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Westminster Hall

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 6 April 2010

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6 April 2010

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Gang Crime (London)

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on gang crime in London. This will be my last speech of the current Parliament, and I am fortunate indeed that it is on a subject on which I have worked in different ways all my political career. One of the first things I did as a young woman interested in wider society was help out at a youth club in Paddington, so the issues have always been close to my heart. It is an important subject also because it speaks to social cohesion, to our sense of community and to what is happening to our young people.

Gang crime is of great concern to all our constituents in London, but it would be wrong to move on and discuss my concerns without talking first about what my Government have done on the subject, not least because it will save the Minister from having to go over it. Gangs are part of the wider serious youth violence agenda, and my Government have spent more than £17 million on that agenda since September 2007. Through my Government’s work, we have seen tougher enforcement and sentences and new legislation to tackle violent crime and gangs.

The Government have also introduced gang injunctions, which enable local authorities and the police to tackle over-18s involved in gang-related violence by banning them from meeting other gang members, wearing gang colours, hanging around in certain locations and owning dangerous dogs. We are looking to extend that tool to 14 to 17-year-olds. Under a Labour Government we have seen a tightening of the law on gun crime and the introduction of a minimum sentence of five years for possession of an illegal firearm. I have campaigned successfully for a ban on replica weapons, because much of the gun crime in London is perpetrated not with real weapons, but with replica guns that have been rebored for shooting.

The Metropolitan police have also put in place various operations to deal with gun, gang and knife crime, including Operation Blunt, which was set up after the murder of Robert Levy in Hackney in 2005, and I pay tribute to the work his father has done since then on gangs, guns and knives. We have consistently provided funding for local institutions best placed to work on measures that help young people to leave gangs. In April 2010 the Government are pledging a further £5 million to tackle knife crime and serious youth violence.

Having set out my Government’s achievements on the issue, and not wishing to detract from what they have done, I will say that we all know that it is not just a question of money, and certainly not just a question of legislation. Some of the legislation to which I have referred has not been used very much so far. It is a multi-dimensional subject, and I want to touch on some of those dimensions in my remarks.

As a consequence of the work that the Government and the Metropolitan police have done, we have seen an overall drop in crime in London. Statistics from the Metropolitan Police Authority from the 12 months to February 2010, when compared with figures for the previous year, appear to show that knife crime in London has decreased, as has youth violence.

The position in my constituency is similar. In fact, the figures seem to demonstrate that crime in Hackney is at its lowest level for 10 years, and I would like to take the opportunity to praise publicly the police in my constituency, and particularly the borough commander, Steve Bending, for their hard work in achieving that milestone. The figures show that the borough has seen a 7 per cent. reduction in knife crime and an 8.6 per cent. reduction in serious youth violence.

However, as a former Home Office official, I know that it is possible to debate the figures. Such statistics are sometimes a matter of art, rather than science. Fear of gang crime—not just the fear of being the victim, but the fear that mothers have about how safe their children are on the streets—has never been higher in my constituency, despite the welcome drop shown by the statistics. When we read about gang crime in the papers, we read about the victims and the gang members are often demonised. None the less, for every gang member and every victim of a gang member there are mothers, parents, families and communities that have been traumatised, and that is what makes it such a widespread concern.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for securing the debate and for the work she has done on the matter, as I have had the privilege of doing some of that work with her. Does she agree that it would help hugely, particularly in relation to the fear of crime, if we could get the statistics agreed politically, as it were, and thereby avoid the alarmist reporting, sometimes by political parties and candidates, that makes the situation sound and feel worse than it is? If we could get that sort of agreement even in London between all the parties as a starting point in the next Parliament, we would at least reduce some of the alarmist material that is put through people’s doors and read in the papers.

That is an interesting and constructive point. In my speech I will try to distinguish between the fear of crime and the actuality of crime, which is why I started by setting out the statistics. One of the things that whips up the public on gang crime is the reporting of it, partly by some of our colleagues—it is true of all parties—who sometimes slip into using the issue to whip up fear and detract attention from the welcome actual drop in crime. If we could move forward in the next Parliament, perhaps with the leadership of the Metropolitan Police Authority, to have agreed figures for crime in London, that would at least provide a sensible basis for debate.

We hear much about knife crime in London and read about it in both the local and national papers, but the national press rarely mentions the fact that the knife crime capital of this country is Glasgow and has been for many years, because knives have traditionally been the way in which Glasgow criminals settle their disputes. The impression we might have, however, is that the knife crime capital of the country is Southwark, Hackney or Lambeth, so to be able to go forward on the basis of mutually agreed figures would be a real step forward.

I warn against alarmism and point to the welcome drops in crime shown in the official figures, but sadly the incidence of gun crime, rape and offences of violence against the person is on the rise in my constituency, as it is in the whole of London. Those are specific crimes, so to highlight them is not to say that crime as a whole is rising in London, because clearly it is not, but those specific crimes are rising. It is not unreasonable to suggest that gun crime, rape and offences of violence against the person are sometimes related to gangs.

It is not just a question of statistics. Recently we saw an extraordinary incident of alleged gang crime in Victoria station, just a few hundred yards from here. It appears that two gangs converged on the station and, in plain sight of hundreds of commuters, decided to take their feud and warfare to another level. Commuters in Victoria station witnessed a 15-year-old boy being stabbed in the chest in the ticket hall during the rush hour. Witnesses say that the culprits were wearing school uniform. As many as 12 young people could face charges in what is believed to have been a pre-arranged fight in which children turned up armed with knives.

I ask Members to pause and think about that. We all know about schoolboy and schoolgirl angst and tensions. We all know about schoolboys fighting and, perhaps, about gangs, but what in the culture of this city makes gangs of schoolboys and schoolgirls feel able to stab each other in plain sight during the rush hour? Does that not suggest that we have moved on from the situation 10 or 20 years ago to a very different and alarming situation in which people’s loyalty to their gang, their determination to gain respect and their disdain for wider society overrides the caution that kept young people from having knife fights in plain sight, even a decade ago?

Sadly, even in Hackney, in my constituency, we have seen some unfortunate incidents of gang crime. I have with me the latest edition of the Hackney Gazette. The title on the front page is, “The Scourge of Teen Violence”. Further on in the paper, an article states:

“Gun and knife crime on Hackney’s streets reached a terrifying peak last week in three days of violence in which a young footballer was stabbed to death and teenagers were targeted in two separate shootings.”

One of those people was Godwin Lawson, a 17-year-old promising footballer, who was stabbed to death in Amhurst Park, Stamford Hill, in my constituency, in the early hours of last Saturday. Another incident saw shots fired in broad daylight while parents collected their children from a nursery in Allen road, Stoke Newington. Witnesses reported seeing two young people, one carrying a gun and one brandishing a knife, chasing another youth who was forced to take sanctuary in a shop. Just the week before, a young Turkish mother was shot dead at close range after answering a knock on the door to her mother’s flat.

Something about these incidents—not just the violence as such but the brazenness and the fact that young people feel no fear and, paradoxically, almost that they have nothing to live for—is chilling. It represents a step change from the kind of schoolboy fighting and incidents with which many of us will be familiar.

Gun crime is a particular issue in London, partly because we seem to have more gangs. However, we have to be careful about what we define as a gang. A group of young men is not a criminal gang just because they are hanging about on the street. Many of those young guys hang about on the street because they live in two-bedroom flats with half a dozen siblings. Hanging about on the street is what they know, and they make a practice of looking as frightening as possible when actually they are not about serious criminal business. None the less, there are real criminal gangs in the city.

In 2007, it was said that 169 separate gangs were operating in London, and that Hackney, in my borough, had the most gangs—a total of 22. Again, we need to be careful. Not all the groupings are criminal gangs. The London-wide figure of 169 in 2007 was down on the figure of 200 in 2005, but it is still alarming.

I live on Middleton road in Hackney. One end of the road is dominated by the Holly Street gang—it is the gang next door to me—and the other end is dominated by the London Fields gang. I remember on my way home one evening talking to a young boy who was complaining that there was nothing to do in Hackney. I asked him, “What do you mean there is nothing to do? The council has just built a brand new swimming pool in London Fields.” He said, “But you don’t understand. For me to walk from here”—we were at my end of the road—“up to the London Fields lido means going into the territory of the London Fields gang, and I just can’t do that.”

One can exaggerate the issue of postcode gangs, but they are real, and they affect how young people, certainly in my borough, feel able to live their lives. They are real to women I know who are frightened that, if their son is waiting at a bus stop or walking down the street and is perceived by other young men to be someone from another postcode who should not be there, he will be at risk. They create all kinds of issues in organising youth provision, because one can put such provision in an area and think that it is well placed, but people from a particular postcode who might be physically near it will not come. Postcode gangs are a genuinely new phenomenon, and young people are terrified of crossing the street or riding a bus into another postcode for fear of stepping into another gang’s territory.

Some of these gangs—this is certainly the case in Hackney—operate in areas next to houses worth £1 million. One of the glories of London is that it still has a diverse and mixed community, but, unlike some other parts of the world, it means that we cannot say that gang culture is something that operates at some remove, in some remote ghetto at the edge of the city, as it does in Paris, for instance. In inner London, one is never that far from a postcode where some gang is operating, so gangs and the related youth criminality are not something from which people in more prosperous parts of the city can turn away.

Why do young people join gangs? As ever, young people join gangs, even harmless social gangs, because they want a sense of belonging. They want mates, and they want to be able to function socially. Some of us will remember “Just William” and the outlaws. That little gang was perhaps the archetypal gang: young men gathered together, glorying in their sense of togetherness and keeping just this side of what grown-ups would like. Unfortunately, the “Just William” kind of gang has morphed into the gang problem that we see on the streets of London.

What is the source of the problem? I would say that the underlying issue is education. By and large, young men who are at school or college doing AS or A-levels are not taking part in gangs. However, those who have aspirations and are trying to study may get caught up on the fringes of gang culture. That has happened to the children of friends of mine. Friends have been shocked to discover that their sons, who are intelligent, and who are studying and working hard, are involved on the fringes of gang culture because if they did not appear to be willing to relate to the gang culture in their school or community, they would be outsiders. They would feel that they did not belong. Any hon. Member who is a parent will know that there is nothing more important to young boys than belonging.

There is the social thing, but there is also education, as I said. There is no question but that the continuing achievement gap between black boys and the wider school population has some bearing on the involvement of African-Caribbean boys in gangs. That is why, since the 1990s, I have worked on the issue. I have convened think-tanks and organised conferences. I set up a project, London schools and the black child, and for the past seven years have organised an awards ceremony here in Parliament for London’s top-achieving black children in order to reward and try to highlight those young people, both male and female, who are bucking the trend, going to school and university, getting top grades and studying law, medicine and so on.

However, the stereotype of black young people and gangs is pernicious. I organised my last awards ceremony for October 2009. We had Christine Ohuruogu, the Olympic gold medallist, and several television celebrities handing out awards. When we tried to interest the Evening Standard in the event by saying that it was to be held at the House of Commons, that we would have celebrities and that we would give awards to children who had 11 A*s at A-level, we encountered great resistance. Finally, it rang and asked, “Are any of these young people ex-gang members?” We said, “No”, and it said that it was not interested. In other words, young people are a story if they are a stereotype, but a young person working hard and trying to do well at school does not fit the story. If we are going to deal with gang culture, we have to continue to address the educational gap faced by young black men and, increasingly, young Turkish men at school. The surest way of keeping young people out of the gang culture is showing them a way forward through education and the wider society.

I would not want to leave this subject without saying what Hackney schools are doing on this issue. Last month I visited Tyssen primary school, which is targeting underachieving Afro-Caribbean students with an innovative programme that engages them by using Nintendo DS “Brain Training”, which has been successfully driving up their results, particularly in maths. Other schools in the area, including Hackney’s first academy, Mossbourne, under the inspired leadership of Sir Michael Wilshaw, are working with and driving our young people of all colours to get some of the best educational results in the country.

Educational underachievement is an underlying issue in respect of gang culture. Another issue is the lack of role models, which the Government have addressed with their REACH programme of role models. None the less, the best role models are those people see in their own family. Both my parents came here from Jamaica and both of them left school at 14. When my brother and I were children our father went out to work every day God sent and, on a Friday, brought home his wage packet to my mother. That was our model of a real black man—a man who went out to work and looked after his family. He may have been a bit harsh and strict, but he had an unbending notion of financial responsibility. Sadly, in the estates around me in Hackney there are communities of young people who do not have male-headed households and do not see men or women going out to work every day. A father or mother, or a relative, going out to work and taking their responsibilities seriously is the most important role model for many of our young people—not some remote celebrity.

I am not saying—I would be the last person to say—that single mothers are the basis of this problem. I am a single parent myself, as are many of my friends, and we are rightly proud of our children. None the less, there are whole estates where hardly anyone is going out to work regularly, and that is a problem. To be fair, the Government have sought to address this issue. However, the absence of male role models is a serious problem.

As well as the more general absence of male role models, it is important to get more men into primary schools. I have visited a number of primary schools in my constituency in recent months and, with some exceptions, there is an absence of men in the classroom. All the evidence suggests that young black men, particularly—and, I suspect, working-class young men more generally—need to see men in the classroom; men taking education seriously. Even if teachers cannot be recruited, men could come and read to them, making a marked difference to their aspirations and their notions of masculinity.

I remember working with some American academics in the 1990s who said that to make a difference in respect of black men underachieving one had to get them when they were under 11, get men in the classroom and tie that in with activities in the wider community. Lord Adonis was interested in that when he was Schools Minister. I attended meetings with him to discuss what we could do about getting more black male classroom teachers. Whoever wins the forthcoming election needs to address that issue, because it is a key component in giving our young men—both black young men and white working-class young men—the role models that they can aspire to.

I agree. There are some encouraging signs. I chair the governing body of a primary school in Bermondsey and the head told me that more men are willing to apply to be primary school teachers and to do other jobs, partly because lots of people who had high-flying jobs in the City are not able to do them any more and partly because people are discovering that a career chasing money is not fulfilling. Lots of people are looking for a career change. There is the beginning of a realisation that one of the most valuable jobs that can be done as a man in London is to teach or to work in schools. We should build on this new sense of responsibility. The hon. Lady is right. The next Government need to prioritise that. The local councils, all of which will be re-elected in May, need to make that a priority, too.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of this. Just recently there has been an uptick in the numbers of men going into schools. That is important.

One underlying issue in relation to gang crime, which is obvious but not often stated, is the high levels of unemployment in the inner city. Unemployment rates in my constituency are higher than the average: there is 8.8 per cent. unemployment there, which is the equivalent of more than 5,000 people. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that the figures are almost certainly an underestimate: many people are not counted at all because they do not even bother to sign on. The unemployment rates in Hackney, and in London as a whole, are higher than in the rest of the country.

It needs to be stressed that it is not just about overall levels of unemployment. When I was a child growing up in Paddington, before the days of Hugh Grant and the “Notting Hill” film, all the men in my life worked, often in light engineering and factories. In the 1960s and ’70s, there was still a considerable amount of light engineering and factory work—my father was a welder, for example—and blue collar employment. In other words employment suitable for males without formal qualifications was available. In the past 20 years manufacturing and blue collar employment for males in London has collapsed. Whereas my father became a welder and had apprentices, even though he left school at 14, and was proud of being able to support his family, increasingly young men, both black and white, look around and do not see employment opportunities for them unless they get formal qualifications. It is much easier now for women than for men in the workplace, which is why I focus on education. But let us not forget that the collapse of male employment in London has helped create the problem that we see. That is not to say that because people are unemployed they are a criminal or should be a gang member, but it is part of the context.

Another issue behind the rising gang crime is the rise in materialism in the past 20 years. People want the bling, the clothes, the jewellery and the designer labels, and they want it now. There is no notion of deferred gratification among many of our young people. They watch MTV and music videos. They want glamour, glitz and materialism now and society appears to teach them that they can have it.

Things can be done about employment, but I would not want to leave the issue of employment without making a point about the Olympics, which were sold to those of us in inner London and east London—the Olympic boroughs in particular—as a way of providing employment and economic regeneration for people in the east end of London. I was shocked to find out a few weeks ago that of all the hundreds of apprentices on the Olympic park only one—just one—is from Hackney. I would not like to think how few of the apprentices are from ethnic minorities. If the Government are serious about these issues they must take steps, even at this stage, to ensure that proportionate numbers of the apprentices on the Olympic park, not even the skilled men, come from deprived boroughs like my own and that appropriate numbers come from the ethnic minority communities.

Before drawing my remarks to a close, I want to touch on the changing face of gangs in London. I am an east end MP, so I cannot talk about gangs without mentioning the Krays or the Richardsons. Historically, criminal gangs in London were white criminal gangs—that is why we remember the Krays, the Richardsons and so on. In more recent times, particularly if one reads the papers, many gangs have been African and Afro-Caribbean, although there is also a strong multicultural element.

Sadly, in Hackney we have had an issue with Turkish-Kurdish gangs. Overall, the Turkish-Kurdish community plays an important role in London. It is a huge contributor, and has helped to rebuild and regenerate the community with its business and retail activities. Since last August, however, there have been 11 shootings in north London. That has exposed the entire community to bad publicity, and I am concerned about what appears to be a fresh turf war between Turkish-Kurdish gangs based on drugs. Such gangs represent only a tiny minority of the community, but they have been responsible for 11 shootings since August last year. Recently, Hackney police announced an appeal to encourage witnesses to the murder of a Turkish man in Upper Clapton road, Hackney to come forward. A gunman is believed to have entered a venue and fired indiscriminately, suggesting that it was not a targeted hit but a way of sending out a message to a rival gang.

The Turkish-Kurdish community is keen to work with the police on this issue. I recently convened a meeting between the head of the Turkish-Kurdish community, my borough commander and representatives from the local authority. We want to move against this type of criminality, and against some of the retail premises and social clubs that might be implicated in it. I believe that a high-profile, systematic programme of joint action between the police, the council and local stakeholders to close down those few cafes that have been infiltrated by criminals will reassure the wider Turkish-Kurdish community and the community as a whole.

I want to touch briefly on the new issue of young women in gangs. Increasing numbers of young women are joining gangs, not only as the girlfriends of gang members but as gang members at some level. I had a long meeting with a girl who had left the gang culture, and she suggested that there were three types of girls in gangs. First, there were the girlfriends of gang leaders, who had some sort of status; secondly there were girls who were attached to gangs and handed round from gang member to gang member, and thirdly there were what could be called equal opportunity girl gangsters, who had their own girl gangs and were out on the street. Young women are still more likely to be the victims of gang violence than the perpetrators of it, but just as it is wrong to stereotype all gang members as coming from a particular demographic, it is also wrong to stereotype gang problems as being only about boys. We are increasingly seeing girls involved as well.

Not enough support is targeted at women and girls who are involved in gangs, and there is a shocking incidence of rape, sexual violence and exploitation against women and girls who are associated with gangs. Sadly, for too many gangs, rape has become the weapon of choice against girl gang members and relatives of rival gangs. The crime of gang rape is on the rise in London. That is tragic, and a particular issue in Hackney, Southwark and other inner-London boroughs. It is increasingly carried out by criminal gangs and is linked to various other forms of crime. In his 2008 manifesto, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, promised to build more rape crisis centres. I want to use this speech to urge him to consider building one in Hackney, because of its high incidence of rape and gang rape.

There is an issue about the use of dogs as weapons. Another matter that does not get enough attention is the failure of the Crown Prosecution Service. A recent set of reports by the Crown Prosecution Inspectorate looked into the performance of the CPS in boroughs across London. It showed that in too many boroughs, the CPS was deemed to be poor at securing conviction rates, especially in cases where witnesses were likely to be intimidated, such as in gang-related crimes. The reports ruthlessly exposed the failure to deal with gang crime and gang violence in boroughs such as Hackney. I met the head of the CPS in London and the legal director for the north region, Alison Saunders and Grace Ononiwu, to discuss why that was the case. They told me that there was a lack of staff, but they assured me that they were acting to improve their performance. I will be watching that closely. The police and the community can do their best, but if the CPS is failing—as recent inspectorate reports seem to suggest—it is letting down the community as a whole.

In closing, I acknowledge what the Government have done, particularly through legislation and by pouring money into initiatives. I acknowledge what has been done by the ex-Mayor of London, Ken Livingston, the present Mayor, Boris Johnson, and the Metropolitan Police Authority in focusing on those issues through initiatives such as Operation Blunt. I acknowledge that figures for crime in London are going down overall. However, the fear not only of being a victim of a gang, but that one’s child—male or female—will get caught up in gang-related activity, is a real issue for many of my constituents, whatever their colour, race, class or nationality. It would be remiss of me as a Member of Parliament if I did not bring that matter before the House.

Tackling gang crime in London is complicated and requires a long-term as well as a short-term strategy. There needs to be more focus on young women, both as members of gangs and as victims of gang crime. We need better provision for victims of rape to secure convictions, and the CPS needs to raise its game. Local authorities and the police must work closely together to target venues that are believed to be fronts for illegal operations, and there needs to be a continuing emphasis on closing the achievement gaps between some minorities and the school population as a whole.

Systems should be put in place and funded for young people who wish to leave gangs. Even in the current economic crisis, we must focus on getting young people into work and encouraging them to take up apprenticeships. Something must be done about the Olympic site because its record in providing apprenticeships for the Olympic boroughs is poor. We need stricter rules for those found to be using dogs as a weapon of intimidation. We need a mix of targeting educational issues and strict enforcement. I speak not only as the Member of Parliament for Hackney, but as a mother and a resident in Hackney, and I want strict enforcement of the law on gangs, and I know that other people do too. Above all, we need a broad strategy that engages with the community as a whole. Only then will we deal with the gang crisis and with the fear of gangs in our midst.

London is a great city; I have lived in it all my life. I was born in London, and it never fails to be a source of pride to me that I lived to become a Member of Parliament in London. It is a great city with many amazing things to its credit, not least the extent to which communities in London manage to live so happily side by side, and the culture and variety that the city offers. It should not be disfigured by the scar of gang crime. Ministers have done much, but there is still much to do.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), and I repeat my compliments to her about today’s debate, the wisdom that she brings to the subject, her personal commitment and the work that she has done in all sorts of ways. At the end of this Parliament, perhaps I can mention specifically the work that she has done with young black men on educational aspiration, and note the annual conference in the Queen Elizabeth conference centre that she organised, as well as other events, some of which I have been privileged to attend. Such things are important in ensuring that every single Londoner—everybody who was born in London or who has come to London—feels that they have an opportunity to succeed, to do well and to be respected by their peers. If youngsters know that they can achieve that outcome, they are likely to target that and not other things.

The normal numbers of people are not here today because people are slightly distracted at the moment. The news tells us that the Prime Minister is probably going to Buckingham palace at this very minute to ask the Queen for a Dissolution, after which we will have a general election. If that is the case, as we expect, crime and the fear of crime will, not surprisingly, be an election issue again in London and elsewhere. That is why, as I said in my first intervention on the hon. Lady, I hope that, whatever differences there are in the next Parliament, and whatever the outcome of the election, we can at least agree on some things and share the facts accurately and well.

The Minister knows the importance of such issues, having been involved in them in different capacities over many years. In the past decade or so, we have had real difficulties with different sets of statistics. The British crime survey statistics and the Home Office statistics do not always say the same thing, with one lot collecting figures on the over-16s, but not the under-16s. It is easy to misrepresent the position and sometimes to exaggerate the problem and increase the fear. I make a pledge that I will work to ensure that those of my colleagues who are elected in London to sit in this place, as well as those who are elected to sit on local councils in London or on the Greater London assembly, work together to try to ensure that we have a common basis of information so that local papers and political parties do not misrepresent things. We should not play on people’s fears to win votes or sell newspapers.

I pay tribute to the police in London, who have learned a lot and come a long way in recent years. We had a real struggle in the ’80s to get the police to associate with, and relate to, the whole community. The new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, whom I met again the other day, is very focused on these issues, as well as being very practical and very realistic, and that can be seen in his senior management team and the operation of the Trident people and others.

The hon. Lady paid tribute to her borough commander, and I pay tribute to my new borough commander, Wayne Chance, who seems very level-headed and sensible. Commanders understand the importance in all our boroughs of the issues that we are discussing. Although such issues are more important in inner-city boroughs than in outer-London boroughs, they are not just inner-city issues. Boroughs such as Croydon and Enfield have been plagued just as much by gang violence as inner-city boroughs such as Hackney and Southwark.

I also pay tribute to those who have done good work in the Crown Prosecution Service, but I flag up at the beginning my concern that the CPS has not always got its act together and done its job as well as it should. I do not want to elaborate, but I simply endorse the hon. Lady’s comment that we need a CPS that gets right the difficult balance between the benefit of sometimes prosecuting in the public interest and the benefit of sometimes not prosecuting.

We must ensure that people can have confidence in the criminal justice system. The police are often on the front line of the system, but the system actually includes the police, the CPS and the courts. I have always said that when police commanders are hauled in front of the public to provide answers in London boroughs, the leader of the council, the head of the local CPS and the senior district judge or magistrate should also be in the front line so that the public can see all those who are responsible for criminal justice in our communities.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to put on record the progress that the Metropolitan police have made? I picketed my fair share of police stations in the ’80s, and I was never an unthinking admirer of the police, but there is no question but that they have embraced some of these issues, and the quality of the people at the very top of the Metropolitan police has increased exponentially.

That is certainly true. However, if they read the record of this debate, as I expect they will, I do not want them to go away thinking that there is not more to do. Until the police service is representative of London and looks like London in terms of ethnicity and so on, we will not have the confidence of all Londoners. I still go to too many events where there are very few non-white faces doing the policing. I know that it is not the fault of the police for not trying, but they need to keep pushing. One of the lessons of the Stephen Lawrence murder and inquiry is that we need a different sort of police service. We have moved a long way, but we have a long way yet to go.

The debate is about gang violence, and we have to pause for a minute to reflect on how frightening gang violence is. It is bad enough to be attacked by another person or by two people, which quite often happens in street robberies, but when a group of people sets on one person—that appeared to be the case at Victoria station last week, where we saw the most dreadful sort of crime—or on each other, that creates fear, pandemonium and bedlam. A few years ago, gangs from the surrounding area used to go to the Surrey Quays shopping centre in my constituency. When they got on the bus together, they frightened the people on the bus, and when they got off the bus, they frightened the people at the bus station. They then went to the shopping centre, and anyone they met was in terror of what they would do as they rampaged around.

Gang crime is a really serious problem, over and above the issues of gun and knife crime. Although it is connected with them, it is a bigger issue. Gang crime requires specific analysis and specific responses, although that does not mean that we should not look at gun crime and knife crime. When I saw the commissioner the other day, it was reassuring to hear that the number of deaths as a result of such crimes had gone down in London. Less reassuringly, however, he told me that the statistics for knife and gun crime in the current year appear to have gone up again, which is troubling—it troubles him and it should trouble us. One troubling trend in recent years is that the age of the young people involved in such crimes has gone down.

I was privileged to take part in the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into knife crime; the hon. Lady will certainly be aware of it and may well have participated. The Committee had its first seminar in London on 17 November 2008 at the YMCA in Stockwell, and I and others gave evidence at the Chairman’s invitation. I commend to those who read the record of this debate the Committee’s seventh report, which came out on 2 June last year and includes a report of that seminar. I want to put on record a couple of the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations, many of which deserve attention and a response.

The first point obviously relates to knife possession, but is part of the wider picture. The report states:

“The 2008 MORI Youth Survey indicated that 31 per cent.”—

nearly a third—

“of 11-16 year olds in mainstream education and 61 per cent. of excluded young people had carried a knife at some point over the course of the previous year”.

A third of young people in mainstream education and two thirds of those who were excluded—in special schools or other places—had carried a knife. The Home Office survey two years before said that only 3 per cent. of 10 to 25-year-olds carried a knife. The truth may lie somewhere between the two, but the legitimate and illegitimate carrying of weapons, particularly knives, which are much easier to find than guns, is significant.

The second thing that the report made clear is that the

“vast majority of young people who carry knives say that they or their peers carry knives to protect themselves”.

That did not used to be the case; people used to carry knives because it was cool and then because they thought that they needed them to keep up with their mates, but now it is for protection. The cause of that is the same as the cause of gang issues: young people need to feel secure. The one thing that would change a youngster’s decision to go with a gang would be feeling secure in the knowledge that they could say, “No thank you, I don’t want to” and that other things in life were more valuable, whether their education, their family life or the respect that they enjoyed in the eyes of their family. We have to get to the root cause of the issue: youngsters’ security.

We must also be careful that we do not confuse and conflate all these issues. When 10-year-old Damilola Taylor was killed in Southwark more than 10 years ago, he was attacked by a group of boys. Some of the attacks, deaths and terrible tragedies that we have seen, are caused by gangs or large groups of people, but some are caused by an individual and some are accidental deaths caused by a fight or act of violence that just got out of hand. Again, we must ensure that we do not misrepresent things.

There have been some very honourable events at the two recent games between Charlton and Millwall, two football teams in south-east London. By the way, I am happy to say that the first game was a draw and the second one was won by Millwall. At those games, parents of youngsters who are supporters of the two clubs came together, with the support of the two clubs, to win the argument among the fans and to ensure that people understood that the sort of violence that we are discussing today is unacceptable and is, in fact, no good. The methods that those parents used were really effective, but they did not all relate to gang crime. They related to the violence that is sometimes reflected in gang crime, and sometimes reflected in other activities.

I pay tribute to those who do that type of campaigning, because the families and peer groups of gang members and former gang members are the most effective people in winning the argument against gangs on the streets.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about the role of parents. I was very shocked by one parent whom I saw at an advice surgery. A young boy came in and said to me that he was in trouble for carrying a knife at school. He told me that he had carried it to defend himself and his mother said, “Yes, he did carry it to defend himself and I allowed him to carry it to school to defend himself”. The hon. Gentleman has raised a very important point about the role of parents and emphasised the importance of educating parents and working with them. Parents should know that there can be no circumstances in which they should collude with their child’s taking a knife to school and I said that to that mother.

The hon. Lady is right.

Let me just select five more sentences from different parts of the conclusions to the Home Affairs Committee’s report on knife crime and then I will go on to say some more about gang crime. The Home Affairs Committee is obviously a cross-party Committee and its report found:

“Sensationalist media coverage of stabbings has contributed to this ‘arms race’.”

That effectively repeats what I said at the outset about the importance of providing full and accurate crime data.

The report also found:

“A smaller number of knife-carriers say they carry knives to gain ‘respect’ or street credibility, or because of peer pressure.”

So there is a group in that category, but they are not the largest group of young people who carry knives.

The report goes on:

“Individuals born into social deprivation are more likely to commit violence.”

However, it also says that they are not the only individuals who commit violence and that others from the most respectable and crime-free backgrounds can get dragged into violence.

The report then makes a controversial point, but I believe that it is true:

“Evidence…supported our view that violent DVDs and video games exert a negative influence on those who watch and play them.”

The report also says that when individuals are sent away to serve youth custody sentences, they sometimes still have access to that sort of violent entertainment. That cannot help.

The report reaches two other conclusions to which I would like to refer. First, it says:

“The prospect of a custodial sentence may not deter young people from carrying knives.”

Instead, it is the prospect of “getting caught” that deters them. Young people are not normally thinking about a custodial sentence when they carry knives. Therefore, heavy, knee-jerk political responses such as, “Increase the sentence”, are not normally the answer. A much more complicated response is required.

Secondly, the report did not recommend

“compulsory introduction of knife detectors”

in all schools. Instead, it argued that such detectors should be introduced selectively and where it is appropriate to do so. Similarly, the report said that stop and search is vital but that it needs to be carried out appropriately.

There are good signs. I have mentioned Millwall and Charlton who, like other football clubs, have sought to work from their local communities outwards. There are also lots of community campaigns that try to tackle gang violence. In my borough, there is a campaign called “Enough”. In Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, there are other locally led campaigns. Sports action zones seek to engage young people in street and community sport, and they are really positive in providing diversionary activity. There is also good parental involvement in youth clubs and after-school activities, and more schools are providing pre-school, after-school and weekend activities.

In addition, there are really good youth clubs. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families came with his whole ministerial team the other day to the opening of the Salmon youth centre in Bermondsey. That is a fantastic new facility, which has climbing frames, training, apprenticeships and all sorts of other things. There are excellent initiatives.

Mediation is also important. The Southwark mediation service has young mediators who seek to teach youngsters how to mediate at school and also how to back off without losing dignity. Gang crime is often about respect. How does a youngster deal with someone causing offence to themselves or their girlfriend, sister or whoever it might be, without thinking that they have to pile in and steam in to the “other lot” who caused offence? It is often about learning that there are ways of dealing with such a problem that mean taking a step back rather than going forward.

Mediation is also about helping young people to vocalise what they think, rather than physicalising it. There is an organisation called Speak Out, which teaches young people to speak about these issues as a way of communicating verbally.

We have touched on the causes of gang crime. Families and role models are really important, particularly the father, the older brother or the boyfriend. Violence at home is a factor. Families should not think that if they are violent at home, that does not make it more likely that their children will be violent out on the street.

I have already mentioned DVDs, videos and films. The hon. Lady rightly talked about the materialistic or “bling” age we live in and the culture of instant gratification. However, modern communication methods are also important. Flash mobbing happens. Someone can text and they can get loads of people together really quickly. They never used to be able to do that. Ease of travel is also important. It is a good thing, but it also means that a gang can all pile on a bus and be somewhere together, at no cost, in no time.

The answers to those problems are to provide the types of things that we have talked about: training, apprenticeships, and the incentives to believe that there is a valuable alternative to gang crime. That is why I have a problem with just thinking about what young people should do from the age of 14 onwards. I have always argued that we should introduce youngsters to work at the top end of primary school. There are some children in Southwark, as in Hackney and other places, who have nobody at home who goes to work. Those children need to see the benefit of work and the best schemes in that respect start with year 6 pupils in primary schools. The pupils go to do a week’s work experience and they put on the kit or uniform to act as porters in the Marriott hotel, to count the money in Lloyds bank and so on.

What ought to happen about gang crime? I have made the pledge about crime statistics. I believe that there should be better data-sharing between hospitals and the police authorities, so that we identify where the problems of gang crime are worst. I also believe that we need stop and search, but it must be carried out sensitively. We need visible policing, but good neighbourhood policing is about good intelligence. Good intelligence is often the way to get into the gangs or groups before they really get going.

We also need larger numbers of detached youth workers in London. Like the hon. Lady, I was a youth worker for a long time before I was elected to Parliament. However, we do not need youth workers who sit in clubs waiting for kids to come to them; we need youth workers on the streets and street corners, who really know what is going on, who can act as role models and do other things. We also definitely need diversionary activities for young people.

The Government have worked hard on witness protection, but we still need better witness protection. I was involved in helping with the case of Jamie Robe, a young lad who was kicked to death, and I saw that people were terrified. Another youngster in my constituency, Daniel Herbert, was killed recently, apparently by a gang or a small group of people. Nobody has come forward to help. Everybody sort of knows who did it, but nobody has come forward to help. We need to ensure that we help witnesses to be protected. The Minister knows about this issue well. We should think about whether we need to go further than we have done already.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. On witnesses, does he agree that, although there is, of course, adequate witness protection at the very highest level of gang crime, at the intermediate and lower levels there is not adequate witness protection? At those levels, people still do not feel confident about witness protection. In particular, they do not feel confident that they can be moved swiftly and effectively out of the area where they live, so that they are not subject to harassment.

I am working on a case where we have still not got somebody settled after moving her from her safe house to another area; I think that she has been in the new area for four years already, but she has still not been able to settle with her children. That was not a case involving gangs; it was a domestic violence issue. Nevertheless, we do not have a system that works, particularly between the police and local authorities, and we need to make it work much better.

I want to make a final point. The hon. Lady was right to say that what happens with gangs in London is that they decide that an individual will be part of a territorial group or some other group. It is often based on postcode. It can be based on a place, such as Walworth or Peckham. It can also be based on an ethnic group: Afro-Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Turkish, Kurdish or whatever. The feeling of being “one of us” is a bit like being a football supporter, but it occurs at a much younger age and in a much more violent way. All young people want to belong. People do not want to be isolated; we want to be part of a group. It is a natural human instinct.

My view, having thought about and worked on the issue, is that it is best not to try to prevent people from supporting a particular team or being loyal to their school but to ensure that from the earliest age, they spend time with pupils from other primary schools or do things in teams with other secondary schools. As well as competition between places—that is natural; it is what the Olympic games are all about—we need collaboration between young people. The Globe and Walworth academies, on opposite sides of the Old Kent and New Kent roads, include children from both sides of the road. If they spent time together from a young age doing sport, science, art, theatre and drama, it would start to break down the barriers between them. Faith groups have a large role to play, as they do not have nearly the same territorial catchment.

I end with a plea for work to be done to ensure that we in London all understand that although we may be from Hackney or Southwark, we are also part of a wider community and ought to have links from an early age. If all families, schools, youth clubs and faith groups sought to instil that idea, people might think less about being in gangs. If, at the same time, we made youngsters feel safer from an early age, they would feel less driven to join dangerous gangs in which they, rather than the people whom they set out to attack, are likely to be the victims.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir, for perhaps the last time during this Parliament; we understand that the Prime Minister has now left Buckingham palace after having sought a dissolution of Parliament. Many events are taking place outside this Chamber, but that should not detract from the importance of the matters that we are debating here. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this debate and highlighting many significant points that must be considered carefully in the context of the issue of serious gang violence.

The hon. Lady painted a picture of postcode gangs. It is absurd that where investment has been provided in community facilities for the benefit of young people, those facilities may essentially be off limits to particular young people simply because of their location. Young people, even if they are not part of a gang, may feel too frightened to use them, simply because they live in a different area. The development of postcode gangs also involves the absurd perversion of colours and other symbols to indicate gang membership, including safe colours for transit through certain areas. Buses and public transport can be places of significant fear for young people who are innocently trying to enjoy their own lives and are not at all involved in gangs or gang violence. The indiscriminate way in which some postcode gangs operate can draw young people into violence.

Gangs are also linked with sexual violence, as the hon. Lady mentioned, including rape and sexual exploitation. I am sure that the Mayor of London will hear her clear call for the establishment of a rape crisis centre in her area to deal with some facets of gang culture and the perversion and exploitation that sit alongside it.

The hon. Lady mentioned gang injunctions and new powers. The Conservatives supported the introduction of gang injunctions, but I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on whether any have yet been used. It is all very well to introduce new powers and legislation, but enforcement is crucial. That has been one of this Government’s shortcomings—legislating in haste without necessarily setting out clear pathways for using the powers created.

The hon. Lady rightly highlighted the issue of risk, particularly during the transfer from primary to secondary education. Many young people are at risk when they go from being big kids in a small school to small kids in a large school and a different environment. It can be difficult for them, and may cause them to gravitate towards gangs. Recruitment may occur at that stage. Children with behavioural issues or special educational needs such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may become more and more isolated and thus more vulnerable to recruitment into gangs or similar exploitation. That is why we must consider carefully the link between primary and secondary education.

However, we must also celebrate success. We should in no way suggest that all young people are involved in gangs. Only a small minority of young people engage in serious criminal activity. Fantastic community projects are taking place across our city. Recently, I attended the launch of the Ten Ten theatre company, which goes into schools and uses drama to challenge thinking about knife possession and gang membership. Such concepts can be effective in engaging young people, challenging their perceptions of fitting in and addressing pressure to carry a weapon. We know that carrying a knife on the street makes a young person much more vulnerable to being the victim of a violent crime and having that weapon used against them, even though they may think that it protects them.

The London fire brigade is also doing good things with its LIFE project to engage young people and challenge them in a different way. It is a particularly good project. Another project by Metrac, the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children, uses sport to harness young people’s energy positively and show them that they do not need to feel that they must fit in by joining a gang.

The shocking events of the past few weeks, involving the tragic cutting short of young lives, underline the continuing problems of gang crime, knife crime and youth violence. The fatal stabbings of 15-year-old Sofyen Belamouadden from Acton and 17-year-old Godwin Nii Lawson from north London remind us all of the effect of such appalling crimes on families, friends and whole communities. The increasingly brazen nature of some of the crimes that have taken place in our capital in the past few months is also shocking and disturbing. Although the number of teenage murders in London fell from 29 in 2008 to 14 last year, recent cases underline the continuing challenge and the need for vigilance.

Last week, I spoke at a conference in the docklands organised by Through Unity, a charity that brings together and gives a voice to families touched by appalling crimes of violence. Its members are ordinary people pushed to the forefront by unimaginable circumstances who, despite personal loss, demonstrate a driving sense of purpose, a desire for good to emerge from tragedy and evil and a commitment to bringing about change and improvement in our communities and our country. Through humility and grace, they turn adversity into hope.

The event was as inspiring as it was humbling. It was a reminder why we all need to focus on preventing more such crimes from occurring. I agree that families have an important role to play in advocating and driving through change. I have met families over the past few years who have, sadly, been touched in that way. Their passion for seeing good come from the loss that they have suffered is powerful and impressive. We need to work with such families as much as we can.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, the Minister and me in appealing for those who know something about the unsolved London deaths of recent years to come forward, as this debate might be our last opportunity to do so. I have four names: Adam Regis, whose mum has tried to get to the truth, the rapper Isschan Nicholls, the teenager Billy Cox and the student Nicholas Clarke. There are others. As a city, we owe it to the families of those people to bring those who are responsible forward. Those who know something must speak out.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The sense that justice has been denied or has not been followed through is a recurring theme among many families I have spoken to. There is a need for justice to be seen to be done. The perpetrators of crimes that have not been solved must be brought to justice. We need to consider carefully the protection and support that are offered to communities to ensure that people feel able to come forward, as he said in his speech. That is a significant factor that we must retain our focus on to ensure that these appalling crimes are solved and that those who commit them are brought to justice.

Part of the solution lies in more effective community policing. It is not good enough that less than 15 per cent. of a beat officer’s time is spent on patrol. We need officers to be on the streets, not behind their desks. That is why we believe there should be a cut in the form-filling and bureaucracy that prevent police officers from doing their job and from providing the reassurance that so many communities desperately need. One practical example is that we would give the police greater discretion to make charging decisions on a number of offences to speed up the processing of arrests and get officers back on the beat. We would also give police officers the discretion to deal quickly and effectively with young trouble makers who are committing antisocial behaviour before they go on to commit more serious offences.

We need to improve the intelligence on the prevalence of violent crimes because many incidents go unreported. I endorse the Mayor of London’s support for greater use of depersonalised A and E data across London alongside police data to provide a more comprehensive crime picture on prevalence, geography and trends. I welcome the fact that the Government are now acting on that and hope that the Minister will provide an update when he winds up the debate on the number of hospitals that are providing such data.

The risk of getting caught with a knife must be a real factor in the mind of someone getting ready to go out. That means that the police must make proper use of the power to stop and search. The Operation Blunt 2 task force has provided a focused response in hot spots across London and more people are being charged for possession of knives and sharp instruments. I pay tribute to the work of the Metropolitan police in carrying out such operations. When offenders are caught, they should usually be prosecuted and given the most severe sentences appropriate. Fines are an inadequate deterrent. There should be a presumption that offenders will receive a custodial sentence or a tough, enforced community penalty, not a so-called unpaid work requirement. The offender should wear a high-visibility uniform.

I pay tribute to the Mayor of London’s work on the Heron wing of Feltham young offenders institution, which focuses on rehabilitating new young offenders and showing them that there is a different path. The fear is that once somebody is in the criminal justice system, it can be difficult to break them out and to provide an exit route from gang membership. I am following closely the Mayor’s work on challenging such behaviour and preventing reoffending and further crime.

We would legislate to give police sergeants at the heart of community police teams a new authorisation to conduct searches for knives and other weapons. That limited power would enable them to act more quickly when they pick up intelligence suggesting that weapons are being carried in their community or that an act of serious violence is about to occur.

A recent Home Affairs Committee report noted that knife carrying is

“at a level to be of significant concern.”

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) referred to some of the points made. I have touched on the issue of the perversion of protection. There is an issue with the insidious links to gang membership. Gangs use recruitment techniques that focus on people from less able backgrounds and that seek to exploit factors such as mental illness and unemployment. The Centre for Social Justice has highlighted clearly and commendably the fractures and fault lines that run through our society. We need to focus on the intergenerational dysfunction that lies behind youth victimisation, gang membership and youth crime. If a young person’s experience of life is of violence and aggression, should we be surprised if violence and aggression are the methods by which that child seeks to resolve disputes?

There is a need for a change of approach. To make a sustained change that enables our communities to break out of gang violence and the scourge of crime, we must look to the long term as well as the short term. It is not simply about enforcement, but about the many other factors that have been highlighted this morning. We need a change that recognises the need for clear and robust sanctions for those who break the law, that devolves greater powers and responsibilities to those who respond to the problems on our streets and that recognises that strong families and communities are more effective at instilling a culture of respect and responsibility than any rule, law or regulation. Ultimately, societal change is required to promote safer and more cohesive communities not just in our capital city, but across our country.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir, for what will undoubtedly be my last Adjournment debate of this Parliament, although hopefully not the last of my time in Parliament.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for securing this useful debate. She has a sound record of tackling this issue not just through policy, but by providing support on the ground for young people in her constituency and across London. The points she has raised have been supported by the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire).

My hon. Friend has raised important policy issues with which the Government are wrestling. She mentioned education, which is crucial in raising the abilities and achievements of young people across London. She mentioned positive role models, underachievement and the importance of positive employment. I am sure that we all remember the importance of peer group support and of being part of a group when we were young. Sometimes that can be a positive experience, but it can turn into negativity, as she described. She mentioned the increasing role of women in gangs, which is an important issue. Last week, the Minister for Schools and Learners and I met with Carlene Firmin and Theo Gavrielides from Race on the Agenda to consider what we could do following an important conference we attended recently in London that focused on how women are drawn into gangs, often unwittingly, to support their male colleagues, friends or partners, and on how they become victims of gang violence. I hope that we can discuss those key issues that she has raised.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made a plea for integrity in statistics. I, too, want to see that because we need to be able to trust the statistics that we work with and to know that they are independent. He praised the work of the police in London and elsewhere. He helpfully drew attention to the Home Affairs Committee report that raised a number of important issues. He raised the way in which we develop interpersonal skills, how violence at home can impact on people’s attitudes to violence in the community and the importance of witnesses and witness protection. I draw his attention to the fact that investigation anonymity orders, which provide for the anonymity of witnesses during an investigation to encourage them to come forward, are available from today for witnesses involved in trials for murders committed using a knife or gun. That is important legislation.

On the question of witness protection, is my right hon. Friend aware that a key issue for some of my constituents is that they need to be moved away from people who might take revenge on them? What are the Government doing to ensure that all London boroughs contribute to the pool of accommodation available in such cases? The problem is that some boroughs are not contributing to that, which makes it hard to move people.

I will certainly consider that issue in detail. The purpose of the anonymity orders that I mentioned is to give witnesses anonymous protection in relation to giving evidence, which is important, rather than moving people around because they happen to be witnesses and are willing to come forward. That is an important part of the prevention mechanism for individuals. However, ultimately, we need to give people anonymity, so that they do not have to fear being moved. Even if individuals who give evidence are moved, they will ultimately face potential intimidation downstream.

The latest recorded crime statistics show that knife crime is falling. There has been a 7 per cent. fall in recorded knife crime and a 34 per cent. fall in homicide with a knife or sharp instrument. The risk of being a victim of gun crime remains low and recorded crime involving a firearm has fallen for the fifth year in succession—the number of recorded offences involving firearms has fallen by 18 per cent. between 2007-08 and 2008-09. Firearm homicides are at their lowest point for 20 years, violence incidence has fallen by 49 per cent. since 1999, and there are 2 million fewer victims. In London, which is of particular importance to the debate today, the number of homicides has decreased. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned, there were 15 such incidents last year and 30 the year before. Homicide overall is down 24.2 per cent. in the year to February 2010.

Gang-related offences in the Metropolitan police area account for very low levels of crime—less than 0.3 per cent. of all recorded crime. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington mentioned, although much work has been going on to help to drive down those figures, that does not mean that we are complacent or that we are satisfied with the situation to date. As hon. Members have mentioned, the murder of Sofyen Belamouadden at Victoria station on 26 March and that of Godwin Lawson on 27 March are stark reminders that such incidents occur. In many ways, those incidents were more visible and horrific than some of the other major incidents that we know about. Twelve young people aged between 16 and 17 have been charged with the murder of Sofyen Belamouadden, but unfortunately no charges have been brought in relation to the murder of Godwin Lawson. I send my sympathies to both families. Whatever the overall decrease in statistics relating to such crimes and the level of work that has been done, those incidents, which have occurred in the past month in London, show that issues still need to be addressed.

We have tried to tackle the problem through engaging in four main areas of activity: first, prevention; secondly, strong enforcement; thirdly, information and intelligence sharing; fourthly, rehabilitation. Our ultimate aim must be to prevent young people from being involved in a toxic and negative gang lifestyle in the first place. We and other Departments have tried to take prevention extremely seriously. In the youth crime action plan, which has been put in place across England and Wales in a large number of areas, we have considered a number of activities—for example, activities on Friday and Saturday nights, focusing on vulnerable individuals, after-school clubs, policing in our communities as a whole and other positive activities.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families has provided £2 million additional funding to the 81 local authorities that have been particularly blighted by youth crime and knife crime, so that provision relating to Friday and Saturday night activities can be boosted. We have put more than £270 million into the myplace programme to ensure that young people have high-quality, safe places to go where they can access activities to help them towards positive activity as a whole. That, coupled with the £4.5 million community fund and more than £600,000 of support given to community projects in London, is witness to the Government’s work, to which my hon. Friend has paid tribute.

In light of that, on prevention activity, my hon. Friend will know—the hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned this—that in September 2010, over-18 gang injunctions will be put in place. Legislation for that has been passed, but it will not be implemented until September 2010 for over-18s. If the Crime and Security Bill finishes its passage through both Houses in the week before Parliament is dissolved, I hope that we will be able to consider gang injunctions for under-18s.

We are strongly considering the question of enforcement. I accept what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said: sentencing is not necessarily an immediate deterrent. However, it is important that we consider sentencing as part of our work to help to reduce knife crime. The principle is that we need to catch people, and the threat of being caught is extremely important. The role we have given to neighbourhood policing and police community support officers, and the fact that we have the largest number of police officers ever in the capital city of London, shows that that is important. However, we also need to increase the strong stance on enforcement, which we have done. The starting tariff for the sentence given to adults who commit murder has been increased to 25 years. Those carrying a knife are more likely to go to prison than they were 10 years ago.

Dealing with enforcement also involves addressing important issues, such as knife arches, and a range of factors to do with test purchases in shops and other matters. It is important to ensure that we take the problem extremely seriously. In London, through Operation Trident, the Metropolitan police have disrupted 75 criminal networks. That has involved arrests and the confiscation of a range of live firing weapons, assets, drugs and other things that drive crimes related to young people generally. Action plans have been developed to address gun crime in the London boroughs of Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark—the borough of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. Plans have been drawn up with the help of community leaders and independent members to ensure that we take the issue seriously.

Hon. Members will know that Operation Protect and Operation Blunt 2 have also dealt with these matters in an effective and important way. We have undertaken intelligence and information sharing, particularly in relation to hospitals, which the hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned. We have worked closely with hospitals and I am happy to tell the House that 31 hospitals in London are sharing data. They are part of 110 hospitals across England that are currently sharing data. Some 84 of those areas are within the knife crime action plan areas, where we have recently announced additional resources of around £5 million to help to tackle knife crime in the longer term. Intelligence sharing is important, so that we can tie up neighbourhood policing with prevention and with an assessment of the threat in particular areas. It might be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington to note that intelligence sharing has also involved information being given to Hackney community safety partnerships, so that they can target their activities in Hackney. Through the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, or NABIS, we are looking at the use of guns and the tracking of the use of firearms across the country as a whole. That has shown a very interesting picture of illegal firearms and their use.

We are also considering the issue of rehabilitation. Some people are being caught and some people are being sent to prison, but we need to change their mindsets and take them out of prison and youth offending in a positive way. Since last October, all youth offending teams in England and Wales—97 in total—and the teams across the 15 knife crime areas have been involved in working with offenders to change their attitudes on knife crime and to bring home to them the consequences of carrying a knife. That includes meeting victims and other agencies and working through how we deal with the matter. In January 2010, there will be a knife crime prevention programme pilot in Feltham young offenders institute to ensure that intervention is delivered to people, particularly in custody.

From my perspective, knife crime, gun crime and gangs are serious issues. My hon. Friend has raised some key points. We want to ensure that we work on prevention, enforcement, rehabilitation, tackling the long-term issues and working with the community to ensure that we reduce knife crime, gun crime and gang activity. We have a positive record, but there is more we can do. In the next Parliament, I look forward to working with colleagues across the House to make that difference, to reduce deaths and injuries and to break up the gangs that are having a negative influence across London. Many young people have a very positive influence on society and we should never forget that. The consideration we give to the positive work of young people is as important as that we give to gang-related violence.

Poverty and Inequality

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this important issue because it is very dear to my heart. I am sure that this will be my last speech as a Member of this House, so I am fortunate in having secured the debate. This subject is so complex that I could speak for a very long time.

During my speech, I shall draw on a number of important publications that I have recently read. The first is “An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK” by the National Equality Panel—I congratulate the Government on setting up that panel because it demonstrates their determination to take inequality seriously. I shall also draw on “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” by Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Finally, let me draw Members’ attention to an excellent publication by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) entitled “Early intervention: good parents, great kids, better citizens”, which is an excellent example of cross-party working.

Before this debate, I also read the transcript of the February 1995 debate, “Poverty and Unemployment”, which was initiated by the late Donald Dewar, who was then Labour’s shadow spokesman for social security. The debate was interesting because it showed the attitudes that prevailed at the time. The then Conservative Government denied that poverty was a problem and derided the whole idea of having a minimum wage, because, as they said, it would mean going from “low pay to no pay”. Wages at that time were extremely low. Members in the debate cited examples of people being offered £1.50 and £1.90 an hour.

I should like to provide a brief history of inequality. On Good Friday, I was hoping to watch my son racing his bike at Herne Hill cycle stadium, which was built for the 1948 Olympics. The stadium is somewhat run-down and will no doubt not be used for the 2012 Olympics. None the less, it served its purpose at the time. In those days we were probably more equal as a society than we had ever been. The belief was that we should have maximum working together and joint effort. It was felt that we were all in it together and that having a more equal society was very important.

Unfortunately, I did not see my son racing on Good Friday because the heavens opened and it poured with rain. As cycle tracks are dangerous in the rain, the whole meeting had to be abandoned, and I had paid £12 to no avail. As I was coming home somewhat bedraggled from the rain, I thought about the money; £12 meant nothing to me and its loss had no impact on me. Then I thought, “What would it mean for somebody who was on the minimum wage, unemployed or in a low income family?” They might have saved up £12 to see their son racing, and for them it would be an awful lot of money to lose. However, for someone such as myself, who is highly but by no means outrageously paid—I am on an income in the 10th decile of the upper incomes—it was not much at all. That got me thinking about when I was younger. Our household was quite poor because my father suffered from schizophrenia and was unable to work most of the time. Although my father had a high level of education, we were probably among the poorest people on our council estate because in those days—in the ’50s and ’60s—there was full employment. My mother worked hard for low pay. She scrimped and saved to give my sister and me a good start in life.

When I started secondary school, my mother had to pay out quite a lot of money for my school uniform. The one item that I remember in particular was a pair of hockey boots that cost 17s 11d. I had been at school for only a week when some smart Alec decided to pull out one of my hockey boots from my locker, leaving me with just one boot. I was mortified because I knew that my mother had had to work hard to buy me those hockey boots. I did not tell her about losing one of them; I just made do with my pumps when playing games. I lost sleep at night over the waste, especially as I thought about the effort that my mother had spent on getting me those boots. Today, there are many families who would feel the same way if they had spent money on their children to no avail.

Although it was a more equal society in those days, I clearly remember the stigma that we suffered because my father did not work. He was ill, but he had no obvious disability because he suffered from a mental illness. We were ashamed that our father did not work and, unfortunately, those attitudes live on today.

I was fortunate because I received a good education and I prospered. Looking back, I can see how I prospered and how other people did not do so well. Inequality fluctuated slightly in the ’60s, and even improved a little in the mid-1970s before slightly increasing after the financial crisis. During the 1980s, it soared as unemployment reached 3 million in 1983. At the end of that period, inequality had gone up several fold, which is well documented in the report of the National Equality Panel, the figures from which were used by my colleagues in the 1995 debate. None the less, our concerns were ridiculed by the then Government.

Thank goodness we then had a Labour Government, who took poverty seriously. However, I am not so sure that I can say the same about inequality. For those groups of people who were seen as the more deserving poor, the Government have introduced changes that have benefited them greatly.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the subject before the House. Her story is compelling and I am listening carefully. I entered Parliament in 1992 and, to be honest, in my time here I have probably moved, on the issues of equality and the distribution of wealth in this nation, more towards the hon. Lady than she has towards me. I thank her for that.

Poverty is most felt by elderly people on small fixed incomes. While the hon. Lady is talking about special groups, will she urge the Government to bring forward for that special group the re-indexation of basic state pension to earnings? Will she also take the opportunity to urge the Tories not to break the link again, should they form a Government at any time in the future? That was a major cause of poverty for that elderly group.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but I think I got there long before him, when I was writing pensions articles calling for the restoration of the earnings link and expressing great concern about the means-testing of people who did a little bit better for themselves than they would have by relying completely on the state. I urge whoever is in government not only to restore the link but to do so as quickly as possible.

To go back to 1997, the poorest pensioners were expected to live on £69 a week. Thanks to the current Government, no single pensioner in this country need live on less than £132 a week. In 1997 we were very much aware of growing inequality. It will be recalled that there was consternation about the executives of newly privatised industries paying themselves huge amounts of money in salaries and share options. The name of Mr. Cedric Brown comes to mind. At about that time chief executive officers were paid about 40 times average pay, but today they are paid about 81 times average pay.

There have been huge changes: the poorest pensioners and people on disability benefits have been guaranteed a minimum income; and there are now working tax credits and the child care strategy for families with children, with large numbers of extra child care places available, and help in paying for them, as well as Sure Start and improved maternity pay; and there is now a carers strategy and rights for carers, who are some of the most neglected people. However, sadly, inequality has continued to widen because of the large increases at the very top of the scale, such as those I have mentioned. It is not just a question of the highest-paid executives or a small number of people: the highest-earning 1 per cent. of the population has a huge impact overall on the median income—the income level at which half the population has more and half has less.

We have a divided society. Disraeli wrote in “Sybil” of

“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets”.

Only last week, echoing those sentiments, Richard Lambert, the director general of the CBI, pointed out that chief executive officers are so differently remunerated that they are in a “different galaxy” from the rest of us. The recent Evening Standard pull-out special edition on London’s forgotten poor, said:

“London is a shameful tale of two cities. In the richest capital in Europe almost half our children live below the poverty line.”

Despite the best efforts of the Labour Government in lifting half a million children out of poverty we still face a huge, uphill task. I congratulate the Government on their commitment, in the Child Poverty Bill, to bring down those horrendous figures.

As to solutions, we must first recognise that inequality is not just about the difference between the average and the poorest. It is about the total inequality in society. We are now a much more unequal society than many other countries in the OECD, apart from the United States and Portugal. The huge salary increases at the top end, which put people out of touch with the reality of life for those at the poorest end of society, have not been replicated in other countries with more equal societies, where economic development is just as good as ours, if not better.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have set up an organisation called the Equality Trust. In their book they comprehensively argue that in rich countries a smaller gap between the rich and poor means a happier, healthier and more successful population in terms of life expectancy, achievement in maths and literacy, infant mortality, homicide, imprisonment, teenage births, trusting one another, obesity, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction and social mobility. They say convincingly, based on their evidence, that if we halved inequality in the UK murder rates would halve, mental illness would reduce by two thirds, obesity would halve, imprisonment rates would reduce by 80 per cent., and trust would increase by 85 per cent. More equal societies benefit everyone—those at the top as well as those at the bottom.

Inequality is pervasive in society. It wrecks lives. Wilkinson and Pickett cite a very interesting study from 2000. World Bank economists Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 and 12-year-old boys from scattered rural villages in India and set them the task of solving mazes. First the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other’s castes. In those conditions the low-caste boys did as well as—in fact, slightly better than—the high-caste boys. Then the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father’s and grandfather’s names, and caste. The boys did the mazes and this time there was a large caste difference. The performance of the low-caste boys dropped significantly. The same phenomenon has also been demonstrated in experiments with white and black high school students in America. Black students performed as well as white when they were told that the tests were not a test of their ability, but when they were told that the tests were about their ability they performed much worse than white students, who performed equally in both tests.

There is a stereotype, and people react to it. There is plenty of evidence of biological impacts on people who are of low status and feel threatened. When they are happy and well adjusted they release high levels of the hormone dopamine—the feel-good hormone. When they are threatened and under stress, they are ready to strike out and they have high levels of stress hormones, including cortisol. That has an impact on their behaviour, as is well documented in the “Early Intervention” booklet. The authors—our colleagues—argue strongly for early intervention, between the ages of nought and three, when young children are extremely damaged if they are not given the nurturing and love that they need. I commend the booklet for the action that it proposes for future Governments, but we must see that in the context of the need for a more equal society. The current Government have already been trying to intervene. There have been area programmes such as the new deal for communities. However, we still find that those societies are disadvantaged.

It is interesting that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green cites statistics about council estates. I think that in 1980 more than 70 per cent. of people living on council estates were on above average incomes and those areas were mixed areas, where people worked. Now, they are wholly deprived areas, and that concentration of deprivation has been the result of Government policies over the past 30 years that have not recognised that good-quality rented housing is important and should not be regarded as only for the very poorest. We have seen the sale of the best council houses, which are lost to the stock altogether once the people who bought them move away. I am talking about the more affluent people moving out of council houses or people moving out of the area and out of council and social housing altogether. We have seen the ever greater concentration of deprivation in those areas. We must break that cycle and we must do that on the basis of tackling inequality.

There is a lot of stereotyping of lone parents, and many people in the areas that we are discussing are lone parents. However, the Wilkinson and Pickett evidence shows that more unequal societies have more lone parents and that in more equal societies, even families headed by a lone parent are not disadvantaged, because they are less unequal than they are in this country.

That brings me on to the point about the deserving and the undeserving poor. Rightly, hon. Members on both sides of the House have wanted to do their best for pensioners, for people who are obviously disabled, shall I say, rather than those who are less obviously disabled, and for children—so long as they conform to our stereotypes. Let us consider the case of children such as baby P and Khyra Ishaq. Society—both the authorities and the communities in which they lived—failed them. They are rightly seen as victims of our unequal society, but let us imagine what would have happened if they had not been killed and had been taken to a place of safety—taken into local authority care. What would their prospects have been?

Although children in local authority care represent only 0.6 per cent. of children, 25 per cent. of the prison population is made up of people who have at some time in their lives been in care. That is a disgrace. It does not happen in other societies. In this country, people in deprived areas who go into care do very poorly educationally, despite the best efforts of the Government and the fact that there have been improvements in educational attainment. Very few of those children go into higher education, whereas in Denmark, for example, 60 per cent. of youngsters who were brought up in care go into higher education. So it does not have to be like this. We do not have to have such a low regard for children. Our society does not have a high regard for children. Yes, when they are victims, it does, but when they are not well brought up and when they are damaged, they are seen as evil. They are described as yobboes and hoodies and in other pejorative ways.

When the Leader of the Opposition expressed sentiments about how we regarded young people in this country, which I agreed with, I was dismayed that he was condemned as wanting people to “hug a hoodie”. I would have liked the Government to say that at last the Conservative party was coming round to our way of thinking with regard to not labelling young people when they perhaps go off the straight and narrow. We must look to ourselves as a society and what we are doing to those children, and recognise that in other, more equal societies, children who face disadvantage do not suffer in the long run, and then society does not suffer from the activities in which young people from disadvantaged backgrounds all too often engage.

There was a TV sitcom called “Keeping Up Appearances”, and there is too much of that behaviour in this country. Why do people feel the need for such huge incomes? It is all about competition. If one executive is paid millions of pounds, another must be paid a bit more. In fact, there is a race not to millions, but to billions of pounds. When we were having the Cedric Brown arguments, that was all about millions; now it is about tens of millions in remuneration. We heard at the weekend about the president of Barclays.

Let us just think of someone on the national minimum wage of £5.80 an hour—£240 a week for a normal week. It would take them hundreds of years to earn—or to receive in income—what some executives receive in a year. That cannot be tolerated. The Labour Government set up the Low Pay Commission to introduce the minimum wage in a way that did not damage employment. There is still scope for improvements in the minimum wage, and I invite the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) to confirm the Conservative party’s commitment to the minimum wage and to increasing it in line with recommendations from the Low Pay Commission. The Low Pay Commission has been enormously successful, although I regret the fact that young people under 21 are paid less for doing the same job. Is it not time that we had a high pay commission to consider disparities in earnings in society and in companies? I say that because such huge disparities are not conducive to a good economic outcome.

As Richard Lambert explained in the speech that I mentioned, no one denies the importance of companies making adequate profit for reinvestment and reasonable remuneration; indeed, some of the most successful companies—Richard Lambert cited Dave Packard, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard—realise the importance of rewards, but rewards should be proportional and profits need to deliver wider goals than shareholder value. As the Member for Selly Oak, which includes Bourneville, I echo that entirely. Shareholder value was the only issue that was considered in Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury.

Hewlett-Packard is not the only enormously successful company whose founders recognised that they must engage with their work force and that employees must feel part of the company. Other industrialists who have been extremely successful and recognised that excessive pay divides rather than unites companies include Ove Arup, founder of the Ove Arup Partnership. John Spedan Lewis founded the John Lewis Partnership, one of our most successful retail companies, and acted on the philosophy that differences in reward must be large enough to induce people to do their best, but in 1957 he declared that the differences were too great.

It is time for greater company publicity about people’s earnings. A pay audit is an excellent idea. A high pay commission might not be able to impose on companies’ remuneration, but could suggest reasonable benchmarks. Some years ago, Channel 4 produced a series of programmes about high pay, and a high pay commission was set up. I do not remember its membership, but it included someone who was a cook, although I cannot remember her name. It concluded that there should be maximums and minimums in company employment for fairness and good performance. We need fairer organisation in companies.

We have seen the demutualisation of the banking and financial services sector, and the squeezing out of trade unions. Countries such as Japan do not have a large welfare state and transfers, but they have much more equal societies in terms of remuneration. It is common in Japanese industry for people to come up through the trade union movement and to become company executives as a result of partnership working. We must encourage more worker participation, and it is appropriate to flag up the 1977 Bullock report on workers’ rights and representation on company boards. We should reconsider some of those philosophies, which were not welcomed by many people in industry. Many trade unionists did not welcome involvement in decision making at the highest level, although I am pleased that one of my predecessors, Tom Litterick, who was the MP for Selly Oak in the 1974-79 Parliament, was the chief sponsor of an early-day motion welcoming the Bullock proposals, so it is appropriate for me to flag him up in my valedictory speech today. He was not my predecessor, but my predecessor but one.

The Government have proposed that football club members should have a share in their clubs, and perhaps we could extend that to other companies to provide more worker participation, more worker shareholders, more worker involvement and more co-operation in companies, as in the John Lewis Partnership, where performance is much better than in companies where workers are badly treated and their efforts are not sufficiently rewarded.

I turn to other things that Governments can do, including small measures. Post-Thatcherism, the present Government adopted too many of the stereotypes and attitudes to people, particularly unemployed people. Although the Government have done a lot for pensioners and families with children, unemployed people’s incomes have not increased, but have merely been pegged to the retail prices index. At present, an unemployed person on jobseeker’s allowance receives £65.45 a week—1.6 million people receive that allowance—and couples receive £102.75 a week. They receive help with housing costs, but those are the sums that they must manage on to meet all their needs—food, gas, electricity, clothes, social life and so on. I defy anyone in this Chamber to live on that level of income. The figure for young people under 25 is even more obscene at £51.85 a week. A small number—around 37 per cent.—have children and have benefited from the Government’s measures to deal with child poverty, but the situation is a sad reflection on a Government led by a Prime Minister who in his maiden speech in 1987 castigated the then Government for their philosophy that unemployment benefits should be so low that people would be forced into even low-paid work. I do not expect that sort of attitude from the Government.

At a time when unemployment is high—it has not risen to levels seen in previous recessions thanks to the Government’s measures, which were opposed by the Conservative party—we must remember those who have been affected. We are still dealing with the fallout from the 1980s. Although unemployment fell after the peak of 3 million before rising again in the early 1990s, at the end of that period we saw a doubling of the number of workless households in which no one was in work. That has further exacerbated division and deprivation in our society. I urge future Governments not only to consider measures to deliver public services and early intervention but to consider equality of incomes and the damaging effect that very unequal incomes have on our society.

There are measures that the Government could take, but the issue is not just redistribution of tax and benefits. I would like a much more progressive tax system. I am pleased that we now have a 50p income tax rate, but I am not pleased about the complexity resulting from withdrawal of the tax-free allowance. It is about time we started to talk about a truly fair and progressive tax system, so that people on low incomes of around £10,000 did not pay any tax. I realise that if that were to be introduced without making changes higher up the income scale, it would benefit higher earners as much as the low paid. We need a properly progressive income tax.

We also need to consider other ways of making taxation fair. The Conservative party is castigating the Government for the increase in national insurance. I am unhappy about that change because it will affect everyone, but I am not at all happy about the alternative of meeting the £6 million gap that will result from the Tory promise on national insurance. Meeting it by increasing VAT would be even more regressive. Why do we have an upper threshold as well as a lower threshold for national insurance? Rather than having an across-the-board increase of 1 per cent., why should we not extend the upper limit? The 1 per cent. rate goes higher up the threshold; perhaps we could recoup some of the money lost through not levying the national insurance increases by raising the threshold.

We should also consider property taxes. They are easy to collect and difficult to evade, but the only property tax that we have is the council tax. That is unfair because people with lower-value properties pay proportionately more than those with mansions. There should be a small taxation on increases in the value of land resulting from public investment, as it would be difficult for rich people to evade.

Before the hon. Lady moves too far from VAT and the Tories, does she share my concern about the refusal of the Tory shadow Chancellor to rule out future tax rises if the Tories get into Government? Whatever other Tory Front-Bench spokesmen say about VAT, the shadow Chancellor flatly refuses to rule it out.

I am sorry, but I am a little deaf. I do not see how the shadow Chancellor can rule out future tax rises. In some ways, I would prefer progressive tax rises to cuts in services that would affect the vulnerable.

It is time that I began to wind up. I wish to mention a couple of other areas where Government intervention has been extremely successful. It may seem rather bizarre, but I start with the national forest. I am a member of the Select Committee for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which recently reported on the national forest. The project has been tremendously successful in improving areas of Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.

A range of indicators have demonstrated the improved economic health of the national forest, including a significant decline in the proportion of the forest population who live in the 25 per cent. most deprived areas in England. The area outperformed the regional average for economic growth between 1998 and 2006, with high levels of new business development. The area’s tourism industry is now worth more than £270 million a year, with more than 4,000 people engaged in it. Since 1995, more than 250 jobs have been created or safeguarded through forestry, and through farm diversification to forest uses and woodland business. What has been achieved over those 15 years was done for the princely sum of £44.3 million in Government grant in aid. I commend such projects to future Governments.

Another organisation based in my constituency is the national industrial symbiosis programme. It has been extremely successful in bringing businesses together to treat waste as a resource. As a result, a small amount of Government money has yielded a return to the Treasury of 30 times or more in net receipts.

Those are examples of Government spending that has helped business and society to reduce inequality. It is not about the private sector versus the public sector. Public spending is crucial to a thriving private sector. Surely, after the recent crash, we should have learned that the public and private sectors need each other.

We are about to embark on a general election. Candidates are being asked to make the equality pledge drawn up by the equality organisation set up by Professors Wilkinson and Pickett to promulgate the arguments that they put forward in their excellent book. Having seen the website, I know that a number of hon. Members from all parties have signed up. I hope that they will not sign up blithely to a commitment to work to reduce inequality, but that they will take it seriously and that those who are successful in the election will consider how to implement measures to reduce inequality in our society.

Four wards in my constituency will be going their separate ways in the election. The Kings Norton ward, which is probably the most deprived part of my constituency, will become part of the new Northfield constituency. I shall certainly support the Labour candidate, who will be my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). It will generally be a straight fight between Labour and Conservative, as it will be in the new Selly Oak constituency. Bournville and Selly Oak will be joining two wards from the Hall Green constituency.

I hope that Labour candidates will be elected, because I do not trust the Tories to take up the equality agenda. Although I am disappointed in some of the outcomes achieved under the present Government, things have become better for many people. Public services have improved, and that would not have happened if we had continued with a Conservative Government in 1997.

We have a more interesting situation in the Moseley and Kings Heath ward of the Hall Green constituency. The Conservatives are nowhere in the election, and it will be interesting to see what happens because it is a three-horse race. I was not happy with the endorsement of the Labour candidate in that constituency. Because there is no risk of the Tories winning that seat, I may allow myself a little tactical voting by supporting the candidate who most shares my values.

Thank you, Mr. Weir. The candidate who most shares my values and whom I respect the most will be the one who I think will put up the greatest fight for a more equal society. That candidate will make a much better job of it than I have managed.

During my time here I have fought hard for disadvantaged groups, starting in the 1992 to 1997 Parliament when I fought the dreadful discrimination against transgendered people. When I wrote to the Employment Minister at the time, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), she seemed to think that it was perfectly acceptable for a transgendered person who was outed in the workplace to be sacked simply because her work colleagues did not like working with her. Thank goodness that attitudes to transgendered people have changed over time, but they still suffer a great deal of discrimination, which is highlighted in the National Equality Panel’s report.

I have fought for gay rights. I worked for a gay couple in my constituency, one of whom was an American who was going to be deported, as the then Tory Government were unwilling to recognise that couple’s commitment to each other. That has changed, and generally there is now a much more progressive attitude across the House on both areas, although the recent comments of the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), were very unfortunate.

I have even fought with my Government for single parents and disabled people to try to reduce proposed cuts in benefits that had actually been put forward by the previous Conservative Government. I was most disheartened when the incoming Labour Government decided to carry through some of those changes, such as changes to housing benefits for young people. Some of those bad decisions have been reversed by changes to tax credits, help for children and, to some extent, help for disabled people, but the fight must go on for disadvantaged groups, including people from ethnic minorities, women who still face disadvantages and people from different classes who face disadvantages. That work will have to be carried on largely by my successors, although I hope to play an active role in that, particularly in the field of mental health, which is perhaps the last great stigma we have to tackle. Things are now much better for those with mental illness than they were when my father was alive, but we still have a long way to go.

I will conclude with a quote from Robert Kennedy:

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

I leave the future Parliament to ponder those thoughts.

Before I call the next speaker, I remind Members that the debate must finish at 12.30 pm and ask them to tailor their remarks accordingly.

I will tailor my remarks appropriately as I am anxious to hear the Minister’s response. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones). I agreed with much of what she said, including the quote from Bobby Kennedy and her remarks on Hall Green. I have found myself with her in the Division Lobby many times during the past three Parliaments. It seems that she has often followed the Liberal Democrat view of things, perhaps more astutely on occasion than her Labour Government would have liked.

I have no doubt that the electorate will hear that point. The hon. Lady has certainly been a great parliamentarian, and the House of Commons will be the worse for her not being in it after the election. She said that the debate would be topical literally as the Prime Minister returned from the palace and the general election was called. The debate is important because there is a feeling, certainly among the charities with which I have spoken, that if we are not careful the election might see a new Government come in who will not give the same priority to poverty and inequality that Labour has done in the past 13 years. I congratulate the Labour party on what it has done in many areas in those years. It has poured billions into tackling child poverty, but there is a real fear that the recession will undo some of that work or at least set it back.

Although child poverty has decreased under the Government, pensioner poverty has not fallen to the same extent. Poverty among working, childless adults has increased to its highest level for 40 years. In addition, the Government’s third term has seen a rise in income inequality, with the poorest fifth of the population experiencing a fall in income. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated, for example, that the gap between the income of the rich and the poor is now the highest it has been since its comparable time series began in 1961, the year I was born, and inequalities in wealth are even greater than those in income.

The hon. Lady mentioned the Child Poverty Act 2010, which we of course supported. However, we are concerned that the Government have watered down the goal of “eradicating” child poverty by 2020. Instead, the Act now states that no more than 10 per cent. of children should be in poverty. By our maths, that means that the Government are resigned to accepting that around 1 million children will still live in some form of poverty in future. The recession has seen inequality and poverty continue to rise in certain groups, as they did in the past few years when the UK was booming, so what will be the effects when we tackle the problems ahead?

The targets of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020 were set out by Tony Blair in 1999, but the interim target was missed in 2005-06 and, unsurprisingly, it looks as though the 2010 target will be missed as well. When times were good it was easy to pick off the low-hanging fruit, meaning those who were only a few percentage points below the poverty line or who were perhaps on a low income temporarily and would quickly find another job, or who were poor simply for one reason, rather than for complex, multiple reasons. However, now that times are harder, we are concerned that the good work that has been done so far will stall and perhaps start to go backwards, particularly if there is a new Administration after 6 May who will place less emphasis on tackling child poverty than the current Government have done.

We have seen some recent changes on pensioner poverty, one of which has been to the state earnings-related pension scheme. The second state pension scheme has effectively been frozen for 2009-10, meaning that around 9 million pensioners will have a real-terms cut in their pension payments this year, amounting to around £515 million.

With the breaking of the earnings link, the gap whereby our pensioners have fallen behind basic pay is certainly significant. Therefore, surely we need a substantial rise in the basic state pension, and then the link with earnings.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and makes a good point, and I will mention in a few moments some specific things my party would like to see done. We certainly oppose the recent freeze, as we do not believe that pensioners should be the first to feel the pain of the recession. Freezing parts of the state pension would be a blow to those pensioners who already live on or near the poverty line. The woeful inadequacy of the basic state pension is a legacy of successive Governments. Since the link to which he referred was broken 30 years ago, the pension has simply withered away, and the Government have done nothing to reverse that trend. The whole pensions edifice is built on a totally inadequate foundation, and until that problem is addressed all other pension reform will be merely tinkering at the edges.

Four million pensioners are poor enough to be entitled to means-tested pension credit, and that number will rise to encompass half of all pensioners by 2050. Is that something we ought to be proud of? About one third of those who are entitled to claim pension credit do not do so, partly because of the complexity of the system and partly because they do not want to spend their lives asking for handouts.

The Liberal Democrat party is the only party that has pledged to restore the earnings link immediately rather than by the end of the next Parliament or beyond, and we would like a target to be enshrined in legislation to eradicate pensioner poverty in the same way that this Government set a target on child poverty in the 2010 Act. We believe that a decent state pension is the key to a solid foundation for retirement, and our goal is to introduce a citizens pension that would give people a full pension regardless of their contributions. It would gradually be raised high enough to lift people out of means-testing.

Several other policies would be particularly beneficial to pensioners. For example, we propose that the personal tax allowance be raised to £10,000 for everyone—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak referred to this—so that no pensioner with total income below that amount would pay any income tax. That would benefit most tax-paying pensioners to the tune of some £100. We also propose to abolish council tax and replace it with a local income tax that is based on the ability to pay, which would be of huge benefit to most pensioners. They would pay less under a local income tax than they do under council tax.

My party welcomes the Government’s plan to auto-enrol workers in personal accounts under the new National Employment Savings Trust scheme, as only one half of today’s work force is currently paying into a private pension. However, that will work only if the Government are prepared to ensure that employer contributions are at a much higher level. The proposed contribution levels for personal accounts do not go far enough to ensure decent provision.

Poverty among working-age adults without dependent children is now at its highest since data were first collected in 1961. That is because the Government have focused their policies overwhelmingly on families with children. We understand that, but we should not disadvantage families who do not have children.

Of course, some of the biggest casualties of the recession have been young people. More than 700,000 18 to 24-year-olds are out of work, and that can be a real disadvantage for them as they start their working lives. We need to intervene and offer help far earlier than we do. My party has pledged to offer young people access to further education, internships and train-to-work programmes after 90 days out of work. We do not think it is right to abandon young people, often in the midst of their first attempts to find work and start a career, for up to six months without a chance to do something to improve their employability. We would offer all those young people the £55 a week jobseeker’s allowance rate as a training allowance while they complete a three-month internship with an employer.

We believe that the next Government must continue to invest to stimulate the economy and create jobs. We want to rebalance the British economy and build it again on solid, sustainable and green foundations. We have identified £3.5 billion of current Government expenditure that could fund an economic stimulus and job creation plan. Together with our banking reforms, which will end the dependence of the British economy on the City of London, that plan will kick-start economic growth on stronger foundations than before, and ensure that growth and jobs last as they should.

As we face the election, which is being called today, there are several steps that can be taken in an attempt to stop a further rise in poverty and inequality. The question at this election is whether the next Government will aspire to such aims. A Liberal Democrat Administration certainly would.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) for her speech. This is an important subject, and I am glad that she secured this debate. It is a pity that there are not more Members here to participate in it, but we understand why, in the circumstances of the general election being called today.

I welcome the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who I believe is also standing down at this election. He does not usually speak for his party on these matters, but he is welcome here today. I am not sure where the members of his shadow Work and Pensions team are, but we wish them well in their absence.

I was particularly struck by the quote from Robert Kennedy that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak ended with. I have not heard it before, but I shall acquaint myself better with it when Hansard comes out tomorrow. It struck me that there was a certain similarity in what he said and some of the issues around gross well-being, to which my party leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has drawn attention.

We need to look at the facts in this important area of poverty and inequality and try to understand why things have become worse under this Government since 2004. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and, indeed, the Government’s own figures on child poverty and other statistics, it was at that point that poverty, unemployment and repossessions started rising in the UK. That was well before the recession began.

Poverty is now back at the same level it was in 2000, having risen every year since 2004-05, and an additional 400,000 children now live in poverty. There has been an increase, not a decrease, during that time. We are indebted to the work of Save the Children and others who pointed out a particularly worrying trend as far as severe poverty among children is concerned. They said that it, too, has risen since 2004-05.

This debate has rightly dealt with the position of pensioners living in poverty. There are 2.5 million pensioners living in poverty in the UK, which is some 100,000 more than in 1996-97. My party is also committed to restoring the earnings link.

No, I will not. I want to make some progress.

We welcome the auto-enrolment proposals embodied in the National Employment Savings Trust initiative, which my party supported. It is important to get more people on low incomes saving in pensions.

I would like to give him the actual figures. In 2000, there were 3.1 million before housing costs; now there are 2.9 million. After housing costs, the measure was 4.1 million, and it is now 4 million. The hon. Gentleman simply must be accurate in what he is saying.

When the Minister reads the record tomorrow, she will see that I said that poverty, not child poverty, is back at the same level as in 2000. Those are the Joseph Rowntree figures. If she wants to dispute them, she is welcome to. She knows very well that my figures on child poverty referred to the increase since 2004-05, which is extremely well documented, and on which, sadly, we have not had much fresh thinking from this Government.

Another group that I am glad was mentioned today is the disabled. Several Members mentioned them in their speech, which was right and proper, because we know that there is a much higher rate of poverty among disabled people. Some 16 per cent. of non-disabled people live in poverty, but the figure is around 30 per cent. for disabled people. I shall shortly discuss what my party would like to do about that. We must never lose sight of that group when we discuss these important issues.

We now have the highest levels of inequality since the comparable time series was started in 1961. That should concern us all, as it has a number of serious negative effects. The Gini coefficient, which is a commonly used measure of inequality, is now above the level that this Government inherited and, as I said, at the highest level since the start of a consistent time series in 1961. The National Equality Panel, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak rightly quoted, said that we have the highest level of inequality since the second world war, and the UK is placed seventh worst for income inequality in the list of OECD nations—so considerably worse than many of our European neighbours.

My party is committed to building a society that is not only richer but also fairer and safer, where opportunity is more equal and poverty is abolished. We will focus our efforts on looking at strengthening families and communities and at incentives into work, which, although it has not been raised so far in this debate, is important.

With our major focus on welfare to work, we will replace this Government’s complicated, bureaucratic employment programmes with our work programme, which will be a single programme of back-to-work support for everyone on out-of-work benefits, including the 2.6 million on incapacity benefits who have not had the attention that they should have had under this Government to try to help them back into work. We will also create 400,000 new apprenticeships and training opportunities over two years to tackle youth unemployment and prevent a generation from being written off by the recession.

We are passionate about education.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the slight increase in inequality, but that is largely due to the huge increases in the highest rates of pay. What would the next Conservative Government do, were they to be elected? Hopefully, they will not be elected. Would they support a high pay commission, for example?

I will mention specifics in a moment, if the hon. Lady will allow me to develop my remarks a little bit further. I assure her that I will touch on that area.

Schools are the motor of social mobility. They provide children from low-income backgrounds the chance not to replicate low income among their own children and to increase their life chances. We will weight school funding towards children from the poorest backgrounds through a pupil premium, ensuring that extra funds follow those pupils into the schools that educate them. The hon. Lady was right to draw attention to that. She mentioned the woeful underperformance of children on free school meals compared with other school children. That is a passion of the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, who has raised this matter on a number of occasions.

We want to see a universal health-visiting service for all parents and we want Sure Start to go back to its original purpose. We share the Government’s aspiration to halve child poverty by 2010—although sadly, from what we have seen in the documents in the Budget, that seems not to have been achieved—and eliminate it by 2020. We supported the Child Poverty Bill during its progress through the House.

We want to make greater efforts to try to break the link between disability and poverty. We will focus on trying to find jobs for people who are disabled and trying to enable them to progress in their careers. One area that will be particularly important in that regard is flexible work. Again, there has not been leadership from the Government on promoting and creating flexible work. Five Departments have numbers of part-time employees only in single figures. The Government could and should lead by example.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak is right to say that levels of inequality matter in society. They matter for a number of reasons that are important to Conservatives. We know, from Professor Richard Wilkinson’s book, which the hon. Lady mentioned—I have a copy in my office, which I have been reading—that in more unequal societies there is less volunteering and more crime. I was looking at some evidence over the weekend showing that the level of crime in London’s most unequal boroughs, compared with five more equal boroughs, is significantly higher. We also know that levels of mental illness are higher in areas where there is greatest inequality. We can say that more unequal societies lead to additional costs to the public purse and prevent us from being a more cohesive society.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady has the book on early intervention by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). That is a good example of important cross-party collaboration on early intervention. She mentioned the importance of brain development. If I remember rightly, she said that if time in the 0 to threes, particularly, is lost it is much more difficult to make progress with a child. Politicians need to take notice of this important epidemiological insight. I believe that this cross-party work has been significant in doing that. Early intervention is important, but I agree with Professor John Hills that children need a series of what he describes as in-flight boosts to correct inequality later on.

I say to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that it took a Conservative Mayor of London to bring in a living wage for local authority staff. The cleaners who cleaned the Minister’s office early this morning are not paid the London living wage by her Department: I found that out from answers to parliamentary questions. I wonder whether that is as it should be.

The Government seem to have turned their back on inequality in the public sector. That is surprising. The Government can do something about that. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak rightly spoke about the private sector, but should not the Government take a lead in respect of the area about which they can do something? For example, the maximum sum payable for the chief executive of a strategic health authority is £204,048 a year, whereas the pay for an NHS employee at pay band 1 is £13,233 per year—by the way, that is £600 below the minimum living standard—which is a ratio of 15.1:1.

The hon. Lady spoke about chief executives, but only in the private sector, not the public sector. Let us look at local authorities. In the local authority in Slough, which is the example that I have to hand, the lowest salary of a full-time employee is £12,994, whereas the chief executive is on a salary of £157,479, which is a ratio of 11:1.

Interestingly, in the Army—the hon. Member for Hereford, who knows about these things will agree—the ratio between a brigadier and a private soldier is only 6:1. I think that most hon. Members in this Chamber would agree that the Army is an effective, cohesive public sector organisation. If there can be an effective organisation—

No, I will not give way to the Minister. She will have her turn to speak in a moment, when she will perhaps respond to my point about the cleaners in her own office and say whether she is happy for them to be paid below the London living wage—perhaps she is.

It is interesting that there is a much lower difference in the ratio between the lowest and the highest paid in an effective organisation.

The shadow Chancellor has said that any public sector wage higher than the Prime Minister’s will have to be put to the Chancellor for agreement. Some 323 public sector employees are paid more than the Prime Minister. Over the weekend I learned that the Scottish First Minister is paid more than the Prime Minister, which is somewhat strange. The director-general of the BBC is on around £850,000 per year.

I believe in Government leading by example. If these things matter and we are going to say to private industry, “Get your house in order”, private industry can rightly say to Members of Parliament, “What’s going on in those institutions over which you have some say?” We have not seen much action from this Government in that area.

In answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, I say that we Conservatives are committed to the minimum wage.

No. The Minister will have a chance to speak in a second.

The Minister is responsible for the Child Support Agency. As shadow Minister, I find it unacceptable that, according to table 15.1 of the 2007 families and children study produced by the Department, 61 per cent. of all parents with care were not receiving child maintenance. Those are not figures for which the CSA is responsible—where there is a valid maintenance contract—but it is shocking and unacceptable that 61 per cent. of fathers, largely, have got off without taking care of their responsibilities. How are we really going to do something about inequality and poverty among the lone parents whom the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak spoke about when 61 per cent. of lone parents are not in receipt of child support?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Weir. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones). I am not sure what the opposite of a maiden speech is—perhaps we had better not go there, as they say. However, I wish to pay tribute to her for her speech this morning, and for the huge commitment that she has shown on these issues, both during her parliamentary career and before that in her work on housing in Birmingham.

She raised several important points to which I hope to respond. First, she talked about the importance of early intervention. Last week, I was in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), to see the work supported by the Labour Government on early intervention. I saw three particularly good examples of that. One was work with teenagers who were pregnant or new mothers, and excellent work was being done to increase the life chances and opportunities of their babies. Another example was a family intervention project that dealt with families that suffered from a huge, complex interaction of problems. The third initiative was Sure Start and I feel proud—as does my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, I am sure—that there are now 3,500 Sure Start centres. I am deeply alarmed by the proposal repeated by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) to reduce the number of Sure Start centres in this country.

My hon. Friend talked about the level of equality and how it has varied over the past 60 years. That was interesting and, like her, I assumed that equality in the country was highest immediately after the second world war. In fact, that is not borne out by the data because high levels of inequality were a spillover from the problems of the interwar years. It was not until between 1975 and 1979—after four Labour Governments—that the lowest inequality ever to have existed in this country was achieved.

I know that we are not allowed to use visual aids, but I must refer to a document on the distributional impact of the Labour Government from 1997 to 2010, produced by the independent and highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies. It shows that over that period, the effect of changes in tax and benefits led to an increase in wealth of about 12 per cent. for the poorest 10 per cent. of people. The effect on the richest 10 per cent. has been a reduction in wealth of about 8 per cent. Looking beyond the richest 10 per cent. of people to those earning more than £100,000, the impact of the tax and benefit changes has been minus 15 per cent.

In part, that is the result of measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who this month introduced a 50p rate of income tax for those earning above £150,000, a withdrawal of personal allowances for those earning over £100,000, and a restriction on tax relief for pension contributions. In two years’ time, there will be a freeze on the higher-rate tax threshold. Meanwhile, at the other end of the income scale, there have been one-off real increases in benefits and increases in child tax credits. From 2012, a new child tax credit for one and two-year-olds is designed to benefit all parents of small children whether they are married, unmarried, separated or widowed. It will not stereotype or ghettoise anyone, or try to make choices between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire made several remarks and I do not have time to make a thorough critique of them all. At the end of his speech he claimed to be concerned about people on low wages—that from the party which steadfastly opposed the introduction of the minimum wage. He now says that his party is committed to the minimum wage, but he has not said whether it is committed to maintaining it in real terms. The minimum wage benefits 1 million people, two-thirds of whom are women. Since its introduction in 1999, it has increased in real terms by 23 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene to say that his party is committed to maintaining the minimum wage in real terms, I would be happy to give way.

My understanding is that the minimum wage is set by the Low Pay Commission. I think that the trick is to set it as high as possible so as not to harm the prospects of people going into low-paid work. There is a conversation to be had about the level of tax credits and the minimum wage.

That was as clear a commitment as one could expect under the circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak also—reasonably enough—mentioned the problems at the high end of the spectrum. It will not have escaped her notice that the Chancellor has imposed a special tax on the pools that banks have set aside for bank bonuses. As she will know, that was expected to raise £500 million, but in the event it raised £2 billion—a significant sum of money by any standards.

The Government’s commitment to tackling poverty cannot be gainsaid; we have achieved some significant improvements. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who is no longer in his seat, was the first to mention pensioners, and 900,000 pensioners have been lifted out of poverty. The poorest third of pensioners are now £2,100 a year better off, and we have made moves to re-establish the link between pensions and earnings, which was so needlessly destroyed by the previous Administration.

The Government’s policies on families mean that the poorest fifth of families are, on average, £3,000 a year better off. Half a million children had been lifted out of poverty by 2007, and measures taken since then will lift a further 550,000 children out of poverty by the end of the year. We have halved absolute poverty. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) asked whether we have a continuing commitment to that policy. We took the Child Poverty Bill through Parliament—and we are grateful for cross-party support—because we are absolutely committed to making continued progress on that matter over the next 10 years.

Will the Minister give a commitment that a future Labour Government would introduce a pensioner poverty Bill along the lines of the Child Poverty Bill, and legislate to ensure that pensioners do not fall into poverty?

Much as I would like to, I cannot anticipate the manifesto or the next Queen’s Speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak asked about the significance of property taxes. She was right to mention that, and it is another reason why the Conservative party’s proposal to cut inheritance tax for the wealthiest 3,000 millionaires is so bizarre when coming from a party that claims to be concerned about inequality. Any party interested in inequality must address poverty, and look across society at the whole complex of policies and how they impact on people. At this time while we struggle to emerge from a recession, I cannot see that the British people—

Swindon to Kemble Rail Line

I am grateful to you, Mr. Weir, and to Mr. Speaker for allowing me the opportunity to hold this Adjournment debate. I am even more grateful to the Minister for being here on a day when I am sure that he would prefer to be doing other things elsewhere.

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. This is the second Adjournment debate that I have had on this subject; the first was on 30 June 2008. Given the work that has been involved in campaigning in support of the redoubling, it is perhaps fitting that it is one of the last subjects on which I will speak before the election. If the Minister will forgive the metaphor, I hope that my campaign for redoubling is arriving at the station and that he will have some good news today for my constituents.

In my experience as a rail Minister since last July, it is impossible to make a speech about rail without using a rail metaphor, so I forgive the hon. Gentleman.

The Minister is obviously reserving the good news for when he speaks.

Let me begin by detailing the reasons for the campaign, how it has progressed and the incredible amount of cross-party and cross-national support that it has received. We are talking about a single-track line that stretches a mere 12.5 miles between the Swindon locomotive yard and the western portal of the Kemble tunnel. The line was singled in the early 1970s. The necessity for redoubling stems from the self-evident limitations that are imposed on trains travelling in opposite directions on a single-track line. Doubling the track would provide a significant extra benefit. As passengers who use the line know only too well, delays and cancellations are frequent, the infrastructure cannot support an hourly timetable and delays are regularly exported from the line. Network Rail believes that significant demand from passengers and freight is being suppressed because of these limitations.

The second factor is the nature of the Swindon-Kemble line as a diversionary route. As the Minister will know, because I have spoken to him privately about this, the Welsh Affairs Committee’s 10th report of the 2009-10 Session, which is entitled “Cross-border provision of public service for Wales: follow-up”, noted:

“The main diversionary route for South-Wales London services when the Severn Tunnel is closed for maintenance runs from Swindon via Kemble and Gloucester.”

It adds that the Severn Tunnel

“would remain operational…into the medium term, but that regular closures for maintenance would nevertheless be necessary…although the Tunnel would be suitable for electrification, this will require a longer closure for the work to be completed.”

The relevant section of the report finishes by noting:

“The importance of this line as a diversionary route when the Severn Tunnel is closed will be heightened during electrification of the Great Western Main Line. We urge the Government to ensure that final costs are agreed as soon as possible so that work can begin.”

The Minister will also know, as I mentioned in my previous Adjournment debate, that the redoubling would

“provide a diversionary route for freight traffic travelling from Southampton to the west midlands and for trains from the south-west to the north of England, which is the preferred diversionary route.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 705.]

There are also additional benefits, such as building in rail capacity to support growth and regeneration in the south-west in the coming years, supporting freight movement and the cost saving to be achieved by closing the signal box at Minety. I will not elaborate on the scheme’s further benefits, because the case has been well and truly made, but it is worth mentioning that supporting rail travel ties in with the Government’s and, indeed, the Opposition’s policy on a modal shift to supporting green travel and the green economy, which would lead to CO2 reductions.

If the Minister will indulge me further, I would like to take him on a quick diversionary route—he will be glad to know that that is my second and last rail metaphor—to clarify exactly where we are now on the redoubling and how we have got to this point. I have campaigned for the redoubling of the line for many years. Unfortunately, as he knows, the Office of Rail Regulation announced its funding plans for 2009-14 on 5 June 2008. Although we had the good news that the Cotswold line would be redoubled, it was announced that the Swindon-Kemble line would not receive funding. In my view, and probably in the view of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), the Swindon-Kemble line was perhaps more deserving than the North Cotswolds line.

Following that news, I called an Adjournment debate on 30 June, in which the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), stated:

“I wish the scheme a fair wind.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 712.]

Subsequently, I was able to keep up pressure for reconsideration of the scheme. I did that through meetings, first, with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South and, subsequently, with the Secretary of State for Transport. On both occasions, I was accompanied by colleagues from Gloucestershire, including my neighbour the hon. Member for Stroud, who has been a long-time supporter of work on the line. Representatives of Network Rail and First Great Western were also present.

My neighbour and I make common cause on this issue, which is very pleasing. I declare an interest, in that I was on the line this morning. The key point, beside the fact that there is to be a general election, is that we need to know now that the team will come over from the Cotswold line. That has to be the absolute priority. If it does not happen now, it will not happen this side of a decade. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

My neighbour is clairvoyant. I will make exactly that case a little later.

The lobbying work proved effective. It was clear that despite the ORR’s decision, support for the scheme was forthcoming from the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, the Secretary of State for Transport, Gloucestershire county council, the South West of England Regional Development Agency, the regional assembly, the district and urban councils and most, if not all, Gloucestershire MPs. The only thing missing was the funding.

The first steps to overcome that problem took shape when the Department for Transport committed £900,000, and the Welsh Assembly offered £100,000 towards a feasibility study. Some £20 million was put aside from the regional funding allowance for the project itself, but that still left a gap—the scheme had been estimated as costing £37 million before the new feasibility study was conducted.

On 3 September 2009, I attended the South West Regional Grand Committee, where I found that the Minister for the South West was another supporter of the redoubling scheme. At the meeting, he clearly stated:

“It would provide diversionary seven-day railway capacity and route capacity that First Great Western has indicated it could take up on a commercial basis. It would also facilitate housing growth if the Government were to bring that forward. Good arguments can be made in favour of the redoubling of this line and I am happy to play my part in that process.”—[Official Report, South West Regional Grand Committee, 9 September 2009; c. 12.]

As the Committee progressed, I challenged the Minister to produce one positive outcome from its proceedings. I must give him credit for taking up that challenge and writing to the RDA on 6 October 2009, suggesting that if it could produce

“an agreed, realistic and deliverable five year programme”,

he hoped that that programme would be able to go ahead.

By 16 November 2009, the Minister for the South West had persuaded the RDA to agree to provide a further £25 million in funding. The money had previously been allocated to the Westbury bypass, which had been refused permission, so the money could be reallocated to fund fully the Swindon-Kemble line. With the feasibility study not expected to be completed until the end of the year, it was clear that that deadline could not be achieved, but we now had an absolute commitment for £45 million towards the project.

Subsequent to that news, the hon. Member for Stroud called an Adjournment debate on 27 October 2009, when he made a further eloquent case for the work. The debate further highlighted the cross-party support for the scheme. Unfortunately, when the results of the feasibility study were announced, the final figure—as the Minister knows only too well—was £52.4 million and it was clear that further work was needed to progress the scheme.

I then contacted 18 right hon. and hon. Members in the Welsh parliamentary area, for whom the redoubling work would have particular significance. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) for their support in contacting the relevant Ministers.

That brings us up to date, in terms of detailing why the scheme is so vital, the steps that have been taken by myself and others to raise its profile, and the success that we have achieved.

Before the Minister responds, I want to raise with him the ultimate purpose of today’s debate. We are now looking at either cutting £7.4 million from the estimated cost of the scheme according to the feasibility study, or finding £7.4 million of funding from non-governmental sources or from departmental end-of-year savings, or a combination of the two.

Many of my constituents fail to understand how a scheme that appeared to have ministerial support as long ago as 2008 has still not been able to progress. Although they and I understand that there are financial pressures, there are also time concerns. In that regard, I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Stroud said. As he pointed out, there is a clear window of opportunity if the go-ahead for the redoubling work is given soon. Skills and equipment that are currently being used for the redoubling of the North Cotswolds line could easily be transferred to the Swindon-Kemble line. If they are not transferred, the larger national schemes such as Crossrail and the refurbishment of Reading station will come into play and the Swindon-Kemble line might lose its place in the queue, perhaps for many years.

So can the Minister say exactly what discussions he has had with Network Rail since the figure of £52.4 million was announced in the feasibility study? Most importantly, can he tell us if he believes that £7.4 million in savings can be made? If so, why has it taken since January for that announcement to be made? If he cannot tell us that those savings can be made, or if he has doubts that they can be made, does he believe that any end-of-year departmental savings could be redirected towards this scheme? Furthermore, Network Rail has a huge maintenance budget and it will save on maintenance if this scheme goes ahead. So, could Network Rail be persuaded to find some money for the scheme?

In addition, has the Minister had any discussions with the train operator on the line, First Great Western? Any passenger travelling at peak times between Kemble and London, as the hon. Member for Stroud did this morning, would pay £58.50 for a single standard ticket or £91 for a first-class seat. This is a very lucrative line for First Great Western. With a growth in rail users and a growth in population in the south-west, does First Great Western not have a vested interest in seeing the redoubling scheme progress? If it does, could it possibly provide some money towards it? I also want to ask the Minister if there are any other funding avenues that he, I or anybody else should be investigating.

Ultimately, however, I hope that the Minister will use this 11th-hour opportunity, before Parliament is dissolved, to give all the users of this rail line some wonderful news, by announcing that he has found a solution and that the redoubling of the single track between Swindon and Kemble will now go ahead.

Dr. McCrea, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate about the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble railway.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on securing the debate. Along with a number of other Members of Parliament, he has been diligent and very determined in promoting the case for the redoubling of the route. At the same time, of course, I also welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for the debate.

I am pleased to have another Westminster Hall debate on this issue, as it gives me the opportunity to give the latest position on the work of achieving an acceptable and affordable price for this redoubling scheme, so that it can be delivered with financial support from the south-west region. I want to reassure the House that much effort is being devoted to the issue. In particular, I want to thank Network Rail, the nation’s rail infrastructure owner and operator, for the hard work that it is doing in this regard.

The Secretary of State for Transport and the Minister for the South West have both expressed support for the scheme, as the hon. Member for Cotswold outlined. We all recognise the value of extra capacity and improved train performance that this particular redoubling scheme would create. Before I turn to the specific subject of the debate in more detail, let me remind the House about how the region and the wider area served by the Great Western main line, in particular the line’s passengers and freight customers, will benefit from our ambitious rail plans.

The performance of First Great Western continues to be of high quality, with Network Rail reporting in its latest figures that 93.4 per cent. of First Great Western’s trains arrived on time. On 23 July 2009, we announced the £1.1 billion electrification programme of the Great Western main line between London, Bristol, Oxford, Newbury and Swansea, along with the electrification of the line between Liverpool and Manchester. That was great news for those specific areas and for the public transport industry in general.

The electrification programme will boost jobs, reduce journey times, make trains more reliable, increase capacity, contribute to sustainable or “greener” transport and build on improvements in train performance. From 2016, passengers travelling between London, Slough, Reading, Newbury, Didcot, Oxford and Swindon, as well as to intermediate stations, will benefit from the reliability and comfort of electric trains. The aim is that, by 2017, electrification will be extended to inter-city services to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. Electrification will mean that minimum journey times between London and Swansea can be reduced by almost 20 minutes. It will also enable capacity on inter-city services during the morning peak hour to be increased by about 15 per cent. Electrification of the Great Western main line is being integrated with the significant upgrade of Reading station, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, and the £16 billion Crossrail project, which will reach out to Heathrow airport and Maidenhead.

Electrification of the Great Western routes between London and Bristol and between London and Swansea will potentially enable more trains to operate. It will also reduce the cost of the track and the damage to it. The environment will be improved as fewer diesel trains will run. Journeys for passengers will be improved, as electric trains will be able to accelerate faster and consequently journey times between London and the other major city centres will be reduced. Operators will also be able to run more frequent services as their business continues to grow.

I will now address the Swindon to Kemble line specifically. Network Rail initially identified the redoubling of the line as one of several options to improve the performance of the Great Western main line and the wider network. The line was originally singled in 1968, which is slightly earlier than the hon. Gentleman suggested, as an economy measure by the operator at the time, British Railways’ Western Region.

Network Rail believes that redoubling of the line would improve performance, especially when the line acts as a diversionary route for trains between London and south Wales or when there is engineering work on the line or in the Severn tunnel. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that use of the line will be especially important when electrification takes place.

The south-west region and the local authorities believe that redoubling is essential if an upgraded Cheltenham and Gloucester to London service is to be provided. The railway industry agrees with that view. I fully accept that we also need to provide for the improvement to such rail links. However, a little while back the Office of Rail Regulation concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to justify the inclusion of the Swindon-Kemble enhancement as a funded scheme to deliver the overall high level outputs specified by the Government. That decision by ORR has been debated frequently in the House and we have responded positively to Members’ representations.

More recently, the Secretary of State for Transport wrote to regional partners to outline his strong support for the redoubling scheme. In our response to the south-west region on its regional funding advice, we asked that consideration be given to taking forward a fully funded Swindon-Kemble major scheme. The south-west region has risen to the occasion and I must congratulate it on the action that it has taken, which I will return to in a moment.

In addition to that dialogue with the south-west region, the Secretary of State and I have committed Department officials to work with the railway industry to make the case for redoubling. As the hon. Member for Cotswold well knows, the south-west region, the Department for Transport and the Welsh Assembly Government have jointly funded a rail investment study by Network Rail. Their total contributions amounted to some £2.6 million. That is a good example of working in partnership and I commend the parties involved for their respective contributions.

It is also now well known that the south-west region has offered to contribute £45 million from its funding allocation budget towards the capital cost of redoubling. That is very welcome indeed and I commend the role of the Minister for the South West in making that happen. That £45 million is made up of an initial £20 million contribution, followed by a further £25 million allocation from funds that were originally earmarked for the Westbury bypass. Network Rail has already provided an interim report on its investigations. That has been examined by the Department, which has asked Network Rail to continue to explore a wide range of issues.

Network Rail is undertaking an evaluation of the earthworks and associated structures on the Swindon to Kemble line, in particular the disused sections where only minimal maintenance has been carried out since the line was singled. There is also a need to determine the most efficient means of bringing a number of level crossings up to modern standards. Much of the present single line is laid along the centre line of the old double track formation. That makes for a slightly more formidable challenge in redoubling compared to a situation where the single track takes up just one of the paths of the old lines. In December 2009, Network Rail concluded that, on the evidence available, redoubling the 13-mile section of route would cost £52.4 million, reduced from a previous and less sophisticated calculation of £62 million.

I recognise that redoubling the Swindon to Kemble line is a regional priority that could facilitate growth and support resilience and performance. As I said, it acts as a diversionary route to and from south Wales when work is taking place on that route, particularly in the Severn tunnel. The importance of the diversionary route will increase while the task of electrification is taking place.

However, the national rail budget remains fully committed until 2014, and we cannot bridge the funding gap. In the circumstances, the £45 million allocated in the regional funding allocation is, for all practical planning purposes, the maximum available at present. The current price of £52.4 million therefore represents, as the hon. Gentleman identified, a difference of £7.4 million with the budget. Deducting the £2.6 million spent on the study reduces the difference to £4.8 million.

Network Rail is exploring a number of opportunities to see whether the gap can be bridged, including the deployment of different and possibly innovative contracting methods to get the most competitive price. The study also considered the extent to which reconditioned materials could be used and how best to undertake the work. For example, should all the work be done over a limited time scale while the line is shut, or on weekends and at night? The emerging conclusion appears to involve a mixture of both, but I am equally conscious of the need to ensure that passengers using the line—no doubt they include many constituents of the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend—are not overly inconvenienced. It might also be possible, as the hon. Gentleman said, to offset some of the work against the cost of maintaining the route in future years if it remained a single line. The Office of Rail Regulation is considering the matter.

I am personally confident that the hard work being done by Network Rail’s engineers will reduce costs to an amount near, if not within, the funds available. They are a focused group and have risen to the challenge of doing the job within the £45 million limit.

That is relatively good news. I do not want to speak out of turn, but my only worry was that the people assigned the problem were not the first rank of engineers within Network Rail. It is important to know that the brightest and best are seeing it as an opportunity. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that they can hold forth and that the scheme goes forward.

The officials within the Department to whom I speak advise me that the people working on the situation are absolutely committed to making it happen. I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about when the team will finish work on the Cotswolds line. As the issues are considered more closely, one factor to take into account is that carrying the team across might be a way to reduce costs from the estimate, which might have been based on assumptions that a team would be set up from scratch.

I agree with my neighbour the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew); it is relatively good news. If we are not to have an announcement today that the scheme will go ahead, we are at least moving towards the station. However, does the Minister not agree that the longer we take to find the funding, the more it will cost and the more funding we will have to find? It seems as though we will never catch up with ourselves enough for the scheme to be given the go-ahead. What timetabling assurances can he give us about when the funding might be found? Has he really re-examined all alternative funding sources, such as First Great Western?

The hon. Gentleman has asked me two specific questions about Network Rail, one of which I just answered; it concerned potential savings from future renewals and maintenance costs that could be offset by undertaking the work earlier. The other involves the franchise operator, First Great Western. He made the case that it might be interested in an investment that could enable it to grow its passenger numbers. I suspect that First Great Western’s assessment would prioritise investment in the front-loading of a new train service that would not run at sufficient capacity in the first instance to return a profit. Its priority would probably be to subsidise the first few years of the new services, which would take advantage of the capacity, rather than investing in infrastructure, which I think most train operators are fairly reluctant to do.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Welsh Assembly Government, and I know that he is interested in other potential funding sources such as the European Union. The line is not a trans-European network, so it would not necessarily qualify for European funds from that source. Nor does the nature of the area suggest that funds for addressing regeneration and disadvantage would be forthcoming. I am not aware whether the Welsh Assembly Government could access European Union funding, but the Welsh Assembly Government might be able to make the case that it is a strategic diversionary route for south Wales. However, I understand that they have already been making best use of European funds for investment in railways. Given what I have heard about their investment in railways in Wales, I suspect that they are unlikely to want to invest in railways outside Wales. They seem to be fully committed to the railways in their own territories at this time.

To address the hon. Gentleman’s question about timing, I understand why he is anxious. Network Rail is due to report to the Department’s officials early this summer, by which I mean no later than June. If a positive result is forthcoming, I hope that a deal can be struck. Although we are driving hard to get the job complete within what is on the table, I am nevertheless anxious to know whether the amount can be supplemented should a genuine need arise. I have discussed European and Welsh Assembly funding. In these challenging economic times, we must be realistic about how limited such opportunities are.

Network Rail’s 5,000 engineers have experience from earlier redoubling and are seeking to improve how it is done. Perhaps that will help the hon. Gentleman. He asked me for my assessment of the prospects of reducing the cost further. At one point, the outline figure was £62 million; it is now down to £52 million. There are challenges as redoubling work takes place and problems with embankments and cuttings are identified. The ground on which a one-track railway sits is not always robust enough to build a two-track railway. As such problems are identified, costs rise, but as I said, using our experience from earlier efforts can reduce them again.

In conclusion, the spotlight is on Network Rail to achieve an efficient price for the scheme. It is working hard to do so, but until it provides something affordable, further developments cannot go forward. I am keen to ensure that this unique opportunity to implement the scheme is not lost. If Network Rail’s price is affordable and the region’s endorsement is maintained, spending could be allocated over the fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13. Our aspiration would then be to commission the doubled track by December 2012.

Tackling Crime (Plymouth)

As I pointed out in 2001 in one of a number of debates on crime, Plymouth was one of the earliest places to adopt a partnership approach to tackling crime, as recommended by the Morgan report. Many years on, that partnership work is now wider and deeper. It is embedded in the work of our local strategic partnership, Plymouth 2020, which has the vision that by 2020, our city will be recognised as

“one of Europe’s finest, most vibrant waterfront cities, where an outstanding quality of life is enjoyed by everyone”.

Community safety and bearing down on crime are important parts of that.

Since 1997, crime has fallen by 36 per cent. and violent crime is down by 40 per cent. nationally, although one would never know that from some of the stories in the national press. I do not usually read the Daily Mail, but I noticed yesterday that it focused only on the negative aspects and quoted figures as if there were no context of significant drops in crime.

In Plymouth, the police authority, the basic command unit and their partners have used the Government’s investment and policies to make us the fourth safest police authority area and one of the safest cities in the country. As well as celebrating that, I will focus on how the next Parliament can help us to continue down the strong direction of travel that we have established locally and nationally.

Things have moved on since the 2001 debate. With neighbourhood renewal funding came the need to set up the local strategic partnership. For over seven years, it has worked on stretch targets set under the safer and stronger communities theme group that reports to the main board. Recently, the Audit Commission awarded Plymouth with a coveted green flag in the first comprehensive area assessment, which indicates

“exceptional performance and innovation that other public services could learn from”.

It was awarded for

“the way partners in Plymouth plan ahead to protect people in the city during large scale emergencies.”

The new Oneplace area assessment of local public services says that Plymouth is a safe place for most people and concludes:

“The Council, Police, Primary Care Trust, Fire and Rescue Service, other public services, voluntary groups and businesses work extremely well together to plan ahead and respond to emergencies to keep the city safe.”

That is reflected in the day-to-day work that has resulted in a drop in our crime figures. In the year to September 2009, crime was down by 9.6 per cent. compared with the previous year and in the first quarter of 2010, it was down by 11.7 per cent. compared with the same period in 2009. There are still challenges aplenty. Although there is a well established downward trajectory in crime over a number of years according to police recorded crime and the British crime survey, it does not always feel that way and certainly not to the victims of the crime that remains.

The fear of crime remains stubbornly high, although people rate their local situation better than their perception of the country as a whole. Such fear is partly rooted in a belief that the steps to tackle crime are not travelling in the right direction, even though they clearly are. The police and the criminal justice system are not the only public services that face such perceptions. There is a wide disparity in the answers people give about the health service. When asked about their last experience of using the health service, most people say it was good, but when asked how the health service is doing generally, people usually think that it is travelling in the wrong direction, which it clearly is not.

Lagging perceptions are not new. When I worked at the Gas Consumers Council in the 1990s, people commonly referred to the gas boards even though they had been done away with 25 years previously. That is perhaps not good news for the police, who have a target of enabling the public to feel confident and safe in their communities. Against the background of negative reporting, that is difficult to achieve. However, those involved are determined to do it in a realistic way by engaging people with what the police are doing to bring safety to local communities.

Important in achieving that are the new tools being developed by neighbourhood police teams, which Plymouth has had for some time. Police and communities together, or PACT meetings are one good way of ensuring that the things that people in the community rate as important are tackled. Some neighbourhood police teams have gone further. The team that covers Stonehouse has gone from house to house in the last year to find out proactively what matters to people in the neighbourhood.

That was part of and complemented by Operation Glendale, which was designed to roll back an upsurge in drug-related crime in the waterfront area of my constituency. It was a great success and all the more so for engaging with other partners in the strategic partnership. It helped to meet one of the key stretch targets in the work plan. It also led to a fall in acquisitive crimes because bearing down on drug-related crime has an impact on theft to fund drug use. Compared with the previous year, domestic burglaries were down 32.6 per cent., theft from motor vehicles 37.7 per cent. and the theft of vehicles 28.1 per cent.

Although there has been an increase in serious violent crime, violent crime is down. Homicides have gone down from four in the previous year to one. Chief Inspector Andy Bickley stated that a change in the recording practice accounted for most of the increase in serious violent crime and offered the reassurance that it was not an indication that Plymouth was becoming a more violent place.

At the last strategic partnership meeting I attended, the stretch target for the number of domestic violence incidents recorded by police was being discussed because it was not high enough. More active engagement was planned to ensure that more domestic incidents were reached. That is sensible because detection, along with seeing cases through to conviction, is a key factor in preventing crime. Of course, such work may have an adverse impact on the police recorded crime figures in the interim.

The point of this debate is to acknowledge the success of what has been done and to look forward and consider what further tools could maintain the downward trend in crime. That becomes more difficult the more successful we are. I want to raise three points. First, there is a need to maintain front-line staff, including police community support officers. Secondly, there needs to be a whole community answer to alcohol abuse and related crime. Thirdly, I want to mention the Talents programme, which was developed in Plymouth and is a cost-effective way of producing results.

On front-line staff and PCSOs, there used to be a big argument about getting officers out of cars and having bobbies back on the beat. We still discuss how to ensure that police officers and PCSOs are out and about for a high percentage of their time, but I have not heard the either/or argument about panda cars versus the beat for some time. That is thanks largely to the advent of PCSOs, who have become the eyes and ears of the neighbourhood team and trusted allies to people in communities who want to see change for the better. With the advent of neighbourhood policing, of which PCSOs are an important part, we have both/and, not either/or.

My constituents and I worry that the pressures facing police authorities, including the added pressures arising from the pension obligation, will weaken what has been so recently established to such good effect. What measures does the Minister think are needed to ensure that police authorities are required to make administrative efficiency savings, while protecting front-line services? Police forces such as Devon and Cornwall have done some of that work effectively to ensure that front-line services can be developed. I hope that that will be recognised. A blend of carrots and sticks will be required to focus minds on the difficult times that lie ahead. I hope that he will give some pointers on how he thinks that will happen.

I was pleased to hear that partners in our local strategic partnership are planning to share back-office and procurement costs on a scale that would not have been possible before we had the strategic partnerships that are now well embedded. That can and must be scaled up through multi-area agreements across local authorities, PCTs and police authority areas if our precious front-line services are to be protected.

Having an alcohol policy is simply a no-brainer. I do not mean that in the sense that some people consider it a good thing to get drunk out of their skull at a weekend; I mean it in the sense of having effective policies to reduce demands on the health service, the police authority and much other public service spending. There is also, of course, a quality of life issue. A great deal of work has been undertaken by organisations and individuals in Plymouth to prevent and alleviate harm resulting from the use and abuse of alcohol. The challenge set out in the Government’s “Safe. Sensible. Social. The Next Steps in the National Alcohol Strategy,” which was published in 2007, is to minimise health harms, violence and the antisocial behaviour associated with alcohol, while ensuring that people are still able to enjoy alcohol safely and responsibly, as many people, of course, do.

I have a sense that, despite the strategy, there is a need to give greater impetus to what is being done locally and nationally. If we are to bear down further on crime, it is important to deal with the matter correctly and, from what I know, it should not be rocket science to do so. We need to create cities and communities in which people who want to enjoy themselves can do so without damaging their own health or damaging the communities that suffer from antisocial behaviour. We also need to ensure that the health of individuals whom such people come across is not damaged. That includes far too many shop workers and public sector workers in the health and police services. I am a great admirer of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers “Freedom from Fear” campaign. However, we still need to get to grips with alcohol, because it is at the root of so much antisocial behaviour against public sector workers. Dealing with crime has to be as much about changing the culture of things as it is about conventional policing. As I said, doing so is not rocket science, but it requires the sort of joined-up national, regional and local approach that is essential if we are to preserve front-line services and meet the challenges that lie ahead.

I would like to offer a solution to some of the taxing problems that we will face in the coming years, which will perhaps be part of the answer to the things that I have mentioned above and to many other things as well. Mr. James Webster, who until recently was Plymouth’s police commander, looked to the Gospel according to St. Matthew to find inspiration from the parable of the talents—you will be familiar with that parable, Dr. McCrea. The landowner gave money to each of his servants, and urged them to make good use of it. Those who invested it made bigger returns and in turn earned more.

Chief Superintendent Webster gave £500 to each of Plymouth’s 11 neighbourhood sergeants to develop initiatives that would help to address crime and disorder priorities identified by local residents at PACT meetings. As with the landowner’s servants, each sergeant had to account for what they had done with the money. The range of ideas was extraordinary—from a simple TV and video set-up showing policing information at two of the city’s biggest supermarkets, to a fireworks scheme in an area of Devonport with an arson problem. There was also a street dance initiative, a boxing club, a football coaching scheme and a project that funded students themselves to develop community ideas.

In a follow-on from the first Talents programme, neighbourhood teams linked with some of the Co-operative Society stores in the city to tackle the youth crime and disorder often associated with hanging around the communities’ eight-til-late-type stores. That programme is in its 13th round. It has brought a whole new approach to policing and has released the full potential of some very talented people. When Mr. Webster was interviewed about the programme by Carl Eve, a reporter for The Herald in Plymouth, he said:

“When I came to Plymouth, I quickly realised the very high calibre of staff we were now recruiting - much more than when I joined - but our rank structure hadn't changed…We were getting top-quality people but weren't making it easy for them to use the full range of their abilities. They have massive powers on the street - they can arrest people or break down doors - but they don’t have the power to authorise expenditure of a £10 note.”

He said that policing procedures “strangled innovation” at street level and that officers complained that, if they could only get funding for an idea, they could achieve better results. Just like in the parable, Mr. Webster gave them that opportunity. He allowed them to be creative, but insisted that there should be a return. Officers have in fact turned £500 into £20,000 or £30,000 projects. They have created long-term community assets and generated good will from members of the community involved.

The Home Office has supported the initiative, and £55,000 of the national partnership improvement fund money has been awarded to the city’s strategic partnership, to develop the idea across the entire partnership. In the difficult times that lie ahead, we should perhaps take heed of what the programme’s author says about it:

“If I had £20,000, I could buy a new police car, but its impact would be very little. Put £20,000 into the community, from the grass roots up, and I can do a lot more with it…Once you allow officers the power and responsibility they can do far more than you ever would if you just directed them. It's inspiring and humbling to see people fired up. People join the police to do great things.”

The Talents model gives a structure to seek funding, and to create leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship in the fight against crime in Plymouth. Indeed, it is a practical working model for partnerships for and with other public services that deliver at a community level. Our further education provider—the City college—is now delivering a course designed to empower front-line staff in public services to use the model. Public services, including the fire service, are indeed using the model.

I am pleased to have had the chance to talk about some positive things in relation to tackling crime in Plymouth. I hope that the Minister, as well as joining me in acknowledging some of the good work being done and thanking those who work so hard to deliver good public services, will point the way to how we can go even further in bearing down on crime in Plymouth and elsewhere.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, and to listen to the wise words of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). I congratulate her on securing this important debate and on her long-standing commitment to the issue, which has been shown outside our short debate today. She has been a strong local champion for the people whom she represents. We share her concern and commitment to ensuring that we maintain reductions in crime and antisocial behaviour. We take the issue very seriously.

I am pleased to note from my hon. Friend’s comments that Plymouth reflects the continued national downward trend in crime and disorder. As she said, overall crime is down nationally by 36 per cent. and there have been bigger reductions in burglary and vehicle crime and violent crime. The south-west is a relatively low-crime area and overall crime is lower in Plymouth than in many similar areas nationally. However, given that Plymouth is an urban centre, the figures are, of course, slightly higher than those for the surrounding areas. Many types of crime are declining, such as theft of vehicles, burglary, criminal damage and violence, and they are continuing to fall even during a recession. The accepted wisdom was that there would be a big increase in crime during a recession, but that has not happened. Part of the reason for that is the proactive response from not just the Government, but all agencies on the ground, including those in Plymouth.

We have put measures in place for the longer term—for example, more effective action is being taken to tackle domestic abuse and families are safer as a result. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Plymouth on being awarded a green flag in 2009 through the comprehensive area assessment for protecting the public during large-scale emergencies. I agree with the central theme of her speech, which is the importance of good local working. In order to tackle crime and disorder successfully, it is vital that key local stakeholders work in partnership together.

Crime is being tackled locally by Plymouth’s community safety partnership, which combines the previous crime and reduction disorder partnership with the stronger communities group of the local strategic partnership. A range of public, third sector and business agencies are working well together to keep the city safe, and that provides an inclusive, integrated approach to tackling the city’s safety issues. That is important because tackling crime and disorder is not just a matter for the police, the local authority or, indeed, the Government; it is a matter for the whole community. The key to tackling crime and antisocial behaviour is for good local partnerships to work together.

My hon. Friend drew attention to Operation Talents, which is a highly innovative and successful way in which local groups can work together to consider how things can be done more effectively. The key is to trust local people and local partnerships. It is about not only sharing responsibilities but focusing on problem solving. We need to understand what is happening in an area and who is causing the problems so that we can target resources on those who blight our local communities, because that will reassure the majority of residents. I am sure that other areas will want to look at Operation Talents and its underlying principles, because it is very much the direction in which we want local partnerships to go. Opting for such a scheme is a matter for local areas, but we, at the Home Office, are very pleased to do everything that we can to support them.

When we talk about crime and disorder, people want to know about the local police. Plymouth follows a well recognised neighbourhood policing model. Teams are present in all 43 neighbourhoods in the city’s three policing areas. All neighbourhoods have three top priorities agreed through a community engagement and they benefit from a person first, problem solving approach.

Nationally, police numbers are at an historic level, and they are supported by 16,000 police and community support officers. I want to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government have guaranteed the funding for warranted officers and PCSOs who do such an important job in her community, and in all our communities. It is about not just numbers but how the police work in an area. Neighbourhood police teams are transforming policing in our local communities, with 80 per cent. of their time being spent on front-line policing. Moreover, they are governed locally by the terms of the policing pledge, which is partly designed locally. They are measured by the confidence that local people have in the police and in their partners.

Let me say something about police funding. Given that we live in a changed set of financial circumstances, my hon. Friend has raised some understandable concerns. We have guaranteed that the money will be there for warranted officers and PCSOs into the future. We have already announced a £259 million increase in overall police funding for 2011. None the less, in the longer term, it will be necessary for the police to continue to look for more savings.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the police in her area are already embarked on such a process. The police service delivered value-for-money improvements of £500 million in 2008-09, and is on track to deliver £1.3 billion per annum by March 2011.

Does the Minister understand the concern that a successful authority has when it has already achieved its target? In being expected to go further, it will be benchmarked against authorities that have not gone quite so far. Will the Minister consider how the formula could be worked to take account of that?

I will certainly bear that point in mind and also talk to my colleague, the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism. Changing the police formula is very difficult. If we change it in one area, it has a knock-on effect in others. Generally, we expect police forces to make savings in, for example, ICT and the procurement of goods and services. Moreover, we expect them to work together better to procure not just vehicles and equipment but the services that they need. Whatever concerns individual police forces have, it is incumbent on all police authorities and forces to do everything that they can to save money in such difficult times.

My hon. Friend raised the idea of the whole community coming together to tackle the problem of alcohol, and I agree with her. Many areas have problems with alcohol and crime and disorder, but, again, it is a matter of public perception. The reality is that alcohol-related crime has fallen in many areas in recent years, but it is still too high, and it can have a huge and damaging effect on local communities. Our aim is to minimise the violent antisocial behaviour and the health harms associated with alcohol, but we also want to ensure that people can enjoy alcohol safely and responsibly. There is an array of powers that partnerships can use, and I urge them to do so. When such powers are used, people’s behaviour changes.

The Government understand the need to tackle the irresponsible premises that contribute to alcohol-related crime and disorder, which is why we introduced the new mandatory code that comes into force today. The code bans irresponsible promotions such as, “All you can drink for £10”, “Women drink free” deals and speed-drinking competitions. Moreover, we are committed to improving the management of the night-time economy, and we have invested in a major programme of training for front-line practitioners to ensure that existing powers are being used effectively.

We have also invested in regular enforcement campaigns—such as the £1.5 million partnership support programme from the Home Office—in the top 50 alcohol priority areas specifically to target public perceptions of drunk and rowdy behaviour. Plymouth has been identified as a priority area for 2010-11, and, as such, will receive additional support to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder. We are currently in the process of planning the next phase of support for our priority areas.

On 13 and 14 October, police and licensing colleagues from Plymouth attended the Home Office’s alcohol skills seminars in Torbay at which training and guidance was given on enforcement skills. We are also committed to encouraging individual responsibility. We have launched the £4 million national “Know your limits” social marketing campaign to challenge the tolerance of drunkenness as well as establishing nine new adult alcohol arrest referral pilot schemes, and a further six pilot schemes for young people to ensure that those who have been arrested for an alcohol-related offence can benefit from a brief intervention by a trained worker, which should help significantly to reduce reoffending.

Furthermore, we have introduced drink-banning orders, which prohibit known troublemakers from entering pubs and clubs and consuming alcohol in public. We are committed to continued reductions in alcohol-related crime and disorder, and we believe that the measures that I have outlined and those that we will consider in future will bring further benefits to our communities.

We know that antisocial behaviour is sometimes fuelled by alcohol. Perceptions of antisocial behaviour in Devon and Cornwall are in line with the average for England and Wales, and we have taken a front-footed approach to reducing such behaviour. The new deal for communities has developed local programmes to tackle perceptions of antisocial behaviour over the 10 years it has been operating. My hon. Friend asked with great frustration why the public does not recognise what is going on in their area. Changing attitudes and perceptions is very difficult.

Does the Minister think that if the public understood the cost in each locality, it might focus their minds rather sharply?

There is a considerable cost to antisocial behaviour. However, there is an understanding among the public, particularly where alcohol is concerned, that they should acknowledge that the investment—and it can be considerable investment—in alcohol referral pilots, drug intervention projects, family intervention programmes and other such interventions pays, because, in the long term, the pay back is considerably more than the cost of investment. However, at this time, and in the future, there will always be different priorities in the public mind. I am clear, as I am sure that my hon. Friend is, that antisocial behaviour continues to be of major concern to communities in Plymouth and elsewhere.

The next debate is about the development of Kidderminster railway station; I see the Minister is very popular today and is back in his post again.

Kidderminster Railway Station

It is a delight to have secured this debate under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, right at the end of this Parliament. You will have noticed that this morning’s subjects have been crime, poverty and inequality, and public transport—three of the crucial issues that we shall, I think, be returning to repeatedly in the next few weeks.

I must declare an interest. First, I am a very small shareholder in the Severn Valley railway. I would not call myself a train buff, but I certainly remember going to school for many years on trains pulled by gorgeous steam locomotives in the ’40s and early ’50s, so I am nostalgic for steam railways. That is why I want to talk about Kidderminster station.

At the moment we have a very uninteresting square brick box: that is Kidderminster station. It is just next door to the gorgeous Severn Valley railway station. I think, Dr. McCrea, that you are probably old enough to remember Hornby trains and I wonder whether you ever had one of those tin-plate stations that they made, just after the war. The Severn Valley railway station is reminiscent of just that type of station.

This is not the first time that Kidderminster station has come up in Parliament. In 1852 Acts of Parliament were needed to extend the railways, and it was then that they were extended to Kidderminster, on the Worcester to Wolverhampton line. I am told that the first station, from 1852 to 1859, was just a wooden structure, and that there was another wooden structure from 1859 to 1863. Then, in 1863 the Great Western Railway took over. Anyone who knows about it will know that GWR really stands for God’s wonderful railway. It certainly had the most interesting and the best selection of steam engines. Even though I was brought up as a London, Midland and Scottish lad I must admit that GWR had the edge.

When GWR took over the station it was discovered that sitting in Swindon was a sort of kit for a station that had been designed for Stratford-upon-Avon. The kit was the most amazing wooden-covered structure and it produced for Kidderminster the most unlikely, impossible station building ever. It was a half-timbered extravaganza—my idea of a haunted country cottage; the sort of place where the witch in Hansel and Gretel would have lived. It was described by the historian H.C. Casserly as the

“ultimate in half timbering”.

At its peak it had a station master—one of the pre-eminent citizens of the town—and 25 to 30 staff. There were 11 porters. Can you imagine that, Dr. McCrea? One never sees a porter in a station these days. It had refreshment rooms and catering staff.

That amazing building lasted until 1968, when it was riddled with dry rot and it was uneconomic to repair it; so we lost that cottage in the country in the heart of Kidderminster. It was replaced in 1974 by the small, square brick box that I have mentioned. At the same time, the Severn Valley railway, which is the preserved steam railway from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, was developing, and shortly afterwards it achieved its own station. The convention in the Great Western Railway was that if there were two stations in a town, the one nearest to the town centre was called the town station. The Severn Valley railway station has the distinction of being Kidderminster Town station, because it is about 75 yards nearer to the town centre than the main station.

For years, we have needed something more in keeping with the Severn Valley railway station. Now, thank goodness, we have the chance of that, and it is terribly important, with the growth in passenger traffic. In 2004-05 about 750,000 passengers used Kidderminster station and in 2008-09 there were more than 1.25 million; so it is going up. The station is situated on one of the main entrances to Kidderminster from the south-east and we want a prestigious entry to the town. Since I have been the MP I have been promoting it, strange to say, as a tourist attraction, because we have an almost unique collection of industrial heritage buildings and structures. To our great delight we are just about to achieve a carpet museum—because Kidderminster is known as the pre-eminent carpet town. We have the building and much of the money, and expect it to happen. That is at the bottom of Comberton hill, which is the road on which the station is situated. In addition there is of course the Severn Valley railway; the railway museum in Kidderminster, which has the largest archive of photographs apart from that of the National Railway museum; the Bewdley museum; and the refurbished Stourport docks, as well as one of the very few water-powered forges.

Those present a splendid tourist attraction and it is marvellous that the county and district councils, Network Rail, London Midland and the Severn Valley railway are all coming together to produce what we hope will be a dream station—not quite the chocolate box thing we had before, but something very suitable and attractive. I understand that £3.5 million has been put aside: £2.5 million from the county council—presumably from the Government—and £1 million from Network Rail.

In an idle moment I browsed as we all do on Google and Wikipedia, which I was delighted to find says:

“Plans are in hand to replace the small brick station building with something echoing that of the adjacent SVR building. As well as this, the plans envisage a large bus exchange, improved car parking and “drop off” areas.”

That is all very exciting. I am grateful to Louise Butcher of the business and transport research section of the Library for giving me some details about the station code, which was updated in 2006 and which emphasises safety and accessibility and the aim of integrating other forms of public transport.

To make an exciting, impressive and compatible entrance to the town and to Wyre Forest, design is crucial and the choice of architect is vital. I was delighted to learn that the tender list includes an architect who is not usually on Network Rail’s lists—a heritage architect who happens to be a railway enthusiast and who is the architect for the railway museum. I hope that he will put in a pretty competitive tender.

There are one or two concerns, first about the building. Not that long ago, a footbridge was built at Kidderminster, because until then it had been necessary to walk off one platform, cross by a road bridge, and descend to the station again. We now have a footbridge, which is a particularly hideous building of a sort of sickly yellow brick, with a weird plasticky-metal sort of structure, providing the bridge and a staircase. The worst thing about it was that from building to opening took about six months, because the people who designed and built it did not realise that the lights on it would dazzle the engine drivers coming from Worcester so that they could not see the signals. Therefore it could not be opened. It took about six months to put the right sort of glass in the bridge so that train drivers were not dazzled. We want the right architect—someone who understands railways—who will ensure that that type of problem does not arise.

My next concern is the timing. My understanding is that the money has to be spent by 31 March 2011. With the consultation finishing only on 18 June and the tendering process still to be gone through, time is getting very short, so I again appeal to the Minister to impress on everyone how fast they have to move.

With regard to the consultation, there is no mention of or question about the invaluable newspaper shop that is there at the moment; it provides biscuits and coffees as well. There is only one question about the structure, and it is a very odd question. It is in the improvements questionnaire. The question is:

“How important to you is it that the new building minimises its environmental impact?”

Does that refer to the building having to be very green or to the visual impact? If it is a brick box, we do not want any visual impact at all, but if it is a delightful semi-classical building that fits with the other one, much as, amazingly, Portcullis House fits with the rest of the parliamentary buildings, we would like a great impact.

We welcome the plans. People are very excited, but there are some major local concerns about traffic issues. The third key part of the project is

“The installation of traffic signals at the entrance junction to the station”.

As I said, that is off Comberton hill from the south-east—the main route into Kidderminster from the south-east. Concerns about the traffic lights, which I think are absolutely genuine, come from local shopkeepers and traders, from representatives of the Severn Valley railway and, most important, from the traffic management police officer. They all object to the fact that the traffic lights will cost £700,000, which is about one fifth of the total money available.

The traffic management officer makes six points. First, there are no particular traffic problems now. Secondly, lights will cause delays on what is already a congested road, with traffic lights at the top, a big roundabout at the bottom and a pedestrian crossing in the middle. Thirdly, that road—Comberton hill—is already ranked at or near the top in Worcestershire for pedestrian collisions. Delays and congestion could make such collisions even more likely. Fourthly, there is no rear access to businesses, so lorries that are making deliveries often have to be double-parked. If there are traffic lights and streaming of the traffic, that will cause chaos.

The fifth point relates to parking. The traffic lights themselves will mean the loss of only two parking spaces, but between the two sets of traffic lights that will be necessary, there is a single yellow line. I had to check The Highway Code, but people are allowed to park on the single yellow line out of hours—after hours. It will be a tremendous blow to lose the six or seven extra spaces. People could manage losing the two for the lights themselves, but not the six or seven that will be covered with a double yellow line, because in the road are a large number of fast-food outlets. Captain Cod, the fish and chip shop, which is very well used, is just by the single yellow line. The Railway Bell is also there. The road was badly harmed by the loss of the post office some time ago, so I do not want to see any more difficulties for the traders.

The last comment from the traffic management officer is that there will be only about 10 buses an hour, and those that go through to Bromsgrove, continuing towards the south-east, will go straight up the hill without turning in to the station in any case.

I come now to suggestions. First, we need urgently a full road safety audit and traffic flow studies. If they show that traffic lights are not absolutely necessary, I have two alternative suggestions. The first, which is very realistic and comes from the traffic management officer, is a cobbled junction platform, which will slow down the traffic and will be in keeping with the cobbles that will remain on the station forecourt. The second suggestion, which is really my dream and goes well with the heritage of the Severn Valley railway station, is to reinvent a policeman in a pulpit just for the hours of 5 to 7 pm—the peak hours. Until relatively recently in Kidderminster, we had a policeman in the pulpit, and the traffic management officer remembers that and remembers how hard it was for policemen to keep their arms in the right positions for all the time that they were on duty. A policeman for just two hours, five days a week, would not cost £700,000 a year and I would love to see that come back, but that is only a thought.

I hope that the Minister can reassure us that we are looking forward to an appropriate building to enhance this crucial entrance to Kidderminster and the Wyre forest. It could restore some of the romance and excitement of rail travel, because people are returning to the railways for environmental reasons and because of the cost of petrol. I look back to the day of E. M. Forster writing in “Howards End” about railway termini:

“They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.”

We are looking for such a gate to the glories and the unknown features of Wyre Forest in the new station at Kidderminster.

It is good to be back again, Dr. McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this debate on what is clearly an important issue for him and his constituents, as well as for others travelling to and from Kidderminster station. I listened carefully to his points, and the Government share his vision for stations to have that gateway role both to the railway and to the community that they serve.

Kidderminster is one of London Midland’s busiest stations, with 1.2 million passenger journeys recorded in 2008-09. London Midland operates most of the services to and from the station. Kidderminster station has quite a history, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. It opened in 1852 with the extension of the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton railway from Worcester to Stourbridge by the Great Western Railway. I listened to the hon. Gentleman’s description of the former building. I am told that a station building of mock-Tudor design survived until 1968, when it was demolished and replaced by the small brick building that stands today. The Severn Valley railway’s southern terminus shares the same station approach road and is known as Kidderminster Town to distinguish it from Kidderminster station, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman outlined.

Kidderminster was one of the original stations chosen in 2006 for the Access for All programme. Work commenced on a £2.5 million project in November 2007 and encompassed an entirely new footbridge and two lifts, which provide a fully accessible route to and between both platforms. The project was completed last July. I was sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the colour of the brickwork, but I understand that the project has generally been well received locally. Accessible stations make a huge difference to people’s journey experience. I am referring not only to those with reduced mobility but to those carrying heavy luggage or pushing unwieldy pushchairs.

I understand that there was some delay to completion of the works due to delays in obtaining listed building consent—I can understand that in the context of the area—but that those were resolved by cladding the new works with brick better to match the Victorian design of the station. A bid for funding from the Access for All small schemes fund in 2010-11 is under consideration.

More recently, as part of its franchise obligation, London Midland has secured 100 extra car parking spaces for passengers from the Severn Valley railway in return for enhancements to the car parking facilities. As part of a passenger benefits package, London Midland is investing an additional £4.4 million in new high-quality information equipment, which could include improvements at Kidderminster. In an attempt to persuade more people to use the railway, 50,000 day rover tickets were made available for travel over the Christmas period, and an additional 400,000 advance purchase tickets will be made available over the next two years on some of London Midland’s most popular routes. Again, passengers who use Kidderminster station may benefit from that initiative.

There are plans to rejuvenate Kidderminster station through a £3.5 million project that would provide a new layout of the station forecourt with improved facilities for bus services, and a new station building with improved passenger facilities. An improved walking connection from the new station building to the Severn Valley railway station building is also being proposed. I heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the traffic signals, but I can say little about that level of detail today, other than to encourage him to engage with the local authority and those with responsibilities for highways in Kidderminster to ensure that they are aware of his concerns and address them fully as the scheme develops.

There is also a proposal for £2.5 million from the west midlands regional funding allocation to be used to fund improvements outside the station, and for a £1 million contribution from the national stations improvement programme to be used to fund the new station building. Smaller contributions from partner local authorities are also anticipated.

I understand that a project board of key stakeholders has been formed to consider the best option for rejuvenating Kidderminster station. The board includes representatives from Worcestershire county council, Wyre Forest district council, Network Rail, London Midland, the Severn Valley railway and the Kidderminster railway museum. Public consultation on the detailed design of the station forecourt, including road and public transport access, was launched on 29 March, and the hon. Gentleman has put his comments on road access on the record. The plans envisage a large bus exchange, and improved car parking and drop-off areas. Worcestershire county council is writing to stakeholders, and I understand that it is happy to arrange a meeting to brief the hon. Gentleman on the project’s details.

We were happy to receive bids for small-scale rail schemes such as that at Kidderminster station in the refresh of the regional funding allocation advice that we requested from the regions last year. The west midlands region advised that the Kidderminster scheme was a priority for funding, and we responded positively to that advice in July last year.

The regional funding allocation programme, particularly local authority schemes, are benefiting from record levels of spend at present, but clearly we need to exercise due caution, as any responsible Government would do, when considering requests that would add to the current commitment. Although I appreciate the urgency of the project, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a guarantee that funding will be available for the scheme, but I can promise that the proposal is being carefully considered. Similarly, although the local delivery group responsible for the London Midland portfolio of stations has identified Kidderminster station as a candidate for the second tranche of funding from the national stations improvement programme, decisions on the second tranche schemes are not expected to be made until later in the year.

I understand that there has been quite a bit of debate about the design of the new station building, with a number of stakeholders keen to ensure that the design meets heritage objectives and provides a suitable gateway to Kidderminster. In particular, people have argued—the hon. Gentleman has done so eloquently today—that it should be more in keeping with the character and feel of the Severn Valley railway's Kidderminster Town station. I understand that Network Rail has been considering using its modular station design at Kidderminster. Although the system is still in its infancy, there are already a number of examples of modular stations on the network at Greenhithe, Mitcham Eastfields, Corby and, most recently, Uckfield. Modular stations may provide an economical way to build new stations or rebuild existing facilities, and by minimising energy use they offer an excellent example of sustainable design. That addresses one angle—environmental impact—that the hon. Gentleman asked about.

I hope that I am mistaken, but the only module that I have seen is a hideous, glass, square box.

I was worried that the hon. Gentleman might draw that conclusion, although I assure him that designs that I recently saw for a sustainable station at Accrington were a little less angular and, although modern, it would fit into its setting. We realise that modular designs do not provide the appropriate solution for all stations—for example, where there are buildings of historic or architectural interest. I understand that a possible compromise at Kidderminster might be to provide a modular building in terms of functionality with a modular interior single-storey station building, with external aspects to complement the heritage themes associated with the Severn Valley railway and the local area. I hope that such a modular design would allow the newspaper shop about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned to be retained. I am sure that whenever possible Network Rail wants to retain a tenant that provides it with an income.

The year 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the operation of the Severn Valley railway, which is one of the most popular heritage railways in the UK. The original Severn Valley railway linked Hartlebury near Droitwich with Shrewsbury, and was constructed around 1860. Ten years later, the line was absorbed into the Great Western Railway, and eight years after that a new spur was opened to Kidderminster. Trains to and from Kidderminster used the existing mock-Tudor station building on the existing line linking Birmingham, Stourbridge and Worcester. The Severn Valley railway carried both freight and passengers but, despite being popular with tourists from the west midlands, its fortunes declined after the second world war. Passenger services were withdrawn from most of the route in 1963, and freight was withdrawn in stages from the same year.

Thanks to the efforts of rail enthusiasts, much of the line has been reopened in stages and currently operates between Bridgnorth and Kidderminster. The Severn Valley Railway Preservation Society started in 1965, and operated its first trains five years later. The line was then extended towards Kidderminster, with the final stage opening in July 1984. Kidderminster Town station is a modern construction—there is a mock-Tudor theme here—in a traditional Great Western style and contains facilities suitable for a heritage railway, including catering and retail. The Severn Valley railway suffered a major setback in 2007 with severe flood damage leading to the closure of much of the preserved railway. Sterling efforts by many people and organisations have enabled reconstruction of the route, and last year those efforts paid off with almost 250,000 passengers, only marginally below the record level of patronage in 2005. The line now employs around 70 people, but much of the work that provides visitors with an excellent experience is done by the numerous volunteers who enable the railway to operate. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to everyone involved with the Severn Valley railway, including the hon. Gentleman, which is a wonderful example of successful local enterprise.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has been reassured that, although it is not possible at this stage to give any guarantees on funding, work is progressing on plans to rejuvenate Kidderminster station so that passengers will be able to look forward to an improved end-to-end journey experience in future. We share that vision of the railway station as a gateway to both the community and the network.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.