Wednesday 30 June 2010
[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]
Free School Meals
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Brooks Newmark.)
I am pleased to have secured this debate on free school meals because it allows me to highlight a shameful decision by the coalition Government. Despite the current financial situation facing our country, an extremely strong case can be made for the provision of universal free school meals. The fact that the Government are choosing to limit and cut that provision instead of widening it seems to be a step in the wrong direction, not just because of the provision’s health and educational benefits to pupils, but because of its the financial benefits for the least well-off in society.
My involvement and that of my hon. Friends in the Chamber started in 2006, not long after I was elected to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and I, with around a dozen other hon. Members, went on a fact-finding visit to Sweden, primarily to find out more about the Swedish health and education systems, and particularly free schools. While in Sweden, my attention was captured not by free schools, but the country’s school meals policy. Free school meals have been available there to all children for several years. The take-up is approximately 85%, and we were amazed to see children not only tucking into a healthy, nutritious meal, but serving themselves from a buffet and working together to help to clear away plates and wipe the tables. Those children were seven.
Pupils and teachers eat together as a class on a rota system so that there are no huge crowds at lunch time, which is an important part of the day for continued learning and socialising, not only with one other, but with the teacher. The system provides an opportunity for teachers to have time to themselves—they spend 40 minutes in the staff room when the children go out to play—and the children do not load up on sugary snacks and then sit down to afternoon study while metaphorically swinging from the lampshades. It was interesting that although my hon. Friend and I returned from Sweden excited and convinced of the benefits of universal free school meals, the new Secretary of State for Education returned from his visit to Sweden considerably more excited about free schools.
Since 2005, there has been a sea change in our attitude to the healthiness of school meals, thanks partly to the high-profile campaign by Jamie Oliver. The changes since then have been crucial. The food provided to children who choose school meals is, more often than not, fresh, nutritious and locally sourced. That is a far cry from the profit-driven mentality that previously dominated school meal provision and led to children eating such monstrosities as turkey twizzlers. That was only the first part of the necessary change, and when we had made school food healthy, it was our duty to ensure that as many children as possible ate it.
Exactly. I shall come to that, and it is why I call for universal free school meals.
Last week, an Ofsted report found that although the quality of school meals had increased, the take-up of free school meals by those entitled to them remained low because of stigma, complexity and some families’ constant movement in and out of entitlement. I received free school meals from the day I started school until the day I left, so I can speak about the stigma from personal experience. Even today, a significant stigma is attached to receiving free school meals, and expanding access to all is the fairest way of eradicating that stigma.
One in five children who are eligible for free school meals do not receive them. In addition, a swathe of forgotten children is not entitled to them, although they definitely live in poverty. A healthy packed lunch might be too expensive for their parent or parents, who might be in a low paid, full-time job and rushing about doing their best to look after their children. Universal free school meals are undoubtedly the best way to address all those problems, but they would do more than that; they would ensure that all children had a healthy meal during the school day. Some parents may be able to shop at Waitrose or Marks and Spencer, but it does not follow that their child’s lunch box is healthy. A ready meal from Marks and Spencer may cost more than a ready meal from Asda or Tesco, but it is still a ready meal, and we should not assume that all children go home to healthy food just because they have an upmarket postcode.
That is why my colleagues and I have campaigned so strongly on the matter for the past four years. We have lobbied incessantly. We lobbied the Child Poverty Action Group to take up the cause, and I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) in the Chamber today and look forward to hearing her valuable contribution to the debate. Believe it or not, the issue was not always popular. There were objections even in my own party to rolling out free school meals regardless of household income. However, it remains the fairest way to ensure that all children below the poverty line, however that is measured, receive a healthy meal during the school day.
I chased Cabinet Ministers through the voting Lobby to try to convince them of our crusade to such an extent that they pre-empted me before I had even said a word by telling me that the matter was still being considered, and eventually to tell me that it was with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who was writing our manifesto. I need not say what happened next, as I am sure that hon. Members can imagine, but I became his shadow and was always ready to extol the virtues of universal free school meals.
The first big success for our campaign came at the Labour party conference in 2008 when my right hon. Friends the Members for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) announced the introduction of three pilots for free school meals, all to be local authority match funded. Two pilots were for universal free school meals; Durham and Newham bid for them and were lucky enough to secure them. My hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham and for West Ham (Lyn Brown) played a great part in that. The further pilot involved raising the threshold to the agreed poverty line to ensure that more children in poverty qualified for free school meals, and that went to Wolverhampton.
Those pilots have been under way for nearly a year. They have been hugely successful, especially those involving universal free school meals in Newham and Durham, where take-up is 75% and more than 80% respectively. The majority of primary school pupils in those boroughs therefore receive a hot, healthy, nutritious meal instead of the sugary, additive-laced snacks that some children are given in their packed lunches.
Has not the research also shown that extending entitlement universally leads to not only increases across the board—that is obvious—but increases among those who would have been entitled anyway, as demonstrated in the 2006 Hull experiment?
My hon. Friend is right, and I will come on to the Hull experiment.
The quality of packed lunches is usually dependent on cost, but do not take my word for that, Mr Weir. Research by Professor Derek Colquhoun of the university of Hull showed that it is not always possible for families to access, let alone afford, fresh food for their children. The alternative of paying for school meals may cost almost £20 a week for a family with two children—money which those still living below the poverty line do not have.
I look forward to hearing more about the success of the Durham and Newham pilots from my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham and for West Ham. Unfortunately, due to the recession, universal free school meals did not make it into our manifesto, but our party gave a commitment in the 2009 pre-Budget report to extend the universal free school meals pilots to at least one in every region and permanently to raise the access threshold everywhere else to £16,190 to enable a further 500,000 children to have a free, hot and healthy lunch every day. That approach would also lift a further 50,000 children out of poverty, which was welcome news as far as my colleagues and I were concerned. Such a measure would also be an important first step on the way to universal entitlement, and I welcome it as still affordable, even during a recession.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is even more important to extend that entitlement during the recession? In my constituency, the average income is £16,000 a year, which means that the average family is living in poverty. However, if someone works and earns £16,000 a year, their children are not entitled to free school meals. It is harder for those families to go back to work because they lose the entitlement, which for many is equivalent to about £600 a year. If the coalition Government want to get more people back to work—although the forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility showed that their Budget will put 100,000 more people on the dole—one important measure would be to extend the entitlement to free school meals so that parents who go back to work can claim it for their children.
My hon. Friend raises an issue that I was coming to—I fear that she makes the point better than I would have done. A lot of hon. Members in the coalition Government are not getting that point, but hopefully the contributions that my hon. Friends and I make today will put paid to that.
Confusingly, although the new Government committed themselves to meeting the child poverty targets set by the previous Government, the Secretary of State for Education announced on 9 June that the coalition Government would not be going ahead with the additional pilot schemes, or the extension of schemes to include more low-income families. That is devastating news for the families concerned. The extension would have eased the transition into work for many parents—my hon. Friend has just spoken about that—and supported the Government’s wider drive to improve educational and health outcomes among the least well-off in our society. It seems that the Education Secretary wants to follow in the footsteps of a former Conservative Education Secretary, who became well known—indeed infamous—overnight with the tag of “milk snatcher”. Today’s Education Secretary shall for ever more be known as the “meal snatcher”.
Entitlement to free school meals usually ends when a family moves off benefits and into low-paid employment. That gives rise to an extra cost of around £300 a child per year, just when families are trying to make themselves better off through work. Furthermore, 60% of children in poverty have at least one parent in work, so the majority of children who live in poverty today do not benefit from free school meals. That is a shocking statistic, but it is true.
The decision announced by the Government is spectacularly short-sighted and I urge the Minister to reconsider it as a matter of urgency, particularly considering that the coalition’s stated aim is to decrease the number of people on benefits and increase the number of people in work. That is a laudable goal, but it will never be reached with such poorly thought out policy decisions.
A measure that would have raised 50,000 children above the poverty line has been scrapped, thereby exposing the Government’s claims to promote fairness as nothing but empty rhetoric. How can increasing the number of children living in poverty in 2010 help the Government to meet their 2020 target for eradicating child poverty, especially after a Budget that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows, disproportionately affects the very poorest? I was even more disturbed to see a leaked memo suggesting that money that would have been directed to the poorest families for free school meals is now being redirected to help the middle classes to parachute their children out of mainstream schools and into free schools. That is a particularly galling example of money being directed away from the disadvantaged towards the comfortably off and away from a scheme that would have lifted children out of poverty to one that will do nothing of the sort but will pander to middle-class parents who still bemoan the loss of grammar schools in leafy London boroughs.
Following this debate, and with the successful campaign that is being led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), the Government will choose to reinstate the changes to free school meal provision that were announced by the previous Labour Administration. That would be welcome news, but I would like the Government to go even further and seriously consider the case for universal free school meals. It is all too easy to dismiss the argument by saying, “We haven’t got the money to do it”. Tough spending decisions should be a matter of prioritising, not slashing budgets for ideological reasons.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and her cogent argument for universal free school meals. Does she agree that an additional spin-off effect would be that if each child was able to access a free, nutritious and healthy meal, it would help in the battle against childhood obesity? Tackling that was a target of the previous Government, and hopefully it is shared by the present Government.
That well-made point is another that I was about to come to. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties agree that the education and health of our children is of utmost importance. That more than justifies the admittedly considerable spending commitment that such a policy would entail. It is estimated that obesity costs the NHS £3.5 billion a year and the figure is set to rise, so this is a cost worth paying to save money in the long run.
Even at a time when the deficit needs to be cut, we cannot forget the social implications of the decisions that are made by the Government—by a coalition Government no less. They are a broad church that goes from left-leaning Liberal Democrats to right-leaning Thatcherite Conservatives through all colours in between. One would think that a coalition with the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable) at its heart would produce fiscally sound social policies and that the last thing that it would do would be to increase child poverty. Alas, I fear not. One only has to look north towards Hull to see that the Liberal Democrats have form on such matters.
In 2004, the Labour council in Hull introduced universal free school meals. It had to get a dispensation from the then Labour Government to do so as that took place prior to the passage the Education and Inspections Act 2006 which, by changing “shall” to “may” in a line of legislation, made it possible for universal free school meals to be introduced by any local authority anywhere in England.
That first pilot scheme was a huge success. Those successes were chronicled by a number of academic papers, the most notable of which is the work I mentioned earlier by Professor Derek Colquhoun from the university of Hull. If I started to go into detail about how positive that evaluation was, there would be no time for anyone else to speak in the debate. I will therefore not do so, but I strongly suggest to the Minister that he look it up—it is a very good read.
What happened next? Sadly for the children of Hull, Labour lost control of the council after three short years to the Liberal Democrats, who promptly and savagely, and without remorse, scrapped the free school meals initiative. Once again, there was a charge for access to the lovely hot and healthy school meals to which the city’s children had become accustomed. That was greeted with outrage from local parents, who had not realised that that was what the Liberal Democrats would do. Does not this all sound strangely familiar? Lo and behold, here we are again. What happens as soon as they are in government? The Liberal Democrats, aided and abetted by their Tory masters, are at it again. Time and again, they are literally taking food out of the mouths of society’s poorest children.
I am just about to finish.
I notice that no Liberal Democrat Member is present in the Chamber to try to defend their part in this atrocity. I hope that the Liberal Democrats are proud of themselves and of the fact that such policies are what they seem to have come into politics for—they do it time and time again. I hope that their ministerial salaries and cars are worth it and that all the hard-working people up and down the country who voted Liberal Democrat are happy with the decisions that their elected representatives are taking on their behalf. In future, the mantra will not be, “Vote Lib Dem, get Tory”; it will be, “Vote Lib Dem, increase child poverty”. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanations.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this very important debate. I, too, shall start with our visit to Sweden, because that was a turning point in our realisation that universal free school meals could be delivered and that a society would consider that the norm for how children are treated at school. My hon. Friend is right that we came back very excited about the possibility of mounting a campaign. It is pleasing to see in the debate today that the organisations and agencies that are firmly focused on alleviating child poverty, such as Barnardo’s, the Child Poverty Action Group and Save the Children, have thrown their weight behind the campaign to secure universal free school meals and to protect what we have achieved so far. It is worth reiterating the substantial progress made in the last Parliament.
We had three pilots, two focusing on universal free school meals for primary school children in Durham and in Newham, including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). Significantly, we had the promise of a further roll-out to cover at least one local authority in each region, and we had free school meal entitlement elsewhere being extended to primary school children of working parents in receipt of working tax credit with a household income below £16,190. That was to roll out throughout 2010 and 2011.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, the extension of free school meals would have lifted 50,000 children out of poverty, but critically it would have increased incentives to work. Without the extension, families moving off benefits into work would be hit by costs of about £210 per year per primary school-age child, so the new Government’s decision sits very uneasily with their policies, about which they tell us frequently, to move people off benefits into work. Barnardo’s and the other agencies make that point strongly. The Government need to consider how to make work pay and ensure that it does, but they also need to go further by examining how we reduce education and health inequalities. Almost all health professionals have criticised the Government’s decision on free school meals, saying that it is an enormous setback to the reduction of education and health inequalities.
My hon. Friend and I may have been spearheading the campaign in the past three or four years, but I must pay tribute to Save the Children, because it first made the argument for free school meals in 1933. It is dreadful that almost a century later, we have not achieved that goal. Save the Children points to the fact that the UN convention on the rights of the child, which every country in the world has now signed, states that Governments are under a duty to
“provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition”.
That convention applies to this Government as well to those elsewhere. Save the Children also points out that 60% of children living in poverty have at least one parent in work, so most of them do not benefit from a free school meals entitlement that is linked to out-of-work benefits. Therefore, we need an answer from the Government about why they have taken this decision when they are trying to move people off benefits.
Before coming to this place, I did quite a lot of work involving focus groups with women about going into work, being out of work and so on. One of the shocking things that I found was that women had accessed the labour market because they had been told that they would be able to afford to do that and find money on top to enable them to make a better life for their families, but in reality they were in much more debt than they had ever been in before in their lives, because the hidden costs, such as the loss of free school meals, were not taken into account when their benefits were calculated and the figures done. Does my hon. Friend agree that the £690 to £1,000 that a family can save through free school meals can be pivotal to whether a low-income family are able to stay in the labour market?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and shows how critical it is to have policies such as free school meals in place when trying to move people off benefits and into work.
The coalition promised to prioritise fairness when implementing cuts and to meet the 2020 target of eradicating child poverty, but deeds speak louder than words and it is appalling that one of the first acts of the coalition Government has been to attack the poorest in our society by cancelling the extension of the free schools meals programme. Furthermore, that will not help to close the attainment gap in schools. The previous Government went some way towards improving standards in school across the board and improving attainment levels, but sadly an attainment gap still exists. The position is that 26.6% of the poorest children passed five good GCSEs compared with 54.2% of better-off children in 2008-09, and that is pretty much the case across the board.
If we want to reduce the attainment gap, we must ensure that all children at school are given an equal chance, and results from the pilots in Durham show that free school meals are contributing enormously to reducing attainment gaps. That is because they help children from low-income backgrounds, who may not have good nutrition, to concentrate more in the classroom. In my constituency, every school has free school meals, and I have visited many of those schools in the past few months. There is not one head teacher or one teacher who is not tremendously supportive of the programme. They say that, even at this early stage, it is making a real difference to concentration levels and children’s ability to perform successfully.
The real argument for universality is how it applies across the board. No stigma is attached to free school meals in that case, and many of my local schools have 100% take-up, but the greatest advocates for the programme are the children themselves. When my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) visited Durham with me to look at the programme, we talked to many of the children, and we found that it was the children in the school who were the advocates and ambassadors for the programme. Of course they had the odd grumble, but generally speaking, at the age of seven, eight and nine, they recognised the value of the programme. They talked about how it was encouraging them to eat healthily and to develop social skills. They liked being able to sit down with their friends and teachers and have their lunch. They said that they were pleased because they no longer had to bring packed lunches, and there was no longer segregation in the school between those having school meals and those having packed lunches.
My hon. Friend talks eloquently about the difference that free school meals have made in her constituency. Does she agree that as well as free school meals, which are important, breakfast clubs in schools are making a huge difference? However, certainly in my constituency, schools rely on support from the local education authority and the Department for Education to be able to continue those breakfast clubs. Does she share my fear that we are starting to descend a slippery slope and that the support for breakfast clubs, which also help children’s concentration and break down some of the barriers that she talked about, is likely to be at risk in future?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; indeed, we were discussing it on the Floor of the House yesterday, when it was noted that the cuts being made to area-based local authority grants are already affecting the extended schools budget, which many local authorities use to support breakfast and after-school clubs.
I honestly wish that the Secretary of State for Education or one of his Ministers had come to my constituency before announcing their policy, because it is impossible to witness the free school meals system in practice, to see how successful it is and then to cut it.
The GMB produced a helpful progress report on free school meals in February, which demonstrated that the free school meals service in Durham was employing 140 additional staff and that food was being sourced locally. Furthermore, it was much more cost-effective to deliver free school meals as a universal, rather than means-tested, service. The system ticked all the boxes because it also helped to educate children and their parents about how to eat properly.
In this time of scarce financial resources, the Government should surely be looking at policies that tick a whole range of boxes and which are cost-effective. Powerful arguments can be made that free school meals are a good investment for the future and that they help to reduce long-term health and education inequalities.
In Newham, our children were starting to eat different foods from those that they had eaten previously. Mothers were telling me that their children no longer demanded the chicken nuggets that we heard about earlier, but wanted to eat healthier foods that were cooked from scratch with mum and dad in the kitchen at the weekend. Families’ purchasing power was changing because they were eating more cheaply, and the nutritional value of the food that they were eating was changing, too. Regardless of whether we want them to, children dictate what a family eats.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I hope the Minister will consider.
I want to finish by asking the Minister a number of questions. How will the Government help parents into work without considering the need for free school meals and other such programmes? What will they do to improve health inequalities among children if they do not use free school meals to alter the behaviour of children and families? Why on earth have a Government who said that they were committed to fairness and alleviating child poverty started by attacking families on low incomes? Importantly, how do the Government propose to close the attainment gap and reduce inequality without considering nutrition in schools?
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing it. She and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) have been long-standing collaborators of mine on this subject. I was very pleased to work with them on it when I was the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, and I am delighted that we will continue to work together on it in the House. I guess that I should declare that I remain a member of the CPAG, and I am a strong supporter of its work and what it stands for. I am pleased that, following my departure, the CPAG remains as committed as ever to the cause of free school meals, as part of its wider “2 skint 4 school” campaign.
I very much welcomed the announcements that the previous Labour Government made over a number of years to improve the quality of, and eligibility for, free school meals. One of the most important years in the development of policy was 2005, with the establishment of the School Food Trust, which heightened awareness of the importance of this issue on a number of policy fronts. We should pay tribute to the trust for also playing an important role in driving up nutritional standards, which is something that every Member will want to applaud.
Of course, the Labour Government’s policies were important in other ways. Investment in our school infrastructure enabled a number of schools significantly to improve catering facilities, which could increasingly be brought back in-house. I was recently delighted to have the opportunity to visit the wonderful new kitchen at Acre Hall primary school in my constituency. To my great delight, Theresa, the school cook, has offered me the chance to join her and cook lunch for the children. I am very much looking forward to doing that in the next few weeks, when I expect that I will learn a great deal about how to peel carrots in bulk.
Perhaps the Labour Government’s most important initiative was the extension of eligibility for free school meals. With my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, I strongly welcomed the direction of policy travel that that represented. I am deeply concerned that the announcement that the Secretary of State for Education made the other day represents a reversal of that direction of policy travel, which is something that we must all be very anxious about.
I was particularly interested when the Secretary of State explained that the pilots would not be further extended because the evidence of a link between the provision of free school meals and educational attainment remained unproven. It is certainly important that educational attainment is one of the gains of extending the right to free school meals, and the evidence does in fact suggest that there are improvements in cognitive ability, concentration and learning behaviour. Early on in the Hull experiment—researchers confirmed this later—teachers reported a calmer learning environment, with children more engaged, including in the often difficult classroom period in the early afternoon. It is therefore wrong to suggest that the educational gains are unproven. Moreover, it is wrong to judge the provision of universal free school meals on educational attainment grounds alone, important though those of course are.
We must also be aware of the health gains, because standards of nutrition in school meals have risen significantly since 2005. Hon. Members should contrast that with the packed lunches that many low-income parents are still forced to provide to their children, only 1% of which meet the standard of today’s school meals.
We have also heard about the importance of the socialising and behavioural gains that we see in our schools when more children eat lunch together. Children learn to converse and to look out for one another, and they learn good courtesy and table manners. Importantly, children who are having lunch in school are not hanging around the chip shop at the end of the road—something that is particularly significant in secondary schools.
It is also important to consider school lunch in the context of the broader curriculum, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said. There is the opportunity to link lunch to education about diet, nutrition and cooking. Many schools have used the extension of school meal programmes to bring more parents into schools, so that they and their children learn to enjoy cooking healthy meals together.
There are important sustainability gains in extending the reach of free school meals and in the opportunity that that creates for cooking locally, on-site, with less transport of ingredients. It also offers schools the opportunity to source from local producers, which boosts the local economy. The extension of free school meals is an important job-creation opportunity. Working in school kitchens is a particularly desirable form of employment for many parents, especially mothers. The flexibility of the work—the fact that it takes place in term time and obviously coincides with the times when the children are in school—makes it a good source of additional local jobs.
It is highly regrettable that those additional gains were not mentioned by the Secretary of State when he said that the gains on educational attainment grounds were unproven. Even if that had been true—in my view the evidence shows that it is not—it is highly regrettable that the much broader social and environmental gains were not considered, too. Most importantly, I guess, for many of the families whom I have talked to, are the economic and financial consequences for family budgets of extending eligibility for free school meals.
School meals represent good value, and many hon. Members present in the Chamber will believe that a hot lunch at £1.90 or £2 a head is good value; and that is right. Still, however, for many low-income working parents, who may perhaps be raising two or three children, that £1.90, £2 or £2.20 added up over the week can be unaffordable. Larger families are a group already at higher risk of child poverty. Undoubtedly, for some of those families, the cost of providing lunch for their children is a component of that greater risk. It is a matter of regret that we are not taking the opportunity to deal with that.
As my hon. Friends have said, one of the most significant concerns for us is the position of low-income working families. I very much regret the decision not to roll out the provision of free school meals to more children in such families. Even the pilots under the previous Government were, I confess, limited and did not go far enough in my view in relation to provision for secondary school kids. Almost no secondary school child in this country in a low-income working family has been able to get a free school meal. The recent announcement by the Secretary of State means that we have lost substantial potential gains to do with creating work incentives and ending child poverty: as has been mentioned, the measures would have lifted a further 50,000 children out of poverty; there would have been wider social and economic gains, too.
The opportunities and options for extension are quite numerous. Many MPs have long argued that, as a first step, free school meals should be extended to all families on working tax credit. That would make a significant difference. We could also consider families in receipt of housing benefit and council tax benefit. As the Minister knows, those are in-work benefits, too. We have significant reasons for supporting the Government’s own back-to-work and work incentivisation agenda, with extending the entitlement to free school meals.
I alluded to take-up in an intervention earlier. The wider the eligibility, the greater the take-up across the board, including among those children who would be entitled to free school meals even on the most limited eligibility criteria used some years ago. I think that I am right in saying that the rate nearly doubled in Hull among such children—those who would have been entitled anyway. That significant increase in take-up shows the absolute power of universal provision; some of us find that we are making that argument repeatedly in different contexts. We can understand why take-up increases when eligibility is widened; my hon. Friends have alluded to the reasons. There is less stigma: if their friends are having lunches, children will go along, too, and have lunch with their mates. Administrative simplicity is another factor. It is as true in this context as in any other that means-testing brings complexity and shuts out people who should be entitled. Of course, schools—hard-pressed to meet budgets—will be very pleased about anything that reduces administrative costs.
I want to explore the extension of free school meals into the wider educational environment, which is another thing mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham when she talked about extended schools. Many schools have in recent years extended their support to families by providing longer hours, with out-of-school breakfast clubs and after-school events. It is of great concern to me that pressures on funding resulting from the Budget and other cuts being announced will put those extended school activities at considerable risk.
The Minister has long been a strong proponent of the benefits of out-of-school and extended school activities. I remember hearing him say early on that schools in his constituency would want to take advantage of such moves and would be unwise not to. We will not necessarily lose extended school activities completely, but I am concerned that the poorest children may not be able to afford to participate: the children who could benefit most from those activities will be exactly those who will be shut out. We need some guarantees about funding for extended and out-of-school provision, and that must include providing for the children taking part to eat together—healthy snacks, breakfast or supper—where that is part of the plan.
Breakfast clubs have a particular significance in that context. They play an important role for many low-income families, and hon. Members should welcome several aspects of those clubs. They have attracted considerable support in many areas—in the private sector as well as the voluntary sector. In my constituency, a major employer is Kellogg’s, which has put millions of pounds of support into helping school breakfast clubs. It is incredibly committed to their future and extremely anxious about what the Government intend for them. It has highlighted to me its concerns about some of the language used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who suggested that breakfast clubs might not be desirable for a number of kids. I am sure that it would be good for children to have healthy breakfasts at home, wherever possible, but for all sorts of reasons at all sorts of times that is not possible for every parent. We must be able to build on provision that has proved a considerable success in many schools and that has given some of our most deprived kids a strong start to the school day. I hope that we shall receive assurances from Ministers in the next few weeks about extended school activities—funding for them and enabling the poorest children to participate in them more broadly—and about the role that free school meals will play in offering that.
I think that everyone understands the financial pressures and the fact that we can expect public spending cuts. However, the pain of those cuts, as my hon. Friends have repeatedly told the Government, must not be borne by the poorest; but I very much fear that that will be the exact consequence of not extending the provision.
I am concerned, too, that we are seeing a massive policy step backwards; although the direction of travel in recent years has been at times hesitant or a little stop-go, it has none the less been broadly progressive and positive. Having seen such progress, it is a matter of huge regret to find things suddenly being put in reverse.
My concluding plea is for Ministers to consider again their plans for the provision of free school meals, and to do so with fully open minds. I want their minds to be open in the context of child poverty; I want their minds to be open in the context of improving working centres; and I want their minds to be open in the context of children’s health—and, of course, their learning and educational attainment. Unfortunately, the Conservative-Lib Dem Government has a bit of a track record in not having an open mind.
Several hon. Members have spoken of the fate of the programme in Hull. One of the most shameful aspects of the Lib Dem attempt to stop that programme early was that they did not wait for a proper evaluation to be made; only after the campaigning efforts of parents and others were they forced to finish the programme, so that a proper research basis could be established for the success that it had enjoyed. The governing parties have form for not evaluating programmes properly, and I know that the Minister will not want to be associated with that.
I hope that the Minister will offer some reassurance—for a start, to the many working families who are anxious about the many financial pressures that they already face. In that context, extending free school meals to more of those low-income working families would be a step towards the long-term provision of universal free school meals. That would be widely welcomed, and I hope that the Government will consider doing so.
I thank you, Mr Weir, for giving me the opportunity to speak for the first time under your chairmanship.
I shall speak only for a short time, as I am most interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) has to say, as the free school meals pilot in the area that she represents was stopped by the Liberal Democrat-controlled council. I also want to hear what the Minister has to say. It is only a failure of the imagination that stops the Government understanding the importance of free school meals, both for their nutritional and social value to the children and for their economic value to hard-pressed working families that struggle from day to day to make ends meet.
I represent one of the poorest parts of the country. Newham has the fourth highest level of child poverty in the country: 30,525 under-16s live in families with less than 60% of national median household income before housing costs. Despite that, only 29% of children in Newham are eligible for free school meals under the current system. In Newham, 46.9% of children are living below the poverty line. We are talking about the working poor—families that go out to work but do not earn enough money to make ends meet. Their children suffer as a result, and it is their future that we are talking about today. They have the same right to fulfil their potential as every child in this country, and the free school meals programme was a tiny way of making that possibility a reality for some.
This is about families struggling to keep their heads above water. We might not understand what £600 or £1,000 a year means to a working family because it is less than some of us would spend on a weekend away. For the families that I represent, however, it can make the difference between surviving and not surviving. That is the likely damage of taking away the universal free school meals programme. Prior to the pilot, more than one in six children living in poverty in my constituency was not entitled to free school meals. I find that shocking, and I hope that the Minister agrees.
To my working families, the universal free school meals programme represented savings of between £690 and £1,000 a year. Families who are not working or who work less than 16 hours a week and have an income of £16,000, however, would be eligible for free school meals. I do not want to take that from them, but the current system offers no incentive to work and presents a barrier to people who have taken the first steps into work.
Research carried out by the London borough of Newham shows that if, prior to the pilot, eligibility had been extended to all who claimed benefit, of any kind, an extra 2,094 households would have been eligible. Each of those households would have saved on average £614 per year—9% of the group’s typical weekly pay. As a direct result of the pilot, figures from March show that 75% of pupils in Newham are now taking up free school meals. In 16 schools, the uptake is now more than 80%, and in some it is as high as 90% or more. I hope that we one day reach the 100% level mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). It has to be good news.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said eloquently in her excellent contribution, only 1% of the packed lunches that children take to school—not only in Newham, but throughout the country—meet the nutritional standards set for school meals. As a result, those children who are not eligible or who do not claim free school meals, and whose parents are unable to afford nutritionally balanced packed lunches, are eating less nutritionally valuable food than their peers. That has an impact on their health and ability to concentrate.
The impact of a healthy meal on behaviour and concentration, and therefore on academic performance, has been discussed this morning. There is a high level of consensus about the fact that to thrive at school, children need to be well nourished throughout the school day—through breakfast clubs, which were mentioned earlier, as well as free school meals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston stated, the recent study by the School Food Trust found that eating healthy school lunches in modern dining rooms can improve pupils’ concentration by almost 20%. That has to be good news for the children and their educational achievement. However, in so many ways it is also good news for us all—in productivity at work, in the sort of work that people can get as a result of their education and, as was alluded to earlier, in many other social aspects of life. The impact is on not just the few, but the whole of society.
On take-up, in Newham it was obvious that a key factor in children deciding to take up the offer of free school meals was whether their best mates did so. I know that things have moved on and are a lot better than when I was at school, but it can be extraordinarily humiliating for a child to have to claim free school meals. It is stigmatising for families to have to go through that sort of inspection. I remember a woman at my surgery being in floods of tears because she had recently become ineligible for free school meals; she had ratcheted up a bill that was far beyond her reach to be paid as a lump sum. She was being humiliated almost daily, being harassed by members of staff attempting to get her to pay for school meals that had not been taken. Obviously, with the change in eligibility rules, such a situation will no longer arise. However, she told me that she could no longer afford to work, because she could not take the hit on free school meals as well as having to pay all the other costs associated with going to work.
I have been listening intently to my hon. Friend’s extremely good speech. Does she agree, however, that sometimes school staff, lunchtime supervisors and canteen staff risk their own careers by regularly giving food to children who they know are not getting meals? In other words, we also see a positive side from staff.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The story that I related stuck in my head because it was so different from the other stories that I normally receive from parents. Bills such as the one I mentioned are often torn up and put in a waste basket and do not become an issue. Even the small amounts of money charged by breakfast clubs across the country are often not taken from families who are known to be struggling.
Stigma, combined with the complexity of administering a free school meal system to the poorest members of our society, is discouraging take-up, which explains why there was only a 50% take-up from those who were eligible in Newham before the pilot. Let me pay tribute to Sir Robin Wales, the leader of Newham council, who, despite the threats of massive budget cuts by this Government, recognises the importance of free school meals to the children of Newham and will use his ever decreasing budget to extend the pilot. I pay tribute to him because he truly understands the impact of free school meals on the children that he and I represent. He and his council will do all that they can to ensure that the widest section of our children will be eligible for free school meals, because the impact on opportunities at school and on a healthier life in the future is so significant.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Weir. I welcome the Minister to his new role. He was an assiduous shadow spokesman for children, and I wish him well in the months and years ahead.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate and on her excellent contribution. She set out very well the reasons why there is such support for free school meals and for the pilots to be extended. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on her campaign work. They have both campaigned year in, year out for the pilots to be set up and ensured that there was the evidence base to persuade the Government that they needed to make the universal free school meal offer to children in this country. They should be congratulated on their persistence.
I should like to pay tribute to the other speakers in the debate. With her background in the Child Poverty Action Group, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) gave us a very informed contribution and a straightforward approach to the matter. Free school meals deal not only with educational attainment but with the issues around reducing child poverty.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) set out very clearly the practical effect of the pilot on her constituents. She correctly paid tribute to Sir Robin Wales, the mayor of Newham, who has a personal commitment to ensuring that the pilot, which has been running in the constituency since last September, continues at the end of the two-year period if at all possible. The contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) also showed a commitment to the children in their constituencies and to getting free school meals.
Let me start by saying why I feel so passionately about the subject. As the MP for Kingston upon Hull North, I saw the effects of the “Eat Well Do Well” scheme that was in place for three years. It gave all primary and special school pupils the right to free healthy school meals. We are talking about not just lunches, but a healthy breakfast club, fruit at break time and healthy snacks for children doing sport after school. Over the three years that we were lucky enough to have such a scheme, we saw the effects on both the learning and the long-term health of those children who, unfortunately, do not always achieve as much as they should at school. In the long term, the health inequalities in my city need to be addressed by early intervention schemes such as free healthy school meals. As other hon. Members have pointed out, that scheme was abandoned by an incoming Liberal Democrat council. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, it did not even wait for the results of an evaluation before it made its informed decision. It just decided to scrap the scheme. The pilots that the last Government set up are a useful tool for incoming Ministers to assess what has happened and to make some informed decisions about the future direction of free healthy school meals.
The last Labour Government understood that good nutrition and a healthy diet were very important to young children. If we get such things right early on, we will reap the benefits by having people who will not get sick at a young age, who cannot work, who are on benefit and who do not achieve as much as they should educationally. There are all sorts of health and educational benefits to be gained if we invest early on. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, 1.5 million children in the United Kingdom are overweight or obese at the moment. If we do not grapple with that issue, we will see an explosion in medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We all have a vested interest in doing what we can as early as possible to ensure that children have the best possible start.
We have talked generally about free school meals. My hon. Friends have addressed the stigma, the fact that children who are entitled to free school meals do not always take them up and the cost, especially for families on low incomes. The school census in 2009 showed that of the 16% of nursery and primary school pupils who were eligible for free school meals, only 13.6% took them up. In secondary school, 13.4% of pupils were eligible for free school meals, but only 10.3% took them up, so that is a real issue that needs to be addressed.
The previous Labour Government recognised the need to improve nutrition in schools for all pupils. For the years 2005 to 2011, they invested £650 million to help support the cost of healthy school lunches, to build or refurbish kitchens in schools and to improve dining facilities. Where pupils eat their lunch is an issue. They are put off school meals if the environment is not very nice. Moreover, investing in catering staff and lunchtime supervisors is important. I was very fortunate to attend a meeting of lunchtime supervisors that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South organised in his constituency. As he said, those supervisors play a valuable role in looking after pupils, who, through no fault of their own, cannot have school lunches—either because of cost or because their parents have not bothered to apply for the free school meals. Those supervisors have such an important role to play, and I am very proud that we wanted to work with those catering staff, to ensure that their role was recognised and that they received all the training that they required.
It was indeed a pleasure to have my hon. Friend come in her ministerial capacity to Gladstone primary school in my constituency to meet lunchtime supervisors and staff from across my constituency. Does she recall some of the comments made by those staff about situations in which children were passing out in the playground because they had not eaten, in some cases for a couple of days? Situations such as that are horrific. We are in the 21st century, not in Victorian times, yet we sometimes have to wonder what time we are in. Does she recall those conversations with staff?
Absolutely. Those conversations made me even more committed to the idea of looking at the evidence about free school meals, ensuring that we have a proper evaluation of the pilots that are running in the city of Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton and making a strong case for free school meals, so that those situations do not recur. That leads me very nicely on to the free school meal pilots, which we have heard quite a lot about in this debate, especially from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham.
I was very fortunate, as the Minister responsible for those pilots, to visit all three of the pilot areas and to speak to the children, teachers, parents and the governors of the schools involved, to see what the effect of those pilots was within the school environment. The effect was very positive, and I very much look forward to seeing the evaluation of those pilots, which will be carried out by the National Centre for Social Research. The Minister is a very fair and open-minded gentleman. I know that he will look at that evaluation, and I very much hope that he will see the benefits to children in those pilot areas and that he will want to increase the availability of free school meals to children around the country.
I want to consider the Wolverhampton pilot in particular today. As other Members have said, that pilot was set up to look at the eligibility criteria and to extend them, so that parents who were receiving working tax credit and who had an annual income of up to £16,190 would become eligible for their children to have free school meals.
I also want to pick up on comments made by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who was a shadow Secretary of State for the Lib Dems when we had the Department of Children, Schools and Families. He said at that time that 500,000 children living in poverty are not entitled to free school meals. He also said:
“It is outrageous that half of our poorest children are missing out on free school meals. For the most disadvantaged children, a school dinner can be the only hot meal they get… The Tories caused this problem in the 1980s when they changed the rules to deny free school meals to half a million children living in families who were working but on low incomes. The Government must now look at restoring the entitlement to free school meals to this group—including to families on working tax credits.”
It is very interesting that the right hon. Gentleman said that.
I looked through the coalition agreement to see what the coalition is saying about school food and school meals. I was very disappointed that, in section 26 of the coalition agreement, there was no mention at all of school food and school meals, despite the right hon. Member for Yeovil making it very clear what he wanted to happen. I also looked under the public health section of the coalition agreement—section 25—where it sets out that
“The Government believes that we need action to promote public health, and encourage behaviour change to help people live healthier lives.”
What better way is there to do that than by introducing free school meals? Unfortunately, however, there is no mention of free school meals in the coalition agreement.
Will the hon. Lady confirm that, in fact, the Government are not proposing to scrap the pilot, nor indeed—contrary to some impressions given in some places—to scrap free meals? The pilot will continue, but we are not extending it. It turns out that the promise to extend the pilot was an unfunded promise by the former Government. Having inherited bankrupt public finances, it would be irresponsible to continue to do something for which there is no money.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman, because I think that the promise to extend the pilot was a funded promise. At the end of last year, the pre-Budget report set out very clearly that, because of the success of the pilots in Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton, it was absolutely right and proper to extend the pilots, so that there would be one in every region of the country. We would therefore have gained further evidence on which to make a very informed decision at the end of the two-year pilot about whether free school meals really work for our children and help to achieve the last Government’s goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020.
It is very unfortunate that the new coalition Government have said that they are committed to the goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020, yet a number of policy announcements that they have made in the past few weeks seem to fly in the face of that commitment. For instance, tax credits have been cut, child benefit frozen, free swimming for children and the child trust fund abandoned, and the extension of the free school meals pilots is now being abandoned. [Interruption.] I must finish.
On increasing the eligibility for working families tax credit, which was a very sensible approach that would fit in very well with the coalition Government’s attempt to get people into work, it was very short-sighted indeed to abandon that policy, as many hon. Members have said today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who was a Minister in the previous Government, made it very clear not only that that policy would get 50,000 children out of poverty at a stroke, but that it was the most cost-effective way of doing so. The Department for Work and Pensions had worked through various models and that approach was seen to be the best.
I am very much looking forward to what the Minister has to say about why the coalition Government have taken the step of abandoning that policy so early on and why they have not allowed the extension to the pilots that was announced in the pre-Budget report in December 2009 to go ahead, so that we could build up the evidence base. I have heard lots from coalition Ministers about how they want to make decisions based on evidence, so it is very unfortunate that the opportunity to acquire that evidence has just been recklessly abandoned.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate. She is a passionate advocate for children and young people. She served on the Children, Schools and Families Committee for more than two years, and I know that she shares the ambitions of everyone in the coalition, and indeed of everyone across the House, to obtain a better future for all children in this country. She and I have sparred in Westminster Hall on a number of subjects, ranging from the repatriation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which I think we discussed some time ago, to many issues affecting children. I also thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson), the former Minister, for her kind words. I think that this is the first time that we have experienced this juxtaposition in a debate since the election.
We have had a good-quality debate today, with very powerful and well-informed contributions from the hon. Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for West Ham (Lyn Brown). We have also heard some interesting references to Sweden. Everybody who travels east to Scandinavia seems to come back with different interpretations of what is good there and what could be transferred to this country. Of course, there has also been mention of turkey twizzlers on more than one occasion; such a reference is inevitable when one talks about food and young people.
I agree that free school meals have an important role to play in addressing poverty and inequality, and I do not think that anyone is disputing the importance of their role. Like the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, who opened the debate, the coalition Government are committed to closing the attainment gaps that exist in our society, not least in education, which is so important to ensuring that every child gets the best start to their life.
However, before we discuss in detail why free school meals and healthy eating in schools are so important, I just want to address head-on a particular issue that has been raised about free school meals. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West referred to a “leaked memo”—there seem to be lots of leaked memos at the moment. It has been suggested that the budget for free school meals will be diverted to the new free schools that we are looking to introduce. At this stage, it might be helpful to remind hon. Members of the very strong and positive commitment that was made in the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education in direct response to that point. He said:
“Under no circumstances will I take for the free schools programme money intended to extend free school meals to poor children. That money will go towards raising attainment among the poorest children.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 27.]
I shall clarify further what the Secretary of State said.
I would like some clarification of what that actually means. The Secretary of State says that he will not take money from free school meals to put into free schools because he wants to put it into raising attainment for poorer children. Does that mean that the free school meals budget is under threat because it will be used to pay for a different scheme, idea or notion?
No, and I will come to that. It means exactly what the Secretary of State said. Money for free schools will not come from any of the budgets around free school meals. The money that will now not be used for the extension of free school meals, which was never budgeted for, will be used for other methods of improving educational attainment within our schools and closing the gap which, as the hon. Lady agrees, is essential.
We need more clarity. The previous Labour Government said that the extension of the free school meals pilots next year would cost £85 million and the new Government say that it will cost £125 million. The gap is only £40 million. If the £85 million is there, what will it be spent on? I think that that is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) was making. Will that money be used for something else? Will it be used to pay down the deficit? For what, precisely, will the money earmarked for the scheme—money that the Minister has said is available—be used?
If the hon. Lady is patient, she will hear more detail.
Over three years, the extension of the scheme would have cost £295 million, for which the previous Government did not budget. That is a simple fact. It was immoral of the previous Government to lead people to believe that they could extend the free school meal programme without making any provision for funding it. Furthermore, in this debate, hon. Members have not just been talking about extending the free school meal entitlement; they have been talking as though the last Government wanted a universal free school meal entitlement. That was never a manifesto commitment. If hon. Members are now talking about a universal free school meal programme, where will that money come from? Which programmes would they cut? They cannot have it both ways.
To return to the points that many hon. Members want addressed, I will clarify exactly what the Secretary of State for Education said. He has reallocated £50 million in direct funding from the harnessing technology grant to create a standards and diversity fund, thus reinventing a fund set up by the previous Government in 2006, but stopped in 2009, that was intended to create diversity of provision in the school system. The fund will now provide capital funding for free schools until 31 March 2011. Funding for free schools beyond that will be a top priority for the Department in the forthcoming spending review. I would like to make it clear that the new free schools will be funded on a basis comparable with other state-funded schools and that, as is the case now, money will follow the pupil within the funding system.
To return to the issue of free school meals, we are of course extremely disappointed that we cannot proceed with the previous Government’s proposal to extend the free school meals pilots. It would be good for more children to have access to free school meals. I agree with hon. Members that there is no doubt that free school meals help families and children in need across the country. However, the previous Government underfunded the programme to the tune of £295 million over the next three years, and we are not prepared to cut front-line budgets to support an as yet unproved scheme. We have therefore taken the difficult decision, from this September, not to extend free school meals to maintained nursery and key stage 1 pupils from working families on low incomes. We have also decided not to provide funding from central Government for the further five local pilots mentioned.
Let me be clear: we are absolutely not taking free school meals away from anyone who is eligible. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would become known as the meal snatcher. No child currently eligible for free school meals will lose that entitlement. Nothing is being taken away. However, the extension that the Labour Government promised but failed to fund will now no longer take place.
Does not the Minister accept that that in itself is a significant blow to many low-income families who expected that, from this September, their stretched family budgets would have been helped by the extension of the pilots, which will now not take place? Does he not regret that?
That was a false expectation given by the previous Government. The biggest disappointment is that those people have been misled about something that was never funded. We are not taking free school meals away from anyone who is eligible, nor are we changing the rules for determining eligibility. All those who currently qualify for free school meals will continue to receive them.
We have taken what we believe to be the most important decision: schools should use their budgets this year to focus on our priority of improving attainment, which is key to improving the life changes of all children. Not extending free school meals or continuing with additional pilots will free up £160 million this year—if the hon. Lady who asked the question will put down her BlackBerry and listen to my answer—and we can use that money more effectively and directly to improve attainment in our schools.
Although we will not be extending free school meals, we are still interested to know whether there is a case for expanding the scheme. That is why we are committed to continuing the ongoing pilots in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton that started in September 2009. I have been to Newham, and I will certainly repeat hon. Members’ praise of its mayor, Sir Robin Wales, not only for what he has done with free school meals but for the free musical instrument programme, which is particularly interesting and something that we want to consider further. The pilots will be carefully evaluated so that we can learn the lessons from them in order better to assess the case for increasing eligibility in the future.
Although we cannot extend eligibility, we would like to see a rise in take-up. At present, many eligible pupils—we estimate nearly 600,000 children, or a quarter of those entitled—do not take up their free school meals. That situation must change. Is it an issue of stigmatisation, as hon. Members have suggested? I am interested in the imaginative use of technology. For example, at Roseberry college, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for City of Durham, a new cashless payment system removes any potential stigma and has increased the take-up by eligible pupils from less than half to more than 90%. That interesting example could be replicated throughout the country. I hope that all would agree that our schools should do everything they can to ensure that eligible pupils take up their entitlement.
Good free school meals are important not just to tackling poverty, but to ensuring the health of our children. They often represent the only nutritious meal in some children’s day. That is why it is vital that schools continue to serve healthy food and ensure that their pupils eat well, which extends beyond the quality of the meals. Ofsted findings and surveys by the School Food Trust, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, show that it is not nutritional changes that put children off school lunch, but poor dining facilities and organisation. If there is nowhere to sit, if the queues are long, if the dining rooms are unattractive or if there is not enough time, children will not eat properly.
School meals also have an important social element. The lunch hour should be a proper part of the day—we view that as a priority. It should include time to eat a good meal, to exercise and to socialise. We know that children do not perform as well in the afternoon without a good break, and we agree that school meals can have social benefits. I am pleased to report that some progress is being made. An Ofsted report last week found that good progress has generally been made towards meeting the standards for school food. That is good news, especially for children benefiting from free school meals.
Despite being unable to extend free school meals, we as a Government are absolutely committed to fighting poverty and raising the life chances of the most vulnerable in our society. Section 14 of the coalition document, which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North did not mention, confirms the Government’s commitment to ending child poverty by 2020. Although the previous Government can be commended for the introduction of the Child Poverty Act 2010, which both coalition parties supported, we are disappointed by the latest figures showing that 2.8 million children in this country were still in poverty in 2008-09. The previous Government spent a substantial sum on tax and benefits in an attempt to raise people above the 60% poverty threshold, yet the evidence shows that that simply did not work. We believe that the best way to tackle child poverty is to address the root causes: entrenched worklessness, economic dependency, family breakdown, educational failure, addiction and debt.
Will the Minister give way?
I am almost out of time, so I will not.
Those are only some of the drivers of poverty. Our approach must be able to tackle each of them. We will do so by taking a multi-faceted approach that recognises the different factors that trap people in poverty. Only by doing so can we effectively and sustainably improve outcomes for children. That was why the Prime Minister announced an independent review of poverty in the UK, led by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), whom his hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned in not particularly glowing terms. The review will consider what the Government can do to improve the lives of the least advantaged people in our society. We will be working closely with other Departments to ensure that we tackle the issue head-on. At the heart of the programme is a commitment to spending more on the education of the poorest.
That is why we are introducing the pupil premium. It was one of the first things promised by this Government and it will tackle head-on the problems of the most disadvantaged pupils by helping them get the education they desperately need. The pupil premium is supported by the Conservatives and was championed loudest by the Liberal Democrats. By giving resources to school leaders and teachers—the people who matter most in extending opportunity—we can ensure that our most disadvantaged pupils have better life chances than ever before.
I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West for securing the debate. We as a Government are committed to ensuring that pupils can eat good, healthy food.
Parliamentary Allowances and Short Money
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I want to focus attention on something that I believe represent one of the greatest errors of the previous Government: the special treatment that has been given to abstentionist Members of Parliament that enables them to claim Westminster allowances and the Short money that is supposed to be used for the purposes of parliamentary activities.
There is only one elected party in the House that refuses to take its seats, so that policy is not driven by a need to address a general problem. The problem is one single party seeking and getting preferential treatment. There is now a special status of MP, and the principle that the same is expected of and awarded to all Members of the House equally has been abandoned. A number of us have been absolutely consistent on the issue. We opposed the original decision to grant these allowances; we supported the attempts by the then Conservative Opposition to overturn them; and we believe that now is an opportune moment—in a new Parliament, with new politics and with the public concern that rightly exists about the wastefulness of public expenditure, value for money and so on—to turn our attention once again to the issue, particularly given the promises made by senior members of the Conservative party in the run-up to the election.
The issue arose in 1997 and in 2001, with the respective Speakers of the House at those times ruling that Sinn Fein should not be granted allowances. On 14 May 1997, the then Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, said:
“those who choose not to take their seats should not have access to the many benefits and facilities that are now available in the House without also taking up their responsibilities as Members.”—[Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 35.]
Sinn Fein challenged that ruling in the courts. Indeed, it took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, no less, and was unsuccessful both in the domestic courts and in Europe, which demonstrated that the decision was perfectly just and correct. Given the courts’ dismissal of the various legal challenges, it is spurious to defend the present situation by saying that it recognises of the rights of a section of the electorate.
In 2001, the then Labour Government presented a motion to reverse the decision of the Speaker, although that motion did not apply to Short money. It is now worth reminding those who sit on the Government Benches what they said while they were in opposition. I exclude from that the Liberal Democrats, including the Deputy Leader of the House, who will respond to the debate, because I understand that they abstained or did not take a particular position one way or another throughout the discussion of the issue.
I hope that Conservative Members who are now in government will clearly spell out the opposition to the position that was evinced during the Conservatives’ days in opposition. One Conservative spokesman—Quentin Davies, the then shadow Secretary of State—denounced the proposal when it was first introduced, saying that it involved
“more unreciprocated concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA”
“treating the rules of the House of Commons as the currency for such concessions.”
The argument that Sinn Fein received comparable allowances in the Northern Ireland Assembly was advanced as a justification, but the then shadow Secretary of State said rightly:
“There is in fact no comparison at all between the position in Stormont and that in the House, because Sinn Fein-IRA have agreed to take their seats in the Assembly at Stormont and in the Executive there”.—[Official Report, 18 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 160-162.]
When an equivalent to Short money was provided to Sinn Fein, such opposition in principle was restated by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—now Home Secretary—when she said:
“The issue before us is not about the Northern Ireland peace process or about the resumption of the Assembly; it is about the role of Members of parliament, what it means to sit in the House and the nature of the job of being an elected representative of this place. It is primarily on that basis that we oppose the action that the Government are seeking to take and will be voting against the motions.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 912.]
Is not the patent absurdity of this that all of us, as Members of the House, receive expenditure for staying in London when we attend Parliament, yet there are MPs who do not attend Parliament but still obtain the expenses and the allowances?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the coverage of the expenses scandal, it was revealed that Sinn Fein Members were claiming nearly £500,000 in accommodation costs for being in London primarily on parliamentary duties although they do not even attend the House. I can describe the situation no more eloquently then the current Secretary of State who, in light of that particular point, said in the Daily Mail on 8 April 2009:
“It is completely unacceptable for Sinn Fein representatives, who won’t even sit in Parliament, to claim hundreds of thousands at the taxpayers’ expense.”
We have just faced an emergency Budget in which there were no concessions for pensioners, disabled people or families living in poverty. Why should this Government allow a situation in which continual concessions are made to a party that does not come to this House?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point on behalf of the many thousands of people in Northern Ireland—and indeed right across the United Kingdom—who find it incomprehensible that public money should be spent in this way. That view is shared by the Secretary of State, who said on 8 April 2009 in The Guardian:
“it is inconceivable that incoming Conservative MPs would vote to continue paying millions of pounds of public money to elected members who do not take their seats.”
We look forward to the Secretary of State, other members of the Government and Government Back Benchers fulfilling their clear, unambiguous promise and commitment to ensuring that millions of pounds of public money are not wasted, as at present, through a two-tier system for Members of Parliament.
I simply offer to Conservative Members the arguments set out in their own words and, as I said earlier, I gently remind the Liberal Democrats them that they chose not to take any position on the issue and granted their Members a free vote. I have no doubt that if the matter were put to the House, there would be a clear majority in favour of removing these allowances, which should never have been granted in the first place.
An argument that has been advanced—it was cited at the time—is that the granting of allowances and so on is a step towards normalisation and that that is necessary to encourage Sinn Fein towards full democratisation and participation in the political process. Indeed, it was felt by some that such a policy would encourage Sinn Fein Members to come to Parliament—effectively killing abstentionism with kindness. That could be one interpretation of the Prime Minister’s recent comments in the House, which I will come on to in a moment.
The granting of allowances to Sinn Fein in 2001 has demonstrated the poverty of that particular argument, however. Following the decision, John Reid, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, predicted that Sinn Fein would end its policy of abstention. The Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, has made it absolutely clear that
“There will never, ever be Sinn Fein MPs sitting in the British Houses of Parliament.”
Martin McGuinness has added for good measure that even if the Commons Oath were removed, Sinn Fein Members would still refuse to take their seats. Let no one in this House be under any illusion that bending over backwards, granting allowances, changing and bending the rules, creating a two-tier system of Members of Parliament and interfering with the Oath of Allegiance that Members take will have the slightest impact on Sinn Fein Members taking their seats here in the House of Commons.
Beyond the past debates on the decision, there is also a wider issue of confidence in politics, which I have raised on a number of occasions in this Parliament. That issue was examined by the Kelly review, but the subsequent report made it clear that the decision lay in the political arena by stating:
“The decision to give Sinn Fein Members the right to claim for the full range of expenses without taking up their seats in Parliament was a political one, taken in the light of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”
That is an interesting comment. I would have thought that such a decision should be taken in the interests of the whole House, not in the interests of the political process in Northern Ireland. The report continued to say:
“Removing it would also be a political decision.”
When I raised the matter recently in business questions, along with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and others, the Leader of the House replied that it would now be a matter for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. IPSA has stated:
“The Oaths Act 1978 established the position that MPs who do not take the oath may not receive a salary; a Government motion passed through the House of Commons in 2001 established the position that MPs who do not take the oath may claim expenses related to their Parliamentary business. IPSA regards itself as obliged to follow these motions and intends to do so unless the House decides otherwise.”
It is therefore clear that IPSA will administer whatever system is put in place by the House, but it remains for the House to decide whether abstentionist Members are entitled to allowances and Short money. Even the administration of Short money is still a matter for the House authorities, rather than IPSA.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that while other Members had to pay back money following the review of allowances, one Sinn Fein Member who claimed £18,000 last year for travelling to London, despite having come to London only once, has not had to pay back one penny?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight that matter, which was previously raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). In the public mind, that beggars belief, and people cannot understand why some Members receive allowances to carry out parliamentary duties in London when they do not attend the House in London. I read in the news today that a Sinn Fein spokesperson has again attempting to justify that by saying:
“We negotiated the right to have offices and costs and expenses so that we can properly and thoroughly represent those who vote for us.”
Well, the fact is that Sinn Fein Members do not properly and thoroughly represent those who vote for them, or those who do not vote for them, because they do not come here. One of the main roles of an MP is to be in the House, taking part in its activities and debates. If Members do not do that, they should not be entitled to the rights, privileges, costs, offices and allowances that come with being an MP.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) mentioned the question of money. When everything is taken into account—from Short money to allowances—it is clear that Sinn Fein Members will claim between £3 million and £4 million over the course of this Parliament unless something is done about it. That is absolutely unacceptable.
The situation with Short money is even more untenable. The motion on Short money that was passed on 8 February 2006 created a special and distinctive scheme specifically for Sinn Fein—for Opposition parties
“represented by Members who have chosen not to take their seats”.
The resolution states that the money is to provide for
“expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the employment of staff and related support to Members designated as that party’s spokesman in relation to the party’s representative business.”
For the rest of us in the House, whether Labour Members, Liberal Democrats, those representing smaller Northern Ireland parties or Members of any other party, all the funds granted as Short money must be used to support parliamentary business only. We have no equivalent extension for “representative business”. That term is so wide that it is meaningless; the money can be used for virtually any activity one cares to think of. I am sure that there are Members in the House who would love to be provided with public money under such terms so that they would not have to account for whether it is spent on activities that fall within the category of parliamentary business.
We now know the scrutiny that is rightly given to the expenditure of such moneys, and yet we have a resolution passed by the House, which was introduced by the Labour Government, that allows for a fund that gives Sinn Fein hundreds of thousands of pounds over the course of a Parliament to carry out all sorts of activities, while other parties that might have won far more votes cannot access public money for the same activities. That points once again to the absurdity of the current arrangements.
By way of conclusion, I will refer to the Prime Minister’s recent response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim during Prime Minister’s questions:
“There is not a case for Sinn Fein Members not to take their seats. I think that at the moment we let them off the hook, so I would like to re-examine the argument and see if we can find a new way of doing this.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 291.]
There will be an enormous backlash not only among Members, but among the wider public, if we go down the route—I hope that the Prime Minister is not suggesting this—of once again setting aside the proper rules and procedures of the House to try to accommodate Sinn Fein. As I have already illustrated in my remarks, that will be to no avail anyway, because Sinn Fein Members will pocket that as a concession and claim their expenses and allowances having once again diminishing the British status of Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland, but they will not in turn take their seats.
I appeal to the Government to deliver on the promises they made in the run-up to the election and for the Secretary of State or the Leader of the House to come forward with a motion to implement what I believe is a sensible proposal: to make all Members in this House truly equal. There is nothing to stop Sinn Fein Members coming to this House and receiving allowances and Short money, but they should be required to do what the rest of us do by representing their constituents properly in this House.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on securing the debate and on the way that he introduced it. We are fully aware of the strong views held on all sides of the argument, but he has expressed his view on behalf of his party extremely well. I am also pleased that he has the support of his colleagues who intervened—the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson). The matter of allowances for elected Members who do not take their seats has always been controversial. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I cover the same history that he mentioned in his remarks, but it is crucial to our understanding of where we are in relation to allowances.
The matter was first raised by Sinn Fein in 1997 with the then Speaker, now Baroness Boothroyd, who clearly and explicitly upheld the long-standing convention that Members who did not take their seats should not have access to the House’s facilities on the grounds that the House does not permit what she described as “associate membership.” That decision was subsequently upheld by her successor as Speaker, now Lord Martin of Springburn, following the 2001 election.
In December 2001, the House debated and agreed a motion to permit elected Members who had not taken their seats to have access to the House’s facilities, including allowances, to support them in their representative work on behalf of their constituents. On 8 February 2006, a similar decision was taken on representative money, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and which is analogous to Short money. That resolution provides for the payment of
“expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the employment of staff and related support”
to parties represented by elected Members who choose not to take their seats, and by statutory requirement, political parties whose Members do not take their seats are not eligible to receive policy development grants. As the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out, Members who do not take their seats cannot have parliamentary duties; none the less, they are the elected representatives of their constituents and have representative duties in which the provision of allowances is intended to support them, on the basis that the House previously agreed.
As we are all aware, there has been a much wider debate on allowances over the past year. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recognised when it reported in November that the decisions on allowances for elected Members who did not take their seats were political, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out. The previous Government promoted the arrangements specifically—it would appear—to support the political process in Northern Ireland and to encourage Sinn Fein to play a greater role in mainstream politics.
The right hon. Gentleman brought up the position adopted by parties in previous debates and before the general election. There are Members who have always opposed the decisions on the grounds that all MPs elected to serve at Westminster should carry out their full duties in representing their constituents, and that includes participating in the business of the House. They have always seen this as primarily a House of Commons issue and agreed with Speaker Boothroyd at the time on “associate membership” of the House. He also said that some Members have always taken the view that the matter should be subject to a free vote—that is, it is for individual Members rather than the parties.
Since the decisions were taken, circumstances in Northern Ireland have changed considerably. We have a new devolutionary settlement, which is at the heart of the peace process. Northern Ireland is now firmly set on the political path, with Sinn Fein Members playing a full role in the Assembly. Though dissident republicans continue to try to undermine those who are committed to the political process, there is no question—I hope and pray—of a return to the troubled decades of violence. As a result, it is time for us to look again at the issue. It is clear that there are real and strongly felt issues of principle under discussion.
The Belfast agreement is clear: Northern Ireland is, and will remain, part of the United Kingdom until or unless a majority of the people of Northern Ireland vote otherwise. Sinn Fein has accepted the consent principle set out in the agreement, and there is therefore no good reason why its Members should not take their seats at Westminster. Whatever arguments were made in 2001 and 2006, they were made in a different political context. Northern Ireland has moved on. The principle for the future must be that all elected Members should take their seats and play as full a role as possible as Members of the House.
The Deputy Leader of the House clearly indicated that there would be a change. I am reminded of a book that I studied at school—“Animal Farm”. It said:
“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
It is time that all the animals on the farm were equal, and Sinn Fein has to be equal to the rest of us. If we are accountable to a process as democrats, Sinn Fein is equally subject to it. Reassurance from the Deputy Leader of the House is good news, but can he give us a time scale on how this will work?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I cannot set out a clear timetable, but if he listens to what I have to say in my later comments, I hope that he will be reassured that the Government take the matter very seriously.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister already made his position clear, although not, I suspect, as clear as the right hon. Member for Belfast North would wish. In answering the question from the hon. Member for South Antrim on Wednesday on allowances, he stated:
“My views about this issue are on the record, and they have not changed. I would like to see if we can make the argument. There is not a case for Sinn Fein Members not to take their seats. I think that at the moment we let them off the hook, so I would like to re-examine the argument and see if we can find a new way of doing this.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 291.]
In addition to the changes in Northern Ireland, there have also been shifts in the parliamentary landscape that will need to be considered. The creation of IPSA was an essential step in cleaning up politics by bringing to an end the discredited system of self-regulation. Allowances, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, are, of course, now a matter for IPSA, not for the House. However, the right hon. Member for Belfast North is correct in what he said about IPSA’s approach; I understand that it intends to observe the status quo by continuing to pay allowances, but not salaries, to Members who do not take their seats. Last Wednesday, IPSA set out its position as follows:
“a Government motion passed through the House of Commons in 2001 established the position that MPs who do not take the oath may claim expenses related to their Parliamentary business. IPSA regards itself as obliged to follow these motions and intends to do so unless the House decides otherwise.”
A question was raised on how IPSA interprets those decisions in terms of the criteria applied to individual expenses claims. I assume and hope that IPSA will apply exactly the same criteria to a claim from a Sinn Fein Member as it would to any other Member of the House.
I want to ensure that the Deputy Leader of the House is aware that it is not only Members from Northern Ireland who feel strongly about this; many Labour Members voted against the original decisions. I welcome the move that he appears to be making, but we need to do this quickly, because it is just not fair. The new coalition Government were elected on one thing more than any other—fairness.
I know that there were views across the House that were at variance with the previous Government’s position when the decisions were taken.
Representative money is a matter for the House. Any change to the current position requires a decision of the House and a debate at which Members can again put forward their views.
I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s arguments, and to those of his hon. Friends and others. I will ensure that the arguments raised are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister. The Government will listen to all sides of the debate, but we are mindful of the very strong views that have been expressed in the debate today and the real issues of principle at play in relation to financial assistance for those MPs who do not take their seats.
Over the coming months, Ministers will be talking to all Northern Ireland parties to address how to take the issue forward in light of the views and clear issues of principle we discussed today. The right hon. Gentleman has my assurance of that. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on expressing his views clearly and precisely. I will ensure that they are communicated to my right hon. Friends who will deal with the matter in the future.
Regional Spatial Strategies
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Mr Benton. This is a timely and important debate, as we can see by the number of hon. Members who wish to participate. I am sure that they will be pleased to hear that I intend to be brief, simply so that I give others the opportunity to speak. All I ask in turn is that they might be equally brief to ensure that we give the Minister ample opportunity to reply, because this is definitely one of those debates in which the answers are even more important than the questions.
The expansion of Milton Keynes has always been a key issue in my constituency. I remember as long ago as 2003 sitting in the kitchen of one of my local councillors, David Hopkins, and discussing how best to tackle the then Government’s dictatorial approach to expansion. It was at that meeting that the slogan “I before E”—or infrastructure before expansion—was born. That phrase is now used by many others, including even the Prime Minister.
The slogan is good because it says two things. The first, which is obvious, is that we need infrastructure before expansion. Secondly, it says that we in Milton Keynes are not opposed to expansion per se. All too often the Opposition have liked to portray some in the House as nimbys as a justification for their centralist housing strategies, but the people of Milton Keynes certainly are not nimbys. However, I believe strongly that if any development is to be sustainable, it must have the support of local people.
The success of the I before E campaign has been such that the principle is now accepted by all political parties, but issues around expansion continue to be a major concern for Milton Keynes council and for people in the city and rural areas. Since 2004, when the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, stated that the south-east must build 1 million more homes, of which the Milton Keynes share would be an extra 70,000—in effect, the move would have enlarged Milton Keynes to a size equivalent to Bristol—there have been concerns that the decision was made without any cast-iron guarantee of an improvement to key infrastructure. Since then, various quangos with ever-changing names have had control over when, where and how Milton Keynes should expand, often against the advice of experts and, more importantly, against the wishes of local people, whose views have been ignored.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and understand exactly where he is coming from. Central Government diktat originally provided for a town the size of Lichfield right in the middle of our green belt, but we managed to get it down to half as much, as we ourselves had assessed was needed. We welcome the change of Government and of strategy, but there are still issues. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some areas do need a regional strategy and that it is important that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater? For example, we need to think about regional provision for Gypsies. I hope that when the Minister gives his comments—
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. She makes a powerful point, and we shall indeed find out what the Minister has to say.
In my constituency, local people were occasionally consulted. However, all too often, it was clear that the decisions had already been made and that lip service was being paid to local people through sham public consultations. Indeed, two years ago, I came to this Chamber to try to convince the then Minister, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), that his Department’s decision to impose 4,500 extra homes in rural north Buckinghamshire completely out of the blue was a mistake. It went against not only local residents’ wishes, but the advice received from Milton Keynes Partnership and the Department’s own advisers, all of whom felt that the decision was not in the interest of the city or its rural residents.
Thankfully, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, listened to reason and the decision was eventually overturned. I was grateful to her for reversing it, but we should not have had to go through that process in the first place. Common sense was finally seen, but that was a clear example of how the previous Government, with their Whitehall-decreed targets and unelected quangos, tried to run roughshod over the desires of local people. That is why I am so pleased that the new coalition Government have listened, and I hope that the days of top-down targets are limited.
Despite that minor victory in this Chamber two years ago, we have still seen house-building targets that were too large for local economic needs. As I said, there is no blanket opposition in Milton Keynes to the expansion of the city, but there is a feeling that it must be done at a sustainable pace and following the I before E philosophy. For example, 1,300 new homes were completed in Milton Keynes in 2009-10, but only 600 jobs were created. The current requirement is that 1.5 jobs are created per new home built.
It was therefore with great relief that on 27 May I received a letter from the new Secretary of State outlining his plans to abolish regional spatial strategies. I am pleased to say that I not only welcome the move; it is broadly supported by Milton Keynes council and local residents. Of course, there is a minority who view any change as a threat, and I called for the debate precisely so that the Minister would have an opportunity to put meat on the bones of the Secretary of State’s announcement and to allow local authorities up and down the land to begin to plan ahead as a result of the Government’s decision.
In effect, the abolition of the regional spatial strategy makes Milton Keynes council the policy maker for planning in central Milton Keynes, while Milton Keynes Partnership remains in charge of development on the eastern and western flanks of the city. However, the reality is that because the principal expansion areas are under the control of Milton Keynes Partnership, it is the Homes and Communities Agency, through Milton Keynes Partnership, that has dictated the amount, direction and speed of growth in Milton Keynes, not the democratically elected local council.
My first question to the Minister is: how will that relationship change? Will there be only one planning authority for Milton Keynes in the future, and will it be the council? To that end, does he intend to revoke the statutory instrument that gives Milton Keynes Partnership its development powers, and what future role does he anticipate for the partnership?
Secondly, will the scrapping of the regional spatial strategies be achieved through existing regulations or via a forthcoming Bill? Thirdly, will the Government put in place an interim mechanism that will allow local planning authorities to resist or defer planning applications for development above a certain size during the transitional period so that they are able to take stock and revisit their sustainable growth requirements?
Fourthly, and in line with that, will the Minister consider implementing a framework that ensures that the building and land assets of the Homes and Communities Agency and Milton Keynes Partnership are managed in line with the policy set by Milton Keynes council? Fifthly, how will the Government ensure that local councils take another look at their current housing plans and modify them if that is in the best interests of local people? On the flip side of the coin, how will the incentives and rewards to local authorities for building more homes and promoting greater economic growth be implemented?
Sixthly, will the Minister explain the funding mechanism for the future infrastructure projects that will be necessary for future residential properties? At present, Milton Keynes has a local tariff that is based on a per-property financial contribution to infrastructure, but that accounts for only a relatively small percentage of the amount that is required. Where will the remaining funding come from?
Finally, Milton Keynes lies on the border of three counties—Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire—and three regions: the south-east, east midlands and eastern regions. Can the Minister outline what mechanism will be available to ensure that the various stakeholders from those authorities can and will work together to come up with a consensus position that would benefit everyone in the cross-regional area?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to abolish regional spatial strategies and commend him for the leadership that he has shown in this matter. The Minister will, however, appreciate that the decision actually raises several important questions, some of which I have tried to outline this afternoon. I know that I speak for local authorities up and down the country when I say that the sooner we have answers, the sooner local authorities will be able to move forward in implementing local wishes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on his excellent speech and on his wisdom in choosing today’s topic for debate. May I congratulate the Minister on abolishing regional spatial strategies so quickly? I hope that the mechanism that formalises the abolition will be introduced as quickly as possible.
Kettering is a wonderful constituency, but it has the misfortune to lie within the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional spatial strategy area. The previous Government put in place arrangements to increase the number of dwellings in the borough of Kettering by one third—from 36,000 to 49,000—by 2021. However, such a rate of growth is not supported by local people and will place a huge strain on our local infrastructure.
Below the regional spatial strategy, a core spatial strategy was constructed for the area of north Northamptonshire—Kettering, Wellingborough, east Northamptonshire and Corby—and below that was the local development framework for each of the boroughs and districts. All those arrangements were complicated, although they were eventually understandable.
The local development framework and the core spatial strategy for the borough of Kettering are already signed off, approved and in place. What can local people do about the strategies and frameworks that have already been signed off? I strongly suspect that my constituents would like the housing numbers in the documents that I have mentioned to be revisited. Yes, we understand that the housing numbers beyond 2021 that were pencilled in as part of the regional spatial strategy have now gone, and that local people and local authorities can decide what numbers are appropriate, but local people want to know what can be done about the existing strategies and frameworks that are in place up to 2021.
My personal solution is for the 13,100 extra houses that are planned for the borough of Kettering by 2021 to be made the target for 2031. The implied rate of housing growth in the borough of Kettering over that 31-year period since the beginning of the strategy in 2001 would then be some 400 new dwellings per year, which would be close to the traditional projections for housing growth. Local people can cope with such a rate of growth, and the infrastructure has largely matched it. If we can arrive at that sensible solution, I know that my constituents will be happy, and I hope that the Minister will address my specific points, which are of huge concern to my constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) for initiating this debate.
The abolition of regional spatial strategies by the new coalition Government is extremely welcome and cannot come soon enough. Returning powers on where to build housing to local communities and democratically elected local councillors, rather than unelected quangos and Whitehall bureaucrats, is the right thing to do. For too long, local people have felt trampled on by central Government decision making and have felt that decisions have been done to them and imposed on them, rather than being made with their consent. For too long, local people have felt that their voice has gone unheard. It is time to change this.
In my constituency of Kingswood, there is an urgent case for the abolition of the regional spatial strategy as soon as possible. As a direct result of the previous Government’s south-west regional spatial strategy, green belt land in my constituency is coming under threat from development through speculative applications in Oldland Common, Mangotsfield and Longwell Green. Two applications—to build on green belt land on Barry road, Oldland Common, and on Cossham street, Mangotsfield—have already been fought off at a local planning level, and I am about to launch a campaign against a new application to build on green belt land at Williams Close, Longwell Green, which has only just been submitted.
For me and my constituents in Kingswood, it has been a familiar pattern: thousands of letters have been written and thousands of signatures against these applications have been collected. I have been working alongside the fantastic Save Our Green Spaces groups in Oldland Common, Warmley and Mangotsfield, whose tireless commitment to saving their local green belt has been humbling. I am proud to represent such constituents, whose sense of pride, dedication and duty towards protecting their local community for future generations is startling. The Save Our Green Spaces group will be writing to the Minister, requesting a meeting to discuss the forthcoming legislation, and if at all possible, I should like to facilitate that request.
We have won every battle so far, but while the RSS remains unrevoked by statute, we have yet to win the war. Developers are still keen to chance their luck and build on green belt land, which is why the RSS must be abolished as soon as possible. The link between scrapping the RSS and preserving our green belt is clear. To this end, I tabled early-day motion 168, which I am delighted to say has been signed by many hon. Members.
My constituency is also in the south-west. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we face a unique problem? Our regional spatial strategy was never implemented, but was still a so-called emerging RSS, so although it does not need to be abolished it is clearly not emerging any more. There is a risk from a policy vacuum in the south-west, which developers are looking to exploit. We welcome Government measures on the regional spatial strategies, but the policy vacuum needs to be dealt with pretty urgently.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. We are currently in limbo in the south-west. Later in my speech, I should like to mention another matter, which is creating a problem at this stage, regarding the RSS and other planning legislation that has yet to be tackled.
First and foremost, I want to be clear that my constituents are not nimbys. Local people recognise the need for extra housing, and more affordable housing, for the future. I am sure that hon. Members agree with that. In fact, there has been cross-party agreement in South Gloucestershire council on our being able to build 21,500 houses over the next 15 years and at the same time protect and preserve the Kingswood green belt. It is only due to the imposition of 32,800 homes in the local area under the south-west RSS that the green belt has come under threat from being bulldozed.
I should like to mention to the Minister an important issue that needs to be dealt with when legislation comes to pass through the House. Currently, there is an instruction to planning inspectors in paragraph 71 of planning policy statement 3 to “consider favourably” applications for housing where the local authority cannot show a five-year supply of housing land. That requirement is counter-intuitive in the current challenging housing market and in the context of the Secretary of State’s recent announcement on the abolishment of regional spatial strategies.
Under the PPS3 framework, local councils are being challenged by developers to make good the housing shortfall by approving applications for housing, often in unsustainable locations such as the green belt, on the grounds that the council cannot demonstrate a five-year land supply. However, even though many developers are now experiencing low market demand and have therefore reduced housing delivery, that is not stopping the sector claiming that the land supply in south Gloucestershire has significantly worsened, with that claim being used to justify granting permission for additional housing sites on the green belt at planning appeal. In my constituency, permission has already been granted for 2,700 houses in the Emersons Green East development, yet due to developers’ slow progress in planning and building those homes, the development is yet to begin. Now, using the argument of the five-year land bank and housing supply, which is still dictated by the soon-to-be abolished RSS, developers are casting their eyes over the green belt to cherry-pick the best sites. This unsustainable situation fundamentally conflicts with the new Government’s approach to planning for housing provision and on protecting the green belt.
I agree that there is quite a challenge at the moment in respect of what is to happen. A district council in my constituency is obviously drawing up plans for its development framework busily behind closed doors and is, almost certainly, reducing the impact on the green belt but not protecting it fully. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this time around we should start at parish council level, not even at district council level, building it up from there?
It is so interesting that the hon. Lady makes that point, because under the coalition agreement we will be handing more powers to parish councils, certainly for local referendums, with about 80% of parishes being able to decide where to build. There will be areas of land in a parish that the local community wants to decide on. There are certainly village communities that want to ensure that local residents whose families have lived in an area for generations are able to carry on living in a village. That is important.
My point about PPS3, particularly paragraph 71, is that it fails appropriately to balance the impact on communities—for example, village communities—and disproportionately favours housing delivery above genuine sustainability considerations. It is also contrary to the Secretary of State’s statement that decisions on housing supply should rest with local planning authorities. The requirement to provide a five-year land supply was based on the previous Government’s policy to deliver housing supply through a target-driven framework, of which paragraph 71 represented a key mechanism. The new Secretary of State has made it clear that that approach is no longer Government policy, and I hope that he will consider removing paragraph 71, along with the supporting national guidance on identifying sufficient specific sites to deliver housing for at least five years.
To replace the five-year land supply target, I suggest that the Government formally endorse the approach set out in the west of England multi-area agreement, which covers my area, to enable local authorities to agree with the Government annually, so that we have sequential development and more appropriate housing delivery forecasts that realistically reflect expected delivery. The Secretary of State should also consider carefully current national indicator 159 on the supply of ready-to-develop housing sites, which I suggest should be removed. The current NI 159 definition places great emphasis on the regional spatial strategy as the basis against which local authorities’ housing delivery is to be assessed. That requires immediate attention in legislation because it is now clearly not in accordance with Government policy.
These issues need further consideration when the legislation comes to the House, but above all I thank the new Government for their decision to abolish the regional spatial strategy. It is a welcome decision for the people of Kingswood. It places us on the right track to restore powers to local communities, to trust local people to make decisions over their own lives, and above all to preserve and protect our treasured green belt for generations to come.
I thank you, Mr Benton, and my hon. Friend. I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on raising this important matter.
Adel in my constituency is one of the many communities throughout the country that were overjoyed when the coalition Government announced that it would scrap regional spatial strategies and restore power over such matters to local councils and communities. The announcement in the Queen’s Speech of the decentralisation and localism Bill resonated hugely, unlike some of those previously announced.
Yorkshire and Humber regional spatial strategy’s H1 policy is headed “Provision and distribution of housing”, and has determined a target leading to annual average net additions to the dwelling stock between 2004 and 2026 of 4,300. The hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) has commented on the five-year supply, and in Leeds city council area that leads to 21,500 housing plots as part of its forward planning.
A development off Holt avenue in Adel has been vigorously opposed by Leeds city council and local residents. The Adel Association led a wonderful campaign showing the importance of what is an historic site. Adel has been a settlement since Saxon times and is next to Adel’s historic St John the Baptist church, which dates from 1150. It is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in the country. David Wilson Homes has ploughed on with its attempt to obtain planning permission and, having had it refused by Leeds city council, has gone to the Planning Inspectorate. The simple reality is that the unrealistically high targets for housing demanded in Leeds have provided until now, and will do so until regional spatial strategies are abolished, a legal loophole for developers to exploit. In communities throughout the country, we are seeing developers deliberately making a beeline for greenfield plots when they should focus on brownfield plots instead.
The irony in Leeds is that the city centre has hundreds of empty flats, which are ideal for first-time buyers, but developers try to build on important greenfield against the wishes of local residents. The frustration of the council’s planning department and local residents has turned to a feeling of empowerment now that that unnecessary and over-centralised target will go. I warmly welcome the Minister to his job. The planning appeal by David Wilson Homes has, thankfully, been postponed pending the announcement. Will the Minister tell us the timing, and will he say whether this will be given as a reason for this or any other development being forced through? Clearly, it was the intention of David Wilson Homes to use the five-year rule and the regional spatial strategy to demand the right to go ahead, even against such opposition.
That is my only question for the Minister. I know that other hon. Members want to speak. The news is great and is warmly welcomed in Adel, as well as throughout the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) for securing this important and timely debate on regional spatial strategies. The relevant provisions in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 that established regional spatial strategies were repealed and replaced, from 1 April 2010, by new provisions set out in part 5 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. The strategies are therefore now known as regional strategies, so perhaps from now on we should refer not to RSSs but to RSs.
When I was going around the towns and villages in my constituency during the recent general election campaign, I was surprised by how often the housing problem was raised, so the crucial development on housing numbers and the planning system is important. In 2008, the ratio of house prices to earnings in the Cotswolds was 18.8, which was the third highest in the south-west. The practical effect of that is most first-time buyers who want to stay in the area where they were brought up find it simply impossible to get on the housing ladder. It is vital that we have appropriate legislation on planning and house building.
The invidious effect of Labour’s planning system can be seen in the heart of villages and towns in the Cotswolds and throughout the UK: pubs, shops and post offices become unviable and are forced to close; local industries cannot find workers; and schools have fewer and fewer people enrolling. By dictating that all major developments are built on principal urban settlements, the RS deprives smaller villages of the flexibility to allow a small number of appropriately built and designed, affordable private sector houses to keep village communities alive.
Beyond considering only the issues in parts of the country such as the Cotswolds, I would like to highlight the wider failings of RSs. Estimates have suggested that an average of 252,000 new households a year are expected to be formed between now and 2031, which is a total of 27.8 million. In the previous Government’s 2007 housing Green Paper, they set out to develop 240,000 homes a year by 2016, but I do not believe that their RSSs or policies would ever have delivered anything like those numbers, even if they were sustainable. A check of the figures for permanent dwellings completed in England between 1997 and 2008 shows that the number was 2.3 million, or 192,000 a year. That figure compares badly with the 209,000 achieved by the previous Conservative Administration. I have also come across a staggering figure for public sector housing—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), will listen to this. In each year of the Labour Government, they built half as many dwellings as the last Conservative Administration.
Let me make it clear that the RS approach was flawed and has failed. The new Government’s commitment to repealing that approach is to be welcomed, and their localism agenda has the potential to make the changes that are needed, particularly in parts of the country such as the Cotswolds. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to a quote from the Campaign to Protect Rural England:
“We hope that the new Government will not, however, abandon strategic planning altogether, as we believe it is essential in order to co-ordinate development, infrastructure, service delivery, landscape management and conservation of the natural, historic and cultural environment, and address cross boundary issues—”
that subject has been raised by a number of colleagues in this debate—
“that might arise from several different planning strategies.”
Some of the themes of larger area planning also need to be borne in mind.
I understand that it is envisaged that housing targets in the RSs will be abolished and replaced by local development frameworks, which in most cases will probably return to option 1 figures. In the south-east, for example, the RS figure was approximately 30 million, although the option 1 figure would return that to 20 million. My own council, Cotswold district council, has already returned to a target of option 1 in its housing numbers.
As stated in “The Coalition: our programme for Government”, the coalition promises to provide
“incentives for local authorities to deliver sustainable development, including for new homes and businesses”.
That is terrifically welcome, but the danger with that approach is that the Government might find that insufficient houses are built in the pressurised areas of the east, south-east and south-west. I have a long memory about the subject, and I say to the Minister that even the previous Conservative Administration found that they had to take increasingly centralised powers to deal with local opposition to house building.
There is a need to establish in the local development framework some form of land bank where houses are likely to be permitted over the next 10 or 15 years. That is in line with the CPRE statement, and it is a sensible provision so that infrastructure can be targeted towards those areas of growth. Across England last year, there were approximately 651,000 empty homes, and incentives need to be provided to get those houses back into occupation because having such a number of empty houses in our country is a huge waste of resources.
Some points need deeper discussion, but I will deal with them as quickly as I can. We need clarification of the current situation, following the letter from the Secretary of State to council leaders on 27 May. Recently, two substantial planning applications were determined in the Cotswolds. They each sought to build around 300 homes in Moreton-in-Marsh. That is a relatively small market town of around 1,500 houses, so 600 houses would be a huge increase. When the district council made its decision, one application was permitted and one was refused. However, the letter of 27 May from the Secretary of State was cited by the planning authority in its refusal. The important sentence in that letter was:
“However, I expect Local Planning Authorities and the Planning Inspectorate to have regard to this letter as a material planning consideration in any decisions they are currently taking.”
What can be described only as a window of ambiguity has now opened with regard to the prospect of appeals, both in this instance and for other councils across the country. There is particular concern for rural councils such as Cotswold, where a major appeal can cost the equivalent of a 1% council tax rise. That is in an environment in which all councils are urged to set a minimal—if any—rise in council tax, so it is difficult to budget for the costs of major appeals.
The major grounds for appeal from the developers whose application was refused will be that Cotswold did not have sufficient land supply in its RS. If that application goes to appeal, it is unclear whether the Planning Inspectorate will have been told to disregard the figures in the RS, following the letter from the Secretary of State.
Let me highlight the confusion by outlining what has happened since the general election. On 20 May, the Government published “The Coalition: our programme for Government” which stated:
“We will rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils, including giving councils new powers to stop ‘garden grabbing’”.
On 27 May, the Secretary of State wrote his letter, and on 28 May the inspector in the key Leeds city council case adjourned the hearing. On 2 June, Taylor Wimpey, the applicants responding, resisted the adjournment, and on 4 June, the applicants in the Grimes Dyke and Boston Spa inquiries responded by resisting the reopening of the inquiry, pointing out that it was open to either the inspector or the Secretary of State to invite written representations. One can therefore begin to see the confusion that is arising.
On 9 June, planning policy statement 3 was amended and republished. The advice on assessing housing land surveys, which is based on the RS requirements, has not been amended, which is something to which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) alluded. On 10 June, advice from the Planning Inspectorate stated:
“The proposed abolition of RS is a Government commitment that Inspectors and other decision-makers should take into account as a material consideration.”
My hon. Friend the Minister has stated:
“The Planning Inspectorate’s note does not supersede the Secretary of State’s letter of 27 May”.—[Official Report, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 26W.]
As he is no doubt aware, the suggestion that the abolition of the RS is a material consideration in determining appeals is being challenged by a number of weighty legal opinions contending that the letter would not stand up in court as it assumes that the RS will be abolished, although the matter has not yet been determined by Parliament.
Whether or not such views are correct, it should not allow the paralysis of the planning system. The Minister will also be aware that it is highly unlikely that section 79(6) of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 would allow the Secretary of State to abolish the RSs wholesale.
With no timeline in place for the proposed decentralisation and localism Bill that the Government intend to introduce, there is concern that councils throughout the country will face a number of hugely costly legal challenges by judicial review and appeals to defend. Therefore, the difficulty for decision makers is what legitimate weight they should accord the Secretary of State’s letter.
Peter Village QC, a planning silk, is of the view that:
“It is well-established Government policy that the weight to be given to any such emerging policy or guidance will depend upon the stage which it has reached in the relevant process for its introduction…Accordingly, it is difficult to conceive how an intention to change the law in the future can itself be a lawful material consideration to the determination of a planning application now under the existing law without having the unlawful effect of seeking to give effect to a change in the law absent the necessary change of the primary legislation.”
I also want to raise the issue of whether the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004 will require a strategic environmental assessment to be carried out before a RS is abolished. If that is the case, it will delay the introduction of provisions in the proposed decentralisation and localism Bill. As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, RSs could be subject to that requirement. Will he clarify how a new policy would work in accordance with those regulations? I hope that he will acknowledge that these concerns exist among developers and local planning authorities throughout the country, and I hope that he will be able to close that window of ambiguity. It would be extremely helpful to know whether, in the near future, the Secretary of State plans to make any written or oral statements to Parliament so that the confusion can be cleared up.
Let me reassure hon. Members that I will be brief. Many of my colleagues have already raised points that are similar to mine and I want to allow as much time as possible for the Minister to respond. Let me add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) for securing a debate on a topic that was of great significance to people in the constituency of West Worcestershire during the general election.
I also thank the Government for moving so quickly to send letters to councils explaining that they can take the intention to abolish regional spatial strategies into account as a material consideration, as that has certainly greatly relieved local communities.
Let me explain a couple of the specific issues that have arisen in West Worcestershire, so that the Minister can perhaps use the debate to give some guidance to my local councils—Malvern Hills district council and Wychavon district council. During the regional spatial strategy planning process, Worcester, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), was designated a regional growth point, and the three south Worcestershire councils were allocated 25,500 homes to find room for.
The county town of Worcester is bordered on the one side by the M5 and on the other by the River Severn, so there is no room inside the city boundaries for it to expand as a growth point. The south Worcestershire joint core strategy was therefore obliged to look at Malvern Hills district council territory to find room for the 25,500 homes. The council would thus be given more than 10,000 homes under the regional spatial strategy. That caused great resistance in communities where only 1,500 people are on the waiting list for housing.
Let me describe the impact on the village of Lower Broadheath, which is the birthplace of the great composer Elgar. The village is about four miles west of Worcester, but it is, importantly, on the other side of that significant geographical barrier, the River Severn. The village, which was designated Worcester West, has only about 800 homes, but it would be obliged to have between 3,500 and 4,000 more built on the green fields that separate it from Worcester.
I have some specific questions for the Minister. First, what guidance can he give Malvern Hills district council? Bloor homes has applied for outline planning permission to build the 4,000 homes in west Worcester, which is causing severe blight and concern. Planning permission was applied for at the beginning of the year, before the proposed abolition of the regional spatial strategy, and the council is looking for guidance on whether that proposed abolition is a material consideration and on what the next stage of the plans is. Secondly, will the abolition of the regional spatial strategy automatically abolish the characterisation of Worcester as a new growth point? Will the Minister clarify exactly how we will go forward on that?
On behalf of my constituents, I thank the Government for taking things forward this far, but I agree with many of my fellow speakers that it would be helpful to have swift further clarification of the other matters that we have raised.
I am particularly grateful to you, Mr Benton, for giving me my first opportunity to speak in Westminster Hall.
Residents of my constituency will welcome the end of the regional housing targets in the regional spatial strategies. That is especially true of those seeking to protect Birds Marsh woods and land along Chippenham’s floodplains from development. The Minister met residents when he visited my constituency just a few months ago, and I am sorry that I did not get the chance to meet him, although the circumstances were such that that would perhaps not have been welcomed by all.
Wiltshire councillors were keen to blame the development proposals on the regional spatial strategy. Others promised that they will be stopped if the new Government abolish the strategy. Only time will tell if that promise is as true as that made by the parties that have come together to form the coalition Government to abolish the regional spatial strategies.
In place of such development proposals, I hope that we will see opportunities to provide housing—particularly affordable housing—partly through a renewed commitment to bring empty homes into use. There are also exciting proposals to secure small affordable housing schemes in our villages, as has happened very successfully in Broughton Gifford, just down the road from me. Such schemes will be essential for small communities to sustain themselves and to ensure the viability of village schools.
Wiltshire council is keen to receive advice from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on whether planning inspectors will now disregard the regional spatial strategies, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, that for the south-west has the status only of an emerging strategy. Not only the council has asked me about the issue; local conservation campaigners fear that if Wiltshire council does not adopt a core strategy, its draft core strategy, which sought to conform to the regional spatial strategy, may impose regional housing targets by the back door while a local policy vacuum remains.
I clearly opposed the regional housing targets, and I wrote to the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), the then Secretary of State, as part of the consultation on the regional spatial strategy to make that opposition clear in the case of Chippenham. However, I also looked closely enough at the region’s draft RSS before her Department’s intervention to see that there were some welcome policies to promote the energy efficiency and resource sustainability of the proposed buildings. My final request to the Minister, therefore, is that he and his colleagues facilitate the availability of such best practice, so that local councils can adopt it, should they so choose.
The debate over the regional spatial strategies has been a case of representative democracy in action. The democratic process has effectively communicated the strong feelings of our constituents and delivered a response from their new Government. In supporting the coalition agreement, Government Members have started to do their bit, and I am sure that the Minister is determined to complete the job in government. However, it is imperative that, between his officials, councils, planning inspectors and skilful developers, our constituents’ wishes are not overridden as a result of any hiatus or vacuum in terms of the policy applicable. I would very much welcome the Minister’s comments on such concerns.
I, too, am delighted to make my first contribution in Westminster Hall. I congratulate my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), on securing this important debate. I strongly endorse all the points that he made, although I will not go through them all in the interests of time. However, his point about the Government’s interim measure, which other hon. Members have raised, is particularly important. I strongly welcome the letter that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government sent to councils, but there is some doubt about its legal status. I had a conversation with officials in Milton Keynes council, who say that there is legal doubt about the suggestion that the Secretary of State’s letter announcing the abolition of regional spatial strategies will be treated as a material consideration at appeal in the courts. In the interim, that is a significant matter, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification.
My constituency contains two areas where planning submissions are under way. The concern is that those submissions will be rushed through and imposed before the full change in the law takes place. One of those areas of development is in the south-east of Milton Keynes, around Woburn Sands and the Brickhills. There is great concern locally that a semi-rural area will suddenly be infilled with hundreds or thousands of new houses.
The second area, Salden Chase, is south-west of Milton Keynes, and it will be in the strange situation of being physically part of Milton Keynes—there will be a seamless divide between the town’s existing settlements and the new estate—while also being in the neighbouring local authority of Aylesbury Vale. That has met massive local opposition, not only because it would be a huge imposition of housing on the fringes of Milton Keynes, but because the new residents would look to Milton Keynes for services—a hospital and schools, for example—and because there would be a significant impact on the transport infrastructure; yet all the revenue from council tax would accrue to Aylesbury Vale. Milton Keynes would bear most of the cost and receive little of the benefit. I should appreciate some guidance from the Minister about how he envisages cross-border developments being considered once the RSS is abolished.
There is time to pause and think again in Milton Keynes. There are already permissions for some 20,000 new houses and the existing local plan continues to 2011. The argument that suddenly abolishing the RSS will mean that all house building will grind to a halt is false. It is important to pause and think through the future. Hon. Members may not be aware that Milton Keynes has pretty much reached the size planned for it when it was designated a new city in the late 1960s. We have pretty much reached the population of 250,000 that it was designed to have. The existing developments will take us to that level. The question is how we grow from there. I think that there should be a local debate about that, rather than anything being imposed, top-down, from central Government. There is a disconnect in politics. People often feel that developments that will have a significant impact on their quality of life are imposed on them, without their having any say. We need to reinvigorate local democracy by giving people a say not just about the quantity of new development, but in the shaping of the style of developments.
We have talked primarily about housing numbers this afternoon, but I should like more detail about what we intend to do to give people the power to shape the design of communities. Will we, for example, scrap density targets and allow local decisions to be made about how many car parking places there should be and about the style of houses? We have been good at building one and two-bedroom flats in Milton Keynes recently, but there has been a dearth of family-sized accommodation with proper-sized gardens and spaces for children to play in. I want more open source planning—the buzzword—in the shaping of new estates. It is not just the number of houses that is important, but the type of housing.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case. Does he think, as I do, that it might be appropriate for Ministers to give guidance in regulations about allowing local authorities to develop, with housing associations, many more intermediate schemes—not just rental, but do-it-yourself shared ownership and shared equity, when the time comes—so that the 125% subsidy for social housing will not just be about a bog-standard approach but will relate to a variety and plurality of housing tenures?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of the arguments that is often made for the central imposition of new housing is a reduction, somehow, in the cost, thus making housing more affordable. That is a laudable aim, but it should not be at the expense of local areas, completely transforming them and imposing settlements that are not welcomed by the existing residents. I am very much in favour of a more flexible system of shared ownership than the present one, to allow a greater mix of the equity that people can hold; that should also be transferable, so that they could take it with them on moving, as they move up the ladder and the needs of their family change.
Milton Keynes is at a crossroads and we want the power to shape our own future to be in our hands. That would go a long way towards reinvigorating local democracy. I hope that different parties will put forward different visions of how Milton Keynes could grow, but the critical point is that it should be our decision. We welcome the idea of the power being in our hands.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on securing the debate.
It is not often in local campaigning that the term “regional spatial strategy” produces any great interest, let alone excitement, but in Winchester the mention of it gets people very excited one way or the other. In the lead up to the general election that was because people knew very well the stance taken by what I hoped would be, and turned out to be, the incoming Government.
Winchester city council put together a good local development framework, engaged in lots of local consultation to do so and produced a core strategy with a step change option for the district. However, that was done in the straitjacket of the south-east plan and the relevant numbers. Local people felt that it was a bit like being told “You can buy a car—any car you like, as long as it’s a Ford.” With good grace and the best of intentions, they took part in the consultation. Many thousands of them attended or wrote to take part in the local development framework consultation, and they felt somewhat cheated by the document when it came out. They had had their say; but in the end, 12,500 houses were still imposed on them. That created great ill-feeling, and people were very excited; the abolition of the RS, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) says we must call it, is incredibly welcome in my constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) said that the Government’s stated emerging policy was a welcome pause for thought, and it is indeed that in Winchester. The Pickles letter, as it has become known, was the talk of the town at a meeting of the city council planning development control committee that I spoke at a couple of weeks ago. That meeting was held in connection with non-determination of an application by CALA Homes to put 2,000 homes on a greenfield site known as Barton Farm just north of Winchester that is mentioned in the south-east plan. Every speaker mentioned the Pickles letter. The officer recommendation was taken on the basis of that letter; perhaps that suggests how it is being viewed in town halls. As the local MP, I wrapped up the debate, and I am pleased that councillors upheld the officers’ recommendation and threw out the application. The problem now is that a planning inquiry is set for early September, to consider CALA’s application. There is massive public opposition to the building of 2,000 houses on the site. The Save Barton Farm group, which deserves every credit, has worked tirelessly for years and fought many battles only to be told that it must go back and fight them all again.
I thought that my speech would be brief—it has been—but I should like to ask the Minister some questions. Will the Planning Inspectorate show the deference to the Pickles doctrine that Winchester’s PDCC obviously did? The timetable for the legislation is critical, going by what hon. Members have said, and I should welcome the Minister’s view about that. What is his advice to the new leader of Winchester city council, who wrote to me recently about the local development framework, explaining that although it is, as I said, a good document, with many good things on affordable housing and sustainability policy, the council cannot progress until it knows whether it has been released from what it considers to be a planning limbo? Will LDFs continue, and if so, in what form? Will the numbers that may be considered as part of the LDF still be based on submissions made by county councils to the original south-east plan discussions?
This is also my first contribution to a Westminster Hall debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) for the opportunity to debate regional spatial strategies and for bringing an issue that is so high on the local agenda to a high place on the Westminster agenda. I, too, shall be brief.
Although I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the abolition of the RSS, we are all aware that that is not the end of the matter. Given the progress that had been made towards the implementation of the RSS, some people believe that the proposals generated for it should be put into practice, given the absence of anything else. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it clear today that such thinking is mistaken and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) said, we see representative democracy in action.
I have had the pleasure of making representations to the Minister responsible—the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)—and I have received a personal assurance that the RSS is dead and buried and that councils will be given new guidance shortly on how to proceed. The Government and the people have been extremely clear in wanting a bottom-up approach to housing development. The proposals made by the RSS do not hold any legitimacy for most residents in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, and I am sure that that is the case for residents in many other constituencies across the country. It is therefore vital that councils across the country offload the dead-weight of the previous planning framework and move towards swift consultation with local people, creating a new, more open and more democratic process of deciding on housing development. That is the only way that we will secure the type of housing that people want and welcome in their communities.
I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Benton, and to colleagues for allowing me a few minutes to speak. I am enormously proud to support a Government who are abolishing the regional spatial strategies. It brings me great pride even to say those words after six years of battling against these things, so I congratulate the Minister. I also congratulate, in the case of Cheltenham, the Leckhampton Green land action group, the Save The Countryside campaign, particularly Kit Braunholtz, Alice Ross, Helen Wells, Gerry Potter and Councillors Klara Sudbury, Steve Jordan and John Webster, and thousands of others throughout Cheltenham, Gloucestershire and the whole south-west, who succeeded in sufficiently bogging down the emerging south-west regional spatial strategy to the point at which it never emerged at all.
This policy of the last Labour Government may once have been well intentioned in an attempt to control the spiralling rise in house prices, but it ended up being undemocratic and profoundly unsustainable, because it delivered targets that were based not even on an absolute number of houses for local people, but on thousands of houses per year being delivered apparently in perpetuity. Presumably, when we reached the end of these strategies in 2026, we would have had further ones that would have had to maintain that rate of supply. The credit crunch in a sense constrained irresponsible lending and helped to deflate house price inflation, but there are a few issues that I hope the Minister will have time to address.
Rightly, colleagues have pointed out the risk of the Planning Inspectorate undermining some Ministers’ intentions. In fact, there is one judgment relating to—I hesitate to try to pronounce this—Bata field in East Tilbury, delivered in a letter in the name of the Secretary of State on 21 June, that also seems to undermine Ministers’ intentions, although it is in the name of the Secretary of State, because it cites the unacceptability of development on the green belt, except in exceptional circumstances, and then it gives the exceptional circumstances as the demonstrable shortfall in affordable housing completions and the quality of the design. Those do not sound very exceptional to me. There is a risk that, even in the Department itself, there are still people who have not quite grasped the new situation. I hope that the Minister has time to address that.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will have heard me say this before, but in my constituency, a further 1,700 houses were imposed at the examination in public. They were opposed by every democratically elected person, but I am convinced that, if our Government had not taken the measure that they have taken, that extremely undemocratic decision would have been forced through. That gives the message to the Minister and everyone else that we must all take on the new values of the coalition.
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and I pay tribute to her tireless campaigning on the regional spatial strategy on behalf of her constituents.
The final issue is the possibility that some areas of market housing will be constrained, and we have traditionally delivered some affordable and even social housing on the back of market housing, so it is very important that the Department addresses the need especially for social housing for rent. Will the Minister examine some of the issues, including the use of income from rent more flexibly by arm’s length management organisations such as Cheltenham Borough Homes, to allow the building and buying of more new council housing for rent? That is one of the things that might help to address some of the possible criticisms of the abolition of regional spatial strategies—I am anticipating somewhat the words of the Labour spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)—even though they were based on utterly unsustainable levels of economic growth, not on genuinely identified housing need at all.
I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr Benton. May I say how much I enjoyed the debates that you chaired in the previous Parliament and how much I look forward to such debates in this one? I congratulate the Minister on achieving his place on the Front Bench. I must say that I felt a little frisson as hon. Members said, “I look to the Minister for answers on these questions,” or, “I look forward to the Minister’s response on this,” and then realised that it was not me this time but him.
I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on introducing the debate in a very measured and well-informed way. As he said, the answers from the Minister are more important than the questions, so I intend to give the Minister as much time as possible to answer the questions that hon. Members have asked. I have five questions for him to answer, however.
The hon. Members for Milton Keynes North and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) both argued, rightly, that Milton Keynes is a town that has always been committed to growth and has always seen growth as part of its future, so the arguments that they make on behalf of their town, just like those of their predecessors—particularly the predecessor of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South, who was a very distinguished Member of the House—carry a lot of weight.
I have been very impressed by the quality of this afternoon’s debate. Most of the contributions have been measured and incisive, and there have been many of them. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) talked about the Yorkshire and Humber regional plan. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) talked about the importance of building in all areas of the country, particularly if we are concerned about the opportunities for first-time buyers and young families to get a start in life in their own area. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) talked about incentives, while the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) talked about energy efficiency and asked questions about it. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South is concerned about design standards, which are important.
The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr Brine) talked about the problem with the Pickles letter, which is a significant aspect of the debate. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) talked about the importance of democracy in the planning system, which is an essential feature. Even in only an intervention, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) managed to make a very important point on affordable housing. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) managed to mention most of the people on his RSS constituency mailing list.
I got the job of housing and planning Minister a year ago—that was all. I inherited the regional spatial strategies and quickly found that they had very few friends, as has been underlined clearly in the debate. In most regions, the regional spatial strategies have been agreed and are in place, and they were agreed by a combination of elected local council leaders from the region, in the region. Beyond that, what was clear to me—it is still clear now—was that our regional spatial strategies and our approach to planning were too inflexible to reflect some of the differences between regions. Our approach was too top-down, but it is clear that the new Government’s approach is simply a charter for nimby resistance to new homes, which should concern us all because it could have worrying consequences. My associated concern is that it is a signal of the Government stepping back at national level from any role and responsibility in securing the new homes that are needed in all parts of the country for the future.
The consequences of the changes are already clear. It is not so much about greater local powers but fewer new homes. In many areas, that will result in the blocking rather than the building of new homes. Although the contributions to the debate have been measured, the comments of some council leaders have been clear. For instance, in response to the Government’s announcement about the abolition of regional spatial strategies, the Conservative leader of Adur district council said:
“It will reduce the number of new homes significantly”,
which he said was to be welcomed. The National Housing Federation said that the number of new affordable homes would “fall off a cliff”, while the chief executive of one of our leading house building companies described the impact of the changes as being “scary as hell”.
I am concerned that on this matter, as with other policy areas, we are seeing a gap between what the Government are saying and what they are doing. The new housing Minister says that he and the Government want Britain to be a nation of house builders. That is either top-of-the-range spin or grand self-deception. If that is the case, why was the one incentive system—the housing and planning delivery grant—swept aside as part of this year’s £6 billion cuts? Why, as part of those cuts, was £230 million taken from the Homes and Communities Agency budget for building affordable homes, through housing associations, in several disadvantaged areas? Why is it that all the affordable housing investment programmes for which funding was agreed, set aside and put in place now on hold? Will the Minister—this is my first question—tell us when the money for those affordable housing programmes will be released so that building can start again?
The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) spoke of the RSSs as having been abolished, but that is not the case. As the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) said, until Parliament passes legislation to revoke RSSs, they will not be abolished—they will remain in place. I fear that the Pickles letter does little to help the situation. Indeed, it creates a legislative limbo in which councils, planners and the Planning Inspectorate are uncertain of their principal reference points. At a conference at which I was speaking this morning, a distinguished academic who knows a lot about the matter described the planning system—the result of two months of Government announcements—as a vacuum and in a state of chaos. That should surprise no one, because the new Secretary of State has been having a go at every part of the planning system like a bull in a china shop. My second question to the Minister is therefore: what is the legal planning status of the Pickles letter? When will the Government publish the legislation that will allow them to do what they wish?
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us the exact legal status of letters issued by Ministers in the previous Government that told planning authorities and planning inspectors in the south-west to pay attention to the emerging RSS there and said that it was a material planning consideration, even though it had not been implemented?
The hon. Gentleman misses the point. The framework for regional spatial strategies had been legislated for by the House and that remains the case. However, questions arise about the extraordinary letter sent by the new Secretary of State.
I turn to a point that at least two Members raised this afternoon: the desire to move from a planning-led system to an incentive-based system. There is certainly a case for incentives in the system. It can be said that the housing and planning delivery grant and the extra funding for growth areas and growth points were insufficiently sharp to do the job on their own, but they were an important part of the system and I am sorry to see this year’s housing and planning grant go. However, the Government’s idea of a council tax match at 100% for every new home built is an 18-carat con—just consider the money!
The idea is that that would cost £250 million in the first year. It was meant to be funded by switching the housing and planning delivery grant, but that amounted to £135 million this year and it went in the Chancellor’s first swathe of cuts. There is no new money for this proposed incentive scheme. In years two, three, four, five and six—the scheme is meant to last six years—it will be top-sliced from local government grant through the formula system at a rate of about £250 million a year. A £250 million cut in the local authority grant system is the equivalent of a 1% rise in council tax. It is not only £250 million a year, however. The effect is cumulative, so the cost in the second year will be £250 million plus another £250 million. In year three it will increase again; and the total over the six years will be £5.25 billion—the equivalent of an extra £320 on the average band D property council tax.
The system will rob some councils in order to pay others. Those hon. Members whose constituencies include county council areas should remember that although county councils are not planning authorities and are not responsible for housing, they will bear the brunt of the cuts through the switch to district councils, which will get the cash. It must be obvious to anyone that if the scheme ever sees the light of day—if DCLG Ministers can persuade the Treasury to put it in place—it will lead to council tax chaos. It will blow the Chancellor’s Budget promise of a council tax freeze out of the water. My fourth question to the Minister is therefore: when will the scheme be in place? My fifth question is this: will there or will there not be new money for the scheme, or will it be top-sliced as in previously published plans, and taken from local government budgets?
I shall answer my sixth question myself to save the Minister the trouble. What is the new Government’s policy on housing for the future, and what are they saying to those young people who want to move out of their parents’ house and set up home for themselves? The answer is clear: no new homes, and a capital “NO” to new affordable homes. Since the two parties got into Government, they have been waving two fingers at those who need decent, affordable, secure homes for the future and at those who aspire to move into and buy their own homes.
We are right at the start of this Parliament, but within three, four or five years—before its end—the consequences of the changes that we are discussing this afternoon will be serious for many young families across the country and very clear to them when they consider how to vote at the next election.
May I say what a pleasure it is, Mr Benton, to serve under your chairmanship again? It is for the first time in this Parliament—and, literally, the first time from this angle.
The debate has been most interesting and of a high quality. I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) in that regard. That may be almost the end of our agreement, but he was right that it was well-informed and stimulating.
Looking at the physical attendance in the Chamber, one of the planning issues could almost have been the spatial imbalance here. Such an imbalance reflects the importance of planning to all my hon. Friends’ constituents. Planning was also an important issue in the recent general election, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my ministerial colleagues and I make no apology for having moved swiftly to set out our intention to redeem our promise to the electorate that we would remove regional spatial strategies.
I am delighted to see the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne here today, because he and I have done our best to spar in a civilised fashion over the past few years. I hope that he will not take it the wrong way when I thank him for having welcomed me to the Government side of the Chamber, and when I say that I am delighted to see him on the Opposition side; I mean it in the nicest way. He is often the most reasonable of opponents, but that does not mean that he is always right as far as these matters are concerned. Whatever the intentions of the previous Government for the regional spatial strategies, he himself concedes in moderate terms—given the normal moderation of his language, these are strong terms for him—that they had become too inflexible and too top-down. Being a less temperate person, I might put it in stronger terms. The fact is they had become a positive obstacle to good planning in this country and to the delivery of housing in the right place.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) referred to the legal challenges that delayed the south-west regional plan, and they were not unique to that area. They came about because of the top-down structure of the regional spatial strategy, which created an almost immediate antipathy in the communities that were affected. Battle lines were drawn, and a great deal of money and effort was expended on fighting strategies rather than on adopting a bottom-up approach that might have taken communities with it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) observed, such an approach is a key part of sustainable development. It is right that I congratulate him on securing this debate; he has done us a great service by doing so. He has raised important issues, and I will do my best to address them, as well as those raised by other hon. Members.
My hon. Friend has diligently raised the particular concerns of Milton Keynes both in this Parliament and the previous one, and his constituents have been well served by him in that regard. Moreover, I am delighted to welcome the reinforcement of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who is very experienced in such matters.
Let me deal, as best I may, with the significant points that have been raised. In the interests of time, I will not go through the preamble about the particular circumstances of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North and of Milton Keynes itself because he has set them out and we are in agreement about them. It is a city that is committed to growth. It has grown fast and shown diligence in recognising the pressures and the need to accommodate such growth. Its ambitions are ones that the Government wish to see fulfilled for the benefit of its residents.
My hon. Friend has that assurance. I have been doing my best to make notes, which is probably terrifying for my officials because there have been too many medical men in my family and my handwriting has been influenced accordingly. None the less, I will certainly do as my hon. Friend suggests, and I will also do my best to get what I can on the record now.
Let me deal with the specific points that have been raised. We have made it clear that we will proceed to the full-scale abolition of the regional spatial strategies as soon as possible. Ultimately, there will be a need for primary legislation to sweep such matters away, which will be dealt with in a localism Bill that will be introduced to the House in this Session. However, despite the caveat raised by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), we will also explore the possibility of using secondary legislation to remove the most difficult part of the regional strategies in advance of that. We are actively discussing with officials the means by which this may be done.
The next step is to issue more detailed guidance. The Pickles letter—a letter issued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—was intended very specifically to mark out to all concerned the Government’s intention to move swiftly to redeem the coalition pledge, which is part of the coalition agreement. In relation to its status, we are quite satisfied with the legal advice that has been given to us that it is a material consideration and should be regarded as such, both by local planning authorities, in considering applications, and by the inspectorate. That was why we communicated the letter both to local planning authorities and the inspectorate. I am aware that there has been some attempt to dispute that, but I will simply say that lawyers disagree. However eminent the opinion of Mr Village QC, it is at odds with the opinion of those who advise us. I hope that local authorities will not place any more weight on the view of one lawyer than that of many others and that of their communities and electors as to the appropriateness of planning applications. As a material consideration, the opinion must be put into the mix. Of course all applications must be decided on their facts, and that remains the case.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I can assure him that I do not want to cause him any difficulties, but will he do whatever he can to encourage planning inspectors to get on and hear cases rather than adjourning them, so that the emerging position becomes clear?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and I take his question in the spirit in which it was intended. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and I are in discussion with the Planning Inspectorate, and we will ensure that such a factor is taken on board. Everybody wants to move as swiftly as possible, but because the arrangements for planning regulations under the previous Government were so complex, we have something of a legal minefield to walk through to ensure that we get it right. If we make important changes, we are determined that we do not have any false starts. I hope that Members will understand our reasons for doing so.
There will be further guidance. I am sorry that I am not able to say to hon. Members that I have it here today, but when I say that my right hon. Friend will issue the guidance soon, I mean it. I hope that people understand that a good deal of work is being done at the moment, and that we intend to move very swiftly to set it out. I am conscious that such guidance should involve both the transitional arrangements and some of the implications that follow therefrom. We have already made it clear that the abolition of the regional strategies is emerging Government policy and, therefore, a material consideration and that local planning authorities should not feel intimidated from getting on with adopting those parts of their local plans that are appropriate.
Moreover, we will give local authorities the opportunity to revise partially those plans to reflect the abolition of the regional strategies and the imposed targets that went with them. Sometimes it is felt that the revision of a local plan is a long-winded process and rather daunting, but let me assure Members that a focused revision of the plan that concentrates on certain aspects, such as the housing aspects that are affected by the removal of the regional strategies, need not take that degree of time. I hope that hon. Members will take back that important message to their constituencies. The revision can be done swiftly and without great expense to the local authorities. Some local authorities are already taking that on board. Those are key steps that we are keen to take at an early stage.
Fire Stations (Warwickshire)
I am delighted to have this opportunity to debate fire station provision within Warwickshire. I am also delighted to have the support of my colleagues from the county. However, I am sure that we in Westminster Hall will especially appreciate the presence of the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright). Owing to the convention that Whips do not speak in Westminster Hall debates, he is prevented from participating, although his thoughts on this matter are well documented.
Warwick is passionate about its fire station, and I will let my hon. Friends from the county speak in support of their own fire stations. Recently, 12,000 of my constituents signed a petition to keep Warwick fire station—a move that garnered support from the entire community, not just for emotional reasons, although Warwick residents will be forgiven for wanting to keep their fire station, given that much of the mediaeval town was destroyed in the great fire of 1694.
Warwick is an old town that is rich in heritage, and it is the central point of an ancient county. Warwick castle is located in the very heart of the town, and I need not go into great detail about the dangers that can occur from castle fires. Alongside our local NHS hospital, we have the 500-year-old Lord Leycester hospital. Both buildings are located not more than half a mile from the present fire station.
Local residents want to go to sleep safe in the knowledge that their town is secure and that, if the worst should happen, there is a fire station nearby to deal with any emergencies. It is not too much to ask to keep that fire station; local people should not have to plead to keep it.
People in my constituency appreciate—indeed, I do, too—that things need to move on. Local residents are not opposed to change, but they just do not understand why they have to lose their fire station because of change. Frankly, they do not think that they have been given a good enough set of reasons to explain the loss of their fire station. The very first priority must surely be front-line public safety.
It would not be too much to say that people in my constituency are also frustrated by the whole process of change. A flawed consultation, costing in excess of £300,000, was carried out, but it consistently showed the local population’s anger at the proposed closures. People have turned to their local town councillors and district councillors, who have supported them. They have also turned to their county councillors.
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot make a speech. You can make an intervention, with the permission of the Member who has secured the debate—I understand that to be the case. Any contribution to the debate must take the form of an intervention, not a speech.
You put that very beautifully, Mr. Benton; you are quite right. I therefore thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene on him in this debate. I shall just add that the initial consultation on this issue was deeply flawed, which I think was recognised in the end. I went to see the chief fire officer before May—I will see him again on Friday—to press the point home that the local community and the local fire officers in Bidford, Studley and Alcester have not been in any way objectionable. In fact, they have been very proactive and John Maples, my predecessor as the MP for Stratford-on-Avon, has worked very hard with them. They have put forward a very strong proposal, which I have supported throughout this process, and I just implore the councillors to look at that proposal for Bidford, Studley and Alcester fire stations to remain open, because if one looks at all the evidence that I have before me, which I am sure my hon. Friend has also seen, one sees that if those stations close the length of time that firefighters will take to get to fire hazards would be increased to what I believe would be an unacceptably long time. So I implore the councillors to listen very carefully before they make the decision to close those three fire stations.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. If the arguments that he is using are not enough, the proposals really fail on the common-sense test. The proposals rightly say that the range of incidents and the types of risks have changed—those things have changed—but the consultation document has not considered the fact that Warwickshire is due to experience an increase in housing and industry. As the economic recovery happens, we still need to look at how we strategically place our fire service provision.
We need a more reliable and faster fire service; but on a common-sense level, how can that be achieved with fewer firefighters and fewer fire engines? Withdrawing a third of the local fleet does not seem to be the best method to increase response times or reliability. The proposals say that we need to increase the training of firefighters, but what good will that do if there are not enough of them to go around? Getting rid of a group of highly skilled retained firefighters will not help to tackle a skills shortage.
Even more unreasonably, the proposals say that retained fire engines suffer from insufficient crewing. Obviously, therefore, the most logical response to a shortage of retained firefighters is not to get rid of retained firefighters. Who in their right mind would apply to become a retained firefighter, sacrificing their time and energy as well as taking enormous personal risks, when they can be got rid of so easily?
Tackling road incidents is the fastest growing area of work for our fire service. Forgive me if I am wrong, but surely it is obvious that responding to that growing area of work requires more fire engines, not fewer. However, having fewer fire engines is exactly what the fire service is proposing. It is seeking to reduce the number of local fire engines by 10, yet it has gone to the great length of hiring a new assistant chief fire officer, which, from my point of view, seems to be a very retrograde step.
I appreciate that our fire service is a key part of the national resilience network and that arguments have been made that a greater focus is needed on that aspect of its work.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make a couple of points of my own. I think that he is aware that, as an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps, I have been personally responsible for conducting emergency medical and fire response planning and training for NATO troops in Bosnia, so the subject of this debate is one with which I am fairly familiar.
I think that we all fully understand the difficulty that Warwickshire county council finds itself in. The senior firefighter for Warwickshire has recommended these changes, and the council cannot simply dismiss them out of hand. Therefore, to consult widely on these proposals was the right thing to do—
Order. I just want to point out that Members can only make interventions—I do so in the nicest possible way—and that they cannot make speeches. The hon. Gentleman who secured the debate asked me if it was okay for his colleagues to intervene, not to make speeches. So, in the best possible manner, I just point that out to Members.
Thank you, Mr Benton. I apologise. As I am obviously a new Member, perhaps I am still finding my feet a little in relation to some of these matters. I therefore just want to ask my hon. Friend whether he agrees that the county council must now demonstrate that the consultation was a genuine exercise and that local people’s concerns will be listened to? During the consultation, a number of us asked the leader of the council and the chief fire officer whether public confidence in the proposals was a factor that they were taking into account, and I think that the people of Bedworth, Warwick and Warwickshire have clearly shown that they have no confidence in a number of these proposals.
I am certainly happy to pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I am sure that we will all be working in our own way. I apologise for some of my colleagues, Mr Benton; it is a happy disaster that so many new Members have been elected in Warwickshire.
The Morphew report, published in 2007, made it clear that waste and inefficiency were present, not because of too many fire stations but because of too much bureaucracy, which is something that we all understand from many other walks of life. According to the report, the Warwickshire fire and rescue service spent more per head on non-uniformed staff than any other county fire and rescue service in the country. The difference was not small: Warwickshire spent 220% more than its nearest rival, and it has between 15% and 20% more support staff than any similar fire and rescue authority in the country.
The report not only identified waste on non-uniformed and support staff, but outlined that Warwickshire had the sixth highest corporate and democratic core costs out of 43 fire services. Those costs increased by 54% in the four years preceding the 2007 report. The report also stated that such costs accounted for about £5 million of the Warwickshire fire and rescue service’s budget. A conservative saving of 10% on those costs, rather than on front-line services, would cut £500,000. I respect the work of our support and non-uniformed staff and I appreciate that all organisations in this country face rising costs, but if it comes down to a choice between saving firefighters and fire stations and spending more on back-room staff, I know which one the people of Warwick would prefer.
I compliment my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the strong case that he is making in respect of the consultation affecting the fire service in Warwickshire. Will he join me in advancing the case for Brinklow fire station? It is a retained station north of Rugby in my constituency that serves a rural area. Significantly, it is near junction 1 of the M6. Warwickshire has many motorways, and the ability to get to a motorway fast is important. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to speak, and I compliment him on his remarks.
I hope that the Minister will recognise that there is clear and evident support across the county for every one of our fire stations.
Our constituents have put trust and faith in us by putting us in this place. They expect their Members of Parliament to stand up for them when they feel ignored or wronged. In this debate, I am doing what I can to honour that trust. However, as I am sure we are all aware, I cannot personally overturn the decision, nor would it be right for me to do so. I do not seek to undermine the authority of the county council or confidence in our fire station, and I respect the hard work done by our councillors and the Warwickshire fire and rescue service, but in cases where the local community’s wishes are absolutely and unequivocally clear, something must be done. I call on the Government from this platform to do what they can to influence the decision and to ensure that proper consultation is carried out, that the rationale for closure makes clear and absolute sense and that local residents’ wishes are heard. The people of Warwickshire deserve nothing less.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) on securing the debate and raising what I know is an important issue for him and the other hon. Members who have spoken, as well as their constituents. The fire service is important, as it deals with people’s lives, and it is therefore particularly appropriate that this debate has been so well attended by hon. Members from the county of Warwickshire. I take on board the points made by my hon. Friend, whom I listened to with care. I also take on board the points made by hon. Members in interventions, as well as those that have been made to me by the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), who, as another member of the Government, is not in a position to speak in this debate, but has taken the trouble to contact me on behalf of his constituents.
Against that background, I understand my hon. Friend’s pride in Warwickshire’s fire stations and the services that they provide. Local pride in services is one reason why we as a Government are committed to localism for the fire service as well as the rest of local government. Local providers are best placed to know how to serve their local communities and, importantly, to know what level of service that might entail and the best means of delivering that service.
I associate myself with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington for the work of firefighters in Warwickshire, particularly the retained firefighters to whom he referred, who work hard to keep the people of their communities safe. We should be immensely proud of them. I had the pleasure to meet officials of the Retained Firefighters Union earlier today. The retained service has the full support and confidence of the Government.
The background to the proposals is based in the governance and statutory arrangements controlling the fire services in England. Fire and rescue authorities are required to produce and regularly update an integrated risk management plan, sometimes called an IRMP, which identifies and assesses a local need and sets out plans effectively to mitigate existing and potential risks to communities. The Warwickshire fire and rescue authority’s plan was produced by that process.
The process epitomises localism by enabling each fire and rescue authority to decide how best to provide fire and rescue-related services. That, of course, includes prevention and protection as well as response. Resources are allocated on the basis of an evaluation of risk and where risks are greatest. The evaluation includes such strategic and operational issues as the siting, manning and equipping of fire stations and their hours of operation, and should also take into account cross-border arrangements with neighbouring authorities. Local requirements are thus determined by local people according to local circumstances.
An evaluation under that process has led to specific considerations by the Warwickshire fire and rescue authority to change the fire cover arrangements in its area in light of both the assessed risk and the availability of resources. It is fair to say, of course, that fire and rescue authorities, like all other public services, must be cognisant of constraints on budgets in the circumstances of the economic crisis inherited by this Government. Equally, of course, it is the Government’s determination that priority should be given to services at the front line. It is therefore right that many of the proposals in IRMPs—this applies across the country, not just in Warwickshire—aim to increase efficiency. By so doing, fire and rescue authorities can maximise the amount of risk-reducing activity they can deliver from the resources available. That is clearly the right approach, and the aim must always be to ensure excellent service delivery.
I know that that sometimes involves difficult decisions. Having served as a member and leader of a fire authority myself, I am conscious that, in such circumstances, there are often contrary arguments that are advanced in good faith that must be weighed up. I have read Warwickshire fire and rescue authority’s improvement plan proposals, which cover many areas besides fire station changes, such as the promotion of public fire safety, increased firefighter training, enhanced flood response, the introduction of a specialist road traffic collision unit, and the deployment of small fires units and target response vehicles. I note that Warwickshire contends that, overall, the plan will ensure that current fire cover is maintained across all areas and that, in some areas, it will be improved. It also contends that there will not be an adverse effect on response times.
Of course, I have heard a number of counter-arguments in today’s debate that have echoed the concerns expressed locally in the past six months or so. I am also aware that the inquiry into the tragic deaths of firefighters at Atherstone on Stour remains outstanding. An argument can be advanced for bearing in mind the outcome of that inquiry before coming to any final conclusions on the shape of the service although, as I will make apparent, that decision is not for me to make as Minister; it is for the fire and rescue authority to make.
It is a requirement that the IRMP and any significant changes to it are subject to full consultation with the local community prior to agreement and implementation, and I am aware of the amount of debate that has already been generated about these proposals. At one level, that degree of interest is a good thing. One never likes to see controversy, but the process has generated a real sense of engagement in the communities concerned about the importance of the fire service in their area. As someone who believes passionately in the fire service—as I did before I became Minister—that is something I welcome. Although such a process is healthy, it is right that both sides of the debate are heard, and therefore I recognise and commend the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington in ensuring that counter-arguments are appropriately focused and conducted, and presented to the fire and rescue authority before it takes its decision.
Against that background, I come back to the crucial point that it is not the place of central Government and Ministers to intervene in the operational proposals of a local authority’s IRMP or the associated balancing of competing local demands on available resources. The consideration of such proposals and the assessment of the benefits to the communities that are served are rightly the role of elected members of the authority concerned. They should make the appropriate decisions on the basis of the professional advice of the principal officers of the fire and rescue service and, as we have seen, following due consultation with the local community.
It might well be that members wish to come to a view on the material that they already have, that they will wish to consider options that are being put forward by various interested parties, or that they wish to consult across the areas of advice available to them about the options that are appropriate. I am sure that they will bear in mind the broader background to these proposals. That said, because of the statutory position and the correct political process of localism that applies here, I am sure that you, Mr Benton, and my hon. Friend will understand that I am unable to comment directly on the specific proposals that are being put forward and consulted upon by Warwickshire fire and rescue authority. The very principle of local determination and local solutions for local circumstances means that it would not be appropriate for me to attempt to influence the decisions with which the fire and rescue authority will be faced on 20 July in the light of representations made to it.
There is still a period of time between this debate and the decision on 20 July during which representations can be made. I am sure that all hon. Members who have spoken and others who are interested will continue to take the opportunity make such representations. My hon. Friend’s case was made powerfully and with admirable succinctness—such admirable succinctness that I am in the dilemma in which Ministers sometimes find themselves by wondering whether I should repeat my remarks until 4.30 pm.
It is important that our voices are heard and that my hon. Friend the Minister’s voice is heard. I am pleased that he has at least asked the county council to consider further consultation on the proposals, so that we can get local community support. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) was absolutely right when he said that if the confidence of the local community is not carried, it would be a tragedy. That is what I suggest should be echoed back to that decision-making meeting on 20 July.
I am sure that those taking the decisions will have heard this debate and will no doubt read the transcripts of it. As I said, it is not for me to comment on specific proposals when the decision must be taken by others, so I cannot go any further than again congratulating my hon. Friends on raising these matters. I shall therefore follow the advice of the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and conclude.
Building Schools for the Future (Liverpool)
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Benton. It is particularly appropriate that you are in the Chair for this important debate, because you represent my neighbouring constituency of Bootle. I also welcome the Minister to the Chamber and congratulate him on his appointment to one of the most interesting and enjoyable jobs in Government. I am delighted that all four of my colleagues from Liverpool are here for this debate because that demonstrates the incredible strength of feeling across the city on the issues that I will raise and that my colleagues will, I am sure, mention in interventions.
The focus of the debate is the importance of investment in education in Liverpool. It is important for the life chances of children and young people, for social mobility and justice, and for the future economic prospects of the city. A vibrant knowledge economy is absolutely crucial for a city such as ours, and that is especially the case if we are to meet the challenge of increasing the role of the private and voluntary sectors in the city region’s economy.
I shall quote from two business leaders in the city of Liverpool. First, Chris Musson, chief executive of the Liverpool science park, said:
“The future for cities like Liverpool has got to be in higher value economic sectors. Investing in education and creating a generation of state of the art new schools is a vital element in the bigger economic picture. At Liverpool Science Park we are providing support to new knowledge-based businesses. If we, in conjunction with our partners, are to continue to grow the commercial knowledge economy it is vital that there is a qualified and capable supply of talent from which knowledge-based companies can recruit.”
Another business leader, Frank McKenna, who chairs Downtown Liverpool in Business, said:
“The Building Schools for the Future programme is as important to our future economic success as the Liverpool One retail development or the Capital of Culture. Investment to transform education is essential to the development of a high-skill, high-value economy in Liverpool.”
Over the past 13 years, we have seen a remarkable improvement in attainment in Liverpool’s secondary schools. In 1997, the city had one of the lowest attainment rates at GCSE; just 32% of 16-year-olds achieved five or more A* to C grades. The most recent figures available show that in 2009 that attainment rate had grown from 32% to 74%, which is 8% higher than the national average. I pay tribute to the hard work of staff and students, backed by their parents, and the local authority in achieving that incredible transformation. Liverpool’s Building Schools for the Future programme is designed to learn from that educational progress over the past 13 years so that we can promote excellence in all Liverpool schools.
I want to say a few words about Building Schools for the Future nationally. I had the privilege of serving for three years as a Minister in what was then the Department for Education and Skills, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) led the original proposals for Building Schools for the Future. We looked at decades of low investment in school buildings under Governments of both main parties, frankly, through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. We looked not only at the physical fabric of schools, important though that certainly is, but at a programme that, more importantly, would support improvement, innovation and change in all our schools. That is a massive challenge, so we had to decide where to start. We made a deliberate policy decision to give priority to those areas with the highest levels of social and economic deprivation. That is why Liverpool is one of the first beneficiaries of Building Schools for the Future, the biggest ever investment in education in the city.
There are six schemes already under way as part of a £135 million wave 2 investment, and I am pleased that three of them are in my constituency: West Derby school, including Ernest Cookson school; Broughton Hall high school; and Cardinal Heenan high school. I have had the opportunity to visit all three of them. They are already excellent schools and have hugely impressive plans. What is most striking is the ambitious education vision at the heart of their plans. I am especially pleased to have been invited to open the brand new West Derby school in September.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the programme is vital for the whole of Liverpool, that schools such as Archbishop Blanch school, St Hilda’s school and Shorefields school would benefit from participating in it and that it would be very cruel to crush their ambitions through any clawback on projects already in the pipeline?
I thank my hon. Friend and hope that in the course of my speech all my colleagues will have the opportunity to intervene, so that all the schools benefiting from Building Schools for the Future in Liverpool can be mentioned in the debate. The programme is about education transformation, led by the schools themselves; it is not some central Government initiative being handed down from on high. Many of the schools in the programme are already high achievers, but they are being constrained by their buildings.
Wave 6, the next wave of Building Schools for the Future, involves 26 Liverpool schools, with a promised investment of £350 million. The council has identified two sample schools: Archbishop Beck school, which is in the constituency of the my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram); and St John Bosco school. Five years ago, Archbishop Beck school was in special measures, but it has made huge progress since then and its results are now above the national average. Ofsted has judged the school to be “good, with many outstanding features”. St John Bosco school, which is in Croxteth in my constituency, was last month judged by Ofsted to be “outstanding”. I visited the school last month and was hugely impressed by the focus on standards, the high proportion of the girls who are going on to university in what is a very deprived community and the active involvement of the students themselves in the development of the Building Schools for the Future plans.
Five other schools in my constituency are in wave 6, two of which are special schools: Clifford Holroyde school, a wonderful school for children with severe behavioural difficulties; and Sandfield Park school, which has plans under Building Schools for the Future to increase the school roll from 70 to 100, which will mean fewer Liverpool children with disabilities having to leave the city for their education. De La Salle school in Croxteth is also an outstanding school, and it is due to become an academy as part of the programme. Holly Lodge school in West Derby is a fantastic school that desperately needs that investment. It has exciting plans that it has worked on for four years, and the head teacher has told me that they will be devastated if the investment falls through. St Edward’s college, a well-known, highly renowned and popular local school, is also in wave 6.
For all those schools, Building Schools for the Future brings benefits to the schools and also to the wider community, such as better sports and arts facilities—the Holly Lodge school proposal includes plans to open a local cinema, in partnership with FACT cinema in the city centre—adult learning opportunities and extended schools services. The programme will bring high-quality education to many of the communities in Liverpool that we represent, which provides the best hope for social mobility. That is an argument of social justice, but it is also an argument of hard economics. Liverpool’s Building Schools for the Future proposals offer a systematic and structured new set of relationships between every secondary school and an identified business partner. That builds upon existing links between a range of Liverpool businesses, such as Jaguar, Everton football club and Merseytravel, and schools, first, to support learning and teaching in the schools and, secondly, to help shape the skills of the future work force.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and we all fully support what he is saying. I will not give a litany of schools in my constituency, but does he agree that in deprived communities such as Speke, which I represent, building new schools has played a key part in decreasing disadvantage and increasing attainment and that not continuing with the programme would put us at risk of becoming incapable of enabling our children to fulfil their true potential and to contribute in adult life as we would wish them to do?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The progress I mentioned when I gave the statistics at the beginning of my speech is testament to all sorts of things, not least the hard work and professionalism of the teachers, the teaching assistants, the young people and their parents. It is also testament to the extra investment that has come into schools in Liverpool, which has provided new facilities in schools and new members of staff through the support work force. I am confident that the schools to which I have referred that are already coming through as part of Building Schools for the Future will deliver real change. We are a quarter of the way there, so it would be a great shame if the schools that are due to come in though wave 6 do not get that opportunity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Mr Benton, in your constituency and mine, we were due to start phase 1 of Building Schools for the Future this year, but that has been put on hold until the review is carried out. My hon. Friend will recognise that many students from Liverpool attend schools in both our constituencies. In mine, Crosby high school and Chesterfield high school are due to be collocated, and I hope that he will join me in saying how important it is that that goes ahead, as Crosby high school is a specialist school and its children, who have special needs, will benefit from being on the same campus as a mainstream school.
I certainly concur with everything that my hon. Friend says. As part of the programme, a number of the schemes—in Sefton, as well as Liverpool—seek that collocation between existing special schools and mainstream schools. That can have some important educational benefits, but also obvious social benefit for students in both sets of schools. I thank him for taking the opportunity to raise that point.
As well as the business links between the schools and particular local employers, Building Schools for the Future can also support regeneration in communities, many of which suffer from high levels of long-term unemployment. An obvious way that happens is through the programme’s immediate economic impact on the construction industry. The Minister may be familiar with a report published by the UK Contractors Group last year entitled “Construction in the UK economy: The Benefits of Investment”. It estimates that every £1 the Government invest in building a new school has a net cost of just 44p to them, but a wider total economic benefit of between £3.80 and £5. In this economic period, when we have come out of recession but have a fragile economic recovery, a programme that gives such a boost to the local economy and the construction industry is surely a worthwhile one with which to continue.
Liverpool estimates that Building Schools for the Future wave 6 will create at least 200 new apprenticeships for local people, and I am sure that the same will apply in Sefton and neighbouring authorities that seek to benefit from the programme. Building Schools for the Future can prepare the young people in schools today for the jobs of tomorrow and provide much needed jobs and apprenticeships today for young people and older people in our local communities.
The Government have been clear since the election that they are reviewing Building Schools for the Future—indeed, there were rumours that we could expect an imminent announcement on its future direction. I would like clarification from the Minister on, first, the time scale for the review. Clearly, the uncertainty hanging over schools—not only those in Liverpool—is itself damaging, so they would like a sense of how quickly decisions will be made. Secondly, what are the criteria against which central Government will make the decisions, and, thirdly, what opportunities will exist for MPs, local authorities and schools to make representations as part of the review? I would like to bring a delegation from Liverpool to meet the Secretary of State at his earliest convenience to make the case for Liverpool’s Building Schools for the Future programme.
I know from previous encounters, when we were on opposite sides of the House to those we are on now, that the Minister is personally deeply committed to high educational standards in all schools. I hope that he will take the opportunity today, first, to congratulate the schools and students in Liverpool on their fantastic progress over the past 13 years; secondly, to recognise the considerable hard work put in by the schools and the city council to develop their Building Schools for the Future plans; and, finally, to give us some optimism that that work has not been done in vain.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing today’s debate. It is a timely debate; I have a meeting on Friday in my constituency with six schools that are expecting building work later this year under Building Schools for the Future wave 6. It is not only with the heads and their chairs of governors, but with members of the local business community, who, as my hon. Friend highlighted, are very supportive of the scheme. Does he believe, as I do, that every teacher deserves to teach, every student deserves to learn and every parent deserves to know that their children are being taught in an environment fit for the 21st century? It will be a travesty if all the Liverpool schools in Building Schools for the Future wave 6, including the six in my constituency, are not built later this year.
My hon. Friend makes the case powerfully and eloquently on behalf of all the schools in her constituency that are part of the programme. As I said at the beginning, there is a vision here. It started with Ministers in the previous Government but was based on the evidence of schools such as the ones my hon. Friend cites, which is evidence that very poor buildings hold back schools that, in many ways were doing well and making great progress, but that could become schools that do excellently, if they had the necessary facilities and buildings.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on one of the most important issues affecting our great city; its importance is proven by the presence here today of not only the five local MPs but our near neighbours. Its importance to our city is obviously predicated on the need to continue the educational transformation within Liverpool that was outlined earlier. The programme is important because that £350 million of investment will create employment and apprenticeships.
Health and health inequalities in Liverpool have not been mentioned. My constituency, unfortunately, still has two wards that rank in the top 10 of the indices of multiple deprivation. The opportunities provided by £350 million of investment will help tackle health inequalities in my constituency.
I shall conclude to give the Minister a chance to respond. I thank my hon. Friend; he makes the case powerfully, and it takes me back to where I started. When we looked at the programme nationally, we deliberately started with constituencies like his and mine because they have the levels of deprivation and inequality to which he referred.
For the life chances of children and young people in Liverpool and for the future of our city region’s economy, I urge the Minister and Government to give Liverpool’s Building Schools for the Future programme the green light.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on his return to the House and on securing the debate. He always showed great commitment to and ambition for children and young people as an Education Minister, and he is a great advocate for Building Schools for the Future. I am happy to add my congratulations to his. I congratulate the schools throughout Liverpool that have made such great advances on their educational achievements and I also congratulate the teachers and students on what they have achieved in recent years.
It is the Government’s ambition to raise the quality of education for every child. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, I am a passionate believer in high quality education, and so are the Government. We want to raise the standard of education in every school. Too many children still leave primary school without having achieved the basic standard in reading. We need to sharpen the curriculum, restore confidence in our exam system, ensure that young people go on to work, further or higher education with the skills and qualifications that are valued by colleges, universities and employers, and create a platform for success for the pupil. A first step toward that ambition was the introduction of the Academies Bill, which aims to give more schools the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms that academies have, so decisions about what is taught, how it is taught and how the school is run are placed back in the hands of the professionals.
As has been said, school buildings have a real place in our ambitions for school improvement. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) said, it is vital for all schools in Liverpool. As the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) said, building new schools helps to tackle disadvantage and educational under-achievement. As the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said, new schools can bring in things such as co-location between mainstream and special schools, and as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) said, every child and teacher deserves to be in a building fit for education and for the 21st century. Finally, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) emphasised the importance of educational transformation and the need to tackle health inequalities. All those were important points to make in this debate, and I agree with all of them.
Teaching is probably the most important factor bearing on pupils’ outcomes, but it is right to say that the environment must be conducive to and must support education as far as possible. Good buildings, classrooms and equipment are necessary for children to learn, and to make their school a place where they feel happy and secure. Schools will continue to need rebuilding and refurbishing in the future, and, with a rising birth rate, more school places will be needed, which will, of course, require capital spending.
However, we also have to acknowledge, as the Chancellor made clear in his Budget last week, that we are living in a difficult fiscal climate in which £1 of every £4 that we spend is borrowed, and, increasingly, professionals across all public services are being asked to do more with less. That is the reality of the times in which we live, but, despite the deficit that this Government have inherited and the need to make £6 billion of savings this year, we have protected front-line funding for schools, sixth forms and Sure Start, and we remain committed to investing in the schools estate to ensure that pupils are educated in buildings of a good standard where they feel safe, comfortable and ready to learn.
We need to ensure that we are securing for teachers, head teachers and the taxpayer the best possible value for money as we seek to bring expenditure under control. That will mean some tough decisions. BSF was a flagship programme of the previous Government, who aimed to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the country by 2023. Where it has delivered, some impressive new buildings have been built, but that has been at great cost.
Rebuilding a school under BSF is three times more expensive than building a commercial building, and twice as expensive as building a school in, say, Ireland. The programme simply has not delivered as it should have. Of 3,500 secondary schools, only 5% have been rebuilt or refurbished, or received BSF funding for information and communications technology. That is just 178 schools—astonishingly few, considering how much has been spent.
The programme never really got off on the right foot. In February 2004, the Department’s goal was to build 200 schools by 2008, but, of those 200, only 42 were completed by the end of that year. Ambitions for the programme started out as unrealistic and then became unfeasible. Last year’s National Audit Office report on BSF said that for the programme to realise the ambition of rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school,
“250 schools will need to be built a year and the number of schools in procurement and construction at any one time will need to double”
from the next year. That clearly is not sustainable, particularly in the current climate.
The NAO report also documented the tremendous waste that has become synonymous with BSF. The budget bulged from £45 billion to £55 billion, and the time scale increased from 10 years to a projected 18 years. Of the £250 million spent before building began, £60 million was spent on consulting or advisory costs, supporting layer upon layer of process. There are eight official stages to the BSF process, but each one contains its own substrata of complexity. The second stage, strategic planning, has a further nine stages that lead to the completion of a strategy for change. Process upon process, cost upon cost—BSF and its administration and procurement processing have not represented good value for money. We support capital investment, but we need to ensure that procurement minimises administration and consultants’ costs.
The hon. Gentleman will just have to wait until I finish my comments.
It should also be borne in mind that, in the previous Government’s final Budget, it was clear that if Labour won the general election, they would cut capital spending across Departments by more than 50% over the following three years. Some of those cuts inevitably would have fallen on schools. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), who is now the shadow Secretary of State for Education, admitted in the House that school capital spending was not protected under Labour’s plans.
As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby said, Liverpool was one of the first local authorities to enter the BSF programme: it has one school open and another 34 in the programme. We are acutely aware that a great number of parents, pupils and school staff are affected by decisions about school building projects, and we have no wish to keep anyone—not even the hon. Gentleman—waiting longer than is absolutely necessary. The wave 2 projects in his constituency are already under construction. As such, it is unlikely that any changes in the BSF programme would impact on projects that are so far advanced.
I hope that that will go some way to reassure the hon. Gentleman about the projects in his constituency, but we cannot yet confirm the future of individual projects. I am afraid that I cannot offer him or any other hon. Member present today any further reassurance, but I would be happy to keep in touch with all those who have taken part in the debate.
I mentioned this in my speech—I realise that the Minister has a short period in which to respond. Would the Secretary of State be willing to meet a small delegation from Liverpool that would include the leader of the council, Councillor Joe Anderson, and the cabinet member for education, Councillor Jane Corbett?
I can certainly offer the hon. Gentleman a meeting with Lord Hill. I dare not speak on behalf of the Secretary of State, but I know that my noble Friend Lord Hill would be happy to meet him and a delegation from Liverpool to discuss the details of BSF in Liverpool. All hon. Members present would be welcome at that meeting.
We are committed to raising standards in all schools, right across the education sector. In doing so, we will focus on raising outcomes for all pupils, on reducing bureaucracy and on restoring our education system to being one of the best in the world. Capital investment remains important to our programme of school reform, but it must be efficient and cost-effective, and it must reflect the best possible value for money so that children benefit from the best possible standard of education and teaching.
Question put and agreed to.