s plans to improve the islands’ infrastructure to support the flourishing economy.

There were discussions about the possibility of public-private partnerships and private finance initiatives to achieve that objective. The islands’ Speaker and other politicians hope that the islands will have a future with good governance and greater prosperity of their people. Some politicians with good will were properly motivated, but they were struggling with big problems as well as big opportunities.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are geographically close to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which has resulted in mass migration, both legal and illegal, in recent years. The full impact of that migration is still unknown, but there could be problems for the community in public health, and with HIV/AIDS and poverty. In particular, we discussed the problem of Haiti, drug and gun trafficking, registration policies for immigrants and those born on the islands, and the potential knock-on effect for the tourism industry.

Discussions on constitutional review and the powers of the Governor, the Chief Minister and the Attorney-General provided a useful insight into the delicate balance of power in small legislatures. The desire for more self-governance, short of independence, was clear. Tragically, inexperience and lack of judgment, combined with downright criminality, have led to the imposition of temporary direct rule pending new elections in due course.

My hon. Friend referred to corruption on the islands, which I have never visited. Were any UK or Belizean nationals involved in corrupt practices? I understand that people from Belize have extensive business interests on the islands.

I know that some British nationals have substantial interests, and I shall refer to that.

It is true that some politicians on the islands have abused and misused their position of power and influence, but as some might ask, who are we to criticise? As in the UK, a small minority has blackened the reputation of the majority, but many good, dedicated and honest politicians in TCI have the interests of their country folk at heart. They should be included in, not excluded from, the temporary governance of their homeland pending a return to democratic elections.

The country has been buffeted by hurricanes, political scandal and outside influences seeking to exploit its natural beauty and the good nature of its people. Rich men and women from across the globe have made their way to TCI, including Russian and American millionaires who have sought to exploit the islands’ beauty and status for profit, and those whose expertise is tax avoidance. I believe that Lord Ashcroft has substantial interests there and is a regular visitor.

During our visit in 2004, we learned of the islanders’ desire for future independence, but some former politicians expressed the view that the UK would have to ensure that the offshore finance industry and Government procedures were corruption-free as part of the process. Clearly, they were anxious about how things were developing. It is regrettable that, as we spoke, corrupt practices were undermining those desires, and leading to instability and the end of democracy. For the sake of the people of the Turks and Caicos Islands, stability and democracy must be returned soon.

Will the Minister tell the House when the new administrative arrangements for direct rule will be expanded to include local politicians again? When will the next elections take place to return the islands to the control of their own people? What has Her Majesty’s Government discovered about the activities of wealthy foreigners and the ownership of former Crown land? What is Lord Ashcroft’s involvement in TCI, and is it yet another tax avoidance? How many other British nationals have business interests in TCI? What progress is there on major developments, such as the airport expansion programme, Leeward highway and the hospital building programme? I look forward to the Minister's response.

It is a delight, Mr. Sheridan, to speak under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) on securing this debate. It has been a long time since the Turks and Caicos Islands have been debated, which is a fault of the House. I also congratulate him on his role in creating the all-party group and sustaining it over the years. The House will lose a doughty politician when he leaves it at the general election, because I understand that he will not stand again. We shall miss him. I had many battles with him over an elected House of Lords.

Unlike my hon. Friend, I have never visited the Turks and Caicos Islands. I understand that they are very beautiful. For several years, they enjoyed a booming tourism industry. Enormous hotels, vast residences, and beautiful and luxurious beach clubs were built, and things blossomed. Unfortunately, at the same time so did corruption, but until the special investigation and prosecution team under Helen Garlick has completed its work, we cannot be sure of the precise contours or the extent of that corruption in TCI.

Hon. Members know that on 10 July 2008, in response to an increasing number of complaints about corruption involving senior politicians in TCI, the then Governor appointed Sir Robin Auld to inquire into

“corruption or other serious dishonesty in relation to past and present elected members of the TCI House of Assembly.”

Following Sir Robin’s report, we decided to implement his recommendations that ministerial government be suspended, that the House of Assembly be dissolved, and that provision be made for criminal and civil trial by a judge alone in certain cases. Those recommendations were implemented on 14 August 2009, as my hon. Friend adumbrated. We did not take that step lightly, for the reasons that he suggested. We have no desire to return to colonial rule.

Sir Robin’s report is impressive, and extremely damning. He outlines what can only be called a perfect storm of political intrigue and corruption. He cites the

“considerable discretionary power in…allocation of Crown Land”,

and in planning and the award of Government contracts and belonger status. I must correct my hon. Friend, because not everyone who lives on the islands is a belonger—far from it. In fact, that is one of the problems.

Sir Robin also refers to the booming tourism industry, which caused land to become valuable, but the supply of that land is limited. In addition, he refers to considerable exposure of Ministers to conflicts between public duty and their private and personal interests, and widespread disregard of the constitutional obligation to declare financial interests. As Sir Robin said in his report:

“The all pervading impact of politics on people’s lives and livelihoods in the TCI and the seemingly imperceptible line between political payments or donations on the one hand and bribes on the other has become a canker in the economic and social life of the TCI.”

A key element of that vicious circle is the status of belongership, which stems from birth or personal connection with TCI through a spouse or descent, or from the Governor, acting on the advice of the Cabinet, who can hand out belongership. With belongership comes the right to vote—in fact, only 7,000 of the 36,000 inhabitants have that right—the right to sit on a jury, the right to purchase Crown land at a substantial discount, and the right to sell that land on at a substantial advantage.

The UK 2007 national audit report indicated widespread departures from competitive tendering in the TCI, which is a matter of substantial concern, and there have been many serious allegations. I will read briefly from the commission of inquiry’s report. Sir Robin cites

“major contracts for services, such as that made in November 2006 with Southern Health Care Network for referral of TCI Islanders for overseas medical treatment…major construction contracts, for example…PFI contracts awarded to Johnston International for two new TCI hospitals, said to have been overpriced and awarded without any or any appropriate tender process, with an initial budget of $40 million and costs to date of $125 million…major road-building and other public works contracts, for example…the Lower Bight Road. Providenciales, said to have been contracted to Johnston International”—


“at a significantly higher price than some other bidders had offered, and built, it is said, to a low standard; and…road works in North and Little Caicos, contracted to Herzog”.

He also cites the sale by Ministers of property to the Government at above the market rate, and there is a whole series of cases in which offices have been rented on behalf of the Government, again at above the market rate.

As the Minister rightly says, I was the Minister responsible for overseas territories for a while, including when the inquiry was set in place, although I, too, have never visited the Turks and Caicos Islands. One of the concerns that the Foreign Affairs Committee reported to me was that people were frightened to speak out and say what was going on. Has the inquiry that the Minister is reading from looked at that issue in relation to these contracts, and will he say whether it has been fully addressed? The fear that the people of the islands had in speaking out about corruption was clearly a fundamental concern for the islands’ future.

My hon. Friend is right, and I pay tribute to the work that she did when the inquiry was set up. She is right about the level of fear. A lot of allegations were made to the Foreign Affairs Committee, some of which have been investigated and some of which have not. It is vital that I do not say anything that would jeopardise the investigation led by Helen Garlick. She has set up offices in London and in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and it is important that she and her team pursue the logic of their investigation without interference from anybody else.

Consequently, I cannot confirm or deny whether the instances that I referred to are being investigated. However, it would be extraordinary if the major contracts for overseas health care, building the Lower Bight road and the two new hospitals—all of which have been completed—and the airport expansion, which has not yet been agreed on, were not being investigated.

A BBC programme on the Turks and Caicos Islands has been blocked by the intervention of Lord Ashcroft’s lawyers. Is there any evidence that contracts were awarded to Lord Ashcroft by people who are being investigated for possible corruption?

The precise nexus of companies and organisations on TCI is enormously complicated, and it is sometimes difficult to be precise about who owned what at any particular moment. Mrs. Misick, the wife of the former leader, believed that the major construction firm Johnston International, which I referred to, was owned or at least controlled by Lord Ashcroft, and the former governor believed that that was the case for both that company and Belize bank.

I understand that Michael Ashcroft also had an involvement in a sugar mill in Grand Turk, but I am not sure whether that continues. He was involved during 2006 and 2007—during which time he visited the islands alongside the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—in discussions about his company, Airport Holdings Ltd, taking over part ownership of Providenciales airport and doing major reconstruction work in exchange for a 49-year share of the departure tax on TCI. That is to say nothing of the Belize bank which, as Sir Robin Auld’s report makes clear, was the holding bank for the party-political slush fund accounts that were held on behalf of the Progressive National party.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) on securing this important debate. As he said, I was part of the delegation in 2004 to the Turks and Caicos Islands, and I endorse many, if not all, of the comments that he made. I am also a member of the all-party group on Turks and Caicos Islands, which my hon. Friend established in the House as a consequence of that visit.

The Minister has touched on the issue of potential corruption in the awarding of public sector contracts on the islands. In many respects, the present governor and previous governors have acted as honest brokers on the islands ever since they played a role within the legislative process. Will the Minister confirm that both past governors and the present governor have expressed concern over the years about the awarding of public sector contracts on the islands?

Absolutely. Former governors have made it clear that they have been troubled by some of the processes used to award contracts, the personal nature of the way contracts have sometimes been awarded and the involvement of people from elsewhere. Governors have expressed ongoing, continuing concerns, and those exist in the archives of the Foreign Office.

I have a simple question. Will Lord Ashcroft be invited to give evidence to this inquiry into corruption?

As I said earlier, I do not want to say anything that could in any sense prejudice or jeopardise the investigation. Helen Garlick is a fiercely independent-minded woman and she must do the investigation that needs to be done. I will not be drawn on that point.

A point detailed in Sir Robin Auld’s report is that one of the elements of corruption was the inexplicable wealth that many people seemed to enjoy. In some countries—Hong Kong, for example—such wealth would overturn the burden of evidence necessary when trying to prove that there has been bribery or corruption. One element of that, which was particularly virulent in the TCI, was that nobody ever registered their financial interests. Mr. Misick stated that

“in relation to gifts and party political donations, there has been no one who has ever declared, probably with the exception of one new member who probably declared a small amount and this is primarily because, particularly the small nature of our Territory, persons giving political contributions would have preferred to be not named.”

We have no idea who made political donations in the TCI whether in cash or in kind, or whether people provided aeroplanes, houses, larger houses, additional finances or shopping opportunities for people’s wives. We have no idea what was provided to politicians by any of the people being investigated or otherwise.

If anybody has a clear understanding and experience of business in TCI, they should present themselves with any information that they have as a matter of urgency. They might have given money, entirely innocently, as a political donation to a party that they wanted to support. However, if they found out that that gift was never registered, they should be worried about whether the other person might have thought that they were being bribed, whether the donor concerned thought that they were bribing or not.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge asked some important questions about the future for TCI. The financial situation is difficult, and part of my sense of anger about the situation in TCI is that it is difficult in part because some enormous contracts were awarded. Contracts were awarded for 25 years using PFI and PPP arrangements and, in the case of the two hospitals, it was unclear how important or necessary those arrangements were at all, let alone the cost that they have come in at. That is going to weigh as a heavy financial burden on the people of TCI in the future, making it difficult for the governor to come forward with a sustainable economic model for the next few years.

We are keen to return to full constitutional government in TCI as soon as possible. We have to clarify a series of different things and change the system of belongership and how that is handed out. We must change the allocation of Crown lands, and ensure that the electoral system is ready. However, unless there is some terrible problem, our clear commitment is to have elections in July 2011, which is the date when the next round of elections would have been held.

I hope that the future for TCI will be rosier than the last few years have been. I hope that the investigation led by Helen Garlick is able to proceed without interference and brought to a successful conclusion, not least so that some of the assets that have frankly been stolen from the people of TCI can be returned.

High Speed 2 (Buckinghamshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise with the Minister what I am sure he will be the first to appreciate is likely to be the first of a considerable number of representations made to Ministers in Parliament about the impact of the Government’s preferred route for the proposed high-speed railway. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) are present. I have spoken to the right hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who, because of his office as Speaker, cannot take part directly in debates. He is very actively pursuing the interests of his constituents in respect of the impact of the preferred route on the Buckingham constituency.

I believe that the route that the Government have said they prefer will seriously and irreparably damage the quality of my constituents’ lives and the landscape of the Chiltern hills. Two aspects of the proposed route caused me particular dismay once I began to inspect the details. First, the plan for a viaduct to carry the railway around the western perimeter of Aylesbury, coming at the nearest point just 70 metres from people’s homes, looks certain to cause massive damage to the quality of life of many hundreds of my constituents.

Secondly, I share the sense of outrage expressed to me in letters, e-mails and conversations with constituents since the Secretary of State’s announcement on 11 March that the Government plan to route the line through the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty—landscape that successive Governments, whether Labour or Conservative, have designated as of exceptional national importance.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for agreeing that I could intervene in this short debate. Even in the report that has been given to the Secretary of State, the first point made in chapter 4.2.39 on the quality of life and the landscape and townscape is that the

“main landscape impact of HS2 would occur in the Chiltern Hills”.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is dismaying that when HS2 Ltd made its proposals to the Government, not just the preferred route but even the runner-up were set to carve a swathe of destruction through the centre of the area of outstanding natural beauty. In my constituency, the villages of Great Missenden, South Heath and Wendover would be drastically affected. I should also tell the Minister that in the past 24 hours I have received the first reaction to the proposal from the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, which argues that the preferred route would have both a direct and an indirect impact on woodland sites—predominantly ancient woodlands—and on wetland sites, including a nature reserve and a site of special scientific interest on the border between Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.

To rub salt into the wound for my constituents and for the county of Buckinghamshire as a whole, the Government’s proposal seems to be all pain and no gain—no direct benefit at all—for people living in Buckinghamshire. There is to be no improvement to the infrastructure used by local people, just years of disruption during the construction phase and permanent damage to both our rural and our urban environments. Indeed, I find it remarkable that the same Government who have designated Aylesbury as a growth area, who are insisting that the town provides many thousands of additional homes and who at the same time have refused to plan for the transport infrastructure to sustain that development now announce plans for a fantastically expensive piece of infrastructure that will bypass the very place that the Government have designated for growth.

As we are at the start of what is likely to be a long process, I want today to concentrate on putting to the Minister a limited number of questions on issues that constituents have been raising directly with me in the past 10 days. First, I should like him to say something about the public consultation, which I understand is scheduled to begin in October. What exactly will be the scope of that consultation? The Secretary of State, in his recent letter to me, stated that both the principle of a new high-speed rail line and the question of a route would depend on the outcome of the consultation. I infer from those comments that the Government accept that it is perfectly in order for people, during the consultation process, to propose alternative routes or, indeed, to challenge the principle of HS2 altogether. I hope that the Minister will today confirm that that is the case—that my understanding is correct—and that the Government do not intend to begin drafting a hybrid Bill until the consultation and the subsequent period of reflection and appraisal to which the Secretary of State has referred have passed.

Secondly, what will be the nature of the public consultation? Of course, a number of bodies such as the Chilterns Conservation Board—the statutory agency to safeguard the environment of the Chilterns AONB—the Chiltern Society and the parish, town, district and county councils along the route will make representations, and I know already that local residents are organising themselves into community campaigns in order to prepare for the consultation. However, I want the Government not only to listen to public representations, but to be proactive and to ensure that every resident in the affected neighbourhoods is contacted and both encouraged and enabled to take part.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be reassured that the Department for Transport is paying attention to the detail in this case, because the consultation document that has already been issued on the exceptional hardship scheme relates to a consultation period that is less than the 12 weeks recommended by the Government, and the consultation will most likely take place over a period of purdah and therefore contravene some interesting rules on consultations? Also, Buckinghamshire county council was completely omitted from the list of individual local authorities that were part of the list of consultees. Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of attention to detail that causes the major county council to be missed off is rather alarming?

I hope that that is a lesson that the Minister and his Department will take on board. The point that my hon. Friend makes about the impact that the period of purdah around the general election campaign can have on public consultations and the ability of the Government machine to publicise those consultations is something to which I hope that Ministers will pay attention. It would be outrageous if people in effect were to lose a number of weeks of publicity for the consultations because of the election. The obvious thing to do would be to extend the consultation period by the appropriate number of weeks.

I hope, too, that Ministers will make a personal commitment to come to my constituency and to others along the route to hear for themselves the views of the people whom their policies will affect so dramatically. I should perhaps add that as the preferred route in my constituency runs within 2 miles of Chequers, I think it likely that whoever holds the office of Prime Minister can expect to have his ear well and truly bent by his neighbours.

Lastly on this point, how long will the public consultation last? A period of six months is being talked about. That seems a very short time in which to consult seriously people right along the proposed route from Euston to Birmingham, let alone to examine the options beyond Birmingham, to which the White Paper, entitled “High Speed Rail”, refers. In addition to the impact of the general election campaign, Christmas and the new year seem likely to fall in the middle of the Government’s proposed consultation on the preferred route, which would compress the notional six-month timetable even more in practice. There is already a lot of public cynicism about the consultation, and there is an expectation that it is being done simply for show, so I look to the Minister to give me the strongest possible assurance that those public fears are mistaken.

People will want and need access to a lot of detailed information ahead of October, so that they can prepare their arguments. If at all possible, I want the public consultation to take place on the basis of arguments and debate about a commonly agreed set of facts. To take one obvious example, little information is as yet available to show how much noise would be heard by people living along the route. I talked to some of the environmental pressure groups in my constituency this morning, and they told me that HS2 Ltd has so far been rather reluctant to divulge any of the detail about its assumptions about noise levels and noise footprints. I know that that would be a difficult, technical and complicated bit of work, because ever since I was elected, I have had to deal with the issue of the noise from the M40, which cuts through the village of Stokenchurch, at the southern end of my constituency. However, people have a right to know not just the conclusions that have been reached by HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport, but the assumptions and background work on which those conclusions were based. If there is a reluctance to come forward with that detailed information, people will understandably assume the worst. It will be up to Ministers to insist that the Department, HS2 Ltd and Network Rail, which has done its own work on the high-speed proposal, are open with the public.

If the project goes ahead, on whatever route, it is vital that the Government show that they have learned lessons from the experience of building the high-speed channel tunnel link through Kent. A few hours ago, I talked to Mr. Patrick Begg, the regional director of the National Trust, who said that, in environmental terms, the High Speed 1 process was brutal, poorly conceived and done on the cheap. To give a specific example, my local wildlife trust says that one lesson from High Speed 1 is that the indirect impact on woodland adjacent to the line in Kent was more severe than had been estimated before construction because of interference with the flow of surface water. Local councillors in my constituency, who have been in contact with their counterparts in Kent, were warned that the impact during construction went far wider than the immediate line of route. One was warned that he should expect every village and country lane within four or five miles of the route to be wrecked for some years while the line was built.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen this, but I want to bring to his attention “News of the Woods”. It is produced by the Chiltern Woodlands Project, and the Minister could well look at it. The project has helpfully produced the “Special Trees and Woods” interactive website at The website shows the enormous concentration of special trees and woods directly along the route that Lord Adonis has chosen for the route.

My hon. Friend makes a telling point.

It is pretty obvious that a construction project of such a scale will need depots for building materials, arrangements for removing spoil and access over a long period for large numbers of heavy vehicles and plant. The Government need to be straight with people about what would be involved during construction, and they need to pledge that country lanes and the rural landscape in the area surrounding the route will be restored to their previous appearance after construction.

Finally, on compensation, many people are distraught because their properties have been utterly blighted. I know of elderly people who were relying on the value of their home to provide the capital to finance their care home fees in the not-too-distant future. I welcome the Government’s proposal of an interim scheme to help people whose properties are blighted before the statutory provisions come into force. Why, however, is the scheme so narrow in scope and so niggardly in terms of the compensation offered? It is right that owner-occupiers should be helped, but business premises are excluded from the current proposals, even though owners may have plans to sell and retire. Without the proceeds from such sales, those owners will not be able to retire.

Furthermore, why should compensation be capped at 85 per cent. of the market value? People in Buckinghamshire did not ask for the line and they get no benefit from it at all. If the Government believe that it is in the overriding national interest that the scheme should go ahead and that my constituents must accept a massive sacrifice for the greater national good, it is a matter of justice that my constituents should be properly and fully compensated for what they stand to lose.

I endorse all the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). We can see the level of interest in the debate by the presence of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who are sitting alongside us, but who are precluded from speaking because of the brevity of the debate.

I have a few simple questions for the Minister. First, no environmental impact assessment has been published. I had a meeting with his boss, Lord Adonis, the other day and I was told that he had no intention of publishing an impact assessment before the general election. How can that be right? When can we expect to see the impact assessment for the Chilterns?

That is of particular relevance to my constituency, as the part of it that the railway slices through is an environmentally sensitive area and a nature reserve. In the absence of an assessment, it is difficult to know what the impact will be on that very sensitive part of the Colne valley.

Secondly, I would like to know what account the Department and the Minister have taken of section 85 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. I hope that he will be able to tell me—it should not be too difficult for him.

Finally, I asked the Secretary of State to visit my constituency to speak directly to constituents, who are rightly alarmed about the proposal coming so close to a general election. Lord Adonis told me that he has

“limited diary space in the coming weeks”

but will

“treat all members fairly…after the General Election.”

As Lord Adonis does not need to face a general election, and as the Department for Transport will presumably continue its work, will the Minister kindly go back to him to ask whether, in the Secretary of State’s absence, another Minister could attend some of the public meetings in my constituency, or failing that, whether officials from the Department could come to give an explanation?

That is only fair, given that the Government have chosen to make their announcement so close to a general election. The Minister and I are both elected Members, and he knows as well as I do that Members will be cut off during the election from asking the Government questions and from getting research from the House of Commons Library. For Members whose constituencies along the line of the route will be so badly affected, the timing of the proposals is cynical and callous.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on not only securing the debate, but raising his legitimate concerns in a very tempered manner, notwithstanding the passion that he demonstrated during his short speech.

Four Members of Parliament are present, two of whom have not been able to make speeches because of the brevity of this Adjournment debate. However, I know that the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) are equally concerned about some of the challenges and issues raised by the preferred route for HS2 and the implications for their constituents. They are of course welcome to meet me or the Secretary of State, Lord Adonis, to discuss any concerns that they have directly, as I know the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has. The hon. Member for Aylesbury has of course also raised the issues on the Floor of the House and put on record the concerns for his constituents that he spotted straight away when the announcement was made on 11 March.

Before I turn to the specific effects of the Government’s proposals on Buckinghamshire and to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, I want to explain briefly why the Government believe that high-speed rail is the best way to enhance our inter-urban transport networks. In considering a project such as this, as hon. Members will appreciate, it is vital to balance the significant benefits that it will bring to the country with the impacts that it may have at local level.

Over the next 20 to 30 years, the key inter-urban routes linking our major cities will become increasingly crowded and congested, with negative effects for both the economy and society. A new high-speed line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester, the east midlands, Sheffield, and Leeds could more than treble capacity on the congested west coast main line corridor, as well as improving journey times between major cities and releasing capacity on existing rail lines for additional commuter services and freight, particularly in the growth areas that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

In addition, by linking the proposed core high-speed rail network into the existing west coast and east coast main lines, it would be possible to provide high-speed services to other destinations such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh from the outset. The proposed network could, for instance, reduce journey times from Glasgow to London to as little as 3 hours 30 minutes, creating significant scope for modal shift from aviation to rail.

The modelling carried out by HS2 Ltd suggests that a high-speed line from London to Birmingham alone could provide benefits for the UK totalling over £29 billion and up to £32 billion if wider economic benefits such as agglomeration effects are taken into account. A more extensive network, such as the Y-shaped network proposed by the Government, would bring more significant benefits still. It would shrink journey times further, enable the UK’s city economies to function more effectively together, and address the weaknesses of the current Victorian rail network, by providing fast and efficient links on both sides of the Pennines.

However, I accept that any infrastructure project of such a size will have some impacts at a local level, and I understand fully the concerns of hon. Members and their constituents about the effect that HS2 Ltd’s recommended route could have on the county of Buckinghamshire. First, and most importantly—on the consultation point—I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government have not yet taken any decision on either whether a line such as this should be built or what route it should take. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s first question, everything is up for grabs. When his constituents respond to the formal consultation, they should give their views about whether they think there should be a high-speed link at all, the preferred route and any additional points they may want to make. It is important that I should underscore that.

No such decision could possibly be taken without prior public consultation, and the Command Paper that we published on 11 March makes it quite clear that we will begin consultation in the autumn. As has been commented on, it will last up to six months, although it could last longer. I take on board the legitimate points raised on the consultation in relation to the exceptional hardship scheme, and the effect of purdah. I should like to write in reply to all the hon. Members present, because they have raised legitimate concerns about the effect that that could have on local authorities’ or central Government’s ability to raise awareness. Another point that was raised was the possible knock-on effect on an autumn formal consultation.

The consultation would have an impact on our overall strategy for high-speed rail and on the specific recommendations made by HS2 Ltd. As hon. Members will be aware—I know that they have all read the report from HS2 Ltd—a number of preferred routes were considered, and the preferred route, which was recommended by HS2 Ltd, was the option whose consequences for hon. Members’ constituents has been recognised: route 3.

I have asked HS2 Ltd to carry out pre-consultation engagement with stakeholders such as local authorities. I accept and apologise for the fact that Buckinghamshire county council was inadvertently omitted from the list for the exceptional hardship scheme. I confirm, to reassure the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, that it has now received the documents.

Will the Minister also write to us to let us know what moneys will be available to local community groups and councils, who will be undertaking vast amounts of extra work, which will affect their budgets? Of course, some of our smaller voluntary organisations will not be able to muster what they need to make a case for another route, and I hope that moneys will be forthcoming from the Minister to assist the local authorities and those organisations.

The hon. Lady will be aware that the pre-consultation engagements that are being undertaken are over and above what is required for a major infrastructure project such as this, but it is important that we should listen to local communities’ concerns. For example, if there is concern that they have not had access to the CD-ROMs that are available, or the documents or maps, we should be happy to look into that. I know that at the public meetings that have already taken place the Department has provided materials, but I ask hon. Members to let me know if there are problems getting materials from the Department for Transport or HS2 Ltd.

They key thing during the pre-consultation engagement is to inform effective communication of the consultation and its materials, particularly in areas that are likely to be most affected by the development proposals. Furthermore, even if the Government were to proceed, legislation would be required before construction could begin, providing those affected by any future line with a further opportunity to influence its development. We need to continue to ensure that all constituents have an opportunity to respond. If there is concern that some do not have the means, or that local authorities are limited in their capacity to do so, they need to let us know their concerns, which we shall try to address to make sure that as many people as possible respond both to the pre-consultation engagement and the formal consultation that begins in the autumn. There will be further consultation thereafter.

The route that HS2 Ltd has recommended would be straighter and faster than the other options, maximising its benefits for the country, but it also has a number of other advantages. Roughly a third of its route through the Chilterns is in tunnel, reducing its impacts on the local environment, and for more than half of that part of its route that is on the surface in the Chilterns, it follows existing transport corridors, notably the A413 corridor, which contains both a dual carriageway and the current Chiltern line. In contrast, while other options may also use extensive tunnelling in the Chilterns, on the surface they will run through open countryside. Indeed, even the most promising alternative identified by HS2 Ltd would still require a viaduct to be built across the picturesque Hughenden valley.

The route recommended by HS2 Ltd would also have a lower impact than the most promising alternative in terms of ground-borne noise and the isolation of settlements. A question was raised in the debate about noise, and among the things that we have asked HS2 Ltd to do is further mitigation work with respect to the impact on residents. The Secretary of State was not persuaded that HS2 Ltd had tried as hard as it could to mitigate some of the possible effects on residents. An aspect of that is the effect of modern technology in reducing noise. That is one reason for the delay in the publication of the environmental impact assessment and the appraisal of sustainability. I hope that when that is available, before the formal consultation, it will deal with some of the points that hon. Members have raised, and that improvements will have been made by HS2 Ltd to mitigate even further some of the possible disruption to residents. For the reasons I have given, the Government are of the view that HS2 Ltd’s recommended route appears on balance to be the best option, although we will clearly take into account the responses to consultation before any final decision is taken.

Hon. Members raised a number of questions. I have a long speech, which I have not read because I am keen to deal with them. My officials have taken a note of all the questions and I shall write to hon. Members in the next few days. If they have further questions I am happy, as is the Secretary of State, to meet them. He has already met a number of MPs in the past week or so, and has met the Chilterns Conservation Board, and will continue to engage on the issue. It is important that no constituent should feel that their voice has not been heard.

Finally, we have learned the lessons of previous major infrastructure projects, including High Speed 1 and Crossrail, which is taking place right now. We are learning lessons all the time from Crossrail. We are trying to ensure that in the process of building High Speed 2 we mitigate any problems caused to residents who are local to whatever route is chosen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury again on securing the debate, which I expect will be the first of many.

Luton Railway Station

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for having selected this debate about the development of Luton station. I realise that when compared with the current economic problems it might seem a rather parochial matter, but for the people who live and work in Luton it is important. I am grateful to the Minister for being here to respond to the debate. I had hoped that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) would have been here, as he has significant constituency interests in the development of Luton station. We have worked cordially together on these matters before.

Luton station is to be found in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). However, my hon. Friend and others will be aware of why I have raised the matter. I have travelled daily from Luton station for the past 41 years, and many hundreds if not thousands of my constituents do the same, so the problem has a significant constituency interest for me as well.

As the House will know, we in the home counties all face growth pressures; some are welcome, and some are not. When we agree with the policy directions being taken, we press for action to address our local difficulties—or, more urgently, to improve barely tolerated situations. That is what I seek to do today.

There has been positive and continuing progress on transport investments in the area, thanks to intervention by Ministers and the Government office for the east of England. Recently, there has also been high-level support from Network Rail. However, we face a crucial series of separate funding decisions. Although approvals are welcome, each time we are left to identify the remaining gaps and to decide what further decisions are needed to assure a strategic future for Luton. The town that I represent is an integral part of the wider east of England regeneration and growth agenda. I look for the continued support of Ministers and Departments to assist in the strategic delivery of those priorities.

Luton Gateway is part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area. It includes Luton, Dunstable and Houghton Regis and the surrounding area. The gateway is a collaborative organisation, combining the interests of Luton borough council and the new Central Bedfordshire council. In recent decades, the area has faced huge economic pressures, resulting from the run-down of car and van manufacturing. Indeed, it is a priority regeneration area.

The total urban population was estimated at more than 236,000 in 200l. It continues to grow. To achieve a more balanced local economic position, we have a target of creating 35,000 additional jobs by 2031. We foresee there being a further 41,700 households in the same period. There are major implications for housing requirements, including another 7,000 so-called affordable homes, and for inward jobs investment and transport infrastructure.

The current downturn has increased local economic pressures, so it is even more important to achieve fundamental changes in the transport offer. In that way, congestion on the roads and railways could be reduced, and Luton Gateway could become a major point of inward investment that is easy to reach and attractive and easy to travel around. Those who know the Luton area well will understand that it is a significant task.

I wish to focus on the quality of access to central Luton. At its heart is Luton station. To put it at its simplest, the station, which adjoins the town centre, is not something that I am proud to show to visitors—nor, indeed, to people from Luton. It has been assessed as one of the worst stations in Britain, measured by equivalent passenger numbers. It is drab, dreary and depressing.

The station approaches are essentially unchanged since investment in the 1930s by the London Midland and Scottish railway. The station was badly designed and is difficult to reach by foot, bus or car, yet 3.5 million passengers entered and left it in 2007-08, making it busier than Norwich or Bedford. It is the 10th busiest station in the east of England.

Rebuilding Luton station is clearly a project that needs to happen now. We were pleased to welcome the Secretary of State for Transport to see its dismal night-time reality at the end of his marathon journey around England on 17 November last year. The “Better Rail Stations” report prioritises immediate works at Luton station. We in Luton are also excited by the long-term vision of that report, with its potential of becoming a super-hub integrated with the town centre, the busway and the airport—a true gateway for a regional growth centre.

Several project elements are already under way, to which Luton borough council has contributed more than £2 million. That contribution is helping to accelerate design and project progress by Network Rail—first, on a new station footbridge, which is critical to achieving direct access between the high town community and central Luton and to provide disability-compliant access; and, secondly, an engineering assessment of the Luton station slab, which is critical to the comprehensive station redesign. In addition, the council has secured funding for the £20 million multi-storey car park, which will replace the current surface parking; it is due to open in August this year.

Work has already begun on an adjoining Luton station quarter development. There is strong local enthusiasm for including an improved station and transport interchange into that plan. The announcement by the Minister of State for Transport on 10 March this year to authorise the construction of the Luton to Dunstable busway and to fund £80 million of the work was widely welcomed.

The busway will be the spine public transport for the gateway urban area. It will increase public transport’s capacity and capabilities, as part of a balanced transport investment programme to support the regeneration and growth agendas. The remaining £9 million is being provided by Luton borough council and private investors. The busway is due to open in 2012. It will make Luton station the primary interchange hub for most of Luton, and for Dunstable and Houghton Regis in central Bedfordshire.

Completion of the comprehensive station redesign and reconstruction is now the critical task. Progress on the immediate scheme awaits the release of funding by the Department for Transport and project approval by Network Rail. The immediately available funding offered by Network Rail is £5 million of the £50 million award that was announced by Lord Adonis. That leaves a £3 million shortfall. Luton borough council is already funding more than £7 million of the total works for the hub, including its contribution to the busway. The council will seek to identify other sources of funding, but it cannot be guaranteed. However, early funding completion is required.

With the growth prospects for the gateway and the additional accessibility that will be achieved by a new high-quality hub station, I believe that the project deserves regional and central funds, and that it should be included in Network Rail’s regulated asset base. I recommend that rather modest project to the House and to my hon. Friend the Minister. I look to the Minister to say what discussions there have been within his Department and with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, taking account of the infrastructure funding priorities that I highlighted earlier.

My final observations are about access between the motorway network and the hub, which will provide an interchange to the east midlands InterCity railway. We still have a problem, as the east of England Minister knows well, with the need to rebuild junction 1OA on the Ml. That is acting as a blockage to the economy of Luton. The problems are compounded by the Highways Agency providing a free-flow slip from the Ml on to the Ml spur as part of the motorway widening scheme between junctions 6A and 10. We now have traffic queues every morning peak from the Ml.

The Government policy document “Delivering a Sustainable Transport System” was published in spring 2009. It defines the route between the Ml and Luton airport as a “strategic national corridor”. The improvement of a junction in that location would meet the three key criteria set out in the Eddington study on transport’s contribution to economic growth and productivity. They focus on main urban areas, inter-urban journeys, and access from the urban areas to international gateways.

In light of the Eddington study, it is unfortunate that the £22 million scheme to improve junction 10A is not yet agreed as a high priority in the regional funding programme. From a business point of view, the congestion directly reduces efficiency and profitability. It adversely affects the ability to regenerate and develop sites in Luton and their value, which might be a source of funding for the public transport investments needed at Luton station and its sister station, Luton Airport Parkway.

I emphasise again that Luton Gateway is a growing urban region that makes a major contribution to Government-directed targets. In turn, we welcome recent positive decisions that reaffirm the importance of Luton as a transport hub. We look to the Department for Transport to work jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government and east of England Ministers, and with local and regional interests, to help complete the investment authorisations for those strategic regeneration and growth objectives.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing this debate, on what is clearly an important issue for his constituents as well as for others travelling to and from Luton station. I have carefully listened to his points.

Stations should be attractive gateways to the railway system, incorporating modern and user-friendly interchanges between different forms of transport, and they should be important gateways to our towns and cities, providing that important first impression for visitors. Unfortunately, too many stations fall short of such objectives, and there is little doubt that Luton station fails to match up in those respects. That view was confirmed by the station champions whom the Secretary of State appointed last year to look at ways to improve stations. They identified Luton as one of the 10 major interchange stations in most need of improvement.

The good news is that we have accepted the station champions’ diagnosis and have already agreed to Network Rail making an additional £50 million available to tackle the problems at the 10 priority stations. Such funding, together with local and private sector contributions, should enable an early start to be made on the 10 key stations highlighted in the report, with other stations to follow as part of future investment and refranchising decisions.

Luton station has a long history, and has gradually grown to deal with increasing demand. It was built in 1868 on the midland main line and originally consisted of three platforms. Modernisation in 1937 saw an additional platform added, and a further platform was added in 1960 for suburban services to and from St. Pancras.

The station adjoins the town centre and is the 10th busiest station in the east of England. Some 3.5 million passengers entered and left the station in 2007-08. However, the station is difficult to reach by foot, bus or car, and the station approaches are essentially unchanged since investment in the 1930s.

Although Luton station is owned by Network Rail, it is operated by First Capital Connect, which is the station facility owner. Both First Capital Connect and East Midlands Trains operate services from the station, with the former currently operating 27 services to London in the morning peak and 29 services arriving back from London in the evening. Around two thirds of those trains operate fast to and from London. From December 2011, 12-carriage services will be introduced, thereby increasing capacity and reducing overcrowding.

A number of projects have been developed in recent years to improve the station and the linkages between the station, the town centre and the local transport system. Improvements over the past few years have included refurbished waiting rooms and toilets, additional and upgraded ticket machines, new and enhanced customer information system screens and cycle parking improvements. The old car park has been demolished and Network Rail is constructing a new multi-storey car park that will connect the existing footbridge and station. As my hon. Friend says, more needs to be done. It looks as if the station champions’ report will be the catalyst for ensuring that even more fundamental improvements are made at the station in future.

Following publication of the “Better Rail Stations” report last November, my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I arranged a special meeting on 20 January to discuss the report with the managing directors of the train operating companies and the leaders of the local authorities of the areas of the 10 priority stations. Senior figures from First Capital Connect and Luton borough council attended the meeting and heard Network Rail explain to the Secretary of State that it should be possible in the next few months to announce an improvement plan for Luton station involving a contribution from the £50 million fund coupled with significant contributions from other sources.

Luton borough council, Network Rail and First Capital Connect have been working hard together to develop a £20 million project to transform Luton station so that the town finally gets the station that it deserves. I understand that Network Rail is hoping to make an announcement soon about a plan that pulls together a range of projects and funding initiatives, including a contribution from the £50 million fund. I understand that, at the moment, there is a small funding gap. However, as the economy recovers, I hope that it will be possible to find further funding from the private sector to fund that gap, in recognition of the role that the improved station will play in the revitalisation of the whole surrounding area, and indeed in the economy of Luton as a whole.

The station redevelopment project is designed to deliver an enhanced station environment through a combination of sensitive refurbishment of the existing building and the construction of new features. The scheme will enlarge the station, providing a new entrance and frontage, an integrated footbridge, a new booking hall and improved retail provision. I recognise that this is a scheme of major importance to Luton. It is just one of a number of improvements to public transport in the area.

Work has already started—as part of the Thameslink programme—to extend the platforms at Luton station to accommodate the longer 12-carriage trains that will be introduced from December 2011. The work entails replacing the bridge deck to the north of the station, remodelling the track layout with the associated signalling and power equipment, and constructing the platform extensions. The Thameslink work at the station is progressing well with a scheduled completion date of October 2010. While much of the platform extension works can be carried out without disruption to passengers, Network Rail can only proceed with some of the work, such as bridge replacement, track realignment and changes to the signalling equipment, when trains are not running. However, I am assured that such work is kept to a minimum to ensure that the impact on passengers is as low as possible.

Some £2 million of funding from the Department’s access for all programme has already been allocated to a project to provide an accessible route to and from the platforms, including brand new lifts, which can also form part of the larger redevelopment of the station. Luton station has already benefited from a number of smaller-scale improvements, which were financed by the access for all small schemes fund, including an accessible ticket office window and new signage. A bid for funding in 2010-11 to improve access via the footbridge is currently being considered and an announcement on that is expected shortly.

The station redevelopment project is part of Luton borough council’s development framework for the town centre, which aims to make Luton a vibrant and attractive location. Regeneration of the area surrounding the station will be a crucial component in the delivery of the council’s aspirations for Luton town centre, which include improving the appearance of the public realm and enhancing accessibility to public transport.

I welcome the support given by my hon. Friend to the announcement made on 10 March by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, who was here a moment ago. It confirmed the Government’s full and final approval to a funding contribution of £80 million towards the cost of the Luton-Dunstable busway scheme. The scheme will serve Luton station when it is completed in 2012, and will provide travellers in Luton, Dunstable and Houghton Regis with a fast, frequent and reliable alternative to travelling by car. It will significantly improve transport connections in the area and help to tackle congestion in the town centres. It will also support the emerging growth in housing and employment planned for the area.

With respect to my hon. Friend’s point about the need to rebuild junction 10A on the M1, it is for the region to decide the priority of such a scheme within its regional funding allocation. I therefore recommend that he approach the east of England region to discuss this issue further.

I should like to set the developments at Luton station in context as part of the £3 billion programme of improvements to stations across the country over the next five years. As mentioned earlier, we warmly welcomed the “Better Rail Stations” report from the station champions, which was published last November. We were very grateful to Chris Green and Sir Peter Hall for the energy and enthusiasm with which they tackled their remit. It was not without its challenges. There are more than 2,500 stations, which service 2.6 billion passengers a year. Most stations are at least 100 years old and, of those, 15 per cent. are listed. The report comprehensively addresses the many important issues about the current state of our stations and offers a strategic blueprint for stations of the future.

A core part of the station champions’ report was its recommendation for a set of minimum station standards based around the areas of access, information, facilities and environment. For example, improved access would include better cycle and car parking facilities, improved directional signage and convenient interchange with other modes of transport. The recommendation is central to achieving many of the aspirations in the report and ensuring greater consistency in station standards across the network. It is important that passengers know what to expect from their stations, and are satisfied with the facilities available to them. I am delighted that Luton is set to be one of the first beneficiaries of the proposals in the report.

Another important part of the report concerns the need to make it easier for people to get to stations and catch a train. That is an issue to which the Government attach great significance. There are economic and environmental benefits in encouraging more people to travel by train, but they will do so only if they can access a station easily. The new multi-storey car park that is being built at Luton station should help to improve access and should make it easier for people to use the train.

We share the station champions’ aspiration to achieve a step change in the proportion of rail passengers arriving at a station by bicycle; I do not know whether my hon. Friend has ever cycled to the station in his 40 years in Luton. In September 2009, we announced a new £14 million programme to extend and improve cycle storage provision at stations. Network Rail is currently drawing up plans to increase the number of cycle parking spaces across the network and it will consider Luton’s needs as part of that process.

The “Better Rail Stations” report also identified significant scope for additional retailing at stations. We welcome such additional retailing, as it benefits passengers and it can provide extra revenue for the railway. It also opens up the prospect of innovative solutions, such as the combined shop and ticket facility that has been introduced by Merseyrail. That facility gives travellers the opportunity to buy their rail ticket and refreshments or a newspaper in a single transaction, and it has been a significant contributor to improved customer satisfaction and improved security. The proposed new frontage at Luton station could provide opportunities for new and improved retail facilities at the station.

More generally, the Government are committed to improving existing stations through a number of initiatives. The national stations improvement programme is a five-year initiative worth £150 million, which will modernise approximately 150 medium-sized stations in England and Wales between 2009 and 2014. NSIP has already funded projects to improve seating and signage at a number of stations operated by First Capital Connect. There are currently 275 schemes identified for NSIP funding, 152 of which have been confirmed in the programme.

The access for all programme is a 10-year programme worth £370 million to improve access at stations in England, Scotland and Wales between 2006 and 2015. There are 148 stations in the programme, including major stations such as Clapham Junction—access work at which is due for completion in the spring of 2011—as well as Luton. More than 1,000 stations, again including Luton, are benefitting from the access for all small schemes fund, which allows train operators, local authorities and other third parties to bid for about £6 million of match funding a year to provide smaller-scale improvement schemes.

About 1,000 stations are currently accredited under the secure stations scheme, including Luton station and Luton Airport Parkway station, and more than 90 per cent. of all overground rail journeys currently involve passengers starting or finishing their journey at such a secure station. There is also a five-year platform lengthening programme of work across the network from 2009 to 2014 to accommodate longer trains. As I have already mentioned, Luton is part of that programme.

Furthermore, there are a number of major station developments and many of them will benefit passengers from Luton, including the development at King’s Cross station, which is being upgraded with a new concourse. There are also major improvements at Blackfriars, Farringdon and London Bridge stations, which are all part of the Thameslink programme. There are also plans to upgrade Waterloo station.

In conclusion, I hope that my hon. Friend has been reassured that, as part of the Government’s major investment in stations, work is progressing on a plan to improve Luton station, so that the town finally gets the station that it deserves. Such a station can play a key role in revitalising Luton town centre in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.